To Elena, From Aby: Togetherness

[Originally posted in February of 2021]

Dear Elena,

It’s a month after your 6th birthday, and your life is speeding up faster than I can believe. Which is why I’m pausing today to write about this – I wonder if it won’t be gone before too much longer.

Ever since you were little, you’ve craved and sought close physical contact with “your people.” You hold hands, you burrow into laps, you sprawl across us as if to maximize body contact. I present as Exhibit A you and your Uncle John at Glacier National Park, in July of 2017.

John and Elena at Glacier Lake, July 2017

You were two and a half… Look at that lean-in. “This is my Uncle John, and he belongs to me.”

Or this one. This is the two of you last month watching a Hanukkah video. For those of us in your “pack,” it’s a sublime experience, made only more so by its purity. You are still at an age where you (mostly) go where your nose and heart lead you. You don’t cuddle or hug somebody because you think you’re supposed to – you do it because that’s what you want, right now, in that moment.

There was that time out at Wildcat Creek where you and I went on a hike/climb in the dry creek bed. We stopped to have our lunch, and picked out two appropriately flat rocks to sit on. You ate for a couple of minutes, and then said, “Can I sit on your lap?” Trick question? So you sat in my lap and we ate our sandwiches. Then I took this picture.

Lee and Elena at Wildcat Creek, November 2020

Of course, as you age, you’ll learn to follow the social rules that we all do – it’s a necessity of navigating modern society. But for now, when you clamber onto a lap, we know it’s because at that moment, that’s where you wanted to sit, period. And I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that it is quite a blessing to have one’s lap chosen as where you want to sit.

Which brings me to yesterday. We’ve made a bit of a routine of picking oranges from a neighbor’s tree and taking them to a local food pantry, where they’re gratefully received. Yesterday, we filled two grocery bags. With Lisa/Ana watching, I climbed into the tree on a ladder and tossed down oranges.

Elena in an orange tree, February 2021

You caught them (“¡Lista!”) and put them in the bag. Of course, you demanded to climb into the tree to pick one, so I spotted and you climbed up and got the last orange for the bag. Then we drove over, handed over the oranges, and went for our reward – a doughnut from the nearby shop.

Sitting in the chilly wind we munched on our doughnuts (“I want half of mine and half of yours.” “Cool.”). Then you silently crawled into my lap and leaned into my shoulder. Was it to warm up? Was it just to be close to one of your pack? Do I care? I was looking at this picture yesterday, and thought, “That’s a different little girl. Not the little girl I played with a year or even six months ago.

Oh, I shall miss that little girl awfully. But the one who has replaced her catches oranges thrown to her, does some arithmetic without her fingers, and sometimes says things that reflect an insight for which none of us would have credited her. I am proud and humbled to be her granddad and can’t wait to get to know her better and see where our adventures take us.

I close this with a moment from a couple of weeks ago. I was over at your house helping your dad build your exceptionally cool two-story fort. I was standing near the back deck when you came out of your parents’ room, and across the back deck. You purposefully walked to me, quietly said, “Aby,” and held up your arms in a way that every small child (and grown-up) knows means, “Pick me up.” So I did. You wrapped yourself to me and put your head on my shoulder. Maybe you were there for a full minute? At some point, my brain said, “You know, of course, that it won’t be long before her growth curve and your strength curve cross in opposite directions, and you won’t be able to do this.” Elena, were you thinking this too? I shushed my brain before it could break my heart. And marinated in that exquisite moment of togetherness.


To Elena, From Aby: Adventure

[This post was originally published in June of 2021]

Dear Elena,

When your parents began casting about for a baby to adopt, I fervently hoped they’d pick (or be given) a girl. I can’t even quite say why, but I just knew I wanted a granddaughter. 

Little did I know that not only would I get a granddaughter, but that that granddaughter would be the one and only E-Blast.

From the moment I got my hands on you, I wanted to take you cool and interesting places, and push boundaries. Some grandparents want to spoil their grandkids – that didn’t particularly interest me, but the idea of grabbing you and heading for the edge of the envelope – now that had appeal. Like, here’s us when you’re just 3-4 months old. Somehow I got permission to take you walkabout in Berkeley near your apartment (2130 Ashby Ave #5, if you’re keeping track). I wanted to cover your head for cold protection, but couldn’t find a hat for you. So I threw your mom’s extremely cute knitted cap on you and off we went to find coffee at the nearby deli (yes, I got multiple comments about how cute you looked).

Lee & Elena on their first adventure – this time to a deli in Berkeley

You couldn’t know it, but that was the beginning of our adventures together.

It became clear from the start that you were not a Barbie and Princess little girl. You were jeans and t-shirts from the jump, and the jeans instantly got holes in the knees. And there was nothing you weren’t up for. 

There was that weekend when you were two and a half that Lisa and I “kidnapped” you to Monterey (with your parents’ permission of course) for the first time. We took you down to the beach, and you just lost it – you ran around the beach, you flirted with the surf zone. You were transfixed by the whole thing. This is you digging the whole Breakwater scene. We even got video of it.

Elena’s first trip to Breakwater in Monterey

Shortly after this picture and video were taken, you completely misjudged the surf zone. You did a face plant in six inches of very cold Monterey water. I was right there and scooped you up. You looked a bit nonplussed, a little shocked, but not upset. Just “What was that all about?” We took you back to our blanket, stripped your clothes off you, and wrapped you up in a blanket between us. All three of us took a glorious 30-minute nap. Then we put dry clothes on you and went back to exploring the beach.

Once you learned to say “Monterey,” it was all over. “When are we going to Monterey?” became your mantra. As you’ve grown, you’ve become more independent and bold about exploring the beaches of Monterey, but your fascination with the place, and its critters, has never wavered.

This is you, in May of 2021 in Pacific Grove, communing with a hermit crab. You were taken with them from the start, and are still intrigued.

Elena communes with hermit crab in Pacific Grove, CA. May, 2021

Once we moved into our townhouse in San Leandro, our community, and its warren of “secret passages” became a wonderland of adventure an intrigue for you. We even recreated a Wild Kratts episode, documented here.

As you watch the video, note a couple of things: (1) when you fall, you briefly come over for comforting, but then you’re back out on the trail; and (2) at some point we come out of a pathway and you’re not sure where you are. “Which way is the house?” “It’s that way.” You immediately head in the opposite direction.

Let’s talk about your bike. From the moment you got your bike, you immediately sensed it as a means to freedom. Sadly, I don’t have the video any more, but your dad got a short video of you riding the bike (training wheels and all) down a side street in Berkeley, within days of you getting it at REI. You’re rolling down the sidewalk, and as you head into the distance, we hear a clear, “Yee-ha!” 

February 15, 2020, just as the covid curtain was coming down, Lisa, your uncle John, and I took you over to Washington Elementary School (yes, where you’d attend school the next year). You had suggested that maybe you were ready to lose the training wheels. So I got out a wrench, took them off, and we walked you and your bike over to the school. We put you in the grass first for when you fell over. You got on the bike, pedaled 10 feet, and fell over. Then you got on the bike, pedaled 25 feet, and came to a standing stop. We knew that it would be easier for you to pedal on the hard surface, so we took you over there, and gave you a push-off. That was all she wrote.

Elena’s first day without training wheels, February 2020

These days, we routinely go on long bike rides together, sometimes with a doughnut as ostensible purpose of the journey, sometimes just for the joy of being out on the bikes. One of your favorite rides is between your house and our house – about a mile and a half. It goes right through downtown San Leandro, which can be pretty harrowing, even though we’re still at the stage of riding down the sidewalk. We recently did such a ride, and Lisa asked me how it was, “For Elena? Great – piece of cake, lotta fun. For me? Constant hyper-vigilance for 20 minutes.” So be it. It’s a small price to pay for being out on the adventure trail with you. 

P.S. on 9/3/21… I just had to add two things. First: a few weeks ago, we were out on one of our rambles through the secret passages of our townhouse community. You were in full spy mode for whatever reason. You turned to me and held up your hands – “Aby, I have to teach you the hand sniggles.” Then your eyes twinkled, a look I’ve seen before. The look said, “That’s not quite right is it?” It took me a moment, but then my heart melted with joy. “Oh – signals. Hand signals.” “Yeah, signals!” Then you taught me the secret hand signals. But oh, the world would be a very much better place if they really were “hand sniggles.”

And I promised two Things. Here you are:

Thing 1 and Thing 2


To Elena, From Aby: The Vaccination Unicorn

Dear Elena,

I don’t know when you’ll first read this, so I don’t know how how much Covid-19 will figure into your consciousness. But as I write this, Covid continues to be ever-present in our minds. Particularly in the Bay Area, everybody is wearing masks, we’re socially distancing, and right about now (November of 2021) we’re all getting our vaccination boosters.

More importantly, kids from 5-11 years old just started getting their first vaccinations. And you got your pfirst Pfizer vaccine just a week ago. You hate shots (don’t we all?), but you were so brave about it, because you understood how important it is. Completely coincidentally, you ran into your friends Dani and Ella at Kaiser, were you were all getting your vaccinations. I have never seen three such courageous girls in all my life.

The next day, you came to our house, then you and Ana went to your swimming lesson. When you got back, there was something unexpected in the living room:

A three-foot unicorn, floating up at the ceiling. Near it, battery-powered tea candles were glowing. New age music was playing on the stereo. The “Angel of the Sea,” which has been in our house for over 20 years, was sitting near the base of the unicorn, with a tea candle in her lap. I came in from the back yard, and you said, “Um, Aby – what happened here?”

“You know, sweetie – I’m not sure. I was out back grilling the chicken, and when I came back in, it looked like this.”

You looked at me, looked back at the unicorn. Lisa was still in the garage.

“Ana! There’s something in here you need to see!”

Lisa walked in, and was appropriately shocked. “Whoa, what’s this? And what’s that at the unicorn’s base?”

You looked and saw that the unicorn was tethered down by a purple box, which you’d later discover was full of Halloween-sized candy. There was a scroll stuck in a loop in the ribbon. It was stained and wrinkled with age. You opened it and tried to read it.

“Too many words – Aby, you read it to me.”

We got on the sofa, and I carefully unrolled the scroll. Then in my most measured, dramatic voice, I read…

You listened in silence, motionless. Then you looked back up at the unicorn. You were quiet for a while after that, and we let you just process the whole thing.

Elena, you will turn seven on Christmas Day, and fantasy thinking is already abandoning you. I’m pretty sure you don’t believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Faerie, but you cling to them a little because, honestly, the world is a much better place with a Tooth Faerie, isn’t it? Or maybe you pretend to believe in it just to soothe the grown-ups around you.

But you seemed to treat the Vaccination Unicorn as a bit special. When your mom showed up to pick you up, you immediately dragged her in to see the unicorn, and showed her the scroll. Mary, bless her, was every bit as awed by it as you were.

Then it was time for you to leave with her, and the miracle of November 2021 took place. Six months, a year ago, your first words would have been to ask if you could take the unicorn balloon home. But as you and Mary were leaving, I asked if you didn’t want to take it.

You paused, obviously conflicted. But your sense of mission, which burns bright in you, won the day.

“No… the unicorn needs to go visit some other kid.”

With a brief look back, you went out the door with your mom.


The Church Doors are Closing

[This post originally appeared on June 20th, 2020]

Live From Here, a modern musical giant, is no more. Its parent, American Public Media, announced that LFH is yet another victim of Covid-19. When you can’t gather musicians and their fans together to celebrate live music, there’s not much alternative. I come here to bid it good-bye, and say thank you.

I converted to LFH in November of 2016. I was reeling from the Presidential election, and that was even before we knew just how unspeakably awful things were going to get. As if to wink out the last star in an ink-black night, the Universe took Leon Russell from us on November 13th. That Saturday, I was listening to the newly rebranded Live From Here. [1] At the end of the show, host and lead musician Chris Thile stepped up to the mic and said, “Oh man, we lost Leon Russell last week.” Here was a guy just a year older than my elder son, bowing to one of my musical heroes. He then gave a quick but accurate summary of Russell’s work, ending with, “He’s basically on every record you love.” Then they played a Leon Russell song. Not Song for You or Delta Lady – probably his most recognizable pieces. No, they played Prince of Peace, which reminds us that anybody we encounter in the street “… might be the Prince of Peace returning.” With no less than Trey Anastasio on guitar. I was 100% certain that the song choice was not a coincidence. These are my people – I am part of their congregation.

Trey Anastasio and the Live From Here band

The constant refrain from the LFH stage was that music is more than a pastime. It is a central force of healing and harmony. And they were determined to spread that beauty as far and wide as they could in their two hours on the radio. Every Saturday, they’d hold a church of love and music at some lucky venue somewhere in the U.S.

And what an army for love it was. The LFH band, though it would morph and shift personnel, was always embarrassment of musical riches. I just want to type their names. Starting from the bass players: Mike Elizondo, Paul Kowert, Alan Hampton, Chris “Critter” Eldridge, Julian Lage, Brittany Haas, Gabe Witcher, Jeremy Kittel, Alex Hargreaves, Rich Dworsky, Brett Williams, Gabriel Kahane, Brad Mehldau, Ted Poor, Nate Smith, Marcus Gilmore. And the women who acted as foils for Thile and melted us with their singing and playing: Madison Cunningham, Sarah Jarosz, Gabby Moreno, Aoife O’Donovan, Rachel Price.

But the main celebrant was Thile, a once-in-generation mandolin player and McArthur Genius Grant recipient. When he played, his facial expressions and body language told you everything. No matter the musical genre, or whether he was in a lead or subordinate role, at that moment, in that place, he was playing the greatest music of all time, and he was all-in.

And speaking of genres, Live From Here personified the ethos that many music lovers live by: “There are two kinds of music: good and bad.” If it was good music, LFH was all about it. Nowhere was this more evident than the Musician’s Birthday segment (“It’s been a hell of a week for musicians’ birthdays!”). The band and singers would celebrate a handful of notable musicians’ birthdays with snippets of music. Multiple centuries? No genre duplicated in the list? “No problem – we got this.” And they did got it, because of the consummate virtuosity of every last person onstage. Check out this survey of Maybelle Carter, David Byrne, Peter Illych Tchaicovsky, bluegrass fiddler Benny Martin, and Stevie Wonder.

This seemingly effortless excellence made it possible for them to throw out the script on occasion. For a while, Thile would take tweets during a break, pick one (live, on stage) and tell the band, “Okay – we’re going to play <random tune>.” Or “Fiddle Tune Request Time”, where they took requests from the audience (“No! That one has words!”) and then played a medley of those tunes, each one probably better than you’ve ever heard it before, from just a wispy outline of a plan. Check this out: Thile, Chris Eldridge, and Jeremy Kittel dance across three classics. Watch bassist Mike Elizondo, a musical behemoth himself, grinning with delight at his stereo-center seat for the show.

This cauldron of musicality’s gravitational pull attracted giants old and new. Paul Simon, David Crosby, Randy Newman, Bruce Hornsby, Mandolin Orange, Vulfpeck, Emmanuel Ax, Milk Carton Kids, Pixies, Anaïs Mitchell, Common, Gregory Alan Isakov. The names go on. And so many of those names I didn’t know until I saw them on the LFH stage. They were in Durham, NC – my college hometown – and Thile said, “I have some friends in a band here and we thought it would be cool to have them on. So, please lose your minds for… Sylvan Esso!” Me: “Sylvan who?” Audience: [loses its mind]. And it went the other way. In St. Louis, they had the entire St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, led by Gemma New. I thought, “How many of the people in the audience have never seen a professional symphony orchestra live? And how many of those people are going to have their minds blown?” If the audience response to Mozart was any indication, quite a few.

Let’s talk about the audience. AKA “the congregation”. I was in it a handful of times, and it was, indeed, church. The crowd was musically hip, politically liberal, and ready to go wherever the LFH bus went. Yes, they – we – were canonical “NPR”, but if the Sunday go-to-meeting clothes fit, wear them with pride. They sang along, they participated (I will forever regret that I never got to yell “Old Dangerfield!” for Fiddle Tune Request Time). And they applauded and cheered their brains out for whatever happened onstage. They were as much a part of the experience as Thile and the other musicians; without them, the show simply couldn’t be.

Before I go, I will leave you with a smattering of hints for mining the Live From Here vein. I can only wish for you that you’ll disappear into it for hours and come out centered, warmed, and content.

  • The band plays Weather Report’s River People. You need to listen to this twice. The first time, just enjoy the groove, not least Thile’s body language when the synth fires up. And dig Brittany and Critter, both of whom grew up in the bluegrass world, crushing jazz fusion. The second time through, close your eyes and focus on Mike Elizondo channeling Jaco Pastorius on bass.
  • Sarah Jarosz is a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and instrumental virtuoso. She all but defines the “Americana” genre. But LFH allowed her to release her inner Liz Fraser, [2] Natalie Maines, and Billie Eilish.
  • Here’s a sense of the musical virtuosity onstage. Violin legend Hillary Hahn plays the Bach Double Violin Concerto with Thile. But the unsung hero here is bass deity Paul Kowert, whose continuo work provides the entire foundation on which the melody rests. I’m a bass player – I know how hard this is – but Kowert does it with a delicate touch and pure elegance. I’m actually a bit miffed because Hahn never gives him the time of day during the piece. I hope and trust that she gets how crucial his contribution is, but I wish she’d at least tossed one look his way.
  • One of the best segments of the show was the occasional “Fast AF Fiddle Tunes”. [3] Here’s Brittany Haas “taking us to fiddle camp.” I first learned of the tune Half Past Four here and it’s become a favorite. Note during that one where Sarah Jarosz, back on home fiddle tune turf, frails the hell out of the piece, looking completely blissed out. Every time I watch this video, I see her and the others’ faces and think, “This is why we play music. For those moments when we are floating in a bubble of sound and beauty with our fellow players.” There isn’t a better feeling.

    N.B. to the violin/fiddle players: Occasionally Brittany lifts her head off the fiddle’s chin rest, destroying the classic violin player posture. But then she looks like the old Appalachian fiddlers, many of whom played with the fiddle tucked up against their shoulder. My narrative is that Brittany has simply surrendered the instrument to a previous incarnation of herself, who was born in 1896 in southwestern Virginia.
  • You can’t talk about Live From Here without talking about Aoife O’Donovan. She was one of the most frequent Thile foils at the pulpit, and they have a special musical bond. She sometimes performs with Punch Brothers (he calls her “The first Punch Sister”) and she was the only guest musician on the Goat Rodeo sessions (i.e. she was jamming with Yo-Yo Ma). Here she is singing happy birthday to Joni Mitchell. Listen to the audience swoon.
  • Sara Watkins, the fiddle superstar of Nickel Creek and I’m With Her, owns the stage and puts the audience in her pocket with this cover of Nikka Costa’s Like A Feather. Pure attitude.
  • If you’re into music, you know how complex and layered Good Vibrations is. It’s Brian Wilson at the height of his compositional and studio engineering craft. Nobody would dare try to reproduce it live. Unless you’re Live From Here. Then you just mix Punch Brothers with I’m With Her, add Rich Dworsky and Ted Poor, cue the Farfisa organ, and you’re off to the beach.
  • I’ll end with this. Here, Thile summarizes the Live From Here credo, the audience sings along, and for a few minutes, in the midst of nothing being right, all is right with the world.

I remember 1980 vividly. Reagan was elected and I was scared. A month later, John Lennon was murdered, and I wondered how we’d survive. Somehow we did, and 28 years later, I’d sit in an Asheville movie theater with tears of joy in my eyes watching a Black man being sworn in as President. The night came crashing back down just eight short years later, and in its aftermath Leon Russell was gone. I wish that in 1980 there’d been the light in the darkness that I’ve had the past four years, bringing me musical solace every Saturday, Live, From Here.

If you are a member of the LFH production family – whether your name is Chris Thile or you are the person who laid out the sandwiches backstage – thank you. You have brought musical beauty into my life and I am better for it.

Pax vobiscum.


[1] LFH was technically a continuation of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion. They had wisely distanced themselves from him and PHC – you can look up the details.

[2] Here’s where you see Thile investing 100%, no matter his role. The mandolin is playing a part done by a programmed percussion generator. Doesn’t matter – if he is to be an echoing slow-decay percussion machine, then he will be the best one of those there is. Note also Noam Pikelny, the Bela Fleck of his generation. Another synth part. Another perfectly executed repetitive drone, by hand. This is consummate musicianship.

[3] Sadly, it too got rebranded, probably a nod to the family-friendly format. But the intent was always there.