Winter Quarter 2017



My reading for the winter has been all over the map, from classics to YA fantasy to comedy, but the bulk of the winter was spent reading 2 800-page tomes — “Alexander Hamilton” which caused me to mediate deeply on our government and how it was created (spoiler alert, Thomas Jefferson, while very bright, well traveled, and well educated, comes off as a dick who would have completely approved of the Trump administration) and “The Romanovs: 1613-1918” which caused me to mediate about power and its abuses (spoiler alert, while we hear a lot about the successful Russian tsars, we don’t hear about the surprising number who met violent death at the hands of their own people, and even one of the most successful, Peter the Great’s reign, could only be described as a drunken circus, complete with midgets, giants, and people dropping dead from alcohol poisoning).

These two books are the motivation for the new book list I’m tracking called “Books for a Trump America”. Historical perspective gets me through the day without my head exploding.

  1. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  2. Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda
  3. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
  4. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  5. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer
  6. The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore
  7. Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood
  8. Down with the Shine by Kate Karyus Quinn
  9. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  10. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
  11. The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  12. Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

Sri Lanka, October 2016

I’ve resisted talking about my Sri Lanka trip for months now because things went wrong. Not that there were dead bodies or even some kind of drama (because those make the best stories), it was just an alright trip where things were over promised and under delivered. I went to Sri Lanka because there was this great trip advertised where I would spend a week on a boat and would get to snorkel with dolphins and pilot whales and blue whales and sperm whales. It was going to be a whale-a-poloosa. It was run by the Aggressor Fleet, which if you’ve ever done any live aboard diving trips, they’re the big name worldwide. And the great trips that I’ve taken to the Dominican Republic to swim with the humpback whales are run by these guys.

Well, the first indication that things were off was 4-5 days before we were set to get on a plane for Sri Lanka and the tour company happens to mention that, well, the trip may not, in fact, go forward. See, there was this problem with the boat and the Sri Lankan government — it was a new boat, just built, and they were having problems getting the right approvals and documents from the local government. That the 5 or 6 trips that were supposed to happen before us had been cancelled, so if we (if in fact the ship went) were to be the maiden voyage. That there would be no “shake down cruise” before us. Hmmm.

But they came back and said, no worries, we’ve got this, go ahead and get on the plane. So, San Francisco to Hong Kong to Singapore, where I met up with my friend that I’ll be sharing a room with for the 2 weeks (1 week on land, 1 on the boat). The last leg to Colombo, getting in at midnight, there is in fact a driver waiting for us, a crazy dark ride somewhere to a lovely hotel on the beach, where we’re allowed 4 hours of sleep before the morning pickup. Except that they got the time wrong and we ended sitting on the hotel steps with our luggage for an hour during which time, one of my fellow travelers really wanted to tell me about this great book she was reading and, in fact, sat next to me reading it out loud to me from the beginning. As if I was 2. Well, maybe there is less a difference between an adult with extreme jet lag and a toddler than I think.

Looking up from my first cup of coffee

So, the 5 of us and 4 more get into the bus and travel hours across Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is not a huge island, but the roads are small 2 lane highways, crowded with buses and trucks and tuk-tuks and bicycles, so it takes a while to get anywhere. And we were headed for the middle of the island where the national parks are. At the late lunch stop, the guide turns to us and says, when did they tell you that we’re not headed for the luxury tented safari camp that you were promised? To which the answer was, well, you’re telling us now. To which my book reading co-traveller says, well, where are we going now? And the guide says, well, we headed for the hotel, most of you got in late last night, I’m sure you’re tired. To which my co-traveller started waving her guide book and saying, no, we’re not wasting an entire day, there are these Buddha caves right here, we’re going there now. And the guide is trying to explain that it’s the middle of the day, it’s very hot and muggy, and the Buddha caves are uphill. We’ll do the Buddha caves later in the week in the morning when it’s cooler. Well, the guide was reminded that he worked for us and we were going to the Buddha caves.

The Buddha caves were lovely.

Dambulla Rocks

Dambulla Rocks

Dambulla Rocks

Taken by Janis Parker
Taken by Janis Parker

But very hot and up several flights of stone stairs. And we were introduced to the Sri Lanka tradition that you don’t take off your shoes before going into the holy building, you take off your shoes before you enter the entire compound and walk long distances in your socks. But unlike some of the other Buddha sites I’ve been to, you were allowed to take pictures of the Buddhas as long as you didn’t turn your back to them (selfie-style).

The hotel we ended up in was very, very nice. Each accommodation was a separate bungalow with it’s own cold plunge and view off into the hills, spaced far enough apart that you needed to be taken back and forth in golf carts. Lovely plumbing, comfortable furniture. The only problem was that it was really far away from everything, down a one lane red dirt road, so over the next week, we spent hours in the bus going to see anything else.

I have to confess that the first night at dinner, I had a glass of wine and the jet lag and heat caught up with me and I fainted dead away at the dinner table and had to be golf-carted back to my room — along with two other people who said they were going to be next.

The morning, we were supposed to leave early, but of course didn’t. We were headed to Sigiriya, an ancient fortress built into a tall rock.




Apparently, it was a Buddhist monastery with monks living in caves in the rock when the second son of the king betrayed his father, took the throne, evicted the monks and built his city fortress here. He apparently had 500, 800, maybe 1000 concubines and needed large water gardens for them to bath in. He ended up in battle with his brother, the rightful heir to the throne, and due to some miscommunication in battle, went one way when his army went another (or maybe he was abandoned by them), and ended up falling on his sword to avoid being taken prisoner. Or maybe he was just poisoned.

Learning my lesson from the day before, I only went halfway (and didn’t even take my heavy SLR camera, just the little waterproof point and shoot I had for all those great whale pictures I was going to get), just far enough to see the frescoes which of course you can’t take pictures of because they fear you will damage them with your technology. The frescoes are supposed to be portraits of some of his favorite concubines. Supposedly there were originally portraits of all his concubines along the rock face path, but you know, open air frescoes from the 3rd century BC, there’s only about 5 or 6 left and even those are very faded. Far enough to see the bronze wall that the concubines admired themselves in. And far enough to see the lion foot gates up to the upper palaces.

The top of the rock has no buildings left, but the group that did go all the way to the top said the site interpreter the guide had hired had plenty of stories. I sat with the guide at the bottom watching the monkeys and waiting and the guide told me — well, this whole story about the terrible king and all his women, we only know that because of the monks who hated him because they were evicted from their homes. Maybe the frescoes are of the concubines, maybe they’re just women the monks were thinking about. There’s a problem with believing history written by people who hate you.

After lunch and another long drive, we went to Minneriya-Girithale Sanctuary to see the elephants.

Road into the reserve


Baby elephant (maybe a couple months old)


watching elephants

The Sri Lankan elephant (which is its own subspecies the Asian elephant) is more or less tuskless, only about 1 in 5 have small tusks. And they are left to roam through a couple large sanctuaries — the water you see behind them is an agricultural reserve. I didn’t take any pictures of it, but this was a very busy spot with about 20 or 30 6 passenger trucks weaving their way in and out of the elephants. The elephants are not terribly happy about the intrusion and make charges at the trucks when they feel they’re getting to close, requiring some speed racing in reverse to avoid a collision.

The third day we spent at Wilpattu National Park, an enormous reserve on the upper left hand side of the Sri Lankan teardrop. It’s best known for its Sri Lanka leopard, its Sri Lanka sloth bear, the three kinds of deer (in order of decreasing size, the sambur, spotted, and barking), and a wide variety of bird life. (Oh, Janis will make me a birder yet.)

common kingfisher

Indian peacock

wooly necked storks

ceylon grey hornbill

crested serpent eagle

Sri Lankan leopard

Sri Lankan leopard

little green bee-eater

painted stork

spotted deer

The 4th day we visited a compound of temples with some beautiful 3rd century BC carvings and an enormous stupa ringed with carved wooden elephants.

stone lion

While one of co-travelers waved her travel guide and talked about the things we could be seeing and weren’t. Like tea plantations. Beaches. She did not wish to see another temple.

We traveled by bus to Trincomalee, the large natural port on the east side of the island. This is where we were catching the boat and there was some drama about how we had to make it to the port authority by 6 pm or they closed and there would be no way to get to the boat. For people who didn’t take the optional land portion of the trip, they were quite precise about not coming alone or unexpected to the port authority because it was quite a process to get through. And at this point, we met the rest of the passengers. And they were quite a assortment, random German, Israel, a chip designer from India, some Chinese, a Japanese couple, the Canadians I was traveling with, a couple more Americans, and an elderly woman from Sacramento who was easily 350 pounds, walked with a cane, and found it difficult to navigate the boat and I thought… how she going to? Nevermind. She was quick to begin talking (and never really stopped) about her travels. I guess at some point in her 30’s, her and her husband had sold all their belongings and lived in a van in Europe for 5 years. And that since then, she had been part of a travel club and got all these free trips in exchange for writing reviews and she’d just come from spending 3 weeks in the Seychelles snorkeling.

We spent the night at dock because apparently the harbor has no lighted channel markers, so you can only leave harbor in daylight and by the time we’d gotten loaded and settled, it was past sunset.

So, there were a few problems with the boat right off the bat. Apparently the air conditioning didn’t work in some of the cabins. And apparently there was a very nauseating smell from the toilet in some of the cabins. Some people had 1 problem, some people had both problems, my cabin fortunately had neither. It had a surprisingly large bathroom for a live-aboard dive boat, but no storage for the luggage or cupboards to unpack the luggage into. (Usually you can slide the duffel bag under the bed, but that’s where the air conditioning was on this boat. And unfortunately since that’s the arrangement that led to a California couple being burned to death in their bed in a boat on the Amazon recently, it gave me pause…)

But the next morning, we were up and out bright and early and almost immediately came across 3 Bryde’s whales. So we scrambled up from breakfast and put on our gear and got into the two tenders. Now, the main boat had a very shallow draft, which is excellent for getting around a coast line or reefs, but it means that this thing dips and sways like a drunk. So, the act of getting to from the boat into the smaller tender along side was a very interesting dance, even in very calm water. I ended up sitting down on the deck and then pushing off forward into the tender from this lower position because doing it from a standing position I ended up in the arms of the tender driver who was trying to help. There was no railing on other boat or anything to hang onto in the tender — it was just an open boat. But we all get in successfully, even the extremely large woman and the guy with the prosthetic leg, and we off after the whales. Except the two dive master realize that we haven’t done the preliminary dive to explain to everyone how to enter the water and swim with the whale. So, the plan is everyone gets in the water, swims a couple yards out and then gets back in the boat and we go swim with the whale.

Ok, so the standard lecture about getting quietly in the water and staying together as a group and moving calmly. And in we go, and everything mostly works out, so back to the boat. So, I’m hanging to the boat taking off my fins to pass them up so I can climb the ladder and the large woman starts kicking me. And she won’t just take the snorkel out of her mouth and talk to me, but I manage to get the idea that she needs someone to take her fins off for her, so I do. And then pass them and my fins up and climb the ladder. And it’s a complete bitch of a ladder — the rungs are round and very, very slippery so you can’t stand on them without holding onto something and when you get to the top of the ladder, one, the rails only go up to the edge of the boat, so you’ve got nothing to pull on to get into the boat and, two, the ladder doesn’t go into the boat, it goes to a narrow platform around the engine well. And the tender driver, who’s a nice young man is trying to help, but I’m thinking, am I going to spend the entire week, in an embrace with this guy? It was difficult, so it took me a couple minutes, 3 or 4, to get into the tender.

Well, you know what happens next because the large woman is behind me. And she can’t get into the boat. The dive master and the tender drivers jump in and try to push her up from the water. But she’s just whimpering, I can’t, I can’t, and is refusing to pull at all, a complete dead weight. The dive master starts yelling at those of us in the boat to get off our ass and pull on her. Which I get up and try, but the problems I have with this are:

  1. If she’s not going to try, even a little bit, what is my responsibility to help her? At this point, it’s like trying to land a reluctant juvenile walrus.
  2. Because of the ladder position, no one can get right in front of her and pull, so the angle is completely wrong. And she’s wearing a dive skin that is sticking to the boat, so she doesn’t slide.
  3. This is how people get hurt, trying to move a heavy weight in an awkward situation. And if I get hurt, there goes my vacation.
  4. If we’re successful at getting her back in the tender, we’re going to have to do this every time.

So, the effort to get her back in the tender fails. But the main boat has a very easy ladder off the back of it, so they whistle up the main boat on the radio. Give her a lifeguard ring to cling to while we wait because she freaking out and crying at this point, a couple people, all nicer than me, are hanging out in the water with her, talking to her. And once the main boat arrives, swim her over and help her up the ladder where she lies breathing heavily on the deck.

(She later has a long story about how it was just because her blood sugar had crashed and she went back in and drank a lot of juice. Since we had just gotten up from the breakfast table, the low blood sugar story doesn’t really make much sense to me.)

So, we take off in the tenders, looking for their Bryde’s whales, but they are long gone. We circle for a fair amount of time, but nothing. The sea is empty.

Now it turns out that this whole snorkeling with whales tour was the idea of a local whale expert named Howard, who also gave terrible disjointed lectures and sat on the deck looking for whales and pushed everyone to buy his $60 book. And in fact, he had arranged it with the local government that these Aggressor Fleet guys can’t go out without him, that he was a required element, guaranteed gig. But now that we’re all a captive audience on the boat, he admits that he’s never done any whale research on the east coast of Sri Lanka, that he’s working completely off of published data from reported sightings from local fishermen. That even in the peak whale season (which is April) there will be week, 2 week gaps where no one saw a whale. So, he has no idea where to find the whales.

So, the days begin to pass as the boat wanders around in Indian Ocean. (Yes, you can imagine someone softly whistling the theme to Gilligan’s Island here.) We get a lot of sleep and regular meals. At one point, we see a mixed pod of pilot whales and dolphins and scramble into our gear and out on the tenders again.

pilot whales

But it’s more a comedy of errors because the minute we get close to the animals and get in the water, they disappear. I think the German woman managed to see one beneath her in the water for just a second, but she’s the only one. The minute we all get back in the tender, there are the dolphins and pilot whales again. So, we chase after them again, get in the water, they disappear. Get back in the boat, chase after them… But people are starting to get a little impatient, a little me-first, and just start diving in while the boat is still moving, thinking, well, if I just get in the water before the rest of these fools, I’ll get to swim with them. Chaos ensues. No one gets to swim with the dolphins.

But I did get trapped listening to the large woman talk about how she went to see the gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. And I said, oh, yes, I’ve been there too. There’s that lovely eco-camp right there, yadda, yadda, yadda. And she said, oh, no, I could never stay there, I’m told that the bathrooms are way down the beach. And I said, no, they’re in the middle of the camp. And she said, yeah, they’re way way away from where you sleep and I said, no, they’re right there, maybe 20, 30 feet away in the middle of the camp. And she said, no that was too far to walk. She could never be that far from the bathroom. And then launched into a story about staying in a caravansary in Morocco where there wasn’t a bathroom in the room, so they stole a bucket and the three of them took turns peeing and pooping in it all night so that it was almost full and then just left it there for someone else to clean up. I realized at this point that I had a look of horror on my face, that I was staring at her with my mouth open, at the rudeness of this. And had to get up and go to the top deck where she never went because, you know, the stairs…

Another day we find a pod of about 40 sperm whales in the distance.

Sri Lanka-7111
Taken by Janis Parker

We scramble for our gear and load up in the tenders, and they are gone.

We find a blue whale. Well, blue whales are supposed to be the star of the show here, that’s what we’ve been looking for.

Sri Lanka-6947
Taken by Janis Parker

We scramble for our gear and load up, and start chasing it. The idea is that we get in front of the whale, drop in, and be in the water when it swims past. Because this thing is going 40 knots and we’re not going to be able to keep up with it or swim toward it. That’s the plan. And we do in fact get in front of it and it is steaming toward us like a locomotive. And everyone jumps in, except I don’t, because I’m completely mesmerized by how beautiful this animal is. You know, you see pictures of them and they’re blue (most whales are some shade of blue gray), but right there in front of me, it was more than dull blue. It was iridescent, quicksilver blue with darker blue freckles, it glowed in the morning hazy. There were layers and depth to this blue, like cloth laid down in layers. And as I watched it flicked its tail and dove down horizontally.

No one in the water got a chance to see it. It was gone. We spent two more hours in the heat, chasing after it, but nothing. It never let us close to it again.

At this point, Howard (or that idiot Howard as I came to think of him) showed us a National Geographic making of movie about filming blue whales. And the professional diver spent a month every day trying to film a blue whale in the water and at the end of 30 days as he was ready to give up, he got one fabulous pass. But he was doing the same thing we were, getting ahead of the whale and trying to be the water when it swam past. But the blue whales apparently are not terribly interested in swimming with you. You’re just trouble. And Howard goes, oh, yeah, only about 10% of the time do you actually get close to the blue whale in the water. It’s really very difficult to do successfully and a group this big, it’s never going to happen. And I thought, wait a second, this is your business plan, promising people that they’re going to swim with blue whales when you can’t find them and know that it’s not going happen when you do?

The last day on the boat, we found an enormous pod of spinner dolphins.

Spinner dolphins taken by Janis  Parker
Taken by Janis Parker

Spinner dolphins taken by Janis Parker
Taken by Janis Parker

A charter flight back to Colombo, a little wander around Colombo, a long flight home.

Needless to say, that while Sri Lanka was a fine destination, I do not recommend this trip.

Spring Quarter 2016



It’s never too late for a happy childhood or a good education, so I’ve been trying to sneak in more non-fiction. 7 non-fiction, 10 free library books, 2 physical books (1 used).

My favorite book was “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World” because what’s not to love about gripping tales of Enlightenment Age explorers? I mean, this was a guy that was Charles Darwin’s hero which seems more important in an era where people are building replicas of Noah’s Ark and putting in dinosaurs and unicorns. Science, damnit.

  1. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
  2. The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur
  3. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  4. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  5. Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
  6. The End of the World as We Knew It by Nick Cole
  7. The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. A Splendid Savage: The Restless Life of Frederick Russell Burnham by Steve Kemper
  9. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  10. The Painter by Peter Heller
  11. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
  12. Promiscuity: An Evolutionary History of Sperm Competition by Tim Birkhead
  13. Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
  14. Zero K by Don DeLillo
  15. The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World by Brian Allen Carr
  16. Super Extra Grande by Yoss
  17. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

Father’s Day

One of my favorite photos of my dad was taken in the pre-digital age where we printed pictures out on paper and sent them out in the world to survive or not survive. I don’t know where this picture is right now, so it may only exist in my head. I had most of my photos of my dad in a leather case that my sister took with her when she’d been living with us and moved out. (She took all my underwear too, but I digress.)

It’s a photo of my father flying fishing in Feather River canyon. He’s about a 100 yards away so that he’s a small figure in a big landscape. His back is turned toward the camera. He’s completely focused on what he was doing. My mother gave me the photo years later, so I’m not even sure he ever saw the picture or knew that it existed.

I never heard the story of where or why he picked up fly fishing, but he was good at it and it made him happy. It sustained and nourished him.

He died a year or so after I graduated from college.

And for the last year, while we worked on this project of the land and the building of a house, I can’t help but think how he would have loved this project. This would have been so interesting to him. He would have been right there, giving me advice that I didn’t ask for and making notes on the architectural drawings, taking drives to see how the land was doing.

He would have been a complete pain in the ass.

And if I’d complained, he would leaned forward in his chair on the patio, sweaty at the end of the day, his work boots unlaced, his shirt unbuttoned, and said, “You’ll thank me when everything’s done right.”

How to Drive an Engineer Crazy


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Let’s say you’ve decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner. You’ve been to 5 different stores and 3 farmer’s markets to get just the right ingredients. You’ve spend a week doing prep. You’ve been up all night to make sure the turkey was just the right color brown and the stuffing is this interesting mixture of sweet and savory guaranteed to surprise and delight and you even have the “cranberries ala Bart”, the gelatinous cranberry mixture out of an Eisenhower era cookbook because somebody really loves it. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it. And you put everything out on the table, you “release” the dinner. Everyone takes 1 bite and declares it the worst thing they’ve ever eaten, you are the world’s worst cook and an evil person because you did this to deliberately ruin their holiday. You are a drunken flying monkey version of Satan.

So, there’s tears and hateful things are said and doors are slammed after yelling that they are never coming back. When you discover that the problem was that you didn’t put the salt and pepper shakers on the table. You don’t put a lot of salt and pepper on things, so you didn’t think about it. The dinner probably needed a little more salt and pepper on things, but this never came up. Everyone was too busy having an emotional reaction to tell you clearly what the problem was.

The same thing happens with software. I build something and release it and what I get back is “this software totally doesn’t work”, “this software sucks”, “you made the software suck on purpose”, “you are a drunken flying monkey version of Satan”, and my personal favorite that comes up at least once a week “this would never have happened before Steve died”. None of this is actionable. None of this tells me what problem you’re having or how to fix it. Sometimes if you just explained it to me with your big boy language skills and your inside voice, it’s as quick and easy as walking over the cabinet and getting the f***ing salt and pepper shakers that I ALREADY HAVE.

But the other half of the equation is that users can’t always articulate what’s wrong, they just know that it is. When you get it right, they will sometimes give grudging feedback that one of the idiots working on the code must have hit a couple buttons accidentally and now it’s working the way it’s supposed to. Duh, this was how it always supposed to work, why were you too dumb to see that?

My only fallback at times like these is to say that if they’re reacting so violently to my software, then they really do care, they really do want it to work for them. Just because someone is being mean to you, doesn’t mean they’re not on your side?


Twenty-nine months in — travels with fiddle


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I haven’t talked about the whole fiddle thang in months, but I am still standing in my bedroom most nights sawing away, trying to slowly improve. I switched instructors. It wasn’t that I had a problem with the second fiddle instructor, he took me a long way down the path of appreciating how music was constructed, recognizing the girders and beams, and how my instrument fit into that. But the “new” fiddle instructor, the third fiddle instructor, (and I put “new” in quotes because I started working with her last December) has started me down a path of playing completely by ear, of understanding the song from the inside out, rather than the outside in. We have no sheet music. She sends me a little audio recording of song and that’s how I learn a song. Sometimes she gives it to me in one key and I’m supposed to play it back to her in a different key. And when I play it back to her the following lesson, she doesn’t say “you’re missing an E there”, she says “no, you don’t have it yet, go back and listen”.

I was raised on sheet music, it’s my comfort zone, and this is taking a big step outside of that comfort zone.

I kept both the second and third fiddle instructors for months, but they were going in different directions and I had to choose a single path. And the reason I choose her path was that this whole playing by ear thing is an important step to the whole “playing” with music, to listen to the people you’re playing with and react and echo what they’re doing. I am reminded that the word for what I’m doing with a musical instrument is that same word for what children do in a playground.

No. I’m not there yet. And I’m sure my friend Phyllis will cheerfully post how this song freaked out her cats. But another thing that I love about fiddle instructor number 3 is that apparently there is a Suzuki violin instructor thing that you have to give 2 positive feedbacks for every criticism (or as one of my co-workers put it “a shit sandwich”) and she doesn’t give false criticism. When she gives me an attaboy, I have earned it. And I appreciate this because I’m old enough that I do not need or enjoy smoke being blown up my ass.

Like I said. This is a journey.

So, 667 hours in, I give you Sunny Side of the Mountain.

Dominican Republic and Snorkeling with Humpback Whales


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The first time someone talked to me about swimming with whales I envisioned a small paper craft cartoon scene with tiny swimmers with big fins and happy figure eight shaped whales spouting fountains of water next to them. It was a scene out of a children’s book, full of smiles and sentences that rhymed. Because whales in person, right up there in your face, are nothing like the whales in children’s books. They’re bigger and longer, with a subtle eel-like grace. And they’re wild animals. Saying, “I’m going out to swim with whales today” sounded suspiciously like “I’m going to go play in traffic with sentient school buses that don’t necessarily want to play with me”.

But there’s a place in the Caribbean where it’s heavily regulated and licensed and you go out in a live-aboard dive boat for a week and swim with humpbacks. The company I’ve gone with twice now is Conscious Breath out of Florida. The whales are there to give birth and breed for the next season. So, most of the whales you will have encounters with are the mother and calf combination, where the mother is resting lower in the water column coming up every 20 minutes or so to breath, but the young calf has to come up every 5 minutes or so. (You’re in about 80-100 feet of water over a limestone reef 75 miles offshore.) If everything gets timed correctly and the mother whale is amenable, you float in the water in a group of 8 or so and the calf will come check you out. They’re a week or so old at that point, so think 1 to 2 ton puppy. This is all done in open water, so if the mother is not comfortable with this, she just flicks her tail and her and the calf are gone.

I won’t break this trip down into days because the days are remarkably similar. You get up at 7:30, eat breakfast, into the smaller tenders / whale chasers by 8 am, out on the water, in the water, you’ll spend 5 minutes to an hour with an particular whale, in for lunch around noon, out again at 1 until 6pm or so, back for a shower and a beer with the sundown, dinner, a presentation, and bed. The dive boat holds 16 or so people, the tenders that go out are 8 people each.

You fly in and out of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. We stayed the first couple nights on land to get over the jet lag and do a preliminary snorkeling trip to make sure all the camera equipment and the snorkeling gear was working. A little horseback riding on the beach.



horseback rider

convict tang

school of fish


After much deliberation, I went with the Nikon AW1 underwater camera. It’s a mirrorless, 14 MP camera that comes with 2 available lens. The advantage being that you don’t need a housing, it’s sealed, so that it’s a lot less awkward than a DSLR in a housing. A DSLR is going to a foot or more in diameter, weigh 15-20 pounds (though it will be neutrally buoyant underwater, it still has momentum and drag against the water). And you can quickly and easily change the settings where a DSLR you set it up, make all decisions before you get in the boat, because it’s locked and loaded for the most part. And I have never taken one of these trips without someone’s housing flooding and the DSLR inside going to Valhalla.

In fact, my hesitation about the Nikon AW1 was that this was the camera I took to the South Pacific in 2014 and it got water inside and was ruined halfway through the trip. Do you give a camera model that has failed you another chance? I decided yes, though I took a Go Pro with me so that I would have a backup underwater camera. Fortunately, I did not need it.

But once out there on the Silver Banks, you get in the water with the whales and time just stops.

humpback calf

The mothers are producing milk for the calves, but the calf doesn’t attach to a nipple. The mother pumps out her very thick, fatty, clumps of milk and the calf immediately slurps them into its baleen. Sometimes you’ll see the milk floating in the water near the mother.

humpback calf

humpback calf

humpback calf with mother

humpback calf

humpback calf

humpback calf

humpback mother and calf

humpback calf

You don’t touch the calf. You hang in the water and wait to see if the calf approaches you.

swimmers with whale (griet)_v1
(Photo by Griet Laval Van Malden)

humpback calf with swimmers

humpback calf with swimmers

And if you’re lucky, you’ll have your underwater camera still in your hand when the whale decides to breech. That’s our dive boat in the background for scale.

humpback breech

When you’re not in the water with the whales, you’re in the tender watching the breeding behavior — tail slapping, spy hopping, breeching, pec slapping. And a group of males all fighting each other for dominance, called a rowdy bunch, where they are just whacking on each other, slamming each other with their jaws. They’re bloody and puffing like steam engines. (You do not get in the water with a rowdy group.)

humpback breeching

humpback breeching

humpback pec slapping

humpback fluke slapping

rowdy group (male breeding behavior)

rowdy group (male breeding behavior)

And then you get back in the water with the mother and calf and are privileged to watch how affectionate they are with each other. It is sad to know that maybe 50 percent of calves don’t make it. It’s a long way back to their feeding grounds in the Arctic and some of them will not survive that long a journey.

humpback mother and calf

humpback mother and calf

humpback calf

humpback calf

It’s a luxury to have a block of time to focus on just one thing — the humpback whales. To have a moment where you are fully present and it’s just you and these truly enormous animals who tolerant you with benign grace. You end up comparing your feeble attempts to penetrate the surface of the water and swim in their world with their breeching behavior where they crack the surface of the sea. There are places where the sea seems bottomless, the sky seems endless, and yet you meet somewhere in the middle.

Winter Quarter 2016



Ah, a new year. Fresh pages. Undiscovered books. My favorite books for the quarter where “M Train” which is a lovely meditation on how determining what is important to you and no one else and “Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise” which is the almost true story on misremembered friendship.

  1. The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America by Brian Kevin
  2. Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #3) by Ransom Riggs
  3. A Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham
  4. The Magicians (The Magicians, #1) by Lev Grossman
  5. Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise by Oscar Hijuelos
  6. M Train by Patti Smith
  7. Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
  8. Firefight (Reckoners Book 2) by Brandon Sanderson
  9. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
  10. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Flavia de Luce, #6) by Alan Bradley
  11. West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein
  12. The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher
  13. Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Kinky Crustaceans, Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep by Marah Hardt
  14. Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

Nine months in — the new house


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the hill on New Year's Day

This picture is from New Year’s Day when we ran up there to check out how the property was handling the rain. Was it one big mud puddle? Had the dirt road up to the top of the hill survived? And the good news was that everything was draining well, no standing water. A tree had fallen across the dirt road and still being city folk, we did not have the chain saw in the back of the truck.

The house on the hill was always envisioned as a place to retire to, so we’ve been in no real rush to complete the project. Take our time, make sure everything is right. It’s a good thing we feel this way because the project is going really really slowly.

We’ve descended into the morass of septic tank placement, window placement for adequate winter lighting, whether stove hood technology will allow us to put the stove on the center island, refrigerator selection, and should we have a wine closet? The architect and his assistant have completed a preliminary design review with the Marin county planning department. And there weren’t a huge amount of surprises here. As the arborist told us last summer, the planning department is going to tell you that you can’t cut down any trees (we have hoped to thin one particular clump of pine trees to improve the view), and they did, but that’s not strictly true. As part of the construction process, we will have to have an arborist prepare a vegetation plan for fire safety and you can get some trees cut down as part of that process. We going to have to redo some of the geological and percolation tests because they’re sixteen years old and the percolation tests (for the septic tank) were done before that clump of trees we want to thin grew and you don’t want to put the leech lines where tree roots are going to disrupt them.

Another interestingly sticky point was the guest cottage. Because we’re planning for a small kitchen, it’s considered a second unit which will require us to have more parking. But we’d already planned a two car garage and a two car covered carport and we have to have this large paved area for the fire truck turnaround. And the second unit has to be of a minimum size. (And I’m not sure what that minimum size is at this point.)

All checklist items are just things to work through. We’re right on the cusp of starting to bring in the army of consultants to prepare pre-construction reports. I’m sure that’s what I will talking about in the next progress report.

But the big problem at the moment is that the architect has come back with a preliminary price tag that exceeds what I wanted to pay. He’s estimating $600 a square foot (and including the garage and carport in that square foot calculation). But we have not begun to talk materials and maybe we don’t build the guest cottage. (Though everyone I’ve told that to has said, “NOOOOOO, not MY guest cottage. You gotta make that work.”) Dropping the guest house would, according to the architect’s estimates, drop the price by $300,000 to $400,000.

We have a builder that we’ve signed up, so I’ve asked if we could get some back of the envelope, rough estimates from him. It’s probably time to have the talk about material trade offs. $600 a square foot seems high, but it’s a virgin site that needs infrastructure brought in, the hill needs to be sculpted with large equipment.

On the lighter side, I have signed up for a beekeeping class because the world needs more bees and I now have a place to put down a hive or two.

Previous progress reports are here:

  1. Six months
  2. Three months

Fall Quarter 2015


My favorite book of the last 3 months was The Fly Trap, a charming combination of science, observation, memoir, and history, not just history, but a story you’ve never heard before about an individual that very little comes up when you type in the Google search. It was a Christmas present from my husband who seems to scrub the dusty corners of the internet to find me amazing books that I have never heard of. But the book that took a month and a half to read was the 910 page non-fictional study of Teddy Roosevelt, his relationship with Taft (why were friends, why they stopped being friends) and how they helped encourage the development of modern investigative journalism. It’s a barn burner, unfortunately that barn houses a couple million cows, so it took awhile.

  1. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
  2. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
  3. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
  4. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  5. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
  6. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
  7. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
  8. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
  9. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
  10. The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg
  11. Vermilion by Molly Tanzer

Goodreads has come up with a handy page to summary my reading year.

I’m keeping my reviews and reading list here at Friend me there if you want to see what I’m reading now.

My experiment with the Oyster book service as a way to keep the cost of feeding my reading habit has come to an end. (And it’s true that I bought none of the books this quarter.) Oyster going out of business was easily predicted. To make the subscription cost ($9.99 a month) you needed to read a least 2 books a month (assuming that most books cost around $9.99). Most people don’t read 2 books a month. And they never had the latest book that everyone was talking about. To get that I had to get in the queue to the digital books for the local library. (Which can be a lengthy wait. I’m still waiting for a book that I put on hold a year ago. And you’re only allowed 8 holds.)