Category Archives: family

The Break of Dawn

If I were a true punster, the title would be The Crack of Dawn.

The first year of college right out of high school was a jumble of experiments.  At 18, the school was far enough away from home that commuting was impractical; therefore I arranged a government loan to cover dormitory accommodation as well as tuition.  The guy who’s room I shared upon arrival must have drawn the short straw because he didn’t seem so thrilled to have landed a green, freshman roommate.  With his waist-length hair, he sported a “been there/done that” attitude.  But he quickly warmed up to my irresistible charm (haha) when he carefully showed me how to use his sophisticated reel-to-reel tape stereo system, top of the line for its day.  The speakers were almost as tall as I, making his impressive recording compositions from bands like The Who mind-blowingly absorbing after we would share a bowl of hashish.

Bunking with him lasted only a month or so before a spot opened up on the fraternity floor where a couple of my friends were staying, so I soon became an unofficial frat member.  It wasn’t a jock frat, rather a mix of background and color.  If there were any athletes in the fraternity, it ended up being two of my friends and me.

Shortly after arriving on campus, I noticed a poster at the gymnasium’s entrance inviting students to join the swim team.  No experience necessary read the sign.  “Hmm, I might be up for that,” I thought.  I had never participated in an official school sport, and the idea of no experience was an attraction.  After all, how hard could swimming be, I thought, having swum in the ocean almost every summer growing up.

But it was grueling, with daily practices of endless laps of freestyle, breast, back, and fly strokes.  I didn’t know until after I joined that a friend, the only other guy who selected this college from my high school, Bob, had also joined the team.  We then became friends with another Bob, who we called Dunk, an abbreviation of his last name.  Bob had participated in organized swimming before, and Dunk was a superb competitive platform diver.  We still call each other friends to this day.  Together the three of us, along with Billy Beirster, from Brooklyn, NY, were the newbies on the swim team.  We were a tad on the unrestrained side, whereas the balance of the team was,..umm, more mature.

As in any sport, the games, or meets in this case, made the practice worthwhile.

As an example, Billy would regularly, actually upon request, demonstrate his nostril inhaling prowess by snorting jello at lunch in the school cafeteria.  In those days a cup of jello cubes was a staple dessert selection.  Beirster would carefully and steadily balance a cube, which was at least six times larger than his nostril opening, with one finger below his nose, while he closed his other nostril, as focused snorters do.  Then, with everything still, except for the wobbly jello cube precariously balanced on his fingertip, it would suddenly disappear up his nasal cavity with one quick, short snort.

A lucky set of events allowed me to letter in swimming that first season.  To be given a “letter,” an embroidered patch, intended to be sewn on the back of a varsity jacket, required a certain number of points acquired by placing 1st, 2nd, or 3rd in the official events.  We competed with various state colleges and universities around Pennsylvania.

Billy Beirster had no problem snorting them.

One of the “away” meets was with a team not known to have particularly fast swimmers. Therefore our coach allowed some of us a chance to accumulate points by resting the regular starters.  I ended up placing first in the 50-meter freestyle event that evening, which, if I remember correctly, gave me a healthy chunk of points towards the letter that year.  A couple of my teammates were smoking pot before that meet, which may be the reason I had a further edge.  I had learned my lesson with drugs and swimming earlier in the month by popping a tab of LSD just before a swim practice (not one of my most intelligent experiments).  During the endurance laps, the psychedelic effects kicked in big time.  The water started feeling thick like the jello Billy snorted.  Every time I took a breath, hallucinations of large, colored clouds with dragon details appeared against the folded up bleachers.  The lane markers on the walls at each end of the pool would spin clockwise, then counterclockwise, and gyrate to appear further distant the closer I became until I finally banged into the wall.  One of the senior swimmers approached me while I was still in the water, looked into my eyes and said, “Freddie, you don’t look so good, I’m going to recommend to the coach that you go back to the dorm and rest.”  “Thanks,” I gratefully replied, “I’m feeling a little out of it today.”

Receiving a letter like this required points.

But I’m rambling.  This is about Dawn.  Or rather Valerie.  She could have been a poster flower child.  After all, the Vietnam war was still in full swing and the hippie movement hadn’t yet faded. The second draft selection was processed during that first college-year and luckily I received a high number, meaning I wasn’t compelled to enlist and fight in a war that made no sense.   Anyway, I was semi-intoxicated by Valerie’s presence.  For whatever reason, she liked hanging around Bob, Dunk, and I.   Not long after I met her though, she changed her name to Dawn.  She was tall, slender, pretty, long blond hair, light and smooth olive skin, a down-to-earth sultry voice, intelligent, and au naturel.  If she wanted to change her name to Dawn, who was I in my half-stoned mind to opine.  I fell for her all the same.  My puzzle was that she didn’t fall for me.  I dreamt about her and was confident she would be the perfect girlfriend.

It was a popularly unpopular war, Vietnam.

Toward the end of that first school year, I was therefore thrilled that she wanted to accompany Bob, Dunk, and I to our hometown for a long weekend.  “Maybe she’ll become enraptured with me away from school,” I naively pondered.  But then she met my brother D.  It must have been his long curly locks during the time he was living out a short rebel streak that attracted her to him.  Bro D was renting a room from friends of mine in town.   When I met them one morning, I walked into his room and there they were, in bed together.  He just looked up at me and smiled.  I could only smile back, even though there was a sudden gnarly turbulence in my gut.  He was doing what any red-blooded guy would do if given a chance, so I could only admire him for that.  He happened to conquer what I couldn’t.  He didn’t know I liked her.  I never told him because admitting so would have acknowledged a made-up fantasy.  Anyway, better him than someone else, I remember thinking.

Shortly after that, something clicked.  How could I take anyone serious who had changed her name from Valerie to Dawn?  Her closest friend changed her name to Born.  The bohemian outlook started seeming a little too hippy dippy.  Just that quick she was erased from my desire board.

I quit full-time college midway through the 3rd semester (2nd year) as I couldn’t figure out why I was going into debt studying for a degree I didn’t much care about.  I’d go on to attend five universities over the next 10 years (another experiment I wouldn’t recommend) before figuring it out and receiving a diploma, or two.  But what brother D didn’t realize, nor did I, is that toward the end of that first year, he helped me over a short phase with the Break of Dawn.

Band Camp Pussy

There’s no harm going way back,…right?

It was a feeling I tried to prevent from creeping in.  Band camp pussy.  While successful most of the time, that pesky voice would appear from seemingly nowhere, hover for a while, performing a muted overture.  I pretended it wasn’t there, ignoring its minor phrase.  The thought though didn’t miss a beat and patiently waited for an encore.

Before high school, I relished team sports where ever I could find them, rec leagues mostly, since the parochial school I attended had no sports.  I wasn’t a tough kid, yet I wasn’t a wuss.  For example, on the football team, I was a halfback on offense, except that I never ran the ball.  That was the job for the other halfback, the fastest guy on the team.  Whenever we ran sweeps, my job was to run in front of him and block.  Because he was so fast, I would dive, arms outstretched, splaying the defensive backs who would fall over me, allowing my teammate a clear path to the goal line.  To congratulate me, the coach would raise my arm after the games to show off my dirt and grass-stained ensemble.  So hey, I knew I wasn’t a wimp.  OK, so this was only a 6-man (haha, kid) midget football league.

Around that time, dear ole dad brought home a couple of instruments — a trombone and a baritone.  He had played both in the Marine band.  Brother D picked up the baritone and I opted for the shiny gold trombone and started lessons soon thereafter.  I loved the ability of sliding, this time into and off of notes.  For the next several years I blew plenty of horn.  By the time I reached high school, I had several years of horn blowing under my belt.  While my friends joined the football team, I played in the band.

I’m not tooting my horn, but in the school orchestra, to the consternation of some upperclassmen, out of seven trombones, as a freshman, I shared 1st trombone chair.  Concert performance pieces dictated our practice.  However, besides the occasional parade march, the physical side of playing was the orchestra’s double-duty of performing at football games.

Every summer, therefore, involved a couple of weeks of band camp.  We had to learn and practice marching formations in a medley of sequences, usually with an eight-count every five yards or 90-degree turn.  And we didn’t just walk.  We high-stepped it, with knees to waist level.  We had to look and sound snappy.

Knees to waist level was the deal.

The seasonal football games were a major school-spirit event.  The band provided minor, periphery entertainment.  Truthfully, I didn’t care for organized football.  I much preferred informal ‘pick-up’ games, found in the many parks around where we lived.  These unofficial games were raucous, energetic, and fun.  School football seemed more tense and brutal.  Sure the theme was strategy, excitement, and heroes, but in a way, we were glamorizing the brutishness.

Essentially I felt relegated to cheerleading as a band member.  The weekly hoopla wasn’t striking the right cord.

Fortunately, I eventually composed a good excuse for quitting the orchestra, and trombone.  Not only was the subliminal band camp pussy message evidently still in tune with a few neurons, but my front teeth were chipped and needed caps, so applying pressure to the horn’s mouthpiece was not to the required scale.  But the conductor opened a spot for me to play the cymbals that year.  I agreed, as marching staccato with the percussion section was invigorating, and crashing cymbals with gusto during The Star Spangled Banner in front of a home crowd yielded whole notes of internal jazz.  But the exhilaration was soon out of pitch.  I think I made it 3/4 through the season before I handed in my spats.  That nagging thought finally won.  Was I indeed a band camp pussy?

A simple but beautifully sounding Conn slide trombone.

I found the Conn slide trombone in its original case buried in storage about 15 years ago and had it refurbished with the delusion of picking it up again.  But blowing horn after such a long break stayed an illusion.  I was flatter than the tires on my carbon road bike.

As a side note, so this message is not left off key, the truth is, band camp was cool.  The physicality, choreography, rhythm, cadence, and the coordination while playing music and witnessing the whole emerge greater than the sum of the parts, produced ample measures of stimulation and gratification.  I’m guessing the pussy part snuck in as a postlude.

Pissing in the wind,…twice

…on the same island.

The recent destruction in the Virgin Islands caused by hurricane Irma brought back a couple of Caribbean memories from that area.

In our early 20’s (hmm,..the mid 70’s or thereabouts), friend Bruce and I traveled to Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, two consecutive years, to visit our friend John who was a school teacher there.  The first trip was an exploratory adventure.  We road our new 900 cc Kawasaki’s, the largest they made at the time, from Eastern PA to my aunt’s home in Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

I had stayed with Aunt Gladys for a month several years prior when I was in early high school.  She lived on the intercostal waterway, where, with her husband, they owned and operated a marina.  They sold new and used boats and rented slips.  The deal was, I could stay for a month as long as I helped around the marina.  Fait accompli.  Gladys, my mother’s oldest sister, was cool.  There were no televisions in her home.  Cell phones and computers didn’t exist yet.  Each night after dinner we played two-handed pinnacle, bantered about anything and everything, and sipped vodka and grapefruit juice.  I must have been 16 or so, but she made me a weak drink each night so that I could share the entire experience, and perhaps to give herself an edge in the game.  That only added to her coolness.

My second trip to her marina in Jacksonville Beach was several years later with Bruce.  Aunt Gladys was kind enough to keep our bikes while we flew to Saint Thomas for our ten-day island escapade.  John was a straight-laced guy in high school, but it didn’t take him long to shed his Catholic High School image.  When John met us at the island’s airport, he could have been mistaken for a hard-ass pirate, sporting a full chest-length beard and demeanor to match.  He was glad to see us and took us directly to the east-end of the island where we had an unobstructed view of St Johns, a brother island to St Thomas, and where four of his friends were readying a 36-foot sloop for a 10-day trip in the waters amongh the British Virgin Islands.  We didn’t spend one night on solid ground during that trip as we went from plane to boat, and afterward, from boat to plane.  Each day was spent in a different part of the BVI archipelago, where we snorkeled with spearguns by day, feasting on our catch that evening on the boat.

This wasn’t our boat, but it could have been — the image reflecting our experience accurately.

During our first night, the anchor was thrown overboard somewhere among a group of islands, none with visible lights, just uninhabited tall dark mountains protruding out of the sea.  There were four bunks below and two makeshift sleeping pads topside.  John and I elected to sleep outside on the deck that evening.  At some point during the shimmering moon-lit night, because the beer we had been consuming was not a small amount, I woke with a need to let some out.  As I steadied myself on the edge of the swaying bow, holding one of the mast stays while mesmerized by the reflection of plankton in the dark sea, I started draining the processed beer.  Just then a vigorous and steady gust blew at me, redirecting the water I was eliminating back toward the boat.  At about that time I heard John belt out, “Freddie, Freddie, get down below, it’s raining.”  When he didn’t see me on the cushion, but rather standing on the bow with a sheepish grin, one hand holding the stay and the other holding, well, you got the picture, he had some other, stronger words to say.  Fortunately, John was an even-keel kind of guy.  After his initial excitement, he simply said: “Freddie, please, while you are on the boat, don’t piss in the wind.”  We had a lighthearted chuckle before he dove overboard to rinse off.

All that was needed was a snorkel, fins, and speargun, and lots of deep blue.

Those ten days left me awestruck by the beauty and variety of schools of fish we swam through.  It was a large tarpon school, not the individual sharks, that had my heart in my mouth.  From one minute to the next, swimming with a school of fish larger than I was, would have, if I hadn’t been holding it, taken my breath away.

The second-year Bruce and I flew from Philadelphia to Saint Thomas to stay with John on the island.  No sailboats this trip.  We wanted to know the island.  John lived in the hills, in a rustic area, where the roosters were our wakeup call.  I was enamored, so much so that I called my then wife and persuaded her to come down and join me.  After some coaxing (I couldn’t understand why she was apprehensive about a spontaneous vacation on an exotic Caribbean island), she agreed to fly down.  I excitedly took a bus to the airport to pick her up two days later.  I immediately became a tad concerned by the nervous look hidden behind her smile, which only deepened as we hopped in a taxi and made our way up the curvy mountain road to John’s place.  After two days it was evident she was not a happy camper.  She loved the beach, but the blue-green waters and warm white sand of the Caribbean weren’t enough to compensate for the perhaps unrefined setting in the hills where we were staying.  It just wasn’t her cup of tea.  Rather than the planned week with me on Saint Thomas, I rebooked her return flight only two days after her arrival.  She was happy to leave, and I was happy she did.  It was nothing between us.  She was uncomfortable in that island setting, and I couldn’t change that.  In hindsight, I mistakenly tried to force her to like what I liked.  For the second year in a row, although this time metaphorically, I was pissing in the wind.

A view of Magens Bay, Saint Thomas on the way up to John’s place.

This second island adventure still ended up a good trip for Bruce and I as we bounced around the isle’s more remote beaches trying to improve our inept spearfishing abilities which we never seemed to manage gripping.  We were mostly too slow.  When I found the occasional seemingly lazy fish, it would stare back at me with those large, glassy, fish-eyes, as I aimed my gun. Then,  the split second after I fired, it would turn broadside, the spear bouncing off its body as if it was saying, “yea sure, go ahead and try to spear me you goggle-eyed spazz.”  Luckily our friends were experienced fishermen.  We ate seafood like kings during those trips.  No pissing in that wind.

Epilogue

  1. To this day, whenever there is a choice between finding a discrete location on natural earth or water vs. a public breath-holding bathroom when a piss is calling, the outdoors always wins hands down.  During long distance (pedal) biking trips, brother PI called these outdoor pit stops ‘natural breaks.’  Of course, they were.  Pissing outside (not in public) is natural.  When the opportunity presents itself and the air stronger than a light breeze, John’s message from all those years ago still has me checking wind direction first.
  2. Our marriage didn’t last long, perhaps six years through the majority of my 20’s.  What we both learned the hard way was that trying to force one another into an undesired role never works.  It’s like pissing in the wind, always resulting in messy, unintended consequences.

The melting point of nickel

Neither of us had given it much thought before that evening.  We were sitting on either side of a campfire that had been burning for several hours.  The warmth felt good.  Even though it was summer, the midnight air was quite cool in the Teton Mountain Valley near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where the elevation is about 7,000 feet above sea level.

Brother P was living in Florida at the time.  He had a vacation (if that is what it’s called) from the air-force, so we decided to take a motorcycle camping trip across the country.  I was living in eastern Pennsylvania, so we decided to meet somewhere in the middle, then head west.  Even though we were both not new to motorcycles, it was our first long-distance camping trip on two wheels (we had taken a camping trip together around the circumference of Iceland in a rental car when he was stationed there.  Another story for another time).

We ended up in Jackson Hole taking only secondary roads — no highways and no schedule were the rules — as we camped in out-of-the-way places.  The Jackson Hole camp was the only one where we stayed in an “official” camp site.  Still, it was sufficiently rustic, with each camping space having its own campfire area.  And fortunately, there was an abundance of dead wood scattered about and not many other campers.

Outside of Jackson Hole, part of the Teton mountain range from the 7,000 ft high valley floor.

As we soaked in the fire’s warmth under a crisp, clear, star-filled night, our conversations traversed many topics, mostly philosophical.  Then P pulled out a nickel coin and said, “I wonder if this will melt in those hot coals.”  I didn’t think so, I said, but as the coals were red hot, brother P was betting on yes, at least to some degree.  He pitched it in the coals.

A little while later, our conversation drifted to one where P admitted having a strong itch to get back to Florida.  In fact, he was feeling a deep pull.  I told P that if the draw was that tenacious and if he wanted to go back, then he should follow his inclination.  We were big boys, each one on a different side of 21-years old, but both independent.  I would continue the trip as planned, I told him, and there are no strings, so no problem splitting off on your own.  There was relief on his face.  As we retired to our respective tents, he said he would sleep on the decision, and that if he were gone in the morning, I would know what he had decided.

I heard nothing before waking up to an almost empty campsite.  He must have walked his motorcycle some distance away so he wouldn’t wake me, I thought.  Hmm, I remember thinking, he reached his melting point, deciding to cut his trip short and beeline back to Florida.

The coals can reach over 2,000° Fahrenheit

It was a strange feeling having spent more than a week with a brother and traveling companion only to have him unexpectedly vanish overnight.  We had at least 10 days before our trip was over.  But still, there was peace as well as excitement on that chilly summer morning as I lit my Sterno stove kit, made coffee, while I packed my tent and sleeping bag on the bike.

Before leaving camp, I sifted through the dead fire’s ash and recovered the nickel.  It was blackened, but not melted.  As we later learned, the melting point of nickel is 2,650 degrees F (1,455° C), higher than steel, but slightly less than iron.  Coals from wood burning fires reach only as high as 2,012 degrees F (1,100° C).  Not that much of a difference, but far enough.

I road west that morning, across the Tetons and into Idaho, then circled south through Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and into Arkansas where I popped in to visit my dad’s sister MJ who lived outside Little Rock, before meandering northeast through Tennessee and home towards eastern PA.  I felt lucky because each night I stumbled upon off-the-beaten, peaceful and beautiful makeshift camping spots.  Every so often I pulled out the blackened nickel and pondered melting points in general.

It didn’t look so clean after sitting in the coals all night.

Because it was well before cell phones and text messaging existed, I didn’t learn until much later that P, on his 2,500-mile voyage home, came down with a bug not long after leaving our camp and was laid up in a hotel room for 48 hours recuperating.

A year or so later, I presented P with the burnt nickel that he had thrown in the fire, in a transparent sealed polycarbonate cube, as a remembrance of our trip.  His face was less than enthused which surprised me.  The nickel, from my perspective, represented exceptional camaraderie during an extraordinary trip between two brothers.  His reaction showed me how views differ.  Perhaps his under-enthusiasm of receiving the nickel wasn’t that it hadn’t melted, but that it reminded him of something else that had.

Of course, I don’t know if I’m right.  Perceptions are unreal, made-up concepts.  They are kind of like guessing at the melting point of nickel when you have no clue.

Everything though has a melting point.  But not everything can resist the warm, hypnotic embers of a wood campfire far from home.

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, to all in the family,
             May your tables overflow with succulent food,
While we give thanks, for this day, and being together,
             And remembering our brother, Heathen Dude.

When we weren’t many, we shared the land,
            Those centuries ago, in a high-spirited mood,
We were brought together, with treasures we stewed,
            And started a tradition, with you, Heathen Dude.

But we needed more land as our numbers grew,
            You lived in teepees, we had forests to hew,
 Then you banded together, started to collude,
            Planning retribution, vowing not to be screwed,
With feather headdress, you charged at us half-nude,
            We were Quakers, proper and prim,
Witnessing crazy people, dangerously wild and lewd,
            Yes, things got aggressive, brother Heathen Dude.

We had hoped you would realize,
            Our intentions as not rude,
Yet we could not glean from the native tongue,
            What you were trying to allude,
While some admired you, your love of land,
            We remained petrified of the sounds you mewed,
And blinded by what we saw as crude,
            So we had to run you out, Heathen Dude.

It’s a long time over,
            Our long-time feud,
So wherever we are,
            By ourselves or with a brood,
While we over-consume,
            with thoughts of calories eschewed,
Let’s give thanks and a toast,
            With whatever is brewed,
And salute to all we’ve wooed,
            Including our brother, Heathen Dude.

skf 2008

I’m mad

Well, not really mad, unless someone thinks I’m the crazy-type of mad, which, as most of us are to some extent, may be true.  But since I’m referring to angry mad, I’m really not, at least not that I know of.

The emotion or reaction to being or getting angry, mad, or even slightly irritated, is interesting from a root perspective.  Each of us develops our unique identities well before we are born.  Our porous, sponge-like perspectives get saturated quickly in early life.  Even identical twins can have radically different perspectives.  It’s impossible to know, completely, another’s perspectives.  Our brain synapses are different.  How we receive and process influences makes us each the individuals we are.  Even “soul-mates” who’ve lived their lives together don’t intimately know the other’s perspective.  We can only live in one head at a time.  In other words, on this planet there are more than seven billion different perspectives, or world views.

Getting pissed off or upset then, is an emotional reaction to someone or something not yielding to our unique view on the world, even though that other person or event acted within theirs.  A sort of hissy fit ensues.

While at a small family gathering years ago as a couple of us were bantering about, one member was describing an episode where he ‘erupted with a mad reaction,’ to which he quickly added “hey, I’m only human.”  After he finished his story, I challenged him about the excuse of “just being human” saying that, preciously because we are, we have the ability to choose not to get mad.  That brought forth some ire and heavy defense from more than one.  Perhaps we were both right.

Many of us can relate to, at some point, getting mad or upset with a family member.  It could have been an offense, a reaction, or bad behavior.  It doesn’t matter because the result is the same — the other person acted, at the time, according to their unique angle on life, which happened to differ from ours.  Our reaction is one of non-conformity.  The same when we get frustrated in traffic, at work, or in social situations when others don’t comply to our framed panorama.

That’s not to say we can’t take steps to correct bad behavior, or point, guide, train, or help others to adjust their outlook to think or act differently.  And it’s not to say that being or reacting forcefully or excited is not necessary.   But to get mad or upset that something happened or didn’t happen, even if it’s a complaint from the little voice, is a tantrum, not having gotten what we wanted or expected.

Broken down to it’s lowest emotional denominator then, it could be said that getting mad is nothing more than selfish, egoic, chest pounding.  If that’s true, then maybe a good many of us are mad.

Over the years I’ve certainly had my share of wanting to prove my point in a heated argument or cursing someone under my breath.  Lately though, I’ve been trying to catch myself, (whether it’s the asshole who pulls out in front of me, the person at work who makes a bonehead costly mistake, or someone who has otherwise not acted according to my wishes, maybe even said something unkind), and recognise any form of madness for what it is — unchecked emotion telling me my world is the centre of the universe.  I don’t need to like or agree with others, but if I get irritated, even for a second, it’s a form of childlike pouting.  One could say getting mad is a symptom of madness.

It’s not easy to catch the reaction in the heat of the moment.  But we can try.  We are, after all, humans.

Oh so Koh Samui

On Thailand’s west coast, with its beautiful white beaches on the Andaman Sea, Phuket and the surrounding islands may be considered the country’s most popular resort area.  But almost directly across the relatively thin sliver of land forming Thailand’s tail is a cluster of islands off the east coast that rival as getaway treasures.  One of those gems, Koh Samui, the largest and most developed, sits about 1.5 hours by high-speed ferry in the Sea of Thailand.

Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as they call it, arrived early this year.  It’s a two-week holiday season that closes down most of the country.  For a foreigner, it’s a good time to flee because almost nothing is open.  Everyone travels to their home village, closing down restaurants, stores, and most businesses.  Where I live in China has been below freezing.  I considered going back to New York, but winter was delivering record snow.  A warm destination was begging so I booked a flight to Bangkok with plans to return to the island that had mostly faded from memory.

the 2nd class overnight car

the 2nd class overnight car

A confluence of events aligned to take me back to Koh Samui after 30 years, this time with a nephew.  Sam, (one of) sister M’s son, had been backpacking through Thailand and SE Asia for a couple of months during the tail end of last year.  After returning home to Philadelphia the last week of 2015, he decided on a new home, one he could carry on his back, so he quit his job, purged many of his belongings, stored the rest, re-packed his hiking backpack and set out to pick up where he left off — time indefinite.

After landing in Bangkok on Feb 1, I received a text from Sam saying “hey Freddie, by sheer coincidence you wouldn’t happen to be in Bangkok would you?  I arrive there in a few days.”  ‘Wow, what are the chances?’  I thought, as I texted back, “I am, but I’m planning on booking an overnight train ticket for Surat Thani and a ferry to Koh Samui for the 4th evening/5th morning.”  “Great,” he responds, “I’m landing on 4th morning. Can you snag an extra ticket?”  All of a sudden I had a traveling partner for a few days.  So did he.  An added ‘unknown’ to the already unknown.

Sam as we de-trained after the overnight trip

Sam as we de-trained after the overnight trip

Most of the trains were full due to Chinese New Year as a segment of Chinese flood to Thailand for their holidays.  The following two days were already sold out.  Fortunately, when I returned to the train station the next day I found one seat left on the same train, same car, and the same section (I had bottom bunk, he had the top).  “Crazy coincidence’ I kept thinking.  His connecting flight from New York through Moscow to Bangkok was on-time, so we had lunch in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok after he arrived, beat around the city a bit before we made our way in metro to the central Hua Lampong railway station for our 12-hour train ride south to Surat Thani.

Sam had taken this voyage a couple of months ago on his way to Phuket, so he recommended a place near the train station where we bought dinner packed to-go for the journey (so much better than train food).   The train took off on time at 7:30 pm, we had dinner in our laps knee-to-knee, then settled in as the staff set up the sleeping bunks for the slow rocking trip south.  We hit Surat Thani the next morning at 7 am, caught a one-hour bus to the ferry terminal, the ferry to Koh Samui, and another van ride to our beach.

an oh-so pleasant ferry trip

an oh-so pleasant ferry trip

A lot has changed since my last visit to KS.  Gone are the rustic, sporadically placed bungalows where I stayed on the northern, most popular beach, eaten up by a hungry and well-fed tourism industry.  Fortunately,  other beaches on the island have sprouted enough authentic commercial activity to keep the island a stellar destination.  We decided on Lamai Beach on the east side, from a recommendation for its balance of sufficient activity with a healthy dose of tranquility.  We weren’t disappointed.  The spur-of-the-moment accommodation we rented could not have been better situated, nor closer to the surf, which, during high-tide, washed over the two steps of our one-room bungalow porch.

IMG_7269It’s been years since I’ve seen Sam, had never spent any significant time with him, and the gap between our ages significantly exceeds his age, so I was more than a little curious how a joint trip would pan out.  As it happened, I was targeting three days in Koh Samui, but we had such an enjoyable time, that we hung out for a full week, any differences in our generational gap(s) was more than made up by his maturity, good nature, and our ability to be in the moment.  We talked a lot about a lot, we walked a lot, hiked across the island, motorbiked the island both clock and counter clock wise, swam a lot, and, uh, ok, drank (not) a lot, and just hung out at our surf-side bungalow.  It was, in short, at least for me, a super-gratifying experience.IMG_7257

After a week in the tropical sun, it’s time for me to make my way back north, and then back to China to work.  After dropping me off at the airport on his rented motorbike (the return trains were booked solid), Sam plans to camp a couple more days in the KS palm-tree laden hills before meeting a female friend in Surat Thani where he will continue south into Malaysia, and points beyond, or where ever his nose takes him.

I’m hoping that the stars align again to bring me back to Oh So Koh Samui before another 30 years passes.  And, sending good wishes to Sam’s time-indefinite trip, that it turns out to be fulfilling, wherever it takes him.

blog building

blog building

breakfast by the beach

breakfast by the beach

IJ, aka Sam on the rocks

IJ, aka Sam on the rocks

on our hike in the middle of no accessible roads

on our hike in the middle of no accessible roads

 

caught from behind

caught from behind

caught from behind 2

caught from behind 2

on the hike across KS

on the hike across KS

on the rocks contemplation, about nothing

on the rocks contemplation, about nothing

 

 

 

IMG_7295

zoned out just right

 

Papaya Crab Salad

Papaya Crab Salad

IMG_7233

almost walked into this guy

IMG_7261

on his way up

IMG_7239

on the way to Koh Samui

IMG_7291

the restaurant at our bungalow

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somewhere in the mountains

a coffee break before the flight, in front of the banyon tree

a coffee break before the flight, in front of the banyon tree

our last morning at the bungalow, with sun too bright

our last morning at the bungalow, with sun too bright

burying (part of) the past

But first, a very Happy and Prosperous 2016 to you, a most treasured reader.  (Apologies in advance if this last post of 2015 may be a tad boring.)

After reading the book noted in this blog several weeks ago called Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo, I figure it’s high time to dispose of old digital photos.  The hard copy versions have already been history.  Now, the hard drives need space, hence it’s time for old photos to bite the dust.  One way to bury them is posting them here.  Years from now who knows where they’ll be, but at least they’ll no longer be in my digital library.

 

BUDS in a bar stop out west

with the BUDS, a group I help co-found, in a bar stop out west

in South Florida, mid-20's, getting ready for a 1,000 mile, 20 hour non-stop ride.

in South Florida, mid-20’s, getting ready for a 1,000 mile, 20 hour non-stop ride.

HS photo, hair was too long for yearbook

HS photo, hair was too long for the yearbook. They asked me to re-take the photo, I told them to pound sand.

in my Alameda, CA apartment, age 29

in my Alameda, CA apartment, age 29

after a bike trip from somewhere

after a motor bike trip from somewhere

age 50 in front of painting from Mauritius

age 50 in front of painting from Mauritius

with friend about to run Danville 10k, age 30

with friend about to run Danville 10k, age 30

at sis S's wedding

at sis S’s wedding

bro D

bro D

with a couple of BUDS on a western camping trip

with a couple of BUDS on a western camping trip

bro D explaining higher math

in our early 20’s, bro D explaining higher math

DOM on her second wedding

DOM on her second wedding

in Iceland w/bro Paul, age 25

in Iceland w/bro Paul, age 25

with friend Marc

with friend Marc at a train stop in Holland

they all look alike, babies. At 3 months, quite young and dumb

they all look alike. young and dumb

DOM with the first 4

DOM with the first 4

S & D

D & S

S, S, D

S, D, S

S, S, D

S, S, D

J

son J

a few bros with a few uncles

a few bros with a few uncles

like father like son

like father like son

DOD

DOD

early 20's, on the top of Chesapeake Bay

early 20’s, on the top of Chesapeake Bay

in PA with girlfriend KJ, age 28

in PA with girlfriend KJ, age 28

in Sturgis, SD with a new friend

in Sturgis, SD

J&J

J&J

J&J

J&J

J&J

J&J

J&J

J&J

J

son J

J

son J

J

daughter J

J

daughter J

with GVs family at a military club in Lima, age 42

with some of GVs family at a military club in Lima, age 42

the three sisters

the three sisters

the seven siblings

the seven siblings

Manchu Picchu with GV

Manchu Picchu with GV

DOM's backyard at impromptu picnic

DOM’s backyard at impromptu picnic

in my SF home

in my SF home

on an overnight boat in the Med heading toward Minorca

on an overnight boat in the Med heading toward Minorca

on an overnight train our of Gibraltar with new friends

on an overnight train out of Gibraltar with new friends

bro P and his wife

bro P and his wife

the brothers

the brothers

the boys with DOM

the boys with DOM

popping a champagne cork with Chilean friends along coast of Peru

popping a champagne cork with Chilean friends along coast of Peru

Porter Hill, San Francisco, around 30

Porter Hill, San Francisco, around 30

on the Jersey shore, last year of HS

on the Jersey shore, last year of HS

on the Peruvian beach

on the Peruvian beach

sister L

sister L

sister S

sister S

at sister S after long ride

at sister S after long ride

somewhere in the Amazon delta

somewhere in the Amazon delta

somewhere in Utah

somewhere in Utah

somewhere in Wyoming

somewhere in Wyoming

somewhere out west

somewhere out west on my electraglide

with bro D

with bro D on family ranch

S, sister M, bro's P & D the sons with DOD in the middle

with little bro P and DOD

with little bro P and DOD

in my attic bedroom during HS

in my attic bedroom during HS

in Sturgis with friend S Panzerela

in Sturgis with friend S Panzerela

in Srurgis

in Srurgis

very sea sick, trying to fish for salmon beyond the Golden Gate Bridge

very sea sick, trying to fish for salmon beyond the Golden Gate Bridge

out west somewhere on a solo camping trip

out west somewhere on a solo camping trip

Twin Peaks near my apatmentn

Twin Peaks, SF, near my TP apartment

w/a friend in Srurgis

w/a friend in Srurgis

the BUDS group, year unknown

the BUDS group after a 2-week ride, year unknown

w/dear friend Marc, somewhere between Amsterdam and Antwerp

w/dear friend Marc, somewhere between Amsterdam and Antwerp

with DOM in San Francisco

with DOM in San Francisco

with J&J

with J&J

with my good friend Russell and a couple new friends during a tequila infused weekend in Cancun

with my good friend Russell and a couple new friends during a tequila infused weekend in Cancun

with sister S

with sister S

with son Jeremy

with son Jeremy

Let’s talk diet

But before we do, something to keep in mind:  Many slightly heavy people are healthy and many thin people are not.  Most people are after diets to loose weight, not a bad thing, as long as we know that thin and healthy are mutually exclusive.  (But being overly heavy and unhealthy may not be).

A few weeks ago a friend emailed me asking to recommend a diet to loose a little weight. My response was that I’m not a diet expert, but I’d suggest general principles, focused on overall health, that may help.

Sifting through the morass of diet information is complex and tedious, made even more so by the complexity of our endocrine system, the way we live our lives, and the differences in genetic makeup.

Two popular, almost polar opposite diets are: 1) raw organic vegetarian whole food, and 2) paleo, primarily meat and saturated fat.  And there are hundreds of diet variations in between.  There are smart, educated people who espouse low fat, while others tell us high fat is where it’s at. There are so many smart people saying different things it’s hard to know which smart people to believe.

No matter who or what you believe, everyone must find what works for them.  There is no one-size-fits-all for diets, but there are several truths that collectively, many smart people agree on:

  • whole foods are preferable to processed foods
  • fresh seasonal food is preferable to packaged
  • drinking sodas, diet or otherwise, is not a good idea
  • eating fat doesn’t make you fat, or unhealthy
  • eating (dietary) cholesterol does not correlate to raising blood cholesterol
  • hydrogenated oils (or trans fats) are toxic
  • foods with a list of unrecognizable ingredients is better left avoided

And other concepts some smart people know:

  • all calories are not created equal — so counting them, in or out, is a futile effort
  • proteins, carbohydrates, and fats burn differently
  • some foods require more calories to digest and assimilate than they contain
  • we have complex systems of enzymes throughout our digestive system which can be thrown off by many factors, including our ability to handle stress
  • good sleep on a consistent basis is an important component of good diet & health

And other general considerations:

  • pointing to single individuals is not an example of how diets work
  • we’re better off focusing on quality of food over quantity
  • too much sugar is harmful
  • carbohydrates turn into sugar in the bloodstream

Gary Taubes, an investigative reporter who has made a career exposing bad science, wrote a provocative article in the New York Times several years ago, followed by a couple of books, on how the low-fat emphasis we’ve been fed may actually be the cause of many problems.  And Dr. Peter Attia addresses here, in part, how our food pyramid may be upside down.

Since most of us buy food that others have raised or prepared, and much of the food business is focused on how food tastes and not how it affects us after it passes our taste buds, finding good, wholesome food, especially while traveling, is a challenge. We can only do our best with the choices at hand.

Bottom line, a diet is one aspect of the weight/health equation.  Our metabolic balance is affected by a few other components, all connected:

  • Sleep — affects how we process nutrition while we’re awake
  • Stress — unavoidable and not a bad thing, but how we handle stress affects our health & digestion process
  • Physical Activity — important for keeping our overall endocrine, muscular, and skeletal systems strong and functioning with vitality

The recommendation to my friend?

  1. Eat whole foods, whether raw or cooked
  2. When eating animals, as much as possible, try to ensure they were raised well
  3. When eating produce, try to make sure it was raised well (organic, non-GMO)
  4. Don’t be afraid of a little fat, whether it’s chicken skin, coconut oil, nuts, olives, or avocado
  5. Limit starches like rice, potatoes and corn
  6. Limit or eliminate refined grains such as cereal, flour baked products, and pasta
  7. Avoid drinking sugar or sugar-free (diet) drinks, they mess with your system’s digestive enzymes
  8. Avoid packaged foods with long ingredient lists
  9. Avoid anything made with sugar, including most sugar substitutes
  10. Avoid most heated vegetable oils (many are genetically modified anyhow)
  11. Start daily semi-vigorous walks in the morning — or something similarly active
  12. Don’t compromise on sleep
  13. Drink a glass of water when waking
  14. Be physically active for 45 minutes before eating breakfast (and don’t skip breakfast)

My friend’s response?  “What you recommend is impossible, but thanks anyway.”

one child, or two

The vast majority of Chinese (in China), those in their 20’s and 30’s, have no siblings, which is why it’s coincidental that I know two young women, Ms S and Ms B, who have one sibling.  Ms S’s grandfather was a government official so their family received a special exemption for the second child.  Ms B’s family chose to move to western China to a province where the fine for the second child was a lesser hardship.

Even though China’s overall population has been increasing, the jury’s been out for a while, the one-child policy has had the desired effect of significantly reducing the birth rate and controlling population growth.  Fortunately for some, the policy has been somewhat relaxed recently so that if either the man or the woman in the marriage is an only child, they are allowed a second, penalty free.

This unique policy in the world’s largest populated country has not only helped take tens of millions out of poverty, but it also has created a sort of “me” culture.  Most young adults have no siblings, two parents, and four grandparents — called the 4-2-1 ratio.  It’s a ratio automatically setup for lots of doting.

Ms S related that that even though her parents had to split their resources to support two children, she was happy to have had less than her friends in school because the richness of having a sibling was (and is) greater than the value of extra allotment.

I work with another Chinese woman, Ms C, who has a three-year old daughter.  She very much wants another child but her husband is adamantly against a second, even though they could without penalty.  Her husband wants the resources, including, he says, all his love, to be dedicated to one child only, not split to two.

On the flip side, I met a guy visiting on business this past week from Romania who is one of 15 children.  He has seven children himself and said that the average among his other sibling’s children is five per, and they are far from finished.  Large families tend to breed large families, at least until common sense prevails.  My mother was one of eight children and she had seven.  Several of her children continued the breeding spree and ended up with large families.

It’s not a scientific notion that a smaller family size raises overall quality of life for those involved.  In large part, successful efforts at reducing family size is the reason that millions in several South East Asia countries have risen out of poverty over the past few decades.

Melinda Gates, a practicing Catholic, makes a case here that the need to discuss family planning and the use contraceptives is not about religion.  Hans Rosling, a data visionary speaking at a TED conference in Qatar to an Arab audience makes a similar compelling case here, in a different way.

In large parts the world, including the USA, family size has come down dramatically over the last few decades, as the baby boomer generation makes its way to retirement.  In Thailand, with grassroots efforts, population rates have decreased from an average of seven children per family a few decades ago to an average of two today.

As I was discussing the one-child policy with Ms B last week, she said she was against it because she felt so lucky to have a sister.  She experienced first-hand the sense of entitlement her friends in school have had.  She said her schoolmates were “amazed” at the way she shared, as they didn’t have the same sharing impulse.  As she was telling me her encounters with entitlement, I couldn’t help but think that having siblings, however rich an experience, doesn’t preclude that some will not harness that sense, (as I recently found out).

Nevertheless, the nostalgia of a large family is not reason enough to continue unabated reproduction.  There are broader implications, for the individuals, the family, the society, and the planet.

Although still growing, the UN tells us that the world population, with additional successful coaxing of family size moderation, will level off somewhere around 10 billion.

Even with an abundance of wealth, the planet simply would not sustain continued liberal reproduction.  A one-child policy may be extreme, but a family size mindset of less is more has proven more beneficial on both a micro and macro level.

We all march off the cliff leaving (an average of) one behind.  That’s fair, reasonable, and logical.  More than that and we would not doing ourselves, or those we leave behind, any favors.