I always love when the New York Times comes out in December with the “Best of ” lists, particularly of films. Our friend Phil Colla does a yearly My Favorite Photographs post that every year makes me think “I should do that”. Alex Mustard does a video presenting his favorite underwater shots of the year. Inspired by these examples, here are my photographic highlights of 2023:
Marriage is all about compromise, right? To get away from record-setting atmospheric rivers pummeling southern California this month, I lobbied to finally take a trip I’d wanted to do for years, to Baja to a gray whale nursery. Steve wanted to return to Death Valley, which is best in winter. I love Death Valley too. We roped Greg in and decided with 10 days, we had enough time to do both.
Death Valley was photographically the more productive of the two back-to-back trips, but we froze and had a blast glamping and communing with the gray whales in Baja. Steve, loaded down with his heavy camera bag, stumbled on a dune in Death Valley and injured his wrist, which initially hurt enough he thought it was fractured. Greg and I procured splinting material from a ranger station and we headed back to San Diego a day early, thinking Steve might not be able to go to Baja with us. Somehow, my exemplary medical care effected the desired miracle cure and we were off to Baja.
As always, we spent the end of February attending the always outstanding Sedona International Film Festival. This was our first year as narrative film reviewers and we rewarded ourselves by upgrading to Platinum Passes, a difficult to reverse trend (analogous to getting a taste of flying first class, it’s hard to go back to coach).
We must be getting older, as somehow most trips to NYC, besides the usual rounds of theatre, catching up with friends and family, walks in Central Park, trying new foods and exploring restaurants, now usually include an outing with Birding Bob. Birds were a great solace to us during the pandemic. Theatrical highlights were Love at the Park Armory, the Life of Pi and The Wanderers. Particularly enjoyable museum shows were Ronald Lauder’s personal collection at Neue Gallery and a mid-career survey of Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu, beautifully spanning multiple floors of the New Museum.
Two glorious weeks in Iceland dominated this month.
Steve, Greg and I, after surviving a post-pandemic return to cold water diving in 2022 with a trip to God’s Pocket in British Columbia with Alex Mustard, decided to make more use of our refurbished drysuits and skills by diving in colder water still by signing up for Alex’ Silfra focused Iceland trip. Somehow, Steve and I had managed on two prior trips to Iceland to avoid the temptations of diving in 2 degree C (36 degrees F) water, despite the lure of being in a canyon rift between two continents. The three of us added on a week before the workshop, hiring Arctic Adventures point person, Byron Conroy, to organize a landscape photography excursion. We had a blast with Byron, talking everything from food to photography. He is an experienced ice diver and learning of his exploits reassured us we were in good hands for the Silfra workshop to follow. Between the two weeks, we did a very fun walking food tour of Reykjavik. Although my hands disagree, most of me ended up really enjoying diving in Silfra. In some ways, the diving and photography there is easy; in other ways, it’s very challenging. On the easy side of the ledger: gentle, one way current, amazing visibility, no need to self- navigate as one dives with a guide and there are fixed entry and exit points. On the tough side of the accounting: mind-numbing cold, trickier than usual drysuit buoyancy control since the dive is shallow (best light above 30 feet) and inability to stabilize anywhere (the slightest touch of a rock set off an avalanche of algae which sullied the otherwise crystal clear glacial water).
We decompressed from Iceland with a few day stopover in NYC, where we caught the gasp-inducing tour de force of a performance of Jodie Comer as an attorney dealing with sexual misconduct both professionally and personally in Prima Facie. She won a Tony award for this performance a few months later, to add to the Olivier she previously won for this role in London’s West End.
On our Sedona getaway this month, we searched for Sedona landmarks which are, in the Instagram age, no longer local’s secrets. We’ve been going to Sedona regularly for years and relying mostly on guidebooks, thought we had thoroughly explored the trail network, but it turned out there were more treasures to be unearthed.
We also mountain biked up in Flagstaff, working our way through Flag’s extensive network of trails, including Bow and Arrow trail (parked on JW Powell and Lone Tree) to the Arizona trail, tracing Marshall Lake and taking Little Canyon back, with an out and back spur on the Sinclair Wash trail. We also skidded over small amounts of residual snow riding at Snowbowl, tracing portions of the Aspen Nature Loop trail and the Arizona Trail leading to Bismarck Lake trail. On the drive down the mountain, we saw a distinctive silhouette on the pavement and found this guy:
Despite the unfortunate coda which prolonged our one prior Cuba trip in 2015, we had enjoyed the diving enough to want to return, which we finally did this month, with Greg, on a trip organized by Tanya Burnett on the Jardines Avalon III. The diving was again terrific, with many sharks patrolling a robust reef, with healthy corals and sponges. The photography was challenging, with milky water. This time we flew into Camaguey, where a single afternoon of street photography was quite productive.
Having all of our warm water SCUBA gear still mostly gathered up from having been in Cuba so recently definitely took the pressure off of packing for our end of July 2-week Fiji dive trip.
The last week of July was the coldest yet of an unusually cool summer. Despite having been to Fiji before, somehow one always is surprised that tropical locales have winter and in the tropics, that can mean abundant rain, clouds and wind, all of which we experienced at Waidroka, a land-based dive resort near Pacific Harbour on the southwest coast of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. Although the south coast is called the Coral Coast, it was but a preview of the following week’s splendors in the Bligh Waters and beyond on the Nai’a, plying the seas between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The best southern coast dive site, with stunning hard corals, was the furthest away, a cold and long, one hour+ trip by boat to a rarely dived atoll called Cakau Lekaleka. We were the first group the Waidroka divemasters (Ciara and Gary from Ireland, and Debz and Rod from South Africa) took to this pristine site. We all thoroughly enjoyed our 3-tank sampling, despite the long boat rides and the penetrating cold, without any relief from sun on our surface intervals. Another highlight of this segment of the trip was river rafting the upper Navua River with Rivers Fiji, which took us through steep stone canyon walls and verdant lush jungle. Weirdly, both Steve and I sustained potentially trip-ending flesh wounds on the journey, me slipping while disembarking from the raft for the lunch stop, gashing my shin on a rock, while Steve returned home with a mysterious itchy hard spot on his chin, which over the next day blew up to scary proportions. This led us to seek a medical consultation with Dr. Mili in Pacific Harbour, who prescribed antibiotics, to which Steve’s unilateral mump-like swelling and redness responded.
The diving was even more amazing off the Nai’a, plying the Bligh Waters north of Viti Levu, where the designation of Fiji as the Soft Coral Capital of the World makes sense. Some dive sites were thronged with anthias.
The rest of August was rounded out by attending La Jolla Music Society Summerfest concerts, celebrating Wren and Henry’s wedding at the end of the month and jetting off to NYC for theatre (Here Lies Love, Kimberly Akimbo, The Shark is Broken, Sweeney Todd and Uncle Vanya) and culture (visiting the Louis Armstrong House and Museum with our friend Les). My favorite of the theatrical offerings was Here Lies Love, for its high energy disco setting, with video projections and action on multiple catwalks, with Imelda singing Why Don’t You Love Me? right next to me. Jaygee Macapugay was so captivating as Imelda that I didn’t even realize she is the alternate for the lead role until I read the program the following morning. Jose Llana was excellent as Marcos, at turns charming and seductive, at others smarmy and menacing. Conrad Ricamora, clad in a symbolic white suit, as Nimoy Aquino, plays the senator who was Imelda’s first love and later the Marcos’ primary threat as leader of the opposition. I had been listening to and loving the music, which began as a concept album by David Byrne in collaboration with DJ Fatboy Slim. I had tried back in 2014 to get tickets to the National Theatre production in London, but it was sold out.
Steve’s favorite of the theatrical productions we attended was The Shark is Broken, written by Ian Shaw and Joseph Nixon. It is based on the behind the scenes drama between the three main actors in Jaws, who had a lot of together time at sea during the filming, as Bruce, one of several mechanical sharks, repeatedly malfunctioned. Ian Shaw visited the set as a young boy, when his father Robert Shaw was struggling with alcoholism as well as playing the role of Quint, the obsessed grizzled shark hunter. In addition to writing the play, he portrays his father, an ascerbically witty English actor. Alex Brightman was hilarious as the histrionic Richard Dreyfuss, who played the marine biologist Hooper. Colin Donnell channeled Roy Scheider (who played police chief Martin Brody in the original film) perfectly, a voice of reason between his warring co-stars.
We both enjoyed Kimberly Akimbo, a smaller budget musical which won the coveted Best New Musical Tony earlier this year. It also won for Best Book (David Lindsay-Abaire), as well as Best Score (music Jeanine Tesori , David Lindsay-Abaire lyrics). Kimberly is a teenager with a rare disease (akin to progeria) in which she ages prematurely. Victoria Clark earned her Tony award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for this role, perfectly threading the line of a teenager at heart in a rapidly aging body and shortened life span. Bonnie Milligan, playing Aunt Debra, a bad influence and determined criminal, to hilarious effect, richly deserved her Tony award for Best Actress in a Featured Role. Kimberly’s parents were comically horrible, wonderfully played by Steven Boyer and Alli Mauzey. Young Justin Cooley was adorable as Seth, who befriends Kimberly when she is the new kid at high school.
A cinematic highlight of this trip was catching the opening film of Lincoln Center’s Golden Age of Korean Cinema (1960s) festival, featuring Aimless Bullet (1961, Yu Hyun-Mok), a film whose depiction of a demoralized Seoul in the post-Korean War years was actually banned from being shown by the Korean government. The near capacity audience heard how the film was only saved from oblivion by a copy shown at a film festival in San Francisco in 1963 surviving. It was painstakingly restored in recent years.
We did a short road trip up to the Berkshires, centered around seeing the Munch: Trembling Earth exhibition at the Clark Art Institute in charming Williamstown, which Greg’s friend curated.
Steve managed to string together 8 days in Sedona, while I joined him a few days later. We had a new photographic tool, which we took up to Red Mountain, an ancient cindercone north of Flagstaff, to try out. We had converted my Fujifilm XT-4 to infrared.
We returned to Flagstaff multiple times during this stay, still exploring trails for mountain biking. At Fort Tuthill Park on the outskirts of town, we hopped onto a loop singletrack trail, not too technical, called Soldiers. It connected with FUTS (Flagstaff Urban Trail System) as another section of the Sinclair Wash trail, which we took as far as Walmart . The ride was mostly through forest, cool and shaded. On another trail new to us, we logged 12.8 miles out and back on the Rogers Lake connector trail. We intended to do the Gold Digger lollipop loop at the end but were discouraged by the rocky terrain. Much of the Rogers Lake connector was smooth and flowy, passing through forest and meadows with wildflowers still blooming. Another ride paralleled Walnut Canyon on a segment of the Arizona Trail. We had to work it though. The beginning was level, easy and promising, but before we could ride the real prize, a 4 mile flowing and fun singletrack, we first had to traverse a difficult set of stony switchbacks, hard even to walk.
Back home a week later, I miscalculated on our steep driveway as we headed out for a ride from home on our e-mountain bikes. In too high of a gear and pedaling too slowly to engage any pedal assistance, I realized halfway up the hill I wasn’t going to make it and put my foot down to bail. I got my foot down, but the weight of the bike and slope of the hill pushed me backwards onto the concrete. My left wrist slammed down onto the pavement. I called Steve, already up the hill, from the driveway, as it was obvious I couldn’t bear any weight on my wrist which was fractured. I sent him out on the ride while I iced the wrist and dug out the splint I had worn a few years ago to treat acute carpal tunnel symptoms on the other side brought on wrestling with my underwater camera while diving in Indonesia in 2020, just before the pandemic. We had theatre tickets at La Jolla Playhouse in the afternoon to see The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical, which brought to life the manic energy of the late gonzo journalist and writer. In college and medical school, I was quite taken with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Gabriel Ebert was highly entertaining as the irrepressible crusader, as was George Abud as his nemesis Richard Nixon.
At dinner at Doug and Mini’s afterwards, they fired up a portable ultrasound unit and took a look at my throbbing wrist. A hematoma was now clearly visible. They were quite confident I had a minimally displaced distal radial fracture and not a scaphoid fracture. I texted my primary Biraj to ask her to order an xray. We stopped into Green Urgent Care on the way home, hoping to bypass it and have my wrist radiographed but the prospect of an hour+ wait just to be taken back made us head home.
I continued with the icing and splinting the rest of the weekend, including while seeing the Old Globe’s spectacular and chilling production of Cabaret, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. The cast was superb, with Joanna A. Jones as British chanteuse Sally Bowles, willfully oblivious to a changing Germany. Lincoln Clauss was a superbly androgynous and enigmatic Emcee. The third major player in this triangle is Clifford Bradshaw (ably played by Alan Chandler), an American novelist who becomes involved with Sally.
I managed to quickly get the needed xray of my wrist on Monday morning by arriving at work early. It confirmed what the ultrasound predicted-a minimally displaced distal radial fracture. Two days later, I was seen in ortho and persuaded to be casted for 3 weeks. I was shut out from diving in Cabo Pulmo the following week. I did go and while Steve, Greg and Cindi dived in unusually warm green water with bull sharks and jacks, I screened films for the Sedona International Film Festival.
The town of Cabo Pulmo is tiny, with 40 or so inhabitants, but at least 6 restaurants and 6 dive operators. The streets are dirt. The housing stock seems to be large second homes like the one we stayed in, small cabanas for the backpacker set and modest, rundown campers and shacks. There are no power lines, with the entire enclave using solar panels for power. There also apparently is no crime, as we learned on our arrival to our colorful rental house, Casa Cabo Pulmo: “There are no keys.” I was amused to learn from the others that the house in which we stayed was known to the dive staff as “the air conditioned house”. If only that were true. The smaller, lower level bedrooms were equipped with mini-split units tied to the solar system, but house manager Junior warned us against using them all night, lest we find ourselves without power the next morning (the panels are recharged each day but there is no banking of power). Upstairs, where Steve and I slept, the “air conditioning” was the near constant sea breezes, aided by a ceiling fan. Fortunately, the breeze was almost always present during the sultry days. It seemed to die down in the early evenings, at which time the yearning for air conditioning became most acute.
My Cabo Pulmo days were organized around a morning walk before the worst of the sweltering heat. Back at the house, I struggling into my giant blue latex sleeve cast protector to shower off the streaming sweat. I took advantage of the mornings to review films for the Sedona International Film Festival (a string of terrific foreign films, including Leila’s Brothers, A Gaza Weekend, My Neighbor Adolf, Rose and Driving Madeleine).
The low point of an otherwise enjoyable week off was Thursday morning. Something I ingested the day before disagreed with my GI system emphatically. Nothing like running out of toilet paper during a bout with diarrhea! The only toilet paper I could locate was in the owner’s cabinet, a fresh roll of paper emblazoned with the unmistakable visage of the orange stain himself, Stump! Some satisfaction was derived from this necessity.
Having to dress and undress with one hand led me to wonder about the origins of the expression “Don’t get your panties in a twist!” I noticed when I was packing that all of my worn underwear was in a twizzle from having to be unrolled with only one hand.
For Steve, Greg and Cindi, diving surprises awaited. The water was exceptionally warm-88 degrees F! The visibility varied from terrible to 15-20 feet, making it easy to lose sight of each other. The term pea-soup came up repeatedly, not only for the turbidity but for the shades of green water they encountered. They were able to dive, repeatedly, with bull sharks. The swirling jacks were present, if less than optimally organized.
I had a taste of retirement this month, working only 2 days (Steve worked 4). The first half of the month was spent in NYC, where there was crisp fall weather, just delightful. A shadow that fell over this trip was lifted after 2 days of uncertainty as I awaited the results of a breast biopsy for an ultrasound question found on a screening sonogram I had a few days before leaving for New York. Rather than have the biopsy immediately after returning from New York, I was able through some adroit back-channel maneuvering to have my biopsy 2 days after the ultrasound and hours before boarding the plane to NYC. The 2 days I waited to hear from my partner who did the biopsy gave me a taste of a medicine I’m used to dispensing. When he called to say it was benign, a huge, potentially life-changing threat receded.
The second half of November was devoted to a blackwater photography workshop, again led by Alex Mustard. We were based at Crystal Blue Resort (CBR) in Anilao, Philippines, which proved to be an ideal place to gain a concentrated exposure to blackwater diving. We had been to Anilao once before, as it is known for outstanding macro and muck diving, but in more recent years, it has also become recognized for excellent blackwater diving. Much of this credit must go to Mike Bartick, part owner and photo pro at CBR. Mike is the author of an electronic book The World of Blackwater, one of the few resources available for this burgeoning field, which has revolutionized in the past decade the scientific study of larval forms of marine life. Unlike normal night dives, which take place over shallow reefs with flashlights, blackwater diving is conducted at night over deep, effectively bottomless, waters (hundreds of feet deep). A nightly upward migration of deep-dwelling plankton occurs naturally; this Diel Vertical Migration was described in 1817 by French naturalist Georges Cuvier. This biomass attracts predators and enables divers to see deep-dwelling and larval forms of life that are not easily seen without a submarine. Mike, with the aid of his dive guide team, worked out a system which they use successfully today to take teams of 4 divers with a guide. A “pumpkin” (a large orange lighted buoy) with a weighted attached line is set loose in the water. The line is punctuated with strong lights woven into the line every 20 feet or so. The divers follow the line, keeping it in visual range, while the boatmen follow the pumpkin. During this workshop, we did two blackwater dives each night, leaving at 7 pm after an early dinner, and doing two one hour dives, separated by an hour’s surface interval on the boat (huddled in towels and trying to warm up).
Blackwater diving seemed to me the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing outer space. The lights concentrate the plankton cloud, which is so thick it is like diving in a dense fog. I felt at times that I was lying down inside a cloud, wielding my narrow beam flashlight like a light saber, trying to cut through the soup to search out larger creatures to photograph. Back at the resort just before midnight, there was a Christmas type of anticipation to see what we had captured-to chimp and preview the results in the camera and leave the downloading until the morning or stay up even later and download? The surprises were amazing. Here are my personal favorites of what for me, was the photographic highlight of a very productive year:
We did dive during the day, of course. And we found much to love there, too: tiny frogfishes, miniature crabs in sea pen folds, anemonefish, even a peacock mantis shrimp with a clutch of red eggs!
It wasn’t all fun and games for us in 2023. We did work less and for the entire year, were on a retirement deceleration track, Steve working 50% and me working 60%. On the plane back to LAX from Manila, in the final hour, a call went out asking for medical assistance. Steve couldn’t find his mask. Back in coach, in the midst of a cast of seemingly dozens, an elderly man complained of chest pain and shortness of breath. He had known heart disease and had a large ziploc bag of medications for treatment of hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and angina. With the help of a plastic surgery PA (the only other medical professional to respond), we hooked him up to a pulse oximeter, a defibrillator/cardiac monitor and blood pressure cuff. His blood pressure was 220! We quickly assessed the wrist cuff on me to see if it was to be believed-it seemed to be correctly functioning. With the PA using his phone to translate the names of the medications we had available (some from adjacent passengers), we fed him metoprolol (a beta-blocker), nitroglycerine and and aspirin. When the defibrillator instructed us to “Begin CPR”, we could see he was breathing, so had to ignore its repeated instructions! Thankfully, he hung on and medics were waiting for him at LAX.
A few days later, back at work, Steve didn’t feel so good. Yes, after evading Covid for almost 4 years, it finally came calling for us. I say us because 2 days after Steve fell ill, I developed symptoms: runny nose, cough, chills and fever to 101 F. Steve gutted it out without medication, while I took a 5 day course of Paxlovid. After one horrible day of symptoms (Day 1 of Paxlovid), I felt remarkably better the following day, although not so wonderful days 3-5. I did improve, enough to work (masked, some days from home), but then 10 days after diagnosis, developed exactly the same presenting symptoms. I tested myself again-still instantly positive for Covid! I again worked from home and took one sick day off before finally recovering and testing negative, just in time for Crabby Christmas Eve, hosted by Ralph and Gail, with Janet and Scott, Ellen and David, Miles and Tatiana and Mishel and Ron. As always, the king crab dinner was delicious and the White Elephant exchange hilarious.
Christmas Day saw us at the movies, with Mama, Joe and James, seeing the newly opened George Clooney directed Boys in the Boat, based on a book Steve and I had loved, concerning the unlikely triumph of the University of Washington crew team at the 1936 Hitler Olympics in Berlin. Afterwards, on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, we dawdled over a nice lunch on the patio at the Rancho Bernardo Inn.
Although Covid tore a hole in our normal round of holiday parties, we ended the year celebrating at Miles’ and Tatiana’s, with Ellen and David and Julie and Victor, over a marvelous meal cooked by Tatiana (corn and pine nut soup, homemade butternut squash ravioli, stewed oxtail and chocolate cookie with ice cream). Before the New Year’s countdown and more champagne from Mile’s incredible collection, we screened Almodovar’s 2006 film Volver, a film with many themes, including perseverance.
2024 will be new territory for us, as retirement looms at the end of February, holding possibilities for more exploration and adventures. Here’s hoping our health holds!