The Big One that Did Not Get Away

Dad with 53-inch wahoo - IMG_3475 copy

A spectacular day off of Cozumel, Mexico, which must be the bluest place I’ve ever seen. The sky melts into the depths of the ocean, light bouncing off the pure white sands at the bottom, and reflecting back up into the sky as clouds. The blue is so big, so all-encompassing that it shocks and awes you, and makes you humble before the power of nature.

Or it could be Cerveza Brain.

My fondest memories of childhood are going fishing with Dad, surf fishing off the beaches of Southern California, back in the days when you could actually eat what you caught.

Dad taught me the meaning of fishing is not about catching fish but the time spent contemplating the true nature of life. Fishing is a metaphor for living your life in harmony with all beings. Well, that and catching lots of good eatin’ fish.

Dad always said he was a “meat” fisherman, not a “sport” fisherman.

So, taking my Dad, my wife (who is a closet fishing fanatic), and our son for a chartered fishing boat trip in Cozumel sounded like something that would validate my life choices, bringing together everyone I loved on a trip to remember. Maybe catch some good eatin’ fish.

Mom tends to get motion sickness so she elected to check out the local museum, and then sit at a cafe reading her book, gazing at life passing by in the bright Cozumel sun. Mom knows that sometimes you must let boys be boys.

The fishing started out great – as usual, our son hooked up first. Whizzzzzz, click, ugh, ugh, ugh, and, wow, that’s a green fish! The Dorado is a gorgeous fish, dazzling the eyes with greens and yellows that blaze in bright Mexican sun. Then, my wife landed a beauty, then me.

Dad, master fisherman and old man of the sea, wasn’t about to be skunked by his kid, daughter-in-law, or his grandkid!

Whizzz, click, oh yeah, ugh, ugh, ugh, oops! The wily Dorado must have slipped the hook because suddenly, nothing. No sound except the silence of monofilament sliding out of the water.

The Mexican deckhands are suddenly uncharacteristically quiet. Softly whispering, “que lastima” to each other, they look a little bummed.

Dad, master fisherman, explains, “that fish will tell the other fish to head for the hills. Fishing’s over for the day.” Dad is definitely bummed.

Me, ever the optimist, says to the captain and crew, “No problemo, los dudes. Nosotros continuamos los fishing para mucha grande pesces! Yee-haw!”

After the crew stops laughing from my broken Español, they re-set the gear and we start trolling. The first hour of trolling is what fishing is all about. The sun, the wind, the water, sunlight glimmering like thousands of fireflies doing la cucaracha after one too many tequilas.

An organism lower on the food chain than me shall not win the battle today!

We keep trolling.

I have a cerveza. My wife has dos cervezas. I have una mas cerveza. Mi wife has quatro mas cervezas tambien, just to be mucho humoroso.

Our son, used to this game of “who’s got Cerveza Brain,” has another coke and looks hopefully out on the water, as his parents take a siesta under the shade.

Suddenly, El Capitan is going muy loco, yelling something in Spanish that sounds like, “hey, el dumbo americano japoneso dude, wake up, el grande de grande pesce hook-up ahora!”

My Cerveza Brain is not quite functional yet so our son, cool kid that he is, is saying, “grandpa, you take it! now!”

Dad, having the chased away all the fish three hours ago, is doing a classic Nisei jap “enryo” thing and demurring shyly. Even Cerveza Brain recognizes this and thinks, “Dad, demure doesn’t work for you,” and finally conscious control returns and I yell, “dad, take it!”

Dad knows what to do. Pull, pull, pull, reel in, reel in, reel in.

But this is the fish of a lifetime.

Big. Heavy. Fast. Ready to kick ass.

After 20 minutes, Dad’s smile has faded and it’s become a battle of wills. I see drops of blood dripping from his fingers but neither he nor I mention it.

El Capitan knows his caca and is turning the boat away from the fish to keep the line taut. The deckhands are keeping a close watch on Dad, the fish, and the expensive equipment that might end up in the azure waters off Cozumel.

My wife, my son, and I are cheering Dad on, doing the “wave,” and sacrificing virgins to the gods of big-ass fish.

Suddenly, an incredible silver missile explodes out of the water! And then it’s gone. The line goes slack. Has Dad let the big one slip away? The deckhands are stunned into silence.

Dad, master fisherman and old man of the sea, smiles. He’s seen this one before. He waits.

Wham! The tip of the pole nosedives, the reel screeching, but Dad is ready. Leveraging decades of tossing lawnmowers into his old Ford pickup, Dad plants his feet, sets his back, and puts his whole body into it, and sneers with an evil grin, “who’s your padre now, el señor fish?”

The fish knows. This is the end. El ultimo finito.

The deckhand grabs the gaff, leans over, and throws out his back pulling up the biggest, brightest, bluest-striped fish I’ve ever seen. In fact, the biggest fish I’ve ever seen out of the water.

The 53-inch Wahoo, the biggest of the season, has conceded defeat to gracefully to Dad, Master Fisherman and The Old Man of the Sea.

The Wahoo’s spirit touches Dad’s for a moment, and the Wahoo goes off to join the other fish in that place where all fish swim happily in peace for eternity.

My wife and son are bouncing up and down, doing the banzai dance, “oh boy, we can eat sashimi until we burst!”

I don’t have the heart to tell them you don’t get to eat the big one because I want to have it mounted so Dad can put it on the wall at home.

Cerveza Brain is having a grand ol’ time handing out tips the size of the GDP of Mexico to El Capitan and crew. It’s obvious they’re having a ball, except for the one who threw out his back hauling the Wahoo on board. Clearly they get bragging rights, a commission from the agent for the company that mounts these things, and some extra cash to buy a Nintendo para los niños.

They feel so good in fact that they share the Dorado with us (traditionally the crew takes home the fish on a charter), so my wife and son did get to burst their bellies with freshly caught sashimi that night!

Having bought several kilos of local lobster tails as a backup (Dad taught me that too), nos familia had an incredible feast to celebrate the day that Dad caught the big one.

Even Mom had one tequila too many, hiked up her skirts, and danced the Mexican hat dance in honor of the “big one.” Little did she realize that “El Grande de Grande Pesces” would shortly grace her living room, staring down with cold glass eyes, stripes of Cozumel blue, and an enigmatic grin.

But I know she’ll put on her best smile and roll her eyes just a bit when Dad tells his story of The Big One That Did Not Get Away. For the millionth time.

Later that night, after everyone had gone to sleep, Cerveza Brain and me looked up at the night sky of Cozumel, sipped una mas tequila y lima, thanked the gods of fishing, and millions of shimmering stars joined us in quiet celebration of a day well spent, fishing with Dad.

# # #

(originally published June 7, 2008)


Kendall’s Big Day in the Fishing Sun

Kendall with trout

For many years, this image was a fixture on our refrigerator, as our son grew up from a second grader to high school graduate. Faded and stained, the print-out finally bit the dust in a clean-up one year. I rediscovered the original image on a floppy disk(!) and it triggered memories of another great day fishing with my son.

(originally published July 19, 2008)

“Hey Kendall, let’s go fishing at the keiryu and tsuribori place!”

“Yeah, Daddy, let’s go!”

Family vacation day in Tateshina, a mountainous area a few hours by car from Tokyo. Mimy’s relatives own a besso vacation home, and we’ve rented it for a weekend.

My job keeps me traveling constantly, an exciting life but not quite what I hoped for in terms of time with my family. So a weekend away in the mountains sounds like a great idea.

Just a walk away from the cabin, which is more of a house, is a tsuribori, the Japanese version of a trout farm, where you buy what you catch. The pond, of course, is filled with experienced old trout who’ve sort of figured out that the bait on the hook is something to ignore.

This place, though, has keiryu or stream-fishing. Kendall’s only in the second grade so this ought to be a fun way to spend the afternoon.

We get settled in on the banks of a stream. I spot a gentle-looking oji-san carrying a bucket upstream, then dumping out a half dozen fingerling trout.

Ah-so, very clever these Japanese.

Salmon eggs on hooks tied to string tied to a bamboo rod has to be the most primitive yet unfair gear you can use. This shouldn’t be too hard.

We’re just fooling around to start – tossing in the baited hook and hoping for the best.

My father’s image pops into my head.

“Fish like to hang out in the swirling pools, where currents kick up stuff to eat.”

When you look closely, you can actually see the fish hanging out.

“Hey, Kendall, put your hook in the water by the rock in front of you. A little to the left. Okay, there!”

Two seconds later, boom!, Kendall’s hooked a six-inch rainbow trout!

Yes, fish barbeque tonight!

“Wow, daddy, how do you catch fish?”

Life as a man begins, I think, when your son asks you how to catch a fish. I realize my father spent many hours taking us fishing to prepare me for this moment.

I explain the theory of trout behavior, lighting variance depending upon time of day, and how rushing water forms swirling currents beneath the rocks.

My son, the second grader, says, “huh?, I don’t understand, Daddy!”

Shifting gears, I say, “Look for the fish beneath the rocks where the water is swirling and stick your bait right in front of his nose!”

“Okay, Daddy.”

I’ve never felt prouder of my son, the fisherman, grandson of the old man of the sea, than when he spies a trout, plonks his hook right in front of the fish, and settles down to wait.

The trout, being somewhat limited in intelligence, gulps down the bait, hook, line, and sinker!

“Daddy, Daddy, I’ve got a fish!”

Kendall hauls a nice trout out of the water, grabs it, unhooks it, and puts it on the line with the other one.

By this time, other kids, bigger kids with their dads, are starting to wonder why this little kid is catching all the fish.

But me, proud father, I smile because I know my son had learned something today.

My son has discovered the meaning of fishing as a metaphor for life — fish where the fish are, make it easy for the fish to bite the hook, and slow yourself down to the pace of the fish.

The afternoon slips by as my son, my little dude, catches fish after fish.

Later that day, fresh trout gutted and cleaned, salted and ready to be barbequed, Kendall poses for a photo with Daddy’s newfangled digital camera.


In that moment, I captured my son growing up, the birth of a fisherman, and an image that reminded our family for many years of the day Kendall caught fish like his grandpa.

Fresh trout never tasted as good as it did that day.

And probably never will again.

Youth is Not Wasted on the Young


(originally published October 20, 2008)

George Bernard Shaw once famously said, “youth is wasted on the young” … which I always thought was a fabulously insightful piece of copy but now I have to disagree.

Last week, our 21-year-old son knelt down on one knee, offered a diamond ring, and asked his girl to marry him – in front of their friends, in the middle of campus on an otherwise mundane day of college life. And she accepted!

The parent in me immediately wanted to say things like, “you’re too young!” “get your career going first!” “did you get her pregnant?!”

And then I realized I’d heard the same things when I announced to the world that I intended to get married to the love of my life. I was 23 years old, a year out of university, and living on my own for the first time in my life, 6000 miles away from mom and dad.

That was 25 years ago … and I’m still in love with the same hot babe, still married, and still pondering what I’m supposed to “do” with my life.

Assuming the responsibilities of a parent, raising a child into adulthood, creating opportunities for your children to learn the skills, knowledge, and wisdom needed to “succeed” in the “real” world takes a huge amount of energy.

I now believe that “Youth” – in the sense of boundless energy, indefatigable optimism, and no fear – is a magical gift that people are blessed with at every stage in life. Whether they appreciate the gift or not is entirely a different matter.

Of course, Shaw was not just being literal … I think he was also pointing out that it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of cynicism in one’s middle age.

Middle age is that strange period in life when “young” people suddenly wake up to the fact they are not “young” any more. Those white hairs (or loss of hair), that squishy thing around the waist line, wrinkles, jowls, serious but not-quite-life-threatening illness and disease, reading glasses — and let’s be honest, guys, “erectile dysfunction” — boy, life really starts messing with your ego in your late 40s!

Hard-learned lessons about the harshness of life can make one cynical, bitter, and full of regret over lost opportunities, unrealized dreams, and unspoken hopes.

And, yet, as I watch my son, my little dude, follow his heart, and grow into the man he is destined to be, nurtured by the love of his life, I realize that “youth” is not wasted on him, it’s actually a gift for me.

Life is teaching me a lesson – if only I can open my heart, un-clog my brain, cast off my attachments, stop believing my own bullshit, and open my eyes to reality.

The cycle of karma is not about “re-incarnation,” it’s about “re-birth.”

As my son sets out on his own path in life, I am suddenly free to do anything I want to do with my life. I’m no longer bound by the need to “set a good example” … the need to “act like a responsible parent” … the need to have other people “validate” my life choices.

As Grandma Toku used to say to my mom, “nembutsu ga deru ka ne?,” which is hard to translate but it’s something like, “so, have you figured it out yet?” in the buddhist sense of awakening to, realization of, and appreciation for, the true nature of life.

The sands of time continue to slip away … my body is showing signs of decay whether I like it or not … as scary as it is, my death is inevitable … I realize the people I love the most won’t be here forever … and, our baby boy is all grown up!

I ask myself:

Have I achieved my purpose in life?

Have I lived my dreams?

Have I done the things I’ve always wanted to do?

Have I become the person I wanted to be?

Have I shared the joy of my life with other people?

This moment in my life is saying: it’s never too late to start anew, to be reborn, to redefine who I am and how I choose to live my life.

So, George Bernard Shaw, I love ya but youth is not wasted on the young … “youth” is wasted on people who don’t appreciate the gift, who don’t take advantage of the opportunities life gives us, who desperately pursue unworthy goals, thus corrupting their true purpose in life.

You can be as “youthful” as you choose to be – right up to the moment you die.

Youth is wasted on those who waste it!