Malta in the Rear View Mirror

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bcc6Pictured above are our friends Todd, Tania, some of their Maltese family and our new-found friends. They were very generous with their time and hospitality. We spent ten days in Malta, the longest we’ve stayed anywhere overseas other than our Scotland wedding trip. We chose to stay here that long in order to spend some quality time with Todd and Tania, who were visiting Tania’s Maltese family in Zurrieq. Ten days here seemed questionable at the time we booked, but in retrospect we’re glad we did. Thanks to Josette, Tania’s sister and wannabe/should be tour guide, we saw parts of Malta and Gozo that we would never have otherwise. It was great.

As we leave, here are some random observations about Malta and Valetta:

  • We knew it would be hot in both Sicily and Malta, and unfortunately we were right. Including our time in KY, twenty-one days of sweaty clothes isn’t something I care to repeat. Heat now bothers both of us more than when we were younger, and this was a stern test.

  • I’ve ridden more buses in the last ten days than in my entire life. The buses cover Malta like locusts – they’re everywhere. We rode the bus an average of about 2 hours each day. Cheap way to get around, but requires a lot of patience.

  • Maltese people are very generous and polite. Even driving the narrow twisty roads they willingly make room for each other.

  • The August/September religious feasts (festivals?) are unique and amazing. I’ve never see such civic pride. Everyone turns out, everyone celebrates for days. Our pictures of the Santa Caterina feast at Zurrieq show how fun and crazy it all is. Mardi Gras has nothing on these folks.

 

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  • It’s weirdly hard to find a good bottle of wine in Maltese restaurants – at least in the 10-12 restaurants we tried. It’s hard to explain in this part of the world. But Malta seems to be more of a beer culture than a wine one.

  • Stones and stone walls are my most memorable feature of Malta. They’re everywhere, walls upon walls, each defining a small plot of land. The amount of work required over the centuries to unearth and stack all those rocks is hard to imagine.

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  • Malta, Valetta in particular, is more beautiful at night. The city and major building lighting is dramatic. I hope you can see some of that in the pictures.

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  • In Valetta there’s music on every corner, every evening. Sometimes an orchestra, sometimes a solo artist, sometimes a band. It’s wonderful.

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  • If our Maltese friends are any indication, they LOVE the water. Makes sense with the heat and the beautiful beaches and coves. And swimming here is pretty easy – the extremely salty Mediterranean water floats you like a cork.

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All in all, we loved our time on Malta. I’ll add it to my list of favorite European destinations – I could easily see us return to Valetta for a 3-4 day visit in conjunction with a France or Spain trip.

8/26-8/30, Valetta, Malta

Much longer writeup and pictures coming (pictures are a much less convenient process with the Chromebook than the Mac), but the short story is that Malta is great. Valetta is beautiful and vibrant – imagine if Del Mar or La Jolla were 5000+ years old and included some huge stately walls and plazas. That’s Valetta. Clean, civilized and picturesque. More to come.

So far we’ve seen several cities in Malta – Valetta, Rabat, Mdina (not misspelled), and a UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_c0d7.jpglittle bit of Sliema. Valetta is far and away our favorite, but Mdina was pretty nice too. Mdina, a fortress city totally encased in the beautiful Maltese yellow limestone, reminded us a lot of the French city Carcassone.

Maltese traffic is quite a bit better (dense but much less crazy) than Sicilian, but I’m still glad I’m not driving. Lots of compound roundabouts and driving on the left thanks to Malta being under the influence of the British Empire for many years. We’ve bought a weekly bus pass, and the buses are OK. Pretty crowded and the passage of choice for lots of Maltese people.

Our big day trip on the 29th was an excursion to the island of Comino and the famous Blue Lagoon. The destination was nice but crowded, and it wasn’t even a weekend. The Lagoon itself would have been spectacular in a less crowded, more unspoiled context, but with crowds of tourists (I know, we’re guilty) and lots of them jostling for a spot on the rocks and dropping cigarette butts everywhere (not guilty on this count), it wasn’t the experience we had hoped for. If we ever did it again we’d hire a more private boat, get there faster and have some say in where we disembarked to swim.

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But after four days in Valetta we’re very happy with this part of our trip. There’s a lot to be said for getting settled into a place for a week or more, assuming the place is OK. And our boutique hotel, The Cumberland, is very comfortable. Might even be considered “posh”. Highly recommended.

8/22-24, Palermo, Sicily

Palermo has been a complete surprise. I was ready to be underwhelmed based on Palermo’s online reputation, but I was wrong. I like Palermo quite a bit. An incredibly rich history, beautiful hybrid Moorish and Norman architecture, surprisingly nice artwork and great stories about every place in the Old Town.

Admittedly, the bar was pretty low. Catania has few positives, so the generalization one does led to low expectations. But Palermo was relatively cleaner, relatively safer feeling and had a much stronger sense of history than Catania.

Our BnB was in an area that at first glance looked to be a huge mistake. But inside it was spotless, architecturally interesting and hosted by wonderful people. And it was central to everywhere we wanted to walk and visit.

We visited several palaces, cathedrals, piazzas, gardens and landmarks all in a 15 minute walking radius from our BnB. Pretty sweet. The car has stayed garaged the entire time, aka no stress.

One big surprise in Palermo is that truly good wine is hard to find. Most restaurants serve Nero D’Avola and Grillo (red and white Sicilian varietals) exclusively. Pretty much just chilled table wine. While we had a great bottle from an excellent wine list  in Catania, that restaurant seems to be the exception. We hope for better in Malta.

We took a bike tour of the Old Town that was a lot of fun. Learned a lot, saw a lot and got a tiny bit of exercise. Bikes are definitely a great way to get around these crazy streets. We’ve seen some electric bikes that are pretty cool.

The palace and cathedral tours were impressive. Palermo isn’t Florence, but it’s trending that direction. I was really impressed with the history of Palermo, all encoded in the buildings and museums. Turns out that all the Crusader movies we’ve all seen take place here in southern Italy and Sicily in particular. This was the most contested area of the war 500-year religious war between the Normans and the Arabs. We’ll have to watch some of those movies again with our newfound appreciation for Palermo in mind.

Tomorrow we travel back to Malta for the final leg of our Euro trip. We hope it will be relaxing, and there we meet up with our friends Todd and Tania.

Damning With Faint Praise

I’ve thought quite a bit about what to write about Catania, Sicily. Getting right to the point, we didn’t like it much and won’t be back. But rather than focusing on the negative, I’ll write about the high points of our three day stay in Catania.

First, all the service people we encountered were very polite and professional – the people working in restaurants, the B&B and even in the crazy car rental agency. It’s curious to see how different people are in professional settings from the everyday people driving cars and in the streets. There has to be some overlap, but…it was like two different populations. Go figure.

Another highlight of this part of our trip was a guided Jeep trip up the 11,000 foot high Mt. Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bb40Beautiful views, an interesting and very knowledgeable guide and some unique experiences like creeping through a lava tube. I now know a LOT more about vulcanology than before, and Mt. Etna is a great place to learn it. We had a great evening with our guide and a couple of nice folks from Holland.The featured image at the top of this post is of our guide standing on a lava flow. And on the left we have our intrepid crew standing in a caldera most of the way up the volcano.

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The final positive on our Catania stay was a spectacular restaurant, L’ Horloge, meaning The Clock in French. Simply superb food, great service and atmosphere and an excellent wine list. I selected a Mt. Etna-produced red, a 2010 Aglianico that was perfectly balanced and tasty. Add to that UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_be7c.jpgthe best caprese salad ever and some perfect risotto. We liked it so much we came back a second night for the caprese. We liked L’Horloge much more than the reviewers on Tripadvisor.

There were very few scenic views on our strolls around Catania. We took lots of photos but came away with very few worth sharing – it’s just not what I would call a “scenic” city. One nice scene was this shot of an alley filled with restaurants and decorated in an interesting way (oddly, we saw exactly the same scene/decoration in the NuLu area of Louisville. I’m guessing Catania was first.

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So that’s it for our first three days in Sicily. Palermo comes next. In closing I will say that driving in Sicily continues to be terrifying. Part of it may be that I’m just older than in previous European driving experiences, but I think that’s a minor factor. The streets, cars, cycles and drivers in Sicily are simply crazed. There are no rules other than aggression – it’s like one big Mad Max race. So we’ve changed our plans and will garage the car once we arrive in Palermo, using it only to get back to the airport. Live and learn, I suppose. Ciao.

 

A Hard Day’s Night

After 24 hours of travel (!!), we’re finally ensconced in our lovely (jury’s still out on that) hotel in Catania, Sicily. Our route was complicated and ultimately brutal. Louisville to Chicago Midway to Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt, Germany to Valetta, Malta to Catania, Sicily. Five trips through airport security and/or customs; three of them without TSA Pre. And the Europeans want every single electronic device out of the bag – cameras, pads, computers, phones, battery packs…and I’ve got multiples of all of them. I’ve finally found the hard downside of being a device hoarder.

Things were actually pretty good until we got to Catania. We felt like we were at the finish line, only a car rental and a 5 mile trip to the hotel ahead of us. After 22-ish travel hours, those two small tasks took us over 3 hours. The car rental was the worst I’ve ever seen. Avis’ systems were down in Catania, so everything was being done with much shouting, gesticulation and the approvals of a few managers who managed to be in the wrong place pretty much always. Two hours to rent a car.

And you’d think it wouldn’t take long to drive the five miles to our hotel. Turns out I’ve 110% underestimated the craziness of Sicilian roads. I tried to puzzle the route out with a paper map, but that was (a) dangerous and (b) futile. My big Plan B was to use the Nav system of the BMW 318 we had rented (a bright spot there) and just let it take us to the hotel, but we got to the rental car and found that its menu system was in Russian. Or Polish. Or something Cyrillic.

Twenty minutes later the Avis rep had successfully changed the menu system back to English. So we entered the address and followed the route.

In my wildest dreams I could not have gotten to the hotel without technology assistance. The car took us through some roads I couldn’t believe. I don’t have any pictures yet – photography is on a completely different level on the hierarchy of needs I’ve been on today – but suffice to say I’m not impressed with my first drives around Catania.

Making matters worse, K has not fared well on our marathon travel day. Migraine and stomach problems make for a miserable day on top of all the strenuous travel. So I feel terrible for her.

This may be the whiniest weblog post I’ve ever written. Sorry about that. Perhaps tomorrow with some sleep and a new outlook Sicily will look and feel better. But first impressions are a big deal, and this one was/is pretty bad. Ciao!

Update and footnote: I’ve broken a basic social media security rule with this post, letting readers know we’re away from home. Typically a terrible idea. But in this case (a) my readership is restricted to about four family members, (b) we have workers at the house every day (putting the final-final touches on the new fire suppression system) and (c) we have our Special Forces-trained and well-armed nephew staying at the place while we’re gone. So I’m not too worried about an opportunistic break-in.

The featured image at the top of this post is from where we should have stayed, in Taormina at the coast. Catania is/was nothing like this.

Best of Cabo

This post may take a while to get right, but it’ll be fun looking through all the years of photos and getting the best ones. We’ve been to Cabo almost every year for the last 16 years or so. For example, the photo above is from 2003 when we took Emily and her friend Amber with us. The picture was taken at Cabo Wabo, Sammi Hagar’s somewhat infamous bar.

The town itself has changed a lot but the core values of Cabo remains the same – the beautiful ocean and beaches, the great cuisine and the relaxing atmosphere (if you’re selective about where you stay). We’ve managed to snag a great oceanfront room for our annual stay – very private and walk right out onto the beach. Definitely something to look forward to.

So…look for new pictures on this post every day or two. It will take a while to sort through them.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a50.jpgThis picture, also taken in 2003, is one of my all-time favorites. It was taken with a Canon Powershot G2 with a 4 megapixel sensor. It’s taken from a sunset cruise (doh) and I got the sailboat just right. The coloring of the sky isn’t great, but…that’s the way it was. That’s another constant about Cabo – spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

This next picture is from 2005 and shows the beach where we stay even now. It’s also a great picture of my beautiful wife and traveling partner Kathryn. The camera was once again the venerable Canon G2.

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This next picture is one of our favorites. We both look as young and happy as we were. Still happy, but 20 years older. Time flies…

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This next pictures are more recent, from Feb 2018. We were on our annual panga-fishing expedition (a panga is a small boat, not a fish). In a panga you only go a mile or less UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a8fd.jpgoffshore, never out of sight of land. We typically catch mahi, yellowtail, roosterfish, dorado, etc. Everything we catch we eat, and we eat like kings for three days or so after a good outing.

Feb 13 was an auspicious day right from the start, as you can see in this stunning sunrise as we left the marina. On this day we hooked something quite unexpected – a sizable marlin. It took me 45 minutes to land him. This was by far the largest fish I’ve ever caught, and as I’m not inclined to go deep sea fishing it likely will remain my record.

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And true to form we had piles of fresh fish for the next few days. We gifted half the marlin to the boat captain, then we commissioned about 20 pounds to be smoked and UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_a90efrozen, and we kept about 6-7 pounds to eat fresh. We had heard that marlin wasn’t a great fish to eat, but that is 100% wrong. It was spectacular as sushi/sashimi, poached, fried – every way we tried it. So Mr. Marlin fed a lot of people.

YTAxgWc5R3W8n++53XMJNw_thumb_a14e.jpgFinal thoughts on this post – there are just too many great pictures and memories for a single blog post. So here’s one more picture from our Cabo adventures and I’ll plan to do a “Best of Cabo 2” sometime in the future. This is a spectacular sunset view from our condo with yours truly silhouetted in the frame. Definitely looking forward to getting back there next February.

Traveling to the Moon

Image above courtesy of NASA. Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University, published October 29, 2018. It’s a GIF of the Apollo 11 landing site moving from dusk till dawn.

I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Moon lately for a little project of mine. I thought I’d share some surprising and fun facts about it just in case you or someone you know gets a chance to travel there. (I know, extremely wishful thinking.)

  • The Moon is abnormally large for a planetary satellite. It’s larger than Pluto, for example. It’s 25% of the size of Earth, by far the largest percentage satellite in our solar system.
  • The Moon really does spin, but we only see one side of it because it’s spin rate is exactly the same as its rate of revolution around Earth. This is called tidal locking.
  • There is ice on the Moon. No one knows how much, but you can bet that when we do colonize the Moon it will be a precious resource.
  • Temperatures on the Moon are harsh. 260 degrees F in the sunlight and minus 280 degrees F in the shadow. This is exactly what Earth would be like without our nurturing atmosphere.
  • Having said that, there is actually oxygen on the Moon! The moon’s small mass and low gravity  prevents it from keeping hold of even a tenuously thin atmosphere. But oxygen needn’t exist only in gaseous form above the ground. It can also be entrained safely in certain kinds of rocks. Gather the rubble and either treat it with chemicals or blast it with heat, and you can free up unlimited quantities of oxygen both for breathing and for rocket fuel.
  • The side of the moon that perpetually faces Earth is known as the near side. The opposite or “back” side is the far side. Sometimes the far side is called the “dark side of the moon”, but this is inaccurate. When the moon is between the Earth and the sun, during the new moon phase, the back side of the moon is bathed in daylight.

One more fun thought. In my eleven years working for a certain energy company in San Diego I traveled approximately 200,000 miles on my daily drives. Not quite enough to get to the Moon (240,000 miles away), but pretty impressive nonetheless.

On Retirement

I recently passed the first anniversary of my last day at a full-time job. So it’s been a year “livin’ the dream”, as I’ve heard it described. While it’s not strictly related to our traveling life, it’s worth noting and ruminating upon.

Sidebar: I love that word, “ruminate”. It’s one of those words that sounds and feels exactly like its definition. Though use of such words leaves one open to this criticism – “I hate it when people use big words just to make themselves sound perspicacious.”

But back to the topic at hand. Retirement. The first three months were difficult for me and by association for K. My moods and emotions took huge swings, from giddy to panicked. It was a weird time.

The second three months were tough due to extenuating circumstances. We lost two dogs in a short period which affected us both deeply. We flirted with depression and were both angry about the cosmic injustice of it all.

The second half of my retirement year things began to take a turn for the better. We decided to shake ourselves out of our negativity by traveling. In short order we went to Hawaii, Kentucky (twice), the Borrego desert, the San Bernadino mountains, Malibu and Alaska. During this flurry of travel K bought her mobile she-shed, the retro camper. And a new Jeep to tow it.

That six months of frenetic travel seems to have worked. One year after my last day “at work” I’m as happy as I’ve ever been and I believe K is also. We’re both now used to being together a LOT, after years of only seeing each other in the evenings and weekends. We’re both writing – me for the first time, and her picking up where she left X30T3458.JPGoff a few months ago. And I’m actually crazy busy, with board-member work for two organizations, a tiny bit of consulting, taking care of our long-neglected property, traveling and just deciding every day what I want to do. I am, as they say, taking time to smell the roses.

My goal for the next year of “livin’ the dream” is to avoid last year’s roller coaster. Still travel but less intensely. Lose some weight (the eternal goal) and get a little healthier. Finish a novel. Spend even more time with family. Have a great olive harvest.

In short, take the time to do the things that make us happy. That sounds doable.

(Credit to my great friend Chris for the setting on the sunset photo at top of this post. The view from his kitchen is pretty amazing.)

Early Thoughts on the New Camera

I’ve had the Fuji X-T30 for a couple of weeks now and have taken it on a short trip. Here are some early impressions of it. (All shots in this post are with the X-T30. Doh.)

  • It is a great travel camera. Small and light, though perhaps too small for my meathook hands.
  • Its images are as sharp as I had hoped. Here’s a portrait of a friend taken at a local brewpub.

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  • It’s complicated! I still can’t quite figure out some of the shot settings, and there’s so much information in the displays that it’s easy to shoot in a mode you didn’t want. I bought the camera because it was more of a traditional photographer’s architecture, as opposed to auto-processed all the time. But the menu complexity is going to take some getting used to.
  • As a result of the previous item I may shoot a lot in full manual mode. That’s how I learned photography and it’s still natural.
  • I bought a 35mm XF-series prime lens (the best) and a 50-230mm XC-series (lower quality build) zoom lens. The prime is great for walking around and portraits; the zoom is my favorite for everything else. I love being able to frame a photo with a quality zoom.

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All in all I think the X-T30 is/was a good choice to restart my photography hobby. It will get a big workout in our upcoming Louisville and Europe trips.

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7/20 and 7/21, Oakmont PA

Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to play some really great golf courses. Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, Spanish Bay, Carnoustie (!), Nairn, The Kittocks at St. Andrews, Ojai Valley, Aviara, Pelican Hill…just to name a few. Last weekend I got the chance to add the venerable Oakmont Country Club to my list.

Oakmont is a world away from my normal west coast haunts. “Traditional” would be an understatement for the club’s culture. It was quirky, formal, historic and genuine –

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everything you might imagine from a club rooted in the early 20th century. Our hosts Mr. Fitzgerald and his brother (no relation to F. Scott, to my knowledge) were lifelong 3rd generation members there and made us feel welcomed. We had a group of eight players staying on the premises and playing a couple of rounds, including my longtime friend Tracy.

The course was another matter entirely. Oakmont has a reputation as one of the most difficult courses in America, and we happened to play it during an historic heat wave. On the first day in particular I was a little disappointed because I was competing against the heat rather than the course. As you get more and more stressed by the heat you start to make little mental mistakes, not helpful in golf. It was hard to just enjoy being there.

The round on the second day was just as hot for the first nine but the weather relented a tiny bit as a storm front blew in. We finished (survived) our second round at Oakmont weary, drenched and more than ever respectful of the conditions pro golfers play in each week. Every course they play is tricked up to its max difficulty, and they do in fact play through some heat waves. At some point it’s more work than fun – that’s why they call them pros.

Aside from the heat the course was as advertised. Beautiful, tough and a true test of golf. It has about 200 sand bunkers and our group found many of them. And the greens – I’ve never played such slick and unforgiving greens. Even when I hit a green in regulation, par was not a given. Or bogey.

All in all, it was a strange weekend, quite memorable and at times miserable. Memorable for the glimpse at how the other half lives, for the experience of staying in an historic place and for the humility a course like Oakmont hands you. Miserable for the extreme weather. I find that I’m less and less tolerant of hot weather, and this was some of the hottest I’ve ever been in.

7-18-19, Louisville Stories

Thursday in Louisville was another hot, humid day. I occupied myself with a few errands via air conditioned cars and visiting with Hudson and the family in the cool indoors. Perhaps I’ve gotten soft after all these years in temperate San Diego, or perhaps this heat wave is truly epic.

It was great to spend the time with Greg, Emily and Hudson. Also got a chance to see my brother Mike and Greg’s mom Joy, so we had a nice day of catching up and playing with

om2nP629RJm4vHeglSV9Rg_thumb_b8e6.jpg Hudson. Poor little guy doesn’t know his life will never be easier, as he has every adult within reach paying attention to him and making sure he’s safe and happy. And sending good thoughts his way constantly. Sorry buddy, but it’s mostly downhill from there.

My big story for the day was that I had to take the rental car out for a run (battery died, lights must have been left on, jump started it myself) and decided to look for a camera store – I wanted a small/cheap camera bag for the new rig. A quick search showed me Chuck Rubin Photographics just around the corner. I stopped in and ended up with a memorable story.

Walking in it was clear that this store had been there a while. It’s right across from The Holy Grale and its entrance was cluttered with hundreds (thousands?) of used cameras, lenses, bags, filters…you name it. This is the store lost gear goes to retire.

I ventured further in and was stopped in my tracks. There, sitting right in front of me discussing something animatedly, was ZZ Top. Or at least dead ringers for them. Three old dudes with dusty clothes and massively long beards. Smiling and friendly (thankfully), but…it was all I could do not to gawk. I fervently wish I had the presence of mind to take a picture, but I was gobstruck.

Anyway, I perused all the gear and settled on a nice small bag. I asked Billy Gibbons how much, and he laughed. He tossed the bag to Dusty and Frank, who opined for a bit but then said “Twelve bucks. He seems like a nice guy.”

I didn’t even consider negotiating, pulled out a twenty and paid Billy. I smiled all the way out. These guys obviously loved just hanging out in the camera shop and talking. Sweet.

My next trip I’ll go back to Chuck Rubin’s and hope the gang is there. And I’ll take my camera.

That’s the most interesting thing that happened during my short visit to our Louisville family. Meanwhile, I have a long layover in BWI waiting for my flight to Pittsburgh. Fortunately I found a solid brewpub only steps from the departure gate. Good food, a decent glass of wine and TV showing The Open. Could be worse…

One last story. A Kentucky guy is leading The Open – go JB Holmes! Little known fact about JB. He played on his high school golf team for ten years! And no, not because he was held back – he’s a bright person – but because he made the high school varsity golf team in the third grade. That’s got to be a record – ten consecutive years lettering in a HS sport. He’s definitely my pick to win The Open now. Hometown boy made good.

7-17-19, Louisville

Fitting in a quick trip to Louisville on my way to Oakmont (!). Several different things about this trip:

  1. Heading to the Midwest in the midst of a huge heat wave.
  2. Going to Em and Greg’s new house for the first time. That’ll seem weird.
  3. First time traveling with the new camera.

First, Oakmont. It’s reputed to be the hardest course in America and most every review of it says it will defeat and discourage you. So why would I travel there to play? First, because it’s also one of the premier golf course in America, perhaps the world. LOTS of golf history there. Second, because being defeated and discouraged by a golf course is nothing new to me. Unlike zero handicaps I’m routinely humbled by a course, even your basic public track. So how bad can it be? Famous last words…

I’m going with my good friend Tracy and we’re playing as the guest of one of his clients/partners who is a third generation Oakmont member. We’re staying at the course in a caddy bunkhouse, that in itself a rare opportunity. It should be a memorable experience.

Em and Greg’s new house has turned out to be beautiful. They’ve managed to make it look finished and professionally decorated in only a week or two. I’m impressed. One view of the kitchen below.

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And of course the other big reason to swing by Louisville is this guy in his new pool. Hudson is growing up fast, and I’m happy to be able to spend a little time with him. We’ll also be back here in a month for his second birthday.

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Finally, the heat wave. Even though I’m less sensitive to the heat than K, it’s hot. Really hot and humid.

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Credit to The Weather Channel for the screen shot. Today (Thursday) we’ll stay hunkered down in the new house’s excellent air conditioning and visit.