Dateline: July 10, 2013 – Keflavik, Iceland
I had been putting this day off for 50 years, but as Dr. Seuss said “It came. It came just the same.” For this day – Wednesday, July 10, 2013 – was my 50th birthday. Age 50. Middle age. When the doctor starts paying a lot of attention to tests, and the tests get more and more awkward. (You’ll understand when you have your first colonoscopy; my only advice is to stay very close to the bathroom once you drink that gallon of prep solution.) This is when hemorrhoids aren’t something that happens to other people. When men stop getting phone numbers and start getting restraining orders. When AARP mailers start showing up. When those gag gifts like adult diapers stop getting responses like “Very funny, you idiot” and start getting responses like “Wrong size. Is the receipt in the box?”
If only they came in bikini briefs.
For the more philosophical among us, this might be a day of reflection and remembrance, but hey, it’s me. I’m not all that philosophical, and I’m only spiritual when the Red Wings are deep in the playoffs. But still, there is something gigantic about turning 50 … something that makes you question if something is going to suddenly change. Things that are OK when you are 40 might suddenly turn not OK when you are 50, and I was determined that this wouldn’t happen to me.
So I lay awake that night, looking out into the 3am twilight that is summer in Iceland, and I talked to Marta. Eventually, she woke up. The very first thing she said, after the obligatory “It’s 3am, you idiot,” was “Fine – what are the six most important things in your life? Write them down quietly and we can discuss it in the morning.” I blabbered on, outlining a mid-life crisis right there in the middle of the night. Finally, she got up, and with semi-convincing compassion, said “You’re a little old for this.” Ouch. We started the list. To save an awkward moment, she correctly placed herself first. “I’m putting up with this, so you can put me down as committed.” So that’s one down. The other five things we came up with, in no particular order – fish species, my family, my friends, world records, and ice hockey. Would these all be the same? Could I still do the same stuff? Would I still wear the same underwear?
Whoever thought of this ad should be fired. How about “Guard your khakis?”
In what seemed like three hours but was really 180 minutes, morning came and I was off to Keflavik for one more go at the open Atlantic. I was hopeful that this last day would be nicer and I would finally get my shot at the barn door halibut – or a plaice, because as weird as this is, I would rather catch a plaice than a halibut just so Marta could stop giving me a hard time because she has already caught one. (Read that sad tale HERE.)
The July weather remained uncooperative. The Fish Gods don’t care if it’s your birthday. Not even if it’s a major birthday, like your 50th. The breeze had slacked off to a mere 20 knots, but the seas were tremendous from a week of heavy wind. It was a quiet effort, just me and the guide, not much talking, which is unusual for me, but a lot of holding on and nausea, which is normal for Iceland. We tried every reachable spot a halibut might haunt, and while there were none to be found, I did keep catching some tremendous cod, including my biggest ever.
Hallmark doesn’t have a birthday cod like this. A birthday COD! I crack myself up.
Despite the lack of species, it was still great fun, even if I had to concentrate very hard to retain my breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, Toggi brought me a cake. A real, homemade Icelandic cake, which was sort of like a cheesecake and had fresh blueberries all over it and I ate the whole thing in five minutes. What a nice people – I was reminded of another touching birthday gift in Germany four years ago. (Details HERE.)
Late in the day, the Fish Gods gave a faint nod to my big day. By this stage of the trip, I had caught at least 100 Atlantic dabs, but I still checked every flatfish carefully, hoping not to see the telltale curved lateral line and rough upper surface. Each new fish might, just might, be a juvenile halibut. And late in the afternoon, well after we should have been back at the dock, I pulled up one that looked different. I looked closer – it had a straight lateral line. It had to be something new, and it was. In a cruel irony, it was an American plaice – a type of plaice, but not the one Marta got in Norway. I had gotten my first species as a 50 year-old – about 13 hours into the day. The second pillar was there.
The American plaice. Not the European plaice, which is far more sophisticated but can’t win a war without help.
As I got back to the house, my sister, my Uncle Ted, and the Arosteguis called and wished me a happy birthday. They are pretty much my family, at least until Laura’s kids are old enough to buy me a decent birthday present. But I also thought about all the family that wasn’t there any more. My Mom, who would have been leading the charge to give me a hard time about being 50, had been gone for two years. I miss her.
Marta and I had a lovely dinner in Reykjavik. We found ourselves reflecting, but we also found ourselves planning what we were going to do for the next 50 years. I have so much I haven’t accomplished yet – 2000 species, 100 world records, 100 countries, 50 states, and most of the royal slams. Of course, Marta and I also have a bucket list of trips that aren’t quite as fishing-oriented. (Her destinations always seem to involve climbing up hills.) So if she puts up with all this AND paid for dinner, that’s pretty good. She’s a keeper, as they say, and also as they say, I have outkicked my coverage.
Three travel-filled days later found us back in San Francisco, where Marta had arranged what I thought would be a quiet dinner with a few friends to mark the occasion. She sold me out. What happened was a celebrity roast, with a few dozen friends, in the best tradition of Dean Martin. With an open bar and encouragement to abuse me, this was a recipe for disaster. The presentations ranged in hilarity (Thor Grossen,) good taste (Kelly Porter,) and coherence (Spellman.) Everything that came up, including Kerr’s lunch, was truly from the heart or somewhere nearby. I am blessed with a tremendous group of friends, and a girlfriend, lovely and intelligent, patient and forgiving … who stuck me with the check. So the friends were there, and they will likely be there for life, or I will release the rest of the photographs from the party. Jeff, you know the one I’m talking about.
Kelly Porter, who designed and produced my birthday helmet. For the record, I did not have a head injury during the party, so it must have worked.
On the left is Chris, quite a fisherman in his own right, Jeff Kerr, (the second best center on my hockey team,) Jeff’s Wife Sharon (details HERE,) and Sandra. Sandra has evil powers.
Lee Sullivan, fellow war history buff, tries to think of something nice to say.
Martini tries to think of something nice to say.
Lee tries to keep Heather awake during Spellman’s speech. No one was sure what he was getting at, but we love him just the same.
Two very old friends from my days at Macromedia. On the left, Scott Perry, occasional fishing buddy and all-around good guy. On the right, Len Vernon, great friend and my boss at Macromedia. He used to say “Wozniak is a hell of a creative writer. Did you see his expense reports?”
Joy, one of our dearest friends, who keeps asking us to take her fishing.
The group. Marta, at far left, is smiling fiendishly because she just handed the waiter MY American Express card.
So I had a species, some friends, a family, and a partner after turning 50. What about world records? And what about ice hockey?
Oddly enough, there is a possible world record about an hour from my house. In my old college stomping grounds near UC Davis, Putah Creek has Sacramento suckers, and this is another underrepresented species that no one had turned in to the IGFA. The problem – catching them. When I was in college, they were easy. Put a worm on the bottom. Wait briefly. But now, 30 years later, they have turned into some kind of super-spooky ghost that make permit look positively reckless. I had been going up there at least twice a week all summer, and had yet to get one over that magic one pound mark. But I could see them there, every damn time, and I just knew I could get one.
I decided to give it a try on Tuesday the 16th. Since they only seem to bite in the 38 seconds before dark, this was something I could do after work. Grab a quick dinner, then wait out the rush hour traffic on the way up to Davis and a favorite spot I have been fishing since 1984. I parked where I have parked for 30 years, walked the same half mile along the creek, and set up to wait for sunset. For it is only at sunset that the suckers, for about five minutes, materialize out of nowhere and begin running up a shallow riffle, leaving an unmistakable v-shaped wake as they ignore every possible bait and go someplace else that I can never find.
Finally. There may be one born every minute, but there is one caught every 10 years.
None of this would have been possible without the assistance of Teejay O’Rear, Lab Manager at UC Davis, who gave us incredibly detailed advice on where to catch the suckers.
A quick review at home revealed that this would be my 85th world record. 100 gets you a lifetime achievement award – a little piece of immortality in the IGFA books. It hit me that records were getting awfully hard to come by. Awfully hard. But this was something I have been determined to do since my first record in 2006. I decided then and there I needed to finish out the 100 within a year. I had no idea how I was going to do this, but I wanted that trophy in the worst way.
All that remained was to get on the ice and score a goal. Eight days after my birthday, I laced up the skates for my first hockey game as a 50 year-old. I had been on the old side of my team for years, and while 40 seemed like a difficult thing, suiting up as a 50 year-old was a little intimidating. Was this finally going to be the year to hang it up? Could I still score despite my advanced age? (Not a word from you, Marta.)
The answer came on my second shift of the evening, courtesy of a talented teammate named Conan Fong. I was parked in the low slot, like I have been since I was a Squirt playing for Barnard Electric in Royal Oak, Michigan. It’s one of my few remaining skills – it’s difficult to move me. (Note from Marta – It’s true. Just try to get him off the couch.) Conan made a nice play to keep the puck in the zone, skated down the right side of the ice and cut toward the net. The defenseman covering me inexplicably fell down, perhaps because I cross-checked him in the kidneys, and Conan slid a crossing pass to me. This is the play we practice from the time we learn to skate. It was a carbon copy of the first goal I ever scored, and thankfully, I didn’t miss.
Conan the defenseman. No relation to Conan the Barbarian. Or Conan the Librarian, who worked at my junior high school.
I had a goal as a 50 year-old, so I was good for another decade. Everything was in order, and I could stop waking Marta up at 3am.
In bed that night – I never sleep that well on hockey nights – I played it over and over in my head. As satisfied as I was with the game, I also knew I wouldn’t be playing when I reach 60. This was something I had always thought I would do forever, and now it had a time limit. Everything does – you learn that around the time you turn 50. But whenever that last game would be, it wasn’t tonight, and that was all that mattered.
To quote the philosopher Toby Keith – “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”