Category Archives: Friends and Family

Ironman Cairns (Australia): Swim / Bike / Rain!

I was a little busy, so the photo credits here go to others (Stacy Humphries and the photo service FinisherPix).  


My Australian/Texan buddy, Scott Humphries, crossing the finish line at Ironman Cairns Australia, toting a Texas Lone Star flag.

One of my best friends is Australian.  You’d never know it, though.  He moved to Texas in his youth and has no hint of an accent.  Even so – and because of those Aussie roots — Scott had my and Shane Merz’s full proxy when it came time to select which Australian Ironman site we would do this year.  He picked Cairns, a small city on Australia’s northeast Queensland coast and a primary gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.  As race day approached and the weather forecasts continued to say “Rain” every day, the phrase “Who picked this?” became a regular refrain.


That’s me, crossing the same finish line – quite a bit later. At least the rain had let up a little by the time I finished!

If you read this blog regularly, you may remember that my friends and I have set a goal – a “quest” — to do an Ironman Triathlon (swim 2.4 miles; bike 112 miles; then run 26 miles) on every continentAustralia was our fourth, and fortunately there was less trauma (i.e., no hospitalization required) compared to our European leg.  Though Cairns had promised to be sunny and tropical, on race day Down Under there was never a moment that it was not raining.  The ocean swim was rough enough to make me a little seasick (and the Ironman ‘crowd’ was rough enough to give me a black eye in the first ten minutes of the swim).  But we all finished just fine; in fact, the other guys each had personal bests.


Me, Scott Humphries, and Shane Merz — minute before the swim start of Ironman Cairns Australia.

We’d debated for months exactly how to pronounce “Cairns.”  When you hear the local Aussies say it, the name sounds like those metal containers for soup (“cans”).  So arguably the “r” is silent – but not really.  They think they ARE prounouncing the “r.”  Australians describe a malt-based lager as “bee-uh” and an automobile as a “cah”, and in the same way, Cairns sounds like “Cans.”  But just as a visitor to Boston should not adopt an affected New England accent to discuss the clam “chow-dah” he ate in “Hah-vud” Square, neither should an American in Cairns pretend to pronounce the place “Cans” like the locals do.  So it’s Cairns – with an R.



Shane Merz — crossing the line to become a FIVE-time Ironman!


This is me — somewhere close to the end of the bike course.

Welcome to Capayque, Bolivia!

When I signed up to join (and photograph) an Oklahoma group that was providing healthcare in a tiny village high in the Bolivian Andes, I was not expecting the elaborate welcome we got in Capayque.


A local Capayque girl arrives at our welcome ceremony with a handmade flower wreath.

Last week I joined a group traveling to Capayque, Bolivia – a very primitive, isolated community in the mountains of northwestern Bolivia, about 15 miles (as the condor flies) from Lake Titicaca and a rough five-hour trip from La Paz.  The group’s mission was to provide much-needed medical care to Capayque’s residents and to set up a medical clinic in the community.

This will be the first of several posts about my trip to Capayque.  Much more later about the town, its people, the Stillwater Oklahoma Methodist church group, and the activities of the week.


Ray Kinnunen of Stillwater gets a ceremonial welcome in Capayque

Things got interesting immediately when we arrived in Capayque.  We were met by the entire school and much of the town – as well as the local bishop and several other local officials – for a welcoming ceremony.


As the pictures reflect, we got handmade wreaths of flowers (which grow, mostly wild, in the area), and were presented with traditional Bolivian panchos, scarves and hats.  We were told that the red panchos we received were symbols of community leaders (the “head panchos,” you might say).  The ceremonies concluded with a dance down the hillside to the new medical clinic this Methodist mission group has been building for the past two years.

After the bishop inaugurated the new clinic with a few sprinkles of water, we were treated to a ceremonial community meal – with local foods spread out on blankets for everyone to share (Corn, potatoes, and a potato-like plant called “oka” were the primary menu items).



Click here for more images from our Capayque welcome, even including one of me in my nifty red pancho.

It was a fun kickoff to a interesting and productive week.  Much more to come.


My aunt, Carolyn Williams — an R.N. and a 16-year veteran of the Bolivian medical mission team — was welcomed back to Capayque with a prestigious red pancho.

Back to Back! Lady Tigers State Champs Again!

Minutes after the Oklahoma 4A Girls Championship game, I got to hear my niece introduced as “State Champion Grace Parker” for the second year in a row.  Don’t let those pretty blue eyes fool you:  she’s a warrior out there.  The “Lady Tigers” had to win four games in eight days to be the first back-to-back champs since Oklahoma girls started playing five-on-five basketball.


Grace Parker with the Championship Trophy


If you want to see some disciplined, composed 17-year-old girls, head for Fort Gibson.  The Lady Tigers were down by as much as 16 late in the third quarter.  Moms and dads (and uncles) in the crowd were quietly starting to remind themselves that second place is still something to be proud of.  But the girls had different plans.


Oklahoma Class 4A Girls State Championships, State Fair Arena, just before the half as Fort Gibson trailed by 12.

They whittled the lead very gradually, but with about three minutes to play, Anadarko still had a 7-point lead and the ball.  In what one newspaper called the “key play of the comeback,” my niece, Grace steals the ball from one of the Anadarko star players, drives the length of the court, makes the layup and draws a foul for a three-point play that made it a four-point game with lots of time left.  Suddenly, they were back in the game.


A couple of minutes later, some great play by teammates Desiree Phipps and Savanah Gray had tied the game with about ten seconds left.  Grace’s lifelong best friend Allie Glover catches a pass just over the midcourt stripe, dribbles up a few steps, and launches a nothing-but-net 30-foot dagger that brought the house down and the gold hardware back to Fort Gibson for another year.  (That’s Allie smooching the trophy in the picture below).


Allie Glover, minutes after she sank a game-winning three point shot with four seconds to play in the State Championship

Fort Gibson has been to the finals 7 of the last 9 years; they’ve won three of the last four.  One tradition they’ve developed is that after a Championship win, the Seniors hop aboard the large bronze horse statue in front of the State Fair Arena.  That may have been an ominous sight for Fort Gibson’s competition:  the back-to-back defending State Champs had just one senior (Savanah Gray) on the team.  Grace and Allie and Des and Jaymie and Cheyenne and Susie will all be back next year.  Get ready for the Three-peat in March 2015.  I’ll be there.


Fort Gibson’s lone Senior Savannah Gray — a State Champ three of the past four years — celebrates with a gold ball and a bronze horse in front of the State Fair Arena

As always, I hope the rest of the team will forgive me for ‘focusing’ on my niece, Grace.  The team has plenty of stars and is loaded with great girls.  As I said last year, I hope each of them has an uncle just as proud of her as Grace’s.  In that vein, the picture at bottom may be my favorite from the whole trip.





New Orleans Mardis Gras 2014: Bon Temps*


Shane Merz tosses highly-coveted hot pink beads to the Mardis Gras crowd along St. Charles Street.

Riding a float in one of the big New Orleans Mardis Gras parades isn’t like you probably think.  Everybody seems to ask me the same question:  I’m sure I threw at least 2,000 strings of beads, cups, toys, or footballs (roughly one every five seconds for over three hours), and never saw a bared female breast.  That happens over on Bourbon Street – but not much on the parade route.

I did see lots of kids having great fun, usually with their friends, parents, grandmas or grandpas close behind.  People on ladders so they could see above the crowd.  Lots of college kids acting silly.  Groups on balconies in sportcoats and party dresses.  Lots of pretty young girls, and lots of not-especially-young-or-pretty girls.  Grown men and women jumping up and down, genuinely delighted to get even a fifty-cent trinket thrown at them from a masked man on a tacky float.  I’m sure a large percent had had a bit too much to drink, but happily it was hard to tell from my perch up on the top deck of Float #20.


One of my float neighbors, Houstonian Tommy Miles, ready for the Bacchus parade with beads organized atop our float

You don’t just sling beads at the blur of the crowd.  The vast majority of those 2,000 strings of beads I threw were aimed at a specific person with whom I’d made eye contact before making a targeted toss.  They break eye contact to catch the beads, then usually look back up with appreciation so we could jointly celebrate our successful connection with a mutual fist pump.  You’d have also been impressed with my bead-flinging accuracy – even underhanded, leaning over the rail atop a moving float, throwing gangly strings of varying weights, a majority went to the intended receiver.

Here’s a side note to you 20ish-year-old males out there:  If you stand near a little kid, a grandma or a pretty girl and jump to intercept beads being thrown to them, you’re an idiot (and something that starts like “dude” but rhymes with “swoosh-tag”) – and the gods of Mardis Gras karma will ensure that none of those pretty girls out there will ever even speak to you. 

 Another of the riders on my float – a guy from somewhere in central Louisiana who (initially) stood right next to me — had a different experience.  I didn’t learn much about him – he passed out about a quarter of the way into the parade.  This is not especially uncommon, so we just left him on the floor.  I didn’t drink anything but Diet Coke and a bottle of water (and fueled myself with a couple of mid-route Powerbars), and I’m very sure I had a lot more fun than he did.  Maybe I should have explained to him the hilariously ignored New Orleans Ordinance prohibiting drinking on the floats?

Most of the pictures here are from my day riding a float in the Bacchus parade.  You spend an hour or two organizing your “throws” (mostly bags of beads), then get your costume mid-day.  The masks are mandatory; you can literally be fined for not wearing one.  You also have to wear a harness underneath to clip yourself onto the float (for reasons perhaps made obvious by the prior paragraph).  Our float was assigned alligator costumes.  It takes a pretty strong sense of tradition to get a big group of straight Southern men into matching costumes with sequin sleeves and a crazy pink collar.


Bacchus parade riders, in costume, inside the Rock Bottom Lounge on Tchoupitoulas St.


The floats roll mid-afternoon to the staging area — a neighborhood right next to the Mississippi River with several tiny local bars that probably don’t see a lot of middle-class white guys any other week of the year.  Imagine 1500 or so grown rednecks dressed in those satiny, sequin pajama-like costumes converging on an urban neighborhood.  It takes another three hours or so to navigate the parade route through the Garden District , downtown along the edge of the French Quarter, and through the middle of the already-booming party in the Convention Center.  We arrived at the party after 11pm.  It’s a formal “gala”-type event where ladies must wear floor length gowns, but only half the men are in tuxedos and the other half are in those goofy costumes.  Styx played at midnight, and everybody headed to the casino around 3:30 a.m.  I saw more than one New Orleans sunrise on this trip, and I surely never got up early.



In 2012, I told the stories of how the Mardis Gras “krewes” put on the parades here, of how – even amidst the chaos – New Orleans can be as civilized as you choose it to be, and how you calculate the day and time of these Mardis Gras parades. This year I had higher hopes for my Mardis Gras photography, but much of that proved incompatible with the preference to spend most of my time hanging out with the couple of dozen friends that were in town for the festivities.  These won’t win any prizes, but hopefully they’ll at least give a good feel for what it’s like to see and to ride in a big Mardis Gras parade.  Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler*


*Of course “Mardis Gras” is a French term (“Fat Tuesday”) and its events are centered in the French Quarter; “Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler” is a popular Mardis Gras slogan, French for “Let the Good Times Roll.”  “Bon Temps”: good times.

SCUBA School! San Pedro, Belize


When I started planning this trip to Belize and mentioned that I’d try to get my SCUBA certification while I was here, pretty much every person I said this to responded, “What?  You don’t already have that?”  So I guess this was something I was supposed to do (or to have done already).


If you’ve ever been tempted to learn to SCUBA, let me endorse a plan.  I did the “written” part online (at home), then did the pool sessions in two afternoons in Houston.  Then I did my open water qualification dives in some of this hemisphere’s best SCUBA country — the reef just off Ambergris Cay, near San Pedro, Belize.  We covered the required skills, but 80% of the time, we were just swimming around enjoying the sights.  I got paired up with a group of fun Canadians who made their living building fancy vacation homes in zero degree weather.  They were happy to be in sunny Belize.


Yes, those are sharks.  We saw several — I’d been in the water about ten seconds when I saw my first one.  They’re harmless (to us) nurse sharks.  I liked the yellow turtle the most:  that thing was nearly three feet in diameter!  All in all some pretty amazing sights to be seen just 60 feet or so below the waves.  A big shout-out to my instructor, Gilbert, at Chuck & Robbie’s Dive Center in San Pedro.  (That’s me in the last picture in the grid — photo credit for that one goes to one or the other of my underwater Canadian buddies.)


Camera folks:  I used my “pocket” Canon S100, and bought Canon’s dedicated WP-DC43 underwater housing — which is not expensive at all relative to a DSLR housing.  It’s got at least a dozen buttons and knobs, so literally every menu and adjustment is available, down to 130 ft.  It worked great for my purposes.  As you can see, when you get deep, it gets very blue, so you MUST shoot in RAW and crank the white balance a ton (add lots of yellow and a ton of magenta!).  Get super-close.