17 Oak Road

I have several “volunteer” oak trees, trees that grew from acorns into maturity.  One in the back garden is now fifty feet high, shading the bathroom. It has been growing for more than thirty years.  Another is smaller, about fifteen feet, and I am hoping it, too, will grow to be large, shade the patio.  In the front is another volunteer tree, partially shaded by a big oak and it struggles.  I had two young trees in the back garden that were poorly placed, threatening another oak that is growing tall, and I cut them down, feeling virtuous that at eighty-five I can still do that.  If a California live oak  reaches 18 inches in circumference, it cannot be cut down unless there is a permit granted.  These trees were fifteen inches in circumference, so they could be cut up and disposed in the green cans that the garbage company provides.  We lost two big oak trees to Sudden Oak Death four years ago, trees that were more than seventy five years old, huge trees that cast shade over the front garden.   They were coastal live oaks, the kind that never lose their leaves, cast off dead leaves every spring, remain green year round.

We have two big California Laurel trees (bay trees) that are, every two years, cut back until. they are simply naked trunks, and each time they grow new branches, new leaves, becoming, within two years, as big as they were. Because the California Laurel is a vector for Sudden Oak Death, we try to keep them in check so that our three remaining big oaks don’t succumb to the disease.

From our back garden the canyon hillsides visible are covered with the green of oaks and bays, and the occasional redwood tree.  At dusk they turn a dark green. This week we have “red flag” warnings because the temperature approaches 100 degrees and winds  begin to bend the oaks.

We live in a neighborhood populated by wild creatures: red and grey foxes, red and grey squirrels, possums, raccoons, as many as a dozen deer at a time wandering Oak Road, coyotes, and the occasional mountain lion. Except for the mountain lion I have seen all of them.  At night I can hear owls, and in the morning acorn woodpeckers begin their hammering, followed by the shriek of gathering crows. We have had wild turkeys on our roof and a great blue heron regularly came into Gary Teply’s yard to spear the golden koi that he kept in ponds in his garden.

A few blocks from us the hills become ”open space” and are brown now with summer grasses, the occasional green Oak or Toyon providing a contrast.  Much of what we see from our back garden is land controlled by the water district, since our water comes from the winter rains that fill the reservoirs scattered throughout the county.  Steelhead trout still enter the small creeks and the last of the Coho salmon come into Lagunitas Creek and Walker Creek.

I have planted tomatoes in big horse troughs this year and now more than seventy tomatoes are ripening in the hot afternoon sun.  At dusk I sit in one of the Adirondack chairs that I built and watch the sun go off the shoulder of Mt. Tamalpais, turning the folds dark green and then black.  I can see nothing but green from where I sit, no houses, no  street lights, nothing to remind me that  I am surrounded by another world.


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take off

another of Duncan MacSwain’s photographs of egrets


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mystery readers international journal

A different kind of sleuth.  Most of my books have had younger protagonists. All three of my Edgar nominations had young major characters, The Lord God Bird had teenagers at the heart of it, The Dog Sox had, except for Dutch, the old manager, young ballplayers; only Robbie’s Wife had a man in his sixties.  Other books included Deadly Negatives, with a young photographer as the central character, and Tom Hall and the Captain of All These Men of Death, whose major player was a boy of ten.

But two other books had a senior sleuth.  Both were non-fiction, and the sleuth was me, in my seventies. There were times when I wondered if I would find my target before I croaked. In both books I was searching for a rare trout, trying to fathom where it was and hoping to hold one in my hand.  The Search for Sheepheaven Trout, published in 2003, was a search for a rare trout in a tiny stream only three-quarters of a mile long on the shoulder of Mt. Shasta.  It was a stream that surfaced from a spring and suddenly disappeared in a lava tube. The second  book, Ghost Trout, was a ten year search for the Humboldt cutthroat trout, a fish that lives in the high desert of Nevada in streams where no other trout can live.  It can survive in water that rises to eighty-five degrees, yet the stream’s surface freezes in winter.  Such wide swings in its environment means that there are few places where they can be found, and I spent a decade before I finally saw one.  The book is a compilation of not only my sleuthing, but also reflections on what it means to be alive, what it means to search for an elusive goal. Central to my search was Alexander von Humboldt, who wrote, “Where man steps, his footprint changes the course of rivers, the lives of animals, the call of birds.”

Mike Hodges, the English film director (Get Carter, Croupier, Terminal Man) wrote about Ghost Trout: “It made me fall in love with America again.”

Like the fictional sleuth, I spent hours combing through old documents, traveling thousands of miles in my truck to check out clues, talking to biologists and forest rangers.  I hiked across the high desert of Nevada, picking my way through the sagebrush. In The Search for Sheepheaven Trout I got lost in a blizzard and escaped with my life when a highway patrolman spotted me stumbling out onto a snow-covered road. In Ghost Trout I was nearly killed when a steer bolted from the sagebrush in front of my truck as I sped along an isolated desert road.

I was a detective as I searched for my quarry in those two books. The search for the elusive trout in Ghost Trouttook ten years, and at times I thought of giving up, but always a new clue appeared, a new bit of information, a name on a map.

I found the Humboldt cutthroat trout on a ranch north of Elko where a beautiful young woman, surrounded by dogs and children, came to her gate and pointed us toward Gance Creek in the mountains to the west.

It was an isolated place, several miles of dirt road to the ranch house off a blue highway that was aimed toward Idaho.

“You must feel isolated out here,” I said to her.

She smiled.  “I like it,” she said.


Russell Hill has been nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe award three times, was a “Discover Great New Writers” selection by Barnes and Noble Books,  and is an avid fly fisherman who has written for outdoor magazines. He lives in Northern California.    

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more egrets



Duncan MacSwain has been sending me photographs of egrets and i am going to post some of them on WordPress for the next few weeks .They are graceful birds, stalkers, are here in California and in Florida and the Caribbean and Europe and some of his photographs were taken in the upper regions of the Amazon River.

This morning I realized that I am speaking out loud to myself.  Getting off the couch I said, “I’m going to put on my sweater,” and realized that there was no one else in the room. I continued: ”I left it on a chair on the front patio.”  There was no one to hear those words except me. After ten weeks of isolation, having finished three Peter Matthiessen novels, three Hemingway books, and the works of several other writers, having posted several thousand words here, I am now awaiting a book that I ordered on line, and I have begun to speak out loud to no one.




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I have imitated Hemingway by using a fictitious name for my own first person pronoun.  I use Jake. That’s the name of my character in The Lord God Bird, and it’s the name of Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s novel.  Here are four creeks that I have fished.


Jamison Creek at the parking lot slow Johnsville goes under the bridge and there are always small trout under the willows that hang over the stream.  Around the next bend upstream is a long series of pot holes, rocks, short bursts of white water followed by shallow pools. It’s easy to wade up that stretch, casting long into the water above, careful not to spook the trout. To the left is a gravel bank that rises higher than a man’s head and on top is a tangle of uprooted trees, logs carried downstream at high water.  It’s hard to imagine a water level that high or fast. The winter volume of water is enormous. The tangle of limbs and trunks is hard to negotiate, climbing over it and through it.  There are often trout in those pools and once Jake was there on a day when every cast brought in a trout, small rainbows and browns no more than six inches, one on every cast,  caught and shaken loose from the fly and another and another.  The creek comes under a cut bank above that race, a dark pool next to the exposed roots of big pines, but Jake had never taken a trout there, even though it looked like the kind of place a brown trout might wait.


From the highway Sagehen runs through tall grass, and the creek is deeper, the grass overhanging the edges. A fly placed in that current will raise a brown trout, never much more than eight inches, and then the creek turns north, cutting under the roots of a big pine, a small pool with a white race at the head, and then a long stretch where another brown trout hangs under the undercut bank.  Once, Jake took a sixteen inch brown from the pool just below a tiny waterfall at the head of the pool, standing in the stream ten yards below it, casting directly upstream into the current, letting the fly drop where the pool was deepest, and suddenly there was that explosion as the trout came up, taking the fly, pulling down, the rod bending, holding the slack line with his left hand, raising the rod tip so that the rod took the surge of the trout.


English Bar, a gravel bar that left the Middle Fork in a wide loop at its base, and coming down off that gravel bar, Jake’s feet slipped in the loose gravel, as if he were skiing down the slope, coming to a stop with his boots just in the water, rod held high in case he went over, ready to let go of it so that it wouldn’t break.  Then standing at the loop of the gravel he stripped out line, made several false casts until he had enough line in the air to cast across into the dark water in the shadow of the firs and pines and cedars, where the current surged against the bank, and watched the fly make its slow circle downstream, picking the fly up again, false casting to dry it off and once again letting it drop at the beginning of the loop.  He did this several times, patient, waiting for the trout to come up, take the fly, pull back into the deeper water, while he held the rod up, the line tight against the current and the pull of the fish. Art Morris  fished below him, working a fly against the current that dropped below English Bar.  Art was on his knees in the gravel, careful not to spook the trout, and when the trout struck, Art raised the rod, shouted, “fish on!” and rose to his feet, following the b[g trout down stream.


When he was younger Jake could wade up Sayles Canyon Creek, going from pool to pool, fishing each next one from the pool below it, taking one brown trout or brook trout after another, all of them six to eight inches long.  In his middle eighties, he can no longer fish up the middle of that creek. Now there are two places where he can drop down to it, careful to slide on the steep slope, his balance no longer what it was.  South of the cabin, through the trees, big cedars and Douglas firs, there are downed logs to climb over, carefully placing his rod on top of each log, hoisting himself onto the log, sliding down the other side, making sure his feet are carefully placed.  When  he gets to the point where he can see the creek, there is a big rock outcropping and he can slide over the edge of it, touching his feet onto the rocks below.  He plants his wading staff and eases out onto a flat rock where he can stand and drop a fly into the pool opposite There is a big boulder, the size of a Volkswagen and the white rush of the water eases into the pool.  He bounces a fly off that boulder, it drops into the water and with any luck a small trout rises to take the fly.  He cast directly to the rock face deliberately, so that the fly hits the water just as an insect that had touched the rock inadvertently, and had ricocheted off into the pool. There is a quick struggle. With his left hand he pulls in the slack line, hoists the small trout to where he stands, reaches out, grasps the fly and shakes the small trout back into the water without touching it.  The trout darts away and he waits for the pool to calm before casting again.

The other spot is downstream, just below the footbridge that crosses the stream and ends up in Camp Mather across the ridge.  There are big boulders here, too, a series of them, and the creek steps down through them, each boulder shading a pool  and he sits on his ass, slides down to where he can stand, once again drops a fly in the deeper water at the edge of each boulder.  He can only fish three of those pools before it becomes too difficult for him to work his way farther downstream.

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John Muir’s dipper

john muir's dipper

The water ouzel or American Dipper, John Muir’s dipper.  I stood at the edge of the North Fork of the Yuba River, just below where Jim Crow Creek empties into the river. The dipper alighted on a flat rock across the shallow side current, bobbing up and down, and then it stepped off into the water. suddenly walking on the graveled bottom.  I watched, a plump grey bird with long legs, it bobbed its head, picking up the larvae of caddis flies, stoneflies, may flies, water beetles, as if it were on dry land, but I could see it through the clear water, moving against the current and suddenly, as quickly as it entered the water, it rose, spreading its wings to propel itself onto another streamside stone.

What freak of nature had invited this bird that breathes air to forage in an alien environment? The ouzel has an extra eyelid that enables it to see underwater, and some scales that close the nostril when submerged, These birds secrete more oil than other birds, perhaps enabling it to stay in the cold water longer. Its nests are often behind waterfalls, always near a stream.  And the presence of the dipper tells us that the quality of the water is good, as if they are the canary in the mine.

Here were the grubs of  Dobson flies, also called Helgramites that stick sand and bits of detritus into a casing that resembles a stick to discourage foraging trout and crawdads. But it doesn’t fool the dipper. John Muir wrote about the dipper. He found it in the Merced River in Yosemite and in streams in the high Sierra. How long ago did this bird develop those scales, that extra eyelid?   Why didn’t the Stellar Jay find itself an extra eyelid so that it, too, could pick up the grubs of those insects?  Creeks and rivers abound with the larvae of aquatic insects, trout feed on them, and the water ouzel has entered the smorgasbord, picking out its dinner underwater,

Muir called it the hummingbird of blooming waters and said that no other bird cheered him as much as his dipper. As I watched that bird dip into the stream, I wondered at the complexity of things, some birds flying, some skipping under the sagebrush to escape the hovering kestrels, and this bird that slipped into the water to pick up the grubs of other creatures that had just been created.

When I swim, I put on goggles so that I can stroke through the water without having to close my eyes.  The ouzel has its own goggles, purchased in some evolutionary hardware store centuries ago.  It wears them all the time.  I have seen dippers along streams for years, but that moment on the North Fork of the Yuba was the first time that I saw the bird walking the bottom of a stream.  It paid no attention to me. It was intent on the caddis larvae that it could find among the gravel. I was as important as a cedar tree clinging to the bank.

There is a tropical fish that can walk from one piece of water to another, using its fins as legs.. It flourishes in the swamps of Florida. There are mammals that find water as familiar as solid ground; the river otters are foremost. Flying fish break the surface of the oceans to ease through the air. Beavers build their lodges in ponds that they create. But the ouzel is the only one that can forage in two different worlds, the air and the water. The ouzel is the capstone.


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Big Two-hearted River


In The Nick Adams Stories,”The  Big Two-hearted River,”  Ernest Hemingway described a pool under a bridge. His character has gone to the stream, anxious to forget the war he has survived, and rhis is what he sees. It is the most perfect rendering of a trout pool that I have read. It is a piece of writing that is etched in my memory. I am suddenly with Nick as he drops off the train, makes his way to the stream and finds the pool under the bridge.

The river was there.  It swirled against the log spiles of the bridge. Nick looked down into the clear, brown water, colored from the pebbly bottom, and watched the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins. As he watched them they changed their positions by quick angles, only to hold steady in the fast water again.  Nick watched them a long time.

         He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast-moving water, slightly disturbed as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven spiles of the bridge.  At the bottom of the pool were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first.  Then he saw them at the bottom of the pool, big trout looking to hold themselves on the gravel bottom in a varying mist of gravel and sand, raised in spurts by the current.

I have seen such pools, My son Geoffrey and I stood on the bank high above the pool that came out from the falls in Jackass Creek where it enters the North Fork of the Feather River and watched my grandson Nathaniel place a fly into the whitewater and take trout after trout.

I climbed Bucks Creek, a series of pools that cascaded down among boulders the size of Volkswagens, and cast to the next pool, at eye level, and took a bright trout each cast.

At the top of Grizzly Creek where the waterfall interrupts any chance of going further is a pool ringed with granite walls, so cold that diving into it on a hot summer day raises a shriek of pain. It is easy to cast from the flat granite slabs that are at the lip and the water is as clear as gin.

Spanish Creek below Oakland Camp went through a series of slow waters where elephant ears overhung the places where brown trout lurked and at dusk they began to feed, coming out in an explosion of water to take the fly.

Jim Harrison wrote: Your professional and personal problems drift away into the smell and sound of the river, into the peopleless landscape that neutralizes the poison

It is approaching dusk and I am watching the sun go off the mountain, savoring a drink, imagining one of those pools on Jamison Creek or Yellow Creek, the cows on the far side of Humbug Valley, grazing, waiting for the sun to drop below the ridge and leave the water in darkness below the overhanging willows. It is just as Harrison said. The peopleless landscape neutralizes the rest of the world.  I am alone with the slow moving water, and the possibility of the quick thrust of a trout.

Later, I will build a fire in the campground and have a scotch and watch streaks of light cross the sky and listen to the coyotes call across the meadow.Their shrill barks punctuate the night. The cattle approach the stream, their hooves squelching in the mud, and an owl adds to the evening.

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More than ten years ago I began my search for the Humboldt cutthroat trout.  I drove to the high desert in Nevada north of Wells, and followed the directions of artist James Prosek , who had given me the location of Wildcat Creek where I could find that trout.

It was a fruitless trip.  I recently came across a few photographs that I took. I had a Ford Explorer, built on a tough Ford truck chassis, and I drove into the flat high desert west of the Snake Mountains. I turned off Interstate 80 at a town called Deeth, which had formerly been named Death.  The photos that I found contained fourteen photos of the distant mountains. One of the photos showed a dirt road with my Ford parked, the door open, and the road in a straight line, diminishing to a vanishing point in the distance.  I used three of those photos for the cover of my book, Ghost Trout.There is a photo of an abandoned Victorian house in what had been the town of Deeth, a lovely little house with a bay window and a porch with posts holding up the roof, weeds choking the house.  Plywood panels partially covered several of the broken windows. It did not seem to be a house that had been long abandoned; the white paint was still good, the shingled roof was intact, and except for the broken windows, it seemed like a sound little Queen Ann. There was nothing else left of Deeth, except the post office, a ten-wide trailer next to the railroad tracks. A dozen wrecked railroad cars were stacked on a track beyond the post office.  Whoever picked up their mail at that post office lived in an empty landscape.

My journey to Wildcat Creek thirty miles north of Deeth was useless; recent rains had swollen it, and it was not until later that year that Ellen and Chris Strempek drove me to Elko and we went north to the Saval ranch where we found the elusive little trout

Who lived in that Victorian house? When was it abandoned? Who built a house and lived in a diminished village that had been named Death? I looked again at the photo of the Victorian house. Why anyone would build a sweet little house like that in a town formerly named Death in the emptiness of an abandoned railroad siding was anyone’s guess.  A marsh at the edge of what had been the town had an egret stalking it and hundreds of red-winged blackbirds.  The marsh emptied into a slow moving stream that became the Humboldt River and it eventually disappeared into the earth at what was called the Humboldt Sink. This was where the first manageable route over the Sierras began, a route discovered by the Indian mountain man James Beckworth. He and his men no doubt harvested those trout as they pulled their horses and wagons across the barren landscape. The town of Beckworth in Plumas County honors his name.  The landscape, a flat nothingness of olive sagebrush, actually contains a wealth of wildlife. Coyotes and kestrals look for prey.  Countless ground birds scurry under the brush, and cattle graze in the emptiness.   And somewhere, in streams that can reach eighty-five degrees in the summer, there is the Humboldt cutthroat trout, living in water that would turn any other fish belly up.

Those photographs are mute testimony to the emptiness of that landscape.  We drove north toward Idaho, through endless plains of sagebrush, the mountains purple in the distance, When we found the Saval Ranch, the woman who came out to the gate was a lovely young woman surrounded by dogs and children. When I asked her how she dealt with the fact that she was out of touch with the rest of the world, she was comfortable with the isolation. I like it, she said. I could not imagine the winters when the snow blew across the dirt road and she was no longer touched by the civilization that passed on the highway to the east.

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IMG_5823 I am being buckled into a glider in Gridley.

It’s still dark when I hear the first cars going down Oak Road, commuters on their way to work, trying to beat the morning rush on the Golden Gate Bridge.  If it’s Thursday, I hear the small garbage truck come up the hill, loud.  lt services the houses at the top of Toyon where the big trucks can’t turn around. Later there’s the truck that arrives at the top of the driveway with its big claw scooping up the waste can and dumping the contents into the truck’s maw. At 7:30 pickup trucks arrive, carrying carpenters who are on the job at construction up the hill.

I recognize the motor of the old Cooper driven by a middle aged man who was a teenager when I first heard that car. Later I hear the UPS truck charging around the corner, and the mail truck pausing at each mailbox, its motor unmistakable.  For a while there was a Harley up Woodland that came down mid morning, the rider an older man. Some of the drivers raise a hand to me if I am in the street.  Some of them I know by sight, others are strangers.  I have lived in this house for more than fifty years, and am probably the resident who has lived here the longest, At one time Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead lived on Toyon, and he occasionally gave one of my kids a ride in his Lamborgini. Now I hear chickens from that house. Fred Lakosky parked his 12 cylinder Porsche in front of his house with a cover over it.  Next door was an ancient Ford Mustang with a cover, a car that collected mold and an owner who was a cranky woman who eventually died without ever taking the cover off that car. For a while the newspaper man in the morning had a car that misfired, and I could recognize the erratic sound of his motor.  Now it’s an Hispanic woman in a new car who wheels around the corner, throws papers out the open windows on either side of her car in the pre-dawn darkness.

Once an eighteen wheel truck managed to get all the way to our corner before he decided it was prudent to turn around,  He got his truck stuck in the ditch and had to call for help.  “No streets like this where I come from,” he said.  His license plate was Tennessee.  A big tow truck managed after an hour’s work to drag his rig out of the ditch and followed him down the hill.

One Christmas my son Geoffrey and his wife Jill and their children gave me a present of a glider flight.  We were towed from the airport in Gridley and soared above the valley, the only sound the rush of air.  Unlike my mornings on Oak Road it was a silent world, no crows , no chain saws or hammer guns, no garbage trucks, no barking dogs.

I ride an electric assisted three-wheel bicycle up and down Oak Road. I often encounter someone cutting a corner, and only manage to keep from being squashed by my quick reaction.  It is a neighborhood ruled by automobiles and trucks..It is a quiet neighborhood, but the quiet is punctuated by the activity of human beings.  The only delight is neighbor, Mario, a professional musician who practices his trumpet across the road.  His is a welcome sound.

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cotton tenants

James Agee wrote Cotton Tenant, which led to his  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men..  It is a devastating portrait of the people who picked cotton, labored under the thumbs of land owners, managed to eke out a living in what was virtually slavery.

I picked grapes for part of a season in the Central Galley when I was barely out of my teens.  I wanted to experience the world of those pickers and it was a lark.  What I remember were the stinging bees that were among the ripe grapes and the sharp knives that could suddenly sever a finger to the bone, and the heavy bag that I carried, and the heat, the broiling sun that  did not stop.  Unlike Agee, I did not take notes, I did not examine the shacks where the other workers lived, I went to a run-down motel in Firebaugh where I sweated and a swamp cooler labored  and after less than a week I quit. I had  barely made enough money to pay for my bus ticket. I went back to Berkeley where the cool fog blew in from the Golden Gate and I slept late and ate breakfast in the clean kitchen with the tiled counter and went back to work for the Oakland Recreation Department, spending my evenings in Bushrod center handing out basketalls and playing cards with kids who called me Direc.t. I was a recreation director, and that was what they called me. I had dipped my toe into the world of those people who spent their days in the intense heat of the valley, who dragged the heavy bags of grapes to the man who stood on the back of the tractor and logged in their tally.  I was a college student dabbling in a world that was foreign to me.  I was a visitor in a world that had a different set of standards from the world in which I grown up .

There is a photograph on page 191 of Agee’s book that shows a child of perhaps three or four, holding a homemade rag doll. His legs are dirty, he is barefoot, his shirt, which is all he is wearing, is made from a flour sack.  The porch he sits on has raggedly rotten boards.

On my dresser there is a photograph of me at age four, sitting on the front stoop of our house in Wyanet.  My brother Ronald , who is eight, is next to me, holding Paul, who is a baby. I am four years ol,d  wearing short pants, a colorful shirt and am holding my head in my hands, obviously a pout.  Ronald has on a white shjrt, a tie, black short pants and black socks to the knee. He was to wear a white shirt and tie for the rest of his life.

The contrast between the two photographs is remarkable.  We were not rich and we did not thibk of ourselves as poor. It was the Depression and our father struggled to find work, but our neat little house was a far cry from the shack where that other little boy sat. Ronald grew up to be a mathematician, Paul became a forest ranger and an engineer, and I became a school teacher. All three of us graduated from university. Our mother did not make our shirts from flour sacks. Our family did not share crop for someone who left us with nearly nothing: little food, torn clothes, no medicine, a house where wind whistled through the walls and the heat became oppressive. They were left without hope.

I am embarrassed now at my abortive attempt at grape picking.  I was not just a fish out of water.  I was a sleek fish that tried swimming in a pond where I had no business .

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