Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas memory

Do you have a favorite Christmas memory? I revisit mine every Christmas morning, and each time, it reminds me what great parents I had, a childhood charmed. As it turns out, or at least as I turned out (not so terrible, if I don't say so myself), modest indulgence of one's children doesn't ruin them.

I was a one-big-thing kind of kid. Many of my friends produced annual litanies of Christmas wants, long lists for Santa well beyond the believing years. My style was to hold out for a single, impossible gift.
"What do you want for Christmas this year?" Mom would ask.
"All I want is _______________." When I was seven it was a horse, of course.
"Where are we going to keep him?" Mom asked. "In the garage?" My second-grade brain imagined that as not such a bad place for a horse to live, and dad would no longer have to mow the lawn and we never parked the cars in there anyway and I'd take care of him, I promised. Each Christmas thereafter, I asked for something I had little hope of getting. Some years, I came close. The year I asked for skis, for example, I got lessons instead, which included a bus ride to the mountain every Saturday. I had to pay for my own equipment rental, but I was thrilled nonetheless. The following year, I asked for the lessons again and got them, then bought the skis myself, from J.C. Penney, with money I'd saved picking berries and babysitting. I knew most years that my one-big-thing was often just out of my parents' budgetary reach (and, looking back, I realize that may have broken their hearts some). I asked anyway, but was never too disappointed when I did not get what I'd requested.
My junior year in high school, I wanted a stereo. I had it picked out; it was an Onkyo, pretty high end, with separate components, and a cassette player. It was expensive, and would have taken years to save for on teenage wages. The stereo of my dreams was more than pie in the sky. It was an entire bakery in the stratosphere. I asked anyway, but only once, humbly and contrite, with the disclaimer, "I know there's no way, but that is all I want. So if you want to skip this year, and maybe pay half next year, and I could pay the other half, and that could be my present for two years-- I really can't think of anything else I want."
That Christmas, I opened my gifts -- a nice collection of clothes, pajamas, socks, lotions and ornaments. Most of it I already knew. My mom was terrible at keeping Christmas secrets. She'd always divulge the best gifts well before the big day, unable to contain herself. She'd done so with the ski lessons. And the hot wheels I got when I was ten. So I knew when I unwrapped the last of the packages under the tree that was it, and I was content. My dad rose from the couch, Christmas toddy in hand. He stretched and wandered toward the tree, then veered to an adjacent chair and reached behind it with his free hand, careful not to spill his "coffee."
"It looks like we missed one," he said, and handed me a two-foot rectangular package with no ribbon or bow.
"I shook it, weighed it in my hands. Silent, and impossibly light, it felt like nothing.
"What is it?"
"Open it," he said.
"Go ahead," said Mom.  Dad looked smug, like he'd just pulled off the ultimate heist. The two of them stood close, hovering. I ripped off the paper. Inside was an empty, plastic box missing one side.
"What is it?" I asked.
"We wanted to get you the stereo," dad said, his tone solemn, "but that's the only part we could afford. We figured we'd start with that, and get the rest later, piece by piece."
I looked more closely at the flimsy object in my lap. It was the cover to a turntable. My sixteen-year-old brain imagined it sitting atop the entire system. "Thanks!" I meant it, instantly saw the potential and began mulling which component I'd save for next, then next. It didn't seem odd to me that the store would sell them just the cover. They really had tried their best to get me what I wanted for Christmas. I was genuinely grateful and completely clueless.
The two of them burst with laughter.
"What?"
"You believe that?" asked Dad. I was stumped. A stupid look must have overtaken my face. "The rest of it is under our bed."
I sat there, frozen, staring at them, then down at the cover, then back at them.
"Go!" they said together, smiling-- big, rascally, mischievous Cheshire grins. I jumped up from the floor and sprinted down the hall. BEST CHRISTMAS EVER!

Merry Christmas, everyone. A hui hou. Aloha!


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Look, it's like, you know, sort of, um whatever

I work at a bank. When I relayed this tidbit to my buddy Rich, he asked, "Couldn't you find something more ethical? Wasn't the mafia hiring in your area?" Yes, banks are evil. But repugnance comes in degrees, morality in shades of gray. My bank, the one from which I now collect an arguably honorable paycheck, is better than most; it accepted no TARP bailout money and enjoys pretty high ratings for customer service. I can live with that. But if somebody makes me an offer I can't refuse...  Most days, it's busy enough. I'm either helping customers with financial transactions, reading up on riveting new banking regulations and internal bank policies and procedures, filing, counting, organizing, sanitizing my hands for handling all that filthy money. But there are occasional lulls, during which a mind like mine is wont to wander. Today, on one such occasion, I was struck with snippets of self-amusing, cliché-riddled bank humor.

Hi. I'm Penny. Wanna meet my new boyfriend? His name is Bill.
You can always count on me to coin a phrase.
If bankers were gymnasts, they'd specialize in the vault.
Banking. Where nothing is constant but change.

Hey, it was just a few minutes.

Another few minutes, on another day -- though to be clear, I was not at the bank, but rather just cleaning the bathroom and listening to a painful interview on the radio -- had me pondering verbal fillers, those devices we all use to buy time to think, or to fill awkward silence between thoughts, especially when we're self conscious. There is, of course, the ubiquitous and timeless um and its famous cousin, uh. These were my favorites as a radio producer, because they're usually drawn out long enough to cut, which I always did, making the speaker sound brilliant. There's the teenager's favorite like, which has bled into the ranks of the middle aged. I have friends pushing 60 who use like like salt and pepper. In college, I had a friend who used all instead: She's all, "They were such jerks," and I'm all, "Why?" and she's all, "Because they were all, 'You look rich and snobby,' which I'm not, so I'm all, 'well, I'm not' and they're all, 'well you seem like it.'" And I'm all, "Wow, they do seem like jerks," and so on. I like all, much better than like.
There's the classy, Obama-esque look, which makes you seem smart as you pause to think of what to say next. It goes like this:
Wolf Blitzer: "Mr. President, you promised us change we can believe in. What happened?"
Barack (that's how he signs his personal emails to me): Well, Wolf, look, being president is not as easy as it seems, or as easy as we thought it would be and, look, we've had some setbacks, and certainly no support from the Republicans..."
There's a proliferation lately of what I'll call the intellectual's verbal filler of choice, sort of. I'm not fond of sort of. It's a pretentious version of like, but no less annoying. It works like an adverb, watering down verbs, diluting whatever follows. She was sort of pregnant. I was driving sort of fast when the cop pulled me over. They were sort of making out when his wife walked in. Right. There's Will Smith's fave, you know, which works well if used sparingly, but gets on people's nerves with overuse. I went through a you know phase as a kid. My mom was relentless with her parody in response, spewing back a plethora of you knows and worse, responding to every you know with, "No, I don't know," until I got the point. I know a fellow who uses please, which is, please, a very polite verbal filler. It's jolting for its weirdness, but effective in diffusing heated conversations. Not surprisingly, he's a lawyer.

When Bill Gates or Steve Jobs had time to think, they came up with ideas that changed the world. Of course, I don't suppose either of them ever worked at a bank, cleaned a bathroom or spent time splicing the opposite sides of ums together to make a sentence. Still, it appears the old NAACP slogan is true: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Maybe it's the altitude.

More musings for Christmas. Until then, a a hui hou. Aloha!



Sunday, December 04, 2011

Chinese food and coffee

Ron called the other day to say he'd roasted the last of our coffee for this year and it's already sold.
"That's great," I said.
"It has an oriental flavor," he said.
"What does?"
"Our coffee. That's what they said."
"That's what who said?"
"The people who roasted it. That's how they think we should market it."
"So, our coffee tastes like shoyu and mono sodium glutamate?"
At this, he lost it, cracking up, laughing so hard I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Picture red cheeks, tears of hilarity. Ron collected himself with a signature, exaggerated sign, and said, "Good one, sweetie. I think they though it was kind of floral, like jasmine or something."
Our coffee is mellow and naturally sweet, but otherwise, it tastes like coffee. Really good coffee. Exceptional coffee. No bitterness. No bite. Smooth. Not jasmine or lotus or cherry blossom. Not salty, or sweet and sour. Not like hoisin sauce. It's a little fruity maybe -- it is fruit, after all -- but definitely not oriental. Coffee doesn't even go with Chinese food. "Gee, this pork fried rice and sesame chicken are delicious. I could go for a cup of coffee with this." Who ever says that? Nobody.

Here in Gunnison, I've enjoyed my grocery shopping excursions. This place is known for high prices, but food feels cheap to me after living in Hawaii. So I called Ron this morning to brag about all the good stuff I got today and the price I paid. He responded with, "How much do you pay for lettuce? I get that free. How about green beans? Free." He says this because he grows them in the garden, year 'round. Point for Ron. Of course, he doesn't count the potting soil he buys to plant it in, or the slug bait, or the fertilizer, nor does he factor in the gas at $4.25/gallon, fifty miles round trip to Hilo to buy it all. He used to feel pretty smug about getting "free" rooms in Las Vegas, too. Clearly, his definition of free is different from mine, but I'll give him the point anyway.


It's snowy, gray and wintry today. The view through the window looks like an Ansel Adams photograph. I suspect I'll be sick of it by March, but for now, it's nice. I'm a little upset by the notion that we may soon have an offer on the cabin. I've just settled in here. Ron tells me not to fret just yet, that it takes time for people to get pre-approved for loans, if they even can, and then there's escrow, and we haven't seen the offer yet and may not take it if it's too low-ball, and even if we do take it, it'll be weeks before everything is finalized. But weeks go by fast. Meanwhile, they've got me working full time again next week at the bank, and I'm writing more stories for The Gunnison Country Times, which you can subscribe to online, if you've a notion to do so. My legs hurt from too many presses at the gym yesterday. As my old boss and friend Jeanette Mushkin used to say (in a blatant rip-off of Sonny and Cher that she made uniquely her own), "And the beat goes on."

A hui hou. Aloha!

P.S. Matt Burt shot the photo of the tree, but since he posted it on Facebook, I figured it OK to snatch. I saw some of his photos at the gallery in town the other night, and they are exceptional. Go to mattb.net to check them out.








Monday, November 28, 2011

On work, literature, libraries and life

It feels good to work, to have my feet aching when I get home at night. My cash drawer has balanced three days straight, and I'm told that's exceptional for a greenhorn teller. Actually, we're not called tellers anymore. We're customer service representatives. The money's nice, but the real value of work goes beyond the paycheck. It comes from knowing you've done something well, something that others value, and that people are counting on you to do. Whether you show up every day matters. There are jobs I'd rather have, those for which I may be better suited, and maybe I'll land one of those someday, but I'm not terrible at this one, and I don't hate it either. People expect their money to be handled with care, and that's what I do. From a writer's perspective, there is plenty of good story material to be had in a bank, I can feel it.

My pal, Mike Ritchey, now a student of writing at Portland State with his own fine blog entitled, Retirement for Dummies, reminded me that I should read more David Foster Wallace, whose brilliance scares me. Another pal, David Stevenson, recently recommended Denis Johnson's new novella, Train Dreams. Johnson scares me for a different reason. Wallace is out there, too smart, over my head. Johnson creates characters bad to the core, who make whack decisions at every turn, lowlife scoundrels doing deplorable things, and I'm sucked in with them, a partner in crime every time. I wondered if the local library might have the Wallace essays, so I logged onto their website to find out. No luck. I decided to check out the Hawaii Public Library system. They had it-- in Kindle format! I've just checked out my first virtual library book. What will become of brick-n-mortar libraries in the future? I really enjoy libraries, being in them, to read or to study. It's comforting to be surrounded, buffered, protected by all those books. Libraries are a refuge, an escape. They smell good. I love wandering aisles of authors, title after title, overwhelmed and consoled by too many books and not enough time to read them all. I hope there's a place for both the electronic and tactile, the virtual and real, forever into the future.

Some prospective buyers took a look and then a second at our cabin this week. That's good news, yet it dredged up all kinds of flotsam and jetsam in my turbulent, ever-conflicted brain. I'm just beginning to make some progress on the place. My awesome desk (it was Ron's, but now it's mine, all mine!) has been moved back into the office where it belongs. The kitchen table has been, in turn, retired from its desk duties and returned to the kitchen. A futon mattress is on order, so I will soon have a couch to sit on in front of a crackling fire. I've winterized all the windows. It's cozy. With the desk out of the back bedroom, I'm ready to rip the nasty, smelly carpeting out of there to reveal the pretty hardwood beneath. I've fixed the garage door opener and gotten a new remote, so I'm able to cruise in and out without having to get out of the car on cold mornings or frigid evenings. Civilized. The more I do around here, the less I swear at the place and the more I love it and wish I could keep it forever.

Last night, I was pulled over by a Gunnison city police officer, who wrote me a warning for a missing headlight and asked that I get it fixed in the next few days. He was a nice boy, very polite and respectful, and I thanked him for letting me know. I continued on to the gym. Little more than an hour later, less than a quarter mile from home, I was pulled over again, this time by a county sheriff's deputy. Same reason. I showed him the warning. Today, I spent part of my lunch hour at Napa, where I ran into an old friend who now works there. We exchanged hugs, caught up some and vowed to do more over a beer soon. It's a small world, a small town. This evening, I replaced the bulb and am shining brightly once again. What will the cops find to do tonight?

A hui hou. Aloha!







Saturday, November 05, 2011

Finger filet, old friends and bluegrass

Pay attention when you're chopping vegetables, and never grow too confident of your knife skills. I didn't even feel it at first. The tip of my left index finger, a little chunk, was inadvertently included in the pile of diced peppers and onions on the cutting board this morning, scraped into the saute pan in preparation of a killer breakfast burrito. A few minutes later, it started to bleed. And hurt. Wounded, I called my rainforest-bound husband to whine a little. He told me the belt on the drier drum had slipped off again. In the process of taking the contraption apart to get into the guts of the machine and fix it, he lifted the top panel. Somehow, he thought there was a notch or catch or latch or something that holds it up. There isn't. The heavy, sharp-edged slab o' metal slammed down onto the back of his knuckles. Ouch! My culinary mishap seemed suddenly miniscule. My finger was, and is fine. Life is so often a matter of perspective.

Day one at the bank went well. There was an orientation conference call, training videos to view, a stack of forms to complete and sign, plenty of corporate rah rah with a little sis-boom-bah, and several nice co-workers to meet. Odd as this sounds, I was comfortable right away. I've never worked for a bank, but I have worked with bankers, so maybe that's why. There's also a reserved western easiness here, and whether you're in a bank for your first day on the job, at the market or the gym, you feel it. 

The other day, washing my favorite Kona Joe coffee mug, da slippery buggah squirted from my soapy hands and broke into a dozen pieces in the sink. It's the only mug I brought, thinking I'd only need one-- one person, one cabin, one fork, one spoon... and of course I counted on finding a few in storage. Damn! So I went to the best place I can think of to find a replacement coffee mug. Not the nicest place, for that is probably The Corner Cupboard, with beautiful, hand-painted, made-in-Colorado offerings, the kinds of mugs you buy for other people, or you hope other people will buy for you. The best place is Six Points, a local thrift store, where proceeds go to support developmentally challenged adults in the community.  Many of the beneficiaries also work there. My old pal Donny was manning the cash register that day.
"What's your name again?" he asked.
"I'm Toni. Do you remember me, Donny?"
"Yes." 
"I moved away for awhile, but I'm back now."
"I remember you. Where'd you go again?"
"Hawaii. It's good to see you. Glad to see you're still working here."
"Yes.... You should get a purple mohawk. Only kidding."
Same ol' Donny. It's a new quip, however. His original was always, "Where's your bikini? Only kidding." As signature lines go, they're both excellent.

He sold me three, matching Dansk mugs for $1.50. 

We went to lunch together once, years ago, to Donny's favorite, the old Cattlemen's. It burned down not long after that. Yesterday, sitting at The Ol' Miner Steakhouse downtown (they have a nice soup and salad bar combo), I spotted him across the restaurant, finishing his lunch as I began mine. Ol' Miner is kind of a fancy version of Cattlemen's, so it makes sense that Donny would like it there. He wandered over to my table.

"What's your name again?"
" It's Toni. Hi Donny."
"Where's your purple mohawk?"
"Very funny. I like your hat." It was a homemade ski cap, bright green with a dark, patterned band.
"Thank you. Can I take your picture?" He lifted the camera hanging from his neck to his eye.
"Sure, OK." I smiled. 
"See you later," he said.
"See you later." It's as if I never left.

I'm sitting in my tight, cozy cabin, A Prairie Home Companion playing on KBUT.  Outside, a blustery, gray day threatens snow. Garrison Keillor has dedicated his show to Bill Monroe, featuring musicians who knew the man, toured and played with him. Bill Monroe is known as the father of bluegrass. Or as my pal Rich likes to call it, "Insipid barn music." Bluegrass is not for everyone. But here in rural Colorado, it fits. Mountain music. Not a summer weekend goes by without a Bluegrass festival happening somewhere in the Rockies. Bluegrass has been, as my friend Ernestine Hayes would say,  "appropriated" from the mud poor, southern and Appalachian folk of Celtic ancestry whose lives and culture were its genesis, to the Subaru-driving, ex-hippy vegan crowd, people who have no concept of life in a Kentucky holler. Still, there's no denying the new fans' passion for the music. Like all forms of art, music transcends culture, class and ethnicity to touch people far removed from it's origins and impetus, often on a deep level. That must be what's happening with bluegrass today. Either that, or these legions of modern bluegrass aficionados are all just fakers pretending to be hillbillies, without a clue what that really means.  

Deep, right? I think it's waling fiddles and the steady thump of a washtub base inspiring me to wax so introspectively.

A hui hou. Aloha!







Sunday, October 30, 2011

Deer friends

Here's something you may not know about me. I'm a sucker for guys with big, brown eyes. The other day, I spotted the handsome fellow on the far right of this impressive trio for the first time and, I must admit, I was smitten.



"Nice rack," I said. He seemed to appreciate the compliment. The next day this five-point buck was accompanied by a four-point buddy. The day after that, the day of this photo, there were three. Since then, I've witnessed these musketeers several times near the big, Colorado blue spruce in the southwest corner of my yard. Sometimes, the two smaller ones lower their heads and lock horns, but not fiercely. It's as though they're going through the motions because it's expected of them, but really they'd rather break out the cigars and play a friendly game of poker or something. Hang out here, guys, and you're safe from the camo-clad, neon-hatted crowd milling around this time of year. Of course, a sage, five point buck probably knows that. 

I'm told I've missed scads of action in my other, mid-Pacific community. Our neighbors' son was spotted at a recent county council meeting in Puna, chanting and wielding a lai o mano, a tradition Hawaiian weapon, best described as a hardwood club edged with sharks' teeth. He was deemed harmless at the meeting, but later assaulted a large Samoan man at a local beach park and was arrested a few days later. The neighborhood is all atwitter about this. As I understand it, it's lucky for him the cops got to him before the Samoans. 



The pack of dogs has returned, too, some distance down the road from us. They have killed again, this time the grandma sheep from the farm I featured a few weeks ago in this very blog. So sad. Humans are once again on vigilant watch. You'd think the best approach would be to contact the humane society and ask them to trap the dogs. The sheep farmers did that immediately after the first attack, only to land themselves at the bottom of a months-long waiting list. The humane society is overwhelmed by nuisance wild dog complaints on Hawaii Island. 

All our stuff is out of storage now, and it feels a bit like Christmas as I rediscover some old favorite sweaters and shirts, which I will enjoy in the coming chilly weeks. That said, there's plenty to shake my head over, too. What were we thinking, packing this stuff for eventual transport to Hawaii? The truth is, if you haven't looked at something in six years, you probably don't need it and should toss it or give it to someone who does. Except, of course, what the IRS and the SEC require you to keep for 10 years. In that case, you have no choice. But much of that has expired now, too, so into the burn barrel it goes.

The house is in great shape. Everything works: the furnace (yay!), the original stove and oven, circa 1951, the fridge, the water heater. I've got some winterizing to do, a little touch up and sealing of the south-facing windows, some pipe wrapping and insulation. But really, this house is solid. It'll stand and provide shelter forever, and would really thrive in the hands of someone who enjoys restoring good old homes. The red oak floors and knotty pine ceilings are amazing.  That old growth oak no longer exists on planet earth, other than in classic homes like this one. I just ripped the carpeting out of the office and found more of that beautiful wood underneath, in excellent condition. It's the perfect location for a home/business, too. If this sounds like a sales pitch, it is. I do love this place, but maintaining it from 3500 miles away is impractical. It deserves attention. It's really an awesome house.



My hunt for a seasonal job on the mountain has not panned out. I've gotten raves from interviewers who tell me I was their second choice (not good enough), that it was a tough decision, they will make complimentary notes in my application file and forward it to the next position in which I express interest, but they've chosen the applicant with "direct experience with the job." My guess is that people who worked those positions last year, having not found year-round, permanent positions out in the world, are returning to seasonal work. I have a few prospects in Gunnison, and one very attractive offer I'm mulling over that will enable me to work remotely and still have time to pick up a class to teach online if the opportunity presents itself, so I am still hopeful.  I do miss my family. BeeCee the trouble cat is misbehaving and trying Ron's patience, but mostly, they're all fine, and so am I.  Ron continues to tend the farm, and is preparing a spot to plant another 20 trees or so, no doubt dodging raindrops as he plants.  Here, the sun is shining, the bucks and I are chillin', and the sky's so blue you'd swear you were halfway to outer space.

A hui hou. Aloha!

Friday, October 21, 2011

A bit of a bust

I have arrived in the land of the immortal tractor, a place where the cattle are hearty and the grass will not need mowing for another seven months. The sun is bright, the nights are cold and the magpies are feisty. When I'm in Hawaii, I miss this place. Now that I'm here, I miss the island.  As it turns out, I missed a classic Hawaii day today.

Some weeks ago, Ron and I disassembled an old, dead dehumidifier to see if we might recycled the innards rather than throw it all into the rubbish, since there's no practical way to dispose of stuff like that on the island. There was some copper tubing inside, plus other metals. We're constantly hearing about copper thieves in the islands, so we figured it must be worth something. He took the contraption to Reynolds Recycling in Hilo yesterday.

The scene goes something like this:

Ron pulls in and after waiting for a few minutes, an employee asks if he can please move his car. The man signals Ron to back up, stands behind the car and waves with a "keep going, keep going, you're good, keep going" motion. Ron watches him through the rearview mirror and rolls backward as the man waves.
And then...
Boom!
"What was that?" Ron asks.
"Why did you hit that?" The man asks.
"Why did you wave me into it?"
"I thought you saw it."
"I didn't see it. I was watching you. You were signaling me to keep going."
"You should have looked out your side mirror."
"Why would I do that when you were waving me on? You're standing right there. I was following you're instructions."
"I thought you saw it."
Luckily, it's just a wooden pallet, and no damage is done. Next, he shows the man the metal innards.
"Can you take this?"
"You'll have to have it notarized to prove it's yours. That you own it. That you didn't steal it."
"Why would I steal this?"
"Because it's worth money to recycle."
"How can I have it notarized? It's from something I bought five years ago. Besides, I'm not going to drive to a notary and pay $10 to prove I own this." The man has an alternative. He presents Ron with a wad of forms, requiring signatures in three places attesting to the fact that he does, indeed, own the metal and has not stolen it. He also takes Ron's photo in the act of signing the paperwork.
"OK," says the man, and hands Ron a check for eighty cents. Yes, you read that right, but it bears repeating, doesn't it? A check for eighty cents! He gets another ten bucks, cash, for a bin of aluminum cans. He doesn't have to prove he owns those.
The two men get to talking money. Ron mentions that he is a Certified Financial Planner.
"Would you look at my portfolio?" the man asks. "I lost $20 last month and I want to know why."
"I really can't if you're not a client."
"Just take a look," says the man, and hands Ron the statement from his mutual fund. He just happens to have it with him. It has a total value of about $400.
"Is there anything I can do? Can you tell me what this all means and why I lost $20 and ... "
"Sorry, but legally, if you're not a client, I can't advise you."  Ron's used to this. Everybody wants free advice.

From there, Ron heads to Safeway, the real reason for his trip to town. They've advertised gulf shrimp in their weekly sales flyer. They almost never get those in. When he gets there, he sees a sign posted for the shrimp, big and bold at the fish counter. "Product of China" is written in small print at the bottom.
"Where are the gulf shrimp you show in the flyer?"
"We're out, so we're substituting these."
"But these aren't gulf shrimp. There's a huge difference."
"Yes, we know. But that's all we have."
"So you lure me here with an ad for gulf shrimp, in hope that I will buy these crappy, carcinogenic, farm-raised shrimp instead?"
"No, we just ran out, and this is all we have for the same price."
"I want a rain check."
"There are no rain checks. It's a 'while supplies last' sale."
Maybe such random rules apply to mere mortal shoppers, but Ron can be persuasive, especially when he's angry, if he feels he's been duped, or he has his heart set on Gulf shrimp and has driven 20 miles to get some. So they relent and give him the rain check anyway.
"We don't expect to get any more of those for awhile."
"I'll hang onto it until you do, and when you do, I'll get them at this price," he says.

Except for cat food, his entire trip to town was a bust. Ah, but in Hilo, even if you don't get what you traveled 40 miles round trip for, you at least always return home with a good story. Priceless!

I do miss that soggy, drippy place, most notably my husband, my furry babies, and the cast of characters we encounter daily. But there are characters here in Gunnison, too. I'm anxious to work again, not so much for dire need of money, but for the health and well-being of my psyche. I'm no kid anymore, but I'm too young to retire and don't want the economy making that decision for me. Able bodied people should work. It's the American way, or at least it used to be. Without work, without something meaningful to do, we flounder. I saw an image recently, I don't remember where, of a "Help Wanted" sign posted with the caveat, "Long time unemployed need not apply." The longer a person's out of the job market, the less employable she becomes.

Next year, maybe I'll have enough to do marketing our delicious coffee. Until then, my empty cabin in Colorado needs me, and I need something to do.

My trip to the Rockies was a bit of a bust, too. I had planned to drive from the Willamette Valley in my father's -- now my -- classic, 1962 Ford Falcon. It's been sitting in storage under my pseudo-step brother's carport for three years, a carport that was half my father's and I'm told is now half mine. He assured me it would "run all day," a few weeks ago, and maybe it could, but not well. Not yet. It's also unaccustomed to driving at highway speeds and could easily blow a gasket in the middle of bumfuck Idaho, in which case I'd be at the mercy of whomever towed me. If I were still my fearless, 21 year old self, I'd have jumped into that car as-is and headed east. Clearly, I've lost my edge. It ran OK when I pulled it out of the driveway, and even better with a new distributor and plugs. But it needs  a proper carbuerator, not the outsized substitute sitting on it now, and when I filled it with gas, it sprung a significant fuel-line leak. The driver's side window likes to fall into the door when you slam it shut, and the crank takes some effort to get it back up. I could imagine that happening at a pit stop along the way, then driving the next stretch freezing my gnads off because I couldn't get the window rolled up. The moldings is a too thick for the doors, so they don't seal tightly with ease. I was told that in a few months the molding will "squish out" and getting the doors closed will get easier. Right. Another $1000 bucks will have that car hummin', but even perfect, it's not ideal for everyday use. It should be driven, sure, but I can't imagine sanded, snowy, slushy roads would be kind to such a car. So I returned it to its original spot, flew here, and am now driving a rental, in search of a practical vehicle. The Falcon is for sale. I love it, but it deserves better than to sit 2500 miles away from its owner.  It really is a beautiful car, it's flaws easily fixable. It deserves those fixes, regular attention, and to be driven with pride around town and to car shows, to be admired in all its shiny red glory.

I had a job interview on the mountain yesterday, and will be checking out additional options in town today. The brilliant Colorado sunshine will light my way.

A hui hou. Aloha!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bound for the Mountains

     When we first moved to the Big Island, jobs were scarce. That hasn't changed, except to get worse. I know that's true everywhere, but Hawaii Island has long been notorious for its dearth of decent paying employment, unless you're an astronomer or work for the government. It's a challenging place to start a business, too, more expensive and arduous than any place in the nation. If you want to be an entrepreneur here, you've really got to want it. Perseverance and plenty of capital is crucial, for it's more likely to take years than months to acquire all the permits and open the doors. I can think of three large, empty buildings -- two new and one restored historic site -- sitting empty right now, waiting to open their doors for business. It's disheartening how many people who live on the windward side make the three-hour drive to work the upscale resorts of Kona and Waikaloa (a.k.a. Haolewood) on the leeward (west) side. One of my neighbors, just up the road a piece, works as a waiter in Waikiki. He flies over to Honolulu and sleeps for a few days each week in a camper he keeps there.
    Yes, people do extraordinary things to get by, let alone get ahead. Here's an example: It was an early morning, last summer, six a.m. I awaited the shuttle to take me to the airport, returning home from my Alaska/Colorado and one night in Phoenix adventure.  I struck up conversation with the pleasant, personable young desk clerk. It was August, and at that hour already getting hot in the desert.
     "Whew! How do you handle this heat?" I asked.
     "You actually get used to it," he said. "Physically. Your blood changes after awhile and you can tolerate the heat better."
     "Are you just starting your shift or are you still here from last night?"
     "I'm the still here. One hour to go."
     "Graveyard. That's tough. Do you sleep in the morning when you get home, or do you stay up for a few hours and sleep in the afternoon?"
     "Usually, I crash as soon as I get home, but today we have a mandatory one o'clock staff meeting."
     "So you have to come back in the middle of the day?"
     "No, I have to stay. I ride the bus two and a half hours to work. It's impossible for me to go home and come back. Then I'm on again tonight, so I'll just stay here after the meeting, too."
     "Can they at least give you an empty room so you can snooze and shower before your shift?"
     "Yeah, I just found out they're going to do that."
     "Two and a half hours. That's a long commute."
     "It's not so bad. I can sleep on the bus. And it's better than no job at all."

     The resiliency of the young is impressive, isn't it?  But older people are making big sacrifices for their paychecks, too. Later that morning, the middle-aged TSA ID checker at the airport commented on my Colorado Driver's license.
    "My wife lives in Denver," he said. "She said it rained pretty hard there last night."
    "She lives there and you live here?"
    "Yeah. It's not the best but we talk every day. Gotta do what you gotta do."

     I've applied for scores of jobs here over the past few years, dozens in the past few months. In most cases I don't even get a reply saying thanks but no thanks. So recently, I've been sending applications elsewhere, most notably Gunnison, CO, where we still own a cool, historic log cabin, biking distance to town, that nobody wants to buy. I have yet to land a job there, either, but I've at least gotten a few positive responses and have scheduled a few interviews, so prospects look good. The cabin needs an inhabitant, at least through the coldest part of the winter, so it makes sense that I should go there. There's a glut of rental property in Gunnison these days -- ours is not the only house not selling -- and we're just not up to being long-distance landlords again. Are we destitute and desperate? No. But sitting around unemployed has not been good for me. So off I shall go to bring home the tofu (we no longer eat much bacon at out house), to shovel snow and freeze my tush off in a new middle place, the middle of the Rockies, while my family remains in the middle of the Pacific tending to the coffee farm, basking in the liquid sunshine of the rainforest and keeping our cozy hovel from biodegrading into the earth. I'm confident we can withstand this skosh of adversity. Americans everywhere are working much harder and doing much crazier things. Plus, there's iChat, Skype and Magic Jack. We'll be fine.

I'm also looking at this as a writer's retreat. How can I help but be productive there, alone in a cabin in the mountains, fire blazing, snow piled up against the windows outside? And when I'm not working or writing (of course, writing is also hard work), there might be time to squeeze in a few turns. I dug my skis out of storage today, and while they're a bit outdated, they're still OK. A quick run over a base grinder, a squirt of silicone spray on the bindings and they'll be ready to slide. I just hope I remember how to ride 'em.

A hui hou. Aloha!






Saturday, September 10, 2011

Okie Dokie, Coqui

Smaller in diameter that a dime and cute as can be, the coqui frog is nonetheless much maligned here on Hawaii Island. Many view the little buggahs as disruptors of the peace, invaders who have turned our once quiet evenings riotous. By contrast, the bitty frogs are much beloved in their native Puerto Rico, and threatened there as a species. But they thrive here, the first of them having arrived as stow-aways on imported plants sometime in the 90s. Named for their sound -- coQUI, coQUI -- only the males sing, and only after dark. During the day, the frogs are quiet. For a time, it was all out war against the frogs. The county advocated and supplied a variety of chemical sprays -- caffeine, citric acid, hydrated lime -- with huge promotional campaigns aimed at eradication. They're still here, more than ever and in the Puna and Hilo districts here in The Big Island, it would appear that, for lack of funding in these austere times and a waning of the will to murder the little beasts, they are here to stay.

When we first moved to the upper Puna area known as Glenwood, there were no coquis here. Now? Listen for yourself. This fifteen-second soundtrack was recorded from my back lanai. It started with one, a couple of years ago. Last summer, we could identify two or three within earshot. This year, it's dozens, or maybe scores. Here's what they sound like.




Not everyone hates the coquis. Though still a minority, there is a growing faction that has come to terms with these raucous amphibians and, I admit, I'm one of them. And now, local experts agree, too. Time to lay down our arms in the fight against the frogs.

Yes, the coquis are non-native. So am I.  So are many of the people here, and most of the plants and animals. To say that the frogs are disrupting the "status quo" would seem an indefensible argument.  The natural balance of these islands was altered with the arrival of the first humans and has been under siege ever since.  Frogs are dying off in alarming numbers worldwide due to climate change, pollution and habitat degradation. Here, it would seem, one renegade species has found a haven. It's true they have no natural predators here, but for the occasional chicken or cat who gets lucky. So there numbers are legion. And yes, they undoubtedly eat native insects and compete for food with other native and non-native creatures. Scientist worry that, if snakes are ever introduced to Hawaii, the frogs will be a ready food supply for the reptiles. Never mind that without the frogs, the snakes would no doubt find something else to eat. Like bird eggs (a bad thing). Or maybe rats (a good thing). Or, if we're really lucky, chihuahuas (Kidding.)  It seems a bit fatalistic to assume that it's only a matter of time before the snakes come. Fatalistic, but not unreasonable, given the record of human screw-ups of this place. Still, it seems a better use of resources to put our efforts toward keeping worse creatures out than killing off a million frogs already here. The coquis lots eat mosquitoes, too, also an invasive species, one which carries diseases that infect native birds, pets and people. We've noticed this summer to be our most productive in the vegetable garden yet, and it's possible the little coquis have something to do with that. Fewer pests mean fewer pukas in da zucchini. There are fewer gnats and beetles doing the crawl through my beer in the evenings, too.

It seems the way of things in Hawaii that humans bring creatures and plants here, either on purpose or through carelessness, for many reasons. The creatures and plants flourish. They become a nuisance. We decide we hate them and must exterminate. We endeavor to do so, always at great cost and often employing deplorable methods, and in the end, our efforts always fall short. There are still mountain sheep munching native plants on Mauna Kea,  fire ants tormenting lower Puna, feral cats everywhere, vast tracts of waiawi trees and miconia plants choking out native forests. Like them or not, they have become part of the landscape.

I'm not suggesting that what little remains endemic or indigenous to these islands should not be protected. Certainly, the diligence we all employ in keeping snakes away is worthwhile, and in keeping less onerous but nonetheless invasive, non-native species from entering in the first place. It's also on us to protect the few native creatures and plants that remain as best we can by resisting the urge to bulldoze their habitat to make it our own. But unless it's clear that the now well-entrenched coquis are a serious environment threat, it makes sense to leave them be and focus on bigger troublemakers. A recent story in the Trubune-Herald suggests that experts and government officials have come to the same conclusion. The coqui population has leveled off, they say, and is expected to remain stable here on Hawaii Island.  Millions of dollars have already been spent to eradicate the frogs, and, as you can hear, that's been a bust. If it's a choice between coquis and mosquitoes, or coquis and fire ants, or coquis and centepedes, or coquis and pigs, or coquis and Christmas Berry trees (horrible), all nastier and far more destructive, I proclaim solidarity with chatty amphibians. Long live the coqui. Our problems will not be resolved by the elimination of one small, misplaced creature to an isolated archipelago. It's our planet that's ailing, the place where we're all native, all trying to find our best place to thrive. More important that we should retrain our focus on the bigger island, Island Earth.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just Sayin'

   I had a job interview for a marketing specialist position on Monday, with a follow-up assignment sent via email to provide a graphic and a writing sample on Tuesday. This second step seemed like a positive thing to me, like a second interview. So there I am, Tuesday afternoon, feeling pretty good about the interview and the samples I sent that morning. The Doctor Dog and I are cruising up the road for an afternoon walk, feeling light of foot and generally good, when we hear a familiar sound. There's no mistaking the distinct bumble of my neighbor's Anthurium-red BMW with the black rag top and miscreant muffler. It closes in on us fast, prompting us to step aside and into the grass along the non-shoulder of our one-lane road. Her window is down when she reaches us.
   "You didn't play tennis Monday, did you?" she asks. It's a weird question, since I play with her.
   "Nope. Had a job interview."
   "Oh yeah? Where?"
   "At a local credit union. Marketing Specialist."
   "Well, they had you come in because you're female. They have to interview all the woman who seem qualified to check them out in person, because you could be local but just married to someone with a haole-sounding name. What they're hoping for, you know, is someone well-connected on the island, with plenty of cousins and aunties and uncles and old friends."
   "Well, they spoke to me in person, then gave me a second assignment this morning, which I don't think they'd do if they weren't at least a little interested after the first meeting."
   "Maybe. I'm just saying you're probably not what they're looking for. That's how it is here."
   "Right."
   "Right."
   "Well, see ya."
   "See ya." And off she bumbled.
   Speeding neighbor's buzz-kill aside, I did my best with the interview. I was honest and sincere about my capabilities and experience. I had some good ideas that I think they genuinely liked. You get what you give. I may not be so well connected, but I think I've got a chance.

   It finally stopped raining Friday, so Ron set out to mow the lawn. The ground is saturated, so rather than looking nicer, it's as though kids on ATVs snuck in during the night for a quick spin in the mud, leaving tracks across the green.
   While he mowed, I ran errands. Errands are excruciating in Hilo. You can never get everything you need at one place and the traffic generally stinks. All the while I was thinking about that job, and what the neighbor said, and mentally reinforcing my belief that the interviewers were very nice and professional, that they are considering me, maybe among other strong candidates, but that I do, in fact, have a shot. When I arrived home, Ron had tipped the front wheels of the tractor into a hole. There are drop offs all over the property, and it's hard to detect their exact location until you fall over the edge. He found one, then spun the back wheels in the muck. Stuck. It happens. I've done it, too.

   So here's the scenario: I drive the Trooper to within a few feet of the tractor. He hooks it to the Deere with a heavy chain. But instead of just climbing straight into the yellow seat and shouting, "OK" or "hit it," he makes a special point of walking to the window where I sit behind the wheel of the truck, locked and loaded, ready to roll.
   "Go slow," he says.
   "Really? Shucks. I was planning to floor it."
   "I'm just sayin'."
   "For the fifteenth time." How fast does he think I can go, anyway, with the truck in low gear on soupy ground through a coffee grove?
   "Well, just go slow, OK." He climbs onto the tractor. "Ready," he yells. Finally. I apply the most miniscule amount of pressure to the pedal as is humanly possible, pressing oh-so-gingerly with my toes. The tires ease around about a quarter turn. The chain tugs tight.
   "Slower!" He shouts. I take my foot off the pedal. The Trooper stops. I cannot go slower and actually go.
   "Do you want to drive the truck and let me sit in the tractor?"I ask.
   "No, just go SLOW." Now I really want to floor it, but instead, he manages to sit still for a nanosecond while I ease the tractor out. All is well until I get the truck back into the driveway.
   "What's wrong?" he asks.
   "It doesn't want to shift out of four wheel drive." I'm working the stick, but it won't budge.
   "Why did you use the shifter? Why didn't you just push the TOD (traction on demand) button?"
   "Because I wanted the lowest gear possible. TOD is four wheel drive in high gear. The tractor's heavy. It's not like I was planning to drive 55 miles per hour in a blizzard. You wanted me to go slow, remember?"
   "Get out. Let me do it," he says. After ten minutes of him grunting and jerking the knob, he acknowledges that yes, it is stuck. "If you'd just pushed TOD. This button? Right here?" He presses it on and off several times for emphasis. "Everything would be fine."
If you hadn't driven the tractor into a hole everything would be fine, too. 
   "Right," I say.
   "Why won't it budge?" he asks, rhetorically, not expecting an answer. I give him one anyway.
   "Maybe because it just sits here in the rainforest rotting day after day and something's rusted in there."
   He gives me a look. "Maybe if I get it moving," he says, and takes off down the driveway.
   "That should work," I say, because that's what I would have done next. It did.
   The next day,we take another trip to town for Diesel and beer and such, all the stuff we used up or forgot to put on the list the day before. We pick up everything at Cost-U-Less except eggs and JujiFruits. The chewy candy is a must-buy on Ron's list, never mind that it is made mostly of high-fructose corn syrup, something we scrutinize labels for when shopping for everything else. They require a special stop at Walgreens because the only other place that carries them is Walmart, which is enormous and crowded and unpleasant, so we only go there if we have no other choice, and we might have purchased the eggs at Cost-U-Less, too, but Ron wants to get them at KTA where they're two cents cheaper or something. At KTA he runs in and I stay in the car, because it feels silly to me for two people to go into a store, then stand in line to checkout for one measly dozen eggs. There's a location at the edge of the parking lot there where kids wash cars to raise money for their teams or youth groups or gangs or whatever, and it's near where we always park, and I watch them for a few minutes through the dirty windshield, thinking I should wash the car and the algae-festooned Trooper when I get home. Ron returns to find me snoozing, seat reclined, nice tradewind breeze floating through the open window. He gets in, hands me the bag and we head homeward. I close my eyes again and doze.
   "Time for a nappy?" he asks.
   "Time for a nappy."

   Halfway home, he blurts, "Where are the eggs?"
   I point to the floorboard between my feet. "Right here." I sit up, awake now, straighten the seat-back and turn on the radio.
   "That's annoying," he says and turns it off. I recline again and close my eyes, but can't sleep. Moments later, the wipers click on. Whap, whap, whap...
We pull into the driveway and squeak open our respective doors to exit the car.
   "Don't step on the eggs," he says.
   "Damn. I was going to stomp on them and smash them all to gooey bits."
   "I'm just sayin'."
   "Why do you think I don't know that stepping on the eggs we just bought would be a bad idea?"
   "Well, you can be forgetful sometimes."
   "I have never, in 52 years of life on this earth, ever stepped on a single egg, let alone a dozen of them."
   "They're right by your feet. I'm just sayin'."

   Now, there's no denying I can be forgetful. I've been known to leave my shopping list behind, or to misplace my purse or glasses or keys. Once, while traveling, I forgot to account for a change in time zones, neglected to reset my watch, didn't think to look at one of the hundreds of clocks hanging in the terminal, hung out for too long in the Hudson's Bookstore and missed my connecting flight. But I have never forgotten to not step on the eggs. It's like saying, "Don't run down any pedestrians on your way to town today." Gosh. OK. Glad you said something. I might have bowling-pinned a dozen of 'em before I remembered that.


   Alright, so I've been a little testy these past couple of days. Maybe a little more than a little. I can be a smidge sarcastic when I feel patronized, and am especially sensitive to that if I'm feeling a little more than a little testy.

Testy is as testy does. You get what you give.

Just sayin'.

A hui hou. Aloha!
















Saturday, August 13, 2011

Return to Fraggle Rock

Some people collect Hummels. Others like stamps, or coins or those commemorative spoons from places they visit around the world. For me, it's college degrees. The next one will have to wait a few years, however, since I am fresh out of cash. Time to go earn some.

The mission, which I have no choice but to accept, is to find a job. This, I believe, will prove more challenging than earning any degree. The competition is keen. The pickings, slim. I've applied on the island for positions ranging from Seasonal Cookie Dipper to Marketing Specialist, and if that goat herder opening appears again the paper, I'll go for that, too. I like goats. 

I'm happy to be home for now with my husband and dog and adorable kitties, and yet, more often than not, my head is elsewhere. To be specific, it's in Colorado, or Alaska. "There is no hope for the satisfied man." So states the motto of The Denver Post. If this applies to middle-aged women, too, then I am about as friggin' hopeful as you can get.

It was great to be back on the tennis court this week with my ball-whacking, Punatic homies. 
"You weren't getting your degree in Alaska," said Kathy Hanson with a point and a wink. She's the instigator of our gang of four. Small and athletic, she's an especially smart player, formidable in many ways, with a wicked forehand down-the-line and great passion for winning. "You were at tennis camp." I did play well that day.
My good buddy Robert, who normally doesn't play on Wednesdays, made a special point to join us in honor of my return. He did so at great personal sacrifice --  riding the bus home afterward -- as his wife needed the car for errands. Robert has an infectious, boyish smile and looks much younger than his 49 years. Like Michael Jordan, he sticks his tongue out with concentration when he serves. Robert wears a UH Warriors visor over a black-on-white paisley bandana, and dark sunglasses. Long, cargo shorts hang to his knees. His look is nerdy, white-boy hip-hop, his shorts baggy since he's lost some weight. "I had to come see my girl," he grinned. Robert was nursing a sore ankle when I left for Alaska, but it's healed, and now he too is playing with greater confidence. His volleys were on fire that day.
"It feels like we're getting the band back together," I said to Barney after our match as we walked to our cars. Barney is Kathy's brother, an exceptional athlete and, at 58 years young, the best, most mobile player of us all. Our goal in playing against him is to hit the ball where he is not. Trouble is, he's everywhere. Barney plays rock-n-roll into the wee hours most weekends. He never trains. The first thing he does when we finish playing is grab a cigarette. Barney typically wears a headscarf to cover a bald spot on top, which, combined with a salty pony tail, makes him look especially cool. Between points, he practices a phantom base on his racket. His band is called Gin and Chronic. 
"It is a beautiful thing," he agreed and smiled, fingers tickling the imaginary fretboard of his grip.

Today, I will talk with a woman I once worked with at the winery who may have an opportunity for me to sell locally made jams at the Hilo Farmers' Market two days a week. That could be fun. Who doesn't love jam? I've sent out half-a-dozen resumés and cover letters this week, too, the have-MFA, will-teach-for-beer-money kind.

Righ now, it's raining. Yesterday afternoon was delugenous. (That's a new word I just invented.) My neighbor and good friend Kathy McGonigle, our foremost local authority on rainfall amounts, said we got half an inch in an hour. The roar upon the roof was fierce. That sort of torrent is not uncommon here, but it is August and not the rainy season. So this was a little exciting. For my money, if it's going to rain every friggin' day, let it bloody rain. Hard. I want to see rain the likes of which would make Noah seem like an overreactive, whiney crybaby. Cats and dogs, lions and tigers and bears-- oh my! Rain like a vertical river. Bring-it-on!

A hui hou. Aloha!




Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Yes, I know. I've been remiss with the blog. Shoveling sawdust and vole poop will do that to a writer. It's been nearly two weeks since my arrival in Gunnison and I should be ready to go home. Instead, I don't want to leave. The house is clean, or clean enough. It meets our standards, anyway, which have plummeted in recent years to about the level of limbo bars for cockroaches. The plumbing works now -- mostly. The grass looks like a bad haircut. But it's still a way cool house, in a groovy town, and I want to stay.

My friend Brian said it best in quoting the theme from Cheers on my Facebook page recently: "You wanna go where everybody knows your name." Lots of people know me here, and I know lots of people, and we've been genuinely glad to see each other these past days, in coffee shops, at their houses for dinner, on the sidewalk, at the market or the hardware store. Everywhere I go. Everywhere. And the people I've encountered who I don't know? Well, they seem like nice folks, too.

As much as I love the house itself, selling it does not preclude returning here. There are plenty of places to rent or buy here and always will be. And if the infusion of cash gets me off the island a little more often, then it's worth it.

And then there's Alaska. I was there, too, just a few weeks ago. It's a wonder, that place, and I've come to love it, too. There's so much more of The Last Frontier to explore.

I really should return to Gunnison and to Alaska mid-winter. Maybe then the rainforest won't seem so bleak, the green not so boring and oppressive, the warm, humid air not so cloying and annoying. There's more coffee to pick now, and even some to sell, which is kinda cool (but also grueling), but I'm still languishing "in the bushes" as my neighbor Kathy refers to where we live. Everything feels better here, in Colorado, or in Alaska, where I can look out across the valleys to mountains beyond, not far beyond, mind you, but further than the choke trees crowding my house in Hawaii.

Johnny Cash is singing dirges as I sip warm lemon ginger tea at Mochas this evening. Stuffed with Garlic Mike's Pasta, my stomach's uncomfortable, but in a contented way, with Alfredo fetuccini and, ala Hannibal Lecter, a nice chianti. My butt's sore, for I stepped funny the other day, into a hole maybe, carrying a load of rubbish from a slash pile left by the renters, a pile too damp to burn. And my hearts aching some too, for having to leave this place.

Time to take an ibuprofen and hit the air mattress one last time. Tomorrow morning, I'll say goodbye to Gunnison, and to these guys. They've been good company, too, coming to the fence most afternoons to visit.



 A hui hou, guys. Aloha!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ponderings of The Lone Wolf

My mother once tried to punish me by sending me to my room.  I must have done something pretty bad to warrant such a sentence, though I don't recall now what that was. She probably does. My mom's like an elephant. She rarely forgets anything, and if she does, she'll makes up something even better that quickly becomes the standard family truth. On that day, furious, she escorted me through the door of my room with a stern point of the finger, then pulled the door closed with a firm click. Two hours later, she returned.
"You can come out now," she said.
"That's OK," I said, smiling. She peered in to see that I'd set up all my stuffed animals around the bed. It was a theater-in-the-round and I was having a grand time enacting some sort of play for them. She laughed, shook her head and headed down the hall.

Children without siblings learn early and well to entertain themselves. We are our own best audiences. My buddy Janine and I -- she, too, was an only child -- have coined a phrase, "It's an only child thing," whenever we find ourselves the only two laughing at a lame joke no one else gets, or when one of us bursts into an unbridled exhibition of silliness as though no one is looking, then discovers that everyone is. 

I loved being alone as a kid. I'd hold entire conversations with myself and my imaginary friends, or my fabric and plastic friends, catch end zone passes and land on the bed in a blaze of touchdown glory, blast down-the-line passing shots as the Wimbledon crowd in my head went wild. I'd sing to the radio into a broom handle to adoring, if inanimate fans. This was not an occasional thing. I did it often, and for hours. Even today, my husband, Ron, will come into a room and ask, "Who are you talking to?" and I'll say, "The cat," but he knows better. There were, however, times when I envied friends from large families. I remember waiting for the bus during those years my Queen of Peace classmates and I all picked strawberries in summer. The days began early, still dark outside, and chilly. Mom would drop me off, then head home to crawl back into her warm bed for another hour or two before the day started for the civilized world. Mrs. McCarthy was always at the bus stop, there in the parking lot of the closed gas station with a carload of McCarthys, motor idling, heater blasting. They'd squeeze me into their sanctuary, tight and toasty, a comfy place, of  jibes and giggles and fun. There were always and ever so many McCarthys. The affection among and between them was palpable, and for a few moments those mornings, mashed in with them like Irish sardines, I too was a McCarthy, an honorary member of the tribe, a part of something good.

The writing residency feels a little like that. There's a warmth and support here, like being brought in out of the cold by old, best friends. Like family. We've seen each other in our jammies and without makeup. We even bicker and gripe a little, but mostly, we're crammed into this literary Chevy like contented McCarthys, genuinely happy to be in each other's company, worried over one another's troubles and setbacks, glad for each other's improvements and accomplishments.

To crave solitude is not something unique to only children, but it may be more acute in us. Fantasies of long road trips alone for days or weeks along endless stretches of empty highway gnaw at me, like hunger. Yet lately, as I listen to friends tell family stories of siblings and children and grandchildren, there's a sense of something missing, something I've lost for never having had it, the lone wolf displaced for lack of a pack. What becomes of elderly wanderers, only children with no kids of their own? Of course, having children is no guarantee you'll have someone to care for you and share your time in old age. Kids can be fickle that way. And I do have a husband who loves me and a fine, furry family of adorables. Able-bodied and well-fed, I am one lucky buggah, indeed. But it's something I wonder about. I still relish the notion of a solitary venture along some long, lonesome road, still bent on the merits of the journey over the destination, but now, it is connection rather than disconnection along the way that I seek, with the rare and special people I've come to know along the way. It would seem then, that I am far less the loner than I've pegged myself to be.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On Tennis and Writing and Being Too Nice

I've recently been recruited to play tennis for a local 4.0 ladies tennis league team, referred to as either "Team Debbie" for the nice woman who manages us, or "Have Fun," which is our pre-match chant. We're still looking for a proper name. But we do have fun, despite getting creamed most outings. Last Saturday, we played in the Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium in Hilo. Good thing, too, since outside it was pouring, complete with thunder and lightning. It's a substantial structure, covered, yet open all around, most famous for hosting the annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in April. It was about 85 degrees outside and 100 percent humidity, air so thick it took three sucks of my albuterol inhaler just to breath. Several of us arrived early to warm up, but after twenty minutes' steady rallying with my teammate, Keiko, the human backboard, I was drenched. I played doubles with a nice, extremely fit and excellent ground-stroker named Cynthia from Pahoa. Our game was respectable through the first set, but faltered in the second. The final score: 5-7, 0-6.  Cynthia and I came up with a chant of our own, high-fiving each other with "Tally Ho" after every court switch. It didn't help us win, but it made us feel better about losing.

I've been struggling lately with my put-away shots, choking on those easy, powder-puff balls, the ones  delivered straight up on a silver platter. They should be sure winners, or as they say in basketball, slam dunks. On wednesday, playing with my usual morning group, I missed several of these.

"What's happened to your killer instinct?' asked Kathy, the most intense member of our foursome. If anyone plays the game with murderous intent, she does. I shrugged and smiled, transported instantly back to my too-serious-about-tennis-for-my-own-good high school days. I recalled a comment from my coach. It was one of those moments we all experience as kids, when someone you respect flattens you, saying something you'll never forget.


It had come after what I had thought was a particularly good hitting lesson. I'd been working with Bruce for a couple of years, and he'd always been encouraging.  "You've really come along way," he said. "Your strokes are solid, with such a nice, topspin kick on your second serve. And that backhand down-the-line is coming along." I smiled.  "But nice strokes aren't everything. You'll never go far on the tournament circuit, I'm afraid. You just don't have the killer instinct for it."
"What do you mean?" The smile was gone.
"I mean that you have to hate your opponent while you're out there on the court. You have to want to crush her every time you connect with the ball. You're too nice."
I was incensed. "No I'm not!"
"There's nothing wrong with being nice," he said.

For weeks I brooded about it, decided he was an idiot, did everything I could to dredge up distain for whomever stood on the opposite side of the net from me, especially if it was him. I've never forgotten that statement and, of course, years later, realized he was right.

I've since been called too nice in other areas of life. As a department manager with Deluxe Corporation way back in the gnarly nineties, my colleague and pal Janine dubbed me, Toni the friendly manager. She'd draw out the word friendly, for emphasis.
"Shut up!" I'd say.
"You're too nice. Sometimes, you really do have to be a little tougher on people to get the job done."  "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," I might say to her, that old, tired cliché, to which she might respond, "Maybe, but you can catch a lot of flies with shit, too." A valid point. For the record, we're still great friends.

And I'm still too nice. My husband tells me this all the time. If it were up to me, we'd pay full price for all our cars at some exorbitant interest rate because I'm such a pushover with unscrupulous dealers. Oh I can haggle and be tough if I must, but it's not a comfortable role. That's probably why I've never gotten rich, either.

Believe it or not, there's an analogy to writing here.

In thinking about the sorts of stories I read in literary magazines and even novels nowadays, heavy, wrenching, depressing stories, and considering my overt niceness, I know I don't have that in me. I will never make my readers gasp with some disturbing, cutting edge, nightmare-inducing prose that makes them squirm in their seats and want to chew on nails for relief when they've finished reading it. In fact, I admit I don't mind an occasional happy ending, not necessarily a Hollywood happily-ever-after sort of thing, but one where life goes on in some capacity and not everyone's completely miserable or dead.

Yesterday, the Have Fun/Team Debbie ladies played another match. I was a little surprised not to be included on the roster, but then I am the newest member, and several women have not had the chance to play matches yet, so it seemed fair.  Without me, they won for the first time all season.

Tennis is an individual sport. Doubles team play aside, when the ball comes to you, there's nobody to pass it to, nobody to share the burden of your shot. It's yours alone. You either hit it and make the shot, or you don't. You win matches on the merit of your play and you lose them for the same reason. Tennis also requires myopic focus on a single objective. This is the most challenging part for me, to train my attention on the ball and only the ball, not let my mind wander to consider what I might want to cook for dinner or if I remembered to turn off the coffee maker before I left the house. It's hard to do for an entire match, to block out everything and just play. It's especially difficult when the going gets tough, when the competition is tightest, or when you've fallen behind.

The ability to tune out distractions is critical in writing, too. Those places where you find yourself injecting something personal, painful, or just plain stuck regarding what might happen to your protagonist next -- those are the worst. That's when you suddenly get the urge for another cup of coffee, or to pull the laundry from the washer and throw it into the drier, or to puck your eyebrows, anything but sit there and grind it out.

With writing, it's not so much about winning as surviving. It takes no small amount of tenacity and courage to wring words out of yourself and onto the page. And like a hotly contested tennis match, it can be exhausting. Given my lack of a killer instinct, I'm often content in tennis with a series of well-executed shots even if I don't win the match, or even the point. So too, do I find great satisfaction in a kick-ass sentence, a brilliant paragraph transition, or in striking that perfect balance between scene and summary.

I don't know what this all means, really. It's just musings on the page. Sometimes, I escape the most challenging aspects of writing with other writing. That's what I'm doing now. So, one more cup of coffee, then it's back to my story. Focus. Focus. Focus. See the ball. Be the ball. There's nothing but that ball.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Pickin'

Last week, 60 Minutes aired a segment on child farm labor. Yes, it still exists in America and it's still legal. Kids do it to help their families. They're strong, these kids, resilient. They work hard and make the best of those long, hot days. But ask any of them, as the 60 Minutes reporter did, and they'll tell you they don't want to do it forever. They plan to graduate high school, go to college, make a better life for themselves and their children. When I was a kid, I worked as a farm laborer, too. No one forced me and I did not do it to help my family. I did it because many of my classmates were doing it, and because my parents had done it as children, and their parents before them.  I did it for cash, for a pair of Levis and a Nishiki 12 speed bicycle. It was tedious, dirty work, but like today's farm worker kids, we made the best of it, picking to the rhythm of transistor radios tuned to the same, top 40 station. Backaches and sunburns aside, I have fond memories of those berry picking days.

At sixteen, I left the fields for a coveted cannery job, which required a union membership but paid way better than picking or fast food. The entry-level women's job at Del Monte was known as, "the belt." It's where everyone started. You stood on a raised platform watching an endless river of green beans as they flowed by on a conveyor. The task was simple: pick out the rotten ones, stems, clods and rocks. We wore fetching hair nets. After a few minutes on the job, staring down at the beans, I began to feel queazy. It was as though I was moving and the conveyor stood still. I bolted to the restroom, without permission from my supervisor, to puke. Upon my return, still pale and shaky, the lack of appreciation shown me for having not spewed on the product was an affront to my teenage sensibilities. They moved me to the steaming, sweltering cook room, the end of the line. Standing on another, higher platform, a line of cans, single file, ran up a skinny conveyor and onto a stainless steel table. As the warm tins gathered, I pushed them onto a pallet in a single stroke using a heavy, two-handled, sickle-shaped squeegie thingy. When one level on the pallet was full, I'd lay a divider on top, then push some more.  I pushed, and pushed, and pushed, left to right, left to right, left to right. All. Day. Long. The best thing I can say about the cook room is that blanched green beans don't have much smell, and the faint aroma they emit when simmering is pleasant enough. I can't say the same for beets, which were cooking and coming off another line twenty feet away. Throughout that late, hot summer, feet aching on that metal scaffold, sweat pouring over eyebrows and drizzling down temples, I heaved green beans, inhaling the sickly sweet stench of boiling beets with every breath. I hate beets.

I come from a long agrarian line, proud of my farm-worker heritage. I appreciate what farmers and field hands do because I've done it. It's honorable work. But like those boys in the 60 minutes story, I aspired to a different life, one that did not involve blisters or stained hands, neck and back complaining, head and shoulders baked under a scorching sun, nor do I miss factory work, repeating the same, mindless task, over and over and over. This is why I am not so enamored with this coffee farm hobby we've taken up as my city-boy husband, for whom the romance and novelty are still fresh. He thinks it's really cool to be picking our own coffee. I think it's a chore and would rather just buy some at the farmers' market. Rustling through rain-soaked brush to find the ripe red cherry, stooping to get the low fruit, stretching on tip-toes to reach the high ones, sweeping spider webs from between the branches; this is his dream, not mine. There are so many better things to pick: the strings on my ukulele, the right word for a perfect sentence, a fresh, clean aloha shirt from the closet, a beer from the Gordon Biersch collection I bought this morning at Foodland, my nose, my dog's nose.

The Hilo Coffee Mill called this afternoon to say we have 20 pounds of green coffee dried, hulled and ready to roast. OK, I guess that's kinda cool.

Monday, May 09, 2011

A hui hou, Hoppsy

She was the world's most brilliant, brave, mischievous, and beautiful border collie in the history of the universe. Hopps made us smile every day of her life.

She came to us from friends who adopted her from the Denver Dumb Friends League. She had been abused as a pup and was shy then, afraid of anything with a long handle, scared of belts and loud noises. Our friends loved her, but with a fledgling business and a baby on the way, they had little time for. We fell for her instantly that weekend they came to visit, and when they asked if we'd be willing to take her, we said, in unison and without hesitation, "Sure!"


Hopps transformed from city pooch to country girl and quickly became the happiest dog in the world.

Now, free from old age and disease, she can shag tennis balls all day long.  "Hello, Hoppsy," my father says, as though he's been expecting her. He sits on the tailgate of his long-bed '65 Chevy, Crawford, our English shepherd, content at his side. Lucy, the calico, purrs on his lap. Hopps is crouched and ready, her gaze trained upon the ball, bright yellow and fresh from the can, snapped tight into the cup of the Chuck-It in Dad's hand. Dewy grass shimmers in sunlight. He pulls back. She's off! He flings it, and all is right with the afterworld.

   "What's this sock doing in the middle of the living room floor?" Ron might have asked on any given day over the past 11 eleven years.
    "I don't know," I'd say. "You'll have to ask Hoppsy."

In heaven, there are infinite socks to steal.

In heaven, you can eat all the cat food you want and not barf. You can sniff all the cat's butts and goose them with your nose whenever you get the urge and none will ever scratch your nose. You can go hiking, chase prairie dogs, leap over logs and wade through creeks -- shallow streams just right for a dog who can't swim -- running clear and cold to quench your thirst and cool your paws. In heaven, you can roll on cow pies or fish carcasses and nobody makes you take a bath. Ever.

There are no thunder storms in heaven.

You can eat all the licorice and Jelly Bellies you want and not barf.



You'll always be with us, Hoppsy. You'll always be our girl. 



Friday, April 01, 2011

Here comes the sun

"Little darlin', it seems like years since it's been clear..." George Harrison

After eleven -- count 'em, cause I do -- yes, eleven days of all-day rain with intermittent downpours and deluges, yesterday was glorious. Now, you might think that one good thing about a string of foul-weather days is that a person would appreciate the sunshine even more when it finally breaks through to lighten a dismal world. But I'll marvel at a sunny Thursday even if Wednesday was also fabulous. Maybe that has something to do with growing up in the great, if gray and drizzly Pacific Northwest. But it's a bona fide, documented, irrefutable fact that I would never take a sunny day for granted, even if it were sunny every friggin' day of the year. I wouldn't. Really. No way.

Hoppsy wasn't feeling her best, so we hobbled to the yard to sit under the kukui nut tree, she in the grass, me in my shaky, rusty lawn chair. The kitties all gathered 'round. I didn't get much reading done for all the petting that was demanded of me.

In the afternoon, I took a short hike at the park. The tradewind breeze was stiff enough to prompt a snugging of the Velcro on my cap, which blew off anyway when I turned to make my descent from The Jaggar Museum to the KMC. The Halemaumau Crater vent seems to be generating less gas these days, but the crater rim trail and road are still closed for the plume that crosses it on the other side from the museum. I love the crater rim hike, even that short stretch of it, for the diversity of plants along its edge and the drama of an active, volcanic crater on one side, the snoozing behemoth Mauna Loa on the other. Ohelo with ripe berries, o'hia lehua in bloom with shades of silver and lavender on some of the leaves, full, sickle-leafed koa trees (not like the ragged, nearly naked ones in my yard). And here's the best part. This is why I love that Americans are so lazy. Only occasionally did I encounter someone else on what I've come to consider my trail. There's a viewpoint parking area along the way, where people get out of there cars and walk to the overlook. They cross the path to the crater's edge, snap a few photos, then stroll back to their cars and drive on to the next pull-out. The museum overlook itself is always bustling, too. But not many people actually take the time to walk.

My quest today is to get Hoppsy to eat. She's alert this morning (and Lord knows, the world needs more lerts), chipper even, and she ate a bit of breakfast. I've got an order in at the vet to renew her appetite stimulant/happy pills prescription today. Hope that helps.

It's time for oatmeal (with raisins), then to do a little fresh, new writing. Today's not so brilliant as yesterday, but not so nasty as the day before. Onward.
A hui hou. Aloha!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Our Lucy


There's never been a cat so indulged or more loved. She was our Lucy, our favorite (but don't tell the others) and we've been spoiling her for years. Yesterday, we made the wrenching decision to let her go. The inoperable tumor on her nose had grown furious and was making her miserable despite extra doses of pain medication. Today, our hearts are broken for the loss of our beautiful, bossy girl. We buried her at the base of the koa tree that angles out from the roof of the house. We might have trimmed it years ago for the leaves it sheds into the gutter. But she climbed it every day to bask in the sun on the roof, or to curl up under the eves when it rained. She climbed it before losing her sight, and after, too. It's Lucy's tree, as it is her house. We're just fortunate she liked us enough to let us live here with her. We stay on as caretakers in her absence.

Lucy is with Grandpa now, and her doggy-sister Crawford. I'm sure there's also a 24-hour all-you-can-eat tuna and fresh-roasted turkey bar nearby, for when she feels inclined to a snack.

When her eyes failed, Lucy would sit at the edge of the high grass for hours, listening to the rustle within, to the flitting and chirping overhead. Now, she can see all the lizards and all the birds. In Lucy's heaven, there is no pain. Only tuna and chicken and turkey and more tuna, with Greenies treats for dessert. There are cozy laps, office chairs, towel closets and couch-backs. Endless petties, but only when she wants them; only on her terms. Plenty of feathery, slithery things to swat across endless expanses of lawn. In Lucy's heaven, there is no rain. Only sunshine she can stretch out beneath, across driveways and rooftops, to feel the warmth and soak it into her sweet, cantankerous soul, every day.

We love you Lucy. Your spirit will live on here, in this place, and within us, forever.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Medical cost woes

My friend Kathy and I were lamenting the other day how expensive it is to exist these days, let alone stay healthy, especially as a middle-aged human, with or without medical insurance. She has been nursing an injured, worn-out shoulder, diligent with ice, stretching and rotator cuff exercises, but  knows it will need surgery to fix properly, something she can't afford. She was with me when I broke my tooth.

"Shit. There's another two grand, just like that! What's next?" I said.
"I know what you mean. It's like you're afraid to move because something might break and you can't afford to fix it," she said. I laughed, but truer words were never spoken.

I recently had minor surgery, a nether-regionectomy and gynecological spelunking as I like to call it. The medical staff at North Hawaii Community Hospital liked my description of the procedure and seemed amenable to changing its official name to exactly that, an NRGS for short. Prior to the surgery, my primary care physician had wanted to schedule me for an MRI. The ultrasound looked fuzzy, to get a clearer picture. I said no, since they were going to scope it anyway. It turned out to be a wise call. The surgery will cost me $800 dollars above what my insurance covers. An MRI would have set me back a bundle more. Medications are not covered by my plan, either. If they were, I'd be paying $600+/month premiums. As it is, they just hiked those by another $100 in January. That's about a 30% increase. The medicine itself, basic asthma maintenance, were I to buy it from my local pharmacy, would cost upwards of $350/month. (You should know that many drugs we're told do not have generic equivalents in the U.S. do everywhere else in the world. Advair is one example.) I'm all for supporting R&D at pharmaceutical companies. I realize it's expensive and without it, no new drug would be developed. But when I see the monthly price of Advair®, then learn that the generic is blocked from sale in this country and that even the brand name is half the price abroad, when I am bombarded by the plethora of expensive ads for this drug on TV, when I consider the exorbitant, multimillion dollar salaries collected by big pharma executives who have nothing to do with research and development, I get a little peeved. I'm a generally healthy person, yet staying that way is now close to prohibitive.

On a positive note, BC the black cat has become a total love junky. He's resting his chin on my arm as I type this. The other cats still hate him; he scares Harley-Dude terribly and can't resist terrorizing Mr. Sox, so I'd still love to place him with a soft-spoken, patient person who will love him as an only cat. He's needy and follows me around like a puppy, always underfoot. It's annoying, but sweet. The transition would be rough for him, but in the long run, it would be best for everyone. He's very good with the dogs, too. That said, the odds of me finding a kindly cat person in Hawaii who doesn't already have too many kitties are slim.

We've harvested a whopping forty pounds of coffee cherry from our trees this year! I'd guess we have another thirty more to ripen, too. Eighty pounds of coffee should process down to about sixteen pounds roasted. Not a ton, but not bad. Here's the bucket we took in for processing yesterday.



Time to get back to my thesis. I'm almost finished. The final minutia, getting the layout and mechanics just right, is a buggah.

A hui hou. Malama pono. Aloha!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Trouble Child

WANTED: Experienced cat owner in between pets, or maybe with one but no more, to take on the challenge of socializing a stray-feral cat. I have befriended him at the expense of my other pets, all of whom are "special needs" as they say: blind, elderly, infirm. Our new friend was badly injured when he came to us and is now on the mend. But his social skills need work. He is fearful and combative one minute, sweet the next. But he will, with a few week's patience, make a nice companion for the right person. 


     Here's the story: The Black Cat. We've taken to calling him BC. He's medium bushy with Simple Green eyes.  BC has been a fixture in the neighborhood for years. Everybody knows him, and his range has extended along more than a half a mile of our road. When he'd visit our house, he'd sneak in through the back door to snatch a bite from our cats' food table. If one of us saw him, or he saw us, he'd blast away in a blur so fast you'd question whether he was ever really there at all. At one point, he disappeared for months. I figured he was a goner, He returned two weeks ago, mangled and filthy, a gash in his throat, lame front paw and scrawny. I fed him. He remained aloof at first, but in time, grew to trust me. Within a week, the cat that nobody could catch or touch or even see clearly was letting me scratch his head. This is a cat that was a stray turned feral, not born feral. One fateful day, I grabbed him up, plopped him into a carrier and ferried him to the vet for a "day at the spaw," a snip (of his kitty gonads), a cleaning and disinfection of his wounds. He immediately peed in the carrier for fear, so the half-hour ride to town was aromatic.
     "Whoa! Un-neutered male cat there!" said Alison, the receptionist at the clinic, when we walked through the door.
     He's been back for several days now, getting friendlier with me but still terrorizing the rest of the family. It's obvious his roaming days are over and he's chosen to stay put. I just wish he'd stay put someplace else.
     My neighbor, who knows him and whose house he once frequented, offered to help. So yesterday, I took him there. Fresh tuna at the ready, we released him inside, only for him to literally climb the walls in a panic and try to jump through a picture frame. We'd have done it in a room, but she doesn't have any with doors. (It's a Puna-syle house.) So before he destroyed her place and hurt himself, we opened the door.  He's familiar with her porch, we reasoned, since she used to leave food out for him whenever she'd see him. He looked around, realized where he was, then made his way under the house, then under her car.
     "He used to sleep under there," she said. "Maybe he'll stay." When I got home, he was sitting on my back lanai with a look that asked the obvious question, "What took you so long?"
    We are not set up as an all-indoor cat household. Our house is well back from the road and the cats stay close. The house is tiny. They all come and go, in and out, freely, including him, which makes policing his rogue ways difficult.
     I remain armed with a squirt bottle and not afraid to use it, the best training tool for cats ever. That said, I was serious when I presented my original challenge. Hawaii would be best, and this island best of all, but I'll pay for plane fare and tranquilizers. I'll also take him in for a thorough exam at the vet, complete with vaccinations for anyone serious about working with this cat. It won't be easy, but it will be rewarding. I'll bet that in a week, he'll let you pet him. In two weeks, he'll be following you around the house.

Come on, cat lovers. Look at that face. Look at that pathetic, shaved throat. Check out those cool eyes.