Sunday, January 15, 2017

Shangri La

I travel so often it's impossible to remember where in the unmarked Kahului, Maui airport lot I've parked, so I try to stay in one general area and just wander around hitting the "lock" button on my key fob until I hear Puck's aggressive nasal bark from the next row, then wind my way towards him, honking.

I've also driven so many rental cars I often do the same thing in library and grocery store parking lots on neighboring islands, having forgotten what I was assigned by the rental agency, anything from a nondescript beige Hyundai to a convertible New New Beetle to a Mustang with seat heaters and coolers. Hawaiian parking lots are full of Mustangs.

Recently I was on a plane, seated as usual in the window seat, and as we began to taxi I looked out at the rain-wet gray tarmac and it took me a full thirty seconds to remember which island I was leaving and where I was going next. Wet asphalt looks a lot alike no matter where in the world it is.


It's a gray, drizzly Wednesday in early April on the north end of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I'm sitting barefoot at a client's table with my laptop, notes, and manuals spread out before me, drinking tart homemade ginger turmeric kombucha. The living room has a soaring two-story beam ceiling with odd angles, the kitchen is in the same room but partitioned by a low wall with an open top and doorway, and the dining area where I'm ensconced is tucked in an alcove near the back door, where I can see a shotgun leaning. There's a mudroom with a washer and dryer, piles of muddy boots, and hooks holding rain gear and gardening tools. The house is surrounded by a wide covered deck on both stories and old, thick shade trees beyond, so although I'm sitting next to tall windows overlooking the fenced yard, the room is dim.

But it's cozy... rustic hand-woven tapestries line the walls, the living room beyond my table is stuffed with comfortable furniture and books, a clock is ticking cheerfully in the quiet, and everywhere there are figurines, photos, and paintings of goats. Outside in the yard soggy goats lay in the grass, and around the back of the house a shaggy herding dog slinks with one of Kauai's famous pervasive chickens clamped in its jaws. Beyond the porch is a wide grassy field and the blue of the Pacific arcs in the distance.

I haven't seen the goat farmer for at least an hour when she stomps in the mudroom door, overalls dripping with rain and smeared with what I'm pretty sure is ungulate afterbirth. She is panting but cheerful, a compact woman passing middle age, springy. She has cropped gray hair and rough hands and her reaction to everything I say is a grateful sigh. She sells cheese and soap made in a long workshop in front of the house, and always sends me away with a ten-inch grapefruit that hardly fits in my bag.

In the fall she will pass her Level I Distribution exam having only known about the complex water industry for a single year, one of two board members of an agricultural cooperative who stepped up to learn when their water source became a regulated public system. The other board member who steps up will get the highest score in the state on that round of exams.

He is another charming farmer with old mainland secrets to outrun, a sly pirate grin, and a small curly dog named Panda who follows him everywhere. On my first visit, we stop at his home to take a water sample. In the pineapple field that flanks the driveway he plucks a ripe fruit from between the spines of its ground-growing mother plant. When he hands me a slice it is sun-warm, white, and the sweetest natural thing I have ever tasted, so sugary it makes my head spin. We flush the water line and share pineapple with Panda, whose white fur is stained rust orange from the pervasive red dust of disturbed Hawaiian soil. His wife tries to hire me as a farm worker; the hippies never stay long. He sends me away with a bag of sweet, candied pineapple.

There are chickens and roosters everywhere.


July finds me on Oahu, headed to a system belonging to the Catholic church. It's run by a smart, friendly Swede who gives me a tour of the whole diocesan center (but not the convent), including an exquisite dining room overlooking Maunawili, the wide Kawanui marsh, Kailua and Kaneohe Bay. At the end of the main drive is a marble courtyard with a fairy tale well and a statue of the Virgin Mary draped in leis. His workshop is full of vintage handmade woodworking tools to tend to all the hand-carved koa wood features in the chapel, including the massive, ornate doors.

I drive from Honolulu to the system over Highway 61 and take a right onto Nu'uanu Pali Drive. It's not marked as an alternative route to the Nu'uanu Pali State Wayside (pali, of course, means cliff) but I figure since the names match I'll risk it, because there's a building visible from the highway that I want to see closer. It turns out to be the Toho No Hikari church and it is worth the detour, a bizarre white construction at the top of a stepped garden hill, with a massive curved platform supported by spindly columns fronting what could be a tidy white two-story 70's apartment building. I continue up the side road and am rewarded with a slim, winding drive along Lulumahu Stream, shaded by a tunnel of jungle, with plenty of muddy hiking trails I'll attempt on subsequent trips in inappropriate footwear.

It should be noted that Hawaiian folklore holds that it's bad luck to carry pork over the Pali Highway due to a feud between the goddess Pele and a half man, half hog god named Kamapua'a.

I make it to the Pali overlook and park among the other rental cars and tour buses. A sign warns, "Beware of bees in high wind." I assume this is because it agitates them, but later realize it turns them into pellet-sized projectiles that nearly bruise when they hit you, and there is never not high wind at the Pali. The trade winds are so strong up the canyon that tunnels had to be built in the hillside to bypass it. You can lean into it and not fall forward.

The view of the valley and the windward shore is immense. Towering cliffs rise on either side of the canyon, parallel to the water, and the drop is 1,000 feet straight down. The wind is the only sound and the trees grow horizontally. I realize why it feels so haunted when I read that here King Kamehameha I won the island of Oahu when his warriors drove nearly 800 of the defending men over the cliff to their deaths. He had cannons and artillery given to him by Captain George Vancouver. Excavations to build the highway below uncovered countless skulls.

At the edge of the Pali parking lot there's a gnarled tree with low branches full of wary feral cats.

Despite this, there are chickens and roosters everywhere.


In August Joy and I make our way through Volcanoes National Park from Hilo towards the southern tip of the Big Island, somewhere near Pahala. To reach the home of the board treasurer, we pass the Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling Buddhist temple, where the Dalai Lama keeps a room (that he may or may not visit), and cross several dry creek beds with no culverts, winding up a single-lane road into the rainforest. The big island of Hawaii has at least nine different climate zones, and can look like northern Nevada or deepest Amazon in a matter of miles. Right now the 13,250-foot summit of Mauna Loa is closed due to snow fall and the many bulbous (and controversial) telescope facilities are hunched in the drifts.

This is another agricultural cooperative, and to get to this kitchen table we have to pass through what the farmer laughingly calls a "chicken airlock," another cardboard-lined mudroom with two doors so if one of the hundred friendly chickens from the yard get in the first door they can be shooed out before opening the second. Inside we kick off our flip-flops (slippahs), as in all Hawaiian homes, and I make friends with a large orange cat.

Like the first farmer, this one is a marvel of pioneer spirit and ingenuity. She tosses back her long graying braids and makes us coffee she grew, harvested, and roasted herself in a massive iron drum in the backyard. The flavor is rich in ways I can't describe, dark and spicy. She gives us liquid sugar stripped from her own cane and goat milk and fresh cookies made with flour she and a neighbor grind themselves from bulk wheat, eggs from her own chickens, home-churned butter (goat or cow, who knows?) and chocolate nibs from, yes, her own cacao tree.

She and another board member, a sweet, genuine fellow who is ostensibly also a coffee farmer but more likely grows pot, describe their problem and we work out a solution to appease the State. The rain starts coming hard and heavy and we have to leave before the road washes out. They are frequently stranded for days at a time, so I suppose it pays to be self-sufficient. She sends us home with coffee beans.

There are chickens and roosters everywhere.


On a brutally humid September day I'm hiking in the jungle of West Maui. Recent heavy rains have demolished roads leading to tanks in the foothills of Haleakala, and I'm walking a thin tightrope of gravel above an 8-foot drop on either side, supported only by a 4-inch water main. The truck is behind us, hidden behind uncultivated banana trees and monstera, palms, invasive albizia and tulip trees draped in vines, and other jungle plants.

An operator and I are trekking to a tank the State inspector couldn't (wouldn't) reach, having just climbed two dangerous tanks. The first tanks is 30-feet high via a questionable ladder with rusting welds and rungs, and so decayed the roof can hardly support the weight of its own iron hatch, let alone two people. We somehow manage to photograph and replace the seal on the hatch anyway, propped on the rim, despite the fact that there are pukas -- holes -- the size of softballs in the sides of the tank that any crawling or flying thing, gecko or bird or insect, could get into. The second tank is a cylinder on its side, 14 feet high via an unsecured ladder, so slick with rain-soaked algae we have to slide on our butts to get to the hatch on the curved surface.

As the road into the jungle ends we make our way through a field of waist-high yellow ginger blossoms that smell like heaven, citrus and peppery and sweet. The bees ignore us, drunk on pollen, and the jungle birds trill and shriek. We find the runoff from the overflowing tank, a heavy stream coming straight down what trail there is. We're ankle-deep in red mud but push on. At the tank we open the control cabinet and find a wire corroded through, interrupting the message to stop the pump. We have no tools (why?) but I pop the metal clip off my pen and we have a makeshift screwdriver, and manage to rewrap the connected end of the wire around the screw and tighten it in. Pump stopped. The tank is plastic, smart for the jungle (metal rusts, concrete dissolves) but old and beginning to crack and leak. I recommend to the State it be abandoned, which is no hardship for the system. It's too much of a contamination risk.

On the way back to town the operator points out Kris Kristofferson's house and in thick pidgin tells me a side-splitting story about being the guinea pig as his daughter learned cosmetic waxing. He takes off his shirt to show his completely hairless back and chest, lifts his pants to the knee to show denuded shins. "I don't say no anything free. Da kine call me mo'o [gecko] for da week." He also fell asleep drinking at a friend's kitchen table the night before and some little girls painted his toenails pink, which he proudly displays as he changes out of his muddy boots into slippahs. I'm laughing so hard I'm crying. "Feel some kane [man], eh? No mahu [homosexual*], no care."

Back at his home he offers me food -- you never go hungry in Hawaii -- but I want to make the drive back along the 300-plus hairpin turns before dark (later to realize it's actually better in the dark, because you can see oncoming vehicles by their headlights). He sends me home with banana bread.

There are chickens and roosters everywhere.

*In Hawaiian, references to trans or homosexual people are not usually derogatory, and Pacific islanders in general have a history of accepting what they would have simply thought of as a "third gender" before the culture-crippling onslaught of Christianity and modern mainland influence. 42% of Hawaiians identify as religious, with the majority Catholic. (In fact the best time to go to Costco is Sunday when everybody's at church, after the morning liquor rush as the early flights from the mainland arrive and tourists stock up on rum and wine before heading to Kihei and Lahaina.) One's ability as a warrior or fisherman was the metric by which men have been measured, and before European invasion it was a matriarchal society anyway. This sits fine with me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


I watched the meteor shower from under the albizia tree last night about midnight, before the clouds came in. There were quite a few, and bright even though the moon was full. Couldn't photograph it so painted it in Procreate on the iPad.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Hang Loose

The first shaka I receive in Hawaii is from a lanky, fifty-something Utahn named Tim as he waits for me to pass through a gate so he can close and lock it behind me, and it is pure aloha. Thumb and pinky relaxed, not stretched wide, wrist loose with a little wobble. Smile up to the eyes. No wikiwiki, hurry. He will become an aikâni, a friend.

It's everywhere from there, polite acknowledgement in traffic, greetings and goodbyes, agreement and approval. Like "da kine," it applies to all things, to anything. Sign language. Palm or backhand mean the same.

Before long it's as natural as anything my hands have ever done. I catch myself casting this island authenticity on the mainland, arm out the window, merging in Wyoming, thanking a doorman in New York City. I teach my nephew, who growls the word long and low while he gestures.

It teaches me to bravely approach strangers who lift their hand in welcome. One query to a fisherman at Ho'okipa leads to an hour-long conversation and an armful of gifted avocados. It's the signoff after a pleasant interaction at the doctor's office, the grocery store, the Ku'au store where I get poke, with the cashier from North Carolina who bought a one-way ticket eight months ago and never looked back.

For me it becomes a symbol of Hawaiian language, born of saltwater, kai, and surfers, he'e nalu. It communicates hau'oli, happiness. I learn rain, ua, heat, wela, end, pau, child, keiki, elder, kupuna. When navigating the islands, mauka is towards the sea and makai is landside. I learn pali (cliff) and wahine (woman) and kâne (man) and hiamoe (sleep) and hale (house, home... I work with a man named Halealoha, "love of home") and the names of foods, fruit and meat. Alani for orange. I learn the names of animals, nene for goose, honu for sea turtle, mano for shark. Mano are considered manifestations of deceased relatives and are welcomed, not feared. Most Hawaiian words have more than one meaning or connotation or association, depending on context and tone. Hana means work or craft, but with hou (again, new) means "do it again." Encore. A hui hou... until we meet again.

The Hawaiian language has thirteen letters, eight consonants and five vowels, A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, and W, and the 'okina, a glottal stop occurring at the beginning or end of words and between nearly all sequential vowels, diphthongs if you paid attention in middle school. A line over an 'a' means a soft, drawn out sound, the opposite of American usage. In fact there is no hard 'a' in Hawaiian. 'E' is ee, è is eh. W is pronounced v. Ha-vai-ee.

The only people who say "mahalo," thank you, are tourists and shopkeepers waiting on tourists. And some aunties who enjoy formality. "Tanks" will suffice for everyone else. "Howzit" is universal.

The shaka slowly makes me feel like I belong, as do the flight attendants on my regular flights and the evening officer at the airport exit who recognizes me now and the crotchety gatekeeper at the Honolulu Plumeria Lounge. At first the similarity of names baffles me: Kekoa, Keoki, Kaleo. Within a few months I can't remember why it was so difficult. I learn to pronounce place names without hesitation. Kawaihae. Waiehu Kou. Moloaa. Maalaea. Haleakala, which I butchered as a visitor. I learn when to loosen my tongue and breathe out and when to close my throat to stop the air.

I watch to see who else is at home here, longtime transplants like Tim, recent transplants who will stay. Who shakes hands and who greets with a kiss on the cheek, a shoulder press. A goat farmer. A pineapple farmer. A coffee farmer. To grow something in the red Hawaiian soil is to grow into the land. Haole is the term for a visitor, someone who doesn't grow into the land. Kama'aina is someone who does, a "child of the land." I hear the different inflections of "haole," when it's derogatory, someone who doesn't understand aloha. They're easy to pick out, the culturally frustrated and constipated and obtuse, the barbaric imperialists, the racists. It's their loss.

I learn to understand even the thickest, fastest pidgin, and the absurdity of white people who speak it, no matter how accurately or comfortably or even if island-born. It is not Hawaiian nor is much of it derived from native Hawaiian... the majority is a loose jumble of a slackened English and at least four different Asian languages. (It's actually not technically a pidgin, a form of simplified communication between two languages, but a creole language, a stable language influenced by many languages.) One native Hawaiian laughingly describes it to me as "lazy talk." But I find it beautiful, and to hear someone shift between pidgin and gently accented but proper English becomes a favorite thing.

"Shaka" is not a traditional native Hawaiian word (there is no 's' in the language) or symbol, and its origin has many theories, from a local maimed in a sugar mill to the WWII "V for Victory" to "bottoms up" to whalers indicating a diving tail. It may also have been the signature sign of a used car salesman named Lippy Espinda, a frequent extra in Hawaii Five-O, which is my least favorite story so probably the truth.

Whatever it means and wherever it came from and wherever it goes, it is Hawaiian and the unspoken essence of modern Hawaii, and feels like one of the few friendly things left in the world.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Leaps and Bounds

I am so busy! And I waste so much time. I miss writing/blogging. It's the first day of my every-other-3-day-weekend, so let's do some.

If you had told me twenty years ago or even just three years ago -- end of June 2009 -- where I would be now and what I would be doing (and how I would feel about it), I would have looked at you funny, laughed, and probably never spoken to you again. You freak.
I have no idea how I got here.
I am 20 lbs. heavier, probably half an inch shorter, a whole lot wetter, and minus some critical Vitamin D. I am down one good cat and plus one good man. I am 880 miles from where I started. I am 1,237 miles from where I intended to be. I am 734 miles from where I stopped in the middle and would gladly have stayed. I am so far away from the beach. But here we are.
I was never going to go back to an isolating, repetitive job at a plant. I was never going to work the night shift or 12-hour shifts or weekends and holidays again. I was never going to wear neon vests or a hard hat or steel-toed boots again. I am now doing all these things. And I'm getting paid very well for it.
What am I doing?
I am an operator. I am in control in the control room. I adjust chemicals. I increase flows. I close valves. I fill tanks. I take samples. I run tests. I meet regulations. I gather data and look for patterns. As an operator, I am a chemist. I am a biologist. I am an engineer. I am a mechanic. I am "authorized personnel."
Sometimes I use computers, sometimes I do things by hand.
I work with compounds that could easily kill me and some that can only hurt:
Ozone, O3 -- why can we breathe elemental oxygen but not the triatomic form, trioxygen? Because it's an unstable allotrope and a wicked oxidizer. It kills or disables disease-causing organisms in the water, but dissipates immediately so provides no further protection downstream.
Hydrofluorisilicic acid, H2SiF6 -- if I get it on my skin, it can stop my heart. It's good for kids' teeth (I'm living, biting proof) and it doesn't hurt adults. And no, I'm not having the "government mind control drug" conversation with you.
Carbon dioxide, CO2 -- ever heard of the canary in the coal mine?
Sodium hydroxide, NaOH -- better known as caustic soda or lye, it can cause instant severe burns. We use it to raise the pH of the water for corrosion control for metal pipes and fittings.
Sodium hypochlorite, NaClO --the industrial version of household bleach, it contains 12% chlorine instead of 3%. Think quadruple Clorox. We use it to further disable disease-causing organisms and to provide disinfectant protection in the pipelines, all the way to the consumer's tap. If you can smell chlorine in your drinking water, we're not adding enough. Confused? If you can smell it, that means it's working. Which means there's still stuff in the water (or in your aerator; clean that out!) for it to work on. If it has nothing to work on, you usually can't smell it in the quantities we use. (Swimming pools are a different story -- they're using far more because it has less time to work. You are an immediate health hazard and they can't risk you making other people sick, so they pour more in. Don't drink pool water.)
Water, H2O -- the stuff we can't live without, the reason I operate. An obvious drowning hazard.
On my 12-hour shift yesterday, 35 million gallons of water went through my hands to the faucets of half a million people in King and Pierce counties. People work around me -- mechanics, managers, inspectors, maintenance workers, engineers, administrators -- who support me, but at the end of the day it's my decisions and my responsibility... my certificate on the wall, my name logged into the control computers.
I am one of six operators, two teams of three. Because of my schedule and the fact that I don't spend that much time with my coworkers, including all the above-mentioned support personnel, even after nine months here I don't really know them that well. On the night shift I wade through the debris of their days: dirty dishes in the sink, mud from their boots, coffee cups and pop cans in the work trucks we share, their handwriting in the log book. E-mails. Papers left on the glass of the copier or in the output tray. Vests and hardhats and more personal clothing on the hooks in the hall, like flannel jackets and waterproof Carhartt coats. Pictures of their families on their desks and office walls. Sometimes it feels like a ghost town.
Outside the walls of my control room and my chemical facility -- both of which are the size of airplane hangars -- they're building a $250 million filter plant that will expand the current facilities by thousands of square feet. Right now I'm a water treatment operator without a plant to operate, unless you count the chemicals I add to the water. I'm not filtering, I'm not coagulating, I'm not really "treating." I will be by 2014.
Dump trucks and backhoes and giant loaders are busy tearing up the peaceful meadow behind the chemical building where a month ago elk and killdeer and assorted forest critters romped. Now it's a giant mud pit. In less than a week they knocked down hundreds of oak and cottonwood and alder trees to clear a staging area the size of two city blocks.
There will be four buildings two stories high and a clearwell forty feet deep and a four million gallon tank to match the ten million gallon tank on the hill. If you don't know what a structure that holds ten million gallons of water looks like, you're missing out. It's big. It's like a small stadium. In the basement of the biggest structure we'll have a pipe-filled filter gallery that will rival the longest, largest halls in the Louvre, a monument of our own. We'll drive forklifts through it. When all this is done it will be the largest drinking water treatment plant in Washington and one of the largest plants on the west coast.
I guess that's why I'm here. I wanted to see it happen from a front row seat. I chose this.

It's still a surprise to be here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


It's your first night in a strange place. You hear sounds and feel sensations you've never experienced before. The fabric against your skin, the silence of night without a constant heartbeat. Beyond the fragile film of your eyelid, there are pinpoint-bright blurs.

You are new in the world. Today you were one of roughly 490,000 babies born. To the world you are not special; you are a statistic, a future voter, a future consumer, future driver, worker, taxpayer.

What makes you different? We do. Your family. A father who loses his temper so rarely that for years it was thought not to exist. A mother whose only object in life was to be your mother. A brother... well, what a brother! You'll see. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, pets. We waited so long for you.

Happy birthday, Hezekiah Bruce Morris. I can't wait to meet you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gideon Faints

Probably the people who would be interested already know that my dearest and only sibling, an older-by-three-years sister named Morgan, is expecting her first child in March. If you didn't know and you are interested and you feel you are someone who really should have already known but didn't until now, please do not be mad at me; you probably also know that there were a couple false starts that became real losses in the last few years, involving the kinds of emotions nobody wants to relive and lots of morphine and washing blood out of clothes in the wee hours while thinking, "now we will never meet him/her," and it's a shame two miscarriages might have made us wary and hesitant to get loudly celebratory even after the issue that caused them was taken care of. But that's how it is.

Anyway we're out of the woods now, third time's a charm, little bugger's kickin' her black and blue in there (I know because I SAW HIM), and OMG I'M GOING TO BE AN AUNT.

Technically I already am; she has a good and goofy and gracious stepson who is now 17 and whom we would not trade for all the world, and for all intents and purposes I am his Aunt, Aunt A (and also to two Labrador retrievers). Which was great practice; thanks, Cordale. (He can lift me. Which doesn't mean I can't still lift him, DOUBLE NEGATIVES ROCK.)

It blows my mind that without making a purchase or creating a pattern or deciding on size and color and fabric, my sister is making something -- make that someone -- out of nothing. Not really nothing, per se, but you know what I mean. We will have a new family member. We will have another person. A WHOLE, ACTUAL PERSON, sort of uninteresting at first, but wait 'til he starts walking and talking. He's going to argue with me someday. I can tell.

Yeah, it's a boy. The first two were, too. And she's not sure they want to use the name she had picked out when they started down this road. And that's okay. She can name him after the 14th king of Judah for all I care, even if it freaks out the Grandmas.

When we were little girls in our polyester and cable knits and moon boots in the Wyoming of 19-- when the snow actually drifted so deep you could walk up it to the roof (or make tunnels in it big enough to walk through), we didn't play with baby dolls. We played with Breyer horses and Legos and cardboard refrigerator boxes. I remember a vague sense of unease when one day towards teendom she announced that she wanted a baby doll with a porcelain face and hands that looked like a real baby's, and she got it and put it in our christening dress. And when she would cradle it in her arms she looked like a mother. And I felt uneasy and left behind, because I didn't have that gene, the mother gene. (Or I did, but it was dormant.) And in California when Mr. Sixtus praised her very brain and insisted she go into chemistry or physics, or medicine even and cure cancer, she was like, "No, I just want to be a mom."

And she will be. In March.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

I Street Bridge Lets the Hornblower By


I recommend watching this with the volume off, since there's nothing to hear but the river wind, the incessant clanging of the warning bells, and Brent's sudden, violent sneeze (after which I bless him). (Also, it doesn't really get interesting until about the :50 mark, so feel free to skip ahead.)

This is the I Street Bridge in Sacramento, a historic metal truss swing bridge that neither lifts nor draws but actually spins on the most amazing giant iron gear system to get out of the way of boats when the river is high, as it is now. (We compared the Sacramento River's current depth on the scale at Tower Bridge, 23', to the river depth last July when family came to visit: a mere 7'. What a difference some rain makes!) The I Street Bridge is a dual-level affair, carrying vehicle and foot traffic on the top and trains on the bottom. A favorite landmark of mine.