Saturday, January 26, 2019

A Vacation Every Day

This? I recently posted this to Instagram and Facebook. Unfortunately, not only is it hideously grammatically incorrect (and I was too tired to make a new version), it’s all wrong. You don’t “find” a vacation every day. You create it.

(Sorry if anyone assumed the title referred to living in Hawaii. Living in Hawaii in no way makes life a vacation every day. Get that idea out of your head right now.)

Thanks to some insight from a savvy cousin, I resolved in December to make 2019 my Year of Contentment. I have never been content; there’s always been something ahead, something to anticipate, to drive myself to reach. I have never given myself permission to be content. I’ve been afraid to let myself settle in, afraid I might miss out on something, fail to achieve something, even when I thought I was being “lazy.” “Lazy” is just me uncertain of the next goal, frustrated because I don’t know how to get to reach a goal, frightened I’ll fail and so unable to begin. I fall into a lot of time-wasting nonsense to escape the horror of that wobbly stasis, that paralysis.

Another astute friend recently compared her life with its normal (but in no way minor) course corrections to a cruise ship, and mine to a speedboat. It’s true… my life has been a constant slalom with occasional slow grinds back to the mountaintop on a creaky lift, whether reactive or proactive. This mad dash is not something my therapists have noted or helped me address – and it needs to be addressed – which only proves that the people who know you best are your best support system.

However, since recognizing these things about myself, I’ve also noticed something good: I already find – no, create – a vacation every day. I always have.

I’ve spent the last few weeks under intense physiological stress, partly self-induced because I’m Type A and have no chill, partly the natural result of a new environment and the universal pressure of a new job, new routine, new relationships to navigate. But in those three weeks I have also realized that despite the constant self-induced frenzy and the very real mental health seesaw, I am naturally a happy, optimistic person who frequently lives in the moment.

The pace at the new job can be frantic due to operational timing. The process runs on a tight schedule, one-hundred and eighty minutes here, forty-one minutes there, thirty-eight minutes to the next required action, with the potential for things to go wrong if a target is missed. When I arrive at work I check the timing and set multiple alarms on the phone I’m not supposed to carry in my pocket. (The supervisor knows and doesn’t care as long as I’m not playing games or cruising Facebook, and really, I don’t freaking have time.)

It’s a constant, repeated hustle through critical manual tasks so you can be back in front of the computer to confirm a prompt so the process can go on, and what you do affects your fellow operator’s timeline, so it’s not just the process you’re responsible to. (Operations here are narrowed down to a tag-team crew; a third “warm body” can help, depending on the person, but isn’t necessary to operations. That dude or dudette has other important tasks at which to bust his or her ass.)

Despite this, when I review the past three weeks, there is a series of vivid snapshots among the flotsam of achievement and error, frustration and pride, moments of levity or peace or wonder: a sweet, quiet fellow operator giggling as he scrapes the soft frost off a pipe through which a gas is moving so quickly its temperature is plummeting, making it “snow” on me through the grate of the platform above; my supervisor cranking Pandora’s reggae channel as we develop an easy, telepathic, meditative rhythm to a messy, complicated task, just the two of us; the beauty of the living liquid colors and shapes acetone makes as I dribble it through the holes in a steel sieve plate and the trapped, heat-gummed algae oil dissolves into the sink; pausing to squint into the surprise flashes of light from a giant wet paddle spinning slowly in a circulation pond several yards from the open back door at a certain time of day. It snaps my attention to the profound, endless pace of the sun’s slow trajectory in the blue Hawaiian sky.

There are so many more. I notice these things; I am an observer, even of myself, my own life. These moments are my vacations every day, created out of the fabric of life. For some reason I am tearing up as I write this. I wouldn’t say I suffer from introspection, but I sure do a lot of it. How else can I solve the puzzle of myself, learn myself? Find contentment?

I forget this: I love manual labor. I love heavy lifting, cranking stuck bolts with a ratchet, feeling gas or liquid flow through a valve under my hand. I love washing gunk off metal, the smell of heated Simple Green in an ultrasonic cleaner. I love my shoulders aching after holding a drill with a mixer attachment at an impossible angle at eye level, stirring frozen oil in a steel vat with scalding water moving through its hollow shell; if I rest my arms on the edge of the vat to relieve the ache, the heated metal stings to remind. I love climbing stair ladders with jagged tread to prevent slipping, hands squeaking on smooth pipe railing, hauling my weight up with my arms to get there faster, navigating a metal jungle.

I never forget that I love industrial environments. I love the sight of tangled pipes, complex valves that look like alien spacecraft, rollup doors and forklifts and barrels and totes of chemicals, all the things to discover and learn. I love the sounds of the plant: electrical humming, valves shrieking, one in particular giving a constant, mournful, breathy hoot as it automatically modulates the flow of a substance pressurized and heated to a level so high it’s no longer a liquid or gas, but something mysterious between the two, scientifically dubbed “supercritical.”

I love the science, the physics, the design that creates a beautiful, fine-tuned system from out of the chaos of the universe, governing molecules, the ultimate (granted, not-always-a-good-thing) human achievement: bending nature to will. I love the programming that allows a logic controller – a little box full of wires and circuit boards – to talk to strategically-placed sensors and direct a symphony of pneumatic actions that replace what human hands once had to do, making the impossible possible. I love the problem solving and the problems solved. I value the engineering of a plant but I love fixing what the designers forgot or miscalculated, making it my own, mastering it. Engineers do not own their creations; the people who build and operate them do.

I am an artist, but I often forget that art is not just classic creation. There is an aspect of art to everything we do, to living. I don’t just paint and write and craft; I am an industrial artist. I use tools and machines, the designs of others, to create a desired result. I don’t build musical instruments, I don’t make paint, but I make music and I create images. There is satisfaction in both.

I also no longer believe in the theory of left brain vs. right brain, or maybe I am simply someone in whom the power of neither side is more prominent. I baffle Facebook quizzes. (Working theory: women are not generally ‘left- or right-brained” because the mass of nerves that tie the two hemispheres of our brains together – the corpus callosum – are much larger than men’s. This makes us more capable of managing multiple conflicting tasks that require an equal, possibly more taxing contribution from both sides of the brain.) It takes an innate mathematician to create an artistic composition. It takes a musician to appreciate the symphony of industrial processes. It takes creativity to build or improve a system or to adjust to the variables of a process, to manage the sensitive ballet of operational tasks shared between operators.

A third wise and lovely person in my life theorized – via an app called Marco Polo, where you record a video message to each other to be watched and responded to in your own time, and it is weirdly wonderful, and I am not getting paid for this promo – that we are still true creatives despite the fact that neither of us seems to be able to manage to master the process of making a living off our own creations. I can accept that. I can accept that there is no shame in making a living from mastering others’ creations. I still create my own art; I am more likely to make things I love on my own time if I’m also doing something stable that requires creativity.

People who know me well worry that once mastered, this process I’m getting paid to operate will bore me, that once the learning is done there will be no creativity and I’ll stagnate and become restless again. I’m beginning to suspect though that the contentment I crave may come from a situation where I learn to create (again, “find” is the wrong word) or notice that I already create a vacation every day in the midst of repetition and competence at something, learning to create enjoyment in the everyday grind of “going to work,” forsaking the freedom I’ve always thought would bring me contentment. That freedom never truly happened for my father, who spent his unfairly short life chasing dreams, although like me I think he lived with many moments of contentment. He was also an optimist and far less introspective than I am. Creative self-employment may consist of doing the thing you love, but it also consists of doing things you hate as much as you hate conventional employment and clipped time-wings. You're tied to those tasks as much as you are to an outside employer.

So. Contented employment. The situation has to be relatively right, and I reserve the right to insist on minimum requirements.

I have to like the people I work with; I think I will, even the Difficult Personality, now that I’m freed from his tyranny by my own bravery and competence, and a different shift. I've had several jobs where my fellow employees were the ones who made me miserable; but I've had one job where my fellow employees were like family. It may have been lightning in a bottle, that place at that time, but at least I know it's possible. And I've learned to professionally, calmly confront the problem (or people) head on, with positive results.

I have to feel appreciated; I already do… they’ve had tremendous turnover due to the unfortunately limited and flaky nature of the Hawaiian workforce and personalities that just didn’t fit or weren’t cut out for this kind of work.

I have to master the process so I don’t fall victim to my own vicious impostor syndrome; I already have for the most part, in just three weeks, an achievement that takes most people a few months and some never do. (Again, in point of fact: I am the only woman among nine operators. I also had a lot of related experience, and have a knack for it. I am "mechanically inclined.")

I have to like the environment; it’s hot, and we all sweat, but the views! I can see waves crashing on the shore from the “lanai,” which is what the boys call the covered concrete pad in front of the building, where we vacuum the spent material out of steel cylinders. The vacuum kicks off frequently to allow the material to settle and prevent clogging, a forced pause when I can glance over the shocking black folds of pahoehoe lava across the road to see the violent white spray on the rocks. I will never become nonchalant about living on lava, on fresh bits of the world. I also like the two huge rolling fans that dispel equipment-harming humidity and blow away any escaped vented carbon dioxide.

There’s room for improvement, but I feel like even if I can’t move those mountains, I’ll still be okay. I don’t have to look forward to going to work, but for once in my life I can’t dread it all the time, and that’s partly an internal adjustment. I think everyone dreads their job sometimes for various reasons, but I mean consistently... I’ve had jobs that made me miserable for over a year to the extent that I became ill. So far – and yeah, it’s early yet – I don’t dread it, even when one person was making it miserable. I did, and will always, dread the 5AM alarm. I am NOT a morning person, despite the glory of sunrise, which is why I’m excited about swing shift. And very few people are around after 5PM, which is nice.

So! The Year of Contentment is starting off well, this grand experiment in acceptance and observation and giving myself permission to rest. I am nothing if not open to exploring. I understand that constant happiness is not realistic, or really desirable. I’m just looking for serenity and as much stability as can be expected in a world where true stability doesn’t exist.

I’m looking for ways to create a vacation every day.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Body in Motion

I currently weigh more than I’ve ever weighed in my life (numerical disclosure not forthcoming; suffice it to say my driver's license is a bold-faced lie, like almost every other North American woman's), due to several factors: genetics, the plant-operator and road warrior lifestyles, emotional issues, a profound love affair/obsession with cake. I’ve been moving a lot more lately as time and energy permit, trying to focus on my emotional “table legs:” sleep, hydration, diet, exercise.
It occurred to me on the rowing machine this morning, watching my calves and thighs flex and stretch, that one of the best things about physical activity, perhaps more important to me even than the endorphins and health benefits, is experiencing the way our bodies were designed to move.
To see and feel the control and power of the way time and nature have continuously engineered the human body is a mesmerizing thing, hence the popularity of the traveling Bodyworlds Exhibit, which I could not stomach. Due to sensitivity to death and human viscera I prefer to experience the body as a complete package, skin-on, bone-in. That doesn’t mean I’m not conscious of what lies beneath, the intricacies of tendon and joint, electric nerve and rigid glob of muscle. The way a pump nestled in my chest forces an oxygenated syrup through a network of fragile, elastic tubes and the fact that I feel it surging is a source of unending fascination to me.
I was resting my head in my hands one day years ago when beneath my fingertips I suddenly felt my skull in all its mineral solidity, could all but see it and the stock of my unlikely existence contained inside. The brutality and complexity and enormous strength and mystery of my own construction came home in that instant for the first time, and I’ve never had the same relationship with my body since. I view it with wonder and excitement and more than a little charmed horror now, this motorized, emotional hunk of carbon and saltwater. This “ghost in a meat-covered skeleton,” as the Internet has dubbed it.
Which is why I realized with dismay on the rowing machine the other day that often in the past I’ve undertaken exercise for the wrong reason, or in the wrong spirit. Sure, feeling and looking good and longevity and quality of life are fine motivations. But I had forgotten the thing I used to love most about exercise when I did it every day, hours-long walks through the Wyoming sagebrush with my sister’s unruly Labradors, skiing on the groomed trails of the windswept golf course in the winter twilight after work, tugging at the handles of an older, cheaper hydraulic rowing machine than the high-tech WaterRower I have now. I had forgotten the exquisite sensation of movement, of muscle sliding – outwardly visible – over bone under skin, of heart thrashing and blood sweeping, of heat rising.
Something else had happened to my perspective that was even worse in the years since I left Wyoming and roamed up and down the West Coast. In that time, for specific reasons I’m still untangling in therapy, physical effort had become a punishment, something to endure rather than enjoy. The result is deep, shocking, horrid: my reason for exercise had gone from the love of my body to hate of it. Exercise had become a desperate drive to erase what I hated and recover something I loved.

I have always been a particularly emotionally confident person, secure that I am loved and valued by family and friends, understood for the most part (as well as can be expected; in order to function in this world I have had to accept and adjust to the fact that I am apparently more than a little odd), assured that my abilities are more than sufficient, perhaps even notable.

Alas, though, at some times in my life I’ve been physically self-conscious, the usual adolescent angst around the betrayal of my own developing skin, hair, shape, voice, mannerisms. And though I am now fairly comfortable with myself, rarely even glancing in the mirror unless I’m doing something special, there was certainly a time I wouldn’t leave the house without makeup and only wore clothes that made me feel comfortable physically and emotionally, which in retrospect probably weren’t doing me any favors. But I think I’m allowed that. Everybody is allowed their teenage years and twenties. What a relief to finally make your thirties, when generally, ideally, you’ve at least managed to gain a sense of your vision and digestion and dependency on caffeine before the real fun starts and everything goes to hell again (so I’m told, on a regular basis, because I have older friends and family members and tend to date men a decade older). Talk about betrayal. Our bodies are never really constant. Might as well give up trying to control them and just enjoy the ride.

But in the meantime we can at least care for them, and part of that is acceptance. Accepting that they are so real and faulty and dynamic and utterly visible. Accepting that there are variables in our ability to keep them functional, let alone meet the standards of society and quench the corporate greed of an industrial complex that constantly feeds our life-threatening doubt and insecurity. And that’s the crack where the hate snuck in.

On the rowing machine, watching my shins elongate and my knee caps gliding on an unseen inner rig, I thought, “Hey, that’s cool.” And I suddenly wondered why I hide my knees and puckered thighs most of the time lest they offend an innocent bystander. They're mine; they're part of me and they still function just fine. Why should I hate them today, or ever, no matter what they look like?

I’ve been self-indoctrinating in body positivity on Instragram lately, following the accounts of women (and men, to a lesser extent; guys are all about the “transformation,” sharing what’s done, not what’s doing, and some women are that way too) who have – mostly – overcome the worst of their society-induced self-loathing and embraced the bodies they have, because the time is now. The very real, very faulty and dynamic and really, when you look at them closely (and these brave people are letting you look closely, in the name of sharing the valuable things they’ve learned, in some cases valuable enough to save their lives), really very beautiful, even when “flawed” in ways society currently decrees. “Don’t hate the shake.” “Posed vs. natural.” “Airbrushed vs. real.” "Love the squish.” “Before vs. after,” eating-disorder edition, the deep purple stretch marks, cascades of loose skin. Life-saving self-love.

It’s hard to self-contain body positivity and self-acceptance. It’s hard not to need outside validation and approval. It’s hard to be an outlier, living beyond the incredible restrictions of what’s currently socially enforced as acceptable in a physical being, despite the fact that some 90% or more of humanity is orbiting that grossly exalted standard and being fed sinister, subliminal messages by cosmetics companies and the health and beauty industry (not to be confused with the medical industry, which is another topic altogether) telling them they’re not good enough or deserving of, well, anything. Because it’s not just walking down the street; people make snap judgments about what the state of our bodies communicate in job interviews and medical situations and even when choosing friends. So… yeah. No wonder I hated my knees. They might cost me a job or the empathy and attention of a healthcare provider or new (though really crappy, if that's their metric) friends.
I say “hated” in the past tense because I’m getting closer, with every day and every stroke of my cat’s mortal enemy, the rowing machine, with every flippered dive in the pristine Hawaiian Pacific, with every ankle-grinding haul through the Honolulu airport, to accepting that I don’t fit society’s standards, and more importantly, don’t have to. I’m closer to letting go of the frustration and dismay that I used to fit them, and somehow “let myself go.” That is not even remotely what happened. What happened was life, a lot of things I couldn’t control, a lot of things I couldn’t endure without turning to emotional coping mechanisms with physical consequences that affected my appearance (though, thankfully, not yet my health, which is also a whole other topic altogether, and not something I'm ignoring).
And for me the key to that acceptance isn’t just changing the way I look, but changing the way I experience my physical form and the things it can do. I have always loved to swim, to kayak, to climb hills, loved the mental cradle of repetitive motion, allowing my mind to drift in a state of energy-restoring self-hypnosis (no really, that is a thing when exercising, and, frighteningly, when driving; ever been surprised to find yourself pulling into your garage with no memory of how you got there? Subconscious taking over). I love impact and control and competition and even, under the right conditions, sweat. And maybe the best part of exercise is how great a shower feels afterwards. Feels. How great things feel. How fascinating the feel of salt and water and fabric and air from the fan I prop on the rower’s water tank to simulate wind over waves.
I have to exercise because I love my bones and my tendons and my muscles and my nerves and veins and skin and fat – yes, even the insulating, clothing-distorting, I’ll-outlast-you-in-a-global-food-crisis fat. Because in order to change my body, I have to accept the way it looks first, which starts with loving the way it moves. That blots out everything the television is telling me about my stretch marks (gels and creams!) and butt dimples (liposuction!) and every other perceived flaw (new-and-improved, results-not-typical, 5-minute exercise machine!) I think I have.
I also have to exercise because I’m not giving up cake.

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.