Keonepoko

Kahakai Boulevard follows a straight line from Route 130, just past the traffic circle, until it drops into the ocean, except that there is a dogleg in the road about halfway down. The Hawaiian Shores subdivision, where we live, starts just after the dogleg. Nestled behind the dog’s knee is Keonepoko Elementary School. When we first got here, I could barely read the sign, much less remember the name.

Honestly, it seems like every other word in Hawaiian starts with a K. After all, there are only seven consonants in Hawaiian (H, K, L, M, N, P, W), so there was bound to be some doubling up. When people ask me what something is called or the name of a building, I say, “I’m not sure, but I think it starts with a K.” It’s gotten to be an inside joke I have with myself, and it makes me giggle every time. I’ve gotten used to the odd glances that earns me.

Giving directions to our house, I used to tell people just to stay on Kahakai Boulevard, past Ke…Ke…the elementary school.

When it came time to vote, I was instructed to report to the Keonepoko Elemenatary school cafeteria, and when a friend asked me where I’d voted, I said, “Ke…Ke…the elementary school in the neighborhood.”

But I’m making progress. Each year, KTA supermarket does a school donations program. If you buy certain products, the store makes a donation to the school of your choice.

When this happened last year, the cashier asked me which school I wanted my donation to go to. I searched my memory for the name of the elementary school but all I could come up with is that it started with K. So I giggled and said, “You choose.”

Yesterday at KTA, the cashier scanned my hunk of cheddar and jar of mayonnaise and asked, “Which school do you want your donation to go to?”

“Keonpoko,” I said, without skipping a beat, and the cashier nodded like that was the most natural thing in the world.

She’ll never know what a stellar moment that was for me.

Subdivision

I have always sworn that I would never live in anything called a ‘unit’. The whole idea gives me the willies. It evokes images of a Bladerunner world where robots live in beehive cells, all mindlessly doing the same jobs and eating the same food and pooping the same color. So it came as a great surprise when I found myself living in Hawaiian Shores Recreational Estates, which is the name of our subdivision, another term that makes the tiny hairs on my knuckles stand on end. But everything around here is a subdivision; most of them are called ‘estates’. Next to us is Nanawale Estates and just down the road is Leilani Estates. You may have heard of that. It was in the news a bit last year.

I would prefer to call these developments ‘neighborhoods’ but that, alas, is not how it’s done. Fortunately, the ‘estates’ part is just a marketing ploy. There are no estates, just ordinary plots of land topped with ordinary houses. Lawns are optional; we have crushed lava rock. Not one house on our street looks like ours and we have the only white picket fence in the whole…neighborhood…development…division…area.

It’s nice in Hawaiian Shores. We have a community association that has laid out rules for peaceful neighborly coexistence, including a ban on farm animals and rusting vehicles in the front yard. We get home mail service, clean water, road maintenance and access to community facilities. The association office is in a park just a few blocks away. There are tennis courts, a baseball field, a playground, barbecue facilities and a pool. Nice, right?

Having lived here for a year already, I was also surprised to discover that there’s another park a few blocks in the opposite direction. It has a smoothly mown lawn and palm trees but is otherwise deserted. The story goes that 30 years ago, this area was being developed by none other than Pan Am, who thought it would be nice to have two community centers, one with a small pool for kids and another with a larger one for grown-ups. But before they could get all that done, the company went belly-up and the grown-up facilities never officially opened. They sat there, nearly finished, while the tennis nets rotted away to nothing and a papaya tree took root in the empty pool. The impressive wooden structure one assumes is a picnic area is now suffering the ravages of hungry termites. The metal light fixtures that may once have held fluorescent bulbs are rusted away, hardly distinguishable from the wood they’re mounted on. Abandoned bird’s nests peek out from the rafters.

But as serendipity goes, this leaves us with a rather delightful space for an exercise class. I’ve been a few times now. It’s all retired people. (Who else has time for such things at 10:00 on a weekday?) One gentle spirit peers out from her wrinkled face as she does the exercises seated in a folding lawn chair; she told me she was with the occupation forces in Japan in 1947.

I know from many years of experience at gyms and the dojo that a great deal of community spirit can be generated among strangers by sweating together. We roll out our mats and the indomitable Suzan Thompson puts us through our paces. With 25 years of experience teaching fitness at a YMCA, she is a combination of drill sergeant and caring elementary school gym teacher with a smile that can bounce you right into next Thursday. Her occasional off-color jokes motivate us to keep moving as we struggle against our middle aged flab. Today she had us doing glute exercises designed to ‘turn those flapjacks back into juicy orbs’.

Years ago we used to joke that Hawaii was the 48th prefecture, so we have often wondered why there aren’t more Japanese people around here. Susan mentioned that there used to be quite a few Japanese in the class but they’re all gone. They had bought their Hawaiian homes in the 80’s, back when Japan had more money than it knew what to do with, and had since ‘aged out’, gotten too tired to shuttle back and forth, too tired to tend their gardens. I read just recently that Japan doesn’t have the immigration problems the US is dealing with so poorly, mostly because Japan is dying, both literally and figuratively it would seem.

I looked at the slowly disintegrating, never-quite-happened community center and wonder what might have been. Images flitted through my head: A balding Japanese man in an aloha shirt grilling tiny strips of meat, lanky Pan Am stewardesses draped over lounge chairs sipping martinis through red painted lips. And then a fly nibbled at my calf, dragging me back to the present, the pulsing music, my sweaty classmates, Susan’s voice thundering over a background of twittering birds and swaying palm trees. As the aloha shirt and painted lips fade into a past long forgotten, I realize I am glad to be where I am, and who I am, and living in the here and now, even if it is a subdivision.

Fitting In

On Sunday, we went to a birthday lunch for a friend. It was at Hilo Burger Joint, one of a half block of creaky wooden buildings, vestiges of Hilo’s heyday as a cowboy town. When we walked in, it struck me as the runt of the TGI Friday’s litter. It had the same kind of menu and jolly atmosphere, it was just smaller. Our waiter was perky but not festooned with buttons and stuffed toys. And it was just as loud as its Tokyo litter mates.

The Big Island seems to have everything other places offer, they’re just smaller. Instead of Kinko’s, we have Paradise Business Center, which is gray and dusty and run by an equally gray and dusty skeleton of a man, but he takes Amazon and UPS drop-off without too much complaint. Instead of Costco, we have Cost U Less, which is much more manageable in scale and has tiny birds fluttering around inside it, a delightful addition to the shopping experience. The Hilo version of the Apple Store Genius Bar is a second floor back office with two computer dudes slouching on folding chairs, but they get the job done and you don’t need an appointment. Our Walmart and Target may be smaller than some, but they sometimes have what you want. And if they don’t, there’s always Amazon, which takes a week instead of a day but where’s the rush anyway?

At the Burger Joint, I discovered that the menu carried an involved discussion about how their burgers were made with wagyu but not Kobe beef because only beef from Kobe can be called Kobe beef and theirs is wagyu from Colorado. The editor in me was wondering why they had to bring up the concept of Kobe beef at all, as I heard split hairs gently fluttering toward the floor. Their standard burgers are made with local, grass fed, hormone free, Kulana beef, which sounded lovely to me, wondering why people make such a fuss about Kobe beef anyway. It’s fatty and tasteless, but that’s just my opinion.

Overwhelmed by the beef dispute, I focused instead on the company, which proved to be well worth the drive to Hilo. It was a jovial groups. I counted two sets of hearing aids, one cane and more than a few age spots. When we were done, it took all of us a moment to leverage our creaky knees off the hard wooden chairs, but everyone was alert and eager to communicate. It never really sank in when we decided to move here that we didn’t know a solitary soul, but over the months, we’ve birthed a litter of our own, all interesting people who’ve done interesting things with their lives, all coming from Somewhere Else and now coming from Here. Local people are called kama’aina and we’re included. I’ll never be Hawaiian any more than I’ll ever be Japanese, but I do feel welcome. I feel at home. We’ve been lucky, I guess, or maybe the Big Island just attracts the sort of people we want to know. Part of our continuing adventure will be finding out more about that.

Soursop

Our neighbor Jimmy has been described as an 85 year old hooligan. I can’t comment as to his hooliganism, but I do know that he’s appointed himself the local fruit distributor. He has trees of his own, and friends with trees, and checks on the trees belonging to people who aren’t here all year. A couple of times a week, he pulls into our driveway in in his creaky old Toyota, his creaky old dog Peanut perched on the seat beside him. He climbs out of the truck on his creaky old hips and hands us a paper bag containing that day’s loot. Sometimes it’s a cutting of green bananas. Or maybe sweet Meyer lemons. It could be papayas, a deep orange variety that giggles its way down your throat. Or a pineapple that fills the kitchen with its perfume. He sometimes brings the creamiest, smoothest avocados I’ve ever tasted.

And one day he brought a soursop.

They’re odd, lumpy looking things, discolored and prickly, which rather appeals to my own odd, lumpy, discolored and prickly self. Just as you mustn’t judge me by my foul mood, you mustn’t judge a soursop by its cover. The magic is on the inside. But getting to it involves peeling off the skin, removing the toughest of the fiber and squeezing out the slippery seeds. The first time I did this, I used a fine mesh sieve and a suribachi pestle and was ready for a massage and a long nap when I was finally done.

The second time around, though, I discovered that my friend Leah, who has excellent taste in kitchen ware, had a food mill she was willing to lend me. This is also brings back childhood memories of old ladies processing fruit for applesauce and I think my hippie aunt used to use one to clean the seeds out of her her pot so I am in good company. I did have to drop by the University of the Internet and take Cuisinart 101 to figure out how the spring load mechanism worked, but I learn fast and was quickly on my way.

In two shakes of a gekko tail, I had a bowl full of creamy pulp, both tangy and sweet.

Now, what would I do with it? Most of the recipes I found were Jamaican in origin and involved sweetened condensed milk. While this was interesting from a cultural perspective, it was not what I wanted to do with my soursop.

And so we hop onto the limited express bound for Smoothieland. I’ve been making these for years, long before the word Smoothie became part of the popular lexicon. I always called it Super Juice and it was really just a sensible way to use up borderline bananas. Since moving to the tropics, though, my Super Juice has moved into the big leagues. The current batch in the fridge is a blissful blend of papaya, pineapple, mushy nectarine, coconut milk and a touch of turmeric for color.

I used to be an Olympic sleeper, perfect 10’s across the board, neither night owl nor early riser. I just prefer to be in bed. But over the course of the past year, I have morphed. I go to bed early because I am sleepy and I get up early because I want to. I never before lived in a place where the sounds of morning could entice me out of bed, where the list of things I need to get done seems less daunting because I want to open my eyes and see what the day has in store. Tomorrow morning, the sun will rise, the birds will sing and, among other things, I have soursop to look forward to. I can think of worse ways to start the day.

Tree Massacre

When you’re trying to focus on some really boring proofreading work, what’s more distracting than a guy with a chainsaw cutting branches out of a tree next door?

Two guys with chainsaws cutting branches out of a tree next door, especially when neither of them are wearing harnesses or safety lines and the one higher up in the tree is wearing shorts and flip-flops…FLIP-FLOPS…so you just…can’t…stop…watching.

365 Days

Today, August 4, 2019, marks the one year anniversary of our move to the Big Island of Hawaii. I look back on the past year with wonder and awe: the things we’ve seen, the people we’ve met, the new sights and sounds and tastes and genuine sense of aloha all come together to assure me, again and again, that we made the right choice.

Man Against Palm Frond

Just the other day, we were walking through a parking lot and a rogue palm frond launched itself toward Rochi’s head. It missed, fortunately, and before you could say Kamehameha, a man had jumped out of his car and two other people came running from shops in the strip mall, all intent on capturing the offending frond and making sure Rochi hadn’t been decapitated. I was relieved, of course, and also deeply moved.

The Chicken Coop at Tim and Dottie’s

Later that same afternoon, we stopped by a friend’s place because we’re chicken-sitting while they’re back on the mainland. One chicken was roosting when I entered the coop and she gave me a fierce scolding fortified with a flurry of flapping wings and angry clucking. I could only smile and make my apologies. Two of the eggs I collected from the nests were still warm. I felt their warmth radiate from my palm directly to my heart. There’s an experience I never had in Japan, or anyplace else for that matter.

There have been so many new experiences that it’s hard to list them all and impossible to rank them in order of wonderment.
– I bought a car, learned to drive it and got a Hawaii driver’s license, in that order.

Lil Six


– We both took on, and conquered, the taiko drum…until it conquered us. But we were not too proud to admit defeat and took some valuable friendships with us when we left.
– I worked on costumes for the Kamehameha School’s production of Hairspray and then the U of Hawaii production of Rent, making more friends along the way and being grateful that my life experience came together in a way that made those experiences possible.
– I started to establish a credit rating even though I’m not sure I need one and took on the American medical establishment, which I wish I didn’t need, but not every day is rainbows and unicorns.
– I took a class in basic maintenance at the community college and learned a lot, earning along the way a renewed sense of empowerment, a very nice wooden tool box and more lovely friends.

Melissa the Welder and Teacher Extraordinaire

We’ve been to mountains and beaches and farmer’s markets and craft fairs. Food adventures are myriad, from the 85 year old Dutch Chinese man who brings us avocados and soursops to the barefoot hippies who harvest organic honey destined to sweeten my tea to Sunday breakfast and Friday night fish fry at the VFW to tomatoes and peppers and beans and pineapples and lemons and lemongrass all growing in our garden before my eyes as my fingers type these words. Just thinking about this bounty makes me smile, maybe even gloat a little.

It’s been a momentous year, challenging and exuberant and hard and thrilling in turn but all bringing out the best in us and helping us see the best in others.

I am practically drowning in gratitude.

Homemade Frozen Treats chez Leah and Mick

Drive the Forklift

The other day, a friend stood next to a forklift and asked me, “Do you want to drive it?” The me of not so long ago would have looked at it longingly, quickly convincing myself there were too many reasons not to, most of all that I was not good enough, not skilled enough, too much of a galumphing dork to handle the situation. The opportunity would have gone sailing by like the pleasant scent of strawberries on a summer breeze, so delightful, so inviting and so quickly gone. And then I would spend days and months and years mentally kicking myself for being such a loser.

But that day, instead of cowering like a lump of leftover cookie dough, I smiled, jumped into the driver’s seat and said, “Hell to the hell yes!” (a phrase I’d long wanted to use and was saving until just the right moment). I didn’t get to do anything macho like stack pallets or unload a semi, but my joy ride once around the empty parking lot was just that: pure joy.

A very important lesson I learned in 2017 was that bravery is not bravado. It’s courage, its facing something that scares you and doing the scary thing anyway. There may be sweaty palms and jello-wobbling stomach jitters involved, but you face the monsters hiding in the musty tunnel. In time, you find yourself standing taller and holding your head higher, because once you have to face those fears enough times, you get stronger, you stop being so afraid. The scary thing doesn’t become any less scary, but you learn to have confidence in your own ability to cope. You might emerge from the tunnel with spider webs in your hair and bits of monster guts clinging to your shoelaces, but that unpleasantness will come to matter less than you ever thought it could.

As I slayed my monsters and learned to trust myself, to be braver and less afraid, I also discovered a form of faith. I learned to believe in following my own instinct. Under the fluff and feathers of civilization and designer labels and technological gadgets, we are, after all, animals, and animals do pretty well by surviving on instinct. It is one of the gravest tragedies of the human condition that we have regimented ourselves to following rules someone else laid out for us, blindly believing that those rules are the one true way to success in life. We keep climbing the caterpillar tower toward heaven, always finding that there is no place left to go but back down to the bottom.

I have discovered that faith can take a lot of different forms. Changing our lives took a leap of faith into the unknown, trust in ourselves, our instinct, to point us in the right direction. All in all, our faith has held true and guided us through a winding maze of difficult decisions and overwhelming paperwork. For that, I am humbly grateful.

So when you have doubts, any kind of doubts, pull yourself up by your gut-encrusted shoelaces and drive the forklift. You’ll be glad you did.

On the other hand, do you think they’d let me drive the…um…boa constrictor extractor?