The air is thick with tension in the secret, soundproof room in the basement of the White House. The men seated around the polished wooden table are dressed in suits with thin, black ties or uniforms festooned with ribbons and metals. A hush falls as the loudest one speaks.
“Gentlemen, can’t we call this quits? I think we’ve wasted enough time here and I’m sick of listening to everyone blowing smoke. As we all know, I already know everything there is to know and nobody’s opinion but mine matters anyway. And here’s what I think. I’m tired of the little man with the bad haircut trying to push us around. We have more power than anyone else in the universe and I know from hard experience that the only way to get ahead is to ignore everyone and take what you want. It’s the Bull in the China Shop Theory and it never fails. So I’m going to open this alligator skin designer briefcase and push the button so we can wipe the little man off the face of the earth and I can get back to saying inane things on Twitter.”
And that’s just what happens. He places the briefcase on the table and snaps the fasteners open. Inside, though, he finds not one but two buttons. One is labeled “Nuclear War”. The other says “Nucular War”. The first will unleash several tons of horrific destruction and leave most of the Earth uninhabitable for generations to come, perhaps for all eternity. The second will unleash several tons of SpaghettiOs onto the head of the person who pushes it.
The future of humanity rests on this moment.
The man reaches out, hesitates, takes a deep breath and…
Boys and girls, that is why we owe our souls to the Almighty O.
Our first performance with Puna Taiko was at the Baptist Ministries Luau at the University of Hawaii in January. Our drummers are mostly varying shades of brown so it really struck me when I looked out at the audience and saw a lot of cream cheese faces. I know there are black and Asian Baptists, but they didn’t turn up for the luau. Those who did, though, were warm and welcoming. It was a good experience.
Today, we had our second performance, this time for the New Year’s party at Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Keaau, which is also our home base. I looked out over the faces and realized there were very few white ones. Those that did appear were definitely not cream cheese; the congregation is nearly all second or more generation Japanese and mostly elderly. I am certainly used to being the only white face in a sea of Asian ones, but it felt very odd that only Reverend Tomioka and Rochi and I can speak Japanese. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy the performance and the food was genuine Japanese and very good. Plus I won one of the centerpieces in the raffle, an elegant Ikebana arrangement of exotic flowers in a Naval Academy mug. Perfect.
We still make an awful lot of mistakes, but given time I know we will improve. To that end, our relationships with our fellow drummers are developing nicely. Like the Baptists, they are warm and welcoming and some of the sweetest kids I’ve ever know. We’d like to adopt the whole bunch, at least in theory. Finding ourselves so far from family and friends intensifies the warmth we see in their eyes and gives it a depth of meaning that is hard to describe.
Drumming is challenging but fun and I’m learning how to accompany on the fue flute. In fact, we will be attending a fue and shakuhachi seminar in Hilo next week before our third performance, which will be at the International Students Days at the U of Hawaii. After us, there’s a lineup of performers from Palau, Kiribati, India and Fiji, among others. I am looking forward to it.
Looking back through this post, I see a LOT of words I never thought I’d type. I am honored, humbled and grateful to be able to type them.
I am living my bucket list. Who could ask for more than that?
I was in the kitchen this morning kneading bread, trying to work past my resentment of the chainsaws whining next door. The one, the only, good thing about the people next door was the magnificent monkey pod tree at the back of their property. Now they are having it cut down, branch by agonizing branch, week by agonizing week. I hear the gut-wrenching scream of the chainsaw and then a loud crack and then another stately limb falls to its death. It feels like the tree is being tortured, slowly and with malice, wounded stumps protruding from the trunk, slowly emerging bald spots in its scalp shorn of deep green leaves. I don’t want to look, but can’t not look.
As I worked, I heard a thump outside a front window, both too soft and to loud for the wind. Twitch, napping on a cushion in a patch of sunlight, looked up briefly but seemed unconcerned.
Clasping my flour-coated hands, I padded toward the window. I peered at the glass and saw a tiny feather stuck to it. Several others were scattered across the concrete ledge under the window. I guessed that one of the little grey birds that twitter around our garden had flown into the glass, perhaps intoxicated by the scent of the gardenia bush. Looking down, I didn’t see a stunned, quivering body. Looking up, I saw only a clear blue sky festooned with wisps of feather-light cloud. Twitch had already gone back to sleep.
As the bread baked, I basked in the comfort of the female scent of warm yeast, thrilled to the baby’s-bottom texture of dough against my palms, reveled in the anticipation of a warm, crusty loaf, sliced and crowned with butter and passion fruit jam.
This one fairly insignificant day in my life feels like a reflection in miniature of the world outside. Sometimes the largest and most powerful is at the mercy of something small, Goliath the Tree vs. Samson the Chainsaw. Sometimes someone small is battered by his own foolishness, my tiny avian Emperor in his New Clothes. Sometimes the simple combination of yeast and flour and milk and honey can make all of that all right.
Our first guests from Japan were here this weekend, two lovely ladies I have known for years and worked with many times. Even though we haven’t even been here six months yet and Tokyo is much closer than Pennsylvania, at times, our Japan life seems very long ago and far away. So it was a great pleasure to see Junko and Yoshie and welcome them into our home.
They had asked to see the ocean and some lava, so we drove along Beach Road (where there aren’t any beaches) as far as you can go until you abruptly run into a 20 foot wall of fresh lava. Along the way, the narrow road winds and twists through lush greenery that even Walt Disney would have had trouble imagining. We stopped a couple of times to stare at the craggy rocks and crashing surf that make up the Puna coastline. As we sailed through tunnels of trees, at times we expected Alice and the White Rabbit to peep out from behind a gnarled tree, at others a velociraptor to jump out of the Jurassic looking foliage.
To cap off the afternoon, we took a stroll through Lava Tree State Park, where I took a photo of Rochi taking a photo of Junko taking a photo of Yoshie taking a photo of all of us. That big lump of lava behind Yoshie was once a tree. Hence the name of the park. But you got that, right?
It felt strange to be driving, stranger to be driving while speaking Japanese, but we all felt relaxed and comfortable together and it was a delight to see our world through their eyes. Puna is nothing like the image of Hawaii that everyone carries: white sand beaches and pretty girls doing hula dances under waving palm trees. Puna is rough and wild, exotic and awe-inspiring but also quiet, still thinly populated, a backwater in some ways. Junko and Yoshie live in Tokyo and could keenly appreciate the airy space of our house, the exotic plants and flowers in the garden, the earthy damp of the virgin forest and salty scent of the pristine ocean.
In the morning, they tumbled out of bed, rumpled and sleepy. Both headed straight for the deck to stretch and breathe and take in the miraculous morning freshness which still moves me nearly to tears every single day. I told Junko that I’ve wondered again and again if we made the right decision, to dismantle our Japan lives and start over here, but the longer we stay the more I know we were meant to be here. Hawaii wants us here and we want to be here. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.
Always a fan of new experiences, today I stood in my kitchen under the map of Hawaii and opened a can of Spam.
In my life, I have opened many cans, but never a can of Spam.
Then I made hash. I included the Spam and some sauteed breadfruit.
In my life, I have sauteed many things, but never breadfruit.
Then I fried some eggs and put them on top of the hash.
In my life, I have fried many eggs.
It was not a momentous occasion, but it was significant. From now on, whenever anyone asks if I have opened a can of Spam and eaten it with sauteed breadfruit, I can tilt my head and raise my eyebrows and say, “Why, yes. Yes, I have.”
I am a changed woman, slightly more sophisticated and worldly than I was yesterday, and all because of a can of Spam and a breadfruit.
A while before Christmas, along with the plastic Santas and blinking lights and frighteningly-flavored candy canes, fireworks started to appear in the supermarkets and drug stores. There were all sorts, from simple sparklers to huge variety packs of things that go pop and bang and boom and pfizzz.
A friend had explained that regular fireworks, the kind that go boom in the sky and shower the earth with lights and patterns we can only imagine unless we get hit in the head with a baseball, those fireworks are illegal for private use in Hawaii. But they are brought in anyway, by the barge load. We thought he was joking.
In the evenings, we started hearing the occasional bang or pop, sometimes distant, sometimes rather close. Was it engine backfires? Maybe. Handguns? Unlikely. Hawaii has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, something we are extremely grateful for. So we wondered, but as with so many things in this strange, new world, we had no idea what was going on.
Last night, New Year’s Eve, the bangs and pops started before it even got dark. We’re surrounded by trees so we couldn’t see much. We enjoyed listening as the intensity grew, but us being us, we lit up our $10 bag of bangs and pops and climbed into bed by 10:30.
I couldn’t sleep, so I was laying in the dark thinking my thoughts when the clock struck midnight. The bangs and pops suddenly escalated enough to draw me out of bed. I crept to the bedroom window and found that if I rested my forehead against the screen, I could just see the upper arc of fireworks rising above the trees from a couple of streets over.
I was entranced. I stared at the glowing points of colored light as they quickly faded and disappeared. At the same time, I could hear more bangs and pops, hundreds of them, coming from other directions. The curious kitten inside me grew desperate for more.
I tiptoed around the house checking all the windows but could only see a distant glow. Still, the bangs and pops continued.
There was no moon and our street has no street lights, so I eased the front door open and inched my way outside. The street was inky dark. I looked up and saw the twinkling glow of a billion stars. From the end of the driveway, I could see the pulsing glow of fireworks in all directions, now to my right or left, now behind me, now dead ahead.
The air was mild, the breeze gentle; I stood in our driveway, in my underwear, wrapped in a robe of sulfurous smoke, slowly turning to take in the stars, both in the distance and so very close, totally alone and yet at one with the universe, feeling a sense of childlike joy as pure and inviting as a freshly fallen snowbank.
My wish for you, gentle reader, is that you find a moment to discover that joy some time in the coming year. It’s out there. You just have to look for it.
I woke up this morning, the day after Christmas, with an urge to watch bears eating honey. It has been my experience that it’s best to scratch such itches before they fester, so I consulted my pal Youtube, who kindly obliged with a video of two large black bears laying siege to a wooden beehive.
The narration was a smooth baritone in the gentle, insinuating style employed by public broadcasters worldwide. I don’t know what the dude was saying because it was in German, but I did catch the words “Fort Knox” as the bears continued to assault the box. They worked themselves into a honey-scented frenzy despite the stinging objections of the bees. The battle turned when they used brute strength to tear the roof off the hutch. They yanked out the trays of honeycomb and scraped through the soft wax with their powerful claws; their pointed snouts and pink tongues became coated with golden, sticky nectar. The final narration said “fur dei beenen, (something-something) enden, fur die bearen, (something-something) fest mas laden”, which I think means “bees: zero, bears: one”, as the sugar-charged bears trotted back into the woods, their beady eyes rolling in absolute pleasure.
We spent Christmas eve with new friends, especially Paul, our taiko drumming teacher, and members of his extended family. Or not. There were two kids there so all the adults were called Uncle or Auntie but in Hawaii that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone’s related. At any rate, it felt like family, people who knew each other well and were very comfortable together and willing to welcome strangers to their fold.
We stuffed ourselves with Hawaiian bounty and then Auntie Susie said we had to stay for The Ball Game.
The Ball Game turned out to be a ball of Saran wrap and a pair of dice. You play the game by trying to peel off the layers of plastic wrap while the person to your left rolls the dice. As soon as they get doubles, you pass the ball to them and they pass the dice to their left. As sheets of plastic dropped away, a surprising assortment of treats were revealed, and whoever managed to free them got to keep them. It started with candies and soon escalated to packets of instant ramen, dollar bills, shopping bags, baseball caps, dryer balls, bottles of hot sauce, gift cards. It was a cornucopia, such a simple idea but so much fun, way better than any dumb old pinata.
The winner was the one who made it to the center of the ball to discover a Tupperware full of pretzels and $20. Technically, Paul’s daughter Emily won, but I think I did better, scoring both a Lord of the Rings baseball cap and a Dairy Queen gift card.
If you’ve ever watched in helpless horror as the plastic slips off the edge of the box and attaches itself to the roll, you know how strongly Saran wrap likes to cling to itself. So the game took a while, everyone shouting and laughing as we tore at the plastic, our attack less violent than the Siege of the Beehive, but our pleasure just as real.
Christmas day we stayed home, opened presents (I received a jar of Wililaiki Christmasberry honey and didn’t have to fight off a single bee), ate a lot (not turkey; there’s no way we could top November’s Thanksmas celebration), tried to stay awake to watch the Grinch on TV, and were generally rather smug about how lucky we are.
And that was our first Christmas on American soil in the past three decades. So far our new life is off to a great start. And we’re going to do our darndest to keep it up with relentless curiosity, goodwill, humor, open hearts and open minds…and honey, sweet golden liquid, Hawaiian sunshine in a jar, the scent of heaven and the taste of love.