Alex

The other day, we had lunch at Kitchen Alex, one of our favorite eateries in Sangenjaya. Alex is a long narrow establishment, maybe three yards across and ten long. There’s a curved counter flanked by a dozen stools serving as stalls where we can strap on the feedbag. It’s nothing fancy. Each day there are specials, A Lunch and B lunch, or you can order off the menu. Basically you get either the hot plate (three thick-cut French fries, a handful of wilted green beans and a small pile of ketchup spaghetti) or the cold plate (chopped cabbage, spaghetti salad and a thin slice of mikan) adorning your meat choice. Each meal comes with a plate of plain steamed rice and the best miso soup I’ve ever tasted.

Behind the counter, Mrs. Alex serves the rice and washes the dishes. The smaller of the two jumbo sized Alex Juniors (let’s call him A Junior) serves as sous chef, prepping the plates and adding dollops of ketchup or squirts of mayo as needed. At the end of the counter, Mr. Alex is lord of the six ring stove, surrounded by an array of grease-encrusted pots and pans he deftly maneuvers around the stove or piles on the rack above it. The even larger B Junior skirts behind us serving water and handing out plates and running the register. Over the years he has grown rounder and rounder; often he jostles us like a pinball against bumpers. He may have finally outsized the narrow space; this time there was a girl with a ponytail doing his job.

We had eaten there many times, maybe once a week or so for several years. Mrs. and Juniors both A and B had never spoken, but occasionally Mr. Alex would venture a comment:

“Off today?”
“Yep. It’s Sunday.”
“Yep, it is.”

But this time, when we sat down, he raised his eyebrows and said, “I thought the two of you had been murdered.”

Murdered? We laughed, pleased to have survived whatever hideous violence the poor man had imagined, more pleased that he had noticed our absence.

Nothing had changed, not one whit, except us. Somehow we were different, but there was great comfort in the familiarity of the food, the same nicks and cracks in the counter, the scowl on Mrs. Alex’s face, the TV chattering in the background. We didn’t even try to explain that it was a momentous occasion for us. Rochi had been wanting to go there since we got off the plane five weeks ago but, until a few days ago, there was no way he could have swallowed even one wilted green bean. I won’t go into the details of the medical merry-go-round we’ve been riding for so long; that’s a story for another day. Let’s just say Rochi’s finally getting better and, fingers crossed, on the road to recovery. The food, in all its greasy simplicity, was delicious and a grand reward for what we’ve been through.

Lesson learned: You rarely notice how much something means to you until you don’t have it anymore; if you are wise you will value it twice as much when you get it back.

Also, I love the Big Island, but the Bigger Island is pretty great, too.

Insurance

Sometimes you find yourself wandering along a beach, marveling at the beauty all around you and then life comes at you with a whoosh and suddenly you find yourself standing on the opposite shore scratching your head and wondering how you got there.

Literally.

Rochi has had an ear problem for months now. We saw five different doctors in Hawaii and nobody could fix it. All along we’ve been paying cash for these services because we can’t even apply for insurance until open enrollment in November. That insurance doesn’t take effect until January, and when/if we finally do get it, the monthly premiums cost as much as our Tokyo rent used to cost except that rent did not also demand deductibles and co-pays and other fancy words that boil down to “shut up and do as you’re told.” Until then, I had been feeling smug that I had bought a house and, for the first time in my life, was not paying rent. Lesson learned.

The last doctor we saw said we’d done everything we could do at the clinic level. The next step would be a CT. Without insurance, the test alone would cost at least two months’ rent. She told us point blank that we’d be better off coming back to Japan.

So that’s what we did. We arrived on a Tuesday night. By Wednesday lunch time, he had insurance, we had seen doctors and been given medication. Total cost: about $50. A week later we spent a full day at the hospital, he had multiple examinations, two CT scans and prescription medications. Bill for the day: almost $200.

As we were riding the shiny new escalator toward the exit from the clean, modern hospital, we were both doing the math in our heads. In the States, that day alone would have cost us two trips to Japan, flying business class and staying in fancy hotels, maybe even a Rolex or two. Or about 2.5 years’ rent.

In the United States, people die, they DIE, because they’re afraid to go to the doctor. It’s not the pain that is so scary, it’s the bills that arrive weeks later, unexplained but final. Thou shalt pay. End of story. They even send email with the heading, “Great news! You have a new e-document.” I understand these documents are sent by computers but at some point, some actual semi-human organism must have written those words with that intended purpose. “Great news! You’re still sick and now you owe a bazillion dollars! Yay!” This is cruelty that borders on sadism. But the real irony, and the ultimate insult, is that there is nobody to explain and nobody to blame. You can call every number they give you, but everyone you speak to will tell you the same thing: “We don’t make the rules. We just send the bills.” I keep hearing voices in my head saying, “I’m not responsible. I was just following orders.” Where have we heard that before?

I have even sensed an undertone of, “You should be grateful you got to see a doctor at all.”

Really?

Are we talking about the same United States? The land of the free, where we have a right to the pursuit of happiness but not to basic healthcare? Is this the same home of flag-wavers who claim a love of God and equality for all but run for cover when we talk about universal health coverage? I thought we were talking about the United States where we have indoor plumbing and clean running water and safe food and cell phones and WiFi and Sunday football. But I guess these pleasures don’t extend to anyone who is running a temperature.

It seems fundamentally wrong that we have so many basic freedoms, things we take for granted, when millions of people around the world go without milk or shoes or education. We complain about slow Internet while people in our own country, maybe even next door, die of a simple infection they can not afford to treat.

We are lucky. We had the Japan option. But what happens to people who don’t? Not for the first time, I am ashamed of the country I represent.

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.

Maintenance Ms.

I had an appointment with my new PCP–that’s Primary Care Provider–who is a Nurse Practitioner. She’s very nice but I can’t figure out what to call her. She’s not Dr. Fields. Nurse Fields sounds condescending. I’d feel like I was back in high school if I called her Ms. Fields. The receptionist said I should call her by her first name, but I can’t do that, not after so many years of living in Japan. I really want to call her Sensei, which is a grand title: respectful, applies to anyone in a position of knowledge and you don’t have to remember an actual name. But If I call her Sensei, people will either think I’m showing off or that I’ve been watching too many Karate Kid movies. So I guess I will stick with mumbling.

At any rate, she gave me dire warnings about my A1c level. I am tempted to blame this on Hawaii and the enticing variety of colorful, sugar-laced delectables available here. To be honest, I have consumed more sugar in the past six months than I did in the previous three decades. Sweets were easier to avoid in Japan; they look pretty but don’t taste very good.

Alas, I have no one to blame but myself for the pickle I’m in, so I decided it was time to learn about food, to figure out the difference between fad diet miracle supplements and real food. I looked around locally, but this is Puna and all I found were Keto Paleo Earth Worship Vegetarians, which is all well and good but I refuse to be the sort of person who has to hide her Mac and Cheese mixes in the back of the closet.

Plan B: Check the Hilo Community College website, but all they offered was a medical nutrition course for nursing students. Plan C: Consult Mr. Google. What I found was what I already knew. Eat real food, food that comes from the earth, not from a can or a plastic package. Stick with the outside aisles of the supermarket. Don’t fall prey to shiny packages; if a color doesn’t exist in nature, it’s probably best not to eat it.

Along that journey of discovery, I came across an unexpected opportunity.

Well, fancy that.

I have always been a big fan of new experiences and the past few years have excelled in that department. Among many others, I bought a house. I’ve never owned a house before; I’ve never owned much of anything. Until now, when the toilet acted up, I called the landlord. Now I own the toilet, and a whole bunch of other stuff, and I should probably know a little about how these things work. So I pulled up my big girl underpants and registered.

At $75 for six weeks of instruction, 8 hours a week, the class is certainly a bargain. We have two evening lectures along with four hours in the shop on Saturdays. Our teacher is terrific. She has a lively wit and an interest in pretty much everything. She’s one of the only female construction workers in Hawaii, a licensed welder currently working in drywall. We will spend a few weeks on basic carpentry and then move on to plumbing and wiring.

The other students are there for the same reason as me: we all want to have more control over our living spaces, and thereby, more control over ourselves. Yesterday, in our first shop class, we started making a sawhorse. I used a circular saw for the first time, and it was way more of a thrill than I expected. Then I learned how to pound in industrial grade nails. I’m proud to say I only whacked my knuckle once.

My First Cut

I now own leather work gloves, safety glasses, and a pair of ever-so-cute canvas work shoes. I’m loving the class, soaking up new vocabulary and touching things I’ve never touched before. At Home Depot, unlike at the supermarket, my eyes would slide along the rows of shiny tools appreciating their aesthetic beauty but having no further interest. It’s a whole different kettle of nuts and bolts when you’re running a tool yourself. This is power, in every sense.

And you can call me Maintenance Ms.