The Eyes Have It


I Confess
by
Alison Luterman
I stalked her
in the grocery store: her crown
of snowy braids held in place by a great silver clip,
her erect bearing, radiating tenderness,
the way she placed yogurt and avocadoes in her basket,
beaming peace like the North Star.
I wanted to ask, “What aisle did you find
your serenity in, do you know
how to be married for fifty years, or how to live alone,
excuse me for interrupting, but you seem to possess
some knowledge that makes the earth burn and turn on its axis—”
But we don’t request such things from strangers
nowadays. So I said, “I love your hair.”
https://www.alisonluterman.net/

I took Rochi to the ophthalmologist for a peripheral vision test, which in itself is an adventure in spelling if that kind of thing gets you going. It works for me. There’s just the smallest of thrills in seeing the squiggly red line disappear when I finally get the spelling right, and I firmly believe in the value of small thrills.

The ophthalmologist’s office is diligent about distancing. When you arrive, you call reception from your car. They invite you in when they’re ready for you. Luckily an obliging banyan tree in the parking lot offered us a patch of shade.

After the test, we log-jammed with a young couple at the front door, all of us awkwardly trying to keep our distance. The woman held it open for me as I passed and said, “You have beautiful eyes.” I noticed that the skin around one of hers was badly scarred, the eye milky and unfocused.

Walking through the parking lot, I heard her remark to her partner, “I can’t see a damned thing since they put those drops in my eye. Now I’m blind in both eyes.” She laughed as she climbed into their battered truck. I admired her spunk.

And then I wondered, as I unhooked my mask, how she had determined that my eyes are beautiful. Or if it was an intuition. Or just something people say. And then I wondered what had happened to her, wondered if I could ask, “Gee, what happened to your eye?”

It seems like medicine has gone about as far as it can for Rochi. His steroids have been tapered down to almost nothing. His blood glucose is nearly normal. Both the ophthalmologist (!) and neurologist have said there’s no sign of any physical problem beyond the nerve damage inside his head and there’s nothing more they can do about that. And so we rest and do gentle yoga and eat organic food from the garden, along with the occasional hot dog, of course, and wait for Mother Nature and Madame Pele to do their magic.

All the while, the pandemic rages around us, around the world, at the same time both soul-wrenching and completely irrelevant. And I spend my days looking for the beauty in humanity, the glimpses into other people’s lives, the eyes as gateways to the soul, to the foundations of life and the reasons to keep living it.

Artist Star Ladd synthesizes beauty and love from the female in all of us
https://www.facebook.com/Starseedsacredsilks1/?ref=page_internal

Census and Noncensus

My grandpa was a statistician, a Tabulation Expert, who worked for the census department. He was a clever man. I remember sliding around in the smooth leather back seat of his boat sized Cadillac inhaling the smoke from his Kools while puzzling out math problems or trying to name all the states that start with the letter M.

Professor Google cites several publications featuring his name, mostly having to do with Univac. Family lore says he was instrumental in purchasing F.O.S.D.I.C., one of the first computers used by the US government, affectionately known as Fearless Fosdick. It was twice the size of my bedroom and probably only had a fraction of the power of the Texas Instruments calculator I used in high school trigonometry, but still an important stone in the foundation of the coming technological revolution. I found a picture of it on the census website; I’m pretty sure the person operating it isn’t grandpa.

FOSDIC

So when an ad for census enumerators popped up on my computer last fall, I applied. I thought it would be fun, or at least interesting. I’m a big fan of new experiences, particularly unexpected ones. And one of the things I love about Hawaii is the broad variety of its people. I looked forward to meeting some of them and maybe seeing how they live.

Because of Covid, all training was done online. It provided useful information on how to enumerate large apartment buildings (there are none anywhere near here) and advised me to watch out for moose when I’m driving. (I kid you not.) Then there was a 3.5 hour conference call where a group of us listened to a guy reading instructions from a script and not knowing the answers to any of our questions. I never said a word; instead I used the time for Messenger chat and did my nails. But when that was done, I was an official enumerator armed with a laminated picture ID and government issue iphone.

enumerator badge
The enumerator badges were way cooler in 1910, I could have raided a saloon or led a posse with one of these.

I headed out on my first day with a positive attitude and a sense of anticipation. My very first case had already been visited several times. The case file said the people were belligerent, anti-government screamers. I don’t know if this was meant to be trial by fire or just the indifference of Big Brother. Either way, I sat in the car staring at the house for a long time, searching for the confidence to knock on the door. When I finally did, nobody was home but there was a dog whining piteously behind the door. The profound misery in its voice stayed with me for the rest of the day.

Most people fill in their census forms without any prodding. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the people who hadn’t done that didn’t want to be counted. I had been trained to explain how the census is good for all of us and that their personal information would be treated with absolute confidentiality, both by me and by the department. But I didn’t feel good about telling people to trust a government that is not to be trusted, at least not in the current climate, maybe not ever.

Only one person was flat out hostile. Several were rude. A couple of times I saw shadowy faces behind twitching curtains but nobody came to the door; those people deserved to have their solitude respected. Many of the places I visited appeared empty, overgrown and forlorn, but that didn’t necessarily mean nobody lived there; I was obliged to knock anyway, sometimes stepping gingerly over weeds and broken glass. Dogs barked. Bugs bit. Neighbors eyed me suspiciously. I drove down rutted, unpaved roads past rusting cars and found myself praying that certain addresses wouldn’t pop up in my list. More and more, I realized I was drawing too much on my shallow well of courage, trying not to admit how scared I was and how much the job was costing me.

I could have lied, said that I had visited places I hadn’t, but like so many others, I didn’t want to go down that road.

My final case on my fourth day was a friendly fellow who told me a bit about the neighborhood, its drug problems and psychoses and other woes, then he looked me in the eye and said with gentle concern, “You shouldn’t be doing this job. It’s too dangerous.” And I realized he was right. I would say 99% of the people I talked to were good folks, mostly not really understanding what the census is or why it matters, but the other 1% was the variable I couldn’t justify. With genuine sadness in my heart and a little disappointment in myself, I contacted my supervisor and resigned, saying I didn’t have the stamina to fulfill the 20 hour weekly minimum. Kudos to her that she didn’t argue.

My grand career as a government employee lasted a whopping four days but at least I tried. I think grandpa would have given me credit for that.

 

grampa

Skin Deep

I’ve gotten used to lizards keeping me company while I do yoga out on the lanai despite my onetime herpetophobia. They are a fact of life in Hawaii. I figured I’d have to make peace with them if I want to live here. And so I did. This morning a particularly aggressive one took a stroll across my yoga mat. I realized his pointy snout was drawing him toward my cup of papaya juice. I know from seeing their little faces leering down at me from the papaya trees that it’s a favorite. So I shooed him away and put my cup on the table, safely out of reach of pointed tongues.

But the other day, I was doing my usual morning yoga, reveling in the sunshine and fresh, clear air, when I noticed a lizard had attached herself to one of the wooden uprights on the deck. Following my movements, she arched her long spine, stretched her chin past her knee toward her foot and then started chewing on her toes.

I can’t do that. But I felt oddly flattered.

I went back to my practice, stretching and toning and finding four dimensional balance, listening to the gentle birdsong in the background, feeling the breeze on my skin, its heat equatorial with an undertone of cool.

Then I noticed lady lizard’s skin was turning pale. Fascinated, I gave up all pretense of downward dog, forgot about chattarunga, and stared, gape-mouthed, as she shrugged her narrow shoulders and removed her face.

yoga lizard

Ah. Molting. I hadn’t realized lizards do that. And as I digested that idea, I started to wonder why I’d never seen any discarded lizard suits draped over the lower branches of the potocarpus hedge.

She was quick to answer that question as I watched her slowly eat said skin. She opened her eyes wide in a “yummy” gesture and grinned at me, a wisp of papery epidermis dangling from her lower lip until, with a quick whip of her narrow tongue, she licked it off.

As I sat enthralled, Dear Abby popped into my head.

Dear Abby

Granted, my little friend was taking this concept rather literally, but the idea has been going through my head. I realized that we had not lived here quite long enough for life to become normal when we returned to Japan where we had lived for so long that it felt normal even though it wasn’t. And then, at long last, we came back here, where things were no longer the normal we hadn’t ever gotten used to in the first place.

I would like for our life here to be part of who we will become, or better yet, who we are becoming. I feel pretty sure it will, assuming a lot of things it is not safe to assume. I’ve always enjoyed the unpredictability of life, the tantalizing spice of the unknowable. But under all of that, it feels like we’re living on a veneer of thin ice, ice that shouldn’t exist in a tropical setting. It wouldn’t take much to upset the papaya cart and leave all of us climbing out of our skin.

Still, despite our worries and fears, when the evening sunset casts its pink glow across the pineapple patch and the purple-red leaves of the ti trees, there’s a sense of magic in the air. While the world is toddling its way into an uncertain future, I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be. 

Me pineapple

 

Sobgiggle

It’s almost impossible to write when my emotions are turned inside out. While the world is percolating with disease and bitterness, there is no sweeter air than the air I am breathing this moment. The setting sun casts a pink glow on the pineapple fronds I see in my very own garden while birds chant their contentment.

This morning, I lay on my yoga mat with my eyes closed feeling calm and composed. When I opened them, my breath was sucked out of my lungs and up into a sky so clear and blue that I let out a sound I had never made before. At that moment, I realized I had invented a new emotion, a joy so pure that it nearly lifted me off my mat. But it was a joy blended with a sorrow so profound that it could have sucked me down through my mat into the depths of the ancient volcano that pulses and breathes beneath us.

I had created a sobgiggle.

Learning to live with joy is just as hard as learning to live with grief but it is a learning process that gives form and meaning to life. I am grateful for it.

Quarantine: Day 3

I got a call from a nice fella named Darren at the Hawaii Covid-19 committee. He asked how we’re doing and whether we understand the rules of stay-at-home. I said, “Well, we stay home, right?” There was a pause and he said, “You’d be surprised how many people don’t get that.” I didn’t even try to explain that we’d spent the past eight months not wanting to be in Tokyo, living out of suitcases in a series of Airbnb’s (details at http://tokyotales2) struggling with the Japanese medical establishment and bureaucracy, desperately missing our kitties and wishing EVERY SINGLE DAY that we could come home.

I told Darren that we’re fine and happy to comply with the rules. I suppose I sounded impossibly upbeat and annoyingly perky. Darren persevered, though, and said we should stay home through June 3. From the 4th, he said, we can do whatever we want. I had to stifle a giggle at that.

Darren, honey, we’re already doing what we want.

Quarantine: Day 1

At long and weary last, we are home. We managed to unpack most of the junk we dragged back with us. I went through all the mail, ending up with three piles: stuff I have to do something about, stuff I will consider doing something about, and credit card applications. The latter was by far the largest.

Now I’m wide awake at 1:30 am. I went to bed at a reasonable time but had a horrible dream. We were back in Tokyo, sharing a shabby apartment with two guys; one had a horse head. A horrific car crash had triggered a second wave of virus outbreak. Sirens wailed outside and when I tried to see what was happening, a tsunami crashed into the building.

A word to the wise: Don’t watch a documentary about the 1348 outbreak of bubonic plague before bed when you’re jet lagged and feeling just a little guilty that quarantine is a pleasure.

Lizard

Through the miracle of the flying sardine can, otherwise know as Hawaiian Airlines, the mouse is back on the Big Island. There is much to do. Several months worth of cat hair beg to be swept under the rugs, spiders encouraged to take up residence elsewhere. The cats have marked their protest to my absence in my bed; much laundry has been done. I work my attack on the invasion of tropical weeds marching toward the house, a stoic terracotta army uniformed in shades of green. From under the wilting tomato vines a village of disease-ridden snails have been unceremoniously evicted. Lizards leer at me, papaya juice dripping from their chins as they feast on my bounty, perched on branches just out of reach.

This morning, while attempting to free the compost barrel from the clutches of a particularly vicious strain of crabgrass, a lizard leapt from among some palm fronds and landed on my calf, startling us both. But its touch was not the slimy pointy slithersome horror I had expected. Instead, it was gentle, soft, like the brush of the tip of a cat’s tail or the fingertips of a very young baby. I had expected to suffer an embolism but instead felt warmth, release, comfort.

I didn’t expect to be gone so long, didn’t know I would be back so soon. And yet, here I am, and in that one moment I realized I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

Aloha, Hawaii. I missed you.

A Suggestion

When I was at immigration the other day, I felt the call and went to the ladies’ room. I don’t know what happens in the gents’, but in the ladies’, we generally nod or half smile as one of us exits a stall and another enters. It’s a kind of ‘the coast is clear’ message and it seems to be universal. Proceed with caution of if a woman avoids eye contact and resolutely studies her shoes as she exits.

When I got to the front of the line, a lady came out of a stall and I had my half-smile at the ready. But as the corners of my lips lifted, she reached out and clasped my arm.

“What sort of ladies’ room oddness is this?” I wondered. We may acknowledge each other’s existence; we do not touch.

“I’m so sorry!” she said.

Slightly alarmed, I thought, “Whatever mess you made in there, lady, I don’t really want to know, but thanks for the heads-up.”

She persisted. “I’m so sorry. I couldn’t figure out how to flush the toilet.”

She was around my own age. Judging from her coloring and accent I would guess she was from India. The genuinely distressed expression on her face told me her story in a flash: “I do not want anyone, not even a total stranger, to think I am some sort of third world yokel hayseed who doesn’t know that you’re supposed to flush the toilet.”

Kudos to her for her courage. She could have studied her shoes and walked away.

I peered into the stall and saw the flushing mechanism. It had seen that kind before, possibly on my last visit to immigration. It was a button on the wall with a lever covering it. You press the lever which in turn presses the button, which I did. Whoosh! The woman smiled and heaved a sigh of relief as she walked away, head held high.

I think the whole thing made an impression because Japan is so very fond of rules. Just yesterday, I used the ladies’ at a public library. The walls of the stall were carpeted with reams of instructions on how and when to use the toilet, including DO NOT FLUSH DIAPERS, MAGAZINES OR CELL PHONES.

I kid you not.

Japan takes toilet technology very seriously. I have found myself standing in the stall, scratching my chin and wondering how to flush. And more than once other distressed ladies have asked for my help finding the elusive flush button.

Therefore, in consideration of my current visa conundrum, I propose the creation of a new visa category: Toilet Flush Advisory Specialist. I am clearly qualified as well as willing and able to share my expertise. I have extensive experience with all manner of stalls, from spiffy hotels with glistening fixtures to nasty holes in the floor covered with footprints and other unpleasantness. [These are nostalgically referred to as KKK–Kusai (smelly), Kitanai (dirty), Kurai (dark). See? I know my stuff.] On pain of deportation, I promise I will always clean up my own messes and never steal the toilet paper.

Now could someone help me find the Suggestions box?