I’ve got this bottle of fancy shampoo. Generally I use baby shampoo or just bar soap. Either one gets the job done with a minimum of fanfare, but there was a promotion on Amazon. For a limited time, this status-enhancing, life-affirming bottle could be mine for less than $5. The stuff got rave reviews, so I ordered it.
The magical day finally arrived. I got into the shower and washed my hair, expecting to emerge taller, richer and better adjusted. What happened, though, was my hair felt like a Brillo pad and I got an awful case the itches.
But I was raised to believe that it’s wrong to waste something that still has some use left in it. So the bottle sat on the shelf in my shower. Now and then enough time goes by that I forget how awful the stuff is and I use it again. And then I remember why the bottle is still full.
Last night, I was in the shower and it hit me that while it is wrong to be wasteful, a thing is only useful if someone is getting some use from it. And that wasn’t happening with my magic bottle.
I had fought the good fight, given it a year. It was time to admit defeat.
Or was it? Maybe I should try to remember that my life is pretty good as it is. I get a great deal of satisfaction from yoga and cooking and working in the garden. And if baby shampoo is good enough for babies, it ought to be good enough for me.
Lessons learned: Life is pretty good as it is. And people get paid to write good reviews on Amazon.
One Tuesday evening in November long ago, probably in 1988 but maybe it was 1992, I walked into a classroom to teach English. It was a night class. The students were mostly male, salaried workers in rumpled suits with laundry bags of exhaustion hanging under their eyes.
I smiled my perkiest smile and said, “Today is a special day in the United States. Does anyone know why?”
Heads were scratched and air was sucked and finally one brave fellow, striped necktie askew, looked up at me.
“You have an erection?”
Fighting the urge to look down to make sure, I walked to the chalkboard and wrote the word, spelled correctly, and hoped the issue would tuck its tail under its chin and fade into the ugly carpet.
And now, so many years later, on another Tuesday in November, decades and oceans away, I can only hope the current reign of terror will tuck its tail under its chin and make its way into the carpet.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. Judging by the past four years, the current nightmare is unlikely to die a noble death or even attempt a scrap of dignity. With luck, the will of the people will capture it in a net and toss it out the window, ignorance, arrogance, bigotry and all, and it will get sucked into the annals of history, never to rear its ugly head again.
Lately, it’s been very hard to put pen to paper, so to speak, or should I say fingers to keyboard? This blog tends to be either silly or slightly philosophical, but there’s a lot less silliness going around these days and it’s hard to come to any grand conclusions about Life, The Universe and Everything (42!) when we’re all living life suspended just inches above limbo.
But today I feel the need to share. This morning, I went out onto the lanai as usual to do my daily workout. (Pahla B Fitness on Youtube. She’s my current exercise guru). I grabbed my handy broom to sweep away the night’s accumulation of lava dust and a little green lizard fell at my feet. Maybe it had been clinging to the ceiling or nestled in the bristles of the broom. It looked at me, slightly abashed. I bade it good morning and it went on its way.
A while later, I was pulling weeds in the back garden when I found a snail, a big oozy snail making a slimy trail toward our tomatoes. As much as I would like to honor all creatures, snails in Hawaii sometimes carry rat lungworm disease. It’s rare but hideous; to date I don’t personally know anybody who has contracted Covid but I do know someone who got rat lungworm. He recovered eventually but both he and his family went through agony before he got there. So I picked up the nasty thing in my gloved hand and dropped it into a bucket of heavily salted water which we keep under the deck just for that purpose. So long, buddy. Don’t take any wooden nickels.
A while later, I reached under a purple-flowering bush by the deck, intending to yank out a tuft of unwanted grass, when a brownish stone suddenly leapt toward my face. It took a moment for me to register that it was a frog, not an adorable thumbnail-sized coqui frog whose song lulls me to sleep but an ugly lumpy frog the size of my fist. I dropped my trowel as I squealed like a little girl and ran for the safety of the house. All three cats were watching me from the window, judging me for my cowardice. I’ll never live this one down.
A gang of marauding roosters has been terrorizing the bug community in our garden for weeks. They’re quite handsome, really, and look rather adorable when they root around in the dust under the mountain apple tree. Their cock-a-doodles are not as invasive as one might think, just another set of voices in the natural cacophony that serenades us every day. And they’re welcome to the bugs.
That’s pretty much the long and short of the critter situation. But I am hard put to draw any sort of conclusion. Lizard, snail, frog, rooster. I have made peace with my onetime terror of lizards. I am at a leery standoff with the snails and frogs. If I were a witch I might use them to cook up a brew that would cause our neighbor’s noisy TV to implode. Sadly, I am not a witch.
Perhaps in time the world will get back to some semblance of normal. In the meantime, I guess the best I can do is appreciate what nature has to offer and accept this limbo existence with patience and grace. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams…and critters…it is still a beautiful world.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.