The Picture in the Corner

I have a black and white copy of this photo,  the monotones mute the drama taking place in this picture. It sits quietly in my restaurant, and whispers to get your attention.

It’s a picture of a volcano erupting.  Specifically, it catches the 1959 eruption of Kilauea, in Kapoho. In the foreground is a row of buildings, the kind you might find in any sugar cane town in rural Hawaii. On one of the buildings is a sign that reads, “Y Nakamura Store”.

It was my grandfather’s store, a general store where there was a back table for the men of the town to pull up with a beer or two, play a hand of cards and discuss the latest current events, such as recently granted statehood to Hawaii.  It was where the women congregated to get household supplies, chat each other up, and reaffirm the social hierarchy of their clan.

Kapoho was like any other plantation town scattered along the dirt and macadam roads of this place. Everyone knew everyone else. Kids that misbehaved didn’t get away with it for long, as the news traveled along the invisible telegraph wires strung up between houses. Racially divided by ethnic origin, and yet homogeneously Hawaiian in food, spirit and culture, it, like every other plantation town, was the petri dish for the New Hawaiian Blend. Places like this helped blur the lines between each immigration wave that washed ashore here, until, like grains of sand, they became part of that cultural beachhead. Individual, yet integral to a greater whole.

Madame Pele, our jealous Fire Goddess, reclaimed that land that Kapoho occupied, leaving untouched my grandfather’s store. So much beauty, so much destruction living together in such close proximity.

Did Madame Pele bless my grandfather by sparing his store, or did she curse him, by taking away his customer base? Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?

My grandfather, being resourceful, and probably more thrifty than anything else, took the lumber from his now-vacant store and used it to rebuild his home, a few miles down a pothole-infested dirt road. Curse or blessing, he was determined to live near the ocean, near the town where he grew up. Madame Pele may have tried to block the way, but he viewed it as a speed bump, an opportunity to turn in another direction.

Nothing remained of the town or store, except the sign.  For years, we would drive by the spot on our way to Grandmother’s House, and see the Y Nakamura Store sign, bent and abandoned on a cinder bulwark in the middle of a lava desert. We would beg my father to retell us the story again, of how the volcano erupted in someone’s cucumber field, or was it a papaya plantation?  The tale has morphed as the years have passed, like an old tapestry, with some new stitches sewn in, some old ones unraveling.

I don’t know what happened to that sign.  It may have been scavenged, it may be have sold.  One day, it was simply no longer there.

About ten years ago, I went back to Kapoho, to find the spot where the store once stood, where the sign lay as a tired guardian to a piece of our personal history.  I couldn’t find it.  Nature, in her rampantly tropical way, had covered the place with new growth. I had lost the compass to my childhood memories, everything covered in vines and sapling trees.  Even the pitted dirt road that lead to my grandfather’s house by the ocean was now gated off, part of a sequestered exclusive beach community. The bumpy road under an arbor canopy of trees that brought to mind evil forests in fairy tales was now a smooth paved affair that no longer tortured a car’s suspension or caused your rib cage to jostle into your chin if you drove faster than ten miles an hour down it.

It, like me, had grown up.

I keep this picture in my restaurant now, to remind myself of where I came from, to reassure myself that no matter where I am going and the obstacles I face, there is always another path to take, things grow back and curses can be blessings.

I wonder if my grandfather sees this picture, sees me. I hope so.

 

 

 

An Ice Cream Cone and a Glass of Water

He’s not the typical customer on the Hill.

No man bun, no plaid flannel shirt. No shorts, hiking boots and “bro” tank for him. His hair is naturally gray, his mustache neatly trimmed.

He’s probably seen about seven decades on this earth, and each one has written a story on his face, in the lines on his hands. These stories whisper through the twinkle in his eye.

It’s a twinkle tempered with a touch a melancholia. I don’t know what he’s lost recently, but I feel the emptiness as we talk. He seems lonely, resigned.

He’s kind, sweet and polite. He wants just one small scoop of ice cream, he tells me, as he shifts his unwieldy bag of groceries.

He pays, asks for a glass of water. I gladly oblige.

Thirty minutes later, a mere breath in the span of his years here on Earth, he gets up to leave. He thanks me for the water and the delicious “gelato”, which he pronounces with an Italian of a flair as he can muster.

I don’t know his name. I don’t know if I’ll see him again.

But his untold story stays with me; the human connection contained in a transaction of an  ice cream cone and a glass of water.

 

Marshmallows

Hearts are like marshmallows.

Soft, uniform in shape, a bit bland in color. Innocuous. They hide their sweetness under a nondescript exterior. Simple in ingredients, yet a wonder to behold.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

Easily pierced and crushed. Fragile. Durable. Resilient.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

They burn easily. Their edges char. They get singed and catch fire. They melt and get gooey.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

Fire gives them character, tempers their cloying sweetness with depth and a touch of bitter. Heat makes them malleable, squishable, perfect partners for chocolate and crackers, or the perfect binder for crispy rice cereal.

Fire can also incinerate them.

Hearts are like marshmallows.

They need a little heat to bring out their best.

The Year of the Spiral Perm

I don’t remember the exact year I first visited Rome, so instead I’ll call it The Year of The Big Hair.

I was in my mid-twenties, with The Most Awesome Spiral Perm Ever! Seriously, it took my stylist FOUR, count ’em, F O U R (!) FOUR hours to get all those pesky rollers in my hair.  Looking back, with my short stature, I must have looked like I was ready to topple over, what with all the hair coiling on itself like a Medusa ‘do gone bad.

It was August in Rome. It was hot in Rome. It was humid in Rome.

But I digress.

Rome, like my hair, loomed larger than life.  Words can describe it, photos can show proof of it, but you have to see it writ large across your retinas to fully grasp how grand it is.  I am, of course, talking about the city.

I was on a twenty-four hour layover (my days as a flight attendant) so it was off to the races! The Colosseum! The Trevi Fountain! The Forum! The Pantheon!  Run run run, with my hair streaming behind me like a magical super hero cape. (This was, of course, before Edna Mode’s sage advice of NO CAPES!)

I might have had gelato more than once. I might have had gelato more than thrice. Did I mention it was hot? At some point, the itinerary morphed into a gelato tour punctuated with a few Roman ruins.

Things that stuck in my mind, and maybe in my hair as well:

1.) The grandeur of the Colosseum. So massive, so haunted with history. Lives spent there like cheap pennies to be tossed at a beggar. The roar of chariots, wild animals, the chanting crowds, the cries of gladiators; all  are subdue echos now in the stone corridors.

2.) The Forum. Where the original Toga Party was held. Where history was shaped and legends made. Where emperors and senators once walked, cats now recline in indolence and lassitude.

3.) The Trevi Fountain. I did not expect it to be so fancy. I mean, I didn’t think it was going to be like a water fountain in the halls of my elementary school, but I didn’t think it would be so….curlicue and grandiose….like my hair. Whoa.

After a day of capering through the streets and gawping at the antipasti buffet at dinner, I fell asleep that night to marble columns decorated with stray kitty cats dancing in my head.

The next day, up up up went the hair, restrained and sprayed into submission. Back in uniform, back to the plane, back to the States.

Roman traffic would have to be distracted by something other than The Biggest Hair Ever. The ghosts of the Eternal City returned to silently  haunting their ruins. The uneven cobblestones prepared for another day of tripping up unsuspecting tourists.

But as if caught by a tangled fishing net, Roman memories entwined in my mind and hair. Shellacked into place. Pinned and twisted into strands of my coif.

I no longer have the Big Hair, but the memories? They’re eternal.

 

 

I’ve Met You Before

I see you. I recognize you. I know who you are.

You’ve taken many guises; your masque is never the same. But once you peel away that faux smile, your true character is revealed.

I’ve dated you, I’ve been your lover, your friend.  I’ve studied with you.  I’ve been your employee, your boss, your confidant and your enemy.

I’ve seen you in a million places, around the world. I am always surprised when I run into you, but why, I don’t know.

You’re a Bully.

Time was when you had to be physically there to harass me. On the playground, at school, during a dinner date,  at the workplace…… it didn’t really matter where. The key was, you had to, in some ways, be brave enough to actually intimidate me in person, put a face to your shenanigans. You had to own it. I guess looking back, you had some sort of courage, however insipid it was.

Now, you can curl up comfortably at home and fire away from the safety of your keyboard.  You don’t have to be there to see my reaction when I read your attack. You don’t have to be honorable enough to tell me to my face why you’re being petulant, childish, pejorative or just plain mad. You certainly don’t have to give me the chance to defend myself, apologize, talk it out or try to make it better.

And thanks to the wonder of technology, your audience is now worldwide, not limited to the gang of kids clustered around us in the playground. With the click of a button, you can wound me, my family, my friends, my business, and most importantly, my soul.  You don’t even have to watch me bleed out or cry. You certainly won’t be there to face any repercussions or help me glue myself back together again.

You’ve won.

Almost.

The one thing you forget is that your offensive tells me more about you than it tells the world about me. You reveal your true self, and it’s not pretty. You know deep down you’re being an arse. You are deliberately being unkind, and the stink of it permeates your entire argument.  Nothing can mask that.

How does your victory feel now? Because I can hear  your self-doubt echoing through the hollowness of it.

Keep on doing what you’re doing.  I’ll be here, head down, working hard, evolving into a better person. You? Your choice. I have better things to do. Peace out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

V’s Question

“When do you become an adult?”, she asked me.

She’s eighteen years old and about to head to college. True, she’s more mature than most her age, has her head on straight. And yet, that anxious voice asks me, how will she know she’s crossed the threshold into adulthood.

Our world says eighteen is the magic number, when you blow out that many candles on your birthday cake, you magically gain access to the World of Grown Ups.

At eighteen, you can go off to war for your nation, you can vote for the governance of your choice, you are no longer “jail bait”, you can make your own decisions (except to drink alcohol).

But it’s not that simple; the cut between childhood and adult status is not a clean neat cut made by a sharp saber.

It’s more of a ragged laceration, the result of sawing back and forth with the serrated knife of indecision. It’s running three steps towards being your own independent soul, then taking one step back to grab your childhood teddy bear for comfort because the world can be scary.

So what is it?  What is the marker that says, “You’ve arrived!”

It’s when you realize your power. Not the super hero Wonder Woman kind (sadly, because who couldn’t use a magic lasso and those bullet-proof cuffs every now and then). No, it’s a more subtle kind, one that takes greater discipline and courage to acknowledge and master.

It’s knowing you have capacity to hurt, to heal and to love. You can break a heart without  knowing it. You can build a wall and not see it there. You can wound someone so deeply, it sends them into a tailspin that can alter the path of their life.

You have the faculty to take a sledgehammer to that wall, apply a salve to the deep cuts you left, hold someone steady so they can find their way again. You have that ability.

It’s realizing you are not as insignificant as you think, that your actions are like ripples in a pond, wide and far-reaching. The words you say, the things you do, or NOT, they count. You may never know the impact you have on someone else, but the little pebble you toss away may well be the keystone on which another person will build their house.

The flip side is the humbling epiphany that you are NOTHING. The world owes you nothing, you are a cog in the wheel of the writhing mass of humanity. There is always someone else who will be smarter, prettier, better than you. You cannot rely on your uniqueness, because in a world of billions, how can you be The Only One? You cannot rest on your laurels because the rest of the world is moving forward, leaving you behind.

It’s quite the conundrum, a see-saw of importance and insignificance. It’s so confusing and daunting. How do we not all end up curled up in the fetal position, rocking ourselves to sleep?

As you grow taller in emotional maturity, you are able to see a wider radius of the map of your life, watch the signs, and choose the direction in which you would like to go. Your life experiences provide the scaffolding to shore you up when you just can’t find your way. The scars on your heart serve as a compass to guide you to kinder roads. You will find your way.

It’s terrifying.  It’s also exhilarating, intoxicating and miraculous. You can’t avoid this journey, so make it count., V.  Make it amazing.

 

 

 

 

Berlin

Berlin January 1990: Grey monoliths fill my mind. Soviet bloc apartment buildings shuddering under the strain of a leaden winter sky. Pale colorless people shuffling onto trains and subways, pushing through crowds, moving in uncharted circles in their new world.

The euphoria of November 9, 1989 has faded away. The instantaneous and miraculous transformation from bleak palette to vibrant hues has not taken place. The reality of a long slow slog towards unification is seeping in, like an overused tea bag; at times bitter and weak.

I descend on the city in my youthful naivete. The words “Checkpoint Charlie” and “shoot to kill” echo vaguely in my mind, but I have yet to make the connection between phrases my mother dramatically uttered and the grey conglomeration of buildings I am now seeing.  Slowly, slowly, my sheltered Western eyes open and I see another world laboring to cast off the concrete shackles of this former Eastern Bloc.

We ride a tram from Potsdam back to comforting West Berlin, where neon lights and the frenetic pace to grab life and devour it whole are what we know, what we consider normal.

Hunger stirs us. I reach into my purse and pull out three precious oranges, oranges I had to buy at the market in Braunschweig, because they were Oranges From Morocco.  As I pierce the skin with my nail, the sweet and tangy aroma of oranges makes an almost visible trail through the train. Babushka-clad old women, men wearing sensible hats stir as the bright orange trail rushes by them. But they don’t look up, they don’t look at us, the spoiled Westerners defying the silent and morose atmosphere.

Is it habit? Is it ingrained in them to not stare, to pretend they see nothing?

We share the oranges among ourselves, and then it hits me.

Oranges From Morocco here are like unicorns.

I feel guilty and ashamed for having this wealth of fruit in my bag, sorry that I don’t have an orange for every person on that train, relieved when we step off the train and step back into the throbbing metropolis of West Berlin.

Berlin January 2004: I step off the train at Zoo Station. I choose Zoo Station because of U2. I look around me, and I don’t know where I am. I look to the east, to where colorless cement once met the sky on a cold day fourteen years earlier. I don’t recognize anything.

I see a homogeneous city of riotous color and lights. The Pied Piper of Consumerism has played his seductive tune, to great success.  The Wall that once tore the heart of this city into two pieces is now commemorated by a thin brass line.

No more babushkas. No more somber train cars. No more rows of sightless windows peering from cement rectangles over the scuttling city below.

I stop for a moment. I wonder if Oranges from Morocco are still unicorns here, or are they commonplace, like tabby cats in alleys. Does anyone stop at the sight of them anymore?

Like a comet tail, that narrow swath of orange perfume has widen, enveloped the city, crossed and blurred the borders between East and West. The unusual has become part of the scenery, shaded in to blend with the everyday.

In my mind, I see the jubilant orange colors, made all the more vibrant for the grey that once contrasted it. And I am glad I was there for it.

Thank you, Berlin.

 

The Dirtiest Four-Letter Word

 

*Lisa’s note: I wrote this in response to many a friends’ frustration with being told to “just……” in response to predicaments in which they have found themselves. It’s not meant as chastisement, but rather a check to see how we are responding, and maybe give us a more effective way to help. I’m really trying to be a better person, and this is part of my path.

 

 

Just” is the dirtiest four-letter word I know. And I know a few of them.

Well-meaning people (and I count myself in that group) have told others, “Just blah blah blah….” in an effort to be kind, caring, and help provide a solution.

Here are my issues with using this word:

A.) It implies that the person you are “advising” is too stupid, ignorant or lazy to have come up with such a simple solution as the one you are “just” proposing.

Yes, folks have EUREKA! moments, and sometimes they need a nudge in the right direction to come to that point of clarity. But truth be told, we’ve probably run over that hamster wheel of thought many times already. We’ve factored in as many variables as possible.Telling us to “just” whatever is not really helping.

B.) It says that the problem at hand is not a big one, not a hard one to solve, and ergo, really not important.

It must be true, because the solution is so facile, you “just” have to whatever whatever whatever……

You are making a mountain out of a molehill, because the answer is right there.

Note: when you’re a mole, a molehill IS a mountain.

C.) It tries to diminish the impact of something you may be doing.

“I was just joking.”

But words hurt. And as the old adage goes, in every joke, there is a grain of truth. Your joke may fall on deaf ears.

“I was just having fun. I was just trying to help. I was just being cautious.”

The truth is often the opposite. The fun or help or caution can be more harmful, but using “just” to describe what you did is an attempt to take way the sting of your action or inaction.  That little “just” could be the straw that breaks someone’s spirit.

D.) It’s shrugging off someone else’s dilemma.

What may seem so self-explanatory and plain in your view does not factor in what someone else is going through. Everyone has different extenuating circumstances. To apply a One Size Fits All mentality negates another person’s reality. You cannot take what would work for you and expect someone else to successfully translate that into his/her life. And you would not want someone else to do that to you.

I get it. This advice-giving comes from a place of wanting to help. Or a place of wanting to mollify oneself because you don’t know how to help. It’s common, and we don’t do this to be hurtful.

Everyone is going through something, and sometimes, we want or HAVE to tune out. So we offer the “just blah blah blah” wisdom.

I personally would prefer to hear the following:

“I understand.”

“I’m sorry this is happening.”

“You are going to be okay. I am here to help you.”

“I can do (fill in the blank) for you. Would that be helpful?”

“I’m here, let’s talk.”

Or anything like that.

It’s not judgmental. It isn’t reductive. It isn’t demeaning or dismissive.

It’s supportive. It’s loving.  It’s being kind.

And we need so much more kindness in this world.

I love my four-letter words. But I am banishing this particular one from my lexicon.

 

 

Online Dating in the Ice Age

Getting an ice machine for Gnocchi Bar was very much like online dating.

While I cobbled together all the other equipment for the restaurant from the used equipment listings, the ice machine was the one piece of equipment I was ready to splurge on.

I perused each ice machine’s profile, looked at pictures, and tried to envision what the actual machine would look like. More importantly, would it be the right fit for my world.

Height, weight, dimensions, output, ratings….. the similarities to online dating are striking.

And just like dating in the cyber world, I shared ice machine profiles with trusted friends.

“What do you think? Is it worth the money? Is this what I need? Will it be adequate or outstanding?”

“IS THIS THE ONE????”

With a wee tremor in my hand, I finally clicked the “buy” button, and watched the dollars magically disappear from my bank account.

Three days later, the Day of Destiny, Mr. Right The Ice Machine arrived.

It was smaller than I anticipated.

It was noisier than I expected.

It has more moods than I think an ice machine should have.

And it goes “thunk” when it drops a load of ice.

Maybe, just maybe that profile photo was, ahem, filtered.

In warmer weather, we cheer it on, offer it encouragement, coax it to completion. “Come on, baby, you can do it!”

In the winter, it overproduces ice, because that’s EXACTLY when you need more ice.

Swipe right, swipe left. But please close the bin when you’re done

It’s not the perfect machine, but it’s MY sweetie now.

 

 

 

 

 

Crushing

He crunches cans like cereal every morning. While the rest of the neighborhood sleepily struggles to fill coffee mugs and shakes  kibbles into bowls, he has littered the sidewalk with corpses of aluminum cans.

Sometimes he is on the left side of the street; other days he is on the right. Different street side, same measured strike of his foot. Can down, foot up, aim steady, strike. Can after can transformed from hollow cylinder into flat disc.

He appears to be in his sixties, but age is just a number. His face says more about his life than a numerical symbol ever could. He has stories, this I know. If I was ever brave enough to get closer, I could read them in the cursive written on his face.

His clothing speaks of pride in his appearance. He may be just crushing cans, but no sweat pants and ratty tee shirt for him. He wears a blazer and a collared shirt.  His boots are sturdy and no nonsense. No need for a mallet or fancy can crusher. His boots will do just fine.

The flattened cans spread out over the sidewalk, creeping towards the street. Bulging bags of cans patiently wait their turn. He is their gravity, keeps them from scattering across the street and into traffic. They orbit around him, smattered to the ground.

I drive by him every morning. Every morning I resolve to ask him his story. Every morning I chicken out.

I want to ask him where he gets the cans. Does he scavenge for them in dumpsters during the wee hours of the morning? Does he haunt parking lots? Does someone collect them for him? Where does he take them once they are compressed? Is this his main income, or does he fancy himself a good Samaritan saving Mother Earth? What do these cans mean to him? Why does he do this?

But I don’t stop. I drive on, watching him, but not looking, because it’s rude to stare.

In my mind, the cans are hopes and dreams. He is the janitor of failure; he takes those empty shells, and ruins them so that they will not tempt again. He tidies up after us.

Dream down, foot up, aim steady, strike.

But see, the dreams don’t die. They get turned over, recycled, reformed into shiny new cans, to be filled with effervescence, refreshment, life.  They are given sparkling new labels, sexy and alluring. They entice and beguile all over again.

They are bought, emptied and tossed. New label, old dream, same result.

Dream down, foot up, aim steady, strike.

And I drive by, once again without stopping.