Day One Maui in 5 Conversations

We roll in yesterday, 36 hours little sleep trying to forge our way out of Sebastopol.  We stop for repast at a shrimp truck and lemonade stand on the side of the road outside of Kahului.  And then the slow meander over the saddle and up the coast to Lahaina.

We’re all gling glong. We grab a sixpack of bikini blonde and a stack of raw fish and settle in on the porch of the Lahaina Inn.  Nap and up to Ka’apalani to throw ourselves in the ocean at sunset.

What do I love about conversations?  They’re all fundamentally false. They’re basically stories that we tell one another.  And for the very same reason in the deepest sense they are absolutely true.

Conversation #1.  Ten at night at Cheeseburgers.  Surf crashing on the sand beneath us.  Sitting at the table next to us a guy, Del who grew up in the Fillmore in the sixties.  In Maui for the first time.  He’s been there for a week with his girlfriend who he flew out from Buffalo.  Come to San Francisco, he told her, and I’ll take you somewhere warm.   He lived for a long time in North Carolina working as a general contractor building golf course homes and then his ninety year old mom begins to slip away so he went back to San Francisco, back to the Fillmore with his boy, and then he was going to stay and take care of his mom and his wife was going to join them.  She shipped her stuff. And three weeks before she was to get on the plane she died.  He and his boy never saw her again.  Flash forward a year and his boy, seven years old, he sees his dad so sad, and he’s so sad,  he goes onto on online dating site (Seniors Dating dot Com) and he makes a profile for his dad and one night he goes up to him and he shows all these pictures of women and he’s weeping and he says “How ’bout that one, dad?  Or how bout that one?”  And together they set on a few and he calls this woman in Buffalo.  She has a couple grandkids of her own. She works the night shift in a tire factory and they talk every morning on the phone.  It’s been three years now. She’s come out twice before and now Hawai’i.  And we tell her he must like her a whole awful lot and she starts to laugh this big full laugh and she flashes her finger and asks, “Where’s the ring then?” And he starts to laugh and he looks to us and he laughs even harder and I suddenly feel happy for him and I feel happy for the world because without any further information  I trust what’s coming.

Conversation #2. 6:30 am  dawn breaking over the harbor.  I trudge to the coffee shack adjacent.  Espresso girl not there yet.  But they got drip.  Bank card thing not working yet.  You staying round here? the owner asks.  I nod my head next door. You can pay later, he says.

Conversation #3.  Anna and I running south on Front St, to get to the courthouse banyan tree and the beaches, and then up and over the curb plows a dude in a wheelchair, he has a stump of a leg, he’s attired in an immaculate vintage black suit and a pressed t-shirt with South Park style characters.  I turn back.  “Yo,” I say.  “Who’s on your shirt?”  Dude does a split quick pivot – his thin face gnarled and smiling and tweaked –  “Cheech and Chong,” he says.  “Cheech and Chong.”  “Where’d you get that shirt?” I asked.  “I saw it on a dude,” he said.  “And I said, ‘that’s my shirt.’  And he gave me the shirt.”  “That’s a good way to get a shirt,” I said.  We bumped fists and went our separate ways.

And I thought, this guy was  basically a peg leg pirate.  Except that he didn’t even have a peg leg.  He was blazing through Lahaina in a suit in a wheelchair and was about as empowered a person as I’ve ever seen.

Conversation #4.  We run along the breakwater, crowds lining up to board the whale watching excursion boats and we stop at the Hawaiian Ocean Project booth and have a word about Snubaing with Eric.

He struggles to be polite, but then confesses that he’s a free diver and he doesn’t particularly like the Snuba thing. You’re stuck in that 10-20 foot range, he tells us, and even as an experienced diver the breathing is kind of tweaky at that depth. You can’t really breathe until you go deeper.  Which of course leads to conversations about where we’re from.  He’s from Mill Valley, he says.  He use to own a string of car washes. Palo Alto, Marin, Fairfax, but he lost it all in the divorce. All of it? I ask.  All of it, he says with a full smile.  962 grand worth.  I said she could take it all if I could have custody of my boy.  And that’s what I got.  Day after the divorce, I went with my baby to the San Francisco Airport and asked when the next plane was leaving for Hawai’i.  Lady told me 12 hours.  I told her I wanted one one-way ticket and she handed it to me and I never looked back.

His son?  Healthy as an ox.  He surfs.  Grown up in the Caribbean,  Virgin Islands, Maui, this island, that island.  Sixteen years old, had an amazing life and he’s an amazing kid.  Still thinks his dad is as cool as his girlfriend.  And in all that time, not once has his mom asked to see him.  I got the better end of the deal, Eric says.

Conversation #5.  Walking past the boats to the beach and Anna spies a set of baby pigs all crated up.  They’re adorable. Picture twelve little Wilburs.    Three dudes standing dockside.  Where you taking them? Anna asks.  Moloka’i, one guy answers and nods to a pint size cat boat half the size of the Minnow.  Moloka’i? Anna asks.  Could we hop on?  We have a friend living there and plane fare is a hundred a piece, but it’s only 45 minutes by boat.  Could these guys take us there?  The three guys, nice guys, shrug and laugh.  It’s up to the captain. It’s his boat, one guy says.  Pigs though get priority seating.  Nice guys.  Would be a fun trip.   We go back to the hotel, grab an extra shirt and toothbrush.  Girl at the coffee shack says it’s kind of gnarly in Moloka’i.  We might have to hitch a boat to Lana’i and then take the ferry boat back from there.  Back dockside captain has shown up.  Tough dude.  As he should be.  It’s his boat.  The vessel and all manner of life and limb are under his command.  A hundred bucks, he says.  A fair price.  But not fair enough for us, knowing that we were shanghaiing ourselves and might not even make it back.  Some things best saved for another day.

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Puzzles

I like the process because it affords that chance so rarely available in a gallery or museum or even in every day life.

You end up sitting with a masterwork for a very long time and you’re given that rare opportunity to puzzle over the individual brushstrokes and minuscule bits of paint and broad swatches of color disaggregated from any image at all.  You sit with those brushstrokes (or at least the shadow of their facsimile) for days and days and days.

In doing so the obvious becomes, well, obvious.  As does the genius.

First, of course, we seek the boundary.

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Many of us begin by finding the edge pieces.  They’re easy to locate. But they also transform an infinite sprawling mess into something finite and perhaps apprehensible.

We want to declare order and somehow bound the chaos.

Secondly the sandstorm of color is not really that chaotic at all.

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We detect clear patterns.

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Most magnetic and appealing of all burns that mass of of complexly layered yellow and mustard.

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As well the eye and fingers are drawn to the countervailing mass of blue and darkness.

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These two palettes beyond all else seem to dominate.

But there’s that third muddled mess of pastel reflections of the light and darkness, more muted and intertwined.

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And then perhaps you notice that the darkness is not black. It’s violet and blue and umber and pitchy turquoise if there were such a thing.  And scintillating pulsing points of light, more bright and piercing than the warm ochre and mustard and tangerine, punctuate the darkness.

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The darkness is not dark at all, I tell my wife.

But it was, she countered.  For him it was.

I differ.  I still don’t believe it was the darkness that did him in.  Instead, perhaps, it was his perceived inability to render that darkness, to make it as manifest and material and dimensional as he himself saw it.

In his case the brushstrokes themselves mattered most of all.  Perhaps he no longer believed in those brushstrokes.  Or perhaps the loneliness inherent in their execution were too much to bear.

 

Disconnected

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All I had to do was one thing, the right thing, and this post may not exist. But instead something else is gone. And in it’s place we have this.

Last night my friend Johnny Meyering took his life.  Before he did so, he changed his Facebook profile picture to an image of the ocean and a warm beach.  A line of footprints traces the line of the surf.  I would like to think that he wanted to find peace.  And that he cared enough that he wanted people to know that.

Twelve of his friends liked the picture.  Two posted comments. One said, “Beautiful!”  The other asked if he was alright.

The problem is that he’s no longer there to receive it.  The line is now disconnected.  And no one will be there ever again to pick up.

Every thing in Johnny’s life up until last night could have possibly been fixed. And for some reason he couldn’t see that. And so he did the one thing that in fact could not be taken back.

This morning I looked at his Facebook page, that strange 21st century totem that is all about memory and memorial.

I wanted to Message him to tell him to please stop, to please not do it.

I wanted to Poke him to let him know, hey, someone is out there and cares.

I want to Post on his Wall and tell him to come up and stay with us for a while. I know some kids who are struggling to stay in school.  If you just go and sit with them for a little while and help them a little bit with their writing and math, you will immeasurably change the world.  And you alone can do it.

But he’s no longer there to receive any of it.

I look at his Friends.  I see faces from Seattle and from Japan and San Diego and Chicago. I know a few, but by no means all.  But the person who is friends with every one of those people?  The one person who bound all those people together into a circle of friends has made himself gone.

I look at his Likes.  The movie Gerry, and the movie Samsara, Jazz, and The New Yorker.  The Wire, Raymond Chandler, David Sedaris, Art Spiegelman, Taberna 1931, The Bill Evans Trio, Langston Hughes, Paolo Coelho, Huruki Murukami, The Urban Land Army.  And more.

This is the filagree that composes a person.  There is no one in the world who liked exactly the same things as Johnny.  And there never will be.

When the person becomes gone, the Likes and the Friends lose their life as well.  The thing that gave rise to the Likes and the Friends has gone away and in turn they have become a dry and intractable husk.

I remember decades ago a crazy Thanksgiving dinner we held in a small walkup apartment in Golden Hills in San Diego.  Anna and I weren’t married yet and a good handful of Meyerings were there and Johnny was too.  Anna’s high school English teacher came and left and got a DUI.  All the rest of us probably could have been in the same boat.  And Johnny was there, he had been studying Japanese.  He was looking youthful and handsome – he always, for as long as I knew him, looked youthful and handsome.  And his manner was funny and dry and he was as gentle and brilliant a person as I’ve ever known.

And that’s the weird part.  Even now, on this Memorial Day morning, I can feel him.  Which is to say that he had a feeling, a presence that was unique unto him.  No one else in this world ever has, nor ever will, feel like Johnny Meyering.  The feeling was so special.  And so precious.  And such a great gift to the world.

But we never recognize it in ourselves.  And we fail to understand that it will actually matter when it’s gone.

It’s so wrong.  And now nothing will ever bring him back.

That’s what I would tell him.

 

 

Song Birds

ImageHer card describes Kristen Hein Strohm as a Wildlife Biologist and Statistician and is illustrated with a songbird (the species of which I do not know) and a warble of lambda equations and binary sets of numbers.

Last night Kristen (with her husband Steve in accompaniment) warbled something far different than lambda equations. Sweet and lilting, her voice strayed between a whisper and song. It was quiet and full in a way not dissimilar from her manner of speaking.

I bumped into her this morning as she was making her way toward coffee, her skirt stitched with swatches of fabric outlining an owl basking in the moon.

In addition to her fieldwork, Kristen also leads workshops in teaching people how to observe wildlife. Once you know what to look for, you don’t need many more tools. So much depends simply on abandoning preconceptions and investing the time to make the observations.

Kristen’s expertise begs a pet question: Did other species of birds express the same social complexity as the corvids?

It doesn’t take much to get a trained wildlife biologist going so fast that you can’t keep up with her.

The corvids are incredibly complicated, she says. They have intricate language and distinct vocalizations. She went on to describe how many species have song patterns that sound identical and repetitive to us. If you examine a spectrograph, however, you can see that these songs are chocked with microtones that are undetectable to our ears, but signal a range of meanings and references to the song birds themselves. Despite our manifold abilities, we perceive only a limited range of sound, essentially moving through the world with mufflers on. She goes on to explain how certain species of hawks hunt cooperatively and that each hawk is trained to fill a specific role: chasing, banking, cornering, going in for the kill, which they fulfill every time.

All the while as she talks, Kristen parses her sentences with the sweet chipper of bird songs, as if she herself was some hybrid genetically engineered species.

But not all birds communicate with songs, she says, and she talks about the condors, the carrion vultures that don’t have much vocal expression (at least that we presently know about), but instead demonstrate rich and complex gestural displays. As they reintroduce the condors to the wild, they bring in wild condors to tutor the young in the complex code of visual signals. The mentor condors teach the fledgelings a language that is particular to that set of birds. When at last reintroduced, the young have been known to seek out the training condors. When found, they repeat the gestures that they have been taught, including what amounts to a spread winged bow, as if expressing a kind of abeyance to the creature that taught them to be wild.

So much for coffee. Proof, perhaps, that we are, in fact, at the Planet Bluegrass Song School.

Beings

This picture was taken at the Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King School in Oakland. It’s the sort of place I would love for my daughter to go. In the picture you can see a handful of young human beings sitting in a garden surrounded by young plant beings. Vines curl their tendrils around the beams of the ramada, flowers break open their blossoms, canes send forth their berry.

Both the children and the plants are at school together. They are all learning. They are all peers.

The young human beings nurture the young plant beings. When it comes time for the children to eat, they take the body, the leaf, the fruit, the seed, the progeny from the plant beings and ingest it. Their own beings use the energy from the plant beings to grow and emerge.

Ideally, their own waste – the carbon dioxide they exhale and perhaps even their own shit – one day may become food for the plant beings.

That whole process is what we call life. It’s a verb: to be.

Quite tragic and beautiful, really.

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A New Year

Bolinas Alter

The end of one story.  The beginning of another.

On the first day of the new year, Anna and I awoke before dawn and took Poe’s remains to Bolinas.  We drove through the Sonoma and Marin darkness, past the unseen dairy and cattle hills, toward and eventually into the San Andreas fault zone.  As the sky lightened we dropped into the narrow crack that separates the North American Plate from the Pacific Plate and we crossed over to that new continent that moment by moment is shedding itself northward and away from our world.

We left Poe at the maritime shrine on the main street along with a photograph of his younger self.  Afterwards we ran on the rocky beach against the roar of the receding surf, watching the flyovers of the resident ravens and hawks.

We left Bolinas later that morning.  Driving out of town, I looked to my right.  An open meadow.  And across stretched a line of 22 fenceposts.  And on each sat a solitary raven, all warily eyeing the world.  Eyeing perhaps even our own departure.

Ravens in Bolinas

Chickens

Have we talked about chickens?

Let’s talk about them.

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This is little white chicken. We don’t really have a name for her, so that’s what we call her. She’s also the sole survivor.

She started in a brood of five. All of her siblings were taken out by other animals. She was joined by a black Austrolope who was taken out as well. And then later we added three Bardrocks, all gone. She’s basically an Auschwitz survivor.

I’m writing about her because four weeks ago she took to roosting on the front porch. Up until then she was totally happy roosting in her coop. For two years, at dusk each night she’s gone in there and put herself to bed. It was fine. But four weeks ago her last sister was taken out by a dog right next to the coop. Ever since then, she’s been afraid to go to sleep in her customary home. So instead, at dusk, she goes up on the porch and puts herself to bed on the railing where it’s much more safe.

Let’s think this one through. She’s a chicken. But she prefers this to that. Even more fundamental, she can discern this from that. That means she has discernment. And she has preferences. Preferences and discernment define sentience. She is aware.

Furthermore, she doesn’t go near her old home because she associates it with the death of her sister (she was besides herself the morning it happened). She had an emotional response. A bunch of neurochemicals kicked off inside her. It doesn’t matter whether those neurochemicals expressed fear or sadness or anxiety. She felt something and associated that feeling with an event. She has chosen to sleep somewhere else because she will be safer. She feels and she is self-aware.

On Tuesday morning, I heard her going nuts in her coop.  I looked out the window and saw the two dogs that killed her sister running about maybe 600 feet distant. They were hardly visible, let alone a threat.  But she appeared to remember.

Each day she goes over to play with the chickens next door. She prefers this. Then she comes back with them to have a little party at our house. They eat and scratch through the compost pile. She prefers to be with other chickens. She craves the social interaction. She is a social animal who finds pleasure or safety or satisfaction in being with another living creature similar to herself.

In the evening the chickens return to their respective homes and put themselves to bed. And it begins all over again the next day.

Granted, she would have a hard time building a rocket ship. But then again, so would most human beings.

When can we stop privileging ourselves over others?