Day Two Maui in 4 Stories

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Today’s rout includes stories about running, smart phones, strongmen, and choices.  And also about the screwed up way that we roll when we travel.

The facts?  Severely non-interesting.  We ran in the morning.  We bought some fruit.  We read on the beach at Ka’anapali.  We floated in the water.  We drove south and checked into a hotel in Kihei and switched rooms once and hotels once.  I walked in the dark to Wailea.

We had a few conversations with other people.  But I had at least four thoughts.

1.  Andy’s Philosophy of Running.  When you run, you’re mapping your body to the landscape. My favorite kind of running is just running around: – the kind where you don’t know where you’re going and you go down that path until it intersects with this path and then you follow a trail to just see where it goes and sometimes you double back around and find yourself in some totally unexpected place.

It’s exploration by running.  In the process you feel the air of the place.  You feel the different and ever changing texture of the volcanic and coral ground.  And spiderwebs in the face.  And the sounds and fragrances and cast of light that are unique to every place and each sliver of the day.

It’s a great way to get around.

2. Seeking.  A few weeks ago Mazie wanted to get rid of her smartphone.  I keep looking at it, she said, expecting to find something inside that’s never there.

It’s as true a statement as any.  We have wedded ourselves to a device of wanting, one that leaves us perpetually leaving the moment and physical space that we presently inhabit to go find something somewhere else.  I believe the Device has reinforced us as a nation of dissatisfied seekers.  At every moment we have the somatic experience of wanting to fill “dead space” by peering into an object for something that is not there.

At the same time, we enter the Device because we want to be anchored in certainty.  We look at the Map app to know exactly where we are.  We go to Yelp to make sure we go to a good restaurant.  In an idle moment we tap on Google News and scan the headlines so we know exactly what may be happening elsewhere in the world  at that moment.

Yet the more we outsource our native intelligence to a smart device, how more dumb do we as individuals become?

So here’s the embarrassing confession. On this trip we’ve tried (and sadly it does take trying) to disengage from the devices. In any given moment, rather than turning to the device for the answer, we’ve had to turn back to the world and back to people.   That’s where a lot of the conversations have come from.

Sadly, the feeling is strangely revelatory.  And even more strangely, this was how we would move through the world as recently as a decade ago.  It changes everything.

I used to pride myself on my sense of geography and direction.  And in the brief span of the Device Era, I’ve all but lost it.  So over the last few days when we drive and we haven’t known where we are, we’ve had to look around and think about it for a moment and let the landscape tell us.  Or we just go and hope to get to where we’re going.  Or we ask someone for directions and listen closely to the landmarks they mention because those are the keys to finding your way around.  I begin to feel like myself again.

We ask people on the sidewalk where they would get a good cup of coffee.  Random people on the street tell us where to run or to find the best poke.  We look for signs and pieces of paper.  I’m craving paper.  Paper newspaper.  Paper maps.  Paper paper.  Something that feels material and textured.

There’s still MapMyRun (I do it because the maps are kind of totems and when I run around randomly it’s nice to know how far I’ve gone.)  And there’s the Facebook (a lot of times I feel like just some guy floating out there and FB provides a feeling of connectedness).  But even these things it may be soon time to ditch.

3.  The Benevolent Strongman.  This is not a non-sequitur!  Rather it’s exactly the sort of thing one can think about while lying on a beach in Hawai’i.

The man in the White House and Bill Graham are/were strongmen.  Why, I wonder, do I detest one and have an abiding love and appreciation for the other?  Strongmen are usually damaged souls.  Bill Graham certainly was – as damaged as any soul that has ever been.

It’s one of my favorite stories that I never mind retelling.  So for those who don’t know:

Wolfgang Grajonca was born in Berlin in 1931 during the restoration of the Reich.
When his father died shortly after, his mother kept him and his five siblings alive by selling fake flowers and costume jewelry in Berlin markets.
In 1938, the year of Kristalnacht, his mother placed him and his sister Tolia in a children’s home to save them.
His mother and remaining siblings would later be gassed on the way to Auschwitz.  He would never see them again.
At the onset of the war, Wolfgang and the other orphans would be evacuated to France.
In 1941, when Paris fell to the Germans, the International Red Cross escorted 64 children on foot and by bus to Lyons.  Wolfgang’s baby sister Tolia became sick with pneumonia and was left behind in an infirmary.  Grajonca would never see her again.
The 10 year old boy then walked to Marseilles and from there he was carried to Madrid.  And Lisbon.  And Casablanca. And Dakar.  He was placed on a boat to America and survived on cookies and oranges.  When he arrived in New York Harbor on September 24th, 1941, he weighed 55 lbs.  Of the original 64 children evacuated from the orphanage, only 11 would arrive in America.
Those refugee orphans were taken to Army barracks in upstate New York.  One by one the eleven children were adopted by families who were paid 48 dollars a month to take Jewish children.  There Wolfgang waited for nine weeks.  He was the very last child to be taken.

And I’m fairly sure that somewhere in that time, deep in the core of that little boy, that is when he decided that no one.  Absolutely no one.  Would ever.  Ever.  Fuck with him again.

That’s when he became Bill Graham.

I believe he understood people in a fundamentally profound way.  He knew that, after a Dead show let’s say, when you have a whole lot of people not in their right mind, that all those people needed somewhere safe to go.  So in this case, he set it up so that no one would have to leave – they could all stay camped out in the parking lot for as long as they needed.  But (and this is important) he also understood that in order to have the parking lot, you also needed rules.  And for rules to work, you also need an enforcer.  And if you operate in a world of the vain glorious and narcissistic and among those who lust for power (which was the world of rock ‘n roll) – you needed someone who was willing to fight back and fight back hard and was not afraid to leave bodies and hurt feelings in his wake.  He didn’t care.  I believe he was fundamentally driven by a misanthropic view of humanity.  Yet (and this is where he may differ from the other guy), I believe he genuinely cared for other people – he longed deeply in a way that he could perhaps not articulate for something righteous and good. “This.  is. Your. Fucking.  Job,” I imagine him saying.  “Do. Your.  Job.”

Once at a New Year’s show, my brother-in-law Vaughan was standing on the floor and looked over to see Graham standing right there beside him.  “Yo man,” someone asked.  “What are you doing here?”

Graham shrugged.  “I wanted to be down here with the the freaks,” he said.

In a sense, Graham was a kind of Holden Caufield:  the wounded soul who struggled angrily – sad and valiant – to catch the innocent as they tumbled into that field of rye.

4.  Where You’re At.  Anna got up at 2 am the other night so she could finish up a boatload of work before the close of the weekend.  She sat there at a wooden table in an old Lahaina hotel while the drunken loudly caroused home in the street below.  “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing where you’re at,” I reminded her.  “As long as you’re where you’re at.”  Which is another way to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of a computer screen at two in the morning if that computer screen is on a wooden desk in a delightful old room in Hawai’i.

And with that said, yesterday afternoon we checked  into the Maui Coast in Kihei.

What we had imagined:  Anna’s conference was in Wailea. No rooms available.  But whatever.  We’ll be in Maui.  We’ll stay in Kihei and each morning we could ride bikes to Wailea and what delightful mornings those will be.   When we arrive they have no rooms readied, but no prob, we say they can take their time.  We are absolutely fine.  Mary the reservation lady, visibly relieved, suggests that we check out the strip malls down the street.

My heart begins to sink.

We ask about the bikes.  Turns out we have limited use.  Wailea is four miles away uphill.  And we can’t use the bikes past 6:30.   My heart sinks further.  But a room becomes available.  Second floor.  The window basically looks out at wall.

We head back to the front desk.  This time Manny the super nice supervisor greets us.  “Any chance we could have a different room?”  we ask guiltily.  Everyone is so terribly nice.  We are totally willing to wait.  Manny punches the keyboard.  “Complimentary upgrade.” he says.  Now we find ourselves on the top floor in a suite.  Big soaking tub.  Windows looking out over the mild sprawl of Kihei. Anna takes the car keys and heads off to the conference in Wailea.

I lay down on the bed.  I flip through one of those weird vacation activity guides. I stare up at the ceiling.  And that’s when I realize that this is exactly the kind of room where a person kills himself.

Feeling my lease on life growing rapidly shorter, I head downstairs and start walking toward Wailea.  I walk past the strip malls.  I cut over to the beach and walk on the sand as the sun sets.  The beach runs out and I pop up a trail and walk cliffside in front of a line of condos, vacationers outside grilling on the barbecues.  In the growing darkness I trudge through a park past a lone bagpiper playing an aching ode to the crashing waves of the Pacific.  I walk and I walk and I walk through the darkness.  Now on a grassy shoulder I cross over to a sidewalk.  The road curves up into what appears to be a posh neighborhood.  I take a narrow street that deadends and then a concrete staircase down to a beach, hardly a couple feet of sand gently pounded by the black surf as the night tide comes up.  I continue walking along the white liminal sand and then through water and then rocks and over driftwood until there is beach no longer.  Just me and the surf.  I detect a narrow sand trail that cuts up through some undergrowth and I follow that maybe 20 feet and there on those narrow trail in the darkness I see a naked body lying in the sand blocking the whole trail – and I mean a Sumo wrestler size body just lying there – and in a split second I think, ‘okay.  This is either a) some dude who’s probably sleeping and I need to carefully step over and around him and risk some kooky altercation, or b) he’s dead.’  And either way, even just in the process of finding out, I got a problem on my hands.

So I wind back down the pitch trail and back into the inky surf and along the night shore and the rocks and the driftwood trees until I find luminescent beach again and then back onto the road and into the posh neighborhood.

The phone rings.  It’s Anna.  “Where you at,” she asks.   “I’m on a grass island by the side of the road,” I tell her.  I sit down on the grass, but it smells faintly of sewage and gray water.  I stand.  “Never mind,” I tell her.  Come find me, I’ll be walking on the road to Wailea.”  I walk on up a long hill through the darkness beneath a line of towering and twisting banyon trees and eventually a car pulls up slowly beside me and I climb in and find myself sitting beside Anna.

“I don’t think we can stay in that hotel,” I tell her.

“I was thinking the exact same thing,” she says.

It’s nine at night and we drive on to Wailea and up to a Marriott Residence Inn within true walking distance of the conference and we talk with Kody the super nice desk clerk.  He can set us up.  It’ll cost us an extra few hundred bucks for the week.   Anna and I get a beer and go sit in the darkness by the blue glow of the pool to sort it all out.

We take some time to do our figuring (It seems she and I spend a lot of time figuring). We agree.  The Coast is a perfectly nice hotel.  And we can drive into Wailea each morning together.  And I can hang at the whatever whatever resort in whatever lounge chair and write.  What difference, really, does it make where we lay our head at night?

Well, there was something vaguely soul destroying about Kihei.

We don’t need posh.  But we want to be some place.  And unfortunately these days too many rooms and too many spots feel like no place.  Perhaps it was an absence of greenery or an abundance of stoplights.  Or the pizza hut on the corner.  Or roads and distances best trafficked by auto.  Or the inclination of the light.  Who knows?

But some differences do make a difference.

“If we decide to move,” I ask Anna, “Is that a good choice?”

“It’s absolutely a good choice,” she answers.

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And This is Why

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Today I sit in a coffee bar in San Francisco. It’s evening in the Lower Haight.

Today I turn 52.

History’s anodyne gaze renders all things banal. To the future: this is what the face of imminent horror may look like.

Today, on this day, leak sources reveal that the administration was in communication with Russian intelligence for months before the election.

This week, a spokesman for the President stated that the powers of the President are substantial and are not to be questioned.

The President himself accuses those who leak information of being guilty of treason.

In a news conference he refuses to take questions from established media sources. He categorizes Palestinians as hateful violent people. He threatens darkly that we will crack down on criminal elements and make America great again.

He accuses anybody who speaks against him as being a purveyor of fake news.

On this day I turn 52.

—-

I was 17 when my mom turned 52. Alone and long widowed, in that moment she thought that her life was over.

A few years earlier she had told me that she would kill herself on my 18th birthday, because then her filial and parental duties would be over.

As events would have it, she wasn’t too far off her mark.

But she’d crumbled long before that. The mother I’d known since I was six or seven would sleep most of the day. She would not cook or clean house. For many days or weeks growing up, she would simply be gone. My brother and I would fend for ourselves as best we could.

It was the only life I knew. And I never thought to ask why it was or if perhaps it could have been any different.

It took years of maturation before I would have the wherewithal to even seek an explanation. What could have possibly left a once brilliant and vivacious woman, so disabled and so damaged that at such a young age she could imagine no future for herself?

It’s taken a lot of excavation over a lot of years to find the answers.

In 1989 I sat in a nursing home with the shell of that poor woman. Her skull was indented from a frontal lobotomy. She didn’t have many words then. She sat in a breezeway in a nursing home, a Time magazine in her lap, the cover showing bodies in Tainanmen Square. I found her crying and I asked what was the matter. Because this happened in my country, she said.

It took a quarter of a century for me to learn something of what she meant. She was a war child. She was born in 1930 and the only conscious life she knew until she was 20 was under the dark shadow of authoritarianism.

The man in the White House talks about carnage in America. But he does not know carnage. And I fear that the true carnage may be the one which he and his cohort threaten in word and deed to bring upon us.

Carnage is the tactical unleashing of the fear of the other, of declarations that we must be afraid and that we are under threat of terror.

Carnage is the disintegration and dismemberment of civic institutions.

Carnage is the consenting transfer of power from the body politic to a small cadre of individuals.

Carnage is to have your neighbors, and inexorably you yourself, declared an enemy.

Carnage is to declare war in order to consolidate power over a people.

Carnage is having your childhood playmates and their families loaded in trucks and then onto trains and then carried away to points eastward.

Carnage is having 143 men, women, and children – residents of your village – receive dispensation with a bullet to the head.

Carnage is eating bread baked of sawdust and straw.

Carnage is to know insufferable cold and hunger.

Carnage is to smell for months on end the toxic stench of rotting flesh and burning rubber and powder and fire.

Carnage is seeing the bloated bodies of deserters hanging in trees because they were traitors.

Carnage is to have no home to which you may return; having no country for to call your own.

Carnage then, is to experience such loss, that you for the remainder of your life can see no future and you become paralyzed by the very processes of living.

—-

The lived experience of that carnage, if not the memory itself, is passed on to the descendent. You find yourself risk averse. Or perhaps strangely paralyzed when it comes to the most basic decisions – even the most petty can result in life or death. You question the reliability and certitude of all things – relationships or even the persistence of our own democracy.

You grow up hungry, and you learn to double or triple down when food is presented. You look for brake lights, not just in the car in front, but three cars ahead. You bolt at explosions and loud noises. You awaken in the middle of the night with an undefinable dread.

And even when the administration appears to be in chaos and in threat of toppling, you know better.  You know that the deranged beast, when wounded, is in fact the most dangerous.  And that it will unleash a fury with which there is no reckoning, that we will be at war within months.

I asked folks on Facebook this morning to read and perhaps share the following interview of historian Timothy Snyder. It suggests only obliquely the surreal horrors that my mother and her generation knew. And here, now, 75 years distant from those shadows, I feel we are not safe, that the demons will yet be visited upon us.

Perhaps more than anything else, the circumstances and events described by Timothy Snyder give shape to who I am today.

And this is why, for your pleasure or perhaps only my own, I want people to read what he has to say, today, on the day that I turn 52.

Today, on this day, I don’t want the horror and grave sadness lived by the woman who brought me into this world to have been for naught and vain.

Today I can brook no quarter with this administration and the currents which they are stirring.

Not on my watch.

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Illumination

die mauerBefore the Wall fell, Anna and I once took a train across East Germany and Poland from Berlin to Moscow. But to get on that train, we needed first to get past a Dutch-German Intourist agent, Hendrik Grave who, it seemed, was the only one who could book us a berth, but in Berlin something went terribly wrong, the reservations were not complete, the seats unavailable. We would have to delay. But no problem. We would stay with Hendrik, he said. But instead he put us up in a friend’s flat, but that friend stole our luggage and so we were forced to remain with Hendrik day after day, waiting for something to happen.

And always the patter of Hendrik, telling us about Die Mauer, about the twisted psychology of Berliners, of the unfolding of life and of self-understanding. Driving through the streets of Berlin, Hendrik would proclaim apropos of nothing and everything, “All ist gut, All ist klaar.” And always referring to himself in third person, Hendrik, he said, would take care of everything.

Over the days his story unwound. How his father had been part of the SS and had been a Reich officer. Of how as a boy during the war, he was told that his mother had died and he was sent off to live with a relative. He grew up without mother and father. Nazi exultation. The Reich’s collapse. Loneliness. And then as an older boy, a woman appears. She holds him carefully outside his home. People tell him that this is his mother.

But how could this be his mother? She is dead. She died during the war. This is not his mother. He pushes away and runs. The strange horrid woman was a ghost. And if not a ghost, then the adults around him were monsters for telling such a lie.

How had a war neutered a generation from it’s past? Who was Hendrik’s family and what deeds and lies had they all perpetrated, he would ask.

One afternoon sitting in Hendrik’s flat, the golden midsummer’s light casts his sharp features and white mane of hair in profile. He listens to Mozart’s Requiem.  Turning the volume to full, he drains a glass of white wine, head tilted back. All ist gut, Hendrik  says, eyes shut. All ist klaar.