Tuesday, November 26, 2013


      Last year, Christmas cheer didn't hit me when I lugged out our artificial tree from the garage closet, set it up, hung decorations—string lights, our children's handiworks, and hand made heirloom ornaments—about the house, or watched the kids trim the tree to the accompaniment of festive holiday melodies—though these were all joyfully subdued moments. Nor when I bought gifts, or wrapped them behind closed doors as if some deep secret were afoot, then had the kids arrange them beneath the tree. Nor when I wrote, then mailed, once-a-year letters to seldom-heard-from friends and relatives. Nor when we received cards and updates of who did or is doing what.
      Nor when we shopped as a family to select our kids' presents at K-Mart where I told them, “If you see anything you're interested in, let me or Mom know.” Last year our daughter had a school class get-together, so we went without her, so she was surprised for once by her gifts. Jaren, our youngest, chose his own two gifts—one each for Christmas and his late December birthday, whittled down from a dozen or so mostly too expensive or inappropriate toys. But I did find him a fun something a few days later that I wrapped and stuck unbeknownst to him beneath the tree. When he went to look at the gifts the next morning, he noticed his name on this new gift's tag. But he remembered seeing his name on a different gift and it took him several go-rounds and gentle hints from me to comprehend that he had two presents under the tree. The delight I had in seeing him touch the new package (concealing two walkie-talkies on cardboard backing overlaid with hard plastic), wondering at its contents, and saying, “I don't know what this is. I know what the other one is and what my birthday present is, but not this one...” over and over again—that's when it hit me.
      Later that afternoon—Jaren's always noisy, talking—things got unnaturally quiet with crinkly noises near the tree. There he was, hunched over the mystery present wrapped in blue, unfolding an envelope shaped corner that wasn't taped down.
      I walked over and said, “Hey, don't peek.” It startled him—caught with his hand in the cookie jar—but he eased when he saw my smirk. I seized it from him and said, “I better hide this till Christmas,” and stuck it beneath my bed.
      It's that delicious, “I have to know. I can't wait. What is it? I know I'm not supposed to,” that his body language shouted that made me recall my days as a youth doing the exact same thing. My parents had had a laissez-faire attitude: “If he wants to spoil his surprise, let him.” Furtively, I'd peeked when they weren't looking, resulting in accidentally torn wrappers, which I retaped to conceal the incriminating evidence. Both times I'd peeked, I'd felt disappointed, guilty, and later, remorseful.
      I wasn't about to let that happen to him, much preferring he suffer in not knowing anticipation. Cool thing is, we always celebrate Christmas festivities at my sister's, so the kids can't nag us first thing they wake up to open presents, which we leave at hers the night before where we celebrate Christmas Eve dinner. Even cooler, a couple of recent Christmas mornings we've joined a ministry to help feed the homeless at Ala Moana park. This really re-tuned our thinking to the reason for the season and renewed our spirits early Christmas morning before the inevitable gift, football, and frenetic hype-frenzy to come. And both times, our morning at Ala Moana park (that really had been peaceful and quiet) turned out to be among our favorite memories of the day—the kids handing out gifts to humble, appreciative men, women, and children, the guests playing organized games for prizes, and us all singing out-of-tune, but joyous Christmas carols. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Human Wealth

     The Hawaiian song “Kanaka Wai Wai” (Human Wealth) by the Sons of Hawaii is one of my favorites.  Most locals don't even know what it's about, and neither did I until a few years back when I borrowed the CD from the library to learn the song on guitar.  The CD's insert had the original Hawaiian words and their English translations.  Turns out it's about the man who runs up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and asks what he must do to have everlasting life?  Jesus answers follow God's law.  The man says I have done so since I was a little boy.  Jesus says there's one thing more:  sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.  But the man walks away sad, because he is rich.
     The part of the song that paraphrases the Hawaiian bible and quotes Jesus as saying (English translation):

     “To give...to give it all
     Of your great wealth
     But turn with caution
     To receive your everlasting life”

really got to me.  Having grown up as a fourth generation Hawaii resident, I feel emotionally attached to the Hawaiians and grieve their plights.  Though my ancestry is Japanese and I consider myself Japanese-American, I feel more at home in Hawaii—largely due to its people and culture—than anywhere else in the world.  Hearing the chorus, I felt as if all the Hawaiian people were being told to give everything away, which they already have, generous beyond reason.  They did so by giving first of their love and aloha, then of their possessions, then of their lives, then of their land.  They now have so little and things look so bleak, yet it's as if they're being asked to once again give it all—pride, dignity, resistance—everything.  Must they?  Should they?
     By the way, I don't believe the Sons of Hawaii wrote the song as political polemic or rallying cry (there isn't a note of bitterness or irony throughout the entire song that I can detect).  To the contrary, it strikes me as a straight-forward Christian song of the moral imperative of generosity.  After the rich man walks away sad, the bible says that Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “It is easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
     They ask him, “How can anyone enter the kingdom of heaven?”
     He answers, “Through God, all things are possible.”
     We Americans are rich.  Filthy rich.  No one likes to admit it, but we are.  None of us will likely ever have to go a day  hungry, or without clothes or shelter.  This places us within the upper echelons of the wealthy in the world and especially throughout history.  And with today's medical technologies (vaccines, penicillin, drugs, and surgery)—things people would have paid a king's ransom for in the past—not to mention access to modern transportation, communication devises, heating, cooling, and cooking appliances, clean running water, indoor plumbing, beds, comfortable footwear, prescription glasses, etc., we're incomprehensibly wealthy compared to those living in Jesus' time.
     So we must give generously.  Until it hurts.  If it doesn't hurt or require sacrifice, it's not generous enough.
     Can we afford it?
     As John Steinbeck said, there are only two states of money:  no money and not enough money.  Or as Pastor Wayne Cordeiro said, “The problem with saying, 'If only I had this much, then I'd be satisfied and give generously,' is that we'll always raise the bar, again and again, and enough will never be enough.”  Mother Theresa defined true love as, “Through God's grace, a starving woman received a bowl of gruel.  Rather than go in and partake with her starving children, she crossed the street.  When asked where she was going, she replied, “To the neighbors—to share some with them.”  Generosity, then, can be seen as a key not only to humanity, but also to happiness, for nothing brings greater happiness to self and others than true love.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Cost of Living

     I grew up in Hilo, in an upper middle class neighborhood, in a three bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house with two long hallways, dining room, family room, kitchen, separate living room, and two-car carport.  Located at the end of a cul-de-sac, the lot features a large yard that surrounded two-thirds of the house, a long driveway, and landscaping throughout.  The entire cost was $15,000, which was a lot of money in the mid-1960's, but Hawaii Planing Mill, which acted as the general contractor, provided an architect who drew up blue prints to my parents' specifications.  Through the years, my dad, an elementary school principal, paid the mortgage off plus college  educations for my two siblings and I, my mom having worked part-time, then full-time only much later at little above minimum wage.
     Fast forward forty-plus years to present and such a redwood house with oak floors throughout built to spec in a comparable neighborhood in Oahu would easily top $2,000,000.  Though I have saved diligently over the past twenty-plus years—ever since I started working—I can not afford any such house, not by a long shot.
     Though the nation's housing bubble burst in 2008, Oahu's housing prices apparently barely nudged downward.  My real estate friend recently estimated the median three bed, two bath home price at about $600,000 (barely ten percent down from the peak price pre-2008).
     So I have been (and will likely remain, if I continue to reside in Oahu) a lifetime renter.
     I tell myself it suits my personality.  I'm not into maintaining, repairing, and replacing—I struggle and resist doing so for the sole used car we own.  The thought of doing so for an entire property and house conjures images of termites, leaking roofs and pipes, cracked foundations, dry rot, dishonest repairmen, demanding yard work, property insurance and taxes, etc.  My parents, up to a decade ago, had maintained their house and property immaculately, but now that they've slowed due to old age and health issues, the house at times slips into gross disrepair.  Even if neglected for two years, it seems to age ten, due in large part to Hilo's incessant rain and humidity.
     Although I have often desired a house (and even had occasional fanciful notions of building one myself), I don't feel the least bit cheated out of one.  It’s a matter of could of, should of, would of.  The timing wasn't right when I could have.  Then, the sudden extreme price rises that seemed unreal and unsustainable—they still do—priced me out of the local market in just over a year.  Had I known in advance of this impending price rise, I probably should or maybe even would have bought earlier, breaking my own policy of, “Don't even think of buying unless you plan on living there for at least the next twenty-five years.”
     In response to the squeeze between ever-rising costs (of rents, utilities, food, fuel, etc.) and stagnant salaries, I've looked longingly, on occasion, to the outer islands, U.S. Mainland, and even some foreign countries.  Right now—right now!—we could afford a fabulous house (comparable to what I grew up in, say) in an exciting, memorable, and fun locale.  But I've concluded, it's not best for my family and I.  After all, there's more to life than having cool stuff and good fun. 
     And I've also concluded there's something about Hawaii, and more specifically Oahu, that's kept us here.  Relatives.  The people.  Local food and culture.  Nice weather.  Kid-friendly schools and activities.  It's important to us that they know our heritage.  Also, God has given us a purpose and meaning here, and our positive (albeit small) contributions have led to so much fulfillment.  Oahu has given us just enough excitement, but not too much, and plenty of stability.  A guy could do a lot worse than living in a decent rental in Honolulu, right?  The cost of living in paradise is high, but not too high for us, at least not for now.

Monday, November 4, 2013

NCLB Politics—Part III

           Because NCLB was a political act, not an act of academic necessity, it helps to understand its reason for being. And that, I believe, boils down to gold medal envy.
     Remember when the Soviet Bloc countries dominated the Olympics and the U.S. bemoaned its also-ran status in the medal count standings? Sure, U.S. apologists would justifiably complain about unlevel playing fields, hand-selected athletes trained since youth at professional-style facilities, performance enhancing drugs, biased judging, and the like. Yet the U.S. couldn't help but envy and admire the strength, agility, speed, finesse, adroitness, and beauty of their enemies' superior athletes.
     The same has been true for decades with international standardized test score rankings, where the U.S. usually finishes somewhere near the middle or lower half among developed countries, and yet ranks near the top in dollars spent per student, meaning, we are getting poor returns for our dollars. The inescapable conclusion has been: Something's got to change! How do the more successful (Asian & European countries, especially) do it? Why not adopt some of their practices in our schools?
     In business school, students learn the importance of measuring what's desired to be changed. Basic human nature obsesses over whatever is being measure—whether reducing costs, increasing sales, or increasing market share. The unintended consequence, however, can be over-emphasis on measured results and disregard of the means by which they are obtained, perhaps resulting in poorer customer service, ethical violations, lowered morale, or, in extreme cases, lying, cheating, or fraud in order to “hit” targeted expectations or goals.
     NCLB could be a business school's case study of the law of unintended consequences, though all could easily have been foreseen. My children and the children of friends and relatives (all bright students) have hated studying Everyday Math and Wordly Wise (see my prior essays NCLB Politics & NCLB Politics—Part II) ad nauseum in endless preparation for their four-times-a-year standardized tests (highest score only counts). Subjects that have been proven very beneficial for both mind and body have been cut (in funding and hours) such as P.E., art, band, cursive writing, home economics, choir, cooking, automechanics, shop, etc.--all useful, life-long skills and fun besides. The concept of developing well-rounded, independent, and creative thinkers seems to have taken a back seat to producing stunted standardized test taking conformists to both their and our country's detriment. (E.g. the childhood obesity rate continues to balloon, yet schools have become sit-and-shut-up-style cram institutes, concerned about promoting healthy and active lifestyles more in word than in deed.)
     Certain mainland school districts have been found guilty of widespread cheating on standardized tests whereby teachers prompted students during tests to change erroneous answers, posted answers on exam room walls, and held “parties” to correct erroneous answers. And as the old adage says, for every one caught, a hundred gets away.
     Among middle and high school students (including achievers at all levels), over seventy percent admit to cheating on class tests and/or term papers. It's safe to bet this cheating carries over to all-important standardized tests as well.
     Such blatant, brazen cheating raises the question of just how fair a comparative measure standardized test scores really are. China graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers every year, but most are considered unhireable (by U.S. Companies) because of underqualification (http://www.engineeringuk.com/_resources/documents/Engineering_Graduates_in_China_and_India_-_EngineeringUK_-_March_2012.pdf), suggesting schooling of inferior quality. Likewise, when foreign countries report superior average standardized test scores, can they be relied on? If cheating happens occasionally in America, how much more so might it be happening in other countries where the politics of international competitive academia compels best-of-the-best type standings?
     Rather than stuffing students' heads full of boring memorize-and-forget knowledge—as if childrens' minds were lab beakers that must be filled to arbitrarily designated levels by arbitrarily designated grades—then, educators should instead seek to instill a lifelong love of learning. My favorite teachers included Mrs. Lau, a fourth grade teacher that demonstrated her love of life, her students, and academia; Mr. Ishimoto, a middle school science teacher that showed the joy of scientific verification via reference books (he calculated for me that the distance to the moon and back is far less than a google plex subatomic particles line up in a row; he didn't accept my assumption that a big hissing propane torch burns hotter than a puny, unimpressive alcohol lamp—he looked up the fuels' burning temperatures); and Mr. Hilliard, my A.P. English teacher in high school who pushed me to expand the limits of my comprehension (and love) of literature. For the paltry time I spend with each of them, they taught me to grow my mind for the sheer joy of it, which I have done unreservedly (for the most part) to this day.
     Students who view learning as waste-of-time drudgery will be far less likely to acquire a lifelong love of learning. Unfortunately, teaching to the test epitomized waste-of-time drudgery.