Monday, March 24, 2014

Swim Lessons

     I taught our two oldest kids Braden and Penelope to swim at our old apartment's pool in Kaimuki (supplemented by two swim classes each at the Y.) In my experience, kids love the water—getting wet and cold all over, splashing, playing, jumping, kicking, and flinging about plastic pool toys. If they hesitated, I just showed them how and they took it from there.
     What they didn't like at first was water in their eyes, ears, noses, and mouths. It was understandable—a totally new, shocking sensory experience taking them to an alien blurry world in which everything sounded muffled and plingy-plongy, their eyes stung, noses ran, ears plugged up, and throats and tongues got parched and chalky-dry—not much fun for newbies. But learning to swim required full head immersion—no swimming with head held high out of the water for me.
     The first step was to get them to voluntarily put their chins in the water and to have them gradually increase their depths and durations to total head immersion lasting at least several seconds. The best thing for that, I found, was limbo while seated on the pool stairs—duck under my arm (secured at one end to a hand rail) from one side to the other, gradually lowering my arm until their mouths, then noses, then eyes, then entire head got submerged as they passed beneath. Once past that stage, they ducked their heads under to fetch objects placed on successively lower steps in the pool.
     Another step (yet occurring simultaneously) was to get them to learn to float on their backs. My kids are “sinkers” (inherited from me)--no matter how relaxed they got or deeply they breathed, or high they held their stomachs, their legs and butts descended so that they looked like half-submerged palm fronds. But that was okay, because that indicated their readiness for the next step—floating on their stomachs.
     Of course getting them to float face down with ears submerged was far more challenging, but through persistence, they eventually mastered it. After that, swimming came easy.
     And that's exactly how it was when I learned to swim at Kapoho Beach House on the Big Island.
     The best part of the Beach House was the outdoor fish pond with pebbly rocky shore separated by boulders from the translucent sea. Stocked with uhu (parrot fish), palani (surgeon fish), barracuda, a green sea turtle, manini (convict tang) humuhumunukunukuapuaa (trigger fish), other tropical fish, and a spindly orange Kona crab that hid among the craggy boulders, it was the most beautiful “natural” aquarium I have ever seen—feeding allowed anytime (barracudas darted the length of the pool in less than a second to fetch our bread offerings) and enter if you dared (we daren't—there was no need as we could see everything from above and those fish were huge and dangerous-looking in our eyes).
     Dad took us shore fishing nearby and I caught my longest fish ever—an eighteen inch stick fish. Dad had rigged a simple bamboo pole with line, hook, and float. While fishing, we could see the elegant green-yellow stick fish rods rippling in the shallow gathering tide and even our translucent white California shrimp bait balls suspended in their midst, so I didn't bother watching my line's balsa wood paddle-shaped float, which my sister Joan noticed standing on end.
     She said, “Tim, look at your floater.”
     I said, “I can see the bait, they're not taking it.” I raised my line to show and the line pulled back. A fish came up out of the water jiggling. I said, “I'm going to put it in the fish pond,” and headed that way, eager to see it in its new home.
     We got back and before letting the fish loose, Dad said, “Let me get my camera. I'll be right back.”
     I said, “The fish is going to die.”
     He said, “It's strong. I'll be right back.”
     After an eternity, he reemerged, opened his camera (it was built into its own leather carrying pouch), took the photo of me standing just so with fish dangling from the line, then, after resecuring his camera, he took my fish in hand, removed the hook, and tossed it limp as a licorice stick into the pond near the right side wall.
     Down it sank.
     The sea turtle paddled over, chomped it in two, then chomped down the remnants in less than three swallows. The fish hadn't even flinched. I berated Dad for his erroneous judgment; he apologized. Though disappointing, it became one of my fondest memories, perhaps because Dad was so structured and uncompromising, with high expectations that I seldom met.
     To the right of the fish pond and sharing the same separating wall was a sheltered swimming hole. Here, Mom, who I never saw swim and who said she might be able to swim fifteen feet if she had to, taught me to swim as she stood standing on the dry wall looking down on us.
     She told me, “Float cherry-bomb style,” and explained how. (The term came from splashing into water balled up tight.) I tried grappling my knees to my chest but hated the water flooding my sinus cavities, so I stood right back up after just a couple seconds, my back never attaining true parallel to the water's surface. On the third try after her repeated insistence I was doing it wrong I took a deep breath and held it as I assumed the position. After a moment, my shoulders bobbed to the surface and I saw the world turn topsy-turvy and what had been behind me was now beneath and before me—I was looking beneath and past my feet, upside down. Big happy congratulations followed; I felt proud of myself.
     I did this thrice, each time longer than the last. Then Mom had me float on my stomach while kicking. I tried but didn't get very far, the gentle currents drifting my body back and forth. She said, “Stroke your arms while kicking.” I tried and moved forward a bit, the world looking like chaotic bubbles amid my frantic splashing. She told me keep my legs straight while kicking and upon trying, I swam several feet forward, watching the underwater world pass beneath—my first real freestyle swim.
     And I taught my kids the exact same way once they mastered a cherry-bomb or prone float on their bellies. And they both learned from that point on with equal alacrity as I had.
     Kids take time—perhaps months or years—to feel comfortable enough in the water to sustain a face down float. But once they master that, learning to swim the basic freestyle stroke comes easy.
     (Note: I started teaching my kids to swim when they were about four or five, never with goggles, and only after they could master a face-down float, with an assistive float vest for my son, and float belt for my daughter—and these only for a short while. In general, I believe the less assistive devises the better—mainly so they can do without when necessary and enjoy the water however they find themselves. They are both proficient, though mediocre swimmers now, able to do basic freestyle, breast, and back strokes, and a rudimentary butterfly.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The General Public

     As kids, my siblings and I always caught the big yellow bus that stopped right before our cul de sac in the morning and took us to school, and later in the afternoon, took us back home and dropped us off at the same place. Separate buses served elementary, middle, and high schools—all for free!
     Last year, our oldest child, as a seventh grader, started catching the county bus to and from school because only then did we deem him responsible enough to handle it. (There aren't any public school buses in our district that I'm aware of.) The vast majority of his school mates still get dropped off and picked up by parents or relatives. Although a bus pass at forty dollars a month certainly makes economic sense, having him catch the bus also benefits the environment and him. The sense of independence, confidence, and accomplishment (no matter how small), exercise walking to and from the bus stop, and exposure to the real world and real people helped mature him from a self-centered brat to a fine young man.
     I've been catching the county bus to and from work for over twenty years and continue to observe compelling things that I would otherwise have missed. Some are funny, same are ugly, some stink, and some are quite nice: reality that helps keep me grounded.
     It requires a mental shift to catch the county bus. For the most part, the people I hang out with live in safe, comfortable (or at least predictable) environments, so catching the bus affords such individuals one of life's few opportunities for discomfort and unpredictability. Will it be late or crowded? Which driver will I get—the kindly slow-poke or the disgruntled speedster? Will I get a seat? Will the only open seat be next to a jerk that sticks his or her leg a quarter of the way into my seat so that our legs touch, forcing me to sit half-sideways if I want to avoid contact? Will the air reek of body odor or stifling perfume? Will the temperature be too hot or cold?
     For this very reason many of my friends and relatives shun the bus and even take pride that they have never caught a bus their entire lives. And truth be told, this is also one of the main reasons why many of them send their children to private primary and secondary schools—something they'd never admit, instead claiming they're better schools that get better test scores, with superior alumni networks, opportunities, and facilities, but beneath it all is the unspoken preference that they and their children minimize the potential discomforts associated with contact with the general public. Whereas I and many others believe that one of the main benefits of public schools is learning to deal with just such things (after all, real life includes real people) and even more important, to learn to get along well with a diversity of people—including those of lower socio-economic classes, which often includes some of the nicest people around.
     I told my wife even if our kids got full scholarships to attend the Number One Rated Private School in the state, I wouldn't send any of them there. The best students will do academically well anywhere. They'll find a way. Their parents will find a way. Even their teachers will help them find a way. Moreover, if all the students in the Number One Rated Private School in the state were placed into any public school, it's a certainty that that school would instantly attain number one ranking (however that's decided). It's not about the school, facilities, faculty, or resources, it's about the students and parents. They determine academic success. Everything else can foster learning, though even the best schools can't bestow upon pupils superior work habits, abilities, and performance, which must come from within.
     All parents desire academic environments that are conducive to learning, with limited unnecessary distractions, etc.--but that's seldom the main issue anyway. The main distractions usually come not from external sources (peers, teachers, and facilities), but from internal sources—what's going on in each child's mind. Is he or she preoccupied with problems at home? Problems with friends? Anxiety? Fears? Depression? Body image issues? Materialistic regrets?
     In life there are so many major issues for children to work through and problems to avoid, that expecting perfection in academics just seems overboard to me. If it happens, great, but to try to force it on every student, even those not so inclined or endowed, gets counter-productive. (My wife recently took a teacher's aide position helping a special needs child. They try their best, but his attention span is limited and he struggles with his memory. He has been unable to keep up with his peers, which is understandable to me.)
     A friend of ours shared that her daughter at the Number One Rated Private School in the state was eating her home lunches alone in a bathroom toilet stall. The girl had wanted to transfer to this school but was obviously experiencing difficulties fitting in. This daughter is one of the sweetest, humblest, yet most outgoing girls I have ever met, so upon hearing it, my heart ached. Perhaps her peers were ostracizing or hazing her due to her public school background or jealousy over her healthy good looks? If so, then I question their, their parents, and the school's values. I've never heard of this happening in a public school among all my many relatives and friends. And before dismissing the situation as oddball aberration, consider that another friend of ours who attended this same school a generation earlier said she also ate all her home lunches there in a girl's bathroom toilet stall. 
     If this happened to any of my kids I'd feel very upset, flabbergasted, and concerned. Why are you doing this? Are they treating you badly? What happened? Are their cliques that bad? Can't you eat on a bench outside or in a classroom instead? Are you okay? What can we do to help? What do you propose doing to remedy this unacceptable situation? Anything you wish to talk about? 
     I'm sure my friends asked their daughter these same types of questions and she told them that she's fine and wants to stay, as did our adult friend to her parents (if they ever found out) when she was a student there. But is it worth it to pay tens of thousand of dollars per year just for a name-brand education if your child must suffer such indignities day after day for months on end? What will that do to a growing child's psyche and morale?
     (Full disclosure: In high school, two friends and I skipped lunch and hung out in the band room because we couldn't stand all the lunchroom cliques that froze out all outsiders. My friends started bringing and sharing home lunches, I just forewent because bringing home lunch was so uncool and satisfied myself with an after school snack at a drive-in we always went to. It's okay, kids around the world get by on a single tiny meal a day; I didn't suffer malnutrition or short-attention span as a result.)     
     In my experience, the most personable primary and secondary school students were all products of public schools. They spoke with humble charm appropriate to their ages and clearly enjoyed my company. To be fair, private school students have spoken well to me too, with organized thoughts and speech structures, but that was the odd thing, it came across like work for them to have to talk with me, not like something they enjoyed doing, and that they just wanted to get it over with, or as if they didn't quite feel comfortable in their own skins. They'll succeed fine later in life, I'm sure (they come from stable, academically-oriented families), but was it really worth it to have lost a piece of their carefree childhoods and unabashed informality?
     Having your children catch the county bus or attend public schools won't guarantee superior character development or real-life adaptability, but neither will sending them to expensive private institutions guarantee them academic or future financial success. (Four friends of high moral character who attended either of the Top Two Rated Private Schools in the state are now: among the long-term unemployed, doing odds and ends jobs on rare occasion, barely making it as a self-employed software designer, and selling cars. Though qualified, none of them contented themselves with ordinary nine-to-five type jobs and I suspect that's why they're doing what they do now.)
     I suppose we all do our best with limited knowledge—no one can foresee the future—and resources. And many are motivated by fears (of kids devolving into sex, drugs, or academic mediocrity or worse). It takes a lot of faith to trust a child, although, in the end, I believe that that tends to work the best. Give them what they can when they can handle it and trust God to protect them. No matter what, sooner or later, we'll all have to let go anyway.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Aging Parents

       Few things show the cruel passage of time as dramatically as occasional visits by aging parents. Mine live in Hilo, so we see each other about every other month. The obvious outward manifestations—the slower gait, white hair, skin blemishes and wrinkles, and deteriorated hearing and vision—I've learned to pretend don't exist and even go so far as to lie about on occasion. When Mom asks, I'll say, “You look good,” or “No, I didn't notice.” If that were the full extent of it, I could accept it with solace that this is all a part of life that those fortunate enough to attain old age must face.
     But that's not all. Their personalities have changed, too, perhaps due in part to reduced mental agility. And so has mine, for I, too, am an aging parent with white hairs, receding hair line, skin blemishes, and a variety of physical age-related ailments. It didn't used to be this way and I don't like it and neither do they. It's changed our relationship in fundamental ways, which leads to discomfort and distance on both sides, though the love is as strong (or stronger in certain ways) than ever.
     In middle age, my parents were so on-it, it amazes me to think of it. My Mom revealed unusual wisdom when I asked her how a famous actress could have married so many times, some marriages lasting but a few weeks? She shrugged and said, “I guess it's because she won't sleep with anyone she's not married to.” Whether factually accurate or not, her guess made me rethink my assumptions and feelings toward that oft ridiculed star. My Dad showed wisdom of a different sort after I was forced to resign from a position because, in truth, I just didn't fit in. The day following my departure, this organization lost a major lawsuit (unrelated to me or my resignation) costing millions of dollars. Mom suggested that in job interviews, if anyone asked why I left the firm, I could discretely mention the lawsuit. Dad reflected on it and decided it was a bad idea. “If you do that and they find out, then the next time you need a reference, they'll say, “If that's the way he wants to play, we'll just let him have it!”
     I rarely receive such keen insights and understanding from either anymore. To the contrary, they now seem to struggle, at times, with managing their own interactions—most notably with us, their children. In particular, their flexibility has narrowed. Either do things their way or don't come, seems to be the new unspoken mantra, much different from the eaasy, “Sure, just come. Whatever you want. We'll just play it my ear...” from just a few short years ago. From staying for two weeks every year, we now stay just two nights maximum every other year. We miss the longer stays, but by the third day, they've lost their patience and wish to return to their normal routines, too frazzled to tolerate our high-energy presences for much longer.
     I always remind myself that we don't have that much time left together—even if they live twenty healthy more years—so for the kids' sakes, especially, it's worthwhile to keep things positive despite minor grievances here and there, and that though they're not what they used to be, they're still sharp and hale.
     A year ago, when I recounted my oldest son's academic trials and the stress I felt because of it, Mom said, “The main thing is that he's a good person. He's not out to hurt anyone. If he was, that's something to be concerned about.” I said, “No, he doesn't bother anyone. I guess even if he ends up in food service” (his then current passion) “or forestry, those are honorable professions, too.” Mom said, “Sure, there's nothing wrong with that. Whatever he enjoys, that's important, too.”
     And I told my wife shortly thereafter that I felt closer to Dad than ever before. His and my recent health trials had resulted in heart-felt talks and letters that got him opening up, sincere and vulnerable, to my thoughts of life, struggles, and faith. I told her, “I think this could be the beginning of the best part of his life when he experiences true peace and contentment for the first time...”
     My friend Norm once remarked about the deteriorating health of aging parents: “It's all about coping from here on in.” It helped me to realize I'm not alone, but seemed too pessimistic. I prefer to think instead that it's all about making the most of what little time we have, saying and doing that which we must before it's too late. In fairness, he did do his best with his aging parents before they passed on in rather rapid succession. Now it's up to me to do the same with mine. I pray for God's help because knowing what's best with a father that never said I love you and a mother who said it only once in a most awkward, felt-she-had-to fashion can be rather challenging. (I know they love me and always have—words weren't necessary and still aren't.)
     What pleases them most—and this hasn't changed in all the years of our lives—is seeing us do well, thriving, full of lust for life. In this way, I don't think we've disappointed them. To the contrary, I think at times we've overwhelmed them. If this is my best way of saying thank you and making them happy, so be it. And I'll do my best to continue.
     In case you're reading this Mom and Dad (they never do), thank you for everything, for showing me the right way, for your unconditional loves, and your deep, beautiful marriage—constant and true. I wouldn't trade you for any other parents. And I love you. (Sorry I don't feel comfortable telling you in person, but I do so all the time with Deanne and the kids...)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Native Hawaiian Rights

     My friend Norm from Seattle is very supportive of the rights of Native Americans.  He's attended pow wows and donated goods to Native American Charities and considers himself quite the liberal.  But when I shared with him my thoughts of Native Hawaiian sovereignty several years ago, which I support, he cut me off and said, “This talk about sovereignty of any kind is not going anywhere.  The powers that be will not tolerate any talk of sovereignty for any group of Native Americans anywhere.”  Further discussions revealed that he was not opposed to granting Native Americans sovereignty within certain bounds, he just thought all such notions were non-starters among the nation's ruling elite.
     Whether possible or not, I nonetheless believe envisioning ideals is helpful in making progress, for without them, how will anyone know where we are headed or feel moved to make the sacrifices necessary for significant change?
     Skipping the debate for now over ceded lands (former Hawaii crown and government lands controlled by Hawaii State and the U.S. which both governments have acknowledged Native Hawaiians have rights to—see further explanation @ which has devolved all-too-often into ugly harangues over billions of dollars (and over which Native Hawaiians obviously deserve their fair share), following is my dumb, naive, and unworkable Native Hawaiian rights proposal:

1)  Return Kahoolawe in total to Native Hawaiians.  How “Native Hawaiians” is defined, I leave to others (mainly the courts) to decide.

2)  Likewise, give Native Hawaiians either Molokai or Lanai.  The U.S. government will almost certainly have to get involved with such a land transfer due to the expense and legal issues.  If a billionaire can purchase virtually all of Lanai, I see this as no problem for the U.S. government.

3)  Native Hawaiians will have a one-time choice to immigrate to this new land or remain part of the U.S.  (Later immigrations may be possible within the bounds of newly established law.)

4)  Native Hawaiians in this new land will have sovereignty and will provide for their own needs.  However, the new nation may sign mutually beneficial treaties with the U.S. and Hawaii for such things as national security, extradition rights, border crossings, health care accessibility, food and water security, fishing rights, etc.

5)  Hawaii should agree not to legalize gambling, leaving this option for the newly established nation.

6)  In exchange for all of the above, Native Hawaiians and the new Hawaii nation will agree to give up to Hawaii State and the U.S. government all non-transferred ceded lands claims.

     I like this idea because it would enable the Hawaiian peoples, if they choose, to turn back the hands of time (to the extent possible) to before the Great Mahele (the subdivision of vast tracts of land to private land holders, such land previously owned jointly by all the Hawaiian people) and to self-determine, with few bounds, their own futures.  From what I hear (I've never been) certain south pacific islands still retain much of their original cultures largely free from all-encompassing outside influences.  These could perhaps serve as models for this new Hawaii nation.
     Granted, the fair market values of all the disparate ceded lands claims may exceed those of the land masses I propose but having two single parcels in total plus self-determination rights—true freedom—has got to be worth the difference (at least in my naive, simplistic way of thinking).
     I recognize that an uncertain number of Native Hawaiians believe that the entirety of the Hawaiian islands chain always has belonged to them and that the U.S. “occupation” is illegal and should not be recognized and that negotiated “settlements” and “agreements” with the illegal occupiers are mere sham transaction.  Other Native Hawaiians—regardless of their view of the U.S. overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy—obviously desire to work within the existing framework to try to secure what's best for their people's futures.  Some say that a lot of the in-fighting among Native Hawaiians is caused by differences of opinion on how best to proceed.
     I empathize, feel ignorant, and don't know how to respond other than to suggest that a lot of those looking in from the outside shake their heads (some in dismay, some in disgust) and think, “If they among themselves can't decide what they want or put forth a unified platform other than ‘more’, then how can we even begin to decide what we should or should not support?”
     Something like the Akaka Bill (The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act), if one ever gets passed into law, I suppose would be as good a start as can be hoped for.  But that's all it would be is a start—the first teeny, tiny step toward what I imagine most Native Hawaiians truly desire most for themselves, their culture, their islands, and their identifies, working within the constraints of what is currently possible.  Regardless of the outcome of such a bill, however, I remain skeptical of the people's futures.  Native populations within the U.S. and around the world have been marginalized, ignored, forgotten, and even decimated for centuries by Western forces that have overrun them.  Unless the U.S. and Hawaii general populaces insist on lasting change for their betterment, things will likely continue to putter along as they have, one marginal change at a time, Native Hawaiians along with their mainland counterparts just holding on and doing their best to get by. 
     I wish they could do better and get more of what they deserve.  Unfortunately, right does not always make might in this world during our lifetimes.