Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Facts of Life—Part II

        Penelope's first happened last year during our family trip to Molokai.  As she showered after our long day at multiple beaches, Deanne went in to collect the dirty laundry and noticed pinkish stains on her swim underwear.  It didn't take long to ascertain that her first menses had come.  It hadn't been a total surprise for Penelope because Deanne had taught her, at my insistence, the facts of life months earlier (see my prior The Facts of Life essay); we just didn't expect it to happen so soon, Penelope age ten at the time, though Deanne did have hers early too at age eleven.
     In shock, Deanne scolded her for not saying anything.  Penelope, in quiet submissiveness, said yes Mom.
     I later told Deanne to take it easy on her, she must have been scared—of course it would be for anyone the first time—and that we should encourage her.  It isn't a curse or the most horrible or uncomfortable thing, it's part of how God decided babies would be made.  
     When I was going through adolescence and my voice was changing, I explained, my mom, the most wonderful mother in the world, teased me about it, and let my older sister tease me about it, too, and I don't want Penelope to feel bad about it at all.  Other cultures celebrate the milestone with festivities and for western cultures to act as if it's shameful or dirty is absurd, for every healthy woman goes through it and for those that don't, something's the matter, which would be a real cause for concern.
     But Deanne expressed concern about the early onset being far from ideal.
     I said it's out of our hands, fretting about it won't help, and it's still within normal range.
     So when Penelope emerged from the bathroom with a tremulous look, I smiled, gave her a hug, and said congratulations.  She smiled back and said thank you.  Taking my lead, Deanne supported her and we distributed special treats for dinner that night in honor of Penelope having passed such a major milestone.
     At church that weekend, arm around Penelope's shoulder, I shared with our pastor when we had a quiet moment alone with her, “Congratulations are in order.  Penelope is now a woman.”
     “Oh,” she said, hesitant for a moment.  “How old is she?”—this directed toward Deanne.
     “Ten,” Deanne said.
     “She's pretty tall...”
     “I see her in a whole new light now,” I said.
     Minutes later, Pastor Mary came by and congratulated Penelope with a hug and a lei, which made her feel special.
     More recently I asked Penelope if she knew whether any of her classmates were having their menses too, and she said yes and named a couple of them—close friends of hers.  She hadn't asked them; they'd approached her separately and asked her.  I guess they somehow sensed it; I've noticed an increased serious-somber weight in her ever since, perhaps due to the heightened responsibility and/or bouts of natural discomfort.
     And just the other night when we were making a jigsaw puzzle of four wolves—two fearsome black and two handsome tan and white—Penelope asked are they all the same species? 
     “I don't know, perhaps they're different sexes?” I said.
     “If so, I bet the black ones are males.”
     “Maybe, but sometimes in the animal kingdom, the males are the pretty ones—like peacocks and chickens and other birds—and the females are the drab ugly ones.”
     We worked a bit longer in silence and then she said, “Whenever I see a male peacock, its feathers are always pointing straight back.”
     “A long time ago we saw one at Hilo Zoo, tale wide open, quivering, and making brrrbrrrbrrr noises,” I said, imitating.
     “I remember that,” said Braden.
     “I enjoy seeing animals do what they do.  Some animals' behaviors just seem
 so bizarre by human standards.”
     A short while later Penelope said that her friend said she saw a couple of snakes mating at a zoo.
     “Were they twisting all around as if they were fighting?” I asked.
     “No,” she said.  “One just went on top of the other.”
     “Did she see anything or did she just think they were mating?”
     “She said she just thought they were.”
     “Maybe they were, maybe they weren't.  Every animal has its own way of doing things.  If we lived on a farm you'd know all about these things...”
     After a few minutes I noticed Penelope not working on the puzzle, instead fidgeting with something in her fingers.  It took awhile to figure out what it was, then I said, “Is there something interesting about that plastic?”
     She giggled, said no, and soon walked away.
     I was glad that we could have quiet family conversations about the facts of life, something I believe every child should feel comfortable discussing with his or her parents.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Date Nights—Part II

     The Downtown Arts District, a couple blocks east of central Chinatown, has a good thing going evenings. Deanne and I have been a couple times—both times smashing successes with hand holding, listening to live music, walking, and ducking in and out of shops and cafes/bars.
     When I was in college, the Chinatown area had a bad nighttime reputation. A dorm mate told his girlfriend who was going there with a bunch of girls, “Now if some guy grabs you, I want to kick him in the n___!” She said nothing's going to happen but you could tell he was serious.
     We parked at Chinatown Gateway Plaza for three dollars after five p.m. then both times went for early dinners at Murphy's Bar and Grill. It has a family-friendly restaurant section with attentive waitresses and a bricks/brass/window planters atmosphere that seems years and miles away from the hectic financial district just a few blocks away. (The first time we went I had a wine glass of Narwhal beer on tap—the only drink either of us had on either night—and it was fantastic!) Then after eating and talking and relaxing and easing into our togetherness mode, we headed up Bethel Street toward Hawaii Theater.
     Now here's where the vibe got funky-fun: young, beautiful people out and about, smatterings of middle-agers walking by or waiting for a bus, and a few senior young-at-hearts ducking into a bar seemed to invite and enfold us into the scene. On our first night there in front of the theater young costumed college types, Caucasian and oriental geeky-chic, put on a sidewalk Celtic-sounding modern pop show featuring singing accompanied by guitar, violin, and cello. Further along and around a corner in a side alley, a few young, slim ladies dressed in Charleston era sexy half-lingeries (they may have been among the Cherry Blossom Cabaret) were filing into the adjacent store's make-shift show room theater with hung sheets for walls (they'd done their thing before in a hairstyling salon). At the Arts at Mark's Garage (it really is a grungy old garage I used to park in decades ago; its street level commercial space is now an art gallery/performing arts center), I was allowed to enter free and see the tail end of a one-man show: he sat on a barstool, recited his final lines, bowed, and was very well received by the small but enthusiastic audience (the place held perhaps twenty. The Rocky Horror Picture show was to be screened later with attendees encouraged to bring rice, squirt guns, plastic tarp, and other audience participation props.) We then ducked in and out of boutiques, vendors warm and inviting, and ended up at Hank's Cafe where a middle aged guy sang and played guitar. The barkeeper/owner was cool and let us hangout in the near empty place that seated perhaps fifteen and I sang along to Beatles & Paul McCartney classics, tipping the musician who played my requested In My Life (Beatles' version).
     The second night, after our light meal, we ducked into the dark old-world-looking Brasserie du Vin wine bar/restaurant and had a couple of dainty pastries selected from the refrigerated display case out front. Fantastic, light, and not too sweet—they were the perfect shared desserts for Deane's birthday. Continuing along we looped back around block's end and stopped into Fresh Cafe, which was soft-opening with a new concept with three separate spaces, all clean and well lit with open loft-style atmospheres: restaurant, outdoors lanai seating along a covered walk with high brick walls and industrial refrigerator steel doors to match, and a separate well-lit bar where we snacked on chips with salsa while listening to a twenty-something musician sing and play acoustic guitar upbeat and tight. Another patron and I had fun harmonizing along to songs I never before heard. (The gathering crowd in shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers made me feel like we were grandparents, though, but only in a self-reflective, humorous way.) And we finished the night at the Dragon Upstairs jazz bar where a quintet of oldsters (college professor types) stuffed into a tiny area riffed out fun, humorous numbers I again didn't recognize but appreciated just the same. The sax and trumpet traded conversational riffs like arguing spouses, cutting in on each other, reasoning, insisting, and pleading. Then, as if they both had had enough, they riffed off simultaneous which resulted in ticklish cacophonous dissonant notes and verses that had me laughing half-way through, so taken was I by their show of generosity and humility, neither upstaging the other. (I'd heard the sax player years before at Ward's Rafters in Kaimuki which was in an attic of a house turned jazz venue when he'd played with a pianist parent of a scout in Braden's den. At the time he'd played limpid and unexpressive. At the Dragon, he cooked. I concluded he'd underperformed at the Ward's Rafters as professional courtesy to Dan, the show's headliner that afternoon...)
     We'd been to the Arts District before for shows at Hawaii Theater and dinner and never felt threatened so times have, as advertised, changed for the better. Of course our evenings ended well before ten, so that may have had something to do with it. Most locals know of the area's chronic homeless presence (especially at the park beside Hawaii Theater) and problems with drugs, public inebriation, the mentally ill, and crime, so its not something we do often. But once in awhile, when its early, we feel its safe enough. And there is a police substation and Walmart nearby that makes the area feel a lot less shady than before. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Happiest Days

        The first time it happened was at a restaurant in Chinatown. We were seated at our table waiting to be served in the deserted eatery—a greasy spoon with aging floors, walls, ceiling, fixtures and furniture—our first time there. Unprompted, Jaren blurted, “This is the happiest day of my life!”
     “Why?” I asked, surprised. It had been a most ordinary day with no special occasion, events, or activities.
     “Because we get to eat at fancy restaurant!”
     “Well I'm glad you like it. I do, too.”
     While it's true that we seldom eat out (by American standards), on the fanciness scale the restaurant hardly rated five out of ten, even among restaurant at which Jaren's eaten. The rest of us looked at each other bemused, buoyed by his eager anticipation and that ultimate phrase that most people so closely guard.
     The happiest days of my life included those of my wedding, Braden's birth, and his baptism (see my related Patience—Part II essay). I've lived innumerable happy days, though, so to rank them all—the transcendent, the undeserved, God's blessing bestowed—would be to underappreciate far too many, especially those that I can't immediately recall. And how could I possibly compare my own baptism (at a beach in Waikiki among members of Calvary Chapel, a church I didn't attend because I wanted to do it for God and no one else and because I love the open ocean)—one of the best things I've ever done—to the last day of Deanne's second trip to Oahu to visit me following a half-year of long-distance courtship when she sang along (a bit off key as usual) with the perfect song on a tape that she had earlier sent me as if she were singing it to me and I knew then for sure that she would be a more wonderful wife (we were already engaged) than I could every have dared hope or imagine and I broke down and cried—she thought because I was sad, but I said no, I'm just happy and she giggled and hugged and kissed me. It was her first time with me crying and she was okay with it and that made me appreciate her even more.
     I suppose the second might have been happier (emotional) because God is perfect and people are not and when things turn out right with unpredictable people it comes as such a profound surprise, whereas God always waits patiently for us to return to Him to make things right for us, though I suppose the profound surprise in the first instance was that I had done something good and right for once and didn't feel awkward or goofy at the time or compelled to do it but rather only moved and grateful for the opportunity.
     The second time it happened was after Jaren's toy laptop, a Christmas present purchased a month-and-a-half earlier from Longs Drug for twenty dollars went silent—no sound effects, music, or words. Since it ran on AA batteries, I thought I might be able to diagnose the problem, so I opened its back and noticed a disconnected wire. After stripping off a half-inch of plastic sheathing at wire's end, I placed the exposed twisted metal strands where I thought the bundle belonged and stuttering blips and buzzes issued forth. Plastic tape didn't work and even holding it in place barely did—audio came and went—at which point I knew solder would be necessary.
     My landlord, a great guy—the best landlord I've ever had, loaned me his soldering iron so twenty minutes later the cheapy toy was fixed and Jaren, delighted, said those joyful words.
     The third time it happened came a few months later, just before bedtime. Jaren said, ”Tomorrow's the happiest day of my life!”
     “Why's that?” I asked.
     “Because tomorrow I get to meet Grace Lin!” (See my prior Making A—Part II essay for explanation, regarding.)
     What's remarkable is the smallness of the things that so delighted Jaren, things that were all social by nature (he wasn't happy so much because his toy was repaired, but that we had repaired it together: He helped get the screw driver, tape, and scissors; remove and replace the retaining screws; find, pick up, and store dropped parts; and press the appropriate keys to test the various functions). And such bighearted openness to the small reminded me that life's greatest happinesses often do come during the tiniest of moments during the most insignificant of days. They've come to me while reading, praying, daydreaming, and sitting quiet with a loved one. Blessing others. Camping, swimming, and walking along a beach. Viewing a sunset. Cooking, talking, and sharing. Petting a cat, wrestling my kids, sitting alone, and watching T.V. And like fickle guests they have arrived unbidden during cool quiet evenings and during simple meals at home or even at not-so-fancy restaurants. I think it's wonderful that Jaren is so easy to please. And I suppose that anyone who chooses to, can be too.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Haircuts—Part II

     Jaren must take after me. Not long ago, he gave himself a haircut (see my prior related Haircuts essay). When I say “haircut” I mean it in the loosest sense, for he didn't cut it for style (at least none that I can decipher) or because it was in need of a cut (it was perhaps three-eighths of an inch long throughout at the time), but because he was apparently bored or curious or just wanted to see what would happen.
     Here's what happened: He took a child's safety scissors into his bedroom. He sat on his bed. With his dominant left hand, he placed the scissors blades as flat and close to his scalp as possible. Without benefit of a mirror, he snipped away at random tufts where his left hand could reach and feel comfortable. And he continued to snip until he felt he had snipped enough. (Why does the sun rise? Who knows?)
     When Deanne came in, he had already hidden the evidence (the scissors, not the mangy bald spots). She asked him what happened?  He said nothing. Through stifled smirks and snorts she asked what happened to your hair? He said nothing? She said why are there bald spots all over? That was when—the only time it ever really happens—he got real quiet. “I pulled them out,” he said.
     Deanne gave him time out for the rest of the week not so much for cutting his hair, but for lying. I came home to Deanne's smirks; she didn't tell me what had happened, not wanting to spoil my surprise, I guess, but instead said, “Jaren's in time out; go see him yourself.” So I went in, cheeks tightening and lips pulling back involuntarily, but I forced them forward to convey seriousness. Why'd you do it? I asked. No reason he said.
     This has become such a common refrain in our household, which he learned from Braden, I'm sick of it. It's their equivalent of pleading guilty as charged and throwing themselves on our mercy—usually a good move with Deanne, but seldom with me. But to them it beats telling a dumb truth such as, “Because I was bored,” or “I had nothing better to do,” or “I thought it would be fun”—to which they know they'll receive mocks and ridicules, which can be sort of fun for us. But by pleading “no reason,” I'm forced to discipline which I hate (See my prior Discipline (Vengeance) essay regarding.)
     Most noticeable was a bald white strip from an inch above his forehead to the north pole peak of his noggin, two and a quarter inches long by a half—inch wide. It looked sort-of like someone had taken a strip of tape, pressed it flat to his hair, then ripped away—all the attached hair plucked out by the roots. Or perhaps more accurately, as if someone had shaved the area neat for some medical (or demented) purpose.
     Another denuded area ran from his left side burn to over two inches above his ear, four and quarter inches long by a quarter inch wide. In truth, this second strip alone would have looked a bit punk (as in rock—the musical genre, not the mineral), but combined with the dopey center stripe the overall effect was merely comical IMHO (as in “In My Honest Opinion” not “Individual Motives Harmonize Occasionally”—a revision capitalist theory that suggests Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' sometimes works for the overall good, but mostly only for the super wealthy.)
     Besides the two aforementioned blotches of exposed lard-white scalp there were a couple of garden-variety “rat-bite” patches, the size of a dime and a penny, that weren't as short or noticeable.
     What to do?  Buzz the entire scalp and make him look like a Michael Jordan wannabe? “Punk” the rest of his hair to match?  Let it be? Jaren loves haircuts (duh!) so rewarding his misbehavior with another haircut would just encourage more misbehavior (duh!) The imbecile center strip was so dumb-looking, I feared any additional punking would just worsen things.  Since Jaren should suffer for his wrongdoing (playing with scissors and lying), not us, I decided we'd let it be (and wait to buzz the rest of his hair to match after his bald patches had grown out some).
     The odd thing was, in the coming weeks not a single person in Summer Fun or church commented to him or us about his new look—such a disappointment because I had been (secretly) anticipating such feedback. In desperation, I finally shared my bemusement with church friends who were so polite—I guess because they didn't want Jaren to feel self-conscious—that they didn't share much in my revelry.
     When Deanne was about Jaren's age, she'd gotten so sick of everyone commenting about her long, beautiful eyelashes (that curl up naturally) that she got a pair of scissors and snipped them off (so Jaren must take after her, too). Dirty lickin's and scoldings—she could have poked her eyeballs out—followed, stiff consequences for her ill-advised actions. 
     At some point in my hilarities I wondered should I be concerned? Did Jaren's haircutting rise to the level of self mutilation? But then, it couldn't have hurt, I reasoned. In fact, it must've been pleasurable for him to have cut so much. I supposed then that it was akin to marking one's skin with a pen, paint, or markers—something everyone's done at one time or another, all temporary, no harm done.
     The sad thing is I know that I'll miss such nonsense later when they've all grown older and wiser.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Making A—Part II

        Grace Lin has always been one of my family's favorite authors, so when I noticed a flyer at the Hawaii State Library that she was coming to town for a children's literature conference with free activities for kids, I decided we'd attend. 
     The highlight for me, I knew, would be the book signing, when we'd get to meet her in person. We had an old copy of her Year of the Dog purchased used for twenty-five cents at a library sale years before. But since authors' books would be available for purchase, to not look totally cheap I decided we'd give her something to remember us by, especially since I also intended to ask her for whatever assistance she might be willing to provide with my writing career. So I fashioned a script in which we'd all play parts, state our names and something about ourselves, and most important, shower her with tons of aloha.
     As we did our read through before our dining room table opposite a chair where we imagined she sat, the outstanding performers that recited lines with gusto and intent were Jaren and myself. The others dribbled their lines like leaky faucets, mumbling with this-is-so-lame expressions. Cajoling these underachievers didn't work: Braden and Penelope saw Deanne's indifference and copied.
     I seldom employ guilt as a motivator but since asking nice didn't help, I ended up saying, “You act as if you think, This is Dad's dumb thing, why should I have to do it,” and as Deanne started walking away, “This is for you, too!” then back to the others: “Did I act that way when we went to the Fiftieth State Fair and waited hours in the hot sun for you guys to finish your rides?”—hand on Jaren's head: ”Not you buddy, you did super!”— then again to the others: “No I made the most of it and we all had great times. Now I'm asking this one small thing—five minutes—and you give me attitude?”
     Deanne slinked away and I followed her down the hall and asked if we could talk in our bedroom. Neither of us were angry but she still showed disengagement so I made sure I could still visualize how nice it would be—challenging, yet fun—and since I could I said, “Now think of Grace Lin. Here she is. She's been doing dozens of these things and seen hundreds of people just go up and get their books signed, thank you, and that's it. That won't do anything for her or us. If we come up with something new, great. But if we do it like we just did, she'll think, 'Wife's not into it, no way I'm helping the guy and getting between them.' On the other hand if she sees us together—one big happy family—she'll more likely think, 'Sure why not? They seem happy. I'll do it for them.'"
     Noting Deanne's continued noncommittal mien, I segued into a long narrative about why I write and possible future courses it could take—good and bod—and how it could affect our family, emphasizing the need for cohesiveness to make it happen. Because she then seemed more receptive, I concluded with, “As wife you're supposed to take the lead on this”—clapping, I demonstrated—“'Come on, let's go,'” I said perky, “'Let's do this, this is gonna be fun'—instead of acting all dopey and giving them an out to act dopey too.”
     She then, apparently recalling what a wonderful husband I'd been, capitulated and said she'd do better next time, which, because it was getting late, we agreed to save for another day.
     That evening, I asked Braden in private, ”Did you ever read a book that you thought wasn't as good as one of my stories?” Yeah, he said with a smile. “Then that means I deserve to be published, right?” He nodded. “Then you've got to show it when we do this. Sell it. Mean it. Show her that you believe in me. If you—my own son—don't, why should she?” Repentant, he agreed to re-recite his lines, which he did for me measured and sincere in no time.
     The next evening, I did the same with Penelope who agreed to do better. She wept a bit when she had to repeat her lines a few times but soon enough, they too came together convincing and real.
     It was a simple matter after that for us all to gather together the next afternoon and rehearse—three times is all it took.
     The day of the festival, we sat waiting for the book signing line to shorten. To make time go faster, I huddled us together excited, said, “Okay, let's practice one more time,” and passed Braden and Jaren the gifts that they'd present to Grace Lin. Penelope had the book and would tell her if asked to address her comment to “PBJ” (short for Penelope, Braden and Jaren). Whispered words and hidden gestured came together smooth, sincere, and most important happy—we were the strong family unit I had envisioned. It wasn't artifice, it just took hard work to get there since with the exception of Jaren—the natural performer–we all tend toward stage bashfulness. (Earlier that afternoon an abbreviated play at the festival by capable U.H. students served as object lessons in both commitment and dedication. “See how good they are? They're selling it, right?” I asked the kids, to which they smiled and nodded. “Now you know why they were practicing when we first arrived. It's not easy, even for them.”)
     As we stood waiting in line in assigned positions (kids in front, parents in back), Deanne held my hand and asked if I was nervous. I admitted I was so she put an arm around me and leaned in close, giggling along with me and flashing her winning smile. I did side and leg stretches to loosen up just before our turn.
     Then, last in line by design, we went forward and Penelope presented the book. As Grace Lin drew a picture of a dog (like on the cover) I said “Wow, original drawing!” and on cue when Penelope received the book back I leaned forward and said, “Do you have a couple of moments? We have something we'd like to present you?” to which she smiled, blinked, and nodded. Pulled up tall, I said with a gesture to match, “My name is Tim. I'm fourth generation Hawaii resident: Yonsei.”
     Next, Deanne introduced herself and said, “I'm from South East Asia. I crocheted this lei for you.”
     Braden draped the lei around her neck then introduced himself and said, “I will be entering high school this fall. When I was young, my favorite book was The Ugly Vegetables. We love to eat Jai.”
     Next Penelope introduced herself and said, “I did a book report on Year of the Rat. I said I liked the part when your mom ate cat food.”
     Engaged, yet as if from a far away place Grace Lin said, “My mom...”
     Then Jaren introduced himself and said, “Please read my dad's blog for me if not for him.”
     “Sure,” she said quiet as Jaren brought forth a hidden hongbao (lucky red envelope) with two hands held close.
     We then acted out and said the following in unison: hands cupped together, bobbed up and down: “Xie xie;” hands at sides and bowing forward: “Domo arigato!” right hand in front with fingers flashing a shaka: “Mahalo!” and drawn out backhand throwing-kiss motion with sweeping shoulder turn: “And Alooooha!”
     True to her word Grace Lin read this blog several days later and even posted to her blog @ gracelinblog.com on June twenty-fourth a photo of the hongbao, folded letter, and token monetary gift we gave her; gracious thoughts about my family and gifts (the money of which she said she'd donate to charity); and a direct hyperlink to this blog at which readers could access my “hilarious essays.”
     In hindsight, our making A (doing something embarrassing in public) had been well worth it and fun besides. I can't remember the last time our family got so excited doing something together. And we had done well (except that I got far too nervous, my left leg shaking by the time we'd finished).
     Thank you Grace Lin if you're reading this—you went far beyond the call. I pray that God will bless you and your family not so much for what you did for us (Were we excited? Yes!) but for being humble and gracious to all.  As stated in my posted comment to your blog, please consider making Hawaii your second home—you, your family, and friends won't regret it! Come to think of it, your heart's already filled with aloha spirit, so upon moving, you'll fit right in.