Nobody Ever Listens To Me

maybe it's better that way

The language of men

My phone should not ring at six in the morning. Occasionally my boss will call on her drive in to work, and we will talk about something interesting she saw in the morning paper. But she has a special ringtone, an upbeat get-up-and-answer-the-phone-buddy-boy ditty, and this wasn’t it. At six in the morning, you hope for a wrong number.

It was my brother-in-law, Richard. He’s a great guy and I like him, but I don’t want to hear from him that early, because he is probably going to say exactly what he said: “I have bad news….”

My father passed away, taking his leave quietly in the early morning after about eight months in hospice. Richard ran through the facts: how my mother and sister were holding up, who had been called, what they were planning to do. As close as he had been to my father, he didn’t say, “Boy this is hard” or “I know you’re sad” or “You can go ahead and cry if you want.” Because we were speaking the language of men.

Cynthia called. A close family friend, she had already heard and was crying on the phone and saying exactly what Richard didn’t. I spoke to Ketta B., who said “I don’t know what to say.”

Steve called, saying “If there is anything I can do…” and I said “Thanks.” And we slipped into the value of hospice care, and health insurance, and beaches on Moloka‘i, and the nature of the truth in a world driven by politics. We mentioned getting together to play some music. The language of men.

I think about Randy, in Seattle for the funeral of his own father. He’ll call when he can, and no one overhearing our conversation would understand.

Men take a lot of hits for being non-communicative. We should share our feelings, open up, be more in touch. But the language of men among men is a language so subtle that it operates at a different frequency, like the whisper of a well-tuned engine to an experienced mechanic, or a whistle to dogs. It is the language of standing shoulder to shoulder, the language of joint efforts and long experience. No one ever says “I love you, man,” no matter how good the beer is. We just share space—mental, physical, emotional—and exist together.

You learn the language of men from men, and I learned it from my father and his irrepressible cronies like Albert and Jess and Robert and Mike, together the funniest men on Earth. All of them were a generation or two above me, all of them gone now, but all willing to let me hang around and learn whatever the project of the week could teach. The proper proportions of strong concrete, the importance of tack rags, how to hang drywall, swap an engine, sew upholstery, lap valves, lay carpet and cook up fresh haupia from real coconuts. How a day of hard work makes your body ache in a good way, and makes a beer taste better. And in the process I learned the power of a quick wit and how a look in your eye tells your victim that the prodding wisecrack was just a way of being together, a means to express a bond. I learned that the bond among and between men is deeper and more durable than any that could be imposed by outside forces.

The language of men says, “We are here because we choose to be here, together.”

Don, Al, Jess, Robert, Mike are all gone now, but the bonds stay with me. I imagine them standing together, regarding a task with quiet dignity and an occasional quip, planning their approach. United again, with the language. Surely, heaven would be a place with projects.

I stand today with Richard and Steve and Randy and Bert and the Two Johns, talking music and woodwork and politics. Speaking the language of men to honor the men before us.

Filed under: General

The experiment

Fact of Life for Writers (One): You just want to write. It’s nice if somebody actually reads it, but the writing is the thing. Notes, emails, really pithy shopping lists. I have actually written, in the past year, a legitimate letter, with a pen on paper and mailed to a recipient via the post office. It had a stamp and everything.

Fact of Life for Writers (Two): Nobody reads anymore, at least nothing on paper. As a result, nothing gets published. So being a proper writer is harder than ever. I have written speeches, PR fluff, news releases, brochures, video scripts, and snarky columns, not to mention this very blog. None of that qualifies me as a proper writer. A proper writer writes stories, with characters and plots.

Fact of Life for Writers (Three): Okay, I lied in Fact (One). Writers want people to read their stuff. It’s natural. Did you expect anything different?

Over on the right side of this blog, under “Maka’s Pages,” you will find “Bernoulli at Play.” It’s a short story I wrote a litte while ago that some people have liked. Referring to Fact (Two), we now know that you’re not going to find it at your local bookstore, so you’ll have to read it here.

I’m posting it in parts to keep from driving all of you blind. Click on the main title for a little intro, and the Parts for the, well, parts. I originally planned to parcel it out over a few days, but it seems people want to get it all at once.

Fact of Life for Writers (Last): Give the readers what they want.

Filed under: Writing

For a girl I never knew

Ten years ago, a young woman named Jen died suddenly, unexpectedly, the kind of unforeseen loss that leaves a tight circle of friends and family numb and empty and asking hard questions of whatever Higher Power they subscribe to. The outlines are there in the clippings: honor roll student, athletic, artistic, beautiful. She was just out of high school, headed for college, full of the promise and expectations that stretch out before those who are making that transition, a path that ended too soon and too sadly.

I didn’t know Jen, but a good friend was very close to her—a cousin the same age—and still feels the loss today, all these years later. So by that one degree of separation I feel the ripples across time, see them in her face and scattered tears. And although I know that my second-hand sadness cannot compare to hers, I join her in mourning the loss of something more than a life: the loss of a lifetime of shared smiles and mutual dreams.

I have heard that, “The wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of life.” I hope I am never that wise.

If we do not grieve, we cannot share the grieving of others. It is only by reaching within ourselves and finding a personal touchstone that we can call forth anything more than the tired platitudes that too often accompany another’s deepest pain.

There will never be words enough. Having received no answers in our own grief, we offer none. And so, most often, I can do no more than listen as my friend talks about Jen and the searching she has done since those days a decade ago when she had to say goodbye to someone to whom she was connected by more than blood. We both understand that I cannot lift the weight from her, as much as I would take it on myself if I could. Instead we share the experience of separate grief. That is all any of us can offer, and I see it is all she will ever expect.

Filed under: General

Unsophisticated rhythms

I need to jam. Note, please, that I did not say I want to jam. Wanting is a weak shadow of true need. Like land-bound Ishmael gazing at the sea, I feel it in my bones, the unrequited longing to get the guys together and make some music, for better or for worse. I need it the way you need a cool glass of water after mowing the lawn, or a steak when the meal is shared by men, or to see her and only her because you have gone empty and only her eyes will restore you. Need brings with it the certainty that unless you fill that space, something inside could be gone forever.

From that you may get the impression that I am a musician. I am not. I am—and I say this without undue pride—a drummer. Musicians have sheet music and talk about key signatures and know chord progressions and transpose on the fly. Drummers thump and bump along, flailing and sweating. Musicians ask who will sing the harmony, and how do we get out of the bridge. Drummers ask if we can play a song now. That’s one reason you seldom see a skinny drummer. While the rest of the band is discussing whether the bass can provide the seventh to the minor, the drummer is eating.

Understand, too, that the matter up for discussion is jamming, not playing some club in front of a bunch of edamame-scarfing strangers. Playing for people is gigging. Playing for yourself is jamming. Jamming is getting into a song everyone more or less knows, wandering around, turning it over, and maybe ending at the same time. Just playing. Gigging means rehearsals, set lists, sound checks, and a litany of other headaches that the money never really covers. When you make a mistake while jamming, you note it for the future. Make a mistake at a gig and the guitar player gives you one of his looks, followed by ominous threats.

I have both gigged and jammed with the same gang for the past few years, including the most cliche booking possible for any band: a bar mitzvah. You have to look pretty hard to get a bar mitzvah gig in Honolulu, but we pulled one off. About half the band is composed of professional-grade musicians who have actually made a living off their music. The keyboard player has a real live didn’t-buy-it-on-eBay platinum record. The Girl Singer is just as good. The other half—and this includes me—really has no business foisting their meager skills onto the unsuspecting public. They say that in tennis, the only way to improve is to play with someone who is better than you. That is probably also true in music, but in both cases it’s not so much fun for the guy who’s already got skills; he spends most of his time waiting for you to demonstrate a scintilla of talent or ability.

It’s time to face the sad reality that I may have worn out the patience of the good musicians, who are perfectly capable of finding someone to keep the beat, thank you, since you can’t throw a stone in this town without hitting a wannabe drummer. So instead I play complex rhythms with my fingers on the steering wheel, or tap out bass drum parts with my right foot while I type. The latter serves Ketta B’s endless amusement as she doesn’t understand that I am playing along to some private music in my head, and thus thinks I am spastic. And maybe I am, because I need to jam.

Filed under: General

Two Minutes of Hope

Billy Mays is dead. That’s not news anymore; anybody who would care about an infomercial pitchman has already heard, and is mourning the loss of the acknowledged master of the form. I know that I am. Honestly, his death hit me harder than Michael Jackson’s. But what is probably most interesting about the sad and untimely passing of Billy Mays is that it made headlines on the major news syndicates, right up there with President Obama and the Iranian situation.

Pretty good for a guy who sold stuff on TV. He was on the Tonight Show, for crying out loud, booming and gesturing like Leno was debating the purchase of a metric ton of Oxy Clean. Go into one of those “As Seen On TV” stores and you will likely find a Billy Mays section. He transcended his shtick, became a force unto himself. “Billy Mays here for Billy Mays.”

I make no secret of my love for infomercials. For two or thirty minutes, they sell you the possibility of complete soulful satisfaction (or your money back). It’s not just the products, which range from “Who the hell would buy that?” to “Wow, cool.” It’s about how the products can improve your life, solve problems that vex you daily, make everything generally better in ways you never considered.

Stubborn stains? Don’t want to drag out the big vacuum cleaner for a quick touch-up in the living room? Dingy woodwork? Whatever it is, we’ll bring you a solution. And once we take care of the nagging little details of your otherwise under-control existence, we’ll show you how to lose fifty pounds, get your hair all running in the right direction, and eliminate wrinkles while you sleep. Go ahead, dream of the perfect life. We’ve got you covered in the next commercial break.

People of a certain vintage will remember the days of the door-to-door salesman, visiting your neighborhood and asking for just a moment of your time to demonstrate this modern washday miracle. Right there, in your living room, with a Fuller Brush or a World Book Encyclopedia, armed with a sample case and a smile. Yes, ma’am, things are going to be better.

The neighborhood salesmen are gone in this age of uncertain security and ‘round-the-clock television. And thus Billy Mays, purveyor of hope for the New Millennium. Endlessly upbeat, full of pep, overwhelming you with such a wave of positivity that you couldn’t help but like the guy and consider that he may, in fact, have the answer you’ve been seeking. His current Discovery Channel series, “Pitchmen,” shows just how much craft there is behind the kitsch. Every word, every gesture, practically every atom of Billy’s burly body was carefully aligned to make the sale. However much some people may have thought of Billy Mays as a huckster, he was a complete professional, as thoughtful and precise in his work as a brain surgeon or trial lawyer. He was the Michael Jordan of the pitch: you never saw how much work went into making it look so easy.

Lately I’ve noticed how infomercials have changed. You see a lot of former news people and TV hosts making pitches, or at least facilitating sales with pseudo-interviews. They’ve all gone soft-sell—except maybe the pumped up personal trainer guy who is going to bring you to the threshold of human physical perfection in ninety days. So it’s possible that Billy Mays’ days as the King of the Pitch were numbered anyway.

For me, it’s never going to be the same. Sure, there’s Anthony Sullivan, Billy’s partner and rival, who I guess moves up to the number one spot now. And the screeching skinny guy who sells the super absorbent towels and the slapper-chopper gizmo. More will certainly come along. But it will be a long time before I can look at a pitch and not think, “Billy could have done it better.”

Filed under: General

Eat this post (but not alone)

I have eaten at incredible restaurants on both coasts and here at home. A place called the Blue Wave in Boston that offered roast chicken with a potent mixture of jalapenos and garlic slathered under the skin. A tiny joint in San Francisco, Geordy’s, that went out of business about a month after I enjoyed absolutely incomparable prime rib, and sampled my dinner companion’s brioche-stuffed chicken. I have worshiped the offerings at places I can no longer name, yet recall every taste.

Still, the finest meals do not come from the finest restaurants. The single best thing I ever ate? A pot roast my father made one Sunday that was so tender and so perfectly seasoned that I actually stopped chewing and just looked at it. Close second: something called kalbi jjim (yeah, two J’s) that I scored in a food exchange with Ketta B, which was an absolute revelation. Apparently it is Korean comfort food. I was comforted.

Sometimes on TV or in the movies you’ll see the vaunted restaurant critic sitting alone, focused solely on the meal. No serious foodie would do that. Food is not just about nourishing your body. It is a social lubricant, an improver of conversations and a lynchpin of occasions. As the meal loosens lips, the conversation seasons the meat.

I have never had a bad meal with good company. I recall a truly unfortunate take-out breakfast—whoever came up with the concept of “tofu scramble” needs to be taken firmly by the shoulders and shaken hard—with a brilliant young lady whose company I enjoy far too much; I wouldn’t have traded it for perfect pancakes illuminated by a lesser light. An Italian friend once made a Steak Florentine served on arugula instead of the traditional spinach. I have not been able to recapture the taste, and no wonder: the steak was part of a meal served to a large group at a long table, sipping wine and laughing. How good was the veal chop at Hy’s? The night I tried it was a few days before Christmas, a holiday dinner with the gang that always welcomes me. It was perfect.

The Blue Wave chicken? Shared with the blue-green eyes of the sweet young love I had traveled thousands of miles to see. Geordy’s prime rib was with a dear friend whom I have known forever, and who still puts up with me.

I’m a pretty good cook, so when I say that despite asking for it, I don’t really want Ketta’s kalbi jjim recipe, it’s not because I couldn’t make it. It just wouldn’t be the same.

Filed under: Food

Doctor, Doctor

Ketta B has some concerns. She suffers from a brain tumor. Sadly, that is exacerbated by her skin cancer and incipient malaria. Today she found a couple of lumps in her throat that may be a sign of lymphoma. I took her word for it. But without doing my own assessment of the size and quality of the nodes in question, I could not be certain that it wasn’t the plague. I opted not to mention the possibility.

Needless to say, I dig Ketta’s brand of cool, and not just because she laughs easily and is the best cook I know—now that my father no longer rattles the pots. No, Ketta is also the perfect Emma Peel to my Guy In The Bowler Hat (nobody remembers his name). That helps when you’re trying to fake credibility.

Not that there is the slightest chance that she will succumb anytime soon to a denizen of the rogues’ gallery of complaints she imagines upon herself. I estimate she has about seventy years left in her and will dance merrily on my grave for a good number of decades. But you know someone like her, frantically scanning the internet for an explanation of the mysterious mark on her neck that most closely resembles a not-very-impressive zit.

I suppose that my own tragic demise may come as the result of a long-ignored and badly infected ingrown toenail. Still, I don’t get—I’m going to use the word now—hypochondriacs. And I know a lot of them, like the lawyer who returned from a trip to Northern California convinced that she had West Nile, and the flight attendant who sprays Clorox Anywhere on her food while visiting foreign countries, just in case.

Sure, your run-of-the-mill hypochondriac is not likely to drop dead mysteriously. She will know far in advance what is letting the tension out of her mainspring. In the meantime, a lot of doctors will be sending their kids to private school on the backs of those who greet every bodily sensation with horror and self-diagnosis.

Maybe it’s just a cosmic rule that taunts the medical insurance industry. For everyone like me who will not visit a doctor until something threatens to blow up, fall off, or just stop doing what I want it to do, there will be a Ketta B asking whether her eye is supposed to feel like that.

But I am not totally without sympathy, so I have pre-ordered Ketta’s headstone, bearing the inscription that all who share her obsession would like to have resting above them for eternity: “See? I told you I was sick.”

Filed under: General, Ketta B.

Things I wrote for my father

Okay, so I said I wouldn’t write about politics, and here I am re-running something I wrote back in 2006, when I was doing my political column for a local weekly. Back then its was entitled “Personal Care.” In my own defense, it’s not intended to be political anymore; it’s my tribute to my father, because it recalls a time when my family had gone through a rough patch, and things were looking better.

So for the dads out there—mine, yours, Ketta B’s (who recently celebrated a milestone birthday and deserves to have many, many more), Kristy’s, and Big John, too: Happy Father’s Day to the men who made us.

***

[Oct 18, 2006] My father had Kewpie Doll hair. A single snow-white shock that shot straight from the top of his head and then flopped over like a dollop of meringue. It would have been funny if the arrangement was the expression of a strange brand of male pattern baldness or the product of poor styling choices. Instead, it was the result of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation to combat a fist-sized cancer atop his heart and lungs.

Doctors streamed in and out, an impressive array of specialists to treat his cancer, his heart, his infections. They monitored his radiation schedule, his potassium levels, his weight, blood pressure, food intake, red blood cells, lymphocytes and plasma volume. There was no podiatrist involved, but I’m sure that, given enough time, one would have shown up just to see what all the fuss was about.

My mother stood by, all but living at Pali Momi, watching the man she had been married to for 50 years, the man with whom she had raised three children, now successful adults, whither.

Stand on Beretania Street in front of the State Capitol or on any corner in Washington, D.C., and say the words “health care.” You will draw a crowd. Politicians will make concerned clucking sounds, then wander away to huddle. They will declare themselves a caucus and hold hearings while waiting for the light to change. As they walk away, they will promise an in-depth report before lunch, one that will finally get to the bottom of this, you bet.

Health care advocates will tap you on the shoulder and begin a discourse on cost distribution, availability of services, and care levels. Doctors will chime in and produce charts and graphs illustrating inadequate reimbursement schedules before a seamless segue into patient relations, confidentiality and treatment plans. Someone at the back of the crowd will shout “socialized medicine,” and the gathering will suddenly disperse, eyes downcast, hands in pockets.

When you get right down to it, access to health care is not about politics or economics. It is personal. It is less about the world’s richest country failing to provide medical insurance to millions of its citizens than it is about the mother whose child’s eyesight continues to worsen because she cannot visit an ophthalmologist. It is about the daughter who worries about her father’s deepening cough because she cannot afford antibiotics. It is about an experience with the health care system that is not the benign fear of being stuck with a needle, but the deep dread that this condition could be serious, and the overwhelming frustration that comes with watching a loved one suffer.

We have reduced the fact that millions of Americans lack access to the treatment they need to a pat phrase: the health care crisis. We have allowed it to become an abstraction, a condition that afflicts a great amorphous “they” who cannot get the right job or become a member of the right group. And we will continue to nibble around the edges, continue to hold hearings and produce reports and argue about ephemera until we make the problem personal.

Here is an assignment for every elected official in the country: Find someone you love and spend thirty seconds just looking at them. And then ask yourself, “What would I do if….”

When I visit the house in Pearl City where I grew up, my father’s room is emptier now. The giant hospital bed has gone back to the medical rental company, along with the inscrutable machine that used to pump nutrition through his feeding tube. So he and I are more comfortable as we sit there and talk about the things we talk about: his recovery, my job, our plans to fire up his custom-built stainless steel smoker and make Portuguese sausage from scratch. Every minute is precious to me, and I think to him, too, although we never mention it. And I know that his cancer’s disappearance is attributable not only to the work of excellent doctors in professional facilities with amazing technology, but also to the fact that they were available to him.

Filed under: General

A new leaf

I was a political pundit. That can be a hard thing to admit, like ‘fessing up to a new girl about that DUI, or explaining those nasty black marks on your credit report. But I once earned what your grandma used to call ‘pin money’ by writing snarky things about politicians. Two or three people remember it, so I won’t deny it.

Punditry is either very easy or very hard. The easy way is to skim a few newspapers, glean a handful of salient facts, and craft a bunch of simplistic punchlines about how politicians are oafish greedheads looking for an easy mark in a perpetually rigged system. Even if they’re not.

The hard way is to immerse yourself in the workings of government and pull forth deep abiding pearls of wisdom about how policy is actually made. Of course, you never get to actually be in the room when anything important happens, because to do so you’d either have to be a decision-maker or a worm eating spy. So instead you study every move and try to extract some meaning based on experience and insight.

Naturally, I took the easy way. I needed to feed the beast 600 words a week. It was no time to be prissy.

I recently went through my old columns with my friend and sometimes-sidekick Ketta B., who somehow managed to live her whole life without encountering my political ramblings. Ket was kind enough to laugh but has a way of looking at me that tells me when I have in some way gone wrong. We’ll see whether I get more laughs or looks now.

So maybe I’m not so much a former pundit as a reformed pundit. There are plenty of keen observers out there, especially Boylan, Borreca and Burris, but also the bloggers and MyFacers and Twitterers or whatever you call them. Add to that recent warnings that any attempt on my part to offer political observations will be met by stony-faced men wielding large knives with sharp black blades, and I am ready to move on.

Instead, I have prepared myself to offer my take on a variety of other subjects, including but not limited to good food, good books, and how things would almost certainly be better if I just had my way.

Can I still be funny if I’m not writing about politics? Who knows? But everybody has to learn sometime.

Filed under: General, Ketta B., Writing

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