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Tropics and the Surreal

The Sun is near

Fury near and far

Time flows in syrup, passing through reed walls on bug legs. Humidity grounds the air to the ocean. Greens glow with the calls of strange birds who speak a sense only they know. Human things merge into the natural world, all the flowers and rocks ignorant of the tiny blip of time in which our things exist before there’s just the ocean again.

This is winter

This is winter

Hawaii 1.0 was the summer of 2011, which I spent in Hilo, on the Big Island. This blog was created to document that, and give Monkey something to do. Hawaii 2.0 is four years later, a month on urban Oahu. Things are different: I have a companion, a healthier journey, a finished rough draft of a novel that’s taken 25 years to write. I have more drafts to go, but first there is a break in the tropics. We both need to get away from things for a while, even if my things are just wondering what to do next and a cat.



Another travelogue is of no value. Tales of talking to God on mountaintops bore people. I want to write a few things, but not like Hawaii 1.0: I don’t have guilt and terror to vomit out, then wonder at the mess and what can be made of it. Hawaii 2.0 has no burden; at least, that is the intention. Disappearing into the most urban island’s rural reaches for a month is the sort of disconnection that is certain of reconnection. There is no terror of disconnecting and not knowing what comes next.

Not washed away

Not washed away

We stay at a dump. It is expensive, but cheap as these things go. This is Hawaii: a hundred bucks a night for sewery smells and a worn-out mattress, but right on the beach. We adjust. Surf rolls in thirty yards beyond the front door. Down the beach, superior-air white guys launch SeaDoos into the roaring North Shore. People come and go, always different. There is a neighborhood dog that always wants to splash in the waves. The water runs every scale of green to blue.

We hike, we lie on the beach, we swim. We check out Honolulu, which seems more urbane than frumpy, reluctant-to-modernize Seattle. Near Waikiki Beach, a Japanese woman rushes up to me, her stubby finger jabbing a brochure. Meeyah meeyah, I think she says. She grabs my hand. Meyeah meeyah! We are walking around the part of town with old palaces and government buildings, leftovers from Hawaii’s Republic days. A shrunken old Japanese man sidles up to the woman, looking tired and satisfied. Meeyah meyeah! This is strange behavior for a Japanese tourist, their usual ambit to huddle in silent groups and gawk from a safe distance. “Oh!” We realize together she likely means Kamehameha, Hawaii’s first king and uniter of the islands. “Kamehameha. There. There!” I point down the block to the great man’s garish statue. Oh! Yah yah yah! A rapid exchange between the two, with laughter. Domo, domo! They move on. Light is everywhere.

Weekend tailor

Weekend tailor is glad to see you

So goes travel’s mundane adventures: small moments where exceptions rise up, even more visible when you are somewhere new.

More important are the things I cannot see.



A Draft Out of Time

Costco is in Hawaii, a boon to the state’s traditionally high cost of living. We make a stop in the first few days, loading up on groceries hard to get on Oahu’s north end. Inside the dim warehouse, I fall through years to a different place and time: August of 1978, 1979, 1980, the last days before elementary school. Whether it is the tanned skin shades, the temperature, the bright light, the humidity and heat, I can’t say, but walking with purpose through the 2016 aisles I have an overpowering sense of being with my mother in the Mott’s 5-and-10 store, confused by the need to buy lined notebook paper and pencils. They’re at the front of class. You just walk up and get what you need. My mother, driven by her teacher nature to satisfy the school supply list for her own child, is dismissive. Texas isn’t Ontario. I remember the fusty store’s moldy air conditioning and crammed shelves: erasers, glowing pastel bottles of bubble-blowing soap, dolls, balls of twine, toys in cellophane boxes. Light lost its power through the plate glass windows. My mom buys in bulk as she compares ads, going from grocery store to discount store such as is available in Burleson, Texas, when the only places to eat are fast food and Blue Laws shut things up on Sunday.

Back to school transmits up the Costco steel racks, the air broadcasting excitement and dread. 2016 has no hold on this message from the wrong time. I look at giant bags of rice or a pallet of toilet paper and feel, in my shorts and threadbare shirt, that even the most certain world is transient. Past and future merge and coil in and out of one another in ways we can sometimes see.

Color of the sea

Color of the sea

World of Inner Night

Hawaii 2.0 is exhausting. We are asleep before eight and have trouble rousing before ten. Is it the heat, the sea’s roar, the powerful light that disappears every evening at six? A week on and we’re just beginning to adjust to HST, where we are two hours behind home.

Maybe it’s the bed. Age and use have rendered the mattress a hammock: the center a deep valley, the edges providing the only support. A cheap frame rolls around in the narrow slot given to the bed. We climb over the foot to go to sleep, watching the white surf tumble beyond the screen door.

Sleep is exhausting: tough to enter, harder to maintain. The first nights are dead black punctuated by abrupt waking, disorientation and a sense of falling, stumbling to the odd trapezoid bathroom, and dead black again.

Dead black is only a membrane over a roiling foam of terrors. Intense to the point of physical discomfort, the dreams are the kind beyond nightmare, indistinguishable from waking reality. Forgetting, or some other protective mechanism, lets me only recall vague outlines now: looming stone forests, hospitals with golem staff, men with guns and smiles. I wake up in the dead black and do not know where I am. Sometimes, not who I am. Sometimes, not what.

Night has broken loose and wandered back to the stark fear of early childhood, no light bright enough, no comfort soothing enough, nothing to be done but freeze the scream inside. Roars–of machines, of thunder, of flame–deafen all sense. There is nothing to write about because thought is not possible.

Not since I was four or five years old have I had such terrors. I still remember those kindergarten nights of dark shapes, paralysis, hot liquid in my chest, every shadow a claw.

Nobody has a name in this place.

Morning comes too early and bright for January, but takes an age to filter in. Walls are not straight, the floor not solid. Everything swoons. Stiff steps and I remember: I am human. Humans have legs and walk. I am forty-five years old and away from home, on vacation. Vacations are fun. Open the shade, look at the clock, and the logical world drips in like rain.

Walking a golden beach with water surging from azure to emerald and jade, the waking world is solid, but I am not sure why. By afternoon, it is summer again–summer in January. I am never afraid to go back to sleep.

Our common problem

Our common problem

Doubt Grows Up

Weeks go on. The night terrors stop. Not that I miss them, but their absence leaves a strange loss. It’s like missing a lifelong injury that’s finally healed, pain’s absence a hollow. We go on hikes through jungle out of 1980s Vietnam War movies, signs illegible when there are signs. Beaches we like are on the opposite side of Oahu from our rented place, so we take country drives over, marveling at the cliffs. We get up to a half-mile swim a day, out to a moored and floating ball and back. Voices of duty and purpose are confused: what appointment is next? do I need to pay something? how is the cat? Nothing like Monkey, their energy drains away. Oahu isn’t as desolate as the Big Island was, and the thoughts just go quiet instead of leave a desolate ring.

For the first weeks I make notes on the novel rough draft I’ve finished. They’re good flashes of insight on how to make characters more complex, giving them deeper roots to stand on when they reappear later. Personalities grow richer with idiosyncrasies: a military man always has paperwork he carries around and never finishes; a non-human character always sleeps curled in a tight ball, legs caging his face. Is he insecure, his inner child showing? Ooh, that’s a fun riddle to not spell out. Things click.

I had planned to read and make notes on my rough draft, as I hadn’t finished before departure. The condo does not have WiFi as promised, and I don’t want to spend my time in a Starbucks or library, so I let this go. I brought books I don’t read.

By the second week, the ideas stop. Questions begin nibbling. Should I be writing now? Will it get stale? I’m forgetting. At night, at stoplights, staring at clouds, the questions penetrate. Is this any good? How much longer will this take? How many more drafts? Should I get a job? I’m tired. I don’t care. Nobody else will either. 

I don’t feel sullen; I don’t lash out or sulk. I enjoy swimming and hiking and checking out the hick burger places. Being off is letting go of all this, but I know it is still there when I go back.

Is it worth doing? Will anybody care? Yes, the answer comes, some days. Other days, there’s no answer, and I feel tired. Is this rejuvenation?

By the third week, sleep comes like a two-by-four.

Look dead center

Look dead center

Back to the Main Land

Our condo features a TV so old it has a tube, crammed in a high shelf. HD video is letterboxed with the left and right cut off; blocky green numerals glow out when we change the channel. After an exhausting day, part of the retreat relief is making dinner on the hot plate and flipping through channels we hear about but never watch.

TLC, now decades past any meaningful relationship to The Learning Channel, features hours of carnival freak show. People whose untreated psychiatric problems have allowed their eating themselves into landbound whales whine and struggle as they try to lose enough weight to be candidates for weight loss surgeries. Other hour-long voyeurisms follow former whales who have lost hundreds of pounds and are now plagued by deflated sails of skin hanging from their limbs and torsos, a constant reminder they once inflated this dead mass. The same plastic surgeons are featured in both shows, inflating guts with nitrogen to sew up stomachs or excising twenty or thirty pounds of distended skin. We watch these shows with the kind of entranced revulsion the media companies bank on. The shows are gross enough to almost repulse, but fascinating enough to endure 25 minutes of repeated commercials per hour. Sameness defines both show and ads. The shows are a redemption story, the hapless victims of their own maladaptive thoughts saved by doctors operating out of posh clinics or strip-mall storefronts. Half the commercials are for junk food.

I have never been overweight, but my girlfriend has. We talk as the shows go on, and before and after: the emotional landscape that creates the weight gain, the struggle to lose it, the incessant negative body messaging that starts early and is especially vicious for girls and women. Slights and backhanded compliments permeate school, work, family, friends. It’s easy to believe them as the truth, so easy we build the foundations to make them true. “You eat your feelings.” It’s easy to do: as much ice cream and pizza as you want, twenty-four hours a day.

Movies cut-for-TV are our other evening fare. Watching them makes me realize how bad TV is, and how peeping in on trashy super-fat people is doing something to me. I don’t know what, exactly, but it can’t be good for me. Unspoken, we cut back on the morbidly obese. On the last week, we watch very little. I read aloud from her book about recovering from narcissistic parents, and we talk about that.

Cool breeze comes down the cliffs, through a rusted window, and out the screen door, down the beach, to the waves, carrying things away.

Summer now

Summer now

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016, rewinds. Everything unpacked is packed away again, the food we ate replaced with coffee and chocolate. The condo is checked and rechecked, the door locked, the beach walked one last walk. New blindingly white people tromp the sand. Our neighborhood dog friend is not out. There will be no goodbyes. We exit the gate, turn down the narrow lane, and head south, the parade of beaches and turnouts familiar now.



Return hung in the future in a way it did not as a child. Now I understand there is a going back, that things end, and that ends and beginnings are defined by which way you face the same event. Four years ago–the length of time it takes to get a college degree–I had a different purpose here. I’m still not sure what it was, but the work was hard, and the reward is solid. Today the reward I cannot know, but it feels better. Exciting things lie ahead, assembled bit by bit.

We land in cold and dark, the February we know, dark freeways busy. That night, in my own bed, I have another terror. All is void, nothing to push against. Waking has no distinction: just as black, temperature nonsense, up meaningless. For long minutes, I have no identity. I’m not exaggerating. I don’t know what I am.

I don’t know how I get myself back. A sliver of streetlight under the blind? The garbage truck flotilla always early up the street? I remember a triangle of blue-grey light outlining the door, which makes one black void a wall, another the wall by the bed. There is a strange warm lump: the cat, who never sleeps with us, is sleeping with us. Instead of sulking or peeing on our shoes, he is happy we are back. I get up and go to the bathroom: my bathroom in my house. I have lived here four years, but it is strange again now, like the first year I moved in when the thousand square feet enough to get lost in. I wash my face. For the first time in a month, it rinses clean.

The first full day back is strange, as if seen from inside a ghost. The repacked things go to their permanent homes, many placed in different piles for washing. For the first time, I use my laundry’s Sanitize settings, and Hawaii’s fungal stink is driven from our clothes. I go through a pile of mail, put back the dishes the housesitter put in the wrong place. Bit by bit, I relearn what it is to be me.

No calendars are on the walls. I didn’t have time to get some before I left, and was hoping the mail would bring free ones. On errands I note how things have changed–progress on a building here, a part of town that seems cleaner there–and feel not so much lost as suspended in possibilities. Restocking my refrigerator is satisfying; mailing gifts is too. These quotidian things would have infuriated me as an adolescent and early adult–there are important things to do! Now it’s fine. First enlightenment, then laundry.

As the days shift between grey and sun, I reply to job prospects, or don’t. The book feels like a scary burden or feels like something I want to do. Everything seems open to a breath of possibility I haven’t known since I was a kid, when everything was magic.

Every night since that first night back, I have slept well.





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