One day Mom called me in from playing. She gave me a tuna fish sandwich and some carrot sticks and said there was a brand new TV show just for me. I don’t remember eating lunch, but I do remember a big yellow bird and a monster in a trash can.
For years, Sesame Street kept me company while I ate lunch. Later, when it switched to late afternoon, I knew when it was over, Dad would be walking through the door.
I haven’t watched Sesame Street in decades. My kids seldom watched it, probably because by the time they were born there were so many shows—entire channels!—just for them, that Sesame Street was lost in the crowd. But last night I watched Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration on PBS.org, streaming it when convenient, freed from my childhood angst of clock-watching to be sure I didn’t miss it.
I knew when it started that things could not be the same, but I was still shocked to hear Not Big Bird’s Voice and Not Grover and Not Kermit and Not Oscar.
Seeing Bob made me tear up. He’ll always be in his thirties and forties to me.
There were no palm trees or beaches on Sesame Street, and that in itself was endlessly fascinating. Kids wore shoes ALL the time! They lived in big brick buildings with gigantic concrete steps they could sit on. They could walk on sidewalks to Mr. Hooper’s Store where there was not a single crack seed jar in the joint. And while kids were shown running and playing on grass in the opening song, I never saw kids doing that on Sesame Street.
No wonder they wore shoes all the time.
A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.
How did anyone buy a single stick of butter? And why a container of milk, not a carton? Didn’t mainland milk come in a waxed paper cartons with Lani Moo or hibiscuses on them?
So many questions!
50 years later, people still remember the songs, sketches, characters, and the promise of Sesame Street. Muppets and humans in all shapes, sizes, ages, abilities, and colors were portrayed as family, and by extension, so were we. Sesame Street created a television community that stretched from Hawai’i to New York and beyond. In a time when people are theoretically more connected than ever, there’s no show like this one that rallies children from all walks of life into a community. There are simply too many choices now.
A little ironic, don’t you think?
There’s an image cropping up in diversity in literature presentations that describes culture as an iceberg.
People love this graphic. It’s of a massive chunk of ice floating in a deep blue sea with labels stuck to places above and below the waterline. On the surface, there’s the readily seen ten percent experienced by foreigners, things like food, dress, language, music, art, and festivals. A little below the waterline are layers labeled body language, personal space, etiquette, and gender roles. Deeper still are sections labeled attitudes toward elders, authority, religion, and work. Down in the depths you’ll find spaces reserved for things like approaches to marriage, death, child raising, and problem solving. It’s a slick visual that’s often used to segue into the dangers of cultural appropriation.
Too bad it’s wrong.
By their very nature, icebergs are frozen and adrift, traveling only by the whims of ocean currents and breezes. They’re constantly eroding, shrinking, melting into a sea of conformity until one day they just disappear.
It’s hard to imagine a less inspiring metaphor for cultural sensitivity.
That’s why I like the metaphor of culture as a lotus growing in a pond.
Think about it. A lotus is integral to an entire ecosystem. On the surface are beautiful flowers. Out of sight, hidden but known, is a long stem tethering the lotus to the bottom of the pond where it grows, nourished by the bones of lotuses gone before. A lotus isn’t simply acted on by currents or eroded by waves and heat. Lotuses have both roots and branches; seed pods slip from the mother plant, drift a little, settle, and eventually form their own flowers—similar, but not the same. There is an interconnectedness to lotuses in a pond, a dependence on shared resources, a history and lineage.
From a boat, it’s easy to observe lotuses in relationship to the other—the landings of frogs and dragonflies, the effects of light and wind, how fish shelter in the lotus’s shade. Grounded on shore, observers intuitively know that no matter how they try, they are not lotuses, no more than a bear or a sparrow or a pine tree is a lotus.
Basking in the beauty of a lotus pond is cultural appreciation. Writing as a dragonfly or frog about your lotus experiences is cultural appreciation. Plucking lotuses, regardless of good intentions of bringing blossoms to the pondless masses, is cultural appropriation. Unmoored from all that nourished and supported it, separated from its purpose in life, a lotus in a vase is just a dying flower.
Now that’s an image I can get behind.
It happens to all of us. You have a great idea for a story. You sharpen pencils. You plot. You get excited. And then…
I think in my case it’s a trifecta of summer, life changes, and I just don’t wanna.
But I gotta.
So for all of us in the same boat who really need to paddle, but would just rather drift, here’s a clip from the musical Starkid Firebringer. Sing it, sister.
And now back to the grind.
I got a deadline and this story won’t write itself.
Okay, MoviePass. I really liked your original offer—for $10 a month I could see up to a movie a day in a theater. It was a great opening line, and it made me want to get to know you better. Over the last seven months, you and I have been on 49 dates to the movies. We’ve seen blockbusters, small art house flicks, and quite a few flops that would’ve made me really annoyed if I’d paid full price. But because I wasn’t, I took a chance. We’ve patronized big theater chains and also small-town Mom and Pop theaters and independents.
And I always bought popcorn and drinks.
Milk Duds, too.
In the beginning, you were great. If I loved a movie, I could see it again with another friend. But then you got jealous and said I could only see a movie once.
That wasn’t what we originally agreed to. Going into this relationship, you said a movie a day. You know and I know it’s impossible to see 30 new movies a month—there simply aren’t that many released. But when I pointed that out, you whined about the cost and then accused me of being ungrateful. If I wanted to continue our relationship, you said, you had to rein me in.
Fine. I stopped seeing a movie with my son and then again later with my daughter or husband. Fewer movies meant less money spent on over-priced concession snacks for theaters. I also stopped dragging my friends who don’t have MoviePass to movies I’d already seen, even though I knew they’d love them and wouldn’t go on their own.
See what you did there, MoviePass? You’re such a wet blanket.
We won’t even talk about the nightmare it was when I broke my phone and had to get MoviePass set-up on a new device. Due to your minimum of a month on a device rule, I’m still dragging an iPad around to the movies even though my phone’s fixed now.
But back then our relationship was still new and full of promise. It was easy to ignore a few hiccups.
Next you insisted I send you a photo of my ticket. If I didn’t, I’d be in trouble. Your app hijacks my phone’s camera like an overzealous bouncer confronting a teenybopper at a night club.
Controlling much? Just what did that inconvenience prove? That I had a ticket in my hand to a movie I could only see once? Do you have any clue how small-town theaters work? Most of the time they don’t give you a ticket. You pay at the door and simply walk into the theater to see the one movie playing that night.
Now when I go to my local theaters, I’m the pain-in-the-butt who holds up the line while the cashier asks her dad, the owner, how to provide me with an actual ticket and not a credit card receipt. He has to stop filling bags of popcorn to figure it out himself.
That’s two lines of people inconvenienced.
Thanks for that.
And now, now you’ve shown your true colors.
Today you rolled out Peak Pricing.
Basically, Peak Pricing is a way for you to charge me more for showings and movies you think are in high demand. You get to decide which showing of which movies are flagged as Peak. You can’t or won’t explain how that algorithm works. But if a movie is Peaked, you’re going to charge me an additional amount to see it, somewhere in the $2-6 range. I won’t know for sure if a movie is Peaked until I’m standing outside the theater, ready to purchase my ticket. But I’m not supposed to worry. You’ll just automatically charge the additional fees to my credit card which you have on file. You also say this program is rolling out nationally and will affect EVERY theater you serve.
And this is where you prove that you’re really not the hero on a shiny white horse, but an abusive, really bad boyfriend, couching your atrocious behavior as being for my own good.
Out of the 49 times I’ve been to theaters in the last seven months, only twice was the theater sold to near capacity. Twice. In my neck of the woods, blockbusters on opening night, prime ticket times, fill a theater maybe one third to half full. There is no reserved seating at any of the six theaters in a 30 mile radius of my home. Movies are offered no more than twice a day during the week and maybe three times a day on weekends and holidays as a matinee and two prime time. We’re not talking multi-show multiplexes here. So, because you decide the demand is Peak in New York or California, I’m forced to pay a surcharge to sit in an empty theater.
And, yes, I’m aware that matinee movie tickets are cheaper than evening showings. But you knew this going into our original agreement. If you wanted to restrict when I could see a movie, you should’ve told me upfront and before we got involved and you led me on. And unlike your business model which now charges a surcharge for seeing a high demand movie at a convenient hour, theaters DISCOUNT matinee showings from their regular ticket prices. They also don’t charge you—or anyone else—more for seeing a movie opening night than on the last day of its run.
So really, Peak Pricing only costs me more money. It doesn’t give the theaters more money or even save you per ticket; the only way you save money is if I don’t buy a ticket.
How crazy is it that you’re incented to save money by making your service impossible and inconvenient to use?
You think you’re in control because you think I’m hooked.
I’m not going to pay for a service that’s inconvenient to use. I already pay for Netflix, cable, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. The attraction, MoviePass, was to see first run movies in a THEATER once a day. If I have to wait to see a movie until you decide Peak Pricing is over, I might as well wait another week and stream it.
You’re driving me to cancel because of the hassle.
How’s that going to work for you?
Besides, there are other fish in the sea.
In no week did I ever see more than three movies. Cost aside, there’s just not that many movies I want to see or have time to spend in a theater. At $20 a month, AMC’s version of a subscription movie pass is a better deal. It allows up to three movies a week, you can see them all in one day if you choose, you can see the same movie more than once, it includes 3D and IMAX movies, there’s no “peak” surcharge, AND you get a discount on concessions and tickets for friends. For me it only takes one “peak” surcharge movie a month and a large popcorn under MoviePass to come out ahead on AMC’s deal.
And that’s too bad. Because the only ones who are going to suffer are the Mom and Pop independents and the indy/art house theaters and movies.
And the makers of Milk Duds.
Oh, MoviePass. It was fun while it lasted, but you’re all talk. Too bad you couldn’t walk the walk, too. The first time I pay Peak prices to sit in an empty small-town theater, it’s over.
Hasta la vista, baby.
Mark Panek’s Big Happiness tells the true story of Hawaiian sumo wrestler Percy Kipapa and his tragic murder on May 16, 2005. On the surface, the investigative journalism narrative reads as a mystery, a meditation on what it means to be a modern Hawaiian, and a commentary on the ice epidemic and the tangled Yakuza-Hawaii webs of commerce, money, and prestige. It’s compelling and raw. Knowing one of the key participants personally, I found it both hard to read and tough to put down.
You see, it’s also the story of one of my childhood calabash cousins, Tyler Hopkins.
After I left Hawaii for the mainland, Tyler went to Japan and became best friends with Percy. According to the Mark Panek, who knew the adult Tyler in ways I didn’t, Tyler’s life paralleled Percy’s in every significant way. Big Happiness details how they rose to become professional Hawaiian sumo wrestlers in Japan and what happened after they retired and returned to Hawaii.
I remember when Tyler was first going to Japan. He told me about it at my wedding reception at Mid-Pac Country Club thirty-one years ago, the last time I saw him in person. He was happy, and the extended ‘ohana was excited. Sumo was something my big-hearted and athletic cousin was sure to succeed at. His future was assured. Good for him!
Tyler’s sumo name was Sunahama. Living far from Japan and Hawaii before the age of internet video, it was hard for me to follow his career. Over the years, whenever I met up with my calabash Hawaiian ‘ohana, I asked aunties, uncles, and cousins for updates. Each time I was told he was doing well—first climbing the sumo ranks and then retired and working in Hawaii. Tyler was always on the verge of doing something—tourism with Japanese groups, teaching Japanese, finding his groove as a school counselor, or starting a new business venture.
In Big Happiness, Mark Panek paints a different picture.
I knew to be a foreign sumo wrestler in Japan would be rough. I knew the pressures local kids face to “make good.” I knew how the ideals of sacrifice of self for a greater good—however that’s defined—were ingrained in Tyler. Suck it up was something our uncles told us all the time, and it applied to everything from wiping out on a wave and spitting sand to breaking a bone playing baseball to studying hard in school when playing seemed more fun to never, ever failing to be loyal to ‘ohana no matter what the personal cost.
I even suspected how the Yakuza would be involved.
But what I didn’t understand was ice. Or how much that changed Hawaii in the years after I left. I also didn’t think too deeply about how few opportunities Tyler would have had once he returned to Hawaii. Unlike Japan, there aren’t cushy jobs in corporate America waiting for retired sumo wrestlers.
I’m old enough to know that there really wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help Tyler. But my heart hurts when I remember the kid I had to swim out and rescue when his raft went out too far at Waimanalo Beach or the time we made homemade pizza and Tyler complained I added too much cheese. “No such thing,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, rubbing his opu and the scar he got when he fell through a glass shower door and almost died, “there is.”
But mostly, I can see all too clearly a moment Mark Panek describes during the trial where Tyler almost snaps. I thank God that Mark intervened.
Big Happiness by Mark Panek is available as a paperback and eBook from Amazon. For anyone wanting an insider’s view of sumo wrestling or the life of local boys in Hawaii, this book is a must read. Compelling, real, and full of heart and tragedy, it’s a story of sacrifice, privileges of race and class, and the devastating effects of ice and all the vested interests in keeping the status quo.
I’m five years old, laying on the carpet in our living room in Kahului, Maui. Evening trade winds tiptoe through the lanai door, bathing the house with the scent of Mom’s gardenia and naupaka bushes. On top the tv, an animated Santa Claus dances with a big red sack, singing about ashes and soot. My eyes dart to the flimsy cardboard cutout of a fireplace and chimney taped to the wall next to the Christmas tree. Panic bubbles. I can’t breathe.
He doesn’t even look up from the Honolulu Star Bulletin. “What?”
“How does Santa Claus come into the house?”
“Down da chimney, lolo. You deaf or wot? Jes’ listen to da song.” He turns a page.
I bite my lip. I have to know. “But Dad, Mom bought our chimney at Long’s. It doesn’t connect to the roof. Plus we no more snow! How da reindeer gonna land da sleigh on top da roof if no get snow?”
He flicks the edge of the newspaper down and peers at me. He shakes his head. “Moemoe time, Lehua. You need your rest.”
Tears well. No Santa. No presents. So unfair. Mainland kids get all the good stuffs. I try again. “Dad, fo’reals. Is Santa going skip us?”
Dad presses his lips tight and gives me small kine stink eye. He clears his throat and looks around the room. When he spocks the lanai door, his eyes light up. “You ever seen a house in Hawaii with no more sliding door?”
He nods. “Maika‘i. Every house get sliding doors. Das because in Hawai‘i, Santa comes through the lani door instead of down the chimney. In Hawai‘i we invite our guests into our homes like civilized people. We no make dem sneak in like one thief.”
I tip my head to the side, thinking. “But what about da reindeer?”
Dad clicks his tongue. “Da buggahs magic, yeah? They no need land. They just hover in the backyard and wait for Santa fo’ come back. Mebbe snack on da banana trees. Now go to bed!”
It’s not the first time I have to perform mental gymnastics to bridge what I see in movies, tv, and books with my oh, so different reality, but it’s one of the most memorable. At school the teachers try to prep us for mandatory standardized testing, tests we island kids consistently score lower on than our mainland peers.
“Class, what does it mean if the trees have no leaves?” Ms. Yamaguchi asks. “Lehua?”
“Uh, da trees stay make die dead?” I say. “Dey nevah get enough water?”
“No! It means it’s winter! The correct answer is winter! Coodesh! Pay attention. You kids trying fo’ fail?”
It would be many years later, when I am in college in Utah and walking through a virgin snowfall along a wooded path that I finally understand the imagery and symbolism in Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in ways more profound than no leaves equals cold equals winter.
Which brings me, finally, to my point.
We need diversity in literature. Kids need access to stories that resonate with their experiences, that are full of people they know and love, that show themselves—their fully authentic selves—as powerful, valued, and real. We need Pacific voices raised in song, dance, print, film, tv—all forms of media, some not even invented yet.
I remember the profound impact of hearing Andy Bumatai, Frank Delima, and Rap Reiplinger on the radio. Hawaiian music, for sure, all the time, but spoken words, Pidgin words, so fast and funny, just like Steve Martin and Bill Cosby! To this day, my old fut classmates and I can still recite all the words to “Room Service” and “Fate Yanagi.”
And finally, I find them. Words on paper, in libraries, in books. Stories by Graham Salisbury, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Darrell H. Y. Lum, Kiana Davenport, and Lee Tonouchi open my eyes to the possibility of using my history and experiences, my voice, to tell stories to an audience that didn’t need long explanations about why whistling in the dark is not a good thing, that a honi from Tutu was a given, or that wearing shoes in the house is the ultimate outsider insult.
I could write stories where the burden to bridge is on the mainland, not the islands. I could write stories for kids in Waimanalo, Kona, Hana, Lihue.
But there’s a catch. The reality is that there are many more readers outside of Hawai‘i nei than in it. Books for niche audiences are a tough sell for traditional publishers who are driven by the bottom line. And while self-publishing or small press publishing is viable for genres like romance, thrillers, and sci-fi, it’s next to impossible for middle grade and young adult books who need the vast marketing channels of a traditional publisher to reach schools and libraries.
I try not to let that matter.
On the mainland, I tell people my books are not for everyone. If you don’t know the difference between mauka and makai, you’re probably going to struggle a bit with the language. You’ll miss a lot of the in-jokes and clues as to what’s really going on with the characters and plot. You’ll have to work a lot harder.
But it will be worth it.
It’s my mantra for 2018.
If I were hiding the truth, I’d say something softer like simplify. Thanks to a bunch of silly horror movies, people think of mayhem when they hear the word purge. But it’s not chaos that I’m embracing this year; it’s the opposite. I’m chasing the calm that comes after a cathartic release of unwanted feelings, things, memories, and conditions that have kept me stymied for far too long.
There’s been a war inside of me over the safety of not trying and the desire to do the work I was meant to do. I know now that a lot of the barriers are of my own making. I’ve seen where I’ve wanted to go, even found the path, but I’ve been afraid of what could happen if I head there. Based on previous experiences, the journey could be really rough and uncomfortable. Rejection sucks. Period. However, the only thing I have control over is whether or not I head down that path.
For a long time safety won.
2017 was the start of a slow, reluctant burn. I knew significant changes were needed, but I buried my head in the sand. As long as I was focused on doing good things for other people, I still felt like I was making progress toward becoming what God needed me to be.
But like a sweater with an itchy tag, there was always a twitching between my shoulder blades. Most of the things that took a lot of my time only fed other people and their dreams. While I could ignore the niggling that my own dreams were getting sidelined, I couldn’t ignore the impact this was having on my family.
It took a trip back to Oahu, fan letters from kids, long swims at Waimanalo Beach, talks with the ancestors, the #MeToo #KidLit movement, introspection, and embracing my soon-to-be-empty-nester life for me to commit to throwing gasoline on the fire—to purge for real—and walk a new path. Call it a mid-life crisis, a post-child rearing phase, becoming a Crone Goddess—what have you—I’ve finally seen my real self and know that I’m too old and wise to stay enmeshed in the world’s shibai any longer.
Ain’t nobody got time for that.
As my husband reminded me, I’m not who people see. Who they see is really a product of their own experiences and expectations. Most can never see the real me. That doesn’t take away one iota of who I am.
It’s started with my home, with removing what doesn’t work, reimagining spaces that do, and making the changes happen. Late spring, I’m planning to park a 30-foot horse trailer in my driveway for a month. Seriously. It’s the only way to deal with the junk that accumulates when a family of pack rats lives in the same over-sized space for twenty years. The pre-sorting has begun, but we’re finding that stuff is surprisingly hard to let go. We have a lot of money tied up in stuff. We bought this once. We might need it again. Or someone else might. You never know. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around, right?
I’ve recognized that somebody does need these things, now and not someday. Anything we don’t need—high chairs, old rugs, old furniture, baby clothes—and still in serviceable condition is heading to charity. I’m throwing the rest out. I’m done pretending I’ll have a garage sale. That’s just more busy work getting in the way of real work.
But purging is more than getting rid of stuff; it’s getting rid of unwanted feelings and memories. The half-truths and lies we tell ourselves are like deep-fried crack cocaine rolled in cinnamon-sugar and topped with whipped cream. They distract us from understanding the why behind our actions. They give us a feel-good boost that only leads to addiction and diabetes; not the health we desire and deserve.
In my adult life, when things have been mostly safe, I’ve swallowed too many awful things in the guise of doughnuts and ice cream, burritos and burgers. I can’t any longer. It took a trip to the ER for me to figure out that at my hidden core I thought death would mean escape from the effects of childhood trauma, and my suicide weapon of choice is food. Addicts can live without cocaine. Alcoholics can live without booze. Everybody needs food. It’s frustratingly complicated. For now, I’m satisfied that I’ve named the beast. What can be named can be faced.
During a purge, all that’s ephemeral evaporates like smoke. What’s left is more precious than gold. If you’re still here with me, thank you. I promise I won’t hide any longer. Things will be real—battle-scarred and held together at times with spit and duct tape—but true. The words that are coming are those that I’ve held back in fear. But with a purge comes freedom. I no longer care if people see me, for I have seen myself.