Talking Story

Island Style

waikikiBeach Lessons From My Father

  1. As you’re packing the cooler, remember a little too much is the perfect amount. The coldest drinks are going to be at the bottom. The beer goes in first.
  2. Carry meat tenderizer in your beach bag for jelly fish stings. Pat stings with wet sand; don’t rub. Suck it up and get back in the water.
  3. If you’re caught in a rip current, don’t fight it. Relax. Slowly work your way across the current, usually parallel to the shore until you’re free. Once out, if you continue to swim a little farther parallel, there’s a good chance you’ll hit another current that will take you back to shore. Do not tire yourself out by fighting the current or waving your arms or shouting. I’m busy. You can handle this.
  4. Ice cold water from the beach showers isn’t cold. Suck it up and get back in that water. No way you’re coming near the car like that.
  5. mom_dad_meAfter washing all the sand off, if you walk correctly—high, flat, carefully placed steps, no flicking your slippahs or dragging your towel, you can make it to the car sand-free. Otherwise you have to start all over.
  6. At volleyball, old and treacherous beats young and enthusiastic every time.
  7. Spitting into a swim mask keeps it from fogging, but unless you’re a tourist or spear fishing you don’t need a mask. Just open your eyes. It’s good for you.
  8. If you don’t want someone to pee on your foot, watch out for wana when climbing around the tide pools.
  9. When the sun sets, get out of the water. Sharks come in and feed at dawn, dusk, and through the night, especially near harbors and the mouths of rivers. Better you don’t swim there. Everybody knows sharks prefer white meat, and you look way too haole to chance ‘em.
  10. Run to the big wave, not away.
  11. Nobody ever died from rolling up the beach no matter how much ocean and sand they coughed up. Told you to run to the big wave, not away. Now suck it up and get back in the water.


Living in the shadow of a volcano, there were many nights when I imagined lava pouring down Haleakala’s mountain sides and pooling in the hall outside my bedroom door. My sister and I even had a game where the floor was white-hot lava and you had to leap to safety chair by coffee table by couch.

Our mother was not amused.

Like Californians and earthquakes, mid-westerners and tornadoes, Big Island residents know that someday Pele’s fires will dance again, a ticking time bomb on a geological time scale of a minute or millennia.

Developers and bankers want to think a hundred years or more. My grandfather was in the insurance biz when developers in the 1970s and ’80s wanted to build on lava flows. He refused.

“There’s a reason it’s a lava flow, Lehua. Never build on a lava flow or a dry river bed.”

Probably some of the best advice he ever gave me.

IMG_4106I once heard a kumu hula say that he never left Hawai‘i because everywhere he stepped he was taking aloha with him. It’s something I’ve tried to keep in mind, particularly when the endless snow and ice outside my window starts to grind on me.

I’m not alone in wanting to beat the winter blues; it’s about this time every year that several local businesses sponsor Hawaiian Days celebrations with plastic leis from Taiwan and samba music from Brazil. When all the paper floral decorations, blow up coconut trees, and neon green cellophane grass skirts come out, so do the comments. People who know I’m from Hawai‘i say things like, “Bet you’re glad you have real seasons now; you can’t have Christmas without snow!” and “Try this Hawaiian taco—it has pineapple!”

People who really know me simply give me chocolate and space. With proper barefoot weather my sense of humor returns.

More than 25 years ago as a blushing bride I went to waaaay rural Montana to meet my new husband’s extended relatives, neighbors, and family friends. I was perched on the edge of a couch trying to keep all the names straight when one older guy, probably a WWII vet, said in all seriousness, “Hawaii? Huh. So, tell me, how do you like being in civilization?”

“I’ll let you know when I get back,” I snapped without missing a beat.

Granted, probably not the most endearing or tactful thing I could’ve said, but honest. I grew up in a suburb of Honolulu City, not a grass shack. Unlike him I’d lived with more people, tv channels, restaurants, and shopping malls around than cows.

One lone Montana cowboy’s misconceptions about Hawai‘i isn’t really noteworthy. But Hollywood’s version of Hawai‘i crops up even in places you’d think should know better.

Once when I was a musician in high school, a bunch of us were touring the US performing in places as diverse as Carnegie Hall and Disneyland. We were in a big New York City department store when one of my friends decided to purchase something.

The cashier was New York chic: stilettos, pencil skirt, lots of black eyeliner and red, red lips. To us she oozed sophistication.

“So where’re youse guys from?” she asked. Apparently, we didn’t blend.

“Hawai‘i,” my friend said.

“Cool. Don Ho, right? But just so you know, we don’t take your kind of money.”IMG_4133

“You mean Traveler’s cheques?”

“No foreign currency. American dollars only. It’s store policy.”

My friend blinked, took a $1 bill out of her wallet, ripped it in half, and tossed it on the counter. “Damn,” she said. “Our money’s no good here. Let’s go!” and stormed out.

It was awesome.

But not really aloha. I try to remember that when some clueless but well-intentioned babooze asks if I had movie theaters or in-door plumbing growing up.

After all, I don’t get big cowboy belt buckles, either.

Last night I had The Power.

At least that’s what we called it when we were kids. He who controlled the tv remote ruled the world as far as we were concerned.

During my childhood our father was King of the TV. Like most Maui families, we had just one, but it was a huge color 24 incher. On it we watched all four stations broadcasting from Honolulu—CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS—fine-tuning each with rabbit ears and something that looked like a socket plug we hooked precariously to various shelving brackets mounted on the wall behind it.

In the days before ubiquitous channel changers, there was a low-tech solution that followed a totem pole chain of command.

“Lehua, change the channel to 3,” proclaimed the King.

I nudged my younger sister. “Channel 3,” I said.

As she commando crawled to the set (Do. Not. Block. The. View. Ever. You are not a window or a door.), inwardly I sighed. Another Sunday afternoon spent watching Let’s Go Fishing, instead of the Million Dollar Movie Matinée. It didn’t matter which—any movie would do, even though I never figured out where the million dollars came in.

There was always an outside possibility that Dad would fall asleep. If that happened, we could chance ‘em by turning down the sound and carefully, slowly, easing the dial to another station. By the time I was 6 I’d perfected the art of soundlessly changing the channel to Olympic gold medalist levels.

The first real tv remote we got made a clicking sound each time you pushed the button. To this day, my Dad still calls the remote the clicker. You couldn’t enter a number; it just advanced through the channels each time you pressed the remote, eleven clicks to go all the way around. It was a fancy one because it also turned the tv off and on and the volume up and down. Really fancy ones had color control.

Possessing the clicker gave you The Power to decide what the rest of the minions could watch back in the days when if you missed a show, you missed it forever.

When I was a kid there were two exceptions to the forever rule: The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz. I remember both movies playing every year until I was 10 or so. I’m pretty sure I was married when I finally saw what happens after Maria sneaks out of the Von Trapp family mansion carrying her guitar and the Cowardly Lion runs from the Wizard and jumps through the window, the 8 pm mark in each movie. When you love stories there’s nothing worse than The King of the TV’s bedtime edict that had The Power’s ability to shut them off.

Last night, propped with pillows on the sofa, I had The Power. Kids and hubby were also sprawled in various positions and we were watching a Family Show, our name for the handful of programs we watch together. We never watch a show live anymore; we wait until it’s convenient.

In our house, The Power works a little bit differently; it’s less about what gets watched as it is about who’s responsibility it is to fast-forward through the commercials, pause the show when someone says pause because they want to make a comment, and turn the volume up or down.

Holding the mighty clicker like a scepter last night I realized The Power isn’t a power anymore. It’s a chore.

And no one wanted The Power because then they would have to give up their laptops, iPads, and smart phones and actually pay attention to the show, which didn’t matter because if they missed something they could always ask me to back it up or find it again online if it got erased. They could even watch the same recorded show at the same time in a different room.

I wasn’t Queen of the TV; I was TV House-Elf. I sighed. Another bubble popped!

Surf’s up on the North Shore of ‘Oahu as big wave season begins again. I love sitting safely on the beach and feeling the pounding surf slam against the sand. When the giants come it’s like sitting in a car with the bass blasting; you feel it in your chest like a second heartbeat.

I remember being little, standing on the backseat of  my parents’ VW Bug and barely able to see out the windows to Waimea Bay below. People lined the hillsides to watch thunder incarnate roll up the shores. Only a few crazy souls ever tried to go out when the waves were that big in the days before jet ski assists and modern big wave boards. One of the truly fearless was Eddie Aikau.

A handsome man, Eddie was the first lifeguard hired by the City and County of Honolulu to patrol ‘Oahu’s North Shore. That was in 1968, and his territory was huge, spanning Sunset to Haleiwa. Later Eddie teamed up with his younger brother Clyde to shepherd surfers at Waimea Bay—harder than you’d think with nearby Schofield Barracks and men feeling they had little to lose on their way to Vietnam.

On their watch, not a single person was lost at Waimea Bay; even when the waves towered 30’ or more, Eddie or Clyde would be the ones paddling out on surfboards to rescue others.

It makes my stomach ache to think about the damage a 15’ wave can do to a human body. I’ve swallowed enough seawater on 4 – 6’ waves to know. But 30’ is unimaginable.

Being stupid and not knowing what you were getting yourself into is one thing. But Eddie knew. And he risked himself time and again to rescue those in trouble that no one else would—or could. The phrase “Eddie would go” came to symbolize his selfless daring and joy in life.

It’s not surprising that Eddie’s death in 1978 came during another rescue attempt, this time on behalf the Polynesian Voyaging Society when the Hokule‘a capsized 12 miles south of Moloka‘i. Eddie was a crew member on the traditionally built Hawaiian double-hulled canoe. He volunteered to paddle his surfboard to Lana‘i for help.

What’s less well-known was that the swells in the Moloka‘i Channel were ten feet high and coming relentlessly from every direction when the ship capsized, forcing the crew into the ocean. Hope of quick rescue dimmed as crew clung to the vessel overnight. Shock and hypothermia were rearing their ugly heads, and all were suffering from exposure in the gale force winds. There was talk that the Hokule‘a was drifting away from airline routes, making it less likely they’d be spotted. Sharks started circling.

Eddie begged the captain and officers to let him go for help and made it clear he was going anyway. At 10:30 am while the crew held hands and prayed, he unlashed his surfboard from the wreckage, tied the leash around his ankle, and paddled away. Eddie was convinced he’d reach shore and send help in five short hours. Crew members say he carried a small strobe light and some oranges around his neck and that he’d ditched his bulky life jacket a few hundred feet from the canoe hull. He paddled strongly, each stroke propelling him over the whitecaps, growing smaller and smaller until he disappeared from sight.

Although the rest of the crew was eventually rescued, Eddie was never seen again despite the largest air-sea search in Hawaiian history. I remember it and the prayers sent heavenward, but this time Eddie went and didn’t return.

In his honor and memory, “The Eddie,” the annual Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Big Wave Tournament at Waimea Bay, can be held anytime between December 1st and February 29th when conditions are right: the swells have to reach a consistent minimum of 20’ in height (making the wave face 30’ or more). The contest is open to 28 riders by invitation only. In keeping with Eddie’s love of tradition, the competition is old school: no jet skis allowed. Each year big surf enthusiasts wait impatiently, but usually the waves don’t cooperate. Since 1985 it’s only been held eight times.

In 2009, the last successful year, waves at Waimea Bay were cresting a jaw-dropping 30 to 50 feet. Event sponsors were uneasy. Clyde Aikau, his brother and right arm in big surf rescues and rides, had this response:

Eddie would go.

By all accounts, in contrast with his thrill-seeking, fiercely competitive spirit, Eddie was a quiet and humble guy who hated the spotlight. I wonder sometimes what he’d think of the big surf competition held in his name. I imagine his horror at his notoriety at war with his sheer joy in the challenge. He’d probably shake his head at the circus of it all as he grabbed his board and headed to the waves.

What really happened to Eddie Aikau is unknown. His brother Clyde likes to daydream that Eddie’s suffering from amnesia on a remote island and living with a beautiful woman, surrounded by their kids and grandkids who he takes surfing every day.

Me, too.

Before opening the door to the galley above the Senate floor, the page gave us all the hairy eyeball. We were a bunch of teenagers from Hawaii in Washington D.C. and it was her job to make sure we didn’t make a sound. She couldn’t have cared less that we were a few days into our three-week tour performing in six states and in places as diverse as Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center, and Disneyland. She didn’t know anything about us except that we were teens on a school trip and that made us notorious enough in any page’s eye.

In reality we were all majorly jet lagged and just hoped our instruments had made it to Georgetown in one piece. It wouldn’t be until the next day that we would receive a special invitation to play at the White House and major news programs would begin following us across the country, but like I said, this was just a couple of days into our tour, before anyone in Washington D.C. knew anything about us.

Anyone but Senator Daniel Inouye, that is.

We shuffled in, all 200 of us, and stood reverently watching a heated debate below. Suddenly, a familiar figure stood up. He raised his left arm; his right arm had been shot off during a WWII battle. We’d heard how he’d reached down, taking the grenade out of his right hand as it lay in the dirt at his feet and threw it at the Germans who mistakenly thought they’d killed him. It wouldn’t be the last time people underestimated the democratic senator from Hawai‘i.

It was the early 1980s, and Senator Inouye had 20 years behind and another 30 years ahead of him in the Senate. He didn’t hesitate. “Excuse me,” he said, “but my kids are here.” He gestured to us standing above the Senate floor. The entire Senate stopped.

“Aloha, gang,” he said. “Welcome to your Senate.”

For a good twenty minutes while the rest of the Senate sat amused, nonplussed, wandered off to get coffee, or slipped out to broker deals in the lobby,  Senator Inouye spoke with us, sharing some of the hidden secrets of the Senate, like how if you lifted the tops of the desks you can see the signatures, the oldest hand-carved with a pen knife, of all the law makers who’d sat at that desk. Just like elementary, he teased, everybody fights for specific desks and can’t wait to make their mark. He held up what looked like a parmesan cheese shaker from a pizza parlor and said it was full of fine sand to sprinkle on documents so they wouldn’t smear and that this little pot was for ink, pretty silly since no one used quills anymore. He introduced us to people, told us how the senate worked, and encouraged us to ask questions.

We were young and naive enough that none of this fazed us; of course Uncle Dan would talk with us; we came all this way. It wasn’t until we left the balcony and were headed back to the elevators that I noticed the pages were hushed and staring at us like we were from Mars.

“I’ve never seen that happen,” one muttered to me. “Never. He interrupted the entire proceeding to talk with you guys. I can’t believe it. Why did he do that?”

A thousand thoughts flickered through my brain. I didn’t know where to begin. “Because we are  his kids,” I said.

We were headed out the doors when another breathless page chased us down to inform our tour guide that Senator Inouye had arranged lunch for us in a ballroom. Under gilded ceilings and frescoes we ate chili and perfectly sticky white rice, a welcome taste of home. We had been in the presence of power, but all we felt was aloha.

Rest in peace, Senator Daniel Inouye. Aloha no.

I recently watched the movie Argo. It’s based on the true story of when the US Embassy in Iran was taken over by militants in 1979 and its staff was held hostage for a staggering 444 days. Six embassy staffers escaped to the Canadian Ambassador’s house where they hid until a gutsy CIA operative came up with a hail Mary plan that wouldn’t work in today’s world of cell phones and internet access. Even knowing how it ended, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat. Cleverly edited to include real homeland responses and reaction to the events, it brought back a lot of memories of hearing Walter Cronkite’s gravelly voice announce the mounting tally of hostage days spent in captivity—along with flashbacks of posturing politicians and news people eager to spin the wheel on their daily game of What America Should Do.

There are many moments in the movie that are hilarious to those who know their history, like when a government official claims there’s nothing to worry about; the hostages will be freed in 24 hours or when another one says Carter wants to wait because he’s planning a secret military strike. I choked on my popcorn and Diet Coke on that one, laughing so hard. If you like political thrillers and history, you’ll love this flick.

Thinking back to that time, I left the theater realizing that I was far more politically aware in my younger days. News and world events had an urgency to them that made staying informed, having an opinion, and being involved feel as critical as breathing or eating. It was startling to recognize that for all the world’s brave new instant access via smart phones and the internet, I feel less connected to world events now than back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

It could’ve been due to growing up in Hawaii during a time when film at eleven meant footage deemed too graphic for primetime by most mainland broadcast stations was regularly shown on our 6 pm news. I have vivid memories of the fall of Saigon and of asking my mother what she would do if we were some of the faces locked behind the gates as the helicopters took off and landed on aircraft carriers. I watched, astonished that as soon as the people scrambled out, ducking under the still rotating blades, the helicopters were pushed into the ocean, splash, to make room for the next one to land. When I asked why didn’t they go back, “Not enough fuel or time,” was my mother’s response.

It might’ve had something to do with soldiers and wars seeming very close back then when PTSD Vietnam vets lived rough in the jungle near our house and would come into our yard from the beach to use our outdoor get-the-sand-off-before-even-thinking-about-going-into-the-house cold water  shower. One vet in ragged camouflage pants spotted my sister and our teddy bear picnic and collapsed at her feet, weeping silent tears into the grass as he almost, but never quite, reached out to touch her long dark brown hair. That day our mother magically appeared and gently lead us back to the house, locking the door behind us. “He’s just a little sad,” she said, “because of the war,” when we asked why.

Boat People, those brave souls who’d rather take their chances on the open ocean in leaky sampans than risk another day under communist rule, were also more than photos on the news to me. The kind janitor at my mother’s office who always made sure the coffee was hot was once a respected doctor; the gas station jockey who washed our windows and checked the tire pressure used to own a chain of grocery stores.

For a few years, hard news was my life. My days revolved around the evening broadcast, getting it on the air just as the meatloaf was coming out of the oven. If it bleeds, it leads was more than just a joke back then. The bloodiest footage I ever saw was in the raw video feeds uploaded by freelance videographers during the 1980s uprising in the Philippines. When ousted President Marco ended up seeking asylum in Hawaii and living in a house on Kalanianeole highway, the main road from Honolulu to where my family lived, I couldn’t believe it, nor the hours long traffic jams caused by protesters and pro-Marco supporters duking it out in the street. Imelda’s shoe collection was also very real, especially when secret service types routinely hustled everyone out of Liberty House so she and her entourage could shop. No, really. They’d shut down Kahala Mall’s poshest shops so she could get her shoe fix. I saw it more than once.

Growing up, politics and news were regular dinner conversation, opinions tossed back and forth like the salad; my parents seldom agreed back then, and neither gave an inch. Over french fries and Cokes my friends and I debated:  women’s rights, the right to choose, affirmative action, regressive taxes, trickle down theories, evolution in schools.

It all mattered greatly back then.

Today, not so much.

Part of the reason it’s taken the backseat could be that I now live out in the country where the biggest concerns tend to be keeping chickens out of the neighbor’s garden and funding a new community rec center; the threat of soldiers marching over the hill seem a lot more remote than they did years ago when I couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a GI or a G-man.

It’s a symptom of my isolationist feelings that I seldom watch the evening news anymore, preferring to read news online or to listen to brief top of the hour newscasts on the radio while playing chauffeur between piano and soccer. When news is reduced to a snappy sound bite or a headline on an IPad, it’s easy to maintain the illusion of being informed without really knowing anything.

If I try to put a date to it, I’d say I stopped caring about news a few years after 9-11, after losing people in the towers and watching the days go from red to orange to yellow to orange alert again. It’s hard work to maintain that kind of immediacy day after day, especially when carpool and the science fair keep rearing their heads.

I’d say my current apathy is less a loss of faith in country and leadership than it is a loss of faith that my opinion or voice really matters. The young and eager believe they can do anything, that the rightness of their vision ensures eventual success, that all effort no matter how small somehow matters. Twitter and Facebook are full of their optimistic rhetoric, but I fear it’s the barricade scene from Les Mis played over and over.

I’ve lived long enough to know that the things you anticipate are never quite what bite you in the butt. It’s what you don’t see, what doesn’t make the headlines, that gets you every time. The sad truth is that now, when I see the passion for news and world events in the younger generation’s eyes, I don’t feel hope or even inspired. I just feel exhausted. I’ve run this marathon before.

Today, I’m blaming my melancholic outlook less on the recent presidential election and memories stirred by Argo and more on the new blanket of snow outside my office window. An island girl needs sunshine, warm weather, and surf to chase away the winter-long blues. Time to see something more like Chasing Mavericks. Maybe then next week’s blog will be sunnier and surfier.

On Saturday, November 17, 2012, at the Layton Barnes & Noble, Na Keiki Ka Ua Kilihune Hula Halau performed at my book signing for One Boy, No Water.

After a welcoming oli, Kumu Hula Barcarse taught us about the Hawaiian alphabet through a song and hula I learned when I was their age! These talented kids performed using kala’au (wooden sticks) and niu (coconut shells) and chanted and sang as they danced. One of the crowd favorites was a lively Samoan dance accompanied by Kumu’s ‘ukulele. For some of the kids, at four years old, it was their first ever performance. (Special aloha goes out to the Dads who performed with their kids. You guys get my vote for Father of the Year.)

Too bad Aunty was so busy watching na keiki, she only got a few photos!

Mahalo nui loa to Kumu Barcarse and the youngest members of his dance school for their gift of hula, oli, and mele. They brought a lot of warm aloha to wintery Utah!

When you ask anyone with any knowledge of Hawaiian history or culture to name the most culturally significant scholars who preserved ancient knowledge, Mary Kawena Pukui will top the list. More than any single person I can think of, her work paved the way for rebirth of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s.

Born in 1895 and following the ancient traditions of hānai, she was initially raised by her mother’s parents in Kā‘u on the Big Island. It was during this time that she learned to cherish her Hawaiian heritage and began building her formidable foundation as a Hawaiian scholar, dancer, composer, and educator.

Her grandmother had been a hula dancer in the court of Queen Emma and taught her chants and stories. From her grandfather, a traditional healer who was known as a kahuna pale keiki (obstetrician) who used lomi lomi (massage), laʻau lapaʻau (herbal medicine), ho‘oponopono (forgiveness), and pule (prayer) came her great knowledge and understanding of the Hawaiian people’s relationship between the spiritual and mundane.

Mrs. Pukui composed over 150 songs, recorded miles of audiotape, published over 50 books including Nānā i ke Kumu (Look to the Source), and co-authored the definitive Hawaiian-English Dictionary in 1957. Bishop Museum, that bastion of Hawaiian culture where she worked as an ethnological assistant, has preserved her notes, film clips, and oral histories. They are considered priceless.

In my mind, Mary Kawena Pukui stands as a giant among Hawaiian scholars. Hero worship isn’t going too far.

Which makes the story my grandmother told me all the more mind blowing.

It was a couple of days before the publication of One Boy, No Water. I’d called her to wish her happy birthday and to find out how the party she’d hosted—champagne and cake—for friends in her retirement community turned out. Talk turned to the book. Ever mindful about manners and proper protocol, she asked if I had an acknowledgement section in the book.

“Yeah, Grammie, I do.”

“Well, did you remember to thank everyone? You didn’t write that book alone.”

“Yeah, I thanked my family for their support, Kamehameha Schools for my education, and people like Mary Kawena Pukui for their preservation of Hawaiian history and culture.”

“Oh, Aunty Mary! Good, you remembered her.”

Aunty Mary? “Grammie, I’m talking about Mary Kawena Pukui, the mother of the Hawaiian Renaissance.”

“Yeah, Aunty Mary! After school, we used to go to Bishop Museum and run up and down the stairs and take all the covers off the displays and she’d chase us around the halls and finally call the police station (Grammie’s father was with the HPD) and say, ‘George! Your kids are driving me nuts! Come get them!’ Oh, we loved to tease Aunty Mary! She and my Dad were good friends. She used to come to our house often.”

And my mouth is on the floor and I start to think about it and realize that her family home in Kalihi was a block or two from Bishop Museum and my Grammie isn’t joking. She kept telling me stories and I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that the woman who wrote at least 20 books on my shelves about Hawaiian history and culture was Aunty Mary to my grandmother!

Blows my mind almost as much as the idea of Grammie and her siblings playing hide and go seek in Bishop Museum’s hallowed halls after school!

Sign up for

Talking Story Newsletter

and receive free Lauele Universe bonus material and tips from the Lehua Writing Academy.

Click here to go to
The Niuhi Shark Website.

Get the Books

Barnes & Noble

When you’re allergic to water,
growing up in Hawaii
isn’t always paradise.

With Niuhi sharks,
even out of the water,
you’re not safe.

Everything you thought you knew
about Zader is a  lie.