Kauai

“OK, children. This is our last time on the escalators. We go up. We go down. And then we head back to the gate and wait with Mama.”

“OK, Papa,” agreed Rose.

“OK, Papa,” echoed Samuel.

We rose up out of the crowd of passengers in the Honolulu airport, mostly white mainlainders off of Flight #1 from Chicago, waiting for their vacation paradise to begin. They milled about in close quarters, stepping carefully around the wheeled handbags and carry-on purses, overstuffed and resembling panicked blowfish. As my children and I rose through the opening in the ceiling, the sunhats of the other passengers disappeared and we found ourselves on an upper level, surrounded by windows with a view across the tarmac to the metropolis beyond, and somewhere after that, the sapphire blue Pacific Ocean. There was not a soul on floor two except us and we weren’t staying long.

“Aloha!” commanded a disembodied voice over our heads. “Due to heightened airport security…”

“Come on Samuel!” Rose yelled and traced a semi-circle back onto the down escalator with Samuel right on her tail. I grabbed their hands as we entered the mass of humanity. Repeat ad nauseum.

Twenty minutes later, and twenty hours after we had rose from our predawn beds in Vermont, we handed the boarding passes to the agent for the last leg of our flight. Honolulu to Kauai. Crossing the threshold onto the plane, I was baptized in a cloud of condensing vapor falling from an overhead vent. Rose and I walked to the very back of the jet to our rigid seats that did not recline. She promptly fell asleep across my lap.

On a previous leg of our journey, the children were still “perky at thirteen o’clock,” but patient, excited, well-behaved, even as we waited for the Chicago bound passengers to deplane.

“We’re going to Hanayuyu!” Samuel told a soft-toned, bespectacled man in a business suit.

The man looked down at my three-year old and all the muscles in his middle-aged face resolved into an enormous grin. His second chin jutted out as he peered down at Samuel with an astonished, wide-open mouth.

“Hanayuyu?” he said, his voice full of glee. “How wonderful!”

Samuel smiled back, feeling instant pity and comradeship. “Would you like to go to Hanayuyu?”

“I would love to go to Hanayuyu!” he answered, he eyes squinting shut in imagined ecstasy as he drew out the verb.

“OK. Let’s go!” said Samuel. Practical boy, to the point. No more monkey business. Let’s get this show on the road.

“Harry?”

I snapped my eyes open. I was sitting upright against the back wall of the cabin, but my chin was digging a hole in my sternum through a wet patch of cotton T-shirt smelling of my own saliva. The back of my neck felt stretched and distended on the right side. Dawn was smiling down at me. “We’re here, hun. Can you wake up Rose?”

It turned out that I could not. She had been napping a bit on the flight from Chicago, but still had a strong sleep deficit to make up. I carried her across the Kauai airport for a good quarter mile before the jossling woke her.

*****

The buildings in Hawaii are topologically inside out, like a drawing by M.C. Escher. You could drive your gleaming, newly-washed, rental SUV into the tiled lobby of your resort without shattering wall or window and park it among the carpeting and paintings and statues. The door men, liveried in flowered shirts and knee-length shorts waiting with luggage trolleys behind their podiums, would scarcely glance in your direction. Within the lobby, glass doors lead to exotic spas, and there are corridors passing down rows and rows of hotel room doors, where small wren will land at your door and pick up a crumb of muffin off your discarded room service tray before flying away down the hall. If you walk further down the hall, the roof vanishes and a two hundred year old baobab tree is growing through a hole in the floor up through an atrium with no ceiling, and a little farther on, there is a waterfall with a swan swimming about.

*****

The first two days, Dawn took the children to markets, parks, and beaches, and when they wanted a break, they came back to the hotel and went down to the pool. It was shaped something like a lagoon with a beach made of large grain sand (or small grain pebbles), a water slide, a waterfall, and a couple of snaking canals hidden by landscaped islands and a coi pond. There were three sand-bottomed hot tubs, one set aside for children, which turned out to be useful when the clouds came through. We had the occasionally shower or storm, but the sun always came through eventually. The children were happy and easy to please and there was hardly any whining. Even for a child, it is hard to complain in Hawaii, and they tried to hold up their end with only minimal success.

I spent those days in meetings with my fellow employees, and I must say that they were meetings that definitely “didn’t suck.” We held them at restaurants in posh hotels, on a boulder strewn slope approachable only after wading a creek, under trees on sand covered cliff tops. Last year had been moderately successful, so this company retreat was sponsored by the company. You can do that sort of thing when you are the sole owner of a six-person company who happens to like tropical beaches, and that is what my boss is, God bless him.

One night, the teenage daughters of one employee offered to babysit the younger children of other employees so the adults could go out for dinner in a fancy restaurant. We brought Rose and Samuel to their room, only to find that a surprise birthday party had been arranged for Rose (it being her 6th birthday). There was cake and ice cream and balloons and cards, and we were able to slip out without a hint of separation anxiety. That was a fine evening.

*****

Quick geography lesson. Imagine smoke rings blowing from a tobacco pipe growing large and larger until they escape the bowl and float through the air where in time they slowly dissolve and vanish. Picture it from overhead, fill in the smoke rings, and you have a fairly good map of the islands of Hawaii. A vent deep in the earth pushed magma up until the growing volcano broke the surface of the ocean and became an island. Every so many years (whether hundreds, thousands, or millions, I don’t recall), the vent stopped to take a breath and the newly minted island was carried off northwestward by the floating continental plate. Over time, the rain and wind wore this island down, while a new island was created back in its original place by the same process. Eventually the first island eroded back into the ocean, leaving no visible trace. This is why there is a chain of Hawaiian islands, and why the ones farthest east are younger, larger, taller and craggier, while the islands to the west are generally older, flatter, decrepit, and covered with moss and foliage.

Kauai is the penultimate island to the west. Only Niihau is older, and erosion has left it more of an oversized sandbar than a proper volcanic island. There are older islands even farther west, but as they have eroded below the surface of the water, one can hardly call them islands anymore. Though old and worn, Kauai does not have these identity crises. Mt. Waialeale, at 5148 feet, is the visible and significant remains of the volcano that formed Kauai, and though it is extinct, in fact crumbling to pieces with a long tongue of canyon on the south west side like a breach in a siege, the mountain has the honor of boasting the rainiest spot on earth with over 460 inches of rain a year. The wind driving in from the west, having become saturated over thousands of miles of ocean, rushes up the canyon and up the inside wall of the former crater. The rise in altitude creates a drop in temperature and the water condenses and precipitates. The rain falls, further eroding the crater, and rushes back down the canyon where it came from. By the time the air has climbs the peak and flipped over the crater wall, all the moisture has been wrung out like a sponge, leaving an arid desert on the other side; one of the driest spots on earth right next to very wettest.

*****

No one rushes on Kauai. In fact, our guidebook warned us about several restaurants whose excellence in cuisine was surpassed only by the indifference of the service. But after all, it is an island. No matter how fast you move, you’re still here.

A single road winds around the outer edge of Kauai, connecting the series of coastal communities and towns, and it was the only road between our resort and the southern half of the island. During rush hour, the traffic on the two lane road would back up for miles behind the traffic light at the airport turnoff. There was no room, and even less inclination, to pass. So we sat, ducks in a row, waiting our turn to creep ahead ten feet, various radios competing over the hum of the coolant fans. One such pause gave us a leisurely view of the Kauai Penitentiary. Very closely. Even my sissy, geek arm could have thrown a stone from the car and broken a window in the warden’s office. But that would not have been necessary. I could have jumped the six foot gully, climbed the chain link fence, and opened his door myself. There was no barbed wire, no patrolling German shepherds, no observation towers or machine gun embankments pointing inwards. The few guards scattered about observed the prisoners with all the rapt attention of a underpaid middle school teacher on playground monitor duty. In fact, the resemblance of the facility to a blue collar neighborhood public school was uncanny. All it lacked was the broken playground set and graffiti.

A clique of prisoners smoking cigarettes in the shade of an awning watched us pass at a snail’s pace. I turned off the radio, rolled down the window, and asked them what they were discussing. They informed me that they were just planning their break out. It had been a work in progress for several months, but for sure it would happen “bumbye, mebbe next week.” But when I inquired, they could not satisfy me with an exact date. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust me with the information, but rather the plan had not fully coalesced. They had to work out details of precedence. Apparently certain prisoners felt it beneath their dignity to lace their fingers together and provide a boost over the fence for certain other prisoners.  They agreed seniority should determine precedence, but they could not agree on what determined seniority. Some felt it should be based on how much time one had already served, though subfactions argued over whether one could count prior convictions. Others thought the length of the sentence mattered more than how much of it had been served. While those of a finer discrimination felt that the gravity of the crime should trump. Poaching pineapples from the governors private plantation might, through corruption of the justice system, result in a longer sentence but it hardly deserved precedence over honest manslaughter of one’s peers. That was the gist of the argument, and though it was hard at times to follow the local pidgin, they left long pauses between speakers in which I could puzzle out the meaning. When they reached a particularly sticky point, and the discussion threatened to raise the temperature of the already languid afternoon, a guard would come along and brokered peace, defusing the conversation with the polite dexterity of protocol officers arranging the procession to banquet hall.

I thought this madness, and told them so. Surely, I interrupted them, the fence and ditch presented no meaningful obstacle. At the time, only one guard was left in view, and he, gazing at his image reflected in the window and picking his teeth with a splinter of coconut husk, seemed suitably distracted, and, in any event, easily bribed.  Why couldn’t they leave now?

Aznuts“, they assured me. “We gotta stay brudders,  else there’d be choke beef, and eriding go junk.” There was generally nodding of heads and some gave me the stink eye as to say that a law-abiding haole boy shouldn’t pretend to know mo bettah than they how things were down in Hawaii. And in the pause that followed, one sallow and philosophical member of the troupe who had been silent up until now, observed to no one in particular, “Nuff already. Where would we go, anyhow? It’s an f-in’ island.”

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Dentist

Rough week at work. The kind of week that makes you wonder if you are in the right business. A persistent error message in a key bit of software I had written was proving very difficult to debug. How difficult?

Do you remember the game of Telephone? A group of people line up, and one whispers a complex sentence to another person, and then they whisper it by memory to the next, and so on. Then you compare the result at the end to the original message, and the joke is how different the result ends up from the original. It was something like that. I had a chain of programs talking to each other and after ten minutes of processing, the last one returned an error message that was completely meaningless and garbled by the time it got to me. Something like, “I on burp actual Have on blind expurgate turn on tusk heath.”

It wasn’t really that exact sentence. That sentence came from the latest Viagra spam mail in my InBox.

My boss called to express his concern about the mounting work load that was log-jammed behind getting this priority bug fixed. He reassured me that he believes in my smarts and talents and abilities, and could I possibly stop being a super-Dad and get a bit more support from my family in order to get enough sleep, get rid of my cold, and apply my best energies to the problem?

No dummy, my boss.

To be fair, Dawn has already been getting up five times a night when Samuel (from whom I got the cold) and Rose (who just got it from me) come in with fevers, nightmares, or just cheerful, perky, 5:00 AM warbling. I suppose I could ask Dawn to do more, but, you know, it’s that time of the month, and discretion is the better part of valor. No, the ugly truth is, I am simply not performing up to snuff. If I may paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, Lord help me to be the programmer my boss thinks I am.

So, I closed the door to my “office” and spent four hours assiduously working my way back up the telephone chain. Meanwhile, Dawn was in the kitchen trying to keep the house clean, prepare food, and entertain two children home from school with colds. Not easy, since Samuel has entered a delightful new phase where he has to touch every object he sees, whether or not it is sharp, hot, fragile, or his.

It was 2:00 in the afternoon, and I had just traced the Telephone message back to, “It was very kind of God to let Mr. Jones marry Mrs. Jones and thus make two people in the world miserable instead of four,” when a cheerful pop-up reminder flashed across my laptop screen.

“Dentist appointment: 0 minutes.”

“Augh! Dawn!” I yelled from my work desk, “What time are our dentist appointments?”

“Ohhhh ….”, Dawn spluttered, a desperate ejaculation on the tip of her tongue. She had forgotten, too. The temptation to swear was strong, but the children were right there, listening. Several helpful words, all of them inappropriate, vied for the honor of finishing her thought. Had Rose been paying attention, she could have easily read them out loud as they flitted about Dawn’s head, taking turns passing in and out of her reddening ears. Dawn held her tongue as long as she could, but she was never good with temptation. “The only way to get rid of temptation,” said Oscar Wilde, “is to yield to it.”

“Ohhh… bother!” she finally released.

Thank you, A.A. Milne.

I called the dentist’s office – “I’m on my way!” – and then dashed out the door. When I pulled up, my hygienist was chatting amiably with the staff by the front desk. She welcomed me directly into the chair. I lay back exhausted.

“Don’t forget the gloves and mask,” I reminded her. “I’m still getting over a cold.”

Usually when they go after the tartar on my teeth, there is a fair bit of scraping and tugging followed by copious bleeding from my receding gums and a deep, cold sensation in the roots of my teeth about as pleasant as claws on a chalkboard. But somehow, that did not happen this time. Perhaps I was too tired to notice. I closed my eyes, and did not open them until I heard an amused voice repeating, “Could you open a little wider? Excuse me. Hello! Could you open a little wider?”

“Huh?” I snorted, waking up. “Oh. Sowwy.”

The dentist came in later to examine my x-rays and teeth. Somehow we were all a bit punchy by that point, and we got on the subject of surgically opening and cleaning wounds, a task that my dentist derives particular satisfaction from. This is a perverse trait she shares with my wife. Medical people – honestly! Then she told me that the little piece of tissue that had grown over a flossing wound six months ago had shrunk, but not completely gone away, and she felt it ought to be removed.

“You are a picker!” I accused.

“In the worst way,” she confessed. “I can’t help it. Give me a good abscess to drain. I’ll do it for free.” She offered to do it for free? Seriously? How could I say no? We made a date. Something to look forward to. Don’t tell my wife.

I raced home so Dawn could press Pause on the domestic tasks, grab the car, and head back with Rose for their appointments.

Later that night, I sat down after the children were in bed and chipped away at my Telephone problem until I uncovered the original message. “Who put the bomp in the bomp-she-bomp-she-bomp?” At last! Success!

It was 2:00 in the morning, and I called it a night.

Criteria

We are suffering from “prelocation” anxiety. We want to move. We need to move. The big, mouth-watering carrot of a quality Montessori elementary school for our children dangles in our dreams, while the punishing stick (with a rusty nail through the end) of outrageous health insurance costs and soaring property taxes pillages our bank accounts. After hours on the phone with friends and families, long evenings researching on the internet, and a few reconnaissance trips, we are down to two options: mid-coast Maine and Blacksburg, Virginia. Neither of them are perfect, and should we move to either one, we may find ourselves packing up again four years down the road, but both offer something we found nowhere else – quality, affordable, Montessori elementary schools.

Montessori did not start out as a priority for us, but after observing good public schools that did not match up to mediocre Montessori schools, it has become almost a requirement. If you were to ask me why Montessori education is so great, I might be at a loss to explain what I see. Clearly, our children could go to public school and get as fine an education as we did. No doubt, someday they will cross over to public school, since you can count the number of Montessori high schools in this country on one hand. But the differences in methods, goals, and results are observable, and it is hard to not want to give your child the best. A common complaint of Montessori children who cross over to public school is, “in public school, you don’t get to work on what you want. You have to work on what they tell you to work on, and just when something actually gets interesting, they make you put it away and start something else.” But the best description came from the daughter of a Montessori teacher who later grew up to be a Montessori teacher herself. When she switch to public high school, she told her Mom, “The difference between Montessori and public school is that in public school, there is only one right answer.”

Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of Montessori elementary schools in this country, and even fewer that offer a quality education within our financial means. We’ve found two so far, in communities that offer possibilities and challenges for us. We would keep looking for the elusive, perfect town, but we are out of time. Most schools close their re-enrollment period at the end of March and they open their few remaining slots to the general public in April. The good schools fill up quickly, and they want to meet a child before they accept him or her. If we want Rose to stay in Montessori next year, it will have to be one of these two places.

Our first option is the Damariscotta Montessori School in mid-coast Maine. The school is top notch, with a talented set of teachers and administers, and a parent community that loves their school. Their turn of the century farm house and barn sit on several acres with apple and weeping birch trees. The administrator is bright, practical, energetic, and smart. The classrooms were full of happy, active, busy children enjoying their work. The whole time we were there, I did not see one child speak disrespectfully to an adult or peer. They were too busy having fun and learning.

Our second option is Tall Oaks Montessori School in Blacksburg, Virginia. We didn’t spend as much time at this school, but we liked everything we saw. Like much of Blacksburg itself, the buildings were plain and prefab, but the classrooms were hives of focused activity, the teachers were top notch, and the reputation was solid.

Either school would be more than adequate and both are affordable. I wish I could say the same for the communities they inhabit.

Mid-coast Maine is paradise, right on the ocean, unspoiled, full of small towns with character and history, full of good people, the salt of the earth as one parent told us. But financially it is not much better than Vermont. Housing is somewhat cheaper than Vermont, taxes are lower, but health insurance is only marginally better, and everything else costs more: food, gas, clothing. To make it work, Dawn might have to go back to work part time, something we had hoped to put off until Samuel was older. Another option is to buy a home in Alna – a rural township so sparsely populated they have no schools of their own. Instead, they will pay to send a child to the school of your choice, and the Montessori school is an allowable option. Alna has the additional perq of bordering the cleanest river in Maine – not a trivial concern in a paper mill state with major rivers still on the Superfund list. But with a population under 1000, there aren’t many homes for sale in Alna.

On the flip side, Blacksburg is cheap. The cost of living is a fraction of what it is in New England. Houses are cheap, health insurance is affordable, and taxes are minimal. Our disposable income would increase dramatically. Did I say increase? We might have a disposable income for the first time in years. Blacksburg is right up against the Appalachian mountains, and it is halfway between my family in Atlanta and my family in Baltimore. There are good people in the area raising organic food and playing my kind of music. The town of Floyd, forty minutes away, has a weekly old-time music jam. But Blacksburg is a university town (Virginia Tech) and it is neighbors with Christiansburg (deathly consumer sprawl), Radford (blue collar slums) and several munitions dumps (fortunately down river). The architecture off campus is slapped-together, twentieth-first-century, pre-fab America. It looks like anywhere and everywhere, and has no town center. While I am sure we will find our kind of people there, it doesn’t thrill us like New England.

We are moving ahead with both Maine and Virginia, assuming that one or the other will eventually become impossible or impractical. Maybe Tall Oaks will reject our application. Maybe midcoast Maine will prove unaffordable. And of course, all of this presumes that we will be able to sell our current house in Montpelier, not a guaranteed option in the current real estate market.

April Fools

Breakfast time. Rose was finishing her last waffle strip. Drips of syrup trailing from the bowl, across the plate, and onto her pajama top as she leaned her head back to take a bite. I was maneuvering Samuel’s plate around his mouth, trying to keep the waffle bite he was spitting out off the floor.

“Papa, I dont yike dese,” said Samuel.

“Samuel, please, keep still.” said I.

“Papa, may I be excused?” asked Rose.

“Have you finished your water?” asked I.

“Yes!” she said.

“AND all your vitamins?”

“Yes, Papa, I finished them all.”

“OK. You may be excused,” I answered, and caught the last yellow bits off Samuel lips.

Rose put her hands on the table and pushed her chair out, remembering for the first time in days to not slam it into the wall behind her. Halfway to the couch, she stopped and turned, her voice flush with excitement.

“Papa, I want to do a trick on my teacher.”

“How’s that?”

“It’s April Fools today, and I want to play a trick on my teacher.”

Ah, April Fools. I had forgotten. When I was in graduate school, living with four other friends, this was one of the highlights of the year. One member of the household, a handsome, charismatic fellow fond of practical jokes, was the target of our revenge. It was everyone against him. One young woman put a rubber band on the sink sprayer the night before so that when he turned on the faucet in the morning, he would get a dowsing. Except in the morning she came down in her pre-coffee stupor, and, with everyone in audience at the kitchen table, she turned on the sink and soaked herself, neck to belt. It took her ten seconds to understand what was happening and another ten seconds to figure out how to turn it off.

I had planned ahead and spent months stealing socks from his laundry in the dryer, one or two a week. On March 31st, I placed them all in leftover containers in the refrigerator with labels like “Chausette Du Jour” and “Argyle Flambee”. Not only did he not notice his socks were disappearing, but he did not open any of the containers until several weeks after April Fools Day. It was a dismal failure all around.

“OK, Rose. What were you thinking of?”

“I don’t know! That’s the problem. Can you help me think of an idea?”

I thought about it for a moment. Her teacher was a young woman who might well appreciate a harmless, humorous, sophisticated (for a five-year-old) trick. There were possibilities.

“OK, how about this? Tell her you’ve got a rare disease and…”

“No, Papa!”

“No? But …”

“No!”

A definitive no. She doesn’t even like where the idea is going.

“Hmm. OK, how about this. Tell her that today is a special Jewish holiday. Tell her … tell her it is Nar B’Adar. This is the day when Jews commemorate Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright. Then tell her …”

“Paaapaaa! No!”

“I’ll write it down on a note. You can just give it to her.”

“Nooo!”

Perhaps my daughter has inherited her grandma’s inability to tell a lie. She certainly can’t keep a secret, and I knew she would blurt out “April Fools!” before her teacher could even finish reading such a note. This reminded me of something I read years ago in The Father’s Almanac. Around age three or four, children begin to tell lies. It’s yet another form of experimenting and testing limits, and like all such behaviors, the novelty of it is explored relentlessly. At this young age, a child isn’t using lies to manipulate his or her parents. Not yet. Usually the lies are obvious, and the pleasure is simply in asserting something that is not true. Depending on the parental response and depending on the personality of the child, one of two things eventually happens. Either the child stops telling lies, or else they learn to get very, very good at lying.

Rose went off to school without a plan. Oh well, I thought. Maybe in a couple of years, Samuel can pull it off. I didn’t think anything about it until almost lunchtime when I heard Dawn’s “OH!” down the hall and then her laughter.

“What’s up?” I yelled.

She appeared in the doorway holding something small in her hand.

“What is that?” I asked.

“This is Rose’s multi-vitamin from this morning. I just found it hidden under her breakfast plate.”