Sunday, 23 April 2017


Sunday Morning, Coming Down

‘You’re not going to have a heart attack, are you?’ Ann called to me from the shelter of our front porch.

It snowed last night, all night; it’s still snowing now. Wet and heavy spring snow, the sort you can roll from a ball into a boulder in minutes. This is snow falling to be pushed around, too dense to heave anywhere with any authority, especially with a dodgy back. And anyway, at this late date, I’m fed up.

When the snow first comes in the fall it’s a different texture, powdery, fluffy and light. I have a fine tuned clearing and piling system because I know there will be months more of it. Winter property clearing is a strategic process. Windrows along the curb hinder visitors’ parking. Too high a pile at the end of the driveway creates a blind spot for the driver of a vehicle backing out. The gardens and the lawns need insulating but ultimately the melt must be absorbed or trickle away from the foundation of the house.

Author John Updike used to sum up each elapsed American decade with a ‘Rabbit’ novel. Harry Angstrom was a deceptively speedy high school basketball star, an adulterer, a bereaved father, a Toyota dealer, an average guy who led an average life. Forty years into the saga he suffered a fatal heart attack shooting hoops on his driveway. All in all, not a bad way to go.

Death itself is nothing to fear, but we all tremble contemplating Fate’s decision as to just how exactly we will succumb, how long will it take and how much will it hurt? I’m not as young nor as fit as I used to be, so my swift and happy equivalent of Rabbit’s exit would be shoveling snow, a chore I’ve performed thousands of times and which rarely felt onerous. I’ve said to Ann a few times that I’d be more than okay with collapsing into the snow on our property. Better than cancer.

The fresh wet blanket of snow was deep enough for me to trundle down into the basement and retrieve my high winter boots which I’d put away a week ago. I girded for the outdoor task with a few cigarettes, a couple of coffees and a couple of beers. Found my gloves. Put my hat on, a cap with a brim. Zipped up my waterproof windbreaker that isn’t waterproof anymore, maybe it was always just water repellant – anyway, the tag’s long gone. I went to work.

‘You’re not going to have a heart attack, are you?’

I leaned on my shovel, huffing a titch. I thought about the meaty Italian sandwich in our fridge waiting to be augmented with homemade meatballs. I thought about our recent trip to Maui and how we’d got our wills, investment information and computer passwords streamlined for the survivor. I knew that financially at least I was worth more to Ann dead.

When I replied that I was good, it was all good, Ann seemed pleased. She had asked a question of concern and not one of hope. And so tonight when I go to bed a little bit stiff and a little bit sore, I’ll be able to sleep with both eyes closed.

Friday, 21 April 2017


Pacific Ocean Blues

Upside down and inside a wave my thoughts were remarkably articulate even though they were travelling faster than a digital signal in a minute fraction of time that would not register even on the most precise atomic clock. I knew that when I was eventually spit out of the breaker and thrown against the compacted sand it would have all the give of cement. ‘If I break my neck again I doubt I’ll walk away this time. How much travel insurance do we have? Where’s Ann? How’s Ann? Glad our wills are up to date.’

I like water. It constitutes a big part of me and is a key ingredient in beer. I like it from a tap or a shower nozzle.  I like wading around in it. I do not like it over my head. When Ann and I decided to spend three weeks on Maui, beach life wasn’t the hook for me. The lure was exploring a new place, a tropical place and visiting some of its history. On our first morning in Kihei when Ann and I walked the gentle arc of Charley Young Beach together, I wore socks and running shoes because the flap flap flap of flip-flops is not music to my ears and big toe loops or dividers feel icky. My one and only attempt at boogie boarding resulted in an unfortunate and painful sandwich, my right testicle somehow between me and the board. I’m not a natural seasider, no patience for hours under an umbrella with a book and a greased pelt and sand everywhere.

I landed partially on my shoulder and partially on my head. I belly-flopped and then staggered to my feet. Ann was on her hands and knees behind me, in churning foamy and sandy brown water, closer to the shore. She said, ‘Geoff, help me.’ We were both stunned. As her words began to register I realized that I had turned my back on the water. I looked behind me. The distant blue water horizon was suddenly a few yards away and higher than my eyebrows. The undertow ripped my feet from under me as I tried to dive into the cresting wave.

Ann does a brilliant impression of a seemingly distracted, dog-paddling shark, complete with a hummed soundtrack. I have to quell panic and find some sole purchase after a few seconds of treading water. Charley Young is a welcoming beach for inexperienced toe-dippers like us, benign and of no interest to big water thrill-seekers. And so the high surf advisory in the news and on the orange flagged DANGEROUS SHOREBREAK sign didn’t apply to Ann and me nor indeed Charley Young. No, it was meant for places like Makena’s ‘Big Beach,’ also known as ‘Quad Beach’ in the emergency room of Maui Memorial Medical Center. And anyway, the real shark biting months, October and November, had passed and neither of us was outfitted in day-glo, what knowing locals call ‘yummy yellow.’

Ann and I ended up sitting beside one another, both of us dazed once more by the force of the incoming tide, uncomfortable on our butts, just like our Air Canada Rouge flight. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘I think so.’ ‘Was that the seventh wave, the big one?’ ‘Who knows? When do you start counting?’ ‘Is it safe to get out of here?’ ‘Yeah, we’ll just get up and back away after this one. Incoming!’

Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a beautiful song called ‘Every Grain of Sand’ which appeared on 1985’s Shot of Love: ‘I can see the Master’s hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.’ When I hear it I’m reminded of my grade school Catholic catechism; when I listen to it I’m almost tempted to believe in God again.

That morning in the high surf the Master had had his hands all over us. The fine, fine particles of sand were in my nose and in my ears. If I wasn’t circumcised the clean up would have been a painstakingly delicate procedure. When Ann removed her one-piece suit in the shower back at our rented condo, her entire torso was encrusted, panko bread crumbs, coconut shrimp. No injuries, no damage, no scars, just millions of gritty reminders of a pair of scary moments for a couple who have grown to rely upon one another. We felt beaten up. We felt relieved. Fear is one incredible cardiovascular workout.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


Touring Maui

Kihei is on the leeward shore of a stretch of flatlands which connects two volcanoes. You can go anywhere from there though Maui’s network of roads is limited, a diktat of the landscape. A two-lane highway becomes a town’s major thoroughfare and so a traffic light a few miles’ distant can create a car jam of white rentals and an inexplicable plethora of Ford Mustangs. Some routes were designed by kittens whacked on catnip using skeins of yarn which means a posted speed limit of 10 MPH is no mere suggestion. Consequently, any short sightseeing motor excursion inevitably becomes an ‘Are we there yet?’ slog because all roads trace the jagged coastline or head up complicated slopes in their convoluted way. But hell, that’s the lay of the land that comes with a former United States territory situated way offshore in Oceania.

The lava fields of south Maui look like rich, churned earth, the Platonic ideal of soil. Once you examine the rock a little more closely, you think of heaved and broken ice on a wide river in a winter country in springtime except the pointy shards are black and sharper than broken glass and bent razors. There is life on hell’s carpet, baking green vegetation clinging and tenacious in the nooks and crannies of hot rock, geckos skittering and leaping or basking in the infernal heat, their puffed orange throats pulsing like fireplace bellows.

Bubba’s red food truck was parked on a widened shoulder along the narrow highway back to civilization. A sign beside a Bob Marley decal near a front wheel promised ‘Maui’s Best Hot Dog!’ A single bite and the ensuing belched toxic cloud proved the dog to be in fact Costco’s finest; like many foodstuffs on Maui. A savvy visitor with a modicum of culinary expertise and access to a functioning kitchen and barbecue would only profit by cutting out the local middleman.

Even more alien than solidified acres of the Earth’s core is Wailea, a resort community which lies between Kihei and the lava fields. This is Professional Golf Association country, irrigated even beyond the scope of the island’s defunct sugar plantations. This is wealth on display, at once ostentatious and antiseptic, every hibiscus and palm individually manicured to sterile perfection. The Shops at Wailea is a two-storey Spanish style mall accentuated by a central open courtyard and that gaping hole can never be filled with any sort of soul. Its vendors hawk real estate, works of art of dubious merit without price tags and $8 loaves of bread. Unsurprisingly, parking is not free.

West Maui is north of Kihei, the left-hand turn toward the mountains, once volcanic and now ancient and eroded, comes up quickly once you run a backdrop scrim of strip malls. As you pass a stately column of wind turbines, sentries on a slope, you’re on the highway to Lahaina, a former whaling port. The quaint old town and its harbour are buffeted by popular beaches, immense resorts and an outlet mall. Front Street, lined with shops and bars, bustles in the heat and you can’t find room to move. Lahaina’s town square is shaded by a natural umbrella, a Tennessee Ernie Ford 16-trunk banyan tree; the monster is far more compelling than the arts and crafts trinkets and shiny objects for sale beneath its canopy.

At the other end of the valley from Kihei is Paia, a former company town that thrived on its proximity to the sugar plantations that once covered the flatlands. Today Paia is the designated capital of Maui’s hipster and celebrity culture. The epicentre seems to be Charlie’s Restaurant and Saloon whose patrons and unannounced performers have included Neil Young, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons. The honky-tonk is a veritable shrine to Willie Nelson, a close friend of the joint’s owner. There is a gigantic and relatively accurate reproduction of Willie’s guitar Trigger by the side door, befitting of his stature in outlaw music. Willie’s framed gold records line the walls though the sun through a high window has scorched the round red Columbia labels to yellow, perhaps to mirror itself.

Haleakala, the island’s eastern volcano and undeniably its most distinctive geographical feature, hasn’t erupted since the late 17th century. Its peak, ‘The Kingdom of the Sun,’ is a United States national park. The road from Paia leads either up it or around it. Tourists should take both forks in that road from Paia but not on the same day. So you like to drive, become one with the machine? Shift gears in a sporty car or hug a beast of a Harley between your thighs and lean into a turn? Well, these dinky, narrow highways were paved for you, precisely engineered by a snake with epilepsy.

The imprecise gateway to either hairy, hairpin route is Makawao where the air temperature is noticeably cooler than in Paia or Kihei. Like every town on Maui it had a history before its transformation into a charming tourist trap. The buildings on the gently sloping main street have false fronts and the place has an incongruous feel of a western frontier town. A visit to the modest local museum proves a wild hunch. At one time the lower Uplands was cattle country and there is a sepia legacy of Hawaiian cowboys, rodeo kings of Polynesian, Asian and Portuguese descent, the same hardy stocks who once worked the sugar and pineapple plantations.

The purple jacaranda trees begin to dwindle as you leave Makawao and begin to climb. It is a truly bizarre sensation to drive through clouds, where usually only your head can be from time to time, and then rise above them. Above the treeline nearing the summit of Haleakala the high landscape, still green, becomes paler, coarser and rockier. The route of the blacktop allows you to admire every feature and detail at least twice. The trouble with Haleakala as a viewpoint is that it is above the clouds and it’s always cloudy as they are easily snagged. If you are foolish enough to drive the road up it in absolute darkness to commune with the rising sun, the parks service requires a reservation.

And you may have reservations about the winding, knotted coastal highway to Hana, a remote harbour community at the base of the volcano, directly east of the crater. There are 56 one-lane bridges along the 38 mile route, oncoming vehicles must yield. The bridges traverse ravines, gorges, streams, cascades and waterfalls. You wonder about the integrity of the stone and decaying mortar, blackened by decades of moist tropical heat, neither designed nor intended to support the weight of modern vehicles. There are no shoulders or turnouts, just green jungle walls or the abyss, perhaps just the Pacific Ocean if Fortune were to smile on the accident-prone. And you wonder about the intelligence of people who pull over despite the signs forbidding exactly such an inane action and wander the middle of the road because, well, the traffic’s moving at a crawl anyway. The rainforest, picketed with groves of bamboo and decorated with blooms, smells of tarragon, and idling engine exhaust.

Hana itself is just itself. There are two lovely little churches, an immaculate baseball diamond and a general store that has sold everything every citizen could possibly need for a century. The little beach is a crescent of black volcanic sand. The cement wharf is crumbling and unsafe to walk on. Near the slippery boat launch is a solid and simple plaque on a rock commemorating the crew of a fishing boat lost at sea in the 70s: Hana remembers her sons.

Perhaps because of its inaccessibility to hordes of tourists and their wallets, Hana could be as real and authentic as Maui gets these days. That is a relative statement because Hawaii’s original settlers rowed or sailed to the archipelago from other islands in Oceania about 800 years after the birth of Christ. Their descendants now comprise only about 10-per-cent of the modern state’s population. Nothing and everything is new under the sun. There are condo owners in Kihei, longboard surfers in Paia, sea turtle artists in Wailea, jewelers in Lahaina, and there used to be pineapple cowboys in Makawao.

Hana, not a tawdry place, might be a nice place to spend the night because the road ends there. Theoretically you should be able to drive on, circumnavigate the base of Haleakala and end up back somewhere sort of close by from whence you set out. But that lone curving road on the glossy, complimentary map gets rough. The broken, erratic line of dashes suggests four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance, rovers manufactured for other planets. And like the 10 MPH posted speed limit, the traveller warning to ‘Check the limitations of your car rental agreement!’ isn’t just a helpful suggestion or tip. And so when you turn back toward Paia, as you must, you race the setting sun with your foot on the brake. Kihei isn’t very far but it’s a long way away.

Friday, 14 April 2017


Woo-hoo-hoo! Kihei

Charley Young beach is a gentle arc of exceedingly fine sand, constrained at either end by outcroppings of jagged black lava. Posted signage warns users of dangerous shorebreaks and a fierce undertow. Ann and I moved into a condominium across the street at 2191 South Kihei Road, a labyrinthine array of three-storey buildings with exquisitely maintained grounds.  My sister Anne and her husband Al were booked into the same complex, so we were neighbours but not tripping over each other. The three of them had stayed together in the area three years previous and had flung some of my late brother’s ashes on the water, rock and sand. Every day at the beach, whether wading or watching the sunset I wondered where the tides and trade winds had taken him. He wasn’t wired to ever relax but he’d loved Maui. I liked being in a distant though immediate place where he’d been and had managed to hang loose.

Birds are no different anywhere in the world. They wake up too early and make a lot of noise too soon. On our first morning in Kihei (and every subsequent morning) I awoke at dawn to some feathered creature gleefully yelling, ‘Woo-hoo-hoo.’ Though I heard and followed the call, I was never able to figure out who the party bird was, there were too many suspects. What really intrigued and entranced me about the various species of birds was their colouring.

The parakeets zipped by like day-glo hallucinations. Red cardinals flew traffic cone orange in the sunlight; a different variety had red heads, grey breasts and black backs. Brave or complacent russet doves with powder blue faces and beaks hunkered down in foliage shade. The mynas, as intelligent and as attracted to shiny objects as crows and magpies, had striking yellow rings around their eyes which matched their beaks, different tissue entirely. Every Tuesday morning the white egrets, prancing with reverse bended knees like Jagger in his prime, tailed the landscaper’s John Deere lawn tractor, the grub buffet was open. The birds were herded and menaced by a local marmalade cat my sister nicknamed Big Red; the omnipresent geckos enjoyed a time out from the food chain during the cat’s patrols.

Our one-bedroom condo was beach house, bamboo and wicker, starfish knick-knacks. My only complaint or observation about our digs is that dusty ceiling fans and stippled ceilings are a filthy combination. Our walk-out lanai was steps away from an egg-shaped pool with too many rules; I quit reading them once they addressed open sores and fecal accidents about 12 bullet points in. Outcast Alley, the smoking area, was close by, tucked away behind the tennis courts. Every morning Ann and I greeted a burning man, redder than Lenin and Trotsky, from Kazakhstan whose holiday mission was succinct: ‘Must hide from sun.’ Perhaps Maui was his reward for an election well hacked.

Roofers worked over our heads, above and beyond the slope of the Spanish tile, on the apex of the roofs, installing solar panels. A notice in one of the common areas indicated that they’d run into unforeseen problems, specifically an unnatural amount of sawdust scattered over the tongue and groove ceilings of the complex’s upper units. Ann spotted the pest control company vehicle parked by the main building the next morning. Now we understood why every palm tree in the vicinity sported a band of sheet metal about 10 feet up its trunk: Rattus rattus is a climber, a nester, a leaper and a gnawer.

In any place a long way from home I need to get a sense of things on the ground. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser proclaimed itself ‘The Pulse of Paradise.’ It was the big city paper, outward looking in its coverage of international and American news, though reflecting Hawaii as a pacific blue state. Our local broadsheet was the Maui Times which was frighteningly more immediate. What with rising ocean levels and eroding shorelines, news had it that climate change was real and that the county had been studying potential catastrophe evacuation scenarios for a decade but in the meantime a few round blue signs directing people upland away from surging surf had been erected as sensible precautions.

The Times was a quaint daily, extensively covering high school baseball and running dusty syndicated columns like Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise. The Datebook listings revealed trouble in paradise, there were frequent support gatherings for gamblers, overeaters, drug abusers, alcoholics and sex addicts. The time travellers’ club meets every last Thursday. The previous week’s DUI charges were published every Monday and included the name, age, residence of the guilty and the sentence imposed. The roll matched Datebook for length.

Neil Young, a part time resident of Maui, once sang that ‘You find the winners in the dives.’ Kahale’s is where we found the Kihei locals, their dogs and the day drinkers. A tourism based economy is something of a mixed curse but we were always made to feel welcome without any pretense of ‘Aloha!’ The bar’s food was anything found in a Costco freezer that could be deep fried. Most of the cash I was carrying was fed into its digital jukebox. My pint of choice was Longboard lager. Ann and I smoked outside in the rear of the small house-like building with pecking, strutting roosters for company. Our view was the Foodland loading bay across the street.

During our stay a Star-Advertiser op-ed columnist mused upon the nature of tourists. He wrote that there were two types of us, remote ones who desired the luxe and pampering proffered by resorts, as opposed to others like our quartet who wished to live like locals for a limited time in ‘grittier’ places such as Kihei while in search of an ‘authentic’ experience; I could not gauge his level of contempt nor snark. There are not many roads on Maui and Kihei, non-descript as it is, is a perfect starting point for day-tripping. Though the restaurants were decent, notably CafĂ© O’Lei, we enjoyed shopping for our own food and preparing it together. Drinks tasted just as refreshingly good on the lanai as they did in Kahale’s. And for our little band, our ever-evolving clan, we knew that one of us was out there somewhere in the blue water shimmering in the orange sunset. Kihei is a good place.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017


Living on Maui Time

Ann and I have returned home slightly tanned after spending three hot and sticky weeks on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Our stay constituted the longest vacation I’ve ever taken in my life. Though we were tourists the generous allocation of time allowed us to slide into the rhythms of the heat, the tides and the trade winds. For instance, one day I thought it might be a good idea to make some egg salad to keep on hand for a couple of light lunches. I got around to hard-boiling the eggs the following day. I chopped them up a day later, adding mayonnaise, mustard, pepper and diced red onion. On the fourth day I made sandwiches.

The Valley Isle is two volcanic peaks bridged by an isthmus of overlapping lava flows. We stayed in Kihei, situated along the shoreline of that scrubby plain. Maui is named for a mythic demigod who ascended Haleakala (Kingdom of the Sun), the majestic eastern volcano, to lasso the sun, hindering its celestial passage to extend the length of the days and ultimately the growing season. Hawaii has two seasons, wet and dry. Our visit coincided with the transition between them. The wet season must have been particularly parched this year because I felt exactly one ethereal drop of rain on my right elbow one evening and the County of Maui was priming the population for upcoming voluntary water conservation measures as Ann and I packed up for our departure.

Canadians are familiar with Captain James Cook. The British explorer and cartographer mapped the coast of the island of Newfoundland and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778 aboard the Resolution. He designated the archipelago the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. Then came the whalers. The rise of the modern energy industry, Texas tea, eventually doomed the market for whale oil. The killers in this pacific sea have since been replaced by boats of paying watchers and nature photographers.

Missionaries rendered the original Polynesian settlers’ language visible, creating a 12-character Hawaiian alphabet. With religion came American capitalism. The Big Five sugar cartel dictated the economic and political course of the Kingdom of Hawaii for more than a century, to the extent of usurping the native Royal Family. The Hawaii Commercial and Sugar Company’s last working plantation on Maui ceased operation in December of 2016, a lingering victim of low commodity prices, foreign competition, its exploitive history and a controversial harvesting technique requiring sustained controlled burns. There is a derelict mill on the Piilani Highway between Kihei and Kahului which possesses an eerie, rusted and decrepit science fiction beauty. Wreckage acts as a full stop to many stories. The defunct industry’s elaborate network of irrigation ditches is dry.

Today the economy of Hawaii hinges on tourism, and to a lesser extent Pentagon largesse. Hawaii joined the Union in 1959, the last state to date. Local lore has it that statehood initiated an immediate swarm of Pam Am airliners crammed with newly mobile Americans who had more money than sense, beneficiaries of the Jet Age and easy consumer credit. James Bond even turned up in 1967, tracing a lead in You Only Live Twice. Once the Air Canada Rouge Airbus alit at Kahului, Ann and I disembarked with hundreds, and all of us followed in the footsteps of millions.

My sister Anne and her husband Al were on the same flight. We’d met up in Vancouver six hours earlier. On Maui it was late in the evening. Our arrival was the only time I felt hurried on the island. We had 27 minutes to rent a car, collect our luggage and get to a liquor store before the 10 o’clock sales cut off. Ann and I were agitated, desperate for cigarettes. Power puffs chewed up two minutes because we had to find a bin for our butts. I was left panting to collect the bags while the rest of the party engineered the wheels.

A hairy two-wheel u-turn drove us into the parking lot of a Big K. It was dark; we didn’t know that we were between a Costco and a Wal-Mart. All we knew was that time was running out. We made it. We beat the deadline. (The county bylaw was ultimately repealed during our sojourn, big news in the daily paper.) The night of our arrival was the only time we sweated anything on Maui. After our beer and wine sprint we never rushed to do anything else for three weeks, time no longer mattered; it became a mere concept and perhaps a curse for other people elsewhere.