Island Style Living

Last week I slipped into the Twilight Zone. It was an ordinary day at my computer when my cell phone rang. I glanced at the screen and saw an 808 number—Hawaii! Don’t know the number, but maybe it’s somebody calling about the book!



Double-blink. The words were slurred and so fast and unexpected it took a minute for my brain to switch gears and recognize Pidgin.

“Barry? You want to talk to Barry?” Said way too haole.

Longer pause, then slower, “Get Barry dere?”

“I’m sorry. You have the wrong number.”


We hung up.

I sat staring at my phone for a minute wondering what the odds where that such a misconnection would happen, thinking of the long ago commercial where somebody trying to call across town ends up talking to someone on the beach in Fiji.

I bet he dialed 801 instead of 808. Or a joke? One of my old friends playing a joke? But they’d have said something, surely.

I’d made it to the living room holding my cell phone before it rang again. 808! Same number. Here we go!


“Um, can talk to Barry?”

“Eh, cuz, I tink you get da wrong numbah. You like talk Barry, yeah?”


“Barry stay Hawaii, yeah?”


“You calling Utah, brah. Dis one Utah numbah.”

“Utah? Fo’real?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Oh. Okay. T’anks.”

I hung up the phone and looked up the stairs to see my daughter standing there, mouth open and catching flies. “Who was that?”

“Barry’s friend. He like talk story.”


“Never mind. Wrong number.”

“Mom that was so funny! I never knew you could talk like that! So fast!”

“It’s Pidgin.”

“Why were you speaking Pidgin?”

“Because he was.”

“Say some more!”

My son came around the corner. “You mean you got a wrong number from Hawaii and the guy spoke Pidgin? What’s up with that?”

I laughed.

“Da-na-na-na, da-na-na-na,” he sang, the theme from The Twilight Zone.

Tell me about it. Wonder what Barry’s friend thought when he heard Kahului tita coming via Utah?

My part-Hawaiian grandmother makes wonderful rice pilaf. It’s a recipe she learned from her Portuguese mother and she made it often when we came to dinner, usually with a ham. Buttery and full of mushrooms, light brown with beef stock and slightly sticky, to my sister Heidi and me the rice was something special we looked forward to whenever we made the rare trip from Maui to Oahu.

But six or more months can feel like a lifetime to a kid, and with so many new words in so many languages rattling around in a head, it’s easy to get confused.

Once when I was about six and Heidi three, our grandparents met our family at the airport. Heidi and I were jumping around like two puppies newly freed from a kennel: sitting on the baggage carousel, running around and around Grandpa’s legs, climbing up the short rock wall and walking along it—I’m sure we were driving the adults nuts. That’s when Grammie said the magic word: dinner.

“Grammie! Grammie! You going make rice?” I danced.

“Yeah, Grammie! Rice!” Heidi sang.

“Rice? What’re you talking about, rice?” Grammie said.

“You know, the kind you make,” I said.

“What are you kids talking about?”

Heidi and I looked at each other. It starts with a p… “You know, that pilau rice!”

“Pilau rice!” Heidi crowed. “Pilau rice!”

My non-Pidgin speaking mother looked confused. The blood drained from my father’s face. My grandfather looked nonplussed. And Grammie went nuclear.

“PILAU rice! Pilau RICE! I do NOT cook PILAU RICE!”

Heidi and I were puzzled. We knew we were in trouble, but didn’t know why. “But we love your pilau rice, Grammie!”

“Yeah,” said Heidi, “We love it! We love pilau rice.”

The penny dropped. “Pilaf,” Grandpa said. “It’s rice pilaf.”

“Yeah, that’s what we said! Pilau rice!”

“No,” he corrected. “Not pilau, pilaf! Rice pilaf! Say it.”

“Pilau, I mean pilaf, rice pilaf,” we repeated.

But to this day, in my head, I still think of it as pilau rice!

Pilau: (nvs) Hawaiian for rot, stench, rottenness; to stink; putrid, spoiled, rotten, foul, decomposed. We couldn’t have come up with a worse insult if we tried.

My Uncle Dave Hopkins was a master of the green flash, that split-second when the sun dips below the horizon and a brilliant green flash lights the sky at sunset. It’s thanks to him that I saw it as often as I did growing up in Kalama Valley. We’d all be piled into his car coming around Hanauma Bay on our way to volleyball or back from the beach and he say, “Today’s the day!” and whip the car into the overlook turnout above Koko Marina. From there you can watch the sun set into the ocean, and we’d sprawl over the rock walls, relaxing in the tradewinds, waiting sometimes half an hour or more, and end up late to wherever we were supposed to be. Time was a flexible concept in Uncle Dave’s world. But it was worth it. Most times he was right. Long before anyone scientifically analyzed this phenomenon, Uncle Dave knew it was a matter of location, horizon, and atmospheric clarity. He’d watched a lot of sunsets.

Uncle Dave always had time to smell the roses, sample the kim chee, or teach kids how to catch crabs, boogie board, or the best way to set the volleyball just off the net for the perfect spike. Our families used to go beach camping and that’s where he taught me how to cook fried rice for breakfast using leftover rice we’d made with ocean water the night before. Uncle Dave loved to eat and knew all the best places around the island to eat anything—crackseed, shave ice, guri guri, teri chicken—he was better than a restaurant guide.

Like many people with big hearts and even bigger opus, Uncle Dave died young, too young,  when I was a sophomore in college. I miss him. I’m sure he’s up in heaven yelling down at us to slow down, relax, and enjoy the journey. A hui hou, Uncle Dave!

Tips to Spot A Green Flash at Sunset

Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see a green flash at sunset. But be careful; there’s a true green flash and a false green flash. The false green flash isn’t as spectacular; it’s more of a green haze over everything and lasts too long; it comes from staring directly at the sun as it sets and damaging your retinas.

  1. You need a clear, distinct, and distant horizon. A sun setting into the ocean’s the best bet.
  2. The sky has to be perfectly clear; no clouds, vog, or haze on the horizon.
  3. Position yourself so you’re looking right into the setting sun, but keep your eyes off the sun itself until just the barest hint is above the horizon.
  4. Don’t blink! A true green flash only lasts a fraction of a second. Watch for a green flash, flicker, or glow about the setting sun. If you look away and everything has a green cast to it, it’s a false flash.
  5. Have patience. Like my Uncle Dave and Uncle Kahana in One Boy, No Water say, you many see a green flash only a handful of times in a lifetime, but once you’ve seen it, you’ll never doubt again!

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.

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 and 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, 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 heaven-ward, 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) and 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 and 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. Clyde likes to image 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.

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 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!


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.

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.

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