My husband has described his customer Vern as a guy who “can’t find anything good to say about life.” When Vern called Jon’s cell tonight (in the middle of our Date Night) pleading for help with his broken-down truck, I got to experience his outlook first-hand. Jon being Jon, we went to help—which meant giving Vern a lift home and promising to look at the truck in the morning, when it’s light and hopefully up to double-digit temperatures, and when Jon can be dressed to climb underneath.
I scooted to the middle of our truck-seat and Vern hoisted himself up into the passenger seat (the first time Jon picked me up for a date in this truck, I asked him to throw down a rope-ladder!) and we steered our way through the icy neighborhoods toward Vern’s house with his querulous running commentary.
“Lord love a duck, Jon, if it’s not one thing it’s a hundred and fifty. I don’t know what I’ll do. My property tax just went up, and with all these other bills I have… If it’s not one thing it’s a dozen. I don’t know why that truck won’t start, and you just did the new points too. But the city plowed us in with snowbanks and I can’t get my car out, so I’ve got to drive the truck. I tried to dig out the car and I just tore up my left arm. And my power bill just went up, I guess I’m just not fit to live. Lord love a duck, Jon, if it’s not one thing it’s twenty….”
Well, you get the gist. As we drove away after dropping him off, I found myself contemplating the idea that there can be a difference between a person’s circumstances and a person’s experience. And that difference might just be outlook. Which brings me to… Continue reading “Internal Geographies”→
Pat just had a massive stroke; he’s in a coma on life support and not expected to make it back to us. Knowing that he wouldn’t be talking to me (but who knows, might be able to hear me) I stopped at the hospital today to visit him.
His son, whom I’d heard about but hadn’t met, eagerly accepted my meager offering of stories-about-his dad while I held Pat’s hand and hoped maybe he was enjoying them too. My favorite story about God & Pat & me is one I shared here five years ago (and I’ll say it’s worth a read—not for the writing, but for the wow-factor of a true story).
Another favorite that I shared with Pat’s son was one he used to tell, about his days as a cop. Whenever someone came as a ride-along, the officers would put him in a hat that said “JAFO,” and explain that it meant “Justice Affiliate, Friend of Officer.” It would ensure his safety, they explained, by making sure other cops knew who he was. It actually stood for “Just Another Fucking Observer.” Pat always led to the point that each of us should engage in our own Recovery, rather than being a JAFO in our own life.
I’d say he took his own advice. He survived being shot twice, beat throat cancer, was riding his bright orange Harley Davidson last time I saw him… I’ve often sat in the back row of A.A. meetings between two men who totaled 80 years of Sobriety between them. (I always figured it’s a good seat if I’m book-ended by “old-timers.”) Pat’s daughter committed suicide just weeks after my husband Keoni did, and the two of us sat through a lot of meetings holding hands and crying together. I’ll miss my bookend. And I promise, Pat, to keep LIVING so I don’t merit a JAFO hat.
Post-Script 1/3: Pat passed away shortly after my visit. I’m so glad I went.
I dreamed last night that I was back in Safe Haven, the psych-facility where I recently spent ten days, and the dream felt comforting. The place is well named.
My cell phone was one of the things I missed most in there—not for calls, but for Google (I hadn’t realized how many things-a-day I look up!) and for the camera, and for texting. This post gets doodles instead of photos, because I didn’t have my camera!
We were allowed, between group-sessions and scheduled activities, to take turns using the phone at the nurse’s station. My first day (when I was still miserably trying to claw my way out of there) I was calling my husband nearly every other hour. That’s a lot of calling for someone as phone-phobic as I am, but I was raw and out of my comfort zone and looking for the balm of his voice.
Technically, I could have announced my intention to walk out at any time—despite the lock-down conditions, I was on a voluntary hold—but I was looking for someone to tell me it was okay to go. Let me be more honest: I was trying to manipulate the psych-doc into telling me it was okay to go. But by the fourth day, I told her I was maybe doing TOO well. She mistook my announcement for another attempt to get myself released, but I corrected her interpretation. “I’m actually afraid to go home right now. I think I’m feeling TOO good.”
Charlie keeps things simple. The rack and saddlebags on his bike can carry what he owns. So far as I can tell, that consists of: a tobacco pouch and plastic cigarette-roller, some T-shirts and socks and a second pair of jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a camouflage coat, several hats and a mismatched pair of gloves, a pool cue that unscrews in the middle, a sleeping bag, a plastic water bottle, a pair of reading glasses, and usually a paperback novel or two. Oh, and a Magic EightBall—except he doesn’t have that any more, because he gave it to me. (I was lamenting, one slow afternoon, that I wished I had a magic crystal ball to TELL me when we wouldn’t see a customer for three hours, so I could close up and go home for a nap. Charlie held up a finger and dug in his magic saddlebag till he came up with the Magic EightBall. “There you go: you can ask IT.”)
The stuffed rabbit riding his handlebars answers to “BunnyHopper,” sneaks Charlie’s cigarettes, and tends to sass back. (No, Charlie isn’t “crazy”—he’s just brimming with humor!)
Last Thanksgiving we didn’t open the restaurant for business, but we did put the restaurant kitchen to use. My husband Keoni—with the help of our sons, Kapena & Christian—cooked dinner, while our daughter Elena Grace pushed together dining room tables and set places for guests. The previous two years, in tight financial straits, we’d gratefully accepted the generosity of other people to put Thanksgiving dinners on our table. (Many thanks to our local food bank, and to our oldest daughter Kulia’s “Operation Gobble Gobble” charity drive!) But now the (laden) tables have turned; with the new restaurant thriving, we’re blessed with food enough to share. In the week ahead of the holiday, we put out word through the neighborhood “homeless network” that anyone lacking Thanksgiving dinner would be welcome to join ours. It wasn’t fancy—paper plates and plastic forks—but everyone left with full stomachs and food in hand, and I was pleased to watch our kids unselfconsciously chatting with the grubby-but-gracious strangers seated next to them at the table… And that’s the day we met Charlie.
Charlie could usually be found at his favorite hangout—the bench in front of our local grocery store—almost always with a book in hand. (He refuses to “fly a sign,” to borrow the street parlance for roadside-begging, but picks up odd jobs that allow him to put his mechanic’s training to use, and his semi-regular employers know where they can find him.) On our way into the store to shop we’d stop for hellos (as Christian accurately observed, “Charlie gives the BEST hugs,” rib-crunching in their intensity!) and started bringing paperbacks as we finished them, swapping out for whatever he’d just finished. (It had dawned on us that he can’t qualify for a Library card without a “home address”…)
There’s an unfinished storage-space above the restaurant, which we’d originally intended to convert into a hang-out spot for the kids. When we found a rental home just up the street, though, we abandoned the playroom project, as well as the mattress we’d hauled up the stairs… until one of our kids thought of a better use. On a snowy night with temperatures in the single-digits, Kapena unlocked the upstairs door and went to find Charlie and convince him to get himself out of the weather.
Because Charlie is adamant about not taking “hand-outs,” we’ve arrived at a working arrangement that doesn’t ding his dignity. He keeps our parking lot clear of trash and weeds, takes care of our indoor plants (and potted & nursed the tomato plants a friend brought us), unloads several hundred pounds of groceries out of our car every morning, scrapes out the BBQ, and hauls our trash and recycling over to the bins. He’s done mechanical work on our minivan and our son Kawika’s brakes. On occasions when we’ve run out of something mid-day (and the restaurant is too busy for one of us to leave) Charlie is always happy to hop on his bike and do the “emergency” grocery-run. When we’ve showed up at three in the morning to start the smoker for large catering orders, Charlie pops up like a security officer to make sure it’s US and not an intruder.
We tease him about the advantages of having “our own personal Charlie” to help out with so many things, and he always responds to my thanks by saying, “Well, Ma’am, that’s what Charlies are FOR.”
When our van threw a belt this summer, Charlie took it on himself to ride his bike around town (in hundred-degree heat) to find the right belt, and came back to report where he’d found it, and for what price. We gave him the forty bucks to cover its purchase, and he pedaled right off again to bring it back, carefully handing over the receipt and counting back the change, and then spent the rest of the hot day with his head under our hood. His latest project (his idea) is working on the paint-job on my old/new Subaru. He floated the idea, with a simple list of what he’d need, and I expressed my delight. “Well. That’s what Charlies are FOR, Ma’am.”
Sometimes when he has a couple bucks he buys me flowers… And I know he has sometimes made that purchase at the expense of buying himself a beer (the other “treat” in his life–along with his books). We’ve talked a few times about our shared trait of Alcoholism, though I think it makes him uncomfortable because he starts apologizing for drinking, which was never my intent. (In fact, Keoni sometimes prevails on him to accept a couple bucks to buy a beer and drink it “vicariously” for us.) The thing is that (unlike either of us!) Charlie’s personality doesn’t change when he drinks. He may be less steady on his pins, but he’s never less Charlie.
What I love best about Charlie (in addition to his hugs) is his outlook on living. I’ve known so many people with more stuff and easier situations, who still manage to be displeased with their lot. Charlie, on the other hand… stands by our barbeque with his hands on his hips, looks up at the blue sky, and pronounces: “I love Life!”
Reminders of the joy in living, appreciation of simple things… THAT’s what Charlies are for.
Once Upon a Time… Kana & Keoni owned a Hawai’ian barbecue restaurant.
For more than a year, Kana Girl’s Hawai’ian BBQ held UrbanSpoon’s #1 spot for “Best BBQ restaurant” in the Treasure Valley (home to one-third of Idaho’s population)…. And we had a kick-ass time of it, building a unique atmosphere with our combined knowledge of Hawai’ian culture and Keoni’s cooking—the authentic family recipes he learned from his Tutu Pa (grandfather) when he was a small kid. The word our guests most often used to describe Keoni’s food (a little ironic in view of our own alcoholic/addict backgrounds) was: ADDICTIVE. We were closed Sundays & Mondays, which meant we’d have an onslaught of regular customers every Tuesday, jonesing for a “fix” because they’d had to go two days without his food. No joke.
When we first opened the restaurant, we hadn’t realized what an abundant number of Hawai’ians and Pacific Islanders lived in this area, but word quickly spread among the “Local” community (“Local” being a word Hawai’ians use to refer to other Islanders, regardless of their current location) and we quickly had a flood of folks looking to test us to see if Keoni’s food were the “real thing.” He passed the authenticity test, hands down—his “plate lunch” (a to-go container with sticky rice, mac salad, and favorite Island entrees) is precisely what the Local folks remember from back home. Word-of-Mouth served us well; most months we didn’t spend a dime on advertising—but business was booming.
The two of us ran the place by ourselves–the original “Mom & Pop” approach—so we had the pleasure of getting to know our many Regulars, and after a while we couldn’t go anywhere in town without being pounced on and identified as “the Hawai’ian BBQ people.” No doubt it’s the closest we’ll ever come to experiencing “celebrity” status. (Keoni follows the Hawai’ian custom of addressing everyone as “Bruddah” or “Sistah”–a personable habit that came in handy in the occasional encounter when we were unable to put names to the faces of people who obviously recognized US…)
It led to some interesting social dynamics at times… During our first week of business a gentleman came in the front door and I greeted him with “Howzit“–the Island version of “Hey, how’s it going?” He literally stopped dead in his tracks and repeated the word with a question mark. He looked “Local” to me, but I expanded with an explanation: “Howzit–How’s it going?” He looked askance at my haole (white!) self and retorted, “I know Howzit. How do you know Howzit?” I explained that I went to school on the Big Island, and that I’m married to a Hawai’ian (the cook)—and once he tasted (or should I say tested) his first Plate Lunch order, he was hooked. In fact, he and his wife became some of our closest friends in the years that followed.
And then there were my Friday-morning rounds to the Asian markets in town… We made our fries from the taro root (the Hawai’ian staple from which they make poi)–but taro is understandably difficult to come by in Idaho. All the Asian markets got their produce shipments on Friday mornings, which meant that every Friday the markets would be swamped with lovely ladies who came up to my shoulder… And every Friday I made the rounds of all those markets, buying up their taro root. I’m not sure what the Chinese words would be for “tattooed white lady who buys the taro,” but chances are that I’d recognize the phrase if I ever heard it again… The taro fries were a hit—and we noticed that although people occasionally asked if we had poi, very few people actually asked for it. Let’s just say that poi is an acquired taste.
Whenever Keoni had a few minutes of down-time in the kitchen, he’d wend his way through the dining room (I called it his “Charm Walk”) speaking Hawai’ian Pidgin with the Local folks and “talking story” with other diners. (Pidgin is a recognized language in the Islands, so Keoni was considered a Bilingual Officer when he worked in the prisons there…) He also sang in the kitchen all day long–he’s got a gorgeous tenor voice and knows all the classic Hawai’ian songs by heart… His Tutu Pa was a musician, and taught Keoni to sing as well as to cook–and also to blend the things he’s passionate about.
Our restaurant was the kind of place where diners (who didn’t know each other) would chat among tables, where people would bring ukeleles and indulge in an impromptu kanikapila (“jam session”) when they finished eating, where a couple might get up and dance in the middle of the floor to one of Keoni’s solos, where regular customers would drop in to say Aloha and give us a hug even when they weren’t there to eat, where people brought in all kinds of Hawai’ian mementos until our decor was a wonderfully collaborative clutter, where we could get to know people’s regular requests and personalize their orders (that’s also how we ended up with Vegetarian and Gluten-Free menus), where people could slow down from the hectic pace of their lives and enjoy a mini-vacation in our “ISLAND TIME zone” (as the sign above the door proclaimed)… We liked to think of it as an embassy of sorts—a few hundred square feet of Hawai’ian soil in the middle of Idaho.
We loved being able to work together—we were happy to go to work together every morning, and we were happy to go home together every evening. We were only half joking when we’d say that Keoni was afraid of the cash register and I was afraid of the smoker—but together we made a Most Excellent Team. And Keoni liked to boast that he got “paid in kisses and tattoos.” Whenever a diner told me I should give the cook a raise, I’d lay a big ol’ smooch on him!
We regularly ran up against sexist stereotypes when dealing with salespeople and the like; very few people made their first approach with the idea that I might be the “businessperson” of the operation. One salesman came in while Keoni was out picking up supplies, and insisted on sitting and waiting until my husband returned, rather than talking to me. When Keoni came back half an hour later, you can imagine the guy’s chagrin when Keoni told him, “You’ll have to talk to Kana Girl about that. She’s the owner—I just cook.” Needless to say, this guy had already lost any chance of making a sale. Other people would ask me if they could talk to the owner (never mind my apron with “Kana” across the front, and the “Kana Girl’s” name across the front door)—and one fellow went so far as to ask me if I knew who the owner was. (Surely it couldn’t be the tattooed chick in the miniskirt!)
We were also both very happy about NOT having to work for anybody else. It was one of our favorite jokes, whenever anyone asked if we could make a substitution or fulfill a special request—Keoni would answer, “Well, I’ll have to check with Corporate…” Then he’d turn to me with the question: “So what do you think, Babe?” (We also joked that if I were “Corporate,” that made Keoni my “Corporate Man-date”…) We loved being able to do things the way WE thought they should be done, and we loved being able to involve our keikis (kids) in the family business.
Looking back now… Opening that restaurant when we did looks in retrospect like a totally harebrained idea. We were deep in a recession and eateries were closing left and right. Neither of us had ever owned a business, we’d only known each other for half a year, and only been Sober for that same half-year. Launching a restaurant just then was a crazy-ass thing to do. And we had a lot to learn! But all in all, it went beautifully. In fact, in some ways it was an advantage to be new to the restaurant business, because we weren’t hidebound by “The Way Things Are Done.” (Take the zero-dollar advertising budget, for example…) Although I also have to say that there were plenty of other things, learned along the way, that we would definitely handle differently if we ever had a “do-over.”
In the end, we threw our beautiful restaurant away. We didn’t lose it; we threw it away. After a year and a half of booming business, we drank again. In a mere matter of weeks, we threw away absolutely everything that was important to our Sober Selves. Custody of our kids, our restaurant, our house, our car, and almost our marriage. (People regularly ask us if we ever fight—a question usually accompanied by the observation that we clearly have a lot of fun together. The honest answer is that we don’t argue… when we’re Sober. When we drank, we didn’t even like each other.)
That was a little more than two years ago. If we could take back the hurt we caused to the people who love us—particularly our kids and our parents—we’d do it in a heartbeat. But at the same time… There are a lot of things about our journey of the last couple years that we wouldn’t want to trade. (In fact, that’s probably a whole post in its own right.) Bottom line, though: despite the financial struggles and various challenges of the last 27 months, we’re in a better place now than we’ve ever been—spiritually, emotionally, in terms of our Sobriety and our family relationships… in every way, actually, except financially.
And then… An unexpected blessing fell into our laps. Keoni had a retirement account from his career in Corrections; we’d been trying to avoid tapping into that resource, but we’d been falling behind on our rent, and he had a couple surgeries to get through (last week’s spine surgery, and another knee replacement coming up) before he could get back to working… So we finally decided we’d better go ahead and cash out his retirement. We thought it would be just enough to catch up on our rent and pay ahead a few months while we figured out “what next”… But when the check arrived, it turned out to be quite a lot more than we’d expected. In fact…
It turned out to be enough to re-open our restaurant. Seriously, how often in life do we actually get a “do-over”? Well, we just got handed one. To quote one of our favorite A.A. guys: “How cool is THAT?!”
Things have been falling into place the way only God’s plans do. (One of the things we’ve learned in Sobriety is that when we’re working too hard to try and make something happen, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether “our plan” is really the best thing to be doing. Not surprisingly, God’s ideas are better than ours.)
We found the perfect location almost immediately. It’s ideally situated from a business perspective, and it’s right next door to Elena Grace’s school and within walking distance of Christian’s junior high. There’s even a private space upstairs that we can use as a “family room” when the younger kids are there with us.
This time around we also have the advantage of some eager extra hands within the family. Our teenage son Kapena has already been working full-time between two jobs, and he can’t wait to quit those jobs to work with us. Even Christian is gung-ho about being part of the venture. And we have the chance this time to put into practice all the things we learned the “hard way” the last time around. I can’t even begin to describe how excited we are.
We’re set to open April 13 (our lucky number 13!), giving the landlord time to do some remodeling and updating of the building, and giving us time to “remodel” the cook (those surgeries I mentioned). The restaurant website is still under construction, but I do have the menus posted: www.KanaGirlBBQ.com. And so… The next adventure begins! Stay tuned…