Open Thank-You to our Daughter (the Fibber)

Our oldest daughter fibbed to me Wednesday.  She asked for our new address so she could send pictures of the grandbabies.  This morning as we were drinking our first cup of coffee on the porch, a UPS truck pulled up to our trailer.  “Puzzled” would be an understatement to describe our reaction, but ours is the last trailer on this road, and clearly he was here for us.  Puzzlement gave way to astonishment when he stepped out of the truck with a tower of three boxes, addressed to “Dad and Granny” from Kuliakapualokelani & family.  That would be a lot of pictures.

The box marked “open first” was topped with a three-page hand-written letter, in which Kulia shared this story:

About two months ago Lupe, the kiddos and I went to Walmart to get a few things.  Leland had to go to the bathroom, so Lupe took him while Tiny and I wandered around.  Some time later Leland and Lupe returned and Leland had two toys in his hand.  I quickly looked at Lupe like “why did you let him grab those,” but I noticed Lupe had a blank look on his face, almost as if he didn’t know where to begin with the explanation.

So as I stared at him and tried to figure out how we were going to get these toys away Lupe said, “It’s OK, we have to buy this.”  Of course I looked to him for an explanation.

I guess as they were walking back from the bathroom Leland kept asking for everything under the sun.  Well, Leland’s new line is “Mommy/Daddy I want that for my Dirkday (birthday)” and Lupe’s response this time was, “we are going to have to win the Lotto to get you everything you want for your birthday.

Just as he said that a woman tapped Lupe’s shoulder, grabbed his hand, and said, “This is a gift from God.”  The lady said “buy your son a toy and do what you want with the rest.”  Quickly the lady walked away and when Lupe looked in his hand she placed a $20 bill.  We were both standing in Walmart now confused what to do with the money.  Leland had picked out a toy and asked Lupe if he could get Tiny one too.

So we decided to buy the toys, and the rest of the money was to be passed onto someone we thought could use it.  Well, that money has been sitting in our visor and not once have we come across someone to give it to.  So we send it to you. :)

"Ohana means Family, and Family means no one gets left behind."

The three boxes contained not only the passed-along gift from God, but a wonderful supply of those things that can’t be bought with food stamps–toilet paper, shampoo, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, and so on.  (My Aged Husband, through his tears, managed to joke: “They forgot to include my Depends.”)

My first emotions, I confess, were guilt (it’s not “supposed” to be this way, that our kids would take care of US) and embarrassment (I hadn’t intended my posts of this week to be read as requests)–but it would dishonor their love and their gift to let those emotions have the upper hand for more than a moment.  We said our morning prayer together over the opened boxes–and as we thanked God for (among other things) his Sense of Humor, a Facebook message rang in from Kulia, who was probably tracking the UPS delivery online.  Her message was a quote from this (Hawai’ian) family’s favorite movie, Lilo & Stitch: “‘Ohana means Family, and Family means no one gets left behind.”

To Kulia, Lupe, Lele-Boy and Tiny: We LOVE you.  Words are inadequate. Mahalo nui loa–me kealoha pumehana, makuahine helu ekahi!

Asia Market: Our In-Town International Trip

Not unlike an Embassy, our local Asia Market reminds me of a small piece of foreign country surrounded by American soil.  I am, of course, The Foreigner there–but by now I’ve earned my visa and might no longer be considered a tourist.

Friday mornings the produce comes in–all the vegetables you won’t find at WinCo or WalMart–and the place will be abuzz with lively chatter in a mish-mash of languages that don’t use our alphabet.  When my husband and I owned a Hawai’ian restaurant, I’d be there every Friday to buy taro (the staple root from which Hawai’ians famously–or infamously–make poi, and which we used to make our french fries).  I often felt like an awkwardly out-of-place giant among the dainty ladies who didn’t come up to my shoulder, many of them gesturing inquisitively at my basket-full of produce and speculating to each other with words I didn’t know.  I smiled and nodded a lot, and kept filling my basket–and after a couple months’ worth of weekly appearances, the novelty of redheaded-tattooed Me in their midst wore off.

“hot like wasabi when I bust rhymes…”

Hawai’ian cuisine, infused with an array of Pacific Rim influences, has come to include not only the original Polynesian staples like kalua (“slow-cooked”) pig, but also dishes that originated in China, Japan, and the Philippines–introduced and incorporated into “local” cooking with the influx of these other populations into the islands.  When I first shipped off to University of Hawai’i, I didn’t anticipate (Idaho-girl that I am) the differences in culture and cuisine; up to that point I’d thought of Hawai’i as “part of America–with a nice climate.”  (My husband Keoni, by contrast, is Native Hawai’ian on his mom’s side, and was born in Honolulu before Hawai’i became a state.  Yes, he’s Old.  He still refers to our Idaho sojourn as “living in America.”)  My first morning in the dorm cafeteria came as an eye-opener–I was (happily) in for more adventure than I’d expected.  I soon discovered that even the McDonald’s menu is different there. (Spam & rice, anyone?)  Most of the recipes Keoni learned from his tutu pa (grandfather) require ingredients we can’t get even in the “Asian aisle” of a standard Grocery.  I love to watch his face when we walk into the Asia Market.  Clearly it’s a homecoming for him, every time.

The Market (as with any “foreign” adventure) is best appreciated with a local guide, and I’m fortunate to have had Keoni as my culinary docent.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have known what to think about jars of pickled eel, chili bamboo, the perplexing variety of seaweeds, or goat meat sold by the pound…  Now I have favorites among the furukake seasonings, noodles, rice-flours, and mochi treats, and easily find items in the market that I couldn’t have explained or imagined, let alone located, prior to his tutelage.  Yet we still learn more every time we’re there. (See “Pirate Code for the Road:” Ask Questions! Yesterday’s “mystery item:” an unlabeled shrink-wrapped bundle of shiny thick leaves, hmm…)  The genial store-owner, fluent in the universal language of the Smile, never escapes a chat when we come in, and has been unfailingly helpful at identifying and locating specific items we’re looking for–a challenging proposition at times, given that the same (or similar) items go by a variety of different names across cultures.  He’s accustomed by now to Keoni’s lead-in of, “in Hawai’i we call it…“–followed by a description of the item in question, which the gentleman often finds for us under another name in another language.

There’s a curious sound Keoni makes when he’s enraptured by food–sort of a sucking-air-through-the-teeth-as-if-to-prevent-drooling noise, which he didn’t realize about himself until I (unable to stifle my giggles) pointed it out to him.  That’s the sound-track of our visits to the Asia Market–enhanced yesterday by the rich contralto of a Tongan shopper singing over the produce.  Last night we “smuggled” into our son’s football game a bag of my favorite snack: Saki Ika–which I can only describe as spicy shredded squid jerky.  If they scolded us for bringing in our own food, Keoni was ready with his answer: “Brah. You get squid at da concession stand, I would chance ’em here.”

a few views from yesterday’s visit

An Accidental Sit-In

During my most recent six-hour wait at our Health and Welfare office, the folks around me were joking that the wait itself might be part of the screening-process; no one in their right mind would sit here so long if they didn’t truly NEED help.  We didn’t ask each other’s names, but we knew each other’s numbers, and rallied a cheering-section as the numbers around us finally began to get called.  One grouchy geezer made noise about organizing a sit-in protest, to which I replied that we seemed to BE participating in a sit-in; after all, we’d been in these seats for hours already.

Us with our four youngest kids (portrait by Elena Grace). THREE of these guys are "John Heyward Tyler." Health & Welfare hates us for that.

I was there to straighten out some confusion about our family’s Medicaid; the system is evidently not set up to deal with the possibility of family-members having the same name.  Of course, I have to admit that ours is more complicated than a simple junior/senior designation; altogether there are no fewer than five (living) “John Heyward Tylers” in the family.  They all have additional (Hawai’ian) middle names, which are the names they actually use, but they all show up in the system as John Heyward Tyler.  Never mind the different Social Security numbers, or the fact that each one has a suffix (from “Jr” on down to “VI”) as part of the legal name–H&W goes into meltdown-mode every time it tries to sort us out.

So I was there at the Humor and Welfare office to explain (again) who’s who, and which two JHTs are actually part of our current household.  I wish they’d let me file a diagram.  The “H&W” on the side of the building is meant to stand for Health & Welfare, I know–but given my “privileged” (and well-warmed) front-row seat to the System, I take leave to suggest a substitution.  Someone with a sense of Humor designed this shit.

Amazingly un-grumpy employees

I’ll start with kudos, though. Absolutely without fail, the individuals I’ve encountered working for H&W have been good-humored, concerned, and mind-bendingly patient with the endless parade of clients they face.  (I saw some serious craziness in my six hours of wait-and-watch time, but those ladies dealt caringly with every single person–and the line was as long when I left as when I’d arrived.) I’m sure there’s a grouch in there somewhere, but I haven’t met her yet.   I find this astonishing, actually, especially considering how many people I have to talk to in order to get any single item addressed; by now I’ve experienced quite a broad sampling of H&W employees.  I begin to wish I’d started writing down names so I could send them thank-you notes.  It’s not their fault that the phone number printed on my latest letter isn’t the right one for the issue discussed in that letter; or that the person at that number has on file another number which, when I call it, is the right office but the wrong number; or that the third number goes to the voicemail of a person on vacation, with an emergency number of somebody else, which turns out to be one of the numbers I’ve already called…  Given how disorganized the “organization” is, they must have to deal with a LOT of irate people who have been multiply misdirected–yet each of them behaves as if there hasn’t been a single frustration in her day. Roses for all of them! (Well, if I could afford roses.  Maybe they’d like some kid-drawings of roses?)

That said, here’s a sampling of our “funny” experiences with the System itself… Ha ha.

Last winter while we were both unemployed and job-hunting, we applied & were approved for food-stamps and Medicaid for the kids.  (Am I really complaining about this system when it has helped us this often?  I’m grateful.  And yet… Some stuff should still get noticed.) At that point we had two kids full-time, and another two just a couple days a month.  I listed them all (as I was told to do) and made sure to point out–both on my paperwork and during the intake interview–that the two younger were not in the house often, and already had health coverage through their dad’s job.  Never mind–it turns out kids “qualify” if they are even occasionally in your home, so long as they’re not already claimed in another household; it’s all-or-nothing.  We got food-stamp money AND Medicaid cards for those two kids as well.  (The food stamps didn’t go to waste–the two kids IN the house were ravenous teenage boys. But knowing the finite resources at the State’s disposal, it doesn’t feel right that they send full amounts of money for children who aren’t there to eat.)

This one (bless him!) eats enough for the whole Defensive Line...

The flip side of that same policy: if two parents share custody, the full amount of food-stamps go to the parent who applies first, regardless of where the child spends the majority of time.  We have full custody of one teenager, with a weekend a month to his mom.  We actually still qualified for food stamps while we both worked full-time this summer, but because we could buy food with that income (and don’t want to abuse the system, and prefer to stand on our own feet when we can), we voluntarily stopped our food-stamps.  Meanwhile, our teen’s mom applied for food-stamps and (because he’s in her house once a month), she gets to count him.  When my seasonal summer job ended and we re-applied for stamps, we couldn’t count him because she already does.  Doesn’t matter that WE’RE feeding him 29 out of 30 days.  There’s no provision in the system to re-evaluate; it’s straight-up first-come-first-served, so for as long as she’s still taking food-stamps, she’ll get to keep claiming him.  (We still come out okay because the two kids who aren’t here full-time–and don’t eat much when they are–still qualify for full benefits.  That’s messed up on several levels. And doesn’t help other families where a non-custodial parent beat the custodial household to the food-stamp line.)

Meanwhile, my husband (the one of us who DOES have a biological child in the household full-time) just got bumped out of the Family Health Services medical plan because he “doesn’t have a qualifying child in the household.”  And why doesn’t his child qualify as a member of our household? Because his mom gets the food-stamps for him.  Teen still has Medicaid, so that’s an important thing taken care of–but Dad has been putting off knee-replacements for five years already, and his arthritis is making it increasingly hard for him to work.  So the blanket first-come-first-served policy has hit us harder than just the groceries.  (I’m all too aware that we just got penalized for NOT taking the state’s money over the summer; if we’d continued the food-stamps, we wouldn’t have been “cut out” by her claim.)

"hygeine product" that can be purchased with food-stamps... Not a great shampoo substitute, however...

A word about the food-stamps before I sign off…  I’m not a granola-fanatic or anything, but I think it’s silly that a person could buy nothing but Oreos & sodas all month if she chose.  The card is already programmed not to ring up “excluded” items (alcohol, pre-prepared foods, even energy drinks) so clearly they could exclude junk as well.  Actually what I’m getting at is the idea that there are some “basics” that can’t be bought with food stamps, and I’d rather have those than be able to buy junk-food. I know the stamps are intended to keep struggling families FED, but I’d trade in even my coffee-creamer for the ability to buy a few hygiene items–how about soap or toilet paper?  (We went without both of those for a stretch last winter–but we could have had a cupboard full of Cheetohs.  Kinda silly.  Baking soda works for brushing teeth, but it leaves something to be desired as a substitute for shampoo.) Our local food-banks sometimes have those basics the food-stamps can’t buy, but of course it depends on donations.

Our food-stamp card. Truly a thing of beauty.

At the end of the day, we’re sincerely grateful for the assistance, even with its attendant frustrations. Not proud of needing it, but also not too proud to admit when we do.  And I just got another letter from my buddies at H&W–a request for some documents which I’ve already given them and they’ve evidently managed to vaporize–so I’m gearing up for another sit-in.  I think I’ll bring stationery and start on my thank-you notes.

[Post-Script 10/19: See comments below for kitchen-chemistry tips regarding baking soda and shampoo…  I love my readers! ;)]

I pledge not to blog about NaNoWriMo. (oops. Dammit.)

Well, just for a minute, then. I did take the step yesterday of adding my name to the rolls of the Certifiably Insane, also known as NaNoWriMo Participants–and even went so far as to publicly admit to my foolishness with a participant-badge on the side of my blog. [def. NaNoWriMo Participant: (n.) crazy-ass writer who thinks she can finish a 55,000-word novel during November.] That said, I sense there will be plenty of NaNoWriMo buzz in Blogland without me adding my own manure-pile of it, so I’m resolved to stay mum on the topic till it’s over. Tune in after Nov 30 for a recap if I’m still capable of coherent thought. (Or maybe by then I will have stabbed myself in the eye with a pencil. Wait, I don’t OWN a pencil. Damn the inconveniences of iPad-dependency!)

Today’s REAL topic? “Vanity plates.” (Hmm, there may be a subtle subliminal segue somewhere in there…) We’ve been having fun “collecting” personalized license plates this week, so I’ll share the favorites. I’ve mostly ignored the plates of people’s names–personalized, yes, but not so entertaining. (I plead guilty on this one; our plates say KANAGRL. Of course, the back of my husband’s neck also says “Kana Girl”–evidently I have a compulsion for labeling things that belong to me…)

Cemetery Census

My sister and I grew up with a shared fascination for cemeteries. We loved “browsing” headstones, intrigued by the family groupings, the ages to which people lived (graveyards are no doubt responsible for my earlier math skills, as well as my “fluency” in Roman numerals), and the given names that were popular at different times.

St Andrews, Scotland. Notice the drainage holes? That’s for “body juices” when the occupants decomposed. Ew.

I confess our fascination was heightened by the eerie idea of bones beneath our feet–though the entrancement did not extend to enthusiasm when faced with our mother’s suggestion that we should pose for a picture in a pair of excavated stone coffins in the churchyard of St Andrews, Scotland. Mother–being Mother–prevailed, but I imagine the photo showing the pair of us sitting as gingerly as if we were ready to jump out of our skins as well as the coffins. To round out the experience, we found the gates locked when we tried to leave at dusk, and our none-too-nimble father had to climb over the wall and find someone to rescue the rest of us from the locked and darkening graveyard. All in all a traumatic evening (or would have been, had our “trauma” not been soothed with ice cream directly afterward)–but even that adventure failed to dim our fascination for cemeteries.

My high school biology class once undertook a “census” of our hometown cemetery, plugging dates into spreadsheets and tracking the spikes in death-rates concurrent with wars and flu epidemics.  It was an exercise in statistical analysis, but brought to light the things that had always intrigued me: the stories lurking in cemeteries.

Yesterday, driving from a doctor appointment (verdict Benign–thank you, God) with a few hours to kill before my next engagement, I passed Boise’s Morris Hill Cemetery and impulsively pulled over for a browse.  Even a drive-through visit tells a lot about Boise’s history; there’s a huge section of Basque names (Boise is the largest center of Basque population outside of Spain), an area marked off for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation (the oldest operational synagogue west of the Mississippi), a “Chinatown” section (laundries and Chinese gardens along what’s now Chinden Boulevard served Idaho’s early miners), and a heart-rending parcel comprised of dozens of children. (One four-year-old’s headstone here includes a peculiar notation: “James Hong, Korean.” I’m curious what perceived necessity led to the inclusion of that particular footnote.)

As I wandered down an older stretch of headstones, I pulled out my iPad on a whim and began a “census” of my own. No idea what I meant to do with it, but I arrived home later, still wondering about these 150 people I’d “collected.” Some days, Google is my best friend.

There were some locally famous folks in the row (though you wouldn’t know it from their headstones)–names I recognize from Boise’s street-signs, building-lintels, and business.  But it’s more thrilling, somehow, to uncover tidbits about the folks who hadn’t left a lasting public impression…

“Police Gazette” illustration, courtesy of the Idaho Statesman

Allen Webster rode for the Pony Express. Anna Paine remained a “spinster” and taught music.  Robert Nourse was descended from the Rebecca Nurse who hanged at the Salem witch trials.  Della Daly Evanstad is buried between her two husbands, and among offspring from both unions, though at least two of her toddlers are buried near her mining claim at Placerville.  O.D. Brumbaugh, after involvement in some Indian skirmishes near the Silver City mines, donated the remains of Chief Buffalo Horn to the Idaho Historical Society.  (These were returned to the tribe 85 years later.)  Jane Brasie was a noted Southern belle, daughter of a Confederate soldier. “Nif” Sullivan (whose dad called him “Nifty Ed”–a nickname that stuck even to his headstone) owned a candy store, and Ludwig Stephan (whose wife, beside him, was “mail-order” from Bavaria) ran a bakery.  Alice Beaumont was arrested several times, after her husband abandoned her in a mining town with small children, for  “altercations & vulgar language and wielding a knife,” but was released to care for her children.  Her daughter, Bonnie McCarroll, grew up to be a famous rodeo bronc-rider.

So many stories!  And so few of them hinted at by the headstones.  This has me wondering what my own memorial marker might say, when the time comes.  Something properly pious, of course, suitable for a cemetery’s seriousness…

“God has always had my back.

Now he’s got the rest of me as well.”

St. Andrews, Scotland. Creepy place to be locked in.