Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The windward paradise

Kailua! On the east side of Oahu, Kailua offers beautiful sandy beaches that are much quieter and much less touristy than Waikiki (well, what isn't?), though they did a fairly good business with tourists like us who were coming in to kayak. And eat shave ice, which I think pales in comparison to a real NJ Italian ice.

We rented a double for my friends and a single for me from a German surfing expert and pulled them on wheels to the beach. Kayaks are surprisingly heavy, by the way. And guess what, none of us inexperienced kayakers had worn bathing suits, so we just soaked ourselves pushing off. I unflappably waded to my waist, hopped up and took off, then realized that my paddles were oriented at about five degrees to each other, which made for an awkward stroke. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed kayaking, especially when we got to the edge of the 'safe zone' and rode the waves. My friends flipped over. It was hilarious, except that the volcanic rock on the bottom there was extremely sharp, and one friend was not wearing reef shoes, so he was dancing around trying not to cut himself and push the kayak back over. Not a good combination.

We landed at a tiny islet called Flat Island, a seabird sanctuary, and walked around. A native Hawaiian was looking for fish. He was kind enough to go down with his net to amuse us, even though he'd seen about two fish. Paddling back felt harder -- tired arms? -- but the views of the coast were worth it. Thirteen hours later, I was in Chicago, staring at the rain.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

From Hanauma to home

24 hours ago, I was kayaking in shorts and t-shirt off the windward coast of Oahu. I just went out to the grocery store in a down coat. I am also bombarded with news of swine flu and Arlen Specter.

Who wouldn't go back to this if they could? This is world-famous Hanauma Bay on the southeast tip of Oahu, a protected coral reef where the snorkeling is great. It's also very difficult at low tide; I got considerably banged up, which was probably because I took the injunction not to touch the reef extremely seriously and was doing all kinds of gymnastics in one to two feet of water rather than hang onto or stand on the reef and save myself. It's also quite difficult at the left of the bay, the so-called Witches' Brew, where the currents are strong and the shore is jagged rocks. However, if you stick to the clear circle of the inner reef and go in at high tide, you can have an easy snorkel.

I saw two big green sea turtles, or honu, peacefully chomping away surrounded by snorkelers gawking at them. These guys were about two to two and a half feet long. I saw tangs, parrotfish, triggerfish (better known as the humuhumunukunukuapuaa, Hawaii's famous fish), butterflyfish, and one (only one!) Moorish Idol, which looks exactly like an angelfish but isn't really. I even found a quiet spot at high tide where I could hear the fish eating off the reef. It's a "crunch" sound, much like a person stepping on gravel or, say, a handful of cereal.

Hanauma is protected, which means that you pay to get in, have to watch an instructional video, the staff vigilantly keeps the beach clean, etc. (They do not attempt to make you use biodegradable sunscreen, which means I blew a lot of money.) However, I found that unprotected snorkeling in Hawaii is awesome as well; just diving in at Queen's Surf, next to Waikiki, I found schools of tangs the size of dinner plates, immense Moorish Idols, and even saw an eel and a -- I can't remember the name, but they stick up out of the sand pretending to be grass. I guess I really ought to have bought an underwater camera. I wish I had had a chance to snorkel off the leeward side of Oahu, too.

In case you can't tell, I have fallen for snorkeling bigtime. I knew I would. I love to swim more than almost any other sport, and as a child, my mother could park me in front of the fish tank in the supermarket, for god's sake, and find me there whenever she wanted. I'm already dreaming of more snorkeling trips in my future.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Go for what?

Who doesn't know what 'go for broke' means, even if it's not used every day? There was a time when it was a weird, unknown slang phrase, which is how it became the motto of the 442nd, the Japanese American infantry regiment of WWII that became the most decorated unit of its size in American military history.  These men came from the internment camps and Hawaii, leaving their incarcerated families behind, to fight to defend the rights and privileges that they were being denied. Their heroism is really one of the remarkable stories of the war, and of civil rights history.

I was honored to meet some veterans who were hanging out by the Go for Broke monument in Little Tokyo, L.A. That's my photo with one of them, standing in the half-moon. To make it even better, the photo was taken by a vet who served with the Military Intelligence Services in the Pacific, which is an even more untold story.

When I say 'hanging out,' of course I mean volunteering to educate and raise awareness of the Go for Broke Foundation, which does wonderful oral history work.  They hope to raise the funds to build a facility behind the monument, which would put it within a stone's throw of the Japanese American National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art's outpost.  It would be a great addition to that area.  Alas, like all other fundraising efforts, they've been hit hard.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Expect the unexpected

When I rebooked all my hotels on the fly last week, I didn't realize that I would have the opportunity to go to see a play at the Geffen Playhouse out by UCLA, a lovely two-stage theater with a beautiful tiny courtyard in front. I was serendipitously walking past at an hour to showtime tonight and ended up postponing dinner to watch The Seafarer, a play that I missed at Steppenwolf, starring John Mahoney (Frasier's dad). Excellent acting, though some of the accents, including Mahoney's, drifted in and out of Irishness. And the play is either slow in itself or the direction was; I couldn't quite decide. A bunch of drunk drifters, one henpecked, one blind, one perenially unfortunate, in north Dublin are... being unhappy, for quite a while, till yet another one brings home an urbane outsider who turns out to be the devil, come to play for Sharky's soul as agreed in a prison card game. Who knew? Hard realism meets wild Miltonesque drama, urban misery meets nihilistic, po-mo misery. It had some real moments, but there was at least one moment when I thought, "Oh lord, get on with it!" So a mixed bag, but I'm glad I got to do it.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Too cute for words

Los Angeles' Chinatown can't quite compare with the wonders of SF or NYC, but it's quite big and extremely scenic. Every building on the main drag is pagodaed out, or has murals, or something. The entrance gate is relatively subdued, with two slender, writhing, gold dragons on a metal arch. No big lions or loud colors, no Chinese characters even.

Sometimes it is rather hard to keep yourself fed on a busy trip, when you're running around and have a budget, eschew chains, and have some faint sense of dietary health. I got takeout dim sum, a pile of little steamed dumplings and a bbq pork bun, and ate it bit by bit all afternoon. Of course, it left me slightly vegetable-less, unless you count the bits in the pork dumplings.

Chinatown was full of bakeries, restaurants, groceries, etc. I didn't go up to the library or cultural center, so it was a quick tour, but a fun one. As my friend observed when I took her to Boston's Chinatown, "Now I can say for sure that Chicago's Chinatown is really dead."

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Happy accidents

I accidentally found Olvera Street today. I recognized it when I saw it from television, but I hadn't looked it up or planned to see it today. It's a pedestrian street of Mexican restaurants, crafts stalls, souvenir shops, etc. Lots of leatherware. I was most tempted by some of the cute little hard purses with flowers tooled on them, but I'm not six. I did, however, buy some barrelhead cactus candy. Very, very sugary, but I can tell what a cactus tastes like through it, much like eating violet gelato in France.

Not too much going on there today, but I'm sure that there's music in the pavilion on weekends. I am not a churro person, and I was full from Chinatown, about which more another day. But it was quite a lot of fun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Well, excuse ME

Safely ensconced at the Millennium Biltmore, Los Angeles, where I found a movie shoot going on in one of the banquet rooms. We were politely requested by a sign to stay the hell away. No idea what movie.

At the moment, I'm seated next to the fountain, occasionally glancing up to take in the outrageous barrel-vaulted/coffered/gilded ceiling. It's pretty cool. The historic nature of this hotel was not oversold. However, I already note that downtown L.A. is very odd; just a couple of blocks away from the hotel are some, uh, seedy areas. I happily scarfed down a sandwich from a Mexican bakery and deli there (ah, they're generous with the avocado -- between that and the shoot, I know I'm in California) but decided I had best hie myself back to the hotel as it grows dark.

I was hoping to go to Chinatown for dinner, but my lack of maps and the early closing of the RiteAid left me with no sense of how to get there, and I was afraid I'd pass out from low blood sugar before I figured it out! Tomorrow.

Oh, and man is this area sprawling. The time it took to get to the train station from the airport would have gotten me into downtown Boston.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hitting the road

Getting ready for another trip: Los Angeles and then Waikiki! Purely for work purposes, I assure you; L.A. for research, Waikiki for a big conference.

I will be blogging for you from my brand new netbook. I'm very excited about this; I haven't had a piece of cutting-edge technology since I was an owner of one of the first-generation clamshell iBooks. People used to come to my dorm room to visit it. Netbooks, in case you don't know, as I did not, are basically tiny computers (about 8" diagonal) meant for light use: websurfing, a little word processing. They have full capability like a built-in webcam and all, mind you, just limited hard drive, but for a light user like myself, they're fully loaded. Best of all? They weigh two pounds. Tuck in the purse and run.

Having dropped my old, heavy laptop only about four times on the last trip, I think I can safely say that this is better for my shoulder and the life of my main machine.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pacifist overtures

I went to see a very interesting and very rare production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures last night, done here in Chicago by Porchlight, a small musical theater company. It's a musical about the opening of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, and if one more usher, director, board member, or whoever had told me that I had to read the synopsis first, and that this show is "from the Japanese point of view!" I would have walked out.

The director, in his notes, drew parallels to Iraq, and noted that Japan took the Western intrusion and used it; the show ends with a paean to Japanese global achievements and popularity. Such an earnest and well-meaning production, and even an intermittently well-meaning show, still can't take the horrific stereotyping out entirely. When you have a number about geishas preparing happily for the Western influx, it just isn't going to go over well. Nor is it going to go over too well when a cringing young official gets jeered at and bossed around by Perry's sailors when he tries to turn them back. In general, the officials could have been done with a little more dignity. They might not have been able to keep Japan closed in the face of Perry's cannons, but they didn't have to be played as helpless and ridiculous, either. On the other hand, some of the other characters were played with a real sensitivity and well-roundedness.

So it's up to you, if you can endure those uncomfortable elements. Musically, I actually liked it very much; it's slightly more melodic Sondheim. The production is excellently and minimally staged, allowing for a lot of good dance choreography (and some rather lacking fight choreography). The cast is uneven. David Rhee, the Reciter (the central, self-ironizing role played in the revival by B.D. Wong) was a little too obviously the best trained actor in the show, and rather intense -- maybe because he felt he had to make up for the others. (I'd have taken his mike off, if nothing else, to level the sound.) This was cleared up on the way home when I looked at the bios and found that he is an Equity member who has played on Broadway and at Steppenwolf. The rest are local actors of varying experience, some of whom were excellent, and some of whom were certainly good local talent, but not up to Rhee's level. Beautiful costumes -- what costume designer doesn't love to go nuts with kimonos? and a decent little 5-piece band behind a screen. If you are a big Sondheim or musical fan, by all means run, don't walk. But only if.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It was a simpler time

I've gotten quite addicted to YouTube clips of the CBS game show What's My Line?, which ran through the fifties into the sixties. MCed by John Charles Daly, who was also a reporter and anchor on ABC, this game show featured a panel of four who had to guess the occupations of regular joes as well as blindfold themselves and identify a mystery guest, based on yes or no questions. The panel itself changed over the years, but mostly featured Random House editor Bennet Cerf, Broadway actress Arlene Francis, reporter and gossip columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, and a fourth spot filled over the years by Steve Allen, Fred Allen, and famous guest panelists.

I stumbled on it looking for specific people; they had a wide range of celebrity guests, mostly Hollywood and sports types but also politicians and artists. I was absolutely staggered to see that Salvador Dali appeared on it:

I have to say that I also found it rather awkward to watch appearances of lauded African American guests at a time before civil rights, particular this one of Jesse Owens, when Daly lauds him for ramming his medals "down the throat of Adolf Hitler." Still wouldn't have been able to sit at the front of the bus everywhere in his own country, though.

Once you watch a few of these, you start to get the humor of the time period and the personalities of the panel. I admit that Arlene is my favorite. This is the point at which the regular guests are good to watch, particularly because things were just funnier back then. The hysteria over the scandalous occupation of this gentleman, a girdle designer, is a real insight into that era for me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I am so mad that I missed last night's House. So mad that I won't spoil it here, in case anyone has TiVoed it. Would you believe that it doesn't go up on hulu or even FoxTV's website until 8 days after the episode airs? I'm sunk. I'll poke around hoping that it repeats on Friday or something.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Great ... Novel

I have occasionally thought in the last few years that The Great American Novel, as an elusive concept, has been replaced by The Great Post-9/11 Novel. Certainly, a frontrunner for that one is Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a justly lauded novel about a Dutch-born banker and his British wife, whose marriage crumbles during? because of? the stress of life in Manhattan post-9/11.

I'm guessing that many adored it for its loving depiction of the energy and wackiness of Manhattan, as well as the sorrow and sordidness of its illicit underbelly and the weariness of its corporate giants (we might feel less sorry for the protagonist today, thinking of AIG!). It has all of that in spades. To me, however, the characterization was ultimately unsatisfying, though done in that clever way so that you could say it was the wonderful art and subtlety of the author in realistically depicting the limits of ever knowing another human being, etc. etc. Come to think of it, it reminded me a great deal of Kazuo Ishiguro's self-deluded protagonists, but without Ishiguro's ability to expose the painful, almost crippling emotional wounds of his characters, wounds that are often the effect of the British establishment and imperial leftovers. Hans and his wife represent a more modern malaise, the loneliness, self-loathing, and pain that afflict people who have no obvious source of complaint and every seeming source of satisfaction -- or rather, 9/11 is put in as the source, when it plainly isn't the source so much as a catalyst for self-examination. I dunno. I really did not love it, but I'm almost afraid that it might be because I'm too much imbedded in the same framework to judge.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ze local cuisine

Because I foster rabbits for an animal shelter, and had rabbits of my own when I was little, my friends are sometimes careful not to mention eating rabbit around me (not that it comes up often). Actually, I don't mind it; nobody's eating my rabbit, and I've tried rabbit myself. Odd taste.

However, I don't have any particular compunction about this issue myself, and have often enjoyed telling the story of how my brother was bound and determined when he went to Korea to eat dog (soup, it's mostly served as a very spicy soup). This is due to all the ridiculous Brigitte Bardot-type 'they're such barbarians' kind of dialogue that centered on the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. I notice that whether due to China's might or the passage of time, there was less talk of a critical nature during the Beijing Olympics, though even I flinched when I saw the kebab of fried mice.

When I was in Poland last year, my brother dragged me north of the main tourist area of Krakow to a really wonderful open-air food market with tons of fresh produce, cheese stalls, bakeries, and sausage stalls. He was hunting down horse sausage, and finally found it. He handed it to me; I took a careful bite, and handed it back. He said, "You don't like it?" I said, "No, it's good. Lean. Flavorful. But, you know, I really like horses, and I just can't quite keep going."

I'd eat it again, though. Maybe not a whole pile of it, but I'd definitely take a bite.

Recently, I was talking to my dad about this whole cuisine issue. We were marveling at the Chinese; he was curious about the horse; and we circled around to rabbits. I pointed out to him that he's mentioned he had to kill chickens for the family dinner as a youngster, but I never heard of him killing the rabbits. "Koreans don't eat RABBIT," he declared indignantly. "Rabbits are PETS."

To each his...

p.s. I forgot it was April Fool's -- but this is not an April Fool's post. I suppose it might look a bit like one!