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True Hawaii

When I was a teenager in the 1960's, my father had a business in Hawaii. The stuff he manufactured sold the idea of a place that did not exist to people who did not seem to know the difference or care. The products had a Hawaiian theme that was largely of my dad's invention, a confabulation of images from movies and surfer culture and the Jack London stories he used to fill his head and dreams with during an odd and often lonely boyhood in New York.

For some time my father did pretty well with this business, or well enough for my mother and him to make frequent visits to the islands, which then, as now, seemed very far away. There are photographs from those trips that show two handsome and startlingly young people, one too much aware of the camera and one with a distracted expression that inevitably seems focused beyond the lens. My father wears a smart, conservative jacket and tie, and my mother a shift from Liberty and a lustrous braid that was an affectation of the time. She, in particular, appears very tan, and her hair falls over one shoulder. There is usually a flower, a plumeria blossom, tucked behind her left ear.

The reasons none of my siblings or I ever accompanied our parents on those journeys are obscure to me now. I cannot or prefer not to remember why we were left in the care of the ill-equipped people my parents employed. I do know that Hawaii was a place that was theirs alone and I know, too, from the photographs, that these were the happiest times of their lives. This, at any rate, is the story I have chosen to believe, since not long after the pictures were taken, the happiness I read into them became something far different. Possibly it was her fate my mother appears to be looking for in the photographs. Perhaps the object of her gaze was events that she could sense approaching, but could not yet foresee.

Less than a decade from the time I am describing, my father's business would be lost, my mother dead, and myself a man who would go on to spend much of his adulthood wondering how everything had gone so rapidly and entirely wrong. I would pursue the answer to this riddle in many strange places and countries and also for years in a quiet room where another man listened wordlessly as I asked the same questions steadfastly and often until I began to see the pursuit as a form of meditative exercise.

During those years I also came to understand that, although the wreckage of life rarely has a satisfying explanation, there is a real place called Hawaii and its coordinates are fixed. That many divergent realities can lay claim to any given territory I have also come to comprehend. Yet at the moment I am indulging a Hawaiian reality my parents would surely have recognized and loved, as I have come to do.i am sitting at the edge of the ocean with my feet in the white sand at a surreally luxurious Big Island resort sculpted from a pahoehoe lava plain. I am watching the sun go down over the Pacific with a Hollywood flourish that lights the horizon magenta and pink. A man named Kevin Kealoha is crooning in an unearthly falsetto. The song he is singing is called "My Little Grass Shack." All that is lacking to complete this cliché is a drink with a parasol.

"My Little Grass Shack" is a famous island novelty, of course: an aural postcard from that era when Matson liners put in at the port of Honolulu and "hula girls" greeted passengers from the Lurline with orchid leis. To call the song silly and banal is to overstate the case a bit, and also to miss its value to me.


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