Tuesday, April 12, 2016

My new novel is finally out! The Soul Keys isn't easy to describe, but here's a starter:  Sander Keynes, an aquarium keeper from Springfield, Missouri, goes on a canoeing trip one day, discovers an empty flying saucer on a river bank, and then goes home that night and finds an talking armadillo named Dick in his bathtub. Dick has no idea how he got there, and, as it turns out, nobody else can see him. Those two events propel Sander and his girl friend, Jenny, on a mad physical odyssey from Springfield to a secret military base on the Big Island of Hawaii--and a satyric mental odyssey that explores issues from the nature of family violence to the nature of government to the nature of reality--and, of course, the nature of the soul.

 Attached is a sample chapter, in which we first encounter Appollonasia Brechtlein Duenckel, a.k.a. Appy, chicken farmer, retired belly dancer, and online adviser to the lovelorn--and Appy meets several of the novel's other main characters--which makes it a good way for you to meet all of them:

Familiarity Breeds a Puppy

 Apollonasia Brechtlein Duenckel was a good mother and a take-charge sort of person. But she had another important qualification for dealing her daughter's current problem. Appy Duenckel believed in ghosts. Also vampires, demons, rakshashi, angels, manitou , djinn, nixies and fairies, among others. Appy was an equal-opportunity believer. She believed in many levels of reality, and figured they all must be as richly populated as the natural world.

 That went for philosophy, too. "Some folks think life has no purpose," she'd been telling people for more than four decades. "That's poppycock. The problem is that there are too many purposes, a lot of which we don't care to notice."

At age 18, when she was already supporting herself as a belly dancer at county and state fairs, she'd spent the night on the State Fairground in Springfield, Illinois (no relation to Springfield, Missouri), listening to the scurryings and rustlings after the marks had all gone home. The next day, she'd bought a small composition book. On the first page, she'd penned, very neatly:

 The purpose of humanity is to feed and shelter rats. 

Thus began her life's work, her magnum opus: The Book of Purposes. On the April morning after the flooding of the Big Piney River, Appy had finished her morning chores and had just started Volume 98. She did most of her writing on the computer these days, but continued to hand write this project in composition books, just for consistency. She plunged into the first page, riding a tide of inspiration:

The purpose of Argon street lamps is to accustom us to the lighting of Hell. 
The purpose of computers is to provide a warm hiding place for certain species of ants.
The purpose of paleontology is to give God a better hiding place. 
The purpose of astronomy is to give God a better hiding place. 
The purpose of geology is to give God a better hiding place. 
The purpose of physics is to give God a better hiding place. 
The purpose of God is to hide from humanity. 

Of course, she'd recorded many other purposes for God, over the years. An infinite God could have infinite purposes. She forged onward:

The purpose of Hell is to discourage humans from dying prematurely. 
The purpose of Heaven is to free the gene pool more rapidly of people who can't stand the idea of dying. 
The purpose of burial is to keep things that eat the dead from accidentally eating the living.

 She was interrupted by the sound of gravel crunching in the driveway, and stepped into the front dining room to look out the window. An older but well-kept blue Honda hatchback had pulled up. Doors popped open. The driver emerged: male, slightly balding, sandy-haired, late-30s or early-40s. Then Appy's youngest daughter got out, wearing a man's windbreaker draped over disposable hospital scrubs. The blue paper "fabric" around her bra and panty lines was crinkled and discolored, as if it had been wet. A fat white support collar hid her neck. Red welts and scratches stood out on her face and arms.

Appy went and got her .22-caliber Favorite varmint rifle from its rack over the back porch doorway, then went back to the front door and opened it.

"Hi, Hon," she called to Jenny. Then, cradling the gun casually, she turned to the man. "Hello, there. You don't really look like an abuser. But they usually don't, and I've sort of had it. So I'll let Jenny explain why she's been in a hospital, and then I'll shoot you if she says so."

 "No, Mom, don't!" her daughter exclaimed.

"It's okay, Jenny. I'll just tell them I thought it was a robber. Nobody's going to put a little, wispy 63-year-old woman in jail for protecting herself."

"No, Mom, please! This is Sander Keynes. He's a nice man."

 "I've heard that one before."

 "No, I mean it, Mom! I got in an accident, and Sander took me to the emergency room."

"I've heard that one before, too."
Sander stood where he was, frozen. He'd been about to say, "Hello, Ms. Duenckel. I'm glad to meet you." His mouth was still half-open, in a slight smile, though his eyes had widened.

 "No, Mom, really!" said Jenny, frantically. "I totaled the Yaris! Somebody hit me -- I mean, hit the car . . . ."

 Sander unfroze enough to say, "Honest, Ms. Duenckel. I-wouldn't hurt a mouse. Literally. I use live traps. I'd never hit a woman, and I certainly wouldn’t hurt Jenny . . . ."

 "I've heard that before, as well," Appy said. "But I'd like to believe it. So Jenny, what are you doing here, why the paper suit, and why does it look like you peed your pants and milked your bra?" Another suspicion raced through her mind. Had she lost a grandchild before she knew one was coming?

"I got out of the car and got lost, Mom," said Jenny. "My clothes were wet. The ER gave me these to wear."

"The hospital wanted to admit her, but she wouldn't stay," offered Sander.

"Mom, we're in trouble," her daughter said. "It's not Sander's fault. Well, not much, and he didn't mean it -- I mean, it's got nothing to do with me getting beat up -- I mean, because I didn't get beat up. Not since Harlan. It's something different this time, and I did get in a car accident, and Sander rescued me, but he called the police and the TV station before that and -- can we come in and explain?"

 "I don't know," said her mother. "Can you do it any better inside than you're doing out here?"

 "I-I . . . ."

"Well, come in anyway. There's still some of your old clothes up in your room. I don't know if they fit anymore, but they'll fit better than anything of mine would."

"Thanks, Mom."

She walked stiffly up on the porch. "You can come, too, I guess," Appy told her daughter's male companion. "But if you don't mind, I'll keep the .22 with me a bit longer. I always wanted to shoot a real varmint with it."

"Uh, okay. That reminds me -- I'll be there in just a moment."

Appy halfway expected him to get in the Honda and drive off. Instead, he opened the tailgate and pulled out a soggy-looking pink blouse and a wet pair of jeans. But he didn't close the hatchback again.

"Stay here for now, okay?" he said softly to someone inside, paused, then added, “Well, when that cop came and I had to leave you by the roadside, you didn’t go ‘pfffffft’ and disappear then, did you?”

Appy, who read lips very well -- a useful skill from her "theatrical days," as she called them -- noted this one-sided conversation without comment.

"Here's Jenny's clothes," Sander said lamely, approaching the porch. "Honestly, Ms. Duenckel, I wouldn't hurt Jenny for anything. She's a sweet girl."

"That hasn't kept other people from hurting her," Appy noted, watching the car as she took the soggy evidence of Jenny’s story. "Well, after you. Living room's through the dining room and to the right. Hon, you find anything wearable?"

"I think so, Mom!" Jenny called down from her bedroom. "I'll be down in a minute."

Her male guest had perched himself nervously in the living room's least comfortable armchair.

 "Want some lemonade?" Appy asked him, without smiling.

"Uh, yes, please, that'd be nice, thanks," said Sander.

Appy dropped the wet clothes off on the back porch, then went to the kitchen and returned, walking with the easy glide of veteran waitress, a plastic pitcher in one hand, three glasses in the other, and the .22 cradled in her left elbow. She set the glasses and pitcher down on the ring stained coffee table, then settled in the recliner.

"Help yourself," she said. "'Fraid it's not real lemonade, just that instant stuff."

"Uh, thank you," said Sander. "Shall I pour some for you?"


A few moments later, Jenny joined them. She'd found an old Missouri State sweatshirt and squeezed her lower half into a pair of faded, uncomplimentarily tight jeans.

"So, what have you two been talking about?" she said brightly, settling on the corner of the couch nearest to Sander.

"We haven't yet," said Appy. "Now, you were saying about trouble?"

 "Lemonade, Jenny?" asked Sander, pouring.

"Sure. Uh, Mom, you know about that UFO they found in the Big Piney?"

"Sure. I do check the news sites sometimes," said Appy.

 "Well, we found it first."

 "Huh," said Appy. "Well, tell it."

"We went canoeing Thursday. We were the first ones on the water, and it was a weekday and early in the season, so we pretty much had the river to ourselves. . . ."

"Wait. How'd you come to be free to go canoeing on a weekday?"

"Sander had some vacation coming, and I'd covered for another employee last weekend. I didn't get fired again, Mom."

"We figured Bass Pro could do without me for one day," added Sander.

 "Wait another minute, Sander," interrupted Appy again. "How can a man who can't bear to set a mouse trap work for Bass Pro?"

 "Mom!" ejaculated Jenny, embarrassed. "They sell lots of things, not just guns and fishing rods. Hiking boots, canoes, camping gear. There's even a restaurant."

"I maintain the aquariums, Ms. Duenckel," said Sander. "I preserve life." Staring at the .22 still resting in Appy's lap, he thought of the fish that he sometimes found floating when he went to work. He gulped and added, "I try my best to keep them alive, anyway."

Appy grunted. "I got no quarrel with selling hunting gear, per se. One purpose of life is to die and feed things. I was just curious as to how you reconciled yourself to it. Well, go on about the saucer, Jenny."

"At any rate, we came around an island, and there was the saucer. The door was open, but Sander looked in and said nobody was inside. So we floated down to our takeout, and Sander called the police. Then, for some reason, he called the TV station . . . ."

"I just figured that if we told only the authorities, we might never hear about it again," Sander interjected.

Appy leaned back and considered. "So you're the ones they're looking for, eh?"

"Yeah, I'm afraid so, Mom. And if they catch us, they're gonna lock us up in the School of Chemical Warfare . . . ."


"We heard it on the radio. They're taking anyone there who saw the UFO to Fort Leonard Wood. But that's not the worst of it, Mom. That saucer -- we think it may have done something to us."

"Done what?"

Sander cleared his throat. "We may be seeing things."

 "Or hearing things," added Jenny.

"What sort of things?"

Sander shifted uncomfortably. "A talking armadillo."

"And Charles Kuralt," added Jenny.

"Didn't he pass away sometime back?" her mother asked.

Sander nodded. "I'm afraid so."

"And this aardvark . . . ." began Appy.

"Armadillo," corrected Sander.

"This armadillo. What sort of things does he say?"

"Uh, mostly that he's hungry," said Sander.

"He's sort of sarcastic," added Jenny.

 "Speaks good English, eh?"

Just then, the phone rang.

"I'll be right back," said Appy, and went into the dining room to take the call.

 "So how are we doing, do you think?" asked Sander softly.

"Well, she hasn't shot you yet."

Appy returned. "Now, this armadillo -- is he out in the car?"

"I told him to wait there," said Sander.

Appy nodded. "Let's go see him."

"Uh, Ms. Duenckel?" said Sander as they followed her out onto the porch.

 "Oh, call me Appy," she said.

"Uh, Appy, if you can see the armadillo -- you're not going to shoot him, are you?"

Appy glanced down at the gun, still cradled in her elbow. "Nah. The only varmint I planned to plug, maybe, was you. But I guess I owe you an apology, Sander. That was Sheriff Schmidt on the phone. He said there'd been a car accident down in Pulaski County. He asked if I'd seen Jenny. I said I hadn't."

"Oh God," Jenny moaned. "They've found the car. You can bet they're going to check with the emergency rooms . . . ."

 "And they've got my name from the outfitter," groaned Sander.

 "Who's 'they'?" asked Appy.

"Everyone," said Sander. "The FBI, the Forest Service, the media . . ."

 ". . . and somebody with a French accent," added Jenny.

 "Hmm," said Appy, and continued her march down to the Honda. She peered into the open hatch. "So, where's this armadillo?"

"He should be there in the back," said Sander. "There he is. Dick? You awake? This is Appy Duenckel, Jenny's mother."

"You folks haven't been fishing, have you?" Appy asked.

"No," said Sander. "We've been fleeing. Why?"

Appy shook her head. "Well, I don't see any armadillo."

"I actually can't see him, either," said Jenny. "I just hear him, and sometimes feel him. Sander says he's an armadillo, and so does Dick, so I have to take their word for it."

"I can't hear any armadillo, either," said Appy.

 "Oh great," moaned Jenny. "So we are hallucinating."

"I didn't say that," said Appy. "I just said I couldn't hear nor see him. But I think he exists."

"Why?" asked Sander, almost dumbfounded. "Well, either he's there, or one of you two was eating worms, and left a couple of wriggly bits behind." Appy considered the situation. "Is Dick housebroken?"

"Uh, not exactly, but he tells me when he has to go."

"Then we'd better invite him in. You hadn't ought to leave an animal in the car. It could get heat stroke."

"Okay. Come on, Dick. What? Sorry." Sander turned to the others. "He's a little grumpy about being woken up. Armadillos are nocturnal, you know." He leaned over, picked up something invisible but moderately heavy, and lowered it gently to the ground.

"He'd make a hell of a prop for a mime act," remarked Appy. "Let's go up on the front porch. It's a beautiful spring day, and your critter can do his business whenever he feels the need. 'Good thing I haven't replaced old Abdullah yet."

"Abdullah was the farm dog," Jenny explained. "He died last winter."

"Uh, could I wash my hands?" asked Sander. "Armadillos can carry . . . ."

 "Sure. Through the dining room, first door to the right. I'll put the gun up and fetch another chair." As she did so, Appy rapidly leafed through her mental catalogue of supernatural possibilities.

“What does this armadillo say about himself?” she asked, after they’ve all reconvened.

“Uh, he doesn’t seem to know much about himself,” said Sander. “He claims he has no memories from before I found him in the bathtub.”

"Well, that rules out a pookah,” said Appy. “Pookahs know who they are.” She sipped her lemonade and considered a moment longer. “I suspect your armadillo friend is a familiar."

 "A what?" said Sander.

"A familiar. Now, I'm no witch, but I've known a few and studied a little. A familiar’s a critter that becomes a witch's psychic companion. Traditionally it's a cat, or maybe a bat or a toad, but it can be just about anything. A lot of witches today use white rats, I understand. More portable."

 "But why can't you and I see him?" Jenny asked.

"So what's the connection between witches and UFOs?" Sander asked, almost simultaneously. It said something about his changing mental state that he hadn't just snorted in disbelief.

"Sometimes other people can't see the familiar," Appy said. "I suppose it's a spell or something. I haven't been initiated, so I wouldn't know the mechanics. Anyway, I see two possibilities. Either Dick's a spy, sent by some witch who's gotten interested in Sander and the saucer . . . "

Sander winced and stared at a spot on the porch floor. "Dick's denying that pretty emphatically."

 “. . . or else Sander has the makings of a pretty powerful warlock and doesn't realize it. Maybe the saucer freed up something in him, and he summoned Dick subconsciously."

Sander thought for moment. "But that's not really an answer," he said. "It just puts a pat name on the mystery. How did I summon him? How can he talk? How'd he get in my bathtub, and why can't he remember anything before he got there?"

"Hey, that's how science works," snorted Appy. "Witchcraft, too, I suspect. You don't solve any mystery, really. You just give it a name, describe its behavior and put it to use. We don't really know what gravity is -- just what it does."

"Huh. So what does an invisible armadillo do for you, Sander?" asked Jenny.

"I don't know. Mostly what any armadillo does, I guess. Eats bugs, poops, sleeps all day. Criticizes my life choices."

"You made choices? That's unusual," remarked Appy.

"Well, not many, I guess," Sander admitted.

"He's asleep again, now?" asked Jenny.

 "Curled up like bowling ball in the corner of the porch."

 "It's not his purposes as an armadillo that count for you, I think," said Appy. "It's his purposes as a familiar. Familiars go where witches can't, and find out things."

"He offered to do that," said Sander wonderingly. "He wanted to check out the saucer. He said the army wasn't going to notice an armadillo. We were headed there when we found Jenny."

 "My, now, that was a huge coincidence, wasn't it, Jenny? Were you going back there, too?" asked Appy.

"No! I was coming home to see you. But there was a traffic jam, so I got off the Interstate to find a way around, but somebody hit me from behind -- hit my car, that is, and . . . ."

"I see, I see," said Appy. "Hmm. If I remember right, a witch sends his or her spirit into a familiar to use it. The talking part of the armadillo may be part of you, Sander. Anyway, something's trying awful hard to get you both back to that UFO. Maybe it's something inside you, maybe something outside. But it does seem your purpose to go back to it."

"Well, if that's our purpose, we bollixed it royally," said Sander. "The radio said the saucer was somewhere at the bottom of the river. We'd have to evade the whole Armed Forces just to look for it." "Maybe not," said Appy. "Maybe not." This talk of psychic familiars had reminded her of someone . . . .
 "I'm too tired to go looking for flying saucers," said Jenny despairingly. 

Sander nodded. "The doctor said to take you home and put you to bed."

"Well, she's home now," said her mother. "Her bed's right where she left it when she went off to college. And I imagine you're tired, yourself, young man, after being up all night talking to animals and rescuing my daughter. You could borrow my oldest son's room. Why don't you both make like your invisible friend and hibernate for a bit?"

They didn't require much persuasion. Appy waited until she heard satisfactory sleeping noises, then got on the phone to make a call before someone bugged her line, if they hadn't already. After all, the purpose of telephones was to let people talk without seeing whom they were talking to.

"Hello, Gilroy?"

"I know," said the phone. "Stop by. We'll work on it."

"Thanks." She hung up, got the .22 down again and went out to the porch swing. As soon as Dick's gone, I should look into getting a puppy, she thought. Maybe a Rottweiler this time. 

 At about 4 p.m., the FBI called -- followed by CBS, CNN, Fox News, the Kansas City Star, the New York Post, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Al Jazeera, a man with a French accent and Harlan Chillingworth -- the last in violation of two different restraining orders.

Appy denied everything.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Serial Diseases: Why Sequels Get Worse

I saw Kung Fu Panda 2 last night. It wasn’t bad, but I liked the first one better.
Jeez, how many times is that the verdict on a sequel? But no one spends much time, it seems, analyzing the forces and temptations that cause that result. Kung Fu Panda 2 is such a clear example of some of those forces at work, some of those diseases that infect the soul of a sequel, that it’s a good laboratory for examining them.

First to repeat: Kung Fu Panda 2 isn’t bad. It’s got a decent plot, it fleshes out (pun intended) the central character a little bit, and it retains many of the qualities that made its predecessor successful: appealing characters, beautiful composition (as with The Lion King, you can freeze-frame Kung Fu Panda nearly anywhere, and find a beautiful picture), and spectacular, state-of-the art CG work. It’s worth seeing. BUT.....

It’s also suffering from the first signs of several progressive diseases that have done in other successful movie franchises. They include:

Higher conceptivitus. I’ve always hated to term “higher concept,” anyway. I really think “lower concept” would be more appropriate, or “Central Joke”: the whole film reduced to a single idea that can be pitched to a producer in a single simple sentence. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito are long-lost brothers. Small-time enforcer becomes a movie producer. Sleazeball becomes a department store Santa. Pudgy panda becomes a kung fu master. Higher concept films, at their worst, are a single joke endlessly recycled. The first Kung Fu Panda overcame that problem by rising above it: it wasn’t just about the joke. As in King Lear, even the most minor characters had their own back-stories, motivations and internal conflicts. The idealized Chinese landscape was lovingly detailed and achingly beautiful. The CG wizards pushed their crafts to new heights, creating characters with both fur and clothing, and taking them through wildly complex kung fu battles. The actors threw themselves into their parts, exploring and improvising in character and, in some cases, exceeding themselves. (Free of the limitations of his beetling evil eyebrows, Jack Black actually created a lovable version of himself.) The central characters, especially Black’s panda and Dustin Hoffman’s Master Shifu, grew and changed. And the writers and director refused to let the special effects and the Central Joke overwhelm the plot.

That’s all true, to some extent, in the sequel. But that damned Higher Concept is becoming an impediment. Po the Panda is now the Dragon Warrior. But the Central Joke depends on him being an overweight klutz and a poseur, so to still work it, he has to have relapses that seem out of character. The higher concept is now holding him back. The writers need to abandon that old Central Joke, and embrace the new one that emerged toward the end of the first film: the ways in which he turns his roly-poly-ness into a weapon.

FXia. The Star Wars disease. In the original star wars, George Lucas used special effects to create a convincingly realistic and grungy universe in which to tell his story. But then he got so obsessed with topping his own special effects in each successive movie, so preoccupied with his toys, that they started to overwhelm his storytelling. In Episodes I and II, especially, hundreds of vehicles or warships clutter up every frame; the plot seems warped to get in this or that spectacular sequence, rather than the sequences chosen to advance the plot.

Likewise, in KFP 2, the desire to top the first movie’s considerable CG achievements sometimes seems to overwhelm the movie makers’ good sense. Lord Shen, the peacock emperor, is prima facie evidence. He’s an incredible achievement in animation: all those hundreds of individually moving feathers, and a bird beak that you can actually lip-read. But come on: a peacock? Thai Lung, the snow leopard of the first film, was a physically credible threat. But how do you take an evil peacock seriously?

Creeping Shrekism, or multiple characterosis: Aside from its strong Central Joke (Ogre as Good Guy), the original Shrek succeeded in great part because of some brilliant character acting by Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz, and some wonderful bit parts by various actors perverting various fairy tale characters. Shreks II expanded its repertoire by adding a second higher concept: Fairy Tale Land as Southern California. But it also piled on more bit parts by more fairy tale characters, while still trying to find finding something to do for all the previously introduced characters. By Shrek III, this had all gotten entirely out of hand: there were so many characters that the plot, what of it there was, was hopelessly cluttered and nobody got decently developed. And with two aging high concepts to carry on, there was no room for a third.

KFP 2 isn’t overwhelmed yet, but it’s showing some alarming symptoms. One of the problems with the first installment, already, was that the Furious five was about two too many: decent comic actors such as Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan simply couldn’t get enough lines to bring out the potential of their characters. In the sequel, they get even less, because they have to share the screen with new characters such as Master Croc (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Master Storming Ox (Dennis Haysbert). The problem is aggravated by the fact that much of the voice acting talent is coming from the martial arts milieu, and frankly, Jean Claude Van Damme can’t act when he has his own body to work with. Fortunately, Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson went with veteran human chameleon Gary Oldman to do evil Lord Shen, and Oldman does about as a good job as anyone could to make a peacock scary. (Actually, a chameleon would make a pretty good villain for this series. Just think of the possibilities of sneaky Lord Ptui and his kung-fu tongue.)

These diseases aren’t necessarily fatal. Both Star Wars and Shrek bounced back with decent movies for their final installments. But I hope the DreamWorks people don’t allow the problems to creep so far. It’s already obvious that there’s going to be a Kung Fu Panda 3. But I hope Po’s reunion with his family isn’t going to be marred by the advent of Master Bullfrog and Master Horny Toad, voiced by Stephen Seagal and Chuck Norris.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Losing Luigi

First, a note on where I've been. Last June, my son finally arrived in Hawai'i permanently, after the death of his mother. I've been busy learning how to be a full-time father and trying to earn enough to feed two mouths, so I've had to concentrate on writing that pays -- which this blog, frankly, doesn't. Someday I may get back to this, perhaps on a different platform that's friendlier to local advertising. But I'd rather write and let someone else sell the ads. Those who want notifications when I have a new article out can still follow me on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the Big Island Weekly didn't have room to run the following little tribute, so I'm posting it here.

I missed Louis "Luigi" Lichtenstein's memorial service because of deadlines. I feel very sorry about that. Luigi deserves remembering and thinking about.

I wasn't that close to Luigi; I wrote a couple of articles about his restaurant, Aloha Luigi's, and about the artists he patronized, and I ate a lot of Sicilian slice and Caesar salad specials, but that was about the extent of our relationship. But Luigi always made me feel like a friend. He knew me by name and greeted me with a friendly comment and a big smile whenever he saw me at the restaurant, and there was nothing false about that smile and greeting. Luigi radiated his own special Brooklyn style of aloha; he seemed genuinely happy to see people enjoying themselves in his restaurant.

And we customers had good reason to be happy. For about the price of a combo at McDonalds or Jack in the Box, we could enjoy a genuinely tasty lunch in a restaurant that oozed homegrown charm, with its bright hand-painted walls, its ceiling painted like a sky with puffball clouds, and it rotating exhibits by local artists -- or in recent years, we could dine al fresco in his lush garden court. I suppose the food was, technically, "fast food" — much of it was served on plastic foam plates or in paper-lined baskets, and we bussed our own dishes — but it didn't taste "fast"; I'd put some of Luigi's pasta dishes up against those served in restaurants that charge three or four times as much, and that Caesar salad was without peer. Luigi obviously did what he did because he loved to do it, and it showed.

That's the essence of local dining at its best: a chef opening his own place so he or she can do what he or she loves to do. In recent years, downtown Hilo, like Pahoa before it, has bloomed with such establishments: Akmals, Chiang Mai, Le Magic Pan, the Surf Break, and numerous others, where chefs have taken advantage of the relatively low property values to create their own hand-made visions of what a restaurant should be. Those restaurants are win-win-win-wins for the community; the owners get to live their dreams, downtown's empty spaces get filled, more money stays in the local economy, and we local consumers get to eat lovely, tasty food at reasonable prices.

I admit, as a poor freelancer with a son to feed, I sometimes patronize fast food franchises; even Luigi's doesn't have a dollar menu. But more and more, I'm discovering, there's a good alternative within walking distance. In Kea'au, for instance, I needed lunch the other day after a doctor's appointment. I considered Micky D's, but decided to walk across the street to the farmer's market. There I discovered a lovely, polite young lady who'd set up a Vietnamese food stand; I got an absolutely ono plate of fragrant key lime chicken and vermicelli noodles served on a bed of lettuce for about $6.50, and dined to the music of some local musicians who were playing at the market. It was, in short, a fine dining experience, even though I sat at a table made from a cable spool. I'll be back there again. And I hope that young lady eventually follows in Luigi's footsteps, finds an inexpensive property, renovates it and opens her own restaurant.

My understanding is that Luigi's, meanwhile, will remain open under its former sous chef, Thomas Aiau, who's absorbed Luigi's brand of aloha as well as his recipes. I'm very glad. Luigi may be gone, but his Caesar salad and his good will live on.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hamakua Land Tour: Ag Land? Really?

I'm still pondering West Hawaii Today's story last Thursday, about the two prospective buyers who toured the Hamakua properties that the county wants to sell. Members of the Kenoi administration have repeatedly told me that the land is expected to remain in agriculture, since it was zoned that way -- though finance director Nancy Crawford did say that it depended on one's definition of "agriculture."

"Is a gentleman farmer a farmer?" she asked.

But the two prospective buyers, Marc Mishkin of Ka'u and Joe Steinbach of Colorado, don't exactly sound like farmers. To quote Nancy Cook Lauer's article, for instance:

"Steinbach and Mishkin were more interested in the smaller parcels than the more mauka larger ones, and they seemed satisfied that some of the smaller ones offered ocean views that made the land desirable..."

Huh? Since when did an ocean view make a parcel more desirable as farmland? Do orange trees produce better if they can see the ocean? Do dracaena or mac nuts or coffee trees or corn grow taller so they can peer over the heads of their neighbors at that gorgeous blue water?

At least, according to Lauer, the prospective buyers did as "question related to what kind of fruit trees or crops the land would support." But they also asked "when the ocean-view blocking eucalyptus trees would be harvested."

A farmer would have been more concerned with whether the trees blocked sunlight from hitting his soil in the early morning or late afternoon.

Kenoi and his minions have argued that one reason to sell to sell the lands, which have been nothing but weeds since the county acquired them, is to get them back into production. But if at least one of the two prospective buyers has the winning bid, it's apt to stand idle for quite a while longer.

"We're looking at holding onto the land a couple of years, at least," said Mishkin, according to the article; he admitted to Lauer that "Investment is his primary interest."

In other words, Mishkin is a land speculator, pure and simple: he wants to buy the land cheap from the county and sell it at a big markup, as other speculators have done in the past. As Councilmember Dominic Yagong has pointed out, the county sold one such parcel, adjacent to Mud Lane in Hamakua, for $1.3 million. Then the county improved Mud Lane, substantially increasing the land's value.

"Within a few months, that thing was on the market for six or seven million dollars," Yagong said.

The taxpayers were out the cost of a major road job, and the speculator was in the black by an five or six hundred percent.

And there are no covenants in the County's Purchase And Sale Agreement for the lands that would restrict the new owner from rezoning the property to put in another subdivision, once the price of real estate starts going back up.

Is anybody else's shibai alarm going off?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Susan Decker, 1952-2010

My ex-wife, Susan Decker, passed away from cancer last week. She is survived by her parents, Wayne and Jane Decker, and our son, Aidan John McNarie, 13.

Susan came with me to Hawaii 21 years ago, when we were a promising young "power couple": I'd just gotten my PhD in English and had been hired by UH-Hilo, and she was a new-minted attorney. She got a job at the prosecutor's office here, and got a quick lesson in racism and realpolitick, island-style: her boss there told her she needed to be "more Japanese," and her brash, direct style didn't set well with the local bureaucrats and secretaries. I well remember going to Christmas parties at the prosecutor's office where de facto segregation was the unspoken norm: in one room would be gathered attorneys with Japanese last names and a few token Caucasians (usually with Japanese-American spouses), while in another room, a smaller group would collect consisting of everyone else: Portuguese, Hawaiians, women.... Of course, Susan didn't last there. So she decided to open her own law office.

Meanwhile, over at the university, I wasn't doing much better. For the first time in my life, I was getting bad reviews from my superiors on my teaching. I wouldn't learn, until later, some of the politics behind those reviews.... But I kept at it for five years, because Susan and I had both fallen in love with this island and its people and I wanted to give her time for her law office to get established. When the handwriting on the wall at the university was clear, I worked out a deal with Susan, where I would work half-time as a paralegal at her independent law office and spend the other half on my writing.

Susan had decided to specialize in family law, especially family violence cases: a branch of law for which, unfortunately, there was an enormous need on this island. I'd already become aware of that need when I was a professor; I'd had to deal with students who couldn't complete their assignments on time because their significant others had come home drunk and forced the family to flee the house. And I'd seen the scourge first-hand as well; at the first apartment we'd rented in Hilo, the woman next door would go into screaming rages at least twice a week and start throwing dishes at her spouse; we could hear the impact of them shattering against the walls. At the next house where we lived, I was home writing one day when I heard shouting; I looked out the window and saw a man drag his spouse from their pickup truck, knock her to the ground and begin kicking her while their young son ran away down the street. I called the police. An officer didn't arrive until a half-hour later, when the incident was already over. He went up and knocked on the door; the abuser answered and spoke briefly with the officer, who then left without ever seeing the victim.

I've never seen a robbery, a burglary, a car theft or a murder. But I've personally witnessed at least six cases of domestic assault.

I quickly found out that my job at Susan's law office could not be done half-time. There was always an affidavit to fill out or an emergency restraining order to file, and it had to be done right and done right now, because somebody's life was potentially at stake. I became very good at helping battered clients tell their stories to the court through affidavits. I never became good at some of the other skills required by the profession. But the jobs all had to be done. We'd spend 8-12 hours a day at the office, and then go home, where I'd often work until 3 or 4 a.m. on my writing.

The stories that had to be told in those affidavits were often horrifying. I documented the sodomizing of children and the breaking of women's bones. Sometimes, after recording a particularly gruesome affidavit, I'd have to go out on the lanai of the law office building and mentally put myself back together. And those stories were still going on, even as the affidavits were being filed. Abusers did not let go easily; they continued to mess with their victims all through the divorce process, and even afterward. And some local attorneys, unfortunately, were gleeful participants, prolonging the fights and milking both parties for every penny of their assets.

Susan wasn't anywhere near the top of her class in law school, but she plunged into that battle with everything she had. We lost some heartbreaking cases, but we also extracted children from the clutches of a stepfather who'd been "sharing" them with other pedophiles, and helped a woman recover a daughter from an abusive ex who'd fled the state with the girl, and helped many women to just get out of nightmarish situations. Sometimes those clients got involved with other abusers; old mental habits are hard to break. Sometimes the abusers continued to stalk their exes. Sometimes, after the divorce, the abuser would charm his (or her; abuse isn't always a male thing) way back into his ex's life, and the whole thing would start again. But every once in a while, everything would go right, and the circle of abuse was broken. We couldn't win the war, but sometimes we could help an individual to escape it.

Unfortunately, those most in need of help were often the least able to pay, and Susan ran her law office more like a crusade than a business. The war eventually claimed nearly everything we had. The law office went broke. We lost our house to the bank I suffered a physical breakdown (I'm glad it wasn't mental as well). And the stress of fighting a war that could not be won, but was so important that it demanded everything be subordinated to it, finally claimed our marriage as well. Susan returned to the mainland with our infant son, leaving me here to liquidate our remaining assets. I'm still attempting to pay off some of the debts left from those years.

On the mainland, Susan opened another personal practice specializing in family law. She kept at it until bone cancer forced her to stop.

The monster that she fought so valiantly is still out there.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

We Need a Shibai Tax

I just read the article in yesterday's Star Bulletin, re the feuding between Governor Lingle and the legislature over budget cuts. Each is accusing the other of "shibai."

Shibai was originally a Japanese word meaning a theatrical performance. In Hawaii, it's come to mean any display or hypocrisy; in practice, it's pretty much interchangeable with the word "bullshit."

The legislature is accusing Lingle o
f shibai for, among other things, withholding our tax refunds until next year in order to balance the budget until she's safely out of office. Lingle is accusing the legislature of shibai for making budget cuts it can't legally make: "For instance, Lingle said the House took out budgeted money from her office to fund required vacation payouts for workers who will leave the Governor's Office with her in December. It also removed $100,000 in transition funds from the governor's budget.

''This is not possible; it is shibai,' Lingle complained."

I think both sides are guilty as charged. But the real losers aren't Lingle or the legislators. They're us.

The state gets to keep our tax refunds until next year? Do we at least get interest while they're using our money?

And we have to pay former Lingle Administration members for their vacations after they're out of office? That really grates, personally. A few years ago, when I left the University of Hawaii, I was told I wouldn't get paid for my accumulated vacation and sick leave unless, at some future date, I was employed again by the state of Hawaii. I think the legislature should immediately pass a bill making the same true for all state employees, including Lingle's patronage employees.

And I think they should pass another law, making it a crime to commit shibai while in public office, with fines of $5,000 to $100,000, depending on the severity of the offense.

With such a law in place, we'd solve our budget deficit in no time.

New Rules for Green Homes

I have a new article out in the Big Island Weekly, re the freshly-enacted "International Energy Conservation Code of the County of Hawaii." The code, which requires insulation and other energy-saving measures in new structures and in major rehabilitations of old structures, is well-meaning and should save energy, but will add a fair amount to the cost of each home, spell bad news for some existing plantation-era homes, and just doesn't always make sense for our climate....