Monday, January 25, 2010

A 'Wrong Turn' to Ginkgo Petrified Forest...and adventure

Yesterday, while on an excursion in Central Washington state, we relied on our car GPS, and it put us on the I-90 freeway going the wrong direction. This wouldn't be a big deal, except the fact that the next exit was 25 miles away over desert scrubland.

The six-lane freeway was separated by a parched dirt median that was generally about three hundred feet wide, and often at differing elevations, but every so often when the two opposing directions converged, there'd be an asphalt connector with a prominent "No U Turn" sign.  My husband missed a couple of them, as they were curved and unmarked, but when we neared a visible one, he wanted to veer. "No! No!" I screamed, eyeballing the ominous sign and the fact he'd have to abruptly swerve across two lanes to make it.

We passed the turn but a couple miles further, my husband's grumbling at our compounding our detour erupted into out-and-out annoyance that we faced miles more of this G-d-forsaken desert. Why didn't I let him turn? Nobody would have stopped us.  My protests that it was dangerous were out-groused by his perturbed accusations.  Then he missed one, then two of the turnarounds himself.

By the time we found the first exit, we were at Vantage, Washington, on the Columbia River, which stretched wide and long between the brown mound-like hills.  A sign caught our eyes:  "Ginkgo Petrified Forest," with an arrow.  Ginkgo? There's a petrified forest of Ginkgo here?  Who could resist?

An interpretive center was closed for the winter, so we walked around reading all the informative placards on the scenic bluff overlooking the rolling Columbia.  Petrified logs were placed everywhere, just lying out. On the way to our car we were captivated by a sign inviting us to see the Wanapum Indian petroglyphs...right out there, a few feet away, exposed to the elements--primitive drawings that are 200-10,000 years old.  Scratched onto black basalt were representations of animals, people, arcs and geometric designs that had been moved about a mile to their perch overlooking the Columbia when the Wanapum Dam submerged their original location.

But most fun was visiting the Gingko Gem Shop, marked by petrified logs and large colorful dinosaurs, where the proprietor told us that despite the plethora of petrified trees in the area, just four petrified ginkgo trees had been found--and they comprise a mystery. Apparently ginkgos were wiped out 50 million years ago when glaciers covered North America. Only one species, Ginkgo Biloba, the same tree that provides the medicinal supplements touted to increase circulation and therefore brain acuity, originally from China, lives today, and only under cultivation.  The University of Washington says it's the oldest tree anywhere that has continually survived--thanks to Chinese monks who carefully fertilized and grew them over millenia, despite the messy and stinky fruit of the female of the species. 

How these four ginkgo trees, in their little cluster, managed to remain as the only petrified souvenirs of their North American existence, continues to baffle geologists.

While at the Ginkgo Gem Shop, we purchased our own little polished piece of petrified wood, and I took a photo of another bizarre relic on display there: an Apatosaurus femur. Yes, a big thigh bone, just sort of resting there on a wall.

You never know the wonders you can encounter, serendipitously.

My husband's irritation assuaged, we headed back to the freeway, stopping for espresso at a delightful, eccentrically-decorated little restaurant called Blustery's.  The owner, Greg, turned out to be a fan of my fave radio host, and introduced us to the only other person in the restaurant, his friend who happened to be a pastor--who got the calling to pray that Fave Host should be divinely guided in his broadcasts.  Thus fortified, we headed back on the freeway toward Seattle, most of the way through a snowstorm so dense and windy the splattery flakes seemed to fly horizontally into our windshield.

Who's to say we took a wrong turn yesterday?  It wouldn't be me.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bye-Bye Air America

RIP, Air America. "The company, which was founded in 2004, never found a substantial audience or sound financial footing," explained an article in the New York Times. "It filed for bankruptcy protection in 2006, but managed to stay on the air at that time. The network churned through several owners and several attempted reinventions, with little to show for it."

Why is it that the one liberal--pardon me, that word has been replaced--progressive attempt at talk radio syndication struggled for its six years, yet even after the economic meltdown depressed advertising, several conservative radio networks continue to thrive?  Air America, in its final hurrah, had at most 100 outlets nationally, while in many markets two or more conservative talk stations coexist and profit, side-by-side.  Rush Limbaugh, whose program began in 1988, has about 590 stations according to Wikipedia.

Why is it that "progressive" talk couldn't muster support, while conservative talkers command loyalty?  My fave host consistently ranks at or near the top of our local ratings, even when measured by the new electronic "people meters" that replaced the old Arbitron listener logs.  Why should right-leaning talk boast dozens of radio stars and the only left-leaning network collapse within just a few years?

I think it's because the vast majority of print and television media already offer liberals, uh, progressives, their perspective.  You don't need to tune in to radio when you can hear pro big-government TV reporters on evening newscasts, and read liberal editorials in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.  The Hollywood establishment was the source of the term "politically correct," because it's almost laughable how uniformly America-critical actors, producers and scripters are.  Eighteen months ago, if you said the words "George Bush" in certain LA restaurants, you'd hear a simultaneous hiss from everywhere in the room.  These are the moviemakers, the TV network brass, the faces you see in tabloids, and they're so surrounded by like-minded friends that they assume you, too--out there in TVland and theater audiences and reading your paper in Starbucks--you, too, must agree.

The only escape has been talk radio.

So, there's no need for "progressive" Air America because television airwaves and internet cables and movie theatres near you are already ringing with its message.  "Avatar" is going to beat "Titanic" as the most profitable film ever, for its stunning effects and action-packed plot, but what it teaches is that the Na'vi, living in harmony with nature, are superior to the greedy villainy of capitalism and technology. Going to see the film may be a great experience (I wouldn't know; I can't take violence so will never view it) but inserted in the enjoyment is a "progressive" message.  That's fine, but few movies offer the other side.  That's why we need talk radio.

My fave talk host relishes debate and discussion; he enjoys persuading disagreeing callers of his viewpoint, using logic and patience.  Other talk hosts blare and rant, sometimes ridiculously, but the medium, with the immediacy of callers' questions and responses, is always engaging.

That Air America sought to add its voice to the fray was never a threat, never a problem for conservative talkers; in a way it's a pity it failed.  But it failed not because its perspective was unwanted or unwelcome--in our great land open discussion is celebrated.  No, Air America flopped because it was redundant and unnecessary.  The beauty of capitalism is that entrepreneurs profit when they provide something unique that other people want to pay for; Air America just wasn't fresh enough, so it spoiled.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Propostion 8 Trial: Loving the Sparkliest Person Vs. The Needs of Society

The US District Court trial in San Francisco on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 is rife with emotion. Coverage in the New York Times Tuesday described Kristin Perry, co-plaintiff, answering her lawyer's query about how she fell in love with her partner, Sandra Steir: "I remember thinking that she was the sparkliest person I'd ever met."

While I hope Ms. Perry and Ms. Steir have a happy life together, I do not believe that those who find another to be the sparkliest--or the most wonderful, or the most attractive, or the most brilliant person ever--should necessarily qualify for state sanction in marriage.

Theodore B. Olson, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he will show that gays and lesbians suffer "grievous harm" because they lack state recognition as "married." It appears that a goal will be to show that for those deeply committed and in love, having all the legal rights of marriage (which same-sex couples are guaranteed by law in California) but not its moniker, is "grievously harmful."

I know teenagers smitten by admiration for rock stars who crave them so much they faint.  Though I was a mere child at the time, I vividly remember seeing video of Beatles audiences where women regularly swooned, screamed, cried hysterically, and fell unconscious with adoration.  One might assume these young women felt John, Paul, George and Ringo were far more than "sparkly."  Depth of feeling for another person may create a relationship, but it does not constitute or necessitate marriage.

In fact, last June, Gov. Mark Sanford, who waxed poetic in a raft of emails to his "soul mate" Maria Belen Chapur that spelled the end of his presidential hopes and probably his political career, was also deeply in love.  Given his wife Jenny's patient response, he should have been able to marry Maria as well. After all, he didn't want to end his 20-year marriage, as he announced when Jenny finally filed for divorce--instead he called the outcome "tragic" and "not the course [I] would choose."  With a deep desire to be with the women he loved, forbidden by law to be married to both simultaneously, Gov. Sanford--and his children--must've suffered "grievous harm."

I do think it's true that California marriage law discriminates against same-sex couples.  Couples where both partners are the same gender are treated differently from couples where the partners are of opposite sexes.  That's called "discrimination based on sex."  Which for many purposes is perfectly legal, and which advocates of gay marriage do not seek to change.  For example, women are not required to register for the draft, and if there were one, women would not be required to serve.  Public restrooms may be segregated by sex.  Male and female convicts go to facilities separated by gender.  And California marriage laws always assumed--and now specify--a bride and a groom.

Though zealous gay-marriage advocates outside the District Court trial brandish signs insisting on "the freedom to marry," at this point, none of them are willing to insist on complete freedom, though they may seek it later on.  They don't plead for polygamy or polyandry; they don't march for incest; they don't claim that children, or any collection of in-love, committed people should gain state-approval as a "marriage."  In other words, they seem to want all of the traditional restrictions on marriage to stand--except the most basic one, the combination of male and female.

And as for "the freedom to marry," well, anyone is free to perform a non-state-recognized wedding.  Pardon my ignorance, but isn't it said that Catholic nuns are "married to the Church"?  What about the hippie communes, some of which continue today, where all participants share everything, including their bodies, in a love-infused commitment?  Circuit court plaintiff Perry proposed marriage to her partner in 1993, with the result that "She looked really happy" before she "looked really confused." They got married unofficially. Are happiness and confusion the makings of "grievously harmed"?

Actually, though marriage laws may assume or specify the genders of participants, neither gender is treated differently, or suffers any discrimination.  Any individual is able to legally marry one of the opposite sex.  That includes everyone, and excludes or discriminates against no one.

The issue here is that some people want legal recognition for marriage to someone from a legally prohibited group. Prohibited groups include children, those already married, people who are mentally incompetent, men and women who are close relatives, and those of one's same gender. As I mentioned before, gay marriage advocates want to remove one of the restrictions yet leave all the rest--does that make sense?

I do think that for many on the left, the underlying aim is to dissolve the institution of marriage altogether. A great 2006 article by Stanley Kurtz in National Review Online describes an underlying agenda, published in a document called "Beyond Same-Sex Marriage" and supported by respected people like Gloria Steinem and Rabbi Michael Lerner, to be approached one step at a time.  Gay marriage is the first step.  Insisting on equal honor and government support for any and all chosen relationships is the ultimate goal.  Kurtz doesn't say this, but if you reduce the argument further, the desired outcome is for honor and government support not for permanent commitments, but for any and all types of sexuality.

Which is what it comes down to.  Marriage has been the societally-preferred setting for the type of sexuality that produces those societies.  It is not about commitment to "the one you love," but to stable families.  The guys carrying the signs in front of the District Court who want "the freedom to marry" have it.  But society's future depends on raising a healthy generation of children in the environment most conducive to their flourishing. That's where the state has a stake in traditional marriage.

The people of California understood this, adding to their constitution in Proposition 8 just one sentence: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California."  I hope the US District Court gets it, too.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Enslaved Jews Didn't Build Pyramids--And Jews Aren't Pirates, Either

"Proof" that no captive Jews--indeed that no slaves at all--built the Egyptian pyramids has headlined newspapers around the world by now.  An Associated Press story by Katarina Kratovac that's been reprinted everywhere verbatim says the discovery of 9-foot shafts, each holding the preserved remains of a dozen skeletons near the Great Pyramids of Giza on the outskirts of Cairo bury the "myth" that slaves constructed the last remaining Wonder of the World.

The article says Hollywood movies perpetrated "an erroneous claim by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, on a visit to Egypt in 1977, that Jews built the pyramids."  Support for the no-slaves stance comes from Egypt's chief archeologist Zahi Hawass, and Hebrew University archeologist Amihai Mazar, who says "Jews didn't exist" when the pyramids were constructed. Despite Greek historian Herodotus' description, current experts insist paid workers created them.

In checking this out, I came across a Jerusalem Post story in which Farouk Hosny, Egypt Minister of Culture, was quoted as telling the Associated Foreign Press, "Israeli allegations that they built the Pyramids abound, and we must face up to this even if it triggers a crisis with Israel! This is piracy! Our history and our civilization must be respected but the Israelis want to take over everything! We must counterattack with full strength because this is how they took Palestine. They think Palestine belongs to them and now they are doing on saying the same with the Pyramids."  My, my. Doesn't sound purely academic to me.

While it's true that many people do think Jews built the pyramids, the Torah (in our portion of this last week, Shmot, aka Exodus) and the Passover Hagada say only that Jews were enslaved and forced to build the storage-cities of Pitom and Ramses, which archeologists agree likely coincides with their residence there.

  It's certainly cinematic to show Jews working on the pyramids, but Jews haven't been "pirating" credit for them from Egyptians.

Still, the articles I've seen in news media (nearly all of which are the same AP story) don't explain how the newly uncovered skeletons show that workers were paid and not slaves (even though they weren't Jews). Proximity of the burial shafts, and the presence of beer and food there, say Egyptologists, are the key. But studies on the skeletons apparently reveal signs of back-breaking work and early demise. I'd really like to learn more, and explore why Egyptian archeologists come across so emotionally about what should be an objective, careful and strictly scientific analysis.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Gambling--Risky and Wrong, or Harmless Diversion?

A wonderful January day in the northwest--Mt. Rainier and Lake Washington gray and white in the overcast.  But as it was not raining, my husband and I decided to go on an outing to a local viewpoint in the Cascade foothills.  The cutting cold wind shortened our hike, so we decided to head for a quaint town nearby.

We didn't realize we'd pass a massive new casino recently opened by a Native American tribe of 650 members.  Its grand natural-wood lodge style is attractively set amongst the mountains, with a breathtaking view of surrounding peaks, some frosted with snow.  Curiosity prompted us to follow the considerable traffic stream onto the grounds and into the sizeable parking area, which includes an enormous structure of seven levels built into the slope adjacent to one side of the casino.

The channels of people approaching from the parking might have been mistaken for eager entrants at opening hour for Disneyland, were they not entirely beyond the age of 60.  Rather than pushing strollers, elderly seekers steered wheelchairs, many with attached oxygen tanks, into the banks of cigarette-fumed elevators and up to the playing floor, quickly splaying out toward their favorite slot machines like breathless children dashing toward their favorite rides.

As if in Fantasyland for the first time, my husband and I stood awed beholding the spectacle.  The gigantic room, braced by yard-wide arching beams, emanated a startling cacophany of jangles, whistles, beeps, slapping metal, ringing and every non-melodic sound possible from rows and rows of flashing machines, where seniors on stools sat mesmerized.

We strolled slowly through the room, clutching each others' hands for support.  To my right: a row of machines themed for Nefertiti, in which cobras and sphinxes and busts of the dark-haired Egyptian Queen appeared to roll in strips till each froze and its stool-mate stoically started the process again.  Aisles of machines sporting fish, pirates, witches, dolphins, cowboys, all with distinctive boing-bing-squawk sounds, commanded the attention of white-haired devotees.  Occasionally, there'd be a young person, in a ten-gallon hat, or sagging jeans, or with hair apparently not washed for a month.  OK, there were a few normal young people, too.

I paused to watch a row of slot-machine players.  Most silently peered at the sharks or treasure chests or rainbows on their 'slot' computer screens (it's been a long time since the old days when big levers spun metal reels until fruit-pictures lined up).  I didn't see people toting buckets of quarters, though the clang-clang-clang of a win occasionally pounded on top of the machine blinging.  Instead, players used credit cards, pushed buttons and stared at pixels.

Except one avid woman, who, when her strips started rolling, would rapidly tap the tips of her thickly polished fingernails across the screen.  I don't know if this was some sort of luck ritual, or if she thought she could disrupt the computer chip that generated the random numbers for her outcome.  I watched her determinedly tap-tap-tapping, until I was ready to plead, "Nevermore!"

On one end of the casino was a classy-looking circular bar, near a wall of windows and a long balcony overlooking stunning peaks. Past the couches was an open area filled with dozens of easy chairs, where four patrons nursed drinks and watched a football game on a two-story-tall screen.  We sampled the panoramic view on the balcony, wondering how so many folks could prefer staring at spinning drawings to the glorious reality steps away.

As we walked among the patrons, I observed the scene as an anthropologist, interested in the unfamiliar rules and culture of this strange society. My husband, though, was simply appalled and disgusted to see the waste of money and time.

Yet the people dropping their credit cards into the slots did so of their own free will, choosing the momentary thrill in awaiting each outcome, the excitement of possible win, over the cash they lose.  We pay for entertainment--$13 to see "Avatar" in 3-D, $90 to enter Disneyland, unspecified amounts for accoutrements on those online games like FarmVille.  Why is gambling any less acceptable?

Partly because the chances of winning are deceptively small.  Slot machines programmed to be "loose" return, say, 90% of the money they take in. But they also employ all sorts of psychological tricks to encourage, sometimes deceptively, players to keep paying.  For example, some still have an "arm" lever to pull, to foster a sense of control.  Most are programmed to land on symbols just one off from the programmed winner, to give players the feeling they "just missed."  The "clang, clang, clang" of quarters hitting metal is calculated to be as loud as possible, to suggest that winners are numerous and grandly rewarded.

Gambling, of course, can also be addictive.  I'm sure there are simulation gamers and others who become addicted, too--both to potentially devastating results. That states promote gambling in lotteries in order to alleviate budget shortfalls, while forbidding gambling in casinos, is hypocritical on its face.  But the reason casino gambling is outlawed (except when administered by tribal nations) isn't because of some moralistic religious prohibitions, but because too many people can't control themselves and ultimately hurt themselves and their families.

BF Skinner found that intermittant reinforcement is much more resistent to extinguishing than any other schedule of reinforcement.  In other words, when you don't know when the win will come, you'll keep trying longer, with the mind-set that the next attempt will be the one that will prevail.  This is the secret of the slot machines.  Though each "pull" has exactly the same odds to win as any other, the lurking suspicion that playing longer could bring success keeps people sinking more of their money into losing.

Still, what today's patrons seemed to crave was not the product--the money they'd win--but the process.  For these oldsters, who probably have few other pleasures as diversionary or easily accessible, slot machines provide fun.  They enjoy the ambiance of the gigantic room filled with movement and sound.  They benefit from the camraderie of others on nearby stools, or the friends pushing their wheelchairs.  The tiny thrill of the win is at least a thrill, better than watching television or paying for a restaurant meal.

This afternoon's foray into the beautiful new casino was thought-provoking, sad, fascinating.  Should gambling be encouraged? Should it be outlawed? I've got to think this through...

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Texts, Postings Bring Backlash Against Mean-Speak

Teens "sexting" nude photos. Threads of blog comments filled with nasty insults. Facebook posts cutting others to the quick. There's more vile and hurtful stuff circulating, with greater access, than ever before.

I was delighted to see an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal today against gossip.  Jews call it "lushon ha ra," literally in Hebrew "evil language," but really, speaking negatively about people, even if true.  ("motzi shem ra" is a term for slander, ie talk that's not true.) Educators, parents and pastors are popularizing three questions to consider before speaking--"Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?"

Columnist Jeffrey Zaslow described the backlash against verbal cruelty that's now made easy by texting and the internet--and the long-term consequences of mean messages when they enter the cloudy googles-sphere where posts and pokes never die.  He tells of advocacy groups, mentioning, that offers a free-to-download handbook coauthored by Aish ha Torah's Irwin Katsoff, endorsed by Joe Lieberman, John McCain, John Kerry, Charles Schumer and even Tom Cruise and Goldie Hawn. Movingly, Zaslow described a letter from a reader whose catty remarks to her mom about a nerdy date brought the mom's sage reply: "...this boy you find ugly and weird is some mother's pride and joy....when he came home, she saw his face, she knew someone hurt him, and it broke her heart..."  The reader, who learned her lesson, posted in her dorm room, "Treat everyone the way your mother would want everyone to treat you."

Also today, coincidentally, my fave talk show host covered a new law in France that would make spousal lash-outs a crime.  Even cohabitants could call the cops for "psychological violence" which, according Britain's "Daily Mail," encompasses "every kind of insult including repeated rude remarks about a partner's appearance, false allegations of infidelity and threats of physical violence."  While verbal abuse can certainly demoralize a weaker partner, enforcing civility on a he-said, she-said spat is likely too great a burden for overtaxed police.

Still, it shows that concern for the outcomes of verbal interchange is escalating.

Here in America, by adding laws about "hate speech," we've already increased sensitivity about saying nearly everything about a person--except gossip about behavior.  A growing number of groups representing various statuses and characteristics is demanding respect.  "A fat American no longer owns their (sic) own body, it (sic) is a commodity to be ridiculed, marginalized, a cost to be cut," laments the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "An American citizen is more than a BMI!"

Words--insulting, hateful or not--are constitutionally no concern of secular law, per the First Amendment:  "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..."  But they're the subject of plentiful Jewish laws, as famously detailed by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim. Just today, my teacher, Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz, was describing how commandments on "Lushon ha ra" would in many circumstances bar giving a poor recommendation to an unworthy student, though the inquirer would likely get the message when his request was declined.

The power of speech was harnessed close to home, as well. When a classmate in my daughter's Jewish high school class sadly developed cancer, the students pledged to banish their personal lushon ha ra, to improve the world in the merit of their friend.

It's not just the world, or the blogosphere, or the text-mail ether that gets uplifted when "kind-true-necessary" questions result in restraint.  Clearly, the greatest benefit is to those who become more aware of their own thought processes; more cognizant of possible outcomes and consequences.  We Jews are taught that words are more than means of communication; they're the very stuff from which God formed the world.  God could have gone "zap," and everything would have appeared.  But God said "let there be..." and only after the words came the reality.

Words are also what separates man from animal, what makes us, to large extent, in God's image.  God created with words; we do, too.  I sometimes wonder what, say, a pet dog, thinks of a master who sits at a computer for hours on end, tapping on a plastic box, or staring at a Kindle or newspaper.  The dog has no concept of reading, of conveying truths, images, facts via the intangibles of words.  Similarly, I consider we humans to be clueless about the reality of God--we observe the physical world, occasionally glimpse Providence in retrospect, but can't grasp the intangible, non-material existence that lies beyond.

We connect to God's creativity via words, which makes gossip and everything we speak far more weighty than the ease and brevity with which it's said.

Zaslow in his WSJ piece tries to be journalistic by quoting critics of "kind, true, necessary," saying such filters "may be naive and limiting," and might even be a tool to "help" workers conform to a norm. Weber State University professor Susan Hafen thinks "it would be a boring world if we always had to tiptoe around being kind. For one thing, we wouldn't be able to tell any jokes." Ha ha.

Does negativity make life more interesting? There's no drama without a conflict, but conflict doesn't have to center on dissing.  And who wants a real life of drama? Even the couple who regularly fights and then has a heavenly reuniting makes an impact on its children.  There's one supplementary question to the basic three I find pivotal:  "will it improve on the silence?"

And that, perhaps is the entire goal of the anti-gossip crusade--improving the quality of discourse, the quality of relationships, and the quality of our internal debates.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lovin' Hawaii

I always liked the school assignment called "What I did on my Summer Vacation."

My Hawaiian Holiday...with Obama, Limbaugh and The Governor

Just back from Hawaii; plane took off just as New Year's Eve fireworks erupted  over Oahu. A barge off Waikiki launched red air-hibiscus, and the wedge-shaped neighborhoods carved into the Pali foothills came alive with bursting colors. We circled over the island and I ooh'd in delight at our unexpected celebration.

Though we came for business as well as pleasure, we happened to be in Hawaii at a fortuitous time.  President Obama was vacationing in Kailua, and after a luscious afternoon at Lanikai beach, we drove to the home of friends who happened to live on a street just a block away from him. Strolling onto the sand, I saw paparazzi with long lenses and a small tent in front of the Obama's Bed and Breakfast, but no sign of presidential sunbathers.  This was shortly after the radio had blared that an ambulance had been summoned to the compound, apparently for an injured friend of the family.  In a small canal adjacent to the Obama's accommodations was an omnious-looking gray-painted boat, with scads of antennas. The Kailua street was blocked off.

Our "local" friends said there's a big push by hotel owners to ban B-and-Bs (hoteliers already got an ordinance forbidding rental of condos and homes for less than a month). And yet, the president wasn't criticized for staying in one.

Last year, another business-with-pleasure Hawaii visit coincided with the Obamas'. Then, as our Chanuka menorah illuminated our hotel room, a lightning storm outside hit a transformer, and the island went dark. When our candles extinguished, emergency lights in the corridor were the only illumination; from our balcony we looked down on a Kalakaua Blvd, the main drag of Waikiki, eerily blank without its neon lights.  Our power was off for 8 hours; the Obamas carried on as generators immediately kicked in.

Also during our stay this year, Rush Limbaugh suffered an apparent heart attack at the Kahala Hotel that turned out to be not a heart attack, as he reported in a press conference describing an angiogram he had at Queens Hospital in Honolulu.  My husband gave a TV comment about it.

Then there was the evening with Gov. Linda Lingle and Leut. Gov. Duke to chat with both, and my son sang and played ukulele for the crowd.  In this very Democratic state, Gov. Lingle, a two-term Republican who is term-limited out of another run, is the sane balance that insures the budget fits, even when it's unpopular.  I was especially impressed by her ability to cogently describe positive changes during her tenure, particularly in education and reducing corruption.  Hawaii is deceptively laid-back, and has its own racial hierarchy and culture, a layer of island life tourists only occasionally glimpse. 

Our friends who live there know how to navigate based on local hi-signs and even speaking pidgin.  Being "haole," (white) is a disadvantage, and being wealthy is disdainful among certain groups.  Much as I prefer Hawaiian climate, and adore our good friends there, this peculiar cultural difference keeps me an outsider. I suppose that might be true for many parts of America to an extent--but nowhere else was so recently a monarchy and is so physically separated from the mainstream--and the mainland.

Well, both Pres. Obama and my family are back home.  But I can smile at the nifty bobbling souvenir in the back of my car, rhythmically moving with the windshield wipers in the morning darkness as I schlep my son to school.