Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lessons from Hula

I'd be jumping for joy in my first hula lessons, but it wouldn't be graceful.  Learning steps whose names sound like a mouthful of vowels, and combining them with hand motions that tell a story is akin for me to patting my head while rubbing my stomach. But this substitute exercise is teaching lessons quite different from my usual Step and Pilates classes.

First of all, I see how seriously Hawaiians take this art form.  It's not just beautiful dance, but actually a means of oral history.  Before contact with Captain Cook in 1797, the Hawaiian people had no written language.  The particular hula I'm learning tells of a now-inaccessible waterfall on the island of Kaua'i, and one of the enacted lyrics admonishes listeners never to forget that place.  My hula teacher, whose name is Napualei, tells me to focus on conveying the meaning of the words, and that will help me with the proper hand motions and steps, which are like graceful Charades.

But it's not so easy.  Some of the steps require considerable agility.  One of them with a Hawaiian name that sounds to me like "oh-oo-oh-oo-ahh-ee," requires (with constantly bended knees) lifting a foot then quickly bending both knees further, shifting to the other foot, lifting, and bending both knees, in such rapid succession (with swaying hips), double time, that I feel like Klutz of the Year. But it sure is fun.

Then, there are the head moves.  Since you're an oral historian, you've got to be earnest about this. It's fact; hula's messages must be believed and preserved.  So you keep your eyes on the hands. You're stepping right, you look...left, because usually your hands are over there. Keep those knees bent. Sway those hips in the proper direction. Fingers together, thumbs in line! Elbows up, arms at mid-chest...this gets complicated.

So the lesson for me is humility. Not just because I'm so bad at this, feeling like an awkward little kid, but because I learned that the Hawaiian culture is disciplined.  I'd had a less-than-complimentary view, when observing the homeless' tarp-covered heaps, road improvements that take years, my local friend's ideas to solve community problems ignored, unions' impact on elections, and a laid-back, not-crisp attitude about time.  But the islanders who originally populated this region must have had incredible paddling skills, self-selected fom the hardiest and most inquisitive of their original populations.  They developed this detailed, precise means to communicate, with its own language far beyond the usual depictions of tribal chanting and jumping.

Now, hula changed after Europeans came to Hawaii.  Beforehand, it was used not only to praise kings but as a religious observance--and the natives had all sorts of animistic gods to appease. In fact, it's said that hula was invented by the goddess Laka, to please the big Volcano guy Pele.  Hawaiians had human sacrifice; at the Mo’okini Heiau on the Big Island, it's said thousands died to placate the god Ku.  In some cases, performing a hula for a ruler flawlessly could be a matter of life and death.

For me, an eager tourist embracing all the local color in this vibrantly brilliant place, hula is exercise, it's culture, it's something to study and learn and admire.

The other day, a friend born here on Oahu ("the gathering place") brought together many visiting friends for a lovely picnic.  Her 85-year-old mom played the ukulele and regaled us in a rich, melodious voice with traditional hula songs (she'd been a hula star in her younger years).  And as she sang, my friend, who had taken hula lessons since her early childhood, told the stories with her hands, singing harmonies, her body undulating rhythmically and effortlessly.

And what is the content of most modern hula songs ("mele")?  The inescapable beauty of the environment.  Lush forests, several types of rain, each with its own term and motion, stark mountains that jut upward like a dimetrodon dinosaur's spine, waterfalls, sunsets and rainbows.

That is the most salient lesson of hula for me:  Appreciation for the gifts of the senses surrounding me here in this God-blessed place.  Where plump pink guavas fall from trees overhanging highways; where the round orange sun setting into the sea produces the fabled "green flash" of life in the dying light. Where even strong rain feels like playful tickles because the air is so caressingly warm, day and night.  Where fish blaze with stunning colors and whimsical shapes and blithely ignore snorklers.  And where I can doff my thermal underwear and heavy boots to feel the silky sand of Waimanalo beach hugging my toes.  The surf is the sway of the hula. The cooing turtledoves in the morning the voice of Popo, my friend's mom, describing the scene in song.

In that sense, hula is still a religious experience, because the beauties of nature connect us most directly to God, their source.  Wading in the green and aqua water reminds us of our vulnerability, and watching North Shore surfers brings respect for the strength and power of the tides. Temperatures consistently comfortable let us enjoy and connect with each aspect of the natural world far better than huddling in parkas, or inside a well-heated house.

 Here in Hawaii, where car license plates feature the colorful arc, the Double Rainbow guy's comment holds: "it's so intense!" And to answer his question, "what does it MEAN?", it's a delightful and important reminder of our tiny place in this brilliant universe.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Homeless in Hawaii

Leave it to the homeless to dampen my enthusiasm for paradise.

I haven't blogged in awhile as I'm in Hawaii, the best new-empty-nesters gift my husband could have given me this winter.  I'd rather have a warm downpour than a frigid one, and the overcast skies punctuated by monsoon-style cloudbursts have offered enough intermittent sunshine to allow us some beachy afternoons and great tete-a-tetes with friends to create some fabulous photos and indelible memories.

Equally memorable were the "landed-homeless" whose blue-tarp-covered heaps of possessions pock the grass-strips between sidewalk and street, even in the most touristed areas of Waikiki. Their tents pitched under banyans in parks and their groaning shopping carts draped with plastic bags stationed along sidewalks remind us that hospitable liberal government would rather enable freeloading on public property than business to high per-square-foot rent-paying establishments.

I've seen matted-haired scavengers picking through trash bins along the beach, and even right in front of Kalakaua Avenue designer shops, searching for cans to redeem for pennies.  Last night my husband and I walked by a woman settled on a store stoop who appeared in her 50's, entreating passersby for their restaurant doggie bags.  On a drive around the island, we saw a public elementary school lawn food distribution, long tables of comestibles seemingly offered to anyone approaching.

If you've gotta be homeless, Hawaii's the place.  No huddling under freeway underpasses  when you can sleep unmolested to the sound of lapping waves in a green park on the Waikiki shore.  In doorways, in front of expensive shops, you can catch your zzz's.  On last night's walk, we saw a guy lying asleep on the Kalakaua thoroughfare sidewalk. Near his extended form he'd laid out a couple necklaces, ostensibly for sale. His fingers clutched some kind of rifle, even in his sleep.  His clothes and person were dark with dirt, in contrast to the white sidewalk.  What an appealing incentive to spend big bucks in Fendi, Coach, and the other glitzy stores a few feet away.

I think it's heartless to allow pitiable people to amass mountains of stuff inches from the street, rather than placing the sad souls with mental health providers or shelters, which they obviously need.  Peeking from under their tarps were all sorts of gleaned goods, including a baby car seat. Some of the piles were ten feet high--clear evidence of the problems these vagrants face.

We've been privileged to come to Honolulu, where my husband works during our stays, many times over the years. I've never seen so many and such conspicuous homeless encampments, just plopped down in the most desirable footage on the planet.

The graffiti seems to have increased, too.  Now, I'm not complaining, as my daughter in New York is stranded by a blizzard, and our friends back in the Great North-wet shiver under continuing wintry storms.  But you'd think that Hawaii would want to rely on more than just the weather to entice visitors. Their "shaka" attitude of casualness goes a little too far when tourists are forced to step around some pretty disgusting inhabitants, and doesn't serve those individuals or their neighbors at all.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Something comforting about...Holidays and "Hair"

Chanukah has just wrapped up for the year, Christmas is in its full carols-are-everywhere swing, candles are burning, lights are twinkling, and over the last week, I attended a revival of the 60's "tribal" paean, "Hair" and a new musical version of "A Christmas Story."

What do they have in common?  A nostalgia for happy times, a grounding that brings gratitude not only for survival, but for the many blessings we enjoy.  Why is this particularly crucial now, in 2010 (a year that as a child, I could never have fathomed experiencing)?  Because increasingly, politics and media and world events impress on us the fragility of life and the precariousness of our good fortune.

In 1967 when "Hair" opened, I was a young teenager who perhaps should have been forbidden from seeing the production at the Aquarius Theater on Sunset Strip in LA.  I don't think my parents really knew the content--there was no internet for them to google the synopsis and read reviews describing the nude scene and snubs at authority and the mounting Vietnam war.  I saved my money until I could afford the cheapest seat, which was labled "obstructed," meaning there was a thick post blocking half the stage. 

I doubt I'd ever attended a stage play before, but this was symbolic of the electricity this new generation was creating, the counter-cultural, self-serving morals that here found expression in a very much for-profit venue.  I recall the audacity of the music, with its non-rhyming lyrics, the tie-dye-style lighting, the characters who did stuff I'd never consider, like tripping out and burning draft cards and sleeping around, and of course, forever planted in my memory is a frozen view of the infamous nude scene.  Well, the half of it on the good side of the pole.

The theater was nearly dark, and a fabric scrim dropped down in front of the actors, who stood, motionless, without a sound.  People in the audience could barely make out silhouettes.  It was assumed the characters were nude, because, after all, that was the big promise, and the big affront to moral sensitivities--a demonstration of youthful rebellion.

Flash to last weekend, when a friend and I, decked out in tie-dye, joined a motley audience of Boomers (many similarly clad) and an assortment of others (including lots of same-sex couples).  "The nude scene" was incidental. No scrim, some brighter lights, moving actors (including one woman who did a cartwheel), the back-up band playing--not a big deal.  More surprising to me was the blatantly simulated sex and nearly constant sexual moves.  Reminded me that "tribal love" for 18-25-year-olds is more about physical drives than enduring connections, a legitimate point about all that faux-significant uniting.

The music in "Hair" transported me to the gazillion times I heard the Broadway soundtrack in the following year or two after the show.  Songs like "Sodomy" and "Hair" arrogantly blasted polite convention.  And now? The hippies morphed into "baby-on-board" parents who helicopter around their kids making sure they dot their i's on college applications and have the latest iPhones.  Where's the anti-materialist, anti-establishment rebellion now?

Just about nowhere, man.  With nearly every social experiment a fizzle, we're back to good old capitalistic, entrepreneurial striving, even as the crushed economy limps along.  And when the holidays approach, we don't like the modernistic snow branches at Seattle's airport, designed not to offend.  We want "The Christmas Story," which decks the classic film about the late radio storyteller Jean Shepherd's memories of boyhood in Indiana with lots of glitzy dancing and singing.  You know, the movie with little plot but sugary vignettes: a kid who wants an air rifle his mom insists will "shoot your eye out," a class bully who gets his come-uppance, an endearing sad-sack Dad who wins a lamp with a fishnet-stocking'd leg base, a devoted Mom, a kid brother, and a classmate who gets his tongue stuck to a flagpole.

We want traditions and nostalgia and connections across generations and eras, because the year is ending and the darkness is foreboding.  Even atheists are aware that this is a time of faith, as the chill and night remind us of our vulnerability and our need for each other.  Our human confidence lowers in the deep, dank of winter, when branches are bare and the light its weakest.

It's no coincidence that the candles of Chanuka illuminate the darkest month, with the holiday's history of resistance to assimilative forces that turn away from God.  Modern people desire Christmas light displays and the symbolism of the bright star followed by the wisest of men.

I enjoyed "Hair" because it erased age and time (though the superficial "tribe" linked only through sex, drugs and bucking convention now looks pretty bogus) and I appreciated the pleasure of the audience at "A Christmas Story" even when the musical numbers seemed a bit over-the-top. An older guy seated next to me guffawed, clapped and enthused identification with the anecdotes, condensing commonalities across time.

I'm not the only one marveling at seasonal light extravaganzas, or even delighting at the twinkling white LED strings up in my living room.  Carols may be played dozens of times, but we don't tire of them because they exude comfort and security. Familiar traditions let us endure the economy and the weather with the message that we can rely on families, friends and a grander power to get past the darkness and add light like each of the days following the winter solstice.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Time for new obscenities? Yawn.

When "F*** You" is a nominee for both the Grammy's record and song of the year, and the National Portrait Gallery hosts a Christmas season exhibit of "gay art" that included an image of Jesus on the cross with ants crawling into his wounds, you know there's very little left that can shock the public.

The problem is not with the outrageous terms and visuals themselves--or even that they get wide exposure.  Cee Lo's expletively-titled song remains an honoree with negligible reaction to its moniker. The "gay art" show continues. The problem only arose with the Gallery's "Hide/Seek" exhibit because taxpayers were footing the bill, which subjected it to greater scrutiny.  And when objections surfaced, the one item of removed "art" was soon displayed a few blocks away in a private gallery, where it receives little comment, other than from advocates who want the video featuring the disrespectful scenes reinstated in the show.

"F*** You" by Cee Lo Green, a catchy ditty that airs on radio with FCC acceptance in a moderated version, "Fuh-get You," hasn't become a cause celebre, nor does the song contain much controversial aside from two words.  Its message of frustration at rejection by a gold-digging girl is clever but wouldn't fly without its bouncy tune.  The music video has more than 28 million hits on YouTube, and its scenes in a diner of the child, teen and young adult Cee Lo enduring and then responding to being spurned, despite its punctuation with profanity, is lighthearted.  The Supremes-like girl back-up group adds to its ambiance. Actually, so many repetitions of the expletives serve to diminish any impact.

If anybody expected a huge outcry about how disgusting or upsetting the "art" or Cee Lo Green's lyrics are, he was sure to be disappointed.  Sure, we can lament the plummet of politeness, but the relaxation of language has rendered once-shocking words impotent.  If the best a really angry person can do to express his consternation is the f-word, well, it's more of a chuckle than an affront.  If someone wants to rattle the public by producing the most disgusting or institution-jabbing visual he can imagine, he can indulge his fantasy, and if some gallery owner thinks it will sell, it will be hung and viewed and maybe even called "art," but unless it does something to a Koran, it won't get much reaction.  We've all seen whatever-it-is before in movies, or after watching a flick's trailer, decided we'd rather not see it--but either way, ho-hum.

Remember when The Stones' "Satisfaction" and the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had their slurred lyrics interpreted as so nasty parents forbid teens from listening?  Well, nobody else does, either.

It'll take some pretty creative inventing to come up with swear words that provoke overwhelming shock and revulsion, ever again.  Do we need new obscenities to fill the lack?  I'd say no, but given today's cultural climate, somebody is bound to try.  Nobody's exempt from the influence of media; as my husband and I wrote in a book on childhood innocence years ago, avoiding popular culture is like trying to stop breathing.  Parents would do best to discuss the issue, to distinguish between words that elevate and those that cheapen and downgrade.  They'll do their kids a favor to set standards for speech in their own families that complement standards for behavior.

But ultimately, when confronted with harsh language, they'll all probably do what everyone else is doing anyway--shrug it off.