Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Cacao Grove

I wrote in a previous entry how from time to time I’ve wanted to reproduce some descriptive writing written by others that has impressed me for various reasons.  In my previous entry, I presented Willard Price’s description of the Polynesian body of the 1950s.  Here, now, I am presenting something else from a generation ago, but that may still be true today.  This is an excerpt from James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific.  Probably everybody knows the movie, South Pacific, and the story of Ensign Nellie Forbush, the World War II nurse from Arkansas who met and fell in love with and ultimately married the French planter, Emile de Becque, whom she meet there.

Tales of the South Pacific is based on pieces of reality experienced by Michener when he was in the Navy, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II.  Others have since gone to the places where Michener had been and sought to discover the reality of the people and places whom Michener had used to fashion his tales, and they have found them.  If there really were no exact “Ensign Nellie Forbush” and no specific “French Planter Emile De Becque”, there absolutely WERE nurses stationed on South Pacific islands during the war and there certainly were French plantation owners.  In fact the mystical island of “Bali Hai” was actually a real place (although that is not its name), but how it figures is less than “mystical”—it was where the French planters safely secreted their women, especially their young beautiful daughters, to protect them from being raped by the American sailors.

I very much love this passage from the book about De Becque’s lifestyle, and particularly the description of his cacao grove.  It refreshes and inspires me to think that something like this maybe still exists.  This occurs at an occasion when De Becque invites Naval doctors and nurses from the base hospital to come to his home for dinner.  Nellie Forbush was at that dinner, and De Becque took a special interest in her.  It's all wonderfully beautiful:

The long room with its deep veranda faced south, and from it one could see four lovely things: the channel where the great ships lay; the volcanoes of Vanicoro; the vast Pacific; and an old Tonk’s flower garden.

Nellie thought she had never before seen so florid a garden. There were flowers of all kinds, azaleas, single and double hibiscus, hydrangeas, pale yellow roses, and types she did not know. About the garden were flamboyant and bougainvilleas, red flaming bushes. And everywhere there were capriciously placed frangipani trees. De Becque pulled half a dozen branches for his guests and showed them how native men wear the four-leafed, white and yellow flowers in their hair. The nurses smelled the flowers their host gave them, and were delighted. The frangipani was the odor of the jungle. It was sweet, distant, and permeating. In addition it had a slightly aphrodisiac quality, a fact which natives learned long ago.

De Becque’s dinner put to shame any the doctors had ever offered him. It started with soup, grilled fresh-water shrimp, lobster and rice, and endive salad. Next came in succession three courses: filet of porterhouse, lamp chop, and a delicious concoction of rice, onions, string beans, and black meat of wild chicken. Then De Becque served the “millionaire’s salad”, consisting of tender shoots of coconut palm sliced wafer-thin and pressed in olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. Cup custard with rum, small cakes, coffee, and a choice of six liqueurs ended the meal. And this was on the edge of the jungle, 550 miles from Guadalcanal!

To say that the hospital staff was astounded would be an underestimate of their reactions.

“Where do you get the lobsters?” a doctor inquired.

“We catch them here by various means. Out in the deep water.”

“How about the wild chicken?”

“Those black men you saw by the gate when you came in. They shoot them with arrows or with .22’s. They are wonderful shots, I think.”

“I think so, too,” the doctor replied. “But where do you get such big shrimp?”

"Far up the island rivers. You see, my friends, we don't eat this way every day. That's obvious. Not more than once every two weeks. You see for lobster I must tell the men five days in advance. For shrimp a week. For wild chicken, two days."

. . .

After dinner, the guests sat in the screened-in veranda. A doctor had brought along two mosquito bombs to keep the pests away. Their host served whisky, beer, coke, ginger ale, root beer, and rum. As the evening wore on and a fine crescent moon rose into the midnight sky talk turned to the islands.

“How can a man have stayed healthy here,” one doctor inquired.

“Hard work and temperate living,” the Frenchman replied. “I serve a great deal of alcohol but use it sparingly, myself. I have tried to do all things in moderation.”

The nurses wondered what “all things” covered. "Do you think other white people could live in the tropics too?" one asked. That is, as well as you have?”

"They do," he said. "I think will power has a lot to do with it. You take the island of Malaita in the Solomons. Oh, what a place! Yet a man I know well, fellow named Anderson. He found life there quite successful."

"Tell me, M. De Becque," a nurse asked. "Is it true that most white men in the tropics are running away from something?"

The Frenchman turned in his chair to face his impertinent questioner. She was a young girl, so he smiled. "Yes," he said, "I believe that is true. Suppose I was running away from something. Where could I find a lovelier spot than this?"

He swept his hand across the front of the veranda and pointed toward the silent peaks of Vanicoro. "As a matter of fact" he said in a quiet voice, "is not each of you running away from something? You were not married yet, your lovers were at war, or your wives were beginning to bore you. I don't think it wise to inquire too closely into reasons why anybody is anywhere!" He smiled at the embarrassed nurse.

“Oh M. De Becque,” she said. I didn't mean it that way!"

“I know you didn't, my dear! But that's the way I understand the question. It's no good to think that all the men in Marseilles are normal and happy without secrets and everyone out here is a fugitive! That sort of thinking is foolish in today's world. I wonder how many men and women in Marseilles envy me right now?"

It was after midnight, and the nurses had to return. They were reluctant to leave the plantation. At the gateway where the jeeps were parked M. De Becque detached Nellie from the group. She had stood so that he could if he were so minded. “Ensign Forbush," he said. "You have shown great interest in my home. I would like to have you visit the plantation again.”

“I should like to," Nellie replied frankly.

“With your permission I shall stop by for you one afternoon. You would enjoy my cacao grove."

Three days later, in the cacao grove, Nellie admitted that she had never seen anything which so impressed her with its natural, unexploited beauty. Within that grove she was to spend many of the happiest hours she would ever know, and one of the bitterest.

Plantation owners in the tropics usually plant their coconut trees in stately rows along the ocean front and inland for a mile or two. Grass is kept closely cropped beneath the trees so that fallen nuts can be gathered without difficulty. Most coconut groves look very neat. The tall palms appear like thin ballet dancers with fantastic headdresses. But a cacao grove grows haphazardly. It usually forms the boundary between plantation and jungle. Trees spring up helter-skelter from year to year, and around them jungle brush proliferate. At times it is difficult to tell where cacao trees end and violent jungle begins.

At the point where his cacao and coconut met, De Becque had long ago built himself a pavilion big enough for two or three people. Its base was teak wood in eighteen-inch planks, its half-sides of woven coconut palm, and full roof of heavy thatch. Two benches of mahogany and two massive, comfortable chairs of teak were the only pieces of furniture. Four grotesque rootoos, native masks carved of coconut log decorated the four corners. Two were incredibly long-nosed jungle gods and two were native views of white women, with red lips. The masks gave color to what might otherwise have been a barren pavilion.

It is doubtful, however, if anything could be barren within a cacao grove. As Nellie waited in the pavilion while De Becque talked with his natives, she could hardly believe that what she had thought of as the montononous jungle could be so varied. Above her flew an endless variety of birds. White, green, red, purple, and yellow lorikeets more beautiful than any bird except the quetzal swirled and eddied through the grove. Their harsh cries were modified by the delicate chirping of a graceful swa1lowlike bird that flew in great profusion among the cacao trees. This gracious bird was sooty black except for a white breast and belly. Gliding and twisting through the shadows it looked like a shadow itself. Then, bursting into the sunlight, its white body shone brilliantly.

At times sea birds flew as far inland as the cacao grove, and occasionally a gaunt hawk from the distant hills would settle there for a day and drive the darting swallows away.

But it was the cacao tree that won Nellie's admiration.

The cacao is small, hardly more than a bush, reaching at most twenty feet in height. It has a sturdy trunk, thick branches about five feet from the ground, and grows symmetrically. Its leaves are brilliantly glistened like poison ivy, only more shimmering. And they are of myriad color! Some are pale green, others darkest green, some purple, some almost blue, or gray, or bright yellow. And on most trees at least fifty leaves are brilliant vermillion, shading off to scarlet and deep red. Each leaf is iridescent, and dead leaves drop immediately from the tree.

A cacao grove, in rainy weather, is a mournful and lovely place. In bright sunlight it is a hall of mirrors, and at dusk it has a quality of deep jungle quiet and mysteriousness that is equaled nowhere else in the tropics. In large measure these attributes are aided by the beauty of the cacao pods themselves, They grow in fairy-tale manner. In late January and February the cacao puts out buds that will later grow into pods. They appear without reason at the strangest places! Two inches from the ground on a barren, stiff trunk, a pod will suddenly appear. On one branch there may be a dozen pods. On another, none. In the crevice formed where a branch leaves the trunk a cluster of pods may appear and the branch itself may be bare. A mature cacao in full season looks as if someone had stood at a distance and flung a huge handful of random pods upon it.

At first the miniature pods are light purple. Then as they grow to full size, they become a weird greenish purple, like the paintings of Georges Bracque, Next they are all green, and from then on they become the chameleons of the jungle.

On one tree mature pods, which now look like elongated cantaloupes seven and eight inches long, will be bright green, golden yellow, reddish yellow, red, purple, and greenish purple. And on each tree a few will be dead, charred, black, ugly, with small holes where rats have eaten out the sweet seeds, which, when toasted and ground, become cocoa.

While Nellie waited for De Becque to finish the work he was doing, she studied the grove and mused upon the perverseness of people whereby cacao in French becomes cocoa in English. The multicolored lorikeets, the iridescent leaves, and the flaming cacao pods formed a superb picture for a hot afternoon. Later, when her host appeared, tall, stooped, and breathing hard, she asked him to sit by her.

"Why did you build this pavilion?" she asked.

"1 like to be near the jungle," he said, remaining in the doorway.

"Do you come here on rainy days? Is it nice then, too?"

"It's best on rainy days," he said. "But it's strange. The place serves no purpose. It's too far from the kitchen to eat here. There’s no bed, and it isn’t screened in. Yet I think I like it better than any place on my plantation.”

“I was looking at the cacaos,” Nellie said in a sing-song kind of voice. To herself she was saying, “I shall marry this man. This shall be my life from now on. This hillside shall be my home. And in the afternoon he and I will sit here.” Aloud she continued, “They are beautiful, aren’t they.”
–-James Michener, 1946

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Body of the Unspoiled Polynesian

My favorite writer is Willard Price, whom I am sure I have written about before.  I discovered him through his Adventure series of books for boys, which I loved, and from there moved on to appreciating his adult travel literature.  One of these books is the volume, Adventures In Paradise:  Tahiti and Beyond.  The four countries he describes in this book are French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Fiji. I have been to French Polynesia and Fiji.  The Cook Islands, which for sure I would love to go to someday, I did walk on their ground for half an hour...the flight from the South Pacific back to Los Angeles had a stop at the Cook Islands, and we all got out.  I bought several sheets of gorgeous stamps, there.  But I guess I can't really say that I have been to the Cook Islands, not from a half-hour stop at the airport.

I read Willard's book, which he published in 1955, this past autumn.  Of course he is describing places that don't exist nowadays the way they did in 1955.  He traveled to these islands via freighter.  Commercial air travel to these islands was not the norm at that time, so tourism was still rare. He is describing places that had not yet been "spoiled" (although he felt that Papeete, the capital city of French Polynesia was spoiled.  People love to denigrate Papeete, and I guess have been doing so for a long time.  As for me, I rather enjoyed it).  To me it is fascinating to obtain an understanding of places like this from "a dimension back", for while they may not be exactly the same, now (after all, people here in the U.S. are sometimes nostalgic for our own 1950s), it still does help understand some of the "roots" of a place, and to emotionally connect with a time that people can yearn for yet still see some of those elements remaining today.  I definitely have a South Pacific dream, myself, which I have carried in me ever since being a child. I am thankful to have been able to go to the Polynesian islands of Oahu and Kauai in Hawaii, North and South Islands and Stewart Island in New Zealand, and Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora in French Polynesia, the Melanesian Islands of Fiji, and the Micronesian Islands of Palau.

And this summer, as described in my previous entry, I am going back to French Polynesia, but this time, to Fakarava, an unspoiled coral atoll in the Tuomoto archipelago.  I am sure that my reading of Willard Price's chapters on Tahiti planted the seed of my going back to French Polynesia, but in search of a Polynesia that was more in keeping with his experience.

Part of that desire is a special admiration for the Polynesian people, well-known for their beauty, but much more for their daring, adventure, and skill as oceanic navigators, to have covered half the globe's surface, which is the Pacific Ocean, via outrigger canoe, discovering every little pinprick of land in all that watery immensity.  The Polynesians spread themselves out in a triangle that can be drawn from New Zealand to Easter Island to Hawaii, and all the Polynesian people in that triangle speak essentially the same language, which is, fundamentally, Tahitian.

Why have Europeans, and people from elsewhere in the world, wanted to leave their highly developed societies for life in a more "savage" Pacific?  (By the way, there are way more French living in French Polynesia than there are Polynesians living in France.)  For one thing, flaws in civilization glare brightly when compared with a way of life of a people whom, while certainly suffering problems of their own, did not make the same mistakes.  I wonder, who, if given the chance, wouldn't want to become one of these people, if it is possible to do so?  For example, on the subject of human beauty (and also physical abilities), here is an impressive description by Mr. Price that I found inspiring, in that he is clearly describing what I think of as an ideal, but one that had existed in actuality.  Can that be achieved again with cleaner and more natural living?  Unfortunately, much of that Polynesian beauty that he describes does not exist now.  Instead of fresh fish from the sea, the average Polynesian would rather eat canned meats imported in, such as Spam.  Travel writer Paul Theroux lamented that a constant favorite in some Polynesian country, I forget which one, was bag-fulls of Cheese Doodles stuffed in the wide-open mouth by ham-fisted hands.  Of course those people were obese, which has become a Polynesian standard.  However, where I am going, I imagine that there may not be an epidemic of Spam and Cheese Doodles.  But we will see.

I often want to reproduce in my blog passages from a book that have impressed me, so here, for the first time, I am doing just that.  Meet the Polynesian of only about 60 years ago:

The unspoiled Tahitian is a Greek god in sepia.  The less money he has, the better his physique and health—for then he cannot afford imported white flour, jam, coffee, sugar and whisky, but must live as his ancestors did on coconuts and breadfruit, yam, taro, bananas, mangoes, pork, fowl, and fish.

All these are fresh and always fresh because he has no means of refrigeration and no need to preserve food against the winter in a land where winter never comes.  And they are abundant.  No Tahitian goes hungry.  If he's unable to gather his own food because of sickness or age, his neighbors will gather it for him.

Thanks to good food, equable climate and an outdoor life, the Polynesian is a strong man, a born football player, wiry, slippery and quick. When two cars locked bumpers a Tahitian rose from his rest under a breadfruit tree, ambled over, lifted the front end of one car and moved it three feet. Then he yawned and returned to his tree.

The women are strong too. We saw a woman pick up a sick man considerably heavier than herself and carry him to a relative's house a hundred yards down the road.

And I remember reading that when the explorer Wallis was ailing, a Tahitian princess took him up bodily and carried him like an infant. Another Tahitienne stole the great anvil from the Spanish ship Aguila. It has frequently been recorded that a Polynesian woman has been back at her work within half an hour after bearing a child.

But Tahitian muscles do not bulge. They lie quietly under the skin, as invisible as the muscles of a cat. Nor is the Tahitian unusually large, but his proportions are excellent. His torso is shaped like a lyre, narrow at the waist, broad in the shoulders. His head is properly set and his legs are those of a dancer. (True, his feet are too large, and flat.)

His greatest charm lies in his eyes. A French traveler says of him: "His eyes are the most beautiful in the world, at least in the human world: I know none more velvety, more seductive, except among the antelopes."

The pupil and the iris are usually quite large and the white delicately tinted, giving the glance the sweetness of a caress. The beauty and mystery of the eyes are enhanced by the shadow cast by remarkably long black lashes.

The mouth is generous and the lips full, but not thick; they part in a smile that for richness and warmth cannot be matched by the residents of colder climes. In the case of the town Tahitians the smile may be marred by blackened or missing teeth. Natives who have not had access to the refined foods of civilization are likely to have strong white teeth.

The Tahitian nose is Greek. It strikes a happy medium between the squashed nose of the Mongolian and the "canoe" nose (as the Tahitians call it) of the Anglo-American. The nose of the Polynesian is one indication that he is a blend of Caucasian, Mongolian and Malay strains. In the process of blending he has happily avoided the extremes of all three.

The Polynesian skin is golden brown, of exactly the tint most zealously coveted by bathing beauties on American and European beaches.

The attractiveness of Tahitian women has become a legend. We now see that it is a legend founded upon fact. Not that they are all beautiful--far from it. They age quickly. The men seem to stand the ravages of age better than the women. Old men, especially the chiefs, often take on a dignity of bearing that makes them seem even more handsome than the young.

Captain Cook wrote of the Polynesians that they were not only the finest race in the Pacific but probably surpassed in appearance any other people in the world. We don't need to go that far. It is enough to say that the Polynesians are as beautiful as their islands.

Their beauty is functional. Their bodies look well because they work well. Polynesians seldom wear glasses. They have binocular vision. In fact I have failed to see with binoculars objects that were plainly visible to the naked eye of the Polynesian.

His sense of hearing also is acute. His ears are full-blown and incline forward like those of a dog. He picks up sounds out of what appears to be complete silence.

A man of the city has little use for the sense of smell and it has largely atrophied. The man of the mountains and the sea depends almost as much upon his nose as upon his eyes and ears. In the forest he can smell his way to plants and herbs concealed in the brush. He can identify many animals and birds by smell. He recognizes human beings also by their odor. That is one reason why he makes such a point of personal cleanliness.

Polynesians often complain of the odor of white people. They amuse themselves by inventing smell-names for their white acquaintances. A visitor learned that he was called Tohe-repo and was quite pleased with his Polynesian name until he learned that it referred to a portion of his anatomy which he did not keep spotlessly clean.

The Tahitian is dissatisfied if he cannot bathe twice a day.

Even in a close-packed native crowd under a hot sun there is no offensive odor. A man's first thought upon returning home from work is to bathe under the shower or in the river and put on a fresh pareu.

A Tahitian father was asked by the French writer, Serstevens, why he had withdrawn his daughter from a boarding school of the Sisters of Atuona. He answered:

"Because they are dirty. The sisters allow the little ones to wash only two times a week, and then not all over but only here and there so as not to show their nudity."

The cleanliness of the Polynesian extends to his house and garden. The Tahitian woman, in spite of her devotion to love, conversation and dancing, finds time to keep her house clean enough to satisfy a Dutch housewife. Some communities have instituted periodic inspection of houses: a fine of fifty francs is exacted from the owner of the worst-kept and awarded to the owner of the best-kept.

We took for granted the clean gardens until we realized the amount of labor it must take to keep them clean. In this land of eternal autumn wedded to eternal spring, leaves are always falling. Many of them are large--the breadfruit leaf is a foot or two long, a banana leaf may be six feet long, a palm leaf, from ten to twenty feet. The natives have a phobia of fallen leaves and every day one of the chief tasks of the children is to pick them up and carry them away to be burned. If the Tahitians were as lazy as they are painted, this work would be the first to be neglected.

A lot of nonsense has been written about the laziness of the Pacific islanders. As we have seen them in Micronesia, Hawaii, the southwest Pacific, and now here, they seem to have a sensible attitude toward work.

They will work hard and long to make a canoe, build a house, catch fish, gather coconuts. As Furnas says in “Anatomy of Paradise”, they cheerfully perform backbreaking jobs "that would make an Irish railroad gang go on strike."

But when their work is done, they quit. They see no point in working merely for the sake of working. If there is plenty of food on hand, and no needs unsatisfied, they relax and enjoy life. Nervous disorders are practically unknown and a psychiatrist would starve for lack of patients in the brown Pacific.  --Willard Price, 1955

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Deciding Where To Go This Summer

This year, rather quickly, after only about a month of effort, I luckily stumbled upon what I want to do and where I want to go for my summer trip.

For the past several vacations, I have been searching for the “perfect” white-sand-blue-water tropical beach paradise and had been almost totally unsuccessful. Many people that I know like to go off to some cultured dense urban location-—Berlin, New York, Paris, Prague, London, Madrid, Tokyo-—but I already LIVE in a dense urban location, which I can enjoy all year around, and especially during the summer, as well, and I do enjoy it.

And here it is also known as almost the consummate “beach” location, but I guess that at this point I am rather “snobby” about that. I can hardly ever drag myself to the beach around here, which involves a long drive through traffic, fighting even heavier traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway, paying what I think is too much money to park (which is especially galling when I am still so paper-white-pale that at first I can’t even be at the beach more than half an hour without being turned into a red lobster, so why do I want to pay for a full-day’s worth of parking?), only to go to not particularly attractive brown sand, greenish-brown water that in Los Angeles County, at least, is somewhat polluted, and that is also ice-cold? As far as the LA County beaches go, swimming in the water is generally miserable in that all the beaches have a precipitous slope down into the water that causes there to be waves that don’t really break smoothly, but instead pound down so hard on top of you as to smash you down into a swirling “washing machine” of seawater while the undertow or riptide threatens to drag you far out to who knows where?

I think much further out there, where the surfers line up (covered neck to toe-tip in heavy wetsuits), the waves break much better and can carry them in for a thrilling ride. But closer in to shore where I and 90% of the other people at the beach feel more comfortable, it is a mess. Very few beach-goers here actually go into the water for more than a quick wetting of the feet. I don’t know if that is due to the cold temperature of the water, or the uninviting wave action (or both), but basically for the non-surfer, the beaches here seem to be for sunbathing on the sand, playing volleyball, or throwing the Frisbee. Little kids enjoy making sandcastles on the water’s edge.

Beaches beyond Los Angeles County are better. Many like the beaches of Santa Barbara; others like them in Orange County. And those are better, it is true. As for me, I prefer the beaches of San Diego County, especially liking Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, where I truly enjoy myself body-surfing, and San Onofre, which actually has warm water due its proximity to the nuclear power plant. I BELIEVE that the ocean water there flows through pipes in the power plant to help cool the reactor (although for sure I don’t really know or understand the process) and when it comes back out again, it has taken on the heat from the reactor. And no, this doesn’t carry along with it dangerous radiation, just nice semi-tropical-feeling ocean water.

But either San Diego County beach destination is a three-hour or longer drive from here, so good for a three-day weekend trip. When I hated the apartment where I used to live, I was looking to escape from it every chance I could get, so I was a pretty regular visitor to Encinitas and Moonlight Beach. I would stay in a hotel that was only a few blocks away from the beach. But ever since moving into THIS apartment, I haven’t felt the need to escape, so I haven’t been to Encinitas since.

So, any escaping I want to do is from Los Angeles, itself, so, back to the “snob” in me, when I want (or hope) to go to a great beach now that I live here, I have gone to Florida, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Hawaii, or Micronesia, NOT Southern California.

Key West, in Florida, was disappointing, beach-wise. Any white sand there is not native to the island, but shipped in from the Bahamas and poured into “sand boxes” along the shore of expensive resorts. Also, there are yards of seagrass along the shoreline that is pretty creepy to wade through to get into the water, which is why most of those resorts have piers that extend far out into the water to provide access to the water beyond the seagrass. It’s okay, I suppose, but not my idea of what I wanted. Key West is more for tootling around the cute town on a rented motorscooter, rocking relaxedly on covered verandahs during the heavy summer showers, enjoying delicious meals outdoors on southern patios, and barhopping throughout the warm summer evenings. Going to the beach, not so much. Miami Beach was much more appealing when it came to the beaches and I would go back to Miami Beach in a heartbeat.

Cozumel, Mexico, had some pretty nice white sand, warm water beaches. Terrible snorkeling, though. Some hurricane or other apparently wrecked the snorkeling down there, at least, that was the excuse I kept hearing. There was nothing wrong with Cozumel other than it was for me a cruise ship destination and all that entails, probably the worst of which (to me) is the fact that you are going to be there for only a few hours. So while I enjoyed Cozumel for those few hours, it wasn’t really a full and deeply abiding experience. You’re mostly just lured into shopping.

The same could be said for Cancun. Not so enjoyable from a cruising-in-by-ship perspective, but I could see myself going back there for a longer stay at a large resort. Mexico's not so high on my list these days, though, thanks to the drug wars and so on.

Ensenada, another Mexico cruise-ship destination for me, was inferior beach-wise, really like just going to a California beach except that you are constantly bothered by people hawking jewelry and hair braiding. At least in California you are left alone. I did not go into the water, there, because I had already gotten too sunburned on the ship and the idea of the salt water made my skin crawl. I was the only one of my group who did not go into the water and I was the only one who did not get sick-—a sort of Montezuma’s Revenge that I guess is absorbed through the skin. Instead of “don’t drink the water” (which still holds), it was “don’t get INTO the water”.

When I was doing background work on films the first year I moved back to Los Angeles, I met a ton of people who had been extras on “The Titanic”, which had been filmed at Cameron’s studio in Ensenada where there had been constructed a 1/3-size tipping scale model of the ship. This was around the time that movie had come out, so if I had moved to L.A. about half a year earlier, I would have been able to have been in that movie, too.

At first I was envious, the fact that they got a free trip to Ensenada for the filming and were in that phenomenally popular movie, but they all said that it had been a miserable experience, just floating around in the water for hours and they ALL got sick. So I view that as an incontrovertible fact, now, swim in the polluted ocean at Encinitas and you will get sick. So no, that one is out.

The island of Roatan, Honduras, was a beautiful place loaded with gorgeous beaches. Again, it was a cruise-ship destination with all my typical complaints of going there by ship. But I am quite sure that I will go back to Roatan sometime, again, to stay on land there and find a deeper enjoyment of it.

I never saw the beaches in Belize, because, you guessed it, that was yet another cruise-ship destination. For Belize, I chose an eight-hour inland excursion to see the pyramid at Xunantunich and it was well-worth it. I climbed up to the top of it and could see over into the jungles of Guatamala. I studied Mayan culture before I went on that trip, which helped me all the more appreciate and enjoy what I was seeing. Belize definitely has a reputation for having very good beaches, so I will have go back there someday to experience that, although the attraction in Belize that interests me more is cave-tubing (so I would do both).

Without a doubt I love the Hawaiian island of Kauai and for sure very seriously plan to return there. I want to kayak the Na Pali coast and camp on those isolated beaches in the Na Pali Wilderness. I was a millimeter close to going there this summer, but learned that camping permits for that region usually fill up over a year in advance. So, some other time.

Beach-wise, though, I have never been to a place that was more “dangerous-beach-warning-centric”, to the extent that even beaches that LOOKED okay (and had some people swimming in them) nevertheless kept me enough on edge that I couldn’t enjoy them. It’s funny, though, because clearly THE MOST DANGEROUS BEACH on Kauai, and maybe in all of Hawaii (excluding the North Shore beaches of Oahu during the winter), that was constantly warned against, was Hanakapiai Beach, two miles into the Na Pali Wilderness, and in 1975, I spent one of the most enjoyable days of my life body-surfing Hanakapiai Beach, totally naked, I might add, for several hours, all by myself. I had no idea that it was supposed to be so dangerous, so I had no fear, only an amazingly great time. Was I lucky, or was this fear-mongering just so much the way life is, now, in the 2000s, where every American is meant to be scared to death of any and everything and the cherished status of becoming a victim is always just around every corner? I don’t know, but as wonderful as Kauai is, to me, it is not a place for great beaches, now.

Palau is mostly “photographic hype”, looks like the most wonderful place on the planet, and I imagine that all those hundreds of beaches and hidden lagoons in the Rock Islands are as fantastic as you’d expect them to be, if only it would stop raining! I never thought to check out the weather pattern in Palau, assuming that like every other tropical destination I was familiar with, that when it rained, it would be an immense and gloriously exciting tropical downpour that would be over in half an hour, once a day. This is something that you WANT to have happen. But in Palau, as I am sure I have said elsewhere, it rains, on average, every day but four out of every single month. So a beautiful beach in the midst of a constant tropical downpour is anything but a vacation pleasure.

Another odd thing about Palau, for a place that I would expect would be wedded to the sea, and especially with the awesome treasure of the labyrinth of the Rock Islands, there would be more boats than Los Angeles has cars. But there were hardly any boats at all in Palau, and any that I saw belonged to the touring companies for the purpose of trucking boatloads of tourists in and out of the Rock Islands region. (Not even any private yachts were seen, which I for sure expected to see a lot of.) This gave me the impression that the only people who ever went into the Rock Islands were tourists who were paying money to formal excursion companies for organized and standardized trips. And from my driving around everywhere on the main island of Koror, I found basically only TWO non-commercial beaches on that island. By non-commercial, I mean a beach that isn’t owned by a very expensive resort hotel (to whom you must pay for day use if you aren't a guest there). There was a beach that was owned by bar and restaurant that was owned by a scuba diving company, that charged an admissions fee for their tiny beach.

The two “free” beaches that I am referring to were one kind of polluted one in a formerly industrial area near an old ice plant, and another one that I would have been quite happy to use that was in the vicinity of the large bridge that connects the island of Koror with the island of Babeldoab. It had white sand and beautiful water and was on the “lagoon” side of the bridge instead of on the “ocean” side of the bridge. I saw some local men fishing there, and asked the man at the car rental place about it, who confirmed for me that that was the beach the locals use and a good beach that few tourists even knew about.

I think a possible rule of thumb about beaches, which I apply to Palau and I believe also holds true for Kauai (or anywhere else), is that one ought to go to the beaches that the locals use, because who would know better which beaches are the best? There are only two potential ticks against that idea, though. One is that it is possible that the very best beach areas were co-opted by the wealthy international resort builders who came in, scoped out the best locations, and wrested them away from the locals. So that would mean that the locals were pushed onto having to use beaches that were not their chosen ones previously. I don’t think that is true of Kauai, though. For one thing, what had been the most famous and glamorous resort in Kauai prior to its being destroyed by Hurricane Iniki was the Coco Palms Resort, which I noticed was ACROSS the Kuhio Highway from a beach that the LOCALS used. One would think that the Coco Palms would have to be ON the beach (al la Miami Beach resorts, for example), but no, a popular and extremely-well-used locals’ beach was left undisturbed. Maybe there were protections in place for the interests of the locals?

Interestingly, the captain of the zodiac raft I rode in the Na Pali Coast excursion I went on on my last trip to Kauai, who was born in Kauai and never has been anywhere else in his life, told me that HIS absolutely favorite beach, and where he and all his friends go every chance they get (so they never get tired of it), is Polehale, a very long beach on the west side of the island, the last beach before you get to the south side of the Na Pali Wilderness. Next to Polehale is Barking Sands beach, controlled by the military and available only for those in the military. So here you have the United States military claiming a beach, but they left Polehale alone. The closest resorts to Polehale are the south shore resorts, further away, in the area of Poipu. Whether the locals preferred Poipu long ago, I don’t know, but according to this guy and his friends, you couldn’t possibly do better than Polehale.

The second potential tick against going to a locals’ beach is what the reaction of those locals might be when tourists come in. Some people have reported violence. I definitely would NOT fear violence at that locals beach in Palau that I found. But a locals’ beach on the east side of Kauai, Anahola, I might worry about (there have been some negative reports), but my guidebook, written by a local, describes this beach as a “Designated Homelands” (I’m not sure what that means, but I think it refers to something that is reserved as native land). But he says that while few tourists ever go there, tourists are “certainly welcome”. And of all the beaches I saw in Kauai, this one was absolutely the one that was the most used. And that generally has been true of all local beaches I have seen, such as in Fiji or in French Polynesia. I did not go swimming at Anahola, although I do plan to go there next time I go to Kauai.

I think whether a tourist is accepted or not has to do with attitude. Are you an “ugly American” (although I think the “ugly American” was replaced by the “ugly Japanese” in the 80s, only to be replaced by the “ugly Germans” in the 90s, and now THEY have been replaced by the “ugly Chinese” in our current time), or are you respectful of the culture you are visiting and of the people who live there?

There is a kind of a “trick” useful in entering a realm of the locals, and by that I don’t mean “fooling” them, but by being sincere in your respect of them as having “ownership” of the space, a kind of “asking permission”, and that can easily be done, by, for example, coming up to an obvious local, let’s say the biggest, strongest, most “alpha” guy you can find there (who, in a culture like the Hawaiian, will be a sight to behold, believe me), greet him with a broad smile, and say something like this: “Wow, what a beautiful beach this is! I sure would love to go swimming here, can you tell me, is there a good place to body surf, I am kind of afraid of undertow, so can you point me to where maybe I could go?” I did that at a beach on Kauai, but instead of asking about body-surfing, I had my rented snorkeling gear with me and I asked a local about a good place to see a lot of beautiful fish. The guy smiled back broadly and said, “You’ve come at a great time, the fish seem to be back right now and the best place to see them is over there near that spit of land, see, it’s not too far, and a lot of fish gather there to feed. But be careful, don’t go too far around that tip, because that’s where the tide comes in and out and the current might be a bit strong.” I thanked him sincerely and went exactly where he told me to go and the fish out there were quite numerous and they were all eating madly, something I had never seen before snorkeling elsewhere! His guidance was perfect. I had hoped to see him again when I came back to shore so that I could tell him how great his idea had been for me, but he was gone. Still, what I had done WOULD make anyone welcome, I think, because I had legitimately positioned the local man as the expert and the one who “belonged” and I was clear about being the “stranger” seeking help. And if there had been some resistance to my presence there, I think it would be clear from his response. For example, he could have spat, or looked at me angrily, or actually said, “You shouldn’t come here, you’ve got other places where you could go.” But, no, he tells me exactly the perfect place to see what I wanted to see and what danger to watch out for.

I think what angers locals against tourists is that the tourists feel that THEY own the place, and with that ownership they are demanding—they want the weather to be good, the conditions to be picture-postcard perfect, they want bathrooms and showers and plenty of parking and maybe a snack bar, and somehow it is the fault of the residents that things aren’t “right”. Yuck!

One place I definitely hope to go to someday, but I just wasn’t ready for it this year, is the Solomon Islands. Now there they take this idea of the “locals” to an extreme that gets to be kind of tricky (and a little beyond my current expertise). You go to the outer islands or even go for a hike beyond the more populated or “civilized” places and you come to regions that are as primitive as anything from a couple of hundred years ago. There you will encounter “kastum” people who for centuries have been shrugging off every manner of westerner, European, missionary, colonist, or technologist, who continue live close to the way they have done since forever. They have a sense of “communal” ownership of the land and of everything, and that includes the trail you are walking on, the waterfall from which you might drink, the forest from which you might pick a fruit, the rock you might sit and rest on, the shore you might land your kayak on, and even (or especially) the lagoon that you have been paddling on. So anyone you encounter may demand (or request?) a payment from you of what you have used. This “payment” will be in money (a sense of “valuable exchange” is actually a pretty ancient concept), probably measured only in cents (from our point of view), or maybe a very, very few “dollars”, but it will involve a brief but tricky negotiation (especially if one does not understand this and attempts to refuse to pay something) and sometimes violence has come from that. Frankly (although it may just be my own fear, not a true understanding of the situation), I feel that such a situation is absolutely rife with danger, because there you are, the white-skinned stranger, utterly alone out in the middle of “nowhere” and they know you have a pocketful of money yet are restrained and fair enough to ask for something quite reasonable, and yet, what is preventing them from slicing your head from your neck and taking it ALL? Who on earth would care about you out there at all? And while I am not afraid of cannibals, it doesn’t hurt to remember that these people WERE cannibals in the not too distance past, and some government officials think that they actually still are in some of the more isolated villages. I mean, if “kastum” means that they live in the traditional ways, then it's not inconceivable that they still might also continue to practice cannibalism.  Of course, though, they have been exposed to a wider perception of the matter, so who knows how their attitudes and customs may have changed.

And associated with all this is a fascinating concept that I had never thought of before, and that I feel is alien to our own way of thinking, and yet, it does make perfect sense. To them, only THEY are “people”. Every other living thing is something else, NOT people. So a white man from California walking through the forest is an animal, different from, say, a pig, only in that the “value” of that white-skinned animal is different from the “value” of the pig. The pig has really good meat, but no money in its pocket. But we all know that to a cannibal, the two-legged animal has quite delicious meat, too, rather on par with the meat of the pig. So anyway, that wasn't a situation I was ready to just jump into.

But travel writer Paul Theroux was able to go there and discuss religion and customs with tribal chiefs and go on fishing trips with villagers and presented himself in such a way that the people there found that he had a value to them other than “meat” or “money”; such as, he was different, he was interesting, he was a curious oddity that made the day special, and he wasn’t irritating. He also was clearly there with a genuine interest in who they were and how they thought, which I think is a great sign of respect, maybe the greatest sign of all. The people were very helpful to him, and guiding him further on his way toward others whom they thought he would like, people who were just like them, which I think is quite cute, and I think he thought so, too. To me, it indicates that he had found a “home” among them, was welcomed as a kind of “almost them”. How could any traveler do any better than that?

So, here I entered into the spring knowing full well that I still had that unfulfilled “white sand beach, warm blue water, tropical island” desire and was mucking about through travel books and magazines, and the Internet, trying to figure out a great place to go, and spending most of my time attempting to fashion a trip to St. Lucia in the Caribbean, or to Vanuatu or the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, but none of it was gelling. I did, however, realize something, and that was that if I (for some reason) really wanted a white sand beach, what I wanted to go to was a CORAL ATOLL, not a VOLCANIC ISLAND. Now, it may be possible to find white sand on a volcanic island, although I would venture to say that 99% of the time, that white sand is artificial; that the true sand of a volcanic island would be black or brown sand, because it would be made of lava. WHITE sand is coral sand.

This was a very important revelation, because having this understanding helped me to track my desires down deeper. Mostly where people go is to volcanic islands, and they are certainly phenomenally beautiful, with their high green mountains lush with waterfalls. Probably the best example of that kind of beauty may be the afore-mentioned Kauai, but certainly also Moorea and Bora Bora and Tahiti are three well-known amazingly beautiful volcanic islands that people yearn to go to. I have been to them, myself.

But still, the most beautiful place I have ever been is the Yasawa Island Group of Fiji, which anyone who has ever seen the movie, “The Blue Lagoon”, has seen it, because that is where that movie was filmed. I visited the islands via a small cruise ship line called “Blue Lagoon Cruises”. Very wonderful (and very expensive). They took us to some of the most wonderful beaches I have ever been to, and then (like almost all cruises), took us away from them far too quickly. So THAT’S what I had been looking for, to stay on a “Blue Lagoon” type of island for more than a few hours.

But that whole Yasawa Island Group is really pretty far out of my price range, and is at this point not a particularly “rarely-trod” tourist path. I unreservedly recommend it to anyone, but I wasn’t too sure that I wanted to go back there, myself. I wanted something like that, but something kind of OFF the normal tourist track, but still someplace I had to be able to get to, of course, since I don't have my own sailboat.

Somewhere in the back of my mind I had a desire to go back to French Polynesia, but not back to the islands that I had already been to. French Polynesia is HUGE, with several different island chains spread out over an immense amount of Pacific Ocean. Where “everybody” goes when they want to live out their Tahitian fantasy is the Society Islands chain. I had been quite curious about another Tahitian island chain, the Marquesas, but they are all volcanic islands, and while they look phenomenally spectacular as seen from the sea, they aren’t really all that great to stay on. At any rate, they weren’t what I wanted.

It was my very, very great fortune that I happened to stumble upon the website of the perfect place. A “pension” (think “bed and breakfast”, Polynesian style) called Raimiti on an island in French Polynesia’s Tuomoto islands chain, coral atolls, between the Society Islands and the Marquesas. (If you check out their website, please be sure to click on the 360 degree virtual tours...fantastic!) The Tuomoto chain is somewhat dangerous for ships to sail in and around due to all the reefs, so they have remained somewhat isolated, which is a good thing, I think. But they ARE accessible via Tahitian Air, at least, Fakarava is, the island that I am going to.

The island of Fakarava has only about 250 residents. No roads. The whole island is like a snake formed into a rectangle, surrounding a gorgeous lagoon, and is only about 36 miles long down one of the longer legs of the rectangle. You fly in from Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia (direct flights from Los Angeles on Air Tahiti Nui, an international Tahitian airline that is different from the local Air Tahiti), and are met by the owner of the pension, who takes you to his place via an hour and a half boat ride down the blue lagoon.

There you find an island paradise, all virtually hand-made from woven palm fronts. What electricity they have, they generate from solar panels. The guests sleep in individual bungalows on either the ocean side or the lagoon side, with each bungalow’s bathroom being a small building next to the bungalow. The bungalow that I will have is the smaller of the two sizes available (there are only 10 bungalows in all), for one or two people, and the shower for my type is an outdoor one, surrounded by a curtain. In my dream house, even if it were a multi-million-dollar house, I would have at least one shower outdoors (which I think is so sensual). I would also have an open-air bedroom in which to sleep, that is exactly how these woven-palm-frond bungalows are, with no glass windows or wooden doors, but instead, a woven screen that can be closed for privacy, and a gaily colored Tahitian cloth curtain at the door. You sleep caressed by the perfumed breezes. They also provide a mosquito net, but mosquitoes are only a problem in the rainy season, but I am going in the season that has the least rain (after Palau, that is how it would have to be!).

The bungalows have no electricity; light in them is provided by candles and kerosene lanterns. Very romantic.
All meals are provided and even in the few on-line reviews by people who did not like this place (because they wanted a more structured resort) the people revealed that they loved the food, which will be the largesse of the sea and the tropical wonderland cooked up in the French style.

There is total freedom to simply be left alone Robinson Crusoe style to allow all tension to be sucked out of the body (which is how I felt simply looking at their website), to go walking along the beach (there are no roads and no motor vehicles, only boats), swimming in the delicious lagoon or the ocean, enjoying spectacular snorkeling right there at your doorstep, and kayaking wherever you want to go in the lagoon, such as across the water to a vacant “motu”. What I love is the idea of being able to swim in the lagoon or ocean day or night-—at night under the brightest stars one has ever seen, and they say that sometimes dolphins come swimming over, and even whales that have come to the Tuomoto islands to give birth have found their way into this lagoon with their newborn babies (and I'll be there during this "season"). After my enjoyable experience with the dolphins in Palau, I crave to swim with wild dolphins, and the idea of maybe even swimming with a whale, if it happens, is spectacular.

There are organized adventures, too, all at the whim of the owner whose personal guest you are. You do whatever he feels like doing that is a good idea of something to do that day, including any of the following: a picnic on a pink sand beach, fishing (huge fish!), visiting the small town, visiting a pearl farm, snorkeling at a particularly interesting place. You can go along on these, or not, as you wish.

One excursion that is fantastic to do is snorkeling the South Pass. You can scuba dive it, also, but if you want to do that, you contract with the dive shop that is on the island.

The tide flows in and out of the lagoon via two different passes, the large North Pass and the smaller South Pass (Raimiti takes people to the South Pass). Every manner of sea creature is there during these tide changes to take advantage of the concentrated food supply. Not only are tens of thousands of every kind and color of fish there, but also huge fish, such as the Napoleon Wrasse, and also schools of dolphins, manta rays, sharks, and sea turtles. The sharks are (apparently!) the kind that are not apt to attack humans. The way I have doped it out is that some sharks absolutely do NOT attack humans (such as Nurse Sharks), other sharks absolutely DO attack humans (such as the Mako or the Great White), but there is third category that never really attacks humans (such as the Black Tipped, which is what I think these sharks are), but MIGHT if molested. A magazine article I read about the favorite tourist thing to do in these islands, dive the passes, warned that it was dangerous to touch the sharks, but that they otherwise were safe. My guess about them is that they have more than enough food to fill their bellies without any trouble at all, so there is no need to go to the effort of attacking something large and weird like a human. Just leave them alone and they will leave you alone. At any rate, these sharks are considered a definite attraction, not something to fear or avoid.

What I would fear more is the current, itself, and, again, magazine articles warn to NOT dive these passes when the current is going OUT of the lagoon into the open ocean, and the reason is that they cause tornado-like whirlpools in the ocean that can suck divers and snorkelers down very deep into the watery depths…into “oblivion” as one article frighteningly described it. You don’t have to tell me twice. After all, I realize that a whole “reservoir” of water is flowing out through a very narrow nozzle and you're just a floating leaf in the immensity of it all.

The tide coming IN, though, does not generate those whirlpools, but the riding of this current is like riding a locomotive and is quite a thrill, well worth flying halfway across the Pacific to get to experience. So, I am sure that one of the days that I am there I will be able to do this. Good thing I have a Casio Gulfmaster watch that reveals the movement of the tides, though, just to be on the safe side!

The experience of being on an atoll is the pure stark closeness to the oceanic elements (I mean, really, when a whale can just pop her head right up and look at you sitting on the step of your thatched bungalow…!). You are on a beach, flat down near the surface of the ocean and the lagoon, in the middle of an ocean that covers one half of the entire planet, no tall valleys to hide in. I love the idea of that. No hiding from nature, no hiding from our own selves.

I think the way Raimiti is set up is exactly what I want…just the right combination of activity with others and opportunity to be at peace and quiet with paradise. One couple who wrote a five star review of the place had planned to spend two days there, but ended up staying for seventeen days! I won’t have that luxury, but I love the idea of somebody being taken by a place to that extent. Maybe that means I will love it, too, as I expect to. I may not want to ever leave, but at least I could always go back. I imagine that IT will stay with ME forever.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Insanity of Constantly Changing Formats

Why does every single thing on the Internet have to be changed constantly? Blogger used to work perfectly (well, maybe not perfectly, let's just say "in the reliably same way"), but now they have done some inane change to it so that my most recent entry has absolutely no paragraph breaks, and for the life of me, I can find absolutely no way to open it up for editing. (It's hard enough for me as it is to have readers, let alone me presenting to them an endless barrage of unparagraphed words.)

And, a problem that Blogger has long had that they OUGHT to fix (but have not), is that one split second after you post an entry, it gets sent to whomever subscribes to it. But if I discover unacceptable errors (which always slip through no matter how many times I read the entries beforehand) and go back in to edit, they don't send out the revised versions. So, I have to say to anybody who receives my entries (all of "one" person, I think), it is always best to read these on the site instead of on the original e-mail, because only on the site will the most recent version be shown. That is to say, if the thing can even be corrected at all, which, based on my just-previous-to-this entry, may not even be possible. Which, if it is genuinely NOT possible, will be the end of my relationship with Blogger.

5K and Baseball

Sunday and yesterday.

Sunday: I participated for the second year in a row in a 5K Run/Walk (I’ll say right here that I WALKED) that charitably supports a program that helps children with cancer. I did this as part of a particular team who has been doing this for a student at our school who has been a cancer survivor for a year, now. It really is a lot of fun and both years I have gotten to have some really great conversations during the walk with some parents at the school whom I had wanted to get to know better.

But this year, I really was quite aware of the difference between those who were there to run and those who were there to walk. And other than for the great pleasure of getting to know better the people with whom I walked these two times, the group that I WISH I were in is those who were there to run. I don’t want to exactly make this similar to the experience of the ugly duckling seeing the swans (because I think I probably really am a duckling), but I truly did feel within me the inkling of an energy of wanting to run it, not walk it. And checking out the list of winners afterwards on the event’s website, I saw that the winner of the race finished the run in 18 minutes. Of course, if I ran the course (that really is only three miles, not the 26 miles that is a marathon), my time wouldn’t be 18 minutes, but even so, I ask myself, “Can’t I run for at least 18 minutes?” And that then leads to the question of how much effort it would be to work up to it. I do hike in the hills around here quite a bit and that effort isn’t quite like a “walk in the park”; there’s a lot of uphill and downhill (for me, the downhill is the harder), so it’s a better workout that it might seem. So couldn’t I run for some portions of those hikes, building myself up to the level of maybe being able to run a 5K, at least? Next year? That, currently, is my resolve.

Yesterday: I joined the small crowd of employees who after work went to watch, party with, and support our fellow employees in the school’s annual Parent/Employee Softball Game. Just allowing my body to be anywhere near the location of such an activity has been an anathema to me which dates all the way back to high school. While I nearly always got an A in every academic subject, when it came to PE, I almost vomited every day right before PE class. And this is probably weird (beyond the fact that most boys LOVE PE), because it wasn’t that I wasn’t athletic; in fact, I actually had been on both the swimming team and the wrestling team in after school sports, and in PE, itself, was actually good in the sports of trampoline and boxing, both of which are not even allowed in high school anymore due to having “too much dangerous liability”. But if you categorize swimming, wrestling, trampoline, and wrestling, you will see that these are all individual sports, and are NOT team sports. (I recognize that track, though, is also an individual sport, but running and I absolutely did not get along, and I was somehow terrible at things like the broad jump and the high jump, and it wasn’t that I didn’t try hard!)

I had always accepted this situation as a reality of life, that I was “bad in sports” and henseforth would do any and everything to avoid them like the plague, despite my parents doing almost anything in their power to change that situation. One summer they sent me to a sports camp, but, true to form, I remained terrible in the team sports but excelled in the individual sports. They’d buy me season tickets to the Stanford University football games, hoping that something fundamental within me would be ignited. They bought for the whole family season tickets to professional hockey games. I think any boy would be ecstatic at having both of these, but I hated them and going to these events were as boring and almost unendurable to me as it would be for the average high school student to attend a lecture on Shakespeare.

It wasn’t until I became an employee at this high-powered private elementary school that I began to understand this “disability” of mine. At our school, every child, barring not a single one, loves PE and after school sports. And why they do is quite similar to one remarkable experience that even I had had near the end of my senior year in high school.

That remarkable experience that happened to me was that one day in PE, our regular PE teacher was sick and so we had a substitute teacher, who happened to be a Stanford University graduate student earning his degree in kinesiology. At the very beginning of class, he told us that we were going to be doing something quite different from the normal pattern. He said that we were going to be playing football, and he understood that we already had teams set up (we had two of them that would play against each other), but now we were going to choose teams again, but this time, there would four of them, not two.

Team-choosing, for me, had always been the horrendous experience of, not me being chosen last, or close to last, but, worse than that, of not being chosen at all. Instead, the two opposing team captains would flip a coin to see which one had to have me. And of course, once somebody had to have me on his team, he made sure I never ever had anything to do (except, perhaps, “block” the opposing time right after the “hike”). For all practical purposes, I wasn’t on the team all.

But what this Stanford University graduate substitute teacher did was to ask who the captains were of the two normal teams, and then he had them go ahead a choose teams again, but once half the class had been chosen, he sent them off to play like they normally would. As for the second half of the class that was remaining, he merely divided us into two separate teams (no choosing of players) and sent US off to play. What that meant was that the “bad” players were playing on teams composed only of bad players. He helped us a little bit to set up who would playing various positions (most of us had always just been blockers) and then we played as best as we could. I will never forget the moment when during this game someone actually passed me the football, which I caught, and then I triumphantly ran and made a touchdown. No one had ever, in all my years of elementary and high school, passed me the football during a game. And so my situation was that I started out bad, and never had the chance to become good, because in a team sport, they naturally want to win, so they arrange it so that the bad players whom they are forced to take never really are participating, so once bad, always bad.

This is similar to a young student having trouble learning how to read, so from then on, never even GETTING to read. And I understand that we DO have that in our society, that we have fully grown and working adults who never ever learned how to read, so they live a lifetime of separation, carry around a working disability, and feel deeply ashamed.

Physical education nowadays seems to be more enlightened than it was back in my day, which might explain why at our school no student is actually “bad” in sports. Sure, there are a few stars, and some whom I guess never move beyond the “C” team, but they nevertheless do participate and have achievements and have a ball with it. But for me, when it comes to team sports (which an adult in our society can safely remain isolated from since all that comes to an end once you are out of school), they were something that I was easily able to avoid for all these years. In the corporate world, for example, there might be something like a company picnic, but if I got wind of the idea that as part of that picnic they were going to have a softball game or a volleyball game or something similar, my RSVP would be “regret”.

Somehow working at a school, though, remaining isolated from these things is not quite so easy.

Here are three examples of experiences where there had been no means of escape:

The parking lot: Until the day when I got a reserved parking space, I had to park in a parking lot at work that I refer to as being in “the lower forty”. Getting there involves a long walk across campus and then down a long flight of stairs that leads to a basketball court, next to which is the parking lot. The basketball poles there are the adjustable kind that can be raised and lowered to accommodate the size and ages of the various student grades, from pre-schoolers all the way up to adult players.

One day as I was leaving work and going down those stairs, there was a group of boys attempting to play basketball, but the net had been left in the highest position and they were having a blast fooling around with seeing what they could do with the net being way higher than normal, but it was clearly difficult. But when they saw me, a tall adult who must have looked even taller than I actually was since I was coming down a long flight of stairs above them, one of them, a very good-looking kid who was a “star”, saw me, looked up at my "giraffic" height and with great admiration said, “Wow you're so tall, doing a lay-up with this would be so easy for, why don't you show us!” and to my horror, he then passed the ball up to me with the obvious expectation that I would then show off to them what were bound to be my awesome lay-up skills. (By the way, I am only 6' 1/2", but for some reason, people think of me as being of "basketball player" height.) If possible, I think I was worse in basketball than I even was in football.

Instead, of course, I was horrified over this suggestion and actually hadn’t the slightest idea how to even DO a lay-up, let alone have the ability to provide for them the impressive demonstration they expected.

The only tack I know is to be as honest as I can, and maybe even make a joke out of the situation, so I passed the ball back to the boy and said, “Actually, I am TERRIBLE at basketball, and I am pretty sure you guys would be better at doing a lay-up with this tall basket than I would be if it were at Kindergarten height. You don’t want ME demonstrating anything, because my bad example would utterly destroy your basketball career for the rest of your lives!” Fortunately, they did laugh, and they went back to their own game. However, I felt terrible, not because I was “bad at basketball”, but because I was so out of it that I wasn’t even in the realm of being bad, that doing something like that was beyond my ken.

A few days later, I ran into one of our school’s basketball coaches, a woman, and I went to her because she teaches the littlest kids (that’s the kind of teacher I needed!) and I told her the story. To her great credit, she was totally understanding and gave me some pointers as to how to do this if it ever came up again. A few days later, as I was making my way down that now scary flight of stairs, I saw that somebody had left a basketball there, but there was nobody around. I decided to practice for real what she had told me, and I actually was able to do it. I then challenged myself to do some free throws, and said that I couldn’t leave until I had made ten baskets. Unbelievably, I was able to do it, and the accomplishment felt good.

I’ve not had any use for any of that since then, but at least now I am not afraid of it.

Sixth grade team-building games: I was chaperoning a sixth-grade field trip that involved two overnights and two days of games, including team-building challenges and a ropes course. Chaperones can elect to participate in some of the exercises along with the students, or simply stand by on the sidelines and help to “keep order”. I decided to participate, not really understanding what I was getting into (or maybe deep down inside I realized it was something I needed as much as the students did). Most of these exercise involved elements that are actually team sport skills, but utilized for a purpose other than the specific team sport, such as one of them that was designed to be a name-learning exercise, but to me was really a “baseball catching and throwing exercise” because the baseball throwing involvement was an adjunct to the name-learning. All of those games seemed to involve the concept of “complete rounds”, that is, if anybody messed up, the whole team would have to start over. So that was the team sports pressure that was on me, I had grown up being the one who would relentlessly mess up (fail to catch the ball or whatever) and I sure didn’t want that to happen in this setting.

Fortunately, I was able to do it to the extent that it was even fun, constantly reminding myself to concentrate and keep my eye on the ball. So I felt quite “accomplished” after all these years!

You know that thing of “Are you as smart as a fifth grader?” Well, that concept was essentially applying to me, not pertaining to “smartness”, but pertaining to these team sports skills, where I really was “behind” the level of these students, but somehow now made up for decades of lost time.

After school carpool: “Carpool” at our school is a word that has several different uses and meanings, and what it refers to here is the process of the children being picked up after school. At the beginning of the school year, families combine together into carpool groups and receive campus security priority passes based on how many students are in their carpool. Each carpool size has a time in the afternoon when they are allowed to come on campus for this purpose (transporting nearly 500 students on and off campus is like a military operation that requires careful organization), rewarding earlier scheduled entrance times based on larger carpool size. Those carpools who are picking up 6 or more students get on campus first, followed by the 5s, then the 4s, then the 3s, and then the 2s. Those who are “singles”, that is, those who are picking up only one student, can come no earlier than 4:00 PM, about 45 minutes after school is out.

Since 4:00 is the normal end of our working day, the school needed somebody to volunteer to stay after that for this extra 15-minutes, and I volunteered to do it. My job in this is to announce on a walkie-talkie to the after-school monitors the name of the student whom the parent (or nanny or grandparent or driving-age sibling) has come to pick up, and where I stand to do that is on the long driveway right down below the high hill, on the top of which is the baseball diamond, and right now it is baseball season.

What this means is that at least once every day, now, a baseball comes shooting off the hill and ends up right at my feet. I will then snag this baseball (and it IS a baseball, not a softball!) and I will look up at the top of the hill and there I will see several forlorn boys, looking all around for that lost baseball. Of course, being an honest person, I will then hold the baseball up and show them that the missing ball has been found, which makes them very happy. But now the challenge for me is to get the ball back up to them.

The first time this happened, I had to shout up to them and explain that I highly doubted that I would be able to throw the ball all the way up to where they are, but that I would do my best to get it as close to them as I could. I threw the ball to the best of my ability and it made it about a third of the way up the hill. Not very good, but at least it was better than if the boys had to go all the way around and down to where I was to get the ball, a huge waste of time. Fortunately the hill is covered with very thick grass, so wherever the ball landed after my throw, it stayed there where the boys could slide down and get it rather than it rolling back on down the hill to my feet, again.

The next time this happened, I managed to get the ball halfway up the hill. I was getting better!

I felt like I was doing a poor demonstration of baseball-throwing, but the truth was that I really didn’t know if somebody else would be able to throw the ball right up into the boys’ hands, either. So I described the situation to one of the PE coaches and he said that that distance is pretty far, he didn’t think that he could throw it all the way up, but he really wasn’t sure. So I felt better about it, that maybe what I was doing wasn’t so bad after all (and that all my efforts were valiant).

Last Thursday, when I threw the ball up there, I swear, I got it to within ten feet of the boy who was looking for it, so he only had to slide a tiny bit down the hill to get it. I had improved gigantically in only a week of throwing the ball up the hill. So I figure the PE teacher I had asked, if he had been down there, would have been able to throw the ball right into the hands a boy waiting up there, but it looks like I, too, would be able to do that probably by next week, and what an amazing feeling of accomplishment that would be for me! I had almost never ever in my life had a real baseball in my hand and for sure never would be attempting to throw it a long distance to some baseball-playing kid, while now doing something like that might become second nature—like with any other guy. (A normal guy is happy to have the chance to throw a ball, doesn't shrink back from it!)

So, those are three examples of how, due to working in a school atmosphere where I am surrounded by ball-playing kids, I have been drawn into having to deal with these issues which I have ignored or or hidden from for several decades.

It helps that I love the kids and have a great appreciation for how meaningful these balls are to them; in fact, I marvel at them. All they need is a ball, any ball, and immediately they create some kind of a game involving that ball that they can enjoy for hours. Balls are a treasure for a boy, not something to nearly have a phobia over like they had been for me. I realize, of course, how weird I am regarding this, but at the same time, I will take credit for attempting to change it.

So, yesterday was the Parent/Employee baseball game that I had ignored all these years, and even this year, I did not elect to PLAY (that’s going a bit too far right now), but I did GO. That took a certain amount of bravery, you understand, just the idea of being there and publicly being an obvious male who is NOT playing. There were even some tough females on both teams who played, it wasn’t just guys. Every once in a while, a person might ask me if I were playing, and I would answer with my standard joke, “If you want our team to win, then just sneak me onto the parents’ team.” They would laugh and that would be the end of it; we could then just get down to drinking and eating and cheering on our team, all of which I did with relish.

I will say, though, that I was honestly filled with admiration over some of the skills that I saw demonstrated out there. Somebody would connect with a huge hit that would explode with a loud crack and then the ball would go flying way, way out there. Or somebody far out in the field would jump up and snag right out of the sky one of those huge hits and then in the blink of eye throw it right into the mitt of baseman who would put the runner out (I don’t think I could even think that fast—where do I throw this!). Or these runners, who after hitting a powerful ball that was NOT caught, would run like lightening around all three bases and then back to home for a perfect home run. This is the kind of stuff you don’t see in the offices or in the classroom and it was as impressive to me as the runners were at the 5K race. I have to say that I honestly had a craving to go out there and play with them, but I wouldn’t dare, not right now (for me it would be strike outs and dropped fly balls). Maybe next year, though. I wouldn’t have to expect to be good; I just didn’t want to be, once again, that guy that they’d have to lose a coin toss in order to have to take.

Some friends of mine there at that game might have been going through the exact same thoughts that I was having. After all, they weren’t playing either, and why not? Every single high school in America probably had two or three guys who had been in a position like mine. I was thinking that what I wanted to do was to practice in a batting cage; it might be fun. And sure enough, somebody said that out loud, that they wanted to practice in a batting cage and wondered where there were some, and another one told us where there was a batting cage place--at Castle Park in Sherman Oaks, which also has miniature golf and a games arcade—it’s a popular place for birthday parties. I said to those three that we really ought to go do that. So, it looks like that’s what we will be doing next Saturday!

Who’da thunk it? Me wanting to go to a batting cage? Mom and Dad might even be proud. I guess we’re never to old to have a complete childhood.