street paper, off-the-beaten-track news

 

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Picked up Seattle’s street paper, Real Change, from a vendor I’ve now seen for the second time outside the local Trader Joe’s supermarket. I’ll have to ask his name the next time; he’s very helpful, pushing empty carts back into their storage areas. He even came running as I dashed between the rain drops, taking the cart and returning it for me. 

A dollar per newspaper isn’t cheap by today’s standards, and I usually hand over $2 for one paper. I can’t help but feel it’s such a small price to pay to help another human being get by. But in addition to this feel good gesture, I look forward to finding “small stories” that are absent from mainstream media. To my pleasant surprise, Real Change ran an article about Hawaii and the white man’s role in its history.

Anyone who has read or heard anything substantive about Hawaii’s history, will probably  empathize with the natives who were out-maneuvered in terms of land wealth and self-governance. Unfortunately theirs is not a unique story; the Native Americans tell a similar one. Both have the same unhappy endings, although the Indians are making a tremendous comeback with their casinos.

But the romanticism of bygone days living off the land, taking only what was needed for sustenance, allowing Mother Earth to care for all species equally, was brought to an abrupt end. Buffalo were killed making way for trains, and the Indians were corralled onto Reservations, becoming the first recipients of government welfare.

Sarah Vowell signing books after a lecture at ...

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“Saying hello to the Aloha State‘s complicated history” is an interview with author Sarah Vowell. Guessing from the accompanying photo, she looks to be in her early 30’s. I was impressed to think someone her age was so attuned to the sad events that had transpired in my ancestral history. But when I learned that Vowell is part Cherokee, I understood her interest in Hawaii’s dealings with the white man. To do her voice justice, I am letting the author of Unfamiliar Fishes speak for herself.

Cover of

Cover of The Wordy Shipmates

Cover of

Cover of Assassination Vacation

Sarah Vowell is a very, very busy person. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of “Assassination Vacation” and “The Wordy Shipmates,” a frequent contributor to Public Radio International‘s “This American Life” and she serves on the board of Dave Egger’s educational nonprofit organization 826NYC. She even lent her trademark deadpan vocal delivery to Pixar’s 2004 animated feature “The Incredibles.”

Vowell’s writing combines conventions of history, journalism and tongue-in-cheek satire that is often as hilarious as it is thought-provoking. She revels in the absurdities and contradictions of American history, exposing the hypocrasies of power while remaining personally committed to the ideals upon which our democracy was founded. Her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” explores the history of Hawaii, and the American missionaries, sailors, plantation owners and imperialists who arrived on its shores in the 19th century. Vowell recently took some time out of her busy schedule to discuss her work with Real Change. …

What is the historical significance of the glop of macaroni salad on a Hawaiian plate lunch?
On a Hawaiian plate lunch, which is a traditional mixed plate that is served throughout the Hawaiian islands, there is always a scoop of macaroni salad along with two scoops of Japanese style rice and then some sort of Asian or Polynesian fish or meat. The macaroni salad is this little American anomaly amidst that Pacific smorgasbord and the whole lunch hints at the multiethnic saga that is the history of Hawaii, starting with the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820 and going up through the 19th century when the missionaries and their offspring founded the sugar plantations that became the foundation of the Hawaiian economy for about a century. And for those plantations to run, those New Englanders and their descendants had to import labor from all over the world–Japan, China, the Philippines and Korea–but also Portugal, and to a lesser extent Norway. My book is mostly about those people: the Haole, the Caucasians, the Americans who showed up and changed the islands. And so a glop of macaroni salad is not just a glop of macaroni salad: It’s indicative of centuries of change.

How do the words “aloha” and “haole” represent the differences between Hawaiian and Western cultures?
“Aloha” is to my mind the most Hawaiian word, and on the mainland we just hear that it means “hello” and “goodbye,” which is true and it also basically means “love.” But, literally translated, it has to do with the word “breath.” It can mean “the breath of life,” and the reason it’s said as a greeting is that the traditional Polynesian greeting is when two people touch noses and then literally breathe each other in.

Now the word “haole”–which also contains that word “ha,” the word for breath–there’s a sort of old wives’ tale or myth that the word “haole” connotes “without breath,” because the first Westerners who came to the islands, they did not greet one another in traditional Hawaiian. So, it’s supposed to be symbolic of how alienated the white people are from the breath of life. But really, it’s an old word and it can mean anything non-native including plants or animals. The story that I tell in the book is basically about the coming of the white people in general and the New Englanders in particular. These people changed the islands and a lot of native Hawaiians think for the worse. Besides their ideas about Christianity, capitalism and private land ownership, they also brought with them their diseases, which had a devastating effect on the native population, just as it did in the Americas. So the coming of the whites to Hawaii is a pretty complicated story and there’s some resentment toward those people on the part of native Hawaiians, which I find understandable.

Native Hawaiians

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Generally though, Hawaii is a pretty easy-going, accepting place, and because of its multiethnic heritage, it is wildly integrated, especially compared to the rest of the country. It’s rare to find someone who was born in Hawaii who is just one race. Even the people who identify as native Hawaiian might have Chinese grandparents and American grandparents. But the origins of that are kind of nefarious. The reason that so many different kinds of people were shipped there wasn’t because the sugar plantation owners had this “It’s a small world after all” mentality. Their goal was to bring in workers from as many different places as possible because they felt that people who  spoke different languages were less likely to organize against the plantation owners.

How did the arrival of the New England missionaries in 1820 affect the institutions of Hawaiian society?
Radically. Those missionaries, they were smart people. As New Englanders, they were pretty democratic: Their only goal was to usher as many people into heaven as possible and they didn’t care whether those people were commoners or chiefs. But they recognized that because Hawaiian society was so hierarchical, they were going to have to convert and convince the monarchs and the other aristocrats first. And by sucking up to the ruling class, one major impact the missionaries had on society at large was convincing the Hawaiian government to outlaw fornication and adultery and to regulate liquor. Just as the first New England missionaries arrived, the first New England whalers had pretty much opposite goals than the missionaries, and so the Hawaiians got to witness Americans at our worst, at both our most puritanical and our most Orlando spring break.

Then, when the missionaries and their offspring started the sugar plantations, that completely revolutionized the Hawaiian landscape. They built these complicated, engineered irrigation ditches and diverted water so that places that had been dusty dry plains and near deserts became green with sugar cane. In traditional Hawaiian society, land had been held communally and was managed by the chief in concert with the commoners, but with the sugar trade, it became the American capitalist system of plantations overseen and owned mostly by white people and worked mostly by foreign workers. The native Hawaiians were increasingly shut out of their land and the Hawaiian population was decimated by as much as 80, maybe 90 percent, just by disease, so it’s hard to overemphasize how much impact the haoles had on Hawaiian life, government, culture, everything.

You write about David Malo as a figure who embodies the transitional period of Hawaiian history between traditional culture and Westernization. How does his life and work capture this?
Well, he’s a really interesting figure, and probably because he’s a writer, I really identify with him. When the first missionaries showed up, he was pretty old. He was nearing 30 when they taught him to read and write, and he happened to be, luckily, one of the Hawaiians who had been the keepers of the oral tradition. So he knew all the old chants and genealogies and was intimately aware and knowledgeable of all the old customs and the stories of the old chiefs and priests and the old religion. So after the missionaries taught him to read and write, he wrote “Hawaiian Antiquities.” He also became a very devout Christian and was eventually ordained as a minister.

But later in life, he still had nostalgia for the old ways even though he (was) a true servant of Jesus Christ. He wrote this rather melancholy letter to some Hawaiian friends that I quote in the title to my book: “If a big wave comes in, large and unfamiliar fishes will come from the dark ocean and when they see the small fishes of the shallows they will eat them up.” And it turned out to be the truth. When he died, he asked to be buried up this hill that was really hard to get to because he just wanted to be where no white man would build a house. But his book is really quite beautiful.

Native Hawaiians

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The events leading up to the U.S. annexation of Hawaii were driven by the opposing ideals of Lorrin Thurston and Queen Liliuokalani. Can you explain the political and cultural conflicts between these two figures?
Lorrin Thurston’s major problem with Queen Liliuokalani was just that she was a queen. Even though he was born in Hawaii and because he was a descendant of the missionaries, the whole idea of monarchy was just something to disdain. And that is something I can kind of identify with. To me, there’s no inherent value in monarchy. That said, the Hawaiian kingdom was an established constitutional monarchy and as monarchies go, it was wildly inclusive. I mean, the Hawaiian monarchs welcomed all these foreigners into their kingdom and into their government, including Thurston.

Ship's landing force at the time of the overth...

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Although to me there’s nothing inherently great about a queen, she was, I think, for that time and place, pretty much the ideal ruler. She was an impressive person who was schooled by the missionaries, so she was a very devout Christian who at the same time was a very proud and knowledgeable native Hawaiian. So by the time the queen became the queen she was plotting to reverse that constitution which had also severely limited native Hawaiians’ right to vote for their representatives. That’s when Thurston and his pals conspired to oust her to support their own sham of a constitution. Even though she had overwhelming native support, the native population was in such decline that there just weren’t enough of them to put up much of a fight.

The Three Cherokee. Came over from the head of...

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You write about a double-sided view of American history that you have come to know through your own experience. How does Hawaii represent this notion of America as two places at once?
I’m part Cherokee and was born in Oklahoma because some of my ancestors were forced by the U.S. Army at gunpoint to march across the country in what came to be called the Trail of Tears. So, that’s always been a little bit of a caveat to the story of American exceptionalism that I was certainly taught in school. You know, I’m all for self-government and the First Amendment and all that stuff–but there’s always a part of me that knows firsthand about the failures of those ideals.

The annexation of Hawaii, as many of the dissenters of the time pointed out, really does contradict the ideals put forth in the Declaration of Independence. In 1898, when the U.S. annexed Hawaii along with Guam and Puerto Rico and invaded the Philippines and Cuba, we became a global empire overnight. A group of Americans, a lot of them in the highest echelons of the government, were more concerned with power and greatness than our core ideals of republican forms of government. One of those men was Henry Cabot Lodge and he gave (this speech) in 1900 to poo-poo all of the anti-imperialist sissies where he just demolished the idea that consent of the governed is even possible. He talked about Thomas Jefferson, the author of that phrase, being the greatest expansionist in American history who, when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, acquired the biggest chunk of land at once that we had ever acquired, and it didn’t even occur to him to ask the consent of all the French colonials and Indians who were living out on that vast continent he had just taken over. So, I think Lodge sort of has a point.

It is interesting to me that throughout American history, this idea of government based on the consent of the governed is at our core, but also this contradictory process of expansion. The Hawaiian annexation definitely is a part of that because the Hawaiian people, once annexation was afoot, they rallied and collected thousands and thousands of signatures and sent them to Congress, protesting annexation. It was definitely something that the Hawaiian people were completely against and yet the United States annexed those islands anyway. So, I guess in that sense it jibes with my view of the country as having these lofty ideals that we frequently betray.

Interviewed by Robert Alford
Contributing Writer           

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“it’s a job,” oprah

Just finished reading Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley, an oversized tome, befitting a mega-watt personality. I wasn’t inclined to read it when it first appeared in bookstores. It was too pricey at $30, and what more could I learn about the woman whose presence is literally everywhere. I know her better than the Pope, and I’ve been a Catholic for 61 years. But browsing the biography section of my favorite “Half-Price Books,” I spied Kelley’s book for less than half its original price. That sold me. And I’m very glad I bought it. I think I can now “close the book” on what I think about the reigning queen of day time talk shows.

Throughout Kelley’s book I vacillated between throwing myself solidly in Oprah’s camp or remaining at arm’s length, a stance I’ve maintained for years. I can safely say that after reading her biography, Oprah is just living up to the job description she’s written for herself, and continues to rewrite every day. Suffice it to say, there’s no other like it, in the whole wide world. And with her lofty career comes a lot of stuff that lesser humans like me, couldn’t begin to fathom, not in a billion lifetimes. 

Kelley has unearthed 495 pages worth of facts, good and bad, about Oprah. At first these seemed to offset one another, leaving me in limbo as to how I felt about her. Oprah is better than the Great Oz, for she has been adept at keeping her true identity secure, despite having openly lived in front of the cameras these last 25 years. How does she do it? With Herculean strength I would offer. 

“Will the real Oprah Winfrey please stand up!” Remember the TV show What’s My Line? Even for a kid like me back in the days of black and white television, I was always fascinated by the give and take between the mystery person and the celebrity panel doing the questioning. As good as they were, their questioning did not always render successful endings. That’s how I felt about Kelley’s trying to discern the “real” woman behind the woman, Oprah.

Reading between the lines, I think Kitty Kelley feels Oprah presents herself as magnanimous, when in fact, she is not.

Oprah became so accustomed to rapturous audiences that she reacted negatively if she saw someone not standing to applaud her. “One time she spotted a young black man who just sat there,” said the publishing executive. “She began heckling him. ‘I see someone here who is very brave.’ She began shuckin’ and jivin’: ‘Oh no. I don’t have to stand up and cheer for Oprah. No, sir. Not me. I’m the man. I won’t bow to Oprah.’ She did her whole ghetto shtick. It was ugly, very ugly for about four or five minutes while the poor guy just sat there as she mocked him. She wouldn’t let up….She was pissed that he was not giving her the adoring routine that the rest of the audience was….Turned out the young man was mentally challenged and severely disabled.”

On September 13, 2004, Oprah proclaimed the year her best, except for the year she started her talk show. The reason for her elation was that “she opened the season by giving away 276 brand-new Pontiac G6s, worth more than $28,000 apiece, for a collective total of $7.8 million.” Unfortunately the recipients, “Teachers and ministers and nurses and caregivers who had been walking to work for years or taking buses and having to transfer three times…,” were ill-prepared to pay $7,000 in taxes for the prizes, as the cars were deemed. In answer to their request for assistance from Oprah, her publicist “said they had three options: They could keep the car and pay the tax, sell the car and pay the tax with the profit, or forfeit the car. There was no other option from Oprah, and Pontiac already had donated the cars and paid the sales tax and licensing fees.”

Author Kelley highlights a particular show where Oprah “was barely civil to Hazel Bryan Massery, who as a young white student had yelled at Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Central high School in 1957 after President Eisenhower sent federal troops into Arkansas. ” Probably unbeknownst to the public, including me, Massery had apologized to Eckford “for her hateful rants,” the two becoming very close friends. When they were invited to appear on Oprah’s show, the talk show host was “highly skeptical of their friendship and would not accept that Hazel’s remorse had led to reconciliation.”

“They are friends,” Oprah told her audience in disbelief. “They…are…friends,” she repeated with obvious distaste. She then showed a massive blowup of the photograph taken that historic day, showing Elizabeth, silent and dignified, carrying her books into school as a crowd of screaming white students taunted her, the most menacing being Hazel. Oprah was icy as she asked Eckford why that photo still upset her so many years later.

“She (Oprah) was as cold as she could be, ” Eckford told David Margolick of  Vanity Fair.  “She went out of her way to be hateful.”

Margolick, who spent time with Eckford and Massery to write their story, added, “Characteristically, though, Elizabeth felt sorrier for Hazel. She was treated even more brusquely (by Oprah).

Oprah has openly spoken about being sexually abused as a youngster, beginning with her experience at 9 years old with a 19-year-old cousin by marriage. According to Kelley,

Oprah appeared to be so open with revelations about her intimacies on television that no one suspected she might be hiding secrets. Like comedians who cover their darkness with humor, she had learned to joke away her pain, and keep what hurt the most stuffed deep inside. She knew how to give just enough information to be amusing and to deflect further inquiry, which is one reason she insisted on taking control of her own public relations when her show went national. While she looked like she was telling the world everything about herself, she was actually keeping locked within more than she would share on television. She felt she needed to present herself as open, warm, and cozy on the air, and conceal the part of her that was cold, closed, and calculating. She was afraid she wouldn’t be liked if people saw a more complex dimension to the winning persona she chose to present. “Pleasing people is what I do,” she said. “I need to be liked…even by people I dislike.”

While Oprah has bestowed a good life upon her mom, Vernita Lee, buying her “a fur coat, a new car, a new house, no bills,” doubling her salary in retirement, and even gifting her with $100,000 one Mother’s Day, ” Oprah “really didn’t like her mother at all.”

…she was still bitter toward Vernita for “giving me away,” and she ricocheted from resentment to gratitude over those motherless years. She understood that the lack of her mother’s unconditional love drove her to develop skills to get praise from others, but she also saw that she tried to fill her motherless hole with food as a substitute for love and comfort and security. It would be many years before she reckoned with the depth of her psychological damage. …

Oprah goes on to say:

I don’t feel I owe anybody anything but my mother feels I do….She says, ‘There are dues to pay.’ I barely knew her (when I was little)….That’s why it’s so hard now. My mother wants this whole wonderful relationship. She has another daughter and a son. And everyone now wants this close family relationship….They want to pretend as though our past did not happen.”

Because she feels far removed from her birth family, several close friends are Oprah’s family of choice. Among them are poet and author Maya Angelou, of whom Oprah has said she ” ‘…was my mother in another life…I love her deeply. Something is there between us. So fallopian tubes and ovaries do not a mother make.’…Oprah carried Maya’s monthly itinerary in her purse at all times so she could reach her morning, noon, and night.”

“Once Oprah met Sidney Poitier, she bound him to her like a kind and loving father. ‘I call Sidney every Sunday and…we talk about life, we talk about reincarnation, we talk about the cosmos, we talk about the stars, we talk about the planets, we talk about energy. We talk about everything.’ “

Quincy Jones is a beloved uncle, in Oprah’s mind. ” ‘I truly learned how to love as a result of this man…I unconditionally love him and…I would slap the living shit out of somebody who said anything bad about Quincy.’ ” And Gayle King was the adoring sister, and John Travolta the brother, whom Oprah didn’t realize in her own kin, her siblings by birth.

” ‘…My friends are my family.’ Oprah frequently mentioned on her show how disgusted she was with all the beggars in her life. ‘I’m hearing from so many people now who want me to give them money, or lend them money. I say, “I’ll give you the shirt off my back, as long as you don’t ask for it.” ‘ “

We’ve all got “baggage” that we cart around throughout our lives. When and how we acquired it, with how much we’re saddled, and how we deal with our lives because of it, are questions only we can answer for ourselves. I’ve set my course in life based upon my own personal deprivations and disappointments, as well as my accomplishments and joys. I think laying expectations upon one another has the potential of backfiring. If people don’t measure up, our perceptions of them are muddied. But worse, I think we are hurt because of our emotional investment.

I’ve not felt inclined to invest in Oprah, because I was too busy investing in myself. I tend not to follow other’s advice, unless I can own it for myself. It amazes me that someone, like Oprah, can convince legions of people to hang upon her every word. But she has a gift, she’s even said so. What more telling event than her influence to get Obama crowned President.

With tears streaming down her face she rejoiced, standing on the right side of history and knowing that she just may have had a role in shaping it.

“My job was to make people, or allow people, to be introduced to Obama who might not have been at the time,” she said. “I wanted him elected, and I think I did that.”

I’ve decided that Oprah is doing a job for which she is well suited. She has positioned herself as Chairman of the Board/CEO and President of all she surveys. She’s paid her dues, and continues to do so. I say let her do with her life what she will. I had nothing to do with its creation; I have nothing to say about its evolution. She will answer to her Maker, as we all must. It’s between the 2 of them, and perhaps all those who have placed Oprah upon a pedestal. After all, they have a great deal to do with the billionaire she has become.

until you walk in someone’s shoes…hugmamma.

weekly photo challenge: boundaries #3

…now remind me again…why were there boundaries???…hugmama.