On Hawaii, Ambition, and the People We’ve Been Before

“No I have never found a place
where I could say
this is my proper ground
here I shall stay…”
– Philip Larkin

She had me pinned by the wrists in the grass of the Kipahulu Campground. She was saying “You were such a punk. Always fucking up people’s shit. I used to really like you.”

I wanted to tell her that I was different now, better, less violent, but people have a stubbornness in them—they are often more loyal to their ideas of people than to the actual people themselves. People don’t want their friends to change. We are all the people we have been in our past lives, but we never fully remain what we once were. Try telling that to someone who knew you in high school.

“I want you to come and live here,” she said.

“I can’t move to Maui,” I said. “I’d never leave.”

“You’d leave,” she said. “Don’t worry about that. I’ve seen plenty of people come here and say that and they all leave eventually. I’ve been here for ten years. Do you want to dance?”

Then later, lying in her mobile home, in the comfortable, loose dialogue of pre-dawn, I asked her “what do you see when you see me now? I mean, what did you think I was going to be like now? Can you tell that I’m different? Do you see me as changed or just less? Because sometimes I feel like it’s just less.”

She slid open the window and said, “Isn’t traveling amazing? Did you see Venus out there? And Saturn? And Mars? You can see all three of them right now.”

As teenagers, my friends and I, our worst fault was our vandalism. It was also what unified us and kept us interested in the world, but it’s hard to explain what drives small town boys with good parents and good role models, no real problems to speak of, to acts of destruction. You might say we felt too young and too powerless to change our environment save for attempting to destroy it. You might also say we were assholes. We know that now. But we didn’t see it that way then.

When protected by the armor of the mind and memory we choose to remember people in absolutes. They were either Funny, or Beautiful, or Stupid. The impression is formed by how they made us feel, then reinforced by selectively remembering those moments that reinforce that feeling. Many of us are at the mercy of unbidden memories. Even more of us aren’t in control of how we feel about people.

People write you off for an untold number of reasons and you know when a person has written you off without them saying a word. It’s in the way they listen to you. In their eyes, the corners of their mouth. If you don’t know the person well it can be hard to see coming. When the time comes they go nasty and you’re at a loss for what caused it. Because they don’t know either. It’s the crazy ones that talk the most shit, and are often closest to the truth. People can fuck you up with something as easily uttered as a simple line. It’s amazing that we choose to speak with people at all, especially those we don’t know. That moment when a single malicious comment throws you off balance for days exemplifies the curse of living for meaning.

“What was wrong with you?” she said. “All you guys. You didn’t have to do that to all those people you didn’t know.”

Is it overly cynical to say we don’t improve with age? That the longer we know someone the less grace we afford them? People see us not as we are but as they want us to be. We expect people to conform to our ideas of behavior, when in fact we all enjoy the opposite. I have to believe we change, that we improve, if for nothing more than my own sake. I have been a lot of people that I don’t want around anymore. It’s why people move, travel, and make friends with people that speak other languages. I could move to a place like Maui and all my friends would be from somewhere else.

Hawaii is still a lot of people it used to be. If you go to the right places they’ll give you a contrived culture/history lesson for a price. The Royal Lahaina hotel lines them up for luaus at $67 a head at 250 heads the night I stopped and tried not to sound condescending with my questions. All you can eat and drink, hula contests and lava-rock roasted pigs. Tourists with their Maui bodies drinking mai tais and eating coconut shrimp. The voice of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to remind them they aren’t in Wisconsin or Kentucky, in case they start checking their Blackberries and thinking about work again.

It happened to me just as it happened to my friend at the campsite: Hawaii captures the imagination of westward-looking Midwesterners. A place without winter, of swimsuits, palm trees and sailboats. As an idea, Hawaii counteracts the depression of a long winter, serves as an antidote against cold and barren plains, and the most seasonally moody of us think of it as the one American place that could draw out the poison from a geographically unfortunate upbringing. It wouldn’t matter what job you did or how you lived—on Maui there is no winter and no winter means no cold and the sun is always shining. Moving west has always seemed like going downhill, following the sun, and in the imagination of a kid from the Great Plains the end of the rainbow was a place known for its rainbows.

I used to tell people I didn’t want to visit, I wanted only to live there. That leaving it for anywhere else would be a flight of depression. The walk back to your friends after you’ve bought a shot for the unattainable girl, who was appreciative and smiling, because everything beautiful can support a small amount of tourism, can be a small death. That was before I decided to move to New York, an equally impossible place, and perhaps the only other place in America that draws, at that level, the geographically ambitious. What Hawaii promises in weather New York beckons with culture.

Learning in my mid-20s that seasons no longer impacted my well-being as they once did liberated me to choose places not based upon climate. I came to Hawaii this time because I knew I could leave it. (Plus, I had a free round-trip plane ticket.) I had lived in San Diego long enough to see what the weather, the sun, the beaches, did to the energy of the culture. I saw of lot of technically good paintings of surf and sunsets, but what I didn’t see were people being challenged by their environment to find comfort and warmth internally, from personal expression and exploration. Tolstoy would not have been Tolstoy if he grew up on the Waikiki beachfront.

Trite or not, the idea of moving somewhere to become successful, a place like New York or Maui, and to have the place defeat you, can be terrifying. When you want nothing more than to make it as a writer it’s easy to procrastinate the move to New York—once you exhaust that option where else is there? There’s Obscurity, an alternate career field, teaching English abroad, writing at night and on the weekends until your family life and age overcomes your ambition. There’s giving up. You live long enough you see people you know fail. You see what trying to make it somewhere impossible can do to a face, a voice, an identity. You hear cautionary tales learned from firsthand experience.

But you don’t have to visit to know how hard it would be to show up here without a job and make it. You could move to Maui and work three shitty jobs and still have to take your debt and leave after two years. At the worst of the trip’s dinners, seated along the sidewalk of the quaint shops of Lahaina, I looked over and saw the busser, a guy about my age, strong, clean cut, apron mottled in the red, cream, and pink of ketchup and tartar sauce, posture and actions hostile. I had that job not too long ago. I know what it feels like to work for minimum wage, cleaning up other people’s uneaten food, to be at the bottom of a hierarchy of servants. I’ve known that humiliation, and no warm water or sunshine anywhere can make up for how that feels. It’s easier if you’re anonymous, but you can’t hide from pride.

Seeing the people that do live there, that seem to be making it, makes you question your status, and when the only status you attach importance to is the ability to move freely about the world, you can try to come to terms with your position, but how do you settle for living in a lesser place? How do you go through life not wanting everything?

I could tell you what I wanted and you wouldn’t know any better than I do how to get it. Not for yourself and certainly not for me. I might try for it with Work, Effort, Passion, Desire. These are nice ideas, but they don’t trump Time, Life, or Money. I have gone through so many phases of wanting. I have tried to be what I am and in doing so became someone I am not. Life is not a futile enterprise but it is impossible.

I was an iconoclast once but let that part of me diminish in order to live more easily in the world. As is true for all men I wage a constant battle to keep my edge. Time dulls all blades. I’ve accepted it. The better we are in life the worse we are as artists. The world wants its writers Tortured, Maladjusted, Struggling. The hedonist never made a good artist. Despite the nice weather, the people here looked like they were hustling. But it’s hard to get a good read on the populace, not knowing who is local and who is bound for the morning flight to LAX.

What I knew I could identify flashed like billboard ads for Unrequited Love. The girls in rashguards and bikini bottoms ahead of me in the lineup of Pai’a Bay, the honeymooners on their after dinner beach walks in Ka’anapali, that one particular type of car she drove with two surfboards strapped to the top. I saw the girl I had loved once everywhere.

We are never given that which we want the most—and I’m realizing now that I left my feelings for her, along with my romantic notions of this place, there on the tarmac of the Kipahula Airport. I don’t love the girl anymore, and I don’t need Hawaii to be happy. As we taxied for take off, I wasn’t worried I would fly back to Korea, as I had from the bookstore in Paris where the kids slept on the shelves, tortured by the idea of leaving the place behind. On that plane off of Maui I felt liberated from myself. I no longer wanted rainbows and warm water, coconuts and sunsets. I wanted something far more impossible. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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