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September 5, 2006

The Lesson of the Black Brittle Starfish

Jennifer and I got up and drove down the Kona coast to a beach they'd told me about at the hotel. Said it was good for snorkeling. Crawling with sea turtles. Along the way, we scanned the coast for Malasadas, Lau Lau, Hawaiian Shave Ice, Spam Musubi. All the local delicacies.

We stopped at Jake's BBQ, and a little girl there told us about a place that sold Hawaiian Shave Ice, but it would be about ten minutes past the beach we were going to.

I turned to Jennifer. We had the top down, wearing cheap sunglasses. Sunscreen. She had her right foot sticking out of the car, wiggling her toes in the turbulent sunshine.

“Do you want to go there, sweetie? To the Shave Ice Ranch? It's about ten minutes past the beach.?

“I don't care if it's an hour past the beach. I want some Hawaiian Shave Ice!? she bellowed.

The vacation was obviously beginning to affect her, as she's not normally so assertive in my presence. But we'd abandoned all semblance of normal life. We had deteriorated into epicurean vagabonds. The life of the idle rich seemed somehow to suit her. She was as content as a cat in a Banyan tree.

We found the ranch that sold Hawaiian Shave Ice, right where she'd said it would be, and ordered two small shave ices. A few minutes later, we were each handed a cereal bowl full of shaved ice, piled about seven inches above the rim of the bowl, and then doused liberally in colored liquid sugar.

We sat outside, slurping down our shave ices, fending off the spectacular gold dust day geckos. Apparently, they love anything sweet. So they hang out around the shave ice ranch, living off the indiscretions of the customers.

The geckos are stunning. Indescribably beautiful. But they're an invasive species, and the locals treat them as a nuisance. While we were sitting there, one kid smashed the tail off of a gecko with a swift slap of his hand, sending the gecko fleeing, and its severed tail writhing on the bench like a worm.

It's funny how the locals see things, and how the tourists see things. The islands are covered in these beautiful flowering mimosa trees, but the locals call them “trash trees?, because their blooms fall on the ground in little pieces. That's the price for living in paradise, I suppose. You grow to hate the most beautiful things on earth.

We backtracked up the coast to Honaunau Bay. The guided tour explained that it was, historically, a place of refuge, but we stayed away from the guided tour. Ranger Rick approached us and directed us not to snorkel on “this side of the bay?, which we promptly ignored, as soon as he wandered off to take a nap in the shade of a particularly large ficus banyan tree.

Beneath the rain forest canopy, Jennifer and I walked gingerly down to the water, stepping delicately across the sharp lava surface of the reef. The ocean was packed with sea turtles, as promised. You could have walked across their backs, as they bumped into each other, jockeying for position along the reef.

One particularly large wave washed a careless Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle up onto the reef and stranded him there for some time. The turtle waved his powerful, though nearly useless flippers in the warm summer air. They didn't move his awkward, lumbering carapace more than an inch or two.

Maybe his flippers would have served him better on a sandy beach. Or maybe they'd work better if they were a bit longer. But, between the waves, he didn't move far.

He sat there, staring at the water, trapped in a foreign world. A world that wasn't his. He had inadvertently tumbled into our world. A world where fat, gawking, pallid tourists marinaded in sunscreen quickly descended on him, like seagulls on a starfish.

He didn't make a sound. Just sat there, flailing his useless limbs. These great legs that had always served him so well up to this point in time. What could possibly be wrong with them that they wouldn't function now? Now that these fat greasy tourists had gathered beneath the towering palm trees to gawk and leer.

It was a singular spectacle. This great, sea monster, this beast of the ocean - stranded in our world. For these brief seconds, his world and ours intersected. And we could see clearly those brown splotches on his head and feet. The dark green algae along his shell. That razor sharp beak for a mouth that could snap off a man's wrist in an instant.

They pointed their cheap digital cameras and their decrepit film cameras at him and snapped away, blinding him with repeated flashes. “Surely?, the turtle thought, “this must be the end of my days.?

Eventually, the ocean rose, reluctantly, to retrieve its own. And, in an instant, he passed from our wild into his, and the tourists retreated to roll in great vats of sunscreen in the shade of the sea grapes, as Ranger Rick calmed the flatulent masses, giddy from their near-life experience.

Jennifer and I had all of our snorkel gear, so we were a world apart from most people at the bay. As with the other beaches, the water wasn't very clear until you swam about twenty yards out. Then, the water became crystal clear....breathtaking, though somewhat cooler. Jennifer was beside herself, molesting the turtles with impunity. We were swimming over these pristine living reefs, gawking at the parrot fish, clown loaches, starfish, moray eels, schools of yellow tangs.

The fish foraged on the reefs, like cows munching on the fields, drifting back and forth with the waves. Although I hadn't been debriefed by Ranger Rick, I was reasonably sure that we weren't supposed to touch anything. But, I also knew from experience that the best way to get the fish in closer was to stir things up a bit. Nothing draws in the fish like turning over rocks, smashing sea urchins to bits, and throwing a starfish onto the surface of the ocean. We did all of these things.

I turned over a rock to discover several black five armed prickly starfish. And, I want to touch them, but I have no gloves. And I don't know if the starfish are defenseless, or if touching them will result in my comatose carcass being airlifted back to Honolulu, fighting for life, like the turtle on the reef.

Eventually, I get up the nerve to touch the starfish and - nothing happens. He doesn't sting me or bite a divot out of my index finger. So, I grab one of his little legs...he's roughly nine inches across this one is...and he's spindly. His arms are thin...lanky. And, when I have him firmly by an arm, he detaches it and swims away, lickety split and disappears under a rock. And I'm sitting there going “Huh. How about that?? I mean, I didn't pull his arm off. It wasn't like that at all. He jettisoned that thing as though he'd never owned it. As though it had never been part of him at all. “That arm? Who needs it? You want it? It's yours. Later.?

So, then I turned over some more rocks, and grabbed one with both hands, so that it couldn't sever an arm and break away again. This time, I brought it up to the surface, and held it in the air, beneath the sun's sharp rays, to inspect this odd creature. It squirmed in an alien way. It was eerie. Odd to hold this squirmy creature. It moved more than any starfish I'd ever seen or touched. It was spiny, but tingly. Not painful. And I lifted this creature out of his natural habitat for a few seconds so that I might inspect it more closely. To learn what it was. How it moved. How it lived. How it reacted to an alternate world.

Then, with a gentle toss, I released it into the bay, and it collapsed its arms together like a squid, and swam straight for the bottom as fast as it could, but not fast enough, and the parrot fish ripped it to pieces before it made it back down to the rocks.

And, I'm swimming through this marine wonderland, holding Jennifer's hand, and we're both snorkeling, kicking our fins. She's wearing her pink wet suit, pink snorkel, pink mask. And, it's the greatest feeling in the world. To bring her here, and chauffeur her across these delicious little islands in the convertible with the top down and the sunglasses on, with her, wiggling her toes in the sunshine, like a gecko's severed tail. To hold her hand and swim through the reefs pointing out the blasphemously colored fishes.

It's the best feeling in life to lift her out of her world for a brief period of time. To hold her up and inspect her, like the turtle and the starfish. To see what I'd made. To see what had become of this child of mine. To inspect the detritus of a failed marriage. The residue of a relationship turned sour. To learn what she'd turned into. What she was made of. To see if she liked the things that I'd learned to like. Hawaii. Snorkeling. Driving in convertibles. Flying above the earth in the chop-chop-chop helicopters. To race around the volcanic islands, searching for things we'd never experienced before, like gold dust day geckos, spotted doves, spinner dolphins, mongooses and green sea turtles. Lau Lau and Lilikois.

I wanted her to know that there is another world out there, far different from the one that we normally inhabit. Different from the place where we normally intersect every other weekend, on the tail end of the long road to Jennifer - that path that stretches before me when I wake up at 3:00 a.m. in another time zone and hop scotch across the continent to rendezvous with her in Colorado. I want her to know there are other fish besides rainbow trout and that not every house has a chimney. These places in Hawaii are difficult to imagine. It's hard to comprehend, even when you're standing there looking at the gnarled, knotted trees. The absurdly colored birds and fishes and flowers. These things cannot be adequately described. The must be experienced first hand, to be believed.

I wanted to share these things in life with Jennifer. To show her that the real world is every bit as bizarre as Dr. Seuss drew it, and frequently more so. The things that wake us up from our daily rituals remind us that there is more to this world than our daily existence. Life is too short for complacency - for incremental changes.

There is more to be extruded from this life than the marginal daily victories of the nominal battles we collectively tend to find ourselves engaged in. As Rudyard Kipling said, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance, run!? And don't worry about the parrot fish. That starfish never knew what hit him.

"When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself."
- Jacques Yves Cousteau

Posted by Peenie Wallie on September 5, 2006 at 11:23 PM


I am a sailor deployed overseas. Your post reminded me why I love our country. We enjoy freedom to do the small things more so than any place I have visited. I lost track of your blog for awhile, glad I found it again. Thanks.

Posted by: Eric on September 6, 2006 at 8:17 PM

very nice.

Posted by: sl on September 7, 2006 at 3:56 PM

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