Writing, Books, Painting, Politics, Neuroplasticity
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Posts from — September 2009

Getting To Kalalau: What Really Happened, and The Mechanics of Writing

In 1988, I published an aticle in the Washington Post about a hike my husband and I undertook in the spring of 1988 on the famous Kalalau Trail.  It is posted in the travel section of my web site, www.goonan.com, and many tourist sites in Hawaii have linked to it.  I therefore still get about one letter a month asking my advice about Captain Zodiac, etc.  It was also picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle, a nice surprise, which I only found out about when I got a check in the mail for it.  A friend of ours read it, but since I never changed my name, and she only knew my husband’s last name, and because the photo of me was from behind, she never knew it was about us until we visited her ten years later.

The Kalalau Trail is almost twelve miles long, up and down.  The up traverses, sometimes, those clear, high, oceanside cliffs that are bare of vegetation.  Wild goats?  High winds?  I don’t know.  But this is also within a mile or two of the rainiest place on earth, which is not very accessible.  When we lived in Honolulu in the early sixties, a friend of my father’s had the job of parachuting into that place, once a month, to read the rain meter, and then hiked out, to be picked up by a boat. 

These cliffs don’t have much of an angle to them.  They are almost straight up and down, and weave in and out along the coast.  There are no roads to Kalalau.  After the trail ends, there is another long stretch of coastline before a road, which, I think, ends at Barking Sands, where there was, in the eighties at least, a military installation.  Yes, when you ran across the hot sands, they barked beneath your feet, something about the size of the grains. 

The down part of the trail often crosses one of the infinite number of creeks or waterfalls that drop to the sea, hundreds of feet below.  Verdant, lush, rainforest, big-leaved plants, tropical flowers a-g0-go, the whole nine yards.  Wilderness. 

I broke my legs on one of those little incurves.  We were about five miles from the end.  Pre-cell-phone.

We’d walked the trail the previous fall, and this time, we had made reservations to be zodiaced in.  You have to get a permit to camp on the beach, and just to be there, but there were and probably are plenty of squatters back in the Kalalau Valley, home of ghost groves of breadfruit, fruit trees, and other food sources planted by previous long-time squatters, some of them famous. 

I had an agreement with the editor of the Aloha Airlines In-Flight magazine to hike up into the valley, take some photos, and do a piece about it–about the famously prosecuted leper back when all Hawaiians with Hanson’s Disease were rounded up and quarantined for life on Molokai.  He refused to leave his wife and family, and hid out there.  He shot–and killed–a sheriff who was after him, and after that, he was left alone.  Of course, Hawaiians had lived there at one time, and the valley was probably terraced taro fields and the narrow coastal area laced with fish-farming pools.  But tsunamis are not uncommon there, and even a normal winter storm can whip up sixty-foot waves.  When they rush up a narrow valley bounded by sheer cliffs thousands of feet high, there’s nowhere to go. 

On that morning, Captain Zodiac cancelled because of high surf.  One of his services was dropping off packs at the beach so that hikers could get there unencumbered, but we became aware that there were people there with no food, etc., because they were without their packs.  I wanted to hike in anyway; I had a story to write.  but we got a late start and decided to camp near the trail when night fell.  It really does fall, at that latitude, suddenly.  No problem.  The next morning, about ten minutes after we set off, my foot rolled on a twig or rock on the trail and I fell.  I heard the bone snap as I went down.  I was in pretty good shape; I’d been running four miles a day for well over a year, but I had pronated a few months earlier, spraining my ankle.  The runners among you will understand that being unable to run filled me with great anxiety, but actually, healing is faster if one continues to use the ankle, which I did, aided by an air-splint.  So I knew my left ankle was weak, and I think that my left leg is shorter than my right anyway. 

I dusted myself off.  There wasn’t much we could do.  I could wait there to be carried out on a litter or something equally extravagant, but it was just the fibula, I learned later, and it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as the sprained ankle had.  My husband fashioned me a strong hiking stick, shouldered both our packs, and I hobbled along behind him.  There is something about looking out at the vast, blue  Pacific from hundreds of feet above that takes one’s mind off anything minor.  It was a pleasant hike, and it’s all in the article. 

Once we got there, we found a group of rangers who had helicoptered in cases of beer.  They had spent the night partying with a crowd of nurses from a Honolulu hospital and–oh, yes, checking permits.  Their pickup was due in a few minutes, and they told me that they could fly me out, and if my leg really was broken, the state would pay for it.  If it wasn’t, it would cost $500.00.  The nurses all said, oh, you couldn’t walk if it was broken, and so on, but I knew it was; I’d heard it snap. 

I decided to stay anyway.  I didn’t know when I’d be back, and I haven’t been back since.  I was unable to hike back into the valley, which was disappointing, but it was stunningly beautiful there anyway.  I had some motrin. 

The next morning, the surf was still plenty high, but the zodiac boat showed up.  I think they sent in a small boat with the packs, which got upset, and we who were leaving had to swim out to the boat, which I did.  A lovely swim; a tremendous ride back along the cliffs, during which the pilot took us through a few caves.  In the article, I wrote about the legend of the woman who had lived at Kalalau but then swam back to Honalei, twelve miles, through shark-infested waters, towing her two kids on a surfboard.  I got an email a few months ago from someone who said that was true; he used to date the woman.  I told him I’d post it here, and I will, when I get around to it.

I didn’t mention the broken leg in the Post article.

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September 28, 2009   2 Comments

A Plan for Afghanistan

Here’s my blueprint for change in Afghanistan. 

And for everywhere, to tell the truth.

Let’s spend our money creating Internet access everywhere, and give it away, free, to everyone.  Let’s spend our money to create non-indoctrinating content that is useful to toddlers all the way to deep age/wisdom/continued mental growth and sharpness. 

For toddler content, embed feedback that mimics a learning environment designed to sync with every minute stage of the continuum through which all of us have passed to reach the place where we can read this, and where I can write it.  This involves spatial, directional (left-right or right-left, or up-down); concrete to abstract, perhaps tangible objects that a toddler might assemble from any environment–stones to count and add and manipulate; objects with their  names in the native language that echo pronunciation and help language to emerge, a wealth of stories if adults are working or absent, and music, music, music.  A portable, durable, cheap, replaceable, easy-to-use interface holding a universe of complexity.  And go from there. 

If we must have troops, those troops guard the right to use one’s own computer, to question freely, to grow according to the developmental program inside every human that loves and demands to learn.  We are facile, plastic, powerful.  Girls do not differ from boys in this regard.  I’ve been reading a lot of primatology books, and of course we also share the violent, power-seeking thread of all the other living creatures with which we share this planet, from bacteria to elephants.  Yet, we can control and shape our environment in novel ways.   (Sometimes I wonder.  Swift philosophised that if horses ruled the world, everything would be much nicer.  I philosophise:  what if horses had hands with which to manipulate matter?  How would their particular brains then lay down pathways?  What if we had more eyes; back and front and side; how would we lay down pathways.  Hands are good:  how about four?  And so on.  Fun?  I don’t know.  Dr. Moreau was horrified, but he was using primitive means.  What if we could try out different options and run them and if we did not like the results, modify, reset, keep the original, try something else?  Model.)

Communication and being connected is at the heart of our humanity and of our human power.  We can give access to and guard and nurture content that is free of ideology, certainly when it comes to number/spatial understanding and manipulation.  Language is another animal; each word is deep-laden with emotional content, and we learn to play our manipulative puzzle-games in rearranging these emotion and emotion-modifying packets when we learn language. 

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Here in the United States, we are mere decades ahead of Afghanistan, for instance, in guaranteeing educational and civil and property rights for women.  That’s all. A blip, a nanosecond in time.  If some men are ready to fight to the death to guarantee the ignorance and powerlessness of the women that they “own,” then we must guard the right of those women, and, for that matter, those men, starting with boys, who do want to learn and change.  We are not doing such a great job here; the barrage of commercials in which women seem inextricably linked to housework has never changed.  Women are supposed to be pondering which soap to use, and then use it; men are not to waste their time on these trivial matters. 

Education need not mean indoctrination, although it can and usually does.  But once a child has the basics of language, rooted in manipulation of the physical world, which is the activity that lays down pathways in our brains, the world opens up. 

So, it is simple.  If we want to fight for something, fight to educate; fight to keep communication and education and the internet in the hands of every child in the world, in Aftghanistan and in Africa and in our own rural and inner-city spaces.  Combat those who come to blow up the schools, or to bully children going to school, as we did during the sixties in the south–not so long ago, eh?  Guarantee freedom of education. 

I think this approach would be more effective, cheaper, cost fewer lives, and would show concrete results in ten years or less.

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September 20, 2009   No Comments

Health Care After WWII

It has occurred to me that the countries in the world that, ostensibly, have the best health care (and the best educational systems as well?  I don’t know if they correlate, but I would bet that they do) are those that, after WWII, were helped enormously by the United States’ influx of money and expertise. 

Japan, denied militarism, eventually began to flourish.  I’ve seen news snips about how good their health care system is.  (Education in Japan is undergoing “reform,” but I don’t know much about that system except that it is rigid and exceedingly competitive.)  Switzerland, which remained neutral, saved a heck of a lot of money thereby, and has a good health care system.  France’s health care system is highly rated.  Perhaps, after the devastation of the war, and released from the necessity of spending most of their money on fighting, France concentrated on more important things:  health and education (as well as food and wine, of course).  I don’t know.  I’m just wondering.  After their “triumph” in WWI, what happened to the following generation?  Why were they not able to better defend themselves against the Germans?  One answer is they put all their eggs in one basket–the Maginot Line, a series of sophisticated bunkers which skipped the Ardennes Forest and the Belgium border, which is where the Germans entered.  The system itself is pretty cool–take a look on Wikipedia.  A survivalist’s dream.  It was just focussed on how fighting was done in WWI.   Another problem was that all the deaths in WWI depleted the numbers of the next generation, but one assumes that happened all over Europe. 

At any rate, when nations are forced to take a breather from war, and especially when the “winners” are as wise as the US was in the aftermath, rebuilding the infrastructure and trying to oversee everything–we still have US troops in Germany and in Japan–more resources are available for the important things.  Like health care and education.  I recently read that health care in France is partially paid for by taxes on alcohol and tobacco.  That’s good, but how about going one step further, here, byalso taxing the foods that make us obese, like sugar and flour and hydrogonated oils?   

Meanwhile, because of the undeniable militarization of our culture, a huge portion of our taxes and resources are devoted to developing new weapons, maintaining the old ones, deploying forces here and there.  The Soviet Union bankrupted itself during the cold war and dissolved.  Why won’t this happen to us?  What makes it necessary that we police the entire world with troops and weapons?  There needs to be a middle ground.

We need to make a huge, wrenching effort to change direction in this country.  The elements that constitute a good education are constantly shifting as new facts about how we learn are discovered.  We need to spend our money in this area rather than on weaponization.  Enemies in video games are simple, faceless, evil.  Humans are not.  Just killing lots of other humans does not solve problems.  We don’t get to the next level.  There is only this level.  We need to look around and really think about how to use whatever it is that makes us human to enable us all to have optimal lives.  Whatever that means to the individual. 

I know this sounds simplistic and ignores the huge swath of weirdness that runs through humanity–our sociopaths, our habitual criminals, those of us impaired by schizophrenia or other brain-related problems.  But we have to start somewhere.

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September 3, 2009   No Comments