Monday, December 14, 2009 Announces Results of 2009 Creative Competition

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE congratulates the 2009 "Postcards" creative competition winners. Kimberly Kirk captured first place in the visual category. In the written category, first place goes to Bettejo Dux. Second place goes to Cosibella Cristenas. Third place goes to Susan Ullis.

Winners and runners up (see list below) are invited to read and share their entries at a public reading in January (date and place to be announced). Submissions of the contest winners and runners up will begin posting on after the public reading. is a venue for rigorous writing with a view about Kauai. Year-round, the on-line literary journal welcomes high-quality writing and thoughtful images from the public. All submissions are moderated by a three-person editorial board, however, not all are posted. encourages the expression of all voices and delights in words and images that shift thinking and open minds. Much like an on-line blog, encourages interactive dialogue with the hopes that the time-honored tradition of kama'ilio, talk story, will build community and understanding.

Runners Up:

Aliana Ho, student
Ron Horoshko
Alison Hummel
Tamara Moan
Polli Oliver
Hob Osterlund
Rocky Riedel
Ela Young, student

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Announcing Fourth Annual Creative Competition

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, an online literary journal, announces its fourth annual creative competition. This year’s theme, “Postcards” is sponsored by the Garden Island Arts Council.

This year’s competition differs from previous years in two distinct ways.

First, cash prizes will be awarded in the following manner: First place, $100; second place, $50; third and fourth place, $25 each. Winners and other noteworthy contributors will be posted on and invited to read on a special night later this fall. (Date and place to be determined.)

Second, in keeping with the theme, written and visual entries must “fit” on a postcard. For writing, entries must not exceed 100 words. For visual entries, submissions will be evaluated based on their impact when viewed as 4”x6” images (either horizontal or vertical).

Writing form does not matter—essay, story (imagined or real), memoir or poems are all welcome.

As in previous years, entries must be relevant to Kauai, in some manner. Kauai Backstory is a venue for rigorous writing with a view about Kauai. We look for writing that builds understanding, not walls. We encourage writing and imagery that engenders respectful dialogue for we believe one way to build community is through conversation. values the expression of all voices and delights in words and images that shift thinking and open minds threading us ever closer together in this calabash of a world in which we live. Entries will be judged on whether they achieve this vision or not.

A student category will be created pending interest and writing quality.

Contest participants may submit one written entry and one visual entry; however, you may not submit more than one written entry or more than one visual entry.

The deadline for submitting entries is midnight HST November 1, 2009. Text entries must be pasted into the body of an email (no attachments) and sent to

Images must be sized to 4”x6” at 75 dpi and sent as a jpg attachment. is intended to serve as a timely, interactive forum. Readers are encouraged to visit often and post comments.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


by Sherilyn Lee

“Grandma,” I said, “Can we stop here? I'd like to get some taro chips.”

I had seen the familiar packages of taro chips at the market when I arrived on the island for my annual trip to see my grandparents, but I chose to purchase mine directly from the source in Hanapepe, just as my family always had.

“Oh sure,” she replied. Time is plentiful on Kauai .

I pulled off the two lane road and parked under the shade of a tree near a cottage thick with green and white paint. An empty wooden bench sat in the yard like a child just slightly straying from his mother's side. A carved sign below the window frames read, “Kauai Taro Chip Factory.”

We called out a “hello,” and as I opened the screen door, it was so light, I first thought I had torn it off its hinges. As the door closed behind us, we stood in the middle of the factory’s production floor, a large kitchen. An old, black stove sat along the far wall where during previous visits the blue gas flames blazed beneath the two large woks of simmering oil. Frying taro sounds like an island storm so thick with rain that even the windshield wipers can’t keep up.

By the time we arrived today, the kitchen was cool and quiet. An elderly Japanese woman greeted us, wiping her wet hands on her apron. She and my grandmother were about the same age and height.

“Are you done for today?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” she said smiling. She and my grandmother nodded slightly and smiled at each other, a respectful, friendly greeting among the locals.

The woman stood behind the table filled with clear, soft plastic bags filled with taro chips.

“My granddaughter,” Grandma said, touching my arm, “is visiting from Los Angeles . She likes your taro chips.”

A white and green “Kauai Taro Factory” sticker on each bag listed the ingredients, but not the irrelevant calorie count or fat content. Even though it has been fried, the chip remains white, with fine purple threads, like an embroidered potato chip. The bag doesn’t reseal. Once it’s opened, all of the chips must be eaten.

“Oh, Los Angeles ,” she said as if I had traveled all the way from Antarctica .

I asked her for two packages. As the woman wrapped them in a plastic bag, I noticed that her knuckles were still swollen from years of planting and harvesting taro roots, a task that must be done by hand while hunched over a humid, swampy patch. I learned from another visit that the years of this hard work made her back ache continuously.

“Where’s the man who greets the tourists?” I asked, “My father enjoys talking with him every time he visits.”

“Oh,” the woman said slowly, “He had a stroke. He passed away last year.”

“I'm sorry to hear that,” I wished I hadn't asked. The floor creaked beneath my feet as I shifted my weight and wondered what I could say next. I wanted to say something to make it better.

My grandmother asked, “Who’s this?” looking up through her bifocals at a photo of the old man who used to sit on the bench.

“That’s him,” the woman said, “my husband.”

“Is this your husband?” replied Grandma.

“Yes,” the woman nodded, “A tourist from the Mainland took that picture. It was one of the last taken of him. When it came in the mail, he put it right there.”

She pointed to the precious artifact on the old refrigerator, a magnet that still held his touch.

“I remember him,” said Grandma.

“You do?” asked the woman, her voice just above a whisper.

“You do?” I turned to my grandmother.

“Yeah, he used to sing at the Bon dances. Oh, he used to sing big! Sometimes, he made up words as he was singing them,” said Grandma, turning to me, laughing.

The woman nodded and smiled, “Yes, he did,” she added, “And when he sang, people would tape record him. They even videotaped him.”

“It’s not the same without him,” said Grandma.

Car doors slammed and a tourist couple walked towards the factory.

“Grandma, we'd better go, she has customers.”

The Taro Chip Lady handed me an extra bag of chips, “Omiyage.”

Omiyage (oh-me-yah-geh), a little gift for or from a visitor given in fondness and remembrance.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Never-ending Revolving Door at Art Pod

by Carol Yotsuda

Today was Open Studio Day at Art Pod in Niumalu
Glazing tiles and making murals was the plan for today
I woke up early and spent an hour organizing the patio for glazing and clay

Before I make my coffee, I will start the laundry, water the plants,
move the cars to make space for parking, take a quick shower
and load up the Nissan for a dump run

But here is Beau, bright and early, to start painting the patio,
So let's get him started with roller and paint; catch the coffee later
While he's painting, I will pug 200 pound of clay...
Be ready for Jungle George who wants to make a mural today
The flower picker comes and says the big "H" hits on Monday
I start to worry about everything outside that can blow away
So I start to move things under the studio

Jodi shows up to update Van Go data, but she knows how to do that,
so Beau and I start tearing down tattered blue tarps that "H" would surely blow away
Nissan is parked ready for any and all rubbish, but I am dizzy with no breakfast and Beau has to meet his wife for
I head to the kitchen, but Jodi has a minor computer crisis so I detour into the studio

We square away the computer problem, Jodi remembers to "SAVE" often
I can go make breakfast now; it's already noon...."Someone is here", says Jodi
John and Mara show up and they are clay novices and need serious instruction
So back to the patio to get them going with everything from A to Z in glazing
Perceptive John notices that Carol is cranky and hungry
Offers to make me food...kind soul...I race back to my kitchen
Mango, Avo, Banana, yogurt, spirulina, ice pile into the blender...but....

I hear a truck and see Jungle George striding by
"Wait! I be there!" and stuck a spoonful of chunky peanut butter in my mouth
"Where's your mural design?" "I need to draw it."
"Here's paper and pen...draw what you want. I be back!"
I check on John and Mara and they are glazing their tiles slowly and carefully
with 2:30 pau hana deadline when the mosquitos come to feed.
I race back to the kitchen and whirred up the blender, chugged down a cupful,
and ran back to patio...George's design too complicated

"Let's just work with the clay and just have fun and play
We save the complicated design for another time...not today"
Lessons in rolling out clay, transferring design, carving out design...
but his heart is set on Catalina Tiles.....whoa!
Special tools, special process, special glaze mixture
Simple suddenly got complicated.

He has a 3:00 date to build beehives in Koloa so he does what he can
"I be back tomorrow!" he says and roars off in one of his four trucks

"Somebody's here!" Diane and Donna show up to glaze
"John, you teach them how to glaze" (My smoothie is waiting)
He was attentive; he repeats everything I told him about glazing
...and at 3:45 I finally guzzle my breakfast/lunch smoothie ... the whole blender

The mosquitos are ready to carry Mara off, so they are ready to move on
But before they go I make a pitch to John...he would be a great board member
He likes the idea...I think he's sold...what a SCORE!
I load their pieces into the kiln and they race away from the mosquito feeding frenzy
I sit down with Diane and Donna ...we chat, we glaze, we solve the problems of the world
I am finally beginning to feel sane today.

A friendly voice floats in...."I brought you dinner!" says the awesome Sabra Kauka
holding high some plastic bags with yellow chicken curry from Pho. YUM!
She needs to eat first; I need to digest my smoothie to make space for curry.

Donna and Diane proudly admire their glazed tiles and then they are on their way
Sabra gets a lesson on making fish tiles...she is loving it and catches on quick
I keep glazing my test tiles...but...."Someone is here!" says Sabra

"Sorry we are so late!" yell out Melissa and Beau. "We came to glaze our starfish!"
They know the ropes....they can do it with just suggestions.
The smell of the yellow chicken curry got to me and I had to have my dinner.

So there I am 12 hours later....200 pound of clay pugged and sitting there...
waiting for Jungle George;
the Nissan full of rubbish never made it to the dump;
the laundry still in the washing machine;
the hurricane preparedness aborted mid-stream;
we have a new board member;
Sabra's happy with her imaginary fish;
Melissa and Beau happy with their Starfish ....
almost all the fish tiles glazed and ready for firing...I start the kiln at midnight

Oh No! It's the FINALE NIGHT for "So You Think You Can Dance!"
and it already started.

"Sorry, folks, I have to go watch my TV....just finish up, leave the lights on...
I will be back to finish my work"....and I race out my never-ending revolving door.

Carol Yotsuda
2:30 am August 7, 2009

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lois Ann Ell

Kauai Backstory welcomes Lois Ann Ell to our editorial team. Lois Ann participated as a judge for our 2008 Creative Competition, as well as organized our first Kauai Backstory Reading Series night. So, it's about time we gave her an official title, editor.

Lois Ann is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Garden Island newspaper. Her story Makauwahi Cave was a winner in the 2006 Kaua’i Backstory Creative Competition. She has poetry published online and is currently working on a collection of short stories. She lives on Kaua’i with her husband and three small children, who are often the inspiration for her work.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Sensitive Plant

by Susan Ullis

I know you are shy
It is in your
Mimosa pudica genes
A little shake
A light backhand
You collapse
Fold into yourself
Like a wallflower
Sometimes just one branch
Clams up
The offense
Not affecting the whole

People find this habit of yours
Rather endearing
School children marvel
At the timid potted plant
In the wild
You lay low
Fan out
Thorns drawn
Once in a while
You bravely lift up
A bright blushing

Monday, April 13, 2009

Aki Sitting on the Crater at Raraku

by Brian Doyle

Let’s say a reiki healer called Aki makes a haiku at Raraku.
And, for once, let’s not go any further at all with this poem.
Let’s just stop right there and not arrive at any conclusions.
Let’s just happily contemplate the absolute Akiness of Aki,
The tart wind off the ocean whipping the pages of her diary
So that she has to maneuver her whole left arm to pin them,
And just as she calculates syllables for the seventeenth time
One of the enormous statues below her, the legendary moai,
Topples over, face first, and plunges its immense schnozzle
Into the dense ancient soil with the faintest plop! imaginable.
There’s a split second that could be said aptly to last forever,
During which dust swirls and an albatross is vaguely curious,
And that seems like a really excellent place to end this poem.
We’ll never know if Aki leaps up and runs down to the moai,
Or if she just sits there astonished up on the rim of the crater,
Or if she starts to scribble another poem altogether, or maybe
She gets all totally absorbed in the albatross, I mean that bird
Is the size of a biplane, and how often do you get to see that?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Come. Listen. Read.

Kauai Backstory announces the “Kauai Backstory Reading Series.” These periodic events will invite writers to gather and read their work out loud to an audience.

Our kickoff event will be Friday, April 24, 2009, at Small Town Coffee in Kapa’a, starting promptly at 7:00 p.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m.

Keynote writers Patricia Wood, author of the critically acclaimed Lottery, and Kealoha, world-renowned slam poet, will share their art and answer questions. After that, Kaua’i writers are invited to read. Writers will be allowed a maximum of five minutes to read, on a first-come basis. Fiction, nonfiction and poetry welcome.

This is not a workshop, a critique session or contest. You will not receive feedback. You will, however gain a startling new perspective on your writing as you read it aloud to others. Think about this as an “open mic” night for writers. And, of course, you do not need to read to attend. Your presence as a willing listener is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


by Brian Doyle

In recent weeks, while wandering among islands in the ocean,
I met people named Hua, Wao, Tufu, Tutu, Puna, Wi, and Hu,
Not to mention a totally silent man from Estonia named Hooh,
Who the whole extent of his conversation was to nod six times
In the twenty minutes we spent together, this was in Kapiolani,
But perhaps the most rivetingly monikered lad I met in Hawaii
Was a youth named Pikomanawakupono, who was a startlingly
Silent fellow also, and in the couple of cheerful hours we spent
Together, this was in Hanalei, he only spoke twice that I recall,
And both times he uttered words in a tongue I don’t understand
Yet, but to be fair I don’t think anyone else quite caught his gist
Either, because Pikomanawakupono has just recently arrived on
This island after a voyage I cannot even dimly begin to imagine.
You could say, with complete accuracy, that his traveling began
With dreaming, and we do not often enough salute how a vision
Insists on being born, how what we imagine so often takes shape
In this world, in this air, on all sorts of islands, in all sorts of seas.
It’s really amazing when you think about it, which I think we are.
Anyway, the two words I caught sounded rather like piu and bub,
And then his mother smiled, and gave him more of her holy milk,
And Kauai sailed on to the southeast at roughly four inches a year.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ocean Death

[Editors' note: This is the final post that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Laurie Barton

A young man from Rzeczpospolita Polska

hiked into a valley, powered by waffles and latte,

some blackened ahi from the night before

Reached the shore of Hanakapi'ai Beach

and flung himself in--

so far from the traffic and chill of his city,

so warm for October--

Feeling sure there was nothing but pleasure

to find, his long legs splashing a flutter-kick.

Slow currents no match for his shoulders.

Pulled to the deep--faster than it takes a cresting

wave to flatten. The pilot looked down at his body,

floating in surrender to the north swell.

Took him to Black Pot, imagined what no one

would say. How none of us

know what it's like to die strong, in the blue grip

of something much stronger.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Watching Daughters Surf

[Editors' note: This is the sixth in a series of posts that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Sandra Krawciw

Once leashed to me,
by the undulating braid of an umbilical cord,
I see them go now,
joined by a thin black thread
to a slice of wood.

Seeking the sea’s heartbeat,
they dip their way to the horizon,
like polite princesses,

but they return like warriors,
riding their shields through the plunder,
of waves and foam.

Our eyes meet, cords real and imagined,
tighten and deliver,
gift after gift from God.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Surf Northshore

(Double-click on image to enlarge)

by John Ullis

[Editors' note: This is the fifth in a series of posts that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Return to the Surf

[Editors' note: This is the fourth in a series of posts that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Alison Hummel

I hear the crash and thrash of the waters.
I listen.
In my mind, I listen.
No, no.
In my heart, I listen.
Listening now--eyes closed.
I scream, "Yes I hear you!"
Quickly opening my eyes to look around.
Nobody notices my outburst.
I close my eyes again.
Like I am five years old again.
Hiding from monsters under my bed.

Back to the thrashing and crashing.
I have been hiding from you.
Hiding behind the bushes in my parents back yard.
Still crashing and thrashing
like the waters that you are.
When can I see you again?
I am longing to feel the crashing and thrashing.

Of course these days, in my throat my heart lives.
It's like stuck in there.
I try to cough it up.
But no that won't work.
Fighting the tears.

And then they come so hard,
like out of the blue.
It's sort of funny.
Tears: like the surf running down my face--salty.

When I open my eyes, I look around.
I am on Fourth Street, in Philadelphia.

And then I remember that in my heart there you are.
And of course my heart's in my throat.
And when I let it up--the tears.
And then you are on my face again.
I cry so that I may return to you.

Return to the surf.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


[Editors' note: This is the third in a series of posts that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Faith Harding

I hear the surf in wee hours of the morning from my bed. It’s my natural alarm clock. Sometimes it sounds like it is coming right over Poipu Rd. As I am waking up, I imagine the surf crashing against the `aina, enveloping cars, washing the debris from the vacant developer’s destruction away…I can hear its mighty crash over and over as I lay in bed not wanting to get on with my daily rituals. Birds chirp all around me, I hear cars racing on the bypass but I can still hear the surf crashing against the shore. I think it’s coming from Shipwreck’s as it echoes throughout the open space behind where I live. It’s a fierce force. I have tumbled only once in its surf and I’ve never again gone in at Shipwreck’s. It could be from Brennecke’s too as I have boogie boarded on that surf a few times which has scared and thrilled me. I toss and turn in my bed contemplating if the crash and swish is as foreboding as it sounds. I snuggle and smell my pillow and sometimes think that the surf could come and wash me away at that very moment. I would be a castaway on my used Serta mattress with my 300 thread count sheets. However, that would be polluting the ocean and I would just sink and have to swim to shore. Reluctantly, I shake the cobwebs from my head, turn off the electric alarm clock and begin surfing through my own waves of the day.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Tank in Sand

[Editors' note: This is the second in a series of posts that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Susan Ullis

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Surfer Cake

[Editors' note: This is the first in a series of posts that recognizes the runners up of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Laurie Barton

Then I snuck into the kitchen of the condo

and plundered the cake, waves of blue frosting

that tickled a white foam sea, the plastic palm

trees almost real if I squinted so that Happy

Birthday Kimo read like petroglyphs at Waiopili

stream. Jim had removed the toy surfer, licked

smudges of blue from its surfboard, stashed it away.

How I would argue with him at Lihue not to bring

that extra bag of golf tees, cake candles, those empty

cans of board-wax. How close I would come to telling

him, I don't love you. After my knife slipped through

the sea, cool frosting gave my teeth such a shiver that I

could not wish or remember, nor feel anything but

the rush of sugar, fingers mashing the blue. Then I

pictured Cook sailing into Waimea, greeted by men

on koa boards, welcoming Lono. Those giant swells

pushing them up, teasing them to prove their ocean

skill. Only ali'i allowed to ride, each one snug in his

place, known for it, hailed. In the morning I would

catch a plane, look down at the waves. Wish for a

village, breadfruit and chanting, a glide to my shore

with friends waiting.

Saturday, January 31, 2009


[Editors' note: This is the fifth in a series of posts that recognizes the winners of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Emily Rider
(Student at Kula High)

Putting a wave in a frame doesn't do it justice.
It has no ceiling, no floor, no walls, just a back door.
It allows me freedom,
Immersion in unfiltered experience.
Its blue eyes are unforgiving,
Never shy in punishment.
Yet it leaves me wanting more,
A path to a spiritual ecstasy that could never fade.
When I sit, stand, and paddle,
There are shadows that follow me,
Signs of reassurance yet, a deep vulnerability arises.

Finally able to let go, it starts,
Allowing me to slide into that parallel universe,
Where time changes.
It flies, runs in circles, flows backward, and skips around.
The subdued voices disappear,
And the winds take direction.
Finally, there's nothing left to be concealed.
In water all my thoughts are pure.
It takes me away from dull existence,
And brings excitement, danger, escape.
It is the peak of my life, the segment of rainbow I have clutched.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Remind Me I'm Alive

[Editors' note: This is the fourth in a series of posts that recognizes the winners of the third annual creative competition sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Ben House

When I was a kid I asked a neighborhood boy how to pray. He described something like a person-to-person phone call. I tried it once but no one spoke on the other end so I figured it didn't work.

Later I met many people who said god spoke to them, but not in the way that people speak to each other. Some hear god in the in rustling leaves or waterfall's roar. Others hear it in guitar's plucked strings or see it in an artist's brushstroke. Maybe god's voice comes in a baby's cry or a loved one's embrace. In his novel Contact, Carl Sagan wondered if we might find a message from god in the infinite digits of the number pi, a code written into the laws of geometry.

Light waves bring the world to my eyes and sound waves to my ears so I can perceive my world but what about the waves traveling across the ocean to the shores of Kauai? What do they bring? Is there a message for me or for us?

As I stand on the cliff to check the surfing conditions at Hideaways I wonder if my mind is big enough to grasp the enormity of what the sea would be saying if waves were words. Maybe it's more like music, with all the winds of the Pacific blowing a song ancient and unimaginably

With my feet on the motionless ground all I can do is wonder. But in the water on my surfboard I'm no longer a spectator. If the language of the ocean is beyond my mind's comprehension, I can still experience its motion in my body.

Maybe that's what I didn't understand when I tried to pray as a kid. Maybe god doesn't speak in the words we use because there are no words for what god has to say to us. It's only through experience that we ever really understand, anyway. I don't know if I could say what I've
learned surfing Kauai's warm waters. Is god loving or wrathful? The ocean can be both. Ecstasy, frustration, humility and more are all there. Above all, I always want more and the ocean always has more to offer.

I'm one of those people that wants answers but the ocean only gives up its secrets on its terms and it's more like poetry than prose, more like the moon with its shifting rhythms and cloud dances than the sun with its daily, decisive brilliance, more like a feeling than a thought. Maybe my body can feel the entirety of what my mind can only wonder at. It looks like a good day to go find out.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Watching Lincoln Surf

[Editors' Note: This is the third in a series of daily posts that will recognize the winners in the third annual creative contest sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Sandra Krawciw

now you are four months old
propped against your pillows
between the mountains and the sea
like king kamehameha
your smile is sunshine
your baby gap nightie is soft as sand,
fresh with fallen stars
yours surfer toes stick out the bottom
but it is your arms
that give you away
they are paddles
your eyes ask for the ocean

you stand on the board of my lap
balanced between my hands
your face parallels the lip
your knees bend for the cut
your toes are on the nose
trade winds own your hair
barrels meet you from the left and right
you ride through

your people watch from the shore
of the bed
they are amazed at
this extreme performance
aloha sprays over us all
like a wave

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Waterman

[Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of daily posts that will recognize the winners of the third annual creative contest sponsored by Kauai Backstory. This year's theme: Surf. Congratulations everyone.]

by Michelle Dick

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Surf Dog

[Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of daily posts that will recognize the winners of the third annual creative contest sponsored by Kauai Backstory. Congratulations everyone.]

by Frank Reilly

I moved to Kauai from New York nine years ago. Made a pretty concerted effort to leave as much of the New Yorker I knew myself to be there. But, you know, you can pack your bags as lightly as you’re able – and it’s still baggage.

I worked at a Manhattan advertising agency for fifteen years before that. And for fifteen years, I picked up speed. More to do and less time to do it, faster and faster, until my work life felt indistinguishable from the blur of images that blew by the window on my late night train ride home. Or was it my pre-dawn commute in? And did the direction matter?

At the end, the money was good. So good I didn’t think I could do without it. The urge to chuck it all was always counterbalanced by the fear that I couldn’t succeed at anything else. That I wouldn’t feel the same adrenaline rush I had been taking for granted for so long at the agency. That I wouldn’t be driven by the same ambition that had gotten me to where I was. And that drove me harder still. It was like I was trying to outrun myself.

Which begged the question: How to stop?

Remember that movie, the depression era period-piece? The one where the railroad bulls have the winded hobo cornered in the last box car of the freight train? And the hobo’s ready to jump, but the train is moving quickly enough that jumping promises the same beating that the bulls do? Maybe worse?

Well, I do.

Kauai was going to be my emergency brake. My stop sign.

* * * * *

We got the dog shortly after moving here, my wife and I. A lab mix from the Humane Society. He was sure to be the lap dog we needed. Every night he was going to climb onto the sofa lazily, drop his head in my lap, and fall asleep there. I had it all planned out. I could feel my blood pressure dropping just thinking about it.

Instead, he took to the water.

Turns out he was a surf dog.

We took him to Kealia every day so that he could swim. And he swam like he was made to do it. Like he wouldn’t choose to do anything else. I don’t remember coaxing him into the ocean. I don’t recall tentative pawing at the water’s edge, or the obligatory game of tag that anything young feels compelled to play with the comings and goings of sea
foam at the shoreline. He was just in the drink, always, as if he’d been given the gift of two mediums in which to thrive. He was amphibian.

But being in the water didn’t seem to be enough. He needed to be in the water with intent. He needed to be swimming toward something. And the horizon, as jaw-droppingly beautiful as it can be on Kauai’s beaches, doesn’t offer much to the goal oriented.

So after a while he’d just stand at the shore line–and bark.

Only a dog could get away with that, with a loudly voiced complaint aimed squarely at the Pacific Ocean. Imagine a tourist at the water’s edge, screaming “but it’s listed in 101 Things To Do as an activity! I’m sorry, but gently rolling waves are not a “Thing To Do”!

And so, the lab owner’s favorite verb: fetch.

Which quickly evolved into a routine as complex and unvaried in execution as high mass at the Vatican. He’d burst out of the barely open car door, catch sight of the tennis ball I hadn’t tried hard enough to hide (because chasing sticks was passé after week one), and bounce and spin in front of me wildly, his front paws lurching forward, trying to gain footing on anything – the passing thigh, abdomen, testicle – that could be used to vault him within snapping distance of that tennis ball. That tennis ball!

Within a few months, I’d come to the beach armed with a canister of tennis balls, because he’d never relinquish one if there wasn’t another to pursue. I’d throw them out to sea, again and again, farther and farther, and he’d dutifully retrieve them all, his snout piercing through breaking waves five times his size – like some bizarrely hirsute surfacing submarine – just to get at them.

After 45 minutes of frenetic activity, it would reach the point where I’d be approached by tourists, usually-land-locked dog lovers with worried looks in their eyes, asking me pointedly if it was a good idea to have him swim out so far, if I wasn’t pushing him too hard.

Then I would stop throwing so they could witness his fury. So they could hear, first-hand, his hoarse howls of disgust at a tennis-ball-less sea.

The writing, as they say, was on the wall. We had adopted a pet with a type A personality.

This dog, it seemed, desperately needed an emergency brake. A stop sign.

* * * * *

It was a typical day at Kealia. Warmth in the light breeze, the clouds taking on the rosy tint that comes with a setting sun. The jetty side of the beach was clogged with young families, so my surf dog and I took our Spalding canister to the beaches’ mid-point, where we could engage in our fetch fetish without interruption.

The riptides in this section of the beach were well known to locals long before traffic cones and danger signs started sprouting there, as they have in the recent past, like the mature growth that had to come from our collective fear of liability. But me – what did I know?

When I threw that one ball…that one ball…I knew, somehow, that it had gone too far. I was pushing my luck, our luck, a little too hard. And that was before I realized that I had broken the cardinal rule of tennis ball fetch.

My dog hadn’t watched me throw.

And if he didn’t see the ball arc over the sea, if he didn’t see the splashdown, then nothing had been thrown.

So he sat there, dumbly staring at my hands, waiting for another launch.

I only had one ball left. And one ball meant one thing. After every throw, I would have to wrestle to get that one ball back. And that wrestling match would involve all the attendant teeth baring and flying saliva you would expect. From me and the dog.

So I dove in.

A hundred yards out, no big deal, I could use the exercise, right? And the swimming was easy. It was only when I got to the ball and turned around that I realized why the swimming was easy. Because the swim back wasn’t.

You take those public service announcements for granted. I had no idea it was a waste of time to swim against a rip tide. So I swam against a rip tide. And I kept swimming, blind to my predicament, convinced that I had plenty of energy to get back to shore.

And then I felt that paw come down on my shoulder.

My surf dog saw what I was swimming for, and he’d be damned if I’d get his ball.

I recognized something in his insistence as he was pushing me further and further under water. Something in the adrenaline-crazed look in his eye, in his naked ambition. And that thought rolled through my head a while before I had the presence of mind, when I came to the surface, gasping, to throw the ball ahead of me, to give unto the surf dog what belonged to the surf dog.

* * * * *

Metaphors and allegories are powerful things.

And there’s no sense in writing if you’re not prepared to see the makings of them in just about everything in life. Sometimes those real-world moments of inspiration can be comically over-the-top, too – so much so that they’re completely unbelievable on the printed page. I once watched a bird feather its nest with a ropy strand of bright yellow police-crime-scene “caution” tape.

I remember thinking “that bird will never get published”.

But sometimes you’ll see yourself at the center of a real situation that’s perfect fodder for a story. And if you feel the urge to write it, it is my contention, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, that you have that realization for a reason: Because you’ve refused to acknowledge all the rough drafts that came before it. Like the one where a tightly-wound and less-than-self-aware New Yorker is gifted with a type-A dog. Or the one where the type-A New Yorker, who is unable to acknowledge the type-A-ness of his dog, feeds said dog’s frenzied instincts with too many well thrown tennis balls into the raging Pacific.

As my swimming stroke weakened and I saw the situation for what it was, I calmed down, oddly enough. It was like I had passed through heavy rains of panic and settled into the eye of what I knew to be a nasty storm. Then I had one of those random moments of clarity. The kind that only seem to accompany tragic situations, like those you’d read about in pulpy, Back-From-The-Grave testimonials.

At that moment, I saw the metaphor I was flailing through for exactly what it was: I was swimming harder and harder towards a beach that wasn’t getting any closer. I might as well have been back in New York on that early morning train to work, falling asleep, a three-page To Do List slipping through my fingers.

Then I was out of the eye and back into the storm. I swam as hard as I could for as long as I could, so fearful that I would look up to see that I hadn’t moved forward an inch that I just didn’t look up. And when I couldn’t swim any more, when I was completely drained, I let my legs drift down. And I was beyond relieved to immediately feel sand
between my toes.

As I staggered back up the shore, my surf dog was right beside me, looking none the worse for wear, the bright yellow ball locked tightly in his teeth.

I sat down heavily and looked out at the vast, undulating carpet of blue-green that stretched out to the horizon, the tennis-ball-less sea. And my surf dog lay down lazily at my side and dropped his head in my lap.

No, really.

Then his jaws loosened and the tennis ball rolled back down the embankment and into the water. And we both watched as it was sucked out again by the same tide. He started to move toward it, too, but a gentle tug on his collar was enough to restrain him. He was dog-tired, after all.

It felt good to just cradle him there.

And the ball got harder to see as it drifted farther away. Another metaphor, and fairly over-the-top, too. Still, a pretty clear lesson:

It’s a tennis ball, for Christ’s sake, let the ocean take it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Reading Date

The reading date for winners and runners up of the 2008 Kauai Backstory Creative Competition is Monday, January 26, 2009 at Small Town Coffee in Kapaa, starting at 7:00 p.m.

All winners and runners up are invited to read and asked to RSVP to, so we can plan accordingly.