What Charlies Are For

Charlie's bike, guarded by BunnyHopper

Charlie’s bike, and BunnyHopper

Charlie keeps things simple. The rack and saddlebags on his bike can carry what he owns. So far as I can tell, that consists of: a tobacco pouch and plastic cigarette-roller, some T-shirts and socks and a second pair of jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a camouflage coat, several hats and a mismatched pair of gloves, a pool cue that unscrews in the middle, a sleeping bag, a plastic water bottle, a pair of reading glasses, and usually a paperback novel or two. Oh, and a Magic EightBall—except he doesn’t have that any more, because he gave it to me.  (I was lamenting, one slow afternoon, that I wished I had a magic crystal ball to TELL me when we wouldn’t see a customer for three hours, so I could close up and go home for a nap. Charlie held up a finger and dug in his magic saddlebag till he came up with the Magic EightBall. “There you go: you can ask IT.”)

The stuffed rabbit riding his handlebars answers to “BunnyHopper,” sneaks Charlie’s cigarettes, and tends to sass back. (No, Charlie isn’t “crazy”—he’s just brimming with humor!)

Thanksgiving 2013: with Christian, Elena Grace, and our dinner guests

Thanksgiving 2013: with Christian, Elena Grace, and our dinner guests

Last Thanksgiving we didn’t open the restaurant for business, but we did put the restaurant kitchen to use. My husband Keoni—with the help of our sons, Kapena & Christian—cooked dinner, while our daughter Elena Grace pushed together dining room tables and set places for guests. The previous two years, in tight financial straits, we’d gratefully accepted the generosity of other people to put Thanksgiving dinners on our table. (Many thanks to our local food bank, and to our oldest daughter Kulia’s “Operation Gobble Gobble” charity drive!) But now the (laden) tables have turned; with the new restaurant thriving, we’re blessed with food enough to share. In the week ahead of the holiday, we put out word through the neighborhood “homeless network” that anyone lacking Thanksgiving dinner would be welcome to join ours. It wasn’t fancy—paper plates and plastic forks—but everyone left with full stomachs and food in hand, and I was pleased to watch our kids unselfconsciously chatting with the grubby-but-gracious strangers seated next to them at the table… And that’s the day we met Charlie.

With two bucks to his name, Charlie bought flowers for us instead of a beer for himself. Delivered with HUGS!

With two bucks to his name, Charlie bought flowers for us instead of a beer for himself. Delivered with HUGS!

Charlie could usually be found at his favorite hangout—the bench in front of our local grocery store—almost always with a book in hand. (He refuses to “fly a sign,” to borrow the street parlance for roadside-begging, but picks up odd jobs that allow him to put his mechanic’s training to use, and his semi-regular employers know where they can find him.)  On our way into the store to shop we’d stop for hellos (as Christian accurately observed, “Charlie gives the BEST hugs,” rib-crunching in their intensity!) and started bringing paperbacks as we finished them, swapping out for whatever he’d just finished. (It had dawned on us that he can’t qualify for a Library card without a “home address”…)

There’s an unfinished storage-space above the restaurant, which we’d originally intended to convert into a hang-out spot for the kids. When we found a rental home just up the street, though, we abandoned the playroom project, as well as the mattress we’d hauled up the stairs… until one of our kids thought of a better use. On a snowy night with temperatures in the single-digits, Kapena unlocked the upstairs door and went to find Charlie and convince him to get himself out of the weather.

Because  Charlie is adamant about not taking “hand-outs,” we’ve arrived at a working arrangement that doesn’t ding his dignity. He keeps our parking lot clear of trash and weeds,  takes care of our indoor plants (and potted & nursed the tomato plants a friend brought us), unloads several hundred pounds of groceries out of our car every morning, scrapes out the BBQ, and hauls our trash and recycling over to the bins. He’s done mechanical work on our minivan and our son Kawika’s brakes. On occasions when we’ve run out of something mid-day (and the restaurant is too busy for one of us to leave) Charlie is always happy to hop on his bike and do the “emergency” grocery-run. When we’ve showed up at three in the morning to start the smoker for large catering orders, Charlie pops up like a security officer to make sure it’s US and not an intruder.

with Charlie (and the tomato plants he tended all summer) at the back kitchen-door of our restaurant.

With Charlie (and the tomato plants he tended all summer) at the back kitchen-door of our restaurant.

We tease him about the advantages of having “our own personal Charlie” to help out with so many things, and he always responds to my thanks by saying, “Well, Ma’am, that’s what Charlies are FOR.”

When our van threw a belt this summer, Charlie took it on himself to ride his bike around town (in hundred-degree heat) to find the right belt, and came back to report where he’d found it, and for what price. We gave him the forty bucks to cover its purchase, and he pedaled right off again to bring it back, carefully handing over the receipt and counting back the change, and then spent the rest of the hot day with his head under our hood. His latest project (his idea) is working on the paint-job on my old/new Subaru. He floated the idea, with a simple list of what he’d need, and I expressed my delight. “Well. That’s what Charlies are FOR, Ma’am.”

Sometimes when he has a couple bucks he buys me flowers… And I know he has sometimes made that purchase at the expense of buying himself a beer (the other “treat” in his life–along with his books). We’ve talked a few times about our shared trait of Alcoholism, though I think it makes him uncomfortable because he starts apologizing for drinking, which was never my intent. (In fact, Keoni sometimes prevails on him to accept a couple bucks to buy a beer and drink it “vicariously” for us.)  The thing is that (unlike either of us!) Charlie’s personality doesn’t change when he drinks. He may be less steady on his pins, but he’s never less Charlie.

What I love best about Charlie (in addition to his hugs) is his outlook on living. I’ve known so many people with more stuff and easier situations, who still manage to be displeased with their lot. Charlie, on the other hand… stands by our barbeque with his hands on his hips, looks up at the blue sky, and pronounces: “I love Life!

Reminders of the joy in living, appreciation of simple things… THAT’s what Charlies are for.


Full Circle: At the Wheel

leaning on my original "Scubaru" by Lake Pend Orielle in northern Idaho,1993

leaning on my original “Scubaru”—at northern Idaho’s Lake Pend Orielle,1993

Dad took me car-shopping my Senior year of high school, explaining that although he’d drive the new car for a while, it was intended eventually for my use. I pictured myself in a Jeep Cherokee: four-wheel-drive, room in the back for dive gear and camping kit, a rack on top for my parents’ old orange canoe, and plenty of under-carriage clearance for the treacherous Forest-Service roads I enjoyed exploring. Instead of a Jeep, though, we drove away in a 1990 Subaru Loyale wagon—less expensive (even new), and with the same 4WD, clearance, and room in the back for all the stuff I imagined packing for my upcoming Life Adventures.

As planned, my dad drove the wagon for a couple years, periodically taking me to an empty lot at the edge of town for lessons in driving the stick-shift.  And eventually—once I’d learned not to lurch around the lot or assassinate the engine—he turned over the keys.

Subaru canoe

Set for Adventure, 1996

I’d thought myself clever to come up with “SCUBARU” as a personalized plate—but someone else had beat me to it! With sailing, scuba-diving, and canoeing in mind, I settled on WTRLOGD for the plates… Still, I come from a family that names cars, and this one would always be “Scubaru” to me.

I loaded her up at various times with Forest Service maps, tent and camp-stove, hiking boots, canoe paddles, picnic blanket, books and camera and journal… And over the years my trusty vehicle & I ventured forth to “fill in” the Idaho atlas with tracks of where-we’d-been. A five-foot map of the state hung on my wall, with all my roaming & rambles marked in highlighter pen—and at every opportunity I interspersed those outings with forays to the Pacific coast.

Scubaru proved her worth over and over again. In a blinding snowstorm atop Washington’s Snoqualmie pass, when most of the cars on the road were either pulled over or slid onto the shoulders, I put on my chains and kept right on going. An ice storm in Oregon’s Colombia Gorge encased trees, signs, and roadway in inches of solid ice, but Scubaru crept cautiously all the way to Portland, accompanied by the explosive acoustics of bursting trees alongside the road.

Subaru Sawtooth camping

Camping “off-road” in the Sawtooth National Forest, 1998

After one particularly hairy drive in the Sawtooths (a pot-holed and washed-out dirt road, no wider than the car and without turn-outs for passing—just a sheer drop, inches from the passenger tires) I spotted a warning sign: “NO passenger vehicles.” (Oops. If there were a companion sign at the other end of the road where I started, I’d missed it!) I had to peel my fingers off the steering wheel to pat Scubaru’s dashboard and congratulate her with a heartfelt “Good girl!”

Of course, even four-wheel-drive isn’t foolproof. (Though Dad also taught me not to BE a fool; specifically, not to drive into tricky conditions with the 4WD already engaged—because if you get stuck when you’re in 4WD, you’re really stuck!) Nevertheless, I had to dig her out of a couple spots. I used a snowshoe to scoop a back tire out of a snowbank in the Boise National Forest, and in the Salmon-Challis Forest put my grandpa’s collapsible Army shovel to use, extracting her from a mire of mud where a beaver dam had flooded the road…

Subaru Washington beach

Washington Coast “beach highway,” 1997

When a downpour threatened a planned picnic along the Snake River, I popped open the tailgate and happily set my spread in the back of the car.  Sheltered by the overhanging door, I savored my strawberries & brie to the soundtrack of raindrops pelting the roof. On a couple occasions, with lightning storms too close for comfort in an exposed tent, I folded down the back seats and stretched out to sleep.

On the shore of Big Trinity Lake, I woke one morning to drifts of snow piled against my tent-corners, and had to chip my solid-frozen bacon from the cooler with a hatchet… but Scubaru scooted me safely back down the mountain, heater blasting.

Along the Washington Coast where stretches of beach serve as legally designated “highway,” I misjudged the incoming tide and dashed the last leg with waves licking the tires and wipers warding off wads of sea-foam blowing against the glass. Scubaru served staunchly through many a scrape and adventure.

With a little love and care, a Subaru will run forEVER. I drove that one for close to twenty years, and I might still be driving her… But when I departed my first marriage, I didn’t stop to quibble about any of the community-property stuff. Not long after I moved out, the wagon was also absent from her accustomed spot in front of my ex’s house… I never inquired about her fate.

2014: “Kana Girl’s Hawai’ian BBQ” license-plate holder on the NEW (old) Scubaru

Fast forward a few years… My husband started making noises this summer about the red 1989 Subaru Loyale parked in front of our neighbor’s house: I wonder if they’d consider selling it. I countered with “practical” negatives—we work together and don’t need a second car, they’d have posted a sign if they wanted to sell… But Keoni recognized what I hadn’t acknowledged even to myself: my affectionate nostalgia for that whacky wandering wagon.  In no time at all he had negotiated a sale-price, payable primarily in the form of a sizable certificate to our restaurant.

Subaru Scubaru

20-odd years later: the SCUBARU plates!

Next thing I knew, I was slipping into the driver’s seat of a car that felt as familiar and comfortable as a favorite old pair of jeans.

Keoni and our son Kapena are plotting “improvements” to the engine and paint and upholstery… Fixing her up will be a fun family project, but I’m content already. I’m “back” in my very first car, and behind her wheel I’ve come full circle. This time with the SCUBARU plates!

*************


Mythbusters Edition: “Depression is Just in Your Head”

Well, okay—Depression IS just in your head, but not in the way people mean when they say something like that. People who make (misguided, misinformed, misanthropic) statements like the above are saying that you just need to change your mind / suck it up / pull yourself up by your bootstraps [side-note: what, exactly, IS a bootstrap?]… And Bingo, there-you-go, just decide NOT to be Depressed. If it were that simple, do you really think there would be anybody still struggling with  Depression? (“You know, I’ve been thinking about what my Outlook on Life should be, and I’ve decided that Depression is a perfect fit for me”... Nope, nobody says that.)

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

WRONG WRONG WRONG!!! If it were that simple, nobody would be Depressed!

Like Addiction, Depression is a matter of Brain Chemistry. To borrow from the book Alcoholics Anonymous (substitute “Depression” for “Alcoholism”—I will personally vouch that this statement applies with equal truth to both): “If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.”  In other words, it’s absurd to believe that anybody would choose to be Depressed (or an Alcoholic, come to that) if the remedy were as simple as Deciding Not To Be. Both illnesses (and they ARE illnesses) are based in brain chemistry—and for one of them, science has presented us with a chemical answer, in the form of prescription antidepressants. (Of course, there are no “pills” yet to reverse Alcoholism, so thank God for A.A.!)

If I seem to have a bee in my bonnet [side-note: did ladies really used to have problems with insects invading their head-gear? why do we use so many phrases based on clothing that’s no longer in use?] on this topic, it’s because it makes me angry to see anti-depressants demonized (or even discouraged, or disapproved of), either in the media at large or in personal or social interactions around us.

tumblr_lumn9tscW71qjywvlo1_500Bottom line: anti-depressants are preserving quality-of-life for millions of people, and saving ACTUAL lives for some of those.  (Depression isn’t the cause of all suicides, true—but I’m here to say that when you feel utterly incapable of dealing with shit, the idea of having all-the-shit-go-away can be appallingly attractive.)

The first time I faced Depression, I really didn’t know that’s what it was. I was not-quite-thirty, and happily situated (I honestly believed) as the stay-home mom of an entertaining three-year-old Hobbit and a new baby (there’s a hint: I knew about Post-Partum Depression, but somehow didn’t imagine it would apply to me)…  At that point in my life, a deeply-ingrained part of my self-image was the idea that I was a person who pressed on (cheerfully! and stubbornly!) even through adversity. I grew up very comfortably middle-class American, with most of my “problems” of the trivial First-World variety, but I HAD dealt (cheerfully! stubbornly!) with a fair bit of real adversity, primarily medical in nature.

Since my diagnosis at 15, I’d been engaged in an epic and ongoing battle for control-of-my-life against my nemesis, Crohn’s Disease. Despite being told that I shouldn’t/couldn’t undertake or finish any number of things (school semesters, student-teaching, having children…) I managed to get those things done. Cheerfully! Stubbornly! More recently, I’d dealt with the three-months-early arrival of my daughter, 12 weeks of shuttling between my toddler at home and my (constantly endangered) infant in the NICU, and then the crushing diagnosis that my daughter was profoundly and irreversibly Deaf. (For a Hearing mom who knew only a smattering of words in what I presumed would be my child’s First Language—American Sign Language—that was a challenge of staggering proportions.)

Then some Miracles happened. Six months out from that diagnosis (confirmed by multiple specialists), my daughter was inexplicably Hearing—and had all those specialists scratching their heads at the “impossibility.” My own Crohn’s Disease at that point had inexplicably been in remission for almost three years (STILL is, in fact—leaving my gastroenterologist scratching his head at the “impossibility”).

Yet it was at that point, with my Life’s Challenges blessedly removed from my shoulders, and my family settling into a happy routine (that didn’t include a dozen doctor-appointments in a week), that Depression hit. And it took me way too long to figure out what was going on and get help for it—because (dammit) I was a person who DEALT WITH SHIT. Cheerfully! Stubbornly!

What stands out in my mind about that time isn’t SADness so much as FROZENness—the utter inability to face or cope with really, really simple stuff.  Perfect example: I can remember obsessing and stressing ALL DAY about the fact that I really needed to empty the dishwasher.  Yet despite my unwarranted levels of anxiety over this existence-of-clean-dishes, I absolutely could not bring myself to DO the sensible thing one would usually do when confronted with an affronting load of clean dishes: namely, to put them away. I just somehow couldn’t deal with that.  All day.

Prozac turned out to be my next miracle. (Though, unlike our family’s other Medical Miracles, this one is entirely explicable through basic brain-chemistry.)  Within a few weeks of seeing my doctor, that darn dishwasher no longer had the power to intimidate me.

Trying to understand why I’d gone into meltdown AFTER things got better (because I tend to over-think stuff!!) I came up with an analogy from my college days at University of Hawai’i. I’d been Scuba-diving once, about 80 feet down, when my air tank blew. I (calmly) banged on my tank to get my dive-buddy’s attention, (calmly) instigated “buddy-breathing” procedure from his air-supply, (calmly) made the ascent at the prescribed rate to avoid the Bends, (calmly) swam the half-mile or so to shore… And then went completely to pieces. I still remember my dive-buddy standing over me in bewilderment, asking “Why are you crying NOW?” And the best I could answer was that I couldn’t go to pieces “out there” (where keeping your head can literally be a matter of life-and-death) but this was something I HAD to go to pieces over… Once it was “safe” to do so.  Looking back, I think there’s SOME truth to this analogy, but I also know better (now) than to discount the biology behind an episode of Depression. The fact that I’d been super-stressed half a year earlier does NOT fully account for the insane amount of power that dishwasher was holding over my mental and emotional life.

In the intervening years, I’ve dealt with a round of Depression far worse than the first one—because the second was exacerbated by alcohol. (Yes, the Biology-major-in-me does know that alcohol is a depressant… But the Alcoholic-in-me was nevertheless senselessly trying to “feel better” by using it, to excess and insanity…)  Once again, Prozac relieved me of one of those illnesses (while A.A. has enabled me to keep the other at bay).  I thank God that I live in a time when both of these solutions are available to me, and I HATE (a word I use sparingly) seeing either of these solutions—or worse, the people who need them—disparaged or denigrated. I’d like to think that there’s somewhat less of a stigma on anti-depressants (and people who take them) than there used to be. Just ten years ago I remember some of my acquaintances expressing shock that I was open about seeking the help of “psych meds.” (Not shocked that I was taking them, I think, so much as shocked that I would admit to it.)  I’d like to think there’s less of that mentality out there now.

During my freelance-writing years, I was hired to write on a lot of crazy topics, but there were a couple where I just couldn’t bring myself to write what was requested. Knowing full well that the client might refuse to pay (and worse, find another writer who WOULD write that stuff) I nevertheless forged ahead with a version I could live with. One of those was a client who wanted me to write about why people should use “natural” remedies instead of “drugs” to deal with Depression. After wrestling with myself, what I actually wrote (and, incidentally, what the client did accept) was a set of articles on natural remedies that might help with Depression IF a person were unable or unwilling to turn to pharmaceuticals, or even in addition to such prescriptions. I wasn’t willing to be responsible for even one person reading that they “shouldn’t” consider prescription anti-depressants.  There’s too much of that out there already.

If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly busting-out-of-nowhere with this topic (breaking an 18-month writing-drought, no less), it’s because I recently realized that my (formerly friendly and utterly inoffensive) mailbox has taken to intimidating me. Last night I MADE myself go out to collect a week’s worth of mail, which had accumulated there while (day after day) I’d been thinking I needed to get the mail, but somehow couldn’t face doing it. This is especially “crazy” given that we don’t even get BILLS at our home address (those all go to the business address), so it’s not even a matter of worrying about what was IN the mail… There’s not going to be anything threatening, or even bothersome (unless you count junk-coupons) in that box, but the task of emptying it seemed to be beyond me. Apparently the mailbox is my new dishwasher.

Happily, at not-quite-forty (birthday in a couple weeks) I understand myself somewhat better than I did at not-quite-thirty… I have an appointment Monday to renew my Prozac!

 


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