Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Burnout // Hawaii

Toward the end of September, I needed a nap. But not just one nap, it seemed, multiple naps per day. I couldn’t sit in front of my computer and work for more than an hour and a half at a time for several days in a row. My sleep was erratic, I definitely wasn’t eating properly, and there were days where I couldn’t will myself to get out of bed at all. I developed fevers periodically that would eventually wane, headaches that wouldn’t go away even with Advil for days on end, and when out attending events I could barely stay awake. Beginning sometime this summer, the smallest occurrences would cause my eyes to well with tears: when I was interviewing the curator of the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, her description of artist Tracey Emin’s “I Can Feel Your Smile,” made for a friend of the artist who, after her husband passed, was feeling guilty for her own moments of happiness; driving up the FDR past the skyline of Long Island City; episodes of Brooklyn Nine Nine. Though it perhaps goes without saying, this was not my usual state. Which, frankly, stressed me out even more. I went to the doctor, hoping something would be revealed in my heart rate, blood tests, my balance, even? I cried in his office, so concerned there was something wrong with me. He tried not to look at me, but commented on my Velvet Underground t-shirt; Lou Reed was one of his favorite artists. The tests all came back clear, and my heart rate was normal. It’s possible you might have a stress disorder, he said. When was your last vacation?

In the moment I had to think, and eventually after some consideration and some math, the answer revealed itself to me: four and a half years. It was the last time AS had been free from work, when I went to visit her and later GD in California. Now AS and I were planning a vacation together for June 2020. How could my body possibly hold out until then given its current state? I would probably collapse, lose my mind, or both. Every trip home, every visit to friends, I brought my computer and I worked almost the whole time. A workaholic from a young age, it had finally begun to affect my health.

One night shortly after, I went to sleep. Or rather, I tried, as was the norm these days. In the midst of my tossing and turning, I had an idea: what if I went to Hawaii in time for my birthday? I had always wanted to go, I had nothing particular lined up for that week yet, and it was a safe place to travel to alone. How much would it cost? A quick Google search in the dark on my phone as I lay in bed revealed a much more affordable price than I had expected. Could this really be possible? Could I do this? “Yes,” my mother said when I got her on the phone the next day. “But you have to promise not to bring your computer.” And I started crying immediately, so relieved to have some sort of reprieve on the horizon. I don’t think I had ever taken a real vacation like that before, let alone by myself. I booked my tickets and my hotel not too long after. It was done: I was going to Hawaii. Something inside of me lightened, there was light at the end of the tunnel. Just a few more weeks.


The lightness of my own carry-on bag as I boarded the plane was not just literal, but metaphorical. I had left a great weight at home. I smiled as the Hawaiian Airlines flight video played, a woman hula dancing on a beach to indicate the exit rows, a woman and child in front of a shave ice truck to show when to put on safety masks. I quickly learned that “mahalo” meant thank you, I read books, I watched movies, neither of which I ever usually let myself do on planes because I felt I should have been working. But this time, there was nothing to work on except myself.

That night, I took myself out to dinner at Zigu, a restaurant not far from my hotel but miraculously not crawling with tourists. I ate soft spicy tofu and amberjack in a crushed peanut sauce I practically licked from the plate. Next to me, a woman from San Diego by way of Honolulu asked me what brought me to town. My birthday, I told her, and not only did she buy me a sake to celebrate, but the waitress later brought over a dish of ice cream with a candle in it. I had forgotten to blow out a candle on my actual birthday two days prior, so it was especially lovely. Two of the guys behind the sushi bar where I was sitting had lived in New York, they said between sizzling pans and grills. They didn’t miss it.

My first day was unnerving. I woke up at 5:30, jetlagged out of my mind, in time to see a magnificent sunrise, a rainbow of pastels, pinks and purples and tangerine hues blended together like cotton candy. I turned to look at my phone for a few minutes and it was gone. When I woke up to sunrises after that, I kept the phone far away from me. Around 7, I went down to the beach and ate breakfast, not quite sure what to do with myself. I read, I laid down, I watched surfers, but around 9 I felt antsy. What should I do now? I went back upstairs to put away my camera and my brain whizzed, confused, anxious. WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO BE DOING? I talked myself down from a ledge. The answer to this question is that you are supposed to be doing whatever you want. What do you want to do right now? I asked myself. At that moment the answer was ‘take a nap.’ So I did. I had no problem figuring out what to do or making decisions after that.

I took myself to lunch in the Kaimuki neighborhood, to the Koko Head Cafe, where I treated myself to a bowl of miso pork belly I can still taste, both sweet and salty, and a bacon-cheddar-kimchi scone to go. I stopped by Da Shop, an independent bookstore, and got a book by a Hawaiian author, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, recommended to me the day before by my Lyft driver from the airport. I visited the University of Hawaii at Manoa after that, where I was greeted by a real live rainbow while Guns ‘N Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” played on the radio. A true nerd at my core, I bought a sweatshirt at the campus store before heading over to Waiola Shave Ice. There, my lychee and coconut shave ice with mochi both melts on my tongue and suppresses the heat of the day. I watch the sunset and treat myself to a dinner of spam musubi. At the hotel bar, I order a sweet, dessert-y cocktail and start talking with a Naval officer. He’s covered in tattoos--a wolf on his hand, a galaxy sleeve on his arm, and more that I can’t even count. He’s getting a pig and a chicken tattooed on each foot tomorrow, he tells me: when the Navy brings the animals on board, they keep the pigs and chickens in wooden cages so if anything happens to the boat, they’ll float. He asks what brings me to Hawaii and I tell him. Am I here alone? I am. That’s ballsy, he says. Is it? I say. Maybe I mean, it’s boss, he says. Later he tells me he was one of the sailors charged with retrieving bodies from the USS John McCain incident in Singapore. Surely something like that is ballsy, no? And I wonder, is a woman traveling alone as dangerous as carrying corpses to the shore?

The next day, Hawaiian food for breakfast at Highway Inn--sticky poi, juicy lomi salmon, salty pulled kalua pig--followed by record shopping at Hungry Ear Records, where of course I walk away with a Don Ho album, because how could you be in Honolulu and not do that? Perusal of downtown, still gentrifying with new cocktail bars dark during the day alongside a wave of homeless bodies asleep on the streets. At Tin Can Mailman, Hawaiiana from the 20th century; I get a vintage poster for my mother, a page from a 1947 Esquire pinup calendar for myself. Owning my tourist fantasy, I take myself out to the Royal Hawaiian hotel, a pink cake of a hotel dating back to 1920, for a Mai Tai, as that’s where the drink was invented. Soon, I make the acquaintance of a man who treats me to the drink, as well as a slice of fluffy pink coconut birthday cake and pizza, as well as a lovely couple from Oregon celebrating a new phase of their marriage. We follow each other on Instagram, and I fall into bed slightly toasted, but happy.

In the morning, I hike Diamond Head, a crater with high lookout points once used to protect Hawaii from invaders. The lookout point I will climb that day is 761 feet high. I’m by no means alone when I do it, as the hike receives something like 3,000 visitors per day. But I’ve walked an hour from my hotel, and I’m quite tired and hot when I arrive--’twas not the finest decision I’ve ever made. But I fill up my water bottle, a lovely German woman kindly shares some extra sunscreen with me, and I’m off to climb the crater. After a long swirling but gradual climb and something near 100 stairs, I’m at the top. This magnificent view of Waikiki, turquoise water, boats, a lighthouse, palm trees, coastline, houses, greenery for miles. And I did it myself. It’s a sentiment I’ll turn back to many times throughout my trip.

I plow into lunch at Rainbow Drive-In, so hungry after my hike I forget to taste my food. I promise myself I’ll come back and try it again. I head home and put on my bathing suit, but fall into bed instead. I wake up and actually head down to the beach this time. I see people boarding a catamaran for a sunset cruise and I notice myself thinking, “I wish I could do that.” So instead of wishing, I make myself a reservation for the next day. That night, though, after I watch the sunset, I treat myself to dinner at a place called Town, also in Kaimuki. A magnificent salad of butter lettuce and green goddess dressing and oranges and millet, cloud-like gnocchi in brown butter with roasted sunchokes, a slice of chocolate tart drizzled with olive oil, and their famous lemonade accented with parsley (which at first I wince at the thought of, but the taste was clean and refreshing). I would go back in a heartbeat, but this time I would try not to fall asleep at the table...I head home afterward and fall into bed, instead.

Saturday, a visit to the farmer’s market. I buy a dragonfruit, which is bright fuschia on the inside, that I eat with a spoon sitting on a curb while people mill around me. Later, an iced tea, some grilled shrimp on a stick--the man behind the counter gives me an extra order in exchange for a smile; this is how you know boys in Hawaii think you’re cute, I chuckle to myself. I decimate them, leaving a pile of their shells in my wake. While taking pictures of the nearby cactus garden, my sandal breaks and I head back to the hotel. After a costume change, I seek out another pair of sandals and while my visit to Inter Island Surf Shop, open since 1959 (I vow to only patronize local businesses at all times if I can help it, but especially here because Waikiki is littered with American consumerist nonsense and I did *not* come all the way to Honolulu to go to a Cheesecake Factory or a Forever 21, thank you very much). While my search fails, I make the acquaintance of Barry behind the counter, who has lived in Honolulu since 1963 and has been surfing since he was 13 years old. He talks to me about surfing in the area, how to find the best waves, how to keep my stuff safe on the beach, as well as some history of the store and surfing in Hawaii. It’s still one of my favorite parts of the trip.

I chow down at Rainbow Drive-In again, this time actually tasting the fall-off-the-bone sweet and tangy shoyu chicken with creamy mac salad and white rice; yet again, I can’t eat the whole thing, served on a paper plate inside a white cardboard box, but I desperately want to. I visit a store of some 15,000 vintage Hawaiian shirts, but even after an hour or so, I leave empty handed, and thank goodness; it was so overwhelming after a while, I just wanted to leave. I walked back home the way I came, via the Ala Wai canal, where much of the water from the mountains drains. I head to the beach, and then to my catamaran ride. I stand on the boat in my bathing suit and cotton dress shirt, my hair in a bun, and I let the wind whip past me. I watch this tangerine orb descend into the clouds and I realize how important it is that I did this thing for myself; not just the catamaran ride, but this trip, and by myself. One of the sailors asks me how I ended up here and I tell him. My eyes begin to get weepy again. I can’t believe I went without something like this for so long, where the only objective was to do whatever I wanted, to relax, to see the world around me with fresh eyes and to enjoy myself. People drink Mai Tais and play Prince on the radio and sing along. The sunset fades to black and the moon glistens across the water. The lights of Waikiki first twinkle in the distance and slowly return to view.