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‘Sometimes you gotta jump in the van’

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I had never been to a writer’s conference before, which may seem odd since that’s what I do for a living.

But these conferences are notoriously expensive, when you include airfare to and from Hawai‘i and the cost of accommodations, and being a writer, well, you’re usually broke.

So I’ve read about them, I’ve longed over websites, I’ve listened with uncloaked envy to people who have attended these mysterious wonders where speakers talk about story arcs and cliched ledes.

Then I finally decided to suck it up — read: fork over some hard-earned cash — and go to one myself.

And I’m not kidding when I say this: I literally signed up the week of the conference. And I had no place to stay, either.

The conference was for travel writers and photographers, put on for the past 22 years at Book Passage, a reputable independent bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif. that puts on highly regarded conferences and workshops throughout the year, including the one I had attended this weekend.

It’s expensive — a little more than $600 for the four-day conference — and airfare to San Francisco, especially at such short-notice, wasn’t cheap. So I had lofty hopes that I’d get my money’s worth.

And I have to say, the experience was well worth the investment. (I even missed a little south shore bump, too.)

IMG_0510Like every conference in the Western world, it featured a bunch of seminars, from talk-story panel discussions on freelancing to intensive workshops on writing narratives.

I hadn’t been to one of these before — it seemed like most people were conference alums — so I just sat in whichever session sounded remotely interesting. I settled on, “Writing the Big Five,” with Jim Benning and David Farley, both accomplished travel writers and return speakers. The course focused on the five main types of travel writing: magazine stories, newspaper articles, personal essays, blog posts and books.

We started by introducing ourselves with our names, hometowns and favorite animals. More than 60 people filled the event room in the back of the bookstore, hailing from as far as Berlin to as nearby as the Santa Cruz Mountains. (For some reason, there was a strangely high number of people who were from Minnesota and didn’t know each other.) There were two others from Hawai‘i and a guy named Alan Toth. I felt right at home.

The first thing the pair of speakers did was dispel myths about travel writing.

“The first one. You make a lot of money.” That made attendees chuckle.

Though I’ve been freelancing for more than 10 years now, it was nice to have time to actually think about my approach to my craft and career. The discussions in this course challenged me to hone my writing, to be more specific in my descriptions, to not be lazy with my word choices, to re-read and edit more carefully my work, and to strategize on how to sell my stories to editors.

The next seminar — this time a discussion about finding your story on the road — really inspired me.

In this panel discussion, Spud Hilton, the travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle aptly said, “Sometimes you gotta jump in the van.”

Meaning, sometimes you have to do the stuff that you’re going to write about. And sometimes you’re not going to like it. Sometimes it might scare you. Sometimes it might be against your better judgement. But if you’re going to make this a bona fide career — and you want a paycheck — well, you gotta do what you gotta do. And jumping in that proverbial van might be it.

I didn’t realize, until I attended this conference, that there was such a huge world out there to be explored. And that I could, very feasibly, write about it.

It’s too bad it took me $1,800 and three days in another city to figure this out.

But maybe that’s what it was going to take.

I’m just glad I got in the van.

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Brother Noland, the original prepper

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When my friend, Dawn Sakamoto, first told me the publishing company where she works was printing a survival guide penned by Brother Noland, I almost didn’t believe her.

Brother Noland? The slack-key master and award-winning musician? The guy who sang, “Coconut Girl?”

A prepper?

Oh, yeah.

In fact, Brother Noland has long been learning and sharing his knowledge of native survival skills. He even started the Hawaiian Inside Tracking program in 1996, offered through his Ho‘ea Initiative, that gives children and adults a chance to learn these traditional tracking and outdoor skills.

His book, “The Hawaiian Survival Handbook” ($16.95, Watermark Publishing), features more than 40 different survival techniques and outdoor skills, from how to survive a flash flood to how to brush your teeth in the wilderness. These tips are handy for anyone who heads outside — from day hikers to overnight campers to fishermen at sea.

“People always talk about being sustainable,” he said. “But sustainable means you can walk into the forest with just a knife.”

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Yesterday we met Brother Noland at Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Gardens in Kāneʻohe. He and his team of survivalists were going to show us some of the skills showcased in his book. We were going to learn how to throw a fishing net, how to make fire, and how to stun a rabbit with a stick.

I had to actually wear shoes for this!

We stood in a circle, holding hands, while Jenny Yagodich led us in a prayer to thank everything around us, from the insects in the ground to the clouds overhead.

Then the lessons began.

“Look around,” Brother Noland said. “Look at all the beautiful things here in our classroom. This is the original Costco.”

He talked about all of us — no matter our ethnic background — have ancestors who knew these important survival skills. These skills were passed down to generation after generation after generation, he said, “and if we stop passing them down, they’ll be gone.”

And it doesn’t matter how many college degrees we have, either: “Can you find water right now? Can you start a fire without a match or lighter? We teach the other half so you get 20-20 vision.”

The first skill we learned was how to throw a net.

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Palakiko Yagodich, an assistant professor of hospitality and tourism education at Kapi‘olani Community College, taught us the basics, from the different components to the net to the technique of actually throwing it.

And you can’t throw it in the ocean, Brother Noland said, until you know what to do with the fish you catch.

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Yagodich and Noland made is look easy. “It’s like throwing a frisbee, but not,” Yagodich said, laughing.

Our group learned from Alex, an 11-year-old junior tracker from ‘Ewa Beach, who has already mastered much of what’s in this handbook.

He told me to grip the net, pull it up toward you to make a “skirt,” pull a third of it across one shoulder and another third across the opposite knee. Then grab the middle, pull it up toward you, cup your hand around the edge of the net that’s across your knee and throw with your hips.

Or something like that.

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Next, we watched Jenny Yagodich make fire from a baseboard, a spindle and some pine needles. It was mesmerizing watching her create this life force that can be used for everything from providing warmth to cooking food to sterilizing water.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, the whole experience, from throwing net to throwing a guava stick toward a target that’s supposed to simulate a rabbit or chicken, was humbling. But I get it. I get why this is necessary — and why these life skills should be shared with everyone.

“The knowledge is in the doing,” Brother Noland said. “This book is just the dirt under the nail of my little finger. It just scratches the surface.”

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Get “The Hawaiian Survival Handbook” at bookstores starting at the end of the month or online here. Or take a one-day, once-a-month class from Brother Noland to learn these survival skills, like fire-making, wayfinding and net-throwing. Fee is $65 per person and includes a copy of the book. Contact (808) 729-8293 or email hoeainitiative@aol.com to sign up.

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‘O Captain’ taught me to seize the day

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It was 1989.

I was a freshman at Roosevelt High School, full of idealism and hope, all tempered by the usual fears and insecurities of any teenager.

I had just entered a public high school after spending nine years at a small Catholic school with a graduating class of less than 25 students. (And I was valedictorian. Go figure.)

I had big plans — to write the Great American Novel, to get a Ph.D., to save the world. I carried around an anthology of great poetry, from Walt Whitman to Stephen Crane to e.e. cummings, inspired by the way they viewed the world.

And then came “Dead Poets Society.”

This film, directed by Peter Weir, starred a Robin Williams I had never seen before. Prior to that, Williams was that lovable martian who came to Earth from the planet Ork in an egg-shaped spaceship. I couldn’t imagine him as an English teacher who inspires the students of a conservative and aristocratic prep school in Vermont.

And yet, there was he, this comic genius in a role that literally changed my life.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie.

The poem, “To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time,” inspired me — and many — to live for the day. (In fact, the poem’s first line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” was my senior dedication in our school’s yearbook.) “Carpe Diem” has become such a cliche because of that movie, but the sentiment will never get old. It should never get old. It’s one of the most important lessons you can learn in life, period.

So imagine my utter shock when this man who made me laugh hysterically, who was as kind as he was funny, who taught me this one important life lesson, died yesterday in his Northern California home in an apparent suicide. He was just 63.

And the most shocking? He suffered from severe depression.

How is that possible?

This man, who made the universe laugh. How could he be depressed?

Depression is a strange thing. It can strangle even the strongest person. And people who cope with depression often find ways to mask it, to hide those dark feelings from the world.

It seems Williams was a master at that.

I wish he could see how much he was loved and cherished. I wonder if that would have changed his mind at the moment he decided to take his life.

It was really too soon.

I remember walking out of the theater moved and shaken. I suddenly felt vulnerable yet alive, the world spread out before me. I could do anything and be anything — and it was terrifying.

It was a movie I thought about often throughout my life. What was my purpose? Where was I going? What would happen to me? And, most importantly, what was worth standing up for — on the top of my desk in a grand gesture of defiance and loyalty with the words, “O captain, my captain”? What was I willing to risk?

I will never forget when Williams’ character, John Keating, explains the meaning of Walt Whitman’s “Oh Me! O Life!”

“O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Williams knew what his verse was. And he lived it well.

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My dad and the hurricane

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As the Islands prepare for the first hurricane to hit the state in 22 years, my dad goes fishing.

This may seem odd for someone who’s not only Portuguese — it’s an ethnic trait to panic — but a closet prepper. I mean, my parents could probably open a small convenience store in their living room with the amount of toilet paper, canned goods and bottled water they have stocked up at home.

But in every storm, every tsunami warning, every hurricane that’s threatened to hit Hawai‘i, my dad has been pretty calm and collected, as far as I could tell. If he freaked out, I never saw it.

In fact, I remember when Hurricane ‘Iwa hit back in November 1982. It devastated Kaua‘i, Ni‘ihau and parts of O‘ahu with wind gusts exceeding 100 miles per hour and waves reaching 30 feet in height. More than 500 people were homeless as the hurricane destroyed some 2,400 buildings and nearly 2,000 homes across the state. One person died, and another three deaths were indirectly related to the hurricane’s aftermath.

Do you know what I remember?

I was 7 years old, huddled with my siblings in blankets and playing cards by candlelit in our parents’ living room. It was actually fun.

My dad turns 70 today, on the day Hurricane Iselle is poised to hit the Islands with winds exceeding 80 miles per hour and another, stronger hurricane, Julio, right on its tail. It’s the first time since ‘Iniki in 1992 that a hurricane warning has caused such a panic. There are lines at gas stations, runs on bottled water and toilet paper, and people hunkering down at home waiting for the impending storm.

This morning the government announced that all state offices and schools were going to be closed tomorrow and a price freeze on commodities would go into effect through Aug. 15.

This is serious.

And my dad and mom are going out to find okazuya somewhere and eat in a park, probably.

Oh, they’re prepared, I’m sure of it. But my dad will stay cool, like always, and tell me not to worry.

I mean, after 70 years, I think he’s got this whole life thing figured out.

Happy Birthday, Pops!

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#NewEats: The Nook Neighborhood Bistro

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I had meant to write a review of a new brunch spot in Puck’s Alley weeks ago — but I kept going back to eat there.

I guess that’s a good sign.

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The Nook Neighborhood Bistro opened earlier this summer in the former space of Southern eatery Kiss My Grits in Puck’s Alley near the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa campus. I had heard about it through, of all things, Instagram. A friend who follows me saw my recent posts about two other brunch spots, Koko Head Cafe in Kaimukī and Tucker & Bevvy in Kapahulu. He told me about The Nook and I promised to go.

I went — then I went two more times.

The menu here features breakfast and brunch items all day, using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients like local eggs, produce, milk and meats. The 700-square-foot restaurant is run by childhood friends Hailey Berkey and Anicea Campanale — both 27 and from California. They both come from families who run their own businesses, so entrepreneurship was in their blood.

In order to raise money to open the restaurant, they used the crowd-funding platform Foodstart, which helps restaurants and food trucks to raise capital online in small amounts. The pair was able to raise more than $12,000.

So why brunch?

“Over the last few years, we have seen the burgeoning brunch scene on O‘ahu,” says Berkey, a self-trained cook, “and we saw the opportunity to bring some new flavors and combinations to standard breakfast here.”

Like the popular kale Benedict ($10) with poached eggs and sautéed kale atop an English muffin and hollandaise sauce. Or the haupia oatmeal ($6) with coconut milk rolled oats, apple bananas and coco nibs. Or — my favorite — the Asian pear grilled cheese ($9) with sharp cheddar cheese, Asian pear and caramelized onions on ciabatta.

“The Nook menu is all your favorite breakfast, brunch and lunch with a modern twist,” Berkey says. “The atmosphere in the restaurant is modern yet cozy, and the menu reflects the feeling you get when you walk inside the front door.”

If you can find it. It’s hidden inside Puck’s Alley with no street frontage. You won’t know it’s there unless you literally drive in and look for it.

“At first when we saw that this space was available, we were concerned that it was tucked away from street view,” she says. “However, it wasn’t long before we embraced the quaintness and hidden qualities and imagined the perfect name for it — the Nook.”

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Here’s the the BLT ($13.50), with a fried pork belly under micro greens, local tomatoes and spicy avocado on an open-faced baguette. These two know how to prepare pork, let me tell you.

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This it the malasada sandwich ($6.50), with a house-made sausage and fried egg on a split malasada. It’s small but tasty.

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While the menu features a variety of brunch options, it’s also got a few salads. This one is my favorite: the kobocha spinach salad ($9) with roasted pumpkin, baby spinach, lehua honey-glazed pecans and sweet ‘Ewa onions with a miso vinaigrette.

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And here’s one of the most popular dishes at Nook: the mochiko chicken and mochi waffles ($12.50), mochi buttermilk waffles paired with mochiko chicken and a bacon maple syrup. I haven’t been there without seeing just about every table order this dish. It’s THAT popular.

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In addition to full plates of food, the Nook also serves freshly made scones and a nice selection of teas.

Stay tuned: the restaurant is planning to expand its lunch offerings, add more daily specials and — wait for it — get a liquor license.

It will only get better!

The Nook Neighborhood Bistro, Puck’s Alley, 1035 University Ave. Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily except Mondays. Phone: 808-942-2222.

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