Category Archives: Life

Grandma’s Gift: A Love of Textiles

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One of the greatest things I’ve experienced since leaving the corporate world has been a reawakening of creative thoughts, time to slow down and really “see” little details around me that I was in too much of a hurry before to notice – time to again pursue creative interests that, once passionate about, I had left in a state of “hibernation”. One of the quickest of these to raise its head has been the field of textile design.

Since childhood, I have been surrounded by colorful textiles. Any child growing up in Hawaii has the same experience – these brightly-colored botanical prints following us from the soft blankets (“kihei pili”) under our infant bellies to the billowing cloth of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ cool, cotton mu’umu’us, to the crisp and handsome “aloha shirts” of our fathers and grandfathers. When these were outgrown, worn out or damaged, the textiles were recycled – pieced together in colorful, patchwork blankets and quilts. A particularly brilliant one graced the pune’e (daybed) in our living room; and I spent hours lounging there, lost in the imagery represented in each swatch of fabric. Like a riotous, fabric jigsaw puzzle, I would look for the same print design in various pieces scattered throughout the blanket. I never tired of it. Who knows, decades later, whatever happened to it; but I would give anything to have that beautiful “kihei” again, wrapping me in my Hawaiian childhood.

Here I am at my 5th birthday party in Honolulu, surrounded by my siblings and cousins, all of us aglow in brilliant, 1960’s Hawaiian-print textiles (Yes, that’s me in the blue, mosaic print and shiny hair!):

My 5th birthday party, Honolulu, Nov 1969

My 5th birthday party, Honolulu, Nov 1969

That fascination in graphic design applied to the surface of cloth was soon followed by a curiosity of the structure and construction of the cloth itself, beneath the printed design. Watching my mother stitch flat scraps of Hawaiian-print fabric into clothing that conformed to the contours of mine and my siblings’ little, sun-tanned bodies was amazing. Studying her working that ancient, black Singer treadle sewing machine – amazed at how, all at once, she controlled the stitch speed with the filigreed foot treadle, raised the presser foot with a knee lever, and used one hand to guide the fabric while raising and lowering the needle with the other – she may as well have been a wizard or a one-man band from outer space, playing for an astonished-but-appreciative crowd of spectators. I noticed the difference between those soft, cotton broadcloths and the rough, course weave of the canvas fabric my father stretched over wooden frames for his paintings and thought, “Hmmmm…”

My grandmother spent hours at a time crocheting the most intricate doilies, tablecloths, shawls and jewelry, dripping with pearls or incorporating 3D bouquets of orchids and pansies in brilliantly-colored cotton thread of the finest denier. My sisters and I loved digging through bins of her work at her tiny apartment in Honolulu; and still, the acrid scent of naphthalene in the moth balls she used to preserve them takes me back to her, and my childhood. Our house was ornamented with her brilliant throw pillows quilted in the Hawaiian style – one brightly-colored botanical design appliqueed against another, brightly-colored ground. My brothers and I slept (and drooled) on them, engaged in mad pillow fights with them, and built giant piles of them on which to land, safely, from daredevil leaps on high. And when she, probably in an attempt to keep me and my sister busy and out of her hair, cut a square piece from a cardboard box, slit it in regular intervals on all sides and taught us how to weave a pot holder on it using strips of colored scrap fabric left over from her own sewing projects, I was smitten.

That love of textiles never left me; and I followed it, willingly, through a career in fashion design, then a passion for computer-aided textile and surface design, to a late-found love for interior design. And no matter what artistic twists and turns I took, from pottery to lighting and home furnishings, the influence of textiles – particularly the structure of the basic, basket-weave pattern – always revealed itself in my work:

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Ceramic bowl, 2001

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Ceramic and copper wire bowl, 2002

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Paper lanterns, 1999

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Wood and bungee cord chair, 2013

Living in New York City has continued to nurture that passion. I took up knitting in the East Village back in 2005 as a way to occupy myself on my daily subway ride, and to “connect” spiritually with my grandmother. About a year ago, I began practicing the free-form Japanese art of weaving, Saori, in a small, basement studio on the Upper East Side. The possibilities and offerings in this city are endless – at the tip of one’s fingers, one can seek and find classes in upholstery, shibori dyeing, portrait embroidery, lacemaking, yarn spinning, silkscreening, reverse appliquee or felting.

A few weekends ago, I stepped into a fairytale land of creativity and experimentation. Through some of my recent textile print-design work, I was notified of an opportunity to spend a weekend at the Textile Arts Center, experimenting with textiles under the guidance of Pascale Gueracague, textile designer for the fashion house of Helmut Lang. Knowing this fashion collection well for its pushing the boundaries of textile surface design and construction, I jumped at the opportunity to work with its creator and hopped on the R train to Brooklyn for the weekend.

Expecting a haughty, strict and probably judgmental European teacher, ruler in hand, ready to pounce on her hopeless and untalented American wanna-bes, I was thrilled to find instead a beautiful, young, half-French-half-American woman with a huge smile and kindness oozing from her pores. As she sat with her Mac laptop, struggling to make it “talk” to the video projector and ready to pull her hair out, I thought, “Ahhh…she’s one of us!” Little did I know that once she got the technology in sync and began her presentation of visual ideas and trends, me and the other handful of students in attendance would be completely and overwhelmingly inspired, our creative juices running amok, chomping at the bit, ready to start our weekend of artistic abandon.

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But, oh, no…forget about those baubles and beads, those brilliant prints and fabulous embellishments we all brought in our backpacks to work with! Au contraire! This will be a series of EXERCISES, of “quick studies” that will challenge us to analyze a fabric’s properties and take that fabric to a completely different level, Pascale tells us. As she leads us to the table of fabrics we are to work with, we are all, at some level, disappointed, challenged, confused…no, HORRIFIED at the selections cast before us. No Gaugin-esque, painterly prints in sight. No luscious limes, funky fuchsias, sparkly metallics here. No rock star, no Disney princess, not even a Downtown drag queen would be caught dead in these fabrics. (Well, there IS this one blindingly fluorescent orange fabric – a strange, stiff, transparent knit that could only be described as “radioactive construction-worker ballet-tutu”. We all stayed WAY away from that one!) “Breathe, release, accept the challenge,” I tell myself. “Hmmm, should I pick the flesh-colored toile, the spiderweb-colored organza, or the gray-black, casket-liner satin?!”

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Luckily, as it turns out, none of us have to pick at all. Pascale has chosen for us – a very pale gray crepe de Chine. We are all given a piece of the same fabric and a pair of scissors. Our challenge is to create a new fabric using only scissors; and we have 20 minutes to do so. Surprisingly, as soon as the fabric touches my skin, I am energized, excited, ready to take this on. I add yet another challenge on top of Pascale’s – to resist cutting the fabric into more than one piece and reconstruct it – but rather, to keep the entire piece intact. As if summoned by some silent incantation, I notice my creative self rising to the surface, leading me in the project. Folding the fabric in half lengthwise, I make a series of horizontal slits, cut the floating strips in the center of the fabric in half, and tie each half together in a knot:

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Once our time was up, we all pinned our swatches to a large, felt-covered presentation wall and described our thoughts, our processes, and received feedback and guidance. It was AWESOME!!! I think we were all completely hooked on Pascale’s process. The weekend consisted of one challenge after another, sometimes with fabrics Pascale chose for us, other times with fabrics we chose ourselves. Oftentimes, Pascale gave us a particular method/process with which to create; and at others, we could go “wild” and create our own challenges, using whatever method/process we felt compelled to use: sewing, pressing, cutting, tying, gluing, tearing, puncturing, stretching, sanding…the gerunds here could go on and on.

Challenge: Play with texture and “motion”. Rough-cut circles, sanded to fray the edges, plus a zigzag stitch on the sewing machine, creates both stationary and “moving” layers of texture. This would be fun to dance in:

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Challenge: Experiment with layers. I wanted to play with layers both at the main visual plane, above the main visual plane…and even beneath the main visual plane. I sandwiched 2 pieces of somewhat-transparent fabric together and stitched parallel rows across the entire surface to create texture at the initial visual level of the fabric. To add more texture ABOVE the initial visual level of the fabric, I cut small pieces of the fabric and stacked/assembled them into 3D fabric “roses”, attached with embroidery floss:

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And when, as a soft and feminine dress, its wearer passes the light of a window or doorway, the fabric reveals yet another, surprise level of texture – small pieces of the fabric “floating” between the two sandwiched layers, caught in the parallel rows of stitching:

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Challenge: Use the same fabric as before, but go in a different direction, using textures and layers, to transform it from soft, feminine and delicate to something harder and more “threatening”. Free-form, black zigzag stitching on two, sandwiched layers of flesh-colored fabric, then scissor-snipping and sanding to rough up the edges, creates a slightly ominous, “botched-surgery”/“Frankenstein” effect:

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Challenge: Tackle the freaky, DayGlo orange knit. Pascale encourages us to “sit” with a piece of fabric for a while – touching it, observing it closely, manipulating it with our hands to identify its innate qualities and characteristics. It was stiff-but-stretchy, bold in color but delicate in transparency…a very intriguing textile. I noticed when I pulled it in the bias direction that it began to curl inward or, by contrast, expand outward. It reminded me of an unusual sea creature – a coral or anemone, a sea fan or manta ray. At the sewing machine, I pulled it on the bias while stitching darts across it surface. To my astonishment and delight, it began to take a new and unexpected shape – a prehistoric, “living” creature, ready to attach itself, at just the perfect, stylish angle, to the head of some eccentric, Downtown fashion maven:

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Pascale models an amazing, iridescent, sequin-encrusted jacket she designed. Once we have gotten over the shock at its beauty and detail and ended our photo-taking frenzy, she explains that she used iridescent gift wrap from Party City, had it sent to India to be made into sequins, and had the sequins sewn all over the base garment:

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Challenge: Explore non-traditional materials and incorporate them into a sculptural textile. An avid “dumpster-diver” who has rescued many a “treasure” from a municipal-landfill grave (see wood chair pictured, above), I immediately head for the trash bin. Lo and behold, someone’s plastic, take-out salad-bowl lid calls to me. A quick rinse, a few snips of my scissors, some tearing of fabric, and some quick finger-weaving result in large, “sparkly” medallions – “Les Miserables”-style embellishments for the hem of a voluminous skirt in blood-red, duchesse satin:

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Challenge: Experiment with quilting in a different way than usual. Since poly batting is usually only used for loft and softness but never actually seen (since it is sandwiched inside 2 outer layers of fabric), I wanted the handler of the textile to actually SEE the batting. I sandwiched it between 2 layers of transparent fabric, a pale gray organza. After stitching my design for the quilted area, I hand-trimmed all the excess batting away, then continued to stitch the 2 layers of organza together with parallel rows of stitching. For additional texture, I shredded one side of the textile and left the other intact, creating a “jellyfish” effect:

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With light passing through the translucent fabric

Challenge: Use only waste material to create a textile. As many of us in the workshop spent lots of time shredding fabric to create “fringe”, it occurred to me that on many fabrics, the selvages (the lengthwise edges of a woven roll of fabric) are naturally “fringed”. In addition, on the production floor, all these selvages are cut away (not used in the final garment) and discarded. I gathered up lengths of selvages from the various fabrics we had been using in our quick studies throughout the weekend, reveling in their varied colors, widths and textures. I stitched them together, stacked one upon the other, to create a fun, colorful and highly-textured fabric that Pascale thinks would make a great, Chanel-style jacket:

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Challenge: Manipulate a striped fabric by incorporating the striped design into something new and unexpected. Pascale purposely had us work with solids the whole weekend, in order to concentrate on the structure and construction of the textile, rather than the surface graphic design. For our last challenge, though, she now wanted us to use a striped shirting fabric, giving us the opportunity to manipulate the visual graphic, as well as the structural qualities. I imagine the bright red stripes yearning to escape the staid, conservative fabric; so with a few slices to release every other stripe, then restitching the resulting gaps, my stripes leap from the 2D surface into a 3rd dimension, capped off with a knotted end to give them weight, movement and “life”:

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As our last day came to an end, no one wanted to stop. We were, as Pascale put it, “in the zone”. That’s the best place you can be as an artist or designer, with ideas swirling in your head, a cooperative and cohesive energy flowing between you and the other participants, a feeling of “oneness” with the materials you are handling, and an overwhelming sense of well-being. For me, I was also overcome with a mix of love, sadness and gratitude. Having lost my grandmother earlier in the year, this weekend connected me to her talent, her teaching, her love. My parents and siblings and I engaged in so many great discussions during and after our loss of her; and one of the common threads (no pun intended!) was the way in which immortality manifests itself through one’s teachings. We all learned from her and were inspired by her in different ways. For me, it was her textile arts – her gift to me. What greater gift can someone give to you than a lifelong passion? Mahalo nui, Grandma! I felt you next to me all weekend!

Dedicated to Rose Mary Ku’ualoha Mahelona, 1929-2013

Me and Grandma, Dallas, 1999

Me and Grandma, Dallas, 1999

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Immigration and America

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A few days ago, my longtime friend, Rodolfo Ramirez, became an American citizen. I was honored to be able to travel by train to New Haven, CT to witness his naturalization ceremony, along with his partner, John, and his dear friends, Maria, Gitte, Marge and Roberto. I have witnessed this wonderful, loving and talented man transition over the years from a young and magnetic coworker in Mexico City, to a wizened, mature and passionate teacher and resident of Connecticut, to a lifelong friend and confidant – and full-fledged citizen of the United States, to boot!

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The train ride through New England, and the purpose for the journey, awakened the ghosts of the original American patriots who lived, defended and died here. It made me reflective of my own sense of what patriotism feels like, and what role immigration plays in the spirit of national pride.

Upon arrival at the grand, column-flanked steps of New Haven’s US District Court, overlooking the well-manicured and snow-flecked New Haven Green and the stately, brownstone buildings of Yale University beyond,  a sense of formality, tradition and solemnity overwhelmed me. It was intimidating enough for an American-born citizen such as myself; but I can only guess at the magnitude of feeling instilled in those being naturalized today as they scaled these same, daunting steps, heard the clickety-clack of their heels echoing in the hallowed halls, lowered their voices to whispers soft enough that the sound of their racing heartbeats emerged. What must it feel like, the joy and sadness, of renouncing allegiance to your Motherland, but to finally be able to partake of the American Dream?

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As I passed through the metal detectors – a sad sign of the times – and surrendered my “deadly” Blackberry, i-Touch and NYC subway pass to the attending authorities, I marveled at the sheer diversity of ethnicities ahead of me in line, all going through the motions of surrendering their own, “dangerous contraband”.  (Can you tell I’m just slightly peeved by all this threat-of-terrorism brouhaha?!)  Mexicans, Colombians, Russians, Romanians, Indians, Filipinos, Portuguese, Chinese, Jamaicans, Ghanaians – it was so beautiful: the gorgeous, colorful, varied, happy, nervous faces.

As Rodolfo’s equally-nervous-and-excited cheering section, we settled into our row of seats in the soaring, wood-paneled-and-gilded courtroom; and it struck me that our row alone – each of us flanking our dear friend on his special day – were as diverse and varied ethnically as the crowd filing in.  Each one of us has proud, immigrant roots:  Rodolfo and Maria emigrated from Mexico, Roberto from Argentina, Gitte from Denmark.  John’s family emigrated from Portugal; and Marge’s family escaped the great Potato Famine in Ireland.  Some of my ancestors immigrated to Hawaii from Portugal and China, others from New Jersey via England and Ireland.  Even my “kanaka maoli” ancestors, the native Hawaiians, left their original homelands of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands to establish a life in paradise.

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One of the things I love most about living in New York City is its thrilling cultural diversity.  I love being able to stand on a street corner and hear dozens of languages spoken all around me.  (Ralph and I love to eavesdrop, trying to identify all the musical, foreign tongues!)  I cherish the ability to have breakfast at a Ukranian deli, lunch at a Tibetan cafe, dinner at a chic, Peruvian hot spot – and then repeat the next day, with 3 completely different cuisines!  I feel fortunate to be able to cheer and clap along with the myriads lining the streets during Manhattan’s parades, celebrating the people and cultures of Puerto Rico, China, Ireland, India, etc.

On May 1, 2006, a year and half after moving to this amazing city, I left the office on my lunch break to attend the “Day without Immigrants” rally in Union Square.  This was a day in which immigrants nationwide didn’t show up for work (attending the rally, instead), to show how much their adopted cities depended on them to function smoothly.  It was a brilliant response to the anti-immigrant sentiment spreading through our nation at the time – a sentiment that concerned and troubled me.  I figured this sentiment had, at its base, a simple and understandable fear of the unknown.  I reflected on my own feelings; and though I had always had an open mind about it, I did find little “specks” of fear and discomfort in myself.

Day Without Immigrants - May 01, 2006, Union Square, New York - Photo by Daniel Alexander

Day Without Immigrants – May 01, 2006, Union Square, New York – Photo by Daniel Alexander

Attending that NYC rally was just what I needed.  Rather than mobs of conniving, opportunistic devils caricatured in political lampoons, here were masses (over 100,000 people) expressing their love for the United States and the American dream, appreciative of opportunity, with a willingness to work their fingers to the bone for little pay, few or no benefits and very little respect – just to be able to make a better life for their children.  I imagine my deeply-revered immigrant ancestors, as well as those of my fellow row-mates in this courtroom (and, quite frankly, all those here today to pledge their allegiance to our country), possessed the same dreams, hopes, determination, self-sacrifice and love for the U.S.

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I stood in awe of, and in solidarity with, this triumphant, unstoppable force of humanity.  My fears diminishing, an awakening began in me.  It became clear that this spirit, this influx of determination and drive, this willingness to “make do”, to improvise, to invent, to bring to the table a completely new range of achievements and experiences in overcoming adversity, is what made this country great – and will make it great, again.

My friend, Rodolfo, doesn’t take for granted the benefits, opportunities and privileges now afforded him.  He cannot wait to vote, to serve on a jury, to dive – face first – into the American Pie (one of which, hilariously, Gitte brought to the courthouse as a gift for him!).  He symbolizes the American spirit for me and encourages me to reawaken that spirit in myself.  Thank you, Rodolfo!  I am honored to be your FELLOW American!

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The Torso Story

 

This past weekend, I reluctantly found myself completely immersed in thoughts of, and surrounded by reminders of, the dirty “C” word…no, not that one…the really horrible, awful, heart-wrenching one…”CANCER”.  On Saturday, still recuperating from one of her many surgeries, my sister-in-law, Stacie, posted that it was the 2nd anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis.  Though it isn’t something to necessarily “celebrate”, it was an important milestone, one to be acknowledged and honored.  I responded to her Facebook post that I remembered walking into her hospital room after her first, big surgery in Dallas, and how I was so comforted by her huge smile that day, even though I knew she was in pain.  I commented how that smile seems to have never left her face…and it hasn’t.  She’s a strong, beautiful woman!

On Sunday, Ralph and I went to see the final Broadway performance of “Wit”, starring Cynthia Nixon as a college professor facing metastacized stage 4 ovarian cancer.  Powerful, funny, yet heartbreaking, the play left us, the audience, in utter silence as we exited the theater.  And on Friday, I had begun reading a book my sister Kelli gave me for my birthday, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  It is a fascinating and sad account of the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Baltimore whose cervical cancer cells were taken at her death in 1951 and became the foundation of the multi-billion dollar cell culture industry, resulting in medical breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to gene therapy to corneal transplants, among many other things…while her family continues to live in extreme poverty.

All of this brought my thoughts to my sister Malia, now in her 8th year of surviving breast cancer.  I spent the weekend reflecting on her journey – the multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, the lifesaving-yet-finance-taxing medications, the annual trips to NYC to walk the Race for the Cure in Central Park.  I remember flying home to Dallas to have an opportunity to sit with her through one of her chemotherapy sessions.  As I watched her sit peacefully and calmly in a chair for hours while powerful poisons dripped into her veins, my respect, admiration and love for her grew tenfold.  I always knew how strong and beautiful she was; but on this day, she was supernaturally so.

I decided this weekend that I would post an old email I sent out a few years ago, recounting an art project I instigated in tribute to Malia, who was about to undergo her first mastectomy – one of many major surgeries she would face.  It was an attempt to create something beautiful out of tough, life-changing, body-transforming decisions my sister had to make…and with the love and help of family and friends, I think we succeeded.  Below is the post, with photos of the project.  To my sister Malia, my sister-in-law Stacie, and all the other strong, beautiful women in my life who are surviving this disease (Pam S, Jean H, Mary Ann D, Harrilyn A and others), keep fighting, keep living, Ladies!  I bought a t-shirt for Malia when I moved to NYC that says it all:  “Cancer, you picked the WRONG bitch!!!”

The Torso Project, 2004:

I was in Detroit for a technology conference at Eastern Michigan University, the week before my sister Malia was scheduled for her first mastectomy. While I was at EMU, I happened to pass by one of the fashion-design classrooms; and I noticed that the students had made dress forms of their own bodies for draping their own garments. They had taken duct tape and wrapped each others’ torsos in it (over thin t-shirts), then cut off the forms and painted them white to stiffen them.

I was amazed; and I had the idea of doing the same thing for my sister Malia, to capture her torso before she had her life-altering surgery.  When I returned to Dallas, she came over to my Oak Cliff apartment; and I wrapped her in duct tape over one of my favorite, old t-shirts, then cut the form off her down the center back and spray-painted it with several coats of white to stiffen it. For days, it sat on my countertop, eery and profound, a glowing, porcelain-like cast of Malia’s body as it would never be again.  Seeing it every morning, every evening, I was reminded of the impermanence of all things – our youth, our bodies, our lives.

Not long after her surgery, I joined family and friends for a dinner party at Malia and Matt’s house in Waxahachie.  I brought my shoeboxes filled with tubes of acrylic paints and brushes in all shapes and sizes.  Throughout the day, everyone at the gathering participated, if even a little bit, in painting the form.  We painted, then painted over and over each other’s work, building layer upon layer of color and texture, merging each other’s designs into a beautiful work of art.  At some point, it just sort of “emerged”; we all figured the work had declared itself “complete”.  We stood back and admired it, walked around it, pondered it…a wild, swirling mix of angry and happy colors, of chaotic and soothing patterns…and definitely, an expression of love from everyone who participated in the project, to Malia.

When the paint dried, I took the form back to my apartment and spent days hand-sewing glass and metal beads over it, in scattered areas across the broad shoulders, the curves of breast and hip.  My fingers raw and sore from pushing the needle hundreds of times through the thick, hardened layers of paint and cloth and my eyes raw and sore from crying over what lay ahead for her, I finally finished.  Handling her former “body” in my hands for days, I was finally able to come to terms with her illness…and finally had clarity that she would be okay…she would survive.  In gratitude, I closed the open back by punching holes in both sides of it with an old metal awl, criss-crossing it closed with red satin ribbon. I hung it on an antique, wooden coat-hanger and presented it to Malia, in hope, admiration, and love.

 

“Cocktail Lounge, 1962″…or…”I Was a Middle-Aged Drag Queen”

On February 8, 2012, my older brother, Stephen, turned 50.  (Happy Birthday, Bro’!!!)  I’m still having trouble grasping that concept; because it seems only yesterday that I was celebrating my PARENTS’ 50th birthdays in 1995, dancing my butt off with friends and family at the bar atop the Army Air Force Exchange Service’s World Headquarters in Dallas…and not long before that, I swear, that my sister Malia and I baked a chocolate cake in Honolulu one late August night in 1979 for my GRANDMOTHER’S 50th!!  Time has zipped by at warp speed.

In 1962, the “Rainbow Tribe”, as my parents used to call their gaggle of 5 children, began.  (Our mixed-race heritage manifested itself in a brood sporting both dark and light skin tones, straight and kinky hair textures, thin and broad noses…hence, our collective nickname.)  Stephen Robert Lanakila Mahelona, my parents’ firstborn…and an amazing big brother to Malia, Kawika, Kelli and me…arrived in style.  In celebration of his half-century mark this year, he and his wife, Stacie, decide to throw a big bash at their home in Dallas – a 1962 cocktail-lounge party.  A perfect time setting, as that time period, the early- to mid-1960’s, is a time period that my siblings and I adore.  It conjures a dramatically-changing, booming period in Hawaii’s history, when jet travel brought the masses to the islands, hotels and skyscrapers shot up in Waikiki, and tiki-bars and ultra-stylized, “Polynesian” architecture had their shining moments.  Having had a somewhat avant-garde upbringing by my parents, I remember Martin Denny’s “exotica” music and Brazilian Bossa Nova grooves sexily emanating from our old record player, not the Top-40 sounds of the Beatles or Beach Boys.  Stephen can attest to the parties hosted by our parents as the ultimate in COOL – evenings when our livingroom was aglow with candles dripping their wax down empty Chianti and sangria bottles, our lullabies consisting of drunken artist-musicians banging on bongos, tambourines, guitars and ukuleles, howling out Dylan and Baez ballads.  (That is, when we kiddoes weren’t banging on tambourines along with everyone else!)  My Dad can attest to his mischievous little rugrats tiptoeing, the mornings after, over passed-out bodies in our livingroom, sipping all the leftover cocktails.  This is our “nostalgia”.

Stephen and Stacie bring it all back to life, brilliantly, in their mid-century home in East Dallas.  A glowing, tiki/outer-space style bar, dirty martinis shaken non-stop, kitschy hors d’oeuvres on toothpicks, radiating, Sputnik-style, from whole pineapples…all of this amidst their 1960’s collection of furniture and artwork, against the lilting backdrop of the music of the age…send us back 50 years.  Not to mention all the revelers in every shade of 1960’s dress – hippie, beachboy, go-go girl, beatnik, Twiggy wanna-be, Andy Warhol groupie, Vietnam soldier, girl-group singer…they are all here, dancing, laughing, conversing, noshing, sloshing, celebrating an amazing man, my brother.

When the Evite went out for the party with its call for costuming, there was NO question I was going to do this party in drag.  It has been nearly 10 years since I held my last, annual Halloween costume party in Dallas.  These were great parties, with glow-in-the-dark apple martinis, amazingly creative costumes, great conversation and laughter, and the mandatory, after-party trip down to Dallas’ annual gay Halloween street party on Cedar Springs Road.  And the hostess, yours truly, unfailingly hosted the soiree in diva-drag.  It’s been too long…

Drag.  It’s such an interesting, fascinating, misunderstood thing.  For gay men, it can be a rite of passage, part of our counter-culture.  Not everyone partakes; but those gay men who have never once gone to a party in drag have missed a part of our evolution as gay men.  (I also think every straight man should go out, at least once, in drag…it’ll give him insight into how much his female partner has to go through to present herself to the world…the shaving, moisturizing, painting, camouflaging, tucking, squeezing, pushing up, pulling in…all the manipulation of skin, muscle, body fat, hair and nail…the crunching compression of feet and toes and precarious balancing on stilts.  The female body as construction site and daredevil act.  Women are, no question, the stronger sex!)  Contrary to popular belief, drag rarely ever means, “I wish I was born female”.  It is, in fact, dressing up as something else…but to the nth degree; for the hardest thing a man can do convincingly is BE a woman, his exact, physical opposite.  Dressing as a clown, a vampire or the Village People is hardly a stretch for a man; but gliding gracefully on 6-inch stilletos, in a corset that has squeezed his internal organs together with carbon-to-diamond pressure, while maintaining a natural smile that won’t crack the layers and layers of makeup – now that’s a challenge for a man…and Lord knows I like a challenge.  Bring it!

Drag is also an act of rebellion, of daring, of pushing buttons, of usurping power.  If I walk into a room in drag, I can instantly see, feel and recognize the whirlwind of emotions it creates…the fascination, the intrigue, the desire, the envy, the confusion, the discomfort, the fear, the repulsion.  It is interesting to me how it is impossible not to be affected by, or react to, good or bad, the presence of a man in drag.  There is no question that whoever is in command in the room at any given moment will instantly have their thunder stolen by the entree of the dreaded Drag Queen.  For me, though, it was just plain fun to do once a year at Halloween.  It’s silly; it’s a caricature; it’s an alter-ego that lets me do or say things I might ordinarily not.  And anyone who knows me well knows how I LOVE to push people out of their comfort zones!  (Evil Queen!)

So, that decision having been made, Ralph and I spend the days before the party running around Manhattan, rummaging through the cocktail dresses, skinny neckties and open-toed pumps of the Goodwill Store and Housing Works Thrift Store, the wigs and accessories of the Abacadabra costume store, the baubles and beads of all the cheap-import-costume-jewelry shops in the Garment District, and the makeup section of the Duane Reade drugstore, where we find the accoutrements necessary to bring to life his 1960’s college-student/young professional persona, and my 1960’s, Jackie-O-inspired, middle-aged-socialite persona.  My dear friend, Anna (who, by the way, is constantly pushing ME out of MY comfort zone), double-dog-dares me to post photos of my physical transition to this drag persona in my blog.  When she does, it gives me butterflies in my stomach.  For some reason, posting this in my blog IS a stretch for me.  I know right then and there it must be done.  (Stay tuned, if you dare!)

The evening’s celebration was the party of the century…or half-century, at least!  Having flown in from Honolulu as a surprise for Stephen, my younger brother, Kawika, completed the family gathering.  It’s a rare occasion for all 5 of us siblings to be together…and when we are…it’s always a party!  Hanging out with old friends, new friends, extended family, drink in hand, platters of food everywhere, we had a chance to let our hair down and reflect on our younger days.  We danced in the livingroom and hung out in the “retro lounge”…and cameras went wild!

1962 was a pivotal time in American history.  With the upcoming assassination of our President and our deadly plunge into Vietnam, America lost its innocence.  A new generation shifted from the grip of its parents values and mores; and a uniquely American counter-culture was born.  We would never be the same.  But on this night, we reveled in our innocence, grooved and go-go’d…we laughed as we spilled our martinis.  We posed for snapshots, emulated our mothers and fathers in their heyday, and strutted our stuff in their honor.  Party on, Stephen….here’s to your next “fitty”!!

And now…the middle-aged-socialite-diva emerges…

                                                                                          Step 1:  Nair for smoothing the legs, forearms and underarms and a thorough moisturizing of the entire body.  Walk around hotel room in stilleto heels for a couple of hours to practice balance and grace.  Iron black Liz Claiborne cocktail dress found at Goodwill for $9.99.

                                                                                           Step 2:  Time to get this construction project started…

                                                                                                Step 3:  A good facial shave, plucking of any stray/unruly eyebrow hairs, moisturizing of the face and lips and a strong slick-back of the hair…

Turning 40…again…

Well, today is my 47th birthday (ouch!)…and all the birthday wishes from friends and family have made it a GREAT day!!!  When I first started the blog, I made myself a promise that I would post new entries on a somewhat regular basis; and, at the request of several of my friends (and my blogging guru, Anna Brindley), I would put up some of my older “blogs” from years past.  Kinda like watching old reruns on TV.  Today, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone by posting an old rerun with a birthday theme.  Below is the “blog” I wrote when I turned 40, a major turning point in my life, as I was preparing to step into middle age and move away from Dallas to start a new life in New York City.  I have several friends who turned 40 this year or will turn 40 next year.  This is in celebration of them…enjoy!

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November 28, 2004

2004.  What a year to turn 40….

I turned 40 the year my sister was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, breast cancer; the shock and fear seared my insides as if the chemotherapy and radiation had been accidentally turned on me .

I turned 40 the year I decided to move to New York City, extracting myself from a closely-knit family and dear friends, straining to pull up roots that had grown strong and deep through years of nurturing, years of loving.

I turned 40 the year I felt personally and profoundly defeated in the presidential election, the most crucial one ever for gay people like me fighting for true equality in our country.

What a year, 2004……..

But “be careful not to confuse the year with the age,” I reminded myself.  For most of 2004, and through all the sad events above, I was 39, not 40.

So today, I sit here as a 40-year old, gay, Hawchigermiriguese American man (made that up…that’s Hawaiian-Chinese-German-Irish-Portuguese), “feeling my forty-ness”.

At 40, I feel more “at home” in my body than I ever have in my entire life, finally accepting its limitations and imperfections, curiously (not fearfully, nor eagerly) awaiting the next gray hair…”sparkles”, I call ‘em.

At 40, I don’t mind the fact that I’m a little thicker around the waist than I was at 38.  (I’m not jumping for joy about it either; but I’m not grossed out by it, nor ready to join the carb-repulsed masses.)  Besides, at 40, I can stand comfortably in the yoga asana Natarajasana – on one leg, reaching behind to grab the opposite ankle, and bringing it up and behind, level with my head.  At 20, I would’ve injured myself even trying.

At 40, I no longer define myself by my status in my profession or the company that I work for.  Those things that seemed so important in my 30s now completely (and in good conscience) get put to bed when I leave the office.

At 40, I read mostly for pleasure, secondly for information….but no longer to feed someone back “the right answer”.  I no longer follow one genre or read the bestseller list.  I read what good friends and loved ones recommend…it’s always the best bet.  I also feel absolutely no pressure to finish a book that’s just not rockin’ my world.

At 40, the “old school” music of my childhood and adolescence groove me even more than they did back then…in addition to the bad-ass rhythms of soul, disco, funk and new wave, this music washes me in wonderful memories of growing up with my parents, my siblings, my friends…memories of shakin’ my groove thang in some awesome 70’s bell bottoms or some fabulous, bleached-out, jacked-up 80s hairdo…and eyeliner…of course.

At 40, I no longer watch TV and rarely read the newspaper.  I feel released from the claws of corporate advertising moguls trying to coerce me into liking things I really don’t, believing in things I really don’t, wanting things I really don’t.  I feel liberated from the endless news chatter, of the media making mountains out of molehills, of everything being the latest, biggest story…”this just in”.  I feel excused from reality TV, from becoming addicted to the everyday moments in the lives of people I don’t even know.

At 40, I have learned the meaning of TRUE friends.  The ones that were there in my 20s and 30s and are still here at 40 are the ones that will be there forever…the lasting ones.    The ones who accept me as I am, and love me anyway.  My “short list”.  You know who you are…this letter went out to you.

At 40, I’m finally beginning to understand a relationship.  My track record was never that good…and boy, have I had a track record!  But I know now that the common denominator in all those failed relationships was…well…me.  Not that it was all my fault; but it took me 2 decades to realize that I needed to look at “me” closely before I could even begin to visualize “us”.  I’m in a good one now, one that feels loving and wonderful and happy and sad and tough and all kinds of things…and I hope it always feels that way…ripe and raw and unexpected and warm and scary and safe.

In my 30s, as I watched my niece and nephews grow up, I realized how short a childhood is….mine seemed so, so long!  At 40, I realize how short adulthood is.  It’s kinda spooky, a bit humbling.  But it has made me appreciate each year, each month, each day so much more.  “Spend it while you got it”…”Eat the good part first instead of saving it for last”…”You can’t take it with you”…at 40, I finally “get” those things.

At 40, I finally feel like I know exactly who I am…what I like and don’t like, what I believe in and don’t believe.  I know my faults, my talents, my strengths and my weaknesses…and I accept them equally…my different colors.  Just as blue is bluest when there is red or yellow to highlight its blueness, the things I love best about myself are heightened by the presence of the things I like least about myself.  I care less about whether anyone likes me or not…as long as I do.  I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve learned, the loves I’ve lost and gained for anything, even the youth, vigor (and smooth skin) of my 20s and 30s.

When my partner, Ralph, told me last year that he wanted to take me on a 40th birthday trip somewhere and asked me where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, I asked for 2 things:  to wake up next to him and to do yoga someplace amazing, high on a hilltop or cliff or pyramid.  This year, as my 40th birthday approached, he told me the destination for the trip would be a surprise until the moment we arrived there; that both criteria would be met; and that they would take place somewhere beginning with a “B”.

B? Berlin?  Too cold in November.  Boston?  We already went there this summer.  Brazil?  Belize?  Bali?  Too far for a short trip.  I was so tempted to get out a world map and comb the globe for “B” destinations…surely, it’s not Ralph’s hometown of Beaumont,Texas!

We arrived at DFW airport.  As I checked in at the self-service kiosk at the terminal, I learned of our destination: San Jose, California.  “B?” I thought.  “Oh, by the way…we still have a 2-hour drive from there,” Ralph mentioned.  Sneaky-deaky.

From San Jose, we drove South along the California coast for 2 hours, half of it making dark, twisting turns on the edges of cliffs that dropped to the sea…hmmmm…cliffs!

We arrived for the night in Big Sur…at the most beautiful resort nestled in the redwood forest, Ventana.  I won’t make you too envious with all the details of the 4 luxurious days there.  Let it suffice to say that we spent the days and nights surrounded by hummingbirds, soaking in hot Japanese baths, taking amazing hikes through ancient redwood forest and enjoying breathtaking views of the ocean.

At 40, I learned that coastal redwood trees grow in families.  They grow in a perfect circle; and each tree in the circle has the exact same bark pattern as every other tree in the circle.  Trees in a different circle have a totally different bark pattern; but each tree in that circle has the same.  It was so awesome…no longer like looking at just trees…but like looking at a family that has been together longer than this country is old…a family that has stood as one and witnessed countless historical events,  that has withstood the deaths and cutting of members among them…a family whose members all resemble one another, standing in a circle, holding hands.  It was like my own family.  It was beautiful!

At 25, at 30, at 35, the earlier milestone years, I never experienced the depression or anxiety I often hear about.  Those birthdays weren’t that different from my others.  But the day before I turned 40, I hit a wall.  I was silent; I was sad…I was, I guess, depressed?(!)  I didn’t know what was wrong…and everything was wrong.  I was sad about moving to New York.  I was sad about my sister.  I was sad about my parents getting older.  I was sad about what I had for lunch.  I was just plain pathetic.  Poor Ralph.

I took a walk on my own that evening and went to lay down in the middle of the family circle of redwoods on the Ventana property.  The sun was close to setting.  The dense carpet of redwood needles was soft and comforting.  Birds flitted back and forth from tree to tree within the circle.  There was power within that circle.  The Esalen Indians who lived in the area married and had their children within this circle.  I looked up at the sky through the ring of trees, listening to the quiet of the forest; and the tears began running down my cheeks.  I just closed my eyes and let myself cry, not trying to figure out why I was crying…for nothing…for everything.  After about a half hour, I opened my eyes.  I felt healed…completely refreshed and relaxed, yet energized…smiling.

I walked back to our room to apologize to Ralph for being so distant the entire day.  He hugged me and reassured me, saying, “Sometimes you just have to get away from it all, to slow down enough so that you can deal with all the things you haven’t had time to deal with.  You’ve had a lot to deal with lately…you just had to go through the sadness.”  He put the words, clearly and concisely, to what I had been feeling the entire day.  He amazes me.

The next day, my 40th birthday, was wonderful.  I got to wake up next to Ralph; and I got to do yoga with him someplace amazing.  I got to climb up to a cliff and sit, overlooking the ocean.  I got to walk through a grove of eucalyptus trees covered in thousands of monarch butterflies, on their way to Mexico from Canada.  I got to stand under the oldest living coastal redwood tree, 1,540 years old.  As we stood in awe, looking up from the base of this great, living being, Ralph whispered to me, “Fifteen hundred and 40 years?  Now, 40 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?”

Not so bad at all…it feels pretty damned good, actually!

So, how does my “forty-ness” feel?

For me, 40 feels like this:

And 40 feels like this:

Life: “Spend” It Wisely