BARACK OBAMA: JUST ANOTHER TOURIST ATTRACTION

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If you hadn’t been paying attention during those early days of Barack Obama’s extraordinary rise to the U.S. presidency, you could have been excused for thinking: this is one tough, black American, forged in the racial cauldron of Chicago. Indeed, the Windy City is where he did cut his teeth as a social organizer in low-income, black neighbourhoods and the metropolis where he established his political base. So no doubt it came as a surprise to many when they first learned that, except for a few years in Indonesia, Obama was actually born and raised in, of all places, Honolulu, as far from Chicago’s hardscrabble grit as can be imagined.

His Honolulu upbringing is a fascinating tale, well told in Obama’s own absorbing memoir, Dreams From My Father. I got a brief taste of it in February, 2008, when the Globe and Mail sent me on a quickie assignment to flesh out Obama’s “roots” in Hawaii. I didn’t get that much on such short notice, but I did talk to a few of his former classmates, stroll the lush campus of the private Punahou School that Obama attended on scholarship from Grade 5 through high school, and best of all, I exchanged a few words with his grandmother, the strait-laced Kansas native and ex-bank executive, Madelyn Dunham.

During high school, Obama lived with his white Dunham grandparents in their modest apartment not far from Punahou, while his mother went off to Indonesia. Madelyn Dunham had made it plain to reporters from the start that she would not talk about her increasingly prominent grandson. But I thought, what the heck. She was listed in the phone book (Daddy, what’s a phone book?), so I called her up. She answered right away, and explained, very politely, that she didn’t grant interviews. I said I understood. Just before hanging up, I observed: “You must be very proud of your grandson.” She replied, softly: “He’s done very well, hasn’t he?” It was a lovely moment. And I got a quote!

Later, I sought out the apartment building, a classic, mundane high-rise from the mid-60’s at 1617 S. Beretania Street, in the heart of the unadorned enclave of Makiki. I looked at the ordinary elevator and thought: “Just think, that’s the same one “Barry” Obama used every day.” (I’m nothing, if not deep…). I had a nice long chat with the building manager, who told me of reporters trying all sorts of stunts to gain access to Madelyn’s 10th floor apartment (a code or security card was necessary to get above the first floor.) One was caught shinnying up a drain pipe. Another claimed to be “a very good friend” of the family. The manager said Obama dutifully visited his grandmother every Christmas, usually bringing a Christmas tree with him. “A very nice guy. Very easy to talk to.” Sadly, Madelyn Dunham died two days before her grandson was elected president.

Back in Honolulu recently, I decided to revisit Obama’s old ‘hood. I was reminded once more how totally unremarkable it was, including the now-well known apartment building. To think a president of the United States emerged from this environment….

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A few things had changed. There was now a security fence around the front of the building, and signs reading “Private Property” and “No Trespassing”, intended, no doubt, to deter souvenir seekers and lobby “selfies”. There was also an “Apartment for Rent” notice.

I was struck, too, by the many diverse churches and other religious gathering places close by. Across the street is the massive Central Union Church. Next door sits the funky Japanese Shinshu Kyokai Buddhist Temple. Around the corner is a Korean gospel church and within a block or two are churches for the Mormons, Christian Scientists, Baptists and Episcopalians. My personal favourite is tucked away directly behind the Dunhams’ apartment building: The True Jesus Mission Church of the Latter Rain. Who knew? It’s hard not to conclude that such diversity, plus the “rainbow” ethnic mix of Honolulu, itself, must have played a part in Obama’s own tolerance and approach to life.

I then did an “Obama stroll” along the five blocks he would have walked every day to and from Punahou School. Beautiful old trees lining the street. Shriners Hospital and Maryknoll High School on the left. Rundown apartments on the right, but also the Kapiolani Medical Centre for Women and Children, where the future president was born on the day my boyhood hero Harmon Killebrew smashed a 3-run homer against the evil Yankees. I embraced history in my own way, posing briefly as a patient in the hospital’s emergency waiting room so I could use the washroom.

It was raining by the time I reached the campus of Punahou School. A scheduled ball game was on hold, and the outdoor basketball courts, much loved by the future president, were deserted. It’s a beautiful acreage, with immaculate vegetation, tall, stately trees and many nice old stone buildings. It radiates ‘privilege’. The parking lots and narrow roads were full of parents in cars, waiting to drive their kids back to their posh homes. “Barry” Obama must have been one of the few students to actually walk to school.

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Okay, I think this has gone on long enough. However, if you ever have a spare afternoon in Honolulu, I recommend poking around Makiki, particularly 1617 S. Beretania Street. Against all odds, this epitome of ordinary produced a president. It’s a funny old world.

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THE NIGHT WE STOLE OLD JESSE’S BEER

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Jesse Winchester, who passed away Thursday after a brief, renewed bout with cancer, was well loved by many Canadians, including me, not only for his immaculate musicianship and songwriting, but for his unique status amid the turbulent generational clashes of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, he left the States in 1967, drifting across the border to Montreal. “I didn’t see going to a war I didn’t believe was just, or dying for it,” he told an interviewer many years later.

It was there he cut his musical teeth, playing in coffee houses around the city and producing his wonderful, self-titled first album, produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It contains some great songs, including one of my favourites, The Brand New Tennessee Waltz. Yankee Lady was another song many admired, though I never cared much for the title. I’m also a fan of  That’s a Touch I Like  and Snow (welcome to Canada, Jesse!). That’s my well-worn, vinyl edition of the album at the top of this blog.

Winchester was not one of those draft dodgers who pined to be back in his native land. He embraced Canada and Montreal, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1973. I loved the stamp he put on his new country with the title of his second album, Third Down and 110 To Go, a whimsical reference to Canadian football, as opposed to the four downs and 100-yard field that prevail in the United States. If memory serves, since my copy of the album is not readily at hand, it has some folksy shots of his sparse Montreal apartment, plus touching liner notes penned by the city’s dominant rock critic, Juan Rodriguez, who concludes with something like “…and the Habs are at the Forum tonight.” It was all very homespun, in keeping with Winchester’s own pared down, mostly acoustic approach.

He further underscored his devotion to Canada for taking him in, with a delightful song on his third album that plays off an old gospel tune extolling Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s surely the only song ever written in praise of Lester B. Pearson, who, as Prime Minister, defied the might of America by refusing to return draft dodgers and deserters from their safe haven in Canada. It was one of the best decisions a Canadian prime minister ever made, and we have reaped the benefit of all those bright, committed newcomers ever since. The song is great fun. Give it a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtGCmDP2qh0

And now, my Jesse Winchester story. It was the winter of 1973. I was in Edmonton working for the Journal, when I noticed that he would be in town for a gig at some pub or other at the University of Alberta, just a few blocks from our “hippie house “on 80th Avenue. I’d been raving about Winchester to my friends, so I persuaded a bunch of them to go. Sadly, my hero gave a disengaged, disappointing performance. He spent a lot of time playing the flute with his band, perhaps because his voice was a little hoarse. The show was also quite short. He seemed to want to be anywhere but Edmonton on this freezing, February evening. While my friends wondered what I saw in this lacklustre guy, I felt ripped off.

Grousing and grumbling, we headed out a fire exit beside the bandstand. And there, on the landing, was a case of beer, just sitting there in the snow. I felt sure the brewskies were being kept cold for Jesse and the boys in the band. Aha, thought I, payback time. We grabbed the case, and had a fine old time drinking Jesse’s brew for the rest of the night. I’m not sure beer ever tasted better, or more deserved. Revenge was sweet. Sorry, Jesse. Rest In Peace. I do hope that the place where folksingers go when their time on earth has passed has a couple of cold ones for you. You’re a fine tunesmith, a fine musician and an especially fine man.

images-1Meantime, we’ll always have this. Not everyone can transfix both a teary Neko Case and Elvis Costello with just  a ‘simple’ song: ‘https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uKGWpqnS8E

 

 

IN WHICH I SEARCH FOR TRACES OF GEORGE CLOONEY IN PARADISE

I’m a big fan of The Descendants, the Alexander Payne, Hawaii-based movie with George Clooney in the pivotal role. While The Descendants received reasonable critical acclaim and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, I still feel the movie is a bit under-rated. Even at the time, you didn’t hear much buzz about it. Maybe that’s because the film is more heartfelt than whiz-bang. Clooney plays Matt King, an affluent Hawaiian from a pioneer family who is suddenly faced with a domestic crisis that forces him to try and re-connect with two good-hearted  but troubled daughters.

Beyond the affecting characters and storyline, I also admired the fact that Hawaii, rather than serving as merely a scenic backdrop (hello there, Elvis), was itself a major player. The movie gave me a sense of what it’s like living in a seeming paradise, while still having to deal with the travails of life. Who can forget the scene when Matt frantically runs down the road in his flip-flops?

I was also captivated by the traditional Hawaiian music featured in The Descendants. None of that Don Ho “Tiny Bubbles” dreck. This was the real deal, full of lovely, haunting melodies, sung mostly in Hawaiian and featuring the slack key guitar that defines music authenticity on the Islands. After months of searching, I managed to find the soundtrack CD in a downtown Toronto record store, and have yet to tire of it.

So, on a recent, first-time visit to the enchanting island of Kauai, where a good chunk of The Descendants takes place, instead of surfing, snorkeling and sunbathing, I searched out key locations from the movie. (I must do the same for Blowup one of these days. Where was that ghostly, lusciously-green park, anyway?)

The best was having a happy hour pint at the legendary Tahiti Nui pub, the intimate local establishment in Hanalei, where George Clooney and Beau Bridges chat away, sitting on a couple of the dozen or so vinyl-covered, old rickety bar stools.

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The bar remains pretty much untouched by any fame from the movie, with only a small picture of George and Beau on the wall, amid many others from the bar’s 50-year history and its long-ago founder, “Auntie” Louise Marston. There was a slack key guitar guy on the bandstand and Julia Whitford, who’s in the movie, was trying out a new mai tai. “I’m bored,” she explained, “and you gotta keep trying new stuff to keep the customers coming back.”

Earlier, we had walked along majestic Hanalei Beach, looking for the vacation cottage that housed the family of the faithless Brian Speers, with whom Matt King’s wife was having an affair. There’s a funny scene involving George of the Jungle spying on the scoundrel by peeking over a hedge. We soon found the infamous abode, now peppered with signs reminding people like me that it was on private property.

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Location groupie-ism, however, has its limits. We didn’t bother checking out the pricey St. Regis Princeville Resort, where Matt King registers with his kids and asks the desk clerk if Brian Speers is staying there. Nor did we pay the bucks for a tour of the beautiful, privately-owned ranch that stands in for the vast acreage owned by the King family, most of whom want to develop into resorts and shopping centres.

We watched the movie one more time before heading out on our location quest, and it was all good fun. Most locals have stories about the movie shoot. “My mother had lunch with George Clooney,” says the guy showing us around the old Hanalei mission house. (You wanna get away from the tourists? Tour the mission house. P.S. It’s great.)

The whole island, of course, is terrific, with a lot of history still standing, apart from the stunning scenery and lustrous beaches. At the lookout by the Kilauea Point lighthouse , we saw a humpback whale rise out of the ocean and splash down six times, while frigate birds, albatrosses, tropicbirds and, yes, red-footed boobies soared above the surrounding cliffs on one unforgettable morning.

So far, huge waves of tourism have given Kauai a pass. It retains a laid-back character, particularly in the small towns along the shores which have resisted development. And we never had a bad meal. As an added bonus, you can drop in at the most western independent bookstore in the US of A. It has a wonderful selection of book (always helpful for a bookstore…hehe). Business, the owner says,  is good, and we were able to buy even more Hawaiian music, there.

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The Descendants, the movie’s marvellous soundtrack, and Kauai, itself – all highly recommended. Mahalo.

THE PRAYING MANTIS THAT ALMOST ATE OUR CAR

I felt we were trapped in a sequel of The Deadly Mantis, great rival to The Creature From the Black Lagoon and Them in terrifying movie goers with tales of creatures gone wild during the mild and crazy 1950’s.

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This gigantic praying mantis, with head intact, landed on our car on beautiful Kauai, and wouldn’t leave. I mean, look at the size of that sucker. Clearly, it wanted munchies, and there we were. Luckily, a good old member of the NRA arrived and blasted it to mantis heaven with his AK-47. I love this country, man.

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