Sharing Mana‘o

Jack Benny, one of America’s most beloved radio and television personalities of the 20th century, was best known for his impeccable comic timing, his miserly and pompous stage persona, and his stubborn refusal to move past the age of 39. The long-running gag started in 1934, when he told his nationwide radio listeners that he had so enjoyed the on-air celebration of his 39th birthday the year before, he was going to do it again, because “there’s nothing funny about 40.” By the time the legendary comedian succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1974, he had marked the occasion 41 times, and newspaper headlines across the nation proclaimed, “Jack Benny dies – at age 39.”

Holding at 39 may have been Benny’s response to the sentiment popularized by a 1932 self-help book titled “Life Begins at Forty.” Of his book’s title, psychologist Walter Pitkin wrote, “Today it is half a truth. Tomorrow it will be an axiom.”

Indeed, it has become a household phrase, and the title of at least three published songs, including one written by John Lennon in 1980, the year he and Ringo Starr each hit the milestone birthday: If life begins at 40, well, I hope it ain’t the same.

It’s been tough enough without that stuff; I don’t wanna be born again.

I guess John Lennon didn’t see any more humor in 40 than Jack Benny did. But the great Sophie Tucker, in 1937, echoed the principles of Pitkin’s book, when she recorded lyrics written by Jack Yelling and Ted Shapiro: Life begins at forty; that’s when love and living start to become a gentle art . . . In the twenties and the thirties, you’re just an amateur; But after you reach forty, that’s when you become a connoisseur.

In my amateur years, Jack Benny’s perpetual 39 gag didn’t make any sense to me; if the guy wanted to retain his youth, why did he wait until he was old? Thirty-nine, 69, 99, they were all the same to me: ancient. I was a young teen when Benny passed away, and I remember wondering why he hadn’t held at 29 instead. After all, the mantra then was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

A few years later, at the age of 19, I gave birth to my only child. For the next 20 years, it was his milestones, rather than mine, which consumed my thoughts and generated my anxieties. I don’t even remember how I celebrated my 40th, let alone my 39th birthday, except that neither was as traumatic as I had been led to believe they’d be.

Now that I think about it, maybe that has less to do with a healthy self-image than with age-related memory loss. Because Thursday is my son’s Jack Benny birthday, and I can’t quite come to terms with it. Jimmy can’t possibly be 39; why, I’m barely that myself!

Ten years ago, when I called him on his 29th birthday, he lamented “getting old.” He had taken his first snowboarding lesson and did quite well, having skateboarded through much of his youth. But his ego took a spill when the instructor, barely out of his teens, told Jimmy he was “pretty good, for a guy your age.”

I consoled him with the thought that everything’s relative. Then I told him, for probably the 39th time, my favorite personal mother/son story. Jimmy was 4 years old when his stepfather, Kelly, and I took him with us to a company party. We had recently moved to Honolulu to work at KITV, and some of our co-workers thought that Kelly was Jimmy’s biological father. One of them remarked to Jimmy, “I guess you’re going to grow up to be big and strong like your daddy over there,” pointing to Kelly, who, at 6 feet 2 inches, towered over me by more than a foot.

“Nuh-UH!” Jimmy protested, “I’m gonna be big and strong like my mommy!”

Fortunately, he has far exceeded that goal. And Thursday, when I call to wish him a happy 39th birthday, I will probably repeat that story. I will also share with him another Jack Benny gem: Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kathycollins@hawaii.rr.com.

Sharing Mana‘o

“Did you hear the good news?”

The question surprised me, as the fellow asking had rarely spoken to me in the past. It was Sunday afternoon, and I had just boarded the NCL Pride of America cruise ship for my weekly emcee gig. The ship’s security officer, who usually greeted me with a nod and a mumbled “Aloha,” was downright joyful as he continued, “Cleveland won!”

I must admit. It took a moment before I realized he was talking about Game 7 of the NBA finals. My first thought was sympathy for my friends who’ve been fiercely rooting for Golden State. As a matter of fact, I think a couple of them are still in mourning.

But on the ship, it seemed like everyone was celebrating the Cleveland victory. Maybe the Warriors fans had retreated to their cabins or, perhaps, had jumped ship.

Once I got home, I settled down with a cup of hot tea and the current issue of The Week, in which I found another bit of basketball news, one which I’m sure would warm the hearts of Cavs and Dubs equally.

The item was on the “It Wasn’t All Bad” page, a regular feature that focuses on inspirational or just plain happy news. The brief paragraph gave me chicken skin and prompted an online search for more details. I found video clips from the ABC-TV affiliate in Baltimore and “CBS This Morning,” as well as lengthy articles from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.

Eighteen-year-old Mike Tertsea graduated last month from John Carroll School, a Catholic high school in Bel Air, Md., which features an international student program. Approximately 10 percent of its student body comes from overseas. Four years ago, Tertsea’s mother, Felicia Ikpum, learned about the school and jumped at the opportunity to give her only child a chance at a better life than they had in their tiny village in Nigeria. Knowing he might never return home, she said the choice to send him to John Carroll was the most difficult decision of her life, but also the most rewarding.

Now 6 feet 10 inches tall, Tertsea has a full scholarship to play Division I basketball at the University of Rhode Island. Naturally, he dreams of making it to the NBA and bringing his mother to join him in America.

In February, the school newspaper ran an article about Tertsea, who, in his four years at John Carroll, had grown into a popular and respected student leader both on and off the court. When they learned that he and his mother hadn’t seen each other since he left Nigeria, his classmates decided to surprise Tertsea with a mother-son reunion at their graduation ceremony. Together they raised $1,600 to pay for Felicia’s trip and accommodations. Faculty members chipped in another $500 and helped arrange a visa.

It was Felicia’s first time on an airplane, and she had to travel nearly 12 hours through dangerous territory to catch her flight from Lagos. When mother and son met at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, she didn’t even recognize him. She told ABC her son was “big, bigger, too big.”

She went on to say, “I think America is great, with wonderful people. No wonder everybody wants to come here.”

Senior Kishan Patel, who wrote the student newspaper article, told The Baltimore Sun, “I think it defines our class, really. It’s a testament to our unity.”

I think it shows that the Class of 2016 learned a lot more than basketball skills at John Carroll. And that’s what I call good news.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kathycollins@hawaii.rr.com.

Sharing Mana‘o

It has been 16 years since my father’s death, and I still think of him every day. Most times, the thoughts bring a smile or a comforting glow that washes over me like a warm shower; occasionally, the shower turns into a torrent of renewed grief, and I lament his absence and curse the cancer that brought it about. Fortunately, that only happens every few months. The other 363 or so days each year, I feel my father’s presence through the lessons he taught and the gifts he gave.

Daddy believed that the two greatest gifts he could bestow upon his only child were the ability to read and the capacity to appreciate music. “Reading and music – these are gifts you’ll keep for the rest of your life; they can never be taken from you,” he would say. Throughout my childhood, he encouraged the pursuit of both, and no matter how busy or tired he might have been, he always had time to share either story or song with me. Nearly every night, he and Mom would play ukulele and sing old favorites like “Kaimana Hila” or “Isle of Capri” while I drifted off to sleep. Sometimes he’d listen to me read aloud from my schoolbooks, sometimes I’d serenade him on the oboe.

OK, maybe “serenade” is not quite accurate. He once told me, “The first time you brought home the oboe, it sounded like a sick duck. But I’m glad you stuck with it. Now it sounds like a healthy duck.” Spoken without a trace of sarcasm, but rather with a good measure of pride and affection.

I haven’t played the oboe in years, but whenever I listen to classical music, I think about my dad, who had no formal music education, yet was one of the most passionate music lovers I’ve ever known. And I tell myself, one of these days, I will again place the double reeds between my lips and summon the voice of a fat, healthy, happy duck.

In the meantime, Daddy’s gift of music appreciation keeps on giving, daily. Whenever I sing along to the radio, or am moved to tears or cheers at a concert, or dance until I’m drenched in sweat, he’s right there with me.

It’s the same with his first gift, the joy of reading. He taught me to read when I was 2, instinctively employing a blend of phonics and word recognition. Before I started attending school, I spent many hours at his dental office, and we’d read magazines and comic books to each other, in between appointments.

When I was 17 and landed my first radio job at KMVI, doing the afternoon news, my father handed me The Maui News and asked me to read a front-page item to him. I don’t recall the subject of the story, but I do remember that it was about a political issue, written by veteran reporter Bob Johnson. When I finished the article, Daddy said, “You can’t tell which side he’s on, can you? He’s given you all the facts, without inserting his opinion or his feelings. That’s a great reporter.” Throughout my broadcast news career, I did my best to live up to that standard.

Now, besides The Maui News, I subscribe to The Week, a compilation of news and features from domestic and international sources. The Week presents as much commentary as fact, but prints two or more opposing opinions on each topic. Daddy would have loved The Week. You can’t tell how the editors feel, because right-wing, left-wing and moderate columnists get equal space, alongside hard news and fluff.

The cover of the June 10 issue featured caricatures of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump as long-nosed Pinocchios under the headline “The Truth Hurts.” The news section carried varying views on billionaire Peter Thiel’s revenge on Gawker, President Obama’s Hiroshima visit, and the shooting of the gorilla Harambe. Travel and leisure features included a listing of lesser-known national parks (including California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, where all four types of volcanoes can be found, including the active Lassen Peak, which matches Haleakala in height!), advice on using your smartphone overseas, and a review of a Japanese hotel staffed by multi-lingual robots, where the English-speaking front desk clerk is a growling velociraptor.

The next issue of The Week will likely carry a few Father’s Day items, and I’ll probably shed more tears. My father was a doting dad, a proud papa, but he never coddled or spoiled me. He was strict but kind, firm but fair, and he always made me feel special while instilling the belief that every human being is special.

I still believe that, sincerely, and I hope he forgives me for feeling that he is just a little more special than the rest of us.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kathycollins@hawaii.rr.com.

Sharing Mana‘o

In 1835, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind . . .”

Half a century later, George Bernard Shaw, in a published music review, expanded on Longfellow’s statement, “Though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents . . .”

Last Saturday, an appreciative crowd in Castle Theater enjoyed a thrilling conversation between Japanese drumming and American jazz at Zenshin Daiko’s 17th annual Taiko Festival. As they do at every performance – and Saturday night’s was the 888th – the Zenshin youngsters proved their proficiency in the traditional art . . . and their fluency in the universal language.

Maui’s Chop Suey Jazz Orchestra, directed by Casey Nagata, opened the show with a couple of Japanese classics, big band style. Then, as Chop Suey drummer Perry Gragas launched into the familiar intro to “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the evening took a delightful swing out of the box and into a musical merge of cultures. Taiko artist Preston Jones ran onto the stage and the two drummers performed an amazing duet, Perry on a trap drum kit, Preston on a set of taiko drums, large and small. The drum duel continued throughout the 7-minute piece, and the audience shouted its approval at every turn.

Then Zenshin and Chop Suey combined for one more number, a beautifully poignant instrumental song titled “The Warrior.” Written in 2005 by former Zenshin member Christopher Hisamoto when he was a teen, and adapted to big band style by Siuai Laufou for this concert, the piece evokes the fear and excitement felt by the warrior in battle. As the program notes stated, “the sad melody portrays the burden of war carried by the warrior . . . as the beat of the drum brings him closer to his destiny.”

The rest of the program continued the multicultural and intergenerational theme, as the Zenshin members were joined by the Los Angeles taiko group, UnitOne, which fuses American and Japanese taiko styles, and by renowned performing artist and instructor Kristopher Bergstrom. The sight of youth and adults joyfully dancing and drumming together was enough to set my heart aflutter . . . had it not already been resonating with the thundering beat of dozens of taiko.

Preston’s parents, Anthony and Valerie Jones, founded Zenshin Daiko in 1999 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching taiko to children and sharing it with the community. The Zenshin drummers range in age from 6 to 18 and have performed an average of one performance a week for the past 17 years, mostly for charity and community events. Each year that I’ve had the honor of emceeing their festival, I marvel at the youngsters’ expertise, their energy and their self-discipline. The Joneses run the troupe as if it was a hula halau or martial arts dojo, teaching lessons that go far beyond performance technique.

A few nights after the taiko festival, music again was the language that brought folks together, this time in honor and memory of Hawaii musician Clay Mortensen. A talented crooner of smooth jazz, soft rock, and contemporary Hawaiian ballads, Clay passed away in his Wailuku home last month.

Former band mate and good friend Jay Molina quickly organized Monday night’s benefit concert to raise funds to help the family with medical and funeral expenses. Clay’s sisters, Carla and Connie, attended the event and were touched and gratified to see so many of Maui’s music ‘ohana show up to lend their voices and talents to the cause. A few tears were shed, but the night was full of sweetness and aloha, just like the Clay I remember. Whenever I’d run into him in town, he had a warm smile and hug for me, and he always spoke of positive, happy times.

A memorial celebration of Clay’s life and music will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. June 22 at the Waikapu Community Center. The public is welcome to attend, and contributions for Clay’s family will be gratefully accepted. Music -and love – will be the languages spoken.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kathycollins@hawaii.rr.com.

Sharing Mana‘o

The merry month of May has drawn to a close, along with the high school careers of thousands of Hawaii students. Back in the mid-1970s, when I graduated from Baldwin High School, you could count the number of Maui County high schools on two hands and still have a few fingers to spare. Today, it would take all of your fingers and even some toes. Of course, if you’ve graduated from high school, you shouldn’t have to use your fingers – or your toes – to count anything.

The Hawaii Department of Education’s list of 2016 graduation ceremonies includes 64 public and charter high schools. According to the department, more than 11,000 students were expected to receive their diplomas in the month of May. That doesn’t include Hawaii’s private schools, though, and while I was unable to find those statistics online, I would imagine the number of private school grads might equal or even surpass the public school count.

Unfortunately, there was one glaring omission from the public schools’ list: the adult school graduation ceremony. Formerly known as the Maui Community School for Adults, the Maui Campus of the McKinley Community School for Adults held its 49th annual commencement exercise last Wednesday evening at the H.P. Baldwin High School Auditorium. I’ve had the honor of emceeing this ceremony for the past 10 years, and it always brings tears to my eyes.

This event is not as large or formal as the ceremonies at Maui’s traditional high schools, but it is just as festive and perhaps even more significant for its participants and audience members. The men and women who took the walk last Wednesday matriculated through various means: the Competency Based High School Diploma Program, the General Educational Development Testing Program, the High School Equivalency Testing Program, Hawaii Job Corps, Hui Malama Learning Center, Maui Economic Opportunity, and the University of Hawaii Maui College Kuina and Educational Opportunity Center programs.

Special awards were presented to the students who scored highest in their respective tests. But the highlight of the program every year, as far as I’m concerned, is the moment when selected students take the podium to speak. This year, three graduates – Jammie Chong, Erin McNulty and Isaiah Gatsby – shared their individual stories. Their backgrounds and the challenges they faced were varied, but all three delivered speeches that were both compelling and inspiring, and echoed sentiments expressed by their fellow graduates.

Whether teenagers who didn’t fit into the traditional learning curve, or older adults whose lives simply got too busy or demanding, all of the participants in the Maui Campus of the McKinley Community School for Adults commencement reached a turning point in their lives, and set their minds to achieving a goal that so many of us take for granted. Some accomplished their dreams in a matter of a few months; for others, it took several years of fitting classes and studies into an already jam-packed life.

The speakers, as well as the graduates I spoke with after the ceremony, all gave credit and deep gratitude to the folks who supported them in their studies and spiritually. Families, friends, fellow students and, especially, the faculty and staff of adult community school’s Maui Campus, were cited as invaluable to the students’ success. Vice Principal Kyle Ginoza, affectionately called “Mr. G” by all, modestly brushed off the praise and told the students that they were the ones who deserved the credit. Mr. G’s pride in each and every graduate was evident in the time and effort he spent on making last week’s ceremony a memorable occasion, from the video presentation on a giant screen, to his heartfelt remarks before the presentation of diplomas, to his selection of Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” to replace the customary recessional march.

The motto on the evening’s printed program read, “The road to success is paved with the will to never stop learning.” I think it helps to have a road crew populated by folks who care.

Congratulations to all of Maui County’s graduates! May you never lose the will or the desire to live, laugh and learn.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kathycollins@hawaii.rr.com.