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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 27, 2006

I'll take the knife over a stagnant life

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

Honolulu Advertiser columnist Bob Krauss still uses an old-style telephone in his newsroom office.

JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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This is a story about my next adventure. It's called open-heart surgery.

Compared with sailing in Hokule'a, trekking the William Ellis trail around the Big Island or reporting the origins of Polynesians on the coast of China, open-heart surgery isn't all that much fun. It's more like setting out on patrol with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam.

Covering the war in Vietnam was probably good training for open-heart surgery. In the Navy during World War II, I was too young to be scared. Shooting at kamikaze fighters in the invasion of Okinawa was like a football game. Riding out the typhoon at Naha that sunk several ships thrilled me.

In Vietnam, I was old enough to know I could die. But I went anyway, and left my wife and children at home, because war is the biggest story there is and I'm a storyteller. It's terrible to admit, but war is the most powerful story you can write.

Where was I? Oh, yes, since I went to get my cardiac plumbing looked after to save me from a heart attack, I've been on medication. My bathroom shelf looks like a pharmacy.

I went on medication because there are only two other alternatives to opening up the veins in my heart as they did in my throat. The alternatives are stents (little balloons that open your veins) inserted through a big vein in your groin, or bypass surgery.

The doctors don't want to try stents because the clogs are in dangerous crooks and crannies. That leaves medication and open-heart surgery.

Taking medication is very boring ... like putting on your life jacket every day at a lifeboat drill. I didn't pay much attention to the warnings at first. Nobody does, until the ship is sinking. After all, I walk a couple of miles every morning, slow but sure. I can't be that sick.

My heart operates at one-half efficiency. I took for granted that one-half efficiency should be enough to lead a normal life at 82. But my life must not be normal. After a couple of weeks or so, I started to get that burning in my chest. The doctors popped me back in the hospital for the weekend, but I managed to keep the column going.

New medication and being a couch potato for a couple of days fixed me up. I felt fine and went back to telling stories. Then the old problem cropped up again. My blood pressure soared.

The last doctor I talked to is a cardiac surgeon who does bypasses ... about one a day. That was an interesting interview. He asked me what I do and how I do it. I told him about the wars I've been in, the adventures I've had, that excitement of crafting a story that grips people, that I want to be useful and creative for the rest of my life.

At the end, he said, "Advising you is easy. If you want to stay at home and watch television, take medication. But if you want to do what you're doing, you need a triple bypass."

At first I thought maybe he was just a gung-ho surgeon. To be good, you have to be enthusiastic about what you do and believe in it. And I hear he's very good. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he's right.

I could play it safe and turn into a couch potato. But that would mean I'd have to stop writing stories for you. Let me explain why I do this.

Writing stories permits me to talk to anybody, from the governor to street people. In multicultural Hawai'i, that's marvelously exciting because each person is unique. The trick is to find what makes the person you're talking to different from everybody else ... and ask questions that will bring that out. It's a constant adventure.

Better still, 75 percent of the story ideas I get come in by phone or e-mail. Somebody will tell a good story and her friends will say, "Why don't you call Bob Krauss?" I couldn't possibly dream up the things that people tell me. The best part is that I'm always learning. All I have to do is pass it on.

My job puts me right in the middle of the evolving identity of Honolulu. The soul of our Islands doesn't really change, but the vocabulary does; the icons, the way we express it. Nostalgia is a dead end. To recognize the new symbols and connect them with old Island tradition is tremendously exciting. You never run out of things to write.

It's about history and kids and traffic and the hula and families and science and ghosts and the forest and kolea and architecture and books and surfing and legends and our dreams.

The best part is writing the story: to catch the essence of it in a small space. It's easy. I love it. Something magical and unpredictable happens between my fingers and the computer keys. I sit there and chuckle and laugh at what I'm writing because it's so much fun to see how it comes out.

Finally, I walk to the bank or stand in a supermarket checkout line or go to a restaurant and somebody will tell me they liked my last column, or that I once wrote about their grandmother, or about the time their dad got a hole-in-one, or that their cousin is a great story. The highest compliment people can pay is that they learn something about Our Honolulu from my column.

How can I watch television when there's all this exciting stuff waiting to be written? I'm a storyteller. Open-heart surgery should give me a chance to write more stories for you. About two weeks from now I'll go in for surgery. If it works, I'll come back in about three months. Wish me luck. It's what keeps me going. Goodbye for now.

Bob Krauss will be on leave for several months and won't be able to receive phone calls or e-mails. You can write to him at The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802.