EMERSON ESSAY 11.01.11

It Is What It Is

In memory of Mike Morita

I haven’t attended a birthday party lately and weddings are also rare events on my social calendar. It seems my close friends don’t wish to make a fuss about adding another year to their age, nor are they interested in adding a spouse either. If this alone weren’t sad enough, the funerals of my friends are starting to occur more frequently. This is a fact of aging I must accept but one I don’t like very much.

A few months ago, I attended a service for a close friend who passed away unexpectedly and far too early. His name was Mike Morita and he was two years younger than I. We met through our work in the Royal Hawaiian Band. Mike played the trumpet and played it incredibly well. Mike did a lot of things incredibly well. He strove for excellence in all that he did. Being a great trumpet player was only part of what was remarkable about Mike Morita.

As members of the Royal Hawaiian Band, Mike was my immediate supervisor. He was the personnel manager in charge of the brass and percussion sections. This meant a lot of paperwork, and lot of off-hours phone calls to fill positions when someone was out sick or on vacation. The job was demanding but Mike handled it with aplomb. He never lost his temper when others around him lost theirs. He treated everyone fairly, even those who tried to detract from him. When -problem or issue presented itself in the band, Mike did his best to remedy the conditions. A quiet Zen-like patience enabled him to accept the things he could not change. When his underlings complain about an unfixable problem, Mike would gently utter in his deep Morgan Freeman-like voice, “It is what it is.” Mike accepted the bumps in the road with rare gentility and usually with a quiet smile. He was a true gentleman, an entity far too rare these days.

I recall a time when we were short-handed in the percussion section and all the usual parttimers were unavailable. Mike called me up and asked if he could borrow a pair of drumsticks. I lent him a big pair of Vic Firth large marching drumsticks, perfect for training the chops of beginning drummers. He went on to develop those chops and play tenor drum in a parade. Later Mike added the bass drum to his arsenal of musical weapons. Did he play these instruments well? Of course he did.

Mike taught himself the valve trombone and played it on an Easter Sunday church job for which I hired him at Unity Church. I was honored Mike agreed to do the gig. Late in life he started declining offers to do freelance work, so I was especially pleased he chose to work with us. He played the piccolo trumpet solo on the same program. Mike was versatile and he demanded perfection of himself no matter what instrument he played. After the service I asked Mike what he thought of his own trombone playing. Always modest and with a slight chuckle he said, “It is what it is.”

But Mike wasn’t all work. He loved sports, especially baseball. He coached his son’s little league team. He knew the rudiments of baseball inside and out.

I had the honor of watching several games of the 2004 Major League playoffs with Mike. Those playoffs and the subsequent World Series were special to me, a Red Sox fan, but they were even more ingrained in my memory because Mike was there to share the experience. We watched Johnny Damon’s grand slam home run together at the Hawaii Kai “Shack,” as we shared pitchers of beer and fried bar food. The Shack had a talent for taking something healthy like zucchini and deep-frying it.  Mike would always try to talk me into having some of his French fries. He often succeeded.

Even when we both were safely tucked away in the comforts of our separate homes (with better food), we’d share televised games via the telephone. Mike would call me if there was a home run or a Red Sox picture got knocked out of the box.

“You watching the game?” Mike would ask. “How about Ortiz’s homer? It was clear over “The Green Monster.” ”

“Yep, I’m watching it.”

“Good game, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said. We wasted few words.

I’m missing Mike and our baseball phone chats, now more than ever. The 2011 World Series (one of the most thrilling World Series ever) lost its fizz because Mike wasn’t there to share it. There were no trips to sports bars, no fried food and no phone calls to discuss the game.

Besides watching, we sometimes played sports. Mike was a much better golfer than I. He kindly took me to the Hawaii Kai, Par 3 course one day. He hit the ball well and gave me pointers, always being patient with my ineptness. We agreed we’d only play the front 9 holes then go to the clubhouse for a drink(s). The ninth green happened to be 200 yards away from the clubhouse. It was shorter just to walk from the 8th green to the bar. Thus we only played “the front eight.” We often joked that one day we would play “the back ten.” Whenever we drove by the golf course Mike would chuckle and say, “How about we shoot another 8 holes?”

Living in East Honolulu near Mike had its advantages. We’d often share a relaxed lunch together at The Kona Brewing Company in Hawaii Kai’s Koco Marina. No sports bar food here: The cuisine was excellent, the scenery was sublime. There was a beautiful view of the Koolau Mountains with clouds billowing above and the occasional Hawaiian rainbow to enjoy. From the outdoor deck, we would peer down at the marina and fantasize about which boats we would want to own. We decided in the long run it would be better to have a friend who owned a boat, as opposed to owning one ourselves.

Mike was incredibly generous and it was difficult to wrestle away the tab from him in a restaurant. He was always giving with his money, his time, and his friendship. He was especially generous with his pickup truck when we had something to move. And he was always on the other end of the cargo when we ferried it from one place to another.

Whenever I’d call him and ask for directions to a gig, his response was always, “Wait. I’ll come get you up.”

He once spent 4 hours on a Monday afternoon (our day off) repairing an electrical switch on my Subaru. I tried to pay him for his time., but he’d accept no money. I brought a bottle of an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon to his house the next day. Mike insisted I come in and finish it with him. And we did.

Mike knew his wines and knew good food and how to cook it. He knew sports and politics. He was as smart and informed as he was generous. He was the perfect friend.

I recently came upon about a dozen hard copy photos a friend had taken of the Royal Hawaiian Band at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. About half of them had shots of Mike in them. It begged the question in my mind: “Where the heck is Mike Morita now?

Science or religion might offer answers, but neither one can explain consciousness and what happened to Mike’s. I secretly hope the true believers are correct and St. Peter and God, himself met Mike at The Golden Gates and offered him one of those cabin cruisers we saw anchored at the Koco Marina. I hope they took him to The Par 3 Golf course at Hawaii Kai and they shot “the back 10” together. I hope the three of them watched the 2011 World Series.

But perhaps the energy that was once Mike Morita’s consciousness has scattered like a billion billiard balls and each of us who knew him get to hold onto a small piece of what was once Michael Morita. We are grateful for his life and the time we got to spend with him and we learn from his early death to seize the day.

Mike professed to be an agnostic but now he knows more than any of us. And if we could ask him where the heck he is now, he would offer his wry smile and softly answer, “It is what it is.”

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