Paradise Cost: The Story Behind “Meltdown”

This essay is the backstory for our song “Meltdown,” which you can listen to below or over here.

Queen Ka’ahumanu was born in a cave on Maui, circa 1768. Her name means “the feathered mantle,” but as she came to power she proved to be more of a firebrand. One of the Hawaiian kingdom’s most influential regents, she is credited with abolishing the ancient kapu or taboos that, among other restrictions, forbade women from eating with men, and from eating certain foods considered sacred, including banana, pork and coconut. Legend has it that when Ka’ahumanu’s stepson witnessed her eating a meal with his brother — without suffering the wrath of the gods — her power was confirmed.

Queen Ka’ahumanu mall, near the airport in Kahalui, celebrated its grand opening in 1974. It didn’t yet have a food court but its 48 stores, including anchor tenants Sears and Liberty House, were immediately well attended. That same year, Daniel’s parents, Marge and Dick Spils, bought a two-bedroom, ground level unit in the Maui Parkshore — then the only condominium in Kihei — on the opposite, sleepier, side of the island. Each winter, the Anchorage-based family of seven would pack onto a plane, trading long nights and cold temperatures for sun and surf, stocking caps for snorkel masks.

Marge still owns the condo, and still makes the annual pilgrimage from Alaska. Her children still vacation there, with lucky spouses (like me) and grandchildren in tow. Every time we visit, during the drive from the airport to the condo, Daniel and Marge reminisce about how the heavily trafficked multi-lane highway used to be a lonely dirt road that seemed headed straight into tropical oblivion. Now, of course, Kihei is bustling with condos and tourists and shops feeding the voracious hunger for a truly Hawaiian experience.

Tourists ourselves, we must also make sure the Maui Parkshore unit is in shipshape for other tourists — namely, the people who rent the condo when Spils relations aren’t using it. It was this familial duty that during a recent visit prompted a trip to Ka’ahumanu mall, a search for local abundance in the form of new bed linens.

The mall has had several upgrades since it opened, including a major remodel in the early 1990s, which, according to the firm responsible, gave it “a contemporary identity that embraces the island’s unique climate and character.” This was achieved in part via the roof canopy whose Teflon-coated fiberglass panels “swing open and closed like the billowing sails of trade ships powered by the Kona winds.”

A few years after the culturally tinted update, Honolulu-based tenant Liberty House weighed anchor and was replaced by a Macy’s. That’s where we were headed, on a perfectly sunny day, hoping the Kona winds had delivered some sheet sets. The linen department was a fecund frenzy of hibiscus blooms and palm fronds — all the flora non-natives expect to see in paradise. But even in Hawaii, family tensions can burble up, and out of nowhere Daniel and Marge were in a heated argument over comforters, prices and thread count. I was taken aback, as I’d never seen them snap at each other before. In fact they get along better than any mother and son I’ve ever known.

While they were dueling over duvets, I edged over to the washcloth and hand towel display. The stacked acrylic cubes proffered a wealth of tidy cotton rectangles embossed with pineapples and colorful fish. As I was feigning intense interest, I noticed the top of the case was covered in a gritty black powder, some kind of ash that appeared to have spewed forth from a fissure in the acoustic ceiling tile. Perhaps Haleakala was having a bit of a flare-up too.

Maui’s volcano is due for an outburst any day — at least, any day in volcanic terms. Geologists say that while Haleakala is currently dormant, we are in the 200–500 year window for the next eruption. Despite the exoticized notion that such destruction might return the island to a more pure, original state, the only clear benefactor of an eruption would be the Haleakala Silversword, a succulent that grows in the volcano’s moonlike rubble and nowhere else in the world. It spends most of its 10–90 year life as a tuffet of upturned, sword-like leaves, covered in feathery silver hairs, but just once, before it dies, the native plant shoots up a spectacular plume to spread its seed. It’s currently listed as a “vulnerable” species due to climate change.

If she were she still around, would Ka’ahumanu use her powers to save it? The queen was hardly sentimental about preserving Hawaiian legacies. During her reign, she challenged priests, temples and the gods themselves. She ordered the destruction of sacred sites and idols, ushered out Hawaiian taboos and helped missionaries spread Christian morality. Her campaign unquestionably led to a loss of culture. Did the 1970s developers know this history when they christened Ka’ahumanu mall?

The Macy’s meltdown burned out swiftly and upon returning to the condo that day, we unpacked our shopping bags and began arranging the new sheet set — lemon yellow with pink flowers and coordinated accent pillows, straight out of a vacation brochure. Daniel and Marge and I all agreed that visitors were going to love it.

Queen Ka’ahumanu died in 1832, passing into whichever afterlife proved to be the right bet. She spoke her last words to the missionaries who were standing by at her deathbed: “I’m going where the mansions are ready.”

— Brangien

song 5 of 11

Haleakala was standing her ground
landing gear was touching down
rental car, on our way to
Ka’ahumanu mall: queen for a day
meltdown at the Maui Macys
tempers gonna blow the AC
sheet shoppin’ when the shit hit the fan
family feud in comforter land
thread count creating a panic
vacation … volcanic
deep under the ocean floor
lava waits like the silversword
for the day it finally flowers
erupts like a super power
meltdown at the Maui Macys
tempers gonna blow the AC
Haleakala, Haleakala, Haleakala

The Argument is Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils. Learn more about the band here: How The Argument Started and 1 of My 43 Things.

The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks on Medium. Sign up for new song updates.

Thank you for listening.