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Words In Review: Can the PNW be on 'island time'?

caption: On Island Time: A Traveler's Atlas. Illustrated Adventures on and around the Islands of Washington and British Columbia.
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On Island Time: A Traveler's Atlas. Illustrated Adventures on and around the Islands of Washington and British Columbia.
Sasquatch Publishing

The Seattle publisher Sasquatch has a new travel book about the islands of Washington and British Columbia. The title is "On Island Time," which made me laugh because, isn’t that Hawaii or Jamaica? I always thought of “island time” as a Western way to characterize a non-Western perspective that has deep roots in that place. Our islands were colonized by Northern Europeans like me — my sister Jane lives on Vashon and as she puts it, "I buzz at a high level. My adrenaline level is pretty high."

In this episode I ask: When you’re on a Salish rock, are you on “island time”?

My friend Kermet Apio is native Hawaiian. He says there’s no way Hawaiians came up with the phrase “island time.”

"Mainly because there really isn't a word in the ancient Hawaiian language for 'time' as a quantitative thing," Apio said. "There are words for 'this moment' or 'that time we did something.' But the idea of time as a counting clock, there’s no word for it in the language. So, I don't think we originated the idea that we're not on time!"

But Apio says “island time” — or "Hawaiian time" — is real.

"Think about it this way," Apio said. "It's morning, there's a sunrise coming up and it's lighting this beautiful beach, there's a little breeze, you can hear the sound of the water moving back and forth on the sand. You look the other direction and there's these mountains going straight up and the sun is hitting the green trees on the mountains. And you have a meeting at 8:15 a.m. with HR. It just doesn't seem important."

Pacific Northwest Island Time? Apio says that's real, too.

"I know it's not from a historically-cultural-thing, but I've been to these islands and it is absolutely a real thing," he said. "Because it just depends on when the ferry goes. If you're the person that misses the ferry and goes, 'I missed the ferry! Swear word, swear word!' you may not live on Vashon very long. But if you're the person that goes, 'I missed the ferry, I think I'll walk along the beach and write a poem,' you're gonna stay. So, I think the way life exists on islands does attract the person that doesn't have to worry so much about time."

Which brings us back to my sister Jane Slade. I visited her on Vashon to see if someone can, as she says, “buzz with a high adrenaline level,” yet also not worry much about time.

"When I hear 'island time,'" Slade told me, "I think of this bumper sticker that says 'Vashonably Late.' There is a concept of 'island time' here, although that's not the phrase we use. I think it's more just like 'embarrassingly late' but also, 'I moved here so I would not have to be super-accountable.' It's conveniently inconvenient. You can blame it on the ferries and the isolation. And there's not quite the services here. If you want a plumber, you have to have an inside line or just catch someone at the right time. Sometimes restaurants are open; their hours change all the time. The ferry is backed up from tourists or because some people decided not to show up for work, so they don't run that ferry for the rest of the day. You can't get exactly what you want when you want it."

"What comes from 'island time' is, you don't have control over things," Slade said. "And sometimes that's a relief. My adrenaline level is pretty high, so I need something extreme to counteract that. Even though I say I'm really attracted to 'island time,' I still will over-commit myself. I need that counterweight to how my body hums. Other people seem to be here to match their level of hum, a very low hum. I really love that and I wish that were me. But …"

Every person I spoke to mentioned boat frustration. A long ferry line or a canceled run can make even an easygoing person turn uptight. As a colleague of mine put it, you can only enjoy “island time” if you can manage to get to the damn island!

Although even that is a matter of perspective. Kermet Apio is a stand-up comedian. When he performs on Vashon or in the San Juans, he’ll tell the audience about island life here and in Hawaii.

"Island life is very similar here as to where I grew up," Apio says onstage. "It's just that where I grew up the ferry takes six days."

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