Lying Still

Hospital Bed

When I was 17 years old, I dove into a swimming pool and broke my neck.

Until that moment, I’d been relentlessly active, my days taxed with dread of missing something somewhere. I was on the student council and participated in a wide variety of school clubs. I always secured a part in the school play and rode a unicycle in talent shows. I ran cross-country in the fall, track in the spring and was co-captain of the basketball team in between. I was an honor student who worked full-time in the summer and caddied most weekends in the spring and early fall, except on certain Sundays when I served as an altar boy. I’d never had a drink or a smoke, and I rarely swore. Yet that pleasant summer day, for reasons still unclear to me, I plunged into a six-foot deep above-ground pool and slammed the top of my head on the sloped concrete bottom.

An hour and a half later, strapped to a stretcher in the Emergency Room, I was told that I’d fractured the fifth cervical vertebra in my neck and there was the possibility of paralysis. That night in a hospital room, two doctors and a nurse screwed two metal pins into the sides of my head. The pins were attached to a half-circle metal bracket, which itself was attached to a weight that hung from the end of the bed. Two small, convex mirrors were suspended above my face so I could see the entire room without moving my head. I was told I’d have to keep my head and shoulders as motionless as possible for the next ten weeks.

I tried to teach myself the guitar, but flat on my back with braces, mirrors and weights surrounding me, it proved impossible. I tried to keep up with my school work but tired quickly suspending heavy textbooks in the air. I even worked out with ankle weights on my legs for a few days until my doctor objected.

So my muscles atrophied, and I fell behind on my schoolwork. I watched television through prism-shaped eyeglasses and, for the first time, did nothing. I suffered a stress ulcer that first week as I adjusted to my new tethered, horizontal existence: backless tee-shirts, milkshake meals, sponge baths and bed pans.

On Wednesdays, student nurses assisted at the hospital. In their early twenties and relatively experienced, these weren’t women with whom I’d normally have had any contact. They changed my bed sheets and clothes and helped me eat, drink and do some mild, bed-bound exercises. Every week a new woman in white walked into my room, sisterly or flirtatious, concerned or carefree. Whether it was the unbroken time together or the physical proximity or the fact that we’d never see each other again, these women often opened up to me. There were half a dozen years and a lifetime of experience between us, and I was, for a day, a student of their loves and hopes and frustrations. I was bound to the bed, venturing with eager questions and a patient ear where I’d never gone before.

My friend Leon visited me nearly every day. He’d enrolled at my Catholic high school after being thrown out of the larger public high school. The rumor was that he’d stolen a boat, but nobody knew that for sure because the record was sealed. He quickly earned a nickname, the Devil, from his gleeful, fearless tormenting of parents, teachers, and coaches.

Leon never came empty handed to my room, bringing me a sandwich or the cassette of a band or comedian I wanted to hear. Leon knew I didn’t like to swear, however, and would only hand them over if I’d yell out a few curses of his choosing. (He was a master of creative phrasing.) One day, Leon stood near the door and enticed me to say some particularly well-selected words as loud as I could. The next thing I heard was the voice of Sister Patricia, our English teacher.

“Hospital life has increased your vocabulary, David,” she said, poking her head in the door.

Undeterred, the good Sister returned every week, usually when Leon was there. I believe she did it on purpose, perhaps trying to tempt the Devil to more virtuous ways. One day, we talked about our dreams for the future. Leon said he intended to run a nightclub in Montreal. I said that I merely wanted to get up from the bed. Sister Patricia confessed that, as younger girl, she’d wanted to be a trapeze artist. This was a revelation because in my mind, nuns were supposed to have been born that way. Leon was decidedly less impressed.

“So you wanted to be a swinger, Sister?’ he said.

One Friday night two weeks in, the phone rang. A friend had injured his elbow and was in traction a few doors down. He asked if I wanted a beer. I was staring through mirrors at the empty room, going nowhere, missing it all, the risk of paralysis decreasing but not yet passed, and so, for the first time in my life, I said, yes, I would like a beer.

A few minutes later, a blue-jeaned girl with sleepy, blue eyes strolled into my room hiding a Pabst Blue Ribbon in her bag. She popped the top and shared it with me through one of the bendy straws with which I drank everything. She didn’t go to my school, and we’d never met before, but she returned the next night and almost every weekend night after that. In time, we started making out amidst the metal framework and that fastened me to the bed. It was perilous and sometimes funny, and things were never quite the same when those obstacles were gone.

Ten weeks after diving into that shallow pool, I walked out of the hospital sporting a metal brace that went from my waist to my chin. Until that time, I’d been taxed with the fear of missing something somewhere. But I’d just spent two and half months on my back, lying still, unable to go anywhere or do anything, and yet candid nurses and circus nuns, a righteous devil and a nimble, blue-eyed girl had all found their way to me.

All I had to do was lie there.

My debut novel is available here: The Last Island

Novel Recommendation

At Swim-Two-Birds

At Swim-Two-Birds’ by Flann O’Brien.

Not one of my three sisters is a loud, dirty, boozy girl. That’s probably a good thing for them — as well as me. But if one or two or all of them were, I would give them this book if only because Dylan Thomas, that loud, dirty, boozy poet, said I should.

Even without that recommendation, how can anyone resist a novel that reflects on the humanity of kangaroos, including “the kangaroolity of women and your wife beside you?”

Or one that offers an occasional “summary of what has gone before, for the benefit of new readers?”

Or one where an author sleeps with one of his own characters and conceives a child, who then goes on to write a book about what a terrible writer his father is?

Joyce loved it, so did Beckett and Graham Greene and Jorge Luis Borges, and Brendan Gleeson is trying to turn it into a movie. It’s Flann O’Brien’s ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’ and one of my favorite novels. Go on, find yourself a loud, dirty, boozy girl and give it to her.

Of course, if that doesn’t suit you, you can try my novel, which is available here: The Last Island

 

The Practices of Compassion and Cruelty

Blacktailed Jackrabbit

“I don’t understand these people trying to help animals when there’s so much human suffering in the world. Shouldn’t they be helping humans instead?”

I was asked this question at dinner the other day. One of the characters in my novel, The Last Island, is an animal rights activist. The questioner thought that her passion, like that of many other animal activists, was misplaced. I answered the question as best I could at the time, but after some thought I realized that my response was inadequate. I’ve since come to a new conclusion.

Simply put, the advocacy of animal rights is a matter of compassion. Compassion is a practice, not a resource. It’s not limited and can’t be depleted. Like any other practice — meditation, prayer, kindness, love – it’s something within which one can grow and improve. Given that, compassion for animals does not displace or re-direct compassion for humans; one reinforces the other.

As is widely known, animal abuse in childhood is strongly linked to psychopathology and violence as an adult. So it would appear that cruelty, like compassion, is also a practice. But the nastiness doesn’t need to be personal, because it’s been shown that mere proximity to animal cruelty leads to an increase in violence toward humans.

A study by Amy Fitzgerald, Professor of Criminology at the University of Windsor, concludes that the link between slaughterhouses and increased violent crime in the surrounding communities is an empirical fact. The study states that “slaughterhouse employment increases total arrest rates, arrests for violent crimes, arrests for rape, and arrests for other sex offenses in comparison with other industries.”

While maybe we can’t conclude as an empirical fact that compassion toward animals increases compassion toward humans, we can be sure that cruelty toward animals, whether personal or systemic, increases cruelty toward humans. And isn’t that, more or less, the same thing?

So when you pass those good folks defending gorilla habitats in Rwanda, or protesting the fur trade in London, or seeking signatures to prevent animal vivisection in San Francisco, you might just give them a wave or a honk or a dollar — if not for their specific cause, at least for their compassion. And if you question why these energetic and idealistic people aren’t spending their time and energy helping humans, you needn’t do so.

The answer is simple: they are.

My debut novel is available here: The Last Island

The Last Island: Another Update +

Number 1 Bestseller

‘The Last Island’ was the Number 1 bestseller at Amazon Australia this week, holding the No. 1 position in both ‘Literary Fiction’ and ‘Contemporary Fiction’ simultaneously.

In addition, as many of you know, the novel recently hit bestseller status in the United Kingdom as well.

Many thanks to my publisher, Betimes Books, for their ongoing support and to everyone who has helped spread the word.

In addition, in September, for those of you in Southern California, my short play, ‘Offline Daters,’ will be presented with some other short plays in an evening called ‘Legends,’ produced by the New Play Cafe.

I’ll provide more details as the opening date approaches.

Thanks again to all.

And for those who haven’t read it yet, the novel is available worldwide here: The Last Island.

 

 

Living Forever on a Greek Island

Skopelos

Skopelos

After the first few weeks, I didn’t know what day it was.

By that, I don’t mean that I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Tuesday. I didn’t know if it was a Monday or a Saturday. The only day I ever knew that summer was Sunday, which was marked by church bells and the voices of the psaltes (singers) in the nearby churches.

Once the churches quieted, that day unraveled like every other day, until again, on some seemingly distant and arbitrary morning, the psaltes would be heard and I would know it was Sunday again.

My wife and I were in the process of moving from Massachusetts to California. We’d rented our condo in Boston in May and planned to start looking for a place in San Diego at the beginning of September. In the meantime, we were living on Skopelos Island, swimming, eating olives, drinking hima (fresh barrel wine) and helping the last of some ancient nuns maintain a crumbling monastery.

Life on the island was relatively cheap, and the rent from our condo in Boston was kicking off enough money to more than support us. We realized towards the end of that unbroken summer that we could stay another year or decade as easily as another day.

“You could write that novel,” my wife suggested, “and I could keep volunteering at the monastery and we could just… stay.”

The predictable objections echoed in our minds. We were young, educated, and suitably ambitious. How could we consider throwing away another season, or year, or decade of our lives? The idea seemed indulgent and wasteful. There was, after all, so much to be done.

At least, that was the thinking in the part of our minds still rooted in the ever-measuring world we’d left, where the only conception of time was linear and limited.

As J.M. Coetzee put it in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians:’ “Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end.”

This ‘time of history’ is indispensable to empires, because it’s necessary for quantification, in order to measure acquisition and accumulation.

Beach on Skopelos

Beach on Skopelos

But on the island, the time was circular and charitable and expansive. The days and seasons did not deplete; they renewed. The past and future existed but were as far apart as memory and dreams. In between, there was the sea, the sun, the olives, and the wine, and they were endless.

Another Greek island, Ikaria, was the subject of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, because of the extraordinarily long and healthy lives enjoyed by its residents. The article, entitled ‘The Island Where People Forget to Die,’ cites lifestyle, community, and diet as the reasons why. While all those things certainly contribute to health and longevity, I think the real reason is something else entirely, something much simpler, if less evident.

It’s because time on Ikaria, like it was that summer on Skopelos, is circular and charitable and expansive. And where the days renew, so accordingly, does life itself.

As for us, we departed at the end of that season and returned to the tick-tocking world. It seemed to have only gotten faster in the time we’d been away — and has gotten faster since. We intend to circle back before it runs itself out.

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That novel, which was inspired by that timeless summer on the island, was eventually written and is available here: The Last Island.

The Last Island: An Update

San Diego Books Awards
The Last Island’ is one of three Finalists in the Contemporary Fiction category of the 2014 San Diego Book Awards.

In addition, the novel was recently an Amazon Literary Bestseller in the U.K.

Thanks so much to everyone for their support.

All the recommendations, shares, retweets, purchases and reviews are sincerely appreciated.

And if you haven’t read it yet, the novel is available worldwide here: The Last Island.

Oedipus Wrecks the Shoreline: The Coastal Development Proposal in Greece

Greek Island

“If your age could understand, children,
Full many counsels I could give.”

Greek tragedies play out like no others, as if to remind us of the work of their ancient masters. As there once was a plague in Sophocles’ Thebes, there is now a plague upon the Greek economy.

One proposal to address the current economic problems – easing restrictions on coastal development – is eerily reminiscent of one of those early tragedies, Oedipus Rex, about the king who kills his father, sleeps with his mother and then prefers to blind himself than see what he has wrought.

“Aye, and a flood of ills thou guessest not
Shall be set upon thyself and thy children…”

This coastal development proposal, now in the Greek legislature, would do four things:

  1. Lift all restrictions on beach concessions and sunbeds.

    It will be a free for all. If one concessionaire doesn’t occupy an entire beach, another one will move in. This virtually ensures a ‘carpeting effect’ where every beach will soon be covered with lounges, bars and trinket shops. Walking space, sunning space, indeed, any space will be in short supply.

  2. Facilitate commercial construction on beaches.

    Once the current restrictions are lifted, applications for permanent constructions are certain to increase dramatically (pun intended), in part to simply occupy beach space before another does. This streamlines the process for getting those applications approved, hastening the ‘carpeting effect.’

  3. Allow businesses to pay fines to legalize illegal development.

    Illegal constructions are rampant on some islands. This portion of the proposal not only rewards those previously illegal developments by legalizing them, but encourages future illegal/legal developments.

  4. Ban the right of public access to the beaches.

    Without a way to get to the beach, the path to it may become the most valuable asset. The astute will find a way to ‘block’ the beaches and either charge the public admission or the businesses on the beach a fee to let potential customers in.

“O Man, beware, and look toward the end of things that be,
The last of sights, the last of days… “

Many of us who treasure this immemorial country — its history, its culture, its majesty, its people – feel compelled to speak out. Even if Greece is not our homeland, we have been touched by that country in such a way that there is a part of it within us, and we feel an obligation to voice our concerns, if only that.

“What were mine eyes to me,
When naught to be seen was good?”

For decades the sire of the wonder and ways of Greece, the Aegean Sea, has been dying, the lush and lively bottom slowly browning into an underwater desert. This is a tragedy, but many of us fear that the death of the father sea may be only the start.

For the consequences of this proposal would be that anything that touches the sea – the islands and coasts and beaches – will be desecrated, and that any and all of the virginal shoreline will be defiled.

This is a palpable fear for those who love Greece, who love the sea and the islands. And should this proposal become law, the day may come when, like Sophocles’ tragic hero-king, many of us will prefer to remove our sight than behold what has become.

Here’s one xenos among many hoping that the shoreline can be saved.

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All quotes above are from Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

You can sign a petition to stop this proposed legislation here: Change.org.

My novel, which is set on an unspoiled Greek fishing island facing the challenges of modernity and economic hardship, is available here: The Last Island.