Donald Trump in San Diego

I attend political rallies whenever I can, of any party, person or persuasion.  Accordingly, I was at the Convention Center when Donald Trump came to San Diego last week.

I didn’t get into the speech — no surprise there — and so stood with the partisans and protesters directly across the street, on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Promenade. Continue reading

The Passin’ of Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

Toward the end of Harper Lee’s classic novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ when the rape trial of Tom Robinson has concluded and Atticus Finch is walking toward the exit, Reverend Sykes instructs Scout, Atticus’ daughter, to rise.

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’,” he says.

Robinson, an innocent Black man, has just been convicted by an all-White jury, and Atticus, his White lawyer, has ostensibly failed. But they stand up, the Black citizens of Maycomb, Alabama, they stand up along with the Reverend and Scout, because moral courage of the sort Atticus exhibited, true moral courage, must be acknowledged.

There’s no need to detail the accomplishments of Jimmy Carter, the presidency, the Peace Prize, the charitable work, the eradication of disease. These can be found in any number of other places. These accomplishments would not be possible without the man, of course, but in Carter’s case the man stands above his own accomplishments, as extraordinary as they are in any current or historical context.

In an age of irony and sweeping commercialization, where almost every act is viewed through the fog of ideology, Carter remains out of step. His irony, as it were, is that he is sincere and often without self-regard; his commercial efforts, as such, are for the alleviation of human suffering, and his ideology is for universal human rights and the resolution of conflict.

Carter’s unyielding and unapologetic decency is provocative. He makes enemies, especially when he criticizes his nation, his party and his own Christian church, as he is known to do. Yet it is difficult to think of an instance where he didn’t take the side of the oppressed or the impoverished, regardless of race, religion or nationality. You may not agree with Carter, but you can’t question his motives or the grandness of his vision.

Perhaps because of this, Carter is often portrayed as hokey and naïve, and his presidency is viewed by many as unsuccessful, but intelligence, empathy, commitment, and moral courage — true moral courage — are rare and precious things, in fiction, in fact, or in any single man. Jimmy Carter is such a man.

So let us do what the Reverend, Scout and the good people of Maycomb, Alabama did for Atticus Finch. President Carter’s life expectancy is less than a year, and as he makes his final exit, let us acknowledge the man.

Stand up. Jimmy Carter’s passin’.

My debut novel is available here: The Last Island

Why I Write

Why I Write

I write because I am a prisoner.

I write because there exists, beyond the walls of my preconceptions and just outside the barriers of my inventiveness, another story.

It’s not wholly personal or cultural or factual. It’s not religious or utopian. Nor is it political. It’s all of these things, or some, or none of them. It’s unknown, untold; it’s novel.

I write to discover that new story – the one that will set me free.

My novel is available here: The Last Island

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 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 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, sleepy-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


Faith, Recklessness, and Courage (Christmas in No-Man’s Land)

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

There were three men against the back wall with AK-47s.  They were unshaven, unmoving, and looked as if the last time they smiled there was blood on the ground.   They glared at me and there was an even chance that I was the first American they’d ever seen.  Communism had just fallen and, since no system of law, order or enforcement had yet taken its place, these men had become all of those things.

They were guarding the ‘businessmen’ that I was meeting with in a rural village in Bulgaria, businessmen who were money changers, importers/exporters, and a rural ex-party mafia rolled into one.  I was here to sell a tractor, the first modern western tractor in the country as far as any of us knew, and though I didn’t want to be negotiating with ‘businessmen’ like these, there was no choice.  They could move large equipment; they had money; and they had protection.

I sat at a wooden table with more dollars taped to my body than most Bulgarians made in year.

On a trailer outside the restaurant was the tractor that I was hoping to sell.  I’d hired a man to guard the tractor with an AK of his own, and though he did a good job keeping kids and villagers away and preventing petty theft, he’d be no match for these guys.  But I hadn’t hired this guy just to prevent theft.  I’d also hired him specifically for this meeting, so I didn’t appear like the damn fool I probably was, bringing a load of dollars and a tractor into a remote and ungoverned part of Bulgaria.

“To meet with these men, it is the only way,” Dragomir had told me.

Dragomir was my translator and a poor honey farmer, but perhaps the most ambitious and resourceful honey farmer in all of Bulgaria.  We’d met at an agricultural fair in Thessaloniki when he approached me and asked about selling tractors in Bulgaria.  The Greek tractor market had all but collapsed and Bulgaria had just opened up, so Dragomir had not only seen the future, but a place for himself in it.

In time, that meeting had led to this one with the ‘businessmen,’ along with a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage on my part, but mostly recklessness.  For the negotiations I was conducting were a charade, because what might happen to me, my money, and my tractor if I refused any of their terms was something I wasn’t eager to discover…

Six months later, after we’d actually managed to sell a few tractors, Dragomir brought one back in the middle of a cold December.  It kept breaking down, and they didn’t have the spare parts or expertise to keep fixing it.

Dragomir and I met in the no-man’s land between the Greek and Bulgarian borders for the exchange.

I pulled the tractor onto a trailer and handed Dragomir a check for $9,000.  Then I gave him a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue with a red bow.  He handled the bottle protectively, knowing it was expensive and how much it would be worth on the other side.  I fully expected him to sell it when he returned home and enjoy the holidays in a style he might not have known before.

“Merry Christmas, Dragomir” I said.

“But I didn’t get you anything,” he replied and, before I could stop him, cracked the label on the Johnny Walker Blue, rendering it almost valueless.

“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. David.”

And there off to the side of the road in a no man’s land between Greece and Bulgaria, we drank the finest whiskey out of plastic cups, eventually joined by a Bulgarian border guard who traded part of his cheese sandwich for some whiskey of his own.

Later, as the sun was setting and we were about to return to our respective countries, Dragomir said, “Those men you met in the restaurant, Mr. David, they are dangerous men.  If this check doesn’t work and they don’t get their money, they will do bad things to me.  Very bad things.”

And as he drove away, I thought about my ever-resourceful Bulgarian friend.  His country was broken, his way of life aborted, his business associates carried AKs, and the only security he’d ever known was a cartload of honey jars.

How could he know if I could be trusted with $9,000, a small fortune in his country?  He’d seen good men sold out for less, I was sure.  And what could he know about the Greek company I worked for, or the banks I dealt with, or, as he kept calling it, “the capitalist system” overall?  So he, like me, was a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage, but mostly courage — mostly courage.

Merry Christmas once again, Dragomir, wherever you are.

My novel, published by Betimes Books in Dublin, 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