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

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

 

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.

—————————————————————————–

That novel, which was inspired by that timeless summer on the island, was eventually written and is available 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.

—————————————————————

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.

From the Cage to the Plains (A Camel Conversation with my LA Agent)

A Camel in Hollywood

Humper in Hollywood

My agent had an idea. He was calling a number of his clients. I’m not sure where I fell between the first and last call. Not that it mattered.

The Phone Call

AGENT: I’m thinking you need to find a different name for your screenplays. Just a single name and something that pops like ‘Bopper’ or ‘The Drill.’

DAVID: They both sound mildly pornographic.

AGENT: Even better.

DAVID: I think my own name is fine.

AGENT: Little story for you, David. I was at the Wild Animal Safari Park in Escondido the other day.

DAVID: As a visitor or an exhibit?

AGENT: You’re f—ing hilarious. I went to see the camels. I love camels.

DAVID: Camels?

AGENT: The humps, the toes, little need for water… what’s not to love?

DAVID: Got a point there.

AGENT: So there was this camel, Dune…

DAVID: Like the film?

AGENT: Like a camel. And the zoo keepers, they were giving this big f—ing show about how Dune was afraid to go on concrete. They tried to lead him onto a sidewalk with hay, and sometimes he would take a scared step or two, but no more. A crowd had gathered to watch. You could use that in one of your f—ing stage plays.

DAVID: Sure, I’ve been thinking of doing a camel play.

AGENT: Thing is, I knew that camel. His name wasn’t Dune at all. It was Nick. I’d seen him just a few months before at the zoo. He’s changed his name to Dune, and now he acts like he’s afraid of concrete. That’s how he got out of the zoo and started running around the f—ing fake African plains of Escondido. Show business!

DAVID: I don’t think it was the same camel.

AGENT: It was. It was f—ing Nick! He changed his name, and you need to do the same. How about ‘Humper’?

My novel, written under my given name, is available here: The Last Island.

Socrates Gone Mad in Southern California

Slomo at the Acropolis

‘Slomo’ at the Acropolis

Slomo is a 69 year old man who roller blades in slow motion along the boardwalk in Pacific Beach, California. He does this daily, unceasingly, and is known by nearly everyone who frequents the beach, bars or coffee shops. Many discount him as drug-addled, schizophrenic, or crazy. But he is not so easily dismissed.

For Slomo is Dr. John Kitchin, a former neurologist and psychiatrist, who abandoned his lucrative career in order to live in a studio apartment by the beach and pursue “a kind of divinity” through skating. Slomo is not crazy. He is a clear eyed, articulate, and bright man who has forsaken the lifestyle of the “typical institutionalized, educated, Western man.”

There’s a New York Times video about Slomo that’s prompted a large number of comments and where you’ll discover that he is:

“inspirational” and “an immature embarrassment,”

“amazing” and “narcissistic,”

a “great example of freedom” and “self-centered and lazy,”

and that he “represents ideals that we hold dear” and is “kind of an —hole.”

Diogenes in Ancient Athens

Diogenes at home in Athens

Slomo evokes polarized passions and so is reminiscent of Diogenes of Sinope, the philosopher who lived in purposeful poverty in a giant vase on the streets in Ancient Greece. Diogenes advocated self-sufficiency and rejected luxury; he had contempt for the opinion of others and utter disregard for societal conventions.

“I am Diogenes the Dog,” he once said. “I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” (He’d be useful today.)

Plato called him “Socrates gone mad.” But he wasn’t only mad, he was funny.

Once after seeing a bad bowman in an archery contest, Diogenes sat down in front of the target saying it was the only place he felt safe. And in a famous meeting, Alexander the Great told Diogenes that he would grant him any wish.

“Just move and get out of my sunlight,” Diogenes replied.

Slomo espouses no overriding philosophy and doesn’t reveal any desire to instruct. He merely sees himself as the “tip of a great iceberg of consciousness,” and as a person “who escaped and got to real freedom.” His choices seem to threaten the conventional, who feel that he should do something else with his life. In short, they think he should be more like them and cite, among other things, his lack of motivation.

Yet Alexander was once asked: If he was not himself, who would he choose to be?

And the answer, from arguably the most motivated man in history, was that if he were not Alexander the Great, he would choose to be Diogenes the Dog – and as such would’ve stopped casting his shadow across empires in order to bask in the unconquerable sun that shines to this day on the ruins of Ancient Greece and the boardwalk in Pacific Beach.

You can see the video at the New York Times website: ‘Slomo.’

And my debut novel, which features a character who simplifies her life by shedding her possessions, is available here: The Last Island.