In Europe there are two subjects of conversation: The bombing of Palestine. And the coming World Cup match.

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In Israel, there is always a war. But this attack on Gaza has shocked the world. At least 100 Palestinians are dead. Another 700 are wounded. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Nethanyu said he was pleased with the progress, but this is just a stage in the fighting. They are preparing troops along the border and have brought in 20,000 reserve troops to prepare for a ground assault. Like many people around the world, I wish for peace, but I think it’s more likely that we discover life on other planets than that there will be peace in the Middle East in my lifetime.

To distract people from the news of Israel, there is the World Cup between Germany and Argentina which most people are going to be watching Sunday night. The defeat of Brazil was of course, shocking, but still soccer fans are excited to see this game. Americans are getting more and more excited about soccer too. Once American athletes get up to the level of South American players, we’ll start to get even more involved.

As usual, Athens in Syntagma Square is crowded with police and riot police buses. There are police everywhere in Kevlar and large riot shields and with semi-automatic weapons. Much of the city is covered with graffiti.

The coffee here is good though. Cold or hot, it’s good. We like to walk around Athens especially at night. When you walk around the Acropolis, there are many street performers and a lot of them are Americans. It’s kind of odd but there are these African American street dancers who can do some great stuff and there are a lot of musicians and various performers doing gymnastics. It’s like a European version of Venice Beach. The sorbet is excellent. I had this blood orange sorbet which was great.

For breakfast at our hotel, they give us good coffee, some sort of drink that dreams of being Tang but Tang is too good for it, three different kinds of bread, jam, and yoghurt. Also hard boiled eggs. It’s fine and you eat this on the balcony overlooking lots of people’s laundry up to dry over their houses and towering over all this graffiti, power lines, and clean underwear is the remains of the Acropolis and the cranes and scaffolding that have been there for decades. It’s still very impressive.

Here’s to the completion of the restoration of the Parthenon.
Here’s to the recovery of the Greek economy.
Here’s to an end to the fighting in Gaza.
Here’s to world peace.
And here’s to bagels, sushi and Mexican food when I get back to Los Angeles next week.

Published in: on July 11, 2014 at 8:04 am  Leave a Comment  

I will miss Greece, the little stuff and the big stuff

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I will miss the Patmos cheese pie. And the goats. The Greek salads which I know I can make at home. In fact, at home I could also make an alternative salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, Queso Fresca and avocados which really isn’t a Greek salad but a Mexican salad.

I’ll miss the large windmills on the ridge by the house which were used to grind wheat and the other working windmills by Lambi Beach that create energy. And the cats everywhere begging for food even though everyone seems to be feeding them.

I’ll miss swimming two hours a day out into the light and heat. I’ll miss the little store with an odd mixture of boat people, who are in bikinis like me and the tourists in white clothes because they heard Greeks wear white plus in fancy magazines, fancy people at sea are always dressed in white linen like a Ralph Lauren ad. And the Greek women in all black by the time they’re forty. And the Greek girls with their come hither looks and the Greek boys very buff. And the Greek men who are either in the church and totally bearded and dressed in black and picking up women to take back to their hermitages or very old and sitting around at taverns while the women in black wait on them and make cooing sounds or working construction or at restaurants from 9-2 and sometimes also from 10 to midnight which has got to be exhausting.

In Greece lots of men sit around in taverns. They stare out at the sea, they drink coffee and then beer and they argue about the soccer game if there is one or just talk.

There is a dessert that’s baklava with ice cream. We shared one twice. They’re tiny and adorable and yummy. I have bites all over my whole body, a spider bite on my arm that’s now become a huge red circle and my skin is on fire. My whole back is brown. Mark is partly burnt. Like the other times I’ve been to Greece, I am on a high dose of antibiotics which you can buy over the counter at the pharmacy. I think it’s the swimming that does it. My eyes start to look they’re bleeding and then the Augmentin hits and in a few hours I’m not seeing the world through blood colored glasses. I love all of it.

Being here reminds me of this: I am working way too hard, teaching too much and working for the press is quite a combo. Right now there isn’t a light at the end of the tunnel, but maybe I’ll find the cave where light was built and built a tunnel to it. I can’t do this forever. Having a break is a very nice thing. Very nice.

Published in: on July 10, 2014 at 4:59 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lambi Beach

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Lambi Beach was like glass today so I swam all the way out, past the tall windmills on the hill and around the corner of the bay and then around the next and the next. Three dolphins swam very close to me and Mark got pictures of them swimming across the mouth of the bay. I kept swimming until I came to the small red sand beach where the red sandstone pours down into the beach and all the rocks and sand are red. There was no need for a swimsuit because there was no one swimming but me.

We get to Lambi Beach by eight or nine and Greeks don’t get there usually until noon. I stood on the red sand beach in a small cove and there was no one in sight. At Lambi Beach there is a small café which serves wine and fish, salads and fries. We had lunch there once and we had eggplant salad, bread which was still warm and stuffed squash blossoms. The old lady who owns the restaurant picks the squash blossoms in the morning and stuffs them herself with mint rice. They are so delicate and opening and yellow. Her garden is full of squash and sunflowers. There are two little boys, her grandsons I think who like to pretend to be great seamen in and out of the old boats. They are four year old twins. The light is thick glancing off the Lambi stones going down to the water.

We leave tomorrow on the midnight ferry to Athens so tomorrow is my last Lambi swim. One of the best parts is the swimming out hours a day into the sunlight and one of the best parts is riding the motorcycle going up and down the twisted tiny roads of Patmos with no helmet feeling the air and heat rush by. It’s so much more intimate than riding in a car with someone, and one of the best parts is the writing and one of the best parts is going to bed early and reading Lorrie Moore. She had a story about driving around Ireland with her mother and it wasn’t my favorite of her stories because she’s written better and yet it was my favorite because it was about all these places in Ireland where we went even the silly Blarney Castle where we went so Nicelle could kiss the stone and it worked for her because she got the job.

All of this is the best part. And Mark is always happy. He’s not a whiner. He’s always in a good mood on vacation. Sometimes he’s grouchy at home when dealing with work issues especially when his wife, (this part is sad) brings up work issues when he’s trying to relax at home. But on vacation, we’re humming. Los Angeles next week. Being here reminds me how dear our friends are to us and how lucky we are to have them, so to my friends: May you be blessed. May you be warm. May you be loved and may you know that you are loved.

Published in: on July 9, 2014 at 7:29 am  Leave a Comment  
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Are you sure you’re gay?

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Bi now, gay later. At least when it comes to boys. Boys try things on for size and pleasure, and then they slide over to the dark side or the fun side, however you see it. In Greek culture, sex between men and boys was considered a normal rite of passage. For our culture, it’s considered taboo. Boys who are attracted to other boys often feel that they can’t act on those desires because of religion or family. However, culturally, the prejudice against homosexuality is much more pronounced in this country against males than against females.

For many parents, having a queer daughter is easier than having a queer son. Girl Scouts might experiment with cuddling and sex play, but Boy Scouts won’t allow gays. Gay women can have families more easily, and gay women don’t seem as “other,” as gay men. Gay women athletes can come out, but gay male athletes have to keep it under wraps. The main reason for this doesn’t have to do with religion, families or “queerness,” but with fear. You might think that two gay women would challenge a man who is insecure, but quite the opposite. Gay women are seen as erotic rather than threatening. The absence of a penis is more acceptable than being presented with two of them. For a man who is comfortable with his own sexuality, a homosexual man would not seem threatening, but for many American men, that is not the case. The fear of homosexual men comes from either sexual insecurity or from a fear of being in the role of a woman. The straight man with a dose of misogyny fears gay men because being in such a relationship would imply the possibility that he would in the position he considers women to be in, the position of powerlessness, being somebody’s bitch.

Although as adults, gay male couples far out earn lesbian couples, as young girls, the line continues to be that girls might “outgrow it.” What starts with play with other girls sometimes evolves into a full blown passion for women, sometimes burns itself out as youthful experimentation. Lesbians call them “LUGS, Lesbians until Graduation.” Life is long, and it’s more fluid now; people are free to move from one gender preference to another. But it isn’t easy in many families and in many parts of this country.

So what do you do with your gay daughter? Ah, the double standard. Keep in mind these rules were started to protect our daughters’ virginity. Most parents are much more lenient with their daughters’ sleepovers with other girls than they would be if their daughter was having a teenage boy sleep over. The great thing about having a lesbian daughter is that your daughter is not going to get pregnant. At least not until she really wants to and either pays a good deal of money or gets cozy with a turkey baster.

When my daughter came out, she was playing softball. There were a lot of sleepovers among the softball girls. It all went downhill from there. Or uphill, depending on your point of view. Girls like sleepovers, but hers escalated in high school. It was a busy time. Both Tobi and her brother had girls “climbing in the bedroom windows.” I was more concerned about her brother than about my daughter. As they say, when you have a son, you only have to worry about one penis, when you have a daughter, you have to worry about every penis in town. But with a lesbian daughter, you don’t have to worry about those dangerous penises, so I let the girls come and go from my daughter’s bedroom and made sure my son was supplied with condoms.

I wanted my children to learn to govern their own passions, to be happy, and not to get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant until they get married, but I don’t think underage sex is wrong, and whether I think it’s wrong or not is irrelevant. Kids have been having sex as teenagers since the dawn of time; you are not going to change it. What you can teach your children is how to live with integrity and compassion and how to understand that there are consequences to actions so that they act wisely.

Published in: on July 8, 2014 at 2:35 am  Comments (1)  
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Big Sky Days

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I like days that feel like they have no ending. I like the sky spread out touching the ocean. The ocean is relaxing when you’re on safe land and it’s peaceful because you can feel where things start and there is no ending.

We get up in the morning and have coffee and we share this little mini cheese bread that they make on Patmos. Then we get on the bike and go exploring and then I swim a couple hours. We get lunch or come back and make lunch and in the afternoon we write. We usually just share a Greek salad. It’s too hot here to eat much. We don’t have dinner until 8 or 9 because it doesn’t feel like the day is ending.

We’re writing a lot here. And we’re reading too. I’m still on Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis is next. The iPod has thousands of recordings so we can listen to Bach all day if we want to but we mix it up. Mark gets stuck on the Brandenburg Concertos and I can really get going on my Handel but we try to go rambling in the music department.

It’s great to be away from everything, from the dirt and noise and traffic of LA, to the constant feeling that you have more to do than you possibly can and that you’re running behind. When Mark and I are together, we don’t worry about dressing up or being too fancy. Being here makes me realize that shopping is such a waste of time.

I’m making dinner tonight and I’m keeping it simple. I am making eggplant, mushrooms and shrimp. When Mark is cooking, he times everything and even sometimes measures. I like the idea of timing and measuring, but I don’t do them. I like to drink wine and kind of toss things together and see how they come out.

Thursday we take the ferry back to Athens and we’ll write for a few days there and fly home Monday. It will be nice to have a couple days at home before I leave for Nebraska. I plan to swim a couple hours a day in Nebraska too, good thing they have a pool or I’d be paddling through the cornfields.

Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 4:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Do you need a literary champion? The answer is yes.

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You may be David ready to fight Goliath or take on the world, but it would be helpful to have say, Brad Pitt to fight for you. Remember that opening scene inTroy where he jumped up and stabbed the big guy and then turned around looking for someone else to fight? Yeah, that’s what you need.

Reasons you want a literary champion:
1. It’s a lot more believable when others tell people that you are fantastic than when you do.
2. You want to become part of the literary conversation and the best way to get that started is for people to be talking about your work and talking it up.
3. You need people to advocate for you to teach and speak and be reviewed and become a significant part of the literary scene.

Qualities you should look for in a literary champion:
1. They have a lot of connections and can help you get readings, reviews, media attention, critical attention, significant appearances, and jobs! This one is a must.
2. They love your work. Also a must.
3. They have known you for a long time or understand you deeply and would like to see you succeed. Very important.
4. They owe you something. This isn’t necessary but when you are thinking about your list of literary champions, and most of us need more than one; it would help to think about who feels you’ve done great things for them, and if there isn’t at least a short list, you’re doing something wrong.
5. They are a person who operates with grace and generosity. Sometimes someone should be able to be a literary champion, but isn’t because they don’t think beyond themselves.
6. They have the bandwidth to be able to think beyond what they are currently doing. This sounds unimportant, but it is absolutely vital. If they just had a new baby, probably not a good time. If their mother just died, leave it alone. Beyond the personal, these are the elements that provide bandwidth—the ability to think beyond your own needs and set of tasks to do something for another person that may never actually benefit you.
a. You have a secure job and if you lost that you could easily get another secure job.
b. You have enough reserves to support yourself in a crisis. This usually means you have heard of stocks and bonds and you have some. You may have even heard of retirement accounts. (This is not true of most poets. I’ve heard of stocks and bonds myself.)
c. You have parents/uncles, aunts etc who could help you in a crisis. Stop here for a minute. I don’t have any of these three. And many of the people who ask me to champion them have all three of these so they should not be asking me to help them! Most of the people who are asking me to use my personal time to help them get a leg up in the literary world wouldn’t cross the street to buy me an ice cream cone on a hot day.
d. Because of all this, you have time to think beyond what is already on your plate.

What if you’re on my side of this, you need your own literary champions, but you’ve spent far too much of your own creative and intellectual capital being a champion for others. Back the truck up. It’s not too late to change your ways.

People you should continue to champion:
1. People who have made it possible for you to live and write. I would lay down on the tracks for three writers I know who have loaned me a place to write and edited my work for years.
2. People you have known a long time and feel kinship with. Douglas Kearney is always going to be someone I champion but his kids have chased my chickens, I’ve known him for fifteen years and I am crazy for his work.

Beyond that, I would say that in my line of work, I end up advocating for writers often, but at the point I’m meeting with writers and being handed a list of what they want me to do for them, I’m doing something wrong. Especially if they can’t spell my name. That’s the first rule in favors of all kinds, What’s my name, Mitch? What we should do is focus on our own work and championing the few writers who we feel connected to and not try to do so much that you feel overwhelmed.

It’s not my job to champion other writers. My job is to write and to teach. I’m also lucky enough to be the editor of Red Hen Press and to work on development, foreign right sales, events, publicity and galleys. That’s actually enough for me. Here is my advice to other literary champions out there. Do everything you can for those you love. For other writers who just want you to work for them? Give them the name of a good publicist. I’ve always said that my cup runneth over, and that may be the problem, if it runneth over too much than for me, there will be nothing left.

And for all you choosing your champions? Choose those that have breathing space. Breathing is always a good thing.

Published in: on July 6, 2014 at 3:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Greek lady shook her head; it’s too dangerous to swim. I dove in.

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Swimming at Lambi Beach in the roughest surf I’ve ever encountered. The Greek lady who runs the café shook her head when she saw me stripping to my swimsuit. She gestured toward the huge waves pounding within inches of her restaurant patio and actually splashing us while we stood there. Clearly, it was too dangerous to swim. I dived in. The force of the first few waves nearly took my breath away but once I got out beyond the surf line I could struggle along. I couldn’t make much headway because all my energy went to getting to the top of a wave, being thrown down and then scrambling to the top of the next wave. I started meditating on the value of human life as I swam along not making much forward progress and then I saw a shark go by underneath my feet. Greece does not have a shark problem; it’s not California, but the day before the winds had been 65 miles/hour and they hadn’t died down much by this morning so I wondered if fish might be closer to shore than usual. Mark was surprised that I came back in under an hour. I think he expected me to swim to Turkey but today was not my day for Turkish delight. It’s actually 56 miles so you could get there easily by boat.

I finished Lorrie Moore’s short story collection Self Help. Everyone else has already read it, but I read pretty randomly for an editor. In her work, there is a lot of cheating. People are always cheating on their mates. Her writing isn’t clever which can get old, instead it has this clear level quality that’s like pouring language over a waterfall. You see it falling and you can’t stop yourself from being with it down to the crash in the pool below. She’s a wonderful writer. I read Ursula LeGuin’s Wild Girls too, a wonderful gem of a book. And now that I’ve met her and read with her, I feel a rush of warmth just thinking about her.

Greece has been good for breathing. Good for thinking too.

Published in: on July 5, 2014 at 2:09 am  Leave a Comment  

July 4th Bombs bursting in air.

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Good things to do for July 4th.
Go see fireworks. That’s kind of the key to July 4th.
Drink too much.
Picnic food
Eat potato salad with mayonnaise and get food poisoning.
Ditto for macaroni salad which makes me queasy to think about.

Macaroni and cheese. It’s been around longer than you think. Since the Middle Ages. Jefferson brought it to Monticello after enjoying it in France. You can be sure the way French make it was better than how we make it. But it took Americans to destroy what was originally a nice dish with lovely pasta and expensive cheese and make it what we call “comfort food,” which is inevitably pretty nasty. America’s other comfort foods are meatloaf and other things that happen in casseroles. I never made my kids eat casseroles and we never missed them.

Corn on the cob. I love it!

Watermelon and chicken on the barbecue. I love barbecued chicken.

However, we are in Greece and when in Greece. We are going out for Greek food tonight. We’ve been working hard on our writing today after I did a fairly scary swim out to the island with the little hermitage. I’m putting layers of 100 SPF on my face and was kind of letting the rest of me take a beating but it’s a bit much. My back is rather sunburnt at this point.

Yesterday I spotted this amazing yacht parked in a cove and I swam out to it. I so much wanted for Mark to see it because it’s so beautiful, like a dragonfly. Today it was parked in the Patmos Harbor. It’s an Oneira Yacht. I would love to see what it is like onboard but we walked right up to it and took pictures. This is Greece so no bodyguards to scare us off.

We have been making dinner every night so tonight we are going out to eat. I love the baked Greek foods, the eggplant and the clay pot chicken and this fish called Atherina which you can’t get very often. The olives here are amazing. There is a cat at this house which we are feeding and have named Maria Callas. I love Callas so much and I can’t believe Onassis left her for that Jackie O.

Greek food calls, Mark is waiting.

Published in: on July 4, 2014 at 10:14 am  Leave a Comment  
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What I learned from books and movies

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There is a lot you can learn from reading books and watching movies. For example, things I know from No Country for Old Men, James Bond and all the Bourne movies.

1. They are always watching you even when they’re not watching you.
2. Never stay in hotel rooms when you are on the run.
3. Stay away from your friends’ houses, they know who your friends are.
4. Found money is always tracked. In Paul Auster books, you are always finding money all over the place, the stuff is in the trunk of your car, in your freezer. I keep checking my wheelbarrow but maybe the problem is that I’m not in a Paul Auster novel. But in reality, they are tracking the money with their little trackers, plus the money is marked.
5. They are tracking your passport and every ATM purchase and every phone call.
6. You need to dye your hair. Once you dye it, nobody will recognize you.
7. You can simply “lie low,” and be invisible if you have enough ninja skills.
8. Always be on the lookout for bad guys.
9. You can tell they are bad guys because they are all strong and ninja looking like Green Berets and they are the kind of people who would kill you for 10K, 100 K if you are important. I worry about that because I’m probably only worth about 1K so killers could be everywhere. That homeless guy on the street for example. I’m watching him.
10. Once you get away, you gotta lie low until someone else catches the bad guys. While you are lying low, you can have some drinks and get laid and have a good time. That’s what I’m doing here in Greece. I’m lying low. I’m incognito.

Published in: on July 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The benefits of not getting there in a hurry

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We came to Patmos by ferry which we boarded at 4:30 pm and we arrived at Patmos at 3:30 am. We actually took off at 7 pm. We sat at dinner and watched the huge ropes tossed into the water, the enormous ferry moved out slowly at first and then more quickly as it cleared the harbor. The man who untied the boat jumped on his bike and veered off into the dirt and crowds of Athens to find a beer. We ordered white Greek wine with a sort of light mineral flavor like the heat and light of Greece is shining through it. I had salmon for dinner, Mark had shrimp complete with their heads. Oddly, Americans are averse to seeing the heads of things we eat. We don’t want to look in their eyes.

It’s odd that this weekend is July 4th in the States and here there won’t even be a blip. They will be watching France play Germany and most of the Greeks will be urging the French to win. I’m sure my friend Darlene will be cheering the French madly.

But back to taking your time. One of my most memorable trips across the U.S. was in a Greyhound bus. I remember how badly everyone smelled and the way people kept playing the guitar, songs like “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” and Bob Dylan songs that they didn’t play so well. In Omaha, a woman got off and she had curlers in her hair that she’d been wearing for miles. Her biker boyfriend was picking her up and she wanted to look just so. I remember her combing out her hair in the bus station bathroom.

A couple years later I drove across the country alone eating only two chocolate bars to sustain me in the three and half days it took me to cross to Arizona. It was ridiculous. I didn’t have a job in Arizona, there was no rush, but by that time I had bought into the whole idea of being in a hurry and always thinking about the next thing instead of what I was actually doing.

Mark and I are finding time to relax here. We spend a lot of time on stuff for the press, but mostly we are breathing and writing. When I am not with Mark on the bike, he finds out how fast it can go. I tell him to slow down. I’m not scared on the hairpin turns, I just want to enjoy the scenery.

Published in: on July 2, 2014 at 11:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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