Grandma Ga, who perfectly recalled, more than a half century afterward, the details of the outfit she wore to the harbor to meet her Swiss lover Max, on a day so hot, her heels sunk into the asphalt, once told me, hung with blankets, from her permanent wheelchair perch, what a shame it was that at some point in the 1950's, women's hats began to get smaller and smaller until one day, they disappeared altogether.
I once wrote an epic novel which, after expunging all the unnecessary digressions, turned out to be a novella which, after abolishing all but the most imperative words, transformed into a short story, that upon further reflection could be expressed with greater efficiency in the form of a poem, that one day I realized was over-wrought and could stand tall as a three line haiku, which, one clear-minded day, I deleted letter by letter until all that remained was the serene finality of the blank page.
"bromidic, commonplace, corny, everyday, heavy-handed, humdrum, indifferent, old hat, ordinary, phoned in, ponderous, prosaic, stale, sterile, stock, uncreative, unexciting, unimaginative, unimpressed, uninspiring, uninteresting, uninventive, unmoved, yawn"
Synonyms for "uninspired" as listed at Thesaurus.com
When Ruth Stone,
was working in the fields of Virginia,
she could sense a poem
rumbling the horizon.
She felt it, the way one feels an earthquake,
speeding at her across the landscape.
And she knew there was only one thing to do,
to run like hell, towards the house.
The race was on, to get there
and find a pen and paper
before the poem reached her.
And sometimes she did.
But sometimes she didn't,
and the poem barreled on through
in a great torrent,
in search of another poet.
And sometimes she thought she had missed it,
but reached out with her other hand
as she brought her pen to paper,
and seized that poem by the tip of the tail
before it could escape
and flung it down,
where it appeared in reverse,
tail-end to nose-tip.
It's not advisable
To read Bukowski by day
And to watch documentaries about Burroughs by night.
"What a couple of shlamazels,"
Certain reasonable people might say,
Because they know better
Than to pass their literary free time
With drunks and junkies.
It's enough grief and grievance
To make a rather ordinary middle-aged American mom
Feel that there is no crueler prison on earth
Than the YMCA gymnastics room
On a Tuesday morning,
Forced to sit in a circle
Of well behaved citizens
Pretending to think it's fun
Singing "The Wheels on the Bus,"
While the toddlers bolt for the door.
As the wipers go swish swish swish
And the mamas go shhh shhh shhh,
This rather ordinary middle-aged American mom
Can't help but recall
That Burrows, drunk and high,
Partying in Mexico,
Claimed to be a good enough shot
To shoot a bottle off his wife's head,
And blew her face off, dead.
Burroughs dismally noted,
That it was this incident
That propelled him to be a writer.
John Waters, with his pencil line mustache,
Laughed about it,
Because what else can you do
With a story so tragic,
There's a story in the paper about a teenage boy who was shot dead on the sidewalk walking home from the convenient store. The man who shot him was not arrested because he pleaded self defense, and in Florida it seems, they have a very wide definition of self defense, so that if you are a white man who gets out of your car to confront a black boy walking on the sidewalk and if an altercation ensues, you can shoot the boy dead and not get arrested.
From far off, the sign looks like a bird in flight. The signs bloomed over night, on the doors of the public library and the university and the schools and the hospitals and businesses downtown. We didn't need the signs before because there was no need for them. But things change, new laws are passed, and now in Wisconsin, people can carry concealed weapons in order to defend themselves against their fears. So, it is up to the guardians of the doors to put up a sign if they don't want guns inside. And every time I notice one of the signs, going to pick up my daughter from preschool, going to return books to the library, going to meet friends for coffee, I feel that familiar shimmer of fear. I am afraid of people who are so fearful, they feel the need to carry a gun. I am afraid that their fear and my fear only makes more of the same, and that a little sign on the door is no match for a loaded gun.
We waited in line over two hours at the airport on the day we were scheduled to fly home from Athens. Zenetta had insisted we stay with her until the ash from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption cleared, but how long would that be? Zenetta had been sleeping on her couch for 10 days already. Mom and I knew we had to move on. We decided on Santorini, the Greek island from where the nice American couple ahead of us in line had just returned. We took notes from their guide book. But when we got to the desk, and the man told us we would have to go stand in another line to buy tickets to Santorini, we balked. The sign behind the desk said there was a plane heading to Cairo in 45 minutes. "What do you think?" I asked Mom. "Lynne lives in Cairo," Mom said. Why not?
After landing in Egypt, mom kept her cool. I had a panic attack that didn't fully subside until twenty-four hours later when we arrived at Lynne's apartment, her husband, through a bit of acrobatics, having secured a flight home for us in four days. This was April, 2010. Lynne's husband, who works for the American government, said something big was brewing, though no one knew exactly what. In December that year, the Arab Spring burst into full bloom.
Meema, our cab driver, taught us to say, "you're crazy," in Arabic. "Everyday my wife says to me, Meema, you crazy. Enta magnoon! And I say thank you my wife."
"Enta magnoon!" Meema yelled to a man riding a donkey. "Enta magnoon!" he yelled to an old woman trying to cross the street. "Enta magnoon!" he yelled to kids hanging out the door of a crowded bus. "Everyone!" he yelled shaking his fist as we flew down the restless streets of Cairo. "Enta magnoon!"
I spent a day by myself, on the island of Hydra, climbing the deserted cobblestone staircases, imagining that I would run into George Clooney.
But I did get to swim in the Aegean Sea with a fat man from Brazil named Henry.
On the boat ride back to Athens, I couldn't help but notice how an American father was ignoring his two morose sons, too busy talking on his cellphone, even on vacation, to notice them.
Against his will, without his knowing, I judged him.
Returning to Zenetta's apartment after dark, my mom opened the door. "Something's happened," she said. A volcano was erupting in Iceland, and all fights through Europe were cancelled. We sat squinting at CNN through the thick fuzz of Zenetta's television, the excitement of an unexpected turn of events, etched with the worry of how to get back home to the kids.
I lay in bed that night, thinking about the man I'd judged to be a bad father, desperately trying to find a way to get his boys back home for school, soccer practice, choir.
Sula does not approve of our plans to go for a hike. "We like hiking," my mom and I tell her. This does not satisfy her. She complains to her sister Zenetta who translates for us. "She says it's dangerous. There are lots of lizards." Mom and I laugh. Zenetta is taken aback. "It's true!" she says. "I have seen one myself up there on the rocks."
"We will be very careful," we promise.
Sula lights a cigarette and tells a long story. When she is finished, Zenetta translates. "She says you should bring a big stick."
Zenetta insists on walking us down to the beach, to point out the trail that leads to a hidden cove. "It will only take you 20 minutes or so. It is a nice view. Then you come back and take a nap."
We tell her we are going to hike for a few hours.
"A few hours?! You will get lost!"
"We'll be back before lunch."
We find the cove and sit for a while enjoying the sound of the water rolling over the pebble beach. We discover a road that leads up the hillside and agree to follow it. We get grander and grander views of the Aegean Sea. I leave my mom to climb down a rock face and investigate a little island attached to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand. I wave to Mom from the island where there is a small shuttered church. I walk around the church, find a walking stick, and climb back to Mom.
From the road, we see a very elegant white house perched on the top of the hill. We decide to climb all the way up to get a better view. The house is surrounded by a fence. Behind the fence is a dog and a man working in a beautiful and vast cactus garden. We say "Poli orea!" through the fence. Turns out the man doesn't speak Greek. We tell him we don't either. He tells us his name is Nickolai and that he is German. "We love your house," we tell him. "We've been climbing towards it from the cove."
"I designed it myself," he tells us.
"And your garden is so marvelous," my mom says. "Did you make the sculptures too?"
"Yes, all from driftwood."
"You are a wonderful artist."
The man lights up. He yells up to the balcony where his wife is standing. "Did you hear? Me, an artist!"
He tells us that the road leads to a little village in the next cove. We continue along the road and are rewarded with the most beautiful views of the turquoise sea dotted with islands. In the little village, we find a small store right on the beach. We buy sodas from the tall thin owner who smells like ouzo. "It is Sunday," he says, raising his glass to us.
View from the store.
We check the time and decide that we better head back over the hill. The sisters will be getting worried. We retrace our steps but instead of taking the side trail to the hidden cove, we take the road over the ridge. Aiga Anna spreads out along the beach. "Hey," I say to Mom. "Isn't that Zenetta?" There is a dark figure, standing in the street with hands on hips. "She doesn't look very happy," Mom says. We wave and yell. But the figure just turns and disappears into the house.
A half hour later we walk in the gate. Zenetta and Sula are sitting on the porch smoking. Sula crosses herself. Zenetta leans towards us. "You have no idea what I have been through."
"We had a wonderful hike."
"I was calling everyone trying to find a car to drive up that mountain to look for you."
"Why? We told you we would be out until lunch."
"But how did I know you wouldn't get lost?"
"Lost? But there is only one road."
"Haven't you ever been over the ridge?"
"No," says Zenetta. "Why would I go up there?"
We show them the pictures on Mom's camera. Finally, Sula talks.
"What did she say?"
"She's surprised that it's just as beautiful as here. She says maybe we will have to go over there someday. But we will not walk like you foolish people. We will drive in style."
We rode the bus from Athens, the island of Evia close enough to the mainland of Greece to be joined by bridge. On the way, my mom and I told Zenetta that we didn't know if we wanted to stay at her sister's house for the whole weekend since there were so many things we wanted to see. First thing in Sula's door, we sat down to lunch. Sula spoke only Greek and regarded us with suspicion as she smoked. "Sula wants to know why you aren't eating?" Zenetta asked. We were eating, but the table was set for 12. Stuffed zucchini, cabbage rolls, fried potatoes, spanakopita, bread rolls, salad, Greek cheese, olives, fried fish, and octopus legs. Sula gestured to the octopus and told a long story to Zenetta. "She was lucky. Because you were coming, the sea gave her this octopus. She hasn't caught one for a long time. This one she beat on a rock 75 times to tenderize. And do you realize she is 73 year old?" We told Sula over and over again, "Nostimo!" But she just shrugged. "Why isn't she eating?" I asked Zenetta. When Zenetta translated, Sula frowned and waved her cigarette over the table. "She's not hungry," said Zenetta.
I had had a healthy sampling of everything on the table and was more than halfway through the giant fried fish that could have been the meal unto itself when I sat back in my chair, stuffed. Sula leaned forward and pointed her cigarette at my fish and told Zenetta, "If she doesn't like it, I can make her something else."
After lunch, the sisters began closing all the curtains in the house, insisting my mom and I both lie down for a nap. We refused. We were in Greece! How could we waste time napping? We wanted to go walking along the Aegean Sea. The sisters thought that was a very bad idea. We said goodbye anyway and tried to convince them we would be okay. Zenetta accompanied us down the street so we wouldn't get lost even though you can see the beach from Sula's front porch.
Sula crossed herself when my mom and I appeared a couple of hours later at her street that dead ends at the beach. We knew the sisters would be worried. It was our first outing alone in Greece since we had arrived, two days before in Athens. "Well, what do you think of Sula's beautiful Agia Anna?" Zenetta asked. "We've decided we need to stay until Monday." Sula kissed her hand, crossed herself, hugged us and sat down on a bench to have a cigarette.
Sula pushing the ouzo with our late evening snack.
After Zenetta learned English, she got a job at Tech High in Omaha. A man who worked there always greeted Zenetta when he walked past her desk. For one reason or another, he irritated Zenetta. One afternoon, at the end of a particularly irritating day, she wrote Skatá! on a poster board and hung it behind her desk. The next morning, the man stopped and asked Zenetta what it meant.
"It's a general greeting in Greece. Like Shalom."
"Well then! Skatá, Zenetta," he said.
"Skatá to you too!" she replied.
The man was very pleased to learn this Greek word. For the next six months, every day he came in and wished Zenetta skatá. And every day, Zenetta smiled and said, "Skatá to you too!"
The very last time she ever saw him, on the last day of the school year, he told her he was going to see a Greek friend who lived in Texas. "I'm going to tell him skatá!"
"He will be very impressed," Zenetta said, never regretting that she didn't reveal to him the true meaning of the word.*
We are strolling the boardwalk in Chalkida, the coastal town where Zenetta was born. The wide cement walk is lined with empty benches facing the inlet. It is April, the end of the off season, the time Zenetta insisted we come. Three women, one ancient, one middle aged, one young, all dressed in tailored black skirts and matching jackets walk towards us. "Americanos," we hear them say to each other after we've passed.
"How do they know?" my mom asks, camera poised, in her t-shirt, jeans, bright white tennis shoes, and visor.