Monday, September 2, 2013

She Was Told the Facts of Life Much Too Early


She was told the Facts of Life much too early.
She demanded to know why. Because you asked, her mother said.
You were so persistent, I finally gave in to you.

When her father told her the Rockies once were under water,
She refused to believe this plain untruth. Her world was rocked,
She was shocked because this was the first lie
He ever spoke to her.

They drove to the top of their mountain, the one
With their house at the foot, and he stopped the car beside
A slope. He asked her to dig and she found seashells.
She was rocked again.

In the Rockies

In the Rockies, what I've seen of them, there are aspen
And if you ascend the twisty mountain roads in October, go
Where aspen fill inclines that spill spectacularly down from
Roadsides, legions of creased silver trunks, upright as drinking straws
Will be plunged in their shimmery lemon shock of lacey
Leaves. Scorching you coolly, like a peppery soda fountain
Tonic, the aspen will knock you back as easily as you might
grab a defenseless glass of water. You will be imbibed,
They will consume you, the consummate aspen.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Things I Never Tell My Son (or TMI)

There are things I never would say to him,
Stories I never know how to tell, but
If they were blogged he might
See them and they would be
Said, delivered, out. And, my work,
Or a piece of it, would be
Done. That's just my

We might not say anything about it.
But it would be there, quiet as 
The sound of the hairs on
Your head, growing.

Not now, not right away
But one fine day he might think
Right, that thing she said, now I get it.

(With a young child,
Limit your words, thoughtfully
Pick and choose your stories.
Never slip, as what you say may
Haunt you.)

So, nuking tonight's dinner,
Thinking what a contradiction it is
To nuke the virtuous grains and organic
Vegetables, it was a twist to hear on the radio
That James Gandolfini is dead --
Fifty-one, in Rome,
On vacation.

It is June.
It is a gentle night.
Even on a gentle night,
News may arrive that
Someone died of an untimely
Heart attack.

If I had happened to be in Kansas City,
At my son's elbow, chopping as he cooked
For his kids and his wife, I might say:
"There's this strange and strangely
Familiar point when fifty-one
Is recent and young."

My father would say 'Life is short, Missy.'
And, I never told you -- did you ever
Hear me tell anyone? -- that mortality
Was a theme of your grandfather's? He never
Agreed with the deal, the set up, you
Know, this arrangement
Of being mortal."

As for me, I would like to
Say, son, circumstances are
Most definitely subject to
Change without notice.

Be prepared.

In a long ago time shrouded in mist and
Uncertainty, before my son was himself a father,
I would sit up in bed in the dead of
Night (I would rather not mention
This) and pant myself awake.
I was panting. His single
Parent, terrified of our
Never-ending bills.

But, please know (as Long Island
Medium says, bearing messages
To the living from the dead) your
Spirit will become easier if you
Are brave and a parent can,
If he or she is brave,
Keep to a path well
Ahead of the
Pay dates of

As long, of course,
As they (the parents)
Remain alive.

I believe what my father knew, what
My son knows: peace can be deep,
Turning the pages of a bedtime story,
Or watching a restless child
Settle or sleep.

And the moral (aye, if there be a moral)
Would be that although we struggle
To speak, and the story is not
The one we intended to tell,
No one story matters too
Much. It is the telling,
Like the breathing.
That lives.

That's the story.
("Hold onto your hat.")

(Please know that I am hearing
A definition of amen: May it be so.

Here is a hope, a desire.
May it be so.)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Hell, no!
Had a dream,
Bio pic on HBO.

Lucky me, all the cute boys
And girls are in mandatory physiotherapy,
A kind of high-school dance at the
Imaginary annex, in Vegas.
(They somehow fly us in,
From New England.)

We mix and mill around
After repairs to somehow shattered,
Mummy-bandaged legs and feet.
No medics are visible. Only silvery
Escalators, gold columns and
Champagne-filled flutes.

Magenta, velvet-cushioned study halls where
Everyone hobbles on cruel crutches,
And will heal (if they study
Hard enough).

(Matt D (as Scott T) is never
In study or class, must've disappeared
Into Principal Lee's suite,
On a pass.)

I wear little, reach for Rob Lowe,
His greasy mask face framed
In his wig-like, center-parted Monkee
Cut. Narrow eyes glazed, stare blank,
He wraps and clutches my naked
Arm like a vine, grips my spine
As we go tango, furiously.

In a dreamy
Shedding of wraps,
We choose partners.
We lose partners.
Some of us rotate more
Easily than others.
Some never yield and
Are suspended like swings or
Tinsel from each other's limbs.
(Liberace so loved Christmas
That his tree was taller
Than the Eiffel Tower.)

Our combinations are not 
Real tango steps but kin to
Rock waves and shimmies,
Or blinks of daring, blaring
Tribal gyrations ...
No talking, please.
No one speaks here.
We only permit
Piano and singing.

I feel my heart crave
And crave, and
It is not slutty.

My mother, too dourly,
(Like Debbie Reynolds,
In her rubber Mother Liberace nose,
Tapping her foot at the "sidelines")
And her mother, double dourly, think
They know my heart. Whispering or
Mute, these dames disapprove,
Mourn the loss of what they
Thought was my destiny.

(They tsk and whisper,
Say Liberace's a
Terrible ham.) (Not
(In fact present, I
Still wear them like
Itchy winter coats that
Can never be unbuttoned,
Even in the blistering,
Frying Vegas heat.)

Lee Liberace, sly shaman and sham,
(Of the flying fingers, base backstabbing,
Redundant diamond rings, capricious facelifts) is our host,
but ever invisible, gossamer
As a chorus girl's ghost.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Here We Have May

Rain burst just as I folded into bed.
With no intro, a fury could've drowned us,
Fell like fists of ice. Wildness,
Crazed drumming all around
For maybe ten minutes.

The sky collapsed, clearly.
Quiet, a pause, a second burst.
Very furious, like the first.

Sheltered tomato and zucchini wait to be
Settled in sunny ground, hoping not to
Be battered or drown.

In two shades of pink,
Two peony plantings just today popped
Into fullest bloom.

Was digging salad bits into compost in greying light,
Shoveling an unkindness to industrious, gleaming worms.
One eye on a failing gardenia that may end here soon;
Amaryllis in energetic come back.

"So happy," says the French-speaking Cameroonian prince,
If a person is pleased with his work. "They were so
Happy. She was so happy."

A burst of rain is not a tornado, we say, at the open front door.
Thoughts of Oklahoma, rows of flattened, shattered homes
Shadowing upright rows of untouched homes.

In darkness, nearly light, I hear this house
Breathing, the tap of laptop keys and
Interweaving honey curls of birdsong,
Above and beyond all.

Here we have May,
Nearly Memorial Day,
Nearly summer.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Notes for Olympia Dukakis

Notes for Olympia Dukakis
After reading her memoir, Ask Me Again Tomorrow  


Greek Heroes

Olympia! I did not read your book. It was a life experience for me. I inhaled it, like a yummy Greek delicacy, delivered to my personal table.

At this time, when the implosions of the Greek economy have contributed to an international crisis of epic propotions, it was more than helpful to discover your story and be reminded of the Glory that can be Greeks. While some are admittedly taking siestas, their watches set to "Greek Time" when they should be paying their income taxes, the honest, hard-working majority of Greeks and the Greek diaspora are punctually contributing and innovating in diverse arenas.

Your story proves that endurance and hard work are as necessary to Success as talent.

Last night I discovered that the man who said "Bernie Madoff's not for real" and proved it was Harry Markopolos, heroic and stoic Greek-American born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania.

While working at a Boston investment firm as CFA and CFE, he launched his investigation into Madoff's international, 20 billion dollar Ponzi scheme. His book, titled No One Would Listen, refers to his frustration when, for nearly a decade, he delivered ever-increasing evidence to the SEC and the press and no action was taken to stop Madoff.

Markopolos is a very modest, diligent, ingenious man in his forties with thinning hair and an Army background. He mentioned (in the documentary, "Chasing Madoff") that because he was smaller than everyone else competing in high school sports, his philosophy became, "I don't mind losing. You just have to show up."

He continues in his career as a professional whistleblower who investigates the biggest "big boy" frauds. (Madoff's profits were made possible by support he received from more than 30 investment professionals and institutions.)

Are Dukakises Tall?

Or, are they not short? If so, that may explain why height is not a dominant theme of your memoir. My father, who was 5’9”, was at times preoccupied with height. He never failed to mention that although his mother was tall his father was not. His father resembled “a cigar store wooden Indian” and spoke like an Indian: “Customer want baklava”, etc.

When he met a person, specifically a male person, my father would find his way to the height theme. If this person was taller than he was, he would ask how tall they were. Then, he would request that they stand side by side, both lifting an arm to demonstrate the inevitable: my father's arms were the longest. John Doukas said he had the arms of “an orangutan”, which explained his success on the basketball courts of inner-city Washington, DC, where he was born and grew up.

And, one thing about Michael Dukakis: if he had been elected president, I would’ve spent my life spelling out my last name and having people nod and respond: “Right, Dukakis.” Throughout your cousin’s campaign for the presidency I would explain to deaf ears that our names were different. I might also go into detail: our name means “Duke” and your name means something like “Little Duchy.”

I have also read that the diminuitive “akis” ending was assigned to Greek names by Turkish occupiers as a form of humiliation.

In any case, having a Northeastern liberal Greek-American Democrat (and an honest man) in the White House, after the embarrassment of Spiro T. Agnew, would have been consolation enough for me.

Greek Noses and Nose Jobs

Olympia! There were so many teenage Greek-American girls who thought their noses were too big and/or crooked and had nose jobs like yours that it never occurred to me, when I encountered one of these noses, that they (or you) had had a nose job. My impression was that these were an elegant, distinctive type of Greek nose.

In fact, after growing up among altered and unaltered Greek noses, my opinion is that many Asian and Northern European noses are way too small. Seriously: how do people breathe through nasal passages that tiny?

When my gorgeous youngest sister moved to Los Angeles, long ago, she was advised to consider plastic surgery so she could be cast in roles other than ethnic roles. It is a relief that now there is far more non-stereotypical TV and movie casting of formerly so-called ethnic actors. And, more actors keep original, ethnic names and do not need to live in fear (as you mention) that they’d be asked if they spoke English.

The Name Alec

Olympia, if it's not too obvious, I wonder if your mother’s name was Alec because she was one of five daughters and her parents were pining for a son?

Although, as the firstborn daughter I was named the traditional way, after my father’s mother, before I was born my father would place his hand on my mother’s belly and insist I was John Michael Doukas, Jr. According to my mother, he believed, as one of four sons, that he could only produce sons.

If my mother can be believed, my father's first-choice name for me was John Michael, even after I was born. She insisted a girl couldn’t be saddled with her father’s name. So they eventually went the traditional route, compromising on my middle name, which is Joan, after John.

My three sisters (all younger) (correct: no sons) received names that resemble male names: Andrea (Andrew?), Erika (Erik?), and Nike (Nick!). In fact, my mother gave Erika the name Nancy, after a close friend who was a New Englander, but as an adult Erika experimented and researched and committed to a name with a Greek derivation. It was a good fit.

Believe it or not, not for the first time, I recently heard myself exploring whether to change my name to Johnny, although I have never, never mentioned this internal debate to anyone ... Would a masculine name be my way of asserting that some daughters are almost equal to, maybe better than, sons?

Most interesting is that in Greek, when people speak about their sons they use the word for child and when they speak of their daughters they use  the word for girl. So a person might say I have three children and a girl, if they had three sons and a daugher. Painful.


Olympia, you wrote about your mother: “She had what Greeks refer to as the quality of kefti, the spirit of exuberant living.” Even though I grew up evesdropping on Greek spoken by my parents and their parents and siblings, I don't remember the word kefte. I wonder if this is because your family and mine were from different times and places and might've therefore had different styles of Greekness.

I first started to think about the differences among Greeks comparing two grandmothers: my maternal grandmother, Vasso Anastos of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the paternal grandmother of my Fitchburg, Massachusetts cousins, Ellen Baimas.

Ellen was called Yiayia (emphasizing the first syllable); she wore floral prints in nice bright colors and made generous, curled-up mitten-size rustic meatballs (keftedes) and Easter cookies (koulourakia). The Baimases were from Langadia, a remote village like a steep flight of stairs that ran up the side of a mountain, with tiny houses built into each step. She was a sturdy, plain-spoken (OK, opinionated) matriarch, proud of her family and community.

Vasso was called Yiayia (emphasizing the second syllable); she wore black dresses with the hem at mid-calf and shiny black lace-up shoes. In her sunny, plant-filled kitchen, she made tidy little urban keftedes and koulourakia. She had been a schoolteacher in Patras, a seaport. She was permanently homesick for Greece, it seemed. She was also very proud of her professional credentials and demanding and critical of her children--athough, Eleni, the firstborn, was the favorite.

Both Ellen and Vasso were widows, each had five children although Ellen adopted a sixth child from her village. They both lived out their lives in the big houses their husbands had provided.

The thing is, like leprechauns and shamrocks for Irish-Americans, it seems that many Americans are sentimental about traditions from which the Old World has long since moved on. Not everyone does River Dancing in Ireland; like all Europeans, Greeks are dancing to contemporary Afro-Caribbean, American and Euro music and they are typically dancing in hip, contemporary clothes.

Greek dancing is great but my feelings about it are mixed—not merely because I have great difficulty memorizing the steps …

Mythology vs. Orthodoxy

Olympia, it interests me so much that you found your way to the Goddess and Goddess studies. Like you (it seems), I was never completely persuaded by the Church.

What I mean is: for me, it was those women in hats, gossiping about the hats other women were wearing. More positively, it was those weekday afternoons in Greek school, where we learned to read and write Greek by studying the ancient myths. Then, we’d return to the same church basement classrooms for Sunday school and discuss bible stories that seemed to me like an equivalent, less ancient form of mythology.

(Option for a rainy day: compare and discuss the torments of Prometheus with lighter-weight American mythological figures—Santa, Easter Bunny, Paul Bunyan.)

From family stories, I knew church was the engine or glue or communal hearth of the immigrant Greek community. Marriages could be arranged there. Money was raised. The men stood on the steps after services, trading business cards and favors. However, my father said he didn’t like all the back slapping and said he couldn’t afford to offer special Greek rates for his services to Greek clients (although I think he did).

Some Sundays during the Vietnam War, as we headed for Watertown, zipping past the white Unitarian church on Lexington Green, my mother would say there was a great anti-war speaker visiting the Unitarians that morning but we were bound for Watertown because that was Yiayia’s church; unthinkable, to leave the Orthodox faith.


Olympia, when your mother waited at the window for your father’s late night return, you didn’t know he was out with other women. When you found this out, as an adult, I wonder if you ever knew whether your father’s women were “Greek” or “American”, i.e., foreign or xeni? (Do all immigrants identify the local community as xeni?)

My mother’s brother, my uncle Ted, was the bachelor son who, until he married in his forties, was alone with his mother after everyone else had left home or died. (When he married, his wife joined the household.)

During his bachelor years, if Ted was out all Saturday night on a date, Yiayia refused to allow him to drive her to church on Sunday morning, saying something like this: she was ashamed be seen with him and he should not show his face in church, everyone would know he had been out all night consorting with women who were xeni.

Ted would say that his father’s view of relations with American women went like this: “They’ll go with you and everything will be beautiful but then one day they’ll turn on you and say: ‘Get out of here, you God-damn Greek!’”

When I was in college, the boyfriend of a girlfriend of mine offered me a lift back to school after a break. As we were loading my things into the back of his station wagon, my tiny Yiayia tore out of the house in her black widow’s garb of two decades and accosted us, in her very rare English: “Please, Thalia, for my sake! Marry a nice Greek boy!” (Did she think we were eloping?) As I protested, her selective deafness kicked in and she shook her head and woefully made her way back up the driveway repeating: “Then ah-coo-aw! (i.e., “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear a word!”)

I remember trying not to sound furious when I explained to Yiayia that I didn’t know any nice Greek boys, we were only one of two Greek families in Lexington at that time, as far as I could tell. In fact, as a freshman at RISD, I was friendly with my classmate George Stavrinos.  Like me (and you) George was from Massachusetts. He was born in Somerville and although he was gay we discussed how, in a pinch, we might introduce each other to our parents as potential marriage partners, to keep hope alive.

George's drawings were astonishing. He arrived at RISD fully developed as an artist and, almost immediately after graduation, became a fashion illustrator for Barney's, providing beautiful pencil drawings of elegant models in Barney's fashions each week, for the Sunday New York Times.

I recently looked him up in Wikipedia, wondering why I've never found recent work by him. He died in 1990; was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2007.

Not Mentioning Zorba

Like the bouzouki, specifically the music from "Never On Sunday," that scamp Zorba has become a cliché and thanks so much, Olympia, for not mentioning him, Nikos Kazantzakis, Anthony Quinn or the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," in your memoir.

Each year when my uncle Ted carved the Thanksgiving turkey, he would make his too familiar joke about carving the Turk. Somehow, my mother and all her bleeding-heart liberal Democrat siblings were deeply negative about Turks. I belatedly realized, Ted expressed his support for the Serb cause during the genocide in Croatia, that Turk could be a word that includes the meanings Arab or Muslim.

Thank you, Olympia, for omitting derrogatory comments about Turks from your memoir. I wonder if you are not racist because your father's family came from Cyprus, where Greeks and Turks share one nation?

My dream is a wedding movie about Greeks that would match the heights, depths, multi-class and multi-ethnic vision of  "Monsoon Wedding" ... At the same time, I admit that my family members did share "Big, Fat"-esque opinions such as: “Oreo, from the Greek, oh-ray-oh, the nice cookie.” And, “O.K.! From the Greek: “Ollah-kalla! All is well!”

[To be continued.]

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wandering Ovary

After many dark and stormy seasons,
The ovaries were comfortingly quiet for a time.
Perhaps they were scribbling their memoirs,
Content after dutiful years of service.
When the left one re-started oddly familiar aches,
Like jabs of stormy weather, doctors found nothing.
The shimmers of lightning did not originate in
The ovary place, the doctors said.

Not to worry, I gave up tomatoes as
Digesting them or the papery skins seemed to
Amplify a storminess tucked below the ribs.

"There's nothing there," the doctor assured me,
Speaking of the spot I pressed and pointed to.
Not for the first time, my thinking self
Seemed stuck in a mystery box body,
Everything I needed to see and
Understand was opaque
To me.

Then they called, requested an MRI as,
Studying the sonogram, the ovary on the left
Was missing. They said calmly.
"It's there!" says I.

"Couldn't you have a
sonogram equipment failure?"
The PA promised, no worries:
"We see this all the time."

Think of the ovary as a plump, cheeky walnut
Of a chappy who, after retirement from reproductive
Duties, shrinks to a wrinkled raisin-size thingy,
Very gradually. Some will wander, some will hide
Behind the uterus. Never forget we are
Never symmetrical:

Just as a left eye or hand is not a twin of the right,
A right ovary may be forward, flamboyant,
While the left is reticent, is less
Endowed with eggs from the start, or
Prefers stiletto heels to
Hiking boots ...

In 48 hours, test results are expected.
Here I sit, impatient for a postcard
Or telegram from a rogue ovary.