Nixon and the flu

A cloud drifted over my usually sunny disposition this week. Flu, with a touch of delirium.

In my delirium, I’ve become fixated on this object, which sits on my desk. So fixated that I pulled out my Brownie and snapped a photo.

Fixed elephant.jpg

It’s a campaign tchotchke from the 1973 Nixon-Agnew Presidential campaign. In Park Ex, at least in Greek households, we called these things bibelots. Every horizontal surface is littered with bibelots: gondoliers, toreadors, geishas, and always and everywhere, the Parthenon cast in metal, plastic, glass, chocolate. For me, these objects exert a powerful gravitational pull. Like giant suns, they bend the contours of history and memory.

The elephant in the room

We picked up this one at a flea market and it’s made by Francoma Pottery, which we kind of collect, or at least used to.

Richard Nixon is famous for many things, besides the obvious one. Among them is his Southern Strategy, which successfully converted Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. Hammering away at restoring “law and order,” in the wake of civil rights demonstrations in the South, did the trick for a certain kind of voter. That strategy has a very long tail.

Also, Spiro Agnew — the only Greek-American politician to soar as high in U.S. politics. Agnew was from Baltimore, which has a surprisingly large Greek community. (In The Wire, there’s a side story in one of the later seasons about organized criminals on the Baltimore docks; they all speak an unconvincing Greek.)

Agnew was gaffe-prone and corrupt. He was derided mercilessly as a fool, and had a weakness for alliteration, itself a kind of linguistic bibelot. He’s best remembered for accusing journalists of being “nattering nabobs of negativism.” That, too, has a long tail. Agnew was the second Vice President in U.S. history to resign in disgrace, so he couldn’t even be first at being bad.


The snow runner

Montreal’s fresh snow and bracing cold have been positively glorious this winter. Every run is a tonic.

The Coach says it’s not about distance or time; it’s about effort. So last week I went to great effort to dress for the occasion: Merino-blend long johns under insulated running tights, a long-sleeve running shirt under a zip-up mock turtleneck, and over all that a medium-weight blue fleece topped by the red Running Club windbreaker. On my hands, dollar-store knit gloves and Thinsulate-lined mittens. And on my head a balaclava capped with a running hat.

Running with a balaclava is a challenge because I’m not entirely sure how to pronounce it. I’m tempted to say baklava, which I know is wrong on several levels. Most people pronounce it with the accent on the third syllable. But I like to hedge my bets, so as I run I chant the word balaclava, once unaccented and then progressively favouring each of its four syllables. As a running mantra it works very well in winter, transporting me to a sleek Barcelona chair in a book-lined room filled with classical music, where I sit before an open fire holding a ham sandwich…

Where were we? Oh, and on my feet I wore my regular running shoes and socks.

The temperature was –24° Centigrade with a wind chill that brought things down to –32°. But once you get going it’s fine for several minutes and then gets too hot. Suddenly you’re a salmon being poached, and despite the internal heat the moisture in your breath, trapped by the balaclava, freezes into icy shards that press against your cheeks and eventually join up with the encroaching ice from your frozen eyebrows to form one continuous layer.

Did I mention the sidewalks? There are no sidewalks. The sidewalks are under four feet of snow, so you run on the road and the drivers, careening helplessly because they have no traction, honk and stare daggers at you. You stare daggers back, but they can’t see you doing it because your glasses are fogged from your breath, causing you to miss the turn that would have taken you home an hour ago and you’re now standing in front of a concrete building you’ve never seen before. Although, helpfully, it is a hospital.



So long, Sanibel

I went for a long run the other day for the usual reason: to clear the mind. In the cool morning air, before the start of foot and bike traffic, a large sleepy snake had curled up on the asphalt to warm in the sun. Annoyed at my approach, it slithered into the underbrush. I thought the snake to be a good omen.

At the 8.3km mark of my long run, with egrets and ibises flickering through the trees on my right, and ospreys wheeling above, I experienced a spell of the runner’s euphoria others describe but I’ve never felt. By the 9km mark, the euphoria had evaporated, but I remained grateful for having seen the snake.

Wings in


Wings out

Two birds I photographed with my Brownie. My son, a tireless joker, calls every bird near or on the water a duck. Neither of these is a duck.

Christmas on Sanibel

This is the first Christmas vacation we’ve spent in the south. It’s disorienting to see people setting up miniature Christmas trees beside their beach towels, and women wearing necklaces of Christmas lights as they sun.

On one of my runs I passed a Santa-and-reindeer diorama. Someone had stuck twelve rickety metal flamingos into the dirt, adorned them with red toques and harnessed them with strings of tinsel to a massive Adirondack chair, painted red. Shuddering in the morning breeze and weighed down with their spangled reins, the poor flamingos had the sturdiness of used twist-ties. Absurdly, I felt sorry for them. The flamingos clearly weren’t up to pulling the fat man and his chair. All I could think about was #MeToo.

As I ran by, an elderly woman taking pictures kept exclaiming, “Lovely…lovely.”

Later that same day, on the beach, a boy of about twelve was wearing a t-shirt illustrated with a fishing rod and the words, “God is the REEL THING.” I was tempted to explain to him that Jesus, not God, is generally regarded as the “Fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). But he probably would have gone running to his mother, and I’ve now learned how prickly Sanibel Islanders can be.

Further down the beach, Shari was sitting cross-legged and sketching the Sanibel Lighthouse. As my photo shows, the lighthouse lacks the picturesque romance of Maritime and New England lighthouses. Only an engineer could have come up with it: basically, a superstructure of girders supporting an iron cylinder that encloses a spiral staircase. It’s simple and ingenious and, with its reddish glow of rusting metal, actually quite attractive. A few small outbuildings are clustered at the base, with one chimney crowned by an osprey nest.


As I was photographing the lighthouse, four Latino boys kicking a soccer ball stopped to watch Shari sketch. They were clearly not tourists, nor Sanibel Islanders. My guess is they were enjoying a day off from a restaurant kitchen. They stood for some time, looking approvingly over Shari’s shoulder at the sketch and glancing up at the lighthouse.

At this point a woman with two daughters — from their sound and appearance, Dutch tourists — began setting up on the sand. The comelier daughter casually stripped off her t-shirt and rummaged in a straw bag for her bathing suit top. She was well outside the boys’ field of vision, but activated by some invisible signal, four heads swivelled with impressive unison, rotating a hundred-and-eighty degrees. The heads watched impassively until the bathing suit top was secured, then snapped back into position. The boys recommenced kicking the ball down the beach.

The Miami Dolphins quarterback

One day, we took a drive to nearby Matlacha. If I were to give you five guesses, you would still be unable to come up with the correct pronunciation for this island. The locals say “Matt Lashay.” To my ear it sounds like the name of a celebrity hairdresser on the Shopping Channel or the Miami Dolphins quarterback or a televangelist (“And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”).

It took about thirty minutes to get to Matlacha, past sprawling housing developments, followed by malls that service the developments, then tracts of empty land, then more sprawling developments and more malls to service them, and so on. We concluded that staying on Sanibel is more agreeable.

I’ll offer up one final image to cap our vacation: On the day of our leaving, crowds of Sanibel Islander came out to wish us a safe journey. Lining the entire causeway and bridge to the mainland, they beat their drums and blew their conch shells in traditional farewell, as they raised giant palm fronds to create an archway for our departure. I confess to shedding a tear or two.






Helen of Sanibel

When travelling, we often check in on local farmer’s markets, especially when we have a kitchen to play in. And so last Sunday, under mild and sunny weather, we drove to the Sanibel Island market for inspiration. It offered some expected bounty: tables laden with baskets of jalapeno peppers and tomatoes, bakers selling key lime pies, and hobbyists peddling scented soaps, alongside food trucks serving pulled pork sandwiches and tacos. A bit of everything and a lot of fun.

But we also found unexpected fare. Behind one counter, a red-faced guy with white hair neatly pulled into a ponytail, was selling olive oil, Kalamata olives, vinegars, dried herbs and mountain teas from Gythio, in the Southern Peloponnese. His stall was decorated with photos of the terroir, to add notes of authenticity, and he offered tastings of the oil and olives.

He’s not Greek, as it turns out. But he represents a Greek-American woman named Dáfni, who now lives in Maine but whose family comes from the Gythio area. She imports in bulk and repackages in the United States.

I’ve visited the ancient port of Gythio many times over the years, as it’s close to my birthplace. I have one indelible memory of the town: every dockside café and restaurant is strung with clotheslines hung with hundreds of octopi desiccating in the sun and salty breeze. Grilled over charcoal and fragrant with sea and smoke, the plump mouthfuls are rightly considered the only true accompaniment to a cool glass of ouzo. Gythio is packed every evening with locals clapping their hands for waiters and busily depleting the town’s ranks of octopi.

And another thing: In ancient times Gythio was Sparta’s main port. So when Paris abused King Menelaus’s hospitality by absconding with Helen, the king’s wife, the pair sailed to Troy from this picturesque port. Stealing the king’s wife was considered bad form in ancient times. It led to the Trojan War. But, more happily, it also produced the Iliad and the Odyssey.



Fortunately I had loaded my Brownie with fresh film.

First story for 2018

I’d like to announce my third Park Ex story, “Whatever happens happens.” I hope you like it. It joins the two previous stories on this blog, “Mother” and “Brothers.”

I’ve learned that some people who subscribe to can’t always locate the stories. You can read all three stories simply by clicking on their titles above.

Or, if you’re using a phone or tablet, click on the Menu button and you’ll see the stories. If you’re on a computer, go to and click on “Stories,” at the top.

Lots of ways to get there.

I hope you have a very happy and healthy new year.