The Pelican

graphic pelican
The pelican is on the left. Note the doomed fish in his beak.

We were speaking of pelicans. Shari said they look like cartoon birds, and I had to agree. The brown pelican makes for an ungainly package. Laughable, actually. Especially when it’s earthbound. We watch them settle on the dock, just below our window. Pensive and impenetrable, sequin eyes staring, webbed feet neatly folded over the handrail’s edge.

The brown pelican is a charcoal sketch, maybe just a first draft. Someone’s idea of a concept bird, unlikely to ever fly. But wait…

Unfolding, it becomes a swift galleon sailing inches above the water. Elegant and still, propelled by an unfelt wind. Then, suddenly soaring at a height of twenty or thirty feet for a better view of lunch. The next instant, it folds up and plunges with the grace of a busted umbrella. A bucket of garbage dumped from a window. A jumble of feathery armatures in free fall. Then, a splash. Then, rising from the water, with a doomed struggling fish in its pouchy beak.

One day, we rode our bikes to the J.N. “Ding” Darling nature reserve and observed dozens of large and magnificent birds: snow-white egrets and ibises, great blue and little blue herons, roseate spoonbills, menacing ospreys, and mysterious anhingas. Even loons, on vacation from Canada’s frozen lakes.

Also, white pelicans. Creatures altogether different from the brown pelicans on our dock: large, aristocratic and aloof in their white tails. Not like our pelicans, in their grey overalls and with their lunch-bucket beaks.

photo pelican
Pelican at rest. I named this one Cedric, after a character in a one-act play I wrote shortly after Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Greetings from Sanibel

Soon after we arrived on Sanibel Island, a golden retriever came bounding up to greet us, and we became instant friends. Lilly’s owner turned out to be an elderly gentleman, who often stood on the lawn overlooking the bay and tossed tennis balls for the tireless Lilly. Whenever our paths crossed, we greeted our new acquaintance, exchanged a friendly word, spent a moment tousling Lilly’s silky coat.

One day, returning from a run, I saw our new friend puttering in the back of his van. We waved and smiled at each other, as usual, and then he went into his condo, leaving the van open. Inside, I saw a sign: TRUMP – PENCE 2016.

I recoiled. And instantly hated myself for it.

Throughout our time on Sanibel Island, I continued to greet the old gentleman. But, somehow, everything was different. Even Lilly…

The Colonels

Growing up in Park Ex, the political divisions of Greece remained firmly and always in place. My people came from an area adjacent to the region of Mani, which has always been fiercely royalist and conservative — God, King and Country. But we were on the left, and on the losing side, as determined by three men at Yalta. The Greek Civil War, which followed immediately after the Second World War, was in many ways more savage and socially corrosive than the German Occupation. It forever divided families and friends. Men spent years in political prisons. With young families at home, and little money, most of them swallowed their pride and signed a shameful declaration renouncing their past and pledging loyalty to the regime. It was the only way back. No one blamed them.

In Park Ex, each side pretty much stuck to its own. If a right-winger strayed into our social circle, politics were carefully avoided. A wrong word, on the wrong night, could get you a bloody nose.

Sometimes, though, through business or marriage, an alliance might be struck. A tenuous, rickety bridge thrown across the divide. Over time, a kind of respect might take root: a measure of tolerance for the other.

“He voted for So-and-so,” an uncle might say of a new acquaintance. “And his cousin fought alongside So-and-so. But, take my word, he’s alright. Once you get to know him. A real palikári.”

“A fascist, you mean.”

“You’re right,” the uncle might sigh. “But my son married his daughter.”

These divisions are now mostly healed, at least in Canada. The legacy of the Civil War (1946-1949), the Colonels and their brutal junta (1967-1974), the suppression of the student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic (1973), and, of course, the ever-resourceful CIA, which served in an “advisory role” to the Colonels (U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew opined that the junta was “the best thing to happen to Greece since Pericles ruled in Ancient Athens.”) — all this is in the history books, and unlikely to get you a bloody nose.

In those days, we also listened to Mikis Theodorakis. As a young man during the war, Theodorakis led resistance fighters, and was later imprisoned for his service. He studied composition in Paris, wrote chamber music and symphonies, and won international prizes. He was a prodigiously talented and prolific composer, but on his return to Greece he abandoned all that for popular music — or, music of the people.

I saw him with his orchestra once, at Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, in Montreal. The hall was positively packed with wild-eyed Greeks. In the middle of the concert, a man just a couple of rows in front of me, unable to contain himself any longer, leapt to his feet and clutched his head to keep it from exploding. Theodorakis’s songs, especially when sung by Maria Farandouri or Grigoris Bithikotsis, can have that effect.

Among the thousand or so songs Theodorakis wrote, the Mauthausen Trilogy contains his finest. The trilogy is based on lyrics by the Greek poet, Iakovos Kambanellis, who was imprisoned at the Mauthausen concentration camp and fell in love with a Lithuanian Jewish girl. It includes the heartbreaking Song of Songs (Asma Asmaton), and was premiered in Vienna in 1965. Sung in Greek, Hebrew and German, it was hailed as the greatest piece of music ever written about the Holocaust.

Late in life, Theodorakis disgraced himself with anti-Semitic comments.

It’s so hard to be good; much easier to be bad.

All too human

I think this is what I like about pelicans. Like us, they are improbable creatures. Ugly and laughable when earthbound. But, occasionally, when you’re paying attention, they are transcendent in the air. So much to deplore but also much to admire.I leave you with two more pelicany items.

  1. The pelican is featured on the Albanian 1 lek coin.
  2. In 1910 the American poet Dixon Lanier Merritt published this:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.



Communing with America

jesus lives

Sanibel Island, Florida. I completed my last run on our Christmas vacation on Sanibel Island this morning. Fourteen kilometres, which is not an extreme distance, but as it was my second long run within five days, and less than twenty-four hours after doing intervals, it knocked the stuffing out of me. And it set me thinking.

The dock beneath our window. On most days, grey pelicans would land on the dock and shit at will. I will have more to say about pelicans in a future post.

On our second night here, on our way to pick up a family member at the airport, we spent an hour at Target, where I bought a pair of blue cotton pants, at a final markdown rock-bottom liquidation price of $6.83. Later, back at our rental condo, I discovered a card in the back pocket. Smile, Jesus loves you!

On the back of the card, four bible verses, followed by a prayer. My favourite verse: Understand you are a sinner. As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one. (Romans 3:10). True enough, I thought.

I’ve found this card, or something like it, in the pockets of new garments on previous trips to the U.S. It’s a retail version of the Gideon’s Bible, where righteous Christians spend their free hours slipping cards into empty pockets, instead of bibles into hotel drawers. They are fishers of souls, in an unending war with the devil. What’s the conversion rate, as marketers would say? One, two percent? Probably less than that. The devil is a formidable foe. And we are in the United States, after all, large swathes of which are positively stupid with religion (according to reputable polls, more than half believe that hell is an actual place).

But, occasionally, someone gets hooked.

Jesus, standing on a pier, tackle box at his feet, wearing a vintage Kahala shirt and gripping a cigar between his teeth. His pickup is parked out back. Jesus is reeling you in, but you’re not putting up a fight. You are meekly — no, eagerly — swimming to Jesus.

But, no. The metaphor is not quite right. Jesus wouldn’t be angling. A vicious tearing hook in the newly-Christianized mouth? Too unsettling in these times.

Jesus is using a net. Jesus practices sustainable fishing.

foggy dock
From our window, the same dock on a foggy morning. Both photos show the dock deserted, but on most days, people were out there fishing.

Agia Triada

Despite my mother’s heroic exertions, religion never really caught on with me. Like a dog, I’m incapable of seeing certain colours, and so an entire universe remains invisible.

Taking communion begins early in the Greek Orthodox church, which means I don’t remember my first one. But it likely occurred at Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) Church on Sherbrooke and Clark Streets. A boutique hotel now stands on the spot, as Agia Triada burned to the ground on January 16, 1986. Some days after it collapsed into a heap of fiery rubble, a friend, who knew of my early connection with the church (I also went to First Grade in its basement), happened to be walking by and retrieved a hunk of grey granite from the façade. That piece of Agia Triada now sits on a shelf in my house, and comes into service a few times a year. I use it as a weight to compress the fish when I make gravlax.

That was a long digression. I hope you’re still with me.

Agia Triada is still standing. It is the busy centre of the Montreal Greek community.

It’s Sunday morning, following a traditional period of fasting before communion, and my mother has sent me downstairs, in my little suit with its clip-on bow tie. She wants me out of the way so she can finish getting dressed for church.

Bored, I kick at a rock for a while, scuffing my patent-leather shoes. Between kicks, I reach into my jacket pocket and discover a dime. Still no sign of my mother, so I slip around the corner to a basement store for an ice cream cone. When I return, my mother is still getting ready, so I kick at the rock some more, but with less energy, fearing for my precious ice cream.

Eventually she appears, my little sister in tow. As a parent, I now understand the stress of raising two small kids (and, as a Greek mother, doing it virtually alone), getting the squirming bodies washed and dressed and organized, always on the brink of madness. I say this by way of palliating my mother’s actions, because she strides over, murder in her eyes, my sister’s feet barely touching the ground, as her little patent-leather shoes bounce on the concrete under the sudden acceleration. My mother seizes the ice cream from my hand and hurls it across the street.

I freeze. The injustice so monstrous I can’t even cry.

My crime — a sin, actually — is that I have broken the fast too soon. On the sacred morning, even a drop of water is forbidden from crossing your lips before communion.

A more devout mother would have immediately marched me upstairs: No Holy Communion for you, mister. But she already knew me well enough: the cancelled communion would have been a reward, not a punishment.

And so, under a sullen cloud we instead troop to the corner and board the number 55 bus on St. Urbain Street. We enter Agia Triada and cross ourselves, kiss the icon and light a candle. We find a place in a middle row of pews, gaze at the accusing eye of God set in the centre of the dome towering above our heads, stand up and sit down a dozen times or more, when the liturgy requires it, inhale the incense and listen to the psalti’s goaty voice, crossing ourselves repeatedly at the appropriate moments. We then line up at the altar and, when our turn arrives, come face to face with a large bearded man in gold vestments, who spoons from a gold chalice a few drops of sweet Mavrodafni wine, the blood of Christ, into our open mouths.

Like the card says, Understand you are a sinner.

portrait of artist
A portrait of the artist. Also, a shadow of his former self.

The Buccaneers

In the middle of our Sanibel vacation, I was invited to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game — the last of the season and my first NFL experience. The game meant nothing: the playoffs were already decided.

But that wasn’t the point. The real point of the outing was the tailgate party, which begins several hours prior to the game, in the vast parking lots that surround every football stadium. (Maybe I’ll tell you about the tailgate next time.)

It was before lunchtime and we were already sucking on our second beer can, wandering through the parking lot amidst clouds of barbecue smoke and thumping rap. A young black woman with a clipboard approached me.

“Sir, are you registered?”

It took me a moment to understand what she meant.

“We’re Canadian,” I explained. “So…”

She smiled and thanked me, and then moved on to the next person.

In a riven nation, in which a golden-haired Beelzebub has taken charge, she was registering voters. No less a righteous fisher of souls.