Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did you hear the one about the Greek who was mistaken for an Irishman?

I left more than just the Island yesterday.  I left behind, if albeit briefly, stupid city politics.

Don’t ask.

I know, I know, that’s stupidly coy, kind of like saying – I heard some horrible news but I’d rather not discuss it.

Coy is usually dumb, n'est-ce pas?

I can't believe I just did that – here I am, doubling down. Not only am I being coy, I’m dropping French phrases to make myself sound smart when I have no real idea what n'est-ce pas means.  Could guess, but it’d be just that. Guessing.

Yesterday. Leaving Alameda in the midst of glorious September weather – clear and calm and almost hot. Earthquake weather, like we had on Sunday, when a trembler hit just after 8 in the evening, and the girls, home alone with Karen, felt the house pitch and shake before hearing a crash from upstairs. We hadn’t lost anything to an earthquake before, not even in the Loma Prieta, but the smashing crash let them know that this time was different.

Elizabeth and Kristina were sad to see that their respective Memory Blocks, the E and the K, were the only things that had plunged from the shelves upstairs.  Plunging and falling and scattering shards on the floor because the Blocks by Sid Dickens are made of plaster on wood and earthquakes and plaster don't mix.

The girls were worried that they’d somehow been selected for retribution since their Blocks – and nothing else – lay broken.

Big pieces, though. We’ll see if they can be glued.

Sorry, sidetracked. Earthquakes will do that.

So I’m heading to the Presidio yesterday, to the offices of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.  Sebastian Barry was in the house, a little meet-and-greet for booksellers.

Great being back in our old neighborhood, skirting through the Marina, passing by Lucas Arts just inside the cannon-flanked Lombard Gate, through all that Presidio green, sidestepping the Parade Grounds.  All in pursuit of the opportunity to hear a great writer talk about his books.

At the start of Sebastian Barry’s latest, On Canaan’s Side, his narrator says:

But books have saved me sometimes, that is the truth – my Samaritans.

I feel that, truly, and it’s led to complications. Too many books at the house, for one (seriously, though, do you believe in such a thing as too many books?)

But see, right there! Evidence of the problem – not admitting it exists.

Also – first editions.  Lord, first editions.  And signatures?  Signed first editions?  My heart races at the prospect.  So of course I went to the Presidio when Lindsay W. invited me.  Of course I brought my UK first edition of Barry's A Long Long Way.  Of course.

I used to have authors only sign their names.  The value of a book – for some – is diminished if it's inscribed to Joe Smith.  Presentation copies are different.  A presentation copy, generally meaning signed by an author to some other notable – think Charles Dickens to Hans Christian Andersen (and yes, such a lovely does exist) – something like that?  That would increase its value.  But bibliophiles aren't queuing up to purchase The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay warmly inscribed from Michael Chabon to Nick Petrulakis.


Still, I've grown lax, and the value of my books is their value to me, so sometimes if the author asks my name, I'll give it and let him or her dedicate away.

Mr. Barry proved to be a talkative, wonderful chap.  One of the best Irish playwrights and novelists going.  Hut L., director of the NCIBA, finally had to intervene and cut Mr. Barry short.  We were having a grand time, we booksellers, listening to Mr. Barry do what he does best – tell stories.

But all good things must come to an end, and so it did, and then we waited for Mr. Barry to sign our books.  Fresh copies of his newest that I mentioned, On Canaan's Side.  I haha! also had my copy of A Long Long Way, and when Mr. Barry laid eyes on it he said, Well, well – that's the paperback version.  The true first edition, he said.  After it was nominated for the Booker the publisher came out with a hardcover, but this one, he said, as he held it in his hands, carefully, like a finch that might take flight.  But this one, he said again, as he opened the pages, turning back to the copyright page.  Hmm, he said, are there no numbers in it?

Because, see, Mr. Barry is like me – sniffing out the pedigree of a book, his book.  So I pointed down to the number line, under his hand, a small hand for a relatively tall man, the tall Mr. Barry sitting there in his red and white striped shirt.  And he saw the complete number line there, 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1, and his eyes sparkled, Why, he said, you have yourself a first edition first printing, don't you now?

Yes, yes, I wanted to say.  I have this little problem with books, with first editions.  First editions, first printings especially.  But I didn't want to waste his time on trifles.

I mean, I did, but there was a line forming.

Your name? he had inquired when I first sat down.  And I had said Nick.

Really, he said?  Are you Irish?

And I thought that was funny, that.  Me, Irish?  But maybe Mr. Barry was homesick.  Looking for an Irishman, hopeful for a little touch of home here in these bookish Presidio offices.  He was traveling with his son, his fourteen-year-old grumpy son.  But the son was off adventuring in the Exploratorium, and there were no Irishman in sight, so maybe he'd just hoped.

No, I said, I'm Greek.  And here Mr. Barry pulled another trick out of his bag and surprised me by speaking Greek, saying hello, wishing me well, and it was the first time I'd heard Greek spoken with an Irish accent.  Reminded me of my dad, hearing Greek spoken by southerners – reminded me of my dad telling me how he laughed when he heard Y'asou, y'all! for the first time.

Mr. Barry spoke of his year in Greece, living on Paros, recalling it fondly, and so here was another reason for me to appreciate this scribe from the emerald isle.

He signed my books, Mr. Barry did, and bade me farewell, and I took my two and the cases that had been ordered for our stores, and Hut helped me out to my car with that cache of signed first editions.

It wasn't until late last night, when I was redipping into A Long Long Way, when I approached On Canaan's Side for the first time, that I glanced at the inscriptions.

Glanced, then stared.  For there, in writer-messy black ink, was the dedication inside A Long Long Way:

To Mick
Sebastian Barry

So I flipped open On Canaan's Side, and there, too, bold as brass, in his writer's scrawl:

To Mick
Sebastian Barry

And I suppose if I squinted, I could turn Mick into Nick.  His writing really was a little bit sloppy, wasn't it?  But no, the M was clear.  And now his question was clear, too.  Are you Irish? Mr. Barry had asked.  And he had wondered because when I said my name was Nick, he had heard Mick.  My fault, I'm sure.  Hadn't enunciated properly and the Irishman had heard perhaps what he had wanted to hear.  That one of the bookish admirers who had come out to hear him that sunny day had ties to the homeland.  His, though, not mine.

So I shall read On Canaan's Side, and reread A Long Long Way.  And if you ask to see the books, I'll take them down from the shelf – Julian Barnes on one side, Richard Bausch on the other.  And if you open either, note that they are inscribed, and then read what is written there, puzzling it out, looking at me and then the inscription – I may ask if you'd like to share a pint.  Share a pint and hear a tale of how the Greek was mistaken for an Irishman.  Guinness? I'll ask.  A Guinness would serve us well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bragging Rights

I like Mrs. T, lots.  A few weeks ago, at Back to School Night for Elizabeth's second grade class?  One of the first things Mrs. T said was:  Oh, and let's make a deal between me and all of you.  I won't believe everything your child tells me first thing in the morning if you don't believe everything they tell you at night.  Ok?

And there was a smidgen of silence from the gathered parents on that Thursday evening, and then, almost as one, we started nodding our heads, smiling, looking at each other and saying, Well, that's fair.  Can't argue with that.

I know my friend Nick would welcome this, Nick whose son - Elizabeth's age, seven-years-old - told his teacher that the reason he was moving a little slow that day was because he got drunk on jello shots the night before.

Needless to say, this was not true.

Another reason I like Mrs. T - she also said that maybe the most important thing we could do as parents was to encourage a love of reading in our children.  When Elizabeth expressed keen interest in Mrs. T's Magic Tree House Research Guide: Ghosts!, she was gobsmacked when Mrs. T said, Please, Elizabeth, take the book home with you - that's what books are for!  For taking and reading!

Still, given all this, morning Drop Off - especially when the kids hurry to get in the Line after the bell tolls - can be a little nerve-wracking.  Sometimes Mrs. T will zero in on a parent, take them gently aside, and confer with them about some little something that occurred the day before.  We'd had one of those huddles, early in the year, when Elizabeth was still shaking off the fun-dust of summer and hadn't, perhaps, wholeheartedly embraced 2nd Grade with the zeal of the converted.  That's different, now - now she's in school's great! mode, but then?  That first week?

Not so much.

So when Mrs. T made a beeline for me, gently motioning me to step away from the Line for a quick, hushed conference, I did think for just a moment, oh what fresh hell is this?

Nick, Mrs. T said, I just wanted to tell you what a joy it was to read Elizabeth's first writing assignment.  I had the kids write a paragraph imagining the likes and dislikes that an alien would have if it ever visited us.  Most of the responses were in the vein of:  I like butterflies.  I hate flowers.  Rainbows are pretty.  And that was just fine - it's exactly what I asked for.  But Elizabeth began her paragraph with the line:  I am an alien who has just arrived upon the earth.  And that's such a simple thing, a line like that.  But you know what it is?  It's voice.  I can teach grammar, and a certain amount of style, but what I can't teach is voice, and let me tell you, Elizabeth has it.

Try thinking of another thing, a different thing, that Elizabeth's teacher could have told me that would have excited me any more.  If you come up with one, I'd love to hear it - because I can't.  Sure, a cure for the common cold would be right up there, but Elizabeth is seven.

Is this just bragging?  The crowing bombast of a boastful windbag?  Yup.  You got it.  Guilty.  But I'm her dad, she's my kid, and I'm asking for a pass because - the kid's got voice.

Hey, don't go.  I'd love to show you these really cute pictures of the family that Karen just printed out - really, it'll only take a second...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sarantismόs: Or, the Startle Reflex Explained

It’s called the Startle Reflex.  For some newborns, it's triggered when they hear a loud noise or have the sensation of falling – that makes them toss their head back and throw their arms out.  Elizabeth was a Startle Baby.  Even if I were holding her securely, any sudden movement would induce the reflex.  With her arms thrown out, she looked like a little baby Christ on the cross – it was kind of funny.

I know, I know, that’s sacrilegious, but true all the same.  And I’m not saying I’d feign a fall just to compel the reflex.  What kind of father would that make me?  But maybe, just maybe, it happened more on my watch than on Karen’s because Daddy thought it was funnier than Mommy did.

So the phone rings, causing the Startle Reflex in Elizabeth, and I stand there for a second thinking how darn cute she is before I answer.  It’s my mom.  She's wondering if we’ve set a date yet for the Forty Day Blessing.  In the Greek Church, the sarantismόs is the most important of all the traditions for a new baby and her mom.  It echoes Mary bringing the baby Jesus into the temple forty days after he was born.  And since tradition is everything if you’re Greek, this blessing wasn’t one to trifle with.

In Modesto, the blessing takes place following the regular service on Sunday.  After the congregation has left the Church, the priest comes to the back, takes the baby, and walks her to the altar, followed by Mom and Dad.  No problem, I’m thinking, and it just so happens that the closest Sunday to Elizabeth ’s forty days is Father’s Day.

We’ll be doing the blessing in Oakland, though, not Modesto.  Trying to start our own traditions.  I tell my mom June 20th, and that we’ll meet her in a back pew.  We prefer the right-hand side, the side we gravitate to in movie theaters.

Mom says okay, but she suggests we meet in the Cry Room.  In Modesto, it’s a little room just before the entrance into the nave of the church.  It’s got a big window, double-paned, so that parents and crying kids can see out – but can't be heard.  But I’m not sure if the Oakland Cathedral has a cry room, so I tell Mom, sure, but if we’re not there, just look for us in the back, on the right.

And Mom says, no no, let’s just plan on the Cry Room.  I’m looking at the phone, thinking that’s odd, it’s like she hadn’t heard me or something.  And then the penny drops.  Mom, I say, are you trying to tell me that Baby Elizabeth can’t enter the Church before she’s blessed?

There’s a pause.  Well, my Mom says, some Churches are more loose than other Churches.

But if this was Greece– I say.

Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to go in, Mom says.

So I’m looking at Elizabeth.  She’s distracted by the ficus tree in our front room.  Behind the tree, morning light pours through the window, and Elizabeth’s just into the contrast of the dark leaves against the lit panes of glass.  Then she feels me looking at her, and she jerks her little head my way, and her eyes are so blue, and her skin so fair, her hair soft brown with these ridiculous blond highlights, and she grins and blows spit bubbles and I can’t believe there’s a stricture against letting her enter anywhere, much less a holy place.

Mom, I say.

I know, Niko, I know, she says.  We’ll meet at the church, ok?

Ok, I say.

The Cathedral is in the Oakland hills overlooking the city, the bay, San Francisco.  Like most places of worship for the Greek Orthodox, it’s a dome, and since it’s a Cathedral, it’s bigger than most.  Elizabeth is dressed in white finery, and she’s wiggly.  But when we enter the doors, the warm, sweet smell of honey captures her, the scent rising from the rows of beeswax candles to the left and right of the doors leading into the cathedral.  The number of candles lets us know that there’s a big Father’s Day crowd inside.

Elizabeth is enchanted, both with the sweet smell and the flickers of light.

We enter the nave.  Outside, it was Sunday morning bright, but inside, it’s shadow within shadow.  Walking along the curving wall, Karen holding Elizabeth.  They’re bathed in the soft blue light coming through the walls of glass.  The dome of the church captures the light, makes it disappear.  The dome’s gentle curve is sheathed in panels of copper, and the panels glow faintly from the light of ten chandeliers, each a circle of black iron holding 36 votives.  The gold light of the votives plays on the smoke from incense, curling up, slow, then falling.

Incense mingles with the voice of Father Tom, and Elizabeth is transfixed by it all, especially the voices, the singing.  She likes music, this one, and it’s as if she understands the beauty in the words, Kyrie eléison, and we see my parents and brothers in a back pew, Kyrie eléison, there’s no Cry Room in the Cathedral, Kyrie eléison, this must be one of those loose churches.

Elizabeth doesn’t notice my family yet, she’s still all ears, but they notice Elizabeth.  There’s a lot of quiet cooing going on, and my brothers are making happy, exaggerated faces at her, and she’s happy, too, and we’re happy, everybody's happy and the service continues.  My brother George catches my eye and mouths the words Happy Father’s Day and that’s a first, and I look down at my daughter in white and I cry.

Suddenly, Father Tom is making his way down the center aisle, and he’s making eye contact with us.  He’s smiling and motioning us to meet him, and we finally realize that they do things differently in Oakland, Elizabeth's introduction to the church is going to take place during the service, not after.

After we enter the main aisle, Father Tom mainly talks to Karen – it’s really Karen’s gig, Karen and Elizabeth.  I’m there to carry Father’s hymnal – dark blue and worn – which he gives me before holding his hands out for our daughter.  She’s quiet now, almost asleep – lulled by the chants and the soft light – and her eyes slide open just a bit, but white-haired Father Tom looks safe, so she closes them again, and we walk.

Father Tom pauses in the aisle and intones that the Church welcomes the servant of God Elizabeth.  His voice fills the cathedral and he continues walking to the altar, Karen and I in tow.  I’m very aware that the eyes of the church are on our family, and I’m hoping that Elizabeth doesn’t burst into tears.

Father Tom pauses in the aisle, surrounded on both sides by the hundreds of congregants who have come to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in celebration of faith, in celebration of Father’s Day.

Father Tom pauses, and raises our daughter high, Elizabeth all in white, and the light that the dome captures is right there above our heads and Elizabeth is raised into it, raised into that soft light.

It’s called the Startle Reflex.  If a newborn has the sensation of falling, she’ll throw her arms out and toss her head back.  And Elizabeth does just that, throwing herself into her Christ pose, eyes still closed but arms thrown wide, and then Father lowers her and she tucks back into her sleeping self.  A few more strides and Father pauses again, raises her again, and again Elizabeth becomes Christ in the hands of Father Tom.  And again, almost to the marble steps leading to the altar, the altar of earthy colored marble shot through with veins of white, and again she’s raised, and again I see Christ in my daughter, but I’m not thinking it’s funny now.  It’s beautiful now.

And Karen follows Father Tom, and she kisses the image on the iconostasis to the left of the altar, the one of Mary holding her child, and then Karen accepts Elizabeth back from Father Tom, another mother holding her child, her girl-child, and they join me, and we walk down the aisle together.

Ten Years Later

Because of the time difference, by 6 a.m. in San Francisco, September 11th 2001 was already over – even though, of course, the day hadn’t yet begun.

Karen heard about it before me – on the morning bus into San Francisco's Financial District. After she called, I called my boss - should we open the bookstore?  So many shops on Chestnut St. would stay shut that day.  Michael left it up to me.

We opened. Turned out, a lot of people - citizens, we were all US citizens, even the tourists from Germany, from France. Especially the tourists from Germany and France - a lot of us needed a place to go. To talk, to cry. To get angry, to mourn. To talk, cry, to get angry and mourn – over and over. Different people, but the same people. All day long. People we saw every day. People we’d never see again.

To talk.

People trying to make sense out of the senseless. Isn’t that the definition for crazy? But we were all a little crazy that day. All of us who came into the bookstore because we needed others.

To cry.

People like Paulina, Paulina letting me into Delaney’s early, to watch those images on the tv’s inside the bar. Those images on the tv. Smoke. Skyscrapers. Smoke. Plane. Smoke. Skyscrapers. Smoke. Plane.

Plane, then no plane. Fireball, fireball – a neverending fireball. Then smoke. More smoke. On the tv. Inside Delaney’s. All day.

To get angry.

New York was so far away. We felt so far away. But so close, because of the stupid tv. There in Delaney’s. There at the lunch-counter. There in your bedroom. New York was just right there. So close and so far.

On our way into Modesto - today, ten years later. Ten years later and now we have Elizabeth and Kristina. And now we live in Alameda, not San Francisco. Ten years later and we’re headed into Modesto for the 40 Day Blessing of our nephew, Andoni. Andoni - named after my father, Tony Petrulakis. My father who we don’t have, Andoni who we do. So much changes in ten years, so much.

And on our way to Modesto, speeding along 580, we approach an overpass at 1st Street and Springtown Boulevard. A Livermore overpass. And on that overpass this morning, at about 10:30 am, twelve hours ago, there stood a lone figure holding a flag. Just a man, holding an American flag. Knees locked, his body ramrod straight. Not responding to the honks from the cars rushing beneath him.

Just standing, holding a flag – the flag snapping in the wind.

And I know today there are commentators who say we haven’t done enough. Others who say we’ve done too much. And they’ll both use this day to get their warped little thoughts across. Because they won’t be satisfied just–

To mourn.

–they won’t be satisfied with anything other than not listening to anyone else. They won’t be satisfied until the shrill noise they’ve made today adds to the cacophony.

But when a figure holding a flag, a ramrod straight figure holding a flag, when that figure necessitates that you – makes a Mom and Dad explain to their seven-year-old and their four-year-old – when you are made to try and explain the senseless actions of lunatics to children, when you interrupt the children in the backseat who are singing silly songs, when you try and limn the ugly facts of that ten-year-old day to the singing children in the backseat.

When you do this because the day itself is so conspicuous.  When, as Elizabeth says, as your seven-year-old says, Mommy, Daddy, it's a special day, the day when part of America died. When flags are flying everywhere – not just from the overpass, not just held by a solitary man – when flags fly from front yards, from eighteen-wheelers, from the hillsides of the Altamont Pass.  When you and your wife are forced to explain all these flags, all the red, white and blue – to your silly, singing children?

You want the commentators to stop. You want the king to quiet. You want the pretenders to the throne to refrain – for one day.

And here I am, adding to the noise. Adding to the noise when all I wanted to do was – remember.