Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Darndest Things

Over the years there have been several iterations of the iconic television show, Kids Say the Darndest Things. If you've somehow managed to miss it, the premise of the show is pretty simple: adults ask small children a series of pretty pedestrian questions, and because of their naivete or age-appropriate ignorance the children respond with pretty wacky answers. And hilarity ensues.

Gus and Niko could be on that show. Just they other day Kelly asked whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas, "Santa's! No Papou's!" they bellowed before finally shouting, "No it's Jesus'!" Hey, at least He made the list. You may remember last year they stopped after Papou...

But now and then kids say something incredibly touching that is frankly well-beyond their years.

Somewhere along the way, Niko got a small scratch under his chin. Last night at dinner I learned that while he was at school, the tiny scab came off. Niko marched himself down to Mrs. Judy, the school's incredibly nurturing secretary and received a little Neosporin and assurance that it was the best medicine ever.

Gus offered that Mrs. Judy should have been a doctor because she is so good at tending to kids' injuries. Niko added that he was going to be a doctor when he grows up. And that's when he said it:

"I wish Theia Tina was alive, so that when I become a doctor I could make her better and she won't die."

Sometimes kids have the darndest way of leaving you speechless.

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's All Greek To Me!

Shortly after Gus first moved in with us, I started worrying if it was fair to raise him with Greek traditions. He is, after all, very likely not biologically Greek.

I shared my concerns with my dear friend and "work wife" Teresa, herself an Indian-American, balancing two cultures in her own home. She simply reminded me I didn't have much of a choice because it was, after all, all I knew. (In retrospect, I should never have confessed to her that I was well into my 30s before I learned that "corn beef" was not beef smothered in corn...)

She was right of course. What else do I know? So the first night each of the boys slept in our home, I placed a plate of sweets in the room in hopes the Fates would write a favorable fortune on their foreheads; there are blue "mati" (glass eyes) hanging on their doors to protect them from the Evil Eye; they both think my spanikopita is better than the one you get at the Greek Souvlaki (about which the owner of that fine chain says, "As it should be!") There's no doubt about it, my kids live in a "Greek house."

The other night at dinner, Gus announced he wanted to wear a Greek costume in the upcoming school program to show his Greek heritage. Now I never know if it really bothers Kelly or if he's just messing around, but he did try to convince Gus that he is, after all, not Greek. Gus' response was brilliant, "Daddy's Greek, I go to a Greek school, I'm learning to speak Greek, I go to a Greek church. How am I not Greek?"

Any hopes of Kelly's logic working were lost the night of the program. At first we watched with pride as both boys participated in the Saint Sophia Hellenic Orthodox School's Oxi(pro: Ohee) Night Celebration brilliantly. Then we watched with dropped jaws! There Gus was singing the Greek national Greek! There he was dancing a traditional folk dance with enthusiasm. It was brilliant.

Niko's role was far less prominent, but nonetheless equally brilliant.

Oh, and in case there's any doubt, like his dad before him, Gus may be Greek identified, but he has cultural boundaries. When we explained that a traditional Greek male costume was a "foustanella" - a 400-pleat knee-length "skirt" - he dropped his voice an octave or two and said, "I won't wear a dress!"

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tina M. Katis

Today would have been my Theia Tina's 87th birthday. It's hard to believe that a week ago we already observed her 40-day mnemosino (memorial service). Hard to believe because I still feel her presence with me every day.

The day before Tina passed, my niece Carli gave our family a new life: my great nephew Jace. When I heard the news of his birth, I wondered what he would learn if one day he asked about this great, great aunt with whom he shared this earth so briefly.

If he asked his cousins Gus and Niko, he'll hear of her great generosity. When Kelly asked each of the boys separately what they remembered about her, Gus said, "She gave us stuff you guys never do." Niko added, "She gave us candy all the time." Both observations are 100% true.

But there's more to the story. If Jace ever asks me, I'll share with him the stories of her that I'll always cherish.

Like how as a kid, I'd sit in my yia yia's driveway on Saturday afternoons, waiting for the bus to pull over across the street and Tina to step off, a wide smile on her face and a small gift for me under her arm. I honestly don't remember a single Saturday afternoon in my younger years when she didn't bring me something: a coloring book, a word find book, some candies. We'd spend the rest of the day playing games Theia Mimi and I had made up. It didn't matter what we did, she was simply there to spend the weekend with her family.

Maybe this incredible importance on family stemmed from the fact that the Studebaker taxi cab in which she was born was parked out side her Theia Kula's house, and it was in that house she was first taken. Maybe that explains how she could create and nurture a relationship with her cousin, Mary Kostopoulos, whom she never met in person. As if that minor detail could have made a difference!

I'll tell Jace how Theia Tina possessed more Orthodox Christian faith in a single minute of any day than most of us ever conjure up in a lifetime. Theia Tina never lost faith of what may happen - especially the hope that her vision would be restored. And frankly, she knew more about Orthodoxy, our history, traditions and dogma than many a priest I've known! But she shared her knowledge with humility and kindness.

Theia Tina was incredibly generous. I don't think I've ever really told anyone beyond my parents that during my four years of college, I never once paid for a book. Tina budgeted herself to give me money every quarter to buy books. She had a very limited income herself, yet she sacrificed to provide for me. She always made sure I had a little spending money - pleading with me to concentrate on my "studies" rather than get a job. And I always had a standing dinner date when my schedule required me to be at the U after 5:00. I cannot even hear the words "Lamb's Grill" without thinking of her.

Thoughtful isn't a strong enough adjective to describe someone who never missed sending a birthday card, or calling on an anniversary or name day. Not to mention the fact that she was kind enough to call everyone else in the family to gently remind them of the fact it was their third cousin's husband's birthday.

And man-oh-man, how she was a living, breathing, walking history book of the Greek community. But beware! Simply asking "Ever heard of John Doe-opolous?" could lead to a 30 minute lineage of his second cousin's wife's brother's son's grandson's girlfriend, who you used to sit next to in English class!" OK, maybe not quite that detailed...but close. Of course, for me, that was the fun of it!

I'll tell Jace how incredibly courageous Theia Tina was! Imagine the fear of gradually losing your sight - each year seeing a little less until only a pinpoint of vision - at just the right angle - was available. Yet, Tina lived on her own. She was active in community groups. She had more of a social life than most women half her age! She wished she could see better, she wished the deterioration would stop. But never, ever, in 45 years did I hear her say, "why me?" She simply accepted the burden with dignity and grace.

Oh! How proud she was of being Greek! And how proud she made me feel of that too! I loved to speak Greek with her, my warts on it and all. It's funny. I remember taking Greek in high school. One day my teacher said to the class, "Listen to the way Chris just said that! Even with his limited Greek, you can hear his Arcadian accent." When I shared this news with Theia Tina, she flew to my defense, arguing how in the hell did that woman think I would say it? I am Arcadian!

And the Greek organizations benefitted immensely from her participation. Her devotion to the Daughters of Penelope was darn right fanatical. And therein lies the charm. How proud she was - no, how proud she is of my cousin Joanne's participation and leadership in the Daughters. And when I moved back to Salt Lake City, and decided that if we're going to be here for the next 10-15 years, I should put down some roots, and I joined those Greek organizations, I simply needed to say, "I'm Tina Katis' nephew" to ensure my nomination. She was proud of me for becoming involved, and offered her advice about a successful membership. And I teased her that I was riding her skirt tails. She loved it!

Yes, there were silly things she did - like save her tax filing from 1969...for 40 years! And her nephews teased her that if Hallmark made a card for it, she'd observe it by sending one. But she had that amazing ability to laugh at herself. When I pulled that tax return out of her filing cabinet, read it to her and said, "Theia, I don't think you're going to be audited on this," she nearly fell off of her chair laughing!

Tina was incredibly accepting as well. She showed that with her love for the boys. My Lord, how she adored my sons. Niko never failed to make her crack her up - he was her admitted favorite. Gus was her pride and joy. So, imagine my heart when Tina went to the hospice, and made me promise her one thing: "Please, don't let the boys forget me." How could I? How could they? How can you forget someone like her? You don't.

She loved Kelly like another nephew, and she really liked him and enjoyed him as a person, too. Her parting advice to me was so moving, so powerful because it was about Kelly and me. She said for us to live our lives with pride and dignity; there was nothing to ever be ashamed of.

The one last attribute I'd share is Tina's love for birds of prey - especially eagles. She admired these animals for their amazing eyesight. I mention this because Theia recognized symbols. So it was fitting that the last day of her life, early in the morning, I was standing in the atrium looking at the yard next to her room, when I saw a small hawk swoop down and just, well, stand, in front of the French doors leading to her room. Tina would have loved it - she would have really loved the symbolism.

A few, short hours later as I held her hand, I leaned close to her ear and whispered "s'agapo para, para poli" (I love you very, very much) it was the way I've said goodbye to her every day for years. But rather than her usual, "episis" (you too), there was the slightest squeeze of my hand, and she was gone. She started her life knowing she was loved, and I'm so deeply grateful that she ended her life knowing it too.

I guess if Jace ever asks me, I'll simply tell him that Theia Tina was always there for me. Plain and simple. She was always there for everyone she loved. And I think she always will be. Today after church, Kelly, the boys and I took some flowers to her grave in honor of her birthday. I lit incense over her grave, and sang "memory eternal" (in Greek, like she taught me). As I cleaned up, Gus pointed to the sky and said, "Hey look, a hawk!" Like I said, Jace, Theia Tina was always there for us, and always will be.

May her memory be eternal.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Deja vu all over again

Wednesday evening Gus and I headed over to Prophet Elias, and the second I walked into the "little gym" I got a total rush of deja vu.

I was suddenly transported back to an evening in the late 1970s, with my then sister-in-law, Kelly, standing next to me in the little gym. There I was again, scrawny, insecure, not knowing a soul...and there to become a Boy Scout.

Flash forward 30+ years and it's my turn to be the more secure, confident adult - Gus sticking to me like glue, excited about joining Cub Scouts but displaying more than a little trepidation.

Like me all those years earlier, Gus loved his first night of Scouts. Unlike me, he recognized a friend among the other boys: a kid he knew from Sunday School class.

(And for anyone who doubts the interconnectedness of the Greek community, while chatting with the kid's dad, I discovered he's my cousin Yvonne's nephew!)

But there was one awkward moment: the "Den Mother" - the Scout leader for the youngest boys - asked me if I'd help with the troop. Since parents have to stay with the boys in that age group, I simply could have said "Yes" and left it at that. Instead, I was honest.

I told the woman how I'd be happy to help but the Boy Scouts of America may not allow me to because I am a gay man. I tried to say it with confidence and, well, I guess pride. But right there, in that place, in front of this organization, all my pre-teen insecurities and self doubt came flooding back and I know my voice broke.

She paused for only a second or two before saying, "I don't care. Will you help out?"

Of course I will.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I'm Baaaaaaaack

Dear Readers,

I'm sorry for my absence. As most of you probably know, shortly after my last posting at the end of July, my Theia Tina was admitted to hospice, where she spent the last few weeks of her life. Balancing my very minor part in caring for Tina, my obligations at work, my role as a dad, and our move to the new house didn't leave much time for this blog.

Last night, after what can only be described in polite circles as an amazingly stressful and hectic work week (see me quoted in the Trib??), Niko and I were walking Gracie and I came to the realization that I need to get back in the blog saddle and more frequently. I need to do this because I've discovered it's incredibly therapeutic for me.

Next week, if you all don't mind, I'll post something in honor of my Theia Tina. It'll be her 40 day mnemosino (memorial service) on 10/3. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm still dealing with my grief at her passing each and every day. Some days are better than others.

But tonight I want to tell you why my kids are better than therapy.

In a 15-minute walk with Gracie, Niko made a week's worth of really intense stress disappear. How?

1. By telling me a story of how there had been a monster living in the canal, but when it rose up, he kicked the crap out of it - karate chopping it in half!;

2. Running to see a dove perched on the ground near the canal, he stopped in his tracks, turning to me and proclaiming, "Daddy! I think it's an American eagle!"; and

3. Seconds later, jumping a good foot straight into the air when the horse three yards behind him neighed. Upon landing, he turned to me laughing and said, "That scared the bejebus out of me!"

And in those exciting moments of a child's life, the stress and anxiety of grown-up life melted away. And unlike Xanex, Cymbalta, Paxil or any other mood enhancing prescription drug, the only side-effect was my laughter!

Look for a new posting early next week. Thanks.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

How is This My Karma??

Whenever I call my mom to complain about some exasperating display of behaviour by Gus or Niko, she always starts to laugh. Mom claims that I'm sowing what I reaped.

Apparently, the karma card is one grandparents like to play: When asked about the troubles the twins were giving former President Bush, Barbara Bush replied, "He's just getting what he gave."

On a certain level I suppose I understand it all. After all, even though the boys and I don't share DNA, we can be frighteningly similar. Watching Niko stubbornly dig his heels in is enough to make even me consider a paternity test.

So if there's any truth to this karma theory, I suppose stubborn, strong-willed, talkative kids are my just desserts.

What I don't understand is why I'm paying for my brother John's childhood sins. It was John, who flung himself into the air. John, who feared neither God nor man (but wisely always Mom). And John, who took a part every conceivable movable mechanism he could get his hands on.

So it's John I'm blaming for not being able to properly close my office door this evening - disabled by a missing strike plate, compliments of Gus and his screwdriver. Hmmm, now I think about it, today is John's 50th birthday...maybe he should take that paternity test. 'Course it still doesn't explain why I'm paying for his karma...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

When I Grow Up

When I was in first grade I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: a teacher. I think part of that desire stemmed from being totally in love with my own teacher, Miss Criddle.

Even today, almost 40 years later, I can still picture her: petite, clear blue eyes (with contacts!), her blond, shoulder-length hair flipping up in a That Girl curl, wearing one of those A-shaped dresses and a little cardigan.

I figured the way to her heart was to share a profession, so one day I asked her how much money teachers made. After she stopped laughing, she assured me that it wasn't a money-making proposition. By fourth grade she had moved, and I had changed plans: I was going to be a lawyer.

So I was rather intrigued the other night when Gus interrupted bedtime reading to tell me he simply couldn't decide what he'd like to be when he grew up. I put the book aside and asked him what his choices were.

"First a ninja. Then a secret agent or a spy."

Hey, at least he didn't say a lawyer.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Papa Sees a Snake

One of the best parts of living in Salt Lake is the easy access to wilderness. No matter where in the Valley you live, you're just a few minutes' drive from the mountains. Even better, thanks to some really visionary planning, there are plenty of green spaces right in town; many of them with streams and creeks running through them as well.

Memory Grove is one of these areas. Nestled at the mouth of City Creek Canyon the creek that runs through it is the perfect place to let Gracie cool off on hot summer days. And with the snow melt having subsided, the creek isn't more than a few inches deep in most places (with some deeper pools), so now it's also the perfect place for a couple of little boys to do some exploring.

Last week we were at Memory Grove walking through the creek with Gracie, when we reached a point that was a little too deep for Niko, I took him back on to the path while Kelly and Gus continued in the water. All of a sudden, from the water we heard a shriek in a familiar masculine voice, yet several octaves higher than usual.

Niko cocked his head toward the water, and quizzed, "What's that?"

"Papa's seen a snake," I replied.

As if in confirmation, the next sound we heard was Gus' voice ringing out from the creek below, "We've found a snake!!!!"

Niko and I rushed to the water. There at a spot in the creek where the branches of several bank-dwelling trees converged over the water, we found the guys. Gus saw us and started jumping up and down in the water.

"I can't believe it! I finally saw a real snake! A real snake!!"

There on a small branch, sitting motionless in an attempt to camouflage itself was a small garter snake. Maybe 8 inches long and about as thick as my finger, it desperately tried to ignore the four humans examining him.

After a few minutes of being observed, the snake finally showed some bravado and flung himself to the next branch and freedom.

Niko and I headed back to the path, as Gus and Kelly headed further down stream; Gus, retelling every minute detail of the sighting...apparently unaware or not caring that Kelly had been there.

Back on dry land Niko and I held hands, walking quietly. Suddenly another shriek flew from the creek! Niko turned to me and said, "Papa saw another snake." And so he had...

Trust me, it looks bigger in this photo than it really was!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Advanced for His Age

Recently, I dropped Niko off at his M-W-F preschool and I was handed an incident report to sign. At this school reports are written up if something happens to the child or they've done something to another child. Sometimes they're as simple as Niko fell on the playground, or he pushed one of his classmates. But this one was more serious: he bit a kid.

It's pretty common for really young kids to bite because they lack the skills to communicate their needs. When he was a toddler, Gus was a big biter. His Oma, Liesel Schlosser, taught me how to break him of it: bite him back. It worked. But Niko was well beyond the age of biting being an option.

As I signed the report, I told the teaching assistant that I was perplexed that this type of bad behavior exists only at this school, and is nowhere to be found at his T - Th preschool at the University. I also noted these observations on the "comments" portion of the report.

Later that day I received an email from the school's director. She offered several hypothetical reasons for the different behavior at the two schools: class sizes, dynamics of the children, physical size of the classrooms, boy / girl ratios. All very legitimate.

She went on to describe how she saw Niko: "independent," "strong willed," "imaginative" and "rough and tumble." Maybe it was my reading of the email, but it seemed like she was describing his faults. Funny thing is we see these as some of his best attributes.

But here's the kicker: she said Niko is "very advanced for his age in teasing." Yes, you read that correctly. He's advanced in teasing. When I told this story to some family members, my cousin Apostoli nailed it, "Hey, Niko teases at a third-grade level."

How do I respond to that? "Lucky thing he's a good teaser or in our family he'd be crying instead of laughing all the time!"

I mean just look at the below photo Kelly took the other day at the ice rink: Is that the face of an advanced teaser? Wait, don't answer that...

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sophie M. Saltas

Wednesday I had the sad, yet great honor of joining 5 other men carrying our wonderful Theia Sophie to her final resting place. I feel as if a great sequoia has fallen. That's how influential, respected and revered Theia Sophie is in the Greek community.

Our community's loss is also my individual loss. But I am comforted by a plethora of wonderful memories.

- How she would call me late at night - knowing I was the only family member still awake - to share some tidbit of information: who was on Letterman, how the visiting Theia Polyxena had hidden herself in the bathroom at 3:00 a.m. to sneak a smoke, "as if she didn't think I could smell it!" (Confided to me in a hushed voice at midnight...), her anguish as she dealt with my Uncle Paul's ALS.

- The way she gently prodded me to finally find and accept my Orthodox Christian faith. "Gently prodded" are my words. Theia Sophie would say, "Nagged the hell out of me."

- Our wonderful time shared together in a terribly trying period of her life: dealing with Uncle Paul's illness and both her hands in casts after a slip on the ice. (A decision that reflected her deep faith: break your wrists or allow the prosfero, holy bread, to touch the ground.) There were trips to 3 grocery stores in one outing...because Dan's had the best produce, Meyer's the best meat, and some other place the best bread. Vacuuming for her just before the cleaning ladies showed up because we don't want them to think the house was dirty. Paying her bills with her and learning that no, we weren't going to pay the power bill a couple days before it was due because she earned interest on her checking account. (I offered her a nickle so she could make a profit. :0 )

- The years she spent one week every quarter at the U of Utah's English Department as an Add/Drop lady: back in those days to add a class or drop one, you had to get a card from the Add/Drop ladies. Before every quarter started, she'd call me, insisting that I make sure to drop by to see her. Get it? Drop by (that was her joke). And the first Friday of every quarter, she'd treat me to lunch - at the Panorama Room. The swanky restaurant on campus offering (of course) panoramic views, and food far better than that served in the student union.

It was while visiting her at her station I once witnessed her refuse to even consider allowing a young man to add a much needed class because he was smoking. Back then it was OK to smoke in the hallways, but Theia Sophie had declared her little area a non-smoking zone. The indignant student, who clearly had no use for anyone outside of academia, returned with the professor, his cigarette still dangling from his mouth. His self-satisfied "now you're going to get it" look scowling at us. The professor greeted Sophie and asked what the problem had been. Theia simply answered that the young man had a cigarette and her area was no-smoking; he could add the class when the cigarette was gone. Much to the student's amazement the professor turned to him and said, "If Sophie says it's a no-smoking zone, it's a no smoking zone," and walked off. The kid skulked away and Theia Sophia looked at me and uttered her harshest insult saved for the worst of the worst, "What a drip."

There are other stories, of course - how she taught me to make sucking sounds when making lemon soup so the eggs don't curdle (it works), or how she micromanaged my produce picking, but those are for another time.

I'm glad my boys got a chance to know Theia Sophie, even if she wasn't the "old" Sophie. I'll never forget the look of satisfaction on Gus' face, and the look of out-right pleasure on Theia Sophie's, when she asked him something in Greek and he responded correctly. Or the laughter Niko elicited from her when he said, "Tom the dad guinea pig did a poop and three babies were born."

Everyone who loved Sophie has lost something. The Greek community has lost a dedicated leader. My beautiful cousins, Yvonne, Karen, Joanne, and Diane have lost their mom. Their children have lost a yia yia. My dad, aunts and uncle have lost a cousin. And in Greek tradition I've lost a theia, technically, I lost a second cousin, but my cousin-in-law George put into perspective whom I really lost when he said to me, "Well, Chris, you've lost your friend." Because our age difference and familial bond notwithstanding, Theia Sophie was my friend.

You know, maybe she isn't a great sequoia that has fallen. When redwoods fall they become "nurse" trees, providing nutrition and offering access to light for young seedlings. For nearly 88 years, that's exactly what she always did: nurtured "seedlings." Maybe she's not a sequoia that has fallen at all. Maybe she's finally a sequoia that's standing tall.

May her memory be eternal.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Build a little bird house in your soul

Spring has arrived in the Mountain West. The daffodils, tulips and hyacinths are blooming. The apple and cherry trees are covered with sweet-perfuming flowers. And the weather changes by the minute: 70 today, snow expected within 36 hours.

And it's nesting season as well. A small house sparrow has built her nest in the faux forsythia wreath we have hanging next to the front door.

The boys eagerly await the chirps of hungry baby birds.

I dunno about you, but I think this nest at our front door is a pretty good omen!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Change Comes to Those Who Wait

Saturday, I found myself sitting next to my friend Kerri in the auditorium of West High School. We were delegates to the 2010 Salt Lake County Democratic convention. It had been 22 years since we last sat next to each other as delegates: the 1988 Utah State Democratic Convention, which we also organized - as we had the 1986 county convention.

It was a little surreal to be back at a convention again. The process I used to know like the back of my hand has changed and evolved. A whole knew troop of young, enthusiastic people are now running the show. They could have been Kerri and me in an earlier time, scurrying around trying to fix a problem that at the time seemed like it would be the end of the world. (No one seems to remember that it was my decision in 1986 to hoist the misspelled banner that announced the covention...or even that the mistake occurred.)

I saw several people whom I knew from my earlier days, many of whom are now the grand men and women of the party.

But something else has changed outside the confines of the political parties.

Kerri and I sat next to each other to hear the presentations of the candidates for the County Council District 1 race. (The County Council is similar to a County Commission or Board of Supervisors, depending on where you live in the U.S.)

This is an important race for those of us who live in the first district because in this state so horribly gerrymandered, this district is one of a few truly "safe" Democratic seats. Whoever the nominee is will be the next Council member.

And I think Kerri and I both sat with pride at the historic event we witnessed: all three candidates are openly gay men. All three. Each man took his turn on the stage surrounded by endorsing officials, family members and their same-gender partners.

One of the candidates was introduced by a handsome young man as, "the man I have chosen to spend with rest of my life with." Another candidate's adult son spoke of the courage his father showed to come out as a gay man.

And whereas these candidates are Democrats, and this district does consist of the most progressive areas in the state, this is still Utah, and this is welcome change that honestly, 20 years ago, I would have never believed would happen.

What can I say? Change comes to those who wait!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Do Pigs Make You Sneeze?

Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say, "If you can read this thank a teacher?" I always found it a very thought provoking reminder of the importance of teachers in our society. Even though it didn't actually pertain to me. I learned to read before ever stepping foot into a classroom. My mom recognized my interest in reading and taught me herself.

Reading came easy to me.

But it didn't to Gus. Imagine: something that had always been so easy for me, always such a source of joy for me was a struggle and a burden for him.

As parents we did everything "right" - we read to him constantly as a toddler, we gave him educational games, we encouraged him. When it became clear that his Kindergarten classmates had advanced, with most of them reading by the year's end, through the kindness of a total stranger, we were able to enroll him in the U's first-grade readiness program during the summer.

There was improvement, but not enough. The director suggested that we hold Gus back and have him repeat Kindergarten. We sought the sage counsel of my cousin Sundee, a just-retired elementary school principal, who told us to listen to his Kindergarten teacher and promote him, but be prepared to offer him all the extra help he may require.

His first grade teacher almost immediately added breakout reading sessions for him. We arranged for our wonderful friend Cassie, a reading specialist, to work with him twice a week. We worked with him as well.

I'd like to say that did the trick, but it wasn't until Gus was diagnosed with ADD that the breakthrough really occurred. Within two weeks of being treated, he started really reading. At his last parent - teacher conference, Kelly and I beamed at his progress report. He'd gone from being dangerously behind to being basically on par with his peers.

He's still not quite there yet, and he's still getting all the extra help, but every day we're seeing more and more improvement.

But here's the best part. He loves least to Niko. Their favorite book was a gift from our friend Aimz, Pigs Make Me Sneeze.

I can't express how it felt to see Niko grab that book the other night and ask Gus to read it to him. I watched Gus tackle page after page, all the while his little brother roaring with laughter.

Gus reading another book by request...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Party on Good Friday

Several years ago - well before the boys were born - I came to Utah on business. I had meetings the Wednesday and Thursday prior to Greek Easter, so I took a vacation day on Friday and stayed in Salt Lake to celebrate the holiday with my family.

I wanted to make the most of this unexpected visit, so I made plans to see my friend, Aimz. Only thing was that she was only free on Friday, so we agreed to go out for drinks after dinner.

That afternoon, my Theia Sophie called me (for those non-Greek readers, Sophie is actually my dad's cousin, but in Greek that makes her my's confusing to you, I know, but makes complete sense to us!) She asked me if she would be seeing me at church that night. Maybe I should have been non-committal and said "I'll try." Instead, I told her about Aimz and drinks.

That's when she let me have it: She was horrified that I would even consider going out and enjoying myself on Good Friday. She reminded me that Jesus had had only one chance and he didn't use it to have a good time. When I was unconvinced by her arguments, she made me promise not to go dancing and instructed me not to have a good time. (That evening, the irrepressible Aimz - a devout non-believer - told every bar tender and server we met that we were not having a good time.)

Well, my Theia Sophia must have influenced me. Saturday I was shocked to learn that Niko had been invited to a birthday party on Good Friday. A birthday party...on Good Friday!

The invitations posed a great conundrum for me: Do I let my son go to the party or do I tell him he cannot attend? I know many people - perhaps even some who read this blog - who without hesitation would keep him home. And I know people, who would smirk at me for even considering not sending him to the party.

But I think it's a greater issue that many ethnic and religious minorities probably also deal with: the conflict between personal "traditions" and the activities of a larger society.

The birthday boy's family are wonderful, loving people. But they have a different tradition. One in which Good Friday doesn't have quite the impact it does in Orthodoxy.

I want my kids to understand and embrace their dad's culture, but I also want them to be typical American kids. I remember what it was like to pull a blood-red egg out of my lunch sack weeks after "American" Easter, and have the entire table stare in disbelief - assuming the egg had long gone bad (or was a pink PAAS aberration.)

So we compromise: The Easter Bunny visits our house...even when American Easter falls during Orthodox Lent. My kids can have fun during Lent...even on Good Friday.

This whole situation reminded me of something I heard from Fr. John Bakas of Saint Sophia Cathedral in L.A.: statistics repeatedly show that people are more likely to attend church services as adults if they attended them as a child with their father. My boys will get their religious cues from me. The choices I make will influence their choices. The way I handle the conflicts of a 1st-century religion in a (thankfully) secular 21st-century country will determine how they deal with them.

So in the end, Kelly and I decided that he'll take Niko and Gus to the party. A three-year old won't understand why he's not having cake and playing games at his buddy's party. I will not attend. If asked by other parents or the boys, Kelly will smile and tell them I'm preparing for Good Friday services, and if pressed that in my religious tradition a party on Good Friday isn't appropriate.

As the boys get a little older, they will attend Friday-night services with me. And when they're men, I hope they'll follow the example I've tried to set - just like the example my much-loved Theia Sophie set for me. I hope they'll have a foot planted squarely in both cultures, will compromise on the insignificant differences, and stand firm on the bigger questions of our faith. Kalo Pascha.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Citius, Altius, Fortius! My Olympic Adventure!

You know a vacation is going to be good when the very first day includes:

- flying to another country on a plane with propellers that seats less than 60 people;
- praying you don't have to lie to Canadian custom officials by saying you're staying with friends (whom you've never met in your life)and whose surname you didn't jot down; and
- laughing so hard your stomach hurts because you and your best friend are crouched down in the hatchback portion of a Suburu hiding from the Mounties because you have 7 people in a car that seats 5.

Now that's a vacation!

Our Generous Hosts:

Long story short, our original accomodations fell through so all six of us ended up descending upon the home of Martin and Judith Siegert - whom John, Sabine and Mary had met last year while rafting some remote river in the Yukon. How cool are they to generously open their basement to six Americans? What amazingly folks - they made our trip.


We were hoping to get some additional tickets, but the Canadians bought the place out. However, we were able to see:

Curling - for those who don't know, curling is sort of like shuffle board...on ice... and with brooms. We saw a men's round robin featuring the Canadian team (that went on to win the gold), the Norwegians (who would get silver, and whose garish harlequin pants were the talk of Vancouver...and their King Harald), the Chinese, Swiss, French, Danes, Brits and Swedes.

A couple of days prior to the event, we took a curling lesson - I reminded everyone you never see ice on the Acropolis, and I naturally sucked. Kelly, of course was brilliant. It gave us a new appreciation of the sport and the night before we left we had a little match...I'd improved enough to be the Lead on the men's team as we trampled the women! Of course, the Lead is usually the weakest link...but I think I'm probably good enough to be Skip (as in skipper) of the Greek national team in Sochi in 2014...

Women's Hockey - we were lucky enough to see the bronze medal women's hockey match between Sweden and Finland. Naturally, we split evenly between the Swedes and the Finns. Seeing how I had a LOT of blue and white, I was a natural Finn...and I like to think that it was MY inspiration that helped the team win its first-ever women's hockey medal! Oh, and before the game I got to eat an Yves veggie dog. That's right, VEGGIE dogs at hockey events! Is Canada great or what?

2-women bobsleigh - it rained at Whistler that day. But with the Greek flag draped around me I wasn't, I was warm in the embrace of Mother Greece. 'Least that's what I was telling everyone. And as the ONLY Greek flag to be seen the ENTIRE week we were there, I was also much photographed! (I reminded people that without the Greeks there'd have been no Olympics...or math, science, or history.) It was really great: when the Canadians came in 1 and 2 the crowd spontaneously burst into "Oh, Canada." Um, we politely reminded everyone that the US team took bronze...on the way to the Americans' record-breaking 37 total medals.

Other Highlights:

Well, taking a bus, train, seabus, different bus, and gondola to Grouse Mountain to go snow shoeing...only there wasn't really enough snow to warrant snowshoes, so we muddle our way to the top in our boots. Oh, then we slid down on our butts! (I stupidly wore Levi's, earning me the nickname "Sticky Pants"...that is until I body luged - head first - down the last part!) In the gondola with close to 100 other people, Kelly uttered possibly the best line of the Games. Crammed up against everyone, he looked at me he said, "So, I guess it's safe to assume I'm over my claustrophobia thing."

Even when the Games aren't in town, there's an hour wait at the Japadog cart in downtown Vancouver. John bravely stood in line for close to 90 minutes to get one regular and one veggie Japadog (again the veggie dogs!). Basically they're a hotdog with dried seaweed and teriyaki mayonnaise on them. Yeah, I don't think I ever need to eat another one...

Although if they opened in America, Kelly argues I'd never step in one, I couldn't get enough of Tim Horton's. It's kind of like a Duncan Donuts but with breakfast meals. Sabine and I really dug the (B)ELTs (Bacon, Egg, Lettuce, and Tomato, minus the bacon). Plus, they offered an array of donuts and donut holes, which we took back to Martin, who encouraged me to wash them down with beer. Donuts, beer and curling on TV, does it get any better than that??

But most of all, we enjoyed what the Olympics are really about: meeting people and laughing and for a moment forgetting what separates us as nations. Whether it was cheering with the Finns, or chatting with an older Austrian guy, or surprising some Russian athletes when I thanked them in their mother tongue for retrieving Terry's hat, it was nice just to be a citizen of the world.

Of course, it helps to have some of the greatest people in the world traveling with you. And meeting fantastic new friends like Martin and Judith.

Oh, and since this blog is about being a dad, yes, we missed the boys...starting about the third day. And when we walked down to the luggage claim area at Salt Lake International, they shouted our names and threw themselves into our arms. And honestly, that was better than winning a gold medal.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bonnie Jean Scott Huntington

I've been gone for a bit, and I know most of you probably expected me to blog about our adventures at the Vancouver Olympic Games. And I will get to that in the next couple of days.

But the night after we returned home, Kelly's mother passed away. Bonnie had been suffering from Alzheimer's for several years, so in a way her passing was a great blessing. But it's still hard.

Per her request no funeral service is planned. Her kids have requested that no flowers or cards be sent.

So this blog posting is just for me.

Before Alzheimer's stole her, Bonnie was a gifted, recognized artist. Her paintings regularly received ribbons in county and state fairs. Her work was featured (and sold) in galleries across Utah and the Mountain West.

My favorite memory of Bonnie and me comes from one of the first Christmases we were together. Kelly's sister-in-law had made a huge feast and served if buffet style. As we were going through the line, RaeEllen noticed someone had placed the spoon in a pan of simmering potpourri. She naturally got angry and one of the kids got the blame.

Bonnie and I sat next to each other eating. She leaned in to me and whispered, "Dear, have you tried the stewed vegetables? They're kind of chewy." I looked over at her plate to see what she was talking about since I hadn't seen any stewed vegetables on the stove. And there spilling into her potatoes and everything else was a big pile of potpourri.

"Bonnie! That's not stewed vegetables, that's the potpourri!" She looked at her plate, looked at me and dryly said, "No wonder it's chewy." And we both burst into laughter.

My only regret is that my boys didn't get to know their Grandma Bonnie. And that she didn't get to know them. I'm afraid their memories of her will be of a feeble person unable to perform the most simple tasks unassisted.

So it's up to Kelly and his brother David to tell them who Bonnie really was. A dynamic, funny, gifted person, who saw the good in everyone, loved to laugh, and made a loud, talkative Greek guy feel welcome as a part of her family.

May her memory be eternal.

I'll be back and more frequently beginning next week - starting with my Olympic recap!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Fr. Andrew Amendment

When I was in college, the priest at Prophet Elias was Fr. Andrew Mahalares. He was a pretty nice guy but, well, maybe a bit too pragmatic in his approach to a 2,000-year old religion.

One Spring day in 1985, my parents, sister and I were getting ready to head to church when the phone rang and my parents' best friends suggested they go golfing. In a New York minute, they were into their golf attire and out the door - leaving Sandy and me to head to church alone.

Apparently, similar calls went out to a lot of other folks that morning because there weren't a whole lot of people in church that day.

Of course Fr. Andrew noticed his diminished congregation, and he addressed the situation in his homily. He acknowledged that after a long, cold Utah winter during these first warm days of Spring it was tempting to skip church. He opined if a person says he or she is going to be with God on Sunday but goes, say, golfing instead that is a sin. (Sandy discretely elbowed me upon hearing that!) But, he continued, if you say you're going to be with God and go golfing AND thank God for the warm weather, rejoice in the fellowship of your friends and are grateful for the beauty of nature then you didn't need to be in church that day!

A lot of our fellow parishioners missed Father's point. It may have been just too pragmatic for them. Indeed it wasn't too much longer after that day that he was transferred to another parish.

But Sandy and I understood what he meant. If God is everywhere then He can be worshipped anywhere - not just at a church.
Over the past quarter of a century, I've recalled that homily several times, invoked the Fr. Andrew Amendment and skipped church to go to a ball game, hiking, or even to watch football on TV.

And I did so again yesterday. Rather than worship at Prophet Elias, our family worshipped at Lindsey Gardens Park - half a block from our house. And we were thankful for the snow, we rejoiced in the fellowship of our family, and we were grateful for the sound of children's laughter as we sled down the hillsides.

Don't get me wrong: The Fr. Andrew Amendment must be used judiciously and infrequently. Next Sunday we'll be back in our pew again.

I think when the boys grow up, they'll remember their years at Prophet Elias fondly. I hope the priests, Sunday School teachers and their dad can instill in them the deep faith we all share. I hope they look at their Orthodox Christianity as a blessing. But I also hope they remember that now and then we worshipped God by sledding down a snow-covered hillside!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I'm Sort of Mormon

I like to joke with my LDS friends that I'd make a pretty darn good Mormon. I'm pro-family. I go to church every Sunday. I don't drink coffee. They like to respond that I drink like a fish and can swear like a sailor. Oh, and then there's the whole gay thing...

One cannot escape the influence of the LDS church when living in Utah. Sometimes that does drive me nuts. Like their annual private breakfasts with the Legislative leadership. Then there are times I'm grateful for their pull. Notwithstanding the amazing efforts of my friend, the late state Senator Frances Farley, if the LDS Church leadership hadn't come out against the MX missile plan in the early 1980s, I'm sure those rockets would be in the Utah and Nevada desert today. And I can't deny that their support of Salt Lake City's anti-bias ordinance helped pave the way for a similar ordinance being adopted in Salt Lake County.

What I've learned is that in nearly every belief system good ideas abound. And long ago I discovered that some times all it takes to adopt those good ideas is to tailor them to fit you.

For example, in Utah you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting a car sporting stick-figure decals telling fellow drivers just who comprises your family. Well, we are as proud of our family as anybody on the I-15. So our car rear window is home to a decal family too. Only, well, ours reflects our family.

It's funny. Cars will race up to catch us and look over. Often the faces we see in the other car are confused - you can almost see them doing the math in their heads...two dad figures, two men in the front seat... Other times we see smiling, laughing faces and people giving us a thumbs up.

The decals seem to be a never ending source of confusion. One of my uncle's friends saw our car parked in my parents' driveway, noticed the decals and called my uncle to ask if I had become LDS!
I hope he never finds out that once a week we have Family Home Evening, only ours usually includes Dad having a beer!

Like I said, the LDS faith has a lot of good ideas: once I've tailored them to fit me.