Monday, September 23, 2013

It's in The Stars

The other day  I  received a pitch from a PR person for my column. She worked with an association of California psychics.  Now beyond being inappropriate for a column about gay fatherhood, I'm also not what one would call a big believer in psychics and mediums.  Sure, maybe there are a few people that truly have some sort of gift but they're few and far between.  For the most part, I personally think they provide great generalities and tell people what they want to hear.
When it comes to psychics, I always think about when I did accounts receivable at a manufacturing company back in the 1990s. One day in my deposits, I found a check for $50 from our receptionist, Ruthie. Turns out I'd get 3-4 more of those over the next few weeks. Ruthie had been calling the Psychic Friends Hotline to discuss her love life. When a call came through the switchboard, she'd simply put her all knowing friend on hold, handle the business call, and then get back on to hear about the future. Apparently, Miss Cleo wasn't skilled enough to tell Ruthie that while reviewing the monthly phone bill, the comptroller would notice a charge of several hundred dollars to a psychic line. Nor was her gift great enough to warn Ruthie that the company was also able to determine from which phone line the calls had been made.

Spiritualism, mediums and psychics have been around forever. But the practice became mainstream - especially among the upper classes - following World War I when the sons of the Britain's top families ended up falling in the fields of Belgium.   One of the best known among society people was Louisa Doyle, wife of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mrs. Doyle's "gift" consisted of her going into a trance and allowing the spirit of the departed to enter her body and to use her pen to write messages for the living. As a courtesy, Mrs. Doyle offered to contact the recently departed mother of the great Harry Houdini, a close friend of the Doyles.  Amazingly, she was able to reach Mrs. Weisz! More amazingly to Houdini, through Mrs. Doyle's hand, his Jewish mother wrote the sign of the cross on the top of the sheet of paper, failed to mention the night of the reading was her birthday, and for a woman, who hadn't spoken a word of English, suddenly had a fluent command of the language.

Houdini called bullshit. The friendship between these two great luminaries of their time was over.

Television has spurred a whole new generation of mediums. 
Simple editing makes it seem to viewers at home that these gifted seers are hitting the mark time after time. But a member of a skeptic organization managed to get into the audiences of both James Van Praagh and John Edward (above men).

Television and studio audiences were amazed as a woman raised her hand after Van Praagh pointed to a section of chairs and innocently asked, "Who here is from a different country?" What people not near the table where Van Praagh had been signing books prior to the show weren't privy to was that the hand-raising woman had volunteered that she was from Italy as she had a book signed.  Unlike the skeptic, people at home also hadn't seen Edward fire off no fewer than 40 guesses before finally landing on something solid with an audience member.

Being a skeptic doesn't mean I simply discount that the Long Island Medium and Psychic Tia  (above and bottom) aren't offering up advice based on insights offered by spirits of the dead. I'm just saying that I need more solid evidence.

So, per the PR person's request, I offered to write my January column about a psychic reading on what 2014 holds in store for me. However, I had a caveat: I wanted 5 specific predictions. Not anything that was open to interpretation like "you're going on a trip" - driving out to see my niece Ashley's family in Saratoga Springs could be classified as a trip - but also not something that I could manipulate; so no "Nope, didn't paint my office blue, painted it yellow."

If all 5 predictions proved correct I would write my January 2015 column about what an amazing experience it had been and how readers could get in contact with these truly gifted people. However, if even one of the predictions was wrong, they'd have to put a press release out and take an ad out announcing they were frauds.
She never got back with me.

Personally, if I were her, I'd have taken the offer. Even if they got 2 or 3 predictions right, they could have spun a release saying they got 50-75% of their predictions right.

Oh, and if my dear friend and colleague Bob Henline, and my much adored nephew-in-law Jerid Foster are reading this, yes, I am very much aware of the duplicity I show between my demand for evidence from psychics and my faith that Jesus of Nazareth was not only the Son of God, who resurrected after His crucifixion, but He is God and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
But here's the demarcation line for me: Jesus never made money performing miracles. Yeah, it's true: there are plenty of crazy Christians wondering around there making a quick buck in the name of God.
But, I have a healthy skepticism about religion too. An image of the Virgin Mary appearing in a tree trunk? On par with that cloud looking like a dragon. An icon of some saint crying? Or is it really just condensation?

The fact of the matter is that everyone needs to determine his or her own reality and faith. Someone's dead grandmother whispering generalities into a person's ear in exchange for cold hard cash just doesn't work for me. But a guy that can turn water into wine? That I can get behind!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Right of Passage

When I was in the  7th grade, I got in trouble at school. Not real trouble, but enough to be sent to the principal's office. Actually, in hindsight, not really even enough to be sent to the principal's office, but I was anyway.

We had a substitute in health class. It was Miss Baer. This woman was the stuff of legends. At least in my family. For years, I had heard horror stories about this woman, and how flatly unjust she had been - especially to Greek kids. My Theia Mimi relayed how Miss Baer was always old, even when she taught at Bingham in the 1930s and '40s. Back then the school kids sung a little ditty about her:

Old Lady Baer, Old Lady Baer
Pulling up her stockings and pinning up her hair.

So on that fateful day, four of us conspired to commit the crime of the century. When roll call was taken, we answered to each others name.  Four felons pretending to be someone else for 50 minutes.

When the bell rang and we left the class room, we were convinced we had committed the perfect crime. Or had we? Unbeknownst to us, a girl - clearly not one of the cool people - stayed behind...

Later that afternoon, as I sat in my last class of the day, my name was called over the intercom, summoning me to the office. For the life of me, I couldn't imagine what I'd done wrong.

When I arrived in the office, a vice principal escorted me to a small conference room where Miss Baer sat at a round table, patiently waiting. He asked if I was the person she was after. At first she was confused; the face and name didn't match up but she nodded, quickly remembering the rouse.

For the next 10 or 15 minutes I was subjected to a lecture about respect for others and myself. I was forced - under duress - to admit that our shenanigans hadn't been very nice.

She went on for quite a while. I was beginning to think that although she probably didn't have anywhere to go, I really wanted to get home. Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, I was released back to my class, moments before the bell rang.

That night at dinner, I finally fessed up to my parents. I started by telling them that I had been called to the principal's, that I'd been in trouble.  Naturally, they were concerned. I could feel the anger coming. I told them about swapping names in class to mess with a substitute.

I prepared to get a chewing out from my dad. I was psyching myself up to hear phrases like, "expect more from you," "very disappointing," and "you know better than that." But just as both my parents were about to launch into their tirades, I added, "The substitute was Miss Baer."

My father's demeanor changed in a flash. Oh he was angry, but not at me, he was angry at the injustice brought down on his family name! Of course she could only remember one of the names! She held a biased grudge against our family! The woman hated Greeks! 

What I had expected to be my prosecution quickly turned into an advocacy of my innocence so impassioned that it would've made Perry Mason himself cry!

He even called his siblings to tell them of the unjust vendetta against our family perpetrated against his son.

By the end of the evening, much to my mother's confusion, the focus had been shifted from my juvenile prank to Miss Baer's  demagoguery.

Upon hearing the news straight from my lips, my aunts agreed that what I had done wasn't very nice, but her behavior - not mine - was inappropriate. They almost looked at it as a right of passage - one I passed with flying colors.

I'll tell you what, though, even with all the support from my family and  their revisionist view of the events, during the 2 or 3 dozen times Miss Baer was my substitute in the future, I never - not once - misbehaved in her class again.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

This Day

I used to hate today. September 11th brought with it terrible memories, feelings of anger, even hatred.

Like almost everyone else, I suppose, I remember way too much about that morning. Skipping the gym since my parents were visiting, having no idea what has happening in New York, getting a call from Sabine pleading with me not to go into work that day - into the 42-story building in San Francisco's financial district.

I remember taking my parents to Macy's in Union Square, running into my colleague and friend Quynh and just embracing each other.

Then there was the relief: finally making contact with my cousins, learning they were safe and sound. Eventually getting confirmation that my colleagues were all accounted for. Knowing that dear friends like Michael had not been in harm's way.

As the day dragged on there were so many stories of Americans helping Americans unconcerned about class status, race, religion, orientation or any of the labels we sometimes use to separate ourselves. Shop owners passed out free food and drinks to those making the long journey to their homes - sometimes tens of miles away - on foot. Gruff New Yorkers took the time to make sure preschoolers had new toys to focus on rather than hear of the tragedy. And of course, those amazingly brave first responders running back into the collapsing buildings to save others.

Here's the decision I made for myself: I could focus on the anger, or I could look at it through positive eyes. September 11, 2001 will always, always be a day of great sadness for me. But September 11, 2002 and every 9/11 after has been a personal day of Thanksgiving for me.

I am thankful to know that brave men and women will run back into collapsing buildings, that business owners will forgo profit to feed a stranger, that people will understand that kids need to be kids. I am thankful for the thousands and thousands of acts of kindness and help that sprang from this tragedy, and will always spring from tragedies.

9/11 tore a hole in my heart that cannot ever be replaced. But 9/11 also taught me a valuable, incredibly powerful lesson: Good always triumphs over evil. Always.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


Working the Greek Festival has become an annual dad / son event for Gus and me.

As you may remember from last year, while I served food, Gus dressed salads and worked the soda machine. This year, I don't know if it was an abundance of little kids to do salads and sodas, fewer adults volunteering during the busiest shifts, or the fact that he was taller than about 2/3 of all the yia yias there, but Gus found himself serving along side with me.

While Dad scooped out pilafi (lemon rice) and keftedes (meatballs), Gus did double duty on chicken souvlaki and the always popular calamari! To up-sell people I taught them a few Greek words, and made a joke or two. Gus didn't need to rely on such low-brow tactics. He just stood there smiling, and charming them into asking for deep-fried squid!

I was so incredibly proud of him and the way he handled himself. He didn't even flinch when the tiny yia yia on the gyro station next to him, kept hugging him...even as he towered over her. And he worked for four hours straight without taking a break!

The best part, as we were walking back to the car, he was already talking about what we'll be serving next year!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Becoming Theia Sophie

When my Theia Amelia passed away last year, my cousins asked me to help make arrangements for her church funeral. Since none of them lives in Utah, that made perfectly logical sense. When Fr. Elias came to sing the trisagion at her viewing, I met him at the door, introduced him to my cousins and their families, etc.

After the viewing, a couple of my cousins were talking. When I joined them they told me how they'd just been saying that I'd become our Theia Sophie. It was a pretty funny line.

Well, flash forward to last month. I was at my great nephew Jace's birthday party, and it was time to light the candles on his cake. Only problem was my niece had forgotten to bring a lighter. As people opened drawers and cupboards of the condo clubhouse where the party was held searching for something to light the candles, I remembered, "I have a lighter!"The room went silent and everyone turned to see why in the world I of all people - Mr. Anti-Smoking himself - would have a lighter.

I dashed out to my car and brought back my zip lock baggie filled with my cemetery supplies: livani (incense), charcoals, and two Bic lighters.

So, yes, it's definitely true, I have become my Theia Sophie.

But that's not bad. As Sophie's daughter told our cousins when she heard their theory that I'd become her mom, "And they both love that fact!"

True that!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

That Most Wonderful Day of the Year

Today the boys went back to school. It's funny to see the expressions of the parents: those sending kids off to kindergarten beam with a mixture of pride and sadness; those of us with older children could barely contain our enthusiasm to have them back in school!

I am so incredibly thankful that my boys get to attend Saint Sophia, where they are embraced, challenged, encouraged and most off celebrated for just being themselves.

Niko could barely contain his joy when he was chosen to lead the other students into the classrooms after the priests gave the traditional start-of-the-year blessing. Gus relishes his role as an upperclassman.

Me? I'm just happy to have them outta my house!