Category Archives: parents

A Greek-American Dream by Guest #Author Steve Karas #MondayBlogs #amreading

Hello readers,

This week I welcome friend and fellow Greek-American writer Steve Karas. A Chicago native, Karas is the author of the stellar short story collection Kinda Sorta American Dream. I had the pleasure of blurbing Karas’ book, and what initially stands out is his range as a writer. As he explores the theme of identity in both contemporary and futuristic visions of America, he inhabits the diverse voices of a Greek-American diner owner, an African-American cop, and a Indian-American woman, among others with deftness and empathy. He introduces us to people struggling to make a life for themselves in America, and despite the familiar settings, both urban and rural,
the stories feel fresh and vibrant.

In contributing a post to the blog, I asked Steve to touch on his Greek roots, his experience growing up in Chicago, and the ways in which his background as a psychologist informs his writing process.

Please enjoy Karas in his own words!

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My family began its migration from Greece to America in the early 1900s. My great-grandfather, Ioannis, was the first, passing through Ellis Island in 1902 with eighteen dollars in his pocket. He landed in Chicago’s Near West Side, then the largest Greek immigrant community in the country. He came here for the same reasons so many other Greeks did at that time—to escape a poor economic climate, find employment. I don’t know if he ever intended to stay, or if he had any idea he’d be giving his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren opportunities they wouldn’t have in Greece. My mom and dad followed in 1960 and 1970, respectively, unmarried at the time, strangers in fact. They came to join family that had settled here before them with the hope of having a better life. By the late 1990s, it’s safe to say my parents were living the American Dream. Both had established careers, they’d bought a house, saved a bit of money, sent two kids off to college. So as a late teen/early twenty-something-year-old, when I told my parents I wanted to be a fiction writer, I can only imagine what they were thinking. I was studying psychology in school, but having doubts about that path as my heart was in writing. What they told me was that I should stick with pursuing a more stable career. I remember having a talk with my dad during one of my college breaks.

“Position yourself so you have options,” he said. “After you have your degree you can do whatever you want.”

“This isn’t some hobby. A good job is one that makes you happy.”

“A good job is one that pays.”

I huffed, loudly I’m sure. Didn’t the Greeks have a rich history in literature, after all? How about Homer? Hadn’t my dad read the Iliad, the Odyssey?

“Get your degree, and then you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Just make sure you have options.”

I thought it would be too late by then. I never considered I could do both.

I traveled to Greece a couple years later, the summer before I was to begin graduate school in psychology. I remember meeting up with a close friend who had been living there and pursuing a soccer career after a series of knee injuries had cut short a promising college stint in the States. He’d been confronted by one road block after another in Greece: offers that had fallen through, shifty agents, corrupt coaches and team presidents. We’d spent the day carving through the Monastiraki flea market in the old town of Athens and Plaka, the historic neighborhood built on the foothills of the Acropolis. We took a break from the sun on the cobbled steps of a hidden alleyway, between white-washed cube homes, just beneath the Acropolis’ walls. I lamented about having to start school, how I’d felt pushed into it by my parents, how my dream of becoming a writer was being squelched.

He said, “If things don’t work out for me now, boom, I’m done. That’s it. And I’ll always wonder, what if? I’m telling you straight—you? You have your whole life to write.”

That stuck with me. Funny how when we’re young the things our friends tell us sometimes carry more weight than the words of our parents, the people who typically know us and love us most, have our best interest at heart.

My career as a psychologist has been a blessing. Above all, it’s been fulfilling. I hope I’ve helped people. On top of that, it’s fueled my writing career. My work as a psychologist and my Greek-American roots, in fact, probably had the greatest influence on the writing of my debut short story collection, Kinda Sorta American Dream.

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As a psychologist, I’ve tried to empathize with people from different walks of life, which has undoubtedly benefited me as a writer. I’ve worked with young people who are first generation immigrants like my parents. I’ve even counseled a few who moved to America from Greece amidst the recent crisis and struggled to assimilate into the American culture (probably not too unlike my propapou, Ioannis). I’ve worked with second generation immigrants, people like me, whose parents had come from Mexico and Poland, many of whom didn’t speak any English, but who knew they wanted better lives for their children. More than any other group, I’ve worked with kids whose families have been in America for generations, and it’s sometimes this group who I think experiences some of the greatest struggles. It’s often made me think about the value of suffering, of having to work hard to provide food, shelter, a future, not to mention iPads and flat screen TVs. It’s made me consider how my wife and I will balance handing things to our kids and having them earn what they get.

Of course, no one is more proud of my book getting published than my parents. They’ve sent a heap of copies to friends and family in Greece. The path to writing it was a circuitous one. But when I trace it back, in many ways, my dream leads to my family’s dream. To my parents and their wisdom. To Papou Ioannis. Even to America and the pull it had on them all.

Steve Karas is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015) and Mesogeios (forthcoming from WhiskeyPaper Press, 2016). His stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Necessary Fiction, jmww, Hobart, and Little Fiction. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids. Please visit his website at steve-karas.com.

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#Art as Life: On Arts Education & Smelly Markers #MondayBlogs

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Imagine, if you will, a baby crawling up a mountainous flight of steps, one little knee at a time, slapping the surface of each stair in announcement of his progress. His ascent is inspired not by the promise of toy or treat, but by a desire to view up close the spectrum of colors and shapes beckoning from above.

I was that baby, and the stairs belonged to some famous New York City art museum, the Guggenheim perhaps, to which my mother had taken me during one of our visits to the Big Apple. It seems I was drawn to art (pun intended), so the story goes, since before I could walk, willing to brave even the most arduous climb simply for the sake of a layered canvas. Growing older, and more mobile, I could often be found reaching for a pencil, or crayon, with which I would fill countless sheets of paper; first with scribbles, and then, as my hand grew more confident, superheroes and monsters. My favorite tools of the trade were those gold and silver markers that emit the smelliest fumes via which I would grow intoxicated and then preform “drunken” dinner songs for family. Ah, but that’s another story.

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A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

Mom, no doubt, was an big inspiration for this early creative streak. Aside from taking me to see the framed creations of the masters, she provided visions of an artist at work as she spent countless hours at her drawing table laboring at her craft. Art was, and is, integral to our family experience, woven like tapestry into the texture of our everyday life. My mother is a painter and sculptor, and her father, my papou, earned quite a name for himself in the art world despite his feeble beginnings as a Greek immigrant. My dad, who while in America earned a living through his electrician business, has since, in moving back to his native Greece, dedicated himself to his own artistic talents.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the company of artists, attending gallery openings and exhibitions–many of them my mother’s–wandering among the paintings in search of both inspiration and a makeshift play space. Now, as an adult, attending galleries and museums is still a favor pastime. When Mom is town from Monterey, it’s a joy to trek out to San Francisco and take in an art exhibit. Each painting, every sculpture, tells its own story. I’ve learned that the point of viewing art is not always to glean “meaning” from a piece (“What is this artist trying to say? What does it mean?”, you often hear people remark), but rather to observe how it makes you feel.

I’m grateful that my family has gifted me with a life abundant in art. Just as I was exposed to paintings, so was I entrenched in the world of stories and poems as our home was one full of books. An artist’s life isn’t always easy, but it is ever vivid, consistently rich. When I was growing up, Mom taught art at my elementary school. I often heard classmates–the children of “square” families–say things like, “Art isn’t important becomes it doesn’t make money.” Well, sometimes it does, and it will, if nothing else, expose one to a spectrum of colors beyond the banality of dollar-bill green.

This post is inspired by the recent news that the Senate has passed an act making arts education part of the Common Core curriculum. Now, I believe Common Core is problematic in of itself for a variety of reasons that I won’t expound upon here, but this is a good thing for all. There surely is a place for art in schools. Today, more than ever, we need people who are unafraid to color outside the lines.

In Praise of #Gratitude: 4 Things I’m Grateful For. #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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A heart full of gratitude

“In ancient Greek, gratitude was expressed in terms of praising. When Greeks wanted to say ‘thank you,’ they said: ‘That is excellent, I praise you,’ καλλιστ, επαινω.’ [This] brings us to the observation that in the Archaic and Classical period many hymnic texts of the Greeks did express ‘thanksgiving.’ The praise of a god, the narration of her or his birth, famous deeds and gifts to mankind, all this functions as thanksgiving.” — Jan-Maarten Bremer from the book Reciprocity in Ancient Greece; Oxford University Press, 1998.

This ancient Hellenic interpretation of gratitude as a form of praise–not simply an expression of thanks, but rather a paying of homage to pedestal-worthy recipients–inspires this week’s blog post as I reflect on four things I’m grateful for this holiday season. I had plenty time to consider the topic while celebrating Thanksgiving with Mom and extended family down in Monterey, California. I took a break from the usual writing routine to stroll the seaside trails with Mom and her pair of greyhounds, my thoughts churning amid the continual rise and fall of ocean waves. Here, in no particular order, are four things to which I’m offering praise as November makes way for December.

1. Bi-weekly phone chats with Pops: Dad and I have been talking on the phone quite often, Saturday mornings, usually. It’s a nice way to start off the weekend as I’m able to catch up on the news from Greece–stories of the latest haul from my father’s olive grove, the abundant crop offering a rich oil, luminous liquid gold. We speak of my cousins and their growing families, the delicious meals cooked by thea Anna. These conversations also serve as a way to prevent my Greek from getting rusty. They inevitably end in laughter as Dad shares a joke or too, comical reminiscings from our previous travels together in the Motherland.

2. Conversations with Mom that turn into escavations of family history: Mom and I speak often of her side of the family; my yiayia and her three sisters, that quartet of larger-than-life women who were the subject of an entire blog article a couple weeks back. Their stories are epic, abundant tales of which I have yet to skim the surface, though I’m committed to fictionalizing them in depth at some point.

3. Health: This is an obvious one, but it’s so important. I’m thankful that I’m healthy, and that, for the most part, my friends and family are healthy as well. Those who happen to be battling illness at the moment are often in my thoughts and I wish them a fast, full recovery.

4. Friends and supporters: I’m fortunate to have substantial friendships, tight bonds with people I have known for much of my life. I’m also grateful for the people I haven’t known as long, but who have brought an undeniable richness into my life. I have love in abundance, and to all of you–friends, supporters, faithful readers of this blog and my other writings–I offer praise. I’m grateful for all the people at my publisher, Booktrope–my editor Jessica West, my marketing guru April Gerard, and so many more–for the energy and enthusiasm and tireless work they have contributed to this process of Wings of Wax making its way into print.

Now, what are you grateful for this season?

You #Greek Olive! Delicious insults, #immigrant households, and #culture gaps. #MondayBlogs

"You... you... Greek olive!"

“You… you… Greek olive!”

He’s done something to make me mad–exactly what I don’t recall, though the affront occurred only moments ago, so caught up in my anger that details quickly lose importance. All that matters is that I’m angry now, mad enough to stomp my little foot, clench my tiny fists, curl my lip back in a snarl. I march over to my dad, gaze up at him and fire away with the greatest insult my pre-schooler’s mind can conjure: “Why you… you… Greek olive!”

Bam! There it is. The ultimate slanderous remark spewed forth with all the force a four-year-old can muster. Maybe I figure that with Dad’s dark hair, his sun-kissed complexion that I’ve heard referred to as “olive-tone,” I associate him with–even if only subconsciously–those small, briny fruits. He’s an olive alright–something strange, something foreign, something that while common among our family dinner table seems absent in the cuisine of my non-Greek friends. And I figure that’s the ultimate blow that will surely do him in. So imagine my confusion when he starts to laugh… and Mom laughs with him. They are a strange breed.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a website called The Two Generation that features stories from people who have grown up in America as children of immigrants. They wanted me to speak, and eventually contribute an essay, about my experience as a Greek-American, son to an immigrant father. I gladly obliged, though I didn’t know where to begin. Among the memories flashing through my mind was the one I just described.

From an early age I knew Dad was different, as out of place as an olive tree amid an apple orchard (what’s more American than apples, right?) Sure, my mother is Greek as well, though she’s Greek-American like me, born to immigrant parents. Dad, however, was something else entirely. He spoke with an accent. I laughed when he said “sour” in place of “shower,” heaved a sigh when he insisted we converse in his mother tongue. Sure, he was my dad, but that didn’t mean I didn’t think he was strange.

My American friends had fathers who talked of childhoods spent playing baseball, hanging out in soda shops with friends after school, cruising muscle cars. My dad’s stories were flavored with many sea tales, and soccer instead of baseball. Sure, he hung out with friends but he also stopped going to school at one point to work construction alongside his older brothers. By sixteen he was living with a friend in Athens, some three hours from Ermioni, the Peloponnesian town where he’d grown up, and by twenty-four he was heading to America to his partner and newborn son.

My father, the youngest of six children, was the only one of his siblings to leave Greece. He came to the States knowing but a few words in English, and before long he’d earned his contractor’s license and started a business, patriotically, and appropriately, called Zeus Electric. Though he did well for himself, working to support a family and help raise a child, he never seemed to truly feel at home in America. Growing up in Greece, he’d had a certain affinity for American music and styles, often keeping company with U.S. tourists and hanging out in a circle of friends that included my mother’s Greek-American relatives. Surely it was something of a dream to finally come to the States, so I as a kid I never quite understood why he’d be overcome by a slump-shouldered sadness, his face holding a distant longing, whenever we ventured near the ocean–be it the Monterey Bay, Sausalito, or even the Oakland waterfront. “Ahh, Ellatha,” he ‘d say to himself. I’d just giggle at an another odd remark.

As a toddler I made my first trip to Greece, met my uncles and aunts, my plethora of first cousins, played in the ocean, scored ice cream from my yiayia. Throughout the majority of my childhood we visited at least every other summer. But of course the country wasn’t a part of me in the same way it was a part of my father. That’s to say that in returning to America at the end of each trip, I didn’t leave a part of myself behind, a piece of my being without which functioning in the States grew all the more difficult.

Dad and I clashed in later years. It was inevitable. He might as well have been from outer space while I was firmly entrenched on Earth. Growing into adulthood, and visiting my father’s homeland from a new vantage point, I finally understood that much of what irked me as a teenager was simply a result of our different experiences growing up. Sure, I’m Greek (or of Greek descent), but obviously not in the same way my father is. Sounds simple but it took me a long time to figure that out.

These days, I enjoy hearing my father’s stories of growing up in Greece, just as I relish his tales of arriving as an immigrant in a vastly different land, struggling to find work, struggling to build community even as he quickly got introduced to the local Greek enclave. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to leave your native land and start anew.

Those of us who, regardless of ethnicity, are first or second generation Americans grow up in the hyphen between two cultures, two identities. The stories our parents tell of friends and family they left behind, and experiences they gained, strengthen that link to our ancestral home.

In a sense, Dad is still a Greek olive, though I no longer use the remark disparagingly. Now, I can see the entire tree to which he belongs; those roots running deep… the roots that are my own.