#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.

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Snowy Crowned Royalty: On #Eldery Wisdom #MondayBlogs

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Circa 1984. As the story goes, my yiayia arrived to pick me up from pre-school one afternoon and I paused in my romping atop the play structure to reassure a young friend, in reference to the approach of my grandmother, that “she’s old, but she’s nice.” For years afterward, Yiayia told the tale with a chuckle. She passed in 2007 at the age of eighty-nine, so way back in 1984 she wasn’t so old at all. Of course, to a pre-schooler, “young” and “old” are relative concepts.

In America, we tend to cast away our elders, banish them to nursing homes and retirement communities because their minds often grow dull, and their limbs feeble. They become difficult to tend to, and so they are relegated to the care of those to whom they bear no relation; those professionals mostly well-intentioned despite the clinical aura of their gaze and touch. They literally grow to be someone else’s responsibility because these days, in our “modern” society, we are responsible for so much. This is not meant as an indictment of our culture, but rather an observation of how the elderly are simultaneously held in esteem and ignored; both snowy-crowned matriarchs and patriarchs of our families, and wrinkled burdens to be ridden of. When we pass an elderly person on the street, we are often struck with the ambivalent urges to regard them with a smile, and simply look away, pretend their fate is not also our own.

In Greek culture, attitudes are quite different. In the larger cities like Athens and Thessaloniki old people may be transferred to care facilities in due time, but for the most part the elderly live at home, with family, until their last days. My paternal yiayia, Sophia, spent her golden years surrounded by loved ones in the seaside home where she had raised her seven children, until she passed in 2006 at the age of ninety-one. I vividly recall those visits to Greece prior to her death, the evenings when she would sit in the garden, basking in the twilight amid fragrant citrus trees, as one-by-one her children and grandchildren–my uncles and cousins–would pay visit. She would tell stories and we would laugh, and when the visitors left after nightfall she still had the company of her daughter and her son-in-law–who occupied the home’s upper floor– and myself, of course.

My maternal yiayia, Catherine–the woman of “she’s old, but she’s nice” fame–died in the family home here in Oakland under the care of myself, my mother, and her partner. It was often a struggle, often an experience filled with despair, and there were many times when we questioned whether or not to put yiayia in a home. It seemed easiest to let someone else deal with the dementia that had amplified her ornery ways until it robbed her of personality altogether. But we stayed the course, witnessing the stages of death in all their starkness. If I learned anything, it is that in death our loved ones never really leave us. They remain in our memories, in our hearts. If I gained anything, it was a deepened respect for elders in all their wisdom; for there is much truth in the old cliche.

These days, at thirty-five, I hold my own ambivalence in regard to aging. Sometimes, silly as it is, I wince at the silver strands in my beard, the creeping crows feet edging my eyes. I’m not old, but I’m growing older and in this era of obsession with youth and finding a cure for aging, there is something refreshing about holding an acceptance of time’s continual passing.

During the coffee social hours that follow Sunday services at our local Greek Orthodox church, I often sit among elders and soak up the wisdom, the stories. Yesterday I spoke with a man named Kosta who, in Greek, relayed his tales of journeying from the Motherland some fifty years ago to work in the factories of Lowell, Massachusetts before settling in California. He also spoke of lean years in Greece, war and poverty, and what it means to leave one’s home country, trading familiarity for life as a perpetual outsider. His eyes shimmered, as did his words, and what an honor to bare witness.

Old, but nice indeed.

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?

Author Interview: Apollo Papafrangou

The Writing Life Blog

The Writing Life is pleased to welcome Apollo Papafrangou, author of the upcoming novel, Wings of Wax.

Apollo Papafrangou is a writer from Oakland, California, where he pens novels, short stories, and, occasionally, poems. He is a 2010 graduate of the Mills College Creative Writing MFA program, and the author of “Concrete Candy,” a short story collection published by Anchor Books in 1996 when he was just 15 years old.

His debut novel WINGS OF WAX, the story of a shy, young artist seeking to reconnect with his ladies’ man father in Greece, will be published in March, 2016 by Booktrope.

HBO Films optioned the movie rights to his story “The Fence” from 2000-2004, and his fiction has appeared in the 1998 Simon & Schuster anthology entitled “Trapped. Apollo’s work has appeared in “Voices,” a collection of works by Greek writers published in 2013 by Nine Muses Press, Quiet Lightning…

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March Madness: On #MyBigFatGreekWedding2 and New Novel Release Date #MondayBlogs #Booktrope

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People Change. Greeks don’t.

That’s one of the statements flashing across the screen in oh-so-appropriate blue letters across a white background during the My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 trailer which, at the time of this posting, I’ve watched upwards of a half-dozen times. As brief as the proclamation is during the two-minute preview, it contains–like much of the content in the first movie that was an unexpected smash hit back in 2002–a shimmer of truth amid the shiny gloss of Hollywood exaggeration. Of course Greeks as people, like anyone else, change and evolve, but our cultural values and traditions remain a constant; unaltered in time. A distinction is made in the film trailer between “people” and “Greeks” because the culture is larger than life: a living, breathing technicolor mosaic of language, customs, history, and ethnic consciousness that often, in the eyes of both non-Greeks and Greeks alike, puts us on par, for better or worse, with the mythical heroes of our ancient epics. That can be a grand burden to bare, so films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which simultaneously celebrate and poke good-natured fun at our enduring identity, are a joy to watch. Sure, I know some Greek-Americans who didn’t like the first movie, complaining that we don’t go spraying Windex on everything. But those folks, in my opinion, take themselves too seriously. Despite the few flaws of the first film, it was a treat to see our culture depicted on the big screen.

My mother tells stories of Americans flocking to the theaters in the 196o’s to catch acclaimed movie adaptations of ancient Greek dramas like Antigone and Elektra, as well as modern stories such as Zorba the Greek. Having seen DVD versions of these films, I don’t know if they were actually smash hits in their time, but they apparently drew a significant audience interested in Greece and Greek culture. Growing up in the 1980’s and ’90’s, I can’t recall many Hollywood depictions of the Greek experience–whether ancient or modern–aside from Shirley Valentine, and John Stamos’ Jesse Katsopoulos character on the popular TV sitcom Full House. So, when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out in 2002, I had to see it. It was a great movie–cartoonish at times, but consistently charming and fun.

Then I began to notice the phrase “It’s Chic to Be Greek!” commonly appear in the media. Greek culture in America–beyond the yearly food festivals that occur in most major cities–was all the rage once again. We Greeks have always been a proud people, but at that moment we, for the most part, stood up a little straighter as our time on the silver screen had arrived after long hiatus.

Now, the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding is scheduled for a March, 2016 release. My novel Wings of Wax, in a stroke of fortuity (wink, wink), will also be released that same month. The book was originally supposed to come out in December, but the publisher is taking more time to plan marketing strategy and build momentum to ensure Wings of Wax receives the best possible launch. I’m excited to have my debut novel hit shelves in the same time frame of Nia Vardalos’ film release. We Greeks stick together. Thank you, faithful readers, for sticking around, too!

A Legend of Four Sisters: Memories of #Greek #Matriarchs… #Booktrope #flashfiction #Greekculture #family

From left to right: Mary, Iphie, Catherine, Caroline.

From left to right: Mary, Iphie, Catherine, Caroline.

Someday soon they will find their way into a novel of their own, someday soon I will immortalize them with my prose. It’s only right to share the tale of those four sisters: Catherine (my maternal grandmother) Mary, Iphiyenia, and Caroline. A beautiful quartet who immigrated to America from Greece and took their new home by storm, whether via the lightning strike-illuminations of their physical beauty, or the thunderous resonance of both their laughter and their wrath. They were women of grace and strength, unapologetic in regard to their fierce love for their family, culture, and one another; nor their often ornery tempers–though the latter they possessed in varying degrees. They were each artists in their own right, though my yiayia Catherine arguably pursued art to the fullest extent, marrying my papou, Theodore Polosa painter from the island of Lesvos who earned renown on American shores–and nurturing in their two daughters–my mother and her sister Kathy–an undeniable creative streak.

Caroline, meanwhile, studied the Classics at UC Berkeley and developed a flair for acting, landing the lead role in adaptations of ancient Greek tragedies such as Medea. Off stage, her penchant for the theatrical was ever evident in her ability to weave mesmerizing tales with a trademark cocktail in her graceful hand.

Of the four sisters, I spent the most time, growing up, with my yiayia Catherine and great-thea Caroline, and so I recall them the most vividly. By the time I was six or seven years old, Mary–eldest of the sisters–was in a nursing home (I fondly remember speaking with her on the phone, and receiving many cards in the mail), and Iphie was living back in Greece. Yiayia Catherine was near-constant presence in my childhood given that she lived just a few blocks away, and Caroline was a frequent vistor, as well, armed with candied ginger and starlight mints, and, of course, a witty story.

All four sisters have passed on now, Iphieyenia–the youngest of the four–the last to leave us just a few years ago. In attending Sunday services at the local Greek Orthodox Church, I inevitably run into someone who knew the sisters, and they inevitably speak at length about what amazing matriarchs they were, from their classy dress to the integrity with which they carried themselves. They are still well, and widely, loved to say the least.

Of course, no one knew them, like us–the family–knew them, and for all their grace they were certainly no strangers to some wild fights. For who are we Greeks without our drama? Their epic, drawn-out shouting matches–which my yiayia flippantly dubbed “discussions”–are things of legend, and yet, somehow, they always recovered from them in the end. Above all else, there was always love between them.

The following flash fiction piece is an humorously exaggerated take on the four sisters that I’ve titled “The Four Furies.” Hope you enjoy!

The Four Furies

Villagers referred to them as “E Tesseres Erinys,” In English, “The Four Furies.”

A college student studying Greek Mythology, I knew there were traditionally only three furies, but I wasn’t going to argue with the locals. Upon arriving in town after dusk, reeling in the wake of a seventeen-hour journey from California, USA, my eyelids bent on meeting each other as if compelled via magnetic pull, I  swore shadows moved with a life of their own.

“Ah, what you see shifting in the dark corners are E Tesseres Eryinys!

I’m not sure if Argiris tried to scare me with such an explanation, but if so, he succeeded. My university textbooks defined the Three furies as “infernal goddesses,” “deities of vengeance.” To say the least, they were ladies you’d definitely want to avoid. According to Argiris, however, not only did one extra fury exist, she, along with her three sisters, inhabited this very village.

Granted, I didn’t know how much faith to put in anything uttered by Argiris. He was my distant uncle, though we were related, somehow, by marriage, not blood. This was our first time meeting, my first time in Greece, and I could tell by the way he tugged at the corner of his mustache and flashed a crooked smile in between sips of raki as we passed those initial hours at a seaside taverna, that he was one for spinning tales. Still, as time went on, and I continued to witness mysterious shapes shift amid waning twilight, I started to become a believer. More people spoke of the ‘Four Furies.’ At last, one evening, I encountered there truth.

They were indeed sisters, nearly identical in their Mediterranean beauty; dark eyes and skin like the sweet peach tone of sun-smooched nectarines. Though they lived separately, inhabiting four corners of the village, they moved as a quartet, at least in the times I saw them; eight shapely legs marching in unison over ancient cobblestone. They turned heads as they went, though every man knew better than to make. One didn’t whistle at passing queens.

I never spoke to them, though during lazy afternoons, I often occupied at an adjacent taverna table, sipping my iced Freddo while observing them, discreetly as possible, as they sat smoking and cradling cups of traditional Ellinko kafe despite the heat. They never seemed very “furious” to me. I didn’t know there names, but I secretly referred to them passed on what I could defer of their personalities. There was The Worrier, always hovering about her three sisters with lines of concern etched across her forehead, no matter the tranquil scene. There was The Charmer, ever leaned back ever so gracefully, and making her siblings chuckle via some inside joke. There was The Drinker, inevitably requesting a scotch on the rocks upon reaching the bottom of her coffee cup. And finally, there was the Beauty Queen, constantly checking her makeup via an elegant pocket mirror. The four sisters seemed relatively serene to me. So why the volatile nickname? The reason became apparent one afternoon as I strolled among the village homes clustered on a hillside above the harbor. My leisurely walk was jarred by the sound of shrieking voices; the cries of mythic Sirens in reverse, sure to prompt any sailor to reverse course. And I yet I stood mesmerized by the blood-curddling screams and swears, vengeful shouts and vicious threats. In the window of the modest stone home from which the commotion erupted, I saw the silhouettes of those four sisters. Furies indeed.

Won’t You Stay Forever? On Long Lost Relatives, #Greek Village Life, & #Flashfiction

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Last week’s blog on kindness and hospitality in the Greek culture–from the time of Homer, in which Odysseus often relied on the generosity of strangers to find his way home, to modern day Greece where natives welcome both tourists and refugees with the same open-heartedness–got me thinking about a particular adventure I had with my father some years ago. Amid the busy agenda that often accompanies visits to Greece–fun in the sand and surf, savoring huge meals in the company of relatives, and so on–Dad and I were given the task of tracking down the cousin of a close friend back in America. We understood he lived in a mountainous village small enough to not warrant mention on a map, though we knew the general vicinity of the town. So, with the same wanderlust that inspired our ancient ancestors, we took to our chariot in the form of a red Citroen, and headed for the hills. Up winding roads lined with the silvery leaves of olive trees we rolled, passing the occasional sheep herder–beard white as the fleece of his flock–stopping to wave as he guided the herd up the cliffside. Onward we traveled, slowing when we went by the occasional village, often consisting of nothing more than a few crumbling houses set back from the path. At last, we located our destination. I can’t remember the name of the town, but I know it was inhabited by many people with the surname “Kokoris,” that of our Greek-American buddy back in Oakland. We found his cousin, Yiannis, and quite a day ensued, the particulars of which inspired this recent piece of flash fiction included below. Yiannis fed us, told us of his life in the village, even offered us his bed. We had never met this man, but because we were friends with his cousin–a relative he had never known, though he’d kept up with his news through the years–we were treated like family.

Yiannis lives a simple existence in his village, one shunned my many Greeks through the years as families in rural areas have historically fled to the cities in search of better lives. Now, however, in the midst of economic difficulties, many people are returning to family homes in the village in order to live off the land, and in turn they’re finding happiness and success.

We eventually had to leave Yiannis that day, but by the time we said goodbye, it felt as though we were bidding farewell to a relative of our own. Yiannis, our most hospitable host, waved us along from his modest front porch, though it was plain to see he would have liked for us to stay.

Better to show you, rather than tell you, the details of that day, included below in slightly fabricated form:

The Visit

Apollo Papafrangou 2015

While driving the mountain road, I twice passed the sparse village; merely a cluster of terra-cotta roofed cottages among the silvery-green olive trees. Further investigation revealed a stone chapel and a single kafenio inhabited by three old men drumming their stubby fingers on their tabletop between sips of coffee.

Just down the path, a woman in a black headscarf greeted me with a toothless smile and pointed the way toward the right house. The man who answered the door after a trio of knocks sported a wild silver mustache and hands thick and knobby as weathered tree limbs.

In Greek, I explained that I was the friends with Sophocles, not the ancient playwright, but the homeowner’s cousin back in America. With eyes wide in apparent elation, the man named Yiorgos Kokoris invited me inside and insisted I take a seat at the table covered with a lace doily. In the center stood a ceramic vase shaped like a fish. From the fish’s mouth yawned a bouquet of orange wild flowers. To the right of the table, on the wall, a large screen TV showed an afternoon soap opera.

I sipped from the glass of Amita Motion Yiorgos had placed before me, then glanced into the adjacent room equipped with a modest bed, beside which hung painted icons of Jesus and Mary.

“My cousin in America sent you to find me?” the old man asked.

“Indeed,” I replied.

“My cousin Sopho! I’ve heard stories over the years. He is a rich man?”

I hesitated, unsure how to answer. In American standards, Sophocles was moderately wealthy, certainly a tycoon compared to mountain village life. “He invested in real estate through the years and is doing okay.”

Yiorgos stroked the wire brush strands of his whiskers. “He has a heart condition, yes?”

I nodded. “It prevents him from flying, though he wishes he could meet you in person. He’s getting older and wants to know of his last living relative here in Greece.”

Yiorgos contemplated the television for a moment, then said, “It is certainly lonely in the village. The young people realize the soil is too riddled with stone, too parched to nourish their roots, and so they plant themselves in fertile city ground. Still, amid the crisis, many have returned to reap what they may from ancestral lands. I had a wife once, but she died in child birth, unable to bare our first child, a son. Neither did the baby survive.

I was the youngest of nine children. No one else is living. My brother, the second youngest, he died only two years ago from a accident in the brain. One minute he was healthy and walking around, the next he dropped to the Earth never to rise again.”

“Did you ever think of leaving the village?”

“I did, as a young man. Drove a taxi in Athens for a few years, but the traffic, the smog, the people, steered me right back up the mountain. It’s okay. I have my lambs, my sheep. My books. My television.” Yiorgos contemplated the table cloth. I shifted in my seat. Then, the man asked, “Would you like a drink?”

I rarely drank during the afternoons, at least not back in the States, but figured the man deserved a drinking partner. Yiorgos filled two small glasses with tsipouro, handed one to me, clinked his own against it, then sipped the fiery liquor. I drank too, the buzz coming on fast as a stampede of cliff goats. I nursed the rest of my drink, but Yiorgos finished his and went for two more. When the man’s eyes glazed over, I figured it was time to get on the road again.

“Won’t you stay the night,” pleaded Yiorgos. “I have plenty food.” He opened an industrial freezer to reveal lamb carcasses splayed one atop the other. He shut the door after I gave a polite smile and nod, then he led me to a dim cellar heavy with pungent tang of home-made cheese. In one corner, a small metal frame bed with cotton sheets.

“Thank you, but I have to get back to my own family.”

Yiorgos nodded, and bid me farewell, but not before loading me up with spoon sweets, olive oil, and dried figs.

I hugged the man, promised to send photos of Sophocles and I, then got in my rental and drove off. When I glanced in the rearview, Yiorgos stood waving from his tiny porch.

            End