The High Society: Greek Family Reunion
Paul M. Muchinsky
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Unamused, indifferent, or entertained readers can write to the author at
I suppose I was about 10 years old at the time. My father was driving the family car and my mother was in the passenger seat. I was sitting in the back seat. My parents were talking about someone who they thought was very intelligent. My father said the person had graduated from Princeton University, and my mother added that he had graduated Phi Beta Kappa. I remember my mother said those words with hushed reverence. I had never heard those words before. From the back seat I asked, What does five bet a capper mean? My mother corrected me, repeating the three Greek letters, again with a sense of awe. I still didnt know what they meant, but I knew they meant something very important. That was my first exposure to the Greek alphabet. I also came to learn about other Greek letters. No matter what the context, they just seemed to represent something very important. While in high school during college visits, I saw elegant looking fraternity houses with Greek letters adorned to them. In my first statistics class in college I learned about Type I and Type II error, referenced by the Greek names of alpha and beta. Sample statistics were denoted with letters from our alphabet. But the really important stuff, the population parameters, was denoted with letters from the Greek alphabet. I have this lifelong thing about the letters in the Greek alphabet, like somehow they represent grandeur, truth, and majesty. For my own mental health I decided it was time to disabuse myself of this childhood-induced belief. I got a book from the library on the Greeks. I discovered that at the turn of each century, the immortal Greek letters always hold a centennial reunion. I politely asked if I could attend the 2000 reunion as a passive observer. While they usually dont allow outsiders to attend, they consented to permit my presence at the reunion. So readers, what follows is my report on the Greek family reunion, based on observations and discussions with the participants. As we say in the management coaching and development business, it was quite a growth experience for me.
Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta are the aristocratic bluebloods of the Greek family. They claim to be descendents of the first Greeks who crossed the Mediterranean Sea and landed in the country. They are clearly the most financially secure of all the Greeks. Alpha invested heavily in waves, bets, and
hydroxolene. Beta is into blockers, sites, and kerotene, but lost a bundle on max. Gamma has long-standing interests in rays and globulin. Delta moves funds often, and currently is into faucets, airlines, and burke. Some people think they are better than everyone else. These four actually believe it.
Epsilon is the family public servant. Over the millennia Epsilon has held many ambassadorships, has served as executive director of philanthropic foundations, and recently was appointed as head of the National Academy of Arts. Whatever good there is to be done, you can always count on Epsilon being in the middle of it. Epsilon is the civic pillar of the Greek family. Epsilon can fill a barn with the plaques received from leadership positions in philanthropic activities. Some petty family members whisper that such tangible recognition is the only reason Epsilon does it.
Zeta seems other-worldly. Zeta has always been involved in the occult and the mystical. Zeta once tried to market a line of tarot cards and crystal balls, but they went nowhere. Often wearing black and speaking with a misplaced Eastern-European accent, Zetas latest gig is as a fortune teller on the psychic hotline. Zeta claims to have put a curse on anyone who uses Zeta as a middle name. Zeta often sits alone at the family reunion.
Eta is the family gossip and snoop. Eta professes to have the real dirt on everyone, but in reality Etas news is often centuries or millennia old. Eta has thin taut lips which are constantly moving. During the Roman occupation it was rumored Etas name was changed to QuidnuncLatin for busybody. However, no one can prove it, and by now few even care. Eta can remember stuff, always negative, about family members that others have long since forgotten or never cared to know in the first place.
Theta is the family artist and thespian. Theta splits time between a brownstone in Greenwich Village and a condo on the Left Bank. Theta possesses extremely liberal views on almost all subjects. Theta is an active supporter of the ACLU. For Theta its often about the latest opening, performance, or the newest avant garde rendition. Theta often threatens to miss each reunion because of a pressing engagement, but in truth hasnt missed a reunion yet.
Iota is the family organizer and planner. In fact, it is Iota who schedules and arranges for the Greek family reunion every century. No detail is too small for Iotas attention, and if pressed Iota can nitpick anything to death. Dont get into an argument with Iota. Iota is always correct, and few people will waste their time being drawn into a pointless discussion with Iota. They will invariably be wrong on whatever position they take.
Kappa is the family storyteller. Most of the time Kappas stories are not true, but no one seems to care because they are rendered in such an entertaining fashion. At every reunion its the same stories. Kappa will say in a loud but engaging voice, Did I tell you about the time Herodotus and I? Within a few minutes everyone will be roaring with laughter. Kappa likes to be egged on. Some family member will invariably say, Tell us the one about how you and Sophocles put a whoopie cushion on Platos chair in the lyceum. Kappa is the life of the party.
Lambda is the family athlete. Lambda is tall, lanky, muscular, and always looks tanned. Like all athletes, Lambda professes some claim to fame. For Lambda it was running second to Pheidippides in the original Olympics marathon. Lambda claims Pheidippides could have been taken in the last mile if Lambda hadnt suffered a mild leg cramp. Few doubt Lambdas assessment. Recently Lambda has taken up volleyball, and no one wants to get in the way of one of Lambdas slams.
Mu and Nu are inseparable. They are the family imps, little troublemakers who are always up to harmless mischief. In fact, it is hard to tell them apart. Mu is a little taller, and Nu has slightly curlier hair. At the family reunion of 7600 BC they chased Epsilons cat up a tree, then threw olives at it. Everyone thought it was funny except Epsilon. In the reunion of 1200, they spiked a few gyro sandwiches with hot peppers. Everyone wonders when Mu and Nu will grow up.
Xi is sultry, statuesque, and extraordinarily good looking. Xi is on the A list for every prominent social event where one goes to be seen. Xi always wears sunglasses, even during the reunion of 900 BC which was held in a driving rainstorm. Despite Xis social popularity, Xi always makes time for each reunion. Invariably the last to arrive, and usually with some sort of fanfare, Xi adds an element of glamour to every reunion.
Omicron has always been a little off and a little different. Omicron is basically harmless, but is hard to take in large doses. Omicron will laugh when no one else does, and often starts to laugh at a joke after everyone else has stopped laughing. It is said that Omicron looks at life sideways. Because Omicron doesnt blink as often as the others, Omicrons gaze is often misperceived to be an intrusive stare. The other family members seem to accept Omicron, but once a century is enough. Omicron gets along with Zeta better than most.
Pi is the most visible member of the family. Pis motto is its better to be lucky than good. Pi has enjoyed more than 15 centuries of fame. Ever since Archimedes discovered there was a mathematical constant that could be used to solve geometry problems, and named that constant pi, Pi became a household name for every family that has a child in junior high school. And Pi has cashed in on the fame. Pi often serves as a judge for the pie-eating contest at state fairs. Pi has 3.14 on a vanity license plate. Several members of the family are jealous of Pi.
Rho is the most dour and humorless member of the Greek family. Most family members regard Rho as a sourpuss, although Rho would prefer stoic. Rho seemingly derives no pleasure from the family reunions, and most wonder why Rho even attends. In the family reunion of 3600 BC Mu and Nu snuck up behind Rho and sang, Rho,
Rho, Rho your boat. Then they ran like the wind, giggling uncontrollably all the way. Some family members delight in reminding Rho of that incident, even though it occurred many years ago.
Sigma is the family underachiever. Sigma is always embarking on some new venture that never seems to pan out. Every reunion Sigma describes the latest cant miss idea. Not one has ever hit. Among Sigmas losing pursuits were dehydrated water, the folding waterbed, and the electric fork. On more than one occasion Sigma has tried to solicit venture capital from family members to launch some new creation. Gamma blatantly told Sigma to take a hike at the reunion of 200.
Simply put, Tau has a substance abuse problem. Long ago Tau developed a deep fascination with the fermented grapes from Mt. Olympus. When sober, Tau is as sociable and amiable as any other family member. But when drunk, Tau starts to slouch and drool. At every reunion it is always a contest to see if Xi will finally arrive before Tau gets smashed. The family photographer has been forced to take some group shots with Tau propped up between Kappa and Pi.
Upsilon is without question the black sheep of the family. No one will ever admit to inviting Upsilon to each reunion, but every century Upsilon knows when and where to show up. Upsilon deserves the family scorn. Upsilon sold arms during the Peloponnesian War, but to both sides. Upsilon was given free tickets to the original Olympics and then proceeded to scalp them to family members. It was Upsilon who introduced Socrates to a local hemlock dealer. For a while Upsilon deliberately slurred the name Upsilon to make it sound like Epsilon, but there was never any confusing the two. Upsilon eats alone at the dessert table, knocking down the baklava like there is no tomorrow.
Phi is the most good-natured of all family members. Phi always has a smile and kind words for everyone. Without fail every reunion someone walks up to Phi and says fee-fee-fie-fie-fo-fo-fum. Without fail Phi laughs as if it were the first time Phi ever heard the greeting. Everyone likes to sit with Phi at meals. It was rumored that at the reunion of 1400 Phi once made Rho smile, but no one can verify it for sure.
Chi is the family prima donna. Chi always exhibits a haughty, self-important demeanor. For reasons no one can discern, Chi exudes a holier-than-thou attitude. No one seems to know why Chi started to act this way, but it seemingly began at the reunion of 5800 BC after Chis trip to Delphi. Chi always appears over-dressed, even for the horseshoe tossing. Xi once referred to Chi as a retinue of one, but Eta said it bestChis filo smells like everyone elses.
Psi acts like someone who is slightly angry at the world. Chronically irritated about something, Psi has no patience for even the mildest social banter, and absolutely no desire to fit in. Kappa loves to get Psis goat. Every reunion Kappa walks up to Psi and says, Hi Psi, whats your PSIyou know, pounds per square inch? Psis face contorts with obvious annoyance, and Kappa knows Psi has been had once again. If Psi sits at the same table with Rho, everyone steers clear.
Omega is the family hypochondriac. Every reunion Omega has some new ache or pain. Omega is also up on every latest cure or remedy, but none seem to work. At the reunion of 1500 BC, Omega talked about crushed grape leaves for the treatment of lumbago, but to no avail. In 400 it was dried figs for chronic dermatitis, but they had no effect. On and on, down through the ages, same story. Most family members believe if Omega werent immortal like the rest of the family, Omega would have died of something millennia ago. Perhaps terminal whining.
Well, there you have it. My exposure to the Greek family brought them down to earth for me. No longer do I place them on some marble pedestal, engaging in sophistry, and writing cryptic looking symbols on dried papyrus leaves. I am no longer intimidated by
Psychometrika. So, the next time you are specifying alpha, calculating beta, or estimating lambda, remember, they are plain folk, just like you and me.
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