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diceWhether fair or not, there’s a lingering stereotype that Italian Americans can be fond of the activity of gambling. While I will admit to playing an occasional football game, poker match, or horse race in the past, wagering my money is not something I do anymore.

However, when the Powerball or state lottery here in New York rise to obscene dollar amounts in prize money, most of my office mates (and myself) pool our money and go buy some tickets for the win.

When I was younger, I used to take my Grandfather to the local mom and pop grocery where he could play his lottery games. He liked to win (and he did hit big a couple of times), but he mostly liked to play for fun.

We play for fun as well, but I find it interesting how people can become overwhelmed with an urge to play all the time, for the remote chance at millions. Because that one big score will change your life and make all of your problems disappear.

If we could only win.

That one prize takes all of the issues of life, the ones that consistently beat you down, and makes them go away. Forever.

I’ve heard it from people who don’t have two nickels to rub together. And from people with asset portfolios in the seven figure range. Interesting, right?

For most, the lottery is nothing but a pipe dream. We can play, but we won’t win. We can fantasize about the new house, fancy car, and exotic trip, but chances are we’ll be going to work the next day.

Should that depress you?

The answer to that question should be “no”. Because in the lottery of life,  you have already won.

You live in America. As much as our government tries to make a mockery of our systems, it’s still the best country you can call “home”.

We are in a time of unprecedented technology. Our every need and desire can be met. You, and you alone, can determine the level of your prosperity. All you need is hustle.

Here’s my favorite quote, that I will take credit for and believe to be the truth:

Any day you are above ground, in good health, and able to enjoy the company of friends and family, it’s a good day.

See? You have officially won the lottery!!

I can tell you, now at 50 years old, I have hit the lottery numerous times. You’ll guess that I’ll mention my wife and kids here, and you would be right.

How and when and where I met my wife was truly a lottery score. Nothing but total blind luck. I can only thank the alignment of the planets that night for finally getting me that “right place, right time” moment.

If you go back through the archives of this site, and read about other members of my family (especially the Sicilians), you’ll know that I practically owned the lottery growing up.

And the “friend lottery” is an example of where I continually cash in. My buddy Mike and I hung out for nearly 30 years before his passing in 2012. I can’t emphasize enough what a wonderful friend he was, and how fortunate I was to know him.

Lottery winners just don’t get that lucky.

Many of us will rate ourselves and our level of importance by the things we collect. The titles we acquire. The promotions we achieve. The time spent at the companies we work for.

The trinkets and toys that fill our lives. The stuff that lottery dreams are made of.

It all would be easier if our numbers would just come in. Life is a game of chance, God’s game. We already have the best of luck if we’re here, and get the chance to play.

You already know the truth. A lottery cash prize would be the icing on an already extraordinary cake.

Just play for fun. Because you’ve already won.

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Midnight Special host Robert Smith AKA Wolfman Jack. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Midnight Special host Robert Smith AKA Wolfman Jack. Courtesy of Wikipedia

Old School.

It makes people groan a little bit and roll their eyes. And mutter to themselves, “Oh God. Really??”.

Want to insult someone? Whisper behind their back, “He’s so Old School”.

I’m curious as to how this bad rap came about. Really, is it that bad to embrace the past, keep tradition alive, and keep the fires of old school lessons burning?

You wouldn’t want to be trapped in the 70′s, I understand that. Modern advancement and technology is a wonderful thing, a blessing.

I’ll give an example. When I was a kid, I had pen pals. If you’ve never heard that phrase before, don’t worry, it’s just because you’re young. But, pen pals were guys and (hopefully) girls that you wrote letters to, with similar interests, usually in other parts of the country or world.

Write. With a pen. On paper. Then you had to stuff the letter into an envelope. And put a stamp on it.

And here’s the best part. The last phase of this project was to take the letter and walk it out to a mailbox for delivery. At times the mailbox was close, other times not so much. Then, the recipient would probably receive that letter in several days.

The Beauty of Modern Life

Here’s where the modern (mostly) trumps the Old School. Now when I write a letter, I can compose it on my laptop, and skip all the other steps. To send that letter, the Post Office need not get involved. I can do it by pushing a button, and it’ll be received in two seconds. Two seconds!!

Email…is amazing.

And I also know that the letter has been opened and read! With a pen pal, how could you possibly know? Hypothetically, that letter could have gone straight from the mailbox to the fire pit.

Modern technology, if its not abused, makes you more productive and efficient. I’m all for it.

Old School Value

An example of the value of old school thinking can also be drawn from my youth. On weekend nights, I would typically stay over and my grandparents‘ house, and you could find me up late watching one of my favorite TV shows, a musical variety program called The Midnight Special.

Midnight Special featured all of the big music acts from the 70s, and I would lay on the living room floor, in my feetie pajamas, mesmerized by the large console TV with live concert footage from my favorite bands.

Only one issue. It was on late. Remember, it was the Midnight Special.

Many times, my Grandmother would try to get me off to bed before the show was over. I’d ask her why.

“It’s late and you need your sleep”.

There was no arguing that position. My Grandmother was old-school smart.

There was no need for her to quote from a study, but the eggheads at the National Sleep Foundation find that if you are sleep deprived for any length of time, you won’t stay healthy and/or bad things can happen.

Here’s my point. Common sense and old school thinking eventually merge on the super highway of living a quality life. And when you combine them with smart modern efficiencies, well, now you can really blow it up.

Whether it’s work ethic, exercise, eating vegetables, holding traditions, raising kids, money issues, or just learning how to take a breath and age gracefully: the raw simplicity of the old school just works.

The Super Combo of Old and New

Like I implied, working old school common sense and ethics with modern advances is a win-win. Don’t just make anything overly comfy or convenient. Students of the old school, no matter their age, tend to shun practices that will turn them into cream puffs.

Examples:

Old School – Still listening to the beautiful and funky sounds from the 70s and 80s. There’s nothing better.

New Age – My, that’s a large and impressive (read: space destroying) album collection you have. You do know you can listen to Kool & The Gang on an iPod, right?

The new school is more efficient here. This example is solid and remarkable. What has happened with music seems to be a necessary part of life. But I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. Read on:

Old School – This smart phone does everything. Damn, how did I live without it? Oh, I do need to put it down occasionally so I can actually enjoy my real life.

New Age – Hopeless. Never, ever puts the phone down. Especially when around friends and family. In the future, won’t see that water fountain straight ahead, or that school bus bearing down on him. Tragic.

Old School - Will use the occasional app to track calories, finances, et al. Wants to ensure things are staying on the right track. Uses tasks to free up time to enjoy with actual humans.

New Age - Apps equal advertising. Look at what I did! I upgraded my iPhone for the 6th time! I saved on my car payment, it’s only $550 a month!!

Old School – Uses social media sparingly. May still think of blue jays when they hear the word “tweet”. Removes people from Facebook that always complain or are excessive braggarts. Uses blogs and websites to advance their agenda. :)

New Age – Again, hopeless. Addicted to hashtags. Wants to know via update when you go to the bathroom. Becomes morose and sullen if there are less than 100 “likes” for their latest update. Checks their phone to see what their friends are doing…when they are at a party with the very same friends.

You get this gist. When you temper our coolest and latest with a little old school mentality, the result can be spectacular. Better life, less stress, more health, and you seem a little more informed where you may not have been before. That’s the perception, anyway.

If you prowl the hallways of the Old School, you know better.

That’s my take. What do you think? Is that combination of old and new thinking a necessity these days? Or should I take my head out of 1973? Comments in that little box sure would be nice (ain’t technology great?) !

Mantle - The Last Boy

Mantle – The Last Boy

It is 1962. The perfect shape of a baseball takes flight against the backdrop of a pale summer sky. As the ball tumbles from the air into a vast evergreen of grass, a boy can’t help but chase and hunt it down.

The boy, slight of stature and quick afoot, snares the elusive ball and makes a difficult catch look easy. The joy on his face reflects his capture, and he turns and pivots. With the smile never leaving him, he throws a strike to another boy, a boy waiting with his glove set against the background hues of blue and green.

The grass they run in is lush, the summer air thick with pollen and humidity. They run everywhere, for the expanse of land surrounding this family farm seems never ending. The boys play hard, as they keep on running.

It is 1962. The race to space is becoming cool, and the Cold War is heating up. Missiles in Cuba threaten the world, and Marilyn’s brief life comes to an end. The Yankees win the World Series again, and Mickey Mantle remains a god to New York baseball fans.

The end of the innocence has not arrived, but the world is changing in a profound way. It is 1962.

The Glove, And Inspiration

Shortly after I wrote this post about my Uncle, the cousin that I wrote the post with felt that I should have a momento that belonged to him. He stopped by my house and delivered the early 60′s baseball glove that my Uncle used to play games of “catch”.

The glove is a Bobby Richardson model, but emblazoned with my Uncle’s signature of “Mikey” Mantle. My Uncle wasn’t a great reader or speller, which didn’t matter to those who loved him. He had a giant personality, a great sense of humor, could run like the wind, hit and catch a baseball with the best of them, and throw a punch like a well trained middleweight.

Mickey Mantle was his favorite player, regardless of how he spelled the name. In an era when worship of a baseball player wasn’t a futile and wasted undertaking, Mickey was everyone’s favorite athlete. Mantle had his vices, and was a flawed human being, like the rest of us. But that didn’t stop a generation of boys from emulating him and his formidable skills.

My cousin stated it would have been great if I was here, to share their experience. In 1962, I was just a twinkle in my Dad’s eye. But, I can imagine the fun and games as they were. To look up at the galaxy of stars, exploring space, to play baseball in the blistering sun, and idolize a man who played a game. When it was still worth your time to do so.

In my world, it’s not 1962. That year is long gone. It is an unusually warm September night more than 50 years later. The calendar reads autumn, but summer is rising in its attempt at a last gasp before it ends for good. As I write this, a mediocre Yankee team is being ousted from playoff contention.

There are no more heroes or idols. Just flawed men and women that can’t run or hide from around the clock news or social media.

In 1962, America’s innocence will begin to come to a close. Everything will soon change. But the boys will play. They will catch, they will hit, they will run. Spirits will soar.

Now, a baseball still arcs into the sky, traveling through the same bright blue backdrop as of years ago. A ball lands once again into Anthony’s glove, but it’s my son that wears it. The glove still makes a sweet sound of smacking leather, ready for its new owner to take into future decades of making memories.

Memories of summer. Where boys play forever and loved ones and heroes never grow old.

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My Grandfather, left, with brother Dominick, who was KIA in WWII

My Grandfather, left, with brother Dominick, who was KIA in WWII

On a cool summer evening in the late 1930s, my Grandmother stood on a neighborhood sidewalk, talking in Italian to a friend that lived on the same street. In the middle of conversation, the friend noticed a man walking up the sidewalk.

“Here comes your husband”, she said. My Grandmother replied that it couldn’t be him, that she didn’t recognize the silhouetted figure. A stunning moment later, she realized it was him, although she couldn’t see his face. The man she married was covered in soot and grime from a new job at the railroad yard, one of the first he held in his steadfast pursuit of their version of the American Dream.

Coming to America was just the first step at the bottom of the hill. He was relentless in his ascent up the mountain of the dream.

That dream must have looked impossible to a man whose English was rough, and came to the USA with primarily physical skills.

His was the story of thousands of Italians who emigrated to these shores, to the land of hope and dreams for sons and daughters to follow.

Joe DiMaggio turned to baseball because he hated the lingering smell of dead fish that stained his father’s fishing boat. Rocky Marciano ran straight into a boxing ring to avoid the factory life that crippled his father into a shell of his former self.

My Grandfather’s family came from the unforgiving terrain of Southern Italy for just a chance to chase something better.

His relentless nature proved to make a modestly successful immigrant life, and paved the way for the generations after him. We enjoy what we have in part because of the fruits of his labors.

He had to continue to be relentless with sadness and grief as a life companion. He lost a brother in our country’s Great War, a brother fighting for the nation he had just begun to call “home”. Fighting for the freedom we enjoy and take for granted in modern America.

He had to continue to be relentless after the death of a son who was barely a teenager in the early ’60s. His attempted therapy to make his sadness go away was cleaning the floors of the restaurant that would support our family. My cousin’s description of his demeanor was that of “a rock”, steadfast in the face of the worst tragedy.

He was relentless with old age and declining health, still coming to the restaurant although he, at times, had to drag one of his legs across the floor while walking. He never complained of physical pain or ailments. It was hard, maybe impossible, to know if he was feeling under the weather. There were no clues.

I try to make it a common practice that whenever I think I have a “problem”, I think of what my Grandfather had to go through. His courage and relentless nature are traits that are hard to replicate, deemed mostly unnecessary in our cushy and overly convenient society.

We can only admire, and try to scratch the surface of, the relentlessness that was ingrained into the hearts and will of the immigrants that dug through the mud and built the foundation of the Old School as we know it.

Many of you that commented on the last post may have noticed it took a painfully long time for me to respond to those comments. It wasn’t because of a sudden surge of laziness or arrogance – I appreciate every comment I receive, whether I respond or not, and think they equal internet gold.

The reason is I simply fell off the grid – and I have nothing to blame but this beautiful season they call summer and the equally important summer vacation. There was no checking of blog stats, no Facebook or email notifications. For the better part of two full weeks.

The obvious thing to do is when traveling, leave the technology at home. The kids did have their iPods with them to entertain during rainy periods – and there were a few of those. But my wife and I left the laptop at the house – and if you read the last post, you probably figured out we don’t own an iPad or a smartphone. This sets us up to enjoy important vacation activities.

Beach2013Our most anticipated summer activity is the trip to Cape Cod, to enjoy the Atlantic Ocean and its breathtaking views. We usually splurge on this trip, renting a loft room at a hotel facing the ocean, just a few steps from a beautiful beach. We are all about being beach bums here, so we spend a lot of time sitting on/ walking down the shoreline and jetties. We also do our fair share of dinners out, drives for ice cream, and a round or two of mini-golf. Total relaxation.

Whenever we cross the Bourne Bridge to head to the highway and leave the Cape, it is always with a heavy heart. It’s our favorite getaway destination, bar none. This year, we stopped at  home to refresh our suitcase, and we were gone again. Many of our summer weekends are spent boating and swimming in Lake George, and we are fortunate that my wife’s parents have a house nearby that makes for a very short trip to the lake. Total relaxation mode is still in high gear here, as the boat is anchored in the warm bays of the lake for the kids to swim, kayak, and snorkel.

Done on the lake, we’ll head back to the house we call “camp” and spread out on the spacious front porch for cocktail hour. Accompanied by fine hors d’oeuvres, drinks will be had and dinner preparations made. From the comfort of Adirondack chairs, I may spy my daughter on her iPod, and feel a slight twinge of internet deprivation.

“I could be missing important information!”, I’ll think to myself. Thankfully, the feeling lasts only a few seconds and I’m back to sipping vodka.

Another favorite summer pastime is attending rock concerts in Saratoga Springs. Thanks to a good friend, we were able to see Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers from 5th row seats to initially start the vacation. Of course, high technology was prevalent at the show, with the majority of people in front of us using their phones to take photos of the band…and themselves. My “dumb phone”, which takes 1890’s quality photos, stayed right in my pocket. Had no choice but to simply enjoy the music and watch a band whose talents have been honed razor sharp over the last 35 plus years.

Actually watching the band play their entire set without taking a single photograph with your phone is a very old-school way to enjoy a concert. Very few people do it that way.

Yup, we were this close. Thanks to my friend Jeff for the primo seats!

Yup, we were this close. Thanks to my friend Jeff for the primo seats!

I know it sounds like the above was enough to fill vacation time, but I enjoyed yet more low tech, high touch activities. I played golf with my Dad and his friends in a country club setting, read a couple of chapters in a book (yup, I turned pages on an actual book), and cast a fishing line into a river a few times as well.

A summer vacation like this one reminds me of the summers of past, free from school. Outdoor activities were the norm and the only “high technology” that was enjoyed was falling asleep to the television, being too exhausted to watch. Or spinning albums on my stereo turntable long into a warm, breezy night.

It also brings back memories of my grandparents. Television was their technology of choice. Or perhaps an old transistor radio, its sound echoing to the back yard patio, among the fruit trees and grape vines.

Twitter, Facebook, and email fade into the distance. The summer sunset, my family on our deck, and the rising of the moon are all important in the seasons of here and now, and those that we may be privileged enough to have in the future.

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Our nation has a happiness fetish…much of economic misery we see today is due to the unbridled pursuit of bigger houses, fancier cars, and more exorbitant trips. The lure of consumer culture and an obsession with more is precisely what keeps so many from contentment – Alexander Green, Beyond Wealth.

In the last post, I spent time imploring my kids to cut their own path. To not mindlessly follow the siren song of excessive consumerism – which is an advanced skill for many Americans. But how, you may say. How do we go without the necessities of life?

Well, you can start with the realization that they’re really not necessities at all. Just part of this overly comfy, cozy world that you’ve grown accustomed to.

I stated that my grandparents’ generation had it far tougher than we do presently, and they “made do”. Our country is far richer and loaded with more opportunity now than in their day. That statement proved to be a lightning rod, prompting one commenter to label my post propaganda and a “total load of crap”.

Here’s the real propaganda: Marketing geniuses are at work 24/7 to separate you from ALL of your money, to convince you that happiness is found with things, and not with people or shared experience.

I will, no doubt, be taken to task for comparing the sophisticated modern American to Depression era immigrants in taste and consumption. That’s the way it goes. I grew up observing these amazing people as happy and satisfied, and not deprived. I figure if they can do it, we can to.

Don't they look happy? My grandparents at our wedding, with my Uncle Mario (standing). Exemplified success without needless luxury.

Don’t they look happy? My grandparents at our wedding, with my Uncle Mario (standing). Exemplified success without needless luxury.

So, kids, if I haven’t lost you yet, put down the iPod, and read along. I have a list for you (it’s the format web readers like the most) that you will enjoy looking at.

Disclaimer: First and foremost, nobody’s perfect. We’re human. I can still be tempted by the latest and greatest, just like everybody else. And I am not deprived by any definition. In my house there is an opulent new (albeit small) kitchen. I like expensive beer/wine, typically spend summer weekends in a boat on a lake, and I’ve grown enamored with the heated leather seats in my wife’s VW. Yes, I’m a little fancy.

With that said, here’s a few things that your average neighbor deems absolutely necessary, but your great grandparents’ generation would see as frivolous and pointless:

1. Oversized House / Oversized Mortgage – This may not be much of an issue, as it seems more and more people are smartening up and realizing they don’t need a 4000 square foot house with 2 fireplaces and a hot tub. And you have the great experience of growing up in 1,200 square feet and being creative with your space. You also spent time growing up in your great grandparents’ house, a modest brick ranch that they built and (gasp!) paid cash for. While it’s not entirely possible to pay cash for a house these days, you can still do yourself a favor by thinking “small house/big down payment”. You’ll thank yourself when you’re sending a tiny payment to the bank each month, instead of taking out a loan to pay down your loan.

2. Luxury Car. Or A Massive Car Payment – My grandparents were immigrants with little education. But they never drove or owned a car, preferring to take public transportation or, believe this, actually WALKING to get to where they had to go. I know, crazy right? But think of the thousands of dollars they saved never paying for gas, insurance, maintenance, or a ridiculous monthly obligation to the bank. Looking smart now, aren’t they?

In this life, massive car payments are NOT a requirement, despite what you’ll hear. At 18, I bought my first car with $1,000 cash, and although I’ve done the payment thing since then, the trick is to keep it small and then keep driving your car without the payment.

And those BMWs and Mercedes that everyone is fooled into thinking are the best cars? Mostly bought on credit by people that can’t afford them. Trust your Dad on this one. The Chevy, Honda or Ford does most of the same things. Cars = transportation (not status). Period. Point A to Point B.

3. Gigantic TV with 10,000 Premium Cable Channels – One of the advantages to owning a small house is the lack of room to squeeze a 92 inch television screen. Which to me, is a good thing. Do I really need any more incentive to sit on my lazy ass?

Again, this is American over consumption at its finest. Kids, its totally unnecessary to own a TV that can crush and kill you if it tips over at an inopportune time. Don’t bother. And that $200 monthly to the cable company for the privilege of watching multiple channels filled with garbage? If you must have cable, at the very least don’t subscribe to 300 channels and become a couch crashing sloth. The “premium” service is a premium rip-off.

4. All The Latest Gadgets – Yup, I know you love your iPods and the laptop (both of which are becoming old-school themselves). But when the iPad 10 comes out and dopes are standing in line at midnight to get one, I know you won’t be one of them, because you will have read this. The new will be obsolete in no time at all. Repeat after me: The latest and greatest is a scam. I can be perfectly happy paying much less money for last year’s model.

There. That felt good, didn’t it?

5. Restaurant Take Out – Here’s another disclaimer: I love restaurants. My grandparents’ owned two, and I grew up and worked in one for decades. I like going to restaurants now. But what I can’t fathom is getting lunch at a restaurant every day. That’s at least a couple thousand dollars out of your pocket at year’s end. Sweet!

At my office, I garnered the nickname “Joey Leftovers”. You probably know why. Because I was bringing my lunch from home. Every. Single. Day. Will I occasionally take a trip to my favorite import store to grab a nice Italian American lunch? Absolutely! However, it’s a treat. Not a daily requirement.

Starbucks_Logo

Give me all your money

6. Fancy Coffee – This one could fall under restaurant take-out, but I feel it deserves its own category. Again, I like fancy coffee. My grandmother always made it. But she would have keeled over if she ever had to go to Starbucks and pay $7 a cup for it! I highlight this just to show you how ridiculous that price looks. Starbucks has great product. It’s not that good.

You can make great coffee at home for pennies a cup. You don’t need a mortgage to support your caffeine habit. Baristas should be lonely once in a while. Make your coffee at home!!!!

7. Outrageous Vacations – After sending my daughter on a school trip to Italy, I had second thoughts on including this one. However, that trip was a deal (and an opportunity) that could not be passed up. In the age of Facebook, it certainly seems that we are all trying to “one up” each other when it comes to our luxury vacations. That’s where things get dangerous. The keeping up with the Joneses mentality.

Kids, I think you should travel. See as much of the world as you can. And keep going to your favorite beaches long after your parents prefer to stay home in the rocking chair.

But here’s something to think about. Nonna and Pop went back to Italy – once. As far as I know, it may have been their only vacation in 60 years. And I don’t think the lack of vacations really mattered to them. Do travel, but know it is a luxury and a privilege when you do so.

8. Convenience – There are many other facets of luxury that your great grandparents had no or little use for. They worked their asses off, so a gym membership wasn’t required. Nonna used the clothes dryer more as an end table than a dryer (she preferred drying racks). And there was no recreational shopping. Unless it was at the aforementioned import store and she decided to splurge on cheese.

There were a myriad of ways they shunned convenience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Making a practice of that will save you money, keep things simple, and make you happy. Advancements are cool in terms of medicine and technology, but don’t make your life so convenient that you never have to actually move to change a channel or turn off a light.

They did many things the hard way. Once upon a time, that’s what the American dream was all about.

OK, fire away. I know I’ve pushed some buttons here, especially if you’re what I like to call a “new-schooler”. Am I right? Have we become too fancy and accustomed to luxury? Or am I stuck in the Dark Ages, with not the sharpest torch in the shed? Start a conversation in the comments section.