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An Epic Life

December 19, 2013 — 3 Comments
World War II veteran Dominick DeGiorgio, on the left, with his brother and sister in law: my grandparents

World War II veteran Dominick DeGiorgio, on the left, with his brother and sister in law: my grandparents

 

A photo can tell incredible, complex, wonderful stories.

You are looking at one of my favorites. The man on the left gave everything. His life for his country. He was a soldier who knew great fear in the heat of battle. He wrote letters home, talking of the smell of death. He dreamed of a world where there was no war, no conflict.

The man on the right never had to run from the bullets of enemy attack. He had to make a living in the country that was home, but not his place of origin.

He didn’t die young in a war, like his brother. He lived 92 years, a physically challenging life that would include work, until he no longer could. Until his body said “no more”.

Brothers in arms, in blood, in life. Their images are powerful, majestic. They proved their mettle time and again, building the cornerstone of our family. Their influence is felt every day. Long gone from this earth, but always in the hearts of those that were close.

These are the makings of an epic life.

There is the cornerstone, and there is the mortar. The woman in the middle of the photo is my grandmother. The family may have been built by the men, but it was kept together by the women. The women held the vast influence.

Our generation was shaped, formed, and molded by the women. They taught us our truth, our ethics, our way of life.

My grandmother, and her sisters, represented generations of tradition. As our incessantly frenetic modern lives attempt to strip away any semblance of tradition, values, and common sense, we must fight back in their name.

Fight to keep traditions, values, and a vision of the world as a kind and decent place. Because that’s the environment we grew up in.

I write what I write because of a sense of duty. I can’t let them be forgotten. They can’t fade into the recesses of history, eventually without anyone knowing of their existence.

They can’t die until I do.

Working class, immigrant, depression era lives. Lives that were truly epic. You and I would be at a loss to describe their stories.

Epic because of the ashes they rose from.

Epic in the tragedy they endured.

Epic in their relentless nature.

Epic with the love and comfort they created.

No, we don’t know the meaning of the word. Its definition is far different today.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my grandmother, the former Rosa Tagliarini. Who took the name DeGiorgio from her love Sebastiano, that handsome devil to the right in the photo. The date of her birth, December 21st, will be like every other day.

Her influence will hover. Her presence will be felt.

To celebrate one hundred, my wife and I will raise our wine glasses in a birthday toast. In remembrance, and thanks.

With gratitude. For the path she helped pave, to our unquestionable abundance, by living her epic life.

Welcome to the holiday shopping season. Where the same thing happens every year.

The same damn thing.

While the crazed and wild eyed stampede into the late night/early morning hours to acquire their iPads, TVs, handbags and other assorted crap no one needs for a successful and happy life, I was doing the same thing I always do this time of year.

Namely, drooling on my pillow. Watching the back of my eyelids.

The previous night at my in-laws was another Thanksgiving success, breaking bread with family and overindulging a bit on the turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables and appetizers.

And don’t get me started on the pumpkin pie.

Whether it was the food, or perhaps that one extra cocktail, the morning came slowly. As I opened my eyes, the digital clock across the room read 9:30.

9:30?? WTF?? I have to get the dog his breakfast, and then outside to do his business. It’s late!

One problem. The dog was still sleeping as well. Thanksgiving can be tiring to our canine counterparts, too.

When Black Friday Comes

Cooper - the last member of the family I expect to over sleep

Cooper – the last member of the family I expect to over sleep

And so begins the biggest shopping day of the year in our house. In typically tardy fashion. I’m not sure if you’d call what we do traditions, but my family spends the post-Thanksgiving day pretty much the same way every year. For example:

After rolling bleary-eyed out of bed, it’s coffee time. After Cooper is taken care of, we’re ready for our morning ritual. If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know we rarely go out for coffee. Not with our full size steel espresso pot on the stove top, standing at the ready.

Strong, creamy, and just like my Nonna used to make. We enjoy this every day, but today, it’s a special cup.

After some chatting in the kitchen, and a couple of phone calls to relatives, my son decides he wants to start a new Black Friday tradition. A little game of hoop in the driveway, on this sub thirty degree day.

It’s a new tradition because we just got the basketball set-up this summer, found on Craig’s List for a fraction of its original cost. Thank you, nice neighbor.

Researching new portable basketball hoops with full size backboards, the prices ranged from $300 to $800 to start. We got our slightly used one for under $120.

Boom! How’s that for savings? And I didn’t even have to wait in a line. Take that, Black Friday!

Relaxation And Entertainment

After a half hour of exercise, I decide to come back in the house and burn a little time on-line by entertaining myself with tales of Black Friday stupidity.

Did you know that fifteen thousand people waited in line for Macy’s flagship store in New York City to open its doors?

Fifteen thousand!

Horrified by what I was reading, I shut the laptop down to go to another Black Friday tradition, house hold chores. Since I’m still a little groggy from my overload of turkey, I’m not going to do much, just vacuum the hall stairs that need cleaning. That one task wears me out.

Physically, I’m not worth much today. A perfect opportunity to write a blog post. And here we are.

Winding It Down

As I write this, my wife is watching a quality show on PBS, which is commercial free. Good thing, because the Black Friday ads on other channels attempt to make all of us look like total jackasses who are concerned with nothing but shopping, over consumption, and greed.

Since we’re not contributing to traffic jams on roads and in stores, there obviously won’t be an over indulgent trip to a restaurant, either. We’ll be eating at home, with a mouth watering rendition of homemade macaroni and cheese, made with rigatoni, cheddar, swiss, and parmigiano reggiano.

Decadent. And again, a fraction of the cost of the Olive Garden meals that shoppers will consume today after their exhausting marathon. After all of their “savings” goals have been met.

After dinner, we’ll probably relax again after the dishes are done. I may take my son to my Dad’s house for a visit, or we could just wind down with an old movie. Hopefully, with as little advertisement as possible. I’m mentally scarred from the limited ads I’ve seen already.

Another year, another Black Friday passed. We’ve lost out again. No big deals, no rude shoppers, no shoulder to shoulder jostling for the latest designer labels. No stress. No generous savings from inflated retail prices.

Unless you are of the mindset that saving 100% is absolutely the best deal you can get.

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.