Fighting the Modern Battle – To Win at Keeping Tradition

Fighting the Modern Battle – To Win at Keeping Tradition

Recently, my father and I had the privilege to visit his 95 year old aunt and her daughter – to sip a little espresso, chat about upcoming family events, and go over some old photos of family from the 40’s that needed a little clarification.

When I step into the house that my great aunt Maria has lived in for decades, I feel like I am stepping back in time, to one steeped in old world sensibilities. I would not be overstating my level of comfort in the conversation over coffee, looking at the photos of saints on her walls, and the calendar detailed in her native language.

The atmosphere makes me feel like a child again, or at least a teenager – longing for a time when all my role models were here, alive and well, to help and guide us to create our space here on earth.

The modern era can strip away a needed sense of simplicity, patience, and focus on the important. A trip to an older relative’s house – to Maria’s – has the ability to restore that sense of balance of what should be focused on.

Family, values, tradition – should I mention… food?

Distractions can be an issue anywhere. But they are ubiquitous in our hyper-connected society. I myself have been distracted repeatedly. Not just by the on-line world, but by the siren call of materialism, comfort, convenience and luxury.

The importance of keeping the traditions of the previous generations can be overshadowed by distractions. To keep them going, deliberate practice is needed – as needed as practice with an instrument like a piano, or a habit like your jump shot in basketball.

Without that practice, traditions can fade. They become as much a memory as the loved ones that came before you.

There are a variety of ways I practice keeping tradition, my favorite being the step by step process for the making of the Sunday Sauce. IMG_3435

Every time I do it, it takes me back in time to my grandmother’s house when I was young. From the initial fragrance of frying onions and garlic, the crushing of whole tomatoes, to adding the wine and spices – it’s all part of a ritual that makes me happy, and exposes my kids to how I grew up, at the same time.

It’s a symbolic gesture to my youth, and my heritage. And gives me the added bonus of cooking with my wife, hanging out in the kitchen, listening to music, drinking wine and having fun.

Aside from creating a great tasting sauce, practicing a traditional ritual like this allows me to take a swipe, or (better yet) throw a left hook – into the face of ultra convenient, drive thru, obsessed-with-fancy aspects of modern American living.

I like the idea of tradition – and the focus on food, family, friends, and the enjoyment of meaningful experiences that it brings.

I like going back. Seeing memories of Sunday dinners past. With all of the family, some still here, some long gone. Giving my kids just a glimpse of these very important times.

I’m not sure if they’ll ever experience Sunday as I did – but I’d like to think it’s part of my job to show them what it was like.

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The Secret to Marriage “Success?” – It’s Old School

The Secret to Marriage “Success?” – It’s Old School

My wife and I have an outdoor ritual that takes place predominately in the spring and summer months. Most mornings, between seeing our son off to school and leaving for work, we’ll have a chat and a cup of stove perked coffee on our back deck.

We’ve even made the attempt to keep the tradition going  as the weather gets a little crappier – drinking the coffee in our deck chairs as the temperature hovered near thirty degrees.

It’s hard to let go of something that works so well.

This time spent – and the communication that transpires because of it – are one of the reasons the two of us have been able to enter our twenty fourth year of marriage.

Twenty four. In today’s modern world, it sounds like a freakishly long time to sustain a relationship. And for many people, no doubt it is.

Eyes will go wide with curiosity when you tell folks you’ve been married for more than twenty years.

Everybody looks for the “secret to success,” that one magical short cut that will skip the tough stuff, and retain the romantic ideal of the wedding ceremony. In our impatient, always connected sound byte society, the short cut is what’s deemed as acceptable.

“How have you made it so long?”

The answer I might give – “How the hell should I know?”

I don’t know. Realistically, twenty four years of marriage as a measurement of time is a drop in the bucket. Before my grandfather’s death in the year 2000, he and my grandmother were married for sixty-six years.

Did you catch that number? Sixty-six years.

In case you think that’s a fluke or an outlier, my grandfather’s brother Mariano was married to his wife even longer.

In my head, I still think my wife and I are in our honeymoon phase and, although our youngest kid is a teenager, just starting out. When you look at the standard that’s been set in our family, we really are just starting out.

There are a myriad of ways you can work to improve a relationship, whether in or outside of a marriage.

As you might expect, there are no secrets. Great relationships are simple – but they’re not easy.

The Ego Is Your Enemy

Unless you prefer a life of misery, it’s a smart idea to put your ego on the shelf. Everyone has one – giant, massive egos. Myself included.

OK, maybe Mother Teresa didn’t have an ego. Maybe the Buddha, or Trappist monks don’t have egos. They’re the exception, not the rule.

We all have friends in various  stages of relationship duress. And the stories are consistent – about how their lives are affected, how they’ve been wronged, how nothing goes their way, et cetera.

The consistent theme here?  – “Me. Me. Me. And more me.”

Again, there are always exceptions – but I guarantee that if egos on either side were shelved, in the interest of empathy, an attitude of service, and the idea of meeting halfway – compromising – for the greater good of both parties, you could save and improve any relationship.

But that takes work. And it’s a helluva lot easier just to think of yourself than to do the actual work, because work takes commitment. Speaking of which…

Commit

For a lot of us, commitment is a bit of a dirty word. Whether it concerns eating habits, relationships, jobs, exercise – the idea of commitment isn’t always a palatable one.

That means I have bad news to share – without commitment, there is no success. Especially in the realm of marriage.

With commitment, you go all in. There are no options, no plan B. You burn the bridges behind you.

Over the period of sixty-six years of marriage between Sebastian DeGiorgio and his wife Rosina, there was massive commitment. Ups, downs, highs, lows, through prosperous times and tragedy. In a life that was made more difficult in the beginning because of immigrant status – they remained committed until the end.

That’s my model for commitment. The model of today includes large diamonds, opulent receptions, destination weddings. Once that’s over, marriage success is a roll of the dice. If only the same effort that was put into wedding planning was part of the relationship building as well.

Prepare For What It Is – Work

“Successful people never accept good enough; they are always pushing themselves more than others would ever dare.” – Grant Cardone

The morning after our December wedding, crews had to de-ice the wings of the jet airliner that was to start us off on this new journey. We were prepared for a week of fun and sun on the beaches of Mexico – but were we ready for what was to follow?

The building of a sustained relationship requires work. You have a role of spouse. Parent. Provider. Protector. In each role, you can never be “good enough.” To make a marriage a success, improving it every day should be your goal. And that takes continuous effort.

img_2716Almost twenty four years later, my wife and I still stand close to each other at parties. We finish the other’s sentences, laugh at the jokes. We flirt, and more often than not we’re thinking of the exact same thing at the same time.

All of that is the result of many years of effort to keep our relationship like new, making little adjustments every day to make each other happy. There have been (mainly financial) struggles, but struggles can be overcome with – work. The work can help you weather any storm.

Most marriage issues (ours included) stem from problems that the modern era hoists upon us. But I’m here to tell you – modern marriage should be easy.

None of us had to board ships to complete an arduous journey. We never had to leave our home country. Most of us don’t have to spend our lives in physical toil, or deal with the prejudice and backlash that comes with being an immigrant. Or fight to put food on the table, or stay alive.

Our families of yesterday were shining examples of work, commitment, and humility. You want a better relationship? That’s how it’s done.

“Make America Great Again?” – You Can’t Be Serious

“Make America Great Again?” – You Can’t Be Serious

“Politics is an easy place to go to avoid dealing with your real problems. In fact, many of the people who spend their time worrying about partisan politics do so as a way to avoid addressing what really needs to change in their life. The changes you need to make are not going to be addressed by any politician or government agency. While elections are important, they aren’t nearly as important as what you can do for yourself.” – Anthony Iannarino

As we steamroll into these final months of an election season – with heated debates that promise interest and entertainment – this is not going to be another internet political rant.

I don’t have an agenda against one candidate, or for another. That’s not my deal.

As a small town citizen, who would I be to bash anyone that is running a campaign to acquire the world’s most demanding job?

I do, however, have a small problem with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Albeit, the slogan sells. Look at the campaign rallies – the citizens have come droves to bathe in the rhetoric.

With smart phone at the ready, clutching a Starbucks or upgraded handbag in their one hand, waving their rally sign with the other.

I look at our country of today and think to myself, “are we really in that much trouble? Has America lost her greatness?”

This slogan, and perhaps the campaign itself, preys on fears that you have created that have no basis – fears that you should put on the shelf.

A Different Perspective

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My great grandmother, pictured here, could possibly have told you about the greatness of America, if she could speak any English. Arriving here in 1929, she stepped off the boat onto Ellis Island just in time for the greatest stock market crash our economy has faced.

She left the comfort and familiarity of her small town in Sicily, and if my facts serve me correctly, the first home in that town with indoor plumbing and running water. Truly the lap of luxury.

I would not blame her if she thought she left her homeland to travel great distances to a country with big problems.

Luckily, she had a rock steady family unit around her. Up against the odds and mighty struggles, that family turned out successful business owners, physicians, teachers, cooks, artists, and all around American success stories.

The secret to that success?  Embracing simplicity, values, and a never say die work ethic.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a wonderful article about our 2016 Olympic athletes – but as I was reading his words, I felt he was talking about my immigrant family more than anything:

They had a drive more powerful… They swapped resentment for goals. And they worked. By God, did they work. We tend to marvel at their freakish gifts, but we should marvel even more at their freakish devotion. That’s what made the difference.

They invested hour upon hour, day after day. They sacrificed idle time and other pursuits. They honed a confidence that eludes most of us and summoned a poise that we can only imagine. They took risks, big ones.

And they pressed on, because there was this thing that they wanted so very, very badly and the only way to know if they could get it was to put everything on the line.

And herein lies the issue with modern America – everything is expected, and little is earned.

Should we be shocked most people don’t think America is great? How could you, when the perception is – the wolf is at the door, at all times?

We all need to leave our warm, comfy cocoons and come to one realization – the resident of the Oval Office doesn’t matter. In the end, you are responsible for your life.

Statistics bear out that we live in one of the safest, and most prosperous, times in our history. We have running water. Indoor plumbing. Plenty of food. Perhaps, too much food. Modern conveniences that have no purpose other than to make our unfit bodies more comfortable, within houses and property so opulent that the rest of the world may not be able to fathom.

And we need to “Make America Great Again?” Give me a break.

My Italians came here with little hope other than to live as poor immigrants. They made themselves great. We can all do the same.

Embrace your inner peasant, your inner Spartan. Start earning what you think you deserve. Make yourself a little uncomfortable in the process, on purpose, instead of searching for the convenient answer.

As Mr. Bruni wrote – sacrifice your idle time. Instead of resentment, embrace the work. Cultivate a freakish devotion. Put it all on the line.

That’s what your ancestors did, and what we can do. That’s America, and her greatness.

Live a Great Life – Old School Style

Live a Great Life – Old School Style

Not so long ago, my wife and I would take the short trip to my Aunt Nicolina’s house to visit with her, and have an absolutely fantastic mid-day lunch. My Aunt, one of a wonderful group of old Sicilians, was a genius in the kitchen.

I’ve mentioned before that the kitchen in the two family house where she lived was small, probably the size of a walk in closet in your neighbor’s McMansion – with several appliances that were just as diminutive.

No matter the size of the kitchen she was working in, she always seemed to prepare a mouth watering dish – an omelette made with fresh eggs and a side salad, or a stuffed meat loaf with Italian ham and oozing provolone, or perhaps a simple soup or pasta dish, topped with sauce that had been on the stove for hours.

The dishes would usually be accompanied by tumbler glasses full of a dry, red wine.

When we would talk about the food in front of us, and the wife and I would compliment her on it, my Aunt would always refer to everything as “Italian style.”

In other conversations, whether we would talk of food, wine, clothing, vacations, or even just one’s attitude, she’d always bring up that one phrase, as if it mattered to enhance the point of what she was saying.

Now, years later, I hear her phrasing of “Italian style” to mean one thing – having the ability to enjoy the simple life, living as you please, surrounded by friends and family.

Aunt Nicky said “Italian style.” Now, my ears ring with the phrase “old school.”

She was teaching lessons that she knew needed to be reinforced. And I do my best to never forget.

It was my good fortune to have my aunt, and grandparents, show me on a daily basis that your time on this earth does not have to seem complicated or confusing. You can make things easier on yourself, and in the process, make life easier for others.

They knew how to do things right. Little did I know, they were training me bit by bit to do things exactly the same way.

Number one, food that was simple food was the way to go. These girls knew the importance of a mostly vegetarian diet before it ever became popular. Complete vegetarians? Not really.

They loved a nice slab of beef as much as any carnivore, and made more meatballs than anyone I’ll ever know. But, more times than not spinach, escarole, broccoli, and green beans were staples of the stove top.

They ate healthy (most of the time), and made sure their family ate healthy to boot.

Secondly, they were humble, and their days were centered around hard work, and timeless values when it came to family. There was no excessive self absorbed behavior in their world, and they knew that the cohesiveness of the family was a team effort. The team wins, you win.

Isn’t that the way it should be? Although this is an attitude that seems to be in short supply these days, my wife and I worked, scrimped, and sacrificed material indulgences, doing what it took to focus on the one task – doing the work to keep our team together and thrive.

The family came first, well ahead of self interest.

To provide for family and keep focused on the work, I think my Aunt meant “Italian style” to be an emphasis on the basic and uncomplicated. To know what to take, and know what to leave alone. To maybe dabble in luxury, but not make it a daily requirement.

If they dabbled in it, I have to admit these days I embarrass myself with excessive forays into luxury. This year, my family took the regular summer vacation on the beach at Cape Cod, where I upgraded once again to a fancy, and totally unnecessary, ocean front room.

After spending many of the remaining summer weekends on the lake boating in the blazing sunshine, in September we took yet another trip to the Cape that was even more ridiculous – we rented a house just steps from what looks like a Northeast version of the Caribbean (see below).

Cape Cod

But, when necessary, I can slap myself back to reality by remembering Nicky and Rosina and their fabulously spartan, old school lifestyles. They would not think much of the level of luxury above, scoffing at the deemed “necessities” of modern America.

iPhone? Scoff.

Starbucks? Double scoff. They made their own coffee.

Take out lunches? Let’s be serious, folks. These ladies were demons in the kitchen. They were always capable of ASSEMBLING A SANDWICH.

Have I partaken of this type of ridiculous consumption myself? Absolutely! The difference is I know you can forego any of these things/activities without losing one ounce of happiness or satisfaction with life. And I know that from old school reminders ingrained and entrenched, by smart people from long ago.

That type of attitude is what you might call freedom. Freedom from current, “new school” thinking – the key to living your great life.

Stop Trying to Make It Easy

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My hard working, never say stop Grandmother with one of her favorite tools – the meat slicer

Back in the summer months of 2014, I decided to break one of my financial commandments – no spending money on a gym membership. I started to be bored working out at home, in the very sparse and dungeon-like confines of the basement, where I keep my heavy bag, jump rope, and a variety of weights. No longer inspired to exercise by myself, I needed a change of scenery.

Although it was hard to commit to the monthly payment at first (my frugal grandmother would have thought this a very frivolous expense), I jumped in and was quickly happy with the decision. My gym is clean, the staff is friendly, and there is more than enough variety of equipment to get in any type of workout that you choose. And the fact that it is extremely close to my house makes it all the more appealing.

On the surface, total win.

The only issue so far? The months of January and February. After the New Years cocktails are a fleeting memory to most people, stampeding crowds of fitness wannabees descend on gyms and fitness centers, with dreams of getting in better shape, taking every parking spot in the lot and leaving not a treadmill open.

It’s enough to make me look forward to the “dungeon” again.

The sad part, or perhaps not so sad, is that by mid March at the latest, the massive crowds will have fizzled out. Hopes and dreams for the quick fix will have been dashed. The monthly payments will be still taken from their bank accounts, even if they never show up again.

In time, I’ll be able to park anywhere I want, and every dumbbell and elliptical will be there for the taking.

New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned, and there will be clear sailing for the rest of us until next January.

Quitting is the easiest option when you realize the quick fix and the short cut will not work. They will never work. Leaves me wondering why everybody wants it so easy.

Stop trying to make it easy.

The image for this post is a favorite of mine. I have plenty of pictures of my grandparents that remind me of how they got where they needed to be. By working their asses off. By continually grinding.

Once they had their minds set on becoming responsible, productive American citizens who would eventually employ fellow citizens, they became unstoppable.

They never looked for the easy way to do anything. With my grandparents, the very thought of “the easy way out” or less than maximum effort would have been laughable.

I don’t even need to bring to detail their early years, the years of the factory jobs and building their own businesses from practically nothing. I can just use an example of when they were in their 70s and 80s, working every day. Rosina, in a restaurant kitchen for half of her day, then in her private kitchen for the other half. Twelve hours. Without consideration of “making things easy.”

I had prime role models growing up.

With their help and guidance, it’s now easy for me to get through the months of January and February at the gym, sailing right through the spring. It’s easy to feel privileged and blessed with abundance when money is tight for some, because of the way they taught me to spend and save.

In car crazy America, I have no problem driving less because they never drove at all. I’m inspired to keep my small mortgage instead of “moving up”, as they never needed a bank to give them one in the first place.

My route to the gym passes on the road to the cemetery where my grandparents are now. Done purposefully or not, I don’t know. I do know I can’t pass by without a signal that the hard work is about to commence.

As I drive by, I remind myself to try and embody the lifestyle that they embraced. Go hard. Be fast. Don’t stop.

And for Heaven’s sake, stop trying to make it easy.

Five Years Gone

The lights from the wing flashed bright in a steady rhythm. As my eyes opened and closed slowly, they were almost hypnotic. I may have fallen asleep if not for the loud noises in my ears, courtesy of an old, scratched iPod Nano – the playlist including Iron Maiden, Joan Jett, James Taylor, and my daughter’s favorite Coldplay songs. The music pulsed in time with the lights, and the jet began to descend.

I was coming home.

NonnaAs the plane turned to ready for touchdown, the calendar date stayed with me. It wasn’t just the end of another business trip, but also the fifth anniversary of the day my grandmother passed away. It’s as easy to remember the day of someone’s death as easily as their birth, in terms of importance. Earlier, I had been grateful to be flying above the clouds, and able to view a setting sun on the horizon. Her attitude of gratitude had been passed down, to be made good use of by the family she left behind.

As time passes, you might think you’d start to forget, or to begin to experience a more limited influence from a person who was here for so many years, but has now been gone for some time. From my experience, I can tell you that the opposite is true. There were many lessons, most basic and easily executed, on the meaning of your life and how to best live it. And apparently there was enough time to ensure they were fully entrenched.

Her mottos were life is precious and don’t worry, be happy. As with the mottos, the life and the work that inspired them were simple, unpretentious. She loved to cook more than anything. She would listen to the Yankees on radio or television. Her yard was a sanctuary, where she could look at rose bushes or tend to fruit trees and grape vines. Coffee, perked in a steel stove top pot, was a mainstay. And unlike her high flying grandson, I don’t believe she ever set foot on an airplane.

She never had to go on a “business trip.” Her business was to make sure everyone was well fed, whether family, friends, or customers. I talk and write about the Old School. She, and her husband, were the models that inspire the words.

As the plane touched down, I had the same feeling I always have. I was happy the flight was safe and uneventful, and I’d be driving my car from the airport parking garage to go home to my family. No matter what this modern life promises towards my “fulfillment” (dream house? luxury car? iPhone 6?), I know that true fulfillment lies sleeping behind the doors of an old house, just a few miles away.

That’s why, five years later, there is no forgetting. The influence, instead of being limited, is wide spread. No matter how much I look forward to the future, the old school is everywhere. Every day is influenced by what I’ve learned from that great generation. Echoes of Yankee broadcasts continue to fill summer nights. The coffee is still perked. The yard remains a sanctuary. Even with five years gone.