Fantastic Voyage

As I walked through the sand, hand in hand with my wife, I noticed my feet turning black – like I had stepped through piles of ash after remnants of a roaring wild fire.

The sand itself was unlike those of other Caribbean beaches that I had walked, the color and texture being somewhat strange.

img_0067Looking to my left while walking, rock formations jutted out, in front of the hill side where our hotel resort was perched. The rocks looked blacker than the sand: as I learned later, the result of thousands of years of volcanic ash and lava covering the rocks and forever changing their appearance.

Some of the names are Poas, Irazu, Turrialba, Rincon de la Vieja, and lastly, Arenal – widely known as one of the most beautiful volcano sites on earth.

Costa Rica is much more than volcanoes, though. Its topography includes lakes, mountain ranges, jungle terrain, tranquil bays, and the Pacific Ocean. Luckily for us, five star resorts are plentiful as well.

My wife and I were lucky enough to walk this stunning beach, in its bay encased setting with an appropriately hot sun, through a Diamond Club incentive sponsored by the company that I work for.

I say lucky – but more than a couple of people that would say that luck is secondary to the hard work and dedication that it takes to become a Diamond Club winner.

We’re lucky because the two of us absolutely love to travel, and the company gives us ample opportunity to do it on their dime. We would travel anyway, even without the multiple wins that I have – for example, taking the kids on a family vacation last year to the Dominican Republic that was just as sun drenched and breathtaking.

It wouldn’t be hard to refer to all our trips – whether a pedestrian ride up the Northway to Lake George, summer drive to our favorite ocean setting in Cape Cod, or once in a lifetime flight to the west coast of Mexico – as our “fantastic voyages.”

The label not only gives a nod to my sci-fi movie loving past, but reminds me how lucky (there’s that word again) we are to live the life that we do, mostly when we want to do it. I called it luck as I don’t believe any of what we experience is possible without the fantastic voyage that came before us.

Previous readers of articles here know where I’m coming from. Our trips, no matter how exceptionally amazing and satisfying, can’t compare to the importance of that one trip that my family made to come to America – my grandfather’s side coming from Calabria in Southern Italy, my grandmother’s traveling from a small town in Sicily.

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My grandmother, right, on her wedding day in 1936 with my godmother

While our accommodations were five star with great food, wine, and swimming pools complete with spa appointments, my immigrant family enjoyed no such luxuries. Traveling on cramped ships in steerage class with brutal and abhorrent conditions, they came to this country believing what their fellow countrymen believed: America’s streets were paved with gold.

The truth revealed itself to be less than a fairy tale. Most immigrants, Italian or otherwise, spent their time in cramped housing, fighting poverty, and working only the dangerous or repetitive manual labor jobs they were qualified for – if they weren’t the targets of racism or discrimination that shut them out of honest work.

The luck factor for my family was different than mine – they worked and toiled in factory jobs long and hard enough to realize they had buried within them an entrepreneurial spirit, and developed it into successful restaurants: a legacy that allowed us “kids” to work, setting up our own idea of making it happen here.

Looking back, the rewards and accolades of my working life aren’t remotely possible without the complete, complex concept of la famiglia – the luck I experienced having a family that cared so much, to take the time to mold and set the path for their next generation, and subsequent generations to follow.

For that, and our ability to travel so easily as a result, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Leaving for the airport to look forward to nearly a full day of travel home is a bittersweet experience. We’re eager to walk through our back door once again, to see family and friends – but we’re hopeful to bring back some of the sunshine and warmth with us, that we don’t leave it completely behind.

One of our stops on the flight home was to be in Charlotte, once back in the states. The turnaround, only a half hour to begin with, was threatened with a weather forecast filled with thunderstorms. Our good fortune on this trip included a family connection that works for American Airlines, who offered to help re-book our destination to fly home from Miami to LaGuardia in New York.

Once we boarded, a first class flight attendant glided to our economy seats to deliver two glasses of champagne – in celebration of my mid-50s birthday which would be spent in the air, in terminals, in New York City traffic.

Toasting my birthday with the free bubbly would have been more than appropriate – as would have toasting another international trip, or a family member who dedicated himself to getting us home safe, and on time.

The perfect toast, in my mind, now sounds totally different. A glass raised to the end of another voyage, feeling an ultimate gratitude for that very first fantastic voyage.

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25 Years of Love, Luck, and Faith

What was I going to do? Toss him the keys? Or let him fend for himself?

I had my car keys in my hand – my vehicle, parked in a lot, was free of obstruction. My father wasn’t so lucky. His station wagon was blocked in by another car, probably parked there by an overzealous college student who needed his first – or last – drink of the night.

My friend Bruce, who would share bar tending duties with me on Friday nights in my family’s restaurant, was standing next to me. He waited patiently for the decision that seemed mundane, but in retrospect set my life on a wildly different trajectory.

It was late, after midnight, and it was a long day. But the decision was easy. I exchanged keys with my dad, and he drove away minutes later. With my ride home still blocked in, Bruce and I ventured across the street to a local watering hole, where one of his friends would walk through the door moments later.

IMG_5015His friend was an attractive blond, with grey eyes and cutting an impressive figure in a white shirt, blue jeans, and dark blazer. I was smitten immediately.

Our modern sensibilities give us reasons to not believe in fate, or books of life to be written. Many believe everything is random, and that life follows no pattern or, at times, makes no sense.

Being brought up in an Italian American family with a strong Roman Catholic faith and belief, I was taught that very little is random. There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s all related – no matter the opinions of the masses.

Although meeting my future wife on that April night seemed a random stroke of luck, we look back at other details of our lives and are convinced that a master plan was in place. Higher being? Who knows. I believe, but convincing others of your beliefs these days is dangerous territory.

Before that night, we were forever in the same place, at the same time, without ever meeting. She would be watching the neighbor’s kids (my parent’s next door neighbors) just a backyard away. We would be in attendance at the same rock shows – at the Palace, SPAC, SUNY Ballroom – more than likely just a few rows from each other, but never meeting. She worked in an Albany nightclub that I frequented, but we never crossed paths.

It took a mutual acquaintance to get us together, in a late night dive bar, where people meet for nothing but salacious and intoxicating reasons.

It was the type of beginning as improbable as being in the same area multiple times, but never, ever meeting.

All these years later, I think about that college student parking his/her car. What nerve. What an annoyance. What a godsend. Whether you believe in such things or not.

A week before Christmas, my wife and I raised wine glasses to toast our twenty fifth wedding anniversary. To be sure, it’s recognized universally as achievement of a milestone – but as I’ve written before, it seems we may just be getting started. IMG_4979

A long time to be married in our families is forty, fifty, and even sixty plus years – our 25th is a drop in the bucket, a warm up routine in the game of marriage that we both hope to be playing for many more anniversaries to come.

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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 aging, scratched up iPod  – 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 begin to experience a more limited influence from one 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. 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 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? the latest iPhone ?), 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 can be no forgetting. The influence, instead of being limited, is wide spread. No matter how much I look forward to the future, the echoes of the past are everywhere.

Every day is influenced by what I’ve learned from that great generation. Yankee broadcasts continue to fill summer nights. The coffee is still perked. The yard remains a sanctuary. Even with five years gone.

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How to Stay Hungry While Riding in the Lap of Luxury

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” (Feel free as you sing along to insert the visual of falling snowflakes, gray skies, and biting winds if that will help you ‘get in the spirit’.)

I’m not even going to rant (yet) about the Black Friday ads polluting the media. What I will comment about is the sudden shift in the weather, to bitter cold temps that have signified the change of seasons.

Hi Dad - any food getting dropped on the floor?
Hi Dad – any food getting dropped on the floor?

Cooper, my crazy canine companion, and I typically take long morning walks through the neighborhood so he can get his business done. Even that will soon be coming to a close.

He doesn’t like being banished to the back yard, but he’ll manage. Even Cooper is not fond of temperatures in the 20s, and colder wind chills.

For man and beast, the northeast winter is not easy to bear. To warm myself up, I like to reflect on the summer just passed, and how for the majority of the year my family and I take our seats in what is commonly referred to as “the lap of luxury.”

The main component of this luxury for us are the multiple times spent on Lake George during the summer, passengers in my in-laws boat traveling to our favorite bays on the lake. The boat, a 24 foot Cobalt, is the perfect hang out spot as we sun ourselves, indulge in cocktails, have lunch, and frolic about in a variety of water activities.

When we tire of the hours spent on the Lake, we get back to the marina and take a two minute drive to the house where we spend many summer weekends. Recently updated, the house sits in the middle of a nice wooded area, just a minute or so walk from town.

When we’re not staying at the “summer place,” the other component of our luxury filled summer is usually a trip to Cape Cod. This year the family upgraded to an ocean front room, with the beach just a few steps down from our door. The trip is filled with dinners out, ice cream, mini golf, and lazy walks across private beaches, admiring the Atlantic.

To get to the Cape, we pile the kids and our travel bags into my wife’s 2008 VW Jetta. You may think such a pedestrian vehicle is anything but luxury, but with it’s leather seating and Bose sound system, I’ll have to respectfully disagree.

After packing the car, we’ll pull out of our driveway and away from our house, with it’s 1200 square feet of living space and location in an older city neighborhood.

“Finally,” I can hear you say. “Now we have something a little modest here.”

Wrong!!

Although I’m sure 1200 square feet sounds to the modern American like we’re living on top of each other, for three of the year’s four seasons that is far from true. Our house features a spacious front porch, large deck out back, with a yard behind it expansive enough to serve as a baseball diamond or soccer pitch.

tomatoesWithin the house, we do our cooking in a newer, luxurious kitchen. We use high end items like San Marzano tomatoes, letting them bubble and simmer away on a stainless steel stove top. I prefer our meals to have the companionship of a deep red wine from the Central Coast of California.

Make no mistake. Despite the “middle class” designation, and the location of our house in a working class neighborhood, this family moves in style. Yes, you may call it the lap of luxury.

Here’s the amusing part. Although you still hear rumblings of hard times, high gas prices, and the cost of living being harder to manage, it still looks to me like most people live this way. But they call it necessity instead of calling it by it’s true name – luxury.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Democrat or Republican. Whether you were happy with the latest election results, or dissatisfied. Whether you’re waiting in a line for the latest iGadget, trampling through stores for a Black Friday flat screen, or using said flat screen to receive the siren call of endless Madison Avenue advertisement – like me, you live in the lap of luxury.

But I’m not entirely comfortable lingering in luxury. If I do it too long, I may start to think that I’m entitled to it. That would be a problem for me – joining the ranks of those whose sense of entitlement runs rampant in their attitudes.

As you may expect, I believe I am entitled to nothing. While I may occasionally bask in the sunlight and sip the champagne of American privilege, I still hear the echoes of common sense barreling down the hallways of memory. I’ve got the spirit of more than a couple of Italian immigrants telling me to tighten things up when I’m ready to go too “soft.”

That spirit is a sense of chasing the dream without being concerned about the trappings of luxury. When the truth is told, most of us have more than enough access to the luxury lifestyle. The previous generation that survived the war years, and paved your way, really didn’t.

Nonna-PopIIMy grandparents, and their immediate family and friends, appreciated the lifestyle they had, rarely complained about what they didn’t have, and lived by a different standard.

In the words of Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock), they were humble. They stayed hungry. And they were always the hardest worker in the room.

Whether I’m lounging on the lake or in a beach front room, you can be very sure I always remember the old Italians, and the example they showed me throughout their inspiring, and often difficult, lives. Many of us win the lottery of life just by being born into families that love us.

They paved the way for us to enjoy what we have, and we should recognize that here, in the month of gratitude.

Humble and hungry. The definition of true luxury.

 

Another Auld Lang Syne

Tucked away amid waves of string arrangements and woodwind solos, Frank Sinatra’s vocal in “It Was A Very Good Year” is both melancholy and hopeful. He runs through the lyric chronologically, first at age 17, then age 35, finally seguing into a time when life is “like vintage wine, from fine old kegs”.

As you might expect, this favorite song from my youth has taken on a different meaning a few decades later.

Hitting the age of 50 here in 2013, I can echo the Sinatra sentiment. Yes, it was a very good year.

The non-conformist in me dismissed the thought of writing an article about the subject of gratitude during the Thanksgiving season. As one year passes on and the new one begins, I feel gratitude especially now for what God has blessed me and my family with in the previous twelve months.

Foremost, my wife and I have two kids that are strong and healthy. If there is a greater gift than your own health, it is the health of family.

My wife and I recently celebrated being married twenty years. Staying married in modern times is not an easy task, and it takes more work and effort than most people think. It’s been easier for us because we have similar tastes and interests, and hold important the goal of always stoking the fire of romance that we started with.

2013 reflected good times for my wife’s side of the family, as well. Relatives with medical complications have been given clean bills of health, and there has been a massive baby boom this year. One cousin born recently, another (a little girl) more recently, and my wife’s nephew will be on the way shortly here in 2014.

This year brought challenges, no doubt. But most of what happened could be called “good stuff”.

If you spied the title of this post expecting a declaration of New Year’s Resolutions, I sincerely hope you’re not too disappointed. I have but one, and it’s recurring: upholding the ritual and traditions of the Italian American lifestyle that I experienced growing up. You can read about it here.

Although the ritual of the ‘making of the meatball’ has fallen off recently, I finally (with some prodding from the family) served up a traditional Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, right here in my home. I cheated a little bit, cooking five of them at once in a slowly simmered tomato based stew, but my wife said it still counted.

This is also the opportunity most bloggers take to show you their “best of” lists, where they showcase their finest work published in the previous year. While you can see all of what was “epic” here in 2013 just by scrolling down, I’d actually like to share with you two articles that I wish I’d written.

Although the focus of these particular sites is along the lines of social media and content marketing, the articles here focus on the authors’ grandfathers, and the wonderful lessons that were revealed while just living their lives.

Demian Farnworth – 10 Productivity Tips from a Blue Collar Genius

Mark Schaefer – A Rant: In Praise of The Unremarkable

Read both of these posts, because I think they’re awesome. Then read them again. If you take away some or the majority of the points in both, and apply them to your own lives, you will be in pretty good shape. It is useful Old School thinking at its finest, presented with class by a couple of fine writers.

If you do this, I dare say New Year’s Resolutions will be the last thing you need.

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