Turning 50 Edition – Just A Number

California Dreamin' - finally
California Dreamin’ – finally

Last week, I turned the big five-oh. 50 years old.

In preparation for this monumental event, I needed to go to my local DMV to renew my driver’s license. The clerk who took care of me asked if I would like to have a new picture taken to go along with my new license.

“Yes”, I said. “There’s a few more gray hairs now than when the last picture was taken.” After all, the cops need to recognize me. “Let’s snap a new one.”

The number of gray hairs will keep multiplying, just as they have been. 50 is just a number, but that shine of youth is disappearing, to be replaced by the shadow of impending old age.  New pictures need to be taken. The familiar cannot become the unrecognizable.

50 is just a number. But it’s a number that draws varied reaction. Some people get excited about it, saying “Hey! 50! Wow, that’s great!” Others will tilt their head and look at you with eyes that convey nothing but pity. Ooof, that’s old. What will you do?

Truth be told, I feel more 15 than I do 50. Experience and energy at this stage could create a deadly combination. Yes, the opponent is still game and moving forward, but at 50 you are just warming up into the later rounds. I’ve heard this is where the fight gets fun.

As I talk to my daughter today about her future, looking at early college courses, heading toward her senior year, I try to say the right things. About always applying. About persistence. About sweeping the rejection off of you like dust from a jacket. About showing everyone the leader you can be.

What I should have said is… get ready to fight.

Put up your dukes.

Get ready to rumble.

Because life is a fight. You will be battered, jostled, and be told that there are things you can’t, or shouldn’t do. There will be those who will want to steal your dream, or step on it. You will need to fight them.

When you’re a teenager, you can be unaware of the opponent. The opponent often has a friendly smile with suggestions of  “you can’t do that” or “forget love, go for the money”. I didn’t hear these subtle suggestions when I was a teen. They were spoken and unspoken, but I didn’t know what they meant. At 50, you know what they mean.

Just A Number

These days, 50 is hardly old. Especially for the depth of my gene pool. Italian, remember? My grandmother ran circles around people decades younger than her while she was in her 80’s. I watched my grandfather, in his 70’s, chase down a bus he had missed. He caught it. There’s never any guarantees, but I think I have a shot at being healthy a while longer.

Old at 50? I don’t think so. Just starting to get interesting. I fulfilled a dream – going to California – not too long ago. Thank you, gracious employer. My daughter just returned from touring multiple cities in Italy, getting to live out my dream of going to Rome (lucky kid). And the year has only just begun.

It’s just a number. It’s not the age of the dog in the scrap, it’s the amount of scrap in the dog. And this geezer still has plenty of scrap left. Life’s been good to me, and I have more blessings than I probably deserve. I have this amazing wife (how I got her initial attention I don’t know), and my kids are the ultimate source of my pride.

God willing, I think I’m just getting started. Yeah, it’s 50. A number. It’s a long way from 1963. It’s a long way from the 70s or my heyday of the 80’s. My fondness for those memories is boundless. But I think I’m going to love 50.

The fight is going into the later rounds. Isn’t that always where the fight gets good?

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Celebrating the Holidays, Old-School Style

xmastree_As Charlie Brown lamented so many years ago, I also wish for a time when the holidays weren’t represented as being crass and overly commercial. I’m not going to say I didn’t open more than my fair share of gifts when I was younger, ’cause you know I did.

But there is a craziness that surrounds the holidays now that didn’t seem to be there when I was a kid. Yes, our family tree had plenty of presents around it. I remember getting the toys I wanted as a boy, and the record albums on my list when I was a teen (“Frampton Comes Alive!“), but it didn’t seem gifts were all that expensive back then.

Nowadays your toys – electronics and gaming systems – can run into several hundred dollars a shot. For one gift. Talk about your financial pressure.

For those of you that would like Christmas suggestions that tend to lean old-school (what, no Lexus or Mercedes tied up with a big red bow?), I offer up the following:

Make the Holiday a No Shopping Zone – Although Black Friday isn’t something I participate in anyway, is it really necessary for those who do to push it up into Thanksgiving? I know it’s old-school thinking, but no one needs to shop on a holiday. Let the retail workers have time with their families. And give the tryptophan pumped bodies of potential shoppers a little more time to recuperate from that second piece of pecan pie.

Don’t Break the Bank – Americans plan to spend an average of $846.00 this year for Christmas gifts, up 14% from the previous year (credit: Experian). I know, I know…what bad economy? For all of the hyperbole of our country sliding into the shitter, our citizens seem to be taking a lot of trips to Wal Mart. I’m hoping to spend less than the average this year myself. I’m thinking most of that $854 per household is getting spent with a sliding credit card. Not good.

Celebrate with Cash – Don’t want to run that insane gauntlet of gift purchases, whether on-line or brick and mortar? Don’t bother. Do what my grandmother did, and give out bank envelopes with cash!

  • Everybody loves cash
  • You save the time you would have spent shopping (win!!)
  • You may save money as well. You know you would have spent more on a gift – slip your loved ones a nice crisp $20 bill instead.

Make Meals a Holiday Centerpiece – This is one aspect of holiday celebrating that isn’t too difficult to pull off. Everybody loves the holiday meal! The Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing are ubiquitous, but Christmas is also a great opportunity to pack on major calories as well! From the Christmas ham with all the trimmings – and by trimmings, I mean trays lined with manicotti and lasagna – to our old fashioned Christmas Eve fishes, the main holiday attraction for many of us remains the food.

Leave the Stress Behind – Holiday stress factors cited in recent research are lack of time (up to 69%), lack of money (up to 69%), and pressure to give or get gifts (up to 51%). Sounds to me like some folks could use reacquainting with the original idea of Christmas – the birth of Christ, remember? – and forget about the materialism for awhile and approach from a different perspective.

On December 26th, all that anxiety about gift giving seems a little silly, doesn’t it?

  • Hug a friend or loved one
  • Listen to Christmas music
  • Decorate the tree together
  • Say a prayer for the troops
  • Go to church
  • And by all means, say “Merry Christmas”!

Look at the title at the top, and take out the key word: Celebrate. You only have so many opportunities to do so.

Thank You For Being A Friend

Although we only knew each other for thirty years, it may as well have been a lifetime.

You were the “wingman”. The nightclubbing partner I needed in our heyday of the 80s.  Chasing skirts late into the night. You had a little bit of a wild child attitude in you, but our Roman Catholic upbringings steered us clear of any real trouble.

How many games did we go to at the old Yankee Stadium? Watching our pinstriped heroes play sport’s finest game, drinking our beers, our seats at the rail to spy the girls in their summer clothes, passing us by.

We haunted each others work places, me making the descent into the college rathskeller, you sitting at the bar of my parents’ restaurant. We had our drinks, smoked our cigarettes, and laughed long and uproariously at our jokes. God knows we weren’t that funny.

When I started dating the girl who would become my wife, not much changed. Still hanging out, three of us together now, in the restaurants, our places, in the smoky nooks of the Tap Room. Home away from home.

When my daughter was born, you were right there at the hospital to see her, just a couple of hours later. It’s a shame you won’t be here to hug her anymore.

On the winter day my son was baptized, you stood at the font as his Godfather, blessing him with holy water as we watched. I’m glad you were able to come to some of his games. I’m sad you won’t ever watch him swing the bat again.

You gave the finest best man toast in wedding history, deserving of the standing ovation you got. Against the backdrop of the story of first meeting my wife, you serenaded us (and a large reception crowd) with a favorite Sinatra song – on key, flawlessly, without hesitation.

When I watch it on video, I just laugh and shake my head, and wonder… how the hell did you pull that off?

How about hitting that replay button one more time? A little more “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. Or better yet, how about just one more for the road? A toast to you this time, my friend, listening to the ultimate late night Sinatra torch ballad, with drink in hand. Just like we did in the old days.

You know how it goes…

Its quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place ‘cept you and me
So set em up Joe

…We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

Thanks for the memories.

Thank you for being my friend.

Michael Muscatello, 1949-2012

Some Guys Have All The Luck

Some guys have all the luck.

Aside from this being a song title for a very good Rod Stewart remake in the musically potent 80’s (1984 to be exact), the above is a well worn phrase that some people are just luckier than others.

You may have been told that many things have nothing to do with luck. You make your luck with hard work and preparation.

You may think when I speak of luck, I’ll write about good fortune in the relationship I have with my wife, or taking the enjoyable journey of watching my kids grow to be adults. In that respect, few people are as lucky as me.

Just about two weeks ago, I was turning 49 as I was coming home in a plane, touching down on ground that had been dusted with the real first snow of the winter. I had been traveling on business for four days, and couldn’t wait to see my wife and kids.

No, the luck I speak of is a little different. For 47 of my now 49 years, I had the great fortune of having not one, but two mentors to guide me through my life. My grandmother, Rose, (with me in the photo below) and my godmother, my aunt Nicolina, were those strong forces.

Although my aunt passed away last year, and my grandmother’s been gone since 2010, their influence will not be going away any time soon.

They always told me to “eat my vegetables“, “waste not want not“, and my favorite “sit down, have a cup of coffee“. But, influence was more than their words. Their influence was action, and the obvious priorities in life.

The great football coach Vince Lombardi had a quote, a mantra that has stuck with me for a long time. In relation to his players, he believed that:

“There are three things important to every man in this locker room. His God, his family, and the Green Bay Packers. In that order.”

I’m not a Packers fan, but I’ve long been a Lombardi fan. His view on the priority pecking order is spot on. Focus on your God, your family, and your life’s work will make for a more successful, stress free you.

My grandmother and godmother were the poster children for this way of thinking. They had a great zeal toward their faith, a world centered around family, and the work that supported that family.

My opinion? This is not just another pretty Lombardi quote (although there are many). It should be a way of life.

We live in an age that is a constant bombardment of communication. What that translates to is consistent distraction. It becomes easy to feel restless. Impatient. You can take your eyes off what’s most important.

I’m no different. I can be a victim of social media (and other) distractions as easily as the next person. An advantage that I do have to bring me back to earth is the example of the life lessons of two Sicilians that I grew up alongside.

Lombardi would think they got it right. Their time spent here was old school principle in its simplest form, pure in concept and execution. And I observed it from both of them for 47 years.

You know what they say. Some guys have all the luck.

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Growin’ Up – Giving A Stiff Arm To The Face of Life

When you become a new, fresh faced father pacing around the floor in a hospital room, holding your newborn baby in your arms, you have no idea what will happen next.

You have no idea how fast time will pass you by. It feels as if the years have the span of months. It all just happens way too fast.

This has happened to me twice. Twice holding newborns. Twice the feeling of time speeding by, like that rocket ship we all daydreamed about when we were kids.

I watched my daughter run around in our back yard, a little girl. Swinging on her swing set. Now I watch her get behind the wheel of a car, to take a driving lesson, another step into that now brief journey into adult life.

Although sometimes I can feel like a kid, the hard truth is I’m not anymore. Soon my children won’t be kids anymore.

This discovery was made again on the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday. My son and I decided to celebrate the grand tradition of American football that day with a game of “two hand touch” out in the back yard.

Joey had just turned 12, but he’s still my “little guy”, slight of stature. In a wrestling match or a light sabre fight, because of my size, I’m usually the victor of any match physically.

Our game started innocently enough, with some kicks and passes, catches and dropped balls. Just like the real thing. Then he decided he wanted to run for touchdowns. He tried his best on the first few attempts, but with his short strides, I caught him pretty quickly from behind.

On one particular run, I set myself in front of him to stop him once again. No problem, especially since he was running and giggling at the same time.

Then it happened. He stopped giggling (did he put on his mean face?), tucked the ball under his arm, ran full throttle towards me and stiff armed me…his right hand straight into my chin. In a state of shock, I fell flat on my ass as he ran past, scoring a touchdown in our makeshift “end zone”.

I thought I tasted blood, and sure enough, I touched my hand to my mouth and it came away with a small, red streak. After he dumped me to the ground with a text book stiff arm, I came up bleeding!

My son’s a well mannered boy. He apologized to me for making me bleed, and we kept playing a while longer, continuing to have fun. But the results of our playtime speak for themselves.

Growing up cannot be denied, and kids can’t be contained in the backyards of their childhood forever. They break free. Breaking the tackles, stiff arming the obstacles of life, and running for glory.

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