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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The Golden Rule Of Life: Keep Swinging

My favorite movie character of all time is Sylvester Stallone’s creation, Rocky Balboa. He was a nobody, a chump, a has-been of a boxer working part time for a loan shark. The only difference between Balboa and the other nobodies is that he never learned to stop swinging.

rocky balboaThat’s the crux of the movie’s plot – the main character gets an opportunity, and by being relentless in his training and honing of his skills, he gets within a breath of the pinnacle of boxing’s most sought after crown.

What fascinated me after I saw the movie (and applied its principles to my own overweight existence) was how closely the story line itself mirrored Stallone’s life. He was down to his last dimes, trying to convince producers to shoot the film from his screenplay, with him in the leading role.

He was practically destitute, but never gave up on the dream of the film being made. While most of us would have quit and went out and got a job to pay the bills, he hung in there. He, like the movie character that would make him a global name, kept swinging.

We’ve all heard the stories of the winners that would never quit: Edison and his light bulbs, Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, Stephen King rejecting his own work by throwing the manuscript for “Carrie” into a trash can.

A Lifetime Of Swinging

Fame and Hollywood riches aside, you and I can see the no quit and “keep swinging” mentality everyday. If you look close enough, it’s right there in your friends and family members.

My Godmother told my wife and I stories of her life as an immigrant, coming to America from Sicily. She, my grandmother, and other members of the family were mistreated, strip searched, degraded, and faced every form of racial slur.

Instead of crawling into protective shells, they kept swinging. They carved out inspirational lives in the country that they came to love with a passion, despite the (ahem) rocky start. They were awash with perseverance, for the sake of their family and the new country that would eventually realize their worth.

My grandparents would live a hard, blue collar life that would eventually bring them financial success. Because they kept swinging. When they lost their son, my uncle, as a teenager, they turned insurmountable grief into a positive years later.

They built their house, built another business, and helped build the lives that came after. They never let us forget a boy named Anthony. They made a home where love was the key, and tenacity followed until their final days. They never stopped swinging.

Can You Keep Swinging?

Edison finally got it right after thousands of light bulb failures. Jordan put in hour upon hour of jumpshots to improve his game. You could say that Stephen King does pretty well in the publishing industry, too.

Stallone turned Rocky into a franchise that grossed millions of dollars and inspired many to chase their own heavyweight dreams.

It’s the small details, the ability to keep swinging that get you to where you want to be. One of my forged memories include a Sicilian immigrant, hunched over a plastic tub of ground beef in her kitchen, prepping a dish that would make her restaurant famous in our little town.

She was a little girl, without English speaking ability, a stranger in a strange land. She repeated habits and actions thousands and thousands of times, the actions that, as an older woman, would make her a household name in our city and multitudes of friends in the process.

How did she do it?

Keep swinging.

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Happy Birthday – P.S. The World Needs You Here

nonna & pop (2)It’s not just the first day of winter. The solstice – the day with the fewest hours of sunlight in the whole year. It’s not just another day creeping closer to Christmas.

It’s your birthday.

We all wish you were here to celebrate it, to once again complain about how this day was too close to the biggest of holidays, and how you were always “getting gypped” out of presents. Made us laugh every time.

You were a class act, yet down to earth at the same time. You practiced humility, and preached acts of kindness no matter what. Your focus was on God, family, and the country you were proud to be a part of.

You had ups and downs, multitudes of challenges, but you always seemed happy. Your extended family and wealth of old friends were always around, always entertaining. They were a happy bunch as well, with a good word for everyone.

It was always about love with you. And comfort. Especially with your prowess in the kitchen, oh that comfort! The coffee pot bubbling on the stove, chicken soup simmering away… My wife and still reminisce about your kitchen whenever we cook in ours.

The world has changed since you’ve been gone, and it seems to be for the worse. There’s barely any patience anymore, kindness is at a premium, and events that should shake all of us to the core have become sadly commonplace.

Yes, we should live “through the windshield, and not the rear view mirror.” Some will say it’s a sad day when you’re caught living in the past. But how can we not at least take a peek back?

Life was a lot more carefree, without much to concern us. There was Vietnam, and Watergate. Those events seemed to take place far away from us, covered by news programming maybe once a day. They didn’t feel like they were around the corner, waiting to burst out at you.

I like the idea of a time machine. A trip back to a simpler era would be nice, especially if I could take my wife and kids. We could lay on the floor of your living room on a Saturday morning, in our pajamas, elbows on the carpet, hands cupping our faces. Hanna-Barbera cartoons would be on, and we would be able to smell the aroma of frying meatballs coming from the kitchen.

What do we do? Finish that episode of Jonny Quest – or go for the fresh, crispy meatball?

Anyway, I’m getting off track. Most of your generation is gone, and the kind deeds and compassion they expressed may have gone right along with them. Except you did your best to pass them to us. It was a source of your pride. Your great grandchildren, in their earliest stages, are already the citizens you hoped they would be. Being up to me, they will follow in the footsteps of the great generation they came after, the one that you were part of.

Happy Birthday to you. Wish you were here.

We will celebrate this weekend with a glass of wine, a special dessert, and (your old standby) adding fish to a Christmas Eve meal. And by recalling a simpler time of life and looking toward a better future.

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.

Luck Be A Lady: Working Hard For Love And Money

As I mentioned in the last post, my grandparents had an insane work ethic. They had to, as they toiled in factories to make their mark when they first came to America, then running a restaurant for many hours, days that would segue into late nights.

I’m talking crazy work ethic. The “We’re in our 80s and still moving at warp speed” work habits. One of a kind.

They passed this on to my father, who in turn passed it on to his kids. When I decided to work at the restaurant after high school, the only way to work was their way. Hours upon hours upon hours. The majority of it standing up, walking, running, whatever it took. Not much in the way of sitting.

Most younger guys wouldn’t have gone for that, but I wanted to be a bartender, and I wanted to work with my family. So I went all in.

What followed was a years long string of 12 to 14 hour days, the busiest ones filled with non-stop activity. I made money, created relationships, and helped build a business.

There were times when I thought it was getting to be too much of a grind, and wanted to quit. But gut instinct told me to stick it out. The hours I was putting into the small family business were going to make me neither rich nor famous, but I was sure, someday, that something great would happen.

Right Place, Right Time

Fridays at the restaurant were especially grueling. Our customers had money on Friday, and they all wanted to spend it. That equated to a longer day, at times 14 to 16 hours.

After one particularly nasty double shift, my father and I were walking to our cars to go home. One of my friends, Bruce, was with me, tagging along. It was a clear night in April, but we walked quickly as it was a little brisk.

We had parked our cars right next to a busy college hangout, in their parking lot. As we approached the lot, I could see that my Dad’s Chevy wagon was blocked in by the car of some overzealous student. I could easily pull my car out, but that Chevy wasn’t going anywhere.

I was tired, but my father worked in our restaurant’s kitchen, so I knew that he wanted to get out of there and go home.

I tossed him my car keys and took his in exchange, saying to Bruce, “C’mon, let’s go across the street and get a drink”.

“Across the street” was another bar, an old time watering hole called the Eldorado. After walking through their door, life was never going to be the same.

Beautiful Stranger

Bruce and I put our bellies to the bar, got our cocktails, but fatigue was starting to wear me down. He was talking to me, but I didn’t hear him – I just stared straight ahead in a haze. Then his eyes lit up and he spread his arms into hug formation, as if to greet an old friend.

I turned away from the bar, and watched as he gave an embrace to this striking girl that just came through the door. She was a recreation of the classic Barbie doll: blond, cute, with beautiful eyes. She had a sensational form dressed in denim and a dark blazer.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune that night. I had a friend who could introduce me to “the girl”.  And over twenty years later, that girl is still by my side.

My wife and I met under circumstances that should have never happened. I was in a place that I wasn’t supposed to be, and she came to the same place, not knowing where the next stop was. The intersections of life are, at times, unplanned trips. The stars align in just the right places, and that “mystical and magical” force just takes over.

I can give credit where it’s due. Without my grandparents showing me the ropes – without watching how they worked all their years – there is no way I would have put in all the hours I did. And without that, right place and right time never happens.

And that’s the way it is with many things in this life. Like my grandparents, I strived enough, expended effort and energy, to create opportunities for good things to happen. Without the work ethic taught to me by others, I don’t meet the woman I was meant to fall in love with.

If my two children can learn just one thing from me, I’d like it to be this:  never underestimate  the power of hard work and maximum effort. It can change your life. You will run into people who won’t agree with this, happily coasting through their lives.

Ignore them.

Take what I say to heart, understand what my parents and grandparents taught me, and do what few others will do – work it, and work it hard.

It’s the principle that got you here in the first place.