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.

Tougher Than The Rest

The strong, silent type. Masculine, with a no bullshit attitude at all times, the kind that’s missing in these days. In arenas where men are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their feminine side, there used to be those that would have no part of that conversation.

A guy like John Wayne comes to mind, but I’d rather stick with the men in my family for purposes here.

My grandfather, Sebastian, (picture above) was one of those men. I think of him often, especially now near his birth month of October, and wonder what he would think of the myriad of ways that current events and attitudes unfold now.

I’m going to say he wouldn’t be pleased. He’d do what he used to, derisively uttering “God Bless America” in his sarcastic tone. And then I’d have to laugh.

Like most others of his generation, my grandfather felt he was entitled to nothing more than the opportunity to work multiple jobs to support his family. Factory worker by day, he became a bartender/restaurant worker by night. His customers did a lot of drinking, but he never did.

He simply had too much to do.

The Generation of “Non Complainers”

Sebastian did what he needed, without complaint. If he ever did complain, I never heard it. He was a grinder, working on tasks straight through until they were finished, no matter how long it took.

In partnership with my grandmother, Sebastian was a success as a business owner. When you run a restaurant, it’s like your mistress, and you spend most of your waking hours there. My grandfather had an incredible work ethic, one that he tried to pass down to all of us.

As an immigrant from southern Italy, my “Pops” sure as hell had his obstacles, and also more than his share of sadness. He had a brother, a soldier, killed in World War II, and his son, my uncle, died tragically as a teenager.

To have survived events like that are incredible feats.  I’m amazed by the man even now, years after his death. I rarely saw him display sadness, remorse, or regret. He was one tough cookie. Tougher than the rest.

I owe my grandparents quite a bit. They’ve taught me to focus on what’s important, keep it simple, and have a sense of gratitude for it all. I miss having them here. It seems the longer they have been gone, the more complicated things are. They had a way to set that straight. The path was clearer with them acting as mentors.

Forward, Always Forward

One aspect of following my grandfather around was his constant movement. Always going forward, working, making progress. He could be relentless. I recall mouthing off to my grandmother once when I was a kid. His belt came off his pants at lightning speed, and he chased me outside the house, right on my heels. I couldn’t believe such an older man could be so quick.

My grandfather reminds me of Rocky Marciano. For you youngsters out there, Marciano was a heavyweight boxing champ in the 1950s who retired undefeated. I had relatives that talked about him when I was a kid, and I became fascinated by him later. He was also a success symbol for Depression era Italian Americans, many who were immigrants. Marciano inspired hope to those who were downtrodden, and convinced America’s “streets of gold” were a fallacy.

Marciano never lost a fight because he never stopped moving forward. Even when he was hurt, rarely taking a backward step. Never stopped punching. Kept coming at you. Never relented.

Sebastiano DeGiorgio, throughout his life, was a lot like him. Short and compact, but quick. Relentless and persevering.  And tough. Tougher than the rest.

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The Immigrant Song – Inspiration Around Every Corner

It was interesting to watch what I could of both the Democratic and the Republican national conventions recently. With the political posturing so evident in this election season, it’s obvious the candidates of both parties are looking to appeal to the “everyman”.

Your “Average Joe”, if you will.

Marco Rubio. Mitt Romney. Julian Castro. Democrats and Republicans alike are recounting the immigrant stories within their own families, in the attempt to win the voters who have their own immigrant stories.

You can’t fault these politicians for using the unique immigrant experience to try to sway votes that could help them win. We all have recollections of parents or grandparents that have inspired us with their personal successes of achieving the American dream.

Finding Inspiration

The stories are unique, but the story line follows a familiar pattern. Immigrants, whether they be Spanish, Italian, Polish, or Irish, made huge sacrifices for the good of their families. Some went to bed hungry so their children wouldn’t. Others, like my grandparents, worked multiple jobs to make sure the family had enough money to survive, then thrive.

My grandparents also left school early to aid in the financial support of their households.

They persevered through the Great Depression and willed their way to success. Because they knew if that feat was accomplished, the generation that came after them could enjoy a better life.

As one of the Democratic participants stated in a speech, “Their stories may never be famous, but in the lives they lived, you will find the essence of America’s greatness.”

Despite the campaign mudslinging going on now, with keywords such as entitlement and redistribution, the candidates seem to agree here: the strength of the country, and the economy within, was built on the very formidable backs of people from other nations.

One Direction

I’m more than happy to share the stories of the immigrants that influenced me. Yeah, the blog has occasionally meandered into the subjects of weight loss, Joe Paterno, cell phones, and the importance of being a patriot, but it’s mainly concerned with one very important topic.

My family, immigrant status and all, and how they molded and shaped the lives of those around them.

I like to, and choose to, write about different things. That won’t change. But I hope you’ll come along for the ride as I take a closer look at this one topic near and dear to my heart in the posts to come. It may be difficult to think that a bunch of diminutive Italians could teach you a thing or two, but I think you’d be pleasantly surprised.

As both Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated: the saga of the immigrants and their American story is one of the most important of our times.

If you saw the conventions, what do you think? Were the speakers sincere in their praise of their immigrant connections, or did they seem to be pandering for votes? State your case in the comments! And don’t forget to subscribe for future updates!

Cruel Summer, With A Life Lesson To Take To The Bank

When I was a boy, the summers seemed to stretch for miles, go on forever. I would look for salamanders, play hours of basketball, and walk over country roads to see my friends. I would jam out to Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Heart in my basement, and tackle lawn chores at my Nonna’s modest brick ranch, to be rewarded with a plate of macaroni with extra grated cheese. Summer was a boy’s best friend.

The summers of mid-life move faster. They slow down only for wakes and funerals, to pay our respects to the departed, some taken from us too soon. This has happened several times this summer, making a lump in the throat as frequent as a daily coffee.

Lest you think I’ve had nothing but a summer of discontent this year, let me correct you. Funerals notwithstanding, my family has done and seen a lot in the past couple of months. Here’s a sampling:

  • A trip to our favorite vacation spot, the beaches of Cape Cod
  • Two trips to baseball games at Yankee Stadium in New York
  • A live concert from Coldplay at the TD Garden in Boston
  • Before the show, a meal at a great Italian restaurant in the city’s North End
  • For me and my friends, a fun weekend in the woods of the Adirondacks
  • Multiple drives to our summer home away from home, Lake George

I had heard “Boy, you guys get around” more than once. I have to agree. If we didn’t have what was equal to a summer bucket list, we had plans made well in advance to enjoy every minute of the season that we could.

As soon as it’s here, it’s gone.

Life travels at the speed of sound. If there is a lesson for you here, it’s this: know how important and fleeting your time is. In our house, babies once crawled and toddlers walked the earth. Now, one baby has taken to the highway, tackling the rigors of the road. I no longer read her a story and tuck her in at night. She is a high school junior.

The little boy has had a growth spurt and a power surge. Months ago, I could field his grounders and catch his line drives with ease. No more. With his swings of the bat, Dad has to avoid rockets and laser beams that have potential to inflict great damage and deep bruises.

The only thing keeping the balls in the yard now is the black chestnut tree that stops their progress. This yard can’t hold him anymore. His day is coming.

With the car radio awash in the sounds of the 70s, it’s easy to drift back to when summers were slow and fruitful. Under those same unbelievably blue skies, the little girl is breaking out and heading to the highway. The boy is crashing fences and taking names.

It’s a cruel summer with a decidedly sweet aftertaste.

Let me know how your summer was in the comment section below. Start a conversation!

Photo credit of Cape Cod marsh to Gabrielle DeGiorgio.You can get free updates to content at this site by subscribing by email or feed reader. Feel free to share via Twitter and/or Facebook.