Explaining Evil To Your Children

Columbine. Oklahoma City. September 11th. Virginia Tech. Aurora.

vaderThe evil in the world isn’t easily explainable. The presumably safe activity of going to a movie theater is no longer safe. You can’t take for granted the simple tasks of going to work or attending class.

My son and I were on my way to my father’s house when he asked me why so many people got shot. Before his question was posed, I was thinking about the coffee I was going to drink, and he was anticipating the ice cream his Grandfather was going to give him.

I couldn’t answer his question with other than this lame response – “Son, there are bad people in the world.” We can only reassure our kids that these are rare events, and that the criminals usually get taken down. Good triumphing over evil.

When my daughter was much younger and drawing pictures of airplanes crashing into buildings over ten years ago, I felt useless then, as well. How do you explain such things? As an adult, I barely comprehend them myself.

As we went into my Dad’s house, and he quickly forgot about his question. Maybe because that house is a sanctuary. Our house is his sanctuary. Our yard. There is security of sorts in this world, but it’s usually contained within.

When I was young, it seemed all we had to deal with was the terror of the Son of Sam, preying on his victims in one sweltering summer in New York City. Simpler times, right?

I’d like to take my kids on a trip to “simpler times”, so they could catch a glimpse of a time without 24/7 media coverage of mass murders, of terrorism. Where they wouldn’t have to ask the question, “Why?”

When we get there, we’d play in my grandmother’s yard, without a care in sight. We could play games in the street, without much fear of other cars. We could go back to the family farm my cousins owned, and wander in fields for hours. No one would be concerned as to where we were.

In the days of “back then,” you could go to school without running for your life. You could go to a movie without the fear of flying bullets.

You should live your life by the windshield and not the rear view mirror, but who can blame us for looking to the past for comfort? Crap, I think that’s what I do here. I write about things that provide a dose of that comfort and stability. For myself. I can throwback for decades with writing subjects like my grandparents, music, baseball, and being an inspired teenager.

Kids, it’s difficult to explain these things to you. To say that you’re growing up in a much different place than your Mom and Dad grew up in – well, that’s a vast understatement. The only steps we can take are to raise you according to our ethics, and give you the room to grow into your own version of a wonderful person.

And once you do that, just believe that people like you will always outnumber the evil guys. And from tragedy, good will come.

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

6 Nuggets Of Financial Wisdom From The Old School

My grandfather, young and handsome!

My grandparents could not take advantage of much education when they came to America as they had to go to work at a young age. But in many respects, my grandparents managed to acquire more financial intelligence than most of us, including me and you.

Makes little sense, right? How can someone’s grandparents possibly be smarter than they are? The older generation did not have access to all that we do. This is the information age. We have Google and Bing to search at the speed of light, and Twitter and Facebook to share any piece of information that we have in real time.

Most of us would also have an edge in education, as well. My grandparents never attended college. They went to work as soon as they possibly could, to aid in the support of their family. So, naturally, our intelligence must be more advanced too, right?

Look at me now, typing away, publishing my words on-line and competently stringing a few sentences together. You might say this talent makes me a little smarter than, say, my grandmother.

We may be able to gather information more quickly, that’s a given. More intelligent? The jury’s out on that one. As far as being common sense smart, the previous generations might have it all over us. I’d like to offer some of their “money handling” examples:

They spent their money wisely – Yeah, at times my grandfather would splurge on a lottery ticket (or two). And yes, my Nonna liked to buy a surplus of imported cheese that was fifteen dollars a pound. But most times, they were not crazy with their money. They went to stores infrequently, shopped sales when they did go, and they didn’t have any expensive hobbies like golf, boating, or weekends in Las Vegas. Things were pretty simple. And when your needs are simple, you tend to not spend money.

They saved the same way – Since there wasn’t a lot of spending going on, they saved a lot of money. As they worked hard and built their business, they were also able to build a house in 1969 without taking on a mortgage (that one still amazes me). They purchased another restaurant after operating their first one for several years. You’re able to do that by saving- not dropping all your cash.

Their house was not an investment – Very simply, they bought their house to live in. Period. They weren’t concerned about the house’s market value, if they could tap it for equity, or if they could retire if it was sold. They lived there. It was their home – not a piece of an investment portfolio.

Meals were prepared at home – There were very few trips to restaurants when my gram and her sisters were around and cooking at full throttle. Dinners out were special occasion only. For them, the term “take out” meant taking out the garbage. These girls made some of the greatest lunches and dinners to ever hit a table. It never occurred to them;

“Gee, why cook? Let’s go out for dinner tonight!” or “Honey, I’m tired from my day doing piece work at the factory…can we go out?”

Ridiculous. They knew they would never get a meal of the same quality at a restaurant as one they cooked themselves at home. I feel the same way.

They brewed their own coffee – Especially in my grandmother’s house, the coffee pot was ritual. Granted, in my grandparents’ prime, the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks of the world were not at all prevelant. But if they were around today, I’m sure they would probably think “Really?? People like paying seven dollars for a cup of coffee?” Myself, I’m not here to bash Starbucks. I love their coffee, and every six months or so, I’ll treat myself to one. But every day, like some people? Not me. That’ll really put a hole in your wallet.

And last but not least…

They were happy with what they had – Keeping up with everybody else was not in their playbook.  They didn’t give a shit about what the neighbors had. If there was ever any envy or jealousy, it was about who had a bigger fig tree or had the best spread on the Sunday dinner table. My grandmother’s one extravagance was a fur coat, and she wore it out. She wore the same dresses, and my grandfather wore the same flannel shirts, forever. And they were perfectly happy. They weren’t concerned with clothes, jewelry, fine wine, or exotic vacations. The only concern was whether or not you had enough to eat.

What say you? Should we adopt some of the financial principles of yesterday? Or should we continue guzzling Starbucks and lusting after BMWs while the economy falls further into the outhouse? Agree or disagree, comments please!

The Most Valuable Land on Earth

OakwoodStatueThere’s a concept about the most valuable land on earth being the graveyard: because with all of those people are buried unfulfilled dreams, unwritten novels, music not created, businesses not started, relationships not reconciled.

While difficult to quantify, you can be sure that it’s got a ring of truth. We all know people that are still alive that have all but abandoned any dream they once had. Going through life on their day to day, paying their bills, nothing more, nothing less.

We love the days of the week named Monday and Friday. As sure as the sun rises and sets each day, you can listen to your workmates curse the one day, and thank God for the other.

Why is one day of the week any different than the other? Because people want to escape their boring jobs, and on a grander scale, their monotonous lives.

And some pass away with having done just the chores of birth, school, work, and retirement with nothing else to show for it.

It’s a waste. Don’t we have more potential than that?

A couple of years ago, a good friend at work decided to fulfill a dream to join the military. She chose to face the rigors of boot camp and the chance of deployment to the Middle East than spend her life in a cubicle.

Most thought she was a little insane. The more accurate perception should be brave, smart, and unwilling to settle. Maybe the most sane out of everyone.

The situation reminded me of the Morgan Freeman quote from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, as follows:

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But, the place you live in is that much more grey.”

To fulfill a dream, no matter how small, should always be a focus of  life, in addition to all those “chores” to be completed to live in the moment and support your family.  We don’t do this because of the bugaboo of fear.

Fear Strikes Out

I break this kind of fear into two categories: the fear of failure, and the fear of rejection.

It’s OK to have these types of fears. Everyone does. But they need to be managed so they don’t stand in the way of your entire existence.

Strangers In A Strange Land

I can’t think of anyone that should have been more fearful than my grandmother, when she and her family emigrated from Sicily to come to this country, looking for opportunity. She:

  • was leaving the only home she ever knew
  • had limited education at that point
  • had a language barrier she struggled to overcome
  • didn’t know anyone in America
  • didn’t have an immediate place to live
  • had to endure processing with arrival here
  • was just a teenager, thrust into a strange land!

How did all those fears wind up affecting her throughout her life? She had her bumps in the road, and very painful experiences in later years, but she and my grandfather certainly lived their version of the American dream. They:

  • Got factory jobs and proved themselves to be quickest, most efficient workers
  • Ran successful businesses in not one, but two, restaurants
  • Built a house and paid cash for it
  • Put the house on an expanse of land that featured fruit trees and large gardens
  • Took a dream trip back to their homeland to visit family
  • Survived very hard times, starting with the Great Depression
  • Were married for over six decades
  • Were mentors and teachers for many (including myself)

Pretty impressive stuff, in my opinion. Fear can be a killer, but my grandparents refused to let it stand in their way.

Burning Clocks

With Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen set out to write a song about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium. He instead came up with an anthem about fighting back hard times and the ultimate decay of our lives.

In the song, the lyrics ring out “When your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down…”

Folks, life is short. The game has nearly been decided. Our clock is burning down. It’s hard to take action on the truly important because of the all of the little things that need to be done. As my cousin once said, “Life gets in the way.”

Make a point to push it out of the way.

Decades from now, none of us will be here. No one will remember, and no one will care whether you lived your life just paying the bills and watching reality television, or if you chased down your own version of the immigrant dream.

Historical greats of the past are now a blip on the radar screen, profiled in only books and memories. Unless you cure cancer or eradicate poverty, you will be too. So what’s stopping you?

Seriously, if my two little, tiny Italian grandparents can come to America and create their own world with all their obstacles, what excuse can the rest of us possibly have?

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I Know It’s Late, We Can Make It If We Run

“I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” – Jon Landau, 1974

Forget about the future of rock and roll. I have seen a man who performs as intensely now as he did in 1974, a true fountain of youth…and its name is Bruce Springsteen.

I’ve written about the undeniable power of music previously (see the article here).  But that post tends to look understated when I think of my long relationship with the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Copyright @ Times Union

Having just experienced my eighth live Springsteen concert, it’s no longer just a musical event or a wait and see if he’s still got it (which, by the way, he does. He’s 62, and has got “it” in spades). To say the man, who’s in his sixties, acts like he’s in his thirties, would be a gross understatement as well.

No, these concert events have turned into trips to see a dear friend. Go over, hang out in the living room, and there he is,  telling you his favorite stories all over again.

Stories I’ve heard for nearly four decades. He’s no longer just a musician, or rock star. He’s a trusted ally, a sounding board, a friend to support in good times and bad.

He was there for me through break ups with teenage girls, and compassionate when I thought myself an outcast in school.  The music was less of a getaway than it was a mechanism to know you were not solely on your own. Someone agreed with you, somebody else got it.

When I lost a good friend to an auto accident at far too young an age, his monumental double album “The River” helped stoke my rage and quell my sadness. It got me through the hardest of times. For that reason alone, I will always be a fan.

Being a fan, like anything, isn’t always easy.

The images within the music may make you want to cringe, to turn away. Bruce’s lyrics are replete with storms, rising flood waters, corporate greed, battered hometowns, and the haunting reference of a September 11th firefighter ascending a smoky stairwell to a certain death he can’t even see.

In live performance, those images are even more focused. But turning away from a force of nature is difficult. What you see is dropped into a tornado of light and sound, monster backbeats pushing you forward through the chaos, as you stand in all your fist pumping glory.

Springsteen’s America can be a brutal, unforgiving place. But after 3 hours of no holds barred non-stop singing, dancing, and sheer fun, you go back to that other place where faith, hope, and glory days and little victories are real again.

The little victories are what sustain you. Bruce played his music for me on my wedding day and when my kids came into the world, careening from speakers at decibel levels to make your pets run and hide. My daughter grew as a toddler, chanting the refrain from “Badlands” from the comfort of her car seat. Glory days, indeed.

I keep going back to that well because I don’t know how many more times I’ll get to see my friend. He’s getting old, I’m getting old(er), and the live tours can be years apart. But at 62, he can still outperform entertainers half his age.

Here’s to the hope the rest of us can hold out as well.  Concerts with Bruce and friends are great nights in my life, shared with my wife, where we get sent home with our ears ringing, sweaty, tired, and inspired again by the “future of rock and roll” present.

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