In Praise of the Table Setters

As a guy at the age of 54, I’m finding it hard to keep up with the boundless, almost frenetic energy of my seventeen year old son. I use it to try to recapture a little youthful exuberance for myself, but there are limits.

YoungPopI see my son’s face etched into the decades old photographs of my grandfather, and I wonder how similar they are. I wonder what they share, and how they are different.

One thing’s for sure – their journeys at this age are radical in that difference. While my son readies for senior year and acting as captain of his golf team, his great grandfather was getting ready for, or taking, a trip that would change his life.

And ours.

Did he have that same youthful exuberance so many years ago, or was he the stoic and silent man I knew when I was growing up?

Why did his family leave their native southern Italy? Was it poverty? Crime? The remnants of a “unification” that was more aggression than unifying act?

Was he a scared teenager? Or did he share his family’s fire to seek a better life?

Did he have any lira in his pocket? Or was he poorer than poor? Was his dress tattered? Did he have warm clothes?

Did he go hungry while on the ship? Thirsty?

When the Statue of Liberty finally came into view, what was the emotion in his heart? Fear – or hope?

How much English could he speak? If any at all?

My father told me, years later, when he was young and driving my grandfather to pick up other relatives coming to America, he could guide my Dad down New York City side streets like he lived there forever – but he never drove a car.

How could he do that?

For me, it’s just not my curiosity – but an appreciation of the struggles and hardships of being a young immigrant to a country that was not exactly accepting.

You may not have heard about it before – but what an amazing life.

When you look at success, or how it’s defined now – such as our family’s success, that ranges between moderate and luxurious depending on the situation – you must give the credit where the credit is due.

To the table setters.

There is no such thing as a “self made man,” and we do not live in a vacuum. Our lives, and what we decide to make of them, were made possible by a table set so long ago. We are the sum of the struggles and the power of our recent past.

He had help from our entire extended family – but my grandfather’s relentless nature proved to be a godsend for all of us.

On a day that’s good for me – when I’m feeling healthy, have money in my pocket, with a future looking bright enough to don the sunglasses – I silently thank the table setters.

On an even better day, I’ll take a ride and stop by St. Mary’s cemetery. To say “thank you” in person. To those who made it all possible. Table setters.

I dabble in my family’s history. On my wife’s side, her aunt Connie Burkart was the expert family historian. If you needed to know something, you asked Connie. I will miss her praise, and words of love and encouragement whenever I posted here. This one’s for you, Connie.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Who were your table setters? Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

 

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Fighting the Modern Battle – To Win at Keeping Tradition

IMG_3480Recently, my father and I had the privilege to visit his 95 year old aunt and her daughter – to sip a little espresso, chat about upcoming family events, and go over some old photos of family from the 40’s that needed a little clarification.

When I step into the house that my great aunt Maria has lived in for decades, I feel like I am stepping back in time, to one steeped in old world sensibilities. I would not be overstating my level of comfort in the conversation over coffee, looking at the photos of saints on her walls, and the calendar detailed in her native language.

The atmosphere makes me feel like a child again, or at least a teenager – longing for a time when all my role models were here, alive and well, to help and guide us to create our space here on earth.

The modern era can strip away a needed sense of simplicity, patience, and focus on the important. A trip to an older relative’s house – to Maria’s – has the ability to restore that sense of balance of what should be focused on.

Family, values, tradition – should I mention… food?

Distractions can be an issue anywhere. But they are ubiquitous in our hyper-connected society. I myself have been distracted repeatedly. Not just by the on-line world, but by the siren call of materialism, comfort, convenience and luxury.

The importance of keeping the traditions of the previous generations can be overshadowed by distractions. To keep them going, deliberate practice is needed – as needed as practice with an instrument like a piano, or a habit like your jump shot in basketball.

Without that practice, traditions can fade. They become as much a memory as the loved ones that came before you.

There are a variety of ways I practice keeping tradition, my favorite being the step by step process for the making of the Sunday Sauce. IMG_3435

Every time I do it, it takes me back in time to my grandmother’s house when I was young. From the initial fragrance of frying onions and garlic, the crushing of whole tomatoes, to adding the wine and spices – it’s all part of a ritual that makes me happy, and exposes my kids to how I grew up, at the same time.

It’s a symbolic gesture to my youth, and my heritage. And gives me the added bonus of cooking with my wife, hanging out in the kitchen, listening to music, drinking wine and having fun.

Aside from creating a great tasting sauce, practicing a traditional ritual like this allows me to take a swipe, or (better yet) throw a left hook – into the face of ultra convenient, drive thru, obsessed-with-fancy aspects of modern American living.

I like the idea of tradition – and the focus on food, family, friends, and the enjoyment of meaningful experiences that it brings.

I like going back. Seeing memories of Sunday dinners past. With all of the family, some still here, some long gone. Giving my kids just a glimpse of these very important times.

I’m not sure if they’ll ever experience Sunday as I did – but I’d like to think it’s part of my job to show them what it was like.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Grazie amico!

The Secret to Marriage “Success?” – It’s Old School

My wife and I have an outdoor ritual that takes place predominately in the spring and summer months. Most mornings, between seeing our son off to school and leaving for work, we’ll have a chat and a cup of stove perked coffee on our back deck.

We’ve even made the attempt to keep the tradition going  as the weather gets a little crappier – drinking the coffee in our deck chairs as the temperature hovered near thirty degrees.

It’s hard to let go of something that works so well.

This time spent – and the communication that transpires because of it – are one of the reasons the two of us have been able to enter our twenty fourth year of marriage.

Twenty four. In today’s modern world, it sounds like a freakishly long time to sustain a relationship. And for many people, no doubt it is.

Eyes will go wide with curiosity when you tell folks you’ve been married for more than twenty years.

Everybody looks for the “secret to success,” that one magical short cut that will skip the tough stuff, and retain the romantic ideal of the wedding ceremony. In our impatient, always connected sound byte society, the short cut is what’s deemed as acceptable.

“How have you made it so long?”

The answer I might give – “How the hell should I know?”

I don’t know. Realistically, twenty four years of marriage as a measurement of time is a drop in the bucket. Before my grandfather’s death in the year 2000, he and my grandmother were married for sixty-six years.

Did you catch that number? Sixty-six years.

In case you think that’s a fluke or an outlier, my grandfather’s brother Mariano was married to his wife even longer.

In my head, I still think my wife and I are in our honeymoon phase and, although our youngest kid is a teenager, just starting out. When you look at the standard that’s been set in our family, we really are just starting out.

There are a myriad of ways you can work to improve a relationship, whether in or outside of a marriage.

As you might expect, there are no secrets. Great relationships are simple – but they’re not easy.

The Ego Is Your Enemy

Unless you prefer a life of misery, it’s a smart idea to put your ego on the shelf. Everyone has one – giant, massive egos. Myself included.

OK, maybe Mother Teresa didn’t have an ego. Maybe the Buddha, or Trappist monks don’t have egos. They’re the exception, not the rule.

We all have friends in various  stages of relationship duress. And the stories are consistent – about how their lives are affected, how they’ve been wronged, how nothing goes their way, et cetera.

The consistent theme here?  – “Me. Me. Me. And more me.”

Again, there are always exceptions – but I guarantee that if egos on either side were shelved, in the interest of empathy, an attitude of service, and the idea of meeting halfway – compromising – for the greater good of both parties, you could save and improve any relationship.

But that takes work. And it’s a helluva lot easier just to think of yourself than to do the actual work, because work takes commitment. Speaking of which…

Commit

For a lot of us, commitment is a bit of a dirty word. Whether it concerns eating habits, relationships, jobs, exercise – the idea of commitment isn’t always a palatable one.

That means I have bad news to share – without commitment, there is no success. Especially in the realm of marriage.

With commitment, you go all in. There are no options, no plan B. You burn the bridges behind you.

Over the period of sixty-six years of marriage between Sebastian DeGiorgio and his wife Rosina, there was massive commitment. Ups, downs, highs, lows, through prosperous times and tragedy. In a life that was made more difficult in the beginning because of immigrant status – they remained committed until the end.

That’s my model for commitment. The model of today includes large diamonds, opulent receptions, destination weddings. Once that’s over, marriage success is a roll of the dice. If only the same effort that was put into wedding planning was part of the relationship building as well.

Prepare For What It Is – Work

“Successful people never accept good enough; they are always pushing themselves more than others would ever dare.” – Grant Cardone

The morning after our December wedding, crews had to de-ice the wings of the jet airliner that was to start us off on this new journey. We were prepared for a week of fun and sun on the beaches of Mexico – but were we ready for what was to follow?

The building of a sustained relationship requires work. You have a role of spouse. Parent. Provider. Protector. In each role, you can never be “good enough.” To make a marriage a success, improving it every day should be your goal. And that takes continuous effort.

img_2716Almost twenty four years later, my wife and I still stand close to each other at parties. We finish the other’s sentences, laugh at the jokes. We flirt, and more often than not we’re thinking of the exact same thing at the same time.

All of that is the result of many years of effort to keep our relationship like new, making little adjustments every day to make each other happy. There have been (mainly financial) struggles, but struggles can be overcome with – work. The work can help you weather any storm.

Most marriage issues (ours included) stem from problems that the modern era hoists upon us. But I’m here to tell you – modern marriage should be easy.

None of us had to board ships to complete an arduous journey. We never had to leave our home country. Most of us don’t have to spend our lives in physical toil, or deal with the prejudice and backlash that comes with being an immigrant. Or fight to put food on the table, or stay alive.

Our families of yesterday were shining examples of work, commitment, and humility. You want a better relationship? That’s how it’s done.

“Make America Great Again?” – You Can’t Be Serious

“Politics is an easy place to go to avoid dealing with your real problems. In fact, many of the people who spend their time worrying about partisan politics do so as a way to avoid addressing what really needs to change in their life. The changes you need to make are not going to be addressed by any politician or government agency. While elections are important, they aren’t nearly as important as what you can do for yourself.” – Anthony Iannarino

As we steamroll into these final months of an election season – with heated debates that promise interest and entertainment – this is not going to be another internet political rant.

I don’t have an agenda against one candidate, or for another. That’s not my deal.

As a small town citizen, who would I be to bash anyone that is running a campaign to acquire the world’s most demanding job?

I do, however, have a small problem with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Albeit, the slogan sells. Look at the campaign rallies – the citizens have come droves to bathe in the rhetoric.

With smart phone at the ready, clutching a Starbucks or upgraded handbag in their one hand, waving their rally sign with the other.

I look at our country of today and think to myself, “are we really in that much trouble? Has America lost her greatness?”

This slogan, and perhaps the campaign itself, preys on fears that you have created that have no basis – fears that you should put on the shelf.

A Different Perspective

image

My great grandmother, pictured here, could possibly have told you about the greatness of America, if she could speak any English. Arriving here in 1929, she stepped off the boat onto Ellis Island just in time for the greatest stock market crash our economy has faced.

She left the comfort and familiarity of her small town in Sicily, and if my facts serve me correctly, the first home in that town with indoor plumbing and running water. Truly the lap of luxury.

I would not blame her if she thought she left her homeland to travel great distances to a country with big problems.

Luckily, she had a rock steady family unit around her. Up against the odds and mighty struggles, that family turned out successful business owners, physicians, teachers, cooks, artists, and all around American success stories.

The secret to that success?  Embracing simplicity, values, and a never say die work ethic.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a wonderful article about our 2016 Olympic athletes – but as I was reading his words, I felt he was talking about my immigrant family more than anything:

They had a drive more powerful… They swapped resentment for goals. And they worked. By God, did they work. We tend to marvel at their freakish gifts, but we should marvel even more at their freakish devotion. That’s what made the difference.

They invested hour upon hour, day after day. They sacrificed idle time and other pursuits. They honed a confidence that eludes most of us and summoned a poise that we can only imagine. They took risks, big ones.

And they pressed on, because there was this thing that they wanted so very, very badly and the only way to know if they could get it was to put everything on the line.

And herein lies the issue with modern America – everything is expected, and little is earned.

Should we be shocked most people don’t think America is great? How could you, when the perception is – the wolf is at the door, at all times?

We all need to leave our warm, comfy cocoons and come to one realization – the resident of the Oval Office doesn’t matter. In the end, you are responsible for your life.

Statistics bear out that we live in one of the safest, and most prosperous, times in our history. We have running water. Indoor plumbing. Plenty of food. Perhaps, too much food. Modern conveniences that have no purpose other than to make our unfit bodies more comfortable, within houses and property so opulent that the rest of the world may not be able to fathom.

And we need to “Make America Great Again?” Give me a break.

My Italians came here with little hope other than to live as poor immigrants. They made themselves great. We can all do the same.

Embrace your inner peasant, your inner Spartan. Start earning what you think you deserve. Make yourself a little uncomfortable in the process, on purpose, instead of searching for the convenient answer.

As Mr. Bruni wrote – sacrifice your idle time. Instead of resentment, embrace the work. Cultivate a freakish devotion. Put it all on the line.

That’s what your ancestors did, and what we can do. That’s America, and her greatness.

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 oceanfront 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, and behind that is a yard 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 stovetop. 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 flatscreen, or using said flatscreen 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.