On Growing Up Italian American, and Embracing Your Superpower

As a nation, we’ve grown weary of the violence and chaos that often is a front page headline – just recently we can point to Sutherland Springs, massive carnage in Las Vegas, and another terror attack in New York City.

I’ve been immersed, in the last couple of years, in what author/podcaster Tim Ferriss coined the Low Information Diet – erasing the influence of national/ local news and other distractions from my life.

It’s not that I don’t want to stay informed – some believe it’s without question your duty as a citizen – but I would prefer to accelerate the aging process with child like wonder and curiosity rather than see my world with a perpetual black cloud over it. To believe the world may be a wonderful place – as it once was.

For those of us who want to turn back the clock, retreat into a previous time – well, if you’re an aficionado of the news headlines, you could hardly be blamed. I consider myself one of those people – for good reason.

Not so many years ago, my life was filled with the influence of Italian immigrants. Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants, to be precise. Men and women with grit, determination, and a love of their adopted country.

There’s been a lot of attention paid by the aforementioned news machine concerning the plight of the modern immigrant. However, it’s not just the current administration in the White House that has issue with select groups of immigrants. As columnist Rosario Iaconis stated:

February 19 marks the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066. With the nation at war against the Axis powers — and still reeling from Pearl Harbor — FDR promulgated a directive that branded 600,000 Americans of Italian descent “enemy aliens.” Over 10,000 on the West Coast were forced to relocate, and more than 250 were placed in internment camps in Georgia, Maryland, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

In an earlier historical misstep, president Calvin Coolidge stated he thought Italians to be “an inferior race,” notably southern Italians.

An unfortunate series of events. If only presidents past and present could embrace the power of the immigrant. There are so many in my own life that should be deemed worthy of a spotlight for what truly makes this country great. I’d like to introduce you to some.

IMG_3970Some of you have already read, on more than one occasion, a series of posts about my grandfather’s brother Dominick. He was a hero to his adopted country of America, being killed in action in World War II, right before the end of the war. His loss left a gaping chasm in my family at the time, and he is still a hero to us today.

My cousin and I recently had crafted a military banner in his name, with his image flying high and proud in the city where I live, where he lived as a proud American citizen. As long as our family is here, we will never forget.

But Dominick was far from the only member of his family that emigrated to our shores. His brothers came here as well, and they were special in their own right.

My grandfather himself (Sebastian, pictured below to the right) has long been a featured topic on this site, with several articles that remain my favorites. He was one of the toughest guys I knew, and this was just not my opinion – the other men he knew, whether family or friend, verified his relentless nature and resolve.

The image I love – one that stays with me like it happened yesterday – is of him during one of our tragically brutal winters, shoveling snow with a steel handled shovel and no gloves to protect his hands. Dressed in an overcoat and fedora.

Over coffee on a recent Sunday morning, my cousin Mary told me a story that I didn’t know about my grandfather – or “Pop,” as I would call him. My cousin said that a fire had started in their first floor flat, in a living room area that was quickly getting out of control. Like, within minutes, all was going to be lost.

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Instead of the fire department coming to the rescue, “your grandfather came flying down the stairs (my grandparents lived on the second floor) and put the fire out – with his bare hands.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I think he used a couple of small, wet towels. Or a blanket or something.”When I had thought I heard it all about my grandfather, I sat there holding my coffee cup, my mouth agape, mind in disbelief.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.” was all that I could say.

IMG_3975Another brother was Antonio, who I referred to as “Uncle Tony.” As tough as my grandfather was, Antonio’s brute strength stood out. Capable of tilling huge gardens and planting trees and bushes with the most rudimentary tools, he was as powerful a man as they come. He personified his Calabrian roots with his farming ability, and was responsible, along with his brothers, for planting much of the food that we would later eat.

He would make a point, after his work was over, to rough house with whichever one of us kids was within striking distance. If he said, in his broken English, “come over and give me a kiss,” you did. And got your youthful face scraped by a bearded stubble that felt made of steel.

Mariano, who to us kids was “Uncle Mario,” always captivated with his infectious smile and hearty laugh. If my grandfather was the quiet one – which he was – Uncle Mario was the talker, coming to my grandparents’ house for frequent visits, sitting at the kitchen table for an hour or more to dole out life wisdom and stories from the old country.img_3366

He was the man who taught you how to correctly prune the grape vines in the yard. And when the grapes were down, he’d make a homemade wine that after a glass or two would put you on the couch.

Although he was polite, always well dressed, and soft spoken, turns out Mario was a warrior in a previous life. Fighting for the Italian army in World War II (he didn’t make his trip to America until the early ’60s), he wound up becoming a POW during the war – later escaping and trekking hundreds of miles to freedom.

Hearing that was another “holy shit moment.”

And that’s just the men. The ladies in our family from that generation were even more influential. Working outside the home, but creating the ultimate space for us to grow up in – spending much time making sure the atmosphere was filled with love, warmth, security, and a sense of community. It was an amazing time.

“God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past” – Tom Petty

Italian American Podcast co-founder Dolores Alfieri said something while interviewing a guest that immediately hit me like a ton of bricks, stating her feeling about being raised Italian American:  “It was almost like I had a superpower.” 

As much as I would have to disagree with the Tom Petty lyric quoted above (I get a kick out of frequently visiting the past), I agree with Dolores without hesitation. It was a super power. You were safe, secure, surrounded by strength, integrity, passion, and values. You were loved.

It was a feeling, at times, of invincibility. You were bulletproof.

You can tell me that’s in the past. Those days are over.

For the most part, you would be right. The past is gone.

But those super powers remain. Ready to be summoned at any time, to serve you and those around you as well. It may not be like mine – being raised as an Italian American by a family whose best interests were your interests – but you have your own. You just have to call on it. Or discover it, if you have not yet.

In this time of violence, vitriol, and what some may call “a graceless age” – it would be great for all to believe – friends, family, children, the people that mean the most to you.

It’s especially for my kids. I want my son and daughter to know they have it as well. Although they’re both at an age where self doubt can creep in like an insidious force, they can call on their superpower. Like Superman type strength, or Flash like speed, they have it.

It’s the Sicilian in them, the Calabrian. It courses through their veins.

You can, in the finest moments, feel invincible. Unstoppable.

I know you can because I still feel it myself. In my heart, mind, and best of all, my memory of the past.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. What’s your “superpower?” Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

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22 Post Holiday Weight Loss Tips From a Former Fat Kid You Can Use in 2018

There are many reasons to want to lose weight, get healthier, and change our physical appearance. I remember one of mine like it was yesterday – it went something like this:

“Man, look at you. You need a bra.”

The above is one of the many comments and observations endured while I made my way through elementary, middle, and eventually high school. Several of my tormentors attended the military academy where I spent my school years, but it seemed the words could come from anywhere. Or out of nowhere.

I was a well fed Italian American boy, who showed no signs of stopping the culinary carnage as I ate my way through the kitchens of my mother, grandmother, and assorted relatives.

There was always a plentiful bounty of food – especially on a Sunday. Unending pasta choices, sauced with my grandmother’s jarred tomatoes, complemented by stacks of braciole (beef roll ups) and meatballs. Chicken cutlets, glistening with oil straight from the oven. The Sicilian street food arancine, a family favorite.

I was always instructed to eat more, to stave off the impending malnourishment that would be encountered once I ventured into the outside world. Of course, there would never be any of that.

To say I packed away a little extra weight would have been putting it nicely.

Eventually, the school yard taunting fueled a fire to get better, and – with the help of one Sly Stallone and the movie icon that would bring him fame and unstoppable fortune – I managed to shed the majority of the excess to resemble a fit, healthy teenager.

I ran laps around the suburban neighborhood of my younger years like my life depended on it – because in truth, it did.

Supplemented with grueling abdominal work and the release of my teen rage upon a canvas heavy bag, the damage to each and every one of my fat cells was unmistakable.

The fat dude in the school boy uniform, with pale blue shirt and dress grays, was gone. In all, 40 to 50 pounds just melted away. More than likely for good.

And more than 35 years later, I’ve managed to keep the weight off. To be transparent, I’ve had other issues to address – higher than normal blood pressure, ever increasing glucose levels, a self imposed lower back problem (all of these on the mend) – but even with that, the bathroom scales have never been tipped again in favor of a sneaky path to obesity.

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills

The secret to taking off weight and keeping it off is simple, but it’s never easy. This time of year, it’s a focus and a question mark for many. There’s plenty of misinformation, and ideas that may have worked for someone else – but might not be your cup of tea.

I am not writing this post as a health and wellness expert  – but if there is one thing I can lay claim to being expert at, it’s moving through struggles with weight and trying to focus on a better way within this balancing act called life.

There’s a plethora of information out there, especially as January 1 approaches – but the most “back to basics” tips you can use will, in the long run, be the most helpful. Here’s a few of my favorites:

  • Remember that the word “diet” should not be part of your vocabulary – what you’re shooting for is lifestyle change. Albeit one small step at a time.
  • Eat healthy foods that you actually enjoy eating. For me, this includes fruits like apples and bananas, eggs, chicken breast, turkey, and green veggies cooked with garlic and olive oil.
  • Go for natural foods every time, not stuff in a box. Just because the box has words like “lean” and “healthy” on it doesn’t make it so. In other words, be wary of food marketing. Educate yourself.
  • Eat only pastas that end in the letter “i” – just my humorous way of saying it’s not necessary to give up foods you love. Not even close. Just use common sense, smaller portions, and leave the gluttony behind. I still enjoy my pasta – but I eat the portion size now that you might see in an Italian trattoria, not an American restaurant.
  • Exercise. Your first move: push the plate away.
  • And please don’t use the “got no time or money” excuse concerning exercise – you can do it all with 15 minutes of calisthenics, right in your living room, basement, or garage. Everybody’s got time for that.
  • Avoid drive-through windows like the poison center they are. If you must do the drive-through, get the salad.
  • Salads don’t mean boring eating, either. You can add to them with lean proteins, nuts,  and berries to make them filling and tasty. Just limit your intake of fatty dressings.
  • Track your meals for a week. You might be surprised what you put in your body.
  • If you decide to go the route of a stricter eating plan, pick a “cheat day.” Mine is Sunday. On that day, have yourself some pizza and ice cream. Just don’t eat a whole pizza and a gallon of ice cream.
  • Use the stairs. Please. Leave the elevators for the elderly and the handicapped.
  • Exercise. Try walking. You have all the equipment you need. My wife is going with me to the gym, and she started out just walking on a treadmill. Then she started walking fast. Then walking fast up inclines. Then she started lifting. See? Baby steps.
  • Eat sweet potatoes instead of white.
  • By the way, have I mentioned fruits and veggies?
  • Sugar has been just about eliminated from my diet. There are some things I will not give up – I need sugar and cream in my delicious, home brewed coffee. But that’s about it. You can reduce it too.
  • That means limited, or no, soft drinks. Total sugar bombs. You’d be surprised at the caloric content here.
  • Ask yourself: Would a caveman have eaten this? Cavemen ate meat they killed and plants that grew on trees or in the ground. They didn’t have Pringles and Doritos back then.
  • Consume alcohol moderately, or not at all. Red wine is a good choice if you must.
  • Exercise. You should, without question, pay attention to what you put into your mouth. Intense, frequent exercise can cover a multitude of sins if you fall off the wagon of the particular eating plan that you’ve put into place.
  • Having said that, I remember a quote that sticks with me: “90% of the fitness battle is fought – and won – in the kitchen.”
  • I like this one as well – “It’s not what you eat between Christmas Day and New Years. It’s what you eat between New Years and Christmas Day that counts.”

Bonus Tip: Exercise some more. Make it fun! Outside of the gym, I’ve walked, jogged, sprinted with my dog, played touch football with my son and his friend, did jumping jacks, and calisthenics. I jumped rope recently for the first time in years. Wanna sweat? Try jumping rope for 15 or 20 minutes.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. Are you a 2018 “resolutionist?” Would these tips help you? Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

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!

 

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.