Fantastic Voyage

As I walked through the sand, hand in hand with my wife, I noticed my feet turning black – like I had stepped through piles of ash after remnants of a roaring wild fire.

The sand itself was unlike those of other Caribbean beaches that I had walked, the color and texture being somewhat strange.

img_0067Looking to my left while walking, rock formations jutted out, in front of the hill side where our hotel resort was perched. The rocks looked blacker than the sand: as I learned later, the result of thousands of years of volcanic ash and lava covering the rocks and forever changing their appearance.

Some of the names are Poas, Irazu, Turrialba, Rincon de la Vieja, and lastly, Arenal – widely known as one of the most beautiful volcano sites on earth.

Costa Rica is much more than volcanoes, though. Its topography includes lakes, mountain ranges, jungle terrain, tranquil bays, and the Pacific Ocean. Luckily for us, five star resorts are plentiful as well.

My wife and I were lucky enough to walk this stunning beach, in its bay encased setting with an appropriately hot sun, through a Diamond Club incentive sponsored by the company that I work for.

I say lucky – but more than a couple of people that would say that luck is secondary to the hard work and dedication that it takes to become a Diamond Club winner.

We’re lucky because the two of us absolutely love to travel, and the company gives us ample opportunity to do it on their dime. We would travel anyway, even without the multiple wins that I have – for example, taking the kids on a family vacation last year to the Dominican Republic that was just as sun drenched and breathtaking.

It wouldn’t be hard to refer to all our trips – whether a pedestrian ride up the Northway to Lake George, summer drive to our favorite ocean setting in Cape Cod, or once in a lifetime flight to the west coast of Mexico – as our “fantastic voyages.”

The label not only gives a nod to my sci-fi movie loving past, but reminds me how lucky (there’s that word again) we are to live the life that we do, mostly when we want to do it. I called it luck as I don’t believe any of what we experience is possible without the fantastic voyage that came before us.

Previous readers of articles here know where I’m coming from. Our trips, no matter how exceptionally amazing and satisfying, can’t compare to the importance of that one trip that my family made to come to America – my grandfather’s side coming from Calabria in Southern Italy, my grandmother’s traveling from a small town in Sicily.

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My grandmother, right, on her wedding day in 1936 with my godmother

While our accommodations were five star with great food, wine, and swimming pools complete with spa appointments, my immigrant family enjoyed no such luxuries. Traveling on cramped ships in steerage class with brutal and abhorrent conditions, they came to this country believing what their fellow countrymen believed: America’s streets were paved with gold.

The truth revealed itself to be less than a fairy tale. Most immigrants, Italian or otherwise, spent their time in cramped housing, fighting poverty, and working only the dangerous or repetitive manual labor jobs they were qualified for – if they weren’t the targets of racism or discrimination that shut them out of honest work.

The luck factor for my family was different than mine – they worked and toiled in factory jobs long and hard enough to realize they had buried within them an entrepreneurial spirit, and developed it into successful restaurants: a legacy that allowed us “kids” to work, setting up our own idea of making it happen here.

Looking back, the rewards and accolades of my working life aren’t remotely possible without the complete, complex concept of la famiglia – the luck I experienced having a family that cared so much, to take the time to mold and set the path for their next generation, and subsequent generations to follow.

For that, and our ability to travel so easily as a result, I couldn’t be more grateful.

Leaving for the airport to look forward to nearly a full day of travel home is a bittersweet experience. We’re eager to walk through our back door once again, to see family and friends – but we’re hopeful to bring back some of the sunshine and warmth with us, that we don’t leave it completely behind.

One of our stops on the flight home was to be in Charlotte, once back in the states. The turnaround, only a half hour to begin with, was threatened with a weather forecast filled with thunderstorms. Our good fortune on this trip included a family connection that works for American Airlines, who offered to help re-book our destination to fly home from Miami to LaGuardia in New York.

Once we boarded, a first class flight attendant glided to our economy seats to deliver two glasses of champagne – in celebration of my mid-50s birthday which would be spent in the air, in terminals, in New York City traffic.

Toasting my birthday with the free bubbly would have been more than appropriate – as would have toasting another international trip, or a family member who dedicated himself to getting us home safe, and on time.

The perfect toast, in my mind, now sounds totally different. A glass raised to the end of another voyage, feeling an ultimate gratitude for that very first fantastic voyage.

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25 Years of Love, Luck, and Faith

What was I going to do? Toss him the keys? Or let him fend for himself?

I had my car keys in my hand – my vehicle, parked in a lot, was free of obstruction. My father wasn’t so lucky. His station wagon was blocked in by another car, probably parked there by an overzealous college student who needed his first – or last – drink of the night.

My friend Bruce, who would share bar tending duties with me on Friday nights in my family’s restaurant, was standing next to me. He waited patiently for the decision that seemed mundane, but in retrospect set my life on a wildly different trajectory.

It was late, after midnight, and it was a long day. But the decision was easy. I exchanged keys with my dad, and he drove away minutes later. With my ride home still blocked in, Bruce and I ventured across the street to a local watering hole, where one of his friends would walk through the door moments later.

IMG_5015His friend was an attractive blond, with grey eyes and cutting an impressive figure in a white shirt, blue jeans, and dark blazer. I was smitten immediately.

Our modern sensibilities give us reasons to not believe in fate, or books of life to be written. Many believe everything is random, and that life follows no pattern or, at times, makes no sense.

Being brought up in an Italian American family with a strong Roman Catholic faith and belief, I was taught that very little is random. There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s all related – no matter the opinions of the masses.

Although meeting my future wife on that April night seemed a random stroke of luck, we look back at other details of our lives and are convinced that a master plan was in place. Higher being? Who knows. I believe, but convincing others of your beliefs these days is dangerous territory.

Before that night, we were forever in the same place, at the same time, without ever meeting. She would be watching the neighbor’s kids (my parent’s next door neighbors) just a backyard away. We would be in attendance at the same rock shows – at the Palace, SPAC, SUNY Ballroom – more than likely just a few rows from each other, but never meeting. She worked in an Albany nightclub that I frequented, but we never crossed paths.

It took a mutual acquaintance to get us together, in a late night dive bar, where people meet for nothing but salacious and intoxicating reasons.

It was the type of beginning as improbable as being in the same area multiple times, but never, ever meeting.

All these years later, I think about that college student parking his/her car. What nerve. What an annoyance. What a godsend. Whether you believe in such things or not.

A week before Christmas, my wife and I raised wine glasses to toast our twenty fifth wedding anniversary. To be sure, it’s recognized universally as achievement of a milestone – but as I’ve written before, it seems we may just be getting started. IMG_4979

A long time to be married in our families is forty, fifty, and even sixty plus years – our 25th is a drop in the bucket, a warm up routine in the game of marriage that we both hope to be playing for many more anniversaries to come.

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Life is Precious, Summer Redux

“Rosina! Rosina! Rosina!”

It’s how one of my most popular posts starts – with a greeting to my Nonna,  from my Aunt Maria, as she barreled her frame through the front door of the house where I spent most of my childhood time.

(Exciting update: The above mentioned post made even more popular recently by being featured on the website for the Italian Sons & Daughters of America )

That’s the way many of my summer mornings began, especially on the weekends. She would always make a point of coming over early, not knowing or intending to disturb the slumber of a growing boy. Not that I should have slept through the sunshine streaming through the windows to begin with.

If the loud greetings or sunlight couldn’t wake me up, there was no doubt that the smell of the pan fried meatballs that were soon to follow would do the job.

Once downstairs from the bedroom, I would stand in the kitchen (in super hero pajamas, no doubt) and dutifully wait until the offering was made to indulge in a before breakfast snack. A great way to start a Saturday.

The decades have passed. But the memories linger. The song remains the same.

There are certain aspects of summer life from my past that I miss more than others. My grandmother and her sisters used to have picnics in the backyard of her house, both well planned and impromptu, under the shade of grape vines and large trees in that expansive yard.

If you’ve been anywhere near an Italian American family, you know that everyone was there – aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, select friends, maybe a familiar straggler from down the street – to eat and celebrate.

The generous inventory of food spilled over plates and serving bowls. Homemade wine flowed. The combination of broken English and regional Italian dialects echoed through the street and the alleyway, as the parties rolled on.picnic

I rarely hear the language anymore. The echoes have fallen silent.

There were reserved moments, as well. My grandfather and I, as a rule during the summer, would sip espresso on the patio, listening to Yankee games on an old transistor radio, propped into the screen of the kitchen window for easy listening.

The evening sunset would fade into night, with us still sitting there.

My grandfather was a quiet guy. Not too many words were exchanged. We just understood the importance of ritual, as it played out. I wish I knew, looking back, how rare and important those moments were.

My wife and I try our best to replicate what we can. If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s the impromptu party or gathering. And the majority of our coffee will be had on our back deck – even at times when the weather might be deemed miserably cold.

Our little way of keeping good things going.IMG_4293

After my grandmother passed away several years ago, we drove down the hill through the old neighborhood, on the way to her church services. We were stopped at a red light just across the street from the old brick two family where my grandparents once lived, where my father was a teenager.

As we sat at the traffic light, the Italian language version of the song Volare pumped through the car speakers. I turned to my wife, just as she was forming an expression on her face that said – “Are you kidding me??”

If you’re unfamiliar with the nuance of commercial radio, la versione italiana is not the popular rendition of that song. Not even close. English speaking Dean Martin had a hit record that was more preferred for the airwaves.

I believed then, and believe today, that it was Nonna’s little way of saying:

“Yes, I’m gone. But don’t you forget about me.”

“Life is precious” was one of her many sayings, and perhaps her most common. As if trying to impart the wisdom that each second that passed was one you were never getting back, and that the clock of your life kept ticking.

She would often group that one saying with nuggets like “It’s later than you think” and “Life is a-worth living.” She had a subtle way of keeping her theme consistent.

I would like to think I take her words to heart on a daily basis. Our time here, this one ticket that we have punched, is indeed limited and precious. So much of it gets wasted on what I’ve heard called “the 99% that doesn’t matter.”

What does matter is included in a small circle. Family, friends, and the labor and activities that make you feel alive.

Although dipping my toe into the ocean of tradition has been kind of my thing, there is always room for more: more impromptu gatherings with family and friends, more additional star lit nights on the deck with a coffee.

As Nonna said, life is precious. If I do my best to remember, maybe I won’t waste another minute.

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22 Post Holiday Weight Loss Resolution Tips From a Former Fat Kid To Do Now

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, complimented 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 his first taste of fame – 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 (cue the Rocky theme), 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.

This post is not the product of 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, which seems to reach critical mass the first couple of months of every year – 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 (I like olive oil, sea salt, and lemon).
  • 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 (my favorite) 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 (he’s 16 now – he can’t sprint anymore), 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 5 or 10 minutes.

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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 wouldn’t 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. Without 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, 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, and how traditions can make your life infinitely better.

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