Live a Great Life – Old School Style

Not so long ago, my wife and I would take the short trip to my Aunt Nicolina’s house to visit with her, and have an absolutely fantastic mid-day lunch. My Aunt, one of a wonderful group of old Sicilians, was a genius in the kitchen.

I’ve mentioned before that the kitchen in the two family house where she lived was small, probably the size of a walk in closet in your neighbor’s McMansion – with several appliances that were just as diminutive.

No matter the size of the kitchen she was working in, she always seemed to prepare a mouth watering dish – an omelette made with fresh eggs and a side salad, or a stuffed meat loaf with Italian ham and oozing provolone, or perhaps a simple soup or pasta dish, topped with sauce that had been on the stove for hours.

The dishes would usually be accompanied by tumbler glasses full of a dry, red wine.

When we would talk about the food in front of us, and the wife and I would compliment her on it, my Aunt would always refer to everything as “Italian style.”

In other conversations, whether we would talk of food, wine, clothing, vacations, or even just one’s attitude, she’d always bring up that one phrase, as if it mattered to enhance the point of what she was saying.

Now, years later, I hear her phrasing of “Italian style” to mean one thing – having the ability to enjoy the simple life, living as you please, surrounded by friends and family.

Aunt Nicky said “Italian style.” Now, my ears ring with the phrase “old school.”

She was teaching lessons that she knew needed to be reinforced. And I do my best to never forget.

It was my good fortune to have my aunt, and grandparents, show me on a daily basis that your time on this earth does not have to seem complicated or confusing. You can make things easier on yourself, and in the process, make life easier for others.

They knew how to do things right. Little did I know, they were training me bit by bit to do things exactly the same way.

Number one, food that was simple food was the way to go. These girls knew the importance of a mostly vegetarian diet before it ever became popular. Complete vegetarians? Not really.

They loved a nice slab of beef as much as any carnivore, and made more meatballs than anyone I’ll ever know. But, more times than not spinach, escarole, broccoli, and green beans were staples of the stove top.

They ate healthy (most of the time), and made sure their family ate healthy to boot.

Secondly, they were humble, and their days were centered around hard work, and timeless values when it came to family. There was no excessive self absorbed behavior in their world, and they knew that the cohesiveness of the family was a team effort. The team wins, you win.

Isn’t that the way it should be? Although this is an attitude that seems to be in short supply these days, my wife and I worked, scrimped, and sacrificed material indulgences, doing what it took to focus on the one task – doing the work to keep our team together and thrive.

The family came first, well ahead of self interest.

To provide for family and keep focused on the work, I think my Aunt meant “Italian style” to be an emphasis on the basic and uncomplicated. To know what to take, and know what to leave alone. To maybe dabble in luxury, but not make it a daily requirement.

If they dabbled in it, I have to admit these days I embarrass myself with excessive forays into luxury. This year, my family took the regular summer vacation on the beach at Cape Cod, where I upgraded once again to a fancy, and totally unnecessary, ocean front room.

After spending many of the remaining summer weekends on the lake boating in the blazing sunshine, in September we took yet another trip to the Cape that was even more ridiculous – we rented a house just steps from what looks like a Northeast version of the Caribbean (see below).

Cape Cod

But, when necessary, I can slap myself back to reality by remembering Nicky and Rosina and their fabulously spartan, old school lifestyles. They would not think much of the level of luxury above, scoffing at the deemed “necessities” of modern America.

iPhone? Scoff.

Starbucks? Double scoff. They made their own coffee.

Take out lunches? Let’s be serious, folks. These ladies were demons in the kitchen. They were always capable of ASSEMBLING A SANDWICH.

Have I partaken of this type of ridiculous consumption myself? Absolutely! The difference is I know you can forego any of these things/activities without losing one ounce of happiness or satisfaction with life. And I know that from old school reminders ingrained and entrenched, by smart people from long ago.

That type of attitude is what you might call freedom. Freedom from current, “new school” thinking – the key to living your great life.

Advertisements

Five Years Gone

The lights from the wing flashed bright in a steady rhythm. As my eyes opened and closed slowly, they were almost hypnotic. I may have fallen asleep if not for the loud noises in my ears, courtesy of an old, scratched iPod Nano – the playlist including Iron Maiden, Joan Jett, James Taylor, and my daughter’s favorite Coldplay songs. The music pulsed in time with the lights, and the jet began to descend.

I was coming home.

NonnaAs the plane turned to ready for touchdown, the calendar date stayed with me. It wasn’t just the end of another business trip, but also the fifth anniversary of the day my grandmother passed away. It’s as easy to remember the day of someone’s death as easily as their birth, in terms of importance. Earlier, I had been grateful to be flying above the clouds, and able to view a setting sun on the horizon. Her attitude of gratitude had been passed down, to be made good use of by the family she left behind.

As time passes, you might think you’d start to forget, or to begin to experience a more limited influence from a person who was here for so many years, but has now been gone for some time. From my experience, I can tell you that the opposite is true. There were many lessons, most basic and easily executed, on the meaning of your life and how to best live it. And apparently there was enough time to ensure they were fully entrenched.

Her mottos were life is precious and don’t worry, be happy. As with the mottos, the life and the work that inspired them were simple, unpretentious. She loved to cook more than anything. She would listen to the Yankees on radio or television. Her yard was a sanctuary, where she could look at rose bushes or tend to fruit trees and grape vines. Coffee, perked in a steel stove top pot, was a mainstay. And unlike her high flying grandson, I don’t believe she ever set foot on an airplane.

She never had to go on a “business trip.” Her business was to make sure everyone was well fed, whether family, friends, or customers. I talk and write about the Old School. She, and her husband, were the models that inspire the words.

As the plane touched down, I had the same feeling I always have. I was happy the flight was safe and uneventful, and I’d be driving my car from the airport parking garage to go home to my family. No matter what this modern life promises towards my “fulfillment” (dream house? luxury car? iPhone 6?), I know that true fulfillment lies sleeping behind the doors of an old house, just a few miles away.

That’s why, five years later, there is no forgetting. The influence, instead of being limited, is wide spread. No matter how much I look forward to the future, the old school is everywhere. Every day is influenced by what I’ve learned from that great generation. Echoes of Yankee broadcasts continue to fill summer nights. The coffee is still perked. The yard remains a sanctuary. Even with five years gone.

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.

 

A Craving For More Tradition, Sunday Style

Take an informal poll of people that you know, and ask them what their favorite day of the week is, the answer would almost always be Friday. The start of the weekend, you get to abandon your unfulfilling job for at least two days, and the opportunity is there to hang with your friends.

In an Italian American household, however, you may be surprised to hear a different answer. Our favorite day of the week is rarely Friday. The chosen day for many families around the country is Sunday.

These days, my Sunday routine revolves around going to an early Mass at St. Anthony’s Church with my Dad, and then making a quick trip to my cousin’s apartment to attend what we commonly refer to as “The Breakfast Bunch”.

Weekly attendance includes mainly cousins from my Grandmother’s side of the family, and it’s an informal gathering where we’ll have toast, coffee, baked goods, and shoot the breeze. Sometimes there will be an egg casserole or two.

It’s one of the best parts of my week not only because of the social aspect, but also for the memories it triggers of days gone by – of the fantastic Sundays of my youth.

The Flames of Tradition

My Godmother passed away a couple of years ago, and my Nonna has been gone for four years this January. As they were both in deteriorating health the last few years of their lives, it’s been a struggle to keep the flames of Sunday dinner traditions burning.

Centerpiece of the day - Sunday Sauce
Centerpiece of the day – Sunday Sauce

I still make a pot of Sunday Sauce at least every couple of weeks, and I’ll have a dinner with my wife and kids featuring the same food I had as a child. It’s just minus the massive crowds, and the jostling around the 14th Street dining room table that we used to gather around.

When I was young, I was at my Grandparent’s house for the entire weekend. Sunday was the fantastic finish. I would be there long before the aunts, uncles, and cousins showed up. Not only would I get a sneak peek at what was going to be served, I might also get a freshly pan fried meatball, or a piece of Italian bread dunked into the tomato sauce that was simmering all day.

More or less, it was the same menu every Sunday with a twist here and there. If it was Easter Sunday – well, that was the day the gigantic pan of homemade lasagna was broken out. If manicotti was made at my family’s restaurant that week (and didn’t sell out), that may have spilled into Sunday as well.

Regardless of what was featured on the table, it was always delicious, and there was always plenty to go around. My little Sicilians were expert cooks, and their Sunday Sauce was second to none.

The preparation of dinner was a process as well. Timing needed to be considered, as we usually sat at table in the early afternoon. Prepping was done as early as the day before, and Nonna would be in the kitchen for hours on Sunday.

Sunday’s Menu of Decadence

There’s a right way to do Sunday, and each menu item has the proper order in which it’s served. My grandparents’ end of the week dinners were always old-school, but just for kicks we like to take things to a modern level on certain Sundays.

Both ways are eminently enjoyable, and you can be as formal or informal as you like. But as far as the old-school way is concerned, there was nothing better. In my house, we’re pretty good cooks – but those Sundays from twenty or even thirty years ago provide a boatload of cherished memories.

Want to try it yourself? Here’s the balanced approach, whether you like it modern or old-school style:

Appetizers

Old School: Appetizers? Really? With the tonnage of food that hit the table for dinner when I was a kid, appetizers were not required. We would have more than enough, believe me. But I was always an expert at sneaking the aforementioned meatball before dinner, so that could count as an app. Score.

Modern Take: We can get really fancy here – we’ve done calamari, stuffed mushrooms, clams casino, mussels in broth. I’ll stop right there. Getting hungry just typing it. No pun intended, but the world is your oyster when it comes to appetizers.

Pasta

Old School: In my world, the pasta course is ubiquitous. My Grandmother’s choice was almost always a spaghetti or ziti, dressed with a tomato sauce that had been cooking for hours. Special occasions brought out the 10,000 calorie baked pasta dishes. Unbelievable.

Modern Take: We’ll still take it old school style here, but we often change the shape – ravioli, rigatoni, tagliatelle, among others. The sauces can change, too, although the Sunday variety is still my favorite. Oil and garlic, bolognese, and a variety of light cream sauces are new traditions that have hit our table.

Meat

Meatballs on my stove - like Nonna used to make
Meatballs on my stove – like Nonna used to make

Old School: In those days, the meat was meatballs front and center, and sausage or braciole. That’s it. And in the end, that’s all we needed.

Modern Take: We’re not doing quail or Cornish game hen here (that’s really fancy), but in my house we like chicken cutlets, braised short ribs, and my wife loves to roast a whole chicken on any given Sunday. Osso Bucco is something on my radar to try soon, as well.

Salad

Old School: The salad was always eaten last at the table on 14th Street, used as a palate cleanser. It was iceberg lettuce, dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Very simple, and although it may not sound good to you, I thought it was excellent.

Modern Take: Like the apps, you can go many different ways here, and we have – Caesar salad, salads with walnuts and cranberries, avocado, with chick peas and beans, with balsamic glaze and other fancy dressings. And we rarely use iceberg for anything – it’s romaine, spinach, or mixed greens. Again, unnecessarily fancy. But so very good.

Desserts and Beverages

Old School: With the calorie meter obliterated already, dessert was still on the way, but here’s where the Sicilians threw their twist in and decided now we should eat healthy – by giving us nuts and fruit. My Grandmother would roast chestnuts or crack walnuts, and my Grandfather would peel and eat multiple pears, his favorite. I also remember Italian cookies, and the ladies were fond of sponge cake. Drinks included water, soda, and a simple red table wine. Espresso at the end.

Modern Take: I’m already thinking about grabbing tiramisu from the local bakery for the next Sunday dinner. My wife will bake cakes and make other desserts (we call one of our favorites “chocolate crack” for its addictive qualities), and her mother is a great pie maker. Drinks have run the gamut- mixed cocktails, sparkling water, red wine, white, craft beers. Very fancy.

Find Your Way Back

As my Grandmother’s age crept into her 90’s, she couldn’t host the big dinners anymore, on Sunday or any other night. I took over the meatball making chores for her on Saturdays, and on the following Sundays a smaller group of our family would show up for a little brunch.

Nothing too over the top. Scrambled eggs, some meatballs with sauce, Italian bread. Strong, stove brewed coffee. Sponge cake. Seated in the kitchen instead of the vast dining room table.

Those Sundays were special, too. My kids grew up around that kitchen table, having their first servings of spaghetti in their high chairs, in the house on the street that I grew up on.

Those days are sorely missed. And with our “Breakfast Bunch” gatherings now, we try to recreate that special feeling of family ties that were their strongest, so many years ago.

When Sunday was, without question, the favorite day of the week.

What’s your story? Have a favorite day? Or tradition that you’d like to share? Leave your comment below.

Old School Takes A Hit: Look Who Has A Smartphone

The view from my New York City hotel room - taken with my new iPhone
The view from my New York City hotel room – taken with my new iPhone

It’s finally happened. I have been dragged kicking and screaming into a new era. I have done what I once said I would never do.

I have joined the majority of the world, and upgraded to a smart phone for the first time.

And although I love the technology, the old schooler in me has taken a hit.

I have brought something into my life that has the potential to complicate it, provide unnecessary convenience, and make things a little too easy. Definitely not the old school way. But I love great tools that I know I’ll use. And right now I’m excited about this one.

Why? Benefit number one recently: I’m traveling, alone in a New York City hotel room. Despite the insanely comfortable bed, I can’t sleep. It’s 4AM. And I’m writing this post – on my iPhone. Talk about a game changer.

I can write from anywhere, at anytime. If there’s a post idea floating around in my head, I can put it down right then and there. I now have the technology. And it, to me, is crazy.

I also need it for business. In the past, I missed important emails from prospects and customers because I couldn’t get them on the fly. A smartphone changes all that.

I have softened from all of my bluster from before. I do appreciate the fact that I can now listen to any music, watch any video, and search any site of my choosing. With this, I have to be careful not to be one of the many mobile phone addicts and abusers that I see around me.

The number of times that a preoccupied screen watcher (or scroller) has almost walked right into me are starting to add up. The number of drivers on the opposite side of the road, all looking down at their phones? It’s scary to me. These days, defensive driving is a requirement.

As you might guess, buying this phone was stepping way out of my comfort zone. Regular readers will know that I’m firmly stuck in the old school, trying to keep things simple and inexpensive. Treading the path that my grandparents paved.

I will give you my word. I promise not to be “obnoxious cell phone guy”. You know that guy.

I will give you my undivided attention when I am with you. I will always keep the ability to put the phone down, and stay in the real world. The smart phone will not become a substitute for the relationship.

The old school has taken a hit. I have joined yet another club where the comfortable and overly convenient reside. I get more “modern” with each passing day.

Old school has a new tool. And I can use it to spread the message even further.

How about it? Are you a smart phone addict? Or is it just another useful part of your life? Let us know in the comment section below.