On Pandemic Fatigue, and the Power of Ritual

On Palm Sunday morning, I did what I’ve done most Sundays during the past year: sat in front of a television, watching a Roman Catholic mass, drinking coffee. The pandemic, having shut down churches previously, now allowed for limited seating if you wanted to attend in person, but I hadn’t taken the leap yet.

I wondered whether my attempt at community contribution (protecting others from an improbable but possible COVID infection) had turned into inaction, based in fear.

Others, some much older than myself, had no problem with live attendance. I still sat in my living room.

Not a good look at all for someone that likes to preach “go for it!”

Pandemic weariness, for me, had reached its peak. With cases in New York, especially upstate, on a steady decline I decided enough was enough. On Easter Sunday, I would make the short drive downtown and set foot in St. Anthony’s Church for the first time in over a year.

Media has beat the drum ad nauseum on pandemic fatigue, and its effect on you psychologically. My fatigue was slightly different. I told my wife early last year I had no problem going into “monk mode” for six months, if necessary. We adapted well to enjoying just spending time with each other with very limited outside interaction.

Much had changed in the past year: my wife was no longer working, I transitioned to working from home, and worked in an office space that I now shared with my son. College campuses were off limits, and Zoom became his lifeline.

Although new rituals were born after March 2020 to preserve sanity for many of us (running outdoors was my lifeline), we were able to maintain some of the ones we loved most.

No, there was no live music. No trips to baseball stadiums. No trips, or travel, period (and in early 2020, we had our bags packed before canceling).

It was a “back to basics” scenario, no question. But having being brought up the way I was, with frequent reminders to enjoy life as it came, I was taught to embrace the simple pleasures.

Although I’m “American made” in the purest sense, my roots run deep in Sicily, and southern Italy. The simple things, the fundamentals, stay with me always and were strengthened during the past year.

Faith, tradition, food & wine, community, gratitude: not necessarily in that order.

Related reading: 8 Happiness Rules (That You Can Use) From My Italian Grandmother

We thought we had nailed the gratitude thing long before COVID-19. But the realization set in that we had new things to be happy about. No more commutes or compressed schedules, more time together.

Our coffee ritual just got better with the increased time. The grinding of the beans, scooping of the grounds into the espresso pot (no Keurig here, kids), the anticipation of the boiling sound, preceded by that steamy hiss. To be poured out, cup with cream and cinnamon, and enjoyed on the back deck even in slightly frigid early spring temperatures.

Yes, I’m very grateful for coffee.

As you might expect, we cooked at home more than ever before. Although I perceive myself as some kind of meatball wizard (nod to the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” here), my wife is the true kitchen maven in this house, seemingly becoming more creative with each passing week.

As before, she is the true glue that holds this family together.

The majority of our meals came from our kitchen. Small businesses, especially restaurants, suffered mightily during this craziness and are just starting now to mount a furious comeback (labor shortage not withstanding). We hope we did enough to support some of our local small businesses even if we couldn’t, or chose not to, sit in their dining rooms.

Related reading: A Former Bartender’s Ask of You

With the three of us in our household choosing to vaccinate, we have sat in those dining rooms recently. Our experiences from these dedicated food service workers were nothing less than extraordinary. Attendance at Easter mass led to more of the same, leading to small dinner parties, to reuniting with my cousins at my favorite coffee hangout on the Sundays after mass.

I hadn’t seen some of them in over a year. I was thankful to have another opportunity.

In the end, I had the feeling we made a narrow escape: coming out the other side with health, life, and the important things within fairly intact. This life is brief, however, so I want more, of course.

I look forward to a concert hall guitar solo, the swelling roar of a baseball stadium, or crossing the Atlantic on a jet plane when those opportunities happen.

It’s the same for all of us: this life ain’t no dress rehearsal.

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My “Resolution” – Same As It Ever Was

Cape Cod: October 2020

Calm waves ripple against the sandy shores of Chapin Beach. I’m sitting on a patio chair on a second story deck, staring out into the Atlantic. With coffee in hand, I shield myself from the early autumn chill by zipping up my trusty Adidas windbreaker. The rest of my dress signals a refusal to let go of summer’s promise: running shorts and bare feet.

It’s a favorite pastime for me: looking out into the ocean’s horizon, watching birds dive bomb the waves, scanning that horizon for boats in the distance. My wife stirs in the kitchen of the beach front house where we’re staying, prepping a breakfast of a protein smoothie or pastry, depending on the mood.

It’s been said that listening to the ocean waves, along with the smell of the sea air, is a great tool for getting your head on straight, bringing you back to center when life may have thrown you off course. It’s a prescription I like to take a regular dose of, without fail.

After breakfast, we’ll take a 30 minute walk along the beach, barefoot in the sand, completing another perfect morning ritual.

A Year Like No Other

This pandemic has throttled most people’s lives into a tailspin, and although there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel, it’s looking like we still have a few months to try to get through unscathed further. If you haven’t fallen ill because of the virus, chances are you’ve been impacted either financially or psychologically, or both.

There have been numerous bright spots. We’ve witnessed a great resolve and resilience from front line workers helping to solve this puzzle. On a personal level I’ve been able to fulfill a goal to work remotely, ditch my commute, and spend additional time with family.

With that last factor, I noted this: the more time I spent with my wife, the deeper into 2020 we got, I felt more confident that days would be better on the other side. Although she doesn’t always see herself in this light, her strength and ability to continue to keep us connected in isolation was a candle burning into the darkness of an unpalatable year.

Strong women have helped shape my life for a long time. She took the baton from the women in my family, notably my godmother and my grandmother, among others. Their influence was similar: in times of strife, their strength was displayed in subtle ways, such as nurturing in the kitchen, providing security, and peppering conversations with hints on how you used adverse situations to become a better person.

Life is precious” and “it’s later than you think” weren’t phrases just tossed around casually: words like that were my grandmother’s mission statement, tinged with life experience of many times of strife, adversity, loss.

The Sicilian immigrant factor is the reason why my one “resolution” at year’s beginning remains the same, and may always: to uphold the traditions of the family that I grew up with, and create new ones with the family I have now. To get better at them, pay homage to them more frequently, little by little.

Get Your Reps In

Throughout the year, my wife exemplified this. With every social connection, every meal prepared, every creative project to make our house an inviting home, we kept long standing tradition in mind, while planting the seeds of new ones to come.

Minestrone, our perfect example of “cucina povera” that my wife has mastered over hundreds of reps

To keep tradition from extinction, whether it be the ritual of forming and frying meatballs, leading your family in a dinner time prayer, or making the best damn coffee (words of a friend) your social group will ever sip; practice, and repetition, makes perfect.

As with anything in life, extending traditions, as well as creating new ones, requires “getting your reps in.” The way my Sicilians and southern Italians did, every day, without fail.

In his book Living With a SEAL, author Jesse Itzler recalled Navy SEAL and extreme endurance athlete David Goggins being asked by acquaintances about a resolution for the upcoming new year. Goggins statement was simple:

“I’m going to do the same shit I’ve always been doing. I’m just going to do it better.”

I couldn’t think of a better resolution myself. Happy New Year, friends.

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A Former Bartender’s Ask of You

Without the restaurant business, I’m not sure exactly how my life may have turned out.

My family’s restaurant helped shape my work ethic, starting at a young age, and instilled the concept of a labor of love. When I graduated high school, I graduated to the big time and left behind the dishrack for tending bar (“mahogany ridge,” as my father in law would call it) and front of the house management.

It was a sweet gig, and I was proud to do it. With all due respect to the sales jobs that have provided my living for the last couple of decades, restaurant involvement was the most fulfilling, maddening, hysterically fun line of work I could have ever found.

Life Gets Transformed

Without the restaurant, I’m not sure if my relationships with my grandmother and grandfather would have been as deep as they were. I got the chance to work with them every day there, drive them home (neither had a license), and assist them perform the minutiae of a service life. Nonna loved the fact that I would peel and devein shrimp, without complaint.

Without it, I wouldn’t have met my wife. Although we had several opportunities to meet previously, I captured lightning in a bottle one night when I left the restaurant a little too late, and went home a little too late.

Without that restaurant, do I meet my best friend, who was a food service guy himself? We formed a strong bond that lasted three decades, until his passing several years ago. I’m not sure if we even cross paths without the serendipity of late night haunts and a shared love for all things Sinatra.

Having been a restaurant mainstay for as long as I was, I hold tremendous respect for the individuals that operate them, staff them, and keep them afloat; and that was my pre-pandemic opinion.

I once wrote, when I was trying to climb out of debt, that restaurant meals were a luxury that bordered on the frivolous and unnecessary – even though restaurants were a part of me for so many years.

I have since changed my tune; these meals can be a welcome social distraction, and here in the grips of 2020, a contribution to your community at large. When it’s financially feasible, do it.

Please support your local eateries as much as you can.

A Different World

Ideally for us, the way we’ve done this is to order takeout, also planning to show future support with the purchase of gift cards. My wife and I are like many others; only having been on the inside of a restaurant a handful of times since early March, and defaulting to curbside takeout the majority of the time.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, however. Take it from this former bartender; show some class and respect and do it the right way.

Tip accordingly and generously – before the pandemic my wife was also a hospitality worker, front of the house in a Greek diner. She was always astounded at the number of people who couldn’t calculate a gratuity, which is basically simple math.

Folks, that’s what that calculator on your iPhone is for; to help you through such difficult challenges. Adding 20% to a check should be well within everyone’s wheelhouse, calculator or no. So, just do it – at least that much, or greater if you really appreciated the service, and want to lend an even bigger helping hand.

Be polite – I had high hopes for humankind the last several months, since we’re all pretty much in the same outlandish bubble of a boat; that we would be kinder, less confrontational, and do our part(s) to help each other out.

Alas, we’ve been privy to stories that, in some cases, restaurant customers are more ornery and demanding than ever – even as restaurants scramble to pivot to another normal in their now topsy turvy world. Friends, hospitality workers have it hard enough. They, and we as a whole, don’t need the scattershot, mean spirited takes reflecting the American entitlement mentality that so many display.

Be nice, be polite, follow the state mandated rules. Keep your table clean if dining in, or pick up your package, say thank you, and get the hell out. Be human.

Praise quickly, criticize slowly – a couple of our favorite places make chicken wings so good they make you want to cry. In the case of the take out orders, we couldn’t wait to call, and offer our praise.

When we’ve sat in a restaurant before, we loved seeking out the chef to relay how fantastic our meal was. It’s my opinion they probably don’t hear this enough. The same goes for if you receive stellar service from the waitstaff. Let them know how good they are.

On the other hand, if your vegetables were a tad undercooked, or your toast “not dark enough” (this is an inside joke I share with my wife, with a backstory you wouldn’t believe if I told you), please don’t run home and bad mouth the establishment on social media; or, worse yet, yelp yourself into a ten page online diatribe about how the salmon sucked and you’ll never darken their door again.

If that’s what you’re doing, you need to reflect on your own life.

Remember we’re all going through our own struggles, and that second chances are at times the right thing to do.

Do your part to protect – please spare me the nonsense about rights being violated and freedoms being taken away; restaurant staff, if they’re fortunate, come into contact with dozens, even hundreds, of individuals every day. Additional assists to jeopardize their health and well being are not required.

Distance as necessary, wear a mask, and make these people feel as comfortable as possible that you are in their place of business, acting like a mature adult and responsible citizen. Don’t add another challenge to an already incomprehensible list.

Display patience – restaurant staff are there to serve, but they are not your servants. When busy or overwhelmed, waitstaff may take an extra five minutes to get to your table. The kitchen can get backed up to the point where dishes may not appear as quickly as you’re accustomed to. Freshly prepared food or cocktails are, at their best, an art form that take time to create.

Experience working in a restaurant setting, which I had for so long, makes you acutely aware of the complication and time sensitivity of just about every task. If you don’t have such experience, just remember this; we’re all human, with the same flaws. We all now have the same short attention spans, for better or worse. But, our community partners that specialize in service will do their best to help you navigate the hazards and hiccups of pandemic era dining, all with a smile and warm greeting.

Reason enough to show all the support that you can.

1980’s image – my Dad, behind the bar we worked together in the family business. Good times.

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Up With the Birds: Nature Appreciation, and My Growing Sicilian Tendencies

When I was a younger man, things were pretty straightforward, without much confusion.

You were expected to act a certain way. Dress a certain way. Treat your elders with respect. Show up to the dinner table most nights, but especially on Sunday afternoon. That was a non negotiable.

Once I turned 12, it was time to stop slacking and help out in the family business, albeit on a very part time basis. Household chores were a necessity as well, whether in my parents’ house, or the modest brick ranch where my grandparents’ lived.

When my cousin Anthony got too busy with life to mow my grandparents’ half acre of land with the smallish 20″ cut push mower, and trimming hedges that covered the entire fence line, he handed the reigns to me.

I always wondered why he would perspire so much, in the summer heat, doing that job. It didn’t take me long to find out.

Between navigating tree trunks, pushing up inclines, and squeezing through shrubs with their sharp, pointed branches, being my grandparents’ personal landscaper turned out to be an intense job, manual labor that I couldn’t outsource to other relatives even if I tried (and I did try).

When the chore was done, mower and trimmer put away, t-shirt wrung out from two plus hours of sweat accumulation, I was hoping to go into the house to an offer of a couple of gallons of cold water.

The refrain remained the same: “How about a nice, hot cup of coffee?”

Nonna Rosina’s Wild Kingdom

That yard, with its plentiful gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees was the source of some confusion during my teenage years.

I had never seen animals quite like the ones in that yard. Birds were bloated, squirrels had the shape of Sherman tanks, and chipmunks ran wild in numbers that I had never quite seen on my own property.

Nonna, who always indulged in recycling before it became cool, didn’t waste a morsel of food. If it wasn’t eaten at the family table, it made its way to the patio or the grass, for the birds and animals to enjoy.

Obviously, this wasn’t regular bird food. If there was leftover spaghetti, that went out. Snack food that didn’t get eaten? Out the door.

When she was done making her 20 pounds of homemade bread crumbs with whatever stale bread she had lying around the house, she was more than happy to spread the scraps around for the squirrels hiding in the bushes, waiting for the latest bounty to drop.

The only thing that wasn’t offered was the obligatory cup of coffee. These animals probably had a no caffeine rule for their diet.

Any confusion ended there. My grandmother willingly put them on the high carb plan, probably admonishing them for being “too skinny” and “not eating enough.” Like all good Sicilian grandmothers do.

Nowhere to Be But Home

Since we were all encouraged to spend the majority of time at home these last few months, venturing elsewhere only when necessary, the three of us (including my son) took advantage of nicer early season weather, with a lot of that time spent on our back deck.

My wife planted her usual number of herbs and flowers, with some pots added later. We noticed, during morning coffee sessions on the deck, the birds and animals in the yard seemed more prevalent.

Maybe it was just the fact that I was no longer commuting to an office and developed more of an appreciation, but the yard seemed more alive than ever.

The bird species we observed each day were plentiful: cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, cedar waxwings, finches of different colors, robins, orioles, doves, and a coopers hawk or two that used our property for his personal hunting ground.

And, of course, we had squirrels take over the land in large numbers.

My wife had always tossed out bread and other items for the birds to enjoy if we weren’t going to use it. Now, as I began spending more time than ever on our deck, I started doing the same: lining small pieces of bread along the wooden rails, then flinging some to the ground below, waiting for the bird buffet line to form.

Just like any good Italian grandmother.

It didn’t stop there, however. When we did have a couple of guests this summer on our deck, or a nice socially distanced dinner party, I found myself defaulting to the same type of service standards that Nonna made obligatory:

“Want some coffee?”

“A little more on that plate? I’m going in the kitchen…”

You’re finished?? We still have some left on the stove!”

You might think I (or my wife, for that matter) do it just for the guests. That wouldn’t be the case. Whenever I offer coffee, or espouse my love for what we just put on a guest’s plate, or compliment them on their eating prowess, I’m staying true to my genetic code. In a small way, keeping a flame of tradition still flickering; even if it is getting more difficult to do these days.

The guests are the recipients, but there’s no mistake I’m doing strictly for myself.

My grandmother gave, nurtured, and cherished her closest relationships with symbols of unerring hospitality. As I grow older (but not old; let’s get that straight right now!), those symbols that I recognize as part of my bloodline are my obligation to move forward.

Fine feathered photos by Gabrielle DeGiorgio

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Taking Your Seat at the Table

As I pore over the 130 plus blog posts here, I noticed a bit of a trend: the table is a recurring theme, albeit as a metaphor for my life.

It started with tables at my grandparents’ house, eating sandwiches at one great aunt’s table in my elementary school days, and having yet another provide spectacularly simple lunches as I grew older.

Even when there was no food (a rare occurrence), there was always the ubiquitous cup of brewed coffee. A mainstay, and requirement if you were to be seated at my grandmother’s kitchen table for any length of time.

It was a trend, for sure: wherever I went, I was always provided a seat at the table.

In what seems a lifetime ago, my great aunt Nicolina, and her husband Aldo, always invited me as a Saturday afternoon dinner guest in their home. Seated next to my older cousins, and their children, it was always a treat to be invited to what was sure to be an extended period of great food and lively conversation.

Being a teenager, and then in my 20s, these scenes are now distant memories. But I take time to reflect on them often.

Crafting My Seat at the Table of Life

As that teenager, I can say I was a lot like the modern teens of today: at times filled with anxiety and angst, interrupted by periods of thinking I was headed in the right direction.

My relatives did their best to mold me into the man that could easily take a seat at any table, if he wanted to.

I learned many life lessons from my cousins Nancy and Mike at those Saturday dinner tables. They married young, and stayed married for life. They are one of the models on which my own marriage is built.

Mike’s father, Aldo, was an imposing figure, a well spoken Italian immigrant whose military like tendencies made him one of the sharpest individuals I’ve ever met. He provided lessons on how to speak, carry yourself, and dress like a gentleman: going so far as to bring me back expensive Italian dress shirts from his trips overseas.

My great aunt, Aldo’s wife, is well chronicled throughout this site: she was pure class, taught me manners (especially how a man should treat and respect a woman), and showed me the way to enjoying a good life, no matter how simple and basic the means.

Along with my grandmother, on those Saturdays I was the only person not named “Carucci” at that table. I was always made to feel like a special guest of honor, although I was family. In that amazing dining room, I knew I would always have a seat there, for as long as I wanted.

Withstanding the Storms

Fast forward to 2020, especially the last few months, many of us feel like we not only don’t have a chair: but the table, like a rug beneath it, has been pulled out from under us.

Millions of Americans, and people from around the world, feel the same way: my wife and I included. Between health, financial concerns, and fractured relationships, this year – which held much promise at the outset – feels like a Mike Tyson uppercut striking with laser accuracy at the point of our collective chins.

If you’re out there, and you’re frustrated, anxiety ridden, and more unsure of your future than ever before: you’ve got a friend here. I feel you. Like our former heavyweight champ, 2020 is a barrage that won’t stop coming.

But, if I know you – if we are friends, or blood – I also know this: your foundation is strong. Like my own foundation, built with care at dining room and kitchen tables with individuals that now inhabit my fondest memories, yours has resilience and character. The ability to withstand a storm, and punch back.

Decades ago, in an eerily silent Japanese stadium, a relatively unknown fighter withstood the fury of Tyson, absorbing blows raining from everywhere, wearing him down and waiting for his chance to win.

We can retake our seats at the nation’s table with the same approach: withstand the blows as best you can. Reshape your mental framework into one that believes in a brighter tomorrow, outside forces be damned.

Take the focus off of yourself, if possible, and help others who may be struggling even more mightily.

Talk to someone. Laugh with someone. Cook for somebody. Write an 800 word article to show that you care. 😉

Take your seat, because as a child of God, it is rightfully yours.

As my cherished relatives conveyed to a young man so many years ago: that seat will always be there for the taking.

Dedicated to Nancy Carucci (1955-2020)