Turning 50 Edition – Just A Number

California Dreamin' - finally
California Dreamin’ – finally

Last week, I turned the big five-oh. 50 years old.

In preparation for this monumental event, I needed to go to my local DMV to renew my driver’s license. The clerk who took care of me asked if I would like to have a new picture taken to go along with my new license.

“Yes”, I said. “There’s a few more gray hairs now than when the last picture was taken.” After all, the cops need to recognize me. “Let’s snap a new one.”

The number of gray hairs will keep multiplying, just as they have been. 50 is just a number, but that shine of youth is disappearing, to be replaced by the shadow of impending old age.  New pictures need to be taken. The familiar cannot become the unrecognizable.

50 is just a number. But it’s a number that draws varied reaction. Some people get excited about it, saying “Hey! 50! Wow, that’s great!” Others will tilt their head and look at you with eyes that convey nothing but pity. Ooof, that’s old. What will you do?

Truth be told, I feel more 15 than I do 50. Experience and energy at this stage could create a deadly combination. Yes, the opponent is still game and moving forward, but at 50 you are just warming up into the later rounds. I’ve heard this is where the fight gets fun.

As I talk to my daughter today about her future, looking at early college courses, heading toward her senior year, I try to say the right things. About always applying. About persistence. About sweeping the rejection off of you like dust from a jacket. About showing everyone the leader you can be.

What I should have said is… get ready to fight.

Put up your dukes.

Get ready to rumble.

Because life is a fight. You will be battered, jostled, and be told that there are things you can’t, or shouldn’t do. There will be those who will want to steal your dream, or step on it. You will need to fight them.

When you’re a teenager, you can be unaware of the opponent. The opponent often has a friendly smile with suggestions of  “you can’t do that” or “forget love, go for the money”. I didn’t hear these subtle suggestions when I was a teen. They were spoken and unspoken, but I didn’t know what they meant. At 50, you know what they mean.

Just A Number

These days, 50 is hardly old. Especially for the depth of my gene pool. Italian, remember? My grandmother ran circles around people decades younger than her while she was in her 80’s. I watched my grandfather, in his 70’s, chase down a bus he had missed. He caught it. There’s never any guarantees, but I think I have a shot at being healthy a while longer.

Old at 50? I don’t think so. Just starting to get interesting. I fulfilled a dream – going to California – not too long ago. Thank you, gracious employer. My daughter just returned from touring multiple cities in Italy, getting to live out my dream of going to Rome (lucky kid). And the year has only just begun.

It’s just a number. It’s not the age of the dog in the scrap, it’s the amount of scrap in the dog. And this geezer still has plenty of scrap left. Life’s been good to me, and I have more blessings than I probably deserve. I have this amazing wife (how I got her initial attention I don’t know), and my kids are the ultimate source of my pride.

God willing, I think I’m just getting started. Yeah, it’s 50. A number. It’s a long way from 1963. It’s a long way from the 70s or my heyday of the 80’s. My fondness for those memories is boundless. But I think I’m going to love 50.

The fight is going into the later rounds. Isn’t that always where the fight gets good?

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A Boy Named Anthony

Dad-Anthony
My Dad and his younger brother Anthony. Early ’50s

I have a recurring dream that tends to wake me up out of a sound sleep. In the dream, I’m riding a bike on 14th Street, the street where I grew up. I’m about 10 or 11 years old, and flying down the road, going like a bat out of hell.

There’s another kid on a bike in front of me, even faster. I can never catch him. He’s about the same age, pedaling furiously, like he’s trying to get away from me. The more specific details of my dream are the color of the sky – a deep, indigo blue, the kind you’d get just before a summer sunset – and the length of the ride.

You see, 14th Street is a side street just a few blocks long. In the dream, our two boy bike race goes on forever. The ride never stops.

Even though I can’t be sure, I’m convinced the boy on that bike is my Uncle Anthony.

I can’t be sure because I never knew him. He passed away when I was a baby, almost 50 years ago. He was only 13. Although I didn’t know him, I felt like I did from listening to all of the stories about him, mostly told to me by my grandmother. From her perspective, he was a loving and kind person, a real “Mama’s Boy.” But for purposes here, a slightly different perspective is required… anthony

(Note: The following recollections are not my words, but from the excellent memory of my cousin – also named Anthony.)

What Was – And What Could Have Been

Big Anthony was as solid as a rock, a good tough fighter. He could run like the wind, and in my opinion, could have been one hell of a halfback.

He was called Big Anthony because he was almost seven months older than me, and to make sure my mother and your grandmother knew who to blame for something when necessary. Thus, the titles Big Anthony and Little Anthony.

Little Anthony and Big Anthony, left to right
Little Anthony and Big Anthony, left to right

The best times we had were when your family lived lived downstairs and we lived upstairs on 14th Street. With all of the cooking going on on both floors, it’s no wonder I was 200 pounds by the 2nd grade.

Your uncle, on the other hand, was not a big eater. And the fact that he loved Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs really pissed off your grandmother. We would go to the ice cream parlor down the street and order two huge banana splits, at fifty cents each. I took your uncle because he could never finish his and I always ate the rest.

We were constantly together when Anthony lived downstairs. We would bang on the pipes to signify that something was needed, or that a meal was ready. We would spend every Christmas Eve together to wait for Santa Claus. We never slept. I can still hear Anthony telling me to shut up and go to sleep.

One year, two weeks before Christmas, we found the presents that your grandmother was hiding. To appease us and keep us quiet, she gave gifts of toy guns and holsters to tide us over until the holiday.

Your uncle had a very hard time in school. It may have been attention deficit disorder in today’s terms, but back then they didn’t know how to handle it. Your grandmother hired college students as tutors, but that didn’t seem to work. He had trouble reading, so I would read to him a lot. I wish now I could have helped him more.

My father was a big boxing fan, and he used to put the (boxing) gloves on me and Anthony, and your uncle always kicked the shit out of me. I told you – he was tough.

Football and basketball were not big sports back then, but we did love baseball. We lived and died with the Yankees. Mickey Mantle was our favorite. Anthony could play ball, too. He could hit, and as I mentioned before, run like the wind.

We would go to the newsstand around the corner to buy our baseball cards. And do I mean buy. We had hundreds. I know for a fact I had five Mickey Mantles and a Roger Maris rookie card.

Lastly, your father had a reel to reel tape recorder that we thought was the top! We used to fool around with it, making jokes. I still have a tape of your uncle singing a song about being in love with a girl named Mary Ann. I never knew who she was, but I remember the song well enough to sing it for you. It’s amazing, I can still hear him sing after 50 years.

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. I still wonder what could have been.

(Thanks to Anthony Prezio for providing these great stories, and wonderful memories.)

The Ride Never Stops

I won’t forget the television images I saw this December of a father who just lost his six year old daughter to a violent end, a senseless tragedy. I couldn’t hear the audio or anything else happening around me. Just the images. The face of pain. I know my Nonna and my grandfather were once those parents, the faces of loss.

It’s hard to know how much grief they experienced. My grandfather was the strong, silent type, capable of hiding emotion. My grandmother would mention my Uncle’s name at the kitchen table, cry for a few minutes, and then fiddle with her coffee cup.

At my uncle’s wake, one of the Roman Catholic nuns that taught him in school told her that  he was an angel of God. That his time on Earth was meant to be short. That made my grandmother angry, and she would always tell that story with a defiant tone. But in her later years, she softened her stance.

Just because she believed in God and angels, and heaven and hell didn’t mean she had to buy the idea that her son was an angel before his time.

After a story like that, the two of us would always sit at the kitchen table in silence. No more words were necessary.

AnthonyIf the subjects of banana splits, Chef Boyardee, or Mickey Mantle ever make an appearance in my life, the first thing I think about and remember is my Uncle. Still here, still being thought of, not fading away with time.

In my dream, the race doesn’t end. On the bikes, still pedaling, sweating. That other kid is so far ahead there’s no reason for me to keep going, really. He takes a moment to peer over his shoulder, look back at me. All I can see are his eyes, and I recognize them from faded photographs. His lean frame on the bike fades into the distance just in time for me to wake up, and stare at the ceiling.

The race goes on and on. Bike tires kicking up dust into an indigo horizon, the summer heat soothing. The forever of 14th Street is my concrete paradise, as I chase a boy named Anthony.

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Tougher Than The Rest

The strong, silent type. Masculine, with a no bullshit attitude at all times, the kind that’s missing in these days. In arenas where men are constantly encouraged to get in touch with their feminine side, there used to be those that would have no part of that conversation.

A guy like John Wayne comes to mind, but I’d rather stick with the men in my family for purposes here.

My grandfather, Sebastian, (picture above) was one of those men. I think of him often, especially now near his birth month of October, and wonder what he would think of the myriad of ways that current events and attitudes unfold now.

I’m going to say he wouldn’t be pleased. He’d do what he used to, derisively uttering “God Bless America” in his sarcastic tone. And then I’d have to laugh.

Like most others of his generation, my grandfather felt he was entitled to nothing more than the opportunity to work multiple jobs to support his family. Factory worker by day, he became a bartender/restaurant worker by night. His customers did a lot of drinking, but he never did.

He simply had too much to do.

The Generation of “Non Complainers”

Sebastian did what he needed, without complaint. If he ever did complain, I never heard it. He was a grinder, working on tasks straight through until they were finished, no matter how long it took.

In partnership with my grandmother, Sebastian was a success as a business owner. When you run a restaurant, it’s like your mistress, and you spend most of your waking hours there. My grandfather had an incredible work ethic, one that he tried to pass down to all of us.

As an immigrant from southern Italy, my “Pops” sure as hell had his obstacles, and also more than his share of sadness. He had a brother, a soldier, killed in World War II, and his son, my uncle, died tragically as a teenager.

To have survived events like that are incredible feats.  I’m amazed by the man even now, years after his death. I rarely saw him display sadness, remorse, or regret. He was one tough cookie. Tougher than the rest.

I owe my grandparents quite a bit. They’ve taught me to focus on what’s important, keep it simple, and have a sense of gratitude for it all. I miss having them here. It seems the longer they have been gone, the more complicated things are. They had a way to set that straight. The path was clearer with them acting as mentors.

Forward, Always Forward

One aspect of following my grandfather around was his constant movement. Always going forward, working, making progress. He could be relentless. I recall mouthing off to my grandmother once when I was a kid. His belt came off his pants at lightning speed, and he chased me outside the house, right on my heels. I couldn’t believe such an older man could be so quick.

My grandfather reminds me of Rocky Marciano. For you youngsters out there, Marciano was a heavyweight boxing champ in the 1950s who retired undefeated. I had relatives that talked about him when I was a kid, and I became fascinated by him later. He was also a success symbol for Depression era Italian Americans, many who were immigrants. Marciano inspired hope to those who were downtrodden, and convinced America’s “streets of gold” were a fallacy.

Marciano never lost a fight because he never stopped moving forward. Even when he was hurt, rarely taking a backward step. Never stopped punching. Kept coming at you. Never relented.

Sebastiano DeGiorgio, throughout his life, was a lot like him. Short and compact, but quick. Relentless and persevering.  And tough. Tougher than the rest.

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The Most Valuable Land on Earth

OakwoodStatueThere’s a concept about the most valuable land on earth being the graveyard: because with all of those people are buried unfulfilled dreams, unwritten novels, music not created, businesses not started, relationships not reconciled.

While difficult to quantify, you can be sure that it’s got a ring of truth. We all know people that are still alive that have all but abandoned any dream they once had. Going through life on their day to day, paying their bills, nothing more, nothing less.

We love the days of the week named Monday and Friday. As sure as the sun rises and sets each day, you can listen to your workmates curse the one day, and thank God for the other.

Why is one day of the week any different than the other? Because people want to escape their boring jobs, and on a grander scale, their monotonous lives.

And some pass away with having done just the chores of birth, school, work, and retirement with nothing else to show for it.

It’s a waste. Don’t we have more potential than that?

A couple of years ago, a good friend at work decided to fulfill a dream to join the military. She chose to face the rigors of boot camp and the chance of deployment to the Middle East than spend her life in a cubicle.

Most thought she was a little insane. The more accurate perception should be brave, smart, and unwilling to settle. Maybe the most sane out of everyone.

The situation reminded me of the Morgan Freeman quote from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption, as follows:

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But, the place you live in is that much more grey.”

To fulfill a dream, no matter how small, should always be a focus of  life, in addition to all those “chores” to be completed to live in the moment and support your family.  We don’t do this because of the bugaboo of fear.

Fear Strikes Out

I break this kind of fear into two categories: the fear of failure, and the fear of rejection.

It’s OK to have these types of fears. Everyone does. But they need to be managed so they don’t stand in the way of your entire existence.

Strangers In A Strange Land

I can’t think of anyone that should have been more fearful than my grandmother, when she and her family emigrated from Sicily to come to this country, looking for opportunity. She:

  • was leaving the only home she ever knew
  • had limited education at that point
  • had a language barrier she struggled to overcome
  • didn’t know anyone in America
  • didn’t have an immediate place to live
  • had to endure processing with arrival here
  • was just a teenager, thrust into a strange land!

How did all those fears wind up affecting her throughout her life? She had her bumps in the road, and very painful experiences in later years, but she and my grandfather certainly lived their version of the American dream. They:

  • Got factory jobs and proved themselves to be quickest, most efficient workers
  • Ran successful businesses in not one, but two, restaurants
  • Built a house and paid cash for it
  • Put the house on an expanse of land that featured fruit trees and large gardens
  • Took a dream trip back to their homeland to visit family
  • Survived very hard times, starting with the Great Depression
  • Were married for over six decades
  • Were mentors and teachers for many (including myself)

Pretty impressive stuff, in my opinion. Fear can be a killer, but my grandparents refused to let it stand in their way.

Burning Clocks

With Wrecking Ball, Bruce Springsteen set out to write a song about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium. He instead came up with an anthem about fighting back hard times and the ultimate decay of our lives.

In the song, the lyrics ring out “When your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down…”

Folks, life is short. The game has nearly been decided. Our clock is burning down. It’s hard to take action on the truly important because of the all of the little things that need to be done. As my cousin once said, “Life gets in the way.”

Make a point to push it out of the way.

Decades from now, none of us will be here. No one will remember, and no one will care whether you lived your life just paying the bills and watching reality television, or if you chased down your own version of the immigrant dream.

Historical greats of the past are now a blip on the radar screen, profiled in only books and memories. Unless you cure cancer or eradicate poverty, you will be too. So what’s stopping you?

Seriously, if my two little, tiny Italian grandparents can come to America and create their own world with all their obstacles, what excuse can the rest of us possibly have?

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I Know It’s Late, We Can Make It If We Run

“I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” – Jon Landau, 1974

Forget about the future of rock and roll. I have seen a man who performs as intensely now as he did in 1974, a true fountain of youth…and its name is Bruce Springsteen.

I’ve written about the undeniable power of music previously (see the article here).  But that post tends to look understated when I think of my long relationship with the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Copyright @ Times Union

Having just experienced my eighth live Springsteen concert, it’s no longer just a musical event or a wait and see if he’s still got it (which, by the way, he does. He’s 62, and has got “it” in spades). To say the man, who’s in his sixties, acts like he’s in his thirties, would be a gross understatement as well.

No, these concert events have turned into trips to see a dear friend. Go over, hang out in the living room, and there he is,  telling you his favorite stories all over again.

Stories I’ve heard for nearly four decades. He’s no longer just a musician, or rock star. He’s a trusted ally, a sounding board, a friend to support in good times and bad.

He was there for me through break ups with teenage girls, and compassionate when I thought myself an outcast in school.  The music was less of a getaway than it was a mechanism to know you were not solely on your own. Someone agreed with you, somebody else got it.

When I lost a good friend to an auto accident at far too young an age, his monumental double album “The River” helped stoke my rage and quell my sadness. It got me through the hardest of times. For that reason alone, I will always be a fan.

Being a fan, like anything, isn’t always easy.

The images within the music may make you want to cringe, to turn away. Bruce’s lyrics are replete with storms, rising flood waters, corporate greed, battered hometowns, and the haunting reference of a September 11th firefighter ascending a smoky stairwell to a certain death he can’t even see.

In live performance, those images are even more focused. But turning away from a force of nature is difficult. What you see is dropped into a tornado of light and sound, monster backbeats pushing you forward through the chaos, as you stand in all your fist pumping glory.

Springsteen’s America can be a brutal, unforgiving place. But after 3 hours of no holds barred non-stop singing, dancing, and sheer fun, you go back to that other place where faith, hope, and glory days and little victories are real again.

The little victories are what sustain you. Bruce played his music for me on my wedding day and when my kids came into the world, careening from speakers at decibel levels to make your pets run and hide. My daughter grew as a toddler, chanting the refrain from “Badlands” from the comfort of her car seat. Glory days, indeed.

I keep going back to that well because I don’t know how many more times I’ll get to see my friend. He’s getting old, I’m getting old(er), and the live tours can be years apart. But at 62, he can still outperform entertainers half his age.

Here’s to the hope the rest of us can hold out as well.  Concerts with Bruce and friends are great nights in my life, shared with my wife, where we get sent home with our ears ringing, sweaty, tired, and inspired again by the “future of rock and roll” present.

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