Forget About Perfectionism. Pursue Excellence Instead.

For many years, I would walk into my Nonna’s kitchen and be greeted by the aroma of what I thought was the perfect tomato sauce.

In most Italian American households, the ritual of the “Sunday Sauce” was a standard way to celebrate the weekend. But in my family, tomato sauce wasn’t just relegated to Sunday. It could show up any day of the week.

My grandmother’s sauce was so good because of the painstaking work that went into it. When in season, she would clean, cook, and jar bushels and bushels of ripe Roma tomatoes from a local farmer. Those tomatoes would be the base of her sauce.

She would make enough for a year’s supply. The work that went into was so physically grueling that most family members that she called on for help would not be able to keep up with her.

Now that she’s been gone for awhile, and that fabulous sauce is no more, I’ve been trying my hand in the kitchen with my sauce pot, trying to recreate that magic. And you know what? Trying to be as good as my Nonna in the kitchen is a concept met with failure.

Failure because I’ve been chasing that perfect tomato sauce from my youth, but it just won’t happen. Because there is no perfect. There is only good, or great (Photo: a recent pot of my creation).

The perfect is the enemy of the good

While chasing perfection, I’ve learned that excellence is attainable with some work, a little practice, and experimentation. My first foray into the art of sauce making, as I remember, wasn’t very good. A little bland, too much acidity, not at all like the flavor I was trying to duplicate.

But I kept trying. Taking different approaches. Instead of just cooking with olive oil, using a little butter as well. Peperoncino added to salt and black pepper. Then maybe some red wine in the next pot. A little sugar. With pork as a base, and without pork.

You probably get the drift. I was trying to find my sweet spot.

The key is the tomato. While I haven’t tackled my Nonna’s work of turning farm fresh tomatoes into shelves of goodness filled jars in my cellar, I use the best tomatoes I can find. I’ve tried many brands along the road to find what I like, and the San Marzano tomato is superior to all others. The Cento brand is the best.

Yes, they are twice the price of your standard canned tomato, but that’s OK. This is one area where I refuse to skimp. And it’s worth it. While I can’t duplicate the aroma and taste of the sauce that used to simmer on my Nonna’s stove, I come damn close.

Note to my kids

Life is a lot like my tomato sauce . It will never be perfect. The more you search for perfection, the less likely you are to find it. This will make you unhappy. There will always be something bigger, better, faster, more expensive, and maybe…tastier…than what you have.

This doesn’t matter. Don’t even pay it attention. Forget about being perfect.

  • Try to be really good, even excellent, in what you like to do.
  • Give it your best shot. Keep trying.
  • If your “sauce” isn’t good the first time – try it again.
  • Don’t quit.
  • Keep “cooking”…with just your effort, that sauce eventually becomes tasty.
  • Life is good with small, everyday things that you love…like tomato sauce.
  • Nonna always said “Life is precious”. Take that to heart. Don’t waste it chasing “perfect”.

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Some Guys Have All The Luck

Some guys have all the luck.

Aside from this being a song title for a very good Rod Stewart remake in the musically potent 80’s (1984 to be exact), the above is a well worn phrase that some people are just luckier than others.

You may have been told that many things have nothing to do with luck. You make your luck with hard work and preparation.

You may think when I speak of luck, I’ll write about good fortune in the relationship I have with my wife, or taking the enjoyable journey of watching my kids grow to be adults. In that respect, few people are as lucky as me.

Just about two weeks ago, I was turning 49 as I was coming home in a plane, touching down on ground that had been dusted with the real first snow of the winter. I had been traveling on business for four days, and couldn’t wait to see my wife and kids.

No, the luck I speak of is a little different. For 47 of my now 49 years, I had the great fortune of having not one, but two mentors to guide me through my life. My grandmother, Rose, (with me in the photo below) and my godmother, my aunt Nicolina, were those strong forces.

Although my aunt passed away last year, and my grandmother’s been gone since 2010, their influence will not be going away any time soon.

They always told me to “eat my vegetables“, “waste not want not“, and my favorite “sit down, have a cup of coffee“. But, influence was more than their words. Their influence was action, and the obvious priorities in life.

The great football coach Vince Lombardi had a quote, a mantra that has stuck with me for a long time. In relation to his players, he believed that:

“There are three things important to every man in this locker room. His God, his family, and the Green Bay Packers. In that order.”

I’m not a Packers fan, but I’ve long been a Lombardi fan. His view on the priority pecking order is spot on. Focus on your God, your family, and your life’s work will make for a more successful, stress free you.

My grandmother and godmother were the poster children for this way of thinking. They had a great zeal toward their faith, a world centered around family, and the work that supported that family.

My opinion? This is not just another pretty Lombardi quote (although there are many). It should be a way of life.

We live in an age that is a constant bombardment of communication. What that translates to is consistent distraction. It becomes easy to feel restless. Impatient. You can take your eyes off what’s most important.

I’m no different. I can be a victim of social media (and other) distractions as easily as the next person. An advantage that I do have to bring me back to earth is the example of the life lessons of two Sicilians that I grew up alongside.

Lombardi would think they got it right. Their time spent here was old school principle in its simplest form, pure in concept and execution. And I observed it from both of them for 47 years.

You know what they say. Some guys have all the luck.

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Your Life Is A Great Story. Are You Telling It?

If there is one thing that the march of time does for you, it has an ability to enhance  your observational skills. When I was younger, I saw ordinary people for what I thought they were: very ordinary.

Now that I’m…ahem…older, I see individuals around me as anything but ordinary. I wrote about it in a post about my grandparents, about how extraordinary they were. But there’s so much more to see.

As I see it, everyone has a story.

For the bulk of my life, I didn’t think I was anything special. A regular guy (average Joe, if you will) that grew up, went to school, got a job, met a girl, got married, blah blah blah. Just like everyone else.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

However, that opinion is untrue. Mine looks like an ordinary life, but there’s a story behind everything. You have them too. How are you telling them? As The Who’s Roger Daltrey once famously shrieked, “Can you see the real me, can you?”

When I was growing up, I lived in a neighborhood that was all about community, culture, and traditions. The kind of world that barely exists anymore. There’s a story behind that.

I was a fat kid that didn’t want to be fat anymore, and I made a decision,  after being inspired by a movie, to take control of my life and lose that weight and never gain it back. There’s a story behind that.

I went to middle and high school at a military academy, and struggled to fit in. There was conflict and rebellion, and it ended when I made it out and graduated. Another story.

Instead of getting a college degree, I decided to go to work in the family business. At the time, I thought it the only way to build on a relationship with my Dad. I was a bartender in his restaurant for nearly twenty years. There’s many stories behind that. 🙂

The working hours there were long, and at times went into the wee hours. If they didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have met my future wife one of those nights, while she was out having fun with friends. There’s a great story there.

If we didn’t get married and have our two wonderful kids, I probably wouldn’t have made the move to change careers, which was another struggle. I left my comfort zone behind to make sure I had enough time to spend with my family…and have no regrets.

The two loves of our lives, looking over the Queen of American Lakes.

Notice a pattern?? There’s a story behind that.

You have stories too. Just about everyone I know has a great story. Whether they believe it or not. They can be amazing, they can be tragic. Most of them fall in between. But “in between” is still worth telling. You live a bigger life than you know.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was under the impression that all of the family that surrounded me were ordinary. That’s just plain crazy thinking. They had some of the best stories of them all. They had memories of living through the Great Depression, of the family farm, of surviving Allied bombing raids in Italy, and relatives that fought in the World War.

Many of those life reflections were shared with me around a kitchen table, told in the simplest of terms. I am grateful to have heard them when the opportunity was there.

Don’t miss your opportunity to share yours. Remember, there’s a story behind that.

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Not Your Average Heroes

As I wrote in this post, we have the bad habit of heaping praise and admiration on celebrity and athletic figures that are far from deserving of it.

But in reality, true heroes don’t have roles in movies, throw footballs, or star in television shows. They are all around you, doing everyday things, having their small but important impact.

When I think of true heroes, my mind always comes back to my grandparents. My grandfather, and my grandmother, the woman everyone called “Nonna”.  One of the inspirations for this blog, the very definition of what I perceive to be “old school” values.

They left their homes in Italy, coming to America for opportunity, for a better life. The trip to this country was far from easy. I imagine when they were arriving at Ellis Island, they weren’t treated very well. Beginning a life in America was just as hard.

They were here to experience the Great Depression, a time in the USA that made our current economic recession pale by comparison. Hard times looking at a bleak future. They made it through.

They worked physically demanding jobs in blue collar factories that were once the backbone of American industry. Proud of the work that made their living and fed their children.

They built businesses in the restaurant industry, putting in thousands of hours to make them successful, while supporting a family. The care that was put into the food and service for the restaurants was my grandmother’s stamp of excellence. No one roasted a better turkey or made a better bowl of pasta e fagioli.

They survived the worst family tragedy, having to bury a son, my uncle Anthony, when he was just a boy. I can’t even imagine the level of pain and emptiness they felt. Somehow, they made it through. Years later, Nonna would shed tears talking about him, then be smiling again just a few minutes later. Courageous.

They made a vow in 1936 and stayed together for over six decades. Through the good times and the bad, they never wavered in their commitment to each other. They had a better shot at being married for 72 years than 72 days. Take note, modern reality show wackos.

Later in their lives, they both had a variety of health issues, but very little stopped them. They never really “retired”. Just kept working until their bodies would no longer allow them to.

They rarely complained, if at all, and didn’t think they were entitled to anything they didn’t work for. They thought that people who would rely on the government for support were “misinformed”, and the only place that they would ever “occupy” would be their house, after coming home from another hard day’s work.

Heroes. How do you define them? Are they movie actors? Sport stars? Or do they have a little more…substance? I know my definition. There are no trophies or ceremonies, and the best of them may look like nothing special in day to day existence.

But they have more influence than they know. The world is a better place because they were here.

What Do You Believe In?

My eleven year old son lost a tooth the other night in what has been a succession of lost teeth over the last few weeks. The only difference with this one is the tooth fairy forgot to  slip some money under his pillow in exchange for the tooth (damn short term memory).

This led to a discussion with Mom about, well, how Mom and Dad actually are the tooth fairy. Over the initial shock, he seemed to take it pretty well. Since his reaction was less than explosive, my wife took it a step further… to include Santa and the Easter Bunny.

At first, I couldn’t believe she was doing it. I think both my son and daughter are growing up too fast as it is, and I wasn’t sure if telling him that Santa and his reindeer are fiction was the greatest idea.

I thought, in the past,  maybe my writing partner Gabrielle would spill the beans to her brother about Santa and his holiday crew (she has an affinity for the Great Pumpkin). Impressively, she kept it tightly under wrap.

Turns out he suspected it, anyway. Although Suzie and I have always made a big fuss about leaving cookies and milk for Santa and seeing hoof prints from the reindeer in the snow, the little boy spied gifts from Santa he unwrapped on Christmas Day in the back of a mini van in a department store bag.

I know they’re growing up. I know the concept of “being realistic” is setting in.

I knew they weren’t going to believe forever.

Tooth fairy or not…there’s some things Dad thinks they have to believe:

I want them to believe in themselves. Without self confidence, the world can be a hard place. Even if they don’t feel confident, I’d like to see them fake it. Until they are. With a good dose of confidence, their opportunities will open right up.

I want them to believe that they will always have something to offer the world. Because they do. I’ve already posted of my daughter’s budding talents in art, writing, and photography. My son already has a martial arts black belt, and is honing his skill in baseball. They have the ability now to help and inspire others if they want to.

I want them to believe that no matter how many times they get knocked down, they can always get back up. Dad can tell them a little about rejection. I work with it every day. The sting of rejection goes away the more you deal with it.  If you’re not meeting some resistance, you’re not doing anything of consequence.

I want them to believe there are no shortcuts. The very best way to win, do a task, fulfill a dream, achieve a goal is desire: to want it just a little bit more than the next guy (or girl) and give maximum effort to do it.

It’s a very simple solution that their great grandparents could have taught them. Just outwork everybody else.

I want them to believe, no matter what, Mom and Dad will always have their back. Enough said here. My wife and I could not imagine loving anyone more. We’ve got your back.

I want them to believe that no matter how old they get, living the dream is always possible. Even if they get caught up in the cycle of education, getting a job, paying the bills, wrestling with the mortgage, and wondering if a retirement is even possible… they can always believe in something more, no matter what “it” is.

Even if you’re in your forties and you still wonder what you may be when you finally grow up…you’ve still got time.

That’s my case. What do you believe in?