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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Reason To Believe

In the land of 24/7 media coverage and real time responses from faceless Internet critics, no one would blame you if you questioned every belief you’ve ever had. Prowl on-line long enough, and you can unearth a shadow of a doubt on any subject.

Be it video, text, or photo, there’s always a source for you to question your beliefs.

I have a strong faith that there is a God, an eternal being who created us and watches over us now. This belief was instilled within at a young age, by a family full of immigrants whose Roman Catholic faith was unshakeable.

If I wanted to, I can read articles every day that could make me ponder the question, “What if there is no God?” It may have to do with getting older, being in the second half of your life. Wanting to be sure that there is, in fact, something more that we can look forward to.

I have a strong belief in family. That blood is thicker than water, and that the ties that bind the family are the most powerful you’ll have anywhere. That family comes first.

You can have your doubts here, as well. Friends can become enemies, family become strangers. How well do you really know your loved ones, anyway?

I have a strong belief in country, and I know many will share that view. Whether Democrat or Republican, your main wish should be that our country succeed, no matter what. For the most top of the line belief in country, watch movies like Lone Survivor. Discover the individuals that will go to any lengths for love of country.

There is nothing wrong with questions about God, other people, the environment, conservatism, your country, your government. Questions about truth, lies, sex, videotape, and whether 80s music was as good as it seemed (looking back, I’m having my doubts here).

It’s fair to question your beliefs about any aspect of life happening around you.  Except one.

Your belief in yourself.

Now, I’m not here to tell you that my self belief, or confidence, is unwavering. Just the opposite, in fact. I’ve been the recipient of mega self-doubt, not knowing what to do, where to go or how to think, depending on the situation.

Nowadays, the self doubt usually creeps in the subjects of career, financial, home improvement (you’d understand why if you’ve ever seen me use a power drill). But, there’s a difference between “the now” and even just a few years ago.

If the self doubt does make an appearance, it’s short lived. Lasting hours, or even minutes, rather than days or weeks.

And there’s a reason for that. I know who I am. I know what I stand for. Things can change, my opinions can vary, but the core “me” remains what it always has been. That attitude is the very essence of old-school.

People experience self doubt because they compare themselves to others and, more importantly, they don’t do anything that they really enjoy for work or play.

Do you sarcastically say “Just another day in paradise” when asked “How are you?” Is life joyless, devoid of thinking with the curiosity of a kid, intent instead on collecting “things” that add nothing to your identity?

Think about it. About what you liked to do before age eighteen, before life was ruled by higher education, relationships, unsatisfying jobs, mortgages, kids, responsibilities, and the subsequent questions that may create doubt.

Are you doing them now?

Anything? Why not?

When I was younger, it was easier to be plagued by doubting myself. But I had people that believed in me. Like my grandmother. My godmother. I’ll throw my grandfather in there, although it was hard to tell back then. He was an Italian immigrant who was very selective in using his words. His actions did the talking.

Now, I have distinct reasons to believe. There are two kids who will look to what I do, rather than what I say, for examples of how to live. That’s part of being a parent. At ages of 18 and 14, it’s a critical time, and for me, there is no room for prolonged self doubt. They need to know that when doubt is removed, the world can be your oyster.

My immigrant grandparents and their family could have been the champions of self inflicted doubt. Instead, they brought a fire to their duties, putting together their American story and creating future generations of entrepreneurs, doctors, musicians, recording artists, writers, and keepers of the traditions they developed through their years.

The concept of tradition is sinking into a wasteland of trends and media obliteration and saturation. It’s hard to see what’s real anymore, if you don’t look closely. But what’s real is this – my son will play baseball again, launching rockets into sun drenched skies. This summer, my daughter will walk across a stage to shake with one hand and receive a high school diploma with the other.

Cape CodWhen she’s done, we’ll carry on our tradition of wandering Cape Cod beaches, exploring, collecting rocks and shells, watching the waves crash and swell. Modern world, and its incarnations of belief killing, be damned.

No room for self doubt. There are reasons to believe.

An Epic Life

World War II veteran Dominick DeGiorgio, on the left, with his brother and sister in law: my grandparents
World War II veteran Dominick DeGiorgio, on the left, with his brother and sister in law: my grandparents

 

A photo can tell incredible, complex, wonderful stories.

You are looking at one of my favorites. The man on the left gave everything. His life for his country. He was a soldier who knew great fear in the heat of battle. He wrote letters home, talking of the smell of death. He dreamed of a world where there was no war, no conflict.

The man on the right never had to run from the bullets of enemy attack. He had to make a living in the country that was home, but not his place of origin.

He didn’t die young in a war, like his brother. He lived 92 years, a physically challenging life that would include work, until he no longer could. Until his body said “no more”.

Brothers in arms, in blood, in life. Their images are powerful, majestic. They proved their mettle time and again, building the cornerstone of our family. Their influence is felt every day. Long gone from this earth, but always in the hearts of those that were close.

These are the makings of an epic life.

There is the cornerstone, and there is the mortar. The woman in the middle of the photo is my grandmother. The family may have been built by the men, but it was kept together by the women. The women held the vast influence.

Our generation was shaped, formed, and molded by the women. They taught us our truth, our ethics, our way of life.

My grandmother, and her sisters, represented generations of tradition. As our incessantly frenetic modern lives attempt to strip away any semblance of tradition, values, and common sense, we must fight back in their name.

Fight to keep traditions, values, and a vision of the world as a kind and decent place. Because that’s the environment we grew up in.

I write what I write because of a sense of duty. I can’t let them be forgotten. They can’t fade into the recesses of history, eventually without anyone knowing of their existence.

Legacies left behind should be handled with care.

Working class, immigrant, depression era lives. Lives that were truly epic. You and I would be at a loss to describe their stories.

Epic because of the ashes they rose from.

Epic in the tragedy they endured.

Epic in their relentless nature.

Epic with the love and comfort they created.

No, we don’t know the meaning of the word. Its definition is far different today.

At the time of this writing, it is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my grandmother, the former Rosa Tagliarini. Who took the name DeGiorgio from her love Sebastiano, that handsome devil to the right in the photo. The date of her birth, December 21st, will be like every other day.

Her influence will hover. Her presence will be felt.

To celebrate one hundred, my wife and I will raise our wine glasses in a birthday toast. In remembrance, and thanks.

With gratitude. For the path she helped pave, to our unquestionable abundance, by living her epic life.

To Boston, With Love

BostonI don’t know how many times I put my arm up, but it was approaching a countless number. The air was starting to chill, and I wanted to get myself and my girls back to our hotel. My arm went up again, another attempt to hail a cab that had no intention of pulling over. There wasn’t an empty one in sight.

We were still sweating, from the sing and dance-a-thon that was a two hour Coldplay concert at the Boston Garden: a great show featuring staunch musicianship, pyrotechnics, and stunning visual technology. I was with my wife, daughter, and our cousin from Ohio. We were wiped out and needed the comfort of our hotel room.

“Taxi!”

The concert was a cap to an outstanding day in a visit to my favorite American tourist destination – the city of Boston – and I say that as a diehard New York sports fan (rivalry, anyone?). After walking along the harbor, darting in and out of shops in the electric Quincy Market, my wife and I stopped in a Cantina there to have a drink and chat with the locals. And make no mistake: even when I wear my Yankee hat, the people of Boston are some of the friendliest around.

While my daughter and the cousin roamed the landscape, we enjoyed our time at the bar, and had great conversations with those who were just happy to be in this beautiful place – and we were happy to be with them. We segued from Quincy quickly to a North End restaurant, where we enjoyed a tasty slice of Italian America before heading to the Garden to see my daughter’s favorite band.

After the show, we did finally get back to the hotel. A taxi did stop. Persistence pays off.

It all would have been very impressive if that was the first, or one and only, trip to Boston. But, of course. it wasn’t. My first nerve wracking ride on a jet airliner to take an initial romantic weekend getaway with my wife (then girlfriend), more than 20 years ago, was to Boston.

For the purpose of love and romance, we couldn’t have picked a better town.

Trips to Fenway Park, as a Yankee fan, brought me back here many times. Bus rides taken with good friends, enjoying baseball in possibly the most intimate stadium in America. Most of the games the Yankees won. I’ve heard horror stories from others about the dangers of rooting for New York at Fenway, but have never experienced anything but good will and good natured ribbing from the Fenway faithful. I hope to get back there soon.

This past year, we have witnessed events that bring us to question human integrity and sanity. All of us wonder aloud why a bombing would happen at a marathon, how men can be so sick and indifferent to the lives of others. How they can target locations where children run and play.

I’ve been to Boston. Many times. I love it there, and can’t wait to go back. The city will rebound and come back better than ever because of the qualities of the people that live there. I have made memories with family and friends in the place they call “Beantown” that would be hard to forget. I’m thankful for endless hospitality and wish them god speed in repairing their lives and building on the strengths that showed in those harrowing moments that we have become much too familiar with.

We love you, Boston.

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Thank You For Being A Friend

Although we only knew each other for thirty years, it may as well have been a lifetime.

You were the “wingman”. The nightclubbing partner I needed in our heyday of the 80s.  Chasing skirts late into the night. You had a little bit of a wild child attitude in you, but our Roman Catholic upbringings steered us clear of any real trouble.

How many games did we go to at the old Yankee Stadium? Watching our pinstriped heroes play sport’s finest game, drinking our beers, our seats at the rail to spy the girls in their summer clothes, passing us by.

We haunted each others work places, me making the descent into the college rathskeller, you sitting at the bar of my parents’ restaurant. We had our drinks, smoked our cigarettes, and laughed long and uproariously at our jokes. God knows we weren’t that funny.

When I started dating the girl who would become my wife, not much changed. Still hanging out, three of us together now, in the restaurants, our places, in the smoky nooks of the Tap Room. Home away from home.

When my daughter was born, you were right there at the hospital to see her, just a couple of hours later. It’s a shame you won’t be here to hug her anymore.

On the winter day my son was baptized, you stood at the font as his Godfather, blessing him with holy water as we watched. I’m glad you were able to come to some of his games. I’m sad you won’t ever watch him swing the bat again.

You gave the finest best man toast in wedding history, deserving of the standing ovation you got. Against the backdrop of the story of first meeting my wife, you serenaded us (and a large reception crowd) with a favorite Sinatra song – on key, flawlessly, without hesitation.

When I watch it on video, I just laugh and shake my head, and wonder… how the hell did you pull that off?

How about hitting that replay button one more time? A little more “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”. Or better yet, how about just one more for the road? A toast to you this time, my friend, listening to the ultimate late night Sinatra torch ballad, with drink in hand. Just like we did in the old days.

You know how it goes…

Its quarter to three,
There’s no one in the place ‘cept you and me
So set em up Joe

…We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

Thanks for the memories.

Thank you for being my friend.

Michael Muscatello, 1949-2012