Cruel Summer, With A Life Lesson To Take To The Bank

When I was a boy, the summers seemed to stretch for miles, go on forever. I would look for salamanders, play hours of basketball, and walk over country roads to see my friends. I would jam out to Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Heart in my basement, and tackle lawn chores at my Nonna’s modest brick ranch, to be rewarded with a plate of macaroni with extra grated cheese. Summer was a boy’s best friend.

The summers of mid-life move faster. They slow down only for wakes and funerals, to pay our respects to the departed, some taken from us too soon. This has happened several times this summer, making a lump in the throat as frequent as a daily coffee.

Lest you think I’ve had nothing but a summer of discontent this year, let me correct you. Funerals notwithstanding, my family has done and seen a lot in the past couple of months. Here’s a sampling:

  • A trip to our favorite vacation spot, the beaches of Cape Cod
  • Two trips to baseball games at Yankee Stadium in New York
  • A live concert from Coldplay at the TD Garden in Boston
  • Before the show, a meal at a great Italian restaurant in the city’s North End
  • For me and my friends, a fun weekend in the woods of the Adirondacks
  • Multiple drives to our summer home away from home, Lake George

I had heard “Boy, you guys get around” more than once. I have to agree. If we didn’t have what was equal to a summer bucket list, we had plans made well in advance to enjoy every minute of the season that we could.

As soon as it’s here, it’s gone.

Life travels at the speed of sound. If there is a lesson for you here, it’s this: know how important and fleeting your time is. In our house, babies once crawled and toddlers walked the earth. Now, one baby has taken to the highway, tackling the rigors of the road. I no longer read her a story and tuck her in at night. She is a high school junior.

The little boy has had a growth spurt and a power surge. Months ago, I could field his grounders and catch his line drives with ease. No more. With his swings of the bat, Dad has to avoid rockets and laser beams that have potential to inflict great damage and deep bruises.

The only thing keeping the balls in the yard now is the black chestnut tree that stops their progress. This yard can’t hold him anymore. His day is coming.

With the car radio awash in the sounds of the 70s, it’s easy to drift back to when summers were slow and fruitful. Under those same unbelievably blue skies, the little girl is breaking out and heading to the highway. The boy is crashing fences and taking names.

It’s a cruel summer with a decidedly sweet aftertaste.

Let me know how your summer was in the comment section below. Start a conversation!

Photo credit of Cape Cod marsh to Gabrielle DeGiorgio.You can get free updates to content at this site by subscribing by email or feed reader. Feel free to share via Twitter and/or Facebook.

6 Nuggets Of Financial Wisdom From The Old School

My grandfather, young and handsome!

My grandparents could not take advantage of much education when they came to America as they had to go to work at a young age. But in many respects, my grandparents managed to acquire more financial intelligence than most of us, including me and you.

Makes little sense, right? How can someone’s grandparents possibly be smarter than they are? The older generation did not have access to all that we do. This is the information age. We have Google and Bing to search at the speed of light, and Twitter and Facebook to share any piece of information that we have in real time.

Most of us would also have an edge in education, as well. My grandparents never attended college. They went to work as soon as they possibly could, to aid in the support of their family. So, naturally, our intelligence must be more advanced too, right?

Look at me now, typing away, publishing my words on-line and competently stringing a few sentences together. You might say this talent makes me a little smarter than, say, my grandmother.

We may be able to gather information more quickly, that’s a given. More intelligent? The jury’s out on that one. As far as being common sense smart, the previous generations might have it all over us. I’d like to offer some of their “money handling” examples:

They spent their money wisely – Yeah, at times my grandfather would splurge on a lottery ticket (or two). And yes, my Nonna liked to buy a surplus of imported cheese that was fifteen dollars a pound. But most times, they were not crazy with their money. They went to stores infrequently, shopped sales when they did go, and they didn’t have any expensive hobbies like golf, boating, or weekends in Las Vegas. Things were pretty simple. And when your needs are simple, you tend to not spend money.

They saved the same way – Since there wasn’t a lot of spending going on, they saved a lot of money. As they worked hard and built their business, they were also able to build a house in 1969 without taking on a mortgage (that one still amazes me). They purchased another restaurant after operating their first one for several years. You’re able to do that by saving- not dropping all your cash.

Their house was not an investment – Very simply, they bought their house to live in. Period. They weren’t concerned about the house’s market value, if they could tap it for equity, or if they could retire if it was sold. They lived there. It was their home – not a piece of an investment portfolio.

Meals were prepared at home – There were very few trips to restaurants when my gram and her sisters were around and cooking at full throttle. Dinners out were special occasion only. For them, the term “take out” meant taking out the garbage. These girls made some of the greatest lunches and dinners to ever hit a table. It never occurred to them;

“Gee, why cook? Let’s go out for dinner tonight!” or “Honey, I’m tired from my day doing piece work at the factory…can we go out?”

Ridiculous. They knew they would never get a meal of the same quality at a restaurant as one they cooked themselves at home. I feel the same way.

They brewed their own coffee – Especially in my grandmother’s house, the coffee pot was ritual. Granted, in my grandparents’ prime, the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks of the world were not at all prevelant. But if they were around today, I’m sure they would probably think “Really?? People like paying seven dollars for a cup of coffee?” Myself, I’m not here to bash Starbucks. I love their coffee, and every six months or so, I’ll treat myself to one. But every day, like some people? Not me. That’ll really put a hole in your wallet.

And last but not least…

They were happy with what they had – Keeping up with everybody else was not in their playbook.  They didn’t give a shit about what the neighbors had. If there was ever any envy or jealousy, it was about who had a bigger fig tree or had the best spread on the Sunday dinner table. My grandmother’s one extravagance was a fur coat, and she wore it out. She wore the same dresses, and my grandfather wore the same flannel shirts, forever. And they were perfectly happy. They weren’t concerned with clothes, jewelry, fine wine, or exotic vacations. The only concern was whether or not you had enough to eat.

What say you? Should we adopt some of the financial principles of yesterday? Or should we continue guzzling Starbucks and lusting after BMWs while the economy falls further into the outhouse? Agree or disagree, comments please!

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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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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