On a cool summer evening in the late 1930s, my Grandmother stood on a neighborhood sidewalk, talking in Italian to a friend that lived on the same street. In the middle of conversation, the friend noticed a man walking up the sidewalk.
“Here comes your husband”, she said. My Grandmother replied that it couldn’t be him, that she didn’t recognize the silhouetted figure. A stunning moment later, she realized it was him, although she couldn’t see his face. The man she married was covered in soot and grime from a new job at the railroad yard, one of the first he held in his steadfast pursuit of their version of the American Dream.
Coming to America was just the first step at the bottom of the hill. He was relentless in his ascent up the mountain of the dream.
That dream must have looked impossible to a man whose English was rough, and came to the USA with primarily physical skills.
His was the story of thousands of Italians who emigrated to these shores, to the land of hope and dreams for sons and daughters to follow.
Joe DiMaggio turned to baseball because he hated the lingering smell of dead fish that stained his father’s fishing boat. Rocky Marciano ran straight into a boxing ring to avoid the factory life that crippled his father into a shell of his former self.
My Grandfather’s family came from the unforgiving terrain of Southern Italy for just a chance to chase something better.
His relentless nature proved to make a modestly successful immigrant life, and paved the way for the generations after him. We enjoy what we have in part because of the fruits of his labors.
He had to continue to be relentless with sadness and grief as a life companion. He lost a brother in our country’s Great War, a brother fighting for the nation he had just begun to call “home”. Fighting for the freedom we enjoy and take for granted in modern America.
He had to continue to be relentless after the death of a son who was barely a teenager in the early ’60s. His attempted therapy to make his sadness go away was cleaning the floors of the restaurant that would support our family. My cousin’s description of his demeanor was that of “a rock”, steadfast in the face of the worst tragedy.
He was relentless with old age and declining health, still coming to the restaurant although he, at times, had to drag one of his legs across the floor while walking. He never complained of physical pain or ailments. It was hard, maybe impossible, to know if he was feeling under the weather. There were no clues.
I try to make it a common practice that whenever I think I have a “problem”, I think of what my Grandfather had to go through. His courage and relentless nature are traits that are hard to replicate, deemed mostly unnecessary in our cushy and overly convenient society.
We can only admire, and try to scratch the surface of, the relentlessness that was ingrained into the hearts and will of the immigrants that dug through the mud and built the foundation of the Old School as we know it.
Our nation has a happiness fetish…much of economic misery we see today is due to the unbridled pursuit of bigger houses, fancier cars, and more exorbitant trips. The lure of consumer culture and an obsession with more is precisely what keeps so many from contentment – Alexander Green, Beyond Wealth.
In the last post, I spent time imploring my kids to cut their own path. To not mindlessly follow the siren song of excessive consumerism – which is an advanced skill for many Americans. But how, you may say. How do we go without the necessities of life?
Well, you can start with the realization that they’re really not necessities at all. Just part of this overly comfy, cozy world that you’ve grown accustomed to.
I stated that my grandparents’ generation had it far tougher than we do presently, and they “made do”. Our country is far richer and loaded with more opportunity now than in their day. That statement proved to be a lightning rod, prompting one commenter to label my post propaganda and a “total load of crap”.
Here’s the real propaganda: Marketing geniuses are at work 24/7 to separate you from ALL of your money, to convince you that happiness is found with things, and not with people or shared experience.
I will, no doubt, be taken to task for comparing the sophisticated modern American to Depression era immigrants in taste and consumption. That’s the way it goes. I grew up observing these amazing people as happy and satisfied, and not deprived. I figure if they can do it, we can to.
So, kids, if I haven’t lost you yet, put down the iPod, and read along. I have a list for you (it’s the format web readers like the most) that you will enjoy looking at.
Disclaimer: First and foremost, nobody’s perfect. We’re human. I can still be tempted by the latest and greatest, just like everybody else. And I am not deprived by any definition. In my house there is an opulent new (albeit small) kitchen. I like expensive beer/wine, typically spend summer weekends in a boat on a lake, and I’ve grown enamored with the heated leather seats in my wife’s VW. Yes, I’m a little fancy.
With that said, here’s a few things that your average neighbor deems absolutely necessary, but your great grandparents’ generation would see as frivolous and pointless:
1. Oversized House / Oversized Mortgage – This may not be much of an issue, as it seems more and more people are smartening up and realizing they don’t need a 4000 square foot house with 2 fireplaces and a hot tub. And you have the great experience of growing up in 1,200 square feet and being creative with your space. You also spent time growing up in your great grandparents’ house, a modest brick ranch that they built and (gasp!) paid cash for. While it’s not entirely possible to pay cash for a house these days, you can still do yourself a favor by thinking “small house/big down payment”. You’ll thank yourself when you’re sending a tiny payment to the bank each month, instead of taking out a loan to pay down your loan.
2.Luxury Car. Or A Massive Car Payment – My grandparents were immigrants with little education. But they never drove or owned a car, preferring to take public transportation or, believe this, actually WALKING to get to where they had to go. I know, crazy right? But think of the thousands of dollars they saved never paying for gas, insurance, maintenance, or a ridiculous monthly obligation to the bank. Looking smart now, aren’t they?
In this life, massive car payments are NOT a requirement, despite what you’ll hear. At 18, I bought my first car with $1,000 cash, and although I’ve done the payment thing since then, the trick is to keep it small and then keep driving your car without the payment.
And those BMWs and Mercedes that everyone is fooled into thinking are the best cars? Mostly bought on credit by people that can’t afford them. Trust your Dad on this one. The Chevy, Honda or Ford does most of the same things. Cars = transportation (not status). Period. Point A to Point B.
3.Gigantic TV with 10,000 Premium Cable Channels – One of the advantages to owning a small house is the lack of room to squeeze a 92 inch television screen. Which to me, is a good thing. Do I really need any more incentive to sit on my lazy ass?
Again, this is American over consumption at its finest. Kids, its totally unnecessary to own a TV that can crush and kill you if it tips over at an inopportune time. Don’t bother. And that $200 monthly to the cable company for the privilege of watching multiple channels filled with garbage? If you must have cable, at the very least don’t subscribe to 300 channels and become a couch crashing sloth. The “premium” service is a premium rip-off.
4. All The Latest Gadgets – Yup, I know you love your iPods and the laptop (both of which are becoming old-school themselves). But when the iPad 10 comes out and dopes are standing in line at midnight to get one, I know you won’t be one of them, because you will have read this. The new will be obsolete in no time at all. Repeat after me: The latest and greatest is a scam. I can be perfectly happy paying much less money for last year’s model.
There. That felt good, didn’t it?
5. Restaurant Take Out – Here’s another disclaimer: I love restaurants. My grandparents’ owned two, and I grew up and worked in one for decades. I like going to restaurants now. But what I can’t fathom is getting lunch at a restaurant every day. That’s at least a couple thousand dollars out of your pocket at year’s end. Sweet!
At my office, I garnered the nickname “Joey Leftovers”. You probably know why. Because I was bringing my lunch from home. Every. Single. Day. Will I occasionally take a trip to my favorite import store to grab a nice Italian American lunch? Absolutely! However, it’s a treat. Not a daily requirement.
6. Fancy Coffee – This one could fall under restaurant take-out, but I feel it deserves its own category. Again, I like fancy coffee. My grandmother always made it. But she would have keeled over if she ever had to go to Starbucks and pay $7 a cup for it! I highlight this just to show you how ridiculous that price looks. Starbucks has great product. It’s not that good.
You can make great coffee at home for pennies a cup. You don’t need a mortgage to support your caffeine habit. Baristas should be lonely once in a while. Make your coffee at home!!!!
7. Outrageous Vacations – After sending my daughter on a school trip to Italy, I had second thoughts on including this one. However, that trip was a deal (and an opportunity) that could not be passed up. In the age of Facebook, it certainly seems that we are all trying to “one up” each other when it comes to our luxury vacations. That’s where things get dangerous. The keeping up with the Joneses mentality.
Kids, I think you should travel. See as much of the world as you can. And keep going to your favorite beaches long after your parents prefer to stay home in the rocking chair.
But here’s something to think about. Nonna and Pop went back to Italy – once. As far as I know, it may have been their only vacation in 60 years. And I don’t think the lack of vacations really mattered to them. Do travel, but know it is a luxury and a privilege when you do so.
8. Convenience – There are many other facets of luxury that your great grandparents had no or little use for. They worked their asses off, so a gym membership wasn’t required. Nonna used the clothes dryer more as an end table than a dryer (she preferred drying racks). And there was no recreational shopping. Unless it was at the aforementioned import store and she decided to splurge on cheese.
There were a myriad of ways they shunned convenience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Making a practice of that will save you money, keep things simple, and make you happy. Advancements are cool in terms of medicine and technology, but don’t make your life so convenient that you never have to actually move to change a channel or turn off a light.
They did many things the hard way. Once upon a time, that’s what the American dream was all about.
OK, fire away. I know I’ve pushed some buttons here, especially if you’re what I like to call a “new-schooler”. Am I right? Have we become too fancy and accustomed to luxury? Or am I stuck in the Dark Ages, with not the sharpest torch in the shed? Start a conversation in the comments section.
At least, that’s what I’ve heard. You know the culprits – High fuel prices. A “can’t shake it” unemployment percentage. (And in a 2017 update) The impending automation of just about all of our jobs.
The dream is dead.
Do you disagree with that? I sure do. The time is here where you should try to capture your own slice of this attainable Dream, and the easiest way to do it is go old-school.
Are you ready for old-school? It’s the place where luxuries are luxuries (and not “needs”), and that the ultimate goal of convenience is looked at with a jaded eye.
It’s that crazy place where if the word entitlement even crosses your mind, it’s how you feel entitled to this: the opportunity to grab a job (sometimes two) or start a company and then proceed to scratch, claw, and earn everything that you have.
It’s the school where our previous generations roamed, survived, and subsequently kicked some ass.
As a responsible parent of two kids, I feel it is my duty to inform them of the advantages of old-school thinking and philosophy.
I believe I’m a good parent, but self doubt can creep in, leaving me wondering, “Am I doing enough?”
You can think of this post, if you want, as a letter of love and advice to my children. It is. But, I’ve no doubt that 90% of adults, myself included, can be helped by it as well. For me to do my job as a Dad, the American Dream needs to be outlined in a certain manner: the way it used to be.
You see, kids, back when my grandparents (your great grandparents) were around, they were the embodiment of the American Dream. Emigrating from Italy, they got off a crappy boat to walk our shores and make their lives here, in your city. There were mighty struggles back then, but they made a true success story as entrepreneurs, homeowners, and generally fantastic people.
Here’s where things get interesting for me. While modern Americans decry the Dream as dead, with their own struggles to make ends meet, I’m certain your ancestors would have thrived in an environment that we have today. This is the richest country around, with boat loads of opportunity to do well.
Yes, we had a Recession… but it was far from the Great Depression they lived through. And while this country is involved in wars currently, its arguably not the magnitude of World War II. I’m gonna say they had it a little bit tougher.
Nowadays, life is moving pretty quickly. The future is beckoning. Everyone wants to know what you’re going to do with your life. Peer pressure will ebb and flow, and the most well meaning people will tell you what you should do, what you should buy – and what you need to do to get it.
Dad Advice – I know it’s unsolicited, but here it is: Get your own version of the American Dream. Be different. Non-conformist. Don’t follow the herd. See the latest version of the Dream as it really is: a sham, a lie perpetrated to us by marketing execs with PhDs, determined to coerce you to part with all of your money – and lead you into a stressful life.
My grandparents did not have much education, but they had wisdom and common sense, in spades. As far as finances and economics, they were brutally smart on what to leave alone. Kids, I have to admire the fact that as I watch you grow up, you look like you will be treading the same path. You care about the environment like Nonna did (for Pete’s sake, she recycled potato chip bags), and you make purchases thoughtfully like she did. Buying things when she needed to.
You’re on the right track. Without a doubt. You want to hear how Nonna and Pop really blew it up? Most of the stuff that you grew up with, that people will tell you are life’s necessities, are in fact the very definition of luxuries. Nonna and Pop did without most of these luxuries – and wound up happy and successful anyway.
Next post: For the kids, and any adults that care to listen, I’ll detail all the stuff – cool, stupid, or completely unnecessary – that my super smart grandparents avoided on the way to forging their version of the Dream in the country they loved. Until then, feel free to liberally use the sharing buttons below to make your friends aware of this wonderful content!