Blowing Up The Fallacy Of The “American Dream” – Old School Style

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.

Don't they look happy? My grandparents at our wedding, with my Uncle Mario (standing). Exemplified success without needless luxury.
Don’t they look happy? My grandparents at our wedding, with my Uncle Mario (standing). Exemplified success without needless luxury.

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.

Starbucks_Logo
Give me all your money

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.

Chasing Your Version Of “The American Dream”

American Dream this wayThe American Dream is dead.

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!

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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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.

Growin’ Up – Giving A Stiff Arm To The Face of Life

When you become a new, fresh faced father pacing around the floor in a hospital room, holding your newborn baby in your arms, you have no idea what will happen next.

You have no idea how fast time will pass you by. It feels as if the years have the span of months. It all just happens way too fast.

This has happened to me twice. Twice holding newborns. Twice the feeling of time speeding by, like that rocket ship we all daydreamed about when we were kids.

I watched my daughter run around in our back yard, a little girl. Swinging on her swing set. Now I watch her get behind the wheel of a car, to take a driving lesson, another step into that now brief journey into adult life.

Although sometimes I can feel like a kid, the hard truth is I’m not anymore. Soon my children won’t be kids anymore.

This discovery was made again on the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday. My son and I decided to celebrate the grand tradition of American football that day with a game of “two hand touch” out in the back yard.

Joey had just turned 12, but he’s still my “little guy”, slight of stature. In a wrestling match or a light sabre fight, because of my size, I’m usually the victor of any match physically.

Our game started innocently enough, with some kicks and passes, catches and dropped balls. Just like the real thing. Then he decided he wanted to run for touchdowns. He tried his best on the first few attempts, but with his short strides, I caught him pretty quickly from behind.

On one particular run, I set myself in front of him to stop him once again. No problem, especially since he was running and giggling at the same time.

Then it happened. He stopped giggling (did he put on his mean face?), tucked the ball under his arm, ran full throttle towards me and stiff armed me…his right hand straight into my chin. In a state of shock, I fell flat on my ass as he ran past, scoring a touchdown in our makeshift “end zone”.

I thought I tasted blood, and sure enough, I touched my hand to my mouth and it came away with a small, red streak. After he dumped me to the ground with a text book stiff arm, I came up bleeding!

My son’s a well mannered boy. He apologized to me for making me bleed, and we kept playing a while longer, continuing to have fun. But the results of our playtime speak for themselves.

Growing up cannot be denied, and kids can’t be contained in the backyards of their childhood forever. They break free. Breaking the tackles, stiff arming the obstacles of life, and running for glory.

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