Our “New” Normal Might Look a Lot Like My “Old” Childhood: a Post Lockdown Opinion

Although the exact quote escapes my memory, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni referenced a colleague or friend who said something along the line of “feeling silly about past complaints of waiting in a crowd, for an exorbitant amount of time, for a table at a busy New York City restaurant.”

The reference went on to mention that, in these strange times, what a pleasure it would be to waste your time waiting like that once again.

It’s funny how all of us have taken for granted the mundane moments of perceived inconvenience: a long grocery line, or a crowded restaurant.

Or even worse, taking for granted the good stuff: a hug from a friend or loved one. That meal out, once the wait was over. The anticipatory buzz of the crowd right before a concert or performance.

With a viral pandemic has come a lot less of what we had, but perhaps more of what we need. As the curve flattens, and cases keep declining, the new anticipation and buzz will be looking to the future, how we should navigate it, what some are calling a “new normal.”

To me, that normal could look a lot like the mid 70’s, seguing into the decade of the ’80s: what I perceive to be simpler times, less convoluted lives, and the return to focus on what’s important, rather than the unessential.

A Better Life with Less?

If you’re like me, you’ve been driving less. No commute, and making trips that are only absolutely necessary.

Speaking of trips, there may be less travel overall. Although my wife and I had targeted 2020 for an initial trip to Italy, and canceled a March trip to the west coast of Florida, I wonder aloud: will we stay closer to home now?

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A favorite northbound road trip

Less car travel should mean less traffic. Less road induced stress. Easier trips when taken. Less pollution, with cleaner skies. A renewed appreciation for the road trip, as it’s being taken less frequently .

There should be less brick and mortar recreational shopping. More thought put into what we do buy. Less consumer consumption, and jostling hostility during silly holiday sales.

I know this may be just a crazy dream, but how about a little less political strife? Maybe a little more listening to your fellow human being without judgment and angry rebuttal.

While we’re on the subject of more, what could we expect more of?

Much of it, as far as I can see, looks like a throwback to a well spent youth.

What There Should Be More Of

There should be more gratitude. If virus related death or illness has not yet invaded your inner circle, praise your good fortune. Praise the fact that when your feet touch the floor in the morning, you will have another day.

If prayer is your thing, participate in more of that. It can only help.

When there is a return to normal, if it’s possible, I predict more heart, more affection. As an Italian American, it destroys me to not be able to hug family and close friends. Kiss them on one cheek, or both.

I’m not wired this way, and my guess is you’re not either. I can’t wait for my first rib crushing hug from a friend when it can happen.

There’s going to be more genuine communication. Maybe this is showing my age, but I find myself picking up the phone more to talk, rather than just shooting over a text or a social media update.

In the same vein, more neighborhood socializing is becoming prevalent, as we go outside with any opportunity to leave the house, weather permitting.

We’ve been sitting on a neighbor’s concrete backyard patio recently – properly distanced, imbibing in a drink or two, sharing recent family news or well recalled memories.

If there is a throwback to the old days, this point would be it. In a neighborhood rife with Italian immigrants, the tight knit social network was the end all, be all of their American lives.

On a sunny morning or afternoon (yes, here in the Northeast, they are becoming more frequent!), my wife and I will spend time on our back deck. Thank God for the deck, and the music that accompanies it. Music lovers to begin with, we’re listening much more than we used to, complimenting the isolation situation.

Music is the language of sanity during times of strife and stress. Enjoy more, more, more of it, absolutely guilt free.

More time outside equals more movement: whether you prefer a walk around the neighborhood, running, yoga, or simple play, it’s all good. If music is the language of sanity, movement and exercise is the translation.

There is a trend already burgeoning toward growing more of your own food. As an article at reuters.com recently noted:

People around the world are turning to gardening as a soothing, family friendly hobby that also eases concerns over food security as lockdowns slow the harvesting and distribution of some crops. Fruit and vegetable seed sales are jumping worldwide.

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My son and I in front of my grandmother’s massive vegetable garden – seems like a lifetime ago.

Watering and mowing the area around the numerous fruit trees and vegetable gardens at my grandparents’ house is a cherished memory. If growing food is a trend, well, the Italian immigrants were the original trendsetters. Pears, cherries, corn, peaches, zucchini, tomatoes, beans, basil – back in the day, we had it all.

Apparently, this way of life is making a long overdue comeback.

Where some of us may be looking to grow our own food, the concrete trend we can point to is everyone is now, for better or worse, cooking their own food.

Restaurants, surviving on a pivot to providing optimum curbside take out and delivery service, may finally open soon. But a 25% occupancy may be all that’s allowed at first, to enhance social distancing and safety protocols.

I wonder aloud, yet again: when the openings happen, how many of us will show up?

Do you really want to sit at a table, being approached by a waiter who needs to pull down his N95 mask to say “May I take your order?”

I don’t know about you, but I may be waiting awhile to inhabit my favorite restaurants.

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Pan fried meatballs in our kitchen, just like the old ladies used to make.

We’ll basically keep doing what we’ve always done: cook the majority of our meals ourselves, in our own kitchen.

While no slouches in the kitchen to begin with, we’ve taken our normal cadence of food prep to another level – especially my wife, whose furlough from her job has given her an abundance of time to take it there.

The constant activity in the kitchen is the thing that most reminds me of my childhood: one Sicilian or another would always be in the kitchen cranking out dishes that would provide calories, sustenance, and most importantly, the comfort and connection we craved.

That sense of connection is needed more now, to carry us through uncertainty that we face.

When we’re in the kitchen together, the outside world is banished.

Aromas permeate the house that bring back the cooking sessions of my childhood, where I was just an observer.

They bring back the conversations with my grandmother, memories of great aunts and uncles now gone. The stories told, lessons learned.

It’s relaxing, energizing, comforting. Just the tonic we need to bring us through the pandemic age.

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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. 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.

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.

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.

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Celebrating the Holidays, Old-School Style

xmastree_As Charlie Brown lamented so many years ago, I also wish for a time when the holidays weren’t represented as being crass and overly commercial. I’m not going to say I didn’t open more than my fair share of gifts when I was younger, ’cause you know I did.

But there is a craziness that surrounds the holidays now that didn’t seem to be there when I was a kid. Yes, our family tree had plenty of presents around it. I remember getting the toys I wanted as a boy, and the record albums on my list when I was a teen (“Frampton Comes Alive!“), but it didn’t seem gifts were all that expensive back then.

Nowadays your toys – electronics and gaming systems – can run into several hundred dollars a shot. For one gift. Talk about your financial pressure.

For those of you that would like Christmas suggestions that tend to lean old-school (what, no Lexus or Mercedes tied up with a big red bow?), I offer up the following:

Make the Holiday a No Shopping Zone – Although Black Friday isn’t something I participate in anyway, is it really necessary for those who do to push it up into Thanksgiving? I know it’s old-school thinking, but no one needs to shop on a holiday. Let the retail workers have time with their families. And give the tryptophan pumped bodies of potential shoppers a little more time to recuperate from that second piece of pecan pie.

Don’t Break the Bank – Americans plan to spend an average of $846.00 this year for Christmas gifts, up 14% from the previous year (credit: Experian). I know, I know…what bad economy? For all of the hyperbole of our country sliding into the shitter, our citizens seem to be taking a lot of trips to Wal Mart. I’m hoping to spend less than the average this year myself. I’m thinking most of that $854 per household is getting spent with a sliding credit card. Not good.

Celebrate with Cash – Don’t want to run that insane gauntlet of gift purchases, whether on-line or brick and mortar? Don’t bother. Do what my grandmother did, and give out bank envelopes with cash!

  • Everybody loves cash
  • You save the time you would have spent shopping (win!!)
  • You may save money as well. You know you would have spent more on a gift – slip your loved ones a nice crisp $20 bill instead.

Make Meals a Holiday Centerpiece – This is one aspect of holiday celebrating that isn’t too difficult to pull off. Everybody loves the holiday meal! The Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing are ubiquitous, but Christmas is also a great opportunity to pack on major calories as well! From the Christmas ham with all the trimmings – and by trimmings, I mean trays lined with manicotti and lasagna – to our old fashioned Christmas Eve fishes, the main holiday attraction for many of us remains the food.

Leave the Stress Behind – Holiday stress factors cited in recent research are lack of time (up to 69%), lack of money (up to 69%), and pressure to give or get gifts (up to 51%). Sounds to me like some folks could use reacquainting with the original idea of Christmas – the birth of Christ, remember? – and forget about the materialism for awhile and approach from a different perspective.

On December 26th, all that anxiety about gift giving seems a little silly, doesn’t it?

  • Hug a friend or loved one
  • Listen to Christmas music
  • Decorate the tree together
  • Say a prayer for the troops
  • Go to church
  • And by all means, say “Merry Christmas”!

Look at the title at the top, and take out the key word: Celebrate. You only have so many opportunities to do so.

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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