Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Think You Have It Tough?

Our idea of "want" has changed over the years. Some people today feel deprived when they can't afford that third plasma TV, but it wasn't always that way. The ancestors, on whose shoulders we stand had it a lot tougher. For so many of them, "want" meant something to eat, or a coat to keep them warm. Those who lived through the Great Depression knew hardships most of us can only imagine. It would have been easy for them to just throw in the towel, after all, there were few jobs to be had, and unlike today the government wasn't giving away free money as fast as they could print it. They didn't quit though, instead they tightened their belts and found a way to get by. Here are a few "Now vs. Then" comparisons to illustrate:

We get impatient when our automated central heating or air conditioning systems don't make the house comfortable fast enough. My grandfather Pasquale got up before work every morning at 3:00 AM and walked along the Long Island Railroad tracks in Brooklyn picking up coal that had fallen off the railroad cars hauling it to the freight yards. He burned what coal he was able to gather in the coal stove to heat their cold-water flat on Dean Street. Grandpa worked as a steamfitter, a laborer laying sewer pipes, and finally for the old Brooklyn Union Gas Company before using the family's meager savings to invest in his own business, a hat shop and shoeshine parlor. Not only did Pasquale make a good living for himself, but created jobs for 5 or 6 people during the worst depression this country had ever seen.

For some modern women, their $50,000 kitchen is the least used room in the house. My grandmother Caterina , in between sewing linings in coats, baked bread and pasta, bottled tomato sauce, made and preserved sausage, made her own root beer and sarsaparilla, and even home brewed beer. She was not only a talented seamstress, but also had a keen knowledge of electrical, plumbing and carpentry repairs, and could handle a paint brush better than most. Every day she made a hot lunch and carried it to my grandfather's shop on Rockaway Avenue where they ate their mid-day meal. During her "relaxation" time, she did crocheting and embroidery.

We board ships to take lavish cruises with endless meals and extravagant entertainment. If we hit a bit of rough water we are downing Dramamines and complaining to anyone who will listen. My wife's grandmother Gelsomina was also a ship's passenger when, as a girl of around 14, she was sent to America by her parents to work as a domestic for a family in Brooklyn. Sadly, her people in Italy could not support her, and so, huddled in the rough accommodations in steerage class, she made the lonely journey to a foreign land where she knew not a soul. She later married, gave birth to eleven children, and became one of that amazing generation of immigrants who helped make America great.

Gelsomina's husband Vincenzo also came to America from Italy, and worked as a ship's cook for the Merchant Marine before saving enough money to open his own candy store on Hicks Street in Brooklyn. Vincenzo did a little bootlegging during Prohibition, and like many Brooklyn candy store owners, took a few "numbers" bets on the side. As an older man, Vincenzo walked his granddaughter (my wife) to school, and she remembers him asking her to pick up discarded bus transfers from the street so that he could enjoy a free ride downtown to pick up his groceries.

I think a lot about how hard it must have been for my grandparents' generation to survive the Great Depression. I also think about their courage and resourcefulness... how, despite the lack of even basic necessities, they managed to provide for their families and helped pull the country out of its tailspin. They didn't look for a bailout or handouts, but rather pulled themselves up by their bootstraps got things done. Their motto preceeded the Nike commercial by about 80 years: "Just Do It." I didn't want this blog to be about gloom and doom but rather a tribute to the amazing men and women whose indomitable spirit lives on in us. If only a small part of their strength survives in us, I think we'll be OK.


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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Reason for the Season

Seems like Christmas has gotten (is gotten a word?) more complicated than I remember it. Saw the old Dragnet episode recently where, on Christmas Eve, Father Rojas at the Old Mission Plaza Church in Los Angeles discovers that the statue of the Infant Jesus is stolen from the crib. The statue's worth is only a few dollars, but it is of great sentimental value for the parish. Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith promise to try to get it back before mass on Christmas Day, but this means that they have less than 24 hours to catch the thief. The detectives pursue a few leads, but come up empty. As they return to give Father Rojas the bad news, a small Mexican boy is pulling a wagon up the aisle with the statue in it. The boy had prayed for a new wagon and promised the baby Jesus the first ride if he received it.

That charming little story reminded me that, as the saying goes, Jesus is the reason for the season. It's hard to focus on the true meaning of Christmas with all the hubbub surrounding it. For example, we are now fighting what has become an annual battle over whether it's OK to wish someone a Merry Christmas, or if it's more politically correct to say Happy Holiday. Christmas Nativity scenes that adorned many public places are now banned because some intolerant morons are too tight-assed to just get in the spirit of the season and wish their fellow man (or must I say man and woman) peace and goodwill. I don't have the time or space, nor you the patience, to argue this out here. For so many years there was no problem, why all of a sudden are we under attack by the Christmas haters? It's so stupid.

Saying that Christmas has become over-commercialized is stating the obvious. We have glassy-eyed shoppers lining up, zombie like, on Thanksgiving night, when they should be home giving thanks with their families, to be the first on "Black Friday" to stampede into Walmart to buy that 60-inch television they can't afford. We have people sitting home at their computers on Cyber Monday buying stuff online to avoid the insanity in the stores. We stopped in at Saks Fifth Avenue store in Rockefeller Center while visiting the famous tree. Ladies handbags were "on sale" for $1800. There used to be three or four classic Christmas movies, but now there are dozens of holiday movies featuring untalented hacks like Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn, none of them watchable. There was also an ill-conceived remake of Miracle on 34th Street... please, make them stop.

Don't get the impression that I don't love Christmas, I do, it's just all the baggage that distracts us from remembering that over 2,000 years ago, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who was destined to change the world. I want to feel Christmas in my heart the way I did when, as a boy, I stood in the choir loft at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Brooklyn and sang these words:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Merry Christmas to all (3) my faithful readers. May the joy and peace of the Infant Jesus fill your heart in this blessed season.


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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Do Not Go Gentle....

The other day I was watching a golf tournament and they mentioned that the tournament director, a great guy, had recently passed away at the age of 75. I thought to myself, well that's not bad, he certainly had a full life. Then it hit me...the guy was six years older than I am! Whoa, when did this happen? How can I be staring 70 in the face? It seems like yesterday that I was drinking and partying. Wait, that was yesterday! But I'm getting off the track.

I've written here before about the joys of getting older, but it's the gift that keeps on giving. Last week I skipped not one but two days of my maintenance medication because my routine changed a little. Older people rely on routine to help them remember stuff they are supposed to do like taking pills. I have this little pill box marked with the days of the week so I'll know if I took my pills on a given day. Trouble is by the time I realize that I've skipped a dose it's already too late. I didn't know where else to put the freaking pill box so that I will see it each morning, but then a solution presented itself.

I feel sorry for my poor wife, who by the way shows no signs of aging or slowing down. She never sits, and it's all I can do to lift my legs while she Swiffs under me. She pushes me to not sit at the computer all day and to move around instead. We walk every day, take vitamins, and she works so hard to cook healthy, but I feel like I'm losing ground. She's probably looking ahead to the day when that big sausage and egg breakfast turns out to be my last, and she can find someone in better shape who looks even a little like Johnny Depp. It would be hard for her to leave me before then though, because I'm deaf enough not to hear her dump me, and even if I do, I probably won't remember.

I've also become a major crank, and that's not fair to those around me, especially my wife. In the past few days here are some of the petty things that I've allowed to annoy me: my morning newspaper being delivered late; a new roll of gift wrap paper that barely goes around the cardboard tube once; double-parked cars, a permanent pet-peeve; morbidly sentimental e-mails with pictures of puppies and kittens, not only asking me to read them but to annoy 20 other people by passing them on; people in front of me in the return line who bring back merchandise to stores looking as if it came out of a trash compactor, and then taking up my valuable time trying to convince the skeptical clerk that it came that way in the box.

There's more....telemarketers who cold-call trying to sell me stuff, and who add insult to injury by feigning interest in me with rehearsed small talk: "Hey, those Jets are having quite a season, huh?"; I ordered an art print for my daughter and it arrived in a crushed, wet tube. I complained to the sender that if the print did not dry with no damage, I'd expect a replacement. They kindly responded with an apology saying they were shipping another copy and to keep the first print. Now I'm annoyed 'cause I feel guilty for complaining; my gardener applies powdered lime a couple of times a year as a fertilizer...maybe applies is too precise a word...actually he flings it into the wind, covering everything but the grass and bushes; did I mention double parking?

Now you have some idea of what my wife puts up with. There was an award-winning TV show on CBS Playhouse in 1967 (I looked it up) staring Melvyn Douglas and Shirley Booth who played an older couple fighting to maintain their dignity in the face of physical decline. The title of the show is from a poem of the same name by Dylan Thomas, who wrote it to convince his father, grown weak and frail with old age, to fight against imminent death. Here's the first stanza: "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rage at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Alright already, I'm raging. (Did I mention double parking?)


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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Enough is Enough!

Time for a serious rant. Americans are becoming weak. Slowly but surely the social and political tamperers have taken all the spirit out of us. Surviving members of the "Greatest Generation" who made incalculable sacrifices to keep this country free must be shaking their heads wondering why they bothered. Politicians with real vision and courage like Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and the great reformer Fiorello LaGuardia are pacing up in the clouds wondering what the hell happened to their country. Specifics, you want specifics? Okay, here they are:

The Great Depression was the worst economic period in modern American history. It would have been easy for people to throw up their hands and surrender, waiting for the government to do something, but instead they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made this country roar again. Men bartered work for food to feed their families. People banded together to help one another through terrible times. Now, when hardships come, people whine and look for the government to provide. Ninety-nine weeks of unemployment insurance is not enough...they want more. There are jobs out there, maybe not the ones they feel they deserve, or they might have to work two jobs to make ends meet, but instead they'd rather take even more of other people's money. Get off your fat ass and work.!

This punk Julian Assange from Wikileaks should be stood up against a wall and shot. Besides releasing classified diplomatic documents that could harm the country, he just released a list of facilities that the government believes are critical security sites. What purpose does he serve, this accused rapist...he's like a little kid in the schoolyard chanting: "I know a secret and I'm going to teeeelll." What bothers me even more than his traitorous actions are the people who hold this schmuck up as a first-amendment hero! If the authors of the first amendment were here today to rule on what should be done to Mr. Assange, they would have the bastard drawn and quartered.

I'm tired of apologizing. I don't care if people are so sensitive about what we call them that I have to check Google every day to see what the latest politically correct term is. Lady, don't hate me for offering you my seat on the subway or not letting that door slam in your face. It's how I was raised. And don't wish me a Happy Holiday. It reminds me of how we let the minority make us feel guilty for wishing people a Merry Christmas. I don't own slaves. Nobody in my family ever owned slaves. The people who should pay reparations for slavery are dead 100 years now, so don't hand me the tab. When I go to a restaurant with you and order a steak, don't tell me how horribly the cow died or how red meat will shorten my life. Just eat that pile of whatever is on your plate and shut up.

America is becoming a country that punishes success and rewards failure. Despite the government's best efforts to redistribute my money, I won't apologize for managing, through hard work and thrift, to save a few bucks and put three kids through college. I'm not sorry for having a little nest egg that my wife and I earned by getting our college degrees at night and working our tails off. What I am sorry about is that the people who are stealing my hard-earned money through wealth redistribution didn't have the ambition or the will to benefit from the same public school system we used, or the drive to start at the bottom and build a career for themselves. The American dream is still out there if you want to work for it; it's not as easy though as living off the labor of others.

And finally, I'm ashamed that our once respected (or feared if you prefer) country, the model for the rest of the world, is now reduced to playing catch-up. I was thrilled to see President Obama show some guts by sending American warships to join the Republic of South Korea in military exercises when that freaky little gnome from North Korea shelled and killed innocent civilians. Based on his track record as "The Great Apologizer" I naturally thought the Pres would apologize to North Korea for South Korean civilians having got in the way of their artillery shells and spoiling their naval drills. If Obama had been in Truman's shoes back in 1945, we might be having sushi for Thanksgiving dinner today.

We, as individuals and as a nation, have to rediscover our backbones and restore common sense to American life. When certain groups commit acts of terrorism or commit the bulk of crimes in this country, we should stop worrying about hurting their feelings and profile them for special treatment until their behavior changes. When people flout our laws and enter the country illegally demanding benefits, we should round them up and send them back where they came from. This country was built on the idea of democracy and majority rule; we need to stop letting the minority call the tune. Before we forget them entirely, let's get back to the values that built this country and made it great. Enough with the grovelling already.


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