Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Holiday Traditions

My friend Joe recently wrote a blog about a holiday tradition he remembers fondly. The Friday after Thanksgiving, Joe's family would gather at his parents' house and enjoy leftovers and each other's company. I can easily picture the scene because assembling and eating is pretty much what Italians do on every holiday. Joe mentioned the difficulty of maintaining these traditions over the years, and that is very true for a number of reasons.

First, it is a lot of work. The family hosting the gathering prepares for the day by cleaning, shopping, cooking and cleaning again. Second, families are no longer concentrated in one area like they used to be, so travel is involved. Anyone who travels around the holidays knows what a deterrent this can be, especially with gas and toll prices going through the roof. Then there is the in-law issue. When children marry, it is natural for them to want to spend the holidays with their families following the traditions they grew up with. This last problem can be worked out if everybody gives a little, but we know families who don't speak to each other because somebody couldn't give.

If families want to maintain these holiday traditions badly enough. then sacrifices have to be made here and there. Find a fair way to divide the days up so no family get short-changed. Don't let a few people handle the entire load; as kids get older they should step up and do more of the work. It's unreasonable to expect your kids to spend every holiday with you, so don't hassle them. Some families use these gatherings as an excuse for mini-vacations somewhere that all can travel to; this is more expensive but eliminates all of the work associated with the gathering.

We have managed to keep traditions going in our family, although there have been changes over the years. Our family is more spread around geographically than they used to be, and some family members work jobs that require them to go in on holidays. We have just become resigned to not having everyone present all the time. It's only natural to want to continue the holiday celebrations the way we remember them. In some strange way this reassures us that things are as they always were, when in fact, they really are not. Nobody wants to admit their children are all grown or that the face in the mirror looks a lot older than it used to.

One of my favorite TV shows is "Blue Bloods" a great cop show starring Tom Selleck. It's the story of the Reagan family, three generations of police officers who are based in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The family often gathers for dinners together making it one of the few shows on TV that celebrates family values. My friend Joe's recollection of those "Friday after Thanksgiving" get-togethers is a celebration of family, and for us old Brooklyn boys, that is priority one.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Monday, November 21, 2011

Lucy, You Got Some Splanin' to Do

So I called Dr. Sarno's office today to make an appointment. Here's how the conversation went:

Person at the other end: "Allo." (Translation: "Dr. Sarno's office, may I help you?")
Me: "Yes, I'd like to make an appointment to see Dr. Sarno."
Person: "Allo?"
Me: (Deep sigh) "Yes, I'd like to make an appointment to see the doctor."
Person: "You eber be here before?"
Me: "No, I was referred by Dr. Martin"
Person: "Plis hold on." (Person Hollering) "Make sure dat's decaf; I can't drin real coffee."

Me: "Hello?"
Person: "Sorry, wha was da doctor's name what sent you?"
Me: "Dr. Martin, M-a-r-t-i-n"
Person: "M..."
Me: "Martin, M-a-r-t-i-n"
Person: "M-a..."
Me: (More audible sigh) "M-a-r-t-i-n"
Person: "Sorry, plis hold" (Hollering again) "No Angela, Dr. Sheppard called. He's no coming in today."
Me: "Are you there?"
Person: "Ya, sorry. Lemme check Dr. Sarno's calendar." (Dead air for sixty seconds.) I hear faintly in the background: "So how was your wikend, Angela?"

Angela: (Mutters something unintelligible.)
Person: "Nah, not much. My daughter was sick so we jus hung aroun."
Me: "Hello?"
Person: "Sorry, I can give you Nobember 28 at 1:10 pm."
Me: "That's fine, can you tell me where you're located?"
Person: "Staten Island"
Me: (Sarcasm creeping in) "Can you narrow that down, like with a street"
Person: "Plis hold."

Me: (Muttering.) "Hello?"
Person: "Sorry, what kinda insurance coberage you got?"
Me: "Medicare."
Person: "Plis brin you car weth you wen you com"
Me: "Excuse me?" (Turns out she was saying: "Please bring your card with you when you come"
Person: "And whas your las name?"
Me: (Very slowly) "Pantaleno, P-a-n-t-a-l-e-n-o."
Person: "P..."
Me: (Weeping) "P-a-n" (long pause); "t-a-l" (long pause); "e-n-o."
Person: "And what is your address, Mr. Fontaremo?"

I'll spare you the rest of this delightful exchange; suffice it to say I think I have an appointment with Dr. Sarno on November 28th at 1:10 pm, although I'm not 100% sure. I've become used to talking to people on the phone and in person who are hard to understand. I can see hiring people in jobs where their communication skills don't make a difference to their job performance, but in a doctor's office where the initial contact person kind of sets the tone for the doctor's professionalism, it seems like a bad idea to hire a person who sounds like Ricky Ricardo and has the phone skills of Carol Burnett's Mrs. Wiggins!

Now I'm wondering...if Dr. Sarno's judgement is so poor as to engage such a person, does that mean he's a lousy doctor? What ever happened to competent, intelligent workers? Just another area I guess where the bar keeps getting lower and lower.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Life's Hardest Job

People often brag about my son the doctor, or my daughter the executive, but you never hear anybody say: I'm so proud of my child, the parent. There are many worthwhile jobs in life, and we should certainly respect the folks who do these jobs, but it seems to me there is one job that never gets the recognition it deserves: parent. Maybe it's because parenting is not thought of as a job, but in fact it is a 24/7 job with unbelievable responsibilities. And unlike doctors, teachers, executives or plumbers, we receive no training to become parents...we learn by making mistakes.

Making a child is the fun part, but raising a child is really where the rubber meets the road. When you take that beautiful bundle home from the hospital, especially the first bundle, panic immediately sets in. Those of us who were lucky had our own parents as role models at least had some idea what needed to be done, but the reality always overwhelmed the expectations. Why is the baby crying? Why is the baby quiet? Why isn't the baby eating? Is everything on this child working the way it's supposed to? New parents are beset by a million questions, a million doubts. Each new stage of a child's life presents new challenges, and somehow, despite the lack of training,  parents are expected to know what to do.

Being a parent isn't about big moments, it's more about thousands of little ones. The picture-perfect parents we saw on television as kids simply do not exist. Just once it would have been nice if Ozzie said to Harriet: I don't know what the problem with Ricky is, all I know is that he's driving me crazy! Moms and Dads don't always have the answers. They try to be there for their kids and just do the best they can. They don't always do the right thing but they try, and maybe that's all anyone can ask. I can't imagine what it must be like for kids who lose a parent for whatever reason while they are young. The pressure on the remaining parent then becomes enormous because there is nobody else to turn to. It's a sad thing for a child who grows up without one or both parents. It's sadder still when a parent loses a child.

My impression of many modern parents is that they don't ever want to say no to their children. They don't want to be the bad guy and so their kids have no sense of where the fences are. The kids keep testing Mom and Dad for limits, and when they realize there are none, they could turn out to have some real problems. It's easy to say yes, but saying no and explaining your reasons for doing so helps children learn that it's not just about what they want, but what society expects of them as well. Parenting is damned hard work and there is no time clock to punch at the end of the day. Your children are always your children, no matter how old they are.

Maybe they should give classes in parenting. It seems to me they would be a lot more valuable than some of the junk kids learn in school these days. Tell them that sometimes parenting can be a joy: baby's first steps or words; learning and growing in school; First Communion; graduation day; and the small pleasures that come with the job like having your child fall asleep in your arms after you've read them a story. They should also be told that parenting can hold terrors: serious illness; disciplinary problems; hanging with bad friends; experimenting with drugs; bad marriages; financial problems...all the things that make you pull your hair out and keep you up nights.

I've made my share of mistakes as a parent, but somehow, with the strong support of my wife, who is an amazing mother, we've raised three children of whom I am extremely proud. If I manage to get to heaven, it won't be for the exemplary life I've led. If I have any shot at all, it might be because I tried my best to be a good father to my children. If I have succeeded by any measure at that job, I'd be satisfied with that.


Children's Craniofacial Association 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Election Day

One of the mainstays of our system of our democratic government is the right to vote. On Election Day the people get to choose who will represent them in the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Our Founding Fathers got it right when they assigned this right (I prefer privilege) to the citizens of the United States. Back in the early days of the Republic, requirements for voting were a lot more stringent, for example you had to be a man and also a property holder. Down through the years, Amendments to the Constitution have eased the qualifications for voting so that today, just about every American 18 years of age or older is eligible. Many do not exercise this privilege, and that is sad. On the other hand, many who do vote are so uninformed that they know virtually nothing about their candidate; they vote along party, ethnic or racial lines.

I find it interesting to visit my local polling place. Here, an army of poll workers sit at tables, ostensibly to help voters, but mainly they gab and eat donuts. Most are less informed on voting procedures than the poor voters seeking their help. Today there were maybe 50-60 of these paid workers sitting around looking bored, and maybe four people actually there to cast votes. They have recently done away with those cumbersome voting machines in use since the turn of the century, and replaced them with cumbersome scanners that read paper ballots marked with a pen. Leave out the scanner and that's pretty much the way Americans voted in 1780. It's a little frightening to think that we allow people who can't figure out the voting machine to pick the leader of the free world!

I remember years ago, we had to produce a voter registration card and some form of ID before the poll workers would permit us to vote. Now, you step up to the table, give them your address and they have you sign off that you are who you say you are. That's it. No ID is requested so really, anyone can claim to be anybody and they just accept your word. We lowered the barriers to proving who we are before we can vote so that illegal aliens who have no proof of identity can be given an inactive name on the voter rolls and cast a ballot for whatever liberal they are told to vote for. This is how Democratic candidates glean votes from the dead. The scam keeps the freebies flowing and ensures that immigration laws are never enforced.

My father-in-law Ray used to be a precinct captain in his voting district. Sure he made a few extra bucks, but he also took his duties seriously. The people working the polls these days seem totally unaware of what they are supposed to do. They avoid making eye contact in the hope that you will ask someone else for help. When you do ask a question, they immediately turn to the worker next to them with a puzzled expression, only to have their puzzled expression returned. There is maybe one person on the property who knows anything, but their job seems to be chatting with the bored police officer in the school lobby. There must be intelligent poll workers out there somewhere, but the two women who "helped" us today had a collective IQ of about 70.

We have strayed too far from how the Founding Fathers viewed the serious responsibility of voting. You have to take a test for a driver's license, I think you should have to pass a test to vote. The test should be in English only; if you don't speak our language, either learn it or don't vote. A few simple questions about the issues at stake in the election should also be asked. If you don't even know the name of the candidate you're voting for and just pulling the lever the precinct boss told you to pull, you are not qualified to vote. The world is in a sorry state because we are electing leaders for the wrong reasons. They promise benefits to the unemployed and those in this country illegally that are paid for by working people. It's time we weeded out the uninformed and the uninvited from the voting process and restored that privilege to those who have earned it.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Joy of Flying

I've written before about how flying used to be such fun. Planes were rarely delayed, the seating was reasonably comfortable, the food edible, the drinks free and the flight attendants attractive and attentive. This blog is the flip side of that coin; a condemnation of the living hell the flying experience has become. My latest nightmare in the unfriendly skies was courtesy of Alitalia on our recent flight to Sicily. I have never flown with the airline of my homeland before, and though several people warned me, I was confident my pisanos would prove them wrong. That was my first mistake.

The trip started out innocently enough; we were met at the airport by our tour representative and checked our baggage with no problem. My son and his wife were not seated together, but this was easily corrected. The trouble began when we got into our seats. International flights, where people will be in the air 8 hours or more, should provide more comfortable seating. We were jammed into three-across seats with virtually no leg room. If the pinheads in front of you recline their seats (which they did) you begin to feel like the proverbial sardine. The poor sap in the middle seat has to disturb the person in the aisle seat every time they need to get up. Unconscionable conditions considering what these flights cost.

We finally get to the airport in Rome with cramps in every body part, and now the exit dance begins. Some jaboneys toward the front of the plane, who had plenty of time to retrieve their steamer-trunk sized carry-ons while everyone else was doing so, now wake up and start pulling down their crap while the rest of us wait. They then put on their coats, check their cell phones, and carefully fold their newspapers, unfazed by the yelling behind them to get the hell off the plane. Unfortunately, unlike most airports of any size in the U.S., the planes in Rome do not taxi to the terminal for connecting flights. Instead they leave you on the outskirts of the airport where you board a bus to your connecting flight. How convenient.

After a glorious week in Sicily, the adventure continues. We arrive at the airport in Catania, Sicily for our connecting flight to Rome. There is a check in line for Alitalia that appears to wind through several terminal buildings. Apparently, the night before, Mt. Etna had erupted, spewing ash into the air and grounding all Alitalia flights. As you can imagine, this caused severe delays the next day. It took us two hours of alternately waiting and pushing like cattle before reaching the check-in station. We thought we were home free only to learn that my son and his wife were bumped from the flight. They caught a later flight to Rome but our plane to the U.S. had already taken off. Alitalia put them up in the Italian equivalent of a Red Roof Inn and they arrived in New York a day late.

When Jasmine and I boarded the flight, we learned that not only were we not seated together, but both of us had been assigned middle seats behind more of those thoughtful, reclining passengers. On that endless flight I learned to read, sleep and eat a meal without moving my arms. I couldn't even plug in my earphones without disturbing the people on either side. The flight attendants made themselves scarce, so if you needed anything like an anesthetic, you were S.O.L. If I'm ever lucky enough to make another trans-Atlantic trip, I swear I am going first-class.

Here's the moral to this story: if your doctor every gives you 24 hours to live, spend it on Alitalia...it will seem a lifetime!


Children's Craniofacial Association

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Road to Sicily - Part 3

On Friday we traveled to Naxos and the beautiful Sant Alphio Hotel and Spa. By the way, in Sicily, they don't leave mints on your pillow, they put a horse's head in the bed! Cheap shot, but on a more serious note, Sicily is the home office of the Italian Mafia. They ran amok for decades due to corrupt Italian officials. In the mid-1980s, the so-called Maxi Trial (Italian: Maxiprocesso) took place in Sicily that saw hundreds of defendants convicted for a multitude of crimes relating to Mafia activities, based primarily on testimony given by a former boss turned informant. This trial started a wave of turncoat moves by other prominent individuals that would ultimately result in the shut down of a significant percentage of Mafia-driven narcotics-trafficking and greatly damaged the alliances between Sicilian and American families. In Palermo, there is a monument to those who stood up to the Maffia including Giovanni Falcone, the courageous judge who presided at these trials. Tragically, he was blown up in a car bomb during the proceedings.

On to Agrigento in the southwestern area of Sicily and The Valley of the Temples, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. The city was initially founded as a Greek colony in the 6th century BC and it quickly became a major cultural center. The temples in the valley were all constructed within a century, each facing east, which was a standard criteria for both Greek and Roman temples. This was done so that the statue of the god housed in each temple would be illuminated by the rising sun. The condition of these temples is amazing and a tribute to the people who built them. Thanks to their craftsmanship, we get a glimpse of two superior cultures that achieved things we can only marvel at. Our guide, Nicoletta, was not too pleased with American tourists who seemed more interested in snapping pictures than in hearing what she had to say.

Our afternoon is spent in one of the iconic towns of Sicily, Taormina on the eastern side of the island. People returning from Sicily will always mention Taormina in glowing terms as the jewel of Sicily. Situated on a sprawling mountainside, the city, like many others in Sicily, may be seen from above in views that boggle the imagination. The streets of Taormina are lined with shops and restaurants of every kind. The city is also home to some magnificent churches like St. Catherine of Alexandria and the Church of the Immaculate Mary. We had one rainy afternoon the whole time we were in Sicily, and it came in Taormina. Even though we didn't see the "Grande Dame" at her best, we still enjoyed our time there, especially the delicious pizza and local wine.

Back on the architectural trail, we are off to Siricusa on the eastern end of Sicily. Athens, Carthage, and Rome were the only three cities of the ancient Mediterranean world to challenge the power and prosperity of Siracusa during its Golden Age. Built on an ancient Greek settlement founded by Corinthians in 734 BC , more than any other modern city in Sicily, Siracusa manifests a visible continuity from its ancient Greek past. Our local guide, Marcello, walked us around Greek and Roman sites of interest, including a Greek theater and Roman arena. Matt does a wicked impression of Marcello, by the way.

Our last stop, and one of our best, was the island of Ortigia, across a bridge from mainland Siracusa. In my humble opinion, this place exceeds Taormina for sheer beauty. Ortigia is full of narrow streets and interesting balconies, facades, restaurants, churches, and crumbling palazzos. We had a delicious lunch at Spizzica, one of the waterfront restaurants that offer eye-catching views of the harbor. Beneath the restaurant is a spiral staircase leading down to a very ancient Jewish ritual bath, or Miqweh, which lay hidden for centuries deep under the old Jewish quarter of Ortigia. Under Spanish rule, Siracusa's Jews were ordered to leave the city in 1492, Before they went they appear to have filled up the baths, and blocked the entrance. In the town's central plaza is The Duomo, the oldest church in Europe, built on the site of a 6th century BC monument dedicated to the goddess Athena.

I'll always remember this trip for the beauty of the places we saw and for the excellent company of my wife, son and daughter-in-law. At mass this week, the priest talked about St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose church we visited in Taormina. Probably just a coincidence, no?


Children's Craniofacial Association