Monday, October 22, 2012

The Italians

I recently attended a lecture at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum given by Professor Louis Leonini. The talk was to be about Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer for whom America is named. Professor Leonini spent some time discussing this remarkable man along with other Italian explorers like Christopher Columbus  Giovanni Cabotto (known to us as John Cabot) and Giovanni da Verrazano for whom our  Staten Island bridge is named. Soon our speaker  warmed up and began to point out how history has not always been kind to Italians. Our heroes were either ignored or their heritage disguised so that other ethnic groups could lay claim to their deeds. As Professor Leonini put it: "Success has many mothers, but failure is an orphan."

He mentioned how the French try to claim Verrazano as a Frenchman because in 1506, he settled in the port of Dieppe, in France, where he began his career as a navigator. In fact, Verrazano was born in Greve, a tiny town south of Florence in the Tuscan wine region. When we visited there a few years ago, we saw Verrazano's statue proudly looking out on the town square. John Cabot was an Italian navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is commonly held to have been the first European encounter with the mainland of North America since the Vikings visited. I grew up believing him to be English, but in fact he was born in southern Italy in Gaeta (my wife's grandmother's home town) and raised in the great port city of Venice.  

Perhaps the greatest slur on Italian culture has been the attacks on Christopher Columbus, an Italian from Genoa who sailed under the flag of Spain. Revisionist historians, with little or no proof, have characterized Columbus as a murderer and rapist, interested only in acquiring wealth for his European masters. The great courage, intelligence and bravery displayed by Columbus is written off by people with agendas who do their best to minimize the contributions of not just Italians, but all Western Europeans. They fabricate out of whole cloth, great (but imaginary) accomplishments for their own ethnic constituencies, while denigrating the real achievements of others. This is sad and pathetic; these half truths and outright lies must not be accepted unchallenged as history.

Italy spawned one of the most advanced and admired civilizations in the history of man. The modern renaissance in art, writing, architecture, philosophy and science was begun in Italy and its greatness is acknowledged to this day. Italian immigrants contributed mightily to the building of America, and their descendants continue to earn recognition in every field of endeavor. It was not always so; during the great wave of Italian immigration (1880-1925) many children of Italian parents were told by their school teachers that they were little more than savages who had to be subdued and acculturated to all things American if they were to be worth anything as citizens. Italian culture was denigrated, the Italian language was abandoned, and children were told to become Americans at all costs. 

It is supremely ironic that today in America, all  things Italian (clothes, jewelry, films, cars and cuisine) are considered to be the height of cool. Not that people still aren't taking shots at us with TV shows and movies that often portray Italians as gangsters, but Italians have largely outgrown this false characterization and emerged as the true (sometimes flawed) individualists they are. Talented, intelligent, family-oriented, temperamental, emotional, fun-loving and passionate, Italians have assimilated with a vengeance here in the United States. Grandma's black dresses and Grandpa's DiNobili cigars were put away while we all donned the mantle of "Americans." The time has come for our generation to reclaim its Italian roots.

Talk to your children and grandchildren about the great men and women Italy gave to the world. Show them the work of DaVinci, Michaelangelo, Donatello and Brunelleschi; read to them from Dante, Pirandello, and Carlo Collodi, play for them the music of Caruso, Mario Lanza, Pavorotti, Renata Tebaldi and even Frank Sinatra; talk to them about the Italian explorers who defied existing beliefs and stretched the boundaries of the world, and most of all, take them to Ellis Island to see and hear about the sacrifices made by their great grandparents so that they could enjoy life in America. 

As Italians, we should not let our culture be defined by revisionist historians who tear us down with lies. We should speak up when ignorant people make statements about Italians that are biased and misinformed. In the last 100 years we have put great emphasis on the American part of Italian-American; its time to be proud the Italian in us.


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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Club Catholic

This past weekend we were visiting my lovely daughter and her family in the quiet town of Portland, Connecticut. The town was hosting its annual fall fair, and we had great fun watching my amazing granddaughter Ava running to go on every wild ride she could find. My favorite was the big trampoline where they strap you into a harness suspended by big elastic bands, and you bounce high into the sky. Ava was in her glory, hair flying, as she soared high. After a delicious dinner of pork loin prepared by Malcolm in his outdoor smoker, we returned to the hotel where we were staying down the road in Glastonbury, home of blue-haired ladies with lots 'o dough. We were visiting friends in Milford on Sunday, so we sat down and tried to decide where to go to church. We agreed on St. Dunstan's in Glastonbury.

St. Dunstan was born near Glastonbury, England and so the good people of this sister town decided to name their church for him. We found the church about 8 miles away with the help of our faithful Tom-Tom GPS system, on which I changed the voice annunciator to a lovely British gal instead of the harpy who used to annoy me with her attitude every time I failed to follow a command. Mass was at 8 am which gave us more than enough time to have breakfast afterward and drive down to Milford. St. Dunstan's was a small, modern-looking church unadorned by statues, stained glass windows or  decorations of any kind. The walls were brown stone and on them were hung the Stations of the Cross, starkly simple and artistically uninteresting; to me the place had a cold feel to it.

Mass was conducted by Father George Couterier, probably the only priest assigned to the parish in these sad days of low vocations and shrinking diocesan budgets. I knew we were in trouble when the organist played, and the congregation droned, three verses of the entrance hymn. It does me no credit at all as a Catholic to prefer masses with no singing and the shortest possible homilies. At home we get up early for the 7 o'clock mass at St. Anne's to celebrate in this way, although since the speedy Father John passed away, their service is starting to lengthen out. Father George's homily came right from the speaker's handbook: tell the audience what you are going to say, say it, and then tell them what you just said, again and again and again. My wife relaxed her vigilant elbow, and in short order, I nodded off.
One good thing about being a Catholic is that no matter where in the world you go to mass, the service will seem familiar. You may not understand the language, and local customs may differ some, but you always know when to stand, sit and kneel. There will always be a kid coloring pictures to keep him quiet, an old lady who takes her place at the very end of the pew and glares at anyone who dares ask her to move in so they can sit down, and a parishioner who sings hymns with gusto, but never comes anywhere near the melody. The genius of the Catholic church is their ability to standardize, so that participants always get this sense of familiarity at mass, regardless of where they attend. I know it may sound hypocritical to say this in view of my preference for brief, unmusical services, but I always feel uplifted after going to church.

St. Dunstan's was a little drab for my taste. I'm used to churches built by Italian congregations, where everything is big, ornate and gilded. Statues in imploring poses peer down from every wall, the Stations of the Cross are artistically rendered, dramatic tableaux of the Crucifixion of Christ, marble altars and soaring columns gleam everywhere, and banks of real candles cast a warm, flickering glow over all. Welcome to Club Catholic, and Peace Be With You. 


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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Incredible Shrinking Man

My U.S. Army physical records my height at 5 feet, eleven inches. I always wanted to be six feet, but at five-eleven I was content. That made me taller than average, and even more important, taller than most girls. I was big enough to play basketball in grammar school, but that was back in the day when there were guys under six feet playing in the NBA. In school, I was about fifth from the end of the line when we lined up in size order The four guys taller than me were my best pal, Rich Bilello, Robert Griesbaum, James Hoffman, and another kid whose name I forget. In sixth grade we got a transfer from another school, a tall, skinny kid from Canarsie named Anthony Dana, who looked like Ichabod Crane. Anthony was not only taller than ne, but smarter. I dropped in two categories.

It was a banner day for me when I grew taller than my father. I shot up pretty quickly in grammar school and always thought of myself as taller than average. This changed somewhat in high school. I tried out for the basketball team at Brooklyn Tech, but with an enrollment of 6,000 boys, I never had a chance. I did make the baseball team where height was less important, and still thought of myself as tall. After all, the relatives we saw infrequently would always say: “Jimmy, how tall you got!”  Now who could argue with that. Among my neighborhood pals, only Phil, my next door neighbor, was taller. But something was happening. I felt like I was leveling off and maybe, or perish the thought, shrinking!

My first clue came around the time I was to be married. I always wore a pants size 34 waist with a 32 inseam. I seem to recall the guy in the tux rental place telling me I was a 31 inseam. “Can’t be” I said, pulling myself up to what I thought was my full 5’11” height, “I wear a 32 inseam. I tried on the 32 but it was too long! What’s happening to me? I rationalized that it must be a sizing quirk with tuxedos and smiled weakly, already sensing what was in store for me. Soon after, I had to take an annual physical at my place of business. The nurse, after measuring my height, wrote down 5” 10”. I was stunned. Where did a whole inch go? I kept fooling myself that nothing was wrong and that I was still above average height. I made my peace with the 31 inseam and moved on with my life.

Some years ago, my family doctor took my height and weight, and while I knew I would never fit into a size 34 waist pair of pants again, when he told me my height, I froze. “Five-nine” he said. Somebody please make it stop. Now I had lost two inches along the way and was becoming “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” I felt the same although I noticed that my wife seemed to have got taller over the years. Both my sons were taller than me and my daughter was about the same height. (Now I know how my Dad must have felt.) The last straw was when I began having to sometimes buy pants with a 30 inch inseam. Oh the humiliation. If they were cotton khakis that shrunk, I could still buy 31s, but more and more, 30 inches became the new standard. I was turning into Danny DeVito!
They say that somehow we actually lose height as we get older. This is not easy to accept for a guy who was once fifth tallest in a class of over 50 kids. I pray my wife wears short heels when we dress up or I may have to resort to lifts. As George Costanza once pointed out, although talking about a different subject, shrinkage is not an easy thing to bear.


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