Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Momma's Boys

I saw a poster at the mall featuring a famous athlete urging kids to "...play outside at least one hour a day". Are you kidding me? Pleading with kids to go outside and play is a modern-day phenomenon in an age when they'd rather sit around on their asses playing video games, texting and watching that 52-inch TV. (Oh, oh, here he goes again.) It's no wonder obesity, diabetes and even hypertension are very real health problems for the young. When I was a kid, the poster at the mall might have read "...please remember to come inside once in a while for meals and sleep". We lived in the streets, constantly playing ball, riding home-made skate scooters, shooting marbles or just sitting quietly on the stoop for a few hands of Gin Rummy or the Italian card game called Brisk.

Even when kids do play today, there is a supporting cast of adults that boggles my mind. Kids are driven everywhere, fitted out with pro-style uniforms, and provided with the best sporting equipment money can buy. Then there are the manicured ball fields, gleaming gymnasiums, indoor pools and ice hockey rinks, all featuring neat bleacher seats, clean rest rooms and fully stocked refreshment stands. Play is supervised by coaches, assistant coaches, equipment managers, paid referees and umpires, and of course doting parents hollering rude things at the opposing teams and game officials. You wonder if left to their own devices whether these kids could ever get a game off the ground.

In 1950s Brooklyn we had the bare essentials. For baseball we used taped up balls, dinged bats and cardboard boxes for bases. The "field" we played on was a vacant lot that had to be cleared of stones, broken bottles and assorted debris so we could round the base paths without risking a trip to the hospital. For basketball we played in a public park. The baskets were metal rims with no nets. You got into a game by challenging whoever had the court. If you beat them, you played on. If you lost, you waited your turn to challenge again. Uniforms were inelegant; shirts vs. skins (kids who played bare chested). There were no umpires or referees, but there were unwritten street and playground codes that kids respected and abided by.

Sides were chosen simply. Two captains, usually the most dominant players or kids who emerged as natural leaders, picked their teams. A coin flip or bat toss determined who chose first. Unlike today's politically correct rules, developed by well-meaning but wrong-headed adults, every captain back then wanted the best players on his team since the object of the game was winning. Not every kid always got to play the way they do in Little League games today where the object is building self-esteem and having fun. In today's system even the worst kids get into the game, even though they clearly have no interest. Mom and Dad want them to play so they fumble their way around while the other kids groan and tease them unmercifully every time they strike out or make an error. There is no incentive to get better because their playing time is guaranteed. They never learn to compete on a level playing field, and Mommy and Daddy tend to run interference for them their entire lives.

Any disputes that arose in our street games were resolved on the spot by agreed-to means devised by the kids themselves. If some outside factor disrupted the normal flow of the game, someone called "hindu" which was the term all kids understood to mean a do-over. To get around the lack of baseball umpires, there were no balls and strikes...batters got two swings to put the ball in play. If they hit two foul balls, they were out, period. In basketball, if someone felt they were fouled, they called it themselves on the honor system. Only egregious fouls were ever called; incidental contact was part of the game and we all were OK with that. Any disagreements were handled by saying" "I'll choose you for it". Once, twice three, SHOOT! You called odds or evens in advance and the winner got the disputed decision.

I've said before that I think the lessons and values kids learn in the streets are as valuable as those in the classroom. Modern-day adults feel the need to schedule and manage every moment of their child's life, maybe because they were bullied as children and don't want to see their kids go through that. The funny thing is they are actually hurting their child's chances for acceptance by peer groups. Kids are very perceptive, and will immediately label any kid who is being overprotected by parents as a "momma's boy". Better if the kid can find his own way of being accepted by the group. Even if he can't hit a baseball or make tackles in football, there are other skills that kids value. Let the kid find out what those skills are and develop them to earn the respect of the group. Don't underestimate your child; coping with challenges and overcoming adversity really do build character.


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

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Things Italian Mothers Say

Back in the Fifties, before an Italian woman was permitted to become a mother, she was required to attend Mamma Mia Boot Camp and memorize a set of sayings that she would use to guide the development of her children for the rest of her life. Every kid raised in an Italian home heard these sayings at some time growing up. It wasn't just the words...they had to be said in a special way so that they bored right through your thin outer layer of bravado and struck you deep in that guilt-ridden place in your heart. It didn't matter either if you were five or fifty, living at home or on your own, you were always fair game. Here are some of my favorites.

Finish your dinner...kids in Europe are starving. Now I was a pretty good eater so I didn't hear this one that much, but there were certain foods I just would not touch. Boiled fish, lamb, lima beans, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, anything that looked slimy. I would push them around my plate or try to hide them, and when Mom reminded me about the starving children I wanted to say: "Here's an idea, why not just wrap up those sprouts and mail them back to Brussels". I knew that if I ever wised-off like this it would bring a sharp rap to the head with the dreaded wooden spoon, so I just shut up. I always wondered if there was some kind of bizarre guilt-exchange deal made whereby European mothers used starving children in America to get kids to eat their pierogis.

If (insert name here) jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge would you do it too? This one came out when you wanted to do something your mother opposed, and you set her up by foolishly saying: "Well Vinnie Accola gets to do it". (Buzzer sound, Sorry, wrong answer but we have some lovely parting gifts for you. Thanks for playing.) And then Mom says, wait for it now, "If Vinnie Accola jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?" I don't think it ever occurred to Vinnie to jump off any bridge, and if he was crazy enough to try it, I certainly wouldn't follow. There was no kid comeback however that would counter this bridge argument. The Mother's Handbook said that this saying, when uttered with sarcastic contempt, would quell any foolish thing your child wanted to do, and by God it did.

Wait till your father gets home. This was the Italian mother's last resort after she had tried every trick she knew to get you to stop behaving like a jerk. Mothers were smart enough to use it sparingly to avoid diluting the ominous threat these words carried. When you had pushed your poor mother to the brink she took a deep breath and let it fly. The words were spoken slowly and deliberately, as if blows were being delivered. "Wait (smack) until (smack) your (smack) father (smack) gets (smack) home." I always felt bad for my father. He wasn't mad at me, and usually too tired from work to chase me around the kitchen table, but he had to make an effort. If Dad hit me I tried hard to pretend it really hurt because I knew his performance in carrying out my sentence was being judged by Mom, and God help him if I didn't suffer enough.

I only pray that someday you have a kid like you. This was my introduction to the concept of Karma...what goes around comes around. The Italians probably have a more sinister term for it since we have sinister terms for everything. I thought at the time that they needed to pull this one out of the Mothers Handbook because it had absolutely no effect on me. I wanted to say: "That's it? That's all you got? That someday if I get married I might have a kid like me? I'll take my chances". Little did I know that this was an Italian "time-release" curse that always came true...genetics guarantees it. I'm extremely proud of my children, but there were times when they were growing up that my mother's words came back to haunt me.

I'm not mad at you, just disappointed. Bullseye. This was the dum-dum bullet that mothers loaded in the guilt gun when regular bullets were not having the desired effect. They usually played this card when you were too old to hit, and smart enough to realize that the impact of these words hurt more than any hairbrush across your butt. I could withstand any corporal punishment my parents could dish out, but no kid wanted to be a disappointment to his mother. The phrase stopped you in your tracks, and no matter how argumentative you were feeling, you usually stared down at your shoes and mumbled something like: "Aw I'm sorry Mom, please forgive me". Score one for mamma. Hey, even Superman feared Kryptonite.

Mother's Day is coming up and it makes me think about how I could have been a better son. There are small and big things I would do differently if I had the chance, but there are no do-overs in life. I am the son of an Italian mother, and any good in me comes mostly from her. While it may be true that I could have been a better son, she could not have been a better mother. Happy Mother's Day mom.

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

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sauce or Gravy?

My daughter-in-law is Alicia Vitarelli Pantaleno, the morning news anchor on New Jersey's channel 12. YouTube - Alicia Vitarelli, Anchor/Reporter, 2010 She has been honored by several New Jersey organizations as the "Italian-American Woman of the Year". Alicia is beautiful and smart...we are very proud and happy to have her in the family. Anyhow, at a recent dinner in her honor, Alicia kidded an audience made up mostly of Italian-Americans that she had taken a survey of her New Jersey viewers to determine whether Italians refer to the red stuff they put on their Sunday pasta (Macaroni to Italian-Americans) as gravy or sauce, and that the winning term was "sauce". The crowd erupted..."No, no, it's gravy" they hollered.

Alicia correctly pointed out that if you went into any restaurant in Italy and asked for gravy on your pasta, they'd look at you funny. True Italians call it sauce...marinara sauce, putanesca sauce, Bolognaise sauce, but NEVER gravy. It started me thinking about what we called it growing up Italian in Brooklyn, and I remember my mother and aunts referring to it as gravy. My theory is that the term originated with Italian-Americans whose ancestors came from Southern Italy where cooking is in the peasant-style and more down-to-earth. Subtle and complex tomato sauces came from places like Rome and other cities in Northern Italy who use different ingredients to flavor them. Immigrant Italians from Southern Italy made thick, rich, flavorful Sunday gravy, period.

There are many ways to make gravy, even within our family, where my Mom and her two sisters learned how to cook from their mother, their recipes varied. My Aunt Anna was the purist, often making her own pasta from scratch early on Sunday mornings. We lived across the hall from her, and sometimes I would wander in and see her standing behind a large kitchen table where she had laid out pasta dough cut into shapes like little hats, bows or noodles. She would then dust these with flour before cooking them for Sunday dinner. Her gravy was delicious and was often one of the courses at our holiday dinners. Her husband, my Uncle Jim, came from Italy and, like most Italians, loved his macaroni. He would sit at the table with a small pen knife cutting up yard-grown, red hot peppers onto his pasta. He would wash it all down with harsh homemade red wine sipped from a pint-sized flagon with a metal spout.

My mother made the best meatballs and braccioles. Her secret was fennel seeds in the meatballs, and raisins and pignoli nuts rolled into the braccioles. Her cooking was plain in the Southern Italian style, but hearty and delicious. My Aunt Mary (I hope she will forgive me for saying this) was probably the least gifted of the three sisters in the kitchen. Her gifts lay elsewhere, mainly in starting and operating small businesses in a day when women in business were not all that common. Aunt Mary was the Ralph Kramden of the family, who always had an idea for making money. She also had a patient, understanding husband, my Uncle Nick, who encouraged and helped her. The difference between her and Ralph was that many of her ideas actually worked.

Italians will usually swear that nobody cooked like their mothers. All Italian women had their little tricks for making the best Sunday gravy...some insisted that meatballs only be made from a mixture of ground up beef, veal and pork; others added ingredients like red wine, pork skin, ribs, or even hard-boiled eggs to liven up their gravy. (I love eggs almost any way you can cook them, but I draw the line at putting them in Sunday gravy.) Great scenes on the big screen featuring "gravy tips" include Clemenza in "The Godfather" teaching the "made" guys who were in the middle of a shooting war how to make three-meat meatballs and to always add a little red wine, and Paul Sorvino in "Goodfellas" showing Mafia guys in jail how to use a razor to slice garlic paper-thin so that it dissolved in the gravy.

In our family we are not as unwavering as the old timers who made it a non-negotiable rule that Sundays and Wednesdays were strictly macaroni days. I will say that when we do sit down to an old fashioned, noisy Italian Sunday dinner, with plates flying all over the place and aunts, uncles. cousins and friends talking over each other, it still gives me a feeling I can't quite put into words. It's almost like the spirits of those aunts, uncles, cousins and friends long gone are somehow still with us. I feel blessed having been born and raised Italian, proud to be part of a people who may be imperfect, but who know how to eat, drink. laugh and love with the best of them. A la famiglia!


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

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Solution is Simple

I read today where Our Lady of Lourdes School in Massapequa Park on Long Island is closing in June because of low enrollment. Since Our Lady of Lourdes was the name of my old grammar school in Brooklyn, it saddened me to read this news. Many Catholic grade schools are closing all across the country because they are simply becoming too expensive to operate. That wasn't always the case, in fact, when I attended Lourdes in the 1950s, the average student came from what we would call today a "poor" family. It's funny but nobody ever told us we were poor. All our neighbors were in the same boat...poor maybe in liquid assets, but rich in values like love of family, reverence for God, and a thirst for education.

Catholic Schools were bursting at the seams in the 1950's. There was a nominal tuition fee, but every family found a way to do without something else so that tuition could be paid. Why did people sacrifice to send their children to these schools? Results. Many of the immigrant families who came to America at the turn of the 20th century understood too well that the way to a better life for their children lay in education. It's not that the public schools were bad at the time, in fact, back then New York City had one of the finest public school systems in the country. What the Catholic Schools offered that made them so popular was not only a first class education, but also religious instruction and character building that synched perfectly with the values of first generation Americans.

The methods used in running a Catholic School were harsh by today's ridiculously lenient standards, but man did they work. The business of those schools was learning, and honestly, by that measure they did a hell of a job. I would equate the educational value of my eighth grade diploma to that of almost any NYC high school diploma in 2010. We were drilled in the fundamentals of writing and grammar, knew math up to elementary algebra, were taught geography (I'd bet some high school kids today couldn't find the United States on a map) and real history, not the revisionist crap they peddle these days. We learned art, music, civics...how government operated, we were even schooled in etiquette, something that we could badly use in 2010.

There were no discipline problems; if you stepped over the line you got whacked upside the head. That simple but effective prescription usually discouraged repeat offenses, and teachers were free to teach. I don't think my parents set foot inside the school until the day I graduated. They were perfectly content to give the teachers leave to discipline me when required, knowing perfectly well that I probably deserved it. If any kid's parent was summoned to school, it was serious. Parents didn't go with the attitude that their kid was right and the teacher wrong, quite the opposite. They went to listen, and to do what the teacher suggested to remedy any "problem" that came up. The kid was almost sure to get whacked by his parents for causing them the embarrassment of a visit to school.

I'm sure the methods used in Catholic Schools in my day have been toned down, but even so, any student, even in a modern Catholic classroom, knows they are there to learn. The nuns and brothers may have put away the rulers and the thumb screws, but the air of discipline is still there. They simply do not put up with the crap they tolerate in public schools. Little thugs who should be in jail are given "time outs" to think about their transgressions. When a kid is suspended from school, they don't get sent home because their parents are both out working to make those Lexus payments, no, they receive "in school" suspensions where they sit in an empty room next to a pretty young teacher to "punish" them. Insane.

Mayor Bloomberg should get rid of that Muppet of a Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and bring Brother Jude of the Franciscans out of retirement to reorganize the system. Parents should be banned from school unless summoned. Teachers who fail should not be protected by unions and sent to "rubber rooms" to collect paychecks for doing nothing, they should be sent packing. Kids who are chronically troublesome should get to spend two minutes in the hall with the biggest, meanest teacher who has the authority to talk some sense into them, capisce. I guarantee in five years the United States would regain its pre-eminent position in education, and not have to take a back seat to the Russians, Indians or Chinese.


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