Time out from the usual stuff. Let me tell you about my dad

You might be wondering why I’m posting weather conditions on Facebook these mornings. The comments probably give it away, but I’ll say it clearly now: Our father Antonino a/k/a Tony a/k/a Nuccio (depending on what language you speak) passed away early last week. He used to begin his day with coffee and firing up his iPad to post the weather report on Facebook.

Tony—he anglicized his name like lots of Italian immigrants in the 1950s—was 91, nearly 92 years old and suffering terribly from a bunch of ailments. He may have been approaching 100 but he wasn’t a stranger to technology. He kept in touch with his world via Facebook posts and videochats with family in both the U.S. and Italy. The chats were his lifeline to a world he couldn’t be in any more, and in a way showed us the curious, always learning kind of guy that he was.

I can only write snippets that I hope give an idea of my dad. I loved him, sometimes argued with him, but always felt that I had this gentle spirit watching over me. And it wasn’t just us—my sister and brother , our families, and the seemingly dozens of people he cared about. With such a long life, it would be foolish for me to document everything, but I’ll try to give you a sense of him and how he (along with my mother) affected the lives of so many people.

Dad and me at three, in a photo booth. He kept this in his wallet.

I was his firstborn, so I got his youth and enthusiasm. One of my earliest memories is of the back of his head. We were at some church fair in East New York, Brooklyn, and he was carrying me on his shoulders. It was nighttime and if I close my eyes I can still see the ferris wheel, the colored lights, and maybe (hey, I was maybe two or three years old) an elevated train passing in the distance.

We used to spend a lot of the summer at my maternal grandparents’ bungalow near New Dorp Beach. Another fuzzy memory. We’d go to the beach, just the two of us. He’d sit me down on the sand and tell me, “Don’t move. Watch me.” He’d peel down to his bathing suit and dive into the surf. A strong swimmer, he went out so far that he was only a tiny dot on the horizon. He’d swing his arms to show me he was still there, and then swim back to me, pick me up, and swing me around. He taught me how to swim in those waters by body surfing. Once I learned how to ride the waves, the rest was easy.

He created a perfect backyard for his kids and wife. We had a pool, a picnic table, a barbecue, and a big vegetable garden. He tasked my cousin Dominick and me (maybe I was four?) and my red wagon to go into the woods in back and ferry truckloads of the rich soil there to spread on the garden. As a little kid, I always had a patch in that garden. I grew cucumbers, radishes, and peas. Tony (as most people called him) grew: tomatoes, corn, Sicilian squash (“cucuzza”), lettices, eggplant, swiss chard, and whatever else he might have seen at the garden center.

Dad with his younger two kids Maria and Chuck, in the first of progressively larger backyard pools.

He lived at the hardware store and garden center on weekends. Our little house was a constant DIY project. Most projects went well. Some didn’t. He used a woodburning stove to heat a patio that had turned into a greenhouse. He and my mom did some Saturday morning errands, leaving us sleeping at home. The greenhouse roof caught fire and a neighbor called to tell me. It was the first and only time I pulled the fire alarm up the street.

They tell me he was a bad teenager who skipped class and my grandparents sent him to army school (this is back in Italy) when he was 17. You can still see one of his Sicilian separatist graffiti on the side of an apartment building on Palermo’s Corso Calatafimi. I’ve never seen pictures of him as a child—I’m sure that the disruption of World War II played a role—but there are lots of photos of him in the Italian army and school. Most of the time he looks confident and strong, posing in a typically Italian male way (you know it when you see it). I doubt that he had any idea of what his life was going to be like back then. He regaled us regularly with tales of his adventures, but one story sticks in my mind. He’d get bored of a base, or a city. So instead of trying to get a transfer—I’m not sure that was even possible—he’d write his mother, who had a cousin in the defense department. Nuccio would tell his mother that he found the most wonderful girl and that he was ib love. Transfer orders came quickly.

A lot of what he did and became had to do with his being an immigrant. My father spoke until his last breath with a fairly heavy Italian accent. He wasn’t studious in the conventional sense, but he was always curious and read the paper every day. He had the usual Sicilian speaking English accent. He had trouble with double consonants in words like “doctor.” And Siri did not understand him. But he also had a gift for mangling common expressions. My favorite was “you must cry the consequences.” I always thought that it would be a great title for either a country or Elvis Costello song.

I was never sure, though, if he really understood how the U.S. is governed. He looked at its politics through the eyes of a European, and was always frustrated by what he thought of as sheepish compliance by his fellow citizens. Our dinner table when I was a teenager was often a battlefield with my mother, the good liberal, trying to mediate while her hotheaded son and husband butted heads. I knew, though, that he enoyed arguing with me. We never really got angry with each other. In fact, props to him for what was an incredible tolerance. Unlike a lot of my friends’ parents, he never butted in and tried to control our lives. At the same time, he and our mom always supported the habits of their brood; my father and I spent hours playing with and repairing tape recorders, radios, and stereos.

If Nuccio never quite “got” the U.S., he mastered, again with my mother, the art of hospitality. And he gave us a pretty exotic childhood, with Italians visiting and staying over. We lived on a street full of immigrants, and I got used to hearing different accents, languages, and dialects. Way before Giorgio Armani defined how people should dress, we somehow thought that having a Sicilian father was cool, and that people whose families lived in the U.S. for generations were somehow not as lucky as we were.

In the last couple of decades, my dad wasn’t a part of my daily existence. He moved to Pennsylvania and I’ve lived part of the year in Italy. Still, we kept in touch, especially the last few years, with FaceTime. He’d tease me if I needed a shave or if my plants obviously needed TLC. I’m realizing now how a lot of my life choices, like where I live, and which passport I use the most, was an effort to please him, even if he never told me what to do. Daily caregiving recently fell to my sainted sister; they could bicker like an old couple. But even if I didn’t see him that often, I’ll miss knowing that this sweet, complicated and loving guy was just a click or car ride away. We’ll all miss him terribly.

My parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary back in January 2006.

Photo on top: My father Nuccio on the right with his brother and Skype video chat partner Ignazio, in Palermo, November 2003.

You’ve just been erased

“That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion”

I had a pretty glam life in the Before Times. Working in publishing, even for trade journals, was pretty posh as far as jobs go. I was an editor for a weekly legal affairs newspaper—this is before the interwebs—and then I toiled, variously, as an in-house tech consultant, a magazine editor and writer, and a part-time restaurant critic. At the first gig, we had legendary Friday post-publication lunches at the dear departed Restaurant Florent, Champagne and bagel breakfasts, and wine-drenched expense account lunches with writers as we tried to tease the best stories out of them.

At the magazines, I became more visible. I donned a tux and gave awards to lawyers before audiences of 500 or so, was quoted in news releases and articles, and interviewed on video at conferences. I moderated panels of lawyers and executives and had lunch at places like The Four Seasons, once with a guy who’s now the president of Microsoft. I interviewed Richard Gere and Patti Smith at a Buddhist benefit, and hung out with Patti Labelle all day in her kitchen. If you googled my name back then, my editor’s notes and articles shot to the top. In short, in my little corner of the media, I had a public life.

Not my old newsroom, but you get the idea.

A bunch of non-New Yorkers who seemed to love every overhyped consultant they met ended all that. And Covid-19 dealt the coup de grâce. Now old enough to be on Medicare in the U.S., I’m fading away, at least as far as public life goes. I keep thinking of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Erased.”

Why? It’s called “retirement.” And they don’t send you off with a lunch and golden watch any more.

It’s an interesting, if not altogether pleasing process. I didn’t really notice it while we were in Italy, because I was too busy either enjoying living there or dealing with new ways to do everyday stuff like getting an oil change or a haircut, and paying taxes. Back in my familiar New York City home, it’s easy to see what’s missing—dealing with the outside world, basically. One thing that struck me immediately is how isolating American life can be anyway. Here we’ve got neighbors mere feet (or meters!) away, yet we rarely interact with them. But in Umbria, on our hilltop, we regularly engage with neighbors and even passersby as we hike up our road or climb mountain trails. Even a trip to the drugstore can be a social event, because Italians are compulsively chatty.

The Omicron Covid surge ain’t helping. In just a couple of weeks, our neighborhood has become weirdly silent, a combination of it being January, the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and fear of contagion.

Writing this blog helps me ward off what I fear the most, turning into a mindless blob watching endless episodes of home improvement shows on cable. At least I’m keeping up my writing chops, and I’m slowly building an audience. I decided that when I write, I have to be in my home office sitting at the desk, even though I used a laptop and could be, well, in an easy chair, looking up every now and then at a home improvement show or, worse, cable news. And my good friend and former colleague Sue urged me to have a routine. For that, I have The Spartan Woman’s diet and exercise boot camp.

I’ve had different retirement models to follow. My father-in-law pretty much tuned out and watched crappy westerns all day. But my father, similarly cashiered after years of loyal service to his company, moved to the country and became an even more compulsive gardener than he was while I was growing up, his patch of land’s yield rivaling a small farm’s. At the end of a visit to my parents, he’d send us home with bags full of produce. I may not be the gardener my dad was (he’s been laid low by lung disease), but I sure know which path I want to take—albeit in a way that doesn’t involve too much dirt under my fingernails. (The Spartan Woman is our gardener.)

They say you gotta have friends when you don’t have work, and luckily I have lots. A bunch are, due to Covid and distance, virtual. Hello, Facebook, even though I hate you I cain’t quit you. Others live here in New York but still have to put in their time staring at their computers and getting paid for it. During the interregnum between Covid waves, I actually managed to hang out with some in the same meatspace.

Otherwise, I’ve renewed some old friendships. The unfortunate death of one of my best friends (we were besties in high school) led me to renew a friendship with another high school pal, someone who stayed in close touch with the guy we lost. It’s nice to catch up with him—we call each other on FaceTime and walk around our houses and yards. He’s even tapped me to offer some editing suggestions for an article he wrote for his practice, a task that, after years of fixing other people’s writing, is as natural to me as breathing.

It’s nice to be in the city of my birth for awhile. But I have to confess that I’m itching to return to the mountaintop. For one thing, there’s less traffic and a trip to the supermarket is less stressful. But more than that, TSW and I have more of a social life between Italian friends, a couple of Euro and Canadian expats, and the dogs down the road. They say that one of the best ways to delay becoming senile is to keep the mind busy, and I think living in a different country, albeit one that claims me as a citizen, could be how I do it.

Down the YouTube rabbit hole: Italians eating Domino’s Pizza, fast European trains, and a chatty Roman chef on the roof

We’ve been in New York for a couple of months, and the Omicron Covid-19 variant (plus crappy weather) is keeping us indoors most of the time. So to amuse myself I grab my iPad or the big flatscreen when it’s free and plunge into that upside down world known as YouTube.

Unlike most normal people I know, I don’t have a day job. I’m old, for one thing, and the pandemic killed most of the freelance gigs I had. And I should confess that I didn’t go crazy finding another one because I have lots of personal business to take care of. Today, in fact, is the fifth anniversary of the last day I was gainfully employed. I stayed home that day because of a cold, and my dull, kind of idiotic market-speaking “boss” (sorry, no one’s the boss of me….) called to tell me that my dull, kind of idiotic job had been eliminated, along with those of more than 20 of my colleagues.

So, YouTube. Let me tell you, living in a New York outer borough during an infection spike is pretty dull. This is not the New York of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Sex and the City or any other fantasy you might have about the place. So I bang around looking for fun videos in the absence of real life. One of my favorite genres lately is that of Italians dissing something in the United States. They often go after an easy target: American food, or at least American interpretations of Italian food. Sometimes they offer to show viewers how to do it properly. Often, they don’t and choose mainly to make faces or utter curses that don’t show up in the subtitles.

A terrific example of the former is a married couple that call their channel Pasta Grammar. Harper and Eva have gone from decently shot home videos to more professional stuff (Harper is a videographer, so he knows what he’s doing.) Harper, as you might guess, is an American guy who’s partial to chicken and fitness drinks. Eva (who pronounces her husband’s name as “Are-pair”) is a former Italian language teacher who hails from the southern Italian region of Calabria. Harper’s clean cut; Eva has a mass of black curls and an impish smile.

The two do a good comedy act, taking turns as comic and straight guy. Early videos show Harper pranking poor Eva by getting her to eat a Domino’s pizza, or taste jarred tomato sauces and similar horrors. There is nothing like an Italian person’s look of sheer revulsion at the dog food he or she is being made to taste, and Eva acquits herself nicely. She’s also a good cook, and interspersed with the jokey videos are those showing her cooking delicious stuff.

They’ve gotten family into the act, too. Harper’s dad is Max Alexander and he lives in Rome, where he’s been on the Italian TV series MasterChef Italia. They took Max down to Calabria to cook with a local character, who put an apron on the jacket and tie-wearing Max and showed him how to prepare beans in a fireplace. It doesn’t help that the fish out of water Max barely understood the woman, who speaks in a mixture of Calabrese dialect and Italian.

I like what Eva and Harper do. They’ve managed to parlay their relationship into what looks like a growing business. They do food tours of Calabria and Sicily now, as Covid restrictions eased (last year, anyway, before this damn surge.) And they’ve got actual sponsors for their videos. Go binge watch them; their rapport is fun to see.

Another, more recently married couple occupies some of the same space. Carlo and Sarah are both very videogenic (is that a real word, Judy?), and Sarah’s pranking of Carlo can be pretty funny. He’s got a variety of puzzled faces, and occasionally he gives it back. In one video, he teaches Sarah curses but backpedals the English translations. There’s a bit less of an emphasis on cooking, although Carlo of late has been stepping up to the stove teach Italian dishes like spaghetti carbonara and the like.

Sarah never can resist pranking Carlo, whose reactions are usually funny to watch.

Did I mention a querulous Roman? Meet Max Mariola, chef and culinary consultant. He’s got a thriving YouTube channel, and most of his videos are done on the roof of his building in Rome. His setup is pretty serious and probably rivals the kitchen in your house. Plus, you know, Rome. There’s no pranking here, just good recipes for everything from spaghetti with clams to hummus. He doeos the classics, but even better, he’s inventive, putting dishes together like fettuccine with salmon, avocados, and lime (in 10 minutes, he boasts). Unfortunately, some if not most of his videos are not subtitled in English, and if your Italian is basic or nonexistent you’ll probably have trouble following his rapid-fire Roman-accented banter. Even if you’re fluent you might find it a bit much, but he’s a serious cook and I’m learning a lot by watching him.

I did promise fast European trains in the headline. Italy may be romantically thought of as the country of golden sunsets, Chianti, and fashion. But it’s also a modern country linked by fast trains, with one of the best networks in Europe. YouTubers are fond of both the public Trenitalia Frecciarossa and the private Italo trains, with the former recently having started a Paris-Milan run. Here’s the rundown, below. I can’t wait until I feel comfortable enough to be zipping around on these again. Happy New Year!