To My Sister, Beth, On Her Birthday

Since it has been a month since my last post, and since today is a very special day, I figured I’d share a little bit about someone who I have spent most of my life with, and someone I could not imagine life without.

My sister, Beth.

Elizabeth Ann Aiello was born on March 19, 1973.  Being only 2 1/2 years old at the time, I was relatively unaware of what a profound impact this little girl would have on my life.

In the early 1970s, there was no way for parents determine the sex of their future child.  They had to choose boy and girl names and be ready for the outcome.  My parents chose Elizabeth Ann for a girl, and Robert Carl for a boy.  When I was much younger, I wondered what it would have been like to have Robert Carl instead of Elizabeth Ann.  But that wonder was short-lived.  I couldn’t be happier to have my little sister in my life.  I thought so then, and I think so still today.

As siblings, Beth and I grew up fairly close.  Naturally, we had our share of big fights, as any siblings do; but for the most part we got along really well.  We were each other’s best friends at times when it seemed like we didn’t have any others around.   We stuck up for each other, and watched out for each other.  We still do.

I can’t really remember my earliest memory of my sister, but thanks to a decent long-term memory, thousands of family photos, and a few treasured audio recordings from our childhood, I know we always had a fun time together.

Rick and Beth, 1975Our bedrooms were our playrooms and we’d mess them up with games and puzzles and whatever else we could get our hands on.  We played our Bee Gees and “Grease” albums until the grooves wore down, and sang along until our voices were hoarse.  Beth was always a better artist than I, but anything we could do to be creative was fun for both of us; from coloring to drawing to painting-by-numbers.

We had active and wild imaginations, and always came up with creative games to play, from “School” to “Radio Station;” to huge villages made of “Little People” houses or streets and mansions in our sandbox that our Dad built for us.  We fashioned forts in the living room out of various items, or in the backyard with our lawn chairs.  We had the most intense paper airplane wars known to mankind, and spent hours playing Monopoly, with games that lasted not hours or even days, but WEEKS.

Rick and Beth on the SwingsetSo many fun things we did are fresh in my memory:  Backyard baseball (and knocking Dad’s prized rose buds off with the baseball bat); the swingset, swinging so high that the set would ‘pump;’ making Chef Boy-Ar-Dee cheese pizzas for lunch; phone calls to WRKR and “The Real Mike Neal;” roller skating in the garage to the “Muppet Movie” soundtrack; hunting for caterpillars in Turco’s field; picking and eating the fresh raspberries in the backyard and avoiding the bumblebees; long bike rides around the block and beyond; endless summer trips to Anderson Pool, which was right at the end of our block.

The list could go on for paragraphs, and you would be reading it for hours.  It seemed we always found something to occupy our time. Most times we did things with friends, but many times we did things just with each other.  Whatever we did, we had fun doing it.

One thing we shared that has remained strong to this day is our love of music and theater.  Beth took tap dancing first, and as the story goes, she was struggling while practicing with my mom and I came up and showed her how to do the step.  My mom asked me if I wanted to take tap, too; and before I knew it we were both taking lessons.  We did that for most of our childhood, performing in recitals alone and together.  We made quite a team.

Naturally as we got older, things changed a bit.  Pre-teen tensions caused occasional angst, but we were still often  together.  We both played basketball in grade school, but she was much more active in softball, soccer and volleyball.  I always admired her for her athletic ability, which was clearly greater than mine.  As we entered high school, we kept our love of music and theater alive by performing in chorus and in musicals.  We didn’t always get the biggest roles, but we still had a great time.

When we got old enough to get jobs, we even did that together– heading down to Six Flags Great America with our friend and long-time next door neighbor Becky Turco to apply for jobs.  Little did we know at the time that we’d both spend over 10 years working at the park, learning skills that would help us determine our future careers.

But as time wore on, we finally started plotting our own paths.  I moved to Chicago in 1997, and Beth, who was the first to move out of the house in around 1994, stayed around Kenosha for a while.  Eventually she met her future husband, Geoff, and they moved to Delavan, WI together just before getting married in 2002.  It would be five years before they had their daughters, Abby and Emily; and in the span of that time, we suffered the loss of our father.  Somewhere in the course of the last decade, we became full-fledged adults.  It all happened so quickly.

Abby, Geoff, Beth and Emily - Summer 2009I love and admire my sister so much.  I probably don’t tell her that very often, and I need to be better about that.  She married a wonderful guy, has a wonderful family, and is raising her beautiful daughters with so much love and affection and attention.  She’s a wonderful mother, wife, daughter and sister.  I think she needs to hear that more frequently.

So today, on her 37th birthday (sorry, Beth, but I’m still closer to 40 so you have nothing to complain about), I wish her a happy and wonderful birthday, with many more to come.

Happy Birthday, Beth.  Love, your big bro.

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Happy 10th Birthday, Pippin!

Pippin and clock - 7weeks

In honor of Pippin’s 10th birthday, I thought it’d be fun to share a “Top 10” list of little-known Pippin facts.  Facts about my cat, not the Broadway show.

  1. Pippin was adopted from a girl I worked with at Crate & Barrel.  She put up a sign in the stockroom advertising “Gray Kittens.” She was asking $10 for each kitten, but I don’t think I ever paid her.
  2. Pippin has moved with me three times.
  3. Pippin and I spent the first few months alone, and then when we moved to Andersonville with Jason and Chad in July of 2000, he encountered his first roommate, Kiki.  I discovered that Pippin does much better living with a roommate.
  4. Pippin has 8 of his 9 lives.  He spent one when he fell out of our third floor porch window one night in 2000, which led to a frantic search for him all throughout the neighborhood.  I found him in front of the building, trying to claw himself into a basement window.
  5. Pippin met his now-brother, Screech, in May of 2001.  They’ve been inseparable ever since.
  6. Pippin 7 WeeksPippin was named after the 1971 musical, “Pippin,” by Stephen Schwartz.
  7. Pippin is definitely a Tabby, but more than one person has mentioned they can see Abyssinian in him as well.
  8. Pippin is a small cat, especially when compared to his younger, but much bigger, brother. I often wonder if he was the runt of the litter.
  9. Pippin is extremely cuddly and affectionate, but of my two boys he is absolutely the scoundrel.  If there is food within reach, Pippin will find it.
  10. When I adopted Pippin he was only 7 weeks old.  I estimated his birthday to be February 17 since I adopted him on May 17, 2000.  Adopting Pippin was one of the best things I ever did.  He’s brought me so much joy and love.  I can’t imagine not having a pet now.  These 10 years have gone by so fast… I hope we have 10 more in our future.  Happy Birthday, Pippin!

Pippin at Christmas 2009

Thirty-Nine

Ouch.

Thirty-Nine.  It sounds so… penultimate.  It’s a transition number, just leading into the next.  It’s a placeholder… a stepping stone.

And it’s so meaningless.  There’s little that’s particularly interesting about the number 39, except that it is the number just before fffff…foorrrrr… well, the number that follows.

In past years on my birthday, I looked for information about the age which I was turning, just to give some fun facts about that number.  And in most cases, there were some interesting things to find out.  For 39, there were just a few.  For instance:

  • In religion, Jesus was scourged with 39 lashes at the pillar before he was crucified.  The law stated that a criminal was sentenced to “40 lashes minus one,” or 39, because the belief was that 40 lashes would actually kill a man.  In other words, 40 is fatal.  Lovely.
  • Also in religion, there are 39 books in the Old Testament.
  • In arts and entertainment, Jack Benny claimed to be 39 years old for over 40 years.  Sounds like a good plan to me.
  • The bands The Cure and Queen both recorded songs with the title of “39.”  Queen’s song coincided with the 39th song released in sequential order on their albums to that point.
  • In history, the U.S. Constitution was signed by 39 different people.
  • The number of Scud missiles that Iraq fired at Israel during the Gulf War in 1991 was 39.
  • And at age 39, Martin Luther King was assassinated; also at age 39, Amelia Earhart went missing.

So what does all this mean?  Nothing, really.  Except that today I am 39 years old, and I really don’t feel a day older than 29, or even 19.  (OK I do feel a little older than 19.)  I’m happy and healthy and in a much better place in my life now than I was even a year ago.  I feel optimistic about the year ahead, and am hopeful for some wonderful things to come my way in 2010.

Today, I will be spending my birthday with 128 of my dearest friends, on stage, singing my heart out in the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus’ holiday show, “Christmas Follies.”  If you’re around the Chicago area and have a few bucks and a couple hours to spare, stop by for our show at 3pm or 8pm and celebrate with me.  Because, as one of our songs says… I can’t celebrate without you!  You can find out more at www.cgmc.org.

Thanks for being with me for another year.  Looking forward to the next 39 years!

Prepping for the Party

Every year for the last 10 years, I have had a combination Holiday/Birthday party at my apartment, wherever it was at the time.  And every year it’s one of the most exciting and stressful times in my life, because I have to consider one very important thing:

What will I make to eat?

You see, I’m Italian (in case you haven’t guessed), and us Italians like to do one thing, and we do it very well.  We make food for our friends and family.  And when we make food, we make enough to feed an army.

For me, it goes back to my childhood, when my Nana and my Aunt Rita would prepare Sunday dinner for the family.  Nana would never serve store-bought, dry pasta… for shame!  Nana made pasta from scratch!  And she’d make a TON of it.

On those Sundays we’d arrive and on my Uncle John’s bed (he was a priest, and he had a bedroom for when he would come to visit Nana) there would be a huge white sheet with rows and rows of that evening’s pasta laid upon it.  Some days it was spaghetti or linguini; others it was stuffed ravioli.  Some days it was gnocchi.  Whatever it was, it was all homemade and, we knew from experience, incredibly delicious.

That tradition also carried through to our family Christmas Eve dinners, where we observed our own version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  There was, of course, the Italian staple, baccala, served both fried and in sauce; an anchovy-bread crumb-walnut pasta; numerous breaded and fried fish (croppi was one I remember liking a lot); as well as the standard calimari and, for starters, shrimp cocktail.  Add to that the amazing fried potato rolls with the name I can never spell, and a plethora of delicious dessert items, and you had yourself one heck of a feast.

So as I got older and moved out on my own, I kept the traditions of feeding the world alive.  My first official party was actually a New Year’s Eve party in my very first apartment in Wicker Park.  I don’t think I did a pasta dish, but I do recall making Italian Beef for the very first time.  At my first Holiday/Birthday party, however, I did make some pasta… probably Mostaciolli.  I didn’t have that many people there, because my apartment at the time was very small; but it did mark the first of many to come.

The next party was with my roommates in Andersonville – Chad, Jason and I.  Our last names started with A, B and C; so we called it the “House of ABC Holiday Party.”  I went pretty nuts for this one, as I recall.  I made stuffed shells… at least 3-4 huge pans of them.  It took FOREVER, and I was so exhausted by the time the party started… but everyone loved them.  That was the party that really started the tradition.  From there, in subsequent years, I made lasagna (again), mostaccioli, Italian beef (again), meatball bombers, and then chili.

Chili was always the favorite.  It was easy to make, comparatively inexpensive, and still had a place in my family history– the recipe was my Dad’s.  So for the last few years, I’ve been making chili, and everyone comes expecting it.

But this year I think I’m going to try something really different.  I have my ideas, but I won’t reveal them just yet.  Just suffice it to say that those who taste this will WANT the recipe.  And it’s so easy, too.

Yes, the holidays are fun and planning the party is a lot of work, but the end result is always a good time.  No matter how decorated my place is (and it will be QUITE decorated), if I don’t have some yummy treats for everyone to enjoy, the evening just won’t seem complete.

Maybe someday I’ll feel inspired (and have the money) to make 9 pans of lasagna again.  But for now, as long as it’s delicious and everyone likes it, I’ll make it easy on myself.