When I was fifteen-years old, I signed up for the football team at Roslyn High School for all of the wrong reasons. I wanted to impress the ladies. I wanted to wear the jersey in the hallways on Friday afternoon. I wanted to be one of the cool guys.

I arrived at the first practice thinking about how cool it would be to make the team. After the first practice, I wanted to quit. I hated it. I hated the endless laps around the field. I hated that there were two running backs already on the team that I had little chance of beating out. I hated the heat of the sweltering mid-August practices. I hated that all of these guys knew each other and I felt like an outsider.

But I loved the jersey. I loved it so much that I wore it on the first day of school to announce to my climates that I was on the team. I proudly strutted throughout the hallways with the blue number 33 attached to my back.

I arrived at practice that afternoon and gave a half hearted attempt through each rep. I was the first one out of the locker room that afternoon, leaving my jersey in the bin for the last time. I’d never wear it again.

I quit the team.

I gave up on my coach, my teammates and myself. Mainly myself, since I was at best a third string cog whose main assignment was to fill the sidelines during games.

What did I not want to do? Work. What else didn’t I want to do? Work hard.

I wanted the easy button. I wanted to be on the football team but I didn’t want to do the work that it took to be there. It was too difficult.

And twenty eight years later, I don’t get to write about how I fought like Rudy to work my way up the roster. I don’t get to write how after months of meticulous practice I got the nod late in the season and made a crucial play to help my team. I don’t get to write about the friendships that I made on that team by bonding together through a season of challenges.

I get to write about how I quit.

Five years ago, a woman in her mid-twenties called to get some mentoring about photography. I had worked with her husband, who was a DJ, at a recent wedding and she wanted to get into the wedding photography business.

Red flags appeared quickly. It became obvious that she thought there was quick, easy money in the business and she wanted to cash in.

She called a few days later for our mentoring rates and we discussed her photography experience, which was extremely limited. Exited to start a business, I pulled back a bit and attempted to get her to understand what went becoming a great photographer as well as running a successful business.

“How many lessons do I need before I am a great photographer?” she asked impatiently.

I shot off the answer that would question whether her desire was for instant money or for long term personal growth.

“I’ve been doing this for eighteen years. I’ll let you know when I get there,” I answered.

“That’s too difficult,” she responded. I’d heard that somewhere before.

You’d be surprised to learn that I never did hear back from her.

Time and time again, we hear from new shutterbugs looking to start their own photography business and we are asked for our advice. I have a good idea who will make it and who won’t during that first phone call. I always explain how difficult this business is. There are people every second starting a new photography business, many with minimal experience in photography or running a business. It looks easy, I suppose.

But there is no easy button.

That got me thinking. If there was an easy button, would you want to press it? Would you want things to just appear without the work it took to get it?

I know it’s tempting to say yes. You might be struggling with a job you hate. Been there, done that. Got the T-shirt. You might picture yourself on a permanent vacation dropping Strawberry Margaritas with your toes in the sand. But three months later when you are bored, restless and uninspired, will you be glad it was so easy?

Call me crazy, but I don’t want the easy button. It’s supposed to be difficult. That’s what makes it worth it.

I thought back to the stories that I’ve published on this blog so far. The story where I sat in the bathroom stall more than four hours to get into a game. Running out of gas in a dangerous neighborhood in the middle of the night. My difficulties with college and getting my career started. Getting mugged going to the Metallica concert when I was fourteen or getting hit by a car while rollerblading.

All of these stories have one thing in common. It is the struggle. And not just the struggle, but the work it takes to get through it. That is what makes it worthwhile. It would be boring if it was handed to me. If it was easy, nobody would care.

Like Donald Miller, the author of Blue Like Jazz said, who wants to watch a movie about a guy making 80 grand and driving a Volvo? Nobody cares if there is no struggle.

I grind my teeth in embarrassment every time I think of that story. It makes me realize that I’m more regretful of the opportunities that I didn’t follow through on than I am proud of the ones that I did.

Think about the inspiring people that you know. Ask them what they are proud of. I would bet a round of Strawberry Margarita’s that it wasn’t their big house or their boat. I would bet they would tell you the stories of the struggles that it took to get there.

Struggle leads to pain. Pain leads to experience. Experience leads to knowledge. Knowledge leas to growth. Growth leads to success.

Don’t look for the easy button. Embrace your struggle. They are what make the best stories.

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As an 11-year-old boy, there was nothing more important on a weekend afternoon than watching the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was my first love, born four years earlier with the gift of Steelers pajamas for Christmas and growing quickly into a childhood crush a month later with an exciting victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII.

And now they were coming to town. The Steelers were scheduled to take on the New York Jets on that upcoming Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium in New York. So many of my heroes would be playing mere miles from my front door. Terry Bradshaw. Franco Harris. Lynn Swann. Jack Lambert. I had never been to a football game and I never expected my parents to take me, but everyday after school for two weeks I asked. And I asked. And I asked. No was always the answer, and near the end of the week I habitually sulked in my room after hearing the latest update.

On the Thursday prior to the game, my mom let me stay up late to watch a new show called “Cheers” and I didn’t have it in me to ask again, I was resigned to my fate. During a commercial, my mom calmly looked towards my and asked if I would want to go to the game Saturday. My eyes must have looked like they popped out of my head instead of me answering, because she gave me the biggest smile and told me that my friend Howie had two tickets and wanted to take me!

Pure joy is the only was to describe how I felt. I’ve never been one to wish any part of life away, but if I had a remote to fast forward 39 hours, my finger would be pressing down on that button firmly.

Our dads dropped us off by the train station near the stadium, me in my Steelers jersey and scarf and Howie wearing his awful green Jets jacket. We talked 11-year-old trash talk as we walked towards the gate. The obstructed view of Shea Stadium and the smell of the tailgate parties amped up my excitement to a level that I didn’t know I had.

Now, it’s common to hear about the first time a kid walks through that tunnel and sees the green grass of the field…now I’m sure that was nice and all, but the first thing I remember while walking to our Mezzanine level seats were the gold pants, black helmet and while jerseys of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was mesmerizing to me. I remember Howie waving his hand in front of my face and reminding me to breathe.

The game itself, moved way too quickly. Why only 60 minutes? Couldn’t they play for 100 minutes?Maybe 200? Terry Bradshaw throwing a touchdown pass to Calvin Sweeney in the open end of the stadium is still etched in my mind. I still recall the training staff rushing out on the field to tend to Bradshaw’s elbow. He struggled to walk off the field and he would never return. It was the final game of his Hall of Fame career and that was his final touchdown pass.

At halftime, Howie and I messed around in the open concourse while we sipped on a hot chocolate. Down a few levels were a group of guys playing a pickup game of football. We both though it would be so funny to throw something towards them and scare them. Eleven year olds don’t have the greatest sense of humor sometimes. So I was designated to take an empty whipped cream bottle and fling in a few hundred feet down. Nothing can go wrong there, huh?

The bottle ricocheted off of a dumpster, the football game can to an impromptu halt and a large hand grabbed my arm and did not release. The hand belonged to a New York City Police Officer who screamed at me for doing such a stupid thing. I stuttered that I didn’t, uhhh, it wasn’t, uhhhh, I, I, I. He told me I was out of here, kicked out of the stadium. All I remember is Howie screaming for me to run and me starting to cry. It took about twelve seconds but it seemed like an hour.

I had to have sounded so pathetic because the police officer released my arm and told me to never do that again. It worked, because I still haven’t. We returned to our seats and neither Howie nor myself every mentioned the whipped cream incident ever again.

The game did have historical significance beside being my first game and Bradshaw’s final game. It was also the last Jets game ever to be played at Shea Stadium. The Jets were moving to Giants Stadium next year and leaving the Queens, N.Y. stadium behind. So as it was apparent that the Steelers were going to win (the final score was 34-7) the fans around us became angry. They began kicking out the seats to take with them.

The entire row behind us was dislodged. Now, I’m sure that when it is the final game before demolition, this might be accepted. The problem was, the New York Mets still played there, so those seats were still a little important! To my horror, right behind me was my buddy the police officer. I still remember him smiling at me as he led two men off in handcuffs.

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I wrote a story here a few weeks ago about friendships and relationships. How I’m trying to learn to be a giver and not just a taker. I have many examples of givers in my life to learn from. My wife and my mother to name two.

I finished that story while in Boston on assignment and spent the next day and a half driving home, complete with a few detours to meet friends Seshu Badrinath at his home in Connecticut and Ken Carfagno for pizza outside of Albany along the way.

I arrived home utterly exhausted from four days of less than adequate sleep. The night before, at a relatively empty motel in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, I drew the short straw of being in the room below a man singing “Everybody Hurts” by REM over and over and over. Everybody hurt-including me- when I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Before I left, I called my wife, sent out a few emails, and took a few minutes to scroll through my Facebook feed. My cousin Diane posted that her son Cooper was sick. I noticed that my Aunt Kathy had commented, hoping that little Coop was feeling better. My Aunt had sent us a check and a card for Christmas, I remembered, and I needed to thank her for it when I got home.

I made it home in time to meet Elizabeth for lunch. My droopy eyes caused Elizabeth to give me that pity look. I’m fine, I said, for the 100th time. I was ready for bed long before the sun went down.

I awoke after my first good night sleep in almost a week to a series of texts and phone calls from my mom from the night before. I could tell something was wrong before I heard her voice. Everything pops into your head as the phone rings. Who died? Something wrong with my dad? My brother? My Uncle Richie, who is battling Leukemia? I hate those phone calls.

“I have really bad news for you,” my mom prepared me. “Your Aunt Kathy passed away last night.”

That cold, startled feeling that swept through my body is unmistakable.

Those phone calls happen for everyone of us throughout life. Elizabeth lost her dad when she was fourteen and she has been forced to think differently about death than I have. I’m forty three and I’ve lost grandparents and friends, but the closest to me have still been with me. That’s probably odd for someone my age and the odds get worse with each passing day. But it’s been a fortunate blessing.

Being Italian, people assume that we come from a large family but that isn’t the case with us. I have two parents, one brother, two aunts, two uncles, and less than then seven cousins on my side.

My childhood was intertwined with my aunt, uncle and cousin. So many memories race back from the family gatherings at their home on 267th Street in Queens. We’ve never been as close as we were back then and my moving out of New York in 1998 ensured that.

I seemed to always know that I wouldn’t live in New York once I grew up. I always loved geography and travel and it just seemed natural for me that I would eventually move. But there is guilt inside me that comes out and my lack of loyalty to the New York metropolitan area. All of my family is there. Every family member I mentioned lives within a few hours drive. Pittsburgh is the closest I’ve lived since I moved, and that’s still and eight hour drive back home.

My Aunt Kathy and Uncle Richie were both always my allies within my extended family. When I fought with my father during my most defiant years, it was their house where I took refuge. It was their number that I called. When I started interning at Newsday as a photographer, my aunt switched loyalties from the Daily News to create a scrapbook of all of my published photographs.

I used to joke with her because she was afraid to drive on any highways. She would find any combinations of side roads to make it to see my cousin Diane without driving a moment on the Long Island Expressway or the Grand Central Parkway. One of my favorite stories came when Elizabeth and I were married in 2002.

Aunt Kathy had a fear of flying that trumped her fear of highways. With our wedding taking place in Cleveland, the nine hour drive from Queens was out of the question. So they bought the plane tickets and she did the uncomfortable. As the plane lifted off from Laguardia Airport, there was smoke on the plane. The flight had to be aborted and turned back to the airport. Amazingly, she pushed all of her fears aside and got onto the next plane and was there for our wedding.

At the reception, with a mixture of laughter and fright, my Uncle relayed the story to me. She rushed over and took hold of my arm with power that I didn’t know she possessed. Through a nervous smile that made me laugh, she said the words that confirmed the love that she had always expressed through her actions.

“Only for you, Vincent!,” she let me know. “Only for you!”

Only it wasn’t only for me. I knew she would have done that for everyone in her life, but she certainly knew how to make me feel special. She spent her days caring for her mother, where everyday she would bring her meals and her favorite newspaper every day at the same time. She would care for my uncle, who has battled leukemia for five years now. If anyone s going to beat the nasty disease it will be him. He handles pain unlike anyone I’ve met in my life. That strength is going to be needed now more than ever.

It’s hard not to feel guilty for not doing more no matter how great a relationship was. I hadn’t seen her since the summer at the beach. We went with the kids down to the water and they had to get home before we got back. I never got to say goodbye in person. If an unemotional me was talking to present emotional me, I would make sure I knew that those things happen. It’s just hard when it’s what goes through your head.

When my uncle was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, it was always in the back of my head that she was going to have to learn how to live without him. It never crossed my mind that he was going to have to live without her.

Shortly after returning from Boston, I was on the road for New York for my aunts funeral. I can find a silver lining in just about anything but some parts of life seem to make that difficult. The night that she passed, she was suffering from a tremendous headache and within an hour of telling my uncle, she was gone.

And at her funeral, I realized that even though I knew my aunt since I was born, I didn’t really know much about her. She always made it about me. Or my Uncle. Or Diane, her mom or her grandkids. It was never about her, almost to a fault.

Her favorite singer was Rod Stewart, but I never heard her play his music. My uncle told a fabulous story the following day that really summed up who she was. One of the few times that she got angry at him, she picked up a box and instead of throwing the shoes, she threw the paper that separated the shoes. The paper went about a foot before fluttering to the ground.

“I’m so angry at you,” she yelled, “but I didn’t want to hurt you.”

They both burst out in laughter.

And the first thing that crossed my mind when she passed, and what is still in my mind today, is that I never called to thank her for the Christmas gift. Knowing her, she didn’t think twice that she hadn’t heard from me. She was doing so many things for so many people, how could she even keep track of the thanks that were owed to her?

I tell myself that I can’t worry about the guilt. I’m positive that if I were to buy the farm today, I wouldn’t be thinking about being thanked for something I did. But I still regret not calling. And maybe there is no silver lining, but there is the opportunity to learn from the pain. And I learned that it’s the calls that you don’t make that can be the hardest to live with.

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I have to give myself credit; I’ve become a pretty motivated guy.

That was not always the case. The motivation has increased with age. Maybe that comes from a sense of urgency. Time seems endless when you are in your 20’s. I heard the muffled sounds of the ticking clock in my late 30’s. That clock started to become visible as I moved into my 40’s.

At this point, I am asked quite regularly what motivates me. Where did I develop my drive? What gives me the confidence to keep pushing and challenging myself and follow crazy dreams? How were myself and Elizabeth both able to trust ourselves enough to quit our jobs and go at in alone in crazy world of self-employment? What makes me truly believe that the goals I’ve set for the next five years have even a remote chance of being successful?

And when I answer the question honestly, the words that encompass my motivation are not positive ones.

Insecurity. Fear. Rejection. Pain. The feeling of not being good enough. All of those things burn deep inside my motivational furnace that no amount of success that comes this way will contain. It’s as if my insecurity throughout my childhood fuels my need for success as an adult.

I was hardwired to either succeed or to wind up in a mental hospital. It was going to be one of the two. Part of the reason is that I’ve been blessed- and cursed- with a tremendous memory.

Take an ten-year-old kid with a memory like an elephant and team him up with some classmates singing a made up song on the playground for everyone to hear. The result is instant, soul-crushing pain and longer term doubt. I remember every word of that catchy little jingle and can still find myself singing it to myself while mowing the lawn.

If you gave me time, I could probably recite all of those memories. The time I went home crying from my own birthday party because I became the most fun to pick on that day. Even though I’m sure my whining caused the ugly scene leaving the schoolyard that fateful afternoon, I remember the tears. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, I guess.

Confidence was in low supply. Insecurity ruled my mind. Especially when it came to my older brother Steve.

If you played on a deck hockey team with me in my early twenties, you were probably on a team called “Second Fiddle” while my brother’s team was named “Favorite Son.” They were named that way because I was asked to assign the team names when I arrived for registration. That wasn’t just a cute play on words. It how I felt growing up.

My brother Steve is a smart, extremely likable guy who commands a room when he talks. His smile, energy and confidence make people gravitate towards him. That was always evident during the big family get togethers. I shrunk in that spotlight.

Steve was the one that was self sufficient from an early age as I annoyed for attention. My dad could count on him to get a chore done the same way he could count on me to try to get out of it. I was labeled early on in our house as “not mechanically inclined.” That’s as true today as it was in 1984. Please don’t ask me, of all people, to fix your leaky faucet. Or anything that requires a wrench.

In the third grade, Steve’s teacher labeled him as “Harvard material.” That’s was hard for him to shake. Imagine the pressure that comes with that label? I didn’t have the stress of such lofty expectations. I was so unimpressive that I elicited barely a head turn when I graduated from high school without one college application filled out.

And as I came out of my youth-encompassing fog during my early twenties, I felt a need to prove something. To my parents. To my brother. To my teachers. To everyone who I aided in believing that I was useless. I felt the need to prove that I wasn’t an oxygen thief.

I had accepted that I would never be as good as my brother in my parents eyes. But I could still be something. So I set off on a path to prove everyone wrong. I had no idea how hard that would be.

The pain that filled me is what propelled me. It’s what I used to work like a madman to try and climb out of the deep hole that I had dug for myself. I had to work twice as hard to have any chance of catching up. It was easier to with my career. Once I had grown up to a level where I was no longer getting myself pursued by the police, I knew there was one thing I could do to change my perception.

Move.

Yup. I needed to move. Not just out of my town, but out of New York. Away from everyone I knew, and more importantly, everyone who knew me. I wanted a fresh start. And it worked remarkably well. From the day I arrived at Ohio University- at twenty six years old– I had a new life.

Nobody saw the idiot who made all of those mistakes. They met a guy with confidence, drive and hustle. It’s like I was in the witness protection program without the threat of a mob hit. I had an entirely new identity.

It’s when I came back home that I had problems. My parents still saw me as the twelve-year-old that burned plastic rulers on the couch and not the maturing adult who was thriving within his vocation. When I hung out with my old friends, they continued to tell stories of my mischievous past and brushed off the positive stories of today.

I was changing for the better. I was working hard. I was trying. But I was labeled.

I couldn’t have written this story five years ago.

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