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I was born at a very young age and...bud um boom...

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Great Frank versus Perry Moral Dilemma

I grew up in an extended Italian family. My father and his five brothers were third generation Italian-Americans but were still tied closely to their Italian roots, having been raised for the most part by their maternal grandparents, my Great-Grandpa and Grandma DiToro, who were first generation immigrants. As a result, they admired and were proud of all things Italian, not the least of which were successful Italian entertainers.

To a man, my dad and uncles all loved and admired Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. For those of you who may not know about Perry Como, he was a crooner popular at the same time as Sinatra but whose value system was the polar opposite. Perry had first been a full time barber, Frank had never worked a day job. Perry loved his wife and was, the story goes, always true to her. Frank loved his wives and was never true to them. Perry was married once and stayed married until death did them part. Frank was married a number of times and was always looking over his current wife's shoulder. Perry was relaxed and a homebody, Frank was career driven and usually on the road and partying. Perry was content singing and doing his TV show and did not make movies. Frank sang and was a television and movie star as well as an big time Las Vegas intertainer. Perry was squeaky clean, went to church, hung with his family and had golf scores in the low seventies. Frank went to bars, was tied to the mafia, hung with the Rat pack and had seduction scores in the hundreds. And so, they could not have been more different. Their only similarity, it appears, was that they were both Italian-Americans. Yet, both were revered by my father and my uncles.

When referring to Frank, the males in my family would, with exaggerated New York Italian-American accents and a lowered voice, say: "Hey, that Frank! He gets some tail, huh!? He screws all the most beautiful actresses. How'd you like to be Frank for a week, huh?" And as they talked about him getting laid they would make that fist pumping motion down below their hips which indicated that Frank, that most impressive of swingers, "was getting his and everyone else's while he was at it."

When I became a drummer and moved from New Jersey to Las Vegas to live and work full time, the first thing my dad and uncles would ask me when I would come home to Jersey on visits was: "So, Ron, are you screwing those showgirls silly?" Or, "So, Ron, have you gotten to see Frank and Dino in Vegas? I'll bet there's tons of gorgeous cooze hangin' around them all the time, begging to screw them--am I right?"

On the other hand, when they discussed Perry, the men were equally reverential but about his sound family values. My father and my uncles all said, more than once in one form or another: "You know Ron, Perry Como, he goes to church with his family every week and he doesn't fool around on his wife. He's a good man. He used to be a barber you know, so underneath he's like us, a working man. He doesn't let his success go to his head."

So what does an impressionable young man do with these conflicting moral positions? I can tell you, with some embarrassment, that I did not recognize the conflict. And so it never occurred to me to ask the men in my family the obvious question: "How can you value both Sinatra and Como when they each stand for such different things?" It was only in graduate school that I began examining the split and its effects on me.

I have, over time, concluded that my father and uncles were very comfortable with such a moral split because they were Italian and had bought the old world Italian party line that adultery is okay and divorce is not. For example, on a recent trip to Italy, this was confirmed when I spent time with an Italian physician who bragged to me at length about his trips to Cuba with his male buddies and the high quality of the "teenage screwing" that is available. He is married with three grown children and spoke lovingly of his wife and family. Based on his description of his own behavior and the behavior of his friends, I would not be surprised if this was the norm in Italy.

When I asked my father why Italian men do not divorce but have affairs he said: "Because it's the right thing to do. Italians are family men. We don't abandon our children. We stay together for the kids. We can always get something on the side if we're unhappy. It's what men do."

I did my best to live up to this value system and to earn my father's and my uncles' respect. I married but was unfaithful. I tried the best I could to sleep with as many women as I could and dutifully reported it to my dad and uncles. I basked in their approval but all the while was anxious that I was not really macho enough to be a real lady’s man like Frank because I felt guilty about my exploits and I suspected that no self respecting Sinatra-like male would feel such guilt. Apparently, I had some unrecognized Perry Como in me.

When I got into graduate school at age 32 I was forced, in my supervision therapy sessions, to begin examining my value system. Slowly, over time, I began to see that my Dad and Uncles had taught me something that did not work for me. I decided to stop the lies and the cheating. It took me a while because such behavior is highly addictive.

I often wonder how many young Italian-American men have struggled with this Frank versus Perry split. And when I see an Italian-American man with a slick Brilliantined haircut, his top three shirt buttons open, wearing gold chains and a flashy wristwatch and cupping his crotch while ogling women on the street, I can safely guess he is doing his Frank Sinatra imitation. And so the tradition continues.

An interesting post-script to this is that I recently presented this Frank versus Perry ethical dilemma to one of my cousins. I concluded my story by asking him: "So, what do you make of this?" He thought for a moment, and then with a silly grin on his face, said: "I think the solution is to be a barber and screw a lot of beautiful women."


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