Looking ahead to January

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Christmas was wonderfully quiet and uneventful. I turned off all of my electronics and went off the grid for a couple of days. By yesterday however, I started to go through connectedness withdrawal as I thought about all the things I have to get done over the next few weeks.

I’m at home in St. Pete until Thursday when I fly back to Pennsylvania. I put myself on a 6am flight out of Tampa and I’ll arrive in Philly two and a half hours later. I loathe early morning flights and I’m not looking forward to being at the airport at 5am. But I’m committed to my job and equally committed to establishing myself in Pennsylvania so I’m doing what I need to do.

It snowed there yesterday and my Pennsylvania nieces filled up my in box with photos of their snowfall. It was pretty of course, but I grew up with snowy winters and I know that the pretty doesn’t last for very long. In fact, it was snowy winter avoidance that brought me to Florida in the first place. When I talked to my brother Steve yesterday he was waiting out the end of the snowfall in his living room. He was sprawled in front of a roaring fire and surrounded by a pack of German Shorthair Pointers. I’ll cling to that version of winter to get me through until May once I move back there for real in about a month. Big dogs and fireplaces make winter tolerable. Long underwear and wool sweaters help too. I’m ready for this, I’m really ready for this. If I keep repeating that it’ll become true, right?

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Anyhow, I’ll be in my office in Pennsylvania for about a week before I leave for Cologne, Germany on the 12th. I’m part of Blog Tour again and we’re headed to IMM, one of the world’s premier design trade shows. After Cologne I’m headed to Amsterdam for a couple of days. I’ll be gawking and marveling at the wonders I see there of course, but I’ll also be working the whole time. It won’t be a vacation by any stretch of the imagination (although I have a half day at a natural hot spring spa between Cologne and Hamburg scheduled), and I can’t wait to be back on the other side of the Atlantic.

I know a ton of people who’ll be in Cologne too and it’s going to be great to reconnect with friends from the US, Canada, the UK and the EU. The only time I see most of these people is at trade events. At this point in my life and career, trade shows are how I reconnect with friends no matter where they call home. It’s one of my favorite developments of the last five years.

Back in the day; I’d go to a trade show, walk the show floor, see cool stuff and then go back to my hotel. Anymore, trade shows take on the air of a family reunion. I spend as much time catching up as I do looking at new stuff. Truth be told, I spend more time catching up in the press room and at after parties than I do walking around.

Anyhow, after I return from Europe I’ll spend a couple of days in the office before I fly back to Florida. By then, January will be just about gone. I’m coming back here to pack up my belongings in earnest, fill up a POD and then get myself to Pennsylvania for good. One of my nieces is getting married in the middle of all of this so I have to throw that in too. Elena’s wedding will be a welcome breather for a day or two.

As much as I look ahead to all of this moving around, I’m reminded of the amount of work I have to do at the same time and it gets pretty daunting. So I just break it down into smaller tasks. If I keep myself zeroed in on the day to day stuff, the big picture stuff doesn’t seem so insurmountable.

In the meantime, if anybody wants to come down here at the end of January to help me pack you’re more than welcome. Hah!

The Woodman

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There’s a photo I keep on my fridge. It was taken on Christmas in 1998. My friends Tom and John were forever having people over on holidays and the photo on my fridge proves that. In that shot is John’s Mom, my friend Woody and cradled in Woody’s arms was Tom and John’s dog, Mimi. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but all three of those subjects would be dead within nine months from when I took the photo.

I first met Woody in early 1998. We were standing in a bar called the Eagle in St. Pete. I was waiting for my friend Mike to finish up whatever he was doing and I was just aching to go home. I’d had some good news that afternoon and I was ebullient that night. Clearly, it was something other people could see because Woody broke the ice by asking why I was in such high spirits.

He introduced himself first of course, but he wanted to know what was making me so giddy. I looked him in the eye and told him that I’d just received word that I was HIV negative. He looked down at his feet and said, “Would it be such a tragedy if you were positive?”

I’d known a ton of people who’d been diagnosed with HIV up until that point, but there was something about Woody’s delivery that drove it all home. HIV and AIDS were always something I could ignore and pretend weren’t real but there was something about Woody that made me want to see life through his eyes. By 1998 AIDS was becoming a manageable disease. The advances in the drugs used to treat it had turned the tide and people I knew didn’t drop like flies anymore. Though having it was hardly a picnic, a protracted, wasting death wasn’t anything most people who had it were left to face. Woody’s real name was Michael Woods by the way.

Woody lived in a “bad” part of town and shortly after we met he invited me over for dinner. He was a retired chef and the dinner he spread out for me was beyond belief. Woody was retired because he was sick and over the course of that dinner, he told me about his condition. He was one of the unfortunate ones whose body couldn’t tolerate the new treatment regimens. He was resolved to face his death with as much dignity as he could muster. It was odd to have that discussion when we did. He looked fine, even if he couldn’t work anymore.

Just prior to his arrival in St. Pete, he lived in Minneapolis with the great love of his life, Duncan. Dunkie died from complications related to AIDS about a year earlier, and a big part of Woody went with him. Woody kept Duncan’s ashes in a box he’d wrapped in beautiful Chinese paper. That box lived on Woody’s mantle and I came to see that he always put it in a place where he could see it.

Having Duncan’s remains around gave Woody comfort and strength.

Woody and I struck up a very close friendship after that dinner. I talked to John and Tom, my landlords at the time, and we agreed to get get Woody moved onto our block.

I’ll never forget the day we moved Woody in. He was all whacked out about being needy and that’s understandable. After a couple of hours of his whining, I threw my arms around him and promised that I’d never abandon him. He hugged back and wouldn’t let go. It was as if he knew what was in store.

Within a month of that shared moment in his kitchen, Woody started to develop liver problems. His belly distended with the fluids his body was retaining and every couple of days we’d go to the hospital to get his abdomen drained. Those trips to St. Anthony’s were always fun, if that’s the right word to use here. Woody had a tremendous sense of humor and before he could have the draining procedure he’d have to get a sonogram so the surgeon could find his liver.

The sonogram technician, Woody and I used to laugh as she joked around about taking a look at his baby. His distended abdomen did make him look like he was pregnant. All of us knew that Woody’s story wouldn’t have a happy ending but we kept laughing all the same.

Taking care of Woody became second nature to me. So much so that I couldn’t see that he was dying.

At some point that summer, somebody from Hospice cornered me in the hospital. Until then I was completely unwilling to see that Woody was a dead man. I thought that I could take care of everything, even though I had to take a leave of absence from work. He’d get through this I thought to myself. I’d will him back to health if that was the last thing I did.

When Hospice got involved I had to be removed forcibly from my duties as a primary care giver. I’d more or less stopped sleeping and the nurses from Hospice were as concerned about me as they were about Woody. They put me on a schedule that allowed me to take care of myself and to sit with Woody for a few hours every day.

As the summer wore on, Woody declined further and further.. The man I once loved to talk to began to turn into something else all together. Woody was dying and as much as I wanted to deny it, it was real. While he was still of his own mind, he used to take that box of Duncan’s ashes and just rest his hand on it.

I’ll always remember the afternoon toward the end when I walked into his apartment and I met his nurse. “Woody’s dying” she said. He kept getting up from his bed and pacing. The nurse called it terminal restlessness. Apparently, it’s a common thing as people approach the end of their lives. I took over my shift. Her matter of fact delivery  made me start to see the gravity of the situation. Now that I look back, just how bad he was is clear. Woody’d declined precipitously and it was difficult to see the him of him. He’d had me fill the birdbath he could see from his bedroom window the day before. He used to love to watch the birds but on this day he couldn’t concentrate well enough to pay attention to them.

We started to head into the final chapter and I started to get over my denial.

At that point Woody barely recognized me. “Mister!” he used to say. “Mister, I need to go to the bathroom!” was about all he could manage. Woody and I were as close as it’s possible to be and having him not remember my name was the stuff of nightmares. I can handle someone who needs help in the bathroom, but having a friend fail to recognize me was devastating.

When he had to go I’d take off his clothes and sit him on the toilet. He’d babble on and every once in a while some spark of him would come to the fore. I’d reach for that spark with everything I had but alas, there wasn’t really anything to grasp. My dear friend was gone and he wasn’t coming back. After I sat him on the toilet I’d put him in the shower to hose him off. Later that night when I was toweling him off, he looked up at me and said “shave.”

I shaved him and trimmed his hair.  I held it together while I was bathing and shaving him but barely. A couple of months earlier, he was a fully functioning adult. The person in front of me that night was a shell of who he’d once been.  After we were done I wrapped a towel around his shoulders and then I hugged him. I held onto him as tight as I could because I knew our time was running out. He hugged me back and we had to have stood there in his bathroom for a half an hour. Some part of him knew who I was and that same part knew I was there to help.

Woody died the next morning. He died and before he did so I was granted the opportunity to hold his hands and to thank him for being my friend. As I  was saying my final goodbyes, he reached out and held my face in his hands. “Thank you” he mouthed because he could no longer speak. And then he died.

That I’d held the hands of a dying man didn’t occur to me until weeks after the fact. I kept expecting him to appear some afternoon. He’d have Publix bags in his arms and he’d joke about how crappy the produce was that day. His coming back never happened, obviously. But still, I wished with all I had that he would just walk through the front door.

I miss him terribly and I hope that I gave him some comfort in his final moments. When it’s my time to go, I pray that someone will be there to hold onto me too.

Woody was one of the people who made St. Pete real, he was one of the people who anchored me here.

In and among all of the crap he left me to sort through, there was a brass bell. I keep it on my front porch now. Before Woody died, I told him that if it were possible, I needed for him to reach across the ether and to ring that bell. So far, he hasn’t.

Views from a kitchen window

I’m in Florida now and when I look out my kitchen window I see this.

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It’s a view of a bunch of areca, fishtail and fox palms. That view has become my normal over the course of the last 12 years or so and I don’t take my decision to leave all this lightly. It was foggy when I took that photo but even through the fog, I know that I live in the tropics.

A week ago, I was in Pennsylvania and trying on my new life for size. Tropical is one thing it isn’t. It was foggy last week there too and here’s what a foggy morning looks like in Landisville, PA.

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It wasn’t just foggy, it was also frosty. In fact, I saw it snow twice last Friday. I’ve never appreciated a fireplace as much as I’ve come to in the last few months. Being cold is the nature of the beast during a Pennsylvania winters and the only thing that can raise my core temperature is to sit in front of my brother Steve’s fireplace and just bake.

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When I look out his kitchen window, I usually see things like this. It’s rolling farmland from horizon to horizon. Here’s the view from his kitchen window.

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The fog softens things but for the most part, fog’s not something we have to deal with. Fog or no fog though, it’s cold in Pennsylvania at this time of year.

Even so, it’s about to become home again after an absence of more than 20 years. I have a great job lined up and a place to live. Still, I know there are things about Florida I’ll miss.

I will miss being within a reasonable driving distance to my folks’ place in Orlando for starters. For seconders, I’ll miss living in a state without an income tax. And oh yeah, I’ll miss the palms and the parrots and the 75 degree Februaries.

However, I’m getting something in this move that I’d never find otherwise. Namely, a coherent career path. I’m almost 50 and I don’t take things like career paths lightly. Palm trees are wonderful but they’re no substitute for consistency and security.

People here come and go like the wind, I’ve always been amazed by that. Now that I am one of those people who’s getting ready to leave I get it. AS much as I wanted to make this place stick, it just can’t. Florida’s viewed as a giant waiting room by the rest of the country for a good reason. Nothing really happens here aside from the sun setting on the Gulf and that reality kicks in at some point after someone leaves.

I’ve sat through more friends’ leavings  than I can count. It’s just odd that it’s my turn to leave now.

I used to tell now-dead Brian and Woody, Art and Bruce, Nivaldo, David and Carl that I’d leave this town in a pine box.

I’m packing now and there’s no pine box in sight. Sorry fellas, it’s just time to move on. I’ll continue to tell your stories and I’ll keep you real; they’ll just be stories I tell from somewhere else.

You guys touched my life and played an integral part in my becoming who I am now. I’ll miss everybody here of course, but it’s you guys whom I’ll miss the most.

I can’t give you a proper goodbye because you’re not here. However, I’ll always remember you. When I look across those frozen fields I’ll remember you Brian and your love of bread with hot peppers. I’ll never forget the look on your face when the Busch Gardens giraffes overtook us. My photos from that day still grace my dresser.

Woody, I’ll never forget the first time I ate Chayote — you sauteed it with butter and salt. Oh and Woody, I have your cookbooks and most of your crap. Would it be poor form to dump your crab forks?

Art and Bruce, you two knew tile like nobody else and man,could you squeeze a dime; Bruce especially.  Bruce, you were the only person I’d ever met who knew the routing number of his checking account.  Art, you were born in Poland and we never stopped harassing you about that. You were always a good sport.

Niva: you taught me what being Cuban really means and what it is to stand up for your heritage. I’ll never forget your memorial. The wind whipped through the trees that afternoon and it was as if you were there.

David, you showed me that someone could fall down and get back up. I bonded with your wife and your daughter at your funeral. You’d have approved. You and I  did some of the best work of my life together. I wish we’d had more time to just sit and talk. You were a good man David.

Carl, you were a piece of shit and you showed me that even pieces of shit can be lovable. My last interaction with you Carl was me kissing you on the top of your head and wishing you a merry Christmas. We may have wanted to kill each other at the time but I am forever in your debt. You taught me how to be a designer. Thank you. And you’re still a piece of shit, despite my gratitude.

The men I profiled just now left me a better man for knowing them. I miss those guys; they played a big role in my settling here and my feeling like I belonged on the Gulf Coast of Florida.

I’m getting ready to leave this place for good and a big part of me will be left behind. Yet another lesson I never learned when I was a kid is that when you let other people in, they never really leave. Similarly, when you live somewhere for a period of time it becomes a part of you. St Pete’s definitely a part of me. It’s just time for me to move on.

Why Florida?

I was born in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania but from a very early age I dreamed of living in a place called Florida.

I remember drawing a map of Florida from memory when I was in second or third grade. Places like Tampa, Miami, Naples and Orlando loomed large in my childhood imagination. I knew that Busch Gardens in Tampa called itself “The Dark Continent” and in my mind then, I saw dense tropical foliage and a complete break from the life I knew. “Someday,” my 9-year-old self thought.

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I had to have been around 25 or 26 when the opportunity to move down here presented itself. I jumped at it.

I left for Orlando in early March. When I left Pennsylvania, it was in the throes of a huge snowstorm and it was a relief to get away from it. The farther away I traveled, the less likely it was that I’d have to deal with winter.

I drove that first day until I reached Walterboro, SC. In Walterboro, I booked a room at a Day’s Inn and set about looking for a place to eat dinner.

Next to the Day’s Inn was a Shoney’s and a local barbecue joint. I was in Walterboro again last summer and unfortunately, the barbecue joint I’m writing about no longer exists.

I wasn’t about to eat in a Shoney’s, so I decided to have dinner in the barbecue joint.

I walked into the restaurant and I was the only one there. I ordered a brisket sandwich and a plate of fried green tomatoes as an appetizer.

As a side note, I’d read “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” about a month earlier and I’d never had them. Seeing them on a menu made me want to give them a chance and in doing so, give myself a chance to be something other than the Yankee I was born to be. Fried green tomatoes are fantastic by the way.

Anyhow, my dinner was served by the woman who prepared it. I wish I could remember her name but alas, I cannot. She brought out my dinner and she was all full of attitude and hips. She not only brought out my dinner, she took a seat in the booth opposite me. She was full of life and her laughter was infectious.

As I tucked into my dinner, she proceeded to grill me on why I was moving to Florida. Once satisfied with my answers, she proceeded to tell me about her grandbabies and I confided my fears about starting over in a strange land. We talked about her experiences during hurricane Hugo and at some point she smacked me on the arm (hard!) for feeling sorry for her losses.

We came from different worlds all together, but during that hour-long meal, we stopped being the white guy from PA and the black woman from South Carolina. We became people, just people, and we were telling stories and letting ourselves be known.

After I was done eating and we were done talking, I took my leave and walked back to the Walterboro Day’s Inn.

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A day later I was in Orlando and I was ready to attack my new life there. However, I never forgot the interaction with the woman whose name I can’t remember in Walterboro. I learned from her that everybody in the world has a story to tell and that all of us have new experiences ahead of us, be they fried green tomatoes or cross-country moves. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, or whatever. What matters is that we’re all just people and all of us have stories to tell. Listen to those stories, for the love of God listen to them.

So long as all of us, and I mean all of us, continue to listen to those stories we’ll be OK. Sometimes, those stories will enrage you and sometimes they’ll humble you. It’s human to disagree with a lot of what you hear and that’s OK too. What’s important is to listen and not just to hear.

What’s in a name?

I am back in Florida after a pretty eventful work week in Pennsylvania. It hit me like a Mack truck yesterday that truly, I’m one of those people who splits his time between two places. Trust me, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.

Anyhow, I’m home now and I’m sorting through my belongings and trying to figure out what’s coming with me when I move and what’s being donated on my way out of town.

As I’ve been sorting through my things today I came across the stuff I collected when I was in Rome with JD, Mike and Patrizia five years ago. Five years down the road and my memories of that trip still strike me to my core.

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I grew up in a household so Catholic a pope would have approved. It took me a very long time to be grateful for that but it’s with unadulterated gratitude that I look back on those years now.

It starts with my name, Paul. I am named for Pope Paul VI.

The man who became known as Pope Paul VI was born Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini in Breschia. My parents couldn’t have picked a better namesake. In the years between the two World Wars, he served as the Papal Nuncio to Poland where he was alarmed by Europe’s embrace of nationalism. He observed this from Warsaw in 1923: “This form of nationalism treats foreigners as enemies, especially foreigners with whom one has common frontiers. Then one seeks the expansion of one’s own country at the expense of the immediate neighbors  People grow up with a feeling of being hemmed in. Peace becomes a transient compromise between wars.”

That sounds like something I’d say.

Anyhow, when JD, Mike, Patrizia and I were in Rome I insisted that we go to Vatican City. I’d grown up in a household where the idea that all Catholics had to go to Rome at some point in his life was a given. It wasn’t enough to go to Rome though, it was vital that all of us end up in The Vatican at some point.

So off to The Vatican we went one afternoon.

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Nothing could have prepared me for not only what I saw there, but the effect The Vatican would have on me. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into St. Peter’s Square. It was massive on a scale I couldn’t have imagined. It’s a real engineering marvel and as I stood next to the obelisk in its center, it started to hit me that a who’s who of Western Civ had stood on that spot before me. King Henry VIII walked across that piazza (though in an earlier form)  when he petitioned Rome to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Catherine the Great would have crossed those pavers as would have everyone from Ben Franklin to Ronald Reagan.  My own great-great-grandparents stopped there during the grand tour they took during their honeymoon in the years following the American Civil War. It’s impossible to be in a place like that and not to feel the march of history and your place in it.

When we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time I needed to be excused from our merry band so I could compose myself. Not only had the notables of the last 500 years been in that space, so had my parents 25 years earlier.

When I walked into St. Peter’s for the first time, I got a glimpse into my Dad’s heart and how I was brought up made sense for the first time ever. That sounds odd but being there in person gave me a sense of who I was like nothing else ever had. As I walked though that space I was alternately blown away by its beauty and imagining my Dad being there in his herringbone jacket and connecting with the faith that’s given him meaning for his whole life.

When I pulled myself together and rejoined my friends, we walked through the Basilica and then went down into the lower levels so we could see the mausoleums of the popes.

Once down there we came across the mausoleum of Paul VI. Talk about touching one’s inner self. I bear that man’s name and it was humbling to stand in front of his grave to say the least. I’d always known I was named for Paul VI and my middle name, Gregory, comes from St. Gregory; I was born on his feast day. I am a Catholic in much the same way I am a Pennsylvanian or a redhead. I couldn’t deny it even if I tried. Some things are in my DNA, regardless of my opinion.

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Again, once I saw St. Peter’s and Paul VI’s mausoleum with my own eyes, my upbringing made sense. Aside from that, through me and by virtue of my name, Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini gets the chance to live on. That’s not something I take lightly. Being someone’s namesake is heady stuff and despite what ever disagreements I have with the stances he took, it’s my job to continue his legacy. It’s my job to be a decent, loyal and loving human being.

Say what you want to about Catholicism and the Papacy, but no one can dispute that Paul VI was a good and decent man. He was committed the the people of the world and a crazy idea called peace. Standing in front of the place where he reposes was an incredible experience and I had to excuse myself again so I could pull myself back together.

Packing up my belongings has proved itself to be a far more emotional and taxing experience than I expected it to be. But sometimes, emotional outbreaks are good things.

Cookie exchanges and fashion shows

merry_christmas_from_florida_water_skiersAround 12 years ago, my friend Kevin and I were working at night at a restaurant our friend Brandon managed. When the three of us were working, not a whole lot of work got done and the whole thing turned into an exercise we could have titled “How surly can a waiter be?” We had an absolute blast of course and gathered stories we tell and retell to one another to this day.

One night, I was talking to one of the women who worked in the restaurant. I believe her name was Tonya. She was pretty difficult to take most times and my conversations with her were always short. However, she knew Kevin, Brandon and I all lived on the same block and that we loved a good get together.

About two weeks before Christmas Tonya walked up to me and in her imperious way asked what the three of us had planned for Christmas. This was all an excuse so that she could tell me about all of the big events planned in the cul de sac hell she called home. I thought about it for a second and was determined that no middle-aged, suburban mom was going to show me up. I looked her square in the eye and told her that my friends and I were going to have a cookie exchange and to ratchet up the level of complication a few more notches, our cookie exchange was going to include a fashion show. Fuck you Tonya. She minced away in defeat and I walked over to Kevin and Brandon. “Look you two, we need to pull off a cookie exchange and a fashion show this weekend.”

They were game immediately and as the night wore on, our cookie exchange and fashion show took on incredible  dimensions as we talked to more and more people. Oh man, by the time the cafe closed that night we’d commissioned designers months in advance and we’d been practice baking since October as we sought out the perfect cookie recipe. We were the envy of the restaurant and it felt good. Now we just had to pull off something.

I make a pretty mean chocolate chip cookie and Kevin and Brandon had specialties of their own. We hit the phones and started calling our friends. Within hours a new tradition was born. We decreed that the fashion part would be left open to interpretation.

A week later, around 12 men descended on Kevin’s house. All were dressed in their Christmas best. The cookie part was an afterthought as we settled in to watch John Waters’ “Female Trouble.” The interpretations of “fashion” were hilarious. We ate my chocolate chippers, Brandon’s Florentines and Kevin’s bird’s nests. Jonathan showed up with a Rolo-pecan-pretzel combos that I still make every year. Needless to say we had a blast.

We kept up that event for years until time and life pulled us to other parts of the country. Our cookie exchanges remained the envy of every suburbanite we worked with. “Look at us,” they said. “We can get together at Christmas and have actual fun.”

And fun we had, oh man the fun we had. That instant tradition of a cookie exchange and fashion show put our Easters to shame. And let me tell you, our Easters were really something.

The Saint Pete Single Ladies’ Card Club

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In the late ’90s, my friends Kevin, Brandon, Keith and I banded together to form what we’d come to call the Saint Pete Single Ladies’ Card Club. Never mind that not all of us were single and none of us were ladies, the name stuck and became something of an institution in this neighborhood.

How it worked was pretty simple. On Tuesday nights, we’d alternate hosting duties and the four of us would settle down to share a meal and then play cards or board games until the wee hours. This went on for years and it supplemented the Sunday dinners we shared already. It’s no wonder I felt so bonded to St. Pete.

The first one to leave our merry band was Keith. He left for Las Vegas to pursue bigger dreams. We replaced him with Tod and John and we became five. It was never about the card or board games. It was always about sharing a meal every week. Though we had a blast rediscovering childhood gems like “Life” and “Clue,” what we’d embarked upon was about creating a community. No one was ever unwelcome at our table and most of the times we met we had more than our core group assembled. I remember cramming at least a dozen people around the table on my patio at one point. It was glorious to sit around a table and just talk. There was never a TV anywhere near our gatherings and I came to see that nothing builds a sense of community bonding as a shared meal.

Kevin’s rice and beans were legendary. Brandon’s desserts were beyond description. I hope those guys would agree that I know how to put together a Cuban pork dinner to make any actual Cuban envious.

Oh those nights were the stuff most people aspire to but never achieve. We’d laugh and laugh of course, but we’d also work through our respective trials and tribulations together. There weren’t any forbidden topics on our Tuesday nights. Nor our Sunday dinners for that matter. I’d never felt so connected to a place and time in my life.

Alas, life has a way of intervening and after four or five years, our Tuesday night game nights came to an end. Our Sunday dinners continued for some time after but ultimately, our core group scattered as we chased down new dreams and opportunities.

As I look back however, especially now as I begin the process of packing up my life in St. Pete, I see what it is we did. We made this place home and fellas, I’m indebted to all of you for life because of that. “People come and go so quickly here” to quote Lewis Carroll, and it’s true. But we changed that around and for a couple of years. We stuck together and worked through everything. St. Pete’s a lovely town but most people never really feel like they’re home here. We sure did. And then some.

My masthead

The photo that adorns my masthead right now is one I took a couple of weeks ago as I was driving away from my brother Dave’s house.

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That masthead shot, as I intend it to look eventually, looks like what you see above.

Eventually, I’ll figure out how to splice together my masthead and my title. Eventually.

Until I work that out, in a lot of ways, that image sums up the changes I have coming. Sometimes, I feel like I’m standing alone at some kind of drop off. Though I’m not truly alone, in a lot of ways I feel like I am as I push into this next phase of my life.

Florida turned me into the man I am and though I’ll miss the parrots and the palm trees, I need to be around my brothers and their families. Brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews who live in places that look like the photo in my masthead.

As I barrel toward 50 (50!), the importance and primacy of my family becomes more and more apparent. Florida’s always felt like a temporary place as much as I tried to make it final. Though I made some of the most important and lasting friendships of my life here, wearing shorts in February has always felt wrong for some reason. This place has always felt like borrowed time, lovely though it is.

Pennsylvania’s always loomed large over my life and my sensibilities  regardless of how long I’ve lived here. When I hear a Mid-Atlantic accent or hear someone ask for a hoagie it yanks at my heart. When Publix started selling Tastycakes if felt like a personal coup. No matter how much I want to avoid it, I belong in that part of the world. I love a Wawa hoagie and don’t even talk to me if you don’t know what a Wawa is. Yeah, I get it that I’m a Yankee and I’ll own that completely. The longer I’m away from that part of the world the more I need it and it’s kind of strange. It’s not a matter of just wanting to be somewhere. I need to belong and at this stage of my life and I need to be around people who think and speak the way I do. This is something that’s caught me by surprise in the last few years. Had you told me 20 years ago that I’d move back to small town Pennsylvania I would have laughed, and laughed hard.

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t run away fast enough from the ties that bind me. Now, those same ties are what I crave more than anything.

The rolling hills and farmland of southern Pennsylvania are in my DNA. For all my running, that little fact is something I cannot avoid. I am bound to that place, absolutely bound. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but it is a thing never the less. It’s also something I need to make peace with.

My first ancestors in the US settled there nearly 300 years ago. When I stand on an overlook and take in what those hills and fields look like, I’m reminded that I’m part of a human continuum. Though when my first ancestors settled there in the early 1700s they saw a landscape very different from what I see now, they gazed out over the land they tamed with their bare hands. I can’t see the place and not remember their names.

When I spent the month up in PA last July, my beloved brother Steve and I stood at the foot of our earliest ancestor’s grave one Saturday afternoon. That ancestor was already dead by the time of the American Revolution and his name was Sampson Smith. Looking down at Sampson Smith’s headstone that afternoon was what prompted this move. Though it’s true I’d been playing with this idea for years, that afternoon sealed it. The combination of seeing Sampson’s headstone as I stood there with my brother made the world shift.

When I stood there and read about the lives he and his wife lead it hit me that I needed to be a part of that. Wait a minute, I’m already a part of their story by virtue of my genes. But as I stood there I realized that my genes aren’t enough. I need to participate in my own legacy. I need to be there for my nieces and nephews and I need to show them the places where their ancestors lived, died and were buried. Everything made sense all of the sudden as I was standing there.

Lord knows I’m capable of waxing poetic, but that afternoon last summer was something I’ll carry with me forever. I wish I could summon that kind of clarity all the time but alas…

In any event, I stood there and read Sampson’s inscription and couldn’t imagine what his life, and his wife Agnes’ life, must have been like when they arrived in the Pennsylvania Colony in 1740.

Sampson supervised the construction of this church in Chestnut Level PA.

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He did what I used to do for a living. I know all about the highs and lows of construction management, let me tell you. But Sampson’s project is still standing and all of min’ll be gone in 20 years. The ordeal it must have been to construct that church in the mid-1700s is something I can’t imagine.

We know that Sampson arrived in Philadelphia with two of his brothers. They separated shortly after their arrival. What must it have been like to say goodbye to your brothers and know you’d never see him again? I adore my brothers and I cannot imagine saying goodbye to them for keeps. Though our lives look different from lives back then, the human heart remains the same. Heartache is heartache and loss is loss, regardless of the time frame.

In my haste to leave when I was a young man, I know that I inflicted that sense of loss on the people who love me. It’s definitely something that irks and irritates me. I behaved pretty shabbily back then and I’ve come to the conclusion that my only recourse to make up for it is to just be back there as me, authentically.

I cannot wait to go to markets with my sisters-in-law. I cannot wait to have the whole crew over for Sunday dinners.I cannot wait to serve the pies and tarts I love to bake to them. I cannot wait to be more than a cipher to my nieces and nephews. I cannot wait to walk though the woods with my bothers.  I cannot wait to become a full-fledged member of my family again. I love my family and it’s just time to reconnect with them and with my homeland.

Though it’s a pain in the ass and though all of us have lives to lead and obligations to keep; Ray, Matt, Tom, Dave and Steve, let’s make it a priority to walk through the woods and appreciate where we are and where we come from. We’re blessed to live the lives we do and we’re doubly blessed to have one another. Let’s be sure to to take advantage of it, even if we get on one another’s nerves as we do so.

Beyond all of that, I cannot wait to sink my teeth into my new job. I’m a fortunate man indeed. I have a place to call home and a large group of people who love me. What more could any man ask for?