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.

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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?

New direction, new location, new blog

Welcome to my new blog. Though my old blog, Kitchen and Residential Design, is still alive and kicking; I felt it was a better move to branch out into a new forum as I document some of the changes I’ll be undertaking in the next few months.

I’ve been blogging for the last five years and for the most part, I’ve covered the home renovation and building product niches there. This blog’ll be different though.

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I’m in the throes of shifting careers and moving back to my home town. I’m going from being self-employed and working while sitting on my sofa in boxer shorts to getting dressed and going to an office every day. I’m going from living in an urban neighborhood where I can buy sushi in the grocery store to a suburb of a small city where such terms as “sushi” are unknown.

I’m heading back to my hometown after having spent the previous 25 years plying my trade and figuring out who I am. Happily, I know who that person is at this point and it’s just time to complete a circle.

This new site is also an excuse for me to master the thing known as WordPress, so bear with me as I teach myself how to write code and to turn myself into a bigger internet nerd than I am already.

This site’s format and layout will change over the coming months, mark my words. Any advice you have will be well-received, trust me. I’ve been working with WordPress for at least two years and the deeper into I get, the more complex it is.

This site’s URL willl change eventually too. Ultimately, it’ll be at paulanater.com and it’ll function as a living resume and a forum to catalog  my culture shock as I make this transition. If you’re reading this, the odds are you’re someone I know. Unlike my other site, this one’s not about building an audience or reaping a lot of advertising income. What I aim to do here is leave a record of me and of my life.

I hope you find it to be interesting.