The main reason I organized my trip this year the way I did was so that I could be in Paris for the 50th birthday party of a good friend, Dominique. We met in 1991 when I was living here, and have been friends every since. Last night, with a group of about 50, we celebrated and ate and danced and shared a bunch of stories and laughs and love for Dominique. It was especially interesting to me to see his friends and his family come together in the way they did. His family is a large, Morrocan Jewish one that spans several continents, yet they remain incredibly close knit. They also run the gamut from totally secular to highly religious, and it was fascinating to see them all come out for Domi’s birthday and mix with his (largely gay) friends and ex-boyfriends. I would guess the crowd was about half friends and half family, and I was really touched by how much love was in that room. And Dominique’s partner Anthony seamlessly planned the affair and navigated the huge variety of guests with surprising grace. I was also impressed by how all of the family and friends took turns dancing with Domi, including his parents who are well into their 80s. It was quite a trip down memory lane for me, as Domi and I share many friends from that time who were there as well, most notably Arnaud, Sonia and Bruno (but also others I had not seen in many years).
My parents are in town for a visit, and we always have fun and manage to do something nice while they are here. This time, I scored us a very-difficult-to-get reservation at Per Se, where we went for lunch today. This easily ranks as the most expensive lunch I have ever had, but we viewed it as a rare and worthwhile experience. I have to say, the menu and extras were extraordinary. We went for the more modest 5 course meal (as opposed to the 9 course one also on offer), and I left feeling quite satisfied. More than satisfied actually, I should have stopped trying the various confections they brought out for us AFTER dessert, ranging from the macarons to various housemade chocolates and truffles and ice cream. I asked the waiter for an insulin shot at the end, but alas they were fresh out. I think the highlight of the meal for me (other than the copious desserts) was without a doubt the Côte D’agneau with merguez and lime scented yogurt. They apparently change the menu every day, and the mind boggles at the variety of dishes and creativity that must be on offer here over a long period. This is not the kind of place I would go every week (or every month or even year), but it definitely left an impression and I could certainly see going back sometime for a special occasion (if I am in the mood to skip paying rent that month, for example).
Last night my parents (mother and stepfather) and I had dinner out with my brother, sister-in-law and (their two kids) my niece and nephew. About halfway through the dinner my nephew asked me “Uncle Stephen, why don’t you and grandpa (my biological father) talk to each other?” I was a little taken aback by this question, and looked to my brother to see if it was ok to answer, and he assented. So I told my nephew that I believe strongly that all people should be treated equally in this world, and that his grandpa and I had had a disagreement about that several years ago. I explained that I had told Grandpa that it was important to me that he accept me as a gay person the same as everyone else, and that I deserved the same rights as everyone else. I told him that despite many differences of opinion on many subjects, everyone else in my life accepted this without any sort of problem, and that it was important to me that these people accepted and supported my equality as I did theirs. I explained to my nephew that I believed all people are equal and deserve the same rights and treatment in our world, and he nodded his understanding. My brother’s family is very close friends with a gay couple with a daughter, and there are several gay people in the lives and environment around their kids, including me and my cousins, so they are very familiar with this type of diversity. My brother and sister-in-law have been wonderful parents, raising their kids with a strong sense of fairness, acceptance, and celebration of difference in the world. I then explained to my nephew that just because his grandpa did not accept me did not mean he loved my nephew any less, and that I hoped for his and everyone’s happiness despite our differences.
I just said good bye to my brother and niece who have been here the last few days. We had a fun packed weekend and it was nice to spend a little quality time with them. We ran around the city doing a lot of kid friendly things and generally having a great time. I believe (I hope) we left her with a very favorable sense of wonder about the city of New York. My niece is growing up so quickly and seems much older than her 8 years. She is especially adept at problem solving and I can see her going into some type of career that utilizes these skills. She is also incredibly well behaved and very clean and respectful of her surroundings. I told my brother at some point that she seems a lot like our mother and me when it comes to this. (And like her middle namesake, my mother’s mother Annette, whose OCD about cleaning and order made my mother and I look sloppy in comparison). It is really funny to see among families our various traits and peculiarities manifest themselves in the next generation. It always makes me wonder what percent is culture and what percent nature.
Now it is back to the work grind for me, I have tons to do before my next guests arrive on Thursday…
Last year, my brother brought my nephew Max to see New York on a father-son trip. This year, it is my niece Zoe’s turn. They arrived yesterday and we will spend the next few days introducing Zoe to the wonder that is New York City. I have been wracking my brain for what to do that will impress an 8 year old girl. Today we will go to the Natural History Museum to see the butterfly exhibit, then wander through central park to the castle and such, finally making our way to what is apparently a holy pilgrimage site for children, a place called Dylan’s Candy Bar.
My brother David and nephew Max are here visiting me for the weekend. Max is almost 9 years old and I remember how cool it was for me as a kid when my parents took me to New York. I want to impart to him some of that early excitement and wonder I had about the city. Coming from Indianapolis, I remember being amazed at how huge New York was, and how bustling. In a very real way, those couple of early trips here filled me with a sense of possibility, and changed the ultimate course of my life. I think that was when my love of travel and learning about new cultures was first set alight, and that curiosity follows me strongly to this day. I hope for Max to have that same awe about the world and its many cultures. This past year has also been great for me to mix with my family in ways other than merely as a giant group at Thanksgiving. As separate members or groupings visit me, we get to spend a little more quality time together, getting to know each other anew, which is important I think. As the years go by and we take different paths, we become different people. The ones we knew so well so many years ago are not the ones they are today. Reconnecting with family (and friends) this way is really a treat.
Josh and I took the same plane back to see our families in Indianapolis last night. We were picked up at the airport by my aunt and uncle, then whisked off to a huge family dinner at a restaurant downtown. It was great seeing the whole gang, if a little overwhelming for all the competing, loving attentions of everyone. I will be here for the next week and am looking forward to hanging out with everyone and catching up. I have fortunately finished up most of the huge amount of work I had over the past couple of weeks, so I should be able to relax most of the time while here.
On the train to the airport, Josh and I had an interesting little conversation about the idea of going back “home”. Although my family is here and I love them dearly, I haven’t had the feeling that this place was “home” for me in a very long time. Josh still does feel it, and he surmised that perhaps because his parents still live in the same house he grew up in, the collected memories through all those years remain somewhat more tangible. In my family, even while growing up here we moved houses four times, and they have moved three more times since I left over twenty years ago. That probably does have an effect on my memories of this place, and thus vague feelings of familiarity from childhood that might impart that feeling. Then again, I have no longing for childhood, it wasn’t an especially graceful time in my life. I am much happier as an adult, for so many reasons, and have always felt that “home” was more a place in one’s heart than a specific location in the world. And on that score, I am always at home, everywhere that there are people I love and who love me.
I write this from the airport waiting lounge at Newark. I will be going to visit my family for a week for Thanksgiving. This trip could not come at a better time, I have really been in the doldrums the past couple of weeks. It has been a perfect storm of shit related to money, health, and dating life. It will be good to see the family and think about other things and try to make some plans to deal with all of these. And Thanksgiving is really one of my favorite holidays, divorced as it is from the ugly consumer anschluss of the Christmas season. Thanksgiving is just about sharing a meal with people you love, and telling them you love them. I revel in the simple pleasure of that.
This past weekend, I attended a family reunion held deep in the heart of Tennessee. It was my stepfather’s family, and most of them are from the areas surrounding Tennessee and Kentucky originally. The main three family name branches are “Kennedy” (my stepdad’s last name), Dunn and Bowman. For the first evening and for a picture taking on Sunday, we each wore somewhat goofy t-shirts with the family clan name on it, as a way to identify who came from what group. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of attending this family reunion in the first place, for a number of reasons. First, having been to one of these things 20 some years ago, I wasn’t relishing the idea of coming face to face with a large number of very politically and culturally conservative people. Following along these lines, I imagined how “other” me and my brothers and my mother would seem in the midst of all this, and I (Jewish like them, gay, and lefty almost to the point of communist) even more “other” and ill-fitting that the closest of my family members.
As it turned out, I was mostly wrong and had a decent time. While 3 or 4 people of a certain generation were indeed quite close-minded and vocal about it, their children — about my age and below, seemed for the most part to be delightful, thoughtful people with much to share and we all had a nice time together. And with a couple of exceptions, the entire group seemed to be on their best behavior, avoiding any rancor and putting their best foot forward to become acquainted or reacquainted with the entire family. And really when you looked into it, many of us had reasons of personal history to consider ourselves “other” if we wanted to. Some had lived in far away countries for most of their lives. Some had been married many times. Some were gay. Some were married with no children. Some were socially awkward. And so on. When you get down to it, a definition of outsider status is often and as much the perception and choice of the outsider as it is the judgment of the insider. And of course we also had plenty reasons to consider ourselves “part of” if we so chose. And so by the end of the first evening, lubricated by food and beer and card games and good cheer, I relaxed into the experience.
Upon returning to Indianapolis (from whence I would fly back to New York) I began to pack my things. I held up the shirt with the words “Kennedy Clan” on it, and made a joke to my mother and stepfather. “Well, I have the shirt. I should probably just change my last name to Kennedy.” My mother smiled mischievously and said in a low voice with a smile “It would probably really piss off your dad”. To which I responded that anyway, I felt much closer to Bob (my stepfather) that to my biological father. I mean, what defines a father? It is someone who takes care in raising you, teaching you about life. Someone who loves you and is proud of you and sets a good example for how a person should be in the world. A father is there for you, someone you can talk to, get advice from. A father is never beyond reach or reproach, but nevertheless is held in high regard for their part in raising you. In all these ways and so many many more, Bob is (and has been since I was 9 years old) my father. He is the one I call on father’s day, the one I refer to when speaking of my dad to friends. I almost never use the “step” except to clarify for someone. My mother and stepfather have been married for over 30 years, and I see no “step” in him (or my sisters and other immediate “step” family. We are all just family.)
And then I started to turn the idea of changing my last name into an intellectual exercise. What would be involved and what would be the potential benefits and drawbacks? There are a slew of things to consider:
Wiping the slate clean. One of the advantages (or disadvantages, depending on how you perceive it) would be that this would be a kind of breakpoint and make it harder for people to reconstruct my history. In internet and info searches I would be a kind of newborn, with a whole new history to build up. Of course it would be easy to join the past to the future if you did a little digging, but it would not be obvious at first. It would also be harder for people to recognize my past accomplishments (what few there are).
Denying one’s heritage. Interesting point, but who really thinks of “Suess” as a Jewish last name (at least in this country. Apparently the Nazis thought it was.) In any event, it isn’t even a longstanding family name, having been changed by my great great grandfather from something like “Ledner” a few generations ago. And although I feel culturally quite Jewish in many ways, I am certainly not a believer in Jewish religious tenets.
Branding. My friend John (who I ran this idea by) thinks this is a bad idea. That he associates my last name with my “brand”, something that he likes and that I have built up over the years of knowing him. I don’t like thinking of myself as a brand (with good or bad associations) anyway, so this doesn’t hold much weight for me. Still, John associates good feelings and identification with my name and what it conjures for him.
Privacy/Anonymity. I have written at length in the past about our loss of privacy in the internet age. Obviously if I was more worried about it, I wouldn’t blog or have a professional website. Or I would at least blog under a pseudonym. But it is at least a slightly enticing idea that I would go from having a name that only about 3 people on Facebook currently share to one of 804. Someone trying to find out about you on Google before a job interview or date would have a much harder time of it. On the other hand, if you ever want to stand out it will be more difficult.
Spelling. I would never again have to spell my last name for people.
Unknowns. Would I stop receiving junk mail for a while? Would I have to build an entirely new credit score? If someone willed the old me a million dollars would I still be able to collect? Would I suddenly get recruited by the Irish for all manner of parade and drinking game? Would people see me in a different light? Would meeting a brand new person result in a completely different flash judgement of who I am, depending on nothing other than a difference in last name? What happens to my passport, would I have to get a new one immediately in my new name? Would doing so trigger some FBI terrorist search? Would people think I was doing this to cash-in on the recent death of Edward Kennedy?
By the way, it is surprisingly easy in most places to actually change one’s name. I don’t think I will actually do it, but the reflection on it has been interesting. What do you think?
Most of my immediate family has been in town the past couple of days and last night we all went to see Shrek The Musical (which my cousin Josh choreographed). After the show, Josh was a total sweetheart, taking the entire group of eleven of us backstage to meet the cast and show us the stage and costumes. The kids (Max and Zoe) were especially thrilled, and I have to admit it was pretty interesting being behind the scenes, and the cast members we met were exceedingly nice. It has been great catching up with my family here in NYC, and I take it from many of them that they approve of my decision to move here (especially if I should have a guest room or couch available in the future).