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Living With Women

I’ve lived with women for 37 out of my 38 years of life, except for the two years of boarding school, and everybody knows that they don’t count. From the moment I could look up and recognize my surroundings my life has been filled with women, for better and for worse. Life would have been immeasurably different for me if I had been raised in the wild, by a gaggle of men. Of course is it possible to have only a group of men raise a child (outside of a popular 80s movie starring Ted Dansen, et. al)?

My mother and sister were the biggest influences in my life from day one, so my thoughts and actions can be measured through my myriad interactions with them, at least until the day I turned 21, and maybe beyond. They shaped me with their biases, with their fears, with their complications, and with their love. Each of them had a particular way of showing love that I never understood until later in my life, mistaking it instead for judgment way back then.

Then I got married, and I graciously passed on an X chromosome to each of my children, so the circle remains as complete as it can possibly be. Now I live every day amazed by what they do and say. It’s plain to see that they influence me in more ways than a few, these women who dominate my life. And that’s okay. That’s a blessing I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate 20 years ago, but it’s one I get down on my knees and praise god for now. It’s this life with women that I couldn’t have anticipated, but that I love more each day.

So what’s it like living with women? Yes, they can be moody. Yes, they can be imaginative, and forceful, and deliberate, and crazy at times. Yes, they are complicated, and frank, and they follow the beat of their own drummer. They can be so frustrating at times, but they’re individuals, and that’s more precious than gold. I could never regret living with women because all of the women I’ve lived with are the reason I’m the man I am today. I can’t even imagine living with men, of having more Y chromosomes around, because women have everything I’ve ever needed: a sense of compassion that can move mountains, but also a resolve that fortifies them.

Living with women has been all I’ve ever known, and it will be all I’ll ever know. And I am forever grateful.

Sam

4c6cb904a2d15966297029f7e41e58dc“What are you recovering from right now?”

It was twenty years ago, and I was just testing out my sea legs, except I wasn’t on water. But you know what I mean. Any person who’s ever been 18 knows what I mean. I was an adult but I wasn’t an adult. I thought I knew what life had in store because I had always known what was going to happen. I was going to finish college with a phenomenal degree, get a phenomenal job straightaway, get married to the most phenomenal woman ever, and live the perfect life. Most 18-year-olds thinks this way, open-ended and free. But as 18-year-olds we fail to take into consideration that this world doesn’t just hand out “phenomenal.” It likes to take something from us as payment for a dream that may still never become reality. It takes our innocence.

I was confident back then, a well-read young man with well-read friends and a small penchant for the dramatic. College was free, and most things I wanted to pay for weren’t expensive either. Even if they were, I had a job for that, a job where I got to interact with people on a daily basis, one that kept me fluent in the language of youth but at the same time trained me for how to be when I really did grow up. But I wasn’t grown then, not by a long shot. I was probably the youngest 18-year-old ever, and what’s sad is that I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that I had a sense of freedom I had never known before, and I abused that sense of freedom as often as I possibly could.

t-shirt-about-drinkingYes, I was drunk more often than I wasn’t. I went to every party that was anywhere near, and when one wasn’t near I sketched and painted one in on the spur of the moment. People said I was the life of the party, which I figured out later meant I was a good caricature for them to point at and laugh, and I was too drunk to notice that they were laughing at me, not laughing with me. Even though I was laughing, and I kept laughing even after I got kicked out of school. They called it being put on probation, but I knew what it was. And they weren’t wrong. I had no business being in classes, not in my condition. I hated them for it then, but they did me a great service.

Before I knew it, though, I realized my life was in a holding pattern. I was as confident as ever, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere. Then the job was gone and the money started to run out. College was on hold, and I was listless. Literally without a list of anything to do or anyone to do it with. I was no longer the life of any party, and I didn’t know even how I was going to get to and from the places I wanted to go. So I took what I needed from people who didn’t deserve the way I treated them. I begged, borrowed, and stole to try and make myself feel better about myself, to make an impression on others. And the only thing I ended up doing was ostracizing those who cared about me, setting them in a corner and turning my back on them. I was completely lost.

I could have become a statistic, too, this kid who had the whole world in front of him and disdained it, who took it for granted, this Peter Pan wannabe who never found out how to grow up. It was the greatest sickness, taking youth for granted, taking people for granted, obsessed with this idea that the world somehow owed me. For what? Then it was all over, and I was all alone, and life kept moving forward while I stood still. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was what I had prepared for, the listless nature of my existence, the pain of self-imposed loss. And it’s 20 years later but I don’t think I’ve ever really looked in that mirror of time and examined the 18-year-old version of me, the kid who was fresh-faced and blazing with confidence. I don’t think I’ve ever really recovered from the blow I dealt myself by getting caught up with myself, by loving this idea of me that never came to fruition.

Am I in recovery? Well, I think the first step is recognizing the problem, identifying the disease, and I might be 20 years late, but better late than never.

Sam

It happened again. While waiting outside the therapist’s office this black guy assumed we knew each other. Or maybe he didn’t. I can’t tell the difference anymore. What I do know is that he walked in and said…

“How you doing, Bro?”

Which we all know isn’t really a question but rather an introduction to nod at him and say…

“What’s up, Bro?”

Which is also not a question but is instead an implied understanding between two people who don’t know each other from Adam but happen to share some common ancestry way back. But instead of that reply I said…

“I’m okay.”

Which threw him for a bit of a loop. I could tell, not because I know him well (which I don’t) but because his eyebrows arched. I had thrown off the balance of the exchange and he didn’t know what to make of it. I guess I wasn’t in the mood for playing “family reunion” this morning.

You know how to play “family reunion.” It’s when people you just meet treat you like you’re familiar enough to be family. It happens in stores where the associates wear nametags, or in restaurants when servers leave their names on napkins at the table. When you check out you call the person by name like you’re sisters or something. “Thanks for the great meal, Rachel,” you tell the server, like she made it special for you. You know, because you’re close like that.

And playing “family reunion” happens quite a bit when you’re black and you happen to run into other black folk. I can’t speak for other ethnicities because I’m not a part not them, but I feel like it’s unique to black folk, the quick assumed familiarity. Maybe we feel it’s solidarity considering some type of shared history, even if it was so long ago and even if it wasn’t even our personal shared history. It’s as if our ancestors both being slaves means we’re all related or something. I’m not really sure.

Sometimes I play the game and other times I do what I did above, depending on my mood. I mean what good is it having people you’re close to like family if you also treat any old shmoe off the street the same way? To me it’s a form of disrespect to the people who are truly there for you, who have forged those friendships, if you act like a guy you don’t even know is your best friend.

Don’t get me wrong. I was nice to that guy this morning. He was actually confused as to where he was supposed to be and I helped him out. Once he realized I wasn’t going to play the game he was really quite civil. Sometimes people get all twisted up if I won’t play, but life is too short to play pretend for someone’s sake who I don’t even know. I quick prefer not to look to the distant past to tell me who my friends and family should be.

And I’m looking forward to a real family reunion very soon. You know, with my actual family.

Sam

I don’t know about you, but certain music has always been the soundtrack to my life. From gospel at an early age, to contemporary Christian artists, to rock and popular music, the tapestry of my life has been painted with various paintbrushes wielded by lyricists and musicians who will probably never know the influence they have had and continue to have on me.

Yes, I went through my phases with two-step, and dancehall, and even ska, depending on my relationships at the time, but one thing has remained steadfast for me: a great album is a great album regardless of when it’s played. The primary characteristic of a great album (and not just a collection of songs) in my mind is that there’s a resonance from start to finish, that it flows together seamlessly like a well-tailored garment where I don’t know where it began and where it ended.

Some of my favorite albums have snuck up on me like thieves in the night. It’s funny how that happens sometimes. I stumbled upon them and they have had a monumental impact on my life. Here are 7 such albums, in no particular order…

s11777a1wfm1. Marc Cohn – The Rainy Season.

Yes, the “Walking in Memphis” guy, but he’s so much more than that. In fact, by the time I discovered him the year was already 1995 and I had never heard the iconic song. In fact, my favorite music right then was Alanis Morissette, the kind of angst that made me put on the huge headphones and scream at the top of my lungs. So the idea that some “old-school” singer-songwriter who relied on a piano more than a synthesizer or an electric guitar was somewhat ludicrous to my teenage self. But there he was anyway, when I stumbled upon a CD that shouldn’t have even been available to the public. It was a collection of songs that were being marketed to radio stations, and it should have been at a radio station, but instead someone had sold it to this hole in the wall used CD shop (probably for a pittance). I recognized a few artists on it, so I bought it for a buck. Best buck I ever spent.

Somewhere in the middle of that CD’s tracklist, which was broken down into genres, was a song they weren’t able to separate into a genre. The song was called “Ghost Train” and it was so hauntingly beautiful that I couldn’t move past it once I stopped on it. Indeed, it was several months before I even heard the whole back half of that sampler CD. I was hooked on his voice, on his melody, on his piano playing, and on his lyrics. I had to own the album the song really came from, so I searched the world around (okay, the greater Philadelphia area) until I located a used copy of The Rainy Season, Marc’s second CD and bought it for a dollar. Second best buck I ever spent. From start to finish the album was as perfect as “Ghost Train” had hinted at. I’ve since recommended it, and Marc Cohn, to anyone with a pulse.

Depeche-Mode-Songs-Of-Faith-And-Devotion-Album-Cover2. Depeche Mode – Songs of Faith and Devotion.

As usual, I was late to the party on this one. For some reason back in the ’90s it wasn’t really about immediate music (unless it was gangster rap), but about finding things after the fact, and usually at used CD shops in and around South Street. In fact, sometimes it was through my arty friends that I found out the best music, like Rage Against the Machine, Portishead, and Garbage, music that I never would have stumbled upon myself. It was at one of those gatherings when we were writing and sharing poetry, while we were getting drunk and playing music from random CDs we put in the boombox that’s when I first heard “Personal Jesus.”

That song hit me over the head with its straightforward lyrics and pounding repetitions, but what really stood out to me was the painful, gut-wrenching performance by the lead singer (who I found out later didn’t even write the lyrics — astonishing), so understated and yet still so powerful, that stirred something in my soul. But it would be three years later before I finally saw one of their albums in a used CD store, and its cover stood out to me before I even realized it was the same group that sang “Personal Jesus.” That album was Songs of Faith and Devotion, and it had a hole cut out of its barcode, but that didn’t bother me. I bought it without listening to even one song, took it home and listened to it start to finish. Before I even finished the first song I knew I had heard that voice before, and it brought back all of those memories. It still does. Continue Reading »

funny memory quotesI don’t think I’ll ever understand it. My 9-year old can clearly recall what happened 7 years ago in startling detail, from the clothes we were wearing to the shows she watched on television. She can remember every single one of her birthdays, the names of people she met once 5 years ago, and when I said that swear word when I hit my thumb with the hammer 6 years ago. But if I ask her what happened 5 minutes ago she’s completely clueless.

It drives me crazy, and I’ve been trying to do these techniques with her that are supposed to help out short-term memory, but nothing’s worked to this point. Today just added to it…

Me: Lexi, let’s get your homework out and get started.

Lexi: Well, I knoooow I put my folders in my bookbag.

Me: So get them out and let’s move along.

Lexi: Well, I knooooow I put my folders in my bookbag but they’re not there now.

Me: What do you mean? If you know you put them in there then they should be there now, right?

Lexi: But they’re not there.

Me: So you didn’t put them in your bookbag.

Lexi: But I know I did!

Me: Okay, so you “know” you put them in there, but they’re not there now, so you were mistaken, right?

Lexi: I guess so, but I don’t know what happened.

Me: I know what happened. You forgot to put them in there. You were probably distracted.

Lexi: I really thought I put them in there.

Me: Where was the last place you saw them?

Lexi: Well… I know they were on my desk before I put my chair up.

Me: So they’re probably still sitting there right now.

Lexi: But I know I put them in my bookbag.

Me: Okay, we’re done with that. They’re not there, so you didn’t put them there. They must still be on your desk at school.

Lexi: So what are we going to do?

Me: I’m going to take you back to school and you’re going to hope someone’s there who can let us back into your classroom to get your folders and planner.

Lexi: I hope somebody’s there to let us in.

Me: And you’re going to lose screen time for tonight because you haven’t taken care of your responsibility.

Lexi: NOOOOOO!

Me: You’re 9 years old now, Lexi. At some point you have to learn some memory skills. If you need your homework at home, then you have to make sure you put it in your bookbag.

Lexi: But I was sure it was in my bookbag.

Me [after taking a long breath]: It’s called double checking. Memory is like riding a bike, Lex. Once you learn how to make it go you can’t unlearn it. But you have to learn how to do it first, and the more you complain about not being able to remember the more you won’t be able to remember. I know you can do it.

Lexi: How do you know I can do it?

Me: Because you’re smart, Lexi. I’ve seen you put your mind to something and you get it done. You just need a little help with this one.

Lexi: Uh, can we go to school already, though? You’ve been talking for FOREVER and the room’s probably not open now.

Me: It won’t be my fault if we get there and the room’s not open. This is the second time you’ve forgotten and I’m taking you back for what you’ve forgotten. It won’t happen again.

Lexi: But what if I forget again?

Me: Then you’ll just lose your playtime the next day for not getting your homework done. Maybe that will be what it takes to help your memory.

Lexi: Yeah, I’ll remember then. You know, if I lose my playtime. I love playtime!

Me: And I love you.

Lexi: Daaaaaaad. Let’s go!

Sam

good-dog-bar-and-restaurant-philadelphia-1344978990I hate her, with her hand on her hip like she’s got attitude, spouting words like water, ranting for her supper like some old guy in skinny jeans with a goatee. But she’s not that old guy and she’s never going to be. Instead she’s a pretentious rich girl who feels like “slumming it” is the ticket to getting recognized for what she calls poetry but what I call swill. Call a spade a spade. Christian is thinking the same thing I am as he sits across from me rolling his eyes faster than she can spout her idiocy. It’s her first night here. I would have remembered someone like her.

But then again I guess everyone’s like her at the Good Dog Cafe, in the back room that’s really just an extension of the one room. The place is small, probably about as big as one of the lofts a couple of doors down where a few of my friends crash. And it’s cramped. We fit inside it like sardines in a can wriggling to be free, no one claustrophobic in here, which rules out quite a few people who visit South. The street, not the pub. Out in the main room someone’s singing “Free Bird” and I want to puke, but I’m not drunk yet. Getting there, but not yet. Christian is throwing down shots someone bought him. He’s so lucky, I think.

On the small makeshift stage she’s still talking like the world owes her something, liberally abusing the F-word. It’s apparently going out of style and she wants to get as much usage out of it before it’s as passe as the old guy she’s trying so hard to be. She’s a smoker. It’s obvious in her eyes, that haunted look that’s probably about the most authentic thing about her. Her fingertips are stained too, I notice, as she accentuates her words with a motion of flinging her hands out like she’s trying to reel in a fish, to reel in an audience that has already moved on to the next guy waiting in the wings.

2340520709_fc49d94674Christian is flipping through pages of poetry he writes but never shares. He’s cool like that. It reminds me that some people are real, that not everyone changed their underwear this morning, that not everyone has more than one pair of underwear. And that’s okay. That’s real. It bleeds out in his words. I’ve been lucky enough to hear them in private, not on this ramshackle stage that could fall apart at any moment. He shifts in his seat, a sure sign he’s getting antsy, that he needs his pills, but he’s not going to take them tonight. We’re going on the street later to do some major improv and he likes to be lucid for it. His word, not mine. I’m ready to go now.

She finally finishes on stage, and I realize I never caught her name, or if I did I threw it right back. She’s interchangeable with all the other trust fund kids who think the world owes them something, who think they’re being “cool” by coming to South Street, by hanging at coffee shops and pubs and doing open mics because they can. But in back corners, and in alleys, and out windows that overlook the river, we laugh at them. We laugh at their plastic faces, and at their stained fingers, artfully arranged to full effect. We laugh at their over-inflected words that condescend instead of celebrate. We think we’re so incredible when all we did was happen to be born in the slums and we never did anything to rise above that.

Christian has that look in his eyes now, that psycho look that I know too well. He took something before he came in here, and I sigh because I know he won’t be lucid at all, that he will only spout so much nonsense when we ad lib later. It makes me sad, and I know he doesn’t understand why. Sometimes even I don’t know why, but at times like these he reminds me more of people like this girl who got a quiet clap when she left the stage instead of the force of nature I know he can be when he’s sober. He gives me a look when I glance his way, a look full of pain that I only see when he’s vulnerable like this, and I feel nothing.

I feel nothing as I sit there waiting for the next round, and my turn on that makeshift stage.

Sam

boyz-ii-menDear Journal,

Maybe I just liked it when they were Boyz, trying to be Men, but not quite there yet. Perhaps it was the journey of becoming Men that really fascinated me and captured that lightning in a bottle because once they became Men they just haven’t been putting out the same level of music. I remember a few years ago when someone said that there was no clearcut “new Boyz II Men” and I thought, “But Boyz II Men is still around.” Then I thought some more, and I realized that they really aren’t. Not the way they used to be anyway.

They defined my adolescence just as much or more than any other singer/group of the early ’90s. “Water Runs Dry” still brings me back to high school faster than just about anything else will outside of Rod Stewart’s “Motown Song” and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out.” There was just something to be said about amazing melodies, harmonies, and refrains, and the Boyz did it better than most.

Then the ’90s began to wane, though, and the boy band took over from the actual boy group. A subtle distinction, I guess, but one that is important to make. As groups like Backstreet Boys and N*Sync blew into town on their white Boyz-II-Men-II-Del-1994-Delanterahorses the old black stallion of Boyz II Men just seemed out of date anymore, and they seemed to know it. They spent a lot of their time and energy trying to remain “hip” that they lost touch with what made them so special in the first place. They began to morph into some kind of dance group, which didn’t resonate. At all.

Now they spend a lot of their time (minus a member) singing cover tunes, their poor versions of other groups’/singers’ hits. No, I didn’t want to hear them sing the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” I honestly have no idea who wanted to hear that. Or even Peter Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now.” When did they decide that becoming a karaoke group was preferential to continuing to trailblaze? And now they’ve completely lost their way with a new album that, while it doesn’t plumb the depths for cover tunes, does nothing to enhance the brand, relying on overproduction and more dance friendly tunes.

I guess I just miss the Boyz more than I thought I would. It happens to everyone, I guess, most notably to those child stars who lose their way as they move on with their lives, as they grow up, but it’s sad to see. I find myself listening to those first two Boyz II Men albums and pretending that’s all they ever did because it’s better that way. No one likes to see a decline after it’s already happened, especially with one of their favorite groups. Right now I’m listening to “I Sit Away” and hoping that the group reunites with L.A. Reid and Babyface just once more before they call it quits, maybe with a last chance to recreate some magic.

But then again, I hope they don’t. Because if it’s still not magical I might lose my belief in the magic of being Men, real Men who don’t have to rely on the Boyz they used to be anymore.

Sam

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