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I’m a black man. I don’t think about it very often, but there it is anyway. I said it. It’s out there. Of course if you met me in person it might be one of the first things you think of, depending on where you’re from, or how old you are. I’ve gotten quite adept at interpreting “the look,” the one that says you see my color, the one that gives me an inkling of where your thoughts are, for better or for worse.

You see, I’ve gotten that look since I was first able to register looks. There’s the look that says, “I recognize you’re a black man and that I’m supposed to be afraid of you.” There’s the look that says, “I recognize you’re a black man and I’m intrigued by it.” And then there’s the look that proclaims, “I recognize you’re a black man and I hate you for it.” Luckily I don’t see that last look quite as much as I used to, or maybe it’s just my rose-colored glasses again.

When I was a kid I didn’t really know how to interpret the looks that said I was a black man in training. I knew I was black, instinctively, the way you know you’re in water because you’re wet. But what that meant I wasn’t quite aware of, aside from the looks anyway. Generally I didn’t come into too much contact with anyone who wasn’t black for a very long time. I lived a sheltered life, meaning those around me were largely also black. Growing up in Southwest Philly wasn’t quite the diverse atmosphere in the 80’s.

But once I began seeing white people on a regular basis, once I started high school (where to be black was indeed a minority) it became obvious that there was a difference between them and me. For one, I was seen as a member of the minority just by looking the way I did. It wasn’t a negative, per se, but it was definitely obvious. The black kids sat at separate lunch tables, sat together in class, and pretty much segregated themselves from the whites and “others” at the school. At least that’s what I saw, because to my young brain it seemed like real separation. Looking back, though, I think everyone was friendly. It was just that at its base the race dynamic tended to dominate, at least in social situations.

The looks changed, though, when I got a little older and began dating. Because I didn’t tend to choose the “safe” black girls to date, the ones that would have been mother approved simply because of the tone of their skin. I tended to look at girls who had lighter skin and could turn orange if they so chose. Luckily they generally didn’t choose this particular shade, but being white wasn’t seen as a positive. That’s where it got interesting. To that point all the looks I got and recognized were from white people, because I was a black man, and weren’t they supposed to be afraid of me? I began to get different looks when I stepped out on the town with white women.

For a black man, to be with a white woman can be daunting. First, because of the obvious stereotypes of interracial couples, but also because too many people actually believe in those stereotypes. They believe that a black man is simply a beast, and that a white woman who is with a black man must be looking to be submissive. They believe that like has to stay with like, that diluting the racial pool is akin to taking a sledgehammer to the Constitution. The looks these people give are scathing, withering stares, as if they can’t possibly believe what they’re seeing, but that it’s the worst thing that could possibly happen.

The biggest difference in these looks from the initial ones is that these looks come from just as many black people as they do white folk. So, while I was used to being seen as “other” from white people, I hadn’t gotten quite a taste of what being seen as “other” from black people was like. I got it in full force once my dating life began, even in as big and as diverse a city as Philadelphia. I guess my own circles were small enough. The looks were many, and were fierce, some people going as far as to say something under their breath, but not quite under their breath, knowing that I heard them, but also knowing I wouldn’t dare approach them about it.

Most of these people, I have to say, were older. Old black women, old white men, old white women, old black men, it didn’t seem to matter based on gender. It was just WRONG for a young black man to be attracting the fancy of a white woman. It was just unheard of for a white woman to be seen in the company of a black man, to hold hands in public, or even to show other public displays of affection so they couldn’t imagine (as they were wont to do) that we were friends, and nothing more. It’s just funny to me that even as society advanced these people went absolutely nowhere, preferring to keep holding on tightly to preconceived notions of how the world “should be.”

Then I got married and had children, who are mixed race, and they look it. I find it fascinating that now I get a whole other range of looks that at first I couldn’t identify. Many of these new looks are positive. I’m a black man who is there for his children, who is spending time with them, who isn’t a deadbeat. And I guess that’s not as positive as it sounds at first, because isn’t that an assumption that black men aren’t there for their children? My children are often called beautiful by perfect strangers who claim that, “aren’t mixed race kids the cutest?” And I often think, the more we change the more we stay the same.

These looks shift depending on who I’m with or whether I’m alone. When I’m by myself I still get the initial looks, just for being a black man. These looks don’t happen as often as they used to, but I still recognize them the second they do occur. I know this one black guy who claims to embrace the looks, who always plays on it like it’s some kind of joke. Like, yeah, “this one store only hires one black person as a token.” Like, yeah, “somebody’s gotta be black around here. Might as well be me.” I can’t be like him, though, because I really have hope for a world where it’s just another thing.

I’d like to think we live in that world already, but the looks tell me otherwise. Still.

Sam

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“Send your lifeboats out for me. Send your lifeboat out.” ~Snow Patrol

1609917.pngI’ve never been good at speaking my feelings. Writing them down, no problem, but speaking them out loud? In front of other people? Being that vulnerable? No way, unless it was absolutely impossible to do it any other way. I once broke up with a girl over email. I once broke up with a girl through a proxy (Anthony has never forgiven me for that one). I told a girl I loved her for the first time in a note, and only when she told me the feelings were reciprocated was I able to actually say it out loud.

I guess I’m just not wired that way, to be emotionally raw and accessible outside of the written word. Even now, even in this, I realize I’m doing exactly what I’m talking about, in writing down how I feel about this aspect of my being. But that’s just me, and I’ve spent years working on it, to no avail. Many people have told me they thought I was just fine until I finally broke down. Many people have been surprised when what seems like the smallest thing gets me depressed. That’s because it wasn’t the smallest thing. That’s because I let things build when I don’t talk about them.

I used to think it was good enough to write my feelings down, because at least I was getting them out. And it is definitely cathartic for me, a type of medicine that I don’t know what I would do without. But sometimes words need to be actually said. Sometimes words need to pass through my lips on their way to someone’s ears, so that they can hear me. So that they can know what I feel. So that I can bare my soul in a way that writing cannot mimic. Because there’s something to be said for human contact, for eye contact, for personal and physical CONTACT.

There have been very few people in my life who I don’t put on a mask around, but even with those people it hasn’t been easy to verbalize, to get things out without writing them down. Perhaps I’ve used my skill with writing as a crutch all these years in my personal relationships, preferring to write it out instead of to face it head on, whatever IT is. When I need to confess something, when things haven’t gone the way I wish they had, it’s tough to get it out. When I am overcome with emotion and I want to share it, it’s tough.

And it’s not just my writing that I use as a crutch. These masks I often wear, they’ve become rigid, so when I have them on I can’t even move my face, like a Botox injection that won’t wear off until I’m asleep and finally vulnerable. When I try to focus, to shuck off these masks, it’s difficult to do. But I used to feel like it was impossible, and I no longer feel that way. Sometimes I need to feel that bit of discomfort in order to get to the greater good. I learned that the hard way, time after time.

But with Heidi… it’s different. I won’t deign to say it’s easy, because it’s not. It’s the classic “It’s not you, it’s me” deal, but it really is me. Luckily for me, we’ve been together long enough that she knows when I have something on my mind. She is the one person who can see through my masks and can draw me out. I know it’s not easy, and I’m not easy, but she fights for me when I won’t fight for myself. Over the years I’ve found myself relaxing around her, being myself, which is incredibly scary. But less scary lately.

As I’ve gotten older I realize it’s more important to let the people I care about be there for me instead of trying to always be so strong. So that this emotional rawness I can allow my wife to see becomes more of a standard for me. So that these feelings I used to drown deep down inside are allowed to swim. So I can breathe, and speak, and be.

Sam

The Art of Adulting

Adult“Adulting is tough,” a lot of twenty-somethings tell me. Constantly. On repeat. Like a broken record. Not that they would know what an actual record is, or if they would get the funny nature of using a non-word to describe something. Maybe if they use it enough it will become part of the common lexicon. With enough usage it could eventually make its way into the dictionary. Apparently, it’s hard.

They tell me this because they don’t think I get it. After all, when I became an official adult Bill Clinton was still in office, Kanye West was just another black dude, and Taylor Swift was in kindergarten. They tell me this because “adulting” has apparently gotten tougher since I came up, and I don’t get that the #struggleisreal. For them it’s harder these days to navigate the rough waters of new adulthood, so they had to create a term to show their pain.

I get it. I do. It’s hard when you’re finally liberated from “the nest,” when you have to take care of your own bills, when you have to feed yourself, clothe yourself, do THINGS for yourself. It’s that point in your life when you finally realize what mom and/or dad have been telling you all along, that life is tough, that they’ve been doing everything for you, and “wait until you grow up.” Well, now you’re all grown up, and you’re longing for the good ol days. That’s what it means to me when those twenty-somethings tell me that adulting is tough.

So when the going gets tough, the tough do what, twenty-somethings? Whine to everyone about it on Twitter? Post Instagram pics of you holding an empty wallet? Ramble on using the limitless nature of the Facebook post? They don’t generally get a job, or if they do they whine about that too. They don’t usually go ask mom and/or dad for advice, because what would their parents possibly know about the big wide world? What they’ve been taught is if they complain enough about it other twenty-somethings will commiserate, using the same hashtags, and that shows some solidarity. That’s exactly what they need in order to succeed in the big, bad world.

I agree, by the way. Being an adult is tough. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been one for over 22 years. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been an adult for far longer than I ever was a child. It doesn’t get any easier, because there are still some things you have to do, even if you don’t want to do them. That gets exponentially harder when you begin to own STUFF, and when you have children. Tying yourself to someone who is dependent on you for their own well being is a huge commitment, and it’s another part of adulthood that can be challenging, and overwhelming at times.

Being an adult isn’t easy, and this feeling is not just limited to twenty-somethings. It doesn’t matter how old you are, the responsibility of being an adult is an awesome one. The struggle is definitely real, but the key is to deal with it by organizing your life, by figuring out not just how you’re going to get by, but how you’re going to thrive with what you’ve been given in life. It’s okay to admit the difficulty, but whining about it at every opportunity is simply counterproductive.

Sam

“What bad habit would you like to change?”

badhabitsI can choose only one? Seriously, I have a ton of bad habits that have stuck around simply because I haven’t deemed them worthy of taking the time necessary to eliminate them from my repertoire. And the ones I have deemed worthy, for some reason, haven’t been all that easy to get rid of, at least in the time I dedicated to them. It’s funny how it works out that way, or doesn’t work out, as the case may be.

But to choose just one? Hmmm. It would probably be my tendency to let other people make decisions for me. Not just those decisions like Taco Bell or Wendy’s either, but like many major decisions in my life. I look back on everything that’s happened to me so far, and what strikes me most is that I let all those things happen to me. I didn’t take a step back when others were making the decisions I should have made, instead going along with the flow.

I wonder what my life would have been like had I made more of those decisions myself, but I have an excuse. Okay, so it’s not an excuse but an explanation. I tend to surround myself with big personalities, people who take over a room because they’re in it. I’ve done it for so long that I tend to copy those people in situations where no one is like that. I guess nature abhors a vacuum or something. Anyway, it always seemed easier to go along with what they thought I should do, instead of taking the time to actually figure out what I wanted or needed to do.

It’s a bad habit. It’s probably the worst habit I have, when I think about it, because often times I did have a preference. Many of those times I had a course of action I would have rather followed, but rather than make waves I just went along. No, that doesn’t mean shooting heroin or anything, but from small things to major things that I’ve done in my life, I haven’t made every single one of those decisions. The decision to leave Philly, it wasn’t me. The choice to move here wasn’t made by me. Down to the slippers I’m wearing on my feet at this exact moment, the choice was made by others.

Perhaps I’m a rubber stamper. Hand me the ink, I’ll hop in it, and you’ll get some perfect footprints mapping out what I’ve done in my life. Some decisions have had wonderful results, like the one to move here, while others have had disastrous consequences (pretty much any decision I’ve allowed other people to make about what happens to my money). It’s one thing to get advice from others on what I should do, but quite another to then take their advice, and only their advice into consideration when making the decision.

I guess it’s easier that way for me because in the end I can’t place all the blame on myself, even though it is 100% my choice to go in the direction they pointed out to me with their LARGE ARROWS. If it doesn’t work out I can sit there and judge them for “making me” do whatever it was I did. And if it does have a good outcome, I can clap them on the back and share in the good fortune, even though I really had nothing to do with it. So yes, if I could change one of my many bad habits, it would be this one. In the end I would be responsible for deciding which paths I go in life, and for the decisions that I make.

Of course, when it comes down to it, all of the ultimate decisions in my life really were made by me, or they were made in tandem with the person they would ultimately affect just as much as me. Like getting married, having kids, and choosing my profession in life, all of those were me, and all of those turned out great, even though each one has its challenges. But that’s life. And I’m ready to make more of my own choices in it.

Sam

I Am A 90’s Song

sometimes-britney-spearsI am a 90’s song. Not quite electronic enough to be 80s. Not quite teeny bop enough to be early 00’s. I’m like Britney Spears’ “Sometimes.” I wanna believe in everything that you say, ’cause it sounds so good. But if you really want me, move slow. There’s things about me you just have to know. It takes time, though, to open up, because like most people I’ve been hurt before. I’ve trusted the wrong people who have let me down. And I’ve let down others, but I’m trying.

Sometimes I am guarded, and I retreat into my shell, while others I am gregarious and over the top. Sometimes I play to the stereotypes of what others expect of me, as some kind of a joke on them (Shhh, they’ll never know I was playing a part). Sometimes I go the exact opposite direction of what others might expect of me. But always I am a 90’s song, ready to explode into a soaring chorus… when the mood arises.

95b5d0531990cd9ef08a0822a04ba1df--nada-surf-song-lyricsSometimes I am like that Mm Mm Mm Mm song, where I simply hum along with the beat, whoever is setting it at that moment. While other times I am “Popular.” I’m head of the class. I’m popular. I’m a quarterback. I’m popular. My mom says I’m a catch. I’m popular. And if I say it enough to myself, in my mind, I start to believe it. I start to think that everybody should love me, even though I know that’s setting myself up for a fall. Obviously not everyone can like or appreciate everyone else. But I wish it could be the case.

I am Tevin Campbell in that “Can We Talk” video, chilling under that bridge because he knows the girl is going to give him the time of day if he just looks cool. I take selfies because I’m trying to affect that cool look. And not even for others, but for me. At least sometimes just for me. I don’t share the vast majority of those selfies. I am that Spice Girls song, “Say You’ll Be There.” There is no need to say you love me. It would be better left unsaid. I’m giving you everything, all that joy can bring. This I swear. And all that I want from you is a promise you will be there. I fear being alone. Does that make me codependent?

hqdefaultSometimes I am that Gin Blossoms song, “Follow You Down,” even though most times I’m a leader. But when the ball gets rolling I can tend to get caught up in the momentum without thinking ahead. I know we’re headed somewhere, I can see how far we’ve come. But still I can’t remember anything. Let’s not do the wrong thing and I’ll swear it might be fun. I have to always remember that, to keep it in the back of my brain so I don’t go off the rails. It might be fun.

But I try not to worry about the friends thing, even though I’m like a dog chasing his tail when it comes to that. I try to stay slightly aloof about it all, not to dive headfirst like I’ve done before just to drown. But if I can’t swim after 40 days, and my mind is crushed by the crashing waves, lift me up so high that I cannot fall. Lift me up. Lift me up when I’m falling. So I try to keep my head above water, even when it seems that the world all around me is a flood.

hqdefault (1)I am a 90’s song because I can’t help being one, because I’m a tortured soul living a life that gives me everything I want. I’m like that R.E.M. song, “Everybody Hurts.” Well, hang on. Don’t let yourself go. ‘Cause everybody cries. Everybody hurts sometimes. It’s okay to feel things. It’s alright to be disappointed with how things are. But it’s not okay to dwell on it to the exclusion of appreciating what’s wonderful in my life. I look around me, and I am so grateful despite the letdowns. Maybe even partially because of them. Because how else would I grow?

Sam

theLongConimageSometimes a novel just begins itself, so I have to catch up to it in due process, and I spend the entirety of the adventure lost in the nuance of the characters, so that when it’s done even I don’t know where they end and I begin. Sometimes a novel burns itself so deeply into my subconscious that I dream of its circumstances as though I were there, engaged in their decisions as if they were me.

But they’re not. They live their own lives, and I am simply the conduit for others to see the journey. Or something like that. Sometimes a novel comes while I’m writing something else, and makes me stop everything so I can write it.

My new book, The Long Con, is such a novel, and I’m pleased to say that it is now available for purchase on Amazon.com in paperback format. Soon, very soon, it will also be for sale in digital form, but why get a digital copy when you can hold the very book in your hands?

For months I lived in this world. I bumped into these characters and said “Excuse me.” I spent literally thousands of minutes breathing them in, so that it became second nature to ask them what they wanted for dinner before thinking about my own. The Long Con is more than just a novel to me; it is an experience that I didn’t want to ever end. And I guess in a sense it doesn’t end here, but it develops a new beginning.

Because now you too can get to know Sally Groves, and Glen Davidson, and everyone else who lives between those pages. But until you can get your grubby mitts wrapped around your own copy, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter…

[From The Long Con, copyright 2017, Sam McManus]

I could tell you what you want to hear, but that would be too easy, wouldn’t it? I mean, every story has a good guy and a bad guy, and it would be so simple to paint me as the latter, but things aren’t ever black and white, even if we try to shove them into those categories. I could tell you that I am the victim here, that everything happened to me and not because of me, but I would be lying to you. I am no portrait of naiveté, and certainly not someone to overlook warning signs if I had even glimpsed their existence. What I can tell you is that things are not always as they seem, which includes this crazy world around us, and us as individuals as well. When it comes down to it, we all look out for number one, even if we won’t ever admit to that simple truth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I often do, because my brain is on overdrive 24/7, and it’s pretty hard for me to catch up, much less for anyone else to. I have many important things to do before this day is over, and I need to keep them well-organized; they’re as delicate as a house of cards in the path of a great wind. Because before this day is over I may well be dead, or worse. What’s worse than death, you ask? Well, if I have to tell you then it’s not anything you need to worry about, which makes me happy for you, but pretty despondent for myself.

First off, it’s about the money. I mean, what isn’t? The love of money might be the root of all evil, but the lack of money is the axe that chops down the whole damn tree. I have plenty of money, but absolutely none of it is mine, at least not free and clear. I’ve spent almost the entirety of my adult life trying to reconcile that seeming dichotomy, with varying degrees of success, but in the end that’s what it boils down to: too much and not enough money at the same time. That’s because it’s been in trust funds that have ages attached to them: the first installment on my twenty-fifth birthday, the second on my thirtieth, the third on my thirty-third… you get the picture. And none of these dates can come soon enough. That’s because I owe several people a lot of money.

I’m not some kind of gambler. I know what you’re thinking. There are many people out there who are addicted to putting in pennies and trying to get dollars back in return, who think that the system owes them one, so they waste their paychecks in seedy casinos and over games of chance. Sure, they win from time to time, but just enough to keep them coming back, to keep them dumping money into the pot, money that they will never see again. I’m not one of those poor people (and here I use the term poor in both of its connotations). But just because I don’t gamble overtly doesn’t mean I don’t take chances I probably shouldn’t take, and they’ve caught up with me more than I’d care to admit.

My addiction is the long con, the patient alternative to the short con. You know the short con quite well, perhaps, when someone steals your identity by taking your credit card, or somehow getting the numbers and running up a big bill that you theoretically end up paying for instead of the thief. The short con could also include pretending you’re leaving money to pay your restaurant bill on the table, but you’re just leaving a Gideon’s mini-Bible instead. It’s simple enough, but you also don’t get very much money from it. At the most the short con can get you a couple thousand bucks, probably, if it’s the identity theft angle anyway. I’ve never done it; there’s obviously just not enough skin in that game.

But the long con – the long con is one of the most beautiful experiences on the planet. It takes patience and perseverance, but in the end it can land you much more than a couple thousand bucks, and if you play your cards right the long con could completely set you up for life…

Seriously, check it out if you’re into suspense, into solving puzzles, but also into getting inside the minds of characters who are so real maybe you’ve seen them on the street already. I know I certainly enjoyed living with them for a few months. Now they’re yours.

Sam

By now you know the rhythm, the cadence, of the words… “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer… blah blah blah… til death do us part.” It’s as much a part of the collective consciousness as Miley Cyrus on a wrecking ball, or Uncle Sam doffing his hat and saying he wants YOU, yes you, to join the army. And while our divorce rate soars at an all time high, it can be easy to forget that in those vows we said something that doesn’t take divorce into account.

Which makes sense, seeing as each marriage is a new beginning. Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. They date. Boy proposes. Girl accepts. BAM. They say the words to each other, believing in them like they’ve never believed anything before in their lives. They will stay together until death’s cruel grip comes to tear them apart. But things change. People change, and words said a while ago don’t really bind as they should. Let me rephrase. Those feelings, that depth of emotion behind those words, that’s what changes. And life throws a wedge into emotions, into the best laid plans.

It happens.

I should know. I walked down the abbreviated city hall aisle when I was 21, and I said those very words, believing that they would bind me to this other person for all time. I had faith in my feelings at that moment, that those feelings would last for all time, and that hers would do the same. I didn’t take into account that when you’re married you find out things about each other that might tax those feelings. I didn’t figure into the bargain that the changes we would go about would irrevocably divide us.

I didn’t go into that marriage thinking I would be a statistic. I went in with hope. But I left as a statistic.

Divorce isn’t always somebody’s fault. Believe me. Sometimes it just happens because of circumstance, because of misplaced faith, because of issues beyond your control. It isn’t the byproduct of horrible situations every single time. Maybe you were better off as friends. Perhaps the idea of marriage was like that extra piece of pie — awfully tempting, until you eat it and you realize you were already full. Divorce is a way of mutually saying, “Yeah, this just isn’t working and we’ve exhausted all avenues to try and stay together.”

I am myself a product of divorce. I saw firsthand growing up what it was like when parents have a difference of opinion, when open wounds fester so much the stench in the air was always palpable. I saw the havoc it can wreak on two people who used to love each other, who maybe still loved each other, but who were ill suited for each other, who were better off going their separate ways. I lived through the pain of the separation, through the tearing of the fabric of my world, thinking it was me, thinking nothing was ever going to be good again in my life. So I know what it was like. I know divorce can be such a traumatic event.

But it can also be good. You see, my parents were in a toxic relationship by that point. It was plain to see, at least in our household. We were told to present a different face to the world, but we knew how to call a spade a spade when we were behind the closed doors of our rented house. It was devastating when it happened, but in time I saw it for what it really was, a chance for my mom to finally breathe. She was better off without him, even though it meant she was now a single mother, even though it meant the purse strings were just that much tighter. But she was committed to us. She threw all of herself into being there for us.

So I will never say that divorce is always a bad thing. Maybe the marriage itself was the bad thing. Maybe things happen that are beyond our control, but when we finally get control we realize that these things should not be, that life should be different than… this. So yes, I am a part of the grand statistic, in more ways than one. I’m like the Hair Club for Men president. I’m not only the president. I’m also a client.

I told myself that when I grew up I would preserve the sanctity of marriage, that I would follow each and every vow to the letter, if I was lucky enough to get married in the first place. But one thing I didn’t tell myself was what the contingency would and should be if the marriage was detrimental to me as a human being. I somehow survived 3 years of that marriage, and then it was done, and I can honestly say that, just as with my parents before me, that divorce was the best possible thing that could have happened to me in the situation, for both my sanity and for the possibilities it afforded me for a healthier future.

Sometimes it really is “Til Divorce Do Us Part,” and that’s okay. Sometimes that’s okay.

Sam

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