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Afrodisiac

afromanAt the absolute apex of my adolescence, I sported an afro for two years. It wasn’t some kind of fashion statement, or some kind of returning to my roots, or even an homage to Michael Jackson, circa 1979. It was instead a product of laziness and the procurement of two cheap picks at the dollar store in the summer of ’91.

The laziness kept me away from the barber shop, that and a misguided attempt at better handling my own meager finances. The cheap picks went along with the aforementioned misguided attempt; they were chunky, multi-colored plastic, but I thought they were the world. They allowed me to shape said afro into an enormous halo over me whenever I wanted, giving me my natural shade in the heat, and my protection from the rain as well.

I loved that afro because it gave me an identity I didn’t feel I had at the time. It gave me a persona when I had none to my name. It gave me an excuse to live. Then, on the coldest day of the year, in the wintry chill of 1993, I had that afro shaved off.

“You got a hat?” the barber asked me as I sat in his swivel chair.

“Not today I don’t,” I replied, realizing what he meant. Having that afro meant my head was never cold. I had lived in the warmth of its cocoon for so long I had forgotten what the harsh outside world was like.

“You’d better get one right away, if you still want me to shave it,” he said, gesturing out the window.

I looked that way for a moment, and on the corner out there on the street was a man selling all manner of items, from sunglasses to copied audio tapes, to beanies and pull down hats that somehow didn’t make me feel warm looking at them. He was doing a brisk business, though, because his product was cheap and he was a convenient business destination for brothers in the hood. And maybe the barber was getting some kind of kickback from recommending him to me.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, as another customer walked in, and a gust of chilly air followed him inside.

“Such a great head of hair,” the barber told me, and I could see he meant it. You see, in 1993 all the brothers were shaving their heads to be like Michael Jordan, either that or GI Jane, and I really think it was the former. So I was an anomaly, a throwback to a different age, and I think the barber appreciated that too much to just shave my afro without a word of advice first.

“Yeah, it just keeps up my overall body temperature,” I replied, my course set, my trajectory plotted in without chance of detour.

“Then yes sir, you need to get yourself a hat,” he repeated. “It’s cold out there.”

The buzz of the clippers drowned out my thoughts as, like Samson, my hair fell down all around me, hitting the floor in waves. It gathered at my feet, a veritable sea of black, curly hair, but I didn’t feel like my strength was ebbing as a result. Instead I felt lighter, more self-assured, like that butterfly rising from its self-imposed exile to spread its wings and fly.

See, I don’t think it was just time, that I was trying to “Be Like Mike” even though that craze was starting to peter out by then anyway. I think it was all about finally knowing who I was, and not needing a gimmick anymore to validate my existence. Yes, I knew it would be ice cold out there when I emerged from that barber shop, that it would feel like little ice needles were pricking my scalp, but I needed that feeling.

Now I’d give anything to have that afro again.

Sam

That ’76 Sound

“I spent many a summer early morning with the radio very low, half sleeping and half listening.” ~Frankie Valli

There’s a space between being fully asleep and being fully awake where the awesome feeling of weightlessness, of carelessness, of being completely outside of ourselves and looking down on our world with wonder, takes over. It’s warm there, like being in utero, like hugging your knees to your chest and drifting away. All the love, and all the joy, and all the excitement in the world all come together under a brilliant light that imbues heat, and love, and joy, and excitement. But then we are awake, or we are asleep, and it’s gone.

For me it’s that ’76 sound, that radio on low that vibrates through my soul, because while I don’t remember anything before I was born, I imagine it was like that in my cocoon, safe, and incredible, and all too brief. For two thirds of 1976 I was in the womb. From April until December of that glorious bicentennial year I was biding my time, lost in a world that would both define me and be extraneous to me, hugging my knees to my chest and listening to those outside sounds, muffled and out of tune. For two thirds of that glorious bicentennial year I was a hesitation mark, waiting to be fully realized, basking in the sounds of love, and hope, and possibility.

In 1776 the so-called Founding Fathers were desperately fighting for freedom against long odds, against a system that was vast, that was massively overwhelming, but they had a vision and a tenacity that eventually won them their war. Their battle cries could be heard from hill to hill, from town to town, and from forest to forest, as they found a liberation that had long been lost. That sound has reverberated down through the years in anthems, in chants, in speeches oft repeated down the line. It resonates with me in a profound way because sounds bring with them memories and a connection that cannot be achieved any other way.

One hundred years later newly freed slaves were making their way North with no real plans except getting themselves and their families away from the plantations that had stolen their identities. They had no jobs, no job prospects, and were facing a world that was still highly segregated and discriminatory, even in the north. These slaves had one thing that kept them striving, that kept them moving up the path, and it was embedded deeply in the fabric of their negro spirituals, in the hymns sacred to them by way of religion, and of shared experience, and of shared loss. These hymns became their own war cries, their own way to define themselves in a world that left them undefined, that left them as less than human.

By 1976 the world had changed immeasurably, but we all know that with any change comes a consistency of experience that doesn’t change. From the rudimentary lyrics of William Shakespeare, back in 1576, to the burning down of the Jamestown colony in 1676, to the revolutionary verve, to the determination of the newly freed slaves, down to my own birth, when Rod Stewart’s “Tonite’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright)” was the top song in America, that ’76 sound just keeps on playing. But it’s not on repeat. It picks up more verses as the years, as the decades, as the centuries go on, becoming more nuanced, creating more melodies and harmonies that we can all share. That ’76 sound is an all-encompassing reminder that we are all connected in some way, shape, or form.

I spent 1976 becoming me, and the time since has all been spent, looking backward, and looking forward, trying to understand who that is, with my headphones on, checking out that ’76 sound. And I’m still waking up.

Sam

An acquaintance of mine remarked the other day:

“That’s stupid to worry about Wi-fi signals in the middle of the wilderness. You’re out in nature, man. Enjoy it.”

To which I say:

“Nature can be an absolute behemoth, a beast that can destroy you in seconds, or take an eternity to draw it out. The wilderness is the perfect place to have a strong Wi-fi signal because you never know when you might need it.”

But I get his point. Of course I do. In this world, with all of these devices, it can be easy to get hooked in and want to stay hooked in. It reminds me of the story of the two girls who fell into a well. One of them remembered that she had her phone on her, so she fished it out, and…

They changed her Facebook status to: “I’ve fallen in a well. Please send help.”

Six hours later one of her friends finally decided the status update wasn’t a joke or a hoax and called 911 to get her some help. During the six hours after the status change both girls sat at the bottom of the well and waited to be rescued. I repeat, their friend called 911 six hours later. They had a phone down there with them. Uh.

But that’s how things are these days, in this screenage generation, where social media is king and everything else is a foreign concept. It makes perfect sense to be out in the wilderness looking forĀ  four bars on your phone because you’re so used to having four bars on your phone whenever you go. What do you mean, Uber doesn’t have tent service in the wilderness? Well, maybe, if you pay a whole lot extra, including shocks for the Uber jeep.

We sit in a room surrounded by other people and sometimes an eternity can pass before a single word is said. It used to be a horrible thing to be with others and not talk, but now it’s the default setting, except when we turn our phones to those around us to show them the latest Grumpy Cat meme, or the funniest LaVar Ball tweet. It’s not about good old-fashioned physical interaction with others. It’s about how fast you can get out your point of view without uttering a single word.

When the Wi-fi is dead we feel like we are too. We feel like life is a hopeless rubbish bin because we can’t connect to the world outside, to the world we’ve gotten used to being wrapped around us like a cocoon. The connections we tend to make, though, are superficial at best, not like the ones the outside world often affords us. There’s a book called We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, and while I haven’t yet read it, I know the sentiment that the title espouses. “IRL” has become a simple acronym that encompasses everything about this generation, because it has become more and more rare.

Real life has become a caricature of itself, a reminder that life, this erstwhile life we call our own, must go on even when we aren’t plugged in, even when we aren’t sucking at the teat of the social media monster. We don’t know what we think until it explodes from us in 180 characters or fewer, and our thoughts aren’t validated until more than our immediate family re-tweets those very thoughts. Our lives are defined by the accounts we have, by the likes we collect, and by the photographs we share, not by what we actually do during our days, or by the people we share our IRL time with.

And I say “we” because I am just as much a part of this world as everyone else. I check my accounts more than I probably should. I would not have changed my Facebook status from the bottom of a well, but I can certainly understand why and how it happened the way it did. But I wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near a wilderness, Wi-fi signal or not.

Sam

Someday

What can I say? We’re in. Or we’re almost in. In all the ways that count anyway, we are in. Like Flynn, according to Heidi. The Certificate of Occupancy, the holy grail when it comes to moving in to a new home, came through, signed, sealed, and delivered, on Tuesday. The inspector came, he saw, he said we were all good, and he left.

Then we exhaled.

But of course that was just the beginning of the next phase, not the ending of it all, not by far. So many people have asked me over the course of the past year or so when we will move in. “When are you guys moving in?” “What’s the move in date?” “We can’t wait to have the house warming party.” And I kept telling them things that started with hopefully, probably, possibly, and if we’re lucky. I honestly had no idea, except that the holidays and special anniversaries kept rolling by and we still seemed to be no closer to getting in than we were at the outset.

At first it seemed likely we would be in by Christmas, that the red and green wreath would indeed decorate our door for the first time, but that was not to be. By Christmas we were in a holding pattern instead, fighting desperately to get workers to the site, trying inconsolately to deal with more and more delays as the house sat empty no more than 1000 paces from where we were boarding.

Then I had my eye set on Valentine’s Day, then I was assured that it would be Alexa’s birthday celebration in the new house, but both days came and went without any change in our living situation. To say I was frustrated, that we were frustrated, would be a massive understatement. My 40th birthday, Easter, and both Mother’s and Father’s Day flew by and workers came and went. It was all an acknowledgment that someday would come, that someday would arrive and sweep us into the house on a swell of good fortune.


Someday is today. I sit here in our house, half moved in, the beds secure in their final homes, my children tucked cozily into their separate beds in their separate rooms, snug as bugs in rugs. A crazy grin spreads across my face because after all this time… after all these trials… we are in. Someday has arrived, and even if we are still living from suitcases, even if we have to still travel those 1000 paces to eat food three times a day, that place is no longer where we live. It was never home, but now it isn’t even a place I have to return to when my working day is done.

Someday is today. We are cleaning rooms, painting doors, and situating furniture where it belongs, all while inhabiting the space we’ve looked at for far too long, from the outside looking in. Now I’m looking out, and I’m loving what I see. Because it’s ours, and someday is now.

Sam

Great Expectations

“Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.” ~Dennis Wholey

expectationsI used to have no expectations, or at least I used to try really hard to have no expectations, because I decided early on that it was easier to deal with mediocrity than to be disappointed by it. So if the world is mediocre, if there is no expectation of something more, then that’s just the way it is. And if something happens that blows my mind it is spectacular in its nature because I did not in the least expect it.

But that’s no way to live. It’s not good enough to be bland, to not expect the spectacular just because it has a high probability of not coming to pass. So I have begun to look forward to something instead of hoping nothing bad happens. I have started enjoying the good things in life because there are some good things in this life. I have opened my eyes instead of keeping them closed shut against the possibility of devastation.

Because it is only when I’m truly open to that possibility that I can fully appreciate the glory of an unexpected gift.

Sam

 

478213335The girl at the Bagel Grove looks exactly like Amanda, or at least like Amanda when I knew her, 20 years ago, back when the world was fresh and new. The girl at the Bagel Grove looks fresh and new, as if she has been in a state of stasis for 20 years, as if she has been waiting for this day, and this time, to return. At the Bagel Grove in Utica, New York. I’m sure stranger things have happened.

Her nametag says “Kina,” and I’m wondering if the “i” is long or short, if she is long or short, if her name is her mantra, or if she prefers to be called “Key,” or “Ki” for short. She has a gap between her top two front teeth, just like Amanda, and I want to ask her if it affects her whistling ability. I don’t ask, but I want to. I tell her I want a garlic bagel with garlic and herb cream cheese, and she looks at me like I’ve grown two heads.

“I’m not kissing anyone in the next couple of hours,” I tell her, by way of explanation for the question her eyebrows asked.

“That’s still a pretty strong combination,” she tells me, and there is a lilt to her voice, like it’s normally an outside one but she has forced it to come inside, where she is.

The woman behind her laughs at that one, a joke, just one among many that I think the place hears during the course of an ordinary day. The Bagel Grove seems like one of those places, all cinnamon and ribaldry, baked together and warm to the touch. This other woman makes a joke about the Target shirt I am wearing, and I have a snappy comeback ready. This is not my first time. Kina smiles at the joke and hands me my change. I never realized I paid her.

I can’t help staring at her, even though I know I shouldn’t. I mean, Amanda really was my first love, and the resemblance is uncanny, especially for a girl who has such a mixed ancestry as this girl obviously does. I can see European descent in her eyes and skin, African in her nose and hair, a touch of something else in her bearing that I can’t quite place but that Amanda had as well. But Amanda would be 40 now, and this girl is only 21, at the most. I still can’t help staring.

“Toasted?” she asks, and I have no idea what she’s referencing. She points to the bagel in her hand, and I notice she isn’t wearing gloves, although they are nearby on the low counter. Amazingly enough, I don’t mind.

“Yes, please,” I answer, and I consciously try to stop staring. She will think I’m some kind of lunatic, not that I’m remembering a time long ago, and a girl long gone, lost to the overwhelming ether that has been life.

“Name?” she says, sharpie poised over the folded paper bag she is now holding, the bagel already in the toaster oven, forgotten for the moment as it browns.

“Sam,” I tell her, because it is my name, and because she did ask. She writes it down using stock letters, the “A” starting before the “S” finishes, which is not like Amanda wrote my name.

I blink, and the resemblance fades as quickly as it manifested when I walked in. The ghost of a girl I used to love fades along with it. I slide down the counter to wait for my bagel, humming to myself a tune I know by heart.

Sam

It’s No Good

“Don’t say you want me. Don’t say you need me. Don’t say you love me. It’s understood. Don’t say you’re happy out there without me. I know you can’t be, ’cause it’s no good.” ~Depeche Mode [“It’s No Good”]

I’m the king of pretenders, the ultimate “my face is not how I feel” kind of person. Maybe it’s because I care too much how people perceive me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve just gotten used to putting on a front while out in public. Whatever the case, it’s ingrained now after 40 years of perfecting it, of putting it out there and hoping desperately that people relate, that people want to be around me because of it. Then I spend the rest of my time worrying that I should have been more authentic.

It’s a harsh cycle, madly and truly, but after 40 years of this I realize that the happiest I’ve ever been is when I can just be myself, when I can just open my mouth and breathe without thinking about how I will make that happen. It’s a perspective thing, I guess. There’s 40 years down, and I don’t know if there’s 40 ahead, but I’m going to spend my time being happy, doing the things that make me happy instead of always thinking about others’ perceptions of me. Life is just way too short.

I’ve started too, and the results have been drastic already. Many people are asking me if something is wrong because I’m not the same, because I’m different, because they are now seeing the real me. Remember that thing about being happy? Well, I’m not happy every second of every day, so they’re seeing that, but I’d rather be unhappy and it shows than spend my time being fake. It makes my real happy moments just that much brighter, luminescent in their glory, like I’m a character in a cartoon who has just been redeemed after years of being the bad guy.

I’ve begun spending some time in the mirror analyzing my smile — well, really trying to figure out what a real smile for me looks like on my face, trying to figure out how to discard the fake smile that likes to creep in and freak me out with its extra wattage.

This is me. All that other stuff. It was no good. It wasn’t me. It was the idea of me that I thought others needed to have to feel secure that they knew me. But they didn’t know me. How many of us really know the people around us? How many of us really think about the masks that we wear, about the masks that others wear when they are around us, about tearing off those masks so we can be our authentic selves more often.

Everyone says you should “be yourself,” but no one truly takes that to heart. No one really strives to be themselves because we aren’t happy with ourselves, not who we are at our baselines. We judge ourselves so we assume others are judging us too, and maybe they are (we are only human), but I would rather be judged on who I am than on who others think I am because it’s the face I show them.

It’s no good. It just isn’t. All this pretense and subterfuge, all this time spent in artifice and self-judgment. At least I’ve decided that for myself it won’t work anymore, that it never worked except in my own scattered mind. Well, I’m getting focused now. I don’t want to only be honest in my writing. I don’t want to have to write you a missive for you to know how I feel. I want to be able to come right up to you, to open my mouth, and to simply be honest. I know, it’s a novel idea. But I’m ready, and it’s time.

Because everything else… it’s no good.

Sam

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