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Handy, Man!

So there we were, two American newlyweds, on the wrong side of the road, but really off the side of what I can only describe was a postage stamp sized road in the rolling hills of Ireland. And the predicament was this: somewhere along the road we had hit a massive pothole (of which there were many along those tiny roads), lost our wheel trim, and totally wrecked one of our rental car’s tires. What a great honeymoon. What were we to do?

Oh, and did I mention this was also on a Sunday afternoon, when pretty much everything in Ireland was shut down tighter than a submarine? There was indeed a spare in the trunk, but I had absolutely no idea what to do with that. The only thing I knew with certainty was if we didn’t get to some sort of service station the tire would be completely useless and we would be completely stuck. On the side of that postage stamp sized road.

Luckily we were able to make it to a gas station where a nice (and capable) attendant helped us out by changing out our tire for free. What nice folk we encountered on that trip.

That was 14 years ago, and I still have absolutely no clue how to change a tire to this day.

I mowed the lawn once, on the riding lawn mower that felt more like a joyride than anything else. I felt pretty competent as I zoomed around our yard cutting that grass pretty low but not too low. It was such a great experience, and I was going at such a good pace that I decided to be a good neighbor and take care of the weeds that had grown up between our yard and the one adjacent.

I can still hear the raised voices later that night, the cries of agony from next door, the shock and disappointment. Because to my dismay the weeds weren’t really weeds. They had been plants planted by the neighbor, and I had absolutely destroyed each and every one of them in the name of being helpful. They were shocked that anyone in their right mind would have mistaken those plants for weeds.

I couldn’t show my face for quite some time after that, for embarrassment’s sake.

It’s not that I’m completely useless when it comes to manual labor. It’s that I’m just not quite a handy man in that way. If what you need is a manuscript or essay draft proofread, I’m your guy. If you need a recipe followed to the letter, I could do that for you (just don’t trust me with aluminum foil and the microwave — oops). If there’s a bookshelf or desk you need put together, you’d do better to have it pre-assembled. I would more than likely have parts “left over,” which wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing.

Maybe it’s because I honestly don’t care about cars, even though they’re a necessary part of life around here in East Missoura… I mean, here in Newport, New York. Maybe it’s because I absolutely detest yard work (bugs, bugs, BUGS) and no amount of bug spray will keep the pests away from what I’m sure they consider is their snack, i.e. my legs. Perhaps I’m not really handy because I’ve never really felt I needed to be, because there were always others who were just better at those kinds of things than me. Maybe because I honestly just don’t care about those kind of things.

And I guess I should be more self-sufficient when it comes to doing things with my hands, but my brain simply doesn’t work that way. Which is funny because to look at me you might assume I know my way around a wrench, but I honestly don’t. I’m a huge guy, with massive hands, but these hands are more likely to be poised over a keyboard than grasping a shovel and rake. I know people constantly judge me for it, but luckily for me my wife understands.

That hasn’t stopped her from getting me outside on occasion, from relying on my strength to get some of those “handy” things done. And maybe if I had paid attention during those times I wouldn’t have buzzed through those prize plants of the neighbors, but I have no memory for any of that. I do those things so I can move on to what I really want to be doing. So, no, I can’t change my car’s oil, and it will take me a dog’s age to put together my study desk.

I’m cool with that. But damn, that pothole was enormous.

Sam

1989It was the late ’80s. Every guy was trying to affect the Don Johnson look, every girl had hair bigger than life, and I was dealing with some serious acne and an identity crisis of my own. As a boy coming of age at the end of that glorious decade it was easy to find role models. They were everywhere: from the graffitied billboards, to the movie stars, to pretty much everyone I came in contact with.

But the ones who were always there for me were those on the small screen, where I could find them once a week when I needed them. Stars from shows like Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, and The Cosby Show showed me exactly what I needed to do, how I should behave, and what advice to follow so I could be a well-rounded human being. And they all did it in just a half hour every week.

The best part was that they weren’t real, but they were at the same time. I could imagine how it would be if I was friends with them, yet I never had to deal with their rejection. I could look up to them, but also judge them from afar, because they were royalty in a kingdom I would never visit.

savedcastMy favorite show back then was Saved By the Bell. It was so overwrought with stock characters and predictable storylines, but it was fun.. Saved By the Bell had it all:

  • The Jock
  • The Cheerleader
  • The Nerd
  • The Fashionista (who doubled as the token black character)
  • The Student Body President
  • Zack Morris

I really wanted to be Zack Morris (and not just because of his bitchin’ cell phone either). He could stop time at any point and offer commentary on his fellow characters. He had amazing blonde hair. He was the cool kid without being too cool, because he made a ton of mistakes and was forced to grow as a character in order to fix them. And the best thing about Zack Morris was the glint in his eye when he had just come up with one of his dastardly plans.

Zack was the king of the swagger, and to a pubescent boy in the late ’80s it was easy to try and imitate that. There was nothing Zack couldn’t do, no lengths to which Zack wouldn’t go, in order to get what he wanted. And yet he was still likeable. Yet he still had a group of friends who were loyal to him even after he had humiliated each and everyone of them at some point. He was redeemable because he was real, because his swagger didn’t make him a villain.

It made him one of us.

Sam

Losing Touch

I’m in no hurry, you go run and tell your friends I’m losing touch. Fill their heads with rumors of impending doom. It must be true.” ~The Killers

Look around you. These are the people who survived. At least for now.

A “friend” of mine recently posted on Facebook that he was doing widespread cuts to his friends list, not because he suddenly hated everyone on it, but simply because it was time to trim. He said he based the cuts on people he hasn’t really communicated with over the last year, and to an extent that makes sense.

Think about it. How many of your friends, Facebook or otherwise, would make that cut? And I mean communication not in a superficial way, something past “hi,” and “hey,” and the random birthday greeting because Facebook reminded them it was your special day. How many people can you honestly say you’ve spent meaningful time with in the past year?

List is pretty small, isn’t it? And that’s okay. Because we aren’t meant to have a million meaningful relationships in this life, or even from one year to the next. There are some people who simply drop off. We lose touch for many different reasons. From year to year it happens, and yet we’ll still say we are friends. We still claim we are as close as perhaps we used to be, probably because we don’t realize we aren’t. Not anymore.

I can’t tell you how many people occupied a prime position in my life over the years who have just disappeared, who have lost touch for whatever reason. Being close to someone is a two way street. It takes work from both people involved. But our interests change. Our lives change. And we can’t blame others for losing touch. Usually we are both to blame, in one way or another.

My biggest surprise: when all was said and done, and my friend sent out the post that he was done, that we who remained, who were sitting there reading his post, could breathe a sigh of relief. We had made it through the minefield. But relief wasn’t the emotion I felt when I read it. I wasn’t feeling lucky, but merely depressed that this is the world we live in now. We try to reason out why we lose touch. We try to take control by cutting others off first, then broadcasting it, because we broadcast everything these days. It just makes me sad.

There is not much worse than when we realize we are losing touch, and we fight against it but it’s already done. Our grip shouldn’t get tighter. It is the natural order of things. People are in our lives for a reason, and some are definitely for life, but others are simply for a season, and are meant to drift away on the breeze after. Our problem is that we mistake the two all the time. So culling our friends list is a smart move, because it’s already been culled by time. We are just finally acknowledging it. Just don’t broadcast it. For my sake.

Sam

Hey, Zeus!

zeusSilent letters have always perplexed me. As a huge proponent of the English language, I can’t help but consider them my friends, but it’s more like in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sort of way.

Why name her “Sarah” when you can name her “Sara”? Why is it a “gnat” instead of a “nat” or a “knot” instead of a “not”? I’m sure somewhere along the way the letter was an important part of the word, for whatever reason, but these days… well, these days silent letters are simply the bane of my existence.

I saw a copy of the Declaration of Independence this week, and I noticed that the word was “Congrefs” instead of “Congress.” I completely understand if the type face didn’t have an “s” back in the 18th Century, but it so obviously did, as evidenced by the “s” at the end of the word. How hard would it have been to just put another one in front of it instead of that horrendously wrong looking “f”? Sometime around the 20th Century they fixed all of that nonsense, but I’m just curious why they had to suffer through it for so long before that.

And don’t even get me started on letters that don’t sound a thing alike, depending on the constitution of the other letters contained in the word they find themselves chained to at any particular time. For example, sometimes the G is hard, as in grape, and other times it’s soft, as in stranger. Sometimes the C makes a harsh sound, like in Carbon, while on occasion it’s smooth like in Cereal. How are kids supposed to recognize when it’s supposed to be the “s” sound instead of a standard “c”?

Then there’s words with blends, like the TH combo. What’s up with that one? “This” and “The” arguably start with different sounds. When the TH is at the end of the word it can be a hard stop or it can be a smooth ride, depending on whether or not a silent letter is tacked onto the other side of it. Think of words like “Bath” and “Bathe,” or “Breath” and “Breathe.”

We teach our mouths to say some difficult words throughout the course of our lives, but none are harder to adjust to than names. That’s because names are individual, even when they aren’t. That means even though Brianna and Brianna are spelled the same, one could carry an “ANA” and the other an “AHNA,” depending on whatever preference her parents had for her. That’s why as a teacher I always offer an apology each semester before trying to pronounce my students’ names.

“I know you’ve had your name for at least 17 years, so you’re very familiar with how it flows from your lips, but I don’t know you from ADAM, so I’m going to need a little help here,” I tell them before diving into the list of increasingly more challenging names to both spell and pronounce. Even when they seem easy.

And of course there are also words from other languages, where their rules are completely different from the ones for English, but at least they generally stick to their rules without so many exceptions. I swear, for every random group of English words there are probably a few exceptions. But when I look at French, and German, and even Spanish, there just aren’t too many things I can mess up, except for names. Of course names are still an issue, because in English, or Spanish, or even Swahili for that matter, they remain individual to each person, and so carry an element of surprise.

I’m used to seeing “Jesus” and thinking “Gee-Zuss.” That’s how I grew up, as the son of a preacher, in these here United States. But so many parents of Latino heritage proudly name their sons “Jesus” and it sounds like they’re calling the king of the Greek gods, like he’s getting away from them and they want to catch his attention. “Hey, Zeus! Wait up. Wanna play catch?” Or in the same language, the double-L situation that sounds more like a twisted “Y” than anything else?

So I never assume I’m saying anything correctly if I’ve never seen it before, even if it follows basic rules of other words I’m very familiar with, because odds are it just might be totally different. I might know how to say “Cow,” but “Mow” doesn’t carry the same sound. I might know that “Tao” rhymes with “Cow,” but some may think it must sound like “Day-o.” Your name might be “Maella,” and I have no clue it’s pronounced “Maya.”

That’s because language is fluid. It shifts and changes so often, the pronunciations undulating like so many snakes, and it can be manipulated to suit individual preference at the same time. There are probably a hundred ways to say different vowel sounds that I’m sure I haven’t heard every single one. And my brain hurts when I think about the sounds those pesky blends can possibly make.

But that’s the same reason I love language so much, because there’s always a word to express what you’re really feeling, what you really mean to say, at any given moment. There’s always a way to bend words to your will, to remake them in your own image, even within a small circle of friends. I love the idea that language can keep growing long after words are introduced and accepted into the lexicon. And I live for each first day of school, through all the starts and stops, as I learn each new name.

Because who likes things to be too easy?

Sam

This [Static]

static

I’m getting tired of excuses
Wafer thin, paper delicate
Platitudes masking apathy
Disguised in finery
Yet naked to the touch
These bankrupt conversations
Mere shadows of concrete
Lies of convenience
Dancing through these tears
Like Astaire in the rain
Like consequences unpaused
Waiting for night to fall
For this bed to catch my weight
This pillow to take my sighs
Because from moment to moment
Absolutely nothing changes

We spend our time in lines
Moving up as others fall away
Stuck in rhetorical circles
That end up where they began
Words swirling down the drain
Tossed out as if denied
As if nothing else matters
Save for the monumental rush
Of deception’s slippery tongue
These whispers in the dark
Or in the startling light of day
When demons turn to angels
And we try to make some sense
Of these shards upon the floor
This trust all but shattered

By meaningless static
Distorting my frequency.

Sam

Bunk Bed Theory

lea-elite-cross-lb-800Growing up, I wanted a bunk bed. It didn’t matter that my room was no bigger than a postage stamp (somehow this was true in all three of the houses I lived in as a child), or maybe it was because of the diminutive size of my room, but regardless, I wanted that damn bunk bed.

I knew exactly which one I would get if I was allowed to have it, the one in dark wood with the fringe hanging down from the top bunk. You know the fringe, like a tassel on a graduation cap, but covering the entire bottom half of the top bunk and gnarly as all get out. I wanted the fancy bottom bunk that wasn’t even a bed, just a desk, or a space for a beanbag, or even the seventh circle of hell. I wasn’t particular.

And I would sleep up top, after climbing the seemingly endless stairs to get up there, past the boogeyman (who hung out in my closet), and whatever else would somehow materialize in my way to stop me from getting as high as I could in this world. I would often stand on my bed (carefully, so as not to cause it to creak and alert my mom to the precarious position I was in) and gaze down at the world from that perch, imagining I was in my top bunk.

If I had that bunk bed I was going to play space invaders, with my He-Men and G.I. Joe figurines as stand ins for Kirk and Spock. I was going to drape my blanket over my entire body and pretend I was invisible. I was going to rig up a rope ladder over the edge and pretend I was descending Rapunzel’s hair after being her spectacularly heroic savior. I had so many plans, but they all lived right there in my head and went no further.

Because there was absolutely no chance I would ever get that bunk bed. Because bunk beds were expensive, and I was lucky enough to have a twin size bed that hadn’t completely fallen apart. Because we lived in West Philly, and then Southwest Philly, and the move from one to the other wasn’t quite a step up in class. Because my mother had so many other things to worry about besides helping me play space invaders from the dangerous confines of the space at the top of my room.

But it didn’t stop me from dreaming, from imagining how it would have been. It didn’t stop me from creating whole worlds that I alone lived in, that no one else was privy to, and that revolved completely around me. I loved those times, and sometimes, late at night, I reminisce about all the things that would have happened if I had gotten that bunk bed. But I also think about how boring the reality of that dream would have been had I eventually gotten it.

Sometimes the imagination of the thing is so much more satisfying than the thing itself.

Sam

Learning to Listen

“Listening is an art that requires attention over talent, spirit over ego, others over self.” ~Dean Jackson

listening-manListening is a lost art. Believe it. There’s something to be said for sitting still, giving eye contact, and nodding along, not because you’re waiting for a chance to speak, but because you care enough to be there. I know too many people who are waiting to jump in, to offer suggestions, and to tell their own personal stories that may or may not be relevant to the issue at hand. But sometimes, sometimes listening should be just that — listening. Being there. Proving it.

And believe it or not, but someone you just met today can be a better listener than the friend you’ve had since diaper days. Someone who just walked into your life can be the friend to whom you can be most vulnerable and just let it out. Sometimes that’s better because you have no preconceived notions of them, and they have none of you. They can come into it as a fresh page ready to receive the scribbles of your soul.

I’ve had too many friends over the years who used me as just that sounding board, from those who I had known a while to those who I had just met, but something that was common to the vast majority was the assumption that there would be no reciprocation. I know this because these friends were never really there for me when I needed them, were never truly listeners for me because every time I saw them they were too busy talking.

Beware those who can’t keep their mouths shut long enough to listen. Odds are that if you let them in on your secrets, they won’t be secrets for long. And if they’re constantly interjecting their own thoughts how can they possibly be there for you? I know a few people who are always comparing whatever I’m saying with something that has happened in their life, even if there are absolutely no parallels, instead of just letting me vent, or get out my thoughts. They eventually moved on to other friendships, which was okay with me.

Because often that’s all I need is a pair of ears, a soul that obviously cares, and eyes that look into mine with empathy, with caring, with a firm commitment to be there for me. And that’s what I try my best to give to my friends who need me in turn. And it’s not reciprocity, the idea of “tit for tat.” It’s just being a good friend, no matter how often they may need me, or no matter how often I need them. They don’t keep score. They don’t disappear from my life, and I don’t from theirs.

Learning how to listen is a skill that is dormant from way too many people’s lives. It might have to do with the selfishness social media breeds, or it could be something else entirely. But whatever the reason, we need to bring it back. We need to empathize with others, to give them the gift of our time, because nothing is more precious.

Sam

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