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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

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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

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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

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“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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618126“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” ~Andy Warhol

I am a creature of habit, a slave to each and every one of my tendencies, which is why they’ve become tendencies for me in the first place. Sometimes I recognize when I’ve fallen into one of those routines, and other times I have absolutely no clue.

Sometimes the habits I have are good for me, and help me grow as a person. Other times they’re completely detrimental and probably should have been cut out of my life a long time ago. Even when I recognize that I’m doing them, though, I don’t always know which is which.

But one thing I do know is that after the fact I analyze, and I try to make a plan for “next time.”

“Next time” has become an echo around here, a reminder that this time I did the same thing I always do, but “next time” could be different. “Next time” could be a turning point that could completely change my life. Or it could just be me repeating the same old patterns because I’ve forgotten all about the analysis immediately following my routinized behaviors. Here are a few off the top of my head…

Behavior #1: When I know I am wrong I don’t admit it. Instead I try to create a circuitous path of misinformed logic that will lead me to freedom, or at least to a point where the other person (who knows I was wrong) just doesn’t feel like it’s worth it anymore to argue with someone who is like a brick wall.

Behavior #2: I pretend not to hear others when they’re constructively criticizing me. I make a big show of saying I’m open and willing to listen, and then I very demonstratively don’t listen when they take me up on it. Sometimes I nod and say, “Sure, okay, thanks,” but those are just placeholders, excuses for not really listening.

Behavior #3: When it comes to my friends I put them entirely above me, listening to their problems and issues and either offering advice or just listening because that’s what they need. I give myself completely to every single friendship I have (not that there are many), sometimes to the detriment of my own health. This behavior has often been seen as smothering, and I do tend to lose the few friends I gain.

Behavior #4: My mind needs time to process change, so if I’m not apprised of some upcoming change ahead of time, if it’s sprung upon me suddenly, I can be surly and uncooperative when it comes to said change. That is, if I don’t just completely shut down instead, which is entirely on the table most times.

Behavior #5: I get defensive about a LOT of stuff. From my gray hairs (“Stop calling me old!”), to leaving the toilet lid up (“I don’t ever do that”), to buying the wrong brand of paint (“You didn’t tell me you wanted the other one”), to just about anything, really, I can argue about pretty much anything, even when someone is trying to compliment me.

Behavior #6: I like to be in charge of my time, even if it’s something simple, like doing something two minutes from now because someone told me to do it right now. Or if someone leaves something open ended I tend to wait until it absolutely has to be done in order to get it accomplished. It may seem like something little, but to me it is the world. It means I have just a bit more control over things, even if I really don’t.

Behavior #7: I’m self deprecating. And while I know you might be thinking that clashes with Behavior #2, it fits right in. Because, while I hate it when others criticize me, I do it myself all the time, and to me it’s okay. It’s like when I say something negative about my mother, then someone else agrees with me. IT’S MY MOTHER. I can say it. You can’t. Same applies with myself. IT’S ME. I can say it. You can’t.

And the list goes on, but the point is clear: there are a ton of behaviors that I find myself repeating time and again with no escape valve, with absolutely no change to any of them even though I’ve analyzed them to no end. I assume that’s because in the moment we, as human beings, tend to slip back into our patterns, tend to rely on what we know, even if it’s not at all good for us. It’s why alcoholics backslide, why women go back to the men who beat them, why you’re still watching The Voice even though it’s just not good anymore.

So “Next time” comes, and we tend to do the same things we’ve always done. At least I know I do, unless I stop when it happens. Unless I analyze before, and not after. Unless I take responsibility for changing my own behavior patterns, which is a gargantuan task, but it’s what adults are supposed to do. It’s what people who want to change for the better do. It’s what people who have healthy relationships rely on to maintain those.

I’m still a work in progress. Ask me again how I’m doing… next time.

Sam

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“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

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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

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