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“Greater Atlantic Switchboard, this is Quinn,” proclaimed the slim girl behind the reception desk, headset protruding from her left ear, microphone poised at her lips.

“Hi Quinn!” the man on the other end of the line replied, rather loudly. “I’m calling to report otters building a dam across the road down Loving Lane, you know, where the Peavy Farm used to be?”

“Mr. Hanson?” she asked, adjusting her headset even though it was unnecessary.

“Yes, ma’am!” he screamed back at her. It was obvious he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids, and it wasn’t the first time he had barked at her, but Quinn still found it sad.

“Mr. Hanson, there are no otters building a dam across the road down Loving Lane,” she assured him, but the man’s mind was stuck on autopilot, as it always was.

“Damn straight they are,” he said, a rustling sound gaining momentum in the background.

“No, sir,” she tried again. “Otters don’t build dams, Mr. Hanson.”

“Well, tell that to these two who are damn sure building a dam across the road,” he replied, gruffly. “I can see them outside my window, having a grand old time. Someone’s going to have an accident.”

“Do you have your glasses on, sir?” she asked, trying hard to stand her ground.

“Well, no, but…” he began, immediately defensive.

It was her daily exercise in using kid gloves, humoring the old man without embarrassing him, which was a thin line indeed. Their call center was inundated with real emergencies from morning to night, so she couldn’t stay on with him forever. Some days he was convinced possums were playing dead in that selfsame road, others he would swear to an earthquake rocking the foundation of his home, so the story of otters wasn’t very unique as far as his tales went.

“Now, I’m not saying you’re seeing things, Mr. Hanson,” she cut in. “But we both know there were no possums that time, and there was no earthquake, so… can you at least entertain the possibility that there are no otters building a dam across Loving Lane?”

“Hell no,” he said. “They’re there, and if you don’t send someone out I will take care of them my damn self.”

“Sir, there is no need for that,” she quickly replied, knowing he meant to get his shotgun out of mothballs. The last time Ed Hanson pulled out that gun he shot up Millie Gray’s peach garden. There had been peach juice running down the road for several hours, and poor Millie didn’t sleep right for a week.

“Good,” he said, properly placated. “Tell them to hurry, because it looks like these otters are fixing to have relations right next to that dam, and hell if I’m going to sit here and watch otters have relations.”

He hung up with a great clattering, as he always did, leaving Quinn with the disgusting mental image of otters having sex in the road. She sighed and switched over to the next call.

Sam

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As a parent, I’m constantly asking myself if I’m doing the right things, if I’m making the right decisions for my children, if I’m helping them to eventually do those right things and make those right decisions for themselves. That’s the thin line, isn’t it, doing just enough to guide them in the right ways so that they’ll continue to go in those ways when they come of age? Sometimes I just don’t know. I hope, and I pray, and I act on what I feel is best.

Isn’t that all we can do, really?

Before I had kids I was constantly judging my mother for the sheltered life I lived as a kid, growing up with such stringent rules and restrictions. I thought she didn’t need to rule with such an iron fist, that I knew what was best for me. I was a kid, and then a young adult, who needed just that type of guidance, but I rebelled against it. I felt I knew what was best, and only when I came of age and made a series of mistakes did I start to realize just how much my mother had been trying to mold me and help me be better equipped to handle those things she knew were coming.

Now, I’m not saying to shelter your kids. Far from it. I think kids need to know what’s out there, that they need to be prepared for what they’re going to encounter, so that they’re better equipped to handle them in appropriate ways. It’s one thing I wish my parents had done more to prepare me for, but my mother did what she felt was best, my father was pretty much a specter, and I learned from those mistakes. I told myself when I grew up, when I had kids, I would be different, and in many ways I am. Fundamentally, though, I’m the same kind of parent my mother was to me, which is a good thing.

Yes Mom, I just said that.

Seriously, though, she was doing the same thing I’m doing now, trying her best to teach me to be a better human being, and to make my own decisions. When I was the age that Alexa is now she was fighting to make sure that, as a single parent, she gave me what I needed as a boy. I know that was tough, as I try to deal with Alexa and her issues now. There’s something to be said for having a partner who can deal with the “feminine” problems and feelings, and for that I am so grateful to my wife for everything she does to prepare our daughters for life. But my mom didn’t have that. I’m sure raising a boy by herself wasn’t a picnic.

I wasn’t easy. Kids rarely ever are. I was highly sarcastic (still am), a dedicated introvert (that sure changed), and a writer in the making. It didn’t help that my relationship with my sister wasn’t the best either, and having a largely nonexistent dad who was generally out of town (and out of the picture) just made things worse. But my mom taught me to be independent, to learn from my mistakes, that love doesn’t always win out in the end, and that being the bigger person is very important. She gave me all these tools I didn’t even realize I had until I needed them myself and they were there to help me.

My children have issues. Right now, in fact, Alexa is in her room screaming like a banshee because she doesn’t feel she’s being treated fairly, because she has the idea that this world is black and white when I’m doing my best to try to show her all its varied shades of gray. That was what I always loved about my mom. She didn’t sugarcoat things. If she wanted us to learn a lesson she talked to us about it. Nothing snuck up on us because we weren’t prepare for it. She didn’t let us wallow in our misery and perceived slights. She talked it out with us, even if we were still mad. It’s what I’m trying to do for my children as well.

But being a parent is tricky. Think about the number of kids who grow up to hate their parents. Think about the legion of kids who say their parents were never there for them. And while I do feel that way about my father, I have to say that my mother was as solid a foundation I could hope to find in this life. I hope I’m the same kind of solid foundation for my own children.

Sam

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“I thought I knew what love was. What did I know?” ~Don Henley

01_Robert-Indiana_LoveI first told a girl I loved her in 4th grade, when she stabbed me with a pencil and decided to go out with my enemy. These three things were unrelated. Or at least I think they were. I never really asked her to explain. I was too busy drowning in my tears, in the relative safety of my room, trying to forget her. Trying to forget love.

Love means many different things to many different people, but to me it means being always appreciative. That girl who I said I loved, she didn’t appreciate my love. To her I might as well have told her I was an albino for all she cared, but it was 4th grade, and I gave her a mulligan for it. She never came back to take me up on the idea of a second chance, which was just as well.

To me, when you love someone you show it. Not by flowers and candy, because anyone can get flowers and candy, but by being there, by letting them know you’re there, whether they admit to needing you there. Love means coming through for someone else even if they don’t realize that’s what they needed. It’s doing the little things because there really are no little things when it comes to love.

I’ve learned that love needs to be patient…

I realize now that I didn’t really love that girl in 4th grade. It was never really love because I had no idea what love was back then. What I felt for her was sheer infatuation, that kind of Romeo and Juliet feeling that would have petered out had they not been in a volatile situation that pushed them toward each other… and toward the abyss. That girl was lucky she didn’t reciprocate my infatuation because I’ve always been prone to exaggeration of emotion. Thank god she looked the other way.

But I’ve learned a lot over the years, because of heartache and a plethora of other issues and mistakes, on both sides. I’ve learned that love needs to be patient, that it isn’t about the physical, that the physical comes along for the ride when it is indeed requited, that it’s better to have loved and lost than… well, not quite. It’s better to love and keep loving, because love can shift. It can change, not precisely with the wind but sometimes it is buffeted. I’ve learned that love is complicit, if just because it makes you more vulnerable than anything else ever could.

Love is revolutionary, no matter how often it occurs…

I’ve been sparing with the word itself. Even with my closest of friends it took a while before I felt comfortable enough telling them how I felt. Even with my closest of relationships I haven’t been the first one to say it, not usually, not because I’ve been afraid but because I’ve been resistant. I’ve been resistant to the way saying those words changes things. It doesn’t change things for me. I already know how I feel long before those words escape my lips. But it changes the relationship in subtle ways that only I can tell.

Or maybe they can tell too. Love is revolutionary, no matter how often it occurs, no matter how many people know the feeling. It acts. It doesn’t react. But love is worth it, even when it’s not returned, because without that feeling life is just not as good. And I don’t mean the romantic love. I mean all the many forms of love that can shift and change, that can undulate around you like a snake, but that can keep you safe and warm, secure in its comfort.

But what do I know?

Sam

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51N595qwKOL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_Until I was 13 years old I would often get Green Eggs and Ham for a birthday present. It stopped being funny around age 2. I can only imagine the little chuckle that would escape the giver’s lips when he/she would see the book in the book store, thinking it would be so tongue in cheek, such a… perfect gift. But when everyone thinks the same thing, imagine me opening up six copies of the same book (a children’s book) on my 12th birthday.

It’s a valid point, though. I mean, what would I have gotten myself for my birthday any of those years when originality kind of went out the window? I honestly don’t know. I was Sam, and I had absolutely no clue what I was really into, no idea what would have made me happy if you had handed it over while I was blowing out candles. Let me recall the elementary me. I liked:

  • playing games of Hangman
  • taking apart alarm clocks
  • reading (a lot)
  • trains, and train conductor hats
  • sketching little caricatures of me that resembled stick figures
  • playing with Legos every so often
  • eating food (not cardboard. Real food. I swear)
  • imagining the world as a different place

Oh, and I had no friends. The adults in my life were often fawning over what they called my “adult tendencies,” which to me meant I wasn’t a proper kid. No wonder I had no friends. But as much as the adults claimed to know me, they didn’t realize any of the above, because I was pretty much a shadow of my current self. I was often seen but not heard. I was Sam, but in name only.

I finally let anyone who would listen know shortly before the 13th anniversary of my birth that I would no longer accept copies of Dr. Seuss’s epic book, that I had actual interests, that the joke just wasn’t funny anymore. It hadn’t been funny for years, even when I was laughing all the while. I was apparently good at being fake, at making others think their joke was worthwhile, when they were really just wasting their money, AND I was always disappointed on what should have been my special day.

“Why didn’t you say something before?” my mother asked me, and I honestly had no answer for her. I guess I felt like eventually they would realize it wasn’t funny anymore, or they would get to know me better so they didn’t have to rely on the old standby. I guess I thought that after a while they would start trying to be serious, because that was my always my problem, being deadly serious. My idea of a smile back then was easing up the left side of my mouth, then letting it fall back into a straight line. Eyebrow to follow.

The book-as-gift was funny in a way they never intended, though. One positive of having so many copies of Green Eggs and Ham was that I knew it backwards and forwards. I found it hilarious when they would watch me open it and they would say “You do not like them, Sam I Am.” You know, because Sam was the little guy speaking, not the big dude who didn’t like the green eggs and the ham. So Sam DID like them, and me… not so much. I was more like the large dude who just won’t be convinced despite the rhyming bonanza going on in the background.

Of course the book was also a catalyst for me to break out of my shell. It was the push to avoid getting any more of those books that allowed me to first tell how I felt, after all that time, that helped me become the vocal person I am today. It also led to many more interesting birthdays in the interim between then and now. Up until my 13th birthday I didn’t truly know what I wanted or liked in life. That book forced me to think about it, to ruminate upon it, and to let others know.

On my 13th birthday I received a bicycle and a train set.

Sam

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“Don’t waste your time with explanations. People only hear what they want to hear.” ~Paulo Coelho

i-hear-you-quote-1As a father, this rings true to me because my children often think I said something I never said. As a human being, this rings true because too often those who have a wealth more experience in listening than my children do the same thing. I don’t think it has anything to do with faulty hearing either. It’s so obviously because we do hear what we want to hear, or more precisely we hear what we want the other person to say.

“I love you,” my first girlfriend told me, but she didn’t really say that. What she said was that she enjoyed spending time with me, that she valued our relationship. But I had spent so much time and energy on having her love me that I didn’t get the hint, that I couldn’t reconcile what she actually said with what I thought she should say.

“You’re doing a great job,” my father said once when I was working on writing my first sermon. As a preacher himself, he was uniquely positioned to say whether or not I was really doing a good job. But I misheard him. He really said I was doing as good as I could, which didn’t remotely mean the same thing. I wanted him to be proud of me so much that I re-imagined his words.

And it hurts every time, even though I always set myself up, when I find out it’s not the way I wished it would be. But until then, while I’m in the honeymoon glow of the brilliance of my own deception, it’s a beautiful thing. It’s the silver lining in a cloud I didn’t realize would rip open when I least expect it. It’s also a ton of bricks landing on my head, forcing me to deal with my own inadequacies, with my own co-dependency and need for love and acceptance from others.

“I feel good when you’re around,” a friend told me a few days ago, and she honestly meant it. Of course I ran it through my mind every which way I could, searching for the hidden indelicacies that had to be there, and I came up empty. I’ve learned to listen without expectation, but only because of all the time my hopes were dashed by my inability to do just that. When she said she felt good when I was around, I knew it didn’t mean she wanted me around all the time. I knew it was a “Thank you” for being there when she needed a shoulder.

I realize now that my first girlfriend probably never loved me, that my father was probably never proud of me, that so often people don’t say what I wish they would say. But that’s okay. Because I’d rather they said what they truly meant instead of being fake, instead of leading me to think something that’s not true. And I’d rather be clear right from the start, because do I really want to hear things that aren’t true?

Does anyone?

Sam

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“In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” ~Dalai Lama

i_love_being_tolerant_coffee_mug-r1c1865b42be2465584e09e35da0ac1b7_x7jgr_8byvr_324Have we become less tolerant of others or is it just more apparent because of the ubiquity of social media, connecting us to more people than ever, whether we want to be or not? I’ve wondered this more so lately.

“It’s my opinion, so it can’t be wrong,” someone posted the other day on Facebook, in response to someone else saying they were wrong. This seems to be the prevailing argument these days when someone judges another, for whatever reasons. It’s this idea that everyone is entitled to share their opinions, even if those opinions are sweeping statements about entire groups, when they are hateful and hurtful, when their only intent is to emotionally maim someone else.

“If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything at all,” my mother taught me growing up, and I think it’s even more relevant now. At least when I was growing up there wasn’t the access to what everyone else was thinking. Back then we kept our thoughts to ourselves, if only because there was no internet as a megaphone. We were dislikefaketaught to be… what was the word again… oh yeah, NICE to everyone else, even if it meant putting on a face and pretending. Just to keep the peace.

But “the peace” has gone out the window. Too many people aren’t tolerant of others. The second we hear that someone else has something different from us we try and find ways of tearing them down. Either we’re jealous, we just don’t understand it, or it matters not to us, but instead of ignoring whatever it is, instead of moving on with our lives, we make a snarky comment on some sort of social media, and things escalate. What happened to our sense of tolerance?

More and more I see these posts, I see these memes, I watch these intolerant comments fill up space that used to be for pictures of cats and monkeys getting along together. More and more often I can’t help but shake my head at the ignorance, at the brazenness, of these intolerant souls who just can’t seem to help themselves. But they can help themselves. I do it all the time. Do I agree with every single thing everyone else says? No. But I understand that we are all individuals, that we all have our own ways of seeing the world.

Because, see, that’s how tolerance works. We need more of it in our world today. Or at the very least, we don’t need to say everything that comes into our minds. We really don’t.

Sam

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We are all fanatics about something: from our families, to our friends, to our sports teams, to the movies we love, to pretty much anything. That’s the glory of being fanatical, that it can encompass just about anything. Sometimes our fanaticism is pure and unadulterated, while other times it’s all tied up and twisted in the 12-step ethos. “Hi. My name is Sam, and I’m a Back to the Future addict.”

Is it better to be an addict for sugary sweets than an addict for the rush of catfishing? Is it too much to be fanatical over gambling? How about the Olympics? The definition of a fanatic is someone who “is filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.” It presupposes commitment to one thing to the exclusion of all else. To that end maybe it’s never a good thing, the idea that too much of a good thing cannot possibly still be a good thing. And too much of a bad thing is worse.

I am a fanatic about my schedule. I have a singular purpose, to make sure my calendar is evenly balanced, that I get to where I need to be on time, and that I don’t forget my appointed times to see and be seen by others. That’s what a schedule is, after all, a series of times when I have committed to being out and about, like a politician on an election tour. There’s an adrenaline rush I feel when I’ve made it to where I’m supposed to be, on time, a rhetorical fist bump that validates my entire being. Every once in a while I wonder if that’s too much emotion for maintaining a schedule.

I’ve known people who are fanatical about a variety of things, of people, and of situations. I knew a guy once who couldn’t sleep if he didn’t kiss the picture of his dog who died when he was 12 years old. There was a girl I dated a long time ago who had every ABBA album ever produced… on vinyl. Being a fanatic about things like that lead others to ridicule and harass them for it, which is ironic since the things we hold so dear we would fight to keep from being ridiculed. This is what they hold dear.

As a fan of the Eagles, I have followed them since I was a little kid, going to games, praying for the players, and fighting hard to gift them enough good luck to win the Super Bowl. I’ve collected team cards, copied every game I could see on TV, and watched those games so often I wore out the tapes. I’ve ranted and raved at the screen, at the team, at the refs, and at anyone else who would listen about the Eagles. I’ve cried when they lost games, and exhaled when they won, screaming my lungs out as if I had just caught that final ball, or called the final positive play. I say “WE” when talking about what the Eagles did.

But I would never hurt someone else as a result of an Eagles win, or loss. I would never run down the street and hurl a rock through a store window because I was amped up on the glory of an Eagles Super Bowl win. I would never boo Santa Claus just because I could, or punch another fan in the face because he happens to root for the Giants. I would never do any of those things because even though I’m fanatical about the Eagles, even though I spend some sleepless nights anxious over the possible outcome of the next day’s game, I understand that it IS just a game. I get that. Some people don’t.

So I’m ashamed when I read posts from people who say they have no respect for Eagles fans, when they lump us all in together because of what a few lunatics have decided is appropriate behavior for a fanatic. They judge all of us based on the actions of some rogues who refused to draw the line, who couldn’t separate the team from their own individual pride. But most of all, I’m ashamed when I see those posts because it doesn’t have to be that way. Tell that to the gambler who goes for broke just to actually go broke. Explain that to the Kevin Spacey fans who now have to come to grips with the actions of their hero.

Perhaps we can agree to disagree. Maybe you feel somehow superior by lumping all of us Eagles fans into some kind of “basket of deplorables,” but it doesn’t have to be this way. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along?” Well, can’t we? What’s stopping us from all treating each other as individuals instead of as caricatures of ourselves based on those of us who choose to be caricatures? I feel like some people wouldn’t know what to do if they couldn’t just generalize when it comes to everyone who isn’t quite like themselves, instead of digging deep and making informed choices based on actual solid information.

My fanaticism doesn’t preclude me from understanding and supporting yours, even if I don’t happen to share it. My fanaticism doesn’t stop me from treating you like a human being. And I hope it doesn’t stop you from doing the same.

Sam

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