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“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

 

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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

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“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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“Love is mild, except when it isn’t. Except when it’s a raging inferno with the sole intention of destroying every ounce of sanity you have left. But yes, it’s mild. And that other stuff too.” ~Anonymous

0612d8fcf89e1f08abc66fc7fc6b92f6I made the mistake of telling someone that my next book of poetry is going to be full of love poems. It seemed to me a stroke of genius, but I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to create a whole book of 50+ poems exclusively about love. In my mind it was going to be difficult because my brain creates poetry quite organically, so how was I going to shift my thought patterns and make the poetry cooperate? I needn’t have been worried, because she said:

“But most of your stuff is already love poetry.”

Which of course made me laugh, but she was deadly serious. And she would know because she’s listened to a lot of my poems at poetry night, she’s read the vast majority of the ones on my poetry blog, and she’s purchased both of my other collections of poetry. So I took stock of my poetry. I dug as deep as she probably didn’t have to in order to find out that she was absolutely right.

I write mostly love poetry. No, not the treacly sweet love poetry that would make a 1950s poet proud. Nor even the devoted, puppy dog love poetry that dominated the 1980s. No, I write the love poetry that is intense in its own analysis of itself, that drives all night to end up in the same place where it began. I write the love poetry that wishes it were something else, but it can’t help being about love.

So that makes it easy, I guess, compiling a book of my love poetry, even if it’s not the book I thought I was going to make when I started on this journey. Because this is my reality. It’s the love I’ve seen more often than any other in this world. It’s not the mild, “I want to hold your hand” kind of love, not the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse inspired love, but is instead the persistently desperate, sad love that strives for something more, the love that needs acceptance but usually breeds regret.

Which means my job is a lot easier than I thought it would be. Just write poetry and it will probably fit the mold.

Sam

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6a12888bb450cb0e1caa447145add377“You grew up where?” he asked me, incredulity in his tone, head cocked to the side.

“Philadelphia,” I repeated, for the apparently hard of hearing barber, whose nametag proclaimed him BoCeephus.

“My cousin Dewey was born and raised in Philly,” BoCeephus said as he brushed off the tattered apron and placed it around my neck. “Went to school somewhere in North Philly. Don’t know the name. Had a good ball team. Not that he was on it or anything. Dewey had a trick knee. Never was good at sports.”

I knew his type, the kind who had connections everywhere and nowhere at the same time, the kind who had to make small talk even when waiting for the subway.  Yeah, I had known guys like that my whole life, whether they were Main Line or ghetto, old city or downtown. They were only different insomuch as they didn’t look the same. But once they opened their mouths all that came out was the name dropping because that’s all they knew.

“I think Dewey went to Fox Chase, or somewhere like that,” BoCeephus continued, and I’m sure he said something in between but I had totally tuned him out. It was easy to tune people like him out.

“I knew people from Fox Chase,” I responded, because I knew he would go on until I said something, and I wanted a good cut. Most guys I know will do basically anything for a good cut, and everyone told me this was the place to go. So I told him I knew people from Fox Chase, because who would know different?

He tightened the apron strings around my neck with surprisingly nimble fingers for a wizened man who had obviously seen more than a little in his time on earth. The barber shop was surprisingly empty, given the word of mouth that had brought me to the place, but the ambiance was bar none. The smell of aftershave in the air, the stray hairs on the tiled floor, all hearkened back to childhood Friday afternoons spent waiting for the perfect cut, a fade with two parts. My momma always said I had to have those two parts.

“Yah, the more I think about it the more I think Dewey went to Fox Chase,” said BoCeephus, a bit louder because he had turned on the clippers and they buzzed like angry bees. “Yes sir, that Dewey was a cut up too. Been dead since ninety-eight, though. Damn X mess everybody up. But yes sir, he was from Philly too. Been a long time since I thought of him.”

“Many people from Philly,” I replied, because I felt like he expected it of me, the clippers moving across my scalp all tingly, bringing back more memories.

“Got that right,” said BoCeephus, laughing, a deep-throated laugh that seemed to come up from the ground, gravel deep down. “But don’t get many folks from Philly here in Columbus. More likely Pittsburgh. Yah, this a big destination for folks trying to get out of Pittsburgh, but not so much Philly. No sir. What brings you out this way?”

“Work,” I said. “A man’s gotta work.”

“You can say that again,” responded BoCeephus. “You want a high fade or a low fade?”

“Take it high,” I told him, because that’s the way I used to always get it, and I was feeling nostalgic, with the place, and the man, and the aftershave. Even the conversation. If I closed my eyes I could imagine I was back on 45th and Walnut, back in my own hood.

“Oh, and two parts,” I added quickly at the end, surprising even myself. I hadn’t worn two parts since I was ten, since my mother died, since I stopped caring. But something deep in my subconscious must have spoken for me, and I didn’t correct it once it was out in the open air.

“Two parts it is,” BoCeephus said. And I knew he would do it right.

Sam

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weddingphoto3Fourteen is a daunting number, not just because it’s over 10, or that it’s beyond lucky number 13, or even that it’s a full twice that of 7, but because so much can happen over the course of 14 years. Fourteen years ago I was 26, no longer a kid but still not entirely secure and steady in my adult persona. If you had asked me if I was ready to take on the world I probably would have given you a blank stare and then begun contemplating just that. If you had told me at 26 that I would be here — now — I would have probably laughed in your face. You see, 26 is the new 18, and who knows anything at all when they’re 18?

But at 26 I did know one very important thing that has served me well over these past 14 years — I couldn’t let this woman slip through my fingers.

Now that I’m 40, looking back on everything that has happened since that day 14 years ago, I want to clap 26 year old me on the back, to give him a huge hug, to hold him close because somehow he was enough for her. Somehow I’m still enough for her, as inadequate as I always feel I am in and of myself. But she saw something in me then, and she sees something in me now, and here we are 14 years later, still enjoying each others’ company. Which is what marriage should be all about, right?

It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been a thrill to know we are still together, to know that we still smile for no reason at all other than that we still love each other.

Oh, and 14 is ivory. One is paper, but 14 is ivory. I recognize the poignancy in that, at least on a couple of levels. It’s like the song goes, “Ebony and ivory, live together in perfect harmony…” Because I am ebony, and she is ivory, but not just in the obvious way, not just because of our skin tones that look so beautiful together.

She is ivory because when she gives, she gives of her whole self. She is pure in her intentions and in her execution. She is that rare gift that doesn’t expect anything in return, so I want to give her the world. I hope I’ve given her some semblance of the world over the course of these 14 years.

Ivory is also treasured. So many people search for so long to get the perfect piece of ivory, and they hold on to it because it’s precious. Shine a light on it and it brightens even more than that light, drawing the light’s essence into itself and magnifying it a hundredfold. It’s brilliant, and so is she.

When I first found out that 14 was ivory I laughed to myself because this world is an interesting place, because it’s the perfect embodiment for her. I love her for who she is, not just when I’m with her, but for when I am without. I love her for her raw honesty that strives to be nothing but what it is, which is perfect for me.

So, 14 is ivory, and we are 14 together. Our marriage is a teenager, with all the caveats that come along with that designation. Because, while she is perfect for me, our life is not a perfect one. Whose is? When we stood there outside City Hall after putting on our rings, as we exhaled, basking in the glory of our newfound marriage, 14 years ago, we weren’t thinking about the next 14 years. We were thinking about what it had taken us to get to that point separately. But we haven’t had to think about that since, focused instead on our own future, 14 years of which are now in the past.

But what a 14 years it has been! A once in a lifetime honeymoon to Ireland, a steely resolve to do everything we could to make sure we expand our family, two wonderfully rambunctious children, a new house almost completed, and all the minor and major occurrences that shape any life. It’s crazy to look back and realize that, from what might have been an inconsequential email, we have created a shared life, and we continue to live that life — together.

So, for my wife, thank you for being ivory. You wear it well. To the next 14 years…

Sam

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9f6daf4011c972bfcbd6025ea6686c5a_ice-cream-truck-ice-cream-ice-cream-truck-clipart_450-450When I was a kid I wanted the ice cream truck to break down on my street. In my head it would have been perfect: the frazzled driver befuddled by his misfortune, the machine only having an hour left on the generator, the driver throwing his hands up as us kids swarmed the truck and ate everything we could reach. FOR FREE. It would have been heaven.

It was so good… on paper. I thought it up in my head. I drew the stick figure children eating ice cream like it was going out of style. But I didn’t take into account the horrible stomachaches we would have been likely to have, or the vomiting that would probably have ensued later that night, or the poor driver out of product and having to (eh hem) eat the loss. I was a kid, and the scenario was good on paper. But I’ve grown up, and I’ve seen a lot along the way that is also good… on paper, but that just doesn’t cut it in reality.

How come things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to? The numbers don’t lie, do they? There was this sports commentator, who, when asked to explain how a team that was supposedly unbeatable had just lost, said: “That’s why they play the game.” And it’s so true. That’s exactly why they play the game, why we live our lives, even though the cards are stacked against us at times.

There’s just something about David vs. Goliath that drags us in, isn’t there? We know the little guy is going to get crushed, because on paper it says so, resoundingly, but we root him on anyway, hoping for the improbable. It’s always a feel good story when the underdog succeeds when absolutely nothing was expected of him, in business, in sports, and in life overall.

But man, it’s got to suck for the overwhelming favorite, for the one from whom most was expected, for the one who checked all the boxes… on paper. Because, somewhere along the way, every time we hold someone up it just becomes a reason to tear them down when they don’t hit that expectation.

Sometimes people and things are just good on paper, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes there isn’t a reason why “on paper” doesn’t translate into “in person.” It just is. Sometimes that girl who seemed so perfect on her eHarmony profile doesn’t mesh with you in real life. That’s why life isn’t live on paper. It’s why prospective employees have to interview instead of getting hired based on simply their resume. Because human beings aren’t just the words that define them. They aren’t just the numbers attached to them.

We don’t just live on paper. So good on paper is just a sign that we might be more inclined to succeed in real life. It isn’t a guarantee.

Sam

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