the pizza bagel

the poetic musings of an italian-jew

Thinking Beyond the Curve

I made a decision today to start posting again to this blog. Anyway, it’s graduation season. I was the runner-up to speak at my college graduation last year. I figured I’d post my losing effort—enjoy!

         As I do in most scenarios when I’m unsure of the answer, I called my dad to get his two cents on what I should talk about today. 
         His advice was simple, “a good speech is like a mini-skirt—short enough to stay interesting, but long enough to cover the essentials.”
         Thanks Dad for another borderline inappropriate kernel of fatherly wisdom.

         I am going to try to be brief, but if you do get bored, know that I’ll probably be done before you can think of 3 classes that fulfill the Physical World requirement. 
         So my dad thought I should tell a story about my childhood. I’m not going to do that, but if you want one of those, I’m sure my mom would be happy to oblige after the ceremony. Instead, I’m going to talk about a topic near and dear to all Penn student’s hearts—the curve. Although the curve might be more associated with our pant-suit inclined classmates up the walk, I think the curve, and more specifically thinking beyond it is relevant to all of us here today.

         If I’ve learned anything from trying to fulfill minimum page requirements for Philosophy papers, it’s that you can get through at least half a page defining your terms. So, what exactly do I mean by thinking beyond the curve?

         Thinking beyond the curve is not thinking ahead of the curve. It’s not about innovation or locking yourself in a GSR with an M and T kid trying and come up with the next Groupon for Organic Farmers. Steve Jobs and his revolutionary theories are so commencement 2011. I want to illustrate my take on thinking beyond the curve by giving you a brief history of my love affair with mathematics. (If you want a more in depth history of my other love affairs, my mom is sitting somewhere over there.)

         In elementary school, math and I were best friends, like Doug and that weird blue guy. I would look forward to class everyday, play math games in the car on the way to school, and even had a brief stint on the mathletes team—we were kind of a big deal. In high school, math was still my right hand man. I’m not saying we sat together everyday in the cafeteria, but I took the Math SAT 2 if you know what I mean. (All the physics majors are like “now he’s talking”.)

Then I came to Penn and met the villain of this otherwise Jenifer Aniston worthy love story. His name was Calculus 104. Now, no disrespect to Professor Guffin, who was a great teacher or Dean Deterk who knew I didn’t come to his study breaks just for the chocolate chip cookies. Calc 104 and I just didn’t see eye to eye. It was bad. And to be fair, not understanding the appropriately titled Fundamental Theorem of Calculus doesn’t do wonders for the self-esteem. 

         It was the night before the midterm, my cheat sheet looked like the King James Bible condensed to a 6x4 flashcard, and I was all but ready to come to terms with the prospect of a large W appearing on my college transcript. Enter the hero of the story—Rami Amir (PPE 2013 whatup). Rami stayed up until the wee hours of the morning with me, trying to hammer l’hopitals theorem into my thick head. We woke up in the morning, got Bui sandwiches with Salt, Pepper, Ketchup, and both passed the test. 

         So what’s the point of this tale of love, loss and integrals? I’m not trying to advocate for benefits of cramming the night before the test (I think my intro to Psychology Professor just exhaled for the first time). However, Rami’s heroism is exactly the kind of thinking beyond the curve that I think we need more of at this school and in our lives. What I mean, when I challenge us all to think beyond the curve, is to look at our classmates, our colleagues, our friends not as competitors, but as potential collaborators.

         After all, the true value of this Ivy League education is the people we meet. It’s the ability to stay up with a friend learning 2 months of calculus in one night or the chance to continue a debate on healthcare policy over a beer after class. I have already forgotten the use of hippocampus the difference between Impressionism and Expressionism, or how I did relative to the curve on that first calc midterm. But I sure as hell won’t forget the kind of kid that would sit down and teach me how to find the area under the curve on a Tuesday night. We’re all going to have something like a Calculus midterm blindside us at 5pm on some idle weekday. So let’s take a page out of Rami’s book, forget about being graded on a curve, competing for the same promotion, or keeping up with the Jones’s. We can all afford to help each other out.

         In my mind, there are only two purposes of our liberal arts educations—to struggle with concepts and to develop relationships with the people we meet along the way. And there are only two kinds of people at Penn—those that think beyond the curve, and those that actually get A’s on their Calculus midterms. 

Thank you.

Step Up

At the first middle school dance of the year, all that glittered turned to gold. A buffet of brace-faced girls, who were tantalizingly unreachable by day, now bunched like bananas before my wide 13 year-old-eyes. I was wearing my special occasion outfit—a red-and-blue-stripped Polo and caramel corduroys that would collect dust for the other 29 days of September. My two best friends stood beside me in silence as if it were just before tipoff of the big game.

We all knew it was coming. They’d played a few fast songs in a row and it was almost 10pm. My fingers brushed the tip of my gelled back hair to ensure my shield was properly intact. As I surveyed the room with feigned nonchalance, the music began to fade. The first finger picked chords of the next song hushed the buzzing room like a dropped glass.

Every school dance ended the same way—sweaty palms, nervous glances, and the same epic rock ballad. The last dance was more a concept than a song for our middle school minds. I didn’t know the lyrics or even the band’s name for that matter. But I knew one thing for certain—“Stairway to Heaven” was a big deal.

Eight minutes was a long time for me to do anything as an eighth grader—let alone slow dance with a girl whose height and maturity towered over my prepubescent frame. As I finished my internal pep talk, Jimmy Page’s mystical guitar intro began to hum just loud enough to mask my pounding nerves. It was go time.

Positioning was of the essence when picking a partner with whom to share the swan song. Move too quickly and I would be the object of my entire grade’s discerning gaze. Move too slowly and I would be relegated to a satirical waltz with the lonely-hearts club. But on that particular fall night, my shifting glance aligned with the held stare of another. The red sea parted, fireworks erupted—I had found a partner to accompany me on this long journey to heaven!

Her name was Jackie Watchtell, a sun kissed soccer player who had transferred to our school in the 6th grade. “Do you want to dance? I asked with the gallant conviction I had rehearsed on a fake bathroom trip a few songs earlier. “Sure,” she replied with equal parts enthusiasm and indifference.

I cupped my hands on her hips like a mug of hot chocolate; her forearms rested on my shoulder, pulling me just close enough to feel the warmth of her cheek. My eyes darted around the cafeteria to make sure I was doing it right, as we swayed together to the lullaby of Robert Plant’s voice.

My mind raced with questions as the song’s tempo picked up. Should we break apart for an epic air-guitar solo? How does one buy a stairway to heaven? Will my calves cramp up before the eight minutes are up? I looked to see my two friends each with a girl of their own, each with a pensive gaze towards the captivating blank wall in the upper-left corner of the room. Tonight’s sleepover would be full of stories!

Jackie was a great dance partner. Her rhythm was a grounding force for my overeager legs. Her hips were a shot of adrenaline at each change of direction.Like a pendulum, we swayed back and forth to Zepplin’s anthem.

As Page gift-wrapped the night with his a capella delivery of the ballad’s final line, Jackie and I locked eyes for the first time in eight minutes. We leaned into each other for a full embrace. She pulled back from the hug and, without a word, placed a gentle kiss on my cheek. Heaven.   

Concrete Junglegym

I fall in love everyday as I walk down the streets of this city.
I hold every gaze like my last nickel
Hoping one of these Mona Lisa eyes will follow me as I walk down Market.

Today, the sidewalk siren blared red lipstick and high-waisted shorts.
Part of me wanted to run up to her and say “Take me with you—
Wherever, you’re going I’ll come.”

But the other part of me wanted this driftwood damsel to float out with the tide,
To leave me without the words to taint a picture
So she may stay forever Vitruvian in my mind.

Cuz I’m no longer young enough to know everything.
Two decades have taught me how to find the shortest distance between two people,
How to slip my name in like a pickpocket,
And how to lock lips like a locksmith,
But getting better at kissing has not made my kisses better.

I can canvas hypotheticals on my pillow case,
Look for my reflection in a mosaic of girls faces,
Or in the spaces between these words,
But writing love poems has not made me a better lover.

And as much as I search for a five dollar bill within folds of denim,
These days I’m afraid that love, like a waffle,
Might never be quite be as good as the idea of it.
 
Cuz I tried it once, I did
I ordered a tall stack with the works.
And now I’m here, 3,000 miles away,
Looking at this urban buffet
Trying not to admit that I can
Still taste the syrup on the side of my mouth.

Boy was it sweet…
Those days when we only had eyes for each other
The sidewalk was our runway,
The city, our concrete jungle gym, and we got outside
10 minutes before everyone else.
 
But the recess bell rang
As it always does.
And although a heart mixed in with dirty laundry
Might turn everything pink,
Airing out our past
Has allowed me to come clean.
 
So tomorrow, when a held stare
Blows my way like urban tumbleweed
I will stop looking for your dimple in her cheek
Or a fleck your inflection.

Instead leave me with a blank page—
Just the wonder and excitement
Of my thirteen year old self
And we can take it
One hello at a time.

Something big or little that has influenced you…

To most, chocolate chip cookies are little, in both size and importance. For me, however, chocolate chip cookies have easily been the biggest influence on my life. Other influences such as Matt Damon movies or my father pale in comparison to these slightly raised cakes laden with conical morsels of cacao. If influence is the power to produce an effect without apparent exertion of force, no other object has unknowingly consumed my attention or driven my actions quite like chocolate chip cookies. The sheer fact that I have had no cavities or early signs of diabetes after eating a chocolate chip cookie literally every day for the past ten years is proof enough of their supernatural qualities. 

I’m often asked, “Simo, if you’re such a chocolate chip cookie connoisseur, what is the best cookie out there?” The truth is that I don’t discriminate! After years of comparative cookie taste-test analysis (say that five times fast), I have concluded that chocolate-chip cookies are like Beatle’s songs—even the “bad” ones are pretty darn good. My loyalty to the chocolate-chip cookie goes beyond reason, much like the connections agencies hope to make with their clients’ brands. 

Others ask, “Simo, are you worried that one day you might not be able to both eat a cookie every day and maintain a body suitable for swimsuit season?” To them I say, “The day I value the size of my gut more than the deliciousness of its contents, pigs will fly. They will retort, “But swine flu!” And to this I will respond, “Clever pun, but I stand by my original statement.” The true influence of chocolate chip cookies is the happiness they bring to my life. The joy of a warm gooey bite or the nostalgia induced by the smell of baking cookies filling a home can bring a smile to even the most Scrooge skeptics. From Famous Amos to my grandmother’s recipe, chocolate chip cookies will always be worth the calories in my book. 

Chocolate chip cookies will forever serve as a reminder to stop, even for just a brief instant, to savor every bite. Especially now, in my ever-multitasking life, singular moments where I can pause to appreciate what I hold in my hands are increasingly rare. My daily chocolate chip cookie reminds me to be conscious of the present, mindful of everyday pleasures, and appreciative that my mother never had an affinity for oatmeal-raisin. 

Muse for a Restless Leg

Muse for a Restless Leg

I have never written in a journal.
Never leather-bound my thoughts between padlocked pages
or left a cache of my writing, waiting like a crumpled prayer,
to be discovered at a later date.

Too often I write for the snaps,
for the grease of applause,
or the recognition of a stranger. But when no one is watching,
what weight do this empty words hold?

I have never loved—
never let someone’s wish list front-cut my own,
or looked at a girl, not with my eyes, but with my mind.

Too often, I’ve wanted girls to like me
more than I’ve wanted myself to like them,
wanted her eyes to be two fun house mirrors
to tell me I’m witty,
to tell me I’m skinny,
to tell me I’m worth something.

But, tonight is different.
I’ve spent three weeks now trying to write a poem for myself—
not a “good” poem
or a poem to be framed on a wall,
but a true poem.

And for three weeks now,
I’ve tried not to write a poem about you—
for the same reason my brother told me
he’d never have a girl in his profile picture,
and because you think my romance is full of shit anyways.

But I write because it lets me be selfish.
And for the first time in a long time,
my self-interest has buoyed itself to another.

I’ve seen myself rise when you rise,
fall when you fall,
and all I seem to want these days is
to do nothing with you.

Be a Sunday porch swing.
Lets dangle our legs from the edge of your roof
and go fishing for pennies on the sidewalk. We don’t have to make sense to get anywhere.
Our days pass like summer minutes—
at double time, but lingering like the last bite of a kiss.

Tonight, you lie asleep in my bed,
and I try to Sistine chapel your smile to my ceiling—
one dimple still rests under your left cheek
like the paint started running,
like your last bite of watermelon was slightly too big
and a little juice trickled down the side of your mouth.

And although I’m dripping for you on this stage,
I do the same when I’m alone.
You’re more than just a girl
I’m writing a poem about.
The paint isn’t drying;
The clock isn’t ticking.

We’re just two kids running on a treadmill,
admiring the scenery. Run at me blindfolded!
Tell me that your elbow itches!
Let me catch you.
Let me be the answering machine
for all your unimportant thoughts,
for all the days that it seems easier
to pull the covers over your head
and pretend like the snooze button
stopped time.

Let me push you!
Push me back!
I don’t need to be the only kid on this swing set.
I don’t need a muse for my restless legs.
You don’t need a shot in the arm for your endless days,
but it’s awful nice to have some company.
It’s awful nice to save the last bite of dessert
for someone you know is coming home.

I’m not saving this poem for you.
I’m saving it for me,
so I can Poloroid this moment,
tuck it under my pillow,
and bring it out when no one is watching.

Why I Suck at Tennis

Why I Suck at Tennis

I was created in the image of my maker.
I have his hair, his smile, and his taste in puns.
I do not, however, have his backhand.
I don’t have his overhead volley
Or his sense of when to come to the net. 
I will never be better than him at tennis.

The first time I beat him in ping-pong, 
Might have been my proudest achievement
Of my athletic career.
I knew he was trying his hardest.

But when it came to the hard court, 
I was a few bald spots short of an Agassi.

Every time would start the same—
Rafael Racquet club Sunday morning.
We would get dressed like we were preparing for battle,
Nails done, hair done, everything did.
And every time it would end the same—
A thrown racquet, a few tears, and a “
I don’t care if I don’t bend my knees on my backhand, Dad.”

Then I would cannonball into the pool 
And vow never to play tennis again.

I want to do things differently—
Follow in his footsteps only

once I know my stride.
But, I see the apple rolling back towards the tree 

On days when I open my mouth, 
And I hear his jokes, his tone, His I told you so’s
Surprise me like words I didn’t mean to say.

For all the times that he’s frustrated me. 
When I’ve promised that I’d never give my son a curfew,
Or make him do SAT flashcards, 
He is still the first person 
I want to know when I’ve succeed.

I wonder if his glasses work like the windows of a train—
A faint reflection of himself staring back 
As my life blurs by in the periphery. 

Cuz my life sometimes feels like a 
Choose your own adventure book
With his notes in the margin.

There is only one promise he has repeatedly made me.“
I’ll be alive until you’re children have children.”
He has engraved this assurance into my muscle memory—
As if I practiced it enough, 
Like a second serve,
I could speak it into existence.

And I want to.
I want to listen to you.
And I want you to hear me listening.
Let me rally with you just a little bit longer
Before this game begins.

I want your guidance to be a lit streetlight, 
But for me to know the back alleys
That didn’t exist when you were my age. 

Cuz for all this rhetoric,
I still want you to teach me—
To teach me how you’ve made it this far
And maybe I’ll finally learn a proper backhand.

Boyfriend Material

Tongue Tied

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Tribute

Cortney,

You probably write more poems in a week
than Justin Ching updates his twitter status.
So for a man who has never taken a poetry class,
I think it is quite clear you excel in your extracurriculars.

You once told me, we always lose the most valuable things in our days
in the most careless and effortless ways. Like to motherfucking graduation.
You told me if autumn is another metaphor,
it insists the most lovely things in this world are the ones leaving it.

I can’t tell you for how long
I’ve wanted to unlock your ribcage like a piano hood
because we all know your heart is the organ you think with.

It is apparent every time you grace the stage
and our stomach’s lynch a butterfly.

You told me the rinsing of hands will not remove fingerprints.
Impressions are earned. So as you graduate,
know that you have not just inscribed
your composition book with your words,
but you have inscribed yourself onto us.

You told me that art and pain have never been more intimate
than in a tattoo. Even though this group is not tatted to your forearm,
we all know it courses through the veins beneath.

As the winter loosens its grip on me,
I feel a spring uncoiling in my fingers.
You’ve changed us all for the better.
All of this must grow.

"Katie"

For my younger sister Katie

The revolving doors of Abercrombie and Fitch serve as sideways turbines
pushing out spray on prom queen dreams to the passersby.
Two shirtless male greeters, whose combined abs are probably greater
than the number of sit-ups I’ve done in my entire life,
stood guard as I went to buy you a holiday present.

I shopped like a one night stand with retail,
trying to get past the store’s overly revealing neckline
without anyone recognizing my face.
I contemplated briefly how a clothing store
could only have pictures of people wearing no clothing on the wall.
And then I walked out, like I walking out of an IMAX showing of The Notebook.

A few weeks later, I heard these same walking manikins
tried to recruit you to be an Abercrombie model,
walked up to you on the street and said
“you’re beautiful and exactly what we’re looking for.”

I sometimes wonder the first words I will say to your future husband.
I hope they’re something like, “if you break her heart, I will break you.”
But Katie, there are days I’m not sure if I stand tall by your side
Times where I don’t know
if I am your older sibling or you are mine.
How close I should stand, as I watch over your shoulder?
I don’t know if the shade of my shadow provides relief or just darkness.

Some days I worry, because I’ve heard stories of you running through boys,
hoping they can be the stationary for your splatter paint attention span.
And some days I see you wear skirts short enough so that their eyes can
Jackson Pollack your upper thighs. But, this is not why I’m writing you.

Because Katie, I’m confident that you’ll recognize
when the world gives you opportunities to hang your self esteem on a coat rack.
And it’s more than my fear of some boy treating you like a tissue.
It’s that there have been nights where I walked up to girls,
whose older brothers I didn’t know, and thought
“You’re beautiful and exactly what I’m looking for,”
hoped to slide into their life like the g in foreign.
You see, 20somethings treat bars like some sort of carnal carnival,
trading in 5 dollar cocktails for a night back at my place.

So maybe it’s guys like me that rip the clothes off Abercrombie models backs
and create a market for 6 inch heels and push up bras.

I’m scared that one day you’ll catch me treating a girl like a tissue
and say god bless you—my older brother can charm the prints off fingers,
but wouldn’t let you see him vulnerable if it was written on the palm of his hands.

Katie know this:
That these days, I have a lot fewer of those nights,
That these days, I try to notice the beauty of her being before the flaws of her façade,
That I hope soon, I’ll finally bring a girl home to meet you.

And know that if anyone treats you like anything less than the amazing woman that you are,
You tell them: I have an older brother who might not have washboard abs,
but he would facebook poke the living shit out of you.

Love,
Simo

May 2nd, 2011

I watch the news like a nascar race,
waiting for a crash, to jolt me out of my ambivalence.
But tonight, I sit here watching cnn like the super bowl,
as chants of USA fill the streets like lamp posts.
Bin Laden is dead
and I wonder if I am at the peak or trough of my patriotism

Rejoicing in the bloodshed of a man I have learned to hate.
I am diminished
as we perpetuate this violence
and I drink apathy from my mug.
The mouths that chastised the animals celebrating in the streets of
Bagdad on September 12th
scream freedom at the top of their lungs in front of the white house;
does our reflection look too different from those that we condemn?
Does mine?

I say that I hate war.
I say that I support our troops.
I say that I am against violence,
but my nike boots are so far from the airforce.
It is too easy
To see war in the middle of the word backwards
To look away from a homeless verteran’s cardboard sign
To see 6 million as more of a concept than a number.
It is too easy to write pacifist poetry sharing a couch with the new york times,
to buy a no war for oil shirt from American apparel,
to criticize the military budget in my facebook status.

I have lived my life shedding responsibility
while some embrace it like a second hand coat.
Like my cousin Greg.
who traded a 6 figure job for a 6 year military contract,
a 9-5 for a 45,
a girlfriend for a commanding officer.
And as of yesterday he is stationed in Bagdad,
6,000 miles from this page
and a world away from my comprehension.

And now it is hard.
It is hard to double take at death reports
and harder to realize that it takes my upper middle class cousin
conspicuously missing from the annual holiday party
or two planes setting fire to my 10 year old birthday candles
for this war to actually hit home.

So now I am scared.
Scared that I know we’ll keep pumping out soldiers and gas until the
last one drops.

Scared,
that in my life war does not exist
suffering is the 9th inning of a baseball game
and reconciliation is 5 minutes of skimming headlines on the internet.

War will always be a page length away from my pen.
My peace-seeking words rest on deaf paper.

Until I find an enemy greater than my apathy,
my conviction will never hold the fire,
the fire necessary to burn


or to resurrect.