August 1st, 2014

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“My name’s Blake, too.” The mop-headed, cherubic boy behind the register handed back my Discover card and smiled.

I asked this cheerful cashier -  “barcode ninja,” “checkout champion,” “scanning wizard,” et al. – if he knew the name’s origin. In olde English, “Blake” was interchangeable with the terms “black” or “dark-complected.” As the generations passed, the more common definitions included “pale” or “fair-haired.” Given the divergent roads my name has taken, I guess it’s no surprise then that I’ve grown up to be such a contradictory figure – often at odds with the world around me and even myself on occasion. Bullheaded, sturdy and defiant.

Like the storyline of a country song, my life has been full of challenges and hardships that often made me reassess everything I believed in. I’ve had a difficult time attaining and, later, appreciating the small successes along the way. I carry a high standard; I’m harder on myself that anyone else could be. When I first came to Nashville in 2006, I lived in a professor’s basement, lunched-and-brunched on JIF peanut butter, and looked for the acknowledgement of others. Through the layoffs and the friends lost and the dreams deferred, what I finally learned after all this time was that the person I needed to trust was myself. I have to say it’s been entertaining, but it was extremely intense, and something I wouldn’t want to go through again. Still, my struggles have afforded me important lessons and allowed me to tap into strength I wasn’t sure I possessed.

Shy and guarded to begin with, I became even more withdrawn after some tough losses along the path. I know what it’s like to fail – and that may extend to my trouble with communicating. I never felt a need to intimidate anybody or act standoffish on purpose. Anyone who believes I’m cold or unfeeling doesn’t really know me at all. But even when trying to act as graciously and politely as possible, sometimes my mind is occupied with something else – responsibilities, I guess.

How much fun it would’ve been to follow in the footsteps of those who were more impulsive, foolish and reckless. Paying the rent isn’t quite as sexy as picking up a hundred-dollar bar tab or heading down south for a beach trip. As much as I’ve received praise for being useful and loyal, there are days I’d rather be the one that people depend on. I am a man, after all, and not a brand of motor oil.

I’ve always accepted the fact that because of my background in life, I couldn’t allow myself to be truly spontaneous and take the risks that more advantaged peers could. I also hated the idea of a relationship of convenience – romantic or otherwise – to help me get ahead. I’m not the richest, prettiest or showiest performer out there, and I’m certainly not the popular, except among married men and mothers, who are either shocked that I’m single or wish they themselves still were. At least in this arena, my emotional stability combined with an ambiguous exterior seems to be an aphrodisiac. If I have a type, it seems to be a eloquent, more experienced and ballsier version of myself. 

The one area where I’ve been strong and gutsy is in writing. I want to affect people in some way, and it’s been true since my humble southern Illinois childhood. When I wasn’t holding down an A-grade average, I spent afternoons hitting tennis balls against a barn door. As I’ve experienced throughout adulthood, the wall never loses. Now I’m a content strategist – “writer,” “editor,” “writer/editor,” et al. - for a reputation management company. As such, I help people look good by performing cosmetic surgery on their online images through articles, blog posts and social-media updates. I’ve even penned a 200-page reference book soon to be published. Admittedly, this position comes along with it a great deal of ambivalence. Quite frankly, I never know what the truth is – warts and all.

The question I keep coming back to: “What’s our identity?”

Talking with friends over dinner last week I recalled how my high-school yearbook (Student Council president, represent!) contained comments about my refreshing “honesty” and “openness.” It’s remained as much a burden as a blessing. I worry that authenticity is a lost art. Nowadays, “authentic” is the term advertisers use when trying to sell out digestive yogurts or bowtie collections. Every conversation is polished online for public consumption or, worse, “overheard” and chopped into a sound bite that aims at humor and arrives at hubris. Hundreds of attention-snatching hashtags hang like acts of desperation (#Lonely, #LoveMe?). Certain spaces, in my opinion, are sacred; certain stunts plain silly. Heart rates have been traded in favor of Klout scores.

Just like online, my city of Nashville is changing its face one nip-and-tuck at a time. The reviews are in: “It City.” I wish I could share with the excitement; here, too, I’m torn. I certainly fear that the higher class will chip away at its rough edges more than they already have. It’s true and it’s right to show the imperfections and flaws once in a while. Breeds character, I say. And soul. I imagine a not-too-distant future where this Tennessee capital is the exclusive property of old money and Oprah-spouting CrossFit trainers. If anything, I urge anyone to dig deeper and see the real substance below the surface.

Today, I re-signed the lease for my townhouse in 12 South. I could just as easily have packed up and bought myself a Florida grapefruit stand. As I approach my 30th birthday, I wonder whether or not I’m going to find a place I fit into. I’m still driven to be great and to strike a blow for those who don’t often get their voices heard as others grasp for the spotlight. 

Down through the years, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people in different locations. I know I have a small but dedicated audience out there and hope that it continues to grow wherever I go. I have never lost my ambition but along the way I forgot how to be audacious while still holding onto tight to who I am. The concept of “potential,” just like that Catholic-school rosary I’m keeping in the nightstand, has been a cross around my neck. It’s time to reach out and connect with people and prove what I’m made of. I know well my name but sometimes, like anyone, I need a good reminder of what it means.

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