The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 6 Attention

active-bicycle-bike-694719In 1965, sandwich quarters appeared. The coins had silver exteriors but cheaper copper interiors. I agonized over my flaws and felt like a sandwich quarter. I realize that I made up this sandwich quarter analogy. The thing is, feeling innately less than perfect felt true for me at the time. So during my fifth summer, I sat on the curb in front of my house and felt flawed and lonely. I scratched my initials into the soft tar. Who was I? I hadn’t done anything. If I did something remarkable, I figured, if I were more competent, then I’d be acceptable and better loved.

Actually, I’d done one thing. For Christmas, I received a toy electric motor to mount on my bicycle. Dad gave my seat a shove, and I pedaled away with the motor off. I couldn’t stop to switch it on because I still needed a push to get rolling again. And I couldn’t ride one-handed and reach down for the switch. So, after I turned the corner and was out of his sight—since I’d learned to be a bit sneaky to hide my true self—I used my knee, which rose with each revolution, to flip up that switch. When I came around the block and back into sight, my parents marveled. How’d he do that? I’d gotten their attention, and they were impressed by my adroitness. It was a really good feeling, one I became driven to replicate.

My budding addiction to attention and acceptance caused me a lifetime of simmering agony. I know now that not everybody is that way. There are people writing manifestos in Montana shacks or chain-smoking at laminate tables in the projects who don’t care if other people think about them or what other people think of them, but I care, and I don’t think I’m really all that weird for caring; we just have to have appropriate expectations is all. But most of us do care to varying degrees. We generally wish to be seen as competent and lovable. I certainly cared as my knee rose and flipped on that toy electric motor. But in my defense, could civilization occur with a population that didn’t care about acceptance and pleasing others? We are cajoled from birth to be less selfish, more giving, more civil, and better at teamwork. Isn’t grooming better citizens often a stated mission of schools and children’s organizations? Isn’t the social contract that we all benefit by giving up some freedom, tamping down the outliers, and hammering the jutting nail?

Still, I understood that my attention seeking was not an admirable personality trait. We denigrate it. We mock it. Although it’s normal to want things that positively reinforce us, we still admire humility. There are just too many of us for everyone to get much attention. We have to form families to get enough attention; otherwise, we wither like a Romanian orphan. But outside of our families, we encourage a certain blending in. It’s better for society, which is better for everyone. I’m not a socialist. I’m not talking about wearing gray rags, plowing fields, and redistributing wealth; rather, I’m talking about building skyscrapers.

Although I was born thirsty for recognition, it might’ve been within the normal range of human drives. I certainly wasn’t one of those boys who shouted, “Here! Pass it here!” in basketball games. I didn’t juke opponents, hit three-pointers, or make lay-ups; mostly, I just observed and remembered. I wouldn’t figure out for decades that my long-term memory, aptitude for observation, and self-consciousness were more unusual than my distaste for roughhousing was. I felt weird for my passivity and lack of blending in or standing out. Today, I understand that the other kids didn’t masticate on others’ behavior. Me? I imagined what others thought ad nauseam (especially what they thought about me!). But the other kids weren’t analyzing their feelings, the way their actions looked to others, or whether they fit in—or didn’t fit in—relative to everyone else as much as I was. They just ran head-on into life the way young kids do. I was an amalgam of the neurotic part of me. I was the latent psychologist, the emerging writer taking it all in, comparing and mentally documenting. I just couldn’t forget my life long enough to live it, as they say. But there was no one to tell me that it wasn’t wrong to be sensitive and introverted, to endure an unremitting conflict between needing to connect to feel larger than I was and needing to pull away to recharge—and then to record the process. There were too few people who dug me for me, so I played whatever role was desired by whoever was near.

Still, I wanted attention. Was that my entire fault? Genetics played some role in this, and there was something normal about. Typically, I was thwarted in my quest for praise because my neediness only exasperated my family and made my critics smirk. I now cast myself as the reluctant underdog even as I puff out my chest. It’s the sincerest part of my story, this exposure of my character flaws. But here’s where being a psychologist helps: I know that we bond over our vulnerabilities. I’m encouraging others to do that as well—but to be discriminating about with whom they share; the recipients mustn’t judge them or repeat the information to others.

So switching on that toy motor was a big accomplishment for me. It got my parents’ attention. Later, I scrunched over as I sat on the curb and scratched “TT” with a twig into the black, sticky street tar. My initials. A little boy hunched alone on a curb in Albuquerque in the mid-1960s wasn’t alarming. Retrospectively, I’d be called a “latchkey kid.” But did anybody’s parents hover back then, before we obsessed about pedophiles and car seats? Still, as I dug into the asphalt, I imagined that I was being observed. While I waited for my father’s sports car to come roaring around the corner as he returned from the armory, I twisted around to see if Mom was watching me through the picture window. She was not. Where was the witness to my existence?

Perhaps I made up a witness when I decided that at least God watched me, as they told me in Sunday school. Whatever I did was adorable to God, and in my imagination, I projected unconditional love and attention for me onto my invisible, omnipotent, silent watcher. Thus, I found a way to always have an audience to validate me even during the hours when nobody except God paid much attention to me. Many years later, I learned that the God we worshiped was an impersonal God; I’m glad I didn’t know that back then. Back then, I felt comforted to be observed—even if only by God—and I observed myself as I sat alone on that curb. “TT.” It meant that I existed. I validated myself. I suppose it was a good thing that I didn’t have access to spray paint.

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