My angst at having something to say but no one to say it to found a possible solution when I began grade school at Mark Twain Elementary. And you should know that the name also had something to do with me, I concluded, as I sometimes did back then. Remember that as a very young child, I had something that smacked of ideas of reference—but never anything as brazen as the TV specifically talking to me—and I always knew the difference between bizarre ideas of reference and what I truly believed. More accurately stated, I liked to imagine that attending a school named after a famous novelist was another sign that I was destined for something. I didn’t know what, but I guessed that it would be something better than anonymity and better than being despised. I wanted significance, and writers had schools named after them. After all, it was Mark Twain who wrote, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” That was exactly what I wondered! Why was I alive? What meaning did my life have? I thought that I was the only kid who wondered those things. I still think many, if not most, young kids don’t ask those questions, but there are many who do. Now I think that there were many of us out there at the time, but we weren’t sharing it with each other, which would’ve been odd at that age but also would’ve been nice. I suppose none of us was too interested in the other kids looking at us as if we had an open head wound.
Whereas I initially just had to listen to my mother read the Daily Lesson aloud—and thus I became a good listener and use this skill every day while doing psychotherapy—at Mark Twain Elementary, I learned to read and write. Dr. Seuss was such a stud. Maybe one day I’ll be a real doctor just like him, I joke today, because I always loved books, and by extension I loved those who wrote books. I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew, a children’s book describing a place where they “never had problems, at least very few,” was one of my favorite books—understandably so since my number-one goal was to have no problems and make my family proud of me.
Mom miscarried her next pregnancy. Did she feel remorse for resorting to medical care back when I was almost born prematurely? Did she, as a consequence, dillydally the next time around? Eventually, Dad had to wrap a bloody blob in tissue and take it and Mom back to the hospital. I never felt connected to that sibling, but now I think, Whew, close call for me! I just got on with the business of life but felt as if I had something to live up to, as if the miscarriage had had anything at all to do with me. I always felt that life was precarious and then searched for confirming anecdotes.
I figured that the best way to savor my luck and prove my worthiness was to become a writer like Dr. Seuss or Mark Twain. I’d get what was inside out. Writing would give me a voice, and I’d gain the attention, respect, and connections that I craved. When people opened my book, it’d be as if they cradled my face in their hands. If they liked my book, it’d be as if they leaned over and kissed my forehead.
There were other “signs” that I misinterpreted to mean that I was on the path to a significant life. Supposedly, on my mother’s side, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was a distant relative. It was something to brag about, having an author in the family lineage. I tried to read that book once, but my testosterone got in the way, and I set it down before finishing it. It wasn’t like me to leave a book unfinished. It seemed disrespectful. As I revered books and authors, I usually gave them the courtesy of completion. I imagined that having a smidgeon of Louisa May Alcott’s genetics meant that I’d publish, too. And not completing my distant relative’s book I spun into a sign that I would not, could not, write in a genteel manner as she had. I’d already given in to my predisposition and environmental demands for crassness.
There was also the rumor that the captain of the famous British clipper Cutty Sark was a relative. Our story was that the Cutty Sark sailed from England to America full of whiskey. But the captain and his crew drank up the load and so sailed home in disgrace. Told with pride, infamy was favored over anonymity in my family. Somehow, we were better for having a well-known relative, even if he was a scalawag.
My paternal side was no less proud of infamy. There was a Crusader in the Twelfth Century, and a man accused of being a witch in the Sixteenth Century (I feel more proud of the witch than the Crusader because I assume the witch was merely expressing his own spirituality, whereas the Crusader was forcing his spirituality on others). Supposedly there was a hanged horse thief and even a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in our bloodline. I hoped that wasn’t true. I don’t know any thieves or overt racists on either side of my family. In fact, I don’t think celebrity or criminality is in my bloodline at all; it’s likely storytelling, just Tays tales.
The most accurate genealogical information I have is that my paternal side immigrated from Scotland to America in the mid-1700s. My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was born in The Royal Colony of North Carolina and fought in the American Revolutionary War. My great-great-grandfather produced offspring from a “Cherokee Woman” (her anonymity does not escape my notice and makes me wonder about the circumstances and fear they may have been horrific and despicable), my grandfather died of cancer when my dad was three years old, and I was born twenty years later. I think the truth is just as interesting as the Tays tales.
Learning to read and write at Mark Twain Elementary meant that I no longer needed my parents’ presence or an omniscient being to connect with me. I could connect with others—and even to the shady characters in my imagined ancestry—via my writing. When I wrote, I sometimes got nice reactions from people who usually worked really hard to ignore me.
As nobody wanted to hear about a jackknife hovering above my heart, I stuck to make-believe, as did Mark Twain; the sheen of fiction protected me from attacks. The mascot for Mark Twain Elementary School was the frog from Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” I, too, liked frogs and good old boys who told accessible stories. If I were a writer like Mark Twain, I could make up stories and not get the stink eye. They called me “creative.” I admit that sometimes my neuroticism was mistaken for creativity. Creative minds are rarely tidy, as influential psychiatrist Carl Jung said, but still, a creative, untidy kid got more love. He was smart and captivating, not a liar. Samuel Clemens wasn’t a liar; he was the brilliant Mark Twain.
Samuel Clemens drew on his years on a Mississippi riverboat to create his pseudonym. I never wrote pseudonymously. I thought that writers—and honest people as well—should hold themselves responsible for their words, even for jokes that fall flat. The challenge was to figure out when to use fiction and when to lay bare unpleasant facts.
So I attended a school named after an American writer’s pseudonym. What message did that send me? Why couldn’t I have attended Samuel Clemens Elementary School? Plus, Samuel Clemens was hostile toward Christian Science’s founder, Mary Baker Eddy. She was the author of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. My two heroes were in a catfight! Mary Baker Eddy discouraged her followers from reading literature outside the Christian Science canon, especially novels, believing that they exaggerated life and thus weren’t helpful to “science”; arguably, Mark Twain penned the Great American Novel when he wrote Huckleberry Finn.
Both Mark Twain and Mary Baker Eddy died in 1910, fifty-five years before I started at Mark Twain Elementary School. And so, for me, they’d already slid into the idyllic days that dead writers haunt, and I had no problem embracing both competing intellects.
I reconciled the conflict between Mary Baker Eddy and Mark Twain by conceptualizing it as two sides of a single coin: Abe Lincoln or Lincoln Memorial? They were the same coin. So, the spiritual and the material somehow coexisted, but our binary brains were forced to choose one or the other. Was it a vase or two women’s faces? It was challenging to know something but fail to comprehend it, such as the rightness of infinity. I usually just shrug when I get to that point.
So, I fit into my family of origin better when I fictionalized my experience. Sure, I’d be Happy Jack. How was that any different from being Mark Twain? I could say things as a fiction writer that I couldn’t otherwise get away with. It wasn’t lying; it was fiction! I could tell the truth as a fiction writer, but nobody would beat the crud out of me and nobody’s panties would be bunched up. Writing somewhat satisfied the thing inside of me that I couldn’t explain, the thing that needed authentic expression. Writing felt like feeding an addiction because I needed to be heard; I just didn’t need the criticism that followed. I could call it the trite angst of an artist, but to me, it didn’t feel trite at all. It was a yearning to be known, a yearning for emotional intimacy.
Nobody wanted to hear what went on inside of me; people wanted me to remember the Golden Rule, to attend to my studies, to keep my pie hole shut and fade into the background. Failing to rise to others’ expectations, I should then create good fiction with lots of hyperbole. Entertain them, not with mirrors but with metaphor. Perhaps even do my John Wayne and Ed Sullivan impersonations. So yes, I became a chameleon. I hid the real me and gave performances. As soon as I could write, I added creative writing to my repertoire.
I wondered if I was weird. Keep in mind that I was surrounded by more active, perfectionistic, insensitive (less neurotic?) people. My external world smelled of wool army blankets, acrylic paint, gun oil, engine grease, outboard motor exhaust, and sweat. Sometimes getting outside of my head and into the so-called real world seemed like such an effort. Sure, I participated. What choice did I have? I was just a kid; it was all I knew, and I could either join in the “fun” or be the sulky boy who was left out. I concluded that I was indeed weird because I preferred the scent of books’ fluttering pages and the wood-and-lead smell of a freshly sharpened #2 pencil. I wanted to find a quiet spot to read, people-watch, write, or engage in a deep conversation about my precocious existential angst. To some people that may have seemed odd. OK, a lot of people thought it was odd. Then as now, I had relatives and friends who viewed reading and writing as “just sitting around,” as passivity, withdrawal, and aloofness; they viewed deep conversations as cumbersome or intrusive. Today I know it’s not wrong; it’s just who I am and who I always was. But when I was a kid, the criticism stung. I withdrew even more and was sometimes labeled moody and lazy. I attempted to rewrite the narrative to “melancholy” and “mellow,” which sounded more laid-back and hippyish. But perhaps I was indeed moody because I thought I was wrong to be sensitive—and I didn’t take myself seriously enough to consider that there may have been good reasons for my moods—so I pushed people away to avoid their judgment. I don’t think I was especially lazy, though. People just couldn’t see where my energy was directed; it wasn’t as obvious as racing a dirt bike across the mesa or dragging a gutted mule deer over a ridgeline.
I was an easy target for more aggressive people because I was an introverted, skinny, nonathletic boy with an overbite. I was bookish but nonacademic and immersed in a cult-like religion. I didn’t feel tough enough in a world that was often rough. There didn’t seem to be an obvious place or population where I belonged, and boys who were more belligerent sometimes saw opportunities to bolster their egos at my expense. Plenty of people think this sounds like a normal childhood, but I was offended by it, and I chose to be pugnacious rather than crushed. Remember, this was 1960s New Mexico; we’d been a state barely fifty years, and nobody then worried about supervised playdates or conflict-resolution classes. As a free-range kid in a competitive and bellicose world, I sometimes retreated into the safer corners of the playground with the tumbleweeds and misfits. But I wasn’t comfortable there either. It’s true that I was alienated, but I still felt that I had more to offer, and the gnawing drive to connect with people was ever-present. I thought my critics had me wrong; I feared they were right.
My point is that I became a chameleon to survive socially; I “had to” the way we often believe that social strictures are as incontrovertible as gravity. My internal conflict was between agitating and fitting in: agitating gained attention but caused me social pain; fitting in reduced conflict but bored me and caused existential angst. I feared that I lost my life when I followed the majority and participated in rituals. Why were we wasting our time? Didn’t they understand that we are all going to die? So, I tried various guises. Becoming a chameleon was an adaptation for me every bit as much as for the actual animal. The reason I’m telling you about me is that now I know that my behavior and beliefs weren’t unique to me. As my story spins out, many of my personal thoughts and emotions will ring universally. I know that now, but I didn’t know it then. Nobody was around back then to tell me, so I want to tell you now and save you the trouble: you do not have to be someone you are not; you do not have to be lonely. We are similar in that we can all relate to being inauthentic chameleons sometimes and to feeling disconnected from each other.