The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 9 Ratty Snake

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We didn’t go to the dentist unless there was an emergency. Remember, as devout Christian Scientists we didn’t go to doctors, not even psychologists, but for some reason, most the church members I knew would reluctantly visit dentists. I created an emergency when I jumped off the top bunk bed and chipped my two front teeth. I probably didn’t want to leap off the bunk bed, but I felt obligated to embrace brazenness to prove my masculinity, so it became yet another example of my ambition outstripping my ability—a dynamic you’re going to see frequently as I describe my youth. Afterward, we alternately ignored and prayed about the growing blackness of my teeth. We thought that accidents and dying teeth were manifestations of my wrong-headed belief that accidents could occur and less-than-perfect teeth could exist. When I was unable to heal my broken teeth, I felt stupid. Why couldn’t I have enough faith? I asked, berating myself.

Mom eventually lugged me to the dentist. I read her face: if she didn’t smile, it was disappointment in me. She certainly didn’t smile when we overheard the dental hygienist say, “This boy hasn’t seen a dentist in over four years!” Mom’s eyes narrowed. She didn’t appreciate her devout religiosity being misconstrued as neglect. She’d prayed all along and so had done her part. In my child’s mind, I was at great fault. My bed-bouncing rambunctiousness and subsequent failure to heal myself had made my own mother look bad. I couldn’t imagine a more selfish boy than I was, as young children will accept as fact any paradigm they’re raised in. I was no different.

The dentist placed a mask over my face and told me to pretend that I was in the framed photograph of a fighter jet that he had hung on the wall. I soared and was powerful and menacing for a few minutes, which was not a bad way to feel when I was puny. I chased that feeling for the next fifty years, not so much in the form of chemicals, but with golden egg-finding performances and a crowd of friends.

I awoke as “Ratty Snake.” That was what my family called me while I had no front teeth. I couldn’t pronounce “rattlesnake” correctly, so they teased me good-naturedly. Ratty Snake was supposed to be feisty, a rapscallion. It was cute, I suppose; except I was cute the way squinting little boys with buzz cuts couldn’t help being cute.

Mom was cute. She looked a lot like Mary Tyler Moore. She was shorter than the actress was and a year younger, but she had the same dark hair and girl-you’d-want-to-marry features. I don’t mean that in an Oedipal way; I merely mean that Mom was a good girl, like the Mary Richards character was, and she worked outside the home. At the time, mothers working outside the home still had a pioneering feel, and holding a job came with a heaping helping of guilt. Imagine the cattiness Mom endured from regrettably single, barren, passive-aggressive dental hygienists.

I always wanted to please Mom back when she was saintly and not yet a three-dimensional person—and I wished to avoid her pig eyes—so, of course, I hid my onrushing nearsightedness.

Ratty Snake was becoming legally blind, but only I knew it, so I begged out of the sort of games that required visual acuity, which only made me appear even more passive. I wasn’t afraid to play; I just couldn’t see a ball to hit or catch. I was always “it” in tag because whenever anyone else was “it,” that person was upon me before I could react, and then I couldn’t find anyone else to chase. I was immobilized as their taunts assaulted me from some blurry place ten or twenty yards away. So I haunted the edges of the playground and made up stories. My best story was that I preferred to be alone with my thoughts and the tumbleweeds. I was an undiagnosed myopic introvert with poor social skills, hyperalert to potential assault, but I hoped my solitariness made me look pensive rather than like a loser. On countless nights, I prayed for perfect vision. Just before I fell asleep, I cried with gratitude at the healing I anticipated while I slept, only to awaken still nearsighted. It’d be another fifty years before I learned that even my spiritual hero, Mary Baker Eddy, was very distressed regarding her need for reading glasses, having failed to heal her farsightedness even as she claimed to raise the dead.

Of course, I dreaded the physical education class. There were fewer rules, and loud, burly boys with sloped shoulders dominated. I only liked the end of PE, when we ran around the far backstop and back to the classroom. My nearsightedness camouflaged the backstop, so I followed the leader. After making the turn, I saw the adobe-colored blob of the stucco school building. I dug down into a place I didn’t know I had. Sometimes I reached the building first and felt something nice, like when my knee flipped up that toy motor’s switch. Pride, I guess. So there became another thing I did well, namely, running.

Born with the body of a distance runner I was still a few years away from exploiting it and even more years away from loving it. In the meantime, I found my ectomorph frame unacceptable. The measure of masculinity in my world was physical intimidation and bursts of power, not endurance running. To a minuscule degree, though, people liked fast runners—or at least noticed them if they managed to pull far enough ahead of the pack.

Back in the classroom, I failed due to my nearsightedness. I’d faked twenty-twenty vision for well over a year. One ploy was to pretend to have the sniffles so I could go up to the teacher’s desk and snatch a tissue and a peek at the blackboard. Often, I really did have the sniffles due to untreated allergies. But when that tactic grew obvious, I remained at my desk and shrugged at distant flash cards. I disliked acting like a moron, but I hated it when people began to believe my act.

Many people in our congregation wore glasses and cherry-picked their few medical interventions. But as Mom was a so-called pillar of the church, it was especially rare and heinous for her to access secular health care for her kids or herself. She always at least dragged her feet. Growing up in a fourth-generation Christian Science household meant that I was cast into an oxymoronic life: spiritually perfect and materially imperfect. How ironic that I owed my very life to modern medicine, yet I didn’t believe in the need for doctors. But I liked irony. At least it wasn’t boring.

I grew up convinced that I healed my ailments via prayer. I recovered from toes caught in bike spokes. I was eventually fine after a stubborn splinter infected my finger, and it began to turn green. Every bad day morphed into something better, or at least different. I took it as proof of the efficacy of knowing the Truth. On Wednesday nights I stood and gave testimony before the sparse, steel-haired congregation; I healed a bee sting I’d received when, barefoot, I ran through the sprinklers and summer clover. It’d take decades before I suspected that healing from such minor assaults should’ve been attributed to normal human resiliency. Making it through childhood without vaccinations was probably due to herd immunity, meaning that a few of us could get away with the neglect since everybody else got the shots.

We didn’t look outside of the church for medical help. Childhood wounds were washed, covered with Band-Aids, and ignored. Sure, we knew the medication was effective in the short term, like pulling tumbleweeds out of the gravel in our front yard. It made the yard presentable for a few days, but if I didn’t pull the weeds up by their roots, the problem returned, and I’d be out there the next Saturday, doing it all over again. The continued belief in imperfection and the need for medication caused the problem to grow back like an unpulled root. So we ignored illnesses, injuries, and sundry problems and imagined perfection. I was tortured by thoughts of failure when I didn’t heal such ailments as broken teeth, myopia, allergies, and, periodically, scabs on the corners of my mouth due to suspected vitamin deficiency.

By the fourth grade, my myopia could no longer be ignored in a public-school setting, and I was told to get glasses. Mom gave me pig eyes; she was so disappointed in me. So, I refused to wear those new glasses. Imagine thick, horn-rimmed glasses, buckteeth, and skinniness. That wasn’t the image I intended to present. Kids who looked like that were shoved and kicked in the shins more often. They were called names like “coward” and “pussy.” They were picked last. They weren’t asked to join group projects, attend birthday parties, or to square dance with the cute girls who brushed their silky hair in class with slow, taunting strokes. Those glasses shouted my weak-minded acceptance of visual imperfection. They made me look as defective as I felt. So, no, I didn’t wear my new glasses.

See? I could drag my feet, too.




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