The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 28 White Boy

If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me; that was my secret. But there was also something inside me—something as small and hard as a Roswell walnut—that wanted to rise up and be better than I felt. I reckoned that I needed to perform better to be accepted, to find a bigger stage, a larger audience to impress. I’ll fast-forward here to let you know that of course, now I understand that performance wasn’t the whole answer. It’s not what draws people to us. The things we tend to strive for—money, beauty, sexuality, popularity, material goods, advanced degrees, athletic accolades, etc.—don’t draw people to us in an emotionally intimate way. They might provide opportunities to connect, but they aren’t the connection itself. The same people who were cruel and dismissive before we accumulated those things will be cruel and dismissive after we’ve obtained them. People care about themselves, how we treat them, and what we share of ourselves that they find reinforcing; everything else is distraction and as emotionally nourishing as candy to an anorexic. Still, I was barely a teen and wanted to impress others to either attract those I admired or be left alone by those I did not.

***

El Dorado was the legendary “Lost City of Gold.” I found my El Dorado in the fall of 1973. For me, it was the Anglicized Eldorado High School. It was there that I saw distance running as my ticket to belong.

      Paradoxically, I still felt a press to rebel. It had something to do with the zeitgeist—including the books, movies, and TV news—I suppose, that encouraged me to try to standout from my peers. My need to fit inand stand aparthelped me to bondand excel, but it also set up decades of chameleon-fueled agony. I thought that I had to become someone different to be acceptable and still be outstanding; dared I even hope to be admired? Conformists—by definition—just weren’t outstanding. I didn’t realize that my true acceptability was the squishy, uncomfortable stuff inside that I covered up and tried to leave behind. I thought that I needed to be a human doingrather than a human being, because the beingpart of me felt stupid, weak, and despicable. I didn’t know back then that I was merely a boy reacting to his environment, making common kid mistakes. Too often, I had to figure out life on my own. I was a vulnerable and flawed human immersed in the human condition, just as everybody else was.

      So, I earned a high-school letter in cross-country. In my mind, it validated that I was worthy enough to belong and almost worthy enough to hang out with the other jocks, whom I admired. It was unusual in a good way for a freshman to win a varsity letter. I was thrilled, but I didn’t necessarily want to give up the freakiness that had served me so well when I needed it in junior high. Plus, I dug being a freak; I totally admit it. There’s something about nonconformity that still attracts me. I find it interesting. Also, I suppose that if we are to progress toward self-actualization, we need to move toward individuality and away from conformity, because it seems as if most people are content to run with the herd or have defaulted to that behavior. But are we all innately driven, to varying degrees, toward nonconformity if we’re all driven toward self-actualization? That said, there are clearly more similarities between humans than differences between us.

      In high school, I wanted to conform to athletics—distance running—as it was the only thing I did well. I wanted to be welcomed onto the team, but I also wanted to be the best runner. Being a jock became the dominant part of my new persona, and I rushed to the sports store to buy a jacket to sew my new letter on, which proved I wasn’t a total waste of skin. The problem was that I bought it from Cook’s Sporting Goods. The white leather sleeves only went up to the shoulder, which my peers said was uncool. The leather was supposed to extend to the collar. The older varsity athletes knew not to buy a “Cook’s Special.” I was stuck again, just like with those “Wrangler Jane” jeans. I should’ve asked my new jock peers which jacket to buy, but I feared that I imposed on people when I spoke to them. I was supposed to fake that all was well and not to burden anybody with my petty needs and emotions.

      That Texas-orange letter jacket drew attention to me. Did they think I was awesome? Nobody said so, but it would’ve been nice. That was certainly what I wanted. That jacket made my arms look Popeye-sized. The other kids were supposed to imagine massive forearms packed inside the leather sleeves, and if I’d a mind to, I could crush steel cans full of spinach. That meant that no one should mess with me. But my scrawny neck poked out of the collar and betrayed me, so I suppose that it was more of a turtle look. Oh, and I still wore thick glasses and braces, and I had zits and a big nose. My adolescent awkwardness kept me frustratingly humble. Sometimes today, I feel exactly the same and have to remind myself that I’m a competent adult.

      That letter jacket was supposed to turn things around for me, but instead, I felt self-conscious for buying the wrong style. I wore it anyway because it, and outrunning everyone I could, was all I had when I showed up to school each morning. I wore that “Cook’s Special” and pretended that I was the only one who got it right.

***

The older runners resented me for whipping them. They told me to throw races, to eat shit, anything to prevent my rise. So, I trained harder. At the time, I saw it as the feisty side of me that demanded respect and that used to be expressed in fistfights. Today, I recognize that my defensiveness created a target for other insecure boys who were also in the grip of an unsteady adolescence. Life for me was an unremitting competition for success at sports, popularity, and safety from boys who preferred violence to tolerance.

      Also, I thought that the bulky junior-varsity football players peeled off their yellow-pitted T-shirts in the weight room and flexed in the mirror just to spite me (because at fourteen, I still thought it was all about me). I watched their eyes, but they focused on their reflections, on their abs, quads, and biceps. But I didn’t laugh aloud. I knew by then to keep it inside. Even though the JV guys snickered at the tiny gold running figure on my big “E,” I kept quiet. They figured that every guy wanted a gold football on his letter. I certainly did. During cross-country practice, I watched the football players and wondered if perhaps I could be a kicker or something that didn’t require being a bruiser to win a letter. I wanted the respect that football players commanded, the fear they evoked. I wanted to hang out with them on the Jock Wall. I saw athletes—and even all the douchey things they did—as very cool, and I wanted to be cool just like them.

***

In the meantime, I hung out in the book room with Ramon, my junior-high cholo buddy. In our little gang of a half-dozen Chicanos, I was called “White Boy.” Ramon and I had PE together and chose each other when we had to pair off for a 220-yard race or something. I was still a head taller, and he was still chunky. He ran the way you’d expect, sort of waddling in fast motion, serious as all get out. I felt silly loping along beside him at half speed. Running was so easy for me. It wasn’t really fair; I admit it today, but at the time, I thought it was all about my hard workouts, knowing the Truth about my spiritual perfection, and determination. So, I grinned as we sprinted around the dirt track; I was embarrassed for us both at the spectacle we created. Ramon wasn’t offended. He was one of those guys who wouldn’t even walk fast. A badass, he saunteredand didn’t give a hot damn about running. But the PE coach got angry with me for not trying my best and for acting like a smartass. I thought I was being niceto slow down for Ramon instead of crushing him. 

      Coach set up another race between the two fastest guys in the class and me. One of the guys was a sprinter on the track team, super nice, and happened to be all muscly and black, so I was really intimidated. The other guy was named “Poland.” Back then, Polack jokes were popular, and I kind of felt sorry for the guy, except that he was fast, too, and was supposed to humiliate me by putting me in my place. Then I smoked them both. I’m not bragging—it was only PE class—but it was another brick in the wall as I built up my self-esteem. So I smirked, not because I wanted to, but because the coach tried to push me back to the fringes with the sad boys who were called “pussy.” The part of me that wasn’t OK with being ignored was fed every time I stepped onto the track. That’s the part of me that smirked. But if I could do it over again, I’d just try my hardest the first time, demolish Ramon, and then act all humble and be the good sport congratulating him on his effort. I’ve had time to think about it, to consider healthier alternatives, which are more boring and don’t make good stories, but are nicer, at least. I know how to be nice now, how to tone it down. But at the time, I was more interested in expressing myself, and I hadn’t been taught to consider the impact my behavior had on others. Telling me to “be nice” only left me grasping air; what I heard was to shut down my personality and act shy and boring and loser-like. I know it sounds silly today, but at the time, it was a real dilemma for me.

      The coach said I had to keep my slower time. He said it all pissy to hurt me, but I only shrugged the way freaks who didn’t give a damn did. If the coach was going to be that way, then he’d get the same side of me that Mom got. So, he made me run laps.

      As I jogged around the track, I thought, Oh, no, suh, please don’t toss me into de briar patch! Running laps was a reward for me; it only made me faster. What a cocky pissant, right? I finally had a reason to feel proud of myself, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was exactly what Mom didn’t want from me. She wanted me to act mature, get good grades, have better social skills, and mingle with wholesome Christian Science youths. I get it now. Actually, I got it then. That’s why I kept this anecdote secret for so long. I got my balls busted plenty of times before I discovered my latent talent for running. But if I were pushed down at school, too, I’d have nothing at all. Again. I wouldn’t let that happen. When something good finally came my way, I exploited it. Then I ran the punishment laps that football coaches thought were so heinous. I was young and desperate then, and it was all about acting out—and only later living with the regret.

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