The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 34 Self-Legend

Driving expanded my world and the mischief I got into, and it was another good way for me to impression manage. I was like the car, a 1965 Mustang with aluminum, five-spoke, mag wheels; raised white letters on the tires; a jacked-up rear end; and an acceleration pedal in the shape of a bare foot. Fast. Quirky. Loud. Confident. You were supposed to assume that the guy driving was the same as the car. I couldn’t afford glass packs, so I drilled holes in the muffler, knowing that it either would irritate old people or make them fondly reminisce. I actually thought that at the time. I wanted to be the center of attention because at sixteen, that would mean I was a valuable person and not someone who deserved to be ignored.

      My cross-country buddies and I cruised the city with a cassette tape of Led Zeppelin IV as our soundtrack. Remember the old man with sticks? I cranked up “Black Dog.” Teens in Stetson hats glared down at me from seven-foot-high pickup trucks. Stompers. Four-foot-high low riders thumped close as vatos glowered through dark sunglasses and tinted windows. “Race relations” to me back then was about who ran the fastest; but still, I kept a billy club beneath my seat just in case. I wanted to be a cheetah: fast and dangerous. And it was OK to sing with my buddies to “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t gay; it was Led Zeppelin—or Queen or Bad Company or Frampton Comes Alive. As we drove past pedestrians, we mooned those we figured would think it funny or were unable to identify us. By midnight, we pushed my car to the gas station to put in another fifty cents’ worth. I dug the whole scene, man—neo-American Graffiti—because I belonged in that car with those other runners, creating wild teenager memories to fit my purposefully overblown teenager persona. Was anyone else consciously doing the same thing, with the same premeditation, even if the premeditation was to be purposefully impulsive? Do you think I was the only one who saw our teenage antics as an act, an image to manage until we one day aged out of it—which I knew we would, just not while I was still a teen?

      One night, a dozen college guys crashed into McDonald’s and beat up all of the high-school kids just because we were there. I was slugged in the jaw, and my glasses went twirling away. I felt bad that I just took it again. At least the security guards and dozens of other kids were whipped, too. My other buddy, “Peacock Muscles,” got the snot kicked out of him in the toilet stall. He was also a Christian Scientist but went to the hospital anyway. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that we even had the option of seeing a doctor. I always assumed that everything would be fine and then just waited until it was true. Peacock Muscles later worked at McDonald’s when a still-unknown Bill Gates came in. He said that he’d give Peacock 10 percent of his new company if Peacock would give him a couple of hamburgers. Peacock did, and today he is somewhat miffed that Gates has never coughed up fifty billion dollars for his 10 percent of Microsoft. Do you think the story is true? Peacock has promised to give me a million dollars if he ever collects. But in 1975, we were all poor and getting beat up at McDonald’s, which I withheld from my parents because I didn’t want to get banned from late nights out. The things I hid from them would fill a book. My persona was a popular, tall, broad-shouldered, slender-but-muscular track star, who was no longer a shithead, a freak, or a sullen, bullied kid shut in his bedroom listening to FM radio. My message was, “If you can’t love me for who I really am, then how do you like me now?” I wasn’t authentically me, I understand today, but at the time I worked really hard to become someone at least I could live with.

      Another time in the McDonald’s parking lot, a lone teen with a pair of nunchackus whipped those sticks around and held off a dozen stompers armed with bluster and tire irons. He was a treed cougar taking on a pack of baying bloodhounds. Those stompers circled him, yelled about how badly they “was gonna whup his ace!” When a siren neared, the hero broke out of the circle and trotted away into teenage lore and my long-term memory. It struck me that he wasn’t paralyzed by fear. My fish filet sandwich awaited me, but I never forgot that martial artist. I wanted to create a self-legend as he did—to be a tempestuous teen to look back upon in middle age.

***

Sometimes people who knew me when I was Happy Jack, Timmy Two-Mile, Taco Tim, or Aunt Jemima still give me attitude. In their minds, I haven’t changed. It’s still 1964, 1976, 1980, or 1982 in their relationship with me. Sometimes I wish they hadn’t met me until I’d settled down so that our relationship could be more respectful. But I understand. I am mindful that I was the one acting out my chameleon fantasies then, so can these people be blamed as much as I would like to blame them just because they believed me?

      Back then, I truly thought that raising hell made me cool, more attractive, more acceptable, and more special; and forty years later, I still meet people from high school and college who wish to punish my transgressions. I must have cut them very deeply. I must’ve treated them the way I’d been treated. I think some were hurt by the chameleon manifestation I had at the time; others initially believed my manifestation, later discovered it was fake, felt betrayed, and were hurt. So they continue to seek revenge. I hurt some people unintentionally in my rush to dominance and attention, and I hurt others on purpose because they’d hurt me or I was maneuvering to gain status within a clique. Looking back, my behavior and their reactions greatly pain my conscience. Even then, I didn’t wish to be that kind of human being. Although I felt justified or oppressed at the time, in retrospect, it was the dark, ugly, and insecure part of me acting out, and innocent and not-so-innocent people got caught up in my psychodrama.

      Today, I bring them to my house to make amends. I feed them four or five kinds of very good cheeses, Wheat Thins, and grapes; I fill their glasses with exotic beers and wines and give them careful attention. I am kinder than I was. I ask about their careers and their children and touch them on their shoulders. Eventually, I hug them and invite them to return. In other words, I meet them with love and show them who I am today.

      But for many, it’s too late. It’s sad, of course, when I must then set people aside who could’ve been closer to my heart. I must banish them to the outer reaches of my awareness, where they can’t act out their revenge—deserved or not. They do not wish to forgive my past chameleonic behavior, and their indignity continues to motivate them toward a petty and outdated vengeance against their image of me, which now exists only in their own minds. So, I set a stronger boundary between us that will grow as thick as a callus. It’s wise not to allow others to spoil our lives even when they so badly wish to. In many cases, it’s my loss; I like to think that it might sometimes also be their loss. Again, this book can be a shortcut for you to avoid all that. Be more authentic sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, memorize the Levels of Intimacy at the end of this book.

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