The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 37 Athlete of the Year?

As a senior, I published a poem called “The Title” in a statewide student contest. For the record, that made me a published poet. I’m not acting haughty; I’m just finally getting some mileage out of it. Apparently, neither my running nor my poetry deserved as much attention as my peers’ admiration for “Disco Duck” or Smoky and the Bandit. My poem didn’t seek to challenge any social norms. It didn’t lift up anybody. It was about the creative process, brainstorming the title for—wait for it—that very poem! I did my normal self-conscious thing, except with my writing. Writers writing about writing would be something my professors would warn me about in the future. Even Charles Bukowski wrote, “Only assholes talk about writing…” Clearly, I was something of an asshole, and writing about writing was yet another lesson I’d have to learn for myself—and then still wouldn’t.

      I also got honorable mention for a short story called “The Last Lap,” inspired by “The Lady, or the Tiger?” My story was about a high-school miler who was injured before the last big race his senior year. He made a comeback, setting up the decisive moment with a photo finish. He either won state or did not, but I left the outcome unknown. I liked the ambiguity. It begged the question of whether hard work, sentimentality, and fairness were enough to create the outcome the protagonist thought he deserved. It was autobiographical to an extent, and it relied on the tension of putting ourselves out there with passion, really going for it, and then…what? I liked to think that I was profound and not as derivative as I actually was.

***

I continued to trick out Timmy Two-Mile. My face cleared up, my braces came off, I got hard contact lenses, and I grew out and blow-dried my hair. My “Cook’s Special” was loaded up with accolades: eight shiny gold bars for every letter awarded, a golden star for captain, patches sewn on the sleeves celebrating big races. I learned to fake confidence, to strut so that even from a distance, you’d know that I was a senior and that seniors ruled so frickin’ hard.

      How do they like me now? I wondered. Similar to my junior-high days, when Ramon thought that I liked to fight, these peers were supposed to think that I was the epitome of an extroverted, popular track star.

      See, I wanted the persona of Steve Prefontaine, the outspoken Olympian from Oregon. He was an agitator just like the authors I admired, but he also partied and ran really fast. Some people thought he was a loudmouthed rabble-rouser, but I liked the balance he had between athletics and outrageousness—until the day he won a race against Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, partied afterward, and died in an alcohol-fueled, single-car rollover.

***

I won my school’s Athlete of the Year award just before I graduated in May 1977. Athlete of the Year? Yeah, right. You have to love the absurdity; I certainly did. Me rising to the pinnacle of Eldorado jockdom? The same burly boys who were picked first in PE, who bench-pressed 250 pounds (twice!), and wore sneakers with their toes sticking out (which the girls thought adorable) remained seated on the cruel, folding chairs on the gym floor as I received my ironic award. I almost expected a rash of suicides that night: humiliated boys with symmetrical facial features and the right kind of letter jacket would be found hanging by their necks in their respective garages. The foxes on the homecoming court would have to find new prom escorts. I didn’t smirk that time. I’d learned the lesson; I acted humble, believe me. Inside, I smirked. That’s right: the least likely guy in the least likely sport had dragged away everyone’s attention from football, basketball, baseball, beefy boys with veiny biceps, the twerp king, and the pretty boys who flattered all of the mothers and impressed all of the teachers. Today I look back on what almost seems like a parody of an athlete, some sort of Pygmalion reenactment: me standing in for the bedraggled Eliza Doolittle. Instead of becoming a duchess, however, I was transformed into the epitome of athleticism—and, I humbly remind you, I was a published poet.

      But I didn’t tell my family about the award. I withheld that information as payback because they hadn’t gushed enough about my running exploits over the previous four years. It was my biggest accomplishment to date, but I knew that I’d be disappointed in their parsimonious praise; they apparently were very invested in keeping me humble. I wasn’t aware at the time that I had an unrealistic assessment of my ability to fascinate others, so I held a great deal of resentment about that and passive-aggressively shared nothing.

      I took it too far, too all-or-none. Now I understand that everybody was busy paying attention to his or her own life and not so much to mine. I hadn’t yet figured out the balance between “every dog for himself” and what was a reasonable amount of attention, depending on each relationship. I kept preening and performing for others, trying to collect accolades to win my family’s approval, expecting them to be impressed, expecting them to be drawn to me, and I kept being disappointed. I thought that because distance running mattered to me, it should matter to them. Why didn’t more people care how fast I could run two miles? Didn’t they see poor, gasping, beaten boys trailing me, and my name in the sports section? Look! There’s another photograph of me! I had distorted expectations, of course. I didn’t understand the limits of people’s generosity, time, and interest. Not everybody thought about me as much as I thought about myself. Still, I thought, But…I won!

      I hadn’t yet accepted that it was reasonable that people didn’t think about me. They thought about themselves, which was simply normal human behavior. My difficulty accepting it was the not-normal part. I hadn’t yet learned that doing things to impress others usually ends in disappointment. At best, people are only briefly impressed, and then they move on with their own lives; they take care of themselves and pursue their own interests, just as they’re supposed to do and must do because of the limitations of our brains, our faculties, time, and space. We have to prioritize. It’s humbling as we age, the years taking us further away from our mother’s breast and adoring downward gaze. Our brains maturate, and it dawns on us that we aren’t a priority to other people, even to loved ones to whom it would be normal to be a priority. For some of us, it simply was not.

      As a high-school boy, my mistake was concluding that I needed to win bigger races, become more popular, act cooler, be better-looking, date more, have better-cut muscles, to live bigger so others couldn’t ignore me. I was determined to get attention and admiration. My advice now? Forget the performance. Don’t test your relatives, friends, critics, or even strangers. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment and more stings. When someone gives love and attention, just appreciate it. When people don’t, just accept it as humans behaving like humans, like very high-functioning but perceptually limited mammals. Don’t take it personally just because they’re normal. People aren’t against you, they’re just for themselves.

***

I certainly didn’t have this figured out at seventeen. I just graduated and then partied as Prefontaine did. Peacock Muscles was in the back seat of my Mustang, getting whipped off by some girl he’d picked up, which was totally distracting, let me tell you. So, a cop pulled me over, saw the graduation gowns strewn on the floorboard, and said, “Just take it on home,” the way they used to do back then, and we went to another party, the way Iused to do back then. I was proud to have collected another anecdote, to have dodged another bullet, and it’s odd to me today to have felt pride over such a thing—and to view it so differently now.

      When my son hears about my high-school antics, he’s not impressed, even though I kind of want him to be. I also kind of don’t want him to be out of fear that he’ll emulate me or regret that he didn’t. He thinks I was just another “douchey athlete,” the kind who was popular and loud, who bullied others and was too self-impressed. I know what he’s talking about. I’ve known those guys. I’ve even played that role. But I’ve also known many athletes, so that stereotype doesn’t hold for me. At my son’s age, however, I wanted to join those guys, as I said, because I admired them, and I wanted to be those guys—just without the douchey part. Douchey wasn’t the color I looked for, but I can see his point. I think the upside was that I made some good friends, some whom I still see forty years later. My son tries to reassure me. “Chill, Dad, you’re not douchey now,” he says. For the record, I didn’t think I was douchey then. I thought I acted cool and then wondered why not everybody was impressed. I’m pretty sure that I get it now.

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