I gradually shed my “spacey” freshman persona and engaged in personal minor rebellions as humor-highlighting truth. I even hinted that I was crazy. I didn’t mean crazy as in psychotic, but crazy as compared with boring, with the status quo—opposite whatever the Man demanded from within the box. I meant crazy like the beats and the hippies. My point was that society was insane, and my “insanity” was ironic, a reaction to a puritanical society. I wanted to be wild and free and on the cutting edge of whatever passed as avant-garde. Artists pushed limits and encouraged others to live more fully.
Ken Kesey was an excellent collegiate wrestler and leader of the Merry Pranksters. He traveled across the country, west to east, sort of as I did, but in a psychedelic bus called “Further” as performance art. With plenty of LSD-laced “electric” Kool-Aid, he went to visit Timothy Leary, the psychologist and writer who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs. Leary said, “Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence.” I really wanted to be like Kesey, who was twenty-four years older than I was. He once said, “I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie.” That resonated with me because I was too young to be a hippie—coming at the tail end of the baby boomers—but too old to be a Generation X slacker.
There was no acid-laced Kool-Aid on my bus. My bus was full of cheap beer and kickass distance runners. This exacerbated my inner conflicts: being introverted but faking extroverted, being spiritual but reveling in self-indulgence. My press to emulate the writers and runners whom I admired overwhelmed any religious teetotalism or athletic stereotype of flattops and abstinence. The puritanical upbringing that Mom tried to inculcate me with didn’t have a chance amid the throbbing hedonism of campus life circa the late 1970s. I took the easy laughs, using bathroom humor and sexual asides. In fact, I generally sexualized my environment and redlined my libido and immaturity, my wish to emulate the beatniks and hippies supercharging my lasciviousness. I thought of it all as merely sucking the colligate marrow. I knew what I was doing. Today, I regret my poor judgment and the pain I caused others who were sincerer than I was.
Because I was Timmy Two-Mile in high school, I gravitated to the three-thousand-meter steeplechase in college. The race goes over four barriers and a water jump in each lap for almost two miles. My sophomore year, my parents and an aunt and uncle came to the Kansas Relays. There were two heats of the steeplechase, and I won the first heat. Afterward, I went into the stands, and everyone gushed over me, but their praise was hard to accept because I’d won the slow heat. I whispered to Mom that I would’ve been far behind the leaders in the fast heat.
“We’re all thrilled to see you win,” Mom said. “We don’t care if it was a slow heat.”
I couldn’t accept that then, but now I see her point. It would be more fun to see the only athlete you knew win the race regardless of the time or competition, especially if you knew absolutely nothing about track. I guess it wasn’t horrible if my relatives thought I was better than I really was. The thing was, I knew, and it sucked the joy right out of my “win.” Regardless of any success I had, always underneath was the gnawing realization that I was defective—it was pounded into my psyche by my neuroticism, religion, society, and my family—and that message kicked the legs right out from under any transient good feelings at having done well at something. To reiterate, you can place two people in exactly the same situation, and they can react dramatically differently from each other. You can kick a dog, and that dog might come back and want to be your friend. But when I was kicked, I tended to snarl and sometimes snapped back. I was never comfortable in the victim role, and always stove to be a survivor. In retrospect, I should’ve enjoyed my small victories and the process more, rather than always thinking that I had more to prove my worthiness. My successes were fleeting and ended too soon, the way things and events fail to thrill after a while. It’s not as though I’m winning any steeplechase races these days, slow or fast heats. But I couldn’t hold my relatives’ eye contact when they congratulated me for fear they’d think I was the kind of kid who thought I deserved congratulations for winning a slow heat. If I’d managed the overall win, they couldn’t have congratulated me enough. I would’ve accepted all of their praise and then gotten offended that they’d stopped so soon. No, I take that back. I still would’ve been disgruntled because my time would’ve been too slow. I could always run a faster time in the future. As long as I conceptualized life as a pyramid to climb, attract praise, and avoid criticism, I’d never be fully satisfied; it was an impossible goal, and I only lost my present.