The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 46 Aunt Jemima

I redshirted from the track team and took a hiatus from my studies to stay with Dad, help with fifteen-year-old Kat, and make some green, crispy love to pay for school. Over that year, I orchestrated better moments for myself; anything was better than devastation. I competed in a road race six days after Mom died, and raced, on average, every other weekend thereafter. It kept me busy and distracted. As usual, I channeled my agony into competition. Sometimes I won, or at least ran well, but the high quickly wore off and I needed to find another race—more ass to kick—to feel the pain rip down out of my heart and stab into my quads, which, in hindsight, was better than cutting hash marks into my forearms, scratching at my face, or flagellating myself with branches.

      Antelope Legs got me a job in a warehouse cutting metal and delivering it in a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck. In steel-toed boots, I lived with grease under my fingernails and Hawken chewing tobacco tucked inside my cheek. I immersed myself in my blue-collar role. I wore brown work pants and a tan shirt with my name on the left side of my chest, “Rio Grande Metals” on my right, and went to the warehouse down in the rough South Valley of Albuquerque. The work was easy enough, but it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the pay was dismal. I wrapped a red bandana around my head to look like one of those Hell’s Angels who’d roared into town ten years earlier during the university riots after Nixon bombed Cambodia. My coworkers snickered and called me “Aunt Jemima.” I took off the bandana; I didn’t want this chapter—my hiatus chapter—to be titled “Aunt Jemima.” That wasn’t the chameleon color I went for, either. “College boy” was acceptable, as it was true (except that they meant it as a slam, viewing students as prissy and incompetent in their world of sawdust, diesel, Moose Lodge, kamikaze shots, and strip clubs), but either color—blue-collar badass or pink-IZOD-wearing college boy—was better than the grief-stricken, disillusioned guy I felt like.

***

That December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon in New York City. When the police arrived, he said his only statement was The Catcher in the Rye, and he had a copy on him. Apparently, Chapman didn’t like phonies. I listened to Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” as I loaded rebar, tread plate, and slabs of aluminum onto my flatbed International Harvester. It was about Lennon’s househusband years, but to me it meant staying the course—redshirt, drive a truck, sit out a year from school—despite society’s supposedly knowing smirk that I was really just another college dropout. Only I knew for sure that in some months, I’d return to school. Although I wasn’t exceptional, I was ambitious. When I said, “I’ll return to college to run and write,” I didn’t just intend to do it, but I would do it. I’d do it just as surely as I’d awaken the next morning, run an easy six-miler, drive across town, punch in, put in another mind-numbing day at the warehouse, punch out, stop at the Manzano High School track on the way home, climb the chain-link fence, and run an interval workout. Then I’d go home, open a can of Wolf Brand chili, and then hit the country-western bars. I wanted to stay busy and numb while I built myself up for my eventual return to Kansas.

      That was the year of Urban Cowboy, so on weekends I wore boots and jeans with a faded circle on the back pocket from my tin of dip. See? Now I was a stomper, not some skinny twenty-one-year-old grieving alone and improperly. I even killed a rattlesnake on one of my runs and made it into a hatband. The toughest cowboys rode bulls, so I squashed my hat so it looked as if a Brahma had trampled it. Then I wrapped my new snakeskin hatband around it. I also wore a huge belt buckle made of Indian Head nickels; the leather belt itself had my name on the back. Don’t laugh; it was very cool at the time and in that place. Dad gave me the belt for Christmas that year—the last Christmas gift he would ever give me, and the last gift at all he’d give me for the next thirty-seven years—along with a story about the prostitute who’d sold it to him. He dated her free of charge because she was a nymphomaniac and he was so satisfying. I was very impressed, and I had an excellent story to go along with my new belt.

      Now I was a stomper like those guys who harassed the martial artist in the McDonald’s parking lot when I was in high school. I wore that ho belt, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone shirt to the bars to waltz and two-step to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. I rode the mechanical bull because I should, I thought, and I should act as if I liked it, because that’s what everyone did at the time; at least they did in the world in which I found myself. I didn’t like the mechanical bull. I only did it once to say I’d done it, to experience another thing to write about later. Now I’m writing about it, but I’m not sure it was worth it. I was deluded as to the importance of the things I did. Nobody cared except me, and now I’m not sure that I even care. Overall, I could’ve skipped the crappy parts of my life and still be just as fine today, I think. Or maybe not. Probably the crappy parts forced me to grow, and I should be grateful for those as well, although it’s hard to feel grateful for crappiness unless I’m having a really good day.

      I didn’t know who I was aside from the performances I gave and the props I used, so it was difficult for me to be authentic. My self-esteem couldn’t withstand others seeing me as complicated as I felt: imperfect, vulnerable, and always less than I aspired to be. Although I loved some things about myself, I wasn’t compassionate with myself. I didn’t understand then that everyone struggled, not just me. I didn’t pull back far enough to understand others’ perspectives on life. I believed their chameleon colors, too, and compared myself with them too often. Then I didn’t accept that I was enough. I hadn’t yet sat for countless hours in my quiet psychotherapy office with people who had very similar issues, people who also thought they would always be alone and weird.

      A lot of my inauthenticity was just a fad in the early 1980s—tossing in a dash of the Southwest culture and my attempt to distract myself and try to be tougher so that I didn’t hurt so badly. Was I so horrible, so much more inauthentic than everybody else was? Maybe. Maybe not. We could call it my blue-collar-good-ol’-boy period if we’re being gracious or my Aunt Jemima act if we’re being snarky. The thing was, I saw it as immersing myself into a new world for a while. I was adventurous. It wasn’t all inauthentic and escaping myself; some of it was playing, method acting, reveling in a new culture, and being open-minded, rather than defensive holding back, aloofness, or chameleonism. Perhaps it was more Hunter S. Thompson and less Leonard Zelig.

***

A concept I like is called the “experiencing self.” We are a composite of all of our experiences. So we change; we morph into something else, preferably better than we were. As Sir Laurence Olivier said, “We have all, at one time or another, been performers, and many of us still are—politicians, playboys, cardinals and kings.” We look to other people as models to influence who we are becoming. As we go along our personal life’s journey, we should act without pretense or false airs. I don’t think I truly took on false airs—although I sometimes put on an air of arrogance that I meant as a parody of snooty people—but I could’ve done a better job of staying consistent and congruent in my personal beliefs, values, and actions, rather than sometimes appearing like a narcissist. Self-awareness is important, but I wasn’t there yet as a late adolescent. I didn’t weigh heavily enough the impact that my behavior had on others or myself. My self-esteem was so low that I couldn’t even imagine affecting another human being, positively or negatively. Only in retrospect do I know that I did, with mixed pride and regret.

      So take your pick: look inward and love yourself as you are in your core being, or look outward and learn and grow from events and positive role models. Common sense says that we should do some of both.

      Yee-haw.

***

I wrote a testimonial for the Christian Science Quarterly detailing my return home to heal Mom of cancer. I spun the story in a positive way, of course, the usual “she’s in a better place now,” which might’ve been true; I don’t know. At the time, I thought it was—I hoped it was. The editors passed on the article, which was no big surprise. That was my second professional rejection, in case you’re counting. I was. I understood, though. They wanted to inspire their readers the way I’d been inspired. They did not want to bum people out. Plus, they had to make their nut, keep their church going. The stories about a pillar of the church dying horribly after doing all that was asked of her were not good public relations or fund-raising material. Something inside me didn’t even expect them to accept it, so the rejection didn’t hurt. I just wanted to write it and send it to the Christian Scientists to witness, like a boy with a bloody scratch on his bicep, his fingers intertwined behind his head to show off the offense.

      I’d been exposed to the heavily vetted Christian Science success stories for twenty years, so I thought life was predictable and controllable. I overly blamed people for their own misfortune; they believed in Error and so had brought it on themselves. That included things like cancer. I liked that belief because it placed me at less risk, as I was one of the relatively few who knew the Truth. I should be grateful for those early years of comfort and innocence, except that I’ve always resented being lied to, and today I place a premium on honesty, even when I don’t want to hear bad news.

***

That spring, I drove the company truck to Los Alamos labs in a snowstorm. I remembered that a couple years earlier, Mom had advised me not to take a part-time job at a uranium mine. The liberal in her, squawking at the height of the Cold War, did not want me to have any culpability in the production of nukes. I just needed money for school and didn’t think much deeper than that. I wasn’t insensitive to nuclear risks, but when you are struggling to pay your bills, hypothetical end-of-world scenarios seem less pressing. Still, I passed on the mine job, more because the long commute would interfere with my running schedule than because of any moral issues.

      But that winter, she was dead. So I took a shortcut up a dirt road on my way to Los Alamos, where they developed and still produced scary-big bombs, and I got stuck in the mountainous wilderness. Karma? No, it was poor judgment, of course, and I was in danger. But I was far from panicked, because my legs had always gotten me out of trouble. So, with the choice of either freezing to death or running five miles back down the deserted mountain road in steel-toed boots in blizzard conditions…well, I ran. A ranger found me and pulled my truck out of the snowbank. Apparently, the irony of a teamster running down a mountain in a whiteout was interesting enough to get written up in the Lawrence Journal-World after I’d paid back my student loans and banked enough to return to school for my senior year.

      I arrived back in Lawrence on June 1, 1981, the one-year anniversary of Mom’s death. Of course, I don’t need to explain how I can remember a detail like that.

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