The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 63 Purse Snatcher

One week, when my writers’ group was meeting at the Frontier Restaurant on Central Avenue across from the university, through the glass door I saw a man run by in the ally. He was a purse snatcher. At the time, still being on a pink cloud from my release from the army, I figured we were all in this civil life together and should revel in not being in the army, find joy in our freedom, but behave ourselves within legal limits. I had such a good time as a graduate student that I was offended when crooks messed things up, like when my ten-speed Schwinn was stolen on campus not long before this event. Me? I wouldn’t even take a paper clip from the Kaplan Education Center office where Renni had gotten me a job. I had overcompensated regarding scrupulous honesty after my peak experience. So, I bolted after the purse snatcher. Although I was a broken runner, I was a runner nonetheless. Now, you’re probably asking yourself: What is this former distance runner going to do once he catches up to the thief? Burst out in tears? Scream like a Girl Scout?

      What I forgot to tell you was that I was a karate instructor by then. I was twenty-eight years old, and when I went to the dojo to sign up, the owner asked me why I wanted to learn karate; had I been bullied as a kid? I put on my patented puzzled expression. (I’m pretty good at that. I’m not bragging; I’m just saying.) Unlike my transparency with you, I only told him, “No, I’ve just always been interested in karate.” That was only partly true, like when I told my drill sergeant that I just wanted to serve my country. But I withheld the other true things, just as I did in basic training. I wanted to learn karate to be more confident in a dangerous world. I wanted to be able to hold off stompers in the McDonald’s parking lot. 

      My new confidence shifted me from victim to survivor and felt a whole lot better. My own instructor killed a man in a bar fight during the time that he instructed me. We weren’t allowed to ask him about it, though, because he felt so bad. He was one of the good guys. It was self-defense, not murder. I recommend martial arts if you’re a good guy. If you’re a bully, get therapy and gain some empathy. Daily, I put on my gi, tied my belt, and approached karate the same way I approached running and writing. I soon instructed the lower belts.

      This is all to say that when I caught up with the purse snatcher, I was prepared. But the thief gave up without a fight. The writers’ group members were irritated that I’d disrupted the group feedback. Then I had to testify before a grand jury. Turned out there was a handgun in the purse, and the whole damsel-in-distress thing was a charade. It was a drug deal gone sour, blah, blah, blah, and two weeks later on local news, I saw the purse snatcher getting beaten in front of a shop because he was still up to his old tricks.


Renni and I married. For our honeymoon, we backpacked across Europe. I imagined following in the footsteps of the Lost Generation expatriate writers I admired, like Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds. We sipped Nescafé at Parisian sidewalk cafes, wandered the streets and railroad yards, and never knew where we’d sleep each night. When we couldn’t find a youth hostel, we slept on the train, awoke in some other country, and then just started our day from there. I was stressed when I couldn’t communicate or was treated like an object by the locals; I was afraid they saw me as the self-centered American who didn’t bother to learn Spanish, French, German, or Greek before he came over. But I understood that I was the hand-gesturing foreigner. I may as well have been a ghost floating across those thirteen countries, the only emotional intimacy that month being with Renni. I learned how terribly dependent I am on language, more than most people are, I think, which is why I make my living doing talk therapy. Anyway, when we returned home, nobody cared to hear the story of our honeymoon. Although I was offended then, I understand today that nobody wants to hear about someone else’s vacation and look at the photos. So, I’ll spare you as well.


I was much less of a chameleon by this point because I was getting to better know my core self (i.e., level 1 in my Levels of Intimacy model, a modification of my colleague Marilyn Murray’s Circles of Intimacy). We should get to know ourselves as best we can: why we are the way we are, what motivates us, what we need versus what we want. That is our authentic self and our moral compass. It is who we were when we were born—innately lovable—before society and events molded us into who we have become. If I could know, accept, and love myself better, then my defensiveness—my various chameleon manifestations—wouldn’t feel necessary. When I married Renni, I placed her into my level 2, which is spouse or significant other. The natural boundary between people becomes blurred when we fall in love. But we can only know others’ thoughts and feelings to the degree that they put them into words and behavior. Our spouse should be the most transparent; the person we trust the most; the person we can count on, who knows us the best, and with whom we share ourselves the most, including our sexual lives. What are our spouse’s needs and wants? What motivates him or her? Our spouse is the person we choose to commit fully to. This commitment should make it safe to be authentic and vulnerable with our life partner. Commitment provides the bedrock on which to build a life together. M. Scott Peck wrote that infatuation is simply infatuation, but commitment is love. I happen to agree.

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