I am a licensed clinical psychologist practicing psychotherapy in Scottsdale, AZ for over 20 years. I also publish psychologically-themed books dealing with impression management (i.e., The Chameleon Complex) and distance running.
Rent was our greatest financial burden. So we left our dark and seedy and totally wonderful apartment off Central Avenue and lived in a series of houses around Albuquerque for free as house sitters for the next three years. I called our lifestyle “The Goldilocks Contingency” and tried to parlay the idea into a guidebook for house sitters. The proposal was turned down because the editor said it wasn’t a book-length idea. He was right. Really you just put an ad in your local newspaper and you’ll start getting calls to move into houses while the owners are away. We stayed for three months to a year in each house, maintained the property, plants, and pets, and the owners kept their homeowner’s insurance current and property safe. We didn’t get paid, and took care of our own utilities, so we bundled up in the winter and sweltered in the summer. We still lived a much higher standard of living than when we paid rent; we just had to be nomadic. The hassle of moving so often was offset by the excitement of living in another beautiful home for free. It’s an adventure when you can move everything you own into a one-car garage.
No longer teaching, I wrote. First, I phoned Ken Kesey. He and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead were partying when I called. That was exactly how I imagined an author’s lifestyle would be. I interviewed my literary hero about his latest book, Caverns. But I couldn’t publish the article. Twenty-four years later I published it online, but I’m not sure if that counts as a real publication. Publishing today has a much broader meaning than in 1991. I kept in mind that people who experienced the most pain grew the most. Remember, I was one of those people who turned rejection into motivation to perform better.
We got gigs in an elderly preacher’s house, a rocket scientist’s house, and finally in The Knick-Knack House. The owners of the Knick-Knack House were retired IRS agents who went annually to Guatemala for six months. It had dark, low ceilings, Guatemalan wooden antiques, and wrought iron bars. They also brought back candles, sculptures, and masks that appeared demonic. It was scary for me, but I didn’t tell anyone except Renni. She spent most of her time at school, so I was alone except for a black fourteen-year-old agoraphobic cat named Gigi. I caught glimpses of something in the shadowy corners and had to decide whether it was a phantasm, ghost, or the skittish cat. Gigi was too old and shy to be a good hunter, and as I wrote I heard scratching in the cupboards and walls. A metallic snap informed me that another rodent corpse awaited disposal, and was proof that evil spirits didn’t torment me but very material mice. I was relieved it wasn’t Murgatroyd, but felt bad about killing those mice. I justified it by the owners having set the mousetraps; I just followed orders, SS-style.
Sometimes strange men peered inside through the iron bars, and then pretended they had the wrong house when I answered the door. Other times they sat in a pickup truck across the street and waited. It must’ve frustrated them to see me still inside that fortress guarding all that Guatemalan loot. Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I spun around, but nobody peered through the window, only Gigi spied on me. I reminded myself that I was the interloper; she wanted me on the other side of those bars. Eventually I made peace with the old cat, and she curled on my chest while I watched Lobo basketball. I’m allergic to cats, but it seemed fairer to Gigi and not a terrible burden on me. So together we peeked out the kitchen window bars at the beefy men still in their pickup truck, fins circling.
When the homeowners returned with more masks and candles, I told them their neighbors had all been burgled but their stuff was OK. Gigi was fine too, just hiding somewhere. “Oh,” they said, “is she still…”
I pretended I was a real writer for that year I took off from teaching. See, even though I taught writing, I felt phony because I hadn’t published. If number of books sold out of a major New York publishing house was the measure of success, then I was a failure. When I tried to be the kind of writer I thought I shouldbe, I had lots of advice, but no pubs. I just regurgitated what I’d been taught, but added nothing original. That kind of writing advice dribbled out of me over the years. That was back when I was younger, of course, before I was worn down and eventually broken after decades of rejection. I simply wrote and submitted as my teachers taught me, what the books told me, what my writer’s group passed along. I took the advice given by people who actually had agents and editors, big-time publishers, won awards, gave creative writing seminars, taught writing classes in community colleges and universities, raised their eyebrows and smirked, smug with the mysteries of insider knowledge, and said things like “Oh, yes, she’s fah-bulous” and tossed in special words like “insipid” and “deconstruct.”
Published authors were elite to us slush pile dwellers. They were lead-pack runners. Us slush puppies just made ends meet. We mowed lawns, shoveled snow, babysat, washed dishes, bussed tables, and built ripraps—as we honed our writing skills. We tossed pizza dough into the air and let the floury disk spin on our fists, ushered in a four-screen theatre, cut metal in a warehouse, drove a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck around the Southwest, cleared their coach’s farmland to make a cross-country course, and bartended—and wrote when we could and shared our prose with other unpublished writers. We waited tables, served in the military, set tile, instructed karate, and filed at Kaplan Education Center. But we also, always, wrote, because we had to write. We lectured in required English classes at a rough high school, coached track, taught in a psych hospital, processed dead antelope at a wild game meat-processing plant, were test subjects at the VA hospital, and practiced psychotherapy—yet kept writing despite the cruel silence. We were the great writing mass who hoped to get plucked from anonymity into the elite air of publication. So we endured the English majors that sniffed, “Shakespeare didn’t really write those plays” and graduate students informed us, “The Bible isn’t all that well written.”
We endured disappointment year after year, and then decade after decade, yet remained in the slush pile. We wallowed in it and pretended we were almost real authors. We were just still in the poor suffering artist stage, the stage just before we got discovered. Every writer needed that stage, the one that tempered us, the stage we would one day look back upon nostalgically. There was something heroic about that, we told ourselves. The disinterest in our fiction could all end soon, as quickly as checking the mailbox. Yes, we’d always made our nut doing something other than writing. Still we called ourselves “writers,” arrogantly at first, as a noun, “writer,” and then shyly as a verb, “writing,” as the absurdity of it grew over the years, as in “I’m writing a novel but keeping my real job that totally blows but at least pays something.”
I didn’t want to be one more guy who talked big but couldn’t deliver. Those guys were so common. I couldn’t be an elite distance runner so I coached. I couldn’t publish so I taught teens trapped in my required high school English classes. I encouraged them to write for publication, yet I couldn’t publish.
Personally? I wanted to blame the agents and editors. I wanted to say they were too snooty and elitist on the one hand, too dumbed-down and populist on the other. I wanted to blame the monolithic publishing industry for publishing drivel instead of my stuff, but the fact that I just wasn’t good enough moldered underneath. So, what should I have done with the calling to be a novelist when I wasn’t good enough at it? Was I a one-legged man dreaming of winning the Olympic marathon? Was I destined to remain in the crowd, unwilling to leap onto the stage and be shrill, right or wrong but at least with a voice? Should I have given up writing and white knuckled against the press to express myself like fighting an addiction? It was commonsense to quit, right? Or should I have only written for myself? Should I have made a conscious effort to not care if my words went nowhere, or into the trash, or got stolen out of my car’s trunk? I read the names on the spines of books in the bookstores and libraries and thought, “Now they, they are writers. I’m still a poser; a sandwich quarter.” There was something cruel about being a writer but lacking the talent to publish. The same thing that had happened to my distance-running career played out in slow motion in my writing career: I stalled out in the chase pack. Looking back, I was still thinking too rigidly; not willing to drop out of the race, but not doing anything differently either. I was stuck, injuring myself again with my tenacity, but didn’t know how to go about fulfilling my writing dream any differently. The fact was, things were different in 1991, and society and I both had some changes to undergo before I could achieve my goals. Another fact was that despite everything, I hadn’t yet sunk beneath the waves, but still treaded water.
I hung in there because I felt as if my life seeped away when not writing. I needed to express myself. Not documenting my experience, even masked as fiction, made my life less relevant and without consequence. It felt like wasting my life. It was similar to psychology graduate school when they taught us, “If you don’t chart it then it didn’t happen.” Did I have to chart my life to ensure it happened? Writing somehow gave my life meaning.
I understood even then that writing should be enough, just self-expression, art; it shouldn’t be about power, money, publication, or attention. Still I not only wanted to write, but I wanted an audience to appreciate my art. If I were a painter I’d want a show; if I were a dancer I’d want a stage. If someone else said any of this I’d respond, “Of course! It’s normal not to want to melt away anonymously, without being known, back into oblivion.” Yet I label myself a low-grade narcissist. Sometimes I think I’m too hard on myself. I hope so anyway.
Although I considered teaching and coaching young minds as arguably the most important jobs in the world, I still felt a smidge phony because I wasn’t writing. Is that weird? Moving towards self-actualization and love seemed the most reasonable reasons for human existence, and teaching facilitated that for others, so wasn’t that what Maslow had in mind? But writing still felt like my personal path towards self-actualization, an even better way for me to help others. Over the years it remained an unremitting press; it was obvious that I wouldn’t age out of it. I figured that if a corporal could help a few people, didn’t a general have a platform to help far more people? To me published writers were generals.
Although I’m a long way from self-actualizing, I’m trying. Trying matters to a lot of people; when people don’t even try it’s sad to me. I see people who have given up. They’ve lost hope. They are drowning. I imagine they get up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say to their reflection, “I’m going to do as little as possible today.” I’ve known many people like this. Are they necessarily wrong to lack ambition? Are they lazy or just scared? They think they’re incapable. They think there’s no use for them. Are they enlightened or deluded? Personally, I understand, but I disagree. I have to disagree or be a fool. I put on my psychologist’s hat and say that overcoming fear and incompetence requires us to push into and then through the fear via baby steps and then keep doing it, you know, repetition. As your fear decreases your competence increases as you slowly move forward into your better life. You feel better. We call this “courage” and “perseverance.” We convince ourselves that it matters. I wanted to be courageous and to persevere with my writing as if it mattered.
I couldn’t merely talk about writing and other writers, I had to write, and I had to publish. I didn’t fully understand why, only that it was true for me.
Every afternoon I was on the infield with some of the best boys the school had. Both the head coach and I were new to the team, and we whipped it into a disciplined unit. Still, I looked up as airliners left soft white contrails in the azure New Mexican sky. How lucky those people were, I thought, to be heading somewhere else and not in charge of bellicose teenagers. True, I was more intense than my athletes were, but it felt important to me that they understood and learned to love distance running, to let it save them, too; they deserved to know. So, I had them do the hellish training that had worked for me. Oh, yeah, they resisted. I insisted. They complained, tried to hide on long runs. How could I get through to them?
So, I ran with them. We went on a six-miler, and as they strung out, I stayed back with the slowest runners. Then, after a couple miles, I ran ahead, boy to boy, like Tarzan swinging on vines, encouraging each boy until I caught our best runner, who’d been far ahead. His eyes grew wide when I suddenly come up on him, which I dug big-time. I didn’t gloat, though, because remember, I was mature by then, a so-called role model. I told him how impressed I was with him and then ran back to bolster the lagging kids. I wasn’t showing off; I was coaching. Really. I figured it would be helpful in terms of bonding if I went through the fire with them; it had bonded me to my distance-running brothers over the years.
Our oldest runner was a kid named Daniel, down from Tijeras Canyon, and the big brother of that kid who had challenged me on my first day, whom I later saw smoking in the parking lot. Daniel was the default leader and led the rebellion against me. He walked away from the team a couple times in protest of the effort I demanded, but the other boys wouldn’t follow him, so he always returned the next day. He didn’t know that I awoke some nights in sweaty nightmares of the next day’s assault. To put this in context: remember that kid with the overbite in the corner of the playground of Mark Twain Elementary? Remember the squinting boy who had his gym shorts pulled down while ineptly trying out for the junior-high basketball team? Remember the spacey, seventeen-year-old freshman at Kansas? That kid was now in charge of a bunch of other kids who had their fists balled up against him. I had to fake confidence, except it wasn’t all fake; other than controlling the boys, I knew what I was doing.
One afternoon, I took the boys up a nondescript hill in the Manzano Mountains. Daniel led the run, so I named it “Daniel’s Hill.” He began accepting the workouts, began leading and encouraging the younger runners, and before the season ended, I’d won his allegiance and made him the team captain. Each season after that—for the next five years—the team became more disciplined, successful, and joyous, and we always included runs up Daniel’s Hill. See, I, having been a little bit like Daniel myself, knew what he wanted: respect. But at eighteen, he didn’t know how to get it other than by screaming at authority.
Sometimes I had the runners stand in a circle on the infield, their backs to me as I stood in the middle. I touched a boy’s hand, which designated him as the secret breakout rabbit. The boys ran a predetermined pace together on the track until the rabbit made the expected move, but it was unknown when the move would occur. Even the junior varsity boys outran the better runners when they were first to make a strong move, to really commit. The lesson was to go for it, to put it out there, go all in, and sometimes it paid off. Try. You don’t have to win, and it’s OK to be afraid, but at least do your best.
The district gerrymandered the boundaries after I’d graduated from Eldorado High School, so my old house on Apache Street was now in the Manzano High district. One Manzano runner lived in my old bedroom. Remember, I’ve promised you this is all true as far as I know. But seriously, what were the odds? So, I asked that kid what my bedroom—his bedroom—looked like now. Was the cork to which I pinned my ribbons, medals, and track clippings still on the wall? Finally, I asked what I really wanted to know. “Does anything weird ever happen there?”
The boy only shrugged, being about as articulate with authority as I’d been at his age. Another runner to whom I was close started in about poltergeists. I interrupted and said it was all made-up stuff, it never happened. Ha, fished you good, Home Slice. Which, of course, was the real lie. I hated deceiving the kid, but I figured that it was better to live with the guilt of a lie than to allow the kid in my old bedroom to live with a poltergeist.
When the Gulf War geared up in 1990, I attended a protest rally down at the university. Remember, I’d missed the Vietnam protests twenty years earlier, but with history repeating itself, I had another chance. Yes, of course, I wore my army field jacket and faded blue jeans to the rally; I was supposed to be a disillusioned-vet-turned-war-protester like Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July. The indignant students, mostly undergrads, were away from home for the first time, trying to be a part of something meaningful and good, trying to prevent an atrocity. But as the speakers onstage ranted, I turned my back to them and observed the crowd; even then, the unrealized shrink in me was more interested in people’s reaction to events than in the events themselves.
Since my peak experience, I didn’t want to kill a communist or any living thing. I even had a bumper sticker that read, “Visualize Whirled Peas.” I felt as if I should leap onstage and do some sort of Abby Hoffman impression. That’d be interesting to write about now, especially considering that Dad had retired at brigadier general, one star, a very big deal, and yeah, still ironic. But the thing was, the more I thought about what I’d rant about onstage, the more I realized that I didn’t want that kind of attention, that those days were over for me. My world had become too complicated, and I very responsible. I realized that my time had passed. To me, onstage meant teaching, not attention seeking. The activists were shrill, and chanting, “No blood for oil!” seemed overly cynical and simplistic. Had I grown too old by my early thirties? Could I not be trusted? The whole scene had the whiff of parody circa 1970. Global and Middle Eastern politics were complex dilemmas. So, I was conflicted: I marveled at the miracle of life and had figured out that love made the most sense, but what do we do when sociopaths and megalomaniacs rule nations? What about the lives we defended? What about freedom? Why had I served? What did I hope for my students, and how do we ensure they at least have choices? I was glad that I wasn’t in charge of the country and so didn’t have to take that responsibility. Jumping onstage would be like catching a drug dealer who’d snatched a purse from a woman who wouldn’t pay him; all I’d be doing was supporting one questionable interest over another. Teaching and coaching teens was enough responsibility for me at the time, so I just went home, prepared my lesson plan for the next day, and worried if, at long last, I’d become a “sellout bitch.”
You’re probably thinking that by “sellout,” I meant that I didn’t leap onto the stage. No. I meant that my same old problem of earning a living and not having enough time to write had reemerged. I trained my runners to break out of the pack and commit, so was I a hypocrite not to write? Writers write, right? We’ll never publish unless we submit our writing, right? That’s what my professors had told me. That’s what I told my students. The platitudes rattled around in my mind as I tried to interest teenagers in A Tale of Two Cities while my own stories remained unwritten.
OK, somehow, I made it through the school year. I wanted to quit every day, but I was determined to finish the year, as I’d signed a contract and didn’t want to desert the kids. But just between us, I was so done with teaching. In fact, when I was offered a position at a different high school, I turned it down, telling the principal that I’d only be doing it for the money. Mom’s teaching-way still didn’t work for me, just as Dad’s military-way hadn’t. Sure, the teaching and integrity parts made sense, but herding unmotivated teenagers? Not so much. It was ignorant of me to be so disappointed that the kids didn’t feel the same as I did about reading and writing, and they weren’t shy about letting me know. I inspired some, I suppose, but not enough. Most just got through my mandated classes and didn’t soar into other worlds or discover the joy of self-expression via creative writing. For the record, I write this with sadness. I did my best as an overwhelmed neophyte teacher, but I wish I had done more and better.
I figured I’d rather be poor than unhappy, a wanderer than a hypocrite, so I took a year off to write, and Renni and I became house sitters. Try to admire me as a risk-taker, not as an irresponsible husband. Renni went to medical school all day and studied late every night, and I wrote all day and coached track every afternoon for an average rate of fifty cents an hour. At my last track banquet, the boys gave me a copy of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner signed by every boy on the team. So, yeah, they got it. Like I said: the best the school had to offer.
Daniel came back from the marines to visit. His younger brother, who liked to play gangster with new teachers, smoke in the parking lot, and whom I never narced out, died in a car wreck. It’s difficult to know when to be strict and when to grant grace. Now I wonder if I would’ve truly saved a boy’s life if I had kicked him off the team.
In multicultural teacher training, they told us that if we wanted professional status, then we must dress professionally. Too many teachers wore tennis shoes, blue jeans, and T-shirts and then complained about low pay and lack of respect. I thought it shouldn’t matter; an effective teacher’s an effective teacher. Now I know that we absolutely do judge each other by appearances. People who claim to be totally nonjudgmental aren’t very psychologically savvy. Perhaps they are overly idealistic and like to think of themselves as someone who would walk into a maximum-security prison and see only strangers who are not yet friends. I’m not saying to be racist or intolerant or unloving; I am saying be careful until you know who you’re dealing with. But I like that we aspire to loftier ideals. The thing is, being able to predict danger from a person’s appearance is helpful until we know how he or she plans to treat us; it’s evolutionarily adaptive, albeit defensive and politically incorrect. We should judge each other on initial appearances to determine who’s safe or who’ll club us over the head. Humans acting like predators is common, even when the manifestation is to seek money, sex, social status, and a myriad other personal goals. In the meantime, we can all get indignant about stereotyping each other. I think we should pay attention when our “Spidey sense” tingles, and only let down our guard as the other person proves him- or herself safe. It’s an evolutionary fact that human beings are not only predators but mammals that either want something from us or have little concern for us, in general, because there are so many of us. Of course, it helps to have an extroverted approach if you wish to connect to more people. To be clear, I am wholeheartedly for all seven billion of us currently alive to practice peace, love, and understanding, but until we can get everyone on the same page, I recommend a balance between openness and defensiveness; I’m suggesting commonsense ways to stay safe as we connect to safe others and satisfy our emotional intimacy needs.
I wanted to look like a competent, conservative teacher to whom parents could entrust their children’s education, and I wanted the kids to see me as an authority figure, even though inside I still felt a bit like Timmy Two-Mile when I was surrounded by all those teens. So, to better fake confidence, I spent a couple hundred bucks at Kmart on an entirely new wardrobe. Which meant that I looked the part of an educator. I even wore psychedelic neckties, which meant that I’d joined the game but still had hippie passion.
On my first day at Manzano High School, three gangsters—sophomore boys—cornered me in the gym lobby. They talked tough, acting like Ramon and me in junior high. By then I knew to show no fear, but I hoped they were bright enough to consider the consequences if they escalated the confrontation. I’d changed a lot since I got jumped outside the Circle K by the tenth-grade freaks; I wasn’t some skinny freshman lost in his Cook’s Special letter jacket any longer (I reminded myself). If it were another choice between fight, flight, or freeze, I would not run or freeze this time. So, I acted authoritative until the gangsters figured out that I wasn’t a victim and did their best “I am somebody” swagger away. One dropped a candy wrapper to test me. I told him to pick it up. He sheepishly did, and he looked like a boy again, someone’s out-of-control son and not a gangster at all. For me, it became sort of a Circle K do-over. I know it sounds petty, but please keep in mind that the only thing anybody saw was me acting professionally and confident. Now I think of those boys as my Manzano High School welcoming committee, as there was no other.
As a cinephile, I was influenced by those movies where an idealistic young teacher inspired gangsters and poverty-stricken kids to overachieve. They won academic decathlons and state championships. In reality, there were repetitive days of student and administrative apathy, and I struggled to keep my classes from disintegrating into mob rule; the kids wanted to sit on the seat backs and wobble down the aisles.
My classroom was in a steel barrack behind the gym, on the other side of campus from the art room where Mom had taught. Remember, I was trying Mom’s way—except for the religious fanaticism—and was finally on her bus and sitting politely in my seat. No, now I was the bus driver, and I wanted to bond with my students, to have them say that I’d inspired them or even saved their lives. But too many kids saw no reason to read The Catcher in the Rye, and I impotently watched them run toward the figurative cliff, the same cliff that I’d run headlong toward at their age. When I turned my back, chalk was thrown at me. One failing boy threatened to “off” me. (This was before Columbine, so I ignored it.) I was strict, I admit it, but my parents in the 1960s, my teachers in the 1970s, and the NCOs in the 1980s had been strict with me. It was stressful to be in the center of chaos and the object of disrespect; it was weird to be the authority. In this new environment, I became a rigid chameleon, a corporal again, which wasn’t the manifestation I’d envisioned or wanted, but it felt necessary to control my classroom and to survive the year. Even though I was a thirty-year-old, six-foot-one, one-hundred-seventy-pound, male infantry veteran and karate instructor, fight-or-flight kicked in daily. Some belligerent boy would stand too close to me with squinty eyes and a frown, and I felt the blood rush to my arms and legs as I prepared to defend myself from a physical attack—which never occurred, but still, c’mon! Who does that to a teacher? How tough did I have to be to control a high-school classroom? No wonder Mom came home from Manzano unappreciative of the sight of me. But the kids didn’t even see me; they just saw the Man. How ironic that they treated me like someone to rebel against. Truthfully, I wanted to join in their rebellion, but a larger part of me wanted to guide them through the chaos and help them discover the wonder of books. They called me “Mister” or “Coach” (because I also coached the cross-country and track teams) as well as some less appropriate things—“asshole” springs to mind. One boy used that term after I’d tossed out his pack of cigarettes. Then I tossed him out of my class just as that junior-high math teacher did me after I challenged her for calling me out for staring at that fox’s upper butt crack. Who was I becoming? In a bizarre way, I didn’t even totally blame the kids; it was the school’s culture. You get into an environment, and then everybody just acts the same. I saw Timmy Two-Mile in their faces and felt bad that gangs controlled certain hallways. It reminded me of the Freak Wall at Eldorado, except they weren’t just freaks but real gangsters, and they didn’t carry just knives but handguns. Even one of my distance runners was expelled for bringing a pistol to school. He was scared. I was disappointed, sure, but I understood. Boy, did I understand.
Then the English department prepared to vote on a new department head. The incumbent lobbied to disallow new teachers’ votes because we’d been hired to catch the census overflow and might not be rehired the following school year. There were already enough people trying to shut me up. Remember, this was on the near edge of the Cold War. Communist repression had been a daily threat to me just a couple years earlier in the army, where they’d trained me to kill those who wished to take away my voice. Add to that the military censorship and oppression I’d experienced, and no, I didn’t vote for the incumbent department head. I’d originally planned to, but after her skullduggery, I voted for her opponent, who then won. I’m sneering, not because I’m heartless, but because there are some things worth standing up for; our voices are one of them. Bullies and those who abuse try to keep their victims quiet, of course. Me? I just squawked louder and hit back harder.
Then the principal was trampled during a student melee. My teaching idealism crumbled just a little bit more, along with the Berlin Wall, and then it was winter break. It bummed me that yet another career wasn’t working out. Daily, I ate a sad-sack lunch in my road-hazard 1978 Chevette that had 130,000 miles on it and brakes that I had to pump in order to stop. I listened to R. E. M.’s “Stand” and dreaded the second half of the day—the rowdier fourth and fifth periods and then an unruly track team. Across the parking lot, a boy who ran cross-country smoked a cig. He was one of those three wannabe gangsters who tried to intimidate me on my first day. The head track coach removed boys from the team who were caught using alcohol or drugs. Man, I could really get payback; it certainly occurred to me. But the thing was, I was conflicted about narcing him out. If I’d been caught pulling some of my crap at Eldorado and then kicked off the team, my life would’ve played out differently, way worse differently. I wanted to grant the kid grace the way others had granted grace to me. I wanted distance running to save him.
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.
One student wrote, “This isn’t fiction,” on a chapter of Leftovers Again that I submitted to the class. Actually, it was, but it shattered me, as if I’d been caught telling the truth when I was supposed to be fabricating. But it was also true that sometimes it was difficult for me to distinguish the boundary between made-up stuff and pulling from my own experience—not in a psychotic way, but in a fiction-writer’s way. My professors told me to write what I knew, but too often it came off as disguised autobiography. I know it’s not just me; I’ve read plenty of memoirs presented as novels to protect the guilty and innocent. It’s when novels (chameleons) are labeled as memoirs (authentic) that people get pissy. I think in books and in so-called real life, people want a clear line between fact and fiction, which is, of course, not always that simple, especially when humor is involved. Where does humor fit into our lives, into our need to palliate our pain with a comical spin? In our pursuit of authenticity, do we still get to indulge in humor? Back then, I wanted to be known as a very humorous guy. Of course, people need to understand your humor and then think it’s funny. Sometimes it will hurt when they don’t get it or don’t appreciate it. Sometimes they will roll their eyes and accuse you of histrionics, hyperbole, or even lying. Sometimes instead of admiring you, they will think that you are mean or a jerk, when beneath your act, you know that you’re a pretty nice guy who just wants to be liked and respected. You certainly didn’t intend to irritate or turn off others. By “you,” I mean me.
Please keep in mind that all of this occurred before I became a psychologist. It’d be even more difficult today to tease apart so-called fiction from the deeper and sometimes subconscious motivations of the writer. Can we produce any fiction from a personal psychological vacuum? No, we still must pull from our own knowledge base. Can pure fiction even exist? Again, no. Wouldn’t it be better to call fiction “metaphor springing from our own consciousness, subconscious, and even our own unconscious?” Isn’t everything that emerges from us coming from an authentic place at some level, and isn’t it our job to recognize it in ourselves and, depending on how much we care, recognize it in others? And if you want to get spiritual about it, isn’t all matter and all action simply a metaphor for unseen things? These are the kinds of things I wonder about. But I’m OK with calling it “fiction” as everybody else does. What I’m really saying is that even when I was a chameleon, my colors weren’t pure fiction but shades of something deeper in me that I had determined would better meet my needs. I was deluded, of course, but not unusual.
Now I write the truth and have to challenge myself to omit the fiction, to omit the impression management. Suppose I misremember? We all forget and distort things. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Suppose I’m ashamed and wish to hide? From which angle shall I relate a memory? Which memory do I choose to share? To not share? If I don’t share a memory, is it a lie by omission? If this book is kept to an unintimidating four hundred pages or fewer, am I then disingenuous by omission? Obviously, I can’t tell everything; I must cherry-pick. Plus, you may have noticed a decidedly PG-13 approach to this book. What about my dating history, the possibilities for a single male in the posthippie/pre-AIDS era? Quite frankly, I appreciate the girls and women who gave me a chance, and although I’d be willing to embarrass myself, I certainly don’t wish to embarrass any of them, least of all my wife. We decide what our boundaries are, and I keep my dating history and my sexuality between my wife and myself.
No matter how I tell a story, there will be a point of view. Someone will remember things differently and call me a liar at worst, a fiction writer at best. Now I’m leery that someone will say, “This isn’t memoir, it’s fiction!” I think my confusion over where to set the boundary between fiction and memoir in my life was reflected in my novels.
Another student said my protagonist “whined.” That stung me even worse. I identified with the protagonist—the guy who psychosomaticized Huntington’s disease—and if my protagonist whined, then I supposed I whined, too. Remember, whining was not allowed in my family of origin; complaints went unheeded and the stuff of suffering was not even acknowledged as possible in our world view. So, I wrote my truth but disguised it as fiction. Only my protagonist whined, not me. I was still bummed, though; I still hadn’t learned that speaking my truth was good enough despite the critics.
I hysterically overreacted on my rewrites and made my protagonist “whine” less. But it only made him less sympathetic, less transparent or emotional. It prevented the reader from connecting and identifying with him, just as people who are less transparent and emotional in real life are less sympathetic or relatable. To clarify, I’m not talking about whining but about sharing our pain and struggles with safe, nonjudgmental people and celebrating our successes together.
We all play roles, depending on our duties at the time. Sometimes I call it wearing a hat, like when I go to work and wear my psychologist’s “hat.” But sometimes people become stuck in a role or color. Rigid chameleons remain one color even when it is appropriate to expand their role or move into a different role. Like the soldier who will not take off his uniform for a party, a rigid chameleon won’t be vulnerable and authentic even when it’s safe. Then his emotional intimacy needs aren’t met (and neither are ours in regard to him). He often feels lonely and defective, anxious, unloved, and depressed, but safe, like I was as an army corporal. Sometimes emotional safety is just not worth it when it means withering alone. By “alone” I mean nobody truly knowing us and accepting who we are.
Usually the people we think of as chameleons are the overly flexible kind. They morph into different colors too readily. They are too quick to change roles and masks, too quick to change personal boundaries to please others, and inattentive to their own moral compass and values. When we observe them over time and across different people, we note how phonily they behave. We feel deceived and react with anger or disgust. They cannot be fully trusted, and trust is the most important factor in relationships in general and for emotional intimacy in particular.
Some of the loneliest people I’ve met are chameleons, either rigid or flexible. They often have many friends and can even be popular, but the friendships are superficial, and so they are not deeply known. They feel lonely in a sea of humanity. They are often married, but even their spouses barely know them. The spouse is lonely as well because of the lack of connection with the chameleon. Sometimes the spouse sends the chameleon to talk to me. Some of the least lonely people have just one person in the world who knows them well and accepts them as they are. The more we defend against others’ judgment or overly seek to please others at the expense of our integrity, the more emotionally isolated we become.
We all began life tiny and helpless. We were nurtured into adulthood and gradually programmed to either increase our strength or disallow it. Almost everybody, regardless of age and size, sometimes feels small and inadequate because of the lingering feeling of being tiny and helpless. Because we feel it, we believe it. That’s emotional reasoning, and it can be very distorted. Many people say, “Trust your gut,” and that is very often good advice, but it’s also often bad advice. The feeling is real, but the thought attached to it is distorted. We should accept the feeling and challenge the thought. When we hide our feelings, thoughts, and past behavior, we cultivate shame. We then act like chameleons to fool everyone; we wish to convince them that we are not people to be rejected. To embrace what is real makes us vulnerable, but it’s intimate and endearing because we all feel it to varying degrees. It unites us and bonds us, which is a basic need.
My writing was a metaphor for how I ran my life during different chameleon manifestations. Sometimes, when I felt safe enough, I was intense, personal, and intimate—for example, in a letter to a loved one or a close buddy—which could be quite engaging. Other times, I changed to a color that I thought was preferred by the recipients, for example, writing for agents or editors, but was, in the final draft, too heavily edited, common, and boring. Sometimes I overwrote my prose to sound intelligent but, in retrospect, was pretentious and inauthentic. Sometimes I wrote psychedelic like my writing heroes—except I wasn’t a beat or a hippie. Sometimes I wrote outrageous and gonzo and angry, vibrant orange, but I wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson. Despite everything I’m telling you about the Chameleon Complex, as a young man I didn’t know it applied not only to how I presented myself personally but also to how I presented my writing, an extension of myself. Although I always worked to improve, my writing was academic and derivative, and I hadn’t yet gained the insight that readers wanted authenticity. This fact was always right in front of my face, both in my personal and writing lives, but in my late twenties, I hadn’t yet recognized it. It’s odd how things can be so obvious once we are aware of them, yet so obscure before awareness. All I knew at the time was that I needed to connect to other people and that I needed to write, because when I didn’t do those things I felt empty, alone, and purposeless.
I took a creative-writing class from Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless me, Ultima. He was a writing god at the university. It was like meeting Jim Ryun or someone I’d read about, and then there he was in front of me in 3-D skin.
I needed to get over this hero-worship thing; it wasn’t very grounded and seemed a bit borderline and histrionic. Poor boundaries. The thing was, I liked getting close to musicians as they played, athletes as they performed, and published writers as they spoke. I didn’t mean it in a stalking way, like Kathy Bates in Misery, but they modeled the possibility to me; I observed them and then did my best to imitate them, the whole social-learning-theory construct.
Professor Anaya wouldn’t remember the graduate student who wore camouflage pants to class. It was a long time ago, plus he’s now eighty years old. I just wanted credit for having done the hard time in the infantry and milk it some, perhaps get a bit of recognition for those hellish two years when I wasn’t allowed to be myself. A thin tail of hair, a “rattail” that I grew to a braided six inches, was stylish during my first round of grad school, at least on the liberal university campus. My look was also my nod to the war-protesting Vietnam vets who had preceded me. It was a stark contrast to the dress blues and high-and-tight I’d worn just months earlier. I wasn’t a hypocrite just because I didn’t walk around stiffly with a flat affect and bristly hair. Why wouldn’t I change? But, yeah, it was an act and inauthentic. Still, maybe my malleability was actually strength. We know that rigid thinkers have more problems in life than flexible thinkers, especially when stressors occur. They are like a tree that breaks in a strong wind or a runner who should drop out of a footrace but won’t. We also know that flexible thinkers can be too flexible—spineless—and lack moral and ethical bedrock, which also causes problems, such as allowing others to determine what you write, the way your creativity is expressed, what your voice sounds like, what your opinion is, what you share of yourself, and even what you think. Again, it looks as if it comes back to the normal curve, and the key is to stay in the fat part of it—to remain balanced.
On the first day of class, I suggested that each student share his or her personal backstory. It was cheeky of me, of course. Who was I to suggest a class modification at all, let alone to a professor who was also a highly respected author? Was I a presumptuous dickweed? Remember that I played the future-author role; I acted as-if. Even Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I pretended to be an undiscovered Kurt Vonnegut or Rudolfo Anaya.
And so it goes, Ultima.
Although I saw Professor Anaya as way above me, I envisioned that one day, we’d be peers. Naturally, I didn’t say this aloud; I was OK with being a presumptuous dickweed, but I did not wish to be a pompous blowhard. No, people just saw me buying another ream of paper to hold the words that everybody except me recognized as scat. I was tenacious even when everyone else saw some guy covered in grout, who, for some inexplicable reason, requested intimacy in the classroom.
But Professor Anaya said OK. I gave him full credit for that. He could’ve said, “I think not” and then ignored me. Maybe he should’ve. Then I could’ve been all narcissistically wounded and thought mean things about him forever. But no, he agreed, which made him even more of a stud in my eyes—if you should even characterize a writer as a stud, which I do. At the beginning of each class, the person whose turn it was to read his or her short story aloud first gave a brief autobiography. We became a family of writers all pulling together, not a room full of critics and competitors (which, now that I think about it, was probably more about how I approached class than how my classmates approached it). After all, we all wrote naked, streaking through the reams of paper, and it felt safer to me rather than smirking at each other’s puny efforts, safer because we’d have a relationship.
See, when I got interested in a piece of writing, I also became interested in the author. I liked knowing the precedent that produced the writing. Yet again, it was the latent psychologist in me, I surmise. Today, I prefer to learn my clients’ histories, too. I like to place their current struggles in context. Neither people nor writing spring into the present out of a vacuum, so it’s my preference to know the history of psychotherapy clients and works of art. I can do psychotherapy just dealing with the here-and-now, and I can experience art and let it rise or fall on its own merits. I’m not arguing against that point of view—in fact, I like it, in theory—I’m only stating that my preference is to know the pathology and the history, the art and the artist’s backstory. People can try to talk me out of it, and I’ll listen—I’ll even nod, apparently appreciative of the unsolicited advice—but it’s still my preference.
I’m not unaware that J. D. Salinger refused to do book tours and other publicity events. He thought an author should only be known through his or her work. The thing was, I loved The Catcher in the Rye, but I loved it even more knowing Salinger’s personal history. Oh, and he and I were both infantry veterans who hated phoniness, which made me enjoy his prose even more.
Which segues me back to John Lennon, who is forever connected in the most heinous way to Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. Lennon’s assassin had a copy of the novel on him when he was arrested. He accused Lennon of being a phony similar to the ones against whom protagonist Holden Caulfield railed, and if you’re crazy enough, you might even murder someone over it. In some ways, Lennon was indeed a phony. I read an excellent biography about his violence, philandering, and addictions that are in stark contrast to his art. Some of his music could be viewed as phony compared with how he ran his private life. Do you suppose he was a chameleon, too, or merely a hypocrite? Sometimes it’s better not to know someone’s personal story if it detracts from his or her art. In that respect, maybe the private people and rigid chameleons got it right. Bill Cosby used to be funnier.
When it finally came my turn to read in Professor Anaya’s class, I was the only one not asked to give my personal history. Was that a class-wide, passive-aggressive message for me to keep my curiosity to myself or a final lesson from my esteemed professor? Did I just slip through the cracks? Did I have to write this book to make up for that slight? Sometimes I worried that I was so nondescript, so fat-part-of-the-normal-curve average, landing in neither tail, that I was overlooked for both the good things and the bad things I did, which meant getting neither credit nor punishment. Society was indifferent to me. I got lost in the crowd. I didn’t recognize at the time that I really was like everyone else; the difference was that I was just more offended. I had unreasonable expectations of what others’ level of interest in me should be, or how far into the right tail of the curve I was capable of going.
At the time, I just sat stunned. I didn’t remind Professor Anaya that I hadn’t yet told my story, even though it was my idea. Why did my life have to be ironic so often? How much of this dynamic did I create versus how much was just the way the world was? Perhaps I just needed to understand, accept, and be less offended by it. Was synchronicity, society, or just life in general teaching me hard lessons?
I was still too naïve to realize that that was my life’s core issue: I was the one who feels overlooked and then gets pissy about it. I remained quiet because it’d sound too much like whining if I spoke up—too narcissistic—a couple of things that I really wanted to work on. Where should ego end and acceptance begin?