The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 69 Freezer Boy

     We moved to the northeast for Renni’s internship and rented an apartment in a New England-style home in Winooski, Vermont, a suburb of Burlington. Excited about the first snowfall, we sledded on a piece of cardboard because we didn’t want to miss the opportunity. We didn’t know so much snow before Halloween wasn’t unusual. It wouldn’t melt for another five months. They piled all the snow into a corner of the church parking lot across the street, and the icy mountain remained all winter. I even learned a new word: “windrow,” which the natives called the snow pushed to the sides of the road. We didn’t use that word in New Mexico. We used words like “tumbleweed” and “dust storm,” which weren’t necessary in Vermont.

     Renni spent most of her time at the hospital, and I isolated myself in my so-called “garret.” Didn’t Kafka write in a garret? I wanted to be Kafkaesque. Actually, it wasn’t exactly a garret, but a second floor, 550-square-foot apartment. A resident in psychiatry occupied the actual garret upstairs. But I liked to view myself as the mysterious writer in the old house across from the church. Perhaps children spied on me from the grassy knoll in nice weather, or from behind a snowy windrow the rest of the time, hoping to catch an eerie image as I passed a window. Maybe the only Trick-or-Treater I’d get would be a Marsden doppelgänger on Beggar’s Night. I fantasized that someday tours would wind up the stairs to our apartment. The English majors, voracious readers, agents, and editors on leaf peeping tours would detour to run their fingers across my battle-scarred desk and imagine me sitting there like a hologram. That’s what I did when I visited Mary Baker Eddy’s apartment in Lynn, Massachusetts where she wrote The Science and Health

     The average temperature in January that year was negative two degrees, which gave me a good excuse to remain indoors. The more socially isolated I became, the more I wanted to pull away even more. It fed on itself. These days I’d call it “negative reinforcement,” in that taking something away reinforced me, like a rat leaping off an electrified grid. Taking away social stress—real or imagined—caused my thoughts to run loops without anything to distract me other than the made-up world I wrote about. There wasn’t much external input to disconfirm whatever I imagined, no way for me to reality test against other human beings. I didn’t know anyone in Vermont with whom to measure myself, to quiet my fears, or to ground me. So, I ruminated: What were people from my past thinking about me? I obsessed: What were the locals thinking about me? My inner-voice screamed LOOK OUT they’ll judge you! I related to the protagonist from The Shining, the writer Jack Torrance. All work and no play makes Tim a dull boy. My isolated situation gave space for the old OCD to reassert itself. I thought it was an ideal situation, safe inside, writing, warm and alone, pretty much the exact opposite of my army situation when I was forced to join in groups—except it fueled my neuroticism. I assumed everything I thought was real, when in fact they were only real thoughts. So, when anyone asked if I got lonely I just shrugged and didn’t even try to explain how liberating it was not to have to put up with other people. Did they whisper to each other after I told them I was a so-called writer? Isn’t the logical follow-up question, “What have you published?” Did they conclude that calling myself a writer was just a euphemism for unemployed? Didn’t “writer” mean I was unsure if my car would start? In Vermont no one knew me as anyone other than a reclusive writer with zero publications—unless I counted that poem in high school, that race article that was heavily edited, or my master’s thesis (Leftovers Again), none of which I figured mattered much.

     Remember, in theory I understood that isolating a human could be torture, how one could go mad. But I liked it. My isolation wasn’t torture, and my “madness” was so subtle as to be confused as mere introversion. I was reinforced not to endure the judgment of others, plus I got to write all day again like I had in the Knick-Knack house with Gigi the agoraphobic cat. I wanted to place aluminum foil on the windows and hunker down inside.

     Finally, in September, I crawled out of my hole for three weeks to become a wild game meat-processer. I flew to Douglas, Wyoming, “Home of the Jackalope.” My relatives had a plant in Douglas called “Tom’s Wild Game Processing,” named after my cousin. Dad had recently retired as a brigadier general, one star. He worked as a distraction while in the midst of an ugly divorce from his second wife, who sometimes became suicidal and fired off guns inside the house in the same bedroom in which my mother had died thirteen years previously. So, for three weeks, Dad and I were “Freezer Boys.” We put antelope meat into the huge, scary cold, walk-in freezer. My goals were to experience the gore of the plant and connect with my father. But when it was slow Dad found things to do, like policing up the parking lot. If someone had to hire either Dad or me they should hire Dad, because he’d get the job done and then find more to stay busy, whereas I’d probably just get the job done and then sit around connecting with people. So, when Dad policed the parking lot again, I got to know my cousin better.

     Cousin Tommy was a sweet man who sometimes became psychotic, crashed cars, and generally concerned his elderly parents. But most of the time he was sane, and hunters brought their kills to us, the guts already pulled out on the prairie. Tommy taught me how to weigh the animal, skin it, wash it, butcher it, add a little lard for flavor into the portions we ground into hamburger, and make the rest into steaks. I guess the thing that freaked me out the most was when little boys, eight or ten years old, out on their first hunt, presented us with dead fawns. I greeted them in my orange hunting cap, gory jeans, and a full-length apron like Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Sometimes the boys’ fathers were apologetic. “I dunno why he wanted this ’un,” they said, pointing to a small body about the size of a Schnauzer. There was almost no meat and not enough horn or cape to mount. The boys smirked and looked down at their hands. 

     I didn’t know why those boys on their first antelope hunt killed the youngest, smallest, and most vulnerable of the beasts. I wasn’t a psychologist yet, and just thought that it was mean-spirited, something I might’ve done at their age, except I drew the line at grasshoppers tossed into barbeque coals. Now I wonder if the boys projected the loathed parts of themselves onto those fawns. Did they hate their own vulnerability so much they wanted to destroy it in other beings, feeling it would somehow raise themselves up? Or did they feel competitive towards the other youthful species, and killing them was their yearning to win their father’s admiration? Was that what I did when I slaughtered other boys in foot races? I don’t know, maybe it really was just mean, something society needs to identify sooner and intervene better, you know, make killing not so fun or necessary for them, or just encourage their fathers to listen to them.

      I wanted to help my cousin Tommy more than just listening to how he survived with paranoid schizophrenia. He said not to worry, that he was fine so long as he stayed on his meds and his parents remained vigorous. But the thing was, everyone aged, his dad died, and his mother grew feeble and had to lock away Tommy in long-term care. We need to find better psychotropic medication for people like Cousin Tommy. I experienced him as very authentic. Sure, he lost his mind every now and then, but when he was lucid he was just who he was, with no pretense, which I liked. I mean, here I was entering his world of fresh kills and meat, pretending to be like him, and then I flew back to my pseudo-writer’s life in Vermont. Tommy’s life became an anecdote to mine, and it made me wonder who was crazier, considering I returned to my isolation and neuroticism and decided to try out vegetarianism.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 68 Memorial Psychiatric Hospital

     Although I continuously coached the high-school track team, I took another teaching position, this time at Memorial Psychiatric Hospital. They needed an English teacher for the adolescents hospitalized for extended periods. The kids got inpatient treatment, but also went to in-hospital classes so they wouldn’t fall behind in school. I liked the idea of working in a psych hospital like Kesey had when he was inspired to write One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

     My job description was to inspire the kids to enjoy reading and writing; there was no curriculum other than what I imagined. My classes ranged from one to fourteen students. Frequently a psych tech interrupted my lessons to pull a patient out for therapy, or a nurse came to administer medication. It irritated me at first; what could be more important than great literature? But The Hobbit was too far up their hierarchy of needs at that point in their lives. Who needed Bilbo when they wasted away from anorexia, cut hash marks on the inside of their forearms, were infatuated with guns, ropes, pain pills, and played “The Fainting Game,” where they choked each other out for the euphoric rush?

     We had a population of gang bangers, addicts, depressives, and neurotics. I enjoyed working with those kids; it was more intimate than the large classes I had at Manzano High. With fewer students, I built closer relationships with the kids. Having a positive relationship with at least one caring adult made a big difference in their behavior. It was profound how little psychopathology manifested once they had a trusted person, a safe place, and a set schedule. In my practice today, I often see previously mentally healthy people who have reacted to social stressors and developed criteria for mental illness. I buildup the healthy part of the person, encourage environmental and social adjustments, and usually the person improves. Which makes me wonder: is it truly unreasonable to go “crazy” when placed in a dysfunctional or untenable environment? It seems not only unfair, but also dangerous, that sensitivity is punished and insensitivity is reinforced. I know plenty of insensitive people who seem just fine. I guess it’s the rest of us who aren’t fine with them.

     One gangbanger was a large, well-built sixteen-year-old boy. He had impulse control disorder, a crappy childhood, and an even worse environment. I’ll call him “Bibbit,” after the stuttering boy, Billy Bibbit, in Cuckoo’s Nest, which is ironic because he was opposite that. While he was still up on the locked unit, he attacked other patients whenever they said something critical of him in group. I understood how nice it’d be to smack our critics right in the puss; but something more reasonable in me understood that society had to tamp down the violence, or at least medicate those defensive and violent impulses. After the psychiatrist found a cocktail that sedated the boy enough to stop trying to kill people we integrated Bibbit into our classrooms. He slumped at his desk in a medicated stupor, eyelids half closed, a long strand of drool connecting his lower lip to his book. With more tweaks to his meds, his personality came forward, and Bibbit became a pleasant teen. He ran after the other kids during games of Ultimate Frisbee like an overgrown black lab puppy. But I wasn’t able to teach him much because he was still fairly snowed on meds, plus he had low intelligence, and on his most lucid day he read at the third-grade level. But he never disrupted my class. Oh, sure, the psych techs and nurses loitered outside my French door, but they weren’t necessary. See how psychotropic medication worked? See how a safe and nurturing environment helped? See how strong, multidisciplinary interventions and strong relationships helped?

     For two years the hospitalized kids passed through my classroom: The idle rich kids who decided to dabble in drugs and burglary; the gangbangers who were given a choice between a psych hospital or juvy; the depressed kids whose faces looked like smudged charcoal drawings; the neurotics who became overwhelmed when asked to read aloud in class, laid their heads on their desktops, and sobbed into the crooks of their arms. A few of the students were brilliant, and other than boredom and acting out inappropriately, they really didn’t need to be in the hospital at all. They needed to learn how to cope in a society that ran slower than their minds. I played chess with those kids, and taught them how to devour books instead of other people.

     There were almost no discipline problems in my classroom, but some chose not to behave, and others couldn’t help themselves. Usually it was the addicts and gangbangers who, once they got used to their new environment, either ran away or stirred up trouble. None of them believed they needed hospitalization. To them it was just a nicer jail, like Randal Patrick McMurphy thought. I had the power of the pen, and after each class, I rated each kid on a behavioral sheet. It was very effective because it influenced their privileges and discharge date.

     But I also had the power of our relationship. I discovered I had an aptitude to connect and earn our patients’ trust. All I had to do was sincerely listen and care, like being a bartender. It felt more authentic to me, less like a rigid chameleon like I had to be while teaching in public school. For many of those patients it was not only the first trusting student/teacher relationship they’d ever experienced, but the first trusting relationship with any adult. I enjoyed the emotional intimacy even more than teaching, and observing what psychologists did at the hospital made me want to become one too.

     The scores of students I came into contact with at Manzano and Memorial helped me put my own life in perspective. The poor kids from Manzano with so many overwhelmed and unconcerned parents, and the kids in the hospital with psychopathology and dysfunctional families and hostile environments, had bigger problems than buying the Cook’s Special letter jacket or never taking state in the two-mile. That didn’t mean that my problems didn’t matter; they certainly mattered to me. And I did indeed become more grateful of what I had and what I’d been through. There’d always been enough, and there’d always been loving concerned people in my life (not necessarily the people who should’ve been there, but you get what you get, right, and then someone unexpected often steps in: a coach, a teacher, a cross country team). I realized that I didn’t have to be the best at anything, just my best self with those kids, and always seek to actualize my potential. That’s what I told the kids. I’d become something of a mentor by then, which was odd for me because it was difficult for me to see myself as someone to give anyone advice. Sometimes it still is. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is pretty good advice.

     On my last day at Memorial there was an awards ceremony. I gave my English students pencils with pithy literary sayings on them. To my history students I gave camouflage pencils. At the end of the evening I received a standing ovation. It was a good ending—it felt like denouement to my teaching career—and I felt ready to move on to a new incarnation, preferably one that looked more like George Plimpton and less like Walter Mitty.

     I kept in touch with the math teacher. She said that after Bibbit was discharged, he returned to the ‘hood and went off his meds. A couple local gangsters raped his girlfriend, so Bibbit trolled until he found two guys on the sidewalk and beat them to death with a baseball bat. Turned out he killed the wrong two guys. Since he was eighteen by then, they sent him to the Santa Fe Penitentiary. Inadequately medicated, he attacked a convict, took the wrong end of a shiv, and died.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 67 The Goldilocks Contingency

     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…”

     Yes, she was still alive, still haunting me.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 66 Slush Puppy

     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 should be, 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.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 65 Coach

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.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 64 Mister

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.

      I didn’t tell the head coach what I saw.

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.