The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 55 Flawless

I was bummed because I wouldn’t see combat. I served during the Reagan years, when there were no conflicts. You’d think that’d be a good thing, but not for me. I later met a police officer in Palo Alto, California. When I asked him how great it was to be a cop in such a calm, wealthy town, he said, “Sucks, man. No action.” See, he was a cop because he wanted to catch bad guys, and I became an infantryman because I wanted to go to war. Of course, today I understand the insanity of my yearning. I had something to prove to myself regarding my masculinity; I still wanted the combat anecdotes, plus I still had some magical thinking, believing that nothing bad could happen to me. But even if there’d been a hot conflict instead of merely a Cold War, it was unlikely that I’d see combat. 

      You see, while in basic training, recruiters approached me to change my orders from West Germany to the Old Guard at Fort Myer, Virginia. Recall that when I was a road racer, I’d lived just a few blocks from the fort and was impressed by the soldiers. So I changed my orders. Someone had to bury the fallen warriors, and if they were buried in Arlington National Cemetery, then I might’ve done it. As a member of the Presidential Honor Guard, my job was to present a good impression of the United States. At the Tomb of the Unknowns, tourists watched from behind velvet ropes as we marched up the white marble steps and presented arms as some bigwig laid a wreath. Blue-pressed and perfect, we were chosen because we were the brightest tall, thin infantry soldiers at the time, and we appeared homogeneously neat and fit. We functioned as a single entity, flawless in our appearance, with impeccably timed and choreographed routines. It was the opposite of the unique individual I’d struggled to be for most of my life, so yeah, another irony. Personalities and personal desires were set aside for uniformity. It was overt impression management taken to an absurd extreme. Still, for me to be a part of something larger than myself, excellent and observed, was cool for…like, two months. Even at the time, I saw value in what I did; it was just that I thought I had more to offer than being a cog in a company- or battalion-sized slick machine. I’d become exactly what my running and writing heroes resisted.


I began to stand out again when I resumed winning road races around Northern Virginia. Afterward, I showed my trophies to my commanding officer as self-promotion. My captain was impressed and called company formations to present those trophies back to me. The troops began to resent these unnecessary formations, and I endured yet another round of ostracism—number four if you’re counting my early home life, the “Pigeth” episode, the “Colorado Six-Pack” fiasco, and now the army SNAFU.

      And there it was; a clear pattern had emerged by the time I was twenty-five years old. My reaction to my woundedness—whether it was my snarky mouth or my addict-like drive to win races—alienated groups of people from me. My anxious style of attachment made me fear that I couldn’t trust people to be there for me, so I defended myself by pushing them away, and then the thing I feared the most—social ostracism—manifested, and the cycle continued.

      I made rank quickly, but inside I felt turmoil. I was so bored, standing around and waiting, which was mostly what the army wanted from me. But Maslow’s press toward self-actualization was a stronger drive for me than fitting in was. I habitually sought a balance between individualism and joining with the collective, but the army didn’t care about me as an individual; it only wanted me to fit into the mission goal. At the time, it just felt like oppression that I couldn’t escape, or they’d send me to Fort Leavenworth Penitentiary. Sometimes I needed to be alone to regroup and take a breath. I needed to get away from the other soldiers. But that wasn’t the way it was done in the infantry; it was just the opposite. It was all about teamwork, which, as you can imagine, was especially challenging for me, having been raised to think that it was every dog for himself and having specialized in the solitary pursuits of distance running, reading, and writing.

      But yeah, I figured that too much uniformity wasted my life, except when we did funerals in “the boneyard.” Eight of us, all identical, walked beside a casket set upon an exact replica of the caisson that carried JFK’s body. It reminded me of my own mortality and how badly I needed to get on with my life. I felt stalled out. I was conflicted; I was proud to do what we did, but all the inefficiency stressed me out. I just wanted out of their army. It made me wonder about people who worked civilian jobs that they hated but wouldn’t quit. They are scared to change, whereas I’ve always been more afraid of wasting my life than switching jobs.

      When I carried my first casket that contained a corpse, I was shocked by the added heft. We trained with empty, government-issue, silver caskets on the back porch of our barrack, so to move from the mock-up to the real thing was profound for me. Am I too ghoulish? I’m starting to worry. I prefer to think of myself as very existential. All I’m saying is that the first few times I felt the weight of dead human meat, it unsettled me. Still, you would’ve only seen me standing still as a robot, waiting to run the next program.

      Adding to my angst was that I didn’t have enough time to run. The training necessary to be a subelite distance runner was incongruent with military life. I missed weeks of training when I humped the bush, aggressing the 82nd Airborne in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We orienteered and did other tasks to earn our EIBs, expert infantryman’s badges. I didn’t earn my EIB, which was a big deal to me at the time. But what we all coveted was a CIB, a combat infantryman’s badge. Only one man in our entire company had a CIB. He’d fought in Granada, and although he was only a corporal, he had mad respect—exactly what I wanted.

      Today I wonder what it’d be like if I’d earned all the medals and badges I’d wanted, even a CIB. I’ve concluded that nothing would be different. In thirty years, nobody has ever asked about accolades from my service, which military schools I attended, or what my experience was like. I wanted to impress everyone, but in retrospect, I see that we only impressed other soldiers: EIB, a Ranger tab, Air Assault…Before the carnage of Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians didn’t care, except in some hypothetical “thank-you-for-your-service” way, which nobody except old people said back then. Many Georgetown bars wouldn’t even allow us inside. They saw our high-and-tight haircuts and said they didn’t want trouble. When I said, “I have to whiz,” they said, “There’s the alley.” 

      Of course, today I realize that I was way too self-involved and overly impressed by my own supposed importance. But at the time, I was blind to it. I suspect the people who earn CIBs and Olympic medals experience a general unconcern regarding their accolades. I think they discover that those things bring them less attention than the rest of us imagine they receive.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 54 444

As a trainee, I wore a helmet liner with three numbers on the front. It was then that the number 444 began to appear in my life. I was in fourth platoon. There were forty-four men in my platoon, eleven men per squad. I was in fourth squad because we were assigned alphabetically. When I was promoted to squad leader, my new spot was the 444 spot. It meant nothing to me at the time. As the years passed, 444 regularly showed up on digital clocks, exercise machines, license plates, confirmation numbers, security codes, running records, and so on. It showed up more frequently than three fours should statistically show up together. At least that was my perception. Was I only adding meaning to random events, like hearing a poltergeist when it was really the house settling?

      Still, a part of me wondered if 444 was my lucky number. Was it a good omen? Was Mom watching me, as if I were still sitting on a curb and scraping my initials into the hot tar? Mom made 444 appear, and I was supposed to know that I wasn’t alone? Again, I turned around, and she wasn’t there. 

      Was it a sign? An evil omen, a residue from my poltergeist years? I wanted to believe that it was an angel, number 444, which meant, “All is well.” Was it merely coincidence that that was a Christian Science motto and one of my family of origin’s mottos? Remember, I’m not making up any of this. There’s a part of me that’s superstitious. I don’t like that part. It seems ignorant. But there’s so much that we, as a species, don’t know. 

      I do know that other people are superstitious, too. Some have their lucky pair of racing socks. Others think hard and believe that they are communicating with an omniscient being. Some people believe that 444 represents the ancient mystery schools, and my noticing it is a sign of my budding awareness of spirituality; I’ve been admitted to the mystery school and will explore it via books (they say). I sometimes fantasize that my life has been in synchronicity; somehow, things always work out for me as they should. I imagine that something larger than myself is signaling to me that although material existence degenerates into chaos and nothingness, there is human energy—maybe even spirit—and an intelligence greater than I can even imagine that created and runs things, even to the point of watching over me to make sure that I’m fine. Still, I fear that these are only the last vestiges of the magical thinking of a child or the pre-Enlightenment superstition that still lingers in every culture, which we call “religion.”

      In The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck cites the second law of thermodynamics, which is the law of entropy. Everything moves toward disorder; everything degrades. But evolution is also true, and humans have a natural growth toward godhead, love, or spirituality via serendipity and synchronicity. It’s hard for me to make that leap, but I’m trying—or, at least, it has my attention.

      In the meantime, my psychological training suggests that I merely became aware of 444 and now notice it more often. It’s like becoming aware of yellow Volkswagens and then suddenly seeing them all over town. Try it: yellow Volkswagen Beetles.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 53 Basic

If I’m being honest—and I am—I felt small and vulnerable, so I sought to be part of something bigger and tougher than myself. Dad swore into the army a dozen young men plus me. I went in as an enlisted man because I wanted to be one of the guys, to fit in with Everyman and learn from the inside what infantry life was all about, as Tim O’Brien or Colonel David Hackworth had done. I didn’t have the self-esteem to be an officer and assume the responsibility of commanding other soldiers. Also, I didn’t wish to make a six-year commitment; I didn’t know if I’d be a career soldier, as Dad was. I just hoped.

      Dad was always very poised, especially while in uniform, but he wasn’t a Great Santini type of military father. I was very proud of him, of his rank, his reputation, and his manliness. I thought he’d make a great subject for an oil painting. I pictured him standing in one of those open WWII-era jeeps with a white star on the hood. No, wait, even better: sitting astride a white stallion and holding a chrome helmet. Of course, he was more than a two-dimensional character, but that was all I saw and all he showed me back then. See, people intermittently approached me over the years and said how Dad had saved their lives during the Vietnam War. He was the guy who decided which men got into the New Mexico Army National Guard and which men did not. Those who didn’t get in risked being drafted into the regular army as infantry soldiers, shipped to Vietnam, and sent back to the Land of Enchantment in a body bag. Which meant that when Dad’s son volunteered for the regular army as a grunt, it was ironic as all get out.

      I dug how weird it was for me to join as a private first class, at twenty-four-years old, with a college degree. It made me unpredictable. I liked to think of myself as a nonconformist even to the nonconformists. Basic training was about conformity, but I thought I’d hunker down inside their camouflage box and check it out for a while. It’ll be an adventure to write about, I said.

      As a boy, I was never immunized, so I got my first shots at Fort Benning, Georgia. There were many firsts for me there, such as the first time I heard a person openly admit that he wanted to kill someone. Our drill sergeant had seated us in a circle and asked why we’d joined his army. A seventeen-year-old sociopath said, “I just want to kill somebody and get away with it.” His statement was well received; everyone grinned and nodded because we were all there to be lethal—no cooks, clerks, or rear echelon motherfuckers. We were killers in training.

      I, too, wondered what it’d be like to kill somebody, preferably a communist, because then it wouldn’t be murder; it’d be heroic and make me a badass, I imagined. Who’d mess with a killer? But when my turn came, I said, “To serve my country.” The words, although partially true, sounded corny back then. Remember, this was only eleven years after America dragged herself out of the Vietnam quagmire and still seventeen years before the revived patriotism from 9/11. The other trainees—most of whom were just months out of high school with no better options than to join the army and no higher intelligence than to qualify for the infantry—furrowed their brows. Apparently, the sociopath had the right answer, so I didn’t mention my other reasons: support for my running and anecdotes for my writing. Those reasons sounded too limp-wristed to say aloud in this massive green machine that I had placed myself into.


      I shouted, “Argh!” during bayonet training but felt silly. The other trainees seemed genuinely into it, though. I saluted the way you see in movies and walked the same way everybody else did—you know, marching—and then stood closely behind the other trainees in the chow line as the drills shouted, “Tighten it up! Make your buddy smile!” All the bloodlust and formality would feel natural at some point, I predicted. It never did; for the next two years, I felt inauthentic playing the soldier and killer and going through the rituals demanded in the military. I was an olive-drab chameleon. I even wore contact lenses through basic because I couldn’t stand how geeky those military-issue, black, horn-rimmed glasses made me look. Remember, I parodied as best I could the real soldiers I’d respected while growing up, and they didn’t wear thick, birth-control glasses. Can you imagine Vic Morrow, John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood wearing those glasses? I was always pretending; other guys seemed to embrace the silliness, but it didn’t feel natural to me. It felt like we parodied real soldiers, but I could never really be one. I didn’t like the abuse or the phoniness, and I hoped I’d like the army better after I got to my unit, but it never got better for me; it was never a good fit. Everybody I knew complained as much as I did, but then those same guys later reupped, which totally flabbergasted me. I was ready to get out of the army even as I nodded sleepily in the lecture halls while instructors droned on about the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Claymore mines, and how courageous we were expected to be. When a drill shouted, “All trainees, on your feet!” we leaped up or they leaned over us and growled, “Stay alert, stay alive, scumbag! Drop and give me twenty!” and you either did push-ups and asked permission to recover, or things got a whole lot worse. As the weeks wore on, the drills modified their pay-attention ploy with, “All queers, on your meat!” (Back then, in this subculture, it was encouraged to disparage gays). If, half-asleep, I shot to my feet as conditioned, the drills descended: “You queer, boy? Ain’t no faggots in my army, trainee! Pay attention to details! Just drop and start knockin’ ’em the fuck out! Go!” So I got into the front-lean-and-rest position, and my skinny, quivering distance-guy arms pumped out more push-ups.

      They invited us to quit, to go ahead and join Jody back on the block (who, they assured us, was diddling our girlfriends). They dared anyone who didn’t wish to be a hardcore US Army infantry soldier to stand and get kicked out of their army. They didn’t want any “homos” or “good-for-nothing flat dicks.” I was concerned about getting injured and then recycled, which would prolong basic training. Or even worse, if I washed out, the humiliation would be overwhelming. After all, when my drill heard that I was the son of a (by this time) full-bird colonel, he dropped and did push-ups for me!

      It really was as you see in movies, except in movies, you get to leave after a couple hours. I had to get through an excruciating thirteen weeks. I wondered if the movies reflected us, or if we all aped what we saw in the movies. I saw one guy cleaning the latrine with a toothbrush, even though nobody told him to do it that way. Do you think he was collecting anecdotes, too?

      One day, when they again asked who wanted out of their army, a pale teenager stood and said that in fact, he did not wish to be in their army.

      Oh, how the drills descended on him. But he stared straight ahead at the position of attention and took the onslaught. They degraded him, screamed in both of his ears, and made him do mountain climbers. The pale teen endured it, and each time they asked who wanted to quit, he again stood. At every lecture, in the chow hall, and while standing in formation, they talked about his cowardice, they questioned his manhood, they said what a “faggot” he was, and they talked about the sexually deviant things they were going to do to his mama.

      And still, he endured it.

      I didn’t respect him because he wasn’t honoring his commitment—and as I toughed it out, he should tough it out too—but I respected how he withstood the abuse. Even though I viewed him as a quitter with poor integrity, I thought that he had awesome fortitude. He was courageous to endure so much hostility; I wasn’t sure that I could have.

      The pale teen marched with us at graduation. Seems he didn’t really want out of their army; he just wanted out to go home to work things out with his new wife. He was allowed to make a long phone call to his wife, somehow fixed his problem, stayed, and the hazing ceased. Maybe he had his priorities straight. I do a bit of marriage counseling in my practice, and I’ve been married thirty years. I see who has my back and who doesn’t. My wife does. The army never had my back, but I had some buddies who did. Ironically, the pale kid might’ve been the most courageous and honorable of us all, at least from his wife’s point of view. The problem, I suppose, is that if everybody were as honorable as he was, where would we find the heroes to do the fighting, killing, and dying for the rest of us? Who would keep us safe and free to become chameleons or authentic or anything in between?

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 52 Isolation

I decided to join the army, the infantry, as J. D. Salinger did. Seriously. Dad said, “But you don’t like to take orders,” and I said, “No prob. What’s two years?” 

      I asked him to sell my car, and he sold it to his National Guard buddy, who gave it to his own son. Dad later told me the guy and a couple of his buddies picked up a prostitute, smoked some meth, drove into the mesa, and bashed in the hooker’s head with rocks so they wouldn’t have to pay her. I don’t know what happened to my old car after that. I don’t even want it now anyway. They tossed the bad guys into the penitentiary, but they’re already out. There’s this weird unfolding of my life where I’m often just one or two degrees away from horror. I always thought it was normal, but as I began sharing more of how I experience life, people seemed aghast at the experiences that didn’t actually happen to me but that I was somehow obliquely connected to, such as my car used in a murder. It makes me wonder if synchronicity goes so far as to ensure that I’m in the observer role. Perhaps I’m supposed to warn others. Perhaps that’s actually my calling in life. More likely, that’s just more magical thinking similar to pretending that memorial pennies or sandwich quarters had anything at all to do with me.

      If I were in prison, I’d request solitary confinement. I think I’d do well for a while if I had books, pencils, paper, and could keep whatever I wrote. I’d read and write all day, wallow inside my head, and ignore the bars and criminals.

      But eventually, without other people, I’d get lost beyond recovery in my imaginary world and become clinically insane, not just pretend crazy. I’ll tell you about my snowy winter in Vermont soon. It won’t be as good as The Shining, but there will be parallels, and it’ll clarify some things regarding physical and emotional isolation and the danger it presents to humans. Until then, suffice it to know that in solitary confinement, I’d get paranoid and socially phobic and eventually risk integration with the general population. I’d probably hang out by the chessboards with the criminals who liked to discuss literature and lament their unjust incarceration just for holding a little bit of weed for a friend. The point is, I’d need human contact.

      People may behave like agreeable chameleons so that they won’t be isolated, and sometimes they behave like fearsome chameleons to become more isolated but safer. However, behaving like a chameleon isolates them emotionally with the added stress of working hard to uphold a facade to hide their shame. This working hard feels like anxiety. Without an awareness of the problem, it can be befuddling to both chameleons and those who care about the chameleons in their lives. Without clear interventions, it can seem like a dilemma to the chameleon: share and risk the pain of rejection, or don’t share and risk the pain of isolation. This conflict produces even more anxiety. There’s often comorbid depression, because who wouldn’t be at least somewhat sad under these conditions? When dealing with anxiety, sometimes the intervention (e.g., exposures) can feel more stressful than the actual dysfunction does. But keep in mind that with time, you will habituate and feel better. Regardless, you get to consider if it’s worth it. I think it is.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 51 Cheese

From my very beginning, I had to be careful about being cynical. I thought of it as intellectual, but really it was just kind of a bummer. In grad school, they taught us to be cynical. They told us always to consider what each individual has to gain to determine what motivates his or her behavior. Acceptance by other humans is a payoff; it’s reinforcing, as cheese is to rats. In a social situation, we want to be reinforced, and we usually won’t spend our time with another person unless there’s something in it for us. I understand that kindness and the how-are-you-I-am-fine stuff is social lubricant—it shows interest in the other person even when it’s faked—and is civil, which is overall nice and good for society. But sometimes at parties, I yearn for a second glass of wine to make chameleons more interesting. It’s too superficial for me. I feel as if I’m wasting my time, and that balloons into wasting my life. And if I know it’s unlikely that I’ll see the person again, it’s even worse, because I’m not investing in a relationship. There’s just no payoff for me. Oh, I’ll hang in there; I always try to be nice and respectful. I think I’ve finally learned the prerequisite young-man lesson about saying positive things or remaining silent. But open honesty is still way more interesting to me; it’s good cheese. I’d rather be alone than be in a boring conversation. Sometimes I stay home from parties. None of this is only true about me; we are all wired somewhat similarly to rats and other lower-functioning mammals. We just have different degrees of tolerance for superficiality and how enjoyable it is to talk to strangers. On airplanes, you’ll find my nose deep within a book. And yes, I’m an introvert who merely learned to fake extroversion and to practice better social skills.

      Rats can be easily manipulated with cheese. If we don’t have cheese, then they don’t give their own ass about us; they just want to be safe from us. But they’ll like us—or at least tolerate us—if we feed them and don’t hurt them. We need to positively reinforce other people if we want them to hang around. When people give material gifts, I see cheese in the gesture. I also see cheese—positive reinforcement—in self-disclosure. Giving parts of ourselves is riskier than giving a chunk of cheese, but it works even better than really good cheese under the right conditions. If we give plastic cheese, people won’t be reinforced for long and will eventually leave, because it’s not nourishing. The same goes for blather versus emotionally intimate conversation.

      Sometimes, even when we offer up the best parts of ourselves, the other person may not value it. Perhaps he or shewants something else from us: money, sex, labor, food, drugs, alcohol, praise, attention, entertainment, companionship, and so on. It hurts to be used, but it’s so terribly common that it’s normal. So we play the roles of giver and taker, and we decide whether the relationship is reciprocal enough—if the relationship is worth it—and we either continue to seek reinforcement, or we back away and put up a boundary or a limit. When we find ourselves in the role of giver, we will most likely need to be the one to set the boundaries, because people in the taker role have little motivation to stop taking—they are reinforced to continue in that role. Fortunately, many people aspire to be better than their corporeal and psychological inheritance would suggest. I like that about humans. It inspires me to be better than merely another mammal behaving naturally.

      Behaving like a chameleon—offering plastic cheese—too acutely or chronically literally makes many people mentally ill because it emotionally isolates them. Long periods of isolation don’t work out well for human beings, as we’re social creatures, not terribly unlike rats, dogs, and chimps. Even emotional isolation is harmful in the long term, like being lonely in a crowd. I’ve stayed busy in my practice because so many people are afraid to be real. They’re more concerned about selling themselves than buying into authenticity. Often, they’re not even aware of their role in their superficial interpersonal dynamics; I have to educate them to awareness. Even then, frequently their anxiety prevents them from revealing their true selves to others. They’re too afraid to be real. Then we have to explore the root of their fear, how they’re afraid that they aren’t good enough, and work toward greater self-acceptance.


Inauthentic people are self-deceptive and unrealistic in their perceptions of reality. They look to others for approval and to feel valued. They are judgmental. They have a hostile sense of humor. They don’t express their emotions openly and freely, are not open to learning from their mistakes, and do not understand their motivations. Would you rather spend your time with an inauthentic person who presents him- or herself as seemingly flawless and as two-dimensional as a TV character or with a flawed, three-dimensional human being with a history of struggle and passion (similar to all of us)? I used to be inauthentic too frequently when I was young, so as I write this, I’m coming from a place of understanding and empathy but also from the perspective that we can understand ourselves, forgive ourselves, and move toward ever-greater authenticity while we remain safe, which is part of self-actualizing.


We must always consider the art of what we say and what we keep inside. Those who are not trying to figure it out—people who are not self-aware—are typically the most boring or the most abrasive among us. Who’s safe and who isn’t? Do we tell anyone, or should we keep it inside and only tell our psychologists? What would people think of us? Should we have no critics and consequently no civility? Many people are so fearful of offending others and being rejected that they shut down entirely and have nothing that they dare to say; others seem to have no filters at all. I know that I used to fluctuate between these poles—between being shy and spacey and shutting down and being the maniacal runner and wannabe literary icon.

      We all share the human condition; we just have different experiences of it. We experience life from our limited, subjective point of view, like looking through that toilet-paper tube. We learn about each other’s life experiences by reciprocallyopening up and honestly sharing about ourselves. When we offer each other good cheese, it can be healing, and we no longer feel so alone.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 50 Less was More

Frustrated at my failure to attain elite distance-runner status and support myself via professional running, I left Virginia and drove back across the country to poor old New Mexico, “so far from heaven, so close to Texas,” as we liked to quip. I took nothing but the manuscript I’d written in Virginia, my first novel, Leftovers Again. It had nothing in common with the short story I wrote in college, but I liked the cynicism in the title, so I recycled it; I’d become derivative even of myself. Written in longhand, over six hundred pages in a loose-leaf binder, I clearly needed to learn that less was more. Everyone except me seemed to know that already.

      Leftovers Again was about a twenty-three-year-old Christian Scientist whose mother died of Huntington’s disease after he failed to pray her well. When the protagonist manifested the early symptoms of the genetically inherited disease, he traveled cross-country, had misadventures and flashbacks to his coming-of-age years in New Mexico, and planned either to pray himself healthy or blow his brains out. An exploded head would scream, “See what happens when God ignores you?” When his symptoms worsened, he placed the shotgun barrel into his mouth. Then his girlfriend appeared, having tracked him down to give him the lab results he’d refused to look at.

      Wait for it…

      He blew his brains out. He splattered his gray matter against a tree, and then the reader learned he didn’t even have the genetic marker. It was a scientific fact that he’d never develop Huntington’s disease. His symptoms were only psychosomatic; he had manifested what he feared most. He would’ve been “healed” had he lived another minute, had he listened to his female rescuer. It was my experience of the Christian Science paradigm, complete with a feminine savior (Mom, Mary Baker Eddy, Christian Science itself) and Christ as the masculine savior. It was dark but more realistic than having the protagonist’s girlfriend save him in the nick of time. I didn’t want a Hollywood ending; it was more of a Shakespearean tragedy.

      Later, I decided that the ending was too cynical to get past an anonymous agent or editor, the unknown people I wanted to please. It was colicky. So, I changed it: the protagonist heard the test results, stayed his trigger finger, kept his brains inside his skull, and his symptoms immediately ceased. He was indeed healed; the healing wasn’t medical or spiritual but rather, psychological. I liked the twist but feared that the happy ending was hackwork. As the story bubbled up from my subconscious, I didn’t realize that I had a deep interest in human psychopathology even before I suspected I’d ever become a psychologist. And yes, it’s cool to have decades-old writing to look back upon and view my thoughts then from my perspective now as a middle-aged psychologist.

      For example, I reread Leftovers Again for the first time in twenty-five years, and although I liked what I just described above, I couldn’t become engaged in the story. The protagonist was motivated by psychological distress, but there was a distance that kept me from caring about him. He came off as inauthentic and more of a caricature than a real person, similar to his creator at the time. So, my story didn’t resonate with the reader, or in this case, not even with the author. I’d written a fictional case study of a chameleon who changed his color to mimic the disease symptoms of the person he wanted to move toward, his spiritual mentor: his mother. It could end with a bad resolution, such as suicide, or a revelation of his chameleon behavior, leading to psychological growth. Today I think the latter is not hackwork but preferable.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 49 Virginia

The world of road racing was flat, meaning that anyone could join in almost any race and compete against the best distance runners in the world. The East Coast offered more important races and more often than the Midwest did, so I sold my motorcycle and crammed everything I owned into my 1978 Honda Civic. The tiny car was a hand-me-down from my brother, who gave it to me as amends after our contentious childhood; all was forgiven, albeit the emotional effects lingered. I drove that rolling peace pipe from Lawrence, Kansas, to Alexandria, Virginia, to become an elite road racer and novelist.

      Initially, I moved in with Dad, who’d become a lieutenant colonel and was temporarily stationed at the Pentagon. We shared an apartment but lived parallel lives. We even spent Christmas separately. He was with the woman who’d become his second wife; I was journaling a “Blue Christmas,” documenting how my handwriting and cognition declined with each lonely Stroh’s beer. Dad finally came home with a warning and advice: be careful out there, boy; here’s what can happen during rough sex. He pulled out his blackened penis and let it lop across his palm like a bicycle inner tube. Some things you simply cannot unsee. However, the unconventional lesson stuck with me. Here it is again.

      When Dad was transferred back to Santa Fe, I moved in with some track buddies in Arlington. The house was a block from Fort Myer, home of the Third Infantry. I ran past the tall, thin soldiers, the army’s official ceremonial unit and presidential escort. I sort of identified with them, or at least wanted to, being an army brat and tall and thin myself. I thought the Old Guard was elite and very cool, like Special Forces, Rangers, or Delta Force. Many days, I ran through the fort to what today is called Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Back then, I could still run beneath the flight path, the airliners loud enough to tear my eardrums and so low that it seemed as though I could hit them with a chunked rock. Of course, that was before the terrorists took that experience away from us. Then, I’d run onto the bike trails and tow paths of DC, out into Georgetown, and down The Exorcist steps, all while looping The Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You” in my head.


      Who watched me? Aloneness was my Achilles’ heel. One of my solutions was to run faster so that I couldn’t be ignored, and I expected to draw people to me. Although I was a running machine, I was never as fast as I wanted to be. Looking back, I worried that if I didn’t run fast enough, people would remain indifferent to me, and I wouldn’t matter. Why did I need a witness to my performance, to my existence? Why did I need to gain others’ approbation to feel that I mattered? Clearly, I’d simply sublimated this need into distance running, whereas previously I’d been scratching my initials into street tar and turning on toy bicycle motors with my knee. Running fast and documenting my life—even fictionalized in creative writing—did that for me, and my drive to do both was unrelenting. When I didn’t run or write, I felt empty and sad. My life felt meaningless. I feared I’d leave no mark. So, I wanted to beat all the best runners currently alive on the planet and every person who had ever existed in recorded human history. Then, I assumed at twenty-three, people would pay attention and be attracted to me.

      I’ve teased psychopathic narcissism from the so-called normal level of narcissism that can make people productive, if not irritating. Evolutionarily speaking, being perceived as excellent in some way makes us valued in society and therefore more likely to survive and pass on our DNA. So, we brag. Conversely, being deflated or depressed is less productive, less likely to help the collective survive, and thus less attractive. It places the depressed individual at risk of rejection and eventual death because he or she is a drag on the survival of the collective. So a bit of narcissism is an evolutionary adaptation to survive. The line separating boastfulness from intimacy-increasing self-disclosure can be blurred, though. Hiding what we suspect might cause others to reject us is also evolutionally adaptive. Maintaining a balance between what’s exposed and what’s hidden makes sense.

      Running is so primal. I imagine an ancient ancestor running down a gazelle and dragging it back to the village. A crowd greets the returning hero; he will, of course, get the largest portion of meat and the most voluptuous female. The villagers will all obtain protein because of him and survive to create another generation. Humanity will continue on. Ancient skills are not as obviously necessary today, so we sublimate them into sports, but they still sometimes feel as important as meat. We fight over sports. People have died.

      These days, now that I carry around a fully developed brain and no longer have to act out my issues as obviously as I did as a young man, I don’t feel the need for so many people to pay attention to me, only the important ones in my life. But I’m still often disappointed. In some ways, this inattention to me is good. It means that the law and professional governing bodies are only spot-checking and would only become interested in me if I were brought to their attention by a misdeed. No wonder I got away with so much as a kid: nobody paid attention to me! Now I think it’s better to accept things as they are rather than agonizing over how we think they should be (but still aspire to excellence and to being our best selves). There’re so many of us, and don’t we encourage people to take care of themselves and mind their own business? Why should we command their attention at all? When people are too invested in others’ behavior, don’t we label them sycophants, nosy, intrusive, prying, controlling, Big Brother, nagging, codependent, groupies, stalkers, or even hagiographical? I like to think of attention as rare and thus a more valuable and pure form of generosity.

      Psychotherapy is the ultimate luxury, allowing us to bask in the attention of a respected other.


I wore the color of a professional runner and worked my way toward the front of the pack. Kangaroos Shoes sponsored me out of college, and later Brooks Shoes took me on, which meant I got free shoes and trips. I got an agent and raced against American champions, Olympians, and world-record holders. I improved to national caliber, the top 2 percent, and won tiny amounts of money. I could technically be called a semipro, although it had to be kept secret back then before the Olympics loosened its rules on amateurism. But I never closed the gap between the international-level runners and me. The top 1 percent, the runners who actually went to the Olympics, easily beat me. When I say “easily,” I mean they didn’t even know I was in the race; they certainly didn’t know my name. I remained in the chase pack, anonymous and poor. I didn’t know that I chased an apparition. Now I know that had I run as fast as I’d wanted to, it still would’ve led to disappointment; even the greatest runners are generally ignored. For example, what percentage of the world’s population knows who Kenenisa Bekele is?

      But in 1983, I still wanted others to value me based on how fast I could run. The more others valued my speed, the more valuable I was, and the more secure I felt to meet my own needs as modeled by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological (food, water, air), safety (shelter, clothes, work, health), love and belonging (family, friends, intimacy), and esteem (confidence, self-respect, and respect for others). Remember, it was Maslow who said, “What a man can be, he must be.” He called it self-actualization (creativity, morality, and problem solving), which in my case, felt like running and writing; and in middle age, I added helping others to heal and thrive. Later, Maslow modified his hierarchy to include self-transcendence, wherein the self only finds its actualization by giving itself to some higher goal, such as altruism or spirituality. That’s what I’m trying to attain now, in the third act of my life. I’ve given up on organized religion, but I actively pursue understanding spirituality—or at least recognizing it when I experience it.


Because I had a college degree in English, I had to wait tables to pay my bills. “Taco Tim” felt comfortable at a Mexican food restaurant. I wore an open-collared mariachi shirt and averaged forty bucks a shift, which wasn’t much, even back then. The customer I remember best was a neurosurgeon who brought in his patients. He always requested me as his server, and sometimes his patients showed me horrific purple and red scars on their heads and said wacky things. I recommended the best dish rather than the most expensive one, and he tipped me ten bucks—a windfall to me, 25 percent of my daily nut. I think he could tell that I cared about his patients. I learned that people would gladly pay for good care. That’s another event that I cannot unsee, and it is a lesson I held onto.

      Daily, I wrote fiction in the local library, ran fifteen miles, waited tables, and partied afterward. I made some friends in Virginia but not any close friends. Now I know that my public persona was too campy and inauthentic. At the time, I didn’t realize that too much of my behavior was histrionic. I now return to Cluster B, yearning for attention, excessively impressionistic speech, theatricality, and rapidly shifting emotions. Remember, I thought that I was being a madman distance runner and wannabe avant-garde novelist. The truth was that I only acted out the mad-to-burn chameleon. How was anybody going to connect with me when all he or she got was my act?

      In retrospect—now that I’m a pro in mental health—nothing about me was ever diagnosable. Yes, there were some Cluster B features (not uncommon in young males) and some obsession and compulsion (some due to genetics and some attributable to my brain not having fully maturated due to childhood neglect and family psychodynamics). And too often, I slipped into hagiography regarding distance gods and published authors (overly idealistic). We should probably throw in some developmental arrest due to emotional trauma and abuse. Oh, and there was the whole sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll thing (it was both my youthful environment and the spirit of the time). But I mean diagnosable aside from all that.

      By the way, Kenenisa Bekele is arguably distance running’s GOAT, Greatest of All Time. So now I get it: distance running was just my thing. See, I viewed life as if through a toilet-paper tube, and what I saw through it were distance runners. I erroneously concluded that whatever I saw through that tube should be as important to everyone else as it was to me. Making it even worse was that I thought that what I saw through that tube was pretty much all there was to see, or at least all there was to see that actually mattered. Jeez, I was so self-centered. Still am sometimes. In that way, at least, I’m normal. But I obviously didn’t know this at the time. 

      At the time, toilet-paper tubes were more meaningful to me as something I’d cut a small hole in, cover it with aluminum foil, punch tiny holes in the foil, and use it as a pipe for smoking weed because I was too cheap to buy a real pipe.