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The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 37 Athlete of the Year?

As a senior, I published a poem called “The Title” in a statewide student contest. For the record, that made me a published poet. I’m not acting haughty; I’m just finally getting some mileage out of it. Apparently, neither my running nor my poetry deserved as much attention as my peers’ admiration for “Disco Duck” or Smoky and the Bandit. My poem didn’t seek to challenge any social norms. It didn’t lift up anybody. It was about the creative process, brainstorming the title for—wait for it—that very poem! I did my normal self-conscious thing, except with my writing. Writers writing about writing would be something my professors would warn me about in the future. Even Charles Bukowski wrote, “Only assholes talk about writing…” Clearly, I was something of an asshole, and writing about writing was yet another lesson I’d have to learn for myself—and then still wouldn’t.

      I also got honorable mention for a short story called “The Last Lap,” inspired by “The Lady, or the Tiger?” My story was about a high-school miler who was injured before the last big race his senior year. He made a comeback, setting up the decisive moment with a photo finish. He either won state or did not, but I left the outcome unknown. I liked the ambiguity. It begged the question of whether hard work, sentimentality, and fairness were enough to create the outcome the protagonist thought he deserved. It was autobiographical to an extent, and it relied on the tension of putting ourselves out there with passion, really going for it, and then…what? I liked to think that I was profound and not as derivative as I actually was.

***

I continued to trick out Timmy Two-Mile. My face cleared up, my braces came off, I got hard contact lenses, and I grew out and blow-dried my hair. My “Cook’s Special” was loaded up with accolades: eight shiny gold bars for every letter awarded, a golden star for captain, patches sewn on the sleeves celebrating big races. I learned to fake confidence, to strut so that even from a distance, you’d know that I was a senior and that seniors ruled so frickin’ hard.

      How do they like me now? I wondered. Similar to my junior-high days, when Ramon thought that I liked to fight, these peers were supposed to think that I was the epitome of an extroverted, popular track star.

      See, I wanted the persona of Steve Prefontaine, the outspoken Olympian from Oregon. He was an agitator just like the authors I admired, but he also partied and ran really fast. Some people thought he was a loudmouthed rabble-rouser, but I liked the balance he had between athletics and outrageousness—until the day he won a race against Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, partied afterward, and died in an alcohol-fueled, single-car rollover.

***

I won my school’s Athlete of the Year award just before I graduated in May 1977. Athlete of the Year? Yeah, right. You have to love the absurdity; I certainly did. Me rising to the pinnacle of Eldorado jockdom? The same burly boys who were picked first in PE, who bench-pressed 250 pounds (twice!), and wore sneakers with their toes sticking out (which the girls thought adorable) remained seated on the cruel, folding chairs on the gym floor as I received my ironic award. I almost expected a rash of suicides that night: humiliated boys with symmetrical facial features and the right kind of letter jacket would be found hanging by their necks in their respective garages. The foxes on the homecoming court would have to find new prom escorts. I didn’t smirk that time. I’d learned the lesson; I acted humble, believe me. Inside, I smirked. That’s right: the least likely guy in the least likely sport had dragged away everyone’s attention from football, basketball, baseball, beefy boys with veiny biceps, the twerp king, and the pretty boys who flattered all of the mothers and impressed all of the teachers. Today I look back on what almost seems like a parody of an athlete, some sort of Pygmalion reenactment: me standing in for the bedraggled Eliza Doolittle. Instead of becoming a duchess, however, I was transformed into the epitome of athleticism—and, I humbly remind you, I was a published poet.

      But I didn’t tell my family about the award. I withheld that information as payback because they hadn’t gushed enough about my running exploits over the previous four years. It was my biggest accomplishment to date, but I knew that I’d be disappointed in their parsimonious praise; they apparently were very invested in keeping me humble. I wasn’t aware at the time that I had an unrealistic assessment of my ability to fascinate others, so I held a great deal of resentment about that and passive-aggressively shared nothing.

      I took it too far, too all-or-none. Now I understand that everybody was busy paying attention to his or her own life and not so much to mine. I hadn’t yet figured out the balance between “every dog for himself” and what was a reasonable amount of attention, depending on each relationship. I kept preening and performing for others, trying to collect accolades to win my family’s approval, expecting them to be impressed, expecting them to be drawn to me, and I kept being disappointed. I thought that because distance running mattered to me, it should matter to them. Why didn’t more people care how fast I could run two miles? Didn’t they see poor, gasping, beaten boys trailing me, and my name in the sports section? Look! There’s another photograph of me! I had distorted expectations, of course. I didn’t understand the limits of people’s generosity, time, and interest. Not everybody thought about me as much as I thought about myself. Still, I thought, But…I won!

      I hadn’t yet accepted that it was reasonable that people didn’t think about me. They thought about themselves, which was simply normal human behavior. My difficulty accepting it was the not-normal part. I hadn’t yet learned that doing things to impress others usually ends in disappointment. At best, people are only briefly impressed, and then they move on with their own lives; they take care of themselves and pursue their own interests, just as they’re supposed to do and must do because of the limitations of our brains, our faculties, time, and space. We have to prioritize. It’s humbling as we age, the years taking us further away from our mother’s breast and adoring downward gaze. Our brains maturate, and it dawns on us that we aren’t a priority to other people, even to loved ones to whom it would be normal to be a priority. For some of us, it simply was not.

      As a high-school boy, my mistake was concluding that I needed to win bigger races, become more popular, act cooler, be better-looking, date more, have better-cut muscles, to live bigger so others couldn’t ignore me. I was determined to get attention and admiration. My advice now? Forget the performance. Don’t test your relatives, friends, critics, or even strangers. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment and more stings. When someone gives love and attention, just appreciate it. When people don’t, just accept it as humans behaving like humans, like very high-functioning but perceptually limited mammals. Don’t take it personally just because they’re normal. People aren’t against you, they’re just for themselves.

***

I certainly didn’t have this figured out at seventeen. I just graduated and then partied as Prefontaine did. Peacock Muscles was in the back seat of my Mustang, getting whipped off by some girl he’d picked up, which was totally distracting, let me tell you. So, a cop pulled me over, saw the graduation gowns strewn on the floorboard, and said, “Just take it on home,” the way they used to do back then, and we went to another party, the way Iused to do back then. I was proud to have collected another anecdote, to have dodged another bullet, and it’s odd to me today to have felt pride over such a thing—and to view it so differently now.

      When my son hears about my high-school antics, he’s not impressed, even though I kind of want him to be. I also kind of don’t want him to be out of fear that he’ll emulate me or regret that he didn’t. He thinks I was just another “douchey athlete,” the kind who was popular and loud, who bullied others and was too self-impressed. I know what he’s talking about. I’ve known those guys. I’ve even played that role. But I’ve also known many athletes, so that stereotype doesn’t hold for me. At my son’s age, however, I wanted to join those guys, as I said, because I admired them, and I wanted to be those guys—just without the douchey part. Douchey wasn’t the color I looked for, but I can see his point. I think the upside was that I made some good friends, some whom I still see forty years later. My son tries to reassure me. “Chill, Dad, you’re not douchey now,” he says. For the record, I didn’t think I was douchey then. I thought I acted cool and then wondered why not everybody was impressed. I’m pretty sure that I get it now.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 36 Sandia Cave

With Antelope Legs ahead of me and Peacock Muscles behind, we crawled into Sandia Cave, into the granite, single file. If anyone else was inside, we’d have to back out somehow; it was too tight to pass. We certainly couldn’t have turned around. I didn’t consider that if one of my buddies panicked, there would be no understanding psychopathology, no help, no way for me to progress, and no way for me to egress. We didn’t talk about getting stuck in the cave or panic attacks; instead, we talked about America’s bicentennial, the actress Farrah Fawcett, and rattail fights in the locker room. I didn’t want to regret a constricted adolescence—I thought I should be even more adventurous—so deeper into the cave I went.

      We low-crawled with ignorance as the granite narrowed, and we squeezed in 140 meters until the tunnel simply ended. There was no cavern, no climax, and so no resolution to our adventure. I was disappointed; it wasn’t a good teenager story yet. So we turned off our flashlights and sat cross-legged in absolute darkness. I could be anyone in that cave, surrounded by zillions of pounds of granite, safe from Russian nukes and the judgment of the outside world. In that cave, there were no rules, no boxes, and no expectations. Twenty-five thousand years earlier, Sandia Man had squatted there and perhaps dreamed of conquering mammoths. I could still be an Olympian then. I could still be a novelist.

      Imagining being inside Sandia Cave helps me to understand my clients with panic disorder. They aren’t afraid of getting stuck in a cave. They’re afraid they’ll panic while in the cave and be unable to escape their panic. My job isn’t to help them lose fear of the cave but rather to lose fear of the panic. When they lose their fear of panic, they lose the panic. It’s like looking under your bed for a monster; you have to look for the monster to make it go away, otherwise you’ll wonder. Really, the only monster is the fear. When people go toward the panic—in a planned, prolonged, and frequent manner—they get better. What I’m really saying is that I want you to generalize this: go into the fear of being transparent and authentic with safe others, and the fear will diminish over time.

      We emerged from Sandia Cave covered in red, flour-like dust. I suppose I should ascribe some meaning to coming out of the tight darkness as if being rebirthed. But instead of emerging with colic, I emerged with the joy of being young, vigorous, hopeful, and on the cusp of manhood. The archeologist who had “discovered” Sandia Man in that cave had not yet been debunked. The plaque honoring him had not yet been removed. So, we rode back down the mountain sitting on the car hood. Peacock Muscles thought it would be a laugh riot to plaster his bare bottom on the windshield so that Antelope Legs had to look at his hairy crack as he drove. Instead, it shattered. The windshield, I mean.

      There. That was better than some tortured rebirthed metaphor. Now it’s exactly right, I thought. Now it’s a good teenager story. Really. That’s what I thought.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 35 Timmy Two-Mile

As I moved through the grades, I paid closer attention to the hippies and the beats, who were ten and twenty years older than I was. I still dug how they got along with each other and stuck their thumbs in the Establishment’s eye. Easy Rider. Harold and Maude. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Hollywood understood. What better excuse to misbehave than social parody as social consciousness? I wasn’t a hippie or a beatnik; I was a product of my own time, but I wasn’t sure what that meant. In the meantime, my chameleon color morphed into shoes with big heels and emerald-colored, felt, flared-leg slacks. Yes, I really wore a polyester shirt with a fantasy scene of birds, butterflies, and mysterious planets on the back as the Bee Gees emerged as a sound at school dances.

      My friends were the kind I’d bring home. Every one of them snorted when told to run six miles. “An easy day,” we called it. Although I wasn’t the type to tell Murgatroyd to shut up or take on a dozen drugstore cowboys brandishing tire irons, my heroics were on the clay cross-country courses and the black all-weather tracks. My specialty was the two-mile run. I had my own plan to create a self-legend, so I trained relentlessly and won a bunch of races.

      I became Timmy Two-Mile.

      Sometimes my name appeared in newspapers and magazines. I cut those out and taped them into a scrapbook. As a teenager, I was determined to bring attention to the sport I loved and, by association, to myself. For decades, I imagined that in the event of a fire, the first thing I’d rescue would be that scrapbook. The attention and approbation made me significant; it meant that I mattered. Today, I’m chagrined that into my thirties, I’d valued that scrapbook as something that made me a more valuable person. Of course, today I realize that it was all only in my own mind the whole time, that others didn’t care if my name was in the newspaper or if I won medals or trophies and other accolades. I guess I knew that at some level; nobody was as impressed with me as I was with myself, and that greatly offended me. But the real problem wasn’t their lack of concern; it was my inability to accept the incredibly transient and stingy nature of people’s attention.

***

In the meantime, my cross-country brothers and I parked in the east mesa and drank Coors. No Electric Kool-Aid for us; distance runners drank beer as a cultural thing. We justified it by saying that we ran hard and played hard. So I drunkenly perched atop a Buick-sized quartz boulder and observed a light descending the massive, dark face of the Sandia Mountains. Was it a hot-air balloon, someone on horseback or hiking down the La Luz Trail? Why wasn’t it hitting any of the switchbacks? It’d soon reach the foothills and then could cross the mesa and get us. Could it be La Llorona, “the Weeping Woman”? She drowned her children to be with the man she loved, but he wouldn’t have her, so she drowned herself. Heaven wouldn’t take her without her children. So she wandered the earth, searching for children to kidnap, trapped between the living world and the spirit world. I didn’t believe in that ghost story. Still, I felt vulnerable because of the alleged poltergeist in my home at the time. I leaped off the boulder and raced to Antelope Legs’s 1964 Chevelle sedan, and he drove like an Unser boy.

      Antelope Legs was the same dude with whom, at fourteen, I first got drunk on screwdrivers nipped from his dad’s liquor cabinet. It was his sister who pulled a knife on me when I pretended that I was going to kiss her (we found out many years later that her father was molesting her). We smoked Tiparillo cigars that we bought at the Circle K, which sometimes hid thugs against whom I later armed myself with steel. We spun doughnuts in the mesa in his car, raising so much dust that visibility was zero, only stopping when the engine caught on fire. I sat shotgun and played air violin to Electric Light Orchestra’s “Eldorado,” and we sneaked into the drive-in movie to catch The Stepford Wives and Young Frankenstein. Afterward, we toilet-papered the houses of people we liked and turned the sprinklers on that toilet paper at the homes of girls who wouldn’t dance with us. One night, we hit the wrong house. An irate neighbor stormed at us and shattered the car window with a rock, and we raced away, blasting through red lights. I’m glad it wasn’t Mr. Abbin hiding in ambush with a shotgun. Another time, Antelope Legs and I drag-raced down Tramway Road at 140 miles per hour in a track buddy’s souped-up pickup truck, blasting BTO’s “Not Fragile.” That pickup had a siren, so I sneaked out Dad’s flashlight with a red flashing light, and we pulled over cars on the freeway and then raced giddily away. Impersonating a police officer could be a felony with penalties of imprisonment up to five years, fines, probation, or a permanent criminal record. Or you could just get away with it. I’ve been in the cross hairs of a deer-hunting rifle when I was mistaken for Peacock Muscles’s big brother, and there were many other events that could’ve ended much worse for me. It makes me wonder about destiny and the concept that I was not only supposed to survive but to thrive. Did I get away with a lot so that I’d eventually offer something better to the world? It seems unfair that I got away with so much. Or maybe it was just my narcissism that figured I should get away with a lot because I had something better to offer than replicating my own cells, so I took stupid chances, and then plain, dumb luck rescued me.

      I thought of our youthful hijinks as creating anecdotes because I still wanted to write. But I also knew that they enraged people (did we really run over mailboxes for no reason other than a giggle?), which made it dangerous and exciting, and it made me the kind of teenager I thought I should be. So, I periodically broke up with my girlfriend, who was a really nice girl, and I even took another girl to prom and then dumped her. I was playing with their emotions, which I now regret and feel shame about. I wish that I could undo it all; but no, now I have to live with it. I hope they don’t have to live with it just because I was a chameleon, and I’m sorry. At the time, I thought that being with more girls made me more attractive, and the prettier they were, well, that was a positive narcissistic reflection on me; it made me feel better about myself. Regardless of whom I hung out with, I always wondered how it made me look. I always wondered if there was someone else more popular or cooler or prettier whom I should approach to make myself look better by association. Would others think that I was as good as they were, that I was no longer a despised shithead? That’s another reason it seemed so important to me to wear that wild, teenage color and convince others that it was authentic. Obviously, I was the opposite of grounded, and more guidance from adults would’ve helped me, but realistically, knowing where my head was at the time, I wouldn’t have listened to them; they were old, after all, so how could they know what it was like to be a teenager? I knew that I sometimes did things that were illegal and morally wrong, but it felt so right to be risky, to be bad, and so much more powerful than the victimhood that’d I’d felt before finding my stride in junior high. In fact, I always thought that I should raise more hell than I ever actually did. We know that media role models do influence people to various degrees, and my influences were mostly great writers. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, would raise a cup of “Electric” Kool-Aid and some hell. Writer Charles Bukowski would raise a beer and quote himself: “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” And even F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald would do a martini toast. Remember, I watched myself in the third person and documented my behavior even as far back as sitting on the curb and scratching my initials into the hot tar.

      As weird as it sounds, I knew even at the time that I’d grow weary of it all; I saw how older people behaved and assumed I’d become somewhat similar, just not exactly similar—you know, boring similar. What I didn’t know was that not everybody observed himself and others; not everybody was hyperaware that age crept up on us all, and life stages changed things as we raced toward the precipice. But writers did. This awareness at the time helped me lay down many rich memories simply because I paid attention, which was mindful, now that I think about it, and helpful, in a way, now that I wish to drag it all out again. I guess I was kind of strange or at least different. But I liked being different, providing it was a good kind of different.

      So, we raced out of the mesa, away from La Llorona. But in the end, the real danger was drinking and driving, because La Llorona was really only the light of the distant tramcar gliding down its cable, a major tourist attraction for our city that we’d forgotten about in our rush to fear.

      I’ve thought about that night over the years and how real our fear was, but how unreal the danger was. I wonder how much of our lives we waste fearing things that will never happen. It’s the uncertainty that gets to us. Then I wonder how often we compensate, how we hunker down, cover windows with aluminum foil, pretend strong, smile superficially, and spend our lives on the defensive, wearing masks for no real reason at all.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 34 Self-Legend

Driving expanded my world and the mischief I got into, and it was another good way for me to impression manage. I was like the car, a 1965 Mustang with aluminum, five-spoke, mag wheels; raised white letters on the tires; a jacked-up rear end; and an acceleration pedal in the shape of a bare foot. Fast. Quirky. Loud. Confident. You were supposed to assume that the guy driving was the same as the car. I couldn’t afford glass packs, so I drilled holes in the muffler, knowing that it either would irritate old people or make them fondly reminisce. I actually thought that at the time. I wanted to be the center of attention because at sixteen, that would mean I was a valuable person and not someone who deserved to be ignored.

      My cross-country buddies and I cruised the city with a cassette tape of Led Zeppelin IV as our soundtrack. Remember the old man with sticks? I cranked up “Black Dog.” Teens in Stetson hats glared down at me from seven-foot-high pickup trucks. Stompers. Four-foot-high low riders thumped close as vatos glowered through dark sunglasses and tinted windows. “Race relations” to me back then was about who ran the fastest; but still, I kept a billy club beneath my seat just in case. I wanted to be a cheetah: fast and dangerous. And it was OK to sing with my buddies to “Stairway to Heaven.” It wasn’t gay; it was Led Zeppelin—or Queen or Bad Company or Frampton Comes Alive. As we drove past pedestrians, we mooned those we figured would think it funny or were unable to identify us. By midnight, we pushed my car to the gas station to put in another fifty cents’ worth. I dug the whole scene, man—neo-American Graffiti—because I belonged in that car with those other runners, creating wild teenager memories to fit my purposefully overblown teenager persona. Was anyone else consciously doing the same thing, with the same premeditation, even if the premeditation was to be purposefully impulsive? Do you think I was the only one who saw our teenage antics as an act, an image to manage until we one day aged out of it—which I knew we would, just not while I was still a teen?

      One night, a dozen college guys crashed into McDonald’s and beat up all of the high-school kids just because we were there. I was slugged in the jaw, and my glasses went twirling away. I felt bad that I just took it again. At least the security guards and dozens of other kids were whipped, too. My other buddy, “Peacock Muscles,” got the snot kicked out of him in the toilet stall. He was also a Christian Scientist but went to the hospital anyway. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that we even had the option of seeing a doctor. I always assumed that everything would be fine and then just waited until it was true. Peacock Muscles later worked at McDonald’s when a still-unknown Bill Gates came in. He said that he’d give Peacock 10 percent of his new company if Peacock would give him a couple of hamburgers. Peacock did, and today he is somewhat miffed that Gates has never coughed up fifty billion dollars for his 10 percent of Microsoft. Do you think the story is true? Peacock has promised to give me a million dollars if he ever collects. But in 1975, we were all poor and getting beat up at McDonald’s, which I withheld from my parents because I didn’t want to get banned from late nights out. The things I hid from them would fill a book. My persona was a popular, tall, broad-shouldered, slender-but-muscular track star, who was no longer a shithead, a freak, or a sullen, bullied kid shut in his bedroom listening to FM radio. My message was, “If you can’t love me for who I really am, then how do you like me now?” I wasn’t authentically me, I understand today, but at the time I worked really hard to become someone at least I could live with.

      Another time in the McDonald’s parking lot, a lone teen with a pair of nunchackus whipped those sticks around and held off a dozen stompers armed with bluster and tire irons. He was a treed cougar taking on a pack of baying bloodhounds. Those stompers circled him, yelled about how badly they “was gonna whup his ace!” When a siren neared, the hero broke out of the circle and trotted away into teenage lore and my long-term memory. It struck me that he wasn’t paralyzed by fear. My fish filet sandwich awaited me, but I never forgot that martial artist. I wanted to create a self-legend as he did—to be a tempestuous teen to look back upon in middle age.

***

Sometimes people who knew me when I was Happy Jack, Timmy Two-Mile, Taco Tim, or Aunt Jemima still give me attitude. In their minds, I haven’t changed. It’s still 1964, 1976, 1980, or 1982 in their relationship with me. Sometimes I wish they hadn’t met me until I’d settled down so that our relationship could be more respectful. But I understand. I am mindful that I was the one acting out my chameleon fantasies then, so can these people be blamed as much as I would like to blame them just because they believed me?

      Back then, I truly thought that raising hell made me cool, more attractive, more acceptable, and more special; and forty years later, I still meet people from high school and college who wish to punish my transgressions. I must have cut them very deeply. I must’ve treated them the way I’d been treated. I think some were hurt by the chameleon manifestation I had at the time; others initially believed my manifestation, later discovered it was fake, felt betrayed, and were hurt. So they continue to seek revenge. I hurt some people unintentionally in my rush to dominance and attention, and I hurt others on purpose because they’d hurt me or I was maneuvering to gain status within a clique. Looking back, my behavior and their reactions greatly pain my conscience. Even then, I didn’t wish to be that kind of human being. Although I felt justified or oppressed at the time, in retrospect, it was the dark, ugly, and insecure part of me acting out, and innocent and not-so-innocent people got caught up in my psychodrama.

      Today, I bring them to my house to make amends. I feed them four or five kinds of very good cheeses, Wheat Thins, and grapes; I fill their glasses with exotic beers and wines and give them careful attention. I am kinder than I was. I ask about their careers and their children and touch them on their shoulders. Eventually, I hug them and invite them to return. In other words, I meet them with love and show them who I am today.

      But for many, it’s too late. It’s sad, of course, when I must then set people aside who could’ve been closer to my heart. I must banish them to the outer reaches of my awareness, where they can’t act out their revenge—deserved or not. They do not wish to forgive my past chameleonic behavior, and their indignity continues to motivate them toward a petty and outdated vengeance against their image of me, which now exists only in their own minds. So, I set a stronger boundary between us that will grow as thick as a callus. It’s wise not to allow others to spoil our lives even when they so badly wish to. In many cases, it’s my loss; I like to think that it might sometimes also be their loss. Again, this book can be a shortcut for you to avoid all that. Be more authentic sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, memorize the Levels of Intimacy at the end of this book.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 33 Shithead

Mom made me attend activities with the Christian Science youth organization. The problem was, I only wanted to hang around distance runners by that point. So, when forced to go, I was all passive-aggressive and just sat there like a lump and scowled. Even though I was totally into the practice of Christian Science, I barely knew the Sunday school kids. They were nice, sure; but seeing people one hour a week wasn’t enough for me to get comfortable with them. Mom had the notion that the more time I spent with them, the more comfortable I’d be. But my notion was to run about a thousand miles with someone first; then maybe I’d begin to reveal who I really was. Even then, I wasn’t totally sure that I wasn’t just a freak masquerading as a jock. So, the CS kids got my “shutdown teenager” act, which they could interpret as aloof or shy; their choice. Suppose I did let them in, then what? Would they do me the favor of listing my faults for me? I wondered. Would they trash me behind my back? Narc me out to Mom for my own good? No, it was safer to hang back, lounge on the couch, and try to look as if I didn’t care that I was sitting alone when really, I spent the time obsessing that I looked like a loser.

      One time, though, I ice skated with the CS kids and wore my “Cook’s Special.” That was supposed to mean that although I was shy, I was still a stud. Then some strange, non-CS guys asked me what I’d lettered in, “Football?” I nodded. They asked what position and squinted. I said, “Kicker.” When they figured out the little gold man on my letter was for cross-country, they did hockey checks on me until I took off my skates and sulked in the bleachers. I think the strangers would’ve been cordial with me, or at least left me alone, if I hadn’t tricked them. After they perceived that I’d played them for fools, they evened the score by intimidating me. Back when I was a chameleon, when I was deceptive, I asserted my right to be opaque if I chose to. I just protected my ego and didn’t intend for anyone to take it personally. But I see now that they felt manipulated and were insulted, the way those of us who brush up against chameleons often feel. They had their reps to consider, too.

***

My rep continued to evolve. Against everything that Christian Science and my mother stood for, I got drunk for the first time at fourteen and high at fifteen. That sounds so young and troubled to me today, but those actions seemed like honorable milestones to me then, and I bragged about them. I was the good runner who was also a mad partyer. I hid a lid of weed and a half-dozen miniature bottles of booze beneath my dresser. That’s right, I’m a shithead, I thought, sort of sneering inside with hurt defiance. I liked the contradictions of being a freaky-jock Christian Scientist—it was at least interesting—but I still felt guilty over my hypocrisy, though not guilty enough to stop. It wasn’t as if I did these things alone. I did them with freaks, jocks, and Christian Scientists. I knew firsthand that the stereotypes associated with those labels didn’t hold specifically true. I felt carried along by my fortunate emerging circumstances and studly new friends.

      If Mom had known my secrets, she would’ve been devastated, for sure. Her head would’ve blown apart like the gourds we stuffed with ladyfinger firecrackers, pretending they were grenades. Then she would’ve devastated me right back. Lucky for her and me both, she only caught me acting out my shenanigans a couple times when I stumbled home drunk on cheap beer—grounded for a month for each offense. 

      Today, as a parent myself, I can understand why Mom was concerned; I’d be concerned, too. The difference between us is that I’d sit down and try to understand why my son did these things—the part of the iceberg beneath the waterline—rather than merely punish him into meeting my expectations. But for me, a misunderstood kid, it was worth the risk; I needed so badly to fit in with my peer group and cover up my emotions with wildness and chemicals.

      Mom never found out that my buddy—whom we called “Antelope Legs”—and I once rolled loose blunts while parked in the mesa. Some guy paid me double what I paid for the ounce if I’d roll it up for him. I knew it was wrong and even technically dealing, but that was another reason I thought it was so boss. I liked being bad; I thought it was cool and one of the few things I could control. It meant that I was somebody, because it really sucked to be treated in a way that reminded me of how much I didn’t matter; plus, I could use the money. I was given room and board and not much else, so I started working at fourteen, washing dishes and bussing tables and even dealing some pot once. The sheriff trolled past us as we rolled those doobies in the mesa, and my life crumbled in my mind…but the sheriff just kept right on crunching past. He sought bigger game, I assume. Getting arrested with an ounce of weed would’ve gotten me kicked off the team and crushed at home, and it would have derailed my life. I would have been in a very deep hole. Would I have dug myself out and ended up here today, in a place where things are usually good, if not excellent? I was so lucky. Again. If Mom, running, and Christian Science were going to save me, they were going to have to get on with it. By the time I’d really become a shithead, it was way too easy to get away with dumb stuff. The guilt wouldn’t come until many years later, after I’d already gotten away with it all.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 32 Damn Jock

Looking back at my freshman year at Eldorado, hanging out with Ramon was pivotal. I hadn’t yet fully transitioned from a freak to a jock. I still wanted to be both. I was scared to give up my freakiness before I’d been fully accepted as a jock, but that wasn’t the way it was done back then. You had to pick a side; straddling was frowned upon. I certainly wasn’t going to be a stomper (an urban cowboy) or a brain (an academic); those chameleon colors were still years away for me. Ramon did his part to recruit me, though; he encouraged me to ditch class and go with him to the video arcade off campus, which I did. I got away with a lot back then; I admit it. I was lucky. Sometimes I see people who’ve dug themselves into deep holes of trouble, and I think that could’ve been me except for distance running, a passion to write, much more than my fair share of good fortune, and others’ forgiveness.

      But sometimes I was blamed for stuff that wasn’t mine to own, like the time the earth science teacher separated Ramon and me for clowning in class. When she wasn’t looking, Ramon shouted, “Bitch!” and I caught the blame because I wouldn’t rat him out. I wanted street cred for that, but it was also true that Ramon had a reputation for offering no mercy in fights, which helped him avoid fights. Ramon was even known to carry a switchblade, and sometimes he let me brandish it. When I held that steel, I imagined that the next time, I’d be the one to jump someone rather than be the one who was jumped. Anyway, not ratting Ramon out just seemed prudent. I’d like to say that he was a bad influence on me, but the truth was, I was happy that someone had my back. If I took a bad rap in earth science, so be it. I was extremely willing to explore the dark side. It felt cool in a way that I didn’t usually feel. I think I can understand the attraction of gangs.

      The last time I saw Ramon, I again endured the gauntlet of freaks on the Freak Wall. A cigarette butt ticked off my back, and I spun around, fists balled. Ramon had transitioned out of the book room as well and now slouched against the three-foot-high parapet; smoke swooshed out his nostrils as he sneered at me, one foot pressed against the wall: very cool,primo. He wore cholo boots, the kind with the square toes and metal rings on the sides, greasy blue jeans, and a white T-shirt with a pack of cigs rolled in the sleeve. I, of course, wore my “Cook’s Special.” Our colors had gotten much more dissimilar since junior high, when we both wore army shirts with hippie patches.

      “Damn jock,” Ramon spat.

      “Damn freak,” I said, playing brave, but I grinned so he and his buddies knew that we were merely bantering. I wasn’t 100 percent certain that Ramon wouldn’t jump me out of peer pressure. I probably would’ve hung out with him on the Freak Wall if I hadn’t needed distance running and the jocks so badly. But the way things were, the freaks didn’t really want me there, which was easy to tell.

      Ramon grinned back at me.

      I raised my chin to him and strutted away, the social forces at our school too overwhelming to resist at the time. Both our chameleon colors were too inflexible for us to remain friends. The thing was, I really liked Ramon.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 31 Jumped

Just after The Exorcist was released, I was jumped as I walked home from school. A couple of freaks, larger, older boys, came from around the back of the Circle K convenience store and taunted me about my letter jacket. When I didn’t react, they flicked their cigarette butts at me. (That was very popular at the time, a huge insult in Albuquerque teen culture, and you had to fight or be a pussy.) When I still didn’t react, they pelted me with soda cans and challenged me to fight; apparently, wearing a letter jacket earned a beating. Fight, flight, or freeze had kicked in. I wasn’t supposed to fight; it made Mom disappointed in me. On the other hand, I thought, maybe I should fight them both, as I imagined Dad would do. Remember, I wasn’t without throwdown experience. I’d had a couple of successful fistfights in junior high that were all about my rep. Violence and respect were closely linked where I came from. The problem was, after all the risks I took, my junior-high rep didn’t follow me to Eldorado—and certainly not home that last day of school before Christmas vacation.

      I could’ve ditched the two older guys, of course. It would’ve been so dang easy. But something in me wouldn’t flee. Remember, I’d learned from Blanco the consequences of running from bullies; you just kept having to run. Besides, I couldn’t imagine Dad running away or me living with such blatant cowardice. So, indecisive, I froze, walking with feigned dignity, taking the shoves and kicks for another block, puffed myself up a couple of times, which only incited the freaks more, and my Mr. Miyagi never showed up. Finally, I peeled off down a side street, and they let me go. I wasn’t hurt, but I felt defeated and unable to escape myself. I was too ashamed to ask for help: my dad would just tell me to take it into the mesa; my mom would view it as some fault in my character and sequester me in my bedroom to know the Truth; my brother would be gleeful that I finally got what I had coming to me; and my sister was still only a little girl and would cry for me. But I didn’t want anyone’s pity. Alone with my problems, I isolated myself in my bedroom, dreaded the start of spring semester, and plotted what I’d do if I ran into the thugs again. As Dad and I were both males, I concluded that I should navigate adolescence his way. I wouldn’t accept the humiliation. The next time, I’d strike back and take the consequences, just as I had in junior high. Hard feelings, torn flesh, and Mom’s disappointment would be better than the humiliation I’d endured.

      When second semester arrived, I shoved my Cub Scout pocketknife into my jeans. I wouldn’t forgive the freaks their trespasses. No brag, just fact.

      Let’s imagine those thugs jumped me again. And let’s say I pulled out my blade and made them sorry. Now let’s say I was sent to Springer, New Mexico, to the juvenile detention facility. It wasn’t anything like a grade-school boy’s writing fantasy, but it would have made a good story if it’d actually happened anywhere other than in my imagination.

      No, no, more like this: cornered in an empty classroom, I pulled out that pocketknife. But Ramon showed up with a couple of cholo buddies and sent the pendejosscurrying. The gap between freaks and jocks was bridged. Except that getting rescued wasn’t the answer; I knew even then that I had to rescue myself to reclaim my power. I wasn’t some damsel in distress.

      I fingered that Cub Scout pocketknife. I had intent, which I understood by then, but I didn’t see any other way. I hid my fear and humiliation, remembered that it was every dog for himself, and armed myself.

      The thugs must’ve gone to Manzano High, because they never showed up again.

      At least I came to understand how a guy could behave weirdly when he was afraid, stressed, and bullied. How a guy could do things he thought he’d never do, act out of character, antisocially even, and get into trouble. How a boy could take on the chameleon color of a juvenile delinquent. “Sure, I made him run laps; he had a bad attitude,” his PE teacher might say if interviewed by the local TV station after a horrible knife attack at Eldorado High. Next, they might interview the kid’s elderly fifth-grade teacher. “He always seemed a bit angry and awkward,” she might say. “But don’t blame me, because I warned him what a tangled web he’d weave…”

      Fear and anger build up when we keep them inside ourselves. My letter jacket wrapped up my ego and contained all my stress to near bursting. So, I see how a kid could suddenly come unraveled, and then society would be aghast that a quiet boy from a good home with loving parents was revealed to be a monster. It’s no wonder our prisons are full of people who view themselves as misunderstood and victimized, and our graveyards and the urns on our mantels are full of innocents who were nearby when the explosion came.

      In my line of work, I frequently see clients act out of character. They feel a lot of pressure. When they go toward the thing they fear, they usually improve. But do they approach it alone and armed with a knife? I always assess the client’s support system. I think that going through life alone is probably the riskiest behavior, even riskier than carrying a knife. Life’s challenges are better approached with the help of nonjudgmental supporters who don’t target our vulnerability.

      The helping professions are overrepresented in terms of childhood abuse. A history of family violence is the single greatest predictor of delinquency. Abused children either identify with the power or the pain. As a teenager, I wanted to identify with the power. Even though I knew whatI did, I didn’t know whyI did the things I did. I even knew that I made bad choices, but I thought they were choices forced upon me or necessary choices to connect me to a peer group for protection. Often kids who are bullied will grow up to be bullies themselves rather than remain victims. I didn’t wish to remain a victim, but I didn’t want to be a bully, either. The fact is I didn’t know what to do other than run headlong into each day and hope for the best. But I can tell you now, from the perspective of looking back over many decades, that bullies can grow not only into better human beings who would not purposefully hurt others but also into a more ironic existence: into someone who helps and sometimes even heals others.

      One of the few things that I knew for certain was that I was alone and vulnerable and needed to hide my pain from others who’d exploit me. I compensated by performing better at distance running and acting tougher to keep others from aggressing against me or knowing who I truly was. I accepted the consequences of my defensiveness and acted as if I didn’t give a good hot damn.

      However, we know that I most certainly did.