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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.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 62 Fiction

One student wrote, “This isn’t fiction,” on a chapter of Leftovers Again that I submitted to the class. Actually, it was, but it shattered me, as if I’d been caught telling the truth when I was supposed to be fabricating. But it was also true that sometimes it was difficult for me to distinguish the boundary between made-up stuff and pulling from my own experience—not in a psychotic way, but in a fiction-writer’s way. My professors told me to write what I knew, but too often it came off as disguised autobiography. I know it’s not just me; I’ve read plenty of memoirs presented as novels to protect the guilty and innocent. It’s when novels (chameleons) are labeled as memoirs (authentic) that people get pissy. I think in books and in so-called real life, people want a clear line between fact and fiction, which is, of course, not always that simple, especially when humor is involved. Where does humor fit into our lives, into our need to palliate our pain with a comical spin? In our pursuit of authenticity, do we still get to indulge in humor? Back then, I wanted to be known as a very humorous guy. Of course, people need to understand your humor and then think it’s funny. Sometimes it will hurt when they don’t get it or don’t appreciate it. Sometimes they will roll their eyes and accuse you of histrionics, hyperbole, or even lying. Sometimes instead of admiring you, they will think that you are mean or a jerk, when beneath your act, you know that you’re a pretty nice guy who just wants to be liked and respected. You certainly didn’t intend to irritate or turn off others. By “you,” I mean me.

      Please keep in mind that all of this occurred before I became a psychologist. It’d be even more difficult today to tease apart so-called fiction from the deeper and sometimes subconscious motivations of the writer. Can we produce any fiction from a personal psychological vacuum? No, we still must pull from our own knowledge base. Can pure fiction even exist? Again, no. Wouldn’t it be better to call fiction “metaphor springing from our own consciousness, subconscious, and even our own unconscious?” Isn’t everything that emerges from us coming from an authentic place at some level, and isn’t it our job to recognize it in ourselves and, depending on how much we care, recognize it in others? And if you want to get spiritual about it, isn’t all matter and all action simply a metaphor for unseen things? These are the kinds of things I wonder about. But I’m OK with calling it “fiction” as everybody else does. What I’m really saying is that even when I was a chameleon, my colors weren’t pure fiction but shades of something deeper in me that I had determined would better meet my needs. I was deluded, of course, but not unusual.

      Now I write the truth and have to challenge myself to omit the fiction, to omit the impression management. Suppose I misremember? We all forget and distort things. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Suppose I’m ashamed and wish to hide? From which angle shall I relate a memory? Which memory do I choose to share? To not share? If I don’t share a memory, is it a lie by omission? If this book is kept to an unintimidating four hundred pages or fewer, am I then disingenuous by omission? Obviously, I can’t tell everything; I must cherry-pick. Plus, you may have noticed a decidedly PG-13 approach to this book. What about my dating history, the possibilities for a single male in the posthippie/pre-AIDS era? Quite frankly, I appreciate the girls and women who gave me a chance, and although I’d be willing to embarrass myself, I certainly don’t wish to embarrass any of them, least of all my wife. We decide what our boundaries are, and I keep my dating history and my sexuality between my wife and myself.

      No matter how I tell a story, there will be a point of view. Someone will remember things differently and call me a liar at worst, a fiction writer at best. Now I’m leery that someone will say, “This isn’t memoir, it’s fiction!” I think my confusion over where to set the boundary between fiction and memoir in my life was reflected in my novels.

      Another student said my protagonist “whined.” That stung me even worse. I identified with the protagonist—the guy who psychosomaticized Huntington’s disease—and if my protagonist whined, then I supposed I whined, too. Remember, whining was not allowed in my family of origin; complaints went unheeded and the stuff of suffering was not even acknowledged as possible in our world view. So, I wrote my truth but disguised it as fiction. Only my protagonist whined, not me. I was still bummed, though; I still hadn’t learned that speaking my truth was good enough despite the critics.

      I hysterically overreacted on my rewrites and made my protagonist “whine” less. But it only made him less sympathetic, less transparent or emotional. It prevented the reader from connecting and identifying with him, just as people who are less transparent and emotional in real life are less sympathetic or relatable. To clarify, I’m not talking about whining but about sharing our pain and struggles with safe, nonjudgmental people and celebrating our successes together.

***

We all play roles, depending on our duties at the time. Sometimes I call it wearing a hat, like when I go to work and wear my psychologist’s “hat.” But sometimes people become stuck in a role or color. Rigid chameleons remain one color even when it is appropriate to expand their role or move into a different role. Like the soldier who will not take off his uniform for a party, a rigid chameleon won’t be vulnerable and authentic even when it’s safe. Then his emotional intimacy needs aren’t met (and neither are ours in regard to him). He often feels lonely and defective, anxious, unloved, and depressed, but safe, like I was as an army corporal. Sometimes emotional safety is just not worth it when it means withering alone. By “alone” I mean nobody truly knowing us and accepting who we are.

      Usually the people we think of as chameleons are the overly flexible kind. They morph into different colors too readily. They are too quick to change roles and masks, too quick to change personal boundaries to please others, and inattentive to their own moral compass and values. When we observe them over time and across different people, we note how phonily they behave. We feel deceived and react with anger or disgust. They cannot be fully trusted, and trust is the most important factor in relationships in general and for emotional intimacy in particular.

      Some of the loneliest people I’ve met are chameleons, either rigid or flexible. They often have many friends and can even be popular, but the friendships are superficial, and so they are not deeply known. They feel lonely in a sea of humanity. They are often married, but even their spouses barely know them. The spouse is lonely as well because of the lack of connection with the chameleon. Sometimes the spouse sends the chameleon to talk to me. Some of the least lonely people have just one person in the world who knows them well and accepts them as they are. The more we defend against others’ judgment or overly seek to please others at the expense of our integrity, the more emotionally isolated we become.

      We all began life tiny and helpless. We were nurtured into adulthood and gradually programmed to either increase our strength or disallow it. Almost everybody, regardless of age and size, sometimes feels small and inadequate because of the lingering feeling of being tiny and helpless. Because we feel it, we believe it. That’s emotional reasoning, and it can be very distorted. Many people say, “Trust your gut,” and that is very often good advice, but it’s also often bad advice. The feeling is real, but the thought attached to it is distorted. We should accept the feeling and challenge the thought. When we hide our feelings, thoughts, and past behavior, we cultivate shame. We then act like chameleons to fool everyone; we wish to convince them that we are not people to be rejected. To embrace what is real makes us vulnerable, but it’s intimate and endearing because we all feel it to varying degrees. It unites us and bonds us, which is a basic need.

***

My writing was a metaphor for how I ran my life during different chameleon manifestations. Sometimes, when I felt safe enough, I was intense, personal, and intimate—for example, in a letter to a loved one or a close buddy—which could be quite engaging. Other times, I changed to a color that I thought was preferred by the recipients, for example, writing for agents or editors, but was, in the final draft, too heavily edited, common, and boring. Sometimes I overwrote my prose to sound intelligent but, in retrospect, was pretentious and inauthentic. Sometimes I wrote psychedelic like my writing heroes—except I wasn’t a beat or a hippie. Sometimes I wrote outrageous and gonzo and angry, vibrant orange, but I wasn’t Hunter S. Thompson. Despite everything I’m telling you about the Chameleon Complex, as a young man I didn’t know it applied not only to how I presented myself personally but also to how I presented my writing, an extension of myself. Although I always worked to improve, my writing was academic and derivative, and I hadn’t yet gained the insight that readers wanted authenticity. This fact was always right in front of my face, both in my personal and writing lives, but in my late twenties, I hadn’t yet recognized it. It’s odd how things can be so obvious once we are aware of them, yet so obscure before awareness. All I knew at the time was that I needed to connect to other people and that I needed to write, because when I didn’t do those things I felt empty, alone, and purposeless.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 61 The One Who Feels Overlooked and Then Gets Pissy about It.

I took a creative-writing class from Rudolfo Anaya, author of Bless me, Ultima. He was a writing god at the university. It was like meeting Jim Ryun or someone I’d read about, and then there he was in front of me in 3-D skin.

      I needed to get over this hero-worship thing; it wasn’t very grounded and seemed a bit borderline and histrionic. Poor boundaries. The thing was, I liked getting close to musicians as they played, athletes as they performed, and published writers as they spoke. I didn’t mean it in a stalking way, like Kathy Bates in Misery, but they modeled the possibility to me; I observed them and then did my best to imitate them, the whole social-learning-theory construct.

      Professor Anaya wouldn’t remember the graduate student who wore camouflage pants to class. It was a long time ago, plus he’s now eighty years old. I just wanted credit for having done the hard time in the infantry and milk it some, perhaps get a bit of recognition for those hellish two years when I wasn’t allowed to be myself. A thin tail of hair, a “rattail” that I grew to a braided six inches, was stylish during my first round of grad school, at least on the liberal university campus. My look was also my nod to the war-protesting Vietnam vets who had preceded me. It was a stark contrast to the dress blues and high-and-tight I’d worn just months earlier. I wasn’t a hypocrite just because I didn’t walk around stiffly with a flat affect and bristly hair. Why wouldn’t I change? But, yeah, it was an act and inauthentic. Still, maybe my malleability was actually strength. We know that rigid thinkers have more problems in life than flexible thinkers, especially when stressors occur. They are like a tree that breaks in a strong wind or a runner who should drop out of a footrace but won’t. We also know that flexible thinkers can be too flexible—spineless—and lack moral and ethical bedrock, which also causes problems, such as allowing others to determine what you write, the way your creativity is expressed, what your voice sounds like, what your opinion is, what you share of yourself, and even what you think. Again, it looks as if it comes back to the normal curve, and the key is to stay in the fat part of it—to remain balanced.

      On the first day of class, I suggested that each student share his or her personal backstory. It was cheeky of me, of course. Who was I to suggest a class modification at all, let alone to a professor who was also a highly respected author? Was I a presumptuous dickweed? Remember that I played the future-author role; I acted as-if. Even Kurt Vonnegut said, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I pretended to be an undiscovered Kurt Vonnegut or Rudolfo Anaya.

      And so it goes, Ultima.

      Although I saw Professor Anaya as way above me, I envisioned that one day, we’d be peers. Naturally, I didn’t say this aloud; I was OK with being a presumptuous dickweed, but I did not wish to be a pompous blowhard. No, people just saw me buying another ream of paper to hold the words that everybody except me recognized as scat. I was tenacious even when everyone else saw some guy covered in grout, who, for some inexplicable reason, requested intimacy in the classroom.

      But Professor Anaya said OK. I gave him full credit for that. He could’ve said, “I think not” and then ignored me. Maybe he should’ve. Then I could’ve been all narcissistically wounded and thought mean things about him forever. But no, he agreed, which made him even more of a stud in my eyes—if you should even characterize a writer as a stud, which I do. At the beginning of each class, the person whose turn it was to read his or her short story aloud first gave a brief autobiography. We became a family of writers all pulling together, not a room full of critics and competitors (which, now that I think about it, was probably more about how I approached class than how my classmates approached it). After all, we all wrote naked, streaking through the reams of paper, and it felt safer to me rather than smirking at each other’s puny efforts, safer because we’d have a relationship.

      See, when I got interested in a piece of writing, I also became interested in the author. I liked knowing the precedent that produced the writing. Yet again, it was the latent psychologist in me, I surmise. Today, I prefer to learn my clients’ histories, too. I like to place their current struggles in context. Neither people nor writing spring into the present out of a vacuum, so it’s my preference to know the history of psychotherapy clients and works of art. I can do psychotherapy just dealing with the here-and-now, and I can experience art and let it rise or fall on its own merits. I’m not arguing against that point of view—in fact, I like it, in theory—I’m only stating that my preference is to know the pathology and the history, the art and the artist’s backstory. People can try to talk me out of it, and I’ll listen—I’ll even nod, apparently appreciative of the unsolicited advice—but it’s still my preference.

      I’m not unaware that J. D. Salinger refused to do book tours and other publicity events. He thought an author should only be known through his or her work. The thing was, I loved The Catcher in the Rye, but I loved it even more knowing Salinger’s personal history. Oh, and he and I were both infantry veterans who hated phoniness, which made me enjoy his prose even more.

      Which segues me back to John Lennon, who is forever connected in the most heinous way to Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. Lennon’s assassin had a copy of the novel on him when he was arrested. He accused Lennon of being a phony similar to the ones against whom protagonist Holden Caulfield railed, and if you’re crazy enough, you might even murder someone over it. In some ways, Lennon was indeed a phony. I read an excellent biography about his violence, philandering, and addictions that are in stark contrast to his art. Some of his music could be viewed as phony compared with how he ran his private life. Do you suppose he was a chameleon, too, or merely a hypocrite? Sometimes it’s better not to know someone’s personal story if it detracts from his or her art. In that respect, maybe the private people and rigid chameleons got it right. Bill Cosby used to be funnier.

      When it finally came my turn to read in Professor Anaya’s class, I was the only one not asked to give my personal history. Was that a class-wide, passive-aggressive message for me to keep my curiosity to myself or a final lesson from my esteemed professor? Did I just slip through the cracks? Did I have to write this book to make up for that slight? Sometimes I worried that I was so nondescript, so fat-part-of-the-normal-curve average, landing in neither tail, that I was overlooked for both the good things and the bad things I did, which meant getting neither credit nor punishment. Society was indifferent to me. I got lost in the crowd. I didn’t recognize at the time that I really was like everyone else; the difference was that I was just more offended. I had unreasonable expectations of what others’ level of interest in me should be, or how far into the right tail of the curve I was capable of going.

      At the time, I just sat stunned. I didn’t remind Professor Anaya that I hadn’t yet told my story, even though it was my idea. Why did my life have to be ironic so often? How much of this dynamic did I create versus how much was just the way the world was? Perhaps I just needed to understand, accept, and be less offended by it. Was synchronicity, society, or just life in general teaching me hard lessons?

      I was still too naïve to realize that that was my life’s core issue: I was the one who feels overlooked and then gets pissy about it. I remained quiet because it’d sound too much like whining if I spoke up—too narcissistic—a couple of things that I really wanted to work on. Where should ego end and acceptance begin?

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 60 Metamorphosis

At the University of New Mexico, I put on my graduate-student persona and became one of those library cadavers laid out on overstuffed chairs, tucked into nooks, or sunning by the duck pond reading Metamorphosis and tossing ramen noodles to sparrows. I was poor, but I always had books. Listen, you can reuse razors, coffee grounds, and even trash bags (if you aren’t cockroach phobic. After my peak experience, I rescued cockroaches; even they awed me because they were wondrous life.). Life was good even without money, as I had never connected income or things with happiness. Once my basic needs were met, more money didn’t make me happier. Studies back this up, by the way, but I didn’t know that then; I just knew that books and writing made me happy because it felt like positive growth, like trying to self-actualize, which to me also was linked to publishing.

      Back in the 1980s, my option to publish was to seduce editors or go with a vanity press. My writers’ group was full of English majors who smirked at self-publishing. We wore the label “novelist” uncomfortably but hopefully. Although none of us was actually published, we viewed people who self-published the way I viewed my buddy Ramon waddling beside me as we raced a 220-yard dash in PE class. “Arrogant” probably captures my attitude. But at the time, I saw myself as confident and hopeful.

      Hope makes us more resilient. Rats that have hope of rescue will tread water longer before giving up and drowning. Yeah, I know; it’s a really mean experiment. I’m just saying that I could tread water like a mofo. I always had hope.

      Hope is learned. It is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities. As in distance running, I knew that I wasn’t as talented as many of the people I competed against, but I was hopeful or persistent. I yearned for the day that the spines of my novels would grace the shelves of libraries and bookstores. I was already in Manhattan at sold-out book signings in my mind even as I Xeroxed hundreds of pages of my current novel to share with the other creative-writing students. Many trees gave their lives in the service of molding me into a writer. Someday, from my novel’s back cover, I would stare at all of those people who rolled their eyes. I’d be wearing a black turtleneck, my chin would be propped on my fist, and I’d sport my best shit-eating grin, which would imply, “Well? How you like me now?”

      Now, you may be thinking, didn’t this guy already have a peak experience? Didn’t he settle down with Renni? Where’s the psychological growth? To clarify, although my peak experience made me a more loving and empathetic young man, I was that way with everybody else. I was the person last in line; I still struggled with some chameleon traits. The chameleon in me couldn’t endure the shame of a vanity press. Besides, even if I did publish my own writing, how would I market and distribute my books? I didn’t want to be one of those desperate people with a garage full of unsold novels. In 1987, I couldn’t imagine books written, published, marketed, purchased, and downloaded from something called the Internet (as there was no Internet).

      I used my university writing classes to polish Leftovers Again, untouched while I was in the army. I hoped to “find a home for it,” which was graduate speak meaning I was on the brink—the very cusp—of signing with a major publisher. All my troubles would vanish as if I were moving to Solla Sollew. I’d finally have serious respect, the CIB of the literary world.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 59 Renni

People who’d known me for many years pulled me aside and said they liked me better, but they attributed my change to Renni. In Christmas cards, people wrote that I was lucky to have her. They liked that I’d settled down, joined them in couples’ domesticity. It was like at a wedding when everyone claps and celebrates two more people easing into the matrimonial box. They encouraged the status quo, the joining in the fabric of society.

      I nodded and smiled toothlessly at the sideways compliments. That didn’t mean that I agreed with what they said; it just meant that I didn’t look for an argument, to get into an indignant word fight. Which hill did I choose to die on, right? I was trying to be more mature, to decrease conflict in my life. I agreed that I’d somehow changed, but they implied that before I met Renni, I was douchey, and now I was the fortunate disabled half of our coupleship. Was the story of our romance that I played the slacker role, the reckless guy who wooed and won the gorgeous overachiever, the girl who didn’t get into trouble, the college pentathlete and coach who went on to academic success? I straightened up to win her over, and then everyone liked me better? Renni tamed me? Was I pussy-whipped? Had the critics finally beaten me down into a cold surrender? I at least had to consider my domesticity, what it looked like, because I was too young to sell out. Even though my peak experience had made me a more loving person, I still hadn’t given up my quest to join the ranks of the mad-to-burn.

      Those folks connected my behaving more empathetically, more considerately of others, with pairing off with Renni. They thought the two events were correlated—like during baseball season, there were mosquitoes; therefore, baseball caused mosquitoes. Wasn’t that loose thinking? They liked me better attached to Renni. I wasn’t as acceptable by myself? I liked me better, too, but why would they tell me that? Their faces and tone implied that they thought they were complimenting me and teaching me a much-needed life lesson. Do I sound defensive? 

      But was I really so horribly out of my league? Did I deserve someone less intelligent, attractive, ambitious, or generous? Was this yet another example of the low expectations placed upon me or a comment on my chameleon colors? Was Renni’s judgment of men so poor? Shouldn’t she be insulted, too?

      Let’s suppose that Renni recognized a complimentary piece to make a stronger whole. Maybe she was brilliant to have chosen me; she saw beneath the chameleon color to the authentic me. Looking back, I was actually a good thing for her as well, not a restoration project at all. I brought liberal arts to her science, a bit of art to her logic, a bit of mellow to her intensity; so as a couple, we were fairly well rounded. It certainly didn’t feel as if I’d sold out by settling down, as if I’d compromised something of myself. It felt just the opposite, as if I had a strong teammate charging down the track with a huge lead, about to pass me the baton so that I could anchor the relay to a big win. Life became easier with an ambitious partner. I still wanted to make a difference, to shine a light on the absurdities of society and human existence. There was still a piece of me that was rebellious; I was still me, and Renni wasn’t asking me to be anything different.

      Don’t get me wrong; I am grateful for Renni. She gets a huge hunk of credit for making me want to be a better man. But what about my peak experience? Was the moment my paradigm shifted the moment my brain made the final neural connection necessary to maturate to match my chronological age of twenty-seven? I literally became mature in that moment. What about losing the dream of elite distance running causing me to let go of the selfishness needed to perform at that level? What about the freedom I enjoyed to be myself after the repression of army life? What about losing my religion, which forced me to investigate other possibilities? I was ready to become more responsible. I didn’t want to be a lowly private any longer; I was ready to be an officer, a leader. I wanted to bring Renni along with me, and being in love with my best friend made it feel like less of a struggle and more of an adventure. So the change in me was multifactorial and not as simple as the idea that a good woman cleaned me up and straightened me out.

      So no, I wasn’t pussy-whipped. I just morphed into a new and better color, someone cognitively abler. I became someone emotionally more mature who considered other people’s points of view and cared that they, too, had thoughts and feelings of their own that mattered. I became someone just a bit more authentically me and more loving and accepting of others’ authenticity and foibles. But no, I certainly was not pussy-whipped.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 58 Peak Experience

I again made the trip from Virginia to New Mexico, to the Duke City, Albuquerque, the near-unspellable place of my birth. If it were true that you don’t look at the chameleon to determine whom he or she is, you look at his or her environment, I was excited to figure out who I’d become next. I couldn’t be Timmy Two-Mile any longer because of my injury, but neither would I be Corporal, Specialist, Private, Trainee, Taco Tim, Two-by-Four, Aunt Jemima, a freak, a leader of minions, T-Bub, Ratty Snake, or Happy Jack.

      After setting tile all day with my old high-school cross-country buddy Antelope Legs, I went to Kaplan Education Center to study for the GRE—Graduate Records Exam. I figured a master of arts in creative writing would help me to earn more as a teacher, a future incarnation I’d decided to move toward, something with “Mister” as a prefix. I was ready to try Mom’s way, to try sitting nicely on her bus. Smeared with Quick Set concrete and reeking of sweat, my high-and-tight haircut growing out, I requested GRE cassette lessons from a cute woman who worked there. I’d just met Renni, “like Penny but with an R.” She was studying to get into medical school, which I respected, the whole medical paradigm no longer a deal breaker for me. Turned out we were the same age, twenty-six, had grown up within a mile of each other, and had many track friends in common. The dividing line between our schools had kept us from meeting until then, thank goodness, because she was a good girl, and I was, well, you know. A chameleon, I guess.

      Without distance running and the army to dominate my life, I had time for both Renni and serious studies. I experienced a sort of emotional and intellectual renaissance. They say we have to experience sorrow to experience joy; we need the relative difference. My heart and mind were greedy after being constricted in the military. Dating Renni and the university experience were the exact opposite of my rigid army experience. My life had opened up and was my own to live.

      One evening, we sat in a hot tub having our usual existential conversation. Renni was a fine listener and didn’t mind the torrent of concepts and questions that spewed out of me in my search for “Ultimate Truth.” That was my new thing then, to finally pin it down. Someone should’ve already figured it out, right? Not I, but someone brilliant, and then I could just ask that person for the answer, like in high-school algebra class. Why would I, among the billions of people throughout history who’d already asked the same questions, finally figure it out? No, the information must already be out there; I just needed to research it. So I talked to anyone I could about it. I must’ve irritated those who wished to impose their world views on me when they mistook my eagerness to mean that I would be an easy convert. I always admired people who searched for truth, but I was suspicious of those who claimed to have it. Although I was open-minded, I never committed. I just couldn’t make the leap of faith. Prayer seemed silly when compared with science, which never required me to make that leap and was replicable. Spirituality versus science was a conflict for me, even though the world view I inherited, Christian Science, tried to merge the two.

      But science certainly didn’t have all the answers, so I did a cursory overview of some of the great thinkers throughout history and read books on religion and philosophy, ranging from materialism to spiritualism. I eventually circled back to Christian Science, which, not coincidentally, always felt like the best fit, despite the neglect it engendered. I was kind of like a battered spouse who refused to leave his abuser, if for no other reasons than she claimed to love me and was at least familiar to me. Of course, after the honeymoon and build-up period, the spouse gets beaten again, which was exactly what happened to me. See, I was asked to be the graduate student representative on campus for the Christian Science Student Organization. I agreed because I felt pressured, having been raised in the Sunday school, with a mother who was still prominent in the church (in living memory), and being the only grad student available. As I’d gotten serious about scrupulous honesty, I pulled the faculty adviser aside and told him that I still enjoyed a chilled Guinness, in a can, of course. His face set hard, and he never spoke to me again. Needless to say, I was out of the student organization, and I never again entered a Christian Science church. Although in many ways it fit me, it still wasn’t a good-enough fit. I was finally done with the church once it became clear that the church was finally done with me. I was trying to be a good person, to be honest and authentic; but when I revealed myself, I was judged, and that made me want to conceal myself again. I knew by then that authenticity was the way, even if it made me a poorer fit for organized religions.

      So, my angst-driven search for Ultimate Truth continued.

      Then something wonderful happened.

      In that hot tub with Renni, I guessed what time it was. I got out, looked at my watch, and was exactly right about the time. In that moment, an ecstatic state of euphoria and harmonization flooded over me. It had nothing to do with organized religion but everything to do with being a spiritual being. There were revelations about the interconnectedness of the universe that felt mystical and spiritual. I had intense feelings of happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and knowledge of higher truth. The overwhelming beauty of nature astounded me and affirmed the meaning, miraculousness, and value of existence. I had free will, self-determination, creativity, and empathy. My sense of self dissolved into an awareness of greater unity.

      It was the opposite of atheism, materialism, or every dog for himself. I realized that the so-called Ultimate Truth somehow hinged on love. Although I still liked the word “free,” both as meaning of no cost to me and not being under the power or control of another, my new favorite word was “love.”

      That probably sounds corny to some, obvious to others, and overly simplistic to true intellectuals, but that’s what was revealed to me at that hot-tub moment, and I’m sticking with it.

      My paradigm shifted.

      Maslow called it a “peak experience.” It sometimes happened to people on LSD and to volunteers using psychedelic mushrooms. It also happened to people steeped in religious and existential pursuits, like cloistered monks or, you know, me. Yes, that’s what it was, a peak experience. They say that if you don’t know what it is, then you haven’t had one. It wasn’t just an “Ah-ha! moment.” It was more than merely a sudden insight; it was a tectonic shift of perspective. My toilet-paper tube widened. In that moment, I literally became a more loving and empathetic person. What might have happened, I theorize today, was that my brain finally made the necessary neural connections it’d been lacking, which enabled it to open up wider and have deeper understanding of the universe and my place in it. That, or something truly spiritual occurred.

      Although there was no chorus, harp music, or shaft of light from the heavens, it was as if venetian blinds had been opened to the outside sunlight, except that the light never faded; I just grew accustomed to living in brightness. I felt bliss for weeks, and then it became my new normal.

      So the words prominently displayed on the Christian Science church wall that I took for granted as a boy were the most profound concept of all: God Is Love. No religion captured everything I looked for, which meant that love became my spirituality, my religion—and I got to keep my vices and sleep in on Sundays.

      I also became much more loving to my core self. This included all my thoughts, emotions, and past; it was who I was authentically. I was innately lovable, as I’d been on the day I was born—before people and events had time to poison my mind against me and I compensated with chameleon behavior.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 57 The Presidio

The army sent me to San Francisco to be on the All-Army Track Team. The Presidio was an army post back then and wouldn’t become a national park until 1994. From my barrack, I had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge a quarter mile away. We held formations two times a day on the parade field, mornings in the mist and evenings before the sun set behind Seacliff. I only had to make both formations, attend track practice, and run fast. It was as close to being a professional runner as I ever got, and it was the kind of support I’d had in mind when I joined up.

      After the foggy morning runs, I spent my free hours in the post library writing long, overwrought letters to friends and reading Ginsberg’s Howl and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which I’d bought at City Lights Bookstore. I imagined the people who preceded me in San Francisco, such as Jack Kerouac, who was shy the way I sometimes felt—but man, he sure didn’t write shyly, and I didn’t want to, either. I liked that the beatniks were beaten down the way I felt at the time. I marinated, I’m telling you, right there at the corner of Haight-Ashbury, right where the hippies had stood. But by then, the cast looked more like drug addicts and homeless people and did not resemble the characters I’d read about and seen on TV. It reminded me that I still straddled worlds: a literary life and a military life, liberal and conservative, Mom’s way and Dad’s way, freaks and jocks, Christian and Science, or spirit and materialism. I still felt caught in the middle, not sure exactly who I was.

      I was injured during my last race for the army. I led the race and wouldn’t drop out when my heel blistered. It was a championship race, and I thought people who DNF (did not finish) were quitters. I’d never dropped out of a race, which was obviously inflexible thinking and ignorant, because the injury ended my running career. The activity that had saved my life was no longer viable for me.

***

I returned to Fort Meyer on crutches and began a life stage that somehow couldn’t be about distance running. I was lost. But “Fuck up, move up” was an army maxim, so they made me a corporal, the lowest noncommissioned officer. I got my own team, which meant three guys plus me, and I was expected to keep them at a distance, not get personal. They had to respect the rank and take my orders without question, without complaint. They couldn’t even criticize me. Hypothetically, one day I might lead them into combat. I found the toughness, the invulnerability, the uniform like armor, but it wasn’t as good as I’d imagined. It was emotionally safe but lonely, and it certainly didn’t nurture me; it was as cold as moving chess pieces. I was a lonely chameleon with a really hard shell.

      When my hitch ended, I drove off post and headed west. Have you ever felt freedom? Imagine being underwater, your lungs and head bursting, and you can’t stand it, but then you push off the bottom and crash through the surface with a gasp. It was like that, but one hundred times stronger and way longer and better.