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The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 47 Puss

Back in Lawrence, it took me a few months to shed my urban cowboy skin: pointy boots, ho belt, rhinestone shirts, and smokeless tobacco. I stopped playing the stomper, saying “y’all,” and using exclamatory phrases like “Boy, howdy!” I returned to The Stones and Elvis Costello and became an average-looking guy indistinguishable from my cohort: midwestern college students circa 1981.

      I bought another motorcycle and took on a deeper color, which was supposed to be more badass: blood red. Let’s go with maroon. Distance runners weren’t usually thought of that way, but at least on my bike, I was a little bit more like a Hell’s Angel or Conan. I still didn’t have massive arms or a battle-ax, but I rode a mechanical horse, and my letter jacket again disguised the thinness of my arms, which you can see was always an issue for me. Even today, now that my arms are no longer thin, they still look spindly to me. I hold them out and think some beefy guy is going to mistake me as an easy target. I don’t have an eating disorder or a body-dysmorphic disorder; I’m just saying it’s funny how the mind works. Do you suppose there are other things I still distort as well? Wouldn’t I at least be well advised to consider it? By “I,” I mean all of us.

      Another motivator to buy that motorcycle was my morbid curiosity, which got worse after Mom died. Every time I got on my hog—if you can call a Honda 360 a hog, which I suppose you could, but probably shouldn’t—I thought how it might be my last act. Death by motorcycle was more imminent and in my face than death by cancer, a new fear of mine—but you’ve probably already guessed that. So, I got on my bike and sometimes thought, “Well then, fine. I’ll die young, too.” I remembered when I was twelve on Apache Street, and those two boys died a couple of houses up from mine after hitting the back of a school bus. I can only imagine my Uncle Stanley, who died when my dad was only four, the Tays tale full of wheelies and bravado as he showed-off to girls before crashing. Riding my motorcycle was thumping my chest at Death. Bring it on! I felt a little bit braver every time I lowered the kickstand, still unbroken and alive. It was sort of exposure therapy, and in the future, I’d stroll many graveyards for the same reason. I would imagine the people beneath the headstones, what sort of life they’d led, and how important they probably thought they were. Reminding myself of my mortality fueled my press to get the most out of each stage and incarnation of my life. I was so obsessed about morbidity and my eventual death that I focused on the content of my life (what I did day-to-day to savor every minute) and missed the larger point of the process of my life (my character and how I lived my life as a whole). This is similar to psychotherapy, content versus process, and I know now that the most profound change occurs in the process, what happens during the sessions between client and therapist, not so much the minutiae of what’s shared.

Despite improving my athletic scholarship to a full ride, I still needed an income, so I bartended as Prefontaine had. There were many fights in the bar, a couple each week, because the drinking age back then was eighteen. Kicking out the drunks fell to the bartenders. No prob; all that fighting made me want to fight, too. So nine years after junior high, it finally became true that I really did want to rumble. To clarify, I didn’t want to get beat up. I just wanted to hit a few drunks in the puss, a word Grandma used to say when I was little (but already nasty). I would snicker as she blushed and stammered, “What? Why, listen, you! In my day, that meant mouth, right square in the mouth!” It embarrassed Grandma to appear nasty, which she certainly wasn’t, being second reader in her tiny Artesia church. But I liked having something on her, even just pretend; I was a little bit of a prick that way.

      Anyway, I know it sounds mean to want to slug someone in the mouth, but that’s how angry I was after losing my mother and my religion, and all the crap I took before that. I’m telling you what really happened at the time, even inside of me, and sparing you some made-up version of me distributing sack lunches to the homeless or using my body to shield baby seals. There’s already enough BS in the world, and I don’t care to add to the pile.

      So, I perched on a tall stool at the bar door, and some kid refused to produce ID. I wouldn’t let him in, so he reached into his pocket for his blade. That’s what popped into my mind, anyway: This guy’s going to stab my skinny ass. Or maybe he went for his car keys, planning to place them between his fingers and really tear up my eyes. So I slugged him in the puss, and it was on! As a distance runner, I looked as if I couldn’t handle myself, so the bar’s regulars jumped in and put the guy’s arm behind his back. I didn’t expect anyone to jump in for me, and I wasn’t cowardly. I didn’t holler, “Save me, sweet Jesus!” or pee on myself. 

      When the cops came, one happened to be a running brother, so the “bad” guy went to jail. Although I was offended that everyone thought I was such a big wussy that I could be attacked or needed defending, it felt good to have allies and be on the side of power. I served up as little beer foam as possible for those regulars after that.

      Looking back, I don’t think I needed to escalate the situation as I did. My cop buddy said the dude was old enough to drink; he just forgot his driver’s license. He didn’t even have a knife, but I projected my own stuff onto him because I knew for a fact that some people carried steel. Maybe he only reached for his keys to drive away. Now I wonder if my fear and desire to act out my anger placed me in the role of aggressor. I’d like to say that’s ironic. Today, I’m sort of a stereotype: a male who has aged out of aggression and become more self-possessed. I like to think that I’ve kept my passion for life, though.

      I’m conflicted about all the fighting I did when I was young. Today I meet men who tell me they’ve never slugged another human being, nor have they ever been attacked. They must’ve had very gentle childhoods. My old emotions are like a spatter painting, an impression of physical, verbal, and emotional attacks, so many that the wounds blur together into red and anger and black and aggression. Now I think we all deserve gentleness. Care. Still, when I meet another male, I assume that if I’m not cautious, he may attack me; remember, it used to be a daily risk. My emotions haven’t caught up with my environment. Even today, when males get into arguments, my first thought is: red alert, this may escalate beyond words,pronto! How nice it must be to live in a world without dangerous males stomping around, ready to slide a blade between your ribs, bust you in the puss, or squeeze your soup-bone of an arm until you drop to your knees. I recently asked my old buddy, Antelope Legs, if this resonated with him, as he was there back when we formed our expectations of the world. He said yeah, with males he’s prepared for violence. So it’s not just me. It sucks, but it feels good not to be alone.

      My eighteen-year-old son has never been attacked; he’s never even seen a live fistfight. I’m really glad for him. It’s sort of difficult for me to imagine a life with such a slim chance of being attacked. He just assumes that the other kids will either talk it out or walk away; I just assume that if I get crossways with a male, I may end up rolling on the ground. I’m getting too old for this. I’d like to think I’ve gotten too wise for this. I wouldn’t mind being forty years younger and in a safe emotional place as my son is. In a way, I envy him; in another way, I’m proud I’ve given him better than I had at his age.

      Now I wonder: sometimes when I sensed danger, was I the only dangerous one there?

      Bartending seemed like a good Bukowskiesque experience, except I soon grew tired of the superficiality of bar-buddy conversations, surly drunks, and poisoning myself nightly with cheap beer. The dysfunction of alcohol-fueled sociability mixed with gritty poverty was way more attractive when confined to novels. Although I liked having a sort of bar gang, I grew to dislike breaking up fights at the pool tables and tossing out belligerent drunks at closing time. It was similar to how combat was described: crushing boredom punctuated by five-minute firefights. In the bar it was cursing, flailing fists, and the drunk ending up red-faced and sprawled out in the parking lot or in the back of my buddy’s squad car. After I’d collected the adventure of bartending, it began to grow into my identity like cancer, trying to take over who I actually was. That wasn’t OK because it didn’t lead me to run faster, write better, or move in a direction that felt like personal growth.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 46 Aunt Jemima

I redshirted from the track team and took a hiatus from my studies to stay with Dad, help with fifteen-year-old Kat, and make some green, crispy love to pay for school. Over that year, I orchestrated better moments for myself; anything was better than devastation. I competed in a road race six days after Mom died, and raced, on average, every other weekend thereafter. It kept me busy and distracted. As usual, I channeled my agony into competition. Sometimes I won, or at least ran well, but the high quickly wore off and I needed to find another race—more ass to kick—to feel the pain rip down out of my heart and stab into my quads, which, in hindsight, was better than cutting hash marks into my forearms, scratching at my face, or flagellating myself with branches.

      Antelope Legs got me a job in a warehouse cutting metal and delivering it in a thirty-five-foot flatbed truck. In steel-toed boots, I lived with grease under my fingernails and Hawken chewing tobacco tucked inside my cheek. I immersed myself in my blue-collar role. I wore brown work pants and a tan shirt with my name on the left side of my chest, “Rio Grande Metals” on my right, and went to the warehouse down in the rough South Valley of Albuquerque. The work was easy enough, but it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the pay was dismal. I wrapped a red bandana around my head to look like one of those Hell’s Angels who’d roared into town ten years earlier during the university riots after Nixon bombed Cambodia. My coworkers snickered and called me “Aunt Jemima.” I took off the bandana; I didn’t want this chapter—my hiatus chapter—to be titled “Aunt Jemima.” That wasn’t the chameleon color I went for, either. “College boy” was acceptable, as it was true (except that they meant it as a slam, viewing students as prissy and incompetent in their world of sawdust, diesel, Moose Lodge, kamikaze shots, and strip clubs), but either color—blue-collar badass or pink-IZOD-wearing college boy—was better than the grief-stricken, disillusioned guy I felt like.

***

That December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon in New York City. When the police arrived, he said his only statement was The Catcher in the Rye, and he had a copy on him. Apparently, Chapman didn’t like phonies. I listened to Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” as I loaded rebar, tread plate, and slabs of aluminum onto my flatbed International Harvester. It was about Lennon’s househusband years, but to me it meant staying the course—redshirt, drive a truck, sit out a year from school—despite society’s supposedly knowing smirk that I was really just another college dropout. Only I knew for sure that in some months, I’d return to school. Although I wasn’t exceptional, I was ambitious. When I said, “I’ll return to college to run and write,” I didn’t just intend to do it, but I would do it. I’d do it just as surely as I’d awaken the next morning, run an easy six-miler, drive across town, punch in, put in another mind-numbing day at the warehouse, punch out, stop at the Manzano High School track on the way home, climb the chain-link fence, and run an interval workout. Then I’d go home, open a can of Wolf Brand chili, and then hit the country-western bars. I wanted to stay busy and numb while I built myself up for my eventual return to Kansas.

      That was the year of Urban Cowboy, so on weekends I wore boots and jeans with a faded circle on the back pocket from my tin of dip. See? Now I was a stomper, not some skinny twenty-one-year-old grieving alone and improperly. I even killed a rattlesnake on one of my runs and made it into a hatband. The toughest cowboys rode bulls, so I squashed my hat so it looked as if a Brahma had trampled it. Then I wrapped my new snakeskin hatband around it. I also wore a huge belt buckle made of Indian Head nickels; the leather belt itself had my name on the back. Don’t laugh; it was very cool at the time and in that place. Dad gave me the belt for Christmas that year—the last Christmas gift he would ever give me, and the last gift at all he’d give me for the next thirty-seven years—along with a story about the prostitute who’d sold it to him. He dated her free of charge because she was a nymphomaniac and he was so satisfying. I was very impressed, and I had an excellent story to go along with my new belt.

      Now I was a stomper like those guys who harassed the martial artist in the McDonald’s parking lot when I was in high school. I wore that ho belt, cowboy boots, and a rhinestone shirt to the bars to waltz and two-step to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. I rode the mechanical bull because I should, I thought, and I should act as if I liked it, because that’s what everyone did at the time; at least they did in the world in which I found myself. I didn’t like the mechanical bull. I only did it once to say I’d done it, to experience another thing to write about later. Now I’m writing about it, but I’m not sure it was worth it. I was deluded as to the importance of the things I did. Nobody cared except me, and now I’m not sure that I even care. Overall, I could’ve skipped the crappy parts of my life and still be just as fine today, I think. Or maybe not. Probably the crappy parts forced me to grow, and I should be grateful for those as well, although it’s hard to feel grateful for crappiness unless I’m having a really good day.

      I didn’t know who I was aside from the performances I gave and the props I used, so it was difficult for me to be authentic. My self-esteem couldn’t withstand others seeing me as complicated as I felt: imperfect, vulnerable, and always less than I aspired to be. Although I loved some things about myself, I wasn’t compassionate with myself. I didn’t understand then that everyone struggled, not just me. I didn’t pull back far enough to understand others’ perspectives on life. I believed their chameleon colors, too, and compared myself with them too often. Then I didn’t accept that I was enough. I hadn’t yet sat for countless hours in my quiet psychotherapy office with people who had very similar issues, people who also thought they would always be alone and weird.

      A lot of my inauthenticity was just a fad in the early 1980s—tossing in a dash of the Southwest culture and my attempt to distract myself and try to be tougher so that I didn’t hurt so badly. Was I so horrible, so much more inauthentic than everybody else was? Maybe. Maybe not. We could call it my blue-collar-good-ol’-boy period if we’re being gracious or my Aunt Jemima act if we’re being snarky. The thing was, I saw it as immersing myself into a new world for a while. I was adventurous. It wasn’t all inauthentic and escaping myself; some of it was playing, method acting, reveling in a new culture, and being open-minded, rather than defensive holding back, aloofness, or chameleonism. Perhaps it was more Hunter S. Thompson and less Leonard Zelig.

***

A concept I like is called the “experiencing self.” We are a composite of all of our experiences. So we change; we morph into something else, preferably better than we were. As Sir Laurence Olivier said, “We have all, at one time or another, been performers, and many of us still are—politicians, playboys, cardinals and kings.” We look to other people as models to influence who we are becoming. As we go along our personal life’s journey, we should act without pretense or false airs. I don’t think I truly took on false airs—although I sometimes put on an air of arrogance that I meant as a parody of snooty people—but I could’ve done a better job of staying consistent and congruent in my personal beliefs, values, and actions, rather than sometimes appearing like a narcissist. Self-awareness is important, but I wasn’t there yet as a late adolescent. I didn’t weigh heavily enough the impact that my behavior had on others or myself. My self-esteem was so low that I couldn’t even imagine affecting another human being, positively or negatively. Only in retrospect do I know that I did, with mixed pride and regret.

      So take your pick: look inward and love yourself as you are in your core being, or look outward and learn and grow from events and positive role models. Common sense says that we should do some of both.

      Yee-haw.

***

I wrote a testimonial for the Christian Science Quarterly detailing my return home to heal Mom of cancer. I spun the story in a positive way, of course, the usual “she’s in a better place now,” which might’ve been true; I don’t know. At the time, I thought it was—I hoped it was. The editors passed on the article, which was no big surprise. That was my second professional rejection, in case you’re counting. I was. I understood, though. They wanted to inspire their readers the way I’d been inspired. They did not want to bum people out. Plus, they had to make their nut, keep their church going. The stories about a pillar of the church dying horribly after doing all that was asked of her were not good public relations or fund-raising material. Something inside me didn’t even expect them to accept it, so the rejection didn’t hurt. I just wanted to write it and send it to the Christian Scientists to witness, like a boy with a bloody scratch on his bicep, his fingers intertwined behind his head to show off the offense.

      I’d been exposed to the heavily vetted Christian Science success stories for twenty years, so I thought life was predictable and controllable. I overly blamed people for their own misfortune; they believed in Error and so had brought it on themselves. That included things like cancer. I liked that belief because it placed me at less risk, as I was one of the relatively few who knew the Truth. I should be grateful for those early years of comfort and innocence, except that I’ve always resented being lied to, and today I place a premium on honesty, even when I don’t want to hear bad news.

***

That spring, I drove the company truck to Los Alamos labs in a snowstorm. I remembered that a couple years earlier, Mom had advised me not to take a part-time job at a uranium mine. The liberal in her, squawking at the height of the Cold War, did not want me to have any culpability in the production of nukes. I just needed money for school and didn’t think much deeper than that. I wasn’t insensitive to nuclear risks, but when you are struggling to pay your bills, hypothetical end-of-world scenarios seem less pressing. Still, I passed on the mine job, more because the long commute would interfere with my running schedule than because of any moral issues.

      But that winter, she was dead. So I took a shortcut up a dirt road on my way to Los Alamos, where they developed and still produced scary-big bombs, and I got stuck in the mountainous wilderness. Karma? No, it was poor judgment, of course, and I was in danger. But I was far from panicked, because my legs had always gotten me out of trouble. So, with the choice of either freezing to death or running five miles back down the deserted mountain road in steel-toed boots in blizzard conditions…well, I ran. A ranger found me and pulled my truck out of the snowbank. Apparently, the irony of a teamster running down a mountain in a whiteout was interesting enough to get written up in the Lawrence Journal-World after I’d paid back my student loans and banked enough to return to school for my senior year.

      I arrived back in Lawrence on June 1, 1981, the one-year anniversary of Mom’s death. Of course, I don’t need to explain how I can remember a detail like that.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 45 Haunting

Mom died in time for me to go to church. The congregation wasn’t used to her absence, but she’d been too ashamed to attend, fearing the sight of her in a wheelchair would highlight her failure, her lack of faith and understanding of the Truth. I don’t remember the service, but I do remember people approached and lovingly asked about her. I said that Mom was fine, that she was dead. I meant it at the time; I wasn’t being a smartass; nobody needed to make me run shame laps. Their eyes widened, their mouths gasped, and their chins pulled back as if I’d spit in their faces. Then I weaved through the congregation toward the big double doors as murmurs spread behind me; I’d tossed them chum. I didn’t know how to make it easier on them; I knew there would be a frenzy after I left. It seems odd to me today that I even went to church just hours after Mom died. Why wouldn’t I stay home with Dad and Kat and be together? But I just did what I always did and went to church on Sunday morning. The words, “She’s dead,” hadn’t broken through my denial yet. They only had as much power as if I’d said, “She’s sleeping.” The thing was, I had approached my family but was rebuffed. I hung around a lot of people back then who simply didn’t know how—or didn’t wish—to grieve with me. What was wrong with me that I just wanted to sob into the crook of the shoulder and neck of someone who also loved Mom and was just as devastated? I didn’t know that I intuitively got grieving right; at the time, I thought that I was the weakest of my clan. It’d be another fifteen years before I learned that grieving together is the healthiest way to work through grief, and in graduate school, I’d volunteer with an organization that facilitates children grieving the loss of a parent.

      So, I tried not to sob at the memorial service. Instead, I waited for long runs, when my streaming tears were disguised as sweat. Usually I hid behind doors and howled into pillows.

      There was no obituary in the local newspaper. Very few friends, relatives, neighbors, or congregation members called, wrote, or sent food or flowers. I suppose they knew better or were screened out by Dad. Regardless, the three of us grieved alone in the same house, in separate rooms, behind closed doors (my brother had returned to Oklahoma). Although it was unusual for us to lose a family member, it was usual for us to isolate in our own bedrooms—four bedrooms and four closed doors on Apache Street and three bedrooms and three closed doors on Antelope Avenue—more like housemates than a family.

      We did not take possession of Mom’s cremains. Who doesn’t take possession of their loved one’s ashes? Who doesn’t honor them on the mantel or ritualistically inter or scatter them? Apparently, we don’t. As a twenty-year-old Christian Scientist, it made sense to me then to have the mortuary dispose of Mom’s ashes; it was efficient and practical for Dad, and I didn’t want to look at Error, not even ashes. I don’t blame myself for not squawking then, because I merely thought and behaved the way I’d been raised. What was left of Mom was pragmatically carried out of our house and disposed of the way my “black mama,” Tenner, the dog, had also disappeared.

      Supposedly, someone from the funeral home spread Mom’s cremains on top of the Sandia Mountains, the same mountain range I used to fantasize running away to, the range with the La Luz Trail, which I used to run up as I yearned for greatness. Perhaps you can imagine Mom’s corporeal remains if you look out the picture window of my father’s home. Is it a black-and-gray ghost disguised as ashes blowing off the ragged mountain face? She was simply disposed of the way an unidentified homeless person discovered in an alleyway might be disposed of. When we awaken from a delusion many years later, is it appropriate to feel guilt that we carried out our loved one’s wishes or anger that we indeed carried them out? Me? I just feel like mist escaped between my fingers because at the time, I was unable to rise above my heritage. Mom simply disappeared, vanishing as if she’d tumbled off a cruise ship in the middle of the night.

      Do you suppose this has anything to do with my lack of closure? Of course, there is no headstone to sob over, no weeds to pull, and no flowers to wither. There is no urn to polish, and no pile of ashes to search for tiny bone fragments. I should just get over her, they say. But something in me doesn’t want to get over her, doesn’t want closure. If I got over her, then I’d lose her altogether. My emotions connected to her would fade with my memories of her. I try to imagine her at eighty-one; but no, she’s still forty-one. We hadn’t yet finished our relationship. There was supposed to be more time for her to make amends for her harsh parenting, which I interpreted as rejection, but in retrospect was loving but frustrated guidance. It was the best she knew to do, considering where she came from, considering how she was, herself, parented. There was supposed to be more time for me to grow up enough to realize that aside from her religious zealotry and our strained relationship, she was right about almost everything and that at least she was committed to me, and commitment is true love.

      Instead, she vanished like an apparition.

      I grieved hard for ten years and wondered if something was wrong with me. Who did that, especially as I was still upset at her for leaving me and imploding my world view? I also felt a bit guilty that I couldn’t save her. Instead, I’d been away at college doing things the righteous didn’t do. Of course, today, I know that I own no more responsibility for my mother’s death than for her lack of resurrection. But when you’re a late adolescent and your whole life’s magical thinking was given the respectability of Truth and prayer was given credit more rightly owed to natural healing, then you might conclude that you failed to heal your mother and even failed to respect her cremains.

      So I grieved for a second decade. When I turned forty, I marveled that the years had barely dulled the pain, which I liked, because the more intense the grief, the closer to her life I felt. So, even after twenty years, every June 1, it was guaranteed that I’d again break out in sobs. At forty-one, I imagined losing my life and never seeing my wife grow old or my son grow up. When I turned forty-two, I’d lived longer than Mom had, and although there was something unfair about it, eventually I accepted it and moved ahead. So, when I finally awoke on a June 2 and realized, Hmm, I forgot Mom’s death anniversary for the first time, I concluded that I must’ve gotten over her just a bit more. At least today, my survivor’s guilt has resolved, now that I’m nearly three times as old as I was on the day she died.

      Mom’s been dead almost forty years now, and everything should be better, but it’s not, at least not in the way I’d imagined. When half of me died, sure I survived it. But it left me with another emotional limp. It took a long time to learn to compensate. You see, being the son of a martyr wasn’t as awesome as it sounded when telling the story; in reality, everyone just went on with their lives, spoke about her less, and didn’t wallow in the grief as I did. I got a ghost and a haunting. So, although I was the one who almost didn’t make it into this world, Mom was the one to leave prematurely.

      I apologize that this wasn’t as good a ghost story as you’d get from Hollywood. Chairs weren’t stacked onto tables, and ectoplasm didn’t drip down walls. I guess in real life, death, public speaking, and revealing our true selves are indeed the scariest things of all.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 44 Mesmerism

My parents had moved again, farther east, closer to the mountain. While I was away at school, I wasn’t told the secret inside their new dream home. But I understood why they withheld, because we believed that to utter the word “cancer” only made it more real and intransigent to healing via prayer. We never sought—and neither would we have accepted—any medical diagnosis; that would’ve been “erroneous thinking.” This had changed since Mary Baker Eddy’s time because she’d trained her practitioners to medically diagnose so they’d treat (i.e., know the Truth) the right issue. But by my era a hundred years later, the church had moved away from a personality-driven, cult-like following to become a recognized religion. So, no, we didn’t diagnose, we didn’t name the disease; so while away at school, I didn’t know what was wrong with Mom. I had inkling that the challenge wasn’t as trivial as a bee sting, though. When I called home for twenty minutes each week—on Sunday, when the rates were low—I told them about my most recent race and the G-rated activity in Lawrence. My folks always said, “Everything’s fine,” when I asked about Albuquerque. Mom eventually admitted that she had “a female challenge,” and so I backed off big-time. Still, I noticed how her long-distance voice wasn’t disappointed or harsh with me, but rather, it was soft and fading; it was not defeated but increasingly weary.

      I finished my junior year, and by mid-May, I showed up in Albuquerque like Father Karras from The Exorcist. There was evil in Mom’s mind, and I was going to help rid her of it.

      They say our homes are a reflection of our inner state: a cluttered home may reflect a disorganized psyche; a dark home, depression; a slick, concrete, and stainless-steel decor with spotless tile may reflect a psyche yearning for orderliness, predictability, and perfection. A home full of poltergeists was perhaps simply my fear that I wasn’t good enough, that I was vulnerable and alone and anxious about imagined dangers in a large world. Perhaps as an adolescent, I created a more understandable nemesis, a poltergeist, which was just as elusive and intangible as the fear that I sublimated into distance running.

      But then again, maybe there really was something evil on Apache Street. Even Mary Baker Eddy believed that she was constantly attacked by “malicious animal magnetism” or “mesmerism,” which were thought attacks by others to do her harm. She’d have her most faithful followers stand guard outside her bedroom and pray to resist the mental attacks by her enemies.

      So, what about this home on Antelope Avenue that was full of a disease that ate alive those who weren’t faithful enough to remain well? Mom worried that someone had thought bad thoughts about her and had given her breast cancer.

      My parents’ new home was a flat-roofed, pueblo-style, simulated adobe. It hunched on a full acre of natural landscaping with yuccas, cacti, and sagebrush surrounding it. The neighbors were close enough that my folks felt obliged to wave but far enough away that they didn’t have to talk to them. The whole outfit looked as self-contained and autonomous as the Alamo—which was to say that my parents had breathing room. They could swing a dead cat if they’d a mind to. Yes, it was indeed a dream home, where people left you alone unless they were invited over, where you’d assume that all was well inside.

      The interior of the house was comfortable and unpretentious. By the kiva fireplace, the large picture window took in an inspiring view of the gray, majestic Sandia Mountains. Turning around, one saw through the sliding-glass doors a brown, smoggy city with the muddy Rio Grande River snaking through it. Between the two views was a central atrium—the heart of the house—that Mom had nurtured to green lushness. As her health failed, the greenery failed as well, and Dad eventually replaced the vegetation with plastic plants. Her watercolors hung on most of the eggshell-white walls, with one corner of the master bedroom reserved for her children’s plaster handprints and grade-school artwork.

      Half a dozen well-oiled firearms rested high in the master closet, and a single, loaded .44-caliber Magnum pistol nestled in Dad’s bedside drawer. Bad guys and rowdy teens would be quickly dissuaded if they thought we were vulnerable and easily victimized. On Mom’s side of the bed were her Bible and Science and Health, close at hand for the exact same reason as Dad’s pistol. Although the house on Antelope Avenue didn’t feel like home to me, I was glad not to return to Apache Street. My dream home was any house without poltergeists or an incubus.

      I was shocked: when I entered her bedroom, Mom was already in the space between needing a wheelchair and being bedridden. She said, “Hi, T-Boo,” and I said, “Hi, Moo-Moo,” because she was my mother and loved me despite everything, and I was her son and loved her despite everything as well. Then she averted her eyes out of shame that she believed in Error; just exactlywhat she’d warned me against. Was she now the hypocrite and not I? Was this the consequence, her illness twisted into a metaphor? I knelt next to her rented hospital bed and reassured her with the same words she’d given to me over the past twenty years. In my mind, this was just another one of those things that we’d get through, like chickenpox or ringworm, and we began marathon prayer sessions. Actually, we prayed every waking moment, and I didn’t even go out on runs through the mesa or up the mountain. That sounds selfish, considering that my mother melted between stale sheets, but at the time, it was a big deal for me to take even a single day off from training. So we waited with strained patience for the certain healing. All Mom had to do was realize that she was created in God’s perfect image—and have enough faith—and then she’d manifest a perfect body. Healing could be spontaneous or gradual, who’s to judge? Still, what was she waiting for? I wondered. Why the need for all the suffering until she eventually got well? She’d concluded that it was a test for her, and I’d concluded that it was a test for me. Examples of nonmiraculous (i.e., scientific) spiritual healings were in the Christian Science literature scattered about our house, and testimonials came off the tongues of church members every Wednesday evening where we venerated God and Jesus Christ and held Mary Baker Eddy unctuously.

      I drank the Kool-Aid and so was confident in my religion. But, of course, nobody close to me had yet died. It was not part of my belief system that death could visit a Christian Science family member unless he or she was very old. After all, even Mrs. Eddy eventually died at eighty-nine years old. Mom was only forty-one, plus I figured my personal failings were irrelevant to her expected healing. The Truth healed and was all that mattered. I could still facilitate my mother’s understanding of the Truth, or even have a single moment of clarity, regardless of my foibles and hypocrisy. It was as predictable and replicable as gravity. Gravity always worked, even if I was a chameleon. You should’ve seen me: I played a white chameleon, with faith and purity, as I knelt by my mother’s bedside. The good son on his mother’s bus. Please don’t conclude that my history to this point meant that I faked it. The truth is that I truly believed, and I truly tried to save my mother through prayer alone.

      Was it narcissism again? I could heal my mother’s breast cancer solely through prayer? Please understand that I was trained that way, and it was certainly a good time to have confidence. I needed to overreach. Cs and Ds were no longer good enough. I needed to remember my phone number.

      To be clear, I didn’t return home to preside over my mother’s slow rot but to make up for all the ways I’d disappointed her over the past couple of decades. I couldn’t freeze up with stage fright as Error’s calico crotch hovered nearby and reminded me about tangled webs. I was in a fast heat.

      I’m curious, but have you ever witnessed a loved one dying of cancer? I hope not, but if so, did your loved one refuse to take medication or to receive any medical treatment whatsoever? Remember, Mom was an expert at dragging her feet when it came to medical interventions. When I bent down to hug her, she smelled like cancer. If you don’t know what that smells like, then I envy you. Someday, there may be a scratch-and-sniff in books or a button on computers so readers can smell cancer if they’re curious—or burst into tears again if they already know. Suppose your loved one’s lungs filled with the runoff from the internal assault as she drowned in a dry bed. Was she eaten alive as you stroked her face? Did her lips stretch tight against her teeth as her eyes crinkled shut? Further, suppose that you loved this person but were also angry with her, and you mistakenly assumed that you had a full lifetime to work through your issues together, when in fact you did not.

      As the days tromped over us, Mom’s breathing became shallower and the waves of pain more frequent. I reminded her to know the Truth, but her shame only intensified because she obviously believed that disease could exist. Another way to look at it was that she believed that she’d created bad karma for herself, albeit those weren’t the words we ever used. Certainly, we never blamed bad luck or out-of-control cells.

      And that’s the way it went for a couple of weeks until Mom looked up at me and said, “I feel better now.”

      Arrogantly, I said, “Of course, Mom,” because that’s what was supposed to happen. “You’re God’s perfect child.” I went for a smug run up the mountain.

***

The next morning, Dad woke me and asked if I wanted to see Mom’s body one last time because she was dead. My sister wailed in a way that still haunts me. I sat up in squinty-eyed denial, numb. I mean, she was better! I’d gone on a run! But Mom wouldn’t want me to view Error, the betrayal of her body, and what was left behind, so I told Dad no, I didn’t wish to view her body. I was finally respectful of my mother’s wishes.

      Before Dad awakened me, he’d sat by that rented hospital bed and talked to Mom’s image, which floated above her corpse. He said the apparition was exactly the way her body looked: on her side with her hands beneath her face, the same hands that painted watercolor windmills, and the same face that pressed down into mine with coffee breath to kiss me awake when I was little. I remember how guilty she felt because coffee had caffeine. So she switched to an appropriate uncaffeinated tea. As I grew into my disconsolate adolescence, I missed her coffee breath. I also missed her face after I’d fled it, the same face from which I couldn’t stay away. Dad said the apparition’s eyes were open and the mouth moved as it talked to him for twenty minutes as if it were a long-distance phone call. It just happened to be a Sunday. Her last words as an apparition were, “Take care of the kids.” She seemed to know that with her passing, our family would splinter: three years later, Dad would take a second wife, take away my house key (which was not unreasonable, since I’d become a young man, but it was still a monolithic point of awareness to me that this dog was now truly on his own and alone in the world). About a decade later, the second wife would drunkenly discharge a firearm in the same master bedroom in a botched suicide attempt during their nasty divorce. It’s all so different from how I envisioned my family’s future when I went to bed the night before Mom died. Back then, at twenty years old, I thought my parents would grow feeble together, that I could always return home, and that I had a birthright. It would take me many years to understand fully what a splintered family looked like and that I was a member of one.

      As bizarre as this apparition stuff sounds, this is not some magical-realism thing, and Dad was not a crackpot; I’m just telling you what he told me, and I believe that he told me his truth. Dad was a respected member of society, heroic in some ways when there were crises around the state needing a heavy military hand. He was a major on that morbid morning, and not a superstitious man. Mom was not particularly prescient when she allegedly said, “Take care of the kids”; she just took people at their word: Dad had often announced that he never wanted kids and that the responsibilities of fatherhood were unsavory to him. As a boy, I refused to believe him, but in retrospect, it’s true that when I gave him a small figurine labeled “World’s Best Father,” it went into the trash within a week. See, he couldn’t tolerate sentimentality, would not reciprocate attempted intimacy, and refused to be beholden to anybody. He accepted cards and gifts reluctantly. Don’t misunderstand this; he wasn’t a mean man, but he was an emotionally disabled man. Dad’s earliest memories are when he lost his own father to cancer at three, and his eldest brother at four, who died in a horrific motorcycle accident. Both were laid out in the living room for the little boy to say goodbye. Dad had to mute his emotions to survive. His stepfather soon came into Dad’s young life. Bud was a crusty old cowboy who bragged about beating a black man almost to death when he insulted Bud’s dog and beating down another after the man had negatively commented on Bud’s rodeo skills. That left Dad’s second-oldest brother, JD, a jovial foreman in the local slaughterhouse, as his most relevant male role model. JD was an enormous man and a good old boy for sure, known to take bets on the length of his penis, and then, smirking, lay it on the chopping block as proof—to women’s titters and men’s impotent exclamations of “Jeezus H…” as Dad collected his big brother’s bets. I think that’s a Tays tale. The point is it was told with admiration. So, it just didn’t occur to Dad to hug a boy when he lost his mother because he hadn’t been hugged as a boy when loved ones died. It just didn’t occur to him to tell the boy about his mother’s apparition until some months later. It was tough in Roswell, New Mexico, at the end of the Great Depression and through World War II, so Dad grew into a practical man light on sentimentality. He had awakened me merely to view Mom’s body before he disposed of it. He at least knew to do that, as he had viewed his own father’s ravaged body and his brother’s broken body in their living room. But first, he summoned my maternal grandma, who had stayed with us during Mom’s “challenge.”

      Grandma was a Christian Scientist, too, and allegedly had healed her own breast cancer using only prayer. She, too, went into the bedroom and talked to the same apparition as Dad saw. Grandma was no crackpot either, and neither was she any longer an inspiration. My grandmother loved and was loved, but she was also stoic and stern, having endured not only the same Great Depression, war, and poverty as Dad had, but she also suffered a childhood of foster homes and sexual violence. The second morning after Mom died, Grandma came into my sister’s bedroom, where I slept on the trundle bed, as Grandma was staying in my room. But that morning, I was in my sister’s bed with her, and Grandma said, “Sweet boy,” because she thought that I was consoling my little sister when in fact, she was comforting me. I took the credit because I couldn’t stand myself for needing a fifteen-year-old girl to comfort me after she wouldn’t allow me to comfort her.

      Grandma had married a waiter who became a maître d’ and seated the glitterati of the day: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, and others. I never heard Papa string ten words together, not even after he lost his only daughter to cancer. In some ways, Mom married a man similar to her father, and she sometimes expressed her frustration regarding noncommunicative males. She saw me that way, as well. Actually, I was indeed that way with her—opaque—because I didn’t need the hassle of her knowing about my inability to meet her standards or my typical choice to ignore them. My unrestrained behavior was preferable to piety. I was aware of my dissimulation, but perhaps my true gifts were compartmentalization and rationalization.

      Today, I wish I’d gone into Mom’s bedroom. Would I have seen the same apparition that Dad and Grandma saw? If so, would anybody call me an apostate today? Would I still awaken late at night dreading the inevitable, eventually conceding that at least death makes life precious? Is this neurosis or clearheadedness?

      But Grandma didn’t tell me about the apparition until days later. I typically found out about the illnesses and deaths of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends, the institutionalization of cousins, and their marriages and divorces months and sometimes years later. Apparently, it didn’t occur to anybody on either side of my bloodline that I might like to know such things, that I might actually care or have loved someone other than myself, or that I would want to know that my mother’s apparition hovered in the master bedroom. I thought all of this was normal back then, decades before I became a psychologist, before I gained the perspective that many years provide, before I witnessed other people supporting and nurturing each other, before that morning when my family of origin exploded, before I created my new family. I thought that people were normally walled off, shut down, and alone, and that I was weak because I yearned to be understood and connected to others. I was different from many of my relatives who had to cultivate a more Depression-era, stoic-cowboy, born-alone-die-alone attitude to survive because of where and when they’d been plopped at birth.

      So I waited in my sister’s bedroom as they took away Mom’s body. When I finally went into the master bedroom, I smelled her death sheets, her pillow that still had an impression upon it, and the overall lingering scent of putridity. What right had I to pretend that I was better than I was? I was not a white chameleon, light, goodness, and innocence, but rather black, mystery, evil, and now death. She had groomed me to be a good boy, and either she or I had failed. When she needed me most, I was not up to it. When dealing with things like God, cancer, fear, and righteousness, my duplicity did not sit well for either of us.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 43 Leftovers Again

I wrote a tall stack of short stories in college. The only one that was decent was entitled “Leftovers Again.” It was about a man in a stale marriage and meaningless career driving home to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. Fifty seemed so far away to me then; I could just as well have written about anticipating a trip to Mars. Anyway, I named my protagonist, an obese, balding chain-smoker on the cusp of a wasted life, Donnie McMurphy. It was irony, of course; an insider’s wink. See how clever I was? Donnie McMurphy was deep inside the box, the opposite of R. P. McMurphy. “Leftovers Again” was a cautionary tale to my readers and future self. During Donnie’s commute home, he remembered when he was in college, a vigorous distance runner, and in love. Thirty years later, he looked forward to his surprise birthday party; he assumed it was a surprise, as his wife had said nothing about it. When Donnie arrived home, there was only a note on the refrigerator from his wife, who was not his college love but someone much less passionate. His birthday had been forgotten. The note said to heat up the leftover meatloaf. On his fiftieth birthday, he’d have leftovers again. He’d lived a bland life, which meant that I’d written a horror story, as a wasted life was basically my worst nightmare.

      My life would be so much easier if I accepted boring—interpersonally easier, I mean. But it would be emotionally torturous, the way Donnie McMurphy’s life was.

      My favorite teacher, Professor Victor Contoski, was the antithesis of Mrs. Hillhouse; he influenced the class in my favor. He told us to call him “Vic” and often held class at his house as Kesey did at the University of Oregon. We sat cross-legged in a circle and read poetry. Vic sent my story to Prairie Schoonerfor me, and it became my first professional literary rejection. I kept that rejection letter the way a soldier keeps a Purple Heart.

      I gave a copy of “Leftovers Again” to another male role model, Coach Timmons. I wanted him to think that I was more than just a dumb jock. That was how I mostly presented myself, which he would know, since he had access to my grade point average. Coach never underestimated me, though. Rather, he tended to overestimate my abilities, which I totally appreciated, but I felt bad when I let him down. He modeled compassion, warmth, and integrity at a time when I needed to see more expressions of masculinity than those presented by stoic, libido-driven males.

      I wasn’t stoic, but I was a libido-driven male. Even then, I knew to weave emotional intimacy into “Leftovers Again.” I modeled the protagonist’s college girlfriend after the young woman on the track team whom I was trying to date at the time. It was flattering of her, romantic, not sexual, and loving. I gave her a copy of my short story. That was a charming move coming from a rube like me—or creepy. I don’t know which because she never said anything; so probably it was creepy. But then my buddy had a steamy evening with her and bragged about it to me. I suppose that I was someone to whom you could brag about such things, because weren’t the beats, hippies, and freaks known for their sexual proclivities? Still, I was heartbroken. It occurred to me to blame my buddy, but nah, not a bro, so I decided that if she’d get with anyone else, then I didn’t want her anyway. Then I learned she already had a steady boyfriend back home in Colorado! Well! Seems I was just a fling, an object to her. Since I couldn’t give her hockey checks or crush her in a two-mile race, I did my other thing: I defended my pain with snarky barbs, made her an object right back, and labeled her “The Colorado Six-Pack,” meaning that she was passed around. It stuck. But she was not to be trifled with and took her revenge. I found myself shunned by some of the female runners on the track team. It felt the same as in fifth grade.

      I thought it was an unfair shunning. I mean, yeah, I’d roasted her, but hadn’t I been sincere and subsequently wronged? I clearly hadn’t learned enough from the “Pigeth” incident. Perhaps a paddling at the time would’ve taught me a lesson that actually stuck. In ninth grade, when I took my pocketknife to school after getting jumped, had I used my steel, I would have been viewed as the bad guy. But this time, I indeed pulled out my weapon: my cutting, slicing words. I lashed back and didn’t passively walk away as I did from Circle K bullies. What I didn’t understand was how ugly lashing back and name-calling made me appear. I should’ve remembered the Golden Rule. Mom was right about that. Today? Now I merely set stricter emotional and behavioral boundaries with offenders. I let my ugly thoughts flit out the other side of my head. And then I just move on.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 42 Taco Tim

When writing letters to New Mexico, I discovered that my public voice was sardonic and insensitive; it was not the voice of a gentleman. I thought it was dark comedy, or perhaps roast comedy—a mocking counter to civil humor—but was I, in fact, a bully? Like most bullies, I either felt victimized, lashed back and felt justified doing it, or I was “just kidding” at someone else’s expense to build myself up or solidify my clique.

      But at least my snarky public voice kept me safe from rejection, because it was an act and not I. See? I was crazy like an artist, not like a clown or psychotic street person. My public voice kept me safe by hiding my authentic self. A rejection of my public persona was not a rejection of me but of my art, the character I played. Did Jack Nicholson get upset when someone didn’t like R. P. McMurphy, the character he played in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

      But at some level, people noticed the phoniness even if they couldn’t articulate exactly what it was. Maybe they just saw me as a shy college freshman or a sophomore who came out of his shell. I feared that my authentic voice was insipid, not entertaining enough, boring, unattractive, and not unique. If I were authentic, I’d be vulnerable, and then if I were rejected again, as I was at home, as I was in fifth grade, then I wouldn’t be able to withstand it, not again. At that point in my life, I was the ultimate chameleon both socially and as a writer.

      I bonded strongly with a few of my college teammates between my performances, when I put the show aside, opened myself up, and became transparent. We came together when we ran hours together slowly enough to converse or sat face-to-face over peanuts and Bud. When I was authentic, we built emotionally-intimate relationships.

      But the rest of the time, I took on a zanier chameleon color—a bit psychedelic—for passion and wildness. I wanted to shock my college buddies and entertain myself. My goal was to create social satire and interesting moments to write about. Looking back, I was doing the “should” thing more than ever, thinking I shouldbe wild in college because this was what college was about; it was my time to do it. My buddies just lived in the moment, whereas I memorialized a fleeting life stage.

      I told my best buddy (we called ourselves the “Two-by-Fours” because we had both slept with four different women and were disgustingly proud of it), “Be a dick,” and he immediately became a performance artist, not so unlike the Merry Pranksters. I got to be Ken Kesey, and he was my Neal Cassady. My friends weren’t my minions, they were my peers; and it felt a whole lot better together on the bus.

      But my buddy acted, played for a while, and then put it behind him, whereas I was a chameleon. I was so ashamed of revealing who I truly was that I projected a false image and changed it depending on my environment, not guided by my own moral compass. The risk of being real and possibly rejected was just too great. I fooled many people. People don’t like to be fooled; sometimes they do hockey checks on you as revenge; sometimes they poison their future wives’ minds against you; usually they just fade out of your life. I even fooled myself; not all of this was conscious. If someone had told me what I was up to, it would have saved me a lot of trouble. But that’s not what people normally do; it’s what psychologists do. But if someone had interpreted my behavior at the time—how it kept people away from me, how I wasn’t always funny and was sometimes cruel—I wouldn’t have heard them; I would have just thought they were “flatliners,” the most boring of people, or haters trying to shove me down into their box. I would’ve resisted and just kept on doing things the way I always did them, the more gonzo the better, letting a few people in, keeping most out. Too often, we just have to learn life lessons experientially. At least, I had to—at least regarding the chameleon stuff.

      I didn’t have a good filter for what should be kept inside and what should be revealed. We all determine this to varying degrees, usually when we’re very young and coached in a safe environment by our caregivers. I thought that only I had weird thoughts, but I hoped those thoughts were weird in a good way, weird like my writing heroes’ thoughts were. My weird thoughts made me want to shock others in formal situations. They highlighted stilted absurdity and societal hypocrisy; they smirked in the faces of suits.

      Today, I understand the value of ritual, formality, and boundaries. Back then, I saw those things as part of the box, which they were, but I thought they were bad and needed Electric Kool-Aid behavior to unmask them. I acted the way I figured that a latent distance-running god and undiscovered literary neohippie should behave. What would Steve Prefontaine do? What would Ken Kesey do? I didn’t yet know myself well enough to do what I should do and just be me—but not at the expense of others. I didn’t yet understand the value of the box; I only saw the value of breaking it down.

      Nobody could articulate what the off-putting issue was. They thought I really was the way I presented myself, just as they were supposed to think. Sometimes they expressed a negative opinion of me or my behavior; then I felt misunderstood and was frustrated over that misunderstanding, yet it was my own fault. What I thought was funny and wild, others sometimes saw as mean and out-of-control. I kind of knew better, but in my press to become more significant, I kind of didn’tknow better. I didn’t know that I wasn’t authentic. I didn’t know that I was a chameleon. Although I explain things here, I’m not excusing them. I knew that pushing limits shocked and alienated some, and not just squares and critics and haters. The thing was, without my persona, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. What I saw seemed weak and unattractive. What I saw was someone who should be relegated to the playground corners with the other misfits.

      Looking back today, I see how exhausting it was.

      Other than being “interesting,” I didn’t know at the time exactly what I was doing wrong.

      Now it seems so obvious.

      Not as obvious, unless you’re in the mental health field, is the overlap between everything I’ve just written and borderline personality disorder, which isn’t a coincidence. So much of it’s there: aggression, fear of abandonment, emptiness (boredom), unstable self-image, mood lability, impulsivity, and anger. I have to say that sometimes, I think I was on the very brink of a lifetime of emotional and social disaster. I’m not sure how I avoided a full-blown personality disorder other than aging out of it and working really hard for many years to be better than my possible fate. I’m not in denial; I’ve actually gone down this rabbit hole. I’m normal. I fall in the fat part of the normal curve. Truly. But looking back on my youth is like gazing off a precipice, my toes curled over the cliff face. I could’ve easily fallen off, yet, somehow, I took a step away from the edge. Spiritual people might suggest it’s a “God thing.” Psychologists might suggest that I merely matured physiologically and emotionally; I aged out of adolescence and into young adulthood. I don’t know, but today, in gratitude, I help others step away from edges as well. I go to the corners of the playground, take the hands of the misfits there, and lead them into the fat part of the normal curve.

***

My buddies came up with a nickname for me, “Taco Tim,” because of where I was from and because I ate a lot of New Mexican food. I wanted Taco Tim to be fun, not a dick. At a Halloween party, I wore a long, blond wig that a buddy had stolen and all-white clothes, to which I attached a string, and, ta-da! I was a tampon. That made me the wildest kid at the party. I often wore that wig, and something bad usually happened: spilled beer, angry words, and a near rumble with frat rats or townies. Beer was flung in my face by young women who somehow knew that I’d never strike a female. That wig attracted trouble like my high school letter jacket had. When I stopped wearing the wig, I stopped having as many people aggress against me. My opinion? If you don’t like somebody, simply ignore him. Otherwise, you’re the dick.

      Don’t you wish our grown-up problems were as easily tossed aside as a stolen wig can be?

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 41 Steeplechase

I gradually shed my “spacey” freshman persona and engaged in personal minor rebellions as humor-highlighting truth. I even hinted that I was crazy. I didn’t mean crazy as in psychotic, but crazy as compared with boring, with the status quo—opposite whatever the Man demanded from within the box. I meant crazy like the beats and the hippies. My point was that society was insane, and my “insanity” was ironic, a reaction to a puritanical society. I wanted to be wild and free and on the cutting edge of whatever passed as avant-garde. Artists pushed limits and encouraged others to live more fully.

      Ken Kesey was an excellent collegiate wrestler and leader of the Merry Pranksters. He traveled across the country, west to east, sort of as I did, but in a psychedelic bus called “Further” as performance art. With plenty of LSD-laced “electric” Kool-Aid, he went to visit Timothy Leary, the psychologist and writer who advocated the use of psychedelic drugs. Leary said, “Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence.” I really wanted to be like Kesey, who was twenty-four years older than I was. He once said, “I was too young to be a beatnik and too old to be a hippie.” That resonated with me because I was too young to be a hippie—coming at the tail end of the baby boomers—but too old to be a Generation X slacker.

      There was no acid-laced Kool-Aid on my bus. My bus was full of cheap beer and kickass distance runners. This exacerbated my inner conflicts: being introverted but faking extroverted, being spiritual but reveling in self-indulgence. My press to emulate the writers and runners whom I admired overwhelmed any religious teetotalism or athletic stereotype of flattops and abstinence. The puritanical upbringing that Mom tried to inculcate me with didn’t have a chance amid the throbbing hedonism of campus life circa the late 1970s. I took the easy laughs, using bathroom humor and sexual asides. In fact, I generally sexualized my environment and redlined my libido and immaturity, my wish to emulate the beatniks and hippies supercharging my lasciviousness. I thought of it all as merely sucking the colligate marrow. I knew what I was doing. Today, I regret my poor judgment and the pain I caused others who were sincerer than I was.

***

Because I was Timmy Two-Mile in high school, I gravitated to the three-thousand-meter steeplechase in college. The race goes over four barriers and a water jump in each lap for almost two miles. My sophomore year, my parents and an aunt and uncle came to the Kansas Relays. There were two heats of the steeplechase, and I won the first heat. Afterward, I went into the stands, and everyone gushed over me, but their praise was hard to accept because I’d won the slow heat. I whispered to Mom that I would’ve been far behind the leaders in the fast heat.

      “We’re all thrilled to see you win,” Mom said. “We don’t care if it was a slow heat.”

      I couldn’t accept that then, but now I see her point. It would be more fun to see the only athlete you knew win the race regardless of the time or competition, especially if you knew absolutely nothing about track. I guess it wasn’t horrible if my relatives thought I was better than I really was. The thing was, I knew, and it sucked the joy right out of my “win.” Regardless of any success I had, always underneath was the gnawing realization that I was defective—it was pounded into my psyche by my neuroticism, religion, society, and my family—and that message kicked the legs right out from under any transient good feelings at having done well at something. To reiterate, you can place two people in exactly the same situation, and they can react dramatically differently from each other. You can kick a dog, and that dog might come back and want to be your friend. But when I was kicked, I tended to snarl and sometimes snapped back. I was never comfortable in the victim role, and always stove to be a survivor. In retrospect, I should’ve enjoyed my small victories and the process more, rather than always thinking that I had more to prove my worthiness. My successes were fleeting and ended too soon, the way things and events fail to thrill after a while. It’s not as though I’m winning any steeplechase races these days, slow or fast heats. But I couldn’t hold my relatives’ eye contact when they congratulated me for fear they’d think I was the kind of kid who thought I deserved congratulations for winning a slow heat. If I’d managed the overall win, they couldn’t have congratulated me enough. I would’ve accepted all of their praise and then gotten offended that they’d stopped so soon. No, I take that back. I still would’ve been disgruntled because my time would’ve been too slow. I could always run a faster time in the future. As long as I conceptualized life as a pyramid to climb, attract praise, and avoid criticism, I’d never be fully satisfied; it was an impossible goal, and I only lost my present.