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The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 29 The Jock Wall

      The athletes hung out in front of the beautiful glass-walled media center at the Jock Wall. Not just jocks, but student senate members, drill teamers, cheerleaders, foxes, and other popular kids. I cautiously ventured out of the book room, away from my tiny gang of Chicanos, and onto the Jock Wall. I hoped that as a letterman, I belonged, and I waited for the kids to approach me, which was typically my thing—to be chosen rather than to choose. It was safer. The other distance runners were on the Jock Wall already, at the end by the trash can that had an anthropomorphic cartoon eagle painted on it. For the first time, I fit in with a large group of peers. Soon I, too, laughed too hard and apparently had the most marvelous time between classes, all of us spindly, fast as hell, and faking popular. Yeah, things had gotten much better for me.

      Since jocks and freaks were supposed to hate each other, I found myself in the middle as I transitioned between the two groups. When I ran past the freaks, they shouted, “Go, Ostrich!” as a slam on my awkward appearance. Just wearing my letter jacket on the Freak Wall got me harassed; sassing back would’ve gotten my ass kicked. It was very turf-like. The stupidity of it all was as obvious then as it is today, but when almost everybody buys into the same paradigm, you either go along with it or suffer for your contrariness. Similar to being in a penitentiary, I had to choose a side, even though the stereotypes were absurd, and I knew it. Still, I went full-on with the jocks. I felt safer in a gang of athletes. Plus, as I said, I respected people who tried to improve themselves. I guess I still do. I like it when people try, and I exercise patience when people don’t try. What tries my patience is when people don’t try but still criticize those who do.

***

That year, the biggest jock beat up the biggest freak, so all the freaks came down off the Freak Wall, stood in front of the administration building, and mad-dogged us on the Jock Wall. I didn’t know if it was like the student union occupation at the university a few years earlier or an all-out rumble like the one I’d avoided in junior high by remaining on the bus. Neither being bayoneted nor being beaten up sounded like much fun to me, so I ditched my letter jacket and wore my red Falstaff beer T-shirt that Mom hated so much. I got no grief for those few days when no one knew if the campus would explode into a melee. I walked anywhere I chose without being harassed. The narcs made themselves more obvious, and eventually the principal talked the freaks into returning to their wall. I put my jacket back on, and again freaks spat, “Damn jock!” at me and dared me to react. I was both fascinated and worried about how I’d moved between the Chicanos, freaks, and jocks; how I’d slipped in and out of my colors. Was it shameful to remove my letter jacket, like a soldier removing his uniform during combat? Was it cowardly to wear my Falstaff T-shirt to move through freak territory unmolested, or was it resourceful? Was I the only one who obsessed about such things?

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 28 White Boy

If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me; that was my secret. But there was also something inside me—something as small and hard as a Roswell walnut—that wanted to rise up and be better than I felt. I reckoned that I needed to perform better to be accepted, to find a bigger stage, a larger audience to impress. I’ll fast-forward here to let you know that of course, now I understand that performance wasn’t the whole answer. It’s not what draws people to us. The things we tend to strive for—money, beauty, sexuality, popularity, material goods, advanced degrees, athletic accolades, etc.—don’t draw people to us in an emotionally intimate way. They might provide opportunities to connect, but they aren’t the connection itself. The same people who were cruel and dismissive before we accumulated those things will be cruel and dismissive after we’ve obtained them. People care about themselves, how we treat them, and what we share of ourselves that they find reinforcing; everything else is distraction and as emotionally nourishing as candy to an anorexic. Still, I was barely a teen and wanted to impress others to either attract those I admired or be left alone by those I did not.

***

El Dorado was the legendary “Lost City of Gold.” I found my El Dorado in the fall of 1973. For me, it was the Anglicized Eldorado High School. It was there that I saw distance running as my ticket to belong.

      Paradoxically, I still felt a press to rebel. It had something to do with the zeitgeist—including the books, movies, and TV news—I suppose, that encouraged me to try to standout from my peers. My need to fit inand stand aparthelped me to bondand excel, but it also set up decades of chameleon-fueled agony. I thought that I had to become someone different to be acceptable and still be outstanding; dared I even hope to be admired? Conformists—by definition—just weren’t outstanding. I didn’t realize that my true acceptability was the squishy, uncomfortable stuff inside that I covered up and tried to leave behind. I thought that I needed to be a human doingrather than a human being, because the beingpart of me felt stupid, weak, and despicable. I didn’t know back then that I was merely a boy reacting to his environment, making common kid mistakes. Too often, I had to figure out life on my own. I was a vulnerable and flawed human immersed in the human condition, just as everybody else was.

      So, I earned a high-school letter in cross-country. In my mind, it validated that I was worthy enough to belong and almost worthy enough to hang out with the other jocks, whom I admired. It was unusual in a good way for a freshman to win a varsity letter. I was thrilled, but I didn’t necessarily want to give up the freakiness that had served me so well when I needed it in junior high. Plus, I dug being a freak; I totally admit it. There’s something about nonconformity that still attracts me. I find it interesting. Also, I suppose that if we are to progress toward self-actualization, we need to move toward individuality and away from conformity, because it seems as if most people are content to run with the herd or have defaulted to that behavior. But are we all innately driven, to varying degrees, toward nonconformity if we’re all driven toward self-actualization? That said, there are clearly more similarities between humans than differences between us.

      In high school, I wanted to conform to athletics—distance running—as it was the only thing I did well. I wanted to be welcomed onto the team, but I also wanted to be the best runner. Being a jock became the dominant part of my new persona, and I rushed to the sports store to buy a jacket to sew my new letter on, which proved I wasn’t a total waste of skin. The problem was that I bought it from Cook’s Sporting Goods. The white leather sleeves only went up to the shoulder, which my peers said was uncool. The leather was supposed to extend to the collar. The older varsity athletes knew not to buy a “Cook’s Special.” I was stuck again, just like with those “Wrangler Jane” jeans. I should’ve asked my new jock peers which jacket to buy, but I feared that I imposed on people when I spoke to them. I was supposed to fake that all was well and not to burden anybody with my petty needs and emotions.

      That Texas-orange letter jacket drew attention to me. Did they think I was awesome? Nobody said so, but it would’ve been nice. That was certainly what I wanted. That jacket made my arms look Popeye-sized. The other kids were supposed to imagine massive forearms packed inside the leather sleeves, and if I’d a mind to, I could crush steel cans full of spinach. That meant that no one should mess with me. But my scrawny neck poked out of the collar and betrayed me, so I suppose that it was more of a turtle look. Oh, and I still wore thick glasses and braces, and I had zits and a big nose. My adolescent awkwardness kept me frustratingly humble. Sometimes today, I feel exactly the same and have to remind myself that I’m a competent adult.

      That letter jacket was supposed to turn things around for me, but instead, I felt self-conscious for buying the wrong style. I wore it anyway because it, and outrunning everyone I could, was all I had when I showed up to school each morning. I wore that “Cook’s Special” and pretended that I was the only one who got it right.

***

The older runners resented me for whipping them. They told me to throw races, to eat shit, anything to prevent my rise. So, I trained harder. At the time, I saw it as the feisty side of me that demanded respect and that used to be expressed in fistfights. Today, I recognize that my defensiveness created a target for other insecure boys who were also in the grip of an unsteady adolescence. Life for me was an unremitting competition for success at sports, popularity, and safety from boys who preferred violence to tolerance.

      Also, I thought that the bulky junior-varsity football players peeled off their yellow-pitted T-shirts in the weight room and flexed in the mirror just to spite me (because at fourteen, I still thought it was all about me). I watched their eyes, but they focused on their reflections, on their abs, quads, and biceps. But I didn’t laugh aloud. I knew by then to keep it inside. Even though the JV guys snickered at the tiny gold running figure on my big “E,” I kept quiet. They figured that every guy wanted a gold football on his letter. I certainly did. During cross-country practice, I watched the football players and wondered if perhaps I could be a kicker or something that didn’t require being a bruiser to win a letter. I wanted the respect that football players commanded, the fear they evoked. I wanted to hang out with them on the Jock Wall. I saw athletes—and even all the douchey things they did—as very cool, and I wanted to be cool just like them.

***

In the meantime, I hung out in the book room with Ramon, my junior-high cholo buddy. In our little gang of a half-dozen Chicanos, I was called “White Boy.” Ramon and I had PE together and chose each other when we had to pair off for a 220-yard race or something. I was still a head taller, and he was still chunky. He ran the way you’d expect, sort of waddling in fast motion, serious as all get out. I felt silly loping along beside him at half speed. Running was so easy for me. It wasn’t really fair; I admit it today, but at the time, I thought it was all about my hard workouts, knowing the Truth about my spiritual perfection, and determination. So, I grinned as we sprinted around the dirt track; I was embarrassed for us both at the spectacle we created. Ramon wasn’t offended. He was one of those guys who wouldn’t even walk fast. A badass, he saunteredand didn’t give a hot damn about running. But the PE coach got angry with me for not trying my best and for acting like a smartass. I thought I was being niceto slow down for Ramon instead of crushing him. 

      Coach set up another race between the two fastest guys in the class and me. One of the guys was a sprinter on the track team, super nice, and happened to be all muscly and black, so I was really intimidated. The other guy was named “Poland.” Back then, Polack jokes were popular, and I kind of felt sorry for the guy, except that he was fast, too, and was supposed to humiliate me by putting me in my place. Then I smoked them both. I’m not bragging—it was only PE class—but it was another brick in the wall as I built up my self-esteem. So I smirked, not because I wanted to, but because the coach tried to push me back to the fringes with the sad boys who were called “pussy.” The part of me that wasn’t OK with being ignored was fed every time I stepped onto the track. That’s the part of me that smirked. But if I could do it over again, I’d just try my hardest the first time, demolish Ramon, and then act all humble and be the good sport congratulating him on his effort. I’ve had time to think about it, to consider healthier alternatives, which are more boring and don’t make good stories, but are nicer, at least. I know how to be nice now, how to tone it down. But at the time, I was more interested in expressing myself, and I hadn’t been taught to consider the impact my behavior had on others. Telling me to “be nice” only left me grasping air; what I heard was to shut down my personality and act shy and boring and loser-like. I know it sounds silly today, but at the time, it was a real dilemma for me.

      The coach said I had to keep my slower time. He said it all pissy to hurt me, but I only shrugged the way freaks who didn’t give a damn did. If the coach was going to be that way, then he’d get the same side of me that Mom got. So, he made me run laps.

      As I jogged around the track, I thought, Oh, no, suh, please don’t toss me into de briar patch! Running laps was a reward for me; it only made me faster. What a cocky pissant, right? I finally had a reason to feel proud of myself, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. It was exactly what Mom didn’t want from me. She wanted me to act mature, get good grades, have better social skills, and mingle with wholesome Christian Science youths. I get it now. Actually, I got it then. That’s why I kept this anecdote secret for so long. I got my balls busted plenty of times before I discovered my latent talent for running. But if I were pushed down at school, too, I’d have nothing at all. Again. I wouldn’t let that happen. When something good finally came my way, I exploited it. Then I ran the punishment laps that football coaches thought were so heinous. I was young and desperate then, and it was all about acting out—and only later living with the regret.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 27 Freak

My chameleon color slowly morphed from groovy hippie to grungy freak to better fit in with my eighth-grade peers. These days, we might call freaks “druggies” or “stoners,” whether they use drugs or not. The label just referred to an individual who wasn’t the same as mainstream society. I liked that, since mainstream society didn’t seem very enamored of me. I wore Wrangler jeans that didn’t look exactly like Levi’s back then, so they were considered fake blue jeans. The snarky boys called them “Wrangler Janes,” which mortified me. I received two new pairs at the beginning of each school year, and as jeans were expensive and Mom’s time to shop was limited, I was stuck with them. So, I wore those Wrangler Janes and imagined that kids smirked and pointed at me behind my back. But I also wore Dad’s old jungle fatigue shirt. It had “US ARMY” and my last name on the chest. Mom sewed on a yellow smiley face and a red peace symbol, which were not nerdy at all but extremely cool. All of us freaks dressed that way. I wore it as a jacket all winter and was cold, but it was totally worth it. I also wore it in hot weather, so although I was sweaty, I looked exactly right, especially when I leaned against the wall and acted as if I hardly cared about anything at all, certainly not school or whatever L-7—square—message authority tried to lay on me. The only thing missing was a cigarette, but I wouldn’t make that leap for a couple more years. I also wore those old black-and-white Adidas running shoes that had no support. But man, they totally completed my look.

      One day, some cholo who sat behind me in social studies wouldn’t stop tugging my hair, so I whupped him in the classroom. Naturally, Mom was hyperpissed when she received that phone call; that behavior was more along the lines of what we all expected from me. By that point, she’d landed a teaching position at another junior high school, and so after dealing with “shitheads” all day, she came home, and one of them sat on her couch, spilled graham crackers and milk, and got suspended for fighting in class. Oh, and he still didn’t know his times tables or his phone number. This neophyte freak was not the son she was supposed to have. She sentenced me to hard labor during my suspension: I pulled weeds, vacuumed, and dusted, and the TV stayed off.

      Dad seemed OK with me fighting, proud that I stood up for myself. He snickered and saw it as boys squabbling, certainly not a horrific event like it was in Mom’s and my minds. Apparently, in Roswell, New Mexico, during Dad’s time, it was simply a boy’s rite of passage, not some monolithic event. To me, it signaled the difference between becoming a warrior and being one of those “men” who peed sitting down and stayed home with the women and children. For Dad, it was just something he and my uncles joshed about around deer-hunting campfires. Their stories were better than mine, though, because they included fistfights against the Unser boys, the famous Indy race-car drivers. Which, of course, meant that Dad had to add to my story, spicing it up with the additional facts that the kid I’d beaten up had a father in the National Guard who had to answer to his superior officer, Dad. The assistant principal who suspended me was also one of Dad’s military underlings. So although I was suspended for three days, two of those days were Saturday and Sunday. The liberal part of Mom hated the good-old-boy system that got Dad out of speeding tickets, as he knew many cops from the university riots, and got me out of additional days of school suspension.

      Mom cried on the phone to her girlfriends about her “shithead” son (yes, I lurked in the hallway), while Dad told me to take the fight out of the classroom and into the mesa the next time around. Did he expect there to be a next time? I hoped, with a rep as a brawler, that there wouldn’t be a next time. I didn’t know how to reconcile Mom’s feminine, liberal, and emotional model with Dad’s masculine, conservative, and emotionally detached model. As a kid, I thought my failure to live up to my parents’ expectations was my fault, that it was my imbecility and poor character that made me unable to navigate my life by somehow integrating their opposing messages. 

      I’d spend years exploring both world views. As an adult, I’d have to go deeper, beyond the influence of genetics and parenting to my authentic self, and then keep what worked and discard what didn’t work for me, which is exactly what I’d recommend for others.

***

When I finally became a teenager, I figured that I should step up my game. Although I liked identifying with the freaks, they didn’t seem to do much except hang out and act tough. That meant I still hadn’t done much as an adolescent other than change my clothes and talk tough. Something inside me felt that I could be better, that I had more to offer the world. As my pride had recovered somewhat from the basketball fiasco, I went out for track. Bizarrely enough, I won the half-mile time trial. I emulated Dave Wottle, the previous summer’s Munich Olympic 800-meter champion. I, too, came from behind with a devastating kick—crushing the other boys. In just two and a half minutes, my life shifted from being a nobody freak to a kind-of-somebody jock, at least to the handful of boys whom I outran on the junior-high school’s clay track. A jock, to me, meant someone who was not only athletic but also popular and attractive. I didn’t necessarily want the negative stereotype of being rude, arrogant, stupid, and a bully, but if a gang would give me the feeling of belonging and keep me safe, then, hey, I was in.

      I earned my first athletic letter, a Grey Poupon mustard–colored “J” for Jackson Junior High School. I felt better than I ever remembered feeling before. Still, winning a junior-high athletic letter didn’t seem to make a difference to anyone except the other runners and me. What does a guy have to do? I wondered. I concluded that I needed to succeed in a bigger way, to letter at the high-school level. If I achieved more, I’d be more attractive and loved, and people would rush to me, eager to accept me in a way that I struggled to accept myself. What I mean is, that’s how I had it figured at thirteen.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 26 A Bad Attitude

Mom was pissed because I hadn’t called to tell her that I’d be late. We were supposed to get home from our respective junior highs, where she was a student teacher, at about the same time. I couldn’t imagine a more unreasonable reason to be in trouble. So, I patiently explained that I couldn’t remember our phone number. Apparently, that wasn’t a good excuse, so I reminded her that I’ve always had a thing against numbers. I hated them. They ruined my life. I was in dummy math, after all. (Of course, I never told her that a foxy chick’s butt crack had landed me in dummy math. To be honest, I’d fallen behind in math before I’d gotten glasses in grade school and just never caught up. To be superhonest, I’ve never had an aptitude for numbers, and as a kid, I looked for excuses for my deficit. My confusion over numbers only grew in junior high, so yeah, I spaced out, making me vulnerable to foxy chicks’ butt cracks, which were much more interesting than whatever was on the blackboard.) 

      Mom began another tongue-lashing. Her tirades were truly gifted—full of concern and facts—but I noticed that they never included picking me up from school to save me the three-mile walk home. She always dismissed my overarching point—which I was unable to articulate at the time—that I spent twenty-three hours and fifty-five minutes a day out of her sight, having to navigate a world full of adolescent homoerotic aggression. Daily, I chose to put up with five minutes of maternal disappointment in order to survive the rest of the time. So, I made my face blank to weather her barrage.

      She hated it when I did that because I looked dull and lazy and as if I didn’t care to be the sort of son that a respected art teacher and beloved Sunday-school teacher should have. My half-closed eyes finally set her off. She swatted at the side of my head. I guarded myself, which upset her more. I was supposed to take it—she told me to put down my hands—but there was something in me that never could let my guard down. It was the obstinate part of me, the part that felt I deserved something better than slaps, better than kicks in PE just because I missed another lay-up. So, she went for the long-handled wooden spoon. I escaped to my bedroom, my sanctuary, and turned on the radio. “Alone Again (Naturally)” was playing. I loved that song. It felt good that someone else outside my own bedroom understood for about three minutes what it was like to be me.

      What was I supposed to do about my failings? I wondered. If it were up to me, I’d be a genius. I’d read the World Book Encyclopediacover to cover and use words with lots of syllables, I figured. That would’ve solved many of my problems at twelve years old; that, and knowing karate as Bruce Lee did. Sure, I could’ve gotten better grades if I’d tried; I knew it then, and I admit it today, but I was still in convict training. It was hard to please everyone, and if I had to choose—grades or toughness—well, it was a no-brainer for me. I had to be safe before I could do higher-functioning activities such as getting good grades. Clearly, I was unsophisticated and childlike, and I didn’t know what to do when Mom confronted me other than resist, shrug, and pretend not to care. Mom thought I had potential. Potential? I just survived day-to-day! Support in my family of origin meant food, shelter, mandated exposure to religion, mandatory school attendance, and not much else. 

      So then it was my turn to be upset. I figured that I deserved some credit for finally showing a smidge of initiative by going out for the basketball team. Then I was screwed, just as the American Olympians were. Obviously, the junior-high team had already been picked before the so-called tryouts. The difference between the Olympians and me was that I sucked big-time. It all seemed unfair to me, because no one ever told me the rules, and all of the adults in my life merely corralled kids; none ever took the time to connect and explain how things worked. But I still showed up, didn’t I? Where was my credit? I think the lesson was that just showing up wasn’t going to be enough in life. The thing was, even though I knew that I deserved to be with the scrubs and the kid who pulled down our shorts, I didn’t feel that I was as much of a dullard as others seemed to think I was. Something in me knew that Mom was right; I had more to offer than a bad attitude. The problem was, I had no idea what that might be. All I knew was that it wasn’t math or basketball.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 25 A Good Boy

Although I wasn’t a good student, I wasn’t exactly a troublemaker. When the other kids clowned in class, I stayed quiet and enjoyed the distraction. The social studies teacher—Mr. Patterson, whom we called “Mr. Patterpuss” behind his back—grabbed boys by their collars, pinned them against the wall, and lifted them until their feet dangled. In math class, there was old Mrs. Gilbert, who used shaming to control her class. I was totally lost in math, so I stared at the girl who sat in front of me: a full inch of her butt crack peeked above her hip-hugger jeans. I’d never seen anything like that before, especially not from a “fox,” which was what we called good-looking girls. Mrs. Gilbert snapped me out of my trance by commenting on my behavior; the fox twisted around and gave me a disgusted look as she hitched up her jeans. I hadn’t yet learned to hide my lasciviousness well enough. I didn’t want to be known as the icky guy who stared at chicks’ butt cracks that peeked above their jeans. Was I a pervert? I didn’t want to be labeled a creep, so after class, I confronted Mrs. Gilbert. In retrospect, I’m amazed at my assertiveness. 

      Mrs. Gilbert told me to pay closer attention in class. She demoted me to dummy math, and we never had to look at each other again. I never saw the fox’s bare butt crack again, except in my long-term memory, which still refuses to let it go.

***

There were fights at the bus stop most days after school over such things as broken pencils, spit-in milk, and red eyes. Someone shouted, “Fight!” and we spilled out of the school bus and into the mesa, whether it was our stop or not. A couple boys would fight in the ring we created with our bodies. It was a blast, providing I wasn’t involved.

      With brawls at the bus stop and at school, I saw fistfights more days than not. There were risks to a boy in Albuquerque in 1971. I thought it was normal to be on high alert, to look straight ahead at all times. I awaited sudden violence on campus, in the classroom, at the bus stop, and at home. I never knew when someone would take offense at my presence. The world seemed dangerous, and I felt so skinny, four-eyed, and weak.

      The school-bus driver didn’t appreciate our squirrelly behavior any more than the teachers did. She wrestled the steering wheel and shouted over her shoulder, “C’mon, guys. Sit down, or I’ll have to ban you from the bus!” The boys wobbled down the aisles anyway. I admit that I joined them, sitting on the seatbacks. It was a lot easier to stand up to the Man when I was one of fifty boys doing it. For me, it was a breakthrough. To be included, to rebel against authority, made me feel powerful, as if I were in a gang of runaways in a homemade galleon or a badass inside a juvenile-detention facility.

      The bus driver tried to get on our good side by racing through the intersection at Indian School Road and Juan Tabo. There was a large dip, and if we went through the light fast enough, those in the back of the bus were bounced out of their seats. Boys hit their heads on the ceiling and came down to smash their lips on the metal seatbacks. It was great fun, and we shouted belligerently at the bus driver to speed up or slow down in order to time the light just right.

      Now, imagine a guy like me, wanting to connect in an aggressive world, sitting on that bus as it rolled home. We didn’t get the bump we wanted, so we were all a bit pissy. When we passed the bus stop of our rival school, Kennedy Junior High, the guy who liked to chase Blanco pressed his bare butt against the window. “Red eye!” he shouted.

      A Kennedy boy flipped us off.

      “Rumble!” the Blanco chaser announced. There was a chorus urging the bus driver to pull over. She still wanted to placate us, so she stopped the bus. The boys crowded the aisle and streamed off, eager as all get out to kick some ass. I thought we were just having a good time—you know, bantering. Should I bail out of the double doors and whup some Kennedy butt, too? My body went numb.

      As the bus pulled away with only a few other boys and me on it, the frightened Kennedy kids sprinted away. My peers seemed enthusiastic to fight. They were not even scared. I figured that I should be that way, too. I just wasn’t. I looked forward to graham crackers, milk, and I Love Lucy on the couch, the sooner the better. I didn’t care to walk the rest of the way home, either. I wanted to hide my cowardliness, believe me, but it seemed obvious to me who didn’t get off the bus. There were five of us, and three of us wore glasses.

      The next day, it became clear that it was notobvious who’d gotten off the bus and who’d stayed on. Hmm. Was I the only one who noticed such things? Apparently, I didn’t take any blows to my fragile rep. But later that evening, Mom stood next to our wall phone, her arms crossed, and said that she’d received a call from my school. School never called to say I’d won awards or elections, so I knew that it couldn’t be good. I steeled myself for the approaching battle. Mom said the bus driver had been fired, and I said, “Oh.” Then she asked if I’d gotten off the bus, and I said no. I imagined how ashamed she was to have such a coward for a son. But she said, “You’re a good boy,” which was like flinging acid in my face, because what I heard was, “You’re a pussy.” I didn’t want to be a good boy. Good boys got their asses kicked. When a good boy bent over in the locker room to pull up his tube socks, he was at greater risk to straighten up right into some tough boy’s red eye. For sure, it was better to wear thick, tough-boy skin; of that, I was certain.

      Eventually, it was my turn to fight at the bus stop. Some guy thought that just because I looked like a pussy, I actually was one. He ended up in the stickers in a tearful fetal ball. I’m not gloating. But what would you do if some guy literally kicked your butt for missing a lay-up in PE? I got huffy, and he challenged, “At the bus stop!” Was I supposed to talk about it? Walk away? That would’ve earned me the pussy label, for sure. No matter how many adults might’ve said that the right thing to do was to ignore it, I still would’ve had to live all day, every day, as a pussy in the eyes of my peers. Life was just harder as a pussy, scavenging for scraps dropped by the alpha males. So my best bet was to jump on the boy’s back after he curled up and then clobber him with my fists until he declared beneath his armpit, “I give!” I walked home with my arms swinging by my sides as if I carried buckets of sand. But once locked inside my room, I sobbed in my closet with my face in my hands. An hour later, my family sat at the dinner table and ate pinto beans, cornbread, and honey. Mom asked how my day was. 

      “Fine,” I said.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 24 Rep

Sometimes I wished that I were more insensitive so that when the social world attacked, I could just laugh it off the way I saw others do. I wouldn’t have needed my chameleon colors if I hadn’t cared so much what others thought of me. It took forty years and the fusion of many life events to create the right milieu to allow me to exploit my sensitivity but also be safe. But back when I was eleven years old and entering seventh grade, I was still incredibly vulnerable, uncertain about who I was, and needed some kind of chameleon manifestation to fit into junior high. With a new school, I had no reputation—which we called a “rep”—and I had an opportunity to create a new persona. I even managed to make some school friends, the kind you hang out with only at school, but when you try to imagine them in your home, you can’t; somehow, it doesn’t fit.

      My new buddy was a rough Chicano named Ramon who thought I chose strife over peace because we talked tough to each other and assessed everyone’s rep for toughness. Between classes, he and I pretended to own the hallways. I learned the junior-high rules the way a new convict learns inmate rules. During PE, when some knucklehead nipped you with his red eye in the locker room by sliding his bare bottom down your back, you had to object and get red-eye revenge. If he had lower status, you yelled, “At the bus stop!” You couldn’t just take it; you had to fight. If you acted scared or ignored it, you’d eventually find yourself surrounded by red eyes and labeled a “pussy.” If the attacker had a status equal to yours, you called him a “fag” and then exacted payback. Adequate revenge ranged from sliding your own red eye down the back or arm of the offending boy or, if you were canny and patient enough, on his face when he did a sit-up or lay on the weight bench, or on the back of his head when he leaned over to tie his shoes. Dry nippers were with pants or underwear on. Wet nippers were bare-bottom. The equivalent of nuclear annihilation was to deliver a wet nose nipper. It meant absolute humiliation and was the most feared—and coveted. Receiving a wet-nose nipper was the coup de grace for any junior-high boy’s emerging rep; delivering one elevated a boy in the eyes of all. Of course, adults didn’t understand. Teachers said to cut out the shenanigans, which left an already transgressed-upon guy looking like a “pussy.” His only recourse would be to fight at the bus stop. It created great anxiety in me, as sensitivity often was labeled “pussy.” Once a guy was labeled a pussy, it was hard to shake—like with Blanco—as everybody except the pussy benefited by moving up in the campus hierarchy. Today, I wonder if I was the only one who obsessed over this dynamic. It consumed me, and I assumed it consumed everyone else.

      Reps had nothing to do with being a good person or an intelligent person and everything to do with toughness. Out of the hundreds of boys at Jackson Junior High, I reckoned I could whip almost all of them in a fistfight. My distress arose because almost all of the boys figured that they could whup me. With campus like a prison yard, we clustered into our little gangs for safety. I was a black-skinned chameleon, glaring down any kid as long as he didn’t glare back.

      The only adult around during PE was the coach, and he insisted we dress out in jocks and gray gear and then shower after class. He enforced his mandate by monitoring the shower entrance. He smacked a broken arrow against his thick thigh and whacked our slippery butts as we exited the shower. I’d never been in junior high before, so I thought red eyes and coaches lurking outside the shower with a broken arrow were normal. It was a stretch to act tough when I was skinny, nude, just sprouting peach fuzz, and hyperalert for leaping red eyes. At least my tire-tread sandals; my orange-and-red psychedelic pants; my canary-yellow, wide-collared shirt; and my leather vest with tassels were very groovy. I suppose I was an amalgam of an intimidated preadolescent wearing the threads of a hippie and acting like a convict. To say I was confused and exploring my identity would certainly be close to capturing those junior-high years.

      By adolescence, I’d learned to be privately intimate but publicly wild. I’d learned to mimic extroversion, stereotypical masculinity, and insensitivity, which meant that I had adapted to my environment. See, I faked it. I faked it really well, I have to say, because I fooled many people, some of whom still believe one or the other of my former manifestations today. I played more active, gregarious roles that I thought I should play in order to be socially accepted and appear successful. But other than the varied experiences and, admittedly, occasional fun of it all, I mostly just hid my shame over what I secretly knew that I was: woefully imperfect.

      Early on, males had modeled insensitivity, misogyny, and aggression for me, but they did not model anything similar to the way I felt inside. So, I kept people from knowing me intimately. I also kept people from knowing that I yearned to be known and to know others. Hiding myself reinforced my shame base; I became even more defensive, and I withdrew the way any mammal might withdraw from a noxious stimulant. I did it to minimize the pain of rejection. That’s what mammals do: they attack, flee, or sometimes freeze. This psychodynamic caused me misery over the years—albeit much of it made up in my own head, I can admit now. I’m telling you up front that I was neurotic. That meant that I was self-centered and worried a lot. I was “wired” this way, as they say. The thing was, for the most part, I liked it. It made me more thoughtful, more aware, more pressed to get stuff done, and more persistent to get to the bottom of things. But it also caused me a lot of unnecessary suffering, some of it by imagining bad outcomes and some of it due to disagreeable reactions from others who didn’t appreciate my chameleon antics and made it their business to correct me. Many times, I deserved their criticism. Sometimes, I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—when human predators were near. Sometimes I engaged in predatory behavior myself, preferring preemptive striking to suffering unexpected attacks. Much of my behavior was self-consciously and purposefully chosen, but some of it was subconscious, and I wouldn’t become fully aware of my offensiveness and chameleon behavior until many years later. There were some victories and some regrets.

***

One day, Ramon wanted to pin some kid’s arms in the breezeway while I slugged him in the mouth. I did a lot of antisocial acting out back then that looked like nonconformity and aggression. Remember that Cluster B stuff? Antisocial behavior is in that cluster. I was hardly the only one acting out, though. I’m not letting myself off the hook, but to me, it seemed as if I merely joined in with what most of the other boys did, at least the boys whom I wanted to emulate, the boys who appeared higher in the social hierarchy and were thus safer and better liked. 

       In the breezeway that day, the poor kid’s eyes got wide, and fear came off him like halitosis. I felt pretty dang mighty and liked the feeling—but then I felt sorry for him. I knew how he felt, and I figured that I was a wuss for knowing and worse for caring. Empathy was in short supply in junior high—and it certainly was not helpful when trying to establish a tough-guy rep. When I refused to slug the kid, Ramon asked, “Hey, man, what gives, ese? I thought you liked to fight.” 

      I shrugged as if I were offering the kid mercy. It was bizarre to have a friend who didn’t know me, to have someone actually believe what I pretended to be. He didn’t understand that I only acted tough to better fit in with the other Chicanos and him. I’d never pulled off my tough act so well before. Still, there was something inside me that wanted to be good. I did not want to hurt other people the way I’d been hurt. I just didn’t know how to be safe unless I was tough and controlled the image that other people had of me.

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 23 Chelwood

I became caught between worlds as well. Even though I was only ten years old, I was enamored with the psychedelic, antiwar, and counterculture scenes. I liked their antiestablishment theme because I felt fairly antiestablishment myself, and sometimes I even wrote about fantasy rebellions. But my world was only slightly larger than our house on Apache Street, and I could only observe and yearn for the larger movement down at the university and on our gray TV.

      Once again, I didn’t integrate well with my peers upon my midyear transfer to Chelwood Elementary. It didn’t have the charm of Mark Twain Elementary; it was a collection of painted metal barracks that felt dangerous to a timid boy—it felt like Antcondor. My new sixth-grade classmates didn’t have hippie attitudes. They wore belts with heavy buckles, which they slid off and whirled around their heads like maces when they fought each other. My social reticence was already entrenched, thanks to introversion, bullies, and violence, so the best I could do was put on my hard mask and hope that the Chelwood boys were unsure whether I was a badass or merely had a sour countenance. My nonthreatening face and toothpick body made my act somewhat unconvincing.

      At Mark Twain Elementary of the smiling frog, I’d never even seen a fistfight. At Chelwood, I saw fights almost daily. That is not an exaggeration. Of course, I was shocked and afraid. So I kept to myself, aware that an unappreciated word, cutting in line, or holding eye contact too long would prompt my new peers to slide their belts off. They segregated themselves into “cool dudes” and “pussies.” I wasn’t a cool dude, but I didn’t think I belonged with the pussies. It seemed that I was expected to be grown-up and independent, but in this strange new world of boys with whom I was supposed to bond, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about it. Even many of the girls were tough. I averted my eyes from them, especially from the square-jawed ones with practical hairstyles. Comb handles stuck out of the back pockets of their torn jeans. They wore Deep Purple T-shirts and skull-shaped silver rings, and they scratched angry red gashes into their forearms. They slouched against the breezeway walls, had potty mouths, and absolutely terrified me. They stared as I walked past them. “Don’t make eye contact,” was my personal mantra. Gosh, I was so afraid that I was a pussy. They were girls, after all.

      When I walked home from the bus stop, the black boys trailed me and said they wished I hadn’t moved there. I said nothing, but I wished exactly the same thing. The reason I walked instead of ran was that I knew a boy named Blanco who was already labeled a pussy. He ran from the bullies. If you run from vicious dogs, they’ll chase you—it’s in their nature—so Blanco was chased. 

      Blanco seemed fine to me, and I sometimes talked to him. But we failed to bond because I feared the association as I had feared being associated with Marsden at Mark Twain. One day, while being chased, he banged on my front door. I opened the door, and he breathlessly dashed inside. As a rescuer of pussies, I was concerned that I’d be targeted next. But the following day, the bullies said that he’d barged into my house without an invitation—they hadn’t seen me behind the door—and I felt great relief and just said, “Really? Dang, man!” I wasn’t yet strong enough to stand up for myself outside the home, let alone stand up for an acquaintance.

      Blanco sometimes came over with his 45 rpm records, and although I was glad to have someone interested in me, I was concerned for the reason I’ve already stated. He introduced me to “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” I said that I liked the song, especially the part where Donald Duck sang. He said that wasn’t Donald Duck, it was Paul McCartney singing with a distorted voice. Being corrected by Blanco greatly insulted me because it meant that a pussy thought he was better than I was. So I lost track of Blanco after that. Forty-five years later, when I hear “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” I still think of Blanco and the label he couldn’t shake. If the relatively tame labels placed upon me in those tender years hurt, I wonder how badly Blanco was damaged. I wonder how he turned out. How did he compensate? Did he become tough, or crushed, or perhaps even a psychologist?

      See, again, I was caught between machismo and sensitivity. Dad was a hunter as well as a soldier, and he tried to make me a hunter, too. I was supposed to embrace the violence and gore, but there was something innately anathema about it to me. Oh, sure, I dabbled, but in the end, I only killed a few rabbits and birds, felt mean, and never found pleasure in it. The problem was that I identified with the prey; I knew what it was like to have predatory humans after me. Then I felt weak for caring for the pussies—the rabbits and birds of the world. Certainly, nobody around me took the animals’ point of view. I figured that I should be tougher than I was, that I should not care as much, that I should whirl a belt buckle around my head and enjoy killing. The thing was, although I enjoyed witnessing conflict just like everybody else who watches TV or reads a book, I didn’t particularly want to participate in it. But other than my anger, I didn’t feel very macho.

***

Riding a motorcycle was macho. I had a 1959 Yamaha 70 that I rode in the mesa. Then, just two doors up from us, a couple of boys on a motorcycle hit the back of a school bus. I didn’t see the bodies, only the chalk outlines, dark bloodstains, and tiny pieces of glass swept into the gutter. Every morning, as I walked to the bus stop, I stared at those chalk outlines. The boys were not splayed out like snow angels, the way I imagined they’d be. No, they must’ve lain on their sides, perhaps curled into fetal positions, as they bled out on Apache Street and disbelieved that it could happen to them. The boys were about my age. Back then, plenty of young boys rode motorcycles on the city streets. But because of those dead boys, my parents banished the motorcycle to my other cousins’ house in rural Bosque Farms, New Mexico. That seemed unfair to me; I hadn’t crashed into any school bus. Of course, my parents were protecting me; but at the time, building a tough, motorcycle-riding reputation seemed much more relevant tomy safety. It also seemed unfair that one of the boys killed wasn’t even driving, but he still had to die. With those boys dying young, it kind of seemed fairer that I die young, too, which was, of course, terrifying if you believed that life was fair, which I did at the time.

***

After another argument with Mom, I put more guilt on her by saying that I liked it better away from our new home. She never asked why I felt the way I did, but she made sure that when Dad returned from the university riots, he stood over me in olive-drab fatigues, smelling of the armory and the certainty that comes with military command, and ordered me to tell my mother that I didn’t mean what I’d said. I knew that no mother wanted to hear the words I’d used—that’s why I’d used them! I wanted to hurt her as much as she hurt me. Today I’d hear those words as a clear signal of family dysfunction, but my truthfulness wasn’t wanted, only my acquiescence or silence. So, not wishing to be jacked up against the wall, I lied. “I didn’t mean it, Mom,” I said. “I like it at home.”

      She hugged me. She really wanted Happy Jack back, and failing that, perhaps Ratty Snake. This kid teetering on the cusp of puberty, spilling milk, and showing attitude was far from the perfect Christian Science child I was expected to be.

      The Albuquerque Tribune flopped onto our driveway. David Brinkley, who was beamed into the living room, told me about feminists who threatened to burn their bras and college students who burned their draft cards. Eventually, the draft lottery played out on our TV. I turned on the radio in my bedroom—FM was really taking off at the time—and I made friends with music. I remember those days when Carole King sang, “Something inside has died, and I can’t hide, and I just can’t fake it…” I wasn’t playing the victim; I was just taking a breath and trying to figure out what my next incarnation should be.