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The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 52 Isolation

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

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

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

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

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

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 51 Cheese

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 50 Less was More

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

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

      Wait for it…

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

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

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

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 49 Virginia

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 48 William

At the bar, there was a lonely regular named William, who had been in the Hyatt Regency hotel in Kansas City on July 17, 1981, when the skywalks collapsed. One hundred and fourteen people died, and hundreds more were injured. At the time, it was the worst structural disaster in the United States, at least until twenty years later, September 11, 2001, when that other thing happened.

      In the summer of 1982, I was twenty-two, newly graduated, and William sat alone at the end of the long, pine bar during the slow, muggy afternoons. I got him beers and chatted him up to pass the summer hours. I didn’t dig for details of his life, I really didn’t. But I’ve always been interested in why people behave as they do—they always have good reasons, even if we don’t think they’re particularly good reasons—but I often fear my interest is misperceived as too intrusive when it’s outside of my office. Still, he opened up to me on his own, splinter by splinter, as if he were peeling bark off a tree.

      William’s girlfriend was crushed in the Hyatt collapse, and his back was all busted up. Trapped under the rubble next to her dead body, he self-soothed by stroking her bloody, matted hair like Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Then the automatic fire sprinklers flooded the building, and water rose around him. He feared he’d drown. As a chainsaw worked hard at quick amputations to free potential survivors, William shouted for help and listened to screams, sometimes his own.

      William didn’t sleep much after that, and when he did, he had nightmares. So, he came into the bar to “get small,” as we said back then. I didn’t blame him. He wanted to talk about his trauma, but he refused to talk to a therapist. He wouldn’t open up to anybody except me. That often happened to me, even before it occurred to me to become a psychologist. 

      When I was young, I thought it happened to everyone, and when people didn’t share with me, I was offended because I assumed (incorrectly) that they opened up to everybody except me. Now I know I had an unrecognized gift. 

      I was happy to listen to William, even though I didn’t know how to help him. If I were a shrink, I’d have some magical thing to say to make it all better for him, I assumed. Of course, at the time, I hadn’t yet been trained to understand the process of how humans heal themselves or how mental-health providers facilitate it. As it was, I liked William opening up; I liked his honesty and vulnerability. Somehow, I was safe for him. In retrospect, it was probably my face, to a degree anyway, that was never as intimidating as I wanted it to be as a young male in a violent world. But it was also my own vulnerability, which I allowed when I, too, felt safe—the same gentle nature that I feared made me weak and soft and wrong when I was young. I was excellent—when I wanted to be—at hiding the seething anger and indignant violence that covered me like my running tan back then. I suppose I acted professional even so, albeit at the time, I only acted like a professional bartender. But it was also the way I gave William a real glass instead of one of those red Solo cups, the care I took for him, and then how I filled the glass to the top with a minimum of foam, the way I did for people I liked, even though he never jumped in on my side of a rumble. You know; the process.

***

Listening to William reminded me how unfair it was that my life was so good. I’ve never been in an outright disaster. To me, a disaster is something that happens on TV. The closest I got was twenty-three years later, September 2005, when Hurricane Katrina refugees were temporarily housed in Phoenix’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum. I was a volunteer psychologist and saw the refugees carrying everything they owned in plastic bags and sleeping on cots; afterward, I drove home and into a gated community. But my avoidance of disaster could also be due to good luck and good judgment, right? The thing is, I didn’t have the best judgment when I was young. I took stupid chances. In college, I drunkenly swam across a murky lake. A year later, I ran through the worst sections of Washington, DC, in broad daylight. I haven’t been caught—or if caught, I haven’t been punished—for many transgressions, some of which I have delineated in previous pages. There are more to come, but I won’t give a full accounting, because who wants to read a thousand-page book? If I’d been caught and punished (aside from my conscience smarting) for everything I did wrong, I’d be much worse off today. I’d be an unproductive member of society, perhaps even on the streets, in a cage, or in an urn. I’d be unfulfilled—a cautionary tale for unsupervised children and reckless young adults. Please remember that I only wished to be a maniac, but in a good way. Many people overlooked a lot of the crap I pulled. In high school, the frightened man with the long rifle did not shoot the drunken teenage boys, of whom I was one, who were smashing beer bottles in front of his house. At least I’ve learned from my transgressions, and it’s made me more patient and tolerant of others today.

      Sometimes, when I’m in the right frame of mind, I wonder if something supernatural has watched over me and protected me even though I didn’t always deserve it. Sometimes I believe in a personal, loving God. Most times, I shrug and say that I just don’t know about all that spiritual stuff, but I really hope it’s true. I hope that someday I reread this and smirk at my ignorance, having by that point become convinced one way or the other, but preferably that there is indeed life after death and that we’ll all be OK. I know that many people reading this are already convinced. I envy you.

      Sometimes I hope that karma is real and that’s why my life played out as it has—that karma somehow knew my heart—and other times I hope that it isn’t real because it has some catching up to do on my account. Why do I get to be healthy and happy deep into my fifties? I, too, see the dead babies on TV. I hear the horror stories in my office Monday through Friday. I heard about people going to the Hyatt to get smashed (a tasteless pun at the time). It’s probably my neuroticism, because I still ruminate about past indiscretions, which is not mindful, but I’m working on it. Maybe the regret of my past and dread that it will catch up to me is my punishment. I look at my wife and son and want to deserve them.

***

William again sat at the end of the bar. I gave him a real glass and just listened. I think intuitively I understood that I could not change the awful facts, but by caring, I could help him better cope with his emotions. It was a process. That’s when I began to wonder if I could do more than just tend bar and run like a mofo.

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.