Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Letter to Greasers Concerning Growing Up

Dear past and future rebels with or without various causes,

When I was a kid, a child, I used to get bullied, which isn't exactly an uncommon experience for a lot of children, but when it's happening to you, you tend not to care so much about how statistically likely it is. It wasn't all the time, and it wasn't always a worst case scenario, but it could be at times. Sometimes it was just teasing, sometimes a shove or a snatched bag or eaten food. Later it was tripping and slamming into lockers. The worst it ever got was being outright kicked and beaten while I lay on the ground in a fetal position at a local skating rink.

It wasn't the same bully throughout the years, either. Nothing like a nemesis. It just seemed like I attracted excitable, jealous, and sometimes, violent people. It wasn't that surprising to me. I was a smart kid; I was creative, and most things, including school, just came very easily to me. Worksheets and tests were filled out in a couple minutes and then pushed aside to allow me to get back to making little paper people or spinning my ruler on my pencil while others were still struggling through the first page.

That natural aptitude for learning, coupled with the fact that my mom raised me a pacifist, created a perfect storm for getting picked on. I was a kid that daydreamed through life, and who was guaranteed not to fight back, just run crying and stuttering to the nearest adult to tattle, which, although got the current bully in some trouble, ultimately just escalated the frequency and severity of future attacks. So, eventually I didn't even tattle. I just cried and took it. Took the insults, and punches, and thefts. For some reason the thefts made me cry the most.

The worst time for it all was grade school, but it did follow me, in a form, into junior high. Junior high wasn't so much filled with school yard bullies, as it was filled with assholes and shit heads. Kids that seemed twice as greedy, twice as violent, and half as smart. Suddenly the bullying wasn't just upsetting, it was getting dangerous. Real bodily harm was now a threat, and I became even more reclusive than I already was.

Not to say I didn't have friends, I wasn't a loner. I just didn't go out a lot, to parties or gatherings. I didn't talk back to loud, angry people. I didn't push issues against violent idiots. I kind of just lived scared and frustrated. I guess I convinced myself that if I just laid low, just kept off the radar, in my room making sketches and writing in notebooks, that eventually I would make it to a place where I wouldn't be hassled.

And, I might have even been right, but, my patience for getting pushed around and fucked with eventually hit a point where a lifetime of being taught to turn the other cheek and tell on people just collapsed under the weight of all that hatred and anger. My personality snapped back like a rubber band, having been pulled way past the point of being treated decent, it recoiled way passed the point of standing up for myself, and stretched out from the force to the point that I just turned mean, and preemptive, and with absolutely zero tolerance.

It started with a few uncontrolled outbursts. Yelling in a kid's face in the middle of the courtyard to "fuck off." Taking a swing at another kid trying to intentionally annoy the piss out of me and catching him in the neck with my fist. Lunging at a short little asshole in the gym locker room and having to have the entire gym class pry us apart, for what insult, I don't even remember. The anger was overflowing, unfocused, and unleashed with a force that almost turned my vision into tunnels of red.

It wasn't until toward the end of middle school that I realized that despite my new found mental sword of vengeance, I still wasn't inflicting the kind of pain on assholes that they once inflicted on me. Punches would connect and barely rattle opponents, I was still getting thrown back by shoves, and I couldn't even catch the ones who fled. My personality had turn 180, but my body was the same, soft, uncoordinated, powerless vessel of a comic nerd it had always been.

Our junior high was near a YMCA, and my mom always had to work late. So, my friends and I all started making daily pilgrimages to the gym; sneaking into the free weight room and pushing ourselves dangerously beyond our still growing body's limits. I was 13 when we started.

The workouts started taking affect, and the release of exercise cooled my temper. I went every day, starting on nautilus to warm up, and moving to free weights. Rotating the workouts to try and even out my build and not over strain any part of my body. I had to sneak in everyday, which wasn't too hard really, because the minimum age for the weights was 18. The sore knees and shaky elbows I have today are a direct result of that disregard of the rules in my adolescence, but, I figure it was all worth it in the long run. When I was 14 going on 15 I weighed 165 and could bench over that. For the first time in my life I had impressive biceps and definition to my chest. My shoulders felt like rocks, and, frankly, so did my ass. (I miss my ass)

But, I wasn't satisfied. I had been tied too long to the whipping post, and I didn't want to leave a vulnerable spot, anywhere. I decided that image was the Yin to my new muscle's Yang. I had made myself tough, and so I needed to make myself LOOK tough as well. I started allowing myself to indulge in the style that I had always found appealing. Black jeans, long hair, the beginnings of a goatee. Later, around 16, when I really started to sink into the lifestyle of acting like a bad ass, I grew out a decent beard (I started shaving when I was 11 or 12), started donning a bandanna, and wearing chrome buckled Harley boots. I started smoking and would light the matches off the buckle. Later, when the inconvenience of carrying strike anywhere matches became too much, I started carrying a Zippo and learned the white trash art form of opening and lighting it in every way I could conceive.

I was smoking like a chimney, and drinking all the time. My pockets, outside of school, became a walking arsenal of blades, and rolls of quarters sealed up with electrical tape. I was never without a knife, which was actually an old habit from the Boy Scouts. Growing up going from tiger cub to webelos to boy scout, especially in the south, hammers the idea of knife ownership into you like religious mantra. But what I was carrying in high school wasn't my old Swiss made multi-tool. They were concealed and quick opening, and usually I had more like 3 or 4 of them on me, around my jeans and in my boots, at a time. The most outrageous being a five inch tanto bladed knuckle knife that I kept in a shoulder holster that looked like the ones you see in old detective movies for their guns.

I got away with the holster because it was hidden under a black denim vest I wore every single day, even to bed. A vest usually with a pack of Lucky Strikes tucked into a pocket, and that became increasingly covered with different patches and a few holes.

What had started out as a way to repel grown up bullies and thieves, was starting to evolve into what eventually became my personality. Acting tough became being tough, and it wasn't something I could just turn off and forget about. At first, I figured I could act like a bad ass, have some fun, live a fantasy for a few years and then go back to the apathy and the pacifism after I graduated. Eventually, I fell in love with it, and the act WAS me. An accidental life altering experiment.

I had always idolized the dime store hood characters in movies and books. I admired Ace Merrill and Two-Bit Mathews and Rusty James. Even John Bender was a big influence. Characters my age. Characters that refused to be fucked with, even if that meant being fuckers themselves. Characters whose attitudes and style could be very easily and cheaply adopted. I started to live that American Graffiti era rebel lifestyle, and it was everything I had hoped and dreamed it could be.

I was living a cliche', several at once actually, but it was a cliche' that was fun, and more importantly, kept me safe. I learned that the same things that made me afraid of people when I was a child, I could use to make people stay away from me as a teenager. The kind of people I didn't want around, anyway. But, it was behavior that also attracted new friends. People like a guy who is confident and carefree and a little unpredictable.

I fell in love with that life, and I never wanted to change.

The problem is that that life is the life of a punk teenager. That life isn't self sustaining. That life isn't even legal at times. But, trying to change a life romanticized by the one living it is like trying to pry a walnut out of the middle of your skull. Before college started I tried to slough off the no longer relevant lifestyle I had become accustomed to. I had been doing some warehouse work, driving a fork lift, and spent most of my free time talking to my girlfriend on the phone or having a couple beers with dinner and falling asleep in front of the Braves. Usually in the 6th or 7th inning.

I started college with new, comfortable, practical clothes, a Braves cap, and my notebooks. Notebooks that had been mostly neglected during my real life reenactment of "Rebel Without a Cause." I was ready to just mellow out, and enjoy myself. And for a little while it worked.

But, the changes had been made. The protocols had been laid into place. The reflexive habits were dug in deep. My smoking habit flickered on and off like a light bulb that wouldn't quite burn out. I tried quitting nine times before I got it right. The boots got put away, and the vest was closeted. I tried just not being that guy anymore. I thought I could just kill the me that belonged in "The Body", and start something new.

I was convinced it could be that way, until one night I found myself pointing a substantial combat folder (an Applegate-Fairbairn knock off if you're interested) in the face of a man, no, a boy really, I had known for a day, because I thought he had made too many jokes at the expense of my girlfriend. You don't fuck with a man's Cherry Valance, you know? This one sided, knife point argument took place in an IHOP in a busy part of town at dinner, with more than a few people I knew in there at the time.

I looked around quickly, then packed it up and got the hell out of there. I stood outside waiting for my girl, afraid to see her cold, completely justified, stare as she walked out. It was probably the most embarrassing moment of my life. One that still haunts me to this day. But, it served an important function. It let me know that once you set something in motion in your own mental make up, you're responsible for it. You can't just decide you don't want certain parts of your personality on a whim and hope that they just never come up again.

These were parts of myself designed specifically to handle high stress, high emotion, high fear situations. They were SUPPOSED to kick in on reflex. They can't just be ignored because I don't have anything to replace them with. Not all of them anyway. Not yet. So, for now I almost try to indulge that part of me that still wants to be tough and brave like the heroes and anti-heroes, and outright bastards, I idolized. I try to be aware of those odd reflexes a scared and fed up kid built into himself to keep the assholes at bay.

It's kind of a monkey on my back. I never leave the house unarmed. I just can't make myself do it. Usually something clipped to a pocket and one in my boot. I'd like to think it's just my inner Boy Scout being practical, but I know better in my heart. It's not the ridiculous arsenal of the past, I only carry legal length, one hand opening pocket knives now. And, even though I'm extremely comfortable and very handy with a knife (again, go BSA) at best I know that carrying them is only going to be good for getting out of non-confrontational jams, like if I'm caught in a net or something. But, they're still on me, still very accessible, for peace of mind, mostly.

The other side of the coin, the part that makes the monkey tolerable, is that I have found that if you are the kind of person that WOULD use a knife on an attacker, whether it's body language or something in the eye contact, you just DON'T get approached by most fuck-nut punkasses roaming around. Shreveport is a plenty rough place in parts, and everyone under the age of 21 wants to think they're some hot shit thug that has to get in your face, but, I really just don't get bothered. Ever. So, in a way, I guess it's really mission accomplished.

I'm the result of a targeted effort, by a frightened boy that felt like he was out of passive options, to turn fantasy into reality. To write my way out of a shitty rut I was in. Not really realizing at the time that I was trading one rut for another.

I don't completely regret the change I edited into my own personality. Obviously it saved me beating and humiliation in a time in my life when that kind of thing can really fuck with my head. It gave me more confidence in myself, made me more extroverted, and allowed me to not second guess myself into a stationary position. At least, more than I was when I was 12.

I still have a fondness for tough things. My adult fashion sense is driven by practicality and durability. Denim work jackets, steel toed boots, that kind of thing. But, it still feels like I'm the preteen wuss that's looking for protection. Like I said, practical and durable: safe.

It didn't really hit me full on until the other night when I was out with my wife (the same Cherry Valance from the IHOP). We were in a shoe store and I looked over and saw some sneakers I liked. I've kind of had sneakers on the brain the last couple months. Steal toed boots, good ones, are plenty comfortable for your feet, but, they have drawbacks. Leather and metal and rubber are heavy. Boots like that start to work on your knees and weaken your ankles. When I stopped wearing boots after high school and switched to some New Balance walking shoes, I felt like I had fucking springs in my heels. I'd just like to feel that again.

So, I go over and start looking through them. I was over there for all of ten minutes when I looked down and saw the scuffed and scarred leather on my own footwear, and, decided that sneakers would be a mistake. I put them down and just banished the thought of them from my mind. They were forbidden.

Do you see what I'm talking about? This wasn't some wild extravagance. This was a 40 dollar pair of Converses. It's not like I'd have to throw my boots away or anything. I only have one pair of shoes right now, but that's not a government mandate, that's just a personal choice. I just wanted a light pair of shoes for walking around the city. But, I couldn't do it.

Well, to hell with that. I started this ridiculous act, and I'm going to stop it. Balance is what's missing from this situation, and there's no one but me keeping it that way. I'm going back to that fucking store, or some store, and I'm buying those sneakers. A single step to start a new thousand mile journey.

I like to hang at home and listen to Bowie albums. I like to watch TV with my wife and eat pizza. I like to get drunk and play video games with my friends. I work in IT. I'm not a bad ass. I just play one in real life. And, frankly, I'm over it. I'm not the same kid taking a kick to the back at the skating rink. I can be firm, I can talk over an asshole, I can make myself heard. Yes, the charade-turned-personality was greatly responsible for that, but, it's time to take the training wheels off. Right? Because the puffed up chest act isn't going to help me in a real pinch anyway. For that, I just have to trust what I've got on the inside. The stuff that's real. Sloughing the tough stuff isn't going to make me weak. It will just make me stronger where it counts. And, that's what we all ultimately want to accomplish isn't it?

I'm still going to carry a knife, though.

I'm not stupid.

Chiggie Von Richthofen
...the film is a saddening bore, cause I've wrote it ten times or more.
It's about to be writ again...

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