I’ve fought “image” problems for most of my life. For some reason, any look I attempt just isn’t right in someone’s book, even when it’s pretty much neutral. It seems to especially happen, though, when it’s me trying to “fit in.” That’s something I guess I should just learn not to do. I never fit in, so I should really stop trying. I wonder what age you have to be before you no longer attempt such things. I’m really hoping it stops soon…or at least that people stop caring sooner or later — but that probably only happens when you’re so old they just ignore you completely.
I mentioned in chapter one that I have oddly shaped ears. As I’ve said, now that I’m an adult, I don’t really have a problem with that. Kinda grew into them. However, when I was a kid and Mom (accidentally, I should say) taught me to think there was something “wrong” with them. I was really sensitive about it. As such, I had long hair until I was 18.
For a long, long time, it was basically a bowl-shaped style — think Moe Howard from The Three Stooges, but somehow sloppier. Almost nineteen-seventies TV news-commentator, but with split-ends. As a little kid, I may as well have had a giant, flashing sign above my head that said, “NOT LIKE YOU.” I got teased mercilessly. You know how kids can be.
Some kids actually thought I was a girl. It wasn’t their fault. When I was a kid, girls had long hair and boys had short hair. When you’re like 5-10 years old, you can’t grow a beard to indicate your gender and I’ve always had slightly fair features — not as much now that I’m an adult, but when I was a kid, yeah…I looked like a girl. Nothing I could do about it, except get surgery to “fix” the shape of my ears so Mom would give me a boy’s haircut. (To be fair to Mom, I didn’t like getting haircuts and I came to really like and embrace the long hair…but in hindsight, I now know there were psychological reasons behind the aesthetics.) I never got that surgery…so that pretty much leaves us with me looking like a girl.
The first time I really remember it happening was when I was on a soccer team with the local YMCA. That’s a whole other blunder from my childhood, by the way. For some reason, since my brother (Dave) was good at soccer as a kid, and presumably because my dad had coached a little, my parents assumed I would be an excellent soccer player, too…but I hated it. I wasn’t very good at it, I hated getting up early on Saturdays for practices and games and I didn’t care for wearing a uniform. It was made all the worse when, on the first day, my team which was made up of entirely boys thought they had a girl in their midst.
The other teams were almost universally coed. Kind of a progressive idea now that I think about it; but it led to a really embarrassing moment. One of the other boys on the team looked around and noticed that all the teams had girls on them, then he looked at me and said, “I wish we didn’t have any girls on our team.” I remember that the coach did nothing about it and I think I said something vaguely pathetic like, “Yeah, good thing we don’t.”
After the practice, the coach told me that the other boys wouldn’t say things like that about me anymore…but the damage was done. I didn’t cry, I didn’t tell my parents about it (though Mom overheard the coach and asked me about it later), and I didn’t immediately quit the team…but I never learned how to be good at soccer, either. I didn’t finish the year due to a complete lack of motivation. I guess it’s just hard to go to a place where people look at you and think you’re something you’re not.
To this day, I don’t like sports. Part of me blames that one event, but I’m sure there’s more to it. Whatever the reason, a strong dislike of sports has followed me through into adulthood. Oh, I can keep up if I try and I know if our local teams are basically having winning or losing years, but otherwise I know virtually nothing. That’s not an easy life, especially in St. Louis, the home of..err…a bunch of dead guys who played for the Cardinals. I drifted away from sports and toward guitar. Unfortunately, being a musician isn’t quite the girl-getting, friendship-winning thing the TV shows lead you to believe. (Not that there isn’t SOME of that…but it’s a lot more work than you’d think.)
In high school, they called us “music-fags.” (Sorry to those of you like myself who think that’s offensive to homosexuals, but that’s the term they used.) In adulthood, most people are kinder, unless you’re sitting in a sports bar and you’re the only one not interested. Or if you’re the guy who goes to the Superbowl party just for the food and shushes people during the commercials. But if you’re just having a polite conversation and say, “I don’t really watch sports. I played music in high school and just never got into it.” Most people will give you a pass. Kids though…well, again, you know how they can be (and yet people still find it strange that I don’t WANT one).
Nevertheless, being a kid in St. Louis, during the heyday of Ozzie Smith, no less, it was tough not liking sports. I was that kid. I was the school’s resident “music fag.” I was the one who hated gym class while everyone else thought it was awesome that they got to play football (or whatever) for an hour every day. I was the kid who couldn’t do a pull up (even though I wasn’t fat or anything like that). I was the kid who, even before I played guitar, could tell you everything you wanted to know about Pete Townshend, but couldn’t even tell you what RBI stands for (and I still have to think about that when someone says it sometimes). I didn’t like sports, because at a early age, I got the impression that the guys who DID were the kinds of guys who picked on the kid with the long hair. Turned out that I was right, for the most part.
A few years passed after the soccer-incident and I moved to a new school. I had previously attended the same school at which my mom taught (she was an elementary school teacher). As you can imagine, that was sometimes difficult. My brother had gone through that same school eight years earlier and actually had mom as his teacher. To this day, he says that’s the reason he can’t do math very well (which is odd because — as of writing, anyway — he works in a retail coin and jewelry store). In my tenure at that school, at least mom wasn’t my teacher…but she did tend to wander by my classroom a lot. She’d just peek in and make sure I wasn’t sleeping. (Which I only did once…ahem.)
The entire school knew me as Mrs. Brink’s son. That meant that the teachers often treated me pretty well…but it also meant that anything I said, did, or didn’t do got back to her pretty quickly. Fortunately, the other kids didn’t seem to care too much, unless they had an older sibling in mom’s class. Still, it was kind of miserable knowing that I was being watched all the time. A kid needs a few hours in a day when he/she knows his parents aren’t hovering overhead. For most kids, those hours come in the form of their school day (unless they’re home-schooled, I guess). I didn’t have that for a couple of years and it was kind of nuts. Fortunately though, when I was in second grade the district made a weird rule one year that kids couldn’t attend the same school as their parents (or at least that’s how it was explained to me, even though I’ve never fully believed it). So, I was off to a new building.
The inevitable happened at the new school. I didn’t fit in. It was largely the hair again. Whatever else I can say about going to the school at which Mom taught, at least the kids didn’t pick on me too much and the teachers kind of looked out for me. But at the new school, on the first day, when it came time for the bathroom break, I went into the boys’ room and closed myself in a stall, a practice I still follow in public restrooms as I need privacy to get anything to — uh — happen. I left the bathroom and stood in the line to go back to the classroom. A kid called Ben walked up to me with the teacher and pointed at me. He then inquired of the teacher, “Is that a boy or a girl?” The teacher informed him that I was indeed a boy and told him to apologize, which he did.*
Somewhere along the way, people stopped asking about my gender. I’m guessing I just got boy-ish enough that it stopped being a question. Or word just got passed around that there was some dorky guy with long hair at the school, and when they saw it, they knew. Nonetheless, that was far from the end of my image-struggles. Remember, that was only the third-grade and I kept the long hair almost into adulthood.
The next time I really remember being mocked for how I looked was in seventh-grade Shop class, though I’m sure there were other times in-between. There was this kid who was a real jerk. He found something to make fun of on EVERYBODY. I shouldn’t blame him. He had his own struggles going. His parents had given him the first name “Guy.” As you may have already figured out, “Guy” changes to “Gay” pretty easily…and a nickname was born. I guess everyone has their own Hell following them. (Of course, that doesn’t really excuse poor manners. You can always rise above. As the saying goes, “Just because you’re an asshole, that doesn’t give you the RIGHT to be one.”)
Anyway, Guy used to make fun of me for wearing Converse All Star shoes (Chuck Taylors, of course). I guess, at the time, they weren’t a very popular shoe, though a few years later everyone on the campus had them, and as I write this, they’re still really commonplace. The ones I wore then were red-which by today’s standards were pretty tame. I don’t quite know what he thought he was saying, but he kept calling them “Buddy Shoes.” I guess that was the extent of his intellectual genius. Whatever his limitations, he somehow twisted it around to where wearing Chucks and being a guy made you a “faggot” [sic] and the girls all laughed along with him, for some reason. It’s tough being in seventh grade and having girls laugh at you — especially the type of girls who took SHOP instead of Home Economics. (No offense to any of you who may be reading. I’m on your side, I swear. I vote Democrat.)
That kind of thing followed me through to the start of ninth grade. It wasn’t all because of the Chuck Taylors…for some reason, I always seemed to be wearing the wrong thing, and someone would always pick at it. (Like the guy who stole my Adidas-coat because he didn’t think I was cool enough to wear it…but I’ll talk about that in a different chapter.) All of that stopped in October 1994. People tend to leave you with some breathing room when your mom dies.
That was its own sort of seclusion, though. Those who thought I was uncool just left me alone. That was a relief. However, the people that I did know started treating me differently, too…like there was something wrong with me (and maybe there was). Becoming “the kid without a mom” in ninth grade is bizarre. I expect it’s not easy if you’re in your fifties, either…but when that’s all people seem to know about you in high school…it becomes your identity. In some ways, it still is my identity. After all, I’ve spent two chapters droning on about it so far, right?
Time passed strangely. Good friends hung in there with me. Some of them came to the wake. Some to the funeral. Some others stopped hanging around me, which I get; it’s awkward to know someone who’s experienced a loss on that level, even if you’ve gone through it yourself. I can’t imagine how weird it must have been for some of them. In that day and age, the nuclear family had not yet died (though I think it officially has now, in the new millennium). It must have been like suddenly discovering someone you know has lost a limb, but a limb you can’t see and therefore don’t know how to address. I don’t blame the ones who thought it better to say nothing. In fact, in hindsight, I’m probably grateful to them.
Then there was the kid that I knocked out in the hallway. He came up to me the day I came back to class and said something lewd that I will never repeat about my mom, just to see what my reaction would be. I laid him out with one punch. I must have broken his nose. Lots of blood. The teacher who was “monitoring” the halls told me to get out of the hall as fast as I could and to his credit never turned me in. (He’d heard the whole thing and knew the kid deserved it.) I’ve wondered since if he knew how much an act of kindness I considered that gesture. Either way…the story got around and I became something of an urban myth for about two weeks. Then that died out…and I was basically alone.**
Granted, that particular “image” problem wasn’t because of anything I wore. It had nothing to do with wearing uncool t-shirts of rock bands no one liked. It wasn’t about my shoes. It wasn’t about my hair. It had little if anything to do with my then very patchy facial hair. But my image was forever darkened in the eyes of many. It must have been like the first time you see a Goth kid. You know they’re different from you, and you have no idea how to talk to them…but with me, it wasn’t visual. They’d just announced Mom’s death over the loudspeaker the day after it happened, since she was a teacher in the district and since her son went to that school. The teachers were very good to me, though. Maybe that’s kind of why I became one of them later in life. But again…there’s another chapter for that.
I don’t mean to make it sound like I didn’t have ANY friends. I was in a band and that comes with followers, friends, fans, and hangers-on; just not as many as you’d think. The band was good (we were called “union jack”) and there were plenty of people around to hang out with. The fact that the band would develop a (stupid and regrettable) rift between myself and my then-best-friend Marc (the guitar player) would colour some things…but for a long while, there were enough friends to go around. They got me through it…and I moved on. Unfortunately, part of moving on meant breaking up the band and losing some of those friends…but that kind of thing happens when you’re a teenager.
My step after quitting union jack (which I should go into detail about…but…meh…) was to form a jam-project with a good friend of mine called Vince. (That was his name, not the band’s.) We didn’t really go anywhere…but we had fun. We were trying to write progressive music in the vain of Dream Theater and Rush. As blah as that may sound…it actually started another of my “image” problems. After all, I was in a progressive band…I had to look the part…hence my brief and unfortunate experimentation with wearing silk shirts.
Okay. Even I know that one was stupid. Entirely my fault. I never should have dressed like that. I had no business dressing like that. I regularly wore vests for God’s sake! It was terrible. I deserved every bit of crap I got and there’s nothing to really dwell on from that time period, except to say that my good friend (and former youth minister) Shane occasionally mentions it to this day…which is embarrassing. But he means well. With him it’s just kidding around and I can live with that.
In December of my Senior year of high school, I did something completely out of character. I cut my hair. I cut it short. Real short. Robert Palmer short. I’d fallen in love with The Who’s record “Quadrophenia” and I wanted to be a Mod (Google it). So I cut off my hair, got glasses (which were more necessary than anything else), got nice clothes, really nice shoes, and favored wearing sport coats.
It’s weird. All of the people who kept riding me, telling me to cut my hair, making fun of me because it was too long and slightly ratty…those same people made fun of me when I cut it. Even Dad stood outside of the barbershop laughing at me. (I don’t blame him, really…I’d have done it to him, too. I actually kind of think he was trying to be supportive.) I was thinking having short hair would finally make me cooler. The girls would finally like me. The guys would finally invite me to the parties where the girls were. But that didn’t happen. I continued being liked among my circle of friends, but never really broke through the glass ceiling into “popular.”
Cutting my hair off didn’t get me girls. It didn’t make me popular. It was just an outward display of rebellion against everything I’d been up to that point. In some ways, it was almost like I marked myself by choosing to look like everyone else…plus, for the first time since I was a little kid, people could see my ears, which was kind of a touchy thing for me. I even changed wardrobes. I was walking around in those shirts with the three buttons (Henleys, I think they’re called) and in nice shoes all the time. Not sure what that was all about in retrospect, but it seemed to make sense at the time…plus, I sort of like those shirts.
You can’t change who you ARE. That’s the lesson of it all, if anything. You can dress in different clothes. You can cut your hair. You can pretend to like Reggae. You can act moody or outgoing…or whatever… But who you are inside will always fight against what you’ve turned yourself into. When I was 18, I wasn’t ready for the haircut. I wasn’t ready for the nice shoes and the t-shirt free lifestyle. I wasn’t that person. Parts of that I’ll never be able to live up to, even though (at the time of writing) I now wear my hair pretty short and tend to dress nicely for work and sometimes socially. Back then, I was lying to myself…and that’s suicide by small increments. You can’t, can’t, CAN’T live like that.
I figured that out in high-definition clarity when I went to college. But that’s kind of a long story, and it involves God a lot more than anything else did up to this point. So we’ll pick that up somewhere in Chapter Three.
* I should note that years later, as teens, Ben and I went to the same high school and we became good friends. In fact, one day we were hanging out at a mall and as we were walking, he asked me if I remembered that story, and I told him I did. At that point he sincerely apologized. Guess everyone’s worst enemy is their worst memories.
** For those wondering if there was ever any retribution or follow-up to that story… Not really. There was kind of a code among the kids that stuff like that just didn’t get reported, or at least that’s what I think. I never heard about it from any authority figure and the guy never came looking for blood. It just kind of went away and he didn’t ever speak to me again. Good for me.