I grew up in a place where girls are encouraged to be “girly” at an early age, and boys are encouraged to be “manly”.
I was too shy and introverted and clumsy-headed to really play the role. Early on in life, I was pretty scared of people…I couldn’t make sense of them; I just saw people as these vague, menacing specters. As a result, I needed a lot of down time. I just wanted to be alone, reading, hiding away.
The shyness and all of that, it made me a target; or maybe a better word would be “project”. Family, teachers…everyone basically…saw me as this never-ending project. I wasn’t doing the “man” thing properly; I was too skittish.
So that…for most of my childhood and adolescence…was a thing.
One behavior that indicated I had a shyness problem: I would respond to most greetings by running away. Instantly. The second anyone looked at me and said “hello”, I’d just make a sharp right turn and bolt.
Usually this worked okay…it at least let others know that I wasn’t into the whole social scene. But when we visited people at their homes, it was more of a problem because I didn’t have anywhere to run.
This happened on a regular basis: being at someone’s house was a lot of stress for me, so I’d run through the front door, into the yard, only to realize that I didn’t want to dart through a strange neighborhood. So sometimes I would just run in circles around the house. I guess in my mind, it was sort of a compromise: I’m fleeing the scene, but staying close enough to avoid encounters with yet more strangers.
A few years ago, I asked my parents about all of this…how they reacted to the running-away-from-people thing. They said it was embarrassing for a year or so, but eventually they just got used to it. They said they would be at a friend’s place, enjoying a nice meal and everyone could see me outside, darting past windows, running in big house-sized loops…and that just became part of the normal course of things.
Except this, along with my general nature, wasn’t very “manly,” so a long series of projects ensued.
The first one involved sports.
I wasn’t interested in sports…watching them left me twitchy and bored. And playing them was worse; it was a reliably confusing experience. Other kids were clearly learning sports through some kind of social osmosis that wasn’t happening for me. It’s like my peers had been born with sports rules pre-installed in their heads. They played and intuitively grasped what to do, when to do it. But give me a ball, any shape, and put me in a competitive context filled with unwritten rules and there will never be a positive result. It’s a bad day for me, a bad day for the team. Nobody wants this.
And yet…that was the project. Year after year I was placed into youth sports teams. Part of the thinking was, “He needs to do traditional boy things”. Part of the thinking was, “Maybe he’ll finally make a friend.”
The only outcome was a lot of bad sports memories.
Basketball was the worst, because no part of me is built for athletics. I was low-energy, day-dreamy…and the constant running would trigger my asthma. My go-to coping strategy for basketball was “not trying very hard”. I’d run around the court slowly, try to miss all of the action. If someone threw me the ball, I’d just toss it at the hoop immediately, no matter how far away I was from it. No aiming or strategizing, I just immediately lobbed for the goal in an effort to get the nightmare ball as far away from me as possible. It always went astray, usually just landing right in front of me. In the one season I played, I never made a single shot.
My panicky relationship to the basketball was the polar opposite of everything the coaches were teaching us, so it was as source of frustration for everyone…for the other players, for the coaches. My seventh year of life was primarily memorable for that awkward season of failure.
Next year, new sport.
Baseball went a little better, but only because the game proceeded at a slower pace. I was terrible at every aspect of it, but I could at least stare at my feet, let my mind drift. Half of every inning I could sit on a bench while teammates batted. There was room to be me.
Lights hurt my eyes, so I could never catch balls because we usually practiced and had games during the day. I was too squinty and disoriented to catch anything.
The bigger issue was that, when batting, I couldn’t help but notice that the pitcher was throwing a ball right by my face. This was terrifying. Baseballs are hard and they were zipping right by my face. I had a habit of stepping away from the plate during every pitch. This frustrated people, but I thought I was making the right choice. Because, to re-cap: a baseball was flying right by my face.
A coach tried to remedy this using a method he called The Standard Technique For These Situations. Between games, he would make me stand in the batter’s box…and he would throw tennis balls at me, bouncing them off of my head. He said this would let my brain acclimate to the idea of standing still while something was thrown at me.
So when I say I hate sports…and when I say I have bad sports memories…this is one the things I’m referring to. The summer I had to stand in square chalk outline as an adult bounced dozens of tennis balls off of my head. (The Standard Technique For These Situations didn’t work, by the way. I remained committed to my policy of backing away from the hard thing that was being thrown at me. To this day, I feel like I was the smart one in that situation.)
People seemed pretty put off by my reactions to things like sports. I was being placed in these environments were boy were supposed to thrive. And I couldn’t mesh. I did the opposite, in fact. I defiantly remained shy and asthmatic and awkward.
(Dodgeball- the scourge of young introverts- was actually the only competitive event I liked, because I could just stand still, take a hit and then chill out on the sidelines for the rest of the game. I approved of this “dodgeball”.)
Eventually, things went to the next level. My dad and uncles began to take me hunting.
Where I’m from- small, rural community in the south- everyone hunts. I had less than zero interest. With my free time, I wanted to be home, introverting just as hard as I could. But my inability to do proper guy things, it was concerning to people.
So…late childhood, into adolescence…I had to go hunting during the winter months. It was miserable. Ranking-wise, I’d say it was not as miserable as the basketball experiment, worse than baseball.
The only upside to the whole thing is that I would get set up in my own stand; my dad or uncles would then four-wheel away to their own stand. So, for the rest of the day, I’d get to be alone, and that was okay.
What my family never knew is that I was smuggling books into the deer woods. In the morning, before leaving the house, I’d stick something into a concealed pocket…usually a paperback of some sort, Stephen King, Asimov, Dickens…as the years went by, philosophy got worked into the mix. Me, dressed in camouflage and a bright orange smock, perched on a rickety deer stand, eating a pecan log from Stuckey’s, perusing Schopenhauer. If a deer strolled into the scene, I’d rattle the pages to scare it off.
I had zero interest in shooting stuff. Having been with family during their successful hunts, I knew how the rest of the day would go after a kill. It would be a messy, bloody day. Pass. I surreptitiously tucked books away, enjoyed my day alone and made sure all living creatures in my vicinity were safe. I didn’t need the hassle.
At a certain point, it was embarrassing to have a boy in the family who hadn’t killed a deer, so there was lots of pressure to make something happen. Mostly I ignored it. But as the years went by, the pressure increased…
Animal lovers, maybe skip this part, but I did finally make an effort to hunt, just to see if that would placate my dad. I was 14 I think, and what happened was that I inadvertently shot a deer in the butthole. That really happened. My dad said it was the worst shot of all time. He was half disappointed, half amazed. All I could do was agree with his dire assessment, since I couldn’t make any sense of how my aim had gone so astray. It was a confusing afternoon.
The only good to come of it: there was less interest in taking me along on hunting trips after that. And in general, as the years passed, the projects slowly faded away. Family, teachers, neighbors…they all marked me as “strange” and moved on to other projects, to kids more likely to play the gender role game.
It would all be revived at a later time…when I was supposed to be dating, getting married, having kids, etc, and instead was withdrawn, isolating, alone…family began once again to lecture me on how to interact with women, how to be a proper sort of guy…an issue I dealt with by cutting ties with family, temporarily in a few cases, permanently with most.
On the other side of those years:
I went to a wedding not long ago. It was for a family member. I decided to go and begin seeing certain relatives for the first time in a lot of years. Emotionally I was in a good place, judgment-proof. I was beginning to dig out of a 10-year stretch of depression.
I took my girlfriend along; I had encouraged her to stay back, avoid what would likely be an awkward series of conversations. She said, “No way I’m missing that.”
Before a community dinner began, everyone stood around greeting one another. It was family and friends from the area; people I had not seen in a long time, some of them since I was a kid.
One lady walked up to the two of us and introduced herself. She said she was a family friend of my parents. She said I wouldn’t remember her, but I had met her several times when I was very young.
She said, “I’ll never forget the first time I met you. I believe you were four or five. Your parents came over for dinner. You walked through the front door, stomped a foot, and said ‘LET ME OUT OF HERE!’ But you couldn’t quite get the doorknob to turn, so you banged on the door, over and over. Your mom let you out. And you just ran around the house the whole rest of the night. I had never seen anything like it.”
The lady laughed, walked away. Girlfriend said, “I didn’t know how to tell her: you still do that.”
Sports and guns and being assertive and so on.
I wish I could say I resisted all of those pressures and judgments. I certainly remained myself; socially confused, quiet, anti-confident. But I did feel a lot of shame and embarrassment. I did buy into the idea that something was wrong with me for deviating from the surrounding life metrics that other so-called “male role models” represented.
However, as I became more myself and unraveled the nature of shame, at least my shame, it became clear to me that it’s not a natural state. Shame doesn’t originate from within a person…it originates from others. It’s an outside thing that disguises itself as an inside thing.
Feeling more at ease with myself- learning to steer into my differences, not away from them- made it clear: shame is what happens when you absorb the values of the wrong people.
Outside thing disguised as an inside thing.
Something false and dishonest that exists solely to make you into something you’re not.
Now I just have to get over my fear of tennis balls- specifically, the sound they make when struck by something. A head, for example. That is a haunting, uncanny sound.