I grew up in a place where, at a very early age, girls are encouraged to be “girly” and boys are encouraged to be “manly”. Like, cartoonishly so.
I was too shy and socially-disoriented to really make it happen. 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 grew up in a small, rural community and as most people saw it, I needed to be more extroverted and into the same things as other boys my age.
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 the way I was supposed to behave- I was too skittish- 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. That’s a bad day for me and a worse 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 (at times explicitly verbalized) was, “He needs to do boy things”. And then there was a social component, where part of the thinking was, “Maybe he’ll finally make a friend.”
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 goal.
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 drift around left field, stare at bugs in the grass, think about robots. 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 during the day. I was too squinty and confused 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 smart 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 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 pitches.)
People seemed pretty put off by my reactions to sports. Boys were expected to thrive in these environments. And yet, I couldn’t mesh. I did the opposite, in fact. I defiantly remained shy and asthmatic and non-competitive.
(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. This was a pass for me. I surreptitiously tucked books away, enjoyed my day alone and made sure all living creatures in my vicinity were safe (admittedly, for selfish reasons; I just didn’t want the hassle).
Hunting was the big final push to get me properly normalized, yet at the end of it all, I was still me. 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 reindeer games.
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, Sarah, along; I had encouraged her to stay back, avoid what would likely be an awkward series of conversations. She said, “Oh no, I definitely want to see this.”
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, you had trouble reaching it, 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.
Sarah said, “I didn’t know how to tell her: you still do that.”