With each passing day, I am becoming more keenly aware of the fact that I am not myself. Never was this more obvious than during a recent monthly department meeting at school. Our English chair is retiring at the end of the year, so one of my colleagues organized a brief tribute to him to open this month’s meeting. Each of us was to come with a few prepared comments then take turns standing and sharing. I wound up going last and – moved by the spirit of the moment, you might say – I climbed on top of my desk and began with a declaration of “Oh captain! My captain!”.
I was met with wide eyes, titters of nervous laughter, and a general vibe of Holy shit! Did that just happen?. In short, my colleagues were shocked at my behavior. And that, in turn, shocked the hell out of me.
I was the guy who in college once won a game of “Penis” in the cafeteria by climbing on top of a table, kicking the trays out of my way, and pounding my chest as I bellowed from the bottom of my belly. Even as a grown-up, I was once known for giving un-self-consciously rancid karaoke performances that drew flocks of buzzards in search of whatever livestock might be tortuously bleeding out in the parking lot. So why now should my coworkers be stunned silent by a harmless Dead Poets Society moment?
In other words, when did I become this person? Or, rather, when did I stop being “that guy”.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I write this with full understanding and acceptance of three irrefutable facts of life:
1) We all have to grow up.
2) We all need to learn how to switch registers dependent on occasion and audience (in other words, to adapt the way we act and speak to suit the situation we’re in).
3) Most specifically, we all have to act professionally when we’re at work.
Nowhere in there does it say that being a grown up or being a professional means that you have to stop being yourself, however. And therein lie the problem. My colleagues weren’t surprised that I climbed on top of a desk and made an ass of myself in that situation. They seemed genuinely shocked that I did it at all. And, in my mind, all I could think was this should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me at all.
Wait for it…
Shortly after my wife and I first started dating, I took her out to meet a group of my friends from high school. We spent the night at a dive bar that typically catered to a much older and quieter crowd, but where the drinks were cheap and the bartenders never asked for ID (my future wife was only 20 at the time). At one point I stumbled warily to the bathroom, leaving my then-girlfriend alone with the “den mother” of our circle of friends. It wasn’t until years later that my wife told me about the unofficial initiation that took place in my absence.
“You know why I like you?” the den mother asked. “Because he is the exact same person around you that he would be if you weren’t here.”
In my wife’s eyes, no higher praise could have been given, and no more resounding approval could have been stamped on our relationship.
And shouldn’t that be the standard by which we measure all of our relationships?
Fast-forward ten years and most of the people I call my friends are football coaches. Yet nowhere have I felt this foreboding sense of losing myself more acutely than when I’m coaching. On the field, in the meeting room, and at the bar after big games, I find myself surrounded by men that I have almost nothing in common with and that I generally struggle to relate to.
While they’re discussing the stud fifth-grade running back that we’re going to build our program around in six years and the Vegas lines on that weekend’s college games, I’m trying to figure out if I’ll get to see Ender’s Game before it gets relegated to the dollar theater and wondering how Steven Moffatt is going to write his way out Trenzalore. I had no one to talk to about the telecast of The Sound of Music Live! (which I admittedly watched for Stephen Moyer rather than Carrie Underwood….because my wife turned me into a fan of True Blood…which I sheepishly enjoy as much for its soap opera qualities as for its multitude of naked women). Everyone I know spent that night watching Louisville at Cincinatti or the Texans at the Jaguars. And I don’t know a single football coach who’s going to invite me over so I can watch Six by Sondheim on their HBO On Demand.
Even the guys I am friends with I often have a hard time relating to when we’re among the rest of the staff. They are able to don masks of ball-busting false bravado and a-story-for-every-occasion drunken party boy-ness. I have no such persona. I am who I am and nothing more. Which means that when I’m in an environment that prohibits me from being myself, there is no one for me to become. I turn quiet and reserved. And I’ve spent so much time in silent, awkward restraint that most of my colleagues (both on the football field and in the English office) now labor under the delusion that that is simply who I am. I’m a reticent, dispassionate individual. Socially, I am a cumbersome nonentity.
Even worse, I fear that that is actually what I am becoming. The me that has emerged as a blank expression of suppressed individuality has started to insinuate itself as the real me. It is my new default mode. And I fucking hate it.
It was with both admiration and envy that I read Sports Illustrated‘s recent article on Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett. Aside from being a media-friendly personality, he is also seemingly a true individual in a culture that places such a high premium on conformity that it assigns a “uniform inspector” to both sidelines at every game. Although Bennett openly admits that some of his behavior in the media is calculated, he presents ample evidence to suggest that it is a calculated measure of himself rather than an image. But Bennett struggled for years to even open up that much of his true self to public scrutiny. He explains how it took a major life change – a move from Texas to New York, liberating him for first time from the football-crazed culture of the Lone Star State – before he felt secure and comfortable enough to simply be who he is.
Which leaves me wondering….am I due a similar change? I have no intention of leaving suburban Chicago, but do I need to open myself up to the possibility that I am living in a culture that I’ve never truly been a part of? Even as a student-athlete, I was more likely to spend Saturday afternoons reading an Isaac Asimov novel than watching “the big game”. And it was virtually guaranteed that I was going to devote that night to Day of the Tentacle or (perish the thought) writing a story or a poem instead of pounding beers in the basement with “the guys”.
As much as I like football and I love coaching my players, maybe it’s time for me to accept the fact that I loathe what football has cost me.
One area that’s especially suffered over the years is my writing. Every August I have to put my authorial ambitions on the back burner because I simply don’t have the energy to hold up under any more pressure than I already face from school, football, and fatherhood. Every November (sometimes December), I come back to the computer with the foreboding realization that I’m starting from scratch. I have to refamiliarize myself with the projects I’ve put on hold and reconnect with the characters I’ve abandoned. Even that aside, though, I feel like I’m slowly losing the ability to write with the kind of un-self-conscious abandon necessary for prolific first-draft productivity. This is especially problematic for me when I’m signed in to WordPress. I come to my office with unbridled enthusiasm about a topic that’s popped into my head and percolated into a swirling brew of ingenious lines and brilliant insights. Then I lower my fingers to the keys and…
I’m paralyzed by my own diffidence. My nascent awkwardness and introversion compounded by the immediacy of online publication causes me to agonize over every word I type. The end result is typically a post that feels white-washed and clinical. Of the forty-ish posts I’ve published on this site, I feel like only two of them really reflect who and what I am. One was a playful anecdote about the goofy things I do with my older daughter (easily my favorite thing I’ve written here). The other was just me on a rant. Even this post – which began life as a heart-felt outpouring of my frustrations and anxieties heading into 2014 – is in its 48th hour of gestation. I’ve gone round-and-round with myself so much about organization, word choice, sentence structure, content, and context that I’m amazed I’ve found any momentum writing it, let alone 1500+ words’ worth.
And now this same self-consciousness at the keyboard has started to creep into my other writing as well. My inability to don a persona, my life in limbo between who I am and all the things I just can’t bring myself to be, is slowly robbing me of my voice.
How, then, do I stop it? How do I reverse the polarity of who I am and who I seem to be and bring my life – and, by extension, my writing – back into balance? How do I break out of this taciturn shell I’ve built around myself and step forward as the man I really am? How do I once again become the same man with my friends and my colleagues that I am with my wife and my daughters? And how do I to say the hell with anyone who doesn’t like it?
Winter break begins tomorrow. Perhaps with a couple of weeks free from lessons, grading, students, athletes, teachers, and coaches I can figure it out.
As always, thanks for reading.