Finding Me

Since early childhood, I have wanted to have a pair of cowboy boots. Was it my love of cowboy movies as a child? The look of the tall cowboys in their boots? To me, I think it was the overall look, the swagger of walking in them, the admiration (in my mind) from others when seeing me in my boots. Alas, it was not to happen; boots were just too expensive for my parents to invest in them when what I really needed was a pair of good, reliable shoes for school (Yes, Buster Brown shoes, I’m talking about you.)

Years passed. As an adult, I still had that desire for cowboy boots and, after a few hints, I received a beautiful pair of boots at age 40 to fulfill my dreams of enjoying wearing them and knowing how good I would look in them. My wish had been finally granted. It was a happy morning that I put the boots on.

Well, I tried to put the boots on. Boots are tight, aren’t they? Getting them on took a lot of pulling and yanking, not at all like when the cowboys in the movies do it. And walking itself was now a task requiring concentration, no longer something I did without thinking.

Eventually, the boots connected and I found that walking was a new skill to learn. The walking skill I had learned at a young age did not require coordinating the lifting and placement of boots that kept me standing an inch higher. On my first walk in the neighborhood, I noticed people stared at my boots first and then at me. A few even questioned whether I had spent my youth on a ranch or elsewhere in the west. And suddenly, it hit me: I didn’t belong in these boots. No ranch, no cattle, no horse, no saddle, not even a good cowboy hat. There was nothing wrong with the boots, but they were not ME. I found them uncomfortable, difficult to put on and off, clumsy whenever I needed to stoop to pick something up, and unwieldy when sitting. The boots just were not who I was. The boots attracted attention, and attention is something I generally avoid. I got what I wanted, but nothing I needed.

That experience brought back memories of a similar event of my youth when I was in junior high school. I had seen Marlon Brando in the movie, The Wild One, and wanted a motorcycle jacket as he had worn: black, several zippers, and lots of metal buttons on the coat and collar. Yes, I would look good in that. Unfortunately, such a leather jacket was far beyond the family budget’s ability, but then, due to an unfortunate tragedy, I was given such a jacket when its owner died. Yes, I was thrilled, and it was a genuine Harley-Davidson jacket—the real thing. I wore it around our house all weekend, anxious to wear it to school. And then Monday came.

Yes, what had happened with the boots was a repeat of what happened with that jacket. Friends stared at me when I arrived. Stared. Fortunately, a couple of close friends approached me, whispering, “David, what are you doing? You are not that jacket and it is doing you no favors.” And they were right: I had wanted the jacket, but the jacket did not represent ME; it was not showing who I was. My search to quickly define who I was had failed. A search that continued into my future.

Life continued with many such experiences as I tried to capsulize who I was, and a later example was my desire for a trumpet. As a child, I had wanted to learn to play the trumpet but was steered to the trombone because my parents said my lips were too fat to play the trumpet. Yes, my lips were too fat.  

If you’ve figured that I eventually received a trumpet, you are correct; my dear wife and son gave me one as a gift and I was thrilled. Well, thrilled until I attempted to play it. Trumpets, I discovered, are difficult to play. Just getting a sound from it requires work. But that wasn’t the real problem: the problem that I discovered was my impatience on the realization that learning to playing the trumpet would easily take decades, decades I didn’t want to commit since I had no clue on why I wanted it.

Once I had the trumpet, I was faced with assessing my purpose. Did I want to play it? Or did I just want to own it? Or did I think that, by owning it, my dreams from youth would be magically satisfied? Once again, I found that I was chasing the discovery of me, only to fall short. I had asked for a trumpet, had received a trumpet, and knew I had not received whatever it was for which I searched.

The real problem? I was seeking to own items by which I would be defined. But that is only ownership, not a definition of a person. Unfortunately, that illness affects so many of us. We buy an item, join a club, or otherwise identify ourselves with a larger concept or symbol and hope that doing that will further define who we are. But the opposite is what happens.

Consider the person who wants to be unique by owning a motorcycle (or similar item that interests only a minority of the population). What happens is that the person’s identity becomes modified by the motorcycle, reducing the identity of the person to be subordinate to the motorcycle. Carry that idea further by then buying brand-specific motorcycle clothing and going for rides with groups of motorcyclists and a person’s identity is wiped away, blurring into being just a piece of the larger entity, not at all the uniqueness sought by the rider. Owning a motorcycle (or other item) is one thing; identifying with it is quite another.

That motorcycle example? It happened to me and to others I know. Despite my love of motorcycles, I found that people began to identify me differently, seeing only that part of who I was. And I didn’t like it; there was so much more to me than that. But many do like it. Look through photos on a social media platform, such as Facebook, and you will see many photos of persons posing with their motorcycle, sports car, convertible or boat. This, because they identify with these symbols and want the excitement and allure of those symbols to transfer to themselves. This works, but narrows the image of the person, causing viewers and friends to focus more on the accompanying symbol instead of on the person. We all are more complex than that.

Instead of looking inward at ourselves to discover who we are, we look outward and then try to fit into some lifestyle that we feel is what we want. That never works. It was only when I stopped comparing myself to the world that I began to see myself, to understand that I am special, if only to me. We are not defined by what we wear or what we own or by our identity with others. No, we are defined by our beliefs and our actions. Nothing else counts. How I appear to others may influence whether they accept me into their lives or discussions, but that does not relate to who I am; it only relates to the degree to which I seek to influence others. Have I found myself? It’s a lifelong mission; it’s called life.

What I Did Not Want

One of my earliest learning experiences that I remember was my first exposure to the phrase, You got what you asked for, but not what you wanted. It all began when, after months of begging, teasing, and whining, my dear father bought a motor scooter for me when I was 14, clearly an age that had no reason or maturity to operate a motor vehicle. But it was legal in our state and Dad had relented, much to Mom’s displeasure. The scooter had a four hp engine and could probably reach 40 mph going downhill. Going uphill was done only with hope and a prayer. Sexy it was not. Powerful it was not. But it was mine, and it worked reliably and gave me months of spring and summer fun. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted a motorcycle. Spoiled? Me? Yes, no contest. I shouldn’t have had the scooter, and I should have been thrilled and not asked for more. But I did ask. Yes, I wanted more. That scooter that had transported me happily through the spring and summer was not enough from my immature view.

Still, all went well, knowing the funds would not be available for a motorcycle…, until one day in the spring of 1955. One of my regular visits had been to a local motorcycle shop, just to look at the machines and dream. The owner knew I was just one of many teenagers to visit and dream and he was tolerant of my regular visits. But on this one day, there it was: a 1947 BSA model C11, 250 cc motorcycle. And the price was $99. Yes, ninety-nine dollars! Love at first sight. Chrome sidings on tank, black paint, raised handle bars—this was the racy, macho-looking machine of my young dreams. I immediately hurried home on my scooter, all the way thinking of how I would approach Dad on this opportunity. I was certain the motor scooter had cost more and maybe he could sell that to the shop owner and get the BSA for FREE. (Okay, to my mind, that would be free, but hey, I was only 14.)

And it came to pass. The day came when Dad and the shop owner did the paperwork and I took the machine outside and prepared to ride home, finally a real ‘biker.’
     – Choke on,
     – Ignition on,
     – Jump on the kick-starter.

     …Nothing. The engine just sat there.

     – Repeat all steps.

     …Still quiet. The engine was laughing at me.

     – Repeat all steps.

     …A rumble, a stumble, and the engine reluctantly came to life.

Whew! Just learning how to start it, I assured myself, nothing to worry about. Motorcycles are hard to kick-start and I would get better. I just knew I would. Easing in the clutch and snicking the bike into gear, I slowly pulled out into traffic in my baptism to the world of motorcycles. Hmm… Was that a slight knocking noise from the engine? Probably just the oil starting to circulate, so I decided not to be concerned with it. Twisting the throttle to leap the bike forward with traffic, there was a decided awareness of not leaping, but stumbling. Probably just the carburetor a bit dirty and would surely clear itself up within a few miles.

Coaxing the bike gently, we arrived safely home where my priority was to wash and wax this beauty and ask my brother to take a photo of the bike with me. The photo was my dream realized: me, sitting astride my macho motorcycle, although there were nagging thoughts on that knocking sound I had heard and the anemic performance of my first ride.

The next day’s ride let me forget some earlier fears as I adjusted my expectations to the reality being experienced. All went well until the clutch cable snapped, immediately eliminating the ability to shift gears, which also meant I couldn’t afford to stop unless I was either home or at a place to fix the broken cable. My thought was to return to the motorcycle shop—because I wanted to keep riding that day. The shop owner, knowing my frustration, repaired the cable gratis, but warned me that the clutch may need work soon. Being just 14, I was easily capable of not remembering facts I wasn’t prepared to address. And off I rode…

Future rides were uneventful, but I was beginning to understand that I now had what I had asked for, but not what I wanted. I had asked for a motorcycle, but what I got was a motorcycle that wasn’t reliable. In wording my desire, I had made assumptions that were not realized. My old scooter was more desirable than I had realized, but now gone from me. For the first time in my young life, I had made a decision from which I could not just apologize and be forgiven; the scooter and its reliable features were gone for good.

The dying of the motorcycle continued, until one day the knock in the engine won the battle; the engine was the loser. Miles from home and a phone call to the motorcycle shop, but the future was now unknown. Once more, Dad came to my rescue to order the replacement parts. As English motorcycles were rare then, it took two months for parts to be shipped and the machine repaired. Now with the engine rebuilt, life was looking better.

That is, life was looking better for a few weeks, until that afternoon I argued with a truck on right-of-way at an intersection and lost the battle, skidding head first into a curb. Mom stepped in at that point, selling my slightly bent beautiful machine the next day. What I had wanted was fun and what I got was what became a permanent bruise on my knee.

That motorcycle was my last for the next 25 years, as I matured somewhat, married, and had a son. My family was more important and that was my focus. What did I learn from that experience? For one, when our son became a teenager and began a repeat of what I had done at his age, I (with the assistance of my dear wife) redirected his interest to saving for a car that would provide transportation and also fun. He has fond memories of his first car and (I hope) has no regrets about motorcycles. And we have enjoyed never worrying about his discovering (and possibly losing) life on a motorcycle.

In later years, I revisited the memories of which I write here, as I had not been a spoiled child, and our family lifestyle was quite modest. What I managed to piece together was my Dad knew my brother was slowly dying. His appeasing me, although possibly unwise in retrospect, let him focus on my brother, who passed away later that same year. Had I known, I would have acted better. Spending time with my brother would have been more important. But life happens and must go on. I cannot look back.

Facing Fear

fear itselfHer name was Dorothy, Dorothy Parker. I recall she had long, brown hair and brown eyes. She sat immediately in front of me in my eighth-grade English class. To me, she was the prettiest girl ever to walk the earth. Each day, I struggled with my attempts to diagram sentences and differentiate between transitive and intransitive verbs while staring at the back of her head. Thoughts of her were always with me and I even followed her home on occasion after class—at a distance, of course. To my 13-year-old brain, this was surely love.

Now, our school administration sponsored chaperoned sock hops every Friday night in the gym to allow the students to dance and mingle. Although I had never attended, I dreamed of asking Dorothy to attend some night with me. On several afternoons after school, alone in my bedroom, I practiced dance steps while listening to pop songs on the radio. I wanted to be ready for the date. Taking her to the dance would be fun, lots of it.

That attraction began the first day of school in September and lasted until the last day of school in June. Nine months of sitting behind her in English class. Did she agree to go with me, you might ask? Were my feelings reciprocated?  I will never know, as I never asked her out.

That’s right. In those nine months of seeing her five days a week, sitting inches away from her, I never asked her out. More than that, I never even spoke to her, not a word. Fear. That was it: fear. Fear that she might laugh at me, fear that she would decline my invitation, fear that she would tell her friends that I would dare to invite her, the prettiest girl in the world, to the sock hop.

Yes, life moved on. The following year I was more socially adjusted, but there were lessons in that experience for me. My fear of rejection prevented me from possibly having several pleasant memories of that school year, memories that would have proved worth the risk of rejection. And would rejection in eighth-grade have been so catastrophic, when all of us were struggling with boy/girl interaction? Doubtful. And what she might have been thinking never occurred to me. Maybe she would have enjoyed being asked. I will never know.

Yet, the bigger lesson was how easily one accepts inaction in the face of fear when the opportunity continually presents itself. That is, when first I wanted to invite her, I would rationalize my inaction by telling myself that I would ‘ask her tomorrow.’ That strategy kept me stressed daily, anticipating that each day would be ‘the day’ to act. But, as time went on, I realize I began to accept that I wanted to ask her, but just needed more time. And, by the end of the school year, I had accepted that I was never going to ask her. All tallied, that was over 150 times I made the decision of ‘not now, but surely tomorrow.’

That one-sided love affair with Dorothy was a small part of my childhood, but the lesson remains: when there is something I do not want to do for fear of failure or embarrassment, I know that each time I postpone action, the postponement becomes easier each time, and eventually the action I wanted to do is never done. Life is short enough as it is, and procrastination always has a reason, usually fear, fear that something will go wrong, so the act is never done.

Reading this, you might infer that I no longer succumb to procrastination on life’s challenges—but you would be wrong. The good news, though, is that I now know why it is happening and I focus on the WHY. That moves me forward. I never saw Dorothy after that year, and she will never know the lesson I learned by not speaking to her. Would she have enjoyed the sock hop? Probably.