Friday, April 15, 2005

Fame and Misfortune

I've always been fascinated with the Scottish poet Robbie Burns' musings about someone giving us the power to see ourselves as others see us. Probably the hardest thing about living this life is that we can see ourselves in a mirror physically but can only barely see our true selves in the reflections of the eyes of others around us.

My first realization of seeing myself as others did was when I got a tape recorder for the first time. I'd been taking piano lessons for quite a while and my piano teacher, Mrs. Lamont, suggested to my parents that a tape recorder would be useful in letting me hear my own playing from another perspective. However, the biggest shock came when I would speak into the old reel-to-reel monster and hear my own voice in playback, nothing like I thought it sounded like in my own head. Everyone else who heard it said it sounded just like me and the voices of others sounded to me just like I'd heard them all my life, but to hear my own voice was surreal and somehow troubling.

In high school I became the captain of a quiz show team because of my vast knowledge of the trivial and nearly useless. We traveled to Tampa to show up on a high school version of the old "College Bowl" show from the 1960s and taped our first contest against another high school's team, which we quite easily defeated. A few weeks later, the show aired and I was once again amazed at my own appearence. My mother had taken me out a few weeks earlier to buy some new clothes and I'd worn some to the taping; there I was in my double-knit blue trousers with a dark blue shirt, knit tie and a polyester double-knit gold sportscoat with white medium pinstripes. I still had my original eyeglass frames that, in retrospect, were not exactly the height of fashion for a seventeen year old in 1972; the lenses were held in place by fishing line, so they were essentially frameless, but they had this artificial eyebrow of black plastic along the top, so I looked like a young accountant who worked for a used car lot. I noticed the way that I moved my elbows in and out, like I was working a fireplace bellows and, yet again, heard that odd voice of mine, spitting out answers to the toss-up questions. We kept winning on that particular show and people would come up to me at the movie theatre that I worked at as a doorman/popcorn popper/janitor/sign putter-upper and recognize me, which did wonders for my ego for a time. I guess those folks weren't bothered by my attire, voice and mannerisms. We lost in the semi-finals; there was a kid on the other team who was, if possible, even more of a geek than I was.

When I graduated from high school, I realized that I had absolutely no idea of who I was or where I was going. I suppose I thought that I was unique in that position, but I kept working at the movie theatre and made plans to go to college. My folks were generous in allowing me to go (and paying for it, since my grades in school were OK, but nothing to brag about or get a lot of scholorships or grants over), though my father really wanted me to to into the military, as he and my older brother had, but I really wanted to study history in the big leagues with all the job possibilities that a liberal arts degree would bring with it, so off I went to northern Florida with my old best friend from high school and Boy Scouts. College, if anything, really makes developing a self-image difficult simply because you are exposed to so many different styles, cultures and viewpoints that it can be easy to lose yourself in the mix. I kept seeing myself in the ways others responded to me, good or bad. My roommate and I fell out our second year when his soon-to-be finacee, our old high school compadre, came up to school with us. I suddenly had a lot more time by myself and our conversations soon turned into disputes over who paid for what and who was going to take the jointly-purchased cookware with them in the summer.

I eventually made the move towards religion between my sophomore and junior years at school. That was a lot of fun, because there was no shortage of folks who would tell you how you looked to them, which by osmosis, was apparently how God saw you. I frequently disagreed with those who said I looked like a fool to others in the dorm, looked like I was asleep during Bible Study or was selfish in not sharing my faith to more people through the small cracks in doors opened when we went "door-knocking", but since it was your brothers telling you those things, you had to believe them and do the best you could to change, true or not. The hardest part of seeing yourself as another saw you was when you got refused for a date by one of the "sisters" of the congregation and you had to wonder what it was that caused it; your lack of growth or your awkwardness in dealing with the opposite sex.

As you get older, you wonder if the closest you'll get to seeing yourself as others see you will be when they write your obituary. I frequently wonder what would be said about me if a newspaper reporter decided to do an "in-depth" review of my career or my office decor (which is probably best described as mix-n-match). Would I bore them to tears with stories about my family? Would I repeat salient points constantly? Would the story get cut by the editor? It was funny, because a few years ago the local newspaper decided to do a story about my area of the law for the Business section, which at that time was a seperate section of its own. I went out to their offices, was interviewed and had my picture taken. The next Wednesday arrived and I opened to the Business section to see the picture of another person from my office on the front cover, not me. She had the advantage of being a grandmotherly type working in an area of law that most folks would have probably found interesting, more so than a navel-gazing type like myself.

Nowadays I limit my view of how others might see me to the reflections of myself in the glass windows of storefronts. I figure that's about as close as I want to know about myself in this lifetime. It is even better when I take my glasses off, since then the image is fuzzy (like my self-image sometimes) and I don't have to worry about the creeping baldness.

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