Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Luxury of Being Yourself, Part 1

Erin #1 was my first girlfriend in junior high. We were both 13-years-old and in the eighth grade when we "went around" for a record of sixteen weeks! It was BFF Kathy who nicknamed her Erin #1 when I later sorta' dated another girl with the same first name. The second Erin and I were cast in a local community theater production of "Grease." Even though I only saw the second Erin once after our brief showmance in high school, my First Girlfriend Erin is still referred to as Erin #1 by Kathy and me, almost thirty years later.

Erin #1 - and her mom - gave me and taught me something valuable: the freedom of being able to be yourself. One of the reasons I liked Erin so much in the eighth grade was that I was able to be myself around her and her mother. I didn't have to feel shy or self conscious with them. That privilege was appreciated all the more when I compared it to the usual insecurity I felt in my teen years.

I took baby steps in high school toward expressing my rugged individualism, including wearing bandanna headbands and berets (but not at the same time - please). After breaking up in the eighth grade, Erin #1 and I became closer as friends during high school. She was a major influence in individualism to me, being one of the first brave young women to bring back the retro mod look from the underground, in her fishnet stockings, mini-skirts, and yes - berets. Erin was the one to introduce me to the mod/ska bands of the early 80's, including the English Beat.

As part of my continuing quest to be myself, I started my twenty year period of wearing something purple everyday. I was the first boy at my school to get the "step" or bowl haircut. I wasn't cool or popular; I was in band. And drama. And I got teased, picked on. But I continued being myself, as much as possible.

Until I went away to college.

I had a friend from high school attending UCLA, John. He was in the Christian fraternity on campus. John was a year older than me, and he was my idol. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class as well as a dancer and singer. He had been in the show choir at school. I wanted to be just like him. So, I followed him to UCLA a year later, and pledged the Christian fraternity on campus, just like he did. They were nicknamed "the ice cream frat" since there was never any beer at their parties.

John warned me: "They're a very conservative group." He suggested that I might want to tone down my personal style if I wanted to be accepted into the frat house.
Before my freshman year started I bought preppy shirts with button-down collars and regular Levi's 501's. My mother was surprised, and then relieved when I explained the reason for my new wardrobe. She thought I was taking my first steps toward growing up.

Yeah, right.

After a term of pledging and then being hazed (nothing too drastic, not at a Christian fraternity) I was not one of the pledges who had been accepted into the fraternity. I was the "bad pledge" because I spent too much time at Lisa's and Karen's apartment and not enough time at the frat house. Lisa and Karen were two of the fraternity's Little Sisters, and they were like big sisters to me, taking care of me and letting be myself around them.

I was the only pledge who got in trouble for going to a campus showing of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" on Halloween night, even though a couple of my pledge brothers went with me - and even though I made sure to attend the Wednesday night bible study before the midnight showing.

I was already suspect because I danced. I loved club dancing whenever possible and I took dance classes, jazz and ballet, at the John Wooden athletic center on campus. In addition to the no alcohol rule, the fraternity also had a no dancing policy. We weren't expressly forbidden to dance elsewhere, but the unspoken understanding was that Christians don't dance, not real Christians.

Not being accepted into the fraternity was tough. Besides wanting to be just like John, part of my reason for wanting to join was to put a religious leash on myself. I was already well aware of my physical attraction to guys. I had known since the age of twelve. When I first left my parents' house to go away to school I didn't trust myself to not take advantage of my first taste of freedom.

I thought that being in the Christian fraternity would keep me from straying.

Being rejected by the fraternity also hurt because it was a major part of my general failure at UCLA. I had lasted barely a full academic year before formally withdrawing, knowing that I wouldn't be back the following fall for my sophomore year. I had been put on academic probation (I had been cutting my math class to go to dance class) and I didn't really want to be there in the first place. I went to UCLA to make my parents happy, except that they weren't.

And neither was I.

"You just wasted an entire year!" my mother exclaimed.

"No," I countered. "I think I learned a lot more about myself - about what I want to do and what I don't want to do."

(to be continued)

The photo above is of me and Tedd in 1984 - I'm the one on the right! Tedd was one of my pledge brothers, and he is still one of my closest friends-for-life today)


karenpurplequeen said...

I didn't realize what a "bad" influence we were!!

Ha!! Closet-dwelling, self-righteous, self-involved jerk-weeds!

Love, Karen

"Let's do the Time Warp, Again!"

Peter Varvel said...

Wait - when did you become 'purple queen?' I'll arm wrestle you for that title!

karenpurplequeen said...

years - was my first screen name on hotmail . . .

karenpurplequeen said...

. . . you can be "peterpurpleprince(ss)" . . .

karenpurplequeen said...

I'd bet a few bucks that I could beat you at arm wrestling . . .

Cheryl said...

Isn't it funny how college is pitched as this time of freedom and self-exploration, and sometimes it's the exact opposite? I'm glad you're back to your beret-wearing ways.