When I was finishing my junior year in high school, I had just turned seventeen. I had never been on a real date, never had a real girlfriend, and was unhappy with myself. So, that summer, I decided to do something about it.
I had been earning good money playing the piano, and summers were peak earning time. So I set out a list of things about myself I wanted to change. Looking back, they seem relatively minor; at the time, they made a world of difference.
First, early in the summer, I got contact lenses. I had been wearing glasses since 6th grade. It took me a few months to get used to them, but once I did, I was less self conscious. Probably because I seem to spend every third minute pushing my glasses back up my nose, a habit I was happy to leave behind.
Secondly, my father had been cutting my hair for as long as I could remember, because he had a barber kit and it was free. I told him I wanted to go to a “hair stylist” (which was a new concept for boys and men back in the 1970’s). He said, “Fine — as long as you pay for it.” Which honestly seemed like a fair trade to me. So I got a real haircut, which also made me feel a little bit better.
Thirdly, during the summer, I quit taking classical piano lessons. I knew at that point that music was not going to be my primary vocation (although I continued to earn playing), so leaving that off suddenly left me with an extra two to six hours per day that I could use to do other things… like pursue any interest in girls I might have. So that was big.
I also started buying a few of my own clothes — not a huge deal, but it gave me the chance to buy things my parents would not have.
And then — I thought at first it was my imagination, but no, it seemed to be real — I started feeling like I was getting a different reaction from people wherever I went. Girls started flirting with me, not a lot of them, but some, and I could tell the difference. I had been told that girls liked “confidence, but not arrogance” which is a type of high-wire act teenage boys all attempt and typically fail at, at least at one time or another. But I was staying on the wire.
In the early days of writing poetry on this blog, I went through my first real kiss, my first real girlfriend, and my first real love. Those were three different girls, and all within that year. It’s been more than 40 years now, and I am still grateful to those (now) women, because those were wonderful experiences, and they were wonderful to be able to share them with. Life being what it is, I do not know that they all feel the same way. I know one of them does, because she told me.
So, like virtually every teen, I struggled with self-image; when I decided to try to do something about it (and was fortunate enough to be able to pay for the handful of things I did), I felt what we would now call “empowered”, although at the time it was called “self-confident”. If I fast-forward from age 17 to age 25, I was once again feeling isolated (this time due to prolonged illness), but did nothing proactive to get myself out of it until more than a year of therapy finally got me pointed in the right direction.
It’s strange realizing that I had more sense in my teens than in my twenties; the stereotyped view is that we get wiser as we age. I had not.
Every life has its trauma: but correlative to that are the wonderful and good things that also stay with us. It’s not nostalgia: I wouldn’t trade the life I have now to go back there. But it is a type of gratitude, and it is a good feeling knowing, with all that life confused me at that age, I realized I had the power to change myself, at least. Learning that has given me the confidence to do a lot of other things since.
I’ve long since stopped wearing contact lenses (they would have to be about an inch thick); I have very little hair left to be styled; and very few people who know me now associate me with the piano. But for me at least — and maybe for you — the pathway towards the life you want comes from taking little steps to be the person you want to be.