Our bodies—being the products of millennia of evolution, shaped first by sexual selection, later by lifestyle, and withstanding all manner of environmental duress—are remarkable constructs. We can scale mountains, cross oceans, run for dozens of miles on end, even fly through the air on wings of fabric. Also, our brains are pretty big. We are clever creatures, and when an obstacle presents itself, we think of ways to circumvent it. Thus we can breathe underwater, plumb the depths of the sea, and soar to the moon. Other organisms find themselves bound by physical limitations; we see these limitations, and we raise them a hundredfold. We go all in, pushing limits until they are broken. Perhaps that is why there are so many of us.
And yet we are not the apotheosis of life. Our bodies are not perfect in any sense of the word, and we (at least for the moment) are still susceptible to the vagaries of sexual reproduction, the genetic roll of the dice that determines much about our concept of human potential. We are animals, after all, albeit ones with huge brains and written history and a self-consciousness unmatched in all of nature. We are animals, highly sentient and acutely, exquisitely self-aware. No one is perfect, as they say.
I was in elementary school when I started becoming familiar with my own physical shortcomings. It started in second grade, when I began having difficulty reading the chalkboard from my seat at the back of the classroom. I was deeply distraught, as troubled as a second-grader could be. The stigma of spectacles was apparently too much for my seven-year-old psyche to bear. Both my parents and my older brother wore glasses at the time, so it really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, but still I denied the reality of my predicament. At the school-wide vision checks I was repeatedly urged to get glasses, and I politely turned them down. Concerned teachers, noticing my furtive squinting in class, would ask, “Peter, do you need glasses?” My reply, for almost two years running, was the same: “Yeah, I ordered them, but they’re not ready to pick up yet.”
Finally, after squinting and sitting up front became too embarrassing, not to mention extremely obvious, I succumbed to the inevitable: optometrist visits, eye charts, the torturous selection of frames. In fourth grade I received my first pair of glasses, nestled in a neat leather pouch, and they stayed in that pouch for much of the school year. I believe I wore them twice, and that was only when the teacher demanded I do so. Eventually this, too, changed. In junior high I would wear my glasses but only in class, promptly stowing them away when I was out in the hall, bullshitting at lunch, or otherwise posturing with my friends. It would take until my acquisition of a driver’s permit that I began wearing glasses or contacts full-time. Of course, during those years of spectacle-negligence my vision deteriorated steadily, with the result that now my near-sightedness is really quite bad—which just goes to show how stupid some kids can be.
Growing up is tough. Everyone can attest to this. But for me, life between ages nine and sixteen was especially tumultuous. My prepubescence in particular saw one of the watershed moments of this period, a moment I will call the “hoop-to-pipe dream realization”.
I began playing basketball around third grade, sometimes with friends at school, sometimes with my brothers, but mostly by myself. During this time I also started paying attention to the Seattle Supersonics—Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf, Nate McMillan, etc.—and to the NBA in general. Basketball season matched up closely with my school year, with the regular season starting in September and the playoffs often running until early summer. I would get home from school, read in the paper about the Sonics that day, and go shoot hoops until sundown. There was a park nearby with outdoor courts, but I soon begged my dad to put one up on the garage to expedite the process. He hung it about seven feet high, far lower than the regulation ten, but this brought the rim tantalizingly within reach. I would set up buckets, upside-down, and take running leaps off of them to practice my dunks. Windmills, tomahawks, under-the-leg jams, you name it. I’d hang on the rim like Kemp and waggle my tongue like Jordan. It was a heady mix of imagination and youthful ardor that fueled those shootouts in the driveway. I wanted to play point guard for the Seattle Supersonics. I wanted to be six foot four, just like Payton. And, more than anything, I wanted to hear the roar of the crowd as I rushed onto the court of the KeyArena, facing off against the likes of Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’Neal and whoever else stepped forth to challenge us.
Now, I have always been a short person. There was nothing in my outward appearance at the time that suggested a proclivity to basketball, except for maybe my sneakers and Sonics t-shirts. I wasn’t even good: my skill set ran from dunking off a bucket to hitting the occasional three on a seven-foot rim. But then, one fateful day, I decided to give voice to that nagging concern of mine, the problem of height. “Hey Dad,” I said casually, as I sat at the table for dinner, “how tall do you think I’m gonna get?”
“Well, since I’m the tallest person in my family, and Mom’s family is mostly short, I’d say less than six feet. Probably more like five-nine, five-ten.”
I was thunderstruck. Less than six feet?! No one in the NBA was less than six feet tall, unless you counted Mugsy Bogues or Spud Webb, but they were freaks! I pestered my dad with more questions, but he remained stubbornly couched in reality. Through dinner I picked at my food and thought black thoughts about my genetic straits. Why hadn’t my father married a German woman with huge forebears, or a Sudanese with Manute Bol-like proportions? I went into full-on defeatist mode in the following weeks. No more hoop dreams for me—the notion was killed in its infancy. I continued to play basketball, but my heart was no longer in it. Never mind that I could’ve worked on my passing and ball-handling skills and become a smallish guard in high school—hit my freethrows and honed a rapid-fire jumper to unleash inside the arc—but without the height, I was just a dilettante.
Whilst struggling with this life-changing prophesy and its ramifications, I found that another aspect of my appearance was growing rather irksome of late: my hair. Wiry, coarse, frizzy as hell, my unruly black mop was an eyesore and a source of much consternation. It grew preternaturally fast, and since my mother provided the haircuts in the house—and she was a hell of a lot busier than I was—she only cut my hair when the others needed haircuts, too. So it was that, post-trim, my hair looked fine for a week or so until it sprang back determinedly, spreading out like a fuzzy black halo around my head. I would try to combat the thicket by wetting it down in the mornings before school, but this was clearly a stop-gap solution. As the day wore on, the hair dried and my head would subsequently grow several sizes. In junior high I discovered hair gel. Just like every other boy my age, I took to applying it vigorously, but the result was even more heinous: an obdurate, jerry-curled mess that recalled a coiffed black poodle, or perhaps Lionel Ritchie in his prime. After puberty my hair inexplicably began to curl, and thus ushered in the golden age of the afro.
Mostly I have come to terms with how I look, and especially with how I appear to others. It would be a lie to say that these thoughts do not concern me now, but they concern me to a lesser extent. They have been relegated to a dim recess in my mind, only surfacing in moments of self-doubt or extreme trepidation. When I worry about my appearance, I feel like a child again, full of those same fears of childhood: perception, acceptance, friendship, love—fears felt the world over, a universally human experience.