Thoughts: Protective Coloration

6 BW

It is something I learned when I was young: protective coloration.

I was not the son my father wanted. I am not sure what he wanted exactly, but mostly I wasn’t it.  I wasn’t mechanical enough. I wasn’t robust enough. I was too quiet. I let my feelings show. I read too much.

As I grew up, I came to realize I didn’t fit molds very well.  I didn’t have a group in high school. I just migrated between several cliques. Never really a part, but never really rejected. I was interested in too many things, but never consumed by any of them.

It continued in my work life. I often had titles but found myself doing things that had nothing to do with my title. I was head of sales in several companies, but it was nothing for me to suddenly find myself dealing with major engineering issues, project management issues, personnel. administrative and creative issues.

I liked it that way. I like seeing how things fit together. I like learning the dynamics of people and organizations. I am as comfortable with installers as presidents.

I don’t exactly shape-shift. I just listen. I ask questions. I don’t volunteer much about what I think or feel. When you do that, I learned, even as a boy, people assume you agree with them. You get along. You don’t get blasted for being different.

I learned that at my father’s feet. At the time I felt it was unfair that I could not be myself and be appreciated. It was hurtful to be called down, cursed and worse for simply not being the same. The same, it appeared as I grew up, was the purpose of life.

I am a mess of contradictions. I always have been. I love ballet and boxing. I am a gentle soul with a wicked dark sense of humor. I am fascinated by politics, but hate the ugliness that comes with it. I am deeply spiritual, but have very mixed feelings about religion, even though I am a part-time preacher.  I hate what alcoholics do to the people around them (my dad’s influence) but adore good bourbon (in small doses). My life is a constant quest for simplicity, but remains strangely complicated. I am deeply liberal on social issues, deeply conservative on financial ones. I am an introvert that loves good company and conversation. I don’t stand up for myself well, but for the people I love, I will go to the mat for.  I fight depression, but I laugh constantly and still function well in the workaday world. I love classical, jazz, Gregorian chants, rock and roll, French Cafe music, and even the occasional rap.

I have strong opinions on everything. Mostly I keep them to myself. It is safer that way. That’s the lesson of my lifetime.  Fit it. That’s what we are supposed to do. I have done it supremely well for fifty some odd years.

Something changed a few years ago. I am not sure why. I am more willing to be more overtly not the same. I have finally, in my sixties, become OK with not being the same. If it causes me some pain, that’s OK. I’ve survived worse pain. If it bothers someone, I have finally come to see the truth – that it’s the other person’s issue, not mine. If being different means I catch hell, well I have lived worse hells. A lot worse.

It’s not that I ever set out to be different. My dad used to swear (literally) that every different thing I did was somehow “against” him.  At the end of my first marriage, my ex often said the same thing. But to me, being different was just….. being me. Still, I was cowed and applied my protective coloration to be able to fit in. It was, I thought, easier. It was, I thought, safer.

Silly me.

I get that now.

First of all, at sixty-two, I pretty much realize I’ll never fit a mold. I am too diverse.

Second of all, I’ve learned finally that fitting in, when I don’t, is hard work. It is way easier to just be what I am.

Third, and this was the big surprise – people mostly like me and my wiggly pile of contradictions. Because many of us are that way. People get it. Some people actually like it.

And the ones that don’t? And yes, there are a bunch of those. Some of them rail at me. I’ve been attacked in public for being too judgemental, and for being too open minded. Once, in the same day I got chewed up at my favorite diner because I was a Christian and everyone knows how judgemental Christians are, and half an hour later some guy was chewing me out because I was “that gay-loving preacher”. Pretty much whatever someone didn’t like about me, they feel very comfortable letting me know in no uncertain terms.

That would have crushed me once. It doesn’t anymore. I am OK not fitting in. I don’t see sameness as a thing to reach for. In fact, I think it is a crushing thing, sameness. And I nearly let myself crushed by it. No more.

I am still not a wild-eyed radical in my differences. No, my nature will always be quiet. But, slowly. I’ve learned to let my protective coloration go. It’s easier.

And I’ve always been lazy.

Be well. Travel wisely,


PS: The picture was taken in Provincetown, Mass.


  1. Dear Tom,

    Sometimes I open my reader, and see one of your works, and it fits – fits right. Years ago a wise man accompanied me to a book store. On seeing me pulling this book, and that one, he said, “the right book will come to you when you’re ready to receive it”. I hope you hear from others that, not only do they “not fit”, but when they’re feeling so much like a square peg, sometimes a Tom Atkins piece drops in and fits – fits right .

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