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When I was sixteen, my clique came under the dominion of an older, brash guy named Bill. He chattered constantly and barked out commands. But he was our only weed connection. In our first encounter, Bill, after ignoring me awhile, looked over at me and said in front of everyone, “Who’s this dude? He seems to be in low gear.” Then he christened me Low Gear. My buddies laughed. And Bill prolonged the assault through the summer: “There’s Low Gear… Low Gear…Low Gear… Low Gear…”
The moniker cut deep. It suggested I was low energy, lacking in aggression. Passive. Delayed in reactions. Subdued. Boring. A real man should be in high gear, pushing forward. He should be assertive and competitive. But, seeing that I was cautious and fearful, Bill sized me up as unmanly. I moved slow and tentatively—in low gear. I had hoped that my timidity was not so conspicuous. Being short and scrawny, his mocking shredded the remnants of my ego.
I wanted to kill that asshole. But I did not even raise an objection. I complied like a needy dog. I just wanted his approval. When I went skeet shooting with my dad, I imagined taking Bill out with my twelve-gauge shotgun. The label of “Low Gear” felt at the time like A Name Below All Names. Letting Bill define me for decades, I assumed everyone saw me as weak.
“What the public criticizes in you, cultivate. It is you.”Jean Cocteau
Help came though a writing workshop. Our teacher challenged us with a quote: “What people dislike in you, cultivate. It is you.” As I thought about it, I realized that Bill’s observation about me was accurate, but not his judgment. He placed no value on contemplation and observation. I began to see that moving slowly with deliberation helps me see and observe detail, enhancing my experience of people and places. I notice the sorrow of others. Pondering helps me imagine. That’s wealth. One of my fellow writers pointed out that low gear is crucial in off-road expeditions. And I damn sure want to go off-road in my art! I’m going to assume that when Bill called me Low Gear, he was really trying to say, “That dude’s a writer!”