For some reason, whenever I imagined writing my story, it always begins in my room, upstairs in Old Greenwich, CT. It was the summer between 9th grade and 10th and I spent it almost completely in isolation.

yankees2I grew up a pretty cool kid. I loved sports and I truly believed I’d grow up to be a professional baseball player. In elementary school, I also had an incredible magnetism with the little ladies. I remember in 5th grade, literally every girl in my entire class had a major crush on me, and the same was true in 6th grade. I was a pioneer in my school. My friend and I were the first to kiss girls and we innocently pushed the limits forward for everyone else.

In sixth grade, my best friend was Tom Y (brother of soon to be SF 49er Steve Young). At the time I was ‘dating’ Jenn M, the cutest girl in our school. Tom told me about a girl that went to another school named Tara M and said that she was even prettier than Jenn. I didn’t believe him.

When we began jr. high, I soon found out that Tom had been right. Tara was out of this world. She was going out with the legendary Chris S – by far the most popular guy in the entire school. I developed a major crush on Tara which would soon evolve into my first real feeling of love.

Tara had seemed like she was in an altogether different league. What was most amazing is that she and her friends started asking about me and they started telling me that Tara liked me. Tara even broke up with Chris and started flirting heavily with me. It just seemed impossible and I was pretty unprepared to step up to the big leagues.

I don’t mean to boast about my glory days in grade school, but just want to show how quickly they evaporated into something altogether different.

gynecomastia03You see, I started going through puberty. One thing that happens to a small percentage of boys as their bodies start changing is that they develop lumps under their nipples that make their chest look much like a pre-pubescent girl’s. I imagine that this is pretty humiliating to any boy this happens to, but as a very shy, self-conscious guy, the enormity of the embarrassment I felt is just hard to convey.

I can talk about this now because there is so much distance between now and then, but at the time, my shame was total and I kept this secret guarded under the heaviest of security.

This condition is known as gynecomastia – the result of a hormonal imbalance – and I was told by a doctor during a physical exam at age 13 that it would last about 6 months and then would disappear.

At the time, I was on the basketball team and so much wanted to be hip and cool and integrated, but with this shameful condition, any time I had to change my shirt, I would have to do it with precision, and learned to slouch my shoulders at all times to hide the embarrassing lumps. Any time there was a chance that any event may lead to having to remove my shirt, I would do whatever I could to avoid the event.

This condition lasted, basically, forever. The secret haunted me and its weight became heavier and heavier as time went on. My life started to be seriously altered by this. The hope of having a steady girlfriend disappeared as I could not even imagine having to cross this bridge of shame with her.

Even my closest of friends had no idea of the ponderous secret I was forever carrying around.

I had a great family, but one with no communication at all. As far as they were concerned, I never had any interest in girls, I never took a sip of alcohol, I never said swear words (I’m sure they’ll attest the swear words came soon enough). I kept any truth that was even remotely controversial completely locked away from them. Sharing this burden would just never ever happen.

I suppose these teenage years are awkward for most kids. I made the best of them – had some incredible times, but ultimately ended up pretty all alone.

kinksWhich brings me back to that room upstairs at age 15. I had a set of barbells which I bench pressed over and over to the Kinks album, “Give the People What They Want” Side II. For each of the six songs on that side, I would bench press the weights 20 times. And I would play the album repeatedly throughout the day. I guess I was trying to burn off the lumps with muscle.

I’m not sure why I liked that album. I think in it I found a certain melancholy that matched my growing depression, a certain rawness, as well as a developing eccentricity. The final song, “Better Days,” also left things off with real hope that things would one day be better – perhaps I wouldn’t always be without friends in isolation.

That summer I got huge. Since I only bench pressed and did nothing else, I must have had some serious chicken legs, but I became very, very strong. Still, I couldn’t shake the awkward chest.

I would love to end this story soon, but unfortunately, it just wouldn’t end. These lumps went on to drive me further and further into total isolation in high school. When it was time to take swimming class, I had no choice but to refuse. I was a top student, but unfortunately, skipping gym meant that I would not be able to graduate high school and would therefore not be able to go to college or have much of a hopeful future at all.

I became pretty idealistic during this period and even wrote an article for the school paper saying how gym was created by the government as a way to keep the nation fit in case of war (which I strongly opposed), that it had little to do with education, and that it should be an elective and not something that graduation itself depended upon. In protest I said that I would take a stand and refuse to go to gym and encouraged others to join me. If everyone joined me, we could all skip gym on principle and get away with it. But who else would be willing to sacrifice their whole future to defend a questionable rule in the system? No one. But at least my inevitable martyrdom would now be justified by an ideal to defend.

This story continues with “A Making of a Martyr – Part II