Shirtless Swagger

The boys of Cleves had swagger. With their shirts off, backs straight and shoulders rocking to the beat of a pendulum, they took lengthy, authoritative strides down Miami Avenue. They were kings in beltless second-hand blue jeans. It was an ostentatious swagger. A swagger that crowed “Don’t mess with us. Not one of us.”

As a kid, I’d hunker down in the back seat of the family car whenever we pulled up to the stoplight on Miami. Their shirtless swagger deeply intimidated me. It also mesmerized me. I wanted what they had. I needed what they had. At the time, the fundamental organizing principle of my life was fear. Being out in the world was overwhelming for me. I was always standing behind adults, holding the hands of adults, and peeking out from behind adults. I was undersized. Too gentle. And, I felt like prey. I was prey. I needed a way to keep the world at arm’s length.

I needed a swagger.

Come seventh grade some of those boys from Cleves would befriend me and begin instructing me in the ways of the swagger. Some of it had to do with learning how to endure physical pain without crying. Then there was learning how to air box. But the fundamental teaching I received was in the “I’ll step to you” stare. Namely, how to stare at passersby and hold their gaze until they flinched; that is, broke the eye-lock first. For example, the preppy boys in middle school had their own swagger. Yet, whenever they crossed paths with the boys of Cleves, their collar-popping-swagger would wither. It was not just the preps. Everyone got the “I’ll step to you” stare. It did not matter if they were bigger or older. The boys from Cleves did not flinch. They would rather take a beating than break eye-contact first.  

Ultimately, those boys from Cleves would become my best friends and I would learn how to hold my presence in their presence. Their presence was powerful – full of pulsating waves of I-know-who-I-am energy that pushed back against the world. It pushed back against me. And, early on in our friendship, I would retreat. That was the problem with my life. And that’s the gift they gave me – the ability to push back against them, against the world. When we were together, I could relax and bask in our self-made bubble of certitude. Man, I loved being near them. And, by high school, I had a crew made up of those boys from Cleves, a couple boys from Frogtown (who had their own kind of swagger) and my boys from Miami Heights. I also had a swagger. It never reached the height of shirtless. Well, sometimes it did; but, never the height of walking-down-Miami-Avenue-shirtless.

My swagger gave me certainty. It gave me the space I needed to learn how to hold my own in this world. And, once I learned how to hold my own, it gave me the courage to enter into world. However, once I was in the world, it also made it difficult for me to meet the world. And, I’m not just talking about meeting other people. I was so full of swaggering certainty that I could not meet the future, the universe, the whole mystery of life itself. I was living in a false kingdom with brittle limits that extended out as far as the edge of town but not much farther.

So, in college, I set aside my swagger. I wanted to be fully open to the world. There was so much I wanted to learn. So many people I wanted to meet. And, at Earlham, I found thoughtful conversations partners and conversations full of listening, considering and learning with and from one another. The kinds of conversations that only arise when those participating are open to the delicate process of mutual modification. This process takes a great deal of care. However, in my PhD program and during my early years of academia, I found conversations with others to be difficult. Sometimes, during a conversation, I could feel the edges of my kingdom, my inner citadel, crumbling. And, sometimes my conversation partner would sense this and pull back. However, there were many times (too many), when my conversation partner would sense this and seek my submission. I’m ashamed to admit this; but, a lot of the times I submitted.

I was a human without a swagger in a world of billions. I needed it back. And, I got it back. But this time no air boxing was needed. Just a lot of deep and difficult internal work.

Now, I still run into zero-sum conversation partners in academia and the wider world. But, nowadays, when they seek my submission, I just give them a “Made in Cleves” eye-lock. That takes care of matters. And, just so we’re clear, using the eye-lock is not about me being insecure about not knowing things and being wrong on things. I don’t know plenty. And, I’m plenty wrong, plenty of the time. It’s about honoring the inescapable fact that we are all imperfect, incomplete, still-learning human beings deserving of dignity.

A good human does not seek another’s submission.

A good swagger is a beautifully-balanced admixture of forward-facing permeability and “I’ll step to you” solidity.

A good swagger is life-giving.


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Thanks. – shawn

PS One of the things on my bucket list is to swagger shirtless down Miami Avenue. Yes, I’m a grown man. But grown men bisected Miami Avenue with bare-chested laughing ease as well. And, not just men. One time, in my grandma’s trailer park, a bit farther down the road from Cleves, this lady…well, let’s just say that my mom didn’t move fast enough to cover my eyes.