I Am Very Tall

Mildly embarrassed, vaguely detached, patient with strangers, popular with children: the life of a certain kind of tall person

A sketch of a tall person surrounded by shorter people looking up at him
The Atlantic

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I used to have a recurring dream about a person; sometimes he was a friend, at others he may have been me, who couldn’t stop growing. At first, he had to duck under doorways, then crouch under ceilings. Later, he couldn’t go inside at all and eventually grew so tall that I couldn’t even really see his face. The feeling the dream left behind when I woke up was of a kind of lingering leave-taking—he was saying goodbye because he had become unreachable.

Is this one of those dreams, like the ones about flying or losing your teeth or chasing someone and never quite catching up, that turn out to be strangely common? I haven’t asked around. Whom would I ask? Bill Russell (who is 6 foot 9)? John Fetterman (6 foot 8)?

According to my father, who is not a reliable witness, I was the second-longest baby the hospital that delivered me had ever recorded. A doctor examined me at 2 years and predicted that I’d grow to be 6 foot 10. He was off by four inches; I stopped at Michael Jordan’s height, 6 foot 6. Tall enough. It is also, as it happens, the standard height of a doorway, which means that if I take off my shoes and slide along the floor instead of walking, I can just about pass through one without bending.

In my childhood home in Austin, Texas, I used to mark my height in the doorway between the kitchen and the TV room. I asked my parents, who still live there, to send me the data—to measure out the tree rings of my childhood. In 1985, when I was 11, I inched past my big sister at 5 foot 8 and a half. Three years later, I topped 6 feet and outgrew my father. When my older brother went off to college in the fall of ’89, he was taller than me; by the time he came home the next summer, I could look down on him.

If you had photographed my family every year on the front porch, me and my brother, our three sisters, our two parents, and then rolled the images like a kind of moving film, the effect would have been like one of those boat races in which several crews pull hard in their respective places until one of them starts to gain, incrementally but visibly, and gain and gain … and then it’s just a question of time before the inevitable happens.

We’re used to thinking of birth order as somehow significant to our personality. The intensity of involvement with the firstborn gets a little diluted by the time No. 2 comes along. And so on. (I was the middle of five.) But I wonder what effect it has on your personality if you can’t help outgrowing everybody around you. When my daughter at 14 overtook my wife, she felt embarrassed—as if she were claiming some status for herself that she didn’t really believe in. But now that she’s stopped growing, she feels a little stuck, too. For the rest of her life, this will be her vantage on the world.

I like to think that 6 foot 6 is the limit to what you might call reasonable height. Any taller, and you move into slightly different territory. But people draw these lines in their own ways. Being tall is a bit like having a puppy, in that it forces you into a lot of fairly standard interactions with strangers. Specifically, you have to come up with different ways of responding to the following basic conversational approach shot: You’re tall. Often followed by: I bet you’ve never heard that before.

Am I? No, no I haven’t. Only on some days. My favorite answer along these lines is Wilt Chamberlain’s famous reply to someone who asked him, “How’s the weather up there?” “Rainy,” he said. And spat on them. So sometimes I tell that story. But the truth is, when I see someone who is tall, I often feel like asking them a question too. I want to know what they’ve done with it. Basketball, tennis, crew? How have they made use of themselves? I typically get a kind of shrug—nothing much.

I’ve met tall people who hated being tall. At 5, they’re expected to behave like 8-year-olds. At high-school dances, they seem to be all arms and legs. Height was one of many, many reasons I was not a good dancer and skipped my prom. My knees seemed to operate at the wrong angle. My face was too far away. I envied the 5-foot-9 guys who seemed to move at the level where the party was going on. When Cecil Vyse in A Room With a View (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, about 6 foot 2) asks Lucy Honeychurch (played by Helena Bonham Carter, at 5 foot 2) if he can kiss her, she says, of course. “You might before. I can’t run at you, you know.”

I sympathized with his diffidence. Nobody could run at me either, but I don’t know how much I noticed. Being tall was just another expression of vague detachment from my surroundings. Head in the clouds. A way of opting out.

Sometimes, of course, tall people gather into special clubs, also known as basketball teams. In some worlds, being 6 foot 6 puts you smack in the middle of ordinary. Briefly, after college, I joined one of them and landed in the second division of the German southern league. My official job title was “small forward” because that’s what I was. By way of context: I once played against a guy who was 7 foot 4. His name, improbably, was Boris Beck. When I first met him, he was sitting down, stretching. Then he seemed to stand up twice, once to reach my height, then, like the guy in my dream, he just kept growing.

Like a lot of tall, skinny men, he really wanted to be a point guard and spent most of the game shooting threes. Perhaps he’d never quite adjusted to thinking of himself as a giant. After all, nobody’s born 7 foot 4, and to get there you have to go through all the ordinary heights, and think of yourself in all the ordinary ways. Which is why most tall people develop strategies for “passing,” ways of diminishing themselves. The most obvious is what my dad calls schlumpfing—the tell-tale bend in the neck, just so you can hear other people in crowded rooms. I also fold up pretty well, in the backs of cars, in airplane seats, in foot-rested beds. Under doorways.

Merriam-Webster defines a Napoleon complex as a domineering or aggressive attitude perceived as a form of overcompensation for being small or short. Not used technically, it adds. There should be another complex for a certain kind of tall person, though I don’t know who it would be named after. Abraham Lincoln? Boris Beck? Mildly embarrassed, vaguely detached, ill-adjusted on various fronts, though also relatively used to it. Patient with strangers. Popular with children, too, who still see height as the only real measure of growing up. Which is maybe why tall people sometimes come across as slightly childish: They didn’t know when to stop.