31 December 2008

Something I'm Not Counting Down

So...My last year before my surgery is about to end. Is that a milestone? Someone once told me that any day is a milestone if you make it so.

Other people are "counting down" the final hours, minutes or seconds of this year. I have never done that, and I have observed the end of the New Year to the extent that those around me were celebrating. Some years I went to dinners or parties. A few times I went to concerts or other events. I can also recall at least a couple of other New Year's Eves in bed with someone or another. OK, Dear Reader: Did I satisfy your appetite for scandal? :-)

And this one...Well, I'm going to get some rest. Yeah, I know the past week has been restful. But the trip home undid at least a little bit of that serenity. The flight left more than two and a half hours later than was scheduled and landed in winds that whipped snow around the windows and wings as we landed in Newark Airport. Then the bus from the Airport to the Port Authority Bus Terminal ran slowly because it had to: See the previous weather report. On top of that, because we were going into the city late in the afternoon, the bus had to stop and start down the spiral that connects the New Jersey Turnpike to the Lincoln Tunnel, through which we barely moved at all, or so it seemed. At least a subway train came practically the moment I walked down the stairs to the platform.

And, when I got off the plane, I wore the jacket I'd packed over the one I was wearing on the plane. But I didn't have gloves or a scarf, so the wind seemed to go straight to the bone. I had the opposite problem I had on arriving in Florida: That day, on which the temperature was near freezing, I wore a courduroy skirt with black pantyhose and a knitted crew-neck sweater and cardigan, with a jacket over it. That was fine when I left for the airport, but thermically as well as aesthetically out of place when I stepped off the plane to 75-degree sunshine in Florida.

This night's weather-- about 15 degrees F and 30-mph winds--is the sort of thing that entices other creatures into hibernation. And I'm feeling that way, too. And so is Millie: She said her daughter was coming in, but she wasn't having a party. She kept her invitation open, but added that she's having a nice lunch tomorrow. I'm taking her up on that and will sleep tonight. Maybe I'll be up when the revelers in Times Square count off the seconds to midnight, but I won't make a point of staying up.

I'm already counting down to another milestone: 188 days to the surgery. I don't want to do any other countdowns, either now or after the surgery. Oh, I'd like to have things to look forward to after the "big day," and suspect that I will. But I'm worse than any kid waiting for Christmas or the last day of school. It's so unseemly, so unladylike, ya know? ;-)

With no apologies to T.S. Eliot, I'm not ending with a bang or a whimper. Rather, I'm starting something new, tonight and on the 7th of July. And, hopefully, other things as well.

30 December 2008

Three Girls On An Excellent Adventure

The weather has been so warm since I've arrived here that today seemed chilly. Still, it was about as warm--albeit a bit breezier--than a mid-May day in New York. And the sky was so clear and blue that it was all but impossible to imagine it as a foreboding to something, or the eye of a storm.

In other words, it was another great day for bike riding, even if I didn't do as long a trip as I did yesterday or on Saturday.

Today's trek took me to a place I'd visited the first time I came to Florida to see Mom and Dad. That was fifteen years ago, and what can I say but that I've changed a bit since then?

I rode down a stretch of State Route 100--not my favorite cycling road--to a sign that read "Bulow Plantation Ruins and an arrow pointing toward it." Then I followed a two-lane road that had a shoulder for about the first quarter-mile until I saw another sign for the Bulow campground. Three miles away, it said. And that was the last sign I saw until I saw something for a Bulow development. I guess someone was trying to come as close as possible to creating a Bulow theme park without actually making one.

Then, after the development and the campground I saw a wooden sign--the kind one expects to see for a state park or a Boy Scout (been one!) camp--for the Bulow plantation ruins. There, I followed a dirt road that make the bike I was riding feel like a jackhammer for about a quarter mile. It led to a parking lot at the entrance for the plantation ruins and the beginning of a nature trail.

There, I noticed a car with Quebec license plates pulling in. "Bonjour. Comment ca-va?," I said to a stocky, balding man. He introduced himself as "Willie" and his wife. "Elle ne me sembla pas un quebecoise ou francaise." He chuckled, "Oui, chinoise." "Comment s'appele?"

"My name is Sinh. I speak more English than French."

And we spent a few minutes trying to figure out whether the place was closed. There was no sign indicating that, but there was a gate pulled across the path to the ruins. After a few moments, two boys lifted their bicycles, then climbed, over it. They said they'd come in from the opposite end of the park, and rode through. But they didn't see any ruins, they said. Willie and Sinh decided that they didn't want to try to chance it. "Peut etre quelques metres, peut etre dix kilometres," Willie mused. "Dix kilometres, a pied, ca sera tout la journee."

I agreed with him, and after we said "au revoir," they drove away. I pulled two plums from my bag and was about to bite into one when another car with pulled in. The driver waved to me; I said hello. Then her passenger asked, "What's here?" I described, as I remembered, the ruins of the plantation and sugar mill that stood somewhere on the site, next to a lagoon. They asked about the gate. I replied that I thought it was open, and I saw two boys climb it.

So they parked, disembarked and started walking toward the fence. The younger, more petite woman started to climb the fence. "I'd try it if I were twenty," I demurred. They laughed knowingly. Then, after she stepped off on the other side, her partner, who was taller and even stockier than I ever was, started to climb.

You might say that the spirit of adventure can be infectuous, or that, at least, I can be swept up in it. Soon enough, I climbed, too, and so two young female lovers and a middle-aged tranny woman they found along the way were off on an excellent adventure. (I know, that last phrase sounds sooo 1990!)

We went to the lagoon, where visitors can rent canoes. The younger one, named Ciera, said, "Hey, if we took one of those canoes, what could happen?" I shrugged my shoulders; Anita, her partner, talked us out of it, as if we really were going to take off in one of those boats (which were probably bolted to something). So we wandered around the place, finding something that looked the way one of Monet's lily ponds might've looked had it been in Florida instead of France, and, next to it, the sign that pointed to the ruins, which were a quarter-mile away.

Along the way, we shared stories and other details of our lives in ways that we normally wouldn't with strangers. They live in Orlando; Anita grew up in Miami but was born in Chile. Her family came to the US after Pinochet came into power. I explained that her story parallels that of my ex, who was born in Cuba and whose family fled to Miami when she was five years old and Castro took over the country. And Ciera has been in Florida all of her life, she said.

Most people would take her for a straight, or possibly bisexual, woman; while Anita is, at least in appearance, the "butch" in that relationship. However, they explained that in some ways, they reverse roles. Anita usually cooks and does other domestic tasks for them, while Ciera likes more masculine pursuits. "What difference does it make?," Anita wondered. "All that stuff about gender roles is silly," she added.

Oh, girl. (No sexism here!) Now we're in dangerous territory. And what hazard did she court? That I would get on one of my soapboxes. Which I did: "Well, you know, we have the luxury--and necessity--of rethinking gender roles. It's not all about procreation or the survival of the species anymore."

Then we got even deeper into the sort of territory into which people don't usually venture with people they met only half an hour earlier. Anita is a butch who still wants to be a woman, which is exactly the reason why she could understand why I wanted the operation. And she is Ciera's first girlfriend, which is the reason why Ciera could understand my sexual history.

We parted with two of the heartiest hugs I've ever received from strangers. And they said, in unison, "You're a really good hugger."

"It's one of life's pleasures."

And Anita gave me her card and I gave my promise that I would contact her and Ciera. I'll also give them the link to this blog. I wonder what they'll think.

Just think: After that, I got to spend more time with Mom and Dad. Tomorrow I'm going home, to spend New Year's Eve with Millie, the best friend I've made since starting my new life, and her family--and Dominick.

Am I blessed, or what?

29 December 2008

Just As Long As They All Know I'm a Woman

Another warm, sunny day during which I rode along the ocean. About the only thing that could've been better was if I were riding one of my own bikes instead of the clunker Dad borrowed from a neighbor.

I never, ever thought I'd be tempted to move to Florida. Somehow I couldn't imagine life without the changing seasons or the hustle and bustle of New York. And, I have also assumed that as a transgender woman, I wouldn't be able to live anywhere else, save perhaps for San Francisco or a couple of cities in Europe.

But I find that everyone has been treating me as if I were a middle-aged (or even younger!) woman. Today I stopped in another Kangaroo store: this one in Flagler Beach, across Route A1A from the dunes. A very nice young black man worked behind the counter; another black man about his age was making deliveries. They were bantering, hamming it up to the music on the radio and even dancing. I was loving every second of it: They seemed so spontaneous yet passionate at the same time.

When I walked up to the counter with a small carton of juice and a packet of pralines, the nice young man stopped his shuffle and said, "Oh, I'm sorry ma'am."

"You've done nothing wrong."

"Ma'am, we get like this. We just like to have fun, ma'am."

"Why not? We only go around once; we may as well enjoy it."

"That's true, ma'am. And, look at you ma'am. You're smiling."

"Thank you for making that possible."

"See, Ma'am, I want to make this a happy store, ma'am. They're not like this over at Seven-Eleven."

"How could they? They don't have you guys there."

"Oh, thank you, ma'am. That's very nice of you."

"Well, you're very nice."

"Thank you again, ma'am. Have a nice day, ma'am."

"You do the same. And have a happy new year."

"Likewise, ma'am. I hope to see you again, ma'am."

I continued down A-1A to the Casements, a house where John D. Rockefeller spent the last years of his life. Men, some of them even younger than the ones in the Kangaroo store, tipped their caps to me. Others looked up from cutting hedges or other outdoor chores to greet me. And, in the Casements, a female volunteer led me and an elderly couple from Oregon on a tour. The gentleman reached over to hold doors open for the volunteer, me and his wife. However, when we entered the study, I got to the door first and held it for his wife, who, I learned later, suffered from polio as a child and has walked with a cane ever since. And I continued to hold it for him and the volunteer, but he yanked it away from me.

Call his behavior chauvinism if you like. But I think his wife feels very fortunate to be married to him. And he's the sort of man who'd tell you he's the lucky one.

The kinds of expereinces I had today could make me forget that I'm transgendered. Actually, I have forgotten about it, at times: As far as people know I am a woman. And, in fact, I am.

I haven't even been talking about my transition with my parents. Perhaps my identity as a woman is becoming a "given" for them. It's no longer startling or novel to me when Dad and I hug or kiss, or when Mom and I do those things with even more emotion, and for longer, than we had before.

Now, I can't say what living here 24/7 for 365 (or 366, depending on the year) would be like. But the idea of moving here after my surgery and starting a new life (Can you do that when you live in the same town as your parents?) is, in some ways appealing.

Just as long as they all know I'm a woman.

28 December 2008

More Lessons: One Love

This morning my mother, father and I stopped at a dollar store on US 1 near St. Augustine. I normally wouldn't come to such a store here, for we have 99-cent stores in New York (See, not everything's more expensive there!) that have, for the most part, the same kinds of merchandise. However, Mom said I could find a round hairbrush there. I left mine home, and they make hair-drying easier. I borrowed one from Mom, but you know...a proper lady--or a good woman, at any rate--returns whatever accessories or other accoutrements she borrows. Yes, even if the lender is her mother.

I also needed makeup applicator pads, because I'd lost the one in my compact. I was about to buy the small round makeup sponges, but Mom told me she likes the cotton ones better. So I bought two packs of them.

After we checked out, we went to a nearby Target store. Ironically enough, I found something I wanted to buy for Dominick but couldn't find in New York. And it's one of those things I thought I was even less likely to find in Florida than in New York. So, Dominick, if you're reading this...I'm not telling. But I think you know what it is!

And Dad pointed me to some tops that looked like a cross between T-shirts and ballerina tops. They're made of cotton, with a little spandex. Mom found one in a nice shade of gray, and advised me to get a size larger than I was going to buy. I also bought one in black and purple (my favorite color). And Dad found one in a sort of pumpkin color that I like a lot.

Then, to JC Penney and the movie theatre next door. This is the second time in my life as Justine that I've gone to the movies with Mom and Dad. The other time, in August, was my first time at the movies with them (or any other family member) in I-don't-know-how long. But I digress.

We saw Marley and Me. Now, my snobby New York English professor/Parisienne-wannabe self might've, left to her own devices, turned up her nose (not as finely sculpted as the one she imagines on une belle des boulevards, she grudgingly admits) at such a spectacle. And, yes, it is every bit as sweet (albeit with a sad ending) and just about as sentimental as I expected it to be. But, well, I let myself be taken by it, and I don't regret it. I think Dad, who was sitting to my left (as Mom was on his), might've seen a tear or two roll down my cheeks. One more thing to blame on the hormones! However, lots of people were crying as they left the theatre, and not all of them had my excuse.

I won't give too much of it away, but I wonder if anyone else noticed this detail: When John Grogan, who's just recently moved to Florida from Michigan, takes home the puppy he and his wife (who had to go on an assignment) adopted the day before, the song playing on the radio is Bob Marley's "One Love." The pup is entranced by the tune, which is how John came up with "Marley."

Actually, viewers only hear the first stanza of the song:

One love, one heart
Let's get together and feel all right
Hear the children crying (one love)
Hear the children crying (one heart)
Sayin' give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Sayin' let's get together and feel all right.

It is beautiful, but it's the only part of the song that 99% of the people know about. More people heard it on an Air Jamaica commercial that aired about 25 years after Bob Marley's death than ever listened to the song on his "Exodus" album. What they don't realize is that the song is not the feel-good tune depicted in the commercial, or by most American radio DJ's. Rather, it's what I like to think of as a spiritual call to arms:

Let them all pass all their dirty remarks (one love)
There is one question I'd really like to ask (one heart)
Is there a place for the hopeless sinner
Who has hurt all mankind just to save his own?
Believe me

One love, one heart
Let's get together and feel all right
As it was in the beginning (one love)
So shall it be in the end (one heart)
Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
One more thing

Let's get together to fight this Holy Armageddon (one love)
So when the Man comes there will be no no doom (one song)
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
There ain't no hiding place from the Father of Creation

Sayin' one love, one heart
Let's get together and feel all right
I'm pleading to mankind (one love)
Oh Lord (one heart)

Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right
Let's get together and feel all right.

In other words, Bob isn't begging us to love; he's daring us into it, with the love he put into this song's message. I suppose one could say there's a milder version of this message in the movie, which is probably what stands between it and "chick flick" status. Not that it's a badge of dishonor; at least you can take your husband or boyfriend to this and he won't think you're punishing him for something he doesn't even know he's done. If you want to accomplish that, drag him into The Ya-Ya Sisterhood or Waiting to Exhale: two films which, by the way, I love and saw before I started to live as Justine.

Daring people to love: I haven't gotten to that point. I've just barely managed to dare myself to love.

OK, enough of my two-bit philosophy. (I walked out on the one philosophy class in which I enrolled while I was an undergraduate.) You're not reading this blog for that. You want to read more about a trans woman's developing relationship with her parents, right? OK, I'll give you some more of that.

Later this afternoon, we went out to eat. (I don't think I'll ever get used to five p.m. dinners!) The restaurant, called Blue, is part of a hotel along the stretch of A1A I rode the other day. This means that the windows look out on the dunes that tumble into beaches where Atlantic tides wash, and the clear sky took on the deep orange reflections of the sunset and turned into an inky shade of blue mirrored on the surface of the water.

I realize now why that stretch of the road, and of the coastline, is becoming so special to me. One very important reason, of course, is that it's where I've been spending my time when I'm not in the presence of Mom and Dad. I guess it's like one of those places people treasure because it's where they walk (or ride their bikes) when they're thinking or working through something, or simply taking in something they're learning.

But I also love it because I feel myself completing something--or an important stage of it, anyway--I began a long time ago. About three weeks before I began my life in sobriety, I was with my mother, father and my brother Tony as we drove up the California coast after the wedding of Mike, another brother, in Burbank. All through that trip, I drank as much as I could get away with and showed as much disdain as I could for my parents, brothers, California and everyone and everything else I could.

The second day of that trip, if I remember correctly, we checked into a hotel in a town called Cayucos. Tony and I went down to a narrow strip of sand with six-packs of Corona. After I'd emptied a few of those bottles down my esophagus, I waded into tides that belied the name of the ocean that stretched before us.

I don't think I walked more than twenty yards into that water when the sea floor dropped suddenly and precipitously from my feet. Instead of backing up, swimming with the current, or trying to regain my footing, I arced my body and bobbed in the ebbing waves, waiting for the tide to wash in or over me. I hoped that somehow the waves would take me, like a bottle bearing a note to...what?....where? I felt that there was nothing left for me on that land where my brother and parents were, and no reason to look ahead in space or time. If I ended up in Hawaii or Japan or the bottom of that ocean, would it matter? Perhaps they would mourn me for a day, a week, and remember me for however-many months or years. Or, if I survived, what would--could--I do next? There was still the proverbial hole inside me.

The beer Tony and I had been drinking, all of the beer and wine in the world, all of the booze, all of the water in that ocean, all of the world's oceans, lakes, rivers and glaciers, couldn't fill it. Nor could anything anyone else could , or would want to, do for or give to me. Any life I knew how to live couldn't fill it, nor--in my most horrifying realization of all--could my own death.

I turned 28 during that trip. A few days after I got home, I went out drinking on Saturday night and woke up on Tuesday afternoon. The following day I checked into an AA meeting. The next sixteen years, I managed not to let the hole expand even further, but I never could keep the storm of nihilism completely at bay: It muttered like thunder through a horizon just beyond my sleep.

Early in my transition from Nick to Justine, I realized I was in the next stage of what I'd begun when I stopped drinking: The recovery of my life was turning into the recovery of my self. Now I also realize that I am reclaiming the love I am--and everyone is--meant to give and have. My newly-developing relationship with my parents is one of the most satisfying manifestations of this.

The relationships and the people (or dogs or cats or whomever) may be different, but there really is only one love.

I understood that today as I was looking at the orange hues turning scarlet and darkening with the sea into inky blue mirrors for stars and moonlight. At the end of the day, at the edge of the sea, there is only that: one love. I have, and have always had, only two choices: to live with, by and for it, or to die. However imperfectly, I am beginning to live by my decision to choose one love.

27 December 2008

Saying No

The setting was completely different. Back then, I was in a liquor store in Washington Heights. Today, I was in a store called Kagaroo: one of those convenience stores where, among other things, sport fishermen buy bait, tackle and six-packs. And today I had a brief conversation exchange with one of those customers.

Now, I've stopped in stores like it during bike rides along this part of the Florida coast. The recreational anglers--many of whom seem to make their hobby their lives--have been invariably courteous and polite to me. Guys whose limbs are covered in tatoos have held doors open for me, offered to let me go ahead of them on the checkout line even though they were there long before me, and say things, "Pleeas'd ta meeet ya, miss." (!) Today one even tipped his cap to me as I rode across the bridge from which he cast his line.

But in the store in which I stopped today, just south of Saint Augustine Beach, I had an exchange with one of those men that led to another encounter that made me woozy with deja vu, as Kurt Vonnegut said in one of his novels--Breakfast of Champions, if I remember correctly.

The man, who looked older than most of the others, wished me a merry Christmas and asked where I was from. "New York," I demurred. "Visitin' family?" I nodded. "Married?" I nodded again. "Well, I hope he's good ta ya?" I smiled. "Oh, he's wonderful," I replied, almost simperingly. "Well, I hope y'all have a happy new year." I nodded one more time. "Thank you. You do the same."

Then he shuffled to the checkout counter and I went to fetch the pack of sugarless gum I wanted. Behind the counter was a tough redneck's mother, wife or sister (or all of the above) who calls everyone "hun," including the man I talked to, and me.

He was buying two six-packs, two forty-ounce bottles, another bottle of some kind of liquor--vodka, I think. "Y'all gotta stop with this stuff," she drawled raspily. "I want y'round for more years."

He asked for a pack of Marlboros. "I don' mean to hurt yer feelins," she said. "But I gotta. I want to keep y'alive. "

"I'm OK."

"No! Look at ya...Yer stomach's swollen and yer face is all red. This is the last time I'm lettin ya' buy this stuff. Ya heah?" He didn't respond.

After he paid and left, she checked out my pack of gum. "I didn' wanna hurt his feelins'"

"Well, that's what you have to do sometimes."

"I know. But..."

"Hurting his feelings won't kill him. But cirrhosis of the liver will."

"I hope I didn't go too far!"

"Oh, no. You gave him exactly what he needs: You showed him that you care."

I was thinking about that day, so many years ago, when a liquor store owner refused to sell me the bottles of cognac and vodka I wanted to buy. I slammed two twenty-dollar bills, which in those days was more than enough for both, on the counter. "What's your problem?"

"I'm not selling to you."

"Fine. I'll report you to the better business bureau."

"Be my guest."

About a year later, I tried, for the third time, to become clean and sober. You know what they say about the third time being the charm.

Did that woman today spark any recognition in that man? It didn't look that way, but maybe it didn't seem that way, either, when I had that exchange nearly half of my life ago with that liquor store owner in Washington Heights.

And today I had the privilege of riding in all sorts of other beauty: much of it from the sea and landscapes, but some from other sources. Dinner with Mom and Dad followed.

26 December 2008

In Beauty

Today I took the bike ride--at least part of it, anyway--I'd planned to take yesterday, before dinner. It's turning into one of my favorites: down the old coastal highway, a.k.a. Route A1A, from Flagler Beach to Daytona Beach.

There the Atlantic Ocean stretches further than anyone can see. The same could be said for the shorelines of New Jersey or Cape Cod. But, while those northern waters--which I always believed to be reflections of my soul, at least during those times I believed I had one (Don't worry, I'm now sure that I have one, however imperfect it may be!)--have an almost steely quality to them, the waters you see just over the dunes on the side of the road have a gentler, though equally deep, shade of blue, even in the rip tides that kept me and everyone else on the beach from swimming today.

Back in August, when I came to my parents' house for the first time in five years, I first acknowledged the beauty, aesthetic and holistic, of the hue in that water. Before that, I would immerse myself in it but remain somehow convinced that because I had spent so much time with the colder, grayer, and presumably more dangerous waters of the north, I was somehow more intelligent and experienced than those who knew only the warmth and comparative gentleness of the waves here.

While I will always cherish those walks and swims I took in New Jersey, Montauk and Capes Cod and Ferrat, I realize now that those littoral scenes were simply more familiar to me than any other. And, I saw the ocean I grew up with held the promise, or the fantasy, of places on the other side where I somehow believed I could find refuge. Of course, I was always looking to escape myself but would tell myself that I wanted to get away from my parents, school, the prospect of a bourgeois life, when in fact I wanted to get away from life itself. Which meant, of course, that I wanted to run away.

Lord Byron didn't say to run from beauty. He wrote "She walks in beauty." All right, so that's not even the whole first line of that poem. But even if he'd written nothing else, he'd deserve his fame. But I digress...Sometimes I'd like to take that epigram as a kind of spiritual instruction. Byron was writing about a woman whose face and eyes combine the best of what's dark and of what's bright. In other words, he was describing a complex beauty, or the beauty of complexity. And, even though I was, and sometimes still am, called a frighteningly complicated person, my view of that ocean, not to mention life itself, was entirely without complexity. That, of course, is why I held on to those cold, grayish reflections.

It's only now that I'm realizing how complex these warmer and more radiant waters actually are. In those azure and veridescent hues, light seems dance with the depths of those waves. And I realize now that I would not allow myself to be taken with the beauty I saw precisely because it was so complex and diverse, and my world-view was a monochrome colored by my anger.

The day after Christmas isn't supposed to be this way. But so what? Maybe, just maybe, I'll learn how to walk in beauty after all. Somehow I think it would be even better than walking on water. I guess cycling with beauty is a good first step, and a wonderful part of the journey to living by my essence: Justine, who was there even when my old self didn't want her--which is to say, didn't want me.

Yes, I'll walk in beauty. Want to come with me?

25 December 2008

Christmas, Then and Now

When I woke up this morning, I saw a lemon tree a few feet from my window. Its fruit glowed like little suns among the branches.

Six years ago, I woke up on Christmas morning to bare trees, a rocky dirt path and a stone house covered with snow.

So why am I mentioning these two holiday mornings on the same page? The contrast I've just described is almost reason enough. But the real reason why I've brought up Christmas 2002 is that it was the last holiday, before this one, that I spent with family members.

Yesterday I arrived at the home of my mother and father. That day had its contrasts, too: When I left my place in New York, the temperature hovered right around the freezing point, and rain alternated and mixed with sleet. Ice and hard-packed snow lined the sides of the streets, and many of the sidewalks looked like volcanic glaciers. From the bus I took from the Port Authority Terminal to Newark Airport, I could barely see the sides of the New Jersey Turnpike, as a fog had crept in and wrapped around, and clung to, signposts and siderails.

However, when I got off the plane in Jacksonville, the air glowed as warm as the sun that began to set as Dad drove me and Mom back to the house. My tan courduroy skirt, black pantyhouse, holiday-toned short-sleeved sweater and black cardigan were clearly too much; of course the jacket I wore over them was in the trunk, with my suitcase. Mom said the outfit, especially the short-sleeved sweater (knitted with bands of red, gold, black, white and grey) were nice, and I have worn the outfit I just described (along with the red slingbacks) on more than a few holiday-season occasions. But it definitely wasn't Florida.

Now, for that Christmas half a dozen years ago, I was dressed right: cable-knit sweater and courduroy pants, if I remember correctly. You might say it was one of my better boy-drag outfits. It also made perfect sense, not only for the weather, but for the fact that I was in rural Connecticut. That's where my brother Tony was living; a few months later, he, Rose, Lauren and Daniel would move to the Jersey shore, just a couple of towns away from where he, my other brothers and I went to high school.

That Christmas morning in Connecticut looked like a Burl and Ives illustration, which appeals to even someone as cynical as I am(!). And I never dreamed of a warm-weather Christmas, but I am enjoying this one. On the other hand, as you can imagine, I didn't come here for the weather.

The time I spent with Mom and Dad back in August made me want to come back. Imagine that! (Is my teenaged, or even thirty-something, self listening?) Somehow I knew I wasn't being naively optimistic in wanting to return after that week I spent here in August. We all agreed that it was a good visit, and I knew it wasn't just a matter of everything going just right and being just so.

What I realize now is that we were ready for the kind of time we spent together. Up to that time, I had assumed that it was a matter of my parents' readiness to see me. I kind of suspected they'd reached that point when they offered to accompany me to my surgery and to let me stay with them as I recover, not to mention that they offered to help me in other ways. But what I didn't realize was that, in some ways, I would need the lessons I've learned over the past few years.

The funny thing is that what has helped me in this situation are things I've learned from teaching. For one thing, people learn in their own ways and at their own pace. I could be Socrates and Anne Sullivan rolled up into one, and my students wouldn't learn if, for whatever reasons, they aren't ready. But they're ready more often than you think, and sometimes at moments when you don't expect them to be.

All of what I've just said about teaching applies to my relationship with my parents. Before my August visit, they had seen me in female clothes and make-up once. I knew it couldn't have been easy for them, and it took time before they could see me again. I was nervous although eager on my way down; I wondered what it would be like for them to see me living a day, a week as Justine. How would they react to seeing me in a nightgown? (They didn't.) And, during that week my father even took me shopping.

When I came down yesterday, my mother pointed to the small ceramic tree on the entertainment center. (They haven't had a regular Christmas tree for several years, my mother said; it's just "too much" for her and my father.) On that tree hung three teardrop-shaped Christmas ornaments. One on of them "Angie", my mother's name, was written in gold paint; another had "Nick," my father's name (and my former name) on it. And, to the right of them hung a ball with "Justine" in gold lettering. I started to sniffle and shed a few tears.

Actually, the ball with my name actually was "Justin" with an "e" added to it. There weren't any with the name "Justine," my mother said. I know that when I see personalized key-chains and such, there never seem to be any with my name on it. I guess it's just not that common. So I appreciated that ornament all the more.

And, this morning, Mom and Dad had a couple of gifts I hadn't anticipated. One was a nice leather shoulder-bag/organizer. The other was a long, satiny hostess robe in a pretty shade of green. I'd been meaning to buy something like that for myself to wear to bed during the winter months. How did she know. All right: Do I need to ask that question?

Since I began my journey from living as a man to being a woman, mom has given me some of her jewelery and a few items of clothing, including a black knitted sweater/bolero jacket that everyone (including me) loves when I wear it. But this is the first time someone in my family has given me something made specifically for a woman as a Christmas gift, or for any other special occasion. And, it's the sort of thing Mom wears. (In fact, she said she bought one like it, in red, for herself.) So, I felt in some way that not only was she accepting me as Justine; she was also welcoming me into her world, if you will.

I'm sorry if you think I'm making a big deal over a robe I got for Christmas. But I love it.

It fits perfectly.

23 December 2008

Remembering Other Friends and a Cat

It's a good thing I've been so busy the past few days. I know, you're wondering where I find the time to write in this blog. Well, I'll just say that until now, this blog hasn't recorded how much I've slept. Nor should it.

In any event, all the activity has kept my mind off things that would normally preoccupy me on the 22nd and 23rd of every December. Yesterday, the 22nd, was the anniversary of Cori's suicide, as I mentioned in my previous post. And today is even more intense: three anniversaries, all of them deaths. One happened when I was very young; the other two occured on the same day in 1991.

Seventeen years ago, I lost Caterina and Kevin. Who were they? My first cat and my first AA sponsor. They both came into my life at about the same time: I met Kevin during my first few days of sobriety, and I adopted Caterina not long after my 90th day without alcohol or drugs. If any of you who've been in AA or any of the other twelve-step programs, you know that 90 days is your first major milestone: It's recommended that you make it to 90 meetings in that time (I beat that easily; I once went to five meetings one rainy Saturday.) and, after that, ask someone to be your sponsor.

I don't have to tell you that 23 December 1991 was one of the more depressing days in my life, and wasn't made easier with the knowledge that both were destined to die sooner rather than later, and that, if nothing else, their suffering ended. They were both very, very sick: Caterina was old (She was close to ten years old when she and I adopted each other.) , and Kevin's immune system fell apart so thoroughly that it took a long and particularly thorough autopsy to determine what, exactly, killed him. However, the cause of the pneumonia that finally took him was clear: AIDS. He was one of many people in the twelve-step programs who died that way during the late '80's and early '90's, which were the first few years I spent sober. John, my second AA sponsor, also died that way nearly four years later. So, between them, Kevin and John guided me through my first decade without intoxicating substances.

At least John, Kevin and Caterina died when I had developed some resources, however rudimentary, for dealing with grief. But the first death I expereinced on the 23rd of December came much, much earlier in my life, years before even Cori's death. Adam had also killed himself, though by different means and for different reasons (at which I can, to this day, only guess) from Cori's.

Adam, who lived alone, turned on gas in his oven. Perhaps I will seem callous in saying this, but it really is a minor detail: Once you're dead, it really doesn't matter how you died, does it? Well, I guess to some of the living, it does, although their interest is, more often than not, questionable.

And what of the reasons why? I guess the previous answer applies here: They don't really matter to the dead person, only to the living. And why? One of Albert Camus's characters killed himself because someone didn't say "hello" to him that day. Just about any reason you can think of, someone else has had and didn't kill him or herself. This, I think, is the reason why so many people--and the religions they follow--say that people who kill themselves are immoral and weak, and their act is as evil as (or even more evil than) any homicide.

Now, I'm no expert on the subject (How, exactly, does one become one?), but I think that the ostensible reason a person might have for committing suicide isn't actually the impetus for the act--at least not by itself. Most people don't off themselves because other people didn't greet them, or even over seeing the sorts of things Adam saw in Bergen-Belsen. Or, for that matter, over the same dilemma about gender identity that followed Cori over the edge and me to the brink.

No, I belive that people who kill themselves--or who think seriously about doing it--are, in some way, like cancer sufferers. People who off themselves, or try to, are almost invariably suffering from depression. Sometimes it is overt; other times it is hidden so deeply that people claim not to understand why their friend, classmate, brother, sister or whomever made thirteen loops in the rope looped around his or her neck, pointed the barrel to his or her temple or leapt off the George Washington Bridge as Rufus did in James Baldwin's Another Country. Rufus's depression manifested itself as anger much like the kind I used to carry; others hide it or sublimate it for as long as they can.

In spite of their efforts, they suffer a kind of mental and emotional meltdown analogous to the shutdown and destruction of organs in the cancer patient's body. It reaches a point at which neither they nor anyone else can reverse it; if other people notice, all they can really do is to keep that person from harming him or her self, and to do whatever possible to help that person gain the tools or other resources he or she needs to stay alive long enough for a cure or remission. Telling them that pain is temporary is like telling a cripple that he, too, will win eight gold medals if he follows Michael Phelps' training regimen.

Anyway...I do know this much: The two most difficult days of almost every year are almost over for this year. I had dinner with Dominick a little while ago; now it's time to pack and do other things I need to do to get ready for tomorrow, when I fly to my parents' house. That, too, will pass, if more quickly than I'd like.

If only Toni, Cori and Adam knew...

22 December 2008

Remembering a Female Friend

This and tomorrow's date were, for much of my life, the most difficult part of every year to get through. So far this year, it's been, if not easier, at least more productive and fulfulling.

It was on this date, many years ago, that Cori hung herself from a rafter in the house where she was living. The evening before, she called me. She spoke vaguely about how everything felt "dim and grim." No love in her life, no job, no permanent address, her family not speaking to her. I told her that all those things were temporary--something I didn't believe myself at that time--and that for someone as beautiful and intelligent as she was (something I meant from my heart)--her turn had to come, and soon.

Then she talked--rambled, really, which was not so unusual, except that her voice felt calm--no, that's not quite the word, nor is serene--in an otherworldly kind of way. It was that sort of calm, the kind of sun seen in the sky before the so-called perfect storm comes in. "I'm coming right over," I said.

"No, that's OK. I'll be all right."

"I just want to make sure..."

"Don't worry about me..."

"You just guaranteed that I will."


"I'm coming."

A few minutes later I walked up the rickety stairs to the room she rented in that house. I motioned to knock but saw the door ajar. I pushed it softly and walked slowly, almost on tiptoes, toward her back. She turned.

We embraced--not in that strangely truncated hug of white Americans, but as if we were holding on for life; both of us were drowning, but I ostensibly had gone to help her. The truth is, I needed her as much as, possibly even more than, she needed me at that moment. I knew she was in a bad way, but I didn't yet have the sesnse of trying to save her life. It was more like I was trying to save myself, to redeem myself--from or for what, specifically, I wasn't sure.

Finally, after some back-and-forth about how we felt lost, abandoned and misunderstood, she told me something I'd suspected, sort of, but did not have the words or spiritual means to comprehend, much less communicate, even less to understand: the dilemma of her life. Of course, I was nowhere near acknowledging my own conundrum, but I nonetheless talked with Cori.

"I hate this fucking body." She pointed toward her crotch. "Fuckin' hate it"

"What's wrong with it?"

"I'm not supposed to have it. I'm not supposed to be a man." Exactly what I would've said about myself--and didn't want to hear.

Yes, Cori was born male, in the same sense I was. She spent the last night of her life with me, crying herself to sleep for the same reasons.

Cori, of course was not her given name. But I have chosen to remember her that way, as a young woman. I hope that she has other vessels bearing her memory and spiritual essence into the world. And I hope some of those human bearers are better than I was, or am.

Only in the last couple of years have I begun to lose some of the guilt I felt for so long. Still, I sometimes wonder why I got a chance to live as I always wanted, while Cori and so many others didn't.

21 December 2008

What Would You Tell Your Younger Self?

More snow, more sleet, more freezing rain. And all that stuff is going to freeze over tonight.

All right, it is officially the first day of winter. But does it have to begin with slush?

And Mom told me it was 70 degrees when I talked to her this morning. She was sitting on her patio, watching birds. I just hope the roads are clear when I go to the airport on Wednesday.

If any young people are reading this, take note: You actually start to look forward to spending time with family members! If someone had told me that when I was your age, I would have asked whether he or she was smoking.

Lately, it's become fashionable to ask people, particularly women, what they would say to their younger selves. When I first started living full-time as Justine, five years ago, I thought a lot about that question, though no one had posed it to me.

At first, I fell into the "coulda-woulda-shoulda" trap. I shouldnta walked out on that therapist who, in my fourth session with her, said that I needed to "work on" my drinking and drug use and suggested that after that, I should see a gender specialist. Before that, I didn't know that there were such people as gender specialists; at that moment, I hated her for letting me know. And in my mind, I sneered at her the way I did to anyone else who expressed concern over my drinking and drug abuse, or suggested that there were other issues I wasn't addressing.

For years, I told myself that the real reason I didn't continue with that therapist was that I couldn't afford it. However, she worked on a sliding scale, and I was paying much less than most of her patients. And, knowing her, she might've lowered the rate even more, or given me more time to pay, if I'd asked.

If I'd continued, I woulda begun to deal with my issues. And I probably wouldnta been in a marriage that neither I nor my ex should have been in. And I woulda...oh, the list goes on. But the bottom line is that I coulda begun to live as Justine much earlier than I did. But then again, I know that my experience of living female would have been very different from what I've experienced during these past five years.

OK, so no woulda-coulda-shoulda. My best answer to "What would you tell your younger self?" came to me when I was bike riding one crisp, breezy fall afternoon: "I am always here for you. I will never leave you, any more than you can leave me. Don't be afraid of me; I'm at your side and by your side. And I love you."

That was the first time that, in any way, shape or form, I expressed any sort of love for myself, much less for the teenaged boy that I was, and who is as much a part of me as anyone else I've ever been. And I realized how grateful I had to be to him: After all, he endured a lot (nearly all of it emotional and spiritual) to survive long enough to become me. Sometimes it made me sad and angry: He suffered, but I was the one reaping the benefits. Not that I haven't suffered as Justine; now I have more inner resources for dealing with it.

The truth is, that teenaged boy and I have always needed each other. And now I am learning that my younger self is as much a resource for me now as the woman I am now might've been to him had I acknowledged that I am, and have always been, her.

But what teenager listens to a middle-aged woman (or man), especially one who is of his or her own blood, and spirit? I couldn't have. Maybe that's how it is for other teenagers, too.

At least there is the future. The slush won't always be here. But I'll always have it, for whatever purposes. When I grow up, I'll be thankful.

20 December 2008

Leading and Following

Tonight Dominick and I went shopping but didn't buy anything. I'm not quite sure that either of us had planned to make purchases, but it is rather strange to go to a mall and not bring something home.

But, to tell you the truth, I'm glad we didn't buy anything and that we didn't stay any longer than we did. The selection of many things was limited, and after a while, I was tired of the crowds.

One thing I'd forgotten is how difficult it is to walk through crowds when you're holding hands with someone. At least, it's difficult to do when you're as clumsy as I am. But one thing gave me a sense of deja vu, in a good way: Dominick was leading. That is, I was walking at his pace, and I followed him when we snaked around other people and obstacles. And, even though I suggested some of our stops, he was piloting both of us.

Now, some feminists I know would burn whatever bridges of friendship we have upon reading the above paragraph. But, my sisters, hold those torches! The way Dominick and I navigated that crowd at the mall is the same way Tammy and I used to zig and zag through similar flat slalom courses.

Yes, Tammy used to lead whenever we walked hand-in-hand. She was taller than me and, in some ways, more aggressive. If anything, she pulled harder than Dominick whenever she wanted us to pass slower-moving people and vehicles.

OK. Now I'll make a confession--as if any of you will be surprised at this. That was one of the things I enjoyed about my time with Tammy. More than one person commented that I was "the girl" in the relationship. Those people, at the time, didn't know what was in my closet, though they could've guessed! Didn't Shakespeare say "Clothes make the man"--or the woman?

Whenever we danced, she led. When we met other people, she usually introduced herself first. And, as often as not, she held doors open for me, whether or not I was en femme.

Ironically enough, her family never questioned my manhood or masculinity. They always said they were happy that Tammy found a "nice" man. (At least, that's what she told me.) But her father and one of her brothers warned her that she would lose me, as she lost her ex-husband, if she weren't more feminine. Never mind that her ex-husband had all sorts of issues of his own (or course, I have none! ;-)) and slept with her female friends. Little did they know that when the girl in the relationship started to become a woman, more feminine as well as more female, our relationship fell apart.

Now, Dominick is no macho guy or very many people's idea of a "man's man." But he is a sensitive gentleman who is at least as vulnerable as I am. Those qualities, to me, matter so much more than ruggedness, or the appearance thereof. After all, if I'm not mistaken, the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer.

So he's more than enough of a man for me. And, although I'm the woman in this coupling, I have a kind of aggressiveness that comes out as protectiveness. I want to take him in my arms and hold him to my breasts when he's tired, physically or spiritually. And he does the same for me. That is why I wish I had more time with him. Hopefully, after the holidays, I will. And I hope to follow him, and that he'll do the same with me, into the new year and the new phase in my life that is only six months and a couple of weeks away.

19 December 2008

Struck by Sleet; The Thaw

There are only two problems with snow. One is that while it's falling, it can turn to sleet. The other is that when it's on the ground, it turns, sooner or later, to slush.

Both happened today, and the latter happened sooner. So the snow that was already graying without melting, and turning to ice, was struck by sleet, which, in some spots, turned into another layer of ice.

So there was no earth covered in a blanket of forgetful snow, as in The Waste Land. There were only freezing and frozen sidewalks being struck by sleet. If you've ever had those pellets of sleet blown into your face by the wind that's turned your umbrella inside-out, you know what today felt like.

On days like this, you go outside only to go someplace else that's indoors. For me, that included lunch with Bruce and registering for the course I plan to take next semester.

Bruce really has seen me change: I had another momentary crush on a waiter and he didn't even acknowledge it, at least not verbally. But I know that he noticed; when you know anybody well enough, you just know, as the some ol' philosopher might say. In this case, that sage could just as easily be Yogi Berra as June Jordan. (Now you know I'll never be a real academician: I've invoked a living white man and a dead black woman!) That waiter, in a cozy little Israeli/Yemeni/Middle Eastern cafe, is one of those people from the Mediterranean who combines a kind of European world-weariness and intelligence that borders on blaseness with the mysterious charm, or the charming mysteriousness, that one expects from a Middle Eastern man.

He was very friendly and animated. Bruce has been to that restaurant before, and he says that waiter never seemed that personable before. He wasn't exactly sullen, Bruce said, but not terribly outgoing either, although he was a good waiter. But, well, that waiter made a good first impression on a woman, albeit one who's probably twice his age. Then again, age is just a number, right. That's what Dominick says, anyway.

If I had to pick the greatest ironies of my life, this has to be one of them. The biggest strain Bruce and I ever had on our friendship came when we were keen on the same woman. Now I have Dominick, and I am giving in (a real hardship) to my attraction to men. Mind you, this isn't the first time in my life I've had a boyfriend or felt what I've been feeling. But now I know--or, I should say, I no longer act as if--it's "a phase." And I am also not fighting against the hatred I used to feel for nearly all other men besides Bruce and a few other friends and relatives.

It took me a long, long time and a lot of therapeutic as well as spiritual work to come to this point in my life. The thaw came; I, who had once been struck by sleet, have been open and exposed to a lot of feelings that were trapped by the layers of ice. Sometimes the places where the ice is melting or gone feel simply raw and painful, and when sleet strikes again, it stings all the more. But at other times, I can feel the wondrousness and wonderfulness of it all: the sleet and the thaw. And the sun, when it returns.

18 December 2008


One more week till Christmas. Yes, it's hard to believe. Since Thanksgiving, I've spent nearly all of my waking hours (and a few non-waking hours) at work. I entered my office one day as the wind was stripping tree limbs of the sere leaves that had, not so long before, given them color and life. When I stepped out, gold and silver garland wrapped around railings and windowframes of houses and other buildings where creches rested and Santa Claus, snowpeople (I can't be sexist now; I'll explain later.), reindeer and light sculptures of Christmas trees stood guard--against what, I don't know. Perhaps they were just standing guard.

Those whom I guard I do not love
Those whom I fight I do not hate.

Ah, yes, leave it to Yeats to describe innocence that becomes mendacity when it's no longer innocence, and violence of spirit. Or, perhaps, necessity and a lack of alternatives.

And yet another piece of my sanctity--if indeed I had any left--is about to break off and sink like a piece of the polar ice cap. Yesterday, I wrote to the English Department chair at the Graduate Center to ask what, if any, Ph.D.-level courses I could take as a non-matriculating (one who is not pursuing a degree) student next semester. He passed my request on to the Center's program officer, who, I must say was very helpful. She sent me a list of courses that I could take and a set of guidelines (very straightforward: not like other documents I've seen in the academic world) for registering.

All of the courses sounded interesting, and all except one looked like something I could actually do. I could've chosen Post-Colonial African Literature, Medieval Drama or about a half-dozen other courses, including the one I chose: Literature, Gender and Sexuality. And the program officer got the letter of permission I needed to take the course and sent it to the Registrar.

Now, all that has to happen is for Admissions to take me in and for the department and instructor to approve it, and I'll be...doing gender studies. Oh, dear!

So...Not only am I cooperating with the very institution--education--that has caused me and others such grief, I am also taking a course in one of those disciplines I had once vowed to be part of only when I'm dead and cold, very dead and really cold.

Now I get to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with paragons of political correctness: the very ones who do more than anyone else to enable bigotry. Sometimes I think the gender studies (and African-American, and all those other "studies") professors put on their white robes and hoods when nobody's watching. After all, they are the only disciplines that define themselves by the groups of people they purport to study. If that isn't prejudice, I don't know what is.

Sometimes I wonder whether all of those gays, feminists and African-Americans who work in the areas I've mentioned are dupes or cynics. After all, they are working--as I am-- for the very institution whose job it is to reinforce the values of its nation and culture. Those values invariably include enshrining the prejudices of the group of people who founded those institutions, or who shape, for their own purposes, those societal and economic conditions that make those institutions possible--and even necessary for the goals of that ruling class.

To put it simply, you can't change from within. Once you join, you become part of whatever you've joined, and it changes you. Nearly anyone would think it preposterous for a pacifist to think he or she can change the military by joining it, yet those very same people say, with a straight face, that members of so-called minority groups can make the economic system fairer and more responsive to their neeeds by becoming corporate executives or high-level administrators within govermental agencies or educational institutions.

So what gave anyone the idea that they could make the academy more inclusive or relevant by becoming professors of the "studies?" Then again, I shouldn't be surprised that anyone would think that way: After all, lots of tenured professors, and many who are seeking tenure, profess Marxism of some form or another. Still, I have to wonder whether they actually don't see this contradiction, or whether they suck it up and play the game.

Truth be told, many of them simply couldn't make it outside of the academy. I fear that's what's become, or is becoming, of me as well. Am I already--or doomed to become--one of those who guards what she does not love? And will I, like Patti Hearst and others in one sort of captivity or another, come to identify with my captors? Maybe I do already.

How many people go through life defending that which destroys, or at least weakens, them? And how many of us get into pointless battles with people who never did anything to us? Let's see--about a quarter million, if I'm not mistaken, US military people in Iraq. Some joined to go there, but most, I suspect, joined in an attempt to make the best of a bad bargain, as if such a thing were possible.

17 December 2008

Is Karma a Practical Joke?

Today is Mike's birthday. He's second in the esteemed line of Valinotti siblings. So I exercise certain prerogatives as the first in that notable lineage. Just so he knows I haven't turned into a perfect lady quite yet, I called him up and pretended to represent a delivery service. "There's a cake waiting for you on your front stoop."

"It's raining. So I'm not going out to get it."

"There's a woman inside it who's just aching to burst out. She's been waiting out there all day, just to greet you for your birthday."

"Well, she's just going to have to wait longer!"

"You are a heartless bastard."

"Yeah, I know. I am a heartless bastard."

"But it's not my fault. I didn't raise you that way."

"What can I tell ya'?"

To tell you the truth, I don't know what practical jokes, if any, women play on each other, or play on men. As you can tell, this one didn't work particularly well because Mike knew who I was. Damn caller ID!

Maybe it's because I lived as a man for so long, but it seems to me that most practical jokes are played by males on other males. I've never known sisters to play them on each other, or to brothers. If they do, I'd like to know about those jokes.

Anyway, I'm glad Mike and I can have such an exchange. Time was, not so long ago, when we weren't so friendly. In fact, we went for a couple of years with no contact at all, at one point. I don't know whether he's forgotten, or whether he thinks it's just vodka under the bridge. Wait a minute-- He couldn't think that: Neither of us drinks! (though for completely different reasons).

For now...Well, what can I say? We still haven't seen each other since my transition began. But, to be fair, we hadn't seen each other for several years before that, either. Once, we came close. He'd come to the East Coast for a combination of business and family visits. One day, near the end of my first year of living full-time as Justine, he came into New York with his wife Mary and son Matthew. We had plans to meet that didn't come to pass. I didn't have a cell phone at the time, and when I went to meet them in a coffee shop at the base of the Empire State Building, Mary was looking for Nick, not Justine. Still, how could she have missed a big, tall blonde in a bright blue top and skirt with red sandals and a bag to match. How could anyone not have known it was me. I mean, just because the last time she saw me, I was wearing a beard, does that excuse her or anyone else from knowing who I am.

All right. I'll lay off her. Actually, I like Mary, and always have. But I guess it has to be hard for her, realizing she has another sister-in-law. Yes, I actually do pity her, kinda sorta. I mean, after all, she ends up with another one, and she's me. Oh, dear!

Other people have gotten over more. Me, for instance.

OK, so you think I'm creeping over the line from giddy to catatonic. I could blame the hormones, and maybe I have reason to do so. Actually, I probably do: It's been a few weeks since I've felt this perky. I think my emotions are cyclical, at least to some degree.

Actually, today was a rather good day overall. The college had its holiday party. I wore a knee-length scarlet dress that buttons from the collar to about halfway down my belly, and has a nice leather sash around the middle. I wasn't looking for compliments, but I got them from everybody, it seemed. And the food was good and everyone was in a good mood.

After we had returned to "real life" at the college, I saw my department chair. We exchanged greetings and, impromptu, said, "It's been a good semester, hasn't it."

"Yes. It's been hectic, but good things are happening here."

"And it's been a really good semester for you, Justine."

"Well...Thank you."

Later, I told Cady Ann, the secretary about our exchange. She was surprised only that my department chair surprised me. "You see, everyone knows you're smart, talented and work hard. She was telling you what a lot of people think."


"You're your own worst critic, you know."

"You're not the first person to say that."

She nodded. "So, tell me...When are you going to start on your Ph.D.?"

Funny that she should ask: Just before I bumped into my department chair, I'd called the Graduate Center to ask about taking a course there next semester. For one thing, the college will pay for it. I always tell my students to take whatever's free, and I firmly believe in practicing what I preach. Also, I realize that it's fifteen years since I completed my master's degree. And, of course, I got that degree--and all of my formal education, in fact--as Nick, mostly under duress.

Hmm...Is this some sort of Karmic joke? The school-basher, the one who sees every moment she has spent in school as failure wrought by other failures--going to school again? What's getting into me.

Then again, before I admitted that I am a woman, I denied that anyone--or I--could possibly feel as I did. I actually expressed the belief that transsexuals (the word I knew at the time) were simply people who wouldn't do what was necessary to be men. And, it almost goes without saying that I was quite the homophobe, or that I was at least trying to seem like one.

And here I am. Is that a karmic practical joke, or what?

16 December 2008

Risky Move

Today I did something risky. Carolyn, one of my students was talking about her love of writing. It shows in her work, I said. That made her happy; she related that she's writing a novel.

Then I flicked on my computer and clicked the icon for this blog. I scrolled down to the "Space Entitlement" entry. "This is really interesting," she cooed. "Who wrote it."

My grin told her everything. I explained that she was looking at an entry in my blog, which documents my "last" year before surgery. She wrote the web address and has promised to read more.

I'll be very interested to see her reaction, to say the least.

14 December 2008


During the last few days, the surgery has started to seem at least somewhat imminent. I haven't had time to think about it, or much of anything else that hasn't to do with school, but thought of the operation enter my mind. That's a sign that it's coming closer to becoming a reality.

The other day, Bruce asked me how much time until the operation. I mentioned that just a few days earlier was my seven-month "anniversary." But, I added, I expected it, or the prospect of it, to become more real very soon. In a week and a half, I'll be going to Mom and Dad's for Christmas. Of course, the New Year will begin shortly after that, and a few days after that will mark six months until the surgery. "I expect that one of them, if not all of them in unison, will really make the surgery seem like more of a reality, and my thoughts and imaginings about it will become more intense."

"And they'll become even more intense at five months, four months and so on. Wait until you're just a few days away."

"Oh, I know. I can only imagine it now. But I see it coming."

"You've never anticipated anything so much."

"Right again. What'll my life be like when it's done, when I don't have it to look forward to anymore?"

"You could feel a letdown. You'll wish you could anticipate anything like that again. And you'll move on to something else and live the rest of your life, the way you want it."

In a way, this isn't so different from what people experience after they become engaged. There's the anticipation, which can be exciting and anxiety-producing, sometimes simultaneously, because the life one anticipates with the other is still in the abstract. Sure, people--individually as well as couples--carry images of that their lives with their beloved will be like, but they're just that: images. In other words, those people are seeing themselves in someone else's reality, or in something that's not a reality at all.

Then, as the wedding date draws nearer, they become more anxious even as they're excited. There might be days--say, after a disastrous rehearsal or a misunderstanding-- when one or both say, "What in the world are we doing? What ever made me want this?" It has nothing to do with whether or not they're a "good" couple; it's a matter of the imminence of the moment when the unknown turns into reality.

I have seen this scenario unfold between couples I've known, and my therapist has said that this is normal, both for newlyweds-to-be and transgenders awaiting surgery. In fact, she's said, she'd worry about someone who didn't experience something like this. It's just common sense, really: Anything that will change a person's life, even for the better, should give at least some butterflies to the person who's about to undertake it. And to at least some of that person's friends and family.

Then again, those same people are also the ones most likely to support the one who's about to undergo a major life-change. And they are exactly the people we need at those times.

13 December 2008

Guiding Through My Language

Today Dominick had to take an examination for his teaching certification. He's been working as a paraprofessional while he completes the necessary coursework for his license. If he passes, it's not the end: There are others, for teaching generally and for his specialty, which is Special Education, that he will have to pass. And, if I'm not mistaken, he'll have yet another exam to take for his specialty within Special Ed: working with physically handicapped children. (SE also includes kids with learning disabilities, which some of his pupils also have, and emotional development defecits.) He has my respect and admiration for working with such needy kids.

Anyway, he had to go to Brooklyn to take the test. He was on his way there when I called him on his cell phone. When he told me Bishop Kearney High School, I knew exactly where he had to go. And when he told me he was at Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues, I could tell him exactly how to get there. After all, Bishop Kearney is only a few blocks from where I grew up, and Flatbush and Nostrand is where I studied with Allen Ginsburg while working on my MFA.

He said I gave even better directions than his GPS system. Of course, I said: I know that area as well as I know any place. A few blocks from Kearney are the apartment where my family and I lived until we moved to a house a few more blocks away when I was eight years old. Very often, in my dreams, I end up in places that look like that apartment, that house and those streets, at least as I remember them.

I am shedding tears now, as I did when Dominick asked how I knew that neighborhood so well. "The houses are nice, just like you said they were!," he exclaimed. "Like I remember them," I said.


"It used to be an Italian neighborhood. Around there, a lot of Hasidic Jews live now."

"Yeah, I saw some."

I have to admit, that made me a little sadder. Not because they're Jews, or Hasidim specifically. Rather, I think, it's for the same reasons people lament changes in the places to which they return in their dreams, in their memories: Whoever comes in cannot see the place in the same way as those who left, for whatever reasons, and those who followed them, whether or not by choice. Even if they share your tongue, they cannot feel the same way about the stories, jokes, confidences, impressions or any other communication you shared with the people who shared that time and place with you. It's not that they're obtuse or stupid; they simply don't share your references, as the academics would say.

I'm reminded of this from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young:

There is a town in north Ontario,
With dream comfort memory to spare,
And in my mind I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless

Baby can you hear me now?
The chains are locked
and tied across the door,
Baby, sing with me somehow.

Blue, blue windows behind the stars,
Yellow moon on the rise,
Big birds flying across the sky,
Throwing shadows on our eyes.
Leave us

Helpless, helpless, helpless.

Just about anybody who's ever lost a loved one--or more precisely, remembers how it felt--can understand, at least a little, what I'm saying, what that song is saying. It doesn't matter whether your spouse died or left you--or that you left--there are things you said to each other that you can't say ever again because they would not make sense to anyone else. One could say the same about other family members, friends or even classmates or former coworkers.

I recall now the time I visited Jay, my now-former friend who's been living in France for close to two decades. At the time of the visit, he'd been married to his French wife for a year, if I recall correctly, and he'd been living in France for four or five years. And he was feeling--not homesick, he said, for he'd come to feel that America was "insane"--but a longing for someone who understood his language, if you will. Speaking French wasn't a problem: I wished, and still wish, I could speak it as well as he did. The problem was meeting someone who knew what he meant when he said. "Woody Allen is a dick." (This was not long after the scandal with his daughter.) Even if he could render it into French, it still wouldn't resonate for them in the way the English original struck his fellow American.

Now that's got me to thinking about what language I might lose in my transition to womanhood. Of course, I could never tell some of the jokes I told and heard when I was Nick, or even say the same words of encouragement (when I could muster them) I might've said to a male co-worker, bike buddy or other companion in some activity or another. If I were to say them now, no man would take them in the same way as they might've back when I was in boy-drag. And, of course, they wouldn't make any sense--or they'd simply be offensive--to another woman.

The other day, one of my students told me her boyfriend, the father of her child, had been cheating on her. She broke down in tears; at that moment, any advice I could've given would have been pointless; all she really wanted and needed was my shoulder. I gave it to her, and she thanked me, but somehow I felt deficient: I just knew there was something one of her female friends could have said or could have done for her, and I had no clue to what it was. Even the hug I gave her, I later thought, couldn't have communicated something she could have gotten from one of "the girls," as we say.

In other words, I felt that somehow my knowledge of her language, and that of my newly-adopted nation, if you will, wasn't as strong as I thought it was.

Well, at least I knew then why she missed a few classes and when I saw her last week, she looked as if she were about to have a nervous breakdown.

She asked me if I'd ever been cheated on. Yes, I said. And what did I do, she wondered. I dumped that person. She didn't want to hear that. But, I continued, that wasn't necessarily what she should do, especially if she wants to keep, or even see, her child. So, she replied, yes, she wants to talk to her boyfriend. I advised her not to do it alone: Bring a friend, mediator or someone with you, I advised.

Now there's an example of trying to speak a new language and guiding someone through territory that I once knew, albeit in a very different way from the way she now knows it. And I was calling on a language I used to speak every day, if you will, in guiding Dominick through a place he didn't know. I'm still learning the language of doing that.

12 December 2008

Space Entitlement

I still recall the first time a man tried to give me his seat on the subway. And I refused. I would learn that it was a dead-giveaway (as if I needed one) that I was still en femme, not anywhere near living as I am now.

And then I think of the times I offered my seat to infirm or handicapped men. Just about all of them politely refuse. Then there was that old man with a cane who boarded a dolmus near Ephesus, Turkey. I'd rested my bag on the seat next to mine; when the man boarded the bus, I lifted it and motioned toward him. "Bey! Geceler!": Sir, come and sit here.

The ticket attendant/conductor explained that the man understood what I said. But, he added, the man was a Muslim fundamentalist, so he couldn't sit with a woman. And, even if I got up and moved my bag after, the man couldn't sit by me because in the rows in front of me sat a woman--and her husband. Ditto for the row in back of us.

Today on the bus, a black woman who was probably my age, give or take, got out of her seat and motioned for me to sit. I hesitated; she insisted without saying a word. To tell you the truth, I was glad to sit because my shoulder bag was full of papers and other things.

I've always been a klutz with etiquette. Sometimes I think I have a gene that makes me as incapable of it as I am of charm. I mean, if you know me, you'd have some idea of how many socially unacceptable things I've done.

Did I do the right, or socially acceptable, thing in taking that woman's seat? Somehow I figured she has a harder life than mine so she should have the seat. I know, I was making a lot of assumptions in that moment. But I really don't want to take something from someone who needs or deserves something more than I do.

It's really strange: As a man, I had--as nearly all men do--a sense of entitlement about my space. Females would step aside or squeeze around me on narrow sidewalks and other public venues. And, when they sat next to me on trains, buses or in other public venues, they'd pull invisible strait jackets around their arms and knees. I made no effort to claim the space; it was ceded to me.

Now, I wasn't one of those guys who sat with his legs as far apart as he could spread them while pregnant women and old men with canes practically folded into each other like parts of an accordion. Actually, I was too ornery to be truly obnoxious; then again, if you're ornery, you don't need to be obnoxious. (What did I just say?) So I kept my knees close to each other, not out of courtesy, but to avoid counter-transgression: By keeping out of their space, I kept them out of mine.

And I notice now that there is a sort of inverse entitlement: When I am offered a seat or space, I am expected to take it--because a man offered it to me. The same when a man opens a door for me: He seems to expect that I will pass in front of him and can't understand how it could be any other way. I'm not complaining about this; in fact, I rather enjoy it. But, I'm realizing now that such courtesies as men afford come from their sense of entitlement. In other words, because taking that space is their prerogative, they also have the option of giving it to me, a middle-aged (or getting there) woman.

So this leads me to another dilemma: On one hand, I respect, and am even thankful for, such men. After all, if they're giving me their seats, they're probably not the sort who would only give up their seats to women if they're young and pretty enough. Such men most likely rise for pregnant and infirm women, or those who are toting babies and small children.

And I find that, for the most part, those men are either older or darker than I am. The Latino men, I've found, are most accomodating in this way; American black men and their brethren from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia and the Caribbean also extend such quotidien chivalries. As I mentioned, men over forty are more likely to give up their space than those younger, but in all of the groups of men I've mentioned, I've received such treatment from adolescent boys as well.

But a woman giving me her seat: Now what do I make of that?

11 December 2008

Quand Sera-ce Fini?

Nothing let up today. The rain, for one thing. But also the incessant demands, some of them rational, others capricious, imperious and puerile at the same time. It's as if everyone in the world suddenly realizes the semester is about to end and wants you to save their rear ends. I'm not talking only about students: If anything, I've probably had fewer procrastinators this semester in spite of the fact that I've been teaching many more students. I'm talking about some faculty members and administrators who tell you that they have a deadline for something or another and want you to help them make it.

And then there are all the papers I have to read. Just when I think I've made a dent in the pile of papers, I turn around, and when I turn back, there are even more papers than there were before I started reading. In a perverse way, I feel like I'm enacting the Sorcerer's Apprentice scene from Fantasia: the one where the brooms multiply.

As much as I love writing and literature, I tell people that if they want to teach, they should do Phys Ed classes. I mean, what does a gym teacher bring home with him or her? And how much preparation does it take to lead a class in calisthentics or a game? One of my high-school gym teachers was an alcoholic who just let people do what they wanted: a fine thing to do with a bunch of boys who are geysers of hormones.

So I have scarcely seen daylight, much less sunlight, for the past two weeks or so. And I have been no other places but the college and my apartment, where I seem only to read papers or sleep when I can. I'm getting old and fat and I'm always tired.

I know this will let up in a couple of weeks. But, really, when you have no contact with anything else but whatever you have to do in the moment, that moment seems like forever. I feel the way that Theresa must have felt when she wrote, "Sometimes I think the rain will never end." Imagine that, from an eleven-year-old kid. Then again, she came from one of those homes where life was nothing but the present: an extended version of the present moment. I realize now that lots of people live that way, some by choice, others (like Theresa) because they don't have any other choice and still more who probably just don't know any other way.

Yes, I know the rain will end, eventually. But I want it now. That, and the surgery and whatever follows.