28 February 2009

Size Matters

OK, now I'm going to tell you something counterintuitive. (Oh, that word is so pretentious. But I used it again!) It might not matter much in the scale of things, but here it is: Size didn't matter as much to me when I was living as Nick as it does now.

Now, you're probably wondering why I'm worrying about the size of that. Well, guess what: You have a dirty mind. I was being entirely literal. And, because I'm a lady, I would never, ever talk about that!

So the hormones haven't tempered my mischieviousness. Oh, well. The doctor didn't say that they would, and I never said that I wanted them to. What the doctor doesn't tell you won't hurt you: Is that how it goes? Or is it that what you don't want can't hurt you? Either way, I'm safe, I guess.

About the issue of size: I noticed it again when I went to get my nails done. On occasion, you'll see a man getting a manicure, but 99% of the time--even here in New York--all of the patrons as well as the nail finishers are female. I am taller and bigger than most women though, I'm told, I'm not at the far edge of the bell curve. On the other hand, as a male, I was average--almost militantly so--in both height and body size. As a matter of fact, when I was in shape, I was thinner than most guys and smaller overall, save for the shoulders I developed from weight-lifting.

Today I realized why I notice my size even more in nail salons than in other all- (or mostly-) female environments. Just about everyone who finishes nails, at least in this city, is Chinese or Korean. The half-dozen women who do that work in the salon I usually patronize (Hannah and Her Sisters in Astoria) are Korean. And so were all of the nail technicians in the places I patronized before I started to frequent Hannah and Her Sisters. Next to those women, I seem like King Kong.

I haven't had my nails done outside New York yet, so I don't know if the situation holds true everywhere. From what I could see, it seemed to be the case in the part of Florida where my parents live, but not in Paris or Istanbul. Before going to those places, I had my nails done, so I didn't have to avail myself to the local equivalents. Now I wish I had, just to see what they were like.

Some sociologist or labor historian should undertake a study that would explain why seemingly every nail technician in New York, or any urban or suburban area in the US, is from China or Korea. We know why, for example, Jews came to dominate the garment industry and how they and Italians pretty much were the film industry. Or why for more than a century, the vast majority of cops were Irish or machinists were German. But why are nail technicians Chinese or Korean?

Maybe the answer won't matter that much. But less consequential matters have consumed great amounts of intellectual and other kinds of capital.

For now, I guess I'll have to get used to standing out in a nail salon the way an NBA center next to one of the jockeys at Aqueduct Race Track--at least until Amazons take over the nail salons of this city.

Will size matter then?

27 February 2009

Le Cafe Perdu

Today Bruce and I went to lunch at the Red Egg, a Chinese restaurant on a part of Centre Street that sits in a nether-world between Chinatown, Soho and the Lower East Side. It's hard to get any sit-down meal in Manhattan, much less one as good as we had, for seven dollars (before tax and tip).

Today I had Red Egg Curry Chicken. It was so good that I was scooping up and downing what remained of the sauce after I'd finished the chicken, asparagus and okra that made up the rest of the dish. And Bruce's General Tso's Chicken, which I sampled, was as good.

We've eaten there a couple of times before, and I'm sure we'll go back. The decor is a cross between a Soho bistro and a Chinese restaurant in Queens. That is to say, it's made up of sleek red and black lacquer and blondish wood.

A good sign is that the place was full, or close to it, each time we've gone. And, at least half of the customers were Chinese. Also, they set your table with chopsticks. I'm not sure that they have western-style utensils: I didn't see anyone using them.

After we finished, Bruce had to return to work. So, after we parted, I wandered across town on Spring Street to the Bowery, then up toward Cooper Square. The day was mild but overcast; everyone rightly believed that we would get the rain that was forecast for the early evening.

On a day like this, which feels like an early spring day except for a touch of damp chill, flesh and bright colors peeked out the way the sun does as it moves through layers of clouds. Near Bruce's office, in a building sandwiched between two boutiques, young women fluttered about in shorts with brightly-patterned tights or skirts over sheer hosiery. Some of the young men weren't wearing coats or jackets, or even sweaters, over their T-shirts. Back when I was young and full of testosterone (and alcohol), I would have done the same.

The styles may change, but they are re-enacting what seems to be a ritual I've seen for as long as I can remember. If we'd had a day like this a few weeks ago, it wouldn't have been seen as a prelude to spring: It would have been just an unusually warm day in winter. And so everyone would have been wearing coats and scarves and such.

Well, some people--young women, mostly--wore scarves, mainly as accessories. One in particular just oozed style with hers, in shades of champagne, lilac and dark pink. Its ends fluttered behind her as she pumped her Peugeot city bike--the kind they sell in France, not an export model--with fenders, a rack, generator light and all. She would have looked completely appropriate on the streets around Saint Germain des Pres or Montmartre.

She is me, in another life. If only...

Seeing her, and those downtown streets and buildings that criscross each other at mad angles, I started to get, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, woozy with deja vu. I recalled walking those same streets when they both more carefree and more dangerous than they are now. I knew of some of the dangers; others escaped--along with a lot of other things--my consciousness as I drank or intoxicated myself in some other way. I saw a place--Phebe's, still there--where I used to drink enough so that I didn't notice or care that the hamburger I ordered was burnt. It brought back images of other places, long gone, where the graffiti in the bathroom provided more debate on issues of the day, and larger questions, than just about any still-surviving magazine or other publication that has any sort of intellectual premise or pretense.

One place like that was Le Figaro cafe, which used to take up a corner of Bleecker and MacDougal Streets in the heart of the Village. Back before Starbuck's cafes started popping up like weeds after a rainstorm, Le Figaro was one of the few places where you could get something like a real espresso or cappucino rather than the burnt-coffee-bean-and-boiled-milk concoctions other places served. Back in those days, they served decent quiche Lorraine and some not-bad desserts. But those weren't the reasons to go there. Nor was the decor: If you can imagine an interrogation room from a '40's or '50's noir film wallpapered with copies of the eponymous French newspaper (ironically enough, one edited from a conservative, almost reactionary, point of view), you have a good idea of what the interior looked like.

From what I understand, Bob Dylan and his peers used to go there after playing at The Back Fence and other nearby dives. Of course, that gives it the same sort of cachet Dylan Thomas's patronage gives the White Horse Tavern. But the real reason you went to Le Figaro, or any of those old-time Village coffee places, was to watch people. So, it was always best (to me, anyway) to go on a day like this one, which would probably be the first of the season on which the sidewalk tables would be set up.

Today, a lot of those people I looked at back in the day are probably gone. As are one bartender and one waitress who used to work there. I had crushes on both of them that I probably wouldn't have had if I'd seen them in a New Jersey mall. A lot of other people probably did, too. That's how it was in those old Village (East or West) cafes and coffeehouses: They really didn't have a whole lot to recommend them except their locations, but somehow they transformed the people you met in them in much the same way that young people who just got off the bus from Iowa or Kansas or Oregon became bohemians when they opened up their suitcases or backpacks in that neighborhood.

Of course I would have liked to have been in one of those cafes as that young woman who rode her Peugeot today. However, neither she nor anyone else I saw today would, even if they could, choose to be a patron in one of those cafes I remember. Nor could I. As much as I feel I would have liked to experience those days and all of my past as Justine rather than as Nick, I know that if I had (if I could have), I may not be here today, little more than four months from my surgery.

I forget which feminist writer said that in the Sexual Revolution, women got screwed. And so it was back in those giddily serious days. Now I realize that the women, almost invariably young and fashionable in an arty kind of way, served as props for those guitar- and chess-playing young men of yore. Even fairly recently, cafes like le Figaro were mainly the provinces of straight people. They gays were on the western and eastern extremes of the neighborhood, and they had their own versions of the cafes, not to mention the bars.

Those cafes are gone, too, as are so many of the men who patronized them. Only the women--reincarnations of them, anyway--remain. Today Bruce had lunch with one who hadn't been thought of because she couldn't conceive herself in those days.

26 February 2009

Going to School: It's a Girl Thing, Ya Know

It's really strange to have the day off on a Thursday. For as long as I can remember--yes, even back in elementary school--it was my longest and busiest day of the week.

Of course, when you teach English, you never really have a day off. There are always papers to grade, lesson plans to create and reading to do. And now, of course, I'm taking a class.

Yesterday, Cady Ann, the English Department secretary, wondered why I didn't take a class sooner and why I don't pursue a PhD. Well, it's not out of the question. I just hope that if I do it, I'll still be employable.

Somehow I had the sense that my gender transition would involve getting some sort of an education. I didn't really want to believe it, as I had lots of really bad experiences as a student, and more than a few as an educator. But deep down, I knew that I would. I didn't know whether it would mean the course I seem to be pursuing or something else entirely. A couple of years ago, with the encouragement of one prof who used to work in social services, I seriously entertained the idea of getting a master's in social work. Ironically enough, thinking about my social worker helped to spark--and extinguish the flame of--that idea. I guess it's not hard to see why people whose lives have been changed by counselors, therapists, social workers or teachers think they would like to spend their lives helping other people in the same way. On the other hand, I wonder how many of them understand what it's like to deal with people who have the same problems as theirs, only worse, every day.

And I honestly feel that I am not as patient or sensitive as my social worker or Regina, who worked at the college where I work. Then again, I probably have more of a chance of marrying into the Royal Family (as if I ever wanted to do such a thing) than I would of becoming as good a writer as Shakespeare. Yet I keep on writing.

In any event, I don't think now that I'll do social work or counseling. For that matter, I won't go to law school, either, in spite of encouragement I received from three lawyers and a few people who are doing advocacy work of one kind or another. The study might be interesting, but I'm not so sure about the practice. Not only that, I'd have to incur lots of debt, which means I'd have to take a corporate position or something equally unappealing.

So let's see...I could always train myself for some trade or another. Or another profession, like accounting. Uh-huh.

What else can I think of to avoid the inevitable. The inevitable? No, can't be. There must be some way of not becoming another tranny who does gender studies or some such thing. I mean, real education is old white men teaching about dead white men, right? At least that's how it was in my day.

But these days some people have different ideas. Everyone, including the professor, in the class I'm taking seems to have them. Even the crotchy conserviative that I am is going along with them.

So I'm back in school again, just like I'm supposed to be. Except that in some way I can't say I'm "back." I'm starting over, really, just as I have in everything else for the past seven years. The day Tammy and I split up, I knew that starting over was all I could do.

And ya know, going to school is a woman's thing. I mean, real men don't have to go to school. Guys are supposed to be physically powerful and their work is supposed to show it. Back when I was riding my bike a couple of hundred miles a week and lifting weights, I could live on fried foods and cheese and have a lower cholesterol level than 99% of people in the industrialized world. Schooling could never do that for me.

As long as I didn't know, I didn't need to know. And if I found out, I could ignore it and it would go away. Or, better yet, I could exorcise it by exercising myself, whether on the saddle or in bed.

Oh, you never heard of that theory before? It goes like this: If somehow you realize you're anything but hetero and/or can't live by that "M" on your birth certificate, you get married. If that doesn't work, you try it again--or at least live with a new girlfriend. Before, between and after each marriage or relationship, you sleep with a woman any chance you get.

In other words, act like a het guy and you'll be one. I don't think Skinner or any of the other behaviorists mentioned that, but they also never said that their principles couldn't be applied to one's gender identity or sexuality. You know, that's further proof of the axiom that if you don't know, you don't need to know. And its corollary: Your troubles begin the moment you know.

In some weird way, that's what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick said in The Epistemology of the Closet. Knowledge is not necessarily power. She gave the example of Ronald Reagan meeting Francois Mitterand. While Monsieur Mitterand spoke some of the most graceful English ever to come from lips first attuned to speaking another language, Ronnie Raygun couldn't utter so much as Bonjour. So, of course, their conversation was in English.

Naturally, the first thing I thought of was Caliban saying to Prospero, You have taught me language/And the profit on't is, I can curse. Oui, j'en ai entendu l'anglais, et donc, j'en ai parlait avec l'idiote american. And I got an education so that I could do the work of people who don't want to think--and get paid less than they're paid.

And, of course, this meant that Mitterand was forced to be all the more proficient in English. At the same time, it destroyed any incentive Reagan ever had, if indeed he had any, to learn French or any other language besides English.

That's how it is when you're a woman or a member of any other stigmatized group. You have to learn and know more--or, at least, different things--from members of the dominant groups. This allows them to be ignorant, which makes it all the more necessary to learn even more.

So, yeah, going to school is for women. And gays. And blacks. And...well, you get the picture.

Thus am I back in school. At least I'm enjoying it, so far, which really will trump any other sort of motivation. I need to know, I want to know, I can't imagine not knowing. And those are the reasons why I must keep on learning. What else can a middle-aged woman who happens to be trans do? Learn...and enjoy it.

Here I've come again.

25 February 2009

You Should See Yourself Giddy With Shakespeare and Ice-T

I haven't studied biology in more than thirty years. I'll be the first to admit that I don't remember much, and what little I do recall is probably hopelessly out of date. So, take this next statement for whatever it's worth, coming from me: The human body does not convert estrogen into ecstasty, with a lower- or an upper-case "e."

Or does it?

I think I'm experiencing a 48-hour case of what I now call the "girlie giddies." As I was about to start taking hormones, the doctor said I would become more emotional and have mood swings. As if I didn't already! I don't recall the doctor being more specific. What I do know is that I've had some crying jags as well as the girlie giddies.

What has it been about these last two days? I'm not doing anything special, and everything's working out and people want more of it. I was sorry to see the end of yesterday's session of the class I'm taking. I felt like I was watching the credits at the end of a film and I didn't want to get out of my seat. And I felt that way today, too, at the end of the hip-hop class I'm teaching. The time just flew; even the students said they couldn't believe it was over. "We have next week, and ten more," I reminded them.

"Can't wait," one chimed.

"I've never seen a prof on such a roll," another declared.

Actually, they were on a roll. It seemed as if the connection between Shakespeare's Sonnet 30 and Ice-T's Power was the most obvious thing in the world, although, to my knowledge, no one made it before me.

Here's The Bard's sonnet:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Well, one thing this sonnet proves (at least to me) is that anything Robert Browning did, Shakespeare was doing, more sagely and more elegantly--0r at least in a more intimate way-- two centuries before him. I mean, if you wanted a four-word summary of this poem (if that could do it justice), "Love Among The Ruins" would be a good one. For the first twelve lines, the speaker of the poems is talking about his losses. But, in the tradition of the Shakespearean sonnet, there is a "turn" before the penultimate line. And what do those last two lines say? Well, when I remember you, at least I have something to hold on to. Or something like that.

And the language. Oh, the language! "Then I can grieve at grievances foregone/And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er/The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan/Which I new paid as if not paid before." Just listen to those sounds: the "g" consonances in the first of those lines, the assonance (Yes, he had a real nice assonance!) of "o" sounds in the following lines and the coup de grace of "the fore-bemoaned moan" and "paid as if not paid before." Those "fore"s call out to each other; so do the "moans" which also resonate with the (rhyme of) "foregone" and "woe to woe tell o'er."

Then, just as we think all is lost, we hear that final couplet. In nearly other poet's hands, the "friend/end" would have seemed mundane, or even banal. But here, as the conventional or "weak" rhyme, it actually brings closure and a sort of affirmation. And, as one of my students noted, the "s" sounds in the final line are reassuring, too. Why is that, I wondered. The best answer I have for that is that they are refractions, not reflections, of those "s" sounds in the poems first line. "Sessions of sweet silent thought" is a quieting rather than a quiet sound; it's almost repressive. On the other hand, "All losses are restored and sorrows end" has a more reassuring, if not empowering, sound to it, which comes for the price of all those sad and melancholy sounds in the middle of the poem.

And what of Ice-T's song? Here's a link to the lyrics:


That song is practically an inversion of Shakespeare's sonnet: Through most of it, Ice-T raps about having the trappings of power. But after the "turn"--at "Power starts with 'p'..."--the singer realizes he doesn't have real power after all, at least not in this society.

It was such a joy to see students discovering for themselves what I've just described. It made me even more giddy. One of the students, who took the Intro to Literature class with me four years ago, exclaimed, "You're just lit up! You should see yourself." To which I replied, "No, you should see yourself."

Yes, you really should see yourself.

24 February 2009

My Worst Fears Are Coming True And I'm Ecstatic. What Do I Do Now?

Maybe I'm not joking after all when I tell people about my "special tranny powers."

You know...I can put together an outfit. I can be witty and sarcastic. I can learn anything because I can read your mind and I can explain it all because I've got a good mouth on my shoulders. (Thank Chanel La Vie en Rose lipstick for the latter.)

Seriously...Today I said things and I'm still wondering where they came from. What's amazing is that I didn't get myself in trouble.

Here I was, thinking I was an utter fool because I had to read and re-read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's essay about paranoia and her introduction to "The Epistemology of the Closet." And I had to read them again before they made any sense to me. And there were times I wanted to let my cats have at those pages. Damn, Sedgwick, what's with all the Latin words? Or sentences longer than the Verrazano Bridge?

Yet, I wanted to keep on reading her. Of course, the material's of interest to me. But that wasn't the only thing that kept me going. I guess you might say that I wanted to master difficult material to prove something to myself. But that's not the whole story, either. It was almost as if I couldn't help but to read those essays.

Oh my goddess! I'm reading a gender theorist--and enjoying it?! This is exactly what I always feared. What do I do now?

Well...I've had my worst fears come true before. Like the day I realized I was going to live my life without alcohol or drugs. Time was when I could more easily imagine myself buried alive. But of course it was what I needed to do so I could live long enough to face my biggest fear of all...

...Which, of course, is that I am Justine. That I would actually give up that cocoon of white male heterosexual privilege in which I lived. Where I didn't have to know anything about writers like Sedgwick. Where I could read Walt Whitman and John Milton as poets, and nothing more or less. And where no-one would bother me for advice.

Oh well. I'll just have to feign guilt over becoming a sober woman who can actually understand abstract texts, and now can't imagine how she got through life without them.

And what's more...I'm enjoying this. Forget it...I'm walking on clouds. I see worlds opening up already.

Do you want to hear the wildest part of all? Other people in the class said that I was helping them to understand what we were reading. They said things like, "That didn't make sense until you talked about it." One student said, "I wondered whether I was getting any of this. But then I thought, well, Justine will explain it." And another exclaimed, "You were really on fire today. I've never seen anybody do like what you did in class." The prof thanked me, too.

The best part is that I was smiling all through that class. Someone else mentioned that, but I knew it already. I couldn't help myself. As I talked, the texts started to open up to me. And the prof not only asks great questions; she may have the best timing I've ever seen. She knows when to let people ruminate or whether to prod them a bit. As she did with me: Early in the class, she could just see that my mind was like a ripe piece of Brie ready to burst out of its wrapper.

OK. So now I'm in the kind of class I swore I would never take. And enjoying it. Better yet: The prof ended the class only after realizing it ran past its allotted time. But I didn't want it to end.

Uh-oh. Does this mean I might actually pursue a PhD after all? Then how am I going to tell all those young trannies that none of it matters?

Now I have one less way of saying "fuck you," thumbing my nose or whatever you want to call it. Not that anybody's convinced when I do that.

I guess I have to find something else now that feigning misanthropy is no longer an option. Actually, it never was, but that didn't stop me.

Have I opened a can of worms? Or a new chapter? Well, either way, I guess it'll take up a lot of the next four months. Can you imagine me going into the operating room saying things like, "The great divide is not male/female; it's homo/hetero"? I guess that'll really give the anaesthesiologist incentive to do her work.

So I'll wake up from the surgery with a body that's a closer approximation of my spirit. And after I recover, I can...take another class? And be thankful to a prof who's teaching gender theory?

It sounds good to me. Really. Really?

What do I do now?

22 February 2009

Taking History Personally

Tonight I watched 60 Minutes. There was a time in my life when that was the only TV program I watched, and I never missed an episode. It is often informative, but more often, it's sensationalistic. But tonight there was a very interesting and disturbing segment.

Elia Solomonovich Kalperin was a town in Belarus, where he saw most of his family--including his mother--slaughtered by the Nazis when he was six years old. He would have been one of those victims, too, except that an SS soldier took a liking to him and trained him as a young soldier. He soon became a mascot and the youngest corporal in the Nazi army, leading a bunch of other kids in a propaganda film.

The Nazis gave him a new identity, naming him Alex Kurzem. Because he was so young, he soon forgot his original name and, with time, the details of his aborted childhood. For more than half a century afterward, he didn't talk about his experiences with anyone. So he lived with a name, and therefore an identity--and, therefore, by extension a bunch of stories--that weren't his.

Does any of that sound familiar?

You can imagine, if not count, how many tears streamed down my cheeks. Holocaust stories are terrible enough, even when they're about survival. I won't even pretend that I expereinced anything as traumatic as that, and I hope I don't have to. Still, those stories somehow feel personal for me.

Now, as for the other part of his story--living as someone else--I can identify with that all too well, as I suspect every transgender or anyone else who's ever lived "in the closet" can. I, too, lived with a name and identity, and thus a life, that wasn't mine. All of those things were forced on him; I would say that, under less extreme circumstances than his, I was inculcated with the idea that I was a boy called Nicky who was supposed to grow into a man people would know as Nick and who would sign his checks and other documents as Nicholas. Similarly, all those Germans who saw that propaganda film thought he wasn't part of "the hated race," as he said in the 60 Minutes interview, so they expected him to grow into a the sort of man from "the master race." The kids who saw that film were supposed to want to be him, and their parents were supposed to want their kids to grow up as he was expected to.

Take away a person's history--personal or collective--and you can dismantle him or her for your own purposes. The Nazis knew that all too well; so did Mao Tse Tung when he initiated the Cultural Revolution. So, of course, did those who bought and sold African people and forced them to work in the cotton fields and sugar plantations. As long as the slaves were forced to speak a language that wasn't their own, but weren't allowed to learn how to read or write it, or any other language, the slaves could not be anything but.

That's more or less what one of my students said in the Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip-Hop class I teach. While Elia Kaperin made it to Australia, where he survived and prospered, he was in a sense a slave, too.

It seems that slaves carry some memory, even if it isn't one of their own, of their lost personal or cultural history. That, I believe, is the common denominator of just about every cultural contribution African-Americans have made, and the reason why so much of it is expressed in music. In some sense, they're recreating the griot or its equivalents: the experience is shared and passed on through the performance of music and dance, and the telling of stories.

Elia Kaperin said there was a word that stuck in his mind through all those years: Koidanov. He had no idea of what it meant until some historian found learned that it was the old name of the village where Kaperin was born. Only then was he able to find family members who had survived--and to learn the fate of his father, about twenty years dead by then.

Through all those years I lived as Nicky, Nick and Nicholas, I carried within me an essence, a spirit, of the woman I am becoming. Sometimes it felt like a memory,though I didn't know from where or when it could have come. I was willing to believe, as I am now, that perhaps I was a girl in a past life. An Indian man I met not long after I started my transition said as much: He believed that I was indeed a woman but was sent back in a male body in order to learn what I needed to learn.

So a Jew who was, in effect, forced to become a German has something in common with Africans who were turned into slaves and a woman who had to live as a boy and a young man. Our first imperative is, of course, to survive--no, to live. To do this, we must not only resurrect personal or cultural heritages; we must create. I take that back, we can't do anything but to create, whether or not we choose to do so. We create ourselves and, in consequence, what we need to nourish ourselves intellectually and spiritually.

It's all we can do, because it's all personal.

21 February 2009

How Do You Wait?

Got up late. Then again, I stayed up late, after reading and writing. I suppose that's a good rationale for being a night owl. After all, I'm not going to clubs and such.

So I got up late and ran a few errands. I skipped the farmer's market on Roosevelt Island, for I knew that at this time of year, they don't have much left in the early afternoon. Sometimes it even closes not much past noon at this time of the year.

And so another day passed more quickly than the ones that preceded it. Although nothing momentous happened today, I feel that I'm perceiving time a bit differently tonight.

Now there are only four months and two weeks between me and the date of the surgery. Suddenly that seems like hardly any time at all, even though so much could happen between now and the date for which my surgery is scheduled. I know I've been counting down the months, the weeks and the days, today I somehow had the sense that there really is not much time left at all.

I found myself thinking about people who have terminal illnesses and know they haven't much time left. I know their situations are very, very different from mine. But it's interesting to see how they choose to spend whatever time remains to them. There are cancer patients who refuse treatment, feeling that, as one person exclaimed, "It will give me a few more months--of what? Vomiting? Diarrhea? My hair falling out?" Then, of course there are those--probably the majority--who submit to those treatments reflexively, dutifully, hopefully or even religiously. If there's any chance of extending their lives, there's also a chance of living with it, or simply living. And, finally, there are those who go out with a bang, to the degree that they are able to, or to at least continuing to make progress in whatever areas of their lives they had been developing.

In the latter category are some people I greatly admire, including Randy Pausch and Audre Lorde. I guess I could include Lance Armstrong, too, because even though his cancer is in check, neither he nor anyone else can predict his medical future.

So what have I chosen to do in my last days before surgery? I've taken on a few new projects and other challenges. Yet I'm trying to live a "normal" life, whatever that means. All right, it's not the first time I've pursued contradictory goals. I'm teaching a course in hip-hop and poetry in which I'm trying to help students relate the two sensually rather than merely academically. Yet I'm taking a PhD level course in which I'm reading abstract writing in areas I once swore I'd never touch. That, while I find myself more and more engaged in the solitary business of writing as I am trying to deal with the social situations in which I find myself.

Of course, one way in which my situation differs from that of other people whose days are numbered is that if something isn't finished by the date of my surgery, that doesn't mean it will never be done. The operation isn't nearly as risky as it was only a generation ago, so chances are that I'll come out of it and, after the requisite period of rest and healing, I'll be ready to continue.

Still, I have this sense that I should try to finish some of my projects and tasks before the surgery. For one thing, I don't know what I'll be able--or simply feel up--to doing, and how soon after the surgery I'll be able to do some of the things in which I'm involved now.

I guess that, unless I suffer from some unexpected complication, I'll be able to read and write immediately afterward, or at least after not very many days. And although I know, from my research and conversations with my therapist, doctor and people who've done the surgery, that I'll have all the same mental faculties (Once a dumb blonde, always a dumb blonde?) and will be in many ways the same person as I was, I still wonder how and whether I'll change from the experience of the surgery or, afterward, the fact of having female body parts. Will I have the same ambitions and motivations I havve now or even, for that matter, the same interests?

Deep down, I know the answer to those last two questions is "yes." Still, there are probably so many things I can't know right now, and so much that nobody can predict. I'm guessing that I'll change in some way or another (aside from the obvious way); that is what most of us do in life. But how? What will I be like after those changes?

I think now of some poems I wrote during my youth. A few of them are still worthwhile, if I do say so myself. And I know how they could be "better" in some way or another. But I cannot change those poems: The act of writing them helped, in whatever small ways, to change me. So I would not be adding to or subtracting from them as the same person who wrote them.

Will the surgery create, or help to create, that same sort of distance between past and future selves, between who I am now (or whatever I am the day before the surgery) and the person I will be?

See what kinds of questions you start to ask when you're up late and you've read an essay about the nature of paranoia and its role in defining one's self? So I'm going to bed now. If nothing else, it'll bring me a few hours closer to my surgery.

20 February 2009

The Cafe Orlin

After having lunch with Bruce, I met Dominick on Broadway, just above Houston. Together, we roamed through the Lower East Side and East Village, through streets were I lived, played, drank fought, got high, fucked and got fucked a lifetime ago.

The first time I roamed those neighborhoods alone was more than thrity years ago, before I knew Bruce--and before Dominick was born. Perhaps the only other streets in this world that seem as entangled within me as my arteries and veins are the ones around Dahill Road and Bay Parkway in Brooklyn, and the environs of Parc Montsouris, Ile de la Cite and Place de la Republique in Paris. I guess the block on which I've been living for six years are becoming part of my fabric, too, but that's another story.

Anyway, Dominick said he wanted to go to a restaurant near St. Mark's Place that he loves. He couldn't recall the name of it, he said, but he could take me to it.

Well, it turned out to be the Cafe Orlin. It's across the street from one of the Porto Rico stores, where I used to buy whole beans when I was still drinking coffee. And, about half a block away is Veselka, another favorite place to eat.

But having Dominick take me to the Cafe Orlin seemed like some sort of karmic twist. We were led to our table by a cute young waiter whom Dominick knows, and we were seated across from a woman who was probably a few years older than me and an intellectual of some sort. Later, Dominick said that, from the way she spoke, she seemed like she had an Ivy League, or some other sort of upper-class, background. I concurred with him; I had that sense even before she opened her mouth. She was talking about writing with a much younger Asian woman who gestured toward an Apple laptop propped between them on their table.

In my previous life, a woman like the young Asian accompanied me to the Cafe where we were all seated. And I accompanied two or three women who resembled, in various ways, the older woman who was talking about writing. Other times I went to the cafe in the company of other kinds of women. And yet another time I read my poetry there and woke up the next afternoon with yet another older woman--though not the one I was hoping to, or planning on, spending the night with.

All those times I went to the Cafe Orlin, I had a beard and wore my polo shirts or cable-knit sweaters with threadbare jeans or wrinkled chinos. As I did on what may well have been one of the strangest nights of my life.

Peggy, whom I met when I was working as a writer in residence in the city's schools, invited me and Bruce there for coffee. She brought a friend whose name I can't recall now--and, for that matter, I can scarcely even remember what she looked like.

One thing I do recall about that night was that it was just after I talked for the first time about my childhood sexual abuse. At the time, I made no connection between that revelation and being in the Cafe Orlin with Bruce, Peggy and the woman whose name is lost to me. However, I believe I revealed to Bruce the connection between the two, which I saw for the first time as I was talking to Bruce today.

Bruce and I both decided we wanted that woman. I have known him for nearly thirty years, and she was the only person who aroused our common interest. What I confessed today--before Dominick took me to that same cafe--was that the main reason I wanted her was the main reason I wanted any woman in a boy/girl relationship: I was clinging as desperately as I ever have to the idea of myself as a heterosexual man. In other words, I didn't want her so much because I found her attractive as that I wanted someone whose presence in my life would affirm me--to others, I told myself; but really to me, I knew full well--as a successful straight guy, and maybe even a bit of a stud.

On the other hand, I think Bruce wanted her because she was interesting and attractive and, well, because he is a straight (but, as they say, not narrow) man.

As it turned out, neither of us got the girl. It was probably just as well because, if I recall correctly, shortly thereafter Bruce met Carolyn, with whom he has a relationship to this day. And I continued my desultory sexual and amorous history that ended with Tammy breaking up with me for exactly the same reason we got together. That reason is, of course, the one that led me to my current life.

And it was one of the reasons why, years later, I was in that same cafe with Dominick. The waiter may not have been born yet the first time I had coffee there.

19 February 2009

From Drizzle to Wind: Out of the Closet

Last night's drizzle turned to rain, and back to drizzle again. This morning, the weather was mild: more like what one might expect a month from now. That relative warmth lasted as long as the drizzle: as soon as the drizzle ended and the sky cleared, the wind swept through the streets of my neighborhood. And, it seemed, the season changed back to winter.

I find myself thinking, again, about Wallace Stevens' "sort of man who prefers a drizzle in Venice to a hard rain in Hartford." Or, perhaps, a fog in Boston to the doors of New York.

The fog, and especially a drizzle, are always better than a hard rain, or the cold. And the wind. Now there is only wind, and cold.

I'm recalling a photography class I took as an undergraduate. Back then, digital photography didn't exist, so we had to learn darkroom techniques. It was interesting to see how a photo could be "made" rather than simply "taken."

Well, I did something wrong when developing a roll of film. I don't remember exactly what I did, but it resulted in all of my photos on that roll of film looked as if they'd been shot in a drizzle, when in fact they were taken under clear skies or in a well-lit room.

Among those photos were portraits I made of Sharon and Alex, two of my friends in those days. That gray drizzle diffused the bright light and sharper lines that I expected to turn their faces into striking images. Instead, I ended up with photos that, because they were in black-and-white, looked like someone's feeble attempt to recreate the dreamy, but not dream-like, light one sees in cameos that are as precious and treacly as the sounds tinkling from a music box one keeps only because it belonged to someone--a grandmother or aunt, most likely--long gone.

I wonder whether I still have those photos someplace. On those occasions--rare, I admit--when I think of either Sharon or Alex, those photos are what my mind sees first.

The wind is blowing harder now. The drizzle has definitely ended, for a long while, I believe. The sky has cleared but there is no moonlight to illuminate it. There is only the wind, gusting through splintered shingles and flaking bricks in the industrial area of Long Island City that borders, on three sides, my neighborhood. The fourth side is the East River.

Tonight I spent some time with Dominick. I first met him about four years ago, but I kept him at a distance until a year or so ago. A while back, he had asked me to move into his house; I feel more and more ready to do such a thing. It occured to me, as I was talking to him, that it might be nice to begin my post-op life there, living with him.

Although we wouldn't be sharing the same room--at least not at first--the thought of moving in with him scared me--until now. Tonight I finally realized the reason why. "I was in the closet as I was lying next to Tammy, next to Eva, next to everyone," I explained. "Can you imagine what it's like to be in the closet when you're in bed with the person you're sleeping with every night?"

He couldn't, and thankfully for him, he doesn't have to. On the other hand, in all of my domestic relationships--including those with my family--I was in the closet. It's the only way I've ever known how to live with someone.

For that matter, my entire life until five years ago was lived "in the closet." Even when I was in one of Allen Ginsberg's workshops, I felt as if I were presenting a persona I invented. I think Allen knew that: He said that my writing wouldn't really develop until I dealt with my sexuality and ideas about gender.

But even in his class, I remained in the closet. It was all I knew how to do; furthermore, the rest of that class consisted of straight males and one straight female. I never spoke frankly with them about anything, not even poetry--theirs, mine or the ones in the canon. Mine were shrouded in fog and drizzle that faded into a linen haze.

So now I'm taking a class called Literature, Gender and Sexuality taught by a wonderful lesbian professor who has as much belief in my abilities as any instructor I've ever had. Yet, until this week, I was ready to drop it. I'd fallen behind on my reading because I was resisting it. Yes, some of the essays assume knowledge I don't have, and others are written in dense, abstract language that contain scarcely a metaphor, let alone a simile or a vibrant image. But that language is not the reason I wasn't keeping up.

Before I began to read the material for the class, I had to overcome my resistance to the ideas I've always had about gender studies and academic research--particularly in fields like mine--generally. Back in the day, I'd read some really trite stuff in what was then called women's studies and gay studies. Trite, and expressed in utter monstrosities of prose. I know I wasn't the only person turned off. But when I fought registering for the course, then reading the material, I was reacting only to the unpleasantness of my memories of the subject, even though I can't recall the specifics of what I read back in the day.

In other words, I have nothing but the fog that shrouded my memory of early gender and gay studies. And, of course, the shadow of who I was when I sneered at what I was only making gestures of reading. What else could I do? There isn't much light to read by when you're in the closet.

Staying in the closet so I could avoid the wind and cold didn't work for me, and won't now. All I can do is find the warmest coat that fits me best, and go out into the wind.

18 February 2009


On the campus where I teach, there's a promenade that seperates a Colonial-era cemetery from the grounds of St. Monica's Church, which dates back to 1857. Mario Cuomo was baptized there, and it is being converted to a performing space for the college.

Tonight, as walked that way, a light drizzle floated through the air and misted the stones of that church, graveyard and promenade with the soft haze of streetlamps that line the path. The air wasn't cold; the drizzle felt like some sort of truce with winter.

The promenade ends underneath a Long Island Rail Road (Yes, this Rail Road is two words.) overpass with fluorescent lights that make the color of the walls garish, when they would only be drab during the day. As I approached that overpass, I felt sad: as if a temporary reprieve, a night of freedom, were about to end.

And, of course, a stage of my life is going to end soon: less than five months from now. But I feel that other things are ending now, too.

I can't help but to feel that when I'm at the college. As I've mentioned before, I have become more student-oriented than I had been. The college itself seems more and more like a prison, or at least an asylum--until I set foot in a class I'm about to teach.

And what happens when I get in front of a classroom? No matter how well I prepare myself, I still feel the same nervousness I felt the first day I taught. I feel naked and someone is going to find one of my many flaws.

Today was no different in that respect. But, once I (with the help of one of my students) got the laptop and projector to work, I somehow felt that everything was as it should be.

It wasn't just a matter of "everything falling into place." Today I had students read from two poems by John Skelton: "The Tunning of Eleynor Rumming" and "To Mistress Margaret Hussey." Without my explaining, they understood why: I could hear it in the way they were reading. And, when I talked about the line and rhyme structure, and how they're similar to "rap" songs, everybody understood.

What surprised me was how much the students actually wanted to talk about the poems, and how they discerned what the three-beat (or three-stress) line does to the mood of the poem or song.

Later, we watched a video of The Last Poets' "N***az Are Afraid of Revolution." As I expected, much of the class time was taken up with a discussion of The 'N' Word." Students not only talked about their feelings about the word, but how it's changed over the years.

Most of the students in that class are African- or Caribbean-American, so they had strong feelings about that word. I made the connection to the way the word "queer" is used by straight people and members of the LGBT community.

The students actually brought the discussion back to the poems and songs. One woman, whose younger sister accompanied her to the class, said something really interesting: The Last Poets were talking about shared histories and experiences of oppression, so their use of the N-word came out of what they shared with black members of their audience. That is why the word sounds different than it would from the lips of most white people.

In that class, I didn't feel like I was teaching. Rather, the class felt like a very spirited conversation. That, after I was afraid that I was boring them.

And at the end of class, a number of students made a point to tell me they'd leared so much today. From the brief in-class assignment they did today, I can tell they actually did learn quite a bit.

Speaking of classes, I am staying in the one in which I'd enrolled. I talked with the prof, who said that she actually values my contributions to the class. And she told me not to worry or to give myself a crash course in gender theory: Essentially, she advised me to trust my understanding of what we read.

Now I realize that my anxieties about the class I'm taking, and the one I'm teaching (the one I mentioned in this blog) were not about my appropriateness for either one. Deep down, I knew I belonged in both. And that scared me; I'm not used to that.

OK. So now I'm in a class where the prof and students want me, and I'm teaching a class in which the students want to be. Some told me they signed up for that course because I was scheduled to teach it. And, yes, they want me for the right reasons.

So I'm not a misfit, after all. What do I do now?

16 February 2009

Days, Events and Tasks

Max is nosey. Or maybe he's afraid. As I was about to start writing this, he stood in front of my keyboard. I had to shoo him away, which I really don't like to do to him or Charlie. They never did anything bad to me; all they ever do is make me happy. Really, they can't do anything else. After all, I don't think any mouse will even come near this place.

Sometimes Charlie comes between me and my keyboard. He has that right. I wonder if he knows what I'm doing. He and Max know that whatever I'm doing, it's taking attention away from them.

So why am I talking about them? Well, I gotta blame somebody if I don't write The Great American Novel tonight. Right?

Tomorrow I go back to teaching and that class I'm taking. I can remember when every day that passed was simply another day gone; it continued for me only in whatever memories or impressions I retained. Then, I came to feel that every day was another day I survived. Then, later still, it was a day I survived clean and sober. Then the days simply passed again.

And now every day is another day closer to my surgery. Actually, as I've written that, I've felt another shift: Each class, each task I do, every errand I run or anything I do for fun brings me closer to my surgery. This is fulfilling, sad and beautiful all at once. All I want to do is get to my surgery. At the same time, I wonder whether I'll look back at this time and life and wish I'd done everything better. I very often feel that way about my past, even when I know full well that I couldn't have done anything differently.

Or, for that matter, that anything could have been different. I was talking with Dominick about something that happened to me in my childhood that affected a lot of what I did--and felt--for many years afterward. He marvelled, "You've been through a lot. You're so strong." Of course, I told him otherwise: At my best, I do the best I know how to do; at my worst, I look for the path of least resistance. Sometimes I take that path before I do what's best. I guess that's what lots of people do, so I don't see how it makes me special.

I mean, really, about 75,000 other people in this country have had gender reassignment surgery. So I'm not so unusual. I'm just a middle-aged woman who does what she can. The funny thing is, some people think I'm enduring hardship in making my transition toward my surgery. What they don't realize is that in some way, everything before I started my transition was more difficult. Then, I was constantly in pain and depressed; now, whatever hardships I endure at least have some sort of boundary: They begin and end; their reach is finite.

At least that's how it's been. What these next few months will bring, I don't know.

If I'm as strong as Dominick and other people think I am, it's only to protect myself: I am still way more vulnerable than he or almost anyone else realizes I am.

If I'm so damned strong, why was I stressing out over that class I'm taking? At its worst, it's another place where I'm a misfit and trying to do things to which I'm not suited. Neither situation is new to me, so I should be able to deal with it. After tomorrow, I'll be in that class or I won't. Either way, I'm not sure that it will make much difference for my future. I'll still come home to Charlie and Max. Maybe some day, someone else will also be at the door. Or I'll be there for someone else who's about to leave another day behind.

14 February 2009

Not Catching Up

So, what am I doing on a Saturday night that happens to be Valentine's Day? Am I slinking through the town in my slinky red dress, holding hands with my favorite hottie?

He's not feeling well tonight, so we're not going out. Monday, perhaps: It's a holiday for both of us. So no lady in red painting the town red tonight.

Well, I am wearing red--underneath a fuzzy sweater. It's a scarlet thermal top. A nice casual top, actually, but not what one wears to a romantic dinner. And from my waist to just above my ankles, I'm sheathed in a pair of tights that's ripped in a couple of places. I guess there might still be some punk rock club those tights could get me into--assuming I would want to go to such a place.

Actually, if I wanted to go to a club or dance hall, I'd probably choose a punk venue. At least in a real punk club--not a watering hole for wannabes--people actually might actually live, if only for a moment, by a motto like "Fuck this Shit" rather than merely cop an attitude that mimics it.

Then again, I can't imagine myself in such a place after all, and not only because of my age. In living as Justine, I'm not rebelling against anything because I'm not at war with myself, at least not over my gender identity issue. It's like I said in an earlier post: As a transgender woman, I'm actually less queer now than I was when I lived as a straight male.

So what's with all this talk about being queer, you ask. Well, tonight I was trying to catch up on the reading for the class I'm taking. It's not working. All of that gender theory seems to be circular: You start off saying you have such-and-such an assumption, the assumption is hindering your understanding, you take apart the assumption and find out that the taking apart can only be done in terms of what you're trying to take apart. So you're back with your assumption, except that maybe you know a little bit more about what it is.

I guess that's not a bad place to end up. But it's not where I want to be, or go. Really, I'm coming to the conclusion that if you weren't into theorizing and abstractions when you were young, you aren't going to take to such things in middle age. I signed up for one philosophy course when I was at Rutgers and walked out of it during the third or fourth session. And now I'm trying to read things that make whatever I was supposed to read for that philosophy class seem like coffee-table books of interior decoration. I don't know how in the world I'm going to get through it, much less take other PhD level courses.

I feel that any time anybody flips a coin, I'd pick the wrong side. If I pick heads, tails will win, and vice versa. I was deciding between taking a PhD level course in English or an introductory course in Mandarin or Arabic, if one were available in the university system. Of course people in a college will tell you to take whatever has fewer practical applications: They want to keep you in school and paying for it. Goddess forbid that you should try to get a real education in any useful thing.

The only thing I've liked so far about the course is the prof and some of the students in it. That's the reverse of a lot of other courses I've taken. My favorite rhetorical question used to be, "If literature is so beautiful, why do literature courses suck?" The best answer I could come up with then was that the profs made it so. But now I actually like this prof and think she's making everything more interesting than it would otherwise be. Now that's scary. Just how dreadful would the class be otherwise?

I think on Tuesday, when the class meets again, I'm going to drop it and say goodbye to the Graduate Center. Maybe I'll tell the prof "No hard feelings" and that she's a lovely person and fine scholar. Reading theoretical texts just isn't for me. Now I really wish I were learning a new language. I suppose I could sign up for a class elsewhere, just not within the university: The semester is about three weeks old, so there's no way I'd get in. That means I'd have to pay for a course someplace else, in an non-academic setting.

So, no, I'm not in any danger of becoming a gender theorist. I knew that even before I took the class. So why did I take it? I guess I thought I should, and not just because of those people at the college who were egging me on. I suppose I thought that, as a transgender woman, I should learn something about gender theory and such.

Oh well. Maybe next Valentine's Day I'll be learning Mandarin characters. It'll be, if all goes according to plan, a little more than six months after my surgery.

13 February 2009

Two Dates

This has to be one of the most interesting juxtapositions of dates: Today is Friday the 13th; tomorrow will be Valentine's Day. Will tomorrow seem like today for someone who asks, "Will you be mine," and doesn't hear the answer he or she wanted?

Does anyone ever answer "no" to that question on Valentine's Day? I've never heard of it. And, the times in my life I've asked, or been asked, the question, it had already been answered--at least for that day.

Now I will reveal a secret from a long-ago Valentine's Day. It's something I would never, ever do now (she says with a wink). It wasn't illegal, but I'm glad the statute of limitations has passed nonetheless. At least I think it has.

OK, I didn't father a child on some Valentine's Day past. If I had, it couldn't have remained a secret for this long. What I did was much more insidious than that.

It goes like this: I was a senior in college and like most students I knew, I was poor. There was a young woman at the school whom I let everyone else think I was dating, or at least studying French with. (Vraiement, nous ne faisons pas qu'etudier. Vraiement!) Because we were both passionate, opinionated people, we got into lots of arguments, sometimes very publicly. To some of our peers--and elders--that alone was evidence of a relationship that never existed, but which I allowed everyone to believe would flower after one or both of us graduated.

I would've liked to have such a relationship with her only because fewer people would have tried to fix me up with their sisters, female cousins, female friends, neighbors or other women in their lives, including their mothers and grandmothers. Yes, I've had people trying to hitch me with all of the people I've just mentioned. More than a few were very attractive, by anybody's standards; some were smart and/or nice. And at least a few of them seemed genuinely interested in me. That was rather funny, really, because I never considered myself terribly attractive or otherwise desirable.

All right: The truth was that I didn't want anyone to see me that way. And I didn't want a boyfriend, either: I'd tried that, and found it even less satisfying than a relationship with a female.

What I couldn't explain to anyone at that time in my life--and for a very long time afterward--was that neither a man nor a woman could make me happy in a relationship because, well, I wanted to be the woman, or at least a woman, in the relationship. Ironically, that very fact brought Tammy and me together--and caused us to break up.

But, oh, yes, I was starting to talk about that V-Day (Sorry, Eve Ensler!) from my youth. The young woman with whom I had the faux love relationship had a boyfriend on some distant campus and had flings with a few local boys. In those pre-AIDS (at least if you weren't in the Village or the Castro) days, that was expected of any sentinent college student.

However, some people, including my parents, worried about my seeming lack of interest in dating. So after I visited the family of the young woman in question, and she visited mine, we had two families hoping that we would couple.

In some ways, it was more intimate than any sexual/romantic relationship I'd had before, or would have for many years afterward. I told this young woman things that I hadn't told anyone else except my mother or my maternal grandmother, rest her soul. And, for many years afterward, I wouldn't tell anyone except my current therapist and the social worker I worked with during as I transitioned from living as Nick to being Justine. (During the intervening years, I went to other therapists and didn't talk about such things with them.) And, this young woman even talked me out of one suicide attempt and literally hugged me out of another, way back in the day.

So, yes, you would be correct in thinking that I cared more about this woman than anyone else I knew at the time except my mother and grandmother, rest her soul. But neither of us was attracted to the other in a sexual way, although I sometimes fantasized about spending my life with her in some sort of Platonic relationship. Of course I never could or would ask that of her: How can you ask that of anybody? Besides, while it would have been safe, at least in some senses, it would not have given either of us the kind of fulfillment we were seeking, however clumsily.

One more aside: Because I had the sort of friendship I shared with this woman, I could understand, many years later, what a sixtyish gay man meant when he told me that he still loved the woman whom he married when he was nineteen years old. She died young, from a cancer that probably could be treated, or at least kept in check, today. He came to terms with his sexuality during that marriage. However, he remained with her as she got sick and spiralled toward death.

All right. Now I'll tell you what I did to that young woman on Valentine's Day during my senior year. I gave her the reddest roses the world has ever seen. I am not exaggerating when I say that any more than I'm lying when I say I don't know how many I gave her; I only know that there were more than two dozen roses in that bunch.

Now, you're wondering: How did I afford so many perfect crimson roses on Valentine's Day when I was a poor student, back when the banks didn't give students credit cards? (Who says that people know better today?)The answer: I didn't pay for them. But, no, I didn't ransack the friendly neighborhood FTD. So what was the source of those almost-unworldly specimens of floriculture?

OK--That woman, if she's reading this, knows who she is and will now find out my secret. I found those roses in a dumpster next to one of the university's scientific research labs. I have no idea of how they ended up there, but there they were: That dumpster was just brimming with them! And, it seemed that every rose I picked up was redder, fuller and otherwise more perfect (and I'm an English teacher!) than the last. I didn't ask how they got that way, or what they were doing there.

So...If that woman had children with Down's syndrome or some other "defect," am I responsible? Or, for that matter, if she suffered from any physiological or psychological problems, are they results of that way-too-extravagant-for-my-means bouquet I gave her?

Did I turn her Valentine's Day into a Friday the Thirteenth?

12 February 2009

From Playing Chicken With The Wind To Giving Birth

"It was the wind that gave them life," according to a Native American chant.

Today, it was the wind that blew my sandwich out of my hand.

Yes, you read that right. The bag containing my turkey and provolone hero dangled from between my left thumb and index finger. A gust wrested that bag, which fell to the sidewalk, from my fingers.

But the wind wasn't done. It rolled my sandwich along the sidewalk so that its wrapper unrolled and the bread, turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato slices scattered about--all within a split-second.

Well, if you saw the condition of my body, you probably wouldn't feel sorry for me. And you shouldn't. But, short of a hurricane, I've never seen such wind.

At least now I feel quite content to be indoors--specifically, in my apartment, which is on the first floor of a house. Even though it was warm in my place, Charlie and Max, it seemed, wanted to curl up with me even more than they usually do. And, when they did, somehow it felt even cozier than it does on cold or rainy days.

In another life, on a day like this, they'd probably be with me, and I might be in some cottage on a windswept escarpment in Big Sur or someplace like that, looking out at the sea and sky and reading and/or writing by candlelight. And I just might be playing a harmonica--maybe something like the theme from Midnight Cowboy.

Actually, I did something not so different from that in my previous life, which wasn't so long ago but seems like part of another geologic age. I've holed up in lean-tos, sheds or the living rooms of various hostels and shelters of other kinds, basking in the glow of a flickering flame that drips wax.

I think now of the night that I arrived in Genoa, Italy on my bicycle. For the previous few days, I'd been pedalling up the Mediterranean coast from Rome, bound for Avignon, France. I'd spent most of that day in my lowest gears, grinding up a serpentine road that clung to the edge of a series of cliffs from which rocks tumbled into the sea, which on that day, lashed the shoreline about two hundred feet below me.

When you're pedalling a bike laden with your clothes, camping equipment, your camera and extra lenses (Remember, this was before digital photography.) through winds, gusting seaward, that make even your nearly formfitting clothes flutter like dangling flags, every physical and metaphysical particle of energy you expend is for the purpose of keeping yourself upright and, to whatever degree possible, moving forward--not to enjoying the scenery, beautiful as it is.

About an hour before I reached Genoa, I teetered along a section of road from which the guardrail was missing. That means absolutely nothing, except for that wind, seperated me from the stones I saw as they were breaking off from the side of the road and hopping toward the churning abyss below.

That night, I had a large but very simple meal of pasta, meat and salad at the hostel (Ostello del Mare: It sounds like one of Shakespeare's tragic characters became a sailor!) , in a room lit by candlelight. I can't recall the meal itself so vividly--it was about half my lifetime ago, after all--but I do remember that almost nothing had ever tasted so good. And very few meals have I've had since were that good. And the vin ordinaire that I washed it down with could just as easily have been Dom Perignon's finest vintage.

My ride along the unguarded roadway was not my first of experience of being on a precipice with the wind pushing me toward its edge. I'd stood, my toes hugging a jagged edge, on a similar ridge in California during my first trip away from the East Coast of the US, when I was a teenager. My father called me away; when I finally backed toward him, my brother rushed over to me and punched me. Several years later, on my first trip alone, I dismounted my bike along a desolate stretch of the Normandy coast and leaned seaward as the wind braced, then pushed at, my back. In spite of those gusts, clouds drifted lazily toward the ripples that would become tides as they swelled toward the shore.

For most of my life, I could not resist playing "chicken" with the wind, even when the air and sea were calm--or when there was no sea and very little air. I last recall daring the caprices of the brink during my last long bike tour, during the summer of 2001. I'd spent most of that morning grinding my way up l'Alpe de Huez, along with hundreds of other cyclists who anticipated the pack of Tour de France riders later that day. The road up the mountain is not particularly long. But, before you reach the summit, you negotiate twenty-one virages (hairpin turns). Each one, it seemed, was steeper and turned more sharply than the previous one. And, of course, with each of those turns, you are at a higher elevation, where the air is thinner but the wind and sun are more intense.

Well, on one of those virages--the fourteenth or fifteenth, if I recall correctly-- there was no guard rail. I did not want to stop because I believed--correctly--that it would be much more difficult to resume my ride than to continue it, however slowly. However, it seemed as if all of the Alps, and all of the rivers, pastures, glaciers and villages that punctuated them, spread below me. Although I'm not religious, I recalled Satan leading Jesus up a mountain and showing him the kingdom that spread beneath their feet. I think that's how the story goes, anyway, and I could imagine it taking place at that spot.

So, what did I do because I didn't stop? I veered to my right and rode as close to the edge of that road--which, at that point, lacked a guardrail--as I could. As the sun reddened my skin in the thin air, I felt the wind blowing at my side and back at the same time--or so it seemed. So, with each pedal stroke, one puff pushed me a few metres onward while another tottered me along a jagged edge of falling rocks.

A few days later, I would see that woman in Saint Jean de Maurienne who, simply by walking home from work as I straddled my bike at a stop-light, made me realize that I could not take another step in this world as a man. (I've mentioned her, and that day, in previous posts.) And I never again tempted the wind, for I would never again have to tempt fate because, I realized, fate was all I'd ever had. From then on, there was only a journey, if not destiny.

Now I'm thinking about why I've never taken such chances since I started to live as Justine. You might say that in taking that step, I took the greatest risk I could ever take and nothing else seems quite so momentous a choice, so freighted with my hopes. Or, maybe, having committed myself to living as Justine, I was taking so many other risks that had real consequences for my life that momentarily giving my fate to the wind almost seems trivial, if not childish.

I've also heard other people say that women are more risk-adverse than men are. Hmm...Maybe those hormones are having even more of an effect on me than I'd anticipated. Then again, what man ever takes as great a risk as a woman does when she gives birth?

From living as a boy who played chicken with the wind to being a woman who surrenders to the very force of life--at least her own life--itself: Is that a form of birth? Or is losing the need, or even the wish, to play chicken with the wind?

10 February 2009

Agoraphobia Does Not Become Me

Today's the birthday of the brother who was in the Army reserves. I sent a card but didn't call; I am both afraid of and too angry to call any of my brothers right now.

So I spent the day as an agoraphobic might. At the college in which I teach, it's not always the same day as it is in the rest of the world. So, while it was a Tuesday at home, it was Thursday at work. The majority of classes at the college meet two days a week: Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday. However, my Tuesday class meets only on that day. So, for my students--and me--there was no class today.

The university of which my college is a part also observed Thursday today. That meant that I didn't get to be a student today.

That's all probably just as well. Yesterday, people who saw me on campus said that I looked tired, angry or sad, or some combination thereof. Indeed, I was all of the above. So today I was feeling inclined not to deal with people. That means I got to play the part of the reclusive writer/scholar--or at least use that ruse to be agoraphobic.

Actually, I did some non-blog writing and work on the hip-hop course I'm teaching. Both made me feel that at least I accomplished something, which made me a little happier. Hopefully, I'll be more ready to face the world tomorrow.

My mother might be the only member of my family who has any idea of how vulnerable I am. Well, maybe the brother who just disassociated himself from me knows that sometimes I feel as if a layer of skin has been stripped away from me and is exploiting that. Of course he wants me to feel hurt. Maybe that's how he's trying to keep me from doing the surgery. That, and isolating me from the rest of the family, or trying to do that.

Even though she seems to understand how I feel, I think my mother is too upset to be as supportive as she has been. I'm starting to wonder whether she'll accompany me to the hospital after all. I'm almost entirely sure that my father isn't going with me: My brother has seen to that. And he's no doubt wishing that my mother hadn't promised to support me in the ways she has. On top of everything, she and everyone else in the family is blaming me for breaking up the family they like to pretend was more idyllic than it actually was.

I really did, and still do, appreciate the efforts some people in the family made for me. Nothing in my life ever made me feel better than my mother's promise that she and my father would accompany me to the hospital. And I was happy that until the holidays, my brother and I were speaking to each other without the rancor that marked so much of our earlier dealings with each other. Now, in losing those things, I feel as if I'm being crushed in a vise.

Yes, the doctors warned me that the hormones would make me more sensitive. And so would the prospect of surgery, my therapist advised me. Well, I experienced some of the joy of that, so I guess I have to go through the downside, I guess.

Tomorrow I'll have to go to classes. And maybe I'll try to get in a session of electrolysis. Agoraphobia does not become me.

09 February 2009

Migraines Make The Tranny

I'm collecting recipes. No, not the kind for boeuf bourguignon, osso bucco or General Tso's chicken. I've got plenty of those already, and will probably continue to collect them. That means, of course, that I probably won't even try the majority of them.

No, those aren't the recipes I'm talking about. I mean another kind. I'm not voluntarily collecting them; they're finding their way to me. Worst of all, they're all recipes for the same thing: a migraine headache.

The latest recipe is what I experienced yesterday with my family. Yes, that was a great experience for a migraine sufferer like me to have! The brother who's turning the rest of the family against me has come up with the perfect recipe: all he has to do are things he's always done, from the time when we were kids. In other words, he's bullying and otherwise manipulating other family members.

So, for the entire day, I felt that there was a steel cable running through my head and at each of my temples, someone tugged at each end of that cable, which tensed everything inside my head as it frayed.

When I was younger, I used to take solace in the fact that all sorts of geniuses, many of them in the arts, also suffered migraines. It's always good to know that you have something in common with people you admire. I think now of the time when Iwas in my sophomore year in college, I think, and I "came out" to a few friends and family members because, well, I didn't fit anybody's idea of a straight guy, I hadn't had a steady girlfriend and wasn't looking for one. When I told my uncle Sonny, he quipped, "Well, it was good enough for those ancient Greek writers, wasn't it?"

Turns out I'm not a gay man after all. Oh, well: I'll have to find some other common bond with Plato, if I really want one.

But the migraine headaches put me in all sorts of company I want. Not only am I akin, in that sense, to lots of creative people; my throbbing temples prove, once and for all, that I really am a woman in a man's body.

That's what some stupid online quiz says. It purports to tell people whether or not they're really trannies, the male-to-female variety. (They didn't have anything for FTMs.) Even though I passed with flying colors, according to their standards, I'd've laughed my implants (Oh, wait, I don't have them!) off if it weren't so full of stereotypes that, I thought, died out after the last cartoon with Minnie Mouse was made.

"Are you hopeless with math?" Yes, I am. "Do you always find yourself getting lost?" Let's just say that I'm a direct descendant of Columbus and inherited his navigational skills.

You get the idea. Well, at least it's good to know that I'm a genuine-article, gold-medal transgender woman, migraines and all.

It's not the first ridiculous test I've ever taken. I think they're all pretty stupid and utterly useless, even when I do well on them. Yes, I include the GRE, even though I did better on the verbal and writing sections than 95 percent of the people who took it. The math was another story. I guess that's further proof of my gender identity. But, did I need the test to tell me that?

I guess it's good to know that the tests show what I already know. Some people will believe the results of those tests before they'll listen to you recount your feelings and experiences. So I guess I'm safe if I ever need a seal of approval from such people.

Well, I'm going to try to fall asleep with this migraine. Wake me when it's over. I'll still be lousy in math and navigation!

08 February 2009

I'm Breaking Up My Family

Yesterday I mentioned the pamphlet Timerman describes in Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number. One of the claims that pamphlet made was that Freud destroyed the Christian concept of the family. That was one of the rationalizations for anti-Semitism offered by some of the military leaders in the Peron government.

Well, guess what? I'm doing Freud one better. I'm not destroying the concept of a family; I'm destroying an actual family. And I'm not even Jewish.

I never knew I had so much power. But that is what is what my family is imputing to me. To be more exact, my brother who's been causing a lot of ruckus lately says that just as my other two brothers want nothing to do with me, neither does he. And he claims they're upset because Mom and Dad offered their support of me.

Oh, really, now? One of the brothers in question cut off contact with me immediately after I came out. The only communication I have received from him in the past five and a half years was an e-mail that said, in essence, that my transformation was a fetish and that I'm leaving lots of upset people in my wake. That was around Christmas five years ago.

As for the other brother: We do talk occasionally. Now if he's decided he wants nothing to do with me, well, it's news to me. I haven't spoken with him since Christmas, but there have been times we've gone even longer than that, especially for the five years the Army activated him. (He was a reservist until a few months ago.) And there were other times when he was working and studying as well as fulfilling his reservist obligations. On top of all that, he takes care of my niece and nephew when he's home.

I'm sure he wasn't happy about my transition. But if he wants nothing to do with me, well, I want to hear it from him.

And the brother who has now decided he wants nothing to do with me is stressing Mom out. Turns out, he's the one who earlier said that this situation was stressing Mom out and that I was wrong to do that to her. She had volunteered her help, I reminded him, and after saying "Well, gee, thanks, are you sure you really want to do that" to her, I accepted only after she insisted that helping me was what she really wanted to do. One thing Mom has never done, in my experience, is to offer something that she doesn't really want to give, or to make any other commitment she isn't ready to keep.

Imagine King Lear without Shakespeare's writing. That's more or less how my family situation seems to me now. Actually, it's a combination of that and Othello, again without the Bard's language-- and without the issue of race. So what does that make My Brother the Manipulator? A cross between Iago and either Reagan or Goneril. The first character said, "I hate the Moor" in reference to Othello, and the other two panelled their lust for daddy's fortune with a veneer of words extolling their love for him. The other daughter, Cordelia, says only, "Father, I love thee." Not to say that I'm her: I'm no angel. But I actually do love my mother and father and don't care about how whatever they might or might not give to me compares with they might or might not give my brothers.

Now, for all of you who wonder why you should read Shakespeare, I hope I've given you at least one reason. Even if you're not interested in his language, you will understand a few things better in your daily life. I took only basic Psych in college, but I bet some of the more specialized courses refer to his plays. And Freud himself had quite a bit to say about Hamlet. Sometimes I think that he may come to be remembered even more as a literary critic than as one of the founders of modern psychology.

Back to my family: Even before everything blew up, the cynic in me said that something like this would happen. The only difference between the vision I had and what's gone down is that I thought my father would be the one to undermine what I do. So I named the wrong person in my family. Instead, my brother is using him.

And yet I get all the credit for destroying the family. Hmm, maybe I should become a divorce lawyer. After all, if I'm going to break up families, I may as well get paid very well for doing so. Raoul Felder, watch out: You're about to have formidable competition.

07 February 2009

Five Months, A Circle

Five more months. That's how many days? 150, exactly.

I'm thinking about my mother again, as I often do. I wonder what she felt like when she was five months away from giving birth to me, or to any of my brothers. Because my birthday on the Fourth of July, my countdown to surgery (on 7 July) very closely parallels her timetable to my birth. Of course, her experiences are different from mine in so many other ways, for any number of reasons: I was the first of four children she would have; she gave birth to me a month before she turned twenty and, well, she had more of an excuse for gaining weight during that time than I have now! Still, I can't help to wonder what she was experiencing at this chronological point in her pregnancy, when she had 150 days to go.

They say that we can live life only one day at a time. Of course that's true, even though it never seems that way.

When I look back at the previous 215 days-- seven months; when I recall the five and a half years I've lived as Justine and the forty-five I lived as Nick/Nicholas; when I recollect the decades of depression and loneliness, I am startled at how quickly it has gone by. I am not the first person to have said that about her past. But I am also surprised, and sometimes exasperated, at how slowly the present--or more precisely, the moments just ahead of this one--approaches me. I am like one of those kids who whines, "Are we there yet?," as soon as he gets into the family car for a vacation.

So...I look at my past in the way adults see it. ("Where did the years go?") On the other hand, I am looking at my present--that ephemeral moment as elusive yet as concrete as an eel one might encounter in a dream--as a child might.

Now I think I understand what Dominick meant when he thought he saw my story in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As implausible as the plot seemed, I liked it--both the Fitzgerald story and the movie. Now it's actually starting to make sense. Not only do I now see myself in it; I now see how it shows the ways in which we perceive time. It occurs to me now that Fitzgerald's story came, if I recall correctly, not long after Einstein did his work that changed the ways we define time and space. (Jacobo Timerman described a pamphlet circulated in Peronist Argentina that said Einstein "destroyed" the "Christian" concept of space and time, just as Freud "destroyed" the "Christian" concept of the family and Marx "destroyed" the "Christian" concept of society. All of this was part of a rationale for anti-Semitism.) Why do we perceive time as we do?

All right. If I come up with the answer, I won't have to worry about a 20 percent, or any other percent, increase in the cost of the surgery. So I'll get to work on it.

And I probably won't come up with a better answer than the Lakota chief who said that the life of a person is a circle from childhood to childhood.