31 March 2009
But I was happy. The light of this day was very welcoming and even in the chilly breeze, it seemed that I could feel the glow of the sunset all over me. I think now of one of the shortest and best poems I've ever seen. Giuseppi Ungaretti, the Italian poet, wrote it:
Yes, that's the whole poem. I won't even try to translate it. Really, it works best when you hear it in the orginal. If you can read it aloud that way (I can pronounce the words; I can scarcely convey the feeling of it with my diction and intonations.), you can practically feel every life force you've ever encountered radiating from the sun within you.
That, I believe, is the part of poetry that can't be taught. It's not just a matter of "having an ear" for sound and rhythm; it's a matter of becoming a receptor and transmitter of music. Generating it is the icing on the cake.
I will probably never be that sort of poet. Almost no American poet has ever developed that sense. The modern European and Latin American poets who had it--Neruda, Jiminez, and of course Ungaretti, among others--must have taken at least twenty years to develop it. For the most part, you don't find it in their early works.
OK, I know, you weren't looking for a treatise on poetics. So more about me. Is that a fair trade? More to the point, is it a trade you'd make?
So I'm happy now. I think it had something to do with buying that plane ticket and booking the hotel room for the night of my arrival. Perhaps I will disappoint some of you by telling you that I picked a cheapie: I guess the mentality I developed from my cycling and backpacking trips will never change. All I want at the end of the day is a clean, safe and not-too-depressing place to lay my head; I don't give a rodent's derriere about how many cable channels or whatever they offer. Even the food doesn't matter much: I'm as likely as not to have an impromptu picnic or a meal in or from a cafe or deli where the locals eat.
On my trips to France and elsewhere, I stayed in hostels, rooming houses, barns, sheds and under bridges. I've even slept in a cemetery. Ghosts knew enough not to mess with me, so I slept real good. I don't know if that will work now. Would a ghost fear anyone who said, "I slept very well last night."?
I've had people tell me that I'm not convincing when I speak in an egregiously ungrammatical manner. (How could they be convinced if I write sentences like the one that preceded this one?) They laugh when I use ghetto slang (or just about any other kind of slang); they're startled when I use curse words in any of the five languages in which I know them.
Odd, isn't it, that I feel somehow lighter now than I did before I went to City Tech yesterday? People have been responding to that; maybe I'm carrying some of the light I basked in when I descended that not-quite-spiral staircase. Or the light that I saw at the end of this day.
M'illumno D'immenso indeed!
30 March 2009
I'd gone to the New York City College of Technology to take out a book. The college is part of the City University of New York, as is York College, the college in which I teach. It's possible to have a book sent from one college to another, but that takes three or four days. I didn't feel like waiting, and I did feel like taking a ride.
I taught at NYCCT for five years, from 1994 until 1999. Back then, it was called New York City Technical College. And, well, you know that I, too, was called a different name in those days.
Nobody in the college seemed to recognize me. I didn't see anybody I knew. There may very well be nobody there I knew from the old days: Most of the full-time faculty members weren't very far from retirement and, I hope, the adjuncts have moved on to bigger and better things. And, naturally, none of the students I taught would be there now.
The weird thing was that, having spent five years in that place, I felt very little upon returning today. I did have one particular feeling: that of hostility and alienation. Except, it wasn't my own hostility or isolation that I was feeling, and I didn't feel that any of the hostility was directed toward me.
It seems that nobody's happy there. The only students who seemed to be having any fun at all were the ones gathered in group acting, well, as young people do when they're in groups of like-minded peers: Guys were watching girls; the girls were talking about boyfriends and families and such. But in walking the halls, I felt I was in one of the most emotionally as well as physically claustrophobic places I have ever seen.
You enter through one of two doors, then, after showing your ID to one of the security guards, push through a turnstile and walk up a narrow flight of stairs to the eleveators. Those stairs are the only ones leading to the elevators, and ascending visitors and descending students are squeezed into it. Think of the most clogged subway station you've ever entered or exited: It's a bit worse when you enter the campus.
Once I got to the right floor, I got lost. Now you know how bad my sense of direction is and that my memory for direction is worse! I knew that the library was on the fourth floor; what I'd forgotten is that you have to go through a passageway that connects the campus's main building to another campus building, then enter through a doorway leads you into the library, which is part of the main building you've just exited.
They're the sort of buildings someone designed as a monument to himself. But I'd bet there's not a single person there who could tell you who designed those buildings. I can't.
I must say that the library staffers were helpful. And, the woman who checked out my book was friendly, especially considering that she had a fairly tense encounter with the guy who stood in front of me on the line. I suspect that she doesn't get treated very well: She's probably a few years younger than I am and very overweight. She seemed to have some sort of disease or disability and I sensed, somehow, that her weight was at least in part a result of it.
After exiting the library, I saw a sort of spiral staircase that I wouldn't call a spiral staircase because it was constructed from materials acquired from a Stalinist building supply store. But it descended under a skylight that seemed, if only in that spot and moment, to hold the claustrophobicness and grunginess of that place at bay. I felt rather graceful and even rather attractive: I think almost anybody would in that light.
A young man who leaned against a window ledge must have sensed it. He was talking on his cell phone and lifted his eyes toward me. He continued to look my way. I didn't mind: The light accentuated his tall frame and the warm glow of his cafe au lait complexion. He smiled, I smiled back; I don't know which of us smiled first.
On the way out, I wished the Latina security guard--whom I saw for the first time upon entering the building and will probably never see again--a very nice day. And she returned my wish. She probably doesn't encounter that very often.
Then I pedalled along a block of Jay Street to a side street that led to the Polytechnic University campus and the Metro Tech center. When I was teaching at Tech, I was living in Park Slope and I used to ride my bike through that passage and into the streets around the Fulton Mall just about every day. Not much seemed to have changed, and I get the sense that most of the people there are gone at about 6:30 every evening, as they were in those days.
Again, as on the Tech campus, I felt no flood of memories. In fact, I didn't even feel a trickle of them. It's only now that I'm recalling those days in that place. I was in better physical shape than I was even in high school: I could, and did, ride circles around guys who were a decade or more younger than I was. And, I remember now a party in the building in which I was living: I won a game of Animal Twister played against people who were ten to fifteen years younger than I was. I had my first cat named Charlie; during that time I would adopt a pretty calico I named Candice. I used to go to France for a couple of weeks every summer; I would ride my bike through one part of the country or another and end my trip by spending a few days with friends who lived in and around Paris.
Not a bad life, right? But I was just as unhappy as I had ever been: In fact, that may well have been the unhappiest time in my life. During that time, I got into my last fistfights for reasons even less consequential than those any teenaged boy might have. And one of the reasons why I could leave those male cyclists in the dust was that I hated them simply because they were men; I exempted only a handful of males--Bruce being foremost among them--from my blanket condemnation of the sex. One woman I dated during that time used to call me--affectionately at first--a "male lesbian" because of my attitudes towards men.
Then it was off to York to teach a freshman composition class. They're a nice group of people; neither as lively as one freshman class I taught last semester nor as contentious as another. After class, I got to talking with Mark, a playwright who teaches there, about one thing and another. Then he mentioned something I had all but forgotten about.
"Those photos you showed me haunted me. I've never seen anything that had such an impact on me."
He was referring to some of my "before" photos. In all of them, I wore a beard. Each of them were taken at different times by people who, to my knowledge, had never met each other. But they all had a common denominator far more important than the beard: "You were so angry in all of them. I've never seen such anger," he said. "If I'd seen you then, I definitely would have crossed the street."
That, from someone who fought in the Tet Offensive!
Now, he says, "You're about as different from that as anybody can be. I tell people about you, without mentioning your name. I never understood why someone would make the change you're making until I saw those photos." After a pause, he said "I don't think anything has ever taught me more than seeing those photos and seeing you now."
He made me blush. And we all know that ghosts don't blush.
29 March 2009
That's right: It's only one hundred days to my surgery! And last night I did something else that reminded me of just how close I am its scheduled date: I bought my plane ticket to Colorado. I got a really good fare, so I figured it was a good time to buy.
Any plane that landed at this afternoon at La Guardia Airport, from which I will depart to and to which I will return from my surgery, would have had to descend through a layer of clouds that hovered over this city. Fog sheathed the upper floors of buildings across the river from Socrates Sculpture Park, where Dominick and I spent part of the afternoon. And a somewhat finer mist veiled those same buildings and everything else between that shroud of fog and the ground.
In some odd way, I found that scene comforting. Part of it, of course, had to do with Dominick's presence. But I was also recalling other times with similar weather conditions.
It seemed that the spring of 2003--my first in this neighborhood, and my last before living full-time as Justine--was filled with days like this one. None, it seemed, were exceptionally warm or cold. Through the months that preceded it, I had gone to work as Nick, socialized as Justine with a new circle of friends and acquaintances I met at or through the LGBT Community Center in Greenwich Village and saw little of my family or old friends. It may well have been the strangest time in my life, as I was living with the exhiliaration of taking the first steps toward living my own life, and the fear of people finding out, on terms that weren't my own, about that life.
Maybe that fear and those thrills are the reasons why I found the season's fog, mist and drizzle so comforting. The bright sun could or would have made clearer all of those ways and things I was and wasn't, and the cold or driving rain would have driven me back into that emotional space from which I'd just begun to emerge.
My eyes have always been very sensitive to light. At very intense moments, the solar refulgence in which so many living things bask simply becomes too bright for me. Don't get me wrong: I love the sun as much as anyone can. But sometimes it is too much for me; so is the warmth of those rays.
Sometimes I wonder what it's like for a newborn baby when she opens her eyes for the first time and sees, for the first time, the light that will fill her waking moments until she closes her eyes for the last time.
And what will I see when I open my eyes from that surgery?
Will it be mist? A storm? Or preternatural clarity?
It's hard to know, under any conditions, what one will encounter a hundred days hence. But I know that I will be entering a new part of my life that will probably surprise me because much will be familiar and in which I will find normalcy, if not comfort, in ambiguity and unpredictability.
After seeing Dominick, I went to the bodega for a cup of mint tea and noticed that Millie's door was open. I rang; she and John invited me in for dessert. I talked about having bought my plane ticket and that its purpose is only a hundred days a way. As always, they were encouraging and supportive. I said that my mother might accompany me back here, then go and visit my brothers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Then I started to have a fantasy of my mother meeting her, meeting Dominick, meeting Bruce and the other people who've mattered to me.
Of course it's not likely that all of those meetings will happen. But sometimes the mist dissipates the distinctions between the possible, probable, improbable and impossible. Sometimes that's what we need.
As I left Millie's and John's house, the drizzle and mist turned to rain and lightning as thunder muttered through the streets. Surely there will be nights like that among the last hundred days, my next hundred days.
28 March 2009
"I'd tell him he was adopted," she snapped back.
Now, I know that a man I talked to today is not going to tell his kid anything like that. It's hard to imagine that he would, after the conversation we had today.
He and his business partner sell organically-raised chicken and other products from stands next to the Farmer's Market on Roosevelt Island. I'd been buying fresh fruits and vegetables at the market for a couple of years before I stopped at their stand. I was first drawn in when I noticed that they were selling fresh mozzerella, which is one of my greatest weaknesses in life. Now, I know it may not be the healthiest diet in the world, but I could live on fresh mozzerella--especially the stuff that man sells--with fresh tomatoes, basil, freshly-ground black pepper and a couple of drops of oil and balsamic vinegar on freshly-baked French or Italian bread.
OK, guys...Now you know the way to a girl's heart. This girl's heart, anyway!
D'ailleurs, a quip about my numerical incompetence--"Hey, I'm an English teacher"--led to conversation about teaching, specifically teaching foreigners. I mentioned that one of my early teaching experiences was in a language school a couple of blocks away from the UN. It seemed that every other day another student "fell in love" with me. In particular, I recalled, there was a young woman who begged me to marry her.
I paused when I noticed the partner gazing at me. "Oh..." I caught myself. "I was living as male in those days."
He smiled. Then we talked some more, and the other man asked me if we could step aside and talk "personally." Well, I told myself, I got myself into this one. But he didn't seem menacing or judgmental. Au contraire...
"I have a five year old." I knew what was coming next. "I want him to be the best William he can be"
"What does that mean to you?"
"That he's a good human being and he's happy."
"Sounds good to me."
"Well, he's having gender issues."
"He's playing with dolls," he continued. "I'm OK with him as long as that's what makes him happy. He's a great kid, a beautiful kid."
"Well, of course. Look at who he has for a father."
He blushed. (That's another one of my weaknesses!) "Well, I was wondering where I could find leadership for him."
"He's in school now?"
"Yes." He mentioned the name of the school in his hometown, which has a reputation for being diverse and progressive. They moved to that town, he said, because for his child it's "a better environment" than town where they had been living
I admired and respected the man. All kids should have a parent like him. But I also could hear his unease: After all, as they say, kids don't come with instruction manuals. And who can teach anyone how to raise a transgendered kid? I had the sense that he wanted to hear some magic words in some language I don't know. I really felt bad that I couldn't offer him any more advice than to find a good counselor or psychologist to work with his kid. He said that he hasn't been able to find anyone who knows how to work with transgender kids.
He seems to think--accurately, from what he told me about William--that his behavior is not a phase that will be outgrown. And, of course, he doesn't have the idea that he can beat or shock it out of him. Thankfully, William isn't headed for a military school or life on the streets at sixteen.
For those of you who've been reading my blog and think that I'm either very close or have a somewhat unhealthy attachment to my mother: Now you know why. She really did the best she could with me yet she had absolutely no idea of what she could do. Sometimes I think that she still believes there are things she could have done differently. I'm sure that she would have, had she known any differently--certainly if she hadn't had me before she turned twenty years old.
A couple of weeks ago, she and I were talking about the kids of people we've known and what's happened to some of them. She said she'd had a conversation on that topic with one of her friends. "I told her I'm proud of all of my kids, for different reasons."
"Of course. Some things you could do better, some you could've done better. But you're a sensitive and generous person. And you're handling yourself so well in everything."
I think I could have told that man to think that way. He probably does already. But maybe I could've advised him to be sure that William knows that he makes his dad proud and happy.
I promised him that I would ask people I know about people who might be able to work with him. He thanked me for that. But now I wonder what else I could have said, or done.
Oh, and by the way...I decided to buy one of his chicken pot pies and a package of his eggplant pomodori ravioli. They're in my freezer now.
And I never have, and never will, tell anyone he or she is adopted. Charlie and Max know they're not: They found their way to me. They just can't have any of that fresh mozzerella!
27 March 2009
We passed a store called Sur la Table on Spring and Crosby Streets. Back in the day, I worked there, except that it wasn't Sur la Table. In fact, the vast majority of the stores, restaurants and people there today weren't there back when I was working in the neighborhood.
The building in which Sur la Table sells trendy kitchen chotchkes to trendy people who eat in trendy restaurants once housed American Youth Hostels. I worked for them for about two years. During that time, they moved into what is now Sur la Table. Before that, it was located in a loft space that wasn't very lofty, near the other end of Spring Street. Back in those days, there were still artists--real ones--living and working in that neighborhood. And my co-workers consisted of burnouts, dropouts, hippies who didn't know or care that it was the 1980's and an old Greenwich Village denizen turned new Greenwich Village denizen. Yippie to Yuppie, in other words. And, oh yeah, there was a self-proclaimed pacifist who listened to WBAI yet quoted Frantz Fanon.
In other words, it was just the place for me. I didn't stand out: I was just a depressed, repressed (self-repressed, actually) transgender who dared not speak her name and lived through advancing stages of alcohol dependency. Except, I didn't dress female in public, except for the Halloween parade and out of sight of anybody I knew. And I never missed work because of my drinking. OK, maybe a day or two. Or three or four. Besides, I usually had food with my alcohol.
And what kind of food was that? Usually, a small loaf of bread from the Vesuvio bakery and a piece of cheese from one of the delis. So, when I drank my wine (or, sometimes, beer) with it, I wasn't being a drunk, I was being European--specifically, French. And it was, and is, my right.
Vesuvio's has moved to a block near the Bowery. Bruce and I passed it, and that is what started my reverie of memories. I mentioned those picnic lunches during my AYH days; the way he looked at me, I knew he was thinking about the booze. I mentioned it, and he said, "It's so good that you quit."
"Yes. Testosterone and alcohol isn't such a good combination sometimes, is it?"
"Not for you, it wasn't."
"So now I'm full of estrogen and caffeine."
"That's why you get giddy sometimes."
In mock protest, I squealed, "No, it's the hormones."
"Always the hormones." We laughed.
Then, over lunch we talked about people we knew and haven't seen in years. What are they like now? Have they become people neither of us could have imagined? Or people they themselves could not have imagined?
"I guess we're all surprised at how we turn out," I volunteered.
He nodded. "I remember all the anger you used to have. You carried it in your shoulders."
"I'm still angry sometimes."
"Not like you used to be."
"Back when I had a beard..."
His eyes widened. "That's right! I almost forgot that you had a beard."
Then I mentioned that yesterday I was talking to someone I hadn't seen in a while and didn't recall that I had a beard. Carlos used to own a bike shop on 7th Avenue and 26th Street, if I remember correctly. I recall that it was between the Fashion Institute of Technology campus, where I was teaching at the time, and the old Veterans' Administration hospital and offices. Today he owns a shop in the next neighborhood over from mine. I needed a chain for my commuter bike, so I paid him a visit.
We also did a bit of reminiscing. He asked what I've been up to, and, for the first time, I mentioned my upcoming surgery. In fact, it's the first time I've said anything at all about my transition. Surely he's seen me change, but he never mentioned it--until I did yesterday.
He looked at me from head to toe. "You're so much better now."
"Well, I'm not in as good physical shape. I'm nowhere near as good a rider."
"True enough. But I've been such a slacker."
"I'm sure you have a lot on your plate."
"Well," I said, "it's what I need to do."
"And look at you. You look so much better!"
"Yes. You're radiant. And you can hold such a good conversation."
"Oh, I wouldn't go back."
"Of course not."
"If I did, I'd have to grow a beard," I quipped.
He tapped his head and thought for a minute. "That's right. You did have a beard--a red one. I almost forgot. It's hard to imagine you ever had it."
Have other people forgotten? I wonder what else they may have forgotten. Or what I've forgotten.
26 March 2009
Dominick told me about a female co-worker who accused him of cursing at her and calling her names. It seems that this woman, who's a good bit older than him, is trying to get him to do all of her work, and he refused. So she complained to their principal.
Now, given the difficulties I've had in workplaces, I may not be the best person to give him advice. But I advised him to talk to his immediate supervisor and the principal at least once a week. I don't think that they believe, deep down, that he's vindictive, foul-mouthed or any of those other things she says he is. I know he isn't. But at least if he keeps in touch with his superiors, and if he can get someone to witness his work with that woman, he has a better chance of being treated fairly.
"I'd be willing to vouch for you," I volunteered.
He thought about it, and talked more about the situation. Then he joked, "I know! I'll tell her my girlfriend is coming in."
"Tell her I'm una rubia muy alta y muy fuerte."
"What did you just call her?"
"Tell her your girlfriend is tall, blonde and really strong."
We both laughed. But it got me to thinking about what I would do if I were ever in a confrontation with another woman. If she's the size of most Latinas I've seen, I'd tower over her. And, even as sedentary as I've become, I'd probably have more physical strength. And, if she's bothering Dominick, she'll have to contend with the rage of both genders in one woman!
Would she back off? Would I bitch-slap her? Or would it turn into a scene from The Jerry Springer Show?
How, exactly, would other women handle this situation? I know lots of women have resorted to violence when another woman was doing something inappropriate with her boyfriend or husband. Others have evoked--verbally or otherwise--the threat of such violence and the other woman backed off.
Now I'm recalling one instance of the latter. Tammy and I were in the gift shop of the Chateau d'Amboise, which has always been one of my favorite buildings in the world. A woman--Polish, I think (I saw her getting off a Polish tour bus) about our age at the time (40, give or take) followed us--to be more precise, me--closely. Tammy and I had been cycling through the countryside for about two weeks, and I was riding just about everywhere every day for a few years before the trip, so I was in very good shape. And that woman was looking at my body--specifically, my legs.
I'll admit that hers weren't half-bad. Nor was the rest of her body. I'll also admit that I was taking some furtive pleasure in it, though I had no intention of "accidentally" bumping into her. And, twined with that low-grade thrill I was experiencing was a bit of uneasiness. Tammy and I had been having a great time and I didn't want to spoil it. I mean, few things are worse than bringing someone to another country where you speak the language and she doesn't, and making her unhappy. No, I didn't want to do that to her.
Tammy hadn't noticed. But then she said I looked "nervous" about something. I told her about the woman, who was standing a few feet away from us in the gift shop. "Is she bothering you?"
"No, just looking at me."
"Well, if she does anything, I'll ruin her trip."
I was not in any danger, but I was glad Tammy was ready to "defend" me. And I don't think that woman would have lasted very long against Tammy!
I didn't continue that last sentence because there are some things a lady should not talk about. She should do nothing more than enjoy them. And that is exactly what this woman--the one writing this blog--did.
I never thought about this before, but Tammy was "defending" a "man." Then she made love to a woman. She said so. In fact, she often said that throughout our relationship--at first, affectionately; later, as an accusation. And, she said, it was the reason why, a few months before we actually broke up, we stopped having sex. "I can't sleep with a woman!" she exclaimed.
Now I'm wondering: If I went and confronted Dominick's co-worker, or any other woman who was bothering him, would either he or I be aroused? Both of us? What would that lead to?
And you thought this was a "family" blog!
25 March 2009
It all sounds like an academic version of one of those "bloopers" highlight reels, doesn't it?
And, really, none of it upsets me. Right now, I don't expect to be teaching at the college (or possibly anywhere else) in the fall. And I certainly don't expect to take more PhD-level courses, or any more academic courses, for that matter.
Any time I talk to anybody on campus (except for my students), I feel a distance growing between me and that person--and the college. When I'm not in the classroom, I'm kind of a zombie. It's almost as if they're talking to a shell and I am talking to people who are in one way or another absent.
Sometimes I feel as if the person they and other people came to know, or thought they knew, is already gone. I never had any idea that the surgery would change my personality, though I do know one trans woman who was nasty and bitter before her surgery and is very nice (at least to me) now. Actually, I have to wonder the surgery affected her brain, or maybe her vision. After all, she tells me that she wishes she could be as beautiful as I am!
She also tells me I'm a great woman now and will become an even better one. I hope she's right. But a woman I am, for better or worse.
Still, I can't help to feel that something else is ending besides my life as a man and as someone in transition.
I feel like a ship making its last voyages, a train making its last runs. Will there be a new vessel, a new vehicle in its place? Or will the trips they made be abandoned, possibly replaced by another one? If so, where will that one go, and what will I see along the way?
Ever since I've began my life as Justine, I've lived by the belief that my life as Nick offered me a lot of resources and sustenance for my transition and my current life. But now I wonder how useful it will be to me in my life ahead of me--or even how useful it is now. And the part of my life I find most suspect right now is my involvement with education, both as a student and teacher.
I take that back. I've found my interactions with students to be instructional and even interesting. But I wonder just how much I'm actually helping them to learn anything at all. I feel like I'm in that scene of Kramer vs. Kramer in which the father and son--their wife and mother having left just days before--try to make French toast. In case you haven't seen the movie, I won't spoil that scene by describing it.
I'll tell you only that they survived the experience. I expect that, barring some accident or another, I'll survive this, too. But sometimes I wish I knew what exactly is ending and what will follow.
23 March 2009
Perhaps it had something to do with the cold wind that whipped and whirled through the streets of this neighborhood next to the East River. Those gusts made today feel like a late fall rather than an early spring day, as if we were marching toward winter rather than journeying into spring.
But something else made today seem like the end of something, even though no cataclysm or catastrophe descended upon me or the world. None that I know of, anyway.
Actually, I have lately felt that something is ending or winding down. Of course it is my current life, or at least a major part of it, that is on its way out. But this is different from the sorts of endings I or other people have experienced.
It's ironic that I am feeling, again, a sense of isolation as I am drawing closer to something that I am doing in order to free myself from another kind of solitude. I sense that I will experience some sort of loss that I cannot quite envision yet. I do not know whether it will be one of the kinds of losses people normally experience, such as the deaths of other people in their lives or simply a ritual or routine someone had. Or, perhaps it will be something material or financial: I hope it won't be my means of paying for the surgery!
Of course the possiblilty of not having my job after my current contract expires is very real. But I have previously lost jobs before through no fault of my own, and I am already preparing for that possiblity. Although I very much like some of the work and people who've been part of my present job, I feel no special attachment to it. Then again, whatever strong attachments I've felt in my life have been to certain individual people, my cats and occasionally to objects. Oh, yes, and to feelings and memories: sometimes I cling to those even more furiously, if unconsciously, than I do to people and things.
But I have no loyalty to institutions, save perhaps my family (not The Family). I don't know whether this is a universal truth (Do they really exist?), but I think that it's difficult, if not impossible, to develop bonds with institutions if you couldn't be a full-fledged member of the first ones you knew first.
Early on, even before I had a language for explaining myself to my self (much less to anyone else!), I knew that I could not remain in the church in which I grew up. I take that back: I knew that I never was part of it in the first place; I couldn't be, being who I am. And I never could be part of the schools I attended, or more precisely, the things they represented. I knew that they were organized with the intention of readying people to take orders, whether from a supervisor in the shop or office or the officer in charge of the unit. And they also, in more subtle ways, trained people to start heterosexual nuclear families. Even before I had explained my gender identity and sexuality to myself--never mind doctors, therapists, family members, friends and would-be partners--I knew that I was entirely unsuited for that vision of domestic life.
I had that sort of life for a relatively brief part of my life. Still, I am amazed that it lasted as long as it did. And now I don't have to worry about losing it.
So what, exactly, is coming to an end in my life? What do the colors of today's sunset and the chill of today's wind mean?
21 March 2009
And so it was in two years in particular I'm thinking of. They were the year I turned eight and the year I turned sixteen. On the 21st of March in 1966--My mother and I were talking about this last week--her father died. He would have turned 72 years old that day.
His is the first death I can recall. A few weeks after that day, I was to make my First Holy Communion, which he wanted so much to see. That's always a big deal in any Catholic family; it's even more so when the child or grandchild is the first in the family, as I was.
I still underwent my intitation to what some consider the most elemental of all of the sacraments. The only difference was that my mother and grandmother didn't have the party they were planning for me. I didn't know they were planning it until much later, so I didn't know what I'd missed. That means, of course, that I didn't miss it.
My grandfather and I spent lots of time together until he became too sick to take me to the park or on train rides to Coney Island and other places. I wonder now if my relationship with him would have been different had I been living as a girl. For that matter, I wonder how my relationship with my grandmother, who died when Iwas 24, would have been. She and I were also very close. Probably the only person who knew me better was my mother. For a long time, they were really the only people who knew me at all.
What would it have been like to be grandpa's granddaughter? He had two others: my cousins Theresa Anne, who turned three the year he died, and Sandra, who turned two. I never saw him with them, but I'm sure that if nothing else, he was very loving. So I guess that's the way he would have been with me, though in a different way. How, I don't know.
All I know is that he died on this date, which was the first day of spring that year. It was also the first day of spring when my other grandfather died in 1974, during my sophomore year of high school. My father did not have siblings, so my brothers and I were the only grandchildren he had. Seeing the way he treated my other grandmother, and other women (including my mother), I'm not so sure I would have wanted to be his granddaughter.
Hmm...Maybe I could've been my maternal grandfather's granddaughter and my paternal grandfather's grandson. What did I just say?
How would things have been different? I can't say. All I know are the things that are different now. As I've mentioned, there are people who were once in my life but who no longer are, for all sorts of reasons, some of which were voluntary. And there are others who are with me now and whom I never could have imagined.
Then there are relationships that have changed in obvious and subtle ways. I think now of Bruce, with whom I have my longest-standing friendship. The only people in my life now who've known me longer than he has are related to me. He's never been a physically demonstrative person, but after we knew each other for a little while we were hugging each other whenever we met. People have told me I hug them like they've never been hugged before; I tell them I learned from the best!
But now I've noticed that he and I kiss whenever we meet. I don't know when this began, but I think it was some time not long after I started to live as Justine. I wouldn't say his kisses are romantic, nor do I expect them to be. But he kisses very tenderly, as one who honors my vulnerability. Is that how we would have been had I been living as a woman for all of those years?
Oh...Why am I asking "What if?" Now it's got me thinking again about Cori, who called me on the last night of her life to talk to me about her gender identity issues. It would be years before I would talk about my own with anyone, so I am still not sure of why she wanted to talk to me. But I did the best I could. She hung herself the following day, three days before Christmas. Remembering her as female is all I can, or will ever be able to, do for her.
The first poem I ever wrote that I can still stand to look at today was inspired by her. It's been published in a few places, under my male name. But, for better or worse, I wrote that poem. Yes, the person I am--much, much younger--wrote it. In case you're interested, here it is:
The Lies Of Spring
Last fall we walked
along the bank of this river.
Somebody warned you
not to come here with me.
We saw our faces, calm and clear
on the surface of the water.
You leaped and disappeared
into the mud below.
I stood, blinded, in the twilight.
I did not jump
because you told me
the water’s very cold.
Today I walk alone
on this weathered shore.
A single lily pokes through
mud that is your bones.
You once told me: This flower
Is the first sign of spring.
--4 September 1985
I know: It's flawed in all sorts of ways. But I cannot change it, of course: I had to write, at that time in my life, the poem as you see it now. Although I, my true self, wrote that poem, I have changed in other ways since I wrote it, so the person I am now could not have written it. And so I cannot edit it. Here it is, and here I am.
20 March 2009
I am happy that Dominick had a "Dad." Somehow, though, I cannot imagine calling any other man but my own father by that name. He may not have been the most emotionally available person in the world, and there were things on which he didn't or couldn't guide me. And when he tried to steer me, it was toward careers (e.g., the military) that were completely unsuited to me. Still, he was a better father to me than his own father was to him. Much better.
And I have an even harder time imagining myself calling anyone other than my mother "Mom." Millie, at times, has been a sort of mother-figure to me in the six and half years I've known her. I've cried to and laughed with her, and she's asked me into her house to have a cup of tea or something to eat with her, and sometimes with her husband Johnny and her daughters and grandkids. I have a feeling that some time tomorrow I'll be in her kitchen or at her table. Funny, how I've developed that sense about her--or has she developed it toward me?
Anyway, back to Dominick: When I called him, he and "Dad" were eating in a very noisy restaurant. This is one way Dominick is my opposite: He doesn't like crowds, or so he says, yet he seems to favor noisy places. Generally, I don't like a lot of noise around me, especially when I'm trying to have a conversation with someone. I've always felt that way: I've never been good at hearing over background noise, and I get migraines.
My headaches, when I get them, and my sensitivity to noise seem to have intensified since I started taking hormones. It took a while for me to notice it, but I find that these days I can hardly have a conversation with anybody when I'm riding the subway. Combine that with my clumsiness, and you just might be entertained at my expense if you were to take me out for dinner. I guess that's a good deal: You buy me dinner and I provide the entertainment. Dominick doesn't seem to have gotten a laugh out of watching me in those situations. Then again, that's not where his sense of humor lies.
So I don't have to have a migraine to entertain. That's good to know.
Now I wonder: Will I become more sensitive to noise after I have the surgery? Is that the difference between a penis and a clitoris--that one is an antenna? If so, what does that make the other?
Let's see: The hormones make me more sensitive to light and sound. And, I'm told, insults, injuries and empathy. And to all kinds of other emotions. Hey, wait a minute: I'm not supposed to say things like that after reading a few studies and attending lecutres that say women and men have more or less the same abilities in most things. And I'm certainly not supposed to say them while I'm taking a gender studies course. Or am I?
Speaking of the class: I actually did some of reading I need to do for my paper and presentation. I don't know how either will turn out. Once they're done, once that class is over, I won't think about them. A few months, a few years, will pass. Then, I might talk about them to somebody or some group of people. And they'll laugh. That's what seems to happen whenever I talk about long-past experience. On the other hand, when I talk about what I've felt, I've elicited a few tears, from whomever I've told and myself. I don't aim for the sobs or laughter: They just seem to come when I talk about my life. A few nights ago, one of my students wondered aloud whether I was doing stand-up comedy on the weekends. Now there's an idea. Sometimes I think that getting in front of people for the purpose of making them laugh takes more or less the same set of skills as imparting wisdom or knowledge.
I suspect someone is laughing at that last thought. As long as I can hear it over the din...
19 March 2009
I'm coming to the conclusion that going to school is not good for my health. I never was happy as a student, in spite--or because?--of my love of reading and learning. All through high school, college and graduate school, I was unhealthy and usually depressed. And so I have been for the past few weeks.
I really thought that maybe, just maybe, things would be different this time. After all, I was taking an academic course for the first time in sixteen years, and I don't have to tell you I've experienced a lot of change since then. (Now you know that I didn't need to vote for Obama for that!)
What's more, although the course I signed up for wasn't what I really wanted to do, I thought it would draw upon some of my strengths and make me more conscious of something or another. And, on the first day, I really liked the prof.
Actually, I still like her. She's a scholar, and that's how she's teaching the course, as well she should. However, theory is something I never did well, and at my age, probably never will. Plus, I simply don't have the patience to navigate the maze of verbiage that's in most of what we've read in that class.
I don't know whether I'll ever get the paper done, or how I'll do the presentation I'm scheduled to make on Tuesday. I know, I should be working on them now instead of blogging. But I simply can't keep myself focused on the material. I know there are always boring things to read and uninteresting tasks. But I might be able to work through them if there was at least some compelling reason, some purpose, some light at the end of the tunnel, or whatever you want to call it.
So what's the purpose of this blog, you ask? Well, it's first and foremost a way for me to express, create, vent, self-indulge and do all those other things associated with doing something for the pleasure of doing it. And hopefully, dear reader (Now I'm getting all retro on you.), you will find it interesting, amusing or somehow captivating. Finally, I want this to lead me to an appearance on Oprah.
Uh-huh. I couldn't even make it on to Jeopardy. Yes, I tried out for it when it was in New York about three years ago. I still have the pen they gave me to fill out the forms. I've used it to fill out other forms and to write notes and to create the Sistene Chapel of graffiti in my bathroom.
All right. So I didn't create the Sistene Chapel of graffiti, or anything else, in my bathroom or anywhere else. It sounds like a cool idea. The only problem is, I'd have to paint over it when or if I move. Then again, I might be here for who-knows-how-long.
And, really, I can't use the pen too much more than I already have. Otherwise, it'll get scratched up, and I'll never be able to sell it on eBay. Then again, do I really want to sell my precious Jeopardy pen on some cheesy online auction site?
As for graffiti--It's just about impossible to do anymore. Rumor has it that the bathrooms at the college, and other places, have video cameras in them. And, in the bathroom I use most often when I'm at work, each stall has a sign warning that graffiti is a crime. It's pretty garish-looking, and would be slightly less so with a skull and crossbones on it. Whoever's monitoring that video camera must have a really unfulfilling life: I mean, after all, he or she has to see that sign and people like me in partial stages of undress. For that, he or she should demand redress. But that person won't, and that's exactly the reason why he or she was hired for that job.
No redress for undress. How's that for a slogan? Sounds like a critic's comment about a really bad porn movie. As if I know what bad porn movies look like...
On another topic entirely, Dominick said he thinks I'm trying to escape from people. That's more or less what I've felt like lately. I simply can't hold a conversation with anybody: all I can do is register volumes and occasionally nod or make monosyllabic replies. When they ask for my opinion, I don't have one or I can't say what I'm actually thinking without upsetting somebody. Not that I care so much about their feelings: I just don't want to get into arguments or other pointless exchanges with anybody.
To give an example: The coordinator in charge of the composition classes sent an e-mail asking whether we agreed with a change she wanted to ask the publishing company to make in one of the textbooks used for that course. In reply, I wrote that the original edition of the book had two extremely useful chapters that were lopped off the current edition. Then I wondered, "When are we going to get away from trendy topics and get back to basics?" Someone's going to excoriate me for that one, I know.
Somehow I feel that my time remaining to me is very, very limited. I have only three and a half months until my surgery, and I really don't want to waste this time. After the surgery, there will be five or six weeks of recovery. Then, I don't know what I'll be able to do, or when. I mean, ultimately, I should be able to do everything I can do now except to piss against a tree. (Not that I've done that lately.) But how long will it take?
Plus, I get the feeling that the time I have after my surgery will be even more precious than what I have now. I don't know how many more days, months, years I will have after my recovery. But I sense somehow that it will be even more of a privilege granted to me, and that I must not take it for granted. Somehow I think it will be like the time someone has after a cancer has been treated into remission. Or, maybe it will be like the time someone has after a negative result for a test taken after his or her friends or loved ones have died from AIDS.
At times like that, there's just no room for bullshit. If you're going to interact with people, it has to be meaningful and affirmative, not wasted on trivialities. For me, those times are here and coming.
18 March 2009
I try not to talk to anyone unless I absolutely must. Being there, and not being in the classroom, is just about unbearable right now. But, even in the classroom I'm having a hard time keeping my anger and sadness in check. I haven't lashed out at anybody, and I certainly don't want to do that to my students.
Would that really be worse than if they saw me cry? Yesterday, when I arrived on campus, I went to my office and shut the door. For about an hour hot tears rolled down my cheeks. As self-indulgent as this may sound, I didn't want them to end: The crying was the first useful, necessary and even constructive thing I've done this semester for myself. I didn't care whether someone saw or heard me: I'm tired of that mentality that says your feelings must fit into certain time frames, physical spaces and other constraints. However, I didn't open the door because, but only because I didn't have the emotional energy to get myself out of the chair and to the door.
I wouldn't say I felt better after crying. In fact, the headache I'd had only worsened. But at least it was, in some other way, purgative if not restorative. I'm still feeling just as sick, emotionally and physically, as I did yesterday. But at least I know I'm dealing with the truth and I don't give a fuck about anything else. Really, there isn't time for anything else; there never is.
If what I'm feeling hasn't affected my teaching, it's blocking my work in the class I'm taking. We had a paper due on Tuesday. I thought it was postponed because the other assignments were pushed back a week. But the other students, except one, handed in their first paper. The prof said I could hand in my paper this coming Tuesday. I said I would, but I haven't even started it yet. And I'm feeling no compulsion to do it, or any of the other work in that class. After all, what incentive do I have to finish the work? If I did, I could still be looking for a job this fall. And, really, what do I need with theoretical work? I have no mind for theory even when I'm at my best. So what's to say I can do six or eight more years of the same?
I shouldn't have let people egg me on into taking the course when I really wanted to take Mandarin or Arabic. At least languages are useul sometimes, and for me, they are more real than all of that theoretical bullshit. And I could have had the pleasure of actually knowing whatever I learned in the language. But queer theory, or any of the other liteary theories, aren't in any way useful. And they're not all that interesting.
Well, at least I'm almost entirely certain that not only will I not be back at the college next year, I won't be pursuing a PhD. That's a relief, really, for all it means.
16 March 2009
I couldn't help but to think of that "Are you really a trans woman?" test I took once. I knew it was stupid, as most tests are, and I knew that the test had as much a chance of telling me anything about myself as winning a poetry contest has of predicting whether or not I will be enshrined in the canon or become cannon fodder--or both, or neither.
According to that "Are you really a trans woman?" test, I pass with flying colors. One reason why is that I am indeed hopeless with math. Don't you just love stereotypes?
So let's see...No math, lousy at navigation, can't drive: I guess I have a lot in common with Minnie Mouse. I'll never have her voice, though--not that I want it. If I could sound something like Veronica Lake or June Allyson, both of whom had sexily deep voices, I'd be happy.
Anyway...back to the lecture. It was interesting, and I thought that because it was about gender and gender roles, it kinda sorta relates to what my students are reading: Cinderella, other fairy tales and writing about them. After all, how can you think of the Cinderella story without thinking about what different cultures expect from females and males?
I must say, though: I don't recall, in any of the Cinderella-type stories I've read, any mention that she has as little control over numbers as she does over the weather. Then again, who needs math or any other kind of knowledge when she has a fairy godmother?
But, anyway, at the lecture, I sat with a prof with whom I talked for the first time in a year or so. We used to talk and e-mail each other often, sometimes once or even twice a week. But, tonight was maybe the fourth or fifth time I've actually seen her since September. Yes, we have different schedules. But we did last year, too, and in the two years before that.
I know that I relied on her, perhaps in ways that I shouldn't have. She was one of the few colleagues there with whom I felt comfortable. More important, she always seemed to have really good advice about one thing and another.
Now I'll make a confession: I wanted to be her, or like her, when I grow up. She seemed to be everything I would ever wish to become: very intelligent, attractive and poised. At the time I first met her, I had been living as Justine for about a year and a half. In those days, I was thankful--and hoped it was a sign that I was indeed starting to fulfill my vision of myself--that someone like her would actually spend time talking to me.
I suppose I should be happier than I am that she actually asked me to sit with her at tonight's lecture, and wanted to talk with me. I know that she was going through a lot--a divorce, for one thing--and that perhaps she needed to be away from me. But in some way I wish that I hadn't talked with her tonight.
Probably the best thing Thomas Wolfe wrote was the title of his last book: You Can't Go Home Again. That has turned out to be so true for me, in a literal and metaphorical sense. About the only place in which I've lived and to which I could see myself returning is Paris. I have not returned to Park Slope; I've only gone to events that happened to be there. Ditto for Alphabet City and Washington Heights, and for the parts of New Jersey in which I spent my high school and college years. Occasionally I pass through Borough Park and Bensonhurst--the Brooklyn neighborhoods were my family lived until we moved to New Jersey when I was thirteen--but I can't really stop there for anything.
And so it is with friendships, or any other relationships. I should have learned that lesson with Elizabeth. She was once, and for a very long time, my best friend. Then we didn't see each other for more than ten years. During my first year of living as Justine, we had a reunion of sorts. And I even stayed with her in Istanbul when she was teaching there three years ago. About a year later, we had a falling-out and have not spoken to each other since. And I don't expect that we will be in touch again.
How did that happen? Two words: I changed. Two more words: She didn't. Ironically enough, the latter was the very reason why I tried to be friends with her again. I recalled the ways she was kind and helpful to me, and even hugged me out of a suicide attempt. I figured that if she could be that kind of a friend to me when I really had nothing going for me, she would appreciate the kindness and consideration of which I am now sometimes capable.
She was the kind of friend she was because I was a co-conspirator in misery. We both suffered, though for entirely different reasons, the sort of depression young people with intellectual or creative pretensions so often find fashionable. Both of us were--unconsciously, at that time--re-enacting our childhood traumas. I realized that she still was when we went to the Grand Bazaar and a few stores and cafes in that beautiful old city and even when we were having dinner together at her place. What's more, she told me what those traumas were, then denied them.
Now, I don't mean to equate her with the professor I was talking with tonight. The prof is much more self-aware, and isn't measuring her self-worth in her ability to attract men. I suspect that she also isn't dating the same kinds of abusive or simply dishonest men Elizabeth dated, and is probably still dating. It also seems that this prof wouldn't try to get picked up by other abusive men, as Elizabeth does, when she's dating them. Furthermore, if this prof saw me with an attractive man (say, Dominick), I don't think she'd be as competetive and angry with me as Elizabeth was when I got into a conversation with a cute guy in one of the cafes.
There is, however, one similarity between what I feel now about this professor, and how I came to see Elizabeth: They both befriended someone who was very different from what she would become. You might say that my changes from the time I met Elizabeth to the time I reunited with her are more fundamental than the ones I experienced during the time I've known the prof I'm mentioning. But changed I have, and now I'm not so sure that I can be friendly with this prof, even though it seems that she wants that.
And now I'm a bit upset that tonight's "reunion" happened: I feel even more alienated from the college, and the academic world, than I had before. Maybe it just means that it is indeed time for me to move on. The idea of going to some place new after my surgery seems more and more appealing. At least I could leave with good memories of my classes and students. And maybe I'll be teaching, or using those skills I've gained in the classroom in some other way. If I were teaching a class or workshop while I'm making my living as a writer, that would suit me just fine.
But whatever I do, I think it won't be at the college. After sitting with the prof I mentioned, I felt that there really is nothing there for me but my students: I've changed.
15 March 2009
Well, I haven't heard any soothsaysers lately, or at least I don't think I have. And, if I were to find one, what would he or she bid me, if anything?
If you've heard that admonition Shakespeare put into Brutus's mouth in Julius Caesar, it's hard not to come to this date, the fifteenth of March, and not expect some kind of foreboding. Spring is less than a week away, and the weather feels that way.
This year, though, I'm not experiencing the dread (which was always followed by rage) I used to feel around this time of year. Back when I used to think the beginning of spring was the original lie, I always expected something catastrophic to happen. Maybe that's an effect of losing my grandfather on the first day of spring--which also happened to be his birthday--before I turned eight years old.
His death is really the first I recall, mainly because I was very close to him when I was very young. Mom and I were talking about that tonight. She recalled that her maternal grandmother died the year before. I have only a vague recall of that funeral, and almost nothing of her. Mom said that made sense, for I never saw much of her: I was usually with my maternal grandparents or other relatives when Mom was working, and her grandmother was sick much of the time.
My mother has an amazing recall for dates. If you talk to her for five minutes, she'll always remember your birthday. She also rattled off the dates of various births and deaths in our families: Her father died on 21 March 1966, which was also the day he turned 72; her brothers (my uncles) Herbert ("Sonny") and Dominick ("Nick") on 15 December 1982 and 27 October 1989.
All of this came up because I asked her how old a cousin of mine, Joseph, whom I haven't seen in years, is. The occasion of that question was my mention of the fact that Dominick (my boyfriend, not my uncle) works with kids who have special needs, which a much more polite term than the one that used to be applied to people like my cousin. Said cousin is 44 years old now and cannot fend for himself, so he lives in a group home. That is the fate that awaits some of the more fortunate kids with whom Dominick works.
I cannot tell you Joseph's birthday or the date on which I last saw him. I know the former is in late November--in some years, on Thanksgiving Day. I know that because the birthday of his father, my uncle Joe (who also happens to be my godfather) is around the same time.
My recall of dates is nowhere near as consistent as hers, and seems to have little, if any, logic governing it. I can pull up the dates of a few deaths in my life: If you have seen my blogs from the couple of days preceding Christmas Eve, you know that. Hey, I even know the dates on which my cats died: Caterina, 23 December 1991 (same date as Kevin, my first AA sponsor died ; a friend committed suicide on that same date in another year); Charlie I, 16 October 2005 and Candice, 17 January 2007.
I also remember that I moved out of the apartment I shared with Tammy, and onto the block where I now live, on 17 August 2002. We started dating some time in the spring of 1998--not long before Memorial Day, if I recall correctly, but I couldn't tell you the exact date. I met Dominick some time in the fall of 2004; we were "seeing each other" briefly--from around that Christmas till some time the following spring. And we resumed in the late summer or early fall of 2007. I remember that time because a cracked ankle was healing and I was riding my bike for the first time in about three months when he saw me from his grandmother's minivan, which he was driving.
Of everyone I've mentioned, Dominick is the only one in my life now who didn't know me as Nick. All of my deceased relatives and Kevin knew me only as Nick, Nicky or Nicholas--as did Caterina. Charlie I lived until I was early into my third year of living as Justine; Candice got to see one more year of my new life.
I hope that this Ides of March isn't a foreboding of another death or some other event that would be traumatic or devastating for me. I was telling Mom that I want the 7th of July to come, already, but I have this fear that the doctor will find that I have some illness or other problem I didn't know I had and that--or some other thing I can't foresee now--will keep me from having the surgery.
From the Ides of March, it's another 114 days till my surgery. I never knew that I'd be so good with dates, or with counting, anyway. Is it a constructive or pointless thing to do while I'm waiting?
And is there reason to be aware? Or to worry? I don't think it's the future, as uncertain as it may be. The past, for whatever reasons , always worried me more, especially when I was unconsciously repressing so much of it.
Can--or should-- someone "Beware the Ides" retroactively?
13 March 2009
Now escape seems like an utterly implausible idea: I have some difficulties--Who doesn't?--but escape is not just an impossibility or impracticality; it isn't even conceivable because every time I've plotted or attempted an escape, it turned out not to exist. I could as well have been coming up with a formula or equation for phlogiston. I ran away to Europe even when I knew full well that what I was running from couldn't be evaded there or anyplace else. The funny thing is that if I'd understood that, I might not have taken those trips, but if I had, I probably would have appreciated what I saw all the more.
The thing is, when you're in the moment, but not living for it, you have nothing to escape. Today, at a particular moment, I was on the D train between 34th and Fourth Streets. Other people on the train read newspapers or dozed off; a few looked my way. It seemed that every time I looked at somebody who looked at me, that person flashed one of those smiles that, as best as I can tell, serves the same sort of function for humans that a wagging tail does for a dog: It signals that the person smiling or the dog wagging his tail is friendly, or at least not hostile. But it's also a sort of demarcation of psychic and sometimes physical territory: Both sides will be cordial to each other, which includes not transgressing each other. It's really not a bad way to navigate through time and space among people. I've noticed that, especially since I started to live as Justine, I am usually treated better when I have almost any kind or degree of smile on my face. And, faces that seemed to be cast in stone light up, if only for a moment, at the sight of a smile--even one like mine!
Two young men or boys--I would have guessed their ages to be somewhere between 16 and 20--sat diagnoally across from me. They were white and gangly with close-cropped hair: They had the look of young people from one of the last remaining blue-collar enclaves in this city. In other words, they're like kids I saw during my childhood and early adolescence in Brooklyn. Although I could follow little of what they were saying in the din and rumble of the train, I knew that they were talking about going to escape--from school, from parents, from who-knows-what--for the day, or at least part of this day, a Friday.
And every few seconds, it seemed, one or the other of them glanced in my direction and smiled. And I reciporicated. And it seemed that each succesive smile from them became broader and more emotional.
One thing I've discovered, and which has pleasantly surprised me, is how many "good kids" there actually are. One might not approve of the way they dress or the ways some of them spend their time. But more of them are polite, and even friendly and helpful, than I would have imagined. Maybe it's because I'm older and I remind them of --egad!--their aunts, mothers or even grandmothers. Somehow I can tell those boys in the subway had, or have, a good relationship with some older female family member.
Perhaps that's the reason why, even when nothing else is going well in school, I am still happy with most of the studets. We treat each other with respect, and sometimes even warmth. Most of them seem to want to please me; I don't mind that even if I'd rather that they'd do the things that will foster their intellectual and emotional development. Still, I welcome their friendliness, no matter how temporal, as I did with those boys on the train.
As I walked out the doors of the subway car, they wished me a nice day and weekend. And I wished the same for them.
12 March 2009
"Oh, you bet it is."
All I said about work is that I've been busy. And I wouldn't have had to say anything about it to anybody had Dominick not called after reading my entry from last night.
As if it were not enough to feel the same way about my identity and sexuality as other people do, I have to work in a place and in an industry that doesn't operate by the same sorts of rules or logic as other businesses do. It's also driven more by personality disorders and conflicts than most other fields of endeavor. So, trying to explain it in a rational way for someone who wants to make sense of it because he thinks it's supposed to make sense in the same way as everything else is frustrating. And, I admit, I don't do frustration well.
To give you an idea of how different higher education is from anything else, here's something Dominick asked rhetorically: How is it that you, who go way above and beyond the call of duty, have to worry about whether or not you'll have a job next year?
To paraphrase the Clinton's first campaign, It ain't the economy, stupid. Even in the best of times, instructors, especially those in the humanities, with little or no seniority are subject to the same conditions. So are the ones who, for whatever reasons, aren't in the good graces of their department chairs and deans. As I am not.
My department chair gave me two courses for next semester: an adjunct's schedule. She said she hadn't heard anything about my reappointment, and that I was on the bottom of the seniority list. "So why did Professor X get reappointed?" She responded with something people in her position like to say when they've been found out: "Well, I can't talk about other people's cases with you."
I understand why she can't do that. But I really would like to know why someone with less seniority and who, frankly, hasn't done as much or as well as I have, was reappointed and I'm being left to twist in the wind.
And I'm supposed to go to my classes and be a role model for my students. I'm supposed to say, in effect, that if you work with and for the system, it will work for you. The very act of teaching in a publicly-supported educational institution is, in essence, a representation of that notion.
If I tell them the truth, I definitely will not have that job--or any other in education--next year or in any following year. No, knowledge is not power, especially if you are hated simply for being who you are. Being an educated member of a "minority" group allows the empowered members of the "majority" culture to remain ignorant. I think again of Mitterrand's first meeting with Reagan, and how the former's beautiful command of English put him at a disadvantage with an American president who, if he were to read poety, would have chosen Robert Service, Rod McKuen or Jewel as the Poet Laureate.
So my department chair thinks that next fall she can get me to do everything I do now on a part-timer's schedule--and pay. Outsource my job to Sri Lanka, why don't you? Go ahead: I'll find another. Or better yet, I'll make myself a job someplace. If I do, it certainly won't be in education. If you really want to teach and learn, as I do, then it's exactly the wrong place for you. Ditto if you want to write well, let alone interestingly and movingly.
11 March 2009
So why did I feel desolate afterward? And, why did my feeling of isolation intensify when Cady Ann, one of the department's secretaries, told me about her friends who are in my class and love it, or when she very sympathetically asked about my upcoming surgery?
I couldn't even be angry with her. After all, how could she have known how I would feel? Hey, even I didn't know I would feel that way after a good experience with my class and talking to her.
But even when everything's going well, the college feels like an alien and often hostile place. I feel more like a stranger, and outsider, than I did on my first day there. Faculty members with whom I used to converse have become no more than one of many co-workers I pass in the hallway.
I noticed this when I went to a bathroom in a little-used corner of the campus's main building. When I stepped out, I saw a faculty member whom I used to see just about every day, but whom I hadn't seen in months. I was actually in a bit of a hurry, as I had another class to teach. But I waved to her; she waved back and signalled her approval for what I was wearing. And, as encouraging and sympathetic as she's been in the past, I couldn't think of anything to say to her.
Lately, I feel as if I have less and less to talk about with the faculty and staff members with whom I used to talk. It seems that they are all talking about research projects and other things of which I'm not a part. Or they're talking about grant applications, or even their families or other loved ones.
If you've spent large portions of your adult life unmarried, you know what it's like to go to a family gathering, or any work-related or social function, in which everyone else has brought his or her kids, or pictures of them. And that's all anybody's talking about: their kids. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But then you start to get the sense that they're all judging you as somehow deficient for not having kids, for not being married, or not even having a steady relationship with someone of the "opposite" gender.
Well, it feels something like that when I'm on campus. Some people are just plain, flat-out homophobic and believe that trans people are just the most extreme and therefore contemptible versions of gaydom. But others--most of whom probably don't intend any harm or understand what they're doing--come off as condescending or patronizing, which of course have the effect of excluding the person who is the object of condescenscion or other, subtler forms of exclusion and belittlement.
However, they're not the majority of people on the campus or anywhere else. Instead, I feel that the ones who are sympathetic but can't truly understand how I feel are the majority. And the worst thing is that know matter how much they'd like to understand, I could never convey my feelings through any means that accurately reflect them. As an example, when someone like Cady Ann asks how I feel about my impending surgery, she's thinking about words like "scared," "nervous" or "excited." Or they talk about the pain I'm going to feel. (It seems as if everybody has been watching Sex Change Hospital.) Those are all true enough, but there's somehing else I could never quite express. It has to do with what the operation means to me and my reasons for getting it.
I am thinking, ironically enough, about a part of Stone Butch Blues. That novel begins with a letter Jess, the first-narrator of the story, writes to her old girlfriend Theresa, even though she has no address or any other way of reaching Theresa.
In that letter, Jess recalls how Theresa always seemed to understand how she felt, especially after a particularly brutal attack from the police. Jess didn't have to say a word. But she couldn't because she had, even at that rather early stage of her life, shut down much of her ability to feel and express the ways her experiences affected her. Of course, she would never cry and Theresa didn't expect her to, for she understood that Jess's sense of herself as a "butch" came from her seeming invulnerability and lack of emotion. And, in many lesbian communities (which were centered mainly in the bars), especially in pre-Stonewall days, a "butch" got more respect as her shell thickened.
In her letter, she acknowledges that her lack of expression was a main reason why she and Theresa broke up. Even though Theresa had some idea of how she was feeling, she felt the need to hear it from Jess. But Jess is holding back; Theresa also realizes that getting her to talk would force her to re-live those experiences she was trying to forget. Having had similar experiences of harassment and violence, Theresa was reluctant to press Jess into re-living traumatic experiences.
And, Jess confesses that she could not express much of what she felt because the language she had was inadequate and inaccurate. She says, "I need 'butch' words to decribe my 'butch' life," or something to that effect. What's more, she needs for Theresa and everyone else to understand those 'butch' terms, which of course she can't or won't.
This, of course, is the exact opposite of what the academic world--at least in the humanities--teaches. We're taught to take pre-existing language and to order our experiences around it, or to use that pre-existing language to validate whatever we're trying to say. However, when your experience differs, your language will, too, as it must. And that is the beginning of the complications you wil encounter. People will think they understand your experience, but in fact there is much they cannot know. And, in my case, my situation is further complicated by the fact that I have been both the victimizer and victim when it comes to homo- and trans-phobic violence.
I know that it's not the job of co-workers to understand how I feel. But what I'm expereincing is in some ways more painful and alienating than what I would feel, or not feel, if I were just someone who came and went, and about whom nobody knew anything but the job I was doing. Sometimes I envy those people who spend their working days in front of a computer.
Now, if I do say so myself, I've given you a pretty good idea of what "tolerance" looks like. You don't have to understand, or even like or agree with, whom or what you're tolerating. The ones who understand this best are the blue-collar workers at the college, almost all of whom are poor and black. They--and in particular one who confided a sexual orientation to me--understand what it's like not to be understood yet abided because they were necessary for some purpose or another.
Right now, I feel that after I recover from my operation, I'd like to move to some place--or at least find a workplace--where nobody knows me. If they want to start rumors about me, let them. At least I wouldn't have to deal with people who think they can understand me and want to do so mainly to feel good about themselves, or to feel superior to somebody.
I used to think that women talked more about their feelings of loneliness because, well, they simply talked about their feelings more than men did. But now I've come to feel that because of who we are, our sense of alone-ness is more intense, and we feel more of a need to discuss it.
Oh, shit, here I go, blaming the hormones again! As if that's going to help anybody understand anybody else...