31 December 2009

A Poem: The End Of What Never Was

OK. So I said my previous post would probably be my last. The operative word was "probably."

Anyway...I thought this might be a good time to share a poem I wrote in September. In one of my entries that month, I mentioned that I was working on this poem. I'm still not sure that it's done. Jean Valentine, a wonderful poet and one of my teachers, once said that we never finish a poem, we only abandon it.

Well, if that's the case, I'll abandon it to you, dear reader:

The End Of What Never Was

I never could have been the boy
Who climbed trees and played football

While you waited for my letters of acceptance.
I only could have been that student

Who struggled with extra science classes
For a higher score on the SAT math

After I got the Academy's letter of rejection.
Even they knew I couldn't be that son

Like the one in the photo: the one
whose father stood proud, whose mother

Pinned stars and bars to his dress grays.
No, I never could have been a soldier

And I never could have been a sailor.
That young girl standing on the bridge

Exchanging vows under crossed swords
She could not have known she would never be

My wife, the mother of your grandchildren.
I never could have given her anything except

Your name, and a name that was never mine.
After that, I could only lie to her again.

No, I never could have been her man
I never could have even been her ally

Or on anyone's side, not even as a spy.
She will never see me; she has never seen this day

The way you never could have foreseen today.
None of us ever could have known

I never could have been your son.

My First New Year's Eve

So...This will probably be my last post of the year. It's a little sad to write this: This, the most momentous of my life so far, is ending. Then again, I'm about to start my first full year in my new life.

Tomorrow I am going to Millie's house, again. She seems to think the first day rather than the first second of the new year is more important--to the extent that she thinks of such things. In that sense, she's rather like me.

It seems that almost everyone is happy to see this year end. At least, the people I've heard talking about the topic have expressed such a feeling. At the same time, they seem more hopeful than optimistic about the coming year. In other words, they're hopeful in the same way as someone who comes to New York after his life has fallen apart in Nebraska. That, by the way, is the story of someone I talked with a few nights ago. Maybe I'll tell more about him later.

Anyway...They say that hope springs eternal. Maybe that's why people ring out the old and ring in the new year. Some--not all of them young--have visions of the wonders that the new year can bring. I'm thinking now of what Eva-Genevieve said in the wake of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels' suicide: Many people enter gender transitions with the idea that living full time in their "new" gender will be like a permanent drag ball. They think of the sense of release they feel when dressing up and going out, or the sexual thrill they get out of "kicking up their heels" and expect that the adrenaline rush they get from playing their roles will continue 24/7/365.

In a similar vein, on this night, many people are thinking only of the things they expect or hope to be better in the coming year. The mass media are full of that sort of thing: The economy is going to turn a corner, etc, etc. Of course, one should have hope. But if you've had some difficulty or another for years or even decades, is it rational to expect that problem to change, much less disappear, by turning a page in a calendar?

Back to transitioning: There are probably more things that don't change, at least in the circumstances of one's life, than there are things that change as a result of starting the process of becoming true to one's self. You still have to pay whatever bills you were paying before. In fact, they will probably be bigger and there will be more of them. You still have the same tensions over work, workplaces and living situations, which may be exacerbated by undertaking a transition. And, I've discovered, though the form of some of your relationships may change, the real attitudes of the people with whom you're in those relationships don't shift--at least, most of them don't. The ones who decide they want nothing more to do with you are really acting on attitudes and prejudices they had before you "came out" to them. The ones who change their attitudes either loved you or simply had open minds before you shared your "secret" with them.

The difference is that you may not have known these things about the people in question before you decided you could no longer live in as the person they believed you to be. The truth is, you didn't have to know them. That is part of what having privilege means: You don't have to know at least some of the truth about others. That also defines what privilege I still have. As an example, I know people who lived on the streets at one time or another in their lives. I admire them for having survived and becoming advocates, going to school or doing other positive things with their lives. But, at the same time, I can't even begin to imagine the realities of the lives they lived when their only shelter was whatever place they hadn't been chased away from and the only way they could make a home for themselves was to curl up in a fetal position, as if they were recreating their mother's wombs.

All right...I'll get off the soapbox. I'll tell you another way in which I have privilege. Happily, I acquired it during the course of my transition and surgery. You see, I didn't get a sexual thrill out of putting on female clothes or an adrenaline rush out of going public in a dress. To tell you the truth, I was scared to death when I first did those things. And I was for a long time afterward. Furthermore, I felt completely out of place the one time I went to a "drag" bar: I am a woman, not a cross dresser. The other patrons--most of them, anyway--went back to their lives as boyfriends and husbands and fathers, as horse trainers and construction supervisors and mechanical engineers. I had no such option of "going back."

That was eight New Year's Eves ago.

Today I made it to the appointment with Anna I rescheduled from last week. I had my hair cut a bit and had it treated to so that it's softer than it was. Other women were getting their hair done; two were also being made up by one of the stylists at Zoe's Beauty. I was there for the same reasons as other women; I simply felt normal there. And that is how I felt when I walked the strip of Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint and tried on shoes and clothes I didn't buy: It wasn't a thrill or a rush; it was simply life as I was meant to live it.

And, yes, I had a late lunch/early dinner at The Happy End. I began today's repast the way I've begun every meal I've had there: with their white borscht. This time, I had the grilled kielbasa with onions. The menu said that the kielbasa was "locally made;" it certainly tasted better than any other I've had. And today's meal is probably the only one I've ever had that included two servings of mashed potatoes. Plus, the sides were interesting and tasty: red cabbage, sauerkraut and a salad made of sliced carrots. I noticed once again that the proprietress, who's about my age, was friendlier toward me than to her fellow Poles. She's seen me before, and remembered me, but I'm sure most of those Polish patrons were repeat customers as well.

She was also friendly to two male hipsters who were eating at the counter. Oh my goddess--I hope that's not the end of the restaurant, or the neighborhood!

Then again, should I begrudge a couple of hipsters their privilege? I wished them a Happy New Year on the way out; they wished me the same.

And I hope you have a great New Year, too!

30 December 2009

Lives Begin And End With The Old And New Years

Today, over lunch, Bruce pointed out, "This will be your first year in your new life."

As he's been in my life for longer than any other friend I have, it was especially gratifying to hear from him. And Charlie, the proprietor of Bicycle Habitat (where I bought my two Mercians as well as a bunch of parts and accessories) said the same thing, almost verbatim, when I stopped in his shop.

On the penultimate day of this year, it's difficult not to think about the upcoming year--or the one that's passing, or the ones that have passed. In some small but odd and interesting ways, they all intersected today.

I've known Charlie and Hal, his ace mechanic for only a couple of years less than I've known Bruce. I used to work for American Youth Hostels, when it was located on Spring Street: just around the corner from their shop on Lafayette Street.

Today, when I went into Habitat, I saw Esta, Charlie's wife, for the first time in about twenty years. She concurred with my perception of time: Our last meeting was shortly after the elder of her two sons was born, and he's twenty-three years old now, if I'm not mistaken.

Of course, the last time she saw me, I was essentially a different person. She said as much. Actually, she said that she doesn't recall me, as I was then, so well. I didn't mind that, actually. But then she also said that even though she couldn't recall my male incarnation that well, something was "familiar" about me when she saw me today.

She's not the first person to say that upon seeing me again after a long absence. I didn't ask what she meant. It might have been my speech, my body language or any number of other things.

I've encounters with people I hadn't seen in some time and even though I couldn't very well visualize the way those people were in earlier times, they were also "familiar" in some way.

I don't know what she was picking up on. But I know that I tend to remember people by something more essential, if I do remember them. It could be some glimpse I had into their characters, or even their souls.

Getting a glimpse of somebody's soul, however, isn't always as wonderful as it sounds. Indeed, nothing can be more terrifying sometimes--especially, it almost goes without saying, when you see darkness there but have no language for expressing it or any other means of defending against, or fighting, it. That is what sometimes happens to children.

And it happened to me more than a few times as I was growing up. Perhaps the most extreme example came with a longtime family friend. Something about him had always given me the creeps; I knew, for reasons that I could not explain, that neither I nor any other member of my family was safe around him.

Tonight my mother explained at least part of that man's dark essence: "He was manipulative. That's something you had to understand if you were going to spend any time around him." Yes, that was something I felt when I was a very young child, even though that word wasn't yet in my vocabulary, much as the language of self-help books and pop psychology wasn't part of most people's everyday parlance at that time.

He always managed to get people to do things that were not in the interests in their well-being. That's how he was on a good day. On a bad day, he'd wreck something in your life without your seeing (at least not immediately) his hand in it. Then he would offer his hand to help.

By now, you might have guessed what he did to me. Yes, he sexually forced himself on me. I'm still not exactly sure of when was the first or last time he did it. I know that the first incidence of his forcing himself on me that I would recall--when I was thirty-four years old--took place when I was about nine years old. Though it was his first sexual exploitation of me that I would recall, I know it wasn't the first or last I experienced with him.

When he "finished with" me that day, he made me swear I wouldn't tell anyone. I kept that promise for about twenty-five years. The truth was, for many years afterward, I wouldn't have known what to say, or how to say it, even if I didn't have any fear of what he "might do to" me.

So why am I mentioning him now? Well, I was talking to Mom a little while ago, and she told me she found out, the other day, that he died in February. She learned of this from someone else he manipulated and took advantage of, though in very different ways from the way he abused me.

In one sense, I am more fortunate than that person who gave my mother the news: I haven't seen the man in more than thirty years; he was in her life until near the end of his.

So how do I feel about his death? Well--as terrible as this is to say--not a whole lot. Not having seen him in so long, I am past hating, and even fearing, him. Whatever rage I felt over what he did to the child I was is gone now: That child, by necessity, has become me. He cannot harm that child again, just as he cannot harm me now, or anyone else who came into contact with him.

I am not being hyperbolic when I say that he didn't improve the life of anyone he met. In fact, I'd say he wrecked a few lives and derailed a few more. But, at least now he can no longer hurt anyone.

I can't say I feel relief or an urge to sing, "Ding dong, the witch is dead," or anything like that. All I know is that another chapter of my past is done, on this penultimate day of the year that started in one life and ended in another.

29 December 2009

My Bikes And My Cats, As I'm Healing On The Coldest Day Of The Year

You've heard the old joke: "It's so cold the politicians have their hands in their own pockets." Perhaps we could update it by substituting "hedge fund managers" for "politicians." Anyway, that's how cold it felt today. As the weather forecasters promised, it was indeed about 25 degrees colder (on the Farenheit scale) and the wind blew about 25 MPH harder than what we experienced yesterday.

Sometimes I think cats know when it's cold outside even if the houses in which they're living are warm. It's as if felines have internal almanacs and thermometers. At least, all of the cats I've had seem to have been that way: They've curled up with me more at times like this than during more temperate days. It's no surprise, then, that Charlie is curled up on my left side and Max is on my right.

I went out briefly today. When I came back, I caught a glance of myself in the mirror. My face was even redder than it would have been if I'd spent the day out in the sun! Fortunately, I didn't have to deal with the pain and other after-effects of a sunburn.

Oddly enough, I started to think about bike riding. I haven't done any since Thanksgiving. I didn't want to ride today, but I was thinking that I'd like to get on my bike again soon. That big, ugly bruise and the swelling are all but gone now, and so is the pain from that mishap I had the day before Thanksgiving. On each of the rides I took last month, I adjusted the saddle position a little bit. I suspect that I'll have to ride some more before I find the "right" position for me. Before the surgery, that's what I had to do any time I got a new bike. (Well, OK, my "new" bikes weren't always new. Nor is the old Raleigh three-speed I bought last month.) Now I have a new body--or part of my body is new, sort of, anyway.

Filigree has suggested that I would want to ride in a more upright position. Actually, the three-speed is designed to be ridden in a more upright position than either of my Mercians. But I don't intend to ride it for long distances, which I can't imagine doing in a completely upright position. I doubt that I'll swap my road bike handlebars for cruisers, but I may experiment with the position of them. The nice thing about road bars is that they offer a variety of hand positions, so you can go "aero" for speed or when you're pedaling into the wind and slide upward a bit more when the going is a little easier, or when you want to go easier.

I don't think I'll be riding to work when I start teaching my winter session class next week. But I hope that some time early in the spring semester, I'll be able to do that. I was getting tired of having to ride the trains and buses. I haven't had to do any of that in a week. But next week, I'll be on the subway once again. Actually, I will take the train tomorrow, when I meet Bruce for lunch.

At least I don't feel bad about that, in a way: The day will start off cold and end with rain and/or snow, according to the forecasts. Time was when I would have biked in such conditions. But the times, they are a-chaingin', as Bob Dylan sang. And I'm sure they will by the next time I get on a bike.

28 December 2009

From The First Meeting To Lunch Next Week

Dwayne and I had planned on having lunch tomorrow. Alas, he cancelled. He'd suffered from double pneumonia last month and his partner is forbidding him from going out tomorrow, when it's expected to be about 25 degrees colder than today.

I was very much looking forward to our lunch date. We've rescheduled for next week.

So why am I talking about him and our lunch date? Well, he is one of the people who has made possible the life I'm now leading.

Around the time Tammy and I broke up, I made an appointment with the counseling services at the LGBT Community Center of New York. I'd previously been to two other therapists for other reasons, but I still didn't know where to begin or how to get over the fear I had in looking for someone else who might've been able to help me.

The day I went to the Center was the sort of summer day on which an air-conditioned welder's mask would have been most welcome. The truth is that I would've entered just about any place that would have gotten me out of that heat and glaring light, even for a little while. But it wasn't just the heat and glare from which I wanted shelter; I wanted a truce with, if not a resolution to, the conflict that had me ready to explode or implode--I wasn't sure of which.

Well, I got to the Center. Miraculously, the young woman working at the counseling services' reception desk said that, yes, someone could see me, even though I didn't have an appointment.

I'll give you three guesses as to who saw me.

Yes, Dwayne was my intake counselor. I don't know how long I talked with him, but by the time we finished, I felt as if I'd just read him War and Peace at the speed of light. I felt, for the first time in my life, that I'd told somebody everything. And, more important, I felt as if I'd told someone the truth about myself for the first time in my life.

Up to that day, I had never met him. When I went to the Center's counseling services, I had absolutely no idea of whom I would meet or what would result. However, I was never more certain as to what I was doing, and why I was doing it, than I was when I went to the Center that day.

I think Dwayne sensed all of that. Best of all, he empathised, and not only because he has lived outside of what our culture, or almost any other, expects from one gender or another. He usually describes himself as a "butch," but has told me that he would've liked to have taken testosterone and undergone the surgeries. He couldn't do those things, he said, for medical as well as financial reasons.

Later, I realized that I wouldn't have had to say a word to him and he would have understood exactly why I was in his office. I could have shown up in army fatigues and a crew-cut and he would have known why I was there. So it's no wonder that in revealing that first, most basic, fact about myself, I not only felt relief: I felt that some things were finally starting to make sense. Example: I knew that I had to stop drinking and taking drugs. But I didn't know why it wasn't all I needed to do, much less what my next step--never mind my long-term goal--had to be.

I had that conversation with him about a year before I began to live full-time as a woman or "came out" to anyone in my family. Perhaps I could have had that conversation with someone else. But as fate or luck or karma or whatever would have it, I had that conversation with Dwayne. And he was exactly whom I needed at that moment.

So I have Dwayne to thank. (Others would blame him.) We'll have lunch next week; I'll always have that day we met.

27 December 2009

As This Year Passes; What Has Passed Before This Year

Tonight, after going to Millie's for a cup of tea, I talked with Marilynne's daughter, who underwent her surgery during the time I was in Trinidad. I will never forget how helpful Marilynne was to me, even though she had to do so much for her daughter!

Anyway, Marilynne's daughter and I marveled that in about two weeks, six months will have passed since our surgeries. Because she is much younger than I am, it is a more significant portion of her life than it is of mine. Still, I am struck by what similar perceptions we have of the passage of that time.

"It's gone by so quickly," she said. "But in a way, it seems like such a long time."

"I feel the same way."

"Really? I wonder why that is."

"Well," I said, "I can tell you what I think, or at least what's true for me. Yes, the time has gone by quickly. But the time before that seems like a lifetime ago, so that's why it seems as if so much time has passed since our surgeries. At least, that's what I've experienced."

Yes! That's how it's been. I feel the way you do: that last year was a lifetime ago. And I can't compare those times to now."

I was reminded of one of Staci Lana's posts in which she said that 2009 has been her favorite year so far. I could say the same thing, but that wouldn't be quite accurate. Yes, I finally got something I'd wanted for as long as I can remember, and, as a result, felt whole for the first time in my life. In that sense, yes, this year is definitely the best of my life, so far.

But in another sense, it's not quite accurate to say that: I simply can't compare this year to any other. I think I've achieved a few smaller personal milestones and derived satisfaction from any number of moments spent with friends and working with my passions. So, all of those things, combined with having my surgery, have made this a year that has brought me more happiness than any other I can remember. But, as a result, I cannot look at any other part of my life in quite the same way.

That's not to say that I didn't have good moments or even good years before this one. But to compare this year to any previous time would be like a poet judging the work he or she did in his youth in light of what he or she is writing now. Yes, the newer work may be superior. But it's as if a different poet, which is to say a different person, is writing the new works.

In one sense, Marilynne's daughter is lucky, for she--barring some unforeseeable tragedy-- has most of her life ahead of her. I, on the other hand, have lived the greater part of my life as the "before" photo--unless, of course, I'm going to live an exceptionally long life.

Whatever our lifespans, she and I are beginning with this year.

26 December 2009

No Time To Criticise, Not Having the Luxury of Gloom

When I was a kid, if someone had asked me to define the word "gloom," I might have said that it was a cold rain on the day after Christmas. That's exactly how today has been; in fact, it seems to have been this way since some time after I got home last night.

I'm not feeling gloomy, though. I realize I haven't much reason to be gloomy, really. In particular, two recent experiences are helping to keep my outlook on life from being defined by the gray rain and chill that have held this day in their grip.

Those two experiences are, ironically enough, two that seem unrelated: my surgery and the time I spent in the soup kitchen. In the latter experience, every single person I met was facing something more difficult than I'm facing at this moment. As for the former: Well, after getting what you've always needed in order to feel complete, how can you walk through life under a dark cloud?

That's not to say, of course, that you never become sad, frustrated, lonely or angry. They become simply individual tones on a scale, or hues in a spectrum, of emotions. (Perhaps you can come up with better metaphors. But you get the idea, I'm sure.) As best as I can tell, no emotion, positive or negative, is meant to be experienced continuously. That's old news, but it doesn't hurt to remind myself of it.

Anyway...I can think of all sorts of reasons why I don't experience, sans interruption, the discontent that seemed like an inevitable condition of being who I am, if not simply being, during my youth.

One reason might simply be that, as I've aged, I've gained some perspective. That's to be expected, I suppose. But I think that an even more important reason is that I simply don't have the time to wallow in despair, or even boredom. When you think about it, boredom is almost a luxury. And, as a corollary to that, that kind of blue feeling that seemed almost fashionable to me when I was young is now an indulgence, as alcohol and other drugs are.

Someone, I forget who, once told me to be so busy improving myself, or just learning something useful, that I don't have time to criticise other people. That's just starting to make sense to me now. So many negative emotions I've had began with my resentment or jealousy of someone else. Those, of course, are the reasons why we spend time criticising people we can't change. Why does so-and-so get away with being an asshole? Why did she get the guy--or why did he get the girl? (I've asked both questions!) When we start thinking about those kinds of questions, we become paranoid, which is nothing more than the feeling of powerlessness turning into a martyrdom complex. How did she, of all people, get that promotion? She must have slept with the boss. I would never do such a thing. I guess I'm too good to make it in this world.

That gloom in which I used to wallow is, then, a pure, unadulterated form of narcissism. Criticising other people made me better than them, in my mind. It made me so good--again, im my own mind-- that I was doomed. And you know what rhymes with "doom."

Now that I am learning how to live without the convenience I once had, I am finding that the luxuries that came with it weren't always so wonderful. One such luxury is having nothing better to do than to criticise someone else and, from there, to spiral into all-encompassing anger and despair. Some anger may be necessary to reclaim one's self. But the trick, at least for me, has been to keep it from becoming the quicksand of self-pity. How many more years do I get to learn that?

25 December 2009

Christmas And A Hanai Family

It's hard to believe that Christmas Day is almost over. I slept late: As rewarding and enlightening as working in the soup kitchen was, it left me tired. I didn't do any heavy lifting, but I did have to bend and otherwise move around a bit. I guess it's going to be a while before I have all, or anywhere near, my former strength.

Plus, I could feel the tiredness and downtrodden-ness of the people there. I was describing it to my mother, when I remarked, "I can only imagine how they deal with it every day. I'd probably be crying all the time."

"That's what they probably do," my mother said. "Or they just get used to it."

I'm not so sure I'd want to simply "get used to it." Yes, there is suffering in this world: In fact, Buddhists and others say that life is suffering. I guess getting used to the fact that there is suffering, and that you and other people will suffer, is one thing. But to "get used to" suffering, or witnessing the suffering of others is something else. And I certainly want to get used to despair. Nor would I want anyone else to do that.

Still, I plan to volunteer again at that soup kitchen. It's not that I feel any duty or obligation to do so. And I know better than to use charitable acts as atonement for past misdeeds. Something like that works only when there is perfect reciporicity: in other words, when one good balances out one evil. Life is much more complicated than that.

To revert to a cliche, I simply feel good about the work I did yesterday. I don't mean that in a self-congratulatory way. Rather, I feel good in the way one feels after doing something very basic and necessary for someone else and knowing that the person valued it. Plus, it is emotionally satisfying for me to feed someone, and to share a meal with that person. (And I did those things for more than one person!) Maybe it has something to do with my Italian heritage: In that culture, you simply can't separate eating and relationships. My mother and grandmother always offered something to eat for anyone who came to their homes. And, after I moved out, it seemed that the first thing my mother wanted to do when I came to her house was to feed me.

Millie's like that, too. That's why it has always felt so natural for me to spend holidays with her and her family, or simply to go to her house. Now I am in tears: I have experienced their generosity and love, again. I hope that that woman I talked with yesterday, and all the other people I saw at the soup kitchen, will have something like that. What's sad is that some of them have never had it, while others lost it, by whatever means.

If there's something in this world to which everyone has a right, that just may be it. Privilege is getting it both from your biological family (or, at least, one or some members of it) and from your hanai family. (Thanks to Keori of Pam's House Blend for allowing me to learn of that Hawaiian tradition.)

24 December 2009

Privilege In A Soup Kitchen

Most of the day was briskly cold, as the past couple of days have been. However, toward sunset, the air started to feel damp in spite of the clear sky. It probably had to do with the melting snow. Interestingly, the snow seems to be melting even more quickly now: I think it's warmer at I write this, late at night, than it was earlier in the evening.

Now, if I believed more in things like synchronicity and that everything that happens in our daily lives is somehow symbolic, I would say that today was a counterpoint to last Christmas Eve. I spent the main part of that day in Newark Airport, waiting to get on the flight I'd booked to Florida. That meant that my parents spent a large part of their day waiting for me at Jacksonville Airport. We all thought it was such a good idea for me to take a direct flight to Jacksonville, which is about an hour and a half drive from my parents' house, rather than taking a flight to Atlanta and another to Daytona Beach, which is less than half an hour from their place.

Anyway...last Christmas Eve seems further in the past, somehow, than even some of the Christmas Eves of my childhood.

One thing that made today different from Christmas Eves past--apart from having experienced the changes I've undergone in the past few months and few years--is how I spent part of this day. This afternoon, Jade, a friend I met at the LGBT Community Center, and I volunteered at a soup kitchen/food pantry on the Lower East Side.

Normally, lunch is served every weekday from 11 to 1 pm, and the pantry distributes bags of food twice a week. People are allowed one bag of food (which contains enough to stock a small pantry) a month; they simply have to present some form of ID. No such requirement exists for having lunch.

Today, however, the mealtime was extended, as were the hours for distributing bags of groceries. As you might imagine, there were a lot of people there.

After most of the patrons/clients/recipients (I heard all three terms used) were served, Jade and I were offered the same late lunch/early dinner, which was like a Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and the other foods that go along with it. At first I was going to decline: Somehow I didn't feel right about eating something that could've gone to someone who needed it more than I did. I voiced that concern to Jade and to the woman in charge of the kitchen. Both insisted that would not be the case; besides, some of the people would like to see us eating with them.

It made perfect sense, yet hearing it still surprised me somehow.

Anyway...The food was very good. And a black woman who was probably about ten years older than I am was good company. She told me a bit about how her life spiralled downward through an abusive marrage and drug addictions--hers and his. One might argue that she made bad choices; I would argue that her choices were more limited than mine have been and that she, for a variety of reasons, didn't know about other choices she could have made--such as getting help.

One thing I've learned is that people don't do things we would never do (or that we believe we would never do) because they're stupid or incompetent. More often, their circumstances present them a different (and, most likely, more limited) set of options than what we've had.

I say that as someone who, if I do say so myself, has grown keenly aware of privilege. I've told people that one thing I've learned in this transition (and, in fact, one of the few things I've learned that has any real value at all) is that privilege is something you don't know you have until you lose it. I was able to get some of the education and other experiences I have in part because I lived more or less within what was expected of a white male--and one who seemed straight to most people most of the time. What if I had "come out" when I was a teenager? Would I have stopped attending high school after getting beat up for the umpteenth time? (That is the story of a number of LGBT people I've met.) Or, what if my family had kicked me out. (That's another story I've heard too many times.) What would have I become, or what would have become of me?

The sober fact is that much of what I've been able to do--including, to some degree, my transition itself--is a residue of the privilege I once had. And even the residue of it is still more than many other people--including most of the people I saw today--have ever had. The fact that I was volunteering-- that I was, by choice, sharing my meal with someone who had noplace else to go--was itself a reflection of privilege that I still have, to some degree.

As near as I can tell, it doesn't help to feel guilty about it, or even angry over the injustice one finds in the world. I'm just trying to use what I've been given in ways that are meaningful and helpful to others as well as emotionally satisfying to me. And let me tell you, being able to live as you've always wanted to live is a pretty damned good resource to have!

23 December 2009

I Am A Patron Saint In Greenpoint

Today I had one of my blonde moments. Or was it an absent-minded professor moment? Or should I blame it on my age? After all, I'm in, or near, Alzheimer's territory.

Whatever the reason, my mental lapse caused me to miss an appointment with Anna, my hairdresser. I was supposed to see her at 2:30 this afternoon, but for some reason I thought it was 3:30. When I arrived, she was cutting someone else's hair and was booked for the rest of this day--and week. So I've scheduled an appointment for the day of New Year's Eve. At least I'll start 2010 with nice hair!

Anna works for Zoe's Beauty in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I always enjoy going to the salon-- and to the neighborhood, which is the main Polish enclave in New York. How long it will remain so is a good question: When you walk Manhattan Avenue, which is the main commercial strip, you see actual or wannabe hipsters perusing the windows full of Polish foods, videos and books. A few stores have signs in Polish, but not in English.

I went into one of them to buy some chocolates. Yes, the Polish make some good dark chocolates. As I don't drink vodka or beer (or anything else with alcohol), those chocolates have become my Polish drug of choice. The E. Wedel and Wawel brands seem to have a particularly nice taste and texture. It's a good thing the packages are illustrated: Sometimes they're printed only in Polish!

Anyway, when I went to pay for the chocolates, the young female cashier talked to me in Polish. I smiled in a somewhat embarrassed way. She knew right then and there I wasn't from her country. "Sorry! I thought you were..."

Ironically, she was actually more pleasant toward me when she realized I'm not Polish. And she was more polite with me than she seemed to be with the Polish customers. That, of course, is the opposite of what one normally expects in encountering people who speak a language different from one's own. What I find even stranger is that it's not the first time I've had such an experience in Greenpoint.

After buying the chocolates, I went to a little Polish restaurant called The Happy End. I highly recommend their white borscht and pierogies, and that's what I had there. As I was spooning up the soup, a man about ten years younger than I am sat beside me and started chatting me up in his language. I gave him my sad little "Sorry, I don't speak your language" smile--which seemed to make him even more intent on talking to me. He switched to English, which he actually spoke very well. "What are you doing for the holidays?"

"I'm going to see family," I lied. I've used that line to abort a couple of attempted pick-ups in my time.

"Oh. That's good. What about after the holiday?"

"Well, I'm going to work. "

"What's your name?"

This time, I told him the truth. That really got his attention. Apparently, Justine (which is spelled Justyna in Polish) is a sort of patron saint, or something like that, to the Polish. At least, one of my Polish students told me that. She said that Justyna led Polish forces in an ultimately unsuccessful insurrection against their Russian and German occupiers. I remarked that it sounds a lot like the story of Jeanne d'Arc. My student agreed, but added that in a way, Justyna is even more important to Poland than Jeanne is to France. "At least France still existed when Jeanne fought," she said. "When Justyna came along, the Polish people didn't have their own country."

If I recall correctly, some time near the end of the 18th Century, Russia and Prussia conquered and divided Poland, which would not become an independent country again until some time after World War I.

Anyway...I told that man in the restaurant that I am in the neighborhood often, and perhaps we would bump into each other again. "I hope so, Justyna." He enunciated my name, making sure that I heard it as a Polish name.

A couple of weeks ago, I mused on whether I should be Russian because their writers spend so much time describing women's eyes and I've been told that mine are beautiful. Now I'm starting to think that maybe I should be Polish. After all, I seem to look more or less the part. And Polish men seem not to mind big-boned, strong-willed women. Most important, perhaps, is that I seem to have the right name. Who'd have guessed that in changing my gender--and my name--I'd become a sort of honorary Pole?

Then again, would I have to change my last name to Valinottiniski? I don't think I'd like that. I'll stick to being an interloper in Greenpoint.

22 December 2009

Learning About The Cold

After this weekend's snow, the air has been filled with the kind of cold that seems to cut right through the skin and go straight to the bone. It is a windborne cold that feels as stark as the sky during the day and the twilight at the end of this, the second-shortest day of the year.

Ever since I started taking hormones, I feel the cold more than I used to. Not only do I sense it more; it seems to have a sharper edge to it.

The cold today is different from the cold one experiences, say, in Paris. There, it's the moisture rather than the wind that bears the cold. So, instead of piercing or slicing its way into the skin, the European cold seeps through every pore and orifice and seems to deposit itself, as if in layers, in the body.

Since I started my transition, I've been to Europe once--in the summertime. So I don't yet know whether, and how, the cold weather over there would feel differently from how it felt to me when I was full of testosterone (and, in my youth, beer or wine--or sometimes even stronger stuff!).

One thing I know is that over there, they don't see a whole lot of sunshine during the winter. The sort of day we had today--what someone, I forget whom, used to call C-cubed (clear, cold and crisp)--is unusual there. The gray layers of clouds mirror the cumulus stratified chill that builds in one's bones through those winter days in northern Europe. And, if you're not accustomed to it, you feel as if the cold will never leave. Those who are accustomed to experiencing it know that one day it will leave--with the season, or with one's own life.

Thinking about the cold, and the different kinds of cold, has brought back a memory of Cori. Until now, I hadn't thought about her today. It wasn't as though I was trying to forget her: After all, if you try to forget something, it's too late.

Anyway...This is the anniversary of her suicide. If the person that I am now could go back in time for her, I'd do everything I can to get her to see what I know now: That her depression, as bad as it was, and as all-permeating as it seemed to be, would be gone one day. And she wouldn't have had to die in order for that to happen.

Of course, that was something I didn't know at the time--and, truth be told, I don't think I could have understood even if the most empathetic soul showed me what I've just described. I felt the same way she did about her depression: It had permeated every atom of her being and seemed as if it would stay forever.

We had the same sort of conflict over our gender identities. We thought we could resolve it by doing all the things guys did, by wearing the "right" clothes and so forth. But the coldness and grayness just seeped deeper into our beings and pushed out any sunshine and warmth.

That was why she called me on the last night of her life, and why I went over to her place. I knew just how she felt even though I was years--decades--away from describing it to any other human being. I tried to keep it at bay, confined to some part of me I hoped I would never need to access. But of course, over the years, the cold and grayness just drew tighter around my being. I did not believe that there was an end to that seemingly-eternal winter of grayness and cold.

Now, of course, I have seen an end, and have seen how the cycle can begin all over again. Cori is long gone, so all I can do is learn from my experience and help others.

The cold and the grayness end, at least for a season. So does the wind.

21 December 2009

That Prof Didn't Have To Stand an Egg On End This Semester

Today is officially the first day of winter. The solstice came at 12:47 pm, our time. I didn't try to stand an egg on its end, so I don't know whether you really can do that on the day of a solstice? Or is that on the day of an equinox? And if I got an egg to stand on its end, how would that affect my life? Or would it?

Why would I try such a thing, anyway?

OK, so that was a bit of a digression. But can you start with a digression?

Anyway...I've been finishing up the semester. I don't know how I'll see this semester if I think about it in the future. In one sense, I can't imagine how I won't think about it: After all, it is my first in my new life. On the other hand, not much particularly noteworthy (for me, anyway) has happened. I worked; I did the best I could by my students and colleagues. A few students loved me; a few hated me; lots more saw me, if they thought about me, as just another prof--or as that prof.

What does it mean to be that prof? For one thing, lots of students stop me in the hallway to ask what I'm teaching next semester. Now that my courses for next semester have filled up, some students are asking how they can get into my classes. I guess there are more masochists in this world--or at least in the college in which I teach--than I ever imagined! ;-)

To be fair, I can understand why someone would think of me as that prof. For better or worse, I am one-of -a- kind in a number of different ways. For one, I'm tall and blonde (well, sort of) in a college in which 80 percent of the students are black, 10 percent are Asian and most of the rest are Latino/as. Plus, I'm bigger-boned than the average female of any race. And I'm the only faculty member named Justine. (If they're not calling me that prof, they're calling me Professor Justine--which I like.) And, of course, most of the school knows my story by now--or one part of it, anyway.

Hey, I'm even more of a minority than people who can make eggs stand on end! Or, for that matter, people who can touch the tips of their noses with their tongues (something I can do, by the way).

But I was that prof even before this semester. So, in that sense, this semester wasn't remarkable.

Maybe we can drag Marlo Thomas out of retirement to play me in a new series--That Prof. She's a few years older than I am, but that's all right. Plus, the fact that she's not much of an actress doesn't particularly trouble me. I mean, after all, outside of the college in which I teach, my circle of friends and my family, how many people have any idea of what I'm like? So they won't know whether or not she's portraying me accurately.

I think now of what one of the Medicis--Lorenzo, I think--said when people told him that a portrait (painted, if I recall correctly, by Botticelli) didn't resemble him. In essence, he said that 100 years after he died, nobody would remember what he looked like. But they would still have his portrait which, he correctly predicted, would be seen as a great work of art.

Now, of course, that's not to compare Marlo Thomas with Botticelli or any Medici--or any of them with me, for that matter. But imagine what someone could do with an idea like That Prof. If Meryl Streep had a lobotomy, she'd still be a better actress than Marlo Thomas. So, for that matter, would Helen Mirren or Simone Signoret. But, really, would you want to see any of them playing a middle-aged transsexual professor? Especially if said middle-aged transsexual prof is me? Streep, Mirren and Signoret can all play weighty roles. But none of them can do comedy. Well, I've never seen Mirren or Signoret do comedy, and the one time I saw Meryl Streep doing it--in She Devil--she didn't look right. Then again, opposite her, Roseanne Barr was playing a "serious" role. Whose idea was that?

And, let's face it, whether or not it was her intention, Marlo Thomas was funny. Maybe I'm the only one who thinks that way. Or maybe my view is skewed because That Girl ran about the time I was entering puberty. Her voice changed pitches more often during one segment of that show than mine did during my entire puberty. And she seemed to have as little control over it as I did over my voice changes.

I don't think anyone's going to make a series like that. So for now, if you want to see that prof, you have to come to the college in which I teach. And you'll find out that I'm just like all the others. Really.

OK, so believing that is a bit of a stretch. But save for the fact that I returned from surgery, and didn't have the physical stamina I normally have, this has been a fairly unremarkable semester. That's probably a good thing.