plagues and pandemonium

What a wild trip around the sun this year has been (and continues to be).  I know I have not posted here in many many months.  But I have written in my head and in my heart, in my mind and memory, thoughts, feelings and experiences seared into my psyche by unapologetic trauma.

But before I get to that… in addition to the months-long and on-going pandemic, my cycle around the sun this year has brought me squarely, though not at all sure-footedly, to the age of 55.  The age my father was when he died.  For those of you who have not had to confront this plot line development in your own story, you may wish to pause here and offer up a brief prayer of gratitude for this particular bullet dodged.  And I don’t think it’s “just me” on this, in all my quirky mental peculiarities.  I’ve spoken with several people and this really is a thing.  And I can tell you that I approached this birthday with no small amount of trepidation bordering on dread.  How could I possibly live longer in years than my father?  My father, that bastion of strength, stalwart of safety and bulwark of experience and expertise?!  There whenever I needed him to proffer a tool or trick or share with me (endlessly) his opinions and advice on just about anything, including many things I didn’t even ask for.  I knew my father wasn’t old when he died.  But I had no real idea (do we ever?) of just how young he was.  I thought, at the veteran age of 55, there was very little my father did not know, having learned from the experience of a life well lived.  How idiotic was I?!  And so here I am, in my insubstantial 55 years on this earth, knowing I don’t know shit.  And wondering if he felt that way too.  And wondering how I could not have know that.

Unlike most people, who have had to hunker down at home this year, I was deemed “essential” by the powers that be, and so I went to work.  The terrible things about Covid-19 we know: the pain and suffering, the loneliness and death.  I got to see all of that and then some, up close and personal.  Wrapped head to toe in multiple layers of disposable (but not recyclable or breathable) plastic – from which our planet may never heal (plastic straws being very nearly literal spit in the ocean in comparison), I did my best to minister to people who were sick, dying, alone and afraid and their grieving families who were barred from being physically present.  No small feat, in every respect, I assure you.  The excruciating anguish permeated my pores, my heart, my soul.  I could certainly go on and on, writing at length and in gory technicolor detail, about those long Covid months.  It would be relatively easy, the memories pouring out like bile.  But to what end?

I won’t say there was an “up-side” to the pandemic.  That would be bordering on blasphemy (though I think I actually look better with a mask on and that has been an up-side of sorts).  But I will say, that my appreciation grew exponentially for those things that were not horrific in these months.  The camaraderie that greeted me each and every one of those 12 hour days at work, the friendships and support and love and laughter that were shared generously and graciously,  nourished and sustained me.  I have always had a healthy respect for the nurses and aides who do the lion’s share of the work in hospital settings.  In addition to the skyrocketing of my respect for them, I added love and real and deep connection and friendship.  Out of sheer necessity, we each walked many miles in one another’s shoes.  I was humbled by the unselfishness and strength of the people I work with.  And grateful beyond measure.

As someone who struggles (mightily I might add) with anxiety, I have been watching people all over the world come to some understanding of what people like me deal with all the time.  Yes Karen, the world can be a scary place and that shit is totally out of your control.  And as those around me have been brought to their knees in fear, I have been able to stand a little taller in understanding and compassion.  It feels good to be the strong one for a change.  I considered writing up the imaginary game of “anxiety bingo” I play so often in my head to share with others.  Just for shits and giggles.

Not that I would go so far as to say I’m agoraphobic, but I do admit that the “stay at home” orders practically made me dance a jig, I was giddy with relief.  Not being able to go away, travel anywhere, go or be outside my comfort zone, be in large gatherings, felt as freeing to me as not having to choose my clothing each day and instead wear gender-neutral scrubs (as I have been doing throughout the pandemic).  Not having to come up with viable excuses for not wanting to go out or socialize freed up more of my mental time and energy than ever I could have imagined.  Seriously.

I loved having to be at home when not at work.  I loved cozying in and hunkering down.  I baked.  I played with, expanded and honed my baking skills, developing a whole new product line of babka – including a s’mores babka that is out of this world delicious.  I even found a soft spot for the new pandemic bakers joining ranks with the rest of us home bakers (even though I couldn’t find flour so easily).  I read.  Though my attention span was definitely put to the test with work grief and loss, I found myself reading books outside my typical genre.  I went as far as to read some pop-culture novels and didn’t hate them.  I talked, laughed and played games with my children.  And I reveled in yard work done well.  I even watched a Netflix series or two.  I relaxed as much as I am ever able to.  I found that much external pressure in my life was lessened even while there was exponentially more pain and difficulty.  Strange dichotomy that.  But I did deeply appreciate the centering home-focus, the slowing down, the drawing inward.  In all, there have been many reasons for gratitude during this time.

I find I am more like my father every day (though tremulously and thankfully not dead).  Like him, I keep my circle small and close, and I like to keep myself busy taking care of my family and home.  Like my father, I am drawn to offering whatever small gesture or token of kindness to others I can.  For him that was running errands or delivering groceries.  For me that is generally in the form of bread.  I am a simple person with simple needs and desires, as was my dad, and I am better when I remember that.  One thing my dad absolutely knew, gratitude is a powerful thing.

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another out of the mouths – close shave

I’d left the party a bit early.  It was the one where my closest friends asked on behalf of other guests what pronouns I was preferring these days.  And I left without answering.  Apparently there was some discussion after I’d left.  I got a message from a longtime acquaintance/friend the next day.  He’s a cis-male, straight guy who is one of the most kind, lovely, decent human beings I’ve ever met.  He’s a particularly good person and I always enjoy his company, though I rarely spend time with him, life being what it is.

He wrote, “After you left there was some discussion about you transitioning.  I hope I’m not prying, or delving into an area that I shouldn’t. I just hadn’t realized it was something you were working with.  I know nothing of the process, or the challenges that, I’m sure at some level,  go along with it – physically, intellectually, emotionally…  You’ll let me know if there’s anything you need, I hope, not that there’s much I can provide.  But just in case – please feel free to let me know”

I wrote back some about my process and thanked him for his kindness and gentle approach.  We messaged back and forth several more times, catching up and the like.  His genuine caring and curiosity were, as usual, a balm for the soul.  In a sort of concluding message I wrote, “I may just call on you at some point in the future – once I’ve got more than 5 chin hairs.  I have no idea how to shave and I may need a lesson.”

He wrote back, “I shave naked in the shower.”

Well that’s going to be an interesting lesson 🙂

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all aboard and a book report

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote about mother.  Partly because we speak infrequently enough, once a month or so, for as short a time (sometimes only 5 minutes) as I can possibly keep it.  I basically start saying goodbye when I answer her calls.  Sometimes she texts (or texts something indecipherable t0 my email) or leaves a phone note (as my friend Terry calls them).  These are only slightly less burdensome than are our conversations.  She’s been deathly ill (sic) since 1972 or thereabouts, the vast majority of my life.  In the last week she texted me that she has pleurisy and pneumonia in addition to her ongoing osteoarthritis and neuropathy.  Thank God she keeps her ailments and afflictions in alphabetical order or I’d never be able to keep track.  Her calls open with labored breathing and shift into that deliberate fake-hoarse-whisper one uses when calling in sick to work, when trying to sound sicker than one actually is.  At best it is eye-rollingly irksome.  At worst, I realize that her insanity has had and continues to have a cumulative effect on me.

I just finished reading the book “Educated” by Dr. Tara Westover.  It was a fascinating, and also chillingly accurate description of toxic parenting.  It is a book about whose history is history, and how the author struggled and fought to create and live her own truth despite the challenges, losses and difficulties of having mentally ill family members who tried to define truth for her, parenthetically, through their own crazy lenses.  For me it was part painfully excruciating, part hauntingly familiar and part depressingly lonely.  Sure, Westover’s story and mine are worlds apart and on the surface one would say had little to nothing in common.  But the deeper story: the desperate search for love and belonging; the yearning for (normal, or at least sane) family and parental guidance, love and support; the crazy-making toxicity of being raised by someone with unchecked mental illness; the constant gaslighting and contradicting of reality and what can only be labeled emotional abuse… Those?  Those were the same.  No, my family was not torturesome and physically violent.  Though to be sure there were times mother lost her shit and went on rampages that included hitting, throwing, breaking.  And no, my parents did not deny us medical care.  Sort of the opposite actually.  As a raging hypochondriac my mother was always on the lookout for a symptom or abnormality.  I remember one emergent trip to the pediatrician because the veins in my arm were too dark.  The pediatrician smiled as if he thought she was joking.  But she wasn’t.  She was quite sure my unusually dark veins were a portent of a terminal blood illness.  My mother may not have had the self-awareness to have experienced the pediatrician’s mockery bordering on scorn, but I did.  My parents also allowed me formal education (if only to get me out of their hair every day) and didn’t think the illuminati were taking over the government like Westover’s family.  Though mom had her own conspiracy theories of a faux government being controlled by behind-the-scenes nefariously powerful people, which is why she has never voted in her life in what she claims are “scam elections”.  Not completely outside the Westover realm now I think of it.  Still, I’m not saying I had it as bad as Westover.  I’m simply saying that the underlying toxicity of being gaslighted at every turn, of having a family system where everyone was supposed to buy into the lies and or delusions – that mother was not a drug addict, that she really was incessantly and continuously sick, that the perverse pleasure she took in offending and intimidating people was more a quirky quality than sadistic malevolence and that her way in the world was perfectly sane; that everything in our house was normal – that part was the same.  I related especially at the end when Dr. Westover tries to break free, tries to find the kernel of truth, tries to figure out what went wrong.  The part where no matter how bizarre and crazy and abnormal and abusive her family is, she stupidly clings to the dream that there can be a different, better, outcome.  That there still might be a happily ever after.  Hope is inexorable.

I try, I really do try, to maintain some semblance of connection, of relationship, with my mother.  If only for her sake since I know it pains her deeply when we are not connected (and because I am terrified that she will actually succeed at killing herself and I will feel guilty forever).  I try to be compassionate with her, knowing she is mentally ill.  But sometimes I just can’t.  Last month when she had Lupus I suggested she find a hobby other than diagnosing herself, interrupting her litany of symptoms and complaints.  She got angry with me.  She had her husband text me.  “She’s not making any of this up Hal.  Honest-to-God, she’s sick.  Doctors and tests don’t lie.”  “No, they don’t”, I said, “when one looks hard enough, one will find something for sure.”  He persisted in trying to convince me that she is actually medically really truly honest-to-God, no word of a lie, cross my heart and hope to die, sick.  Peppering me with texts to that effect.  My final text read, “sounds tough.  sorry to hear.  sending healing vibes.” and included the blowing-a-kiss emoji.

One may ask why I even care.  What do I care if she has shingles or leprosy or hepatitis or the common-fucking-cold?  I know this routine all too well.  I know that this is but one stop on the crazy train and that the route is cyclical.  And I know the next stop.  The route rarely diverges.  All aboard.

She begins with being sick unto death, racing crazed, practically careening from doctor to doctor to doctor, acquiring an abundance of prescriptions, ointments, salves, tinctures and advice (in addition to diagnoses).  These she doles out inexpertly to herself; sometimes a handful, sometimes skipping doses, sometimes mixing and matching.  As a result of this cocktail, she takes to bed where she sleeps like the dead for days, arising feeling clear-headed(sic) enough to be angry.  It isn’t clear exactly who or what she is angry with.  Angry that no one will or can help her.  Angry at the futility of medicine to make her feel well.  She demands to feel “better”, whatever better is, and is angry and defiant that everyone lacks either the ability or the willingness to make her happy.  She is angry that both she and her life are empty.  And, she surmises, it must be someone else’s fault.  It is everyone else’s stupidity that makes her unhappy.  So she lashes out at everyone and everything she encounters: her doctors, her husband, her dogs, her children, the clerk at Target or CVS, the mailman, for not making her happy and for keeping her unhappy.  She creates drama, spewing vitriol indiscriminately.  Why should anyone else be happy if she is not?!  If she makes everyone around her feel bad enough, perhaps then she will feel better herself.  Or so I assume her reasoning goes.

Before the internet and texting and email, mother would engage in this behavior of maliciousness, stirring pots all around her and then settle in to watch her handiwork.  Having made everyone else miserable, she would then feel more perky it seemed.  Or at least distracted from her own misery.  And when and if anyone traced their unhappiness back to her, she would simply hit the gaslight button, deny, deny, deny, lie, lie, lie, until she could convince them that they, and not she, were in the wrong.  And that they, and not she, were crazy.  And that they, and not she, were the actual problem.  They completely misunderstood, misinterpreted, miscalculated her words and her motives.  She was just an innocent bystander, the real victim of it all.  And it worked well enough back then.  But now the hastily sent text, email or facebook post is easy enough to obtain.  Her own words come back to confront her.  When she cannot deny the words on screen, she pleads insanity, falls on her sword, cries hysterically, claiming to have been muddled by incorrect medication, claiming not remember or at least not to have meant whatever hurtful words she mistakenly uttered against her will and without her knowledge.  She pleads the fifth.  She spends the next days frantically issuing meaningless apologies for everything and anything she has ever done wrong.  She is wretched.  She is “not a well woman”, she claims.  In fact, she is so unwell that she is “probably even dying right at this very moment”, she whispers.  The only thing that can dispel her despair… is a diagnosis.  And so the cycle begins again.

She is exhausting and draining, the human equivalent of an emotional-meat-grinder.  I daresay just reading the above was exhausting.  A nod.  I know.  I shudder to contemplate the cumulative effect her unchecked mental illness has had on me.  Parts of my emotional landscape are so eviscerated, so blighted, that nothing will ever grow there.  Parts of me are too fragile even for the soft touch of attention.  I spend an inordinate amount of time checking and rechecking myself, my actions, my motives, my reality.  Like Westover, after years of telling my own truth, oftentimes in the face of baldfaced lies and denial in addition to cruel insults and threats, there is now a gossamer thread of reality, holding out the elusive hope of wholeness, that has the potential to weave together a coherence, an integrity.  A wholeness whose scarred and broken tapestry holds out the prospect that perhaps maybe I did not do anything wrong to have deserved this.  And that maybe yet I deserved and deserve better.  Hope is inexorable.

A short story:  I remember listening (on cassette tape) to a Ram Dass lecture.  In it he was detailing his homecoming from India the first time after he had met Maharaj Ji (Neem Karoli Baba).  Ram Dass recalled the conversation with his railroad tycoon father, who was wearing a crisp three-piece suit and fedora, standing over Ram Dass who was sitting rapturously on the floor wearing only a sheet, and his father saying, “Richard! Come down to reality!”  And Ram Dass looking up at his father and saying, “Yeah dad, but whose reality?”

 

 

Posted in family of origin | 2 Comments

CYOA

I have been asked, second or third hand mostly but, more and more lately, what pronouns I prefer.  Part of me is fascinated at this growing trend regardless of its personal application.   Unrelated to me, I am aware that in the world in general,  pronouns and the inclusion of “they” (related in a New York Times article that the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced “they” as word of the year) as a singular pronoun reference is more widely considered, known and used.  Related to me, I am wondering if external changes in me are more observable than I acknowledge or am aware of.  I’ve said repeatedly here and other places that the internal changes in me are big but the external changes seem insignificant, infinitesimal.    I look in the mirror daily and see plain old me staring back.  But maybe there are changes and they are more perceptible than I know.  At one dinner party with friends over the winter holidays I was asked 3 times (not directly) what pronoun I wanted used.  Asked three times, in the span of under 3 hours, must be some kind of record.  And the answer is?

In addition to my sentiments of curiosity, I have other feelings that crop up when I’m asked about my pronoun preferences.  Depending on the day, my mood, patience or shame level, I hem, haw, splutter and dodge.  For the most part I avoid engaging in this discussion altogether.

The cynical part of me feels like it’s a setup.  Sure, I’ll play along.  I choose what pronoun I prefer and set that parameter.  Then I have to experience people messing up, forgetting, stumbling and using another pronoun repeatedly.  I’m forced to endure awkward apologies and the discomfort of others which I have seemingly caused by my request.  Sounds like fun.

The shame-filled side of me is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, shame-filled.  By any pronoun to tell the truth.  She has always felt yucky to me.  Always.  It has never felt right.  Now it feels just plain antagonistic.  He has never been mine to have/use, so that feels wrong as well.  I feel fraudulent and dishonest.  Like a sneaky child who might, at any moment, get caught out and exposed.  And they feels so millennial I just can’t even.  I’ve been in conversation with other trans-guys my age who say the same thing.  There is some form of embarrassment in each of the choices.  Nothing feels right, like it fits, like it belongs to me.

The irritated part of me wonders why I have to be the one to decide anyway?!  How hard can it be to simply refer to me as Hali and cut out the pronouns altogether?!  But I know it is not nearly so simple.  I recently edited my brief bio for work and removed all the pronouns and it was a tedious and persnickety project.  It was hard to make it flow smoothly and not sound like a it was written by 12 different people playing mad-libs on several different pages in languages they do not speak.

When I play hockey, and I am standing in net, I often talk to myself.  Don’t judge.  I do this to keep myself focused and my nerves at bay.  I have to say, I keep up a patter of commentary worthy of many a sports commentator.  Sometimes I talk directly to myself; coaching suggestions, feedback, reminders and the like – “come on dude, focus!” or “keep on your edges sister”.  Other times I will do a color commentary of the game being played in front of me.  When commenting on a play coming toward me I will refer to myself in the third person, as just another player on the ice.  “The goalie is in position.  He/She at the front of His/Her crease.”  I play with the pronoun options just to get a feel for each.  No matter which pronoun I use it feels incorrectly applied, weird and silly.  The person I am speaking about is not me.

The sociological dorky, lazy, conflict-avoidant side of me wants to just say, “CYOA” – Choose Your Own Adventure.  Let the speaker choose what pronoun I am gendered with based on their experience of me in that specific moment.  I think, given the work I do and the people I interact with most, I may be able to fathom this slightly more easily than the average person.  Most of my day is spent engaging with people with some level of dementia.  I have had patients gender me he, she and they all in the course of one interchange without so much as batting an eye.  One of the patients a few years ago, talking about a poorly dressed cis-male physician said, “He looks like a rumpled bed!  But you!  Look at you!  You’re a man who knows how to dress.  And you’re a mother and I bet you would never let one of your children out of the house dressed like that.”  People with dementia are not more limited, they are less constrained.

But back to the point… All sarcasm and humor aside, there are other reasons I like the CYOA answer.  One, it takes the onus off both me and the other person with whom I am speaking and lets us simply talk without any weird pressure.  Two, quite frankly, I’m more interested in having a conversation.  The awkward hesitation, pause, focus on my pronoun interrupts the flow of the conversation in a way that is unnecessary and irritating.  I’d rather focus on the topic of conversation than on my pronouns.  Third, If someone uses a pronoun to identify me that doesn’t sound or feel right to them they can simply use another one the next time they are referring to me.  That seems so simple and beautiful.  Not to mention creative.  And it isn’t like there is any single answer that is comfortable for me.

This dilemma seems to be coming up more and more lately.  A combination of social awareness and the changes in me.  I’ve been wondering if people are feeling less comfortable with “she”, which is one of the things making this a dilemma.  So of course it makes sense that I can say, “choose your own adventure” more authentically because more people are on the same page as I am – not entirely sure, not comfortable with either.

So, is it cowardly or a copout to keep avoiding making a decision for myself?  A good friend really pushed me.  Asked me over and over again to really think about it and go deep inside and push away the shame.  If I’m totally truthful, I suppose I prefer he.  “I could get used to he I think”, is how I phrased my response.  But I quickly followed up with a disclaimer.  Except that I don’t want to have to explain myself to anyone listening who might question it because my shame and anxiety would be off the Richter scale every time.  I also don’t want to be the one to set the rule.  She challenged me about letting others set parameters for me, letting others “control” me, define me and make decisions for me.  I hadn’t thought of the pronoun dilemma in quite that way.  That’s something I’m going to have to sit with and contemplate for a while.

For now I’ll just let people choose their (and apparently my) own adventure.

 

Posted in no man's land | 2 Comments

easy to forget – girl erased

I knew it might happen at some point.  I just didn’t know when.  And what, exactly, I expected, I’m not sure.  But this wasn’t it.  I’ve been at my job, the same job, for 22 years, working in a relatively small community.  I work with the frail elderly and their families.  And having been there so long, I knew the day would come when I would start seeing the children of former patients find their way into my care.  It’s happened a few times in the last few years.  Faces from the past, on slightly different bodies, ambling down the hall in the echoes of familiar step.  So far those few meetings have been homecomings of a sort.  Whispers of the past making their way into new stories.  And no one is at all surprised that I’ve kept their mother’s photo on my bulletin board of beloveds all these years.

So this time the surprise wasn’t in seeing her.  Only the barest traces of her mother, but still I recognized her.  Remembering Esta’s name was easy.  Her daughter’s name, not surprising, nowhere in the recesses of my mind.  It was actually in the context of my second job, helping a colleague with an activity, so I wasn’t leading a religious service or otherwise in my exact work role.  But we were in the building where my full-time job is, where Esta lived the last years of her life.  I approached her daughter and said, “I remember your mom.  She was here.”  She turned, face alight, expectantly, “Yes! Yes she was.”  Her smile faded as she squinted to look at me and I watched her own mind draw a blank.  She asked, “You knew her?”  I said, “Oh yes, who could forget Esta?!  She was quite a dancer.  And her smile was radiant.  She was stunning that woman.”  Her daughter’s face softened, a faraway look in her eyes as she, too, recalled the elegant, regal woman who was her mother.  “But how did YOU know her?” she asked, back from her daydream.  “I’m the chaplain.”  I think I even may have said my name.  Try as she might though, she couldn’t place me, couldn’t  remember.  “There used to be a woman here.” she said.  “I remember her.”  I was happy to see the hint of a smile light her face.  “But I’m sorry,” she said shaking her head and looking at me,  “I don’t remember you.”

There was a story my grandmother used to tell, about my mother when she was a teenager.  My mother begged and begged and begged for the 45 single of the 1950’s classic,  “Am I That Easy To Forget”  My grandmother, ever eager to please her demanding daughter, went to the record store repeating the name of the song over and over so she wouldn’t forget it.  A salesman in the store tapped her on the shoulder and asked if he could help her.  She turned to face him and rather abruptly blurted out, “Am I that easy to forget!”  To which the baffled man said, “I’m sorry ma’am, do I know you?”

cleo remembers me

Posted in blessings, feelings, no man's land | 5 Comments

feeling good in the neighborhood

We had an impromptu family dinner out the other night, which was kind of fun.  While we eat dinner together as a family every night, we rarely go out to restaurants.  Partly because of money, and partly because of instilling certain values in our children and partly because we have a 3 year old with whom dinner at a restaurant is particularly unpleasant.  But the summer was coming to a close and we realized that it would be Joita’s last family dinner at home before heading back to college and, well, we decided to spontaneously splurge.

We went to our favorite local restaurant; a family-friendly authentic Irish pub close to home.  It’s a sweet place with amazing food and decent prices.  Not that I feel overly comfortable there to be honest.  I mean, we all know that I don’t feel particularly comfortable out in public anywhere.  But this is a place frequented by blue-collar workers stopping for a quick drink before heading home after a long day at work (at least at the time we tend to have dinner – remember, 3 year old), so it is more understandable that I feel less comfortable there.  And, not to sound paranoid, but I feel as though I can hear the eye-rolling and sneers when I walk through the bar area to the restaurant.

At any rate, as I said, we don’t go out much and the last time we were at this dining establishment was before their big renovation a year or so ago.  As we walked from home we wondered together about what might be different.  We tried to guess whether they had changed the layout of the dining area and if they had made anything handicap accessible (while Joita can do stairs, the 3 or 4 steps to get in prevented any wheelchair user from eating there and we were aware of that).

When we got to the pub we noticed right away the new signage and the new handicap entrance (even though we went in the front door with the stairs).  The bar, still dimly lit and crowded, didn’t look much different.  The dining area was expanded with better lighting and new posters (mostly for Guinness and Jameson).  They had also gotten new tables and chairs – though still rustic and rather dark.  We took a booth near the kitchen, animatedly discussing the differences in the place, as well as the differences in each of us.  Joita is going into her sophomore year of college.  Nina heading into tweendom.  And Ruby nearly potty trained.

As always, the waitstaff was pleasant and the food was fantastic.  We laughed and shared stories and jokes.  The picture of the perfect family.  As the meals were consumed, Ruby announced she needed to use the potty.  Emily, who’d been parenting her all day already, looked to me with a beleaguered expression and said, “Can you take her?”  My brief hesitation of irritation overtaken by understanding the exhaustion of spending an entire day with a 3 year old.  I get it.  I really do.  3 year old energy is particularly draining.  I know they say “the terrible twos”, but I say fuck that!  Parenting a 3 year old feels a little like being held hostage by a tiny torturer on LSD.  Still, I was irritated.  Even for a moment.  Public bathrooms are so hard for me.  And the place was packed.  I wish Emily would get it even a little, what it’s like to have to use a public bathroom as a trans person.  I tossed my napkin onto the table in defeat.

As I pushed out my chair I internally prepared myself for the awkwardness of people watching me enter the women’s bathroom and absorbing their curious judgments.  There is always a twinge of fear that someone is going to stop me.  Or worse.

So Ruby and I, hand in hand, made our way through the crowded maze of tables.  As we turned the corner into the dimly lit hallway that held the restrooms, I saw that it, too, had been renovated.  Instead of separate “men’s” and “women’s” bathrooms, there was now two “all gender” bathrooms!  The old bathrooms were small and each had a few tiny cubicle-like stalls and a single sink.  The new bathrooms were spacious and lovely and private.  It was not only such a relief as a trans person, but it made dealing with a small child so much easier as there was much more space to move around and be able to help.  I practically skipped back to the table unable to stop smiling.

Ruby didn’t make it much longer at the table.  In fact, she couldn’t even wait for the waitress to bring the check.  So I offered to get a head start walking home with her.  We made our way back through the restaurant through the bar and though there was a line literally out the door, I stopped at the hostess area and asked if I could speak with a manager briefly.

The manager made her way over to me looking nearly as beleaguered as Emily had and asked how she could help me, clearly prepping herself for complaint. “It may not matter to 99% of your customers” I said, “but the fact that you have gender neutral bathrooms means so very much to me.  I just wanted to say thank you.”  Before I finished, her eyes filled with tears and she pulled me into a fierce hug.  She whispered, “I’m so glad.  You made my day.  You are always welcome here.  Thank you.”  I thanked her again and we left.

 

Posted in blessings, feelings, no man's land | 2 Comments

yet another “out of the mouths…”

Every so often a conversation, or even a snippet of a conversation, poignantly strikes so on the money that I have to pause, reflect and write it down.  And very often even laugh.

So as anyone who knows me knows, I play a recrementitious amount of hockey, a sport I am clearly obsessed with.  I mostly play on men’s or open men’s (meaning they are coed in theory but only men play in reality) leagues.  I’ve written plenty about my experiences in the locker rooms and sometimes even on the ice.  Generally I’m treated like “a great gal” by the guys playing.  Though most probably don’t give a second’s thought to my gender or personage.  We are all there for our love of hockey, the thrill of friendly competition, a good workout, and the need to be able to function at work the next day.  We’re there to play hockey, not have tea, gossip or, truth be told, make friends.  The time on the ice and in the locker-room doesn’t foster chit chat anyway.  Heck, we barely know one another’s names!  I play goal, and most people refer to and address me as “goalie” or “keeper” or simply, “keep”.  As in, “Nice game Keep”

During one of my games last week my defense got taken for a ride, coming up short and in the far zone when the other team’s forwards had a break-away.  I both love and hate breakaways.  I love the exhilaration of one on one competition, facing off against an opponent in single combat.  And I hate it because the odds favor the shooter and not the goalie in those situations.  This time I came out of my crease and faced him directly.  I didn’t back down too early and I followed him the whole way to the net.  I dropped down into a butterfly position just in time to take his shot on my leg pad and stop it.  All you really need to know in this instant is that I blocked the shot.

Loud banging on the boards from my team sitting on the bench ensued.  My defensemen skated up mere seconds after the shot.  One apologized for leaving me hanging.  The other punched my leg pad with his stick and said, “Atta girl”.  He skated in a circle around the net and punched my other leg pad with his stick and said, “Atta boy”.  And skated halfway to the blue line before skating backwards toward me.  When he was nearly close enough to bump into me he said over his shoulder, “I should have just asked. Which do you prefer?”

I.  Was.  Stunned.  At a total loss for words.  I had no idea what to say.  I was so taken aback, so unprepared, I just gaped after him as he skated away.  I found enough wherewithal to say, “thank you for asking”.  I didn’t want it to be as awkward as it was and I didn’t want him regretting having asked or beating himself up for asking and getting only a dumb stare.  I smiled.  But I don’t know if he caught it behind my helmet and cage.  He shrugged and skated off and then the game resumed.  I was a bit embarrassed, but also felt seen, or at least acknowledged.

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sounds of silence

In my house growing up we had a Steinway upright piano that held a sort of sanctified status.  It was drilled into us constantly and repeatedly that this was a musical instrument (of epic proportions) and not a toy.  If we were to even consider approaching it, we were to do so with the reverence one might use when approaching a saintly figure.  We were not to twinkle on it willy-nilly.  We must be engaged in actual lessons and therefore be utilizing it for practice.  Hands were to be clean and no drinks or foods were to be brought within an approximately 5 foot radius.  And placing a drink upon it was a crime so heinous the thought would never have entered our minds.  In its Buddha-like state of Grace, it remained throughout my childhood as I off and on took lessons or otherwise practiced and honed my natural lack of talent.  And it is with a similar obsequiousness that I treat my own piano in my adult home.  I have children and I don’t necessarily want them to be afraid of music or instruments in the same way I was.  But it is indeed a slippery slope.  We have a 9 year old who has begrudgingly taken piano lessons for several years, who sometimes (even fairly often I might say) throws tantrums over forced practice, sometimes resorting to banging harshly on my deified 88.  We have a 3 year old who likes the tintinnabulation of running her hands over the keys as she runs along the keyboard.  Lighthearted but heavy-handed.  One or two of the sharps or flats have succumbed to those youthful endeavors.   I am both proud of the music my children have teased from the keys and horrified at the abuse I have allowed my cherished instrument to bear.  That shame and guilt have prevented me from calling the piano tuner.  And the longer I go without calling, the more the shame and guilt increase and the less likely I am to call.  And the more disrepair my piano falls into.  And so the cycle goes.

It is more than just the power of inertia.  And I hope that by speaking its name, I might dispel some of the shame.  So it is with writing here I think.  Maybe I can kill two proverbial birds with one blog post.

I’ve been thinking about writing a lot lately, but it seems every time I sit down at the computer my mind goes suddenly blank.  Summer is at the halfway point and I have to say I’m appreciating the noticeable albeit still slight reduction in angst over my body and clothing.  Sometimes I still look in the mirror or merely catch a glimpse of my reflection as I pass a pane of glass and am saddened, angered, shamed by what I perceive as a caricature of myself.  But those sometimes are far less frequent than they used to be.  Either I’m not looking so closely, not noticing, or caring less.  I seem to be developing a different relationship with who I am.  A new beginning of sorts.

So life goes inexorably on.  I have clearly made a decision to adopt a *don’t ask don’t tell* approach to my gender and hormonal changes.  No big disclosures or announcements of preferred pronouns as email signature.  No meetings with the human resources department at work, registry of motor vehicles or other such legal documentation of difference.  Basically no one is asking and I’m not telling.  And so it is I don’t even know if anyone notes any changes or differences in me.

Then I had plans to go out of town for a few days and needed someone to watch Cleo.  A doc at work with whom I have been friendly, who has a doggie relative of Cleo’s, offered to take her for the weekend.  I packed up Cleo’s overnight bag and brought her to work with me to drop her off.  I hadn’t seen this person in several months and, in keeping with my don’t ask don’t tell policy have obviously said nothing to her.  I brought Cleo to her office and started to thank her when she jumped up from her seat at her desk with almost theatrical exaggeration and said, “Oh my gosh, are you sick?! What’s wrong with your voice?!”  I stammered a string of syllables and she said with more than a hint of preposterous comedy, “You sound like a MAN!  Are you somehow becoming a man?!”  And then she laughed and laughed as if the thought was so fantastic she’d invented a whole new genre of humor.  I momentarily stopped stammering in my discomfort at being the butt of a joke I was not prepared for and stood silently, face burning.  I couldn’t even muster a companionable grin.  I may have, with a mumbled negative syllable, denied becoming a man.  I’m fairly certain she didn’t even notice her gaff, never mind my awkward lack of response.  Her knee-slapping laughter slowed and she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand as she turned her attention to Cleo.  And with that, the awkward and uncomfortable (for me) encounter was over.  Perhaps people do notice the changes.  I  hope not everyone finds them quite so hilariously farcical.  I know I don’t.

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code rainbow

Well, it happened again.  My otherness was showing.  Or, I got caught with my otherness out.  Or something like that.  I confess I haven’t seen “The Green Book” (I haven’t seen any movie since God was a child) though in complete honesty I did see the first 10 minutes of the movie (Emily and I had a date night and got a sitter.  Literally 10 minutes into the movie both our phones started blowing up.  The babysitter letting us know that Ruby was throwing up.  That ended that)  So while I know the premise of the movie, I don’t know details.  And apparently, according to those I’ve chatted with recently, the premise of the movie is similar to what I’m proposing here.  And my very sketchy understanding of the movie is that the proposition in the movie was met with mixed reviews at best.

But I should back up and catch you all up.  Otherwise you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.  I was in a rural town in Vermont recently for a few days.  The phone reception was quite spotty and my phone battery was depleting rapidly because it was constantly searching for network access (or so I, in my extremely limited understanding of anything technical, assume).  One early evening I was heading somewhere and noticed my battery percentage was under 10%.  I needed my GPS for directions as I had no idea how to get where I was going (never mind where I was).  So I pulled over on the side of the road, turned the ignition to auxiliary (do they even call it that anymore) and sat in my car to let my phone charge.  Anyone with half a brain knows at this point that of course I drained the car battery.   After about a half hour I noticed that the lights on the dashboard were no longer lit and the phone was no longer charging.  So, even though the phone battery had only gotten to 17%, I had to call AAA.

And, don’t get me wrong, while I’m grateful on all sorts of levels that I have AAA in addition to the privileges that allow me to have AAA, there is a huge amount of shame that comes from, well, that comes from being me (presenting as I present in the world) and having to put myself out there and ask strangers for help.  I can full stop there.  But the combination of my presentation in conjunction with who (in general) tow-truck drivers are increase my shame exponentially.  Actually, it is a fear and shame combo platter.  And while this may be a gross generalization (about tow-truck drivers), and while many would say to me, “oh don’t be silly”, it has ever been my experience to be judged and deemed offensive, defective, wrong, yucky, whatever in these situations.

The AAA answering service was polite and efficient.  They would send someone my way as soon as possible.  The woman told me to please keep my phone on and near me.  She also asked if I was in a safe place and if I felt I was in any danger.  My anticipatory shame over the truck driver’s potential reaction to me on top of my dwindling phone battery got me off the phone with alacrity.  I sat in my car fighting off waves of panic and anxiety.

My phone, at 12% battery, rang with an unknown Vermont number after about 45 minutes.  The driver was on his way.  He was extremely sweet and solicitous on the phone, promising to find me (because I honestly had no idea where I was) and joking about how well he knew the back roads of the area and his ability to find a needle in a proverbial haystack.  He described his flatbed truck and asked for details of what kind of car I was in and what I saw around me.  He was a calming presence; kind and attentive.

Until he got to me 20 minutes later.  He pulled up behind me and as we each got out of our vehicles, I swear I saw his face harden right before my eyes.  A burly bearded man in plaid, he asked me to pop the trunk without a single word of greeting.  He walked around my open front door in what felt like an exaggerated effort to stay clear of me.  Writing this, even weeks later, safe in my house, my stomach is doing flip-flops just remembering.

With his head under my hood, I tried to make small talk.  Which he either ignored or didn’t hear.  As he passed by me on his way back to his truck he again seemed to create a wide berth between us.  He couldn’t actually ignore me as he walked by with the jumper cables, though he did avoid eye contact, as he said with strained neutrality, “You drained the battery.  These cars have such small batteries all it takes is 10 minutes or so.  Next time have the car running.”  I responded, intentionally engagingly, that I was, “just trying to save the planet” or something like that.  To no response.

With my car running again, he closed up the hood,  wiped his hands and stashed the cables in his cab.  As he got into his vehicle he said, “you should drive around for a little while before turning it off again to give the battery time to recharge.”  And with that, he drove off.

I sat in my car, fairly close to tears, shaking a bit with anger, shame, fear, I’m not even sure which.  The mirror held out to me by such people hurts.  Over and over again.  And clearly stays with me long after the actual encounter.  Maybe I’m more susceptible and sensitive to the pain and shame of seeing myself through the eyes of less-accepting others because I don’t recall having the foundational experience that most people have of seeing themselves through the eyes of a deeply loving mother.  The way I look at my children I know was never the way my mother looked at me.  At best I was the thing that took her own mother’s attention away from her.  At worst I was the most ungrateful, uncontrollable, infuriating extension of herself(sic).  That lack of fundamental formation doesn’t seem to allow me to fight off or even withstand the enmity of others.  Or maybe it’s not all my mother’s fault and I’m just a thin-skinned wimp.

I did some deep breathing into the experience and put myself back together.  Perhaps he wasn’t racing away from me at all, but racing home to his family and dinner.  Whatever the case, I calmed myself and drove around a bit as he’d suggested.  I started thinking about my initial call to AAA and wondering whether there was a way to circumvent such experiences.  I mean, not like having the AAA answering service ask, “Are you in a safe place? Are you in any danger? Are you in any way offensive to others?”  I would have waited another half hour (at least) if I could have requested someone kind, open-minded, welcoming.  Perhaps when requesting AAA assistance one could flag themselves by saying, “Code Rainbow”.  Or something equally fun, engaging, fantastic and gay.  I know those in opposition to this idea (like the green book) would say that everyone should be welcoming and kind etc.  Of course I agree with that.  But the reality on the ground is not quite so nirvanaic (yes, I just made up that word. Don’t bother to look it up).  I’d rather give the haters a pass than have to suffer their displeasure.  If you don’t want to deal with us, perhaps we shouldn’t have to deal with you.  Send someone else.

 

 

Posted in everyday stuff, feelings, no man's land | 1 Comment

windows and billboards

Last week at work a guy I hardly know motioned me over and asked, “Can I ask you a question?”  Being at work, I assumed it would be some basic question about Judaism.  Though to be sure, every so often at work I get asked a deeper more obscure question about Judaism, often under the backdrop of “why is God doing this (parenthetically, to me)?”  So I wasn’t glib in accepting his request.  He leaned toward me conspiratorially across the serving counter in the cafeteria (which happened to have been teeming with people at the time) and said, “Are you transitioning?”

I did not see that coming.

While I think about being transgender much of the time and while being transgender is the lens through which I experience the world around me and while I write about being transgender – the very reason I began this blog, and while I am always at least vaguely aware of being transgender in my waking hours, rarely do I actually engage in conversation about it with others.  I never bring up the topic myself.  And even when close friends broach the subject, my instantaneous reaction is to fill with deep-seated shame and  quickly change the subject.  There is only one exception and that is my friend J (more on that another time perhaps).  Never do I even remotely consider engaging in a conversation about being transgender with others, especially someone I scarcely know.

 

Interestingly enough though, I can more easily imagine myself talking with a total stranger rather than someone I have even minimal connection with about being transgender.  If I had to.   I get irritated by some of the people who sign up to be *experts* or even *spokespeople* for or about *other-ness*, who are not *other* themselves.  Even though I won’t put myself – as an *other* – out there to do so.  I roll my eyes loudly at work where the people on the LGBTQ task-force (yes I know we are lucky to have one) are not L, G, B, T or Q themselves (never mind the fact that most of them have zero knowledge or understanding of LGBTQ issues and are woefully misinformed).  Still, I’m not volunteering to be on the committee myself.  I should have no right to complain.

And it isn’t exactly that I’m complaining.  Merely musing.  I’ve been thinking about it more lately because while I’m pretty comfortable not being a window of opportunity for learning or any other such gay guide or dysphoria docent, I have recently come into contact with the stories of two different transgender teens and their families where it is readily apparent that they might actually want guidance, support, or even just friendship from someone like me.  And while on the one hand I am very much aware of that, on the other hand I feel as though I’m hardly a paradigm of permutation.  I’m a progression without a plan.  What possible help could I be to them?!  I don’t have any wisdom or advice or even a string of witty words worthy of a poignant tweet.  I know several people who eagerly share their opinions and advice readily on any topic, regardless of the fact that they actually have not a shred of knowledge about that topic.  I simply am not one of those people.  Though I do marvel at their audacity.

window of opportunity

I was asked outright by the mutual acquaintance of both me and the family of one teen attempting to navigate the gender journey, if I might reach out to the family.  First of all, this mutual acquaintance is not someone I have ever discussed being transgender with.  She actually has no idea who I am or how I identify.  I believe, from what little she said, that she thinks of me as sort of *gender neutral* or simply *androgynous*.  And what little she told me about the teen in question, it sounds like they are considering hormones (though based on what she thinks she knows of me, she could be completely wrong about this teenager as well).  This “friend” was worried because according to her “hormones are just terrible” and “come at such a high price and with so many risks”(sic).  Since, in addition to all of this serious misinformation, the family and the teen in question have not reached out in any way to me, I have less than no desire to get involved.  Part of me does feel badly because I know, because I’ve heard from more than just this one person, that this family is struggling as their teen attempts to traverse this gender odyssey.  And while I wish I could ease their suffering in even some small way, I feel quite sure it isn’t actually me they need.  It is neither my place nor my expertise and I fear I could do more harm than good if I were to get involved.

Also recently, a friend of Emily’s invited us to their home for Shabbat dinner.  As Emily was reminding me of who this friend was, she also told me about her friend’s family and who was likely to be present, as well as general things going on in the family (in order to help me to be able to make polite conversation).  She mentioned that one of their children had been struggling – in school, at home, etc – and that this teen had recently come out as trans.  She wasn’t sure how the kid would be presenting when we got there and didn’t know many more details than that.  What I remembered of this kid from our last dinner with them was a tall, quietly awkward, girl with long luxurious wavy hair (the kind most people envy).  When we got to the house we were greeted by an exuberant family and their bouncy dog.  The parents were happy to see us and welcomed us with hugs while what appeared to be 3 rambunctious boys tousled and shoved one another playfully.  The boys took our girls (just Nina and Ruby) into the play room and we were left in the kitchen with the mom and dad.  I wanted to say, “wow, your family seems so happy!”  But that was too fraught for too many reasons.  I knew they were struggling.  And just because in this moment of Shabbat peace they were content, I knew better than to take that snapshot as ongoing fact.  The brief silence between us was heavy.  I ticked through potential ice-breaking topics in my head.  I wished I’d asked Emily what, if anything, she had told her friend about me.  I ended up saying something like, “So what pronoun does X prefer?”  There seemed to be the hint of a sigh of relief.  Or maybe I just want that to have been so.  The dad said, “He prefers he, but…” and the mom interrupted, “They. I guess we prefer they.”  And the dad concluded, “We’re messing it up most of the time.  But we’re trying.”  “That’s all you can do” I said, “It’s a process.”  At that point Ruby came skittling back into the room.  There were too many loud boys in there for her and anyway, she wanted to play with the dog.  Her presence fractured the moment and the topic changed.  We weren’t able to get back there.  Everyone gathered around the table for blessings and dinner and singing.  The meal was delicious and easy.  I noted, with a bit of envy, how easily they hosted.  Everything was ready, timed to perfection, still hot, plentiful and delicious.  They had this Shabbat dinner thing down.  Conversation flowed freely between topics of the hottest new toddler song – baby shark – to world events, to homework assignments, peppered with laughter, some good-natured teasing and plenty of good cheer.  The silent agreement to diligently pretend not to notice the gender mishaps was adhered to by everyone.  Through intermittent clenched jaws and weary postures their family members stuttered through, “Sh-HE” and corrected themselves over and over.  The teen in question maintained an appearance of ebullience throughout.  It was fascinating to me and I found it hard not to mention the elephant in the room.  This once reserved almost sullen girl with the flowing hair who barely uttered a word before, was now a jubilant expressive boy with short spiky hair that was partially dyed blue.  And I wanted to acknowledge him, greet him, welcome him, revel in him, celebrate him.  But we were all busy pretending there was nothing to notice, that nothing had changed.

I noted with no small amount of irony that this is exactly what I seem to be doing in my own life.  While I write some of my thoughts and feelings and musings here, that is the extent of my sharing with others about being transgender.  On this topic, I am not engaging or interacting with anyone, even those closest to me, about any of the changes I’m feeling, experiencing or seeing.  Though I now may understand those who are interested in, even eager to perhaps, acknowledge, greet, welcome and celebrate the changes in me that they are witnessing.  Something to think about I suppose.

 

 

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