Where Have You Been?

Posted February 26, 2008 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

Let’s see..

What Becomes You is newly out in paperback, with a reader’s guide, in print until the fall of civilization from Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press. And yes, you can afford it! So can your students! Woo hoo!

So, I’ve been on tour. The book now has a one-man show to go with it, and an interactive public exhibit called Family. So…where have I been?

Hang on to your hats. Lincoln, Nebraska, Portland, Oregon, New York City, Washington D.C., and now Tampa, Florida, where the first sight that struck my eyes as I blearily opened the door of my hotel room was a giant pink plastic pirate ship. Lest you think I jest…

view from my hotel room

Tampa resembles Los Angeles in its point of view, meaning that what you see is entirely a function of where you’re standing. Standing in the courtyard of the hotel, I see gulf fritillaries glide over scarlet flowers, flashing silver-spotted wings in the sunshine. The pool gleams turquoise in a setting of chocolate-and-lapis Moorish filagree. As I stretch out my borrowed chaise-lounge, sunlight gently grazes my bare toes, while my computer screen is shaded by the helpful leaves of banana trees. Fountains cascade delicately over streams of lava rock (on the children’s side, cleverly hidden from my view, the water sheets from a gigantic plastic Amanita mushroom, its white-spotted red cap faded to the same delicate pink as the pirate ship). The only discordant notes in this 1940’s paradise are the persistent strains of pseudo-Jimmy Buffet drifting from the gazebo.

A monarch butterfly–which has probably flown five hundred miles to get here–arrives, drifting slowly across the scene like an exhausted New York City garment worker. It circles–the chaise lounge, the pool, my feet, the sun umbrella. After a long moment, it settles into a bed of sun-colored lantana, drinking deeply.

The gazebo is playing “Saint Thomas Way.”

Outside, and endless stream of cars screech across crosswalks designed for bodies much larger than mine–polycarbonate, fiberglass, plastic, aluminum-steel bodies. They smoke invisibly, heat rising in violent shimmers across the acres of asphalt that divide me from the road, divide the road from the strip-mall, each strip-mall chain store from the next. Auto parts, fried chicken, bar, housewares, tires, bar-restaurante, auto repair, bar and grille, groceries, bar and b-q, gasoline, mojito bar, auto parts, bar. Everything outside the hotel except the doors is designed for people twelve feet long and six feet wide. They walk at forty miles an hour. Made of flesh and moving rather more slowly, it takes me twenty minutes to reach the shops across the street. Hidden in their shadow I discover a Vietnamese family cooking behind a plastic mini-mall marquee.

I eat broken rice.

Good Vietnamese cooks understand how to create, apparently from nothing, a delicate and pungent sauce which turns this into comfort food. The American shop next door offers package liquor.

I’ve come to Tampa at the invitation of a group of small South Florida colleges and universities. Since I’ve been burned before at Ivy League universities by crowds of distinguished academics with torches, and the rubric is Women’s and Gender Studies, I am wary.

Instead, for a few blissful hours, I am fed possibly Southern comfort food (a variety of tasty, nourishing, and entirely unrelated things all called “salad”) and large quantities of chocolate (Food Good!). I am welcomed by the most extraordinary diverse group of people I’ve ever seen (except perhaps in a homeless shelter). A smiling and fiercely efficient woman swaps old zoo employee stories and plies me with ice water and fresh coffee (Drink Good!)

An economist and a professor of Film Studies talk about the importance of revealing your point of view. Later, I get into a conversation about crossing cultural barriers with two attendees, Ugandan and Moroccan. People talk with me about science writing, memoir, feminism, manhood, womanhood, aging, teaching, communication, and representation–men, women, and people whose gender I do not know, gay men, lesbians, straight women, and people whose sexual orientations I do not know, African-Americans, Africans, Europeans, Euro-Americans, Caribbean-Americans, Latin-Americans, and with people whose races and national identities I do not know. I spend time in rooms in which I am not the only out gay man, the only man, or the only transperson, in rooms where I am neither the youngest nor the oldest person to talk about age and generation, the most nor the least “white” person to talk about color and race. I detect no torches. No one argues over whose oppression wins the high score, who has a right to exist, or whether my existence is a bad thing. (Friend Good!)

The teachers come from many of the arts and social sciences; they work hard to offer their students chances to experience being in authority and what it’s like to be both respected and challenged. People are curious, respectful, questioning, fierce, and kind.

As I read and speak, the astonishing thing happens: in faces of every age, sex, color, shape, and size, I recognize tiny, half-involuntary gestures–nods, eyes flickering closed or wide open–of recognition. As I listen to others both before and afterward, I feel it happening to me.

Hello, hello, hello, hello, hello.

Everyone at this tiny conference comes from schools with minor reputations and limited budgets. My faith in higher education is restored, and once again I conclude that most of what we are told about the world has been run through a reversing mirror before it gets to us.

Simple Gifts

Posted November 15, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

I head for Pullman, Washington in a rented car, a drive that many of those who live in the jungle cities of my adopted rain forest home assured me is both desolate and dangerous. They turn out to be wrong, but I may be biased. I’m from Nebraska, and find there is nothing like a hundred-mile horizion to put things in perspective.

What I would like to put into perspective is my experience of left-wing social scholars, most recently at the New England American Studies Association conference at Brown University. All I can say right now is that it is precisely the same as my experience of right-wing social scholars. Both sides seem remarkably in agreement about whose bodies are a problem and need to be removed. Apparently engineering the actual removal of the offending bodies and their owners is the business of the servant classes.

This is not what I had hoped for, but perhaps it is only sour grapes because mine is so high on the list of offending bodies that will be gotten rid of when scholars rule the world. A world ruled by scholars is a very funny idea, as long as you’re not the citizen of a Latin American country with ties to the University of Chicago, or a social service client. I’m sure my sense of humor will return shortly.

The desert is beautiful. It begins just beyond Hood River, at a place called Celio. It’s a name that remains of a thing which is gone, the place where Interstate 84 now takes a joyful turn, banking and diving like a swallow over the water. This outburst of high spirits in an otherwise dour and efficient freeway system makes me wonder: are the wheels of my rented Chrysler spinning over the cities of Celio Falls?

Here where the river widens was a festival of water, tier over tier; thunders and rills of whitewater and over them tier over tier were the stretching hands of skyscrapers made of cut saplings, impossible frameworks as in a country a traveler might visit, as Italo Calvino reminds us in Invisible Cities–and over all rising the reason: the silvery bodies of leaping salmon. All of them are frozen in photographs seen in museums: men standing in crow’s nests gathering fishnets, enormous purses slung from long poles, people seemingly playing with giant’s toys; exhausted, sweating, laughing. Hundreds of house-sized racks shingled with drying salmon.

These are things I have never heard, smelled, touched, tasted. I have heard the lament sung by the thousands who gathered to witness the drowning of Celio Falls. Someone at the High Desert Museum outside of Bend, Oregon thought it worth our time. The only sound I have ever heard like it is a historical recording of an Irish lament collected from a survivor of the famine; a farewell to the white potato. These are love songs for the end of the world.

The river is wide now, mirror quiet. Above it rises the smooth concrete wall of the Dalles Dam power generation complex, whose only ornament is the image of a battlemented castle in black and white, symbol of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Pausing at the Walgreens the day before, I responded to the rumored terrors of the wilderness by buying the only item which seemed truly indespensible; a high-powered flashlight and extra batteries. I have heard that high-powered flashlights are actually a liability in wilderness emergencies. The intensity of electric illumination disrupts the human eye’s ability to adjust to darkness, leaving us able to see only within the narrow range of the electric beam; outside it, we render ourselves completely blind. I knew this, and I bought the brightest flashlight available anyway. Go figure.

Though the dash of the Chrysler features a CD player, after Celio suddenly the best of Tom Petty seems inadequate. I stop at a Salvation Army store and find a copy of Leonard Bernstein conducting Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. This soothes me as I negotiate dozens of eighteen-wheelers marked for the Wal-Mart in Umatilla; they’re on the last leg of what must be a long drive, for the drivers weave alarmingly onto the verge and bounce back again into traffic in the manner of people falling asleep at the wheel.

Last night at the Wlliams-Sonoma store where my partner and I window-shopped for holiday cheer, the look for the season was Faux Imperial: artificial leopard- and tiger skin-pillows, artificial antler candlesticks, exotic island curios featuring body parts of now-endangered species reproduced in lifelike resin, faux silver holders for faux Cuban cigars. On a large flat faux-theatre screen a tastefully whitish servant brought drinks on a tray to blonde ladies and gentlemen in 1950’s costume. All the soft parts of their bodies resembled archetecture.

News flash: I have seen the American Empire, and it looks like Bing Crosby. On closer inspection, however, we discovered most of it is made in China, and bears tiny labels warning that the contents are known to cause cancer and reproductive harm.

A friend recently invited me to the movies to watch the digitally remastered version of Blade Runner, but I declined, feeling that I’d already seen it.

Beyond Celio the wind from the gorge of the Columbia River finds room at last, across hills furred with sage like the flanks of great animals. As the land opens under a vast eggshell sky, Copeland rises–patient, careful, trumphant–into the theme of the old Shaker hymn:

‘Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

Somewhere near Umatilla, a plume of ash-colored smoke slides horizontally across the sky. In a ravine on the Umatilla Army Base, someone is burning piles of something in black plastic bags.

Nearby at the last chance rest stop, I shut off the engine and listen to the end of Simple Gifts. Afterward, wandering aimlessly, I find a lady with red hands sitting inside the shell of a broken trailer, offering free coffee and cookies from dawn until untill dark, when the older gentlemen from the Veterans of Foreign Wars will take up the task.

She hands me a cup. “Going far?”

I tell her where I ought to be and she nods. “You’ve got a long ways to go yet,” she says. “It’s cold today. Nineteen degrees at my house this morning.” She blows on her hands. It’s all right,” she tells me, smiling as she points me toward a jar full of free coffee whitener. “It just makes it hard to get going.”

Under the cloud from the Army base I pluck a single teasel. The beautiful thorny head of this introduced roadside weed was once used to card wool, someone patiently, carefully turning and turning the matted fabric in fragments through the thorns until it came clean.

A single seagull walks across the parking lot, hunched close against the cold.

The word for the day is williwaw. According to Merriam-Webster:
1: a sudden violent gust of cold land air common along mountainous coasts of high latitudes
2: a violent commotion
According to Captain Joshua Slocum: “compressed gales of wind . . . that Boreas handed down over the hills in chunks.”

Behold the Power of Travertine

Posted October 22, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

After a flight I will not attempt to describe, I see many taxis. I see long lines of people waiting for taxis. Then I see a wilderness of darkened freeway tunnels, followed by a wildnerness of light-up billboard advertisements. Actually, I sense them rather vaguely as I am propelled at fantastic speeds mixed randomly with bone-jarring full stops by a driver likely to have emigrated recently from a war zone in which human life is fantastically cheap. I tell myself that I am having an Authentic Taxi Experience, and the death rate is probably quite low. In fact, I tell myself this a number of times. Eventually I am hurled bodily from the cab by centrifugal force and have just time to pay my fare before I find myself propelled into a concert of new chamber music flawlessly performed by a string trio.

Welcome to New York.

I like New York. Okay, I don’t exactly *heart* New York, but I like the city. This comes as surprising news; my last memory of New York City comes from the days when cockroaches and other forms of life could afford to live in the East Village. My brother said, “Come, visit! You can sleep under the kitchen table.” At the time their kitchen table was also their living room table, their dining room table, their bedroom table, and their eldest daughter was sleeping in a bureau drawer, so this was a very generous offer.

I spent the fourth of July celebrating our nation’s founding with the Hell’s Angels across the street. Believe me, in those far-off days when I was young, the Hell’s Angels knew how to put on a fireworks display. Police didn’t come near us for days. As my brother said, it was probably the safest neighborhood in New York.
Quentin Crisp lived next door. My brother reported sightings of the Sanctified Queer on his neighborhood rounds with a breathless excitement now reserved for travertine countertops. Meanwhile, the national conciousness seems to have moved on to the Passion of Brittney Spears. As I said, I didn’t expect to like New York. (News Flash: Times Square now looks like Las Vegas, but with musicals.) But then I didn’t expect to like travertine countertops, either.

Which brings me to the topic of travertine. Travertine is, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster, a mineral consisting of a massive usually layered calcium carbonate formed by deposition from spring waters or especially from hot springs. If you’ve ever been to a museum, you’ve probably seen quite a bit of it. Our nation’s founders took seriously the idea that the word Museum means “the house of the Muses.” (who were all women by the way except for their pal Orpheus, who didn’t last long in that environment.) Their interpretation of this sacred mandate involved lots of NeoClassical pillars and white marble.
(Marble: a: limestone that is more or less crystallized by metamorphism, capable of taking a high polish, used especially in architecture and sculpture
b: something (as a piece of sculpture) composed of or made from marble
c: something suggesting marble (as in hardness, coldness, or smoothness) a heart of marble
2 a: the rewards to be won in competition especially for a championship —used in the phrase all the marbles
4 plural : elements of common sense; especially : sanity.
)

Actually, what most U.S. museums are made of isn’t marble. It’s travertine. Travertine tends to be irregular, less tightly structured than marble and browner in tone, which you might not notice if you didn’t have a lily-white piece handy for comparison. It also costs a lot less, which is why it holds up the walls and smooths the floors of our great museums. You’ll notice I used the word great. This is apparently a controversial idea in some quarters, though the three Secret Spies and approximately fifty thousand fourth-graders sharing the American Museum of Natural History with me on Friday seemed in total agreement. More in a moment on the Travertine Question.

Return with me now to those halcyon days of the New York City of yesteryear. I was a young Nebraskan with breasts, and therefore predictably terrified to be in the East Village. It was the best kind of terror; it opened my eyes and ears to be imprinted for life with the indelible image of my brother (whose alternative lifestyle choices can best be suggested by his position teaching electronic music to students at a small college in New Jersey) with elderly homeless chess players, the Hell’s Angels, Quentin Crisp, gay leathermen, and mothers of all colors with babies in tiny crocheted hats of all colors (99 cents right here) sold by Jamacian immigrants hawking homemade reggae albums, all finding a home in the dirty but rent-controlled streets around Saint Mark’s Place. It was like heaven, with roaches and the occasional mugging.

Since the East Village has become suitable for the heroes of a Harry Potter novel and I have not, I didn’t go back. My brother now lives in Harlem. His family, their softly glowing travertine countertops, and a multinational construction crew all cheerfully inhabit a former crackhouse on 145th Street, which allows me to take the A train (actually, the B train is much less crowded). The travertine apparently didn’t take the A train either. It arrived through a picaresque series of adventures involving a fall from grace with a midtown art dealer, a period of homelessness, a midnight truck raid, rejection by the hoi palloi of Sugar Hill as unfit for the Harlem Renaissance, and finally a welcome home through the intervention of a bohemian artist type and a little old Harlem lady who’d see it all. I think my brother’s countertops are the heroes of a Gordon Merrick novel.

At the School of Visual Arts, the room is packed. Students shift, fidget with pencils, stare at their desks, and sneak sideways looks at us out of the corner of their eyes as we read. After a few terrified moments of being a writer, my brain shifts back into visual arts mode, at which point I realize we’re talking to them and they’re drawing us back. This means they’re interested. Afterward, they ask lots of questions. A Jamacian woman talks articulately about the culture clash between her mother, who is all about language, and herself, whose mind is full of pictures of New York and who cannot find the words. One elbow of a very young man armor-plated with muscle edges slowly upward, like the eye of a snail. When Hilda smiles and calls on him he shakes his head wordlessly, no no no no no. Then he ducks over his desk and begins frantically to draw. A skinny guy in hornrims takes up the space he leaves behind, smiling. I talk about the questions that are answered by my body when I walk into a room. Finally everyone realizes that it’s okay to look at us. For a long moment we all just look at each other. The room becomes breathtakingly still. Afterward, their teacher Ginny MacKenzie tells us she may not know what LGBT means, but she knew it would be a good idea for us to come read to her students, who are artists studying writing. She’s pretty sharp.

Our second reading of the day is at a LGBT center.
Before the reading, I check out the Center, which is the size of a small midwestern town. I ask at the front desk for a good local resturant and a guy with boxer’s stance gives me a complete rundown on every diner in the neighborhood in rapid-fire Brooklyn. Afterward, my mother leans over to me and says, “Here I was, a little old lady sitting on the benches of a beautiful building, surrounded by these tough dykes and these crotchety old men who sounded just like my grandfathers. I felt totally at home.”

At the reading, I see many of the same people I saw in West Hollywood. This gives me pause. Briefly, I wonder if the gay community is actually the jet set after all, or if perhaps Llewyn Maire‘s definition of performance art may apply–something that performance artists do in front of an audience of other performance artists. The room, however, is quite different from a park in West Hollywood, and we get to sit in a pair of camel-colored leather lounge chairs across an end table with individual microphones, a setup which makes me feel as if I am the host of my own talk show. Disguised as a mild-mannered literary activist, Charles Flowers strikes again! Meanwhile, my brother arrives. He is an instant hit with the community.

On the subway home, we’re talking about the challenges of transcending identity politics when my brother fixes me with an expression of sheer bewilderment. “I know what you mean about difference,” he says. “That feeling you describe? That’s exactly how I feel every time I walk into a mall in Paramus. It’s just like suddenly, I’m Zippy the Pinhead.”

Over breakfast I read an interview with country musician Steve Earle, who explained his choice of New York over Nashville by saying, unless I can look out the window and see an interracial same-sex couple, I just don’t feel safe. That night on my way back to my brother’s house in Harlem, I pass a black man standing on his front stoop in a satisfied pose in the soft evening air, wearing a ten-gallon hat.

Meanwhile, up the street at the American Museum of Natural History (suggested donation $8.50-15.00, actual admission free), the new Halls of Biodiversity include this exhibit, surrounded on Friday by a crew of rapt young admirers with notebooks.

sexchange.jpg

Behold the power of travertine.

The well-known Mssrs. M and W tell me the Word for the Day is denegrate:
1 : to attack the reputation of: defame
2 : to deny the importance or validity of: belittle
and whose literal meaning comes from the Latin word denegrare: “to make black.”

Therefore, the Website for the Day will reveal the mysteries of ENDA, and give you the power to make the terms of our future better than those of our past. Go, thou, and do it now.

The Brilliant, Palm-littered Afternoon of the Soul

Posted October 15, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

As the plane begins its descent into Los Angeles, the child behind me begins to scream. His parents try every trick in their considerable library to quiet him. “There, Jerry, it’s almost over,” his mother soothes.
Jerry shrieks.
“Look at this nice toy.”
Jerry pauses, but only for breath.
“Your brother isn’t crying,” his father says gently.
The boy screams without ceasing, long, high-pitched wails not of fear or exhaustion but of actual anguish. Meanwhile, I take photographs of our approach.
After about twenty minutes, his mother says with intense relief, “It’s all over, Jerry. We’re here.”

Jerry continues to scream.

His parents slowly wrestle themselves, their gear, and their several young children off the plane with the patient determination of Angelinos. They carry a varied mix of shapes, features, skin tones, and accents from all over the world or just the neighborhood. As they pass my seat I catch sight of Jerry, whose eyes are wide and dark and unforgettable as a Hester Street photograph. His parents smile exhaustedly at me, as if a little frightened at something they see in my pale face, and apologize for their child.
It occurrs to me that perhaps Jerry’s mother was mistaken. Maybe it wasn’t the descent that bothered Jerry, but where it was going to end.
Welcome to Los Angeles.

In the twenty minutes Jerry was screaming, this is what Los Angeles looked like:

la

When I walked off the plane, this is what Los Angeles looked like:

lax

Which clues you in on everything you need to know about Los Angeles.

I was heartened to note, however, that at the airport the sign for baggage claim had been adorned with band stickers. Just in case a high-powered talent scout happened to need both band and baggage, the sort of thing which might happen in L.A. at any moment. You never know.

Given the natural process of wear and tear, years ago everyone I knew in Los Angeles either died or moved at least three valleys away. So naturally the moment I set foot outside the airport, someone is shouting my name. The total stranger who joyfully pumps my hand turns out to be the director of an LGBT organization that has set up an East Coast reading from the book. I do know him, as a set of thoughtful and generous lines of text in my email program.

He, on the other hand, has recognized me from my press kit.

I stand on the oily concrete floor of a rental car agency and bask in my first perfect LA moment. As a handsome man eagerly congratulates me on my artistic achievements, palm fronds and freshly washed BMWs drift in and out behind his head.

Much driving follows. As LA is a city of Catholic tastes, this might be considered penance.

I do, however, find time to visit a tar pit.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is closed for the duration of my free time. This is a disaster of epic proportions. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I purchase a Pink’s hot dog and lounge between dueling sabretooths and dying mammoths at nature’s hommage to petroleum products on Wilshire Boulevard. As the sun dies over Westwood in blazing pastels, native fauna emerges from the shrubbery; crows, vagrants at a picnic, grim-faced joggers, and gay men with tiny dogs. Though no tiny dogs sink slowly into a tar pit to be preserved as fossils for future generations, I do fulfill my lifelong dream of being accidentally left inside the building when the museum is locked for the night. Overall, the evening is highly satisfactory.

More driving follows.

At some point, I can no longer work the pedals. This is how I end up in a hostel in West Hollywood, watching Revenge of the Nerds lll at one a.m. with young German tourists and several French-speaking West Africans. Though they are all elegant and I learn quite a lot about worldwide marajuana prices, this does not improve the movie.

Somewhere South of Pico Boulevard, I hear Jerry Quigley advertising my gig on the radio. I feel famous.

Once again, I decide my wardrobe is inadequate. Since I am slated to appear at the West Hollywood Bookfair on a memoir panel entitled Who Am I? I purchase a bowling shirt that says Ed on the pocket and a strand of artificial pearls. Though we speak in the shadow of the Pacific Design Center, my ensemble seems to do.

We are outdoors in a park hemmed with star jasmine. It is extremely hot. Both my fellow panelists and my audience are extremely cool. There are reading glasses and summer dresses. Though I am the only man on the panel, everyone seems to like me very much. Perhaps it is the patient, boundless optimism of Angelinos. Perhaps it is because I inform several aspiring writers that they are not required to write anything they think is boring. I also tell them they are not required to relive their childhood agonies on paper and publish the results; they can throw the results away, now free to write about the lives they’ve lived on any terms–for instance, food and wardrobe. Perhaps it is the bowling shirt.

Back in the green room I deconstruct a turkey wrap, then drink several quarts of water and an entire can of Cragmont Grape Soda. I appear at a second event entitled Michael Kerns and Other Queer Renegades. This time my fellow performers are all gay men. There are cowboy hats and deltoids. Though I have walked approximately fifty feet, I believe I am the only person in the district making the transition from the first type of West Hollywood audience to the second. My ensemble still seems to do. I am by now so addled by the heat that Tim Miller has to remind me that while performing, it is actually a good idea to remove the microphone from the stand.

Perhaps it was the grape soda.

In spite of my failings Tim, Michael, and the rest are all wonderful. I thank them effusively if incoherently. More driving follows. But first there is air conditioning. As a result I live to see another day. In it, I do a reading at A Different Light bookstore (L.A. division). Staff members–some of whom spent their Sunday selling copies of my book in the jasmine-scented oven of the Bookfair to eager post-panel attendees from the other West Hollywood–listen attentively as I read. They ask smart and honest questions, as do those secret spies who have made it through the traffic in time to join me. Afterward, I buy a magazine from the back racks called Bare-ass Wrassling as a joke gift for my boyfriend’s birthday. The event organizer spends fifteen minutes gift-wrapping it with loving care. Thank you, Billy. I come to the conclusion that the staff of A Different Light are recruited straight from heaven.

It is not until I am on my way to see said boyfriend and am startled by the diversity of people sharing the BART train from Oakland that I realize how much I have missed this collective company. Of course, LA is the captiol-in-exile of nearly every nation and fashion on earth. So many varied and amazing lives were all right there the whole time, separated only by stucco, star jasmine, and several million panels of enameled, impact-resistant steel.

Sitting in a plastic chair beneath the fabulous neoclassic dome of the Tenderloin Shih Yu-Lang YMCA (soon to be ejecting its residents in favor of increased hotel space) I pick up a newspaper and discover the new national civic money-saving fad is privatizing public libraries.

I consider standing up, walking North across the multicolored marble balcony of that venerable public institution, and continuing until I reach Canada. But my legs are too tired from all the driving. So I kiss my boyfriend, give him a copy of Bare-Ass Wrassling lovingly wrapped by a stranger in another city, go home for a few days, and get on a plane for New York. Via Detroit. Detroit has an indoor monorail, the friendliest service staff, and possibly the worst airport food in the world.

The question of the day is: How do we know if we are doing any good?

On the flight across America, Bonnie Raitt and John Prine sing through my headphones the Thought for the Day:

Bring me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Bring me a poster from an old rodeo
Just give me one thing
That I can hold on to
To believe in this living is a hard way to go.

The word for the day is impervious, which Merriam and Webster define as:

1. Not admitting of entrance or passage through; impenetrable.
2. Not capable of being harmed or damaged.
3. Not capable of being affected.

Happy New Year

Posted September 14, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

Dateline: September 11th.
I am on an airline.
Danger, Will Robinson.

Late-breaking news flash from airline-land: The Department of Homeland Security has raised the Threat Level to Orange! Again!

No, wait, it’s been Orange for years.

My theory is that Threat Level Red means TSA personnel put guns to our heads as they search our baggage. They’re still working out the bugs in Red; the automatic rifles keep setting off those pesky detectors of terrorist weapons.

Perhaps they could use something old-fashioned and reliable instead, like homemade peach jam. The peach jam I am taking to my elderly and disabled father is apparently an illicit gel.

After many exciting adventures and two baggage searches for terrorist condiments, I am actually allowed–oh rapture!–both to mail my father his present and to board an airplane. I did remember to shave the corners of my head and trim my beard very short this morning, but I forgot to wear my red-white-and-blue t-shirt. Oh, well.

The fact that I’m travelling by air on September 11th must be some kind of sign concerning Tim Schaffert. For I brave the forest of spike-topped flags at the United counter and the video game screens that invite me to spend my layover hours bombing Baghdad (though it promises perfect lifelike action, human death on all sides seems mysteriously absent) in order to be part of the Omaha Litfest. Okay, to be with my parents over the holidays, and to be part of the Omaha Litfest.

Tim Schaffert runs the Omaha Litfest (September 14-15. Be there, Aloha.) Tim Schaffert has put me on several panels, including one called How to Develop a Cult Following.

How can you not love such a man?

Book for the Day: Tim Schaffert, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God

Film for the Day: Superman Returns. I invite viewers to look up the history of Superman’s invention and consider the racial implications of this film. Then go read anything by Tim Schaffert, which may not save the world from swarthy middle easterners, sarcastic dames, and white guys with tattoos, but which will certainly cheer you up.

Meanwhile, the Song for the Day is On the Road Again. Here’s my schedule! Come see me if I’m in your town:

September 14-15–Omaha, Nebraska- Omaha Lit Fest September 14-15

September 20-21–Bellvue, WA–reading at the Pacific NW Bookseller’s Association Conference September 20, 3-3:30pm

September 25th–Portland, OR–reading at the Kennedy School, 7:30pm

September 30/October 2–Los Angeles, CA–West Hollywood Bookfair September 30, Michael Kearns & Other Queer Renegades 2:15pm. Reading at A Different Light LA October 2, 7:30pm

October 16–New York City–reading at the School of Visual Arts 1-2pm, at the NYC LGBT Center 6:30pm 

November 1-3 Nonfiction Now conference in Iowa City–news flash…maybe Brown University, who just asked if we could come to the New England American Studies Conference instead. I am dusting off my Erlenmeyer flasks, but I’m not sure I can get a clone to adulthood by Halloween. Stay tuned for further details.

November 7–Portland, OR–forum at Marylhurst University, 7pm

November 15–Pullman, WA–reading at Washington State University.

November 26-30–Lincoln, NE–my exhibit Family will be installed in the Nebraska Union Rotunda. The opening event will be Nov. 26, 3-5pm.

And as an internet-savvy fan reminds me, I should really link you to where you can buy my book

Collaborations

Posted August 11, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

It’s national Blog Against Racism week. Following Augusto Boal’s axiom that your energy goes to whatever you focus on, I think I’ll Blog For World-Saving Adventures instead.

I am supposed to meet my cross-border transport at a suburban mall. Standing on an island of high ground in a sea of freeways, I discover a certain logic in the arrangement; a human tide of staggering diversity streams beneath the giant plastic beams of a faux-Western cookhouse and through its golden door. I am completely camouflaged and deeply moved. The direction in which I am deeply moved, however, is not toward this universal vision of equality through nostalgia for Teddy Roosevelt and Manifest Destiny. My trajectory makes me visible for about ten paces, at which point the only way to get any further away would involve hurling myself into traffic. In a small patch of grass at the margins of survival I discover two young people leaning on bedrolls, their expanded earlobes flashing in the sunshine. I recklessly inquire as to their plans for cross-border transport. They stare past me into vacancy.

I realize that though I am going to San Francisco, I have neglected to wear some flowers in my hair.

In these situations I find it helpful to keep moving.

An hour later our transport arrives. Once space is folded sufficiently to allow five people, their survival gear, and a large, elaborately packaged men’s grooming kit (a bribe for the border guards?) into a Mazda, we’re on the road. There’s no looking back; our gear blocks the view.

Over the next ten hours I discover the universal language of white America is seventies rock.

Only the young man with the extreme earspools remains silent, brightening briefly when I mention music for Theremin. Sadly, I fail to be in a band. I do, however, have a team of world-spanning transformational Secret Spies. I’m sure at least one of you has been in a band at some point.

In San Francisco secret spies shuttle me from one safe house to another.

The reading is accomplished. Stephen and the staff of A Different Light Bookstore are very nice indeed, expertly defusing a pitched battle for the last available copy of What Becomes You. A troupe of leathermen chat with neatly-coiffed lawyers from the California State Bar. Two veterans of the Mazda miraculously appear. The blacksmith with the nail polish buys a copy for himself. The accountant with the button-down casual shirt buys a copy for his girlfriend. He disappears for ten minutes somewhere between Lesbian Politics and Tom of Finland, returns, and buys a copy for himself. The Castro whirls. My work here is done.

I’ve travelled to the reading from Safe house #1, a room in the Tenderloin YMCA. Secret Spy #1 is my primary contact, a seasoned veteran of a lifetime of cross-border missions. He provides me with local orientation, support, mission analysis, massive shoulders, free offers from Mac’s Folsom Prison men’s club, and truly fabulous paparazzi. After the reading and french fries with the paparazzi, my first handoff is accomplished. Secret Spy #2 detaches momentarially from the State Bar, slips me an electronic door card, and whispers, “Next door to the Transamerica Pyramid. You can’t miss it.”

Safe house #2 is obviously some kind of headquarters. Inoffensive music-like sounds gather me in past the spa and the executive lounge, through the fiendish Security Elevator, and up to the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise hotel in the Financial District with a staggering view of the bay. I search in vain for the power crossbow which would shoot a cable made from the finest Special Effects through our picture window and directly into the Coit Tower. Though the freerunning maneuvers and capoera moves of my briefing with #1 remain theoretical and I do not get to hang suspended above major tourist landmarks during a death-defying and highly photogenic slide to safety, I nonetheless have an excellent time. We discuss plans for world domination. I shower fearlessly in bare feet. Spy #2 packs his identical suite of Secret Suits of Doom and heads for the airport, handing me off to Secret Spy #3.

Safe house #3 is a house in Alameda with a swingset in the yard. Secret Spy #3 hands me off to Secret Spies 3.almost 5 and 3.9, who expertly guide me on a tour of the nation’s naval defenses and space program. I am duly impressed by these bastions of might. They are matched only by the size of the speaker stacks, the numbers of napkins, and the glory of the gauze-and-fan flames being prepared for an Indian wedding reception which is renting the aircraft carrier for the evening. On our way out I consult with my spies, who agree that when the forces of good rule the world we will leave behind tiny cramped beds and armor-piercing torpedoes, choosing instead the large space rocket and the F4U Corsair, because it would be really cool to be able to fold your wings, change your shape, and fly anywhere.

Personally, I am dizzy with options.

Secret Spy #1 sees me off, preparing for yet another night’s work in the hero mines. The Plane to Lisbon takes me home alone. In the darkness across the turning earth, a million points of light mark secret spies preparing our future.

Question of the Day match game: Know Your Forces Of Good

Euro-American
African-American
Semitic
Cherokee

Single Room at Tenderloin YMCA
High-Rise Hotel
Ranch House in Alameda

Heterosexual
Homosexual
Bisexual
Unknown

Anthropologist
Budget Analyst
Clinical Psychologist
Sex Club Employee
Student
Parent

How do appearances affect the sorting process? (Whenever possible, do not attempt to defend your answer.) How does experience?

The Website of the Day is Prelinger Archive Mashups, where we may reimagine our childhood’s instructional films:
http://www.archive.org/details/prelinger_mashups

The Game of the Day topically draws your attention to the difference between Zero-Sum and Non-Zero-Sum games. Play the Prisoner’s Dilemma at:
http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/playground/pd.html

The Word for the Day is quisling, which Merriam-Webster curiously defines as either:
a) one who commits treason, or
b) a collaborator.

Top o’ the World, Ma!

Posted July 17, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

I arrive twenty minutes early. This time is necessary for the climb up to the Pearl Room atop Powell’s City of Books in Portland, surely the longest flight of stairs in the continental United States now that the upraised torch of the Statue of Liberty has been classified as an unacceptable security risk.

Given the number of folding chairs thoughtfully placed in the Pearl Room, my projected audience here in the stratosphere exceeds the estimate for Harry Potter at the mall. After terror, the first thing that strikes me is the extraordinary confidence placed in me by Powell’s management.

At t-minus ten minutes, I face a sea of empty chairs. Unfailingly cheerful and competent Powell’s staff (about to be stranded on a desert island? Choose Powell’s Staff!) assure me that the rather eccentric physics of the Pacific Northwest mean any appearance of the sun slows time considerably.

At t-minus five minutes, the sea is half empty…or half full, depending on your perspective. Said perspective in my case involves looking toward the audience rather than the podium, which at the moment is satisfactorially full of writer, teacher, performer, transsexual, and a nice seersucker shirt from J. Peterman.

At t-plus three minutes the hordes descend.

While the cheerful and competent Powell’s staff go for a crate of emergency back-up chairs, I disguise myself as a mild-mannered audience member. Briefly, I flirt with the idea of remaining in this position, but vanity wins out.

Besides, I note that the still-arriving hordes are getting smaller, not in size but in average dimensions. Either I’m the new N’Sync, or something very interesting is going on.

One of my previously-unsuspected teenage fan base has worn a black leather minidress and fuschia hair for the occasion. Another has carefully waxed his moustache. My heart melts, and I spring to the podium with the strength of thousands.

There follows an extraordinary evening. For more than an hour I get to watch squadrons of literary people, trans folk, crews of gay men, cadres of lesbians, camps of straights, knots of those who nest beneath the bookshelves at Powell’s and feed on lost backstock, mixed with slews of teenagers of all descriptions and united in a single psychic wave of good will, listening raptly to me and each other. The audience, in the way of audiences, believes this wonder of the world is entirely my doing.

Silly audience. I love you.

The mystery of my new youth cult is explained as the entire contents of Lewis and Clark College’s summer literary workshops for young writers. They will return to their homes all over the country, bearing copies of What Becomes You.

I have a posse. I now have a sacred responsibility to rock the world for all time.

Afterward, I seem to have become a celebrity. Writers as young as fourteen lead the way in asking smart questions; we discuss collaborative writing, the memoir format, culture shock in encounters with gender and society, and the challenges of shaping new language for forms of experience that change with every generation. And how the heck do you write with your mom

I feel old in the best possible way.

An elderly expatriate, a middle-aged trans man, and an adolescent boy and girl all bring up questions of transition, silence, and finding a voice. Burning questions respect no borders.

An earnest young man with the face of a very young Gary Cooper and a formal skirt with kick pleats asks me to sign his book, takes my hand, and thanks me gravely. A gray-headed teacher from Lewis and Clark buys a book and gushes. I gush back. A freckle-faced boy faces me with wide eyes, takes a deep steadying breath (this is a big moment, and Lassie is mysteriously absent), explains he’s on the debate team at school, and asks for help with his homework. His ninth-grade debate contest asks the Question of the Day:

“Do you think homosexuality is an inborn genetic defect, or is it a choice?”

Lassie, come quick! Tommy’s fallen in the well.

A squadron of Radical Faeries absconds me for martinis. Then it’s off to Castro Street. In San Francisco I’ll be reading at A Different Light, which, I am assured, is the nation’s choicest LGBT bookstore.

The word for the day, saith Merriam-Webster, is onomastics: the system underlying the forms and uses of words.

Zyzzyva Turns Buttocks To Wall, Publisher’s Weekly Thinks I’m Hot

Posted July 6, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

The Story So Far…Denver Airport, Que Bueno Resturant, Gate B32 (freelance). Dispaches continue; messages are coming from all quarters.

News flash: Publisher’s Weekly has dubbed the book “One of the hottest memoirs in the [LGBT] category this year…” in their May 7th profile of top LGBT titles.

(Okay, so my dispatches go by courier snail. Still, good news never goes out of style.)

Wait…Just Out writer Glenn Scofield Williams has called What Becomes You “…the best memoir I’ve read in a decade.” This, as of the first of July. Ha!
Meanwhile, Howard Junker, the editor of Zyzzyva, has reviewed the book at the Zyzzyva blog. Check out May 30, My Colleagues.

Blog of the Day: http://zyzzyvaspeaks.blogspot.com
Go, thou, and read. Support your local literary magazine.

Question of the Day: I invite media-savvy readers to consider the uses of the word “shrill.” To what groups of people is it applied, and under what circumstances?

Quote of the Day: Richard Burton talking about the American press, quoted in The Celluloid Closet: “…reporters keep asking me how I’m going to ‘disguise that magnificent voice to make it homosexual.’ They frighten me. Don’t they realize that some of the most magnificent voices in the theatre belong to homosexuals?”

Speaking of great pix, Zyzzyva was apparently not satisfied with the book’s graphic and accurate description of my penis. They want photos. Okay, but I am informed by (as yet) unimpeachable sources that if anyone ever posts naked pictures on the internet, civilization will fall. And I don’t stay over on the first date.

Clown.jpg

Speaking of great reviews, Angel Curtis at OutSmart Magazine in Houston says What Becomes You is “…the best book I’ve read this year.”

Kiss a queer reporter today. But since I don’t have a picture of Angel, or even a physical description, Howard Junker has my official permission to just send flowers.

The writer of the day is: Jim Shephard. Jim Shephard rocks. Fan club t-shirts are in the works.
Website of the Day: http://www.williams.edu/Individuals/jshepard/
Don’t forget to go forth and find his new book, Project X, which will make you laugh or cry depending on whether you have to wake up tomorrow and still be an adolescent.
Go, thou, and read.

Esprit de Corps

Posted June 6, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

The best question of the book tour so far comes in Port Angeles, Washington.  
 Port Angeles is a small town several hours’ drive from the I-5 corridor whose main claims to fame are a deepwater harbor and the largest male-to-female transgender conference in the Northwest.  The major economic products of Port Angeles are shore leave and lingerie.  First impression: breathtaking views of the Olympic mountains.  Second impression:  breathtaking view of drunk man in baseball cap, who hoves toward us at full sail, slews vaguely in the direction of the the Red Lion Inn, then leans very close before asking,

“Hey, don’t they have some kind of crossdresser’s convention in there?”  


This is not the best question.  It was, however, clearly a request for man-to-man confidential information.  It was honest, at any rate, so I drop my eyes in virtual shame as I admit that my traveling companion and I–one of us suffering from a desperate case of off-duty, and the other uncertain as to the exact organs required for confidential manliness–evaded it.  Therefore, dear reader, I am unable to report being invited to crash a party for transsexuals.  I am also unable to report encouraging a shy small-town wallflower to come out, or helping a troubled young transsexual person find her way.  Oh, well.  We all have our Clark Kent moments.


The best question comes a day later.  It happens, naturally, in a coffeehouse.   The small but plucky LGBT club of Port Angeles has invited me to speak.  I do so, and in the midst of my deathless prose I am asked the most brilliant question I have ever heard.  It comes from a young person with Asperger’s Syndrome and their friend, who is doubling as a kind of translator.  Translation was unnecessary in this case; Asperger’s, a milder relative of autism, causes people to be formal, detail oriented, and not generally inclined to party hearty.  I took an advanced degree in the History and Philosophy of Science and spent the next ten years studying bugs.  I speak Asperger’s just fine.  This person listens patiently as I go on for some time, and then says,

“Because of my situation, I don’t understand social interaction at all.  Male and female roles are equally alien to me.  I was wondering if you think it would be easier for a person like me to be female or male?”


It is with virtual bowed head I admit that I misunderstood this question.  I am asked so often if men’s or women’s lives are easier, and I am often asked to confirm the questioner’s assumption that men’s lives are much easier and better than theirs.  I fear I have developed a stock answer.  It involves taking a lot of time to say that the grass is not greener just because it is on the other side of a high fence, and that at the moment, given there’s a war on and few support systems open to those of us of the male persuasion, it is rather brown and sandy and stained with a great deal of blood.  


This question was different.  If I understand it correctly with the benefit of hindsight, I was being asked if a person who finds it difficult to experience social connection, emotional expressiveness, and spontaneity would have an easier time getting along if the world assumed they were male.  Phrased in this way, the answer seems obvious.  A white-skinned woman who has limited fluency in social situations and as a result appears withdrawn and stilted, focuses on facts and things, and has few chances to experience intimacy or emotional freedom with others would appear to be handicapped indeed.  A white-skinned man with these qualities would seem more or less normal.


I have run into this issue before, though not in the context of sex-change and Asperger’s.  


My experience has been that in order to be seen as good middle-aged, middle-class white men, we are expected to behave like trauma survivors.  (As far as I can tell, the following list also applies to those of us of the male persuasion whose skin is dark, although on the shared quest to avoid poverty and prison a lot more smiling and nodding seems required.)  Good men are expected to be personally disconnected, avoid physical contact with anyone we don’t know well, keep our gestures confined and our movements slow, be emotionally distant, restricted to routines, to make and follow rules, avoid talking about bodies or feelings, serve and protect anyone we imagine to be small and weak, deny needs for reassurance or comfort, avoid intimacy (except for sex, or perhaps, especially sex), and display stoic behavior.  People who look like middle-aged, middle-class men and don’t behave like trauma survivors are going to experience a lot of trauma.  


The question for the day is:  why?



The website for the day (thanks to Karen Bradley) is The Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies: http://www.limsonline.org.  Though it describes itself as women-directed, they might be on to something of interest to all of us in relation to this question.  



The book and I visit the Esprit Transgender Conference.  Most available surfaces are pastel.  Whether this design element signifies “ladies” or “chain hotel” is a point on which I am not qualified to comment.  The conference ID tags, along with many other surfaces, feature butterflies.  Mine is a Morpho peledes.  Knowing my butterfly’s binomial nomenclature comforts me.  

In addition to myself and a man I spot at the talent show wearing a green vest sequinned with shamrocks, the conference is a mix of men wearing women’s clothes, transgendered and transsexual women, their female partners (where are the men?), and those folks still exploring the nature and depth of their interest in ladies’ underwear.  (First generation transsexual feminism:  “You know, I have had it with criticisms of my look from people who spend three hours plucking and shaving every time they put on a dress.  I ‘dress’ every day and go to work, to the grocery store, do the laundry, for crying out loud!  I do not have perfect hair.  I have a life.”)  

I sympathize.  I have experienced the special kind of discomfort which comes with entering a space for gay men and discovering rather belatedly that one has joined the few fetish objects in a room full of non-gay-male people with a fetish for gay men. Apparently genital preference varies, but there’s a universal fantasy of perfect hair.

Of course, one could make the point that a room full of gay men is equally a room full of people with a fetish for gay men.  I would not argue.  However, the balance of fetish to fetishist in these cases levels out nicely at one to one.  (In theory at least.  In practice, nothing looks more like a genderqueer conference than a trendy gay men’s cruise spot on Saturday night, though the breasts in the latter are rather more firm.  The judgments, however, are equally firm.)  


At Esprit I am stunned with admiration that this particular diversity of people is not killing each other.  I do not know how they manage.  Seizing the moment, I scout for helpful hints.  I cannot say I discover their secret.  However, I can say there is a special kind of pride that comes with entering a space defined for your community and realizing the mere fact that the people in it are not killing each other. If the people here can avoid killing each other, anyone can.

We discover later in the evening that the news has not reached Washington. Perhaps we should send them a delegation from Esprit. On the other hand, they could send us a delegation of automatic weapons and leave explosives lying about in the hallways of the Red Lion, and I’m not sure how well we’d do then. So the next time someone tells me how wonderful Norah Vincent is, I will be newly inspired to take a deep breath and count to ten before saying anything nasty.

In the spirit of diversity, I am invited to attend both the keynote speech and the talent show.  Though the entire weekend is a lovely process of watching my stereotypes explode like bubbles, there are highlights.  Permanent lipliner+Tina Turner hair=legislative process analyst.  Theories of socially gendered movement:  myself, lawyer, and building contractor.  Busy professional woman drops by, turns out to be the director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.  She knows who Tobias Wolff is; how many directors of Washington political action organizations read literature?  Elderly man in business suit with thick Virginia drawl arrives, asks if he can sit in on the keynote speech.  Sensing a putsch from the Who-Would-Jesus-Kill movement, I smile sweetly and engage him in conversation.  Turns out he’s a retired Unitarian minister, and the keynote speaker’s work for trans acceptance was a major inspiration for his own civil rights activism.  Attending her speech, I can see why.  


She speaks to the clip-on earring generation, with rigorous sporty blonde hair and a Scottsdale tan. (She and my sex-reassignment surgeon are apparently neighbors.)  Her name is Donna Rose, she is a transsexual woman, and she addresses us with clarity, eloquence, generosity, humor, and entirely without notes.  As I listen to her, two memories come forcibly to mind: 


In one, people with rigorous sporty blonde hair and tasteful eighteen-carat crosses, charged with leisure and money and smug in the imagination of women’s moral purity, fuel an engine which works tirelessly against me and mine–the destruction of the poor, the heathen, the lesser races, the sick, the queer, the different, all individually regrettable but of course our own fault, the consequence of our encounters with sanitary procedures as necessary by Natural Law as the prompt removal of a stain.  From where I sit, Donna Rose looks exactly like the image of these women, and this is what gives her so much power, because she is not an image but a human being.  She refuses to be so easy to imagine.  


In the other, a gay activist who looks very much the way I do now is keynote speaker at the first female-to-male trans conference in San Francisco in 1995.  The activist wears a gray flannel suit with a colored rather than a plain shirt, in order to represent a lesbian and gay organization, and refers often to notes in an attempt to inspire trans people to continue to be first out of the trenches against the machine guns of prejudice.  In spite of the notes, he is flustered, clearly used to making inspirational action speeches about the murder of Teena Brandon, Lesbian Heroine.  Protecting helpless female victims of Evil Patriarchy makes him easy to imagine as a Good Liberal rather than an Evil Patriarch.  As a result, he keeps bringing up the murder but forgetting to re-reverse the order of the names to Brandon Teena, or to refer to any of the murder victims with the male pronoun.  He starts in, forgets, remembers, apologizes, forgets again, checks his notes.  



After the keynote, happy children wander by, undisturbed by the rainbows exploding in all directions.  A bored-looking teenager is later revealed as a kick-ass drag king.  My sex reassignment surgeon Toby Meltzer (5’5″, trim, cute as a button) has a posse.  My companion meets Dr. Meltzer and swoons discreetly in the hallway.  I do not.  I am too busy giving him a free book.  Perhaps it’s a fetish, but there’s just something about a man in Armani.  


My big bubble bursts during the talent show.  I watch two people perform a comedy routine whose major sight gag involves a pair of giant breasts.  My Good Liberal feminist alarm (yes, I was raised in the Seventies) goes off.  By now I know enough to sit quietly and watch, and take some time to think.  I think about the Esprit audience; crossdressing men who are convincing or unconvincing female impersonators, transsexual women whose bodies can or cannot match our prejudices of how women are supposed to look.  I realize I have no way to know whether the people performing this gag are women.  I have no way to know whether the bodies they’re satirizing are women’s bodies.  I could be witnessing older men rife with sexism and heterosexual hubris, fetishizing women…Older women satirizing a culture that defines women based on natural sex appeal, offered for a fee in shrink-wrap from Victoria’s Secret…Straight men…or gay women…satirizing their own sexual obsessions…Transgendered people using laughter to draw the poison from their own dreams of perfection…Men satirizing sexist culture…sexist women…Or, as seems likely, all of the above.  I have no way to know.  


Plus, I realize shortly thereafter, I perform a show with a sight gag involving a pair of giant breasts.  


Of course, those breasts are a cast of my own.  Does that make them not offensive?  I certainly found them offensive at the time.  They seem quite a lot funnier now that they’re made of foam and held on by removable straps.  
Is that a fetish?  Beats me.  


At the end of the day, I know only the generosity of the people who invited me here and made a place for me at their table.  And if I cannot tell by looking whether what I see is supportive, offensive, insider or outsider commentary on men’s, women’s, or other lives, maybe there’s something wrong with any system that pretends there is one universal answer and we can walk through the door and know what it is.  Perhaps what’s wrong is our tendency to fall back on a simple shortcut; good is what we do, bad is what they do.  The spandex Republicans and cloth-coat radicals of Esprit (and not a few cloth-coat Republicans and spandex radicals) offered me much more than our name-brand liberal and conservative communities, whose moralities are mirror images, identical but reversed:  Women are good, so men are bad.  Men are good, so women are bad…and so on, ad nauseam.  Our conversations about race, color, politics and religion seem to follow the same pattern.  As the lovely people of Esprit have the courage to make visible, one prejudice and its opposite can be–in practice–impossible to tell apart.


The word for the day, sayeth Merriam-Webster, is fecund.

Coming Home

Posted May 23, 2007 by whatbecomesyou
Categories: Uncategorized

I’m sitting in a coffeehouse in Victoria, British Columbia. A very young woman whose x-tra high-top Chuck Taylors are lined with faux leopard serves me organic free-range shade grown coffee and a gluten-free vegan biscuit as the stereo system in the background whines gently.

(current soundtrack: “I’ve Got to Leave Old London Town”)

Let me just say that if I never see another teddy bear holding a symbol of Canada’s indigenous native peoples and dressed as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, I will fail to be devastated.

A couple of weeks ago I was in Nebraska. An electric moment of revelation now occurrs at regular intervals as I wander through Tourist Mecca. While sitting in a diner whose restrooms are decorated with images of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, respectively, I finally realize what’s happening. I am recognizing Interior Canadians–those from the provinces, meaning, in this case, provinces other than British Columbia. The shock to my hindbrain comes from the way Interior Canadians walk.

(current soundtrack: “You Are So Beautiful”)

Canadians from the provinces use the Midwestern Lope. After forty-two years my hindbrain still leaps to attention at the sight of a good Lope. For most of my adolescence, I practiced it obsessively. Some of us at this age learn something useful, like juggling. I practiced the Lope to the point of despair. It consists of leaning backward at an acute angle as the feet forge relentlessly ahead, a slow rhythm of great ground-covering strokes which produces the impression of being drawn irresistably forward–probably against one’s better judgement–by some combination of animal need and the horizontal gravity of time. (It helps if your legs and feet are narrow and very, very long.) The Lope is distinguished from the Deadhead Stroll (aka R. Crumb’s “Movin’ On”) by hunching the shoulders forward. They almost but not quite catch up with the feet. The feet have already entered the future whose prospect the shoulders are bravely accepting. In other words, the torso forms the shape of the letter C, and your fate can’t be avoided; it’s too late, you’re already there.

(current soundtrack: “…big boys don’t cry…big boys don’t cry…”)

In addition to forming an energy-efficient natural spring, the C protects your soft underbelly from unexpected punches to the gut. Since the body leans backward from the hips at a slight but distinct angle of resistance, Midwestern women tend to seduce from below. (It helps if the torso is narrow and very, very long.)

(current soundtrack: “…make a man outta you…I’m a woman (she’s a woman)…”)

Compensation is provided by a reverse curve in the neck, which thrusts the head slightly forward, lifting the chin. (It helps if the neck is narrow and very, very long.) The head rides the body like a ship on a stormy sea. Correctly performed, the Lope leads to calm at eye level. Bobbing is discouraged. Bobbing is punk, and punk is a rage against fate, which is bound to get you nowhere and probably wastes something vital and expensive.

(current soundtrack: “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”)

Growing up in Nebraska in the seventies (where the soundtrack in Victoria still seems to be), I swallowed the Lope whole, digested it down into its component parts, and reassembled it in my body. I practiced the Lope until I was eighteen, at which point I was forced to the inescapable conclusion that if all your component parts are wide and very, very short, any attempt to Lope will only succeed in making you look like a mime.

At home in Nebraska, What Becomes You was reviewed in the local paper by a presumably happily married man who has practiced law in Nebraska for the past fifty years. Meanwhile, Hilda and I did a number of events at local bookstores and organizations. If you’ve never walked into a room and immediately received a standing ovation, I highly recommend it. To be so cheered for the finesse with which one occupies space, has mass, and continues to breathe is an exhilarating and humbling experience. There’s so little you could possibly do to deserve it. Similarly, if you have never looked out over a sea of faces and found your substitute teacher from the second grade, whose laughter is angelic and infectious as she describes the time she saw you hide behind a door to avoid the Devil’s Bargain (gym class or study hall), or shook someone’s hand and rediscovered the junior high teacher who gave you and all the other wierd kids a place to go, the one adult at school who never worried that your favorite music or clothes meant you were about to become a mass murderer and who thought you actually might be better off playing Dungeons and Dragons in the library and watching Spiderman cartoons…I highly recommend it. It’s not often you get to say thank you to the people whose small ordinary gestures along the way allowed you to live.

(current soundtrack: “All I Need Is the Air That I Breathe”)

Other instructive moments:

I was very nervous indeed before reading at the University to people interested in gender studies and LGBT topics. Hilda was very nervous indeed before reading at a luncheon group of influential older Nebraska women. And after a wonderful interview on the public radio station where I used to volunteer as a teenager, the middle-aged straight white man from Nebraska who had just been so welcoming to us read an editorial in which he lambasted mindless conservatives, whom he described as middle-aged straight white men from Nebraska. Authority takes interesting forms in our lives.

(current soundtrack: “Double Vision”)

The reviewer for the Lincoln Journal-Star concluded that the primary theme of my writing in What Becomes You is hatred of Nebraskans. This category might or might not have included exclusively right-thinking normal people, but, to my complete surprise, it did not include me. Two interviews in the past two weeks have asked me what’s been the most difficult experience I’ve had as a trans person. To be perfectly honest, it had never crossed my mind that anyone in my home town might read me as a big-city sophisticate, an ignorant outsider from a land of bizarre customs who passes through the midwest just long enough to pass judgement on the Vast Wasteland–its living rooms and televisions, churches and schools and bookstores and malls and LGBT reading series and coffeehouses. When I was a Nebraskan as yet woefully ignorant of bears in Mountie suits, wierd-looking writer people with ethnic names would occasionally fly in from some big city on a Coast to visit the Provinces, and pontificate at us over dinner in funny accents. Me and my best friend used to make fun of them. We thought we were real Nebraskans. My gay, wealthy, international-travelling, Latvian friend Ivan and I. And I, well, you know. Among other things, I left.

(current soundtrack: “Black Water”)

When I was growing up, local radio played this song incessantly. I hated “Black Water” more than asparagus. I hated “Black Water” even more than “Stairway to Heaven,” and if you grew up in the seventies you know this is really saying something. If you had asked me when I was sixteen exactly why I was so desperate to get out of Nebraska, “Black Water” would have been on my top ten list. It’s on the stereo now at Serious Coffee in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, not far from the cafe where the bathroom doors are painted with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, all in another country. Coming in the glass doors of Serious Coffee, I see my reflection walking toward me. Somewhere along the way I have developed an oblique variation of the Lope. In other words, my body remains more or less straight while my elbows and knees forge relentlessly sideways in great ground-covering strokes, a rhythm against the vertical gravity of time. I progress forward as a seemingly accidental consequence of my continuing evasions of fate.

I look like an American.
I also look a little like Popeye.

(current soundtrack: “Still Crazy After All These Years.”)

The question of the day is: What’s the relationship between an outsider and an insider?
The word for the day is: Prothalamion, which Merriam-Webster informs me means “the preparations for a wedding.”