Wednesday, February 24, 2010

pass it on

On Monday night, as I walked through slush and tried not to slip on any remaining ice, this thought passed vaguely through my head: "I'm carrying Kate Bornstein's pizza." And yes, it's true, I was. My girlfriend, badass that she is, had organized a workshop and talk with Kate and we all--girlfriend, boyfriend, and myself--were walking her back to her hotel via one of the local pizza places after the concluding performance. Kate Bornstein, in case you don't know her work--and it's entirely likely you don't, unless you or somebody you love is a self-proclaimed gender deviant--is an author, performer, and one of my first gender inspirations, so it's no large wonder that I was feeling a little surreal as I followed our group down a snowy street, holding the takeout order in my gloved hands.

It was late 2004 or early 2005 when a friend handed me a copy of Gender Outlaw--at the time I was utterly obsessed with drag kings and was also a total gender novice and maybe my friend knew what I needed to read more than I knew what I should be looking for--and it was one of those rare instances where I literally felt a shift inside myself, a large-scale reorganization of ideas. In no uncertain terms, Kate Bornstein probably fucked with my head more than anybody else I've read in recent and not-so-recent memory; as I recall, I was so freaked out that I was literally vibrating with enthusiasm for weeks. Because that's how I react to revolutionary knowledge: I go manic, preach at my friends about whatever idea I just had, whatever new thing I learned that has me all worked up. It's actually something I love about myself, the energy that I get from new knowledge, because it reminds me how amazing the world is and how much I appreciate it. Who can learn such fantastic things and stay stolid and unemotional? My enthusiasm, my joy, keeps me human and alive.

I had never really considered or even known about gender variance beyond "straight", "gay", and a very specific form of "transgendered", at least in more than a very academic and theoretical sense, and suddenly here was this person telling me that those categories were not only restrictive but, far more importantly, that the opportunity to transcend them was all around me. This wasn't just about words, or boxes, or even ideas, although those things were part of it; she broke the theory barrier and showed me that this was real, that there were people who understood things I couldn't even wrap my head around, that they existed and were living actual lives that I had never even imagined. Sometimes an idea is simply not enough. Sometimes you need a role model, somebody to show you that the living, breathing expression of an idea is possible and maybe even a lot of fun. For me and for a lot people I know, Gender Outlaw gave us something to work off of.

In any case, I never would have predicted that five years later I'd be carrying Kate Bornstein's pizza, that I would have eaten dinner with her and that she would kiss my copy of her book--my second, because I gave my first to my dear friend when he started questioning gender and I knew he needed a voice to listen to. He was at the talk too, and I saw him go up to her and tell her what that had meant to him, her book and her ideas and her self, and I almost teared up because I'm so happy for us all. We're reading and learning and passing on our knowledge to others, passing around the texts that can help to show us new ways of living, like a modern-day version of familial heritage. Take this book, read it, learn, and pass it on when you see somebody in need. We're building our new history by talking to each other and sharing our revelations.

To meet somebody who changed your life, to hug them or shake their hand and know that you can never really tell them what they've meant to you and yours: how can you ever quantify that? How can you ever say what you really, truly mean, have the experience be as much as you want it to be? Fuck quantification, I say. Our idols, they are real people too, and that's part of why we love them. I had dinner with Kate Bornstein, the person who literally changed my life and who, through her writing, helped me become who I am today, and my week is still progressing as always. She's a lovely person, is Kate, and I'm glad she exists; I'm also glad I exist, that my friends, my lovers, and the publishers that okayed her gender fuckery exist, that we are all alive. Alive, and talking.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

just the two of us

I have two cats, Rita and Skip. Skip is slightly older, an ex-barn cat from southern Illinois, low-key and moderately affectionate when he gets a chance, which he doesn't often because Rita is absolutely the biggest whore of a cat I've ever met. A feral cat in her past life, she will walk up to a complete stranger sitting on my couch, roll over and flash her belly and then put her head on their knee, purring loudly; she is completely shameless and more than a little dumb in that somehow adorable cat sort of way, and I think sometimes that the other feral cats must have taken pity on her because I can't imagine her surviving on the streets. Her nickname is Threesome Rita, because if there are two people in the apartment she will inevitably wriggle her guileless way in between them, regardless of what they may be (ahem) doing. If I have a dinner party or whatever she gets to be Orgy Rita, and I swear she's in kitty heaven.

Also, she's afraid of hats

Rita's hard to not love--sort of--but she's also negatively impacted my relationship with Skip; every time he comes over for some mutual semi-introvert love, Rita runs over as fast as she can and insinuates herself between us because god forbid she miss any opportunity to be petted. It drives me crazy and has led to me sneaking my pets in with Skip when she's otherwise occupied, which is just sad. On top of that, I'm starting to think that the energy I put into both paying attention to her and rebuffing her advances is becoming rather overwhelming; it sounds silly, perhaps, but part of the reason I moved into my own apartment is because I wanted my own space and Rita is almost constantly pushing that bubble. She keeps me up at night, and she wakes me up in the morning, and in between she's always there, trying to get in between me and my computer, book, dinner, or whatever else I might be engaged in. All of this while looking disarmingly cute and hopeful, like maybe this time the petting will take and she'll finally feel satisfied and be able to take a nap.

The long and short of this is that I've been seriously considering taking Rita back where I got her from, the absolutely fabulous Tree House, a cage-free kill-free shelter conveniently within walking distance of my apartment. When I adopted her just over a year ago I was told that I could always bring her back, no matter when or why. It's become a moral dilemma, though, because she really hasn't done anything wrong or bad; she just wants love. And don't we all? Even if I feel like she would better have her needs met by, say, an old person who wanted to constantly pet a cat--which is not, I have discovered, what I constantly want to do--or a family with small children (Rita is incredibly gentle, has never scratched me intentionally, and doesn't scratch even when provoked), it feels shitty to me to say that I just don't have enough to give her. I keep imagining walking her over to the shelter, saying something along the lines of "This adorable and loving cat is driving me up the wall, and I think you could find her a better home than I could", and then leaving her there and never seeing her again, and I just don't know if I can do it.

So we'll see. I want to decide in the next week or two; advice will be considered, so feel free to offer any thoughts. I imagine a Rita-free apartment and it just feels so... peaceful. And I do think she'd be happier elsewhere, someplace where more pettings are in the offing. I suspect that soon, as soon as I can get over my perhaps misplaced guilt, it will be just the two of us here once again.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

it's complicated, oh yes

It's Valentine's Day again, which, because I'm a florist, means that I've been running my ass off at work all week on a minimum of sleep and a maximum of braindead. I'm breathing a sigh of relief because we've reached the weekend and now the hard part--the flower preparation, which involves stripping the leaves and thorns off of hundreds of flowers, clipping the tip of every single stem, and plunging them into icy water--is over; from here on, I mostly just have to help people and occasionally sweep the floor. Yesterday I got to make a vulva arrangement for the Vagina Monologues, thereby fulfilling one of my most cherished floral goals; as you might imagine, I used a peony.

Every Valentine's Day since I became a florist and the holiday grew in prominence in my worldview has been different: a different relationship, a different vibe to the day, a different place in my own head that I'm coming from. Last year was lovely, with homemade pie and lentil soup from my favorite hole-in-the-wall Lebanese place; the year before that was hellish, and included doing dishes in my bathtub and nasty phone messages. This year I'm in a polyamorous triad relationship, half (a third? the math, among other things, is interesting) of which is long-distance, which means that in a lot of ways I feel like I'm in at least two and probably three different relationships all at the same time--if you want to count girlfriend, boyfriend, and triad as all separate entities, which seems like at least a somewhat legitimate way of looking at things much of the time. I feel good about life and the future. I like that, a lot. I'm pretty confident that, at least relationship-wise, tomorrow is going to be just fine, but the obsessive emphasis on relationships that this holiday embodies has been making me realize how relatively unusual the situation I'm in is, and how much I'm learning from it.

I've heard it said that triads are the grad school of relationships, and while I don't know about that I do know now that it's a completely different beast from anything I've been a part of before; a lot of it's pretty amusing, which is giving me a really great backlog of stories to draw from. Early on, I was talking to a straight male friend about my relationship and he leaned forward and said "So, do you all..." and I thought, oh god, here's the threesome question, and he finished "...spoon? How does that work?" I laughed and told him we'd been considering writing a how-to manual on that one, which is true, because it's unexpectedly hard to cuddle with three people without feeling clumsy at best and claustrophobic at worst. (There are too many arms, or something.) There are other issues: beds aren't designed to sleep three, not really, and sidewalks aren't wide enough to easily accommodate three people walking abreast and holding hands without taking up the whole damn thing. Cutesy romantic gestures, like these pillowcases my girlfriend sent me a link to recently, are designed for two, not three, which means a future full of DIY add-ons to virtually anything pre-made. (The only thing that is fitting is these underwear, which I've already supplied to many friends and lovers, because, well, yeah.) Romantic cliches are also funny (although, granted, they are already used mostly in jest); "I love you with... half of my heart" and "You're my one-of-two-and-only" just don't have the same ring, although they do provoke laughter. Valentine's Day cards are practically impossible to find.

But there are serious aspects of all of this too. I like to think that I've learned from every relationship I've been in, new and better insights and higher self-confidence and different ways of thinking through problems, and it's a damn good thing because this whole triad thing requires some mad skills. It's the same, but it's also so different. Things that are important for two-person relationships--things like communication, negotiation, lovingkindness, and attention to detail--are not necessarily any more important in a triad, but to me they are much more visible. I think often in relationships we begin to take these building blocks for granted--I know I have been guilty of this—to just assume that they will continue to function without our attention and we and our partners will be just fine. Often, I have found out too late that this isn’t true at all; now, finally, I try to take nothing for granted. In a triad, there's simply not time and energy for much bullshit, and if I want this to work I have to be able to communicate my needs and wants as clearly and as immediately as I can or the waters get muddied very quickly. I'm not perfect, and sometimes I fail to do this, and it doesn't end in me feeling awesome. I'm still working on that.

There's still so much I'm just barely learning to negotiate, and much of the time I feel like I'm having to learn how to be in a relationship for the first time all over again, just with a measure of prior knowledge that (hopefully) makes the way a little smoother. I’m hopeful, though. With three people, or at least with these particular three people, there’s a much stronger sense that the complex web of emotion and responsibility and genuine affection that is holding us all together can't survive without dedicated and compassionate care. Maybe it sounds like work, but the feeling that my partners are there with me, that they’re willing to keep an eye on the foundational aspects of what exists between us, is incredibly comforting. I think really that this is just a meta-degree of what goes into every good relationship, and it makes me feel safe and lucky to be learning this with such good and caring people by my side(s).

I sometimes think the whole thing is summed up in this single story, inside of a metaphor which I swear I didn't even come up with on my own. But here it is: a few weeks ago, my boyfriend--who is taking sign language--went to class, realized that they were learning the words for "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" and saw clearly that this was going to be a confusing day for his classmates. As they split up and began practicing their new language skills on each other, his first partner signed to him "Do you have a boyfriend?" J pondered this for a minute, considering the lack of vocabulary for terms like "triad", and then attempted to explain, signaling towards two imaginary people and signing girlfriend towards and between each before forming a triangle with his thumbs and forefingers and then shrugging and giving a thumbs-up. His partner looked baffled. They switched to new partners and the exact same exchange took place, including the boyfriend question and the puzzled end result. Finally, J went to his teacher and tried to explain, finally resorting to spelling the word "triad", at which point the teacher told him that the vocabulary he needed was "way complicated".

Indeed. I, at the very least, am looking for the right words to explain this and to place myself firmly and unequivocally within this new framework. Much of this applies to how I explain things to others--'I have a boyfriend and a girlfriend' is my terminology of choice so far--but it applies to my internal self as well. This is still new, and it is still someplace I never expected to be, and I'm still searching a little bit for my narrative. But just because I don't quite have that down yet doesn't mean anything, because really, I'm learning more every day. Easy is bullshit; give me hard and new and confusing most any day of the week and I'll do my damndest to rise to the challenge. This is all new, and we’re all learning, and even though there aren’t always words or concepts or physical practicalities for us to work with I think it’s going to be okay and I am so glad to be where I am. And so, happy Valentine’s Day; much love to you and yours, and I hope that we can all be so lucky this year.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

lost in a sea of words

I am often a victim of inertia, by which I mean it often takes me a long time to get things done. I'm actually supposed to be doing a great many things right now, and at the very least I should try to leave the house at least once today, but, well... There's these books.

They aren't mine, not really. They belong to my boyfriend, but because his brother and sister-in-law are moving we decided that I would act as a sort of warehouse for the boxes he had in their basement until he comes back from Canada and acquires some shelf space of his own. I've known for at least a month that they were forthcoming, but I didn't figure out the actual logistics of shelving them until last night, when they were delivered to my apartment via dolly.

The arrival of the boxes was the kick in the ass that I needed to start moving stuff around, regardless of the fact that it was about 9 PM when I got started on the project. The thing is this: I live in a studio and I already have more stuff than I need, especially in the "little pieces of crap that I sometimes need but don't have room for in any of my desk drawers" arena, and so shelving roughly five extra boxes of books is not as simple as setting up a shelf and having at it. I didn't even get the new boxes open last night; I spent my time, all the way up until roughly 2:30 AM, taking all the unnecessary stuff of off the shelves and end tables that I was planning on moving, piling it all up on the remaining surfaces in the apartment, removing my own books, moving the furniture, and re-shelving my volumes before collapsing onto my still-book-covered bed. I've somehow lost both of the two tape measures I own--although I suspect I'll find at least one of them when I sort through the rest of my crap tonight--and so I measured using a belt in order to make sure I wasn't planning on moving shelves into spaces they didn't fit into. I felt like a really, really geeky MacGyver.

Everything worked out though, and this morning I started on the most exciting part of this endeavor: sorting the new books. J has eclectic taste in literature, and although I've very much enjoyed all of the books of his that I've read we don't seem to have much overlap; out of the five boxes I received, I had read exactly two and a half of the books I dug out. (They are: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, The Commitment by Dan Savage, and Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton by Diane Wood Middlebrook, which I skimmed due to time constraints for a paper in grad school. Hence the half.) The sheer diversity is sort of baffling. I found language books or dictionaries in Russian, Spanish, French, and ASL, and one about how to talk via hand gestures to Japanese people; books on the biology and history of lobsters, cockroaches, freshwater eels, cotton, and honey; there is a book about the Angola Prison Rodeo, and one about a man who built a ship out of wine corks and sailed it down a river in Portugal. You might imagine that my efforts to sort these into slightly coherent piles took a long time, and you would be correct. I decided to take a lunch break when I started giggling and saying things like "Perhaps this could go in the social sciences pile? Historical autobiography? Random Crap Pile?"

But I finally finished, and I shelved the books I had room for and boxed up the rest for the time being. I'm going to be getting more shelves from J's brother sometime soon, which will bump me up to hopefully seven--even though I think I only have books enough for six as of yet, I'm hoping to take an extra as an anticipatory measure. My studio looks like a library exploded in it. It had been suggested to me that I could keep all of the books boxed and leave my apartment as it was, but I sincerely can't imagine doing such a thing. Even though I'm feeling somewhat crazed from the lack of sleep and excess of coffee and sheer nature of the cleaning task ahead of me, and even though I may never be able to move again because, well, books are heavy, I'm incredibly happy. There's so much I don't know, and so much I want to know, and now I'm surrounded by books and that means that the tools to chip away at that are on nearly every wall of my apartment. I feel voracious. Into the froth, my life; into the flames.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010

battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won

I'm in Tucson, in a Hyatt Place hotel that is astonishingly nice considering how little we paid for it. I knew we were in trouble when I went to check in and they had a self-check, which I had never seen before; the uniformed man in the lobby had to direct me to the machine. "Ooh, fancy," I said, only a little snarkily, and swiped my card through. "Have you ever stayed in a Hyatt before?" he asked, seemingly without malice or even any large degree of pity, but just a quiet kind of curiosity. "Apparently not," I replied, grabbed my door keys and got the hell out of there. We have a couch here, and a brushed aluminum ice bucket and water glasses made out of real glass. There's a feeling like we should be somehow doing more with all this space, but really we're just sitting here, crowded together on the same full-sized bed at the far end of the remarkably large room as we check our email.

I hadn’t been to Tucson since the spring of 2007 and that was also the last time I’d seen my present companions, two of my best friends, together, and so this trip served two purposes: friendship and regaining my sense of place in the desert. We’re all older and, I think, considerably wiser than we were then; we have extra college degrees, somewhat steady and relatively grown-up jobs, and more heartache and fluttery new loves and life negotiation skills than before. I don’t know if any of us really know where we’re headed yet, but we’re much better at being where we are now and that’s something. We came to together to share all of that newness and change, and to giggle and laugh and tell our stories and hug each other and eat cheap and probably lard-filled burritos in the dirt and then take naked pictures of each other as we tried to hide from the day hikers on the rocks above us. We visited our old haunts and clapped our hands to Peruvian music while eating Guatemalan food and then spent evenings quiet in our hotel room, drinking wine and telling each other the stories of who we’d become. We carried on our own oral traditions in the place where we first met and knew each other, and when I left for the airport this morning there were nearly tears.

If Flagstaff is where I grew up physically, Tucson is where I began to grow into my own in the larger and eventually more important ways. It was the first place that I ever fully loved, with a passion that would have baffled me when I first moved there for college in the fall of 2000. At the age of eighteen, I was bitter, jaded, heartsick, and angry as perhaps only a young person with a surprisingly developed superiority complex can be; I wrote Tucson off immediately as a dirty redneck town—ironic, considering I came from a much smaller hippie town in the mountains where everything except the movie theater, the bars, and the Denny’s closed by ten—and made jokes about laws mandating a certain number of tattoo parlors per city block, and I barely left campus all year. I had maintained all through high school that I was getting out of Arizona for college and moving on to bigger and better places and had only applied to the University of Arizona as a backup, so my eventual enrollment there was both the death of an adolescent dream and a severe blow to my pride. I planned to transfer as soon as possible, and I remember going to the track during that first year and chanting “I hate this, I hate this” as my running mantra. I described Tucson in emails to friends as “hell, literally” as I wrote about temperatures in the hundreds and a landscape primarily consisting of dirt.

The depth of my hatred is shocking in retrospect. I’m almost positive that by that time I had read and enjoyed Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a collection of essays lovingly and cantankerously describing his summers spent working at Arches National Monument in Moab, Utah (in fact, along with my Italian Folktales, the Abbey was another one of the books I stole from my parents when I moved out), and yet when I arrived in the desert myself all I could see was nothing, a wasteland, dirt and dust and rock, and I wanted no part of it. A lot of this had to do with the fact that I’d never actually planned on going to school there, and that my rejection from four prestigious music schools the previous year had made me ragingly insecure and full of self-loathing; some of it also had to do with what seems to be a typical adolescent impulse to run as far and fast from where you come from as possible. When I think of myself at that age most of what I remember is overwhelmingly negative, although I doubt anybody else would remember me in such a harsh light: selfish, snarky in a less-than-constructive way, full of self-righteous spite and anger. In other words, I was a teenager and as such was just sort of generally pissed, and Tucson bore the brunt of my angst.

Luckily, I got over it, as you do, and I grew to love my adopted home with a passion. I got a bicycle and began realizing how much friendlier the city was when you took the time to look at it, to travel through it and pay attention to the small details and to interact with it in a meaningful and mutually beneficial way. I made friends who were smarter than I was about such things and already recognized the beauty of the mountains and the bare branches of palo verde and ocotillo, and I realized that the creosote smell after a rainstorm was absolutely amazing and even almost made up for the fact that the city had apparently been built without functioning gutters and so flooded during every brief downpour. I learned that dirt is not always just dirty; it’s also sometimes necessary.

Earlier this week, as I was sitting with my mother waiting to get picked up for the drive to Tucson and also having the only meaningful conversation we’d managed to have during my stay, we began talking about my parents’ possible plan to pack up and move to Oregon sometime in the next few years. She told me she thought that maybe they should just rent for a year and see how it suited them; she was concerned that my father wouldn’t be happy with the lack of sunlight, and, more importantly, she wasn’t sure he would like the mountains. “They’re all covered in moss and trees,” she told me. “You can’t see the ground. I don’t know if he’d like that, after the initial excitement.” And I knew exactly what she meant. The mountains in Tucson, and to a somewhat different extent in Northern Arizona, are green, but they are also brown and black and grey and rust-colored; the bare rock and the exposed soil are a large part of the landscape. And even though they could be considered harsh or even ugly, they also make my heart beat fast in my chest and I can’t stop staring at them.

On the first full day of our visit we went hiking. One of the reasons I wanted to come back to Arizona, why I always want to come back and why I visit Alaska and search out places that don’t have inescapably large cities in them, is because hiking is one of the best ways I know to connect with myself again. It helps me to remember my body, to narrow my concentration down to where my feet should land next, and to see how I can move through the world in terms of the tenuous medium of boot sole against rock and soil. (A note of interest: adults tend to see landscapes in wild settings; children tend to see small objects in their immediate vicinity.) When I feel upset in the city I walk or bicycle as if my life depended upon it, but it isn’t quite the same; the movement and the sound of footfalls are similar, but the immediacy is missing. When I hike, I am nothing except my brain assessing the stability and angle of the terrain in front of me, with just enough consciousness left over to roam through my memories and sometimes bring up thoughts that I haven’t had in years. Letting my animal brain assess the situation is critical, and in fact if I let my rational brain take too much control I fall, slip and slide and cut myself and hesitate when I should be striding forward. Talking tends to be sparse—although there are certainly exceptions to that rule, and I’ve had some wonderful conversations while hiking—not only because it’s hard to talk and climb uphill but at least sometimes because it seems almost unnecessary, extraneous. I feel close when I hike with someone, even if we barely speak. We’re being animal bodies together, and outside of the medium of sex I think that’s a rare thing to experience with somebody else.

Fittingly, the book I began in my hotel room one night during my trip and which has travelled with me onto my flight home is specifically about sense of place, the grounding of self in community and geography, of “from-ness.” Bill Holm’s The heart can be filled anywhere on earth is a witty and fierce and absolutely gorgeous exploration of his tiny hometown of Minneota, Minnesota, and his travel from—wait for it--adolescent hatred of place to adult recognition of the beauty and wisdom gained for where he came from, and I’m a little bit in love with it after only the first chapter. I don’t exactly know where I’m from anymore, but I actually don’t think that’s essential; I think from-ness can be equally about recognizing your connection to place as much as it can be about any specific geographical location. The book asks a question and poses an answer, based around a query in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from a child who asks the unanswerable: What is grass? The poet cannot tell him; he doesn’t know any more than the child.

“…It seems to me the right American question. What is grass? Where is this place I live? What is to be learned about my own life, about the action of desire, about the lives of all of us, living or dead, on this planet? Maybe only the commonest least likely places will ever permit us inside that question. Walt Whitman examined grass. Henry Thoreau preferred the crow above all birds. Emerson was intoxicated by water. Emily Dickinson lived in a single room.”

I have so much appreciation for the whole of my life, and although the broader scope is important, sometimes it comes down to tiny details: the warmth of the sun on my face as I walk down the street with people I love, the shine of sunlight on mica chips on the trail, the texture of dirt, and yes, the anticipatory quietness of returning home to friends and family and lovers. I’m on a plane back to the place that is now my home and which I love in complex and distinctly different ways, but I feel more whole for having left and remembering some of the other places I love. They are all parts of me; I would not be who I am in Chicago if I hadn’t been the me that learned to love a dirty redneck desert town despite all odds.