Thankful

This year it is a little harder to be thankful because of the worry in my heart and in my head. I’ve had nightmares for weeks now, and I see how utterly deflated and shattered so many people I love look. The joking on Facebook and in person all feels a little hollow, a little forced, but I’m glad for it all the time. So let me do this little thing, take the moment to see what is, what isn’t yet, what may never be.

I am thankful tonight to have been invited to a thanksgiving dinner by queer friends with their families. I am thankful to have a too-full belly, a warm house, a life companion, and four bundles of fur who share my home. I am thankful I will see more people I care about on Saturday.

I am thankful for the right to dissent.

I am thankful for the social justice activists in my life, especially the elders who haven’t lost hope and who know how to buckle down and get things done. I’m thankful for those younger than me, their energy and fire and keen sense of justice.

I am thankful for those who went to Standing Rock to support the Protectors, and I am very, very thankful for the Protectors.

I am thankful to have time to sit down and think about what I’m thankful for, that I am not so overworked that all I can do with my time off is sleep and eat.

I am thankful to have people in my life who look to me to help them through, and I am thankful for those who get me through in turn.

I am thankful for the love and support people have shown my wife as she embraces a new adventure.

I am thankful to have the memory of the decent people who raised me, my mother and father and grandmother, all of whom I miss every family holiday, but in whose memory I try to make the world a little less mean and a little less scary. I am thankful that both my parents exited this world while Obama was president, and that they were the kind of people who were overjoyed that we had managed such a remarkable thing.

I am thankful for anyone and everyone who has made room for me at their table in this place where I have no family but my wife. I am thankful for everyone who is gracious in being alone or lonely this holiday, and my heart goes out to you. I am thankful to the older man who walked by my house today, who I wished a happy thankgiving to, and who looked at the heart in my window and smiled and winked back at me.

I am thankful for all of you who have had to gather your resources and senses in the past few weeks, who have tried to understand what happened, who have called on me and others like us not to give in to despair. I am thankful for every hug offered or requested.

There are so many things to be thankful for. May we all remember in these coming months that we have enough for everyone to have a little peace and a little joy.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

Fuck the Fear.

Fuck the fear. I’m not having it.

It is obvious tonight that America is not ready for the future, for progress, for inclusion. America just pushed back, and hard.

I was born of the white working class and raised by my anti racist, Catholic parents who were born in the middle of the great democratic experiment known as New York City.

And I am worried about the fears of white working class people – Christians and heterosexuals, for the most part – who are scared about the changes, who are scared of people like me and my wife, who are scared of Obama and smart black people, who are scared of faggots and immigrants and Muslims.

It’s because they don’t know us. It’s because they don’t know there is a way to live, to create community and art and love and ethics and beauty despite difference. They don’t know the awesome world we live in, and instead, they live in fear of who they think we are instead of who we actually are.

I have been white and heterosexual and Christian and I was raised, like most of us are, to denigrate queer folks and non-Christians and non whites. So many of us were. What changed me? What changed any of us? It was having the opportunity to be put in situations where I realized fear was something that limited me, that made me mean in ways I didn’t want to be. It gave me faith in things that had nothing to do with my worth – my skin color, my sexuality, my dominance as a Christian American – and so I could make space to welcome more kinds of people, more kinds of living, more kinds of beauty and community.

I also know that marginalized people are who create the world, over and over again. I teach the idea that those of us who do not have dominant viewpoints know not only what we know but also what the dominant folks know: women know how men think because we have to, because it keeps us safe. Black people know how racist white people are because it can keep them alive. And what we know, all of us who live on some liminal edge in this culture, is that we are up against it all the time.

Nothing has changed. Patriarchy, white supremacy, American exceptionalism, homophobia, capitalism and its woes – all of those things were with us yesterday and are still with us today.

We will find ways to persist, to create, to love, to keep each other safe. We will find new ways to combat suffering, to bring beauty and peace to the world.

Because the world, after all, is ours: the underdogs, the marginalized, the hated, the feared.

We know who we are. We know what it means to love deeply, to need beauty, to feel compassionately.

Those are the things that defeat fear. Those are the things that create community, that push progresss, that allow us to live with meaning, to practice love and patience and empathy.

We are it, folks. And we will prevail. Fuck fear. Love deeply, make art, create community, and ORGANIZE. We are better than their fear of us.

And the rest of you? Who voted out of fear, out of racism and misogyny and who are terrified of change, who are so awash in your own arrogance that you can’t even see our humanity? Get over yourselves; the future is coming and your goddamn vote isn’t going to stave it off much longer.

The future is ours. Try to get used to it.

Five Years: August 8th

August 8th, 8am, relieved dad had survived emergency surgery on his aorta. The hospital staff sent mom home after we’d been up while she waited. We did the rosary together, which I had to look up on the internet because I’d forgotten. It made us both feel better. We both, at long last, went to bed after that overnight vigil.

August 8th, 10am, woke up and got the news that he’d died.

Every August 8th since, I’ve called her. Until this one.

 

The one thing I’m sure of is that mourning is fucked. It’s as if you’re okay all the time except you really aren’t there. It’s easier to be unhappy with how things are; it’s easier to be tired.

The hardest thing for me is feeling like nothing really means much at all. How could it? You spend your life bringing home good grades, good news, bad news, news – everything is about collecting apples in your skirt to show your parents that you are okay, that you love them, that you’re managing. So who now is there to show?

When my grandma died so many years ago, my mom and I bonded over that. When my father died we did again. But now, you know? There isn’t that person anymore, the one who is like me in their loss. My mom and I had that in common, and she knew how deep my pain gets. The last week I spent with her, she told me to go back to Wisconsin, to be with my students. She excused me from that pain of watching her dwindle, of watching her disappear. She talked mostly to my father, to other people who weren’t there; the line between her dreams and waking life softened, broke, until there was no line at all. There was so little blood moving her body the muscles of her mouth and eyes didn’t work; she would listen attentively but couldn’t get her eyes to stay open. All systems were failing.

For hours at a time I held her hand. I learned what temperature washcloths needed to be so she wasn’t shocked by the hot or the cold of them. She didn’t really remember any stories; instead, I told them to her and she nodded along. She lived a lot of trauma but a lot of joy, too. Her father used to beat her, her mother, her sister, until he died when she was 18. She helped her mother raise her two younger siblings, and at 20, she met a man whose own father had died when he was 18, who was also the eldest of three. That must have been one hell of a first date, or third, or whenever it was that they figured out that they had all that in common.

He asked her to marry him seven times before she said yes, and he wasn’t that kind of egomaniac. He was barely confident, and it’s always been a mystery to me that he managed to persist so stubbornly. He just knew she was his wife, I think, in a way that superseded any failing on his part or on hers.

I am relieved she doesn’t have to miss him anymore.

I am not relieved I will miss them both for the whole of the rest of my life.

Five years ago today the colors of the world changed for me. Nearly three months ago their brightness faded like old construction paper on a grammar school wall. Mourning is looking around at all the things and seeing absolutely nothing that’s there but only what they used to mean, how they used to feel before, how little they signify now. It is waiting to bestow things with meaning again and knowing it isn’t time yet if ever. There is this: what is beautiful is beautiful in ways it never was before, and what’s ugly doesn’t matter half so much as it once did. I’ve stopped caring if anyone likes me or calls me because most of the time people spend their time complaining about things that don’t matter at all.

My love to all of you who have lost all of the parents you ever had no matter who they were or how they were or what they were to you.

What You Can’t Know

I don’t know how to do this. I keep reminding myself that nobody does but I have decisions to make: when to go home, for starters. My 47th birthday is Friday; my great niece isn’t born yet. Everyone wants to know when, Dr. Perl said, but no one can tell you that. So how long do you stay in a room watching her snore, oblivious to your presence? How long is dutiful, how long to repay her for your own life? I put her folded laundry away, wash my own socks and underwear in the sink.

I read.
I try to decide.
I talk to my wife about what to do.
I try to concoct a plan to get my hair dyed blue.
I respond to emails from students: yes, you can have an extension on your paper.

Suddenly there are 24 hundred hours in the day, all of them weighing too heavily.

It’s not when I’ve done what’s right. It’s not even when I’ve done what’s right by me, or for her. It’s more – how do I wait? More, how do I do this with grace? It’s more: could I ever be okay with leaving knowing I might not see her again? It’s knowing I will most likely get the call once I’m back in Wisconsin, based on what odds there are.

It will never feel right to go now, no matter when now is. There is no way to be there when she chooses to slip away. I may just be washing my hands, or typing this thing.

There are no guarantees of anything at all but this forward-moving, inexorable time, all the time, and the living going on living and the dying going on dying. Death is a giant fuck you to control freaks like me.

There is no easy way to do this. There is a way to do this, but it’s wrong. Every way sucks. I am offended by death for being so much, so terrible, but also nothing more than the passage from one minute to the next. I told people after my father’s death that the colors of the world changed. Now, I worry they will blanch, fade, disappear altogether. There is still no way to imagine a world without him in it and yet here I am, in this unimaginable world. It is spring in New York. It is spring in Wisconsin. Somewhere in the light of my mom’s eyes it is still the spring of her own life. Somewhere in there she has just met my father. Somewhere in there they have just conceived me; somewhere in there she is watching them fold the flag in tribute to his service to his country.

And that’s what goes: another link in the long chain of human memory, another lifetime further away from the first person who heard recorded sound or who walked across the Brooklyn Bridge or rode a train or heard a violin played the very first time, a not endless but exhaustively long line of links that lead to the start of things.

There is no way to do this. I’ll do this, with grace or inelegantly, with composure or keening or denial. Joe Heller once said he felt better about dying once he realized people dumber than him had done it. The same is true for mourning, I guess.

I still don’t know when to go or how to go; I still don’t know how to do this.

Here we go.

To Jimmy

That day when you sat, looking tired and wan yet tanned by the sun, on that incline of lawn that sloped up to your house next to mine.

You told me you were sick.

You told me you got sick from the needles you used to do the drug you learned to do in the Army, a drug that let you escape those horrors, one doorway into hell replaced by an addictive other.

You told me in your way that you’d had some good life, the backyard parties of our families, our shared love of beach & brine & sun & sand. I didn’t know you were dying.

Before you died you re-painted your mother’s house and you painted JF high on the chimney I could see out my bedroom window. The other thing I could see was that beautiful pin oak, which was one of the only big trees to survive Sandy. I thought of you all the time when I lived there. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know when you died; just that one day you were there and then you weren’t, and no one told me about your wake or your funeral. They were sparing me something, I think, or maybe there was nothing for you. That’s how it was sometimes then.

Your mom, you know, became a powerhouse – not that she ever wasn’t – but for your sake she started the first support groups for families; she worked to dispel the myths; she demanded answers, research.

She laughed one day so hard in my family’s kitchen when she heard the lyrics

and I think that god’s got a sick sense of humor

when I die I expect to find him laughing

So hard she laughed, too hard maybe. She laughed like she wasn’t a good Irish Catholic lady for a minute. But she was, wasn’t she? So much faith, endless faith she had in the beauty of a laugh or a night with friends and other small charms this sick world offers, and all of that faith despite all of the misery she survived. She was my mother’s best friend. My mom still misses her.

She never met your brother’s child, her first and only grandkid. Your brother did come around, my mom tells me, eventually, to take care of your kid sister after your mom died.

We always felt a little guilty next door. We all lived, flourished in our ways, despite arrests and never enough money and our own invisible family traumas. Somehow we all made it, despite everything. Your eldest brother – that brother, who denied your mother the right of ever knowing her only grandchild – and your kid sister are all of you now.

Today is like that day I saw you – blue skies and a late spring sun, dandelions in grass that can’t grow fast enough.

I’ll be teaching students born years after you died about the disease that killed you tomorrow if I can manage. If I can I’ll tell them about you, but probably I’ll just put up a link so they can read this if they want to. I want them to know about your beat-up jeans and the blade of grass in your hand and in your mouth, your short auburn curls full on your young head. You were younger than I am now, so much younger. You were a picture then, and still are in my head, a young man who never asked why me but only longed, perhaps, for another day in the sun, another cold one, another clam on the half shell.

Just so you know, Jimmy, someone who owned your house finally painted over your initials, and since I noticed I’ve taken to writing or carving your JF where I can. You’re never forgotten, not while I live at least, and I think, I hope, that you’d appreciate that one of us Kramers breaks the law on your behalf as often as she can. I think that might make you laugh, and here I am now, laughing on your behalf but crying for you too.

You would have been 60 this year.  Godspeed and say hi to your mom.

b. May 17, 1956

d. August 14, 1989

Spoon Theory

I’ve been suffering with a lot of pain lately – I’m scheduled for back surgery next week – and I’ve come to relate very personally with a theory I learned via disability studies. It’s called the Spoon Theory, and the basic premise is this: for everything you do in a day, you expend a certain amount of energy and effort. For most people who are able-bodied, there’s an endless number of spoons, but for those with lupus and other conditions that leave them differently abled, there is a set number that they have to guard carefully in order to get through a day.

Here’s the original post about Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino.

It takes me twice as long to walk to work, for instance. Putting on socks is a kind of torture. I use up a lot of spoons doing ordinary, easy things, and because I’m on pain meds, I lose a few more spoons – not physical ones, but mental ones – loss of focus, inability to concentrate, etc.

I’ve been very lucky: having no chronic physical ailments, and mental health issues that have been helped by decent access to health care. But this recent injury has made me so much more aware of how much the world is designed for people who don’t need breaks to rest, who can sit or stand or walk or sleep when they need to, who don’t have to figure out how to manage limited energy and focus to get through an ordinary day.

I hope I don’t forget once I’ve recovered from my surgery, so that I keep working to make the world a little easier for those who carefully count, and guard, their spoons every single day.

For Bryn

I have not written about Bryn’s death because it knocked the stuffing out of me. We were not close friends, by any means; we knew each other the way two people who do trans work and live in Brooklyn know each other; she hung out with people we know, she dated someone we know, she was at things we went to.

But she was 10 years younger than us, part of a younger set of trans people we met through theatre and writing and activism; I used to say there was something in the water in our part of Brooklyn because it was as if everyone we knew was trans or dating someone who was.

And there is something about being a decade older than a lovely, bright, spiky, vivacious young person that makes you hope that their struggle will not be as hard, that they will find a way to make a good living and find love with someone who respects them, or, if they don’t, that they will find ways to make art that will allow them to feel loved and respected; that they will have friends to drink with and dress up with and at least have great sex with. But mostly, that they will live to be old, at least as old as you are, so that together you might end up at a party and look at the people a decade younger and wish together that their lives might not be as hard, that they will find a way to make a good living…

Bryn had both an old soul and a young, young heart. She was beautiful – the kind of beautiful you tried not to stare at – and she wore her beauty as if it was nothing important. I know it had to be because of the work she did – hair and makeup for others – and she seemed the same about her writing. My memory of her was that she had a “this old thing?” ready for any compliment paid her.

Then you read this, this big hearted, funny, sexy, deeply loving piece that she wrote to her fellow trans women, and you wonder how in the world we will get along without her voice:

“I love your profound insecurity. I love you even when you lash out at the world, at your loves, and at yourself. I love you when you’re hurting. I love the myriad forms your pain takes. I love how funny you can be when you’re ripping someone to shreds with your tongue. I love that when you observe something hilarious that no one else has noticed, because you’re so good at noticing the ridiculous. I email my love to you when you stop talking to anyone for three days. I love your wild and volatile sexuality. I love your quiet and conscious affection. I love your emotional acumen and your emotional black spots that you could drive a truck through. I love female energy, whatever the hell that is, all I know is that you got it. I love getting all our bodies and ourselves over the nitty gritty stuff that our bodies go through, and the ingenious methods we invent to access care. I love how we are each other’s best therapists and worst enemies. I love it when you embarrass me. I love it when you inspire me. I love it when you make me laugh. I love it when you read me the filth. I love it when you make yourself vulnerable. I love it when we feel safe with each other.” 

(You can watch her read this piece at the 33:27 mark of this video.)

I wish there had been something, anything, I could have done or anyone could have done to keep her with us.

Please, my beautiful trans peeps, grow old so that I can run into you at a party and we can look at the younger people in the room and hope against hope that their lives will not be so hard, so full of struggle, that they will find a way… Mostly I want to run into you at a party and wish, with you, that all the beautiful fucked up young people will live to grow old and join us in wishing that next bright generation a bright, smart, glamorous, sexy kind of peace.

Love to you Bryn. You took a piece of this skeptical, disappointed heart with you, and I’m sure you had no idea how many of us loved you. & Love to all of you who knew her well, who knew far better than me what kind of light we have lost. Please take care of each other, and please never ever think twice about reaching out to me if you need to.

Her memorial is on February 6th at Saint John the Divine at 7:30PM. I so wish I could be there. I am hoping those of us who can’t be there might spend the day reading her work, alone or to others, but if you haven’t, make sure you read her Other Balms, Other Gileads.

The Toe Rule for Allies

I’ve been working on trans issues as a non-trans person for long, long time, and there’s really one rule that I find the most useful. Not that I’ve always managed it, but still.

Here’s the deal: when you step on someone’s toe and they say “OW, damn, you stepped on my toe!”, your response is not:

“Why was your toe there?”

“I hardly stepped on it!”

“But I didn’t mean to!”

or even

“Why are you using that tone with me?”

No, when you step on someone’s toe you say “I’m sorry.”

So when you’re called out for being a dick in whatever way – and believe me, I’ve been called out a gazillion times – you check with the toe rule. If you’re responding initially with anything but “I’m sorry, what did I do?” then you’re not responding right.

That doesn’t mean the charge is always just. It doesn’t mean you meant to step on that person’s toe, or that you did it maliciously, or that you make a habit of stepping on people’s toes. You just did, and it’s better to say sorry and sort out the rest later.

Mad Us: The End of Mad Men

Mad Men isn’t about Joan or Peggy or Don or Betty or Roger or feminism or the 60s or NYC or advertising; it’s not about drinking or smoking or the clothes or the era.

It’s about mid-life and it’s for anyone who has woken up unhappy in some unnamable way after the age of 30. It’s for anyone who grew up knowing they were in for a bright future who woke up with a lot of things they wanted and some they didn’t and tried to get out from under this tremendous sense of disappointment. It’s for anyone who expected to live fiercely and die young who didn’t.

Don Draper is in his mid 30s when the show starts in 1960; it ends late in 1970. It is that decade – the decade of the midlife crisis, the U-curve. It’s the decade when you start to look around or are still in the middle of busily building your life – getting that job, the place to live, kids, spouse. It’s when you finally come up for air after aspiring to so much, of becoming an adult of whatever kind you are or avoiding becoming one altogether.

Is that all there is my friends? is what you ask. I have done these things, read these books, started my life, found love, lost it, found it again, with the same person or a new one, maybe settled for stable over passionate.

It is when your body first starts to tell you that maybe you drink too much or need to quit smoking but you don’t really feel old yet; it’s not until your 40s that you realize that perhaps that stiff knee is only going to get stiffer with time, that it’s never going to feel wholly better.

As a woman it’s the moment you realize you have probably already been the most attractive the culture will allow you to be – which has nothing whatsoever to do with how attractive you are, of course – but it’s also the moment when you realize you have some small authority in whatever your world.

You think about the plans you made and didn’t achieve and the ones you did and your friends’ plans and what they did and didn’t do. It’s when your friend who always wanted to be a writer becomes one and then realizes they got into it for all the wrong reasons or they got into it for the right reasons but those weren’t the ones that made them successful. It’s when the people who make money realize they need meaning and the people who have lived in the moment and for meaning realize they need some money.

It’s when you wonder if you should have married that guy you didn’t marry or whether that woman you did marry was the right one. It’s the decade when you realize you have young children and that your life is about them now, not so much about you, but it’s also the decade when you realize it never was about them but really about you – what you wanted to be as a parent and what you actually are. It’s about sitting on what it means not to be a parent when you realize you’re never going to be one.

It’s when you buy a metaphorical red sports car or dye your hair red or start running marathons even though you never have before.

That decade is when the sex you had in your 20s starts to look unnecessarily athletic and oddly unfocused. It’s when you wonder if you actually knew what turned you on and what didn’t and whether you actually ever experienced an orgasm the way you have more recently. It’s when you realize that getting older physically isn’t so much about your looks or gravity or love handles but about the quality of your skin. You look at young people and wonder if they know how dewy and newborn they look and why you didn’t realize that when it was true about you.

It’s the decade when people divide themselves into two groups – of those who have lost parents and those who haven’t, and the former group gets bigger every day, every month, and you wish it wouldn’t have to.

Mad Men is about all the bad choices that turned out to be great ones and the great ones that turned out to be delusions and the unwitting way you start to live more carefully even if you don’t intend to. It’s about being in love with the person you don’t have and resenting the person who loves you the most. It’s when wild celebrations start to hum with sadness and when sad things start to make you happy in ineffable ways.

Mad Men is about the people who give up everything to grasp some brass ring, about how things you know are going to go away actually do find a way to go away no matter how much you want to keep them. It’s about telling yourself that someone, somewhere has to be perfectly happy with the choices they’ve made and telling yourself that someone somewhere is a smug asshole who has only ever hurt other people.

It’s about owning what you’re ashamed of and what others shame you for; it’s about how you live out the ways that you’re broken.

It’s about how you let go of what you once had.

It’s about when you want others to be happy because someone should be.

It’s when you stop competing with everyone else and realize you’ve never cared about anyone’s opinion but your own, anyway.

Mad Men
is a story about growing up and growing old, about the deep faith of cynics and the cheap virtue of idealists.

It’s painfully American and remarkably well dressed. It’s about happiness being that thing you have until you need more happiness. It’s about knowing which is the temporary bandage and which is the permanent wound.

It’s about knowing that that is all there is and that’s more than you ever dreamed was possible.

So let’s keep dancing.

Birthday.

So it is mine, today. My 46th. & As many of you know, I share it with my wife: we were born the same year, on the same day, but in two different states (and to two different sets of parents, of course).

There’s something about aging as a writer that makes you more impatient for your own time, so yesterday’s awesome response to my summer writing fund has cheered me immeasurably. I’m so thrilled that so many have responded so kindly, with suggestions for the kinds of things I might offer if I do that IndieGoGo campaign, but mostly because it means people want to read my next book.

I worry, you know, about being this odd cis person writing about trans issues. I don’t like to step on toes and try to follow most of the rules about being a good “ally” – and I put that in scare quotes because I don’t really feel like that. Lately I’ve been using “co conspirator” because it feels a lot more accurate.)

But thank you, all of you. The donations have been awesome & I hope they keep coming so I can stop worrying – that’s really the thing more than anything: getting more distracting thoughts out of your head so the writing can happen unimpeded. I’m really looking forward to surprising you all with what I come up with. This book, more than the others, feels important to me.

Do feel free to spread the word: every little bit counts. & In the meantime, I’m going to start my 46th year.