So, you’re trans. Don’t you think the obvious first question is: When did you know you were a boy? Did you always feel “born in the wrong body”? And, while we’re at it, was your family cool with your transition? And how wild is it to know what it’s like to be BOTH genders?

I don’t think that any of these are obvious first questions, no. 

Wait–but you write about being trans. Don’t you?

Sort of! Did you read Amateur?

I did. 

What would you say it’s about?

Here’s the start of the story and it’s a good story and this one is true.

Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is from North Carolina and we met on the internet because she went on a book tour with my friend Bud Smith and Bud told her some stories about me and then Bud told me some stories about her.

We exchanged numbers and texted and talked on the phone and I told her to listen to the song ‘House Cat’ by Mark Kozelek and she sent me a video of a hooting owl.

And then she sent me a postcard.

 

Language needs a few new relationship words. Particularly boyfriend.

I’ll allow the issue of boy having a troubled history to speak for itself. Except to add that Black jazz musicians in the 40s began calling each other man because of the Jim Crow practice of referring to them as boys. This then is the root of the all-encompassing pronoun-slash-exclamation man used by most musicians, then bleeding into beatniks and out to many other bonded male groups: athletes, actors, (poets?).

But also, while women don’t mind (even, in my case, prefer) to be called girls, men don’t usually refer to themselves, individually, as boys. As in I’m a boy who likes ___. Yes, there’s the old standard one of the boys. Or boys’ night out. Or even my boys (although that could mean the male anatomy that comes in a pair, but I’ve never heard a woman refer to her breasts or ovaries as “my girls.”)

 

 

As I drove further away from downtown, the houses and sidewalks became progressively neglected. Like forgotten memories in an old attic. Like the unloved pages of an old dusty photo album, some complete, yet frayed–overflowing with used-up cheer. Others, abandoned, with only the peculiar unblinking gaze of an unnamed child–questioning and accusing all at once—staring out from among dubious, brown, square-shaped stains, the only proof that there was more to the story; that more had once existed. Proof that here was once a happy, bustling, productive community. A thoroughfare of dreams, once cherished and kept tidy and neat, to proudly display the depth of love, the fullness of life, of one family. One community. With its empty lots between every other house and its broken sidewalks and time-tested aluminum fences dislocated by century-old oak trees, Columbia’s North Main Street was such a forgotten piece of history.

Get to know me: I die for books but I live for television. The former is my bff, the latter is my one true love. Give me a meaty, well-written drama with an ensemble cast of Emmy nominees who can transport me to another time, place, or life experience, and I’ll binge it on a loop until it becomes embedded in my emotional memory like a song. Earlier this year, ER, the 15-seasons-long saga of daily life at County General in Chicago from the perspective of its emergency department, finally became available to stream (on Hulu). Created by novelist Michael Crichton, the show debuted in 1994 and holds up like a motherfucker; even its so-called bad seasons toward the end that no longer included anyone from the original cast make Grey’s Anatomy look like General Hospital when it comes to its medicine. Never pandering to its audience, ER calls procedures by their proper names and manages to educate, even as it works to destroy you emotionally with its too-often relatable human dramas. So, for months I’ve been watching all 335 hours of the show at home. Since episodes are often on as background noise the way some people do with NPR, I figured I’ve absorbed at least 1,000 hours of medical school by now, practically a junior resident. Right when I was missing the high of seeing an undiscovered episode ever again, I had the pleasure of meeting editor Megha Majumdar at Catapult, who told me about Paul Seward, MD, a now-retired pediatrician turned emergency department specialist, whose first book Patient Care is just as mesmerizing a read as seasons 1 – 4 are to watch. I couldn’t put it down.

 

In the winter of 1992, my sister got married.  A year before the wedding, she asked me if I would grow my hair shoulder length for the occasion. At the time, I was twenty years old and just beginning to come to terms with owning a transgender identity (though I didn’t yet have words for it). But the dynamics of my gender “situation” had been playing out in my family life since my earliest memories. Stuffed into dresses for synagogue despite putting up a fight  (always a losing battle), or hiding in the dining room so as not to be stuffed into a dress (laying on the chairs tucked under the table) until I (quickly) got too bored to stay there, and then was summarily stuffed into a dress and off we went. I hated dresses, but I actually liked synagogue. The rabbi had a thick New York accent. He was a teller of fables, the kinds with foxes in them, and grapes, and though there was a moral at the end of each story, his stories were about the journey as much as the destination, and he always had a playful lilt to his voice and a twinkle in his eye.

 

A month after the shooting, I held a yard sale. Out with the self-help books, the roller skates, the painting of the fortune-telling cat. Have to make enough money to get out of Orlando.

A pink woman crisscrossed my lawn, a Margaritaville visor shielding her broad face from the sun as she connected the dots: The Judy Garland vinyl, the stack of old Vogues, me in my denim cutoffs sipping a mimosa at 9AM. She tilted her head my way, and maybe in that moment put it all together. He’s gay. He’s available. He must have something to say about Pulse.

Was I friends with anyone who was murdered that night, the visor was curious. I smiled so I wouldn’t lose her. It was too early to talk about dead bodies, however, was she interested in a drink or perhaps a gently-used cocktail shaker I can’t figure out how to open, though I’m sure if you just run it under hot water…

She was proud of me, she said.

So no to the shaker?

Proud of us.

I had to make enough money to get out of Orlando.

Pulse, the bar with the watered down drinks and the impossible parking and the annoying chain-mail curtain you had to push through to enter, was gone. People like us were wanted gone.

So what was it that she was proud of? That I didn’t die? Or that I found a way to keep living? I know what she wanted, it’s what everyone wanted when they gave me their sad looks.

Tell me about it you poor, poor boy.

Congrats on publishing your first book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death Defying Acts. How exciting! It must be wild to walk down the street and have people recognize you and take pictures with you and stuff!

That’s never happened.

 

Hm. Even when you stand in a bookstore and hold the book up in front of your head so a passerby can see that your face matches the face on the back of the jacket?

Right. Not then either.

Gaze

By Tamara Sellman

Essay

 

It’s a perfect night for sleeping outside. I told my husband so, but he said I was crazy.

Why would you want to do that?

I dunno. Fresh air? A chance to be swallowed by the night sky? To watch the Perseids?

I spend all day at work on a computer. Craving the aboriginal—dreamtime in suburbia—is nothing if not an act of psychic survival.

Whatever.

I flatten a sleeping bag on the sun chair, plump a buckwheat pillow. I hear my husband now, snoring through the open window above me. I unzip my down wrapping, find carbon-free climate control by slipping my foot into the cool August night.

Rock, Paper, Sister

Private Practice: 30 Years Later

June 8

Nick had presence. He was a tall, solid bodybuilder. Sharp, chiseled angles defined his jaw and shoulders. He wore a worn green T-shirt and jeans to his first therapy session. The muscles in his chest and arms were more defined than on anyone I’d ever seen. When he shook my hand, it felt like he wore a catcher’s mitt. I could barely get my hand around his.

I don’t intimidate easily, but I felt humbled by his size. He seemed a yin-yang blend of power and stillness.

American Snake Pit is a powerful title for your memoir-but the subtitle is even more intriguing: Hope, Grit, And Resilience In The Wake Of Willowbrook. Can you tell us where it came from?

The title came from Bobby Kennedy in 1965, after he toured an unannounced visit to Willowbrook, a large institution in Staten Island, New York. He stood shaken in front of the cameras and said: “We have a situation that borders on a snake pit.” That film clip really grabbed my interest and American Snake Pit was born. But in spite of this ominous image of a “snake pit,” this is a book about hope. The tremendous courage, bravery, and hidden skills of the people I helped move into the community by way of this experimental group home is astounding. It’s what’s possible when people are given the right opportunities.

 

My aunt died in a car accident when I was six. We buried her, a fetus in her belly. She was only 26.

I try not to hear my own biological clock ticking. I came across a chart. It was labeled, “The Age Factor.” There’s a picture of a healthy pregnant woman. Above her, the caption: “Likelihood of a woman conceiving after trying for a year.” To the right of her belly are percentages broken down by age group. My group, 40-44 is 36%, not bad, but the one after it, the one I’ll be in soon, 45-49, is only 5%.

Sunday morning, in my twenties, a baby is crying somewhere in the apartment complex. I lie in bed amazed at its fierce demand. I want not to cry. My father always said, Don’t cry, or I’ll give you something to cry about. I learned to cry softly so no one would be bothered by it, to do it with muffled sniffles and the silent roll of hot tears, not like this baby, crying with all its might. After a few hours, I wonder if I’m hearing things. Is that a baby or just my own sorrow? Finally, another neighbor yells, “Shut that fucking baby up. I’m trying to sleep.” The baby stops so suddenly I wonder if they’ve put a pillow over her face.

This month, the TNB Book Club is reading Trip: Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change, by Tao Lin.   Available now from Vintage Originals, Trip is a remarkable and sometimes harrowing exploration of creativity, Terence McKenna, language, imagination, and, yes, drugs.  This is Lin’s first nonfiction book, a fascinating window into his life and work and deepest interests.  

What’s up with this book?

I had no capacity to take new clients and I turned down everyone who reached. There was no one to even refer them to. I am the only person (that I am aware of) who does this specific set of services for artists with my precise training. I thought if I wrote it all down in a book, I could be of service to more artists.

Then the 2016 presidential election vomited all over America. I quickly wrote up a pamphlet called Making Art During Fascism as a toolkit to help artists think about how to maintain their lives, their practices, and their (probable) increased activism. My friend, the writer Michelle Tea, asked if I wanted to expand this pamphlet into a short volume for Feminist Press where she’d recently launched the imprint Amythest Editions. I both expanded that pamphlet and incorporated a written account of what it is I do with artists. That’s how this all went down!

You’re an Artist, Keep Making Art

The realization that art could first save and then expand my life came when I was a teenager in a troubled home. Life with my mentally ill mom and alcoholic dad near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the Internet, was difficult. A smart, queer feminist without the language to talk about any of it—let alone identify with those lineages—I was profoundly depressed and mostly miserable. I ached for art and counterculture (remember that word?), but they were really hard to come by in small Rust Belt towns in the nineties. I read books, made zines, bought 45s, and ordered Sub Pop record catalogs out of the back of SPIN magazine, which at the time was a wonderland filled with mysterious ads for things like The Anarchist Cookbook.