Thursday, July 30, 2015

What Did it Mean to Me?

The bookstore where I work has been doing "Pop Culture" month all of July.  Each Thursday has been a "throwback Thursday" with each Thursday being a different decade, starting with the 1950's. We are encouraged to wear period clothes.  I had nothing for the 1950's, so I just wore standard stuff.

For the 60's, I had plenty.  I wore a tie dyed shirt that a bought a block from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco along with one of my peasant skirts.

Picture cropped as I don't have permission to show everyone in it

For the next week, 1970's, I wore the closest approximation that I had to a disco dress.  No one took pictures.  I guess it wasn't that memorable.  Halfway through the shift, I realized that this was not the first time I'd worn this dress to the bookstore- I'd done it years before, but as Monique.

"Monique" in the bookstore break room

I was SO ready for the 1980's.  I was born in the 1966, so my high school and University years were the 1980's.  I borrowed a Jams painters cap (with tails) from Wife.  It was from 1984, and was all the rage back then.

Yes, this was stylish once

I went to Party City for tights, earrings and scrunchies (which I wore on my wrist instead of my hair, and wore a bright blue sleeveless top I had along with a short mini skirt.  I was totally gnarly!

So during each week, we played music from the appropriate decade.  I brought in CDs for the 60's, 70's, and of course the 80's,  (I have a LOT of 80's CDs.)  One of my coworkers is in her early 20's and asked me an interesting question.  You see, she loves 80's music and stuff, and said she wishes she were born earlier so she could've experienced it all first hand.  I replied she would then be as old as I am, at which she laughed.  She then asked me "What was it like growing up in the 80's?"

What was it like growing up in the 80's?

Wow.  I know that everyone of my generation will have a different answer to this colored by what happened in their own lives then and since.  For example, I was quite politically active back then (and now) and that colors my perceptions.  I spoke to one of the managers at the bookstore who is also roughly of my generation.  She is African American, and we discussed how different our experiences were back then.  Radically different.  As I imagine they are for today's youth from different backgrounds and ethnicity.

SO... what were the 80s like for me.  Well, when they began, I was 13 and when they ended I was 23... a significant time for growth and change.  For me, there were a few distinct phases I can classify.  Of course they all blended together as time does, but well, here it is.

Early 1980s.  ~1980-~84  This is the time that everyone thinks about when they think about the 80s.  This time was the time of the "New Romantics:"  Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Ultravox, Human League, etc.  At this time, MTV had youth culture by the nose and were kicking us in the ass... even in small towns like mine.  This was the era of deregulation and the "Yuppie."  The beginning of truly conspicuous consumption.

Newsweek article on Yuppies

In 1982, I got my first "real" job, and my parents started leaving me alone in the house when they went away.  It was an era of new-found independence for me... and I loved it.  This is when I started crossdressing.  I knew I was different.  And I was SO ashamed of what I was doing.  I felt even worse when I bought clothes through the Sears catalog with my Burger King money.  I did the whole buy/purge thing several times.  You see, back then TG people were considered perverts, freaks, or worse.  I had a secret, so I withdrew from people rather than risk them discovering that secret.  Oh I had a few friends, and this is where being extremely unpopular helped.  (My unpopularity was not due to my withdrawal; I'd been unpopular since I was old enough to interact with other kids.)

It was a time of upheaval.  Nuclear Armageddon was a push button away, and we all knew it.  It added an "edge" to everything that, really, doesn't exist now.  Mine was the last generation to grow up with the fear of the Soviet Union blowing us to atoms.  It made everything seem, I don't know, more "live for today as tomorrow we may all be dead."

This is also when I trained to become an EMT.  I really wanted to help people.  And it seemed like a way to meet girls.  I couldn't get a date if I hung $100 bills around my neck.  Let's face it, I was a "late bloomer" and girls wanted guys who were, well, manly.  This was the era of Schwarzenegger and Stallone after all!


It was here that my political beliefs began to gel.  I was quite young when the whole Nixon/Watergate thing happened, and I saw what harm one person could do to a country.  And I saw all the conspicuous consumption and deregulation while the poor got poorer... and Reagan was doing things like cutting funds to and closing homes for the mentally challenged (a BIG one was just outside of my town, and all the residents who had no families came to my town or the neighboring one, where many got hit by cars.)  I began writing letters to my congressmen and senators, asking "why is **** happening when ****?" I never received any replies.  (Note- back then we had both parties represented in our area.)

I remember mostly the summers then, and how hot they were.  Winters were always a bleak time for me, so I guess I blocked them out.  I did a LOT of walking in the summer, just to think... and to be NOT dressing.  I especially did a lot of walking after my bike was stolen in 1983.

My first major depression hit in the summer of 1983.  Everyone else had such a bright future ahead (so it seemed) while I, well, how could a freak have a future?  And that's when the family dog Sabre died.  I really loved that dog.  I used to talk to him all the time as he accompanied me on walks.  He was my only confidant about my crossdressing.  And he died.  Soon after, my depression really took hold and I began spiraling out of control, ending with my being fired from my job.  (I was later re-hired.)  I met a girl in early 1984, and we dated for two years, but I didn't know how to handle that.  I also graduated High School in 1984.  By then, I had decided to stop crossdressing and to prove myself a man.  After all, only freaks crossdressed.  That's when I started martial arts.

Yes, this was a real movie.

Mid 80s: 1984-7:  In Summer of 1984, there was a major cultural shift... and as often happens, the music was among the causes.  In June 1984, Bruce Springsteen released Born in the USA.  And wow, suddenly EVERYONE was patriotic, and wearing Levis.  the early 80s scene of androgeny and all that were dead... killed by Bruce's homespun music.  And Reagan was running for re-election, so he did his best to co-opt this spirit.  Movies that were all "rah rah America" were all the rage: Red Dawn, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rocky IV, and of course, Top Gun.

In 1984, I started college... at Drexel University in Philadelphia.  The dorms were in one of the poorest parts of town.  I saw urban decay and hopelessness first hand.  I joined a fraternity so to prove my manhood to myself (and because the guys were really great.)  For many reasons, I decided that engineering (which I took to placate my father) wasn't for me.  I decided to serve humanity- as a teacher.  And I transferred to Penn State in 1986.

Penn State HUB lawn, May 1987.  Most of this has been since built over

The later Reagan years were a time of upheaval.  Iran Contra came to light, and many of Reagan's advisers and staff were going to jail for almost every crime under the sun.  America's confidence was falling apart.  And the music?  All corporate stuff- this was the rise of the "classic rock" format that still dominates radio today to a point.  New bands couldn't get airplay, so went underground.  Eventually, many would emerge in the early 1990s.  I became VERY politically active at PSU, attending anti-Reagan rallies, anti-apartheid events, speaking my mind and generally agitating.

We didn't have internet, and cell phones were for the rich.  Research meant going to the library.  I had the ONLY personal computer in the fraternity house at PSU (my Macintosh.)  People still wrote letters.  Long distance calls were uncommon as they were expensive... especially at a pay phone.  In fact, most dorm rooms didn't have phones- there was a "hall" pay phone where everyone took turns.

I've written a whole book on my time at Penn State.  I drank a LOT- in fact I found I had an amazing capacity for it.  It was a way I was better than other guys.  Never mind that my grades suffered a bit.  That's also when I started getting into fights.  Big Mouth, no social skills, plus alcohol... fights.  I thought I'd beaten the whole TG thing, but it was there, stirring in the back of my head, slowly driving me insane.  I transferred to the Penn State chapter of my fraternity, and they knew I was different.  Most of them never let me forget it.  And the worst thing was: they were right.

I loved my time at PSU despite all that.  Really.  It was at PSU that I learned Purpose.  I learned limits, and how low I could sink... or so I thought.  I found myself in adult relationships with adult problems.  And know what?  I loved it.  I was truly on my own.

Late 80's:  1987-1989: Somewhere around 1987, things shifted again. The music became tougher.  It was the time of Guns and Roses.  Hair bands.  Rap became the music of the Street.  Things just seemed more... bleak.  The stock market crashed in October of '87 and the world was in a post-Reagan hangover.  Hell, even Springsteen's new album was full of unsettling songs about things falling apart, especially his marriage. What I remember most from those days were the hot summer of 1988, when I stayed up at school (to take some classes I missed and because I couldn't stand being home with my brother.) But I remember that time most as wintry, bleak, and cold.  After all, I was at a school in the mountains.

Gloomy day at the Fraternity House, Spring 1987

I did my student teaching in Spring of 1989, and graduated at the end of that semester.  And moved back to my parent's house.  By then I was heavily depressed; as a relationship went seriously bad, I was away from a place that I loved, and I was back in Spring City.  This was the era of George HW Bush... and HIGH unemployment.  After a couple of false starts in various schools and odd jobs, I ended the decade waiting tables at TGI Fridays.

My "flair" from my Fridays days... yes I still have this.

The depression was deepening as the 1980's closed.  I was beginning to get suicidal.  My suicide attempt would occur in October of 1990.  That rage of bottled up feelings, of my secret, of drinking, and my inability to hold onto a relationship or find a "real" job had me convinced that I had no future.  The Darkness had me...


What did the 80's mean to me?

It was my time to "grow up."  The child grew into the man she didn't want to be.  America in many ways changed radically as it tried to redefine itself after the mess of Watergate and the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the OPEC embargo.  And we, as the young adults of the time, led a lot of that change, at least culturally.  We were labelled as Generation X, and we were picking up the pieces of the world that the boomers were screwing up... and we arguably would screw it up worse.

The 80's were a time of unspeakable pain as I forced myself to deny my true gender.  There were some good times, to be sure... VERY good times.  But the pain increased exponentially until finally I attempted suicide.  And after that I was a hate filled shell which I filled with alcohol.  It was only through the love of my Wife that I lived to re-discover myself in 2008.  And I thanked her by transitioning.

All the pain, all the Wagnerian drama, the depressions, the Loves...  I wouldn't trade it for the world.    It was my life.  I grew up in MY time... and as such am a product of it.  I am a Child of the 80's.  And as my generation gets older we come to grips with what that means.  Many of us are raising or have raised children whom we hope will inherit this world, as we did from our parents.

The generation before us had the 60's and all the meant.  The music- the culture- the pain.  We had the 80's.  Our children have Now.

And in many ways, I am still a child.  I will never stop learning.  And in many ways, will never grow up.  I'm starting my life over... now as the Woman I was born to be.  I have a daughter.

For the first time in my life, I'm excited about the Future.  And for me, that journey truly began over thirty years ago.

In the 80's.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flowers in the Wheatfield

This was originally posted on TG Forum.  It didn't get many hits there (half my usual)  so I'm seeing how it does here.

I really like how this came out.


Yesterday, (July 10) I traveled to the Gettysburg Battlefield with my roomie, Linda Lewis.  For those of you who don’t know history, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the site of the bloodiest battle of the US Civil War.  It was here that over 50,000 people died in a struggle to determine whether or not the USA would continue to enslave others, or if all Americans had equal rights under the law.  In many ways, this battle continues today.

Artillery on Culp's Hill

This was only Linda’s second time there, while I have been there dozens of times, usually alone.  I could write a book on the many reasons I return there again and again.  Is it the deep history of this place?  The fact that so many died here fighting for an idea… an idea that still powers our nation today?  Do I go to see the beautiful countryside?  All these and more.  When I lived in Baltimore, I was only a little over an hour away from the battlefield.  It was a short trip for a great time. 

Yesterday was gloriously sunny, and while humid, it wasn’t as bad as the previous days.  Climbing around the hills and rocks, I could only imagine what it was like for the soldiers, who did the same in similar weather, but wearing heavy wool uniforms and carrying all that weight of their gear.  The last time Linda and I were there, it was freezing cold and the high winds blew the snow from the fields into our faces.  This time, we concentrated on places that we hadn’t gone in our previous trip, but revisited some places.  We went to the Visitor’s Center, the “High Water mark,” climbed Big Round Top (easier without the ice, but still tough), and visited Culp’s Hill on the Union Right.  We also toured the Wheatfield and PeachOrchard.

The sun was setting.  Linda and I walked out across the Wheatfield to look at a marker in the middle.  Here, where we walked, 20, 444 men fought back and forth, and over six thousand were killed or wounded.  The ground was soaked in blood.  Now, it was a peaceful meadow guarded by stone monuments to those who had fought there. 

We were walking back to the car when something caught my attention.  Wildflowers.  Nothing out of place in a meadow, but here… here where so many died…
I thought about that.  And I took a picture of the flowers.  And I thought some more.  The flowers said so much about life. 

152 years ago, this field was covered by the bodies of those who had fought.  The ground was torn by shot and shell.  It would take years, but eventually it became a peaceful place again. 

Life can be cruel, as we all know.  Things happen to tear our lives apart.  Being trans does that on its own.  We suffer so many losses.  I lost my marriage.  I still mourn daily the loss of one of my dearest friends nearly two years ago.  These are still open wounds- wounds I know I will carry forever.  But... like this flower… perhaps someday in the scars of these wounds, something beautiful can arise.  It will take time, to be sure.  But time does heal.

The Flowers in the Wheatfield

These flowers are proof.  Families forgiving the man who slaughtered their relatives due only to hate is proof.  Maybe someday I can heal, and the ground that currently is injured will flower.

And maybe this is why I still go to places like Gettysburg: because the lessons they teach go beyond just history.  

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Working for a Living

I had a pretty rotten day at work today.

There I said it.

As I've written before, I work at a bookstore.  Retail.  At least it's full time work with benefits, and I really like the people I work with.  That helps.

I've held many jobs in my life, as I've been working since I was 12.

I was texting recently with my dear friend, the gorgeous Olivia Loren, and we were discussing jobs we've held in our lifetimes.  We had one in common: we both delivered newspapers back in the day.  That was my first job; I delivered the Evening Phoenix in my home town of Spring City.

With Olivia at Keystone 2015

I didn't start this job voluntarily.  You see, my older brother had the paper route.  But he also went out for Football.  So all of the junior high football season, I had to deliver the papers on his route.  He would deliver one day only: Saturday.  That's when he did the weekly collection.  You see, back then, collection was done by knocking on the person's door and asking them to pay up.  Usually they did, and would give you a little something extra for the effort.  From the few times I worked a Saturday, I knew that the paper route cleared over $40 a week in tips, usually. That was good money for a kid back then.  And my brother did the collecting.  So he worked one day a week, and I did the rest.  And how much did I get?  $5 a week.  And I usually had to force it out of him.  Why only that amount?  That's the number my parents set.  So I did 5/6 of the work, and he got 7/8 of the money.

I didn't think that was fair.

Eventually I decided to get my own route.  And I ended up with the biggest Phoenix route in Spring City when the guy doing it before me gave it up.  It was three times the papers, but it was also three times the money.  And the following fall, I did my route AND my brother's... and still got only $5 for that.  Why didn't I refuse?  My parents were adamant that the papers MUST be delivered so I HAD to do it, as he needed to keep the job while playing football.

I held onto my route for a few years.  I remember delivering papers during the whole Three Mile Island disaster.  Gas was only 81 cents a gallon then.  I remember that clearly.  Candy bars were a quarter.

In 1982, I quit the paper route, and got my first "real" job.  Burger King opened in 1981 in our town, and every kid wanted to work there.  To us provincial small town types, this was a glamorous job!  I met many really great people there.  It took a while for me to be accepted, as I was very shy and introverted.  People thought I was weird.  But one of the "cool" guys took me under his wing: Chuck Tyson.  And we became good friends.  Chuck vouched for me, and I was in.  Chuck died in the mid-90s of lung cancer, despite having never smoked a day in his life.  I saw many of my BK friends at his funeral.  In fact, it was the last time I'd seen most of them.

By the summer of 1983, all the "in-crowd" guys from my grade worked at Burger King- and I trained them all.  I had a window in what the popular people were really like.  A few of them were genuinely nice people.  They included me in after work antics, like jumping the fence at the local swim club for midnight swims.  And when school started again (after I'd been fired and rehired for yelling at a manager), they acknowledged my existence in school as well.

By this point, I had started dressing.  And I used Burger King money to mail order things from the Sears catalog (remember those?).  I saved most of my money though- I knew I'd need it for college.

During this time I was also volunteering on the local Rescue Squad and Ambulance as an Emergency Medical technician.

I was fired from BK again after I graduated high school in 1984.  By then, I'd found a job working at a sewage plant, and even though I'd signed off work, they wanted me to come in for a shift while I was at the other job.  I couldn't do it, and they fired me.  I lasted a week at the sewage plant before the stench made me switch jobs, to a summer job at an old age home.  It didn't smell much better, but most of the residents were wonderful people.

I worked many jobs through my college years.  I even volunteered to be a human guinea pig for scientific research.  The most I made from one of those was $5000 in one day, for allowing them to test a portable defibrillator on me.  (This would eventually become the defibrillator you see at almost every store and mall: the AED.)  I used this money for textbooks and other college related expenses.  I also bartended a lot.

After I graduated college, I was unemployed.  A couple of short jobs later (including one at a school), I was hired at TGI Fridays in King of Prussia, PA on September 14, 1989.  That was a very stressful job.  I met some truly amazing people there, and we as a group became close.  Foxhole mentality: us against the world.  I have worked many jobs since then, but when I have work nightmares they are almost always that I am back at Fridays, either waiting tables or bartending.  It could be truly miserable.  But I did meet Wife there, when I waited on her and her grandmother.

From there I did 13 years in the Hobby Game industry, first at a wholesale game distributor, then for Games Workshop (GW) in Baltimore.  My coworkers at GW became like family.  They came from all over the world, and all we had was each other.  It was also a high pressure job- sales with high targets.  But it had benefits as well- I was able to travel a lot, like to the UK.

GW eliminated my position, and I moved back to Pennsylvania with Wife, into her mother's house.  I was unemployed a few months, then in November 2003 I found work at the bookstore.  I've worked other jobs during my bookstore years as well, like at Vanguard and Penn State, and earned my Masters degree as well, but I've been at the store steadily all those years.

July 2015

So what does this have to do with being TG?  Nothing at all.  Except this: I've been in customer service all my life, and I've seen the worst people can dish out.  Or at least I think I have, but it seems that daily someone proves me wrong.  I think everyone should have to work a retail or food service job.  Not only does it teach hard work, but it teaches humility... and how to treat people.  I am regularly appalled by the way customers treat workers.  This has been the common thread through ALL my jobs.

I CHOSE my career path to serve others- through Education.  I didn't choose a path through Wall Street or some other well paying position.  No, I felt helping others was a higher calling.  My reward?  Having days like today.  Poverty.

If I could do it again, would I do it differently?  Probably not.  Steel is forged by fire, and I doubt I would have the thick skin necessary for transition without the daily thrashing I've taken through my working life.

I'm very lucky that my current employer has supported my transition.  Of all my other jobs through my life, the only other one that would have done that was Penn State.  All the others?  They would've found a way to get rid of me.  I have no doubt.

The times they ARE a changing, and maybe someday I'll get back into a position where I make a living wage (maybe even at the bookstore), and I will do so as my True self.  I've been told by many people that I'm so much easier to work with now.  I don't doubt it.  I'm at Peace.

And maybe, just maybe, that will translate into marketability...

Be Well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Weekend Weirdness

We all lead unique lives.  I'll bet we all see our own share of strange things.  That said, I think that working retail sometimes exposes me to... more weirdness.  Here's examples from this weekend.

Saturday, July 4.  Independence Day.  I'm working my usual mid-shift at the registers. I was wearing a simple blue dress... nothing special.  Maybe ten minutes into my shift, up steps a couple.  Mid to late 60's.  He looks like he was weaned on a lemon, just incredibly sour and angry at the world.  She just looks tired- bone weary tired.  He steps up and places two books on the counter: a Bill O'Reilly title and the new racist screed by Ann Coulter.  I don't even blink.  I work for a book store, and being professional demands that anything that makes the register ring (as long as it's legal) is good.  So I was ringing up the sale, and he looks me up and down.

He looks me in the eye and says, with tons of contempt, "Are you a liberal?"

I gazed back at him with a puzzled look.  "I'm an American."

I handed him his receipt without another word exchanged.  I never knew what brought that on... but his wife gave me a look that said "I'm sorry."

Face of a Liberal

The next day, Sunday July 5, I worked the same mid-shift.  As I was punching in (we punch in at the Information station) I saw one of the managers helping a customer.  He was mid to late 40's, olive complexion, pudgy, wearing a teal polo shirt and white ball cap.  He was loudly announcing to her (and everyone else it seems) that he was from New Jersey.  He continued on, but I headed up to the registers where I was scheduled to work.  Maybe five minutes later, he comes to my register.  He had to order his book which was an "Images of America" book of some town in New Jersey.  He announced loudly to me that this book was about his home town and that his father was in one of the pictures.  Maybe.  He wasn't sure.  Ok.  I smiled and nodded and handed him his receipt, thanked him, and wished him a good day.

Fast forward maybe an hour.  I'm no longer working alone.  At the register to my left is a co-worker whom I will call Millie.  Millie is a pleasant woman who has a day job working at a local school.  The guy comes back into line, and she helps him as I was working with another customer. The transaction seems to be going smoothly enough when suddenly it gets surreal.

He announces loudly (I don't think he has any other volume) "You know what really turns my stomach?  What really makes me sick?  ESPN has this award show... the ESPYs... and there's this award called the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  And know who they're giving it to?  Bruce Jenner.  For what?  That's just sickening!  They should strip him of his medals.  Just completely sickening!

My customer had left, so I looked at him and said "Her name is Caitlyn.  She's a woman now."

"She ain't no woman.  It's just sick.  They should just... I don't know the whole thing turns my stomach!"

I say again, quietly and evenly " She's a woman now.  Her name is Caitlyn"

"I don't care what it calls itself.  He's Bruce Jenner!"

"How is her life any of our business?" I ask with the same tone.

And off he went, muttering to himself.

Now, there was NOTHING at the registers to bring up Caitlyn Jenner... no pictures, no magazine covers, nothing!  Millie and I look at each other with the same look of amazement.  We ask each other what that was all about.  Millie said I conducted myself very well.  I said "The reason Caitlyn Jenner deserves a courage award is because she has to deal with people like THAT the rest of her life."

"Has that ever happened to you?" she asked.

"More than you'd think," I said.

She looked sad.  "I just don't get why people need to be so mean."

But it didn't end there.  No, maybe two hours later, he was back.  I had a line of maybe six or seven people, and he came the wrong way up the registers, looking at all the magazine racks as he did.  I was working with a customer when he stopped at the magazine rack next to my register, looked at me and scowled.  Then he left.  The customer I had in front of me looked at me with a questioning look.  I shrugged.

Just another weekend at the bookstore.