All posts filed under: Memoir

Guilt Trip: A Son’s Memoir

The Southern Tier of New York State is a bleak place in the dead of winter. The days are dark and short. Snow is piled high on the sides of the two-lane roads that connect towns like Olean, Wellsville, and Hornell, where I was born. You can drive for miles, past farms and houses standing alone, and see no one. In December 1968, I returned home for the Christmas break after my first semester as a sophomore transfer student at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. I took a bus from New York City after the night flight from the west coast; it moved westward on Route 17, through the grey wooded hills, the freezing air deadening the smell of stale cigarette smoke and diesel fuel whenever the door opened. I had not yet settled in at Reed, had yet to feel any strong spark of intellectual curiosity or ambition. I moved through my classes as a ghost. No professor had any impression of me, as I almost never spoke in the small seminar classes. I …

For 30 Years, I’ve Tried to Become a Woman. Here’s What I Learned Along the Way

I turned 45 this month. I can’t deny that I’m in my middle years. Although I’ve been blessed so far to avoid noticeable gray hairs, there are unmistakable creases around my eyes and forehead. My hands are even picking up the signature wrinkles and definition that I’ve always associated with “old hands.” Beyond the outward signs of age, I feel it inside. My peak energy levels are lower than they used to be, and the idea of dashing around makes me tired just thinking about it. The aphorism that you’re only as old as you feel may have some truth to it, but one can’t just wish away one’s age. When I appraise myself in a mirror, looking for signs of aging, I can’t help but look for the signs that betray the sex I was born. Male. A bouncing baby boy, and more or less on that trajectory until my early teen years, when I became convinced that I was actually a girl. It was only a short time later that I started taking …

When I Was in Love with a Comparative Literature Student

She said she did not believe there was such a thing as love—not because she was embarrassed by sentimentality, but because Jacques Derrida had convinced her that language did not actually refer to an external reality. I met her during the period she was reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Or maybe it was when she was reading Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which for weeks she kept open and in front of her at the campus coffee shop. At least once, she carried Heidegger into a bubble bath. The first time we hung out, we read together in an empty classroom. I was reading Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral for a literature class. She was reading “The Concept of Irony” by literary theorist Paul de Man for fun. As in every classroom, there was a clock at the front of the room. The sound of the ticking, which I had unthinkingly accepted as an imperfect part of our environment, irritated her. She stood up on the table and flung the clock to the ground. She put …

Remembering My Friend Peter Beard

Peter Beard, internationally renowned photographer, author, railroad-fortune heir, and socialite, died last month. Or possibly in March. Beard (b. 1938) had been ill, and suffering from dementia. He wandered off into the forest near his home on Long Island. He was 82. His body was found in a nearby national park, which is grimly fitting, for wildlife and parks were some of his abiding passions. The unconventional manner of his death also matched the way he lived. And if he were going to pick a way to go out, this might have been it. Having gotten to know him reasonably well when we both lived in Kenya, I suspect he would have preferred not to have been found, however, as he was a consummate trickster. He might well have preferred an obit that said, “Mr. Beard disappeared from his home in Montauk sometime in the spring of 2020. His whereabouts are unknown.” Peter was a gifted photographer, an engaging diarist, a gracious and generous host, a non-stop raconteur, universally described (truthfully) with that cliché, “one …

Confessions of an Equity-Industry Propagandist

My artistic skills are nil, but my lettering is solid. So when I doodled a cartoon hand around an erect cartoon penis, it was the word inside the dick I was most proud of: DIVERSITY. As team members ran through their collective to-do list—tear down the patriarchy, tear down capitalism, tear down oppression—they shared their favorite Viennese hotels, yoga retreats and keto-friendly recipes (#OMG #SOGOOD). This was the nature of the quarterly meetings. I smiled through the video feed, nodding, adding little curlies to my diversity dick off-screen while jotting down a secret affirmation to myself: Do NOT let them add you in WhatsApp. I was their writer. The doodles were a cry for help. I’d hit the wall. Having worked in advertising agencies for more than 20 years, it’s always been my job to write in a way that sells. Products, services, brands. But over the last decade, I’ve found myself in the pay of a series of wokepreneurs. Thanks to word-of-mouth, I unwittingly specialized as the equity industry ballooned. I polished one social-justice …

Reflections on My Decision to Change Gender

It’s been a long time now since, at age 53, I became a woman. Actually, I’m an old woman more than twenty years on, who walks sometimes with a nice fold-up cane, and has had two hip-joint replacements, and lives in a loft in downtown Chicago with 8,000 books, delighting in her dogs, her birth family, her friends scattered from Chile to China, her Episcopal church across the street, her eating club near the Art Institute, and above all her teaching and writing as a professor. Or, as the Italians so charmingly say, as una professoressa. Oh, that –essa. She retired from teaching, though not from scribbling, at age 73, twenty years after transitioning, “emerita.” Not, you see, “emeritus.” But of course one can’t “really” change gender, can one? The “really” comes up when an angry conservative man or an angry essentialist feminist writes in a blog or an editorial or a comment page. The angry folk are correct, biologically speaking. That’s why their anger sounds to them like common sense. Every cell in my …

The Man at the Arcade

It was March, 1987, and I was 15 years old. I was in the arcade on Wilson, in Uptown, Chicago, asking for quarters. I’d only recently been released from the mental hospital. I didn’t know where my parents lived. That morning, I’d made my way to the 51st Street Elevated, where I climbed the back of the station onto the platform and caught a train to Loyola. There I met up with some friends. I had new friends at the group home, but I didn’t like them as much as my friends on the North Side. That doesn’t explain how I arrived at the arcade on Wilson, though. Why Wilson, and not Dennis’s place on Clark Street near the 24th District? Maybe I had a meeting with my caseworker at the Department of Children and Family Services office, or something like that. We’re talking 32 years ago. Maybe it wasn’t March. Maybe it was April. I asked a man for a quarter and he said no. The guy kind of sneered at me. He had …

Memories of Life at Kingdom Hall: An Alberta Schoolgirl Waits for Armageddon

In 1909, a wealthy man from Pennsylvania bought a brick building on a steep street just south of the Brooklyn Bridge, across the river from Manhattan. Blocks away from where Walt Whitman had set to type the first editions of Leaves of Grass, a small, relatively unknown group that called themselves the “Bible Students” was regrouping, with this building as their hub. Their leader was feeling discouraged after another failed prediction that the world would end. But he was not deterred. Spending his days overlooking the same East River that had inspired Whitman to write verse, he rewrote his own inspired prose that warned of the world’s imminent, violent end and urged all to join him so that they, too, could live forever in paradise on Earth. Russell had always been interested in religion and as a young man had painted fire and brimstone Bible verses on fences around his hometown as a pastime. He met a man named William Miller, who had founded a religious movement, Millerism, which was the precursor to the Seventh-day …

Lessons in Forgiveness, from a Bicycle Thief

In the summer of 1993, at the age of 21, I ran through the streets of downtown Victoria, British Columbia, half-naked, wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and wielding a blunt chunk of metal, which I intended to use to bludgeon the thief who had stolen my bicycle. It had been days since I discovered my bicycle missing from my apartment. When I called the shop where I’d bought it, the manager told me that he had only sold two of this model, and as misfortune would have it, the other one had been stolen just the week before. A few days later, my phone rang and it was the manager of the bike shop, who told me that the other owner had spotted my bicycle outside of a downtown pub. The pub happened to be a mere three blocks from my apartment, so I didn’t even bother getting dressed. On the way out the door, I grabbed my roommate’s hefty u-lock, the weapon I intended to use to give my bicycle thief a …

George Faludy: Hungarian Poet and Hero for Our Times

Had the poet George Faludy not written in his native Hungarian—arguably the most impenetrable of European languages—he would, as many have argued, be world famous. He died aged 95 in 2006, his life spanning the First and Second World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the Nazi and communist takeovers of his country. Having achieved literary fame at 20, he would be imprisoned by both regimes and spend much of his life as an exile in France, Morocco, America (where he was a tail-gunner for the U.S. Airforce), and Canada, where he fled communism, only to find his lectures picketed and disrupted by campus leftists to whom his experience was an inconvenient truth. A ladies’ man all his life, he surprised the world by suddenly entering a gay relationship with Eric, a Russian ballet dancer, who’d fallen in love with Faludy in print and then rushed across the globe to find him. In his 90s, after communism fell and Faludy, returning to Budapest, achieved living legend status, he married a poetess 70 years his junior with …