November 2007


I’ve been thinking about the end of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” a lot lately. One of the images I have of myself (and one Mary Jo has mentioned a couple of times) is that of the male side of me (George) slowly fading out of existence as the female side of me (Joyce) is slowing fading into existence. On the past page of “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is lying in his bed next to his sleeping wife. It’s a typical Joyce short story like Araby, where the main character has an epiphany about his or her life, and here at the end of “The Dead,” Gabriel is thinking about his life and how how his identity as an intellectual, a husband, and Irishman now seems to him to be false. The story is about transition — not one about gender or sex, but rather one of maturity, of life-and-death, and of history — and when I read it these days, I cannot help but see myself in Gabriel’s place, confused, deflated, flickering out of existence, but with the beginnings of a plan to get moving in a new direction.

Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Chuck and I talked today almost entirely about family stuff, following my lead on the John Bradshaw book. I feel remarkably naive, not really having recognized how deep my pain is and how ingrained these family issues are in my psyche. It’s actually embarrassing to me and painful to think about these things, and I think I recognize that feeling from my upbringing — to avoid any family criticism or discussion in order to protect the facade.

I remember someone, some woman when I was in college I think, who was going on about how she liked to tell stories, embarrassing ones, about herself, then laugh about it. I recall feeling horror and repulsion at this. How could she retain dignity and talk like this? I’d never be caught dead laughing at myself or even making mistakes, thought I.

It’s not perfectionism, at least not the kind that produces paralysis, but I wonder where it came from? What would have happened if I had failed at something? Shame, ostracism? When my marriage fell apart, that was easily the first and most colossal failure in my life. I recall being embarrassed and not wanting to tell my family or friends because… why? because they’d think I was a loser. They’d know something about my life, and I wanted to be in control of what people knew. They’d be disappointed in me.

Removed from that experience by 20 years, it’s easy to say “so what? What if they knew?” But I can still recall the extreme shame, along with my preference for remaining isolated and lonely and trying to fix my own problems, never asking for help. It’s funny now in a pathetic sort of way, but it was no laughing matter at the time.

There is a wonderful (and wonderfully sad) thread this morning on Susan’s Place called “What does growing up in the opposite gender body do to the psyche?” People on this thread say it has made them less secure, guilty, self-conscious, ashamed, and confused, to name a few. It has always stuck me as I have read different discussion boards and different participants’ stories about how similar the experience is. Which is not to say that we don’t all have varieties of human experience because we all have other parts of our psyches that don’t necessarily involve gender: race, class, geography, trauma, and so on.

In thinking about my life, I believe that I’ve really been blessed with intelligence, luck, good relationships, loving kids and wife, challenging job, and a generally optimistic outlook. The only thing I don’t like is my sex, and I honestly don’t even have a suicidal rage against it, either, but rather a long-term, slow-burning dissatisfaction with it. But I think that constant dissonance affects all other parts of your personality, sometimes in radical ways, sometimes in very small ways.

I’m beginning to think that while it’s all about my body, it’s really all about the way I relate to the world, and the body is only the outward manifestation of my self as it tries to relate to others.

Having looked at my body and felt it evolving over the past months, especially in the past two months, I decided two things. First, whatever the literature says about HRT eliminating or reducing body hair is either wrong or far to subtle or slow on me. Second, I don’t think hairy boobs are very attractive.

So for this month’s visit to the torture… er… laser hair removal session, I asked my operator when I called for my appointment if we could do the first pass at my chest and belly and while we’re at it, my scruffy neck. Sure, she said, and I prepared by taking my electric shaver (the one I used to use to trim my beard) and set it to “1” (which is a little like setting it to “11,” but I guess that’s another story, and trimmed the hair down to a millimeter or so from my neck down to where the pubic hair ought to start (they blend together currently).

After the beard was done (and that awfully painful upper lip), we dove into the body, which had had numbing cream on it for 30 minutes, and it was easy, easy, easy — no pain, just good conversation and zap, zap, zap. It’s a little red this evening, and we shall see about the efficacy of laser on my body in a few weeks.

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