Thursday, January 29, 2009

Transformations 'r Us

I was eight years old when I saw Ava Gardner in "One Touch of Venus." I fell in love with her and the song "Speak Low" was burned into my consciousness.

The film inspired in me a love - no, an obsession with Greek mythology, a genre rife with stories of transformation and metamorphosis. Zeus was forever transforming himself into a swan or a golden rain so as to more easily enter into the chambers of some lucky mortal woman, usually somebody's wife, to copulate with and usually impregnate her.

Teiresias stumbled across Athena while she was bathing so she blinded him. In another story, Teiresias came upon a pair of copulating snakes, struck them, dispeasing Hera, who then punished him by transforming him into a woman. Later he's re-transformed back into a man. When asked which has the greater sexual pleasure (he experienced both) he unhesitatingly declared, "women." For his impiety, Hera struck him blind.

And then there's Actaeon. He stumbled across Artemis bathing and she turned him into a stag. His raging hounds, struck with a 'wolf's frenzy,' tore him apart.

What do we learn from this? Well for one, don't piss-off the Goddess. She's inclined to wield her enormous power to emasculate men. Oooo, kinky...

Societies project their deepest desires into their religious mythologies and the Greeks' have come down to us intact.; They permeate our sensibilities (consider all those Freudian complexes) so it's not a stretch that the idea of transsexual and trans-species transformation is woven into our heritage. Judaism gave us angels - human-formed demigods with wings, which Christianity adopted. The Greeks came up with the idea of men fitting themselves with wings and taking flight - the story of Icarus.

So when I hear transphobes suggesting that allowing people to cross-dress will invite people insisting on their right to change themselves into dogs I just have to roll my eyes.

Now I read that a that Massachusetts state Representative Carl Sciortino is on the same page with me. Here's what he's saying to people of faith in support of transgender rights:

"I’ve been thinking about our religion, all of Christianity, and the Old Testament, too, and it’s full of transformations. And God’s usually behind them," said Provost, prompting laughs from the crowd. "In the Old Testament you had sticks turning into snakes and disobedient women turning into pillars of salt, and you had a recalcitrant guy like Jonah turning into a prophet. And then you get to the New Testament and you’ve got water turning into wine and God turning into human form, and it’s so full of transformation. It makes sense to me, thinking about it, that the church ladies and the Sunday school should say, no big deal."

It's a persuasive message, but will it fly?

Thursday, January 22, 2009


When my father died the synagogue was filled to overflowing. It was quite a sight. By contrast, few people attended my mother's memorial ceremony.

One hopes one does not die alone. One hears of this one and that one dying peacefully, surrounded by loving family listening to the sounds of their grandchildren's laughter.

What's in store for me? To my everlasting shame and regret I wasn't there for either of my parents. Both died alone in hospitals, their bodies invaded by monstrous-looking tubes hooked-up to droning machines, the only witnesses to their last moments on the planet. I'm forever asking myself - do I deserve better? Will my daughter be there for me? Perhaps, but for now the chances seem slim.

Someone sent me a story. Maybe you've seen it. I don't know if it's true or not but it has the ring of truth. I'd like to share it with you.

* * *

Twenty years ago I drove a cab for a living. When I arrived at 2:30 a.m. the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, and then drive away.

But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.

So I walked to the door and knocked. "Just a minute," answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.

There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.

"Would you carry my bag out to the car?" she said. I took the suitcase to the cab then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. "It's nothing," I told her. "I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated."

"Oh, you're such a good boy," she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, "Could you drive through downtown?"

"It's not the shortest way," I answered quickly.

"Oh, I don't mind," she said. "I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice."

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. "I don't have any family left," she continued. "The doctor says I don't have very long." I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

“What route would you like me to take?" I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.

We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, "I'm tired. Let's go now."

We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

"How much do I owe you?" she asked, reaching into her purse.

"Nothing," I said.

“You have to make a living," she answered. "There are other passengers," I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

"You gave an old woman a little moment of joy," she said.

“Thank you."

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life.

* * *

We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware - beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

You won't get any big surprise in 10 days if you send this to ten people. But, you might help make the world a little kinder and more compassionate by sending it on.

My Friend Dottie

My friend Dottie died last month.

In 1993 we'd been neighbors when my ex and I moved to Los Angeles. We stayed in touch after my now-ex and I bought a house and moved away - not far, about a mile and a half.

Dottie grew-up very poor. One day she returned from school to her Lower East Side tenement to be greeted by her neighbor shouting out that Mr. _____ was dead. He'd had a heart attack. Dottie was ten.

Her mother, who was functionally illiterate, was a basket case. She could barely support herself, much less Dottie and her sister. They survived only because her father's brother stepped-in to help them.

Dottie graduated high school at fifteen and went to work as a secretary. She was very good. When she was seventeen she'd saved enough to set out on her own by train for California. She found work as a secretary with Paramount.

Dottie was very pretty. It never hurts. She was a top-notch secretary, always in demand by writers, most famously Raymond Chandler. She dated and had affairs with movie stars. She regaled me with wonderful stories from a time gone-by before the freeways, when men and women regularly wore hats and Hollywood was truly glamorous.

Even after we moved I was always dying to tell Dottie my secret but could never come out and do it. We'd speak cordially on the phone and she was an occasional dinner guest but my inability to be open prevented us from moving forward. I knew that if I did not there was no chance we could ever have the friendship I so desperately craved because honesty was an non-negotiable prerequisite. It took me years to build the courage.

In late 2000 I was at a crisis point in my transition. My mother had recently died. My marriage, always strained, was finally moribund and I was being kicked-out. I invited Dottie to lunch. It was the afternoon of Veteran's Day, and we sat on the patio at the Daily Grill in Studio City. I told Dottie I had something I needed to say. I struggled to get the words out and while I don't remember exactly what I said it was probably something as straightforward as "Dottie, I'm transsexual."

There - I'd said it. Her jaw dropped but I just sat there and smiled, settling into my true persona. After just a few minutes, Dottie realized that this is who I truly was and we embarked on a remarkable friendship. Even the food tasted better.

Back then my understanding of transsexuality was still very spotty and I hadn't yet formulated the spiel I have now but she got it and we proceeded to have the first of many truly delightful encounters together. It was a watershed. I learned that more than anything I can tell people, my honesty in baring my soul and their seeing me so natural, so relaxed, so comfortable in my femme self could work the charm. It didn't hurt that by this time my appearance was decidedly feminine, even though I wasn't yet living en femme. I've been blessed. I've never suffered being baited as a 'man.'

Two years later something similar happened on the telephone. After 9/11, I called to check on friends in Manhattan. I told one of them, "Jan, I'm not (my old male name) anymore."

"Who are you?" she asked, and I answered, "Debra."

There was a slight pause, then some brief conversation, and then Jan told me she could hear in my voice my body relaxing. It was so easy. I could almost hear her crying out of happiness for me, or was that me?

Dottie and I starting meeting regularly for lunch every two months or so. She delighted in watching me blossom and she was unstinting in her advice and her loving praise. To be sure, she never held back her appropriate disapproval but her criticism was always constructive. I'm the confident woman I am today in large measure because of her.

Dottie was 82 when she was diagnosed with cancer nearly three years ago. They gave her three months but she confounded them all. She lived another two-and-a-half years, electing to forego treatment - no burning from radiation, no poisoning from chemo, no disfiguring surgeries. Her doctors were astounded when she went into a seeming spontaneous remission. She suffered other ailments but when she'd see me her eyes would light up and everything was ok. I always made a point of dressing nicely for her and she'd tell me how nice I looked. Her approval meant the world to me.

After Dottie's diagnosis we increased the frequency of our rendez-vous's. I'd pick her up since she couldn't drive anymore. More than anything else she hated losing her mobility. We shared a laugh when my back started acting up together with other ailments presaging my older age. It was comforting.

Dottie was a true film afficionada and we has similar tastes. We liked foreign films and we'd take-in a matinee on Wednesdays when it was only $4 for seniors (I fudged - kids work the box office and they can't discern age.) We didn't always agree but even then it was wonderful to sit in the emptied theatre discussing what we'd seen and savoring how it enriched our lives. Then we'd get a bite to eat, usually somewhere one of us had a coupon. It was wonderful.

Dottie left two daughters so there was no chance she'd adopt me but she knew how I felt about her. My mother knew about me but we never had a dialogue. I loved her dearly and miss her terribly but there was always something missing. I found a bit of that connection with Dottie.

I take classes at the Plato Society. It's a continuing education program, part of UCLA Extension. Most of the members are retired. I'm one of the 'kids' ... but with a mouth. Some of them know about me but only if I tell them, mostly women. They're good friends. I hope I'm not fooling myself but I believe their acceptance of me as a woman is sincere but what do I know? We never really know what people think, do we? I did though with Dottie. I know it.

Dottie taught me about life and she taught me about death. She savored the former and faced the latter unafraid. I always told her she never appeared ill, not to me, and it was true. She always looked wonderful.

I called Dottie about a month ago and asked routinely how she was doing and she told me plainly, "Debra, I'm dying." I knew it wasn't idle talk, and I said nothing. I just listened. Dottie never spent a minute fretting about illness or the prospect of death - never. In her quiet, dignified way she was awesome. She was a classy lady, insistently independent without ever losing her femininity. She taught me about choosing one's battles, what's important and what's not, about generosity and when and how to let go.

I would have loved to have been with her, fixing her meals, tending to her just so I could have more time with her. When in our last phone conversation she told me she loved me I knew I wouldn't see and probably would never speak with her again. She'd just said her goodbye to me and that was that. I had to accept it.

Dottie's daughter was with her at the end. She was loved by many.