In 24 years I’ve never seen him smile like this.

These pieces belong to their authors (and their employers,) but the line I used as header is powerful to me.

Still, the everpresent warning:

When you first come out as a transgendered person,
you spend your first year in absolute euphoria.
Then reality sets in, and you have to make a life and deal with the stigma.
Joan Roughgarden, NY Times Magazine, 9 May 2004

Extreme Makeover
by Rick Reilly
Sports Illustrated, June 2007

At book signings you never know who’s going to suddenly be standing in front of you, sure you’ll recognize them.  But when a very tall woman came up to me at a book signing in L.A. last week, stuck out her hand and said, “Rick, I’m Christine Daniels,” my mouth fell open like a bad drawbridge.

Because the last time I saw this woman, she was a man.

Her name was Mike Penner, and he and I came up together at the Los Angeles Times.  She and I.  Whatever.

We were both young sportswriters there in the early 1980s.  We’d play hoops every Friday, clubbing each other half to death, nearly coming to blows over it, then laughing about it over tacos afterward.  We’d glug beers together, catch concerts together, work games together.

And now here she was in two-inch heels, an elegant brown dress, eye shadow, lip gloss and a purse.  And, don’t take this the wrong way, not bad-looking.  Better than she ever was as a guy, put it that way.

I’d heard about the change, of course.  Everybody in sports had.  Mike announced it in an amazing column in the Times in April.  Said he was taking time off and coming back as Ms. Daniels.  And my first thought was, Damn, this guy was really hurting for a column idea.

Gal.  Whatever.

And my second thought was, How come none of us knew?  Don’t know what kind of hints transsexuals give off, but I sure didn’t see any.  Not a neatnik.  Didn’t match his underwear to his socks.  Never wanted to get the boys together for makeovers.  Nothing.  Made me think I wasn’t much of a friend.

And now here she was, 6’3” in heels, blue eyes I’d never noticed before, shoulder-length blonde hair, earrings and this soft little Gwyneth Paltrow voice I hardly recognized.

“Wow!”  I said, bolting up from behind the table, unsure where to put my arms, setting an all time record for wretched awkwardness.  “What do I do with you?”  I blurted.

“Well,” she cooed, “a hug would be nice.”  So we hugged.  Not sure we’d ever done that before, unless it was in a pileup for a rebound.

Over a couple of bottles of wine, I heard the whole amazing story.  As a little boy, he’d tell his cousins, “I want to be a girl!”  As a teen, he’d secretly dog-ear pages of dresses he wanted in the Sears catalogue.  As a married man, he’d lock the door, dress up in frilly things, take Polaroids, then stuff all of it into a tool box and double lock it.  Story of his life.  Tool box on the outside, lingerie on the inside.

“We are born with this,” he wrote in that coming-out column.  “We fight it as long as we can, and in the end it wins.”

The last few years the battle was killing him.  He dreamed of the day he could shave his legs.  He’d walk past the women’s room and cry.  He’d comb through his columns, trying to get all the “cutes” and “lovelies” and softness out of them, paranoid about giving himself away.

Now it was Christine clubbing Mike half to death.  “I wasn’t suicidal,” she says, “but I could see it from there.”

Finally, last August, Mike made the move that his body and mind and two therapists and three antidepressants were screaming for.  He separated from his wife, got an apartment, began hormone therapy and started living round-the-clock as the woman she knew she was.  (She won’t say whether she’ll have surgery.)

And now we have the old adventures of new Christine.  She’s back, writing about the world of L.A. sports as incisively and hilariously as Mike ever did.  She’s kept 95% of her friends and lost 100% of the hell.

She’s not ready to date, but a guy the other night wouldn’t take no for an answer.  “I had to push him away,” she says.  I’m thinking the guy had to be a bit surprised to find himself flying against a wall.

Next week she plans to pick out one of her 50 pairs of new shoes, slip on something pretty and start covering games again.  Which means going into locker rooms.  Gulp.

“People ask me, ‘Will you be nervous?  Are you worried what kind of reaction you’re going to get?’ And I’m like, Are you kidding?  I’ll be much less nervous than I used to be.  I always hated locker rooms.  I hated the whole jocky, towel-snapping scene.  The men in locker rooms were nothing like the person I was.”

Maybe I wasn’t a very good friend to Mike.  But I think I will be better friends with Christine.  It’ll be easy.  In 24 years I’ve never seen him smile like this.

Her.  Whatever

Not your ordinary book signing

If you pay attention to sportswriting and sportswriters — or even not; if you simply keep your television and / or radio on long enough for background noise — you know the name Rick Reilly. For 10 years, he has been the back-of-the-book columnist for Sports Illustrated, where, incredibly, he has worked for 22 years now.

I say incredibly because I can’t believe where the time has gone. Rick and I were hired by the Times during the same summer.

The summer of ’83.

We used to be pickup basketball teammates / rivals during the ridiculously intense and competitive but mostly just ridiculous weekly basketball skirmishes that used to held at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley and organized by the OC Edition Times Staff. OK, all right. Those pickup games were organized by me. For 11 years of knee scrapes and airballs, 1983 to 1994, I made the phone calls and the intra-office emails to remind our group that hoops were on as usual on Friday morning, followed by lunch at Naugles or Del Taco where we would convene to laugh about it.

(The weekly games abruptly stopped after the 1994 World Cup, when I was struck by Soccer Fever and decided to devote my Friday mornings to rounding up anybody I could find who’d be interested or curious enough to join me for a little 3-on-3 footy. I still am cursed for that by Times hoopsters from that era — “You and that damned soccer are the reason our basketball games stopped!” I never understood that, but have found this to be true with several of the sportswriters I know: They spend long hours working the phones and the Internet to report their stories, but ask them to send out an email about a weekly basketball get-together? “Email? What’s email?”)

After Rick left the Times for SI in 1985, going back to live in his native Colorado, we stayed in touch through occasional work assignments that brought him to L.A., and by the annual distribution of my best-of-the-year musical mix, long known throughout my circle of friends as KPEN. In recent years, however, we’d fallen out of contact and the KPEN mailings stopped. I forget exactly the reason why; it might have been Rick not agreeing with one year’s song selection. That could have happened, I’m not sure. I used to be like that.

This month, Rick has a book out. I’d heard about it on the radio, I’d seen displays for it in bookstores. I didn’t pick it up, or flip through it, or even give the concept much thought. Not that big a deal to me. Rick often has a book out.

Since learning of my transition, Rick had sent me a couple of supportive and very generous emails. I recently appeared on a Sirius talk show and during the interview was told Rick had just been on the same show, was asked about me and had said some nice things. I was thinking about restoring Rick to the music-mix distribution list, though the 21-year-old production known now comes with a different title — KGAL.

Thursday afternoon, I heard Rick talking on the car radio again. He was in-studio with local ESPN Radio sports-talk hosts Steve Mason and John Ireland, plugging his new book, as well as a book-signing appearance that evening at the Westwood Borders. I know that Borders well. I go there regularly to buy my copies of Pro Football Weekly and In Style.

I thought I’d stop by and say hi to Rick, for the first time in years.

I arrived a few minutes after 7 p.m. Rick and a small audience were clustered in the front second-level corner of the store, Rick on a small stage telling stories about some of the incidents and interactions that led to some of the columns collected in his book.

I quietly took a seat in the back row. Rick talked for another half-hour, answered some question, scanned my side of the room several times — looking right at me, but never showing any spark of recognition. As I say, it’d been a few years. Also, I just had my hair colored.

When it was time to assemble in the reception line to shake Rick’s hand and get his autograph, I waited a few moments, letting the line grow a bit before joining in. For at least 15 minutes, I stood in that line, clutching my copy of “Hate Mail From Cheerleaders” as Rick made breezy conversation with each reader and personalized the third page of every book he was handed.

Soon enough, I handed Rick my copy and he reached out to shake my hand. Still no sign of recognition. Until I smiled and said, “Hi, Rick. I’m Christine.”

With that, Rick’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped and he leaned back in his chair so abruptly, I feared one of those unfortunate backward stage dives you sometimes read about. Rick looked utterly shocked, but to me, it seemed a happy kind of shock. Breaking into a huge open-mouthed grin, Rick said, “Oh my God!” and sprung up from his chair and hopped down from the stage to greet me with open arms . . . and then he stopped.

“What am I supposed to do with you?” he said with a laugh, figuring that just a handshake might not suffice anymore.

“A hug would be nice,” I suggested.

So we hugged. And we laughed. Who knew back in ’84, when Rick and his Kareem-era goggles were driving the lane against me and my lumbering brand of Frank Brickowski basketball panache, that we would wind up one day at this strange place — Rick with a new book, me in a new brown patterned dress?

Almost immediately, Rick looked to his right and called out, “Cynthia! It’s Christine!”

Cynthia and Rick, I later learned, have just bought a house in Hermosa Beach. Cynthia hurried over and greeted me like the friendliest new neighbor on the planet. More hugging. More smiling. Lots of instantly animated chatter. Lots of blonde hair bobbing as we laughed like old classmates at a high school reunion. Cynthia could not have been more welcoming.

Rick half-suggested, half-demanded we go out for drinks. Conveniently, there was a wine bar located right across the street, a few doors down from — as Rick was quick to notice — “Christine’s Nails” salon. It seemed the perfect spot.

For the next two hours, we shared Chardonnay and old yarns and new life directions. Journalist Rick was loaded with questions for me. Those he didn’t ask, Cynthia filled in the gaps. I was pleased and excited to answer them all, pleased and excited to finally just be myself for the first time in the nearly 24 years I had known Rick.

Cynthia and I hit it off in grand fashion, especially after I reached into my purse and pulled out my new calling card — a newly minted copy of “KGAL 2006.” As Cynthia scanned the track list, we quickly discovered we had a similar taste in music — especially when it comes to Chrissie Hynde, “a goddess,” as Cynthia described her while I took another sip of wine and I nodded along in agreement.

“We’ll have to go to a concert!” Cynthia said. And shopping! Two of my favorite pastimes. I think we are going to have some fun.

That has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my transition — meeting and making a new friend, as well as renewing a long-time acquaintance and taking that relationship in a satisfying and gratifying different direction.

As Rick put it when he signed the third page of the book I now own:

Your old / new friend,
Riles ’07

June 16, 2007

2 thoughts on “In 24 years I’ve never seen him smile like this.”

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