I did testing and customer service for a long time in the very, very early days of PC software, back when everything was new and raggedy.    I even worked on a Columbia running MS-DOS 1.2, which is why HCF seems goofy to me.

My job in the company was to break new ground, in development, in implementation, in marketing.  I figured things out and taught other people the procedures I created.

Sometimes, to get the results you wanted, you had to take a bit of a circuitous route around limitations, design crocks and bugs.  We called this kind of solution a “workaround.”

I was the master of the workaround, finding ways to do the impossible with ease.

As I listened to Christine Montross’ “Falling Into the Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis” I realized that my entire life has been a workaround.

The psychological damage I took early in life was real and profound.   I didn’t know how to heal it, even as I was called to transcend it.

What I did figure out, though, was how to work around it.   I created solutions that let me do the work I needed to do, even if they weren’t solutions that found me the peace and connection that I required.   My own ocean of pain and damage didn’t go away, wasn’t drained, but rather it was managed by a huge engineering project, creating cofferdams and overflow canals, sluice gates and drainage basins.

Being able to manage my own flow makes me much more able to survey and model the flows of others, able to see the tides inside that they want to ignore until they are flooded by them.

It’s a great skill to be able to create workarounds.   And when faced by a world that you cannot change, it is a very useful approach.

A life that is only made of workarounds, though, is limiting.   It is a reactive life, where you don’t feel ownership or agency, one where you have no place of comfort or safety.

Because you still hold your difference and pain, people find it enormously simple to project their issues onto you.  Having your own stuff visible rather than having it compartmentalized away brings up their stuff, as if your choices were about them, when, as Greer Lankton said “It’s About Me, Not You.”

The ultimate workaround is in that Morey Amsterdam joke about the fellow who buys the cheap suit.

I understand why I learned, from a very, very early age to master the workaround.  My parents and society wanted me silent and compliant, unchallenging and pleasant.  They demanded that I come into their world, but refused to come into mine.

I understand the workaround.  I just don’t understand the fix.   And I despair of ever finding that which can repair and mend me, choices that will let me be myself in the world, especially since that self is so twisted out of shape from a history of working around having to wear suits that never fit, so away from working around the needs of her own heart to serve others.

I’m happy to share the techniques of the workaround and have that accepted.

I’m happy to share my own flow, too, but somehow, when I show it, people just want a workaround, working around my battered old heart.

Iconoclastic Eccentricity

There was a time when I was really, really good at playing eccentric.

I knew I wasn’t one of the guys, so in my teens I had to learn how to play one, somehow.

Normal was never, ever going to work for me.   I just never had the training, support or mind for it.

I remember watching men back then to figure out strategies.  What could I pull off?

Between screenings of Casablanca at the Harvard Square cinema and Jonathan Winters, I figured out that iconoclastic curmudgeon was probably the right façade for me.  Sly and witty, I could stay at a distance from the action, defended inside of my shell.

The lovely thing about this role was that by not caring what the hell other people thought of me, not playing for affection and affirmation, but instead focusing on respect and individualism.

Of course, this was just a continuation of the defensive callous that I had grown to survive inside of my family.    I knew my mother liked to remind everyone how much pain she was in by spreading that pain around to others, that she needed to justify and defend her own self-pity by spraying her own failure cycles across the family.    We were doomed, she knew, and ensured that outcome by sabotaging whatever she could.

I understood the boundaries of iconoclastic eccentricity.  Fuck, I could do anything because it wasn’t about me.

Transgender emergence, though, changes all that.  The more you go deep, the more you expose your own heart.  The more you are exposed, the more vulnerable you are.

For people who have lived a normative life, it’s easy to see transgender expression as a form of iconoclastic eccentricity.   This is the “Fuck You!” facet of transgender, letting your freak flag fly, not caring what anyone else thinks.   You get to put on a shell, look however you want to look, and just snap at anyone who gives you a dirty look.

When I first came out, I was into gender play, a path towards balance and androgyny.  A friend wondered if I was concerned about people finding out, so I asked her “Do you think anyone would be shocked by anything I do?”   She thought for a minute and understood; I was already considered to be profoundly weird by the group, but was tolerated and respected for being smart and bold.

When I run into people who identify as genderqueer, rocking a boldly individual look in the world, they often look at me and write me off based on my conventional choices in appearance.   When I speak for assimilation, they assume I am speaking for the choice I have always made, making a choice of fear and surrender.  Most just can’t imagine how much I have walked in the world as a iconoclastic eccentric, from the mukluks I wore through high school to the chest hair under my glitter disco blouse when I first came out, any more than straight people who have seen me as male bodied can imagine that I can look presentable and even put-together as a woman.

I have been there, though, and I really, really, really don’t want to go back to that kind of “what the fuck” expression.  I didn’t spent twenty years excavating my heart to have to bury it back up again, compartmentalize it off and just be tough & defended again.  As a very queer identified person, I respect iconoclastic eccentricity, but it’s not where my heart is.

The problem with exposing your heart, though, especially after keeping it buried under freak mode and concierge mode for so many decades, is that it is weakened from years of abuse, denial and pain.    Getting attenuated, modulated and stuck just isn’t good for the long term health of your heart, as I tried to explain 18 years ago.

I’m not stupid.   I know that I will always be more iconoclastic and eccentric than your average bear.  Being visibly trans, though, is wearing my heart on my sleeve, and that heart, well,  it’s quite tattered.

One of the continual challenges of being trans, or at least of being trans like me, is that it becomes almost impossible to blend in easily.   Most gay and lesbian people don’t wear what they would to a  pride festival to work or to Sunday dinner with the relatives.   They have options about their visibility, if they choose to take them.

I like and respect the fuck parts of trans — the “what the fuck,” the “I don’t give a fuck,” the “wanna fuck?” and even the “fuck you.”   It’s just that my personal trans nature isn’t about that, rather it’s about expressions of gender crossing that reveal our continuous common humanity beyond the easy and false comfort of opposites.

My trans expression is about revealing my heart and being seen and valued for the unique and tender gifts I bring into the world.

I know eccentric.  I know iconoclastic.   I know individualist.   I know “what the fuck.”   I own them and have from a very young age, when those were the only gifts my parents could give me.  They form the basis of my own commitment to queerness.

But I have also always known feminine, graceful, receptive, caretaking, tender and loving.   I know my own heart and the hearts of others.

Storing all that in compartments again, trying to wrap myself in callous, well, that feels awful.   Getting cut with every step feels awful too.

And so, I sit here, putting blog posts in bottles and throwing them out into the world, then being too scarred to look for replies.

Woman Shop

Yes.  It’s a curated compilation of all the brands ever mentioned by Miranda, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and their friends.

On one level this clip makes me very happy, because I see characters I enjoy enjoying the lush symbology of the market economy.   They know that the choices they make define them, know that in this culture we see Shopping As Sacrament (1996)

On another level, though, it makes me sad, because most of the abuse of gender in this culture has been done by marketers who have chosen to use the social power of gender status enforcement to pitch their products as required to properly be gendered.

Much of this started with that master manipulator Edward Bernays and campaigns like his “Torches of Freedom“, which set out to convince women that cigarettes were the ultimate feminine accessory for declaring liberation.   All that did was change the bondage from old gender roles to nicotine providers.

It is impossible to turn on the television today without being told that being a woman is about the proper things to purchase and display.   Television is driven by advertisers, so women who are unable to be convinced to buy new products are just not a desirable market.

Women, though, show themselves in the world by their markings, as Deborah Tannen reminds us.  We tailor our own appearance, using Gender As Adverting (1999) to tell other people what role we are trained and willing to play.   We use our own expression as collage, trying on different presentations, first as whole outfits and later as synthesized and curated collections that work to show us as both tame enough to fit in and wild enough to be a creature like no other.

When women meet, we read each others markings and understand how to connect, finding women we share tastes with and bonding over shared choices.

Whenever I watch media, I watch other women to see how they walk in the world, how they carry themselves and how they respond.   I do this because I understand the world through a woman’s viewpoint, so watching other women gives me more information than watching men, and because I learn from watching other women as they show me their choices in approaching the world from a feminine viewpoint.

I do know lots of transwomen who don’t look at other women as role models.   They claim their own iconoclastic presentation and leave it at that, focusing on clothing and classic patterns. Often, this is categorized as a rejection of the social pressures of womanhood, not the least of which is the pressure of fashion.

Tailoring a woman, though, takes an immersion in womanhood.  Once you have been a woman, you can move beyond to become not woman, just as once you have been a man you can move to not man.   You can’t be not woman without having been woman, anymore than you can become not a kangaroo without first having been a kangaroo.

For a society that trades in opposites this can be a hard understanding.  We usually are much more clear on what we are opposed to than what we are, defining ourselves in the negative rather than the positive.   Who are you, anyway?

For the gals in SATC, who they are is bound up in the ocean of products that they swim in, as I suspect has always been true for women.     What do women want?   I have come to understand that they want everything their friends have, plus a little more.  That’s why watching the gals list out brands amuses me, a rush of bits and pieces that adorn their lives like embellishments on a Versace gown.

For me, though, my relationship with brands has been scarce.   To get clear, I have had to renounce desire rather than embrace it.    To elegantly walk as a woman in the world, though, goods and services are required.   To paraphrase cosmetics queen Helena Rubenstein, “There are no ugly women, only lazy [or poor] ones.”

I understand the pitfalls of putting yourself in bondage to commercial red shoes, but I also know that a woman with no shoes at all has trouble walking proud in the world.  Being a woman isn’t about the stuff, but the stuff is about being a woman, even a frowzy woman.

Those mythic women from SATC know that, know that brands are codes that hold highly concentrated communication impact, so watching them spit out those codes is fun.   Not being able to have them in my life for so many, many reasons, well, that’s less fun.

Change Beyond

Change or die.

That is the imperative of all life on this planet.   The world changes around us, and we either lead, follow or get out of the way.

To engage change, though, you have to have hope, have the vision of the new  possibilities and then have support in manifesting them in the world.

I told someone who wanted to support me that, while I don’t have regrets over my transnatural choices, knowing that they helped me learn a great deal, it would be easier today if my body was more femaled.

He was taken aback.   Could I really consider having myself re plumbed?  As a male, he found that idea uncomfortable.

As a person who went to sleep many, many nights praying that they would end up with a female body, I couldn’t understand his attitude.  Hadn’t I been clear to him about how I identify?

While I may understand the limits of what we can do today with a human body — bones are bones — and have not chosen plastic surgery on myself, that doesn’t mean I didn’t always dream of being female.

Even many people who present in the world as trans have trouble understanding this.   They don’t see themselves as femme, as being receptive in the world.   I do.

How do people grounded in their own expectations and assumptions, especially their own expectations and assumptions about me, engage change?

My sister tried to be nice and tell me a story she heard on the radio about a professor at Yeshiva University who transitioned in place  (Part 2).  Only problem is that she couldn’t keep the pronouns straight, which told me that my sister saw this transwoman as a dude in a dress.   It was not the affirming moment my sister might have hoped for.

Dr. Ladin may see her journey as a mission, but not everyone wants to be a “Brave Crusader.”

After that, she took me to Chipotle, where the smug, self-righteous hipness just felt like a slap in the face.

This is the same holier-than-though attitude that permeates the young, feminist trans-activism structures, where doing the cool thing to belong to the in-group is more important than offering a big tent.   Rather than revealing connections, they tend to venerate oppression and cast some as oppressors, expanding divides rather than erasing them.   I know that I don’t belong there.

For me, a leap is needed.   Yet, I don’t feel like I have much available to me to support such a leap.   People are focused on their own issues and challenges, dealing with what is vital to them, leaving me alone.

This is nothing new, of course.  But the change or die imperative feels very close to me.   Something’s gotta give, as Frank might sing.

And I have trouble seeing the possible change.

Question Life

“My character in “Sensitive Skin” is asking lots of questions, trying to figure things out.  That place of ‘I don’t know’ makes her vulnerable,” said Kim Cattrall, contrasting this new character with other more cocksure characters she has played in the past.

If living in the question rather than the answer, not being sure about things, is the sign of vulnerability, then I know where I have always lived.

My habit in engaging people has always been in the question.

Most people think you create empathy by talking.  After someone shares an experience, they tell a story on the same topic, hoping to build bridges.  This is a tried and true conversational strategy.

I create empathy by listening.  I ask questions about the experience that was shared, trying both to understand the story in context — not what it means to me, but what it means to you — and working to help you understand your own story in a different way.   This is a tried and true therapeutic strategy.

The structure of the interview has always been central to me. How one can ask questions to tease out and amplify meaning?   How can my own curiosity lead me to growth and healing?

“You can’t teach that to people.  You can teach craft—you’ve got thirteen seconds till break, look at this camera—but you can’t teach curiosity.”
Andrew Lack speaking about Matt Lauer in Brian Selter’s Top Of The Morning

I don’t learn anything by imposing my own meaning on what someone else shares with me.   I only gain insight when I get inside of their experience, engage their different view of our shared world, and then let the commonalities develop inside of me.

A glib retelling of one of my stories that has what I see as a similar theme doesn’t reach out with empathy, rather it just pulls the conversation back to me.

Vulnerability requires living beyond certainty, being willing to be engaged, touched and enlightened by what others choose to share with you.   The question is always the tool we have to use to find connection, not the quip.

For many people, though, they don’t even know how to listen to their own hearts, how to be open to the moments of their own life.   They put up walls to keep them comfortable, walls to resist any demand for transformation and change.  If they do that, how can I ever expect them to open to me, to ask real questions that might lead to surprising and revelatory answers?

Vulnerability is the product of an open heart, an open mind and an open spirit.

In my experience, that does require living in the question.

Over Pruned

My sister texted me from her doctor’s office.

She needed some tests to help cut health insurance costs and her old doctor — my mother’s doctor — is retiring, so she scheduled a physical with the new doctor taking her patients.

When she came in, the gal at the desk was surprised that she was scheduled with a resident instead of the attending.  Residents come and go, impossible to build a relationship with.

My sister just took that and sat down to wait.  And to wait.   And to wait.

By the time she texted me, she had been waiting an hour and a half, just sitting in the waiting room.

I suggested that she might want to ask at reception about what was going on.

The gal was apologetic.  She left for lunch, forgetting my sister.  She rescheduled an appointment, this time with the new attending.

But it was hard for her to imagine anyone would just sit there waiting and not speak up for ninety minutes.

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine.  I know how much our parents taught us to avoid conflict, to not speak up for ourselves, to dial back our expectations of the world, playing small.

I have decades of experience with her getting frustrated with me when I had any lifted expectations.   The classic event was one where we got undercooked rolls at the fancy wood fired pizza joint and I pointed out how doughy their were, making small figures with the insides.   She finally got so frustrated she dared me to tell the young waiter.  I did.   Then he picked up one of the rolls, bit into it, agreed they were doughy and moved on.

We both learned early how to cut ourselves back, how to prune our own dreams, desires and expectations to fit comfortably into the limits of my family.   We not only knew that we could easily set off my mother, we also knew that there was no way our family was going to stand behind us if we stood up for ourselves.   Rather, we would get pummelled just for the temerity to expect respect, decency and quality.

My sister sat patiently for ninety minutes, not rising to speak for herself until she reached out to someone else and they said that it was reasonable to decide to leave after that amount of time.    Like me, she learned to fear being unreasonable, which always was taken to mean being too big, too demanding, having too high expectations, having dreams.

Gardeners learn how to nip growth in the bud to cut a plant down to size, to keep it stunted.    Done smartly, this can create beautiful bonsai, but done by a thoughtless caretaker it just takes the life away from a growing plant.

My sister waited an hour and a half before seeking permission to speak up for herself.

I waited decades and still resist asserting myself in the world.

We were both furiously over pruned.

Lost Looking

The intense and brilliant Elaine Stritch just passed.

Born just one year after my parents, she was a Broadway start who brought the bang into the spotlight.   I lost my virginity to the Company cast album — thanks Tweety — where Ms. Stritch banged out “The Ladies Who Lunch

“She was always looking for love from her audience,” many are saying about her.  That’s a code for so many performers, this notion that they are looking for love.

I don’t believe that I am unlovable.  I believe that my mother in the sky loves me.

I do believe, however, that my looking for love is a trap, a blind, a fool’s errand.

I believe that others are all about themselves and any amount that they are about me is about how I can service them.   That’s the theme of my first blog post here, from Thanksgiving 2005, knowing that people see me as a human doing rather than a human being.

It’s not that I don’t need love.   I’m human, I do.  Love and understanding — always together — are something for which I ache.

Others often can’t imagine that anyone who needs love would bristle so much, be such a porcupine, asking for respect and understanding over affection and acceptance.

In my family of origin, if I lost myself to the collective identity, I would be completely lost, as the collective identity was completely reactionary; anger at idiots who don’t get it, rage at others who never made us happy.

Add to that my knowledge that the compulsory gender role I was assigned by dint of my birth genitalia didn’t match my heart, finding that I couldn’t satisfy women  looking for a cocky guy, and I knew that what was hidden was more  potent than what was assumed.

My looking for love was a quest of manipulation, trying to sell myself to others.  And that was futile and destructive.   So I learned to renounce desire to find clarity, a classic human discipline.   I focused on the love of God over the love of people.

Many spiritual disciplines want to teach this detachment.   For most, though, they learn this after they learn attachment.  In my family of origin, though, attachment was not a feature.

“Love me!  Love me!  Love me!” so many performers cry from the stage.  “Look at how charming and magical I am!   Let me attract you into my world and let you be entertained and seduced!”

On the other hand, I say “Look, I know I am a piece of work, so I’ll leave what I have right here, and if you are interested, you know where to find me.”   Then I go back to my world and am willing to be surprised if anyone actually engages me.

This might not be the best way to get the love, affirmation, understanding and empathy that I need, but I know that being exposed and not having what I give returned has a very high cost, one I have been paying for many, many, many, many, many, many decades now.

I’m here and I’m open.   But looking for the love I need?   I never learned how to do that in a way that returns more than it costs.

But Ms. Stritch was great, and I’m glad she got such a good return on exposing herself, even at a cost.

Though, of course, she’s dead now.

Rest in Peace.

Love, Hate, Gender

The things we love most about gender are often also the things we hate most about gender.

We love, for example, how men protect us and keep us safe, but we hate it when they are overprotective and stop us from doing what we need to do.

We love sparkling women, who bring their own unique and shimmering personality to the world, but we hate it when they won’t settle down and be logical & practical, which usually means when they won’t just agree with us.

The most powerfully attractive bits of gender are usually the most extreme and stylized bits.   The mellow, centred, easygoing, neutral people just don’t have the zing to attract and excite us.

“There are only two kinds of men in the world,” Adela  Rogers St John wrote, “those who are easy to live with and those who are impossible to love with.  Sadly, only the latter are worth the effort.”

Challenging can be tough, but boring is just boring.   It is the sizzle that gives life energy.

This is a key reason why gender balance will never be any kind of sensible beige androgyny.   It is the friction, the tension, the dance that keeps us humming.

It’s hard to acknowledge this truth, that the best parts of others are the flip side of their most aggravating parts.   “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” we ask, not acknowledging that would take away the moment when we see her at the top of the stairs and she takes our breath away.

Gender balance is an active, living process, much like riding a surfboard.  We take the shape we need to take in the moment, adapting our performance to the situation and audience at hand.  It’s not the tasks we need to do that are gender specific, it is how we do them.   Even a mom can toss a ball around with a son, even a dad can attend an imaginary tea party.

Trying to do gender performance on your own can be essentially unsatisfying.   A woman can survive on a desert island on her own, but her femininity will just be background truth unless and until it is contrasted with someone who takes a different approach.   To always have to be ready to be sensible and balanced, knowing that  what other people see as your gender can shift in a moment tends to force one into stolid, plodding neutrality.

We love gender and we hate gender, because if gender didn’t engender such strong emotions it wouldn’t create such strong passions either.  “Men may be pigs,” as the old saying goes, “but we love bacon!”

I suspect that any attempt to disempower gender is likely to fail, that a post gender culture has never and will never exist.  Rather, we may move to a culture that honours the gender of the heart rather than having only two gender roles that are compulsorily separated by dint of reproductive sex.   Gay liberation has started this process; at least now, we acknowledge four gender roles —  straight man, gay man, straight woman, gay woman —  but there are still many illusory opposites to fall.

Love and hate have always been two sides of the same coin.  It’s bland indifference or obstinate ignorance that the the opposite of love.   If we want to continue to be thrilled by what we love, we will continue to be aggravated by what we hate.

And gender has long been at the heart of that sizzle.

Breaking The Loop

20: GOTO 10

This is the core routine for all overthinkers.  We start to analyze the situation, but somehow, the conditionals, the breakpoints that should get us out of the loop just don’t kick in, so we sit and spin ourselves into tail chasing spirals of our own fear and assumptions.

My trick for supporting those with minds that Dr. Asperger would have recognized is simple.   I find a way to reach in and break the loop.

There are a wide range of techniques that I select from my experience with the person, from diverting thought to slipping in new ideas to screaming at them to just offering logical paradoxes that break the routine.

I know very well that once you are in this overthinking loop it becomes very hard to break out of it.   Having someone else ground you by offering a new procedure, an insight into a new way of thinking, a different way of processing — leading with your heart for example, or remembering the context of past successes — can be a great relief.

This strategy requires, though, that to help break the loop you must understand and value the whole process of overthinking in the first place.   Thinking isn’t a mistake, something to be devalued and derided, rather it is a legitimate and comprehensible approach to understanding your world.   For people with some brain patterns, it is the basic way of engaging the world.

Asking overthinkers to stop thinking is like asking humans to stop breathing.   It can’t be done, nor is it even a useful goal.   Thinking is not a bad thing.

Rather, what we can do is help them learn to break the loops in their own thinking, usually by affirming other parts of who they are, of their experience in the world.   We help them by entering their thinking and helping them reprogram themselves, giving them new ways to see and think about the world.

I don’t think this is an easy process.  I know how much time and repetition it takes to break old habits.

More than that, I know how hard it is to find new and effective solutions to the underlying challenges that drive the overthinking loop in the first place.   If a simple and elegant solution were at hand, one that both worked and made sense in mindspace, we would already have that solution.

The conundrums of being a human, though, rarely offer easy and clear solutions, rather they require taking risks, being vulnerable, trial & error, compromise, and making the best of the available options.   The more we focus on how to avoid or even minimize loss the more we are likely to be bound up in bouts of overthinking.

Where are the wins?   That is a question I struggle with, because I know that the best technique we have for greater success is usually finding tiny wins and then working to expand them into larger, more satisfying and more fulfilling wins.   When you have negligible wins to start with, well, that technique really doesn’t work all that well.

Learning to break the loop is hard, which is why having others help is always good.  Having others just tell you to stop overthinking, or to try to devalue thinking altogether is not really useful, though; it just sets us spinning faster and faster.   We need people to meet us where we are, not just treat us as if where we are is wrong and wrongheaded.

In my experience, it is a combination of empathy and smarts that can help, someone willing to come in and respect my world by also to connect me to their world, sharing subroutines and procedures that work for them and that can be tailored for us.

It takes practice to open up your thinking, discipline to stop getting stuck in loops and empathy, especially empathy for your own humanity, to break free of the notion that more thinking is always the answer.   It is not an easy challenge.

Having others who can help you break the loop, who have been there and know better ways to build neural networks that aren’t so BASIC, well, they are invaluable.

At least they are when you can find them.

Hearing Pain

When I was in the hospital, I told a visiting friend that my pain was “beyond language,” only to have him remind me that I had been speaking about my suffering for the past hour. Perhaps, he mildly remarked, the problem is not that people in pain cannot communicate, but that witnesses to their pain refuse to hear. I was so struck by his observation that I forgot how much pain I was experiencing. For a few moments, his empathy overcame my suffering.
. . .
But pain will always be with us, and by listening closely to the stories patients tell us about their pain, we can gain hints about the nature of their suffering and the best way we can provide succor.
Joanna Bourke, “How to Talk About Pain,” New York Times, 12 July 2014

 Kazimierz Dąbrowski, a Polish psychiatrist, created his own developmental theory that posited psychological tension and anxiety are necessary for growth.

As part of this, he looked at gifted students and found that they displayed overexcitability, getting highly stimulated in five different areas.

Authors like Sharon Lind took to that finding to examine ways to understand and support gifted childrenMartha Burge extended this work to suggest that this overexcitabilty is a trait she calls “intense” and is at the core of the behaviours often diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).   She offers suggestions on how to manage and p this trait to enhance, rather than limit development.

I was chosen to attend programs at the Gifted Child Society in the mid 1960s.   I loved the stimulation I got there, even if I had been given little discipline to convert those intense experiences into social successes by my Asperger’s parents.

I have spent a lifetime trying to share my experience of the world with others, to give them the same excitement and joy I get from the process of rebirth, destroying old ideas and assumptions to replace them with the new, the clearer, the more intense.   I have found that this process tends to leave me “too hip for the room,” with others “unable to get the joke.”

The amount of language I have gone through just on this blog to try and convey my own experience is awesome.   Yet, I know that very amount of verbiage is offputting to other people.  They wonder when I will calm down, when this burst of intensity is going to slow down so that things can get back to normal.   I am outside of their experience with latent inhibition, where they can slough off what is too intense for them to experience, can remain inside a comfort zone.

If my experience of life is intense, then clearly my experience of pain is also intense.  While I have worked extremely hard to use that tension for growth, developing understanding that lets others find me comforting and useful in assisting with their own healing, they also find me too challenging and unpleasant when they want to stay in their own comfort zone.

This has lead me to learn to modulate and attenuate myself when trying to connect to others.  That technique has utility, but in the end it is essentially unsatisfying. as I still end up being too intense for other while not getting the kind of nurturing and affirmation that I need.

In her book, The Story of Pain, Ms. Bourke is clear that pain is always relational, that it always exists in a social context.  We understand and give voice to our pain only through the social conventions that we swim in, conventions that bound the accepted and accepted narratives around pain.

She was struck when someone understood that the challenge wasn’t in her expression of intense experience, of intense pain, but rather in the limits witnesses have in willingness or ability to enter and engage that experience.

She suggests that the very act of engaging the narratives of other’s pain, of listening closely and with empathy is crucial to enhancing our ability to offer others succour.

And, as Dabrowski might say, is crucial to engaging our own growth.

But my experience tells me that understanding is a bit too intense for most.


When you ask someone what is masculine and what is feminine, they usually have a simple formula.

They take a list of what they like, decide if they are masculine or feminine, and then match the list to their personal identification.

For example, if they identify as a woman and love to participate in sports, then participating in sports is a feminine thing, or at least a gender neutral thing.

The converse is often also true.  If they identify as a man and don’t like engaging their own feelings, then engaging one’s own feelings is a feminine thing.

This formula is what make it so difficult to try and quantify masculine vs feminine.   Say, for example, that women like colour and someone is bound to say “Well, I’m a woman and I don’t like colour, so you are wrong!”

We police identity by policing those who attempt to find commonalities that may include us where we don’t want to be included or separate us from where we do want to be included.

Gender, in the way that it is portrayed in the media, especially commercial media, is usually seen as being based in symbol rather than in meaning.    We learn early that to be effective in the system of gender we have to wrap ourselves in gendered symbols, from clothing to speech patterns.

In this model, gender isn’t something essential, something deep within us that we can’t lose, something we are centred and confident about.  Instead, gender is something to be earned by effective performance, something we are rewarded for doing well and punished for not doing well.

If someone even hints that something we do, something we love, isn’t manly or womanly enough, well, that’s plenty of reason to hit them hard to try and silence them.  “I love it, and I am a _____ so clearly, it’s a very ______ thing!”

To me, gender isn’t symbol, gender is meaning.   Gender isn’t the simple story of our choices, rather it is the poetry that underlies those choices, the essential us.   Anyone can do anything — change a tire, cook a dinner, plow a field, brush hair, whatever — but their heart is still their heart.

When we see gender as symbol rather than meaning we miss the power in the hearts of those around us.  Some people born female who love men are great firefighters, and some people born male who love women are amazing at caring for infants.   A binary, heterosexist compulsory gender system enforced by shaming non-normative performance doesn’t ever let those people just give the most of what they love, what they are passionate about, what is in their heart.

The defence of our own gender performance often make it very hard for us to identify masculine and feminine traits that cut across the simple binary of reproductive biology.  We end up not being able to discuss gendered hearts in any profound or meaningful way because we feel the need to defend our own choices and the choices of others around us.

For me, there is nothing more important when meeting someone than to see the meaning, the poetry, the attitude, the truth contained in their heart.   I know that the essence of who they are is inside of them, not in the symbols they have wrapped themselves with.   And I know that a big part of my work is helping them feel safe to own that meaning rather than fearing they will be creamed for doing their assigned gender role “wrong.”

Very often, though, the moment someone suggests that gender might not be simple and binary,  when someone hints that part of us may be masculine or feminine, contrary to the role we work so hard to portray, we end up kicking.  Why can’t wearing a dress be masculine?   Why can’t arm wrestling be feminine?   What are you, some kind of gendered bigot?

We become bound up in defending our choices as appropriate for the gender role we have been assigned, working to extend the range of available symbol.  So what if this means we can never really explore the tender masculine and feminine portions of our own heart, can never work to find a vibrant balance?  At least it means we don’t have to have our own gender role challenged at all!

I have experienced a wide range of these moments when people felt the need to try and erase gender differences to justify their own choices as appropriate and good.  Every time I have been frustrated by this defence because it shut down the opportunity to actually gain a deeper, shared understanding of the poetry of gender, of the way our hearts really do find a unique way to blend the masculine and feminine to give us special insight and power.

People defend their gendered choices as one or the other in order to stay proper in the world of gender and I understand why they do that.   Compulsory gendering is brutal.

When they do that, though, they put up walls that stop them from seen and acknowledging  the continuous common humanity that runs though every heart.   They put up walls that stop us from really bringing out what we do have inside, choosing instead to work to only bring out what they have been told that they should have inside.

I really want to be able to discuss the poetry and meaning in gender without getting bound up in the symbols around gender that we can so easily feel the need to defend, moving and bending walls rather than seeing how they are just illusions, just separations without meaning.

Being a bull about gendered symbol, from either side, demanding that meaning be what you say it is rather than working to find common ground, is just something I have never, ever been very good at.  Personally, I believe that inability is rooted in my own gendered heart.

But I know it’s not something I can easily talk about without many seeing a red flag, pawing the ground and ramping up to defend their own choices, their own position.

In my experience, though, that just leaves us genderbound.

Network Thinkers

In intense persons,  [Martha Burge] likens this map to the Internet in that thought is nonlinear, and intuition is utilized when analyzing incoming information.  In those who are non-intense, the internal map is simply a highway system, “with roads leading to other roads.”  That analogy would seem to speak volumes of the challenges an intense person faces.  The search returns millions of hits for every piece of information presented to them and then they are tasked with having to sift through them all to select the one that best serves the purpose at hand.  Intense?  You bet.  ADHD?  Maybe not.
Twila Klein reviewing The ADD Myth: How to Cultivate the Unique Gifts of Intense Personalities

I remember figuring this out somewhere in the early 1980s while driving up the Adirondack Northway to SUNY Plattsburgh where I was finishing my degree in Technology Communications.

I called the difference vector thinkers vs network thinkers, focusing on the forming of webs of connections that hold concepts rather than the direct lines of understanding that focus on routine procedures.    This was a decade before even AOL was hot and long before the public internet.

From my mother observing me in my fifth grade class, pulled up to puzzle an equation on the board that had not yet been taught, watching me solve it, then be bored for the next half hour as teacher went through the procedure for others, to a co-worker noting that most people working on computers use the same technique every time but I used a range of strategies to achieve the same task at different times, I know the issue.

I’m working my way through Ms. Burge’s book at the moment.    We “intense thinkers” — what I have often called “too people” —  always are looking for another insight into how we can understand ourselves and how to become better thinkers in the world.   After all, many of us had to extract the strategies by ourselves, without others helping, and in many cases, with others deliberately hindering.

Her point that non-normative minds are just minds, not syndromes is important.  There is nowt so queer as folk.

And that’s a good thing.

Out Of The Bubble

“I feel all my life I’ve been in a bubble.  I feel all my life I could never sort of make any relationships because people pick me up wrong.   All I need is somebody just to say ‘Susan, I believe in you, Susan, I think you can do this.’ And what did I get in the very early days from other people?  ‘Well, Susan’s not capable.'”
— Susan Boyle after Aspergers diagnosis, “There’s Something About Susan

I’m finally watching this film about Ms. Boyle and I am screaming.

The performance coach hired to get her ready for live concerts  is being sweet and kind and affirming when she breaks down in tears before facing rehearsals without lyric sheets, before the first rehearsal with the live band.

Maybe this is a great way to help a neurotypical person who is insecure, but in my experience, it’s the wrong way to help someone with Aspergers.   She doesn’t need to get swamped by emotions, doesn’t need to remember all her failures, doesn’t need to be stroked and petted.

Ms. Boyle needs, at least from where I sit, a new way to think about the feelings she is having.   She needs to be able to lift herself up and show herself with pride, getting herself out of the bubble of being an AS woman trapped alone with her feelings.

“You’re uncomfortable and scared,” I would say to her.  “I get that.

“But there is one thing I know about you,” I would continue. “I know that you are Susan Boyle.  You are the woman Simon Cowell dismissed as a gorp and then you sang anyway, and you just blew everyone in that theatre away.   You lifted your voice and lifted the place because you are amazing, because you have a talent that is amazing.   You came back and all of Britain, all the world tuned in to be with you.

“You are Susan Boyle, a mild mannered woman who learned how to take the microphone at karaoke night in pubs and use your angelic voice to get a whole room full of rowdy Scots into the palm of your hand.   You are Susan Boyle, whose albums sell like hotcakes and touch people around the world, so much so that they reach out to you and tell you how they have opened their eyes, changed their lives.

“I know that you are Susan Boyle and that your voice has transfixed and delighted people whenever you felt confident enough to you use it.  You are Susan Boyle and you know that your creator wants you to share that gift, so you are going to share with auditoriums of people who already know you and already love you, who have come out because they want to be transported by you.

“You are Susan Boyle and you have already absolutely proved you can do what you need to do.   You have proved you got the chops.

“Sure, you are uncomfortable and scared, feeling emotional about new challenges.  But I am here because I am absolutely sure that you are Susan Boyle and that you can do the same as you have done before, share that majestic voice and make people feel the love.

“That’s what I want you to remember.”

That’s what I would tell her in this case.   I would do what she said she needed, tell her that I believe in her, that I knew she could do this.

Not what the coach is doing, though.

So I scream.   After all, Ms. Boyle, well, she’s part of my Aspergers family.

The medical professionals who helped with my parents didn’t quite understand what I was doing when I was a bit tart, a bit challenging, a bit focused on reprogramming and re contextualizing.

But they did figure out quite quickly that whatever the hell I was doing, it worked.

What World

In the glory days of Hollywood, when movie studios were fantasy factories, cranking out product to entertain the country, every soundstage was a different world.

In one would be the drama of ancient Rome, in the next would be the thrills of the wild west, in another a swank drawing room, and one might even hold a world where girls in spangled costumes broke into elaborate dances.

In the shared areas between these worlds would mix, a cowboy and a gladiator side by side.   They would share space and services, standing in line next to each other at the commissary, for example.

The world is more like this than most of us care to admit.  On the streets of Manhattan exactly the same thing happens, people coming out of their own unique worlds to be shoulder to shoulder with other people from very different worlds.

I have heard transwomen tell me that women never wear dresses to the mall, but when I dress like I am ready for work, nobody notices or cares.  Everyone understands the notion that we live in our own worlds and come together in shared spaces.   The Amish gal in her long dress and bonnet who was waiting to use the stall after me at the WalMart in Macon wasn’t out of place, it was just two worlds passing in public space.

Our challenge, it seems to me, is how to be comfortable and confident inside our own world.   Once we can do that, we can present ourselves with grace and authority, wherever in the shared world we are.  If we live in a world that calls for wearing a sari, we need to wear it like we own it and just let other people get a glimpse of our world.

This is very different than trying to enter the worlds of others in a way that makes us invisible and assimilated.    It is impossible to blend in with the shared world because by definition, the shared world is always a place where multiple worlds exist side by side.

The secret to the success of magazines is in creating a world you want to enter and inhabit for a time.   No one lives in a pure Vanity Fair or Martha Stewart world, but when we visit those worlds we experience things that we want to invoke in our world, bits we aspire to include in our own world.

The power of owning your own performance, your own choices, no matter how distinctive you may be, is the same.   You bring your own world, the one that you inhabit, the one that you own, with you wherever you go.  Your world is both unique and common, allowing you to connect with other people in a special way that draws them in, is attractive and compelling.

My challenge is to own my own world, inside and out.

My tradition has been owning my place in my parents world, the rational attendant to a special world.  I have been the protocol droid, the concierge, the interpreter.

That performance isn’t getting me what I need.   That performance does not embody my own world, the one I have worked so hard to own.  Yet, because I still end up living in my parents world for many reasons, I feel like I need to always be ready to snap back into that old performance, which leaves me uncommitted to presenting my own world.

Change for me has to centre around me believing that my own world is good in the share space we inhabit between our different personal worlds.   I need to believe that my world is good, valuable, integrated, compelling, attractive and even, well, beautiful.

The hardest part about this for me is one of the hardest parts of everything I do; I need to do it alone.   I don’t have a galaxy of others around my world, reflecting, affirming and supporting my own approaches, techniques and choices.   There isn’t a world I can just enter and make it my own, rather I have to have the energy to maintain my world’s integrity in the face of lots and lots and lots of social stigma and pressure.

Invoking another world, another planet and inviting people into it is the only way to claim your own space in the world.   When we walk in the shared world with the confidence that in our own world we are skilled, we are brilliant, we are loved, then we offer our strength rather than slouching towards shame.

What is the world that I want to live in, the one that reflects my own images rather than just being the world of my family, the world of others with very different vision?   How do I let go of my old world, put it into the chest, and instead manifest a performance of bold confidence?

We each bring our own world to the shared street and that is not only acceptable, it is also the strength and wonder of human cultures.

To do that well, though, we have to be able to let go of the tension to become invisible.

Doing that on your own, well, that’s hard.

Back To Freedom

Ask any retailer what the Fourth of July means and their answer will be obvious: Back To School!

Now is the time when you clear out the summer goods and fill the shelves with paper and pend and backpacks and dormitory sheets.  Only six or eight more weeks until school starts, so get them in now with big sales and get the late shoppers later with full priced goods.

For people growing up in this time in this culture, the new year starts always starts around Labour Day.   The weather cools, we change our outfits, and we gear up for the work ahead.

I need a new start.   I need a new attitude.  I need a new voice.

Time to get ready, I suspect.


There are lots of lovely, well posed pictures of transwomen on the internet, elegantly constructed images that combine colour and line in a way to create flawless beauty.

In looking at them, though, I am often struck by how tight they seem, like mannequins with a strong armature.   The curves appear almost machined, revealing only the sculpted foundations underneath.

Young and nubile female bodies are marked by a kind of glowing softness, curves laid onto taut muscles, then covered with dewy, radiant skin.  The body flows beneath whatever covers it, creating line, while the flesh draws you in, creamy and warm.

The female body is essentially sensual in a very different way than the male body is.  Artists have made that clear for centuries.

Images of well put-together transwomen are often quite charming, but what they often miss is that tactile sense which draws in, that call to touch and caress.

Transwomen can put together a good look, but moving beyond that construction to a touchable kind of allure is harder indeed.

On “How To Look Good Naked” Gok Wan encouraged women to get comfortable with revealing their bodies so they could dress them in an inviting, appealing and attractive way.

All women have learned at some point to choose lingerie because it would look good when revealed, not just because it creates a whole new structure to the body.   Wigs are great, but never as sensuous as our own flowing hair, ready to be stroked or even pulled in the heat of passion.

It is lovely to adorn our bodies with beautiful things, from jewellery to makeup to fashion, but the dream is that those enhance and reveal the best of our bodies.  When we are forced to use them to construct an image of the body we need to have for others to see our own heart we end up using adornment like armour,  keeping others at our own passing distance.

I chuckled recently at one advanced crossdresser who wants to be “authentic” so she wears her own hair, she tells us, that and only the highest quality prosthetic breast and butt forms.

While clever construction of images may leave us with lovely pictures,  they also leave us knowing ourselves as untouchable.   When we simply get a hug, will our breast forms get in the way, for example, coming between us and connection?   And we can find it almost impossible even to imagine getting naked with another person, feeling the contact of skin to skin, the warmth of flesh pressing flesh, the heat of kisses in places most others never, ever see.

Being untouchable is formalized in many cultures as the lowest level of social class, ostracized and excluded from proper society because they are less than.

Feeling untouchable seems to give much the same experience in our own lives, reminding us that we have to keep a distance from others, have to cede to them, have to make sure we don’t do anything that might break the wall we have to maintain.

I recently saw a clip from Crocodile Dundee where the hero meets a gender ambiguous older person and reaches out to grab their crotch before deciding how to respond to them.  The character is male and enjoys the feel, suggesting that if that’s how people in Australia greet you, they might want to go there.   This joke is repeated with a trans woman at bar in the second movie.   A man grabbing a female like that would be offensive, requiring an apology, but grabbing a male is just funny because in heterosexist belief, biology is really truth.

I know why we create pretty images, and I know why we have learned to stay away from touch.

Right now in my life, though, being untouchable is a bit too much to bear.   It has been far too long since I have been touched, and I don’t ever remember being touched in a way that acknowledged, affirmed and celebrated my own nature.

To know you are untouchable is to lose hope of intimate human contact, human affirmation and human love.

It’s not a good thing.

Care Learning

My sister spent this morning listening to her friend’s father in his hospital room.   His angioplasty last week went well, but the heart monitor has shown that he has some events and an implantable device would be good for him, one that watches and controls ventricular fibrillation and such.  The plan was to do the procedure yesterday, but there were questions about his Coumadin levels, so it got postponed to after the long holiday weekend.

Three hours in a hospital room with a guy in his mid-eighties was easy for my sister.   She chatted easily, sharing stories.

He enjoyed having his breakfast oatmeal enhanced with cappuccino ice cream she brought from a chain of shops that they first enjoyed summers at Lake George.  My sister gave him a hospital foodhack he thought he would try the next day; mix the yogourt with the oatmeal.

That’s a hack I developed to help my father get more enjoyment out of the dysphagia diet they put him on to address what they thought was aspiration pneumonia.   My job was the same as always; figure out strategies and then teach them to the rest of the family.

These past few weeks, my sister and I have been passing those lessons on to her college roommate.   The importance of staying in the moment, of building allies by seeing yourself as one member of a care team committed to best possible outcomes, of focusing on the possible rather than the ideal have all been communicated in texts and phone calls.

Her friend asked me about how I did something that my sister valued, doing voice recordings with my parents to capture their stories, to hold onto the gifts that they brought to us.  I pointed to apps — one of my jobs had been to help her friend choose a good phone and service provider — and suggested techniques.

Today, in the hospital room, my sister followed up, consolidating her friend’s fathers values and priorities so she could make sure that they were passed on.

This weekend is tough.  It was exactly two years ago when my father came out of hospital walking, went into rehab and came out paraplegic.  In fact, I had to cede right-of-way to a van from that facility just yesterday in the parking lot of the Walmart.   The last time I slept anywhere but this basement was when I spent the night with him in the emergency room, waiting for surgery the next day.

I am proud of the way I gave my parents one more good day.   So much of that, my sister realizes and has tried to offer to her friend, was about finding effective strategies, approaches and attitudes, then modelling them in a way that passed on the skills.

For me, every day of caretaking, even up to the last, is about learning and growth, finding the new that values the essential and lets go of the dross.   What connects us as humans is the profoundly personal, those one-of-a-kind stories that resonate with shared humanity and love.   On days when we find new ways to value those stories, new facets of them that bring them into clearer focus, we find something good.

It is good to see the hard lessons I learned go to benefit another person and her aging father.  In virtually all of my struggles in the world I haven’t had anyone to stand with me, haven’t had someone to call on to help me develop strategies.   I have had to do the work alone, breaking new ground, synthesizing what I could find and doing so much trial and error that I usually felt broken.

My sister’s friend and her father have another day together, another procedure to get through, more struggle.  But they also have time for more joy and more connection and more stories and more love, if they can keep finding strategies that make every day a little better.

To me, that’s worth helping with.

T.o.M. O.D.

Relationships work because we have some sense, some model, of how the people we are in relationship think and feel.

Researchers call this Theory of Mind (ToM).   It is a theory because we can never know exactly what someone else is thinking or feeling — heck, even they aren’t always sure of that — but it is a working hypothesis that we improve with time and experience.   We use it to make assumptions and then correct those assumptions as we get feedback, learn how to better model the mind of the other person.

Humans aren’t born with Theory of Mind, rather we learn to create this theory as we grow, develop, mature.   We get the basics, it seems, then we have to work at it.

For some people, especially people on the Autism Spectrum, Theory of Mind comes with more difficulty.   They have trouble understanding their own thoughts and feelings, have trouble understanding others.

I had parents with weak ToM, and they had no help to give their kids in building ToM.  I lived in egocentric chaos.

It was clear to me that life would be better if I had a model I could use to understand how others around me would respond, especially because their response was often either angry & upset or sweet & clueless.

From an early age, I used my brain — the one that had me reading Time magazine at age 4 — to build my own, detailed Theory of Mind.   From that day to now, my goal to find a complete ToM has been intense and compulsive, as anyone who has ever read one of these deeply rational, introspective and analytical blog posts can attest.

It has been pointed out to me over the decades, though, that I seem to spend too much time trying to figure out what other people think and then using that theory of mind to modulate myself down to not challenge them.

“Why do you care so much about what other people think?” has been the comment, which I find kind of weird.  I really don’t care what other people think — I was the one who withstood having my fifth grade class vote unanimously that I was wrong when Miss Hanen wanted to silence me — but I do care that I don’t set people off.   Having my mother explode, you see, was the core emotional experience of my life.

I knew I couldn’t placate her, so I didn’t try, which is why I became the target patient in the family, the one who got dumped on as being the cause of all problems, but I could manage her, which I did until she died, a year and a half ago.   I learned to manipulate, at least until my mid 30s when Christine taught me that was a dead end, a bad thing.

My experience of the world has been, therefore, much more theoretical than practical.   Understanding the theory, especially the Theory of Mind, was much more central to me than just getting out into the world and trusting that I just had to follow my heart and the right people would find me.

I overdosed on Theory of Mind.  I had to have enough for my whole damn family, so, at least on this topic, I showed my own virtuosity by overachieving in this area I understood was crucial from a very, very young age.

It would, I know now, have been better if I used my mind and my energy for other accomplishments, but when you are living in a minefield, learning how to dance seems like the only priority, or at least the only one you have enough energy for.

There is no recovery program for Theory of Mind junkies, those of us who just fell down the rabbit hole of trying to suss out what everyone else is thinking rather than just creating our own stories.

Theory of Mind is not a bad thing.   Like so many other skills, in proper proportion and balance, healthy relationships and shared understanding comes out of robust and developed Theory of Mind.

Overdosing on ToM, though, leaves you cautious, reactionary, reserved and isolated from your own beating heart.  It is the cost of those adultified early, those who had to put aside their own blossoming childhood to attend to and protect themselves from people who were too lost in their own anger and pain, those who demanded that everything be about them.

My ToM is at the core of my survival skills, developed to keep me safe and grounded.  Like any gift, though, it is also my curse. at the moment leaving me theory bound and isolated.

I had to have enough Theory of Mind for my whole family, and then, as a transperson, for my whole world.

At this point, that feels like quite an over dose.