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Behind My Nose

A bitter, yet heady bouquet of outwardly focused criticism, observation and praise.

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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

I'm a leftist bookseller, writer and sometimes activist. I'm not "high-energy," "outgoing," or "outdoorsy," nor do I enjoy sports (except for watching football) or other pointless activities such as kayaking, entertaining large groups of acquaintances in my home or tossing pointy objects at targets. I love to write short fiction & essays. I love laughing really hard and breathing fresh air. I'm a transman. I live with my partner, Kris, a narcoleptic bulldog, a hound dog and a cat.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fun Home

I once received an email from Allison Bechdel, not that she knew she was sending the email to me, per say, it was just to the bookstore where I work. Anyway, I saved it because it's not every day you get an email, especially a nice one, from an artist as talented, maybe even more so than Gary Trudeau.

A couple of days ago, while slogging through some of the advance readers copies I get to take home, I came upon Fun Home which is her graphic novel-like memoir (think Persepolis I and II only lesbian and set in America.) Outstanding! I can't believe a major publisher actually picked her up FINALLY. Jeez, what does a queer have to do to get noticed?! In fact, the note inside the book from the publicist actually said something like, "I'd never even heard of Allison Bechdel before this, but it doesn't matter, this is a phenominal book."

Well I, and millions of other queers and savvy straights, have heard of her and this book is really one of her best. She brilliantly illustrates a dark, but ultimately redemptive story about her relationship with her father who runs the local Funeral Home they dub the "Fun Home." He is at odds with his own identity at the same time she is struggling with her sexuality, and the culmination of all these threads is quite frankly worth every page.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dine and Dash

I can honestly say I have never stolen anything in my life. For all the damage that my early brainwashing into Southern Baptist fire and brimstone flavored Christianity did to me, it did burn into every cell of my body a sense of guilt strong enough to prevent me from ever taking what isn’t mine. After my family fell apart when I was fourteen, everyone but Dad stopped going to church. It seemed silly to keep going, what with my parents impending divorce (Commandment number 9 if you think of it as bearing false witness at the time of the wedding, or number 7 if you count the fact that my mom was having an affair. It might even be a double 7 because her boyfriend was married too.) Also around that time I was beginning to realize that my feelings for Debbie, my “best friend” were more girlfriend-like than sister-like, and that I was most certainly not female, contrary to what my breasts were telling me. I don’t think there are commandments to govern these things, but I do remember something in Leviticus denouncing me. Not only did we stop going to church, my sister, Jo Anna, and I didn’t talk about it anymore unless it was in a discussion about where we could find Dad to borrow the car. Years passed, boyfriends and girlfriends came and went. All sorts of premarital sex happened, and I even transitioned from female to male, but not once did I steal anything. I guess I had always assumed that Jo Anna had the same moral conviction.
Last year Jo Anna, her boyfriend Jon, my partner Kris, her son Ben and I went to the Macaroni Grill for dinner. Kris hates chain restaurants, but I figured that since this one hadn’t actually made it to the fortune 500 yet, it would be off her radar screen. As Jo Anna and Jon chatted idly about the bad fashion choices we were being subjected to around the restaurant, Kris noticed the full bottle of olive oil at the center of the table.
“That reminds me, I need to get some olive oil. This looks like good stuff. I wonder if they sell it.” Jo Anna paused mid anti-stirrup pants diatribe and looked over at Kris.
“You could just put this in your purse and take it home with you.”
“You are NOT putting that entire bottle of olive oil in your purse,” I hissed across the table. I narrowed my eyes and quickly looked around the room to see if anyone had heard us discussing this diabolical plot. “I can’t believe you’re even thinking about this!” I could see where this was going. Kris and Jo Anna were staring each other down, double daring each other to go through with it. Kris and I had been together for about two years at that point, and Jo Anna was still sniffing around her edges to make sure she was ok to let into the tribe.
“It’s just olive oil,” Kris reasoned. “Besides, this place makes so much money they won’t even miss it.” Fore the next ten minutes I listened in disbelief as my lover defended shoplifting and other forms of stealing as a way of protesting capitalism. This from the co-owner of a book store, a woman who has worked in retail for the past 30 years, and most recently boasted the capture and prosecution of one of the store’s most persistent thieves. Of course, she made the disclaimer that “some people” did this in “the movement” when she was younger in the sixties when revolution was more than piercing your lip and littering. She never ‘fessed up and admitted that she, in fact, had participated in any of this behavior except for a brief shoplifting stint in high school and one time in a Red Lobster when she and her girlfriend had been ignored and “discriminated against because [they] were women.” That time they just got up and left without paying, or did the “dine and dash.”
Quite frankly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. According to traditional wisdom, I should be more revolutionary than Kris and Jo Anna. I’m 20 years younger than Kris and I’m queer and gender variant. That’s pretty radical. Or so I thought until this piece of information came my way. I looked at Jon for support, but got nothing. He was nimbly avoiding the subject by pretending to look for the waiter.
“Well, I can’t do it,” I said. “Even if I wanted to, I can’t lie. I’m bad at it, and then we’ll get caught and go to jail for stealing a bottle of olive oil off of the table.”
“You don’t have to do it.” JoAnna leaned back in her chair, fully in control of the situation. “You can take Ben out to the car and we’ll do it.”
I looked at the both of them nodding at each other conspiratorially. “I will NOT!”
“Oh, please! Like you’re some angel. Give me a break.” Jo Anna was clearly baiting me.
“I can’t believe I’m being pressured!” I laughed nervously. They couldn’t really be serious about this. Could they?
“Go on out to the car. You’ll be fine.” Kris was waving me away from the table. I looked around at the faces of my family and counted off the commandments we were all breaking. I hadn’t been to Calvary Baptist Church in 16 years, had proclaimed myself agnostic with a slightly spiritual bent, and here I was counting those around me who were going to be sent to a fiery eternity in hell for stealing olive oil. I forced my feet to walk toward the door and glanced over my shoulder at these evildoers.
Kris knew I wouldn’t eat stolen goods, so she never told me when the olive oil was used in any of my dishes. The weight of the guilt hung around my neck like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s albatross. I debated whether or not I should go to the restaurant and confess. I didn’t though. I just wallowed in guilt for a year until the phone rang one Sunday night.
“Jon’s going to hell.” Jo Anna told me from the other end of the receiver.
“Oh, for god’s sake. What now?”
“Let me tell you the story, but you have to let me finish. No interrupting until I’m done.”
“Fine. Tell me.”
“O.K.” She took a long breath and sighed.
“But after this you have to let me tell you a funny story.” I said. I wasn’t thinking at all about fire and brimstone at the time. In fact, I had just finished a beer after working in the yard all day and wanted to tell her that I had tried the electric leaf blower that Jon got me for Christmas that day. I hadn’t used a heavy duty extension cord like the instructions, which I lost, had told me to do, so midway down the driveway I began to realize I was being electrocuted. I thought she’d find the story funny. She’d laugh because I was actually strapped to the appliance and got jolted when I tried to turn it off. It would remind her of the time our mother’s boyfriend actually got struck by lightning in his car and was nice to us for a month. I didn’t get a chance to tell her the story, though, because I was too shocked by what she told me.
“Jon’s going to hell.” She was giddy with judgment. “Last night we went to a restaurant, and well, you know we always joke around about leaving without paying.”
I gasped. I knew where she was going with this. “You dined and dashed!”
“Just wait until I finish. We ate the food, and it was ok, but not great and then we looked and looked for the waitress and she was nowhere to be found. I even got up and went to the kitchen and asked for her and they said ‘ok yeah, we’ll get her’ and she never came out. Well, most of the time I get up and get my purse and call Jon’s bluff and he sits back down and pays, but this time I got all the way to the door and he was still behind me! We got all the way out to the car and he just got in and started it and left. Then I got worried. What kind of crime is that? Is it a misdemeanor? I looked it up on the internet and couldn’t find it.”
“I don’t know.” I said. “I can’t believe you did that. I would be freaking out the whole way home.”
“I know! Well, and I was!”
“So you never went back and paid for it?”
“Well, now that’s the thing. When we got home I sneaked upstairs and called the restaurant.”
“What did you say?”
“I was so embarrassed. I just asked for the manager and told him that I came in there with my boyfriend today and ate, but we forgot our credit card at home. I asked for the waitress and she never came, so we left. He said, ‘Did you have the cod?’ and I said, yeah. And he’s like, ‘Oh, I told her you guys might have had an emergency or something. That happens sometimes, you know.’ Then I told him that we did have an emergency. I told him that my boyfriend sprained his ankle and we couldn’t make it back and could he take payment over the phone.”
Through my laughter I asked her if he took the payment.
“Yes, and… AND I gave the waitress a four dollar tip.”
“Four dollars!”
“Well it was $27. But you can’t tell Jon. I dared him to do it. He can’t know I called back and paid for dinner.”
“Wait a minute. What about the olive oil you stole from the Macaroni Grill? You didn’t feel bad about that.” She was silent. I had her stumped. She knew she had contradicted herself. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”
“I paid for that too.”
“What? You mean I’ve been feeling guilty for a year and you already paid that?”
“I felt too bad. I called the next day and paid for it. They didn’t know how much to charge for it, so they just charged me $7.”
I was stunned. “Are you ever going to tell Jon?”
“No, I’ll just take the money out of his wallet.”

Foiled Again

I’m going to start telling people I’m an accountant. Every successful writer has a lot of writer friends, but not many writers have accountant friends. This will, no doubt, put me in high demand in literary circles. I’m not an accountant, by the way. I do book keeping at a bookstore, and I also work on the website. I did take accounting classes once, but they were out in St. Louis County, and by the time I drove out there after work in the Central West End (where the bookstore is) it was dark and I couldn’t see my Mapquest directions, which I had to read every time I drove to the classes because they were in different high schools in various parts of the county. I’m night blind and have absolutely no innate sense of direction, so I went to the wrong school one night, got fed up with the whole thing and went home. To be fair to myself, I had completed most of the classes required for my community college Accounting Certification. It was, in fact, the last class I ditched, and the vile capitalist instructor had indeed instructed the class (half of whom were black) not to extend credit to those people who live on the North side of St. Louis, most of whom are working poor black people. Three nights a week he bragged about accounting for the military, various pharmaceutical companies and the miscellaneous white, catholic, heterosexuals who found themselves in his in-home office. So, finding myself at the wrong high school on the wrong night was probably my own subconscious way of thumbing my nose at that son of a bitch, even though that night I thought I was just stupid.Now I’m one credit shy of my certification, which I’ll never get because I just can’t bring myself to go back without becoming homicidal. Over the years I’ve spent here at ye olde bookstore I’ve come to the disturbing realization that writers are a little like that accountant sometimes. Before I came here I was an over the road truck driver. I spent many nights listening to Amy Tan and Wally Lamb books on tape my psychotic ex-girlfriend/truck driving partner borrowed from the library. The truck’s tape player was pretty crappy and I only caught ¾ of the story out of the buzzing speakers over the diesel engine, but it was enough to form the notion that writers knew something I didn’t, which is patently untrue.“Patently untrue.” That’s a phrase from my girlfriend’s repertoire. Even the word repertoire is somehow hers. These are the ways I know I’m not a writer. I leech language from others. I guess we all do, but I do it chronically. I’m a mimic. I can’t even spell. I just spelled mimic wrong and my Microsoft Word spell-check caught it. The fact that I can’t spell, I’m a mimic, I am not an accountant, and will probably never write the great Pakistani novel (the Great American Novel gold belt buckle should be given to Alice Walker in my humble opinion, and if not her then someone equally qualified), even though those things are true of me, I do know just about as much about life, the universe and everything as your run of the mill writer, I just don’t have enough writer friends to actually be able to say I’m a writer with a capital W. I know writers who would read this and complain that real writers with a capital W would not actually have friends. Instead, they would have hangers-on who would worship every syllable that floated from their whiskey soaked tongue and then die young under tragic circumstances. If this is true then I’m halfway there. I don’t have many friends, and I could easily get rid of the ones I have, I’m sure. As for dying young under tragic circumstances, I’m not all that young by Eileen Myles worshipping standards, and the most tragic circumstance I’d have the nerve for is jumping from a bridge since, technically I’m not legally allowed to own a firearm. I’m afraid of heights, and Mapquest probably couldn’t direct me to a satisfactory bridge. Further, it would have to be a rainy night if I was going to do it the most tragic way, and as I said before, I’m night blind, so there you have it. Much like my early aborted accounting career, my stint as a writer is foiled.The bookstore where I work was formed from hippie dreams in 1969. Of course we are in the Midwest, so when I say hippie, I mean that in the most Christian, non-threatening, “Gee kids wouldn’t it be nice to be a hipster for Halloween?” way possible. At least that’s the way hippies were thought of in Effingham, Illinois, where I grew up. That may not exactly be the best example of overall attitude in the Midwest considering they erected a 198 foot cross made from what I can only guess is aluminum siding. Or maybe that is just the reason we should consider them the bellwether of Midwestern thought. St. Louis erected 630 feet of Westward Expansion monumental stainless steel minus the religious overtones, but if you drive a few feet further you will see the road sign green billboards that scream JESUS at you. Sometimes I like to scream JESUS back at it just to make a point. One time I drove past the JESUS billboard and just after it was a billboard advertising New Year celebrations at the Riverboat Casino with a giant picture of a Rod Stewart impersonator. I really think that says it all.The other night, I actually spent some time with Eileen Myles, and I have to say that I like her a lot. I have two things that Eileen doesn’t, 1. I’m younger and 2. I’m transsexual. Those two things coupled with the fact that I’m almost an accountant makes me vastly more interesting than if I just described myself as 33, divorced, bookseller. Theoretically, I would be almost as interesting as Eileen Myles and quirky enough to throw her a little off balance, which is exactly what happened. When we parted I really genuinely liked her, and when she moved to hug me she dipped her head out of the way a bit in case I slugged her.

Norah Vincent is Obnoxious

Remember the coming out episode (or maybe it was one of the episodes right after that) of Ellen where Joe sips on a cup of coffee and says, "Yes it's very fashionable to be lesbian these days," then they all go to a lesbian club to see how "her people live.".. ? Well I was reading one of the advanced reader copies of "Self Made Man" by Norah Vincent a few months ago just before it was set to be published and thought, "Oh god, I'm fucking fashionable. Kill me." In this arrogant, trite, transphobic little prattle by a "self proclaimed dyke," Norah dresses in stage drag and poses as a man for a while just to see what happens. How very coastal of her. It sort of reminds me of when I talk to other New Yorkers who sometimes forget that the rest of the United States actually has plumbing and electricity. Hello? There are actually people who were born genetically female who have actually had more significant experience than you who are actually better writers than you who can tell our own story thank you very much. You can flit off to South Africa where you can drum up some more publicity for yourself by "delving" into the way the other half lives. Oh, wait. You might actually have to talk to people besides your publicist and literary agent then. That won't do.So anyway, Norah's drag name is Ned, and she joins a bowling league, gets a job as a hard sell salesman, stays at a monastary etc. all to get the "everyman" experience and come out of the village of heathens to tell the rest of us what it's like to be a man. It's interesting to me that she thinks she has to be a completely different person in order to experience the male side of life. I mean, there are male opinion columnist hacks. She could have stayed at her job at the Los Angeles Times. Her girlfriend did astutely point out to Ivory Toweresque Norah that unlike her bourgeoise friends, good old boy trailer trash (like me for instance) "bowl without irony." But apparently this point was lost on her.
In the end, I wanted to write her a scathing letter telling her that I was really offended that she thought she could even scrape the surface of what it's like to be male after being socialized female while smirking bihind her hand in every possible private moment. I almost lost faith in Penguin (the publisher) until I found a better book under their Tarcher imprint due in March called "Both Sides Now" by Dhillon Khosla. Yes, this is the real thing, folks. Dhillon is an actual transsexual who has (gasp) actual literary skills, I'm sure much to the chagrine of our friend Norah, who is by now calling the rest of her colleagues to get her picture on the front page of other book reviews for her bold and revealing piece of shit book although her cronies did come through for her with the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Now, if the Lambda Literary Awards tries to nominate this pile of wasted trees for a Lammy so closely on the heels of "The Man Who Would Be Queen," I'm going to write a nasty memo to them which will no doubt end up being read by exactly as many people as read this. 0.