Happy 15th Birthday to My Cat, Maven

IMG_20180424_034755_683I want to introduce you to my best friend. She’s turning fifteen this month, and that deserves celebration.

One of the reasons I don’t waste time regretting the odd turns and phases of my life is that they always bring a gift. The autumn of 2003 was one of those random sidetracks. I was temporarily in Pensacola again, in a short-term attempt to save a relationship that ended soon after. Most of those days were unhappy. And I was getting sick of it.

In a characteristic attempt to punch back at darkness, I took a detour on my way home from classes one September day, and paid a visit to the Escambia County Animal Shelter.

When I told them I was interested in adopting a cat, they showed me down a long hallway. At the end was a room with a glass wall, and behind that were stacks of cat cages. Almost every one was filled with a sleeping or pacing or meowing animal, their voices muffled behind the glass.

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As soon as I came around the corner, though, one cat was already staring at me. Staring like she knew I was coming. Sitting still, silent and alert, as though by sheer force of will she could convince me to get her the hell out of there.

I tried to make an effort to examine the other cats, but it was hopeless. She was the one.

I took her back home to my then-boyfriend, who helped me name her. She had been born in May, so we named her Maven.

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Maven is a Korat, a silver-tipped blue-gray breed originally from Thailand. One of the rarest and best breeds of cat there is. She has green eyes, a heart-shaped face, a squawking meow, and as much intelligence as many people I’ve met.

I kept her with me in Pensacola, and when I went to Richmond for a year and then to France, she stayed with my family. One of the best things about having to come home from Europe was seeing her again.

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She’s so observant. She wants to know everything, to monitor and to understand. And it never feels like the simple curiosity of another cat. It’s like she wants to be knowledgeable and competent, and aware of everything.

On the other hand, she’s also got a silly side. I don’t know if animals have a sense of humor, but Maven loves it when I’m laughing, and will start purring if she can make me crack up.

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One of the most amazing things about this cat is her empathy. I don’t cry as much as I used to, but whenever I do, she’ll run to sit on my lap, boop her face into the tears, and purr until I hug her. When I’m sick, or had to have an operation, she’ll check on me. Even sometimes lay on my chest or legs until she’s sure I’m better.

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She’s utterly loyal. She loves most people, but there’s never been any doubt that I’m hers.

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As Maven’s gotten older, her tolerance for fighting and bad energy has gone down a lot. I’d always have to reassure her if I fought with my ex, and one of the things that’s made me want to straighten out my life is my desire to give her a good, calm place to live. She’s made so much effort to help me out of my worst headspaces, the least I can do is center her happiness.

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She likes to play. One of her favorite games is to be covered in a sheet or blanket, while I pretend I don’t know where she is. I call her name, poke around through the sheet trying to “find” her, while she purrs and tries to bite me.

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But she doesn’t really go for being tricked.

She talks back, lets me know when she doesn’t like things, and I swear she’s muttered a few cat-profanities at me.

I think one of the only real regrets of my life is that I left her with my parents in 2011 when I moved to DC for the first time. That separation was much harder on us than when we were both younger. The sadness in her eyes the day I left was just awful.

When I returned to Florida in 2013, I vowed never to live apart from her again.

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And I haven’t.

She went with me to Pensacola, to New Orleans, to Ohio, and now to DC, all the while being a little trooper and acting as though it were a great adventure.

When I drove from Ohio to DC on this past New Year’s Eve, in the frigid weather and snow, she rode for eighteen hours in a crate with no complaints. She went to the bathroom in a shoebox, ate treats out of my hand, drank water from a bottlecap, and stayed much calmer than I was. She even went so far as to meow quietly in reassurance when I had to drive down mountains at twilight.

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She’s been a huge part of what’s kept me going through the writing of my books. I call her my little Writing Gargoyle, as she’ll sit somewhere watching me type. If I’m writing a tense scene, she’ll feel it and wake up from her nap. I’ll have to reassure her that it’s all pretend, that my vibes are part of the process and nothing she needs to fix.

Eventually she’ll pass back out somewhere nearby, and I’ll keep typing to the sound of her purring.

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She feels it when I’m overjoyed, too. When I pick her up in the air and tell her she’s my space cadet kitty, and put her on my head like a hat. She knows when things are going right. Even when all she can do in response is make her contented little grunt and chew on my rough drafts.

She’s made me a better person. Every time I lose my temper with her, I’m reminded that whatever I’m upset about is not as important as us. When I calm down, and explain things to her in quiet words, she usually listens and obeys.

It dawns on me, over and over, that having her in my life is not about making her behave.

It’s about being more like her — alert, compassionate, contented, self-assured, forgiving. Always ready to love.

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This is a photo of me at one of the lowest moments of my life, when I really felt like giving up. Guess who stuck by my side?

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And now that everything’s changed, I find the most important things really haven’t. I’m just better at valuing and protecting them. Though I do think it’s adorable how she’s tried to match my voice drop by meowing deeper.

I was scared of the responsibility of having a cat, and to this day it sometimes stuns me how this beautiful, trusting thing is dependent on me for happiness. It’s sobering, and I have to live up to it every day. Sometimes in the past fifteen years, I’ve had times where I didn’t want to care about anything, even myself. But I cared for her. And so often she’d pull me out of that dark space, just by being herself.

I don’t trust anybody Maven doesn’t like. I’d be willing to stop testosterone if it harmed her in any way. And when my house almost caught fire one day in New Orleans, I didn’t take my computer, or my novel notes, or even my phone. I grabbed my cat, and I ran out.

One day she will die. And I will be absolutely devastated. A part of me will leave with her. She’s fifteen now, and while Korats are a long-lived breed, the day will come. I’ve been thinking about it for the past few years. And while there’s no way to prepare yourself to lose something of such importance, I have developed the habit of trying to love her as though each time I see her might be the last time.

Because shouldn’t that be the gold standard of love anyway?

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Maven’s my soulmate, in a funny way. Nobody taught me that it might be an animal companion, and yet here we are. And I wouldn’t change a thing, except to have given her even more happiness.

She’s jumped up on my lap at least three times while I wrote this. And once I hit publish, I’m going to read it to her, in the off chance that she can understand English as well as I suspect she can.

She might just wander off and fall asleep, listening to my voice, But that’s fine. I’ll take fifteen more years of that, please.

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Happy birthday, sweetheart.

Real Talk on My 39th Birthday

It would be easy for me to go back through my life with a red pen and try to “correct” how things should have been, all the while having to admit that, due to where and when I lived, life circumstances etc., it couldn’t really have worked out any other way than it did.

I do hate that I never got to be a young man. Not just the friendships and relationships I could have formed, or the career I could have really focused on (instead of battling suicidal depression for 20 years). But also the frustrations and abuses, and the ongoing fear of thwarted potential that I might have been spared.

It is hard, to face down forty and not yet have a real career or a life partner. And have to deal not just with feeling behind other guys my age, but also feeling like I’ve got a bunch of baggage they don’t have and won’t ever fully relate to. But it is what it is.

Going on testosterone almost a year ago REALLY helped me out. I was scared of what I might lose–but holy shit, it’s given me so much, I can’t imagine having not tried it at this point. I actually like my body and feel like I look like myself, for the first consistent time in my life. And emotionally, it just feels so much better to be on this hormone.

For once it actually seems true that I might be able to grow from whatever life throws at me, instead of just surviving by the skin of my teeth like I did for so many years.

Pre-transition life did hold a lot of great things for me, if I’m honest. But there was a sense that I could never get anything going in life. Everything I tried to do would seemingly collapse somehow. I wouldn’t have the endurance to see it through, or it would suddenly be obviously wrong for me, or it would get sabotaged by some awful person I was allowing in my life due to low self-esteem and fear of being alone.

I felt like such a failure, like why couldn’t I put together an adult life that gained any momentum at all, or repaid my investment in anything but the barest way?

Truth is, I still don’t know why it was like that. Perhaps it was some deep part of me pulling the plug over and over, so as to keep bringing attention to some deeper (gender) need. In any case, despite things still being hard, it has gotten better, and easier to see a future for myself as an actual possibility.

I’d say the most important thing is to keep digging. When nothing seems like it’s working, or worth it, it’s usually because of fear of some deep true thing.

On This Timeline

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”, 1992

So I officially came out tonight. I asked my friends to start using he/him pronouns for me. It was heard and accepted, and all part of the collective middle finger.

I’m still going to start T, I’m still going to be openly trans, and I’m still totally here for anyone who needs to talk. Tonight or whenever.

I spent my twenties in the Bush Years, in much the same way some of you awesome folks will now be spending your twenties (hopefully fewer of them) in the Trump Years. As an activist Democrat in 2000 (in Florida, no less!) and 2004, I know this shock and horror and panic feeling. I just wanted to share a few thoughts, for what they’re worth. It’s a bit long.

1. Going from an era like the Obama administration to the upcoming era we face, might feel like all the oxygen has ben sucked out of the room. It might not be equally instantly noticeable to all, but there is a chilling effect that a bad Presidential administration will probably have. Things might feel less free, less safe, less creatively open. That’s because they are. My advice is to find the things you love right now, that warm your heart and make you feel like yourself, and actively foster them. They’re your oxygen tanks. You might need them for a while, so learn to recharge them. Put your own mask on first, then help others, just like on an airplane. For (dorky) example, during the Bush Years, I probably watched the “Lord of the Rings” movies 100 times. They were a comfort zone. That sort of thing gets really important. Don’t be afraid to just curl up in a comfort zone if you need it from time to time, it’s a priority. Music, books, creative outlets, beautiful places, good people–now more than ever, they matter.

2. This shit will end. The Reagan/Bush 1 years led to the awesomeness of the 90s, the Bush 2 years led to the awesomeness of Obama. This doesn’t mean good eventually loses or is meaningless. It means that no matter how bad a chunk of humanity periodically fucks up, most people want to fight back and pull things up again, and successfully do.

3. The seismic shift of a Very Bad Thing happening might hurt, and seem to let monsters loose. But it also rips a hole for some really positive changes in response. Nothing is won overnight, but there will be opportunities to fight back and advance good things, and if you’ve given yourself permission to take care of yourself, you’ll be ready to push back.

4. Hate, and hateful people are scary as hell. But they don’t run reality. They run amok, and they can be dealt with. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from good people. Don’t let hateful people fool you into thinking they’ve won. Hate never wins in the long run.

5. Try not to get sucked in to fighting hate directly, or lashing out with anger, or trying to figure out what went wrong just yet. It’s a really draining MO, and will probably be exhausting and unsustainable in the long run, leaving you feeling weak and vulnerable to those hateful people. There are better ways to fight them, than their way.

6. You’re not alone, you don’t have to come out, you can conform as much as you need to stay safe. Preserving your life and well-being matters most. But also, if you feel you can jump on opportunities to fight back and be open, take seriously the impulse to do it. It’s not necessarily rash or a bad idea, just because the desire to do it comes up suddenly. Standing up and being heard, if you can, helps others A LOT. It’s not selfish or impulsive, it’s brave and heroic. Take yourself seriously, even if you’ve been trained not to.

7. There are two phases to awful stuff like this. The shock and grief and worry part, and the adaptation part. Life goes on, and we will all be adjusting however we can. It’s human nature. But you can get in front of it and decide for yourself how you’ll be adapting. It doesn’t just have to be endurance against the toxicity, dishonesty, hypocrisy and disingenuousness that are likely to be raining on our heads for awhile. You can work hard and adapt in ways that actively resist. It’s better to do that, than just let the architects of this bullshit decide how your life will be bending.

Thanks for being you. Hugs and love to you all.

Lover Of Life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my relationship to life.

I pictured life as a force and myself alongside it, and I knew I was its lover.

Like the topic of sex in general, the lover-of-life relationship is packed with cliches. It’s as if, in our uneasily-erotic world, we feel relief at the trite phrases and cynical jokes that enable us to mediate sex, to talk around it, without actually delving into it. The same is true with our talk about the ecstasy of life.

Look how often the conversation about joy veers into safe language: bliss, faith, spirit, belief.

One of the reasons I avoid self-help and life-coaching is a tendency for that scene to whitewash the goal…to sanitize happiness, to make joy into this wholesome, pristine emotion. It’s downright religious in its studious transcendence.

I want to be life’s lover. It’s my greatest calling.

To overcome, to release, to progress—screw that! It’s like saying parts of life are not worth loving, are to be dealt with, disfavored. And if life’s my lover, how can I selectively reject the parts of it that don’t measure up?

I don’t want to overcome anything. I want to drink life in, until it and I are one.

What does it mean to be a lover of life? Does it mean shoving things into yourself—food, drink, experiences? Does it mean doing things to other people—changing their insides, their minds, their behavior? Or are those things pale substitutes or uneasy mediations?

What does it mean to be a lover, of people or life itself? We all know. We just don’t think of ourselves as one of those individuals, the lucky few who are picked up by the Universe, bandied about, and turned out.

Truth is, life desires us back. But like a shy admirer, it wants us to declare ourselves first.

It’s not about finding out what the lover supposedly wants, and doing it automatically; to be either martyr or machine allows nothing inside you. And it’s also not about finding out what you want, asking for it, receiving it, and giving thanks. That’s sure to bore both of you after awhile.

Too many things are turned into a performance checklist. Or, in rebellion against that, they’re touted as the next arena in which blissful “self-fulfillment” is the yardstick of success. To be life’s lover is to exist in a state of ready receptivity, of attentive action. To hold life, as you’d hold a lover, in the deepest attention. To cradle it, even as it surrounds you. To adore and worship it.

Life has so many things begged of it, so much raised to it in supplication. Maybe it just wants to be seen. To be wanted. To be lusted after. To be chased.

I’m the opposite of zen. It’s the opposite of detachment. I wouldn’t have chosen to be born, if I wanted to rise above this world. Instead, I want to sink into it, to let it envelop me.

I want to swallow it until it swallows me, dissolves me from the inside. Only then will that radiant violet flame inside me be free to shine.

Happy 50th Birthday, NASA!

Fifty years ago today, in response to the Sputnik crisis, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA.

For a kid like me, growing up in Florida in the final days of the Cold War, NASA stood as a mixed symbol. On one hand, what a heritage! Stern men in white lab coats, beeping displays, cold readiness, and firey, brain-rattling launches: NASA was a secular monastery devoted wholly to the god Science. Its doings were at once utterly trustworthy, and tinged with deep unease.

Overhead View of Atlantis Stack Rollover

And on the other hand–what a tidal shift. In the decade between 1985 and 1995, the bipolar political alignment of the planet, in place for forty years, unraveled. We lost a shuttle and launched a telescope. The first pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, in all their blurry wonder, were beamed back to a world fresh out from under the heavy blanket of history. The universe expanded in scope and magnificence, while the planet itself seemed so much smaller and more available than it had ever been.

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Is it any wonder our concept of “enemy” weakened? Indeed, we went from threatening Russians with “Star Wars” strategic missile defense, to docking at their space station, Mir.

Children my age, born in the seventies, weren’t around for the run-up of the Cold War that resulted in NASA’s existence. We missed most of the fear, and barely understood it. We knew only Brezhnev, only Gorbachev–a disintegrating threat. Science was an institutional authority to be questioned: Why the militarization? Why did anyone ever think Mutually Assured Destruction was a good idea? We’d missed the opening moves of the Cold War, and so felt compelled to hasten the endgame.

We would use science to clean up the messes that had been made with it. We would join with our former enemies, and save the environment of the only habitable planet science had ever found. And maybe that’s a good thing: as the decades roll on, and government money gets tighter, it’s harder and harder to imagine that space colonization is close.

South Pole of Jupiter as seen by Juno Spacecraft

But part of me is sad, especially to think that Shuttle launches may end in a few years. We may become better stewards of this planet, but will we ever be able to leave it? Was the end of the “Us and Them” political attitude also the end of our deep motivation to master space?

My consolation is the knowledge that those secular monasteries are still there, in Florida, in Texas, in California. They’re still filled with beeping dials, and lab-coated men and women who want to reach the stars far more than most of us will ever know.

Thank you, NASA.