Monday, June 26, 2017

How To Live


The Twelfth and Final part of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
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Arcade Fire are the most preposterous rock & roll band in existence, less an actual band than the idea of a band conjured into being for the soul purpose of expressing big emotions without the faintest hint of subtlety. I started smoking pot the day after Christmas 2015 and quit on April 20th, 2017, a week and a half shy of the one-year anniversary my “grand revelation.” I began experiencing moderate back pain in the late winter of 2017 and by spring it had become almost crippling.

By the second week of June 2017 I am correcting my final batch of papers as an instructor for the University of California, Davis. I do the math and over the last six years have read more than 1,500 student papers. They never get better, they never change, new students make the same old mistakes every quarter. At my height I am driving to Sacramento at least once a week and spending more money on pot than I can reasonably afford, and although I recognize that I am developing a serious problem I feel no urgency to remedy the matter. Towards the end of March I receive another great shock. I am by now accustomed to receiving great shocks. Every time I try to listen to Vampire Weekend I am distracted by something more interesting. That’s probably the amount of attention they deserve.

This presentation takes the form of an explication of a coincidence. Rather than simply reject this coincidence as base or vulgar synchronicity, we shall follow this congruence back to its homes, to turn over the ashes that flew from the sparks of these most unexpected frictions. Perhaps in the shape of these coincidences we can begin to discern a faint illumination, the light of an unconcealing – in the truest sense of the word – of a new thesis of history, or to be more specific, a new thesis of the future.

In the Spring I am well and truly sick of Star Wars and begin rewatching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on Netflix. In June of 1985 R.E.M. release their third album, Fables of the Reconstruction. The reason I waited so long to start smoking pot is simple: my parents are lifelong pot smokers. They’ve always smoked. When I see the doctor for back pain she doesn’t seem very concerned even though I am at times barely able to stand. Back pain is another reason I am growing increasingly dependent on pot. Early in the morning of Saturday, June 17th 2017 I turn in my final set of grades as an instructor for the University of California, Davis.

With a shudder I realize one day that it is no longer shocking to acknowledge Donald Trump as President of the United States. He simply is. This is apparently what we’re doing now. I associate Arcade Fire’s Funeral with the end of the second Bush’s first term, a brief glimmer of hope when it seemed as if a shaky incumbent might just be deposed by an eminently qualified and thoroughly underwhelming technocrat. There is nothing enjoyable or interesting in this world that can’t be rendered banal by seeing your parents do it.

This coincidence takes the form of the unexpected interaction between three texts, at least one of which I can say with no fear of contradiction has never been cited in conjunction with either of its peers. The first text under consideration is an essay by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux entitled “The Immanence of the World Beyond,” dated from 2009; the second is a more familiar text – Derrida’s Specters of Marx, as famously expanded from a plenary address delivered at the University of California’s Riverside campus in April of 1993 and compiled for publication that same year; the third text, the ringer of the group, is issue #7 of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, published by DC Comics at the tail end of 1971.

Deep Space Nine – or, DS9 for convenience – is a thoroughly enjoyable show. Even though I have seen most of the run, I don’t remember it very well because it’s been twenty years. After an era of war and paranoia following 9/11, Funeral met an enthusiastic response from an audience looking for something unabashedly sentimental and enthusiastic. It was an album made by young people for young people, as opposed to the prematurely old and paranoid sounds of bands like Interpol or Spoon. Late in the spring I start a podcast for the purpose of practicing my voice.

My last day of teaching is Thursday, June 8th, 2017. I give one final lecture on The Waste Land and go over the final. The fourth song on Fables of the Reconstruction is called “Life and How to Live It.” My life changes irrevocably on October 11th, 2016 when I publish my coming out-essay, “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days” on my blog. Funeral is a good album but still tentative, hamstrung by wet production and a few weak tracks weighing down the front half. Every Arcade Fire album is hamstring by a weak first half.

The first reason I propose for offering these three texts for side-by-side comparison can best be described in rhetorical terms, as pertaining to the ways in which these three texts reveal a shared exigence across the gulf of almost forty years’ difference. To begin, all three texts are specifically and explicitly positioned as reactions to the exhaustion of dangerous and mutually destructive ideological binaries. Perhaps more importantly, all three texts represent serious attempts on the part of the authors to depict the movement away from harmful binary thinking and towards the inauguration of new ethical projects.

My podcast is called “Tegan Reads Wookieepedia” and the premise is simple: for twenty minutes at a time I read random entries from Wookieepedia, the internet’s premier fan-edited source for Star Wars lore and minutia. Learning how to smoke pot is a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. Having no prior experience with tobacco, I struggle mightily to overcome my natural resistance to smoke inhalation. After I finish my final lecture the students applaud. Students usually applaud at the end of a quarter but this time feels different. I never asked to be a role model.

After years away, falling back into the rhythms of Star Trek is surprisingly satisfying. It’s a talky show, and the volume ensures that not every episode is good – but the acting is consistently good and it’s a rare episode without something interesting to recommend it. “Life and How to Live It” is not actually a song about life advice, but rather is named after a book printed but not distributed by a resident of Athens, GA named Brivs Mekis. Every extant copy of the book was found in his house following his death. I tell myself I’m not going to cry and I don’t cry, but I only accomplish this by standing still with my hands palm down on the table in front of me. I still choke up after class talking to a handful of students who stay to thank me personally.

It is to Kirby’s text we must turn for an immediate illustration of this principle. It is not despite but because of the fact that Kirby’s narrative is framed as a fantasy parable that his work is able to inform our interpretation of these later theorists: completely shorn of any pretense of epistemological rigidity – pure fantasy, unmoored from the didactic expectations of literary realism or the putative representational limitations of the late modernist paradigm – Kirby is allowed the privilege of imagining a context in which the structural impediments of late capitalist historical time simply do not exist. For our purposes, let us regard this body of work as a kind of ideological petri dish. I do not believe it is altogether tendentious to assert that Kirby’s work, in some small way, anticipates and articulates the exhaustion of ideological difference at the summit of the Cold War. And it is in this context that we must understand the creation of Kirby’s Fourth World.

On June 8th 2017 the ruling Conservative party is dealt a stunning upset in a snap General Election called by foolhardy and resolutely uncharismatic Prime Minister Theresa May. Although the Tories remain in power as of this writing, their Parliamentary majority has been wiped out by a surging Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Arcade Fire’s second album is Neon Bible, named after John Kennedy Toole’s posthumously published second novel. I am unprepared for the response after publishing “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days.” The period leading up to the event is fraught and filled with anxiety. I have no idea how anyone will react. I have no idea if anyone will care. At first I am attracted to strong sativas, desirous of altered states of consciousness over physical disassociation. Within a few months and a few hellacious bad trips I will change my orientation to indicas and swear off sativas for half a year.

Copies of “Life and How to Live It” command high prices from R.E.M. collectors, although by all accounts the book itself is racist garbage. What is most interesting to Michael Stipe is that Mekis apparently lived in a duplex where he split his time between both halves depending on his mood, as shown in the song's opening lyrics: "Two doors to go between the wall was raised today /
Two doors, two names to call your other and your own." The joy of Star Trek comes from watching a show develop a set of concepts and themes over the course of an extended run, and seeing a core of talented actors develop and define their characters within that framework. It's a not a series for instant gratification. My voice is awful. Some trans women spend a lot of money on vocal training and even surgery to develop a high-pitched speaking voice. Because my job entails speaking in front of a class I resolve simply to make it up as I go along, and the result is complete chaos. 

The name “Fourth World” is, as a point of historical fact, a completely random happenstance. For the nearest point of comparison, we shall note in passing that Charles Schulz loathed the name Peanuts, and resented until his dying day the imposition of the name on his magnum opus by United Features Syndicate. So too was Kirby’s own solo masterwork – the interconnected family of titles he produced in the early seventies for DC that came to be grouped under the umbrella term of the “Fourth World” (consisting of New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle, and – improbably – Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen) – given the name by accident, due to a miscommunication over the cover blurb of New Gods #4. As strange as it was, the name stuck, despite the fact that it had no clear referent in the stories themselves – there was no literal “fourth world” in the elaborate cosmology of his stories. The name did, however, carry a certain resonance in the context of the Cold War. Kirby’s epic was concerned with the disposition of warring tribes of gods whose ancient combat was superimposed over the historical conflicts of twentieth-century earth. Kirby’s “Fourth World” was, therefore, an immanent world, against which the limitations of the pallid mortal plane could only represent distant approximations.

I had believed myself to be forgotten. I didn’t think anyone still cared. As of this writing I have received over 13,000 hits on my blog to “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days,” not counting the essay being picked up by Metafilter. The problem with pot is the same problem that I had always had with other mind-altering substances: I avoided them on principle because I believed that losing control would be an unimaginably fraught event. Hot Thoughts, Spoon’s ninth album, is released on March 17th, 2017, although I receive a copy over a month early thanks to an acquaintance who has read “Gimme Some Truth.” After the release of Hot Thoughts, the idea that Spoon are the greatest rock band of the twenty-first century begins to gain currency, although I am unsure as to whether or not I am the first person to say it. Neon Bible is undoubtedly Arcade Fire’s magnum opus, the perfect distillation of everything that makes the band both interesting and frustrating.

Although Labour are unable to achieve an outright victory in the General Election, their strong showing represents such a stinging rebuke to the ruling party that the future of Brexit negotiations are thrown into doubt – although, contrary to the assumptions of many Labour voters, Labour remains as committed to leaving the European Union as the Conservatives. After publishing my essay hundreds of people contact me – in blog comments, Twitter DMs, or by e-mail – to express their support. Reading the comments on the essay left by dozens of readers on Metafilter, none of whom know me, fills me with a strange mixture of joy and dread: it has managed to touch people all across the world in a way I had never anticipated and could never have predicted. On a good day I can manage to sound somewhat like Marge Simpson. It never ceases to amuse me that “Life and How to Live It” features no kind of life advice, although another song on Fables is called “Good Advices,” and features importance guidance such as “When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes.”

Kirby produced these stories during the deadly waning days of Vietnam. As a veteran of World War II who came ashore in France in the aftermath of the Normandy invasion, he had seen death in abundance. His comics, despite their putative status as action-adventure stories, were consistently antagonistic to the idea of war, even sometimes against the idea of putatively “necessary” war. Issue #7 of New Gods, a story called “The Pact!” (considered by many to represent the apogee of Kirby’s career as a solo creator) presents the origin of the great god war at the heart of the Fourth World saga. After experiencing decades of ceaseless and destructive war, the twin worlds of Apokalips and New Genesis (it should be noted that subtlety is not a sin to be laid at Kirby’s feet!) have been brought close to destruction. On a hazy battlefield in the rubble of combat, Izaya the Inheritor, greatest general of New Genesis, throws down his sword and renounces war. In his moment of greatest doubt he is confronted by a spectral figure, the literal hand of the divine who announces to Izaya the invention of a new God at the precise moment of the old order’s greatest extremity.

There was a reason I was so afraid of losing control. Something was waiting down there, in the hidden and fetid depths of my heart. On May 7th, 2017, political newcomer Emmanuel Macron is elected President of France. Although his centrist economic platform is greeted with suspicion, he is far and away preferable to his opponent, the far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. To my great surprise, after October 11th people I do not know reach out to me in order to come out to me. Suddenly people look to me for reassurance and I don’t quite understand why. I had been expecting that teaching after transitioning would be more difficult, but both classes I teach in the first half of 2017 go well. My classes love me and respond to me more than they ever did while teaching as an ostensible man.

At the beginning of May my industrial piercing falls out. Although it had appeared healed by then, it becomes irritated and I do not realize until it is too late that the ear has rejected the bar. It falls out in the shower as the last tiny flap of skin holding the piercing in place tears. It looks painful but all I feel is a small rip. Galaxy of Heroes resets every night at 1:00 AM. While I had been in the habit of getting high every evening around then to play the game, quitting pot leaves a hole in my schedule I subsequently fill with episodes of Deep Space Nine. Hot Thoughts is a very good album, perhaps not as good as anything from their imperial run in the Aughts, but easily as good as They Want My Soul. The album actually succeeds in endearing me more to its predecessor by showing that the somewhat more conventional late 00s indie-rock sound of their 2014 release was, in typical Spoon fashion, just another suit of clothing to put on and take off at a moment’s notice.

My voice is unsatisfactory. I sound different every day, depending on whether or not I even remember I need to sound different. (My memory sometimes makes it hard to remember.) Neon Bible is a monument to excess: every song swings for the bleachers, and there’s not a wasted inch of real estate anywhere on it. If you think there’s room for a full chorus to swell in the final moments, then the full chorus will crest like the breaking of a wave. People tell me I’m brave. People tell me my coming out has inspired them to do the same. In May of 2017 I polish up the one completed chapter of my dissertation and prepare to submit it as a Masters thesis.

Certain illusions I cherish have been demolished by recent events. I believed myself to be forgotten by friends and peers; I believed that I was an untalented writer; I believed that I was a repellent human being. As every subsequent essay in this book is published each of these cherished illusions is demolished. Neither Macron’s victory against a historically unpopular far right candidate nor Corbyn’s surprise showing against May change the world, but both show that the fight against the forces of reaction and the politics of suspicion is not yet hopeless. I fear the sum of a book of essays about my life will resemble nothing so much as Brivs Mekis’ ill-fated tract, self-important trash clogging up the walls of an eccentric house. The only thing I fear more than no one reading my words is people reading my words and taking them seriously. Hot Thoughts is odd and exotic in the way that only a Spoon album can be. Part of it is a house record, part of it is jazzy – two new sounds for the band – but the backbone of ten effortlessly, minimally elaborate rock compositions is still irreducibly Spoon.

If we turn back from Kirby and return for the moment to our present day, we find the strangest coincidence waiting to reveal itself in the work of Meillassoux. Meillassoux has come in for a great deal of harsh criticism from leftist critics who see in his work a principled refusal to engage with the political as a category, and an obscurantist’s desire to resurrect pre-Kantian metaphysical categories for no good reason besides a puckish desire to confound Alain Badiou’s most loyal followers. While it is true that Meillassoux’s work is preoccupied with questions of ontotheology, I believe that the most important contribution Meillassoux has yet made in the field of contemporary philosophy is his insistence that questions of modern history can only be fully thought through the prism of ontotheology, or to be more precise, that answers to the problematics of late modernity can only be fully circumscribed through the application of Meillassoux’s novel invention – proleptic ontotheology, or the thesis of the non-existence of God: the simple proposition that God does not exist – yet.

Neon Bible is followed by The Suburbs, a good album that suffers for being a calculated attempt to create an Important Concept Album, the Kinks done for American kids who grew up during the brief period between the fall of the Cold War and 9/11. The Suburbs is a teenager’s idea of a profound artistic statement, and every bit as immature as the description implies. It all comes back to 9/11, doesn’t it? People fucking lost their minds and we never found them again. By the end of May even writing an e-mail to my advisor inspires great anxiety. I am able to put my head down and push through the process of one final round of edits on the chapter – it reads as if it were written by another person. I have no connection to the words and feel no compunction at gouging aggressively.

Reflektor is a hodge-podge, a double album with little in the way of a unifying aesthetic. The presence of James Murphy behind the boards shows itself in a handful of dance-inflected tracks but the sounds on display are disparate. For the first time in the band’s history the album as a whole is far less than the sum of its parts. DS9 is a good show to watch in the first half of 2017 because it’s about nothing so much as the conflict between rigid idealism and pragmatic compromise. Utopian ideals are tested and cast aside under certain circumstances as fragile and imperfect individuals are forced to deal with the consequences of longstanding colonial occupation and military expansionism, but ultimately institutions constructed for the preservation and safety of civil society are able to survive the most rigorous stress test.

In February of 2017 I travel to Reno for a conference at the University of Nevada. I present a paper positing connections between the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and Meillassoux. I write the paper in the hotel the evening before the conference, as is my habit. I am fascinated by the epistemology of fantasy and as such the ideas are interesting if undeveloped – it’s a sketch in the direction of future work which will probably never appear:

What are the consequences for human epistemology in the realm of Middle-Earth? Interestingly, Tolkien’s vision of humanity would have at its disposal the means to sidestep Meillassoux’s two great perceptual shortcomings.

1.     In the first place, a human race that was only one race of many races of sentient creatures on Middle-Earth would be unable to maintain the myth of strict correlationism. The existence not merely of other cognizant beings, but immortal elves who have interacted with the gods for thousands of years would mark human perception as definitively small, contingent, and necessarily incomplete, merely one very small blip in the “Deeps of Time.”

2.     In the second, the existence of practical immortality in the form of elves would greatly enhance the ability of humankind to understand and acknowledge the existence of ancestral realities. Living memory for humanity can only stretch back a hundred years, very slightly more. Imagine if living memory among certain special individuals stretched back not merely thousands of years, but to the creation of the planet, and indeed back beyond the creation of the world to an age before the beginning of time itself.

The conference is sparsely attended. After delivering my paper to an audience of three – all of whom appear to be waiting for the next panel to deliver their own papers – I cut out the rest of the day and wander around Reno.

I grew up on the California side of the border, in and around the Lake Tahoe area, so I spent a great deal of time in Reno as a child. In many important ways it hasn’t changed. It’s still the same washed-out desert browns and yellows, desultory daytime gambling and cheap steak lunches. The surrounding suburbs have grown out in the twenty-five years since I’d last been through, but the casinos are mostly where they used to be. The Toys’R’Us where my parents shopped for toys when I was three is still there. I walk around for a few minutes and am terribly depressed – the aisles aren’t in the same places, the toys are current. For some reason a part of me expects to see Star Wars figures from 1983 sitting on the pegs, not Captain Phasma.

I cannot elaborate on the ways in which Meillassoux offers up proof for the probability of a future God without unnecessary detours through Spinoza and Kant, detours which I furthermore am only partially qualified to illuminate. Suffice it to say for the moment that there is an aggressive misreading of Meillassoux predicated on sheer ridicule, a misreading that overtly questions the sanity of a philosophical system dedicated to belief in an avowedly nonexistent god. But Meillassoux’s thesis is not a call to religiosity. Rather, it is a call for an end to religiosity, and also an end to the ideal of emancipatory politics as a destructive force – a not unproblematic assertion, I consent. Meillassoux’s body of work – and “The Immanence of the World Beyond” in specific –  offers a reading of Marx that attempts to think the literally unthinkable by moving beyond the Fukuyaman “end of history” and towards the moment of true communism, the moment after politics: “The end of politics,” he states, “is that which proceeds from an ontological uprising that is independent of our action.” Meillassoux’s world is a world in which the boundless contingency of the universe has already spawned three previous miracles ex nihilo, in the form of matter, life, and mind. But there is a fourth world still to come, the world of a hypothetical God, not strictly necessary but eternally possible, a world into which our honored dead would long to be resurrected.

There’s a reason I don’t go to casinos, and the reason is that I shouldn’t gamble. My grandfather ruined my mother’s family with gambling and everyone in his bloodline suffers from the same compulsion. I don’t go to casinos or play slot machines because when I do my self-control falters. Unfortunately, the hotel offering conference discounts is in a casino. I limit myself to the nickel slots and thankfully manage to only lose around $50 over the two days, but I leave the casino disheartened and drive home under a cloud. When I reach Davis I smoke the last of the stash left by my partner before returning to finish her last semester at CalArts. I resolve to get my own medical marijuana license, which I do on February 28th, 2016.

It’s the evening of April 30th of 2016. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I smoke almost every day. I am standing on the edge of an abyss. Everything feels wrong and I have no idea why. I’m covered in molasses, dragged to earth. I have strange ideas, strange fantasies. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know why.
I turn my head and hear a voice. But that’s not what this essay is about. 

And here, by means of conclusion, we find the figure of Derrida waiting to bridge these speculations. Meillassoux’s “fourth world,” in his own words, is simply justice. In summoning the specter of a hypothetical justice, we are reminded of the idea of justice as a deconstructable concept, meaning on some (tendentious / imprecise) level an ideal concept – a concept / not-concept whose existence we can only note by traces left in the wake of its imperfect incarnation. Derrida’s words at the end of the cold war are not an attempt to perform a séance for the literal specter of Marx, but to remind his disheartened audience in the wake of the Soviet catastrophe that the specter of Marx is always already present. He can’t be gone, because he never left. Justice is an inheritance, the exhortation of King Hamlet’s ghost to his wayward son to swear eternal vengeance, to right the ancestral wrongs. Is that not what Derrida means, precisely, when he opens the exordium of Specters of Marx by proposing a moment when “someone, you or me, comes forward and says: I would like to learn to live finally”? We learn to live for justice, in history, as inheritors of the past – with the certain knowledge that although justice has never yet existed, it may someday.

Neon Bible is a masterpiece, seemingly because of and not despite the fact that it amplifies all of the band’s existing weaknesses to Brobdingnagian proportions. That’s the point, I think: style is all the mistakes you make when you’re trying to figure out how to do things the right way. Arcade Fire is a definitively immature band, so it is no surprise that their best work is a monument to joyful and rigorous immaturity. I behave compulsively. The same internal motor that compels me to play hand after hand of useless video poker for no reason compels me to smoke pot for hours on end. I am confronted by an unpleasant reality: I feel so much better while high that the idea of being sober no longer holds any appeal. From my position writing this towards the end of June 2017 I see a great deal of despair as a unified (if fractious) Republican government attempts to push through a radically unpopular agenda, using the spectacle of a treasonous and bumbling executive to distract a demoralized and disassociated left. Despite all of this I remain hopeful for the medium and long terms, if not the short.

I write these words in a room that is half dismantled, bookshelves and closets torn apart after six years of accumulation. I buy books, people send me books, I am drowning in books. A part of me has grown to hate books. That’s the key, you see: being high didn’t just make me feel better, it made me feel so much better that the discrepancy between my attitude when high and my attitude when sober was dramatic and distressing. I tell people not to believe anything I say, and to do the opposite of anything I have done. No one believes me.

Every trans story is different. I wanted to believe that there was nothing special about mine, that I was no different from millions of other trans folk who have lived and suffered and triumphed. But that’s not true. I am special – more to the point, we’re all special, all unique. No two trans people share the same story. This thing inside of us pulls us in different directions, forces us down different paths. Every trans story is different. Mine is not uniquely difficult. Mine is not uniquely privileged. I have suffered, but most of us do. 

Izaya is so-called the Inheritor precisely because he carries the weight of generations of unjust conflict on his back. He also inherits some dim reflection of the conditions, the pressing weight under which – and I use the word “under” specifically, because we must never forget these physical dimensions of history – we must struggle. I mentioned towards the beginning of my presentation that all three texts shared a common understanding of exigence, and it is well that I should elaborate more fully on this idea. Kirby wrote and drew in 1971, after the peak of the Cold War but long before its conclusion, right on the cusp of the great malaise of the 1970s. Derrida spoke in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. And Meillassoux? He writes in the present, our present, in a world twenty years beyond the Cold War and defined by the inexorable breakdown of political and economic systems which, in the immediate wake of the Cold War, were regarded in some triumphalist quarters as invincible and furthermore refulgent in their splendor. All three men are preoccupied, almost to the point of distraction, with illustrating the means by which we can begin to understand the notion of hope in a world defined predominantly by hopelessness.

Every Arcade Fire album plays like a concept album whose concept has been forgotten – well, that’s every concept album, really. You read what it’s supposed to be about once in a magazine and then forget about it because either the album is good enough to stand on its own or it isn’t and no amount of plot will make the songs more memorable. Neon Bible is about the end of the world told from the perspective of someone living through the present ca. 2007. It’s pretentious and preposterous and downright silly in places but it bleats and pulses like a living creature.

In 2016 I learned that everything I thought I had known about myself had been a lie, and then a few months later the same thing happened again. And then again in March of 2017 on the heels of a nervous breakdown.

I truly believed that I had no talent. I truly believed that my effectively quitting writing in 2007 was a good thing, and that getting “realistic” about my limitations as a writer was necessary and important. I truly believed no one but a few nerds here and there even remembered who I was. I truly believed I was better off teaching writing than actually writing. I truly believed that I was object of pity and scorn.

And then, after October 11th, I learned that all of this was rubbish. The lesson came abruptly, violently, and without any possibility of appeal. There was just no way for me to get around the fact that every ounce of low self esteem I had cherished over the years, every argument and critique and dismissal, every enemy I had made and every monumentally stupid and ill-informed opinion I published had not, in fact, made me a pariah.

We cannot, in this context at least, escape the conclusion that hope is an unavoidably theological sensation – and if it is not, as Derrida and Meillassoux and myself are careful to stipulate, religious in deed, then we must at least understand that the idea of hope is given shape and definition by this long association, such that it can be understood as unmistakably religious in form. Derrida states,

a messianic promise, even if it was not fulfilled . . . even if it rushed headlong into an ideological content, will have imprinted an inaugural and unique mark on history. And whether we like it or not, whatever consciousness we have of it, we cannot not be its heirs. There is no inheritance without a call to responsibility.

Let us return to first principles: if there is to be a “fourth world,” we must be worthy of its advent. We must understand the means by which the inheritance of history translates – literally, is carried across – into responsibility. 

In May of 2017 I switch desk chairs, getting rid of the nicer stiff-back chair I bought last year in favor of my old falling down and busted chair. My back pain disappears in a week. My ear begins healing immediately after the piercing falls out – a month and a half later all that remains of a gaping hole is a slight bump in the cartilage. I order small steel cuffs to place over the top of my ear – a silver and a gold on my right side and one silver for my left, to match the rings on each hand.

In June of 2013 I give a short presentation tying together the work of three figures: Meillassoux, Jacques Derrida, and Jack Kirby. The language is ponderous and pretentious, a game attempt to replicate the tone and cadence of academic style. It’s not a good piece of writing and gets little response from the professor. What strikes me in hindsight is that as long ago as three years before my "great revelation" I find myself already rehearsing a means to actualize optimism through my writing.

That’s the game, really: how can we find our way home to hope, in the face of pervasive dread?

It is remarkably difficult to look outside of ourselves – we are straightjacketed by private perception, unable to see the world through another person’s eyes, let alone to truly imagine a world without us, either anterior or posterior to our own existence. The present seems eternal. It seems as if the only possibility for human existence is our own lives. But the world has existed for billions of years and will persist in some form for billions of years more, long after you and I and these words are less than dust.

These are hopeful ideas. Remembering that the world and time are so much bigger than you or I – these are powerful ideas.

But might we not also inherit the future as well? Derrida states that “one never inherits without coming to terms with some specter, and therefore with more than one specter.” These specters press in on us, compel us, hound us, but they also point the way towards a world of immanent and impending justice, begging us to move past the point of rupture with the old world, and into the welcoming arms of a new life.

I floundered in grad school partly because I suffered a tremendous breakdown, and partly because I felt a painful disconnect from even that material I had volunteered to study. My writing about Virginia Woolf and Henry James – the hoariest of the hoary, interesting to me for purely ontological reasons – was by scholarly necessity tentative and impoverished. There was a core of interest in the idea of epiphany, moments of revelation that burst upon human consciousness and bring with them sudden and irrevocable changes of perception. Wrapped round that central idea was dozens and dozen of layers of obfuscation and tedium – such is the nature of scholarship. As a lifetime of PTSD began to catch up with me in my early thirties and my concentration began to falter, my enthusiasm for obfuscation and tedium correspondingly waned.

Don’t look to me for lessons on life and how to live it. If I seem didactic it's only because I rehearse these lessons and ideas for my own benefit. The only lesson I can impart, the only true thing I have ever learned in all my years is the absolute necessity of hope. Nothing else matters. Without hope we are dead.

And that is where Neon Bible leaves us: the world is dying, society has crumbled, all that remains is the idea that there may be a better world somewhere else. “We know a place where no planes go / We know a place where no ships go,” they sing on “No Cars Go,” a song about falling asleep and escaping. It’s not just about falling asleep and into dreams, though – dreams represent the idea of something new, an undiscovered country undefiled by the present tense.

The significance of “No Cars Go” lies in the fact that it follows “Windowsill,” the kind of anthem that would represent the apex of any other band’s sprawling concept album –Neon Bible, however, barely clocks in at forty-seven minutes, and "Windowsill" is still only the third track from the album's end. “Windowsill” is about rejecting the present and turning aside from an inheritance of despair (“I don't want to live with my father's debt / You can't forgive what you can't forget”), all while living in the shadow of imminent ecological collapse (“Because the tide is high / And it's rising still / And I don't want to see it at my windowsill”). That track in turn comes on the heels of (“Antichrist Television Blues”), a song about media saturation during the first decade of the twenty-first century and the unpleasant confluence of sexualized media and post-apocalyptic imagery that followed 9/11 (“I don't know what I'm gonna do / Cause the planes keep crashing / Always two by two”).

And that’s the point of Neon Bible: it’s an album about the means by which history transforms an unpleasant present into the possibility of a hopeful future. It feels crazed, it feels like it’s rolling towards certain destruction at any moment – but it never quite falls apart, there’s always another crescendo just around the corner to remind the listener that sometimes the greatest hope for salvation in all the world is making a giant fucking noise.

“Between the click of the light and the start of the dream,” goes the song, carrying the listener away from consciousness and onwards to something else. It’s March of 2017 and I’m laying in bed in total darkness listening to Neon Bible, thinking about a friendship ended prematurely because I said something I shouldn’t have, desperately willing the clock to turn backwards and give me another chance at that day, another opportunity to unsay the things I said. Six weeks later my friend apologizes to me, and I am poleaxed. Another miracle, another cherished illusion shattered. 

Sometimes the world gives you a second chance.

The third track on Spoon’s 2010 album Transference, “Mystery Zone,” begins with the words, “Picture yourself / Set up for good / In a whole other life.” The song is supposedly about a swinger’s club in Houston, but the words often ring in my head disconnected from context. It’s a nice dream.

It’s the evening of June 24th of 2017. I’m sitting in my bathroom, the same bathroom where I sat and got high for over a year, smoking my way back from oblivion through a series of personal revelations. I could only have broken through an impenetrable carapace of trauma with the aid of mind-enhancing chemicals, even if said chemicals eventually became a crutch. I lean forward on the side of the tub and backwards through time, speaking the words “You’re trans” into an empty room. Is that electricity? Do my words travel backwards through time and into my own ear, precisely four hundred and twenty days earlier? I laugh for a solid minute when I realize the number. Maybe the universe operates according to a series of patterns whose logic lies beyond our ability to comprehend, and maybe “420” is just really funny. Maybe both.

Remember: sativas are a “head” high. They’re good for when you need to break open the doors in the back of your brain behind which hide all your demons. Indicas, conversely, are “body” highs, good for temporarily banishing the physical dysphoria you didn’t even know you had.

So, what now?

What is left? How do we contend with a present so impoverished of possibility that the idea of collapse seems more reasonable than change? How to explain a world where The Walking Dead seems more true than Star Trek?

I believe in miracles. I never believed in God, and I suppose I still don’t, but I do believe in miracles. How else can you possibly explain what happened to me? From one perspective I have been trans my entire life, from the very first few weeks of life in my mother’s womb when some unknown quirk triggered a short circuit in my developing endocrine system – but that’s just biological essentialism. From my perspective I wandered through life half-asleep, driving with the parking brake stuck and completely unaware of the grinding of the wheels. I didn’t know what I was, and then one day I did. Boom.

How else can you explain it? Change is the most difficult thing in the world but it’s not impossible. Sometimes it happens in a moment, sometimes the world pivots on its axis. Sometimes it happens gradually, so gradually you aren’t even aware of it. But it’s real. I thought I was dead. In hindsight I was living like I didn’t expect to see the other side of forty. That’s a hard thing to realize. The person I was had lost all hope, lost all perspective.

But sometimes you turn your head and you hear a voice speak two words that change everything.

When I was a kid I wanted to draw comic books, so I spent a few years (an eternity when you’re a kid) learning to draw, studying anatomy books and learning about different kinds of pens and pencils. And then I reached a point sometime in junior high when I realized that actually becoming good enough to make a living as a professional artist would require the kind of determination and sacrifice that I didn’t have. So I stopped drawing.

When I was a little bit older I wanted to write comic books. I still think I’d be good at it, but the fact that no one has ever asked me means I have no way of knowing and get to cherish my fantasies untouched by the harsh glare of reality.

When I got older still I realized that writing books without pictures was probably a more feasible goal. The problem is that kids don’t have anything to write about, so I wrote a lot of shit. And then when I realized the size of the gap between amateur competency and professional accomplishment I gave up because at the time I didn’t have it in me.

When I stopped writing I thought I’d be a good academic. For a little while that seemed like a good plan. However, I liked the idea of being an academic more than I actually liked being an academic. I spent a great deal of time beating myself up for my supposed failures, and that was the last step before I fell into the downward spiral whose bottom I only reached on the evening of April 30th 2016.

The world can change in an instant. I don’t have any meaningful advice to impart besides the fact that the world is more plastic than you can possibly imagine. Accept that maxim and you will understand the nature of hope. I thought I knew who I was, and then suddenly I didn’t. It hurt a great deal but it was worth every last ounce of pain.

I don’t know the future. I can’t predict whether I’m going to succeed or fail, I don’t even know what I am going to be doing. I don’t know if the Republic will stand or fall – whenever you read these words, you surely have greater insight than myself simply by virtue of living in an unknown future. Maybe my words seem woefully naïve, or maybe we really are on the cusp of a massive change for the better. Maybe neither, and we’re all still just muddling along.

As bad as things get, I always believe they can and will be better. History is pretty clear on this: it may take a week or a month or a decade or a century, but the species finds a way. Hope is the weapon. Hope is the catalyst to transform a world. 

Maybe I’ll be homeless. Maybe I’ll live in a commune. Maybe I’ll trip in the shower and break my neck tomorrow. Maybe I’ll live in a great big house surrounded by children and cats, make breakfast for my wife in the morning before she leaves for work and spend the rest of my day writing. Maybe you’re reading this years from now and I have a thriving writing career and my books are everywhere. Maybe this book is a vanity project published on Amazon and I spent my time eking out a living on freelance assignments while living below the poverty line. Maybe I’m working at Starbucks. Maybe I’m working for Lucasfilm. Maybe I’m alone. Maybe I’m surrounded by family.

All I know is that change is real and possible. Change isn’t always for the better but it can be, and sometimes the universe turns around and surprises you.

The world is pregnant with possibility. The current epoch molders and rots as endless better tomorrows vie to supplant. If my life changed, your life can change too. If my world can flip in an instant, so can our world. 

And once again I find myself procrastinating, playing for time because I don’t want to reach the end, don’t want to actually write the last words of the last essay of this book. I’ve enjoyed these essays, even – no, especially when they’ve been difficult. I’ve told my own story the only way I know how, by talking through something else as a means of skirting the real problem. Eventually I get around to what I’m actually trying to say. Eventually I get to the point.

If you’ve read this long - well, God bless. I had a number of things I wanted to say and I doubt I’ve said anywhere close to everything I need to say. I keep putting off the end because I know once I reach the end of this essay, and publish it on the site, and it is read by anyone – it’s over. It will be out of my hands, forever.

It would be nice if I could keep writing forever, perpetually pushing forward these final nine words – the final twelve, actually – for just another day, another chance to sit and think and hide. If you’re reading this now there’s a chance you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, maybe even know me from Twitter. Maybe you’ve never met me before. Maybe this book is a surprise bestseller and is being devoured and recommended by tens of thousands of people who are devoting significant chunks of their lives to hacking their way through the thick maze of my verbiage in order to . . . what? Better understand me? I’m not that interesting. Everybody’s interesting.

But it’s time. In my head I can see the finished book, sitting on a shelf, sitting in my hands, a bright red, obnoxious red cover with bold letters on the cover proclaiming the title, announcing the sum total of my accumulated life’s wisdom in fifty-point type. Maybe you’re holding it in your hands, too. It’s a simple phrase, a mantra I repeat to myself over and over again as the last year of my life changes and mutates into something unexpected and strange and awful and wonderful and terrifying and better.

I turn the book over and read the cover – nine words that spell out everything – nine words to change my life. I read and breathe and repeat to myself,  

Tomorrow is always the best day of my life.

And it is.

 The Twelfth and Final part of an ongoing series

4. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
5.  One - The Modern Age
6. Two - Slow Decay
7. Three - A Time To Be So Small

8. The Last Star Wars Essay
9. True Believers
 10. Tegan & Sara Made Me Queer
11. Someday We Will All Be Free  
12. How To Live

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Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Tegan & Sara Made Me Queer

Part Eleven of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
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Would you take a straight and narrow critical look at me?*

Somehow I knew I was queer long before I knew I was trans. Not consciously, of course – it didn’t make any sense why I felt the way I did. Until the age of 35 I had no reason to believe myself anything other than a heterosexual cis dude. I liked women, after all. Never had so much as a shred of doubt about that fact. So how come, if I was attracted to women, I felt persistently . . . not straight? How to even quantify such a strange inclination?

Women I dated joked sometimes that I acted like a lesbian. There was always a sharper undercurrent, though, an acknowledgment that there was something not quite right about my ostensible heterosexuality. Pieces missing. Unconventional emphases.

I always cared about issues related to queer politics. Always took pride in keeping up on the news. I knew about trans issues (even if I still understood little about actually being trans) long before I had any inkling I was trans. That should have been a warning sign, since it wasn’t a part of the national discourse until recently. But I cared and tried to extend every courtesy I could when it came up, which to be fair it rarely did.

In October of 2009 Tegan & Sara released Sainthood. I bough the album on Christmas Eve of that year, along with a couple Warp Records compilations and Dâm-Funk’s Toeachizown. It was my first Tegan & Sara album, but I tracked down the rest within a couple weeks.

But I promise this, I won't go my whole life telling you I don't need.*

Sex was always a painful topic. I didn’t talk about it. Was actively, sometimes comically squeamish about it. Even now just writing these words and talking in the most generalized terms about sex is uncomfortable. There’s a lifetime of awkwardness and discomfort holding me back.  

It just didn’t work out for me. I was married from 2000-2005, and without betraying any secrets that deserve to stay buried I did not acquit myself particularly well. Subsequent relationships fared little better. It’s not that I couldn’t or didn’t want to, I just . . . wasn’t very good at it, and I’ll leave the details to your imagination.

A few years ago I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. Whatever it was inside people that made them able to have fulfilling, interesting, fun, or even tolerable sex lives, it was missing in me. And I felt shame and disappointment, the latter not just for me but also for the women unfortunate enough to find themselves in my orbit. Any problems were my fault entirely. Other people had sex and seemed to have a grand old time with it, but the universe was telling me it was something I needed to fold up and put away. It wasn’t going to happen and trying to make it happen was only going to bring about heartbreak and disappointment for everyone concerned.

And that’s roughly where I was at in the Spring of 2016, when everything changed.

When you wake what is it that you think of most? When your bed is empty do you really sleep alone?*

I don’t possess any special insight into being queer. I’ve known I was queer as of this writing for a little over a year.

If you want a textbook definition of queer, buy a textbook.

What does it mean for me?

Nothing ever felt right. I did everything I was supposed to but it never worked out the way it was supposed to. What’s worse, not only were women not attracted to me (that I knew of – if any did they kept quiet about it), but they seemed to like and trust me. If that doesn’t sound bad, you’ve never been a teenage boy – or, more precisely, someone who believed they were a teenage boy. Boys want to be tough and mysterious, they’re taught in a million ways implicit and explicit that women are attracted to distance and strength. Girls felt completely comfortable around me in a way that telegraphed the fact that not only was I no threat, but I was essentially a noncombatant.

Looking back and trying to make sense of these years is confusing. I want to stress again that I had no clue, no inkling that I was any different than any other teenage boy, at least in respect to matters of love and lust. There were differences of course, and they were significant, but hardly existential. I grew up poor – but a lot of people grew up poor. I went to junior high and high school in a poor county, so it wasn’t unusual that most of my clothes came from Wal-Mart. Even though it was tough there was always food on the table and a roof over our heads. My parents were disabled so even though we didn’t have much what we did have came regularly enough to keep the lights on. We got by.

I had fucked up teeth growing up – symptoms of poverty and genetics. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now but I had braces twice while growing up – once in grade school, later in high school. Braces in high school sucked, but it was necessary. My teeth still aren’t perfect but at this point I’m the only one who notices my underbite.

On top of being poor and having bad teeth, I was weird. Another thing that has always confused me, especially since I grew up in a conservative area, is why I was never bullied. No one ever called me a fag or spread rumors I was gay, which seems improbable in hindsight. The reasons why are complex and unsatisfactory. In the first place, while I was weird I was weird in a way that didn’t code as gay at all. I was always mooning over girls and that was public knowledge. I was also unpredictable, weird not in terms of being weak or feminine (in ways that kids I saw being bullied were), but weird in terms of being hyperintelligent, erratic, and prone to bouts of sudden and inexplicable violence. I always made people laugh, which was a great defense mechanism. People usually didn’t fuck with me because it wasn’t worth the trouble when they didn’t know which version of me they were going to get: the version of me who laughed it off and diffused the situation amicably, or the version of me who started screaming like a banshee and would haunt you to the ends of the earth at the smallest slight.

But I think the most important reason I never got bullied is that, regardless of the above problems, most people liked me. Girls thought I was nice and funny, so there were no social points to be gained in picking on me. I also figured out a neat trick for social survival: find the coolest person in the room and make them your friend. If you’re pals with the person everyone else looks up to, it’s a free pass. I got lucky in high school because I knew a few upperclassman and I happened to look a few years older than I was, so no one in my own class looked twice at me. I let some football players copy my homework freshman year, and while we were never good friends we stayed head-nod-in-the-hallways acquaintances until graduation.

None of these explanations are fully satisfactory. I just got lucky, I guess. I never got bullied, probably because there were always easier targets. Kids who couldn’t so easily hide being weaker. 

But I was still different, even if many of the differences were internal and private. I avoided activities that were coded as male – never played sports, save for one three-week stretch in a city basketball league during fourth grade (my sole possession resulted in me passing the ball to the other team). I did drama in high school, mostly because it was easy and was disproportionately popular with girls. That meant, although at the time I didn’t know why, I was just more comfortable. Outside of the social element, however, I felt no intrinsic connection to the theater and haven’t thought about it twice since graduation.

There I am in the morning. I don't like what I see.*

The first time I heard Tegan & Sara I knew they were my new favorite band. It was immediate and visceral: one moment I knew almost nothing about them, the next I was listening to them nonstop. Morning to night on repeat.

They’re twins, Tegan R. & Sara K. Quin, born just a week before me. Same age. They could have been my sisters. There was an instant connection I couldn’t quite explain, and it didn’t add up to anyone around me either. Where the heck did these chirpy lesbian sisters with guitars come from? That was a new one.

I couldn’t explain it, so I didn’t try. It was like a drug: I listened to their music and I felt better. I put on Sainthood or The Con and somehow even though I was a doughy hetero cis dude I felt accepted and understood by those records, more than I can explain even now. These words can’t do justice to those feelings.

It hurt, sometimes. I felt at home with them in a way that seemed to gesture at something much bigger inside of me. The title track on The Con is an explosion of angst and anger, outward and inward, and nothing in the world hits with the impact of those first lines – “I listened in / Yes I'm guilty of this you should know this” – frantic, almost panicked, but able to vent that anxiety outward in controlled bursts. It plucks a chord at the bottom of a subterranean channel somewhere I could never quite identify.

Seeing them live, nothing hits with the force of that opening guitar strum, like dropping a bomb on the audience.

Soon it was as necessary as water or air. Listening to Tegan & Sara gave me a fleeting sensation of wholeness, something I couldn’t define but which was undeniable. It was transitory but real, broadcast at a frequency no one else around me seemed able to hear. I wasn’t alone.

I felt you in my life before I ever thought to.*

There was always a point in every relationship where my partner would look at me and realize something was missing. It’s not hard to see why, now – I was pretending to be a heterosexual male, trying my damnedest to fit into a role that I didn’t understand. I understood the expectations and knew from a lifetimes’ observation how I was supposed to act and what I was supposed to do, but it never came out right. My knowledge of being a man in that situation was purely negative, composed mainly of filling in the blanks through inference based on what didn’t work. Chiaroscuro masculinity.

It never occurred to me that this was unusual. I thought everyone had these problems, had to think about how to present themselves to the world, how to act with other people, how to approach women. I knew what didn’t work, but never quite figured out what did.

One pattern that recurred multiple times was being attracted to lesbians. It was so unerring as to be a kind of superpower. I never had a clue. I’d only learn this after asking them out, when they would ever so awkwardly inform me that I was barking up the wrong tree. And that always hurt because invariably the women I felt most comfortable around were queer women. Quite confusing.

I never got too excited about hetero romances in movies or TV. Whenever there was so much as a hint of a lesbian relationship, however, I felt strangely invested in a way that I never could have explained. There weren’t very many of those, incidentally. Certainly not enough that I could string together any kind of pattern. As I say, I grew up in the sticks, and even when I was older there wasn’t much if you weren’t specifically looking.

I never had any particular connection to gay male cultural artifacts, either, with one notable exception – Brokeback Mountain, which became one of my favorite movies the first time I saw it, a position it retains to this day. It’s one of the only movies that ever made me cry, and I never understood why I became so attached. I assume now I responded to the idea of living a deeply closeted life – at the time of the film’s release I was closeted even from myself.

The story that meant the most to me for years and years, however, was the sixth episode of the third season of the British high school soap opera Skins. My partner watched the first two seasons on her own and although it was hardly a revelatory TV experience she was hooked enough to lasso me into the third season. I wasn’t paying too much attention until we got to the episode focusing in on the lesbian relationship between two students, Naomi and Emily. After a lifetime spent seeing lesbian relationships on the edges of the media, through innuendo or – worse – sensationalism, here was an authentic romance between two young women dealing with the consequences of growing up queer in a society that only pretends to be tolerant.

Emily was a very pretty girl but mousy in the way that TV tries to tell us that pretty people are when they wear plain clothes and natural makeup. Naomi had a shock of short blond hair and dressed like a boy. She was powerful and chaotic and every kind of freedom balled up into a single human being. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was obvious that I wasn’t attracted to her, I wanted to be her so bad that every cell in my body vibrated at the thought, and then shuddered at the reality.

I quit watching the rest of the season because that episode knocked me for a loop. I had no idea why, but seeing a romance between two normal women portrayed in such a matter-of-fact manner – it broke something inside of me. I never finished the series, I never even went back to that episode. I don’t really remember anything else about that show but that one single episode remains burnt into my memory. It hurt in a way that startled me, forcing me for a brief moment to confront the fact that I related more strongly to women in love with other women then any other kind of romance I had ever seen or experienced.

Years later the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror released an episode called “San Junipero” dealing with similar themes. I already knew what I was by then, so it didn’t impress me quite so much. The stories that held so much power over me were the stories that had resonated with a part of me that still lay hidden, sleeping – stories that reached into a part of me completely locked away, brushed for just a moment against something sensitive and trembling and fearful.

Now I wanna write a love song, even though you never ever asked me for one.*

That’s what Tegan & Sara meant to me, had always meant to me, although I hadn’t had the words to describe it. I worry sometimes about appropriation – a common criticism leveled against trans women, that we are mere carpetbaggers using our male privilege (snort) to elbow our way into spaces in which we don’t belong and steal identities that don’t belong to us.

What cultural space am I colonizing, when I sing along to Tegan & Sara? When I feel the same longing, the same desire to be vulnerable, to trust and to be worthy of trust? “Someday” is the last song on Sainthood, and it’s about the aspiration for love, the idea that even if you don’t feel worthy now, maybe someday you might just be:

Might paint something I might want to hang here someday,
Might write something I might want to say to you someday,
Might do something I'd be proud of someday,
Mark my words, I might be something someday.

I want more than anything to be worthy of being loved. How does that hurt anyone? (Of course, the trick to being loved is that you don’t get to decide whether you’re worthy or not.)

You got a shock to your system, knocked your heart right out of sync.*

When I knew I was trans I knew I was queer, practically in the same heartbeat. Here finally was a word that described me, a word that summed up all the conflicted, contradictory, aching feelings I’d had since I first understood what sex and attraction were. I always loved women, but I hadn’t loved them in the right way. Now it made sense that there was a right way.

Heterosexuality is a great mystery, and even after decades of pretense I am still no closer to understanding the rules of that game. What does it mean to be attracted to something so unlike yourself? Men aren’t attractive at all! I’m sure a few of you disagree (har har!) but whatever you see is invisible to me.

Women are good, but when I knew I was trans I knew there was a third option: people like me. People who understand what it’s like to live this odd bifurcated life, raised and browbeat to be one thing before learning that we can be entirely another. It’s a strange life, and not one that I can easily explain to someone who doesn’t already understand.

There are many myths surrounding trans people, trans women in particular. There is the belief that trans women all begin as gay men, and are all attracted to men. In the years before I knew what being trans entailed I probably believed this one myself, but that knowledge was so haphazard and circumstantial that it’s already impossible to discern what I used to think from what I know now, or if I ever thought about it at all. I avoided thinking about these things, probably because there was a part of my brain that knew to be afraid. I never once questioned whether or not I was trans in all the years leading up to my revelation, and probably one reason why the question never occurred to me was that I knew I wasn’t attracted to men.

There is also the belief – related to the first – that we all grow up fetishizing certain aspects of femininity, and spend years as crossdressers or drag queens before transitioning. That certainly didn’t apply to me. The reason why this myth has any basis in reality at all is not that being trans is intrinsically related to any kind of sexual fixation but because those of us do who grow up with an inkling as to our true nature long for what is denied us. Things like dresses and long hair and makeup certainly aren’t intrinsic to womanhood, but they’re intrinsic to many commonly held ideas about womanhood. If you know from a young age that you’re supposed to be a girl and that option is denied you, you will become attached to whatever symbols your mind associates with your correct gender. If you think it’s wrong to associate those objects with femininity, look to society as a whole and not 0.6% of the population to affix blame.

I was an only child. I had no sisters to perform any version of femininity for me. My mom was a tomboy who had been forced to wear dresses growing up and swore upon reaching adulthood to never do so again. She didn’t carry a purse and although she usually kept her hair long she also cut it shorter at various points. We grew up in snow country so pretty much everyone wore the same kinds of clothes for much of the year – heavy jeans and thick sweaters and boots. My mom worked as a 9/11 dispatcher and her work uniform was no different than any other employee of the sheriff’s department. She’s a feminist and she raised me to be one as well, and that included the belief that women can dress however the fuck they want – even if she personally thought dresses were awful. (I’ve still never seen my mother in a dress, although she did go back to carrying a purse a while ago.)

My mom loved sci-fi and fantasy, and when she was a kid she read comic books and skipped school to go fishing. My dad loved sci-fi and fantasy, too, although he cared more for crime and police stuff than either my mom or me. We watched Star Trek together as a family, from my earliest memories up until I moved out of the house at nineteen.

So if I don’t like men, and don’t want to wear dresses or grow my hair out, what do I want?

I want to be like all the cool dykes with sharp asymmetrical haircuts who always seemed to symbolize a freedom and acerbic insouciance I could only ever faintly pantomime while playacting as a man. I don’t have a pair of Doc Marten’s but only because they’re a bit out of my price range – I’m content with my checkerboard Vans. When I transitioned I traded my shapeless denim for tight black skinny jeans that suddenly looked really good on the curves given me by the grace of estrogen.

Maybe I would have been something you'd be good at.*

I’ve seen Tegan & Sara in concert twice: once in 2010 in Northampton, MA, the first date on their Sainthood tour, and again in Oakland a few years later on their tour for Heartthrob.

The first time was only a month and a half after buying Sainthood, but I already knew all the words to all the songs. I had expected to feel out-of-place, seeing them in Northampton – as close as a hometown crowd as you could imagine in the United States for two Canadian lesbians. But there was none of that. As soon as the lights went down I was just another voice screaming in the darkness until I was hoarse. For a couple hours I got to forget who I was and be someone else.

The second time wasn’t quite as memorable. I wasn’t as excited about Heartthrob. It’s not a bad album by any means, but it’s a different kind of album – synthesizers and drum programming, no guitars. They set out to make a Robyn album, and they succeeded, right down to replicating Robyn’s regrettable hit/miss ratio. I’m not one to resent artists who try to broaden their fanbase, but I can still say that trying to do so meant jettisoning much of what made their music so important to me – the raw emotion, the longing and the anger and the wit of being a queer person writing to an audience primarily composed of other queer people. I didn’t hear that so much anymore. Sometimes, flashes.

If Heartthrob was a Robyn album, Love You To Death was CHVRCHES. They seemed more comfortable with the synthpop sound, which meant paradoxically that the sound had become more faceless and generic. Interviews around the release of the record were defensive – not nasty, never mean, just disappointed that some of their fans weren’t enthusiastic about the new direction. Oh well. It happens. I don’t begrudge them doing something different, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. The album also came out just over a month after I voiced at the end of April 2016. I wasn’t in the mood for pop music. I needed that hardcore emotional shit.

After that I put Tegan & Sara away for a while. I went over half a year without hearing a single note, my longest time away since Christmas 2009. I got back into some other music I hadn’t listened to in a while – Beach House, Animal Collective, Roxy Music. Spoon. Interpol. Arcade Fire. I didn’t need to experience that prosthetic queerness so much anymore since I was living the real deal. But I knew I’d be back. I always come back.

Watch, with a bit of friction I'll be under your clothes. With a bit of focus I'll be under your skin.*

I keep circling around the question, I know – what does it mean to be queer? Why am I queer, how do I know? All that stuff.

It’s still a contested term. Some people don’t like it. Some people try to police, stand astride the gates of queerness in order to enforce some kind of purity test. I’m just a babe in the woods, barely out of the egg myself. I don’t pretend to know anything, but I know I’m as queer as the day is long, and I trust anyone else who tells me they are. Who am I to judge?

I try to be careful with my words because I know there are still many who would twist them, use them to visit harm on myself or other trans people. I know, for instance, many feminists reject trans women out of hand. Although I bristle at their asinine logic I honestly wish them no harm. I am not trying to invade any space where I am not wanted and welcome – which, admittedly, excludes me from a great many spaces, but that’s life. One way to avoid unnecessary conflict is simply to avoid people who want to pick fights with you.

I call myself a lesbian knowing full well that many others will bristle at the description. But I’m also mostly attracted to other women like myself – trans women. Why would I wish to have anything to do, romantically, with anyone who didn’t want to enthusiastically engage in a fully consensual relationship? I’ll be over here doing my thing, thanks.

I can’t take transphobic arguments seriously because I know what I am. (I take the political consequences very seriously, obviously, but the arguments themselves are barely worth discussing.) If there were any doubts they dissolved when my first estrogen pill dissolved under my tongue. It’s common enough to accuse those who seek to exclude trans women from the category of women of biological essentialism, and I suppose I am opening myself up to the same criticism here, albeit from the other angle. So be it. Of course it must be said that not all trans folk undergo hormone therapy – some can’t for various reasons, some don’t want to. Doesn’t make them any less trans or me any moreso, but it’s all the justification I ever needed for myself. Everyone’s different! No one who comes out as trans has to prove anything to me, there’s more than enough hatred and suspicion to go around for anyone who wants to join in.

Because I’m trans, because I’m “other” to so many – I’m queer. No matter who I dated, whether I identified as gay or straight or anywhere in between, I’d still be queer. And what does that mean? What does any of this mean?

It means I had to fight to be who I am. Most of this fighting was internal, but no less violent: we grow up with internalized notions of “normalcy,” notions that are actually the bars on the doors of our prison cells. Being queer means I had to overcome a great deal in order to be able to get to the place I am now, break through those bars in order to get to where I can say with pride who I am and what I want.

And it means that I expect there may be more fighting in the future.

Nothing is lost in the end when you burn burn burn your life down.*

I’m not going to go down the litany of Tegan & Sara albums. The core three that mean the most to me – 2004’s So Jealous, 2007’s The Con, and 2009’s Sainthood – are unimpeachable. Sainthood, because it was my first, will always be my sentimental favorite, even if I recognize that The Con is probably slightly better. But we’re talking about millimeters. 

It’s not in me to be objective about their merits. It always frustrates the fuck out of me to read tepid reviews, in a way that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a favorite band. Why don’t the critics hear what I hear? Don’t they understand?

Of course they don’t. Those that do don’t need to read about it in a magazine.

Hearing that in hindsight they were disappointed with Sainthood broke my heart a little bit. Every note is seared into memory. It’s the album that changed my life, although I believe – I am not certain, the memory is jagged and imprecise – that it was actually The Con playing on my headphones when I voiced lo those many months ago, on that fateful late April evening. They were there when I needed them. They saved me.

And if you’re wondering, the elephant in the room – well, of course I didn’t name myself after Tegan R. Quin. Why, that would be silly.

Whoever would do such a silly thing as that?

Everything I love, get back for me now. Everyone I love, I need you now.*

So how am I queer?

There aren’t very many people like me in the world. I suspect – we suspect – that the actual numbers of trans people are greater than reported, simply because the stigma is so great that many will never emerge from the closet. And there are certainly many deeply closeted people, like I used to be, whose nature remains a secret even to them. Even given that we’re still a tiny minority.

Imagine that you have been alone for your entire life. Trapped on an island with a population of one. Seemingly surrounded by people – but not people, phantoms. In your place they see a cardboard cutout of the person they imagine you to be. You can’t touch them and they can’t see you, but no one notices anything amiss. You’re different. You’ve never in your life seen another creature quite like you. You assume everyone else feels this way, too, but you’re deeply uncomfortable, painfully discontented. No one ever seems to understand, and you can never make yourself heard through the isolation.

And then one day everything changes and you realize you’re not alone. And on the day you know who you are, you know why nothing ever fit.

How to explain what does? Imagine seeing someone for the very first time – actually seeing someone, someone like you, after decades of loneliness. Seeing in another creature not opaque mystery but a reflection of the same fear and hunger that guides you as well. To see the sinews and shoulders of a body that has felt the same pressure and the same relief as yours. To see in another your own languor and frustration and mordant wit at the injustice of the world, to just once not feel the burden of having to explain or justify or defend yourself even to the people you love most . . .

I did not understand. I did not understand.

Inasmuch as I understood heterosexuality, I remember a constant nagging inadequacy, and expectation that my feelings and attitudes should complement rather than reflect those of my partner. I was always playing catch-up, trying to guess at what should have come naturally, waiting for cues I should have been able to anticipate – so it was forced. I tried, Lord I tried.

What if other people like me were beautiful, too?

One day, perhaps, I will find another heart to share a spark to fan a flame of desire to light the heavens.

 Part Eleven of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay
10. True Believers

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