Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Unschooling and Conscience

One argument for unschooling is that people - or at least, children - are inherently good. I won't tell people not to believe this, but what about people who can't? Is it possible to be realistic about all the hatred, violence, and injustice in the world and still unschool? I believe it is.

Just tonight, I've grown up a little bit, because I realized I'm in mourning for my naive childhood belief in inherent human goodness. First came denial, in which I grabbed tightly onto the belief that goodness comes naturally to people, and held on for dear life. Then came bargaining - believing I had the power to force people to be good, as if this would somehow prove they had been good all along. A long period of depression and anger followed, which simply resulted in trying to shut out the noise of other people's hate. And finally, now, I seem to be reaching acceptance: people simply are not as naturally good and kind as I once believed them to be.

Before I go on, I want to clarify what I mean when I say that I have lost this belief. I'm not saying that I believe people are inherently bad, or that they lack inherent worth. I believe all life is worthwhile and exists for a reason. I'm not even saying that I believe people don't mean well. I think most people do.

But I do not believe people are born naturally inclined to do the right thing, or even to know what the right thing is. To do that, a person needs to develop a strong conscience and continue working on it throughout life. Conscience is like a muscle that needs to be exercised, and the way to exercise it is by making decisions. Deciding what to wear, what to eat, what to say and how to say it are all actions that exercise conscience. It follows, then, that a weak conscience comes from not making decisions. How can a person who is told what to do and where to go at every moment ever exercise conscience? How can a person who has external rewards and punishments dangled in front of them ever learn what their own inner voice says to do?

I believe in unschooling for two big reasons that have nothing to do with its ability to result in academic knowledge. First, my own conscience tells me it is immoral to take ownership and control of another human being in the way that schools and most parents try to do with children. Second, I believe that people learn to be accountable for their decisions by learning early on that their decisions affect other people and things in the world. But they can only learn that by being allowed to make decisions. I don't believe people are inherently kind all the time, but I do believe unschooling produces people who are more kind and think more about their decisions, because they've had more practice. I want people to have that practice a lot more than I want them to have practice at spelling and math.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

On Gift-Giving, Technology, and “First World Problems”

With the winter holidays approaching rapidly, many people feel compelled to re-evaluate their values with regard to materialism and capitalism. Now, I’m firmly on the side of those who feel that the main point of the holidays should be about love, sharing and generosity, not about rampant consumerism.

That being said, I want to remind people that consumerism vs. anti-consumerism isn’t the only value at play in holiday gift-giving. Many people don’t get nice things all year, and the holidays – particularly the rewards reaped from shopping Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales – are their only chance to own the same things as their peers. Some people also cannot afford to shop anywhere other than Walmart and other discount chains, and for some people that may even be the only store they can get to. So while I think buying local and handmade is a worthy goal, I also hope that people will be compassionate toward those for whom those are not viable options for holiday shopping.

Another important value at play is honoring who people truly are and respecting their needs. I hear far too many lectures this time of year about how people, especially children, should be happy with whatever they get. But if someone has given them a gift that clearly says “I don’t really know or care who you are or what you want”, it makes sense to be disappointed and hurt. Try to put yourself in the shoes of a child or a teenager too young to have a job. In most cases, they have no real income of their own, except maybe a modest allowance. Most parents only give big gifts to kids around birthdays and holidays, and if that deeply desired XBOX or iPad doesn’t come at Christmas, to most kids, this means it isn’t coming at all. That’s a big disappointment. Even if the parents truly couldn’t afford the coveted item, it’s still only fair to be gentle and compassionate toward the kids and respect their feelings on the matter. For some kids, it might be a good idea to let them know ahead of time that the desired gift isn’t coming, to avoid an unhappy surprise in the middle of the holiday celebrations.

And because I know it’s going to come up, I want to speak a little to anti-technology sentiment and the related idea of “first world problems”. I hear this phrase thrown around a lot with regard to people not being able to afford iGadgets and other popular forms of technology. First of all, the term “first world problems” is rooted in the idea that so-called “third world” countries don’t have technology and that their citizens spend all their time in agony and strife. This notion, in addition to being rooted in classism, racism and Eurocentrism, is also just plain false. People in Africa do know it’s Christmastime, and some of them are wishing for – and receiving -  iPads right along with their American peers.

The other problem I have with this phrase is the idea that if your basic needs are met, you should be ashamed to want anything else. To dispel this notion, let’s take a look at one of my favorite psychological model’s, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:


When most people use the word “need”, they’re referring to the bottom two tiers of the pyramid – the ones dealing with immediate physical and safety needs. But according to Maslow, humans actually have many other needs: for emotional bonding, achievement, respect, creativity, learning, and equality. So before you shame a person for wanting more than they “need”, consider whether their desire is a way of meeting a higher-level need. The fact that humans are not generally satisfied by just having their most basic needs met is a good thing! It reflects the natural human tendency to want to ascend beyond meeting those needs and really make life meaningful. All human progress toward being healthier, happier and more compassionate has been based in the quest to meet the top three levels on Maslow’s hierarchy.

Finally, let’s talk about technology as a valid interest. Technology gets a lot of unfair hate these days, because the desire for various gadgets is viewed as a symptom of consumerist greed. But some people just genuinely love technology. I’m personally a big fan of it, because I think it improves lives, and makes many kinds of information and skills more widely accessible to people who might not be able to access it otherwise. Take the internet as an example: having access to even the simplest information, such as newspapers and religious texts, used to be possible only for the richest of people. Now, almost anyone can get online and read information from all over the world. Technology is also particularly beneficial to people with disabilities, and has allowed people to speak, read, and write when they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I have personally always been drawn to things like video games and computers, and was always the person who was asked to hook up the TV or program the VCR. It’s taken a long time for me to get over the cultural pressure to feel ashamed of my love of technology. But now I realize it’s a legitimate interest. Some people are into books, some into nature, some into computers. Loving technology is not about consumerism or a compulsive addiction to screens, it’s just another interest. So if someone’s wish list this year is full of expensive hard drives, gaming consoles and i-Things, please realize they might not be just greedy. They might just be being honest with you about what it is they love.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Against a Classical Education

While browsing the homeschooling section of my local library, I stumbled across The Well-Trained Mind. Having heard traditional homeschoolers refer to this book many times, I was curious about its contents, so I checked it out. 

The book's first chapter argues that modern education has become too focused on self-expression, without giving children any tools with which to express themselves. It puts forth the idea that childhood should be a time of building skills and knowledge so that a child can better express herself later in life. While I don't think there's any such thing as "too much" self-expression, they do raise a good point. Self-expression is easier once you've learned the skills to do it. I find there is a certain appeal to the book's focus on teaching skills like logic and rhetoric, skills that I find the population at large to be sorely lacking. And I can understand their position that exposure to lots of good art and literature helps "fill the well" of creative inspiration.

So while I find the idea of a classical education intriguing, I still have many objections to it. Primary among them is its treatment of children as empty vessels to be filled, as non-persons whose time and energy can and should be controlled by those who "know better". I find the very idea of "training" children to be dehumanizing. But there is another problem with classical education that I'd like to focus on here, and that is the pedagogy itself. 

Classical education is based on the idea that there is a highly specific set of knowledge that all people should have. On the surface, this isn't a terrible idea; it's not hard to argue that reading, writing, math, logic, history, and science are important things to know. So my problem isn't with the idea that everyone should have this set of knowledge. My problem is with the idea that everyone should have this set of knowledge to the exclusion of everything else.

There are worlds and worlds of knowledge out there, and I personally think all of it is equally valuable. A classical education seems to be focused on the idea that Greco-Roman and Western European history are essential for everyone, but African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Eastern European, and Native American history are not. I find this notion to be rooted in Eurocentricism, colonialism, and its accompanying racism. On the subject of religion, The Well-Trained Mind makes brief mention of "explaining" religions like Buddhism and Islam, but ultimately treats Christianity as truth. As a person of faith myself, I understand their position that faith should be part of education. But even if your family happens to be Christian, my own belief is that children should be offered a buffet of possible ideas about God and allowed to work with those which make the most sense to them. It is possible to teach "our family believes this about God" without teaching that everyone else's beliefs don't matter.

A classical education does seem to include lots of exposure to art, music, and literature - but again, this is the art, song and story mainly of dead white men. Why is it more important to study Mozart than to study aboriginal tribal music or watch a Bollywood dance scene? Why is the Bible to be studied at length but the Koran only glossed over and the Tao Te Ching left out entirely? Classical education seems, again, to be rooted in the idea that the elements of Western civilization are the only ones worth studying, and by extension, that (mostly white) Westerners are the only ones whose ideas are worth caring about. This is fundamentally racist in nature.

And that's my ultimate objection to The Well-Trained Mind and its accompanying philosophy: it teaches that some people's lives and perspectives matter more than others. It offers children the same restricted, whitewashed world that was offered to me in school - and even more regrettably, to my non-white peers, who continued to see their own histories and people devalued and ignored, sometimes even having their destruction glorified in the name of justifying white imperialism. This kind of treatment of the world of knowledge is not okay. Children should be taught to see the world whole, to see all people as equally beautiful. They need to learn to live in a world that contains all kinds of people, and to treat all those people with respect. When I am interacting with an adult, whether as a friend, a coworker, a consumer or a voter, this is the knowledge I am most interested in seeing them have. If they can do that, I really don't care if they need to use spellcheck to send a good email or a calculator to do simple math. Seeing everyone as equally human matters more.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Changing Identity, Changing Goals

The last time I wrote about my goals and plans, I was planning on buying an RV to travel around the country. For various reasons – not the least of which being that I love Massachusetts – I have decided to stay put instead.

I was also planning on getting chest surgery. Again, for various reasons, I decided against that. When I looked closely at my motivation for getting the surgery, I realized I was mostly just doing what I thought a female-assigned trans person was “supposed to do” as part of transition. But the further along I’ve gotten in my transition, the less strictly male-identified I feel. My gender is much more non-binary, and I’m trying to allow myself to explore that more. The fear of being misgendered as female used to keep me doing 100% typically “male” things, but now I’m starting to allow myself to play with things like nail polish again. If I was ever going to be a boy, I wanted to be a damn queer-ass boy anyway.

As for my long-term goals, they’ve gotten a bit more abstract. I still want to go to Goddard College, and I know I want to focus my study on disability rights. I think ultimately I’d like to write books on the subject, and maybe on gender as well. I think I’d enjoy being some kind of counselor for teens, assuming I can get my own mental health in order.

One more thing that’s changing for me is that I’ve admitted to myself that I need a spiritual side to my life. I don’t care what anyone else believes, I don’t even care if my own beliefs are right. I just know that I need to pray and to believe that someone/something hears those prayers. It’s essential for my sanity. If that makes me ignorant or stupid in someone’s eyes, that’s their own narrow-minded problem. I need to take care of me.

My housing situation is also in flux right now. Three of the original four people I moved into this house with have moved out, and the fourth is leaving soon. One person has moved in who I get along with really well, but we still have to replace the other two, which is stressful. I’ve had some trouble making everyone involved understand the safety concerns I have as a trans person. I can’t feel safe living with just anyone.

So that’s pretty much where things are for me right now. I’ll end this by saying I have a lot of spare time these days, so please feel free to talk to me! I miss lots of people right now.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Depression and Fatigue

Obviously, I bailed on NaBloPoMo, in which I planned to write a blog post every day. I’d almost say that this is harder than NaNoWriMo, where you can take a day off here and there if you’re sick or something, and catch up on a better day. In any case, the reason I bailed is mostly because the last few weeks have involved a sudden increase in my level of fatigue.

I usually have fatigue, because I have depression. But it’s gotten worse lately. Now, for those who haven’t experienced fatigue, I need to make it clear that this means more than just “feeling tired.” It’s more like feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally, for no discernable reason. (If you haven’t read The Spoon Theory, now is a good time to go do that.) Going to the grocery store can be enough to sap my energy to such a degree that I cannot read a book, let alone do anything physical. It’s like moving through molasses when everyone else is on rollerblades. The worst part is I can be exhausted and still be unable to fall asleep and get some relief.

I don’t know if the cause of my increased fatigue is due to the changing seasons and decreased light, something physical, or what. I’m currently on a hiatus from working, planning to live on savings until the holiday season is done. I’m also on two antidepressants and just recently started a regimen of vitamins that will hopefully boost my energy somewhat. I’m also trying to eat more protein and vegetables. My therapist has recommended exercise but I’m not convinced she fully understands the degree to which I am fatigued. I don’t feel like I have the capacity to exercise right now.

I do plan on trying to start blogging more, if only because I would like to feel productive in some way. But there are so many days when my brain just won’t do it. It’s really, really frustrating.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I’m A Fighter, Not A Lover

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s a stressful time, and many people just want it to hurry up and be over. I’m seeing lots of posts on my Facebook feed by people who are tired of both sides slinging mud at each other.

I do understand that feeling, believe me. I will also be glad for the election to be over. But I also have very strong feelings on a lot of issues, and I think it’s important to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe in. That’s supposed to be the point of voting and the point of free speech.

What I want people to remember, this election day, is that many of us do not have the luxury of turning politics “off”. As a queer, transgender person with disabilities, politics for me are not merely a matter of getting things the way I would like them to be. They are a matter of life and death. Let me be very clear: I’m not voting based on things like the right to get married. Marriage equality is nice, but there are much more fundamental rights at stake. I’m voting based on things like the right to receive health care, the right to be employed, the right to access food when I am not employed, and the right to walk down the street without being murdered. These are matters of life and death for me and many other people.

I am a sensitive person too, and I don’t enjoy fighting. I wish I could put away the politics and just relax now and then. I wish I could just be friends with whoever I enjoy being around, and not worry about their political views. I don’t enjoy constantly being the person to point out when people have done something hurtful. It is exhausting, it’s not fun, and it doesn’t exactly get me invited to a lot of parties.

But fighting is what I must do in order to survive. The world fights against me from many angles, and if I am to get through life with any shred of self-respect and dignity, I must fight back with all the strength I have. In the areas of life in which I am oppressed, I cannot afford to be silent.

And in the areas of life where I am not oppressed, it is also not okay for me to be silent. As a white, able-bodied, male-presenting person, who is living in a state with marriage equality and universal healthcare, and is able to afford safe housing, I have many privileges. Having privileges means that whether I like it or not, I profit from the oppression of others. And the only way to begin to resolve that inequality is for me to recognize those privileges and work to help raise the voices of those who do not have them. Here, too, I am obligated to fight.

I will not play nice with bigots, bullies, abusers, or people who defend them. I will not play nice with people who want me dead. I will not play nice with people who care more about protecting their privileges than protecting my right to exist.

I tried being a lover. I tried speaking softly without carrying a big stick. Ultimately, the result was that I was either abused or became complicit in the abuse of others. I’d like to be gentle, but I can’t. The cost is too great.

This is why I fight.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaBloPoMo Day 1: Queerer Than One Can Suppose

I have a sticker on my laptop that says "God made me queer", and a rainbow tattoo on my arm that says "It's something that I'm supposed to be". Being queer is an intrinsic part of who I am, and by extension, you might think this means queerness comes as easily to me as breathing. You'd be wrong. I actually find that being queer takes up a sizeable portion of my time and energy. I realize this sounds a bit like I'm expending all my energy on hot gay sex, but believe me, that's not what's going on. Rather, I find myself spending a lot of time exploring, explaining, and defending my identity. In the interest of making that simpler, I am going to list and define some of the terms I use in describing my queer identity.
  • gay
  • queer
  • transgender
  • transmasculine
  • genderqueer
  • nonbinary
  • asexual
  • gray-asexual
  • demisexual
  • homoromantic
  • demiromantic
  • androromantic
Gay and Queer:

Contrary to popular belief, these are not synonyms. "Queer" is a broad term for "defying cultural norms of gender and/or sexuality". I identify as queer because I'm not straight. I identify as "gay" because I am a masculine-identified person who is primarily attracted to other masculine-identified people.

Transgender, Transmasculine:

"Transgender" is a broad term meaning that my gender identity does not match the sex I was assigned at birth. "Transmasculine" is a term that can mean different things for different people; for me, it means that I am a transgender person who does many things associated with being male, such as using male pronouns, using the men's restroom, and wearing masculine clothing. 

Genderqueer, nonbinary:

These are both terms which mean "having a gender identity other than strictly male or strictly female". There are lots of ways to be genderqueer/nonbinary, but in my case, it means that a) my gender feels mostly neutral most of the time, and b) my behavior defies many cultural norms associated with both binary genders. Some people prefer one term or the other for various reasons; for myself, I use whichever makes the most sense in context. 


These stand for, respectively: female-assigned at birth, assigned female at birth, designated female at birth. These are all ways of referring to a person's assigned birth sex while avoiding problematic terms like "female bodied" or "born female". 

Asexual, gray-asexual, demisexual:

"Asexual" is a spectrum of identities that involve not experiencing sexual attraction, not being interested in sex, or not having a strongly-felt sexual orientation identity. In my case, I have no aversion to sex, but I experience sexual attraction so rarely that it is not a significant part of my life. "Gray-asexual" means having an identity somewhere between completely asexual and normatively-sexual; I often use this because I feel my interest in sex is slightly greater than what most asexuals experience. "Demisexual" is a type of gray-asexual identity where a person only experiences sexual attraction to people they have an emotional bond with. When I experience sexual attraction, it is almost exclusively for people I already have a romantic attraction toward. Note that this is about attraction, not behavior. When I say that I am demisexual, I'm not just saying that I only choose to have sex with people I love. It means I literally am not capable of sexual attraction to people I don't already have a bond with.

Homoromantic, demiromantic, androromantic:

These words describe my romantic orientation. While I only experience sexual attraction very rarely, I experience romantic attraction with relative frequency. "Homoromantic" means, loosely, I am a boy who is romantically attracted to boys. "Androromantic" also means I'm attracted to masculine-identified people, but it doesn't have any connotations related to my gender. This can be an important distinction, because I don't feel that all masculine-identified or masculine-presenting people have the same precise gender identity as me. "Demiromantic" is an identity I've only recently begun exploring, but it essentially means I only become romantically attracted to people I already know pretty well.

Also, because it's useful, here's a list of terms I do NOT identify with:

Homosexual (unless you're being tongue-in-cheek)
Transman or man (Boy, guy, and dude are okay, but I really prefer "person")

Finally, you may occasionally hear me refer to myself as a "fag". A discussion of reclamatory speech and who gets to use it is beyond the scope of this post, but basically: Don't call me a fag unless you know with absolute, 100% certainty that it is okay for you to do so. If you're one of the people who can say it, you probably know who you are. Otherwise, don't. The same rule applies to other people who self-identify as a fag or any other reclaimed slur.

I hope this list gives you a better understanding of my identity and which words to choose when talking about me! Again, I want to emphasize that not every term listed here applies universally in the same way it applies to me. When in doubt, describe people using the terms you hear them use to describe themselves (however: see note above re: reclamatory speech). And don't be afraid to ask me if you need a definition clarified!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Confession Time

I’ve been part of the unschooling/uncollege community for years now, and I’ve tried hard to practice what I preach. I treat kids with dignity and respect, I recognize other people’s interests and passions as legitimate, and I do my best to accept other people for who they are. But I’m having one major problem: when it comes to my own education, I’m not feeling so good at this whole self-directed learning thing.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy learning! I love to learn new things, at least in theory. But in practice, I’ll sit down to read a book or watch a lecture, even one whose content I’m really interested in, and I get distracted almost immediately. I’d rather play a video game, I’d rather talk to a friend. I can’t get myself to create art or practice a musical instrument. Even writing doesn’t come naturally to me anymore. Anything that takes focus I just can’t seem to do. Sometimes I’ll decide I need more structure in my life, and start creating lists and schedules. But I stick to those for maybe a day and then I can’t stand it anymore.

And I’m not sure what it is, exactly, that I need. I worry that I might have undiagnosed ADD and need medication, but my psychiatrist seems doubtful. I wonder if I just lack self-discipline, but that conflicts with my belief that discipline shouldn’t be necessary for motivation. Is it just that I lack external motivation? Maybe I do need to be in school. Maybe I’ve been wrong all along and some people really do need formal education to get anything done. But that would fly in the face of the lived experience of so many terrific unschoolers I know, and it would mean the entire philosophy I’ve been living by is wrong. Maybe I’m just in a place in my life where I need other things more than I need education. But there’s still that looming fear that I’m doing everything wrong, especially when my other “self-directed” friends seem to be doing amazing things and I’m not.

And anyway, if I did go to college, what would I be going for? Not the right reasons, I can tell you that. The right reason to go to college, in my view, is because you’re passionate about the academics of a particular subject or you know you want a career that requires a particular degree. If I go back to college right now, it will be out of fear. Fear that I can’t do it on my own, fear of ending up poor forever. But then I know so many people with degrees who can barely find even a minimum-wage job, and they’ve got student loan debt to pay back.

I’ve talked before about going to a low-residency program, like Goddard, and that option is still on the table. But I worry that I’m going for the wrong reasons, and I worry more that there’s something wrong with me that would make the workload impossible.

I feel like I’m running out of time. I’m 27 years old and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’ve got to figure something out soon.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Zen and the Art of Gender Maintenance

I’m contemplating gender today.

I didn’t make up the title of this post. I stole it from a chapter of My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein, or as many young trans people know her, “Auntie Kate”. She’s well qualified to write books about gender, having lived as a man, then a woman, then neither, then back to woman again.

I like to read in the bath, and I happened to grab My Gender Workbook on the way to the tub this afternoon. Flipping through it, I had the thought to take an inventory of all the things about me that can be classified as male or female. The first thing on my list was that I’d just watched My Little Pony, which is a cartoon for little girls but most of the MLP fans I know are male. According to Auntie Kate, “transgender” means “transgressing gender”. My Little Pony, by that definition, is a transgender show.

Is it an accident that half the people in my house identify as transgender and the other half identify as bronies? We’re all transgressing gender, one way or another.

I wanted to give up on my list after that, feeling the exercise to be a bit futile. But I couldn’t help thinking about it. When you’re transgender, the gender of everything you do is scrutinized. If you’re transitioning to male, you better make sure everything you do is sufficiently masculine lest your authenticity be doubted; the converse is true for those transitioning to female. But what gender can be assigned to Ocean Breeze body wash? Is it feminine because I lather it up with a purple bath pouf? What happens if I put on Old Spice deodorant after? What gender are Spongebob toothpaste, a Star Trek t-shirt and Homer Simpson boxers?

My mind drifts back to childhood. I loved my Barbies. I had dozens of them. But I also loved toy cars and swingsets and baseball, not softball, and Warner Bros. cartoons and the Beatles. What gender is all of that?

What gender is my black and white Ikea desk, or a bright yellow ukulele, or a can of black cherry seltzer, or a Prince CD? What gender is Prince, a person who changed his name to a symbol combining male and female?

Now my iTunes switches over to an early Genesis song called “The Cinema Show”. What gender was Peter Gabriel in his fox head and red cocktail dress? What about these lyrics:

I have crossed between the poles

Once a man, like the sea I raged

Once a woman, like the Earth I gave

But there is in fact more earth than sea

I love those lyrics. I love the idea of feminine energy and the idea that there is more giving than raging, more earth than sea. But in geology we learn that the earth rages more than the sea and the sea’s rage comes from the earth and moon. If we cannot neatly sort the movements of earth and sea, how can we neatly sort woman from man, members of the same species? We begin, in the womb, with the same genital configuration and we end in the grave with only bones. Some religions try to assign a gender to God, but how could a God of only one gender breathe both masculine and feminine life into the world?

These are the thoughts going through my head this afternoon, as I wonder what gender I am. Am I a man because I don’t want to be a woman? Am I a woman because I don’t want to be a man? I find the idea of maleness far too constricting, but the same is true of many cisgender men I know.

I think the thing I miss most about being a kid is that I could just identify as a kid. I don’t think my gender has changed since then, but I’ve outgrown kid as an identity. So what am I now?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Yesterday was Esther Day

Did you tell someone you love that you love them? I hope you did, even if you’ve never heard of Esther Earl. I hope you get that chance every day.

Esther was a teenage girl who attained some modest internet fame through the Nerdfighters community, a bunch of proud geeks led by John and Hank Green of the Vlogbrothers Youtube channel. Being a bit shy about internet forums, I’m not directly involved with Nerdfighteria myself. I know it through my friends Chelsea and Vanessa, who “introduced” me to Esther at the 5th anniversary party for the Harry Potter Alliance on October 10, 2010 – about two months after Esther’s death from cancer at the age of 16. And exactly one year after my mother’s death from a heart attack at the age of 51.

On a normal day, Esther’s story would have made me think, made me contemplate the meaning of life. It would have reminded me of Kevi, a boy I babysat for a few short days before his death at the age of 13. I would’ve been sad, on a normal day, for the loss of a bright and vibrant young girl.

But on that day, 10/10/10, I was affected on all those levels and more. I’m not a highly religious person, but I believe my mother sends messages to me when I am alert enough to notice them. Usually, she sends messages through music, because that’s the way she bonded with me when she was alive. That night, when Harry and the Potters sang “You Were the Best We Ever Had” and dedicated it to Esther, I knew my mother was there, too. I knew she wanted me to hear Esther’s story and the message within.

Esther’s message, as she told it to the Green brothers when they asked her what she would like her birthday to represent, was simple: Tell the people you love that you love them. Not the mushy, Valentine kind of love, she specified, but the simple friends-and-family love we so often forget to express to each other.

The name “Esther” means star, and her friends started a fund called “This Star Won’t Go Out” in her honor. TSWGO provides funding to families in Massachusetts dealing with childhood cancer. You can buy TSWGO bracelets to benefit the fund.

For me, “This Star Won’t Go Out” has become a personal mantra. I suffer from depression, a life-threatening chronic illness similar to cancer in that it drains its victims’ energy, throws life into chaos and takes all of one’s strength to fight. Sometimes that fight can be won. Sometimes it can’t. Esther reminds me to keep fighting. My middle name, Aster, which also means “star”, is inspired by Esther. She reminds me that life is too precious to give up on, and love is too important to take for granted. When I think about Esther, I think about how determined she was to enjoy her life and her friends in the face of terrible pain. And I remember not to let her star- or mine - go out.

Esther's Youtube channel
This Star Won’t Go Out

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fuck striving for divinity, let’s be real

People on my Facebook friends list keep posting this article called “A Call to the Sacred Masculine: Ten Daring Invitations from the Divine Feminine.” I cannot let this article go by without comment, and I also cannot let it go by without a trigger warning for rape imagery. More on that in a bit.

The tagline for this article is, “If I am going act like a goddess, I want a man who acts like a god.” Based on this, I knew I was going to find the article nauseating before I clicked on it, and I’m honestly not sure why I bothered. But now that I’ve seen it I’m going to pick it apart in a totally nonscientific and childish way, because that seems like the appropriate response to an article whose very premise makes me want to barf.

First off, who the fuck said you had to act like a goddess, and why are you listening to them? Having a vagina and/or identifying as female does not obligate you to be superhuman.

“goddess propagandists promote the unilateral concept of a spiritually elevated womanhood—strong but supple, decisive and nurturing, wild yet wise”

Dear women, please believe that you do not owe it to anybody to be ANY OF THOSE THINGS. You are allowed to fall apart emotionally and not be strong all the time. You are allowed to be indecisive or not nurturing or make foolish mistakes. And I’m not even touching the downright creepy notion that women should be “wild” and “supple.”

But the author’s problem does not seem to be with the misogyny inherent in this ideal. Rather, she thinks this goddess mythology is a good idea, and should be extended to men as well:

“Organizing a spiritual revolution as women without inviting men to the front lines with us means we are orchestrating a collective reframe with only half the available power. Real change means humanity—yes both genders—opts for the cosmic upgrade to Divine Class together.”

Women are organizing a spiritual revolution? That’s funny, because I was under the impression that women were a diverse group of people who run the full gamut of spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. But that’s not even what has me rolling my eyes so hard. I spend a lot of time thinking, talking and learning about gender, and even I have rarely seen a single paragraph so densely packed with binarism. I think I’d have to start reading neocon blogs for that to happen. Because women – half of people! – are organizing this feminine revolution, by being feminine because all women are and wish to be feminine, and they need men – the other half of people! Both genders! Two is all there are! – to come along and be masculine because all men are and wish to be masculine. Look, I’m not usually this crass in my blogs, but just go ahead and fuck right off with that shit.

“So, on behalf of the X chromosome, here is my invitation to mortal men who wish to dance as gods with wanna-be goddesses.”

Someone failed Genetics 101: Everyone has an X chromosome. You need at least one of them to exist as so much as a blastocyst. Please either take a biology class or never make any attempt to say anything about human life ever again. Plus, there are women with only one X chromosome, either because they’re trans or they have Turner syndrome, and men with more than one, either because they’re trans or they have Klinefelter syndrome. The X chromosome is about as divinely feminine as your lower intestine.
Yikes. I’m already nauseous and I haven’t even gotten through the introduction yet. Let me just pick out a few choice sentences that make me want to puke and/or weep silently.

“The world needs your brave heart to take bold action.”

And then there’s a picture of Braveheart. i c wut u did thar. And fuck you. The world needs to drop its patriarchal notions that bravery and boldness are traits inherent in and exclusive to maleness. The world needs bravery and boldness, sure, but it also needs to quit fucking associating them with penises.

“As a man, you wield a sword of truth that can cut through cultural distractions to what really matters.”

As a trans guy, I’m already wincing at the phallic imagery in the statement “As a man, you wield a sword.” As a feminist, I’m downright horrified at the notion that being a man is equated with knowing truth. The entire fucking kyriarchy is based on the notion that Father Knows Best, that women should stand aside and let the men handle it because they have all the answers. It sallows my spirit to see this notion being so blatantly perpetuated by a woman.

“Work for more than the mortgage and car payments—work because you find some measure of joy in your job. And if the job is just to make ends meet for now, then meet that employment with gratitude and a call to service.”

You were so close to being anticapitalist in that first sentence. Too bad you completely took it back in the second one by suggesting that all forms of paying work are good for the world and good for the worker. I dare you to look a Chinese factory worker, whose job contract includes promising not to commit suicide, in the eye and tell them to meet that employment with gratitude and a call to service. If you really believe in the divine feminine, I dare you to suggest any such thing to Mother Earth.

“The tender-hearted masculine is both wise and merciful. When you weep, you give women permission to be strong.”

Ooh, she got so close to breaking down some aspect of the gender binary by suggesting that men should be allowed to feel emotions. But then she flies right back into patriarchy by suggesting that women need a man’s permission to be strong. Women, you do not need a man’s permission to do anything. Fuck. That. Shit.

Okay, now this is the section where I need to put in a couple of TRIGGER WARNINGS for condoning emotional abuse and rape. Read on cautiously:

“Show us the way by standing firm when we are in a beautiful rage. Don’t run from our fury—after all it might contain magical wisdom. In the gale force of feminine anger, your calm is a powerful reminder that we are met and accepted by our beloved partner.”

Show your woman the way – because you are in control, men – by remaining stoic in the face of emotional violence from your partner. Accept abuse silently, because abuse is magic, or something. I don’t even fucking know. This whole paragraph is a wreck. But it gets worse:

Ravish your woman. Every now and then, take her wholeheartedly, without apology. Press her against a wall and bind her with your kisses.”

Jesus, I’m not even a woman and I find this triggering. I want to make it clear, for anybody that thinks this sounds sexy, that this statement is condoning rape. It is suggesting that as a man you have not only the right, but the responsibility, to overtake “your woman’s” body (because all men date women, and they own them besides) and do with it as you please, without asking for consent and “without apology.” That “without apology” bit creeps me out the most, because it makes it clear that you are doing something your partner will object to. But do not apologize for rape, men! It’s just your divine masculinity at work!

There’s more I could say about this article – the heterosexism, the sexist and binarist language oozing out of every sentence – but honestly, I’m fucking done. Once I hit the rape section I could read this piece of garbage no longer.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

An open letter to the people I love

I really love you all. I do. I don’t mean to push you away, or reject all your attempts at help, or scare you, or hurt you, or do anything bad. In fact, I am fucking piss-terrified of doing anything to lose anyone in my life. I would probably bow down and kiss your feet at this point to keep you around. There are no ends to the degrees to which I will degrade myself, and have degraded myself, to keep from losing people in my life. This is the first thing you need to understand about Depression.

I’ve chosen to capitalize Depression because one of the misconceptions people seem to have about it is that it is not a serious disease. I understand that you all mean well with your suggestions, but I cannot cure myself with positive thinking, gratitude journaling, the Work of Byron Katie, or any other thing that boils down to deciding not to be depressed. If I could decide not to be depressed, I would have done so when my first Depression symptoms appeared in childhood. You may feel that I do not give you enough credit when I reject these suggestions. I feel that you do not give me enough credit when you assume that I am voluntarily electing to feel constant, crushing emotional pain. Understand that the very nature of my disease is that I am not capable of thinking positively or enjoying life.

I have a disease. I have Depression. If you truly love me, you must love me as a person with Depression, just as you would love me as a person with diabetes or cancer and not make your love contingent on my efforts to cure myself from those diseases. If you think only a terrible person would abandon or shame someone for having cancer, imagine how it hurts to be abandoned or shamed for having Depression, a disease whose symptoms already include punishing and shaming myself. If you cannot accept me as a person with Depression, the honorable thing to do is to admit this as a flaw in yourself, rather than saddle me with the additional burden of feeling I do not deserve your friendship. I am not exaggerating when I say that this could kill me.

If you choose to remain my friend in the face of Depression, realize that I literally need you to live. I understand that this is a large and terrifying burden. But the only hope for my survival is in realizing that I have some worth in this world, and the only way I can realize this is by being constantly reminded of my worth by other people. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not believe that it is a person’s job to love hirself first in order to earn the love of others. That is not how humans are designed: we are pack animals, and we must have value to others in order to feel valuable ourselves. I think putting the burden of self-love entirely on the sick person is reflective of our pathologically individualistic society. I need constant, obvious love in order to heal, and I need it from you.

One of the most harmful and painful things you can do to me right now is to take my symptoms personally. Please do not treat my symptoms as something I am doing to you. Do not accuse me of putting words in your mouth or telling you what to feel when I say that everyone hates me or that I’m a piece of shit. I am trying to tell you that I am in so much pain that I want to die. I am begging you to give me some reason to believe that everyone doesn’t hate me. Getting angry with me will do the opposite.

It is an unfortunate symptom of Depression that there are days when I do not have the capacity to care about anyone’s feelings but my own. I am not doing this to be selfish or because I don’t love you. I’m doing it because I have no spoons and if I spend one more than I have I could end up hospitalized or without a job or possibly dead. Remember that Depression means that I constantly flagellate myself for not being a good enough person no matter how much energy I spend on others. Remember that I want nothing more than to devote all my energy to everyone besides myself, and that in order to heal I must force myself – FORCE myself, tooth and nail - to devote energy to me. Again, I am fucking terrified of being selfish, terrified of losing you or making you mad at me.

Also remember that I am in constant psychological pain. Imagine trying to do all of your activities while in searing physical pain; imagine how this would drain you. Now imagine trying to do all of your daily activities while feeling as you would moments after finding out your closest loved one had died. Imagining these things may bring you closer to understanding how I live.

Finally, remember that if I claim to be suicidal, YES I AM SEEKING ATTENTION. IF I DID NOT SEEK ATTENTION WHEN FEELING SUICIDAL, I WOULD BE DEAD. Humans NEED ATTENTION. Capslock is intentional because I want you to imagine me screaming this. No matter how many times I claim to be feeling suicidal, do not stop taking me seriously. Remember that if I post a suicide note and then I don’t do it, THAT IS THE OUTCOME YOU WANT. THAT IS A VICTORY. It is not a sign that I was not serious. IT IS A SIGN THAT I WON THIS TIME. Be careful what you wish for. You may find my persistent suicide notes annoying and wish for a stop to them, but consider the alternative - I could not be here to post those notes at all. I could never be here to say anything again.

If there’s one thing you can do to help, it is to keep loving me. Keep showing me that it is okay to express my true feelings around you. Keep showing me that you are thinking of me. Keep checking in to see how I am doing. Keep paying attention to me in whatever way you can. Don’t stop just because I seem to be feeling better for a few hours or a few days. Give me love. I desperately, desperately need it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Limit screen time? You’re limiting their future, too.

With technology always on the rise, the amount of time children spend in front of screens is increasing. Many parents seem alarmed at this trend. I personally think it’s a wonderful thing. Listen to this Facebook status from my friend Annie, for example:

Josh has a friend in the UK that he plays with on Skype almost every day. Mostly they play minecraft, but in so many creative ways like hide and seek and making up game shows for each other (usually minecraft related questions). I love it, he is having so much fun!

The benefits in just that little paragraph are almost too many to count: Talking to a kid in another country, pretend play, the strategy involved in playing hide and seek in a near-endless online landscape, the creativity involved in Minecraft itself, and the bond of a good friendship. Why on Earth would anyone want to limit that?

Right now I'm running a laptop with a second monitor docked in, so that I can watch How the Universe Works on Netflix on one screen while blogging with Windows Live Writer and Evernote on the other. My mind tends to jump from one idea to the next while writing, so I have one screen subdivided into four separate windows so I can run separate notes with each paragraph I'm working on, without worrying what order the paragraphs will be in in the final draft. So actually, I could do with even another monitor! I can also use one monitor to watch Khan Academy lectures while solving equations on the other. I can use one screen to keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook while using another to create art. If I added a smartphone or a tablet to my setup, I could do even more. More screens = more productivity and more learning.

I share a house with four other young adults, plus many friends who regularly come over. Our living room contains four screens, not including any laptops or handheld devices that wander in. We have a large HDTV hooked up to cable with TiVo, a Wii, a PS3 and an XBOX 360, which can also be used to watch DVDs, Netflix, Hulu and Youtube. We have a small CRT TV connected to older gaming consoles like my SNES and N64, as well as a PS2 for playing DDR (exercise!). We have a monitor hooked up to an arcade-style console for fighting games, and another large monitor connected to a small netbook for use as the house "guest computer". What all these screens do is enable many people to do activities together when they may have otherwise retreated to their individual rooms.

Screens can be a vital tool for allowing kids to connect with other people. While I was growing up, I had relatives I spoke with only a few times in my entire childhood because we could only reach them by expensive long-distance telephone calls. Now kids can be with family and friends for free via Skype, or instantly email photos, or keep everyone updated via a blog. There are even websites designed to keep family updated on the progress and treatment of people with medical conditions, so if your child breaks his leg or your grandmother is in the nursing home, everyone in the family can find out how they're doing from the other side of the world. 

I've also seen "screen time" used to help kids connect with people face to face (or, to use a geek phrase, in "meatspace"). Lots of kids need downtime when faced with a huge crowd, and a Nintendo DS or a laptop with Netflix is the perfect solution for allowing a frazzled kid some "me" time so they can return to the party calm and ready to play again. Even as an adult, I find my laptop extremely useful for handling social situations which I find overwhelming. If I didn't have it, there are many cases where I'd just have to go home early or not attend the gathering at all.

The frustrating part about the stigma of "screen time" is that even while demonizing their kids' use of technology, adults know screens are useful. How many adults do you know who check their email every half hour, or never put down their iPhone? How many adults take classes online or depend on a GPS to get where they're going? And what about ebooks - would a Kindle or Nook be considered "screen time" and summarily banned or limited, even though it is used to read books? 

I feel almost silly, in this day and age, writing a post about the benefits of technology. It's almost like I'm writing for a time-traveler from another era. But in a way, I am. I think many parents see childhood as something that exists outside of the current state of the world. If something wasn't part of their own childhood, they assume it's not necessary for growing up. I think that's absolutely false. Sure, proficiency with computers, smartphones and other technology may not have been necessary for kids growing up 40, 30 or even 20 years ago, but kids growing up now have to live in the world as it is today. And whether you personally like being surrounded by technology or not, your kids have just as much right to access it as you do. They need it more than you, because when they are adults, technology will have sped even further ahead of where it is now. Kids who grow up comfortable with a variety of devices today will be running the world tomorrow.

Now, I realize there are class privilege issues with access to technology. All these computers and iGadgets are expensive, and there are families who can't afford them. I'm not trying to shame or demean those families! But not being able to afford something is very different from intentionally withholding it. Would you deny your kids access to a library, a community art class or a good summer camp if you knew they wanted that access and you could provide it? I doubt many parents would prevent their kids from accessing those resources if they knew they could afford it. And to be perfectly honest, as someone who grew up poor, I think it's offensive and wasteful to spend hundreds of dollars on computers and video games and only allow your kids to use them for 30 minutes a day. It's like buying a designer outfit, wearing it to one party and then putting it in your closet for the rest of the year. My parents saved pennies all year to buy me a Super Nintendo, and you bet your ass they let me use it. They wanted me to get every dollar's worth out of that thing. So if you think giving your kids access to lots of technology is "spoiling" them, I'd argue that it takes a much more privileged attitude to buy expensive devices and then leave them collecting dust.

But for me, ultimately what makes limiting "screen time" nonsensical is that there is simply no such activity as "screen time". A screen is not an activity, it is a tool, just like a pencil or a canvas or a wrench. Except those tools all mostly have one purpose, and a screen can have hundreds. Screens are used for all kinds of activities, from socializing to gaming to movie watching to organizing to writing to studying - almost anything you can do, you can do on or with a screen! And yes, that even includes exercise: witness the Wii Fit, for example, or iPhone apps that track your workout routine. By limiting screen time, you are not limiting an activity. You are severely narrowing your child's whole range of activities and denying them access to valuable tools. If you tried to argue in favor of limiting screen time twenty years ago, when screens were mainly useful for MTV and simple video games, you might've had a better case. (You still wouldn't have convinced me, because I don't think TV and video games are harmful, but you would've had a better case.) But today, when screens do absolutely everything? Demonizing screens is absolutely absurd. And limiting screen time is foolish for the same reason limiting any activity is foolish - scarcity increases value

All in all, I think limiting screen time does kids way, way more harm than good. I’m a better person because I spent hours a day as a teen chatting with people on the other side of the world. I’m a better friend because I can stay connected across distances using Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. I’m a better employee because I know how to use assistive technology to help the kids I babysit. I’m smarter, I’m happier, I’m more connected to the world. If my parents had limited my screen time, my world would be small and sad. That’s not what I want for any kid in my life. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I Asked My Mother, "What Will I Be?"

People seem to enjoy reading about my gender transition, and it's healing and helpful for me to write about it. So I thought I'd put together a post on what it was like for me growing up trans - and not knowing it.

Before I was ever born, my very Christian mother prayed to Jesus to send her a little girl. I know this because she frequently told me how the only thing she ever wanted in life was a little girl. She meant it in only the best way: an expression of how happy she was to have me! But as I got older, it began to trouble me, because I wasn't so little anymore and I wasn't very good at being a girl.

Some trans people can look back to early childhood and point out a lot of signs that they were "born this way". For me, there were only two. The first was my twin brother Bobby, who held the distinction of being imaginary - or "invisible" as I insisted at the time. Bobby was a boy version of me, we were "identical" despite being opposite-sex, and he went everywhere I did. I would later learn that it's not uncommon for trans kids to imagine an opposite-sex twin! At the time, though, I just knew I wanted to spend all of my time being with a boy.

The other clue came one day when I was watching my grandpa shave. I asked if I would shave when I grew up, and I will never forget his response: "Only if you grow up to be a man". Now, by this age I was pretty fully socialized as a girl, and I protested, "But I'm a girl, won't I grow up to be a woman?" My grandpa told me, "I used to be a little girl". Excitedly, I asked how he turned into a boy, and he said he didn't remember. I rushed out of the bathroom to go and figure out how I could trade places and become Bobby. I loved the idea of growing up to be a man and learning to shave like my grandpa. When I asked my mom, she said that my grandpa was pulling my leg and stressed that I absolutely could NOT become a boy. I remember being pretty disappointed by that, and I don't remember spending much time with Bobby afterwards.

The full story about my grandpa, by the way, is that when he was little my great-grandparents divorced, and my great-grandfather was granted custody. My great-grandmother felt she had a right to her son, so she kidnapped him and made him live as a girl, since the police were looking for a little boy. He was eventually returned to his father, but only after living as a girl for long enough to remember it in his 70s!

For the next several years, I seemed like a normal enough little girl. I liked my Barbies and Babysitters Club books, and lots of gender-neutral activities like drawing and playing on the swingset. But there were a few little signs that I was different. For one, no one could convince me to care about being pretty. I wore baggy clothes and my hair was in a big knot because I wouldn't let anyone brush it (but I wouldn't let them cut it short, either). I loved to play in dirt and mud - I once got in trouble at school for making a "sand angel" since we didn't have snow in Florida! I was also a pretty sensory-sensitive kid, though, so all that stuff could be just as much the result of that as anything to do with my gender.

Puberty is when shit started to hit the fan, gender-wise. I cried and screamed when I had to get my first bra, and then I refused to wear anything but a sports bra. When I got my period I remember laying in my grandmother's bed, curled up in a ball, wishing I could wake up the next day and be three again. This was as close as my kid-mind got to feeling suicidal - I knew my life as it was was intolerable and I wanted to escape. By age 11 I had retreated to spending most of my time in my room, watching VH1 to see gender-bending people like Michael Jackson and Boy George. I liked certain girly things, like nail polish and glitter, but I idolized boys who liked those things, instead of women. So I spent my preteen years wanting my body to stop becoming feminine and wanting to be like men who wore makeup. But I still didn't consciously have thoughts of wanting to be a boy.

As I grew into a teen, I started realizing I was different. I had a lot of deep-down, confusing feelings about being queer but not being quite sure how. I knew I was attracted to boys, I knew I was fascinated by gay men and gay male culture, but I also knew I couldn't be a gay boy because I wasn't a boy! So I came out as a lesbian, then as bisexual, then I decided I was straight, then bisexual again. I couldn't figure myself out. By this point I knew about trans people, but I believed two myths about trans men: That they were all very, very masculine, and that they all knew they were boys from the time they were toddlers. So while I loved and ate up any story about any kind of gender-bending, I didn't feel any sort of identification with trans men. At the same time, I kept going through phases where I'd wear boys' jeans and baggy t-shirts, which I felt super comfortable in. Unfortunately, those times were less common than the times I spent trying really, really hard to be a girl and act the way girls were supposed to act. I didn't feel comfortable enough with who I was to even really get to know myself.

It wasn't until I was 24 that I consciously began to think of myself as a trans person. I had known lots of trans people by then, but it wasn't until I discovered the word genderqueer that I started to question my own gender identity. I found the website Genderfork and something resonated deep inside, so strongly that it was terrifying. Since then, I've played around with my gender expression and found that I'm more comfortable presenting in a more masculine way. I still chose a gender-ambiguous name, Elisha Aster, and I still don't feel completely like a man. But in 2011 I started gender therapy, and on August 1st, 2011 I began testosterone. Whether or not I feel completely like a man, being on T feels great! And yes, just like my grandpa promised, I get to shave my face.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


A few weeks ago I posted about some big plans I have. It's hard to believe it was that recent, because things are already starting to happen! Since people have been asking, I thought I'd post an update on what's going on.

The House

The first thing I needed to do was find a source of money for all the other endeavors, and that meant finding a buyer for my house in Florida. Luckily, that happened almost immediately. My neighbor back in Florida owns the property next door to mine, and it would be profitable for her family to own mine as well. So her son made me an offer almost right away! It's not a lot of money, because the house is old and the property's not in great shape, but it's just enough to cover the things I want to do.


I've been spending a lot of time browsing RVs, and I've decided exactly what I want: a 17' Casita Spirit Deluxe, or another very similar trailer. By keeping a close watch on this site and being willing to go with an older model, I should be able to snag one for $3,000-$5,000, which is right in my budget. I also plan to sell my car and buy a Jeep Grand Cherokee or similar SUV for towing. There are lots of Grand Cherokees online in around the same price range as my car's Blue Book value, so it should be a pretty even trade.

Goddard College

So far I haven't done much toward getting into Goddard because I need to pay off my loans first. I did do a FAFSA and find out that once my loans are paid, I should qualify for a full Pell Grant (based on last year's income). I also requested the standard admissions information packet and browsed the online catalog. So far, Goddard looks highly compatible with the rest of my plans, because I can get credit for documenting what I learn and do during my travels.

Top Surgery

I've been researching surgeons. Now, I'm not a highly religious person, but I do believe in intuition and paying attention to certain signs. My mind was telling me not to go with Melissa Johnson, because I was unimpressed with some of her results on Transbucket, and even less impressed by her $100 consult fee. In contrast, Paul Costas does consults for free, and while I could only find a few of his results on Transbucket, they all looked good to me. Plus, his website looks a bit less tacky and more professional than Johnson's. But something kept not feeling right when I'd think about calling Costas' office to schedule a consult, and I couldn't bring myself to do it. I finally decided it was just that I'm not ready to start planning on surgery just yet. Meanwhile, I posted about my surgeon dilemma on Tumblr, and a total stranger messaged me to stress that they had a wonderful experience with Johnson and they'd recommend her above anyone else. And in fairness, I had to admit that the one thing I keep hearing about Johnson is that she and the hospital she works through take excellent care of patients. Then today - after I'd already decided to put off calling Costas for awhile - a friend who knew nothing of my dilemma emailed me out of the blue to say his friend had a great surgeon. He gave me her contact info, and lo and behold, it was Melissa Johnson. So you know what? I think it just might be worth the $100 to check her out. Gut feelings and word-of-mouth are important things to consider.

So that's where I'm at right now. In the meantime, I'm trying to make my budget stretch to cover food, gas, and medicine until I finish all the legal shenanigans involved in selling the house. After that, it's mostly just red tape and miscellaneous errands standing between me and the life I want.

Monday, May 21, 2012

One Hundred Barbies

Now and then I like to buy myself things that I never had as a child because my mom didn’t think they were for little girls. It wasn’t that I wasn’t *allowed* to have them, it’s just that her eyes went directly to the pretty pink things and it never occurred to her that I’d be interested in anything the next aisle over. And honestly I liked bright colors, and boys’ toys were often navy blue and forest green, so it wasn’t hard for me to start imitating my mom and going right for the girly stuff.

But when I grew up and realized the “boy aisle” was full of Legos and Ninja Turtles? Oh man, I was pissed. It wasn’t that I didn’t like dolls, because I did. But I swear we once counted my Barbies and “fashion dolls” and I had literally a hundred of them. What kid anywhere on Earth needs 100 Barbies? My mom always claimed we couldn’t afford Legos, and she was right that the damn things aren’t cheap, but neither are Barbies! Where the hell did I even get 100 Barbies? Let’s see… every birthday and Christmas from age 2 to 12, so that’s ten years times about 5 relatives giving me a Barbie each time makes 50, plus countless trips to the dollar store where I begged for a $2 “fashion doll” which my mom was happy to buy because she loved Barbies so damn much herself.

And there’s nothing wrong with Barbies or enjoying them. I’m fully opposed to the kind of “feminism” that tells girls not to like feminine things. But yesterday at Target I decided, you know what, I have a twin bed and I want some motherfucking kid sheets. I always kind of gravitated toward the gender-neutral even as a kid, so I went  in looking for stuff like Super Mario and Spongebob. Instead I ended up in an aisle split - just like the toy aisle! - between pink flowery things and “boy stuff”. The girl sheets were your standard pretty patterns like colorful stripes and stars and stuff. Again, there is nothing wrong with any of those things if you like them. The problem is what was being sequestered in the blue side of the aisle: stars and planets, dinosaurs, cars and trucks. In other words, SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING. ARE FOR BOYS. They’re kept in a separate section so that thousands of moms, like mine, will instinctively skip them over while shopping for little girls.

Holy shit, we are sending kids this message on bed sheets. Our children are literally being swaddled in sexism from the time they’re old enough to notice their sheets have stuff on them. And then we wonder why girls are falling behind in math and science later in life. You guys, I loved dinosaurs and space just as much as any kid with a penis, and it wasn’t because I’m trans. It was because science is awesome. But I did not spend my childhood being told that science is awesome, except by Miss Frizzle and Mr. Wizard. I spent my childhood learning from the adults around me that I was supposed to be sweet and not ask too many questions, and that I was going to grow up to be a mommy and maybe, if I was really an overachieving genius, a secretary.

So when I was five and fascinated by ape skeletons, seven and wanted to be an astronaut, thirteen and checking out books on neuropsychology? No one noticed. I'm not whining here about my gifts not being nurtured by expensive things like space camp and trips to far-away science museums. I'm saying my interest in science was entirely overlooked. For comparison, I was an early reader and my family jumped on this and piled me up with loads of books and spent tons of time reading to me and teaching me how to spell. I'm grateful for this attention, but just like I wonder how many of those 100 Barbies could've been Legos or dinosaurs instead, I also wonder if some of that reading time couldn't have been spent designing marble runs or making baking soda volcanoes.

The fact is, my family - which consisted mostly of women raised in the 1960s and earlier  - didn't encourage me in science because they were afraid of it. No one had ever taught them any science beyond how to keep a cake from falling. Similarly, my Girl Scout leaders erred on the side of making construction paper placemats instead of models of the solar system. I was a little girl being raised by women who were told they couldn't do science either.

Speaking of the Girl Scouts, the GSUSA has set a goal of creating gender-balanced leadership - including in fields like science and math - in one generation. That's a lofty goal, and one I'm glad they're bold enough to go for. And I would argue that if we're going to do it, we're going to have to start by de-gendering things like Legos and dinosaur sheets. Which I bought. Not because I'm a boy now and boys buy dinosaur sheets, but because I'm an adult now and I realize science isn't a gender. And because dinosaurs are awesome.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

In which I ramble about RVs and bore most of you

I found a buyer for my house! That means I can afford the things I mentioned wanting in my last post:

  • an RV to live in
  • paying off loans and going back to college
  • at least a portion of what top surgery will cost (this depends largely on the cost of the RV)
I've been researching full-time RVing on and off for a few years now, and I've gotten pretty clear on what I want. One thing I've found to be true about dreaming is the more specific and focused your dream is, the more likely it is to become real. So here's what I want: A lightweight, preferably fiberglass, 17-20ft travel trailer, with a bathroom, enough beds to leave at least one as a bed most of the time (usually the beds convert to dinettes), and a table or desk that exists independently of the bed setup. It needs to have a kitchen, but not a fancy one, and it needs to be light enough to tow with a mid-size SUV (which I plan to trade my grandma-style Buick for).

I started plotting to sell my house for an RV two years ago, but I'm glad I waited. I've had time to learn how much space and how much stuff I really need, and it's turned out to be a lot less than I thought. I came up from Florida with a single carload of stuff. I'd say I regularly use about half of that, plus some stuff I've shared with housemates, like kitchen equipment. Generally, most of my needs are met by a laptop, a small stack of books, a couple pairs of pants and about 15 t-shirts. Had I gone directly from having a whole house to myself to living in an RV, I would've bought an enormous class A and maxed out the weight capacity carrying stuff I'd never use. 

For anyone else interested enough in RVs to be curious about my specific preferences, here's a breakdown of why I want what I want:

Type: Travel Trailer

I was initially convinced I wanted a big class A or class C rig (if you don't speak RV, these are your typical Winnebago things you see people driving to Florida in). However, doing some more research convinced me that a towable trailer is the way to go. I can leave it behind at a campsite or someone's driveway and go exploring in a separate vehicle, I don't have to worry about my house going into the shop for repairs, and I can spend less for an older model without having to worry about the mileage on the odometer or failing an emissions test. Plus, my dad lived in travel trailers for a lot of my childhood, so they hold a certain nostalgic appeal for me. There were other possibilities in my size range, namely pop-up campers and class B camper vans (think of the VW "hippie bus"). I feel that pop-up campers are a bit flimsy and temporary-feeling for fulltiming, and frankly I've never heard of anyone fulltiming in one. Camper vans have a certain romantic appeal for those who love the idea of just hopping in their car for a roadtrip, but they're a bit cramped and the toilet, if there is one, tends to be right smack in the middle of the van. I like the idea of being able to have guests or even bring a friend along for short legs of my journey, and no matter how close I am to my friends I do not want them watching me on the toilet.

Size: 17-20ft

Again, I thought I wanted/needed something much larger, but after reading the blog Technomadia and seeing how a couple can live comfortably in a 17ft trailer, I realized that the amount of space I need for just myself is actually quite tiny. True, I need the same amenities as a family - a kitchen, a bathroom, a place to sleep and a place to work. But being a solo traveler, I'll have the luxury of not needing a lot of empty space between those amenities. And when I'm towing I'll have a lot more flexibility in where I can go than I would in a Winnebago. I saw someone driving around Dorchester, an inner-city area of Boston, in an enormous tour bus today. This did not strike me as a good idea.

Layout: bed, table or desk, kitchen, bathroom

Why I need these things should be self-evident, but there's a surprising amount of variation in how RVs and travel trailers are laid out. For example, being one person, I don't really need a four-person dinette eating up half my floorplan. A small desk or table will do, and if there's a dinette I can leave it as my bed all the time. The reason I want that is because I hate making my bed in the first place and I know full well I'll be too lazy to convert it back and forth every day. (Realistically knowing your own limits and shortcomings is a good factor in making a dream actually doable. This is also why I ruled out cosmetology as a career when I realized I'd probably have to do pedicures.)

Car: Mid-size SUV

I have never pictured myself as an SUV person, but I am even less a pickup truck person. I plan to do a decent amount of city exploring, and I just don't see myself doing it in a monstrous truck. I am not above driving around downtown Boston blasting Kenny Chesney, but I'll be damned if I'm going to do it in a Silverado. Plus, I don't ever want to be that person who makes his friends sit in the backseat of a quad-cab with their knees jammed into their pharynxes. I've been there and it is not comfy.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Some plans

I have a big fear of sharing my long-term plans with anyone until I know for 100% sure they're going to happen. I think I'm afraid I'm going to jinx myself and end up looking like a failure if I change my mind or don't finish something. But sharing my plans also helps make them more real to me and allows people to offer help and advice. So here are some of the plans I've come up with for the next few years.

1. Start saving money
This isn't a goal in itself so much as a necessary first step for achieving the other goals. Unfortunately, saving money means that paying half my income in rent is not going to be sustainable long-term, so I need to figure out how to either make more or spend less. (Or both.)

2. Go to Goddard College and finish my BA
While I currently don't have specific plans for a line of work that requires a degree, it does seem silly to be doing nothing with my AA when it wouldn't take much more work to get a BA. Goddard is a pretty unique school that awards credit for prior learning and also offers a BA you essentially design yourself. This seems like a pretty good deal since my experience tells me no one in the real world really cares what your BA is actually in. (Pro tip, kids: do volunteer work in a field related to your dream job. It matters so much more.) Goddard also only requires you to actually be present on campus (which incidentally is in Vermont) for one week out of the year, which makes it a good fit with my next goal...

3. Sell my house and go RVing
These are actually two separate goals, because selling the house will be a huge project in itself. I own a property in Florida that would be worthless except that it includes a good couple acres of land. It will be difficult to sell, and it won't get me enough money to buy another house. But it will easily cover the cost of an RV. I've been wanting to go RVing for a few years now, but I put that dream on hold when I moved to Massachusetts. The big difference now is that after living in a few places I've realized all I need is a place to sleep, a place to eat, a bathroom and a laptop. So instead of a big hulking class A Winnebago, I've decided to go with something smaller like a class B camper van or a pickup truck hauling an Airstream trailer.

4. Get top surgery and legally change my name
These are the only two steps left for me to consider my gender transition complete. Chest reconstruction surgery is expensive and not usually covered by insurance, so this is also dependent on getting the house sold. Changing my name is much cheaper and easier but I want to get all the legal headaches of selling the house out of the way before I do it. The tricky part is I don't want to be recovering from major surgery in an RV so I'll have to do that in between selling the house and setting out on my travels.

Those are my big goals for now. The main thing is I don't know where to start any of them. So if you have any advice on how to figure out what I want to study (which I have to know before I can write my Goddard application essay), or how to sell a house when you live in an entirely different part of the country, please let me know.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

I Don't Feel Like Being Extraordinary Today

I'm a big fan of Blake Boles' project, Zero Tuition College. I'm also horribly intimidated by it. For example, one member's project presents honorary degrees to students who demonstrate "(1) strong track record of self-directed learning, (2) an impressive breadth and depth of education, and (3) evidence of successful application of one's learning."

Which brings me to a question I've often pondered along with my fellow young adult unschoolers, when we're all alone and the pressure of society's judgement is off.

Do we really need to be impressive?

Don't get me wrong; I find a lot of unschoolers impressive, and I think people who want to reach for extraordinary goals should be encouraged. But does being unschoolers somehow obligate us to prove how special we are?

I'm not at a point in my life where going out on big adventures is an option. What I'm doing instead is addressing a lot of things that need healing in my life, both physically and emotionally. It doesn't result in a life that sounds cool on paper. I'm not backpacking through South America or starting my own business from a childhood hobby. I'm not writing books, or even blogging that much.

But I'm examining my needs and finding the resources I need to meet them. I think that's the goal I'd aim for in raising my own children: that they know what they need and how to get it, whether they need adventure or a quiet life in the suburbs. I know it's been, and continues to be, a long hard fight just to be able to name my needs, let alone meet them. And I hope the people who need big adventures continue to seek them. But I also hope we as a community don't lose sight of what's important: raising kids who can identify and meet their needs. All that big impressive stuff should be a means to that end. Being impressive shouldn't be an end in itself, and it definitely shouldn't be presented to kids - either directly or indirectly - as something they owe the unschooling community.

Unschoolers, you don't owe anybody anything. Living an ordinary life is proof enough that unschooling "worked". Meet your needs, and don't worry about what your life looks like to anybody else.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Real (Man's) World

It seems like the main accusation lobbed against unschooling have to do with the idea that unschoolers somehow exist outside reality:

"Without rules and punishment, how will they ever learn to function in the real world?"

"Sure, I can see how you could unschool your way into being an artist or a writer, but how could an unschooler get a real job like being a doctor or lawyer?"

To which most unschooling parents respond by blinking and looking around, wondering if their homes and children are actually holograms and they've somehow failed to notice until it was pointed out to them. "Isn't this real?" is the usual - and logically sound - protest.

However, I think the naysayers are onto something. Unschooling does allow kids to exist outside of reality - at least, one particular type of reality. Let's reframe the arguments above from a feminist perspective:

"Without being forced to comply with people bigger and more powerful than they are, how will they ever learn to give in to the kyriarchy in the future? How will they learn that their lives and bodies belong not to them, but to whoever happens to be older, whiter, richer, or more male than they are?"

"Sure, I can see how unschoolers could get artsy frou-frou jobs that don't really matter, but how will they compete in a male-dominated profession - the only ones that really count?"

I'd like to suggest that these are the arguments that are really being made - whether the people making them realize it or not. In a patriarchal society, we are conditioned from birth to believe we must give respect to things typically associated with maleness: dominance, competition, cold rationality, discipline, left-brain thinking. Meanwhile, we're taught that we must not give respect to things traditionally associated with femaleness: cooperation, compassion, sympathy, free expression of emotion, creativity, nurturance, right-brain thinking. School, being part of the kyriarchy (the societal system of oppression designed to uphold the dominance of white, middle-aged, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied men), is designed to uphold the former, "masculine" set of traits and values. The second, "feminine" set is strongly discouraged by schooling, but is encouraged by unschooling.

School used to be more overtly patriarchal, allowing only boys a pass to higher education and higher pay while ensuring women remained uneducated and housebound. Today girls and women are allowed to attend school, but in a system that shames them (not to mention boys and men!) for exhibiting any sort of feminine tendencies. It sets up a catch-22 where in order to be a success as a woman, one must mimic and compete with men. For feminine, right-brained, sensitive, or introverted people of any gender (because remember it is the association with femaleness that is considered undesirable by patriarchy, not just femaleness itself), the idea of simply finding success with their own natural skills is never brought to the table in school. They must change who they are or risk failure and humiliation. That's how the system keeps people from flourishing in a way that threatens patriarchal dominance.

So when people who, consciously or unconsciously, uphold the kyriarchy first hear of unschooling, it is simultaneously devalued and seen as a threat to their own system of values. Simply put, what they mean by "the real world" is the man's world. What you are doing, when you unschool, is removing your children from a system that says the man's way is the only way. Of course, unschooling certainly can and does produce doctors, businesspeople and other traditional professionals, if that's what those unschoolers genuinely want to be. What unschooling doesn't do is tell kids those are the only things to be. The reason unschooling is so good at producing writers, artists, doulas, homemakers, alternative-school teachers, caregivers, and other "feminine" professionals is because unschooling gives these people more than a snowball's chance in hell at success. It does not stomp on their spirits from toddlerhood on until they finally give up and conform.

So the next time someone asks how your kid is going to get a "real" job in the "real" world, know that this person is, intentionally or not, upholding systems of oppression that are designed to set up most of the population (women, people of color, people with disabilities, the working class, people who don't conform to gender norms) for failure. And know that by choosing unschooling, you're supporting a system that is designed to work with who people are, to allow them a way to succeed without impersonating someone else.

Which one sounds more real to you?