Earlier this month I got a text from Danny, the dear sweet editor of this blog, asking me if I wanted to write a blog piece. His thinking was I might have a unique perspective on masculinity. Though he might be right, I’m not really sure it’s that enlightening because I don’t really know what masculinity is anymore and honestly, I don’t care.
I’ve been on this planet for almost 28 years now and, for about 25 of them, I was identifying on the outside as a woman. I knew for a long time before that that it didn’t feel right, but it still took a quarter of a century for me to do anything about it. There were a lot of things to consider. Realistically, how was I actually going to survive the world if I was a 5’5” guy without a dick? Would I just always be some kind of freak to other people? Would I ever be able to find a partner who would love me and this “thing” that I’ve become? It weighed on me for a long time but I eventually realized I was miserable in my body so the change needed to happen. I consulted with my friends and family, and it was one of the better coming out experiences in the vast spectrum of coming out experiences that range from fantastic to life threateningly bad. My parents didn’t even bat an eye and with my friends, it was so unremarkable that I don’t remember coming out to a single one of them. It all just came together and confirmed my sense that this was a good decision. Going forward, I felt pretty confident and ready to take on masculinity.
I was pretty excited until a couple days before my appointment. Going through with transitioning, the hormones and the changes and what not, was daunting and anxiety inducing in a way that I didn’t really expect at all. Most people I’ve talked to were not at all surprised by how anxious I was, but I hadn’t been thinking about the beginning and the middle parts of transitioning; I was only really thinking about the end, which in my head was muscles and beard (if I was lucky). But then the realization dawned on me: I was about to do puberty again. Suddenly I was worried that this would mean my whole personality was going to change or I’d get really ugly as a man. But I ended up going through with it after a highly emotional five hour doctor’s appointment where I cried and panicked and confused the doctors with my distress. I got the first shot though, it was on. The next few weeks the anxiety started fading, the changes started coming and it was exciting again. I expected after all this chaos, a sort of calm to come over me as the testosterone created the physical and mental changes I’d been seeking. But you know what? It never fucking came. I’m definitely much happier with my body now, but there are certain parts of being a woman that I’ll always be wistful for. Not anything physical, but almost something spiritual or maybe even societal. Like someone who is ethnically-Jewish but doesn’t practice spiritually, though I gave up being Female I’m still always going to be culturally feminine.
I grew up what would absolutely be considered a “tomboy” in most senses: no girls’ clothes, no dolls, always outside or playing video games. One time my neighbor, a mother who wanted a daughter but instead ended up with three boys, tried and unfortunately succeeded in braiding my hair. My brother recently reminded me of this moment, laughing the whole time as he remembered how furious I was for the rest of the day. That was generally my reaction to any kind of stereotypically “girly” thing. But as a little kid and into adulthood, I always preferred hanging out with girls. I connected with them more. Even though I always felt more like a boy, I was still living my life through the lens of a girl and people responded to me as a girl. I was able to talk about my feelings with my girl friends and be affectionate with them. I was allowed to be sensitive and develop an EQ. And because the world saw me as a girl, it also allowed me to be treated like one by men; with that, you lose a lot of respect for masculinity. So it was weird coming to terms with being a dude, because quite frankly, I’ve never given a fuck about men. Generally speaking, I do not understand them and I don’t want to spend much time around them (except for Danny who is a good boy and I love his cute funny face). What even is their world? Why don’t they want to emote? Or talk to women like normal people? Why don’t they hug or touch their friends ever? It always seemed so silly to me, from middle school on when the gender gap seemed to widen into more of a trench, that this is how anyone would want to live in the world.
After I started transitioning, though, I thought I would have to try harder to fit more into that world. I especially thought this would be the case in terms of finding a partner, but as it turned out I really didn’t have to do anything. There is no part of femininity that I’ve kept that hasn’t somehow helped me in the trials and tribulations of my personal and romantic life. Apparently it’s charming that I do not come off as threatening and that I seem more interested in getting to know someone than getting in their pants. I’ve been through enough stuff with guys in my time as a girl to know how women do not want to be treated. Some of that weird, uncomfortable trauma has led me to being a better man that understands boundaries and doesn’t feel as entitled to the space and people around him. I love that I get to hang out with mostly women and feel like I can fully be myself without any judgment for needing to talk or cry or needing affection. Or that I can I will play as Toad or Shyguy in any Mario game because I think they’re the cutest characters and I don’t give a fuck that that’s not masculine. These things feel like they won’t change no matter how long I’m on testosterone, and I’m grateful for them. Instead of gaining a better understanding of masculinity, I’m just gaining a better understanding of myself and all the components that make me me.
Luckily for me, I went to what’s possibly the queerest liberal arts college in the United States and one of the main things I learned there is that gender is truly just a construct. The sooner I took that to heart, the easier things started to feel. I don’t need to know how to be a man; I am one the way I am and that’s good enough. Proving my masculinity doesn’t have to be inane things like knowing about sports or closing my emotions off to the world. It can just be me, the guy who shares his feelings and can’t stop buying stuffed animals because every time I see one with a cute enough face I know it’s begging for me to give it a home. Or listening to a female friend complain about how annoying high heels are and being like, “yeah, I can relate. I used to hate that shit, too”. To me, masculinity doesn’t mean anything, and yet I still think I’m somehow doing it right.
A stack of books on an impossibly-wide range of topics reaches chest-high atop my bedside table. They wheeze out to me from behind a thin layer of dust—“READ ME!” “Have patience!” I bargain, “I’ll get to you soon!” even though—both the books and I know—I’d rather lay back and read the ceiling for now. And, well, that’s just what I’m doing. Empty your mind…empty your mind. Pleading with myself to empty my mind...a shockingly ironic oxymoron.
As we have slowly begun to emerge from pandemic chaos and return to some degree of normalcy, I’ve found it difficult to find time to treat myself. With no work during the first part of quarantine, I allowed my uncle to recruit me into a campaign of outdoor tasks at his Long Island home. Suburbanites have a habit of letting tasks pile up over the course of several millennia. Thus began several months of digging up four tree stumps the width of California redwoods, pulling out the adjoining roots, tearing down the old fence and putting up a new one, then another one for a neighbor, and working on his dinosaur of a pickup truck. After all this, my work opened back up and I went right into it.
Many months later, here I am, a slug on a bed. My attention turns to my body. My feet hurt after two straight weeks of consistent running, exercise, and work. My shoulders are sore after another harrowing day spent helping my uncle put up yet another fence (for the other neighbor, of course). I feel a touch dehydrated, but I think I’ll wait on getting that glass of water, the bed is too comfy. For now, I’ll relax, relax, relax. Yet, just as my shoulders have begun to loosen up a bit, I remember I have to watch a classic film for class.
The grind—like the gremlin creatures from the eponymous movie, “Gremlins”—at first innocent, yet eventually growing into a real bitch, multiplying again and again, and showing up at every goddamn corner of my life…bastards. It is a never ending slog, toward what? It would be nice if it were free pizza, or maybe a gold toilet or something. Heck, I’d even take something cheap and disposable, like the plastic sunglasses you used to win with the tickets from Chuck-e-Cheese.
Grinding ever forward, in a few days I’m taking the real estate exam. Despite having wrapped the 75-hour prerequisite course ages ago, I took a long break to begin a 24-week Computer Science course. The course has winded down, and I am more thoroughly confused with the material now than I was before starting. I took my textbook and pitched it out the window. The book was still where it landed when I walked out of my apartment the next day, proving that the people of New York have little patience for the art of C++ coding; I don’t blame them.
My attention goes to my breath…up, down, in, out, like a wave. Slowly, I begin to relax. All is quiet. My head is almost clear. It’s been so many weeks of work, struggle, focus, and learn that I forgot what 15 minutes of meditative quiet time felt like. You know what I could use right now? Ice cream. And so it is that I’m sitting in the parking lot of the ice cream shop near my uncle’s house, holding a large Pistachio—yes, I’m an old man—ice cream cone and staring at planes taking off from Farmingdale airport.
We think of treating ourselves as something that needs to be extravagant, and social media tells us it should be. Relaxed bathing suit-clad bodies stare out from behind sunglassed eyes, wading in the waters of exotic far-off beaches. Sometimes, they sport a monkey on their shoulder with a caption like, “Living my best life! #vacay” or “#sunkissed” or whatever—insert cliché here—they can come up with. I’m not jealous; in fact, I’ll probably do the same thing when my vacation comes around, I love monkeys.
With pandemic chaos, hopefully, in our rear view mirror, let’s not simply throw ourselves back into the ceaseless grind. Let us instead remember that hard work and earnings are nothing without something to spend it on. Treat yourself from time-to-time; it can be as simple as going to the movies with a friend or walking in the park and watching the birds flutter by or, of course, grabbing a bite of ice cream. It can be appreciating the way the sun throws a glint across the Hudson as it sets in the sky. Or it can be noticing how the bee collects pollen from the flowers for its hive, moving from one plant to the next, coming away with more and more of a collection until it flutters off to its home—and you think you’re busy?? It can even be laying on your couch, staring at the ceiling, doing absolutely nothing at all.
When I was eight years old, a stray dog showed up in my neighborhood foraging for scraps in an overturned garbage can. I grew up in one of Tampa’s lower-income neighborhoods, the kind of place where (at my mother’s orders) I was never to leave the cul-de-sac without a parent. To most of our neighbors, a stray dog was just more Town ‘n’ Country window dressing, not worth
any more attention than the folks who parked their cars directly on their lawn, or the baggy-pantsed teenagers who wandered the streets smoking after school.
But my mother had instilled in me from a young age an earnest compassion for all creatures great and small. That compassion was a bit harder to apply here, as she had also raised me to be a lifelong cat person and every cartoon I had seen up to that point had made all dogs the mortal enemies of all cats. My friends’ dogs covered a spectrum from yappy and snappy to old and lumpy, so I didn’t quite get the appeal. This stray was different, though. She was gentle, curious, and playful. She had my trust from the moment our eyes met, as she slobbered all over my younger neighbor Anthony with a massive lick to the face. Clearly, this was not the aggressive dog from all the cartoons.
Anthony and I spent that whole day playing with the stray in our front yards. We named her Rex, in part because that’s what Spongebob had named his worm-dog-pet-thing, and also because I’m a millennial, and it’s my god-given duty to destroy traditional gender roles, even before I knew what gender actually meant.
It was Winter Break, so I spent several full days in a row hanging out with Rex. Tampa was getting chilly (by Tampa’s standards), and I had started to worry about where she went at night. I begged my parents to let me keep the dog over and over again. To my simple child brain, Mom would never say yes because, again, Cat Person™. In reality, dogs are a heck of a lot more demanding than a pair of aging cats. My parents probably hoped Anthony’s dad would adopt Rex, as he was the owner of the aforementioned old and lumpy dog. Imagine my surprise, when Christmas morning rolled around and my parents said we could keep Rex. A rare Christmas miracle for the Jewish kid!
It did not take long for Rex to become my constant companion, an overnight cure to my adolescent loneliness. I took her on walks around the cul-de-sac, tore trenches in the backyard from running too fast, and made her the subject of every school writing assignment I was given. She was my dog, and I was her boy.
Rex and I the night we adopted her. December 25th 2001
When I was twelve, my parents divorced. Mom, the Platonic ideal of a Cat Person, got full custody of Rex. We moved to a new house in a safer neighborhood, and the dog, who had up until now been relegated to the backyard and the garage, became a full-time indoor resident.
Though I was still the one who took her on walks and kept her in my room overnight, Rex started to show more respect towards Mom as the new head of the household. The clearest example to me was how she would raise a ruckus every time Mom came home from work. Rex never barked like that for me. One time a pair of plumbers spent an afternoon working in the house, and Rex refused to leave Mom’s sight the entire time they were there. One of the workers told my mom, “She’s not watching us; she’s watching you.”
This woman had become the most important thing in the world to Rex, and she didn’t even know that Mom was the reason she had a home in the first place. Even if her little dog brain could have understood that, I doubt it would’ve changed much. Rex was as giving to my mom as my mom was to everyone else. Finally, Mom had met her match in compassion, and it could not have been more deserved.
Some of that motherhood rubbed off on Rex, too. Moving indoors also meant that she started interacting with our two new kittens daily. Nobody knew what to expect the first time Bailey, the braver of the two cats, hopped over his gate and marched up to Rex in the living room. Time froze as we waited for nature to take its inevitable, brutal course. Rex then extended to Bailey the same greeting she’d offered everyone since the first time I saw her: an enormous lick from a tongue that was bigger than his entire face.
From that point on, Rex became something of a mother to Bailey, his brother Cantu, and their later-adopted sister Fluffy. Every day, the cats lined up for their turn at an ear bath from Rex. And every day, she cleaned them with a focus and determination that instantly called to mind the stereotypical image of a doting mother. Were these cats simply the rambunctious puppies she never had? Or was Rex mirroring the care that my mother showed all of her pets? It’s tough to speculate on, but given that some dogs truly do consider cats their mortal enemies, I like to imagine that she learned some of that behavior from watching us.
After I shipped off to college, it was Jackie and Rex against the world. Mom became the one who walked and fed the dog every day. For her part, Rex stayed by Mom’s side more than ever. Anywhere Mom went in her downsized townhouse, her footsteps were echoed by the gentle tippety-tappety of dog paws against the tile floors just behind her. If Mom was going up and down the stairs to wash and then sort the laundry, well then damn it, Rex was following her each way. As Rex got older, she abandoned any pretense of boundaries with Mom, and decided that actually, she had been a lap dog this whole time. The closer Rex could be to Mom, the happier she was; it didn’t matter if she was more than half of Mom’s size.
Even with months-long gaps between my visits, Rex still didn’t bark for my arrival. It could not have been more clear that I was no longer the dog’s favorite. And I was okay with that! As much as I used to think of Rex as “my'' dog, I think in the end her real purpose was to look after all of us. No matter the situation, Rex was there to accompany the lonely, protect the family, and render smiles out of tears. In other words, she was a dog.
In a lot of ways, my mom overcoming her hesitancy in adopting this dog was one of the best things she ever did for me, but I only recently learned that she came to this decision after a conversation with her own mother. For context, my grandmother, who is otherwise an incredibly caring individual, hates pets. She calls them “animals,” not pets, and thinks they all belong outside. I spent every afternoon at Grandma’s house after school, playing by myself in her backyard. She could see better than most how lonely I was, what with my incredibly small list of friends and my many complaints of bullying at school. So, despite her aversion to animals, it was Grandma who swayed my mom with a single sentence:
“Sam needs a dog.” Grandma always knew what we needed, be it homemade tea, a nap, or fresh-baked cookies. So when she said “Sam needs a dog,” it meant I needed a damn dog.
Mom let Rex into our family out of the kindness of her heart, and Rex spent the rest of her life repaying that kindness with interest. I wonder if Grandma knew how much she was helping her own daughter when she encouraged her to adopt this stray mutt. Regardless of the answer, what this tells me is that if you take care of your loved ones, that care will find its way back to you in some form or another. Maybe it will be in the form of a son who calls you every week and writes essays about how great a mother you are. Maybe it will be a fifty-pound dog who thinks she can fit in your lap. Whatever form it takes, I hope that care finds you.
Happy Mother’s Day, everyone.
My mom Jackie, fully unbothered by the fifty pound dog on her lap.