Archive for November, 2009

Happy as a Trans

November 24, 2009

Autumn has shrugged off its timid petticoats and allowed its leaves to bleed from the trees and the vines in candlelight and cranberry.
Italy is abuzz with news about ‘Trans’ which, for the unitiated, is a term referring to transsexuals. All of them. Specifically the five who live in Rome.
The Italian version of People magazine from several weeks ago, which sits on the plastic trashbin at my in-laws’ house, wantonly in reach of the commode, displays an elderly man, smiling, cheek-to-cheek with a heavily made-up drag queen above the no-nonsense headline: “I have loved a trans.”
(I am guessing he has also paid a trans.)
Another ‘trans,’ with whom a well-known politician was recently ‘caught,’ was even more recently murdered. And so has received her share of the fad a bit belatedly. She was an immigrant, with a strikingly anglo name which I can’t recall now…Darleen or Marsha or Ann Coulter or something.
In the kitchen, where we stand together before the mini-tv that sits on the counter, my mother-in-law points at a goateed young man on Italian Big Brother and says matter-of-factly:
Davvero? I reply.
(Well, he/she really looked like a dude. Unlike the trans who waited on me once in Austin, with that straggly, obvious chin hair. She wasn’t fooling anybody.)
Si. And the gay boy doesn’t like him doing this.
And then she offered me crack. Which I was disappointed to find out was a cracker.
You should know that my mother-in-law is a saint. Or, minimally, one of those super good people quietly wending their way through the saintly bureaucracy.
I know what you’re waiting for: some mother-in-law lament (she calls me a puttana behind my back; she’s teaching the baby to eat only marzipan and pork; she keeps initiating divorce proceedings on her son’s behalf, etc. )
But actually, she’s kind of awesome. She remembers everyone’s birthday and their saint day and buys them presents on your behalf and then that person thanks you even though both of you know she did it. It’s sort of a running joke in the family. If it is possible, she loves the baby more than I do. She makes blankets and calendars and t-shirts emblazoned with giant Edda heads. I keep expecting a hired blimp bearing Edda’s face to appear hovering over their building.
Also, she keeps the mountain of baby clothes active and erupting. I must cull the baby clothes every other months to ensure we do not die in our sleep beneath an avalanche of onesies.
For all of this, the baby shows her gratitude by looking like her, requesting her every day and generally being more delighted to see her than she is me, a fact which I accept with grace. They are in love. The Nonna has even been so kind as to become a source of manipulation for me:
Edda, do you want to see Nonna?
Then you have to put on your shoes. Nonna doesn’t want to see you unless you let mommy put your shoes on…
(C’mon, it’s at least partly true.)
Oh, and she does a magical number of things on any given day: three course meals, espressos and laundry, trips to the pharmacy and phone calls to the wife of the second cousin recovering from a headache– all materialize as if delivered from the Italian nonna dimension; in the meantime, cigarettes are smoked, crosswords completed, and the world’s most amazing limoncello is made. She even goes to church, according to her son, so that others may spend their Sundays sleeping in. And, in all of this, she finds time to find the world of the trans compelling.
I remember a conversation that occurred one sunny Saturday on a patio in Trastevere. It was a few months after Edda was born. Giulio and I were out with my friend Erika, and it must have really been just a few months because Erika is one of those enviably long and lithe women, whereas I was still swollen as a fertility goddess. (I remember because both of these facts seemed striking to me in that moment.)
Erika not only studies Italian culture, but is married to Renato, my former undergrad, co-op roommate. People thought I let Renato move into my room because he was a ridiculously handsome Italian doctoral student. Little did they know, it was for the discount.
So yes, Renato is an authentic Italian himself, making Erika an authentic member of his extended family–a differentiation which does not seem to exist in this culture.
That afternoon, as we sipped our sangria, she said something that has stuck with me ever since:
Whatever you do, do NOT try to compete with the Italian mamma. You have already taken her son from her. Don’t edge in on her dominion. You’ll think you are being helpful, but it won’t be taken that way.”
Wise words indeed.
In our case, I don’t think I was perceived as a son stealer. Or at least by providing the grandchild before becoming a daughter-in-law, you could argue, I went in with a human shield. Not to mention that my existence ensured that their continent-hopping cad (potentially gay) son would stay put and multiply, trans or not.
But the dominion part turned out to be true. It was ten dinners before I learned to stop offering to bring something. The one time I made a meal (Mexican food on Elba), she hovered in the doorway of the kitchen, a paragon of empty handedness. That was that. Now, I have given over to requests for my dirty laundry when staying with her. I’ve accepted that polite gratitude every time she makes me tea and carries it into the dining room on a neat platter is not appreciated.
Not only could I not compete with this demi-goddess. I would not.
And yet I wonder about her: Who is she? Is she happy? Are her wishes truly fulfilled by fulfilling those of others? Do they appreciate her and does she need to be appreciated?
My feminist instincts scream: She’s not an astronaut, so clearly, she shouldn’t be happy. The little voice, which I consider a side-affect of Sex and the City sniffs at her non-death defying heels, where television tells me she’s too old to exist at all.
And yet there she persists, somehow magnificent.
In my encroaching old age, I’ve begun making more of an effort not to presume my needs and reactions are any more those of others than are my opinions (not at all). And so I admit to not knowing.
I even go so far to wonder if there isn’t something I could learn from her.
I imagine, knowing our common Catholicism as I do, that she was taught that humility and service to others are universal keys to true and transcendent joy. I know as an individual, that I’ve long suspected there is a good deal of truth to that, even if it is notionally eclipsed by what society tells us is more imperative: the self as an individual, our needs, our blogs’ needs, our bank account’s needs, the need for a Starbuck’s blondie, which sometimes overwhelms me personally. (Or is it not usually the case that self-fulfillment projects tend to put all the weight on the left side of the hyphen, likely to the detriment of the right?)
I also know the feeling that radiates from beneath the weight of my sleepy child’s head on my chest: A more pervasive, layered, unpolluted joy than a grey whale full of blondies. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not just the falling asleep part, it is also the love I am too shy or stoic or protective to confess to. A terrifying love. No smile of mine has ever been so effortless as the one which replies to hers.
And I know that loving and serving and providing for her physically, emotionally, and intellectually is the most satisfying thing I have done with my life–if not the only nor the easiest nor the most exciting thing I wish to do. But if I could have only one love, it’s true, it’s the kind that has come from service.
So then I think, yeah, maybe she’s happy. Maybe happier than I am. An idea as new to me as a trans to a Ligurian shepherd.


my ghosts

November 17, 2009

How many visits I’ve paid you in those unclaimed minutes on busses, in checkout lines, or alone in the bathroom after too much wine. Oh, the talks we’ve had where you explained it all, in my sleep, and set my heart at ease.
Spindly in suits you never owned,
to my cherrywood pantheon you’re retired.
Ever dazzling…if frayed, in daylight,
where frothier demons alight to expire.

Dear Edda at 18 months,

November 10, 2009

One and a half years since you entered this world: a howl traveling through the overbright glow of the operating room. The doctor who brought you out of that muffled space was a funny guy, I’ll have you know. As I lay, anticipating my turn on the table, in a frantic corridor beyond the hall where your father and aunt and grandparents waited, this man approached to calm me. And to use his English.
Mostly to use his English.
After some smalltalk about the places he’d visited in the States, this thin, gray surgeon inquired: “Is this your first c-section?”
“Yes” I said, probably breathlessly. Wondering why the gravity of the occasion eclipsed noone but me.
“Don’t worry.” He grinned. And then, pointing at an ancient husk of a woman lying comatose on a gurney across the hall, said: “This is her hundredth.”
“You’re terrible” I told him, smiling in spite of myself.
The things I remember most: the sight of my torso and legs, bared comatose and unwieldy as boulders, reflected in the lamp above the table; the kindness of the nurse who held my hand, held my gaze, and told me everything was going well behind the thin, green surgical curtain as I lay there in a panic; the pressure on my belly, which echoed through the veil of drugs, as they pulled you from your first home; and then your wail, high and feline, like no other cry a human emits. A nurse bobbed you before my eyes: a shock of reddish hair, a round head, eyes pinched closed.
Now, just eighteen months later, you are unrecognizable. I thought babies stayed babyish for much longer than you have.
In this small gathering of months, yours is a transformation like no other I have witnessed. Your mane of blond curls reaches ever further down your neck. Your pupils: bands into which the clearest skies have fallen and been trapped. Your cherry of a face and wide, peasant mouth, outsized milk teeth hustling for space.
Your vocabulary of twenty plus words.
You identify your familu: nonna, nonno, mamma, dio (which is what you call your father, much to my dismay–I mean, he’s awesome, but Dio? Really?), zio, zia, Tita (Alice), Helway (your first identifiable word)
The things you know best from our outings: nina (your name for the passegino, aka stroller, in English), ciao, meow, baubau.
Most recently have arrived terms of negotiation, specificity and propriety: si, no, grazie, eccoci, cookie, cooka (cracker), tutto, quaqua, puppy, ciucio, and last and most lamentably “mio.”
And these are merely your recognizable words. You had your own, parallel language for a while: cuddaculee and cuddaloo were the summation of your curiousity.
You are a child of boundless energy. The other mothers, nonnas, nannies, in the kiddie park have observed. “She’s really very active” they say, sympathetically, as you climb the red plastic slide for the fiftieth time in a row, sometimes to slide, sometimes to climb back down. The other children, older children, linger around the periphery, mount the yellow, plastic ladder hesitantly and with encouragement. You, in comparison, fling yourself at the slide, indifferent to my hovering, and at the abandoned foosball table, and at the bicycle with training wheels and basically at all things much bigger than you. Which is increasingly not much.
You are a tall child. Taller and more outgoing than most of your peers. While some huddle with round, frightened eyes around skirt hems you grin and wave at even the most surly passers by. I see rugby in your future.
In the park, you run, fall, gather yourself up again and begin running anew. The other mothers gasp when you crash to the ground, direct me with their glances to hurry, to pick you up and comfort you. But they don’t know you. You would wave me off. You have waved me off. And don’t want any help getting back up. A high whine will rise from you if I try and lift you to your feet. And much of my day is devoted to avoiding that whine. So I do nothing. It’s a Pavlovian sort of thing.
You go on. Run and fall and run until the day has withered beneath your onslaught and finally, reluctantly, fling yourself onto the bed to begin the battle with your body’s need for sleep. You kick, roll around, sometimes sliding off of the bed. Your eyelids plunge and spring open and plunge again as the battle progresses. I sing to you, run my fingers across your scalp.
“Mamma,” you say, in mid-song. “Yes,” I answer and then begin singing again. “Mamma!” you repeat. Annoyed. And then, at last, fall to sleep.
Your father wants desperately to believe you are asleep during the skirmishes. He closes the bedroom door and reaches toward me for a relieved embrace. I tell him
A moment later the door slides open and you appear in your pajamas, curls springing askew from your scalp. You will climb one last time before sleep takes you.
But you don’t merely run and speak. You have other activities.
You dance. You dance your dance. Swaying, clapping, turning, bowing from your undifferentiated waist and then only from your neck. You like the radio music. ‘Delinqueint ed Modna’ is the first song I ever saw you really dance to. Your father plays his sad ballads and dances with you. I play pop music, sometimes classical. But never the stuff I myself listen to.
There are your nursery songs: ‘La Bella Lavanderina’ which commands you to jump, turn in a circle, look up and down, and finished with a kiss (a chi vuoi tu). You follow it precisely. The same with ‘Giro, Giro, Tondo’ the Italian version of ‘Ring Around the Roses’ you are in a hurry with that one and collapse on the carpet before the end.
You bring me books and then crawl into my lap to be read to. Your favorite involves a mole, named Talpa Granello, whose friends take him to see the view from a tree top. He’s a vero pantofolaio. I have a feeling you do not need a lesson in the danger of an unexamined life.
You also like ‘Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?’ Not to give away anything, but basically he sees a lot of other animals looking at him. This baby bear has some ego.
Rarely are you patient enough for everything the Very Hungry Caterpillar feels the need to gorge on. You like a book about an egg, called good egg, with mechanisms in it to move an paper egg around on the page. Unfortunately, you ripped all of the eggs pasted into the book out, so now it’s just sort of a surreal set of commands. When your father reads it to you, his accent and enthusiasm give it a comic air.And there is a book about Italian food. You hate that book. I can’t get past the first page before you toss it away.
You also like to eat, to bathe, to play with the dog. You understand my meaning when I ask you to fetch your shoes, or a book, or your little red ball.
You open and empty every drawer. Your grandmother fights you with tape. We fight you with hideous blue plastic flowers bands from Chicco. You hide things. Important things. Your pacifier. My keys. The remote. You are amused by yourself in the mirror.
You hate being strapped into your stroller, put down for a nap, being told no.
And you have transformed me, in this short time. I loved you desperately from the moment I knew of your existence. And it has only gotten worse. I was not depressed before meeting you. Far from it. But I did see my life as somewhat expendable. I’d had what I considered more than my fair share of adventure and accomplishment. Less than my fair share of things to which I might feel attached. It was a recipe for indifference. I could imagine the world without me. Didn’t wish for it, but it didn’t seem to be an even remotely revolutionary idea. And now, with you, there is something I cannot imagine ever being without. Posterity paints mother love in these pastel, rocking chair tones, but I have never felt anything near this ferocious, visceral, marvelous and, at times, terrifying. I am eternally grateful to you for that.
Happy year and a half.

Is Left-Progressive Morality Enlightened or Schizophrenic–ask Natalie Portman

November 2, 2009

‘Free Roman Polanski’ is the title of the petition signed by Natalie Portman. For all you troglodytes out there, the facts of the case are: A thirteen-year-old girl was left at a private residence with this then forty-something film director to do some modeling.
Yes, he knew she was thirteen years old.
RP made sexual advances on the child. According to the victim’s testimony, she: told him ‘no;’ cried; ran from him; and asked for her mommy to come get her so she could go home. He ‘soothed’ her with half a depressant pill and some booze, and then, once sedated, raped her vaginally and anally and performed oral sex on her.
Polanski admitted to knowledge of the girl’s true age and to the ‘sex acts.’ Presumably because of his fame and cooperativeness (as well as our long-established indifference to sex assaults on girls and women as committed by wealthy men), he was then convicted of lesser charges, served a short part of a short sentence for psychiatric evaluation, and while on release, fled the States for Europe where he’s been living and working for the past decades.
Now that he is facing deportation to answer for this rape/molestation, Hollywood heavyweights (if virtually noone else) are rushing to his defense.
One of these is Natalie Portman. The reasons I mention this are two: 1. Because J blogged about it and I am a notorious piggy-backer.
And 2. Because I wanted to add to her very humorous observations that, when obnoxious Fox news commentators rail on about the moral schizophrenia of the left, this is what they mean.
And for once, lamentably, they are correct.
Take Natalie Portman. She is a very visible liberal, particularly vocal on behalf of animal rights. She has written that eating meat is basically an abominable, moral offense. Apparently, though, child rape, hmmm…maybe ok as long as it has been awhile and you are a “brilliant” director. And not a priest. Nor a drifter. Nor poor. Nor a person of color. Nor a teacher. Nor basically anyone other than a great director.
Ok, fine, but my request to Portman and the other signatories behind this rather astounding petition, is that they offer the rest of us some criteria for determining just which ‘brilliant accomplishments’ entitle you to just which moral liberties.
For example, what does one get for scoring more than a 2100 on the SATs: is that forcible sodomy level accomplishment, or maybe just simple assault?
If I had pushed that guy hitting on me at the bus stop into oncoming traffic, as I considered doing, could I offer my IQ test performance as a mitigating factor? Could I also maybe get free donuts for that?
Since, like Miss Portman, I was accepted at Harvard, if we were to get into a bar brawl, would we then have to offer our complete CVs before the police could determine whom they should arrest? Or would we both simply be set free?
And is it only brilliant film directors who have rape license? Because probably we should give it to authors to, what with their tendency to “glugglug”–just to be safe.
OH, and how good does a movie have to be before it’s considered a rape-worthy accomplishment? Like, on a scale from Ernest Goes to Camp to The Godfather, how high do you have to go before Hollywood will rally behind your child molesting?
And, if like me, you don’t really like movies, can you petition for exemption from achievement related assaults for yourself and your children, or counter them with your own (admittedly paltry) academic or professional achievements?
Just a few questions to mull over while those of us who feel obliged to defend the left from charges of moral incoherence try to clean up the most recent dump taken on our case…