My short story, “Earning Her Wings,” will appear in the Bold Strokes Books BDSM anthology, “Silk and Leather,” which is due out in April 2020. You can preorder through Amazon now if you wish.
Posts By Sam McAuliff
The blog is going on indefinite hiatus, as I work on other projects. My other job is also picking up, which is good, but it makes it difficult to have the time needed for the blog. I hope to be able to do these again in about a month, we will see. I will keep you posted.
Also, keep checking back for publication announcements, which I will update when they happen. I will have something to announce very soon, as soon as the publisher gets back to me on the publications date. Keep checking in. Happy Sunday. 🙂
This past week, I was finally able to decide something about myself that I have been struggling with for years. I’m changing my name. The name I have chosen, Samuel McAuliff, requires some explanation, as does the reasons for the change. I will say here what I said to my friends when I told them: I am not transitioning to male, but I will be switching to “they/them/their” pronouns. And, embracing the term “gender neutral” as a term that applies to me.
I have never felt inclined towards one gender or another, which is why I won’t be transitioning to male. If I were to flip to male pronouns and refer to myself as a man, it would be just as much a lie as it is when I say I’m a woman. Even before I had come to terms with this realization, I’ve always known that I’m a “somewhere in between” kind of person, in more areas than gender. Ask me about a topic, and though I will lean to the left of any given issue, I will also clearly see the middle ground. And that’s what my gender and my gender presentation has always been: the neutral middle ground.
Every time I’m in a waiting room and hear my birth name called, I cringe and grudgingly admit that I am the one they just called. Every time I must fill out a form and check “F”, I hesitate. Always. I look hopefully to see if, in this enlightened age, someone will have finally seen fit to include a third option. It could say “other”, it could be fill in the blank, just something that allows those of us who are in the middle or on the margins to be able to stand up and be counted in the way we feel the most comfortable. So that I wouldn’t feel as if I just lied to my doctor or a future employer or anyone else who wants me to make that arbitrary choice. But, they haven’t, and I choose “female,” and feel like a fraud.
This is what the DSM-5 has to say about gender dysphoria:
For a person to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, there must be a marked difference between the individual’s expressed/experienced gender and the gender others would assign him or her, and it must continue for at least six months. In children, the desire to be of the other gender must be present and verbalized. This condition causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Nope, I’m not in there either. There is no room for gender neutral or non-binary folks in that definition. The APA, though they have made great strides in their care and treatment of gay and trans folks, is still, as usual, behind the times. They still see the world through a hetero-normative lens, at least officially.
So, how are we, those who don’t fit in the prefabricated, carved out niches, supposed to find our place? Simple: we forge ahead and make our own way. We tell you the names and pronouns we have chosen and ask you to use them. If you love and respect us, you will.
The name I have chosen, like all who change their name (trans or otherwise) has meaning to me. It’s not a name that my parents picked, which I’ve never related to. That name has meaning to them. My first name that they had chosen, depending on who you ask, my mother or her brother, Vic, came with a story. The way my mother always told the story, she had been set to name me after her baby sister, Penny Sue, but then my six-year-old brother asked her to name the baby after a neighbor girl he had a crush on. My uncle claims that I was named for the woman he was dating at the time. Since my mother’s story is cuter and she’s not around to ask, I’ve chosen to believe her story as the right one. My middle name, there is no mystery, it was my paternal grandmother’s first name. It’s a bit of a mouthful, a bit old-fashioned, and not representative of me at all. Over the last several years, while I’ve been contemplating what to do about my name and what I would change it to, two names kept recurring to me: Samuel and Maxwell. So, that’s where I’ve landed, Samuel Maxwell. I know what you might be thinking, they’re both male names and I clearly said I’m not a male. Simple answer: I like them. They are just words we have all collectively decided to use as names. They, like the rest of us, were assigned a gender they didn’t ask for. For my last name, I have chosen McAulliff. I have my reasons. It was the maiden name of my paternal grandmother, the one whose name I have as a middle name. It is also the side of our family with the most Irish heritage, which is appealing to me, as I’ve always identified more with that side of my heritage. Plus, since I am planning to divest myself of her first name, taking her maiden name is the least I can do to pay homage to the woman I have come to terms with that I am the most alike.
My grandmother was a formidable woman, even though her stature didn’t bear that out. She was a tavern owner since before I was born, and could and did throw grown, drunken men out on their ear if they misbehaved in her bar. More to the point, she could make them contrite and apologetic. She had a keen, biting sense of humor. She saw the humor in everything and would often use her sarcastic humor against people, usually to the point where they weren’t always aware, they had just been made fun of. Every time she’d crack wise against someone else, she would catch my eye and wink, drawing me into the joke. Of course, just because she could see in me a fellow conspirator, that didn’t mean I was immune from her barbs. This is a behavior I have often engaged in myself as an adult, but it took me forever to realize that I am doing the same things she did.
I’m not ready to run down to the courthouse and change it legally, not yet. I’m going to follow the same protocol that a trans person follows when they change their name: I’m going to use it for a year and see how it feels. If it continues to feel right, then I will make the appointment. Although, I have to say, I used it for the first time publicly a few nights ago at the writer’s open mic I go to. They accepted this change without question and when they called me by my chosen name it felt more right than the one I’ve been called for the past forty-six years. As my best friend later said, “That’s not surprising at all. You’ve always known you weren’t a Tammy.” She’s not wrong.
- Title is a reference to Romeo and Juliet, Act II Scene II, Juliet’s “What’s in a name?” speech.
Though I started college as an English major, with the intent of honing my writing skills and someday making my living as a writer, I did not finish my undergrad in that major. Instead, I had grown frustrated with my department (not the last time in my entire college career I would do so, see grad school) and decided, as they say in the world of drama, to go off book. In this case, I ended up designing my own major, comprising elements from English, psychology, and speech communications. All to avoid one man. I was successful in this venture and have not regretted the education I left there with. However, it did leave me with some holes in my reading, which I have only recently started to rectify. I recently finished Thoreau’s Walden, which, if you’re a reader of this blog, you were aware that I wrote on it a few times. Yesterday I picked up Don Quixote for the first time. My goal is to have it halfway completed by the end of the day. So, while I take a break from reading, I thought I would go ahead and write up this week’s blog.
Having never read the story before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, though it has become such a part of popular culture that I knew of fighting windmills and that the musical, (which I’ve never seen) Man of La Mancha was based on the story. That’s really it. What I couldn’t have known was that Don Quixote is a slapstick comedy, on par with anything Mel Brooks has ever done. There’re witty asides, toilet humor, pratfalls, and one loyal squire who occasionally makes sport of his coocoo for Cocoa Puffs master. It has it all. I have laughed out loud more times than I care to admit over a story written over three hundred years ago. But, there’s more to the book than that, there are definite serious elements.
For those who haven’t read it, the story begins by telling us that a middle-aged country gentlemen, who spends all his time reading books about knights of yore and that of chivalry, has gone mad with all this reading, and gone off in search of adventure after renaming himself Don Quixote of La Mancha, with the intent to fight for his lady fair (who has no idea she is thus regarded), a comely lass from a nearby village, whom he renames Dulcinea. Upon his adventures, he mistakes inns for castles, windmills for dragons, and sheep for opposing armies. These things are used for comedic effect, which is done quite well. At different times in history, the story has been read in different lights, depending upon the time. At the time I’m reading it, I see the story, though hilarious, also from a different angle. Don Quixote’s madness is seen as something to be made fun of, and the idea that one could go mad from too much reading amuses me and makes sense, as it should to anyone pursuing higher education.
However, seen from a different angle, one could see the loyal knight’s misadventures as a manifestation of schizophrenic behavior, or, given his age, simply dementia. Were the novel written today, our hapless hero may well have been seen as a tragic hero, instead of one to simply laugh and point fingers at. But, reading the novel this way is to fall into what we call in academia, historical bias. Meaning, to read a work written a long time ago through the lenses of current mores and social sensibilities. It is something I and my fellow grad school classmates received more than one lecture against.
Also, this novel did something way ahead of its time: it made a stand for women’s independence in the form of Marcella the shepherd, beloved of Chrysostom, who did not return his feelings. Her spurning his love was seen as a betrayal, by Chrysostom, as well as by his male comrades, especially when, out of grief, he took his own life. When the men tried to turn on Marcella in defense of their fallen brother, she turned the tables on them and gave her own sermon on the mount, with the subject being women’s independence. She gave such a stirring speech, I had to read it out loud. It is so on point with today’s mindset, that I could hear the sass in her voice and see the side to side head bod each time she made her case. The points she brought up were such as, why should she, even after she told a man she wasn’t interested in him, be responsible for whatever stupid thing he did in her name? Also, it was her contention that she just wanted to be left in peace, though the men didn’t seem to care about that. “I was born free and, so that I might live free, I chose the solitude of the fields…My life is free and I do not wish to be subject to the will of another person. I neither love nor hate anyone. I do not deceive this man nor entice that man. nor do I jest with one man or amuse myself with another.” Then, after saying a bit more about how the forests and God’s creation was more than enough for her, she dropped the proverbial mic and turned her back on the men and went back into the forest. Once she was gone, Don Quixote stood up for her right to do as she pleased, and thus declared her the most virtuous of all. However, the other men didn’t pay the crazy man any heed, as they had just buried their brother and needed someone to blame. All that said, I was cheering Marcella’s “go girl” speech the whole time. It’s a rousing moment for women everywhere. It is my hope that Marcella got her wish and was able to live out the rest of her days alone in the forest, with nothing but nature surrounding her, abiding by her will alone.
Over the next few days as I finish this novel, I’m not sure what ending awaits Don Quixote. I’ve promised myself not to Google it ahead of time. Will he eventually find a real enemy to slay, and actually win a fight? Will he win the heart of Dulcinea, whose real name is Aldonza Lorenzo? Or will his niece and the town priest, who have already burned most of his books and sealed off the rest in his study, succeed in breaking his spirit and turning him into just the retched old man who has lost his wits, as they perceive him to be? I am anxious to find out. I’m rooting for him, as Don Quixote, nee Alonso Quixano, is the ultimate underdog we all want to succeed.
What can I say? It’s been a busy week. And next week is stacking up to be just as bad. What that means is I was brain dead when it came time to come up with a blog post this week. So, I decided to get into the Way Way Back Machine, and where I came out was February, 2012. It was a simpler time then. There was a sane, black man in the White House, and I was attending The University of Oklahoma in pursuit of my second masters degree. With that in mind, what follows was a weekly class assignment for one of my feminism classes. No, I was not a feminism major, but you might say it was a minor. But, that part’s boring. Every week we were tasked with writing reports on the week’s reading. I chose this particular one because I’ve always liked the Virginia Woolf quote. And because, writing. Good luck next week, there might be new material then. Only time will tell.
…”give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days” (Woolf, 1929)[i]. Though not quite as forthright as Helene Cixous in The Laugh of the Medusa but the point is the same: leave women alone and let them write. Cixous points out that often women don’t write because they don’t feel that their writing is good enough but she calls upon women to write in order that their voices be heard in this phallocentric world.
The work is quite clearly a call to arms, so to speak, to all women to not be afraid of their creativity, whatever way that creativity expresses itself. Cixous uses sexual metaphors repeatedly to express her point. She equates writing in secret with masturbation, which, in a way, it is. It is a way of expressing yourself, of releasing pent-up feelings, of letting yourself go. Cixous wants women to no longer be afraid of their bodies or their minds. She wants women to follow whatever desires they have because if they don’t no one is going to do it for them. The only way to survive in this man’s world is to finally speak out and be heard. Cixous is trying to rouse women to action with her stirring words. It’s a pep talk of phallic proportions.
I think the comparison to Woolf is an accurate one, as Woolf
also wanted women to write. She wanted
women to write the works of genius she knew they were capable of and wanted
women to know they had permission to do so.
But her main point was that in order to create these works of genius
women needed privacy and security, two things women often lacked. She also wanted women to appreciate the works
of those who came before. She extolled
women to pay homage to their foremothers for having the courage to write and
pave the way.[ii] Cixous, however, mainly just wanted women to
not let anyone hold them back. She knew
that woman was her own worst enemy.
Woolf, V. (1929). A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company.
[ii] “Jane Austen should have laid a wreath upon the grave of Fanny Burney, George Eliot done homage to the robust shade of Eliza Carter…All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Woolf, 1929).
I couple nights ago I attended a writer’s open mic at a local café. It was sponsored by the local university and the venue is just a block off campus. Not a part of town I go to often and I had never been to that café before, but I had some idea of what to expect: college kids. And that’s who was there, a whole gaggle of them. I arrived early and began scoping out the crowd, trying to decide if I was going to sign up to read my work or not. I wasn’t sure how I, a forty-six year old butch lesbian, or my work, autobiographical fiction, would play with the crowd. I was relieved when a friend in my age range showed up and he confirmed that he was going to read, also autobiographical prose. So, I said the hell with it and put my name on the list.
As before any event wherein I speak in front of people, I started to get a little nervous, but not nearly as nervous as I used to. College helped cure the larger part of my jitters by constantly having me give presentations of one type or another. I’ve done book reports, persuasive speeches, research presentations, debates, two theses defenses (one in front of a theater audience), and book readings of my own work. But, there were still some nerves. It was a new crowd to me, plus I was literally twice their age. I was worried that my work wouldn’t be relatable to them, and, to be fair, they generally weren’t my target audience, though I’d be happy to count them as such. So, I had some concerns.
I contemplated texting a writer friend of mine to get her advice, sort of a WWAD (What Would April Do?) moment. Then, I realized what she would do, and that is that she would tell me to go for it. I’m sure she would have said something encouraging also, a textual pat on the back. With that in mind, I stood up to read my piece, trying to keep my voice from shaking. I found it difficult to make eye contact with the audience until the very end, where the text was written in such a way that it was more poignant to do so, because, though I had practiced, I didn’t have it memorized. That being said, the audience reacted the way I had hoped they would by laughing in the right places, knowing nods back and forth when I read something that they related to, and the proverbial snaps of approval.
Granted, the applause and snaps are expected out of politeness, as they are a supportive group, but for me it was the laughs and knowing nods that did it. It wasn’t a polite reaction, it was a connection with the work, even if it was for a moment, one line maybe. Something I had written was relatable to them, and that was encouragement enough for me.
I was inspired to write the following poem, which I plan to read at the next open mic.
Open Letter to Gen. Z
Upon our last meeting, I was ruminating on our age difference,
and wondered if there was something, I could share with you,
pass on, as it were, considering my advanced years.
After thinking on it some time, I concluded
that anything I would have to say would be outdated
at best and condescending at worst. So, I almost chucked
it all, but I’m not a quitter, so I figured I’d give it the ol’
college try. College try, that’s just something we use to say.
As I went through my vast rolodex of topics I could talk about—
rolodex, that’s this thing that use to sit on desks and hold information—
like a paper version of Google. Anyway, as I was going through my mental
notes, I wondered what wisdom I could pass on to you—
I figured the best course of action would be to go from my own experience
and pass on some hard-learned truths.
Okay, here goes:
don’t fuck someone because they have a nice smile,
and definitely don’t marry them and let them ruin your credit.
Don’t go for style, go for substance, because pretty
doesn’t last but substance will stand by you.
Don’t apply for a job if you don’t understand what the qualifications mean,
and don’t turn your nose up taking a job you didn’t go to school for
because your landlord won’t give two shits that you aced all your English classes.
Remember what it’s like to be poor so that you don’t become an asshole
in your forties who thinks only slackers are on welfare and the homeless lack motivation.
March, and protest, and yell, and make your voices heard and do not go gentle into that good night…rage against the dying of the planet and all the bullshit and fuckery
that the generations before you have left you with.
Someone has to save this place.
Considering your inheritance, it’s amazing that your generation is so peaceful. But I understand.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. I’m tired of the dying, and I’m tired of the hate.
I’m tired of the lying and I’m tired of wondering how many people will die today.
So, I leave you with this: good luck. We’re counting on you. No pressure.
After all, how worse could it get?
In my edition of Thoreau’s Walden (the Barnes and Noble Classics edition), Thoreau takes up twenty pages just to describe Walden pond itself, as well as a few other nearby ponds. At roughly four hundred words per page, that’s eight thousand words just on a few bodies of water. It’s clear how much HDT loved Walden, considering how many of those words were used just to describe what it looked like.
“The scenery of Walden Pond is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.”
And he gave one, for two more pages, before moving on to talk about other ponds in the area. But, he came back to give more description of his favorite pond, as well as the conjectured history of its formation. No one has ever loved anything like Thoreau loved Walden. As a fan of romcoms and, obviously, romance novels (lesbian ones, of course), I have never watched, read, nor written about a love like that. It made me ask myself, if I were to write something like Walden, what would be my subject? Is there a place that I love as much as Thoreau loved his pond?
The obvious answer to that question is Chicago. Most who know me would probably say that my love of the city started when I met my first love, who was from there. She solidified it, but she didn’t start it. Andrew M. Greeley started it. I first came upon Greeley at a sidewalk sale one summer of some year when I was still an undergrad. I was home for the summer and was walking down Main St., when I came upon the sale, and my eye immediately fell on a table of books. I started thumbing through them and came upon a novel whose glaring white cover with blood red lettering immediately grabbed me. It was Happy are the Merciful, by Andrew Greeley, a murder mystery, starring a character named Father Blackie, set in modern day Chicago. I was intrigued, so I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. After that, I made sure to read and collect every Greeley novel I could get my hands on. His descriptions of Chicago and environs, as well as his use of local history, made me fall in love with the city, a place I’d never been to before.
I suppose it was inevitable that I would fall in love with someone who lived there. Even when that relationship ended, my love of the city held true, and is still alive and well to this day. I visit often, and don’t mind playing the tourist, as there is so much I haven’t seen. Of course, every time I visit, I make sure to visit favorite haunts. There are a few used bookstores I always make sure to stop into, a few restaurants I always eat at, though I also try new ones every time, and I always walk the Mile. If you’re unfamiliar with the city, the Mile, or One Mag Mile, or more formally, the Magnificent Mile, refers to the downtown stretch of Michigan Avenue. A couple blocks off the Mile is State Street, the one Sinatra called “that great street.” Go another four blocks and you’ll be on Wells Street, under the el tracks (the west side of the loop), the same el tracks Jake and Elwood drove under when they were evading police. If you head back to Michigan and start walking North, in no time you’ll see the Crain Communications Building, the same building one of Elizabeth Shue’s young charges almost slid down the face of in Adventures in Babysitting.
If movies aren’t your thing or you just want something more serious, let’s talk about Grant Park. In the middle of Grant Park is arguably one of the most famous water features in the country, the Buckingham Fountain. Immortalized in the opening sequence of the sitcom, Married With Children, it is a stunning sight to behold during the warmer months, when it’s going full blast. The fountain, in all its magnificence, is not the only thing Grand Park is famous for. For history buffs like myself, and/or for those who can remember, Grant Park was the scene of a massive riot on August 28, 1968. Several anti-war groups converged on the city to protest the war. Their activities coincided with the Democratic National Convention. Over 10,000 protestors filled the park and
“[a]fter four days and nights of violence, 668 people had been arrested, 425 demonstrators were treated at temporary medical facilities, 200 were treated
on the spot, 400 given first aid for tear gas exposure and 110 went to hospital.
A total of 192 police officers were injured.” The Guardian
The protestors burned the American flag, raised the Viet Cong flag, and threw manure and urine at police. Police responded with, what was described by witnesses, as “unrestrained violence”, resulting in a police riot, where many of the injured were innocent bystanders who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The resulting trial, where a group of organizers, who became known as The Chicago Seven, ended in short sentences, which were later dropped.
Or, maybe you want to know something about the gay history of Chicago. During my last foray into grad school I wrote a paper on this topic. There is so much gay history in Chicago, St. Sukie de la Croix wrote a fabulous book about it, called Chicago Whispers: A History of LGBT Chicago Before Stonewall. In there and other sources you’ll read all about Towertown (the section of the Loop where the men solicited each other), The Dill Pickle Club, which was an entertainment venue that often held lively discussions and debates on homosexual topics. You’ll also read about the Vice Commission, whose job it was to clean up Chicago by arresting anyone suspected of participating in immoral behavior, such as prostitution, gambling, and homosexuality. Besides arresting people, the vice commission published a report, The Social Evil of Chicago, in 1911, which, among other things, noticed the correlation between women’s low wages and prostitution, mainly that woman weren’t making enough at “legitimate” jobs, so therefore had to turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Though nothing initially came of their report, they helped pave the way for fair pay for women.
For a city named after the wild onions which grew in the area, a city continuously plagued by problems of flooding and sewage backup, fires, an infamous serial killer, a perpetually losing baseball team with a goat curse, and windy politicians, it doesn’t sound like a place that would have stolen my heart, but it did. And once stolen, always stolen. I can sit here and list several more negative things about the city, some of which you may have heard, some of which you probably haven’t, but I’d rather tell you what I love. As Mark Twain so rightly observed, it’s never the same city as it was when you last came through. I always find something new or notice that something else has changed. I love the age of the city and artistry of the architecture. The lake effect weather and the over abundance of snow. The noisy, rattling el trains and Van Buren station. The backwards flowing River and the basement garage feel of Lower Wacker Drive. The giant, perpetually moving Ferris Wheel and the giant Flamingo. The ghost of my first love.
Now this could only happen to a guy like me
And only happen in a town like this
So may I say to each of you most gratefully
As I throw each one of you a kiss
This is my kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of people too
People who smile at you
And each time I roam, Chicago is
Calling me home, Chicago is
Why I just grin like a clown
It’s my kind of town
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of razzmatazz
And it has, all that jazz
And each time I leave, Chicago is
Tuggin’ my sleeve, Chicago is
The Wrigley building, Chicago is
The union stockyard, Chicago is
One town that won’t let you down
It’s my kind of town
Songwriters: Jimmy Van Heusen / Sammy Cahn
Sung by Frank Sinatra
As I was trying to think about what to write this week, I was scrolling Facebook trying to get inspired and to wake up enough to write a coherent sentence. Well, I know what I’m writing about, but it didn’t come from my newsfeed, and I just poured my first cup of coffee and my eyes aren’t completely open yet, so let’s see what happens.
What had come to mind to write about was weight loss, in particular my weight loss journey, as the common phraseology would have it. I had glanced over to the books on the corner of my desk and saw the notebook where I record my daily calories, the amount of exercise I do each day and how many calories I burn while doing it, as well as my blood pressure, which is something else I have to deal with. It got me thinking about what I’ve been through, what my mother’s been through, and what some of my friends are going through.
For me, the journey goes all the way back to when I was about seven. I remember there was a particular pair of jeans I really liked to wear, though I was only allowed to wear them to school, that had a light blue shiny stripe that ran down the outer seams of each leg. I just thought they were cool. One day when I went to put them on, I exhaled, and the snap fastener popped open. I had developed a small belly and could no longer fit into my pants. I remember finding this funny and I resnapped my pants and repeated the process several more times and giggled each time. That was the last time in my recollection that my weight was a laughing matter to me.
I tried not to pay attention to it, just went on about my life, playing outside, reading my books, sitting in trees and thinking (a favorite activity when I was nine). I had always been a loner since I started going to school, as most of my fellow classmates seemed mean and would often giggle unkindly about me behind their hands. I knew they were giggling about me, though I didn’t know why, because their eyes were looking at me while their hands covered their whispered insults. So, I kept to myself and learned not to trust. I didn’t miss having friends my own age, as I made friends with older kids in the neighborhood, friends of my brother’s who didn’t seem to always mind me hanging around. Sometimes they did, then I would either leave or start teasing them in a joking way, making some of them laugh, and would often be allowed to stay. It helped develop my sense of humor being able to keep up with the older boys.
My weight continued to climb and the older I got the bolder my classmates got in approaching me about my weight and saying things outright. Nicknames were given to me, the most enduring one I can’t remember if my brother or my father started it, but they both used it. That one hurt the most. I couldn’t escape it, not even at home.
As a result of all this, I never had friends my own age until college, as I never did learn to trust that they weren’t really just making fun of me. I tried friendship with a few and exchanged phone calls with a couple of girls in high school, trying to build friendships, but we never hung out at school or elsewhere. It was a mutual thing. I never approached them to do so, like all the unpopular kids in teen movies do, who are so desperate to be part of the group. So, in high school I ate lunch alone and stayed home on the weekends.
In college I met people who didn’t care what I looked like, as long as I had something fun and or interesting to say. I finally had friends I could trust weren’t talking about me behind their hands. A few years later, I met my first girlfriend through one of those friends. She was tall and butch and hot, and she wanted me. She was even turned on by me. That took a while to sink in, but it finally did. After her there were a few other women who also wanted me, who also looked better than I thought I deserved.
Fast forward to March 2014. My mother had just died and my then spouse and I were tasked with packing up her apartment while my brother dealt with the funeral arrangements and other business matters. I opened her top dresser drawer and discovered a treasure trove of OTC dietary supplements, of the type packaged to look like and sold near the vitamins. At least half a dozen bottles of them. It made me angry. Later, going through her papers I found some poems she had written years ago, about the time I was giggling about popping the snaps on my jeans, she was writing about how much she hated being fat. When my mother was a teenager, she had been skinny. Beautiful face and nice figure. Then, she got married at the age of nineteen and was pregnant within days. She continued to get pregnant every two years for the first six years of her marriage, though only two of us lived, losses my mother felt throughout her life. Somewhere along the way she developed a thyroid condition and hypertension. These things are just as much genetic as they are weight related.
I was angry when I saw my mother’s drawer full of dietary supplements because it meant that she struggled way more than I ever thought she did. She never once mentioned it out loud, but it was there if I looked. I started to remember when I was a kid her always drinking diet soda and eating diet chocolate bars, hardly eating anything at dinner. She would make sure my brother and father and I each had meat on our plates, for instance, then only eat the canned vegetable and maybe some potatoes, which usually meant my father would have two servings on his plate instead of the one that my brother and I received. I used to resent my father for this, thinking he was selfish and that he made her do this. Now, I just don’t know. Maybe it was her choice all along. Maybe she thought that cutting back on meat would be good for her weight loss.
A few years ago, after I was finally able to secure health insurance for myself after not having it for several years, when I went to the doctor, the first thing I said was that I wanted to be checked for diabetes, something else that runs in my family. My numbers were off the charts…in the good way. I was not at risk of diabetes. What I did have, however, was high blood pressure. It was dangerously high, with the top number being over two hundred. I was immediately prescribed pills and my doctor began to monitor me every couple months, with me keeping track at home. After several months of pills and changing and monitoring my diet, it finally regulated. I still have to take medication for it, and I might always have to, though that’s a small price to pay.
As for losing weight, I started seriously on that journey once several years ago, before my marriage ended. I was exercising, watching my calorie intake, drinking more water, doing all the things. Then, my ex had surgery and my life changed and became more about him and his daily needs. I got out of my routine and couldn’t get back on it when he recovered, and my days were my own again. After our divorce and I moved back to Illinois and my doctor and I started to take care of me, I started back in earnest doing all the things. It was working. My weight was dropping, my bp was dropping, my spirits were soaring, and I was looking towards the future. Then, I decided I wanted to come back to Oklahoma, the place I had moved away from when my marriage ended, because I missed all the friends I had left behind. When finances forced those plans to fall through and I had to stay where I was, I sank into a mild depression and stopped doing all the things and didn’t care what I ate anymore. The weight came back like nobody’s business.
Realizing I needed to make changes, I sought therapy for a little while, but it wasn’t a good fit and it became cost prohibitive. Instead, I leaned on my friends for support, and they didn’t fail me. I soon realized that if I wanted to make the move it was up to me to make it happen. I knew I didn’t want to sink into depression again. So, I started saving money and doing research on apartments. It took several months of planning and saving, but I was finally able to make it happen. Now that I’ve made the move, I am focusing on my weight loss again. I’m monitoring my calories and exercising every day. One of the things I looked for when I was apartment hunting was a complex with an onsite gym. As luck would have it, the gym at my apartment is no more than fifty feet from my front door.
Some days are better than others and every day I have to check myself. Just yesterday I had lunch with a friend and didn’t make the best choices I could have. It wasn’t that bad; I just know it could have been better. That being said, I’m not the type to get angry at myself for things like that. I was having a good time with a lovely friend, whose company I greatly enjoy. We had a great day, and the food wasn’t even the best part.
I know I have friends who are on their own weight loss journeys, and I’m sure they are all at different places and feel different ways about it. I’m sure some of them take the comments from family and friends and strangers and internalize them. To them, and anyone else in that situation, I just want to say this: tell those people to fuck off! You’re doing the best you can. Even on days when you think/know you could do better, you could have made better choices, so what? They’re not walking your journey, only you are doing that. And you’re not perfect, but you’re trying. and that’s all you can do. Just keep trying. And if they still want to whisper behind their hands about you or say it out loud, just exhale and pop open the snap of your pants and start giggling. At the very least, it will give them something else to focus on.
I’ve spent the past week making my new place more like a home. I now have a mattress to sleep on and am no long on the floor. Half of my books are unpacked, the other half still in boxes or stacked up by author awaiting more shelves. There are paintings and degrees on my walls, and I now have a vacuum to clean up after my two cats, who, though cute, are not the best housekeepers. I’ve also been working and working out, had some down time and went to see a movie, and been binge watching a lot of CSI. I had forgotten just how much Grissom ended the first scenes of every episode right before the theme song kicked in with a bad pun or dad joke. All he lacked was a pair of mirrored sunglasses and he could have been David Caruso. All of this is leading up to the fact that I haven’t had any inspiration for the blog this week. I was hoping my reading for the week could have done it (Astrophysics for People in a Hurry), but not even NDT could inspire me. So, instead, I’m giving you the first chapter of one of the many projects I’m currently working on. This project currently lacks a title. As with all my books before they have a title, I refer to this one by the name of the main character. Hence, this is Chapter One of Sir Les. Enjoy.
In a kingdom and country no one of current memory remembers, lived a brave and loyal knight errant whom even fewer remember the name of. But, for the sake of telling you her story, I shall tell you her name, as one of the few people who do, in fact, know it. Her peasant mother named her Leslie, but through happenstance, bravery, and a right bit of lying, she became known as Les, loyal knight to her king, the renowned King Stephen. King Stephen was well known for his kind heart, fairness to all, and for being a bit mushy in the head. Even though everyone else in the kingdom knew the loyal Knight Les was, in fact, a woman, King Stephen never seemed to catch on. Neither her long, golden curls, nor her burgeoning breasts would dissuade him from his belief in her manliness. He was often heard to say that Sir Les was the best man he had. No one wanted to tell him the truth, least of all Les. He was a kind man, after all, a man she had often wished had been her father. His willful ignorance made it possible for her to woo many ladies of the court, at least, according to legend, who seemed more than willing to be wooed by her, and they all kept her secrets, as she kept theirs. Heard tell, anyway.
All of that changed in the summer of her nineteenth year. The good King Stephen had suddenly taken ill and died just three days later. His son Reginald assumed the throne immediately, and the good cheer that had been a staple of the kingdom up until then became a thing of the past. King Reginald was nothing like his father. He was, for all intents and purposes, a self-entitled party boy who didn’t take life too seriously and spent most of his time in the grape with his mates. Though he was not much to look at, he was a trifle vain, as no one dared to dissuade the young prince otherwise. His features were striking in the sense that he looked as if he’d been struck with something heavy and the features of his face had remained out of alignment ever since. No one was really sure if he actually lacked intelligence, or just refused to grow up, but either way, not being much in the know seemed to suit him just fine. He knew nothing of literature or history or music and refused to correct these lapses in his knowledge. He would often joke to his fellows that all one needed to know to run a kingdom was how to win a war and all one needed to win a war was to kill as many of the other army as possible. He wasn’t much wrong on this, but the degree to which he was wrong didn’t bother him in the slightest. In his heart of hearts, he knew his father didn’t want him to have the kingdom and had long suspected that his father would give it to his sister over him, should he ever need to give it to anyone. And Reginald was fine with that possibility. He planned to live out the rest of his days inebriated and occasionally being shot at by the husband of one or other of the many women in the village as he crawled out a back window. His bum bore many a scrape from a stray nail, and once, the tip of a dagger. But, when his father died suddenly not long after his step mother, who would have been a good queen, Reginald felt, his sister was too young to assume the thrown that should have been rightfully hers.
Alas, this is not a story about King Reginald, though he has a part in it. This is a story about Les, and we’d best get back to it. Before Sir Les became Sir Les, she was a young peasant girl by the name of Leslie, who lived alone with her mother in a little shack on the edge of the kingdom. She didn’t remember her father, but her mother spoke of him often and he sounded as if he had been a nice man. His death had left them even worse off than they had been, if that were possible, and her mother could barely work hard enough to pay their rent, let alone have any left over for themselves. As soon as she could walk, Leslie joined her mother in the fields doing whatever she could, which amounted to little more than moving stones out of the field. When she was old enough to pay attention to such things, she saw that the men made twice as much money as the women did, and she knew what she had to do.
Her mother came in from working in the fields one evening, dirt and sweat upon her brow, and saw her teenage daughter pulling on the britches of her late husband. She stood there, amused for a moment, watching from the doorway, as her daughter pulled them on, then the tunic. Amused, Amelia crossed her arms over her chest and asked her startled daughter, “Pants is one thing, but what about your curls?”
Leslie turned at the sound of her mother’s voice, startled, and almost dropped the bit of rope she was going to use as a belt. Her cheeks turned scarlet as she countered with, “I don’t know what you mean, mother.” She turned her back once more, hoping foolishly that if she couldn’t see her that meant her mother really wasn’t there and hadn’t really caught her.
“Child, I don’t know what you’re up to but it looks to me like youse a bit of adventurin’ in mind.” She moved into the little shack, trying not to stumble over the chicken that had wandered in, as they were wont to do. She came to stand next to her daughter and shook her head, lost in the memory of the man who used to wear the clothes that her daughter now donned. Sometimes she saw her late husband in her daughter’s eyes, or when she saw her in profile and noticed her chin or high forehead, all features of the man she once knew. It pained her sometimes to look at her daughter’s countenance, but there was nothing to be done about it. There was no denying her daughter was just as handsome as her husband had once been. Maybe moreso. As her face, though strong and determined, was also softened where her husband’s had been hard, and her daughter’s eyes often shone with a dancing merriment that was truly her own.
Leslie’s tone turned slightly harsh. “I don’t know that I’d call doing a man’s labor adventurin’, but if you’ve a mind to, go right ahead.” She busied herself with securing the rope and ignored her mother’s eyes.
“A man’s labor? Whatever are you on about?”
Leslie looked back at her mother now once she had the rope secured. “You know just as I do that the men make twice as much as we do and it ain’t right! We work just as hard and deserve the same!” Her cheeks were coloring and her blue eyes were hard as crystal.
Amelia chuckled again. “Yes, well, what you plan to do about it? You think a young girl in britches is going to change the way of things?” She scoffed and shook her head at the folly of youth.
“Well, someone has to! Anyway, I’m not looking to change anything other than our household. Let someone else change the world, I just want a decent meal every now and then. And this is the only way I know to get one. How do I look?” Leslie put her arms up as if presenting herself for her mother’s inspection.
Her mother took another look at her daughter, at how her husband’s clothes seemed to fall right off her frame and it made something click for her that she couldn’t name, other than to say that it looked right somehow for her daughter to dress this way. It suited her. But the hair was a problem. It was long, to the middle of her back, with loose curls the color of cornsilk and, if washed, would probably shine in the sun, though it hadn’t seen soap for a good long while. She tsked as she approached her daughter, then reached up with both hands to gather the hair behind Leslie’s head, then smiled. “You’re going to have to use some of that rope to cinch this.” Then, she tapped her daughter’s chest with a knowing finger and replied, “You should be glad you haven’t fully come into flower yet, or else they would never believe you.”
“What? It’s the truth. At least this way, if you want to be taken for a boy you should have no trouble. What shall you say your name is?”
Now Leslie hesitated, almost as if answering her mother’s question might shame her. “I was thinking Les.”
Her mother smiled. “Like your father. I think that would be fine.”
Les, as she now was, smiled at her mother, then allowed her mother to help her cut off a piece of the rope to secure her long curls. She had considered cutting it to hasten the male appearance she sought, but decided against it, as she didn’t expect to be playing this role forever. Someday she hoped to secure a position, somewhere, some way, that would make it possible to live better, and she would do it as herself, without pretense.
Les set out the next day in search of work. She tried the farms nearest where she and her mother lived, but they all laughed at her.
“Who do you think you’re foolin’ missy? Britches don’t make you a boy, or able to do a boy’s labor. Go back home to your mama and do as you’re told. And take off the pants, you ain’t foolin’ anyone.” The foreman of the farm down the way continued to laugh.
Les looked at him defiantly. “I ain’t tryin’ to fool no one! I just want to eat proper! Nothing wrong with that!”
The foreman laughed again. “Then go on and pick a husband, and let him do a man’s labor, while you go home and make the babies. Go on.” He waved at her with false cheer and all the nearby men joined him in laughter.
Les kicked the dirt. “You’ll see! I can too do a man’s labor, I’ll prove it to you!” She started to walk away.
To her retreating form, the foreman said, “Hard to do that when everyone knows youse a girl.”
Les continued walking, her cheeks flushed and her jaw set, fists balling at her sides. She walked on, and finally on the other side of the kingdom, where no one recognized her, she finally found a foreman who took her at her word that she was a boy, and hired her, though not without looking her up and down first and finally settling on a grin that made her uncomfortable. When she went home that night she was able to tell her mother the good news, then she searched the cabin for an old tunic, and after working with it for a few minutes, she had fashioned something that she could wrap around her chest, then was able to secure it with some of her mother’s pins. Then, she put her father’s clothes back on and felt her new flat chest and smiled.
Her mother saw her daughter’s new chest, or lack thereof, and the happiness on her face and just shook her head. A tear escaped her. “Where has my daughter gone?”
Les turned to her mother. “I’m right here, mama. I’ll always be your daughter. I’m just going to work and make things better for us.” Les took her mother’s hands in her own. “I’m going to make things better for you, mama. You deserve to live in a house with doors and windows. A house with a real floor. One where the chickens don’t come in and do as they please.” So saying, she pushed a chicken off the table onto the floor. It screeched in protest.
Her mother took her other hand back from her daughter and wiped her eyes again and gave her child a small chuckle. “What would I do with a real floor? It would just be something to keep clean. And doors and windows? What about the summer breeze? How would that get in?”
“We can open them for the breeze. But, wouldn’t it be nice to close them in the winter?”
Her mother considered. “I suppose it would.”
“Then, I have to try. For both of us. You deserve those things, mama.”
Amelia touched her daughter’s face and looked into the eyes that so reminded her of her long lost husband, then leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “The Lord gave me everything I needed when you were born.” Mother and daughter exchanged a smile.
Well, I’m here, I finally made it…I’m back in Oklahoma, a place I left nearly three years ago, after having lived here for nearly fifteen. I haven’t been gone long enough for the place to have changed much, other than a few businesses have come and gone, and one republican governor was replaced by another. There’s still road construction on I35, and OU football is kicking into gear and will soon replace everything else to become the dominant Saturday thing in the town I live in. There are some things I’m glad to see haven’t changed, such as the bus system, my favorite coffee shop, my favorite thrift store, and most importantly, the people I left behind here.
Last night, I had dinner with a small group of close friends to celebrate my return, as well as my upcoming birthday. I timed my move specifically because I wanted to be here to celebrate with them. At the end of the evening my best friend told me she was glad I was back because, “you belong with us.” That sense of love and belonging was probably the best gift she could have given me.
The last time I moved away from Oklahoma I took only what could fit in my friend’s compact car, which mainly consisted of books, clothes, and my cat. I’ve always been one to travel light, never having much attachment to things so much that I horded them (except books), so getting rid of things was not an issue for me. After my ex took what he wanted from our shared property (much of which he had brought into the marriage to begin with) I set about selling, giving away, or throwing away the rest. Going through the house and making multiple trips to the dumpster became, though tiring, also cathartic. It was visual and solid proof that I was starting over. Out with the old.
Moving back, I left Illinois with a few more things than I had arrived with, but not much more. Now I also had a desk, a side table, wall art, and a second cat. I am currently sitting in my one-bedroom apartment awaiting furniture to come from multiple sources, friends who have items they don’t need and are willing to give them to me so that I can finally put together a place that is mine. Multiple times, I’ve heard them say, “It’s not the best or the prettiest, but it’ll still work.” None of that bothers me. My only concern is if it fulfills the need. Does it light up? Can I sit on it? Can I stretch out and sleep on it? My friends have been generous beyond measure, and I couldn’t ask for better.
Speaking upon the items contained in his cabin near the pond and his lack of need for finer things, Thoreau said, “Indeed, the more you have of such things, the poorer you are…Pray, for what do we move ever but to get rid of our furniture, our exuviae; at last to go from this world to another newly furnished, and leave this to be burned.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden. (1854). Nearly one hundred and fifty years before Robert Lilienfeld was urging us all to Use Less Stuff, Thoreau literally wrote a first-person account of how to do just that. Though I’ve never read Lilienfeld’s book and I’ve just recently picked up Thoreau for the first time, despite having multiple degrees in English, I’ve always lived this way. I’m sure part of it harkens back to childhood and the excessive amount of moving around we did. When you move a lot you realize you don’t want to carry a lot. Also, I grew up in a family who was always below the poverty line, so I just never had a lot to begin with. I adapted. The thing that really changed as I grew up was that I could finally buy books, as books were a luxury my family couldn’t afford. But, for material things I’ve had little need of. Especially unnecessary things. I won’t spend money on something that doesn’t serve a purpose in my house. Other than a very few art pieces from local artists, I have no other decorations. I have several pictures of friends on display, as well as my parents. You will not find even one thing which could be considered a knick-knack in my home. I have a long-standing fatwa against them. Anyone who wishes to get me a gift and sees a knick-knack which makes them think of me is clearly no friend of mine.
So, I am starting yet another new journey, and I’m looking forward to wherever this road may lead. This time around, I won’t be alone on the road.
“I seem to have run in a great circle and met myself again on the starting line.” Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.