The Unintended Transition

When I began graduate school, I thought it also a good time to start pursuing a physical transition. This was due to my finally concluding that physically altering my body to align with my gender identity was necessary for my mental well-being. It also seemed a moment of poetic proportions, given I was to be undergoing the transition from undergraduate to graduate student, moving across state lines and going from my young adulthood to regular adulthood. Forces aligned and I was ready.

Testosterone Cypionate

So I sought out the required shrink who had the ability to author the required documents that would allow me to getting the first thing I desired: testosterone. I was frustrated by the need to be “diagnosed’ with a “disorder” to get this. I knew that my gender dysphoria wasn’t statistically “normal,” but then I thought gender a very convoluted thing to begin with. I was as confused by other’s certainty of their genders as they might be by my ambiguity.

But I had already grown accustomed to mental dis-order. It was my normal. My mother has suffered with depression, openly, my entire life. I was brought to a shrink at the tender age of seven to discuss my apparent anxiety about being moved across state lines. Later, in my teens, I would see an ad for Zoloft and think the answer to my teenage angst could be found in a pill. My mother was only too happy to abide: she gladly delivered me to a psychiatrist, perhaps hoping it would rid me of my growing expression of a deviant sexuality and/or gender identity.

So when I needed to be deemed mentally afflicted in order to pursue my physical transition, I didn’t think of it as a step towards being unwell. I was ideologically opposed to the very notion of “gender identity disorder,” but in truth already believed myself to be mentally or emotionally unwell. I had never known myself any other way.

Yet I had always thought myself in good physical health and so didn’t think myself otherwise when I started to pursue a physical transition. I knew many thought (and sometimes I worried) that my weight meant this wasn’t true, but my physicals had always turned out well—perhaps a minor concern, but never more. I had always taken being physically healthy for-granted, as many people do.

Then I started to pursue testosterone. Being in my mid-20’s without any compelling reason, it had been a while since I’d seen a medical doctor. I had actually had one horrible experience as an undergrad where a chauvinist M.D. blamed panic attacks I was having on my being fat. It made me reluctant to ever go back for help again. But the sway of testosterone and its masculinizing effects I desired were too great. It was enough to push through my reluctance and get me to seek medical help.

Usually, when a transman decides he’d like to start taking T, it’s a process that takes weeks, maybe months, before the shot accoutrement is in his hands. For me, it would take years.

This is because the necessary blood work-up that is done to ensure the doctor it is safe to introduce testosterone into someone’s system did not turn out fine for me. Having only ever read about transmen for whom this step was no problem, I was surprised. How could this be? I was young! I should not be facing any medical issues serious enough to warrant putting off my “hormone replacement therapy”!

But, sadly, I was. And more frustrating than leaving the doctor’s office without my coveted ‘script was the proliferation of diagnostic testing and doctor’s appointments that followed. I encountered many incompetent medical professionals and it seemed that questions followed from each inquiry rather than answers. When one doctor would suggest one diagnosis, another would contradict them. It was beyond frustrating.

After a year of navigating doctors and their offices, starting medications, hearing a swath of maybe diagnoses, and a surgery(!), I was sure that my attempt to pursue testosterone had failed. Coupled with my dissatisfaction in grad school, I fell into a deep depression. I had maneuvered my way through the labyrinth of medicine not to start my transition from female-to-male, but rather to discover myself changed physically otherwise: I had transitioned from “well” to “chronically ill.”

BUT! I struggled along and, adapting to this new element of who I was, I persevered. I slogged through my last year of graduate school and went to no more doctor appointments. My parents’ insurance no longer covered me and I was all too happy for the excuse not to see any medical professionals. I started to learn how to take care of myself. (Something I am still learning.)

As devastating as the year was, I can now look back and realize it was a blessing. Without those blood tests, and so without my pursuit of T, I would not have been keyed into the silent afflictions that were affecting me for a lot longer. Being able to address these conditions—especially as they were brought into better understanding—has likely slowed their progression and extended my life expectancy. Being trans may not have saved my life, but (for once!) it does seem to have proven a benefit!

And, two and a half years after I started my attempts, I did get my coveted ‘script.

Life After Birth

J hard at playSpent Monday with my godson, J. Every time I see him I have trouble adjusting to how much he has grown. Recently, his physical growth is as impressive as his cognitive growth. He has probably sprung up a couple inches in the last month and his verbal skills are astounding. To think, a matter of weeks ago he was unable to correctly identify a color most of the time. “Green” always, no matter the color. It would take prodding to get him to say a different color, the correct one. Now, he is adept. He is identifying colors without any help from his adult provocateurs. A week ago, he even put it into a sentence: “This is the purple.” He is an astute 21-month-old.

A few weeks ago, my partner and I met a more recent addition to the world. Another set of friends became parents to baby F in early October. Being only a month old, he is not very interesting yet. It seems almost mean to say so, but those first three months—the “Fourth Trimester”—are quite boring for the rest of us. The baby sleeps, cries, eats, poops, repeats.

J being the first baby I have truly experienced in adulthood, there was something very special about those first three months. Well, we didn’t actually spend all those months with him: born in January, his grandparents were there for help through February. We didn’t start caring for him on a continuous basis until March, and that was interrupted by my surgery and the brief return of the grandparents. We didn’t really start heavy-duty “Jcare” duties until J was exiting his 4th trimester for more interesting horizons.

But it is still sweet to have a little babe in your lap and feel the weight of his life upon you. It fits the bill for that other use of the word “pregnant”: the fourth trimester is one pregnant with meaning—of a life that is yet-to-be, but is (G-d willing) all the same on its way into being. For that, it’s pretty amazing.

Without Plug or Productivity

With one click of the mouse, I became a collector. I bought a second typewriter.

Olympia Model "S"
The new: Olympia Model “S”

I bought my first typewriter in October 2011.  Goodwill opened a store in the area, which my partner and I promptly checked out. It turned out to be a well-planned visit as I found a Smith-Corona Classic 12 in fine condition sitting on the shelves, waiting to be snagged by the first analog-enthusiast to cross its path. I didn’t know it yet, but I was one such enthusiast.

Smith-Corona Classic 12
The less-new: Smith-Corona Classic 12

Over the months that followed, I would learn how to properly clean it, fix some of the keys that were stuck, and that, while the office supply store does not carry the ribbons I needed, e-commerce would make finding such things possible. Every step of the way, I was excited. I was engaging with a technology that had supposedly become outdated and loving it.

Not least of all, I was enjoying the use of the machine. The purposeful pressure placed on each key, the arm slapping the roller and the paper superstitiously interceding so a character may appear. Over and over. I’d type nonsense and streams of consciousness and letters to my partner a room away. Just to be typing. I would type the same thing over and over again; craft a letter in many drafts. Just to make use of the machine.

Even as I enjoyed this endeavor, I found myself wondering why it was so enjoyable. Was I really doing anything other than what I did on a daily basis at my job, i.e. rendering language into writing via a machine? What was so enjoyable about doing this on a typewriter?

Well, I do enjoy typing, generally. I am good at it: fast, proficient, etc. But that wasn’t enough to explain the joy I was experiencing with my Classic 12. I don’t have a definitive answer on that point, although I have my suspicions. It has to do with the very meaning of what it is to “use” such a thing; of what use can be made of a so-called “old” and “outdated” technology. Certainly,  typewriters are not widely used productively, if they are used that way at all. Maybe in some dusty corner of industry, but otherwise I cannot imagine anyone is typing up reports on a typewriter, even an electric one. And data-entry? What would it even mean on a typewriter? That is technology we could not even think before the computer.  So it seems evident that the typewriter is outmoded.

So my delight in using it is influenced by the fact that it is so utterly removed from that realm: work. It is an activity entirely divorced from that mindless slog. And, unlike work, it is an act of choice and not necessity. It has a scope that is always self-determined. It partakes in wonder; the child-like delight of play. Play not as the opposite of work, but work that is fulfilling: of me and the end-product, but not a business’s bottom line.

Buying a typewriter is a purchase against the grain: it is almost always used, it is a product whose supply is dwindling rather than being created in excess, it engages one in an activity at odds with the über-productive “Puritan” work ethic of corporate America. In short, it’s wonderful. I am glad to now have a couplet, and so a little more of myself, too.

Information, Meaning & Thinking For Ourselves

I am, as of this semester, a student of Computer Information Systems.  Not surprisingly, one of the first things done in this discipline is to formally acquaint students with what information is. This might seem an obvious lesson, but it has proven to be less obvious.

I had a jump start towards understanding the notion of information. Shortly before school started, I read a wonderful book called The Information by James Gleick. (HIGHLY recommended, especially for science/tech geeks!) I will not attempt a review or a summary worthy of that tome here, but I will say the book makes clear that the very idea of “information” is a relatively new one. While our modern minds may be capable of reading the concept (of information) into the past, it is not inherent to any but the last century. Indeed, and as Gleick demonstrates, information-as-such has developed in tandem with computing technology.

A beautiful and appropriate graphical tribute to Mr. Turing, found here.

At the heart of this tangential development are two brilliant mathematicians. They conceived ideas in the 1950’s that have made ours the Age of Information and Computing Technology. One of these men was Alan Turing. Turing is widely recognized as the “father” of the modern computer due to his deployment of a base two number system known as binary. It is through this dyadic number system, consisting of two lone digits, 0 and 1, that  Turing showed us how it was possible for a human to give a machine a set of instructions; i.e. to program a computer.

Across the Atlantic, an American by the name of Claude Shannon built upon Turing’s binary system and paved the way for its contemporary implementation. In so doing, he also defined the very term information. Shannon was studying electrical engineering and applying Boolean logic to his study. Through this  he realized that when electrical relays signal off (0) or on (1) what they convey is meaning. That is, abstractly, before a switch is flipped between off/on, one does not know what state it is in, but only its possible states. After the switch is flipped, however, one comes to know something about the state of the switch. That is, it comes to mean something and does so precisely because other possible states have been foreclosed (e.g. “off” means “not on”).  This delimited knowledge is information.  Shannon’s theory of information made possible our ability to expand beyond the conceptual use of Turing’s binary code. Shannon saw this possibility. Using a series of 0’s and 1’s could convey larger and larger sets of meaning; larger sources of information. And so he called the measure of information bits, short for binary digits.

Claude Shannon and One of His Contraptions, from the MIT Museum Collections.

In short (forgive the reduction), Turing conceived our ability to instruct computers, while Shannon conceived of how a system of only two digits could be expanded and even allow for a quantification of knowledge, of information-as-meaning. Together, they were among a handful of important players in laying the groundwork for what has become one of the most defining realms of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: information technology.

There’s another less historical way to consider what is to be understood, at least formally and rigorously, by “information.” That is by comparing and contrasting it with data.

We often conflate data and information, but these two things are necessarily distinct.  Data is inherently not meaningful. Data is defined as pieces of text, graphics, sounds, videos (etc) which are not organized or manipulated in any useful way. Information is wrought through the process of manipulating, organizing, and otherwise processing data. It is data-made-meaningful. The reason we conflate these two terms with one another is due to the fact that humans do not interact with mere data well. We are constantly interpreting the data that we come in contact with and making it meaningful, making it into information without a second thought. We rarely encounter data without imbuing it with meaning, and so we interchange calling it “data” with “information,” when really it is always the latter.

It is not accidental that the android character in Star Trek: The Next Generation is named DATA and not INFORMATION. Well, the latter would have been awkward and clunky, but also it is because Data is more machine than human and so too is his knowledge. Data has a wealth of facts and certain abilities like logical reasoning, deduction, etc., but he often comes up short when he attempts to manipulate what he knows for meaning. This is seen by his frequent attempts to make sense of human humor or other unconventional uses of language.

Data, with all his intellect, is quite flummoxed by a Chinese finger trap. Photo credit: trekcore.com

No matter how many times these phenomena are explained to him, he often fails to understand. He retains facts well, but when it comes to the meaning of those facts, he is often stumped and in need of the explanatory powers of his human crew-mates. Data, being a science fiction character, does not neatly occupy the “machine,” category, but his ability to understand the world is still illustrative in seeing how information is data-made-meaningful.

There are two things to take away from this elaboration on information. First, when we talk about computers “thinking,” and “thinking faster” than us, we do ourselves a disservice. Computers, except perhaps futuristic androids or Battlestar Galactica-esque Cylons (G-d help us), do not think. They follow human instructions and process data that we feed them. They are useful to us because they are able to process at speeds we are not capable of—and the upper threshold of computing processing speeds is something we have yet to find.

Second, when we complain about bias in the media, we forget that the media is only useful insofar as it helps us interpret meaning. If the news were to truly give us something value-neutral, it would look more like a stream of data, of random text, images, sounds, videos, etc, and it would be rather unhelpful.  Instead, the news (and other media) offers us an interpretation of the data and thereby gives us information. As the consumers of such information, it is up to us to remember that there is no such thing as a value-neutral processing of the data. The manipulation of the data is determined based on certain values, ALWAYS. Any news media outlet that tries to sell itself as unbiased—say “spin free” or “fair & balanced”—is lying to you. It is only concealing its processing methods and thereby making it much harder to test its output against one’s own values.

Overall, this notion of information is a necessary reminder that we must remain committed to doing our own thinking, because neither the computer nor the “value-neutral” news media can effectively do it for you. Surrounded by gadgets and talking heads may make it seem easier to leave your mind at home, but in reality now more than ever your mind is the most important tool you have.

At least until the robot-overloads take control…

To Pass On

My paternal grandfather passed away this weekend. As Friday flowed into Saturday, night into day, week into week-end, Joe Elmo slipped from a morphine-induced sleep to his eternal rest.

Death is disjointing. Even though I was not close with my grandpa, I had been thinking about him lately because I knew his health was declining. Despite the sadness death inevitably brings, I am comforted to know that he is no longer in pain. Also, I am glad he went slowly and softly, giving those who loved him most time to reckon their loss and grief, and to say their goodbyes.

His death hits me more symbolically than anything. From what I know and remember, he was a good man. He was hard-working and hard-playing; goofy and kind. Despite all that, I did not know how to relate to him. I did not know how to talk to him, or how to bridge the many differences that separated us despite our common heredity. I mourn him as a figure in my life, more than as a person. But, regardless, I mourn him.

As he was dying, a genealogical mystery I had started to unravel earlier this year came back to the forefront. I had unearthed confusing records that seemed to indicate that a different man than was thought was Joe Elmo’s father. On the 1930 U.S. Census he was listed as a “Jr.” with an entirely different last name. This seemed odd and I thought maybe I had made a mistake and found someone else. But how? The woman listed as his mother was correct, as was her mother and brother, whom they lived with, the latter, my grandpa’s uncle Elmo, being the namesake of my grandpa’s unusual middle name.

But who was this fellow listed as his father? Most telling in all this confusion was the fact that my grandpa was supposed to have shared his father’s name, but he no longer did. My grandpa legally changed his name at some point from “Joseph” to “Joe,” thereby shedding the suffix of “Jr.” When I was told he had done this, before anything was known of some alternate paternity or that he was a junior, I could not understand why. Finding this seemingly anachronistic record, with a once-mentioned Joseph Sr., I finally understood. He was not being an oddball, what seemed the most likely answer before unearthing these records. Instead he was aligning himself with the life he had chosen, the life that had chosen him, and not the one that he was born into. Joseph Wasses Sr. may have contributed bio-materials and a name, but Sidney Keith was his father and contributed much more.

Grandpa and me, November ’83.

All of this makes me feel much closer to him, since, being transgender, I come by masculinity not out of birthright, but rather choice and its requisite socio-legal negotiation. Joe Elmo, and the father who chose him, and so also my father, and me, are made all the more special to me because their lineage makes me feel as though I have, in some round-about fashion, inherited this right to create myself and not be limited by what is supposedly innate. It carries with it an odd sense of legitimacy in doing not what is expected, but what is nonetheless right.

When I first learned that my last name came from a man who was not the biological father of my grandpa, I found it disorienting. Was I surreptitiously surnamed? The answer to that question came as a parting gift when my grandpa died. No, it is not fraudulent to be named after a father’s father’s father whose genes are wholly different from my own. Because, much like I hope for myself as a father, he passed that name on as a gift, a talisman of making the world, and, most importantly, as a token of love.

Rest in peace, grandpa: J.E.A., Nov. 1929 – Sept 2012.

The Crash That Saved

After I finished the majority of my philosophy M.A., my hard drive crashed. Most of the work that I’d done for that degree disappeared in the blink of an eye. Sure, I had paper copies of some things, but certainly not everything.

You’d think I would’ve been crushed. But no: it was the best thing that could have happened.

I belabored my decision to stop pursuing academic philosophy. There was a lot of pressure for me to continue for a Ph.D. from my professors. They thought I had a knack for it; they saw talent in me. But that whole time they’d seen “talent,” what I’d really been showing them was allegiance. Okay, sure, I was a good student, adept when it came to doing the explanatory work, but I wasn’t spending any time cultivating my own voice. I was playing it safe: tailoring my work to the arguments I knew my professors agreed with already.

And, as it turns out, you need to stand for something when you become a professional philosopher. Having spent the entirety of my M.A. parroting what I knew to be “safe” territory, I came to the end of two years in graduate school feeling much like The Little Mermaid on land: where (I thought) I wanted to be, but without a voice to express, well, anything.

So when I lost all the files I had accumulated while a grad student (and earlier), I was happy to be rid of the baggage. It seemed a sign from on-high saying, no, really, you can leave it all behind. You can do something else. You don’t need to know what yet. Leave all that you’ve done behind and worry about it no more.

That crash happened just as I arrived with three of my fellow students in Berlin where we would take one final class together. It was the absolute best part of my Master’s and in no small part because I had finally forgiven myself for not doing what was expected of me. For only knowing what I did NOT want to do.

Crash, and I was left in the wreckage. Bruised and battered from the ride that preceded it, but ultimately shook up in a good way. Loss of files? Didn’t seem so bad.

Knowledge is Power & Power Tends to Corrupt

I was once an aspiring philosopher. No, that isn’t correct. No one can really aspire to be a philosopher. It seems the height of hubris in our contemporary context to give oneself that label. Rather, I aspired to philosophize, to do philosophy.  So, really, I was an aspiring philosophy professor. Plato, dear,  you had me at “dialogue.” I went through my undergraduate years with verve. I dutifully applied to graduate school. I GOT ACCEPTED TO GRADUATE SCHOOL! I hated graduate school. Turns out, I hated academic philosophy.

It’s said that in any given relationship, there are common “exit” periods. After three weeks, six months, one year, three years, etc. A couple can only sustain their relationship if they have the right balance of romance and compatibility. Five years in, my Love of Wisdom, philo-Sofia, was fading. And the compatibility between us was starting to show itself lacking. Certain realities about philosophy as a career were starting to become more & more apparent… and these were realities that I could not incorporate into my life.

So I broke it off with Her, my sweet Sofia. We went our separate ways and I did my damnedest not to look back and wonder “what if?” It took me at least two years to even consider whether we could be “friends”… could I like Wisdom, or better pursue it as a platonic (haha!) love? Even here I struggled with the implications. Cuz there is this invisible boundary-line with academic-knowledge: about who is and who is not allowed to engage. About who is a rightly a “scholar” and who is simply  an “armchair” practitioner, “pedestrian,” untrained (by the academy) and, so, unworthy?

And there is other boundaries. The ones between. The limits placed around various scholarly subjects, sealing them unto themselves, ensuring that they remain pure and unadulterated.

Philosophers are especially concerned with patrolling these boundaries. Can you or I really blame them? Philosophy was once the pinacle of academia, the very starting point of our modern knowledge project(s) and its institutions. Now, instead, they are hallowed away, the subject made more obtuse all the time, and constantly under siege by the University-Powers-That-Be who would like to shut down or collapse philosophy with other so-called useless subjects.

Yet, in reinforcing the boundaries of philosophy so tightly, its practitioners are just as likely to do themselves in as are outside forces. This is one (major!) reason I left: philosophy speaks to itself and no one at the same time. Except in reciting its history, philosophy has rendered itself irrelevant. By and large, it is for its own sake and, thus, unsustainable. Except for slivers of hope, philosophy’s enforced limits are proving to be the contours of its grave.

I am still a philosophy-type— I have reconciled my relationship with it and again see myself doing philosophy, even if I may never officially be one of its practitioners. I seek to push its boundaries, because I care about philosophy and how it has shaped what, how, and why humans know. But I can only do this outside the limits being drawn, and, when possible, occupying that liminal space itself. So that threshold itself proves to be one important element to examine. To aid in preventing total enclosure.