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Sasha Blue

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The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one.

A friend died this year, too far away for me to get to the funeral. He had a chronic condition that I knew would contribute to his early death, but I was still taken by surprise to hear he’d been found unconscious in his home. Sasha never recovered. He died in the hospital about a week later.

When I was in my early twenties, Sasha was my closest friend. He was there when I was figuring out so many things about myself. Sasha was clever, sarcastic, smart, and graceful, making him welcome wherever he went. And because I was his trusted friend, he let me cross some of the boundaries in his life: between the straight world of Tampa and the semi-secret world of gay bars and dance parties, between the youthful university culture where we met, and the eighty and ninety year old ballroom dance students Sasha taught. Perhaps most importantly, he told me once that it is necessary to sort out what one desires from what one wants to be. It wasn’t more than a few months later that I began to transition from female to male.

Sasha was color blind. Color blindness of the most common sorts, like Sasha’s red-green version, mean that some colors are difficult to distinguish, not that there is no color at all. One night, I was riding home in Sasha’s car with two of our friends in the back seat. The streets were dark and Sasha remarked that he’d always found the electric blue of a car’s dashboard “brights” indicator to be an especially beautiful one. He wondered if we saw the same shade of blue he did. He might have also wondered if it stood out for him more than it did for us, because he had fewer beautiful colors in his visible spectrum.

Sasha had a way of being “on,” entertaining but not permeable. This was a different kind of remark, one that invited us in. We all craned our necks to see the shade of blue that Sasha found so captivating. And we agreed that it was, indeed, a beautiful shade of blue. I’ve wondered at times why this moment stuck with me, what it said about Sasha or about me. It is the one that came back to me most clearly, in the days after his death.

For the years that we were friends and roommates, Sasha let me tag along with him to the ballrooms where he gave dance lessons, to Denny’s to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee while we studied, and to the bars where he sang karaoke and danced and tried to score. I’d roam the dark rooms as if searching for someone. In the small country western bar where we threw darts with Sasha’s straight friends, drank Budweiser, and sang, I relearned how to be on stage, close enough to make eye contact, so near to the speakers that I couldn’t hear the sound of my unamplified voice and had to trust my experience in hitting the notes and what it felt like to vibrate at that frequency. Sometimes I failed to polite applause. But sometimes, it was like flying.

My transition put a wall between Sasha and me. Sasha, who studied gender performance and whose books were the first I read on the subject of transgenderism, thought I was making the wrong choice: that I was confusing what I wanted with what I wanted to be. My new identity felt fragile but real and worth protecting, so I pulled away from my closest friend, began making new friends who understood and respected my identity. I dressed more conservatively as a man than I had as a woman. My voice began to change and the songs didn’t come as easily, dropped out of my repertoire as the highest notes escaped my range.

It’s been years, now, since I’ve sang in public. After Sasha died I thought about going out again and giving it a try, to remember him, but it isn’t the same. I’m out of practice and too self conscious to sing anywhere except when I’m in the car alone. I haven’t had my own automobile in more than ten years. When I need to go somewhere, I borrow my husband’s car, and if I’m driving home late at night from wherever I’ve been, sometimes I will sing to keep myself awake. And sometimes, if I’m on winding country roads and put on my brights, the periwinkle glow of the icon on the dash will transport me to my twenties, the streets of Tampa, riding in the passenger seat of Sasha’s car.

Image credit: johnthoward1961/Flickr

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Filed under Queer, Trans

Our human polyculture

Since Kevin and I got together, more than eight years ago, we’ve pulled one another along on our journeys toward health. We’re both unusual people with special needs: sensitive, intelligent, and traumatized, as well as queer and transgender. Our trajectory toward integration and wellness hasn’t been steady or moved only forward. When Kevin moved into my Brooklyn apartment, he was an ex-smoker, but he picked up cigarettes again because I still smoked. He introduced me to a whole foods diet, and I started cooking it, but only occasionally: mostly we still ate fast food or worse, convenience store food. Eventually I got sick for what I decided would be the last time, and we both quit smoking. We got bicycles and rode them to farmers markets and the upscale groceries in Manhattan. We subscribed to a weekly delivery of organic vegetables and fruit, and worked our way up to the challenge of eating a whole farm share. When we moved to Massachusetts, we made local farm shares the staples of our diet.

Now we’ve lived here in the Pioneer Valley for more than six years. While Kevin has pursued mental health therapy, I’ve worked through trauma in my body by engaging in physical activities. Kevin has gotten more active and seen the benefits to his mood and reduction in chronic pain, but nothing he tried, not exercise, prescription drugs, or careful adherence to a whole foods diet, helped with either his sugar cravings or his road rage.

A couple weekends ago, I took him to his first Weston A. Price Foundation potluck, and he learned from some of the attendees about their Paleo or otherwise gluten-free diets, which could be seen as a subset of the traditional foods diet that the WAPF people eat. Cutting grains out of his diet was a revelation. Even with all of the progress he has made in therapy with his panic disorder, the multiple daily panic attacks continued. What finally made them stop, cold, was no longer eating wheat. His sugar craving is gone, too. He no longer comes home and tells me about the cookies he couldn’t resist at work, or the drivers he tailgated on the way home. After years of living with his panic attacks, he doesn’t go off anymore. He tells me he feels like he’s finally himself.

In the same time frame that Kevin has been figuring out the effects of certain foods in his diet, I have been learning the differences among the sensations that I’ve always classed as “hunger,” including certain kinds of boredom and anxiety, low blood sugar, withdrawal from sugar or caffeine, and hungers for protein, fat, or carbohydrates, which I had never before differentiated. I used to eat what I ate, when I ate it, because I kept a routine to tell me when and what to eat. I used dishes and the amounts I commonly served myself for portion control, because I would eat everything on my plate. Now I find that the sensation of being done eating is enough to make me stop eating. I no longer power through that “stop” and go on eating til the food is gone.

The adjustment, as the household cook, is more than just new lists of foods Kevin will and will not eat, and new proportions for the foods that remain. Both of us listening to our bodies and eating what we want is resulting in us choosing different diets. When I started cooking Paleo for Kevin, it meant changing what a meal looked like. Before, lunch or dinner always looked the same: rice or potatoes, meat or beans, and at least one vegetable, in rough thirds by volume. Now Kevin’s meals are more like half vegetables, half meat by volume. Where he used to take oatmeal for an afternoon snack, now he takes a sausage. He fixes his own beef soup for breakfast each morning and seems to enjoy doing a little slicing and simmering for his meal. He’s suddenly become a big fan of my bone stock. This diet has done for Kevin what whole foods and being able to feel my own hungers, which came from reading about the difference between sating and satiating, have done for me. He was like me, also a “Clean Plate Club” member, and now has become an extremely fussy and particular eater. He knows exactly what he wants to eat, and wants to eat that only, nothing else. When I try to eat like he does now, I find the soup off-putting as a first food of the day, and at mid-morning, I still want a grilled egg and cheese sandwich. I miss the part that’s gone, but Kevin doesn’t. I take this to mean that we’re different, and while it was good to experience what Kevin’s new diet is like, I have to trust my body’s cues, which I’ve just begun to understand.

If we trust our own bodies and the wisdom inherent in them, they can tell us what we need, whether it’s to move or eat, drink water, sleep, seek out other people, or get some sun. We knew enough to do these things before science told us they were necessary. Some people’s bodies definitely tell them that wheat is toxic. Other people’s bodies are unable to tolerate other foods that I can eat without trouble, like dairy, soy, shellfish, and nuts. I don’t know if an inability to process these foods is part of natural variation, or a sign of damage to the body, but in either case, the body’s wisdom should be allowed to prevail. It’s obvious to me, with all of the uncertainty and anxiety that exists in my culture around what we ought to eat, that we have insufficient scientific knowledge to answer these questions for everyone. What we do have in sufficient quantities are bodies that can speak to us, if we can only listen. In order to listen, we might need to know what it is we’re listening for. Although its a private conversation between you and your body, it’s informed by culture: what is worth listening to, and what we even have common language to describe, determine to a tremendous degree what we are capable of even considering, much less understanding. I doubt I would have learned on my own that I was transgender before I had conceptualized a trans man or learned that we exist. Finding out about my hunger drives was a similar kind of revelation, and I’m sure there is much more wisdom of this kind, if I can only figure out how people talk about it. While lots of people are concerned about health, diet, and exercise, far fewer are listening to their bodies for the answers, and fewer still know how to talk about those conversations. We need to learn how to do this, and by “we” I mean me and the other members of my culture who have lost this wisdom and are looking for it.

Our understanding of the human race does not end with the genome, but even here, I am beginning to think that we are more of a polyculture than we are used to thinking of ourselves. While I’d heard that there were no more traces of the Neanderthals in the modern human genome, more recently I have learned that they do live on in us: except for Africans, who apparently never encountered them, modern people from everywhere else in the world have between one and six percent Neanderthal genes. It made me happy to learn this, because I was sad at the thought that when a species dies, nothing is left of it to live on, not even its successful progeny. Someday we will divide again, and a new subset of humanity will arise from among us. How we react to them, and whether we will consider them human at all, remains to be seen.

There may be only tiny differences—less than one percent—between our genome and that of our nearest living relative, the chimpanzee, so either those tiny differences are potent, or some of the apparent junk in the genome is actually important, just undecipherable to us right now. I think we will not be able to precisely define what makes an individual a human, because it will turn out that a species is defined not by the traits each one of us carries, but by our characteristics as communities of humans. We have much in common, but trying to nail down the essentials always leaves some human out. We can’t all reproduce, or walk, we weren’t all born with ten fingers and ten toes, and we have different reactions to drugs and some foods. In agriculture, polycultures are healthier and more efficient, so it may be for the best that science hasn’t figured this out yet, because I have a feeling we’d start hurtling toward a human monoculture, first thing, instead of valuing our human diversity.

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