Sunday, August 07, 2011

Visit me on

Should I feel guilty about this? Blogger's been swell to me for years, but I'm finding Wordpress to be a bit easier to organize my work on.... Poor blogspot. Well, check me out anyway at (and link to me there, too! ;)

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Jonah Raskin writes about pot; I write about him for SF Weekly

"If baseball is the opiate of the masses, why aren't opiates given to the masses?"

This was possibly the most cogent question posed to Jonah Raskin on Thursday at Canessa Gallery after he read from his new book, Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War, published by High Times Books. The poser of the question was a young man who spoke with what was (in the context) calm, Harvardian breviloquence about how his family had no problem with his pot-smoking despite their own abstinence from the herb.

He had asked it as a follow-up to a somewhat less calm (and significantly less breviloquent) comment made by one of the older members of the audience, which was that the government -- the Man, what have you -- wants people to enjoy baseball because when you're at the game, enjoying yourself, you're not thinking of how little money you make. (He's apparently never pushed his debit card to its withdrawal limit trying to buy garlic fries and a beer at AT&T Park.) (continue reading)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fan Ho's A Hong Kong Memoir in the SF Examiner

Fan Ho’s “A Hong Kong Memoir,” on display thorough Sept. 3 at Modernbook Gallery, might seem at first look like the work of an Asian Eugene Atget — documental (bordering on sentimental) images of a city and a life that has since been subsumed by political, social and economic changes, leaving this quaint black-and-white version unrecognizable.

However, examination of certain photographs yields an unexpected playfulness of composition and medium, and an unabashed theatricality that make these images notable for more than their simple beauty and value as a visual record of an altered world. Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

the cool/weird dance project "Sex, Love, Money" in SF Weekly

The reasons for marrying are probably as numerous as the marriages out there. Why do so many people choose to (legally) bind themselves to other humans for life? It means putting up with another's weird habits and Republican in-laws and holding in your farts (maybe) and the nagging feeling that you've bought into some societal or historical paradigm designed to sublimate your entire gender. Why do this when you could live the life of blissfully unscrutinized single slobs, with only your own sociopathic habits to withstand? The Samantha Giron Dance Project examines such compulsions in the new piece Sex, Love, Money starting Friday at CounterPULSE. (continue reading)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Guerrero Gallery wins the opening party contest. for SF Weekly.

​I've talked before about how helpful it is for galleries to offer food and refreshments at openings, that a lot of art seems more beautiful, profound, socially conscious, and politically relevant to the well-fed and slightly tipsy. I lamented the shocking lack of cheese cubes as well as the austere Kruschev-era-style Perrier-rationing at 49 Geary, an unfortunate state of things on its own, but especially piteous in light of something I heard at the most recent first Thursday. A couple of stalwart art lovers who'd attended the monthly art walk since 2001 said that in former days of plenty, not only did the galleries there serve more generous amounts of water, champagne, and wine -- and in glasses made of glass rather than plastic - but in what now seems like an ecstasy of largesse, offered entire wheels of cheese. I was ready to despair that America's best days really were behind it, and that that behind, happily fattened on bries as fragrant as the feet of French angels, had waddled away forever. (continue reading)

Monday, July 18, 2011

S*** got real at Cabaret Bastille

Last night’s Litquake event, Cabaret Bastille at Cellspace, was almost a smashing good time. I admit I am disproportionately delighted by parties with costume themes, and there were some glorious vintage and vintage-inspired get-ups. Yvonne Michelle Cordoba (and friend?) performed lovely quasi-burlesque/belly dance at intervals. The problem was that the entertainment emphasis of the night was on the readings (popular contemporary authors reading the works of the lost generation greats). Cellspace is cavernous, and its sound system inadequate for the readings to have been audible to anyone further than four rows back. Except for Alan Black’s bellowing from James Joyce, most of the readings simply didn’t register (through no fault of the readers themselves).

Since both poor acoustics and absinthe brain-soakage made hearing or comprehending the readings impossible, my friends and I went upstairs to watch “blue films,” modern pornography’s quaint ancestor. (continue reading)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Review of the Irving Penn exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery in the San Francisco Examiner

If today’s fashion world pushes a narrow concept of beauty — tall, thin, young, more thin — 70 years ago that concept was even narrower, as the tall, thin young girls in the magazines also had to be white.

For several decades and 150 Vogue magazine covers, Irving Penn worked within these confines to produce images iconic for their beauty and graphical power. Compositions uncluttered by props, and frugal with color (usually black and white) left the simplest and most arresting elements for the eye to focus on: the sweep of a ruched sleeve, the black grid of netting against white plains of skin, the neck as long as the waist, the waist as slender as the neck.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

Monday, July 11, 2011

I compare First Thursday Openings at 49 Geary and the Jazz Heritage Center for SF Weekly

Dear 49 Geary: I'm afraid you just got served.

First Thursdays at the prestigious address are always intellectually, perhaps even spiritually satisfying, not only for art's enriching effect on the mind and soul, but also because, as with any intellectual or spiritual pursuit, you must suffer physical discomforts, deprivations, and abstentions to achieve enlightenment. The elevators are invariably so busy you don't bother to take them from floor to floor in the five-story complex, and instead opt to squeeze past the corridor texters to schlep the cold stone stairs, regretting the high heels you thought looked so Helmut Newton. (continue reading)

Friday, July 08, 2011

My Preview of Litquake's Cabaret Bastille for SF Weekly

Historic queer icon, art world catalyst, and Bay Area native Gertrude Stein is enjoying posthumous adulation for her role in modern art history. SFMOMA’s current exhibit showcases her (and her family’s) game-changing art collection in “The Steins Collect,” and the Contemporary Jewish Museum shows art and archival materials by and about the woman herself in “Gertrude Stein: Five Stories.” Litquake furthers the flattery through the aspect of the avant-garde thinker’s life that most appeals to any San Franciscan’s aesthete/hedonist mix: the salon. (continue reading)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

I wrote a Preview for the Irving Penn exhibit at Fraenkel Gallery

When we think of classic glamour — pencil skirt, gloves, and arched-eyebrow glamor, the kind that would have looked askance through perfectly lined eyes and French milliner’s netting at you and your holey shoes and yoga pants — the image we conjure probably has its roots in the work of legendary photographer Irving Penn. His austere brand of elegance dominated fashion photography throughout the 1940s and ’50s, when he shot more than 150 covers for Vogue. The less-celebrated period of his career, however, is one he pursued independent of the fashion juggernaut, and one that chafed against the narrow concept of beauty extolled in his day job. (continue reading)

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I write about Purple Rain at the Castro for SF Weekly

Purple Rain and the Castro Theatre are a film/venue combination of a perfection that might be matched only by screening Milk at the Castro, or The Hippie Temptation at the Red Vic, or Das Boot at Opera Plaza. Naturally, Friday night's Purple Rain screening was an event to dress for, and in addition to the requisite spectacular drag ensembles, many wore their flashiest '80s regalia: distressed denim, winged eye shadow, pumps with lacy anklets, bangles, bangles, and more bangles. (continue reading)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

My review of Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris at the de Young Museum for Art Practical

I paint the way some people write their autobiography…. I have less and less time and yet I have more and more to say, and what I have to say is, increasingly, something about the movement of my thought.

—Pablo Picasso

This collection of “Picasso’s Picassos” comprises 150 of the thousands of pieces amassed by the artist and bequeathed by his heirs to the French government to allay its vampiric inheritance tax. Arranged chronologically, the abridged but representative array of Picasso’s career reflects his belief that painting is “just another way of keeping a diary"; the works become a multifarious self-portrait spanning seventy years. The exhibit begins with what one would swear is a Van Gogh, not merely for its effulgent colors, rough, thick brushstrokes, and the almost material quality of the light beams emanating from the candle, but also for its morbid preoccupation. La Mort De Casagemas (1901) depicts Picasso’s friend and poet, dead from suicide over a failed love affair. Picasso was twenty years old and newly enthralled by the avant-garde movement thriving in his adopted city of Paris; he quickly mastered its various innovations before launching into his Blue Period. (continue reading)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My chat with author Wendy Lesser on Shostakovich, SF Weekly

No foreign sky protected me,
No stranger's wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
Survivor of that time, that place.

-- Anna Akhmatova, 1961

How does an artist work in the context of an oppressive political regime? This question never loses relevance (since oppression never does either), and it's especially in focus now, with Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei's recent incarceration and release. In Soviet Russia under Stalin's terror, how an artist maneuvered the need for personal expression against the erratic demands of an unpredictably umbrageous state meant the difference between living a pampered (if precarious) life and slavery in the gulag or death. Anna Akhmatova was among the USSR's most celebrated poets, yet her work was repeatedly condemned and censored by Stalin. Dmitri Shostakovich, the era's most famous composer, survived -- not unscathed, and not without being forced to make some risible and humiliating concessions, declarations, and betrayals (his forced public condemnation of the work of Igor Stravinsky he described as "the worst moment of my life"). Author Wendy Lesser has written an account of the artist's personal, professional, and political life as revealed through his 15 quartets in Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and his Fifteen Quartets. (continue reading)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Write-up of the opening night party for "The Steins Collect" at SFMOMA in ArtSLant

Any San Francisco gathering too big to fit inside a bathtub inevitably becomes a fancy dress ball. We love Events and we love to think of ourselves more as participants than as spectators. This held true for the opening night party at SFMOMA for "The Steins Collect."

The great number of people (and the fact that many of them were wearing fancy hats) made getting a good look at most of the art from the formidable, and painstakingly amassed, collection impossible; I enjoyed it the most when I gave up on the art and abandoned myself to bald-faced people-gawking.

(continue reading)

The Cries of San Francisco in SF Weekly

You don't have to pick a special day on Market Street to be yelled at by strangers. And it's not that unusual to encounter those in odd outfits trying to sell you objects and services of ostentatious uselessness. But Saturday, the "Cries of San Francisco," put on by Southern Exposure, offered a witty and sometimes touching variant on an old theme based on The Cries of London, Francis Wheatley's seminal 18th-century oil paintings depicting London's street sellers.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

My review of Doug Rickard's "A New American Picture" in the San Francisco Examiner

Roofs face the elements without shingles and collapsing, store fronts stand shuttered and windows boarded over, and gingerbread crumbles off formerly elegant facades. In Doug Rickard’s “A New American Picture” on view at Stephen Wirtz Gallery, the sense of desertion pervading the images remains strangely untempered by the spotty presence of people. They amble past decrepit houses and drive on cracked, untended roads. It’s hard to imagine the buses they wait for will arrive. They seem more like trespassers on long-abandoned property than residents of Detroit, Memphis, Fresno and Houston.

Friday, June 03, 2011

My write-up of "First Thursday" openings at 49 Geary in SF Weekly

Clusters of young Americans propped themselves up on Golgothan stilettos, clutching their plastic cups of white wine with one hand and texting virtuosically with the other. Some hood-ish-looking young men in 'do-rags dragged their pants behind them from gallery to gallery. Many people had expensive-looking priapic-lensed cameras dangling from their necks.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

My review of Richard Learoyd's Presences at Fraenkel Gallery in Art Practical

It’s hard not to feel like an overzealous dermatologist examining the subjects of Richard Learoyd’s exhibition at Fraenkel Gallery. His large-scale direct-positive images reveal a degree of epidermal detail one usually only gets to see while making out under an interrogation lamp. The shallow depth of field that marks Learoyd’s portraits and that shows imperfections with pitiless clarity—a rough patch here, an incipient pimple there, weirdly dilated pupils—somewhat mitigates the monumental quality lent them by the size of the images and the solid, sometimes brilliant hues he clothes his models in (when he clothes them).

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On Not Marrying

Marriage has always held a place in the image of myself that seems so far away, I almost believe I will have to be a completely different person by the time it happens, the way a child must imagine herself to be an unrecognizable person by adulthood – several feet taller, dressed in adult clothing, speaking in an adult voice, concerned with adult tasks. It’s easy to imagine yourself as an adult when adulthood is so far away from you that it renders considering who you currently are, in your mental construction of the imagined future self, a bit ridiculous. When I was little I thought I’d be like Phylicia Rashad when I grew up. Such deserts of time stretched between myself then and my adult self that more drastic personal revolutions than a mere change in skin color would have to take place to transform me from a child who played with her toes to the dignified woman who could instill awe into the hearts of her unruly family with a few sotto voce threats and a confusingly sexy stare-down.

But I’m now at an age when many of my friends are getting married, or have already gotten married and are now starting their own families, or are even divorcing. And yet I feel just as distant from the woman I imagine myself needing to become in order to be married as I did when I was a child. It has in fact become more difficult to imagine myself so, because, unlike the enormous changes to my person I could take for granted would happen between then and the imagined now, I have to accept that I actually am mostly as I will be for the rest of my life. For instance, my skin color won’t change, but then neither will my personality; I’ll probably never be the sort of career woman and mother who can subdue her family with a sexy stare-down and then be at work at 8 in the morning to start a day of subduing New York’s legal system while wearing pointy high-heeled shoes and power suits. I don’t mind this, but it’s something I know won’t happen. The person I am now is basically what I have to work with, and my imagined married self has to look, and act, something like I do now. But I couldn’t be married and act the way I do. I mean, I could, but I wouldn’t want to be married to someone who’d put up with that.

What man could prepare himself for the size and scope of my vanity? It is epic, it is legion; I am the Beowolf of self-regard. I’m not exactly ashamed of this, but neither do I want someone beholding its hugeness every day, straining his philosophical faculties to make sense of his own minuteness in comparison with it. It’s not like I could hide my mountain of beauty products somewhere in the bathroom where he wouldn’t notice it, or get crushed under it, or sucked into its gravitational pull. I can’t just leave my toothbrush and some baby shampoo and an unassuming white washcloth out and pretend that’s all it takes to achieve this fresh-faced fakery that is my look. It’s not that I’m profligate with my products either; I use everything up and then buy more. How can I explain that I really do need one cleanser in the morning and a different one at night, and an exfoliator twice a week and a mask and a peel and different moisturizers for day and night and parts of my face and times of the month and it all makes perfect sense to me, but yes I understand there’s not enough room on the shelf for all these bottles so please build some more shelves? It is almost impossible to convey what eyelash conditioner is without appearing ridiculous. And also, I know aging drag queens who own less makeup than I do.

And clothing—I have a walk-in closet. It is my bedroom. I also have an annex of bulging wardrobes challenging the floorboards of my apartment in the Bronx. I like vintage clothes, which went out of style before I was born and thus will never go out of style in my heart. Unless I gain weight and they no longer fit me, why would I get rid of them? Yet I shun jobs that have a dress code that doesn’t include Uggs and yoga pants. I once turned one down in London because it would have required me to teeter about in high heels on Harrod’s marble floors for 6 hours a day. Any job that starts before ten in the morning is a job that will never see me in mascara, and only occasionally with clean hair. So I can’t even promise a consistent payoff to the avalanche we would be living under till death by suffocation do us part. I don’t like imagining my future husband trying to look manly while being crowded out of his own house by a burgeoning forest of chiffon ruching, bias-cut crepe, and those fake pashminas with pictures of peacocks in metallic thread I love so much. He would try to talk sense to me, offer to drive me to the Goodwill drop-off locations, or even help me to start an ebay boutique. I would grow to resent him for refusing to acknowledge the value of a minidress I wore both to my senior prom and to opening night at the opera twelve years later, or the fact that yes, gorilla fur is un-p.c., but totally worth it and so much warmer than any of my other capes, or that these are not rags, these are my Bag of Sentimental Panties and no, they are none of your business.

And what about our domestic life? Obviously I am too much of a feminist to ever willingly take on the role of housewife (and my secret is that my feminism in this regard is buttressed by a generous helping of laziness and apathy that eliminates housework as a serious consideration for me anyway). But normal couples cook, or take turns cooking. I know people who enjoy it. They buy ingredients, and read recipes, and wait patiently for stuff to boil. They close their eyes and lyricize about the near-spiritual satisfaction they get from communing with the various twigs and animal parts and different-colored dust they flavor stuff with. Then they sit down, fully clothed, at a table, with mats and serving spoons, and eat in silence or while exchanging civilized anecdotes about their lives. I only want to eat if I can sit pantsless in front of the internet while I’m doing it. And I only cook for parties. Spending time in the kitchen is only worthwhile if at least two dozen people will adore me afterwards. Otherwise I can just pick the M&Ms out of a trailmix bag, sprinkle them over a cup of applesauce and be done with it. I only use my stove to store my wicker basket collection and for my weekly death-by-garlic pasta binge, during which I prepare enough food to feed Haiti, and eat it all myself. I’m not sure I’d ever want a man to know these habits of mine, let alone be legally bound to share in them with me. And after ten or twenty years of letting him cook for me, I might start to suspect I’m taking advantage of him, and feel guilty about it.

As I get older, I wonder about how much of my life depends upon privacy, how much of my daily routine I would suppress if there were someone watching me. Do I want someone to witness me choosing to watch LOLCAT videos rather than read a Great Book, or even a good book, or even a full HuffPo article, before bed? Do I want to inflict my apocalyptic hormonal mood swings on an innocent man, or worse, stifle them for his sake and just guess at when the ulcer’s going to hit? Do I want someone possibly taking a dim view of my frequent daydreaming and then telling me to put some pants on and go get a job at Starbuck’s or Home Depot or wherever? I suppose that’s the fear, isn’t it, that the proclivities of mine I secretly suspect aren’t entirely benign but that I usually assume will appear charming to most other people, will be seen and comprehended in their unsimple totality by someone who would get to be as much of an expert on me as a husband would. And if he’s a man he would then encourage me, maybe even try to help me change, put his hands on my shoulders and turn me to face reality, which I always hate doing and which is why I generally can’t ass myself to do it on my own. And then I’d have to admit that I clung to a basically childish version of myself for longer than was seemly, and that instead of dragging myself up out of it, I needed a man to compel me to. God, I hate him already.

Thursday, March 03, 2011


A friend turned me on to The Believer magazine, which is now my bus and train reading. In the February issue, there’s a fascinating series of essays by transgender author T Cooper on different aspects of his transformation from female to male: unsent letters he wrote to his parents explaining his decision, personality changes he has gone through since his transformation, elements of womanhood that one would think he’d understand considering his past but doesn’t. But one essay, on the subject of his frustration at the “slip-ups” people still make regarding his gender such as accidentally referring to him as a “she,” suggests his frustration at not having his identity acknowledged and respected has surpassed his empathy for human error. It’s ironically the one closed-minded part of an otherwise illuminating, and entertaining, treatise.

Cooper argues,

“…say you have a good friend you’ve known for years. You used to go out to bars with this guy, snort drugs, hook up with strippers, and then wake up and do it all over again. If this guy is now 5 years sober and happily married with 2.5 perfect children, you probably wouldn’t call him up every day and ask him to score some coke and go whoring with you…It’s not the world he lives in, even if you still think or still wish he did. Maybe it never was to him, it never quite fit, and he had to go through all that to get to the happy rainbow place he is today.

Or, say you always played basketball with a buddy; that’s all you did together…But then your buddy is in a gruesome Staten Island Ferry accident, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, exiled permanently to a wheelchair. Would you forevermore go up to him, see him sitting there, and then be like, ‘Yo, you wanna go down to the corner and play some pickup? Oops! I didn’t mean to say that! Sorry, it’s just so hard to get used to!’

No, it’s fucking not… makes me feel like shit when people refer to me as she. It doesn’t matter if it’s with the best of intentions, or whether it’s obvious to those in earshot that I’m male, and nothing’s technically been lost, that there’s clearly been a mistake. Or even if they are talking about the past.’

(quoting his wife) ’How would I feel if I were called sir while I was out on a date, wearing a dress and heels and cherry lipstick? How abnegating it would be to have the world decide, no matter how many signals you give, that you are something you are not.’

Of course, his frustration is understandable, and so is his pain. But I’m not sure his impatience with people who slip-up, and his dismissal of them as somehow lazy or dismissive themselves, is fair. It got me thinking about how I “group” people in my mind, what the most basic thing about them I remember and associate with them is. What are the characteristics that, no matter how the signals they deliberately send change over time, identify them to me?

This analogy might not immediately be apparent, but the essay reminded me of the way I think of words: how I group them, how I remember them, how they affect me. Sometimes when I’m trying and failing to remember a word that is “on the tip of my tongue,” the closest attributes of the word itself that I can remember might be the number of syllables, or the rhythm of it, or perhaps whether it was Germanic, Latin or Greek in origin. If I remember speaking it aloud to myself, randomly throwing in a few rough breathing marks for fun and imitating a recording I once listened to of The Iliad recited in a dialect believed to be similar to Old Ionic, I know the word was Greek. If I recall intentionally mispronouncing it in an Italian accent, I’ll know it is from Latin. If it sounds sexy or romantic, I’ll know it’s Frenchified Latin. If it’s phlegmy and uncouth, it must be German.

But more palpable than my memories of the attributes of the word itself, are my memories of how I felt when I first encountered the word. I can remember whether I was happy or sad, in love, depressed, feeling accomplished and smug, or put-upon and useless. I can remember if I was eating at the moment, and if so, whether it was sweet or savory, and how I felt as I was eating, if I was just grazing or eating until I was full, or ate too much and felt sick. Or maybe I was just having a coffee and felt the acid tenderize my stomach as I first read or heard that word.

That’s another thing I can remember even if I can’t remember the word itself: I know if I heard the word on TV or read it in a book. If it was from the television I can remember whether it was on a news or commentary show or in a movie or serial. If it was news and commentary, I can remember if I agreed with the person who used the word, and if it was a serial, whether I had a crush on the character who used it. If it was in a book, I can remember if it was fiction or non-fiction, and if fiction, which voice spoke the word aloud in my mind’s ear: if the narrator was female, regardless of the cultural origin of the book, it was my own, as I pride myself on being good with dialects. If male, the voice belonged to Jeremy Irons, naturally. If it was non-fiction I can remember whether it was British or American, or a translation. I can remember if I learned the word in conversation, and whether that conversation was in America or Europe, and if in America, on what coast, and if on the west coast, whether it was with a friend from high school, the theatre, or the opera, and if in New York, at Saks or some other job, over drinks or lunch or shouted at a noisy party. I can remember my status relative to the person who used the word, if it was a boss or a teacher, or a colleague, or a nuisance—did I feel intimidated, worried, delighted, or annoyed when I heard this word? Do I associate the word with satisfaction (words I learn while happy) or frustration (words I learn while trying to distract myself from unhappiness)? I can remember that, if not the word.

The clues are ghosts, and ghosts of ghosts, not of the thing itself, but of who I was at the moment of reception. It’s why, whenever I hear or read the word “assuage” I recall myself, if ever so faintly, as an 18 year old crushing on a teacher, or why “parameter” triggers a surge of disdain: I remember my father, in our Oldsmobile some time in the ‘80’s, complaining about the clichés of the day, the trendy words he was so tired of hearing, such as people droning on about the “parameters” of something when they just wanted a fancy word for “limit.” “Diminute” makes me think of London, Shakespeare, a Kensal Rise flat filled with books and art, good friends, Turkish rugs, grass and red wine. This is because, having heard my teacher Ben use the word several times in class, I asked him one night at his home, where I spent my best English evenings, why he didn’t just say “diminish” (the answer is that “diminish” is a reflexive verb, and “diminute,” an obscure active one, or less obscure adjective). With “pervasive” I’m back in Santa Fe on a warm dry autumn night under a sky the color of rust, reading my classmate Chris’s freshmen biology essay, astonished at the brilliant 16 year-old’s ability to interpret the sodden innards of our dissected cat, and wondering if I’d ever be able to hold my own with such scholars. The sentence itself wasn’t too spectacular, something about how the arterial system of the cat was “not quite pervasive,” but I recall that mix of admiration and apprehension perfectly, for it revisits me every time I use, hear, or read that word. “Abstruse” places me back as a breathless stagehand over ten years ago, working a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (in which the word appears), always over-sugared, over-caffeinated, and hungry from eating dinner too early before the marathon play. The fricative “s” escapes the plosive “b,” breaks the tab “t” and gushes out through “ru” and suddenly the coca-cola is spumy in my empty stomach, its sugars caustic on my teeth.

These peripheral experiences that I recall with every word, or instead of the word, if it eludes me, only mean that more than the literal or technical definition of a word, I remember how I felt at my initial encounter with it.

I’ve realized, however, that out of all this mnemonic detritus my experience attaches to a word the most basic thing I project onto it is gender. I can remember if it was a male or female who spoke it or wrote it when I noticed it. If it was a man, I remember which category I had placed him in: guide and mentor, friend and equal, romantic interest, romantic interest and friend and equal, romantic interest and mentor, or pest. If the speaker of the word was female, I remember if she was a mentor, a friend and equal, or if I felt threatened by her or confident that I threatened her, or if she was a friend I felt threatened by or towards whom I was careful not to act threateningly. But ridding the word of my collateral experience, it remains, to me, male or female. “Atavistic,” “frisson,” and “palimpsest” are all male, because I encountered them reading Martin Amis, A. A. Gill, and Will Self respectively. Female words are “Effulgence” (Wharton), “tautology” (another great Gill, my former classmate Karina), and “limn” (Fuck You, Michiko Kakutani). “Droll” is female (mother) and “subsume” is male (Michael Schneider). “Judicious” is female, and “histrionic” is male. The gender I associate with a word has only to do with the gender of the person from whom I first learned the word, however long ago, regardless of the actual definition, etymology, connotations, or the gender, if any, with which the word is usually associated. “Histrionic” is a word I usually hear used, justly or unjustly, in connection to femaleness (or to me specifically, totally without basis). But my first hit of it came from a male drama teacher, so male it stays.

Of course I’m not really talking about words, I’m talking about myself, and the associations I make that make no sense of anything but my own experience. However disparate my experience is from the truth about something, it provides a deeper meaning for me than the objective truth about that thing. And gender, somehow, is the most basic element of that experience. I wonder if it is so for other people as well. If I’m alone in a room, and my back is turned to the door and someone else walks in, I can tell if that person is a man or woman. And it’s not from some obvious “signal” like the sound of high heels on floorboard or the smell of perfume. It’s visceral and I can’t justify with evidence, but I’m almost always right.

Cooper analogizes the slip-ups people make regarding his gender with a slip-up no sane or sensitive person would make in two hypothetical examples, of the whoring buddy now settled and the basketball partner now paralyzed. But the activities one enjoys with a person, however regularly, and for however long, are not nearly as identifying as that person’s gender. The two examples Cooper uses are a false equivalency because it is much more natural to dissociate a person from the hobbies you shared with them than it is to suddenly start thinking of them in a whole different gender. Yes, one should acknowledge dresses and cherry lipstick as signals of how a person prefers to be regarded, but in the moment of a “slip-up,” one is guided by something deeper than the part of one’s brain that acknowledges and interprets signals, before that part of the brain can catch the mistake and correct it. I had a friend while living in Europe, a male who had made the transition to female long before I ever knew her. She did not tell me of the change she had made at all. I heard about it from a mutual friend but didn’t think much of it, since I’m from San Francisco and don’t find such stories to be too exotic. I would have known anyway, as her past maleness was unmistakable--again, not because of any signal I can put words to—I’ve known women who were taller, broader-shouldered, slimmer-hipped, deeper-voiced, had more, er, manly facial features, and wore less makeup on them. No, there was just something “male” about her, and, months into our friendship I slipped up once while ordering in a restaurant and referred to her as a “he.” I was mortified, of course, and hope I did not make her feel like shit, as T Cooper describes such gaffs as affecting him. But I also can’t quite agree that this slip-up is on the level of accidentally inviting a man in a wheelchair to play basketball. Hobbies and the accidents we suffer do not occupy space in the same atavistic chamber of our psyches as gender. I can understand “how abnegating it would be to have the world decide that you are something you are not” but a slip-up is not a decision, and cannot be resented in the same way.

Cooper and other people who have undergone gender transformation say they did it to honor what they know to be the truth about themselves. “…to be trans is to feel the truth so acutely you can’t fake it. It is to be so consumed with the truth of who you are that you are willing to risk everything to inhabit it.” But it is unreasonable to expect the world you live in not only to acknowledge that truth (that is indeed reasonable) but feel that truth as acutely, as unmistakably as you do, and to be offended when the signals you labor to exhibit are no match for what millions of years have hardwired into us. I read a study recently that told me I am likely to behave more protectively of myself around men when I am ovulating than when I am in the less fertile phase of my cycle; I will avoid sketchy areas, I will dress less provocatively, I will subconsciously regard men as potential rapists and try not to act as if I’m “asking for it,” in a biological mechanism designed to cope with my greater attractiveness during that time. My body wants to be impregnated and so subtly enhances the signals of my fertility, but it also wants to minimize the chances of the “wrong” male taking advantage (i.e. it wants a baby-daddy and not a rapist). Of course this is offensive. As a level-headed woman I prefer to think that I gauge my safety from situation to situation rationally, based on observations and crime statistics and the like. I also resent the implication that the hormones sloshing around in me will soak my deductive powers so thoroughly that on some primordial level I think any dweeb on the street is a threat to me in my fecundity. Who knows if the study itself will stick, but it says something about people and gender. Our reactions to maleness and femaleness are beyond what our conscious selves can grasp. It is what makes people like T Cooper know, in their deepest selves, what they are, despite all the contrary signals with which nature has assembled them. But it is also why (I suspect) it is unlikely that trans people will ever feel understood and acknowledged as totally as they understand and acknowledge the truth about themselves, whatever level of enlightenment our culture achieves. Not everyone ascribes a gender to words as I do (but, ahem, many cultures do), but everyone comprehends and reacts to gender, in ways that may be partly societal, but primarily evolutionary. Millions of years have taught us to recognize and react to gender. It is asking a lot of people that they not only reject, but forget.