Beyond Caitlyn Jenner: Micro-documentary on Trans Civil Rights History.

This “Op-doc” appeared in the New York Times on June 15, 2015. Featuring Lordes Ashley Hunter, Nick Adams, Susan Stryker, Sylvia Rivera, and me. Anybody who thinks they have an opinion about trans people might want to watch this for perspective.

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The Pirate Maiden

This is a piece I wrote on New Years Day as a gift for Wesleyan’s newspaper, the Argus, of which I was the editor in chief thirty-five years ago.

The Pirate Maiden

by Jennifer Finney Boylan

We put the Argus to bed about 4 AM, and then the editor said, “Chinatown,”  and off we went. A little later I was eating hot and sour soup in New York City.  The editor was happy because he was quitting.  Almost everyone was quitting, leaving me in charge of the paper.  That would have been fine, except for the one hitch which of course was that I didn’t know the first thing about anything.

I’d come to the Argus late— fall of my senior year, September 1979.  I couldn’t have found an inverted pyramid if I’d been standing on my head in the deserts of Egypt.   I wrote a clever column that autumn though, full of riffs on whatever was going on around campus, packed with sweet little heartbroken jokes.  After a while I tried my hand at news stories, too.  It was harder than it looked.

In the end I tricked a bunch of my friends, mostly Hermes writers, into working on the Argus with me.  It was a heavy trip, man.  Bluegrass and Irish bands played, more or less at random, in the editors office as we assembled the paper— an endless, physical process in those days before computers.  The managing editor, whom I loved, emitted farts as the result of his all-soy-sauce diet that could knock out a large dog.  We drew with markers all over the walls of the office— which then was on the corner of High Street, across from Alpha Delt.  A guy named John Moynihan used to jump through the windows now and again wearing full pirate gear, pressing a cutlass to our throats and saying, “Arg.”

In some ways, that experience at the Argus was like my Wesleyan experience in a nutshell.  In addition to my own fledgling scholarship as an English major—which wasn’t much—the main thing I took away from campus was a sense that having an imagination could almost save me in the years ahead.  There were times, as the Irish band played and the air filled with farts and John Moynihan made the Sports editor “walk the plank,” that I thought the world beyond Middletown would be just like this:  that somehow I would, in years to come, be part of a community of creative, sarcastic souls,  that our pizzazz and stink would somehow change the culture and make America itself a slightly less terrible place.

But of course, there would never be a place exactly like that again, just as there would never be a place like Wesleyan 1980, either.  Whatever piss and vinegar we managed to create was the result of a small group of souls at that time, in that place.  This is probably just as it should be— each generation of Wesleyan students reinvents the place according to its own lights, and anyone who spends her time lamenting the past is probably missing the opportunity to celebrate the future.

Even then it was not unusual to hear people lament that the golden days had passed, that things had been so much cooler in some earlier Wesleyan era.  Usually people who said such things were referring to spring of 1970, when the Grateful Dead had played a free concert on Foss Hill— but I knew a few administrators who clearly felt that the college had peaked in the late fifties and had gone all to hell since then.  Years later, when I returned to campus to teach a course, my students, upon learning that I’d graduated in 1980, lamented that they hadn’t been around when things were really hopping’.  What could I do, except try to remind them that the golden age always lies ahead?

Now, thirty-five years later, I still often think of those young writers with whom I decamped for Chinatown that night. One of us became a guiding force behind the San Francisco Bay Guardian; another worked for the Wall Street Journal.  A third wrote a bestselling memoir.  John Moynihan joined the merchant marines, sailed around the world, made films, and died young.

As for me, I came out as transgender and somehow, in spite of that complex unveiling, managed to survive. There were a lot of things that contributed to my being able at last to give voice to the things I had long felt in my heart, but one of the most important was having been part of Wesleyan, a place where, on a good day, you could almost believe that creativity, and love, and sheer cussedness itself, could help a person prevail.

When we got back from Chinatown that morning, I sat down on the front steps of Eclectic with a cup of coffee and watched the campus come to life. Someone was ringing bells in South College. I could not then imagine the world that was to come, but I felt as if something good was coming, that I had, at long last, become part of something larger than myself.

John Moynihan walked past me, wearing his hat with the skull and crossbones.

“Arg,” he said.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, 1980, is Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.  She is the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, a trustee of the Kinsey Institute, and a Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times.  In 1980 she was editor-in-chief of the Wesleyan Argus.

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JFB in NYT: A Mind is a Terrible Thing Not to Waste

This essay appeared in the New York Times on Saturday, June 6, 2015.

Lenny's Hot Dogs, Atlantic City NJ., left. Lucy the Elephant, right.

THERE I was, at the height of the great Disco Summer, selling hot dogs in the shadow of a six-story, elephant-shaped building on the shores of Margate, N.J. Most nights, my shift started at midnight. It was June 1977, just after my freshman year at Wesleyan, and I was hard at work at Lenny’s Hot Dogs.

The big rush came just after 3 a.m., when the disco across the street, The Music Box, unplugged its rotating mirror ball and its denizens spilled out in search of hot dogs, frozen yogurt cones and Lenny’s pepper hash. At that late hour the lines stretched from Lenny’s across the parking lot, past Lucy the Elephant, and toward the rumbling Atlantic beyond.

Lucy the Elephant is now a National Historic Landmark, but Lenny’s, sadly, has been gone for decades. Still, plenty of freshmen will spend this summer selling hot dogs, waiting tables, tending bar or supervising the archery range at clam shacks, taverns and summer camps from Maine to California.

One question, of course, is what kind of work is best for college students?

For many, summer employment means… (read the rest of the piece at the NYT site here.)

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Distinguished

Happy memories of Wesleyan University. This weekend marks my 35th reunion.

It’s off to Middletown, CT for me this weekend, to Wesleyan University, where I’m receiving the Distinguished Alumna award from my alma mater, an award that clearly indicates just how far the market value of Distinguishment has fallen.

Wesleyan, where I studied from 1976-80 remains, after all this time,  a place rife with mythology and memory for me.  It’s where I met the love of my life, Deirdre (whom readers know as “Grace.”) It’s also the place where, for a little while, I most felt that I could succeed as a boy, if only I were smart and funny and fast enough.  I was all of those at Wesleyan, which in the late 70s was a place of invention and weirdness and scholarship.  It was the place where I first felt truly encouraged to be a writer.  For all of that I’m so grateful, even if, in the end, being smart and funny and fast was– instead of the thing that enabled me to stay male– made it possible at last to find the courage to make my transition.

In a bit of irony surely not lost upon me, I’m being driven to Wesleyan by my sons, themselves now college students.  Zach (Vassar College, drama major) and Sean (University of Rochester, probably Astrophysics and Mechanical Engineering double major) will throw me out the door of the Honda at Wesleyan, and they will then drive on to Maine and home, while I spend the weekend sleeping in my old freshman dorm and play (on Friday night) in the band for the all-college dance.

I am hoping we play “Terrapin Station,” an unlikely turn of events, but then stranger things have happened, especially on that campus.  If so, I’ll sing these lines:

Let my inspiration flow in token rhyme, suggesting rhythm,
That will not forsake you, till my tale is told and done.
While the firelight’s aglow, strange shadows from the flames will grow,
Till things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.

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Greetings Culture Lovers

Greetings culture lovers, as Bullwinkle the Moose’s “Mr-Know-It-All” used to say.

I apologize for letting this site languish.  As some of you know, I moved to New York to begin a spring semester as Barnard’s new Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence this spring, and between the business of my schedule (and kinda like, forgetting my password for this site) I haven’t updated a thing.

It’s been a dramatic few months for transgender Americans, as well as for me personally, and I vow to stay in better touch in months to come.

The biggest turn of events was Bruce Jenner’s coming out as trans on an ABC Special with Diane Sawyer.  I was interviewed for, and participated in, this project.   Like many trans people, I was uncertain how it would all turn out.  I admit I was a skeptic, right up until air time.  The show reached over 20 million people, however, and the reaction was overwhelmingly, amazingly positive, to my delight.  It’s true that many trans folks felt like, WE’VE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR DECADES NOW. And yet, maybe it took someone of Jenner’s celebrity and standing to get it through the heads of many people.  As GLAAD’s Sarah Kate Ellis noted, “on Saturday morning, millions of people woke up and finally KNEW someone who was trans.”

NBC announced that Jenner will have a documentary (i.e., NOT a reality show) this summer about the transition.  I am a consultant on that show.  I have promised not to reveal its contents (or any of the other stuff I know about this story-in-progress), but I can tell you that, once again, I have approached this project as a skeptic and have been won over by what appear to me like the earnestness and good intentions of all involved.   I hope that people will see whether, just like the ABC show, the summer series does indeed open hearts.

There will all sorts of other news on this front which I will comment upon as it breaks; I hope you’ll all forgive me for biting my tongue in the meantime, but I made a promise, and I intend to keep it.

Other news?  Well let’s see.  I published two op/eds in the New York Times this spring.  The first, appearing in February, regarded the question of whether the new Pope can  bring Catholics (and others) back to the church. The second tells the story of a night in a bar with a friend and some Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and the way we think about the things we have lost in life.

It was a busy spring on the lecture circuit.  I spoke at Cal State East bay on February 26; at Arkansas State on March 13; at the University of Vermont on March 27; at my new home in Barnard on April 2; provided the Keynote for the American Society of Journalist and Authors on May 1; spoke from the stage at the GLAAD media awards gala in Neew York on May 9, and was honored by the Women’s Therapy Center Institute on May 15.   The links to the ASJA speech and the GLAAD speech above take you to videos where you can actually hear and see my sad little jokes.

Brevity magazine has a gender issue up featuring work by me and Kate Bornstein and others, and you can read my piece from that right here.

That’s probably everything for now, but I promise to be better at updating this site.  I’m scheduled to continue my life of travel for another few weeks:  off to my 35th college reunion on May 22 and 23rd;  from there to my hometown of Devon, PA, right after that; back to NYC for the night of May 27, where I’m being feted along with Anna Quindlen in a tribute for Barnard College; and from there back to California for GLAAD’s May board meeting.  I’m doing a road trip in CA after that before finally arriving back in Maine about June 9 or 10, where I hope to spend a large part of this summer sitting on a fishing boat staring at the still, quiet waters.

Sending love to everyone, and with sincere thanks for your ongoing support!

Jenny B.

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READ WRITE SCREAM: How to Save Your Life

Here’s a column I wrote for the New York Times, published January 7, 2014.

THEY placed an unlit candle in my hands. Hundreds of people sat quietly in chairs. This was at the L.G.B.T. Community Center in Greenwich Village in November, at an event called the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

It happens every year, people coming together to mourn trans individuals lost to murder or suicide. As a trans woman, I wish that the one day on the calendar that recognizes transgender experience was about celebrating the successes of our diverse community, rather than counting the lives we’ve lost. But the losses go on, year after year. And so I lit that candle.

The weekend after Christmas, 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn left her house in Kings Mills, Ohio, in the middle of the night. She made her way to Interstate 71, where she stepped in front of a tractor-trailer. A note she left behind on Tumblr read, in part, “Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living … because I’m transgender.”

Leelah’s conservative Christian parents were not supportive of her urgent pleas to live her life openly. “I told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids.” She added: “That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.”

Leelah was no mistake. The world abounds with all sorts of ways of being human, one of which is being trans. It is a tragedy that Leelah was never given the chance to be proud of who she was, and that she thought the only way to change the world was through her death.

Suicide is a constant among transgender people; we are one of the most at-risk groups in the country. One study suggests that over 40 percent of us attempt it during the course of our lives.

I was among that number. In 1986 I stood at the edge of a cliff in Nova Scotia, looking down at the Atlantic, considering the plunge into the sea below.

Then I turned back. Somehow, here I am.

Early transition is usually best for trans people. But for many of us it’s impossible, because of unsupportive families, because of a lack of resources, because we do not yet have the courage to embark upon what seems like a frightening path. In that scenario, the best strategy may simply be having faith in the future, and finding a way to survive until you’re able to control your own destiny. I don’t know if the things that helped me are of any use to someone born, as Leelah was, in 1997. But the last week has given me occasion to think back on how it was I got this far.

My own life was saved in part by books. When I found Jan Morris’s 1974 memoir, “Conundrum,” it was as if I’d found a wormhole to another universe, a galaxy where people like me could thrive. I wish I could have also given Leelah two more recent works: Janet Mock’s “Redefining Realness” and Kate Bornstein’s “Hello Cruel World.” They might have made a difference.

If reading provided me with solace, so did writing. Keeping a journal, telling stories, inventing worlds gave me comfort until the time came when I had the agency to make my own choices. Narrative helped me find a through-line in the chaos of my life.

There were other times, quite frankly, when simply making a lot of noise saved me, too. I pounded my family’s piano until the strings broke; I played in a band that played two songs, one of which was “Turn on Your Love Light,” and one of which was not. Making noise helped me know I existed, helped me in some inarticulate way express the pain I felt inside. There were winter nights when I shouted at the sky. Sometimes my own voice echoed back at me.

Read, Write, Scream is not exactly “Eat, Pray, Love,” but it worked for me. And there are lots of other resources available now that I did not have in the 1970s, including the hashtag #RealLiveTransAdult that leads to many stories of people who survived and thrived.

It may still be possible to fulfill at least one of Leelah’s wishes. In her note, she wrote: “My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, ‘that’s [expletive] up’ and fix it. Fix society. Please.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”

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9 Ways to Save Your Life if You’re Young and Trans

Hope is the thing with feathers.

What does it say about us that a 17 year old transgender person like Leelah Alcorn would choose to jump in front of a truck rather than live her life?

Here is my list of Nine Things You Can Do if You’re Young and Trans. Maybe you have some of your own. Let’s pay this forward.  I hope we can save some lives.

1. Read. Kate Bornstein is a good place to begin. Gender Outlaw. And the anti-suicide Hello Cruel World

2. Write. Keep a journal, tell your story. Write fantasy. Narrative helps you make sense of the chaos.

3. Talk. Find people you can trust. If someone wants to “convert” you, find someone else. We exist.

4. Play a long game.Worst thing is not having your ACTUAL LIFE NOW. But you can find your way in time.

5. Make noise. Play in a band. Scream. Don’t keep it inside. Express yourself any way you can.

6. If you can stand it, your homework. Education can be your get out of jail card.

7. Know you are not alone.There are tens of thousands of us & we’re a rising force. You have family.

8. Have faith if you want faith.  Not every denomination is hostile.  If you are Christian, know that UCC, Universalist/Unitarians, Quakers, and many others are open and affirming.  Find your people.

9. If you are in crisis, call this number: a Trans suicide hotline. (877-565-8860)

These are my suggestions.  What are yours?

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2014: The Year in Boylan

You'd want some coffee too if you did all this junk

This was kind of an exhausting year.  Good shit, though.   I know that a lot of people wonder what it is I actually do, besides teaching college.  Here’s a list for the last 12 months.  Get out yr hankies.

Links to all the short pieces can be found here.

Nonfiction books: Random House & Oxford University Press

Trans Bodies/Trans Selves. Laura Erickson-Schroth, ed. (introduction by Jennifer Finney Boylan)   (June 2014).  Oxford University Press.

Stuck in the Middle with You: Parenthood in Two Genders. May 2013. Crown/Broadway, division of Random House, Inc. (memoir, plus interviews on parenthood and childhood with Richard Russo, Augusten Burroughs, Edward Albee, Anne Beattie, Susan Minot, Trey Ellis and others.) Paperback April 2014.

She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders, May 2013. Revised and expanded 10th anniversary edition of 2003 memoir, with new epilogue by Deirdre Boylan and new foreword and afterword by Jennifer Boylan. Afterward by Richard Russo. 2013 Crown/Broadway, division of Random House, Inc.

Fiction, novella:

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About. A novella. June 2014.  She-books, Inc.

Anthologized work in Hardcover:

Brief Encounters: Norton Anthology of Short Nonfiction. W.W, Norton, Inc. (forthcoming 2015). (contains essay by JB, “Why the Long Face?”)

You are You (forthcoming 2015) Photo-documentary on camp for gender nonconforming youth. Wrote introduction, “Earning My Feathers.”

Come Here Often: 51 Writers Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar. Black Balloon Publishing.  September 2014 (contains story/essay by JB, “The Beagle.”)

Spent: Exposing our Complicated Relationship with Shopping, SEAL Press. September 2014.  (contains JB essay, “The One That Got Away.” )

Letters to My Sisters, Transgress Press.  May 2014. Contains one JB “letter” to young transgender women.

Greenwich Village Stories, Universe Press, April 2014.  Contains JFB tale of arriving in New York, November 2, 1980.

Essays and Op/eds for the New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Huffington Post.

“My Christmas Visitors,” December 24, 2014  op/ed, New York Times.

Mystery Train,” December 17, 2014.  Salon

Knitting Backward,” October 18, 2014.  New York Times.

Having a Transgender Parent Helped My Sons Become Better Men.” September 25, 2014.  The Advocate.

Sturm und Drang,”  September 14, 2014.  Washington Post

“Pizza and Parenthood,” op/ed, New York Times, August 27, 2014

“My Life in Bicycles,” op/ed, New York Times, Aug. 17, 2014.

“Trans Community Can Change Minds by Changing Discourse,” op/ed, Los Angeles Times, August 17, 2014.

“Five Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person (and Three Things You Should)” Huffington Post, July 21, 2014.

I Had a Boyhood, Once,” op/ed, New York Times, July 20, 2014.

Home is Where the Horses Are,” op/ed, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

When Music Was Strange,” op/ed, New York Times, May 10, 2014

A Common Core for All of Us,” op/ed, New York Times, March 22, 2014.

“Save us from the SAT,” op/ed, New York Times, March 7, 2014

“Transgender, Schlumpy, & Human,” op/ed, New York Times Feb. 16, 2014.

“The Beatles, JFK, Even Julia Child. HELP!”  feature, Washington Post, Feb. 7. 2014

Broadcast Media:

Television:

“Transgender Civil Rights,” piece for CBS News’ anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Advisor, Transparent, Amazon series episodes 101-109, January 2014.

Radio:

Fresh Air, with Terry Gross, NPR. interview with JFB and others about book, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves.  7/17/14

The Takeaway, NPR, interview with JFB about trans advocacy and progress, 4/23/14

Miscellaneous

Invited Guest: East Room, White House, as President Obama signed Executive Order Expanding Protections to LGBT Employees of the Federal Government.

Amtrak Writer-in-Residence. Travelled 8000+ miles, from Maine to Boston to San Francisco; from SF to Seattle; from Seattle to Chicago and home to Maine. Wrote about it for SALON.

Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence, Barnard College of Columbia University.  Left Colby College after 25 years and began this new appointment in Barnard English.

Keynotes and Plenary Sessions:

Commencement Address, Kents Hill School, Kents Hill, ME 5/24/14

Address to New York District Attorney’s Office, 11/20/14

Address to Barnard College Trustees, New York, NY 12/10/14

Readings and Lectures:

Reading, First Year Experience (FYE) Conference, San Diego, CA 2/15-17/14.

Reading, Bowdoin College, Brunswick ME 2/24/14

Reading, Muhlenberg College, Allentown PA 3/24/14

Reading, Indiana University East, Richmond IN  3/26/14

Reading, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 4/3/14

Guest professor, Sexuality Class, University of Maine, 4/24/14

Reading, World Voices Festival, PEN, New York, NY 5/2/14

Reading with Augusten Burroughs, Strand Bookstore, New York, NY, 5/8/14

Reading, Edith Wharton House, “The Mount,” Lenox, MA 8/29/14

Panel, Canyon Ranch, Lenox MA 8/30/14

Reading, Poly Prep, Brooklyn, NY  9/9/14

Reading, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie NY  9/18/14

Reading, Milton Academy, Milton, MA 10/1/14

Reading, Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA 10/2/14

Reading, SUNY Canton, NY 10/16/14

Reading, Boston Book Festival, Boston MA  10/25-14

GLAAD and the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, & Reproduction

Board of Directors Meeting, GLAAD, New York, February 7 & 8, 2014.

Media Awards Gala, GLAAD, Los Angeles, April 12, 2014.

Media Awards Gala, GLAAD, New York, NY  May 3, 2014

Board of Directors Meeting, GLAAD, Los Angeles, May 30 & 31, 2014

Game Changers Gala, GLAAD, San Francisco, September 13, 2014

Board of Directors Meeting, GLAAD, Atlanta, GA October 10 & 11, 2014.

Board of Trustees Meeting, Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, IN November 2 & 3, 2014

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Day 17: Last Train

The end

The End

Day 17 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Maine, where I am approaching mile 8360, and the end of this incredible journey.  You can read previous entries about the trip on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Awoke in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge. Spent most of the day writing.  It was delightful, and a little bit sad, to step onto my “home” train, the Downeaster, and begin the last, relatively short leg of this trip north.  I hope to be in Belgrade Lakes, Maine by 9.

Tomorrow I have to go to New York City for four days. I’m flying.

Thanks for traveling along with me on this journey. Hey, now it’s your turn.

You’re sick of hangin’ around and you’d like to travel;
Get tired of travelin’ and you want to settle down.
I guess they can’t revoke your soul for tryin’,
Get out of the door and light out and look all around.

“Come along, Mrs. Thornhill.”

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Day 16: I’ve Been Writing on the Railroad

The Coast Starlight passing Mt. Shasta

Day 16 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Albany, NY where I am now at mile 8028 of this voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Slept, once more, like a baby on the Lake Shore Limited.  Awoke on the late side to find us east of Cleveland, west of Erie. Had scrambled eggs in the dining car and for the first time in two weeks my breakfast companion was someone plugged into a device, watching a movie over her French toast who did not wish to have a conversation or engage in any way. I couldn’t decide to be hurt by this (having had so many interesting and unexpected talks in the dining car) or relieved (remembering my breakfast with the Amish who did not approve of music).

Spent much of the day doing office work– wrote recommendations for students applying to grad school.  Then read the 100 pages of Falcon Quinn 3, my young adult series in progress;  I am about two-thirds of the way through that story.  I didn’t do any work on it today, but I did re-read what I’ve done till now, and tried to think about what will like ahead in the rest of the story, which I hope to write this winter and spring.

I’m holing up in a Boston hotel tonight before my final ride home tomorrow on Maine’s “Downeaster.”  As we approach the end of this voyage, here are a few tips for other travelers who do long distance train rides in the USA, and my other Amtrak Writers in Residence in Particular.

• Do bring a pair of slippers.  In the western trains, the bathroom is down the corridor, and you really want to have something on your feet for that journey.  They won’t let you leave the car in your socks.  I know: one morning, headed to breakfast, I was sent back to my room for shoes. You can only imagine my mortification.

• Do bring a power strip.  There’s usually only one outlet per roomette, and it sits not flush to the wall, but inside a strangely shaped indentation.  You want the kind of power strip that will plug in, and then give you three or four outlets on the other end; ideally some of these would be USB ports.

• There’s no wifi on the trains.  For vast stretches in the west, there is no cell service either.  The station master in San Francisco announced this happily, “So you will have to TALK to each other.  Or READ A BOOK.”   A mifi device or cell service will work a lot of the time, but not in the mountains, or in the tunnels.  And especially not in tunnels in the mountains.

Add water, makes its own sauce

• I brought a terry cloth robe for wearing over my pajamas in the morning.  I liked getting up very early out west, going into the observation car to write for an hour or two before sunrise.  The robe occupied a large chunk of my duffle bag, but I think it was worth it. So were the pajamas.  Mine were covered with little yellow stars, giving my friend Johnny in Seattle the chance to mock them as my “wizard pajamas” but I think he was just jealous he didn’t have any of his own.

• I brought two bags:  a small suitcase I kept in the roomette with me,  which I then refreshed and re-supplied from a huge duffle when I was off the train.  On the western trains, I kept the big duffle downstairs in the sleeper’s storage area; (not the baggage car); on the eastern trains, there’s an area in the top of the berth where you can shove a dufflebag–it’s just about that big.

• In Boston and Chicago, to name two, there are special lounges for the first class/sleeper car passengers, and this was really a lifesaver– especially in Chicago.  Folks doing the sleeper should take full advantage of these swanky chambers.

• The eastern trains are “Viewliners” and have single-decker sleepers with an upper berth that raises and lowers.  There are both high and low windows int he Viewliners that give the roomettes more light.  The “Superliners” are out west, and there is an upper level and a lower.  The upper level rooms have a slightly better view.  The Viewliners have a commode right in the roomette with you as well as a sink.  Some people will like the convenience of this; I kind of liked going down the hall to the powder room, and there was something a bit over-the-top about a commode right next to my easy chair. (Or maybe it’s under-the-bottom.)  The Western trains have the observation cars, and why not: there’s more to observe.  The Coast Starlight has the coolest cars of all– the “parlor” cars, with swivel easy chairs, a bar, and a movie theatre downstairs.

• But look, these rooms are really small.  There are larger ones, and riders will have to decide whether the extra money is worth it.  A couple would have to be really in love to enjoy the roomette, but then, lots of couples are.  How small are the rooms? A fellow from Texas said to me, “You couldn’t cuss out a cat in one of them things without getting fur in your mouth.”

• My own desire was to get a ton of work done, and I did just that.  I finished the last couple chapters of the first draft of a novel; wrote a 4000 word essay for an anthology;  wrote a syllabus for a new course at Barnard; did paperwork, and read Falcon Quinn 3.  I feel lucky and grateful. Trains really are great places for writers.

• The main challenge to all of this, though, is the great desire to stare out the window going Duh.  The best views on the routes, I think, are: crossing the Rockies on the California Zephyr; crossing the Sierras via the Donner Pass on the Zephyr; the view of Mt. Shasta from the Starlight; traversing Glacier National Park on the Empire Builder.  The Lake Shore Limited is a more efficient train, but the views are not quite as shockingly beautiful– or maybe it’s just that I’m from the east, and I’m familiar with the terrain.

• The Amtrak staff is kind of amazing.  From Lashawna on the Lake Shore going west, to Dennis on the Zephyr, to Alfreda ad Al on the Lake Shore east, the people working on the railroad are enthusiastic and professional and truly seem eager to help.  I was grateful for the way they made my voyage easier. I’m also grateful to Julia Quinn at Amtrak HQ for masterminding this whole project.

• You will encounter lots of people doing the sleeper route if you do this journey, but one thing they almost all seem to have in common is, THEY LOVE TRAINS.  They will talk your ear off about how great this all is, as if you have joined a very select group of lucky people. Which you have.

• This kind of voyage is not for everyone.  The quarters are small.  In some ways it will remind you of really elegant camping.  This is not the luxury train ride you are imagining from those movies in the 1940s, or perhaps even from trains in Europe.  The trains get delayed, routinely, especially out west; if you go the full route expect to be delayed, 2, 4, even 6 hours.  The only thing it is better than is any form of air travel whatsoever, and in comparison to that nightmare, it is like staying at the Waldorf.  You have an AC outlet, really good food, your own private room, and a window onto some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. There are literally places in this country you will never see if you do not take the train.  Would I do this again?  In a heartbeat.  And yes, next time, my family is coming with me.

This train is bound for glory.

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  • The Boylan Family, summer 2010

    DSC_0063 "You hang around our family, you learn all kinds of stuff."
  • Will Forte as Jennifer Finney Boylan on “Saturday Night Live”

    WiFo-Jennifer Finney Boylan-1
  • Jenny with Barbara Walters, December, 2008

    wawa
  • Jenny atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin

    2036947979_34bfbec240 August, 2002.
  • Surrounded

    boylanWith President Clinton and Maine's Governor John Baldacci, fall 2006.
  • JFB and Edward Albee

    edward_albee_by_fred_j_field-150x150

    Edward had been my teacher at Johns Hopkins in the winter of 1986. He visited Colby in fall, 2007. As we took our leave of each other, he kissed me on both cheeks and said, "We have done well. You and I."

  • Jenny and her teacher, the great John Barth

    Boylan_Barth

    Jack was my professor at JHU when I did my thesis, back in the day. After many years, I can now confidently say I finally understand his definition of plot. Which is, of course, "the perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium."