Day 0: The Love Train

Prewar ad for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Courtesy Paris Review.

Greetings, culture lovers (as Mr. Know-It-All used to say).  I’ll be departing this Saturday, November 1, from Portland, Maine, for 17 days as the second of Amtrak’s “Writers in Residence.”

The first resident was the lovely Bill Willingham,  who travelled from Redwing, Minnesota to Seattle and back on the “Empire Builder” in mid October.  He kept an ongoing blog of the residency’s maiden voyage, which you can read here.  He also provided a helpful list of suggestions for those of us who follow in his shoes, including, Get a plug for all your electronic devices, and Bring slippers.

Bill and I are Thing One and Thing Two of this still-experimental program, which was actually accidentally christened by writer Alexander Chee last spring in an interview with PEN; his lament, “I wish Amtrak had a residency for writers” has blossomed into this new program. Jessica Gross re-tweeted his comment, and Amtrak, in what I must say was a moment of tremendous agility, basically said, “Make it so, Number One.”   (Jessica’s piece, “Writing the Lakeshore Limited” appeared in the Paris Review here.)

Amtrak then formalized the program, and sent out the call:  writers were asked to send in a story to apply, and just like that, 16,000 of us had put our hats in.  (Which, as I have said elsewhere, ought to be a seen as a small measure of exactly how eager American writers are to get out of the house.)   Inexplicably, I was one of the 24 winners.  The full roster is here. It’s a diverse list in many ways– equal numbers women and men.  I believe I’m the only transgender writer among the bunch, although who knows?  The night is young.

Jenny Boylan. Photo by Augusten Burroughs

I think my journey is likely to be the longest of the group, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m starting out in my home state of Maine.  I’m bound for Chicago on the Lakeshore Limited; and from there (after a short stop in Indiana, about which more below), then to San Francisco on the California Zephyr.  I’m going to hole up in Big Sur for a few days before heading north:  Salinas to Seattle on the Coast Starlight.  I’m giving a talk at a college in Seattle, and then it’s back on the Empire Builder– from Seattle, through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and down to Chicago; from there I’ll hop onto the Lakeshore Limited once more, and back to Boston.  And finally, getting on the Downeaster for the journey home, from Boston to Freeport, Maine.

It’s seventeen days.  My best estimate is that it’s 7,298 miles.  Say this in the voice of Jeff Probst:  ”One transgender American.  Nine trains.  Twenty-one states.  One— Survivor!”

I’ve had a couple very, very distinct reactions to the news of my residency.  One group– a smaller number, admittedly– says, “Why on earth would you do this?”  A smaller subgroup says, “You know they won’t have an exercise room.  And the wifi service is spotty.  And there will be big stretches out west where there’s no cell service at all.”

To which I kind of want to say, “Oh god, I hope not.” (Although my own experience with Amtrak’s wifi service is that it’s fairly dependable, if not exactly lightning fast, while also being, oh yeah:  FREE.  This is in the beloved Northeast Corridor, which is a whole different kettle of fish.)

The other group of people, in hearing of my residency, have given me a dreamy sigh, and simply said, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”

Well, I’ve always wanted to do it too.  The last time I went coast to coast in something that had wheels on the ground was 1982, when my friend Peter Frumkin and I drove from New York to Portland OR.  That was the first time I saw the Rockies emerging out of the plains.  I have never forgotten that sight.  I can’t wait to see it again.

Another thing I visited on that 1982 trip was the Museum of Retired Ventriloquists’ Dummies, in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, about which more need not be spoken at this time, although I am not too proud to post a photograph of a much younger, and differently gendered me, looking out through the dummies.  Photo by Peter Frumkin.

James Boylan, summer 1982, with some of his smarter friends.

Like our Patron Saint, Alexander Chee, I have always loved writing on trains, although most of the writing I’ve done on Amtrak has been grading papers.  And reading, too.  There is something about time on a train that brings out the dreamer in me.  And dreaming, for writers, is kind of our version of batting practice.

I have two projects I’ll be working on during the residency.  One is the final four chapters of a novel I’ve been working on for about two or three years now;  if I actually finish and publish this, it will be my first time publishing adult fiction as a woman (since 2001, and the whole presto-change-o I have published exclusively nonfiction, with the exception of the novella, “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About,” which came out earlier this year from She-books.).  The other piece I’m working on is the long delayed third book in my young adult series, “Falcon Quinn.”  I’m on about page 75 of that– I was hoping to hold FQ 3 to under 125 pages, but it keeps growing.

As a writer, I have always had plenty of other projects taking up my time;  I’m the co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, which is a very big commitment.  I’m also the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard, and a Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times. You add those things together, plus– oh yeah, having a family:  my wife Deirdre and raising our two sons (now safely launched to college), and there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to stare out the window the last few years.  Plus we are in the heart of building a new house, and selling the old one:  don’t even ask.

One more thing I’m doing during this trip is stopping in Indiana on Day 3 to attend a Board of Trustees meeting of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Kinsey has just this week announced its new president, and this– along with the museum debut of the Institutes collection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe– means that I’ll have plenty to consider during my days in Indiana.  I was thinking, in fact, of calling this journey “The Sex Train,” but I suspect that my sponsors at Amtrak might not be thrilled.  So let’s call it “The Love Train.”

I’m looking forward to the writing.  I’m looking forward to the work I’ll be able to do.  I’m looking forward to that indescribably romantic sound: clackity clack, clackity clack.

Most mostly I’m looking forward to looking out the window at this country.  And seeing the mountains emerge from the plains.

Here’s the itinerary:

Day 1: The Downeaster from Maine to North Station Boston. (ME –>NH –> MA) Subway to South Staions Boston.  Board the Lake Shore Limited. (MA –> NY –> PA –>

Day 2: PA –> OH –> IN Arrive in Waterloo, IN.  Car to Bloomington IN for Kinsey and Mapplethorpe show.

Day 3: Bloomington IN.  Kinsey Institute Board of Trustees Meeting.

Day 4: Car service Bloomington to Indianapolis.  IN –> IL  Board the Hoosier State, Indy to Chicago.  Board the California Zephyr.  IL –> IA –> NE

Day 5: On board the California Zephyr NE –> CO –> UT

Day 6: UT –> NV –> CA  Arrive San Francisco, CA (A night in a hotel in SF).

Day 7: South on the Coast Starlight: San Francisco to Salinas, CA.  A night at Big Sur.

Day 8: Another night at Big Sur.

Day 9: Another night at Big Sur.

Day 10: Depart Salinas on the Coast Starlight, heading north.

Day 11:On the Coast Starlight:  CA –> OR–> WA.  Arrive Seattle.  A night in Seattle.

Day 12: Teaching a class at a Seattle college.  Then, boarding the Empire Builder. WA –> ID –>

Day 13: On the Empire Builder:  ID -> MT –> ND

Day 14: On the Empire Builder:  ND –> MN –> WI –> IL  Arrive Chicago.  A night in Chicago.

Day 15: Departing Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited.  IL –> IN–>OH–>

Day 16: On the Lake Shore Limited OH–>PA–>NY–> MA. Arrive Boston.  A night in Boston.

Day 17: The Downeaster, Boston to Freeport, ME.  And home.

I’ll be posting (much shorter) updates on my website, www.jenniferboylan.net, which I believe will be cross posted on the amtrak blog, as the journey unfolds.  I do fear that many of my observations will be along the lines of, “Wrote for a few hours.  Looked out the window, man.”  But I suspect there will be more to say.  I have a knack for trouble, mostly of the good kind.

People all over the world (everybody)
Join hands (join)
Start a love train, love train
People all over the world (all the world, now)
Join hands (love ride)
Start a love train (love ride), love train

The next stop that we make will be soon
Tell all the folks in Russia, and China, too
Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board
And let this train keep on riding, riding on through
Well, well….

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Jennifer Finney Boylan chosen as one of 24 inaugural “Amtrak Residency” writers.

Jennifer Finney Boylan. Photo by Augusten Burroughs

Wait, wait.  I thought they said “trains-gender.”  I was misinformed!  Does this mean I still have to go?

I am delighted–and more than a little flabbergasted–that I have been chosen as one of 24 winners of the “Amtrak Residency,” a “fellowship” of sorts that gives authors the opportunity to spend a week or two doing their work in the rarefied atmosphere of one of America’s cross-contintental long distance trains.  I was selected from over 16,000 applicants, which ought to give you some idea of exactly how desperate American authors are to get out of the house.

I will be traveling to California on the Zephyr, which is almost as cool as traveling there by Zeppelin, although considerably safer.  My plan is to leave Maine from the Freeport station on or about Halloween, to disembark in Indiana for the Kinsey Institute board of directors meeting, then re-board and head to Los Angeles.  From there, the plan (for now) is to head north, maybe get out and spend a few days at Big Sur, then re-train, go up to Mt. St. Helens, or what’s left of it, then up to Seattle to board a train for the return trip, which I hope will be the northern route through Montana, Dakota, all the way back to Chicago.  And from there to New York, Boston, and, at last, back to Maine.

Amtrak is providing us with a swanky sleeping compartment, which includes a fold-away sofa and a writing desk.  They also throw in lunch and dinner. We’re on our own for breakfast.

I think it’s a delightful idea, and I’m incredibly grateful to have won this opportunity.  This being the internet, however, of course, I think no more than six hours had passed before people began going waah waah waah.  Not all of the reservations about the program are unfounded, though.  So here are a few bullet points of my own concerning this whole business.

• The final group is diverse in many ways– it’s half women, half men.  It does seem a little overwhelmingly white, though; only three of the 24 finalists are people of color, I think.  We are a diverse group in other ways:  we live all over the country, we are gay and straight.  One of us I believe is transgender.  There is one finalist whom people apparently hate because he owns his own island and goes by a mononym.  I do not know this individual, but I don’t hate Cher, and she only has one name, so there’s that.  We appear to be a group of mostly well-published authors, with fairly established media platforms.  I suppose it might have been nice to include more writers who are at the beginning of their careers.  But I didn’t read the 16,000 applications, so I don’t know.  All in all it looks like a very intriguing bunch, and I’m honored to be included.

• When the initial program rolled out, there was considerable reservation about some of the provisions– Amtrak claimed that it would have ownership of the submitted applications, including the essays in them.  This caused no small amount of hair-tearing, and at least one writer I know withdrew his application in the wake of all this.  I suspected that the trouble was less about Amtrak over-reach than the more down-to-earth fact that these are people whose experience is in running a railroad, not a literary fellowship.  When I was informed that I’d won the fellowship, I did indeed grill them about this issue; I’m now convinced that they’ve learned their lesson.  They assure me that they will in fact NOT be using the app materials in any way.  We are, as it turns out, not required to produce or publish anything connected to this trip. Although, given that all of us are, blabbermouths and wing nuts, it seems likely you’ll be hearing a lot from this particular group.

• Is this the best way to rescue Amtrak?  Well, I’m neither a transportation expert nor a political scientist, so I can’t tell you.  I do know that the berths that are being given to the writers are ones that would have otherwise been unoccupied.  We can’t travel at times when the trains are otherwise booked with paying passengers.  I realize that the presence of authors will not be without cost– just think of all the burritos a science fiction writer could eat over two days.  But on the whole, I think the cost of the program to the American taxpayer will be relatively small, and the benefits large– not just for the lucky authors, who, let’s face it, are a bunch of dangerous lunatics–but for their readers.  There will be some good writing produced as a result of this, to be sure.  But just as important is that this publicity stunt–if that’s the word you insist on using–will shine a light on the many delights of train travel in this country, and inspire more people to take the train instead of the miserable brain-surgery-without-anesthesia that constitutes modern air travel.

• If I had to compare the Amtrak Residency to anything, it would be John and Yoko’s Bed-In for Peace in Amsterdam.  Did it actually help bring about world peace?  You tell me.  On the other hand, it made a little dent in the world, in a way that was both ridiculous and lovingly sincere.

And so it’s off on the open rails for me in the month of November.  I’ll update the blog as we proceed.  IN the meantime, to quote Paul Simon:

What is the point of this story? What information pertains?

The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody knows that’s true.

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody knows that’s true.

A few links for you completists:

Here’s Amtrak’s official list of the 24 winners, and a little bit about each of us.

A little piece in the Wall Street Journal about the residents;  and another one from the Los Angeles Times, which is generous enough to call me the “pioneering transgender author,” which is nice except that it makes me feel like I have won a residency in a Conestoga wagon.

Five whole hours passed without there being some angry internet screed about the whole business, leaving me feeling rather dispirited, and wondering, jeez, what’s the holdup? Fortunately, at the six hour mark,  Citylab jumped into the fray with this piece, which, as it turns out is well written and smart.

That’s it for now.  More soon.  All aboard!

Anyone wanting more information about the Amtrak residency can contact Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s director of social media, at Julia.Quinn@amtrak.com

You can also, as always, write me at jb (at) jenniferboylan.net.

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Having a Father who Became a Woman Helped Make My Sons into Better Men

(l to r:) Zach, Deedie ("Grace"), Sean, and Jenny Boylan, about 2006.

This is a piece I wrote for the Advocate–my first for them–about the new series, TRANSPARENT, and about being a trans parent. IT ran on September 23, 2014.

Over and over, during my time of transition, I kept hearing those same damning words: “What a terrible thing for her boys.”

The only phrase I heard more frequently was probably “You know who I feel sorry for is her wife.”

I was aware that my coming out as transgender would plunge my community here in Maine into unknown territory 14 years ago — a community of people whom I knew full well did indeed love me. But I chafed more than a little bit that the news of my emerging identity was seen as an occasion to feel pity for the people who appeared to love me most.

Now, almost a decade and a half later, it seems curious that anyone could have doubted the strength of the love that my wife and my sons had for me, that anyone could have questioned the love that we all had for each other. Back then, in 2000, the thought that we’d all thrive in this new version of our family was one possibility that no one considered.

But we have thrived. This fall my wife, Deirdre Grace, and I took our younger son off to begin his freshman year at the University of Rochester, where he’s studying astrophysics. His older brother is a theater major at Vassar. They are bright, luminous young men. One got straight A’s for four years running in high school; the other single-handedly directed Thorton Wilder’s Our Town his senior year and made several hundred people sitting in a theater cry their brains out. They’ve been successful with their relationships — with the girls they’ve dated as well as the lasting friendships they’ve sustained.  They aren’t perfect boys any more than we were perfect parents. But they’re bright, generous, and full of beans. What better thing could you say about any soul?

My wife and I  celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary this summer — 12 years as husband and wife, 14 as wife and wife. As I write this, she and I have just returned from Maine’s Common Ground Fair, where we took part in such radical, out-of-the-mainstream activities as eating burritos, watching a sheepdog demonstration, and listening to a bluegrass band.

I mention all of this because the question of what kind of families transgender people create is central to the most highly anticipated television show of the fall season, Jill Soloway’sTransparent (on which I served as a paid consultant). The pilot is available for free online now; the whole series is downloadable as of Friday from Amazon. There’s been a lot of buzz around the show, in part because Amazon seems to be taking the Netflix model one step further, in launching an online-only series that has the kind of sophistication and edge we’re more familiar seeing from the likes of HBO.

2014 has been a remarkable year of progress for transgender people. But one question that seems to still linger is the one at the heart of Transparent. What kind of messages are sent to children when they see their parents change gender? As one well-meaning friend said to me, back during the days of transition, “Who’s going to teach your son to mow the lawn and throw a football? Who’s going to teach your son how to be a man?”

What our family has learned, over the last 14 years, is that love transcends gender. And it is the love that our sons have received from both parents and from each other, that has made them who they are.

It’s true that I didn’t provide a role model for my boys on masculinity as they were growing up. But what I could model for them — compassion, a love for literature, a sense of humor — has helped make them better adults.

It is my own sense that having a father who became a woman has in turn helped my sons become better men.

Both violence and bullying are frequently the results of transgender people coming out, and I know many mothers and fathers whose children suffered at the hands of iron-hearted bigots in the wake of their parent’s coming-out. We need to educate principals and teachers and school board administrators to ensure that young people are safe in their school communities, no matter who their parents are.

But my own boys never experienced any trouble as a result of having me as a parent. While I’m aware that a healthy dose of luck — not to mention the general respect for privacy that can be one of the better aspects of the Yankee character — played in our favor, I also think that, perhaps, we were protected by the simple fact that I was so out from the very beginning. I was on Oprah four times; my book She’s Not There was a best seller; we all wound up, at various times over the years, on the Today show, on Larry King, and on Fresh Air With Terry Gross. The Boylan family was never like the Boo Radley house, a place to be shunned and feared.

Instead, we lived our lives openly, sending the message that we were proud of our family and that whatever made me different was a whole lot less important than the love that we shared.

In the years since then, what I’ve learned is that every family is a nontraditional family. You don’t have to dig very deep to find the many different burdens that all sorts of families carry and suffer with. But being a family is not about a race to find out who can have the fewest troubles. Being a family is about taking whatever life throws at you and doing your best, with love and humor. And pizza.

While Maura, the family patriarch on Transparent, is considerably older than I am (she’s 70), and her three children are all grown, she’s probably still wondering, as transgender parents do, what kind of parent she will be, as she negotiates the transition from father to mother.

I can tell her—and the thousands of other Mauras across the country — that with love and faith and hope, as we say in Maine, you can, indeed, get there from here.

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Jeffrey Tambor on TODAY, with a shout-out to JFB

I don’t think I can imbed this video, but here’s the link.  It’s a snip from the TODAY show on September 22nd.  Jeffrey Tambor talks about the new show, TRANSPARENT, with a couple really gracious shout-outs to your own JFB.  The first of which, I believe is at about the 1:20 mark.

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Sturm und Drang

Chancellor Merkel at the march against anti-Semitism

Here’s a column of mine that appeared in the Washington Post on September 21, 2014, about the burdens and blessings of being part-German.

During the last month of her life, my mother traveled in time and space, finally disembarking in the land — and the language — of her childhood. “Meine Schwester,” she said to me one delirious afternoon. “Du bist so schön.”

Of course, I was not her sister, and my beauty is surely open to debate. But it seemed like the wrong moment to object. She switched over to German for hours at a time that summer, in between naps and lively conversations with my father, who had died 25 years before.

I loved listening to her. She didn’t use the language all that much when I was growing up, or really after she left Germany when she was 6. Her name, Hildegarde, was a tip-off to her origins. But if Mom spoke with any accent at all, it was that of south Jersey. She made exceptions only for the occasional declarative. You knew you were in trouble if she said, “Donner wetter!,” which officially means “thunder weather,” but when my mother said it, it implied something much darker.

As a child, I avoided my German heritage, too. I’d tell people I was Irish, like my father, although you’d have to go back four generations to find the Boylans who fled Dublin in the wake of the Great Hunger.

It felt noble to be Irish. The Irish are beloved, witty, melancholic, great craic all around. It was to all of this that I aspired.

Of course, when my great-grandfather arrived in this country in the 1850s, the Irish American experience was far from the adorable cliche it would become. And the Irishness of my father was far from simple. But, unlike the Germanness of my mother, I never felt I needed to apologize for it.

To be German seems to require living with the weight of history. This was clear at a Berlin rally against anti-Semitism last Sunday. From a podium at the Brandenberg Gate, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared: “That people in Germany are threatened and abused because of their Jewish appearance or their support for Israel is an outrageous scandal that we won’t accept.”

When I was a teenager, I grew curious enough about my family’s history to study German for four years in high school and another year in college. Should it have been a surprise that it came so easily to me, and that its weird word order and tongue-twisting verbs gave me delight?

In the summer of 1976, I traveled to West Germany, where I wandered around with a ridiculous backpack, from Füssen to Wilhelmshaven. I drank Löwenbräu and ate all sorts of sausages. I stayed up til midnight listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a friend’s great-aunt, a tiny woman who spoke no English. I sang Bob Dylan songs auf Deutsch with other young people in a circus tent that served as a hostel on the outskirts of Munich.

Then, one afternoon, I stared out a train window at a line of boxcars and felt my entire body turn cold with terror. It was impossible to look at that image in that land without thinking of the Holocaust. In one city — was it Frankfurt? — I descended from a plaza to find an underground memorial to German war dead. There I saw a statue of a slain solider lying on his back. On the side of the marble slab were the words “Unsere Gefallenen,” which means, Our Fallen. I stood there, horrified, wondering, Who’s this “our”? It could not possibly include me, could it?

I haven’t returned to Germany. In 1998, when I was a visiting professor at University College Cork, my family took trips to London, Venice and Amsterdam. But not Berlin. By the end of the year, my sons had developed soft Cork accents. Everyone back in the States thought they were adorable.

Like my mother, I haven’t spoken German much at home. In 2011, at a parents’ day at my sons’ school, I was introduced to some exchange students from Berlin and immediately launched into German with them. My son Zach looked at me with an expression of astonishment and fear. “I’ve never heard you talk like that!” he said. “It was kind of cool. And a little bit creepy.”

I told those students that I was German and that my mother had come from East Prussia. They looked at me curiously. “But East Prussia isn’t Germany,” they said, truly enough: The land that my mother’s family once fled is now carved up between Poland and Russia. I realized that if I’d been uncertain, all that time, about what it means to be German American, the notion of what it means to be German is uncertain as well.

Author Bernhard Schlink has talked about being German as both “a huge burden” and “an integral part of me . . . I wouldn’t want to escape.” In one of our last conversations, my mother looked at me and sang, “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, du, du, liegst mir im Sinn! Du, du, machst mir veil Schmertzen, weißt nicht wie güt ich dir bin.” Which means, “You’re in my heart, you’re in my mind, you cause me such pain. You don’t know how good I am for you.” Which seems as good a way as any to sum up being German.

Over the years, I’ve tried to accept both the burden and the blessing. And I’ve come to understand that it’s not something I can or want to escape.

Once, while on assignment for a magazine, I found myself at the top of the Campanile di San Marco in Venice. It was late morning after a photo shoot, during which the photographer kept telling me how much he loved Irish women, leaping to a conclusion based on my surname.

In the tower, however, I encountered a beautiful Italian man, looking out over the city, smoking a cigarette. He looked me up and down, and then smiled a smile that suggested he’d seen straight into my core.

“Buongiorno,” he said. “Fräulein.”

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Pizza and Parenthood

Here’s a column of mine that appeared in the New York Times on August 27, 2014

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — I HAD everything I needed — the sweet sausage, the grilled shrimp, the three kinds of cheese. The dough had been rising since midafternoon. All my spices were lined up, the sauces in the right bowls. I’d had a long time to prepare. You could say I’d been getting ready to make this pizza for 20 years.

My father left the Catholic Church when he was 12. There’s not much Catholic left in me, except for my fondness for ritual. And so, as my wife and I have approached the date of the departure of our younger son for college, I thought long and hard about the proper way to mark the moment. We’d climb a nearby mountain, I thought, with the symbolic name of Tumbledown. We’d go out for lobsters and steamers. We’d head to the local Shakespeare theater and watch some Oscar Wilde.

But reality interceded. It rained the day we were going to hike Tumbledown; my boys decided they wanted to go out with their friends instead of to the theater; when I’d hoped to go to the lobster pound, my son needed to go shopping, and headed to the Maine Mall instead. And so, what with one thing and another, there wasn’t time for any of the sacraments I’d so carefully imagined.

Instead we ate pizza.

Over the years we’ve weathered the ordinary traumas of family life: friends moving away; the death of grandparents; one boy’s concussion in a sledding accident. As a child, my older son experienced the death of the television conservationist Steve Irwin as if he’d lost a beloved uncle. My younger son hated a teacher in fourth grade so much that there were some mornings when he lay in bed in his pajamas, in tears.

And yet, through it all, as my older son likes to say, “we have always been held together with cheese.”

Friday night was homemade pizza night. Some Fridays, teenagers kept coming through the door until I ran out of dough: lobster with fresh basil on grilled flatbread; andouille sausage with spinach; barbecued chicken with caramelized onions; a four-cheese car wreck of mozzarella, Romano, fontina and Gorgonzola.

I made my family pizzas when the dog died; on the night after the prom; on a day a Maine blizzard left us with snow up to the windowpanes and icicles as long as my arm.

Now, after 20 years, I was down to my last three pies.

My wife and I have long had differing attitudes about our children’s spreading their wings. On the day that the older one first went off to kindergarten, I burst into tears and wailed, “We’re losing him to the world!” My wife smiled from ear to ear and said, “Yeah, I know!”

Now our positions had reversed. I was the one eager for the next phase of our lives, while my wife focused, sadly, on the way our family was about to change.

I put the pizza stone in the oven and heated it to 500. Then I fired up the outdoor grill. The first pie up was Four Kinds of Meat: local sweet sausage, pepperoni, bacon and ham, with a red sauce, mozzarella and shaved Parm. While that one was baking I threw another dough on the grill and let it bubble up, then brushed the crust with olive oil, and sprinkled it with garlic, kosher salt, cracked black pepper and rosemary.

I went back inside and sliced up Four Kinds of Meat with a pizza wheel, threw some fresh basil on top and brought it out on a cutting board. My wife popped open a bottle of prosecco.

As the kids got started with that one, I flipped the crust on the grill, let it brown, then added grilled shrimp basted in olive oil and garlic, and cilantro pesto.

They turned on “The Fellowship of the Ring” while I finished off the last pie (mushrooms and andouille). Bilbo was saying, “I regret to announce this is the end. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell. Goodbye.”

“This is good pizza,” Sean, my younger son, said. My wife nodded. We’d be off to the University of Rochester a few days later, where he intends to study engineering and astrophysics. Zach, his older brother, will start his junior year at Vassar.

“To us,” Zach said, and we all raised our glasses.

We sat there in the hot summer night, the windows open. Bilbo, on-screen, was off on his adventure, singing “The Road Goes Ever On.” I looked at my family, my grown sons, my wife, our two old dogs.

We are held together by a whole lot more than cheese.

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My Life in Bicycles

Here’s a column of mine that appeared in the New York Times on August 17, 2014.

BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — MY Uncle Clarke woke me before dawn with a shake to the shoulder. He gave me a look that asked, You in? I nodded. I was in all right.

Ten minutes later, we were on bikes riding through the gray light. We pedaled past sleepy summer homes with hammocks in their side yards, towels hanging from porch railings, inflatable rafts stacked up like pancakes. This was Rehoboth Beach, Del., August 1968.

Uncle Clarke (not my real uncle, but my father’s best friend from high school) rode every morning at dawn. He had one of those “English” bikes that were all the rage in the 1960s, a Raleigh three-speed with the gear shift on a tiny lever near the rider’s right thumb. I rode a borrowed Sting-Ray belonging to my cousin Martha. Usually Uncle Clarke led an army of us kids on those morning rides, but that day it was just me.

We rode over to the bay side and then to the boardwalk, its Skee-Ball parlors and salt water taffy machines closed up at that hour. We looked at the ocean and listened to the surf. The poet Matthew Arnold once called it “the eternal note of sadness,” but it sounded all right to me.

T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock laments that his life has been measured out in coffee spoons, but I think I could take a pretty good measure of my own life in bicycle tires. There was the orange Huffy of childhood that I transformed into something I called Tiger Bike, complete with a furry tail given out at the Esso station during its “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” promotion. Later, there was a 10-speed I took to college, where it was stolen from a friend’s house. In my 20s, I owned a Lotus racing bike. Once, I got my shoes so hopelessly entangled in its toe clips that I spilled right onto the asphalt of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.

Now, in my 50s, I have two bikes — a Specialized Secteur for the road, and a hard-core Trek Fuel 70 for the fire roads and logging trails of Kennebec County. Me.

When my sons were in elementary school, there were weeks in summer when they’d jump on their bikes in the morning and disappear down our dirt road with a crew of other boys from the neighborhood. “Bike patrol,” they called themselves. They’d head off to the lake, or to one another’s houses, or — who knows? — to secret locations that I, as one of their mothers, will never know.

I have several friends who partake in something called “spinning,” which is the health-club version of cycling, involving a group of women on stationary bikes who pedal fast, then slow, then fast, as the instructor blasts the kind of music you usually hear in stores that are trying to get 16-year-olds to buy pants, and yells things like, “Feel the burn!”

I prefer exercising at least two miles away from any other human being. For me, biking is a solitary activity. In the Kennebec Highlands, on my mountain bike, I pedal past Kidder Pond, up to the blueberry barrens high atop Vienna Mountain. From there, I watch bald eagles and ospreys, and other birds, whose poop, owing to their diet of berries, stains the gray rocks purple. Sometimes I’ve run into deer and porcupines, and on one memorable occasion, a moose. Another time, I lay with my back against a tree, watching a beaver build a dam in Boody Pond.

Stephen King writes of a solitary childhood encounter with a deer in his story “The Body”: “My heart went up into my throat so high that I think I could have put my hand in my mouth and touched it.” Later, the narrator decides not to tell his friends about what he has seen, to keep it for himself. “The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.”

These are the gifts that I will most miss when, some day in the not-so-distant future, I have to give up biking alone. At 56, I’m really too old to be hopping over rocks and fallen trees, an hour or two from help, should anything terrible happen to me, which, odds are, it will. Recently, I encountered a bunch of young men who were climbing a mountain trail that I was riding down; one of them looked at me, mud-spattered, sweat-covered, and said, “Whoa! Hard-core!” It wasn’t clear whether he was saying this out of admiration, or concern.

A couple of years after that bike ride with my Uncle Clarke, he and my father had some kind of falling out, and I didn’t see him again. I don’t think about him very often, except on summer mornings in August, when I’m climbing onto my bike.

That morning in Rehoboth Beach, I saw the first sunrise I can remember. My uncle nodded at me, and I nodded back, and we got on our bikes. The air smelled like salt, cotton candy and tar. When we got back to the house, my mother was making pancakes.

“So,” she asked. “How’d it go?”

My uncle looked at me with what might have been love. “We had a good ride,” he said.

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The Week I Ruled the World

What a strange and wonderful week!  I had something of a media quinella these last seven days, and while the usual internet boast-o-rama makes me cringe more than a little, it’s all stuff I’m proud of, so I wanted to put up some links and shine a spotlight on some of this work in case you, as my very loyal readers, might be interested.

On Thursday, July 17, I was a guest on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The occasion was the publication of the new TRANS BODIES TRANS SELVES, and I shared the microphone with editor Laura Erickson-Schroth and contributor Aidan Key. You can hear the interview here, or purchase the book here, for which I wrote a very charming introduction that talks about, among other things, my adventures at a ventriloquist convention.

I spent a lot of last week at the wonderful Maine International Film Festival. I saw a dozen movies in six days.  The festival’s over for the year, but if you’re in Maine in mid-July, you should mark your calendars now.  It’s breathtaking.

That brings us to Monday July 21st.  The day began with the New York Times running an op/ed I’d written about some of the films at the film festival, and two in particular– Linklater’s “Boyhood,” and Malick’s “Better Angels” got me thinking about summer days when I was a child.  Linklater’s film shows 12 years in the life of a real young man, and Better Angels is about 8 year old Abe Lincoln.  It made me think about my own strange boyhood– and that of my son, Sean, who, as I wrote the essay, was outside in the July sunshine riding a unicycle while listening to headphones.  You can read my op/ed here.

On the same day, Huffington Post ran a story I’d written for them entitled “Five Things Not to Say to a Transgender Person (and 3 Things You Should).  I wrote this a little begrudgingly at first, restless about the form of the “listicle”.  And yet, I’m happy with the result.  Judging from my Twitter account, the HuffPo piece got to more readers than the NYT opinion piece, which says something I guess.  You can read the HuffPo piece here.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, July 21, 2014. East Room, White House

Finally, and most importantly, I got a phone call over the weekend asking me if I’d like to be on hand in the East Room of the White House as the President signed into law the executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT employees in the federal government, and specifically extending those protections, for the first time, to transgender people.  It was breathtaking.  I had to go through many security checks, including a special author-sniffin’ dog, before finally finding my seat dead center, three aisles back from the podium.  And then President Obama entered the room, and we all stood up and cheered. You can read the  text of his entire speech here. It was an amazing day, and an incredible end to an amazing week.

Not every week of my life is like this, thank goodness, but I’m grateful for this one.

Best of all, by sunset I was back in my house in Maine with my wife and son and dogs, and we put our feet up and talked about all our adventures, including the ones to come.

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An excerpt from JFB’s new novella, I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT.

Announcing a new short novel from me entitled I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT, my first fiction for adult readers with a trans character.  It’s an ebook only, from the new enterprise called SHEBOOKS, which offers short works by women, for women.  I’m thrilled about the project. Here’s a link where you can purchase access to Shebooks– the subscriptions about $4, and my book is an additional $2.95.

And here is the way the thing begins:

I’ll Give You Something to Cry About

© 2014 Jennifer Finney Boylan

They were headed south in a beat-up minivan.  Riley was behind the wheel.  The Doors were on the radio.  The killer awoke before dawn.  He put his boots on. Riley’s mother in law, sitting in the passenger seat, rolled her eyes.

“What is this,” said Alex, his daughter. Formerly she had been his son.  “The music you’d listen to before swallowing Windex?”

“It’s a classic,” said Riley, quietly.  “This Is The End.”

“I don’t like classics,” said six-year old Otis, from the way back.  He had the sheet music for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” in his lap.

“Fine,” said Riley, and switched off the music.   His duffle bag contained a copy of Heritage Trail:  100 Sites of American Freedom, East Coast and a canister of Celexa, which was an anti-depressant also helpful in anger management.  There was a doctor’s order for the chemo, which he had not yet filled.

In her purse, Mrs. Leary–known as Gammie–carried photographs of her daughter and grandchildren, none of them taken more recently than five years ago.  The handbag also held her health-care card from Blue Cross, fifty dollars, all in fives, and two different lipsticks-one red, one rose.  There was a canister of Lopressor, a type of beta-blocker used to reduce high blood pressure.   Mrs. Leary did not have a driver’s license, or a debit card, or a cell phone, or a photograph of her late husband, Finbar.

Otis’s backpack contained t-shirts and shorts and a LEGO Bionicles figure named Mata Nui.  Flung out of his own universe, Mata Nui finds himself on the desert world of Bara Magna. He had also packed two of Mata Nui’s weapons, the Thomax Launcher and the Nynrah Ghost Blaster.  There was a pair of well-worn Harry Potter pajamas, by now a size too small and with holes in the knees, but with which he was not yet ready to part. The pajamas were wrapped around a soft plush toy called Hello Kitty!  In a side pocket was a book entitled Ten Boys Who Used Their Talents. In a translucent amber canister was a supply of an anti-anxiety medication called fluvoxamine, or Luvox.   Next to the Luvox was a stuffed Pokemon named Pikachu. I choose you, Pikachu!

In Alex’s suitcase were fishnet stockings, two different pairs of black stilettos,  a black pencil skirt, a shimmering blue Spandex halter top, gold hoop earrings, a pair of size six Gap jeans,  and a miniskirt from Banana Republic.  There was a bottle of Spironolactone, a diuretic that also acted as an anti-androgen, and another one of Premarin, a form of conjugated estrogen.  Alex’s journal, a small leather book with crisp white pages,  lay atop her lingerie, along with a Schaeffer cartridge fountain pen filled with ink of peacock blue.

They passed a large brick building, in front of which a dozen men and women in cook’s uniforms were smoking cigarettes.  It was odd to see so many chefs gathered in one spot.

“What happened?”  the grandmother muttered.  “Somebody spoiled the broth?”

Riley turned the mini van down High Street and drove through the heart of Wesleyan University. Son of a bitch, Riley thought.  Same as it ever was, except for the absence of students, which wasn’t a surprise, since it was June. Beyond a row of brownstone buildings to their right was a baseball diamond and a rolling green hill with an observatory at the crest.  The campus had the clean, Hollywood-perfect look of a New England college in early summer

The Sienna was equipped with a talking GPS device nicknamed Captain Kirk.  “Prepare to arrive at your destination,” said the Captain…

[to read the full novella, exclusively available from Shebooks, click right here.]

[N.B. Heavy demand has made the app a little slow and balky at times this last week-- hang in there; it really will work if you're patient.  Hope you enjoy! --JFB]

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New JFB Novella from Shebooks: I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT

So I have a new story out, now available exclusively from Shebooks, the new e-book service promoting work for women, by women.

The novella is called I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT.

It’s about a family from Maine–the Rileys– taking a road trip to Ford’s Theatre, in Washington, DC, where they hope to see their young son play the violin on stage, as part of a “Young Prodigies” series. Also in the car– and possibly of more interest to my longtime readers– the Riley’s trans daughter, who is on the verge of stepping out into the world as a woman.

It’s the first time I’ve written a work of fiction for adults with a trans character, and with a trans theme. But my readers will recognize this family, and the work’s central themes– family, gender, and the quest for authenticity. I hope you’ll download the book, which you can do by clicking this link. You’ll have to subscribe to Shebooks, which is a really minimal cost, less than the cost of a hardcover book, and which will give you access to SHEBOOKS’ whole corral of amazing women writers.

Here’s an interview I did in May about the book:

What prompted you to write this piece?
I actually wrote this specifically for Shebooks. My sons had both gone on what they call the “Heritage Tour” in Maine, a rite of passage for middle schoolers, who travel around the east coast seeing things like the Gettysburg Battlefield and the Statue of Liberty. I thought a road trip of a troubled but loving family, bound together by stops at those “sites of American Freedom,” as they’re called, would be interesting. And of course lead to complete bedlam.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?
Well, I’m know for writing about gender—men and women, and the choices of transgender people in particular. There’s a trans teenager girl in this family, formerly their son, whose journey I think provides a good measure of where we are, as a country, on acceptance of gender variant young people.

That said, “Alex” is not me—she is much more courageous, sarcastic, and adventurous than I was, or would have been, I had been in her shoes when I was sixteen.

Which gives me the opportunity to paraphrase Atticus Finch: “You never really know a man until you walk around in his heels.”

How do you think your gender/racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

Well, gender informs all of my writing. When I was a man, I wrote fiction. As a woman, I write non-fiction. I am hopeful that some grad student is already at work analyzing the mind-numbing profundity of that.

Is there such a thing as “women’s writing?” Do you hate the term “chicklit” or think we should embrace it, like the term “gay”?
I think there is such a thing as feminine writing, and by this I mean less a particular style than a focus on women’s lives in narrative. But women aren’t the only ones writing it.

Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?
I’ve certainly faced lots of struggle as a trans writer. There’s a particular skepticism some critics bring to trans writer’s lives and work; we have to defend and explain our gender a lot of the time. I think this is changing, but it’s been hard. I wonder sometimes if people will ever read my work for the story, rather than for the fact that a trans woman wrote it. But then, if I wanted that, I could try to keep my mouth shut for once. Like that’s going to happen.

When did you first decide you were a writer?
It was a very early dream. As early as fifth grade I remember amazing and disgusting my peers with the story of a car race through my teacher’s body: These were really tiny, almost microscopic cars, of course. The race began in my teacher’s mouth. You can imagine where we came out. Her name was Mrs. Fineli. She was not an early fan of my oeuvre.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?
Like a lot of writers, I write for an alternate version of myself. A woman just like me, only thinner.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?
Well, writing about changing genders was almost as scary as doing it. I can say, however, that nothing taught me so much about a woman’s life as writing. It’s through telling our stories that our lives begin to make sense.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Write every day, including Christmas and New Years. When you’re just staring, quantity is a lot more important than quality. Then go back and revise. What’s that Hemingway advice—“Fail. Then fail better.”

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
As a memoirist, upsetting people is what Tiggers do best. I don’t like to upset people of course, but I’m pretty fearless in terms of what I write about—as a trans woman I have to be. I think it was Annie Lamott who said something like, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I wrote, but maybe you should have been nicer to me.”

Is there anything that you consider *too* personal to write about? How do you find that edge?
I’ll write about anything, if there’s a good story in it. I think writers have to be fearless. The story is what matters.

How do you define “truth” in memoir?
I believe that the “hybrid” form of memoir is its strength, not its weakness. I say this with the caveat that the writer has to include an author’s note explaining her method. You can’t just make up any damned thing you like; but you have to shape the narrative, and that can mean compressing the timeline, disguising people to avoid hurting them as well as to prevent yourself form getting sued; shaping the narrative so it works as “story.” And you admit to your reader exactly what you’ve done so no one feels bamboozled. Memoirists ought to get out of the habit of apologizing for all this—it’s what we’re supposed to do. As Frank McCourt said, “If you want realism, read the phone book.”

How did you dream up the setting for this story? Is it based on a real place? A composite of real places?
These are all real places—the Liberty Bell pavilion; the Gettysburg battlefield; Fords Theatre. If you live on the east coast and have middle school age children or teenagers, you’ve probably been there. And wished you were elsewhere.

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?
If you know your characters, you have to follow them where they take you. And if they take you to a place you don’t know, you do the research—you go there and take notes. When you get home, you throw the notes away and just make the whole thing up.

What motivated you personally to do the reporting for this piece?
I have worked as a journalist, but recently the only reporting I do is for the op/eds of mine that appear in the New York Times. When I was young, I used to just make up quotes for magainze stories and attribute them “according to someone that would know.” Needless to say, my stories were always very entertaining.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
Starting this summer, I leave my job as Professor of English at Colby College, where I’ve been for 25 years, and take up a new position as Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University in Manhattan.
When I was young, I worked in a bookstore in New York City. I sat at a desk beneath a sign that said, ASK ME ANYTHING. People would ask me all sorts of things. Usually I didn’t know the answer, so I’d make something up. Good training for a fiction writer. One time someone walked up to me and just asked, apropos of nothing, “Excuse me, where are all the santa claus suits?”

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I play the autoharp, Appalachian style. I’m pretty damned great at it. I also know a whole lot about the Gemini Project, which was the one before the Apollo program.

What is your favorite word right now?
Muslin. Just saying it gives me shivers. Flibbertigibbet is a very useful word also. I use it to describe my three most defining characteristics as a writer: A flibbertigibbet, a will-o-the-wisp, a clown.

What or who inspires you most?
I always loved the work of James Thurber. If you want to go back further, I’m haunted by the poems of John Keats. Whose heart ached, and a drowsy numbness pained his sense.

Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?
I was a member of a club, but it quickly became a once a week drunk fest for the local moms that I knew. As I understand, this is not an unusual failure mode for book clubs. There was a whole lot of tequila, and not much Oprah.

Do you have an e-reader? What book are you reading on it now? When do you like to read on a device?
Yes, I have an iPad, on which I use both the iBooks function as well as the Kindle app. I just finished Charles Baxters The Soul Thief. I read on my device after dinner each night, for several hours before bed. It’s the best time to read, when you are already halfway into the realm of the unconscious.

Who are some of your favorite authors?
My two current favorites are also fairly predictable:, the stories of George Saunders, and the novels of Jennifer Egan. I’m also influenced by some of the 20th century metafictionists—Borges, Calvino, Barth, Vonnegut.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve started a new novel, I have a new nonfiction book about the differences between men and women, and for young adults I’m working on Falcon Quinn three.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?
I play piano in a crappy rock ‘n roll band. We are called The Stragglers, and the name is accurate. All of us have been thrown out of other bands. The fundamental rule about The Stragglers is that you can’t be thrown out of it. This should give you some sense of our talent.

Do you have a quote, mantra or thought that you’d like to end with?
From Huck Finn: “Blamed if she wasn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see. Then the duke took and wrote out on a shingle so: ‘Sick Arab. But harmless when not out of her head.’”

Download I’LL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT right here!

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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."