Day 5: Peace Train

Jennifer Finney Boylan is in love with the California Zephyr.

Day 5 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from just outside Moab, Utah, where I am now at mile 2819 of this 7298 mile voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

I awoke in my cozy roomette at 4:30 AM Mountain time, which I admit is too early, but I’m still on Eastern time, and I’m an early riser anyway.  So instead of resisting, I got up, got a cup of coffee, sat down in the observation car with my computer and started to write a scene.  This whole voyage west I’m working on the final chapters of a novel I’ve been writing for two years.  I got a lot closer this morning.  With the sun rising before me, and the sound of the rails and the whistle, and some dude lying on the floor all asleep, how could I NOT write well?

And then, friends, the sun came up.  It began, as always, as just a sly hint of grey in an otherwise black sky, but at 6:30 the sun burst over the plains of eastern Colorado.  The morning shift complete, I headed to the dining car, where I had breakfast with a clinical psychologist who was reading the biography of William James, whom, my companion claimed, anticipated everything.

Settled into the observation car as we climbed the Rockies.  I can only say it is every bit as breathtaking as you dream.  We passed beneath the Continental Divide via the Moffet Tunnel  and arrived at 8500+ feet as we stopped in Fraser, CO.  Snow on the mountains.  Air crisp.  I didn’t find the altitude daunting at all, even though we were warned not to exert ourselves.  Then we began our long descent into the canyons.

I wrote another 1500 words in the afternoon.  For a while I was hoping to write 8500+ words, one for every foot of elevation, but that’s way out of my range now.  I declared victory at about 3000.  Then I returned to the observation car and watched the sun set and drank a Sierra Nevada.

High Colorado: At 8500+ feet, Fraser, CO is the highest train station in Amtrakdom.

It’s the day after election day, but I haven’t heard much talk of politics on the train. As a Democrat, it’s a sad day for me, especially as I’ve caught up with news from Maine.  But yeah, looking at the sun illuminating Red Rocks Canyon in western Colorado lifted my spirits.

I’ll sleep through much of Utah and Nevada, arise in Pacific Time and California. We are supposed to arrive in Emeryville–near SF– around 4 o’clock PM, where supposedly a friend is scooping me up, taking me to my hotel to settle in, and then it’s off to an author reception and book party in the evening.  I’ll begin the next leg of the trip Friday morning as I head down to Salinas and Big Sur for a few days of quiet, meditation, writing, and hiking.

It will be hard to top today, not just this month, but for the rest of my life.  What a precious gift this journey has been.

In Denver (where the photo of me genuflecting before the California Zephyr’s engine was taken), I asked the train manager if it might be possible for me to visit the engine.  I had fantasies of blowing the horn.  She looked at me just like I thought she would, gave me the same look I give my son when he asks, Is it okay if I spend the night at my girlfriend’s house?  So that didn’t happen.  But I tried, and in my mind I blew the whistle TWICE.

My sleeper’s manager is a delightful Irishman named Dennis Byrne.  We were talking this afternoon, and by way of summing things up, he said the following: “Each trip is a micro sociological experiment in its own right in that a host of disparate elements are tossed together in one sense, against their will.”

I said, Yes.  You are right.

He smiled, and added, “It’s phantasmagorical.”

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Day 4: Soul Train

This steam engine sits on tracks just outside Galesburg, IL, It used to haul freight on the very tracks upon which the California Zephyr now travels.

Day 4 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from just outside Galesburg, Illinois, where I am now at mile 1572 of this 7298 mile voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

I am at last safely aboard the California Zephyr, which departed from Union Station, Chicago at 2 PM.  Before that, I rode the “Hoosier State” from Indianapolis to Chicago, which I can affirm was not a fast mode of transportation.  Before that I was in a limo being picked up at 4:15 AM in Bloomington, taking my leave of the IU campus and my days at the Kinsey Institute.

Today I have seen a field of windmills.  I saw the sun set behind a bank of clouds over a brown, exhausted soybean field.  I saw an Amish family with spectacular beards and bonnets.  I saw a grain elevator filling up a long semi with corn seed.  I saw a place on the tracks where somehow a hundred potatoes had spilled.  I have heard the sound of the whistle as we cut through small towns with barriers lowered, red lights blinking, at the one intersection in town.  I looked out for an hour or so at places where there didn’t seem to be any towns at all.  I saw a man standing alone at the edge of a fallow field.

Superliner roomette (on the Zephyr) is, in my opinion, not quite as roomy as the roomette on the Viewliner (Lake Shore Limited).  Haven’t tried the bed yet.  But there’s no window on the upper berth.  To make up for this, there is a fabulous dining car, where i’ll unfold my napkin in about an hour, and a bar car with an upstairs observation deck.  My wife and I enjoyed a similar car going from Fairbanks to Anchorage on our honeymoon.  I still remember the couple we met on that train ride:   as a result of two different strains of cancer, the husband couldn’t talk, and the wife could not hear.  Deedie and I have long joked that we have based our marriage on the model of this couple.

Carl Sandburg, looking rather naughty.

Here in Galesburg, Carl Sandburg was born in 1878.  In his home town he drove a milk wagon, worked as a porter for a hotel, as a laborer on a farm, before going back to driving the milk wagon.   Later, he won three Pulitzer Prizes, and published the “American Songbag,” a collection that attempted to do for this country, in the early 20th century what Sir Francis Childe had done with Irish and Scottish and English music 300 years earlier:  create an archive of traditional folk songs.

Among the songs collected by Sandburg is “The Railroad Cars are Comin’,” part of which goes like this:

The prairie dogs in dogtown
Will wag each little tail,
They’ll think that something’s coming,
Just flying down the rail.

Amid the purple sagebrush,
The antelope will stand
While railroad cars are coming, humming,
Through the prairie land,
The railroad cars are coming, humming,
Through the prairie land.

I wrote 1300 words between Chicago and Galesburg.  I don’t know if it’s any good, won’t know for months, probably.  But here I am on the edge of the prairie, grateful that I live in this country.  It’s Election Day, and I admit I’ve been kind of paying less attention than I might were i at home.  At the same time I can tell you that the very last thing I did before leaving Maine was to vote by absentee ballot.  I’ll go to sleep tonight content that the country, as always, will sort things out.  Something is coming.

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Day 3: At a Siding (II.)

jenny boylan stands before a Mapplethorpe portrait of an ass in fishnets

At the Kinsey Institute's showing of Mapplethorpe prints, I admit I got a little behind in my work.

Day 3 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Bloomington, Indiana, where I am, again, at mile 1190 of this 7298 mile voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Yesterday and today I am “at a siding,” by which I mean I have stepped off the train to attend to business, in this case a meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Kinsey Institute.  Last night I attended a showing of the Kinsey’s collection of prints by Robert Mapplethorpe.  A photograph of me considering the proper crack to make is posted herewith.  I’m also posting a copy of the poster for something called “The Love Wanga,” a film (I think) about the “Strange Loves of Queer People.” The poster, part of Kinsey’s vast collection of artifacts, is definitely what you might call a period piece.

Got Wanga? This poster for a film from the 1930s (I think) is part of the Kinsey's vast collection of artifacts

The Mapplethorpe prints are beautiful and extraordinary and precious.  But I also thought that they seem to capture a moment in time that is now past– New York City gay life circa 1980.  I wrote yesterday about my open conversation with a woman in the dining car, about her daughter and her three transgender boyfriends, and my experience as a woman married to another woman.

The culture has come so far so fast– from a time when Mapplethorpe’s images were shocking, to a time when two middle-aged strangers can talk about lesbian relationships and trans identities over grits on the Lake Shore Limited.  Mapplethorpe’s work was intended to shock.  I can tell you I found the work beautiful and poignant and wry.  But it wasn’t shocking, at least not to me. It depicted a world, to me, that seemed almost remote as the one in “The Love Wanga.”  Could it be that “the loves of queer people” are no longer so strange? Or at least, no stranger than the loves of anyone else?

The alarm is set for 3:30 AM to wake me up in time for the 4 AM car to Indianapolis, where I’ll board the Hoosier State express at 6 AM. Hope to be in Chicago by 10 AM, in time to board the California Zephyr at 2.  It will be Election Day on a train heading west, across the plains, toward the mountains and in the far distance, the Pacific.  If all goes according to plan,  San Francisco Bay will come into view on Thursday evening.

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Day 2: At a Siding, (I.)

The Lake Shore Limited arrives in Waterloo, IN. My "womb-tete" was the third set of windows here-- bed upper, sitting area below.

Day 2 of this Amtrak Residency. Greetings from Bloomington, Indiana, where I am at mile 1190 of this 7298 mile voyage.  You can read previous entries about the journey thus far on this same site, or at the Amtrak blog here.

Today we are “at a siding,” by which I mean that I have stepped off of the train for a day or so as I attend to business.

The Lake Shore Limited pulled into Waterloo IN this morning right on time at 7:33 AM, where a limo was waiting to drive me to Bloomington and the IU campus.  I’m here for 36 hours or so, attending a meeting of the Trustees of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.  I know many of my readers are more familiar with my work in the NY Times, or with GLAAD, but my more-quiet relationship with Kinsey is something I’m immensely proud of.  At tomorrow’s Trustees meeting we’ll celebrate the arrival of Sue Carter, our newly hired new CEO, and a pioneer in the field of neuroendocrinology.

Tonight, though, the Trustees celebrate the extensive collections of the Institute with a special showing of the prints of Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m really looking forward to looking at and thinking about that work.  I can also tell you that my own favorite Mapplethorpe photograph is the one just below here.  Patti Smith has a wonderful description of how they took that photo; all these years later I still find it haunting.

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance

I think about the world that Mapplethorpe lived in, and the one in which I do my own work, and it’s kind of amazing how far we’ve travelled.  This morning at breakfast on the Lake Shore Limited, I dined with a woman about my age who writes about hip-hop music for the Chicago Sun-Times.  She was reading the NY Times Magazine article about “Men at Wellesley” and asked me what I thought about it.  I said, kind of shyly, Well, I think transgender people are very brave. And she said, So do I! My daughter has dated three trans men! And so we talked about trans identities, and I talked about my wife, and it struck me what a changed and remarkable world we live in, in which two strangers on a train in Ohio could talk about trans lives and lesbian relationships and it was all pretty much pleasant, normal breakfast conversation.  At the end of breakfast, I said, Look, I might as well tell you. (pointing at the magazine cover)  I’m like that too. And my seat mate looked uncertain and she said, “And then– you went back to being a woman?”

No, I said, not exactly.

I slept all warm and cozy in my “womb-ette” bed last night.  Out the window I saw the dark fields of New York, the shores of Lake Erie.  The train rocked me from side to side.  I thought about my family.  And all the while I kept hearing that whistle.   Go on, click here and you can hear it too. A loyal reader sent me a wonderful link to a site that talks all about the classic 5-tone railroad engine whistle.  And I learned the answer to a lifelong question:  what’s that chord?

Why, it’s a B major 6th.  The notes are: D#, F#, G# B, and D#.

It is surely the sound of dreams.

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Day 1: Mystery Train

326 miles down, 6973 or so to go.

Greetings from Albany, New York.  It’s just after 6 PM, and we’re pausing here while the Boston train joins up with the New York one, in a kind of locomotive version of Let’s Form Voltron Force!

Last night went to a Halloween jam in the barn of some friends.  Sat in with the Blues Prophets, playing piano for two songs– one of which was “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and one of which wasn’t.  Home by 10:30, in bed for the last time for 17 days with my wife and the Stupid Dog©.  AT 3:15 AM the alarm went off, and the dog raised her head as if to say, “What are you doing?”

I didn’t have a good answer.

By 4 AM I was in the car driving from our house in rural Maine to the Amtrak station in Portland ME for the first leg of the Amtrak Residency, the journey that will take me the next 17 days and cover 7298 miles, coast to coast.  It was a dark and stormy night.  Rain slashed against my wipers.  Dead leaves blew past.

Arrived in Portland a little after 5 in time to step on the Downeaster at 5;30.  This has got to be the most adorable train in the Amtrak fleet, and by adorable, I mean there are volunteers on the train who want to make sure you’re “okay”– handing out maps, explaining history.  Train guys.  We pulled into Boston a little late, and I took the subway from North Station to South Station, where I stowed my bags and walked over for dim sum in Boston’s Chinatown.  I ate a whole bunch of things I could not identify, sparked up with chili sauce, and drank a whole pot of tea.

By 11 AM I was in the sleeper train/first class lounge of South Station, which looked a little like the Diogenes Club.  I looked around for Mycroft Holmes.  Then the redcap helped me on board the 12 noon North Shore Limited, where I was met by the sleeper car czarina, Lashawnda Jones.  She is very proud of “wearing the blue” (as she put it), and has been taking good care of all of us.  Right on schedule we pulled out of Boston, and I sat down to write.

Or, I would have, Ma, except that having to get up at 3:15 AM had me so knackered that I struggled to stay awake.  But I fought off the Z’s and got to work.  Wrote 1200 words– about my average for a single sitting– part of the climax of the book I hope to finish on this adventure.   After that, I strolled down to the cafe car, where I made the acquaintance of one Claudia Butler, the manager of the Lake Shore Limited.  She’s been around trains all her life– her father worked for the railroad too.  She was excited to have an Amtrak Writer in Residence on Board, and spoke with pride of her OBS crew (that’s on-board service).

I can say that the “roomette” is small; there is barely enough room for my ego.

I looked out the window and watched Massachusetts and New York go by.  It’s a very Edgar Allen Poe November out there; leaves blowing, rain streaking against the windowpane.  I wrote and I thought and I read a little of Maxine Hong Kinsgston’s “The Woman Warrior,” which I’m teaching at Barnard this spring.

Somewhere around 1 AM tonight–we’ll be just outside Dayton, Ohio– the train will come to a halt for an hour.  This is on account of the reversion to Eastern Standard Time.  I’d heard that trains do this– if they just chugged ahead, we’d all wind up at our destination an hour ahead of the schedule, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum.   It’s like what Steven Wright used to say about:  ”I put instant coffee in the microwave and went back in time.”

I’ll be up at dawn tomorrow (plus an hour) to have an early breakfast, in time to step off the Lake Shore Limited about 7:30 in the morning in Waterloo, Indiana.  Where, with any luck, a nice black limo will be waiting to drive me the three + hours to Bloomington, Indiana, and the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, where I’ll be attending an exhibition of the Institute’s Mapplethorpe prints tomorrow night, and a Board of Trustees meeting all day Monday.  Tuesday, it’s back on the train, and on to California!

Thanks for riding with me.

“Come along, Mrs. Thornhill.”

J

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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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  • 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."