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In the two weeks since the results of the election were announced, I’ve been trying to put into words just how deeply the results have affected me. It seems only fitting that I find a bit of inspiration from the date. Today, 20 November, is the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance. This is day that trans communities around the world gather to memorialize those lost in the previous year, often times to hate crimes and suicide. The majority of these victims continue to be transwomen, particularly transwomen of color (TWOC). From January of June to this year alone, 166 trans and gender variant people were murdered, according to the Trans Murder Monitoring project.

I’ve written before how isolated my life can be, what I referred to as the “tundra bubble”. I’m one of a handful of non-Natives living in an Alaska Native village 27 miles from the nearest town. The only ways in or out are by bush plane (year round), boat (spring thaw until freeze up), or river taxi or snowmobile (freeze up until thaw). In addition to the geographic isolation, I am personally isolated further by my status as a transman. It’s a self-imposed isolation: I made the decision when I moved up here to live stealth because I didn’t know how the locals would react if they found out. (Based on my research, First Nations people often times were quite understanding of people like me, but a lot of things changed when the missionaries came, and religion plays a big part in the lives of the villagers.) Since I “pass” as a cisgender man (that is, a person passing me on the street doesn’t think I’ve ever been identified as anything other than a man), no one has ever had reason to question my gender identity. As far as the locals are concerned, I’m Mr. CJ, the third-grade teacher. They don’t see the barrier that exists between us, the tightrope that I walk on a daily basis to make sure that I don’t say or do something to out myself. After all this time, I doubt that there’s anyone here who dislikes me enough to make an issue out of my trans status, but you never know….

This bubble not only keeps things in, it also keeps things out. My students know that they live in Alaska, but are still struggling to grasp the concept that Alaska is only one part of the US. Most of my kids have been to the Hub, that town 27 miles away, and some as far as Anchorage. But beyond that? Nope. As far as they’re concerned, anything outside of Alaska may as well be happening on another planet. Now, I certainly didn’t know all about current events when I was their age. I only vaguely understood the importance of news reports on the TV or stories printed in the newspaper. While I’m sure there are TVs in most of the homes here, I know there isn’t a satellite hook-up in every one. (Cable TV doesn’t exist out here.) With one or two possible exceptions, families don’t have a home Internet connection. There’s only one newspaper, and it focuses predominantly on news and events a little closer to home. Heck, until midway through my first year here, there wasn’t even 3G service for cell phones in the villages!

Through the school, I’m connected to the Internet. Between that and my phone, I have a lifeline to the world beyond the bubble. On a daily basis, I can get in touch with friends and family through Facebook or e-mail. I can call my grandparents to say “hi”. I stay as active as I can in organizations I care about, mostly through signing online petitions and making donations to various groups. When I’m feeling especially isolated for whatever reason, I have a way to remind myself that the world doesn’t end at the horizon. This can be both a blessing and a curse. I make a point of following news from the US and around the world, so of course I see both the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

I followed this year’s election more closely than I ever have, because I knew just how much was at stake for my communities both physical and of the heart. The villages out here on the tundra are feeling the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures means rivers don’t freeze as solidly, or freeze and thaw more frequently, which can cause problems with transportation. It also affects the availability of fish and game, a large part of the still-predominantly subsistence lifestyle by which the locals live.

As for my community of the heart: Half of my family is Jewish. I have a large number of POC friends, and many, many relatives and friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. For more than a few of them, legislation like the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage were important steps in their fight to be recognized as human beings. Even with these major steps forward, there continue to be battles that must be fought, notable the wave of anti-transgender legislation (the so-called “bathroom bills”) that has been sweeping through the nation in recent years.

When the results of the election hit the news two weeks ago, I felt sick. And worried. And, for the first time in a long time, scared. The increased reports of hate crimes in the days since haven’t alleviated those feelings, either. I’m relatively safe here in the village, but what about when I travel home for the holidays? Yes, all of my ID has the correct gender marker on it, but just suppose? And what about my friends? Are they safe? How much harder will it be for them to get their ID changed if they haven’t already done so? What about everyone’s mental well-being? Calls to help lines like the Trans Lifeline spiked following the election, because everyone is suddenly that much more afraid.

And what about my students? How will all of this affect them? Thankfully, they’ve been spared the horrendous bullying that I’ve read about, but what about their futures? Will their way of life survive the next four years? Will they? (If that last question seems extreme, look up the suicide statistics for American Indians and Alaska Natives.)

So on this TDoR, I’m not only remembering those that lost their lives this year, but am also pledging to do my part to make sure that there aren’t more in the coming years. I’ve upped the amounts of my monthly donations to organizations like Trans LifeLine and the ACLU. I’m reading up on how to be an ally to anyone who might need my help, and how to do so in a way that will hopefully bring about a (relatively) peaceful resolution. I’m done sitting on the sidelines, done being afraid.

The middle of August has arrived, and I find myself immersed once more in the Tundra Bubble.

The Bubble is relatively large, incorporating not only Nunap but also the Hub and rest of the school district where I work. This gives the Bubble an area approximately the size of Ohio. I have yet to explore all of this space; the reality of travel in this place combined with a limited amount of things to do in each village means that I’m usually content to stay in Nunap and the surrounding environs. Those that love to hunt, trap, and fish have more reason to travel from place to place, as different game can be found on the coast as opposed to inland. Likewise, the locals who grew up in a different village will frequently travel to visit their families. Neither of these descriptions apply to me, however. I typically travel only when chaperoning school sports teams or for required in-service meetings at the Hub. Sometimes I go up river to visit friends at the school in the next village. For the most part, though, once school starts my world effectively shrinks to a radius of about thirty miles.

Back in the mid-Atlantic states, thirty miles can have quite a lot to do, especially if it includes a major city like the one where I grew up. There’s the zoo, at least seven different museums, opportunities to see live theatre productions, malls, stores, restaurants, movies, libraries, and numerous other opportunities. And transportation isn’t too complicated: If I want to get somewhere, I have my car. When I lived in the city, my apartment sat near at least eight bus routes that could take me just about anywhere in the city if I didn’t feel like driving or didn’t want to bother with parking. I could also walk to a variety of places.

Thirty miles in the Tundra Bubble, however, is quite different. With transportation limited to plane, boat, four-wheeler, or snowmobile, getting someplace can be a challenge. Then there’s the fact that most of these villages started as seasonal gathering places for Alaska Natives; even today, many families in Nunap head for their traditional fish camps from May through August. The Hub, being an actual town, has roads, cars, a few restaurants, several stores, even a small museum and nature center. But most of the villages are lucky to have one general store and a post office.

During the school year, I’ve found that the world beyond the Bubble takes on a sort of dream-like quality. I’m still aware of what’s going on, thanks to the Internet, letters from home, and phone calls. But the distance lends a softness, I guess you could call it, to things that don’t happen right here.

This distance makes for some interesting, and in some situations startling, observations. One of the first things I noticed when I moved up here is that, while Alaska is technically part of the US, many times it get treated like a separate entity. Nowhere is this more apparent than when shopping online from a retailer like Amazon. While Amazon itself has no problem shipping things to Nunap, quite a large number of third-party sellers on the site throw Alaska under the heading of “international shipping”, which means that they either won’t ship or will charge an arm and a leg.

Something else I quickly learned is that when most people hear the word “Alaska” they think of Anchorage and its surrounding area: someplace not all that different from smaller metropolitan areas in the Lower 48, aside from the occasional moose wandering through and the extreme daylight differences. They picture the mountains, and a cooler temperature, and scenic lakes and rivers and wildlife, and roads. You know, where services like UPS and FedEx can quickly reach you. I’ve had more than a few phone conversations with customer service reps about why it’s really easier for me if they ship care of the USPS (while we do get UPS and FedEx in Nunap, it can take two or three times longer than the post office), and when I explain that there aren’t any roads where I live you can almost hear their minds screeching to a halt.

This lack of awareness goes both directions. While I can’t pinpoint exactly when I truly comprehended just how big the U.S. is, I do know that by the time I entered third grade I understood that Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were all part of the same country. In contrast, I can only think of two kids in my current class for whom the names of other states aren’t some near-mythical place, and that my stories of traveling during the summer aren’t just a fantasy. Given that many of the kids in our school rarely travel beyond other villages or the Hub, I can’t say that I’m too surprised.

The Tundra Bubble also resides in my mind, in that I don’t really expect much to change when I’m gone for the holidays or for summer break. I know that I’ll still see many familiar faces when I go to the store or the post office, no matter the time of year. I can count on certain kids tagging around after me anytime I’m outside. Even the new faces at the school each fall are to be expected, as is the feeling of hiding a part of me until I know them better. This mental bubble can be pierced, as when I returned this fall and noticed that the one church (which sits between my apartment and the school) had collapsed. But for the most part it’s the lens through which I view life here. Life in the Tundra Bubble is separate from life outside, and for the next few months, I’m back on the inside.

I woke up this morning to another text message from Mom: “Please call when you can.” Even though I’d just woken up, I knew immediately what she would say. Sure enough: “Yiayia passed away yesterday.”

Y’assou Yiayia!

I’m struggling with getting my thoughts in order to write this letter. Can it really be the last one?

I don’t remember the first time we met, because I was barely 6 months old. But Mom sent a picture the other day from that meeting: You’re holding me, and we both are smiling.

Remember some of our later meetings, when you and Grandpa would come to Boston? I think those were some of your favorite stories: How I’d hide behind Dad’s legs at first before gradually coming out to say hi. I remember feeling very shy towards you. You were this person I called “Grandma”, but you weren’t like my other Grandma, who took me to the library and swimming lessons and spent weekends with us at the Lake. You spoke with an accent and lived far away and I talked on the phone with you maybe once a year and saw you even less.

I remember our first trip to Athens to visit you and Grandpa, and how you met us at the airport even though Mom told you not to. I got shy all over again, because it had been two years since I’d last seen you and now I was ten and meeting you again in a brand new place. But you and Grandpa both smiled, gave L and I the presents you’d brought for us and took our hands, and I realized that this could be fun.

Even on future visits, it always took the two of us a couple of days to find our footing, both of us working against the lack of interaction during the rest of the year. Thanks to Mom’s weekly letters, you always seemed to know what was going on in my life, while I felt like I didn’t really know what was happening with you. The only comparison I could make was to my other Grandma, but since none of your grandkids lived near you how did you spend your time? And yet every time we visited you took the time to get to know me all over again, to ask questions about school and friends and music. By the fourth or fifth trip, we no longer had to re-introduce ourselves; we’d just pick up where we left off.

You and Grandpa both were such good sports on those trips. You’d ooh and ahh over report cards and drawings and books and toys. When you’d insist on going out for coffee or dinner or to Yannis’s shop, you or Grandpa always walked with a grandkid and pointed out anything you thought we’d find interesting. As L and I got older, you’d look through yearbooks and listen to endless stories of marching band, musical, and, in my case, work at the zoo or the museum.

Prior to college, I only wrote letters when prodded by Mom, usually to accompany the latest report card. But when I left for college I started writing on a weekly basis. I wanted you to hear about how my life was going from me, rather than second-hand through Mom. I’d also gotten a bit of a wake up call to the fact that you wouldn’t be around forever; Grandpa was already in hospital when I started my freshman year and left us not long thereafter.

Several times over the years, you apologized for not writing back to me, explaining that holding a pen was too difficult. As I said many times, I didn’t need replies. Just knowing you got the letters and were part of my life was enough.

After Grandpa passed, I made a point of getting to know you better. I loved listening to your stories of growing up in Alexandria, hearing about your mother and sister. Your stories of working in Libya, where you met Mom and her sisters and their mother and Grandpa, have always held a special place in my heart. I’ve always known that you are technically my step-grandmother, but that distinction never meant much, especially when you, too, had stories of Mom and her sisters as children.

It seems so strange to say this now, but coming out to you scared me. I didn’t know how you viewed the LGBT community, because it was something we never really talked about. I also hoped to initially talk to you in person. But then I started hormones, and knew that I’d look and sound different the next time you saw me. So I wrote you a special letter, one solely dedicated to my coming out. You took the time and effort to write me back, saying that what mattered most to you was that I was happy, and that you couldn’t wait to see me that summer. The hug I received when I arrived still means so much to me.

Every month since 2009, I’ve made sure to write. Sometimes I’d get so busy I’d miss a month, but the next letter would always cover the lost time. Any time we talked on the phone, you’d remind me how proud you were of me. While it was never the same after Grandpa left, I still looked forward to my visits because I got to spend time with you. I loved hearing more of your stories, like how you felt about living in England when you and Grandpa first got married.You loved hearing about my life, even if I talked about things I’d previously covered in my letters. I think one of my favorite memories is from the trip in 2014, when I got to tell you immediately and in person that I’d had a job offer.

I remember during visits when I’d call you from the hotel to let you know I was on my way over. In the early years, I spoke only English during those calls. I remember how excited you were when I started speaking Greek.

I remember last year’s visit, when you asked so many questions about living in Alaska. And I remember you happily looking at the hundreds of photos on my computer, even the ones of the seal I helped skin.

When we talked this past Christmas, I assured you that I would be coming to visit you this summer. Even after Mom called in January to say you were in hospital, I kept telling myself you’d get better and that I’d see you in a few short months. Mom’s phone call this morning, however, proved me wrong.

I’m still going to Athens this summer. Mom, Dad, and I have already bought the tickets. Just thinking about being in the city and not seeing you feels strange. Knowing that we won’t call you to visit after breakfast, or to see about joining you for dinner, leaves a hole in my thoughts, because I’ve literally never gone to Athens without seeing you.

Do you remember my first or second trip to Athens, when you and Grandpa gave me my coin? It’s a replica Athenian drachma from 300 BCE, showing Athena’s face on one side and an owl and olive branch on the other, with a loop so it can be put on a necklace. I started wearing it in junior high, and have worn it daily since then. It’s always been my way of keeping you close, and it will continue to be so.

It feels odd to know that you’ll never see this letter. I won’t be printing it out, nor will I need to address an envelope. For that matter, I guess I’ll have to find another use for my leftover airmail stamps.

Please know that, no matter where you are, you will continue to be in my thoughts. Thank you for being such an amazing yiayia.

Love always,

CJ

(Please note: All names used herein are pseudonyms.)

Before we go any further, allow me to lay out some basics about my job. I work with animals. They have specific needs that must be met. There are rules about what we caregivers are expected to do on a daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. For example, every day we are expected to check the health of the animals we are individually responsible for (called our “run”), and make sure that they have food and water. I work with a dozen others; together, we are responsible for meeting these standards. It doesn’t matter if someone is not at work; the animals still need care. As such, we frequently work as a team, checking in with one another to make sure we have the supplies we need, seeing if there is some way that we can help, or covering the duties of someone who is absent. For the most part, I get along well with my coworkers. Sure, we can occasionally annoy one another, but overall we work well together.

To say that the last few months at my job have been hectic would be a gross understatement. The extreme cold in January made life interesting because it played havoc with the steam that powers some of the vital equipment in my building, like the pipes that provide drinking water for the animals. Then there’s been a revolving door of sorts; that is, the staff has changed a bit from when I started working there. Since September, we’ve lost five people to new jobs, plus Boss was on maternity leave from October until New Year’s. While we had subs that helped out, we’re still technically two people shy of being fully staffed, so everyone’s runs are a bit larger than is ideal.

Remember how I said earlier that my coworkers and I can occasionally annoy one another? Lately, it feels like that’s more of a permanent thing. One coworker in particular, Dingbat, drives everyone nuts with his sloppy work habits, loud voice, and crude jokes. Then there are the Tom, Jackson, and McD, or as I sometimes privately refer to them, the Three Stooges. These three guys are responsible for cleaning and taking care of equipment like the cages and water systems. They do their jobs, but they can’t stand one another, and lately, most of the rest of my coworkers can’t stand them, either.

I already mentioned Dingbat. He’s only been with the department since last July, but it seems a lot longer. My biggest problem with him is that he consistently lies about the work that he has done. That, and he keeps trying to give the newer people helpful advice. Thankfully, they’ve all learned to ignore him.

My other coworkers, Boss included, have quirks and tendencies that annoy me, but then again, I probably annoy them in ways that I don’t really know about, too. Clearly, though, I can’t annoy them all too much, because lately I’ve become the person that everyone comes to when they have a problem or need to vent. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone.

I’m not saying that I mind helping others. On the contrary, the tendency to do things for others is in some ways my Achilles’ heel, because I don’t feel comfortable leaving things undone. As one friend put it, I ALWAYS have to pick up the ball, even if I wasn’t the one who dropped it. At work, I’ve often been one of the ones who helps with additional projects or those duties that aren’t specifically assigned to anyone.

However, I dislike helping others when they are specifically taking advantage of me. Take Dingbat, or even Red (our second-newest employee). Both have an annoying habit of standing around and talking when they should be working, so they run out of time and thus come looking for help to finish their own work.

Lately, I’ve also somehow become the Father Confessor for the whole bunch. That is, any time someone stops by to talk to me, it’s either “Can you help me?” or “I can’t believe so-and-so just did that!” or “I hate X!” Our newest employees, Red and Rose, are prone to panic attacks about how much there is to do, so they’ll moan about that. Blake can’t stand either Irvin, Jackson, Dingbat, or Tom, so he’ll complain about one of them. Or he’ll talk about the most gruesome or depressing story from that morning’s news. Kate and Murphy, the vets, often gossip about the other employees. On the one hand, I’m flattered that everyone trusts me enough to say this stuff to me. As a rule, I try not to gossip, or to share information with someone who doesn’t really need to know. On the other hand, I’m SICK OF IT.  I’m starting to feel like I should hang a sign on the door of whatever area I’m working in that states, “The Doctor is In”, and that I should charge people a nickel each time they say something like that to me. Maybe then they would learn to work out their problems on their own.

The final thing that irks me about all of this is that no one ever says, “Thanks for listening.” So thank you, dear readers, for listening to this rant of mine. I know that it took up some of your time, and I greatly appreciate it.

Where did the last two months go? I could’ve sworn I just posted about my New Year’s resolutions only a few days ago….

To say that the last couple of months have been busy would be a gross understatement. They’ve also been rough, for a variety of reasons. But I’m trying to stay positive, so today I wrote a list of all of the “ups” from the last eight weeks.

I’m making slow progress on the job hunt. I’ve got an interview on Thursday for a potential promotion at work. My aunt and I spent a couple of hours on day re-writing and polishing my resume. I’m registered for a teacher job fair at the end of this month.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with friends and family, including celebrating my dad’s birthday. One of my best friends will be moving closer to where I live in a couple of months, so we’ll be able to see one another more frequently.

I’ve gotten to indulge my passion for live theatre on several occasions, including seeing the national touring company of “WICKED” and a local production of Sondheim’s “Company”. I also had the great fortune to see Billy Joel in concert.

While I haven’t been keeping up with posts here, I completed one fanfiction piece that I began over a year ago. I also have posted the first three chapters of a new story: a Warehouse 13/Firefly crossover. If you think that it sounds interesting, go ahead and check it out at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/10038861/1/No-Good-Deed.

I’ve been studying for my next work-related certification, which, if I pass the test, will mean a raise. I’ve still managed to find time to read over a dozen novels, and enjoyed all of them.

I’ve started planning a trip to visit my Yia-yia (Greek for ‘grandmother’). It’s been almost three years since I last saw her, so I’m excited. I’m also looking forward to returning to Athens; in many ways, I feel like I grew up there just as much as I did here in the US.

It may have been a rough couple of months, but this list lets me see that it hasn’t been all bad. Hopefully, it only gets longer.

When I was little, I more often felt like I had no gender.

I had Barbie dolls (although not nearly as many as my sister did). I’d play with them, too. When my sister and I would play with them, Barbie often wound up marrying Max Steel (he was WAY cooler than Ken). The dollhouse lived in my bedroom, and my cat often slept in it.

I had an American Girl doll (Molly), and a Bitty Baby. I played with Bitty Baby more.

While I always abhorred dresses, I did have a couple of pink clothing items. There’s a photo of me at eight years old wearing a pink Esmerelda sweatshirt. Speaking of Disney, I know that I also had several shirts featuring Pocahontas.

When my sister and I would play make-believe, I was always the knight in shining armor, or the handsome prince.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast came out when I was four. My best friend, Angela, and I would often act out scenes from the film at daycare. We’d argue over who got to be the Beast.

My sister took dance lessons (jazz and tap) for about a year. Several times, I watched the lessons. It looked like fun, but I was too terrified of being put in tights or having to wear a skirt to tell Mom and Dad that I wanted to try it, too.

I took karate lessons for six years. Sensei Mike will forever have my gratitude and admiration. Three weeks out of five, class time was devoted to drills of the “charts” (basics) and then individual work on katas. The other two weeks, however, were devoted to grappling and sparring. Both sports were full contact, and each match was done in front of the rest of the class. The rule on those nights was that everyone had to grapple or spar at least once. Sensei chose who partnered whom for each match, and he matched people up based solely on skill level, and, on grappling nights, weight. In other words, girls fought boys, girls fought girls, and boys fought boys. Sensei measured everyone based on their hard work, not on what they happened to look like. For six years, class was a safe haven, and for that, I am forever grateful to Sensei.

The majority of the music in my iTunes library is cast recordings of musicals. And yes, I know the lyrics to all of the songs.

I am a geek, in all senses of the word. Although, as my sister once pointed out, “you actually have social skills.”

When I started Transitioning, I avoided people from my past for about three years. To this day, I don’t quite know why.

In junior high and high school, I avoided social situations like the plague, including cast parties for the musicals.

I didn’t learn how to dance until college, when my friends dragged me to swing dancing. I later enrolled in two semesters of ballroom, and loved every second of it.

Even after four years of testosterone, I still have moments when I think people around me are questioning my gender.

“I do not read to think.
I do not read to learn.
I do not read to search for truth,
I know the truth,
The truth is hardly what I need.
I read to dream.
I read to live
In other people’s lives.
I read about the joys
The world
Dispenses to the fortunate,
And listen for the echoes.
I read to live,
To get away from life!”

These words, spoken by Fosca in Sondheim’s Passion, describe me perfectly. From the time that I learned to read at the age of three, books have provided a means of escape. I read picture books during the long car ride to daycare, and was allowed several books to read during nap time, since I rarely slept. My parents further encouraged this behavior in a number of ways: They limited the amount of “screen time” (TV and PC) my sister and I had to about one hour a week. I often saw them reading to relax. Bedtime was rarely negotiable, but lights-out could be delayed by the magic words, “I just have to finish this book” or, later, “I just have to finish the chapter!” Either they or my grandma took me to the library on a weekly basis; I was so excited to get my very own library card when I was six! The house had books, books, and more books, and I was never told that I couldn’t read something.

When I was six, Mom and I started reading the Little House books together. Every night, before bed, we’d read a chapter or two, alternating pages. It took some months, but we eventually finished the entire series. During that time, I was reading other things, as well. Not long after we had started the series, a schoolmate introduced me to Star Wars, and I became obsessed, reading everything that I could get my hands on about the movies.

At school, I frequently got in trouble for reading ahead. It wasn’t that I didn’t like what we read, but my classmates read so SLOWLY. My teachers were very used to seeing me bring in my own books, often things that would be considered well above grade-level. The school librarians noticed, too, resulting in my working in the school libraries from third grade to eighth grade. This proved to be a blessing for two reasons: One, I kept finding more and more good books to read. Two, as I got older, the libraries and books became a refuge from the teasing and bullying of my classmates.

Yes, as Fosca said, I read to live, to get away from my life. Building off of my love for Star Wars, Dad introduced me to the works of Robert A. Heinlein when I was nine, thus cementing my love for the genre of science fiction. In those pages, I could literally do anything, be anything. Books were a safe haven, a place where it didn’t matter what the kids around me were saying, a place where my own troubles disappeared. Not only that, books became my own way of learning how the world worked, and how amazing people could be. The worlds of my books were where I found acceptance of who and what I was, something that I desperately needed.

As I’ve gotten older, of course, things have gotten better. I no longer have to hide in my books from my peers, because I am no longer afraid to show the world who I am. Reading is still one of my favorite past times, however, because I still enjoy that feeling of escape, of freedom, of unquestioning acceptance.