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Monday, January 17, 2011

I enjoy being a girl (even though I look like a boy)

Yesterday I was mistaken for a man. It happened at the Harris Teeter near Timberlyne up on MLK way. It was around 10am. I had just come from visiting Matthew at Cup of Joe and had on a Cup of Joe baseball cap (more like a Greek fisherman's cap), my flannel jacket from Nepal (it's black with multicolor bands at the wrists), and my yoga pants (which for me means my ankles are showing) with my keen slip ons. I mention this because I think if one were to see me, the entire me, there are sartorial signs that may read more as "feminine" than "masculine" or at least clothing you'd associate more with a woman (yoga pants), although I also recognize that some of my other clothing may have seemed either masculine or androgynous (baseball cap, keen shoes). The jacket probably just registered as "ethnic."

Anyway, I was standing in line with my basket and a checker appeared and said directly to me, "Sir, I can take you at that counter," pointing to the register to my left. I literally looked in back of me, wondering if perhaps I was mistaken in who he was speaking to, and then I realized that, no, it was ME, and I dutifully followed him.

And then I had to make a decision: do I say something or not say something. Do I try to pass as a guy or do I let him know he's made a mistake.

Since I am pretty sure that as low voiced as I *think* I am, I'm really not so low pitched as to be mistaken for a guy. I also think that upon closer inspection (like seeing the diamond wedding band that I wear or the bracelet on my wrist) the guy might realize his mistake and feel more embarrassed. So I said to him, "Even though I know I look like a guy, I'm actually a woman."

I said this without any judgment or inflection--just stated it as matter-of-factly as I could. The checker (a college aged kid) was pretty chagrined--apologized--but I smiled and told him it was my short hair that fooled him. And he smiled, relieved, and agreed that the hair was what made him think I was a man.

Which of course has led me to think about my gender identity--or the way that I present myself as a woman.

Because previous to my cancer/chemo/surgery, I would have told you that I exhibit pretty masculine traits. That I liked wearing men's shirts (especially oversized white button down shirts); that I used to sing tenor parts in the chorus during high school because there weren't enough boys to sing those parts; that I have that annoying "male" way of interrupting people during conversations and other verbal markers that signal a more masculine rather than feminine talking style. And, in general, I just would have said that I don't *feel* very feminine.

To which I now say: RUBBISH.

I mean, you don't know what it's like not to feel feminine until you lose your hair and your breasts.

I also think it was easy for me to say that I felt masculine, because my female identity and my hetero identity were so firmly entrenched and seemingly one and the same. In other words, I wonder to what degree it's easy for me, as a straight-identified, pre-bilateral mastectomy and pre-chemotherapy-loss-of-hair woman, to say that I identify as "masculine" or feel myself to have "masculine" traits when so many of my obvious physical features read "feminine"--including my clothes and accessories: necklaces, rings, dresses, etc... Even more androgynous clothing like jeans or suit jackets were tailored for women rather than men--as well as my shoes--they clearly read female.

Yet ever since the loss of my hair and the loss of my breasts, I've been thinking about my gender identity, in terms of my physical features. I've been wondering about what parts of me are still coded as feminine and which parts of me may truly seem to be more androgynous, more masculine. When I look at myself from the neck down wearing a t-shirt for example, I encounter a flat chest that resembles a boy's more than a woman's. And when I look at myself in the mirror, with my hair cropped close to my head, I see an uncanny resemblance to my male cousins. In fact, when I had my head shaved by Matthew back in July, my mother remarked that I in the photos I posted on this blog I looked just like my Uncle Hunter.

All of which has made me realize that as much as I may look like a boy, I actually do feel like a girl (or woman rather). I actually identify, quite strongly, with being a woman--because my mannerisms, my clothing choices, my body language, my voice, are all coded as feminine and all convey a sense of my womanliness. My missing breasts didn't make me more of a woman, nor more feminine. My hair, well that's a different story. I do think that short hair plus androgynous clothing can equal gender confusion. Which may be why I'm not sure if I'll be keeping my hair short. That as much as I like to academically think about ambiguity, I'm not sure how I feel about being in an ambiguously gendered body.

And yet there's a part of me that thinks that perhaps this is a time for me to explore androgyny--to explore what it means to occupy a body that is feminine without such feminine markers as longer hair and breasts. To think about what it may mean for me to either intentionally pass as male or to allow myself to be mis-read--to not have corrected the check-out clerk but to just let him make his own assumptions about who I am.

Something to think about as I more through space in this new body of mine and a key question for me to wonder about is: what will I feel like wearing a summer dress? Will this be a moment when I feel the full weight of the loss of my breasts and the loss of a part of my femininity? I suppose we'll have to wait until May to find out.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Learning my limits

OK, here's a truth. I'm tired. I don't know if I'm more or less tired than I was during chemo and post-surgery. Probably less tired. At least physically it's easier for me to move around. But I *feel* fatigued. On many levels.

I think I've downplayed my exhaustion for a few reasons. Primarily I think that I have a hard time accepting that being tired and not having a lot of energy or energy in reserve, which I think is the more accurate description for my condition right now, is part of my new reality. And I think I've been reluctant to accept this because I have been concentrating on being BETTER--on healing and resuming my regular routine and a sense of normalcy.

But the truth is, I'm tired a lot. I just don't have the energy that I used to have. And what I mean by this is my life pre-chemo/surgery. My life pre-cancer diagnosis. And my fatigue and exhaustion aren't just physical--it's also mental and emotional. It's a new inability to handle stress in the same way. And a recognition that I need to be as gentle with myself as possible. To really cut myself slack. To not demand too much of myself.

In short, I need to learn my limits--my physical limits but also my mental/emotional limits.

And this is a hard thing for me to do. I'm normally a very high energy person. And I'm a multitasker who is a perfectionist and who burns the candles at both ends (and sometimes in the middle). I have extraordinarily high (overly high) expectations for myself (and for those close to me, unfortunate at times, I realize) and in general I feel like I should deliver on those expectations.

But I can't right now. Pushing myself, something I'm used to doing, is just not an option. I don't have it in me.

Case in point: after teaching back-to-back classes yesterday, I canceled my office hours and collapsed on the couch at home, pretty much not getting up until I collapsed in bed (where I promptly fell asleep the minute my head touched my pillow). Normally teaching back-to-back classes and holding office hours would leave me tired, but not "bone-dead-I'm-going-to-pass-out" tired.

This is my new reality. And it reminds me that teaching takes energy. Emotional and mental energy, in addition to physical energy. I think I forget this because I enjoy teaching and because I've been doing it for so long now that it almost seems like it is second nature to me. But it's work--it takes work to be a good teacher. And I'm not sure how organized or coherent or lively I was yesterday. I know I forgot to share some basic information with my students about their assignments--leading me to follow-up on email. I know that I felt scattered and a bit dis-organized during the first hour of teaching, perhaps a consequence of being out of the classroom for so long. And I know that I was surprised by all of this.

Which I shouldn't be. I shouldn't be surprised that teaching is going to be different for me this semester. That my body is different. I am different. And I should be gentle with myself. To not demand too much of myself, especially in these first few weeks back in the classroom.

And yet...I'm disappointed. Disappointed in my body for not having more energy. In myself for not being more organized and accomplishing more. Disappointed that I am still healing--that I'm not healed (past tense). It's silly, I know. Healing is something that can't be rushed. And I know that if I were someone else, I would tell me to be more patient and to be gentle and that what I went through was a big deal and I have to learn to limit myself and it's not a failing or an indictment on my character or sense of self.

Why do we often become our hardest critics? And is this just because I'm an academic who deconstructs and critiques others for a living?


Maybe I just need a mantra to get through the next few weeks and months. Be gentle gentle Jen. Hopefully I can learn to take my own advice.

[Update/Aside: If you saw the post below, you'll see that Matthew and I adopted a new dog, Bella. Unfortunately, we had to return her to her foster mother last week Monday when we realized that Bella had some very aggressive tendencies. Specifically, she tried to attack Bruno 3 times and was also aggressive with our friend's dog, Squirrel. It was a hard decision, but at the end of the day, we feel we made the right choice because we couldn't live with the tension and with the uncertainty of her attacking Bruno. And it's also part of learning my own limits--it wasn't the right time to get another dog because teaching is just about all I can handle right now.]

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Looking back and looking forward

It's now the second day of the new year, 2011, and I typically don't do new year's resolutions (seems like a set up for failed expectations) but leaving behind one year for the next does seem to be a chance to look back and reflect, as well as to look ahead with hopes and aspirations.

I know I haven't been writing much on this blog--truth be told, the last entry about why I chose not to do reconstruction seemed to be a place for me to pause in terms of my processing about cancer and chemo and surgery. Maybe I also needed a break from writing--which is funny since one could argue that all I've had since May 2010 is a break from writing and working (aside from blog writing that is, well, and some light editing and conference planning activity that I've been doing for the Association for Asian American Studies).

When I think about 2010, the last year of the first decade of the 21st century, I realize that it will be marked by my illness and cancer--that I will have spent more days of that year living with the knowledge that I have/had cancer than days not knowing--or to put it another way, that most of 2010 was occupied with being in and out of various doctor's offices (or more accurately, waiting rooms).

It'd be easy to say that 2010 was a horrible year and I'm glad it's over. But 2010 will also mark the year I turned 40, and most especially (and most significantly) the year I got married to Matthew. It will also mark the year I turned in my tenure file. And most recently, the year that Matthew and I expanded our family to include Bella--the newest addition to the Grady-Ho household:

[We've been debating about a second dog for a while now, but after we returned from our pre-Christmas vacation to Charleston--we decided to look in earnest and we found her through a rescue organization that takes dogs from rural shelters and fosters them in Wake Forest. So far Bruno is tolerating (just barely) his more energetic younger sister--we're hoping that in time, they'll really grow closer]

So there have been some important milestone and moments in 2010 that I'll look back on in fondness. And some of them, I must confess, have also been around my cancer diagnosis. Now, I still hold firm to the fact that if I had to do it over again, I would NEVER WANT TO HAVE CANCER OR GO THROUGH CHEMO AND SURGERY. But...I'd be lying if I didn't say that post-cancer diagnosis, I have been nearly overwhelmed and deeply moved by the love and kindness of people in my life. From near strangers to my oldest and closest family members, there have been random acts of kindness and love and support from people that have really humbled me. In particular, all the people who dropped off food--the food gifts were incredible and are most memorable, to me, as both a symbolic and material way for people to express their support/concern/affection.

Of course, there are moments that I will never want to relive. That awful feeling in the pit of my stomach upon hearing the initial diagnosis. The worry and concern, the anxiety and fear I could see on people's faces or hear in their voices when I shared my diagnosis. The entire experience of chemotherapy and surgery. The realization that I would more than likely lose ovarian function and be unable to get pregnant. The loss of my hair (which is, thankfully, growing back very quickly).

So 2010 was an awful year, health wise (and I should add, not just for myself but for my dear Aunt Teri-Ann and dear friend Jeff Cross--and there are other friends who have had health issues this year and who have had their own surgeries and experiences in doctors' waiting rooms & offices). Which means that in looking forward, what I most hope for 2011 is good health. For myself, for all my loved ones, for all of you.

What 2011 will actually bring is anyone's guess. I will be back in the classroom on January 11--which makes it the first time in a year that I'll be teaching undergrads (I only taught a single grad seminar Spring 2010, so this is one of the longest absences I've had from teaching undergrads). I'm still working on my book manuscript on racial ambiguity (I have 40 very rough pages on Tiger Woods that I'm not proud of ... yet, and I need to work on a chapter about transracial/transnational adoptees). I'm the conference co-chair for the annual meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies (yep, I've been doing conference stuff for the last few months while recuperating from surgery). And then there's my tenure file...I still need to be observed in the classroom--and then my department will vote on me (in late February I believe) and then I await news from the college and provost committees (keep your fingers crossed ladies and gentlemen). I've got a lot on my plate professionally.

Am I better? Yes. By which I mean, I've got my hair back (yay!), I'm no longer feeling so fatigued (although I still have bouts of exhaustion and my energy level is still not 100%--after walking Bella for 40 minutes the other day I came home and collapsed. Walking for 40 minutes should NOT drain me normally...I'm not sure how I'm going to train for this 4 mile race in April if this persists). I still have some tightness in my arms and chest post-surgery, but in general I have full range of motion. And most of all, psychologically and emotionally I feel strong.

But I want to clarify one thing about that last statement. While I do feel like my cancer is in the past--part of the memories of 2010 I will carry with me, I don't feel like I'm necessarily "over" it--I don't necessarily know if I'll ever feel the way I did pre-April 2010, mentally and emotionally that is (well, even physically since there's no way to get my original breasts back or to take away these physical scars). I have been marked by this disease, for better or worse, and I will carry those psychic scars with me, just as I wear the physical scars. They are part of my life now, and I am learning to live with them.

I'm not sure how much blogging I'll be doing in this space. I suspect that I'll still write posts from time to time. There is one about my gender identity, in particular, that I'd like to explore. But for those of you who were mostly checking in to see how I was doing, you probably won't be hearing much on the health front--you hopefully won't be hearing anything significant on the cancer or N.E.D. front EVER (that'd be wonderful, wouldn't it?). So this may be the last entry you decide to read, which is fine by me. I am grateful that people wanted to know what was going on with me and checked into the blog at all.

So Happy New Year! Lets hope that 2011 is good to us all, body and soul.

[Me & Bruno at Folly's Beach, SC -- see, my hair IS growing back!]