Monday, January 23, 2012

Pacing the Cage -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (2002-11), Conclusion (?)

Have you ever woken from a nightmare, feeling relieved to know it was just a nightmare . . . only to find that you are still asleep, waking into a different nightmare?

That was my summer of 2010.  Within a week of my arrival in the US, I had a mediated settlement with my now ex-spouse.  It was over, unbelievably over.  The settlement was a tough one that would have me giving over $35,000/year in support for another ten years plus a 40/60 split in assets, but it didn't matter.  In Uzbekistan my salary had been close to $130,000 due to hardship and language pay, and it would be similar at my next post.  I could afford this agreement, and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief that we had achieved an agreement through mediation, not the courtroom.

I just had to get through the summer of home leave and training.  As any Foreign Service Officer (FSO) will tell you, our salaries drop to the base salary when we are on home leave.  It can be a hard time, not a vacation at all.  My salary while on home leave was less than $90,000.  Support payments coupled with payments to my attorney -- to whom I owed about $25,000 -- outstripped my after-tax salary.  No matter, I thought.  I still had about $15,000 from my inheritance, and this would see me through from May to August, when I would report to my next post.

Relieved and happy, I bought a used 1990 station wagon, cleaned it up, and drove from Maryland to Maine, driving the back roads, camping at night, and visiting places from my past.  I had not been to my childhood home in Rockland County, New York, in over twenty years, and thus I spent two days there, visiting all the old places and marveling at how I still remembered street names and directions.  There had been many changes since the 1960s, but to my surprise I found they were not nearly as great as I had expected.  I visited both of the houses where I had lived and also the school where I had gone to second grade.

My Childhood Home, 1960-66
From Rockland I took the slow route north through New York and Vermont before turning east through New Hampshire.  I had been on the road nearly two weeks before pulling into Bangor, Maine, where I stopped to buy supplies before pulling into Lincoln the following day.

I had five weeks to spend in Maine before reporting back to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) for five weeks of training.  Much of the time went into fixing up my cabin, but as much as I could I was in the mountains.  I climbed Katahdin, backpacked in Baxter State Park, and went on day hikes.  I bought another bicycle and went on long rides.  I had never been in a kayak but had to have one.  It was wonderful to be out on placid lakes under the warm Maine sun.

Home in Maine
It took several weeks before I started to realize something wasn't right.  I had been offered a handshake for my following post a half year earlier.  This is an official term in State Department speak, an agreement by which a post stops looking for candidates and by which the candidate who accepts the handshake stops looking for posts.  The posting becomes official when the candidate is paneled.  This is usually automatic and swift once a handshake is accepted, but for some reason, I had not been paneled.  When I inquired, I was told not to worry and to report to training at FSI as scheduled.  At the end of June I boarded a plane and headed back to Washington.

Although I had worked over 25 years as a programmer, I had no experience as a systems administrator, and thus I was at FSI to take courses such as Microsoft Server 2003 and Exchange Server.  It was a hot, humid DC summer, and my time went into study and preparing for exams.  In mid-July I was told again not to worry, everything was on track for my follow-on post.  My new supervisor was keen on getting me to post as quickly as possible, and I already had a housing assignment and a community sponsor.  I was being asked what food I wanted in my refrigerator when I arrived.

View from a Kayak
With training over, I still had several weeks of vacation and returned to Maine.  It was there, in mid-August, that I got the word.  My assignment had not been approved.  To this day I don't know the reasons, and I will not speculate on them here.  I was shocked.  I had never heard of such a thing.  Here I was in Maine, out of training and almost out of vacation with no onward assignment.

The dream had turned back into a nightmare.  With a little netbook in my solar powered cabin, I went into action to find a new post.  I needed an assignment and needed it immediately.  I interviewed by phone with two posts, Jamaica and Romania, and both offered me handshakes.  The salary at either post would be nothing like what I had made in Uzbekistan and scarcely more than I was earning while on home leave, but it would be a salary.  It would be almost impossible for my friend F from Uzbekistan to visit.  I knew nothing about either country, but I remembered the beauty of northern Romania from having passed through there in 1978 and 1981.  I accepted the handshake from our Embassy in Bucharest . . . and waited.

Again, the process in Washington mysteriously slowed down.  I was now out of vacation, on leave without pay, and could get no answers on what was the problem.  I looked at my bank balance.  It was now early September, and I was running out of the inheritance money that I had expected to see me through only to the start of August.  One thing was clear:  I would default on my support payment come October 1.  I alerted my attorney, who asked for a modification of support due to reduced salary.  There was only silence from the other side.
Autumn Backpacking in the North Maine Woods

I still hiked, biked, and went kayaking, but the joy was now edged with fear.  "Is my career over?"  I was pacing the cage, wondering just what had happened to a career that until then had been nothing but upward.  I remembered the lines from a song of the same name by Bruce Cockburn--
I've proven who I am so many times
The magnetic strip's worn thin
And each time I was someone else
And every one was taken in
I listened to that song again and again.  It became my anthem as the leaves began to turn colors and still there was no word from Washington.

"OK," I decided, "If I'm to be unemployed, let it end right here in Maine."

I don't remember quite when, but at some point on a long hike during those weeks I realized that I had lost everything -- my home, most of my savings, and perhaps my career.  Everything material that one spends a lifetime building was gone or almost gone.  I thought of another old song and the line, "Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose."  I could take those words at face value, or could it be that they should be read differently, "Nothing left to lose is another word for freedom?"  I had a choice to make.  Was life over, or was it only beginning in a new form?

Early autumn was beautiful in Maine.  The days were warm, and the sun shone brightly through autumn leaves.

I received word from Washington in the final week of September that my assignment to Bucharest had been approved.  I was surprised and almost sad to know I would leave Maine, that life would continue and that my legal battle would continue.  I already knew I would be cited for contempt when I was only able to make a partial support payment on October 1.  My legal bill would continue to grow just as my salary had dropped to the lowest it had been since I had joined the State Department.

My sister had told me many times that I should stop looking for geographic solutions to life's problems.  "Remember," she would say, "Wherever you go, you take yourself with you."

A Final Bicycle Journey, Early October
With nothing left to lose and remembering my sister's words, I stopped pacing the cage.  I didn't know yet where it would lead, but when I landed in Bucharest on October 5, 2010, my legs were shaved and I was wearing a bra.  My fourth and ultimately successful attempt at transition had begun.

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You can find Bruce Cockburn performing Pacing the Cage at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAcqr3MYMmM.  It may no longer be my anthem, but in listening to it again, I am struck by how appropriate many of the words are to any transgender person who has spent a lifetime hiding that fact, attempting to live a life for others but in the end satisfying no one.  It is a haunting end-of-the-old-life, pre-transition ballad. 


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Follow these links for more of the retrospective story: 
Previous entry -- I Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton -- or -- The Day my Universe Changed (Part 6)
Following entry -- Kyna -- or -- A Nine Month Story (October 2010 - June 2011), Part 1

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