I was talking to someone about whether I ever was a standup fan. There are people who are really obsessively curious about all the different ways standup has manifested, how scenes pop up, what kind of material they give rise to. You meet a lot of people in standup who were crazy about standup as teenagers- who can quote the entirety of specials back to you.
When I started standup it was more of an ego thing than a love thing. I was two years out of college and had been dumped by my college boyfriend. I went to a little local bar show and thought, oh whoa, I’d be way better at this than these dudes, and I’d be the only woman too. I needed a reason to put lots of cute pictures of me online. My longest, most significant relationship, a relationship I had moved to another state for, a relationship I thought we were headed towards marriage with, had disappeared easier than a mattress left on a curb. To say I was devastated doesn’t really cover it. I had not a clue what to do with myself. Important to note, I had gotten into that relationship about a half a year after my college rape, and it had been this filler for where my self esteem was supposed to be. I remember when that boyfriend decided he’d date me I thought, “I better date him because no other guy is ever going to want to date me.” Having a boyfriend was a symbol of my fundamental ok-ness. So when I got into standup not only was I totally sure I was for real not ok, even my mask of ok-ness had been taken from me.
But before all that mess, when I was a girl, I read a lot of comedy books. We had Bill Cosby’s “Fatherhood” in the house. I thought the chapter in there about chocolate cake for breakfast was genius, mind-blowing stuff. We had all the Woody Allen books. Those books were dirty, but in a highbrow way, so I ended up reading both Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina in seventh grade because of a Woody Allen story about a guy who makes slutty women from literature real, so he can have sex with them. What a trip, looking back. Coming into womanhood, reading men’s jokes about sexual women, then reading long, heavy tragedies about sexual women. All of it over my head, but also then lodged in my head forever.
I loved Steve Martin, I loved SNL, I loved David Letterman, and then I loved Conan, back when you had to stay up really late to see him. I even wrote fan letters to Conan. You know, I think I also wrote fan letters to Dave Letterman. So that has to qualify me as a comedy fan, being crazy enough to write letters.
I’m talking about this with a friend, and talking about how none of that is actually standup, that’s books and tv shows, how I didn’t really know about standup as a medium unto itself, and my friend says, “I think you just liked that they had really strong voices.”
That seems right to me. Just getting to have a viewpoint. Just getting to have a viewpoint, and you can offer it up about cake or Madame Bovary or the president or pesticides or airplane food. You just get to offer up a take. You have a voice, and it’s consistent, so consistent other people can describe it back to you, other people can parody it or rip it off. Bill Cosby and Woody Allen are some of the easiest impressions people who can’t do impressions can still pull off.
Before T I really hated my voice. It never sounded like I expected it to- too high, too unsure, too quivering. I was really looking forward to a deeper voice. I was doing a project when I was taking T where my voice was getting recorded a lot, so I had a record of the change. I thought I’d get to a place, fully transitioned, where it would be cool to go back and listen to that change.
But no, that was an incorrect prediction. It would be really strange for me to go back and listen to that project now, mostly because my ideas about the world were so naive and broad and frankly dumb back then. I’ve seen video of me from that time in my life and it’s sad to take in. Because I was just working so hard at making up a worldview where I was ok, and I know how not ok I was. But I was doing a really convincing impression of being ok. Ok and only getting better, better, better.
Last year my mom told me, sort of out of the blue, that she will always miss my old voice. I miss it. I miss doing karaoke, and actually not being shitty at it, a lot. A guy I went to middle school with saw me and asked if I was sick. I said, no, that’s just my voice now, and he said, “Oh yeah I keep expecting that sweet little Maria voice to come through.”
It’s weird how before transitioning you get into this idea that transitioning is like killing yourself, but in a good way. Like once a trans guy was complaining to me about his doctor’s office using his “dead name” (that’s literally what people in the trans community call their birth names) and he said, “Come on guys, that bitch is dead.” And all I could think was, damn, was she such a bitch? Such a bitch she’s even a bitch when she’s dead? Normally we let dead people off the hook a little bit, talk them up a little, give them some fondness and affection. Not his old girl-self. She was apparently that bad.
I definitely thought transitioning was the better way to kill myself. I thought, I can’t go on like this, and anything that I have to do to not actually kill myself has got to be the right thing to do. But the flipside is, it is a big death. You do end up killing big parts of yourself. I can’t even tell you what those parts are. But when I watched that video of myself, when I was taking T and excited to transition and selling a feel good story, it didn’t feel like I was watching myself, it felt like I was watching a friend who died.
At least she was my friend? At least I don’t think she was a bitch? I think she was very brave, in her own way. I think she was flailing but she was trying to manage her sorrow without bringing everyone else down. She was trying to cheer people up. She yelled at people a lot too. Other people certainly thought she was a raging bitch. It’s funny, I mostly stay far afield of things that might get me called a bitch these days but I definitely am more self-interested and more willing to be as nasty as I need to be about my self-interest than that girl ever was. I avoid getting called a bitch because I’m better at it these days. She was so guileless. I am 80% guile.
When I was working at the trans clinic using a mother voice was very important. I didn’t understand that until I was in the job. Because that job, truly, was about getting bitched out at least once a half hour. People would call up and just scream at me, and threaten to kill themselves, and threaten to come in the clinic and beat us all up, and tell me every bad thing that had ever happened to them or could happen to them, and the only thing I could do was speak in a very low, calming, measured mom voice. It worked a lot. It was very effective. But it sucked, to get this job where I thought finally I can escape from being these female characters, and then discover, no, you have to play a mom for this job to work at all. You have to play a mom on the phone and your coworkers are going to be middle school mean girls to you until you start wearing makeup. Female characters everywhere, and none of us will identify as female.
I went on this date recently with a guy who said living is an investigation. He sort of stresses me out, you know, as most people do, but I loved that idea. Living is an investigation, and then your relationships are shared investigations, and then what’s love? There’s a Rainer Marie Rilke quote I hold onto, which keeps me going on these dates: “a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus they show each other the greatest possible trust.”
Oh gosh, I go on these dates, and I get stressed out, and often I come home and smoke up and binge eat to recover and I think I can’t do this. It feels so hard to hold onto myself with men, it feels like they want everything, not just my time and energy and my body but they want me to describe the world differently, they want what I see and what I say in response to what I see to be edited appropriately, they want me to see what they are seeing and especially they do not want to look where I point.
Maybe they don’t want that. Maybe I am just so scared because I’ve lost my voice once and I don’t quite know the heights and edges of this one. But that Rilke quote- what if love was a relationship where parts of you were always protected? Your alone time, your art, your voice? What if a lover could show their love not in only in their presence but their absence, when you needed their absence? What if a lover said “I don’t see what you’re seeing, but I know you need to keep pointing.” What if a lover knew there was a part of you they never had any business near, if there was some core that was always just you and the world and their only relationship to it was as a sometimes guard? Is that crazy?
I don’t know what it’s like for other people. I don’t know what it’s like to not need to talk back to the world. I don’t know what it’s like to be comfortable with who the world tells you you are. I don’t even have a handle on what my voice sounds like. I told that man on our next date (and yes, following this I smoked up and almost made myself sick on grapes) “I feel like my body is on this path that’s already been set and I’m just narrating it.” Like, I didn’t cast this movie, I didn’t design the sets, I didn’t write the script, I’m sure as hell not directing, but I’m standing in front of the screen pointing at a detail in the corner, yelling at the audience, “There, see that! Right there, look, before it goes away!”
Maybe that’s the best men and women can do for each other. Maybe we don’t have the same eyes and we don’t see the same things. Maybe there are parts of each other we have no business near. Maybe even when it looks like the other person is crazy, pointing at shit you don’t see, that’s love, telling them to keep pointing. Maybe beyond wanting you around, beyond wanting the heat from your body, your inside jokes, the spirals of your thoughts, the food you love, the music you love, watching you meet the world and being able to predict how that will go, wanting your care and your sweetness and your laughter, maybe the foundation is believing you have a necessary voice. That the conversation you are having with the world is too vital to interrupt, however the voice you speak to the world with rises or descends.