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SELF-MADE MAN #11: Blood and Ceremony

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That fateful first day had that hazy, Instagram quality: the sparkly June sun spots, the hot smell of fries bouncing off the asphalt near Fenway Park, rowdy Boston drivers laying on their game-day horns, and me, leaving the clinic in a flood of testosterone, feeling that now-familiar, weird rush of energy for the first time. Free-floating past Sox shirts and skater kids, I felt like I could lift a car, or become a different person. I marshaled up a montage: a blurry figure with a slight swagger and a heart of gold, a new me that ate only whole foods and didn’t depend on anxiety pills or someone else’s late-night reassurances.

I passed a boy throwing rocks at geese in the Fens and imagined being the person who didn’t just give a hairy eyeball but somehow, gently yet firmly, stopped him. A self-made man, I thought, walking by.

My emotional landscape kaleidoscoped in those first months, giving gravity and texture to anger, but also creating a strange post-rage placidity, cool as a lake at the heart of a fire. I was eventually blood-tested and dose-adjusted into balance; but in the meantime I learned to steer through the riot of feeling until I got on at a good clip, a slightly tilted version of my past self.

And who am I? Not all handsome benevolence, turns out. I’m a flared-up fear of intimacy, despite the eight years I’ve spent with my wife. I’m internalized sexism and transphobia. Even with a recent inspired effort around forgiveness, I’m pushing a boulder of family dynamics uphill, and the hill is more like a stinking mountain of shame. I’m knee-deep in anxiety: of emergency rooms, of the TSA, of what will happen to my unicorn body when I’m too old to give myself a shot.

When I began writing this column, I pussyfooted around about the title, nothing sitting right, until “Self-Made Man” struck me as I sat in a darkened theater. Maybe I wanted to impress you, but mostly I picked “self-made” because it was an aspiration.

What makes a man was my first question, and I asked you, and you, and you.

I’m reporting back from the other side of radical change and the answer is who cares? I am my grandparents. I am road rage. I am the Dogwood trees of my childhood. I am seven years in San Francisco. I am the drugs I did in high school.

That’s not it, either. I’m trying to tell you that there’s something steady inside each of us, something unconcerned with expectation or gender or fear. There’s a center, and it’s like a friendly ghost of every person we’ve ever been. I’m 31, and I know I’m not just the chemistry of my blood or the genes the testosterone has turned on. I’m also my darkest impulses and my most glittering potential, I am walking past that boy and telling him that he’s no different than those birds; and sometimes I am the boy that doesn’t know any better, throwing stones.

This weekend I got the words “Self Made” tattooed across the tops of my legs at a scruffy shop in Providence. My guy, a bald PhD student, had a heavy hand and a thing for Marx. Maybe it was some sort of subconscious poetry, but as he buzzed away, talking about the lyricism of that “opiate of the masses” passage, stopping only to concentrate on the flourish of the script’s curves, I found myself watching him trace each gory letter and thinking, again, about these words.

Self-made. I thought of my wife Michael (yes, her birth name), her Jean Seberg hair, and our wedding vows on that salty cliff. The beginning of my transition was our truest test. We spent weeks ensnared in half-cocked, bewildering arguments that peaked on the days I got my shot and limped along until the next one. At some point, I felt a Pavlovian wall go up, a squeeze banding around my chest whenever she needed me. That’s when I realized that to be “self-made” is to choose a guiding principle. There are only two, so it’s easy: you’ve got fear and its flip side, vulnerability. Watching her sleep, I felt something click into place. Then, there we were, throwing rocks into the Atlantic in April, saying let’s do this, let’s let it all go.

Like swallowing your fear of heights at the tip-top of a skyscraper, the greatest gift of my new world is the vastness of perspective. My mom, for Christmas, gave me a dress shirt with a card: For my “new” son, Thom. I know you will look handsome. We needed a second chance, and we got it.

If I take a hard look, if I map out my constants, then they’re messy. I’m still irritable and compassionate, hopeful and moody, courageous and cold; what I wanted for myself and what I dislike most about who I’ve always been are mixed in equal measure. Isn’t that the task, to love it all?

I thought about all this as the buzzing grew louder than the Marxist, until his talk faded into companionable silence. His arms were covered in black ink tigers and jungle birds. As he looped around the “M” and wiped blood from my knee, I appreciated his ability to sit with me in this moment, this man I will never see again.

If there is anything fundamental about me, it’s my faith in people — even muggers and bad dads, even strangers. And this year has proven to me that the most self-made man is the one who can contain himself while simultaneously understanding that his most basic need will always be a home, a place among others. And even when I was afraid, even when I didn’t pass, I have been shown no shortage of surprising kindness: from the fluorescent solace at the DMV, where the smiling lady with snapshots of kids crowding her out of her cubicle changed my gender markers, to the wrinkly, jocular probate judge who stamped his seal on my name-change form. “Happy to do this for you, sir,” he said, meaningfully, and I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up.

“You can stand,” the bald Marxist said, the ceremony of his words a happy accident. He busied himself with his gloves and the inks, and left me to the mirror. “Look good?” he asked. I turned back and forth, the ink and blood, the words symbols unto themselves, the heady blur of it all making me crack a smile. “Yeah,” I confirmed, despite — or perhaps because of — the shakiness of a loop or two. “It’s perfect.”


Thomas Page McBee's essays and reportage have appeared on TheAtlantic.com, VICE, BuzzFeed, Salon, and in the New York Times. MAN ALIVE, his memoir about violence and what makes a man, is forthcoming this fall from City Lights/Sister Spit, and he is now at work on a book about forgiveness. He is the managing editor of PolicyMic, and lives in the city that is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter, @ThomasPageMcBee, or visit thomaspagemcbee.com. More from this author →