I did what I’ve done a million times when my battery ran low: I unwound my charge cables for my laptop and plugged one end into the wall and the other into my computer. The light on the box in the exact center of the cord, halfway between wall and computer, flickered, dimmed, brightened and then went out. That box, I later discovered, is called a “brick.” And what the flickering light indicated was that the brick was going bad like a short in a light bulb. Flash, bang, and a power surge. The result? My computer recognized that something was plugged into the power port, but no power was reaching the battery. The brick was dead.
I hopped on the internet and found a cheap charger to fit my finicky laptop and figured that was that. The thing arrived a few days later and when I plugged it into my computer, it again registered that something was occupying the power port, but the charge level on the battery continued to fall. When the battery was depleted, my laptop shut down.
The repair shop told me that the problem would be in one of three areas: the power port itself, something on the motherboard, or, God help us, the entire motherboard. If it were either of the first two, the cost would be reasonable. If the motherboard had to be replaced, I would need to assess whether or not the cost was worth it. In short, I could just thank my computer for four years of service and move on, like the end of a workplace relationship that was decidedly DOA. Meanwhile, I had my work computer, my Kindle, my cell phone, and my wife’s computers to try to keep working and meeting deadlines.
One of those deadlines involved my research into sex, gender and Christian ethics. For the last few weeks, I’ve been reading Aquinas, Augustine, Pope John Paul II, Lisa Sowle Cahill, and a host of other academics and theologians on the new frontier of gender studies and Catholic social teaching. I had notes to transcribe, papers to write, and documents to search. Absent a decent motherboard, I was in trouble and rapidly falling further and further behind on my schedule.
I do not like change. Having to get used to a new computer and get all my equipment to work together seemed daunting with so many deadlines looming. Why can’t things stay the same, I moaned. I went back to my tired, old refrain. With a typewriter, you roll in the paper and off you go. A typewriter never crashes. A legal pad and a fountain pen do not get viruses and stop working. My notebooks and journals do not need a motherboard.
I did not catch the irony that here I was researching people who change their sex and their entire lives while I simultaneously hate change and wish things always stayed the same. But change is good, especially when what has been is no longer working, when we find that our lives are no longer what we want them to be. Dare to dream; dare to change.
And it was on that note that I remembered an incident from the past with my neighbor Samuel who became a woman. It started more than five years ago. He would walk his dog around our block and often, we would shoot the breeze and gossip about other neighbors. My wife and I had just returned from the supermarket one day when Samuel and his dog walked by. We exchanged greetings and we apologized for the inconvenience some workers caused him when they came to fix our natural gas line earlier in the week. After he had gone into his house, I turned to my wife. “Was he wearing eye liner?” I asked her. Samuel worked in the entertainment industry and we were used to his often eccentric dress: a jaunty beret, clacking clogs, maybe an earring or two. His blond hair was long and he usually kept it in a ponytail. What was different that day, though, were the dark pencil lines around his eyes and maybe, just maybe, a hint of mascara. My wife noticed it, too.
Over the weeks and months that followed, Samuel’s face changed quite noticeably. Now his cheeks were rouged; was that a hint of lipstick we observed on his full lips? “Samuel’s wearing nail polish,” my wife announced when she came home from work and saw him walking his dog. “Maybe it’s for a film he’s going to be in,” she surmised. When I saw him later that week, the makeup was readily apparent, and now, he had decidedly feminine ways of expressing himself, a flutter of his hand, the way he clutched his purse which he carried instead of his previous messenger bag.
I was uncomfortable with him now, not because of the change, but because I did not know what I should do. Should I ask him why he is wearing makeup or just ignore it and pretend not to notice? If he was, in fact, changing from man to woman, would I be insulting him by not noticing, or would it be appropriate to just treat him like the friendly neighbor he had always been and continued to be? I thought it best to just keep on keeping on until he brought it up.
And then one day, there he was in a short miniskirt and Uggs, walking his dog while talking seductively on his cell phone, and gesturing in a coy and decidedly feminine manner. He had fashioned his blond hair in a cute bob and accented his clothing with a rich shade of red nail polish and blue eye shadow that highlighted his cornflower blue eyes. Bangles, shiny and tingly, decorated his wrist. We came face to face, and I realized, for a split second, I was staring at his newly developed cleavage. I was not leering at his breasts, I swear it. The thought screamed in my head: “Those look so real! He doesn’t even look like a man anymore.” We nodded in acknowledgement of each other and he continued down the street in deep conversation with whoever was on the other end of the phone.
Now I had a problem. As a woman, I was sure her name would not be Samuel. How was I to greet her? It felt insulting to call her by his old male name, yet I also felt uncomfortable saying that since she was now so obviously a she, I needed to know her new name. I decided to try to avoid names altogether. When I saw her on the street, I’d say, “Hey, how’s it going?” Or, “What’s new?” The last one made my flush with embarrassment and I made mental note not to ask it again. Obviously, there was a lot that was new. I was awkward and confused. I wanted to support Samuel in her new life, but the dilemma over how much to recognize that life was the sticking point. I did not want her to feel I was uncomfortable with the change, yet no matter how I might approach the subject, it was clear I was uncomfortable. My confusion about what to do could easily be mistaken for judgment or discrimination, and I most certainly did not want her to feel that from me. To add to the confusion, Samuel lived in the neighborhood with her wife, and after this obvious change, she continued to live with her wife. Did she now identify as a lesbian? How could she be the man in the relationship when she now was so obviously female?
The entire episode really balanced on identifiers. Categories. Male, female, gay, straight, all the buzzwords and acronyms and politically correct language. This is who we are, but many times, an indefinite or gender-neutral pronoun might be the most definite thing we can call ourselves. Categories, in this new age, must be fluid. Categories, like stereotypes, are only somewhat true. We are, both singularly and collectively, so much more.
As for this week and my computer issues, the phone call came while I was in the dentist’s office. My computer was fixed. The motherboard only needed one of its components replaced. “The motherboard is the brains of the machine,” the repairman told me. “A damaged motherboard takes the whole thing down.”
“Motherboard,” I said to myself as I was driving to the shop. “Why not fatherboard? The brains of the whole machine is the motherboard.” In the family life of a computer, the authority rested in the maternal, the motherboard. Without the mother, nothing else would work. In the end, a power surge from the faulty charger fried part of the motherboard.
As for Samuel, I remembered back to a happy accident that relieved me of my awkwardness. I was unloading groceries from my car when I saw my changed neighbor approaching. I summoned the courage and prepared to ask her straightaway what I should call her now that she was a she.
“Hi, Samantha,” someone called out from the house across the street. The former Samuel turned and waved with a flip of her blond bob. As she passed me, I reached down to pet her dog.
“So what’s new?” I asked Samantha, forgetting not to ask that question.
“Not much,” she said. “What’s new with you?”