10 years ago: What if I had said ‘No’?

Ten years ago Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 25, 2003. A drab and dark day in New Haven, as I remember it. A Thursday, which meant I was in the midst of wrapping up another Weekend section at the New Haven Register, where I had been the entertainment editor and music writer since September of 1992.

And somewhere in between putting out one fire or another, I took a breather and checked my personal email. Since the evil Yahoo has chewed up and spit out a lot of my early emails, the exact wording is long lost to the ether (and possibly the NSA). The subject line read something like

The Fresno Bee/Assistant Features Editor Position

And the message, from the then-features editor at the paper, pretty much read:

Dear Fran:

Hello. I’m the features editor at The Fresno Bee. I saw your resume on journalismjobs.com and was wondering if you would be interested in discussing an assistant features editor position with us.

And for the first time — and certainly not the last — I heard the inner voice, loud and clear. The same voice that came to me a little over four years later and asked me if I could transition genders.

All of a sudden, the busy newsroom (straight out of the ’70s Lou Grant School of Newspaper Interior Design) became quiet. And things got very calm — a state to which I certainly was not accustomed, especially working at a fanatic’s pace all the time with little downtime. And I was introduced, at long last, to my inner voice — the creepy whisper from within that sounded an awful lot like HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And HAL simply said:

Okay — it’s Fresno.

And six months later, minus two days, I was on a plane out of Bradley International, headed to the heart of the San Joaquin Valley to start a new life. In more ways than I could ever have imagined.

I listened to the voice.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I not listened, or had I been too scared to do anything.

*****

Let’s face it — when you hear a creepy whisper of an inner voice for the first time, out of nowhere, and it tells you that you’re about to make a radical life change, the tendency, especially if you’ve been working at newspapers half your life, is to be extremely skeptical. Am I just hearing things? Am I still sane? Am I finally losing it?

And as I told myself in that moment, I didn’t know anything about Fresno except for agriculture (the Valley is one of the world’s breadbaskets), palm trees (because, after all, it was California) and David Carr. (He had been Fresno State’s stud quarterback a couple years before, a Heisman Trophy finalist who was the first pick in the NFL draft the following spring, by the new Houston Texans, but finished a mediocre career as Eli Manning’s backup with the Giants, where he at least won a Super Bowl ring.)

But I also had a talk with myself.

I mean, at the time, I was a moderate-sized fish in a small pond. I had wanted to be a music writer and a DJ much of my life, and damn, I was, and I was a good one. On both fronts. I’d written about music for nearly 20 years at a couple of daily papers (not to mention a couple years doing reviews for the late, once-great Boston Phoenix), and I had interviewed hundreds of musicians, many of whom you’ve heard — legends to up-and-coming acts to artists who never really went anywhere to some pretty damn good locals.

(For examples: There was that one Friday night in May 1999, the first time I interviewed Brian Wilson, on the phone at the kitchen table. And the one September Friday afternoon in 2002 where I talked to Luciano Pavarotti and Tony Shahloub back-to-back from the living room, with little time in between. Or the summer of 1999, when I borrowed all three of my friend Drew’s Sonny Rollins box sets for three weeks just to muster enough knowledge and intelligence and feel for the man to do an engaging interview befitting him; we talked for 45 minutes; a pleasant conversation of an interview.)

I’d gotten to be friends with a few musicians along the way. I’d gone to almost every show I’d wanted to see and had built a record and CD collection the likes of which I dreamt as a teen and a college radio jock. And I was doing radio at a pretty cool place: WPKN in Bridgeport, one of the last of the freeform progressive stations where anything goes (with FCC obscenity guidelines).

But the life was killing me.

The newspaper, as it was run two CEOs ago under the tyranny of maybe the worst and most despised CEO in the history of the newspaper business, Bob Jelenic, was a fucking sweatshop. I was pulling two and a half workloads between producing and editing a 24- to 40-page tabloid every week and writing a full complement of stories (a music column and 1-2 features). That was 55 to 60 hours a week. For one smallish paycheck. Plus I was depression eating, and getting only three, four hours’ sleep a night.

(And Dawling, my girlfriend from Long Island at the time, would more often than not wind up on the couch when she came over, because I would thrash so wildly that I’d drive her out of bed. And, she told me after we broke up a couple years later, she never got a moment’s sleep because I would stop breathing, and she feared I’d never wake up. Yep — sleep apnea. But I wouldn’t believe anything was wrong, as I was unconscious the whole time.)

It was around that time — I believe a little while afterward — that Mom was telling me one day about a guy in Bethany, the next town south of my hometown, who had just dropped dead of a stress-related heart attack at 44. I was 42 at the time and I knew I was a wreck. Stress was a huge part of my newspaper life — planning sections two, three weeks ahead because I did most of the work myself, writing stories, collecting all the items and info for my column, and the constant bickering with some colleagues that comes with both personality differences and being in close quarters in a stressful environment. I couldn’t even take a sick day if I needed it, and there were times I would come to work when I sure as hell shouldn’t have.

I knew I needed a change and I needed it badly.

And in that instant, as I absorbed the email from Fresno, I knew this was that change. Again, I didn’t know anything, really, about Fresno — just that this was gonna get me off the hamster wheel once and for all. That people weren’t calling me every day — or every lifetime — offering me a job possibility in California. Or for what I perceived at the time to be the best newspaper company in the business, McClatchy. (At the time, it really did look outhouse-to-penthouse.) And that I was in the early phase of middle age, and that I might not ever get the chance again to do this. To change my life, to start from scratch 3,000 miles from almost everyone I’ve ever known, to improve my quality of life … to reinvent myself.

But I always was a scared child. Afraid to take risks. And this would be the biggest one I’d ever taken. This was life-changing. What if it didn’t work? What if I failed at the job? I’d be 3,000 miles away with no means of support. This could explode spectacularly.

I mean, I was comfortable here, even in my misery. The free shows and music, my family nearby, the lifetime worth of friends, a solid reputation … was I crazy wanting to leave all of this behind?

I did some talking over the next few days — with Dawling, with Drew, one of my dearest friends and the head of my metaphorical fan club, with my folks.

But I knew deep down that if I were offered a job, I’d be nuts not to take it. I knew deep down I was going; it was just a matter of when.

I got the call the second Thursday evening of January, just minutes after I got back to the desk after putting the Weekend section to bed. At the time, it was 9 degrees and cold and dark and windy; in Fresno, it was 72 and sunny. By month’s end, I was out there for an interview. And the last week of March, I was moving into the rental house in Fresno.

And then life really got interesting: becoming a nobody trying to become a somebody again on the other side of the country; confronting and getting past the sleep apnea; then the Twin Towers of Anxiety — gender transition and the prolonged unemployment.

*****

Well, what if I had said no? Told the features editor I wasn’t interested?

Well, for one, I could never have transitioned. It was hard enough to do this in Fresno, which is deep in the heart of a red-state part of the country. Not to mention the nearly fear all transpeople face — the fear of ostracism, of losing friends and family, of losing jobs. And the fear of violence. After all, transpeople, as a group (and most especially transwomen of color, which I’m, of course, not), suffer the highest percentage of violent crimes in America.

But as bad as that fear of the inherent unknown was, it would have been much much more difficult to come out here in Connecticut. I mean, with devoutly Roman Catholic parents, in a state that, despite its general blue-state status, often is much more conservative socially than it lets on. And me, a moderate-sized fish in a small pond, a quasi-public figure with a newspaper column and a radio show. And with friends I had known for 20 years; what sort of upheaval would come of that? Of knowing that I wasn’t quite what I represented myself to be? I mean, it certainly wasn’t deliberate on my part, but when it comes down to it, I was living a less-than-honest life. It would’ve been fodder for radio or TV or any other medium. I couldn’t have dealt with it. Not then.

Moving out west gave me the opportunity, when the time did come, in early 2008, to begin the process with a continent of distance between me and most of the people I knew here, and to go through the process in relative anonymity. I came out at my own pace throughout ’08, to the people I wanted to share it with, and revealing myself in the much-smaller Tower District of Fresno was a hell of a lot easier than coming out to a mass of people in Connecticut.

And had I not gone out West, and had I not transitioned, and started living an honest life at long last, I wouldn’t have made a great bunch of friends. It was an astonishing surprise — especially with all the horror stories of the hell many transpeople have gone through — when not only did my friends in Fresno stick with me, but my circle of friends exploded. They saw me at my best — comfortable in my own skin, confident, cute, and I think the honesty factor was the most important. And when it came time to come home 13 months ago, with very few exceptions, I’ve kept most of the friends back here I had before I moved away. and again, my circle of friends has expanded greatly.

And I wouldn’t have gone on such an adventure of great discovery.

I would have continued being my miserable, stressed self, continued working in a business that, unforeseeably, was five years from plunging through the floor.

And to tell you, I probably would have been dead. Years ago.

Maybe it would have been the sleep apnea. Working the mad hours I was working at the Register didn’t allow me to take my foot off the gas at all. I mean, just the act of taking a vacation was a stressful task; I called it 3-2-1 — three weeks of work in two weeks’ time just to take one week off. And then double the workload the first week back.  And it turned out I had apnea long before I knew, and the problems would’ve gotten much worse very quickly. Even had I been diagnosed in New Haven, I wouldn’t have been able to give myself time to relax and let my body heal.

In Fresno, I was working a steady 10-6 weekday job, and had I needed to take a sick day (which I never did), I could actually do it without guilt or fear of a double workload on the back end. There, with less stress on my plate, it took another three years before the apnea blew up, and once I was diagnosed and the treatment began, I was able to get the rest I needed to get back to normal.

Or maybe I was that next guy to drop at 44 from a stress heart attack.

Or maybe, without transitioning — without getting the hormonal support I needed — the depression I dealt with for 35 years would have continued. And worsened. I had so many black moods my first go-round back here that lasted days and weeks and months. And combined with the lack of self-esteem, the constant stress and work dramas, the feeling of wheeling the hamster wheel into a deep and inextricable rut … it wouldn’t have taken much for me to drive to Narragansett one day and take a long, long walk into a short ocean.

So yeah. Is my life ideal? No. Hardly. The job situation — now three layoffs in 4 1/2 years — has been an exquisite brand of hell, a cosmic comedy in which I’ve been subjected to all sorts of laughs at my expense. But while I would trade bank accounts in a heartbeat with many people, I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s.

I’m glad I said “Yes, I’m interested.” I’m glad I listened to my inner voice.

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2 Responses to “10 years ago: What if I had said ‘No’?”

  1. Tom Dans Says:

    Nice. Where do the thoughts that enter our mind come from?

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