That Weird, Calm Feeling

Photo of a Montana wildflower by my brother, Chris Dreger

Tomorrow I’m starting something new. Tonight, I have this weird, calm feeling that sometimes descends on me when a colleague is suddenly caught in a shitstorm.

The Atlantic has published a terrific, long-form piece by Jesse Singal on adolescents who might be transgender. I’ve been waiting forever for someone to write this piece. I’m so grateful to have it.

It traces out everything – the history of abuse of transgender people, including in medicine; a summary of the data showing that, for well-screened individuals, transgender medical interventions are life-giving and life-saving; the troubling move in some parts of medicine now, to skip the “informed” part of consent to transgender interventions; the struggle good parents and fine clinicians go through as they try to be genuinely supportive of youth exploring nontraditional genders.

Predictably, Jesse is now being assaulted online by people who insist they are the true and holy guardians of transgender rights, and supported by people like me mostly behind the scenes. What’s his crime? Yeah, you try to figure it out. The same shit happens to all of us who try to write about these issues. Last year it was Katie Herzog, who reported a fantastic piece on detransition. We have lots of company at this point.

Jesse got into this subject after he reviewed my bookGalileo’s Middle Finger, for New York Magazine. Today, as if Galileo’s Middle Finger were an ironic work of prophesy (or a death sentence), Jezebel published a hack-piecereproducing some private messages by Jesse, which is incredibly creepy – even though, if you read his reproduced messages, he comes across as his usual thoughtful self…. Jessy’s living out exactly what I traced in the book he reviewed.

Anyway, all this led me to that weird, calm feeling.

Having had my identity chewed up and spit out, repeatedly (exampleexampledifferent example), I’ve had to learn to disengage. My massage therapist and my physical therapist, who have been jointly working on my second frozen shoulder, can tell you I am so good at disengagement, they have rarely seen anyone who can momentarily tolerate pain the way I do.

(“Alice is exceptional at pain,” the physical therapist told her student a few months ago. “Alice, what are you visualizing right now?” I answered, eyes still closed, “angry chipmunks, and marble pillars.” She kept tearing the tissue open.)

So, watching what’s happening to Jesse, I find myself going into that zone. It’s not that I lack sympathy for Jesse, Katie, and all the rest of the people in the house-of-mirrors with me. It’s rather than I have learned that the best way to not feel unproductive pain is to focus on something else.

There is no point in thinking about just how much my shoulder hurts, or just how much my colleagues may be hurting. I can provide advice and sympathy. But there is no gain in thinking about how unfair it feels to do good work and be attacked for things you never said, never thought, never did.

About the time Galileo’s Middle Finger came out, I came to the realization that living good is the best revenge. Not living well – though I like a nice vacation, a good glass of wine. “Living good,” by which I mean continuing to do good work in the world, the kind of work that makes me grateful to have it.

Living good is the best disengagement from the pain of crazy.

So tomorrow, I’m starting something new, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while – a blog about the work I do most of the time now, which is a sustained attempt to build a system for nonpartisan local journalism as a way to promote the epistemology of democracy.

I took up this work at first mostly as a way of hiding locally, in response to the battle wounds of the controversies. But it’s become a lot more, particularly in the age of Trump, Facebook, fake news, and the internet’s starvation of investigative journalism.

I guess I kind of suck at disengagement. Well, it’s time – four years into the work of trying to create a model of citizen journalism at the local American level – to start writing about what I’ve learned.

I did that a little recently for The Guardian, but it’s time to share more of that. The more I go into local journalism, the more I become aware that national reporters like Jesse and Katie – fantastic national investigative journalists – need someone like me to help awaken a hyperlocal understanding of why we need them.

AAngry chipmunks, marble pillars, Kabuki masks, and the occasional rushing of cold water over polished rocks in a Montana river. Yeah, a new blog. (It will be here somewhere.)