I went through airport security Monday and neglected to take my laptop out of my briefcase and place it in a separate plastic bin and was properly chastised by a TSA lady who put her hands on her hips and said, “I just got done telling you about laptops!”
Not many 75-year-old men from Minnesota are out to blow up an airliner, but of course it only takes one, and she was right to say, “Did you not hear me, sir?” in that sardonic tone of voice.
When you’re 75, people treat you with deference and call you “sir” and ask if they can carry your bags, all the courtesies that might be extended to a Cabinet undersecretary or a retired newscaster. This is all very comfortable, but I miss the voice of reproof that I heard in my youth. The TSA lady spoke in the voice of my father when he said, “How could you keep driving the car when you could look at the oil gauge and see it was on empty?” The gym teacher who yelled at me to quit shilly-shallying and do those chin-ups. Nobody yells at me anymore. My wife has opportunities to but she is in a longtime loving relationship with me and never raises her voice. Only the TSA lady is left.
I look back on my life and see failure after failure. My baseball dreams died when I stood in a batting cage at an amusement park and could not connect with a 50-mph pitch. My grasp of history is shaky: The Smoot-Hawley Tariff is a mystery still, likewise the Gadsden Purchase. My knowledge of the Know-Nothing Party is nearly nil. I hit the wall in math when I was 14 and so the STEM world was closed to me. I have no idea what those gravitational waves are that three guys won the Nobel Prize this week for discovering.
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I am a published author, but what sticks in my mind are the rejection slips — “somehow this does not seem quite up to your usual best,” the editor often wrote, trying to cushion the blow, but it stung anyway.
If I had had a TSA woman following me all my life, telling me to pay attention, things would’ve turned out better.
And then I boarded the plane and something wonderful happened. I came to my row and was about to take my seat by the window when the woman in the aisle seat asked if I’d mind changing with her. Of course not. Happy to. So I plunked down by the aisle. And after takeoff, the flight attendant came by with his clipboard, glanced at it, and said to me, “Michelle, may I bring you a beverage?”
“Coffee with milk,” I said. I looked at the woman, who was dozing. The flight attendant returned with the coffee and said, “Michelle, I have two breakfast options, cereal and an egg sandwich.” I chose cereal.
Evidently, the airline has trained its personnel to be sensitive to gender identity issues and not to leap to conclusions just because a person is wearing a suit and tie and has a baritone voice.
It dawned on me as I ate my cereal that being Michelle could change everything. The failures in my life, up to and including the failure to understand gravitational waves, could be the result of society forcing me into a male identity simply because of physical characteristics, such as genitalia.
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I have always admired women for their social skills, the ability to read situations instantly, to be appropriate, to engage with others. I’ve often wanted to be like them. So maybe I am one of them. Maybe I have been concealing my true self, like hiding a laptop inside a briefcase, and maybe the TSA lady was sensing my repressed womanhood when she snapped at me.
This is a major decision and I’m not rushing into anything but I admit I’m feeling cautious enthusiasm. How often does a 75-year-old get the chance to put his/their whole life behind him/them to be the person he/they should be? Not often.
On the other hand, I don’t long to have a label. It’s fine for others, but I prefer to be an independent. Name, rank and serial number is all you get out of me. I am not a Minnesota writer or an Episcopal writer or a geezer writer. Thanks but no thanks, honey buns. I’m going to have a cup of coffee with milk and read the rest of the paper.
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Garrison Keillor writes for The Washington Post.