Friday, 6 November 2015

A Chunk of the Apple

Every time I go to NYC I learn something. 5th Ave divides the East and West. 6th Ave traffic goes uptown. Pedicab drivers charge $4 per minute.  I stumble upon pockets of peace in the midst of the rush and activity. Some of the doorway embellishments are just gorgeous and there is so much Art Nouveau and Deco around.

 I saw one of the prettiest horses I have ever seen carrying a traffic cop near the Rockefeller centre. 

It's 18 degrees Celsius on the 5th of November, unseasonably warm, but they have the Rockefeller Plaza ice rink up and going and the skaters are out. Yesterday I read that they have cut down the tree that they will shlep to the Plaza and decorate for Xmas. 
There is a joke, 'how many New Yorkers does it take to change a light bulb?' And the answer is 'None of your business! Get out of my way!' The real joke is that New Yorkers are not like that at all. People are extremely polite, in the city at least. It's all 'excuse me' and 'thank you' and 'you're welcome'. Some guy standing on a corner handing out leaflets for a comedy club, when asked (perhaps a little brusquely by my husband) about the number of the street we were standing on (Little Brazil, but I think it's 42nd?) admonished 'Hey, first say good morning, I'm not a tour guide!' Then he pointed out the number just below the name. So it helps to smile and make eye contact and be polite. There are so many people from so many backgrounds and skin color/race is a real issue here, that you must not even remotely appear to be disrespectful; and maybe the politeness has an edge to it but it is a necessary thing. So every one is actually very polite and I don't know where that joke came from. Maybe things were different a few years ago. Or maybe it refers to the Bronx. (But you don't want to linger more than a millisecond when the lights turn green. In the car, all semblance to politeness disappears.)
Anyway as I was shpatziring along looking at the buildings and the doorways and the shop windows and the people and the other tourists with their sneakers and baseball caps and fanny packs and 'I ❤️ NY' T-shirts, looking and spending and craning their necks like me to look at the skyscrapers, I was thinking yet again, what a great city is NYC. Really, as my young Tajiki pedi-cab driver, who had won the green card lottery and came to NY with his wife with whom he now has an American baby, said: it truly is a city that never sleeps. This guy left Tajikstan and here he is peddling a fat old lady tourist to her hotel, living the dream. I'm sure his son will grow up and go to college and who knows, be President one day. You never know. 

So what makes this city so great? Why is NYC so great in ways that say, Riyadh or Doha are not? I suppose I could substitute 'NYC' with London or Tokyo or Paris, and they are  fantastic and amazing cities, but the difference is that they are 1000 years old. Moscow is also an amazing city, also 1000 years old but with a crazy post-Soviet twist which gives parts of it this manic insane no-holds-barred excess energy. New York is only what, 300 years old? With really most growth in the last 150 years? That's when the robber barons made their mark and became the upper class. The Rockefellers and Roosevelts and co. And the skyscrapers are only since the 1920s when they were made possible by the invention of the elevator and other technological advances.  That's not even 100 years ago. But you can't think of NYC without thinking of skyscrapers. (And the Twin Towers of course. That's a whole other thing. Not going there now.)
So much growth and vitality and wealth. And yes there is a port and all sorts of reasons why there was a town put there in the first place. But I think the biggest and most powerful thing that the city has is the drive and the desire of its people to get on, get ahead, reach for the brass ring, and take advantage of the myriad opportunities that are there. Sure you have to work hard and you need some luck. But anyone can be anything in NYC. 
And one of the reasons that this is possible is tolerance. All religions, all races, all points of view. Ok, nothing's perfect and there were dark days during the stewardship of some Mayors. But overriding all is the vitality of freedom. 
And that is why despite all the wealth of the Emiratis or the Saudis  (for as long as it lasts) and no matter how many ski runs and skyscrapers they build in Dubai on the backs of slaves,  their cities will never result in anything remotely approaching New York. No freedom, no tolerance, and of course no Jews. No chance. 

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Beastly Matter

The other day I had a bit of an altercation with someone. A gym buddy type. She is pretty opinionated, as am I, so that's always a recipe for argument. Anyway, she was waxing lyrical over this new Kashrut venture, recently launched, involving the breeding of beef and lamb for the Kosher market, where the animals would be kosher from head to tail because of the invocation of a rather arcane law. Usually the hindquarters of the beast are not considered kosher and are sold by the butcher to non-kosher butchers. This is because of the sciatic nerve, or Gid HaNasheh; we can't eat this because ...umm...that's where Jacob was wounded when he was wrestling the angel and was subsequently named Israel? Have I got that right? As I'm writing it, it seems to not make sense. Please correct me, O knowledgeable ones.

There is a way to dissect out all parts of the Gid by a specialised shochet, rendering the meat edible. This is called Treibering or Porging, and is very time consuming and difficult, so these days it is not done much.

OK, so here's the thing. Apparently, if a pregnant cow or ewe is Kosher slaughtered and the foetus is removed, it is considered Kosher and doesn't need its own Shechita. OK, that's not too controversial, even though is is a bit sad to think about this, and I have never heard of anyone doing this. But if this foetus, untimely ripp'd from its mother's womb, like MacDuff, is mature enough to survive; and if you can get such calves or lambs, male and female; and if you breed them together when they are grown, the resulting progeny would be completely edible. Also, the animal does not need the exhaustive examination of innards that regular animals do after slaughter, which saves time and money I guess. This is called Ben Pekuah, and it has been about 1,000 years since anyone sat down to a plate of such meat.

The idea is to make kosher meat cheaper for kosher consumers. I guess it is also about the exciting prospect of eating a rump steak or a leg of lamb etc, previously forbidden foods.

There are a couple of reasons that I don't buy this. Firstly, the cheap thing. I would have thought that the profits made by the butcher when selling the hindquarters on, would factor into the final price of meat; but then again I may be naive.
The other thing is this: although the rabbi endorsing this may be a man of wonderful character and good intentions, I think, frankly, he is not up to the standard needed to do these fancy-pants manoeuvres and I don't trust his Hashgacha (supervision). There have been a few dodgy things in the past involving his Hechsher (kosher stamp of authority) which are enough to make me uneasy. Yes, yes, you're going to talk about all the divisions in Hechshers and these Jews won't eat from that rabbi and those Jews won't eat from this rabbi, and it's all politics yada yada, and it IS a problem. And meat IS expensive. OK.
But Rambam did it! Sure- and this rabbi is not Rambam.

And that's when my buddy got stroppy with me:

'That's the same argument that is used all the time about Agunah! That nobody is wise enough or learned enough nowadays to make any changes and so no changes are made and women are trapped in bad marriages by recalcitrant husbands! And so the Beth Din does nothing and the women suffer!'

We sort of bickered that out a bit and it wasn't till after that I thought of a decent response, as is the way of these things.
And that is: It's not the same thing. The problems of Agunot are basically human rights issues. Withholding a Gett is a form of abuse, and this is being sorted in civil courts even if the Batei Din drag their collective feet, often to their disgrace. I share my buddy's anger and frustration with the situation. And in fact there are brave rabbonim who are stepping up to the plate and who are trying to effect change.

But this Ben Pekuah deal is not about human rights; it's about economics. But it's also about having a good fress, is it not?

You know, I actually don't think meat should be cheap. Maybe it should be a bit cheaper than what it is, but it should be expensive. It certainly is expensive for the animal. I am not advocating vegetarianism, nor am I a vegetarian. But I have always felt that people need to understand what meat-eating entails. I don't think we need to be like Mark Zuckerberg who, for a while, only ate meat from animals that he had killed himself; that's a bit extreme, also impossible for folks who keep kosher, unless they are trained Shochets. But I think that we need to keep in mind that the animal- whether animal or fowl or fish for that matter- died for our nourishment and pleasure. They are not just choice cuts wrapped in plastic on a tray. If you want to eat meat, don't just eat the fillet steaks. Eat the cheap cuts, learn how to cook them. You can feed a family a meat meal and make it quite economical. The real sin here is to waste the meat by poor handling. And as far as nutrition is concerned, you really don't need to eat much meat to get the iron, zinc, B12 etc. We are used to serving and eating slabs of muscle- thats what fillets and all the cuts you know are, muscles; maybe we should be more like the Chinese and use meat almost as a condiment. And maybe not turn up our noses at offal - liver, tongue, sweetbreads, tripe etc. If these things make you squeamish, I think that you are being a child about it and you are not recognising the fact that it was a living, breathing animal that gave you that juicy steak, and it should be acknowledged and respected.

Pushing the boundaries of Halachah is important, if the object is worthy. Unchaining the Agunah, helping the convert, these things are important.

Stuffing our faces with cheap meat, not so much.

Sunday, 20 September 2015


I received an odd phone call last night.
This time of year, before Yom Kippur, Jews often ask forgiveness from each other, for having done something or said something which would have been hurtful or embarrassing. Because on Yom Kippur, all the breast-beating and confession to G-d is worth little if there is an actual human being hurting from what I actually said or did to him or her. I haven't done much of this asking thing in my adult life, because generally I try to be kind to people and if I have wounded someone, I probably wouldn't know. But I have done it.
Anyway, the person who called me was someone I went to school with, so since we graduated in 1972, and I think I have seen her twice in the intervening years, she is not really someone about whom I think very often. Or at all. I was intrigued when she confessed her wrongdoing to me, which was in my mind most trivial, and I wasn't even aware of it. As she was speaking, I was wondering if she was in fact, mentally ill. Then I wondered what she really wanted from me. OK, OK, I'm a bit suspicious of strange phone calls.
When I asked her how she was and what she had been up to, the floodgates burst and she talked for the better part of an hour about events in her life which frankly made it sound like a soap opera. I was aghast at some of the things she told me. My end of the conversation went like this:
Oh that's awful!
OMG, how sad!
Wow, she really said that, huh?
Whoa, that's weird!
I'm sorry to hear that.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
And I meant most of it because it was sad and weird and awful, most of her jumbled tale. She was getting pretty emotional too, but that's how she always was, even at school. And she was always a storyteller, embellishing and embroidering.
And then she said she had written a book, an autobiography,  and had found a publisher (I must say that this made me very skeptical, because I know how bloody hard it is to get a book published when you have no 'platform', i.e., if you are a nobody). And I'm in the book. Well, I'm not worried nor do I think she was trying to make me worried. I don't think she has a grudge against me and I also don't think this book will get published. Just saying.
So she finished up by tearfully asking my forgiveness which of course I gave her whole-heartedly because even at the time it allegedly occurred, about 15 years ago, I didn't notice anyway.
Sometimes I think I am a little too insensitive, but really, there is little that hurts me or that I even notice without laughing at, or that sticks in my memory. (Except duplicity. That, I remember.)
She wanted to give me her mobile number, which I took, but I demurred when she asked me for mine. You can't blame me. I still don't know what it was really all about apart from a wounded soul wanting someone to listen. So I hope I did that well enough.
And if she does get her book published, I hope she sends me a copy. It will be pretty juicy, I'm sure. Just not the bits with me in it, I am too boring.

OK, just thought I'd share that on behalf of the lonely wounded people. I wish them all, and myself, and all of us, and the world, Gmar Chatimah Tovah; to be signed and sealed in the book that matters, the Book of Life.

Monday, 31 August 2015


In the early 80's, a decade in which I was basically constantly pregnant or nursing, I managed to find time between working and kids to browse bookshops (remember those?) and I chanced upon a small Pan paperback called Migraine. I was quite interested in the topic, as I had a friend from school (until today) whose migraine was a third person in the relationship and I had seen up close what it could do to a person's life. I had also seen some funny things as a doctor, and I had also experienced a few episodes myself, strange visual blind spots and shimmering, temporary inability to find words, and other slightly scary stuff, usually associated with a pregnancy.
So I bought the book and took it home.
I had done a bit of medical reading during my training but I had never read a book like this before. It was full of literary and historical allusions. It was not actually written for doctors in particular, that was clearly stated in the forward; it was also for sufferers of migraine. And it didn't just give over dry case histories, but fleshed out stories and descriptions, and then mused and philosophised over the stories and the patients. It was like nothing I had ever read. I didn't just learn about the different types of migraine; I learned about Hildegard of Bingen. (Could be her visions related to migraine!) Underpinning the whole style of writing was a deep intellectual curiosity and an attitude of seeing the malady not as The Enemy, but as an expression of the patient's actual being. The aim was not just to vanquish the problem, but to understand it and work with it along with the patient who was living with it.
The author had obviously really listened to the patients and really saw them, not just as sufferers in the consultation room, but as fully realised human beings, carefully and thoroughly,  even lovingly, you could say, described and depicted. It was a revelation. The book had been originally written in 1970 and had been revised in 1980.
The writer was Oliver Sacks.  I have to say that the name meant nothing to me.
About 5 years later I heard about and then bought the oddly titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. As soon as I started reading it, I made the connection. This book was easier, it made no effort with glossaries and index, it was purely stories. Case histories of patients with things that we used to think of as exceedingly rare, like Tourettes, or Aspergers. A deeper understanding of neural deficits caused by disease or alcoholism or trauma- and not just as deficits, but as part of the patient's story and journey through life.
Then I found Awakenings, and they made a movie of it, but by then I was completely hooked. A Leg To Stand On was a timely offering; my husband was recovering from a badly broken leg and someone gave it to him as a gift while he was recuperating- but I had already bought a copy. I don't know if it helped hubby but it certainly diverted him.
I own every book that Oliver Sacks published, the later ones in hardback because I couldn't wait for them to come out in paperback. His first autobiography, Uncle Tungsten from  2001, was an eye-opener. I had worked out that he was Jewish and related* to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (whom I also admire greatly), but the story of his childhood, his unusual and brilliant surgeon mother, who brought home an aborted foetus for him to dissect when he was about 12- can't get that little detail out of my mind- his clever extended family, including Abba Eban (yet another person I admire!)- it was riveting.
I didn't admire or agree with every single thing that he wrote; in Hallucinations from 2012, I was strongly struck by his complete atheism. In describing some hallucinatory experiences it was as if he was bending over backwards to reduce every described experience to a set of chemical events. There was no room for the spiritual in his narrative, and I found that fascinating. But as far as his compassion and sense of the patient's humanity was concerned, he remains a great influence on how I try to relate to my own patients.
He came to Australia on at least one occasion, because I went to hear him speak - I think it was the early 2000's- and to buy his latest book AND I took the opportunity of bringing my own stack of books for him to autograph as well.
All of them were published by Picador, except Migraine, the smallest book, on top of my pile. He picked it up and glanced at me with a smile, then showed it to his personal assistant. He signed all of the books in a semi-legible scrawl of green felt-tip pen; but Migraine he signed Oliver Wolf Sacks, because he was pleased to see it, his first literary offering, written when he was in his 30's. I guess it amused him.
For the record, he was a very shy man with a self-diagnosed inability to recognise faces (prosopagnosia - like me) or places (thus getting lost anywhere and everywhere- like me.) He lived alone and I guess he turned his love and affection on to his patients; it certainly felt that way when I read his books.
In his book The Mind's Eye, he described his own visual problems, which turned out to be due to a melanoma of the retina of his eye. I won't say that I am a prophet, but the diagnosis of malignant melanoma is too often a terrible one with a poor prognosis. And in the retina. It sounded bad when I read about it, and it turned out to be bad, because he passed away yesterday at the age of 82, from metastatic melanoma. His last essay, about the Sabbath, is a gently told story about growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, keeping Shabbos, until he broke away, partly because of his mother's rejection of the possibility that he was gay; the last paragraph is elegiac in tone and as sad and beautiful as any of his writings. But I didn't want to believe that it would be the very last thing he wrote.
I have his last autobiography, On The Move, next to my bed, next in line for reading. So I have a full set of his books; I should be pleased. But I feel as if a light has departed from this world.

RIP, Oliver Sacks. I know you didn't believe in Heaven, but I believe that you're there anyway. And if it turns out you were right, then you live on in your books and in the people you influenced.

*turns out he wasn't related at all to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I'm not sure where I got that info from but in On The Move OWS makes it clear that they are not family. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015


I cannot believe that I haven't posted since June. And you know what else I can't believe? It's Rosh Hashanah in two weeks. TWO WEEKS.

This is actually not possible, because wasn't it just Pesach a few months ago? And didn't I just write about RH a couple months before that? And isn't today Monday, so it's just been Shabbos, but it's nearly Shabbos again? What the hell is going on?

OK, yes, I'm busy, so that makes time go faster I guess. And yes, I am older, and the older I get, the quicker time passes because each unit of time is a smaller percentage of the time that I have already lived so it is perceived as a shorter interval. That's why, when you are young, it takes FOREVER for your birthday to come around. If you are 5, a year is a 5th of your life! That's a long time. But if you are pushing 60, like me, a year is only 1/60th of your life. So as I get older, the years will zip by faster than an Iranian centrifuge. And that's what we all have to look forward to.

There is some good to be found in this. For example, if I find myself stuck in something unpleasant or tiresome, like listening to a boring speaker or working out in gym, I just tell myself that it will all be over soon, because everything is over soon.

I have a manicure every 2 weeks, because when I became a grown up lady, some time after 45, manicures became compulsory. At first I had weekly sessions involving cleaning things up and lots of tsk-tsking from the manicurist, but as I got sucked into this desire to always have perfect nails, I eventually succumbed to the Biogel, so that needs maintenance every 2 weeks. It takes about 20-30 minutes of tidying up, infilling, painting yada yada and then about an HOUR of sitting there waiting for it to dry. (Of course, that hour passes in 15 minutes, so NP.) Only then do I go out and usually it all holds until the next session which is 2 weeks (i.e. 4 days) away.
So last session I sat and sat and then I went home and promptly got my thumb stuck in a drawer, which cause a scrape of the nail polish. Curses. One really does get obsessive about this stuff.
Daughter: 'Why not go back and have her fix it?'
Me: 'Because I do NOT want to be THAT sort of person.'
Daughter: 'I hear you.'
Me: 'And besides, it's almost time for the next manicure.'
Daughter: <silence> (But kind of judgmental silence.)

So I have got a bit of a leg-up on Rosh HaShana, because I have made a lot of chicken soup and even several containers of tzimmes, AND a honey cake, and it is all safely nestled in the freezer, along with the bulk order of meat and chicken from the butcher. So I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself about that. Except I haven't actually gotten around to inviting anyone to come for meals over Yom Tov, apart from immediate family. (But that ALWAYS happens because the butcher starts warning me about Pesach and Yom Tov at least 3 months before, which sends me into a mini-panic. I end up buying vast amounts of meat with no idea of who is actually going to eat it. And gets eaten.)

But as for the spiritual stuff, G-d help me. Every year, I feel less prepared. And before I know it, I will be sitting in my rarely-frequented seat in Shul, trying not to leaf through my machzor, counting the pages until it will be over. Because I know it will be over. It will ALL be over: Too soon.

Ksivah veChasimah Tovah, wishing for a year of good health, joy and peace. And living in the moment. (Unless the moment is unpleasant, in which case I will eat chocolate.)

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


'Booba, can you please make me a dolly cake for my birthday?'

Sure!  Why not. I've done a few. For younger kids though. Age 2 or 3. This is for a 6 year old, and probably slopping on a bit of whipped cream and some sliced berries for decoration was not going to make the grade.

So I went to Chef Google and asked for some assistance with Dolly Varden cake, and check out what crazy obsessive women come up with. I couldn't believe my eyes. This was a far sight more complex than my previous attempts. But I'm up for a challenge!

'What's you favourite colour?' I asked Birthday Girl, expecting the usual pink, or Princess Elsa blue or such.
Ummm...great! I'll do a Goth theme. That hasn't been done. Or an Essendon supporter doll. Why not.
'No, no! I changed my mind. Rainbow! I love the rainbow.'
Rainbow. Hmm, that's a LOT of food colouring. The kids will go mental. But there must be a shortcut...
Ah, taste the rainbow! Skittles! Haha, too easy. On a white background. Of fondant. Stuck on with...buttercream frosting.

Now I am committed enough to actually own a Dolly Varden cake tin which lends shape to the skirt of the doll. It is deep and stands on a narrow base.

The cake takes longer to bake because of the depth, and the tin when full of batter is unstable because of the narrow base. So when I made the cake batter which I marbled with blue, green and pink (eww, won't do that again), you would think that I would remember this, but of course when I checked on the cake after a reasonable time, the centre was still runny and then the tin tipped over when I slid the tray back into the oven. So, cursing, I whipped it back out and used a spatula to scoop the batter back into the hollowed cake and hoped that the Cake Goddess would not be a bitch and it would be OK.
And so it was. Didn't do the marbling pattern any favours though.

That was Thursday night. The party was scheduled for Sunday, and I was planning on decorating the cake on Sunday morning. I had bought the ready made fondant. I had food colouring. I even had Cholov Yisroel butter and cream for the frosting. And I had the kosher Skittles.

Friday, 40 minutes before Shabbos I remembered that I didn't have a doll.

I dashed out to Coles down the street and snagged a Barbie for $10. I was back home in 20 minutes and hello Shabbos.

Saturday night I actually could not sleep because of the cake. I tossed and turned and fretted over patterns and rainbows and, befuddled and slightly anxious, I got up at 7.30 - on a Sunday, people- and addressed the task at hand.

So it turns out, that unlike with a cheap $2 plastic Barbie knock-off, the legs of a real Barbie do not pop out. Removing the legs, while seemingly cruel, allows one to stick the doll's legless torso into a small depression on top of the cake, i.e. scoop out a bit of cake and stick on Frankenbarbie with some frosting. No can do with Real Barbie. This time was for real. So I used a zucchini corer (I have no idea why I own such a thing, but I do) and reamed out the cake as neatly as a geologist's core sample. I stripped Barbie of her hooker clothes and heels, wrapped her in plastic from the waist down, (to keep her clean and protect her impressive thigh gap) and thrust her into the hole in the cake. And it turned out that Barbie, with her impossibly long and shapely legs, was taller than the cake.

Huh. Never had this problem with Frankenbarbie. I needed something to elevate the cake and accommodate her legs. Corks? No, should be edible. More cake? Oy, too late, no time.
I found some marshmallows and with a stroke of genius, constructed a marshmallow-buttercream plinth, and Voila! Cake up to the waist now. Sort of.

Then the buttercream frosting, made with REAL butter and REAL cream. Yes, ma'am, no pareve fake stuff here. Nosirree.

Slather that on, fill in all the gaps. AND NOW. The Fondant.

I had bought a block of this, kosher of course, and had never worked with it before. But I had to try (refer to images of dolly cakes). You knead it and roll it and then you can cut it like cookie dough. And it was like kneading a brick, but it did soften eventually. Since I know a thing or two, I rolled it between 2 sheets of baking paper so I didn't have to curse it for sticking to stuff, and then I cut out dozens of hearts with a cookie cutter and stuck them on to the frosting. The marshmallow plinth was hidden and I built the skirt. And I made a little bodice for Barbie, so no more nudity.

After admiring the bride-like creation, with plastic wrap veiling all over her face and hair, keeping it nice and clean, I set to work sticking Skittles in a sort of rainbow gradation of colour EXCEPT it turns out that kosher Skittles do not have red or blue. Plenty of green, yellow, orange and a murky violet, but no red or blue. Anyway, I toiled away with the Skittles and a little dab of frosting sticking them all on, one by one, until I ran out of them.
I had a scrap of fondant left so I dyed it red and made a sash with a BOW, noch, so at least there was red, then orange, yellow, green, NO BLUE (or indigo, goes without saying) and violet. Eh, what 6 year old would notice, I thought.
Then I freed Barbie from her scary-looking plastic head wrap and here she is.

 See the bow? See? See?

It had taken 2 hours.

Then everyone came to set up, and when I mentioned, with some pride, the buttercream frosting with the REAL butter etc, Birthday Girl's mummy went a bit pale and told me that the menu included hot dogs. I must have missed the memo. After an initial frisson of panic, we decided that the cake would be served first, and then games etc and then hotdogs. Saved from Treyf.

And when it was time to cut the cake, you wouldn't believe it, one of the little girls informed me that it was not a rainbow, because there was NO BLUE. But, aha! On cutting the cake, the marbled blue green and pink interior (ew) made up for that. Take that, smart little kid.

And in 2 minutes she was eaten, down to the marshmallows. After stripping Barbie of her fondant bodice and Glad Wrap fetishwear, a quick wipe over with a cloth and on went her pink mini and hooker heels, and Barbie was ready to be fought over by Miss 6 and her feisty little sister, Princess 3.

After the party was over and the presents unwrapped, with some maternal prompting, Miss 6 thanked me and told me that I was the Best Booba.

I know. I have the apron to prove it. (Okay, different spelling, same sentiment.)

Wednesday, 3 June 2015


What does it mean, to be a woman? Or to be a man?

Now that Bruce has transitioned to Caitlyn and been photographed by Annie Leibowitz, there is comment, there is bemusement, there is chatter and judgement and well-wishing and confusion. Bruce was living a lie, and Caitlyn is now free. But what does it all mean?

Superficially, Caitlyn is a woman. She seems feminine, wears make-up and has long hair and wears dresses and heels. Her breasts are full and plump,  her skin is hairless and smooth (and the photoshopping is VERY smooth, Ms Leibowitz, for let us not forget that Caitlyn is 65 years old) and she looks very attractive. Let us not spoil the party by saying that she has male genitalia and XY chromosomes, for that is irrelevant. Caitlyn is a woman. And, since gender identity and sexuality are two separate entities, Caitlyn is a lesbian, I believe; she still loves women but is no longer married to one.

I am a woman. I don't have beautiful glossy hair, long nails or wear heels. Until I was 40 I hardly wore makeup and didn't have a manicure. When I was a kid I didn't like dolls or tea parties and I never owned a thing that was pink. When I was 18 I had long flowing hair and wore long flowing dresses and tried walking around barefoot, a faux-hippie chick who never smoked pot, studied hard, and got into med school. When I was 21 I cropped my hair and wore pants and drank whisky and smoked cigars, a faux-tough chick/lesbian-who-wasn't. Fast-forward a few years and I was married with 7 kids, having had an epiphany of sorts, and the Orthodox lifestyle and philosophy stuck. But I still love Acca Dacca and turn the car radio up to 11 when 'Jailbreak' comes on.

I'm nearly 60 now, younger than Caitlyn, and I don't look nearly as hot as her. My (small) boobs sag and I have stretch marks and varicose veins, and my post-menopausal skin tends to dry out if I don't use industrial-strength moisturiser. My ovaries are now a liability, because my mother and grandmother both died of ovarian cancer so I plan on finally having them removed surgically later this year. And when they, along with my long-passed fertility, are gone, I will still be a woman.

I may have mentioned that, many years ago, I worked in the field of Gender Dysphoria. That is to say, in 1980 I worked as a trainee psychiatrist in the old Queen Vic hospital which later relocated to Monash Medical Centre, under Dr Trudy Kennedy, dealing with patients who strongly felt that they were born into the 'wrong body' and were of the opposite sex. In the main, these were men who strongly felt that they were women. In their heads, they were women. They wanted to be rid of the accoutrements of masculinity and they wanted to live as women in an approximation of the body of a woman. Some of these people were mentally ill, and a sex-change operation was never going to fix that. But there were many who were not psychotic or crazy, but they were miserable in their bodies and only transitioning would help them.

Apart from that year at the coal-face, I worked for many years in General Practice in St Kilda which  catered to the denizens of St Kilda including a fair number of trans-people. There were many who came from far away as well because the doctor who had worked there some years before was known to be tolerant and non-judgemental. So the transwomen came for their Oestrogen and Androcur prescriptions, but also for coughs and colds etc etc. During that time, I only saw one person who had changed his mind, i.e., was born a boy, started transitioning with hormones age 16 - all very shady, not through a clinic- but then realised that he was a 'normal gay male'- his words- and he wanted the breasts off. I referred him to the GD clinic at Monash but he never turned up, so goodness knows what happened to this poor kid. I only saw him once but this particular guy was no doubt a person who had been poorly parented, probably abused, and was confused about a lot of things.

I have a friend, a very conservative surgeon, who scoffs at the whole phenomenon. He said to me, 'If I had a patient who came to me and said, 'Doctor, I'm not a man, I'm really a giraffe', I wouldn't paint spots on him and teach him to eat leaves and stretch his neck. I would say that he was crazy and send him to a psychiatrist. Same thing if a man tells me he's really a woman.'

And yet.

It's a real thing. It's a source of much suffering. It's not a lifestyle choice. It's associated with a terrible rate of attempted suicide and suicide in young people. It's not good enough to 'giraffe' them.
It's not entirely clear, however, that hormonal and surgical treatment is going to fix these problems. Although there is some subjective satisfaction after gender reassignment surgery, the rates of suicide attempt and psychological distress is still very high.

It's not a simple problem. And I think that the field of paediatric GD is a minefield. I have never worked in this field. There is a GD clinic at the Royal Children's Hospital here which is run by a respected psychiatrist, Dr Campbell Paul, which treats children from as young as 5 to age 17, after which there is the Monash GD Clinic.

Now, I think this is even more vexed. If a 5 year old girl says that she hates being a girl and she wants to be a boy, what is she saying? Is she saying that she never wants to have babies? Is she saying she hates the idea of menstruation? No. She is usually saying that she wants to play with trucks and get  muddy and wear boys' clothes, or she has been bullied by the mean girls, or perhaps worse. Does she really understand what it means to be a woman or not in the arc of life? Ditto for a boy. Surely in this day and age we can respond to this by saying, cool, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, wear ties and trousers, climb trees, that's alright, and it doesn't make you a boy. Instead we are seeing this stuff about how we have to accept the reality that 'some boys are born with vaginas and some girls are born with penises'. I know that people who are saying this think that they are being very liberal in their understanding and acceptance of gender fluidity, but in fact, I think it reflects the opposite. I think it reflects real rigidity in understanding gender roles. My mother never said that I was not a real girl because I would rather play in the mud than with dollies. GD is more intense and complex than this example, but the more interviews I hear from transgendered people, the more I hear how many grew up hearing that they couldn't do this or that because they were a boy or a girl. I wonder how things might have turned out differently with more blurring of what is acceptable gender conforming behaviour. It's not so long ago that an athletic girl was called a 'tomboy', but now that we accept athleticism in girls, we hardly hear the term.

So I'm not dismissing Gender Dysphoria, and I hope I don't come across as if I am. I think it is a thing that we are going to hear more about as our society becomes, for better or worse, more unstitched about matters of gender and sexuality. It's not that common, but it is a tremendous source of misery and it must be flagged and dealt with by trained professionals in the context of accepting families, or, in the absence of a supportive family, then a supportive community. We need to be less judgemental and more educated. Just as being accepting of gays doesn't make people more gay, accepting trans people won't make more people want to transition. The answer might not in the end be surgery and hormones; the answer might just be accepting that there are those who just don't fit into the gender binary of male and female (even the Talmud recognised 6 genders) and helping them get the help they need, which will be different in every case.

Good luck, Caitlyn, I hope you really have found what you were looking for.