Navigating Monsters and Our Challenging Times: A Week in the Life of Thomas Page McBee
Author: Edit Team
October 2, 2018
“I have been thinking a lot about suspense lately, and monsters. It is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but mostly it is that we live in an age of monstrosity…”
“The Banal and the Profane” is a monthly Lambda Literary column in which we lift the veil on both the writerly life and the publishing industry. In each installment, we ask a different LGBTQ writer, or LGBTQ person of interest in the book industry, to guide us through a week in their lives.
This month’s column comes to us from writer Thomas Page McBee.
Thomas Page McBee’s Lambda Literary Award-winning memoir, Man Alive, was named a best book of 2014 by NPR Books, BuzzFeed, Kirkus, and Publisher’s Weekly. His “refreshing [and] radical” (The Guardian) new book, Amateur, a reported memoir about learning how to box in order to understand masculinity’s tie to violence, was published in August to wide acclaim.
Monday, September 24
I wake up at 7:30. I have been thinking a lot about suspense lately, and monsters. It is the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but mostly it is that we live in an age of monstrosity, you only need to turn on the television or look at your phone to see that. It is hard to square that reality with another: that there are people who would consider my trans body monstrous. In fact, the people I believe are behaving monstrously likely feel that I am a monster. This is how I start my day.
I make coffee, and do a small meditation. Then I pull a tarot card: The Five of Wands, a card I’ve been getting for months. My wife Jess and I spend breakfast talking through how to interpret the card. The five of wands shows a pack of boys playing—or fighting—with wands (creative energy). With her help, I decide to spend some time creating generative work around this idea of monstrosity, to write without a project in mind. I resolve to start today.
After she leaves, I do so, after checking my email and taking care of a bunch of logistical, freelance–and book publicity-related tasks. And then, for 30 glorious minutes, I write about Frankenstein and the invented body. It’s freeing to write without money or a deadline in mind.
I go to the gym. I focus monthly on weight training, and I’m interested in this new approach. Metaphorically speaking, it’s interesting because it’s an approach to weightlifting that works out all muscles three days a week, versus what I’ve been doing—isolating two muscle groups per session, 3-4 days a week, but therefore only working out each group once a week. Hard not to see the poetry in that.
After lunch and various follow-ups for stories I’m reporting, I work on a draft of my pilot. After working in a writer’s room earlier this year, I caught the TV bug. I’m also really thinking about how to stay creative and open to writing between books, and I found working a room to be a great way to stay fresh and energized for my literary work. A pilot is a way to get another job, but it’s also really opening up the possibilities of TV as a format for me. I’m getting to experiment on the page in a new way. I’m also in the process of shopping around the idea of Amateur as a film, and I’ve been spending a lot of time talking to the director attached to the project. It’s been fascinating and exciting to bring collaboration into my sense of creativity in this way.
After a couple of hours, I get sucked into reading news, which leads me to poems about violence, poems about fighting, poems about blood. I miss writing poems.
I take my dogs out to the dog park. They are their own kind of meditation.
In the evening, I head over the New York Public Library to do a public talk about Amateur. I’m in conversation with the wonderful New York Times critic-at-large Amanda Hess. It feels cathartic to talk about gender, and especially the way we construct masculinity as a culture, in the beautiful library. I keep thinking about being a child, and the way I found myself in books, and how that still seems possible right now, despite everything.
Tuesday, September 25
I wake up at 8 and have breakfast with my wife. After she leaves, I follow up on book stuff, speaking gigs, and other publicity-related things. This is a lot of my life right now. I’m also spending the morning getting prepared for my trip to San Francisco tomorrow. I’m on multiple deadlines, and juggling them across different formats (talks, journalism, and TV). I try not to lose myself in busy work, especially as means of avoiding more challenging creative or spiritual work, but I don’t always succeed.
My tarot card for the day is Strength. It’s probably the card I get most, and I find its image powerful: A woman tames a lion with love, not force. Through gentle power, the animal willingly submits to her wisdom.
Properly reset, I spend a half hour on my monster project. Ahead of my trip to San Francisco tomorrow, I do laundry and pack.
After lunch, I settle in for another round of work on the pilot. When I’m in a revision/multi-draft place, I tend to work better later in the day. I’m near-done with this revision, and I’m having a lot of fun getting it sorted. Thinking visually, and in themes, are skills I developed as a poet that seem to be of particular use here. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking so much about poetry lately.
I head over to the HuffPost studios to do an interview for about Amateur for a series they’re shooting. Afterwards, I have a call with an Olympic boxer who’s trans and turning pro ahead of pitching a profile of him to some of my editors.
I catch up on the news on my way home, and feel immediately enraged. I stay off the internet in order to mindfully make dinner for my wife. We spend the night imagining living in the desert. It fills us both with hope.
Wednesday, September 26
I head to the airport after breakfast. I check my email and handle my business, and watch the planes. I grew up not far from an airport, and used to watch planes land while lying on the hood of my car in a nearby field. Maybe that’s why I haven’t quite ever gotten over the magic of flying.
I lived in the Bay Area for nearly a decade, so going back always bears a whiff of time travel. I was just here for a reading last month, but this time around I’m doing a New York Times panel on gender and the internet with Amanda Hess (twice in one week!) and Teen Vogue executive editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay. It’s strange to be in town so briefly, but kind of lovely too. It makes the spaces between all my lives feel much shorter.
I love working on planes. I don’t bring headphones that have wires, so I’m not tempted by the television, and I just plug away without the internet for six hours. There’s something trance-like and pure about the work I can do in the air. I am nearly done by the time we land.
After dropping my bags off at my hotel in Berkeley, I go to my brother’s house in Oakland and spend the evening with his family. My nephews are a toddler and an eight-month-old, and seeing them is rarer than it should be. Ronin, who is almost three, plays a game with me where he runs across the couch toward me, jumping in my general direction, trusting me to catch him.
Thursday, September 27
I wake early and think, again, about monsters, as I join the nation in watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s heartbreaking testimony in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. I look out over the desolate parking lot in this newly strange town that was once familiar, and I can’t stop crying. I spend a lot of the morning online. I too am a survivor of sexual violence, I too am a body that is maligned by culture, and I too am a white man in a world that now rewards me for doing so little, a world that wants me to believe I am entitled to more simply because of the shape of my body. It feels important to witness Dr. Ford insisting on herself, no matter how painful and traumatizing it is to watch. So I do.
After Dr. Ford’s testimony, I get a coffee across the street and try to reset. I’m on a hard deadline, and I have to get this pilot in for notes so that I (hopefully) can be put up for jobs in the fall. This tension between capitalism and my well-being is a bit of a theme for me right now, though I sense I’m not alone, especially today. Regardless, I buckle down and finish it.
I head into San Francisco for the event with Amanda and Samhita at the Commonwealth Club, but catch up on Kavanaugh’s testimony/master class on toxic masculinity before leaving the hotel. I try not to succumb to despair.
When I get to the venue, the events team shows me a remarkable view from the rooftop, and I see the new Bay Bridge for the first time since I left many years ago. An art installation of sparkling lights makes the bridge shimmer against the fog. I am gathering these moments of magic like wool. In challenging times, I try to remember that there are so many people invested in creating small moments of transcendence, reminding us of the potential we are capable of, when liberated from expectation. Gender, to me, is a space of such transcendence.
The panel, like the event at the library earlier in the week, feels important in the ways it allows for community and conversation about our collective experience of a very tough news day. After, at post-event drinks, I get into a long conversation with a geographer who is writing a paper on “shaman bros.” She says she never has felt like she truly lives in San Francisco, even 15 years in. She says it’s the air, how it’s always moving, always sucking the sense of place back out to sea and filling the vacuum with confused fog. It’s hard to think clearly here, she says.
Amanda and Samhita kindly invited me to dinner with their friend, Soraya Chemaly, who was in conversation with Rebecca Solnit about her new book, Rage Becomes Her, across the street from our event in the Ferry Building. Rebecca is also there, and Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency, among others. We talk Kavanaugh, and rape culture, and anger, and masculinity, and accountability. It seems almost impossible, especially in my jet lag, to comprehend the enormity of the collective brainpower of this group, and the extent of my luck to find myself with a seat at the table among these women, on this day.
On my Lyft ride home, the guy driving me blasts mellow beats and I stare out the window as we drive over the Bay Bridge, now with all the lights, and we pass the stop where I was in a horrible car accident over a decade ago. There was no shoulder to pull over onto, my car accordioned from trunk to front seat, and for 15 terrifying minutes, cars were forced to change lanes in a split second as I sat stock-still in the driver’s seat, willing none of them to hit me. I remembered the bus driver that pulled over in the lane beside me, leaving her flashers on, her bus empty, her shift over, protecting me from harm.
Friday, September 28
At the Oakland airport, I kept an eye on the news and took care of various travel plans, speakers’ fees, and pitch clarifications. I flew home, skipping three hours along the way that I’ll never get back. I spent the flight working out the bones of an updated talk for an event I’m doing next week at the University of Toronto. I really like public speaking, which is a new development since my transition. It’s interesting to think across formats, and a talk is a different kind of creative expression than a book, or an article, or a television pilot.
I spend some time on my monster project, as well. When I arrive home, it’s very late, but I’m wired. My wife says goodnight, and I take a shower and stay up reading, as I do every night—but tonight I’m up for hours. I do almost all my reading in bed, and find it to be a surprisingly productive space to read. I read fiction, mostly, though lately I’ve expanded my nighttime reading into all manner of nonfiction, as well. I’m currently reading David Lynch’s experimental auto/biography, written with the journalist Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream. It has a narcotic strangeness to it that both keeps me awake and lulls me into something beyond sleep.
Saturday, September 29
I do a lot around the house today, which is grounding, though there is a feeling in the air because of the news this week, and the chill of fall, that makes me uneasy, angry, and deeply sad. After we clean the apartment, I go into Manhattan on an errand, and then I gladly head over to Greenpoint in Brooklyn to get my haircut.
My barber and I are friends, and it’s nice to talk to her every couple of weeks, one of the few consistencies in my schedule right now. She is queer, and an incredible barber, and every time I see her I think about the artistry in her craft. She’s always improving, always suggesting small changes (raise the fade line, leave the curl in, etc.), always working toward a more perfect end result—without expecting actual perfection. I learn a lot from her.
That night, we order Indian food and watch this show my siblings got me into, Dark Tourist. It’s about people who tour sites of atrocities and disasters, and it’s as unsettling and oddly enlightening. I think I am not the only person this week who is reflecting a lot on what being a person even means—our limitations, our depravity, our beauty, our cruelty, our capacity for love.
Sunday, September 30
I meet the New York Times photographer at the gym in the morning. His job is to follow me around for their “Sunday Routine” column, and so I go about my Sunday with this friendly man in tow. We return to the house after my workout, and then Jess and I take the dogs down to Domino dog park, on the water. No one in Williamsburg notices or cares that Anthony is behind us as I go to the Nitehawk movie theater, or meet back up with Jess at Mr. Dips for ice cream and then head over to McNally Jackson to pick up a few books. Anthony is a former marine and sports photographer, and he tells me about leaving Afghanistan after his second tour and heading straight for art school. He said the other students didn’t know what to make of him, a combat vet. Later, I looked through the photos on his Instagram, and they were these epic, beautiful, black and white pieces that were skewed a little, unexpected: like the tattoos of athletes, for example, after a game—rather than the game itself. I thought about what Anthony said, about how the way he saw this country changed fundamentally after his time in Afghanistan, and how he used the word “never”—it would “never” be the same to him again.
At McNally Jackson, I picked up The Penguin Book of Japanese Stories. I read a few in the bath before making dinner for my wife. Before I drifted off that night, I read a few more. It felt like a radical act, as reading often does, to find myself in the work. In a changed world, it is still a constant. How lucky I am, I thought as I was falling asleep, to be a writer.
Photo of Thomas Page McBee by Kait Miller