Drunk on truth to stupid baby power.

Ice Balls

ice_ball_close-up

By Maria Catt

At the job before the one I have now one of my duties was to take water frozen in red Solo cups and use an ice ball press to press the ice hunk into a ball. It took about a minute a ball. Demand for the ice balls always out-paced my capacity to create them. I was the barback at a club in San Francisco’s financial district which was an extension of a fancy menswear store. At this store insecure bankers were encouraged to spend 500 dollars on sweaters. If those insecure bankers committed to spending 250 dollars at the store each month they got to visit The Club, which is a bar with a long scotch list, and a room to smoke cigars in, and a limited food menu with a seventeen dollar burger on it.

The scientific justification for the invention of the ice ball press is that a perfectly round orb of ice will melt less quickly into your whiskey, while creating the condition for maximum whiskey on ice surface heat exchange, chilling the whiskey without watering it down.

There are a couple of things to learn from the ice ball press. The first is some physics equation about the relationship between heat and pressure, which I have forgotten despite having to explain it to eager club members at least once a shift. The second is that people who like to condescend will find a way to condescend about anything, including the best shape for ice. The third is that the condescension market is a growth area in the economy, and that if you create a product that allows a person to condescend about an unexpectedly mundane entertaining needs, you can charge them a thousand dollars for a block of aluminum that turns ice into balls. I learned a more personally relevant lesson from my time pressing ice into balls so that bankers could impress their business friends, which was that I was not a man, never wanted to be confused for one, and felt unexpectedly grateful to have received a biological exemption from having to participate in masculinity.

Femininity and I had been duking it out since I was 11 and the girls in my grade started giving blowjobs to boys and it has felt the whole twenty years since that femininity was kicking the shit out of me.  To transform from an androgynous kid at 11, praised for being a tomboy, into a big bootied 13 year old who had to take the train across the city every morning and afternoon in a school girl getup was fucked up. To this day I have not recovered. Add to that the list of sexual trauma and gas-lighting which is now the norm for women in their teens and twenties and I responded in a sort of extraordinary way- I created a fantasy self who was a dude. I thought pretty constantly about who I could be and what I could do if I weren’t trapped in my body. There were a number of problems with this fantasy. The biggest was that I assumed my parents would have to die before I’d work up the nerve to ever transition.

Then I hit 30 and I couldn’t have sex without disassociating and my fantasy self loomed larger and larger- was I going to spend the bulk of my life waiting until it was safe to trot him out?

I did the unthinkable and announced to my family, my boss, my friends, my grad school adviser, that I was transitioning, that they shared a fundamental misunderstanding about who I was. Then, in the grand tradition of the utopian minded, I moved to California.

Secret selves, shielded from social feedback, can freeze into misleadingly hard shapes. My fantasy self had been my companion for years and promised a solution to my freakish problems. I would know the map of my body. My ego and loudness and anger would make intuitive sense to people. I wouldn’t feel like I was watching every sexual encounter from the ceiling like a creepy ghost. It was easier to blame my pervasive discomfort on gender rather than trauma- everyone I had told about my various traumatic incidents had not seemed to think they were a big deal. They didn’t seem big enough to explain this constant, intense disassociation I kept running up against. My misery was big enough only a big explanation could suffice.

Now, here’s the thing about being trans: it’s expensive. The quote I got from a surgeon for the chest surgery and thigh lipo I’d need to attempt to pass as a man was $8,000 dollars. In California insurance companies are required by law to pay for these masculinizing chest surgeries because they are considered medically necessary treatment for the diagnosis of gender identity disorder. In Ohio the surgeries are considered cosmetic. Hence the move to California and hence the needing a job with good health insurance. The Club seemed like a godsend. I’d get my chest surgery  and I’d get an employee discount on rich dude clothing.

I hadn’t considered that rich guys expect their servants who they perceive as women to wear makeup. If you don’t wear makeup they won’t look you in the face. If you wear a bowtie and no makeup they read you as a lesbian. When lesbians speak to bankers, even to take a food order, bankers will roll their eyes at lesbians.

As the lesbian barback who didn’t wear makeup my worth consisted in being willing to run my ass off. So I worked at a frantic pace. Running tickets to the kitchen (yes, food industry compatriots, this rich person club didn’t see the need for a POS system), hauling dirty dishes, running food orders, stocking beer, pressing those ice balls. All par for the course for a barback job, except I actually wasn’t prepared for the eye rolling, and it was evident to me both the bartenders, all men, and the serves, all women, weren’t being worked like I was. But I wanted that surgery.

More troubling to my quest was the fact that I was surrounded by men and they all seemed really unhappy. I learned mansplaining was not a thing men do to women, but rather a dynamic some men do to all people at all times. 95% of the conversations I witnessed at The Club were men condescending to other men about sports. The other 5% were men condescending about cigars, scotch, and of course, ice.

The people who hired me knew I was transitioning. I had a hunch I was something like the ice ball press to them- a novelty for the members to show off to their business friends. My suspicions were confirmed when one nights, after the club was closed, the staff sat around sampling our wines. A new server had just told me I was “the heart” of The Club, which I’m going to attribute to me being a hard worker who makes an effort to be halfway decent to my coworkers. Then one of my managers winked at me and said, “M’s the mascot of the club.”

That was a little before midnight on a Friday. The next morning I had to be back at the club at 8 am for an all staff meeting. The club was expanding and the CEO wanted the staff to understand his vision for the club. The CEO was often referred to, by both management and club members, as a genius. When I would enter a room and say good morning to him he would ignore me. It was explained to me that when he dined at the club the staff should be on the lookout for eye contact from him, no matter what we were doing, because if he caught our eye that meant we should be available to him immediately. He had a habit of expecting that what he needed could be conveyed through eye contact without the use of words, and would become frustrated if you didn’t guess correctly that he needed water without ice, the channel on the gargantuan tv changed, the volume of the ever present Sinatra music raised or lowered. He was meticulous about details like which tweed coasters belonged to which area of the club, but was not bothered by challenges like the staff having 30 coasters for a club that sat 150.

That morning, on 5 hours of sleep, I sat in the club I had closed the night before and watched what turned out to be a 3 hour Powerpoint biography of our CEO. I saw his wedding pictures, was told his college GPA, learned about the short-lived reality show the company had some years back, saw a picture of the time he met Kim Kardashian. He told us there would be lots of opportunity for growth within the company, such as training to be a butler. He showed as a schedule of his “perfect day” that he hoped to live out at the club in 5 years. From 6 in the morning to 9 at night he was receiving a service- getting a shave, having his shoes shined, having the paper and a cappuccino brought to him, spending time in the golf simulator, time in the cigar room, having a business meeting where he would crack a glass case to use a special pen to sign a deal. He put this question to the staff; “Is there anything that would be different in your perfect day?”

I looked around the room at my coworkers, wildly searching for eyes filled with the judgment I felt. No one else was thinking, “In my perfect day at some point I’d have an interaction with another human being that wasn’t a stylized power ritual?” No one appeared to be.

I wasn’t on testosterone when that meeting happened. I had been on it for 9 months, but had stopped because body hair was coming on quicker than the fat re-distribution I had been hoping for was. It seemed likely I has going to become bearded and bald while still clearly being read as a woman. I had loved being on testosterone. It had knocked out my anxiety. While normally my brain swims in a soup of managing other people’s moods and needs around me, noticing what might go wrong, is about to go wrong, what people are probably getting annoyed about, what people might be feeling hurt by, on “T” (there’s some inside trans slang for you) I didn’t give a shit. I wasn’t trying to make people feel bad, but if they caught feelings, oh well. I felt, in a way that I’d never felt before, that I was the awesomest. Awesome on a profound level. So smart, so brave, destined for big, revolutionary things. When I had to stop taking T I was heartbroken, but I promised myself once I got my surgery I’d be back on that good good permanently.

That Saturday morning I saw our CEO glowing with ego and it occurred to me that maybe testosterone wasn’t that cute of a look. Maybe the estrogen my body makes naturally was what kept me from doing dumb shit like paying 50 people for 3 hours of San Francisco minimum wage so that someone would look at my wedding album.

I used to have a joke in my standup act where I’d tell the audience I was transitioning, and they’d clap because everyone wants to be an ally, then I’d say, “Woo-hoo, one more white guy! Just what the world needs!” But that morning in that club was when I really started to consider that the estrogen my body makes, while setting me personally up for some rough times, actually was better for the people and the world around me. And the question really hit me: did I want strangers on the street to look at me and think I was in any way the same kind of person as this joker with the Powerpoint?

The next shift I came to work with no bow tie and a face full of makeup and the insecure bankers loved it. For the rest of my time at the club they would flirt with me and tell me all their rich dude problems, like having a hell of a time kicking the tenants out of the SRO he had bought to renovate, or being so relieved to be away from the air pollution in China since he got back from his trip inspecting his company’s factories over there. They called me sweetheart and insisted on hugs. My manager was pissed. The CEO finally talked to me and asked what was up with my new look. I told him it made the members nicer. I worked the job for a couple more months until one day I was on my period and was thinking about how I’d moved to California to wear makeup for the one percent, and I couldn’t stop crying, and I quit abruptly. Another win for female hormones.

It turns out there are a lot of upsides to being a woman. You get to hang out with women. You don’t have to hang out with men. You don’t have to condescend to people about things like ice. You notice other people’s reactions to you. People consider you safe enough to tell you their problems. You get to smile at kids you don’t know. You get to hang out with women. You get to hang out with women. Your whole life. Between the old guys congratulating themselves for being able to drop 700 dollars on an ounce of 40 year old scotch, or my mom getting goofy on ice wine with her retired nurse friends, I know who’s throwing the better party.

The well-meaning among you might be tempted to explain to me, hey you could hang out with women who went to women’s colleges and still get called he or they or ze or hir or you might want to explain to me that there are so many good dudes who are transforming what it means to be a dude, and I could join in and transform it with them. Nope. No thanks. I think estrogen is good deal. I think this female thing is a good deal. Even with the rape and the gas-lighting and the poverty and the shitty jobs and the sexual harassment and the doing all the housework and the watching jokers kill the planet and the regular ice, this womanhood thing is where it’s at. Those ice balls have melted. I’m good.

ADDENDUM: One talent I have been rewarded for developing is the ability to talk about sad things from a place of strength by being funny. It is a talent which often gets me into trouble by obscuring the fact that I’m in pain. I was in a lot of pain before transitioning, and mourning the loss of a solution has been exceptionally painful. I went through about 8 months of crying everyday about it. Now I cry about two days a week about it. Was it wise to share a deeply personal piece of memoir on the Internet about something I have wept about in the past week? Probably not, but I am proud of this piece and want to show it off. What I’m asking is that as tempting as it is to put a political agenda on the piece, and no doubt there are lots of class and gender politics to unpack in it, please remember the person who wrote it is right this minute still in the body that went through that, still with the bank account that went through that, still dealing with everything she was dealing with before and also had to figure out what to do with the creepy ass experience described in the essay. I tried to speak from the heart and not talk about other people’s choices in the piece intentionally because I have my hands full with my own choices. Please be compassionate and considerate with your reactions, not only in regards to my journey but other people’s journeys as well. Everyone’s life is complicated, overwhelming, and too much to handle, and everyone is trying their very best to get some joy before their time is up. Please keep that reality in the forefront of your mind as you react to the piece.

To read more by Maria Catt, click here.

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98 Responses to “Ice Balls”

    • Owen

      That was an awesome piece. I was going to say “I hope it gets better for you”, but somehow that doesn’t seem quite the right thing to say. We need sensitive people like you, so instead I will wish you the best, no matter what that is or where it takes you, just all the best.

      Reply
  1. hannon

    Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I have often battled with femininity and it relieving to finally read a piece that recognizes its unbelievable power.

    Reply
    • Dana

      That isn’t really what I took away from it. In the current culture, femininity and femaleness are more a lack of power than a possession of same.

      But that doesn’t mean we can’t find good things in femaleness. And actually, one of the things I like about the trans movement (one of the very few) is that the people who have begun or completed hormonal transition have insights about how the other half lives that those of us who stay put will never have. We should listen. As long as they don’t descend into more ridiculous stereotyping, anyway.

      (I think there’s something to the idea that testosterone can make people less empathetic. We already know from steroid abusers in the bodybuilding community that T produces aggression. You kind of have to turn off putting yourself into other people’s shoes to be able to attack them. But that doesn’t mean all transition insights necessarily make sense–there isn’t anything inherently female in high heels or shopping, for instance.)

      Reply
  2. nemirscience

    this is wonderful! <3 <3 <3
    I also love the addendum – I wish everyone just naturally responded to the things they read as if hey, real live humans were on the other end! But since they don't, that was an inspired and equally beautify addition.

    Reply
  3. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    I have suspected as much my whole adult life, but thought I was insane. Thanks for this incredibly well-written essay.

    Reply
  4. Patch Rock

    Love this. Be whatever kind of person you want to be, makeup or no, bowtie or no! Masculinity boiled down to testosterone is gross.

    Reply
  5. Caroza

    Lovely piece of writing. Yes, I think you’re right – we bash men for their ‘egos’ but what a horrible burden to have to maintain one and compete all the time! Am reading Melissa Hines’ excellent book Brain Gender at the moment and out really is down to testosterone – female seems to be the default setting and you have to add a horrible hormone stew to make a male. Much more relaxing to be a female.

    Reply
  6. Jenne

    Wow. I’m sorry you had to go through these experiences, you should know that the result is that you have boiled down things I have always felt to a gem-like and also funny clarity. Thank you. (In fact, there are some sentences I’d consider getting tattoos of, to be honest, if I wasn’t a wimp about such things.)

    Reply
  7. AzzA

    An exceptional piece of life and literature in every sense. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  8. Mr. T

    Guess I need to check my T. Never had all these effects on emotion and confidence you keep talking about. Or maybe, you actually don’t know what it’s like to be a man. Maybe being a man is just slightly more complicated and variable than this tinker toy model. The “straw man” you put forth from T is every bit as degrading and inaccurate as the idea of women being all emo from E. Can we stop this nonsense of reducing the complexity of the brain and body to one chemical out of thousands in the body? Can we stop pegging men and women to such simplistic, destructive stereotypes? Vomit.

    Reply
    • Schwarz

      @ Mr T – did you read this piece to the end or did you feel it necessary to stop and mansplain that comment halfway through?

      Reply
      • Mr. T

        Stop muzzling men with ‘mansplaining’. I read it twice, and your arrogance and dismissiveness is ugly to see. But you’ve already made up your mind about my ideas, motivations, and limitations. Haven’t you? Or perhaps you can’t even see how trapped your own mind is.

        She has stereotyped and simplified and gotten so much clearly wrong for many men (might as well use a mass noun for the genders given the attitude here). You might not like it, but things aren’t so simple and you can shout it down as much as you like (THAT, my dear, is your mansplaining, but please, keep it up).

        T and E and all the reductive, stereotyping is destructive and distorting. If you can’t see that, you are just part of the problem of reducing individuals to chemicals and trivial behavioral responses.

        Those kinds of attitudes are the very ones that have trapped both men and women for centuries. Sadly, it seems they live a zombie life and cannot be killed. We need our caricatures too much, it seems, to look for real people inside gender and everything else that people use to pigeonhole a person.

        But I’ll stop my “mansplaining” and let the bubble remain undisturbed. But when your ideas don’t seem to lead to any real-world change, you might think to re-examine your juvenile assumptions about personhood.

      • benoithubert

        While I was moved by the story, I can only agree with Mr. T that we’ve had enough of simplistic stereotypes. Because yes, they are destructive, and not only to women.
        How many times I heard my mother tell “I’m a woman, so I’m more sensitive”. And the same time she, or several of my school teachers, could have quite barbaric attitudes toward children, especially boys since “they’re boys”. But who would give a fuck, since us guys are “less sensitive”?
        And actually, I can remind very well being able to read other peoples’ feelings, and no I was not on estrogens.
        So, while I can understand the author’s struggle, I would say this is a moving and beautiful piece, but she comes to a *very* wrong conclusion about men and women. Many attitudes are learnt from culture, and are not gender-specific. Besides she was surrounded by rich persons, maybe not the most mankind-loving people…

    • Sunshine

      I have to say in response, the writer is responding to societal roles of EXPECTATION related to gender. Until men fear for their physical safety if the are “provocative”, they have no awareness of the vulnerability of femininity. This is a reaction to other’s behavior. Most females over 12 know the feeling of judgement based upon their physical appeal. Do most males?

      Reply
  9. Zinc

    Your comment about “mansplaining” is spot on. Men only get ahead in the “man’s world” by either being actually competent, or just by pretending to be– since most are the latter, you can often enough fool the “boss” and get by. And then we wonder how a world run by men can be so screwed up? Easy, most of them are poseurs.

    Reply
  10. cynkingfeeling

    I can’t imagine how it felt to put this extremely personal story out here in the first place and then have to read comments like the one left by the jackass above. Thank you for letting me into your world. I’m so glad I found this piece via Schmutzie’s Five Star Blogs. I can see why she included it it.

    Reply
  11. littledragonblue

    GREAT piece. Brutal and honest. I think a lot of us are wishing for a world in which the gender binary is debunked as the social construct it is, rather than codified as the biological constant it masquerades as. There should be space for people to live as either or both or in between without being made objects of ridicule. Maybe that would tone down some of the horrible hyper-masculine posturing described here. I love how the author makes us feel sorry for the CEO who’s so rich and deprived of human contact he has to pay minimum wage workers to listen to him talk about his life.

    Reply
  12. Rex

    Wow. Fierce writing, hard-won and painful insight. To have the longed-for welcome mat of masculinity pulled out from under your feet, just as you’re stepping across the threshold…ow. I’m one who has struggled with whether or not to transition, and felt the minefield of femininity and masculinity converging in my body. It took a long trip into the wilderness to come to any sort of equilibrium. Read this with a shock of recognition–thanks.

    Reply
  13. RKH

    Absolutely love this piece!!! Like other people in the comments section, I’m often at a battle with being ‘feminine/girly’. I’m insanely proud to be a woman but yet I don’t do the girly things associated with being a woman. It’s a complicated paradox in my mind sometimes and reading this article was fascinating and affirming. I hope this is your blog and not a collective (I found this article through a Facebook link), because you definitely have a new reader.

    Reply
  14. sunsolstice

    Thank you. Wishing you joy in the body you live in and with the friends who love you.

    Reply
  15. Angela

    Thank you for sharing in such a straight up kinda way. I applaud your honesty and bravery at doing so. Please keep writing from your heart. It’s beautiful!

    Reply
  16. Denise

    Wow! Great writing – keep that going! You have really put us behind your eyes!

    Reply
  17. Dark Matter Zine

    Your essay is awesome.

    I’ve dreamt about being a man, becoming a man or moving to a new place and just pretending to be a man. What I’d get out of it: liberation, less patronising bullshit and I’d be far more likely to get a job (men with disabilities are far more likely to be employed than women with disabilities).

    What I’d lose: I’d be doing it for other people. Iyam who iyam.

    You summed it up beautifully.

    PS I’m not commenting on other people’s choices; I may even feel a bit of envy for those who do it and reap the rewards.

    Reply
  18. Avly

    This was a very interesting read on the author’s personal journey. I am glad that she figured out what was best for her.

    I am a little concerned that this story reduces both men and women to their gender stereotypes. Women do not have some strange secret sisterhood and only hang out with women, and we are not all emotional, and estrogen isn’t the reason behind our various personalities. Likewise, men are not unemotional, condescending, egotistical people who only value a pretty face. Generalizations are harmful to everyone.

    It also concerns me that this could be used to dismiss other people’s stories. The caveat at the end doesn’t even acknowledge that others’ journeys are just as valid, just that she is not commenting on them at the moment. I am afraid that this story could be taken as a piece against transgenderism, whether or not the author intended it as such.

    I guess it’s just important to make sure you don’t generalize your experience to all others’ out there, and make that clear.

    Reply
  19. ElPig

    This was amazing and brave and I have thought about it every single day since I read it last month. I can’t thank you enough for writing it. I’m good, too.

    Reply
  20. Gidomirf

    I hope you find the best answer for you. I also hope your choice will be a bit more nuanced than simply between access / privilege vs. perceptions of self. It seems like too much of the focus for us gender nonconformists, is quickly transitioning into a new similarly arbitrary box. While the option of conforming is alluring, as people will treat you better, if it comes at the expense of your sense of self, I don’t believe it’s worth it. If you can find a balance of gender expressions with or without medical supervision, all the power to you. Self-deprecating aside, be yourself, because you are awesome, funny and beautiful. Boxes and labels can be claustrophobic, and there’s nothing wrong with you if you do or don’t neatly fit them. Be the snowflake, be proud, be unique, only you can be you.

    Reply
  21. Chloe

    I thought your story was really inspiring. Sometimes I feel weird as a woman, but then I look at men and I feel so fucking grateful that I’m not so detached and lost, lost in my own ego, no, I can feel other people and pay attention. Sometimes I pussy seems like such a burden, what with the periods and the constant fear until I remember that’s exactly what they want you to think. I’m grateful for my wonderful yoni. So yeah, thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  22. An evil male

    Gotta love the misandry in the last 2 paragraphs. Yes we get it. Men are evil and women are angels. All of them.

    Reply
  23. spirt2

    I love reading your blogs. You definitely have a gift of writing and composing your thoughts. There is a person by the name of Martha Shelley that might be interested in your work. She is the owner and a author who runs EBISUPUBLICATIONS.COM. She lives in the Boston New York area. I am not related in anyway, and I am not trying to con or scam you. I have read some of her works and she belongs to a Facebook site I belong to.

    Reply
  24. Ice balls. | The Prime Directive

    […] This is not a straightforward piece like I usually link to. It’s an account by Maria Catt of her working at a rich people’s bar while FtM transitioning, how she was treated, how they treated each other, and so on. It’s quite well written. […]

    Reply
  25. Dag

    I read this months ago, and I still think about its contents all the time. It has been one of the most formative things I’ve read when thinking about (my) gender. Thank you so much for this gift, and please keep writing.

    Reply

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