Remembering the Muffin Man

Many years ago, in my early twenties, I lived in Santa Cruz, California, and had a job at a small health food store called The Food Bin. I disliked this job for a number of reasons, but it had its good points. I enjoyed the friendly rapport I had with some coworkers, customers and suppliers, such as a certain clean-cut young guy, around my age, who delivered muffins once a week from a local bakery.

One day I was far from The Food Bin, on some kind of errand that took me way into the very outskirts of town. I’d finished whatever it was I was doing and was heading toward the bus stop, when I spotted the Muffin Man outside a restaurant, unloading a big tray of goods from the back of his van. I went to say hello, and then, thinking of how long it was going to take me to get home by bus, asked him if he might by chance be heading back into town.

He said he had another stop or two, but generously offered me a ride, and so I climbed into the van’s passenger seat, he took the wheel, and we were off. We’d never had a real get-to-know-you conversation before, and he told me the bakery belonged to his aunt, and that he was from somewhere else. I don’t remember where exactly, but it was someplace smaller and more conservative. I asked him how he liked Santa Cruz, and he said it was different. I asked how so, and he said it was the people. I asked how so again, and he started talking about alternative lifestyles and soon I understood that he didn’t mean the hippie element that was prevalent in the area, but the queer element.

I looked down at myself. I had on my customary scruffy jeans and tee shirt, and I had recently cut off all my hair. It was only an inch or two long and very boyish, and after a lifetime of liking boys, I had just started dating a girl. Also, there was my mom.

“You know,” I said, “my mom is a lesbian.”

“What? Whoa! Really?”

I told him how she had come out when I was eight years old, and it had always seemed totally normal to me, and then I said, “And I like both.”

“Oh, my GOD!” he said, gripping the steering wheel so as not to keel over. This was blowing his mind.

When he recovered a little, though, he said that actually there had been a gay guy on his swim team, and that nobody minded, and that he was a really nice guy. We talked about that for a while, and then he said that he thought that having gay friends was okay, but that what he would never want was a gay son. That would be too hard for him.

I said, “But what if you did have a gay son?” I said I had a friend whose mom had disowned her after she came out, how awful that was, and how if he did have a gay son, he’d have to love him and accept him and support him. What would happen to his gay son if he rejected him?

           The Muffin Man stared at the road a few minutes. Then he said he supposed I was right. If his son was gay, he wouldn’t want to be that kind of father. It wouldn’t be his son’s fault if he turned out gay, and he’d love him regardless.

“I guess it would be okay if he was gay,” he said, “as long as he wasn’t all frou-frou about it.”

“But he might be frou-frou,” I said, visions of short shorts and feather boas dancing in my head.

We were nearing downtown now, where in a moment I’d hop out and he’d return to the bakery, and at this point in the conversation the Muffin Man knew there was no turning back. He looked at me sideways, smiled a little, and said, “I guess I’d learn to live with it.”

I wanted to say, “I love you,” but that would have been weird. Instead I thanked him for the ride and said it was great talking with him. He told me to take care, and that he’d see me soon at The Food Bin.

As we all know, life is unending school. These days I am frequently corrected by my non-binary teenager, who is way more up on appropriate terms and concepts around gender and sexuality than I am. I like to think that I’m a good student in life, but of course often times I’m not. Still, I want to be someone who, with a little effort, can blow through a series of hurdles like the Muffin Man did that day, when in the course of a twenty-minute conversation he went from being weirded out by a little queer culture in his general environment, to loving and accepting his very own (hypothetical) future frou-frou gay son. If there’s one thing this world needs, it’s more of that.


Check out more of Jenny Jaeckel’s writing from her four published books to her other essays and anecdotes! Her latest book is also out as an audiobook, narrated by the incomparable award-winning Bahni Turpin. Available anywhere audiobooks are sold, or request it at your local library (give them this ISBN: 978-1-941203-31-6).

Gender Diversity and Family Traditions

This spring, in an interesting confluence of time-honored traditions, my child Asa will become a man. To explain the transformation, I need to start by backing up about 13 years, to when I was pregnant. I always wanted a girl child, and when I was pregnant with Asa I wanted a girl so much I thought for sure it would be my karma to have a boy. I made lists of all the boys and men that I really liked, and thought a lot about them, attempting to break down my biases. I wanted a girl because in general I liked females better than males. Aside from my partner Chris, my close relationships were all with women. I didn’t understand sports or the appeal of sports, and even though I’ve never been particularly girly myself, I thought it would be fun to have a child whose hair I could braid and put barrettes in. This last one wasn’t the main thing, of course, what I really wanted was a child I would have a close relationship with, and in my mind that was female. Asa has since told me that these were sexist notions, and that is true.

Expecting

So, I was pretty thrilled when I got the ultrasound a few days before Asa was born, and the technician told me the baby was a girl. I was so sure I would be having a boy I doubted her words. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yep,” she said, “those are labia.” Asa is actually a boy’s name, but it was the one we chose, partly because it means healer, and Asa was born very medically complicated.

Jenny with Asa 2007

As I said, I have never been particularly girly, and in the early years neither Chris nor I were interested in dressing Asa in clothes all tricked out with pink and glitter and demeaning slogans like “Born to shop,” as is all the rage in capitalism these days. Also, Asa was mostly bald until the age of three, so many people–out at the parks, library, etc.–assumed Asa was a boy. We assumed Asa was a girl, given the anatomy, but, as it turned out, we were also wrong.

Gender Diversity

Asa enjoyed a variety of clothing as a kid, but by grade three was exclusively wearing “boys clothes.” I didn’t think much of it, that’s what I preferred at that age too, but then in grade four, in a classroom discussion, Asa heard the term “gender-neutral” for the first time, and a light bulb went off. Asa did not feel like a boy or a girl, and this was a term that fit. These days, three and a half years later, Asa prefers the term “non-binary.” Asa is not a girl, but luckily for me I did get my wish, in that I have a child with whom I have a close relationship, which is what I actually wanted, the anatomy is so beside the point. And luckily for all of us, we live in a time and place where there is a tremendous amount of support and acceptance for gender diversity, so Asa can be who they are without it being a problem.

We also are lucky to have an accepting extended family, and, at least on my side, one in which queerness is a family affair. My mom came out as a lesbian when I was eight years old. She told me, a little nervously, one day after school when we were walking up the driveway. I didn’t care either way, it was all the same to me, though I already felt more comfortable with women than men, so if she had girlfriends that would be easier on me. When my mom told her mother she was in a relationship with a woman, my grandma was unfazed. “Is she Jewish?” she wanted to know. She was Jewish (the first one, anyway)–hurrah!–and she was exceedingly nice to me. And my grandma told my mom that if she’d had the option, back in her day, she might have gone that way too.

As I grew up I identified as a “tomboy,” and I also liked boys, but, having a queer mom, it stuck in my psychology that heterosexuality was something a woman should grow out of, like a developmental stage. In high school when my friends’ moms were married to men or had boyfriends, I somehow thought, “How immature, aren’t they over that yet?” Even so, I myself remained straight, though a small dose of bi came in for a few years, and I eventually married a man. A man who likes sports! But also a man who was a women-studies major in university, who is a dancer, was into theater as a young person, and who, when speaking to a crowd—as his work often requires—can be mistaken for gay.

Non-binary Theater

Asa is also very into theater. Asa is not just non-binary, Asa is an actor. Asa has been in a number of plays, including the ones we stage in the summer in our front yard, and always prefers male roles. About a year ago we watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof and Asa fell in love with it. I had seen it many times before, and I always cry the entire way through. Then we found out that this year’s spring musical at Asa’s middle school was going to be Fiddler, and we pretty much died and went to Heaven.

Asa loves musical theater, I’m not particularly a fan, but I do love Fiddler, because it’s really good, and it’s really Jewish. It’s the musical of our tribe. Asa prepared long and hard for the auditions, so much so that we had to put limits on how many times in a day Asa could sing the songs. Any song, no matter how gay or Jewish, with enough repetitions, will drive you insane. Asa auditioned for four parts: Tevye, the lead, and three smaller male roles, suitors of Tevye’s daughters. Marriage and tradition are central themes in Fiddler. The musical opens with a big number, a song called “Tradition,” which lays out the roles of each person in the family, according to gender, the roles that constitute the backbone of the society, in their village of Anatevka. Then the rest of the musical is devoted to the challenges to tradition, the breakdown of tradition, the changing of the times around tradition and its adaptations, and the adherence to tradition as a saving grace, and the tensions between these various dynamics.

As the drama, in our house, of the months of preparations, and the two weeks of auditions unfolded, I kept in close conversation with my cousin Leora. Leora is her own kind of queer and gender-diverse, feeling very strongly, spiritually, that she is a gay man. She lives as a woman and has not chosen to make any external transitions, but that doesn’t make her any less queer or trans. What matters, at least in the book of our family, is how you feel and identify. It’s the same for me, the queer community is also my community, even though I’m straight. Queerness is something I personally have in common with queer people, even though it actually isn’t.

Leora was very excited for Asa, and even invoked something metaphysical from her own past to bolster Asa, The Spirit of Queer Tevye’s, because when she was a teenager, and very into theater, she had a role in her high school’s production of Fiddler, and her gay friend landed the lead. She sent us a picture of the two of them in costume, with a few others of the cast. In Asa’s gender journey, Leora has been a terrific ally.

At last the auditions were over, and two days ago the decisions for the casting came down, and… drum roll please… Asa got Tevye! Not too shabby, especially for a grade seven kid, who had competition from grade eights, who were taller and possessed deeper voices. Yes, yes, not too shabby at all. The whole mishboucha is pretty excited.

Barat Mitzvah

Coincidentally, there is another queer and Jewish family event happening this spring, in that we will be celebrating Asa’s “barat” mitzvah, our non-binary take on the traditional Jewish rite of passage, the bar mitzvah (bat mitvah for girl), wherein the child, upon their thirteenth (or twelfth, depending) birthday, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Asa has been long preparing for this too, studying Hebrew with my dad over Skype each week, and beginning to write their speech on the portion of the Torah they will be chanting. Like many things with us, this will be a DIY affair, at our house with a small number of friends and relatives, a papier mache Torah, and a rainbow tallis (the traditional prayer shawl) sent by cousin Leora. There will be music, there will be food, and there will be a rendering of tradition adapted for the times. In this way, this spring, Asa will be a man on stage, a ritual adult at home, and as always, the child of my dreams.


Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming book House of Rougeaux. This historical family saga will be available everywhere books are sold in April, 2108. See description here.

Also coming out in audio, performed by Bahni Turpin.