Baby Dee
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My hope is that I’m not a complete fucking asshole after I’m dead.

Baby Dee

in conversation

“There is a harp in that piano. And there’s a girl in that boy,” is the refrain to the song “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities”, which records two experiences of the unusual singer, harpist, pianist and accordionist Baby Dee (1953). First, at the age of four she saw two of her neighbors in suburban Cleveland, Bobby Scott and Freddie Weis brutally demolish a piano, frustrated by its harp-like arrangement of strings, and that left an indelible impression on the little boy. Second, being that little boy, she felt like a girl—whatever that might mean.
    After studying music, particularly Gregorian and Renaissance music, Baby Dee worked for several years as an organist at a Catholic Church in South Bronx, made some extra cash as a busker, and sawed trees and their limbs as a “tree surgeon” until one of the trees fell on an adjacent house.
    She only began independent songwriting at the age of forty-eight, with the help and encouragement of Antony Hegarty, a musician well-known in the trans world, with whom she collaborated for many years.
    Baby Dee had reached the ripe age of forty when she finally had a complete sex change operation. Up until then, she expressed her dual nature as a “two-sided hermaphrodite”—a man on one side, a woman on the other—at a Coney Island freak show. That, however, only took place when she was not performing wearing her beloved bear costume. When our recorded conversation was over, she confessed that while she had become a woman, she would in fact prefer to be a bear. I suggested that sex transformation may be a thing of the past and we should probably begin thinking about possibilities of changing our species, to which Baby Dee most happily concurred. Thus we came up with the word transspeciesism, to expand people’s range of becoming what they want to be.

Arnis Rītups

I tried to read whatever I could get from your earlier interviews anywhere and listen to your songs, and I realized I should start with something strange.

Something strange? Okay. Always good to start with something strange.

What could two strangers talk about?

Kinky sex. (Laughs.)

Kinky sex? That would be… Well, I once heard that the sex part is not to be talked about, it’s something that should be done. What’s the point in talking about it?

Okay, we won’t talk about it.

We will have to choose some other… For me one of the most surprising things in the conversations that other people had with you was that you mention names which no entertainer I’d ever heard of would mention. Like Maximus the Confessor.

Oh, yeah, Maximo! Man, I love Maximo.

I was writing a Ph.D. in theology…

No kidding?

Yeah. I didn’t finish it.

He’s the best… He wrote better about Christianity than anybody ever. Better than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

He was the real deal.

That’s true. And as you know, his right hand was cut off.

Yeah, and the tongue ripped out. So he couldn’t write or talk. But the first thing he wrote was a lengthy apology for what he’s about to do, he’s about to write this stuff about Christianity, or whatever, he’s doing it to teach other monks, and he’s apologizing to them because he’s going to teach them with words, not actions.

Which is amazing.

Yeah. And what’s really beautiful is that at the end the fact that they made it impossible for him to write and speak, that was like the ultimate action… You know, I’m not really a Christian. But he really was. He really got it, the thing about… You know, the thing that makes the difference between people who are really Christians in my book and who aren’t is the whole thing about the humanity of Jesus. And there’s lots of assholes who say that Jesus was God.

That Jesus was God?

Yes. That that’s the whole point. He’s God. That’s all. They sort of soft-pedal the thing about him being a human being. Maximus didn’t.

For him it was crucial.

For him it was the whole thing.

The funny thing is that 50 years after his death he was recognized as the only rightly thinking person in his time. But how on Earth did you come across Maximus the Confessor?

I read a book called the Philokalia.

Oh, really?

Yes. And there’s probably more of him than anybody else.

And what interest have you in the Philokalia?

I was interested in the desert fathers, those guys. The early Christians. I decided at one point in my life to give Christianity… not quite like a benefit of a doubt, but to try and see if there’s something real there. And so I started reading. And the more I read some of the early Christian writers, the more it felt like they were on to something, that there was something real there that later got lost.

Have you ever imagined what would the meeting of Jesus and Buddha consist of? That would be an amazing conversation, if they would talk at all.

Well, they sure have a lot in common. I think the only difference was that Buddha was a lot less misunderstood.

There’s a lot of weirdness about Christianity. A lot of craziness.

Give an example, just to flesh it out.

Oh, you know, the whole beating yourself up…

Have you encountered many people who beat themselves up, apart from the SM scene?

There’s that thing… A lot of the problems that people have with Christianity, it’s just that there’s so much stupidity.

Give me an example.

I know, you want an example of stupidity. That shouldn’t be too hard.

It shouldn’t. If there’s a lot of stupidity, it should be easy.

I think it starts with something that’s not necessarily stupid. Like people have a vague feeling they’re doing something good, or that they become inspired in some way. And then they become like some Bible-thumping nutcase, looking for signs and this, that and the other, or becoming very dogmatic about some things, like the Ten Commandments, and “I’m good and you’re bad”, you know, stupid shit. Like American fundamentalists and that kind of thing. You get a lot of that. People get crazy. Instead of reading somebody like Maximus, they read something like the Book of Revelations. They get all spooky, you know what I mean? End of the World bullshit, you know. There’s a lot of crazy shit. And then there’s all the saints and all the suffering. I mean, Buddha went through a time like that, when he thought… What’s the word for when you give up everything? Renunciation. The Buddhist thing is they’re into renunciation too, but it’s more like renunciation of your delusions, not “you’re not allowed to drink sparkling water”, or some weird shit like that. Anyway, I think Jesus really got misunderstood in a big way.

Does it mean that you think that you understand him?

No, I wouldn’t say I do, but I think Maximus did. And the Philokalia guys, the desert Fathers, they wrote about… What are they doing it for? One of them went out to the desert, and every day he basically just said—What the fuck am I doing here? (Laughs.) Why did I come here? And what they were after, I think, was the knowledge of God. It’s like—what the fuck is that? I think it’s understanding. They were after understanding.

They were after understanding?

Yeah. But I also think that understanding is a thing that you make for yourself.

Well, I can’t get your understanding. I have to understand myself. First person singular.

Yeah.

In one of the conversations you say you are a Buddhist.

I am.

You are? What does that mean for you?

It means that… Well, the difference between a Buddhist and other people is that they… I don’t know, do we have to have this whole thing? I like Buddhism for a lot of reasons.

Well, share. Or is it a secret?

Okay. What do I like about it? The way I got into Buddhism was that I wanted to buy a rug.

A rug? Nepalese, Tibetan?

Yeah, it turned out that was exactly what I bought. I had money, I’d just come back from a tour, I wanted to spend some money, and I’d never had a decent rug in my house, so I was like—I want to buy a rug. So I went to a place with thousands of beautiful rugs, all intricate patterns, this, that and the other. So I started going through them, and what I ended up buying was a rug that was half the size of this table. It looked like a door mat. It was just plain brown, with a little border in a slightly different color than brown. It was all hand-dyed, hand-woven and really, really, beautifully made. But it was the simplest thing, most people would think it was just a door mat. But it wasn’t. It was a rug that the Tibetan refugees made. And then I started to wonder who made it and why, so I googled “Tibet”. (Laughs.)

That’s an outrageous thing to do. (Laughs.)

But googling “Tibet” is like googling “The Vatican”. You know, Tibetan Buddhism comes up with everything else. Buddhism in Tibet is so enculturated over the centuries. Then I found out that there was a center of Tibetan Buddhism in Cleveland where I was living, because one of these Tibetan lamas was, what do you call them, the abbot of a monastery in Tibet before the Chinese came. He was a teenager, you know, like one of those reincarnate lamas whom they go and find since they are two years old. I guess what those guys do when they go to school when they’re young, they memorize these Buddhist scriptures. And he was very good at that, he had memorized books and books of Buddhist writing that were completely lost because of the Chinese. And it turns out that in Cleveland, in one of the universities there’s an academic library of those things. And this Tibetan lama was coming to Cleveland on a regular basis to translate things and fill in the gaps in the books they had lost.

In the originals?

Yeah, so that they knew they had these bits, but didn’t know what came in between. And he had it in memory as a child. So he was spending a lot of time in Cleveland, and he ended up teaching there. There’s a little school there. I went there and started to talk to people about Tibetan Buddhism. And the first thing I found out, and to me it’s the most beautiful thing in the world, was this idea that the Tibetans had that everybody, every being, not just every person, every living thing at one point was your mother in the previous life. That is the core teaching that the guy who brought Buddhism to Tibet, that’s what he taught them. And that was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. But they don’t talk about it too much in America because most people, when you tell them that, think that…

That slug is your mother, that snail is your father.

Exactly. But for the most people that I know the idea of living in a world where every being is your mother is like hell.

(Laughs.) But I love my mom, so for me this idea worked. That’s what hooked me.

And one idea was enough to hook you on Buddhism?

That’s right, one good idea.

That’s strange. And you didn’t find any good ideas in Christianity, reading all those guys? No good ideas, and then this one idea that a slug is your mother?

Ha, ha! Yes!

And it makes all the difference.

Yeah, it does. Yeah, I think it’s a beautiful idea, and it works. It’s an idea that could transform a complete asshole into somebody truly extraordinary.

Do you think it’s a true idea?

Well, I think that’s debatable. To me the most important thing is for it to be a useful idea. That’s more important than being a true idea.

An idea which has a transformative function?

Yeah. If it’s useful, then let it be true. That’s my idea. You know what I mean?

So you belong to the traditional American pragmatism.

Maybe. I think I am a bit of a pragmatist.

Whatever works is true.

Whatever works, if it’s working well, if it’s doing no harm whatsoever—it’s like the most harmless idea I’ve ever heard—then it’s okay. It’s not some crazy idea that justifies something stupid, it’s a totally harmless idea. Harmless is not easy. A totally harmless, wonderful idea. If a person could really take it to heart, a kind of an idea that could transform everything.

Have you seen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man? The documentary about a man who went to live with a grizzly bear?

Ha, ha, yeah! I saw bits of it. And the bear ate him. I liked that part.

Yeah. Him and his girlfriend. But Werner Herzog interviewed his friends, neighbors and relatives, and he asked one of his neighbors—What do you think of the idea to go and live with grizzly bears? And the neighbor says—Yeah, whatever doesn’t scare the cows is okay.

(Laughs.) That’s good.

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Photo: Ansis Starks

I will occasionally refer to your conversations that I have read or heard. Either that or your lyrics. I have no other basis for our conversation. And on one occasion you say that you think very rarely.

Right. Yeah, I know what you mean. I very rarely have… yeah, a thought that matters. That’s true.

And what happens between those…

Very little. (Laughs.)

Very little happens?

I eat, I drink, I sleep, I travel, I do shows, I do money. But every like fifteen years or so I’ll think of something.

But that’s not bad. That means that approximately four times in your life you have had a thought. Three or four.

That might be an exaggeration. Maybe more like once or twice. (Laughs.)

No, but that’s okay. Because as you know, many people don’t even have one.

Yeah, I agree.

Since I assume that to have a thought is a pretty rare and important event, could you recall one or two of them?

We’ve got one, which was not yours, but you encountered a thought that is harmless and has a transformative value.
Obviously, the “everybody’s your mother” was a thing I encountered. But sometimes you have your own thoughts.

That’s what I’m interested in.

Your own thoughts are… Who’s to say that it doesn’t have to do with having met somebody years ago. Who knows where thoughts come from?

Nobody knows.

But everything comes from somewhere, from your life and the people you’ve known.

Do you remember Shantideva? In the first sentence he says—There is nothing new in what I’m writing.

That’s right. Exactly. I love Shantideva. I love Shantideva! He’s like my very favorite.

But let’s go back to the one of the few thoughts in your life.

My thoughts. Okay. I guess what it really is that we’re talking about is a transformative thought that changes your actions.

And the way you look at the world.

So here’s a thought that I had once. I wanted to change. I used to have a street act, where I used to ride around on a big high-rise tricycle in New York with a harp that I bought in Amsterdam. It was basically a tripod on wheels, and it steered like a unicycle, so I could ride and play at the same time. If, sitting here and this was street, right, I could be riding up so the people on one side of the table could see me coming, but you couldn’t. And I could ride up, come right up behind, turn around and start playing the harp, and you wouldn’t even know I was there until you turned around. And there would be someone playing the harp two feet away from you. It was a great act. So I had this amazing street act and I used to go around and make money, basically. It was entertaining, but all I wanted was your money. I would show up at a place like this and I would get a buck out of everybody. It was like a point of honor. My art had become like panhandling almost. There was a sleazy element about it. It was all about “Get the money”. It’s a New York thing—you can joke about money in New York. But you can’t really do that in Europe. In Europe that makes you an asshole American. (Laughs.) But in New York that makes you successful. (Laughs.) So I decided that I had to change my style. My act couldn’t be just about money, it had to be about something else. I wanted it to be theater, but I’d never done theater, I didn’t know how to do that. But I wanted to make a new act. So I had a thought. And my thought was that since I didn’t know how to do what I wanted to do, since I had never done this thing that I wanna do, then the best way to start would be by doing something I never do. (Laughs.) So I thought—Well, what do I never do? I gave it some thought, and I realized that I travel a lot but I was never a tourist, I never went and saw the things that tourists see. So I bought the tour book, I opened it up and do like that, and the attraction that I was sent to was the Anne Frank house.

Where, in Amsterdam?

In Amsterdam, yeah. You know, where she hid behind the bookcase. But I didn’t know that, I didn’t know who Anne Frank was. Americans don’t… I mean, you guys… I don’t even wanna know what happened here during World War  II  (Laughs.)

I understand.

Americans don’t know shit about that. I think there was a point where we were supposed to read about that in school, but I never read, nobody read it. Anyway, I went there…

You went to Amsterdam?

I was already there, I had the thought in Amsterdam.

How long ago was this?

This was the fall of 99. So I went to the Anne Frank house and looked around, it was a very spooky place, and I was interested, so I bought her diary and started reading it, and it was like the end of the world. Because this book really brings it all home for someone who’s clueless about it. I had no sense at all about what happened in World War II.

But when you said “the end of the world”… I can’t follow, why the end of the world?

Well, millions of people died, basically. You can’t really take that in… So yeah, for me it felt like the end of the world as I knew it. It changed everything. Because I wasn’t expecting it. And it all started with having that stupid thought of wanting to start doing something I’d never done before.

When you say that it changed everything, do you mean in terms of your attitude?

Yeah, just inside myself. Of course, it didn’t change anything else.

So you became more compassionate?

No, I became less of an asshole, I’ll put it that way. Maybe. For a while. (Laughs.) Yeah, because you don’t know. In the next lifetime it could be Mein Kampf that you get. (Laughs.)

And you become a little bit bigger asshole after reading Mein Kampf.

Yeah, probably.

For a while. Well, this was a good story about one thought. Have you had any other thoughts in your lifetime?

I have, but it’s hard to remember them.

They were so few? (Laughs.)

Yeah, they were so few, and I’m getting old, I’m starting to lose and forget things. But I remember that one. There were others, but I can’t think of any.

Try.

(Thinks for a moment.) Well, my last epiphany in life was kind of a dark one. After that all of a sudden I was able to write music. I wanted to write music all my life, but it didn’t happen until I had that encounter with Anne Frank.

Really?

All of a sudden I started to write music. I’d written songs before, but they were stupid “get a buck out of you on the street” kind of songs, you know. And so I wrote all these things, and then it sort of ended. I was still writing songs, but they had taken a much darker turn. The lyrics were very dark. And I was writing a song about… It was kind of a dark view about Christianity.

It can’t get much darker than saying that “God has gone mad” or that “Jesus was beating my mother”.

Actually it could, much darker. Because those didn’t come from the dark.

Those were coming from a joking mood?

No, not joking neither, but they were coming from a place of great sorrow, but not negativity. But then I got to a place… You know, there is the thing that everybody loves. Like when you hear Mozart, some beautiful things, and you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. And that’s always beautiful, right? But there’s a version of that that’s not beautiful at all. Where you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry, but the laughter is cruel, and the tears are bitter. It’s like the dark version of it. I was writing a song that was basically that. And it was… Oh, it was just really dark.

Which one was it?

A song called Fresh Out of Candles.

That’s what I was thinking.

It’s a very dark song. Because it’s about Saint Blaise. Saint Blaise was… When I was a kid, which was not that long ago, they would bless your throat. They’d take candles and they’d bless your throat.

They do so in the Catholic Church?

They used to. Well, they probably still do in some. And that would keep the kid from choking. Saint Blaise, that was one of his miracles: some kid was choking on a bone or something, and he blessed his throat, and the kid was okay. When I was a little kid, the saints were still going strong. They would line us all up and bless our throats with candles, like a big pair of scissors, and that was supposed to prevent you from choking to death.

For a while.

(Laughs.) Until next year, right? You’d have to do it again every year.

But coming back to the dark epiphany. The song was growing out of that dark epiphany?

The song was growing from that darkness, yeah. You see, there was a lot of darkness in my father. My father had died by that time, and I felt almost like I’d been possessed, or that I was giving voice to my father.

To his anger?

To his being, his story. And he had that kind of very harsh view. My grandmother was a very religious lady who’d go to church every day, right? And my father was always making fun of her piety or whatever. When he’d do something mean to you, he’d say—well, offer it to the poor souls in the purgatory! (Laughs.) In other words, he was saying the kind of things that my grandmother would say, but in a really negative, darkly humorous way. It was kinda coming from that. It was sort of seeing the people end up in those places.

You mean those dark places?

Dark places. People live in those places. People live their entire lives in those dark places, and my father was one of those people. Anyway, this thing about being fresh out of candles, that’s the kind of thing that he would say. And then I had this epiphany. And the epiphany was like—you know what? You want a “Fresh out of candles”? That’s it. There’s no more big epiphanies for you. You’re done. This is it. This is the end of the road. (Laughs.) It was like the voice of God that said—Yeah. Nothing there. (Laughs.) So that’s what that song came out of. And also the imagery of my father and his life, the shit that happened and stuff like that. But there was also things like the saints gone bad. And so it came from all these images from my childhood where Superman, you know, the guy who played Superman on television, he committed suicide.

He did?

Yeah, he killed himself. And when you’re like five years old and you find out that Superman took his own life, you know… (Laughs.) Right? And then at the same time they had this Vatican council thing, and they decided to get rid of all the saints. So they’re like lugging all the saints in the church basement where they’re left to gather dust for the next century. (Laughs.) So that was my world. As a child, that was what I was seeing.

Superman committing suicide and saints going to the basement.

Yeah, that’s right. The saints gone bad. So that’s what that song is about. That’s my epiphany. My inner realization is that I am fresh out of candles.

But apparently that wasn’t the final epiphany, because you seem to have some hope.

Yeah.

Where do you get the hope from? On what it is based, your hope?

Ooh, that’s a hard one, because…

You remember the beginning of Dante’s hell? It says—leave all hope…

Yeah, abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Yeah. But I think the problem is that I have a tendency to abandon all hope. That’s like the natural tendency. To not abandon all hope is an unnatural act.

Unnatural for you?

Yeah, that’s what I think. It’s unnatural for me. I’ve left my own devices, and I’ll go “Wooo” down the hole of hopelessness. I think so… I don’t know where exactly hope comes from. I think it comes in words sometimes.

In words?

In words, yeah. Like I wrote all these songs. The slugs, right? The slug that’s your mom. I tend to write from the viewpoint of… I don’t write about things, I write from things. I give the voice to the thing that I’m writing about. Know what I mean?

Makes sense.

So when I’m writing the slug, then I’m the slug. If I’m writing a song about a stick, then I’m a stick. And when you start from such a place, to do it well, you have to really be the slug or the stick. In order to really be that, you kinda have to abandon all hope in a sense. You have to allow yourself to go to a dark place. And if you’re imagining the light at the end of the tunnel or if you’re imagining the happy ending, then you’re not gonna be able to go to the dark place. You have to take the happy ending out of the equation and just go forward into the darkness, you know what I mean? So for example, to make it concrete, I wrote a song about the slug. And the lyric was something like I count the ages by the night and never by the day, For I cannot perceive the light. That’s what it was. And that’s as far as I got, that’s where I was left. That was my arrival, that’s where the song ended for me. And then it was kind of a hard time. I didn’t get any more words. That’s where it ended. And then like a year later the words came to finish that couplet or whatever that is: “For I cannot perceive the light, except in gentle ways.” And that was something nice that I’d arrived at. But it wasn’t stupid nice, because I went to that dark place and I stayed there for a year. So I deserved to have a little glimmer after that, you know what I mean? For me that’s hopeful in a realistic way. For me hope has to be realistic for it to be any good. And hope is unrealistic by its nature.

Sounds to me that if you are naturally inclined to hopelessness…

Yes! (Laughs.)

But then there should be some artificial effort to get out of that natural hopelessness.

This is funny, because it’s not really artificial. Because it was real.

That “gentle light” came naturally?

That came naturally, but what was hard, what’s artificial for me was to become the slug. That’s artificial. Because I’m not a slug, I’m a human being. But it’s possible to go there. That’s the kind of artificiality, that’s like being an actor or something. But where I really got to was a real place in myself that was real hopeless. You know what I mean? For me to say that I cannot perceive the light. But I wasn’t cut out for that. I wasn’t cut out for anything but hopelessness. And it’s not something to embrace, but sort of something to see, to see what’s true. I mean, it’s true about the slugs, they were not made to lay out in the sun. But there is that little bit of light… I mean the real epiphany there is that teeny-weeny bit of light. It’s a beautiful thing.

I understand that you occasionally have used a shrink in your life.

The only time I saw a shrink, and that was for a period about maybe three or four years during the time that I was transitioning. I started out male, and now I’m legally female.

Legally female? What does that mean?

That means that in my passport it says I’m a girl. That means you have to be nice to me. (Laughs.)

I’m trying, I’m trying!

So anyway, during that time, during that process I saw a shrink. I saw really quite a good shrink. A good guy. I saw one good one and many bad ones.

A good shrink? I was sure that shrinks are for stupid Americans. But maybe I’m mistaken.

Ha, ha, ha! No, there are good ones. But you’re right, there are a lot of ones that are totally made for stupid Americans.

What was the good thing you got out of meeting a shrink? Any ideas?

No, not ideas. I think I got some obvious self-knowledge of who I was.

Obvious self-knowledge? Self-knowledge that was obvious to you?

Yeah, because I’m transgender, right?

I don’t know what that means.

That means that I’m not like the other guys. That means I’m a girl in my head. When I was a little kid, when I was a little boy, I perceived myself as female and kind of did all the way through. Except that’s not allowed in my culture in my time. And so I wasn’t able to be myself basically.

I can’t imagine what it means—to feel myself as a female. When you are, say, nine years old. What does it mean?

Actually it’s usually earlier than that. You just don’t feel at home in your body. You feel like you don’t belong in your body. And you become aware that other people do.

You look at your body and it feels alien to you?

Yeah. That’s the sort of thing that all transgender people have in common.

I have encountered stories about people who don’t feel at home in body, but not in a gender. Well, it’s just… The body is uncomfortable. Plotinus, 3rd century. To get into this body is somehow uncomfortable for me. And why do you translate this discomfort, I’d say, spiritual discomfort, why do you translate it into the gender category?

Because it feels very much like that. Because when you’re a little kid and you look at the girls and think—I should be one of them, I shouldn’t be me, it all feels wrong. With most people it’s taken for granted. I mean, you’re right, for somebody who’s comfortable with their gender, for whom it’s never been an issue, they can’t get it because it’s not an issue. But when it is an issue, then all of a sudden it just feels wrong.

It doesn’t feel wrong to be in a body, it feels wrong to be in this particular kind of body?

Yeah, that’s right.

But have you ever had the feeling that it’s uncom­fortable to be in any body?

I can grant you that, it’s uncomfortable to be in any body.

Male or female, they are all uncomfortable.

The gender thing really is hard to explain, and it’s good that you look at it that way. But for me probably the happiest moment of my life was after I had the surgery. They do shit to you, to your body that would make 99.9% of the men in the world howl. (Laughs.)

And it goes on for several months, as I understand? It’s not like…

It takes a lot of time, yeah. Anyway, it was the happiest moment of my life. I was absolutely rapturously happy, and I felt at home within my body, and I’ve never lost that in a sense.

That’s interesting. For me the metaphor of not being at home in one’s body, of course, uses the old dualistic categories. There is something like me, and then there is the body. In ancient traditions you always encountered something along the lines that the soul has no gender. It’s neither male nor female.

I don’t know if it’s true.

But it’s true in the texts.

I think so. Another one of the nice things about Buddhism is that they talk about that nothing is real. But people’s suffering is real to them. So you can’t go around saying that nothing is real when someone is suffering. Their suffering is real because it’s real to them.

You can’t go around saying that it’s only an illusion of shit happening.

And you certainly can’t say that to people to whom the shit is happening. (Laughs.)

I recently met a Stanford professor of History of Science. And he said that one good thing about America is that it has shown by example that money may be enough for happiness. The bad thing about America is that it lacks sensitivity for existential human drama.

For what?

Existential human drama.

Existential human drama is hard for me.

Well, it is hard for me as well.

I’m not sure what that is. Maybe that’s because I’m American. (Laughs.)

You don’t have that sensitivity. (Laughs.)

People could be existentially dramatic all around me, and I just wouldn’t get it, everything would seem perfectly normal. Because I’m an American. (Laughs.) There’s a lot of things in there, like money solving everybody’s problems. It doesn’t quite work. I mean, it’s nice to have money, but it certainly doesn’t make life easy. People with money are just as fucked up as people without money.

People simply are fucked up independently of their financial status?

I think it’s safe to say that’s true, yeah.

What fucks up people, apart from themselves?

Their actions. It’s a Buddhist view, and I agree with that.

But that basically means that we are fucking up ourselves. Nobody else but us.

That’s kind of an extreme view. I kind of agree with it, but I don’t go around telling people—All of your problems you’re causing yourself. But I do tell me that.

You use it like some kind of self-therapy?

Yeah. It’s useful for yourself, but it’s very un-useful when you apply it to others. Very un-useful, very not good to go around telling people—well, you brought it on yourself by doing all kinds of bad shit in your previous life! And that’s why everybody is shitting on you in this one.

Why does shit happen?

Well, the Buddhist view is that shit doesn’t happen. The “shit happens” thing is a hopeless remark in a sense. It doesn’t leave much room to do anything about anything. If shit happens, then you’re at the mercy of everything. The idea that shit happens to me, if I see it as the consequences of my own actions, either in the present, or in the past, in this life or the previous one, then it’s not shit happening anymore, it’s consequences, and the way I deal with them can change things for the better. I can’t do anything about the shit that happens, like if I get cancer or whatever, but I do have control over the way I handle it. If I handle it badly, then I get more bad consequences. If I handle it with grace and try not to be an asshole, then good consequences will eventually come from that. I mean it’s like Maximus when they cut off his hand and take out his tongue, was that shit happening?

I doubt that such a thought crossed his mind—oh, shit happens. (Laughs.) Imagine, St. Maximus…

That’s what his friends would say. (Makes mumbling noises.)—So what? Shit happens, Maximo! (Laughs.)

Don’t you miss trees?

Sometimes, yeah. I dreamt about trees last night.

You did? In Riga, last night?

Just last night here at the hotel I dreamt about trees, yeah. I was back in the trees. Oh, yeah, because last night I was talking about it with the promoter here. I loved being up in a tree. I’ve always loved being up high.

For how many years have you been climbing them?

Maybe five or six years.

It was the first time I encountered the phrase “tree surgeon”.

Actually a tree surgeon is an old fashioned thing. They used to call guys who’d cut down trees tree surgeons. I don’t know where that came from in America. In England they still call it that. But I wasn’t a tree surgeon at any stretch. That’s like the difference between a doctor and a butcher. (Laughs.)

So you were with the butchers?

I was more of a tree butcher. I mean, you trim trees, you don’t cut them all down. Sometimes you just cut a branch off, and you do it in a nice way that’s good for a tree. So we did that too. But for the most part we specialized in big take-downs. I did a lot of them, I cut down a lot of trees. But always in pieces. From the top down.

In a city?

Yeah. There’s buildings and wires, and shit like that, so you can’t just “shht”. Yeah, it was a wonderful job, I loved it, I really did. But I’m glad I don’t do it any more, it got hard.

Physically hard?

Physically? Oh, man, I don’t know if I could. I couldn’t get up a tree to save my life. Physically hard. But I was in great shape.

But it’s such a male job.

It is a male job.

And when I thought that you did it even after you were legally a woman, a thought came through me that maybe you are not simply a woman or not simply a man, you are sort of both. Male and female, they are both present in you.

I think I’m a girl who’s kinda butch, a tough girl. There are girls who are like boys, who hang out with the boys, who can throw a ball. So I guess I’m one of those girls.

One dark thing which I’m trying to understand—you spoke about the epiphany, and I now remember the lyrics of that song. There appears to be something that you realize that it’s a sin to pray.

Oh, yeah. “A sin to hope, a sin to pray, people go there, people end up there.”

End up in a situation when it’s a sin to pray?

Yeah, and it is.

Could you describe such a situation?

That’s not hard at all, look at all these assholes.

Which assholes?

The assholes that pray a lot. (Laughs.) Look at the people who cut Maxim’s hand off and ripped his tongue out. They thought they were doing God’s work. I’m sure they prayed. I’m sure they said some mumbo-jumbo before they did that. People get to very bad places.

And a sin to hope?

When the hope’s not grounded, realistic. Stupid hope is a sin. People talk about stupid generosity. I don’t think there is such a thing as stupid generosity. But there’s certainly such a thing like stupid hope, hope that’s not realistic. Hope should be real.

What’s your hope in the face of death?

That’s a good one. I have to think about that. (Thinks.) I think my hope, and I’m not sure how realistic it is, is that I could hold on to something. I think there’s a thing that happens when you die, where you’re at the mercy of your actions.

Your previous actions?

Yeah, everything, you’re at the mercy of yourself—of your own actions, of your own ability to remember not to be an asshole. People can be really nice and lovely, and then five minutes later they will be a complete fucking asshole. That’s my impression of me, that’s what I’m like. And why should anything be different when I die? That’s what I’m afraid of. My hope is that I’m not a complete fucking asshole after I’m dead. That’s the worst thing. (Laughs.) There you go, that’s my hope. That I’m not an asshole when I’m dead—that’s a great song! (Sings.) Oh, I hope I’m not an asshole when I’m dead!

Last question. In the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism the last thought, the one before the consciousness enters the intermediary state, is decisive. What would be the last thought that you would want to have?

I would want it to be not so much a thought, I would love to leave life really perceiving every living thing around me as being my mother. That would be wonderful.

Questions by Arnis Rītups

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