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State of the Dana - Fall 2016

So I've written a bunch of angsty-ass stuff in the past couple three years, and nobody should be surprised, since existential dread is basically one of the four trans girl food groups (the other three being prescription drugs, knee socks, and glitter).

Well, good news, everyone! No more trangst for Dana!

I had my last major(-ish) surgery in August - body contouring - and it's pretty much cleared up the last of my dysphoria. Electro is winding down, too; I no longer need to go for an hour-plus every week. I'm officially off spiro barring a huge T spike, so no more constant trips to the bathroom. Last (and certainly not least) dilation is down to less than once a day, so it's not eating my life anymore.

Even better than that: our first child is due in March and I'm getting ready to breastfeed, I've been given a management position at work, and I've joined an honest-to-goodness roller derby team.

I'm officially sticking a fork in my transition: for all intents and purposes, it's done. I'm a girl now - a big, gay, bad-ass mama tech bitch on wheels, to be precise.

Y'all better get the hell outta my way.

On Persistence

♫ Hercules Mulligan
I need no introduction
When you knock me down
I get the fuck back up again ♫

-- Hercules Mulligan, Hamilton

This past Sunday I went to my first official Rat City practice and got my ass kicked.

When I say I got my ass kicked, I don't mean a bunch of big scary girls beat me up - though I'm sure that's gonna happen at some point. No, I did it to myself. We ran pyramid sprints between two sets of cones with a toe-stop at each end - there, there-and-back, there-and-back-and-there, all the way up to eight segments and back down to one.

Note: I suck at toe stops.

The whistle blew. I ran out, turned, and wiped out. Then I got up, sprinted, turned, and wiped out. Then I got up and did it again, and again, and again. I think I ate shit about ten times over the course of the drill, landing hard at least three, but I got up every time, dusted myself off, and finished. Some of my stops even looked half-decent by the end.

I could have quit after the first hard fall, or the second, or the third. I was slower than everyone else. I looked like a complete tool in front of everyone.

But I wasn't about to let a bruised body - or ego - stop me from finishing the practice. We went on to other stuff that I sucked less at, but I think I made my point. I was the new girl; I wasn't very good yet, but I was persistent.

...

Transition is pain. Trans girls don't tell you this very often, mostly because we don't want to draw attention to the fact that we're trans, but transition is pain. Emotional pain, yes - dysphoria, isolation, humiliation, the full brunt of our emotions after having testosterone to dull them our entire lives. But also very real physical pain.

I dilate twice a day for 20+ minutes a pop. I jam a series of hard plastic wands into my vagina to stretch the skin and keep the scar tissue from contracting. The sensation varies from merely uncomfortable to excruciating.

I do electro every week. If you've ever gotten a tattoo, imagine that, but on your face, for as much as four hours every week for literally years (I think my record was ten hours in one week). And you have to do genitals for about a year too if you're gonna have bottom surgery.

I've been under the knife for a total of 12 hours, with months and months of recovery after each go.  I've had my face literally taken off and put back on again. I've had my genitals sliced, diced, inverted, and stuck back in me.

I did all of that because my choice is to give up and die, or grit my teeth and endure. I endure.

Nothing that happens to me in derby can be as bad as having my first wife turn on me after ten years together. Nothing can be as bad as losing my home. Nothing can be as bad as four hours of electrified needles in the face every week for a year. Nothing can be as bad as being constantly misgendered. Nothing can be as bad as the recovery from bottom surgery; as three days of lying flat on my back with nothing to eat or drink. Heck, nothing can be as bad as shoving the big dilator in and twisting when I'm already raw from that morning and exhausted and would rather just fucking pass out.

None of that shit ever made me give up. Nothing in derby can, either.

...

Transition is pain, but it's also time. We give up lives and relationships we've built over the course of years. We spend time away from work on medical stuff; we spend time away from our lives recovering from surgery. Even mundane stuff like dilation is a huge time sink - at one point I was spending three hours a day just on that, and it's still close to an hour.

I've had to start my life again in my mid thirties, with fewer hours in my day because just being trans takes up so much damn time.

I don't have the luxury to stop and take a breather every time I fall down. I don't have the luxury to be able to sit and nurse my bruises, or to skip a practice. I don't have the luxury to do anything other than go at full speed, all of the time, even if that means that sometimes I fall down hard.

Don't be surprised to see me fall. Just remember: when you knock me down, I get the fuck back up again.

The Plight of the Sport Utility Girl

(a meditation on being a woman trapped in a trans woman's body)

Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was one of the first large orchestral works to break the mold of Romantic composition. It freely ignored notions of tone and meter that had dominated Western music for centuries; flouted rules even the most avant-garde of composers had previously only had the temerity to bend.

The first public performance ended in a brawl.

I am not an English horn

That's an interesting story, but we'll save it for another time. I told it in order to tell you this one: the score itself starts with a solo by a double-reed instrument. Most people hearing the work for the first time would assume it's being played by an English horn or even an alto saxophone. It's actually a bassoon, playing in the extreme upper register, in such a way that it sounds nothing like the instrument is supposed to. It's also painfully difficult for all but the most accomplished bassoonists to perform. A common joke among musicians is that the lyrics for the solo are: "I am not an English horn - this part's too high for me - I am not an English horn!"

Most people assume that when I speak, my voice is higher because of hormone replacement. Many will comment that it sounds low for a woman, whether or not they know I'm trans. In reality, HRT doesn't affect the voice at all. Before my transition I sang bass and had a speaking voice below the normal range for most men; now I'm having to push myself up to the very top of my range to even read as androgynous.

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction:
The truth is, I'm a bassoon, but I'm trying real hard to be an English Horn.

(Also, like the Rite of Spring, I am constantly reminded that any of my own public performances have the potential to end in a brawl.)

Right panels, wrong frame

There's a story about the origin of the sport utility vehicle in the U.S. The car-buying public wanted something sexier than a station wagon; sportier than a minivan. Car manufacturers were in a bind - they could design such a vehicle, but it wouldn't pass the fuel-economy standards of the time. So they figured out a way around those standards: build a car (a station wagon, really) on a light truck chassis, so that it would only have to follow the (much less stringent) emissions requirements for trucks.

The new Frankenstein creations were big and muscular with lots of cargo room, but they were effectively just cars with bigger tires and a higher roof-line. They burned more fuel, were more prone to tipping in tight turns... and people loved them.

One of the challenges with transitioning later in life is that the older the body, the less malleable the flesh is. Facial features become more masculine, shoulders get wider, and cartilage fuses into bone. A woman transitioning in her early teens goes through puberty normally as a girl and (post-SRS) doesn't look any different naked than her cis peers. If she transitions in her late teens or early 20s she'll be taller, with masculine facial structure and broader shoulders, but she'll also have decent breasts and hips. After that... well, it's a crapshoot, but don't expect too much body remodeling without the intervention of a good plastic surgeon.

That's where I am, of course. I'm basically an athletic, teenage woman wrapped around a 30-something dude's skeleton. I'm a car on a truck chassis - a Sport Utility Girl.

Flip this body!

And that's something I struggle with. In an ideal world, getting my hormone balance right would be enough to put me at peace with my body. In the real world, I need to pass as female in order to be able to function in society.

Since my facial surgery, makeup and the right clothes can get me most of the way there. So I can go out in public, interact with other people, be gendered correctly the vast majority of the time, and basically just live my life. More than that, I'm in a stable relationship with a person who likes the way I look even with my clothes off.

If all of that is true, why am I still unhappy with my body?

There's a few reasons I can think of:

  • It's hard for trans women not to see their old bodies in the mirror, even after big changes
  • I'm somewhat limited in what I can wear and still maintain a feminine silhouette
  • I'm not as appealing to as wide a range of potential partners as I could be (I'm in an open relationship, so this is still relevant)
  • It's hard not to compare myself to other women; I know I'm an outlier in terms of body shape and it's hard to be different even if that different isn't necessarily bad or unattractive
  • I'm attracted to women, so I'm constantly evaluating my body in terms of what I personally find appealing

It's that last one that sucks the most. It sucks because it plays into the old canard of "autogynephilia", invented to erase gay trans women. It sucks because I know that some of the things I like in other women's bodies are also things they might hate (we're all taught to hate our bodies to one degree or another). It sucks because I'm the last person who should care how I look since I can't actually date myself, and there are plenty of queer girls out there who find me attractive and who are willing to date me.

It sucks because I have the means to fix pretty much everything remaining that's "wrong" with my body if I want to, so the temptation is always there.

Mostly it sucks because I want to love my body. Most days I do. I'm tall; I'm strong; I've got cool hair and - since the surgery at least - I'm not all that hard on the eyes. But I don't love my body every day. Sometimes I can't not think about the ways it's failed me; how if I'd only known in high school or college I'd have been so much closer to my goal with so much less work. And I don't know what to do about that.

I just want to be happy. We'll see if I can find that happiness inside myself. If not, what's a few more hours under the scalpel, right?

The Stamina Bar Model of Emotional Energy

A lot of people talk about the Spoons Model of Disability (and more recently, the Forks Model), and I know a lot of folks (disabled and non) who apply the principles to describe their own lives. I have talked about being "low on spoons"; some might call this appropriative but I think it applies to a lot of us for whom the demands of life routinely exceed the available supply of energy.

Stamina bar
The stamina bar is the yellow half-circle on the right.

Recently, though, I've come to prefer a new model inspired by the stamina/mana bar from Dragon Age: Origins. In this game, anything interesting you do consumes stamina, so if you're planning on not getting eaten by Darkspawn you need to make sure your characters have a constant supply.

Emotional energy is a bit like that. We've each got a budget to spend on stuff like motivating ourselves to be productive, giving love and care to our friends and family, and making good choices for our own well-being. What happens when we run out is different for different people, but we've all been in a situation where we've had difficulty getting out of our pajamas or resisting that free donut at work or not snapping at an acquaintance over something minor. Science backs me up on this - studies have shown that we each possess a limited amount of willpower and are more likely to make short-sighted, comfort-seeking decisions when we're spent.

The thing is, people lead stressful lives. Everyone has their challenges. But most people have a pretty decent reservoir of stamina to draw from - plenty for the normal day-to-day, at least.

So what's the problem? Activated vs. sustained abilities

In Dragon Age, there are two kinds of abilities a character can use. Activated abilities are one-time and use up a chunk of stamina. If you have enough, you can use the ability, and maybe later you can use it again. In the Stamina Bar Model, activated abilities are things like "shave my legs today" or "choose something healthy for lunch" or "ignore my annoying co-worker" or "pay attention during this meeting". Again, most people have more than enough stamina to do most of these things most of the time, to the point where they don't think much about it.

But there's another kind of ability that's just as crucial for winning the game - sustained abilities. Sustained abilities aren't a one-time use of stamina. When they're turned on, they sequester a portion of your pool, effectively reducing your total. In the Stamina Bar Model, anything you're constantly dealing with is a sustained ability. Obviously, if you've got a physical or mental illness, you're got a really expensive sustained ability that you need to always have on just to function. But being able to go out into a busy space if you're introverted or have social anxiety is also a sustained ability. Dealing with the constant micro- (and macro-) agressions that come with being a minority, woman, visibly LGBTQ person, etc. is, too. So is having to worry about the rent, or how you're going to feed your children.

A sustained ability
A sustained ability (Dragon Age II)

A lot of us don't have the luxury of using our entire stamina bar, because we need to have a bunch of sustained abilities up just to be able to function. For example, the "IDGAF Field" I need to be able to go out in public presenting female when I don't pass is a huge chunk of my stamina bar, which is why I don't do it very often (and deeply admire the women who do and still manage to live their lives).

Living with chronically low stamina

Everyone develops coping mechanisms to deal with stamina drain. Some people overeat. Some smoke, some watch trash TV or procrastinate on their household chores or surf the web when they should be working. People with big pools find a way to strike a balance so they almost never get too low, because getting low can be bad - like, having a breakdown in public bad.

People with chronic illness, or for whom going out in public is unpleasant or dangerous, or who have constant life struggles don't have that luxury. They're constantly running near empty; constantly having to make compromises.

You don't always know how much stamina you have left, but you can usually tell when you're about to run out. I tend to find myself becoming unfocused and irritable, or craving junk food. But most people who have to deal with chronically low stamina have coping mechanisms - they comfort-eat, they retreat from social situations, they allow themselves to drop a few sustained abilities and buy that little bit of extra juice to get themselves through the rest of the day. But this makes them less productive and less fun to be around (if they're around at all) so there's a social and economic cost to it.

Because gods forbid you that don't notice you're getting low; that you actually get to zero. That's panic attack, emotional outburst, crying in public, making-a-total-scene territory right there. And yeah sometimes you get to that place (or close to it) without realizing it and all of a sudden you're all in Emergency Shutdown Mode trying to keep from just completely losing it.

big-red-button-brb

Accommodating people with chronically low stamina

The biggest takeaways from this whole thing, I think, are that (a) some people just have a smaller reservoir of energy available, (b) it's often due to external factors beyond their control, and (c) some of them have built up coping mechanisms to deal with it. It doesn't mean they're weak-willed (often they'll have built up very big stamina bars or fast regeneration just to be able to function!) or bad people, just that they've got other shit draining them and have to let something go. Maybe they smoke or overeat as a coping mechanism. Maybe they're angry because they're constantly dealing with microagressions and don't have the energy to let yours just roll off. Maybe they don't want to hang out or aren't very good company because they're emotionally exhausted and literally can't muster it.

The best things you can do for people in this situation are:

  • Don't judge
  • Offer support even if they don't ask for it; sometimes asking can be difficult
  • ... but leave them alone if that's what they need
  • Understand if they're hurting - don't take things personally; be as charitable as you can
  • If they're using up too much of your own stamina bar, it's okay to back off; remember that you don't owe anyone your time or energy

Running on air

Wile E. Coyote, realizing he's walked off a cliff and waiting for gravity to kick inIf you've ever watched the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you'll recognize this image: every other episode or so, Road Runner would trick Wile E. Coyote into running off a cliff. And because of cartoon physics, gravity wouldn't kick in until a split second after he noticed he was no longer running on solid ground.

It's kind of an awful moment, and one we've all had in our own lives (metaphorically, of course - I don't expect anyone reading this will have fallen off a cliff). Every one of us has had a time when we've suddenly realized that we've done something with serious repercussions and that it's only a matter of time - seconds, hours, days, maybe years - until gravity kicks in and we finally fall to our doom.

That's how the past six months have felt for me. I knew I was running off a cliff but I did it anyway. Now I'm frantically pumping my legs, hoping to get to the other side before Mother Nature decides she's got it in for me after all and I plummet to the bottom of the canyon. I've been extraordinarily lucky so far, with an understanding workplace, accepting friends, and a supportive family. The air is still feeling mighty solid under my feet.

And yet there are a million ways it could go wrong. I could lose my job. I could get sick or get in an accident. My car could break down. Pretty much anything that keeps me from getting to the surgery I'm planning for the end of the year - surgery that will mark the end of the most dangerous segment of my transition - could derail my life and send me into a spiral of poverty and discrimination that I might never emerge from. For that matter, the surgery itself could be botched, though I shudder to even consider what that would mean.

All it would take would be for one thing to go wrong and gravity would kick in, full force.

I'm one of the lucky ones.

Continue reading Running on air

On being your own medical advocate

You know your body better than anyone else does -
even your doctor.

I was recently reminded why this is so important.

My endocrinologist and I have been working on getting my hormones to what she considers to be optimal levels. Testosterone was easy; my body never wanted to produce it in the first place and my levels were low (even for a woman) after only a few months of therapy.

Estradiol, the primary female hormone.
Estradiol, the primary female hormone.

Estrogen has been a little bit stickier. Taking the maximum safe dose of oral estradiol, my levels are still about 40% lower than what she'd like. Because of that, at our last visit we decided to try switching from oral delivery to a transdermal patch. On paper it seemed like a perfect idea; the patch is a more reliable delivery method and (theoretically) has fewer side effects.

So I switched. And in a couple of days I was feeling like absolute crap. Anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, progressing to full-on depression - inside a week I was feeling like I had before I'd started hormone replacement. A lot of the physical symptoms of transition were fading, too (I won't get into details there, but trust me).

Continue reading On being your own medical advocate

How being a geek prepared me for my transition.

The media we consume help to shape our worldviews. That's a scientifically-proven fact.

A lot of people describe gender transition as long and difficult and generally unpleasant. That's also a fact - there are fits and starts and lots of awkwardness and it's easy to become impatient with the whole thing. I can't say I'm completely immune to that stress, but being a geek has certainly put me in a place where the process is manageable. Here's what my geekdom has taught me:

We are not our bodies.

Geek media is full of transhumanism. As long as I can remember I've been absorbing stories about people who replace parts of their bodies, transform into fantastical creatures, or escape their physical forms entirely.

More importantly, these things are often seen as conscious decisions. In Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, Kusanagi is reminded by her teammates that she'd be a more formidable fighter if she chose a male prosthetic body. She tells them that she might one day but for now she enjoys being female (and let's face it, she's plenty effective as she is). Why shouldn't we also choose the bodies we want? Why wouldn't we?

When Tony Stark's body is made useless by a terrorist mastermind, he effectively builds himself a new one. Out of scraps. In a cave. In Afghanistan. When there's something wrong with your body, you fix it. A heart is hard to replace, but gender... that's practically a DIY project. You don't need to be a nuclear physicist or world-famous inventor to understand hormone replacement - just GTS and talk to your friendly neighborhood doctor.

100%-ing anything requires patience and perseverance.

I've got a friend who is playing through Final Fantasy Tactics. He's hacked the game to make all the characters into his friends, and he's picked builds which he things will make the characters reflect our personalities. (Evidently, I'm a Priest/Time Mage, but whatever.)

Watching him play, one of the things I am reminded of is how in JRPGs improving your characters often involves downgrading them now so you can upgrade them later. You might have to put a character into a lousy job or equip them with a crappy weapon in order for them to learn a powerful new skill. Sometimes you put your party into a state where they're struggling with even simple fights, often through hours and hours of grinding - but when it's done you can do amazing things and defeat any challenge.

Transition is no different than switching jobs in Tactics. At first you lose access to some of your old skills; everything is harder; you might have to run from some fights that you could have breezed through before. But you also see the progress bar ticking up every day. You watch the new skills and abilities light up. And eventually you max out the new job, pick your best skills from both classes, and kick butt for the rest of the game.

Transition makes you you, not someone else.

I don't recommend reading anything by Piers Anthony but if you have to, you could do worse than the award-winning A Spell for Chameleon, the first novel in his Xanth YA fantasy series.

Magician Trent's power is to transform any living thing into any other living thing. In the story, he transforms an ally, Bink, into a sphinx. He explains that he hasn't transformed Bink into an average sphinx, nor into some Platonic ideal of a sphinx, but rather into a "Bink-Sphinx" - a creature that only Bink could become. And if you read the book, you'll find out that Bink-Sphinx is pretty frickin' awesome.

When we transition, a lot of us look at the women around us and imagine we will (or should) look and act like them. That's one of the most harmful things we can do because it sets completely the wrong expectations. I'm not going to transform into the average gal I pass on the street. I'm not going to transform into the woman I would have been if I'd been born with two X chromosomes. I'm going to be the woman that only I could have become - the "Dave-Dana", if you will.

XX-Dana would probably have been shorter, slighter, girlier, probably straighter. Sure, she'd probably have been prettier, too. But you know what? I'm never going to be that person. I'm going to be tall, athletic, queer, butch. I'm going to be more handsome than pretty. And what I've come to realize - and appreciate - is that that's also pretty awesome. I've learned to embrace the body, voice, personality, and lifestyle I'm going to get to have. I'm looking forward to being Dave-Dana, because she's also going to be pretty frickin' awesome.

Though she is highly unlikely to fight any dragons...

[Note: I ended up turning out femme and reasonably pretty. That's what you get for engaging in speculation way before the fact. --Ed.]

I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

Foreword

This is a post I wrote last winter, after I had made the decision not to transition.  I was saving it for a time when I had fought through the worst part of the depression and was open enough about being trans that I felt comfortable sharing it.

That time never came.  Instead, it's April and I'm a good quarter of the way to being a girl.  Life is odd like that sometimes.  But it would be a waste to throw away a heartfelt accounting of my experiences over the past year, so I decided to resurrect and rewrite the post in the context of everything that's happened since.  Enjoy!

I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

I never thought it would happen to me.  Not at this age.  But if I go back to the beginning that'll take forever.  So, let's start more recently...

♫ Tiiiime is on my side... ♫

Continue reading I wanna tell you about the time I almost died

Morning Roundup

A few things, personal, political, and just general:

We had to euthanize my cat Boss last week.  He had been in renal failure for well over a year, but it was a tumor that finally got him.  We'd been doing everything we could for him, including giving him subcutaneous fluids every other day, putting all sorts of medications in his food, and just generally babying him.  He was feisty to the end.  I like to think that he didn't suffer much; his behavior only really changed the last week or so before we took him to the vet.  Anyway, I'll miss him a lot.  He was a really, really good cat.

It's been a weird weekend.  Karen starts two weeks of night shifts, during which I won't see her very much, so of course the in-laws were here this weekend and I had a concert to play in, making it as difficult as possible to get any alone time together.  What we had we made the most of, though, for which I am very grateful.  We saw Captain Phillips together last night, and it was a very good movie, which brings me to my next point...

Watching Captain Phillips reminded me that the biggest differences between us and the Somalians are that (a) we can afford the trappings of civilization and (b) we have bigger guns and way scarier people than they do.  That is a fact that should not be overlooked - a lot of the horror that takes place in developing nations is borne of desperation, not a desire to harm or terrorize people.  Conversely, the fact that the Navy are the good guys comes from the fact that we Americans - and by extension our military - buy into a modern, egalitarian, patriotic narrative.  The best way to make the world a better place is, therefore, not to kill all the bad guys, but rather to make it a fair, equitable place where good government and responsible power are possible.

One more state joins the 21st Century!  Fifteen down, thirty-five to go.

Finally, I've figured out what it is about Google+ browser interface versus the G+ Hangouts Android app that drives me crazy:

  • With Hangouts in the browser, a green bar means a person is online, and bold means there are unread messages from that person.
  • On mobile, bold means they're online and a green speech bubble on their profile pic means... something (I honestly have no clue).

WTF, Google?

 

The engineering vs. the sales mindset, or "how to avoid impostor syndrome"

One time at a place I worked our CEO brought together all of the software developers and gave us a presentation to help us better understand the other side of the business.

"Engineers," he said, "care about the truth.  Engineers want to know their product is perfect; they want to know it's better than the competition's; that it's bug-free and feature-rich.  Engineers are perfectionists - they're willing to put in extra hours to fix a bug that only they know about and that will never affect a customer, or to complete a feature that will never actually land us a sale.

"Salespeople," he continued, "don't give a damn about the truth.  Don't get me wrong - they don't want to lie. Lying to customers is bad for business. It's just that facts aren't interesting. Stories sell. Value sells. Relationships sell. Salespeople want the story; the angle that will get our product in the door and get us a contract.

"Salespeople don't care about perfection. They're selling imperfect, buggy software, because all software is imperfect and buggy, and they've got no control over that. Most of their leads are dead-ends. Verbal agreements and offers fall through all the time. Salespeople are coin-operated. They want to know what the return on their investment of time and energy is. They'll work overtime - they work a ton of overtime - but only if they think there's something in it for them. And when a sale falls through, they don't take it personally - they get up the next morning and do it again."

I'm not telling you this story because I think you should think like a salesperson all the time. Not everyone is cut out for it - I'm certainly not!  But there is certainly something to learn from the sales mindset, especially for us creative types who tend to be self-critical and constantly question our own success.

Continue reading The engineering vs. the sales mindset, or "how to avoid impostor syndrome"