The Perfumed Void https://the-orbit.net/alyssa Research, Feelings, and Life with Alyssa Gonzalez Fri, 23 Jul 2021 02:34:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.5.3 https://i0.wp.com/the-orbit.net/alyssa/wp-content/uploads/sites/27/2018/03/cropped-Screen-Shot-2018-03-30-at-12.31.50-PM.png?fit=32%2C32&ssl=1 The Perfumed Void https://the-orbit.net/alyssa 32 32 134704142 Combustion Man https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/22/combustion-man/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/22/combustion-man/#respond Fri, 23 Jul 2021 02:34:37 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7288 The post Combustion Man appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Flash Fiction.
He did not have time to repent of his crime, or even remember what it was. The curse was as swift as it was thoughtful, and his substance transmuted to meet its grim syllables:
“Die in EVERY fire.”

The magic churned through his substance until every nanoscopic iota of his being was transposed into the universe’s supply of oxygen molecules. Not atoms, for that would have been a mercy and granted the offender a life that could endure all but the heart of a star. No, his curse was far more dire: to become oxygen molecules, whose duality made them just impermanent enough to hurt.
And every fire, everywhere, until the last lights in the universe blinked their final flashes. would rend him in two with a carbon blade, forever.
Molecular diagram of carbon dioxide, showing how it is a carbon atom between two oxygen atoms.
Forever.

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Oxtail Stew, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/12/oxtail-stew-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/07/12/oxtail-stew-alyssa-style/#respond Mon, 12 Jul 2021 19:09:41 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7283 The post Oxtail Stew, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I’ve been hoping to make this happen for years and I finally did it.

Oxtail stew was a much-loved treat when I was growing up. It was never a common meal, and I grew to treasure the smell of it cooking and the experience of eating it. In some ways, it became the decadent upper end of what I remember fondly about my mother’s cooking, where arroz con salchichas was the cozy lower end. As a meal I could make myself, it eluded me for many years, primarily because of the difficulty of sourcing oxtails, but I still got to enjoy it a few times in Ottawa. But now I’ve learned how to make it myself.

In the modern world, oxtails are uncommon and expensive. A single head of cattle has only one tail, after all, whereas it has many, many kilograms of other cuts. Oxtails have a distinctive, somewhat gelatinous texture once cooked that makes them quite unlike most other beef preparations, due to the abundance of connective tissue that softens and melts as it cooks. Like brisket and similar cuts of meat, cattle tails are tough and mostly unpalatable without the long cooking time that enables this result, but the fall-off-the-bone results are worth the wait and effort. Oxtails became a fixture in the Caribbean Hispanic community for much the same reason as brisket became a classic of Jewish cooking in the US: the need to make use of all available foodstuffs, no matter how nominally subpar. Sourcing oxtails can be difficult, but ethnic markets are a good place to start. Mine come from my local African grocery, after the local Latin American groceries proved fruitless.

This variation features a few changes relative to the one I grew up with. In particular, I have left out the otherwise standard onion and garlic to spare my stomach and added asafoetida. Asafoetida, also known as hing, is a substitute for the earthy flavor of onions commonly used in South Asian cooking and available in South Asian groceries. Hing is sold as a resin mixed with flour to keep it powdery, and whether that flour is rice or wheat depends on whether the asafoetida is sourced from southern or northern India, respectively. This is an important detail to keep in mind for those avoiding gluten.

Because of the necessarily long cooking time, this dish is ideal for slow cookers. The version presented here assumes the use of an Instant Pot, a Canadian slow-cooking invention that is rapidly proving indispensable in many kitchens, but should be easily modified for other contexts. Reduce the cooking time and keep an eye on the desired liquid content of the final product when modifying this recipe for stovetop use. This recipe serves eight and reheats well.

Equipment

You will need an Instant Pot with a capacity of at least four liters, a chef’s knife, a cutting board, a wooden spoon, and a ladle.

Ingredients

  • Green bell pepper, 1
  • Red or orange bell pepper, 1
  • Potatoes, 5 large
  • Oxtails, 1.5 lbs. Oxtails are often sold cut into appropriately-sized chunks already; cut into sections no more than 2” thick if not. These do not have to be defrosted before use in this recipe, unless you have to cut them.
  • Spinach, chopped, 150 g
  • Cooking oil, as needed
  • Asafoetida/hing, to taste
  • Parsley, either 1/3 cup fresh or ¼ cup dried
  • Canned whole tomatoes, 1 791-mL can.
  • Red cooking wine, 1.5 cups Reduce this volume for a thicker broth.
  • Capers, ¼ cup
  • Cumin, 1 tablespoon
  • Thyme, 1 teaspoon
  • Oregano, 1 teaspoon
  • Cuban oregano, leaves from one long branch
  • Bay leaves, 2
  • Balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon
  • Dried red pepper, 1 dash

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free if rice-based asafoetida is used.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Remove potatoes.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is optimized to reduce FODMAP content.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: A specific meat is the centerpiece of this stew, so a vegetarian substitute is unlikely.

Preparation

  1. Dice the green bell pepper and red bell pepper. Chop the potatoes into medium pieces.
  2. Add the cooking oil and asafoetida to the Instant Pot on the Sauté setting. Add the oxtails and brown on all sides. If using frozen spinach, you can add it here to thaw at the same time.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients to the Instant Pot and switch to the Slow Cook setting for 6 hours.
  4. Ladle into bowls and serve with ground black pepper to taste.

My mother and grandmother are still better at this than I am, not least because they get to use onion and garlic, but I’m good enough to satisfy myself and that’s what counts. I hope this recipe serves you well, as it has served me.

A bowl of oxtail stew, with one of the chunks of oxtail raised.

 

 

 

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On Little Finny Hands: Fish That Walk https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/23/on-little-finny-hands-fish-that-walk/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/23/on-little-finny-hands-fish-that-walk/#respond Thu, 24 Jun 2021 01:31:32 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7281 The post On Little Finny Hands: Fish That Walk appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Fish swim. But they also walk.

One might wonder what use an aquatic organism would have for walking. Water exerts a buoyant force that, for many organisms, is enough to counter gravity and allow them to essentially levitate, whereas the far lower density of air grants few terrestrial beings this gift. Combined with any amount of propulsive force, touching the bottom becomes essentially optional. Flight, by contrast, requires near-total specialization of those beings that would attempt it, because they must counter the lack of meaningful buoyancy with other forces. But just as crabs and crayfish spend most of their time walking along underwater surfaces, so too do some fish walk instead of swim. And they’re all so charming about it.

The best-known walkers are those fish that venture onto land. Many freshwater fish live in floodplains, ephemeral ponds, and rivers whose courses shift over time. These fish can be stranded when their home waters recede. Those that can maneuver on land have an advantage over those that cannot, and numerous lineages have developed this ability. Bichirs (pronounced “bee-sheers”), family Polypteridae, are an ancient lineage with this capability and combine the same kind of undulating motion that characterizes most fishes’ swimming with strong pectoral fins to walk with some adroitness on land.

Perhaps the most famous fish with this ability is the walking catfish, genus Clarias, which has become invasive in Florida in part thanks to its ability to migrate between isolated water sources under its own power.

Lungfish, particularly the African genus Protopterus, similarly, are famous for their ability to aestivate underground in mucous sacs for months or years at a time, emerging from seemingly nothing once water returns to their seasonal homes and quite able to migrate elsewhere overland if it suits them.

Seaside conditions are another ideal case for fish walking on land. Estuaries and intertidal zones experience the marine analogue of flood and recession multiple times per day. Fish that can maneuver between the resulting tide pools, mudflats, and other water sources can avoid those that are running low on oxygen, seek out less maneuverable prey, and otherwise gain advantage over less mobile competition. The most famous fish with this ability are the mudskippers, several genera of goby-like fish from Indian and Pacific Ocean coastlines that spend up to three quarters of their life on land. Mudskippers have joints similar in function to elbow joints in their strongly muscled pectoral fins, making them perhaps the most capable terrestrial walkers of all walking fish. Unlike many others, which venture onto land primarily to seek out new water, mudskippers feed, mate, and more while out of the water.

A personal favorite among these marine fish that use the ability to walk to venture between tide pools is the epaulette shark, Hemiscyllium ocellatum. Where many terrestrial fish make little use of their rear fins to travel on land, H. ocellatum comes close to imitating a quadrupedal land animal in its movements, using both pectoral and pelvic fins to maneuver.

A key specialization that comes along for the walking ride for these fish is the ability to breathe air. To a one, walking fish have some ability to extract oxygen from the air, whether that involves accessory breathing organs, functional lungs, or the ability to keep their gills wet even when out of water. Some, such as the lungfish, are so dependent on air that they drown when kept from it. Most of the situations that encourage fish to venture onto land include reduced aquatic oxygen, and even the ones that do not require a fish to be able to function while exposed to air for at least a short while. If this makes fish that venture onto land sound a lot like modern amphibians, that is not a coincidence.

But it is not only fish with an eye toward terrestrial locomotion that try their fins at walking. There are walking fish underwater, too. Most of the fish mentioned in the previous sections will use their walking motions, or similar movements, to maneuver underwater, and that shows a key use case for this ability: maneuverability on complex surfaces. Steering a swimming body, especially one partially adapted for walking on land, can be difficult, and being able to latch onto and push off of a solid surface can be useful—so useful that fish with no special facility for moving about on land also pursue this ability.

Perhaps the best known of these are various anglerfish lineages. Other than the deep-dwelling ceratioid lineage, anglerfish are benthic predators that specialize in luring prey toward them, and that benefits from being able to hold very still. Anglerfish fins are thus specialized for grasping and maneuvering on surfaces, including rocks and sand, and some can maintain this while moving. Antenarioid anglerfish often spend more time clambering about their rocky and weedy homes than they do swimming, and one species, the sargassum fish Histrio histrio, is often found climbing within and clinging to bits of formerly floating seaweed on warm Atlantic shorelines.

Some of the strangest aquatic walkers are the sea robins, family Triglidae, whose main concession to walking is gently pulling themselves along the seafloor on a few fin rays while feeling for food beneath the sand.

But none are stranger than the tripod fish, Bathypterois grallator, which balances on three fin rays to hold a steady position above the deep seafloor. It might be a bit of a stretch to call this creature a “walker,” though.

Relatively few walking fish are common in the pet trade. Most of them are predators and most of them are adapted for specialized niches that are difficult to emulate in home aquaria, making them poor pets. Many are threatened by human activities, including habitat destruction and overfishing, and one, the Tasmanian smooth handfish Sympterichthys unipennis, was declared extinct in 2020. Epaulette sharks are available for experienced marine aquarists to keep in large tanks and several bichir species are commonly spotted in pet stores, giving many people their first experience with fish that walk.

It is a delightful reality we inhabit, that such beings can find homes in it. I hope we get to enjoy them a long time yet.

 

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The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/06/the-ones-we-left-behind-urban-pigeons-deserve-better/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/06/06/the-ones-we-left-behind-urban-pigeons-deserve-better/#respond Sun, 06 Jun 2021 13:47:05 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7279 The post The Ones We Left Behind: Urban Pigeons Deserve Better appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Few animals in urban settings garner less sympathy than the pigeon. Christened “rats with wings” by their detractors and dismissed as ambulatory pollution by most city-dwellers, they do not bring the sparkle of joy that cardinals provide or even the nonchalant charm of equally European-derived house sparrows. Much ink is spilled and homeowner frustration vented on the subject of how to get them to stay away from a place or outright stop existing. Our cities are littered with plastic spikes to deter their passage and false nesting sites set up for easy egg-culling. The appearance of peregrine falcons in urban environments is celebrated not only because these birds are magnificent in their own right, but because they prey on pigeons. Those who would defend these creatures receive accusations of naïveté, as though no one who actually interacted with pigeons could find them anything less than offensive.

Watching them live, one has trouble understanding this antipathy. Pigeons’ coloration is striking, with most feral individuals having a band of purple iridescence around their necks that catches the sun. Pigeons retain more of their domestic color variation than most feral animals, making their flocks a riot of diversity. Their calls range from soothing coos to purr-like rumbles, and their mating displays are charmingly gawky. They are unusual among birds in how easily they can drink, directly sucking from water sources rather than filling their bills and pouring it down their throats like most birds. They can use sight, smell, and the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate home from thousands of kilometers away. They are devoted parents, with father and mother alike caring for their young until they are fully fledged and even producing “crop milk” in their digestive tracts to feed their squabs. This ability allows pigeons to breed throughout the year, another superpower they have over other birds. Their bodies are loveably rotund, their behavior surprisingly affectionate. Pigeons are, if anything, most of the things we like about cats, only far more sociable. So why the hate?

It is because they outlived their purpose, no more, no less.

Two pigeons, one i the common gray color with an iridescent purple neck, the other with white splotches on its head, back, and underside.
Too pure for one world, too soiled for another.

Pigeons entered human cultivation before any other birds, more than 6000 years ago. Shelters called dovecotes encouraged wild pigeons to nest where humans could harvest their eggs, young, and the occasional adult, setting up a slow march toward domestication. In the following centuries, they became standard livestock and their various talents were discovered and put to use. They were selectively bred for beauty, for nutrition, for speed, and for long-distance flight. Different varieties were used as racers, as poultry, and as “homing pigeons” to deliver messages back to their homes from far away. Cities large and small had thriving populations actively cared for by humans to keep these functions working. The white morph of the pigeon, often called the “dove,” became a symbol of peace and purity, to the point that it became part of the hawk/dove idiomatic duality for warlike versus diplomatic character; it remains so loved that many people do not even realize it is the same species as the reviled city pigeon.

But time was not kind to their usefulness.

Chickens proved easier to raise in huge numbers in confined settings than pigeons and so replaced pigeons as the standard poultry around the world. Artificial fertilizers reduced the demand for natural ones in developed countries. Modern telecommunications equipment progressively made homing pigeons more and more obsolete. Breeding ornamental and racing pigeons persisted but became a higher-class affectation, and the lower-class stock slowly shifted from poultry to the birds later substituted with “clay pigeons” at shooting galleries. The rest were simply…abandoned.

Our cities are full of pigeons because we, as a society, ran out of uses for them. We turned them from domestic to feral with a thousand little rejections. When they kept on living anyway, we called them pests.

Dozens of generations later, their descendants eke out a livelihood on our refuse and whatever we throw at them. They nest on whatever surfaces remind them of the seaside cliffs their wild ancestors frequented, whenever they are not chased away, poisoned, or shot. The excrement that was once celebrated as a perfect fertilizer became the bane of urban environments, staining concrete and damaging statuary, with few realizing that its unwholesome runniness is a symptom of the birds’ enforced dietary poverty. They are held up as examples of urban disease carriers, despite the rarity of their transmitting anything to humans.

City dwellers declared them “flying rats,” but “flying dandelions” might be more accurate. Dandelions, too, were cultivated for food and encouraged to spread until they weren’t.

I can’t be angry at pigeons. They are not mosquitoes, bedbugs, or fleas that directly harm people, nor are they urban rodents and roaches that sneak into homes to steal food and defecate in cupboards. They just figured out how to survive after the people who were taking care of them started hating them instead, and it is hard not to empathize with that. We would all do well to appreciate what the humble pigeon has achieved, surviving long after humans decided it wasn’t worth anything anymore in places inhospitable to so many other birds, looking like a fluffy, purring friend the whole time.

You are welcome near me on all my outdoor excursions, Columba livia domestica. You’ve earned it.

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Four Months Later: How is Recovery? https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/22/four-months-later-how-is-recovery/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/22/four-months-later-how-is-recovery/#respond Sat, 22 May 2021 20:33:11 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7277 The post Four Months Later: How is Recovery? appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I had facial feminization surgery and breast augmentation on 28 January this year. Recovery from these procedures is a long process, even if the worst of it is over in the first few weeks. I already reported on the immediate aftermath and on two months later, so, how are two additional months treating me?

  • My scalp has been regaining sensation. The region at the top of my head in which sensation has been reduced since surgery has gone from almost completely numb, to furiously itchy, to just having less sensation than it did before, and it continues to both slowly shrink and to regain sensation.
  • It looks like I am most likely in for a long-term result that includes hair loss on my forehead incision, in particular the portions of it that are within my existing hair on the sides of my head. The thinned hair in that area is noticeable for those who know what to look for. Although hair has grown through some of my scar tissue at the front of the incision, where the incision scar itself is visible on my forehead, this does not seem to be happening on the sides, or if it is, it’s much less. I can endure this, but I have to keep it in mind when I wear my hair up.
  • I had an infection within the forehead incision for a week or so, which looked to be a whitehead until I drained it a few times. It was ultimately of no consequence but left me concerned.
  • My frontal sinus now behaves no differently than it did before surgery, and I can sneeze without difficulty.
  • I have regained mobility in my eyebrows, although the left one is still harder to move than the right.
  • The blood in my sclera cleared long ago.
  • I have been wearing a professionally-sized bra during most days ever since I became sure that my size was no longer in flux, and my body has appreciated this assistance in keeping my new breasts supported. I have also been wearing a sports bra at night. I notice a little soreness if I go long periods without wearing either, such as when the day’s outfit is a dress that looks best without a bra.
  • I no longer experience discomfort when manipulating my breasts, such as pushing them closer to each other, which is helpful for considering my wardrobe possibilities in the future.
  • I realized that part of my breast augmentation surgery involved lowering my inframammary fold on both sides, which has resulted in an impressive improvement to my overall breast shape and in moving my bra band to a narrower part of my torso, leading to a smaller band size.
  • I can look at old photos and identify the differences between my old face and the new, and my satisfaction with my new features has only grown.

At this stage, I consider my recovery virtually complete. The main thing left is for the sensation in my scalp to fully return and for any further changes in my hair regrowth pattern to manifest themselves. This surgery has continued to be much easier on me than some of my previous medical experiences, and I am glad I was able to make it happen. I hope this retrospective is useful to others who are considering it.

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The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/09/the-satisfaction-of-a-good-optimization-problem-or-that-time-i-obsessed-about-some-wires-for-a-week-straight/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/05/09/the-satisfaction-of-a-good-optimization-problem-or-that-time-i-obsessed-about-some-wires-for-a-week-straight/#respond Sun, 09 May 2021 20:02:20 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7267 The post The Satisfaction of a Good Optimization Problem, Or, That Time I Obsessed About Some Wires for A Week Straight appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I’m a tidy autistic. Compared to most of my friends, my home is uncannily organized; my routines are rigid and often inflexible. When I last moved house, my new home was 90% unpacked within the first week and firmly lived-in by the end of the first month, thanks to packing my previous home with destination rooms in mind and having a new floor plan for my furniture worked out in PowerPoint a month before moving day. With tape measures, notes, and detailed pro/con analyses, I worked out the best places for my sofa, television, display cases, desk, aquaria, and each individual houseplant, along with which new items to order and where those would go. Waste is sorted immediately and removed on a schedule, and cups never accumulate away from the drying rack. Mess makes me anxious and staying on top of these things is both a gift for and the result of my executive function, not done for others but to keep my home liveable for me. I pride myself on that level of masterful order and accept the neuroticism that comes with it as the price of success.

And that makes the state my PC, aquarium, and entertainment center cables were in until recently a bit odd. Truth be told, they were a mess. I got them functional when I moved in and I moved on, to the rest of the tasks that needed far more doing. It was the seedy underbelly of my immaculate world, and unlike real seedy underbellies that are where a town’s magic happens, this one had no redeeming qualities. Whenever I had to interact with the wires, such as to keep my aquarium filter from malfunctioning during a water change or remove my headset for travel, I had to confront the Tangle, and it was exponentially worse whenever I had to replace a specific component that had stopped working.

It was time to tangle…with the Tangle.

Fish Froth

The mess behind my aquaria had one fundamental cause: timing. I keep my aquarium lights (two on the fish tank, plus my turtle’s basking lamp) on a timer, and connecting them all to that timer involved a chain of electrical cords that I wish could have been any other way. The timer could accept one electrical plug as the output it would control, which was non-grounded, preventing me from connecting most multi-outlet adapters or power bars to it safely. I had picked the position of my turtle’s basking lamp based on a convenient hook in the ceiling (meant for hanging plants) and an orientation that would keep its light out of my eyes while I was at my desk, and that meant it was far enough away from the two aquarium lights that connecting all three of them to the same anything would require at least one extension cord. The solution, at the time, ended up being connecting the basking lamp to an extension cord and connecting that extension cord and the two aquarium lights to a second extension cord, which then plugged into the timer. After all of that, connecting the other four aquarium-related devices (two filters, a heater, and an airstone) to a single power bar was positively tame.

So, what was to be done?

I tried a spare, higher-end timer, which boasted a grounded output that would let me use a multi-outlet plug or power bar. Unfortunately, the orientation of its output and the size and shape of the timer meant that my three-outlet splitter would not fit once the timer was plugged into the wall. I could instead use a standard power bar, of which I had several, but that seemed excessive for such a small number of lights, and later steps in this adventure would make it seem even more superfluous. But I had one other tool: a small ungrounded-to-grounded adapter. With it, I could use my old timer and the three-outlet splitter instead of one of the extension cords, immediately removing the primary source of cord chaos behind my aquaria. The wires for the other, untimed devices had little length to spare, keeping them straight and easy to manage even without binding them together. In this singular effort, the wire situation behind my aquaria was rescued. However, completing this task exposed a greater issue that took more effort to address.

A lot of my aquarium equipment is old, low-end items cobbled together over years, suboptimal even when it was working at its best, which it no longer is. The power supply to one of my aquarium light fixtures is fragile and malfunctions when I interact with any of the wires, near it, and my old filter needs to be unplugged during every water change to prevent it damaging itself. Both needed to be laboriously coaxed back into behaving correctly after any interruption, which grew ever more tiresome as both devices continued to age. That light’s counterpart on the other half of my tank had already died and been replaced with a less functional backup lamp with a different color temperature that was causing algae problems, and the filter’s noise during its malfunctions was loud enough to make my office hard to tolerate. Tidying the wires helped make clear that it was time for some upgrades.

I have now replaced my old hang-on-back external power filter with a higher-end external canister filter and both light fixtures with a single LED fixture that exceeds the output, color temperature, and performance of its two predecessors put together. Switching these devices also required replacing my old, mismatched plastic aquarium hoods with new glass covers that let in much more light. This new arrangement has one fewer device to plug in and is much quieter than the older devices. It did crowd items out of my aquarium cabinet that I was holding for when I set up a third tank for a new friend I have not made yet, but that is a temporary nuisance. The algae problem is already resolving itself. I am excited for what the future holds for my fishy family. My scaly children, after all, deserve the best.

Schematic of the electrical connections in my aquarium wall.
So tidy.

Table Turnover

Another improvement came to me by chance. While cleaning my guest bedroom, I discovered one of the lengths of coaxial cable that the previous owners had left behind. There were many like it, attached to cable outlets in the walls and, presumably, used for televisions. Meanwhile, my router was connected via a short length of the very same kind of cable to the main outlet, on the wall opposite my desk. I had long wanted to have my router with all my other computer peripherals and accessories, near me at my desk, and its enforced position on the other side of the room was an ongoing nuisance. It meant getting up to attend to it when it malfunctioned, turning around to check its status, and keeping it on a table near that wall so that it wasn’t on my floor getting accidentally kicked. I had checked all of the coaxial cable in my possession when the router was first installed and a few times since, finding them all too short to address the problem, and had given up. The cable in the guest room had sat there, behind a dresser, ignored for over a year, before I rediscovered it and realized that it was long enough to let me move the router to my desk. I would still have a wire trailing across the floor, but it would be more durable coaxial instead of fragile ethernet and the router itself would be where I wanted it.

It was not an instant fix. I had to rearrange the plugs in my surge protector to make a little more space on my desk and adding a new power and data wire to the nest behind my PC was not especially welcome. Fortunately, I had an abundance of shorter ethernet cables I could use to minimize the excess additional wire, instead of the long one that had once draped across the entire room. As a bonus, I could even use the previous long ethernet wire to connect a gaming console to the now more conveniently located router. The coaxial cable was stiffer than that ethernet cable, creating a minor tripping hazard, but some leftover pieces of the same carpet that covered much of my home could cover that wire as well, keeping it from entangling visitors’ feet. But the most unexpected perk was that this change meant that I could repurpose the table that had once borne the router.

At the far end of my living room, I had a trio of houseplants in pots in a large, disused litter box on the floor. Interacting with them was always inconvenient, but not inconvenient enough to do anything about it, least of all anything that would cost money. It turned out that the table from the router fit in that space, and under that tray, perfectly. This elevated the houseplants and made them easier to reach, while also getting them better light. The space the table left behind was going to be emptied eventually as a home for my third and final aquarium, when that ambition can at last be realized, and now it is done well in advance. Watching success cascade through a series of problems is one of the most satisfying parts of organizing a space, and I got to enjoy it once again, right before one of the more high-effort fixes of this whole adventure.

Computer Kerfuffle

My PC was the next mess to resolve. Computers are notorious for the sheer number of wires connecting their various peripherals to both electrical sockets and to wherever their data must travel, and cable management is nigh-mandatory for making any sense of them. The nest of wires behind my computer formed when I set up my office and had served to snag various items falling down the back of my desk ever since, while also complicating interactions with those wires. After a particularly mortifying video from Linus’s Tech Tips, I set to work disentangling this morass.

This was harder than it sounded. The wires were not only unbound, but intersecting in chaotic arrangements that had more to do with when each one was connected than any sense of utility. Attempting to bind them while they were still in this state would turn a loose weave into a tight web, worse than useless. Disentangling the wires meant deciding not just which ones deserved to be bundled together, but what those paths should look like, and from there, which ones needed to be disconnected and reconnected on other paths instead. I ultimately decided that the power cables would travel below the data cables, because I needed to interact with the data cables (such as USB and HDMI) more often. Arranging the two categories of wire this way made them easier to bundle separately, dramatically reducing the complexity of the situation. It was not the end, however.

It was tempting to bind every place where cables still shared paths. Such a tight arrangement would have looked orderly, and even been orderly, but it would not have been practical. The more ties held various cables together, the less simple it would be to replace those cables or those devices if and when their time came, and the more rigid the whole arrangement would have become. There were limits to how many ties could be useful instead of over-engineered, and it took a little more thought to find those limits. Three additional ties ultimately proved worthwhile: one more to restrain the USB and power cables from my printer, a second to hold together the wires issuing from my HDMI splitter (which serves to duplicate my PC’s screen on my television when desired), and a third to collect the wires from my monitor and adjacent webcam. Others tempted me—binding my keyboard and mouse wires to the monitor bundle to turn it into a “these are on my desk instead of in the cabinet” bundle, or attaching my printer’s USB cable to the nearby power cable bundle, or doing more with my HDMI cables—but ultimately, this smaller set proved more than sufficient. It was not quite as tidy as I wanted, but it retained practical utility it would have lost if I had gone further. I had restrained the cable dragon of my computer, and it was on to bigger and thornier problems.

Schematic of peripheral connections of my PC.
I have a copy of this in a plastic sleeve taped to the wall behind my monitor. It is oriented as if projected from the PC so that I can use it to guide my hands, sight unseen.

Entertainment Extravaganza

The example of my PC proved instructive for my entertainment center. Like my PC, my entertainment center had two central hubs where cables came together, and like my PC, there was one main place from which those cables issued. My entertainment center has two large holes in its backing for cable passage, reducing a forbidding series of numerous cables from numerous devices to two exit points. Taking a page from my PC adventure, I decided to use the lower of these openings for all the power cords and the upper for data cords. I could bind the power cords for my various devices into a single large bundle right up to that lower opening and leave their excess length inside the cabinet where the devices themselves resided, a convenience that the varying cord lengths, varying AC adapter locations on my PC’s peripherals, and varying device locations relative to my surge protector did not allow.

The data cables were not so easy. I had two upgrades for my setup to install, an HDMI switch and an adapter that claimed to be able to turn a Nintendo 64’s output into an upscaled HDMI signal. With most of my entertainment devices using HDMI as their output mode, the HDMI switch would let me have them all plugged in at once instead of just two, solving one problem. However, this particular switch had its ports along two sides instead of in a single row, limiting the feasibility of a single-bundle strategy for the wires leading to it. What’s worse, most of my HDMI cords were of greatly excessive length for their application, leading to large amounts of cable to wrangle. That excess, in turn, was not the same between all the devices, making bundling them all together difficult.

While I investigated my options and did a belated dusting of my entertainment center’s exposed shelves, I decided to move my Nintendo 64 to the top, outside the shelving, where the television itself is. Although the shelf the N64 was on was deep enough to allow switching the top-loading device’s cartridges, clearing the shelf made the data cords from the other devices easier to visualize and created space for a future ambition. The fact that I already needed to fuss with the N64’s wires to install the HDMI adapter made this the perfect time to move it. Keeping it separate from the other HDMI devices also kept its much shorter HDMI cable from complicating the rest of this process.

The solution for the data wires, in the end, was as inelegant as it was simple. There was a hidden area in the bottom shelf of my entertainment center seemingly designed to help manage AC adapters and other cord-related mess, and it proved capable storage for all manner of excess cable. I had initially planned to attach plastic hooks to the back of my entertainment center and hang the looped HDMI cables there, but the improvements already achieved gave me an idea. By tightly binding the two longest HDMI cables together, I could conceal them inside that same hidden area, without getting them entangled with the power cords. It would then be a challenge to extricate either cable if one of them needed replacing in the future, but with both cables being the same age, quite new, and used infrequently, that seemed an unlikely and far-off problem. I could hide the other, smaller excesses—the smaller HDMI cable connecting the HDMI switch to the television, the component video cable for my Xbox, and the N64’s new HDMI cable—in the empty space within the entertainment center, keeping both the front and back wonderfully tidy.

The shelf vacated by the Nintendo 64 now holds its four controllers, waiting for when I can have a group again for some split-screen play. But it will eventually also hold a VCR sufficient to enjoy some childhood documentaries and add a charmingly retro touch to my whole setup. With that in mind, I have kept my composite video switch in place, a device otherwise rendered superfluous now that only one device, my original Xbox, is using it.

Table-of-contents-style listing of how to access each media device connected to my television.
I keep a version of this in a plastic sleeve on my entertainment center now. This version is held in reserve for when I add something.

Conclusion

I did an exemplary job optimizing the location of my furniture. Every now and then, I check whether certain tempting alternatives, such as switching the locations of my aquaria and my display cases, would work, and each time I find the same result: at best, the switch would be neutral, effort spent for no improvement. More often, it would create some problem that the current arrangement escaped, the exact reasoning that led me to set things up as I did the first time. I have known people who rearrange their furniture every few months just to jostle their minds with false newness, but from where I am, an arrangement so carefully optimal that any deviation from it is objectively worse feels like an achievement. From the locations of my electrical outlets to which circuit breakers they are on to which surfaces my cats can easily reach, I have checked and re-checked every relevant factor, making it easy to be arrogantly certain that there are no further improvements to be had.

Venturing into cable management, and with it the upgrades I decided to pursue along the way, was a pleasant reminder that, no matter how good I get at making sure things are already the best they can be, I can still find ways to make them better, ways that are not likely to be themselves supplanted anytime soon. And every one of these problems leads to another eruption of diagrams that I can pour joyous hours into, fussing with the situation digitally to make it understandable in the world of touch and smell and creating a record of what I have done that I can consult even when the work itself is hard to view and enjoy.

I am looking forward to the steps to come.

Flowchart depicting the connections between various devices in my entertainment center.
This is ASMR for the eyes.

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Building Your First World https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/04/25/building-your-first-world/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/04/25/building-your-first-world/#comments Sun, 25 Apr 2021 21:36:44 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7264 The post Building Your First World appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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“World-building” is a challenge that faces many people: novelists, RPG hosts, screenplay writers, and most other categories of storyteller. Settings are the literal and figurative background of tales large and small, and for all that they are rarely the focus of a narrative the way characters and plot rightfully are, they are critical to that narrative making sense. Worldbuilding can be a forbiddingly large task, but it can be both efficient and rewarding if one keeps a few pointers in mind.

What Is Worldbuilding?

Narrative worlds are not just places. A map can be an important (but is far from a critical) component of worldbuilding, but it is not the only one. A narrative world consists of al of the facts that distinguish it from our world, plus everything that makes each element within distinct from others of its kind. That means a narrative world can include:

  • A set of places
  • The cultures that inhabit those places
  • Crafts
  • Arts, whether the products thereof are enduring (painting) or ephemeral (dance)
  • Specific art objects
  • Technological achievements
  • Magical forces and practices
  • History
  • Languages
  • Religions
  • Ecology
  • Geology
  • Meteorology
  • Astronomy
  • Physics
  • Cosmic-scale phenomena, such as parallel dimensions, divine realms, and other places that don’t fit on conventional maps
  • And more.

A truly complete world would invite examination down to individual grains of sand, the etymologies of individual words in its most obscure languages, the careers of individual persons of note, different manufacturing practices in different points in space and time, and every other dimension someone could investigate. It would be as infinitely expansive as our own world, and it would take similar decades of study to become an expert on even a small fraction of it. Such a feat is impossible for even a team of writers working across generations to achieve, and it is also unnecessary for any conceivable purpose. The map is not the territory, and it never needed to be. But what does it need to be?

Two adults and two children in a blue-lit cave full of large yellow spiders.
This world has specific needs. So does yours.

What Is Your Goal?

What you want your world for informs a great deal about how it needs to work. A homegrown world is generally meant for a specific purpose: to be the setting of a novel series, to be the background of a short story, to be a world that players in a tabletop roleplaying game explore, to be instructions for a film set and costume designer, and so on. Each intended purpose has different implications for what parts of that world need to be defined, which questions the world must answer, and which ones can be safely ignored. Visual media, for example, needs to define strong visual identities for almost everything in a world: clothing, weapons, tools, flora, fauna, and anything else that might be even fleetingly visible to people interacting with the final product. A world meant for use with a roleplaying game needs to fulfill the assumptions of that game so that the world and the rules (in RPG designer parlance, the “fluff” and the “crunch”) fit together seamlessly. A world meant to undergird an entire series of novels likely needs more breadth and depth than one meant to live its entire life as the backdrop of a single short story. This question of purpose guides and informs all of the others, so it must be settled early in the worldbuilder’s mind. A world can be expanded for new purposes after it is created, but it cannot succeed at its original goal if that goal is not clear to the creator.

What Kinds of Story Do You Want to Tell?

One the medium is firm in your mind, the next step is the message. What kinds of stories is this world meant to facilitate?

Genres set broad expectations about what worlds look like, what sorts of things are found in them, and what sorts of events happen in them. These expectations can be wielded to advantage with one critical axiom: you do not need to define anything that works the way people assume it works. People’s assumptions will carry them to the correct conclusion, so it is wise to save one’s words and energy for those things that differ from genre patterns and especially things in modern settings that work the way they work in our world. In many cases, using a facsimile of the modern world, or a basic concept of genre conceits, as a starting point for one’s explanation of what makes one’s world special is an excellent way to deliver a lot of information quickly.

A dark-skinned man holding a sword in preparation for driving it into something below him.

Now, Go Deeper

World-building necessarily has a back end and a front end. The front end is the part that people interacting with the finished product get to see. Done well, it is a polished, unified product that conveys the desired impression, often of a world bigger than the one story immediately at hand and where the things on the surface, or that are not explained in detail in the main narrative, have an internal logic that could be explicated if someone wanted it to be. One example is the Star Wars universe, with its vast multiplicity of weapons manufacturing corporations, secretive mystical orders, histories of individual planets, and more, which only impinge on its main story in a few places but provide ample room for side stories in other media.

It can be tempting, as a world-builder, to overload on details. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other large, detailed universes encourage an idea of worldbuilding as a massively granular endeavor, where every twitch of the narrative has dozens of pages of footnotes linking it to other events in the world’s past, present, and future. This can be both overwhelming and counterproductive. The front end does not need anything that does not facilitate the specific stories being told. Stories become clunky, unwieldy messes if every detail of their world is included and given equal prominence. This is where the back end comes in.

The back end is the Wookieepedia to the Star Wars film canon. It is reams of notes, as organized as they can be, tracking the inspirations, backstories, and more that do not or cannot fit in the front end. The contents of these notes may never take center stage, even if a world becomes the setting of more than one story, but they still hold value. These notes inform and inspire things in the front end, and even more importantly, they help enforce internal continuity and consistency. Which details belong in front or in back depends on the stories one is telling and what one has created. A well-orchestrated back end results in a front end and a narrative that feel more cohesive and which can more easily be taken in new directions via new narratives.

A Note on RPG Worlds

Role-playing game settings require special care. By their nature, they are meant to facilitate many different stories, and place themselves in the hands of many different storytellers. This is true even of homebrew settings whose creators do not share them, because the players who participate in games set in these worlds take part of the storytelling process for themselves. These worlds are also, almost invariably, tailored for specific role-playing games, with specific rules that become part of the world’s assumptions, canonical in their own right. Worldbuilding becomes entangled with game design in this kind of world, and the best RPG settings blend the two to the point of inseparability.

RPG worlds must address the assumptions of their rules, or they cannot work as RPG worlds. For example, the rules of Dungeons and Dragons assume that demons exist, are evil, and come from a realm distinct from that inhabited by mortals such as humans. A D&D setting where this is not true is one where this deviation from assumptions not only has to be explained so that people interacting with this world understand it, but that must be dealt with via setting-specific changes to the rules. Failing to address situations like these leads to characters summoning beings from nonexistent realms, becoming werewolves in worlds with no moon, and calling on divine favor in worlds with no gods.

Writing an RPG setting differs from writing a world for other media in another important way. RPG settings are full of hooks meant to set up stories that others will complete, rather than complete stories in their own right. This role in assisting other storytellers means that the back end / front end distinction applies differently to RPG worlds. While they are in use, they have a front end (what players have already interacted with) and a back end (everything else). When presented as settings for others’ use, however, the distinction collapses. Those who would use pre-written RPG worlds need the back end, and so, it must be presented intact.

The best RPG worlds guide the people interacting with them toward certain kinds of stories, just as the worlds created for other media do. That means populating settings meant for courtly intrigue with a hierarchy of nobility and court officials with agendas and relationships, settings meant for exploration with sites to explore and paths to walk, settings meant for combat with enemies to fight, and so on. The same world can be all of these things in an RPG, but providing some of this content in detail provides both the content itself and a signal that this is the kind of story that makes the best use of what this world has to offer.

Conclusion

A novel about unraveling a mystery in an alien culture’s art museum might benefit from a detailed history of its world’s art styles, biographical snippets about its artists, and some background about a feud between schools of art criticism, but most or all of this effort would be wasted in a story whose focus is a military campaign between this alien polity and its neighbor. Conversely, the art mystery probably does not need a detailed rundown of its home country’s armored and infantry divisions. Worldbuilding is, more than anything, an exercise in knowing what one’s goal is and working toward it. It is a creative endeavor and one that requires an organized, careful approach to fulfill its potential. I wish you luck in the attempt. Stay tuned for additional explorations of what it takes to write a detailed setting.

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Sancocho, Alyssa Style https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/04/11/sancocho-alyssa-style/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/04/11/sancocho-alyssa-style/#respond Sun, 11 Apr 2021 12:54:10 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7242 The post Sancocho, Alyssa Style appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Every culture with relatively easy access to water has some variety of stew. Boiling provides an even heat with far less risk of burning food than other cooking methods and can extract additional nutrition from bones and other inedible matter. Stews provide an easy way to create a medley of flavor from many ingredients and to safely and effectively turn mismatched leftovers into a coherent meal. Stews are hearty staples that bring welcome heat to chilled bellies, and Latin America certainly has its share, many of which share the single name sancocho.

Sancocho has many regional variants, found throughout the Spanish-speaking countries surrounding the Caribbean Sea. The particulars and role in the overall gastronomy vary, but what they all have in common is a heterogenous mix of starchy vegetables and whatever meat is most handy. In Puerto Rico, the local sancocho hinges on an abundance of malanga/yautía, potatoes, plantains, and West Indian pumpkin, mostly native and all grown locally, making it a particular fixture of the agricultural interior of the island. This is the background my grandmother brought to my family, and the sancocho she served us remains a frequent, well-liked memory.

I have already introduced malanga/yautía to my readers and most will understand plantains and potatoes already, but West Indian pumpkin is likely less familiar to them. All large gourds are calabaza in Latin American Spanish and most of them are Curcubita moschata to botanists, cultivars of a single shared species native to the Caribbean. The cultivars common in the Caribbean islands themselves are generally round, have orange flesh, and have rinds that range from strongly keeled and green to smooth and orange. Their flavor is somewhere between a butternut squash and a cantaloupe, surprisingly sweet. Their presence in sancocho helps moderate the overtly starchy flavor of the other ingredients.

Dishes like sancocho tend not to have fixed recipes. Although Carmen Aboy Valldejuli’s recipe is often considered authoritative, there are as many sancocho recipes in any given region as there are people preparing sancocho. Mine is a compromise between my memories of my grandmother’s version, Valldejuli’s version, and the availability of ingredients here in Ottawa.

This recipe serves 15 and reheats well. Freeze what you do not consume within a few days just in case. It has a long prep and cooking time and should not be undertaken on short notice.

Equipment

You will need a large pot, a chef’s knife, a vegetable peeler, your favorite measuring tools, and a stove or other source of bottom-up heat.

Ingredients

  • Green bell pepper, 1
  • Sweet chili pepper, 1
  • Variants: If you are not worried about managing FODMAP risk, add 1 medium onion.
  • Malanga/yautía, 3 lbs (about five corms)
  • West Indian pumpkin, 1.5 lbs. Substitute American pumpkin or butternut squash.
  • Potatoes, 3 large
  • Green plantain, 1 large
  • Ripe plantain, 1 large
  • Water, 3 quarts
  • Sazón, 1 tablespoon. Substitute table salt.
  • Cuban oregano, fresh, 2 tablespoons
  • Frozen spinach, 150 g
  • Dried cilantro, 2 tablespoons
  • Canned whole-kernel corn, 1 341-mL can. An entire ear of corn cut into four crosswise sections is more traditional.
  • Canned whole tomatoes, 1 791-mL can, divided in two
  • Stewing beef in cubes, 750 g
  • Ground black pepper, to taste
A selection of vegetables for use in sancocho: green plantains, ripe plantains, potatoes, malanga, and West Indian pumpkin.
An auspicious start.

Common Food Restrictions

  • Gluten-Free: This recipe is naturally gluten-free.
  • Ketogenic / Low-Carb: This recipe is very high in carbohydrates by its nature.
  • Low-FODMAP: This recipe is already designed to reduce its potential FODMAP content. However, sources conflict on whether malanga/yautía is itself a high-FODMAP food and my reaction to eating large amounts of it suggests it should be consumed sparingly if one is avoiding FODMAPs.
  • Vegetarian/Vegan: Use your preferred meat substitute and adjust cooking times accordingly.
A pot of sancocho showing the vegetables and beef in the thick tomato-based broth.
Oh yes.

Preparation

  1. Dice the green bell pepper and sweet chili pepper and set aside. If using onion, peel, dice, and include with these two.
  2. Peel and dice the malanga, West Indian pumpkin, potatoes, green plantain, and ripe plantain and set aside. Keep in mind that peeled malanga is very slippery, so it can be useful to begin cutting peeled portions before the whole corm is peeled.
  3. Add the water, green bell pepper, sweet chili pepper, sazón, Cuban oregano, frozen spinach, onion (if included), cilantro, corn, and half of the canned tomato to the pot and bring rapidly to a boil.
  4. Add stewing beef to the pot, reduce heat to moderate, cover, and cook for one hour.
  5. Add the vegetables from Step 2 and the rest of the canned tomato to the pot. Boil uncovered for 90 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure no ingredient dries out.
  6. Ladle into bowls and serve with ground black pepper to taste.

This recipe is a work in progress as I learn to cook around my difficulty with onion and garlic in particular, but it felt right to share it now. The firm earthiness of the malanga contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the pumpkin and the softness of the potato to give this hearty stew an impressive diversity of flavors. Each bite is a little different and the sum reminds me of my grandmother’s warmth. Enjoy.

A bowl of sancocho.

 

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Two Months Later: How Did the Surgery Go? https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/03/28/two-months-later-how-did-the-surgery-go/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/03/28/two-months-later-how-did-the-surgery-go/#respond Sun, 28 Mar 2021 13:55:32 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7237 The post Two Months Later: How Did the Surgery Go? appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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Two months ago, I undertook the last transition-related surgery I anticipate ever having. There are body modifications ahead of me, most importantly various forms of hair removal and more tattoos, but this step makes my medical transition feel complete in ways that previous steps did not. So how did it go?

In a word, swimmingly. I am deeply, deeply satisfied with my facial feminization and breast augmentation. But healing has come with some surprises that are worth laying out for other folks who are observing my journey and hope to follow it. So, here are some things I’m still dealing with as I round the end of my second month post-surgery.

  • Much of my scalp had extremely limited sensation from surgery day onward, and that remains true. Sensation has returned slowly, the near-dead zone both shrinking and becoming less insensate with each week, but I still have to be careful when brushing my hair to make sure I judge the amount of force I am using accurately. I have heard of people losing some sensation permanently and I do not yet know if I will be one of them.
  • The incision line from the forehead reconstruction is still scabrous in places and produces occasional shots of pain, usually in places where scabs have recently shed. However, the part of it at my hairline is mostly invisible and even has hair growing through it, obscuring it further. There are no signs of infection or other complications.
  • The sinus between my eyebrows occasionally feels sore and even pressurized now that I’m allowed to sneeze and blow my nose again. I am not sure what to make of this.
  • It will not be until sometime next week that the last of the blood that ended up in the sclera of my right eye is reabsorbed.
  • I received no instructions as to whether I should wear a bra consistently or have the option to go braless hereafter. Both are common post-augmentation recommendations. Once I crossed the six-week threshold in which wearing the provided medical compression bra was mandatory, I stopped to see what would happen. I had a few sore days, but now find being braless about as comfortable as it was before. I did, however, notice that I seemed to be descending a little more , toward a breast shape I’d rather not be mine, so I have taken to wearing an elastic bra most of the time just in case. Certainly, there can be no harm in it.
  • I have not had to discard as much clothing as I imagined I might, but the losses are nonzero. As is my custom, it is going in a bin that I will bring to the next clothing swap I attend. Slowly investigating the parts of my wardrobe with the greatest risk of no longer fitting will proceed apace each weekend.
  • My breasts are still a little sore when I push them closer to each other, as happens when I briefly sleep on my side. Other than this, the experience only occasional pain, but I am remaining vigilant for signs of capsular contracture and other complications.

I hope this rundown helps others who are considering facial feminization surgery and breast augmentation know what to expect from their recovery process.

I’ve come a long way.

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Talking to a Past Self https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/03/15/talking-to-a-past-self/ https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2021/03/15/talking-to-a-past-self/#respond Mon, 15 Mar 2021 19:15:44 +0000 https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/?p=7235 The post Talking to a Past Self appeared first on The Perfumed Void.

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I wouldn’t tell her, “you think you’re a boy, but you grow up to be a woman.”

So many trans people fantasize about the lives they might have had if they had recognized themselves earlier. It is difficult not to be wistful about fewer years spent in denial, wasting the potential of youth for a more expensive later transition that cannot match that potential. The unreal version of myself who did not have to endure a testosterone puberty at all…she is happier than I am. But that’s not the version I would have been if I had known myself better at 5 or 10 or 15 or even 20. My denial, back then, was protective. Being dissociated into oblivion back then kept me from feeling the pain and impatience that a hostile world would have imposed on the version of me who saw all of this coming. It kept me from being sent to religious leaders and “therapists” who would have tried to convince me otherwise, it kept my parents from trying more overtly abusive methods to try to make me into the “man” they imagined I needed to be, and it let me endure ordinary depressed-teenage-boy levels of violence instead of the far greater amounts I might have received as an out trans lesbian in a locale defined in large part by bourgeois Cuban-American social conservatism. I do not regret my denial. The fantasy of breaking it early must come with the far less realistic fantasy of also being able to act on that knowledge right away to hold any appeal at all. Without that addition, the idea of telling my younger self that I felt the way I did because I was wrong about my gender is a curse, not a blessing. I was better off not knowing.

So, what might I have said instead?

To my middle-school self, thrust into a new social environment a thousand miles away from the one she had known in the midst of a puberty she would later recognize as violently unwanted, I might offer:

Allow yourself more closeness with those two friends in those two groups you found. They’re less charismatic and nerdier than the ones you originally latched onto, and the noise of this chunk of your life hasn’t let you appreciate how much better a fit for your mind they are than the others. They certainly don’t deserve the casual, playfully mean derision you added to the heap your other friends placed on them.

You take high-school physical education the summer before entering high school out of a wild misapprehension of the requirements of your program, but it ends up being a useful experience, especially the part about weight training. Leave that girl alone, though. Seriously, leave her alone. Don’t look at her, don’t talk to her more than circumstances force, forget her as much as you can. If you didn’t think that reappearing in her life would at best be confusing and at worst a re-traumatization, you would be apologizing to her now. Leave her alone. You will have better memories of that semester if she isn’t in them.

Keeping in touch with the people from elementary school will feel important at first, but it will rapidly fade into irrelevance. They’re your past, and your future is ahead of you. Something is afoot that will bring some of them back into contact with you later. And you really don’t have to memorize that that girl’s birthday is 1 May.

To my high-school self, lonely, socially inept, and ever reaching for intimacy she would take decades more to know, I might offer:

Don’t get back with her. You’re both damaged in ways that do not so much complement as resonate. I don’t know whether the butterfly effect of you not spending that year with her, neglecting your friends and your own emotional health, will work out for you, but it’s a bad scene. Ending things with her early was a good move and getting back with her so soon thereafter was violence against your own boundaries. You’ll know what that phrase means in the future. She’s not worth it. Stay broken up. Focus on the other one. You know the one. You won’t forget her, and I’m very curious what might have been.

That one very good female friend you have? It never works out with her the way you want it to. You will make peace with that idea, eventually, and come to recognize that it would never have worked. She will marry someone neither of you has met yet. She will have children with him. You have an intuition that she’s patiently indulging you instead of truly thriving on some of the things you say and do to her, and you’re righter than you can imagine. This friendship is real, but so much of how it works at your end is just at your end, imagined into existence because she doesn’t stop you or tell you that you’re not as funny as you think you are, because acknowledging that reality yourself feels like giving up. Life will be better for you if you can tone down the static of wishful thinking in your mind and listen, really listen, to what her words and body language and everything else are saying.

The worst decisions you make in this part of your life are all because you are desperately lonely, and you are desperately lonely because you can tell that people don’t, indeed can’t, see any version of you that feels real. You can’t even see that version, and you won’t, for many years to come. But you do find that version. Things do get better for you. I won’t tell you to hang in there, because you were going to do that anyway. That’s one of your defining features, and a trait that will serve you well for the rest of your life: the emotional null where others’ despair response would reside.

And you do, eventually, get the resolution you need on those feelings and actions related to feminine clothing. Great things are ahead of you. Great, beautiful things.

To my bachelor’s-degree self, finally in an environment that feels right, stretched taut between adolescence and adulthood in a way her peers mostly started experiencing earlier than she did, unable to reconcile the present and the past, I can say:

Don’t pursue her. Which one am I talking about? Yes.

In many ways, this part of your life feels like a realization of all the promises your high-school experience didn’t keep. With that freedom comes responsibility that you take time to appreciate, and decisions you come to regard as lessons for your future self. You have a pattern of letting your wants cloud your ability to read other people. You sense this in yourself already, and it is a thought you fight because there is such incredible darkness behind it. Without that presumptuousness, you feel like you might never have intimate, affectionate touch of the sort you crave, let alone resolution of your various urges. You feel trapped between the lonesome chasm of your terror that this one will be the only one who can ever truly see you and your urgent wish to not be the kind of monster you know people see in you, and you feel helpless to resolve that contradiction. In my timeline, you don’t truly begin the work of undoing this flaw in yourself until graduate school. You can start earlier. You can grant yourself the grace required to imagine that more than one person could ever love you, and with that self-directed largesse, help them find you.

With all of that in mind, don’t call that girl 20 times in the 15 minutes that she was late for your walk through the FIU grounds. Don’t have that brief, ill-conceived dalliance with that woman ten years your senior who just broke up with a friend. Don’t repeatedly sext with that monogamous friend whose relationship you’re hoping will end in your favor. Don’t hit on your tutoring clients after sessions with such consistency that you’re mystified it didn’t lead to you being called into an office. Don’t hit on your sister’s friends, ever. That voice in your head that asks every time if this next move is a good idea? It is right to doubt you at this point in your life. You have so much growing to do, and I would enjoy my memories of this time more if so many of them did not involve this.

But it’s not all mistakes. You have cultivated a mastery of keeping secrets from your parents that will keep being protective for a decade to come. You have been collecting evidence of what happens when that instinct fails, or when you choose not to use it, and that evidence reinforces the solidity of this decision. You have found coping mechanisms that dull the pain of existence without imposing toxic costs you can’t pay, granting you a sense of control in your free time that you cannot access elsewhere. Some of the friends you’ve made or maintained here will last for years to come.

To my early grad-school self, claiming a first true taste of independence:

Listen to yourself. You’ve lived so long doing everything you could to not really hear what goes on inside your mind, but it’s time to start listening. Because this is when you’re finally in a position to start recognizing what you’ve been hiding from yourself and take the steps to come out into the light.

Learn to cook. Your parents gave you a start, but you are lacking some basic skills and the humility to even see what the problem is. You will eat better once you figure that out. You tried, but the internet of those days was not yet as easy to navigate as it is now. Keep trying.

You have more control over how you live this part of your life than you think you do. You will have a better time if you insist on using it, and on choosing your company with that autonomy in mind. I would be more specific, but you wouldn’t listen to me anyway. You’ll understand what I mean when you’re me.

And for my elementary-age self, whose struggles were beginning to show but would not yet have names for years to come, there is no story I could tell that would change anything. For that child, already aware of her impenetrable weirdness but with no knowledge of what it would ultimately mean, I can offer only the most soul-encompassing hug my decades of empathy can present, and the promise that the life ahead of this moment will come to contain the understanding she so craves.

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