On Dreams and Dreaming

There was a time I didn’t dream.

I say “a time”, but in fact, for the majority of my life I did not dream, in either the general or metaphorical sense.

I was a heavy user of marijuana, and a heavy user of caffeine, and that certainly accounts for the poor sleep quality that led to a lack of dreams at night. Once I quit thc, caffeine, stimulants, and other psychoactives, I’ve dreamed every night since.

Dreams of the night are odd. I’ve read that they’re for memory consolidation, for working out issues that the day brings, and for improving skills. I keep dreaming about being a cape, a superpowered human. I’m not sure what to take from this. It’s certainly true that I want to save the world, but it’s not as though I can expect to fly, or fight other capes to do so. Likewise, I am unlikely to be a bender, and manifest fire or throw rocks to that end. I’m not sure what the point of any of this is except to grind ever deeper, “Be a hero. Be a hero. Be a hero.”

The dream (ambitions) sense is a bit harder to explain. Hard to explain isn’t really the correct way to say that, unless I include the sense in which it is difficult for me to type these words, in preparation to putting them out for the world to see; the explanation is quite simple: cowardice. I had no ambitions, because to have ambitions was to invite a great deal of work into my life to achieve them, and to invite the risk of failure. To allow the possibility of putting in the work, and not achieving my dreams regardless.

Certainly, any time we form an ambition, this is a possibility. Some things are limited as to how many people can do them – there can be only one first human on the moon, or Mars. There are only so many slots open on the Lakers. There’s only one President at a time.

Others are talent or other ability limited – there are few blind great painters, few (unacquired) deaf composers, almost no paralyzed jugglers. How many teenagers have acquired a guitar, dreams of being the next Hendrix in their minds, only to learn that their ambition exceeds by far their native talent.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about this lately, and worrying that I don’t have the talent to achieve my dreams. If you don’t know, I want to do meaningful work on the alignment problem – I want to help making artificial intelligence that wants the same kind of outcomes that humans want, as opposed to filling the universe with paperclips or tiny molecular smiley-faces or orgasmium or something. It’s not easy work, and I’m coming to it at a disadvantage – it’s not like dropping out of college twice puts you in a great place for this. Staring at math books and feeling stupid, I wonder if I’m mad to have taken up this ambition.

There are times I am vexed that the world is in such a state that I feel called to save it. I derive a lot of pain from thinking about the state of things. It’s not that…

As I’ve said, I’m grateful that, if such a time is going to have happened in the universe, I’m here, to do something about it. I think were I born into the Culture I would go through life kind of dissatisfied. I want to matter, I just don’t know if I can get there.

On the whole, regardless of the pain, I’m glad I learned to dream. It hurts not to know if I can measure up, or worse, the days I think I know that I can’t, but the grey times, with no dreams by day or night, I think they were worse. Waiting for time to pass, so that something interesting happened out in the world to hear about, or a new book I could read came, those times were so much less than now, having something to work for, a dream to chase. The pain if I can’t?

Hurts.

But it’s still better than the sucking void of the grey days.

If you’re afraid to have dreams, because of the fear of missing, and plunging into that pain, my advice is to risk it. Put yourself where the pain is a possibility, because to hide from it is so much worse.

On Grief

I’ve never broken a bone.

I remember talking to my mom about doing so, when I was a kid. She told me it was a very painful experience. One that would certainly make me cry.

I can’t say for sure, although these days I’ve gotten pretty good at managing physical sensations.

Crying in pain, though? That still happens.

Not physical pain; emotional. Specifically, grief.

I was washing some dishes and thinking about Martina, who I’ve mentioned here before, in Meeting Martina, and again in The Lost Decade. I’ll talk about our last year together, before we parted ways, next week.

I wish I could link her to these. I’m sure she’d love to see me writing, and posting it publically. She’d really love to hear about what I’m up to. How I found purpose, and what I’m doing with it.

But I can’t.

Spoiler alert for a few autobio pasts ahead: She died. Last November.

I didn’t hear about it until December, long enough that by the time I did, her funeral was over, and whatever happened to her cat, Richard, was out of my control, and impossible to find out. She asked me to take care of that cat so many times, if something happened to her, and every time, I assured her that I would.

I don’t know what happened to him. If someone took him in, nobody knew about it on facebook. I keep thinking about that. She was intense about promises made to the dead, and I failed in that duty.

That’s not the part that hurts the most, though. I’ve largely learned to deal with guilt.

No, it’s just the awareness; my friend is gone. I spent more hours in her presence than any person I’m not related to, or was dating. I went with her to ADAPT marches, I kept her alive during a several day power outage by having planned ahead and having a thermal emergency blanket, she kept me from being homeless multiple times. We talked of things shallow, and intensely personal, and for the latter half of our association, she swore up and down that I was psychic, because enough time spent talking to her let me predict the shape of a thing that she’d never said, and wouldn’t have, except that I could see it.

There’s a hole, in my map of the world. When I look at it, I start crying. I remember telling her that I was planning to transition (“You don’t tell people things like that when they’re eating!”). I remember waiting in a pharmacy with her to get an emergency supply of her allergy meds, as her throat slowly closed, and seriously considering jumping the counter and assaulting the pharmacist because he was taking too long. I can remember several nights of various horrible health issues, going to hospitals, and the time the ambulance left without me.

People tell me grief fades, with time. I don’t know if I’m unusual, in that I still hurt this deeply. I want to be clear, though. While I’ve spent the last ~2 hours crying about her, it’s not just her. If I look at the hole where my grandfather was, there’s grief there, too. He’s been gone ten years, but if I don’t dissociate, the pain’s still there, just waiting to catch my eye. Hey there, remember Bob? He’s still gone! (He told me to call him Bob instead of Grandpa, in case any pretty girls heard. His nickname was Happy Bob; always with a smile and a joke, he was.)

I can look another direction, and there’s a hole where my father used to be. We weren’t even that close; my parents had separated when he died, and when they were together, we didn’t get along; I suspect he’d picked up some subtle tell of my being trans, and it bothered him, and so he tried to make a man of me. Still, I can contemplate losing him, and start crying as hard as I did as his funeral. (Suicide. Fun fact: I learned about this in a meeting with therapists, caseworkers, program staff, and my mom. They’d distributed an information packet to everyone, you see, and I had the lightning reading speed trait then. Reading was way more interesting than a meeting, right up until, “[Deadname]’s father committed suicide a few years ago. [Deadname] is not currently aware of this.” I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Mom, so if she reads this post, that’ll be an interesting bit. Certainly I don’t blame her for this; wasn’t her printout.)

So maybe I’m different from other people, when it comes to grief, but I don’t think I really am. Neuromachinery is pretty solidly conserved across the species, to the best of my knowledge. I think what happens to most is that they feel the pain, and it hurts (so goddamn bad) and little by little, they build up a reflex to dissociate from it, automatically. Day by day, it gets a little stronger, a little more automatic, until one day they look at the hole, and can’t really feel the pain at all. This hypothesis explains my observations, and why I differ in this area – I’ve spent the last year learning not to dissociate. At one point last year I could barely feel anything. Didn’t recognize when I felt anger, (I remember being angry on Martina’s behalf, at a Greyhound ticket agent who charged both of us four times for our tickets) didn’t really feel happy anymore, and love was fading away, which was when I realized I had a problem – my feelings for my partners were moving out of my reach.

With help from various friends, to whom I am deeply grateful, I recovered. I learned to feel my feelings, and the mental move that stops dissociation from happening. I treasure my feelings now, delightful and painful alike, and I don’t want dissociation to come back in and steal them away.

But fuck, grief hurts.

On Music

Music is so absurdly good. I can, and have, gone without, when there was need, but I’d listen all the time if it didn’t interfere with understanding people. Music can deepen a depression or pull you out of one, depending on what you decide to listen to and your internal narrative.

I’ve decided I’m not going to shy away from talking about narrative. If it’s not strictly the twenty-four karat gold truth, that we are stories telling ourselves to ourselves is a very useful fake framework. I think of fake frameworks as something like…

Imagine a rickety scaffold. Not a nice steel structure, made in a factory, with precision tolerances and proof of crush tests, no. This is more like a bamboo structure, lashed together with braided vine rope. Think something Robinson Crusoe might build. And you can see people standing on it, and using it to access things that would otherwise be out of reach. They finish their work and it’s your turn. You climb up and it shifts a little under your weight, it creaks as you move around, and you know you don’t want to trust it, not the way you could trust steelwork. Impermanent and unreliable as it is, though… there are places you can’t reach without scaffolding and we don’t always have steel ones available.

Back to music and narrative – if your depressed thoughts tend towards rumination, looping around the same ideas when you’re depressed, sad music will tend to hold you down. It reinforces what you’re already thinking and feeling, and becomes one more thing keeping you in that state. If you don’t have the rumination trait, however, sad music is like a friend commiserating with you. You’re not alone, and it’s not so bad.

Upbeat, confident music can make you feel better, or if you’re already feeling good, on top of the world. Admittedly, this can be dangerous too – I would predict that some amount of unforced errors leading to car wrecks have this kind of music involved; you get really into it, the universe is with you, you can do anything. Like weave through traffic at 85 mile per hour. Maybe you even can do so, but try to remember that everyone thinks they’re an above average driver, and they can’t all be right.

I’ve heard music called an accident of evolution, and I don’t buy it. Music is complicated, and it’s universal across the species. Some of the oldest artifacts we have are bone flutes our ancestors made. Traits like that, they don’t happen in a vacuum. I think the mechanism has a purpose, and it’s for communication. I suspect it’s what we used before language, conveying emotional states, building rapport, holding the tribe together, and even keeping some degree of history, in stories that were patterns of states. Songs can tell stories without words, simply in how they make you feel, and this is particularly true when you’re part of a tribe, where you share almost all of your context with the musician.

You even process music in the same general areas as language. It’s a deeply woven part of us as a species, and it’s beautiful and glorious.

It’s also used against you, at times. Think about car commercials, or presidential campaigns, using music to touch your system one and get you on their side before your reasoning mind gets involved, so that it gets involved on their side, rationalizing why you should be for them. They’re out to hijack you, and if you aren’t aware of it, they’ll have an easy time of it.

Pay attention to what people are pushing at you (and into you!) with the music they frame themselves with. Personally, I always have headphones in when I’m in supermarkets with music. I don’t want to be hijacked. My narrative belongs to me, and is not up for commercial renegotiation. Be mindful of the language whispered in your ears, and treat it as friend or foe accordingly, but always, always, be mindful. You can be certain that whatever commercial provider is playing it was, when they picked it.

On Off Days

I’m having a bit of an off day today, so instead of a standard rant, you get:

Cut-rate rationality-themed superheroes!

Outside View – with the power to perceive the exterior of anything!

Cost Disease – with the power to infect you with somethine expensive to treat!

Murphyjitsu – with the power to make anything that can go wrong for his foes do so!

Groupthink – with the power to control many minds at once, but only to have the same thoughts and do the same things!

Illusion of Transparency – with the power to make a person think anything is completely clear!

Motivated (Cognition|Skepticism) – a team, with the power to give people reason to think about or doubt anything!

Bayes Man – His priors give him reason to think he can win this battle!

Paperclip Maximizer – with the power to make paperclips grow!

Philosophical Zombie – Not immune to mind control, but does what he was going to do anyway!

Do you have others? Add them in the comments!

On Being Trapped in Physics

The other day, I did something I predicted wouldn’t work out well, but I felt compelled to. Many times, when I’ve been rolling around Berkeley I’ll see some folks with a pamphlet stand, usually in Ashby station. This day, I saw them out by the Berkeley Bowl, and their signboard said, “Will Suffering End?”.

If you know me, you know that ending suffering is kind of a big deal to me, and while I didn’t think our answers to the question would dovetail, I had a few minutes. I approached, and pointing to their board said, “Yes. Well, at least, I hope so. Making it happen is what I’m about. What’s your plan for fixing it?”

It was getting people to read the bible, as I’d predicted.

This is not an essay on religion and a lack thereof, though.

The conversation evolved through several steps of talking past each other. A refrain Rose kept returning to was free will, and how wonderful it was that God had equipped us with it. While I can see the intuitive appeal of the concept as having explanatory power, and in making one feel good both about one’s decisions, and doing things like maintaining prisons with poor conditions for those who break the social rules, it’s not a concept that I find useful in thinking about the world.

I think, as the title may have suggested, that we humans, along with all other life, all things in fact in this universe, are trapped in physics. We can do nothing other than what we do, and any claim otherwise that I’ve ever heard resolves to incoherency. A ball, released on an inclined plane, will roll to the bottom. Today we know that this is a result of gravity, and the conversion of potential to kinetic energy. We can take a few facts about the hill, the ball, and the local strength of gravity, and predict how fast the ball will roll, when it will reach any given point along the path it will follow, and how far it will go past the bottom of the hill. It makes no sense to postulate that this time, the ball will roll uphill and stay there, remaining smugly stationary at the top of the incline.

I can imagine a time earlier in history, when we didn’t understand anything about gravity, inclined planes, or conservation of energy, in which that might have been, if not a reasonable bet, at least one that a person couldn’t be sure wouldn’t happen this time. Such people might well have ascribed free will to the ball, and a strong desire to be at the bottom of hills to balls in general.

Nowadays, as mentioned, we do know better. Nobody with a modern education would bet on a ball to roll uphill, nor a slinky to climb stairs, nor even a virus to reconsider infecting a cell and injecting its dna for replication.

And yet somehow these people, who should be aware from school classes that the laws of nature are Laws, inviolate in every case we’ve ever checked them in, and that they are made of atoms, that form molecules, that form cells, that form organs, that form people, somehow think we can be free of that inevitability. After all, they can observe themselves debate their options, and they “could have” done other than they chose to.

I think a lot of this intuition comes from observing people make different choices in the “same” circumstances. Since you spent fifteen minutes not eating the marshmallow to get a second one, why couldn’t Billy in the next test room over? Everything in the room was the same, same table, same chair, same marshmallow.

Different Billy.

You had a stable home life, and parents who taught you some things about self-control, and a decent native temperament. Billy comes from a broken home, the parent he lived with working overtime to make ends meet and leaving him with the electric babysitter. His native temperament? Not so good for delaying gratification.

In our society we seem to regard this as something Billy should do something about, or at least feel bad about, but it’s not like he had any choice in any of those things, and given those as inputs, his choice to eat the marshmallow was in fact quite predictable. He could not have chosen other wise – he simply wasn’t equipped to, and it makes no sense to blame him for it.

I’ve had this perspective for a while, and I think it’s useful in dealing with other people – they all have their backstories, and knowing that helps me to be a kinder and more thoughtful version of myself when interacting with them. It suggests to me that we should be using very, very different methods to respond to people who break the law, and that our society should be structured fairly differently, although I don’t have an exact model of what it should look like. Certainly far more effort should be put into designing our incentives.

In reality, we’re no different from the ball and the incline, aside from having more complicated and harder to see ‘inclines’ driving us. Rose was spreading the word of the Lord because her backstory and decision process told her it was the right thing to be doing. She couldn’t have done otherwise than to smile and tell me about how wonderful free will was, and I’d be foolish to blame her for it.

Why write all this up? My hope is that other people catch some of this, and think a little more about what they want the shape of the world to take, and align their actions to driving other people’s towards better inclines than they might have, using their native reactions. Just because you can’t make a decision other than one you’re going to make, doesn’t mean I can’t try to shift what the outcome of that process is with my words, after all. You’re not the same person who started reading this, and I hope you’re a wiser one.

Think about it.

On Being Trans

I thought for a while about what I wanted to ramble about this week, and I figured, hey, why not drop the proverbial cherry bomb in the proverbial outhouse? This is probably not the wisest selection criteria I could have used, but hey, being trans is in fact fairly central to my life, and I’m going to talk about it sooner or later. It makes up too much of my life, and the lives of many of my friends. We’re unusually highly represented in my community, at about three times the baseline rate.

So first, a quick overview:
For anyone who’s reading this and doesn’t know, transgender people are people who don’t feel comfortable / identify with the sex we were assigned at birth. This usually goes further than the traditional idea of “tomboys” – trans people generally want to or do modify our bodies to be closer to those we want / need. Tomboys are much more frequent in the population, to the best of my knowledge; they are generally AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth) people who are interested in “boy things” in their youth. At least in my society, this is less, though not free of, stigma, as one grows older – adult women, at this place and time in history, can have whatever hobbies and interests they want (Sort of. Better than it was. We have a long way to go yet). AMAB (Assigned Male At Birth) people don’t have a traditional role like this; there’s a spoken word clip at the beginning of Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl” that points pretty squarely at, at least, an interpretation of the cause of this.

Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading.

Is this true? Probably not entirely as stated, but it’s pretty clear in most human societies that a female-bodied person who wants to act in a masculine fashion, it might not be accepted, but it’s at least understandable. Men get to do stuff, women get to clean stuff. And have babies. And be talked down to, considered less competent, assumed to be of a lower work level (One gendered book I saw for children once said, “Boys are pilots. Girls are stewardesses.”) and just, generally, treated as second-class citizens. I don’t think I need to delve truly deeply into this, although if there’s a strong response that I should have, I might get into it more in a later ramble.

So wanting some of that sweet, sweet male privilege is understandable, and to some degree acceptable, with large local variance. But to be male-bodied, and not be all-in on masculinity? Well, not only are you breaking categories, you’re doing it in a way that does not make sense. Try growing up AMAB and not caring about sports, cars, or violence. It’s a solid ticket to being an outcast, and in lots of cases, abuse, both mental and physical.

For myself, I can only speak to the M2F side of being trans; I never wanted to be a man, and while I can imagine my situation in the inverse abstractly, I can’t move myself into that picture. Sure, I like being able to do what I want, but honestly? Men don’t even seem to really have that. Be the breadwinner. Be strong. Don’t be seen to have strong emotions, aside from anger. Don’t ever, ever, break masculinity. When I was apparently male, there were expectations on me, and while I was particularly antipathic due to my own tendencies, I’d probably have been rebellious just because of the number of expectations laid on me, for having a Y-chromosome. I’ve never taken well to expectations I didn’t agree to, and I found these ones particularly foolish, when I was subject to them.

On the other hand, privilege… I could walk down the streets without being catcalled (Which has happened once since my transition. Not sure if I live in civilized places, or I don’t pass well enough to be interesting for that) and be out at night alone without worrying much if the guy behind me had ill intent for me. I was assumed to be competent technically, and that to study STEM subjects was a perfectly natural thing for me to do.

On the whole, none of this was worth it to me. It wasn’t that I hated having these things, but the baggage they came with sucked. I had to pretend to be a man for it. Swagger, know about sportsball, don’t visibly feel things, those were bad. More simply, every time I heard, {he, his, masculine flavored statement(“Oh, you’re so handsome!“)} they were like a knife in my heart. The shape of the hole in society I was expected to fill was an Iron Maiden, and eventually I rejected it.

It’s not that I was confused about my gender identity. I resolved the central question of that for myself in the mid-90’s, when an MUD named Holy Mission asked me, “Do you want to be male, or female?” (And notice the ‘normal’ ordering of that question. Woman is the ‘or’ choice. Male is the default in our society – people are male until proven otherwise, there’s a lot of medical research that needs to be redone because women weren’t part of the test cases and it works differently, with our hormonal balance. Consider the rare case where the trope is inverted, in *Turn the Page*, “Is it woman? Is it man?” is explicitly about using this to assault someone’s identity.) it was like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly, a vast amount of my discontent had a focus, and I had a much more complete idea of who I was. It took me more than a decade to act on that awareness, due to a number of circumstances. Deciding to transition, and then acting on it, are hard choices to make.

David Foster Wallace said something that is fairly close to my experience, here:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

It wasn’t that I wanted to face all of the shit our world gives women, nor the extra helping I could expect for being a gender-nonconforming AMAB, but not doing so, facing other day of being, “him”‘d, and “sir”‘d, and having to pretend to be something I wasn’t, was just outright more painful than not. I don’t know that not transitioning would have killed me, but it certainly felt like the next time I got deadnamed, I was going to play in traffic, because that pain seemed more manageable. At the least, briefer.

(For the record I’ve largely resolved my issues with wanting to cease. I want to live for a billion years, minimum, these days.)

So I just… went for it. Put on a strappy top and some pants from my girlfriend, and went to the grocery store. Pushed forward on it, or at least, maintained a fence on how far I was willing to back down, and tried to keep rolling that edge forward. It was scary, but not compared to what I’d been feeling.

Now, to the central idea I had in mind, that led me to pour all of this out: Being trans kind of sucks. Not, having transitioned. That was necessary and good (“It’s easy, there’s a trick to it, you do it or you die.” – Neil Gaiman) and I don’t regret it. But if I could just wave a wand and have a cisfeminine body, I certainly would. I do not love my testosterone scars, in my bones, my skull, or my voice, and I see no compelling reason to keep them if I didn’t have to. Being trans is not a choice I would ever have made, given actual options.

That said, I’m here now, and it hasn’t been the worst of all possible journeys. I’ve made some amazing friends, and had life experiences I never would have had, without it. I’ve seen gender from both sides, and I still have some perspective that differs from both, because a part of me has and will always be outside the two primary clusters that human gender largely orbits. I would not benefit from changing my history to be cisfeminine from the outset of life (much as many timeslices have wished for that in pain) and on the whole, I value the perspective I’ve gained.

But trans lives are hard, we give up a lot just to feel okay in our bodies, and if you, dear reader, are someone who thinks that we need to be shamed / punished / scared out of it, shame on you. My brothers and sisters and nonbinary siblings don’t deserve your hate, disgust, or “help” in the form of trying to change who we are. We’re just humans, trying to get by, with kind of a sucky deal (Not the worst, not the best, but I’m not convinced from the inside that any given condition will be “worst”. Martina found immense joy in a life that from the outside, I would have hated.)

If our existence bothers you, just look away. You’ll be choosing the side of the powerful (“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. -Desmond Tutu), but omission is at least slightly better than commission here. Stop making it harder on us. We’re not out to get you, or perverts, or after a cheap thrill. We’re just trying to live our lives, as much as anyone else, and isn’t this world hard enough on thinking, feeling meat, without us beating each other up?

Join me this time next week, when I share my thoughts on people actively campaigning against us!

On Names

In the days before the Enlightenment, there was a concept common across human tribes, although it was not always implemented identically everywhere: Names have power. This often cashed out in a belief that knowing the True Name of being would allow you control of that being. This is not Actually True, but it does give some idea how humans think about these things.

That said, names do have power, and secret names have power. Just ask any trans person, what the feeling of being called by their deadname vs chosen name is like.

Beyond that, labels affect thinking, names are labels, and the effects are subtle and gross. In an interesting update to the study I meant to find for this post, the authors draw out the causes of nominative employment discrimination a bit further – while there appears to be less of a bias for traditionally nonwhite names, there is a meaningful one for names that convey low socioeconomic standing. If your name says your parents were poor, you’re going to have to work harder to get those interviews, at which point you can demonstrate your sterling qualities.

But you’re walking uphill to do so, and every little bit of difficulty adds on. Our lives are like the trajectories of spaceborne objects that way – small changes early on can cause huge shifts later, and many small adjustments, especially those that happen at optimal times can wildly alter paths.

Names are a fundamental part of first impressions, often going to work before we ever meet the person, priming that first impression. The example of this I have in my mind I heard some time ago – would John F. Kennedy have been president, with a different name? Rufus J. Kennedy, perhaps not. Melvin F. Kennedy? Seems unlikely to me. Not just because of how these names would have fallen on the ears of the voting public – I don’t think Rufus or Melvin would have ended up in a place to have their name heard in that context. Emotional Intelligence (review to come) talks about the effects of having social graces early, or not, and how this sets a pattern that can shape one’s entire life.

And yet, most people take their name for granted. As a society we tend to assume that first names, at least, almost never change. I think this kind of rigidity has left us collectively worse off. Being trans has given me a different perspective on this than most have, since changing my name was necessary; I spent years flinching inside every time someone wanted my attention.

Therefore, I did so, applying with the courts, posting in a local paper, and waiting weeks to see if I would be allowed to redub myself. Afterwards, I had years to think about the matter, and to wear many names in a variety of virtual environments. Even names that were just words, grouped together, tended to shape my behavior a bit – I acted differently as Tribalvirtue, as Runinterror, and as Perax. Tribal tended to lean more towards kindnesses for people on my side. Runinterror looked for opportunities to attack the enemy, especially ones that imposed that kind of sick, helpless dread. Perax mostly minded her own business, while being ready to help or harm anyone, as their actions dictated.

More recently, when I moved to Berkeley, I went by my legal name for a few weeks, but I noted two things – most people I knew, knew me by the name I’d carried since Wildstar (Ratheka), and I felt more comfortable with that as my designation. I updated to introducing myself as Ratheka, talked to the people I’d introduced myself to as Robyn, and got them to update, and have generally leaned into being the person I feel that name belongs to. It was part of an intentional effort to reshape my view of myself, and thus how I interacted with the world, and it with me. I’d picked up some memes regarding heroism common to my community, and I wanted every interaction to give me a little nudge towards being the hero I wanted to be.

Thus far, it’s gone pretty well. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have grown stronger and become the person I have under another name, but it doesn’t feel that way. If nothing else, I’m certainly unique. I’ve benefitted from changing my handle, and I don’t think the world would be better off had I not.

Where do I think we should go from here? I’m not sure where I picked up all of the pieces of this model, as it’s been a long time, but my current thinking is that parents should give their children a name that is not expected to last into adulthood. As the individual grows and begins to decide who they are and want to be, they should be free to redesignate themselves, and we should have legal and societal affordances for this. Additionally, I think that adults should also have this freedom – we are not the same people we were ten years ago, but a name set in stone is at least an anchor to the way things were – not impossible to overcome, but certainly harder, and often the difficulty is shaped by the anchor, and the ocean floor it is set in.

I’m not saying nominative determinism is real, but it’s more real than many things humans believe in.