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Five years ago today I woke up elated and afraid. Elated because I was getting top surgery! Afraid because I was getting top surgery.

I suspect the joy is a little easier to understand. From the moment I hit puberty the first time, I loathed the way my upper body looked. Initially I denied the changes that occurred right under my nose; once I finally acknowledged them, I refused to step out of the house in anything other than a tight sports bra. When my costume for the musical during my sophomore year didn’t allow for that, I wore a tight tankini instead. I tried wearing traditional bras a couple of times, but I hated how they felt and how they made me look. When I hit college and began Transitioning, I switched to Ace bandages for a while (not one of my brighter ideas) before finally purchasing several binders. Essentially a double-layer spandex undershirt, these garments flattened my torso even more than the sports bras had, letting me “pass” as a man when I wore clothes. I also bought a special binder made of swimsuit material for the summers, so I didn’t have to fight with a girl’s one-piece suit anymore. As long as I wore clothes, I was somewhat comfortable in my body. But that wasn’t enough. I remembered times as a kid when I ran around with no shirt on. I remember closing my eyes in the shower when my body began changing, and training myself to not look below shoulder level in mirrors if I didn’t have at least a bra on. The binders may have been a help, but they also added two very tight layers under my normal clothes, which meant I overheated even more easily than I always had. And I wanted back the feeling of freedom I had as a kid, when I felt more comfortable in my own skin.

From the moment I realized that I had to Transition to keep going, I wanted top surgery. For an assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) individual like me, that means I would basically get a mastectomy.  It’s not something every trans person wishes for, or can afford. But I knew that for me to be truly happy I needed it. The biggest question became when, as most insurance companies at the time didn’t cover ANY costs related to the procedure. So I kept working, kept saving, and did research. I learned about the different types of top surgery: Depending on how large your chest was pre-operation, the surgeon might opt to do “keyhole” surgery or a bilateral mastectomy with nipple grafts. The former procedure leaves less visible scars, because the incisions are made in the nipples. It also works best for folks who are no larger than an A or small B cup. I realized pretty quickly that I’d likely end up having the second procedure.

Spring of 2012 brought with it that long-term substitute teaching job, and with it, a large paycheck. As soon as I realized just how much money I’d have by the end of the semester, I kicked my surgery research in to high gear, because there was a very good chance I could have the procedure done that summer. After looking at costs and reviews, I scheduled my procedure with Dr. Medalie in Cleveland. And the countdown to 25 June began.

Even with how excited I was when I woke up that day five years ago, I was also a little afraid. As much as I disliked it, my body was still a known quantity, and had been for years. I’d never had surgery like this before; what would that be like? I’d seen a video on Dr. Medalie’s web site of the procedure, so I knew exactly what was about to happen. How much was it going to hurt? And what if, after all of this, I wasn’t happy with the results? What then?

Dr. Medalie performs this surgery as an outpatient procedure, so I didn’t spend any time in a hospital. I arrived at the surgery center a couple of hours before the procedure, and was back in the hotel room by early evening. The next few days proved to be the biggest trial of my whole Transition: The dressings on my chest and drains in my sides made moving around too much painful, and I couldn’t really move my shoulders. The drains also meant I had to sleep on my back (NOT my preferred sleeping position). I forced myself to relax as much as possible and spent the week catching up on sci-fi TV shows.

One week after the surgery, the drains came out, the dressings came off, and I got to see the new me. My first look didn’t do much to dispel my previous fear: The grafts and incisions were still in the early stages of healing, my skin was prickly with re-growing hair (my chest was shaved prior to surgery), and patches of yellow and orange showed where I’d been swabbed with iodine during the procedure. But over the next few weeks, as I exercised and stretched and got back to the business of living my life, I realized that the fear had proved unfounded.

Five years later, I have no concerns about how my chest looks. Regular exercise has allowed me to build a decent amount of muscle; between that and my body hair the scars of my surgery are a little hard to see unless you know what to look for. I no longer wear multiple layers of clothes to hide my shape, only for comfort. The first time I went swimming in just trunks ranks as one of the happiest days of my life. In many ways, five years ago today marked the start of ME.

When the school year ended, I didn’t know where I’d be at the end of the summer. I had hopes, based on several interviews, but no one had yet hired me. So I came back to the hometown with a huge question mark hanging in the air, the implied “What’s next?”

In the ensuing weeks, I’ve visited friends and family, gone to the movies and the library, relaxed as much as I can. All the time, that annoying question mark stayed put, just at the edge of my thoughts, ready and waiting to bring with it a whole host of other questions and worries: What if no one wants me? I know I’ve said I’ll work as a sub again, but can I really survive that? What’s taking so long???  

Actually, I already knew the answer to that last one: The state of Alaska had yet to finalize it’s budget for next year, so schools didn’t know their funding situation. This led in turn to a hiring freeze. Several times since I’ve gotten back to the Lower 48, I’ve had an e-mail or a phone call from some of the principals who interviewed me, telling me that they still couldn’t move forward with the hiring process. I also got automatically generated messages from the school HR sites, saying I hadn’t been accepted for other jobs I’d applied for.

Last Wednesday, I finally got a call from one of the principals. After thanking me for being so patient, she told me that someone else had been hired. I thanked her for letting me know, and for keeping me in the loop this whole time. I felt disappointed as I hung up the phone; that interview had gone really well, and I felt like I would be a good fit for that school.

Less than an hour later, I got a phone call from a different principal. Would I like a job? HECK YEAH! I may or may not have been jumping around the room in glee while telling him I accepted the position.

Instead of a village of 500 people, I’ll now be living in a town of about 3,000. My comings and goings will no longer be restricted by access to plane, boat, or snowmobile; the town is on the road system! I can take my car! I have a decent shot at a social life beyond my co-workers. I can get plugged in to the LGBT community at large and the trans community in particular in a way that I couldn’t really manage from the middle of nowhere. There will be mountains and trees and ocean, as opposed to flat, unending tundra. I don’t know too much about the job yet, only that it will be a “multi-grade intermediate classroom”. That translates to some combination of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders; the exact mix will be determined once the school administration has a better handle on numbers. In the meantime, I get to spend the next couple of months filling out a mountain of paperwork, researching apartments, and getting ready to move again. New adventures, here I come!

In one week, I leave Nunap. Not just for the summer, but for good.

Oh, I plan to return at some point to visit. But as of midday on the 22nd, I will no longer reside here. My resignation got turned in months ago, and I began actively searching for a new job a couple of months before that.

The reality of this decision really hit home today. While I’ve been packing things slowly over the last couple of weeks, my goal for this weekend was to finish as much as possible. The apartment certainly isn’t up to my usual standards of cleanliness. Several plastic totes and large boxes are strewn about, two of which are sealed and ready for mailing labels. Bubble wrap and butcher paper are piled on the carpet in front of the TV next to the tape gun. Books no longer adorn the bookshelves; instead, only various Star Wars figures lay on their backs or stand in their packaging, waiting to be put in whatever box has room. Only the calendar graces the bulletin board, and I can see faded outlines from where the posters and other items used to hang. In the bedroom, few clothes still hang in my “closet”, and the dressers drawers hold less than half of what they once did. I had the blinds up today to let in the sun, and as I worked I could see a crowd of middle schoolers playing basketball and riding bikes on the playdeck. At one point, as I watched three of the boys repair the hoop they built themselves (the old one fell down almost a year ago and hasn’t been replaced), it occurred to me that this is one of the last times I’ll see these kids like this, and I felt a little sad. I got the same feeling yesterday when Kelly brought more boxes over (she’s moving in to this apartment next year) and had two of my former students helping her. The kids happily put the boxes where directed before looking around. “So empty!” the one said. The other, who’s been one of my most frequent visitors since I moved in, asked my permission and, after receiving an affirmative answer, took up her usual place on the recliner while chattering away.

I’ll miss the kids. I’ll miss my co-workers, especially Lucas, Andy, and Kelly. But it’s time to move on.

When I took this job three years ago, I had very little idea of what I was getting in to. Prior to moving up here, I had only the vaguest idea of the geography of Alaska, its history, what the people were like. At an earlier point in my life, I’d’ve been terrified of moving so far away from everything I knew and found familiar. But I wanted to get back in to teaching. And I was ready for an adventure. So I took the job. I figured I’d learn about a new part of the world, gain some new experiences, and probably come back to my hometown in a couple of years with some great stories.

One thing I didn’t really imagine was falling in love with the state. While part of me will always be back in my hometown, I have become so fond of Alaska that I’m only looking at new teaching jobs here in the state, albeit on the road system.The last year or so, I could feel myself stagnating, the routines of living and working in such a small place seeping in and setting like concrete. The familiarity brought some comfort with it, but lately it’s just been stifling. Even though I’ve come to appreciate the stark beauty of the tundra, I long for things like trees and hills or mountains to break up the unending flatness. And while I’m glad to have had the experience and stories that come with living in such a remote location, I desperately want to get back to where I have more control over my comings and goings, where I have places to go to and come from. Going along with that last thought, I’m also ready to live in a larger community again, both from a geography and a population standpoint.

In the end, though, I’m just ready to move on. It’s time for the next adventure.

 

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last hour and a half, trying to put my thoughts into words, to make this post coherent. I don’t know if that’s even possible.

It’s been less than a month since my world turned sideways. On 28 February, I got a text message from Mom: “CJ call my cell”. I immediately thought something had happened to one of my grandparents. Instead, I learned that my cousin J had died. He was one month older than me.

According to the family photo albums, J and I met for the first time in early 1988, at the ages of 7 months and 6 months, respectively. I don’t remember that meeting; my memory may be good, but it doesn’t reach back that far! The pictures show that we got along right from the start, crawling around Aunt S’s house and playing with each other and M, J’s older sister.

For most of our lives, J and I lived in different cities in different states. Even so, we remained close. As kids, our time together would be spent playing with action figures, racing Hot Wheels cars, leaving rubber snakes all over the place, and chasing each other and our sisters with Nerf guns. With our sisters, we’d put on “magic shows”, consisting of tricks, songs, puppets, and general silliness. Most summers, his family would come to the Lake for at least a long weekend. We four cousins would spend the days in the water, tumbling one another off the rafts, blasting one another with water guns, and having dock jumping contests. For this activity, we’d stand at the beach end of the dock and run the whole length before flying off the other end into the water. Points were awarded for how far you could jump, or for how silly your jump looked.

Life got a little more complicated in high school (whose didn’t?). We both had known for years that we were different, but now we finally had words for those differences and used them when we talked. He was bisexual. I liked girls, so society at the time labeled me a lesbian. I didn’t have many people I felt comfortable talking to about this stuff, and I don’t think he did, either. Having each other there was a huge help and relief. Other topics of conversation included the latest Broadway shows, if the X-Men movies were as good as the comics we used to read, and our experiences with our respective high schools’ marching bands and spring musicals.

We started college at the same time, but our paths diverged pretty sharply from there. Over the next five years, I came out as a guy and began my Transition while completing first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. J left college, worked in retail for a time before moving into social services, and settled into a relationship with a guy. Our conversations became less frequent, but that didn’t mean we didn’t know or care about one another.

J spent the last four years managing a seizure disorder. Among other things, it led to the break up of his relationship, moving between several jobs, and ultimately, moving to my hometown and moving back in with his mom. I hated the circumstances, but I was happy to have one of my oldest friends close by when I would come back from Alaska. One of my strongest memories comes from the summer between my first and second years on the tundra, J’s first summer in the city. Prior to that year, I’d been keeping some of my things (okay, most of the stuff I didn’t take to Alaska) in Aunt S’s garage. Well, the stuff had been there for almost two years, and between that and J moving in, I decided it was high time to move all of that stuff to a storage unit. The day of the move, J graciously helped me load the boxes into the truck, rode with me to the storage facility, and helped unload everything and cart it into the new locker.

After J died, I felt like I needed to come back to my hometown. It’s not the first death that’s happened since I moved, but for the first time I could not keep my mind on my life on the tundra. I could have rushed back right away, but with no sub plans ready I knew I’d be even more stressed out if I tried. Instead, I spent a week and a half teaching and preparing sub plans and went to a job fair in Anchorage before hopping on a plane for the Lower 48. I’ve spent the past two and a half days connecting with family and friends. Yesterday I drove out to the storage unit. The entire time I was there, I could not stop thinking about how J helped me out with that initial trip. I’ve visited with my aunt several times, and each time I walk into her house I half expect to hear his voice. Because of the seizures, J couldn’t drive, so when I was in town I’d take him wherever he needed to go. A couple of times, as I’ve driven somewhere this trip, I would almost swear I’d see J out of the corner of my eye, sitting in the passenger seat.

I’m glad I came back. Being here has allowed me to breathe, just breathe, and process all that’s happened. The last two weeks in Alaska, I’ve felt like a sleepwalker. I couldn’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, yet several mornings getting out of bed was almost impossible. My mind kept going back over my last interactions with J during this past holiday season. I broke down in my apartment several times. And yes, I’ve had similar crying jags a couple of times while I’ve been here. But here, I don’t have to be Mr. CJ. I don’t have to worry about explaining everything I’m going through. I can grieve, I can breathe, and I’m a little more settled in my head now than I have been lately. And now I feel like I can actually say good-bye.

 

 

My first winter in Alaska didn’t have a lot of snow. A few inches covered the tundra from November until early April, getting replenished every once in a while, but never in large amounts. That winter stands out most for the fact that all of February passed without a single positive temperature. Ambient temperatures hovered in the -20s, and the wind chill frequently pulled that down to -40. I didn’t set foot outside without my heavy parka, insulated bib overalls, boots, gloves, hat, face mask, and goggles.

Last year’s winter had more snow and less extreme cold. I don’t think we ever saw below -25 with a windchill. On my return from the semester break, I enjoyed the discovery of at least a foot of snow covering everything, with drifts in some places that came up past my waist. One drift outside the store actually stood tall enough that you could almost walk directly onto the porch without needing the few stairs left uncovered. (Even this amount doesn’t match the stories I’ve heard from the locals. Several people have shared that, as recently as five or six years ago, so much snow would fall that buildings would effectively be buried, and you’d need to dig down into your home.)

This winter has been the most “Alaska” winter so far. As early as November, we experienced those incredibly cold temperatures again. Since the beginning of the calendar year, we’ve had what I consider record lows, including one day with an ambient temperature of -27 and a wind chill of -57. (That day, Lucas, Kelly, and I tried for ourselves the fact that boiling water thrown in the air will instantly freeze.) We’ve also had 3 outright blizzards since the beginning of the semester, two necessitating early dismissals and one cancelling school completely. Thanks to the snow, wind, ice fog, and low cloud ceilings, we’ve had more than a few days where no planes have flown, complicating travel plans and stopping the mail. The blizzards have brought quite a bit of snow, but the winds carry much of it away again. What doesn’t blow away gets sculpted into amazing forms. I look forward to what the rest of winter brings!

It takes a village to live in a village like Nunap.

My first day in Nunap, I arrived to late to get to the post office, which meant I couldn’t retrieve the bedding I’d mailed ahead of time. Fortunately, Lucas and Andy had a spare pillow and blanket I could borrow for the night.

The first day I went to the school, a couple of students helped me unpack the boxes and tidy up the classroom.

I didn’t have a fixed address when I moved up here. Things mailed ahead were addressed to the school or simply “General Delivery”. The postmistress, Chrissy, kindly kept everything in a pile in the back until I arrived. In the years since, she has tracked down missing packages, helped me mail and receive quite a few packages and letters, and kept me apprised of any changes in USPS procedures, like when prices for mailing flat rate boxes changed.

Kelly and Jenny provided a wealth of information that first year, telling me the stories of each of my students so I knew why they’d sometimes act the way they did. Lucas and Andy fed me on more than a few occasions, helping combat any lingering homesickness.

School sporting events are always an “everybody pitches in” affair. I’m usually on the dinner and breakfast shifts, helping serve food to the visiting teams and coaches. When I’m not in the kitchen, I can be found at the concession stand, or even at the admissions desk.

At the beginning of my second year, I moved into a different apartment. The previous tenant left something of a mess. Lucas, Andy, and Kelly all pitched in for a couple of hours to help me clean things up.

One of the new teachers, Aly, had a hard time adjusting. I told her that my door was always open if she wanted to talk, and she took me up on that offer several times.

Once a week, Kelly stays after school so her students can have computer free time. I do the same, though usually on a different day. Whichever one of us isn’t staying will pick up the other’s mail, because the post office closes at 4:30.

Actually, it’s pretty typical to check someone else’s mail for a day or two, as between sports practices, after-school meetings, and travel not everyone can make it to the post every day.

Speaking of travel, on several occasions I’ve found myself stranded due to weather. Sometimes, nothing can be done. Other times, alternative arrangements can be made. Twice, I’ve ridden in a truck on the frozen river to get from Nunap to the Hub and vice versa. Once, I made the same trip on the back of a snowgo (one of the local words for a snowmobile). Each trip would not have been possible without the help of community members.

If you need help getting luggage to and from the airport, or picking up packages from the post office, you can usually be assured of one or two students hanging around. Pay them in fruit snacks, and they are some of the best helpers available.

Sub-zero temperatures in the winter can mess with the pipes in teacher housing. It’s not uncommon to call a fellow teacher and ask to “borrow” their shower. Similar calls are sometimes made about laundry facilities.

Teachers often need help with something. If I have a question about my computer, I ask Lucas or Eech, our school tech guy. Questions about paperwork go to Dan, the principal, or Ellen, our school secretary. If I need resources for struggling students, I hit up Andy (she is the elementary special education person) or Kelly. Got a question about district policy? E-mail one of several people at the District Office. Recently, I’ve also found myself in the position of being the go-to person for more than a few of the new people, and several of the old, as well.

Outside of school, social lives for the teachers frequently revolve around our co-workers. Some people will go hunting, fishing, or berry picking with local families. Lucas, Andy, Kelly, and I often have dinner together. Lucas and Andy also host a weekly pancake brunch on Sundays. Movies nights happen with various groups of people at different times. Several teachers have kids; more than a few of us have watched the munchkins for some length of time.

In the last two years, we’ve had several people arrive mid-school year. The rest of the teachers really make an effort to include the newcomers and help them to adjust to the new place and routines. This can be as simple as saying “hi” and making sure to include them in things like Sunday pancakes, or something a little more, like providing housekeeping items or making dinner so the new people don’t have to worry about it after a long day of unpacking.

As much as I relish my friendships with my coworkers, there are times when I can’t or don’t want to talk to them. In that case, I can text or call Tina, a friend who works in the next village up river, or try to coordinate a phone call or FaceTime chat with friends and family back home. I’ve also started seeing a counselor again, and Dr. A is always just an e-mail or Skype call away.

It takes a village to live in a village, and I’ve got one of the best villages in the world.

It’s a dysphoria day.

I’ve been living authentically for almost ten years; I’ve been on hormones for just over seven. Two surgeries, four-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years ago, went a long way towards banishing these moments of disconnect.In my daily life, no one questions my gender. And yet, I still have days where question myself, where the dysphoria that once occurred daily rises up from the dark corners of my mind and makes itself known again. I can’t always pinpoint the trigger for these feelings. Today, though, I know exactly what caused it.

I’m letting my hair grow again.

Some context: At its longest, my hair has never passed my jaw. In fifth grade, I got it cut so that it brushed the tops of my years. Not a “pixie” cut either. Some of the earlier pictures show a bowl-style cut; later, I styled it by parting it on the left and pushing my bangs off to the side. I got it cut again right around the time I started hormones and have spent the last seven years sporting an almost Tintin-like style: short back and sides, with the front long enough that it flips upwards. Until I moved to Alaska, haircuts occurred monthly, although I would occasionally grow it out a bit for Halloween costumes.

Things changed a bit here on the tundra. My coworker Jenny cuts hair, but between her schedule, my schedule, and the cooler temperatures I’ve taken to going two or three months between trims.

As has become my custom, I got a haircut in August right before I returned to Nunap. My intention was to then grow it out for Halloween. I ended up buying a wig to use with my costume, but I didn’t get my hair cut right away. For a while now I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something different with my hair anyway, so I figured this was as good a time as any to start.

Watching my hair get longer again has been interesting. Some things are funny, like seeing my students exclaim over how it no longer stands up. Other things are annoying, like the two cowlicks in the back that won’t lie flat no matter what I do. (One advantage to letting my hair continue to grow: Said cowlicks no longer exist.) And some things I’d just plain forgotten about, like how much static charge can build up in this dry air.

At one point a couple of weeks ago, I looked in the mirror and realized that my hair has now reached the same length it was in high school and my first few years of college. Back when I was bullied for how I looked. Back when I avoided public restrooms for fear of the looks and words that would come my way. Back when I started living authentically and had to deal with people questioning each and every thing about how I presented. Old memories and feelings I thought I’d dealt with began clamoring for attention again. For the last two weeks, I’ve been coping with these demons from my past as I try to go about my daily routine, teach my kids, prepare for the holidays.

The loudest voice keeps telling me, “You look like a girl.” Intellectually, I know this is bull. My hair is longer than other men, about the same as others, and far shorter than some. Emotionally, the words resonate with a different meaning: I look like I did when the world identified me as a girl. And that was not a happy time.

I admit, once I realized just what memories were stirring, I nearly texted Jenny and asked for an immediate haircut. But I didn’t. Instead, I spent time thinking and reflecting.Part of me wants to keep my hair this length, at least for a little while. Yes, I have bad memories associated with it, but if I get it cut again right now, then those will also be the only memories and feelings I have about this look. I’d rather overwrite them with a more positive take on things. And what does it say about the society that I was raised in, that I worry so much about if my appearance and gestures are more “feminine” than “masculine”? Because it’s not just the length of my hair that can cause dysphoria; I still worry about the shape of my body and the way I gesture with my hands or sit in a chair.

So how do I cope with dysphoria days? I reach out to my support network. In this case,  I took pictures and posted them on Facebook, seeking validation from my friends. They responded with nothing but positive energy. I pull myself out of my body for a bit by reading or writing fiction. I watch some of my favorite movies or TV series. I work out. Or sometimes, like today, I pull on a favorite baseball cap (backwards) and t-shirt, park myself in front of my computer, and spend hours working out how to arrange my thoughts into an articulate blog post. Because the naming of the demons gives them less power over me. Because “shared pain is lessened”. Because I know I’m not alone. Because I want other people struggling with similar issues to know that they aren’t alone, either.