Sunday, September 24, 2023

One Month On T

I'll begin with some context-setting. If you want to skip to the main event, start at "It's now been about one month."

First, a caveat: I did not start with a baseline female endocrine profile when I began taking testosterone. I'd given birth two and a half months earlier, so my most recent memories of what it was like to inhabit a female body were of a postpartum body, and before that a pregnant body. I suspect that if I'd started T at a different time, some of the contrasts would not have seemed so stark. Still, pregnancy and postpartum felt to me like they turned up certain parts of my experience, not like they added something completely new. I do think that from baseline, I would have noticed the same things, just to a lesser degree.

Second, what was my relationship with HRT, going in?

I have in my head a sort of caricature of a pre-T trans man. The character I have in mind thinks of himself as a man, suffers so much from being trapped in the wrong body that he's constantly depressed and anxious over it, can't stand being misgendered by other people, and is confident that "medically transitioning" will solve his biggest problem. When it does turn out to solve his biggest problem, and his life is dramatically better, and he's transformed from a miserable wreck into a self-actualized and flourishing version of himself, he is not at all surprised, and neither is anyone who knows him.

I worry that I've described this person in a way that's somehow trivializing; I don't mean to. I think many such people actually exist. What I'm trying to do here is point at one extreme end of a spectrum, where the other end is "cis by default"—someone who really just doesn't care about their sex or gender, either from the inside or with respect to how others treat them.

I have never been at either extreme end of this spectrum.

I was sure about enough things that HRT seemed like it was the right choice for me, on net. But very little seemed obvious or straightforward. I made my decision largely through reference class forecasting: Changes I'd previously made to my body and social situation that tend to help transmasculine people turned out to help me as well, and starting T was the next obvious thing to try. I wasn't sure that I "am a man", or that I'd feel more like myself on testosterone, and I had some pretty big concerns.

I was hesitant for three reasons. First, I was afraid of having a higher sex drive. Depending on my mood, I either see sexuality as a somewhat nice diversion, like popcorn at a movie, or as a tragic distraction from the things that actually matter to me.

Secondly, I'm not the best at coping with change, in general. For example, I have sometimes cried after getting a haircut, even when it was exactly the haircut I wanted and I thought it looked really good, just because it was so rough for me to suddenly look different.

And third, maybe I'd miss biological femininity! Although my money was actually on feeling freer to openly express the feminine aspects of myself once my masculinity felt more secure, it was only a guess. For example, I was once a stripper, someone who performs feminine sexuality professionally, and I loved it. Not everything about it—any job has its downsides—but I enjoyed playing those characters on stage, and I enjoyed the way people responded to me when I did. Seems like at least some evidence that T would make my life worse instead of better, no?

So overall, my attitude going in was that the situation was complicated and uncertain, but it seemed likely that I'd be better off with a male endocrine profile than with a female one, even though the change probably wouldn't solve any big problems immediately and might cause some new ones. By sticking with the female endocrine profile indefinitely, I'd be failing the reversal test.

It's now been about one month. I've been injecting 80mg of testosterone cypionate intramuscularly once a week for four weeks. What has resulted so far? Lol um well, it immediately solved my biggest problems, actually, and suddenly my life is dramatically better.

I am surprised. This was in my hypothesis space, but I definitely did not expect it, especially not so quickly.

What exactly have I noticed? What has changed?

1. The very first thing I noticed was something I've described as "heat" in my body. I gave myself my first injection in the morning, and by that night, I was feeling something emanating from my torso that reminded me of gently glowing embers. It was strongest for the first couple of days, and then it subsided, but has not completely gone away.

It seems closely tied with my experience of "having more energy". I've been enjoying exercise more, feeling more motivated, more eager to go places and do things. It's not an uncomfortable restlessness; just a pleasant internal fire that drives me forward toward action.

2. The second thing I noticed was a cognitive change away from neuroticism and toward clarity. This was apparent by day three.

When thinking through a problem, reading, studying, or considering a project for work, my cognition seemed far more direct. It's not that there was an addition of directness, no impatient craving for a clear answer or anything like that. There was just an absence of many obstacles I'd previously spend at least half of my thinking time contending with. Obstacles like self criticism, considerations about how other people might perceive my thoughts/beliefs/preferences/emotions, a constant meta-level weighing of whether what I was doing was any good and whether I should continue, and what sort of evidence my thoughts were about whether I'd succeed or fail.

With testosterone, I immediately found that I could just... think. On the object level, directly, without paranoia diverting me at every step, without spending a lot of cycles ameliorating and mitigating all those protective filters.

It's a quantitative difference more than a qualitative one. My brain is still doing all of the same things. I still seem to care about what my thoughts mean about my future and so forth, and I'm still sometimes distracted by that sort of thing when I'd like to focus completely on something else; but it's mostly only when I'm tired, very hungry, or sick. By default, my thinking feels so much more clear, engaged, uncomplicated, quick, focused, decisive. No more weird twisty mazes of intrusive neuroticism.

3. The increased stability isn't limited to intellectual tasks. By the end of the first week, emotional regulation had become quicker and easier in general.

On September 2 (day 6 of T), I wrote, "Today I was emotionally rattled by something in a way and to an extent that I think would have caused a lot of prolonged distress in any other period of my life. I would have been unable to sleep, and it might have dominated my thoughts and made it really difficult to accomplish anything for at least a day. Instead, after half an hour and a bit of yoga, I was pretty much emotionally re-centered, I had a game plan for how to deal with things practically, and I was ok. And on the first day of my period, no less."

I've been taking a depression test called the "Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale" every week since the middle of pregnancy. The test says, "A score of more than 10 suggests minor or major depression may be present. Further evaluation is recommended." Before T, I'd never seen a number below 5, and I considered 5 to be "as good as things can actually get". My scores for the past month have been 1, 1, 2, and 1.

4. Over the course of the month, something has changed about my experience of pleasure.

This cluster of perceptions is a little tricky to untangle, perhaps because it seems to have something to do with sexuality, but not in an obvious way. I'll describe it as three separate things, but I'm strongly inclined to claim that it's really all one thing.

4.1 Eudemonia. By the end of the first week, I'd noticed a general sense of wellbeing that subtly (and sometimes overtly) permeated my experiences. I just felt... good. Sometimes there was happiness, joy, excitement. But mostly it's more subtle than that.

I feel it right now, so I'll pay attention to it and try to describe it to you.

There's a gentle, pleasant buzzing in my body. I feel it in my head, my lips and mouth, the front of my chest, my arms, my lower abdomen, my legs, and my feet. It's a sunny grounded feeling. It resonates with phrases like, "Things are ok," "Life is good," "I like being here, now, doing exactly what I'm doing."

I've been happy before. I've even been elated, triumphant, lovesick. I've been physically healthy, I've been vibrant and generative, I've been pleased with the way my life is going. But I don't think I've ever felt a persistent sense of wellbeing. I've never just felt good, in general, for weeks on end.

I mean, it's not like every experience I've had all month has been great. I had a period, I got a stomach bug, I spent most of my time at a caloric deficit because I'm trying to lose pregnancy weight, I slept poorly for most of last week while over-socializing and felt exhausted and pretty much like crap.

But all of that stuff seemed to go on top of "being ok". And whenever the crappy stuff dissipated, eudemonia shone through like the sky behind parting clouds.

4.2 Enjoyment. During weeks two and three, I'd started to notice a change in what it's like for me to enjoy things.

You can see some of it in that description of my immediate experience of wellbeing above. Did you notice how much I talked about my body? I've always been an exceptionally embodied person, but testosterone seems to have turned that up even more.

This month, I enjoy things more acutely than I have at any other point in the previous year. For the most part, I don't enjoy different things—it's still poetry, music, working out, learning, sunshine, leaves, excellent writing, chocolate, etc.—but I enjoy them both more and differently. How is my enjoyment "different"? There's more "excitement" in it, it's more embodied, and "pleasure" is a more apt description of one of the central components of enjoyment than it's ever been before. My enjoyment of things used to be relatively distant and intellectual. More like "appreciation". Now it is very often visceral, physical, embodied.

Take for example "Snow" by Louis Macneice. This is a brilliant free verse poem I encountered for the first time during the past month. When I read it, my chest flutters and leaps. The words drop into my lower abdomen and smoulder there. The buzzing of wellbeing that I described earlier intensifies until I feel almost like I must have been drugged. The delight is in my chest, in my stomach, in my genitals, in my legs and arms and head. My appreciation of poetry has taken on a blazing full-body power.

4.3 Sex drive.

It did not become apparent until the fourth week that my desire for and enjoyment of literal physical two-person sex had increased. It was a gradual dawning. First there were the changes to enjoyment generally, which I suspected were somehow tied to sexuality. Then I noticed a greater interest in some of my kinks, and a larger impact from thinking about them.

I noticed that I was masturbating more often, a change from a couple times a week to one or two times a day. I was doing this with an exploratoratory attitude, and it wasn't until week four that it became clear to me I was in fact craving sexual experience, and that some of it even took the form of a desire to have sex with specific other people.

I would not have described myself as asexual before. I do sometimes experience sexual attraction to people. But most of the parts of attraction that have to do with sex in particular seem to largely go away by the end of the infatuation period for me; and even at the best of times, it's not really been clear that I enjoy sex itself. During pregnancy, I hated almost everything about sex, and it didn't feel like all that big of a change from baseline. I was mostly just less able to tolerate sex. Usually sex has been an instrumental goal for me, something I do in order to accomplish something else (such as the BDSM components of the experience, or social power, or intimacy with my partner).

Now I straightforwardly desire sex with at least some of the people I'm attracted to, and I straightforwardly enjoy it when it happens. I still have sensory sensitivities to contend with, and I have to keep track of that and communicate about it in order to have a good time. But having a good time during sex is actually possible now.

Having a higher sex drive is really different from how I imagined it would be. Sexuality has never felt integrated for me before. There are things I enjoy greatly, and there is sexual stimulation and orgasm and so forth, and I've never really been clear on what those two things have to do with each other. So I think that when I imagined having a higher sex drive, I mostly imagined turning up a certain kind of discomfort. The discomfort of physically craving orgasm.

Instead, it's been something that doesn't really come apart from my ability to enjoy art, and learning, and the excitement and satisfaction of engaging with the world as myself. I do crave physical sexual stimulation more strongly and more frequently than before. But so far, it feels like just another part of being more brightly on fire. If this is the kind of sexuality I'm turning up by taking testosterone, I think I'm ok with that.

Overall, it so far seems likely that taking T will turn out to have been literally the best decision I have ever made. I completely love it.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

The Birth of Cadence

Hey guess what I have a kid now! Yes really. Their name is Cadence, and they were born on June 20th, 2023. It was rad.

There's a whole bunch of stuff about it on my website, including a birth story, lots of other writing below that under Q&A, photos, and videos. (If you only click on the "writings" button, you won't see any naked people.)

I'm crossposting the birth story here.


The day before labor began, I laid mulch around the sunflower seedlings and the raspberries in the raised beds. It was chilly out, despite being late June. I felt exhausted after gardening, but also satisfied for having done something physical. I spent most of the rest of the day watching British Bakeoff. "Bit of a rough day," I wrote in my journal. "Really tired and pretty physically uncomfortable. Grateful that pregnancy is almost over." I took a bath before bed, and then Duncan and I did a Spinning Babies exercise called The Three Sisters of Balance. For a few hours, I slept well.

I went into labor at about 1:30AM on June 20th, 2023. Right on time: June 20th was exactly my due date.

I called Duncan to my room once I was sure I’d had a few strong contractions. I was feeling pretty calm, but I was also shaking off and on. I wanted him to hold my hand.

I’ve heard that shaking is a common response to labor hormones. It was a big part of the labor experience for me, especially in early labor. The contractions that were accompanied by shaking felt like “hormone dumps” to me, and I described them that way to Duncan. They were more satisfying than the other contractions. I didn't like the shaking; it's difficult to relax through a contraction when you can't control your muscles. But I did like the psychological changes that went with it. I felt like I was moving into a different state of mind, like I’d taken a drug.

What state of mind did they move me into? Words I associate with the state include: Raw, toppled, stripped away, naked, open, riding, receptive, internal, trembling, alive, real, body-focused, quiet, present, and timeless. In that state, I wanted to be near the ground, to touch the floor with my hands and feel its stability. Everything outside of me became dim in my awareness as I let myself be taken by the waves. I barely felt time passing; there was only what was happening inside of me right then. I've never been more acutely aware of my animal instincts.

I felt a little bit like I’d been poisoned, but I wasn’t scared. I felt ready for it.

I asked Duncan to call our doula, Shalin, after about an hour and a half. She’d said it might take her an hour to get to our house, and I thought if things continued to progress as they had been, I’d probably want her support and guidance after another hour. She arrived at 3:50AM.

I used several positions early that morning. Some Shalin suggested, some were inspired by her suggestions, and some were spontaneous responses to what I was feeling. I spent time on hands and knees, sometimes tilting my pelvis or moving my torso in big circles. Sometimes I sat on the toilet, usually with a robe worn backward to keep me warm. For a while I sat on an exercise ball while leaning forward over my desk. I walked up and down the stairs sideways a few times, did a little bit of lunging in place with one foot up on the ottoman, walked around doing abdominal lift-and-tucks during contractions, and danced to music in my bedroom. But I think I spent the majority of my time kneeling and leaning forward over either an exercise ball, the ottoman, or a bean bag.

My focus was mainly on staying relaxed and integrating the sensations. I especially kept my hands, jaw, face, and pelvic floor relaxed. I breathed deeply and moaned to release the tension. Rain and thunder sounds usually calm me, so I kept those on in the background when I wasn’t playing music. I used mantras and visualization to guide my mind in the direction my physiology seemed to suggest. Aided by the endorphins and hormones, I deliberately put myself into a hypnotic state, moving deeper or nearer the surface as circumstances required, and I stayed that way for all 18hrs of labor.

I threw up at 5:37. It was quite a lot of liquid.

As the sun rose, my contractions started to space out. They had been about four minutes apart, lasting for one minute, but then they spread out to about eight minutes apart. I started to get a little worried that labor was going to stop again, like it had a week and a half before. I’d been through a lot already, and I would have found that pretty discouraging. There was still no bloody show when I went to the bathroom, and very little mucus. I was also feeling more “normal”, not so deep in labor space.

Shalin texted my midwife, Mackenzie, who suggested I take 50mg of benadryl and get some rest if possible. I took the benadryl and tried to rest, but lying on my side made contractions feel much more intense.

By 8AM I was shaking again, throwing up more, and losing a lot of mucus plug. Maybe this is really happening after all, I thought. I went for a short walk outside on the deck, where I paused a few times to lean against a wall or railing during a contraction. Duncan and Shalin walked beside me, ready to offer physical support, or a barf bag, if I needed help.

By 9:20 I’d thrown up again. Duncan kept me well supplied with coconut water, juice, and bone broth, but I couldn’t seem to keep much liquid down at all. Mackenzie decided to come over a bit early to rehydrate me with IV fluids.

I’d been paying a lot of attention to Cadence’s movements; they tended to move quite a bit just after contractions, as though they were stretching or shoving themselves around. I said multiple times during labor that I thought Cadence was doing most of the work. At 10:12 I had a contraction that I said felt “different”. I don’t remember this in detail, but I told Shalin that it felt like Cadence was “pushing through”. I think I felt them move to a different position this time, and there was more downward pressure for the rest of labor after this contraction.

Mackenzie arrived around 10:30. She listened to Cadence’s heartbeat with a doppler, and said they sounded good. She checked my blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate, and told me all of those readings were fine as well. I was feeling pretty ragged and depleted by this point, though.

She waited for the end of a contraction, then placed the IV while I was leaning forward over the ottoman. The IV itself wasn’t a major part of my experience, though it was occasionally a little inconvenient. She ran a second bag of IV fluids at 11:52, and by that time I was feeling much better. I definitely prefer to labor while hydrated. Being dehydrated felt sharp and strained. Being hydrated felt plump and expansive. I was stronger after the IV fluids.

At 12:25, Mackenzie asked if I wanted a cervical exam. I was still struggling with the possibility that this was not “real labor”—I didn't know how to orient to the experience, and it's hard for me to let go while disoriented—so I said yes. To my surprise, the exam didn't hurt at all. I was 7cm dilated and 90% effaced, and Cadence was at +1 station. I found that really encouraging! Sure sounded like real labor to me.

At 1PM, we decided it was time to start filling the birthing tub. We planned to set it up in my bedroom, so I moved to the living room while Mackenzie’s assistant Jaime began to inflate it.

I remember Shalin saying, “This is transition,” while Jaime was inflating the tub. The contraction sensations were intense, but they felt totally continuous with the earlier parts of labor. I had a harder time integrating them while the tub was inflating, because the sound of the air pump was pretty awful for me. Almost like a leaf blower. I didn’t consider it to be “too much” from within my tranced-out state, though, and told Duncan and Shalin that I was fine. But Duncan brought me ear muffs anyway, and things really were a lot easier after that.

The second bag of IV fluids finished running around 2PM, and it was time to go to the tub. Shalin and Mackenzie wanted me to use the bathroom first, but getting to and sitting on the toilet did not sound any good at all to me. I asked if I could just pee in the birth tub, and they said yes, people do that all the time and it’s fine. So I crawled on hands and knees toward the tub, pausing in the middle to ride through a contraction in child’s pose.

The support of the water was an immense relief. I felt far more comfortable with half of my body floating. I think it made an especially big difference between contractions. I found it easier to rest and relax in the water.

I spent a while leaning forward over the side of the tub, often holding Duncan’s hand. It was comfortable for me, but during a fetal heart rate check, Mackenzie told me that it was not comfortable for Cadence. The birth tub included a little seat on the other side, so I crawled over to it and sat upright. In the new position, Cadence sounded fine. I made the seat my new home base for the rest of labor.

Around 3:30PM, something started to shift for me. I don’t know what sensations tipped me off, but emotionally, I began to orient to the experience differently: Rather than completely surrendering into the timeless space of endurance, I think I recognized that I was entering “the home stretch”. I wanted to mark the shift, and perhaps to communicate with Cadence about it as well, so I asked Duncan to play Cadence’s birthday song: “Come Alive” from The Greatest Showman.

I rarely felt very connected to Cadence as a proto-person when they were in the womb. I was not in love with them already, the way many gestational parents are during pregnancy. But at some point in second trimester, I was listening to “Come Alive”, and it hit me hard that this is how I feel about the fetus, that this is what I want for them and why I was drawn to creating a human in the first place.

It’s what I want for everyone. It’s the kind of love that I feel for everyone. It’s the impact I want to have. I want people to somehow move beyond whatever obstacles prevent them from fully experiencing all the awesome things that constantly surround them. To be their full selves in intimate contact with the world. The ability to experience is why I care so much about humanity.

*Come alive, come alive Go and light your light, let it burn so bright Reaching up to the sky And it’s open wide, you’re electrified

And the world becomes a fantasy And you’re more than you could ever be ’Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open And you know you can’t go back again To the world that you were living in ’Cause you’re dreaming with your eyes wide open*

So that’s how I wanted to welcome Cadence to Earth: with a prayer that when they left the darkness and safety of the womb, they would begin a life of unbridled wonder.

I felt all of that in the song as I listened to it, and as, between contractions, I was able to sing along.

The contractions were so intense, and even in the tub, the pain of them never completely let up in between. I felt a little bit betrayed; multiple books and videos about labor had led me to believe that the discomfort would stop between the contractions.

That sense of betrayal conflicted with my meditative strategies. For a few minutes, I was more aware of time, and I started to worry. I thought to myself, I can’t keep doing this.

Fortunately I’d prepared for exactly that thought. I recognized it as a sign of transition while it was happening, and I told my support team about it. “It was just a thought,” I said, trying to reassure them that it had been fleeting, and I was all right. Letting go of it moved me back toward the calm and relaxed state of labor space.

My body began to push spontaneously at about 4:30PM. Mackenzie said she heard it in my voice: Mixed in with the moans, I started making a sound that was more like a growl.

By 5:30, my contractions had spaced out again. They were eight minutes apart. I still felt the pushing when they happened, but the times in between had become comfortable, and I was really enjoying my rest.

Mackenzie alerted me that things might not be moving in the direction I wanted. She offered me a couple options: I could take a cotton root tincture, which might increase the pace of the contractions on its own. Or, I could get out of the tub, maybe go for a short walk on the deck, to try to pick things back up again.

I definitely did not want to get out of the tub, so I asked for the cotton root tincture. However, by the time the tincture was ready, I’d changed my mind. I wanted to try stimulating contractions myself without leaving the tub, just by moving around differently. I used several tactics, including alternating lunges, pelvic tilts, and lifting my body out of the water. Basically, I just needed to make myself the right kind of uncomfortable as soon as I felt ready.

It worked! I rested for what felt like “just as much time as I needed” after each contraction, and then I began moving again to bring on another. Although the contractions seemed to begin as a result of my own decisions, Mackenzie said my pace was just perfect not long afterward.

I used my hand to touch inside my vagina, to see what I could feel. What I felt was a taut little water balloon very close to the opening: The amniotic sac was still intact. I re-checked after every couple contractions, to see if I could perceive any progress, but I could not.

I began to feel frustrated. I was working so hard, but as far as I could tell, nothing much was happening. I didn’t feel Cadence moving as much as they had earlier in labor, either. I really wanted my water to break.

This period of yearning for change was probably the most uncomfortable part of labor for me. The raw physical sensations weren't any more extreme, but emotionally, I felt almost as if I were in an argument with my body. Perhaps if I put more energy into pushing, I thought, then my water will finally break, and things will move again. But it didn't break, not then. I felt a little stuck.

At 6:02, Mackenzie asked whether I felt like I was pushing against my body, or with it. I told her I thought I was pushing with my body, but I wasn’t completely sure, because the sensations were all new to me, and I was frustrated. I asked for another cervical exam. I wondered if I might be pushing against my cervix, in which case perhaps I should try to hold off.

But Mackenzie confirmed that I was completely dilated. To me, that meant that everything was fine, and I just needed to be patient.

I began speaking then to Cadence, and a little bit to myself. Not always in words, and usually not out loud. I reminded myself that birth happens when both of us are ready, that I had no interest in rushing them, and that we’re safe to continue like this for a long time if we need to. “It’s ok to take your time,” I murmured. “Take all the time you need. I’ll be here when you’re ready.” It helped me so much. After that, I felt calm and patient again.

But I wanted to encourage them as well, to invite them out. I told them the thing that’s kept me moving through the roughest patches in my own life: “It’s hard out here,” I said, “but it’s worth it.” There are fireflies out here, and thunderstorms, and poetry. Even though it hurts, you have to live to see them.

At 6:34PM, my water broke as I pushed. It felt like a little pop, like squeezing a water balloon until it burst. I could feel Cadence helping out again after that, moving themselves around and down after every contraction.

My pushes felt clearly productive for the rest of labor. Cadence moved back up a little after each contraction, but each contraction brought them farther down than the last. I could feel their head with my hand at 6:43.

I was able to push two or three times with every wave, two or three exhalations. Mackenzie suggested that I maintain downward pressure between pushes as I inhaled, which I found effortful but intuitive. I kept my pelvic floor open and imagined my breath pooling at the bottom, rather than flowing all the way out.

I felt burning and stinging sensations around my vaginal opening, but they were not nearly as intense as reading about “the ring of fire” had led me to expect. On top of all the endorphins, it was a kind of pain I find pretty easy to tolerate. I was surprised to learn afterward that I had labial lacerations. It really wasn’t so bad while it happened.

Cadence’s head was 13 inches around. I got it out in three pushes, over the course of one contraction. I felt their body turn sideways shortly after their head emerged. I asked for a mirror to find out what it looked like: A furry softball sticking out of my vagina. Just as I’d expected, but fascinating anyway. Not a sight I was likely to see again, or at least not any time soon.

The rest of their body came out on the next contraction. Even though their chest was larger than their head (15 inches! Great big ribcage!), the whole thing seemed to slide out easily once the shoulders were through. At 7:22PM, Cadence was born into the tub, and Mackenzie caught them.

As I held Cadence to my chest, I said to them, “Hi! Hello! …You’re a little person!?” It seemed pretty wild to me that they had a whole human body full of rigid bones, that they were so large, and that all of that had somehow been inside of my abdomen. I rubbed their back to help them breathe while Mackenzie listened to their heart and lungs. Duncan came over to hold both of us.

Then I sang to them, the chorus from their birthday song, and Duncan joined me. I felt so relieved, and so pleased that I’d accomplished this, and that they were all right.

I was excited for the life they would have. I cried a little as I sang, and my voice wavered. I’m glad it’s one of the first things they heard on the outside. I sincerely meant it, and I always will.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism

Man I am so very overdue for this post.

I have been working for the past year on a second sequence in the series that started with "Intro to Naturalism". Intro was about the worldview. This one's called "The Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism", and it's the step-by-step how-to. This, like the previous sequence, is over at

Readers of Agenty Duck will be familiar with most of the things in Nuts and Bolts, but I've spent a lot of time refining the techniques and putting them together into a larger strategy, and from there into a curriculum. Here is a crosspost of the opening essay.

Introducing the Nuts and Bolts of Naturalism

What Is Naturalism?

Naturalism is a general-purpose procedure for advancing one’s art of rationality.

“Naturalism” is the term I use for an investigative process that focuses attention on the points in daily life where subjective experience intersects with crucial information. It is a systematic method for taking your implicit stories and assumptions and holding them up against reality. In the process, you’ll find out whether they survive that contact, or get replaced with new stories.

I’ve previously published a sequence that focuses on the philosophy and perspective underlying this method. In it, I describe what I mean by “naturalism” in a lot of detail, by expanding on the sentence, “Knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.” Fundamentally, I think of naturalism as the practice of behaving as though you believe that knowing the territory takes patient and direct observation.

What Is This Sequence?

My first naturalism sequence was about the worldview. This one is the step-by-step how-to.

The sequence you’re currently reading is the second in a larger series. This second sequence is coherent on its own; however, if you start to read and find yourself wondering, “But why would I bother with any of this?” then you should probably stop and go read the worldview sequence first. (If you instead find yourself wishing that there were many more in-depth examples, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for my third sequence, which I expect will consist mainly of demonstration.)

As I pointed out at the end of the intro sequence, the practice of naturalism is entirely focused on “patient observation”.

When a person first begins to study naturalism with me, … I begin by helping them establish consistent habits of observation. … And then, throughout what has so far proven to be about a three month program, I never shift our focus away from consistent habits of observation. It’s not just where I start. It’s the entire curriculum. …

From a practical perspective, this dogged persistence is the foundation of naturalism. “Direct observation of the territory”, without patience, gets you something like a bag of tricks. Valuable tricks, but still tricks. Isolated mental motions made when they are convenient and enjoyable, not when they are most needed.

With patience, though, you get a life-long practice of epistemic rationality.

The sort of patience I have in mind is not simply waiting. It is a long series of small, consistent efforts to observe openly and thoroughly.

I’ve developed many detailed strategies and techniques for directing those efforts over time. In the past few years, I’ve woven these strategies together into a comprehensive curriculum that several people have completed, and many more have experimented with in part.

In these essays, I will delineate my naturalist curriculum, piece by piece.

These are the nuts and bolts of my practice, and I’ve done my best to touch on each of them.

What This Sequence Isn’t

What follows is a lot like an extremely detailed syllabus. It is not really the curriculum itself in text form.

The full curriculum depends not just on instruction in the techniques, but on practical grounding in the underlying philosophy, plus a whole lot of real-time demonstration and practice. You can’t learn the violin just by reading a book, and you can’t learn naturalism that way either. You have to wrestle with all of it in real life.

That said, I do hope to present here a sturdy framework that especially enterprising students of rationality could personalize and flesh out into a full independent-study curriculum, and from there into a systematic rationality practice. If that might be your aim, I have a few suggestions.

Tips For the Ambitious

Tip 1: Read First

Even if you do plan to attempt a full naturalist study by following the instructions in this overview, I recommend reading through the whole sequence before you begin. I think it will help a lot to be somewhat familiar with a bird’s eye sketch of the process before finding out all the ways things go sideways and require creativity down on the ground.

Tip 2: Prepare For the Unexpected

As you read, I encourage you to keep in mind that no naturalist study goes exactly like the curriculum suggests. As Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” What I’m sharing with you is a plan for naturalist study.

Direct investigation is invariably messy and complicated, because the world is messy and complicated, and so are investigators. If I describe something that seems off to you, or that doesn’t sound like it fits your situation or the way your own mind works, you’re likely right. Generate alternatives, or at least be ready to look for them in the future.

Tip 3: Invite a Friend

Some people study best independently, but many don’t. Social engagement is a fundamental part of my curriculum, and building some into your own work could make a huge difference. When you’re trying to see familiar things in new ways, meeting regularly with someone else who’s doing the same can be both supportive and usefully challenging. They may ask questions you haven’t thought of, or notice things you’ve missed. They’ll also be one more external structure to help keep your progress consistent.