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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

Month

February 2014

The Love of My Life

Snow CabbageI’m having trouble getting started on my research this morning. The problem is, I’m in love. I got married nine years ago, and my divorce was completed just about eight years later. Through that entire time I’ve been in love, and not with my husband.

I’m in love with Japan. People have always asked me what it is about Japan that I find so attractive, and my answers have changed over the years. It’s not easy to verbalize love, you see. Many people thought it was anime or manga that attracted me. In the purest of senses, they might be right. When I was sixteen I dated a boy who loved Japanese anime. The theme song to one of these cartoons was the most passionate, exciting song I had ever heard. It was a battle song full of energy and hunger and in the chorus it sang, “nami wo tate osou yo!” The word “nami” hung in my mind. What did it mean? Why was it so powerful? It took me years to find out.

Japanese is not a language that is easily penetrated. I graduated high school, started college, transferred to Yale university, failed my Spanish entrance exam and enrolled in an intensive Japanese language course. I studied for ten hours a week and practiced speaking and listening for another six. Nine months later I stepped off an airplane on the other side of the world. Alone, young, naive and full of wonder I entered the country that would steal my heart forever.

What is it about Japan that I find so enthralling? I still cannot put it entirely into words. It is a feeling. There is a feeling at once of being alien and welcome, of belonging and of separation, of circumvention and of freedom. Today I learned that other foreigners have fallen in love with the same things I have. They have given me some words to describe my experience, and in doing so, validated it.

On Humanism

Last week was a week for feminist bashing. First, a post by a member on a men’s support forum that I frequent blamed the liberated modern feminist for the shape of modern male body shame. More recently there have been a number of articles published commenting on Hillary Clinton’s impending rise to power and on the form of feminism presented by Ms Sandberg in this article. I used to think of myself as a feminist, but I think feminism is outdated, and a misnomer, for what the true meaning of the movement represents. Today, I think of myself as a humanist.

I thank my fellow bloggers, les femmes, for helping me to find words to express my standing, and I thank a a particularly genuine forum member at the support forum for the inspiration to remember my own humanity in the midst of the anger.

Humanism. It isn’t feminism because it doesn’t seek to place women on equal footing as men, or to insult men or put them down, and it isn’t masculinism or patriarchism because it doesn’t seek to maintain the long standing oppression of women. Humanism is the philosophy that all humans have value, that we are all made of flesh, that we all feel pain, we all cry, we all fear the unknown. Humanism seeks to undo the damage that centuries of body shaming and millennia of power seeking have put on our collective psyches. Humans wants peace for all humans in their own hearts, and in their relationships with each other.

After the claim was made that modern feminism is responsible for the shape and style of small penis humiliation, another man added an explanation: feminists seek to topple the patriarchy, but instead of going for the strongest males, they attack the weakest first and use the cheapest shots. This naturally results in women shaming non-alpha male types for their insufficient sex drives, small penises, lack of ambition and generally non-alpha male patriarchal personality types.

I understand where this man is coming from. He feels inferior to the alpha-types that define what ideal modern masculinity looks like, but it is easier to blame women, outsiders, for attacking him than it is to blame his fellow men. He would like to be an alpha, but he isn’t. However, if he rejects the image of alpha as fundamentally flawed, he incites ridicule from other alpha males — the strong and empowered males that he claims women are afraid to challenge, but whom he himself also fears. Rather than accept that he fails to meet the standards he upholds, or to take the responsibility to change the things in himself that he disapproves of, he finds an outside entity which is socially weaker than he is and attacks it instead.

Thanks to the gentle words of another member on the forum, when I read these accusations I saw them for the expression of impotence that they really were, rather than the attack on myself that they felt like. I suggested that where he wrote “feminists” he might instead write “people who seek power over others” and where he wrote “alpha males” that he might instead write “those who currently have power and social approval.” I think what this man was really trying to say is that people attack the weakest representations of their enemies when they feel threatened, and that in doing so they harm those who are in fact closest to themselves, perhaps even their allies.

To be a humanist takes a wider perspective than to be a feminist. It is not enough to topple all the males, but rather, we must select from within the whole of masculinity what bits are truly harmful to us and what bits are nothing more than the imperfect and clumsy attempts of other human beings to fight for their own happiness. After all, men still are in a position of power over us. We don’t like it and we don’t want to accept it, but we can further our own goals if we acknowledge it and make allies where we can.

I am no political strategist. In fact, I am quite simple in my understanding of humans. I see the philosophy of humanism as a torch in the night. By recognizing the humanity in all of us, even those who would appear as my ideological enemies, I can make better choices, see more clearly, and feel less threatened by the violent world that I live in.

The genderqueer have two types. Some go out of their way to make life difficult for people who are fond of traditional English grammar. They want to make sure you know that they are against the normative gender duality. Talking with them is like talking to Atheists at Christmas — you can’t win until you agree with them. Others just don’t fit into the factory standard boxes and they would really like it if you would just try to understand them and take them as-is. Personally, I find that the latter make for much better company.

On the Intentionality of Life Without Social Media

Many people have commented on how social media, specifically facebook, erodes social relationships. When I quit facebook three weeks ago, I learned this same lesson from a slightly different angle. Websites that allow “follows” and “likes” have a way of encouraging a sort of vomiting of information. The personal and the public all get blended together and spewed forth to the anonymized mass of followers, and the result is that we not only lose our sense of what is appropriate to share and what is not, but we also lose touch with the people we are sharing with.

I recently spent a lovely day playing in the snow with some new friends I made. A freak storm shut the city down, so instead of working we all rather dicked around in the shop, or else went outside to throw snow at each other. When I came home I was exploding with happy and I desperately wanted to tell someone. In my facebook days, I would have made a post. I would have then tagged the guys at the shop, making sure to include the one’s I meant as well as the ones who were more peripheral in order to hide the fact that I find some of them rather attractive. My friends who were not present would [like] the post because it would be a happy subject and they would assume it was an indicator that all is well in my life. The friends tagged would [like] the post because it would be impolite not to. And everyone in my network would know I wanted everyone to know my feelings.

However, without an online social presence, I only had the option to send the message directly to the people in question, or else not send it at all. I had one and a half out of three of the e-mail addresses I needed to send personal messages. So I sent a simple update along the lines of “Your shop rocks!” to the ones I had, and then I waited. Hours later I have not heard a response. Without facebook, there are no others observing whether or not that response is sent. It is a private communication between me and another person which holds the additional weight that it was intentionally sent by me to the recipient. This is a very different kind of message than a (semi) public online post.

Being intentional, personal, and direct about our communication with others is taking a gamble when a sure thing is available. By being direct I risk rejection, but I also risk building a stronger and more genuine relationship. On the other hand, a post on a website guarantees me a certain level of validation, but it is highly circumscribed. Many people, myself included, are afraid to build new relationships because each new connection requires exposure and risk. However, a human relationship is only as strong and genuine as the willingness of each participant to expose him or herself. In the end we all want acceptance, but if we try to engineer acceptance, such as through impersonal websites, then the acceptance we achieve is never of our whole selves, but only of the select facet we choose to expose. Relationships built this way will leave you feeling perpetually on guard, a perpetual outsider. Why? Because until you go all in, you’ll never be all in.

Woman — the Ultimate in Unvalued

Years ago as a teenager in the Christian Church, not so long after puberty struck, I asked my community, “How do I know that God loves women as much as he loves men?” The answers I received were profoundly depressing:

  • God gave a woman the honor of giving birth to his son.
  • Women are the more beautiful sex.
  • Women are naturally more pure than men.

The first response said to me that the value in a woman is entirely contained within her uterus. The second told me that women are not useful for anything. The third told me that if I sinned, more specifically if I were sexually active, then I was more to blame than a man because my nature made me naturally less susceptible to temptation. What terrible messages to send to a confused and lonely teenager!

Today, almost twenty years later, the messages I receive about womanhood are no less depressing. Consider this video documentary on “People with questionable genders.”

Where are the women here? They are absent. They are hidden. They exist like ghosts, only as references to give context to another problem that some men face: gender dysmorphia. According to this documentary, only men are faced with the difficulty of living in a society that rejects them and only men are given the choice to live false lives or to actualize themselves.

It is not politically correct to criticize transsexuals. However, it seems to me rather naive to say that a transwoman and born woman are the same. The former was born into a life of privilege and chose to reject it. The latter was never given the choice. It is rather similar to comparing a monk and a beggar. The former chooses his poverty in exchange for actualization of himself. The latter, on the other hand,  has no flag of moral victory to wave in the face of his enemies.

Once, years ago, I was discussing with a male acquaintance of mine. He bemoaned the freedom that women had to dress as men without repercussion, but that men were considered gay or somehow deficient in their masculinity if they did so. Clearly, I said to him, this difference arises from the fact that a woman is considered an inferior being. It is natural for her to want to emulate masculinity whereas a man who rejects his gender has no justification and therefore deserves the ridicule. Our philosophical discussion ended there. Most men are uncomfortable when their privilege is pointed out to them.

 

 

Perspective

Living in Japan has taught me many things. The most difficult lesson I am having at the moment is understanding how Japanese people can work six to seven days a week for weeks on end, and know the exact number of holidays they’ve taken year to date at any day of the year. I have two acquaintances here with whom I have discussed this point. Both were quite enlightening.

One man works for an interior renovation company as a project manager. He can easily work for three weeks without a day off, and they are mostly ten hour days. I still do not understand how this is possible. When, for example, does a person on this schedule do their laundry? This is in a country where letting your laundry pile up for more than two days is considered bad hygiene, and dryers are luxury items. When we met I learned that he loves surfing and used to live near the beach before moving for his job. His dream is to become employed by a boutique sports wear shop on the shore where he can surf every morning for an hour or two before work. To me, this sounds like a small dream, but to him it is immeasurable personal freedom.

Since we met he told me he has started to rethink his life and his priorities. He wants this job, but he does not know how to acquire it. Japanese are not particularly good at controlling their own destinies. Generally, they are a very passive people. Recently he lamented to me that he would like to quit his current job, but there are no other available options to go to. I said to him, “why don’t you just take a few ‘sick’ days without quitting?” I figured if he gets caught, he wanted to quit anyway and maybe he’ll get some unemployment or something. I feel like this was a very American suggestion. “Ah! What an idea? I never thought of that,” he says to me.  “You really gave me a new perspective!”

The second man works for a local branch of a large sports equipment company (what can I say? I like sports). He is an hourly employee, which is considered “part time” in Japan. The shop closes at seven in the evening and one night I received a message from him “Done for the day!” It was 10:30 pm. He gets one day off per week and on that day he works part time as a mechanic. I said he works too much. He said I work too little. I told him the French consider a 35-hour work week to be excessive. He said Japan is not a country where you can live working less. At this last point, my mind started spinning.

As an economist I am keenly aware of the role of boundaries in our lives. Sometimes the boundary is money, as in we have to meet our budget or else we can’t pay off our mortgage. Sometimes the boundary is very personal and very rigid, like our innate attention span. Sometimes the boundary is imposed upon us by organizations that seem more mechanical than human, like the boundary between on-the-clock and off-the-clock. Boundaries can be comforting, such as when we set a boundary for how much risk we are willing to tolerate in our lives, and then stay safely inside it. But they can also be suffocating, such as when the boss thinks that an acceptable boundary between work and personal life is having access to your social media profile, e-mail and cell phone number, but promising not to misuse them. Boundaries can also control our ability to make good decisions by changing the context of the choices that we make. Japan, I argue, has a problem with boundaries.

As a member of the modern world with access to the internet, you have undoubtedly been told that the wealth available to the average citizen of the United States is greater than that of King Louis XIV, or some other similar claim of modern affluence. Undoubtedly you were told this by some charitable organization hoping for just two dollars a month to save some children from starving, or else you were told by some authority figure who wanted to impress upon you the need to work more and play less. Perhaps when you heard this claim, you thought to yourself, “if I am so rich, then why is my life so difficult?” Indeed, this is a difficult question to answer unless you are accustomed to thinking about how boundaries influence our welfare.

Let us take a moment to think back. Decades, indeed centuries ago, when the sun went down the world went to sleep. Even the lowliest peasant on a Midieval fief was sent home at the end of the day because the fuel to light the fields was simply not worth the expense. Come industrialization, not only did we have the ability to work long, grueling hours, but we also had the technology to make it profitable. From industrialization we moved to telecommunications. Now, even when the work day ended, our bosses could still find us in our homes and return us to work. From telecommunications we went to the current situation of live feeds and mobile computers so light and small that they fit in our pocket, and which are more powerful than the clunky desktop pieces we shared among an entire family barely twenty years ago. From the perspective of the economy, this is a massive increase in productive capacity and it is part of the reason why we are so affluent today. However, all this technology has created a difficult situation for employer and employee relationships.

Years ago, in fact only one generation ago, when you left the job, you stayed off duty until your shift started the next day. It was simply too difficult or else too cost ineffective for your boss to expect you to be productive in any capacity when you were not physically on site. Even jobs that relied on computers (or typewriters, as it were) stayed in the office since many people did not own the necessary equipment to take their work home with them. This placed a boundary on the daily productive capacity of each employee, which in turn restricted overall profits as well as individual wages. Today, however, the ability to take work home with us has reached through to almost every kind of job. Today, if we want to stop working, we have to provide a reason to stop where before the reason was clear: that it’s simply impossible to work more.

The technology that has allowed us to choose when and where we work has essentially created a conflict between employer and employee that clearly favors the employer. Now every employee must appeal for the privilege to stop working. If it is possible to work, why wouldn’t you? seems to be the logic that every company employs. Unfortunately because the power is never balanced between boss and worker, the worker loses ground. It is impossible to say to one’s boss “I simply don’t want to work this much,” without risking one’s job. The truth is that over time, technology has eroded the natural boundary between work and personal life and the individual is simply not equipped socially to reinstate it.

My friends do not work six to eight days a week because Japan is a country where it is impossible to live working less than six days a week. In fact Japan is a country where it is possible to live working every waking hour, and even some sleeping hours. That’s why my friend’s lives are so difficult. In Japan it is even more difficult to assert yourself to your superiors than it is in the western world. This is because Japan has a very well established social hierarchy and sense of obligation. The employer should take care of his employees’ every physical needs right up to subsidizing their rent and work meals, and in return the employees must dedicate their lives to their employers. It is almost as if the Samurai live on with karoshi (literally “death by over work”) replacing seppuku as the means of preserving honor.

Japan is not the only country that is slowly destroying its people through over work. Americans are well on their way there, too. To see this we need only look at the billions of dollars wasted on medicating chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and depression. Unfortunately this outcome is inevitable. The powerful will always take advantage of the weak, and there is an inherent power imbalance in our market system. All hope is not lost, however. We may not be able to control the infrastructure of our society, or be able to tell our bosses that they are crossing the line, but we can appreciate each other on a personal level. We can love our friends and celebrate their lives — lives lived fully, and completely, with work and with play and with love and with responsibility. In doing so we will lessen the moral burden of leaving an organization that abuses us. If we know we have the support of our friends in making decisions that improve our lives holistically, then even if it means risking our jobs, we can turn around and assert our own personal boundaries on the people who seek to use us up for their profits.

It may never happen that, as a society, our right to happiness and leisure is officially recognized. Even if we do everything in our power to protect our happiness and the happiness of those we love, it may always be true that the weaker in spirit will not be protected and will further contribute to a system that consumes where it should be providing. However, even if our numbers are too small to “make a difference,” there is still enough affluence in our society that even if we were to live perpetually at the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, we would still have enough to live and live happily if only we could remember to keep that happiness precious.

In the end, I suppose it is all about perspective. We have a choice between selling our souls for affluence, or building affluence out of pure spirit. It can be done. It’s scary, though. We are not taught to be alive or to be happy and many of us simply assume that if we just do the “right” things happiness will fall on us. But, no. You have to make your happy. If you take the perspective that the world exists as resources to build happiness, as compared to the perspective of you exist to “succeed” and are only entitled to whatever happiness you can fit into the margins of that success, then you will find that happiness. As an economist I am meant to study the world as it operates in the presence of scarcity, but I don’t think we live with scarcity. I think we live with abundance, if only we were brave enough to reach out and take it.

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