A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams



“Don’t Let Your Husband See This” — WTF?

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Not so much the video, but the title of the post is a perfect example of institutionalized passive sexism. The title suggests that only men would enjoy off road adventuring. The description that this is the “ultimate adult toy” implies that women are not adults. And finally, why should women not let their husbands see this? Are we so opposed to each other’s mutual happiness, so entrenched in the Battle that we cannot celebrate each other even when we are different?

More than any measurable form of sexism, this purportedly innocent portrayal of profoundly different social value for men and women is most insidious.

It seems like a silly realization, almost a waste of bytes to record, but yesterday it occurred to me that friends are very good. They restore me after my lonely hours spent in my head at work, they calm me, they energize me, motivate me, encourage me and give me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Just the chance to see my friends is enough to turn an entire day around.

Friends are good.


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.

A Local Commuter Goes Long

Last week I decided to take my lovely bike Pikuro out for a very long ride. I have a friend who is “woofing” in Delaware at a local organic farm. Essentially, woofing is an unpaid internship in organic agriculture and farming. I don’t have a car and I’m too scatterbrained to plan out a trip with buses and transfers and schedules, so naturally I decided to ride. I learned many things on this trip, things about myself, things about public transit and things about people in general. It was a wholly worthwhile adventure.

I planned my trip with the help of a friend and google maps. I started by taking the SEPTA regional rail to Newark station. I didn’t have trouble loading Pikuro onto the train, but there was a very awkward moment where I had to ask the passengers in the handicapped section to move to make room for my bicycle. From there I rode approximately 65 miles along a 55 mph state road. The Delaware roads were good quality and the shoulders were wide. I didn’t have to deal with much debris and I don’t think I met even one pothole.

It was not a particularly scenic trip and I do wish there had been more trees lining the highway — more trees and fewer car dealerships. However it was a pleasant trip in the way that riding through Philly has never been.  The drivers on the road gave me an unheard of amount of space on the road. Even passing me at 70+ mph, which was unnerving for sure, I found that many drivers edged over to the left side of their lanes, or even slowed down or changed lanes as is required by Delaware state law when passing disabled vehicles. When I came to an intersection I noticed on more than one occasion that the people waiting to use the right turn lane gave me over two car lengths of distance as they waited for me to clear through. At first I was confused because I have never been given this much space on the road before. Once I realized what they were doing I was grateful and pretty shocked at the same time.

Twice I met with other cyclists along the way. We waved at each other and I felt as if we were two of a kind traveling through a world that only we could see. We were exposed to the wind and the sun and the wispy corn fields that we passed. When you ride in a car you are sheltered. You can look out the window at the things passing by, but you are never a part of the world you travel the same way that you are on a bicycle.  At one point I also rode by a motorcycle gang of about a dozen or so people. Every single one of them turned their heads at me from across the road. That’s right. We’re all on two wheels, here, but mine are powered by muscle, grit and sweat. I think they were impressed.

As a very passionate advocate for cycling safety in Philadelphia, I could not help but notice the difference in attitudes down in Delaware versus at home in the city. People were much more polite and patient with me. I felt like a person, a real human on the road. At times I was definitely uncomfortable, for example when I had to ride over a covered bridge with no shoulder. People can be polite all they want, but when you’re driving at highway speeds on a tiny bridge and you don’t expect to see a cyclist puttering along at thirteen miles per hour, death can happen pretty quickly and it’s not going to come for the one in the steel safety cage. But most of the time I sensed that there were people inside the cars one the road and that they understood that I wasn’t trying to make their life difficult, just trying to get along on my bicycle. I waved a lot.

In Philadelphia people are very impatient, rude, and downright dangerous to cyclists. When I ride in the city I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can protect myself better, how people are being jerks, and how the city neglects to take the proper measures necessary to protect the precious and vulnerable cyclists that are trying to make their way around. I also do a lot of deep breathing and counting to 10. What I realized when I was riding was that people in Philly aren’t nasty because people in Philly are nasty, they’re nasty because it’s a tight city where nothing works the way it should. Philly has a problem with broken promises and wrong expectations.

Think about this scenario: You have an appointment on the other side of town at 3:30. You’ve made the trip in under fifteen minutes before. It’s 2:00 pm and you need to pick up your dry cleaning before you go, but it’s on the way. Plenty of time, right? First hangup: you’ve been parked in. It takes ten minutes of wiggling to get your car out of its space and onto the road. Next, you’re on your way to the cleaners and you find out that the road is under construction. You want to make a detour, but there’s a park in the way (Let’s say Rittenhouse, just for fun) and anyway, you’re already stuck between two solid block of other cars who didn’t know about the construction. Another ten minutes passes as you try to wiggle and ginch your way through. Next thing it’s a taxi double parked on Pine street. Now you’re starting to stress. You just wanna get to the cleaners and it’s only another three blocks, but when is this car gonna move? You’re tempted to go around, but the other side of the taxi is a bike lane. You take a deep breathe and wait. You’re a good citizen. You make it to the cleaners and there’s even parking right out front, but just as you get to the light a woman thrusts her baby carriage out into the street without looking your direction. You slam the breaks, miss the light and watch miserably as your precious space, and another five minutes of your preciously dwindling lead time, disappears to the volatility of the city. The next time you come to a yellow you don’t even wait. You swing around the corner quick as a …quick thing, and bam! Down goes the cyclist. You might have had a chance to make your appointment, but by now it’s hopeless. You have to wait for the police to show up and make a report. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to wait for an ambulance. Even though it was every facet of city living that lead you to your final moment of poor judgment, your anger is at yourself, and at the cyclist. Why the hell wasn’t he looking? Didn’t he see that you were obviously trying to turn?

This is the problem with cycling in Philly. At the beginning of the day you start out with every good intention, but with all the things that happen along the way due to poor traffic infrastructure and general neglect on the part of enforcement, your patience wears thin. Cyclists are guilty of it, too, don’t get me wrong. I once yelled at a man who was legitimately crossing the street on a green in the crosswalk and almost ran him down because I had just been attacked by an old lady walking excessively slowly and unpredictably in the bike lane only seconds before. I felt like a complete ass. I’m sure the man I almost ran down is now a solid opponent of bicycle lanes in the city. There is only one way to make cycling safe in Philadelphia and it’s to close down the gap between people’s expectations and the way the city’s streets actually flow so that the frustration, irritation and frayed nerves that are always a side effect of a crowded metropolis can be soothed to the point that people are actually capable of sharing.

To this end, I think Philadelphia needs to set some priorities. First of all, a visible police presence that actually knows the rules of the road is absolutely critical. Police don’t necessarily need to give out tickets, in fact I think that information is more important now than enforcement, but they should correct everyone’s use of the streets from pedestrians to motorists, with cyclists and skateboarders included. Jaywalking should be taken more seriously as it is a major danger to cyclists from a civil as well as a physical perspective. The notion of “don’t block the box” should be enforced vigorously, and for this I think tickets should be handed out as this kind of behavior is a nuisance to all users of public pathways. And for everyone’s sake, no stopping zones should be enforced with a passion!

Second, I think the city should recognize that no one is going to get through quickly. Speed limits should be set at no more than 20 mph for the safety of everyone, and if at all possible the lights should be timed everywhere in the city as they are on Lombard, Spruce and Pine. On the side of the drivers, a lower speed limit is not actually restrictive so much as it bring their expectations of how fast they can travel through the city more in line with the actuality of it. On the side of cyclists, it lowers the gap between what leg power and what fossil fuel can do. This means that cyclists are less of a hindrance to drivers and also that any accidents will have lower expected damage.

There are a number of other things that the city can do to make cycling more safe. Many people might argue that it is not a priority, but protecting cyclists goes hand in hand with increasing everyone’s welfare. Cyclists are known to shop locally much more than motorists do. Everyone loves supporting local businesses, except, perhaps, politicians and major corporations, but those are not actually people, so we shouldn’t mind them. Cycling also connects people to the world around them. A connected city is a healthier city as people care about their environment and want to protect it to the extent that they feel it is theirs. And people are happier and healthier when they have solid human connections. But even setting aside the benefits that are specific to cycling, the steps the city needs to take to make the roads safer also move its entire population towards a more peaceful, harmonious coexistence. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, benefits from lower stress, and do I even need to explain why?

Coming back from my adventure I carried with me a calmness that I had lost somewhere between the Ben Franklin Parkway and Washington Avenue. Or perhaps I left it on Cecil B. Moore? I believe that Philadelphia can raise itself up from the filth and the crime and the anger that pervades it, and I think that the road to protecting cyclists runs parallel to the road to being a better, healthier, happier city. There is an abundance of energy here that I had lost sight of, but one long ride out of state gave me the perspective I needed to find it again.

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