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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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friendship

応援し放題!Cheering Squad Unleashed!

Over the past month I’ve gone to three of my friends’ competitions. Two were to support my girl friend in her return to sport climbing. She was amazing! The third, and I wish there had been a fourth, was to support Thunderthighs and the Giant Everwin team in their first race.

My girl was absolutely fantastic. I’ve never seen her so focused, and at the same time so completely in her own. Strong and confident, she gave me exquisite pleasure just to be there, cheering her, secretly saying to myself “Hey all you people! That’s MY friend there!”

Working the overhang like a beast
Working the overhang like a beast
Resting between climbs
Resting between climbs
Sending the first route of the finals. Tricky and balancy, but just what she's good at
Sending the first route of the finals. Tricky and balancy, but just what she’s good at.

The next week I went out to 群馬 (Gunma) with the racing team to see what a road race looked like. It was fun from the start, with an easy atmosphere despite the fact that the start was at 3am.

How are we all gonna fit?
OhaYO~!
Checking our gear at the start line
Checking our gear at the start line

I would have been intimidated if I was showing up alone to race and saw all these guys with all their bikes and tools spread out all over the parking lot. But since I was with the group, to me it was just exciting to feel all the tension buried just underneath, ready to explode at the sound of the gun.

いってきま~す!
いってきま~す!

These two were a father-son pair and it was the first race for both of them. Fight! Fight!

冷静でハイテンション
冷静でハイテンション

Even I’m nervous at the start line to a running race. These guys must have been so much more so, but they hid it well. Thunder did not keep his nerves in check as well. He exploded to the front of the line, and then imploded a few laps later. A shame, but still impressive to have held on as long as he did.

最初から先頭
最初から先頭

Going home, a few of us had to be reduced to “cargo” status, but apparently cargo is a pretty comfy ride.

Comfy? Zzzzzz
Comfy? Zzzzzz

All the guys did their best and it was a thrill just to be there. Something about knowing the competitors, knowing their histories and the reasons why they are racing, makes everything more exciting, more meaningful and more fun.

I like having fun. Cheering my friends is stupid fun!

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My Brain

My brain

It recently dawned on me that my brain doesn’t organize the world the same way most other people’s brains do. Where as most people tend to simplify the world around them into predetermined categories, I have a tendency to look at the parts that make things up and draw similarities on a more basic level. For better or for worse this seems to be an obstacle that I need to overcome when I communicate with people.

The most common area where my brain gives me difficulty communicating with people is most surely in human relations. Most Americans, as well as Japanese, tend to view human relationships as being in one of the following stock categories: professional or personal, family, friend, neighbor, acquaintance or romantic partner. There may be some finer categories that people use, too, such as “sex friend” which is a kind of sub category of romantic partner that includes the sex but not the romance or love. For the most part, however, these categories are distinct. Rarely will someone find themselves fulfilling more than one of these roles at a time. For example, your mother might also be your friend, but you wouldn’t call her to go “out with your friends,” which puts her firmly in the category of family. At the same time the characteristics of each of these relationships do very much overlap.

Family and romantic partners are expected to love you. Sometimes friends love each other. Only romantic partners and sex professionals can satisfy your physical needs, though. In fact, hugging members of the opposite sex (among straight people) borders on a violation of the implicit exclusivity of the romantic relationship. On the other side of the spectrum, professional contacts are expected to refrain from emotional interaction. There are many other rules and characterizations of the many types of human relationships as well.

The way my brain works is on the level of those characteristics. My brain looks at a human relationship and asks whether or not there is love, or sex, or an exchange of goods or services. Sometimes the answers align well with the standard relationship categories; sometimes the align less well. For example, what does one call a relationship where there is love and sex and an exchange of market services? Can it be possible to be friends with your boss?

The most difficult for me is trying to communicate about any relationship that involves sex. Most people are quick to drop it into the sex friend category, or the romantic category. The difficulty is with the love factor. Sex friends are not normal friends in the sense that they are expected to not have strong feelings for each other or to be particularly involved in each other’s lives. So if you add love to a sex friend, do you get a romantic partner? No, because romantic partners are for the most part expected to be preparing for a long term monogamous relationship, such as marriage. People who believe in True Love find this conclusion natural because if you loved each other Truly, there would be no reason not to marry. However marriage is a very different relationship than friends or lovers and involves its own set of expectations both within and from outside of the relationship. So what does one call a loving sexual relationship that never moves closer towards marriage? The answer is that you don’t, really. So far I have found no word to communicate that concept.

If you break down human relationships into their critical components, it is quite obvious that a relationship with sex, friendship, and love can be different from a romantic partnership with its expectation of exclusivity. The difficulty I think most people have is that they aren’t looking at the pieces, they are looking at the whole item. This pattern isn’t limited to human relationship categories either.

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who is quite passionate about politics and who is mostly self taught on the subject. At some point in our conversation I found myself very confused because my friend is also devoutly liberal in his politics, but he was violently attacking economic policies that would help the liberal agenda because he thought they were republican propaganda. I would open my mouth to comment, only to close it again in confusion as the conversation took what seemed to me like a 180º in its ideology. What I realized after having let the conversation settle for a few hours was that my friend’s approach to policy was from a different starting point than mine. He sees policy as a battle among competing political forces whereas I see policy as a collection of changes, each affecting a different piece of the population in its own way. Because I look at policy as being good or bad for the population and not as part of a political agenda I have often been stumped when people ask me what my political leanings are. I simply don’t understand how the divisions are drawn.

Some people say that I am smart. I am not sure if that’s the right word. I know that my brain’s stubborn insistence on seeing the world as a collection of trees rather than a forest has enabled me to see striking patterns among its leaves that others may overlook. At the same time it also complicates my daily life. Categories are helpful in a complicated world that insists on changing faster than any human living in it can manage to adapt. For many of us, it’s enough to know if we are friends on the left, or professional acquaintances on opposite sides of the spectrum and for that categories are infinitely easier to work with. My greatest hope is that perhaps one day I will meet someone who is really good at seeing the larger picture and who will take my hand and guide me through the forest as I spend my time inspecting all the myriad beings inside it. I know I have a lot to offer the world, but I also know that if I spend all my time seeing patterns that I will have no energy to share those insights with others. Ultimately both skills are necessary to achieve change.

At the Top

At the Top

Recently I became friends with the former ice climbing champion of Japan. After years of topping the charts in her particular sport, she decided she needed a hobby and took up mountain biking — trials, specifically. Except for the fact that we both often get mistaken for high school boys and practice the same sports, we are almost perfect yin and yang. I have tried my whole life to be the best at something, but have always fallen short, usually because I get swept away with some other hobby. She decided one day she wanted to be a world class athlete and was successful very quickly, but then spent the rest of her career in a pervasive ennui about professional sports in general. While I love mountains so passionately that my bones quake whenever I look up and see them on the horizon, she could take them or leave them. I am very comfortable in cold; she hates it.

There are many differences between us, but at the same time both of us share the experience of dedicating our entire lives to the pursuit of a single goal. In her case it was ice climbing. In my case? It was, and still is, answering the questions that arise when common knowledge just doesn’t make sense. Both of us have spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours alone, relentlessly chipping away at the wall between where we are and where we feel compelled to be. We are both very intensely aware of how lonely the path to the top truly is.

Over drinks last night I said to her, “When I was young, my mother always warned me that it is lonely at the top.” She paused for a moment and said to me,

“Maybe. But when you actually do get to the top, the scenery is vastly different than anywhere else. You can see things and meet people from the top that you couldn’t if you were just bumbling around mid-pack. For example, you get to meet the other top athletes from around the world. And even musicians. The top climber might have something in common with the top musician even though one is an athlete and the other an artist. So actually, it’s not really that lonely.”

Suddenly I felt criticized. It’s not that she was saying something so very different, or even inconsistent, than what I said. To be at the top is to have gone somewhere that no one else is by definition. But in my friend’s view, being at the top of your own mountain meant being able to wave to everyone else at the top of the other mountains. You can’t see who else is at the top when you’re still down below tree-line and that’s pretty obvious, too. However, I have never gotten to the top of anything. I was never the smartest in math, or the best dancer, or the strongest climber, or the most moving writer. Everywhere I went and everything I did I would excel far beyond the average schmuck, but I would soon find someone excelling even farther than myself. Try as I would to catch up, they would only ever disappear over the horizon, leaving me both alone and stuck in the middle. So while I know the pain of solitary training, I have never seen the beauty of surpassing all of my competition.

As I sat there at the corner table in the dark, twenties speakeasy style whiskey bar, I wondered to myself why this person who I liked so much was making me feel bad about myself by speaking positively of her own experience. Most of the time she is unhappy with her responsibilities as top Japanese athlete. So why would this one moment of positivity disturb me? It occurred to me that she, like so many people alive today, was implying with her language that the scenery at the top is better than what you would see from the middle. While most people would probably think it pretty cool to meet the top violinist in the world, or the top mountain biker, or the top runner, or any other person who had topped their field, people who have never undertaken the long and lonely struggle of getting to the top themselves would probably not appreciate on a personal level all that the other person had accomplished. It would be much like meeting a famous celebrity. We could react with awe, or respect, but we would not be able to connect with that person because we would not be able to share the experience of being at the top.

I thought about some of my own struggles as I sipped a rich brandy out of an extremely large glass. When I was a runner, people would come to me full of excitement saying things like, “did you hear? So-and-so just broke the world record marathon time in Berlin!” My reaction was always, “So? What does that have to do with me?” I was always much more excited to hear that the overweight office lady who just started running last season broke the 4.5 hour barrier, or to find out that a former professor of psychology had quit her job to become a professional endurance athlete. These were things that I could relate to. The professional athlete with the professional team of coaches and the sponsorships and the free medical support breaking the world record was just irrelevant to me. Who knows? If I had all those advantages, maybe I could break a record, too? In essence, I wanted to hear stories of people like me accomplishing things that I would love to be able to accomplish. That way I could hope for my own goals to be one day realized.

I think one of the reasons that I never made it to the top is that to me, being better than other people doesn’t seem to mean much. I like when people cheer for me and praise me. I love it when my friends, people that I truly respect and care about, speak proudly of something I did. If I were a top athlete, news anchors and specialty magazines would say things about how amazing I am, but I would know that it’s their job to say those things, and I would know that the day someone else overtakes me would be the last day that any of those strangers would care. If I ever were to become the best at something I would want it to be because I did something or discovered something that no one else did. I would want it to be a reflection of who I am, not simply an artifact of the relevant competition at the time. To me, the value of making it to the top would be that it would validate all of my effort and all of my uncertainty along the way. I imagine that my friend and her colleagues at the top of their fields are all enjoying a similar type of validation. I imagine that to most of them, being at the top means that they are close to their own potential and that defeating the other competitors isn’t the point at all.

When we finally left the bar and walked out into the eerily cold night air, I couldn’t help but think to myself: She says you have to get to the top to hang out with the others at the top. But what are we doing right now? All I’ve ever been able to do well in my life is be stupidly happy over the incredibly mundane. And yet I get to spend my Saturday evening sharing drinks with a champion athlete and hearing stories of a world that only a handful of other humans will ever get to see. Somehow, I feel like I might have found a shortcut.

Let’s be Friends

I know why relationships that end with “let’s be friends” are both infuriating to the dumpee and also never actually turn into friendships. The reason is simple: most relationships of the romantic sort actually skip friendship entirely and go straight from bare acquaintances to intimate lovers. In other words, friendship and romance do not exists on the same continuum of human intimacy. This is why the concept of “friends with benefits” is so hard for people to grasp properly, and also why it makes for a very appealing movie.

Friendship is something that many of us think we understand from a young age. Ideally, a friend will accept you the way you are, know your quirks and triggers, help you out when life punches you in the face and celebrate with you when things are going well. At the same time, in order to be able to do these things for you, a friend should be their own person with their own hobbies and interests that don’t depend on you. They should have their own life and their own family and be flexible enough to spend time with you when you are available, but to also be able to carry on without you when your life becomes overwhelming. Most importantly, perhaps, friends should like each other.

Romantic partners are different. Romantic partners exist inside coupledom with each of their identities being dependent on the other. A romantic partner is an object of affection into whom we pour our love and our angst. To our partner we share the part of ourselves which we believe is worthy of love and in doing so attempt to embody the role of partner ourselves. In a very real sense romantic partners “complete” each other. One of the side effects of romantic partnership is that, unlike friendship, we sometimes feel the need to hide the parts of ourselves that we feel our partners would not approve of, or that we consider unbecoming of a proper romance. Take the husband who has to go out with his guy friends in order to relax and get away from the wife. Or consider the woman who habitually chooses boyfriends so jealous of other men that she ceases contact with her male friends whenever she enters a new relationship.  Romantic partnerships, unlike friendships, do not leave room for others. We can have unlimited friendships, but only one husband.

When you understand that a Relationship is different from a friendship in more than just degree of intimacy, it is not hard to see why so many efforts at friendship post relationship fail. For one thing, a boyfriend has never had to accept the priority of other relationships over himself whereas a friend knows that sometimes he is first and sometimes he is not. For another, a girlfriend who is accustomed to defining herself as “my partner’s girlfriend” no longer knows who to be or how to act when her ex is around, but is no longer her partner. Had they been friends they would have known that it is possible to be temporarily out of communication with each other without it being a death knoll on their relationship. Finally a romantic partnership, perhaps exactly because of its closed and intimate nature, suffers from its own finitude. Whereas a friend can be one of many and be loved just the same, a romantic partner is one of one and therefore any changes in the personality, goals, or desires of the other partner is a full force affront on one hundred percent of the relationship status quo.  There is simply no room for a partner to think that perhaps “it isn’t me.” So simply being around an ex and seeing how that person is happy and growing without you can be very painful if you have never experienced a friendship with that person outside of your relationship.

I will be honest with you, I believe friendships to be superior to Relationships. However, I think that Relationships that include friendship can be strong and enduring. I have friends who are married and whose spouses are brilliant beautiful beings. Some of them, when I think about it now, are clearly friends in addition. They tend to have an air of calmness about them when they are together and of course their personalities tend not to differ all that much from when they are apart either. Of course we are all different people in different circumstances to some degree or another. Even at work we behave one way when at home we would not, so to be always and everywhere the same is not a necessary requirement. But some people I feel different around when they are with their spouses and I wonder if perhaps these people are more in a Relationship than they are friends, though I never ask. Ultimately it is a personal decision. My grandparents were never friends, but they were iron-strong partners in over fifty years of marriage. Even today my grandmother, though she has finally given voice to her discontent and struggle during those fifty years, would probably not have chosen a different path. To her, what they had was marriage and the idea of being “friends” with your husband was just not something to consider. This is ok. My hope in writing this short piece is not to criticize and say that one is better than the other, but instead to bring some level of enlightenment to our suffering as we flow in and out of relationships. Perhaps simply knowing that romance and friendship are two different animals, we can afford ourselves and our loves a level of kindness that we couldn’t before.

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