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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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humanity

Friends

Visiting my home town for the first time since moving abroad, I got the opportunity to meet with many of my good friends. There was a conference in town — the biggest annual conference in my field — so my mind has been spinning hard at the philosophical level, too. I want to share a few of the life revelations that came to me while spending time with these awesome people.

The first came to me while sitting at one of the fancy designer gourmet restaurants that my city is famous for. My friend, who until recently made her living making lattes and bagels, had come into possession of a gift card and we were determined to milk it for every penny. Our waiter was an absolutely stunning young white man with a backside that threatened the seam of his trousers in a most irresistible fashion. He had movie-star stubble and perfectly shaped eyebrows. Obviously, he was gay.

Towards the end of our meal, I noticed another stunning silhouette. This man was tall and slender and his white shirt nearly glowed against his ebony skin. He was dark, clearly an immigrant and mesmerizingly beautiful. My friend caught me staring and I explained that I simply wanted to know if the view from the front was as good as from behind. Then, as he turned, it dawned on me how incredibly surreal the situation was. Black men? Working in a gourmet fanssy shmanssy restaurant? Sure, he and his colleague were just bus boys, but they were visible in an upscale establishment. Surely this was a sign of social progress.

Alas, no, my friend explained to me. The white gay many was the waiter and the two black men of unidentifiable sexual orientation were bus boys, so clearly the oppression of the black man continues. What followed was a very short and very tense argument between my friend and I. She is a passionate advocate for social justice. I am a passionate advocate for personal happiness. To my friend, all that was visible was the still present discrimination against a social minority. What I saw was a pair of immigrants who happened to be of a similar physical description to a long oppressed social class doing their job in full view of the posh and snobby social majority that is the consumer base of that restaurant. I saw change towards a better world and my friend saw only the vast divide between what is and what could be.

She got angry with me, I think, for being happy. To my friend unless we are all equal there is injustice and injustice is unforgivable. I said to her, “It’s progress! It’s ok to celebrate progress even if there is still a long way to go. Celebrating a little bit of progress is not ceding the victory.” While I was busy feeling proud of myself for having produced one of those lines that, if I ever became famous, would be spun through the inter-memes for generations to come, my friend was busy seething. There are many things that I could say in justifying my position. I believe in rewarding people for doing things right, even if they are still a little, or even a lot wrong. Mostly this is because I have attempted to teach weasels how to do tricks, but also because I believe in being happy. Social justice is a far off goal, if achievable at all. Why would we choose to be angry for our whole lives over the inability to achieve a distant and difficult goal when we could be happy for every miniscule step we make in the right direction? I am not sure. My friend is not an idiot, so I’m sure she has a good reason. I simply cannot fathom it.

Later in my trip I managed to catch up with another friend of mine who is also a wonderful person, but whose life strategies differ from mine on some really raw points. She is stupidly happily married for some ten years or so now. That fact by itself means that we have a lot of divide to bridge in order to be friends, but she is also actively non judgmental of others (of herself, perhaps she is less forgiving), which means that having a big divide on any subject isn’t really a big deal. In the last year or so she has been making serious efforts towards overcoming some of her own personal demons and today, after being abroad for three months, I got to see the first glimmer of progress.

In a short two-hour dinner she dropped so many life revelations on me that I doubt I could list them all if I tried. One, however, stuck out in my mind on account of it being a wholly new perspective for me, and also on account of it being about sex. The vast majority of people, she said, are extremely uncomfortable with sex. Even the “sluts” of the world with partners numbering in the three digits have difficulty with the word “clitoris.” We also talked about a close friend of hers who recently shared a meme, “All a girl ever really wants is one boy to prove they are not all the same.” Later that night as I dosed fitfully in my still present jetlag, I remembered a friend of mine from the men’s forum Measurection. He once lamented that his life’s dream is for someone to look at his naked body and declare his penis to be “hung like a horse,” or something to that effect. As the three thoughts brewed in the background of my red-lining mind, a realization of my own simmered to the top.

I believe that everyone harbors shame. To some extent we all have shame about the physical bodies were are confined to and about the entity that we call our selves. We seek affirmation of our own identity in the love and affection of a partner, but doing so requires vulnerability. We cannot achieve that affirmation without exposing what it is in us that we are ashamed of, and when the partner we choose denies us, they only reaffirm the shame we already carried. Sex is a beautiful and powerful tool to circumvent our existential fears and achieve the total acceptance we crave. What many people don’t know about orgasms is that the truly spectacular ones can only be achieved when the ego is banished from our consciousness, leaving just the raw mindless truth of who we are behind to experience the moment unhindered. It is no wonder, then, that the majority of people in this world are uncomfortable with sex, or that they place as much value as they do on their own social prowess. I guess, in a way, it is also little wonder why I love the topic so much. If you teach some one how to have truly awesome sex, I think it’s impossible for the rest of their lives to remain stagnant and unfulfilled.

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On civilization and personal integrity

Yin yoga is the practice of being still amidst discomfort. For several minutes at a time we lie on the ground with our arms, legs, heads propped up in various positions and at various heights. As we wait for the minutes to pass, we yield our bodies to gravity, and our own weight, pressed against the props, puts increasing pressure on our joints, slowly pulling them apart. As the pain and intensity builds, we sink deeper into ourselves, breathing, releasing, and ultimately seeking to experience the sensation in its entirety.

At the end of five minutes or so, the pose is complete and we return the force of will to our muscles. Some poses can be incredibly painful on the way in, others are only painful on the way out. The feeling is similar to when we fall asleep with our arms at an odd angle; upon waking it is as if hundreds of tiny needles are being thrust simultaneously into our flesh. Whatever the sensation, pain or pleasure, relief or loss, when the time arrives we release the pose. This is the practice of Yin Yoga.

In many ways, practicing Yin is like practicing personal integrity. Personal integrity, in another word, honesty, is the art and skill of knowing who we truly are and what we truly desire. It is painful to practice personal integrity because we exist in a society which is bolstered by a civilization, and the notion of civilization itself is to deny our most fundamental desires and instead focus our energy towards an idealization of humanity which seeks to magnify some traits and disguise, or even erase completely, many others.  Civilization is built on the idea that some humans are barbarians, more animals than they are humans, but that others are loftier, closer to God or closer to some other kind of Ideal, in the Platonic sense. Society reveres the lofty and despises the barbarous. Thus in order to achieve success in a civilization, it is necessary that we deny the part of our selves which is animal. The practice of personal integrity is then opposite of civilization. It seeks to acknowledge all of our selves and accept it without reaching towards an ideal or comparing our self with others.

Civilization is important. Society, even without a civilization, is important because humans are profoundly social creatures. We are all connected to each other and need each other to survive. Our connection exists on many levels, too. We have an emotional connection to our parents, particularly to the woman who raises us from infancy whom we come to know as Mother. But we also connect to each other practically. Even the solitary old curmudgeon is connected to his landlord for a place to sleep, his grocer for food… We are all connected to, and rely on, each other for our survival and for our happiness, so we need society. But civilization is also hurtful.

It is not hard to understand that any systematic denial of our rawest and most fundamental desires will ultimately lead to suffering. One of the most human desires that we all have is connection. I might call it love. We crave to love and be loved by others, at least by one other. Love, however, is multifaceted. We can love with our minds, we can love with our hearts and we can love with our bodies. Perhaps there are also other ways to love. Civilization tells us that to love with our minds is acceptable. To love with our hearts is unavoidable, but to love with our bodies is shameful. A woman should love her husband and love her children. If, perhaps, she should fall out of love, the civilized thing to do would be to suppress her own feelings for the sake of the children. The woman who does this loves her family with her mind. She rationalizes love into her life and she makes choices that mimic the choices a loving woman would make. This woman, however, does not love her family with her heart. Civilization expects us to backwards engineer the fruits of love, but it does not care if love itself is actually present.

The divide between a Civilized Man and a human grows even stronger when we consider loving with our bodies. A civilized man loves only one woman and his body is only attuned to and aroused by that one woman alone. All other sexual response is shameful. This includes desire for someone outside of marriage, or more recently outside of long term monogamy, and it includes sexual desire by women. Civilization’s ideal human is male. I believe that part of the reason why men are revered more so than women is because a woman’s body does not permit the systematic denial of humanity that is necessary to rise to the highest peaks of society. She bleeds, she cries, and she births life from inside her own body with even more blood and even more tears. She is frightening and she is terrific and she is a powerful reminder that we are not the ideals that we try so desperately to fit ourselves to, but that we are human, raw and beautiful and helpless to the forces of the universe.

To practice personal integrity therefore is painful. We must acknowledge so many things about our selves that we would rather believe are otherwise. Personal integrity means acknowledging that we are less than the ideal we defined for ourselves. It means acknowledging that our bodies desire things that are not appropriate, or are shameful, and it means accepting those desires as part of who we are. As a consequence, the practice of personal integrity is also the practice of vulnerability. As creatures who are part spirit and part flesh, when we acknowledge the physical side of our existence, we acknowledge that our minds are powerless to control that flesh, and powerless to control the environment within which it operates. All these things are painful and frightening, but they are also rewarding.

As in Yin, personal integrity exposes us to painful realities, but it also provides us relief. As long as we deny parts of who we are, we carry that denial with us, and we also carry the parts that we deny even though they are pushed from our consciousness. But when we take the time and care to experience those parts of us that we deny, fully experiencing without attempting to escape them but instead surrendering fully to the implications of our selves, we are able to release them. Whether we seek to mold our selves into the shape of the ideal, or accept our selves with passive surrender, we are who we are. The civilized ideal, however, is heavy with unfelt emotions and pent up shame while the self which experiences personal integrity experiences every moment exactly as the universe provides it. It is a lighter and freer self.

On Life, Politics, and the “Right” Thing to Do

Not so long ago I canceled my facebook account. It was election season, and it was also job market season, which meant that I was stressed out to the max trying to prepare my job market applications, and every day when I checked my facebook updates, a ton of my friends had posted nasty, inflammatory, snarky memes about the “other side” of the political spectrum. I happen to be very close with people on both ends, and both radical ends to boot, so facebook had essentially become a war zone with fire coming in from all directions. The academic in me could not just ignore them, or let bygones be bygones, but had to compulsively correct their facts, point out their lack of facts, or elucidate the non-factual subconscious messages that their favorite political advertisements were attempting to force feed us. Before too long I decided I had had enough and canceled my account entirely.

https://www.clarklittlephotography.com/gallery/gallery/MainGallery/Marlin.jpg
The beauty amidst the waves

Later, when the political dust was settling, a gay rights activist friend of mine said to me that even though it felt like a war zone, and even though he felt like the United States of America was still waging war on the humanity of its citizens, he contented himself to know that no matter how bad it is now, we are still better than we were twenty, fifty, or even a hundred years ago. I said to him, “I’m not so sure. Today we wage a war on homosexuality. It is a public war on a private aspect of our lives. My friend,” I said, “one hundred years ago we did not have the notion of ‘being gay’, we just had men and women who went about their daily lives, marrying the people they were supposed to marry, and carrying on their private romantic affairs with whomever they saw fit, quietly, secretly, discretely, just like they’ve been doing for millennia.” At this point, he cocks a digital eyebrow at me. Am I saying that there is no point in waging this war? That gays and lesbians have invented this tyranny purely for political attention? Of course not. But every generation will have its struggle. The world is constantly changing. What is an offense today, is a non-issue of yesterday, and indeed a non-issue of our future.

There are, in my opinion, two ways of viewing the world which were highlighted by my conversation with my friend. One way is to view our universe as if on a path stretching from a single point in history to an infinitely distant horizon. We exist on a single point on this path, and we can look ahead of us and look behind. Perhaps our point is not as good as some other point, so we strive to bring the two closer. Maybe we are successful, maybe we are not. In our forever quest for existential comfort, we might think to ourselves that justice is about moving our world closer to that better point on the horizon. Knowing that we in our finititude can never reach that point, we seek contentment in knowing that we moved ever so infinitessimally closer.

There is another way to view our world. It is possible that we exist in an infinite cycle of beginnings, middles and ends; with every beginning marking the end of something else. In this view, everything changes, but then it means that everything stays the same. There is a peace to be had in knowing that we exist as if in an ocean, with the waves providing a never ending rise and fall to our experience. Our struggles for justice can then be viewed not as a desperate and futile attempt for the shore, but as the necessary churning of our arms and legs in the waves that keeps our heads above the water. Whether we aim for the shore, knowing that we will drown long before we reach it, or we allow ourselves to simply float on the waves, we must nevertheless exist inside the water. The difference is that in this second view of the world, we see the waves for what they are: water moving up and down around us, instead of an obstacle separating us from an unattainable goal.

When I explained this second view of the world to my friend, he wondered aloud to me the natural question: If the universe exists in a constant flux, then where is there reason to ever attempt to improve it? The reason, I explained to him, is that every night we must go to sleep, and in those moments before unconsciousness takes us, we must face the reality of who we are. It is right to love our fellow humans. In loving one another, we enhance our own sense of humanity and we bring brightness into our own lives. It is not a question of whether or not we change the world, but whether or not we direct our intentions towards greater happiness. The contentment in our struggle must, therefore, not come from the realization of the goal, but the realization of the struggle itself. Just as the racial inhumanities of the sixties seemed to be coming to a conclusion, the sexual inhumanities of my generation seem to reach a head. The struggle never ends. The victory never arrives. The beauty, however, of the cycle is that at every moment we have the opportunity to realize in ourselves the struggle between the easy and the just. This, I told my friend, is the only source of true comfort.

Philly Cycling Etiquette

I have been a cycle commuter in Philadelphia for about five years now. I’ve lived in many places, but as a student of Penn, I always aim for University City. Lately, I’ve expanded my ‘hood, if you will, to include the majority of Center City, Queen Village, Fairmount, West Philly and the Schuylkill river trail.

When I ride, I can’t help but notice the various challenges that cyclists face trying to navigate this city. For all the efforts that have been made (and I attribute all of these to the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, and our wonderfully accessible Mayor Nutter), it is still the case that cyclists don’t get a lot of respect out on the roads. Cars don’t give us enough room when passing, we get doored, we get walked into by pedestrians jay walking and not looking out for the silent vehicles that we are. We get shouted at, honked at, cut off and generally hated. Even when we do have bicycle lanes, cars use them to pass each other, to park in, to have a little more distance from other parked cars. People walk in them, run in them… I won’t even start talking about skateboards. It isn’t easy being a cyclist in Philly.

However, I am not just a Philly Cyclist. I am also an occasional driver and frequent runner. I like to believe that I get to see all three sides of this struggle for respect on the roads. I don’t drive very often. Mostly I just rent a car and take it out of state, but I still have to get out of the city. I went out of my way recently to be polite to cyclists — to look out for them before turning, to give ample passing distance, to be patient when the street is too narrow to share. And do you know what I discovered? It isn’t easy being a driver in Philly! Cyclists are hard to see, and they don’t often stop at intersections. Many times they’re riding the wrong way down the street, or they’re appearing out of nowhere as they jump a curb or dodge some other obstacle.

When I’m running, I downright hate cyclists, especially the ones wearing team jerseys or riding BMX bikes. They never EVER call their pass. They cut close to me when the path is crowded. They shout at me to get out of their way when they don’t want to slow down. They don’t ride on the right side of the trail, even though it’s marked with huge arrows and yellow “don’t cross” lines. And that’s just on the trail. Cyclists blowing lights are pretty frightening to a pedestrian who is already worried about getting run over by a taxi cab (this has nearly happened to me twice, and actually happened to a friend once). Bicycles are also pretty silent. At night, a cyclist without lights is about as imperceptible as Casper the Friendly Ghost. Surprise, surprise, it’s not easy being a pedestrian in Philly.

So lately as I’ve been riding around this glorious city, I’ve been wondering to myself, how can we make things better for us as cyclists? The answer that I’ve arrived at is that we need, as cyclists, to make things better for everybody else. It doesn’t matter how strongly we believe we ought to have a right to the road. It doesn’t matter, even, if we think that giving us more rights to the road will make this city on the whole a better place. We live in a democracy and we are the minority. We need to convince everybody else that giving cyclists a place on our streets is going to make everybody else’s lives better.

How many times have you, my cycling compatriots, called your pass and heard an emphatic, almost resigned “thank you!” from your less hastily traveling fellow human? In that thank you, have you not, perhaps subtly, sensed a feeling of exasperation, as if to say “wow! a cyclist with manners! I never thought I’d meet one.”? I know I have felt this same sense when a car driver turns on his or her right turn indicator and then pauses at the intersection until I am safely in front of them, or perhaps when I have heard the light tooting of a horn saying “on your left!” Perhaps, even, this is my own optimism playing tricks with me, but I am sure I notice these things more often when I myself am making a point to stop at lights and indicate my own turns.

So here is my idea on how to make cycling better for everyone in Philadelphia — cyclists, car drivers and pedestrians alike: we as cyclists need to go out of our way to send a message to everybody else that we appreciate them making space for us and that we, in turn, are going to make space for them. I think we can do this by staging an intentional cycling etiquette demonstration.

The Schuylkill river trial would be a great place to start. What we will do is gather a large(ish) group of cyclists and give everybody arm bands, stickers or t-shirts showing that we are all together on that day. To those cyclists that are participating, and anyone else interested in hearing, we will explain what good cycling etiquette means and how important it is for us that we show it to everybody else. Then we ride out on the trail in waves, calling our passes, slowing down when the trail is crowdy, indicating our moves to others on the trail. In short, we make a point of being seen behaving well.

I believe that everyone on foot that day will appreciate being made the center of attention, and in a good way. I also believe that everyone out there on wheels will get a good glimpse of what a good cyclist ought to behave like. The fact of the matter is, there are so many poorly behaved cyclists on the roads and trails that the few who do try to follow the rules get swallowed up in the numbers and not noticed by anyone. The result is irritation for all and no good role models for those who would try to be better. I also believe that those who do participate will get a much needed sense of pride in their identity not only as a cyclist in Philly, but as a good cyclist in Philly, someone who is making our city a better place for everyone.

We as cyclists need to be seen, but we need to be seen in a good light. It is certainly gratifying to whine amongst ourselves about how little the “others” respect us, but it doesn’t change anything. First we need to realize that every body in this city is a human being with goals and frustrations. Then we need to let people know that we are here to make things better for everyone, not just for ourselves. Only in this way will we ever get the support of our city to truly make Philadelphia the greenest and most bicycle-friendly city in the nation.

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