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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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life

Fire

I am full of fire. Full of fear. Full of life.

I am a beacon of hope and light to all those around me. I fight the fight against death. I fight to live and to breathe. I fight for beauty and for joy.

I am alive with beauty. I am alive with passion. I walk. From my skin emanates a fire that can not be put out. Burn with me.

To see me is to burn. To touch me is to burn. You cannot touch me without my fire spreading to your skin and setting you alight.

See me. Touch me. Feel me burn.

I am alive with passion.

I will not be crushed by the cold metal of civilization. I will not be bound by rules or propriety. I will not be tame.

You cannot tame me.

I am alive with fire. I burn with the passion of all that is living.

My heart screams, piercing like the call of the eagle. It pierces through my chest. It cuts through the thick, layer upon layer of insulation that protects me from the cold outside. It tears through me and it opens me

And from the wound bursts forth my fire.

I am alive. You cannot conquer me. I know no fear of death. There is nothing that is impossible to me.

Give me one life. Give me two lives. Give me a thousand lives for all the mistakes I will make. Still I charge ahead. Freedom is what stands before me. Far in the distance, I can see it on the horizon.

I am a beast of fire and I lead the stampede.

Run with me. Run with me and burn for fire is the only defense against death.

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A Mother and a Father

“Every child deserves a mother and a father.”

Some use this phrase to mean that gays and lesbians who adopt are depriving their children of their fundamental rights, even hurting their chances to grow up healthy and well adjusted.

But when I hear this phrase I think about the decades, perhaps even centuries, of our culture wherein a woman is abandoned by the father of her children to strive alone to raise a family in a society that never intended to allow her to make a living.

I agree that every child deserves a mother and a father. Every child deserves to be loved. I believe that to protect the children of our society, we are beholden to enforce fatherhood responsibilities on the men who would abandon them. We are beholden to enable mothers to provide for their families even without the help of a husband. We are beholden to be the mothers and the fathers to the children whose life circumstances could not provide them.

Every child deserves a mother and a father, but why should they have only one of each?

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.

Surfing Through Life

I am an academic. I live alone. I have no family in any traditional sense. I don’t have very expensive habits and my income is profoundly in the range of middle class. What this means is that there are absolutely no external forces acting on me to push me through my days, motivate me to get my work done or inspire me to be a better person. Everything that I accomplish comes from my own internal source of energy and willpower. This is an exhausting, stressful and thankless way to go through life.

Recently I had a thought. It was an image, really. Over the past two or three months I have set into motion several forces to act upon my life. I spoke to a colleague about a desire to get my research published. I hired an assistant. I hired a personal trainer and today I will register for language classes. Each of these actions has created a wave in the otherwise flat surface of my life that I can either respond to, or be overwhelmed by.

If I do not meet my deadlines for my research now, self imposed as they originally were, my reputation amongst my colleagues will be destroyed. I will not get a second chance to prove that I want to be successful in this area. If I do not run, or complete my strength exercises, my trainer will be disappointed in me — one of the worst punishments I can inflict on myself. If I register for language classes, I will be compelled to improve my language or else risk embarrassment in front of the students at my university. As a professor this would be bad.

All of these things that I have set in motion will propel me forward, making me a better person and bringing access to opportunities I otherwise would not have had. As I was walking home from work I was thinking about all the different things that I must motivate myself to do in order to keep my job and be able to stay in Japan, and I grew tired just from imagining the amount of energy it would require. I started to think of these commitments that I made as a huge wall of water rising up and towering over me, sucking me up to the lip and threatening to hurl me down to the ocean floor. I realized that there is no standing still in the life that I have created. However, I can ride this wave, and the next one, and the next one, and I can allow them to take me somewhere. By choosing to surf the tremendous tides instead of swim through open water, I give up the ability to control where my ride will end, but I gain all the power and momentum of the waves that I create.

For me, as an academic, as what many people would call a genius, solving problems is easy. Waves create problems that I can react to and solve. I am reasonably confident that whatever solution I arrive at would be a good solution, perhaps even an extraordinary solution. What is difficult for me is choosing a direction and propelling myself forward. But surfing through my life might be my key to happiness. The more and the greater the waves I stir up, the farther and the faster I will go. The key, I think, will be overcoming the fear — not the fear of the wave, necessarily, but the fear of where it will ultimately put me down.

Mastering the Art

Image
Working or playing? Perhaps it doesn’t matter

 

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between [her] work and [her] play, [her] labour and [her] leisure, [her] mind and [her] body, [her] education and [her] recreation. [S]he hardly knows which is which. [S]he simply pursues [her] vision of excellence through whatever [s]he is doing and leaves others to determine whether [s]he is working or playing. To [her]self s/he always seems to be doing both. Enough for [her] that [s]he does it well.

–Lawrence Pearsall Jacks, 1932


I first heard this quote while browsing through the archives of an online Q&A session about leaving academia. To many academics, the delicate balance between work and play is both our motivation and our downfall. With no supervisor or fixed schedule, and with the measures of our success spread out over decades, we are constantly plagued with the uncertainty and the incessant wondering: have we worked enough?

The truth is that an academic should never ask herself if she has worked enough. To be in academia is to shun the world’s notion of success and to pursue passion and knowledge for the sake of the pursuit.

I am slowly internalizing the truth of this passage. I wake in the morning when it pleases me and sometimes I work right away, and sometimes I sit around playing games. I take naps when I am sleepy, think when I run, drink when I write and teach while I socialize. On a holistic level I am certainly much happier, more tolerant of others and more creative. However there are difficulties in applying this philosophy.

The master of life leaves others to determine whether she is working or playing. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the application. It would be lovely if each of us as individuals could determine our destinies, but like it or not we exist in a society which is governed by a culture. Our culture determines whether or not we are successful and whether or not we are deserving of our fate and for most of us, our culture believes that hard work which results in failure merits sympathy while too much play merits disdain.

Thus, the master in the art of life is also a master in the art of human relationships. For she must simultaneously satisfy her craving to play with her need to appear to those around her as an honest member of society. Perhaps the master is someone who has found a way to get paid to play, so that the distinction becomes meaningless to everyone.

“I’m Alive Because My Mom Had an Abortion”

I was hanging out at this feminist website the other day when I found an article talking about the “narratives” about abortion. The summary is that abortion is dangerous, a last resort, and really rare. In other words, abortion is for women who fail.

Now there are other stories about abortion, too. The anti-abortion political faction known as “Pro Lifers” chose their name to paint by contrast the idea that abortion is for people who do not value life, or murderers.

But how many people do you know who are alive exactly because of abortion? I’m not talking about women who are alive because their pregnancies were putting their lives at risk, I’m talking about their children. I’m talking about a very dear friend of mine.

Over thirty years after she was born, my friend’s father still does not know the truth about his family. You see, her mother was not a virgin when she got married. In fact, her mother had gotten pregnant by another man who abused her. Her father, a man with a heart of gold but a raging temper, told her mother that he would not marry her if she had children by another man. Because her mother chose to abort that first pregnancy, she was able to marry and give birth to and raise my friend into the beautiful woman she has become today.

And because proverbial butterflies have wings, I, too, am alive because of that abortion. Abortions do not only save lives, they create them, too.

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 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.

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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