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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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philosophy

A True Story

I’m very tired today.

I’ve been tired for several days lately. I keep repeating to myself something like a mantra:

You’re tired because you haven’t been sleeping, not because your life is too hard for you.
You’re lonely because you don’t want to go outside in the heat, not because you don’t have friends.

Lately I put so much effort into managing my oversized brain that I often lose my sense of what is true and what is a story I told myself. This is made more difficult by the fact that I know that truth and facts are as axiomatic as the stories themselves. It’s very slippery to operate at the level of stories because you end up redefining truth even as you are seeking it and in the end you are the only one who can say whether or not you’ve found it.

One thing that I know about stories is that they are easier to accept when you know they are a story. For example, if I told you that humanity today is not at the epitome of gender equality and that human rights have actually taken huge blows in the last twenty years that have put many swaths of society at a greater disadvantage than they were perhaps fifty years ago, you would probably try to argue with me based on facts that I am wrong. On the other hand, if I told you a story about a human society where men and women were interdependent on each other and selfish behavior was punished by death or banishment from the tribe, you would probably listen intently. There would be no reason to argue with me because it would be a story. Stories aren’t true.

…and yet, they create truth. Because once you heard the story of men and women respecting each other, working together and celebrating their complementary strengths, in your deepest consciousness you would know that such a world is possible. Possible and actual are only separated by experience.

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.

On Humanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I keep Coming Back to Sex

It is a reality I am slowly coming to accept: I am addicted to sex.

But I am not addicted in the traditional way, rather more philosophically so. As the international AIDS activist and specialist on Arab sexuality Shereen El Feki said,

“If you want to know a people, you start by looking inside their bedrooms”

And really, I think Ms. Feki is on to something here. Sex is freedom and freedom is empowerment over our own lives and our own destinies. What that means is that sex threatens, or enforces, the power others have over us.

So I keep coming back to sex because I love life and sex is life. Two people having sex can create new life, but they can also emblazon the spark of their own lives. Never have I met a happy person with a dissatisfying sex life. Likewise I have never met a person with bedroom troubles who was happy in every other aspect of their lives or their own self image.

Because sex is so intimate, it is frightening and thrilling to share with another person. However, the individual who is willing to face that fear and all of its consequences in order to reap its profound benefits is able to face their fears outside the bedroom as well. Such an individual is difficult to control, and that is why sex is freedom.

The Clitoris is for Men

Several weeks ago I read a post by an advice columnist who I am not on particularly good terms with and it rankled me. The advisee, a young male, was concerned that he could not bring his female partner to orgasm with penetration. The advice he received was twofold: First, he was shamed for his male supremist desire to bring his partner to orgasm through penetration. Second, he was instructed in the “universal knowledge” that the clitoris is located outside the vagina and is not sufficiently stimulated by penetration and that he was required to provide oral, manual or electrical stimulation directly to his partner’s clitoris if he wanted her to orgasm.

Well, recent and extremely overdue research on the female reproductive anatomy has produced this three dimensional image of the human clitoris

The Internal Clitoris
The complete clitoris as presented on the Museum of Sex (NY) blog. The yellow portion is the clitoris and the blue structures are the bladder (left) and the vagina (right), which leads into the uterus (upper most).

Take a moment to appreciate this image. Exactly where is the clitoris again? It sure appears to me to be inside the female pelvic cavity, wrapping around the urethra and the vagina and extending forward to the mons pubis and backward towards the anus. Just by looking at this image, if you were to ask me if the clitoris was better stimulated by rubbing a finger on the glans clitoris, the tiny little nub sticking out and down on the left side of the image, or by rubbing some phallic object against the inner circle of it by way of the vagina, I’d go vagina every time.

So why was I so upset by the advice given to this young male? Besides it being out of date, it was also advise for a man seeking a goal and completely neglected the woman in question. More specifically, imagine being the owner of such a magnificent and complex organ of sexual satisfaction and imagine never once having been able to wield it properly. Now imagine you have a partner who wants to learn how to help you wield that organ to achieve its full glory, but when he seeks the necessary knowledge on how to do this, he is told that your organ is busted and isn’t actually meant to work that way and he should stop trying. No one once asks you what your opinion in all of this is.

This brief interaction between two men discussing a woman’s body without her input is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an example of bonding behavior we would expect to see only between extreme political conservatives. In fact, this is just one more case of a history of conversations between men for the benefit of men. As far back as I can remember, every storybook character I ever read about was either a woman seeking a husband, or a man. Every historical figure I ever studied was a man, save for the exceptional woman who was noted for her womanhood. In movies, women were the reasons that men became great, but they were never great themselves. God Himself is a man. In my adolescent years I was desperate, as all adolescents are, for a role model. I dove deeper and deeper into the philosophy behind what I was given to study in school, digging for some universal truth about humanity that would validate my existence. What I found was the vastest of empties. I would search in the books that we read for a female character that had positive traits and what I discovered was that in order to emulate these characters I had to be beautiful, and I had to be romantically unattainable. Attainability, was anathema to female success. The only women of virtue in any of my studies were desperately, painfully and permanently alone. It is a wonder I survived adolescence at all.

Modern times, full as they are with sexual freedom and women’s rights, still prove to be no more welcoming of the human female than the histories were. Indeed, even on a subject so intensely personal, so intensely feminine as the existence and nature of the clitoris, women are not even invited in to speak. The clitoris, it seems, exists only for validation of the male ego, and if he wants that ego validated, he better get to it directly and not waste time on pleasuring a woman in the process.

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.

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.

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