I have launched this project just now (February 2021), either in an effort to stay sane or because I have already lost it. Which explanation is more precise remains to be seen.
This is going to be an experimental project, a hypertext book-in-progress meant to capture my never-ending quest to understand myself and the world I live in. It is based on the idea that, because human thinking is nonlinear, it can be best captured in the nonsequential form.
At this point, my plan is that both the content and form of the project will be in the state of becoming for a while. Each time you visit it, you may find something very different. On good days, I believe that this is going to be something really cool and special. On bad days, I ask myself: who, realistically, would want to stumble through the labyrinth of my ever-changing meandering thoughts?
So far I have created a logo (see above) and generated some excitement in myself by envisioning different topics I will explore. I wrote a tentative text for the Start page, and added to it a few links that lead to ideas I am planning to delve into next. As you can see, not much has been done so far.
As more pages/thoughts in the book appear, I will use them for my blog. You will find about the progress as I share new posts on social media. I am soon going to tell you more about the purpose of the project and why I decided to develop it in this manner. Stay tuned!
I first heard this meditation in 2012 when I visited one of the Personal Power and Prosperity workshops in Orlando. They are seriously cool, by the way! I loved this very visual meditation, and I was especially moved by its "punch line". Since then, it came to my mind once in a while. But it was not until the fall 2020, when I decided to find it and use for communication courses I was teaching at Columbia College Chicago.
I was really surprised that I could not find any information about the author of this very distinct meditation. Instead, I located two different versions on YouTube. Here is one of them and the other one. None of the two mention anything about the original source in video descriptions. So the mystery remained... Moreover, they were not suitable for my purposes. So I ended up creating my own version, which I am happy to share with you here. My students enjoy it, so perhaps you will, too!
In case you are not into meditating but you are curious to know what it is about, the text of this meditation is below. Please read it only if you really don't want to try the meditation in the video above! Otherwise, you will get some spoilers...
Imagine in front of you there is a large clear plastic bag. As you look at the bag, notice that you can see very clearly what is inside. One thing you notice right away is the color. Inside the bag, a beautiful purple swirling color is slowly moving around, shimmering and sparkling. Just for a moment, watch the purple light swirling slowly and peacefully.
There are some things that you can place into the bag. Some things about yourself, your thoughts, your ideas, your difficulties, your hopes. Begin by putting into the bag your name and everything it means about you. What it says about you, how it feels to have this name. Look at it swirling in the purple light.
Place into the bag your clothes. Start with what you are wearing right now. Then put your favorite outfit. Then put your entire wardrobe. Place into the bag your hairstyle. Notice what all those things say about you, what kind of statement they make, what they mean about you. Watch them all slowly swirling in the bag.
Next, think about things that belong to you, your possessions. Put them all into the bag. Your books, your computer, your phone, your furniture, your pets, your house and your car – if you have them. There are many other things that you own. Think of those that are most important to you and put them into the bag as well. Look all of those things swirling slowly in the purple mist. Notice what they say about you, what you are trying to tell people about yourself by having them.
Next, put your job into the bag. Put the job you have now and all the jobs you had in the past. Put your dream job into the bag as well. Put in there all the ideas about what you do, what you can do, what you should do. Put into the bag your mind and with it that little voice in the back of your mind that tells you what to do, and what not to do with your life. Notice all of those things swirling in the purple mist.
Now, place into the bag all of your beliefs and values. Everything you think about yourself and other people, about life and death, about love and sex, about religion and politics. About your own body: your weight, age, gender, sexuality, skin color, physical abilities. Put all your diseases into the bag as well, all your hopes and fears about your body. Put your personality into the bag. It’s a lot of things but the bag will be able to contain them all, allowing them to shimmer peacefully in the purple light.
Now, place people you know into the bag: your parents, siblings, all your relatives. Put into the bag anyone you have ever loved, and anyone you have ever hurt, anyone who has ever loved you and anyone who has ever hurt you. Put all your relationships into the bag. Put the judgements you have about other people into the bag. Place there anything you have ever complained about, all you opinions about things you feel are good and bad, right and wrong. Put into the bag your need to be right, put there your accomplishments and your failures, things you are guilty of, arguments you had, all your habits and addictions. Put into the bag all the agreements you didn't keep, all the relationships you left, all the relationships that left you. Put into the bag what you think of your enemies and what your enemies think of you. Put all your current problems and struggles into the bag. Put it all into the bag and just watch it all covered with the purple swirling shimmer.
These are things that define you. Look at them swirling in the bag.
Put anything you might have forgotten about yourself into the bag. Anything that is important for you and for who you are. Now look at it again, see as many details about yourself and your life as you can.
You are not all the things in the bag. You are the one looking at the bag. You created everything in that bag to help you experience yourself, understand yourself, and tell others about yourself. You have the power to keep or discard anything in this bag. It is your choice.
All the things in that bag are not you. You are the one who is looking at the bag. Who you are, who you can be is always up to you.
Look around you and describe what you see. Since many of us are stuck in our homes right now (re: pandemic), you are likely to respond: "Nothing exciting. Walls, ceiling, table, computer, curtains... Everyday boring stuff." Now my next question would be: How do you understand what these things are?
"Ok, a case of lockdown madness," you may think to yourself. If you are very patient (or a friend of mine who wants to indulge me), you will say something like: "Well, it's kind of obvious. Walls are walls, and a ceiling is a ceiling. So, that's why I understand."
We live in the world of objects that mean something to us. Not because they are special, but just because we know what they are. So it seems kind of stupid and a waste of time to wonder why table is a table. But according to semiotics, nothing should be obvious. Semiotics is a science that studies meanings: what they are, where they come from, how they influence us.
What do you mean? This is a question we hear and use a lot. We talk about something being meaningless in a negative sense. Yet we seldom wonder why we are so preoccupied by meanings and what those are supposed to be. Our language is of little help, perhaps because we are not used to questioning the obvious. So when we start asking ourselves what we mean by questioning meanings, the lack of appropriate terms that would help our brain to dig into this mess becomes obvious.
Meanings are... ideas, associations, interpretations, definitions, values. All that stuff that exists in our heads yet gets expressed through objects we produce and surround ourselves with. It is the stuff that cultures are made of. And it's not just physical objects, as a matter of fact. It would be more correct to say that meanings are attached to any aspect of our reality. After all, we also know that the sky is the sky, money is money, and teachers are teachers.
Same as you can easily describe your room, you will also be able to say who you are: your gender, race, sexuality, age, profession, physical characteristics, place of origin, political affiliation, religious beliefs and so on. But what do all of these things really mean to you, and what do you think they mean to others? Again, nothing obvious here. Of equal importance is to ask ourselves why other people mean what we think they mean to us, according all these characteristics I mentioned. I won't break a new ground by saying that questioning the ideas we attach to ourselves and others have been helpful for understanding intergroup conflicts.
Finally, you may also think it is obvious how you understand your own feelings and sensations: pain and pleasure, love and hate. If you are stressed, this means something is stressful, which is not fun, and you need to figure out what's wrong. Yet, according to mindfulness meditation practitioners, saying that "stress is stress" is not helpful. Stress is actually experienced as sensations in our body that are very difficult to describe with words (tension? tingling? burning? pressure?) that we don't even pay attention to as soon as we put a simple label on them. And because being stressed is not considered to be something good, we start analyzing what's wrong or feeling bad about being stressed. Both are really unhelpful strategies, as it would be way better to just pause and experience these hard-to-describe sensations without not giving them any names.
I don't expect to have been able to explain these extremely complicated ideas in just a few paragraphs. Also, it would be wrong to say that this is something only semiotics is concerned with. Symbolic interactionism and the social construction of reality theory explore similar puzzling issues, just from slightly different angles. And these are just some examples of scholarly frameworks that can help us understand this.
To wrap this post up, I just want to say that, in my opinion, wondering why different aspects of our reality mean certain things to us can be really exciting and useful. The more obvious an association or interpretation is, the more it should be analyzed. If we notice how meanings that appear absolute and absolutely commonsensical are actually not, this may help us lead more fulfilling and peaceful lives. If you are wondering what I mean, stay tuned for more posts on this topic!
Right now, most of my friends' minds are understandably busy thinking about politics, economy, coronavirus and other great legacy of 2020. I have thought about all of those plenty, and worried my share. So I hope you will forgive me for offering you not my take on the latest events but a glimpse into my creative past.
Sometime between 2001 and 2007, I wrote poems (in Russian). I did not keep dates or the order of appearance, but I saved texts that I liked most. Years passed without me rereading them, although sometimes a line or a verse would randomly pop up in my head. Recently, I decided to take a look at what I had created back then, and I realized that I still like it.
Since this website is meant to represent me holistically and not just professionally, I have added a special page for some side (or unfinished) projects. The problem is, of course, that my current audience is mostly English-speaking, while the poems of the past are in the language of my past. So the plan is to gradually translate them, keeping their meaning but disregarding rhythms and rhymes. Let's see whether I will actually follow through...
In case you wonder what's the point of a translation that honors the contents but not the form, I want to say: I know it's not ideal. But if you can see, with your mind's eye, images that my poems are trying to paint with words, I will be content.
So one day, following sleepy roads
Covered with autumn leaves,
Without any hope of ever being forgiven,
I came back to my old city.*
There, with street lights gleaming through their eyelids,
Avenues were arching their backs.
The city was hiding something behind the closed doors.
Bridges were swaying lightly in the emptiness...
I have seen this city so often in my dreams...
Perhaps this city is just a dream?
I will wrap my coat tighter around me, and pop my collar,
And step onto the unsteady sky.
*In this poem, the narrator is male. This is evident only in Russian, where past tense verbs are gendered.
And here is the original in Russian:
И однажды по дорогам сонным,
Устланным осеннею листвой,
Не надеясь больше быть прощенным,
Я вернулся в старый город свой.
Там, блестя сквозь веки фонарями,
Выгибали улицы хребты.
Город что-то прятал за дверями.
Чуть качались в пустоте мосты...
Мне так часто снился этот город...
Может, этот город – только сон?
Запахнусь, и подниму свой ворот,
И ступлю на зыбкий небосклон.
I read somewhere that titles with numbers attract more readers. So here we go, let's put this claim to the test!
1. Isolation is as difficult for introverts as it is for extroverts, although they experience it differently.
When quarantines and lockdowns started rolling in, there was a running joke about a certain category of people who would not care much about new requirements. If you spend a lot of time at home anyway - reading, working, staring at the screen - you will probably be the least psychologically affected, they said. But let me tell you: there are only a few people who want to become real hermits by cutting themselves off the rest of society.
If you define an introvert as somebody who enjoys spending time on their own, then I will be the best example. But don't make a mistake: introverts don't want to avoid people. I may be the quiet one around the table during a friends' gathering, and sometimes in the middle of a conversation I start thinking longingly about going back to my projects in my room. This does not mean, though, that I don't need these gatherings, or that to make me happy you need to lock me in my room with my computer for a while. In fact, this does not make me happy at all. I have learned it the hard way...
2. "A work is never completed but merely abandoned."
Apparently, this beautiful idea was first formulated by Paul Valéry in 1933. I heard it this fall from my friend Susan Messer, a great writer whose novel Grand River and Joy I had read last year. As somebody generally inclined to be a perfectionist, I could have used this insight before. In the last few months of 2020 - when I was finishing my own book - it felt truer than ever.
Darn, it was so hard to let the book go! To accept that the clumsy conglomerates of words that I put together trying to create a coherent argument will never match the shimmering constantly rearranging complexity of thoughts in my head. Honestly, I hate it but I guess that's totally normal.
3. I want to help people move from acknowledgement of social problems to collaboration across divides through empathy.
I have been obsessed with the idea of empathy for a while. In my book I describe it as one of my biggest biases. My belief is that we should look for explanations of our opponents' actions that go beyond "They are just mean and stupid." Society is far from perfect. Still, if we want to deal with its problems, pointing fingers and blaming each other is not the solution. That's what I think, anyway.
In the last couple of months, I realized that this is what I should build my career around. This stuff is very important for me. Our jobs should be something we deeply care about, right? I don't know yet what I am going to do in 2021 or where, but my career path is going to change according to my guiding vision. Stay tuned for news about this transition. And if you have any suggestions, please let me know.
3.5. Washing hands is important.
This qualifies as only a half of an insight. At the same time, I don't think I fully realized how a person can protect herself from some fairly nasty diseases with the help of soft soapy bubbles and warm water. You live and you learn. But where is my hand lotion?..
To say that I am now entirely worry-free would be on overstatement. But I do feel better, in a sense that I can think positively again (for a few days last week, I could not). What has changed? I have made a decision not to open my social networks, and not to read news.
Media is people communicating with each other through technology. And right now coronavirus seems to be one thing the global community is talking about all the time. It’s very understandable: the situation is constantly evolving, it’s scary, and there are many different opinions about it. I don’t think that people who are filling the infosphere with all sorts of statements and questions about coronavirus are irresponsible or “too much”. Even if their statements end up being refuted. Even if some questions lead nowhere. In general, the more people can share their opinions and ask for answers without shutting each other down, the better.
But there is one important thing to remember. The global community communicating about... well, anything - is like a humongous hall filled with people who are all talking at the same time. Some have megaphones (big media companies and influencers) others don’t. Some intend to be heard by as many listeners as possible, others target smaller communities. Some speakers are honest as they are trying to figure things out and share what they know; others (just a handful, I believe) want to confuse and mislead.
The fact that all these voices reverberate through the hall of our global village is very natural and good. People need to communicate. And we want as many people as possible to be able to participate in any exchange of ideas.
It’s ok to visit this hall once in a while, to walk around it trying to hear different voices and compare what they are saying. It is certainly even better to do some systematic research and critical analysis in order to find order in the loud chaos (#medialiteracy).
But beware: the more time you spend within this space (no matter how much critical thinking your exercise) the more overwhelmed you will feel. It’s too loud, it’s too much. Don’t be surprised if your head will begin spinning and aching, or if you start feeling anxious and then depressed. After all, you are in the midst of people trying to talk over each other, sharing their fears and concerns, arguing and blaming. Attempts to make sense of this large-scale conversation can be emotionally and intellectually draining.
I think there is a cure: moderation of information. I have learned my lesson, and after having overdosed on this communication for a few days in a row I have put myself on a strict information diet. Informational quarantine, if you will. It feels so good.
I will certainly be back to that noisy hall because I do want to listen and participate. (Darn, I am adding to the cacophony right now by writing this!). But I am promising myself to be more careful.
The spring has come. I normally work on my computer from home a lot. So it sometimes seems that nothing has really changed. Birds are singing, rain is falling, trains are squeaking in the distance. But the life did change, and I now disagree with myself from the past, who wrote that there is no pandemic upon us. I do agree, however, with the point I made three weeks ago: blame is not likely to help us as we are waddling through this tunnel of uncertainty. Connection and empathy will.
See if any of these questions has recently crossed your mind:
- Why did they buy all this toilet paper?
- Why didn't you believe me before when I told you this is serious?
- Why are you panicking?
- Why aren't they thinking about my safety?
- Why is there so much contradicting information?
- Why are they trying to manipulate us?
- Why aren't they forcing people to stay at home?
- Why aren't you providing me with adequate support as I am moving my work online?
- Why did you decide to take this flight if you were not feeling well?
Before my classes started to move online, I was preparing for a fishbowl discussion with my students. One great video I found about this activity made a following suggestion: If you want students to have deeper conversations about complex topics, tell them to avoid the "Why" question. It is fine to ask: "Why is the sky blue?" But if directed towards another person, this word is often used to criticize their actions and opinions. And when our actions and opinions are criticized, we become defensive and often even offensive. This means the end of a civil conversation.
Am I saying that we cannot question other people's reactions to this crisis? Just to clarify, I do not suggest that. Critical thinking is an essential tool for figuring out any situation. But if we want to have a conversation with a person whose actions we are not entirely happy about, starting the interaction by suggesting that they are wrong might not be a winning strategy.
I have read and thought about empathy for a long time but it is not until recently that I discovered an approach that provides some concrete steps for putting empathy into action. It was created by Marshall Rosenberg and is called Nonviolent Communication (NVC). What I love about this method is that it allows us to express our feelings (even when they are very negative) without necessarily triggering the other side's defensive reaction. And if the reaction is triggered anyway (you cannot control people's interpretations), NVC teaches us to avoid escalating the conversation into a hurtful argument.
On the most basic level, NVC requires patience, vulnerability, and some memorizing.
1) You will need patience because you will have to rephrase your initial reactions into something longer than "Some people are idiots!" or "Why did you do this?". And if somebody else says triggering things, you will need patience to empathize with them instead of getting caught in their words.
2) You will need vulnerability because you will have to reveal feelings and needs behind your gut reactions. (If you have never heard Brene Brown speaking about the importance of vulnerability, I really recommend watching this video).
3) You will need memorizing because it turns out that there is a whole list of emotions we can be experiencing and needs these emotions are hiding. Many of us have little practice of putting these emotions and (especially!) needs into words. By the same token, we are also not well-trained in identifying feelings and emotions of others.
For example. As the whole world is transitioning online, you might not be happy about the way your supervisors are handling the situation. Maybe you want to use certain digital tools and it looks like they are against that. Maybe you want a different schedule. Think of your unique situation. Now imagine you need to talk to your supervisors or craft an email to them sharing your concerns.
According to NVC, one option is to start by formulating an evaluation-free observation of what if going on: "I heard that we are supposed to use <this tool> for working online now". Provide as many details as you can about what you know about the situation, but be careful not to insert any evaluations or interpretations.
Then you will need to specify what feelings you are experiencing about this situation. Pick your feelings from this list, and be as specific as you can. "When I am thinking about this transition, I feel <concerned, frustrated, sad, confused>." You want to make sure that you are not phrasing these feelings as blame. When people think they are blamed they often stop listening. Notice that when you say something like "I feel that this is a bad idea" you are expressing not a feeling (although the word "feel" is in the sentence) but an opinion that is also actually a judgement.
Here is the most challenging and vulnerable part. You need to explain your feelings by referring to needs that are not being met. You can choose unmet needs from this list. Maybe you need freedom to choose your own approach to working online, or more support from your supervisors, or more participation (in the decision-making process). Again, you want to avoid the language of blame. Focus on what you need and how you feel, not on what the other person did or did not do.
Finally, you want to phrase a clear positive actionable request that will show your supervisor how they could meet your needs in the nearest future. For instance, "I want to try <using this tool> next week and see how it goes" would give your supervisor a clear idea what they can do for you. It is better than saying something like: "Give me more choice" because this request is not very specific or "Don't make decisions for me" because negative requests often sound like blame.
This is the NVC approach in a nutshell. In order not to write a super long blog, I did not really cover what happens when the other person shows some resistance to your request (however wonderfully you phrased it). I hope this explains how you can share your feelings and ask for something in a non-threatening way by unpacking universal human needs behind your request. If you would like to learn more, Rosenberg's book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life provides many important details. Alternatively, send me a message to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to tell you more about this approach, for example over Zoom!
UPDATE: I have used Rosenberg's book to create a series of activities for structuring conversations about coronavirus. They include learning about the specific steps of NVC and applying them to discussions about the pandemic. Try these activities with your students or colleagues! You can find the activities here.
I happen to personally know several people who have been affected by coronavirus. To be more precise, they have felt the impact of the panic about the disease. (No names, but you know who you are!). One couple just arrived from a trip to China, and they have been forced to stay in a hotel for two weeks (hello Netflix). Another couple arrived from Hong Kong more than a week ago, and they decided to self-quarantine themselves on a road trip (that they were planning to do anyway). This Monday, my mom went to Italy (an adventure she had planned a while back) to find out that their famous opera house is closed and tourists cannot visit museums. Sad face.
Of course, coronavirus is real and some people did die. But the panic about it seems to be artificial. Reasonable precautions have given way to a shitstorm of fear and loathing.
By fear I mean the claims that the new pandemic is upon us. Some digging through online resources shows that coronavirus (in terms of people who got sick and those who actually died) is far from the proper pandemic scale. This fear does not seem warranted. But the current alternative is not necessarily better. Those who are not afraid too often turn to loathing - blaming and even hating those who say that coronavirus is a problem.
Let us step back and see what is going on here. People are biased (hey, we all are). People have a biological need to communicate with each other, which includes looking for information and sharing it (without necessarily checking one's biases in the process). People's relationships are characterized by the constant struggle for power. Looking for ways to make profit is a big part of this struggle. In the modern world, one can make profit by sharing information in certain ways (e.g., creating clickbait stories). On top of that, we are often unaware of some or all aspects of this dynamics.
1) Some people think that it's fine or necessary to spread stories that end up feeding into the panic.
2) Other people react to these stories and share them further.
3) This confirms the assumptions of (a) people who are afraid and (b) people for whom creating/spreading stories is a business.
And the vicious cycle continues, slowly taking on tornado proportions.
My two cents:
1) Let's be aware of how our biases work. Confirmation bias is a big one, of course.
2) Let's be aware of how online social networks work. For example, it is useful to remember that we create and thrive in our filter bubbles where biases reign supreme.
3) Let's be aware of how business models of mediated communication work. More fear and talks about an issue lead to more news stories from serious media outlets, and more clickbait stories from less reliable media outlets. So seeing more stories does not mean being in bigger danger of contracting a disease. It just means that the topic is a hot one right now.
4) This is an important one. Let's not be mad at each other for being afraid, being biased or doing what our business models dictate. All these things are very understandable.
5) At the same time, let's be responsible and remember that when people communicate, they influence each other. When WE communicate, we influence each other. You are I. All of us. That's true whether you are a journalist, a professional blogger, an internet junkie, or an occasional social media user.
6) Let's breathe in, breath out, and calm down. Peace.
I have an irrational fear or cars. It's not a phobia (I guess...), although sometimes it almost seems to be.
Example 1: I only feel comfortable crossing the street either if it's green (well, white in the US) for me or when cars are far far FAR away.
Example 2: I sometimes feel uncomfortable on the sidewalk of a busy road with cars buzzing by so close to me.
Example 3: Driving makes me very anxious.
Example 4: I don't like being a passenger in a car that goes very fast on the highway.
Ok, it is probably a phobia after all.
I have searched my soul and memory trying to explain to myself (or incredulous others) why I feel this way. When I was a teenager, I once crossed a street just a few seconds before somebody walking behind me was hit by a fast-driving car. I remember turning around to see what happened. All cars stopped. A body was lying on the road (I don't remember any gory details). The driver who had just hit the person ran out of her car and was kneeling next to the body. I don't remember much beyond that, I guess I continued walking. I was wearing blue wide-leg jeans and a pink sweater. It was a warm sunny day.
Rationally, this explanation seems plausible after all. But when I tell the story, I feel nothing. In fact, it took me a while to make the connection between this experience and my fear of cars.
Another possible explanation comes from my observations of car-driving people from a position of a pedestrian, a passenger, or a car owner and user. What I keep noticing is that car-drivers are often not very nice to fellow human beings. Apparently, cultural differences exist, with some places being rougher than others. Yet overall, once an otherwise decent person gets into her or his metal beast and presses gas, they somehow change. And this scares me a lot.
It almost seems like when people turn into drivers, something happens to their empathy. They don't know how (or don't want) to see those they share the road with as humans worthy of respect.
Anonymity is probably a factor. Yes, all cars have identifying numbers, and you can technically see other drivers' faces through the windshield. Still, the metal mass stands in the way of the real human contact. We cannot really read each other's body language, and voices are substituted by honking, which is basically a sound of anger (although it is meant to be a warning). What kind of conversation can we have if the only thing we can do is scream without words?
We lack empathy when we struggle to see each other as humans with similar goals, hopes, and concerns. The perceived anonymity does not help. We are busy honking or cutting off other motorists, thinking that nobody will have time to write down our number or to see our face. In the process, each person's conviction that other drivers are just mean, crazy, or stupid is further reinforced.
I secretly hope that self-driving cars will solve all the problems. However, it is unlikely to be so. I don't believe in evil technology, but I do think that technology feeds into our biases and amplifies blind spots. No innovation can substitute healthy self-awareness and real human connection. Drive safe! Be kind to each other.
*This excerpt is my rough translation (and I mean very rough) from a scholarly work by #^!@%, who came to Earth for the purpose of conducting ethnographic research about humans. !&*$* is a pseudonym our guest chose after noticing that a random combination of symbols listed in the second row from the top of some computer keyboards is often used to express what should not or cannot be said. As you will see, this pseudonym will always contain five symbols but their combination will be different. This strategy is meant to reflect the fluidity and unpredictability of physical shape that characterize all inhabitants of our guest's home planet.
You can find the translated excerpt below. I edited it for brevity and added some comments in brackets.
There is one aspect that makes humans so different from us, my reader [technically, on the home planet this work won't be "read" in the human sense of the word but I needed something to refer to the author's audience]. This aspect is called "gender". There is nothing like that on our planet, so you will need to use your imagination to follow the description below.
Human bodies are made up mostly of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, as I mention in other chapters [this work is not only "unwritten" but it also cannot be read in a linear way; therefore, the words "chapter" or "section" do not fully reflect the work's structure]. Each human's body changes throughout the lifetime but some characteristics remain essentially the same. Because humans are so different from you and I, initially they looked all the same to me. I had to conduct long careful observations to start noticing individual differences. At the same time [don't get me started on their concept of time!... well, maybe someplace else], I realized that for humans themselves these differences can be dramatic. Indeed, color variances of "skin" (soft outer organ covering human body) that might be imperceptible for you, my reader, often determine how humans feel about each other and how they treat each other. In some cases, this variance becomes a matter of life and death. <...>
But let us get back to the matter at hand [*&#$& does not have hands, by the way]. The easiest way (in my opinion, at least) would be to describe gender this way.
All human beings emerge into this world (this is called "to be born") with a reproductive system which includes inner and outer parts and organs. <...>
[Here I took a liberty of adding a Venn diagram to illustrate the idea developed by &*!@@, since unlike my guests' "readers", my readers actually do have eyes.]
[Here @#$#! provided a detailed explanation of human reproductive system which I chose to omit for the purpose of brevity.] I understand that following all these details that are so detached from the life on our planet might be difficult for you, my patient reader. At the risk of losing important nuance, I think that we can describe the matter this way.
Some humans have penises [let's say, that would be the left circle in the diagram above]. Some humans have vaginas [the right circle]. Some have a combination of both [the intersection of the circles]. To procreate, one human with a penis [I am going to shorten this as HP] and one human with a vagina [HV, for brevity] need to be involved. Notice that each one of the two can have both [let's say, HVP; here @&^%$ refers to a possibility of two intersex individuals having a child].
Procreation is of utmost importance for humans. It is perhaps for this reason that, once a human is born (in some cases, even before that), everybody wants to know if this going to be a HV or HP. However - and this is the most interest part, which will also be quite challenging for my reader to comprehend - humans do not refer to each other as HV or HP. Instead, they use two words that are essential for the understanding of the human world: "man" and "woman" (or "boy" and "girl" when referring to a human between the time of birth and maturity, with important exceptions discussed in other sections).
[Here I am going to use another picture for my patient readers to follow.]
Same as humans can be roughly divided into HV, HP and HVP, they can also be divided into those who are called "men" and/or identify themselves as "men" and those who are called "women" and/or identify themselves as "women". Bear with me, my kind reader, as things are getting complicated [I can say the same to mine!]. Most humans tend to believe that HV is the same as "woman" and HP is the same as "man." It is for this reason that when a new human enters the world, they want to know: "Is it a boy or a girl?". As you can see, HVP find themselves at stark disadvantage in the very beginning of their lives. <...>
[I invite my reader to look at the second diagram. Everything above the line will be what @^&%^ refers to as "women" and below it - "men". So the top half of the left circle, the top half of the intersection, and the top half of the right circle will be humans who are called "women" and/or identify themselves as "women", with the bottom halves reserved for "men". It is not really half-and-half but I found this visual symmetry pleasing.]
To sum it up, there are some HP, HPV and HV who are known to others and/or themselves as "women" and some HP, HPV and HV who are known to others and/or themselves as "men". To put it in other words [as you might have already guested, the term "words" in case of %$#@* is also an approximation], there are some humans with a penis who are considered to be men. There are some humans with a vagina who are considered to be men. There are humans with a vagina who are known as women. There some humans with a penis who are known as women. Not to forget, a person with a penis and vagina can be considered a man or a woman, depending on many circumstances.
My reader, I hope you will agree with me that the situation is pretty clear. HP does not equal "man" and HV does not equal "woman." But it made me sad [yes, the feelings that inhabitants of our guest's planet can experience are surprisingly close to feelings of Earthlings] to notice that for human it is not clear at all. On the opposite, the divisions (HP, HV, HVP vs. "men" and "women") I outlined serve as a cause of major confusion that often leads to pain, self-doubt, and hatred.
[While I end the translated excerpt here, I want to clarify that it is connected to a longer discussion that spreads throughout other chapters and sections of this exceptional scholarly work. I might translate more of it if I have time in the future, and if **&$$ agrees to collaborate. It turns out that professors and researchers are all very busy no matter where in the Universe they happen to reside!]