Posts tagged ‘cultural anthro’

We Are the Yanomamo

Yanomamo village from the air

Before I was an archaeologist, I was a cultural anthropologist.  I even have a master’s degree to prove it. Cultural anthropologists love to study other cultures around the world, ostensibly for the purpose of bringing back observations that shed light on our own culture in comparison.  And one of the tribes we studied was the Yanomamo.

The Yanomamo are a hunter-gatherer group that lives in the Amazon rain forest.  Their villages aren’t made up of lots of individual homes; instead, they build a single, shared shelter for the whole group.  There is a ring-shaped roof with a single wall along the outside of the ring, roughly divided into sections where individual families live, sleeping in hammocks and cooking over open fires.  The center of the ring is a large, flat shared living space where most community activities take place.

Surprisingly, unlike American towns and cities, Yanomamo villages tend to all be roughly the same size.  Of course, young people get married and their new spouses move in, children are born, and the village grows over time.  But at a certain point, when the populations gets too large, the village divides.  Squabbles add up over time, factions develop, and one faction leaves to build their own village.  Maybe it’s a function of too much genetic distance between people — I’m willing to sacrifice for my parents or siblings, but not for my second cousin’s wife who I have no blood relation to.  Maybe as the number of people increases, the local resources — food, building materials, and other supplies —  become scarce and people begin to argue when there isn’t enough to go around.  Whatever the cause, larger numbers means more bickering, and eventually it gets bad enough that someone moves out.
We Westerners tend to think of hunter-gatherer groups like this as less developed than we are — primitive, backwards, uncivilized.  The truth is, while their technology may be less developed than ours is, their way of life tends to be perfectly adapted to their environment.  They maintain groups of just enough people to support themselves nicely based on what they can find nearby.
Meanwhile, here in the US, we are in the middle of a recession.  There aren’t enough jobs and money — resources — to go around these days.  And I have noticed, while we are living in an environment with scare resources, we are doing an awful lot of squabbling.  We’re dividing into factions.  There’s rich vs. poor, Republican vs. Democrat, Tea Party vs. liberals, citizens vs. illegal immigrants, working poor vs. welfare freeloaders, fiscal conservatives vs. social safety nets.  I see lots of people who are angry at Them, and They are the people who are competing for the resources we don’t have.  And it’s not just the U.S. — look at Germany vs. Greece, the British people vs. youth mobs, American vs. Chinese workers.  If we were the Yanomamo, this fighting would result in a division, one faction would leave, and then there would be enough to go around for the people who were left.  The problem is, we spend all this time dividing into factions, but there’s nowhere for us to go.  We have created a globalized economy, and there is nowhere that anyone can go anymore where they wouldn’t still be sharing the same global economic pie.  No matter how much we fight with one another, we’re all still stuck in this mess together.
Do you know why Americans are so often obese?  Because we are genetically adapted to love high-calorie foods — sugars, fats, and salt.  This was a great adaptation when we were hunter-gatherers, who spent most of our days walking from place to place and engaged in physical labor, and food was sometimes scarce.  Even as we changed and became farmers and herders and even city-dwellers, the amount of physical work we needed to do and the scarcity of these foods meant that we were still in pretty good shape.  But now that we have machines to do our work and carry us around and our jobs have us sitting at desks most of the day, while at the same time those high-calorie foods are easier and easier to obtain, that adaptation isn’t working for us anymore.  It’s making our situation worse, and our health along with it.  The trait that was helpful in one setting hurts us now that our circumstances have changed; it’s called an evolutionary mismatch.
I think our tendency to point fingers and fall into factions during bad economic times is another mismatch.  And the longer the economy stays bad, the more we point fingers and fight with one another, when what we really need to do is overcome this tendency towards anger and division, and work together to find solutions.  Just like many of us need to eat lower-calorie, high-nutrient foods, and do more physical work during the day in order to lower our collective health risks.
We all know that we need to eat right and exercise, yet it’s often really, really hard to do.  So is there any hope that we’ll collectively realize that all this political infighting is hurting us as a nation, and start working together to solve our common economic woes?
I’m afraid the answer to that question is, fat chance.

The Road Travelled

my new workplace: the herpetology society

It always surprises me, when I get a new job, to discover the ways in which my past jobs have directly provided the experience I need to do the new job.  Especially since it is never something that I have planned.

The first two weeks of the class I am teaching right now, Strategies for Success, deals with change and goal setting.  I spend a lot of time talking to my students about goals, planning, prioritizing, determination, and all the things that go into being Highly Motivated  and Successful People.  We go over the five steps of the Change Implementation Model — identify change, research options, identify obstacles, establish a plan, and implement it  — as well as the four steps to writing a goal — goal statement, action steps, timelines, and narrative statement.  I literally spend hours talking about the importance of setting goals, coming up with defined plans, and following through on them.  And yet I almost never do this myself.

I can’t make a weekly meal plan, because I always decide at the last minute that I’m in the mood for something else for dinner.  I can’t lay out my clothes the night before, because I’ll want to wear something different when morning rolls around.  I typically decide on the next step in my life, on what will make me happy, and do what I need to in order to get there.  Then I stay there until I am no longer happy, or until something forces me out.  And then I look around and decide on the next step.  I hate the question, “What do you see yourself doing in five/ten years?” in interviews, because the true answer is, “I have absolutely no idea.”

I do set and meet lots of short-term goals for myself, but I have never been the kind of person who decides, “I want to be X by age Y,” and then lays out a multi-year plan for achieving that goal.  I have wandered my way through life, one stepping-stone at a time.  After high school, college was a given.  After college, I didn’t want to go on to grad school right away.  An offhand comment from an advisor got me thinking about volunteering, and a few days of research landed me with the Peace Corps.  After the Peace Corps, I just wanted to be with the boyfriend I’d been on the opposite side of the planet from for the past 2 years, so I moved to the west coast.  When I became dissatisfied with retail positions, I applied for a job at a credit card company doing customer service.  When I became dissatisfied with that, a dream sent me back to grad school.  After grad school, I was tired of research and not interested in pursuing a PhD, so I wanted to teach at the community college level.  It occurred to me that I would be more well-rounded if I attended an archaeology field school, so I went on a whim.  When I couldn’t find a teaching job, I applied for an archaeology position.  When I got laid off from archaeology, I applied for more teaching positions, and actually got one.  When I didn’t get enough adjunct classes, I applied to a part-time job with a herpetology society because the hours were flexible.

And yet, each job seems to be a prerequisite for the last.  My degree in English, even though my major was creative writing, was a great stepping stone for Teaching English as a Forgeign Language in the Peace Corps.  My Peace Corps experience didn’t help much when I was working in retail, but once I got to the credit card company, the “special English” I had adopted in Kyrgyzstan was ideal for working over the phone with clients who spoke English as a second language.  I also used the grammar I learned while teaching it to my Kyrgyzstani students, and was often asked to assist the technical writer.  When I went back to grad school, the skills I had developed at the credit card company for tracking information and juggling priorities were essential for getting through my thesis.  Not to mention, the contacts I made in the Peace Corps made it possible for me to do my field research during a single 3-month summer visit.  Once I got into archaeology, the descriptive skills honed through writing poetry in my youth were essential in writing understandable reports and site records.  Even in the process of moving from CA to UT, I went from an archaeology job where I worked on an enormous Nevada pipeline project, to helping out with a large Utah pipeline project.  And all those years of writing reports in Word, keeping track of data and forms in Excel, and writing grad school presentations in PowerPoint, made it possible for me to teach a computer class.

my current work station

But this extra side job in herpetology?  It just takes the cake in terms of utilizing my past experience.  I am cataloguing and posting for online sale a number of books, prints, ceramic figurines, and other miscellaneous items that were willed to the society by two different herpetologists.  Well, I have experience with books: my very first job was in a library, I worked at the college bookstore during my undergrad years, and even got to assistant manager at an outlet bookstore after graduation.  My writing and descriptive abilities will no doubt come into play when I need to provide summarized reviews of the books, and descriptions of the objects.  But it is mostly my archaeological skills being utilized here — the ability to sort, organize, photograph, document, and track a huge assemblage of items, along with the ability to make sense of scientific and biological nomenclature.

Who would have thought that 5 years in archaeology would help me get a part-time job working for herpetologists?  Or teaching a computer class?  Or that 2 years in credit card processing would prep me for grad school?  I can’t tell if I am making the connections with hindsight, or if I have been, in my own strange way, following a path to get to where I want to go.

It almost seems as though the steps I have taken through the years have been aiming me at exactly where I want to be.  For example, if I hadn’t attended field school on a lark, I wouldn’t have gotten an job as an archaeology field tech.  And I wouldn’t have been applying to CRM firms the next spring when my landlord in Arcata decided to sell our house with 30 days notice.  And I wouldn’t have had any other reason to take a job offer and move to Redding, CA if I my housing hadn’t just disappeared.  And if I had known people in Redding before moving, I might not have decided to finally get a dog to keep me company, after halfheartedly thinking about adopting a dog for years with no action.  And if I hadn’t gotten Cara, I would never have gone to the dog park and met my husband, T.

Maybe there was a plan, and I just didn’t know about it yet.  Or maybe, if you’re lucky, following your heart will get you where you need to go, whether or not you know where that is.

Who am I now?

For the first six months that I was doing archaeology, I couldn’t say the words, “I’m an archaeologist” out loud.

When someone asked what I did, my answer was always, “I’m actually working in archaeology right now.”  Right now.  Not forever.  Because I had just spent 2 years of my life becoming a cultural anthropologist, studying, getting a master’s degree, constantly identifying myself as a member of the cultural anthro program and NOT the archaeology program.  Despite the fact that I mostly hung out with the archaeologists (they were more likely to go to the bar on Friday night *smile*).

But I eventually got used to saying, “I’m an archaeologist.”  And eventually the story I would tell would go something like, “I stumbled into archaeology, and I love it, it’s a perfect fit for me!”  And there were a lot of things about archaeology that I was good at.

(Did you catch that?  Were.  Was.)

I spent five years as an archaeologist, always insecure about my experience and my abilities.  I was great as a field tech — I can hike all day looking for sites, identify flakes and groundstone, tell you the age of a pile of rusty cans, dig square holes in 10-centimeter levels, pick every single artifact out of my screen, or clean and catalogue artifacts for weeks at a time.  I could write a damned good site record or final report, too — assuming you pointed me to the appropriate background research, and told me what conclusions should be written.  I could do what I was told to do, but for one reason or another — lack of academic background, lack of confidence, poor spatial skills, or an inability to grasp the larger archaeological picture — I was never any good at knowing what to do next, where to dig, how to approach a project, and certainly no good at telling anyone else what to do.  Any time I was put into a supervisory position, I was miserable.  Constantly anxious and worried that I was failing, constantly at a loss for what I should be doing.

I got a job here in Utah where I finally felt like my abilities and experience matched my job requirements.  Until this spring, where I could tell I was failing at taking on a leadership role on our historical excavation project.  But I have zero background in historical excavation, so how could I lead?  More anxiety, more worry.  And then I was laid off, and there was my answer about how well I was doing.

And now I have a new job teaching.  I’ve only been at it for 5 weeks.  It’s hard, and I don’t have enough hours because there aren’t enough classes I’m qualified to teach, and the students don’t listen, and sometimes classes run short, and sometimes they run long, and I make mistakes — but I’m not miserable.  I’m really enjoying myself.  And I just got a second job, with a local herpetology society, where I will be sorting through two collections of books, articles, art, knick-knacks, and odds and ends, to help get them organized and sold to profit the society.  They estimate it will take about 2 years to get through everything.  I’ll be doing all of the menial sorting and cataloguing and photographing that I was good at in archaeology, with none of the expectation that I should develop into a project manager someday.

Given my current committments and schedule, I don’t see a way back into archaeology.  And I don’t think I really want one.  But I have been scared to admit that to myself, or anyone else really.  My many archaeologist friends have sent me links to jobs and still refer to me as an archaeologist, and it makes me feel guilty to not be “out.”  Why is saying I’m not an archaeologist anymore so difficult to do?  When I first thought about taking my layoff this spring as a sign to look for another career, I found myself thinking that if I left archaeology, I would have wasted the last 5 years.  When I was so sure that archaeology was the perfect fit for me, despite my weaknesses.  When my identity revolved around my job.  I mean, I’m  Archiegrrl, right?

But then I realized that I “stumbled into” archaeology after grad school, when I couldn’t find another job.  And what job was I looking for?

A teaching job.

I don’t know how long it will take me to be able to say “I’m a teacher.”  I’m actually working as a teacher right now, though. *wink*

the first time I was a teacher -- in the Peace Corps

NOTE: The worst part of admitting that I may have left archaeology for good?  I am Archiegrrl, writing a blog titled Arch and Crafts.  What am I going to do about that?

Prepping a New Class

I have been neglecting this blog recently (along with things like dishes, vacuuming, and laundry) because I have been prepping for two new classes that I am going to be teaching, starting on Tuesday of next week.  It’s a really intense process, and in the interest of giving my brain a little break, I’m going to tell you guys all about it.  *smile*

A secret that not everyone knows is, people who teach at the college level often get absolutely NO training in how to teach.  If you want to teach in an elementary, middle, or high school, you have to go through a certain amount of training before they let you loose on young, impressionable minds.  It may be as simple as an emergency teaching certification, or it may be a full master’s degree in education, but someone tells you how to teach.  In order to teach at the college level, you just need to have studied your specific subject long enough and hard enough to get either a master’s degree or a PhD in that specific subject, and then they hand you a textbook and throw you in front of a class.  And you are expected, I assume from all those long years of sitting in desks, to have absorbed the most effective ways to teach the subject that you have studied all those years.

Thank goodness I’m not in that boat.  This will not be the first time I am teaching a class, or coming up with lesson plans.  I had a total of three months’ training in lesson planning and teaching techniques when I was in the Peace Corps.  We even had a 2-week Model School, where top-level English students from around the capital volunteered to come in during their summer break and get extra lessons from us.  We worked in teams, and put together sequences of 3-4 lessons covering topics like describing people, or buying things at the store.  We were even observed and critiqued by local teachers and other PCVs, which was extremely helpful.  And before leaving for my permanent village site, I was provided with a stack of books outlining exercises that could be used with my students, mostly at the intermediate-to-advanced level.  And then I walked into a classroom with 35 students in it who could only say, “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “F#ck you” in English.  And they only knew what 2 out of the 3 phrases actually meant.

In that situation, I had complete freedom.  I had already convinced the director of my school (aka principal) to let me teach my own curriculum, one that would be heavy on speaking and listening comprehension, instead of the reading-and-writing heavy Soviet textbooks they were still using (and obviously didn’t understand).  I talked to other volunteers and got ideas for lots of games I could use in the classroom.  And I had one set of beginner textbooks that I could take exercises out of, or else write my own, for the students to copy into their notebooks and then complete in class.  It worked pretty well, and I think my students benefitted from my teaching.

A few years later, when I was in grad school, I was a TA.  It was a way for me to support myself while going to school, since TAs got their tuition waived, plus a stipend that was enough to live on.  But it also taught me about some of the behind-the-scenes mechanics of teaching a college class, and maybe this is the kind of “training” college teachers are expected to have.  I had to attend the teacher’s class and take notes, do all of the grading and gradekeeping for students, write study guides to be handed out prior to the exam, run review sessions for students, and actually write exam questions.  Pretty much everything but lecturing was covered.

So when I took a job teaching a class at a community college a few years after finishing my degree, on top of working full-time as an archaeologist, it seemed like I had everything pretty well figured out.  The textbooks for the class were already chosen, so I followed the chapters in the main text, picked out articles from the secondary text that seemed to fit with the weekly theme, assigned regular written homework, and figured out where to stick in a midterm and an exam.  I figured I was done at this point, since I could prep for my lectures each week before class, which wouldn’t be hard, and everything would be fine.

It was a disaster.  First off, all the classes I had TAed were 300-level courses with a heavy writing component, designed for majors.  Here, I was teaching a 100-level Intro to Cultural Anthropology class to people who were taking it as an elective because they wanted to travel through Europe someday and thought it might come in handy.  I followed the template I had used before, which meant I gave them too much homework and the tests were too hard — I had to add a 15-point curve to the first exam, and even then half the class dropped out.  Literally.  Not to mention, I would spend a few hours scanning through the text and writing out overheads the night before the class, and then I’d just read through the information like a zombie.  I didn’t explain things well, provide examples, have class discussions, or really do much of anything to keep the class engaged.  Towards the end of the semester I woke up and asked questions and made connections in class, and I eased off on the final exam.  But by then it was too late.  The semester was over, and despite the distance learning folks wanting to have me teach a class in the fall, the class was cancelled due to low enrollment and I never got a chance to redeem myself.

Now I am teaching two different classes that I have no background in, at a professional college, mostly teaching adult or returning students.  I am expected to be engaging, do a lot of group work and interactive exercises, even have a guest speaker and do a field trip (one of each!) for every class.  Oh, and did I mention each class is 4 hours long?  It’s intimidating.

To make things a little worse, there are fully-developed syllabi and lesson plans for each class, but when I talk to other teachers, they come up with completely different, creative ideas for running their classes.  The person I keep being referred to taught 5th grade for years before working in business and then finally coming to this school to teach business classes, so she has a million tricks up her sleeve that just come naturally to her.  Honestly, most days I don’t feel creative enough to meet the challenge.  At least by being a substitute for several different classes in the weeks leading up to my own, I have picked up a few things, like the fact that many of the exams are open-book.

So I have been working for a few weeks now, going through the textbooks, syllabi and lesson plans, finding additional materials online, and trying to figure out what I will do during each class during the term.  As of 2 minutes before I started writing this post, I have a full outline for each class.  I have each lesson outlined, but I still need to put together specific materials for most of the lessons, like PowerPoint slides, or materials for some of the exercises, or just printing and photocopying some of the prepared exercises.  Most of those I think I can do a day or two before class.  I have the dates for all the assignments worked out, including homework, term papers, and exams, but I haven’t figured out my grading rubric yet — should homework be worth 10% of their final grade, or 15%?  And I still need to turn these outlines into syllabi that I can hand the students on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week, and turn in to my boss.

It seems like too much, especially knowing how much work there still is to be done for each individual class session before I can walk into the classroom and feel fully prepared.  But I keep one shining thought in the front of my mind at all times, and it seems to help: If I get this class right the first time, I can follow this lesson plan for years to come.

And that makes the lazy teacher in me feel much better.

Women’s Choices

I have to say, I hate the new Beyaz commercial with something close to a burning passion.  How can a commercial for birth control, something that was a key component of the sexual revolution, be so sexist?  How did the ad agency get so far off track with this one?

The premise of the commercial is women walking through a store, shopping/making choices about what they want in their lives.  This should be brilliant, because birth control does, in fact, give women more choices when it comes to their lives.  The main problem, in my eyes, is that each woman in the commercial only gets to choose one thing.

It starts with the line, “You know what you want to do.  But you never know what you might want tomorrow.  It’s good to have choices.”  You see a woman grabbing a diploma from a pile labelled “graduate school.”  Then two women check out a selection of pictures of men labelled “significant other.”  One of the women snatches a picture out of the group just ahead of a second woman, then smirks as she walks away, leaving the second woman to look after her in disappointment and disbelief.  In the next shot, the woman who missed out on the guy smiles and reaches towards a choice that we don’t get to see, but from the angle, you get the impression it is somewhere else in the store.

Then there’s a fourth woman who passes over a picnic basket labelled “picnic by waterfall.”  You see her continue past a display with a stork in it.  The stork, with a lavender bundle held in his beak, steps out of the display and chases her, offering the bundle repeatedly, but she smiles, refuses, and walks away.  You next see her walk up to a model of the Eiffel Tower, labelled “Trip to Paris,” and take hold of the tag.

We then switch to a fifth woman, who looks at a selection of houses and cars, labelled “buy a house,” then chooses one and puts it into her shopping cart.  The final scene is the woman who refused the stork, sitting behind the wheel of a car full of women with the Eiffel Tower model strapped to the roof of her car.

By the time we’re done with the commercial we have been given a slew of symbolic messages about womanhood and our choices.  Right from the start, we learn that women are fickle and don’t know their own minds from day to day.  Next we see that women need to fight over men, who are their only potential “significant others.”  Sure, lesbians typically don’t have to worry about birth control and aren’t Beyaz’s target demographic, but there is still an assumption being made.  And why emphasize sexual competition between women?  Why not have both women choose a partner from among the large selection of possible mates and both be happy with their choices?  Then there’s the insistence of the stork, which I can only assume refers both to a woman’s own biological clock “going off” and the pressure from her family/friends/society to get down to the business of making babies, since that’s what women are made for.

But the worst aspect of the commercial is the fact that it makes it look like you have to choose between grad school and a baby, travel and a baby, even home ownership and a baby, and the fact that a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant at a particular time in her life doesn’t have to be tied to the things she would rather be doing.  Sure, having a child makes some things a little bit more difficult, but it’s not an either/or proposition any longer.  I know several women who went to grad school, owned homes, and had babies all at the same time.  I know multiple cultural anthropologists who took their toddlers with them to live overseas while they worked on their graduate or post-graduate research.  I also know women who do not want to have a child right now regardless of the fact that they currently have a partner, own a house, and have their degree — they’re not putting off kids for the sake of something else.  And I know working and stay at home moms, with and without degrees, who rent and own houses, with boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends/wives, and on their own, who have made the decision to have a child without giving anything up in the process.  And whether a woman doesn’t want a child now or doesn’t want one at all, her decision to use birth control isn’t about the fact that being a mom limits her choices.  It is no longer a trade off that women have to make.

I understand, many anti-teen pregnancy campaigns stress the decisions that teens need to make, and the limits that having a child can impose on young girls’ lives.  But in that case, you are encouraging young girls to think about the consequences of their actions and choose one of two things: birth control, or abstinence.  Beyaz is being marketed to adult women, and selling it with the message that having a child means the death of your dreams is sexist to say the least.  Women today have more choices than ever — I would rather see the women in this commercial fill their symbolic shopping baskets with a variety of choices, instead of having to pick just one.  We have the ability to find the combination that works best for us.  And to suggest that those choices wouldn’t be possible with kids?  The 1950s called, Beyaz, and they want their antiquated gender myths back.

One of the monotone facts rattled off in the background of the commercial is the fact that this birth control includes folate, which helps prevent birth defects for women who conceive while on or just after ending use of Beyaz.  So that means it’s safer for women who are on birth control and accidentally or intentionally become moms.  Why not emphasize the variety of reasons why women choose birth control?  The message could be, if you’re not ready yet for kids, if you’ve had a child and want to wait before having more, or if you’ve finished having kids, Beyaz is the right birth control for you.

Oh yeah, that’s right.  Mirena already stole that idea.  *smile*

My Favorite Books You’ve Never Heard Of


The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd

This is an amazing book that I stumbled across years ago.  It is written as the diary and letters of a young Scotswoman who travels to China to be married to a young military attache at the turn of the 20th century, and follows her life as she moves from China to Japan, through WWI and into WWII.  Her sheltered upbringing is immediately tested during the sea voyage to China, as she sees and experiences things that are completely unlike her previous life.  She continues on to marriage and motherhood, scandal and rejection by the European community.  Despite all this, she finds and creates her own space as a foreign woman in a man’s world.  Whenever someone asks for book recommendations, this is always at the top of my list.


The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

While Kingsolver is a well-known author, I suspect this is one of her less-known novels.  It is actually the beginning of a trilogy, and the best of the three, in my opinion.  While living in the southwest, a woman is handed a little girl by a Native American woman who begs her to take the child.  This three-year-old girl, who acquires the nickname Bean, has already lived through unknown abuse, and the story centers around her de-facto mother, who day-by-day tries to do the right thing to meet all her needs and raise her in a loving home.  The writing is so remarkable, I remember while I was reading this book, I would find myself going about my daily chores and wondering what Bean was doing while I was gone.  Kingsolver re-defines herself with every novel, but her consistently excellent writing and characterization are still present in this novel.


Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley

I am a fan of fantasy writing, and of fairy tales, but I don’t think you need to be either to love this retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story.  McKinley has the talent to craft an entire world for her story to happen in — one where there is so much magic in the air, it settles like dust on the houses, and causes havoc on your tea if you don’t have a fairy in your family to de-scale your kettle once a week.  Rosie is the princess whose future has been cursed by Pernicia, and she is being raised by two fairies (who would be called witches in a different world), completely unaware of her true identity.  Despite all the gifts that were given to her at her christening — long, curly, blonde locks, lips like cherries, teeth like pearls, and skin like silk — she is not pretty; instead, she insists she is intelligent and brave.  And this feisty princess turns the fairytale — and her curse — on its head by the time all is said and done, with no prince required to wake the Sleeping Beauty.  I think it’s an amazing twist on the classic fairytale.


Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

While I absolutely love this book, I will admit it may not be for everyone.  I tried it out on my book club several years ago, without introduction or explanation, and it fell flat for most folks.  The trick to this book is to realize it is a fictional ethnography — which means, I guess, it may only appeal to the cultural anthropologists out there.  The book outlines all the aspects of a future culture that is modeled on Northern California Indian tribes of the past.  There are songs, stories, poems, descriptions of social organization and cultural symbolism, all defining a group of people who are living in a post-apocalyptic world where industry has been abandoned and humans have returned to small-scale tribal societies.  There is a novella within the book, however, so if the rest of the writing turns you off, at least follow the parts of this story.  It details the travels of a young woman from a small, non-religious society to a nearby city that is founded on a controlling, monotheistic faith.  By telling a story in the future, Le Guin tells us something about the past, as well as our present.


The Dork of Cork by Chet Raymo

This book was made into a film called Frankie Starlight, but I doubt it is much better known than the book (despite starring Matt Dillon and Gabriel Byrne).  The term “dork” originally referred to dwarves or little people, and this is the story of a little person named Frank Bois who grew up in the town of Cork in Ireland.  Frank is an author who tells his life story, beginning with his pregnant mother’s arrival in Ireland on an American GI troopship returning from France in 1945.  The twists and turns of her life and his make a great story, but when the adult Frank must come to terms with celebrity and unrequited love, magic happens.  The author’s writing style is poetic and his characters are intriguing — this is definitely a favorite read.


Children of God by Mary Doria Russel

This is actually a sequel, but I first read it years before I read the prequel, The Sparrow, and I think it stands alone quite well.  This is a science fiction novel, but it revolves around faith, religion, and cultural misunderstandings.  The Jesuits have sent an exploratory party to the planet Rakhat, after Earth received transmitions of music: evidence that there is intelligent life on this planet.  They found a planet with two intelligent species: the gentle vegetarian merchants, called the Runa, and the carniverous ruling class, the Jana’ata.  The Jesuits become stranded and begin to create a life among the Runa, but their ideas about justice and fairness spark a civil war.  The last survivor, Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz, is held by the Jana’ata for years, but is eventually rescued and returned to Earth.  This book follows Sandoz’s struggles with his lost faith, his return to Rakhat 10 years later, and the aftermath of the changes he and his fellow travellers sparked on Rakhat.  While the first book tells an interesting story of faith, adventure, and overcoming obstacles, I find this the more interesting of the two novels, as it deals with the ways that the best of intentions can cause unknown consequences when two cultures come into contact for the first time.


Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Coupland literally wrote the book on Generation X, but this lesser-known gem is a favorite of mine.  It is the story of a group of programmers at Microsoft who decide to go it alone and create their own dot-com.  Like many of his early novels, the book begins with an obsession with the material world of commodities.  But don’t let the obsessive lists of what people eat, drink and own turn you off.  As the group moves away from the regulated greenhouse of the Microsoft campus and into real world struggles in Silicon Valley, the characters are redeemed by the personal connections and emotional bonds they learn to create.  From this vantage, it may feel like a historical novel of the early-90s, but the transformation the characters go through is timeless.


Hopefully, these reviews will give you some ideas about what to read as the weather starts to warm up.  What recommendations would you make for books you love that aren’t well-known?

What to do?

I joined the Peace Corps in 1998.  I had just gotten my bachellor’s degree, and wanted some time off before I decided to go on to graduate school.  I wanted to do some volunteering, and to spend some more time outside of the US since a semester abroad in England hadn’t been “exotic” enough for me.  But these two years were also supposed to answer an important question for me: what did I want to do with my life?

When I was in college I could predict people’s responses to the question, “What are you studying?” based on how much information I gave them.  If I simply said I was an English major, they’d say, “Oh, so you want to teach.”  If I said I was a creative writing major, they’d say, “Sooo….. you want to be a poet??”  And if I gave them the full story — creative writing major with a minor in cultural anthropology — they invariably replied, “Oh… and what exactly do you want to do???”

And that was the problem.  I really didn’t know.  I was just studying what interested me.

So living in Kyrgyzstan and teaching English as a foreign language for 2 years was supposed to help me decide between three options: poetry, teaching, and anthropology.  At the end of those 2 years, I thought I had an answer.  I really enjoyed teaching, but I would never teach in a high school in the US.  And I hadn’t coped particularly well with living in Kyrgyzstan — the pressure of always being the center of attention caused me to really isolate myself, and focus most of my energy on spending time with other PCVs.  So the only conclusion to be made?  I would be a poet!  I’d work on my writing for a few years, get a portfolio together, and then apply for an MFA.  Maybe teach creative writing eventually.

Well, about 6 months into that decision, I realized that without an assignment due-date, I have very little drive to write poetry.  I concluded that, in fact, I was not A Poet.  And that didn’t bother me too much.  But now I was really at a loss.

Fast forward through a few years of working in retail and merchant processing, when a dream sent me back to grad school.  I dreamt about changing my major from English to anthropology, woke up, thought about it for a few weeks, and decided that I didn’t have to live overseas to be an anthropologist.  So I applied to grad school for cultural anthropology, planning on studying Native American arts in some way.

As it turns out, I did have to go overseas again for my masters degree.  And I even went back to Kyrgyzstan.  And this time around I coped much better with my surroundings (perhaps because I was only there for a few months) and faced a few demons, which was liberating.  And after 2 years in a masters program, I had come to a few more conclusions.  I still liked teaching, and would be happy to teach anthropology.  But not at a big university.  I hadn’t found a line of inquiry that I was interested in studying indefinitely, and didn’t want to be constantly pushed to publish articles.  I also wasn’t interested in playing adjunct roulette, moving from one university to the next for years until I could get tenure.  But teaching at a community college sounded just about my speed.

And then, on  whim, I went to archaeology field school.  And then, on another whim, I applied for a job as an archaeology field tech, aka: a shovelbum.  And became an archaeologist.  And loved the job, and decided this was definitely What I Wanted To Do.  Even though I don’t like shovelbumming: constantly being on the road, going from job to job, employer to employer, never sure how long you’ll be working and rarely being home.  But I got lucky, got office jobs, and thought I was doing pretty well.  Until recently.  When I realized that maybe I don’t have what it takes to move up the ladder and be a project manager in archaeology — namely, the knowledge to run a project from start to finish, and/or the desire to be the boss.  I’m perfectly content to be an upper-level peon for the rest of my life, having some responsibility and doing a good job but letting someone else make all the decisions.  And that’s not what employers want from someone like me.  That’s a shovelbum.

Somewhere in there, I actually got a shot at the community college gig.  One class of intro to cultural anthropology, which I taught while working full-time.  It was a humbling experience — I literally had half my class drop the course after the first exam.  My TA experience was with 300-level courses, and I was trying to teach a 100-level course the same way.  And with the full-time job, I wasn’t putting enough time into my lesson planning, so most days I was boring as hell.  But I thought I had learned from the experience, and I would have made a lot of changes and improvements if I’d had the opportunity to teach a second semester.  Alas, the second class was cancelled for too few students, and then we moved.  So I walked away from teaching for another few years.

And now, 11 years after I returned from the Peace Corps, I find myself at the same crossroads again (minus the poetry).  What do I want to do?  Do I settle, “accept my limitations”, and stay a peon in archaeology?  Or work at it, and hope that I someday develop the confidence to start running the cultural resources show?  Or should I give up on archaeology altogether, and start teaching at a private college, where I just had a good initial interview?  It’s not anthropology, but it is teaching, and I think I could do a good job.  Or can I do both?

In the past, when I have “decided” one way or another, life has shown me that I had no idea what I was doing when I came to that decision (Poetry!  No.  Native Americans!  No.  Community college!  No.  Program manager!  No.).  Maybe I should just do what I have always done — take the opportunities that have been afforded to me, and learn from them as they come.  Or maybe I should get some feedback and see what you all think I should do.  *smile*