An Uneventful Week

Despite the gloom-and-doom* of last week’s post, this week has been remarkably uneventful. Not good, not bad, just… there.

There were good things that happened: I weathered my first corporate function (a birthday party) without shaming myself too badly. I’m baking brownies in a cast iron skillet. I watched the last three episodes with the Tenth Doctor on Doctor Who and cried disgusting snot tears. I considered re-reading Ender’s Game, but decided not to on the grounds that I had already cried too much for one weekend, in the good, cathartic, prompted-by-TV kind of way.

(Seriously, though, readers: is there anything that could have predicted my anthropology degree quite so well as my absolute, shuddering sobs when I got to the “the aliens are only trying to save their babies, and the humans didn’t understand” twist at the end of that book? No. No there is not.)

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Find Me at the Anthropology Moat

Today I attended a meeting with all the honors thesis students in my department. At least, that was what GCal called it. It might as well have been retitled, “Impostor Syndrome: The Meeting.” Because seriously? My dominant thoughts upon leaving that meeting:

  1. Do I want to do this research? I don’t want to do this research. I signed up because of parental pressure!
  2. I can’t write anything this long. I can’t write. I have forgotten how to type and my fingers are numb, because I am an idiot. I bet they teach you how to type in SURE.*
  3. The IRB is going to read my sad application for approval, track me down while I’m trying to flintknap in the Anthropology moat**, and break my kneecaps with a bat. I deserve this.

These meetings! Not reassuring! I left the one today resolved to quit writing my thesis and, I don’t know, go commit ritual seppuku. (Or just take eight credit hours this semester and call it good. But that would be sad.)

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Seeing Kathy Reichs

This morning was not, broadly speaking, a success.

It started in a promising fashion. I grabbed two friends and headed to the local library to hear Kathy Reichs, author of forensic anthropology-tastic crime fiction, speak as part of the Decatur Book Festival. Unfortunately, I had misread the schedule–while doublechecking that we were in the right room (yay, neuroses!) I realized that we were at the panel for Kerry Reichs. She does not write about murder. You can understand how I might have misread all of this in the catalogue.

My friends and I beat a hasty retreat. Since there were four hours or so until Kathy Reichs was actually scheduled to appear, we hauled over to the second planned event of the day–a trip to meet a dog that I might possibly adopt from Urban Pet Project. I had emailed the manager the previous night and so was operating on the assumption that there would be someone at the shelter. Because of the long weekend (which the shelter manager had forgotten) there was no one there.

After some less-than-fruitful doorbell ringing, my friends and I managed to chat with some employees at the Barking Hound Village next door, who figured out what was up. Though very apologetic (and helpful!), they weren’t able to get us in to the shelter. Slightly irritated, we tried to salvage the morning: I suggested we get cupcakes at West Egg Cafe, which has the best cupcakes in town and is less than a mile from the shelter.

We walked in and almost immediately turned around: the cafe had a 40 minute wait. Though I do love the cupcakes, there are no baked goods that I love enough to stand in line for 40 minutes. (I’m fickle.) My friends, game for anything, walked with me to the yogurt shop next door. It was closed.

The morning was not going as planned.

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Background Noise (and Unnerving Silence)

IMG 0350-001

Tonight is the first night my host house has been quiet since I moved in here three months ago. This happened only because the power company decided to cut our (and only our) power for the evening. As the angry Wolof phone conversations have finished, this has left is more-or-less complete silence.

It’s very weird.

This is one of the things that no one thinks to tell you when you are moving abroad, particularly in regards to a host family. My family (and, as best I can tell from other students, most host families in the program) has some sort of noise going constantly. The TV is frequently left on as background noise, and if the TV isn’t on the radio is. Frequently multiple radios or TVs are turned to different stations at the same time, both left loud enough to be heard in the central room. My host mother sleeps the whole night through with the TV or radio (occasionally both) in the background. Senegalese music (including the snapshot above from an Independence Day festival) is like 90% Very Loud Drums.

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Franny and Zooey and Rites of Passage

Yesterday, I finished re-reading Franny and Zooey. This is the third or fourth time I’ve read the book, which I found early on in high school. I relate to it the way that a whole slew of folks relate to Catcher in the Rye, which Salinger is of course much better known for.

For those who haven’t raed the book, it follows Franny Glass, the 20-year-old youngest sibling of a large family of kids who spent much of their childhood performing on a radio quiz show called It’s a Wise Child. After reading a book taken from the room of her  beloved eldest brother (who committed suicide several years before the book takes place), she attempts to pray without ceasing. Disillusioned by college, she has a nervous breakdown. The rest of the book consists of the next-oldest sibling, her 25-year-old brother Zooey, talking her out of her breakdown.

I always took more to Franny than to Holden Caulfield. I suspect that I would like him more if I reread Catcher in the Rye now, but when I first read it I was too close in age to him not to find him annoying. Franny was enough older than me that I liked her. True to form, now that I am the same age that she is, I see why Zooey is annoyed by her breakdown even as I have spent much of my time at Emory struggling with the same disillusionment.

In class this semester we talked about the structure of rites of passage. We focused on two models—one from van Gennep, and one from Lincoln. I think it’s interesting how the two Salinger books follow the two models.

Van Gennep‘s three-part structure for rites of passage (separation, liminality, incorporation) works incredibly well for many male initiation rituals. Professors love to use the example of fraternity hazing to illustrate the model, and to van Gennep’s credit it works very well. However, it doesn’t work for a lot of women’s rituals, which often depend on individual biological realities (like when a specific girl begins to menstruate) and focus on the girl’s relationship to her family, rather than her peers.

Lincoln‘s model attempts to find a more universal pattern from women’s rituals. In it, women’s rituals follow the model of seclusion, metamorphosis, and emergence. The woman’s ritual takes place alone or within her family home, rather than with the other girls of the village.

Neither model is universal, and there are plenty of cultures which violate the “correctly”-gendered model or conform to neither, but they are useful frameworks. It wasn’t until this year that I realized that Catcher in the Rye follows van Gennep’s pattern and Franny and Zooey follows Lincoln’s.

It was interesting to have my coursework so directly impact my interpretation of a book that I love. Buddy Glass, the narrator, asks whether the story is a mystical story or a love story, but it is of course also a story about a very American rite of passage. We talk a lot in my anthropology classes about how Americans lack rites of passage, and I think that Salinger shows two very American rites of passage in these books.

Things I Have Discussed in an Academic Context This Week (And Professors’ Responses Therein)

My favorite part of being an anthro major is that, in an attempt to make their lectures relevant to students, professors sometimes take things to strange places. The best of these are the ones that give you alarming insights into your professors’ lives and/or American cultural phenomena that you are otherwise unaware of.

Pubic Hair Shaving During Labor: “American hospitals do that? I mean, it’s a head. It’s not like it’s easy to miss.” There were hand gestures.

BDSM: “Some people find some aspects of this arousing in some contexts.” There were pictures.

Groundhog Day: “You mean High Holidays?” (I have a cold. Same professor as the first quote. When it was explained to her that Americans really do look at a small mammal for weather advice, she was somewhat taken aback and apparently delighted.)

May Day: “We build big poles and dance around them. They say it’s a cross, I say it’s a penis.”

Strong candidates that did not make the list this week include foreskins, asexuality, and episiotomies.

Friday Night, Time to Knap

Yesterday, my friend Avery and I went flint knapping outside of the anthro building. For those who aren’t anthro majors/hill people, flint (or stone) knapping is the process of taking a large chunk of rock and turning it into a smaller, hopefully tool-like chunk of rock. Hobbyists use it to make arrowheads, which they exchange at “knap ins,” which are a thing that I am not even making up. The video above shows some of the gear required and the general strangeness of the process–if you see a giant chunk of bone on the table when he’s talking, that’s because it’s a moose bone that he makes stone tools with.

The professor above–who was a remarkably good sport about two undergrads showing up and demanding teaching, essentially–was helping us yesterday. He studies stone knapping techniques in the paleolithic era. Human stone tools from digs show an increase in complexity the nearer the dig gets to the present day, from this, to this, to this. The professor’s research (and the reason he was sitting around flint knapping on a Friday to begin with) is on what stone tools show us about the cognative abilities of the people who made them. He does this by scanning folks’ brains as they make stone tools.

It turns out that novices and skilled tool-makers light up different areas of their brains, and that the simpler tool styles (the monofacial ones, which can cut but are not great for chopping) light up older parts of the brain than more complicated tools. The question is whether advances in tool complexity represent the evolution of that more recent brain matter–they couldn’t make the tools until they had the ability to learn, visualize appropriately, and figure out some pretty complicated practical physics.

So Avery and I tried to make something. We tried to teach ourselves to stone knap last year, after seeing a video of Bruce Bradley. The thing that professors don’t tell you as much is that he’s pretty much the best flint knapper in this country, and despite how easy he makes it look it’s really hard. When we tried on our own, we were working with low-quality rock and no clue what we were doing, and wound up using the same technique to make blades as chimps have been shown to: we threw them at the ground until they shattered into smaller pieces. Yesterday, we fared a little better. Here’s what Avery made:

Though it doesn’t look like much, the scraper came from a much larger piece of flint, and is much better than what we got the first time. We’ll be going back next week, so hopefully I can try my hand at sucking a little less at banging rocks together.

Book Review: Daytripper

A secene from the novel. (Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá)

I spent this last weekend in Athens, GA. In between drinking and setting off fireworks in a pool (fun and awesome!), I made my way down to Bizarro Wuxtry, the comics shop/general haven of weirdness that lives above regular Wuxtry, the music store where REM got its start. (I can’t hear well, and I don’t own a record player, so I prefer the bookstore.) I bought American Born Chinese but had to return it because a page was torn. Not wanting to disappoint the comic store clerk, I picked up Daytripper.

The graphic novel, written by two twin brothers, is set in São Paulo, Brazil. It tracks the life of a man named Brás de Olivia Domingos, who wants to be a novelist but writes obituaries for a living. Each chapter of the book follows him through an important life event, tracking what his obituary would read like if he died after it. The events span most of his life, and are united thematically rather than chronologically. Some of the events are real and some are imaginary; the distinction isn’t clear.

By the end of the book you have a pretty complete picture of his life, including Brás’ long-term and complicated relationships with his best friend Jorge, various women, and his father, a famous novelist in whose shadow he lives. Though not the most compelling narrative in the world (it’s a dreamy sort of book), the stories are interesting and allow you to see a bunch of different snapshots of Brazil.

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Monkey Jesus Loves Me


MONKEY / Sriram Ramasamy / CC BY 2.0

In the last week, I have noticed that I’ve been running into a lot of monkeys in my out-of-school time. In-school, it’s less weird–my adviser literally runs a lab that studies monkey poop–but there’s usually not that much bleed-over into the real world. However, in the past week:

  • A monkey escaped from my school. The authorities are happy to report that it doesn’t have Herpes B, which can apparently kill people. So that’s exciting.
  • Monkeys stole some guy’s camera and took possibly-photoshopped pictures of themselves. My favorite part is the Boing Boing commenter discussion. I wrote that sentence before actually going to read the Boing Boing comments, because secret hint: my favorite part is always the Boing Boing comments.
  • I came across an adorable video of monkeys that appear to have handlebar mustaches. HANDLE BAR MUSTACHES.
  • I applied for a job at Mail Chimp*, which does not–contrary to what you might think of the name–actually mail chimps. Which is a relief, because chimps can and will rip your face off and/or eat babies.

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That Girl Who Talks About Vaginas A Lot

Someone please explain to me why I cannot get this song out of my head. I think it has something to do with Matthew Morrison’s dancing. Because, mm.

This is one of those weeks where I step out of my room for lunch and then suddenly I look up and, oh wait, it’s 10pm and I haven’t been back and I have to do homework and look my RA bulletin board is due in an hour.* It’s a great week–I’ve organized two programs and the Vagina Monologues production that I’m directing  is this Thursday and Friday and then it’s my birthday and then it’s SXSWi–but it’s also kind of maybe a little insane. I used to think freshman year that I knew what busy was. I did not. I know I did not, because freshman year I had friends I saw outside of Lil’s and went to bed at 11pm. Good memories.

However, freshman year I did not get to make these sorts of things:

Vagina Week Poster

Yes. Yes it is a Georgia O'Keefe painting.

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