Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Twelve Years On ...


I've always loved this time of year: sun's still strong during the day, nights begin to take on a pleasant chill. Things feel more orderly, predictable as kids are back at school, schedules are set, football's constantly on TV. Leaves start to yellow, some languorously dance down to the ground. Twelve years ago, I worked in book publishing in New York's famed Flatiron Building (second floor, Fifth Avenue side). The day began bright and clear, not nearly as humid as today. It was Election Day in New York and the birthday of one of my dearest childhood friends.

These things were on my mind as I hurried up the side stairs to my office, maybe 15 minutes before nine. I logged into my computer, started to check email and then wondered why it was so quiet. I had headed into the building from the south, from the Broadway side; after all, the Flatiron, like one old grouchy traffic cop, divides Fifth Avenue from Broadway at 23rd Street. The devastation of the day was behind me; not so, for my many colleagues unfurling from the subway. They saw smoke straight down Fifth Avenue and paused, puzzled. That was the beginning of a very bad day and now, 12 years on, so much has changed while all has pretty much stayed the same. 

I've been reading the remembrances of folks online today. A former colleague at National Geographic who's teaching at Boston College pointed out on her Facebook feed that today's college students were in third grade when 9/11 happened, third grade! For me, the devastation of that day prompted me to quit my job in New York, join the Peace Corps, teach English for a time in Uzbekistan, return early to Washington, D.C., go to grad school, work at a think tank, then National Geographic, travel to Hawaii and the south of France, and now, here I find myself working for myself, on projects for NG and others.

Here I find myself hoping the adoption of three kids from foster care for which we've waited so long to actually happen. And I wonder how this all fits into the spark, the plan, the grand idea that knocked me out of my path, my security of a real job-job, out into the unknown and uncertain. And, it seems, these are pieces meant to fit somehow into the quilt that is my life. There are jagged edges, disappointments, failures, retreats. There are some patches that are oblong, circular, some are even torn but they'll fit together, sewn carefully and with joy, joy felt due to simply still being alive. Watching the yellow jackets spin about, sucking up pollen from the now-pink sedum plants in the back yard. Day after day, monitoring the cherry tomatoes, which I started from seed, get plump and redder and redder. Walking my goofy dogs too often, greeting kids in the neighborhood.

For me, I think back to the horror of this day, 12 years on. Every year. I mourn the people I didn't know who died. I empathize with the grieving families they left behind. I feel thankful I am still alive, to struggle on, to hope, to try, to live.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Studying Flamenco in Sevilla, Spain


Jumping back to my Cotlow which, as I detailed above, couldn’t in reality be about conservation and primates: I went online and found an abstract of my project that I wrote on GW’s Anthropology website. Here goes:

Flamenco has emerged as a product of the dialectic confrontation between Gypsy and non-Gypsy societies in Andalusia. This project addresses how flamenco works to undergird Spanish and Gypsy identity; how flamenco performers consciously/unconsciously conceptualize it/its origins; how Spanish society comes to terms with a performance culture that intensely appropriates and may even co-opt the cultural traditions of its much-maligned "other." It investigates whether there is a distinction — from emic (the performers) and etic (the tourists) perspectives — between flamenco puro and that which is performed in the commercialized venues.

Reading over that abstract again after five years, it sounds so gosh-darn dry?

The flamenco idea came about after Dr. Miller said, “Meg, these primate projects are great but not feasible.” Next, she asked, “Where have you been before where you speak the language where you could study something that interests you?”

Good question, right? Hm, where have I been before where I could study something that interests me, where I can speak the language so I can hit the ground running, so to speak?

Spain. Spain. Spain.

As an anthropologist I tend to be more interested in topics than regions. I'm not sure if this is normally the case. I know a lot of anthropologists who study Andean folklore or who only really care about female infanticide in India, not elsewhere. Or who only concern themselves with HIV/AIDS risk in Central America and not in Africa or the former Soviet Union. Many would rightly counter, “well, Meg, these are parallel problems the world over & to counter them properly and with any hope of success, we need to do so locally.” Micro, not macro. Yea, I get it and I agree but for some reason, my interests have trended more the broadly topical and not the strictly regional.

I like to examine how, let’s say for example, racial difference and inequality plays out in the Brazilian shanty towns studied by former Peace Corps volunteer and medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes as much as I do down the block from me at Safeway. Maybe I have ADHD or am impatient and can’t concentrate. Perhaps I drink too much caffeine (or red wine at night). Who knows, but I feel that while being micro is important, we as social scientists also need to look up, lift our eyes from the local and see the trends and parallels binding us as humans throughout the world, in our struggles and our triumphs. That’s how we can better understand our human family and work to help those who need help to help themselves.

The flamenco study fit this rubric in that it as an art form and southern Spain as a locale were places in which difference and discrimination are at play. What I mean is that flamenco is often claimed by the “mainstream” Spanish as an “authentic” “Spanish” art form. Is it?

Where did it come from? While doing research for my grant proposal, I read that flamenco is a complex interplay of Spanish, Jewish, Roma (Gypsy), and Moorish (Muslim) dance and musical traditions. Think American Jazz and you get a partial picture.

Flamenco, particularly dance which is what I focused on, is a hodge podge of styles and influences. It’s a relatively young art form and, as it’s more and more packaged and polished to be sold, it’s more and more codified.

If you talk to people in southern Spain, however, sevillanas, not flamenco is the “true” dance of the region. Flamenco is the tourists’ dance. Not that tourists usually or actually perform it, but it’s a dance form done for them. Marketed for them. Presented to and for them.

My study was to see flamenco in southern Spain, specifically Sevilla, and investigate how it was packaged and sold. How is the flamenco performed in a free venue different from a theater where tickets costs 40 euro a pop?

Who’s performing flamenco? Roma? Spanish women and men? How do the tourists consume it? What do they think about it? What prior knowledge do they bring to it?

And, when talking to the performers and to “regular” Spanish people on the streets, how do they understand its origin as an art form? If the books and scholars are right and flamenco indeed has rich and diverse roots, mixing the Jewish with the Roma and the Muslim with the Christian and nationalistic Spanish, do Spanish people acknowledge this complex intermingling? Do they admit that the origins of one of their most famous art forms and markers of Spanish identity (second to only bullfighting, perhaps) comes from the people they expelled five centuries ago (the Jews and the Muslims) and those they denigrate and marginalize currently (the Roma)?

The study was not so much about the content as it was about the context of flamenco dance performance. I did, however, take some flamenco lessons and this was not to become anything close to a performer of it myself but to see who took these lessons (mostly foreigners, primarily from Taiwan and Hong Kong, amazingly enough) and who taught them (typically older dancers, from southern Spain) and what their interactions were (usually limited due to lack of a common language; I was often a translator) as well as to get to know some flamenco performers personally.

The Guadalquivir River cuts through Sevilla. On one side, there’s the old town, el Barrio Santa Cruz [neighborhood of the Holy Cross], the Jewish Quarter, and the hulking cathedral that used to be a mosque when the town was under Moorish rule for close to 700 years. There’s a gorgeous Moorish palace, El Alcazár, flush with orange blossoms, bubbling fountains, and striking Mudejár architecture and adornment.

On the other side of the Guadalquivir, there are the more working-class, often less touristed neighborhoods of Los Remedios, where my ex lived in a students’ dormitory after being kicked out of his host family’s digs, and Triana, the traditional birthplace of flamenco and home, supposedly, to several well-known flamenco dynasties, mostly of Gypsy origin. Calle Betis [Betis Street] transverses both Los Remedios and Triana; many upscale shops dot the street, solidifying the transformation of this side of the river from rough and tumble to well to do.

Although Triana has gone through a gentrification of sorts, it is still known for its flamenco and its schools. Before deciding which school I would attend, I visited my host mother, Ana, on Avión Cuatro Vientos [Street of the Four Winds].


Monday, August 1, 2011

Monkey Business & Development


When I first heard of GW's Cotlow grant program, I thought, I have to apply. I guess even then I had the idea of possibly aspiring to get my PhD and thought this was a natural step: Get a small-scale grant, do something of my own creation; a solid first step.

I felt the pressure as I was supported by the university's Anthropology department on a fellowship. This meant that my tuition was paid for and I was given a monthly stipend. I worked, of course, for the department as a teaching assistant and I loved it. For four semesters, I was a graduate teaching assistant for a large undergraduate course, Introduction to Sociocultural Anthropology.

As I was funded by the department (which meant that they believed in my abilities as there were only three other TAs similarly supported by the department), I felt I needed to nail the Cotlow. But, the question nagged at me, what to study? Throughout my academic training, sometimes I’ve been at a loss in terms of what to research and write about. It’s funny: I feel I have so many ideas but sometimes, especially when the pressure’s on, they frustratingly don’t surface but instead remain scattered in the gray matter of my brain.

The Cotlow was no different. As the deadlines approached, I went to see the professor in charge of the program, the very same professor I TA'ed for. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “do I detect the pungent scent of a little favoritism at work here?” And, no, I can answer back honestly and instantaneously. The Cotlow program was administered by the professor with whom I worked closely but there was also a committee of professors who actually sat down together, looked over the students’ proposals, and decided on who was to get what to do which sort of anthropological investigation.

One fine early winter afternoon I sat with my professor in her office, housed, as it was in one of the three old townhouses the department occupied on G Street. Her office was lucky enough to have the front window, looking out onto G Street. It was one of those gray-white days when the sun is so slight, it’s hard to discern if it’s early morning or mid-day.

We sat down, amidst her African and Asian brica braca, and discussed what would be best for me to research and propose to study. At this time, I had been volunteering for almost two years as an exhibit interpreter at the Smithsonian National Zoo. As an exhibit interpreter at the Great Ape House, I greeted visitors and explained a bit about the natural history of gorillas, orang utans, lemurs, and gibbons.

The zoo was home to lowland mountain gorillas: Mopie and Kigali, Mandara and tiny Kojo, Baraka and Kwame. Of the orangs, however, Bonnie was my favorite. She was a little chubby and was born in 1976 like yours truly. She seemed to key into visitors; her keeper once told me that she thought Bonnie had a preference for red-headed humans. Bonnie often sauntered about her enclosure like a regular old human biped, waddling, a little choppy but with an idiosyncratic rhythm and a certain pride in her movements.

Through this experience, I learned a lot about great apes, especially their precarious status in the natural world, in their home environments in the mountains of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, for the orangs, in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Sumatra and Borneo.

At the zoo, I interacted with a varied swath of people: kids, the elderly, the overeducated, the unlettered. Some people would challenge me on evolution, belief in god(s), while others would ask who in a fantasy ultimate-fighting contest between a gorilla and a lion would win such an absurd contest. Other folks, upon seeing the orangs, would mention some Clint Eastwood movie I haven’t seen in which he wrestles an orang.

Others would call the gorillas “monkeys” which, I have to admit, made my skin crawl. I did my best, however, to be polite and informative and to tailor the information I provided to the people with whom I was speaking. Teens seemed to be the most disturbed by seeing the animals in what can be pretty grim, concrete enclosures. Perhaps they saw something of the confinement they themselves were fighting in the animals’ situation.

A unique feature of the zoo is its O Line, a series of towers connected by wires over which the orangs travel from the Great Ape House to the Think Tank, another zoo building in which they're sometimes housed. What’s amazing about the O Line is that it cuts across the zoo, even the zoo’s main visitor thoroughfare, Olmstead Walk, right over the heads of the visitors. The orangs are natural climbers in their home environments. For them, traveling the O Line is truly child’s play.

One of the jobs of the volunteers, however, is to monitor the orangs when they’re out on the O Line. No, not to be sure they don’t fall (which they won’t if they’re healthy and spry) but to be sure that if they do some “business” while out on the line (which inevitably happens because, after all, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go), the “business” doesn’t plummet down onto the heads of the visitors below, mouth agape in amazement. Crowd control can be tough at times.

There’s so much to tell about the primates. But I mentioned them as I wanted to explain my ethnographic project on flamenco of all things. Back on course, getting back on course. Back to that drab mid-winter afternoon in my professor's office: She asked me perkily, “So, what do you want to do your Cotlow on?” I had thought about this, obviously, and wanted to study orang utans in Sumatra and Borneo, particularly the “eco” tourism trade and how such an industry (and the tourists it brings with it) affects the animals, many of them in the process of being “rehabilitated” to the wild after being trafficked by the illicit pet trade that permeates many pockets of the world.

Quite an ambitious project for a grant program that typically doles out less than $2,000 a pop, my professor commented. That’s a cool idea but way too ambitious. What do I know about Indonesia? Had I ever been there? Do I speak the language? How much does it cost just to fly there? It was too much. What about doing a similar project but studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda or Burundi or DRC? Nope, similarly too complicated, too involved, and too damn expensive. I was at a loss. I wanted to study these animals and still do. I guess my interest in primates was piqued as a child. How can we not look at them and see so much of ourselves gazing back? I wanted to be like Jane Goodall. Why couldn’t I have met Louis Leakey all of those many years ago and inspired him to advocate (and garner funding) on my behalf? Why couldn’t I be the next Birute Gladikas, living amongst and protecting Asia’s only great ape, the orang? Don’t really want to be like Dian Fossey, of course, as she was brutally murdered by apparently we still don’t know who for her work protecting the mountain gorillas. Remember Digit?

Fossey was incredibly close to Digit, a male silverback. He was found butchered on New Year’s Day 1978 with his head, heart, hands, and feet chopped off and missing. Fossey once wrote to L. Leakey of Digit and other gorillas in his troupe: "I just about burst open with happiness every time I get within 1 or 2 feet of them." Fossey and Digit would sit close; he would embrace her. They passed many hours together. After his murder, Fossey dangerously transformed herself from scientist to ardent conservationist. Some say (and I might agree) that she strayed too far from the professional and the scientific (the objective) and her connections with the gorillas of the Virunga volcanoes became too deeply personal.

She loved the gorillas. They were her family. After Digit and another male named Uncle Bert were murdered by poachers, she raised a cash bounty on the poachers’ heads. Dian herself was found dead at Karisoe on December 26, 1985.

But a Goodall or Gladikas I haven’t become. That’s okay, I guess. I thought I could get closer to what they do without being a primatologist myself by studying how conserving such endangered animals can help them while, simultaneously, not hinder an area’s (nor the people who live there) development.

Concentrating on international development while in graduate school, I researched how reserves such as Parc de Volcans, straddling Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC, is not an inherent good. The animal lover and nascent conservationist within me disagrees with my critical/skeptical self in that despite how such a park most probably benefits the animals within it, it does not help the humans beyond (and restricted by) its borders. Regarding many such parks, their boundaries and restrictions hamper the development of the people who live near it—they can’t enter the forest to gather wood or hunt; they can’t utilize its treasure trove of natural resources. Animal conservationists would say “good, that’s how it should be” but in my mind, prioritizing gorillas’ lives over those of humans seems like a zero-sum game.

Do we have to choose between improving the lives of humans and protecting gorillas’ natural habitat and their very lives? Is gorillas’ extinction inevitable? In the 50 years? Or the next century? know, I usually consider myself an optimist but I think their extinction in the wild is a foregone conclusion. Why? Why can’t we intervene and protect them? Why can’t we create reserves in which they can live the lives they’re meant to have? Why can’t we keep the people who need access to the preserves’ trees and natural resources out?

But those people are also just trying to survive. Those people are also just clinging to fraying threads. They’re on the margins and they’re suffering. It’s easy for us in the Western, privileged, obese industrialized worlds of the United States and Europe and Canada to want to protect the gorillas (and we should) but we can’t forget about the people who are their neighbors. Let’s not demonize those who sneak into the forest and pilfer lumber. I bet, if those people had the luxuries and excesses and choices we have, they won’t do what they’re doing either.

That’s what ecotourism might offer. If the local people, those closest to the gorillas, see that foreigners come to see the gorillas and that they happily pay a fat U.S. dollar or Euro (and then some) to do so, they will do their damnedest to protect them. One of a plethora of problems, however, in this scenario, of course, is that a sickening percentage of the revenue generated by ecotourism doesn’t go or get to the local people. It goes to big airline conglomerates and to the U.S.- or European-based travel companies and booking agencies that plan and execute such “adventures.”

I’d love to be involved in a multinational and multilateral development project in the volcanic mountains of Africa or the steamy jungles of Borneo and Sumatra that changes the equation and pays dividends to the local people, something that’s sustainable and in which the local people are invested. Gorillas and orangs are for us all to enjoy. They’re part of nature’s marvels and mystery. Let’s pay those closest to them to protect them, not someone in a cubicle in London or downtown DC. This all takes a lot of coordination. Green/eco/sustainable tourism is a big business and a rapidly emerging trend. My initial Cotlow idea was to explore it, to experience it firsthand, and see where it works and doesn’t and why.

I had read some things about what it’s like to go on a gorilla trek. Many of the parks, recognizing that the animals are their best resource, develop and enforce a series of regulations in terms of who can visit them and how best and least intrusively to go about it. For example, the groups of paying foreigners who want to see the gorillas are kept small in number. If anyone is sick, they’re not allowed to enter the forest as many diseases that pester humans readily jump from us to our third-closest relatives (chimps and bonobos being our second-closest relatives). The visitors are only allowed within so many feet of the gorillas. While many of the groups of gorillas visited by the groups of tourists are acclimated to humans, they are still wild animals and a male silverback will not hesitate to charge if he feels his harem and offspring are threatened by the humans.

The fees to see the gorillas in the mist are as steep as the mountains the coveted animals inhabit, as they should be. The visit is short, time-wise. Going to see the gorillas in their natural habitat is a very pricey venture. That’s good. People will pay. Law of supply and demand. The sad thing in this transaction, however, is that the local people who are most essential to being part of this complicated arrangement can never afford the fees to go and see the gorillas. How can a person feel invested and want to protect a marvelous thing they haven’t yet seen first-hand because they can’t afford it? Conservation in the abstract is just that, inherently tenuous and short-lived.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Confessions of a Retired Pet Sitter
I don’t think I’ve mentioned any of this yet but until last year, I had basically 2.5 paid jobs. One, the main one, is at National Geographic. The second one at which I thanklessly toiled (a little dramatic? perhaps) for three years, was pet sitting. I worked for an agency that takes care of animals (mostly cats but also dogs, fish, exotic birds, your random, demanding hermit crab, etc.) in people’s homes while they’re out of town.

I started working for the agency that shall remain nameless due to legal concerns (the privacy of our clients but of course) while in graduate school. I had initially hired the agency to take care of my own two cats, Begbie and Andy.

I had found out about the agency just by looking for such a service online; through the Washington City Paper’s classifieds. I was impressed when one of the pet sitters, a woman I will mysteriously call “Sally,” came by our apartment one evening to get the lay of the land and meet the “monsters” before I headed off for a weekend away.

Upon entering the apartment, she knelt down to greet Begbie. Her voice was saccharine and her lips pursed. A person less obsessed with animals would have gagged but I ate it all up. That’s the kind of love my buddy needs when I’m not around to give him the best.

Over time, we moved up the street and adopted a second cat. All this time, the agency did their best. Reliable, a little expensive (but, hey, what animal lover isn’t going to go all out to take care of their best buds?), quintessentially professional.

When I came home from Spain after the ethnography, there was a note from the new pet sitter whom I’ll call “Jenny.” Leaving what we call a “farewell letter” on company letterhead is our agency’s signature. It’s a great way to connect with the clients, as they return home, and to fill them in on all that transpired while they were away.

Even bad behavior pretty much must be couched in platitudes, such as: “Teddy is full of energy” is code for “Teddy was running around the apartment, knocking things over like a banshee. I couldn’t control him.” Or, another example, “Dolly gave me little love bites when I petted her” translates to, if we’re being honest (which we aren’t), “Dolly, crazy b*tch, bit my hand while I tried to give her a little affection.” It’s always something.

But, on the occasion of my homecoming from Spain, our sitter, “Jenny,” left a note praising my boys (which in their case, but of course, is of the most sincere nature) and asking if I was in graduate school. As a pet sitter now myself, it’s amazing the things you can deduce about a person simply by inhabiting their space(s).

“Jenny” suggested I consider working for the agency part-time, complementing my schoolwork and responsibilities as a teaching assistant at the university. Her somewhat random comment struck a chord in me as I was pretty preoccupied about money after a month and a half in the heat of Spain. The next evening I called the owner of the agency and the rest is seemingly ancient history.

I wonder how many pet sitting jobs I’ve done since my first, which I didn’t do alone but with another pet sitter, just to be sure I knew what was what. Just this past Thanksgiving holiday, I had eight jobs a day, that’s 15 cats; holidays are especially busy for us.

Now it’s been three+ years and, boy, the stories I could tell. When you’re in “the zone” pet sitting, working efficiently, scooping poop, refreshing water bowls, dolling out kibble and wet food and drugs, as needed and appropriate (of course!), you sometimes fail to notice certain things, fixtures in a room, lights on or off, pjs on the floor, etc. that you notice on subsequent visits.

My most persistent and annoying fear as a pet sitter, beyond an animal dying on my watch or escaping into the car-saturated unknown outside the door is that I’ll be going to a house or an apartment each day when I’m not supposed to or I’ll be walking in on someone doing something I don’t want to see, something I’m pretty sure they’re not eager to share either.

That’s why a pair of pj bottoms tossed thoughtlessly on the bedroom floor gets me guessing, my stomach churning. What if “Jane,” my client, has come home early? What if I have my days wrong and am not even supposed to be here?

Laugh as you must but my fears have been realized, several times. One early December Saturday morning I was pet sitting for a tall lesbian librarian who happened to live just down the hall from me in the very same apartment building by the zoo.

I had had a late night the evening (and subsequent early am) preceding and was a little hung over, I admit (but not impaired, mind you), as I headed off to take care of her two kitties. As we lived in the same apartment building on the very same floor, I headed out in my bed apparel. I call what I was wearing “bed apparel” as I don’t have proper pjs (my mom’s on it for an Xmas gift this year, no worries).

“Bed apparel” varies in its composition depending on how conscientious I’ve been about doing laundry. Might be a cotton summer skirt, very wrinkled and brightly colored, or wide-cuffed pants I wear to paint, stains and all.

This particular mid-morning, I’m not sure what I was wearing but it was sufficient and modest, certainly, although it was surely, also, mismatched. That said, I trotted down the hall to the lesbian librarian’s place. Normally, her two cats are right there, perched on the door’s threshold as I arrive. This morning, however, neither were anywhere around.

I called out to them. They were both older kitties, fat, a little too full of dander, and on meds. No response.

“Hmm, that’s odd that they’re not here at the door nor in the living room,” I thought to my lonesome. “I hope they’re okay.” I continued into the galley kitchen, checking for the note and check this particular client consistently remembered to leave for me.

“No note! Hmm …” This client had always been very thorough and helpful in the notes she’d leave me, a habit essential with cats on various meds at different doses for a slew of precarious medical conditions.

After scanning the kitchen and what a realtor will sugarcoat as the “breakfast nook,” I heard something stir in the bedroom, on the opposite side of the apartment.

I headed to the bedroom to noticed the door three quarters of the way shut. That was odd, too.

Normally the client left the bedroom door open so to remind me to feed the flightless African gray parrot incarcerated in his white wire cage close to her king-sized bed. As I stared at the open door, I noticed one of the pair of tubby tabbies waddle out of the bedroom to greet me. Then, I noticed the librarian shoot out of bed, in the half light of that December morning.

“Laura!?” I quacked.

“Meg?” she mustered.

“I -I-I- I thought I was supposed to start today,” I ventured, a pinch of statement sprinkling 99 percent question.

“Oh shit! I forgot to call and tell you guys my trip fell through,” she confessed.

“Oh, okay. That’s okay,” I murmured as I backtracked out of the too-intimate space of her bedroom.

“I’m gonna get going now,” I instructed.

I reeled down the hall, through the living room, past the chunky tabby, petting him lightly as I whizzed by. Out the door, down the hall, back to the surety of my own apartment.

As I stood frozen in the safety of my own space, my cats gazed up at me, confused. Suddenly aware of myself and my panicked reaction to what had just transpired, I noticed my ticker racing.

Wow, the librarian in the bed really got me going. I was startled. I snatched the phone and called the owner of the pet-sitting agency, my big boss. She chuckled and empathized as I told her my shocking tale.

“Happens all the time,” she concurred. “And each time it happens, it’s never any less startling. Do I have some stories for you! Wanna meet up for a beer and I’ll tell you some?”

The owner of the agency I worked for started the company some 20 years ago when the notion of paying an absolute stranger $23+ dollars a day to look in on your kitty was lunacy. I’ll call her Cheryl. Cheryl’s a character. She’s sweet and sassy. She’s probably just a bit past 50. I admire her independence and grit; starting and building her own company, doing something she loves, working with and caring for animals. Plus, she volunteers at the zoo, at the elephant house.

Taking her up on her offer, we met for drinks one evening, over in Roslyn, a DC suburb across the mighty Potomac River in northern Virginia. I biked, she drove, and we shared two pints each of light imported beer.

In her 20 years in the “biz,” so to speak, she’s seen a lot and, as owner of her own pet-sitting agency, her employees expand her experience of the bizarre, sometimes nearly catastrophic, and always unbelievably awkward.

After grabbing our stools at the bar, she began her litany: There was the dog named Phuket who escaped from the fenced-in yard. When the frazzled pet sitter scoured the neighborhood, calling his name, longing to find him and bring him safely home, she didn’t realize Phuket, a resort island in Thailand for which the dog was named, wasn’t pronounced “Fuck-it.”

So there our poor damsel was, meandering through the alleys and byways of this small suburban village, desperately crying out, “Fuck-it, come here, God damn it!” over and over again. I wonder why no one came to her aid in her search.

And a final pet tale to round out this section: I was taking care of Oliver and Annie, a nice feline pair. Oliver’s a dark brown and black tabby whose tabbiness glimmers in batches on his white fur. Annie’s a gray and white long-haired kitty, soft and oh-so shy.

Their owner is a busy. She’s probably about my age if not a bit younger. A young lawyer, single woman. I met her only once when she initially signed up with our agency. She seemed hurried and impatient but her cats were sweet.

Her work often took her overseas to argue cases, that’s what I deduce (again, it really is amazing what you can learn about a person by the things they own and the spaces they inhabit). In her note to me, she mentioned that Ollie wasn’t eating as much as normal and that’s why she’d switched to wet food, an attempt to get him eating.

Ollie’s a heavy guy, always eager for “Greenie’s,” cat treats. I hadn’t seen him since the new year; this latest visit was at the end of February. At first blush, he’d looked to me as though he’d lost weight.

After a few visits, I became more and more concerned about him and his lack of appetite. Whenever a human or an animal stops eating and loses weight, something’s not right: either psychologically as in the case of anorexics or physically, as most cancers cause their victims to lose their appetites and also significant amounts of weight.

I emailed Ollie’s owner about half way through my scheduled visits. I told her I was very worried about him and didn’t think he was eating at all. The situation quickly escalated into a medical emergency that ended with me taking him to the vet (with the help of my husband and his Corolla, Jorgito, of course) one Wednesday evening.

Ollie up being diagnosed with fatty liver disease, which can pretty quickly kill a cat. Apparently, he’d stopped eating and was severely dehydrated. His owner came home early because of his medical emergency and he returned home and began eating normally after being force fed with a tube down his nose at the vet. He’s even regained some weight.

It was a tough call, though, to determine how severe the situation was and, once we were at the vet, to decide what the next course of action should be as he’s not my cat and it’s not my credit card on file.

Of course, I approached the situation as though he were my cat and even roped my husband into driving me to Ollie’s condo to force him into his cat carrier and cruise up to the Friendship Hospital for Animals. It was scary but, returning home that night after getting a parking ticket and Ulises and I bickering a bit through our fatigue and stress, I felt a deep satisfaction in seeing my boys. They are healthy and satisfied. Well cared for. Begbie’s a bit of a pain, waking me up every night in the middle of the night, once, twice, thrice for first, second, and so-on breakfasts but I love him.

It’s amazing how easily we take our health and that of those we love, animal and human, for granted. It’s important to recognize those moments before that security is imperiled to best appreciate what we have.


Saturday, June 5, 2010


My One & Only Ethnography

The title of my one and only ethnography is: “Passionate Performance or Contrived Commodity?: Ethnicity and Nationalism through the Lens of Andalucian Flamenco.”

Flamenco, Spain, and I bang into each other a bunch of times in my life, it seems. There are, after all, lots of apparent as well as invisible convergences in life, right? Or is it better to call them coincidences?

Take, for example, the interrelated yet uncanny facts that 1) I studied abroad while in college at the University of Sevilla in Spain, and, 2) that during the summer of 2005, I went back to conduct my first (and probably only) ethnography. Then, 3) when I prepped for my interviews at National Geographic, I picked up a copy of Traveler magazine from Books A Million, a bookstore flanking Dupont Circle, and in it found a short piece about Sevilla and what there is that’s “authentic” to see and experience there. And the circle continues ‘round and ‘round, don’t it?

For those non-anthro dorks out there, an ethnography is Anthropology’s signature product. It literally means, from the Latin (right?), “writing culture.” It requires the anthropologist (or student) to get themselves out into “the field” and study something. Study it intently, in depth, with critical, keen eyes.

Take extensive notes on it and, after returning from the wilds, write it all down or type it all up, depending on which method you choose.

Traditionally and still typically (this is something that jars my bones and annoys me a lot about anthropology and its elitist and ironically close-minded tendencies … but more of that later) anthropologists study “the other,” the dark, “primitive” “one on the margins” and “the field” is far away from home, usually a place infested with scary bugs and nasty diseases. Worms in the rivers, monsters in the shadows, mites in the bed.

When you choose to study something in the “first” world (as I did) and not a topic the studying of which will likely get you killed or sick, other anthropologists deign acknowledge your work. In fact, for her project, a fellow GW grad school student of mine studied how gentrification patterns in DC are affecting low-income African Americans. The department was in inner turmoil when deliberating whether or not to offer her the grant as many faculty members thought her topic was not “anthropological” enough. What nonsense!

Yea, surely, her topic strays from the traditional, signature anthropological topics à la Malinowski and Mead, Sapir and Boas, Dobzhansky and the Leakeys, but it deals with people. Anthropology is, after all, the study of people, is it not?

So, as I mentioned just before during the summer of 2005, before my last semester at graduate school, I headed to Sevilla, Spain, to conduct my first and last ethnography.

Sevilla is the capital of Andalucia, a southern region in Spain. Andalucia is known for its sprawling yet orderly groves of olive trees, dry swaths of tawny soil, Moorish castles and fortifications such as the fragrant El Alcazar in Sevilla and the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada’s snowy Sierra Nevada, and wailing, sorrow-laden flamenco.

Some time ago GW’s Anthropology department was bequeathed a relatively large amount of money from an alumnus. The department wormed the money away, into a bank account and promptly forgot about it.

Once it was finally “remembered,” the money had grown to be a pretty nice amount. Each year, the department awards five to seven grants to both undergrad and grad students to design, plan, and executive anthropological fieldwork of their own.

I cobbled together a proposal and one March morning, checked my department mailbox to learn I had been awarded $1,600 to conduct my ethnography of flamenco dance performance.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010



Kurapaty, Belarus: Site of Stalinist Purges, 1937-1941

Truth be told, I didn’t know the name of this place of mass murder until I did a little research. To me, the name of the place doesn’t matter too much.

The name, Kurapaty, however, does matter to those who were killed there, those who will never return from there, and the families they left behind.

I am not going to present you with a comprehensive nor historical look into the forests of Kurapaty here. I’ll just tell you how I came to know this place, what I saw when I was there, and what remains in my mind about the place ten + years out.

As you know, dear reader, I was in Belarus the summer between my third and last years at UPenn. After our month in the field, excavating a Bronze-age archaeological site near the village of Snydin in southern Belarus, we (me, Alyssa, and Emily; the three American girls) were wasting time in Minsk while our group’s American leader, Walt, “took care of business.”

One day we headed to Kurapaty by bus although I don’t know if I ever knew its name while in Belarus. It was a bit beyond the city, nestled into what seemed to be just another Belarussian village. Spare and empty. Rustic and idyllic.

We exited the bus, passed through the solemn town, and walked slowly into the sanctuary of the heavily wooded forest. Evergreen and sweet.

A middle-aged male Belarussian archaeologist who had been second in charge of the dig out in Snydin had apparently worked at this site.

Until recently, the people in the neighboring village and those in Belarus who had heard of Kurapaty most often thought (because they were told so by Soviet propaganda) that the site was one at which the Nazis executed locals and intellectuals during “the War,” World War II, that is.

Oleg had excavated here during the first thaw of glasnost and confirmed his suspicion that Kurapaty certainly was not a site of Nazi cruelty but one of an even-more malicious Soviet brutality.

Here beneath the swaying, murmuring pines the Soviets executed thousands of dissidents. The counts of victims range from 30,000 to 220,000 up to 250,000 people; men, women, and children.

I don’t recall hearing these figures or these details during this visit. I recall, however, spotting the bench presented by Clinton when he visited the forest the year before.

But, beyond all of this, I can still feel the serenity that ironically permeated the space, beneath the trees. It seemed so safe and elemental. It was this contrast between the natural beauty and the human cruelty enacted there that etched the woods in my mind.

I gazed heavenward and my body began to move side to side with the pines, languidly. Specks of blue sky and puffy white clouds flicked above, intertwined with the spindly fingers of the trees, reaching. This was the last view, the last thought, the last thing many of those executed here saw.