Sunday, January 24, 2010

Let's Talk About Us and Them

Last night I watched the last of the series The Human Spark on the PBS website. Lots of brain imagery and stuff like that. It was fascinating. The technology available today allows people to look at the ways the human brain works in ways unimaginable just a short time ago. Watching this series as well as an earlier series called Becoming Human, it was interesting to me to see how thinking in the field of evolutionary anthropology has itself evolved since I was in grad school in the mid 1990s. Being a sociocultural anthropologist, I was never fully immersed in the evolutionary side of things, but I still hold a fascination about how we got to the point where we started to develop culture and in the ways culture helps us both develop in positive ways as well as limits us in very detrimental ways. In terms of what makes us human, there has always been a huge emphasis on the brain—especially the size of our brains--and now with the developments in genetics, brain imaging and new fossil finds the theories and insights about how we got to be us are being refined and adapted to the new evidence. And it is now possible to test theories and get a better sense of how things actually work. It was interesting to me that there is much more work being done on how culture impacts the brain and how it gave us the adaptive advantage. I am biased, of course, but I think this is true—culture has an impact in ways that people usually don't think about. There is language, of course, and other symbolic thinking. But they are also now coming around to the idea that the fact that we have always lived in social groups gave us an evolutionary advantage. Language developed in a social context. I have read books in the past about the evolution of language and I always wondered how the people that were arguing for purely biological language capacity could overlook what seemed to me to be the obvious. Having the physical apparatus to create the sounds for language is important, but it's certainly nowhere near enough for actual meaningful language. You have to have a system of symbols, because that is what language is. The sounds don't mean much unless they have a symbolic meaning attached. And in order to have an agreed upon system of symbols, you have to have a group that can communicate within itself. It's of no use to talk if no one is listening or getting any meaning from the noises you're making. So clearly, the physical possibility of language is meaningless unless there is a social group in which meaning can develop. And so it is nice to see that social groups are gaining more attention in terms of evolutionary adaptation. Not just in terms of language, either. With the new studies they are doing, they can learn a great deal about how preverbal children respond in various situations and make inferences about what this may mean for the rest of us. There is increasing evidence—as if we needed it—that we really are connected. We need each other. We will rise up or fall together. In a very fundamental way, we will either continue to develop ourselves in a positive direction or we will destroy each other. The social systems that we developed in our evolutionary past served as an advantage when it came to survival—by forming groups and institutions our human ancestors were in a better position to adapt and survive. But now those very groups are being used to draw clear lines between groups in ways that are not so helpful. There has always been us and them. But now we have the means to try to destroy them—whomever they may be. This is dangerous. This is not adaptive. This will lead to the destruction of us and them, not just them. There has always been us and them. There always will be to some degree. But we have these incredible human brains that are more amazing than anything else that seems to exist at this time on the planet. Surely we can use them in ways that will allow us to still be us and to allow them to be them without feeling like “them” is a dangerous group that must be eliminated. Can we not look a little bit beyond us and them to realize that on a very basic level we are all us. We are all human beings. We can separate ourselves into manageable groups and have all of the little pockets of “us” we want while at the same time knowing that there are many, many groups of “them” out there who want basically the same things we do. In the end, at a very fundamental level, it's only us. That's all we've got.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More Style Council

The opening to my other favorite song on the same album. This one's called The Lodgers

No peace for the wicked - only war on the poor
They’re batting on pickets - trying to even the score
It’s all inclusive - the dirt comes free
And you can be all that you want to be
Oh an equal chance and an equal pay
But equally there’s no equal pay
There’s room on top - if you tow the line
And if you believe all this you must be out of your mind

Someday I hope this won't be so true!

Style Council

You don’t have to take this crap
You don’t have to sit back and relax
You can actually try changing it
I know we’ve always been taught to rely
Upon those in authority -
But you never know until you try
How things just might be -
If we came together so strongly

This is the opening of one of my favorite songs on my favorite album. The album is Internationalists; the song is Walls Come Tumbling Down and the group is The Style Council. The thing that makes me really sad is that the album, with its keen observations about the madness that was Margaret Thatcher's Britain (and equally applicable to Ronald Reagan's United States) is still quite relevant today a quarter of a century later. Will we never learn?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thinking and Personal Power

Over the past three evenings, I have watched the PBS series “This Emotional Life” at the video portal. It was an interesting mix of ideas. Some of it, I found problematic, particularly in the first episode. At one point, the host, who is a social psychologist at Harvard, made some offhand remark about romantic love being evolutionarily desirable. This is silly and one small conversation with his colleagues in anthropology would have disabused him of that notion. Romantic love is, of course, a cultural construct and people have been reproducing quite well without it for a very long time. We may find it desirable, and for many of us it is a good thing, but there is not necessarily any reason why we need it in order to pass on our genes. The other thing I took issue with was not really the fault of the host. He had gone to a lab to watch some experiments in which mothers looked at facial expressions of their babies and then they did brain scans to look at how the brain responded to this. I felt that this simply reinforced the idea that women are the natural nurturers. Where were the fathers in this experiment? At a book discussion last month, someone made the comment that they think women are simply more caring and nurturing than men and asked me, as an anthropologist, whether I thought that was right in terms of it being universally true. I told him I didn't think so. One has to take into account the role of culture in these kinds of things. Women are taught to be nurturing. It's a basic part of the enculturation process. That doesn't mean it's automatic or biological in any gender specific way. And this experiment that was reported on in the show reinforced a gender stereotype in my opinion.
Last night as I watched the last part, I did get concerned when he started out at a self-help conference in which the many people in attendance were told that if they have cancer, AIDS, depression, or other diseases, it is because they are thinking bad thoughts. But the host challenged the speaker who said this and proceeded to engage in a fuller and less off the wall discussion of these issues. I find this whole idea that we can bring on illness by thinking the wrong things to be highly problematic. First of all, it blames the victim and lets society off the hook. Cancer can come from lots of different things, some of which include environmental pollution and other factors. If we are going to assert that people can avoid cancer by thinking happy thoughts, then why should society care whether the earth is polluted or not? This is a great way to dump responsibility where it does not belong. To be sure, there are health issues that can be almost eliminated by individuals making good choices. Information, responsibility, and critical thinking should be encouraged. But to then decide that if some things are a result “improper” thinking then everything else is too is pretty poor logic. It made me think of a friend I had when I lived in Alaska. She was a very committed evangelical Christian person who had been severely depressed to the point of hospitalization. I never knew all the details, because I didn't know her then, but what I did witness was her distress because she was still being blamed for this! It was her fault, according to her fellow Christians, because she didn't pray hard enough and allowed herself to be possessed by demons! I was horrified! And the pain she felt years later was still evident.
I think we all become afraid of the many terrible things that can happen to us. It may be comforting to think that is something awful happens to someone it is because they brought it on themselves. Because, after all, if I just avoid doing that, then this terrible thing won't happen to me. Problem is, this is nonsense. Bad things happen. That is life. Better, I think, to acknowledge that there are going to be times in our lives that are really crummy and worse. In part two of the show, I heard the stories of people suffering from PTSD. They struggled for years and even decades. But they survived. With help and care, they were able to go on. One of the psychologists who does research in this area commented that her work has amazed her because she has seen how much people can go through and still be OK in the end. And that, I think, is far more empowering than deciding that you will avoid pain in the first place. In my own life, I have had some really bad times, though nothing like some of the horrific experiences related by people in the program. During my worst times, I wanted someone to help make it all better. When that proved impossible, I slowly realized that the person I was waiting for was me. I was the only one that could make it better. Here was where I had the power and control—not to change the circumstances, but to deal with them and keep going anyway. Stuff happens. Really, really bad stuff happens. When it happens to other people, we can help them in various ways, but often we can't change the circumstances. If a friend suffers the loss of a loved one, for instance, we can comfort them, bring them food, let them know they are not alone, and many other things. But we can't change the circumstances. All we can do is provide some strength for them to draw on so they can deal with what has happened to them. And the same holds true for each one of us. We can't think away bad things. But we can learn how to go on in spite of them. That is personal power.

Friday, January 8, 2010


Last night I watched the first episode in the Human Spark series in which Alan Alda goes in search of the things that make us human. I am so grateful for the fact that I can watch this stuff online at, since I don't own a TV. Last night's show was about how and why we survived and continued to evolve as a species while the Neandertals did not. There is general agreement (at the moment, anyway!) that we shared a common ancestor and that there was a wave of migration out of Africa and eventually into Europe—the hominids that migrated evolved into Neandertals. Some of the same type of hominids stayed in Africa and evolved differently, based on conditions on the ground there. At some point they began to migrate and ended up sharing territory with Neandertals. But they were very different. And apparently, they were able to adapt much better to changing circumstances. It seems clear based on the archaeological evidence that these hominids had symbolic behavior as a part of their toolkit. Neandertals may not have—there is some evidence regarding ritual burial practices that is now in some dispute, so the picture is a bit muddy at the moment. What is clear, though, is that Neandertals were well adapted—the species did survive for 200,000 years, after all—but they were kind of one-trick ponies. Their tools show no evidence of change throughout this time period and analysis of the bone, that allows scientists to discover what they ate by looking at where the protein came from (animal, fish, plants) indicates that they ate exclusively meat. They were living in an area with abundant marine resources, but they didn't bother exploiting them because they had large mammals. They kept on as they always had, living in small groups and widely scattered over a large land area. And then our human ancestors arrived with a more adaptive way of being in the world, language, other kinds of symbolic behavior, and seemingly a wider vision of what was possible. This was the beginning of the end for the Neandertals who were unable to adapt in the ways that would have been necessary for them to continue to survive in a different kind of world. It seems to me that there is a lesson here for our own times—as individuals and societies. Things change. The ability to adapt to that change is crucial to our survival. This is why all of those people who want to move us backward into some fantasy world that exists only in their own minds will fail. People who wax poetic about how the country is being ruined and the America they grew up in is gone should wake up. Of course, since it is middle-aged white men who seem to be saying this a lot lately, I can understand. The world was probably a lot less complicated for them when they could move about unfettered by the pesky requirements of civil rights and respect and equality for those who were not white males. But for the rest of us, we can be thankful that that country is gone. Good riddance. These guys should really learn to find a way to adapt in this new world instead of crying for the old one. That's not to say there was nothing good about the “good old days.” But successful adaptation does not mean throwing everything away and starting over. It means looking at how things could be done better. If something works, you keep it. If it doesn't, you figure out what will.

I found myself feeling kind of sad as I watched the show. I began thinking about what it would have been like to be a Neandertal and seeing these new creatures appear in your world. If they lived in small groups and “people” began dying off and not being replaced, they would have seen their little groups get smaller and smaller. I know their brains worked differently than ours do. We don't know what their emotional life was like. They are sequencing the DNA and the first indications are that we share a great deal—not a surprise as we share DNA with a great many creatures that are very different from us. So I know that we can't really put ourselves in their shoes. The few genetic differences that there are were apparently great enough to cause major differences in behavior. Still, I found myself wondering what it would have been like to be the last Neandertal.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Not an Artist

Yesterday was the first day in the last several that we didn't have to go out and shovel sidewalks. This morning the plow went by again and got down to bare pavement in some spots. Just in time, because according to the weather forecast, more snow will be coming, beginning this afternoon, though it is supposed to be nothing like what we had over the weekend. The local newspaper reported that as a result of the weekend's “unusual storm” we ended up with 31 inches of snow! They seem to be doing a good job with the plowing and I have to give a shout out to the mailman. Looking down the street, I can see that many people didn't bother to do anything to their sidewalks, so the poor guy has to trek through deep snow for most of this block, anyway. And yet the mail has been in the box at its usual time. So to the mail carriers everywhere who are out there walking and driving in some horrible conditions, I say thank you!
We have been keeping the truck parked. We try to do this anyway, but we do take it to go grocery shopping. Food is more expensive here than it was in Oregon, and we have a tight budget, so it's worth it to drive the few miles (not really far, but not practical to walk) to the two stores where we can stretch our food dollars. One is an Aldi, which has great prices on lots of stuff, but it's small and the selection varies, so it's the kind of place where you go first to get what you can. Then we head to Wegman's to round out the list. That seems to be the nicest grocery store in town and the prices on everything I need, with the exception of a very few items, are significantly cheaper than anywhere else. But since we have no snow tires on the truck or weight in the back of it, we probably won't be doing our normal grocery shopping routine for a while. So another thing I have been appreciating is the fact that I shop as I do and I know what to do with the food I have. We only go grocery shopping a couple of times a month, so we stock up when things are on sale. I loaded up on baking supplies when they were cheap last month, so I have what I need to bake muffins and bread. Produce is expensive here, so we took advantage of the farmers' market that's a few blocks from our house. I got extra squash, apples, and cabbage because I knew it would keep. I always have a supply of pasta on hand and some canned stuff in the cabinet. I have been glad of all this lately because our regularly scheduled grocery shopping excursion was going to be Monday. Depending on how this next weather system goes, we may or may not be able to go next week. But in the meantime, I have been using my kitchen skills to feed us on what we have and because I shopped wisely, I have what I need to make nutritious meals. I am glad to have these skills. So many people don't bother, figuring they can open a box or drive through the fast food joint. And to be sure, we could walk to those kinds of places. And there are places to buy food within walking distance where I could shop for certain things and not bust the budget. But there again I have to be able to actually use the raw ingredients. It's a good skill to have and it helps that I enjoy doing it most of the time.
I have been thinking about things like this in a larger context. Sunday afternoon, while the snow was coming down fast and hard and I had a big pot of soup simmering on the stove, I read a book called The Cynical Idealist: A Spiritual Biography of John Lennon. Now I am not a particular fan of Lennon's music and really don't know much about him at all. It's not a book I would have pictured myself reading, but Bill had brought it home from the library and read it, even reading parts aloud and it sounded intriguing, so I picked it up. There were times I felt I could have been reading about myself in terms of the guy's personal philosophy and his search for more knowledge and understanding about this world. An entire section was devoted to the time after he met Yoko in which they decided together to make their lives a work of art. This is an idea I have thought about before. If more people looked at their lives in that way, I think they and the world would be far better off. Then yesterday I read a book that was different, but included the message that our lives are a canvas on which to create. This book is Joan Anderson's A Walk on the Beach. Again, here was some stuff that I needed to be reminded of. Then last night I watched an episode of Art:21 on the PBS website. I enjoy listening to creative people talk about their creative process. This was similar to what I felt reading the Lennon book. I got the message and even agreed with it, but I often didn't connect with the ways in which they tried to get that message across. In my own life, I have had people try to convince me to become a larger part of whatever local art scene existed in the towns I was in, exhibiting my work with yarn and thread. And I did this on occasion. One woman at an art gallery I volunteered at was persistent, telling me, “You are an artist, you know.” I felt uncomfortable with that designation. And now I understand why. It came to me this morning that I am not comfortable with the term “artist” because that truly isn't what I do. I believe very strongly in creativity as a means to an authentic and visionary way of living. But I am far more practical and down-to-earth than the art world would allow. I am interested not only in ideas, but in being able to express them to as many people as possible. I am a craftswoman. I take my raw materials and use them to create practical, useful things. If I am making supper, food is my raw material, and I use that to make simple, nutritious meals. I am not a gourmet cook, nor am I interested in fancy presentation where there's a dollop of food on a plate swirled with some colorful sauce. No, if I'm doing the cooking, you're going to get a big bowl of soup or pasta or something like that. It tastes good and is good for you and that is important to me, but it's not a work of art. If I am crocheting something, it will probably have a use—it will be worn or stepped on, as in the case of the bathmat I made when we moved in here, used in the kitchen or something like that. If I am writing a poem or an essay, I will take the ideas I am always bombarding myself with and the words needed to express those ideas and do so in a straightforward, yet creative way. I am not one to experiment with making up new words or playing with language in weird and theoretical ways and I don't enjoy reading the work of people who do—I just don't connect. And when it comes to crafting a life, I take all of the things I mentioned above and add whatever life offers me, using it all to create a life that is meaningful and that feels right to me. I have a larger message, which is really pretty simple—this culture isn't working on a societal or personal level and we can and must change it. We are not trapped by the limited possibilities offered by mainstream culture. That's it. I believe that if people really looked at how they are living, most would change something—either something large or something small. If they did, they'd be better off and the world would be better off because we would all be acting in far more healthy ways. I could try to express that in any number of ways. But for me it seems that the more people I can communicate with, the better, so I will use language in a straightforward way to craft a poem or an essay. I will use yarn or thread to create a gift or a garment that makes people think twice about mindless consumption divorced from creativity. I will fashion a meal to illustrate the fact that real food is not hard to prepare, tastes good and is better for you than the fake stuff you get when you open a box and stick a plastic container in the microwave. I don't need to create a work of art that will allow only a privileged few to access these ideas. Some people do have that need, because that's the way they think. And I say more power to them. We need more creative expression in this world. But I think that we increasingly need more craftspeople, too. People who are more interested in using the appropriate materials to become more deeply themselves and to share that with the world.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Celebrating the Snow

We finally got some real snow. It started the other day and hasn't really stopped yet. It was kind of crazy out there on Saturday night and Sunday. I understand that we got 14 inches of snow yesterday alone. Fortunately, it is the light, fluffy kind of snow as it's been in the teens. This makes shoveling much easier, since the snow is piling up along the sidewalk and it would be so much harder to hoist a shovel full of wet, heavy snow up to dump it. Most people seem to be not bothering to clear their walks, so it becomes necessary to walk in the street. We walked in some blizzard-like conditions yesterday morning going to church. It finally feels like winter. I am happy to see it, but I wish it had come two weeks sooner.
There is something about days like this that put me in a calm and peaceful state of mind. There was hardly anyone at church yesterday—only about 10 of us. It seemed different somehow with so few people. We did get a ride home from a new friend who gave me a snowflake she had tatted! It is beautiful and it was so appropriate for the day! Once we got home, I hung up my snowflake where I can look at it from my spot on the couch, Bill did some shoveling and I made some lunch. We had some tea. We read and watched the snow fall. I made a big pot of soup for dinner and took some whole wheat oatmeal rolls that I had made a couple of days ago and turned them into garlic bread. More reading, more tea. I made Bill a hat. All the while I felt a deep sense of peace. It's a feeling I never have in the summer and I rarely have when the sun is shining. It's so quiet out there. It is on days like yesterday when I feel most in touch with the deepest part of myself. It was a great day. I had a walk in the snow, time with new friends, books, tea, yarn, homemade soup and bread. I had peace. I felt joy. Maybe it was good after all that the storm came when it did, just as I was starting to feel sad at the end of the holiday season. Maybe there's a lesson here about looking at what each day brings and finding something to celebrate. So today I will look at the snowflakes falling, make some tea, and read, I think, a novel that Bill gave me several weeks ago. I have plenty of soup left. I have my yarn ready to begin my next hat. We have done our morning shoveling and it remains to be seen whether we will need to do it again later. Bill has moved the truck and parked it on the other side of the street (we have to move it every day or risk a ticket). There is nowhere we have to be. I will just be here, appreciating the simple joys of a quiet day.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hope in a New Decade

A new decade has begun along with this new year. I know it's all symbolic, but these kinds of human inventions, like calendars, are helpful to us as we make sense of our world. And so I reflect on the decade that has passed and where I find myself at the beginning of the new one.
It was a tough decade for me. Loss is the word that describes it best. Some of the loss was a result of me throwing away parts of my life that no longer served me well. Some of it was thrust upon me, no matter how much I did not want it or worked to keep it at bay. Loss arrived, did its thing, and left me reeling. So as this new decade begins, I find myself nurturing a small, flickering flame of hope against the strong wind of resignation. When I look back I marvel at the person I was in comparison to the person I am today. Then I was full of hope. What is today a small, flickering flame was a giant bonfire then. I was leaving the world of academia—a world in which I had spent the majority of my adult life. This was the right thing to do. Even during the times when I wondered whether I should have just settled for the life of mediocrity that staying would have provided, deep down I always knew that it never would have worked. The ivory tower is really a prison for most of the academics I came in contact with over my years in higher education. This is not true across the board, of course, but I think that for most academics, disillusionment is a constant companion. Academia is a world of limits, egos, and far too many people who spend endless hours arguing about smaller and smaller ideas. The more people stay in that world the more focused they become on very narrow topics. I would have died of boredom. I have honestly never seen a more bitter, angry, unhappy bunch of folks all congregated in one place. So I was right to escape when I did. But this did lead to a time of searching and I had to give up my ideas about what my life would be like when I made the decision to leave. There was my first loss of the decade.
It wasn't really traumatic at that point, though, because as I threw off the shackles of the narrow world I was leaving, I was filled with a sense of possibility and hope. But that's when things started to go wrong and the losses piled up. Looking back, I can see that what I was doing was going in search of various parts of myself that I had buried or discarded along the way. Being someone who gets very committed to doing things “right” I found myself taking an all-or-nothing approach. Because I was not comfortable with uncertainty and not having a plan, I was trying to pivot from the clear rules of a life in higher ed, stifling as they were, to some other thing. And so I ended up bouncing from one thing to another, but always trying to be productive. It took another trip back to the world of academia which ended in short order for me to really stop and figure out that this was not going to work. As I tried each new thing and each new thing did not work as I thought it would, I felt more agitated and distressed. And more desperate to find something—anything--that I could devote my life to. It took me almost until the end of the decade to do that.
Meanwhile, as I was careening around looking for a place to rest, the 4-legged-furry people that I had shared my life with began to die. As the decade ends, they are all gone and I am still not used to being animal-less after over 20 years of living with a various assortment of creatures. More loss.
There came a time when I even lost the will to continue living this life. I suppose it was fortunate that I was too exhausted to act on this wish and it only ever amounted to me praying each night to not wake up in the morning. Then when I did I had to spend some time resigning myself to dragging myself through another day. I am not sure where my flickering flame of hope was then, but I certainly felt it had been snuffed out. I had watched it grow dimmer and dimmer as the decade progressed and I don't think I really cared at that point whether it ever sparked up again. I could not see how on earth I would make it through the next hour, let alone the next day or week.
But I was fortunate to have good people in my life who tended my little flame of hope until it came back to life. It is not the bonfire it was when the decade began. But it is there. I see it when I consider the wonderful people I am lucky enough to count as friends. I see it when I look at my husband and feel grateful that we have this life together and that I get to spend every day with the single other person on this earth I love more than any other. I see it when I hear about people all over the world who are working to help the planet survive and thrive. But the winds of resignation are strong, too. I have less optimism now about the ability of people to move beyond their fear and into healthy lives. I see people living in complacency and not trying to make the changes that we need to make. I see them wallowing in ignorance and being proud of their anti-intellectual knee-jerk provincialism. Part of this, is, I am sure due to observing life in the amazingly dysfunctional community of Klamath Falls, where I spent half the decade. But it also exists in crazy town hall meetings where people shout things like, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Um, hello, if the government keeps its hands off your Medicare, there's no Medicare, since it is a GOVERNMENT RUN HEALTH CARE SYSTEM! Watching people like this who are so lazy that they can't think things through for themselves, but have to rely on nutcases to provide them with bumper sticker slogans that don't even make sense, make me resigned to watching the world fall apart—or at least the United States. I have come to the conclusion that this may be for the best. On the other hand, my flame grows a little brighter when I hear stories like the one about the climate change denying Senator James Inhofe, who took a “truth squad” of two people to Copenhagen to explain the truth to people. He finally got a press conference going where he was spouting some crazy stuff about how global warming was really a vast conspiracy between the UN and Hollywood. Apparently, a German journalist from Der Spiegel looked at him and said, “That's stupid. You're an idiot.” Moments like that make me think that all is not lost. Some people will not be bamboozled. Many of them live elsewhere. I fervently hope that when the decade turns again—and even well before that, I will also live elsewhere. I would like to live in a place where journalists don't just report on every crazy idea from every crazy person as though it is valid. I would like to live in a place where those crazy people don't get elected to high office in the first place, though I suppose that is unrealistic. Every place has its eccentrics and fringers, there just seem to be more of them who are granted power in this country than in many others. I would like to live in a place where journalists and the general public would question the legitimacy of a march to preemptive war by an unelected leader who was trying to work out his problems with daddy and being pushed by his own circle of crazies. I would like to live in such a place. I hope I will.