Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology’

Cambridge

Monday, June 11th, 2018

i must go into the sea again tw

I Must Go Into the Sea Again painting by Nolan Winkler

Christine, the most excellent gluten-free baker of Mendocino, delivered some bread recently and mentioned she’d just returned from Boston where she attended her niece’s graduation from Harvard. And that reminded me of my Harvard adventure of 1972.

I dropped out of college in 1969 after two years of majoring in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, though Frisbee, basketball, piano, and writing were my main pursuits whilst enduring academia. For the next two years I lived as a hitchhiking vagabond, and in the late spring of 1971 I found myself in Boston with little money and wondering where I would sleep that night.

Schlepping my guitar and backpack into a café to get some tea, I fell into conversation with a guy who was keen to see my guitar. So I got out the handmade beauty I’d bought for fifteen dollars in the gigantic mercado in Guadalajara, and while the guy noodled on my guitar, I asked if he knew of any communes or hostels where I might stay for a few days.

“Go out to Cambridge,” he said, nodding. “Lots going on out there.”

“You mean Harvard?” I said stupidly.

“Yeah, Harvard,” he said, nodding. “Lots of communes out there. Hippies. College girls. Bookstores. Music. You’ll dig it.”

And then I remembered that two guys I’d gone to high school with had gone to Harvard, Dan and Joe, and if they were still there this would be their senior year. I caught a train over the river to Cambridge, found a phone booth, called Harvard, and sure enough they had a phone number for Dan. So I called him and he invited me to come crash in his dorm.

Now this dorm where I ended up living for a few weeks was not a typical dorm, but a huge brand new co-ed dorm built with millions of dollars given to Harvard and Radcliffe by the parents of a woman who had attended Radcliffe and died young. Everyone in the dorm had a large room outfitted with a comfy bed and a big desk, and on every floor of the massive four-story building there was a luxurious lounge and kitchen, some of these lounges outfitted with pianos.

On the ground floor there was a swank commissary providing excellent food, if one happened to be a resident. On my second day there, Dan presented me with the meal card of a Harvard student who was studying elsewhere for the semester, and the young gal who sat at the entrance to the commissary checking meal cards happily waved me in whenever I went there to dine, so…

The best part was that I was given my own room with a view out over the tennis courts where I played almost every day. Yes, overnight I went from homeless pauper to faux Harvard student living in a luxurious dorm, going to movies and pizza parlors and parties, attending lectures and playing tennis and romancing a young woman whose name I can’t remember.

One night, I and six peeps from the dorm piled into a big old car and went to a double bill of Five Easy Pieces and I Never Sang For My Father, and after the movies, because everyone except Todd was stoned or sans driver’s license, I was entrusted to drive the mob home.

Upon our arrival in the vicinity of the dorm, there were no available parking places, but after much driving around we chanced upon a small car pulling out of a spot just a half-block from the dorm. The consensus was that there was no way our big car would fit into the spot vacated by the small car. And I’m sure if I were confronted by such a challenge today, I would not do what I did then, which was to deftly and in one neat move parallel park our big car in that space with about six inches to spare on either end.

My feat was greeted with applause and huzzahs, and the next morning my parking job was the talk of breakfast and prompted a pilgrimage by several of us to view the miracle in the light of day.

I went to lectures given by famous anthropologists whose books I had read while at UC Santa Cruz, and while I enjoyed listening to these fellows pontificate, I was troubled that they, as had my professors at Santa Cruz, insisted on speaking about defunct and vanished societies in the Present Tense, as if these long-gone cultures were still intact.

At the conclusion of one lecture, having nothing to lose, I raised my hand and asked the esteemed professor if the childrearing practices and coming-of-age rituals he spoke of were still practiced by the Lakota today, given the genocidal demolition of their culture.

He squinted at me and said with obvious irritation, “No, of course not.”

“Ah,” I said, nodding. “I see. Thanks.”

After the lecture, a young man and young woman approached me and said how much they appreciated my asking that question. They, too, had grown disenchanted with the pretenses of academic anthropology.

“I just wish they’d call it historical anthropology,” said the young woman. “Why not tell the truth?”

“It’s curious,” said the young man. “They seem uneasy with the idea that the societies they speak of are no more.”

As the school year drew to a close, Jerry, one of my new friends from the dorm, landed a summer job on Nantucket Island attending to a wealthy Harvard alum who had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Jerry would be living in a converted windmill on the island, and he invited me to come visit him. So that’s where I headed after my free digs at Harvard were no longer available.

I hitchhiked to Wood’s Hole and caught the ferry to Nantucket, and after a fine week with Jerry, I took the ferry back to the mainland and hitched up into Maine en route to Canada. But how did I pay for all that before I ran out of money in Maine?

Well, I had a three-day gardening job in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, so that would account for thirty dollars or so, but in thinking back I remember a gathering of people in one of the dorm lounges, and Dan’s father Hugo was there. He must have come out from California for Dan’s graduation. He was concerned about me heading off into the unknown with just a backpack and a funky guitar. I remember assuring him I would be okay, but he was still concerned.

“I know you may not need this,” he said, getting out his wallet, “but I want to give you a little something. Okay?”

I think he gave me fifty dollars, which was a lot of money for the likes of me in those days, and proves the old maxim: if you want to get ahead in this society, go to Harvard.

Sexual Comportment

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Shall We Dance painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“There’s only one person in the whole world like you, and that’s you yourself.” Fred Rogers

You may have heard about Cynthia Daily, a social worker using an interweb directory to keep track of all the children fathered by the same sperm donor who fathered her child. According to Cynthia’s data, this same sperm donor has now fathered one hundred and fifty children, several more of his offspring are on the way, and, also according to Daily (who enjoys vacationing with families of other children fathered by said sperm donor), “It’s wild when we see them all together because they all look alike.”

Wild? Interesting choice of words. I’m inclined to call this phenomenon anti-wild. I mean, what qualifies this guy to be populating the earth with his genes? Is he fabulously strong and intelligent and handsome and creative? Maybe. But he might be weak and stupid and ugly and nearsighted and prone to arthritis and gluten intolerance. Or maybe he’s just a regular guy with time on his hands, so to speak, and that’s why he’s donated so much sperm. The only thing we know for sure is that he’s potent.

One of the concerns of parents of children fathered by the same prolific sperm donor (and there are apparently quite a few of these randy fellows flooding the gene pool) is that their daughters and sons may unwittingly end up procreating with their half-siblings, which apparently multiplies the chances of genetic defects manifesting in offspring. On the other hand, some people with the same father but different mothers may enjoy hooking up with someone who looks wildly like them. I don’t know. I, for one, enjoy having a wife who looks nothing at all like me, thank goodness.

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

I remember some years ago there was a sperm bank in New York offering the sperm of celebrities to women seeking artificial insemination. I seem to recall that Woody Allen was one of the sperm donors. Several jokes come to mind about that, but I don’t want to get sued for slander. The idea that a woman would want to have, say, Albert Einstein’s baby, has a certain appeal until one considers the issues of unruly hair and huge foreheads. Are those attributes we would knowingly want to burden our children with in this appearance-oriented culture, even if he or she did turn out to be wildly intelligent?

“The four best things in life: to love, to be in love, to be loved, and to make love.” Lilo Bloch

As a young man I was a voracious reader of ethnographies, with a particular interest in how people of other cultures comported themselves sexually, both in terms of what was acceptable in those societies and what was taboo. I’m sure my fascination with sexual comportment in other cultures had to do with my sense that the acceptable sexual comportment rubrics of my own society were emotionally and physically suffocating, and I was looking for sexual comportment models that made more sense to me, and I don’t mean intellectual sense.

As a consequence of my particular interest, I unearthed dozens of ethnographies of indigenous societies with sexual comportment systems so shockingly antithetical to the American way of doing it, euphemistically speaking, that I could star at any party by reeling off a few synopses of the spicier comportment models employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe. And in none of these indigenous socio-sexual systems were anonymous men fathering hundreds of kids.

“In my experience, there is only one motivation, and that is desire. No reasons or principles contain it or stand against it.” Jane Smiley

I know what you’re thinking. Or hoping. Am I going to share with the reader a few of those spicier (compared to the American model) sexual comportment systems employed by our genetically identical brothers and sisters around the globe? Yes, but with the following disclaimer: I will not be precise regarding locations, names, and historic time frames of the ethnic groups about which I write. And in keeping with the traditions of academic Anthropology, I will employ the present tense when speaking of these societies, whether or not they still exist.

“I think there are two areas where new ideas are terribly dangerous: economics and sex. By and large, it’s all been tried, and if it’s new, it’s probably illegal or dangerous or unhealthy.” Felix G. Rohatyn

There is a sect in India in which no one may marry outside the sect, and everyone in the sect must marry an age peer born in the same five-year period. For instance, an age peer group might be composed of everyone born between 1995 and 1999, after which the next age peer group would be everyone born between 2000 and 2004. Now here’s where things gets spicy by American standards. From the onset of puberty until marriage at eighteen to twenty years of age, all members of a particular age peer group are expected to have sex with all the members of the opposite sex in that group except with the one person of the opposite sex they ultimately marry and have children with. Try to wrap your American mind around that one. According to the ethnography I read, incidents of adultery among married couples in this sect are so rare as to be virtually non-existent.

“If a man and a woman go into the woods with a picnic basket and a blanket and have a picnic, that’s a G. If they go into the woods with a picnic basket and crawl under the blanket, that’s a PG. And if they go into the woods without a basket or a blanket and have a picnic anyway, that’s an R.” Jane Fonda on movie ratings

I’ve read several ethnographies of Australian aboriginal societies, and though these societies differ from each other in little ways, they share many foundational beliefs and sexual comportment rubrics that allow one to generalize about Australian aboriginal society.

One of the most un-American of those foundational beliefs is that females are born perfect, whereas males are born deeply flawed and must spend most of their lives striving to overcome their flaws in hopes of becoming more like women. Again, try to wrap your patriarchal Judeo-Christian-Muslim minds around that one.

Because females are perfect, when a girl begins to menstruate, her transit into womanhood is joyfully celebrated, whereas boys, being terribly flawed, must undergo brutal initiation ceremonies that often result in the deaths of some of the young males. Should they survive these initiatory ordeals, these young men are then sent off to wander about with other unmarried men as they quest to overcome their flaws so they might one day be good enough to marry one or more of those perfect women. Hence most Australian aboriginal men do not marry until they are in their late twenties and thirties, at which time they usually wed women who have only recently attained sexual maturity, which means a typical Australian aboriginal couple will feature a man much older than his wife or wives.

Adultery is taboo among Australian aboriginals, but it is a soft taboo, which means many people have lovers outside their marriages. That, on the face of it, is not unlike the American model, but among Australian aboriginals extra-marital activities are expected and even encouraged (even though they are taboo), and so there are rarely any dire consequences for extra-marital hanky panky.

Now…those questing men I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago? The ones sent off to roam around with other imperfect men? Well, they wander for years and decades trying to improve themselves spiritually and emotionally so they can one day get married, have children, and grow old in the company of perfect women and other much improved men. And in the course of those many years of roaming around, these groups of men occasionally come into contact with mixed gender bands with whom they like to hang out for a time because, well, that’s what life is all about, bumping into groups of other people and socializing. And the sexual comportment practice that goes on at the outset of contact between roaming men and a band of married people and children and unmarried women is, to say the least, by American standards, spicy.

So…imagine a band of four or five extended families camped by a desert spring, life meandering along, so to speak, when a group of wandering men appears and stops a respectful distance away from the camp to await a response from the larger mixed gender band. And that response, assuming the wanderers are discerned to be a worthy bunch, is for several of the women, married and unmarried, to go out to greet the wandering men.

And when the wandering men see the women coming out to them, they lie down on their backs and surrender themselves sexually to the women, who mount those eager yet submissive visitors and thereby expiate lust, tension, mistrust, and you name it, so that when the wanderers enter the camp, they are, as it were, tame. This is the only acceptable occasion for a married woman to have sex outside of marriage.

Are there any occasions when a married Australian aboriginal man may, with the blessing of his society, have sex with a woman other than his wife or wives? Yes, there is one such occasion. But because I am absolutely certain my description of that occasion would deeply offend at least half my readers, I shall not endeavor to describe such a shocking event and the astonishing aftermath.

Wrong Thinking

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2011)

“Taken out of context I must seem so strange.” Ani DiFranco

One of my Anthropology professors was Nigerian, his people Yoruba. An exceptional student as a child, he was sent to school in England and eventually got his PhD from a prestigious American university. My professor married an African American woman, with whom he had two children, and when those children were five and three-years-old, he and his wife took the kids to Nigeria so they could get to know their paternal grandparents and the huge extended family that was my professor’s clan. After a few days in Nigeria, my professor was summoned to a meeting of the male elders of his clan who severely chastised him for not taking a second and third wife to produce more sons.

“You are a very rich man,” said his father, with twenty other men nodding in agreement. “You are richer than any of us, yet you shame your parents and your clan by not taking more wives. Why are you doing this?”

The professor explained to his outraged father and uncles and cousins that in America it was the law that a man may only have one wife. The Yoruba men were disgusted to hear this and shouted many insults at my professor, the gist of their insults being that wealthy American men who take only one wife are weak and impotent and effeminate and crazy.

“Fortunately this is not the law among our people,” said my professor’s father, “so we will find two more wives for you and you will keep them here and get children with them. You will send money from America and your wives will make a fine household for you here. You will come home for a time each year and get many children. And when you have finished your work in America you will live here with your wives and their children as you should.”

My professor said that he and his wife decided to cut their visit short in order to avoid the marriages being arranged for him. “You see,” he explained, chuckling, “my wife is liberated and will not share me with other women.”

“Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” Anthony Bourdain

If you have never, or not in a long time, read the forty-eight-page novella Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen, I highly recommend the tale as a thought provoking inquiry into context, memory, and truly great meals. An excellent film version of Babette’s Feast was made in Denmark in 1987 and is remarkably faithful to the original story, so whether you spend an hour and a half watching the movie or an hour reading the story, or both, you will see what I mean about thought provoking. Along with Dinesen’s exquisite prose, what I love most about Babette’s Feast are the myriad ways in which concepts of right and wrong are revealed to be little more than the passing fancies of context, memory, and truly great meals.

“SCORN FOR JOBLESS ON RISE: unemployed face compassion fatigue as economy remains flat” front page headline and sub-headline, Santa Rosa Press Democrat September 4, 2011

The article that follows those scurrilous sentence fragments is a lengthy piece of cruel propaganda quoting various wealthy politicos from around the country who are growing impatient and angry with tens of millions of unemployed people who lost their jobs and houses and savings due to the criminal activities of banks and investment firms expedited by wealthy politicos from around the country. Published with no indication it was intended as satire, the article emphatically suggests that people receiving unemployment benefits are “leeching off the system.”

“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” John Wayne

I thought it would be wrong to attribute that quote to John Wayne until I checked multiple reliable sources to make sure he really did say such a thing.

“She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success wrong by wrong.” Mae West

When I was eight-years-old I saw the movie The Horse’s Mouth, starring Alec Guinness, after which I knew what I wanted to be: a writer, director, and star of movies about strange and marvelous people. I have subsequently seen The Horse’s Mouth many times, and the movie remains a marvel to me.

My mother grew up in close proximity to Hollywood and her mother’s best friend was the wife of a famous movie director. My mother was a Drama major at UCLA before giving up her theatrical ambitions to attend law school, pass the bar, and postpone practicing law for twenty-five years while she raised four children. For reasons I never fully understood, my mother felt it necessary to try to burst my movie career bubble every chance she got, and her primary means of doing so was to cast terrible aspersions on anyone in the movie business I dared reveal my admiration for.

According to my mother, all successful female stars of stage and screen, without exception, succeeded not through their talents as thespians, but through sexual escapades with people of wealth and power; and all successful male stars were either promiscuous homosexuals or unscrupulous bisexuals. According to my mother, all but a very few successful actors of both sexes were alcoholics, and many were drug addicts. She never revealed where she got her information about the stars of stage and screen, and since she did not read gossip magazines or watch television, the implication of her fierce certainty was that she had firsthand knowledge of these immoral people. But how, I wondered, did she come by such knowledge unless, while I was at school, she spent hours on the phone with operatives in Hollywood and Manhattan?

I remember one evening in particular when I was fifteen and had recently won a small part in a school play—my first step, I hoped, on the road to fame and fortune, and my mother, fortified with several martinis, was excoriating yet another of my favorite stars with a history of sexual depravity and opportunistic backstabbing.

“Oh, come on,” I protested. “Are you saying that no movie star has ever succeeded because they were talented? They’re all whores and crooks? What about Fred Astaire? Ginger Rogers? Jimmy Stewart? Claudette Colbert. Alec Guinness? The Marx Brothers?”

“Ha!” she said bitterly. “Little do you know.”

“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra

On September 4, 2011, our beloved San Francisco Giants lost most ignobly to the Snakes, otherwise known as the Arizona Diamondbacks, and fell seven games out of first place with only twenty-two games left to play. We were poised to win that game, but then lost, and as we lost I felt in my bones, as opposed to in my brain, that we no longer had any hope of making the playoffs and returning to the World Series. I think we had good enough players to catch the Snakes, but not the right managers. I won’t say our managers are bad, for they are the same fellows who skippered our team to the World Series and won it all last year. But I do think they were the wrong managers this year because they were not creative or prescient, nor did they win the close games through guile and daring, all of which they were and did last year. Or so it seems. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

“Things are as they are. Looking out into it the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” Alan Watts

In 1970, in the hour before dawn, I climbed to the top of the monumental Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacán (near Mexico City) and made the acquaintance of four French travelers who had spent the night atop the pyramid. Our shared ambition was to watch the sun appear to rise out of the Pyramid of the Sun across the great plaza from us.

I write “appear to rise” in deference to Buckminster Fuller who cautioned us not to use expressions such as “the sun rising” or “the sun going down” because he felt such usage reinforced a wrong view of how our earth, in relation to our sun, actually operates. The earth spins us into light and spins us into darkness in relation to the sun; the sun does not rise or fall in relation to us. Bucky also pointed out that when humans first began to fly in airplanes, they spontaneously and accurately coined the expression “coming in for a landing,” rather than “coming down for a landing” because there is no up or down in space. Bucky fervently believed that the more truthfully we describe reality, the more successful we will be in developing a regenerative relationship with the earth and Universe.

So the sun appeared to rise out of the massive Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest human-made pyramid on earth, and the appearance was a stirring sight, indeed. Then, not long after the earth had spun us into sunlight, a tour bus arrived and shattered the quietude we had so enjoyed. The bus door opened and several dozen American tourists disembarked, their voices so loud and the acoustics of that amazing place such that we could hear the words they spoke a mile away. And the loudest voice came from a man reacting to the majestic Pyramid of the Sun. “That’s it?” he bellowed. “That one right there? What a let down. The ones in Egypt are so much bigger.”

“The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.” Carl Jung

There is a wonderful story about the current Dalai Lama visiting America for the first time several decades ago, before he was better acquainted with the American psyche. His Holiness was taking questions from a group of meditation teachers and their students when a man asked the Dalai Lama for advice about how to overcome low self-esteem because this man’s struggle with low self-esteem was seriously impeding his meditation practice.

The Dalai Lama had never heard of low self-esteem and was perplexed by the question. After someone explained to him what low self-esteem was, the Dalai Lama went around the room asking person after person, “Do you have this?” And when all the Americans admitted that to one degree or another they suffered from low self-esteem, the Dalai Lama proclaimed, “But this is wrong thinking. You must stop thinking this way.”