Wednesday, March 28, 2007

American Ass

I am off to Philadelphia to the American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference. I am looking forward to it. It will be hours and hours of lectures about primates, genes, evolution and morphology (to name a few) and some obligatory schmoozing, which I am most concerned about.

I have this thing, where I never forget a face, can recognize people from the back of their head and if I have seen someone’s picture on the internet I know who they are immediately in person. This is sort of a vestigial trait from being a shy, observant person in school, knowing everyone but no one knowing you. So my goal is to put this trait to work and march up to people, acknowledge that I recognize them and know their name and then...wobble, wobble, quiver, quiver... introduce myself. People love it when you say their name and know who they are, even if they dont know you I have found. Also, since I am arriving late in the game of graceful socializing you wont be surprised to know that people like smiling too, another thing I might try here and there.

So I called my credit card company today to check if a certain charge had gone through. They went down a list of charges and dates and I stopped at one and asked the representative what that charge was for. He paused and a pall of awkwardness reached through the phone line. “I am not sure if I should be saying this Maam, but since you asked I will, that charge is for American Ass.” I laughed because I knew that it was for the AAPA conference in an unfortunately truncated form. He apologized and with his soft Southern lilt said, “I hope I didnt offend you Maam.”

So I begin my story of the conference with that and will continue it next week.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The In Crowd: Part II

As an addendum to the previous post I would like to add another sweeping generality about the work I will be doing in grad school (and beyond.) This may already be completely obvious to all of you and maybe it is because I missed something in 6th grade science class, but I just have to get it out of my system:

Many many research projects can be summed up by this: We are trying to see if there is a relationship between A and B.

Its. really. that. simple.

The In Crowd

I went to a lecture the other day and the person speaking was a student, she was talking about conservation genetics. About identifying species distinctions using genetics (e.g.-this is not one species of monkey, it is actually two according to the story these genes are telling) and then lobbying for that newly defined species to be protected.

It was a good talk, but I was thinking about it afterward and I started to think about how what I am going to be studying can be boiled down to a few themes to be better understood:

1) It is all about categories-species (extinct or living) or categories across space or through time. Whether you are using genes, morphology, behaviour or geography to define variation, its all about finding differences and deciding if they are large enough to warrant another category or subcategory.

2) Its also about where your science falls in the continuum of conservative groupings or not. Do you like to lump all of these individuals together on the basis of ________ characteristic? or do you tend to think that they are too different to be all together?

A little like the rest of life too. This theme is pervasive in all sorts of things: race, class, gender, language or even something as simple and everyday as social life.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

You’re Fired!

This week a coworker of mine was gone. I have worked with her for about 3 years. She unexpectedly ended her time working for us because of health reasons. I hope that she is okay.

We had planned a goofy going away party for her that was going to involve the six of us–2 spunky undergraduates from different worlds, 1 quiet-in-groups graduate student hopeful, 1 bubbly and talkative working graduate student, 1 scientist boss and 1 very pregnant laboratory technician–all sheepishly painting ceramics together. It was my idea, of course. Although one that I presented in jest and that was, to my surprise, accepted. I was looking forward to the scene though and was also hoping to make a card that read, “You’re Fired!” on the front and then on the inside something about going to paint ceramics.

So, no party, fine, I could do without the thick and shiny glaze of awkwardness over my Monday night anyway. But whats weird is no goodbye, no it-was-great-working-with-you hug or unexpected flushed face tear fighting, or nervously hiding the wrapping paper that I just bought at the store for the gift. I know I can write her a letter or an email or call but it just felt strange and truncated thats all.

Usually I see her Monday mornings and now I wont...ever again.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ode to Email

Oh dear email where o where would I be without you in my life? I would be a quivering puddle of nothingness and I might have a few more friends actually.

My very first internship out of college, the one I was certain would change my life, and did, was started by email. I was in a Barnes and Noble with a friend and I picked up a beautiful magazine and my friend casually said that I should just email them and ask if they need an intern. I did.

I got the internship, hated it and quit (over email) and a few days later got email from a woman who worked there and she set me up with my next internship which turned into my job of 5 years and then I left to pursue something else, that I inquired about by email, working in the lab.

And now I am off to graduate school. I wrote to confirm that I was accepting the offer for admission to Graduate School over email and I told the man that actually I had emailed him 6 years ago to ask what it would take to get into this very program. He told me what I should do and I did it and now I am in. Very very satisfying and completly impossible without email.

But lets not get all teary eyed yet, I also lost a friend over a nasty email I sent to her by mistake, about her. I have said loads and loads of stupid and caustic things over this medium, things that I would never ever say to anyones face. I should have an apology email form letter by now I have written so many. I have pressed “reply all” many times when I didnt intend to.

But I check it about 50 times a day and overall its been a good run. I keep in touch with people I know I would not have otherwise and my writing skills have improved because of it.

I know I would not have picked the phone up or have written a letter for all of these things because I am too scared. I pretty much hate the phone. So who knows where I would be without email. Maybe reading a book by candle light alone in a drafty room.

A Ninja Among Us

It was past my bed time on a weeknight and I was coming into Grand Central from Westchester. Joe was supposed to meet me at our usual place. He was not there. I was tired and cranky and my phone was dead. So I got on the payphone and called him. I didnt let him get a word in edgewise and told him I was going home and that I was upset with him, to put it mildly.

I got onto the shuttle to go across town and I thought to myself wouldnt it be terrible if tonight was the night I was mugged while walking to my apartment. Then he would really feel bad.

After the shuttle I ran down to the 1 train. I shuffled down the stairs quickly and then jumped down the last three stairs to get to the platform. I rushed into the car and brushed up against a construction worker who was standing in the doorway as I entered. The doors closed. I held onto the poll and was staring at a womans large enamel ring that had the words on it, in an ironic kitchy script, "I have you” or “I love you”, I couldnt tell which.

Then I saw a head peeking out from the crowd of people, but then it went back. Then it peeked out again and I saw that it was Joe. In the same subway car as me, the one that I almost missed, standing there with a smug and confident smile on his face because he just knew he would find me. And I wanted to be so mad at him, but how could I now with this amazingly serendipitous meeting punctuating my night. He is a ninja.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Painting Lessons

Painting in watercolor or ink can teach you a lot about life. I learned these lessons recently, from the independent swirls of water and sepia ink mingling on the page before me:

1) The more risks you take with your strokes, the better the painting can be. Controlled cautious movements never produced anything with the grace or moxie or newness that I was looking for. It is scary to let your brush or pen go whipping off in new directions, but its worth it. Its worth it to produce something that you look at when its dry and wonder how you had that in you. And you didnt have it in you really, it had you in it. Its a little like the dog walking you instead of you walking the dog, you really have to check your ego at the door.

2) The second lesson is about letting go. Painting with a lot of water on the paper can be intimidating because the pigment and the H20 love to run all over the place together hand in hand in the sunshiney wildflower filled foothills of your dear blank page. But if you bend down and put your ear to the paper you will hear a whisper saying , “just let go”. And once you realize this and embrace it, those little molecules will have taught you a lesson that reaches far beyond the edges of the paper.

True sometimes painting with a lot of water and risktaking does not work out at all and knowing when to give up and start again with a clean page and a fearless heart is certainly lesson #3.

Monday, March 19, 2007

A Fine Line

I have a dark chocolate colored envelope I need to write on and wanted an extra fine copper colored metalic pen to do so. Its New York City and we are drowning in art supplies so this should not be too difficult, right? sadly, sadly, insanely mistaken.

Went out in the morning to a small stationery store around my apt. Found a Sakura Jelly Roll pen that I thought would get the job done. Went home and it just was not enough contrast for the chocolate. Went home, called a few places, no one had what I wanted. Then someone did, we trecked to this art store to learn that the person on the phone, who gave me hope, was not aware of the difference between fine and extra fine lines. We need something elegant and extra fine, this pen they were calling fine should not even be called fine, it should be called “just okay”.

Then we went to Kates Paperie, from whence the envelopes came, and after checking pen after pen and writing Joe’s name out all over town. We found something nice, we had the envelopes with us and in the light of the paper store it looked like we had a winner. I wanted buy 3, Joe suggested 4, but I thought 3 was enough.

Cold cumbersume city day, people in poofy jackets hitting up against me and not feeling it, crowded subways, deep pools of slush at the corners putting my boots to the test.

And finally we were home and I sat down at the table to test out our new pens only to find out they were the exact same ones as I had purchased at 11:00 that day near the apt. They worked perfectly, maybe my standards had lowered throughout the day. Joe claims he knew and just wanted me to feel like I found something new so he let me buy them. And truthfully I was on the edge of sanity about a detail that no one will notice, it crept up on me like a demon and took over my otherwise reasonable nature. I heard myself whining and saw myself pleading with Joe with raised eyebrows and flailing hands about the importance of delicate copper lines, it wasnt pretty.

But the envelopes will be.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Signed sealed delivered, I’m yours

I went to the bank yesterday and asked for something I never had before, a certified bank check. The teller asked me for the amount and my mothers maiden name. Then she typed a lot of something into the computer, while impatiently pressing the space bar with her slightly chubby fingers.

Then she pulled out a small slip of paper, the size of a deposit slip, and she wrote on it, “Thats my man.” She scurried over to the other teller and gave her the note. Then spent some time over on the other side looking in a drawer so that her man would notice her, but in her brightly striped green sweater who could miss her really.

Then she was back and writing things and typing them and ripping things and asking me to write my ss# out and then where I worked and then what I did for a living.

Gone again out the door, back again with papers and pens and more voracious typing.

As she crouched down to write something out, her man walked by to leave and she took her gaze away from my certified document and gawked practically open mouthed as he passed and I was still standing straight in front of her. She just could not control herself I suppose.

So now I will never know how long the process of ordering a certified check actually takes. I wanted to be angry, but I just wasnt, I laughed to myself instead. It probably made her day that her man came in and as for my certified check, it made my day.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Going With the Flow

We had a spectacular time at the art store picking out all the materials for our project. Sepia ink, old fashioned pens, copper ink, pink paint pens, copper and gold paint pens too, oh and a stamp that says ”Save The Date“ in a pleasing gentle script. The paper is a pale pink color and has softly deckled edges and they are accompanied by a strong dark chocolate colored envelope.

Joe and I have been working on making our Save The Date cards for a few days now. We are doing them by hand. It is turning out to be an amazing process, one of which that is more relaxing than any yoga and far more fun that going to a printer.

We dipped the paintbrush in the shimmery copper ink and then did some experiments, then we put the paintbrush in a glass of water to clean it off. What emerged was a full glass of ever so slightly sparkly copper colored water. Joe took that water and planted a nice wet confident brush stroke on the paper with it, then he handed it to me. I took the elegantly tapered pen tip and dipped it in the sepia ink and let it touch the wet portion of the paper.

For those of you who have not already had the pleasure of painting wet on wet, it is truly a liberating and amazing exercise. The brown ink touched the wet paper and then went shooting out in all directions like a fire that you wanted to keep burning, it flamed and shifted and swirled and surprised us. It is an experiment in chaos. How much can you really take letting the ink go wherever it damn well pleases.

We let them dry and the next morning there they sat on the kitchen table all lined up and pretty and each one completely different, subtly shimmery in the right light and an expression of how well Joe and I work together and how willing we are to let things flow.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Chantiliy Chances

And in almost an instant I knew. It was everything I was. And everything I wanted to be. It whispered of the past, but spoke of the future. It walked up to tradition and curtsied at its altar, but then took its shoes off and walked out to the cool grass and kept walking steadily until darkness fell and then it stood still under the most charming lamp post bathing it in light and only-ness.

I struggled this little delicate wisp of a dress out of the packed plastic bags that hung heavy on the rack. I almost missed it, it was so fine and small it was tucked away waiting for only me to notice it.

We went to the dressing room with high hopes. I tried on about two gowns of the 10 that we picked. Then I tried this dress on and as the sales woman was fastening the back, I knew. I made a face and she said “am I hurting you?” and I had to tell her no, that my face was the oh my gosh its so cute face.

Then I moved on to another dress and then another. The sales woman walked out of the room for a moment and I turned to my friend shaking my head at the charade that was taking place. I was pretending that I still had to find my dress, when I already had.

Bought it, got a glass of champagne to celebrate, called my Mom and rode the subway home with it in hand and a satiated heart.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Father Figure

I have heard and read a few things on the topic of a young baby looking more like the father than the mother as an evolutionary advantage, in order to convince the father to care for the baby. I have also read that this is just something that mothers tell their husbands as a way to convince the father to take more interest, but that it is all done subconsciously.

Whether the issue is that the baby actually looks like the father, or is just perceived this way, both perspectives are riding on the fact that if someone looks more like you, you take more of an interest in it.

In trying desperately to understand why my own father has a favorite child, it dawned on me. My fathers favorite, that he wont admit to, looks just like him.


The Cardboard Sanctuary

The other day a new piece of lab equipment arrived and it was unpacked. Yes Yes it was a great piece of shiny new equipment, but it was not the machinery that inspired me.

It was the big brown cardboard box that it came in. I slid it along the floor and out to the hallway for recycling pickup. But I thought of younger days when a great big cardboard box and maybe some crayons was all you needed for a good time.

My best friend and I decorated the inside and outside of a big refrigerator box and we set it up in her basement. Hours of fun insued.

I remember when crawling into small spaces was the best expereince around. I tried to crawl into the cabinet where the canned goods were and spent quite some time hiding in various closets, under beds and even behind furniture as a kid.

Maybe its just me and my escapist tendencies, but a small space within a space was so much damn fun. A tent in the living room or a fort made from pillows and sheets and a few chairs (one that my brother thoughtfully connected a tube from the air conditioner to, so I had central air in my small haven) was always a great thing. Even today when people are packing a car full of belongings to move or to go somewhere, I never mind slipping into the seat all tucked away. It feels safe, although it is probably not. And I always take the corner seat in a restaurant.

Again, on the brink of so many grown up decisions, I long for a box to spend some time in, sniffing in the carboard air, while the thin corrugated walls sway and shift but serve to protect me unconditionally from the rest of the big bad world.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Interest Rate

As I start to think about what specifically, within the broad context of Biological Anthropology, I am interested in, I cant help but think about the concept of interest.

Why are we each interested in what we are interested in? Why are we pleased by certain concepts or types of work? What experiences have led us to this feeling? And what about those people who have no interests, what happened there?

I thought today about picking a thesis topic. You have to begin with something that you are intrinsically interested in, but that does not seem like a good enough reason. We are interested in; the guy across the bar or a particular movie or exhibit. It seems too fickle and shallow of a word for a thesis topic. Maybe the issue is semantic. There is probably a better way to express the degree variation between ones interest in the guy across the bar and a gene that regulates the immune system.

But maybe there is no difference.

I thought I had a memory problem at my last job, I just could not remember details of the day or the work. My brother pointed out that it was because I was just not interested in it. I didnt believe him. But then when I found something that I was truly interested in I remembered every speck and its location and what it had for brunch on Sunday. Its wonderful to feel sharp. Interest is powerful.

And I have learned that you can be interested in something you are not immediately good at and sometimes that burning curiosity to keep you up at night and make you do foolish things for the cause, is enough to make you good.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Illusion of Certainty

The wait is over. It ended sooner than I expected. I was looking forward to a few more weeks of uncertainty. Most people are uncomfortable with uncertainty, but I wanted it. I wanted to float through the streets just proud of myself for having actually gotten my applications in.

Now I know that I have been accepted to two Doctoral programs in Anthropology and not only do I have to worry slightly about deciding which one, but now I have to think about the next six years very very carefully. I was also reminded that I should think about what happens after I receive the degree and what kind of work I want to do.

This is all just too much especially when it is all wrapped up in the arsenic and old lace that is planning a wedding.

I am also having a problem being happy for myself. I am trying to be sensible and think, why celebrate my acceptance, it does not mean anything really because I have years and years of very challenging work ahead of me. I keep repeating to myself the line in the Robert Frost poem “and miles to go before I sleep...”

I suppose the initial uncertainty has given way and I am faced with a deep chasm that is the uncertainty of the rest of life. sigh.