Sunday, February 13, 2011

All In This Together

I am an ape. An animal more specifically described as a human ape, but there it is. Out and proud, I say. Somebody's got to start the dialogue.

I wish I had a good answer for what kind of woman goes around publicly announcing she's an ape. Me, obviously, but I mean, beyond that. My undergraduate training in anthropology says absolutely, every single time, you must begin an ethnography by introducing yourself, as fully and honestly as you can. People ought to know who you are, before you then engage in the utter folly of trying to tell them about someone else, through your own self-deluded eyes. So far as I can tell, the effort works perfectly. Ethnographers tend to write the most amazing purple prose about who they wish they were, or how they wish the world to see them, but where ever you go, there you are  --  the deception is easily detected. In the process of writing, they might as well strip themselves naked before the security cameras in Grand Central Station.

Despite that, here's some stuff I know about me. Like a chimp, I always want to touch everything and anything that piques my curiosity. (In fairness, I like to think I share the keen intelligence of a chimp, too, which calls for a proper degree of caution and no small amount of fear when it comes to real danger.) But as an example of chimp / ape-like behavior:  My husband and I were standing on a treetop-high deck years ago, only a few feet a way from a pair of flying squirrels. He could see I was practically quivering with the desire to reach out to one -- something that was A) likely to get me bitten, and B) certain to interfere with our observation of the sweet squirrelly courtship. "Why do people always want to touch everything in nature?" he asked. As if this was a rhetorical question aimed at no one in particular.

Touch? I wanted to grab one of those cute little suckers up, turn it over, and see if I could find and name all the internal organs under the soft belly fur.

And if I ever accidentally wander onto an ancient burial ground, and no one except God is within a hundred miles? I'll touch something. I'll fall on the ground, look a skull right in the eye sockets and have a little conversation. I'll tiptoe around as carefully as I know how and slap myself on the head a lot, trying to sear everything I see into my brain. Heart going thumpity-thump and body quivering all over. Then I'll go directly to the proper authorities and point to the find, so they can secure the area and keep people like me out. (No I wouldn't do any of this really, same as I didn't pet the squirrel. But it would be hard. Sadly, this non-practicing anthropologist probably just put herself on the equivalent of an Indian No-Fly List.)

Whoops. I may have skipped purple prose, and gone directly to naked.

* * *

So believe it or not, this blog is about someone else. An ethnography, if you will  --  let the folly commence. Or continue.

In the late 1990s, a quiet young woman came into my life through a work association. She would become a close friend, but it could so easily have been otherwise. Whether she becomes a friend all depends in part on whether you notice her  --  she's so extraordinarily quiet  --  and then on whether you have a high comfort level with someone who, without a trace of self-consciousness or even of awareness, completely resists definition.

Strange that I say people wouldn't notice her, because she's got certain traits that we apes tend to notice. She's very tall and very angular; she has delicate hands and fingers that, because she is a born leader, creatively and technologically, she must use to illustrate and to teach. She has dark walnut hair that she has often worn buzzed boy-short. She surprised me recently, though  --  we hadn't seen each other in a number of years  --  with her hair in a shoulder-length sweep, magazine perfect, blindingly shiny after so many years of acute cuts. Short or long, the dark hair frames crazy-colored hazel eyes (teal?), round and fascinated, that swivel together to take everything into view, the world every moment with a childlike wonder. Whether she is trekking around Europe with a backpack slung over her shoulder, or sitting with hot tea at your kitchen counter, she is content in her own skin. She's always smiling. She likes to go and to play. Golf is a passion, as is sunshine on her face, and heaven help the person who gets between her and a county fair and a funnel cake.

She knows what she likes, and if her haircuts have dumbfounded people, so too has her unchanging wardrobe. Whose wardrobe doesn't ever change in this day and age? Jeans, comfortable cut; tennis shoes; t-shirts in the summer; sweat shirts in the winter. She has thus far forcefully refused to get married or to have children, and fiercely guards her time alone.

For the life of me I can never remember her age; I had to ask yet again, for the purpose of writing this. She is nearly 37, and though she does not seem to change one iota over the years, she is not a grown child. She can be extremely motherly, super smart to begin with but also with a wisdom that comes from not having the sometimes emotionally flighty encumbrances of a spouse and children. She is kind and a very moral person  --  but imagine a razor-sharp sense of humor, too, which will bust you in your follies, and make you laugh at them. (As in, once when from the back of a two-person kayak, as I was failing miserably to keep up with her athletic prowess, she said, "Just sit there and look pretty.")

People are always trying to label her. "Are you ________?" they ask when they believe they've gotten close enough to beg "the question," whatever it may be. I leave the space for the descriptive term blank not because of some concern for political correctness, but because that's the whole point. The question varies. There are no easy labels. Her surprised but not offended answer is always an honest "no." A little bafflement. "I am just me."

I understand this human  --  or is it ape?  --  need to categorize absolutely everything. I also understand that sometimes, you just can't. That's why I adore the study of humans. In addition to the usual biological variation within a species, we have consciousness and cultural variation that allows for infinite words with which to fill in the blanks. Think about it: infinite.
So I keep this friend of mine close, chase after her sometimes as she walks through the world, and stay clear of her place in the funnel cake line. And I turn my own primate brain to watching the fascination of everyone else, those who notice her. Because rude questions aside, people also want this rare quality, are magnetized to it  --  the magic of a person  who really, truly, genuinely, is herself. Who does not feel any need to broadcast it in some way  --  no outward physical purple prose that says, this is who I wish I was. And who is so visibly happy about it.

 *Comedy aside, disturbing or looting a Native American site is unethical and can carry extremely high costs for the offender: consider the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) maximum penalty of a $20,000 fine and two years' imprisonment for a first offense. And it is unlikely "God" is the only one around. Please see for an excellent article  --  or just check out the photo to get the point.