Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Hurricane Ike, three years later

This week, while everyone else I knew was preoccupied with the 9/11 anniversary, I found myself thinking back to a different anniversary and a different pile of debris.

Three years ago last night, Hurricane Ike made landfall on the Texas coast- my end of the Texas coast. Home.

I rode out the storm's landfall on a sailboat on a lake on the north end of Houston with my best friend, surrogate big brother, EMS colleague, real-life hero, and partner-in-lunacy, David. We were crazy stupid kids, I guess; one of us mostly grew out of it, and the other died of it.

This week, I keep thinking of the crazy, scary, awesome stormy night I spent on a sailboat with an old friend, and the days afterward doing the most challenging and rewarding work I've ever done, with a group of people (and dogs) I will always be proud to know and to have worked alongside.

I think I'm going to post a series of hurricane-recovery stories here for as long as they last.

Here's a start, reposted from my old LiveJournal- the post I wrote on returning from the one-year anniversary memorial in Crystal Beach, where we spent a few days searching the debris for those still missing after the storm.

"Last Saturday, my SAR teammates and I had the privelege of attending the anniversary memorial service for hurricane victims at Crystal Beach.

We arrived by way of Winnie that afternoon, driving in from a fundraiser for the CHASER foundation in Conroe, to have dinner with a friend of my teammates before the memorial. On arriving, we found a pair of FEMA trailers parked next to a partially-reconstructed home surrounded by a dozen or so relatives and neighbors all working busily. The friend who had kindly invited us emerged from one of the trailers, where she had been cooking for the workers all day-- lunch, she told us, had been seafood enchiladas, and the kitchen table when we entered was piled high with freshly baked cookies. She was clearly tired, but bright and full of enthusiasm and energy, which seemed to be the general attitude.

Everyone was gathering around the table set up out back as we emerged from the trailer, and the friend cheerfully announced us as one of the teams that did SAR work here after the storm. We were greeted with applause and a couple comments along the lines, "Hey, we love you guys!" and all did our professional best not to get all teary-eyed. That had been an emotional enough bit of work for those of us who were there, and that day was in some ways the culmination of it.

We all joined hands for prayer-- a teammate on one side of me, a friendly stranger on the other-- and I snuck a peek or two around and thought to myself that this was the Texas Gulf Coast at its best, this was the spirit of those who survived the storm, and I realized anew how proud I was to have called this place home once and to have come back to serve these people. There was mud everywhere, still smelling as it did after the storm-- pungent and probably contaminated-- and debris still littered all the land in view, but here was determination and togetherness and laughter and a pile of delicious food. Here was life, and I found myself grinning a little at that before the prayer was over.

Dinner was beyond incredible-- softshell crab, boudin, shrimp, and gator-kabobs, the latter two of which had been swimming around that morning. Nothing like fresh-caught seafood to remind you that life is still worth living.

We listened to our friend talk of how high the water had gotten, the damage to homes in the area, the process of rebuilding. We were introduced to one of the neighbors, a smiling elderly lady whose home had been completely taken by the storm; our friend informed us that she'd found only a single fork. Yet there she was, bustling around making sure everyone had napkins, telling fishing stories from her younger days, smiling.

I lost track of who was related to whom and how, but one of the relatives, a man introduced to us as the provider of the gator, had found some bones washed ashore next to the channel and wondered if they might be human. Four people from Bolivar were still missing, and their fate lingers in the constant awareness of the residents and rebuilding crews. "I'm an anthropologist," I said, "Not the best, but I can take a look if you like." I left it to my teammates to volunteer the dogs, and we all piled back into the car-- three people and four dogs-- to follow the relatives down to the channel.

Said channel is really the ICW where it passes between Bolivar Peninsula and Goat Island north of Crystal Beach. Those of us who were there after Ike like to tell people that there are only two houses on Goat Island... and before the storm, there were none. Further Ike-deposited contents of the island included a refrigerator trailer full of something very rotten by the time we got there, dozens of dead cows (which we kept making poor Pete check, to his disgust), and literally tons of debris. It was a miserable day's slog across that place-- someday I'll write about it, there's a helicopter story, even-- and my team leader and I were only too glad to curse that godforsaken piece of real estate from across the water.

The bones-- according a committee consisting of an anthropologist, an animal science M.S., and three HRD dogs-- were not human. We all figured they had most likely been dragged ashore by the alligator the relatives told us hung out nearby. It seemed likely that they'd come from its underwater stash, since the relatives also reported seeing a hole dug out in the bottom at low tide. Personally I don't doubt that there might be some human bits in there somewhere-- if not from this storm, then from some of the hundreds they never found after 1900 or from other individual cases over the years-- but these were none of the above. As with our work there last fall, this was as much about putting people's minds at ease as it was about actually finding the victims, and in that sense we did good solid work.

That little adventure involved a short slog through the mud down to the water and back. I have Gulf Coast mud on my boots again, and somehow I feel better about life with that reminder of who I am and why I'm here.

We all made it to the memorial just in time to sneak in a few minutes late. The event was held, much to the surprise of my team leader and I, in the gym of the elementary school we'd stayed at the previous fall. The generator trucks and the small city of temporary showers and porta-johns was gone, and the handful of vehicles smashed up against the pilings in the parking area below the school had been cleared away. The debris that had covered the field across the street (I remember too well standing on the porch in the evenings, looking across at that wondering if it held the victims we had spent all day searching for) had been cleared away too.

The air conditioner was back up and running full blast as well, in the whole school instead of just the set of rooms we'd occupied a year ago, and as I shivered through the service I thought, "I remember this gym when it was almost too hot to move and we were in here playing kickball with the firefighters!" If one is willing to stretch the definition of kickball to include strining a volleyball net across the gym, pulling out every ball the school owned (at least a hundred) and trying to see how many we could keep in the air at one time. Bonus points for hitting each other.

The service itself was part reminsiscence, part memorial for those lost, and part celebration of survival and rebuilding. I found myself in awe yet again of the spirit and resilience and determination of these people. I'd seen the destruction and understood as well as any outsider could how much they had lost and endured, and their attitude in the face of that along with the progress they had made in a year were truly inspiring. No one here was asking for a handout. No one here was protesting because they hadn't received enough help. They were helping themselves, helping each other, and being thankful for the outside help they had received.

Very thankful, in fact-- we were all stunned speechless to receive a standing ovation when we were introduced as recovery volunteers. Again, we all did our professional best to not get all teary-eyed, with mixed success.

The memorial portion was beautifully done, and in the accepted tradition for those lost at sea, included a bell tolled once for each of the dead and missing as their names were read. I don't handle bells so well since Medic 9's funeral, but with the help of a cuddly border collie I managed to sit through it. Two of the residents had recovered the bell itself from the debris several months ago.

As my teammates and I rode the ferry back to Galveston after the service, we stood at the rail and watched the fireworks over Galveston. There had been no one lost from Galveston, either dead or missing, and their service must have taken on a slightly different tone. I thought about what we had just been given the honor of sharing with the people of Crystal Beach, and I saw the fireworks as a sign of hope.

There's a folk singer from Fort Worth named Brian Burns, and he wrote a song about the 1900 storm that I had stuck in my head for most of hurricane callout last year. As we drove home Saturday night, I caught myself humming it again:

"I came here to bury the lost souls who perished that day
When the ocean rose twenty miles onto the prairie
And washed it all into the Bay.

And nothing that stood could escape the concussion
Of an angry wave riding on a hurricane wind..." "

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Gravestone Project- First Attempt

I dragged my poor husband out to Sharp Cemetery after work on Wednesday to attempt my first set of data for The Gravestone Project.

I chose that location over Killeen City Cemetery because Sharp Cemetery is smaller and more remote, which means there were likely to be fewer people to be offended by and/or ask awkward questions about what those two crazy people were doing to the gravestones with all those weird instruments.

The "new" GPS (actually a fifteen-year-old Magellan GPS 2000 in suprisingly good condition, which is very basic but does what I need it to do) works pretty well if you give it a minute or to to pick up enough satellites. I knew this already because I spent Wednesday morning at work playing with it, and I now have a partial GPS plot of the funeral home to show for it. Locations were easy enough as a result.

Determining the direction the gravestones were facing was also pleasantly simple despite the fact that I forgot to bring a compass (no excuse since I own three or four) thanks to the fact that Sharp Cemetery is coveniently laid out on pretty close to exact east-west lines (who needs a compass when you have a beautiful sunset because you put off the trip until too late in the day?) so all of the graves are facing either due east or due west, and it's not hard to tell those two apart, especially in the late evening.

Measurements were slightly more problematic. I had acquired a nice set of digital calipers on Amazon.com, and except for one afternoon of enthusiastic fiddling with them, I hadn't really spent as much time practicing measurements as I should have before actually going to the cemetery. I quickly discovered that the digital calipers were technically easier to read than the analog ones I had used back in grad school, but slightly trickier; I must have measured the same spot on one particular marker five or six times, because I kept getting different readings on my calipers.

Determining ground level- which is important in the placement of the measurements, and which also has to be recorded if you're measuring a gravestone on a pedestal, which most of the marble ones at Sharp Cemetery seem to be- was also a little tricky thanks to uneven ground and thick tufts of dried grass. I had forgotten something vital about field work of any sort, in any discipline- it's never as cut-and-dried or neat as the plan says it should be.

By the time we had to leave, after less than an hour of working time- we were late to our planned dinner anyway- we only had one set of measurements which I didn't quite trust, and I was grumpy, frustrated, and disappointed. My remarkably patient husband chalked it up to a learning experience and made a few helpful suggestions, mostly centered on practice, instruction-reading, and a few more items of equipment, like a small level.

With that in mind, I'm hoping to make another attempt this weekend, hopefully with better and more useful results.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Brief moment on the soapbox

I dislike bringing politics into anything at all, though I grudgingly recognize its necessity from time to time.

This will probably cost me what few readers I have, but I feel compelled to respond to the American Anthropological Association's recent decision to boycott Arizona and Georgia as potential conference locations because of their legislative action to combat illegal entry into the United States. I realize that the AAA doesn't care what I have to say, because professionally and academically I am essentially nobody, but the benefit of having my own blog is that I'm going to say it anyway and maybe someone, somewhere, will at least notice for a moment.

Absolutely nothing in an anthropologically-informed worldview compels denial of a nation's right to enforce its own laws or to define and subsequently protect its own borders. Rather, the historical perspective that should accompany a background in anthropology (remembering that the holistic perspective is temporal as well) should reinforce the validity of those rights. As an anthropologist, I find it frustrating that so many of my colleagues overlook this.

There is also nothing in an anthropologically-informed worldview that should compel and individual to feel that access to social services in a country one has entered illegally, from a government to whom one contributes no taxes, are a basic human right. The social contract works in two directions- government's end of the deal involves maintaining order, peace, and essential security; the people's end of the deal involves abiding by the laws passed by their representatives, working within the system to change them as needed, and paying for certain services by way of taxation. If the social contract has been breached by one party- someone who chooses to disregard this country's laws and enter it illegally, continue to reside here illegally, and pay no taxes- then there is no obligation on the part of the government at any level to uphold its end of the contract for that individual, up to an including permitting them to remain in the country.

I object to one anthropologist's (whose work I respect greatly but who I disagree with on this matter) characterization of Arizona's laws as "draconian." As a lifelong border-state resident, I have had ample opportunity to observe the worsening effects of the rise in illegal immigration, in the form of increased crime rates, drastic overburdening of social services, and increased competition for already-scarce employment; having seen and experienced the realities of the situation, I applaud Arizona for acting in its citizens' interest. How many of the AAA's board members have descended from the ivory tower recently to conduct some honest, open-minded participant observation, especially in the border states, to gain a more informed understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political realities on the ground before passing their resolutions? If the answer is less than "all of us," then the AAA board acted very irresponsibly and not at all like thoughtful, serious anthropologists.

By the way, any and all members of the AAA have an open invitation to visit my husband and I once we complete our PCS move to El Paso (where, by the way, many members of my husband's unit are not taking their spouses and children because they consider the crime rate and risks of Mexico's overflowing drug war too great) to conduct such observation.

Neither Georgia nor Arizona nor the overwhelming majority of those speaking out against ILLEGAL immigration is seeking to close this country's borders entirely to LEGAL entry, ban or repress Hispanic culture, etc. The issue here isn't one of racism or cultural sensitivity; it's a simple matter of not permitting, rewarding, and encouraging violation of this country's laws, and of not tolerating people who want to reap the benefits of a system they aren't willing to contribute to and whose rules they aren't willing to abide by (where I grew up we called that freeloading). Anthropologists, and any other enlightened and decent people, have an ethical and moral obligation to oppose cultural oppression, racial discrimination or subjugation, and other social injustices- but treating people who break our country's law like people who have broken a law instead of like honored guests is none of those things.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dogs, and a Great Book

Lately I have been reading Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz.

It's an incredible book- insightful, well-researched, and beautifully and engagingly written. I have been reading it slowly, a little at a time, giving myself plenty of time to think and digest, and frequently as I read I find myself looking up from the page and over at Duke, who is usually nearby when I'm at home, and blurting out something like "Wow, really?" I'm seeing my own dog, much loved but somewhat taken for granted, from a new and amazing perspective.

As an anthropologist, I'm especially fascinated by the idea that the evolutionary divergence between dogs and wolves was almost solely the result of the introduction of a new species into their ancestors' environment- humans. All the deliberate breeding of dogs into wildly varied forms and functions since is not half so incredible as the idea that our mere presence inadvertently turned one ancestral species into two new ones.

However, as a SAR volunteer who works mostly with search dogs, the detailed discussion of the canine nose and its scenting capabilities was even more personally relevant and interesting, as was this note on one aspect of dog behavior:

"Not only do dogs not typically hunt to feed themselves- whether encouraged to or not- but what hunting technique they have is, it has been noted, 'sloppy'. A wolf makes a calm, steady track toward his prey, without any frivolous moves; untrained dogs' hunting walks are herky-jerky, meandering back and forth, speeding and slowing. Worse, they may get waylaid by distracting sounds or a sudden urge to playfully pursue a falling leaf. Wolves' tracks reveal their intent. Dogs have lost this intent; we have replaced it with ourselves."
-p. 57

As I read this, I was reminded of an observation from my husband during our least search callout with the canine team. We were driving to our assigned search area during one of our rare moments together on that mission- the dearth of flankers means that he and I do not see each other much in the field- and he commented on how cool it was watching the search dogs move through their areas with such purpose and focus once their search command had been given. He compared this focus to the way our unemployed border collie would run through the same area; Duke would, as my husband noted, have been all over the place, interested in and distracted by everything, but the search dogs- while not immune to a momentary distraction- gave most things only a brief sniff or turn of the head; they remained focused on their intent, the scent they had just been told to look for.Link

Insights like that are one of several reasons that I enjoy Greg's involvement with the SAR team: he sees these dogs and their capabilities with fresh eyes. After four years and nearly twenty searches (I think I'm getting old; I kept forgetting missions when I tried to count them just now), the abilities, limitations, and nature of search dogs have become an accepted and normal part of my world, and I find myself taking these things for granted; my husband's questions and observations help me, too, see these dogs and our work in general with a fresh perspective and a renewed sense of wonder.

Even so, sometimes they amaze me even at my most jaded.

On Sunday morning of our last search, we found ourselves working an area whose main features were a dirt roadway- really just a cleared strip with tire tracks in the grass bordered on one side by trees that opened into the field we had searched parts of earlier in the day, and on the other by a steep-sided creek bed, mostly empty with just a few shallow pools of stagnant water. My team leader's two border collies were working mostly down in the creek bed, but when they decided that there was nothing there, I expected them both to backtrack to a point where the walls of the creekbed were lower and more sloped and bore less resemblance to a ravine. Instead, the younger of the pair took a running leap from the bottom of the sheer wall about ten feet to the top; she hit with her forelegs above the edge on flat ground and the rest of her body still hanging over the wall, hindlegs scrambling for purchase. It took less time for me to move toward her than it did for visions of a fall and a badly injured dog to flash through my mind, and it took even less time than that for her push and claw her way to the top and look at me like I was crazy for worrying.

I probably was; my team leader agreed firmly with the dog's point. That was probably a normal dog thing and no great feat, but technically everything that any search dog does in the field is just a "normal dog thing" in the sense that none of them is using any top-secret alien genetically enhanced superpowers. That in itself is amazing. The canine nose, with its incredible sensitivity, is an evolutionary marvel, though it is a marvel that even the household pet snoozing beside me as I write this possesses. The difference, and the truly extraordinary thing about search dogs, is the drive and the hours and hours of training which produce the focus and intent that so amazed my husband in the field.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Introducing Reality Literature

The word "nonfiction" bothers me.

It starts with the premise that fiction is the primary, base category, and that anything else is defined in relation to fiction and therefore subordinate to it. I like fiction immensely and read more of it than is probably healthy, but I still think that's a flawed premise.

Nonfiction isn't the absence of fiction in the way that cold is the absence of heat or dark is the absence of light; it's simply something, the presence of itself rather than the absence of fiction. Besides, even for things which are defined as the absence of other things, we use actual words rather than awkward Orwellian-sounding prefix constructions; it's cold instead of nonheat and dark instead of nonlight.

The question, of course, is which word would work better? "Fact" is not entirely accurate, and it's also a bit limiting; it fits technical reports nicely, assuming they're honest and accurate, but for more analytical pieces or personal narratives, you'd be stretching the definition of "fact" a bit; facts are cold, concrete things, and not all of what we call "nonfiction" fits that. "Truth" also might not be wholly accurate, nor is it a good way to distinguish between fiction and not, as I've observed before.

I wonder how difficult it would be to get people to start calling it "Reality Literature".

No, not really. That would be awful. I need better ideas.

(cross-posted from my personal blog, One Day at a Time)

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Richness of the Quest

I took a break midway through writing this post, and when I glanced at my Facebook news feed, it contained this quote from Joseph Campbell: "[I]f you follow your bliss, you'll have your bliss whether you have money or not. If you follow money, you may lose the money, and then you don't have even that. The secure way is really the insecure way and the way in which the richness of the quest accumulates is the right way." (courtesy of the Joseph Campbell Foundation).

Thanks for the words of wisdom from beyond the grave, Dr. Campbell. You, sir, are my hero. I'm stealing a bit of your quote for a post title.

A few days ago, Dr. Jon F. Wilkins announced his intention to start up the Ronin Institute, a non-profit research institute for independent scholars. I was immediately very excited by this idea, so I sent him an email asking if there might be a way for me to get involved. He replied positively and inquired about my current status, goals, and plans. What follows is a modified and greatly expanded version of my response, which contains more of my personal backstory than I thought Dr. Wilkins would want to have dumped in his inbox.

I have a B.A. in anthropology from a major university with a respectable department, but at present, I am working as the office girl at a local funeral home (following a miserable stint in college admissions at said university and an enjoyable and rewarding but exhausting stint as an EMS dispatcher, also at said university), and I have been out of graduate school since 2009.

I was already contemplating my escape, in the form of either a semester off or a change of degree program, for a variety of reasons; the singleminded, all-or-nothing focus of the academic department was already wearing thin for me, as I had begun graduate school with two jobs and volunteer commitments as a trainee recovery diver, a SAR technician, and an EMS dispatcher, all of which were either necessary (the jobs) or valued and important (the volunteer gigs) parts of my life, and none of which I was willing to give up to fit in with the all-nautical-archaeology, all-the-time, and-nothing-else-matters culture of my department.

I was, and am, deeply interested in the history of seafaring and captivated by the idea of the physical connection to it offered by archaeology (which, incidentally, I just read a great article about today), but I increasingly balked at the idea of defining my life and my worldview by that and restricting my interests to nothing else.

It also, to be brutally honest, became quite hard to take seriously as a life's work; my classmates' and professors' single-minded focus began to seem sheltered and elitist, especially on the days when I stumbled into class after being up all night sending ambulances to deathly ill or injured people or out all night/weekend/both searching for a missing child who more often than not turned up dead if at all; I could still hear the panicked voices on the other end of the phone, see the bodies floating the in lake and the worried, distraught families huddled at Incident Command- that was the real world, and my classmates knew only their ivory tower, and I began to think of them as naive. I began to see that branch of archaeology as fascinating and fun, something I would like to pursue avocationally, but not something I could dedicate my life to in a serious way after those experiences.

I considered taking a semester off in the fall of 2008 to complete a paramedic's license, having taken the EMT-Basic course concurrent with the end of the spring 2007 semester and the subsequent summer, but I debated and wavered until I ended up sticking with graduate school for another semester. I missed a lot of class (and a lot of my paying job) in the fall of 2008, first putting in long exhausting shifts at EMS helping dispatch ambulances to unload medical evacuees from Houston in advance of first Hurricane Gustav and then Hurricane Ike and ferry them from the DMAT shelter to the local hospitals as needed, and then after Hurricane Ike, out in the field with my SAR team at Bridge City, Crystal Beach, and Anahuac, scrambling over debris and demolished houses searching for the remains of the missing.

That was a pivotal experience in my life, and to this day it's the thing I'm most proud of- not my Cum Laude degree from Texas A&M, not my admission to graduate school, not my involvement in projects while there, but those few weeks in the fall of 2008 when I worked my ass off, walked through hell with a few good friends and colleagues, and made a difference.

I felt a need to make a real difference, not an indirect theoretical greater-good-of-humanity difference but a real, conrete, direct difference in the lives of actual individuals, as I said a few months ago in my response to my SAR team leader's blog post about our reasons for doing SAR work. After Hurricane Ike and a few more missions, my mind was made up; I wanted to do forensics, specifically human remains detection, but I still had hopes of combining it with Nautical Archaeology to work on submerged remains, with the most likely application being POW/MIA recovery (which is also a cause I have long had a soft spot for).

Unfortunately, early in the spring semester of 2009, a very close friend, who I usually describe(d) as my brother, died in a car wreck; the loss and my failure to cope well with it left me too distracted, depressed, and generally useless to finish out the semester, though I muddled through an unsuccessful attempt because I wasn't sure what else to do and wasn't thinking clearly enough to consider it.

I never even formally left. "Oops" might be an understatement.

At present, my intention is to return to school for an eventual doctorate in physical anthropology, but both finances and geography are a challenge; my husband is in the Army, so we don't get much choice about our location, and committing to a traditional academic program at this point would be highly impractical even if we could afford it. My hope is that within the next few years we can some financial issues sorted out and perhaps even get stationed somewhere near a university with a suitable program, and then I can work quickly enough to complete a degree before we get sent elsewhere again. In the meantime, I find that I miss the academic community and involvement in research and the exchange of ideas, even more than I expected that I would. Once I get this graduate school thing sorted out, I hope and intend and plan and want to work in my actual field; I would enjoy working for JPAC, maybe, or an ME's office wherever we end up, but I do not forsee an academic career in my future- I'm not willing enough to sacrifice the rest of my interests and goals for it- but I do forsee and hope for continued involvement in research.

Where and how I see myself in terms of goals, ambitious, and interests has come into focus in a much more useful way in the past few months, so that I have a good idea of what I want to be doing, and who I want to be, in the short term, on the way to my return to school, and how I would like that to fit into the transition back into a degree program and the shape I would like my career to take afterward. I am beginning to finally take to heart the advice my father once gave me when he said that I shouldn't try to make a career out of every passing interest- but I'm mingling that with my own recent discovery that inability to make a career out of an interest doesn't make it any less a valid and important part of my life, my work, and my identity. I'm a happier person, and a more productive one (in whatever sense you want to define "productive", which I'm learning is also a highly variable word) for that combined realization.

It really is about what Joseph Campbell called "the richness of the quest," and productive endeavors are endeavors that contribute to that for me, whether or they're professional, paid, and/or institutionally supported.

SAR will always be one of those productive endeavors for me. I enjoy the occasional adventure, the fieldwork, the camaraderie, and the dogs; I thrive on the sense of purpose. It's what I live for and an essential part of who I am.

Another of those endeavors, which suffered somewhat during my time in graduate school and which I am only recently returning to in any serious way, is writing. I have wanted to be a writer since third grade; I remember almost the exact moment when I discovered writing was fun, and I have been obsessed with telling stories and shaping words ever since. I need the creative outlet, and I find that I am happier and feel better about myself on days when I get a substantial amount of writing done; only recently have I figured out that I have to let myself see this as a valid productive activity so I can give myself the time for it and feel good about getting it done and proud of the results.

Blogging is sort of an extension of that; it's a different kind of outlet, which lets me tell slightly different stories- true ones- in more appropriate ways; it also gives me a place to vent, a place to put ideas that aren't fully developed enough for other venues and may never be, and a way to stay at least somewhat connected with an intellectual and academic community.

I do miss that sort of connection, and I miss involvement in interesting research. My research interests are somewhat scattered, but my primary interest, the one I hope to focus on in my eventual career, is human remains / clandestine grave detection. This is primarily an outgrowth of my volunteer work, as several years of observations and experiences in the field have both given me theoretical curiosity about these things, and emphasized the need for answers to certain questions and improvements in certain methods and procedures. I can easily see a life's work in finding the missing, bringing closure if not comfort to the bereaved, and maybe even bringing the bad guys to justice.

I have a secondary set of research interests, which I mostly intend to be avocational, in mortuary iconography, gravestone and historic cemetery documentation and preservation, and historic grave detection and documentation. At the moment I'm finding an outlet for that through Find-A-Grave and my related blog Last Words; this is also a much easier area to pursue independent research in than forensics,
so I am currently working on a couple of independent projects on changes in iconography patterns across time and region.

None of that alters or replaces the basic fact that I have to earn a living, and that my husband and I both would like to be living a bit more comfortably than we presently are, so as much as I might like to, I can't abandon all monetary concerns and become a self-unemployed bliss-following writer/researcher/emergency responder/philosopher. That does sound like a lovely retirement plan, but in the meantime, I've come to some realizations about work, as well. First, I can be essentially content with my life, if not my work hours, doing even the relatively unfulfilling, degree-irrelevant sorts of work that Liberal Arts and Humanities BA's often get stuck with, so long as I have those other productive, fulfilling aspects of my life to give me a sense of identity, progress, involvement, purpose, and self-worth.

Second, it's easier than I originally thought to find interesting and/or fulfilling work now that pays decently, even if it doesn't directly bear on either my current or future degree; that's where having a diverse set of interests helps. My job at the funeral home, for instance, has its challenges, but it's not the sort of thing anyone needs a degree of any sort for, and it's solidly below the level of responsibility that I'm technically qualified for- but it's interesting work, and it's deeply fulfilling to go home at the end of the day knowing that I have helped someone, even if only in a small way, at a moment when they badly needed it, so I am content; this is a good place to be for now, on my way to another eventual destination.

In A Pirate Looks at Fifty, Jimmy Buffett commented that when he was a child, a frustrated adult demanded to know what he wanted to do with his life; the young Buffett replied that he wanted to live a damned interesting one.

Me too.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Looking for some body...

Mission callouts from my SAR team leader all seem to take the same shape these days; the phone rings, and he asks, as usual, "What are you doing this weekend?"

I reply, as usual, "I don't know, but I have the feeling you're about to tell me." I also have the feeling it's going to involve dogs and probably at least one dead person (missing people who might be alive typically won't wait for a weekend; those happen on their schedule, not ours). As usual, I was right on all counts.

I don't get to see my SAR teammates nearly enough since I moved out here with Greg last year; it was a very sudden transition from seeing them all at least twice a week, often more, to maybe once every couple of months if time and gas money fell into place. These people, and most of the dogs, too, are like an adopted family to me, and I miss them, and part of me feels a little guilty about leaving. If this PCS move to El Paso goes through, it may be several more months before I can work with them at all, so when I got the call from my team leader the other day, there was the usual drive to find the missing, solve the mystery, help the family, but also a much more personal and sentimental reaction to getting to spend a weekend in the field with my team again.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I realized I had just done something slightly stupid; the medication for my Crohn's-related iritis dilates my pupil and makes me painfully and ridiculously photosenstive, to the extent that I can't tolerate sunlight even with two pairs of sunglasses on. The only solution, since I wasn't willing to miss the search, was skipping my medication for a couple of days. That went tremendously better than I honestly expected, though not without some moderate discomfort.

I make the comment on every search, and it always applies: "Why am I never following this guy and his border collie through anything pleasant?" Despite being nominally "in town," our search area this weekend was composed partially undeveloped and partially abandoned areas, full of brush and undergrowth as only Texas can do it; Greg came home with an inexplicable spot of poison ivy on the inside of elbow (seriously, how do you get poison ivy there?) and I managed to garb hold of a thorny vine this morning, so I spent a few minutes cussing and bleeding- but honestly, I live for this shit; the messier and harder the better. I'll take my adventures where I find them.

Heat was a major challenge this weekend; it limits the working time of both dogs and people, but the limits heat places on the dogs are narrower and less negotiable. Even an eager, willing dog cannot do scent work effectively in extreme heat, because the act of panting affects airflow through the nasal passages in ways that bypass most of the important bits for serious scenting, and because the heat changes the extent to which the scent itself emanates from the remains and the way those molecules behave. Our work was limited to half days, which meant early mornings, several hours of searching, and then lazy recuperative afternoons. That turns out to be a really pleasant combination; being clean and cool and lounging around with a good book and a glass of sweet tea is something you never really understand how much you fail to appreciate properly until you're doing it after a morning of sweat and dirt and soreness, and the tiredness itself is that vaguely pleasant kind that comes from having done something fulfilling.

The case itself was too interesting to pass up, and as we worked this weekend, we increasingly found that much about the situation and the information we had were difficult to make sense of (hence my comment on Twitter, during a break at base, that every case is different but some are more different than others). We spent some time at dinner last night comparing notes, exchanging ideas, and debating theories and fragments of theories; our informal version of debriefs, those discussions, especially when we're all loopy and giddy from exhaustion and heat, are always one of my favorite parts of the mission.

I'm really glad, as always, that my husband Greg is willing to do this work with me. Search and Rescue / Recovery is demanding work mentally, physically, and emotionally, and requires a commitment of time and resources that few people are willing or able to make; without understanding and supportive family members, it would be impossible to do what we do. I had hoped for and expected that support, but I'm continually amazed by and grateful for Greg's willingness to be actively involved with the team himself.

His training and competence are tremendous assets in the field. Just today, he ended up running communications at base (at least partially because he was mildly frustrated with civilian radio practices; this was when I learned that the word "repeat" in military radio protocol means "shoot it again" which is not something that comes up a lot in civilian applications). My teammates are like my family, and I don't lightly trust anyone to watch out for them, but I know I can count on Greg.

Besides, my teammates are like my family mostly because of the nature of this work. The hours together, the shared challenges and experiences, the moments of silliness and stress and triumph, and the emotional nature of what we do all form a bond that you sort of have to experience to understand. I'm glad that Greg and I get to share that too.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, One Day at a Time)