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)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Gravestone Project

All that nonsense about not doing any more cemetery stuff until the weather gets cooler pretty much went out the window last week when I discovered The Gravestone Project, courtesy of EarthTrek (although I'd like to point out that I did admit that decisionw ould probably only last until I saw something irresistibly interesting).

For the record, I'm an enthusiastic, if recent, fan of "citizen science" programs in general, partly because they're a clever and cost-effective way for researchers to gather certain kinds of basic but important data, partly because they're a really great hands-on public relations and educational tool, and partly because they're a nice combination of fun, worthwhile, and interesting (I'm working on a whole other blog post about the social and cultural implications of programs like EarthTrek, sites like Find-A-Grave, and other sites and programs that link online presence with offline task completion).

The Gravestone Project aims to plot global patterns in the severity of "acid rain" based on erosion of marble, which is particularly susceptible to its effects. This is accomplished by measuring marble gravestones and comparing their thickness at the base (which is less exposed to rain), the sides about midway up (which are slightly more exposed to rain) and the top (which is the most exposed), and comparing the difference in thickness (the amount of erosion, in other words). That difference, based on the age of the gravestone, lets the researchers calculate the extent of acid rain erosion during that time period in that location.

It seems like a worthwhile project, and I expect that seeking out marble gravestones and taking the measurements will give me something additional to do on cemetery outings, along with Find-A-Grave requests and my own iconography studies. If anyone is already involved in Find-A-Grave, this might be something worth considering.

I got a nice shiny set of digital calipers on Amazon (for about ten dollars including shipping); they just arrived in the mail today, so I'm all set to get started. I'm excited; I haven't measured things in the field since graduate school.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, One Day at a Time, and my gravestone and cemetery blog, Last Words)

Cool Note About Peat Bogs and Local Crafts

Cross-posted on my personal blog, One Day at a Time.

A recent post about bog bodies on Bones Don't Lie reminded me how awesome and interesting peat bogs are. The part of me that will always think of myself of an archaeologist is fascinated by their preservation potential.

On his way home for R&R just before our wedding last year, Greg's flight stopped in Ireland, and he brought home this gorgeous carving.

It was made by these people by kiln-firing and carving bog turf that's several thousand years old- older than some of the finds in that post I linked. My inner archaeologist had a "Squeee!" moment over that, and locally-crafted products are something else I'm a fan of.

I had a professor in college whose home office was decorated entirely with souvenirs his students had brought him over the years from their trips abroad; someday I imagine us having a similar room full of things Greg has brought back from these "business trips" the Army keeps sending him on.

Friday, August 12, 2011

This is EXACTLY What I Mean! Smurfs and Gender Identity

This is exactly what I meant in my previous rant about gender biases in children's media.

Philip N. Cohen posted a great article on Family Inequality about Smurfette.

I'm told that there are valid backstory reasons for having only one female Smurf (if you actually want to talk about validity and backstories and canon in reference to The Smurfs), and honestly it just struck me as the kind of careless world-design you can get away with in cartoons for very small children- look at the original Transformers cartoons for another good example of that. I never gave the Smurfs much thought beyond that bit of silliness; they didn't seem worth it, especially since children's culture really isn't my cup of tea and I'm much busier being a Transformers fangirl-in-training. As an interesting note about how Internet browsing works, I followed a link from Powered by Osteons on Twitter to an interesting article about hilariously misinterpreted demographic data, and from that I followed the link to the Smurfette article.

Dr. Cohen posted an image of the poster being used to advertise the Smurfs Happy Meals (yes, I love my gender-biased messages with a side order of grease and fat).

"This one likes to cook, this one is smart, this one is athletic, and this one is a girl. That's who she is and what she does." That's the message here.

This seems to be a recurring theme in children's toys and media; one gender gets to define itself in ways not tied to a gender identity- interests, hobbies, goals, skills- and the other is continually encouraged to define itself solely based on its gender identity.