Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CBRIII #1: Trickster, An Anthropological Memoir by Eileen Kane

Eileen Kane is a professional anthropologist, with the fieldwork to prove it, but she made her mark in the world educating the rest of us shmucks, not the cognoscenti.  I think that was probably more valuable to us.

Her memoir of her first foray into fieldwork is replete with humour, detail and wisdom.

She spins the tale of a young female anthropologist venturing out with insecurity into a male dominated world, in 1964, right after her marriage, risking everything, including the cross looks from folk in her home town.

I am not an anthropologist, but if I was, I would prescribe this book as a primer to let people know how different the classroom is from the sloppy mess of real life.  Even for the anthro students, it paints a vivid picture of the changes going on in that field at the time.  She is sent to catalogue a language, make a census, and categorize a people.  Instead, she plunges deep into the qualitative world of understanding a people.

I will not reveal anything of her journey here, except to say that like any transformative journey, trickster was along side.  Here, you can just taste the beginning.

She arrives in a tiny impoverished town, to interview and catalogue the Paiute Indians.  She may as well have parachuted.  She is on her own, her letters of passage are lost, or hidden by mischievous helpers.   The only thing provided by her university is a vehicle, and they provide a labeled police car.  Very useful in earning the trust of her subjects.

No one adopts her in the cinematic fashion.  Everyone toys with her, and the children follow her and ply her with lies.  The elderly tempt her with hints of history and language, constantly delaying so as to retain the company and amusement.  They mislead her and send her on dead end hunts with their mytho tales.

And there is no malice.  The narrative weaves itself into a world where everyone plays at being simple country folk while all having, if not nefarious agendas, complicated and playful agendas.  They are heartfelt in wanting to help her, but it is the definition of help that is in question.  They dole out lore ever so slowly, as if enjoying her hunt.  They delight when she sweats about not being able to get her answers.

Kane uses the powerful tool of reflection to juxtapose the history of her own colourful town, and her emerging feminist awakenings with the stories she learns in the dusty town.

I cannot attest to whether she is a good anthropologist, but I can say she is a master of layering the complexity of experience and fully imbuing it with the mighty spirit of the trickster.  In this volume we get an ethnography of the Paiute, a coming of age tale, a story of feminist coming out, mischievous and magical tales of coyote, and a sober reflection of lessons learned young as reviewed by an elder.

I feel lucky to have only accidentally discovered this book (trickster laughs).  I am working hard at selling it to a professor for a paper.  I’d say wish me luck, but I can hear the snickering and trust the wind to go where it wants.

Find it here:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

High School in the Eighties.

I went to a progressive high school.  It had tiered classes, to adapt to student readiness(that was eventually quashed as some kind of Ayn Randiness).  It also had art, drama, philosophy and religion classes to complement the gym and shop classes.  I don’t know why they chose our school; we were a violent gang ridden school.

I was lucky to pass some time there as a youth.  I didn’t manage to graduate from that school, that came seven schools later.

But that isn’t this story.

In my first bout of high school, I drew up a carefully prepared presentation in my religion class using Chicken Shit Conformists, by the Dead Kennedys, as the soundtrack.  We devised an entire primitive religion and acted it out.  The entire scripture was based on the characters dim memories of the last burning light bulb.  It was a world of people trying to make sense of a world they didn’t understand. They prayed to fixtures and outlets.  And they were afraid to venture into the outside world—it was too big and too bright, and so they cowered in the bowels of an abandoned high school and built myths based on shadows and emptiness.  And so generations passed.

The power went out during our "performance" and the PA sounded an ominous deep voice asking "Are you there?  I need you to listen".  We worked it in to great dramatic effect.  Our primitive practitioner dropped everything he was doing and stared skyward at the voice.  The pronouncement ended and our heroic primitive was no more informed.  He eventually braved the outside world and then returned to try and tell his people that they were lost in an empty space, and that they could have freedom in an Eden.  They killed him.

My teacher let us finish up and then shuffled us off to the office and we were failed.  Too bad, we worked hard on it.  We had based it on the Old Testament and Platonic Philosophy (and some old punk know how). Oh well, youth!

This anecdote sums up my feelings about the relevance of high school.  You don’t even need a diploma to get into university.  If I would have known that back then, sheesh.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Freddie Mercury Was My First Punk Influence.

In my early teens, alienated and filled with dread, repressed and tightly wound,  I discovered punk.  It was the catalyst my brimming frustration hadn't known it was waiting for and it was transformative.

The music was full of rage, yet often exalting.  Swirling, sufi-like in a feverish mosh pit could only be described as rapturous.  It was fury and violence and a cathartic release of anguish.  and it was jubilant and fraternal.  Like for so many other odd uncomfortable kids, it was a lifeline.

I desperately wanted in, in a way I never had before.   Like it's sound, punk had a raw and angry look to it so I immediately set about building my new facade.  Iconoclasm and anti-conformism were clarion calls of the day so I didn't know that there was an accompanying uniformity to the uniform.

One of my early fashion moves, ripping into do-it-yourself punk, was to buy a Queen patch and sew it on my jean jacket.  I had found it at a “head” shop while on an early foray into the downtown scene.  Queen seemed to embody the same kind of bursting out feeling and raw power that I was now finding in punk.  I had no idea what was punk and what was not.  It seemed to me that was the point.

Wasn't this kind of punkish? :

So, my clumsy sweaty hands sewed my patch on.  Off I went, proud, into the night, to launch myself, now adorned, into the punk fray.

Perhaps you see where this is going?

I was dragged out of the pit, and several older guys held me down, kicked the snot out of me and then tore off my beloved Queen patch.  Then they threw me back in after calling me a fag. 

I didn’t understand what that word meant, though I had been called it before.  I didn't understand what had just happened.  In my mind, I tried to make it an initiation. 

Luckily, a few years later, queen made things 
clearer for the exceptionally obtuse:

Late that night, stumbling away into the night with my two friends, we deliriously relived our adventures, and our wounds, and I didn’t know what to say about the whole business with the Queen patch.  We had already built up a religion, fueled by Robert Heinlein and John Lennon, and punk was its new home.  This was our great violent alienated love.

I never did learn to fit in, but punk gradually learned to fit me in, one bruise at a time.  I did eventually learn what fag meant.  Punk's early homophobia is ironic in hindsight of one of it's elder statesmen, Jello Biafra, eventually coming out.  It wasn't the only time i ended up on the wrong side of fists for transgressing some gender role rule that I was unaware of.  I used to resist arguing, 'but I'm not gay'  because that seemed to legitimate the activity by only rejecting the identification process.

Punks eventually built a culture of tolerance, like a reservation for everyone who had been turned away elsewhere and the violence usually came from without, not within.  There was enough open season on punks without us hunting each other as well.

It almost makes no sense now, what with all the violence and addiction and crime, but it was a precious time in life.  Of course it wasn't a sensible time, it was a visceral time.  Everyone acting freely, if impulsively.  Little tribes cleaving together. A bughouse band living by our wits. Punk ceased to be a form of music and became more of a mantra about being.

I cherish those times and occasionally go on nostalgic punk music benders.   But to tell the truth, a quarter century later, I listen to Freddie Mercury far more often than Black Flag or The Accused.  And while i will always hear a little punk in Queen, that's way too small a label for their sound and his voice.