Jim Writes an Email to an Anthropologist

If you are ever in the market for some great, current anthropology reading, head on over to Savage Minds. It’s a now 10 year old blog that “is devoted to ‘doing anthropology in public’ — providing well-written relevant discussion of sociocultural anthropology that everyone will find accessible.” I have found myself fascinated by many of their posts of late, by guest bloggers like John Hartigan, and Zoe Todd. So fascinated have I been, in fact, that I have been cold-call emailing the likes of the two aforementioned anthropologists, just to tell them I think they are awesome. Well, that, and to rant and rave.

In my mental perambulations around the globe and my own living room, I find certain issues to be rather sticky. Not as in terribly confusing, necessarily. More like duct tape or glue: I can’t shake them. They are perennial ponderings, and they have to do largely with my own identity and the colorful (read: fraught) history of anthropology. If you have a few extra minutes on your hands, you really should read “The We and Them of Anthropology.” It eloquently sums up some of the major mental roadblocks I have dealt with for years now. Things like the face of anthropology filled by white European males, sailing to distant ports and studying primitive peoples in the darkest jungles. And the post is totally not just about anthropology: it’s about sovereignty of the state, the individual, the identity of “aboriginal” peoples, and so much more. It’s really good.

Anyway, I decided to write the author, Zoe Todd, an email. The title this week, then, could be called something like “Jim Writes an Email to a Real Anthropologist” or “Jim Ponders the Meaning of Jim.” I post this today because I feel that so much of what I spend my time reading, writing, and thinking about revolves around many of these major themes: identity, cultural dissatisfaction, the search for truth, my guilt around being a white man. Does all of this have anything to do with fatherhood? Yes and no. No, because I’m not talking directly about fatherhood, but yes (resoundingly) because it has so much to do with my own father (how I was raised) and myself-as-father (how I will raise my son.) There will be plenty of overlap between the two, and plenty of divergence. But one thing is certain: my son is going to be one screwed up dude.

Below, you’ll find the contents of the email I wrote yesterday to Zoe Todd, a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. She also happens to be a member of the Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak ethnic group from Canada, so she writes, obviously, from what one could call an “aboriginal” perspective.

Dear Zoe,

First, thanks for taking the time to read what follows. Noting that you are a PhD candidate, I realize your time is probably constantly under fire on multiple fronts. You’ve certainly got much better things to be doing with your time than reading stray emails from random strangers. So, thanks for taking a bit of time out of your schedule.

Second, thanks for your recent guest posts on Savage Minds. I’ve been eagerly devouring your words of late. Your writing has dredged up some questions that have long lain dormant, and that now are begging to be answered.

I was hit especially hard by your post entitled “The We and Them of Anthropology.” It discussed a number of problems/concerns that I personally have been unable to satisfactorily solve for myself. It has to do with anthropology as “white public space” and the notion of “white men as buildings” and the concept of “committing anthropology.” It also has much to do with your statement “We don’t need anyone to give that (‘the ontological’) back to us, because we’ve held it all along” and, really, the whole piece.

I have been interested in anthropology for years now, though I’ve never formally studied it – it’s just never been the right time, the correct confluence of life puzzle pieces. I’m a white male, early 30’s, married to an amazing woman (the daughter of Argentine immigrants), and have an 8 month old son. (He’s also amazing.) I’ve done the Peace Corps, worked for NGOs, learned some languages, done shit tons of reading, blah blah blah blah. The usual story. I probably don’t have a whole lot to offer the world as concerns anthropology. Smarter people will do smarter things and have much more influence than I ever could. And the topics you raise make it that much more obvious: white men need to get the hell out of the way, possibly for good.

Every time I consider applying to graduate school in anthropology, these themes pop up. (Which is to say, every fall.) It’s been 8 years now, and I keep circling back, wanting to study anthropology. And I feel. like. an. impostor. You so eloquently said many things I’ve thought for years. And I’m torn right down the middle: between wanting to go back to school to selfishly study anthropology, and accepting the fact that the last thing anthropology (and indeed, myriad other fields and practices) needs is more middling white dudes pacing the halls.

I don’t even really know why I emailed you. I suppose I’m looking for someone to dialogue with on the matter. I suppose, too, it has something to do with my identity crisis – how I would love to have that sense of pride that comes with having a heritage that means something. I have spent the better part of my life wishing that I could be anything but American. Anything but the product of a “culture” that has left its people more tattered, fattened, mollified, entertained, padded, and isolated year after year. That’s probably what draws me to anthropology: the aspect of escapism it has traditionally offered. The exotic. The far-flung. The foreign. The exciting, harrowing, dangerous, unknown. (Though I do know that anthropology is changing, and is less often about the lone scholar hacking through rainforest to meet the lost tribes.)

Ugh. I don’t even know where all of this is going. I guess I just wanted to reach out to someone about my dilemma. And when you wrote that piece, it really hit me. Like a bell had been struck, reanimating suppressed yearnings, aches, questions. I suddenly needed to share this with you, because it felt like you had written that piece just for me.

Anyway, I would kill to hear some of your thoughts on the matter, but I understand that might not be a possibility. Either way, know that I’ve been really moved by your posts, and have been quite seriously chewing on all the sustenance you’ve provided of late.

Thanks again for reading this nonsense.


Jim Kasper

If Ms. Todd ever responds, I will post her response here. (Provided she is okay with that.)


We Are All Big-Brained Morons

Sometimes, babies do really dumb things. Ok, ok, a lot of the time babies do really dumb things. Take, for example, the other day: I had managed to wrangle our little bundle of joy back to sleep after a particularly early wake up call. My wife, productive and chipper, had left us for her schoolbooks. We two roustabouts remained in bed, surrounded by a wall of pillows. The wall is for him, though it’s not especially effective if he gets really motivated to make a break for the night stand and the things perched atop. Happily, dreamily, the two of us drifted back off to la-la-land. La la la.

I was awaked by a thwuuud. I wish I could play a recording of it for you. It might be the most horrific sound a new parent can hear: an infant hitting hardwood. Followed, naturally, by piercing screams. Yes, the baby had “fell off and bumped his head” as the classic story goes. He had probably been gunning for the cat, who likes to be where you’d expect the cat to be: at the foot of the bed. Sensing an impending fury of jerky baby fists, the cat no doubt bolted moments before the boy arrived on the scene. But something must have compelled him to continue exploring, out beyond the safety of the border made by the pillows. Some arcane, medieval instinct to push the boundaries of the plausible, to question God and the Church, to spin atoms of his own weird science, to stroke the dragon’s chin. Hell, he was probably just curious about the rug. And so he crawled right off the bed, and onto his infant skull. I must admit, he’s a tough little dude. He’ll cry and cry when he’s hungry or tired, but when he’s hurt, you get about nine good seconds and then he realizes, “Oh hell, I’m okay, let’s just move past this so I can keep getting into things.”

I got to thinking about why on earth babies are such idiots. (Why adults are such idiots may well be reserved for another post.) It just didn’t add up for me. How could a newborn fawn be darting around the forest floor within hours of being born when I was going to have to spend literally years teaching my own flesh and blood the most rudimentary of things? Why can’t babies pop out of mom fully formed like Will Ferrell?

The answer to these questions was waiting for me, again, in Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith F. Small. The reason, it turns, out, is evolutionary, Watson.

Infants of all kinds fall largely into two categories: those dubbed altricial and those marked precocial. Altricial (from the Latin root alere meaning “to nurse, rear, or nourish”) infants are those that are born relatively helpless – birds, rodents, cats, dogs. You can picture what I’m talking about. These are usually the creatures that look the grossest at birth: the hairless chicks and blind, swollen red mice. (Shudder.) Precocial infants are just the opposite: precocious. They are natural born badasses. Ungulates (hooved animals) are the most recognizable of the lot: horses, deer, wildebeests, etc. These babies are up and around and outrunning predators, in some cases, within minutes of being born. Good lord. It’s been nearly eight months and my son can hardly poop without assistance.

So, where are humans? Interestingly, humans are neither here nor there. (We always have to be so special, don’t we?) We are considered secondarily altricial. When means we had “precocially adapted ancestors and then, for some reason, evolved some altricial traits that now overlay that basic pattern.” What is the reason for this? It always seems to circle back to Kurt Vonnegut. The man was a god. It’s because of “our big brains.”

When we were in the process of branching off from our distant human ancestors, modern humans began walking more and more upright. This didn’t happen overnight. I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. But it eventually happened. Have you tried reverting lately? Go on. Get down on all fours and try to get through your day. See how well that goes for you. Our forebears may have looked similarly ludicrous as they toddled their way onto two legs. But the change did take place, and with it, some rearranging of our anatomy. To make a long story short, women’s hips and pelvises contorted a whole hell of a lot. Some compromises were made to allow us humans the luxury of bipedalism. And what was once a roomy and luxurious hallway for an infant became a cave of convex horrors. Do you know what a human baby has to do to be born? We might all be Olympic gymnasts. This is made even more absurd by the fact that we have the biggest brains of all (the primates). Natural selection erred in our favor, intellectually speaking. But it made our craniums bulb out and our moms grunt more in childbirth. Instead of getting super cool fully formed, ready to rock limbs, we got bulbous heads with rapidly expanding brains. But even that has a catch to it, because of our bipedalism. Because babies have to squeeze through the labyrinth that is the modern female pelvis, they needed moldable skulls – ones with shifting, plastic-y plates, actually. And we can’t wait to be born. Our brains start blooming the minute we’re born, and expand more rapidly than any other animal – for an entire year. In fact, R.D. Martin, a paleontologist, claims that humans really have a “twenty-one-month gestation: nine months in utero followed by twelve months outside.” The accomplishments the human infant achieves in the first year of life on earth are a miracle to behold: eyesight, emotional responsiveness, movement, a voice, standing, crawling, walking, eating. It’s truly amazing.

But, lest we grow fat, gorging ourselves on the sycophantic sound of our own horns, remember this: my month old pig is smarter than your year old honor student. We are actually at a severe, acute disadvantage if the animals ever decide they’ve had enough and move to gang up on us. How well will your 16 month old do versus a feral horse of the same age? Not pretty people.

So, please, protect your babies, especially if they are under a year old: they are really just big-brained morons who don’t yet belong in the realities of the physical world. And, if at all possible, do all of your sleeping on the floor so there’s no bed for anyone to fall out of.

The One about the End of the World

My wife has encouraged me to add more humor to my blog posts. I’m more than willing to oblige her. Next week. This week, it’s all doom and gloom. Seriously, though, this week the topic is awful. I’m not joking here. If you are feeling good about the world and don’t care to destroy the remainder of your happy, sunny day, then do read on, do. You have been warned.

I suppose it’s about time I discussed something that’s been bothering me for a while now. It all started when I read this article on artificial intelligence. (If you’ve not heard of waitbutwhy, you have now, and you have absolutely no excuse not to read every piece of fantastic, trivial, über important, hallowed writing this blog writer summons with his keyboard.)

Now that I think of it, it started before that AI article. It actually started with this. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, “Uncivilization.”

Dang it, no. No. To be completely fair, it actually started with this.

Or maybe with all of them, simultaneously.

The fact of the matter is, my worldview has undergone some radical ass transformations in the past year. And not just because I became a father, though, that’s obviously a gigantic part of the transformation. The change I’ve undergone is multifaceted, and a big piece of the puzzle lies in what I’ve been intellectually consuming over the past year.

My recent reading/viewing/thinking/learning has focused a lot on cosmology. The structure of the universe, our place within it. (Our lonely, lonely place within it.) As I gained a better grasp of the universe (as we currently understand it) I began doing what everyone who studies the universe does: shitting my pants, wheedling away at my own self-importance, insignificant-izing my petty existence as some mere speck, some mote bereft of meaning on a far-flung oceanic rock. I began to move beyond this mere vision of stranded human civilization, and I acknowledged that we probably knew a few things about a few things. Not much, but not absolutely nothing either. That’s when I realized we were probably totally screwed – because we knew a little bit about all the crazy chemicals we were pumping into the air-water-soil-bones of the planet/ourselves. We knew a little bit about the cost of nuclear weaponry and internal combustion engines and rocketry and conflict diamonds and industrial agriculture. But we didn’t seem to know enough to stop. (And we still don’t.)

Around this time, The Dark Mountain Manifesto crossed paths with me, and then shortly thereafter (while listening to The Flaming Lips’ The Terror) I stumbled upon the AI article. My son happened to be born during this fracas. I welcomed him into the world with open, loving, excited arms. But I could not have been more plagued by doubts, could not have had more inner turmoil surrounding my own selfish desire to bring a fragile new life into a world so clearly (as I see it) on a path to its own immolation.

So, what is it, exactly, that’s bothering me? The pesky thing is multifaceted. It has something to do with all of the following:

-human overpopulation, ecocide, 6th mass extinction, imminent rise of artificial superintelligence, apathetic and/or bellicose approach toward everything and anything living that is not human

I could make a list a mile long, but I’m trying to complain a little less these days.

In short, I feel like we are on the edge of a precipice, of total global collapse. The Dark Mountain Manifesto, entitled “Uncivilization” says it well:

“And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.”

And still the predominant myths of our culture tell us that everything is going to be alright, tomorrow will be better and brighter, technology and convenience will solve these myriad crises, the next round of political puppetry will change the course of blah blah blah blah blah.

I’m kind of fed up with all of it. I want to bury my head in the sand, ostrich-like. Take in the view of the world beneath the soil: dark, teeming with minutiae. Forget about the reek and roil above and around me. In short, I often want to abandon humanity, abandon society, abandon empathy. I’m a bit sick of trying so hard to give a shit about any of it. 7+ billion people. And counting. And the vast majority of those people haven’t the foggiest, don’t give the damnedest, or are actively trying their hardest to fuck it all up. Sure, there are fringe movements: there have always been fringe movements. But their offerings are consolatory, palliative – nothing substantial, nothing world-changing, nothing that will utterly reverse the endless crashing tide of doomed humanity.

Do you want me to get really real for a minute? Here it is. Here is what I honestly believe in my bones: I think I will witness with my own eyes something akin to the apocalypse. I don’t know what will usher it in, whether superintelligent robots or the collapse of the global economy or WWIII or rising ocean levels or depletion of the ozone layer or a rise in global temperatures in excess of 3 degrees celsius or the 6th great mass extinction or worldwide pandemic or population bubble burst or any other awful thing. And I may be an old, old man when it happens, but I think it’s going to happen. I think that something really really REALLY bad and/or irreversible is going to go down, and it’s most likely going to be our own damn fault. And if it happens when I’m 90, I’ll be too old to care. But my son will be 60, and he just might care. And his hypothetical 30 year old son will definitely care, as this will be around the time his own wife is giving birth to his first son – my great grandson. Right about the time she goes into labor, the world is going to collapse. You think I’m joking. I’m not. I’m convinced of this. Do I live in fear? Absolutely not. There’s little I can do to reverse innate human heinousness and the avarice-backed collective end that will be the full stop at the end of our human sentence- if it’s not me, then it’s theoretically any one of 7+ billion human beings who will “pull the trigger” as it were. And by the way, 7+ billion human beings is way too many. I think that when God said “Be fruitful and multiply” and “Fill the earth and subdue it”, he didn’t have this kind of thing in mind:

eco-deforestation-tree-removal1 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-15 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-12 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-14 planet-pollution-overdevelopment-overpopulation-overshoot-7

And yet… I still think there is hope. No, not hope to reverse the downward spiral. Ha! Don’t be so optimistic. I think there is a kind of hope in our daily existence that we can really, truly find joy and meaning and fulfillment and peace and security in. And to be perfectly honest, I am reluctant to even finish the post on a high note. I think we need to discuss the really hard stuff more than we do. We need to sit around with loved ones and talk about our darkest fears and secrets. But too often we do not. My fear in ending this post on the proverbial high note is that the ruthless melancholy of it will be mitigated by such a step. That the underlying darkness will be assuaged by a pinprick of Disney-style, “but it’s all going to be fine in the end!” I don’t really think it will all be fine in the end. But, for those of you who need a little bit of denouement that doesn’t involve extinction and nothingness, I’ve got something for you. And it is summed up well by one of my favorite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, in one of his best novels, The Sirens of Titan:

“It took us a long time to realize that the purpose of human life… is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

So, there you have it. We’re doomed. But you know what? We’ve always been doomed. No one is immortal. So hug the ones you love, open another beer, and enjoy the ride.

A Dinka Boyhood? (Mysterious Photographs)

I blew it this week. In writing this blog, I aspire to post something meaningful, well-crafted, and of great quality, preferably once per week. My inaugural post happened to enter the digital universe on a Monday, so Monday became the de facto “day I post new stuff.” This past week (and weekend) got away from me entirely. My post on an exceptionally interesting multicultural study of children got shuffled toward the back of the “to do” deck, and instead of rushing to put it up, I think I’ll wait and do it right and get it out next week. However, I didn’t feel right about not doing anything at all. I intend never to let this become a chore: if I can’t happily, willingly, excitedly come up with a new post each week, I’d rather opt for nothing at all than filler material. I thought I was entrenched firmly in the “oh shit I didn’t finish anything for this week and so I won’t post anything” camp. And then I remembered a set of photographs my wife shared with me a few days ago.

The following link will take you to the page she shared with me, where you will find large-format photos pegged one right after another for your viewing pleasure: Dinka

This link will take you to the photographers’ website, which is much more polished, but much less conducive to scrolling through these wonderful images in large-format, all in one page: Dinka – Photographer site

The photos revolve around the Dinka tribe from South Sudan. The movie God Grew Tired of Us and the book What is the What both deal with the “Lost Boys” of Sudan – many of whom were Dinka by tribe. If you’ve not experienced either of these, you should make it a point to do so soon.

It has been quite a while since I’ve thought much about the Dinka people. I have, over the years, had the opportunity to briefly chat to young people who identified themselves as Dinka; all of them I have met in Atlanta, living as refugees. For about a year, I found myself living a stone’s throw from the Sudanese (then, all of a sudden one morning, South* Sudanese) border, but I never found time nor legitimate reason to cross it. I don’t know a ton about the Dinka, but what I do know is fascinating: the kind of stuff that we in the (over)developed world can hardly wrap our minds around these days.

(*A new country had been born! A new president sworn in! The exhilarated, liberated masses were thronging in the newly minted capital city of Juba. And slowly, stealthily, Ugandan armored personnel carriers and even tanks rumbled leopard-like through slumbering villages and far-flung hamlets, lining their rigid steel spines along the border, readying their artillery: preparing for the worst. Weeks passed, months. Then, things began crumbling. Political killings and reprisals slipped into our Western news streams just as whole villages fled the muzzles of guns and the glint of swords. We focused intently on the action for a few days – perhaps a week, even – and grew tired of it, moved on, found some other more popular, fresher source of pain and moved our cameras away from South Sudan.)

I really have a lot to rant about when it comes to the news.

But I digress.

What I want to share with you is one photograph in particular from this small collection on the Dinka. Now, before you go scrolling down past it on to the rest of the text on this page, I want you to stop. That’s right, stop. Look at the photo. Really give it a good eyeballing. There’s no need to rush. You can spare 30 seconds. A minute even. Now, go ahead and look at it. A nice long look. When you’ve gotten a good look, you can move on to some questions I found myself asking. Maybe you’ll have similar questions. Maybe you can answer some of the mysteries I found myself viewing. Anyway, go ahead and look at the photo now.

Dinka boys on mound

What do you notice? What do you see?

What can you say about the boys’ faces? Are they happy? Sad? Indifferent? Bored? Invested in something going on in the mound?

Speaking of – what the hell is the mound? Is it a termite hill? A reptile’s nest? A temporary oven? A grave? A stump being removed? A fire just for fire’s sake? Something to keep everyone warm? To produce ash for use in some ritual?

What’s in the background? What is that sheep on the right in the foreground doing?

Where are the adults? Where are the other children?

Is this morning, or evening? Is there a bath in these boys’ immediate future? In their immediate past?

I can’t find a caption for this photograph, and so all of these questions are mysteries to me. I’m curious about what’s happening here. I’d love to hear your thoughts. It’s not important that I solve the mystery; no lives are hanging in the balance, after all. I’m just curious. And, pensive I suppose.

How old are these boys? 4? 5? 6? What will my son be doing when he is their age? He almost certainly won’t be doing what these boys are doing – whatever the hell that may be. But, will he be that naked, that free, that unfettered? Will I allow him to get that dirty, to play that close to smoldering mounds? Will I allow him to tramp the neighborhoods with other boys his age, and let them throw rocks and break bottles and get stung by bees? I don’t know. I like to think so, yes. But, I’ve already noticed how protective of him I am. I brought him into this world; by god I plan to keep him safe and sound as much as I can. That’s one of my main charges as his father. But isn’t it equally important to let him live? To let him explore, and make mistakes, and get cut squeezing under old rusty fences?

Throughout, I hope I can have the poise of the dog pictured on the left: dozing peacefully, yet still alert. Resting gently on his charge, but not overbearing. Enjoying the calm of the moment, yet ready to fight to the death to protect if need be.

Do Monkeys Make Good Fathers?

We move back into the realm of the real this week with an exploration of paternal instinct. Do men have one? Or is this wishful thinking?

I dove headfirst into yet another book that I’m sure I’ll be referring to frequently in future posts:

Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meredith F. Small (professor of anthropology at Cornell).

There is a relatively tiny and unassuming section of the first chapter (which is titled “The Evolution of Babies”) labeled, “Is there a paternal instinct?” For a bit of context, Small has just finished elucidating mankind’s current best conception of how the hell we all got here: biological evolution, painfully enacted over millions of years. She focuses on the physiological gymnastics the human body had to go through to achieve upright bipedalism. (Damn you, early humans! We could still be swinging from the trees!) This is interesting in and of itself, of course, but I’m not writing about human labor and birth, nor about things like the skeletal remains of Homo habilis.

(And yet, I am. I am writing about these things, inasmuch as they are inseparable from the nexus of my topic. One cannot write about these things out of context. These concepts do not exist in a void. It requires the full litany of human development – from the first hominid stalking prey to the modern midwife double checking correct dosages on her smartphone – to really understand all of this. What I really mean when I say, “but I’m not writing about…” is simply that here, in this post, in this installment or whatever, I am not discussing these things specifically. The fount of human knowledge – deep, almost limitless as it is – informs what I’m trying to write about. I can’t separate these realities any more than I can separate my soul from my body. Each one affects every other. So, when I’m writing about paternal instincts, I’m really writing, also, about the divergent paths of our ancestors and the evolutionary nature of the mind and the existence of couvade syndrome and modern conceptions of masculinity and all the rest. It’s like I’m writing about thousands upon thousands of topics all at once, combing through the vast library of human wisdom for answers to specific inquiries of the moment. I can’t answer these inquiries without outside, relational knowledge and information. I can’t begin to tackle the question of innate male instincts without, at very least, some tacit nod to my (feeble) understanding of the myriad processes and avenues used to discuss maleness as a whole. Or perhaps even broader – personhood as a whole, or even existence as a whole.)

Oh boy. This has gone absurdly far off track. Back to paternalistic instinct…

What was I saying? Ah yes: Our researcher in question, Meredith Small, basically says, “hey, womens’ bodies have evolved over millions of years to give birth to babies in a specific fashion. This evolution (co-evolution really, taking into account the baby involved in the birthing) has had a profound impact on the way women react to the newborn – namely, they love the shit out of it. But fathers, where are fathers in all of this? Sitting at the entrance to the cave, playing with themselves. (An image which, all things considered, hasn’t really changed much over the eons.)

Perhaps we need some help to illustrate our point. Let’s invite a newly minted father to act as our guide. Please welcome Uhd. Uhd is a brand new father. He is the adult male who just moments ago was seen scratching his balls at the entrance to his cave. His darling baby girl was born minutes ago. Uhd is stunned: he’s never seen anything so beautiful in all his life. The hands and fingers are perfect, the legs and toes flawless. This little creature bears a striking resemblance to Uhd himself and to Uhd’s cave-partner, a female of his same species. Now, Uhd’s emotional range is little more than that of a fruit bat, but he feels something deep within, welling up from pools of unknown depths: joy, love, loyalty, ownership. Just moments before, Uhd was content to lounge about the mouth of his lair, slaying the stray mammal that happened upon him. His world was little more than: kill, eat, screw, sleep, repeat. Now, however, his world has been blown to fucking pieces. Uhd’s purview has gone from picking his teeth and sharpening his spear to keeping a baby alive. Quite a tall order for a neanderthal.

So, has evolution (or god, or whatever) equipped Uhd to deal with all – or any – of this? Is it possible that Uhd is hard-wired to care for his baby girl? Or is he doomed to wander the forgotten halls of ineptitude? Doomed to scratch his junk at his cave’s doorstep while his female counterpart handles the dirty, endless, often thankless work of rearing his young? Dr. Small believes there is, in fact, such a thing as paternal instinct. And, according to her, it can be just as strong as the maternal one for which mothers claim renown.

Consider the following excerpts:

“In one study mothers and fathers were wired to chart their heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance, and were then shown photographs of babies in various states of emotion – smiling and crying. Physiological measurements showed that the two parents reacted the same, supporting the notion that mothers and fathers have the same biological reactions to their babies.”

And further along in the same section:

“Babies, too, seem to experience little difference in their reactions to their mothers and their fathers. In experiments where babies were monitored for reactions to a mother, a father, and a stranger, babies clearly distinguished the stranger from the parent… but they made little distinction between mother and father. Babies did, when under stress, connect more with mothers; but if everything was calm, they were just as happy to see the father.”

None of this is necessarily shocking: Babies prefer their parents to strangers, and, when distressed, their mothers to their fathers. It is interesting, however, to note that when “everything was calm” that the babies were “just as happy to see the father.” Without delving too deeply into that, and similar, studies, I’m feeling pretty good about my connection to my kid – and the connection he feels toward me. It would seem that mom, dad, and baby are biologically hardwired to connect. That is, Uhd’s cave partner, Uhd, and little baby Udg, are evolutionarily engineered to respond to each other in a synaptic fashion.

This “innate connection” may not come as a surprise in an era of “overprotective” parenting, where it can seem like what both parents and children need most is a little more time to simply be, but maybe it should. It should probably surprise us a little, because biparental care (care in which fathers are as actively involved as mothers) is found “in less than 5 percent of mammalian species.” Whaaa? Let’s review that quickly: Less than 5 percent of mammal babies have fathers who help out. And here, “help out”, can mean something as simple as providing warmth or food. Let’s not miss this: Ninety five percent of all the world’s mammals have shitty, absentee fathers. And you thought your dad was lousy.

Now, in all fairness, primates (including humans) happen to top that list, but even so, the list is relatively short. Evolution, it would seem, has opted in 95% of cases (in the mammal world) to let the father off the hook. Still, those 5% include many primates and humans – the most advanced forms of life on the planet. (We might tackle birds later. In fact, I feel like I have to talk about birds at some point in the future – a whopping 90% or more of bird species exhibit paternal care characteristics. If I’m reincarnated, I hope like hell I’m a falcon or sparrow or something with wings.)

Back to our question: Are men primed to behave in a paternalistic manner? Small believes so. She cites studies that point to a father’s “instantaneous connection” with a newborn, and others that report fathers as “having the exact emotions that mothers do upon seeing their newborns” including following the “same sequence of touching the new baby [like mothers], from fingers and toes inward.”

This might not seem like so much, but keep in mind that fields like neuroscience are essentially in their infancy: a LOT of research has not even been thought of yet, let alone conducted. And also, keep in mind that this meager blog of mine is about as far from exhaustive as you can get. I’m happy to present interesting concepts like the one being discussed today, but for authority on such matters, you’ll need to look much deeper. And lastly, there is more to be said on this topic and I have some more articles I’d like to explore. I imagine I’ll explore these in a future post – Something like, Do Monkeys Make Good Fathers? Part 2. The answer to that question, by the way, is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. It all depends on the monkey. Marmosets are great fathers, while Barbary macaques are total assholes.


Small, Meredith F.

1998. Our Babies, Ourselves. New York: Anchor Books

A Short Ethnographic Fiction – Part 2

This is Part 2 of an untitled ethnographic fiction short story about Gaza fathers and their children with cancer. Part 1 is here.

That had been weeks ago, weeks before the ghostly still outpost and no sign of the truck that would carry him across the border. Weeks before the dilation of the boy’s pupils and the first premonitions of death. Weeks before the raindrops began slipping out of the grim sky. (He felt several raindrops on his cheek now.) Weeks before… before it all began to fully, finally unravel. (He forced images from his mind, images of blood-stained pottery strewn on trampled crops.)

He could see the border in the distance: the wire looping archly atop impossibly tall fences; the commandos pacing mechanically, the dilapidated buildings. Far, far away, to the east, the man saw a city. It was shining under the furnace of a full sun, and the towers and spires breathed this blessed light back to the heavens. (The man stood in shadow, the unmoving cloudbank ruthless. He could see the line the sunlight stamped on the horizon far away.) He couldn’t bear to look at it: he was sure he was going there; he had never been anyplace like that. Tremors whispered along his spine. They wouldn’t let him in. He’d be run from that place like a dog, like a plague. A moaning brought him back. He looked toward the boy, despairing, hoping to not find him there; hoping, instead, to find him borne away by solemn angels. To paradise, to the release of pain. But the boy was there (or that which was the boy’s body, that which served to execute his lower functions). His eyes were hidden by eyelids sewn together with pain. A grimace wracked his entire frame. This happened often; there was nothing to be done. The man, gently resting his hand on the boy’s head, tried to imagine what must be happening inside the boy’s body during these bouts. His was never the most vivid of imaginations; he knew only that he had never experienced anything that looked so painful – so depriving – in all his life. He felt tears on his cheeks. Or was it more rain drops? He was so tired. All his life, he had been tired. There was always work to be done, crops to tend, roofs to repair, sick to mend, children to feed. But he was tired now, a bone weariness that frightened him. He shook his head. The body under his hand had ceased its trembling. The boy had finished his cycle of pain. The man withdrew his hand from the boy and brought it to his own face, resting his chin in the curve of rough skin that formed the palm. He closed his eyes, and drew a deep breath.

An uneven, murky light filled the air around him. Was it dusk? Dawn? Difficult to tell. He found himself on a road that stretched out interminably, disappearing only when it crested a hill and dipped out of sight. The road was utterly empty. The surrounding landscape was equally bereft of meaning. He was walking at an abnormally fleet pace. Was he being followed? Was he trying to get somewhere? He couldn’t place the feeling. He continued moving his legs, kept pumping his arms to provide momentum. His gaze was locked on the hill in the distance, on where the road blinked out of sight near the crest. Somehow he knew he was going to whatever was just beyond that point, whatever lay just out of sight. Presently, he noticed vegetation growing alongside the road. This suprised him; he’d not remembered seeing any just moments before. He lengthened his stride, pressed on. The vegetation grew thicker, taller, closer. There were trees now, and vines stetching between them. He quickened his step, mopped his brow. His nerves were beginning to feel plucked like some abused instrument. A canopy of trees now covered the road. Strange noises, animal noises, filled the air. The light faded by degrees, the air grew stagnant and close. Surely this was not the road he had been trodding moments before! It felt suddenly like a jungle – a jungle in the West Bank! He was now wading through knee-high grasses. The road curved sharply ahead, just beyond the boles of two great trees, whose trunks, nearly touching, shrunk the road to little more than a footpath. He slowed. He stopped. His breath came in long, uneven gasps. He doubled over, put his hands on his knees, grabbed at a branch to steady himself. It was nearly dark. Suddenly, noiselessly, two figures converged on him, moving from either side of the path. The shapes belonged to men, but the man could not make out their features. They drew up close. The man stood petrified, his joints locked. Their voices were strange, but their language was his, mostly. They were admonishing him. Demanding to know things. Curious about where he had been. What had he done with the boy? Why had he abandoned the child to die? How came he by this road? How dare he flee! Where did he think he would go? The man reeled and fell to the ground. His teeth closed hard on his tongue; he tasted blood. No! he shouted. You are mistaken! Please! I did not abandon my son! I would never abandon the child! I don’t know what you’re talking about! Please, help me. I’m lost! What have they done to my boy? The two figures opened their mouths: something vile poured forth, unfurling like tongues of smoke. Cackling: low, cruel, soulless. Why did you ever make this journey, fool? Their eyes burst into livid flame, their teeth chattered and they threw their heads back in peals of derisive laughter. One of the two came toward the man, lifted an arm above his head. The arm came down, a hammer on an anvil. His head lit up with pain, with sparks. He tasted the blood again. The arm was lifted up again, and brought down once more with joyful ferocity upon his head. His teeth sank further into his punctured tongue. The arm with the hammer for a hand drew up once more, this time much higher, as if to make this blow the final strike. The man closed his eyes, too terrified, too helpless to fight back or retreat or defend himself. He waited for the end to come.

It never did. Instead, a voice split the air.

“Wake up! Wake up, wake up, wake up, lazy bag of bones! We don’t have all day. The sun is sinking behind us already, and we’re here waiting on your stinking Gazan carcasse to wake up. Unsurprising, considering you’re a Gazan: sleep the day away, eh? Am I right boys?” At this, a modest cheer erupted from the back of an open flatbed truck whose diesel fumes were filling the evening air. The man lying on the ground grabbed at his head, looked about him. The boy had already been lifted onto the truck’s bed by several energetic persons. His inert form was lying prone on a homemade stretcher. The man could see the boy’s chest rising and falling. He sighed relief. He tasted blood; putting a finger in his mouth revealed a raw wound. He had bitten his tongue in his sleep. “And I’ll clip you again on the head, you lazy bastard, if you don’t get up and get you in the back of that truck!” What kind of country can you build for yourself, boys, if you lay around sleeping all day like these Arabs, eh?” The soldier mimed a man at repose, to the delight of the ‘boys’ filling the rumbling truck bed. The soldier pointed at the man whose mouth tasted of blood, the man who had been waiting for a truck to carry him across the border. “You, my friend. Are you coming, or not? We will be happy to leave you here to wait for the next truck – whenever that may be!” His Arabic was lousy, but the man rubbing his jaw had no delusions about the threat. He climbed gingerly onto the lorry, rubbing his aching face as the truck lurched into motion. The man laid his hand to rest gently on the boy’s arm. Ahead, far, far in the distance, but visible to the strained eye – the border, the crossing, hope.

The man sitting by the window in the clinic noticed movement in the distance. This was hardly unusual: the city teemed with life at all hours. He went back to dozing numbly. Several minutes passed, and he extended his gaze once more through the double-paned glass. Where there had been mere movement moments ago, he seemed to see something more. It looked like… a person. Two people, perhaps? He, or she, or they, were moving rapidly in the direction of the clinic; their line was less that of a human and more that of a bee or a dog. Frenzied, erratic. The man blinked, widening his eyes, then pulled himself fully upright. He focused his aging eyes directly onto the strange scene unfolding below, growing closer with each passing second. It was a figure – a man? – running. There was something in the man’s arms, hanging limp. A child? A boy. The clinic was solidly constructed: no sound came through from the outside world. The man sitting rigid, tensed, in his chair by the window could see the running man’s mouth moving: he was shouting, sobbing. There were tears streaming down his cheeks. The boy’s limp form – corpse? – jangled recklessly, almost comically against the maddened, sprinting strides of the man. From underneath the sitting man’s window, clinic staff appeared, rushing out to the running, stumbling, weeping man with the boy in his arms. The sitting man was now standing at the window, his palms pressed against the pane, his heart thumping hard against the cool of the glass. The running man had collapsed. They boy was being hurried away to the clinic by staff members who were waving arms and shaking their heads. The man in the grass, on his knees, lifted his skinny fists like antennas toward heaven, toward the infinite above. No sound came to the man standing behind the pane of glass. But he could see the man in the grass shaking, shouting, sobbing, finally collapsing in a spasm of surrender. He turned back to face the child lying still in the bed on the other side of the room. He thought of the boy being carried into the clinic at this moment. Would the child live? Was he already dead? Had he been dead (that is, doomed to die, beyond saving) for days, weeks even?
The man at the window slumped into the rigid, upright chair, grinding his eyeballs into his knuckles. In doing so, he bit down ever so gently on his tongue. The pain shot through him like an arrow. He stuck a finger in his mouth to survey the damage. He felt the old scar there, right where it had been for some time now – on his tongue. He tasted a faintness, an iron something, a tang of blood. And he looked at his faint reflection in the glass of the window, and he looked across the room at the boy who had lived long enough to live a bit longer by the help of doctors, nurses, and machines, and he thought of that day, perhaps a year ago now, maybe more, maybe less, but somewhere near a year ago, when he had been waiting for an eternity for a truck to come carry him across.

A Short Story – An Ethnographic Fiction

The sun had not yet risen. The horizon was an inky muddle of gray; something far, far away. The man had not yet woken. The chair in which he sat – chin resting on his breastbone, shoulders slumped – was made of metal and plastic. It was unyielding, rigid, upright. How the man ever managed to sleep in the chair was a matter of some speculation among the clinic’s staff. Some posited that he must have drunk himself to sleep on the draught of some flask hidden among the folds of his clothing; others declared that he did not in fact sleep, but simply rested, eyes closed, weary frame folded in on itself. Still others claimed they never saw him eat or drink, or use the bathroom. But all of this was the province of conjecture, from a staff as equally bereft of rest as the man crumpled in the rigid, upright chair by the window.

A bank of monitors, lights bickering incessantly, lit up the far wall of the room. Numbers streamed in a constant line down one, a twitching line ran up another, and others were – to the man sleeping in the chair – cryptic enough to be a code embedded by some enemy military. The monitors bathed the far wall in a perpetual twilight. They fought the sun’s light during the day and engulfed the moon’s meager offerings by night. How anyone ever managed to sleep – not just the man in the chair but anyone staying on the ward – was an even deeper mystery to the nurses who shuttled patients back and forth all day, inserting tubes and checking vitals. And yet, the man went on sleeping in the chair, erect as a sphinx. And the boy in the bed went on sleeping, his chest rising and falling in regular beats like some drum struck by a shaman. The boy had been sleeping for hours now. Days, weeks, months. A year? The sleeping man had lost track. The hours streamed into the days which tumbled like river rocks over the weeks. Would it really be time for the season of fasting again soon? The sterile tile whitening the floor, walls, and ceilings wouldn’t offer any suggestions. The low buzz of dimmed fluorescent lights overhead, hung from walls, leering out of corners, remained silent. And so the room carried on in much the same way it had for days, weeks, and even months now: powered by an endless supply of coal-based energy, and propelled by an equally endless supply of the human capacity to endure suffering.

The sun had not yet risen, but it was on its way. The man began to stir. Almost imperceptibly, his eyebrows twitched, followed by his foot. Something like a sigh passed his lips. A technician entered the room, walked briskly toward the bank of monitors behind the boy’s bed, nodded satisfactorily (if not a bit mechanically) and walked back out. The door was never shut, so there was never fear of waking either the man or the boy with sounds of creaking hinges or snapping latches.

Soon, a nurse entered the room. She walked with tender steps toward the man stirring gently in the chair by the window. She stooped over him and tenderly replaced the frayed blanket which had slipped from the man’s lap. The nurse then approached the boy in the bed. She placed a warm hand on his forehead, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. He felt warmer than she had expected, though he wasn’t running a fever. She began speaking to him, softly, and in a language she knew he couldn’t understand. Even so, it was better than nothing. She knew the hardships the boy and the man had faced in coming here: the wife and mother and children and siblings left behind, the near impossibility of return, the exclusion and isolation, the loss of identity, the language barrier, the cultural impasses faced on a dizzyingly consistent basis.

When the sleeping man finally arose, the sun had just split the horizon. It was impossibly blockaded by clouds. The scene was gray, yet somehow hallowed. Disorder reigned in the city far to the east. Lines of cars could be seen snaking their way up and through intricately, poorly designed highway systems. Faint sparks of sunlight, occasionally escaping the towering wall of cloud, glinted off of buildings which thrust their spires crudely at heaven. Heaven. What a word. What a mirage. Smoke billowed up endlessly, spewn from great furnaces belching in hollow metal bellies below the city’s bloated skin. The man had never seen so many cars, so many things moving, so much metal, so much polished, gleaming handiwork. Hardly anything in his world worked. Here, jets cut the sky overhead, trains shook the earth. The world was busy, the world was at work, moving, spinning, traveling, circling around itself. The men went here, now there, now here again. On apace, the women did the same. It all revolved back on itself. And still, the man had never seen so many riches.

His eyes refocused on the room behind him. On the bed opposite. On his son, comatose, breathing steadily, pale as death. He watched the internal goings-on of the clinic. The men and women came and went, gaily, passing candy to their children, speaking freely of things the man could neither understand nor guess at. It had been some time since he had spoken to anyone in anything but shattered phrases.

The man was waiting for the truck that would carry him across. He had been waiting for three days. The sky, hung with clouds like curtains, had not parted them in all that time. It rained sporadically: the rains would soon be at hand. But fortunately, nothing beyond a few stray warning shots had been felt. A real rain would have swamped the man now and ruined his plans. He was already several days away from his home, and to turn back now would be disastrous. The old man in the market had assured him the truck would come to carry him across the border. “Make no mistake about it: the truck will come”. “When??” he felt like shouting. Clouds rolled over clouds, banks upon banks, serpents coiling and uncoiling their might. He felt several drops on his hand – little things, nothing to worry about. The rainy season was weeks away, or so it always had been. The seasons were shifting, creeping inexorably each year. Things, many things, were different. Many things were now broken that had always been whole. The man wondered if the pieces would ever fit back together – like an earthen pot he had once mended as a young boy. “Enough to hold water”, his grandmother had told him. “That jar will never be perfect again, never what it once was. But if you can patch it enough to hold water, we can count it as a blessing.” He had moved his unskilled hands, heavy with mud, over the scars and seams of the pot during the course of one interminable day. The rain filled it that night, and sure enough, the water was still there by morning. But one could see the mender’s work – could touch and feel the scabs that would never hold as firmly as the original clay. (Later, much later, when the soldiers came through the village, drunken, seething, the vessel was smashed – along with everything that stood in the way. The man’s father had tried to shepherd his family to safety – but at the price of his own life. Even now, the man remembered the blood, the ochre rivulets pooling in the sacred places – his desecrated jug mere shards, the blood collecting in the unfired patches his hands had inexpertly placed years before.)

Yes, things were different, things were falling apart. He forced himself to turn his gaze to meet his son’s eyes: those dimming orbs whose candles grew shorter each day. The boy stared blankly, unblinkingly into the clouded sky; he was beyond saving, everyone knew this and had told the man this. He was wasting his time, his money, he was risking his life. They all said it was a longshot at best, a death sentence for him and the boy at worst. But he ignored them. He had been ignoring what they had been saying as long as he could remember. And though he was far from a wealthy man, he was loved and respected widely by all who knew him. So, he had brought the boy, to see if he could save the boy’s life. He knew it would probably not make any difference now – those eyes, dull obsidian ovals, sinking mercilessly into that milky haze he had seen whenever death came to collect its due. And yet he didn’t care. He didn’t care what they said, how hopeless the situation was. This was suddenly the only thing in the world that mattered to him: trying. Trying to save the boy’s life. All the healers and medicines and prayers in his town had failed to produce anything. The only chance to rid the boy of the cancer that had latticed his bones was in crossing the border; so, here he was, awaiting the truck that would take him across. The old man said it would come. He said to be patient and wait, and that it would come. “And where are you??” he demanded. He felt several drops of rain alight on his eyebrow.

The crossing presented a challenge: he was a poor, Arabic-speaking man from a long line of nobodys. He did not have official documents, of any type. (What need had he of official things in the fields he tilled on the outskirts of the slum?) He did not speak Hebrew. He did not pray to the God of the Jews, did not know their signs, their sayings, their symbols. He had no money to offer, no food with which to bribe. He could not write, he could not read. His shoes were too small and full of holes. The wind whistled through the open sores of his jacket. The boy could not walk, or speak, or eat on his own. The man had no friends here, knew of no friendly contacts, didn’t even know where ‘here’ was. He did not know what he might have to do if he was held up at the border, detained interminably, separated from his son. He tried not to think about it, but he dared not think of anything else; his mind inevitably went to food. And thinking of food was equally painful: he hadn’t eaten in two days.

Supposing I do make the crossing, he thought to himself. How can I be sure that the people the old man sent to guide me are trustworthy? The old man had guaranteed safe passage. Safe passage and a guide and interpreter. Also, papers for him and the boy, paperwork for the clinic, letters of introduction, instructions for medical workers on how to handle the child in the event of his death, some small moneys, and smattering of Hebrew phrases written on a sheet of paper. All for the small price of the man’s life savings. To hell with it, with all of it, he had said. If this boy was going to die, he was going to have a damned hard time of doing so. But the truck that would carry him across contained all these things, and there was still no sign of it.

I’ll post the rest of the story soon!