Patience 101: Just Wait Until You Hear This

CNN has reported that Trina Thompson, age 27, is suing her alma mater, Monroe College (New York), for not being sufficiently helpful in supporting her efforts to find a job since her graduation this past April.  Headlines describing the suit sum it up as follows: “Alumna Sues College Because She Can’t Find a Job.”

Recently, for personal reasons, I have become very interested in what social sciences might have to say about the personal quality we call patience.  A perfectly good definition of patience might be, “an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay,” but what does that really mean in cultural terms?1

Ms Thompson completed her degree in April, and felt that four months should have been plenty of time for a gal with an information technology major, as well as a “2.7 grade-point average and a solid attendance record” to find a job.  Apparently, patience was not her minor.

As I searched (lightly) for some cross-cultural insights to patience, I found that while anthropologists had approached the topic in their usual eclectic manner, another social science , economics, happens to be quite curious about the ins and out of this virtue.  It turns out, not entirely surprisingly, that the costs and benefits of short term versus long term investments, and the psychology & culture of risk management (or lack of management) are of much interest to economists.

And when you cross anthropology and economics…. well, consider this:  Dr. Victoria Reyes-Garcia, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and her colleagues hypothesized that one of the features of complex, contemporary Western-style culture is that increased patience is rewarded economically, or as The Economist (2/7/07) reported it, they “guessed that as the [the subjects] became more enmeshed in modern society, the more patient of them would do better than the less.”

They began by setting up a situation that mandated this reward structure, i.e., Reyes-Garcia offered various Amerindian villagers a small reward of food/money if they took it immediately, a bigger one if they were willing to wait a week or so, and a REALLY big pay-off if the subject was willing to wait several months.  In this initial experiment, the researchers found that there was a correlation between the length of time people were willing to wait for a reward and the amount of education they had had (no comment on methodology).  Those who had attended the missionary-run elementary school were significantly more likely to opt for the delayed gratification option that offered the ultimately greater pay-off.

Five years later, Dr. Reyes-Garcia and her colleagues returned to interview the participants regarding their current financial situations.  They found that “those who had shown most patience in the original experiment had also seen their incomes increase more than those of their less patient counterparts.”  The more educated, and therefore more patient (Were they patient before they met the missionaries? Did they learn deferred gratification in school? Are people who are really into waiting for heaven more patient, more Western, more educated?  The mind boggles with questions…), had seen their incomes rise on average 1% more than those who had taken the  bird in the hand instead of the two in the bush.  As the authors point out, if that growth could be sustained, over a lifetime, those people  just might become a bit wealthier than their neighbors.

Education itself, of course, is a form of delayed gratification.  It’s a beautiful day out, but I go to geometry class instead of the beach in the hopes that it will pay off for me in the long term.  To return to Ms Thompson’s situation mentioned above, perhaps she is guilty of learning the lesson of education = patience = pay-off too well.  She is demanding that the system ante up.  As she explained in her justification for suing, “It doesn’t make any sense: They went to school for four years, and then they come out working at McDonald’s and Payless. That’s not what they planned.”

Maybe she should try going to grad school…


1 –

If a tree falls in the forest and no one posts it on Youtube, does the tree actually have a healthier sense of self?

As many of you know from earlier posts,  I am the mother of a 15 year old.  Although I have certainly been aware of the need for constant email, phone, and camera usage everywhere she and her friends congregate, it came to me this spring that although she embraces this practice enthusiastically, it seems to place an unnatural burden on her I am only too glad I did not have in my teenage years.

Teens today are confronted relentlessly with their own image. Digital photos are taken with cameras and phones and all manner of appliances (I’m 40 – for all I know, toasters take photos now) at all kinds of social events, big and small.  I have photos of myself in highschool, but they are generally from birthdays, performances, holidays, or other special moments.  Of course, I am delighted to have these photos, but think for a second of the many, many, many days, and countless other moments of my life that were not photographed.  That may seem a shame to some, but lately, to me it seems a blessing.

I have photos of my 8th grade graduation, dressed in my white Laura Ashley dress with blue accents, my shiney braces, and very carefully feathered 80′s hair.  I do not, however, have photos of the day I showed up for softball tryouts in my gym clothes when somehow all of the other girls had gotten the memo to keep their street clothes on.  I do not have photos of the day we took a fieldtip to the Franklin Institute and I had a stuffy nose and a cough and snuffled and dripped all the way to Philadelphia and back.  Similarly, my high school performance in West Side Story was amply documented, but not the countless post-rehearsal binges of cheesey fries at the local diner, or the many afternoons spent lazing around my friends’ backyards with frisbees, and books, and bad hair.

Now, even the simplest get together at a friend’s house after school gets documented, and then those photos get scrutinized.  And that scrutiny leads to self-judgment, and the self-judgment is rarely kind.  As anyone who shops in a grocery store with tabloids arranged at the check-out counter is well aware, even those widely regarded as the most beautiful people in the world can take a terrible, unflattering photo.  Nobody can easily withstand that kind of constant visual scrutiny, least of all the self-esteem of an American teenage girl.

Certainly, I spent hours in the bathroom getting my hair ready for school (i.e.,  gigantic bangs), applying the perfect eye makeup (i.e., bright purple), and adjusting and readjusting my clothes to optimal fabulousness (i.e., belting voluminous shirts over fluffy short skirts), but I also had downtime.  It’s not that I wasn’t part of a culture that valued appearances and designer labels, and fabulous hair, but it also gave me well-earned time off.  When I went to my best friend’s house for a sleepover, I didn’t worry about how I looked, or think about having my photo taken.  I certainly didn’t worry about that photo being shown to my peers, let alone the world via internet.

Now I watch my daughter scrutinize the photos taken while meeting friends for pizza, agonize over an inadvertant shot taken at a weird angle, or burst into tears over a pic from a pool party where she is a distant shape bending over in the background.  “Are you sure that’s even you?” I try to ask helpfully, only to be shot an unforgiving look.  “Why don’t you just delete it?” is guaranteed to get a glare.  Seriously, though, I try to be understanding, supply a different perspective, and sometimes I simply ban the phone, camera, and toaster (better safe than sorry) from usage.

I am not the first to comment on the relentlessly visual nature of today’s youth and pop culture, but it is worth remembering that multiple anthropologists have documented the introduction of photographic images into indigenous cultures.  While the notion of camera as “soul catcher” has become part of the popular conception of non-industrialized peoples, what I find even more fascinating is that when shown pictures of themselves many members of non-photo saturated cultures don’t recognize themselves.  This is not because they have never seen a mirror; in fact sometimes they don’t recognize friends and relatives in portrait-style still-photos either.  The fact is that what makes a person recognizable to those not fully indoctrinated in visual culture is a whole set of sights, smells, sounds, movements, and personal energy.  What does this tell us about identity, humanity, and perhaps an awareness of ourselves and the people around us, that we might be in danger of losing?

I am also concerned about the gradual erosion of “backstage” spaces, and with them the downtime they represent.  If cameras go everywhere, are we ever off stage?  Today’s memorial of Michael Jackson reminds us what toll constant surveillance takes on child stars.  We generally assume that it is the price to be paid for the money and power and fun of fame.  Are we willingly going to subject ourselves to such surveillance without even the promise of a big payday?  On the Polynesian atoll of Nanumea, the cookhouses served as a kind of “free space” for gossiping, joking, and generally escaping the expectations of formality and hierarchy that dominated other aspects of daily life.  If those cookhouses are replaced with indoor kitchens equipped with photographic toasters, who knows what will happen.

Married with Chintzes

On Tuesday, May 26th, the California Supreme Court upheld Proposition 8, a voter initiative that declared that marriage could only exist between a man and a woman.  Subsequent media reports were quick to point out that unions between same-sex couples would still be recognized, and that essentially this ruling “merely” stripped gay spouses of the word marriage.

However, since from June 2008 until November 2008 same-sex marriages were legal in the state of California, the approximately 18,000 gay and lesbian couples who got married during that window of time are still married.  From now on, however, all new same-sex marriages will be legally classified as civil unions.

So here we are with an oddly tiered classification system of unions, some are in, others out…a numerical majority having limited the civil rights of a minority through alteration of the State constitution.  Surely if ever a situation called for escapism, this is one…

*Sigh*  It’s true, you can rent L-Word DVD’s, rewatch the five seasons of Queer as Folk, maybe even catch a rerun of Will & Grace on Lifetime… but for my money, if you would truly like to linger in a world where same-sex marriages are normalized as happy, healthy (and property-based) direct your dial to HGTV.

In my humble opinion, Home and Garden Television has done more to quietly advocate for the main-streaming of same-sex couples than any other channel or media campaign in recent history.  On any given night of the week, one can turn to HGTV and see happy couples of every color and creed, tall and short, old and young, skinny and fat, gay and straight, oo’ing and ah’ing over kitchen remodels (“Look, honey – it’s granite!”), extra-large closets (“I can fit all my shoes!”), and finished basements (“It’s perfect for the kids!”).

Mary and Sue are looking to relocate from the city to find a yard for their dogs…  Bob and Larry need an extra bedroom for Larry’s new in-home business…  Seung-Li and Juan are expecting their second child and want to find a place closer to her mother…

In the world of HGTV, we display our shared humanity in the universal smile that can only mean “the reveal” has been a success, and we are all equalized by our love for a move-in-ready split-level, with room for a workshop in the garage.


For one of my personal favorites, check out the husband of one of my highschool friends appearing regularly on HGTV’s super cool Bought & Sold–season-2/pictures/index.html

The A-hole: A True Human Universal?

As a member of the Society for Hawaiian Archaeology, I recently became aware of a new development in a controversy currently underway on the island of Kaua’i regarding the disturbance of some Native Hawaiian burials for the construction of a private residence.  The practice of archaeology has been particularly contentious in the islands since the convergence of three historical events: 1) massive development and construction, particularly associated with the tourist industry; 2) the passage of federal and state antiquities protection laws mandating the involvement of archaeologists in cultural resource management; 3) the revitalization of Native Hawaiian culture, and its members’ mobilization in protection of their homeland and heritage.  Arguably these three, often divergent, interest groups came of age in the 1960’s and have been locked in a dance of conflicting and converging interests ever since. (*1)

One of the developments of this structure of the conjuncture (a la Marshall Sahlins) was the establishment of Island Burial Councils that are empowered by State law to determine the final disposition of any human remains that are discovered.  In the case mentioned above, a group of Native Hawaiians, known as Kanaka Maoli Scholars, have protested the handling of the review and recommendations of the Kaua’i – Ni’ihau Burial Council with regards to a property located at Naue (  Kanaka Maoli Scholars argue that the State Historic Preservation Division approved a Burial Treatment Plan against the clear objections of the Burial Council, thus allowing building permits to be issued illegally, and concrete foundations to be poured on known gravesites.  Meanwhile, the homeowner has filed a civil suit against members of the Native Hawaiian community alleging trespassing and harassment, among other things.

Whatever breaches of process may or may not have occurred in the course of managing this particular site (and since I currently live on the Mainland, I have no inside information from either side of this mess), I can tell you that most of the archaeologists that I know who work in Hawai’i consider it a tremendous privilege to be included in any aspect of stewardship of this amazing cultural legacy, and many experience daily life like an E.R. doctor: in a never-ending state of triage racing to save patients from the disease “development-fever.”  All the while under-staffed, with too few resources, and constantly challenged by the politicization of the process.  There is no universal archaeological site healthcare in the United States, and all too often the decisions regarding which patients to save and rehabilitate, and which to simply “patch-up” and send on their way, are made by the interests of capital.  Bound by our own Hippocratic oath, most archaeologists would truly love to save and cherish every patient, seeing each and every one of them thrive. (*2)

Well, gentle reader, as many of you know, much of modernist anthropology has been preoccupied with the search for human universals.  In my opinion these efforts usually end in one of two ways, either the “universal” reached turns out to be amazingly narrow in scope, or mind-bogglingly broad in scope.  There does seem to be one that keeps cropping up, however, and that is illustrated by the latest opinion expressed in the Naue controversy.  As part of their campaign to draw public attention to what they feel is the unfettered desecration of their ancestors’ burials, Kanaka Maoli Scholars sent copies of their recent protest letter (see link above) to a variety of constituents, including high ranking executives at the company owned by the homeowner.  One of these employees, in an inadvertent case of “I’m rubber, you’re glue, when you act like an asshole, it looks bad for you,” has provided more evidence for one of the most convincing universals ever promulgated… the “assholes, every community has at least one, and s/he will usually self-identify within the first 24 hours of contact” universal.

This guy responded to the letter of concern sent to him by the Kanaka Maoli Scholars with a single line.  He asks, “So how do you know the people buried out there weren’t assholes??”  Wow – a whole new principle to guide historic preservation (and with any luck, human resource decisions at his firm).  Maybe the asshole is a kind of human universal – after all, we all have them, but it takes a special Homo sapiens to talk out of his.


(1) To read a series of powerful essays relevant to Native Hawaiian sovereignty, colonialism, and academia, read Haunani-Kay Trask’s, From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i (1999).

(*2) There is no question, as with medical doctors, there are some archaeologists who are in the business for what profit there is to be had, and others who are simply not as competent as one might wish.

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus – but don’t hold your breath for a meritocracy, honey.

I had an experience recently that started me nostalgically reflecting on my undergraduate days and the path that has since led me to become my current jaded, cynical self.  I’ve wanted to be an archaeology professor since I was 12.  A life of teaching in the academy, mentoring students, undertaking research, reading and learning, designing curricula; even serving on committees seemed exciting and fulfilling.  Don’t get me wrong, I know I romanticized the life: I always pictured myself living in a modest, yet adorable, Victorian house, but never lingered on the idea of a salary so low I could not make mortgage payments.  I imagined my worldly and engaged children, reveling in our summers spent together at fieldschools, yet I did not anticipate surly teenagers who don’t like dirt and whose care takes me from writing up research.  The list of these delightful juxtapositions goes on, of course (tres amusant, n’est-ce pas?), and I’m sure you could make your own: helping students find their academic voice sounds important, grading 500,000 crappy papers feels thankless; forging academic policy sounds invigorating, spending hours in committees whose decisions are then over-ruled by administrators, now that’s soul crushing…

Nonetheless, I loved the academy, and fundamentally this was because it was the closest thing to a true meritocracy I had ever experienced.  My love was pure.  My faith was bottomless.  And I honestly believed that if I worked hard, did the most work and the best work, was creative, easy-going, funny, dedicated, etc., etc., I would be rewarded commensurately… In retrospect, it’s touching, really, how fervently I believed this with my whole being.

I still remember the day I had the rug pulled out from under me, and, yes, I fully know that you may laugh when you read about it.  It’s simple really.  When I was in my sophomore year of college, my undergraduate advisor began to plan to go to into the field to do some preliminary research.  It was a small school, with a small cohort of archaeology students.  Please excuse my tooting my own horn – but I was the best by several measures.  I had been doing archaeology since I was a young teen; I had the highest GPA; I had taken the senior year archaeological theory class in the spring semester of my freshman year and gotten an A.  I had even trained for three months in the field in the very river valley the advisor was fixing to research (unlike any of my peers).

So, when it happened that one day sitting in my professor’s office he mentioned that he was finalizing his plans for the trip and some other student was being invited to join him – I was shocked, truly shocked.  He saw the look on my face and I remember him being surprised at my surprise, and then bemused.  He carefully explained to me that the student he was planning on taking with him was male.  They would save money being able to share a room, the student would be able to carry lots of equipment, and (once more for emphasis) I didn’t really think he could take a 20 year old woman alone to the field with him, did I?

I was the best…wasn’t I?   It has absolutely nothing to do with merit, he assured me.  Nothing to do with merit?!!!! Was I hearing this correctly????

That’s right, it had never, ever, EVER occurred to me that my sex (or my gender) might be a factor in his decision.  The realization of what I was hearing slowly sank in – I was being passed over for the chance to do original field research because I was a girl.  None of the other things I had done (or not done, frankly) mattered in the final assessment.

Okay, okay,  I understand that in the grand scheme of life this was a minor incident (and in the end the trip was cancelled and nobody went),  but it was a watershed for me.  My faith in the meritocracy of academic life had been rattled. Over the years my faith and I would sustain MUCH harsher blows: insults to my integrity; academic betrayal; as well as, personal harassment, intimidation, and assault.  Each event made me recall  this first incident.  My advisor had been the greatest archaeologist and most impressive intellectual I had ever known.  He was my mentor and I trusted him completely.  In retrospect, of course, I’m far more sympathetic to his situation than I was back then.

Why is this on my mind?  Well, recently I was passed over for participation in a project in favor of an older male (here it was symbolic capital being sought) and I felt that old familiar feeling again – a mixture of anger, frustration, heartache, and resignation (read = bitter).  Maybe I wasn’t so unambiguously the best in this particular situation, but I was an excellent choice for many reasons, and once again it was a decision made by a person I trusted completely.

I have been discriminated against for reasons other than my gender (although that one is surprisingly consistent), and in settings other than the academy, of course.  And this is definitely no story of horrific treatment compared to apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, hate crimes, etc., etc., but as I have learned over the years, these incidents need to be spoken of and spoken to.  So many of us spend our lives accepting them as part of the cost of doing business with a uterus.  We excuse, ignore, rationalize, and blame ourselves.  For years I tried to make sense of my incident in a way that preserved my idealization of the academy as a meritocracy – I must have misunderstood what my professor said; I must not have been the best; there must have been more to the story.

I don’t really have a witty conclusion for this.  It is what it is.  When I taught a seminar on topics in gender and science, I had fellow female faculty members come and talk to the class about their lives and careers, and my story was hardly unique.  (Let’s just say, physics grad school can be a real bitch for the ladies, folks!)  We all agreed it feels good to share, however, and if you, the reader, have never had a moment like this in your life – it bears consideration.