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Death Moss

I am in the grounds of a Buddhist temple. It's 3 o'clock on a long, hot summer day in Kyoto. I am engaging in the second favourite backpacker pass-time in Japan (after getting drunk on cheap vending machine Asahi): temple hopping. I don't go just to tick all of the guidebook boxes, though. It doesn't matter to me which temples are famous in Japan, or famous abroad, or which are World Heritage sites. I go for the moss.

I was a biology student when it started. I was pre-med, which is to say I was doing my bachelor's degree and had told my parents I wanted to be a doctor. It was the path of least resistance, at the time. One rainy day I went for a walk on the fringes of my misty west-coast campus. Right beside the big, new, nameless residence building I was an inmate of, there is an area of relatively wild forest, in the middle of the city but still host to the occasional cougar. It's down a steep, treed slope from the campus proper. I couldn't find the stairs down, so I picked my way over fallen trees and through dew-glazed budding ferns. I think it was March; chilly, but not cold. It was all around me, covering the trees, the ground... it almost seemed, when I looked up into the leafy canopy, that the sky, too, was covered in moss. I was hooked. I dropped Anatomy and spent the summer catching up on plant biology. Now I'm doing my Masters degree. My research is about sphagnum in the tundra of Nunavut. This vacation was a chance to see some new mosses, to gain perspective, remind myself about the limitless beauty of each tiny green filament.

And Japan is certainly the place to see moss. It's cultivated in temples here, treasured. I'm on a quiet path now, in an almost-forgotten corner of this temple. There are no statues in this area, no shrines or other typical attractions. Just the luxuriant ground cover, glistening with this morning's rain in the afternoon's sunlight. It's so beautiful, I can't bear it. I look around casually, and see none of the temple's dedicated horde of moss caretakers. This section has already been swept clean of leaves and other debris. It is green, pristine, oh so soft... the temple is about to close. All of the other tourists, Japanese and foreign, are making their ways to the exit. I step over the low rope barrier to feel the moss under my thin sandles. I relish the sweet comfortable feeling as my feet, one after the other, sink into the luxurious ground cover. It is even deeper than it looked from the path; I can feel it against my ankles. I begin to worry that I will leave footprints, but the moss feels so lovely I can't bear to move...

...and then when I lift my foot to step back over the rope, I find it stuck. I can't shake loose. I suddenly realize the moss is covering my feet entirely now. I am distracted for a moment by the beautiful feeling of it, its delicate fronds soft against my skin... but I have to move. I try to shake my other foot. The moss is climbing up my calves, and I realise I am sinking right into it, growing shorter by the second. It creeps up my thighs, and I gasp, unable to scream in terror, paralysed not only by the moss's clinging grip but by the somehow sensual feeling of it, and by memories of other occasions when my bare legs have touched moss, a vacation with a lover in the Gulf Islands, the quiet forest floor... this moss doesn't grasp or constrict, it caresses me, enfolds me gradually in soft damp green, light of touch but strong, firm, intractable. It climbs up my hips to encircle my waist. I put my hands down to press against it, to try to drag myself up, but they too are sucked in, and I am overwhelmed with tactile sensations. I try to remember why I want to leave, but can't. I am moving downwards faster now, but I have no feeling of being pulled, only of settling into bliss, the moss now all around my chest and brushing my collarbone and shoulders. It does not constrict, it is so soft and gentle, of course I don't want to move. I close my eyes and throw my head back in pleasure, now anticipating the final moment when it will close over my head.


It is four o'clock now, and the temple is closed. An overall-clad gardener strolls through the mossy area at the back of the temple, looking for lost foreigners or belongings. He sweeps up some metal from the bed of moss, a necklace and a silver watch. And from the path, a notebook. He doesn't read much English, but notices among the unintelligible words the scientific names of several types of moss found in the temple grounds. Not this type, though, the special moss he stands on now in carefully designed shoes, too thick-soled for even the most sensitive instrument or beast to feel his pulse, made of unappetizing hardwood. But caution is important; he has been trained in other preventative measures, too. He realises he has been standing still for too long in one place, and hastily moves on, happily thinking that he will not need to feed the garden this evening. Perhaps he will quietly take the beef home, and his wife will make his favourite stew.

For the monsters.

I can't believe I missed church to write this down, but my subconscious sure is feeding me a marvelous soap opera...

"He certainly is a tidy person."

The earthly goods of Seymour Levine hung or lay in neat piles in an IKEA chipboard wardrobe: four pairs of pants (khaki, grey flannel, jeans, and black), four jackets (jean, olive drab, black leather, blue blazer), a black off-the-rack suit, some sweaters (basic shetland, blue, Irish fisherman, Missoni copy, nubby black), along with an assortment of T-shirts from the Lower Manhattan area (declaring his allegiance to among other things, a Chinese restaurant, a copy shop, Strand Bookstore, and John Lennon), two white shirts, a pair of Converse Hi-Tops, a pair of Bass loafers, and several pairs of shorts. Arranged near them, tastefully, and with an eye towards both practicality and aesthetics, was a simple bedstead, with nightstand, an office area with a desk with a folding chair, and a bookshelf holding a boombox, currently playing the Violent Femmes. Nearby, was what you might term a kitchenette, with a bar fridge holding a hydroponic lettuce, half a bottle of mineral water, half a lemon, an opened jar of olives and a slightly wilted bunch of parsley, next to another bookshelf holding two cans of beans, a box of Barilla spaghetti, and some cans of Campbell's soup (tomato, chicken, and mushroom), along with a bottle of soy sauce, some nuoc mam, and a jar of chili powder, and surmounted by a microwave oven, upon which was a dishpan containing a single placesetting of white porcelain and stainless steel, including a pair of lacquer chopsticks. Everything could have come out of a housewares magazine, except, of course, that it was at the deep end of a drained swimming pool.

"You only have about ten minutes to look this over." an Asian woman, who'd given her name as Miss Peng remarked. She wore a black turtleneck sweater, and looked very official, and a little tired, as if she'd been up all night. "They want to put it in storage as soon as they can." She glanced upward at the banners reading "Go Benham!" and "Aquacats Reign #1!"

"I suppose we can't take any of it." I asked.

"If you can find anything out of the ordinary. Although, I suppose, that means all of it...but if you can find something, anything...." She touched her forehead, and frowned. "We've been over most of it for fingerprints. It just doesn't look like a suicide note."

Gordon Gano voiced his sexual frustration one last time, before the tape segued into the Ramones playing "Blitzkreig Bop". "Kind of odd tastes in music..." A balding fellow in a dark suit opined. "Mr. Levine was a bit old for all this...punk rock."

"No accounting for tastes." I said, cheerily. I'd had reason to be cheery -- after spending six hours trying to prove my sanity in the ER, with nearly every sentence being broken by interruptions, like bad vinyl, the nice people from City Handling came through and got me two weeks observation in the Comfy Cottage. I cooled my heels, read The Magic Mountain, concocted gourmet meals with bits and pieces from the Food Pantry, toasted my good fortune with Cranbernet Sauvignon, and after fourteen days of enforced non-smoking, non-drinking non-hallucinating Chinese-Checker-playing good behavior bid the staff a fond farewell, gifting them with my portrait of their cat, Princess. Things had been going pretty well, I would say, except for Seymour's disappearence.

I walked over and turned the tape off, looking at the half-a-dozen people in expensive clothing picking gingerly though Seymour's things. He'd never been wealthy, but some of his friends were -- hanging on the outskirts of the New York art and poetry scene got you into some pretty upscale parties, now and then. Dark Suit was lucky Seymour hadn't chosen Stockhausen, John Cage or (I shuddered to think) one of his own compositions, which tended towards Leonard Cohen as interpreted by aliens. I put the tape in an envelope, and saw a CD still in the player, which I also took. I then looked at the books on the shelves.

Most of it was as bland as the rest of the ersatz apartment. Seymour's own library ran heavily to artists' books, avant-garde and/or Beat Generation and/or Sixties graphics, while the bulk of his considerable archives were his countless interviews and performance videos. There was a copy of The Family of Man, and one of the Phaidon Art Book, and a travel book depicting scenes of Tuscany. I looked for da Vinci and Vermeer, and they were there, along with Ulysses, Lolita, and A Hundred Years of Solitude in Spanish. But then, I found something.

I'd never seen this book in his apartment before -- the text ran up and down the pages instead of across, for half the book, and the rest was a series of tables, in very small type.

As far as I could tell, the story was about a fellow who'd been more-or-less a normal suburbanite, but had left his quadrilateral existence to find himself and take drugs. Unlike the usual confessional tale, however, he seemed to have taken opiates without getting addicted, and without remorse. Now and then, there was a page of black-and-white illustrations on the up-and-down side. Instead of a publisher, Alicia Hill was listed as "bookbinder".

The DVD was even odder. An elderly man's voice was saying "Of course, dey was Puerto Ricans back den, you gotta unnerstan'. I never dealt wit' dose. It was enough dealin' wit' de Italians..." Visually, all that could be seen was a sophisticated video of a pair of eyes synched to the voice-over: when the fellow mentioned the Puerto Ricans and Italians, national flags showed up in the irises...

Looking again, I found the finely-printed side of the book in a computer language neither BASIC, FORTRAN, nor COBOL....

Three thousand miles from home. Hawaii, somewhere north of Honolulu. That's all I really know about where I am. There's a beach a minute's walk away, past a nasty highway. I'm with friends, six of them. One has family here on the islands, they happen to owns this property.

Importantly, though, what am I doing here? So many answers, so varied in depth and actual truth. I feel too philosophical putting it that way. There are a few different answers and which one you get depends on who you are to me. Yet, you - dearest noder - are anonymous. Anonymity grants much.

I am here, lazing about in the beautiful land, to find something. An answer. Not from anything in particular, but from the lack of things familiar. Normal things, normal life, normality. Normality is my enemy right now. I had found my groove and was so entrenched in it that I lost objectivity. I threw myself at every day the same way, without heart or desire. Without wanting to even do that much. Things one ought to enjoy, I didn't. My beer collection has been growing and hell if I've drank anything particularly good in months. My bikes live silently astride my empty bed, awaiting the weekends. My computer lay unused, my dice unthrown, every aspect seemingly left to dust. My life was devoted to two things: Keeping myself in the good-enough graces of one professor and, for some reason, keeping myself alive.


The question occurs to me: Was I dead? I know the answer, it's easy: I was dead. Asleep at the mental wheel, I coasted, knowing only where to go, but not how to enjoy the sights or turn the wheel.


Just over four years ago, I met her. We've had a rocky road of a relationship since, yet we're not serious. Four years. We've been through hell, pulling for each other the whole way. We split ways numerous times, yet find our way back each time. I was an asshole for the first couple years. I didn't want her involved with my friends because she challenged my pathetic confidence. I changed - hell if I know how or why, but I did. We split, she went through a couple guys and we returned to each other. And for all the wrong reasons, we continue on with this charade.

Each of us desires other people. When we last seriously split, she knew who she wanted, while I did not. This time, I know who I want to be with, yet she does not. Yet I feel like the cowardly lion. Go back, little one, to what comfort you know - do not tempt fate to tread upon your fragile confidence.

Every missed opportunity to even strike up conversation with her - the one I want to know better - leaves me in mental pain from my own seeming stupidity. Daft. I've always been daft. That's not the point, though. The point is that I like her a hell of a lot. And maybe more of my point will be obvious tomorrow. For now, sleep.

slumber

I spent Spring Break in the desert with anthropologists. Specifically, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropologists (SfAA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and had a hell of a time. There was, a little-leaguer among giants, an undergrad with only a month to go before I'm cast out into the real world, and I was bullshitting with people whom I've only encountered before in citations and book reviews.

No one outside my field knows who Diane Austin is, or Michael Agar, but I met them both, and even stood in the security line in Albuquerque with the former, as we talked about research and policy-making. It's hard for me not to treat them as celebrities, because they are celebrities in the circles I go around in in academia, but the general public has no idea who or what they are.

This one week was a life-changing experience for me and the other undergrad from my university who went, whom I've started calling 'colleague'. She's gonna rock the discipline. She is thinking of writing a book on children of Vietnam veterans (since she is one; her father volunteered for two tours) and secondary PTSD, and I think this is the most brilliant idea ever. I stood awed in her intellectual shadow, even as I made some impressive feats of intellectualism myself. I look forward to seeing where her life leads her, because if anyone's gonna change a small part of the world for the better, it'll be her.

I look out at the current generation of undergrads and grad students, and feel that the discipline of anthropology is undergoing a massive shift from the old 'ivory tower and pith helmet' model to a newer 'on the ground with your hands dirty' model. This change has been underway for decades, ever since Nancy Scheper-Hughes and others started advocating for anthropologists to intervene and help in the lives of the people they study, all in the name of ethics.

Previously, anthropologists were instructed not to get too involved in the lives of the people on the ground, lest they violate some sort of Prime Directive and alter the very culture they were studying. I think this is a ridiculous idea; the mere presence of an anthropologist is going to change things. Might as well not study them at all, if you're afraid of changing them. But change is not a one-way street, and in ethnography, the ethnographer is changed just as much (if not even more) than the ethnographized.

But this new generation of anthropologists is even more open-minded and diverse than the last; all the older anthropologists were white men (and quite a few white women), but the budding anthropologists in attendance were a very heterogeneous mix of people from all backgrounds --- cultural, socioeconomic, political. There were sharp divisions among the generations, especially in the controversial intersection of anthropology and the military. The older anthropologists still had memories of the Vietnam War fresh in their minds, and many of them were peace activists and war protestors when they were our age. The younger ones have seen the mistakes of the older generations, and hope to redress them. Maybe my generation isn't so fucked after all.

Sol Tax, who advocated extensively for anthropologists to seek employment outside of universities and make differences in the real, local world, predicted this very same change about twenty or so years ago in an address given to the SfAA. He predicted fewer anthropologists as professors and academic researchers, and more and more anthropologists working in industry and business, applying their training and knowledge to solve real-world problems.

His prediction has come true. Now, anthropologists are working everywhere. In my fair home city of Tampa, one had recently run for state representative. Others have done similar dabblings in politics and policy-making. My advisor worked for several years in a local health policy think tank before getting his doctorate and later on, tenure. I, too, hope to hack away at the undergrowth in the real world, and hope never to work in academia if I can help it. This is the whole point of 'applied anthropology' --- it sure is fun to come up with theories of culture and society, but man can't survive on abstraction alone. For anthropology to continue to be a viable discipline, it has to have an impact on the community. We're doing that right now, even as I write this gushy daylog.

I attended a workshop on how an anthropologist might break into the very bureaucracy that has hindered them and make lasting policy changes, and I felt a little lump in my throat as I pondered the implications of a world where anthropology played a larger role than it does now --- most people still think of either archeology or ethnography when someone says 'anthropology'. People don't know what anthropologists do, and even their vague notions of anthropology are inaccurate gleanings from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. I've been asked if I dug for dinosaur bones when I mentioned I study anthropology. Not many outside the field of anthropology really knows what anthropology is, and I hope our fair little discipline becomes more publically visible in the future.

Next year, the society will be meeting in Mérida, Mexico. I'm told it's a nice city, very close to the resorts of the Yucatán, but I think it's no coincidence that the society will be meeting in Mérida, and not, say, Mexico City. Recently, drug cartels in Mexico have stepped up their violence, both within Mexico and across the border, and many anthropologists have been working with local, state and federal agencies (on both sides of the Rio Grande) to try and mitigate the consequences of this uptick in violent incidents.

About a dozen people have been killed in that one week alone. The problem is partly in the hands of the Mexican government, and partly in the hands of the American government, and the people affected by this problem are better-informed than many of us would like to think, but no one listens to them. Anthropologists can play a role in this, by doing what they do best: talking to the very people affected by a problem.

Mérida is also the site of the signing of the 2008 Mérida Initiative, a joint effort by the American and Mexican governments, as well as several Central American governments, to cooperate on border security and combat the rising troubles with transnational crime. It's no coincidence that the SfAA has chosen Mérida as the site of next year's meeting. The Iniative itself is highly controversial, especially since it gives the Mexican Army powers formerly reserved for only the police (and human rights abuses have resulted on account of this), and many anthropologists (and the people they talk to on the streets) are very divided on this issue. We have our work cut out for us over the course of the next couple of decades.

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