Wednesday, December 30, 2009

An Ugg By Any Other Name ...

Looking for examples of globalization? What kind of shoes are you wearing?

A few weeks ago, I dragged—er, convinced  my husband, Steve, to accompany me to the American Indian Museum. (He was actually a pretty willing companion, in all fairness.) The featured exhibit was A Song for the Horse Nation, a look at horses in Native American cultures, which was truly spectacular. However, a side comment from Steve drew our attention to Identity By Design, which focused on Native women's dresses. While I was examining elaborate beadwork on a Sioux dress, I heard Steve exclaim over a pair of moccasin boots, "They look like those shoes!" He was referring to ugg boots from Australia—and with good reason. [Image Right: Beaded moccasin boots on display at the American Indian Museum.]

The word moccasin is Algonquin for shoe. The Algonquins were likely the first tribe early settlers encountered, and the word became generally applied. Moccasins were made from soft leather and sewn together by sinew. They were actually common to all Native American tribes, but were also adopted by hunters, traders, and European settlers for their durability, comfort, and adaptability. Like all clothing, moccasins offered an opportunity for cultural expression: though similarly constructed, the designs on the shoes could reveal tribal affiliation. Moccasin boots were developed by Native women as a way to preserve their modesty. Originally, they wore moccasins with high tops or leggings. The leggings were eventually sewn into the moccasins for a seamless look, and thus moccasin boots were introduced to fashion. As a testament to their design and beauty, moccasins remain popular today both among Native people and fashionistas. [Image Left: Moccasins with built-in leggings.]

To understand the possible connection between ugg boots and moccasins, we need to journey to Australia from whence the famous brand hails. Sheep shearers wear a type of moccasin which helps minimize slips and falls. One manufacturer of ugg boots credits sheep shearers with creating the name given to the popular boots:
(T)he word “ugg” is short for ‘ugly’, and dates back to the 1920’s when shearers used to wrap sheepskin around their feet to keep warm in the sheds. In fact the humble ugg boot, now a popular fashion item, was traditionally considered dowdy.
Dowdy, huh? Don't let the fashion industry hear you. (I like shoes. Okay, really, I love shoes. But even I have a hard time with these boots.) Anyway, history tells us that uggs were worn by pilots in WWI to keep their feet warm and by surfers in the 1960s for the same reason (after they got out of the water, of course). How could this type of footwear have traveled to Australia? It's not really such a stretch of the imagination to envision these comfy new shoes leaving the New World with hunters and traders in the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Australia is an environmentally diverse continent, with both deserts and rain forests, so it seems to make sense that this type of shoe would be an asset in this environment. The Native Americans lined them with different furs to increase their warmth and substituted different materials for the soles to increase durability—these shoes were very versatile.

Uggs became a sensation in the United States when they garnered press from fashion magazines following the latest trends mandated by celebrities. Many though don't quite see the appeal of these lined boots. I spotted a fellow LIRR commuter wearing a pair recently. After the obligatory exchange of good mornings, I complimented her on her boots and asked if they were really as comfortable as I had heard others claim. Her enthusiasm nearly blew me onto the tracks. Seriously. "They're so warm! I don't know how I got along without them! You have to get a pair!" [Image Left: Pair of moccasins gifted to President Ulysses S. Grant © Smithsonian Institute Press.]

Hmm. It seems that the basic appeal of moccasins survived the transition to ugg mass production—even if the beauty seemed to have been left behind. And it gives us a little bit of trade history along the way.

Love 'em or hate 'em, uggs are one way to investigate global trade and the survival of traditional attire (that has been re-appropriated). I've investigated globalism at the supermarket, now it's your turn: Have you seen any "exotic" products around lately? Or surprised to find an article from your culture/tradition in the mainstream? Share below. [Image Right: Child-sized Uggs.]

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Encounters With Hostility

As an anthropologist, my interest is people. Some may even say that my business is people. And truly, I want to talk to others (most of the time), and have them explain their world to me. I want to see things as they see them. Unfortunately, it's not quite as simple as walking up to someone and saying, "Hello, my name is Krystal. I'm an anthropologist. I see you're eating an orange. I don't like oranges. Why do you?"

At least not all of the time. Interactions are dynamic. Any number of factors can color the situation—the social context, the person's mood, your clothing, etc. can all alter the interaction and the person's willingness to relate to you. Any number of things can put someone off. My earliest forays into fieldwork were frustrating until I accepted that while you can do everything in your power to make an encounter or interview go smoothly, it can still go wrong. There are just too many factors beyond your control. If your informant has a stomach ache, she may be shorter with you than she might otherwise be, causing you to think that she is unhappy or uncomfortable with you and the situation. Think about how this could color your relationship: She may in fact be embarrassed at how she is treating you, but unable to correct it, and you, the anthropologist, thinking you have offended her in some way, may leave her out of the ethnographic record for fear of imposing on her.

Things can and will go wrong. I thought at this point in my life I had truly accepted this lesson, and then I started writing this blog and had an encounter that showed me that this is a lesson we can learn over and over again.

My earliest forays into fieldwork had me working with a adult immigrants of West Indian descent I quickly learned to say I was a student collecting information or a researcher. I was never anything as fancy as an "anthropologist"—primarily because none of my would-be informants knew what that meant. They were convinced that I was in league with immigration officials and would have them deported. Interviews would be canceled when I called to confirm the appointment after informants had time to think about the meeting. I could feel the tension on their end just as they could likely feel my discomfort. Some would be hostile if I bumped into them on the street, keeping their responses to my greetings curt or avoiding me entirely. What could I possibly want to talk to any of them for? I was an American-educated girl who spoke with no trace of her native accent. I couldn't be there to help them, or even harmless for that matter. I survived the process though, and I did it by simply getting over it. I learned to see myself through the eyes of my "other" and how to break the ice gradually, how to restrain my energy and how to wait. Essentially, working with this group helped me build up a pretty extensive toolbox of disarming techniques that I have relied on time and time again to get different people to talk to me—until that it, I crossed paths with her.
I use photos in my posts to help place my reader in the context of my words. You can't be there, unfortunately, readers, so I try and help you see what I have seen. Maybe you'll have a different analysis—which would be exciting! In any case, I'm careful in my photo-taking though I don't ask permission unless it's a sensitive issue. And I try and leave identifying characteristics, such as addresses, names, etc. out of the photo. If I'm caught in the act of photographing a subject, I always introduce myself and talk a little about the work I'm doing. (E.g., "You have a great bag! I'm looking at the different types of bags people are using to transport items for a piece I'm writing for my blog.") And for the most part, people open up. Some want to know more. Some just want to know what I'm doing. And some could care less once they know I'm harmless, and we part ways without causing too much stress to each other.

A few weeks ago, I went to take some pictures of a street near my home at dusk for this blog. I walked about 20 feet from my driveway to a T-intersection and began to take some shots. I was standing in the street, probably 3 feet from the curb trying to get the last glimmers of sunlight through some impressive trees. Presently, a woman emerged from one of the houses midway up the block, and got into her car. She sat there, and I continued to take photos. She was not in my shot, and even if she was there was no way you could see her in her car from where I was positioned.

Suddenly, the car's lights came on and the engine roared to life. The car sped to my location, causing my to beat a hasty retreat back to the sidewalk. The car and driver stopped suddenly at the spot where I had been standing. She looked at me. I waved. Though we don't know each other personally, this woman is my neighbor. She lives up the block from me—surely she has seen me before just as I have seen her. She didn't wave back. Instead she growled, "What are you doing?" Still friendly and upbeat, I said "Well, I'm a writer. I'm just trying to get some shots of the street for my blog." For whatever reason, I think she chose not to hear me. "Why don't you go take your pictures somewhere else?" "I'm taking a picture of this tree. It isn't anywhere near you or your home." "I wonder what the police would think if I called them and told them about your little photo shoot," she continued. At this point, I was a little shocked. This was my block, and as far as I was concerned I had a right to take photos there. I was not however going to point out my house to someone who was clearly being hostile. I was livid. I had done nothing wrong, but I held on to my composure and tried to channel everything I had learned from my initial attempts at fieldwork. Thinking that she thought she was the subject of the photographs, I tried an apology. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you," I said, trying to dispel her hostility. "I'm taking pictures of the street. You aren't in any of them." I tried my explanation again.

"Apology not accepted!" she snapped and gunned her engine. I stepped off the curb back onto the street, now convinced that this was woman was not going to bully me. "It's not a crime," I said, "to take photos of my street." "Yeah, well we'll see what the police have to say!" "So call them! I've done nothing wrong. I'll wait right here." At that point she put the car in reverse and backed up to her house with a fair amount of speed. I refused to leave the scene. I continued to take photos even though the shot had long disappeared. When I finally returned to the house, I was furious. S suggested that I should have pointed out our house as it might have calmed her down. I felt that she had already decided not to hear me, so that it wouldn't have made a difference—and I don't think I wanted her knowing where I lived anyway.

I don't know this woman personally. Perhaps I should have apologized and put the camera away. I think I expected more from her—as both a neighbor and as a resident of the community, which reveals something of my own bias, I know. In this instance, my tools failed me—reminding me that my toolbox is not concrete. But it also confirmed my ability to see myself in the eyes of my "other" because believe it or not, I can understand her: A perceived stranger standing on the street in pajamas near dusk is weird! I get it. We're all worried about anything out of the ordinary. The problem is that this anxiety clouds people ability to hear. If she had been anything but bent on being angry and telling me to get off of her street, she would have seen me what I was: a young woman who has walked by her home on many a summer night, in her pajamas, trying to take pictures of a row of trees. In her mind, she was probably doing her block a favor, but it still left me angry.

I've played this scenario over in my mind a few times, trying to understand what caused her reaction: What was it in my manner that put her off? Was it the fact that I was in my pajamas? Was it the color of my skin? Was it my glasses? Does she have contempt for writers? Has she never heard of a blog? Why didn't she recognize me?

But I also have questions for myself: Why did I expect her not to care that I was taking photos? Why did I instinctively identify myself as a writer to her? Why did I expect her to recognize me? And why didn't I hold on to that lesson: things can and will go wrong when interacting with others?

I wanted to share this story to show that ethnographic work isn't predefined.The social context colors all of our interactions and it's not something that can be easily read. She could have been having a bad day, perhaps her home had been recently broken into, or it could have been something darker that any of these explanations. I haven't seen her since in person though I have seen her driving by in her car from time to time. I was tempted to follow-up with her, but thought it best to let it go. I am interested in hearing your take on this encounter—as well as any of your own difficult encounters with your "others." What particular techniques do you have in your toolbox? Share below.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Could the Recession Be Environmentally Friendly?

The recession may have a positive twist after all. Yes, there are hundreds of thousands of people looking for work, and trying to hold onto their homes and feed their families—I don't discount any of that. But there may be benefits in the most unlikely of places.

A New York Times article from November reports that the sale of alligator skin products, such as luxury watches (the skin is used for the band) and bags, has all but disappeared. Alligator farming used to be a lucrative (though dangerous) business: Farmers harvested eggs from the wild, raised the alligators, and sold their skins to independently owned tanneries for millions of dollars in some cases, and also made a profit on the meat (sold to Cajun restaurants), and head and claws (sold to tourist shops). That all changed relatively quickly as high-end customers began to watch their pennies too, and demand for alligator products dropped. But alligator farmers aren't buying that it's all recession related. They've accused Hermes of establishing a monopoly and setting low prices for skins. Hermes has bought out many of the tanneries, so they supply most of the skins to other design houses, who claim that they cannot make a profit on what Hermes charges for alligator skins. (Hermes says it has only bought a third of all the available skins, and its aggressive buying is helping these farmers stay afloat.) This might be bad news for the farmers, but it sounds like good news for alligators, who are nonetheless protected as a valuable source of income for farmers in the southern United States. [Image Left: Faux leather bags for sale.]

I thought about these alligators as I surveyed the bags carried by my fellow commuters, and I began to wonder: if demand for these types of products have fallen as a result of new penny-pinching practices, then how else might the natural world might be affected. Here are some thoughts:
  • Reduced carbon footprint. Based on the deals being offered by the travel industry, it's safe to say that a lot of folks have passed on that vacation this year. A round-trip flight from New York to Orlando by airplane will net you about 0.31 tonnes of CO2. (I used the Carbon Footprint calculator to figure this out.) For those of you, like me, who don't have much of a sense of what that means, it's about 683 pounds of CO2. (I figured that out using a Google converter.) According to Carbon Fund, I could plant a single tree (cost: about $12.00), or donate approximately $4.00 to reforestation or renewable energy. I checked and the offers were about the same. For a single person it doesn't seem like much, but if you add up all the people who aren't flying, well, that could be a lot of CO2 that isn't being produced.
  • Less garbage. In a previous post, I noted the increased number of people carrying large bags with them on the subway and noted the number of people bringing in their lunches, carrying reusable water bottles, etc. I proposed that more people are "packing it in" and taking items with them while in transit rather than relying on the purchase of disposable items. It's not as though it has become difficult to buy a bottle of water or an umbrella if the rain suddenly catches you unawares, but why spend the extra dollar or five if you don't need to? The overall effect this may have is to reduce the amount of trash we produce. Stats over at The Good Human (hey, no one wants to be told, "Bad human!" and rapped with a rolled up newspaper) indicate that it can take up to 430 years for a plastic water bottle to biodegrade. If more people are carrying water with them as a means of saving money, then that's a lot of years (and space) not devoted to waiting for plastic water bottles to biodegrade. [Image Right: A coffee mug in transit.]
  • Less reliance on fossil fuels. Okay, this one might be wishful thinking, but I've definitely noticed an increase in the number of LIRR commuters when gas prices rise. These folks tend to disappear when the prices fall again, even if the decrease is slight.  So less gasoline consumption, means less demand, means less drilling and encroaching on wildlife habitats. Which sounds like good news for seals, polar bears, walruses, and penguins—somebody ought to send them an email.
The recession may also mean less funding for environmental measures and research as money is funneled elsewhere to help families in need, but in acting to curb our own actions and consumer appetites, it might also give the natural world a breather.

Do you think the recession could have a positive impact on the environment? To what degree? Have you noticed an increase in consumer conservation (e.g., reusable grocery bags, reusable coffee mugs) in your workplace/commute/neighborhood? Share your recession-related green stories below.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas! A Present in Times Square

Renovations at 11 Times Square recently revealed a group of tightly packed stones at the base of the building. It was heartening to note that people appeared to take interest in the unusual architecture, wondering at the origins and purpose of the stones. Urban archaeologist Joan H. Geismar who initially proposed that the structure was the remnants of a coal vault from the 1800s. Upon closer examination, Geismar indicated that the structure wasn't what she was expecting if it had indeed been a coal vault. Geismar later discovered that the structure was perhaps the foundation of a theater that stood at that location at about 1890. The developer has indicated that workers will recover the stones and leave them as is—to be discovered by future developers.

Image: © Ruth Fremson/NYT

Both Geismar and some readers have commented that they are pleased with the developer's decision:
“It makes perfect sense to leave it,” Dr. Geismar said. “It’s sort of a little secret of New York’s past.”
One reader suggested that it was a gift for the future. I wonder at this. Can we trust future historians, archaeologists, and officials to protect what is uncovered, or should steps have been taken to secure this site?

Share your thoughts below, and on this holiday, I'm pleased to share with you this secret "gift" that lies below 11 Times Square.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa Claus—Social Order Manifested as The Spirit of Christmas

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

-Excerpt from Twas the Night Before Christmas (Clement Clarke Moore) [Image Right: Inflatable Santa Claus as seen from behind a tree.]
Most Western children (and some adults) eagerly await the arrival of Santa Claus—easily recognizable from the description above. In his red suit and sleigh pulled by reindeer, he comes bearing gifts. If you've been good that is. Children are well aware of his rules too: he keeps a list, he checks it twice, and he knows who's been naughty or nice. If you've been nice (e.g., unselfish, polite, and helpful), you might find something neat waiting under the tree. If you haven't, well, you might get a lump of coal.

Our present day image of Santa seems to come from a few different sources. He is a combination of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas—both of whom appear to be rooted in the real life Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas of Myra was a saint and a Bishop with a reputation for secret gift giving—he was known for putting coins in shoes left out for him, and one legend has him throwing bags of gold coins through the window of a poor man's home to help provide a dowry for his three daughters, saving them from prostitution. The tradition of Saint Nicholas' Day (Dec. 6) spread to many countries, and on the eve of this festivity which marks Saint Nicholas' death, presents are exchanged. The Dutch Sinterklaas appears to make the distinction between good and bad children (although in practice, all children receive gifts). He has a helper named Zwarte Piet whose black skin has made him a source of controversy in recent years. For our intents we are only concerned with his role in punishing bad children (by taking them away in a sack). Children leave their shoes by the fireplace with some hay or a carrot for his horse, and Sinterklaas leaves them chocolate coins or some other token. A sack is also often placed outside of the house or in the living room with present for the family. Father Christmas on the other hand had nothing to do with gifts—he typically represented the Spirit of Christmas. Though he has since merged with representations of Santa Claus, he was originally created to be the personification of good cheer. [Image Right: Inflatable Santa with snowman for company.]

The morphing of these three characters into Santa Claus packs a powerful punch—a gift giver, a moral watchman, and the embodiment of good cheer. While Santa has no helper to pack wayward children into sacks (CPS would NOT sanction such behavior!), he is watching. He knows when you steal your coworker's lunch, or flip someone the finger for cutting you off on the road, or break something and pretend you didn't. Today Santa makes no distinction between good and "bad" children—all children get presents. But the idea that Santa—or someone—is watching persists. In essence, he's watching because we all are watching in some ways. An early post on this blog explored Durkheim's idea that a moral sensibility governs the collective, keeping order to permit the continuation of society. The social order that governs our society is "watching," and symbols associated with Santa's may be manifestations of this moral sensibility by virtue of the power we assign them. 

I was thinking about this as a I passed a volunteer for a charity last week wearing a Santa hat. While hundreds of people probably filed by her, only perhaps dozens reached into their pockets for their spare change. She didn't call for donations, she simply stood there, wearing her red hat. She passed no judgment, but her hat did: "I'm watching," it seemed to say. "I know whether there is change in your pocket, whether you're ignoring my helper willingly, or whether you're late for a train (in which case, you can make it up later.)" [Image Left: Charity volunteer with red bucket.]

Santa's hat is not the Sorting Hat, but in making Santa into a moral watchman, he and his accessories have become an extension of the sensibility that guides society. Though his history is linked to a Bishop, he has largely become a secularized icon, personifying the charity of the human spirit—one that we can all relate to. He and the imagery linked to him remind us of the "rights" that we as a society believe in. These are not civil rights, but social rights: right-doing. The charity volunteer's hat was therefore not a statement that Santa himself is watching, but that we bear social obligations that are necessary to the maintenance of the social order. To quote Francis Pharcellus Church:
The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.
Can you think of other symbols that are used to maintain social order? Answer below, and remember to leave some cookies out for Santa. He's on his way—you can track his progress using NORAD's Official Santa Tracker.

Merry Christmas all!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

O' (Public) Christmas Tree!

Does your town or city have an annual tree lighting ceremony?

In New York City, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition appears to have been inadvertently started by construction workers who placed a tree at the site in 1931. The National Tree has been a tradition since 1923. But it seems likely that the practice of erecting community trees predates any sanctioned event. [Image Right: The Stock Exchange Tree. Dec. 09.]

Trees have become an important aspect of the holiday season. This year, I've been largely successful at saving my Christmas tree from the destructive forces that are my cats. I don't really blame them for thinking that the large green thing is there for their climbing amusement, but I am almost always disappointed when I find that they made cat-sized holes in different parts of the tree. The tree is important to my commemoration of the holiday. It provides the focal point in my home for the festivities, and reminds me of festive childhood celebrations.

This history of the Christmas tree is connected to our discussion on light. As the days grew shorter and the landscape bare, special significance was tied to evergreen bushes and trees, which displayed a perceived resilience against anti-growing conditions. While public trees are also reminders of the holiday season, and contribute to the festive atmosphere, it is perhaps this likely forgotten aspect of the tree tradition helps it appeal to both secular and non-secular holiday participants—thereby making community trees appropriate/acceptable public symbols. Or does it? This symbolism is probably not known to most people, who may view the Christmas tree tradition as inherent to Christianity—and it has come to have strong connections to the Christian faith. Are public trees a nuisance to persons of other faiths? Or has this particular image become so mainstream that it is accepted without much additional thought? For the trees on this page, the tourists streamed by without giving them much notice. And the tree in Rockefeller Center is more of a general attraction than an icon in the traditional sense. [Image Left: The South Street Seaport Tree, Dec. 09.]

However, though many people might pass Christmas trees without giving them much notice, some certainly noticed the menorah standing at an entrance to the Fort Greene Park and questioned whether it was a violation of church and state since it stands on government land. The Chabad that sponsored the display actually obtained a permit from the park to do so, and park officials maintain that one Christmas tree and one Menorah are permitted to be displayed—if someone applies to sponsor it. The initial responses to the post have called for tolerance with religious symbols.

It is acceptable to display physical representations of the holiday season?  Share your thoughts on public symbols of the holidays below.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Buskers Help Spread Cheer

Following my recent post on street performers, also known as buskers as I recently discovered, I've been noticing them everywhere. Their proliferation is probably due in part to the charity of the holiday season—I wonder what their tips have looked like this year.

In any case, this group at Penn Station was really groovin'. The brass players had a number of passersby tapping their feet and bobbing their heads. And one of the band members kept breaking into an impromptu dance. The diversity of the group was also noteworthy—the musical language crosses all divides it seems. I just had to stop for a second and capture them for you all. Hope you're picking up good vibes from this group via the network effect.

Happy Holidays!

[Image Above: Buskers at Penn Station. Center horn player in the midst of his dance.]

[Image Above: The horns get fired up.]

Monday, December 21, 2009

Light for Us All—Symbolically Speaking

Updated to include link to NYT holiday light feature (see below).

Though Diwali and Hanukkah may be two of the more well-known festivals of light, religions and cultures around the world have have long observed festivals in the meant to drive away the imagery and meaning associated with the colder, longer days that mark the end of the growing season. Both figuratively and literally, on the darkest of days, people wish for light. As the days grow shorter and sometimes colder, and the earth stands barren until growth can begin anew, people's thoughts turn to warmth, life, and light. Light drives away the darkness. It symbolizes hope and beginnings, knowledge and safety. According to, festivals of light often occurred at the end of December because it marked the end of the agricultural season: livestock was slaughtered so that they would not have to fed in the coming cold months (and provided a supply of fresh meat that may have been scarce throughout the year), the last of the harvests were been brought in bringing a reprieve from field labor, and beer and wine had likely finished fermenting. [Image Above Right: Diyas lit for Diwali © Photofurl. | Image Bottom Left: Menorah.]

Much in the same way All Hallow's Eve and All Saints Day were promoted by the Catholic Church to replace Samhain, so too did Christmas become established in December as a means to replace Sol Invictus and Saturnalia. Christmas, literally Christ's Mass, has long been held by Catholics as the birthday of Jesus. However, there is some doubt today that Jesus was actually born on December 25th—or even in December for that matter. While Christmas is still a largely Christian holiday, there are certainly secular elements to it. Many cultures observe Christmas traditions—cards, gift exchanges, holiday decorations, etc.—without the religious overtones. The spread of Christmas practices has been aided by commercial promotions that push the traditions sans the religious elements. For example, there are non-religious holiday greeting cards, and festive and whimsical holiday wrapping paper and decorations that have little to do with the traditional Christmas symbols. While my Hindu neighbors don't have a Christmas tree, they have strung clear lights in their porch "to make their home festive, 'cause, it's the holidays."

Image Above: Holiday lights adorn a neighbor's house.

The element that seems to connect both the secular and non-secular participants of the Christmas season is lights, which brings us back to the roots of the season's festivals. Our connection to light seems to be universal—meaning, whatever our religious or cultural beliefs, light holds the same symbolic meanings for us all. This shared connection is apparent throughout history: the presence of temples dedicated to the sun, the orienting of temples to face the sun, and the worship of sun deities attest to the connection we have felt through the ages to light. More than just a colorful holiday decoration, in their own way the stringing of holiday lights seems to echo humanity's earlier attempts to invoke the power of light.

{Image Above: Another holiday home.]

However you choose to drive the darkness away, know that you aren't alone. People have been looking for ways to celebrate light throughout the ages. Do you know of or practice a light festival? Share below.

Also, the NYT has a feature on holiday lights as submitted by readers, which you can view here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness—and the Right to Fish

Winter has finally arrived in the northeastern United States, so my thoughts have naturally begun to turn to summer. Believe me, after having the wind cut through clothing that you apparently layered in futility, you'd be wishing for warmer days too. During the summer months, my husband Steve and I tend to spend a lot of time near the water—living on an island, it's not really all that hard to do. He is an avid fisherman.* I prefer to lounge on the sand with a good book, but I watch. And take (mental) notes. And I've even brought in a fish or two myself (mainly flukes). This simple sport brings immense pleasure and satisfaction. It links us to one of our earliest means of sustenance, and reminds us that not all foods need to come from the supermarket in brightly colored wrappers—nature may still be able to support us if only we could learn to take only what we needed.

A few weeks ago at the car wash, the car ahead of us drove in covered in mud and blood. The owner had been hunting in Maine and informed us he had "bagged" a 600-pound moose. While I stood there trying to picture the moose strapped to this guy's car rack, Steve struck up conversation about his own catches out in Montauk, home of the monster striped bass. Our new friend informed us that he and a few buddies were thinking of staging a rebellion by taking some fishing rods and throwing them in the water. That got my attention—my ears tend to perk up at the word rebellion. Steve nodded sympathetically, and pulled a fishing license out of his wallet, saying, "Yup. I hear you, but I've got my license to fish. Not taking any chances."

[Image Above: A striped bass takes the bait in the waters off of Montauk. Photo Credit: S. D'Costa]

My expression at the sight of Steve's license could only be described as incredulous. This was the first I had heard of licenses being required for recreational fishing on Long Island, and with good reason—the requirement only went into effect in October. And I was a little incensed when we climbed into our car. I thought that requiring a license for residents to fish in waters they have known all their lives was absurd. But after talking to a few fishermen and visiting the major forums, my outrage was tempered. I do believe in licensing. I don't operate a car without one. My driver's license functions to  provide a means for taking action when I do something wrong on the road—i.e., I have a license, and must therefore know the rules, so if I decide to pull an illegal u-turn, I can be charged with a fine or other penalty. And if I incur enough penalties, I can lose my right to operate a vehicle. [Image Right: Fishing the East River.]

Despite my misgivings and uncertainty about fishing licenses, I absolutely think that catches need to be regulated: undersized fish need to be thrown back; fish need to be caught in season to allow them to grow to maturity; and we have to adhere to the daily possession limits (e.g., per day: 2 flounder, 15 blue fish). I do agree that if you're caught with an undersized fish or a fish out of season, well, you're a fish out of water, buddy. Good fishermen are responsible fishermen—they know that in order to be able to fish in the future, you have to leave something to catch, which means not keeping fish over the daily limit or taking undersized fish home. The problem is that not everyone out there with a pole is a responsible fisherman, and some fishermen believe that a license may mitigate some of the wrong-doing. Right now, fishing is regulated by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officers who perform random checks of buckets and coolers, particularly at the docks where—up until recently—anyone could walk up and throw out a line. On fishing charters, sometimes called party boats, the boat can be fined if DEC officers meet the boat at the dock and passengers are found with unsuitable fish. The mates regularly toss small or unseasonal fish back into the water, although there are ways to get around this. [Image Left: Fisherman with striped bass.]

I think the reason I had problems with licensing was because I was grappling with the following question: How would a fishing license change regulation? Well, the license would function like the driver's license. It wouldn't necessarily stop everyone from wrong-doing (like illegal u-turns, or keeping an undersized fish), but the harsher penalties that come with being caught as a licensed fisherman would hopefully deter a large number of illegal fishermen. But getting caught would still be a matter of chance. The license would not guarantee that everyone would do what they were supposed to do. And in this sense, it doesn't seem to be anything more than a way to generate revenue for the state.

As you can imagine, the reaction from the fishing community on Long Island has been loud. A growing number of fishermen, led in part by Stuart Vorpahl, are mobilizing to reclaim the waters off of eastern Long Island for recreational fishing. Vorpahl is a commercial fisherman who has been fishing without a commercial license since 1984, when commercial licenses became mandatory. He has been arrested four times. However, Vorpahl has no intention of becoming licensed because he claims that the state has no right to regulate fishing in the region thanks to a 313-year-old colonial decree known as Dongan's Patent. And recreational fishermen are apparently protected under the patent as well. In 1686 Governor Thomas Dongan placed the responsibility for the management of the local land and waterways of eastern Long Island in the hands of locally elected trustees. Vorpahl and others maintain that the Patent still holds, and therefore the state has no right to issue and collect fees for licenses (which would go toward conservation efforts [see page 2]). Six Long Island towns have since filed a suit against the state's DEC saying that the state has no authority to demand a license for fishing in the waters off their shores. Undoubtedly, concerns regarding summer tourism have their place in these lawsuits since eastern Long Island is known for its summer recreational activities.

While most recreational fishermen have an opinion, the responses to the licensing mandate seems to be mixed. Yes, some are incensed, but still others view it as a step in the right direction. Those fishermen who regularly throw fish back that are too small or over the permitted daily limit, even while they watch others pack in small fish, are fed up. The fines for keeping fish that you shouldn't have are already hefty. They will be even heftier once the new licensing regulations are actively enforced, and may ultimately result in the guilty party being banned from fishing. Currently, the DEC is opting to educate the fishermen they find without a license—no tickets seem to have been written yet, but stern warnings have been issued about the consequences of fishing without a license in the future. So licensing will hopefully reduce the number of people fishing illegally. And while there isn't much in the process of regulation that can change, hopefully, the penalties that come with being caught will act as a deterrent. That's not to say that those who oppose licensing are not responsible fishermen—they want to fish without interference, and insist they can be trusted to adhere to regulations, but can the same be said for others? Those who are anti-license have concerns about whether their fees would actually be applied to conservation and have questions about who would regulate that distribution—and it's a fair question. [Image Left: Happy fishermen with their catch.]

As for Dongan's Patent, can a 313-year-old document be applied to the present day? I certainly hope so, given the age of our Constitution, but perhaps there is room for an adjustment. If Dongan's Patent gives the responsibility for the management of the waterways to the localities, then perhaps the localities need to take a stronger stance in managing the waterways. If they don't want to license fishermen, then they need to regulate the catches more stringently, which means more dock and cooler checks. Do they have the manpower for this? It's doubtful. So we come back to licensing. Perhaps they should get to keep the revenue and apply the funds locally. Regardless of the solution, someone needs to regulate our natural resources. It's the only way to curb illegal fishing. And if the localities begin to manage the waterways, then they need to apply the same rules across the board, so they still seem to need a DEC-like organization. [Image Right: Keeper fluke caught on the fishing charter, Laura Lee.]

What's your take on Dongan's Patent? Does it still hold water? Is the DEC out of line for requiring licenses? Who should primarily be responsible for protecting our natural resources—the state, or the locality? Come on, cast your line below.

*Note: The terms "fisherman" and "fishermen" refer to all people who fish for recreation.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Collaborative Online Gameplay Builds Better Teams Offline

We recently acquired an Xbox gaming console in my home, which has resulted in quite a few late nights and some bleary-eyed mornings. But sacrificing sleep may have a positive outcome: collaborative game play may actually result in stronger relationships and better teamwork offline.

Video games have received a lot of press in recent years. Mainly concerning the effect violent games may have on the social development of children: some studies have suggested that exposure to violent video games may desensitize children and normalize violence, encouraging them to exhibit aggressive and violent behaviors. However, the fact has often been overlooked that many video games are meant for adult audiences. The resulting ratings guide was designed to inform parents about the nature of the content of the games they are purchasing for their children. While video games are given some credit for enhancing dexterity and problem solving skills, only recently have people begun to discuss the ways they can actually encourage teamwork. [Image Left: Xbox 360. Credit: Microsoft]

In multiplayer first-person shooters, such as the popular Halo series and Call of Duty, players can form teams for "capture the flag" simulations, where they must work together to successfully defend their base from a common enemy. Recently, I've watched a team of coworkers work as a defensive unit in Halo 3: ODST. Using headsets to communicate, they warned each other of impending attacks and provided backup as needed.  The implications for this kind of collaborative work may actually impact their relationship within the workplace, according to one researcher:
"Team objective-based games require a lot of communication between players to allow them to complete objectives, and playing such games can improve these skills and potentially help develop leadership styles."
In working together in a virtual environment, coworkers may enhance problem-solving skills, learn to assert leadership skills, and test a willingness to pursue creative solutions. In virtual worlds, players learn to play to each other's strengths:
  • If one person is better at operating a vehicle than another, then he becomes the driver while the others wield weapons. 
  • If a propensity for a particular weapon is demonstrated, then efforts are made to claim that weapon for the player and support is provided as he uses it. 

[Above: CAPTION CORRECTED: Scene from Halo 3 Multiplayer: Orbital Drop Shock Troopers in action. Credit:]

In addition, resources are shared—weapons and leadership roles are rotated. On virtual teams where the players have an actual offline relationship, collaborative game play may act to cement their network connections forging stronger relationships that can be drawn upon in real world settings. In video games, you cannot advance until the level/match is complete. In a collaborative setting, this encourages teams to stick with a problem—they actually have no choice but to work through it. In the workplace, teams that are connected online may bring this same sense of problem-solving tenacity to the situation. They may also be less likely to discount unusual suggestions.

The collaborative nature of some multiplayer games has been cited as proof that today's video games are actually social instruments—the image of the lonely geek playing video games on a personal computer is growing obsolete as people form networks and relationships in online gaming communities. Today's geek is likely to have international teammates that rival the connections of some businessmen. Teamwork guides have been developed, emphasizing respect for fellow gamers, good communication, and understanding expectations. The proliferation of these types of games with the Millennial generation and the growing popularity of social networking applications and media with these groups suggest that people are learning to work together in new ways.

I'm not suggesting that managers mandate a online gaming night for their team members, but these types of exercises could be helpful in building solidarity and trust in work units.The workplace is definitely changing as more "digital natives" fill in cubicles, perhaps they'll also bring new strategies for collaboration as well.

Has your workplace implemented technological strategies to encourage collaboration—i.e., a blog or custom designed video game? Talk back below (you don't need to share your employer's name).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taxi! The Evolution of a New York City Symbol

Note: Updated to include information from NYC TLC spokesperson, Allan Fromberg.

It's simple enough. You step off the curb, raise your arm, and wait. Soon enough you'll catch the attention of those familiar yellow "mech-animals" that dominate the streets of New York City. Hailing a cab in New York City is as much part of the natural ebb and flow of daily life as morning coffee from the guy in the truck/cart outside of your building.

Life evolves with us. And what better example of this is there than the ubiquitous NYC cab? First appearing in the early 19th-century, they have come in all shapes and sizes, representing different decades and feelings, transforming somewhat reluctantly with the introduction of new technologies. Commanded by fearless drivers who don't flinch as they careen between buses and delivery trucks, cabs are fully integrated with life in Manhattan. They're everywhere—unless it's raining or you have somewhere to be—but this wasn't always the case. [Image Right: Taxicab with battle scars. Nov 2009.]

Before the automobile appeared on city streets at the end of the 19th-century, two-wheeled hansom cabs and four-seat hacks patrolled the streets transporting fares to their destinations in style. And they did indeed have a certain style to them. According to American author Vance Thompson, in those days to be a cabber imparted a certain status: "You [rode] in a cab in order to be seen riding in a cab." They were more than a convenience in their early days. Of course, as the city grew, the need for transportation grew with it, removing some of the elitism associated with cabbing. If you think the streets are chaotic now, Manhattan in the midst of the Civil War-era would have been impossible to navigate—horse-drawn and steam-powered omnibuses and railroads, carts, express wagons, and carriages all jockeyed for space. It was a dangerous place for pedestrians. Horses were unpredictable. They often ran away and were known to kick pedestrians. Although, in fairness to the horses, city life wasn't easy on them: they had an average career of about four years, and it wasn't uncommon for them to die in the streets (in which case, other horses would come and drag them away), which would only add to the congestion. It also smelled, as you can imagine. Congestion on mass transit meant that women were already experiencing sexual harassment in the form of wandering fingers and the subway characters I mapped out a few weeks ago were probably emerging in their earlier forms. While cabs still provided a means of travel, the city's rapid growth was outstripping its transportation resources, and people demanded a fix. [Image Top Left: Two-wheeled hansom and four-seat hack. Source: Outing magazine, Vol. XLIX No. 2, Nov. 1906 p. 130. | Image Bottom Right: Cabs on Fifth Avenue. Source: Outing magazine, Vol. XLIX No. 2, Nov. 1906 p. 132.]

A solution was proposed with electric vehicles. Although their large batteries were a bit unwieldy, they offered a cleaner alternative to horses—but they were still a minority in the early 1900s. In Taxi! A Social History of the New York City, Graham Russell Gao Hodges, a former driver, tells the readers that the modern cab industry arose as a result of a fare dispute. Harry N. Allen felt he was overcharged (which apparently wasn't uncommon), and vowed to start his own cab company. And he did: the New York Taxicab Company imported 600 gas-powered cabs from France in 1907. They were red and green and the drivers wore uniforms. As an introduction, Allen paraded them down Fifth Avenue and lined them up in front of the Plaza Hotel, ousting the hacks and hansom cabs parked there. He took measures to address two primary criticisms of the horse-drawn cabs: Allen's cabs had taximeters (for which they are named), allowing a set price to be charged for a specific distance, and Allen ordered drivers to be polite to fares. Gas-powered vehicles offered many advantages over horse and electric cabs, such as less maintenance and greater reliability—that is not to say that they didn't break down and emit plumes of smoke on occasion, but they didn't need to be fed, curbed, or recharged. Despite some initial labor problems, the New York Taxicab Company was here to stay. By the teens, there were dozens of additional taxi companies and the horse-powered cabs were quickly becoming antiquated.

[Image Above: It's not Fifth Avenue, but cab lines aren't all that uncommon. Shown here: cabs along Water Street, Nov. 2009.]

The familiar checkered cab appeared on the streets in the 1920s. They were painted yellow so that they would be easily spotted, but they weren't the only cabs on the street. In New York City, a fare war soon erupted as rival taxi companies, which included (then) auto-giant General Motors, vied for control of the market prompting the introduction of medallions in the 1930s as a means for the city to control the quality and costs associated with a cab ride. In the 1960s, the city cemented the yellow taxis as icons by ordering all medallion taxis to be painted yellow so that these city-sanctioned rides would be easily identifiable. Livery cabs could operate as any color other than yellow.

In recent years, steps have been taken to control the effects of the explosive number of cabs in the city. It echoes strangely of the efforts to replace the horse-drawn cabs. For example, electric vehicles have been re-introduced. According to some sources, electric vehicles were discontinued because they were too expensive to maintain, however NYC TLC spokesperson Allan Fromberg indicates that the technology simply wasn't in place to launch the initiative (see comments below). Although some concessions have been made to the digital-era we live in: for example, a Passenger Information Monitor (PIM), which includes a credit card register so that fares can be paid for with plastic, was made mandatory for all cabs. After initial protests it seems that cabbies have accepted the devices (partly because it didn't affect tips as originally feared.) Current cabs also seem to reflect our widening social circles as they include vehicles that can accommodate more passengers—and in fact, more "stuff."  [Image Right: Updated per information from Allan Fromberg (see comments): SUV-type vehicles have been introduced as taxi cabs. Nov. 09.]

The drivers through the ages remain constant as a group: they are minorities, who first drove cabs because it was one of the only open avenues for making money, and some of whom now drive cabs for what they hope will only be a temporary period. According to Hodges:
At first, most of these drivers were African Americans, who were licensed to drive by the city in the early nineteenth century. By the 1840s, as was the case with many semi-skilled and unskilled occupations, Irish immigrants pushed African Americans out of the trade. This early example of ethnic succession was more violent than later transitions, but it established a tradition of entering immigrant groups viewing hacking as a viable income and significant step up the ladder of economic mobility.
With each wave of immigration, new groups would establish themselves as drivers. In the 1920 and 1930s, there was a rise of Irish, Italian, and Jewish drivers. According to Edward Adler, onetime driver and author of Notes From a Dark Street, these drivers took these jobs so their children would not have to, and once their children had graduated from universities, they left the trade. This group began to phase out in the 1950s and were gone by the 1970s. In the 1950s, African and Latin Americans, and Middle Eastern immigrants began to fill the jobs vacated by the Irish, Italians, and Jews before them. Today drivers are likely to hail from any number of countries, including India, Pakistan, Russia, Haiti, and Africa. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists, and professors in their own countries, but find that they lack the qualifications needed to pursue their crafts here in the United States. They turn to driving cabs—so their children won't have to.

While riding in a cab may no longer carry a social status with it (though I wonder if a prolonged recession may change this), driving a cab seems to retain some of it's working class branding. Allen's issuance of uniforms created this image in the minds of cabbers, and while today's drivers don't wear uniforms, their role in ferrying people home after work, to and from parties, and other social gatherings. helps them retain this label even as they surely resent it. As an interview with at least one cabbie indicates, the labeling of drivers as members of a servant class, as well as their standing as immigrants, mean that they will never fully have a place in the mainstream. This is in spite of the fact that many cabbies have taken steps to purchase their own medallions so that they are driver-owners, and can keep the bulk of their earnings. Medallions come at a considerable cost (up to $600,000 for an independent owner medallion from $10.00 in the 1930s), but the cost has done little to mitigate the perception of the drivers—partly because so few of them actually own the medallions themselves, and there is no way to distinguish between a driver and and driver-owner, and it's doubtful that many passengers even care to make such a differentiation. Cabs are here to provide transportation, and it's expected that they will adapt to the city and to the fares who look for them after a night at a club or a bar. When cabbies went on strike in 2007 to protest the PIM, the city took great steps to emphasize that transit would not be crippled, as though to minimize the significance of these ever-present yellow arthropods.

While it's understandable that the city would want to minimize the significance of cabs, particularly in a strike situation, cabs have an undeniable presence. In the fall of 2007, cabs were given the opportunity to participate in the Garden in Transit public art project. To mark the 100th anniversary of the motorized cab, cabbies could volunteer to have their taxis decorated with a flower decal created by children and adults in hospitals, schools, and communities around Manhattan as a form of creative therapy. The project did little to raise the status of cabs or their drivers in the public's eye—according to responses at the Gothamist, most folks seemed to view the project as bland or wonder why real flowers weren't placed in cabs to dispel unpleasant odors—but the flowered cabs did serve as a reminder that cabs are very much a part of city life however, as they quickly spread throughout the city and became a part of the social landscape. [Image Right: Decals on NYC cabs. Image from New York City Daily Photo.]

The "City That Never Sleeps" needs transportation beyond mass transit to move its inhabitants—this has been true from the very start.  So cabs are here to stay, and their presence is decidedly mainstream (even if their drivers are kept on the fringes of society). Part of the reason cabs have survived in the face of more affordable rides, such as the subway and buses, is more than elitism: cabs offer a sense of safety which can be challenged underground late at night. And there are stories of cabbies who take their fare's safety seriously. Undoubtedly, the old issues will be raised again as we search for cheap, reliable, and greener methods of transportation.  As for those relics of the cab industry, the hansom and hack cabs, they haven't been completely eradicated—they've been relegated to the tourist trade and proffer rides around Central Park. [Image Left: A hack on Eleventh Avenue. Nov. 09.]

You know you have 'em, so share your taxi stories below.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Taxi!: A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver. John Hopkins University Press: 2007.

Thompson, Vance.
1906     "The New York Cab Driver and His Cab." Outing. Vol XLIX(2): pp 129-138.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Music and the Counterpoint of Humanity

What is it about steel pan music that stops me in my tracks? This was the question I posted to my Facebook status last week after stumbling on a steel pan musician at Penn Station. The melodies he coaxed from the steel pan made me pause, and I went digging for the change in my pocket, something that I rarely do. Steel pan music reminds me of my heritage—something that Facebook users were quick to point out, referencing both a longing for home and my nationality as reasons for feeling this connection. Music has this power—to recall a memory, to transport us, to connect us.

New York City is known for its public performers. They can be be found on street corners and subway platforms. They range from simple musicians to full bands to complete shows with lithe acrobats. Good ones draw large crowds, but even the not so good performers will gain a solitary audience member until the train pulls into the station or the light changes so pedestrians can cross. Why are we drawn to music? Particularly public music? Is it something more than a momentary distraction? [Image Left: Performer at Penn Station.]

My first social science endeavor dealt with music. I had an English teacher in high school who was young and enthusiastic; his ideas didn't always jive with the administration. For example, he learned that our school bell system could be programmed to play music instead of tones. He managed to persuade the administration to permit the bell system to be modified: instead of a tone to signal the end and beginning of classes and three minutes of silence during the passing, there would be three minutes of music to accompany students during the passing between classes. The exercise was over relatively quickly—the administration found the music disruptive. Teachers felt they had trouble getting their students settled down for the lesson.

At the time, I was reading about the use of music to relieve stress. There have been studies done linking reduced levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) to exposure to music. I remember being particularly intrigued by reports of surgeons piping in music to ease their (and their patient's) anxieties about the process. It kept them relaxed. Of course, this isn't really new information. There's a reason music is played in fast food establishments and in shopping malls: more than just background noise, it sets a mood. Holiday shoppers are more likely to spend if they are feeling like its a "Holly Jolly Christmas" and people tend to eat more when there is slow, sad music in the background. If there was evidence that music influences mood, and it was being used to this effect by larger parties, then could it have a benefit in schools? Beyond creating unruly, distracted students, that is?

Possibly. If surgeons were using music to calm their nerves, then perhaps I could make an argument about productivity. The study I designed used classical music during passing, and teachers reported through qualitative assessments that students seemed more relaxed and productive. The administration would not permit quantitative analysis, which I proposed could be done through examining test scores (collected with all identifying information removed, of course.) I tested this hypothesis in three high schools, and the results were the same—music has a effect on mood which could be linked to productivity, but the question of why remained unanswered—how can music manipulate the collective?

Music can be a connective agent because we feel it. While we may have different emotive responses, we feel music in the same ways—our bodies respond to it similarly. At the 14th Street-Union Square subway station, there is sometimes a brass band that performs. They usually have a large crowd, and the beat grabs every single spectator. Regardless of color, creed, or age, heads bob, feet tap, and bodies sway in unison. Music has the ability to link the counterpoint of human existence. Counterpoint is a musical term. It refers to the harmonizing of independent elements—dissonant chords, if you will, coming together to create beautiful sounds. Jose Marti, a Cuban revolutionary writer and political theorist (and quite a bit more, but you can read about him if you're interested by clicking on his name), wrote in a style of counterpoint. He took different frames of thought, different subjects, different styles, and wove them together to talk of revolution, of being. [Image Right: Violinist at Penn Station.]

Marti saw our connection to the natural world as something that could be used to link us all—giving us terms, expressions, and feelings, that we could all understand. He felt that poetry particularly exemplified this connection, and that Walt Whitman excelled at weaving these narratives:
"The truth is that his poetry, though startling at first, leaves a delightful feeling of convalescence in the soul tormented by the diminishment of the universe. He creates his own grammar and logic. He reads the eye of an ox and the sap in the leaf."
Literature, he felt, spoken in terms of nature is something that we can all understand. It has cadences, rhythms, and melodies. We feel it much in the way we can feel music:
To the greatest number of free men and workers the Earth has ever seen corresponds a poetry of wholeness and faith, grave and soothing, that rises like the Sun from the sea, setting the clouds ablaze, edging the crests of the waves in fires, and rousing the nestlings and the drowsy, flowers in the teeming jungles along the shore ... everything breathes out its own music.
The poem Whitman composes to mark the death of Lincoln speaks in these terms. He captures the pain of a nation in nature, and it becomes something that everyone can relate to, something that is preserved through time:
Literature—which announces and propagates the final, joyous concordance of apparent contradictions ... Literature, which inculcates men's fearful spirits with a conviction so rooted in definitive justice and beauty that the penuries and uglinesses of existence do not dishearten or embitter them—will not only reveal a form of society that is closer to perfection than any now known, but will also, by felicitously conjoining reason and grace, provide Humanity, ever eager for marvels and poetry with the religion it has awaited in bewilderment since it became aware of the emptiness and insufficiency if its ancient creeds.
Music is literature and literature is music. These forms of expression maintain a link to the natural world, which is what we feel. Poetry, like music, can bring us together, excite us, send us to the depths of despair, much in the way a gray swamp bird singing its lonely song against a bleak landscape can evoke despondency. Music captures these rhythms, which are encoded into our understanding, despite our backgrounds—sounds of joy are recognizable, as are sounds of sadness. If you are ever fortunate enough to attend the wedding of someone from another culture, pay attention to the music and compare it to other joyous tunes from your life. You will certainly find similarities. Universities have "fight songs" for this reason. They're a good way to get the crowd going, yes, but they remind the crowd and team of their connection. Couples choose wedding songs to form a connection with each other and their guests. This shared experience has the power to induce collective moods and experiences, which possibly lay at the root of my early social science forays. [Image Left: A guitar in transit.]

For me, the steel pan connects me to other Trinidadians in transit. It connects me to my relatives whom I have never met. It reminds me of a shared history. The next time you come across a street performer, stop and take in the show. If you find yourself nodding your head or swaying along, give a sidelong glance to see if your neighbor is doing the same. Let the social rhythms override your differences. And carry the collective mood with you. if you find yourself being more productive or pleasant, share the network effect. [Image Right: Band plays swing; couple dances in the foreground.]

Have a favorite song? How does it make you feel? Remember the fight song from you alma mater? What was the effect on the crowd? Talk back below.

Marti, Jose.
2002 "The Poet Walt Whitman." In Selected Writings. Esther Allen, ed. New York: Penguin Books.