27 June 2009

'Our' Extreme Makeover

Ty Pennington, star of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is in Erie this week. But more importantly, a deserving family will be receiving a brand new home on Thursday. When the cast of a major network program coasts into your hometown, it’s a big deal. The hype that ABC’s presence creates has been so enormous, but I’m sure this happens in every city it strikes. Who wouldn’t want to catch a glimpse of a People Magazine-stamped most eligible bachelor? But more importantly, who wouldn’t want to call out “Bus Driver, Move That Bus!” and watch a family swell with emotion, gratitude, and joy over their new home?

The narratives people use and craft to make sense of this whole episode (literally I suppose) have been fascinating. One the one hand, the city is stoked, volunteers are abundant, billboards are up. Maleno Development has established a new Family-to-Family Fund at the Erie Community Foundation. The show has definitely stirred the city and unleashed an adrenaline rush for volunteerism and “our community.” We are lucky to have this happen to our community.

On the other, people question the future for this family. In a meeting completely unrelated to the project, my superiors started speaking about it with wide eyes and gossip-brushed tones.
So many people end up losing the homes;
they can’t afford it;
I hope they don’t run into financial trouble.

They then went on to talk about how the materials are paid for.
I don’t think the show pays for them;
OH reeeally?;
I think the money we can bid ($10 per chance to win a private tour of the home and/or the highest bid for a chance to ride “that bus”) goes to paying for materials;
Oh, this show is a huge cash cow.

The material theory was all speculation, so it was interesting to watch the conversation progress. By the end, everyone had settled on that presumption, shaking their heads. Nevertheless, we as ECF staff are still volunteering for the project with the hope that everything will work out in the end.

I’m not saying either of these opinions is good or bad, right or wrong, because we convey stories of luck and miracles or skepticism and concern to understand reality, develop opinions, and spawn solidarity with others. But I think recognizing these various sides to the extreme makeover build is crucial for “our community,” one that is visibly segregated economically and racially as so many are. A neighborhood cleanup once a year in commemoration of the project won’t be enough to makeover the disparities so embedded in our cities. This family's financial path should remain a hands-on concern for us, not just a prayer.

I hope we recognize what groups we assign to “our community” when we say it. I imagine the meaning and image of “our community” has significantly shifted for many since that big bus rolled into town; I imagine it now includes classes or individuals we never directly pictured as “ours.” So can the thriving volunteer spirit and camaraderie with groups whose paths we probably never before crossed last beyond the Bus Move rally on Thursday? I certainly hope so.

Along with physical development, I hope Erie has the savvy to develop its relationships, loosen its boundaries, and work to keep every person on the same plane of value, beyond Ty’s (unfortunate) departure. After the adrenaline crashes, I hope that Bus Move chutzpah stays vibrant, curious, and always extreme for our community.

23 June 2009

In the words of harrison647

"Why did I watch this in the middle of June?!
Oh yeah, because It's just so great!"

Monoculturalism, mass consumption, and mountain suburbia.

I criticize, but alas, I too am a sap for nostalgic Christmas consumerism. (And very intentionally sought this commercial out in the middle of June).

20 June 2009

Why I love traffic, seriously!

Sometimes, traffic is overwhelming. Cars get friendly with my Chevy's tail bone, a driver turns left at the most inconvenient time, a truck blinks its four-ways because it’s oversized and can’t go faster than 20 mph, and I’m late for work.

Watching the light in the distance turn yellow is the most frustrating of all. When that distance is roughly 30 feet and I'm the frontrunner of the traffic pack, I cleave to my brake pedal in anger. It's overwhelming to catch the closing stages of yellow.

But getting to why I love traffic.

I love traffic because I have trained myself to follow the rules of road. I love it because when I look around, so many are frustrated but so many respect the manmade system. Three colors, bold-faced print, and lots of octagons were built to ensure our safety, and we follow them blindly (hopefully not literally) because we recognize the value in keeping to these canons. It's overwhelming (in a good, refreshing way) that we follow symbols, even if we despise them at 7:58 a.m., because it attests to something seriously admirable about humanity.

I've had this theory for a good while. It makes my commute anywhere more meaningful and quainter. Of course I recognize the tragedies that do occur, and the flaws an inanimate symbol system possesses for very animate actors. But at least in my experience, people abide by the system because it not only protects them but it protects others. Recognizing that facet, and choosing to honor the lives of others, even if subconsciously, says something big and worthy about us.

I love traffic because that idea overwhelms and enthralls me. Who would have thought the golden rule carried over to exasperating traffic lines, break slamming, and the obnoxious timing of yellow?

13 June 2009

Anthropology Audits

This place (PIGallery Coffeehouse) is getting popular. Four middle-aged women are cackling over specialty iced teas and sandwiches. It took me awhile to connect to the internet; a woman has taken my regular spot (as regular as that seat I've sat in once before and decided it was mine is). This place is someone’s dream. The owner is chatting casually with customers; I haven’t been coming here long enough to invite her to my booth for a heart-to-heart yet. Maybe some Saturday in the future.

My second week in the business world, I’ve found myself quite occupied by none other than my nosy anthropological antennae. Of course I'm here to learn, but I'm more than interested in the way employees interact with one another; the social spaces they manipulate; the tones of conversation that occur when the boss is out. The world inside the office is fascinating; it’s a culture with specific codes everyone seems to be aware of. Comfort levels vary; gossip levels vary; even places and times of physical convening vary based on who’s there, what the workday brings, what fight is breaking out among those 10 or so neighborhood girls who regularly shout forth vulgarities in the street.

Other than spilling the paper holepunch, and discretely scurrying on all fours to clean the mess up (see June 12 post below), I've certainly been busy with actual work this week. The feds are coming to audit 5 of HANDS’ properties, and we have been scrambling to get books together with all the needed, signed, official-looking (because they are) documents. All I can picture is the crew from Men in Black arriving to Erie via batmobile transit. They storm in with gun-modeled pens, dark sunglasses they never remove, and a dog named Frank that is actually a talking extraterrestrial well-versed in HUD policies and procedures.

I brought this image up to my supervisor, and she laughed. “They are actually really really nice,” she said. “But that’s why you have to be careful!” I.e. they have a way with making you feel you can trust them, so you might let something slip in conversation that HUD auditors didn’t necessarily need to hear (at least from the perspective of the org. under scrutiny). Even this short remark clued me in on some office policies stated nowhere in writing. (But maybe these are just common policies, understood across all businesses, all human nature, when one is being "audited" for anything. I know I'd certainly watch what I say, do, scratch, etc. )

Catherine Kingfisher’s ethnography Women in the American Welfare Trap is an insightful look at similar workplace politics. Hierarchical and oppressive are two modifiers she uses to describe the welfare system in Michigan. Two groups, workers and recipients both, resist and accommodate policy in attempts to navigate requirements set in place from the people or laws above them (recipient to worker; worker to supervisor; worker to official policy; recipient to official policy; etc.). These tenets however aren’t all really official. For example, pockets of workers actually produce unofficial meaning and “policy” training for future workers. Office and outside social exchanges “provide informal training for [welfare] workers on how to make sense of and handle the various situations they encounter in their work” (125).

I imagine these kinds of interactions happen in every work space, and the formative power they carry is something vital for organizations to consider. The trend now is to hire internal communication auditors to come in and assess your work place’s internal communication. I don’t know how long these people stay with organizations, but props to anthropologists for no doubt starting the trend.

In our field, our trend is multi-site ethnography. We no longer just stay in one place and paraphrase a culture seemingly unaffected by outside forces. (I'm staying in one place this summer, so an unofficial, uni-site, virtually recorded ethnography [i.e. this blog] will simply have to do.) To understand internal communication, we must also understand external interactions, perceptions, and relations. We must 'audit' official and unofficial policies, issues of external and internal power relations, community perspective, history, and heck, even globalization, even in Erie. It’s a lot more work, but something we anthropology undergrads might want to start marketing about ourselves...especially with the number of anthropology job openings out there.

10 June 2009

Intern-al Woes

As an early-rising intern, my insides are being challenged...most literally.

I am incapable of arriving early for work; I usually pull in at HANDS by 8:01/02, usually by 8:31/32 at ECF. But every morning, I think I’m doing better. At the moment I decide I’m doing better, that I don’t need to rush out, that is when I should immediately start rushing.

My mom knows this about me; she knows when I say I’ll pack my lunch for work, this means I’ll grab an apple and 100 calorie snack pack on my way out because I won’t have time to make a sandwich. I ate an apple and clementine for lunch my first day at ECF. Today, I had Dunkaroos for breakfast at my desk, shielding the top wrapper behind my purse so no one would see and have to hold back obvious disapproval.

On top of sour intestines, my sleeping patterns still revolve around my 10:40 a.m. class, my “I’m young and restless” pride, and those basic principles of summer break (i.e. sleep in, sun bathe, stay out late). So, my head gets weary, my stomach and taste buds, bitter, and my knees, stiff, from intern heels, air conditioned spaces, and the static bent-knee posture of the desk intern.

Practical advice for myself that I came up with all on my own:

1. Go to bed earlier.
2. Wake up earlier.
3. Don't ball up and throw dress pants, shirts, cardigans, etc. on the cat-hairy floor so you don't have to iron and heavily lint-roll them in the morning.
4. Pack a lunch the night before.

06 June 2009

The Intern Diaries: Introduction

My first week of double-interning is over. I am working with the Erie Community Foundation and Housing and Neighborhood Development Service for the next couple months. I am excited to be a part of both these wonderful organizations, and I will actually be blogging for ECF! So, I commission you to go forth and read it.

I came up with the clever title of Intern Diaries just before searching Google to see if I was really that original. Fail. Many interns before me have tagged their experiences identically, but I shall nonetheless stick by it.

I wanted to bullet some of my very interny, inelegant moments from the first week. So, here they are, for your reading and scoffing pleasure:

  • Upon arriving at my first professional event sponsored in part by ECF, I sat in the Ambassador Center parking lot and watched very sleek business men and women enter through the doors. Dubbed a “Poverty Simulation” aimed at opening community members’ eyes to low income residents’ day to day toils, the event attracted potential donors, i.e. people with money. I, in my Tommy Hilfiger zip-up, jeans, and flip flops, thus panicked. I couldn’t be late; that would reflect poorly. But I couldn’t go in like this. So, I opened the trunk, still very unpacked from college, found two very wrinkled pieces of clothing—a black cardigan and simple white v-neck—and employed my large bottle of Dollar General wrinkle release in a hasty manner. Stretching the wrinkles out of the cardigan against my steering wheel, I managed to straighten up a little before going in. “Nice save!” texted mother. The flip-flops were still rather shoddy though.
  • On HANDS day 1, I managed to pour myself the last cup’s worth of coffee from the communal coffee pot, and the CEO came around the corner at this exact moment. I was with my supervisor, and she was scrambling to make/show me how to make a new pot. “It’s his number 1 pet peeve when the coffee is out.”
  • On official day 2 at ECF, I battled with a monster of a copy machine. With four trays and randomized, alternating tray features, the machine outclassed me. I had to do double-siding printing, which meant my re-inserting papers in the correct direction in one of four trays. After many wasted pages, I finally figured out I could select which tray to print from. But even when I did this, the machine turned on me and produced more waste. I ended up with a 3-inch stack—not an exaggeration—of wasted pages, which I hid in my bottom desk drawer and will take home in inconspicuous segments over the next 2 months.
  • “What would you like to pursue after you get your degree?” asked my supervisor at HANDS. “Well, I’m not quite sure; that’s why I want to learn about this kind of work.” I told her about my studies in urban anthropology, social policy, and such, and went on to say, “I’m really interested in public housing work.” Calmly, she responded, “Well, we are a private housing organization…” Flustered I replied, “Well, yah, right, yah...”
  • Deciding to exit most professionally and gracefully from ECF on copy machine-nightmare day, I turned my head to direct a goodbye to the president sitting in his office. In doing so, I managed to crash my right foot into another staff member’s desk, and draw much attention to my intern existence. “Oh, I’m running into things,” I said in poor attempts at humiliation remedy. The Programs Director was also watching, lips pinched, from her office.

PIG Writing

Today is a step towards writer status—a day I pack up the laptop, emit pollution through my exhaust, and nestle in at an end booth at the Presque Isle Gallery Coffeehouse. With medium coffee-of-the-day in dangerously close proximity to my keyboard, a chocolate muffin, and the company of only two other patrons (1 mother, 1 screaming child), I begin my writing session as so often seen in the movies.

As I binge food and purge thoughts, I am reminded of all the fit people I passed biking or running down this way. To justify my very stationary activity, I squint out the window at whirling white fluffies, allergens just waiting to attack my sinuses, and nod a nod of certitude.

The child is quacking now, in between folky beats, and my muffin is half gone. I assume real writers who do this kind of thing aren’t actually recording their experience in the coffee house. But, it seems fitting on my first day. Or maybe this is actually just a manifestation of writer’s block—dissecting and recording material details in a flowery fashion.

I am down to the bottom of my mug and have to force-swallow tepid swigs. A lightbulb just went off, not literally, but figuratively. (Yay, we’re getting somewhere!) Those candlewarmers that we college students have to use in dorms because of fire safety should be installed/embedded in coffeehouse tabletops. Heated coasters to keep your coffee warm if you are a sipper like me! Someday, when I own my dream coffee/sweets shop, you will see and use these. And each gulp will be evenly satisfying.

I just blew a piece of chocolate muffin into the cracks between my keys, in attempts to blow it off my silvery wrist shelf. The music has turned to smooth, classic, jazzy. This is where I’ll be writing on Saturday mornings. I decided on PIG Coffeehouse (charming, eh?) before the summer started, and I am eager to move beyond fieldsite description in the following weeks.

Stay tuned!

05 June 2009

Wake Up Call

When mother called and asked if I would be at the house by 4:45 p.m. in order to wake her husband, my step-father, who doesn’t officially live there anymore, but sleeps in the recliner more than occasionally, and needed to be somewhere at 5:00, I was irritated. I was just leaving work, after a full day, looking forward to crashing on grandma’s couch for more than 15 minutes.

I didn’t want to be anyone’s personal alarm.

“He won’t wake up to a phone,” she said. “And I can’t be there because I have to be at grandma’s. Gerlach’s is dropping off the riding lawn mower tonight and,” gibber, jabber, etc.

I felt like screaming, especially when we intersected at grandma’s and she kept checking her watch. “Well, why don’t you get home and let the cats out,” she hinted, since grandma knows nothing about her moved-out husband’s recurrent appearances.

Well, WHY DOESN’T HE LEARN HOW TO WAKE UP TO AN ALARM LIKE THE REST OF THE WORLD, I thought to myself, and managed to voice snarkily over the phone to Jason.

In a very composed, smart-alecky tone, he replied (most anthropologically), “Well, who decided everyone must be capable of waking up via alarm?” I.e., who authorized this standard we now just take for granted, a norm naturalized by a high-speed, mechanical generation?

As much as I wanted to pout in that moment, I sighed a sigh of gratification. For two reasons:

1. Even though Jason was no doubt taunting my usual approach to such constructed norms, he managed to appropriate it, call me out on my unfounded resentment, and demonstrate that, in fact, he does listen.

2. I don’t need or want the world to be trained by maddening cell alarms anyway.