the baking anthropologist

Since I can't afford to pay participants, I've started baking to thank those who give me their time. Last week I brought oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, which seemed to endear me to a bunch of suspicious mothers. [I met up with one mom at a park, where she tried to introduce me to other homeschooler moms. So, I can understand mothers' skepticism at a stranger in a park....] They all proclaimed me the baking anthropologist, which isn't really the persona I'm trying to cultivate. Though I suppose nicknames are not usually self-chosen.

Tomorrow I'm going back for an interview with one mother who's been so welcoming and helpful. I decided to bake her muffins. A month ago, I somehow decided I would try out a sweet potato muffin recipe, suggested by my most favorite vegetarian cookbook, introduced to me by one of my dearest friends. This cookbook stands the test of time, and unlike a lot of vegetarian cookbooks I've tried, I don't feel like I'm trying to be self-righteous by cooking vegetarian. Didi [the author] recognizes how much I love cheese, for example, without being too cheese-centric.

I am posting a photo of how I decided to block out the film crew's nightlamps. [This is my grandmother's apron, one of the many odd things I kept from her belongings. I think my aunt gave this to her.]

Anyway, below is the recipe. So, the cooking became an homage to a whole slew of people, TW, who taught me that baking from scratch is always [almost] better than anything out of a box (though my dad is also partly responsible, TW was more inclined to encourage my sweet tooth), HL, for the introduction to Didi, and to my grandmother, whose apron is now serving as a filter.

Baking these to Merle Haggard and other blues music works very well, which is strange, since that's not my usual music preference.

Here's the recipe, slightly amended from Didi Emmons's Vegetarian Planet, though I cut the sugar immensely this time, they still seem too sweet (for my taste):

  • 2/3 c. brown sugar [Didi says 1 c plus 2 tbs, but that's insanely sweet]
  • 1/2 c canola oil [I cut this a little bit, since the first time the muffins seemed a little oily]
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 c white flour
  • 2 tsps baking powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp nutmeg [she says fresh, but I'm not fully equipped here in L.A. for such extravagances]
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and finely grated
  • 1/2 c raisins [or just dump, as I do]
  • [she calls for 1 c. walnuts, but I haven't any]

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or oil muffin tins for 12 muffins
In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, vanilla, and oil
In large bowl, mix together flour, sweet potatoes, baking powder, spices, and salt
Make a well and pour in egg mixture. Stir in the egg mixture with the sweet potatoes. Stir in the raisins [and walnuts]. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until knife inserted comes out clean.
Let cool for about 10 minutes, cut around edges and knock out muffins. Didi says eat immediately, but these hold up for a few days.

oh, the deep-seated ambivalence

Un-fieldwork-like and just plain grumpy, but I would like to devote a moment of silence, or desperation, or something, to my annoyance at the L.A. way. They are filming on my block today. [It is apparently this film, and I do love Robert Downey Jr. and Catherine Keener, but still.]

Not only have they made it impossible to park in an already limited parking block, but on trash day (always unpleasant because of the excess of trash cans blocking the limited parking and usually making it really dangerous to bike), they lined all the trashcans up on the sidewalk. The sidewalks on my block are barely wide enough for one person to walk comfortably. This is because L.A. hates pedestrians. Seriously.

The walkers are hated with a passion. Most of the crosswalks have timed their pedestrian signs to be about the length it takes to get 1/4 of the way into the busy boulevard, and then the light changes. Sometimes, the pedestrian signal never goes off at all. If you were a person who obeyed traffic signals, which I am not, you could ostensibly stand at a corner for 2 full light cycles.

Really, this is not about the filming, though I've realized they are actually filming at night, which will be fun (!!) and their generator is directly outside my window, but about the general disinterest in everyday human life that goes on all the time in this city. As far as I can tell, the monolith, mono-industry trumps all here. And I want to be sympathetic. I mean, I like movies...some of them. But I am losing patience. I want to be able to walk on the sidewalks. Or not fear death when walking to the farmer's market.

L.A. was the first place I learned what jaywalking really was. Having grown up in NY, the idea of not crossing against the light was foreign to me. Crosswalks, though important, were not an absolute necessity. I was 15 years old, visiting a friend who had moved here in junior high school, and we were out hanging out on Melrose Avenue. She and I had split up, and I needed to get back across the street (as one does). No sooner had I traversed, when a cop on a motorcycle came up to me. He asked me if I knew what I had done. I said no. He chastised me for five minutes about jaywalking. I was totally baffled and thought the whole thing was hilarious. He let me off with a warning. My only other pedestrian run-in with the law was in Berkeley, where a friend and I were asked for our driver's licenses (I think we refused, since we were not driving at the time, but rather, walking). All these things would bother me a lot less if the "pedestrian" infrastructure were actually substantively pedestrian.


The shape of the condom

Today, at one of my fieldsites, the director of the program corrected my identifying a condom as shaped like a penis. Apparently it is not shaped like a penis. It is shaped like a square-folded up package.

This is the sort of miscommunication that is happening regularly. I am trying not to find it frustrating.

I should add that this anecdote is meant to show the inevitable miscommunications in my own country. I really want to be conscientious about not denigrating the people I work with, even as I disagree with their perspectives, at times. I have yet to be a truly objective observer, and I struggle with the experience of a researcher. It's an odd phenomenon to be one's research instrument, even as one is also a person with her own foibles and imperfections. I envy researchers with laboratories, with mechanical instruments that while fallible are still not attached or permanently part of the researcher. The mis-readings, then, can be attributed to the object. Occasionally to the researcher, him or herself, but at least there's some sort of displacement.


transcription software?

Of interest perhaps to only a very few, but I just found this link. I'm terribly behind in transcribing interviews (and writing fieldnotes, as I've mentioned). This is partly due to how long it takes to transcribe even an hour of interviews. My digital recorder allows me to slow down speech a little so that I can try to type as I listen, but it doesn't have a lot of nuance with rewinding and forwarding. A number of times I've accidentally gone to the beginning of the interview (when I was half way through), and the forwarding speed is glacial. I'm excited about this software, if it works, maybe I'll be a newly productive researcher. Or, I'll continue being delusional that tools and technology will somehow transform my behaviors.

Running through the field

I have been struggling to find the right group of people for my research. It's been 5 and a half months here, and I feel like so much of my work has been piecemeal. Of course, we tend to read ethnographies that have been carefully crafted after the fact. And I have found that it takes months or years after doing work to see some of the connections between things that at the time seemed utterly unrelated. I'm a slow thinker, or maybe everyone else is, too, they just put up a good front.

I finally sent a request to the mothers' group that I've been attending monthly. I had hesitated to recruit actively because I thought it was important to put some time in observing meetings and getting to know people. Because the meetings only happen once a month, and the same mothers do not always attend, it's been hard to really create ongoing relationships. I joined the group, paid its membership fee, and I volunteered as the notetaker for the group. This ensures I'll be there every month, as I've committed to a responsibility to the group, but it also allows me to feel like I'm giving back, even if only a little bit. I sent my request, and I've already gotten a few moms who are willing to let me tag along and interview them. It's exciting to suddenly have things take off and feel like there might be more work still to do.

I've been frustrated with my project because although I love that it takes me all over, and that I can't be so narrow-focused to only talk to parents about the vaccine I'm researching, it feels like it keeps getting diffused. My secret fantasy (ok not so secret) is to have my own little pocket-sized academic guru to nudge me or kick me in the shins when I'm going in the wrong direction. I would also like this little guru to plan things out for me, so that I can see the broader picture. Though, judging from my past attitudes and behaviors, the odds are good that I would hate having prescribed paths, and I'd probably just do the opposite of what the guru told me to do. In other words, maybe I just want something to rebel against -- too much freedom!! I want to have to challenge someone, but sadly, in the field, there's only me and it's tricky to rebel against oneself. (I think that might be called a psychic break?)

In many ways, I'm enjoying the meandering nature of my research. I've been writing so much on autism, even though it's so far from my original field of study. I suspect that it's something I'll follow up on in the future. I remain conflicted as to whether the vaccine I'm studying has any real presence in parents' minds. Part of the problem, as I mentioned, is that I'm not meeting with parents who have kids the right age for the vaccine. Talking to parents of small children means they're focused on the early-childhood vaccines and the concerns about developmental issues and dangers. I'm not sure if my vaccine fits into the same set of concerns. In fact, I suspect it doesn't. This is a reminder that I need to try to increase my contact with the parents of older kids. The concerns are very different when you've been taking care of a child for 10-15 years. Most of the moms I've met have young kids, and so the experience of parenting is new, with all its anxieties and hopes to get it just right.

In more politics over science disturbing news

I suppose I'm compiling these stories so that when I do teach, I have patently explicit examples of the entanglements of science and politics. I taught a writing course to freshmen where my students tended to find me a crazy liberal radical. Admittedly, my university is not known for its liberal hotbededness, a bit of a shock after my own undergraduate progressive college. But I like giving students transparent moments of why science is never immune from human biases. A number of my students really disagreed with my attempts to show them that science is as vulnerable to human tampering as any other discipline. I feel like I have to shore up news-based items to give them concrete examples of the limitations of science. And ultimately, I think it's possible to come back around and say that science has a lot to offer as a method of inquiry, but students usually need some sort of crisis of...faith....funny. No matter what I do to try to move away from this idea of conviction, of faith, I keep coming back to its intersection with scientific knowledge. One of my favorite scholars on this topic is Lorraine Daston, because she offers an historical perspective on the evolution of scientific thinking that I think is really indispensable.

I awoke this morning from a convoluted dream about induction versus deduction. This may be the nerdiest dream ever.

This is from the National Partnership for Women's daily newsletter, that used to be run by KaiserNetwork

ABORTION NEWS | Federally Funded Hopkins Database Restored To Accept Abortion-Related Searches After Being Restricted
[April 7, 2008]

Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health is once again allowing its federally funded reproductive health database Popline to accept searches containing the word "abortion" after such searches were restricted in February, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 4/5). Popline, which stands for population information online, is a free database funded by USAID. Popline provides more than 360,000 citations and abstracts of scientific articles, books, reports and unpublished reports on population, family planning and related issues, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Database officials in February intentionally programmed the database to ignore searches that contained the word "abortion" after USAID officials found two records that were related to abortion advocacy and did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the database. Database administrators removed the two records after being asked to do so by the USAID officials (Desmon, Baltimore Sun, 4/5). Administrators also programmed the word "abortion" to be ignored in searches in the same way that terms such as "a" and "the" are ignored (New York Times, 4/5). Abortion-related citations were not removed from the database but were more difficult to find, Rachel Walden, a Nashville-based biomedical librarian, said.

According to the Sun, Popline restored "abortion" as a search term after women's health advocates and librarians "flooded" online blogs and e-mail boxes at Hopkins with complaints of censorship. Gloria Won, a librarian at the University of California-San Francisco, sent an e-mail to Popline administrator Debra Dickson on March 31 after she noticed that an abortion-related search returned fewer citations than the same search returned in January (Baltimore Sun, 4/5). Dickson responded that Popline administrators "made all abortion terms stop words," adding, "As a federally funded project, we decided this was best for now." Dickson suggested Won use search terms such as "fertility control, postconception" or "pregnancy, unwanted" instead of terms containing the word "abortion."

Bloomberg Dean Michael Klag learned of the restrictions on Friday after Won reported her experience on an electronic mailing list and librarians protested the restriction. After learning of the restriction, Klag instructed database administrators to "restore 'abortion' as a search term immediately." Klag said he "could not disagree more strongly" with the decision to restrict the word "abortion." He added that he plans to launch an inquiry to "determine" why database administrators decided to restrict the term (New York Times, 4/5).


Wayne Shields, president and CEO of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, said the restriction could have potentially jeopardized patient care because it prevented doctors and women from accessing scientific information about abortion. Shields said the decision was "clearly a decision driven by ideology and not based on the medical or scientific needs of the reproductive health professional community the database exists to serve" (AP/San Diego Union-Tribune, 4/5).

Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, lauded Klag's quick action on Friday but added that she is "dismayed" the restriction had occurred. Roy said the restriction denied "researchers, students and individuals on all sides of the issue access to accurate scientific information." USAID officials were unavailable for comment, the Sun reports (Baltimore Sun, 4/5).


Should pharma be protected if FDA approves a medication/device?

This news is deeply disturbing to me, if unsurprising. I'm glad George Bush is looking out for the corporate interests.

No wonder many of my informants are angry and distrustful of the pharmaceutical companies. There really is very little reason to trust that there are effective mechanisms monitoring the medical world. Certainly the confluence of politics and research suggest that it is not the public's best interest that is driving many medical "advances".

A friend's husband engaged me in a conversation about capitalism and medical technologies, arguing, as capitalist-thinkers tend to, that the U.S. was so advanced precisely because of the free market driving innovation. He was unwilling to fully admit that Americans' health (regardless of socio-economic status) suffers because of the way in which we have structured our health system. One of the few lessons that I retained from my public health education was that in countries with smaller differences in wealth between the wealthiest and poorest usually had significantly better health outcomes than in countries like the U.S. where the disparity between the richest and the poorest is enormous. (And though I have not seen Michael Moore's documentary, though I really ought to, the obvious is also that socialized medical systems usually have healthier citizens. I do not have current data on that, however, so perhaps I ought not to make that claim.) I simply do not believe that you can place health on the free market and allow insurers and pharmaceutical companies to determine what's best for patients. I thought this New York Times magazine article was useful in demonstrating what a slippery slope it is between medical ethics and pharmaceutical ethics. It seems either the U.S. needs to stop pretending that medicine and health are a basic human right (that is: a privilege for a select few) or commit to separating business from well-being. The conceit of playing it both ways, or however it suits at the moment, seems to me much more destructive than picking a side and sticking with it.