Archive for June, 2011


June 29, 2011

My friend Tara just published an amazing post about different kinds of connections; the connections between our individual actions and environmental effects, the connections between people mediated by the internet, and the connections between these two spheres. Here’s an excerpt, with thought-provoking questions (but you should click over and read her whole post):

As the world shrinks due to our digital connections we live in this odd contradictory space- we can be isolated from those who live in immediate proximity to us, we can be (strongly) connected to people who live far away, we can be loosely connected to many other people.  For example, I met a guy at a party (people from A’s work) who looks just like my cousin who lives & works in DC and when I mentioned it, it turns out a bunch of people that A work with actually know my cousin.  So there are these startling connections everywhere- between people who seem like they shouldn’t know each other, between ideas, between our actions and global consequences.   But they are startling, it isn’t easy to think of things as that connected, because we do feel isolated.  We don’t see people’s faces; we see these static images/ avatars.  We might be more digitally intelligent but we have to develop our emotional intelligence without all of the cues that our biology has equipped us with.   It really is as though, there are two of us : the digital person and what? the Real person? The organic person?  I’m not sure but I think for our community’s health, we need to consider how separate/ integrated these personas are.



June 27, 2011

I just read a post on Jjiraffe’s blog that had me hanging my head a little bit, since I’m often guilty of not responding directly  or individually to comments on this blog. I heretofore respond to do better in the future. And I’m going back to respond to the ones on the had-a-big-fight-with-Gimli post from a while back, cause those were really great comments and I appreciated them a lot.

Immersion and Isolation, part II

June 26, 2011

The best way to begin a dissertation in cultural anthropology is to immerse yourself in your data, my advisor said. And the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in the culture.

How can I do both these things at once?

I once asked a friend, a former high school chemistry teacher who elected to stay home with her small children (except for one night class she would teach at the university every semester) if she ever got bored. Bored? No, she said, but isolated, yes.

Mothering small children in our society can be supremely isolating. Living in a foreign country can be isolating. And writing as a discipline and practice is by virtue isolating.

There is connectivity, as well, in each of these spheres – people here adore small children, and I’ve had many opportunities to practice speaking Albanian when strangers stop to admire my baby or stroke my daughter’s hair and then stay to strike up a conversation. They invariably compliment my language ability, which I find immensely flattering, although I have to remember that I am really just having the exact same conversation over and over again and if we were to talk about politics and current events instead I’d be lost. But it’s hard to get out of the house with the two little ones in tow, hard to muster up the energy to invite people over (especially when my innate shyness comes into the equation), so much more comfortable to stay in and play with the kids at home where I have more control over the environment and there are lots of books and toys.

Some days, when it’s late afternoon and I’m setting foot out the door for the first time that day, or we didn’t out out at all the day before, I walk out of the building and experience a little jolt. Yes, I really am in Albania. The language I’m hearing is Albanian, and the people walking around me are all going about their business concerned with matters that have nothing at all to do with me. I almost forget sometimes, at home, especially on the weekends when Gimli is here and we talk English all day, where we are. It’s an expat dilemma – you need a certain measure of the comforts of home (food, language, communication with friends and family back in your nation/s of origin), but if you are to make it long-term in the new context you also need to learn the local language, learn to eat the local foods, make new friends. Otherwise why go anywhere to begin with?

I grew up in an expat community in Peru, where many of my friends who spent 5, 10, 15 years in the country never really learned to speak Spanish. They didn’t have anyone to speak it with. We lived on a mission center in the jungle, went to an American school created just for us missionary kids, and because of security reasons in the ’80s and ’90s weren’t encouraged to leave the base very much. My mom is Peruvian, and my parents worked and lived away from the base at least six months of the year, so my sister and I did grow up bilingual and were immersed in Peruvian life a lot of the time. But many of my friend weren’t and didn’t, and I have a lot of stories of hurtful things they said or did (usually without really  meaning any harm) that my Peruvian heritage made me more sensitive to. So I hate it when expatriate communities become insular and disengaged from the local communities.

I want to live here – to really BE here – but sometimes it’s easier just to plug in to the computer or stay home with the kids and not be here, mentally. And then there’s the strange disjuncture that happens in my mind when I do get to work on my dissertation, that I wrote about in the previous post.

Aside from appropriating Hermione Granger’s time-turner, I’m not sure yet how I’m going to figure out the balance. And maybe there’s no such thing; maybe it’s an always evolving, always dynamic process full of tumbles and banged elbows and mistakes. And that’s life.

Immersion and Isolation, part I

June 26, 2011

So I guess I could write a post about what a struggle it has been to write, read, work, or engage with my online community this week… but I started something along those lines and bored myself.

In any case, I have been trying to write out some thoughts I have on the tangled tensions I feel trying to balance the different forces at work in my life right now – dissertation writing, mothering, living in a foreign country. Here is a beginning, but the second half is still very raw and not quite what I want to say, so I’m going to work over that for a bit before posting it.


I’m sitting in an outdoor café watching the clock and the pedestrians and the other patrons at tables nearby, drinking water “pa gaz” (still, not sparkling) as the foamy residue dries in my empty macchiato cup. I’m just half a block from our apartment building, where my children are being cared for by our Albanian nanny.

It’s been a struggle to get any traction in my dissertation writing. Who am I kidding – I’m not even close to beginning writing. I have just begun to sort through the ethnographic material I gathered last year in the US, interviews and observations of public events and piles and piles of flyers and brochures and other print data. I didn’t even start that process until January. Technically I’m on parental leave anyway, so I gave myself until the new year to get myself and our children settled in and acclimated to a new country and a new childcare provider. And in January, I logged exactly two work days. And those aren’t even full days, but a few hours stolen during nap times.

My advisor told me I need to immerse myself in the data “until it follows you to the bathroom,” until it follows me into my dreams at night as my subconscious mind sorts out theoretical questions and problems. But how, when, am I to achieve this kind of immersion?


Some months after my daughter was born, we were driving either to or from Ithaca, NY, at night; I could see the tension stiffening my husband’s neck in the uneven lights of passing cars on I-81 from where I sat in the backseat next to the baby. He was in the midst of applying for contract renewal and promotion at the university where he teaches sociology and international development (and, one year, environmental chemistry) and was feeling beaten down, disrespected, and belittled by the unnecessarily grueling process. This was a job and community we had chosen to stay with because of the community and church orientation of the school, as well as our family connections in the area. In fact, we had turned down a much more prestigious (and better-paying) job offer at a much bigger university in DC in order to stay here, so it felt like an even deeper betrayal; we had sacrificed for this university, but they seemed to be refusing to value that sacrifice or the other kinds of contributions my husband makes.

In any case, I could see clearly his need to get away for a while. So I told him, “when I get to the dissertation stage of my program, we can go wherever you want.” And so, when he was due a sabbatical at the same time as I was finishing my field research, we decided to move. He found a job in his field in the Balkans, in a country that I was curious about and intrigued by, and so we came here two months after our second child was born, a son.


After spending an hour or two reading intently, transcribing field notes, or otherwise doing dissertation work I come out of the work in a sort of mental fog. I can’t remember a word of Albanian – or rather, I can understand everything I hear but I can’t produce a single phrase to save my life.

I’m in a translocated bubble when I’m working; a tiny sphere inside my head outside of which is everything Albanian – people, language, movement, food, color, sound. Inside, there’s just me and the Shenandoah Valley and the voices in my head code-switching in Mexican-accented Spanish and Valley-accented English kneading over material on identity, language, ethnicity, Latinidad.

When I’m traveling or talking with Albanians, on the other hand, my dissertation work feels very far away. I still remember the conversation I had with another expatriate shortly after moving here; she asked me what my dissertation topic was and I couldn’t remember. I said something about Latino immigrant youth and she asked me for more specifics and I couldn’t produce anything.

This nesting of spheres is rendering me mute.

[to be continued…]

Theorizing ART

June 21, 2011

I know that there must be an emerging sociological/ anthropological/ feminist literature on ART somewhere out there; I haven’t taken the time to look into it since my own dissertation project is entirely different. But someday I’d like to.

I did stumble across a fascinating essay in a book I’ve been trying to read since January (I’m so glad it’s an anthology – at least it’s in bite-sized pieces): Women Writing Culture, edited by Ruth Behar and Deborah A. Gordon (University of California Press, 1995). The essay, titled “A Tale of Two Pregnancies,” is by Lila Abu-Lughod, an anthropologist who works with Bedouin women in Egypt. When she began her fieldwork, she was not even interested in pregnancy or ready to think about it; when she was, however, she found that she would need ART in order to conceive. In this essay, she describes in beautiful and evocative language the social practices around pregnancy and childbirth among her Bedouin friends and research partners, contrasting these with her own experience of ART through Western medicine. I’ve excerpted below some of my favorite passages from the essay.


“The [pregnant Bedouin] women worked hard, lifting heavy cooking pots, carrying their other children on their backs, washing clothes, and walking long distances to visit friends and relatives. Pregnancy hardly seemed to interfere. At the end… these women suddenly produced infants who…were lovingly swaddled and lying close to them. Or so it seemed. Except that every older woman who told me her life story mentioned a miscarriage or a stillbirth.

“My pregnancy, in contrast, was the ultimate late-capitalist U.S. achievement: assisted by the most recent advances in reporductive technology, monitored from egg production to fetal heartbeats with the help of ultrasound and hormonal analysis, and expensive. I was one of the fortunate women in her late thirties for whom in vitro fertilization succeeded on the first try… warned by my books about pre-eclampsia, prevented from carrying heavy objects by my husband, pampering myself by lying down to allow blood to flow to my placenta, counting my calcium milligrams, balancing my green and yellow vegetables…

“If I had not known Kareema and the other women in Egypt who had shared their lives with me, I would not have been able to shake my head and laugh at myself for the fuss I was making. I also might not have felt so lucky.” p. 340

(I love how she contrasts the two social/physical/technological worlds, as well as the jolt of familiarity in the details of her description of IVF – even though I never underwent IVF myself, I have immersed myself in infertility blogs for so long that it feels almost like an ethnographic field experience in its own right.)


Abu-Lughod goes on to describe the fertility treatments that her friends in Egypt offered her once she did start trying to conceive, which included stepping back and forth over an empty coffin seven times, and peering into an old brick well until she could see her own eye reflected in the water. She describes her inner attitude thus: “In matters mysterious, like religion and reproduction, one finds oneself uncertain enough about the truth to be half willing to ‘go native'” (p. 343).


Again with the familiar (which she describes so elegantly):

“When I returned home after a year in Egypt, I entered that new world that has become familiar to so many women of my generation and class in the U.S. – the world of laparoscopies, tubal adhesions, endometriosis, amniocentesis, and other such unpronounceables; the world of busy doctors in white coats who inspect and prod and shine lights at parts of you that you cannot see; the world of procedures that, they inform you absentmindedly, might cause slight cramping… I joined well-dressed women with bags under their eyes who spent the early morning hours waiting their turn to have blood drawn from bruised veins and to lie back in darkened rooms with their legs in stirrups so their ovaries could be scanned on grainy black-and-white screens.”

After her retrieval, Abu-Lughod was told they had six eggs. Five fertilized, although one disintegrated before transfer day. A two-egg transfer resulted in a healthy twin pregnancy.

She reflects on the experience of reading a manuscript she’d written on “Reproduction” prior to her IVF experience, and I think this is the part I really love and would love to hear others’ thoughts on: “I could have longed for the more natural character of these women’s experiences of becoming pregnant and having babies. I could have viewed pregnancy as an alienation of my body by the medical establishment. But I thought of Donna Haraway, the feminist historian of science, who keeps insisting that it is dangerous for feminists, nostalgic for an organic wholeness, to condemn and reject science and technology. Such associations of the natural with the feminine have been essential to women’s confinements to the body and the home; and such rejections of science leave it in the hands of others who may not have women’s interests at heart…” (pp. 345-6. emphasis my own).

She comments on the role of ultrasounds in connecting her to the experience of her pregnancy, noting that feminists often decry “the panoptic gaze the ultrasound technologies afford the male medical establishment” (basically, men in positions of power being able to stare into a woman’s body in a detached sort of way, while she is in a completely passive role, so that this practice becomes another way of controlling women and women’s bodies) but offering in contrast her own experience of relief at seeing in the ultrasounds that her babies were ok.

And I think this is what I found so thought-provoking about this essay – here is someone who has moved back and forth between different cultural worlds, in which social practices around pregnancy, child-birth, and mothering differ greatly, and who now reflects on those differences from a broader point of view than many of us are afforded. I am struck by the ambivalence she touches on around the role of technology in reproduction. Abu-Lughod chooses to value technology and embrace its role in giving her the opportunity to become pregnant, while at the same time she consistently keeps reminding the reader of the material and class privilege associated with ART. She faces head-on her nostalgia or impulse towards a more “natural” path to parenthood, while acknowledging the losses experienced by her research collaborators in the absence of more highly technological medical services.

I would love to hear thoughts and comments from others on these themes. Do you long for a more “natural” path to parenthood? What does “natural” mean to you? Would you forego the opportunity for all ultrasounds (and, for that matter, blood tests and pee sticks) if it meant you could conceive without any outside assistance? How do we manage these tensions and ambiguities in other spheres of our lives not related to reproduction?

Fresh Start?

June 20, 2011

So this blog has been kind of dead in the water recently… well, for quite some time now. Drifting a little, perhaps. I’ve been posting on average once a month? I think? And I want to write more. I often find myself ruminating over something or other I’d like to write about and share online but I never get around to it.

Of course there’s the requisite parenting-after-infertility angst; this blog began, true to the IF-blog genre, as a way to chart cycles and find sympathetic ears for IF-related emotions that are poorly understood or not socially acceptable in the larger, fertile world. I don’t need this space for either of those functions anymore (maybe a little bit for the second one, from time to time) although the safe-space-for-venting function does extend to complaining about my in-laws or other tricky family issues.

But I’d like to do more with this space. I like what Mel posted recently comparing writing to running – you have to do it regularly to stay in shape. I’m trying to write a dissertation, and I think I view blog-writing as a distraction or time stolen from the dissertation for self-indulgence, but perhaps if I view it as exercise it will actually help me write the dissertation in the long run. Or if nothing else it’s cheap therapy, right? And that’s another function of the IF blog that does not become – what’s the word? Irrelevant? Outdated? Obsolete.

So here begins a resolution to post about three times a week. Oscar’s first birthday is coming up, so 7/7 will be my official “starting line” date for this new commitment to writing. I just joined the “Prompt-ly” list-serve so I’m also hoping that will be a kick-start for more frequent writing.