Friday, April 01, 2005

Adventures in Anthropology

“Excuse me, Miss, but backpacks aren’t allowed in the museum.” The 22-year-old security guard in the requisite ill-fitting sports coat was speaking to me just as my foot was dangling over the line separating the lobby from the ramp to the Great Hall.

“Thank you for waiting until right now to tell me.”

I have been bitchier. However, since it was usually with better cause, which implies a more complicated relationship with those individuals, I do not believe that I have been bitchier to a stranger.

I spent most of the time touring the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia thinking about this encounter and what it indicated regarding my journey away from sin and toward loving people more. So, I really tried to suss out what I might have done to cause the aforementioned young man (How old am I?!) to wait until the very last minute to order me around rather than to be considerate and let me know a little earlier in a friendly sort-of way so that I wouldn’t have had to interrupt my motion in order to comply. If he had been one of the bored Black ladies at the threshold of the Art Institute of Chicago, I would never expect it since they spend their entire shifts with their focus narrowed to that line since there are so many people coming through with potential contraband. However, this young man had already engaged my family when we walked through the front door to cover for the guy that was supposed to be working the admissions desk by telling us that we would only have to wait a few minutes for him to come. You’d think maybe I could have filled that time putting my backpack in the lockers provided free of charge. I, in fact, muttered something to that effect as my dad volunteered to put the bag in the car.

As my mother and I walked down the ramp sans backpack, the first thing that I realized was that I had spoken somewhat loudly and people were looking at me. So, my initial annoyance was quickly converted to self-consciousness that I had been the ugly American representative to the Canucks and so I quickly took a right turn to disappear into a back hallway away from people who had witnessed my descent into cliché. My mother said, “You need to leave that island,” but she offers this as a solution to most of my problems right now. However, that led me to trace why this one inconsiderate act caused me to react so violently.

I guess the most surface reason for my overreaction is that men who behave passive-aggressively by default surround me. There are just a lot of gentle men and straight-talking women on this island. They’ve been pushed to the island because their natural personality traits were in the minority on the mainland and that was uncomfortable. This reversal of gender roles leads to a lot of conflict. I’ve experienced it myself and listened to other people’s experiences. As a society, we’re just not used to women in the dominant social role. Even with all of the good work of the Feminist movement, we like our men to be strong and our women to be good-looking. So, island people, without the benefit of being able to follow the herd, have to figure out how to interact on our own. This reversal causes a lot of miscommunication so tension and passive-aggressive behavior erupt. I had assumed that this security guard was reacting to something about me personally by waiting until the last minute to mention my backpack. Because of my experience on Orcas, I have begun responding to these passive-aggressive attacks - which are indirect by definition – with direct frontal assaults. I have found that they fester less and I can get over the encounters faster. So, habit resulted in my inability to simply shrug off another’s inconsiderate behavior.

Additionally, I have to own the fact that I did things to provoke Mr. Navy Blue Polyester. I had looked for a sign when I first came in, suspecting its possible presence and when the pictograph was of a briefcase and an umbrella, I made a decision to try to rush the gate to see if maybe he would let a backpack pass, especially if I didn’t make eye contact. I was putting into effect the classic chant, “Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t make eye contact,” in the hopes that without that tacit initial permission, he would not move outside of the normal North American comfort zone to open communication. I was betting that his youth would make him timid. (I personally got over this habit both by working at the Renaissance Faire, where I would have to make initiate eye contact in order to hawk my wares and as a teacher since I had permission as an authority figure to break standard etiquette rules in the course of fulfilling my responsibility.) However, it is possible that the pigtails and the jumper worn over jeans might have made me look slightly less forbidding. So, I brought the patronizing tone on myself since I did, actually, know better. As I so often remind my students, one can’t expect respect before one gives it. I didn’t respect the rules and got smacked down for it. As usual, humility had to hit me hard before I noticed her.

Don Miller writes, “If you don’t love somebody, it gets annoying when they tell you what to do or what to feel. When you love them you get pleasure from their pleasure, and it makes it easy to serve.” I did not love that security guard or institution that he represented and so I was annoyed, which is exactly what I’ve been working hard NOT to do.

Juxtaposed with my own disrespect, I noticed that the museum showed respect for its visitors in several different ways. The sign next to the briefcase/umbrella sign did not completely ban flash photography; it simply asked that people use flash judiciously. Visitors were respected enough to be allowed to know already that flash could be harmful and to make their own value judgment regarding its use. In another part of the museum, several hollowed out wooden drums hung suspended within reach. Again, rather than black and white denying access or providing a paltry reproduction, the museum respected our ability to control our destructive urges by stating, “You may gently tap on these artifacts.” Finally, like other museums, this one does not have the resources to create informational, aesthetically pleasing displays of all of the artifacts in its holdings. Rather than tuck away the extras into dark, safe closets, this museum uses a “visible storage” system. Items are somewhat crowded into glass cases and specimen drawers with only numbers to identify them. If people are interested, they can look up the number in big books to learn more about them. I loved that they didn’t assume that I needed information fed to me with an airplane rubberbanded to the spoon.

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