Wednesday, February 15, 2012


I use public transport about every day and mostly take the exact same routes from home to campus, campus to coffee shops, coffee shops to home, but for some reason the little moments of today’s journey around London seemed to stick with me. Maybe it’s because I’m gearing up to write an essay on ethnographic writing, about the ways in which anthropologists put down in words all the things they see and hear daily in different cultures, or maybe I’m just more observant today. Either way, until I have something more exciting to write about, the following are snapshots of my journeys around London.

Walking from my flat to the tube, I pass my favourite view of Portobello Road. Bright pink, blue and yellow buildings line both sides of a narrow street that runs perpendicular to the famous market road. Just as the buildings shrink with distance, the ideal spot for an artist playing with drawings of perspective, a clock tower rises from behind Portobello, capped with a sea green dome.

As I swipe my oyster card walking into the tube, I smile at the same man who sits behind a glass window making the same service announcements everyday looking utterly bored with his life. He rarely smiles back but I like to think one day he will.

When waiting for the tube, I’ve taken to making up my own superstitions. I consider any day that I see a mouse to be a good day. I’ve learned, however, that if I see two mice on the same track, it’s gonna be heavy day.

Today, I had the hardest time not dancing to my music while waiting for my train. Listening to Grace Potter and standing perfectly still is just plain impossible, so I gave in to being one of the few people you see bobbing along to the music you can only assume is playing through their headphones.

While walking down the street, I looked up to watch some pigeons on a ledge and when I looked back down, everyone on the street had looked up to see what I was looking at. Ha, made you look.

Still walking, while texting, I ran into a tree.

While sitting at a coffee shop today, I looked out the window and saw what was either a dog-training class or a circle of strangers simultaneously being attacked by unruly dogs. Rationality led me to assume the former but I looked up a few minutes later and found the group had already broken up, with only a few dogs still running wildly back and forth around their owners. Guess it wasn’t a class.

Most days I take the tube. But there are some days when sitting in a stuffy train car in a dark tunnel deep underground just seems unbearable. So, as a special treat, I take the bus even though it takes at least fifteen minutes longer to get home. My bus from campus to home happens to run the same route as the infamous open-top tour buses so I get to enjoy a particularly nice ride down Oxford Street and past Hyde Park.

While riding down Oxford Street, I usually get in a good dose of window shopping, making mental notes of which stores are beginning to bring out their spring clothes. Slowly but surely the window displays are brightening up with hot pinks and aquas and flowery pastels. I cannot wait for the days when it’s warm enough for shorts and skirts and dresses.

Today while at a red light, I was watching a shop keeper standing by the door to his shop. He was holding out his hand and rhythmically tapping each finger with a pen. In a moment of boredom he sighed and stretched out his arms, then swung them around, accidentally flinging his pen out the door, into the street, and right under my bus. His face flashed a moment of surprise before quickly looking around to see if anyone had seen. In London, even without CCTV, I’m pretty sure someone is always watching, if only from the top of a double-decker bus.

My bus circles around the statues of a giant upside-down horse’s head and what I can only describe as a family of gummy-bear people by Marble Arch, and then drives alongside Hyde Park for the rest of the ride home.

Though these moments have become so ordinary to me, as an anthropologist in training, I should be careful not to overlook them. They are moments of my own participant observation.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The beauty of failing.

Failure can seem like such a terrifying thing sometimes. When you’ve invested yourself in something, fought hard, and lost, failure becomes this heavy dark cloud floating around your head. The other day, I was having one of those days where you just can’t seem to get it right. Nothing dramatic, just a series of small mishaps that built upon each other until the day earned the title of a not-so-great-day. As I hopped on the 328 bus to World’s End, contemplating the symbolism of the bus’s final destination given my not-so-great-day, I couldn’t help but get a little lost in that clouded feeling of failure. Some things I had really hoped would work out just weren’t going to, and I faulted myself. When I got home, however, my flat began to remind me of a very simple and very important life lesson. Fail big. And move on.

I say that my flat reminded me, because oddly enough, it was sort of like my little room was trying to cheer me up. Despite there being no wind inside my room, my curtains seemed to be trying to blow open to let in the sunlight. I picked up an old book and a fortune-cookie fortune fell out that read, “You are kind-hearted and hospitable, cheerful and well-liked.” I laughed out loud and then smiled at the book’s kindness of dropping such a note into my hand just then. I turn on the tv for background noise and caught the tail end of a Scrubs episode. A character in the hospital that everyone thought was going to be ok had just died leaving the shocked staff in that familiar cloud of failure. But at the end of the episode, the main character went home alone to turn on the tv to watch sitcoms and say that amidst the sadness of failure, there are still moments that can make us laugh and smile. Again, I smiled, at the irony of a sitcom cheering me up by telling me that sitcoms can cheer you up. Then, as I settled in with some readings, the tv still on in the background, the movie Elizabethtown came on. I’ve seen it before but never really appreciated it. I set down my readings and began soaking up the images of Kentucky and the south, scenes of places I’ve passed through on my own road trips. The main character, Orlando Bloom, has just lost his father and been fired from an incredibly prestigious job. He knew failure. Then Kirsten Dunst comes along and reminds him that life is about playing hard and striking out, and then getting back in the game anyway. Orlando Bloom slowly begins a journey of letting go and moving on, outlined by a montage of moments on his road trip of self-discovery, coupled with inspirational songs and narrative.

As simple as that message is, and as often as we hear it, it’s still pretty hard to embrace it in practice. Fail big. That means taking incredible risks on a daily basis. In one of my courses, we were talking about how we live in a risk society nowadays. There is so much uncertainty surrounding us. College degrees no longer guarantee a job, jobs are not so secure once you get them, economies worldwide fluctuate like crazy, the environment is seen as fragile and in danger, and technology is producing as many unintended “side effects” (to quote Ulrich Beck, a post-modernity theorist) as it produces progressive advancements. It’s no wonder that in the last twenty years there have been an explosion of new disorders and syndromes and everyone seems to be able to diagnose themself with something, most often relating to stress and anxiety. Daily life seems riddled with risk and uncertainty and the potential for failure. And in response we take protective measures to keep failure at bay. Deleuze, another academic, explains our desire for control amidst risk, and how that leads to exclusion. Like in a gated community, you have to have the password to get into the secluded yet safe world behind the gates. Similarly, we can build up emotional walls in a world where trusting strangers is just too dangerous. We wait for someone to come along with the password before letting them in on a personal level. We are incredibly guarded against the possibility of failure.

But what about the beauty that comes from failure? The growth that results from rebuilding after those walls have been torn down. Anyone who has failed miserably at something he cares about knows that he is stronger for it. The trick is having the courage to step outside the gated community in the first place, to live without walls at all. I think that if you truly live like that, you’ll probably end up making a fool of yourself pretty frequently. But I also think that in the long run, it’s all about perspective. When we are so zoomed in to our daily goals and successes, even small failures can look huge. But if we zoom out, there’s a much bigger picture and all that uncertainty fades into the background. If we zoom out, we can truly see all the beauty in failure and the necessity to live life boldly and fail often. And so, though it’s easier said than done, fail big. And move on.