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the garden is a collection of original anthropological, epicurean, and literary observations, excerpts, and rambles by sm.

sometimes they're funny, sometimes they're not.


the writer's corner

i was catching up with my lovely friend, sc, the other day after what felt like a lifetime of missing her wonderful warmth, kindness, and insightful thoughtfulness, when we got to the conversation of working from home. specifically, sc is trying to figure out how to set up a work space that is conducive to writing and that tells procrastination to go shove it.

having just finished a two-week writing "retreat" (i use retreat loosely because i didn't actually go anywhere, it was more of a retreat from the rest of the world and my normal distractions) to work on my novel (over 150 pages written in two weeks!), i promised her i'd show her some photos of how i made my space work for me.


the problem of working from home is one that plagues a lot of people, not just writers, so maybe what works for me might help someone else? i don't know. but here we go, anyway.


and that's it. that's the whole small space.

the photos are a bit dark because i've set my work space up against a couple of north-ish facing windows. the direction is actually very important to me because it means i get a lot of sunlight through most of the day. also, windows are great to look out of when you're thinking really hard... or when you're thinking really soft. they're just all around great.

(i'm also a little blurry in a lot of these photos because i'm lazy and whatever. taking a gazillion photos of everything just seemed like too much effort.)

i like having my desk in an alcove because it separates it off from the rest of the room. even though my office isn't technically cut off, there's a clear division of where it begins and the rest of the world ends. crossing over that invisible line means it's work time. 


my primary work space is my desk and chair, 'cause it helps to have a work surface and a place to sit at said work surface. you know, basics. my desk is technically one of those narrow tables you stick behind sofas. it takes up less space and, because surface area is limited, it keeps me from getting too cluttered. essentially, it keeps me honest and focused. 

i know a lot of people like comfy office chairs โ€• and whirling around in circles and having chair races down halls is fun and all that โ€• but i do a lot better with a straight backed chair and an ottoman to put my feet up on/have the phebe cat sleep on my feet. 


this cat has no shame. when she decides i'm paying too much attention to the computer and not enough to her, she sits on the ottoman and hits me in the leg until i pet her. and if i try to go back to my work after a few pets, she'll often start hitting me again. 


stickies (and index cards, when the stickies are too small) are a big part of my process. kb got me started on them, and i love the system. it's a great visual way to collect ideas and have them right there on hand so you're not constantly searching through piles of notes or whatever for your thoughts.

i'm a little ocd, so i have a whole color-coded/ linear system for my notes. and i probably spend too much time making sure my rows and columns line up properly. 

also, yes. i have two coasters there. one is designated solely for coffee cups. 


there's a second space right next to my desk for thoughts that don't fit in to my current projects. even scattered ideas are worth saving. for me, it's just all about having a system where i can tell the difference. 


the other side of my work space is more storage than anything else, although sometimes it's also phebe cat's prime bird watching site. once i cleared off the top entirely and the kira cat spent most of the day there, snoozing and sniffing the outside air and watching the squirrels and birds hang out on the roof. it was ridiculously cute. i felt bad when i had to take her downstairs for dinner. 


i have two types of storage: open and closed. 

my open shelving is the stuff i need to grab quickly: computer screen cleaner, paper, external hard drives, camera, tacky glue (because i'm a compulsive crafter, not because i glue my stickies to the wall). 


my closed shelving, which is a little difficult to see (sorry, lighting issues again), is for the not-everyday stuff: the serious documents, the almost obsolete, etc.

oh, and yes. that is the infamous books on my parents' shelves scanner. no matter how grumpy i get at it, i love it because it's portable (it fits in my computer bag) and because it only has one cord (it doesn't have to plug into a wall outlet). 


i guess the most important part of my space, though, is that i've tried to surround myself with things that make me happy. i hang up letters from friends and little things that are happy memories; i have plants that keep me company (the bamboo is named ferdinand and the aloe is oscar); i have my crafty projects hanging on the walls and windows; and i have a photo one of my favorite people, c(s)w, took. my little lights on the window and my hanging desk lamp give me a sense of whimsy at night.

all of these little details just make me comfortable. it's a space i want to be in, and because of that, it's a space i spend hours longer in than i probably need to.


so that's it. it's probably more detail than most of you need, but oh well. hopefully i've answered sc's request to the extent that she wanted, and that's all that matters.

i guess i'll just end it with a picture of this cute pest and we can call it a day.


now back to work, people.


academic gluttony 

the other night mr and i were hanging out and just chatting about life, the universe, and everything, when i mentioned that i had fallen down into the research black hole that morning.

"you're such a nerd!" she laughed at me, and i couldn't help but laugh, too.

it's true, though. i have a habit, like so many of my academic friends, of finding myself on a library website or google scholar or something, compulsively downloading articles and noting possible sources for future research. a good portion of the time i don't even have a specific idea of what i want to do with the information, i just know i want to read it. it's an addiction.

when i do have a research question or thought in mind, however, it's even worse. the pdfs pile up and my brain starts whirring so quickly it needs an exhaust fan. i suppose that's why we have air conditioners on in the summer - otherwise we'd all explode from thinking too hard.

so this past weekend, as i watched the list of downloads clog and stall with each "get article" click, plotting and planning like a cunning baldrick, i realized i had a problem. too many ideas leave you scattered, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and say this. this is what i'm working on. no more extraneous search terms until you're done. 

it's difficult, and i might have a few relapses, but it's about the quality of the thought, not the quantity of the research. so, i've picked a topic that i've been thinking about for a while now, it's a theoretical piece looking at the relationship between anthropology and doctor who. i know it's moving away from food for a bit, but hey, everyone needs a break every now and then.

and, as mr says, i'm such a nerd. 



the annotated arbor

look! over there! scurrying out of the long grasses of the croquet field to lurk in the cool, dark shadows of the arbor... it's the wild annotated bibliography!

in all seriousness, though, the cactus garden has long supported a few basic tenants:

  • we strongly believe in and support interdisciplinary research and the growing open source movement within academia. 
  • we aim to collect and share resource materials, as well as relate our personal experiences, in an effort to help cultivate and nurture the academic community.
  • we strive to encourage reflexivity and humor as tools to foster understanding and inspire conversation.
  • we believe that the themes and ideas explored within academia are not a impenetrable fortress, to be clung closely to or used to exclude so-called non-academics. rather, we endeavor to make our work within the cactus garden interesting and accessible to all readers.  
  • we really like sharks and doctor who (and we think that episode where we got both at the same time was pretty great).


over the past few years, i've been watching academic open source platforms struggle to get off the ground. (which, now that i think about it, is a little ironically punny. cause it's a platform. insert groans and eye rolls here.) some have been more successful than others, some don't seem to understand what "open" source really means. some disappear, never to be heard from again.


the cactus garden is not an academic publisher, or at least, not in the way that serious journals or university presses peer review and publish. many of our works are not final works; they are thoughts in process and each thought reserves the right to grow, to develop, to evolve. 

one of the ways that happens is through the ever-continuous process of learning. we read books, we read articles, we share, we listen, we discuss. and we never stop looking for more.

until now, we have primarily shared our findings through our posts, our ever-growing epicurean cannon of books, our mentionable media movie list, and our links to other websites and projects. however, today we are beginning to branch out (oh! another pun for the garden!) in a new effort to support our underlying beliefs. 


today i'm kind of thrilled (and nervous... i'm human) to announce that we are starting our new project, the annotated arbor: an attempt to create the largest, wildest, most eclectic, open source, annotated bibliography that we can. our focus, in keeping with the rest of the site, is on the social sciences and the humanities, though we welcome all submissions. by posting one annotation at a time, we hope to inspire the sharing of sources and acknowledge the works that have already done so much for all of us.


we'll be getting things rolling with our own annotations, but there is already a submission form on the right side of the annotated arbor's page.

to submit an annotation, you'll need to give us your name, email address, the field of study your source is from, the full citation that accompanies your annotation, as well as the actual annotation. (you kind of really need that last part.) we'd also love to hear what research you were doing when you came across your source, as well as what you appreciate (or don't!) about it. annotations will likely be posted slowly at first as we work out the kinks, but we'll try to keep to a somewhat set schedule. we'll be accepting submissions on a rolling basis, and all submissions will be reviewed fully before posting.


so that's it.

that's our new project. 

we hope it's useful, and we'd love you all to participate.

let's all be friends now and have a glass of wine. or whatever.



welcome to my thesis, part five

i've had to make the difficult decision over the past month or so to take a step back from finishing this series. this decision stemmed from both the family health issues i mentioned back in april, when my mother and grandmother underwent rotator cuff surgery (all of which became more complex when my grandmother broke two ribs in the beginning of june), and from the realization that a different writing project was taking precedence. when you realize you've written almost fifty pages in the span of about two weeks, maybe less, it makes sense to stick with what you're doing because it's probably something right.

so, while i'm only about half-way through that great other writing project o' mine, i've finally hit a nice plateau where i can take a few minutes to finish up this thesis discussion and free up future posts to whatever topics jump into my head. (i have an excellent idea about who the best worst anthropologist is, that i want to tell you all about soon.)

in any event, this will be the last post in this series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year. if you're joining the party late, here are links to posts one, two, three, and four.

please note that the abstract for this paper is published in the first post, so if you just want the simplest run-down, that's where to go.

or whatever.


difficulties and discoveries within research, and final thoughts

in part four, i discussed some of the difficulties i had focusing my research and understanding what my work was actually about. in this installment, i want to acknowledge some of the more concrete difficulties i faced, what i learned from them, what i would do differently in future research, and what i've taken away from it all.

the two most outstanding challenges i faced researching drinking holidays were temporal and geographical issues. namely, i had very limited windows to conduct my participant-observations. because of this, my one-shot ethnography was limited to not just when i could work, but also the practical logistics of where i could go. knowing where to go in a new city, getting there, and even just figuring out how long to stay (or not!) in a given spot were serious issues i grappled with.

holidays are, in themselves, a state of mind. if we did not acknowledge them and celebrate them, they would not be. (such is much of our socio-cultural lives.) in considering this, i was able to reconcile one question in my mind, specifically: when does a holiday begin and when does it it end? it's very easy to just point at a calendar and say: there! that's it. cinco de mayo is may 5. midnight hits, and we're done. it's may 6 now. everyone go home.

but that's not how things work. 

midnight hits on these holidays, but the bars don't close. the drink specials (if there are drink specials) don't suddenly stop. decorations aren't immediately packed up.

no, the celebration continues. 

it was this series of thoughts that led me to consider the temporality of a holiday to be more of a state of mind rather than a set calendrical fixture, determined by intent rather than some autocratic clock. as long as celebrants considered themselves to be celebrating the holiday in question, i was still observing/participating in the holiday. 

of course this understanding didn't solve my larger temporal problem, which i addressed during my thesis defense: to truly have done this work well and properly, my ethnographic field work would have to have ranged over multiple years, during which i would return to the same sites. even more thorough research would have also included dedicated time spent at field sites before and after the holidays, in order to explore the differences between the every day and the celebratory. such a scope of research, however, would be better presented and realized in a book or a dissertation, not a masters thesis. i, sadly, did not have the social or economic luxuries needed to pursue such a study.


returning to my thoughts on geography, i already mentioned the practical difficulties i faced above, but i'd like to switch gears and share one of the (i think) really awesome elements that emerged in my analysis. 

this paper ultimately explored the processes of assimilation and acculturation that takes place throughout out these secular holidays, but it examines them through the idea of ritual. this is specifically seen in ritualized actions, behavior, and materials. in considering these ideas, however, i ended up talking about a type a of ritual i had not originally considered to be relevant to my subject: pilgrimage. 

while pilgrimages are traditionally considered religious in nature, the extension of the definition of pilgrimage to include the secular is a growing trend among academics, as evidenced by n. collins-kreiner’s flexible notion of pilgrimage (2010:440) and in simon coleman and john eade’s reframing pilgrimage: cultures in motion (2004). in reframing pilgrimage, motorcycle pilgrimages and tourism pilgrimages are given equal importance with those of a religious nature. the journey of celebrants from bar to bar, from party to party on drinking holidays reflects the conception that pilgrimages can be ritualistic processes that are not necessarily religious in origin. the trek from neighborhood to neighborhood via bars on st. patrick’s day was predetermined with an ultimate destination in mind. material artifacts, such as the mustache straws brought out on st. patrick’s day or the beer ponchos taken home on cinco de mayo, were produced specifically to connect celebrants to the event. on these holidays, bar-hopping is imbued with meaning: it is a “kinetic ritual” (turner and turner 1978:xiii) concerned not just with a final destination, but with the experiences and individuals encountered along the excursion. 

finding this element and ascertaining it's importance was an "ah-hah!" moment for me โ€• one i could not have had without the help of am the elder, who specifically stopped me at one point when i was trying to talk out all my spinning thoughts and literally said, "it sounds like you're talking about pilgrimage." 

secular pilgrimage was a concept i was completely unfamiliar with which, considering the new-ness of it and the traditional religious origins generally associated with pilgrimage, is rather unsurprising. while there is a growing movement within academia addressing secular pilgrimage (and it's differences and similarities with tourism), resources are still somewhat limited. (there is one book i wish i could have used as a source, gary vikan's from the holy land to graceland, however it was published just as i was concluding my work. it's first on my list to read right now, regardless whether i decide to return and expand upon my original paper.)

ultimately, exploring the elements of pilgrimage within these holidays was incredibly rewarding, and it addressed some of the recurring themes and patterns i observed within the celebratory framework. i believe not addressing pilgrimage would have been a mistake. it would have meant neglecting a whole set of practices and embedded meanings that inform and direct celebrants over the course of the holidays.


so, i guess to conclude all of this, i'd like to sum up my thoughts on my whole thesis researching-and-writing experience. i certainly learned some important lessons along the way, lessons i'm seriously considering framing and hanging up over my desk:


  • research ideas can come from the most unexpected places, and sometimes they have to ferment a bit before they taste right.
  • the work you think you're doing isn't always the work you're actually doing.
  • it's okay to get things wrong, just acknowledge it when it happens and remember. also, apparently everyone breaks down and you are likely not the first person to cry in your thesis advisor's office (sorry, rb!)
  • the names of two segments of the hobbit, an unexpected journey and there and back again, apply incredibly well to academia and research. tolkein was a genius.



making the decision and then going on to write a thesis instead of completing a smaller project or taking a couple extra classes was one of the most wonderful, enlightening, stressful, harrowing, excellent, overwhelming, opportune, frustrating, sensibly foolish, ridiculously smart choice i ever made.

i'd do it again in a heartbeat.



welcome to my thesis, part four

this is the fourth post in a series of discussions examining the research i conducted and the choices i made while working on my master's thesis, "shamrocks, sombreros, and the stars and stripes: ritual drinking on nationalistic holidays and the creation of cultural identity," last year.

you can read the first part of this series and my paper's abstract here.

after that, the second part can be found here and the third part here.

i'll be continuing this series next monday sometime soon, and hopefully it'll only take me one or two more posts to finish everything up.


discussing ritual, letting go of social deviance 

it’s been a bit since i’ve had the time and been in the correct frame of mind to discuss my thesis, so before we move on, i’d like to review two of the paragraphs from the first “welcome to my thesis” post:


when i first approached rb [my thesis adviser] with my general proposal, my idea was to write about drinking holidays, taboos, and social deviance. and while the drinking holidays certainly remained the central focus of my work, you can see simply from my title that social deviance and taboos did not. i still discussed elements of social deviance and taboo, but they certainly were not my linchpin.

i struggled for a good bit this past summer to be okay with that, and i don’t know if i can fully explain why. i got trapped by a working title, an idea that my paper was a square peg when it was really circular. and [most importantly] i got caught in the trap that, because i had written about ritual in anthropology before (in fact, i’d taken whole classes on it), i had to avoid it and write something entirely different. 


these paragraphs bring us to the heart of this installment: the problems i faced realizing the true direction of my work and how difficult it was for me to let go of my original ideas for this paper.

when i began work on my thesis – compiling initial sources, writing my annotated bibliography, even taking notes during fieldwork – i focused my work within a very rigid idea of what i was looking at... and for: namely, i was going into my research with the intent to observe, discuss, and better understand social deviance and taboo behaviors within the celebration of these holidays. and while yes, social deviance and taboo behaviors are certainly a part of present-day drinking holiday celebrations, my focus on these aspects quickly became limiting and confining. my research materials, my notes, even my source materials were all skewed in a direction that was very different from where my paper actually wanted to go. struggling between these two polarities was paralyzing. what i was thinking and seeing didn’t match with what i was saying, and that very disparate nature was evident in every bad draft i wrote.

the truth is, i thought my paper was about the role of social deviant and taboo actions and behaviors in relation to drinking holidays, but what i was actually dealing with was the greater aspects of ritual within these secular holidays and, given the nationalistic nature of these celebrations, the resulting processes of assimilation and acculturation. 

in retrospect, i had actually seen this research/writing conflict before. in one of my undergrad anthropology classes we read steven caton’s yeman chronicles, which recounts caton’s experiences as an ethnographer in the middle east in the late 1970s. while caton began his research focusing on the oral poetry of the yemani tribes, his work grew out and away from his initial expectations and academic intents. the conflicting notion of what caton thought he was researching and what he was actually researching was difficult for him to reconcile, as well. 

so, even though i had read about this sort of trapped thinking, i was not in any way prepared to deal with it in my own work. a big part of that difficultly certainly came from a skewed trees-before-forest perspective: i was living my thesis every day. it was my primary concern and i spent most of my time thinking about it, forming outlines, searching for sources, and desperately, desperately trying to get the words on the page to work. because i was so intimately involved with it all, i was overwhelmed. i couldn’t see where or what the problems actually were. i had no big picture perspective. 

my second problem with shifting my thinking and my paper’s focus had more to do with where my paper was actually going than how i needed to get there. i had done a lot of work in the past focusing on ritual. as i mentioned ealier, i had done a lot of research and taken focused classes on it. going back to that theme felt like i was taking a step backwards, relying on past work rather than trying something new. 

that was a really, really naïve way to think about it all, and it took me a long time to break free from those negative limiting thoughts. what saved me, and my paper, actually also came from my undergraduate studies: a philosophy of learning i had forgotten.

in the the beginning of the collection of teachings choiceless awareness, jiddu krishnamurti states two ideas that relate directly with the dilemma i was struggling with:

“knowledge implies a sense of accumulation, does it not? knowledge can be acquired and, because of its nature, knowledge is always partial, it is never complete; therefore, all action springing from knowledge is also partial, incomplete” (1992:7).

and then:

“a mind that is learning never says ‘i know,’ because knowledge is always partial, whereas learning is complete all the time. learning does not mean starting with a certain amount of knowledge and adding to it further knowledge...learning is never cumulative; it is a movement of knowing which has no beginning and no end” (ibid 1992:10-11).

remembering krishnamurti's words gave me a chance to regain my perspective, to allow myself to rethink my work and not view my change in subject matter as a personal failure. 

i balked when it came to writing about ritual because i felt i already knew, and because of that, i couldn’t write and my paper didn’t work. when i let that sense go and admitted to myself there was so much more out there, that it was okay to continue the process of learning i had begun so long ago, that’s when i was able to see what i was actually doing.


caton, steven (2005). yeman chronicles. new york: hill and wang (a division of farrar, straus, and giroux).

krishnamurti, jiddu (1992). choiceless awareness. ojai: the krishnamurti foundation of america.