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Friday, July 8, 2016

Story Telling

Like most anthropologists, I love to tell stories. We anthropologists tend to be very good story tellers. When we do ethnographic research we listen carefully. We also participate in every day life of those we study. We encourage our informants and "our people" to tell stories. We then use those stories to write about cultures different than our own. Often those cultures live in remote regions of the world. My mentor at Columbia University, Robert F. Murphy, studied the Tuareg and Munduracu. He was among the best story tellers I ever had the pleasure of listening to. Murphy could make you laugh, cry and think all at the same time. He was nothing short of brilliant. He was far from alone. Many anthropologists are truly engaging people. Most anthropologists are gifted speakers and lecturers. Exceptions exist of course. I have sat through some pretty boring and dry lectures delivered by well known anthropologists who I shall not name.

The point here is I tell lots of stories. I am an entertaining speaker which is not easy to do when I often write about end of life and assisted suicide legislation. In part I am a good story teller because I have led a very different life. Growing up I went through the medical mill. I was not expected to survive, few of us did in the era before advanced medical imaging. When I was a kid if a physician wanted to know what was going on inside the body one got a spinal tap or had surgery. I had a lot of spinal taps. I had a lot of surgery. I suffered. I endured. To cope, I became a wise ass and made a concerted effort to be subversive. As the youngest in my family, I became a skilled instigator. I put on a facade of innocence but I was a devilish kid. I had the inate ability to rile people up and appear ever so innocent. What I did not like was mind numbing routine. Hospitals, like any institution, are utterly dependent on routine. As a kid I knew exactly what time it was because hospital routine never changed. I was desperate to escape the inertia of ward life. One way I maintained my sanity was to undermine or disrupt ordinary medical examinations. There was a down side to my quiet rebellion and penchant to undermine authority. A while ago I told a story to my good friend Diane Wiener. She was quite bemused. After I told my story she asked me to retell the story on my blog. I promised to do so. I will now follow through on this promise.

This is a very old story that I have told it many times. The year was 1977. In the state of New York and many others teens can get a drivers license at age 16. I waited until I was 17 years old to express any interest in driving. I asked my mother to take me to the dreaded motor vehicle office. I had studied the DMV book and scheduled a written drivers test. I passed the test and was good to go or so I thought. The only thing left to do was demonstrate I had typical vision. A very bored woman asked me to read the fourth line on the chart. I said what line. My mother looked at me with daggers in her eye. DMV is not the place to joke around. She knew me too well. In the past I had thoroughly enjoyed undermining residents who admitted me to the hospital. When it got to a question about my hearing I replied "What?" multiple times. Some residents did not get the joke while others simply rolled their eyes and pressed on. No one was ever truly amused except myself. Keenly aware and afraid of my mother I stated all I could see was a fuzzy E. I was not joking. I was profoundly near sighted. I had spent years in and out of various neurological wards. I was so sick no one ever bothered to check my vision. This is not a complaint. Physicians were far too busy trying to keep me alive.

The lack of vision testing is clear evidence I took nonconformity a bit too far. It was also proof positive I missed most of my formal secondary education. Regardless, when I went to school with my driving glasses I was astounded. I could see the classroom board. The board was a real thing not some abstract idea teachers talked about. In geometry class I saw lines for the first time. In math class for the first time I could see the problems written on the board. In science class I could see the periodic table. I did not have to memorize the periodic table! I  missed so much school I simply assumed I had to memorize what the teacher said. I knew the board was on wall at the front of a classroom but I could not see what was written on it. I vividly recall thinking my God school just became very easy. On the rare occasion I was well enough to attend school I subsequently spent all my time letting my imagination wander. With a board I could see I no longer needed to pay attention to what the teacher was saying.

I have worn glasses every day since 1977. My near sighted vision became worse each and every year. I have relied on an increasingly strong prescription since I was a teenager. Each time I get a  new prescription I chuckle and tell my story. Every time I meet a teen about to apply for their license I tell this story. It is a good story. It is a story that reminds me that sometimes being ordinary, following protocol and routine is not such a bad thing. This is a lesson my son has struggled to learn. I guess the apple does not fall far from the tree.

1 comment:

Matthew Smith said...

I've needed glasses to drive for about 10 years -- my Dad's near-sighted but I didn't have any problems until my late 20s. The sight test in this country is to read a car number plate at 60 metres, but recently I had to take one when making a brief attempt to learn to ride a motorcycle. The newer number plates use a font which means many people can't tell an M from a W at that distance, and I couldn't, which was scary as I'm a truck driver and need to keep my licence; however, I was told that the problem was known about and not being able to tell them apart was OK.