The goal of the first leg of this work is to write a book to chronicle the experience and research. But what of my writing experience? In this Inside Scoop, I give a brief summary.
“When I was growing up, you just voted, and that was it… You might hear them on the radio, but not much.”
I met Ann in happenstance through a family member who caught wind of this project. She was very polite with me, but only had a few minutes to talk since she was on her way to a luau party.
Virginia Ann House Veren was born February 11, 1931 in Birmingham, Alabama. She has lived all over the South, as well as in Calgary, Canada.
Ann states that she had a wonderful childhood, that they were poor but that she didn’t know it. She spent her time reading from the library. She would keep up with the summer reading programs. Her family didn’t have a car, then, so she would cart the books around with her.
When she was younger she enjoyed listening to the radio with her grandmother, who lived with them. It wasn’t until High School that they got a television, in black and white. She recalls that heating was by coal, that travel wasn’t as plentiful and simple, and the phone systems were different.
Something I have heard from others is the worry about cursive (Palmer) writing leaving our culture. Particularly in reading old letters. Ann puts it another way.
Most of all, she appreciates that medicine has changed in a large way. Doctors made house calls when she was a girl. She used to be told to stand against the wall when she was little, and the doctor could put his arm behind her back. She didn’t know it was scoliosis – there wasn’t a word for it, then. Here, she explains the strides medical has made in her life:
One of her final points in how technology has changed us is in politics. I hadn’t considered it, before, but she’s absolutely right. We have technology in voting stations, but also in interviewing politicians and getting to know their policies. She explains it better in her own words.
Finally, Ann echoed something I’ve heard many times already during this project. She notices that our youth are so involved in their iPhones and technology that they may not be able to effectively communicate. She started by commenting on the crook of their necks, but expanded by saying, “You learn a lot from other people … You have to be able to communicate with the lowest of us, and the highest of us … and have compassion.”
Her wrap up was to say that she feels a lot of young people want just what she and her peers accomplished throughout their lives, but they want it now and without all the work. This comment touched on a prevailing view I’ve noted on Facebook and other mediums about the perceived laziness of the new generations – that new hires don’t work as hard as the seasoned ones. A friend stated just last week that a teen hire asked to go home after only two hours because he was ‘tired’, but the 56-year-old on staff came back over and over asking what he could do next. It’s not my place to say whether this is an actual trend, but one worth noting in tandem with Ann’s comments.
This project has already had an incredible impact on me. I might have predicted that it would, but I have been so consumed in building the project and reaching out to friends to connect with the Silent Generation that I wasn’t paying attention to myself.
Becoming a Better Anthropologist
An important change is my becoming a better Anthropologist. Anthropology in relation to ethnography, to me, means removal of self for the greater good of a project or understanding of a group of people. We learn this in school, in addition to critical thinking and best practices, but it’s easy to forget in day-to-day life. Our gut reactions and upbringing play a role in all that we do. Most of our interactions depend on our NOT dissolving our personality – our friends want to know what we think, colleagues want to know who we are. Acting as a Faceless Man would draw suspicion.
But when conducting ethnography, it is best to fade oneself out. This is hard to do, and it is obvious to a project when an Anthropologist is unable to do so. At the beginning of the project, I found myself bumping against this wall like a piece of driftwood against the levee. I knew that the wall needed to be dissolved, but I wasn’t sure how. Most of the stories I was hearing weren’t in large conflict with myself, so the urgency wasn’t there.
The challenge came when I was in the South. It is a cliché that the South is religious, but several of my interviews took that slant. Some even went so far as to be anti-other-religion, which is hard for me to support. This is where my levee finally broke. You see, this project isn’t about me. I am just a conduit. I had felt as such at the beginning, that I was being given these stories in trust that I would direct their flow with care to their final destination. Now I had stories I didn’t necessarily agree with.
I’ve always said I want to be able to represent a people or situation as accurately as possible, without sensationalizing as the news does. For me to remove any part of a story because I didn’t agree with it would be falling into the very habits for which I frown upon the news. It would also negate the trust I am building with the participants. My walls are down, and it feels good.
When I started the project, I thought I might do best if I crowdsourced the stories. I don’t know all 300 Million Americans. After circulating the project in my own city, and getting a little local PR, nothing happened. Not one story came through. So I started calling friends.
This is where the snowball effect began. I currently have five stories yet to transcribe, and fifteen more scheduled in the coming month. The national map is growing, too. I’m confident that the project will reach a critical mass wherein strangers will begin referring interviews as well, but it’s not there, yet.
The best part of all this is reconnecting with people I haven’t spoken with in a long time. I am calling friends all over the country, people I have loved. Hearing their voices, catching up on lives, leaves me a bit stunned. Why in the world did I ever stop talking to them? I don’t mean Facebook talking. I mean really talking on a personal level. Sending full messages, and spending the time on a phone call.
This project is overwhelmingly about connections. It is about adding flesh and blood to the cold fact bones of history. I am so lucky that a side effect of this is enriching my own connections once more.