Finding Perspective in the Most Unlikely Place

This time last year I was stuck on a highway I didn’t know the name of. Luckily, I was stuck between the only small hill cut through by this highway or else the Arizona sun would have cooked me alive in my shockingly yellow rental car. Hour one was humorous and would have been a story in itself. In hour two, when the truck behind me flashed his lights to warn of oncoming pedestrians as I tried to pee into my water bottle, was much less idyllic.

I was on a solo journey through the state of Arizona. It’s not the most exciting trip or exotic location unless you are someone who has never spent time among the red clay or Southwestern territories.

The choice to go to Arizona didn’t fall out of the sky one dreary New Orleans winter day. When I look at a map of the United States I’m proud to remember grueling summer days in the southern states, oysters and beer in Florida, or kayaking in Pugent Sound. There are some wide swaths of America unfortunately I have not been to. Why else would a Southern girl go to Arizona if not on a whim?

The highway adventure was three hours of sitting, watching, and waiting for a brush fire to be qualmed. I was at a vantage point where I could see the firefighters working and all I could do was read, write, and eventually get out of my car and talk to the other highway captives. An older lady with three dogs in the back of her SUV started up a conversation with me.

“Do you have enough water?” (That is the customary expression for “Hello” in Arizona.)

“Yes mam. I am fortunately packed to go camping.”

Throughout our conversation I learned that this is Arizona’s form of natural disaster equivalent to heavy thunderstorms back in New Orleans. They happen frequently yet are part of the backdrop of Southwestern life. There are Twitter handles for updates and procedures in place although, come to find out, this type of highway abandonment is rarely experienced.

The question both the older lady and her serendipitous friend from another vehicle asked was, “So, why come visit Arizona?” This question seemed odd to me at the time as I live in a place typically mentioned with fervent eagerness and “Oh, I LOVE New Orleans.”  

As a general rule I am a penny pincher in everyday life so I can be independent in my adventures. After saving money for two years while I was unemployed, working kitchen jobs, or giving away shots of rum in supermarkets across New Orleans, I had booked a solo trip to Asia. It was a blissful month at the age of 25. I combed the streets of Thailand looking for food, avoided little boys with an enormous zeal for fireworks in Chang Mai, and biked along sandy shepherd's paths in Bagan, Myanmar.

Asia was a place to lose yourself. I had saved money and when I told my girlfriend that I was going she replied with, “Well I can’t go right now.”

“I wasn’t inviting you.” I unsympathetically replied. “This is a solo journey.”

Many Westerners go to Asia  attempting to produce the closest (and safest) theater of exotic lifestyle. In Asia, no one asked why I was there. It was understood. I was traveling in order to find myself in my independence and durability.

Back in Arizona three years later, my host in Phoenix is a little too tall for his apartment front door. As he greeted me he bent over and smiled to lean in for a hug. “It’s so nice to meet you,” he said as he pulled back to move out of the door frame. His teeth had recently been brightened, almost to a frightening level. We sat in his kitchen talking about my plans and why I was in Arizona. Like most people, he didn’t understand why I had come.

“So, where’s your girlfriend?”

“Oh, this is a solo trip. Just me.”

“That sounds healthy. I’m way too co-dependent for that.”

“Um, yeah. I find it a good thing to get away for a breather every now and then. She understands. And I don’t really give it a choice for better or worse.”

“Well, that can’t be good for a relationship.”

My toe digs a little deeper into the kitchen tile.

“So, what are you doing out here?”

“Oh, just traveling a bit. I’ve never seen Arizona’s landscape. I want to see red rocks and desert and mountains.”

My answers seem to fall short of expectation or of any interest to him. I thought about how he didn’t understand my need for down time. How I need the space to be myself and to ruminate on my thoughts.

I, probably like most people, fall under the disgustingly-modern title of “extrovert-introvert”. On most occasions I feed off of people’s energy and bounce from location to location, person to person. I love newness and surprise and the fast-paced exercise of life. However, there are some occasions where I need to get away from it all. Maybe it’s to process the information or maybe it’s to simply recharge the energy bank.

Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, I take it upon myself every so often to escape the routine and venture out on my own. No significant other, no friends, no groups. Just me.

After climbing Camelback in Phoenix, admiring the engineering of Montezuma’s Castle, and learning about Montezuma’s Well, I made my way into Sedona.

The shopkeeper in a studio tucked into the lower level of a newly constructed log cabin had a long gray mane that was speckled throughout with dark strands and pure white hair. Her long skirt brushed against her ankles as she walked around the store holding her self-made pottery mug of tea. She was Sedona.

I figured that as long as I brought back a present to my girlfriend that all would be cemented as “good”. That’s what people are supposed to do right? Bring gifts back from trips, apologize instead of ask for permission.

Like a hornet to a picnic she flowed over to me, the sole customer in her small, Western outpost.

“Is there something you are looking for in particular?” she asked over her glasses.

“Not really, just browsing.”

“Is it just you?”

“Yes, just me. I’m doing a little solo ‘walk in the woods’-type of endeavor. I just visited Montezuma’s Castle”

“I used to travel by myself a lot when I was your age. Now I’ve been married for 40 years. I couldn’t imagine doing anything without my husband. I’m so used to it now. That’s why I tell visitors, ‘If you see a couple, talk to them. Odds are they want someone else to break the monotony.’”

Odd sayings like this were expected at this point in Arizona, a land very alien in its American lifestyle. It was there, in that shop however, that the weight came down. Hard.  Through all of my efforts of trying to understand life more I was in actuality missing it.

I missed everyone while I was away. Maybe solo travel can - at times - be a form of filling that void of curiosity.  As Franz Kafta put it; “Isolation is a way to know ourselves.”

At the same time, there is something liberating about moving at your own pace, making decisions and having to own up to them, putting yourself out there to make new acquaintances.

Time is the only thing worth fighting for right? Time with loved ones, time to yourself, time to study/work/play/travel, time for what is important to you. Time is the only finite thing in our lives. It determines how many sunrises we see or kisses we receive or the amount of money we earn. You can’t do anything without time.

As I hiked around Bell Rock and Templeton Trial that I realized the importance of sharing travel. Truly sharing it. Not with pictures or presents but in time and meals and sunrises.

Or, maybe the vortexes simply had a hold over me.





 

Start Acting Like the Person You Already Are

“I heard Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones, speak on writing once. Someone asked her for the best possible writing advice she had to offer, and she held up a yellow legal pad, pretended her fingers held a pen, and scribbled away.” - Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The sun blasted down through the windshield of my aunt’s Taurus. The Alabama heat accentuated the leather car interior providing musty, hot smells even as the A/C pelted my eyes with Arctic chill. My aunt, the youngest of my mom’s four sisters, was taking me only god knows where. As a kid we normally spent a lot of time together running errands, seeing the sights around Birmingham, or generally having fun. As philosophically as a 10 year-old gets I remember saying to her [in loose verbatim], “In Sister Act, Whoopi said to a student, (Lauryn Hill) that ‘Don’t ask me about being a writer. If when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing…then you’re a writer. If you wake up in the morning and the first thing you think about is singing, you’re supposed to be a singer.”

At ten years old my fascination with the Sister Act movies was at an all-time high. Every day I would get home from school and pour half a cup of Hershey’s chocolate syrup into a pint of 2% milk. I believe nowadays health blogs could consider this as “bulking”. As a child, this repetitive non-nutritious snack was seen as normal. As the chocolate and dairy mingled as new friends I would make the one snack item that I didn’t burn...most of the time. Popcorn packets melted away in the microwave into large bags of hot, oily movie food.

Our playroom was the kids zone. The carpet needed to be replaced due to all the spills. The couch was from when my dad was a bachelor. The TV was an analog, rotary box with wood paneling. I would already have Sister Act, Sister Act 2, or the Little Rascals in the VHS and would rewind it impatiently. (I understand my cinematic picks are not envious or flattering, but they were a part of almost every afternoon of 4th grade.)

As the back of my thighs stuck to the passenger seat and I looked up at my aunt, my childhood idol, and was crestfallen when her response was, “Well, I don’t believe that.” She went on more about how that was inaccurate, but I couldn’t hear. My little childhood world had taken a big blow. I offered up one of my favorite lines, from my favorite movie, to my favorite friend and the response was a resounding, “That isn’t correct.”

Now, this scenario didn’t send me reeling back in time and convince me never to pursue writing. It didn’t cause me to like my aunt less. What it did do, however, was put judgemental boxes around professions and people’s habits. As an adult I see my peers constantly struggle with defining themselves through careers while more excitedly explaining their side hustles or hobbies. It’s not easy to be a creative mind in a world built for efficiency and making money to support those hobbies and hustles.

A now famous quote by Colonel John Boyd, an Air Force pilot superstar, goes, “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?” Ask yourself, will you simply “be” something or will you “do” something. I see it as earning my stripes to “be through doing”. In the acts of work we become what we see ourselves as.

Before I took time for this summer to be dedicated to writing my book I never called myself a “writer”. Writing was something I did all the time either for myself or to negate travel expenses, but never something I consider earth-shattering or genre-moving. It was my partner who took my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re a writer so start acting like one.”

When you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you think about? When you have down time on the weekends or at night or in the morning what do you do? What hobbies do you have that create that special spark of creativity or belonging to a greater presence than yourself in this world?

To me, that is what we are. We are the persistent pursuits, the constant challenges we present ourselves with, and the small wins that feel like major accomplishments. As I write this now I am using my morning before packing for Mexico to write about a thought that popped into my head while I was driving around town yesterday. It flows onto this page, but is also a struggle to focus in its entirety. Yet, I proceed because getting this up on my blog that few people may read is a win. It is an accomplishment. Because I work on my craft of writing I am a writer.

I am a writer. It’s about time I start acting like one.

Who are you?

An Essay Winner

This essay was written for a competition created by RIVA after the Qualitative Research Consultants Association conference in January 2018. I won one of the three awards and received funding for advanced certification.

At a previous conference (for business ethnographers) my handwritten notes spelled out “REVA. Qual training to look up”. Little did I know how influential the correctly-spelled “RIVA” is in the world of qualitative. After winning the YPG grant I attended QRCA conference for the first time. Currently, I am pivoting from a career as a marketing director towards a more empathetic, ethical path in research.

I believe in the ability of researchers to be the spokespeople for human behavior, needs, wants, and customer journeys. Through our work we can bring empathy into the boardroom. As my mentor always says, “Context is everything”. It’s this mindset that sets qualies apart.

My goal is to become a qualitative researcher structured in theory and practice. In doing so I will not only benefit myself but the industry as a whole. I believe the RIVA course is the next step in continuing my career as a video ethnographer and qualitative researcher.

I am a new independent professional and new to qualitative. My daily focuses are generally in secondary research and research management. I sit in occasionally on video and in-person interviews, but am excited and energetic to begin moderating on my own. Qualifying for a free training course would help me tremendously financially and professionally.

If I am offered the chance to train in the RIVA system I know that my time and RIVA’s investment will be well-spent. At 29, my career is at the critical point of expulsion through the stratosphere of personal and professional achievement. I would gladly accept RIVA’s assistance and give full recognition in their help.

A Local's Life: How Two New Orleanians Pump Life Into the Night

New Orleans is a city of of unabashed playfulness and walking the edge of life, whatever edge that may be for you. Daytime is known as the time where light shines down and illuminates it all. You can see the old beads and bottles line the gutters. You smell the street cleaner mixing up dirt, grime, and the morning humidity. Daytime is for color and parades and eating and music.

Then again, here in New Orleans, that all happens at night as well.

We look at two local New Orleanians who operate in very different scenes at night. One produces the musical heartbeat that locals and visitors come to experience in this city. The other maintains law and order when reveliers take that experience too far. Both contribute massive amounts of energy, pumping life into New Orleans by night.

 

Evan Oberla, musician at heart and in The Allie Porter Band

Are you naturally a night owl or did you happen upon a nightly schedule?
“I’ve always been a night owl, there’s a bit of freedom that comes with everything winding down business-wise so creating and playing music is uninhibited by outside forces. But I also love the morning and the possibilities that come with a new day. I’d say late afternoon is definitely ripe for siesta time if the schedule allows it.”

What is your favorite thing about your life at night?
“The fact that people from all walks of life can congregate and celebrate the day and let loose with some music and dancing, especially being a musician in New Orleans you can run into other musician friends on a whim and you never know what that might lead to.”

When you are winding down your day what do you do?
“If I just played a show, food might be in order, and also listening back to the recording of the show that I just played. I like to record most of what I do just on my phone at the least.
If I’m off I like to sit at my piano and mess around or watch a movie until I doze off.”

What time do you normally go to sleep?
“Also depends, if I’m playing it can be 3am or later, but it usually varies.”

What do you do during daylight hours?
“I try to practice everyday, be it trombone, keys, guitar…send emails, schedule rehearsals and shows, if it’s warm enough out I love being outside, and hopefully exercising. Play and work on new music with friends. The opportunities to jam with awesome musicians abound.”

Where do you go at night? Is it for work or for play?
“Mostly work, but on nights off usually hang low, or at a neighborhood joint to be amongst people in a low intensity environment. Also, I love just going to check out other music like George Porter Jr. Trio at the Maple Leaf on Mondays. Or, Corey Henry’s Funktet at Vaughn’s on Thursdays. Some of my favorite spots to see music are the Maple Leaf, Blue Nile, and Hi-Ho. I’ll pop around Frenchmen especially if I’m playing a gig.”

What is your favorite place to eat/drink at night?
“On Frenchmen, my go-to is 13 and that Chicken Pesto wrap. Otherwise, Finn McCools is my spot. When I first moved to New Orleans I lived across the street from it. So kinda home base on that front.”

What is one of the craziest things you’ve seen during your nightly shift at work?
“Too many to count really. All sorts of states of human functionality abound in a small space. [One time] someone was getting too close to the drummer and hollering incoherently, so the drummer just played the drums on this belligerent dude’s bald head. That’s one way to deal with a heckler that made me laugh out loud.”
 

M.A., anonymous female JPSO deputy, a.k.a. professional night owl

Are you naturally a night owl or did you happen upon a nightly schedule?

“I have always found it difficult to force myself to go to sleep before midnight. Day shift begins at 5:30 am for early roll call, which meant my mornings began in the ludicrous hour range of 4:00 am. I suppose, you can say I am typically a night owl in that aspect, as the night shift rotations are far more compatible with my natural sleep schedule. [Her shift now ends at 5am].”

What is your favorite thing about your life at night?

“I love working while everyone is sleeping. There are certainly pros and cons; however, there is something very soothing about a quiet night; having the city to yourself, while a majority of the masses is asleep. The roads are clear of traffic (as my office is a vehicle), there are less crazy people and foolishness that you have to deal with (from a police perspective), and some nights are so quiet that you can truly dedicate some time to yourself to be alone with your thoughts, books, entertainment, and simply reset.”

When you are winding down your day what do you do?

“I arrive home from work at approximately 5:30 am. I take off my uniform, which takes several minutes, as I have a lot of equipment. I put myself out of service on the radio and set it on the charger. I shower, brush my teeth, and lay in bed. If I have had an eventful shift that has my adrenaline high, I [take] over the counter sleep aids, like zzquil, to help wind down. At this time, I typically catch up on emails and/or with friends through social media via my cell phone. As mundane as that sounds, it helps tire my eyes to fall asleep more quickly.”

What time do you normally go to sleep?

“I typically go to sleep around 6:30-7:00 am after I work an overnight shift. My schedule only changes slightly when I am not working, barring any early morning commitments. On a night that I am off of work, I will find myself heading to bed between 3:30-4:00 am.”

What do you do during daylight hours?

“I like to stay active and be productive, even as a night owl. When I work overnight, I will go to bed around 6:30am and wake up between 1:00 and 2:00 pm. I will typically get a workout or training session in before 5:00 pm, in case I have to work another shift back to back. If I am not working overnight, I also have a second job as a Krav Maga instructor, where I teach self-defense. I also love practicing bikram or “hot” yoga at least once a week uptown on oak street as well.”

Where do you go at night? Is it for work or for play?

“While I am working, the places able to frequent are not as plentiful after midnight. There are quite a few of us on shift who will eat at IHOP as a group around 2:00 am, when work is typically calm and we can socialize. On a night that I am not working, I love to do various things. I love visiting friends. I love relaxing at home, and I love to go out uptown and see live music. I value my off days very much, and I LOVE festival season in the spring (i.e. Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, and Hangout Fest).”

What is your favorite place to eat/drink at night?

“I just discovered Swegs kitchen, which is a new restaurant that provides a healthy option that is quick, like a fast food place. That is a place I have to eat or get food to go before work, as they close early. However, they provide meal preps, which is a great, healthy option for night workers. When I am not working, I love Oak Street for food, drinks, and music. Oak Wine Bar is one of my favorites, and Maple Leaf is walking distance for great local music. Bayou Wine Garden is also a favorite, with wine on tap and delicious food [french fries] to go with it.”

What is one of the craziest things you’ve seen during your nightly shift at work?

“This is the top question that is asked of me as a police officer. As the job, crazy is what I see every single day. So, it depends on what kind of crazy you wish to hear about. Is it the neighbors calling about a naked man running down the street, stripping his clothes because the PCP he consumed is making him sweat as he thinks people are chasing him? Or, would you like to hear about the woman who calls monthly about people fighting with lasers in her attic. There is a different type of crazy for each day that I work.

I can tell you this. There is no greater feeling than being able to come together with a group of approximately 13 people and apprehend a suspect who is attempting to flee from a crime that he just committed.

The communication and the comradeship are incredible to hear, see, and be a part of. I have literally had a suspect run into my arms because he was running away from one of my partners. That is when your adrenaline hits an all time high.

 

Although not the Big Apple, the Big Easy nevers sleeps.


Originally written for Where Y'at. 


 

Authenticity Begins at Imagination

You see the seared steak in front of you and smell char as you slice into the middle. As you pick up the piece of cut steak you think, “Yes, this is really a steak. Although I know it’s not. It’s not a steak yet that is what I see, smell, and taste.”

In my efforts to explore everyday I have come across three different areas where describing what is “authentic” leaves many struggling for answers.

Tourism is of key interest to me for the ability to help destinations economically, educate visitors, and study globalization. However, industry stakeholders and digital influencers constantly talk about “real tourism” and “authentic experiences”.

If you are traveling and experiencing a present moment, how is it NOT real?

Inthe virtual world the ability to transport someone’s senses via VR/AR is counterbalanced by the person’s mental ability to “leave” their current environment and arrive somewhere new.

Which is “real”, your current physical space and body, the environment you are now mentally in, or both?

Inapplied ethnographic research, the debates range from “Who is an ethnographer?” to “What counts as ethnography?” to “Is ethnography a watered-down methodology?” or “Do ethnographers need to be physically present or can they telecommunicate their work?”

What is “real ethnographic work” versus pure nomenclature?

In all of these fields of study the theme I see over and over again is “Is this real?”

Tourism

Ah, holidays. The ability to break free, leave all regret and responsibility at your home to be scooped up later, and to relax.

When most people — or me — are at the tail end of their vacation what is often heard?

“Well, it’s back to the real world.”

The idea of dislocating ourselves from everyday life is attractive and fuels a $7.6 trillion global industry. We travel in various ways: slow, fast, for leisure, for adventure, for food, for music, for sex, for hunting, for art/architecture/nature/history/etc.

The essence is traveling for the sake of something. We are searching for something (new/exotic/familiar) that we cannot find in our everyday, very real lives.

The “authenticity” of this time spent away from our homes is two-fold: 1) we are leaving the “real world” but want to enter 2) an “authentic” or “real” version of our destination as well.

So, what is real? Do tour groups and walking tours count as a real version or are they made for people who want the thin, flaky crust of a destination? Is it real if you visit a location and don’t eat purely local cuisine every day? Is it real if you stay in Airbnbs and go to farmer’s markets and conduct life as if you are at home?

Real versus real. Authentic versus pretend.

As a resident in a top tourism destination I can say that I go to the famous landmarks and festivals and they are very real to me. I’ve taken taken friends and family and strangers to bars and restaurants and beautiful green spaces around the city and those too are very real.

What is the main difference when talking about “authentic travel” then? Is it the physical spaces or the mentality of the traveler?

VR/AR/AI

The two worlds of today will cease to be separate. “One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real.” — William Gibson

Itis interesting what people perceive as “real”. VR, AR, AI, and other newly created spaces are the talk of every marketing, business, and innovation conference at the moment. Humans have created the ability to transport consumers into an existence they desire, or to bring a brand/experience directly to the consumer. It’s a two-way street of virtual/physical collision.

Through various methods people are exiting their current arena of senses and transplanting themselves into another. Is it a complete physical manifestation in the new place or merely a mental arrival?

Companies such as Project Nourished deliver “gastronomical virtual reality experiences”. They have a litany of projects with an expansive future in providing much needed support to under-respresented diners as crazy as that sentence is. One mission goal is to “Broaden perception of food and diversify food systems for betterment and preservation of both humanity and environment.”

On their main project, if you are eating, swallowing, and digesting the Jello-like cubes they’ve placed before you is it only “virtual reality” or pure “reality”? Is it a “real” experience?

What will be an “authentic” meal moving forward? One made of completely natural ingredients or one designed to make you believe you are eating natural ingredients?

Ethnography

Nine ethnographic things you can’t do in ethnography by Siamack Salari(ethnographer):

> ask participants to capture their own behavior with an app and call it ethnographic research. If they know what you want to know, you are doing a conventional research project

> not present findings which include at least a few observations participants themselves were not aware of, could never have reported on

> create a task plan and stick with it. If you don’t change it based on new observations, you aren’t doing it right

> keep filtering across tasks and segments to make sense of participant outputs if you don’t first understand your participants as individuals

> present findings to your client unless you can answer the, ‘did anyone say/do…’ questions. If you are not intimate with your data, you will look stupid

> say you have captured all you need to unless you can show that events/themes are repeating themselves

> say you have an answer to a question you have sent participants unless you have posed the same question in three different ways — as an activity, as a reaction to someone/thing else and as an observation of themselves.

> [produce] nuggets/actions/insight [that] comes to you in an instant, it’s probably not there yet.

> present findings that your 8 year old won’t understand, remember and be able to repeat back to you.

In my marketing past life customer journeys and experiences drove a lot of my strategy for the brands I managed. Now, as I am new to the rigorous structure of ethnographic research, reading Siamack’s explanations provided clear insight into what I felt, but could not fully articulate.

Researchers have their different mechanisms for educating their clients/boss (via written reports, video, workshopping, etc.), but the integrity, a.k.a. “realness of research”, of what they deliver starts at the very beginning. Yes?

Set the structure and as James P. Spradley, author of The Ethnograpahic Interview and much more, said “I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”

The authenticity of Spradley’s intentions echo through in this quote. “Real” is down and dirty. “Real” is setting yourself aside and finding a nugget of truth.

I haven’t quite ascertained why we need “realness” or “authenticity” so much. Do we need “real” and “authentic” ideas and experiences because we listen to so much noise everyday that sometimes we just want the truth? Perhaps it is in the search and hunting for “what is real” that strikes a primal cord in us.

“Trust is the foundation of society. Where there is no truth, there can be no trust, and where there is no trust, there can be no society.”
— Frederick Douglass

Written for Medium.