As Dr. Wilburn asked for the difference between emic and etic accounts, blue eyed blonde, who had made certain, on the very first day of class, that everyone knew he was Robert Quentin Ash III, raised his hand with a confident smile.
"Yeah, keep it up, brown nose," Blair muttered under his breath. "You might get your BS by sucking up to the profs but you'll never learn anything."
"An emic account," Robert replied, "is a description of behavior told by a person who is part of a culture and the meaning he assigns to it is relevant in terms of that culture. An etic account is described by an observer, an outsider to that society, in culturally neutral terms."
"Very good, Robert," the professor said.
"But sir," Blair asked, raising both his hand and his question at the same time. "Don't those terms assume that the outsider has a clearer understanding than anyone in the culture under observation? Wouldn't an anthropologist bring his own biases into the field?"
"Sandburg," the professor sighed. "Are you suggesting that an objective and scientifically trained anthropologist would be less able to comprehend a society than, what, some local witch doctor?"
Dude, Blair thought, witch doctor is so not a cool term. "That's not what I said at all," he said, waving his arms about in frustration. "Let's consider medicinal plants. Totally disconnected cultures have found the same medicinal uses for the exact same plants. Sage, for example, is antibacterial and has traditionally been used, all over the world, to prevent infections."
"Young man," the professor said, "that different societies have found the same existing property of a plant is hardly an interesting example."
"So," Blair pushed, "you'd agree that sage is used for the same purpose because of a property intrinsic to the herb."
"Yes," Dr. Wilburn replied cautiously. "I can grant that the same specific property of sage has been discovered multiple times."
"Aha," Blair said triumphantly. "So you'd have to concur that, when sage is used to dispel evil, which is just as widely spread as its medicinal use, that is also due to an intrinsic property of the plant."
Dr. Wilburn shook his head. "Nonsense. I can merely make an etic observation that the plant is considered efficacious against evil because of its healing abilities."
Blair nearly leaped out of his chair. "But its not just sage and dispelling evil. Almost any beneficial plant is known, by traditional cultures, to have spiritual properties and tribes so widely separated that they couldn't have had contact assign the same properties to the same plants time and time again."
"So a few widely separated tribes come up with similar explanations for a phenomenon. Statistically its bound to happen sometimes."
"But, not only that, all traditional cultures say the same thing, that the plants themselves gave them this knowledge," Blair started.
It was too much for the professor. He bellowed out, drowning out the rest of Blair's words with, "I'm afraid you've let yourself get too caught up in emic anecdotes. I'm not sure anthropology is an appropriate field for someone as unobjective as yourself. When you do choose a major, you should consider something less rigorous: folklore, perhaps, or possibly tarot card reading."
Most of the class laughed at the professor's remarks, nipping any reply Blair might have made in the bud. Only a few students, as marginalized as Blair himself, looked on with any sympathy. Blair tried to pay attention to the rest of the lecture but it was basic stuff. He'd learned it on his own decades ago. He spent the rest of the class wondering if he'd made a mistake. Anthropology didn't seem to be for him after all. It wasn't anything like he'd thought it would be.
When the class ended, he tried to dash out of the building before anyone could hassle him. He didn't make it. "Watch where you're going," Robert said, shoving Blair out of his way. As Blair fell against the wall, Robert turned back to him. "Unless," he added as if considering. "You weren't going for my hair, were you?"
"Hair?" Blair asked, having no idea what Robert meant.
"You know, to use when you curse me with one of your witch doctor spells," Robert said. His friends joined him in the laughter.
That was it. "First thing, the correct term is shaman. Witch doctor is a totally derogatory and Eurocentric term. Shamans are respected spiritual leaders of their tribes, much like our Pope." Blair's eyes glittered in amusement as Robert's mouth gaped open. Frustrated and already fed up, Blair had chosen his words to wound and was glad that they had even though he knew it was totally uncool, and a seriously bad idea, to feed his demons that way.
"Second," Blair continued, "There's no way I'd curse you. Do you know how much bad karma there is in that?" As the words left Blair's mouth, he saw Robert as a wounded child, lashing out to protect his own bleeding heart. Oh man, Blair thought, and I just did the same thing. I mean, yeah, I was angry with him, but I was angrier at Dr. Wilburn and I took it out on Robert because he was there. It seemed to be and endless cycle: every person in the world, each taking their anger out on each other in turn.
But I can stop it, he thought. As Blair reached out, ready to apologize, Robert slapped his hand away, shouting, "Freak." Blair watched them go thinking, and that's who I'd be working with my whole career. What kind of a person would I become, with such associates?
That evening, Blair hit a bar where he knew he wouldn't get carded. He was on his second beer when a young man, someone who was possibly in some of his classes, brought a couple of beers over. "Do you always shoot yourself in the foot like that?" he asked, more rhetorically than anything else. Blair was already famous on campus for sharing his opinions, no matter how unpopular.
"Thanks man." Blair glanced up quickly as a beer was put down before him but then looked back onto the table.
"You aren't letting Wilburn get to you, are you?" he asked, seeing that Blair acting in an uncharacteristically antisocial way.
"Oh, I don't know," Blair replied. "Don't get me wrong, I love anthropology but," he trailed off.
"What do you love so much?"
As he spoke, Blair became more expressive, sitting up at first, and then using his hands to make his points. "It's seeing the way people can think so differently about things, I mean like having completely different views. For example, when brewing beer, there are two schools of thought: either you have to be quiet, meditative actually, so as not to frighten the spirits away or you have to be really loud, like banging pots together on New Year's Eve loud, to get them going. Like, the Tarahumara of northen Mexico pray to call in the spirit of fermentation and give it power to overcome bad spirits that might spoil the brew but the Papago dance and sing, making all kinds of noise, just outside the building when making tiswin, to give energy to the yeast. Oh, or Norwegian brewers stamp their feet and act angry when brewing extra strong ale. But, and here's the cool thing, the thing each side has in common, they believe that the beer won't ferment without these spirits."
His friend took a swig of his beer, considering his words carefully, before asking, "So what's the problem?" He knew Blair had to confront his issues if he was going to stay on his path.
"Problem?" Blair asked. Oh yeah, hiding out in a dive. His shoulders slumped forward. "Who am I kidding? Anthropologists nowadays, they don't go out into the field to find another way of looking at the world, to actually experience another culture. They build walls around themselves so they can maintain," he made quote marks in the air as he finished his thought. "Objectivity."
"You're going to just give it up then?"
"Not like I've declared my major," Blair evaded. The silence dragged on. Finally, Blair relented. "Yeah, OK, it has only been my dream since, like, forever but that doesn't mean it's right for me. I mean, now that I see what anthropology is really like," he trailed off.
"Isn't like you to give up."
"I don't mean to be rude but how would you know?" Blair asked.
"Remember when you were eight and got lost in the woods? Most kids would have, sensibly, sat themselves down to wait for rescue, shouting out every once in a while in case someone could hear them. Not you. You climbed to the top of the highest tree you could find, wrapped your fingers around a branch, and prayed for help. Then you saw the river, climbed back down, and walked out of the woods with no more help than that. Passed a good half dozen search teams without seeing them, you wandered around so much."
Blair was too astonished to speak.
"When you were fourteen, you went on a vision quest to find your spirit guide. You'd been meditating since you were a kid but this was different. An honest to God traditional vision quest. It didn't work. You didn't see anything. You tried two more times, failing each time, but you were determined to succeed. The fourth time, though," he trailed off, prompting, with silence, for Blair to continue.
"I saw a girl, very young but," he smiled in wonder. "She was such a joy to be around. Her laughter was contagious. At fourteen, I thought a vision quest was supposed to be a serious sacred experience however I couldn't help but laugh with her until I realized that laughter and joy were just as sacred, possibly more so, than any somber religious rite."
"She died. This part is hard to explain because, while I wasn't overflowing with joy like I had been earlier, I wasn't bummed that she was dead because it was right that she'd died. Like she had to die as part of the natural order of things, which isn't it at all but there's no better way to say it."
"I buried her but then a plant grew on her grave." Blair gazed off, reminiscing. "It had the most beautiful flowers. When the fruit started growing, I saw the birds eating it and wanted some for myself but it seemed disrespectful, you know?, to eat something off of her grave. Then her head grew out of a flower and told me to eat and, so, I did. It was," he trailed off, not sure how to describe it. "Everything was sacred. Even rocks spoke to me."
He paused for a long while, long in memories. When he came back to himself, he drank some of the beer, to give himself time to come down. "That's when I decided to become an anthropologist," he said. "So I could meet others who'd had the same experience. So I could share it with the world."
"But now you've changed your mind?"
"Nobody in that department has ever felt anything close to what I'm talking about. Could you see Dr. Wilburn in the same situation? He'd shit himself if he ever saw a Green Man. Or Woman," Blair said.
"He wouldn't," his friend replied. "Nature spirits are, mostly, shy. Think of holding a wild bird in your hand. They won't come out for just anyone. You have to believe but, don't you see? That's why anthropology needs you. Too many people go in to prove what they already believe. You're a rare bird. You look for what's actually out there. There are so few not only willing to see the truth but to share it."
"I don't know man," Blair replied. "I feel like I'm trying to swim upstream when the current is too strong."
"Perhaps you just need someone to pull you up past the rapids."
Blair was ready to continue his arguments but, when something made him look up, he had to hold onto the table or he'd have fallen to the floor. Green. The guy was green. Not the pale, about to get very sick green of someone who'd drunk too much, but as green as the grass on the ground or the leaves on the trees. "Oh, man," Blair whispered. Sprouts grew out of the man, all over him, from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. They grew quickly into shafts of wheat, covering him completely. Blair blinked, just once, and found himself alone.
"Hey, don't go," he shouted, rising from his chair to look around the bar.
A couple of people glanced over and kept wary eyes on him after that. "Something wrong?" the bartender asked from across the room.
"My friend, the guy who was drinking with me," Blair said, realizing he'd never figured out where he knew the guy from.
"Buddy, you were alone all evening."
"What? But he was right here," Blair's voice trailed off as he looked at the table. There'd been two sets of beers, but only his remained. The other side of the table was clear, as if he had been drinking alone. As Blair thought the evening through, a slow smile spread across his face.
"Think you've had enough," the bartender added.
"Huh? Oh, that's OK. I need to be outside anyway," Blair said, gathering up his jacket.
As he handed over some money, the man said, "You're already paid up."
"Great. Have a good evening," Blair said, not listening as he headed out the door.
"I'm going to be an anthropologist," he said to himself as he headed for a park, a bit of green just on the edge of campus. The evening was cold but the walk wasn't long. "I'm going to be an anthropologist," he shouted to trees, to grass, to the fountain spraying water into the pond.
The stars were to distant to provide any warmth but Blair didn't mind. His heart warmed him well enough.