Turtles All The Way Down
 Spinning webs of significance since 1990
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A Song for You
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I met my good friend JM via Xanga about 5 years ago. It’s amazing to think that a random picture of a chair I took long ago spoke to her enough to reach out and say hello. And yet it did, and we met for almost every summer after that moment. We sat outside on benches discussing her penchant for cute Parisian boys who smoked too much, and we did what anyone would do: we smoked. We took silly pictures as we planned our next meeting, content with our fleeting but otherwise meaningful exchange. Then we parted ways, certain that next summer would come. And so it went until summer came and left without us.

I think one of the things that drew me to JM was that we shared a similar manic desire to collect quotes. We collected, collected, and collected without reason or explanation. And we sort of poked one another from time to time, acknowledging each other’s presence in the months between summers. Like the chair, this was our hello. We held fast to the words of others and to the lingering memory of a moment that would live forever between us, drawing us near when we least expected it.

JM’s married now, and I’m in Paris with cute Parisian boys who smoke too much. The summer’s fast approaching and I’m left to wonder if we’ll cross paths again or simply continue this elaborate duet we sing with others’ words.


Most people equate detachment with indifference - or worse, clinical coldness. Not so at all. A detached person, for example, ought to see a snake as a snake, not as a snake-plus-a-shudder. A snake-plus-a-shudder is not a snake, but something the observer added on his own. Nobody is asking you to like snakes or elevators, but any well-meaning friend would or should suggest that you see them straight before you set up any decisions in your mind.

- J.D. Salinger in a letter to Deirdre Bonifaz (1954) / “Letters from Salinger,” The Massachusetts Review 51.4 (2010): 776-78.

via underthepile

A.M. Homes

"Do not mistake me," he says, as though reading her mind. "My detachment is not arrogance, it is hard won."

- "Remedy" in Things You Should Know (2002)


A long time ago, someone mentioned Heidegger to me. Heidegger and his notion of “care” to be precise. And just last week, as I weaved in and out of the crowd at a disability advocacy group meeting, someone reached out and grabbed my shoulder: “Oh, hey… I’ve been meaning to tell you: Read Hegel. He’ll be indispensable.”

These encounters always amuse me, because I have nothing to offer in return for these well-meaning suggestions. What’s more, it’s always laypeople who make these remarks, and I’m left to wonder why they’d ever become interested in thinkers I once read only because I was required to do so.

So I do the only thing I can do: I try and read Heidegger. I try and read Hegel. I sort of get it, but I don’t. But, as tends to happen with life, the answer will come to me in flashes and at the most random moments. I’ll be in the middle of some crisis, lying on my bed as I try and figure out why nothing in my fieldwork makes sense: why those who should be helping are causing pain, why those who shouldn’t care sacrifice themselves for strangers, why those who fight for greater understanding are the most unkind and close-minded of all…

I wish I could find those strangers who suggest readings to me, because I want to know and experience the passion behind their interest. I know that my academic interest, and even my eventual understanding, never quite reaches the depths of their genuine appreciation for someone like Heidegger or Hegel.

To them, it is no academic exercise to know the difference between fleeting curiosity and the quality of dwelling in the depths of care.

Parallel Thoughts

I don’t like food. I love it. And if I don’t love it, I don’t swallow.

- Anton Ego to Linguini in Ratatouille (2007)


If I have nothing nice to say about someone, I don’t write about them.

- Response during PhD defense after I asked a newly-minted PhD about the omission of what appeared to be crucial data.

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A.M. Homes

I feel like I’m a foreigner, not just a person from another country but a person from another planet, a person without customs, ways of being, a person who has blank spots rather than bad habits.

 - "The Chinese Lesson" in Things You Should Know (2002)


I had an incredibly productive period last week. I don’t think there was a day when I didn’t come home late at night, happy to see my apartment after a long day and even happier to feel the blistering pain of feet I had walked on all day but once forgotten I had. It was like becoming reacquainted with the very boundaries of myself, long left behind since coming to this city that everyone back home insists should be reason enough to wake up in the morning.

And here I am, two hours into a day that only began at 4 PM. It could have begun at 2 PM, or maybe even at 10 AM when I truly woke up, but it didn’t. Instead it began at 4 PM, after I spent two hours spiraling deeper and deeper into a complete sense of loss and solitude.

In the end, whether I wake up at 10 AM, 2 or 4 PM, it doesn’t really matter. I am accountable only to myself, and I have found myself to be less than up to that task.

I would say I feel like I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me, but that would assume I had feet to stand on.

Time Again

On Friday, I woke up at 7 to have breakfast with my parents and was at the airport by 9:30. By 11, I was on a plane to Texas, where I boarded another flight only three hours later. As the poorly executed safety video went on, I thought to myself: “Didn’t I just hear this five minutes ago?”

We landed in Paris a little before 9 the next morning and I called my mom back in California. She was getting ready for bed, the thought of that day’s breakfast still on her mind. Were I still home, she would have been wishing me a good night, telling me I could stay up if I wanted to, to just keep the volume on the TV down. 

At 11:07, I was sitting in my barber’s chair, out by the Canal Saint Martin, somehow unaware of how easy everything had seemed. I napped for one hour on the plane, and then I walked off it like nothing had happened. Paris was just as I’d left it. My barber even remarked with a smirk when I walked in, “Hey, haven’t you left yet?” No, I guess not.

At 9 PM, I headed to a birthday party, where everyone looked the same except that one guy’s hair had started to grow back in and the woman with steroid-induced acne had finally gotten her meds in check. I socialized, if you can call it that, through a disconcerting haze, part jet lag and part disbelief. How did I get here? At around 2 AM Sunday morning, I finally went to bed, but not before calling my mom who was still midway through the day I had completely missed.

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Source:”Going Away, Coming Home” by Hung Liu. Oakland Airport, Terminal 2

I used to joke I was a time traveler. I’d preface my calls with, “Hi, I’m calling from the future.” It was a poor excuse for wit, but I also did it boastfully, as if to signal my supposed command of time. But the joke’s on me, because my month back in the US feels like it never happened. As I sat in my barber’s chair, ready for my monthly haircut, it was as if nothing had changed.

Paris is a beautiful place, but it is also incredibly lonely. Despite its rich history, this city is a blank canvas onto which people project their romantic notions. There are no real Parisians. There are the remnants of the old upper classes, but even the floor under them is shifting.

Like Los Angeles (another blank canvas city), Paris is a place of transit. But unlike Los Angeles, where you lay claim to the city precisely through the act of losing yourself in its enormity, Paris is a city that pushes you out towards its edges and towards an uncertain future just as you try to grab hold of something. Much like the strangers who offer you their sympathy, this city will take you in but ultimately let you go. 

How strange and foolish, I think now, to go on building a life I know I can’t keep. 

Katharine Young

Bodies are judgments about how to relate to the world.

- “Memory of the Flesh: The Family Body in Somatic Psychology” in Body & Society (2002), pg. 26


As the first phase of my fieldwork draws to a close and I think about taking leave to reflect over the holiday, I hear my dear friend Katharine whispering from afar: “Whatever you do, don’t forget the body.”

Toujours en formation.

Vincent Crapanzano

But here, in my presumption, I trespass the limits of anthropological understanding.

- The Harkis: The Wound that Never Heals (2011), pg. 30

True to Form

There’s a French word you hear a lot if you stop and listen: formation. Like its English counterpart, it suggests an ongoing act of creation, of shaping. One could be said to se former [to educate oneself, to take form, to appear], to be en formation [in training], or even en forme [good shape, healthy].

I find it significant that, at least loosely, the act of being educated bears a connection to one’s state of well-being. Moral and physical integrity intertwine; and there’s something admirable, I think, in being formé. It is both a statement and an acknowledgment, as if to say, I have been shaped from outside as from within.

The more time I spend in the field, the more I think about what brought me here. Without a doubt, there was the initial intellectual curiosity. But with every new person I meet, I ask myself: Is it morally legitimate, if even reasonable, to pick apart people’s lives out of curiosity? Then I ask myself what seems to be the more pertinent question: What keeps me here, even after I realize that curiosity is not enough?

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A Beginning, Finally

I’ve been ruminating a lot, caught as I am in the immediacy of fieldwork, friendship, and the awkwardness of anthropology in practice.

That last bit is the most complicated part for me, since anthropological research doesn’t exactly resemble “research” so much as it does hanging out. An encounter with a JFK TSA agent made this abundantly clear, as he lectured me and a fellow graduate student on the merits of hard work and scolded us for touring the world on the backs of hard-working tax payers. Even the French Consulate found it problematic - though I admit part of the issue was bureaucratic - and made me apply for a visitor visa.

One of the most wonderful things about anthropology, for me, is its flexibility. Unfortunately, that flexibility is the very reason for all of the impasses I’ve faced, bureaucratic and otherwise. Because while one can do anthropological research, there is never a clear divide between “research” and “non-research” modes.

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Let’s Have a Little Talk, Congressman Sessions

I seem to always be out of the country when big things happen, like when healthcare reform was upheld by the Supreme Court. See, that’s really the only time - or maybe it was the last time - that I cared to ask a French person what they thought about America’s progress.

Now it’s the Americans who ask me, “What do the French think?” And I kind of just sigh, because my own excitement about healthcare reform taught me that the French - and maybe the rest of the world - are just annoyed at this point. When I excitedly shared the news of the Supreme Court’s decision on the PPACA, my friends just narrowed their eyes and said, “Yeah, so? What took you guys so long?”

At this point, I’ve grown accustomed to people’s passing remarks. “What’s wrong with your country?” I’ll often be asked. Not too long ago, I walked into my local bakery and the man behind the counter yelled out, “So, is your President going to attack Syria? I can’t believe you people.”

All around me people are annoyed and exasperated that the world’s most powerful nation could be so absurd and prone to violence. To many, our country appears to protect certain ideals but not its people And so, when Congress decides to throw a political temper tantrum, the exasperation just grows. We are a walking, talking platitude on an international scale: nothing can stop us but ourselves.

Recently, Texas Representative Pete Sessions answered a heckler by shouting out, "We are not French. We don’t surrender!" The World World II allusion certainly highlights the severity of the matter, but I think it’s misleading. Grossly so.

I realize that not everyone wants this particular brand of healthcare reform. I’m willing to accept that. However, as someone who spent the majority of his childhood in hospitals, I have to hope that we can agree that some degree of reform is necessary. And opposing the very idea of reform, based on some egregiously dangerous principle of freedom, is plain shameful.

I study a particular aspect of France’s social care - an aspect that I think is just spectacular for what it affords those in need. Yet, I will readily admit that there are major problems with it. In fact, there are major problems with the whole social care apparatus, as it becomes a heavier burden on the State. But at least it is something that is being openly discussed.

In my second week in Paris this summer, I encountered a terrifying incident that, due to all those cumulative years spent in hospitals and my family history, I knew could very well have been a stroke. I dialed up University Health Services back home and a panic-stricken nurse urged me to go to the ER immediately. So I did.

At 11 PM, I walked myself to the hospital. I was asked for my insurance card, by which the triage nurse meant French State insurance. Because I had none, my ID was photocopied and my address taken down. Shortly thereafter, I had a consultation with a doctor who gave me something to eat after he discovered my blood sugar to be dangerously low. I was then moved to the waiting room while other patients with more immediately life-threatening conditions were treated. 

After an hour and a half of waiting, I was seen by not one but two doctors. Residents, to be exact, but they consulted with the head doctor, who surely was busy with the woman I saw wheeled in on a gurney. They spent two hours with me. Many tests later, including an EKG and a battery of cognition exercises (to rule out the aforementioned probable stroke), I was allowed to go home. I immediately went up to the front desk to ask how much I owed, though the nurse refused me, insisting that I would be billed later and to not worry.

I was baffled, really. I come from a country that refused to treat my neighbor for a severe dog bite because he could not present $500 - in cash, no less. Forget about insurance. Not even a consultation was offered. He was flat out turned away. Of course, there are laws in place to protect against such things, but what we can perhaps come to realize is that an insidious form of triage is happening in US emergency rooms.

A year or so ago, I received a slightly odd phone call from a fellow graduate student. Something was wrong and he wanted to know if I was at home. ”Why?” In my mind, I filled in the blanks: he definitely needs a ride. Probably to the health center. He probably cut/sliced/chopped off his finger like those other two grad students I took to the health center in the past few weeks.

I sighed, “You sure everything’s okay?”

"Well… I’m not sure, but I think I’m having a stroke."

I dropped what I was doing and advised him to immediately call an ambulance, only to be rebuffed, “Do you know what that will cost me? I can’t afford it right now!” Even with our health insurance, the costs would be plenty, so I urged him to call campus security, and I even offered to drive back home as quickly as possible. In the end, he did call the ambulance.

While my friend did not have a stroke, he was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and for the next few months, he wore a distinct scowl that I could never properly attribute: were the effects of his disease lingering, or was he still upset over the bill he had been stuck with for a mere 1.5 mile drive to the local hospital?

With so much at stake, it pains and embarrasses me to see our leaders decide to throw their hands up and create an unnecessary crisis. It would be bad enough if it were just shameful, but it’s flat-out dangerous. Those who are uninsured are refused medical treatment, and even those who are insured think twice or altogether hold off treatment in an effort to save money. And let’s not kid ourselves, medical costs in the US are substantial. Even with insurance, ER visits could lead to bills in the thousands.

Some people might not agree with the PPACA, but I don’t see them proposing alternatives or even contributing to a productive discussion. And when I look at the bill that I just received (4 months late, thanks in part to the illustrious French bureaucracy), I look at my itemized list of treatments and want to scream.

I want to hold my hospital bill up to Congressman Sessions. I want to go through each and every item, including the fee for late-night admission, and I want him to tell me why it is that I, a foreigner without proper French insurance, can get an EKG and a slew of other tests without the government shutting down. For no upfront cost at all, I can have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that I won’t die. And when it comes time to pay for that peace of mind, which I am more than glad to do and have already done, I am not faced with a sum that will bankrupt me, but rather with the full, non-insurance price of 143 euros, or the equivalent of about 200 dollars.

No, Congressman. You most certainly are not French.

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