Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Not the Blue Jeans, Part 1

or How I thought I would die in "The Doldrums" of Tristes Tropiques, but found myself in anthropology

The subject line on the email reads, "The passing of Levi-Strauss." Not paying much attention at all, completely ignoring that little hyphen, I think that someone on the folklore list is probably doing a project on the history of those wonderful denim pants. I go to the first link and am quite chagrined that my first impression was not appropriate for my academic upbringing. Claude Levi-Strauss, a major figure in anthropology, has died at the age of 100. My chagrin is not so much because I thought of blue jeans first, but more because I spent hours immersed in the work of Claude Levi-Strauss for a term paper assignment for a class in world cultures as an undergraduate.

I don't seem to be able to insert links at this time, so for more information, copy and paste the following:

Claude Levi-Strauss in 2005; photo: Reuters

I had just started taking classes at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis, it will always and forever be Memphis State to me). I was a married student transferring from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville--a difficult move for me because of the wonderful anthropology department at UT and the graduate program in forensic anthropology and archaeology with Dr. William Bass that I planned to pursue (still can't insert links, but check out:,, and This was back in the 70's before forensic science had become such an entertainment phenomenon and the subject of a large percentage of popular novels and TV shows, to which I admit being addicted. Yes, I read Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and others. I watch CSI (all of them, although my preferences are Las Vegas and Miami), Bones, and NCIS, even the reruns I've seen too many times to count. Alas, life happens, and my pursuit of that career was not to be. There was some solace in the fact that Memphis State had an anthropology department with a graduate program, so all was not lost, but it required a major shift in my career plans.

I'd been out of school for a couple of years and had a child of six when I decided to enroll at Memphis State. I was in a bit of a quandary as to what to do about my major. I'd debated earning a double major in anthropology and art at UT, having accumulated an equal number of hours in both, although I had not officially declared such. Aside from the fact that I loved both anthropology and art, I had a sort of plan that if I did not make it in forensics (a tough and demanding program) or archaeology, I might become an illustrator for anthropological publications.

There was no forensics program at Memphis State. In 1977, their graduate program in anthropology consisted of three tracts: medical anthropology, urban anthropology, or museum studies/historical archaeology. For me, it was an easy choice not to pursue the urban tract. Medical was of interest to me, but not with what they were doing at Memphis at that time. The museum studies/historical archaeology tract was definitely of interest and quite promising because I had always loved museums and, from the age of about ten, thought that someday I might work in one. I did not realize at that age that a major in anthropology or art would be useful for this type of career.

My mother wanted me to study English at George Peabody College for Teachers (now Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University), come home, live with her and Daddy, and teach high school English in our home town. Generally, her word was Law, but I don't remember ever being very excited about having that as my life plan. Well...the English major part, maybe, since I loved literature and poetry, having been mentored from an early age by our high school English teacher, Evie Mae Ross, who lived next door. It was decreed: I would major in English. Well, once again, life has a way of changing things.

My married sister moved to Washington, D.C. during my junior year in high school. It was the usual family plan that I spend the duration of my summer vacation with her. She and her husband and toddler son lived in an apartment within walking distance of the Smithsonian, the Capitol (I could see the dome from my bedroom window), the Library of Congress, and other famous Washington landmarks. I spent my seventeenth summer wandering around the Smithsonian museums almost daily. I was in museum heaven. This was truly inspiration for pursuing a job in museum work. I aimed high. Yes, someday I would work there. The Museum of Natural History, The Museum of History and Technology, and the National Gallery of Art were targets of my museum ambitions. In the meantime, Mama's Law stood and I began my college years as an English major at Tennessee Technological University.

And, well, I sometimes wore blue jeans--made by Levi Strauss & Company--to class.

Would there be a career in museum work in my future? Would I become an archaeologist? Would the time come when I would see the words "Levi-Strauss" (with the hyphen) and think of something other than my favorite pair of indigo-dyed denims?


  1. Can you imagine life without blue jeans?

  2. I know. What would we do?
    When I first read it as "the passing of "Leave I" Strauss, ignoring the hyphen, I thought maybe someone was looking for information about the company founder, but then I wondered if the company was in trouble. With the way things are these days, you can never tell. Then I felt really dumb that I had missed the hyphen and didn't read "Lee vee" Strauss. I should know better. So much for a quick glance at email subject lines.

  3. I enjoyed this little meander down your life's lane Melissa. You clever old thing! I would have plumped for archaeology given the choice but my parents thought a sensible career was most important and I ended up an RGN.

    I am totally fascinated by anything forensic and being a nurse, the gory bits didn't turn me off. I have seen quite a few episodes of CSI Miami and was totally in love with Delko for a while. Always preferred Miami to the original CSI except for that amazing two parter when Nick Stokes got buried alive. I am now a devoted Criminal Minds watcher. Ohh and I hate denim jeans...haha.

  4. I watched maybe 10 minutes of CSI once (ew!... just not where I want my thoughts to be. But anthropology in the historical/archeaology tracts sounds fascinating. You must have soaked up a world of knowedge during your summer at the Smithsonian :) P.S. (My jeans~LLBean.)