Wednesday, December 31, 2014

3 Tips for Making and Keeping a Better New Year's Resolution

Picture taken from

A lot of men and women have decided on a New Year's resolution for tomorrow. Still more are trying to narrow in on one before midnight. Some of us procrastinators probably won't think of one for a few days...if at all.

Here are three humble suggestions for making (and keeping) a better New Year's resolution!

1) If you have a health and beauty goal, focus on health over beauty.

It's easy to pick a target weight range or weight loss amount and spend your days thinking you'll be happy with yourself if you can just shed a few more pounds. But the fact is, weight is NOT equivalent to health. Believe me....I can eat an entire box of Twinkies in one day and not gain an ounce. Please don't ask me how I know that. Also, not all bodies are the same and there is definitely a danger of fixating on a weight that yours really isn't built to have.

There are so many other exercise and diet related goals that more accurately reflect improvement in health. You could focus on cholesterol, heart rate, blood pressure, endurance, etc...and I guarantee that if you focus on being a healthier you, you'll find a more beautiful you along the way.

2) Focus on the cans instead of the can'ts

It's more fun and a lot easier to stick to when you focus on adding healthy habits to your life instead of cutting out things you're used to. I personally find that when I'm getting more healthy food into my diet, I don't have to make rules about not eating junk food. I just don't want it as much.

This probably works for a lot of non-health related goals, as well. For example, if you're trying to not be as lazy (which is probably the angle I should take) focus on things you want to do-read more, get out more, cook more, whatever.

3) Find ways to have fun with it!

Try new recipes to get those health foods into your diet. Go running with friends. Spend time supporting a cause you can feel good about.

Basically what I'm getting at here is...don't try to beat yourself into being a better person! Not only will it make you just won't work.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Exploring Petit Jean Rock Art

It’s a cool but sunny Sunday morning here in Arkansas, despite being in the middle of December. The perfect weather to grab some friends and go on a hike.

Which is quite fortunate, because my friends and I have already planned a day of hiking. A day of hiking at my favorite state park, no less. And of following trails that lead to American Indian rock art, no lesser. And guided by one of the state’s most respected archaeologists, not least.

Ten of us load up in two cars and head toward Petit JeanMountain State Park. Officially, this is a joint field trip between the anthropology clubs at Pulaski Technical College and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Unofficially, it’s a bunch of friends joining together to indulge our mutual nerdom.

A couple hours of driving and we’re at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Teaching Barn. This cute little barn houses the WRI Research Station, one of eleven managed by the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. We are greeted by station archaeologist Dr. Leslie “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy.

Skip supervised me at my first AAS Summer Training Program back when I was a freshman and I’m excited for some of our friends to meet him for the first time. After he shows us around the Teaching Barn and gives us a small presentation about the rock art we’re about to see, we head out to explore the park.

First, we head down the Rock House Cave Trail.


 Over the Turtle Rocks and around the bend we go…

Until we come to the mouth of the large rock shelter they call Rock House Cave.
Ever prepared, Skip has given us all papers with pictures of paintings in the shelter. We disperse and try to locate as many as we can.

From the inside looking out
I was the first to find this one:

Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead

I call it The Bacon. Skip isn’t particularly impressed with my interpretation.

And here are some great shots of a woodland bison, and a human figure in a headdress, and a paddlefish next to a fishing trap:

These three photos were all taken from the Arkansas State Parks Blog, a great place to learn more!
Now, if you’re anything like us, you’ve got a number of questions….

When were these paintings done?
Well, nobody knows for sure. According to Skip, the popular assumption is that they date to the Mississippian Period, or about 1100-1700 AD.

How were they done?
Once again, a definitive answer isn’t really available, but the most likely answer is that they used a simple mix of red orange clay and water. “Maybe sometimes with actual iron ore/hematite nodules,” Skip tells me, “but ordinary red clay will do fine.”

After a while, we head to the Indian Cave off of the Boy Scout Trail. Here we see some amazingly well preserved pieces, like this fiddlehead fern and unidentified quadruped: 

Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead
Photo Cred: Laura Sue Whitehead
American Indians also pecked pictures into the rock. If you look at the wall behind me in the picture below, you’ll see a concentric circle motif. 

This is just one of many symbols that were shared across groups.  “Many of the motifs seen on Petit Jean Mountain are commonly seen across North America: concentric circles, diamonds, curvilinear lines, hands, sunbursts, interlocking scrolls, atlatl drawings, some animals.”

Again, not even the pros can be sure. “Part of the problem in interpretation is ironically the commonality of these symbols.  The actual rock art elements certainly were not done by the same individuals who were doing rock art in the Southwest or Northeast, but they clearly shared a basic symbol system, much like we see variations on Christian crosses.”

Why did they make rock art? Did everyone do it, or only certain people?
Not surprisingly, Skip answers these questions with more questions. “Why does anyone make religious art?? Were they made by a priestly class, which was certainly present in Mississippian and even before? Or were they made by others as part of set rituals? I'd like to know but don't know.”

What kinds of information about past cultures can we glean from cave paintings?
“Rock art gives us insight sometimes into the most fragile and least preserved elements of culture: myths, stories, heroes, cognitive perceptions of the world, level of basic observation of nature as in the animal portraits, and even shared cultural patterns found among different groups. Except, this is art produced by cultures who had no separation between art, economics, religion, or politics.  Such a unification is almost totally unfamiliar to those of us in Western civilization.  We divide up everything, whether or not it can be divided in reality.  Our ability to separate religion and science has given us effective medicines, but we have no idea why we're here to begin with, if even "why" is an answerable question.”

Before heading back to the Teaching Barn we make one last stop at an overlook up on the mountain. Skip points out across the river and tells that if we had been standing in this very spot centuries ago, we would have seen a thriving community of American Indians going about their daily lives down the bank and across what are now open fields.

By time we’re back at the Barn our heads are filled with day dreams and questions about the beliefs and traditions that gave life to this mountain all those years ago. But I guess that’s what archaeology-or any field of science-is all about. Each generation passes to the next not only the answers they’ve found, but the questions they’ve found. The mysteries of the past were what drew me into archaeology as child…and I guess there will still be plenty there to see me through until the end!

Photo Cred: Carah Still

All quotes are from a follow-up email interview with Skip. Shout out to Skip for coming up on a day off to show us around and to Cameron Still for helping me get pictures and details together for this post!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Why "What are you passionate about?" isn't really a good question.

It’s a question that I was asked many times throughout my conservative, Bible-belt based youth, though in different ways. Whether in a personal conversation with my parents, at church, or at some youth convention or camp, I was challenged multiple times to think about what world issues I care most about and how I might contribute to the greater good in that area. It was usually worded something like this:

“What are you passionate about?”

Passion…you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Don’t get me wrong, the point of this blog post is not to criticize anyone who is encouraging folks to find a cause that they can get behind. Whether or not you believe that your interest in a given issue was placed in you by a divine being, it’s a great idea to take that interest to the next level and actually do something about it. If everyone in the world (or even just the first world) chose one cause to support, be it with time or money, the result would be felt across the face of the entire human experience.

What I’d like to propose is that we refine the way we go about it. Here’s why.

Most of us aren’t really doing anything about any of the world’s problems. And it isn’t that we don’t care or think we should be doing something. It’s that we’re too busy, we have our own problems to fix first, we don’t know how to get involved, etc. There is an endless list of excuses that we let get in the way and numb us to the pain of others. I would know, because I’m as guilty as anyone else.

So when a youth pastor looks out at his hormone-ridden flock and asks, “What has God given you a passion for?” What that really translates to is something like, “What do you think you could spare some time for after school and social responsibilities?”

But that’s not what passion is. If you’re passionate about something, it means more to you than just something to write in the “volunteer work” section of a scholarship application. If you’re passionate about something, you’ll invest in it other than when your church family is paying for you to travel to a different country for a week or two with all of your youth group buddies. If you’re passionate about something, you think about it a whole lot more than when you’re asked what you’re passionate about.

When it comes to world issues passion should demand a place among your priorities and not settle with the scraps of leftover time we call “when I’m not busy.” Passion should be more than a reputation boost that gets you an awesome new profile picture holding an impoverished-looking African child who you knew for a few days. Passion should be embers glowing in your chest that spark into flame with the slightest provocation. Passion should be a thirst that you know you’ll never quench yet you can’t possibly be happy if you don’t try. Passion should be painful. It should grieve you. It should linger. It should bleed.

Maybe I’m being dramatic. But as for me, I want to be one of the few human beings who knows a passion like that.

And right now, I have to admit that I don’t. I care an awful lot about education. And after living in a developing country as a volunteer teacher, I care about it even more. I daydream about how I can help improve education in impoverished and underprivileged places pretty frequently. But I’m still developing my passion for education.

I guess that’s the silver lining in this little rant. Not having a passion for anything doesn’t mean you should hang your head in shame and walk away! It means you should look at what you care about and invest in it. You’ll probably find that the more you engage an issue…the more you care about it. The more you taste it, the more you understand it’s complexities and nuances, the more it will mean to you…the more you’ll feel those embers glowing in your chest.

And thus I propose not that we stop asking the question. Rather, I would like to suggest that we start framing it with wording that more helpfully reflects what we really mean:

“What do you want to develop a passion for?”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Why you should be glad I don't want to be your fairytale princess.

With the rise of feminism, many of us are rejecting the old standard of the ideal woman. I don’t want to be your Cinderella. I don’t think I could be if I tried.

>I’m not a great cook, my room is always messy, and pretty much any roommate I’ve ever had will tell you that I don’t wash my dishes in a timely manner. I’ve known what career I’ve wanted since I was ten years old, and I will prioritize work responsibilities before having a spotless kitchen or always having a home-cooked meal for dinner.

>I don’t always care if you think I’m pretty. Sure, sometimes I like getting dressed up. But other times I just want to wear a t-shirt and sweat pants. And no, they won’t always be those yoga pants that make my butt look good. Maybe you don’t think I’m classy for showing up to a lecture in my pajama bottoms with my unwashed hair in a messy bun. But guess what? I’M COMFY. Besides, at least I showed up.

>And I’m definitely not always meek, mild, and sweet. I can be obnoxious, I can be annoying, and I can be a jerk. It’s part of the whole being human thing.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Here’s the best part about rejecting the gender stereotypes we see in fairytale relationships: IT GOES BOTH WAYS.

Look, I’m no Cinderella. But I don’t need her kind of Prince Charming, either.

>I don’t need a rich kid who brings home enough money for bills + weekly manicures. I want a man who is doing whatever he’s passionate about, whether or not that entails a traditional career. We’ll deal with chores, bills, and kids accordingly. It isn’t just about rejecting what society thinks our roles in the relationship should be. It’s about splitting responsibilities and supporting each other’s dreams in a way that works for us as a unique pairing of two unique people.

>I don’t need the guy who all the girls at the ball came to chase. If and when I end up settling down, the number of women who are jealous that I’ve taken my man off the market is totally irrelevant. I just need someone who I can’t get enough of…and who can’t get enough of me. It isn’t just about realizing that women have other sources of value than physical beauty. It’s about realizing that people are diverse and there is no such thing as “the perfect woman” OR “the perfect man.”

>And he doesn’t need to be the infallible gentleman who is always strong and can fix anything. I’m attracted to humans, which means I’m attracted to beings as imperfect as myself. It isn’t just about dissolving negative perceptions of female emotion. It’s about realizing that NOBODY has it all together, that treating your partner with love and respect will never be effort-free, and that any successful relationship involves learning to apologize AND forgive with grace.

And at this point, some will say, “Aha! If more feminists were like this, maybe I’d support them more.”

Here’s the thing: if a woman is using feminism to demand change for women yet deny it to men, she isn’t using it correctly. The feminist movement is not about women “getting ahead.” It’s about getting equal. And many of the issues that affect women also affect men.

And here, there will be another round of folks who say, “Well if it isn’t just about women, why call it feminism?”

Not so fast. Many of the issues feminists are fighting to address do affect men, but that doesn’t mean we’re all equally unequal. Maybe it isn’t any fairer to expect a man to be the bread winner than to expect a woman to be the stay-at-home partner. Historically, however, being the bread winner HAS come hand in hand with having more power and respect within the household and society in general. When we see more women succeeding in the realms of business and politics and less woman being sexually harassed, maybe then we can talk about retiring the word and replacing it with a less gendered alternative.

In the end, I guess what I’m trying to say is: we don’t want to be the girls that history and our resulting society demand us to be. But we don’t want the boys demanded by that same narrative, either.

We are human beings who want to connect with, love, and be loved by other human beings.