My life-long attraction to the “exotic” began when Miss Trosen, my fifth-grade teacher, introduced our class to the topic of evolution, complete with glossy illustrations of lumbering Neanderthals in hot pursuit of a woolly mammoth. This pivotal event, in combination with the receipt of a moldering cache of National Geographics from my next-door neighbors' garage, was all I needed to plot my future wanderings. For several years I envisioned myself scaling Egyptian pyramids and hacking my way through the Amazon jungle until realizing I'd be better off starting small, with local excursions. To begin, at age fifteen, I won parental approval to work as a teen model for the May Company—a large department store a mere three miles from my high school, but on the distant shores of beckoning adulthood. Intent on extending my boundaries, I made bold cases for cruising Hollywood Boulevard on Saturday nights and accepting a tendered offer to be a go-go dancer at Gazarri's on the Sunset Strip. After permission was emphatically (and understandably) denied, I proffered a more “reasonable” request to attend a Swiss boarding school. But that, too, fell on my parents' deaf ears.
My strivings found a far more productive direction as soon as I began college and completed my first Anthropology class at UC Berkeley. Peoples and places I'd never heard of—the Tiwi of Southern Australia, the Trobriand Islanders of Polynesia and others—revealed how each life, each culture possesses an integrity of its own, as well as keys to universal human truths. They and Anthropology called to me. That my first true love was an archaeologist about to begin a year-long excavation in the Peruvian altiplano, in the Andes, didn't hurt either. Seizing the opportunity to step outside my cultural comfort zone and join him, I promptly demonstrated colossal short-sightedness by insisting on packing my hair dryer. Fortunately, by the time I conducted my own Ph.D. dissertation research in a remote Mayan Mam village in the Guatemalan highlands four years later, I was a well-seasoned fieldworker, primed to leave “necessities” and ethnocentric assumptions behind.
Throughout my undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley, graduate work at Harvard University and UCLA, and early professional years, I repeatedly ventured into unknown territory – from interning at a San Francisco half-way house for paroled San Quentin felons to joining Nader's Raiders in Washington, D.C. to consulting on six major-release Hollywood films. I documented cross-culture consumer reactions to Fernet Branca, a popular Italian “aperitivo digestif,” for Fratelli Branca Sp. A. and helped shape their U.S. marketing plan. Closer to home, I dipped into the field of organizational development by conducting operational analyses of an engineering division at Hughes Aircraft.
Think of these diverse assignments as “urban anthropology.” I do. But they also were a training ground for what was to come. My seamless, if sometimes unorthodox career path, has lead me to my present incarnation as a nonfiction book author and a corporate historian—vocations that fit me to a tee and variously integrate my expertise as an anthropologist, researcher, interviewer, writer and photographer. Life's unexpected challenges have also inspired me to serve as a motivational speaker, patient advocate, and web columnist. While far-flung corners of the globe still hold their appeal, the “exotic” complexities of my own culture intrigue me now—full of the unexpected, but abiding wonder that is right before my very eyes.