Finding Meaning in the Mundane: One Folklorist’s Quest to Preserve Her Collection

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Norine Dresser is a folklorist, author, and educator. She received a BA in anthropology and an MA in folklore and mythology, both from UCLA, and taught for 20 years at California State University, Los Angeles. She has written books and articles and for eight years wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times called “Multicultural Manners,” highlighting customs in many world cultures and identifying for readers related “dos” and “don’ts.”

Norine now lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico where she runs the Virtual Museum of Folklore and Popular Culture, an online archive featuring artifacts from her personal collection. She spoke to BorderLore about the Museum, her life as a folklorist, and her race against time to share her personal collection.

Norine Dresser

Norine Dresser; photo courtesy Norine Dresser.

BorderLore: How did you come to be a folklorist?
Norine Dresser: In 1954 I was watching the Today show as I was giving my daughter her morning feeding. They were interviewing a woman, Jean Ritchie, who I was unfamiliar with at the time. She talked about working at the Henry Street Settlement in New York and she played her dulcimer. I was so captivated by it. And they’re all in different tunings and I didn’t know any of them. After that I started collecting folk music, records, and I became quite adept at it. I started learning how to play guitar. If I do something I want everyone to join me so I became a guitar teacher. But after some time I became bored of teaching the same songs and chords — I was teaching “Skip to my Lou” in my neighborhood and all over.

I wanted to learn more about principles of folklore. So I signed up for the folklore department at UCLA. I was an anthropology major first. But I had 3 hippies at home — my kids! I would go off to school. It kept me in balance. It was hard, but I had a very supportive husband. I’d say “We can’t go out tonight because I have a paper due or I have study for an exam.” I got my degree in anthropology and then studied folklore and mythology. At that time they did not have a PhD program in folklore. I got a job teaching folklore in the state university system. And by the time a PhD program opened, it was too far to go to all the way to that part of LA and keep my job and have my family at home. So I hung on to my job and didn’t get the PhD. I guarded my job with my life, actually, because there weren’t that many available.

Over the years, I have been most passionate about how we misunderstand each other because of cultural differences. I had a column for many years in the Los Angeles Times called, “Multicultural Manners.” Once a week or so I shared an anecdote, a story of people interacting from different backgrounds and something would happen and I’d look at what went wrong.  Now I’m about to start “Your Multicultural Minute,” a very short radio program on KTAL in Las Cruces. It’s a new community radio station. It’s a similar idea. Looking at an incident of multicultural misunderstanding and asking “Que pasó? What happened?” It’s only two minutes. All of them are based on true incidents.

Here’s an example. This friend of mine is Irish and she went outside one day and her neighbor yelled out “Hi Barbara, Happy Chanukah!” And she said, “Thank you,” and called back, “You too.” And he said, “But I’m not Jewish.” And she said, “Neither am I.” And he said, “But you always wear the six-pointed star around your neck.” And she answered, “That’s because I work for the sheriff’s department.”

They’re not all funny. Some of them are sad.

A judge I know told me about a Mexican woman who went into the ER and said in Spanish that her  husband was intoxicado. They sort of discounted it, thinking she was saying he was “intoxicated.” Unfortunately, the man died. They didn’t know that in Spanish intoxicado means “poisoned.” That one isn’t funny at all, but it’s important. I like funny ones the best, of course.

BL: Can you tell us about the Virtual Museum of Folklore and Popular Culture?
ND: I’m 85 and I think a lot about what’s going to happen to all my stuff after I’m dead. If you came in to my house and saw it you’d think, “It’s just stuff.” Like this round steel bracelet. You might say, “Let’s toss that.” But no. It’s one of the Five Ks of Sikh religion. They have to wear a steel bracelet on their right arm. (Editor’s note: The Five Ks are considered articles of faith for Sikh people. They include: Kesh — uncut hair, Kangha — a wooden brush for the hair, Kara — the metal bracelet, Kachera — an undergarment, and Kirpan — a dagger). So I have things and I know what they mean. So I don’t want them to be discarded. I want to share them with other people.

What if something cataclysmic happens and things are destroyed and all that’s left is my stupid web site? I still will have a record of objects that were important to certain people at a certain time. I feel committed to doing this. I’m not sure why, but it’s a strong impulse that I have.

I’m still a folklorist. I teach others in an informal way. I invite people over to my house. I’m an old lady living alone. So I came up with a museum idea so I can share it and not put myself in harm’s way.

Cowboy hat

Cowboy Hat with star decorations: FLK321–For 4th of July celebrations-USA-American demonstration of patriotism-Polyester with sequins-15″ x 12″
from Objects archive at Norine Dresser Virtual Museum of Folklore and Pop Culture.

Some of the members of the Western States Folklore Society heard about my online archive and asked if they could show artifacts there as well. I thought it was a fantastic idea to have guest curators. I’ve asked the first person and she’s going to add 4 to 6 of her items. Then I’ll have different folklorists from different parts of the country share 4 to 6 items. I’m very excited about that, not knowing what they’re going to choose.

BL: What is the power of an artifact?
ND: An artifact reveals cultural and historical data. Folklorists help people gain an appreciation for the mundane, things that you would cast aside normally. Things imbued with meaning. It’s an appreciation for how others lead their lives.

Hannukah Gelt

Hannukah Gelt (money): FLK438–Reward for playing the dreidl game during Hanukkah-Global-Jewish-Foil covered chocolate in a net bag-Package-5 1/2″ x 2″-Chocolates range from 1 1/2″ to 1″ in diameter; from Objects archive at Norine Dresser Virtual Museum of Folklore and Pop Culture.

I live now in a Mexican-American community. I happen to be Jewish, and my neighbor asked me recently to come for dinner. I said, “When?” He said, “Now!” Okay. I’m always up for a meal. It was cute, they made tacos. My neighbor said, “I bet you never had brisket before.” And there were lots of laughs because brisket is a very Jewish meat, but it’s prepared differently. We cut across the grain and slice it and the Mexican-American custom is to shred it. He thought he was teaching me something new. He was shocked that we eat brisket too.

So folklore is an appreciation for how others lead their lives, and we learn about that with mundane things like cooking a brisket.

BL: Do you have any favorite objects?
ND: I collect videos as well. One that I think is funny is from 1989. I wrote a book called American Vampires. When I told my dentist about it. He said, “I’m gonna make you a pair of fangs.” So he took a mold of my mouth and gave me a pair of fangs. There’s a video of that in the video section of the online museum. He’s my favorite dentist. (View “Vampire Teeth.”)

Tooth Fairy Container: FLK357–Holds baby teeth-USA-National-Plastic-1 1/2″ diameter; from Objects archive at Norine Dresser Virtual Museum of Folklore and Pop Culture.

BL: What are you working on now?
ND: I’m not in a classroom anymore. I do write a blog and very often my posts are about folklore. My next one is about a ritual that I wrote about before but finally observed first hand. It’s about the ritual haircut for Jewish Orthodox boys. It’s a very lovely ceremony.

During my active days as folklorist, in the old days, we took slides. For example, when George Harrison died I went up on Hollywood Boulevard to take photos of people around his star in the sidewalk. And now when you look at the images, you can see the power of the sadness. I’m not a good photographer, but I get the information.

Russian nesting dolls

Russian Nesting Dolls (circa 1950): FLK361–Toy/Collectible-Russia-Russian (collected globally)-Wood/paint-Left to right-1 1/2″ tall (bottom missing)-3″ tall-5″ tall-7 1/2″ tall; from Objects archive at Norine Dresser Virtual Museum of Folklore and Pop Culture.

So now I’m digitizing all my slides. One day a week I go to an archive. I’ve been doing this for three plus years. It’s this drive that I have to do it. I’ve donated my slides to the Institute for Historical Survey Foundation, an archive here in Las Cruces.

I’m just trying to get my work together so it will be all in one piece.  I have this fantasy that I’ll be on my deathbed saying, I have 50 more slides to digitize. It’s idiosyncratic, but for me it’s urgent because of my age. I have always been a time nut but even more so now. I want to get my collection in order. It feels important.


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