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Missing Nina

To figure out why she left me, I have decided to make a list.

There are interpretive issues like bias and skewing the data – these must be controlled and accounted for. I am concerned about validity and reliability of facts, instruments and findings that will support the accuracy of the truth claims.

With all this in mind, I knew that I would draw on my background in the social sciences to understand her irrational departure.

A quick trip through my book shelves and I had accumulated a stack of volumes, both theoretical and empirical studies, of Kurt Lewin (group dynamics), Erving Goffman (frame analysis), Pierre Bourdieu (the theory of praxis) and, of course, some of the most recent and exciting work to shed light on human action – a fine collection of essays edited by Roy D'Andrade and Claudia Strauss, Human Motives and Cultural Models.

Nina's last words: "I don't exist. Forget me." My immediate reaction was to reach for Goffman's tome. Remember the very simple, almost mystical concept in his landmark work: "I assume the definitions of a situation are built in accordance with principles of organization which govern events – at least social ones – and our subjective involvement in them: frame is the word I use to refer to such of these basic elements I am able to identify."

My first research question: Was it possible that Nina and I experienced "frame ambiguity?"

I found one of her lists under the desk, a fine layer of gray dust showing the time of her absence, a wrinkled page lost from her planner, activities for Wednesday, September 19.




    stretches sit-ups  mostly kundalini yoga


    shower -  Stacy's birthday - wrap pen




    work on Felkowitz proposal


    Meet Stacy at the Iguana Club


    finish it - get numbers


    poetry reading at The End of the Road  bring notebook

 The dust tickled and I sneezed. The sharp exhalation floated the page back under the desk. And I held my breath, crawled to retrieve it.

The schedule was intoxicating! Many such pieces would be needed.… But a mere list would not answer my question. To understand Nina's point of view, I would need to create an ethogram, a taxonomy of all her daily behavior.

During our three months, she had furtively practiced yoga in the other room while I read and wrote. Perhaps "kundalini" was just one type of yoga and Nina alternated her yoga routines on some basis related to physical-muscular stress, day of the week, dietary habits, menstrual cycles. She was more complicated than I had first surmised. I knew I must be open to alternative interpretations.

Only by gathering more data, by working inductively, then testing new hypotheses, would I be able to untangle the personal logic of Nina's yoga schedule. By applying the appropriate methods to the data, this little piece of her world, her secret commitment to yoga on a daily basis, would be illuminated. This achievement would emerge as one of the initial pieces that would contribute to a "holistic knowing" of Nina.

And what of the "notebook" which she made a point to bring with her on September 19? I had never seen this artifact, nor had she mentioned it.

In the trail of our past relationship, had she ever mentioned any artistic activities-inclination? Was she writing poetry? Why was she writing poetry? Again, hypotheses…. I thumbnailed the main questions:

  • Why poetry and not some other art form?
  • Was the presumed writing of poetry a pre- and post-relationship activity, or had it developed during our time together?

Two days passed and I prayed for more data (and the right kinds), otherwise the ethogram would ultimately resemble a piece of Swiss cheese.  In the spirit of fieldwork, I decided to vacuum, wash and iron laundry, throw out the garbage.

But again: A loose page, a scribbled stanza in free verse, her curled script winking at me from the edge of the couch!

    no man is an island
    unto himself.
    Idiots meet,
    and watch sports
    in grimy bars.
    Some write books
    while the world
    spins on its way.

My respect for Nina grew in bounds. In her own way, drawing on free verse as a heuristic strategy, she had attempted to create her first (parsimonious!) impressionistic ethogram. The darling had taken that first crucial reflective and reflexive step, the true-to-herself leap in embracing Socrates' advice: The unexamined life is not worth living.

Should one disciplinary view be privileged in the analysis of the poem? Was she writing for her "self" – an intrapersonal endeavor and therefore a psychological perspective? Or was she writing to comment on others, their emotions, behaviors and interactions? In this case, the research methodology now broadened to include sociological and anthropological issues!

Three categories of behavior were indicated:

  • the male as social-drinker,
  • the male sports enthusiast (observer versus participant),
  • and the male writer (social being or creative isolate?).

One and two were discrete and yet not mutually exclusive, plain statements of social behavior. "Some write books" was not so simple to place within the emerging critical framework. Ironically, she and I had no conversations about poetry, poets, the arts and humanities, language or the liberal arts. (A simple gap, as every relationship has gaps.)

I gritted my teeth and moved on.

From the researcher's bag of epistemic tricks, I switched lenses to squeeze the data!  Because of the continuity of her handwriting, it was apparent that the stanza had been penned in a stable environment, not on a bus or from some other such wobbly position. A Papermate black felt tip marker was probably the instrument of choice. She had not been interrupted during this writing period. Otherwise her script would have been broken from letter to letter within individual words. 

Later that day, the phone rang.

"Hello," she said. "I left my poetry notebook in the lower left hand drawer of the desk."

"Okay," I said. "I could get it."

"Leave it on the welcome mat. I'm across the street at a pay phone."

"Why don't you come up?" I asked. "I want to ask you something."

"I'd rather avoid that."

We paused.

"What is it?" she said.

"Why are you writing poetry?"

"Is that it?"

"Well, I also want to clarify… why are you doing yoga?"

"It feels good," she said.

"Also the poetry?"


And she hung up.

I must think about her responses.



Donne, John. Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.

Goffman, Erving. An Essay on the Organization of Experience - Frame Analysis (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1974).


Copyright © 2001 Gil Israeli.

Gil Israeli lives in New York City, an excellent place to observe people on the edge.