Friday, August 21, 2009

If dismantling bombs bores you, try birdwatching:

Last night I saw Kathryn Bigelow’s movie The Hurt Locker, and walked away surprised by its similarity in theme to a book I had finished the same morning, titled Life List. At first glance, comparing a movie about soldiers in Iraq trying to stay alive with a book about a birdwatcher’s travels seems preposterous, if not insulting, to the men and women in uniform who risk their lives every day, but a closer look at the premise of each story reveals just how similar they are.

In Life List, Olivia Gentile presents what seems to be the straightforward biography of a Missouri woman, Phoebe Snetsinger, who maniacally pursued her goal of becoming the world’s most accomplished birder, or birdwatcher. Accomplishment in this sense consists of having seen more species of birds than any other birder. This sounds easy enough. How hard could that be? There are—what—a couple of hundred species of species of birds out there, starting with those little brown birds in your back yard? Try 10,000. But wait, it gets worse: the reason that there are ten thousand species (of anything) is that they have adapted to, and evolved in various ecological niches all across the planet, so seeing them involves a lot of traveling. A lot.

One thing that the world’s highest-ranking birders have in common is money. Snetsinger was the daughter of a wealthy Chicago advertising executive, and after catching a bad case of birding fever, she was able to pursue it at a pace that the rest of us with jobs and mortgages can only dream about.

Having unlimited financial resources to pursue an avocation is helpful, but Snetsinger did in fact have to sacrifice something to pursue her goals: her family. Snetsinger graduated from casual birdwatcher to hard core birder when her sons and daughters were in high school, and college; and she essentially abandoned her family before they abandoned her. The first part of Life List details Snetsinger’s childhood, and dwells on her absentee father, who was too busy building up his advertising agency. The next section deals with her coming of age during the post-war, conservative Eisenhower years, when women were told to leave the workplace, have babies, and cook good food for their husbands. Snetsinger did all of these things, and her conversion into a hard core birder who essentially abandoned her family is presented as her late-term rebellion against society’s McCarthy era constraints upon women. While detailing her extensive—if not exhausting—travels to distant forests, jungles, and rivers in search of the planet’s rarest feathered inhabitants, the book reveals that her relentless schedule of four overseas trips a year into the wilderness left her husband at home, longing for companionship.

The theme of Life List is Snetsinger’s addiction to birding i.e. to building up her life list of how many birds she has seen—an addiction so strong that she is willing to—and does—lose her family in the process. In The Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner plays Sergeant James, a loner who arrives in Baghdad, where he begins his new assignment in an army bomb disposal unit. His job is to walk up to roadside bombs that haven’t gone off, yet, and deactivate them. The guy that he has arrived to displace got blown up. Sergeant James doesn’t talk much about himself; he just does his job. Problems arise when he repeatedly ignores his team leader, and does not collaborate with his team members, who feel that he is endangering them. Alcohol is consumed, and manly men in fatigues get into fistfights.

During the course of the film, we discover that Sergeant James has a family. He has a reason to live—to survive the war, so why does he endanger himself, and others? Wouldn’t he rather make it home, safely, to be with the wife and kid? This is the same question I kept asking myself while reading Life List. Lots of birders fantasize about traveling to Australia, Japan, or Kenya to see fascinating birds in their native habitats. Once in a lifetime, sure, but four times a year? Was Snetsinger running towards her goal of 8,000 bird species, or was she running away from being a soccer mom? Why does Sergeant James make the decision he does at the end of The Hurt Locker? Are people like them, who are willing to risk life, limb, and family on some higher plane, or are they selfish?

While reading Life List, I felt a little guilt. I felt bad for my wife, who is “stuck” at home with the kids. The big difference, though, is that unlike Snetsinger in the Ozzie and Harriet era, my wife is not condemned to a lifetime of waiting for me at the end of the day, with a martini* in her hand. Within the next year or two, the kids will be in school, and she will be back at work.

Somebody at work collected money for tonight’s lotto drawing (some obscene amount over $200 million, I think). Besides the obvious fantasy of paying off the house, quitting my job, and buying a new car, the thing that makes me salivate is the idea of being able to travel anywhere in the world. The thing is, though, that I wouldn’t—no, I couldn’t—run off without the wife and kids. I would talk her into going, and do it in a way that is low stress, say for example, stay at a lodge on the Serengeti for a month, and only go on bird walks every other morning, and get her to go out on the alternate mornings (someone has to stay with the kids—I don’t want a lion eating my son). Australia? I would do it slowly, over the course of a year. Besides traveling, I would want that little house in the suburbs. Okay, we already have that, but the new house would be a little bigger, with an enclosed yard. And a Bassett Hound.

*I must confess: I can’t stand martinis. They taste like nail polish remover.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Desperate Republicans lie like a persian carpet.

I just posted this on: where the blog owner repeats the idiotic assertion that Obama (you know, that socialist African guy born in Nairobi) wants to kill your grandparents. There are only two choices here:

1) They don't know how to read, or

2) They know it's not true, and they're lying:


My Dear Friends,
I am saddened by your mis-reading of pages 425-430 in the proposed legislation. You are having an understandable visceral reaction to a very touchy subject: end-of-life issues, but in your emotional state you have COMPLETELY misinterpreted what it says. The legislation talks about EMPOWERING people by letting them make decisions about their own health care.
Currently, each time you enter a hospital (by "you" I mean people who have health insurance)you already receive the same type of counseling from a front-desk clerk who has you fill out a form in which you make decisions about DNRs, and identify a friend or family member who can make decisions on your behalf, should you become incapacitated.
My degree is in health science (CSU Dominguez Hills class of 2000), so I am comfortable reading this type of language, which makes it difficult for me to see how others who read this (mistakenly) believe it to be legislation requiring doctors and nurses to talk you into euthanasia. Now I understand how my college professor step-father felt, when he tried to tutor me in math, when I was in junior high school.
Now that I have clarified for you that neither the language nor the intent of such legisation is to "Soylent green" your grandma, perhaps you will come to realize how you are being manipulated by Rush Limbaugh, Faux News Channel, and a bunch of other rich people--who all have really great health insurance.

I wish they had this type of legislation BEFORE my mother had her devastating stroke on June 12th 1995. Because I didn't know what she want(ed), I played it safe and told the doctors to do "everything they can", and she spent 6 horrifying years paralyzed, unable to speak, with strangers flipping her over, and wiping her ass 4 times a day, before she died of sepsis in 2001. You want to think about these things, and make your choices ahead of time. My mother was awake, and a prisoner in her own body, unable to say "leave me alone", because she had no advanced directive.

Thomas Miko

Claremont, California

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


The attack on former vice president Gore detracts from the gravity of Mike's award.
The British court's ruling contains its own factual errors e.g. more polars have been seen lost at sea, and their numbers have only increased in one small region where they are raiding garbage dumps (and endangering humans), while the overall population trend is in a steep decline.

Here's my problem with all of this: I absolutely respect and appreciate the sacrfice of Marcus Luttrell and the rest of his SEAL team, but Marcus shoots himself in the foot when he regales the reader with vague claims about WMD in Iraq in his previous missions in the Gulf. There were no WMD, and the whole Iraq war was started for bogus reasons. The U.S. Army's CALL said as much in its own official history--and that was written by active duty military men, not by some liberal in the suburbs. Luttrell should have stuck to the facts in "Sole Survivor" instead of jumping on the "Let me cash in on being a neocon" bandwagon. Had he left out the right-wing mythology that his own (former) bosses in the Pentagon never believed (since they're both retired, I suggest Marcus go have lunch with his former boss, Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, who'll calmly look him in the eye, and tell him how wrong he is i.e. there never were WMD) , and said as much before March 2003, "Lone Survivor" would have stood on its own merits.

I started the book twice, and couldn't go on, because all of the GWB ass-kissing was making me nauseous. An ex-submariner convinced me to try again, the third time. Once I finally got past all of the "George Bush walks on water, and loves his country" (my quotes) chapters, the book finally got interesting.

If you guys want to beat up on a vice president, start with Cheney, who along with his friends Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz got a lot of your friends killed in Iraq for no good reason, when they should have been in Afghanistan, hunting down Bin Laden.

The depressing part is that some of you guys out there are going to get mad, and write me emails calling me a commie traitor, or some other nonsense, but 20 years from now some of you will be shaving one morning, while getting ready to go to work, and you're gonna say "Oh man, we got screwed." You're not ready for that yet. It'll happen when your ready for it to happen.

Tom Miko(former) SPC4 back in the day when you had to spitshine your boots


I noticed something when the alarm clock went off, this morning, and it was still dark. My suspicions were confirmed while I stood in the door of my train, as it crossed the L.A. River, and approached Union Station. The sun was at an oblique angle that gave a melancholy color to everything that it touched. It was the color of windy days when dead leaves swirl in vortices, reminding us of the end of the life-giving season. We are now on the downhill portion of our yearly ride around the sun. This is the part of the ride where the days get shorter and shorter, the grass fades to yellow, and colorful songbirds migrate south, abandoning us like a fickle lover who has found someone younger.

I know what you’re thinking. Hey, it’s still summer! It’s so hot, that you have to run the air conditioner at night. That may be true, but I know what’s down the road. I see the signs. If you live in L.A., the only two seasons are hot sunny summer, and the warm, sunny winter, with the occasional cold rain storm that visits for a week, before giving back the sun. During the winter, even though the sun shines so much, it’s low in the sky. The tired December sun doesn’t have the energy to get that high above the horizon, before he abandons us to long nights of dark streets with car headlights that blind us while we stand on the sidewalk. It’s dark when we leave the house in the morning, and dark when we get home.

Every summer around June 21st, I hike down Santa Anita Canyon, to look for Black Swifts. I deliberately hike into this forest on the longest day of the year. Each year the same thing happens as I sit on a rock at the base of Sturdevant Falls, waiting for the Black Swifts to return to their nest that they have built under the raging torrent crashing down the solid rock hillside. As I sit there, I realize that since this is the longest day of the year, from now on all the days will shorter, and I get depressed.

I was the school kid who got depressed every year, because I knew that September 1st was coming up, and it was back into the frying pan of cruel teenagers. I wasn’t a jock, a surfer, or a rocker. I was one of the nerds, who didn’t have a girlfriend until the 11th grade. For me, the glass was perpetually half empty.

As an adult, I’ve realized that the glass isn’t half empty, or half full. Life is dynamic, in constant motion, always changing. You take an empty glass, fill it up with water, and work your way to the bottom. When you’re done, you start over. The seasons and the years of our lives are like that two. Sure, each year brings all of us closer to that ultimate winter when the sun goes down one night, and never comes back up for us; but that’s okay, because our kids and grandchildren will be there in the morning to watch it rise.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Canada: it's what America wants to be, when it grows up.

The next time some frothing-at-the-mouth neocon starts screaming about how bad Canada's "socialized" medicine system sucks, tell them to read this, in the L.A. Times:,0,538126.story

If the Times takes it down, the author--a Canadian doctor and health policy analyst--should post it on his blog at .

Where do I come in (besides caring about this subject)? Both my BS and masters studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills were in a nebulous topic called Health Science. I've got neocon friends who want to argue health care policy with me, when they've never taken a class in this field. I've had ER docs argue with me, but they also have never studied in this field: they (mistakenly) think that by virtue of their M.D. that they are qualified to debate the subject.