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.

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