John Francis had a quest. Planetwalker is the story of what happened to him after he submitted to the strange calling of his inner voice. As he says at the end of the book, “If twenty years ago, after witnessing the oil spill in San Francisco Bay, someone had told me, “John, if you want to make a difference, I want you to stop driving in cars and start walking east, and you’ll make a difference,” and as I turned and walked away they shouted, “and shut up, too!” I would not have believed them. But as I sit here I realize that is exactly what has happened.” If it was a novel, it would have been hard to believe. As a memoir, it makes a pretty convincing case that long-range planning and defined goals are not always necessary at the start of a quest.
Take one hippie living in Northern California in 1971. Add epiphany. Stir in a decision to refuse all motorized transport, a vow of silence, a banjo, watercolor paintings, and haiku. How much do you suppose will be left six months later? A year later? Twenty years later? That’s the craziest part of the story, that all Francis’s commitments survived the zeitgeist. There were probably hundreds or thousands of people like him during that era, sitting around their living rooms, smoking bales of pot and talking about philosophy, which only their friends ever heard. His extended family definitely saw this as a phase, one they hoped he would outgrow soon, and his dad especially hassled him about it.
There are a few features of Francis’s quest that stand out for me. First is that he chose multiple goals around the same time, and successfully carried on with all of them. This takes serious discipline. He decides to learn to play an instrument, and evidently gets pretty good. He decides to do a watercolor painting every day. These paintings illustrate Planetwalker, and you can see that he’s reached a level of accomplishment. He succeeds in his original quest to walk across the United States. Along the way, he starts a foundation, produces a newsletter, earns a PhD, and becomes a United Nations goodwill ambassador. He finishes by being hired by the US Coast Guard. This has to be the most unconventional path to professional credentials ever taken.
As a questing sort of a person, I found it interesting that Francis revisited his vow of silence every year. He wanted to renew his commitment, to make sure it didn’t become automatic and that it was still a relevant practice in his life. He chose to speak at the ten-year mark, and then not again for another seven years. This is a unique approach. He chooses the boundaries for his decision, running it instead of letting it run him.
In many ways, Planetwalker is a textbook on What to Expect When You’re Questing. Dealing with skeptical questions from family, friends, and strangers. Running into bureaucratic red tape and officials who don’t know what to do with you. Being seen as a lunatic. Naysayers. Lectures on your selfishness and impracticality and foolhardiness. Predictions on how you’re ruining your job prospects for life. Figuring out where the money is going to come from. After a couple of decades, the tune starts to change a bit. Your position hasn’t changed, but it’s earned respectability with age and dedication and stubbornness.
It all goes to show that nothing interesting or unconventional will ever be received with perfect understanding or universal support. At first, anyway! John Francis has an entry in Wikipedia, he’s done a TED talk, he’s been profiled in National Geographic and The Atlantic and in a documentary, and his life story has been optioned by Universal Studios. There was no way he could have predicted these outcomes when he set out. He just started and kept going, one step at a time.
When I was 11, I developed an alternate persona. I didn’t know what a persona was; I think I just called it ‘pretending.’ My best friend Jenny and I used to hang out in an old apple tree in the field between our apartment complex and the grocery store loading dock. One day, we were talking about what it would be like to be rich, and that’s when Veronica Vanderbilt was born.
Jenny was the middle child of a single mom. Her mom was awesome because she would rent us slasher films from the video store. We used to go down there and read the backs of every single VHS movie in the horror section, pick one we hadn’t seen, and then go ask if she would get it for us. Then I would sleep over and we would stay up late scaring ourselves silly. I think the only non-horror flick we saw was Purple Rain, which was a little over my head, but suitable for 13-year-old Jenny. She also taught me how to fold up a Totino’s Party Crust frozen pizza and eat it like a taco, so you didn’t have to slice it first. I read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret on her bedroom floor. One night, we stretched out on the hood of a car and looked at the constellations and talked about whether there was life on other planets.
Come to think of it, why don’t I have a friend like this now? I’m accepting applications. We can even watch Purple Rain again if you want.
Nobody who lived at Bret Manor was born with a silver spoon, if you know what I mean. You moved in there because you couldn’t afford anything else. I’m pretty sure it had the lowest rent in the county, or maybe second-lowest. A family across the street died of carbon monoxide poisoning because they were trying to heat the place with a hibachi grill. Just throwing that out there. Everyone we knew was broke, and so was everyone they knew. We got our ideas about wealth from TV, particularly Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You won’t believe this, but until I was about 8, I thought cars like Ferraris and Corvettes were fake movie props. My mom’s coworker at Round Table was saving up to buy a Trans Am, and I thought that was pretty stupid because they didn’t even exist! I was skeptical about sports cars but I took events like stabbings and carbon monoxide suffocations as a matter of course. That’s poverty for ya.
The attractions of being rich were pretty obvious. You could do whatever you wanted, go wherever you wanted, and buy whatever you wanted. If you wanted some candy, you just got some. You had a nice house and you lived in a nice neighborhood.
I decided that if I just told people I was Veronica Vanderbilt and that I was rich, they would have to believe me. I convinced Jenny that we could “drive” our “convertibles” down to the IGA and try it out on the checkers. We climbed down from the tree and “drove” around the field to go get ourselves some bulk candy. (Probably root beer barrels). I tossed my hair a lot. “My name is… aVeronicaaa aVaaaanderbilt,” I drawled, baffling the store clerk completely. I had great hair, great clothes, and a cherry-red convertible. The fantasy stopped there. I didn’t really know what else to wish for, especially after I had the candy.
I don’t really want the cherry-red convertible. As it turns out, driving sucks. Veronica Vanderbilt probably lives down the road a ways, in Hollywood, and she’s probably with her stylist and her agent working on her personal branding right now. Jenny got pregnant at 16, bleached her hair, and dropped out of school. I don’t know what happened to her after that. As for me, I live in the suburbs, and I can watch horror films on demand and eat frozen pizza any time I want. I sometimes do. I don’t really know what else to wish for.
I’ll be 40 in a couple of months. This excites me so much that I’ve been anticipating it for the past two years. I see it as a gateway to a new stage of life that includes serenity, mastery, freedom to travel, and better cooking skills. Unfortunately, turning 40 also comes with some physical realities that are feeling extra-real these days. Many of them involve crunching sounds when I move various limbs.
My tendency has been to think of my mind as a sort of helium balloon, connected only tenuously to the rest of my body by a string. My head floats along, thinking Smart People Things, while my body is a sort of mecha robot that needs an upgrade. It has, like, a monochrome monitor and a built-in keyboard and a tape drive. Failure to maintain the mecha robot led to the development of numerous tech support issues that impacted the processing capacity of the floating balloon. The plus side of living in your head all the time is that you find yourself ideally suited to endurance sports. Distance running suits my high-strung temperament and gives me plenty of Alone Time. I’m accustomed to turning off signals from everything below my neck, plodding along, and listening to the news or audio books or foreign language lessons. I become little more than Eyes On Stalks bouncing down the street.
The down side of living as Eyes On Stalks is that you may trade the maintenance issues of underuse for the maintenance issues of overuse. Underuse left me battling fibromyalgia and migraine and sedentary problems like chronic neck and shoulder tension. Overuse left me with tendinitis of the anterior tibialis and snapping hip syndrome. I’ve come to a place where I realize that I have to climb down the rickety aluminum ladder and start fully inhabiting my body. What I want to do is to remain on autopilot and reserve all my energy and attention for interesting intellectual challenges. What I have to do is to be at least dimly aware of my physical needs, because the price of not doing so is constant pain.
[Editor’s note: I’d rather walk with a limp than have diabetes or heart disease or sleep apnea, so it could be worse].
My specific motivation is to do everything within my power to lower my risk of Alzheimer’s disease, even by a tenth of a percent, because it took my grandmother and it’s surfaced in other parts of my family tree as well. It turns out that exercise is one of those variables. As it happens, exercise also helps mitigate my past issues with thyroid disease and fibromyalgia. There are no good reasons for me to avoid exercising – just my natural inclinations, inertia, laziness, and procrastination. Those are all great reasons that have stopped me from doing all sorts of worthwhile things, but the threshold for exercise in my life needs to be higher.
I’ve turned to yoga. When I first started dabbling with yoga, all the teachers were Boomers. They were very serious. I’ve worked with other teachers who were my age, all of whom made me feel like I had wasted time and could have been where they were at that moment. Now, the teachers on YouTube are Millennials, satin-skinned young ladies with foot-long necks who finish with a Namaste and “Have an awesome rest of your day.” It’s much like that moment when you first meet a doctor or a police officer who is younger than you, and you think, “How is this possible? What is this kid, like, 16 years old?”
So, I wake up with a stiff neck and sore shoulders and a general feeling of being folded, spindled, and mutilated. I roll out my mat and my dog curls up in his bed a few feet away and sleeps. My parrot turns her head upside down and watches me try to twist myself into a feeling of youth. I follow along with my lessons and try to keep breathing and make myself more symmetrical. My husband walks in while I’m doing Happy Baby pose and stops in his tracks and says, “Well, HELLO!” and I laugh so hard I can’t get up. Then I get back into Groaning Crone pose and remind myself to come back. If I do this every day for ten years, at 50 I’ll be more flexible than I am today.
“Criticism is like a nut. You eat the meat and spit out the shell.” This quote, attributed to Tim Sanders, jumped out at me recently. In fact, now I remember the quote but not where I read it! The concept is so huge that it may be destined to become a proverb. The nut meat is valuable information; the shell is everything that makes it hard to accept, like tone of voice or facial expression.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much criticism has in common with nuts. Nuts grow on trees. They may drop on your head. Sometimes you get one that’s all shell and no meat. Some are so tough to crack that after a while you just give up. Even the tiniest piece of shell can ruin your cookie. Some people keep a bowl of nuts on the table all the time. Some people are deathly allergic and can’t even be in the same room. Someone who is a little squirrely may throw one at you.
Criticism is basically the amateur version of critique. Most people are absolutely useless at giving truly constructive critique, feedback, mentoring, coaching, or teaching. Go to almost any forum that rates any product, service, or medium and read the one-star reviews. People will put approximately twice as much effort into rating something they hated as something they appreciated. These negative reviews can be really handy in their own way. I often use them as advice on what to read, watch, buy, or do. If that person hated it for that reason, why, it’s probably right up my alley!
Just because the critic has no credentials or credibility does not mean the criticism is without merit. Verbum sapienti. We get ourselves wound around the axle, thinking about the Nerve of Those People and How Dare They and Just Where Do They Get Off and Who Asked You? It’s more helpful to think in terms of whether they have a point. Is this useful information? What would be different if I attended to this matter? Is this perspective so alien to mine that I’m not understanding something that could change everything? We don’t have to feel that we’re capitulating or submitting or even admitting that someone is right. Those are options, but there are others. We can just eat that nut and spit out the shell. We can also swivel into the position that true excellence cannot come without feedback.
Ever since I quit my day job, I have been trying to learn how to be a working artist, which was backwards, but who’s counting? I’m like most other writers, in that I am completely paranoid about criticism and negative reviews. In my quest to Do the Obvious, I have apprenticed myself to various role models who are more productive and successful in their chosen form. I stumbled across the term “notes.” It turns out that professionals with formal training in everything from screenwriting to architecture to composition to dance actively seek out “notes” about their work, searching for even the tiniest improvements. They have nothing to prove about their talent or passion or ambition or commitment; they just want to master their art and put out great work. I’m not there yet, not by any means, but I know when to take a deep breath and fake it now and then.
The thing about receiving criticism is that it’s human nature to be defensive. We resist. The default position is to have hurt feelings, to be angry, to feel that the critic is attacking our very spiritual essence. We try to surround ourselves with people whom we perceive as loyal and supportive, and then are devastated when they are not always able to put our personal self-interest first or stroke our egos in exactly the right way. Defensiveness is its own punishment. We build up our own shells, thicker and thicker, seeking to protect ourselves from feelings of betrayal and ridicule and humiliation, preoccupied with emotional safety. Eventually we trap ourselves. No criticism can get in, but neither can anything else. More importantly, nothing can get out.
J. K. Rowling is one of my idols. I’m just smitten with her. The only thing I would camp outside a store to buy would be her memoir. This little keepsake book, Very Good Lives, was a thrill to me. My only issue is that I wish it was longer!
The book contains the text of Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech. There were several funny moments that I imagine got a pretty good laugh from the audience. That graduating class was the exact right age to have encountered the advent of Harry Potter when they were age 7. Picture reading Harry Potter all through your childhood, only to finish university with a speech from the author herself. I’m more jealous of the fact that these kids got to read Harry Potter in childhood than I am that they grew up to go to Harvard. (I’ve been to Boston in December and they can keep it).
Very Good Lives is about failure. Rowling points out that she never knew her particular story would have a fairy tale ending until it happened. She says that if she had had conventional success, she never would have gone in the direction she did. Rock bottom makes a firm foundation.
Very Good Lives is also about what makes a good life. The message about how lucky we are to live in the Western world, and how we therefore have a duty to work to improve the lives of others, is very strong.
A lot of young graduates will most likely be receiving gift copies of this book. I hope so, anyway.
Once upon a time, there was a bachelorette who loved her independence. Then she fell in love with a man. She was afraid to get married because she didn’t want to give up reading in bed, walking around naked, or reading or eating or watching or doing or listening to or working on whatever she wanted. It turned out that those were all the things he liked about her. Independence was not the sacrifice that was demanded. The price of the ticket was selfishness. She gave her heart and ended up with two hearts in return.
The gates of the universe are not locked. Anything the heart desires can be had for the taking. But there is a bag check outside, where contraband must be relinquished before anyone is allowed to pass through. There is a turnstile that only spins in one direction. To pass through the gates is to let go of the status quo.
Everyone gets the same 24 hours every day. An hour spent in one way can’t be cashed in and spent in a different way later. These are permanent decisions. Time is a user fee. Positive change can only happen after letting go of time commitments to anything that doesn’t support the change.
The cup must be empty before it can be filled again. Everything we think we know is part of a worldview that is responsible for our thoughts, actions, and results. Our most cherished beliefs may be the precise obstacles that are keeping us from living our dreams. The first one that has to go is the belief that the status quo is good enough, and that it will still be good enough to satisfy us in the years to come.
Becoming fluent in a foreign language means giving up the confidence and fluency of speaking your native tongue for a temporary state of awkwardness.
Learning to sing or play a musical instrument means sounding terrible for a while.
Learning to dance or do martial arts means being clumsy and looking foolish for a while.
Saving money means giving up spending it on luxuries for a while.
Losing weight means not eating certain favorite foods as often.
Becoming fit means soreness and sweat and less time for relaxation.
Getting organized means sustaining mental focus on boring things for a while.
Complaints. Criticism. Gossip. Envy. Anger. Procrastination. Passivity. Entertainment. Everything that makes up the Comfort Zone can be boxed up and traded in for a better life.
This is my primary piece of advice. It’s one of the most important things I wish I could go back in time and tell to Younger Me. “Past Self: Only date people who are nice to you!” It would have saved me from so much grief.
Here are some reasons I have dated people who weren’t nice to me:
· Didn’t realize I had the option to reject him
· Thought I needed to have a boyfriend
· Wanted validation as attractive/desirable person
· Deluded myself about his intentions
· Thought I could change him
· Felt competitive toward all the Other Women
· Wanted revenge on different guy who was also not nice to me
· So critical I assumed he must be smarter than me
· Intense physical attraction
· Took me to cool places
· Fell for his BS
· Didn’t ask enough questions
· People with something to hide are good at hiding it
· Rationalized and made excuses for him because of his few good traits
· Thought tolerating mean behavior showed tolerance and acceptance on my part
· Didn’t really know what it was like to date a truly nice guy who was nice to me
One day, I was complaining to some friends about a cheating boyfriend. One of my girlfriends exclaimed, “It sounds like he’s just being mean to you!” It stopped me in my tracks. That was definitely a Road to Damascus moment. I loved him and we had a history; that was all we needed, right? It had honestly never occurred to me to evaluate a romantic partner based on his behavior.
“Nice guys” (or guys who think they are nice) are always complaining about girls who go for Bad Boys. The fact of the matter is that young women haven’t learned to distinguish between the two yet. We may also miss the signals and not realize that there is a “Nice Guy” waiting in the wings. (The other option is that the guy who prides himself on being a “Nice Guy”™ may really be passive-aggressive and unwilling to take No for an answer).
What’s mean? Dishonesty. Demeaning comments. Flaking out and being unreliable. Withholding vital information, affection, communication, or physical presence. Playing reindeer games. Ultimatums. Tantrums. Jealousy. Interfering with your friendships. Expecting you to be involved with his interests while refusing to participate in yours. Shutting down your interests. Pouting and sulking. Badgering you to do things that make you uncomfortable. Pressuring you to change your appearance. Double standards. Picking fights. Any kind of threats, intimidation, or anything that scares you or causes you physical discomfort.
A person who is nice to you: Treats you like a friend. Cares about you. Cares about your physical safety. Feels sick at the thought of ever hurting you or scaring you. Wants to spend time with you. Enjoys talking to you. Feels safe opening up to you. Shares feelings. Likes to make you smile and laugh. Wants to do things together. Likes you. Thinks you’re cool and interesting. Is proud to know you. Wants to introduce you to other important people in his/her life. Wants to impress you and be there for you.
Of course, the most important part of dating people who are nice to you is to be nice to other people! Treat others the way you want them to treat you. Try to get to know them and find out what’s important to them. Be a good listener. Be supportive and emotionally generous. If you have a kind heart and you protect it and keep it safe, eventually another kind heart will come along for you.
Part of my daily routine is walking back and forth from my house to the coffee shop where I write. It’s not quite a mile. Along the way, I pass through my neighborhood, a discount shopping center, a gas station, a dojo, a church, a residential street, a credit union, a bar, a sewing machine repair shop, and a dentist. There’s a little bit of everything. The gardens are what I like best.
There is a drought on in my part of the world. It’s been called the worst drought in over 1200 years, based on dendrochronology. Plants feel it first. There are definitely a lot of yellow and brown lawns along my garden walk – and I don’t blame them. The drought affects everyone and it’s out of our control.
There are a few green lawns still to see. Grass lawns are silly and very boring, in my opinion, but lots of people like them. Others keep their lawns green and manicured because they’re afraid that doing anything different would affect the curb appeal and market value of their houses. Everyone has a lawn because everyone else has a lawn. They have a point. I’ve never owned a home or dealt with home owner association rules. I don’t know how hard I would push or what I would pay to replace a lawn of my own with something more adventurous.
There are several non-grass yards along my path: Hard-packed dirt; a rock garden; a couple of patios that make half the front yard into an extra living room; a variety of carefully cultivated flower gardens. You can make certain educated guesses about the occupants. The house with the reel mower leaning against the wall has either someone physically active, frugal, or ecologically minded. The house with the cheery scarecrows has someone friendly. The riotous flower gardens take a lot of work. I like to think that people who grow a lot of flowers in their front yards are making an effort to share their beauty with anyone who wants to look.
One evening, as I was walking home, I saw an elderly Asian couple stooping in the gutter in front of their house. What were they doing? I saw that they were using cut-off milk jugs to scrape at a trickle of water in the gutter, and bailing it into a bucket. They had to be in their 60s at least but they were crouching and making a serious physical effort to save as much water as they could. It hit me in the gut. They were living a cultural value that my nearer neighbor, whose sprinklers spray past the sidewalk every day, might not fully understand. As I walked on, three or four houses further along, I saw Hollyhock Man and a little boy hand-watering flowers in front of their house with graywater buckets. The slight trickle from those buckets was flowing down to be painstakingly preserved by that older couple. I felt a sense that all of us were working together and doing our best to fight tough conditions. It’s hard to describe that neighborly allegiance: a warm, comforting feeling one doesn’t often encounter.
When I see a weedy, neglected yard, I guess that the house may be vacant or the occupants may be elderly or ill. It doesn’t seem intentional. When I see a very plain lawn, I figure the occupant cares about conforming to expectations enough to maintain a base aesthetic level. It’s the polo-shirt-and-khakis yard. When I see thousands of flower blossoms, I enjoy them – the colors, the fragrances, and often the friendly smiles and waves of the gardeners who make them happen. They make me want to learn what they know and have my own explosively lovely garden one day.
Social comparison can be poisonous. I might look at someone’s jasmine or bougainvillea and assume that they inherited a green thumb or a bunch of money. I might see a row of rosebushes and decide that their owner was superficial or vain or shallow. I might feel pressured, as though everyone in the neighborhood was casting side-eye at my yard and gossiping about how much better it could look and how I was really letting it go. I might even decide that nobody should have flowers because it makes other people feel insecure. Or, I could relax and remember that flowers grow according to their own schedule. I could ask the master gardeners in my neighborhood to tell me about their work. Maybe I’d find that gardeners are incredibly generous with their advice and tools and seeds and cuttings. I could focus on my own garden and pull my own weeds. I could wait to see how it improves with effort and attention and time.
I’m a Questioner. Most people fall into two of the four Rubin Tendencies: Obliger or Questioner. Upholders and Rebels are outliers. Questioners have the easiest time adopting or abandoning new habits, because we find rational arguments convincing. The core of my personal philosophy is: “Do things that are a good idea. Don’t do things that are a bad idea.” For me, this is simple and straightforward, as long as I understand why the idea is bad or good.
The dark side of being a Questioner is that I have zero interest in whether my habits are acceptable to others. I also have a lot of trouble adapting to dictates that I think are arbitrary or counterproductive. This tended to cause problems for me in school and in the workplace. For example, one of the things I have never understood is the demand that everyone work “core business hours.” If I’m twice as productive as someone else, why do we get paid the same amount for the same hours? Why should arriving promptly at 7:55 AM every day be so much more important than net contribution?
Fortunately, I married an Upholder. Over the years, we have been great influences on each other. One of his keystone habits is punctuality. What I learned from him was that being a little early is not that difficult, and since I have a smartphone, I can fill in that dead time before appointments in myriad ways. The positive uptick in my reputation is about 10x more valuable than the 5-10 minutes at home that I always felt I was sacrificing. Once I bought into this concept, I started to realize that my concept of time was also off. His “minute” is about 58 seconds, and my “minute” is about 90 seconds. This intrigued me, and I started to see being ready on time as an interesting challenge, a puzzle to solve. The Obliger argument that I should just be ready on time to make him and/or others happy – well, that didn’t do it for me. Why should I be the one to change my perception, instead of him? Shouldn’t he just relax a little and quit judging me? What wound up happening was that my willingness to experiment on myself and try to break down lifelong habits paid off, as he met me halfway.
Over the years, I have bought into many ideas that I initially rejected. This is pretty common. “I could never do that.” “That’s not me.” “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” “Why on earth would someone do that?” What I’ve started to say instead is, “What would that be like?” “I wonder who thought of that.” “Interesting.” When a weird new idea becomes known to me, I Google it more or less instantly, trying to understand. My new rule is to Do the Obvious, meaning I must make a concerted effort to try out anything that is widely considered to be a best practice, especially if I feel strong emotional resistance. Fortunately/unfortunately, all of these behaviors have worked out so well for me that I have had to accept them. Insight comes after action.
This is a book about a quest – an epic, all-consuming quest. Phoebe Snetsinger liked birdwatching, and had the resources to support a lot of travel to do it. Then she got a cancer diagnosis and was told she had three months to live.
It’s a common conversational topic. “What would you do if you knew you only had X amount of time to live?” In a sense, there’s a kind of cosmic permission granted by receiving a death sentence in this manner. All the shackles of convention are loosened. We’re finally free to say what we want to say, do what we want to do, and go where we want to go. Personally, I don’t see why we can’t grant ourselves this permission any old time we like, because we know neither the day nor the hour. As it turns out, Snetsinger’s day came 18 years after her initial diagnosis; she was killed instantly in a bus accident [“bus” in the book; “van” in Wikipedia]. (Medical ethics have changed, too, and doctors don’t usually hand out exact time limitations any more).
Birding on Borrowed Time is really all about birding. It barely mentions Snetsinger’s four children, or her husband, except to point out how her travels caused her to miss her daughter’s wedding and nearly led to divorce. Similarly, she spends about the same amount of ink on her terrifying gang rape as on the time she broke her wrist. The picture that emerges is of a person who will be stopped by nothing. Facing mortality seems to bring about some sea changes in perspective. In her own words: “There were indeed human hazards in this country – but not to go there at all because of the possibility of encountering them? Unthinkable! It has become ever more clear to me that if I had spent my life avoiding any and all potential risks, I would have missed doing most of the things that have comprised the best years of my life.”
Phoebe Snetsinger set a world record for living bird sightings. By her calculations, she saw roughly 84% of all the birds in the world.
This is interesting to me on three levels. For one, I was riveted by the mechanics of birding: her record keeping, the basics of amateur ornithology, the travel planning, the dynamics of private and group trips, the equipment. One of my earliest memories is of a panicked female sparrow that flew into our house and finally allowed my dad to pick her up. I love watching even the most common domestic birds; if I saw some of the exotic birds that Phoebe Snetsinger saw, I might actually vibrate into a different plane of existence.
The second thing that interests me about this book is the interpersonal aspects of what happens when a woman starts to live like a man. When a man is driven, ambitious, single-minded, dedicated, or otherwise somewhat obsessive about a quest, nobody so much as blinks. He goes where he wants, does what he wants, and says what he wants. If he is away from home a lot or misses some weddings, well, that’s the price of excellence. When a woman does it? Say she does what she wants and she sets a world record. Is she judged differently, by society, by her husband or children? Should she be?
The third thing that interests me about this book is that most of its events happen after the author had passed the age of 50. She climbs mountains and rides horseback; she removes leeches and goes out in the wind, rain, and mud. She risks political coups and armed robbery and earthquakes and avalanches. She even climbs over a razor-wire fence. She sprains muscles and breaks bones. She’s 68 when she dies, binoculars in hand. It doesn’t say, but she may actually have “died with her boots on.” This is a fascinating picture of post-menopausal adventure, one that has rarely been seen, but may become more common in future as trailblazers like Phoebe Snetsinger venture forth.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.