Monday, August 27, 2012

Parallel worlds (and the 200th Year Bird!)

Rene Magritte, "Deep Waters"

Over the weekend, I surprised both Greenturtle and myself by getting totally immersed in a book that he checked out from the library, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner (2003: Random House), the saga of two gamer geeks, John Carmack and John Romero, who achieved fame and fortune by programming ultra-violent computer games like Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake, and then somehow let their successful partnership fall apart.

This choice of reading material was surprising because I don't like violent computer games. To be honest, with the exception of Masters of Orion II and computer Scrabble, I don't really like any computer games. It's not that I have a particular objection to them, but as I've told Greenturtle, given that there are only so many hours in a day, I'd rather spend my hours doing "real" things: birding, knitting, blogging, cross-stitch, cooking, walking my dogs, pulling weeds from the garden. I don't even watch a lot of TV, unless I'm "multi-tasking" with knitting needles or crochet hook in hand. To me, gaming just seems like...well, don't take this the wrong way...a waste of time.

And yet, as I read the book, I could really sympathize with the "two Johns." Both were childhood misfits---out of sorts with their families, their schools, and society at large---who found a place of refuge: computer games. (Romero was more the "gamer" and Carmack more of a programmer, but for the purposes of this blog, we can just call it "computer games.") Neither was initially encouraged in this pursuit -- Romero was beaten by his step-father for sneaking off to the arcades; Carmack's disapproving mother thought he needed to go to college and work for IBM if that's what he liked (instead, he did a stint in a juvenile detention facility) -- but by staying true to themselves, they not only achieved their dream, but became millionaires in the process. (The Horatio Alger-style fantasy later collapses in a bout of egotism and in-fighting, alas.)

Although I don't play the games myself, the references were familiar to me, since Greenturtle loves to play games, and I have not only caught glimpses of different games over his shoulder, but have seen the phenomenon first-hand: he can turn on that computer and only emerge hours or a full weekend later.... The book described it as being "immersed" in another world, managing, for the space of several hours, to completely "escape" to somewhere else. The genius of the "two Johns" was creating games that allowed players to feel that they had truly "escaped" the mundane world and entered a different one.

I suspect that this aspect is one of the major reasons, even more so than the violent content, that people have objected to gaming (and fantasy novels for young people). In the interest of circumventing a rant, let me just state that the distrust of the imagination runs deep, and recommend an essay by science fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin, "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?", for more insights on the topic.

So what does any of this have to do with birding? Well, because I could relate to the "two Johns" for a large part because one obsession looks a lot like another. A repeated topic on this blog has been an exploration of why "hard core" birders bird the way we do. Why do some birders turn into "listers," people who (as their detractors like to put it) reduce birds to a check mark on their life list? What flip is switched in the mind of the person who goes from being a backyard bird-watcher or casual enthusiast to someone who wants to do a Big Year?

Now, I have neither the time nor the resources to do a big year (even on the state level, alas), but as someone who will freely admit to being obsessed with birds, I think I might have a bit of insight on this topic. We, or at least I, do it for the escape. For the complete immersion in a different world. And, yeah, for the competition. Because it's not only fun, it's better than anything else that life as I've experienced it (work and bills and obligations) has to offer. And you know what? That sounds an awful lot like the gamer geeks. (Except, of course, that birds are real!)

This was something I thought about for a while as I surveyed the mud flats and strolled the parks of Macon County, IL in search of "year birds." Due to a succession of poor career choices, I have been rather unsatisfied with my day to day life for the past few years. Unfortunately, with our crappy economy and my limited finances, sometimes I despair of finding a better solution. So in one respect, the past few years have been full of unremitting dissatisfaction and unhappiness, stress and crabbiness.

But this has also been the time that I've really immersed myself in birding. And the birding has been great!

I'm just not the kind of person who can share my personal woes, but suffice to say, as my "professional" life got worse, I declared my Ultimate Birding Year, and for the first time ever, have been actively pursuing species for the "list," (life, state and year respectively...there's a whole internal rule-book I've created to determine where I go), and you know what?

This has been my best year ever! I can't remember ever enjoying myself so much, and my Bird Journal has nothing but happy recollections. I mean, there was the time I saw the snowy owl in Chicago! And the surf scoter at the gull fest! The Wilson's phalarope at Emiquon! Or the total surprises, that weren't even new to any of my "lists" but still resound in my memory: the scarlet tanager singing as I did the 10-mile-loop at the North Fork Trail along Clinton Lake; the northern parulas on the backpack trail at Weldon Springs.

The bobolinks! The lark sparrows! The blue-winged warbler at Friends Creek in the middle of August...who would have thought to see one there?

Or how about today? My second view ever of black terns, only this time seen in the sunlight, dipping and soaring over the mudflats. Then a long walk at Rock Springs, and I got year bird number 199, the yellow-throated vireo, and 200, the pine warbler! The first time I have ever hit 200 birds on my year list; my goal for 2012 just got upgraded to 225.

Since reading the book, I've been thinking of how birding has almost created two parallel worlds for me: the world of birds, which is nothing but enchantment and happiness; and the workaday world, which is so full of dissatisfaction. Which is real? To be honest, I tend to remember the good times, the birds....

I will wrap this post up with a quote from A View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina:

In my youth I was sometimes told to pay attention to the "real world," that place of tedium tallied by digits and zeros, where strings of zeros are pursued and prized. The mass delusion of that "real world" is the fervent belief that ledger books capture the value and consequence of our transactions.

I have never felt at home in the "real world." I still don't. To me, walking in the woods and watching the birds are more real than anything I've ever done for pay; perhaps not surprising, given our human legacy.

For the gamers, a different escape for the same conundrum? Though I do have to wonder, what's wrong with the "real world," if so many people have to escape from it?

So what's your escape? Do you ever feel like you're living in parallel worlds?


  1. Congratulations on your Year Bird #200! As the British say, Good Show! I, too, love birding. Just anticipating going birding makes me feel happier. Seeing birds brings such a big grin that I feel like my face is going to bust! For me, it's not so much the listing as the seeing; I could watch a nuthatch all day, but I think that it's whatever milks your Guernsey! A really good book can pull me in, too. And who says the workaday world is in any way better than the "other" one, the one we're passionate about? MOM

  2. Congratulations on #200 for the year Emily! You have seen some good ones, including several that I still need as lifers and/or for Illinois! Keep up the good work. I enjoy reading your blog.