Monday, June 16, 2008

Chris Ballard, "The Butterfly Hunter" (2006).

When did you first decide what you wanted to be when you grew up? I remember considering a few things, based upon what I thought I was good at and how interesting different jobs seemed. Even so I did very little in preparation to act on those vague ideas. I knew I was going to college, and I figured the matter would be resolved during the four years of undergraduate school. That wasn't how it worked out. Half way through my junior year, I still didn't know what I wanted to major in. So I got out a sheet of lined paper and added up all of the credits I had in each content area. The winner was 'psychology', so I declared that my field of study. I graduated on time, but had no clue what the next step was. I ended up going for a master's degree in Psychology in Education.

With the tightening of the US labor markets, it's becoming increasingly imperative to consider this career question at a very early age. The competition for quality jobs is intensifying. You need to figure out what direction you are going in, and then figure out the prerequisites and requirements. The stakes are high, so you'd better seize your first chance, as it could end up being your only one. I've often envied people that know what they will be doing from childhood. Apparently some people are "called". Others have to strike out blindly for years before they see the signs. A good number of folks end up merely working whatever jobs allow them to attain their chosen lifestyles. How many people truly enjoy their work?

Chris Ballard knows that's an extremely hard question to answer. Instead of trying to quantify worker satisfaction, this frequent contributor to Sports Illustrated decided to identify and interview a few of these select individuals. A couple of them said they received their "calling" at an early age, while others seemed to stumble into it through something akin to divine intervention. The common thread running through their lives was the fact that they would be doing what they are doing even if they weren't getting paid for it. That's how much they love their work. And their stories are collected in Ballard's The Butterfly Hunter. They are an eccentric bunch of characters engaged in odd pursuits.

While these men and women are not really famous, you have no doubt heard one of them (and no, that's not a typo). Don LaFontaine has been called "the voice of God". If you have seen a movie in the theater during the last few decades, chances are great that you've listened to his narration during a promo trailer. He's the guy that came up with the now ubiquitous "In a world where (so-and-so happens)" introduction. And he's a very wealthy man. Still it's obvious that he has put a lot of energy into his work. The same goes for the guy who makes eyeball prosthetics, the lumberjill who competes on ESPN, the mother and daughter team that analyze handwriting, a pair of nature-lovers that collect mushrooms and butterflies, and the rest of Ballard's subjects.

The problem is that there really isn't a whole lot else that these people share, besides toiling in weird niches that intrigued the author. Ballard may attempt to draw some overarching, generalized conclusions by comparison, but he isn't altogether convincing. Each of these stories is so idiosyncratic that it seems silly to try to manufacture arbitrary trends. Yet even if Ballard fails to draw a greater whole, the parts are themselves often entertaining. He is able to put these strangers at their ease, and he collects a few damn fine anecdotes in the process. Whenever he manages to avoid becoming bored, Ballard's curiosity is able to elicit interesting insights. Read The Butterfly Hunter as a collection of separate essays depicting a few peculiar obsessives, and you'll enjoy yourself.

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