"So," my father said to me the other day. "Let me ask you something."
"The dog did it!" Years of habit are hard to break. Often times, even now when I have a small child of my own, I curse my parents for not having had a younger sibling for me to blame things on.
My father sighed the same way he has at that excuse for the past thirty years. "What I wanted to ask you is this: you're not impressed with money, right?"
"Or clothing. Or external appearances. Or social status."
"So what is it that does impress you? By what standards do you measure success?"
I cringed. I have some weird habits other people don't get. Champagne with pepperoni and pineapple pizza. An irrational belief that I would have been Bruce Campbell in a past life if it weren't for some crazy mix-up in the space-time continuum. But the briefest answer to my father's question would have been: worms. So instead, I dodged the bullet by looking at him sincerely and saying, "A man's worth can only truly be measured by his generosity to his offspring."
It got me off the hook and saved me from trying to explain why the person whose success story I most want to model is living in Oregon.
You might call it coincidence that Bruce Campbell also lives in Oregon, but I don't need to admire Bruce. (Been there, did that in my last life, remember?) Unless you're a hard-core Sierra Club member or an earthworm enthusiast of epic proportions, you probably won't recognize William Fender's name. He's a computer support technician, in his fifties, and though I've never seen him, I hear he's not much to look at. But he happens to be the Pacific Northwest's leading authority on earthworms.
It's not the earthworms themselves that impress me. Don't get me wrong -- as a casual gardener and fisher, I have a respect for worms. To me, they're a lot like Nature's toilet paper -- good to have around, but not much of a topic of conversation unless you can't find any when you need it. Plus they're both kind of gross if stuck to the bottom of your shoe. And you shouldn't throw either one all over a neighbor's house.
However, as I said before, the earthworms aren't why William Fender tops the list of my secular heroes. What impresses me is how Fender goes about his love for studying them. He's not in it for money -- he has to do it around a day job. He's not in it for fame or glory -- he's notoriously hard to get a hold of, for interviews, collaboration or activist projects, even though he devotes much of what free time he does have to attempting to confirm sightings of rare species with the express purpose of getting habitat protected.
I read about William Fender in a 2003 issue of Sierra Magazine, where he tried to explain why he declined to go back and finish his graduate studies, even though the grants would probably free him up to study worms full time. "It used to be that scientists studied nature as a way of looking into the mind of God. Now it isn?t like that. Most science these days is being financed by corporations or political interests seeking specific results. I?d rather not be part of that sort of thing. What I like is the word ?amateur.? It stems from the Latin word meaning ?to love.? I?m an amateur."
So there you have it. The man I consider to be possibly the greatest American alive. He has a relatively decent job that lets him keep a roof over his head and food on the table. He has a wife, a kid and a mother with whom he seems to maintain a good relationship. And he pursues knowledge of the world for no other reward than to know it better.
"So let me get this straight," my dad said when I finally tried to explain it to him over coffee one day. "You admire this guy because of his sense of priorities. You think he's got his head screwed on straighter than pretty much everyone in our society. And he spends all his free time digging up worms and writing scholarly articles about worm kidneys."
"Yeah," I sighed.
"You're a good kid anyway," my dad decided.
I credit all the lessons I learned in my last life as Bruce.
This article first appeared in the December 11, 2005 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.