Life Off Camera

Happy Eclipse Day—the first total solar eclipse in 38 years that we’ll be able to see here in the States! Some friends traveled to Carbondale, Illinois for this occasion since that’s the place where it can be viewed the longest.

Try as I may, I’m not always able to capture, via my phone’s camera, all of life’s amazing moments. Like the time aliens took over New York, but were stopped by the Avengers (thus freeing us to all have shawarma at the end). Or the time when the evil peace-keeping robot (what an irony) threatened to destroy the world, and the Avengers had to help out again.

Okay, those events happened on the big screen, instead of in real life.

But I can’t help thinking of last week when I witnessed a territorial fight between two male hummingbirds. I immediately thought of Jill Weatherholt, a blogger/author you undoubtedly know. Lest you get the wrong idea, I didn’t think of her because of the fight. Jill has shown me photos of the hummingbirds around her house.

I was seated near the balcony at the home of some friends after their hummingbird feeder had been refilled and placed on the balcony. The usual ruby-throated hummingbird soon landed on the feeder. Let’s call him HB-1. I mentioned “usual,” because one of my friends told me this hummingbird usually came to the feeder. But this day, a rival came too—HB-2.

Oh no, he didn’t!

Oh, yes he did!

Pretty soon, tiny wings beat the air even faster, while long beaks jabbed. After a bob and weave, HB-1 got the better of HB-2 and forced his rival to fly away. Sadly, my phone was nowhere near me at the time, so I did not get pictures.

Nor was I able to capture something that happened at a birthday party I went to recently. The birthday child was a little girl who turned one. Over forty kids were present. One of the games they played was one involving a box wrapped with about fifty layers of wrapping paper. The kids sat in a circle and passed the box around, each unwrapping one layer, hoping to be the one who reached the last layer. That kid would have the privilege of claiming what was inside the box.

The kids gave that box the care and attention a neurosurgeon would give a patient. Every time the kids thought they’d reached the end of the wrapping paper, still more layers would appear. Without knowing what was in the box, they were fully invested in solving the mystery of what was inside. I was the one tasked with picking up the discarded wrapping paper, so I didn’t have a free hand to snap a photo. But I loved the fact that the kids were riveted by a wrapped box, rather than some expensive video game. (Lest you think I dislike video games, let me admit to you now that I play them. Just sayin’.)

Neither of these moments has the awe-factor of a solar eclipse, I know. But life has these little moments of mystery and wonder—moments too quick or too powerful to capture on film. Like the time a two-year-old hugged me around my knees. Like the laughs I shared with friends last week. I’m glad I was fully present, enjoying those moments, instead of fumbling for my camera.

But I was able to capture this butterfly not too long ago. He sat still, allowing me time to photograph him (though I wish I’d managed a closeup).

What moments have you enjoyed recently that took your breath away, but that you weren’t able to record on your camera?

Solar eclipse image from Wikipedia. Avengers poster from nzgirl.co.nz. Hummingbird from free-background-wallpaper.blogspot.com. Wrapping paper from zazzle.co.uk. Monarch butterfly photo by L. Marie.

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Resilience

I’ve mentioned before on this blog (right here, actually) that a stray orange tabby has taken up residence in the bike shed of my apartment building—a no-pet building. Not that I have anything against pets. I live here, because it’s cheaper to live here. I don’t have a pet anyway. Well, not officially. The orange tabby, whom I’ve nicknamed Feral, is my unofficial pet. I share him with my next-door neighbors who also feed Feral.

I assure you, a cat is in this photo. This is from the previous post. Feral is not fond of having his picture taken.

Feral prefers tuna, but not the cheap kind you can get at a discount store like Aldi. His palate is much more highbrow. Albacore tuna, please. In water.

Late last fall, my neighbor built Feral a little house out of a cardboard box, and lined it with straw. This house fit snuggly at the back of the bike shed. Feral seemed to like it. During the cold winter days, particularly the below zero days, I felt better, knowing Feral was out of the chill wind.

Anyway, last week, I went out to feed Feral, only to discover that his house had been thrown away. The bowl I used for his food had been placed on the sidewalk.

Feral had been evicted.

As I mentioned, I live in a no-pet building. Someone might have informed the powers that be of our secret pet (though technically, he’s not in the building; he’s in the bike shed).

Two days later, I peeked in the bike shed, only to discover Feral curled up behind the bikes once more. Despite the loss of his box, he’d returned to the only place he seemed to call home. So that night, I left a bowl of food and some fresh water, only to discover the next day that the food bowl was missing, and Feral too.

He’d been evicted. Again.

I thought he was gone for good. Nope. He turned up on a day when rain fell like the proverbial cats and dogs.

At the back of the apartment building is a window with a view into the attached bike shed. I could see Feral in there, sitting nicely, waiting for me to bring a bowl of food.

Feral is the picture of resilience for me. He survived being dumped in this area by someone who didn’t want him. He’s made it through a number of winters. Sometimes he comes to the shed bearing scars earned from fights. He won’t let anyone come near him to take him to the vet. He runs away and stays away if you try to pet him. All he wants is food and water. But sometimes, when I stand at the window and look in, he meets my gaze. Just that little bit of contact—knowing I’m nearby, though behind glass—seems to be enough.

Tuna from bumblebee.com. Other photo by L. Marie.

Fireflies

Happy Independence Day to those who celebrate it.

Happy-4th-of-July

Is there an image that is the quintessential summer image for you? On a night like velvet not long ago with a soft breeze and the moon like a pearl in ink, I rejoiced at the tiny pinpricks of light flickering by the flowers yards away. Fireflies. They fluttered too fast to document on film (especially with my phone buried in my purse). But fireflies always signified summer to me.

Firefly

Last summer, I saw very few fireflies. Maybe even two. This year, I saw three on one night. I welcome the return of these tiny treasures.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I chased fireflies (or lightning bugs, as we called them), seeking their capture in rinsed jelly jars with holes drilled in the lids. But mostly, we sought to capture the magic of a summer’s night and hold it forever. Sadly, we weren’t gentle in our handling of these tiny creatures. Not with our tendency to poke and push.

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Isn’t it funny how we try to hold on to things, as if we could freeze time in a jar?

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But I realized, watching the fireflies’ bioluminescence light the night, that something had been captured for me: a little bit of the magic of childhood in the graceful flight of a firefly.

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The flowers in the yard are lovely this time of year. Hope to see some fireflies tonight!

Firefly photos from nativeplantwildlifegarden.com and Pinterest.com. Fourth of July image from healthline.com. Clock jar from sbcanning.com. Flower photos by L. Marie.

Quite the Feather(s) in Their Cap

I’ll get to the winner of Janet Fox’s book in just a minute. (Go here if you’re totally confused by that statement.) But first, Happy Chinese New Year! (And post-Super Bowl Sunday. Sorry, Panthers fans.)

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Second, I’d like to discuss something that has fascinated me lately: birds have a lot of feathers. (It’s okay if you suddenly realize you have somewhere else to be or some urgent laundry to fold. I’ll keep going, even if I wind up talking to myself.) For example, did you know that bald eagles have over seven thousand feathers? Yes. They do. A tundra swan, however, has around 25,000. Ha! In your face, eagles! Songbirds like a sparrow might have between one thousand and four thousand feathers. And get this: close to 40 percent of those feathers are located around the head and neck. A swan, however, might have 80 percent of its feathers in that region. There is a good reason for that.

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Have you taken a closer look at a bird’s feather lately? If so, you’ve probably noticed that, depending on type of the feather (tail, wing, down, contour, filoplume, and so on), it was either very smooth or downy. Perhaps it was both.

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The smooth feather or feather part (pennaceous) has interlocking barbules that zip together neatly. Kinda like Velcro, according to some internet sites. You can only see this aspect at the microscopic level. The downy feather or feather part (plumulaceous) is a lot fluffier. But the pennaceous part is what gives a bird wind and water resistance. Feathers insulate a bird against the cold. This is why a large percent of their feathers are located at their heads and necks—for brain protection in cold weather.

Feathers are made of beta-keratin. Birds secrete an oil that helps feathers stay flexible and waterproof so they don’t become waterlogged and sink! A bird preens its feathers to spread the oil and rehook the unhooked barbules of feathers. And all this time I thought preening had a negative connotation, thanks to its use with vain humans. Perhaps that image seems particularly apt because the barbed part of a feather is called the vane.

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Go here for a great video on a preening bird. (Sorry. I had trouble embedding it.) But one video I could embed came from Cornell Lab’s website, where Dr. Kim Bostwick talks about the male club-winged manakin and the amazing feathers of his wings. (There are actually several videos at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site. Go here for yet another one.)

A great website on birds and their feathers can be found here.

Now for the winner of a preorder of Janet Fox’s middle grade novel, The Charmed Children of Rooskill Castle, and the swag.

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And that person, thanks to the random number generator, is

Is

Is

Is

Charles Yallowitz!

Congrats, Charles! Please comment below to confirm!

Citation
Balicassiao (Balicassiao)—Dicrurus balicassius balicassius/abraensis
Philippines, Laguna ML 461028 © 2016 Cornell University

Feather images from publicdomain.net and birdsoftheair.blogspot.com. Eagle from animalscamp.com. Swan feather from pixabay.com. Eurasian tree sparrow from Wikipedia. Chinese New Year image from fotolia.com. Super Bowl 50 image from overtimetkro.wordpress.com.

Revealing the Darkness or Reveling in It?

The other day, a friend and I talked about how increasingly dark many stories seem to be across the board. By the bleak end of some of them, the chill of hopelessness had seeped into our veins and colored our outlook a dull winter gray.

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I don’t need to read a book to learn that life is hard. My mother endured cancer twice. My dad had cancer. My sister-in-law had cancer the same year her father died. I can’t have children and have been unemployed a number of times. I’ve endured bouts of depression and I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Are you getting the picture that I know how difficult life can be?

So when life is hard, I turn to stories that remind me hope exists. They don’t sugarcoat the bad things that happen to people (like concentration camps; bullying by sadistic kids at school). But the resilience of the characters and their determination to rise above the bleakness of their times spur me to do the same.

kung_fu_panda_2_2011-wideRecently, I watched Kung Fu Panda 2, a 2011 animated film by DreamWorks. In it we learn how Po, a panda, came to live with Mr. Ping, a goose. Though I’ve seen this movie many times and tell myself, I will not cry this time, I lie to myself every time. I won’t give you a play-by-play of Po’s early life. You can watch the movie to discover what happened. But here’s what a soothsayer (voiced by Michelle Yeoh) said about Po’s beginning:

Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn’t make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you *choose* to be.

This statement seemed hopeful to me. It acknowledged the sorrow of his past without negating the possibility of change in the future. It spurred Po to be the hero he was meant to be.

I found the following video by the Grace Foundation at Nancy Hatch’s blog in her post, “Sustainable Eating.” While Nancy had a different take on making the world better, the video was another reminder to me of the power of stories. This cow had a sad beginning too. But the video showed more than just a bleak situation. Just watch and see. It’s only a minute and a half.

Yes, we can write stories that reveal challenging times. But if that’s all we do—hold up a mirror to the corruption, the ugliness, the violence, the lack of hope—without once providing any kind of alternative thinking, where’s the power in that? Are we revealing the darkness or reveling in it?

Go ahead. Call me Pollyanna, Ostrich—whatever makes you feel better if hopelessness is your mantra and you want to spread that gospel. But I refuse to join your crusade. When it’s dark, I usually do what I need to do: I turn to the light.

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Hopeless image from barbwire.com. Oil lamp from fireflyfuel.com. Kung Fu Panda 2 from hdwallpapers.

Awwwww, So Cute

Several weeks ago, my niece told me about the following Animal Planet video, which features baby sloths at a sloth sanctuary. In the past I didn’t pay much attention to sloths (except as a crossword puzzle answer). Not that I have anything against them. But I proceeded to watch this video twice that day and at least once every few days since then.

A Japanese word for cuteness is kawaii. Hello Kitty is one of the poster children for kawaii.

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Yes. I’m cute. But I still plan to rule the world.

Cute-Birds-5Why are so many of us content to watch videos with cute animals or babies? In an article, “Addicted to Cute?” columnist Eva Wiseman provides some insight:

In 2009 a scientific study came out proving that we undergo a chemical reaction when we look at babies. It proved that cuteness is physically addictive, which explains the billions of YouTube views for videos showing babies and baby animals.

Cute-Puppy-Kitten-1600x1200Interestingly enough, according to this article by Carrie Arnold for Scientific American.com, many people feel more aggressive when they see cute babies or animals. For example, a person might express a desire to pinch a human baby or bite or squeeze baby animals. Think of how many times you’ve heard someone say of a baby, “I just wanted to grab his/her little cheek and squeeze.” Perhaps you have seen photos of babies online and can relate to that reaction. But Arnold explains further:

Cute aggression’s prevalence does not mean that people actually want to harm cuddly critters, Aragon [a Yale University psychologist] explains. Rather the response could be protective.

I can understand that desire to protect. After all, babies are small and vulnerable. And if an animal is sick or helpless (see sloths video), we feel especially protective. However, I wonder if some of these baby animals would trigger the same protective response:

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happy-baby-hippo

Cuteness really is subjective, isn’t it?

Time for me to watch the baby sloths again. . . .

Have you seen that video before? Are there any other animal videos you have seen and love? What made you watch them?

Arnold, Carrie. “Cuteness Inspires Aggression.” Scientific American Global RSS. Nature America, Inc., 06 June 2013. Web. 05 July 2015.

Wiseman, Eva. “Addicted to Cute.” The Guardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 11 June 2011. Web. 05 July 2015.

Puppy and kitty from activatingthoughts.blogspot.com. Lizard from imgarcade.com. Cute birds from aly-oops.blogspot.com. Snake from babyanimalpictures.blogspot.com. Baby hippo from tehcute.com. Baby elephant from hedweb.com. Baby spiders from spiderzrule.com.

What I Learned from Birds

It was a rainy Saturday. And I was not in the mood for the phone call I had to make to the cable company. Grrrr. My cable box had broken three weeks ago. A replacement had been sent and I connected it the television. Yet something still wasn’t working, because the television screen remained blank.

So there I was on hold for an hour and totally frustrated when a flash of red outside the window caught my eye. A male cardinal peered at me from a branch of the lilac bush close to my window and soon began his song. I was too disgusted at the time to appreciate his serenade. But once my phone call ended and I was calmer, I recalled how the cardinal sang though raindrops fell.

That was unexpected. I wish I could have taken a picture of him. Unfortunately my phone was occupied at the time. Grrrr. The cardinal had left before my phone call ended.

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Cardinals, particularly the males, are my favorite birds, because they’re red. And the northern cardinal is the state bird of Illinois. Yet in the pouring rain this bird sat in a bush and sang. He reminded me that even in the midst of a storm, I can choose to sing, rather than complain.

Here’s a video by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on the cardinal’s song:

While I searched for videos of the cardinal’s song, I found videos and articles on another bird—the male bowerbird. You can find these birds in New Guinea and Australia. But the thing I found most interesting about the male of the species is the fact that he decorates his bower to win a potential mate.

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On this BBC Worldwide video, Sir David Attenborough discusses the habits of the Vogelkop bowerbird, which is found in New Guinea.

I was impressed by this bird’s decorating sense and his persistence as he arranged and rearranged items in his bower. Obviously he had a plan in his head for how things should look.

The arranging and rearranging aspect reminds me of the drafting and editing phases of writing. The plan is the outline we follow as we draft. When we draft, we arrange. When we edit, we rearrange to make a pleasing product and win potential readers.

This week, I have some arranging to do in my WIP. But soon, like the bowerbird, I’ll rearrange. I hope I remain as single minded as this bird and not allow distractions to steer me away. But I wouldn’t mind a distraction like the cardinal. He can sing to me anytime!

What, if anything, have you learned from a bird or another animal?

Cardinal from birdsgallery.net. Vogelkop bowerbird from bernardvanelegem.com.