Painted Buntings

Summer is an oppressive season in southeast Texas.  Long days allow heat to build up–it can be nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit well after sunset–and the humidity doesn’t letup. If northerners are snowbound in winter, we’re sunbound in summer. We visited the Ecuadorean Amazon recently, where it was cool sometimes (cold, even), days were much shorter, wind pollination was refreshingly absent (or rare), and where one stands much less of a chance of being swarmed by mosquitoes than in summertime wildernesses of the temperate zone.

However, despite the unpleasantness of the season, one can still experience the beauty of nature here, as I found out less than two weeks ago when I saw a male painted bunting for the very first time. Ironically, I’ve lived within its breeding range for most of my life but never birded within its habitat during summer.  (Also ironic: I saw it only ten minutes from where I grew up!)

If one rises early enough and travels to its breeding grounds–a shrubby, overgrown prairie with not too few and not too many small- or medium-sized trees–then one might see a male painted bunting in a treetop, head thrown back, singing its lovely song.  It might even fly from treetop to treetop, singing at each location, as did the males I observed–a magical experience!  Here are a couple photos I took of one of them:

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In May, during the tail end of spring migration, I also saw a playful, beautifully green, female painted bunting in a nearby marsh.  I was observing a female indigo bunting when the female painted suddenly appeared and landed on the same stalk of grass, making them both drop down.  The indigo flew off, but the painted remained nearby.  Here’s the quick photo I took of it:

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An Irruption of Neotropical Songbirds

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Male scarlet tanager photographed by Christine Casas at Boy Scout Woods on 4/29/17.

“For lack of attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us every day.” – Evelyn Underhill

Last Sunday, my girlfriend, two friends, and I had a remarkable experience in High Island, TX:  a quiet Sunday morning hike in coastal woods slowly transitioned from seeming “birdlessness” to finding ourselves literally surrounded by tens of migrant bird species just-arrived from Central and South America.  It felt like a Big Bang of birdlife; it felt as though God had just decreed, let there be birds.  We were in the midst of a “fallout” of songbirds precipitated by a storm the night before and by abatement of the south wind that had previously allowed them to skip the island entirely.

At Boy Scout Woods (BSW), the warblers trickled in slowly at first.  We saw male birds almost exclusively the entire weekend–in many species, males migrate first–indicating that females may be seen in the next week or two.  A hooded warbler started the show by appearing suddenly at Prothonotary Pond, then a magnolia warbler and a northern waterthrush became visible.  Soon, the treetops were alive with black-throated green warblers.  Occasionally found solo, but usually in mixed flocks, we eventually saw bay-breasted, Tennessee, Canada, Nashville, and chestnut-sided warblers, as well as American redstarts and a common yellow-throat, punctuated by sightings of other species:  a peregrine falcon and a broad-winged hawk flying inland, a green heron at Prothonotary Pond, an immature orchard oriole singing far beyond the boardwalk.

Sighting a warbler–a tiny, quiet bird constantly on the move–or any other “new” bird is quite thrilling, even addictive: one raises one’s binocular in eager anticipation of identifying the species before the bird moves out of view.

By noon, in the small parking lot and adjacent street alone, in the span of fifteen minutes, I saw four male indigo buntings, at least four female indigo buntings, male and female summer tanagers, innumerable black-throated green warblers, two male Baltimore orioles, a male rose-breasted grosbeak, and a male scarlet tanager.  Soon after my girlfriend and I left for Smith Oaks, our friends saw a male painted bunting in the parking lot.  Very few of these birds will stay for the summer; most will radiate to their breeding grounds in the northeastern US and Canada.  (In fact, when I returned to High Island today, I only saw two of the above species at BSW: the rest may already be at their summer homes.)

At Smith Oaks, where I hiked for about an hour last weekend, I saw numerous male and female Baltimore orioles, summer and scarlet tanagers, gray catbirds, a black-billed cuckoo (we saw a yellow-billed the day before at BSW), a brief flash identified by others as a vagrant black-whiskered vireo, and, at water drips in the forest, males in breeding plumage of the following warbler species: Blackburnian, Magnolia, Tennessee (unclear if male), chestnut-sided, American redstart.  So many species observed in so little time amongst the lovely old oaks and other trees!  (The birding was so good this week along the upper Texas coast that even I–a casual birder who doesn’t aim to maximize the number of species seen, unlike more “muscular” birders–ended up seeing sixteen warbler species, including the rare golden-winged warbler.)  A short walk away, the famous High Island rookery teemed with nesting wetland species we observed and photographed the day before:  roseate spoonbills, purple gallinules, common gallinules feeding with their chicks, neotropic cormorants, great egrets, snowy egrets, and other species.  Down the road, Bolivar Flats–we didn’t go there this trip–hosted numerous shorebird species, including (rumor had it) red knots and piping plovers, the latter of which I saw in February on a birding trip with two other friends.

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Such irruptions of songbirds and other bird species are a rare occurrence for the occasional visitor to High Island, but do occur with some frequency during spring migration, especially following storms or when there’s a north wind.  However, I’ve met serious birders who have visited High Island for years without experiencing such a “fallout” of birds.

We met many other birders while there, including the ever-helpful and enthusiastic Houston Audubon Society volunteers who manage High Island’s nature sanctuaries.  It was a joy to help others see the birds we saw and to allow them to help us see what they were seeing.  Birders are a diverse bunch:  while many were casual, some were very professional, taking high-quality photographs of the birds they encountered.  Most birders are warm, engaging, and helpful people; I was surprised to find that a few were rather cold and businesslike and seemed to be there just to lengthen their lists of species seen.

I visited High Island for the first time about nine years ago.  Since then, I’ve unintentionally built up a store of happy memories associated with this tiny, unassuming salt dome in the Texas backcountry.  One of my first visits was with my friends, Jeff and Noam.  On that trip, we serendipitously chanced upon the Texas Birding Classic.  We were seen as “rare birds” by Texas Parks & Wildlife for being young men out birding–this was even rarer then than it is today–and were interviewed on the spot, had many photos taken of us, and were given free T-shirts (I still wear it; a songbird is displayed on the front with “Portable Audio Device” written under it).

A year ago, serendipity struck again:  I found one of those photos while hiking Lost Maples State Park!  At the end of a long hike, my girlfriend rested by a bird blind while I went to get the car.  When I returned, she recommended I check it out.  I glanced at the sign in front of the blind and immediately saw myself in a photo taken with a Texas Parks & Wildlife staff member that day I birded High Island with Jeff and Noam nine years ago:

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Another Forest Felled

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Carolina wren fledgling about to be reunited with its family

Each ecosystem has intrinsic value.  Just as a country treasures its finite historical episodes, classic books, works of art, and other measures of national greatness, it should learn to treasure its unique and finite ecosystems, resonant to a sense of time and place. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life (1992, 1999)

The curse of all persuasive writing is that of self-selection, or “preaching to the choir”:  the majority of those who read your writing already share your views, more or less, which diminishes your impact.  Despite that handicap, I still want to write about a local, man-made disaster that occurred last week.  With all of the significant world news over the past several months, and even over the past few days, what point is there in criticizing a relatively tiny, local disaster?  The point is that I personally witnessed this event–an event that represents a significant and enduring shock to not just the local, but also the global ecosystem.

In the past year and a half since moving to southeast Harris County, where I originally spent much of my youth, I’ve gotten back into hiking/birding and have had the privilege of experiencing firsthand the cycle of ecological rhythms that occur with the change of seasons in one of our last remaining wild spaces.  For example, I know that white-eyed vireos are active in our forests now, irises gleaming in the sunlight when the birds show themselves.  Blue-headed vireos were here a few months ago; red-eyed vireos are just arriving.  The caterpillars are emerging, there are Gulf Coast ribbon snakes everywhere, broad-banded water snakes are active again, roseate spoonbills began arriving in January, and I saw my first brown thrashers of the year yesterday.

Carolina chickadees now forage energetically over tree foliage, plucking small invertebrates for themselves and for cackling, wing-fluttering fledglings that follow them around, begging for food.  Ruby-crowned kinglets are here, too, often foraging in mixed flocks with yellow-rumped warblers and other songbirds.  The thin, wheezy songs of blue-gray gnatcatchers can be heard here and there along trails.  If one stands still, a gnatcatcher often appears and hunts for insects and spiders in nooks and crannies of trees, seemingly oblivious of human presence.  In the past two months, large flocks of cedar waxwings passed through, descending upon fruit-bearing plants to feed, taking off en masse in a whoosh of wingbeats like a sudden breeze through leafy trees.

Carolina wrens from the nearby riparian forest–from which we often hear a barred owl calling at night–recently nested in a small flower pot on a neighbor’s porch.  Their four chicks fledged a few days ago and hopped out, three headed in the direction of food and camouflage while the fourth hopped in the wrong direction and got stuck behind a staircase.  My neighbor and I spent at least thirty minutes getting it out of its predicament; eventually, we got it out of there and reunited it with its parents and siblings.

A local pair of bald eagles overwinters practically in my “backyard.” They will migrate out of the area soon, hopefully to return again this fall as they have done for years now.  I’m told that they first appeared in this area in 2008.  As I traverse the trails, I hear a lot of birdsong I don’t recognize, which means that warblers and other small songbirds headed north have arrived.  I’ve seen gray catbirds hiding in the underbrush and have crossed paths with a three-toed box turtle.  Soon, tanagers and grosbeaks migrating from the neotropics will fly over.  A birder friend has already seen fourteen migrating swallow-tailed kites.

Great biological diversity takes long stretches of geological time and the accumulation of large reservoirs of unique genes. The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years…Such a creation is part of deep history, and the planet does not have the means nor we the time to see it repeated. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Last year, I saw and painted an imperial moth that spent a few days on my doorstep.  This year, I saw a polyphemus moth on my doorstep.  I had never seen either species before; what’s more is that I’ve seen innumerable moth species since moving here and that I continue to see new ones.  I’ve also seen and observed the behavior of belted kingfishers repeatedly for the first time in my life, I’ve spotted and photographed a juvenile peregrine falcon, and the list of such priceless experiences goes on.

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In the past year and a half, I’ve also seen progressive deforestation in multiple areas here, all by developers.

Two nights ago, I went for a twilight run at the University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) and was immediately set upon by the strong smell of wet, overturned soil. Ground was dug up at a previously grassy field next to (irony #1) the Environmental Institute of Houston, where I would often see deer grazing in the late afternoon mist.

The disturbed earth was fenced off.  As I ran further, I saw that the entire edge forest habitat–which comprised several city blocks between two parking lots–had been cleared. In the span of a few days–it was there when I ran last weekend–developers had destroyed the entire forest except for a few large trees (likely left standing for future decorative purposes in a paved, boring environment devoid of plant diversity that could shelter and feed local and migrating birds). There was no warning on-site beforehand for the general public, so I had no idea this was going to happen. The university had two posters attached to the fenced-off destruction, stating that they will build a “Recreation and Wellness Center” and a “STEM and Classroom Building.” A family of at least seven or eight white-tailed deer that lived there and often fed in the adjacent clearing–including a few fawns–appeared ghostly in the deepening dark, some of them lying in the mud, others walking aimlessly.   The stench of wet soil permeated the air over the entire campus.  Ironically (#2), red-shouldered hawks (UHCL’s mascot is the hawk) also lived in–at the very least, hunted in–that forest, too. I saw them all the time there, along with Cooper’s hawks and ospreys flying overhead.

Running farther, it was surreal to see lush remaining forest with Spanish moss hanging from trees adjacent to the bulldozed mess.  Two streets connecting two of three entrances are now visible from each other where thick forest previously prevented each being seen from the other. The now-felled forest with its edge habitat was there for as long as I can remember, at least since my childhood.  It was probably quite old by local standards. Irony #3 is that Earth Day is in two weeks.  Irony #4 is that spring migration is already underway and that migrating songbirds desperately need forest habitat for cover as they fly north.

The final irony is that I saw the screening of The Messenger, a documentary about the plight of migrating songbirds, at UHCL last year.

Large numbers of new species continue to turn up every year…we don’t have time to describe more than a small fraction of [them]…how little we know of the living world, even that part necessary for our own existence. We dwell on a largely unexplored planet…killer caterpillars and entrepreneurial crickets [of Hawaii] have all been discovered within the past twenty years. Hawaii, familiar as it may seem to the casual visitor, is still a paradise full of surprises for the explorer naturalist. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

The demolition of this lovely, rich forest habitat was clearly a greed-driven project greenlighted by single-minded administrators.  The following day, while birding, I met a nearly 80-year-old birder, long-since retired from NASA, who has lived in this area since the mid-1960s.  He had seen what UHCL had done.  He said, “it makes me sick” and that this must be part of UHCL’s “four-year plan“–they plan to become a four-year university.  An avid birder here, he said that chipping sparrows seen on the local Christmas Bird Count may no longer be seen, since they were always seen along the edge forest habitat that was torn down. For some reason, the sparrows preferred that area.  He had also seen “a ton of [other] good stuff” while birding there over many years.

The mature forest, razed, cannot be resurrected within a reasonable (human) timespan.

Human demographic success has brought the world to this crisis of biodiversity. Human beings–mammals of the 50-kilogram weight class and members of a group, the primates, otherwise noted for scarcity–have become a hundred times more numerous than any other land animal of comparable size in the history of life. By every conceivable measure, humanity is ecologically abnormal. – E.O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

Birding on the Run

Birding was the original Pokémon Go.  As with any activity that increases your appreciation of the world around you, becoming a birder can add more depth and meaning to your life.  My favorite way to bird in the Houston area is while jogging–I see the greatest number of species during my long runs.  When I lived in San Diego, I also liked to bird while cycling through the canyons and mesas there.  (In fact, unbeknownst to me for years, I routinely cycled past endangered California gnatcatchers.) The best way to see many bird species in one day, besides going to the zoo, is to not stay in one place outdoors: move around to many places, and try to bird around dawn or dusk if possible.

I’ve seen many overwintering species in the Houston area in the past month.  On December 4–a cold, rainy day–I took one of my compact binoculars (an inexpensive Olympus Tracker 8×25 PC I) on my long run and serendipitously encountered the first bald eagle I’ve ever seen in Houston!  Since then, I’ve continued to see many migrant species:  on Christmas day alone, I saw ospreys, a small fleet of American white pelicans soaring over the bayou, a flock of cedar waxwings, herons (tricolored, little blue, great blue), great egrets, a belted kingfisher, hawks (red-tailed, red-shouldered, immature Cooper’s), Eastern bluebirds, Eastern phoebes, a flock of “myrtle” yellow-rumped warblers, an immature white ibis, a blue-winged duck or ring-necked duck, two crested caracaras along the median of a road (these were seen while driving), Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, and more!

If you own wild land, seriously consider not developing it.  If you own developed land, seriously consider de-developing it.  I, for one, would gladly pay an entry fee to spend some time in the serenity of a local wilderness instead of, say, paying a fee to plop down in a large theater for some escapism or going for a walk in the concrete jungle of the typical modern American city.

The following are photos I’ve taken with a smartphone and my entry-level spotting scope of some of the animals I’ve seen recently.  In order, they are a great blue heron, osprey, female belted kingfisher, and white-tailed buck.

Update 1/2/17: I added photos I took on New Year’s Day of a juvenile brown pelican and of an immature Cooper’s hawk.  The pelican preened itself while I photographed it and the Cooper’s hawk remained nonchalant as I took photos from a few feet away.  A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet, perhaps emboldened by my presence, chirped at it with curiosity from a branch directly over my head.  Ten minutes later, the hawk suddenly, explosively bolted off the branch, gliding mere inches above the paved street for half a block before suddenly sweeping itself up onto the slanted trunk of another tree, wings folding so quickly that it might as well have teleported.

The birding smorgasbord continues:  before I even left home to bird, I heard and then saw a large flock of Brewer’s blackbirds congregating in the trees beyond my living room’s windows.  At the bayou, I spotted an osprey atop a dead tree in the distance, eating a fish it had caught while flocks of cormorants criss-crossed the sky and a tireless, immature Forster’s tern circled and dived in front of me for food, not stopping to rest at all in the forty-five minutes I was there, and even feistily chasing away other terns as they entered its territory.

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The many ospreys I’ve seen recently remind me of one of the first I ever saw: on January 11, 2013, I saw the following osprey and took photos of it before my run + hike at the salt marsh adjoining Torrey Pines State Reserve in La Jolla, CA.  Two hours later, when I returned, it was circling and then dived and caught a fish! Luckily, I had my camera out and managed to photograph the entire sequence:

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Building a Simple Life Compass

In March, I wrote about creating a life plan using Hyatt’s and Harkavy’s Living Forward.  Creating my own life plan helped clarify many things.  By writing down and assessing each “Life Account” (e.g., Spiritual, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Vocational, etc.), I built a dynamic map of my life.  However, I found that “activity creep” continued to be a problem because I focused on some accounts more often than others.  (E.g., I tend to pack in more and more concrete activities each day, which means the “Spiritual” account was relatively neglected.)  I also didn’t refer to my life plan very often, because, simple as it is, it is still too unwieldy.  Time management strategies are often ineffective.

Recently, I realized that I need a concise, effective “life compass.”  Instead of slogging through some burdensome time management system, a simple life compass could guide me on an intuitive level.  So, I sat down and created one.  I already feel much better for it; simpler is pretty much always better as far as time management is concerned.  This is how I built my compass:

  1. Identify and list in rank-order the activities that make you feel most alive.  E.g., playing board games with family members ≥ hanging out with close friends > practicing medicine > hiking = birding > drawing = painting, etc.
  2. Group similar activities into categories, then rank-order the categories.  These categories are your values.  E.g., spending time with loved ones > helping others > spending time in nature > being creative, etc.
  3. Try to spend more time doing activities in categories you care more about and less time doing activities in categories you care less about.
  4. Massively increase the quality of your day with “slow time”:
    • Get enough sleep.
    • Meditate daily, preferably in the morning.
    • Consider practicing some basic yoga in the evening.
    • Allow yourself a slow morning before work.
    • Allow yourself a slow winding-down period before sleep.

Note that the quality of one’s life compass depends on the breadth of one’s prior life experiences:  a broader set of experiences will yield a higher-quality life compass.  One’s life compass should also be “recalibrated” every once in a while.

What do you think of this simple life compass?  Do you have a similar strategy to keep yourself aligned with what matters most to you?

On Being a Picky Consumer, or When Hype Outweighs Value

I’m very picky about which films I watch, which books I read, and which games I play.  If I realize I don’t care for a movie as it’s unfolding, I’ll try to walk out of the theater immediately.  I may have lost a few dollars, but I’ll never get that time back.

Consequently, I don’t consume much.*  I’d much rather spend my limited time with loved ones, in nature, solving problems (usually others’ problems, since I’m a physician), or being creative.  It’s even better when I can combine what I most enjoy doing.

When I do consume films or books–and this holds true especially for fiction–I want the story to be interestingly, or at least realistically, complex.  Which brings me to watching Moana, the recent animated film by Disney.  I’m embarrassed to say that I chose to see it because it garnered great reviews.  Sadly, after seeing it, my opinion sides with the few negative reviewers.  The film reminds me of why I much prefer Pixar’s animated films–which are usually fresh, clever, and appeal on multiple levels–to Disney’s.  I’m fairly certain I don’t ever want to see another Disney film again; Moana is the final nail in the Disney coffin, as far as I’m concerned.  The only positive things about the movie from my standpoint are the gorgeous visuals, the celebration of Polynesian culture, and that it features a strong female protagonist throughout.

Warning: spoilers below!

The cartoon short presented right before the film was Inner Workings.  Inner Workings portrays a man who lives in Southern California and who goes to work every day at the firm, “Boring, Boring, and Glum”.  The cartoon presents a lot of tension between the man’s fearful brain (closed to new experiences out of fear) and his enthusiastic, open heart which longs for new experiences.  During his surfside walk to work every day, he passes by a breakfast place that offers a meal of pancakes, sausage or bacon, and eggs, which his “heart” craves, but his brain reasons that this will lead to weight gain and an eventual death by myocardial infarction.  So, he keeps walking toward his firm.  Similarly, he passes by a surfer and craves surfing but passes it up because his brain reasons that he might be killed by a shark.  And so on.

When he finally gets to work, he goes through stacks of paper and types monotonously along with a legion of similar zombie coworkers.  At lunchtime, his despondency reaches a critical low, whereupon his brain lets go of the hold on his heart and allows him to go to the pancake shop.  After having breakfast for lunch, he tiptoes into the surf, a wave crashes onto him, completely soaking his work clothes.  He then gets new sunglasses from a girl selling them at a beachside stall.  He goes back to work, soaked in ocean water and covered in sand, and then starts working with a dance beat, whereupon everyone else joins in and starts dancing, too.  Later, he marries the girl who sold him the shades.

Inner Workings imparts a few lessons.  The first is the adage, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  Another is that it’s important to take some risks, to not live strictly guided by fear.  The last is that Southern California is a fun place.  Fair enough.

Since I actually did live in Southern California for four years, worked at a hospital in a coveted location (La Jolla), and lived less than ten minutes from Torrey Pines Beach by car, I feel I can say something more about this sketch.  Let me just tell you that a particularly uncomfortable physical sensation is that of walking around with your plainclothes waterlogged by the salty ocean and covered with sand.

On to Moana, a movie with the segmented plot structure of a bad action-adventure video game.  It reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which also has a plotline on rails.  (I made the same poor decision in purchasing Twilight Princess, years ago, as I did in choosing to watch Moana: I took note of the many positive reviews, didn’t pay attention to Jeff Gerstmann’s “heretically” negative review of the game for its lack of innovation–he was reportedly later fired from GameSpot for his unique opinions on games–and dived in, remembering my love of the puzzles in the previous games.  I later regretted it.)

In Moana, there’s a prelude (just as in Legend of Zelda games) that gives us important background information, followed by an opening in which the eponymous protagonist is “chosen” by the ocean, which gives her a jade amulet that needs to be returned to a stereotypically dangerous place in order to save the world.  After the opening (her childhood), she undertakes a couple of subquests (find Maui the legendary demigod, then find Maui’s hook).  This involves a couple of “boss battles,” just like a Zelda game.  After she collects everything she needs, and has learned to sail, it’s off to the dangerous final plot location guarded by the stereotypically toughest “boss.”  (Yawn.)  She’s rebuffed, reaches a low point, Maui leaves her, but then her late grandmother arrives and gives her a pep talk. So, off she goes again to the dangerous final location.  This time, she pulls some tricks that would do well in any action-adventure video game from ~1998 onward and ends up fulfilling her destiny.

Moana is the “Chosen One.”  She tells us so multiple times, but the plot also directly and indirectly reinforces her pathological egocentrism throughout the film.  Moana is clearly the only innovator in her tribe, which the movie presents as a recurring problem until she is allowed to innovate by sailing beyond the reef, saving the world (yes!), and returning to have her actions validated by her people.  She suffers from the same symptomatology as other Disney protagonists:  her privileged life isn’t good enough for her; she longs for something more; she’s fond of passionate, impulsive decision-making; etc.  There are no serious consequences for any of her ill-thought-out decisions, including sailing out onto the ocean alone at age eight on a raft.

That the movie affirms and validates these undesirable traits and actions also means that this is a movie that I would not want any children to see.  Validation of egocentrism is damaging and dangerous because it supports a worldview in which those who are not key decision-makers are expendable.  Anyone who has tried to run a clinic, or a business, or any other enterprise larger than himself has quickly realized how important everybody is (schedulers, phlebotomists, medical assistants, physicians, etc.).  Researchers may produce new treatments that greatly help some segments of the population, but with a broken healthcare system, everyone suffers.  In real life, maintainers are often more important than innovators.  The greatest irony of Moana is the protagonist’s final triumph, which occurs during some of the final scenes of the film:  after reuniting with her pet pig, Moana gets her people back into sailing, exploring, and presumably, colonizing.  The Polynesians and many other early human societies were responsible for extinctions of vulnerable species (especially those that lived on islands), partly through introduced fauna (pigs, cats, dogs) that destroyed fragile ecosystems, to say nothing of more-developed societies that later waged imperialism to create wealth while destroying weaker civilizations.

As stated earlier, the plot is almost entirely on rails.  Moana is destined to save the world.  Therefore, nearly every time Moana falls into the water, the ocean *itself* saves her and plops her right back onto the raft.  (This reinforces Moana’s specialness, especially because the ocean allowed her father’s friend to drown.)  The plot progresses almost magically from scene to scene, with plot devices so ridiculously serendipitous that the characters rarely have to break a sweat in the brains department.

Beyond the vapidity of the plot devices, and almost as ironic counterpoint, the movie features the worst comic relief I’ve ever seen:  a jungle fowl or rooster so flamboyantly dumb that it repeatedly walks straight into the ocean when it isn’t pacing back and forth–changing direction only when it runs into an obstacle in its makeshift cage on the raft.  Basically a glorified drinking bird toy, it doesn’t even try to save itself from drowning once it is actually in the water.  The ocean itself saved this poor chicken multiple times.

The rest of the characters were also one-dimensional:  Moana’s character never develops beyond being the “Chosen One.”  Her father’s character doesn’t develop significantly beyond his recurring refrain of, “The ocean is dangerous.  Don’t go beyond the reef!” (Though he does eat his words in the end.)  In fact, multiple characters–Moana, her grandmother, and her father–essentially repeat the same lines in different ways throughout the film.  Maui is represented in the movie as an abusive, wisecracking demigod, particularly frustrating for his nearly impenetrable narcissism.

I prefer it when a film presents real, potentially dangerous stakes, but then it presents characters clever enough to navigate the dangers successfully instead of being given implausible breaks time and again (much less, actually being saved by the dangers around them).  This is one reason I love Studio Ghibli films.  If a cartoon doesn’t do this, perhaps to cater to kids, then it should at least have brilliant layers of humor.  Compare most Pixar films to almost any Disney film, for example.

A note on Zelda games:  I loved the first several Zelda games (up to Ocarina of Time), because they were hard, brittle games.  They didn’t pander to the player.  They weren’t guided journeys.  Life is also hard and brittle in many ways.  Good guidance is difficult to find. Many mistakes in life are serious and cannot be recovered from.  So, when the Zelda games reached such a level of popularity that Nintendo started designing them to pander to everybody, transforming them into guided tours devoid of difficulty or a memorable story, I bailed.

I like chess because it teaches a sense of responsibility for one’s actions–if you make too many bad moves, you lose.  It’s nowhere near a perfect analogy for life, but it is analogous to some aspects of life:  early advantages are important for later success.  Even a won position can be lost by carelessness.  Chess is brittle.  Life is brittle.  Think well.

In summary the lesson I learned from seeing Moana is that I really should continue to get movie recommendations from close friends instead of getting them from review sites.**  Close friends know me best, and we’re close because we’re similar in important ways.  Therefore, their advice should carry greater weight than that of a critic I don’t personally know.  That said, one ends up following the work of like-minded critics after a while, too.  For example, I could predict what Roger Ebert, Jeff Gerstmann, and Greg Kasavin would like and what they wouldn’t, since I read so many of their reviews back in the day.  (Thankfully, this is a habit I’ve long since discarded, because I watched hardly any of the movies and didn’t play the games.)

*Recently, I really enjoyed On the Move, an autobiography by Oliver Sacks; Virunga, a remarkable documentary about the eponymous national park of the Congo; and The Dark Horse, a powerful character study of Genesis Potini, the brilliant Māori chess player.  As far as video games go, I haven’t played them seriously in many years, and I don’t feel worse off for that.  I’m learning chess right now, because it’s so much more interesting to me than other games I’ve experienced.

**For news, my first rule is to minimize exposure to it.  My second rule is syntopical reading:  I try to read high-quality news from all sides to achieve the most objective/accurate viewpoints.  I especially prefer independent news.

Quick Portraits at the ACR 2016 Review Course + A Visit to the National Gallery of Art

At ACR’s 2013 Review Course, as a first-year rheumatology fellow, I sketched quick portraits of the speakers in pen and pencil while they lectured.  I hadn’t drawn them since.  At this year’s review course in Washington, D.C., I sketched them again, broadening the range of media to watercolor pencil and ink brush pen:

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While there, my girlfriend and I were hosted by and visited with dear members of my extended family.  We also visited the National Gallery of Art, where Dutch/Flemish drawings for paintings were on display.

The exhibit emphasized the importance of drawings as the basis of paintings.  For example, drawings by one artist (Pieter van Laer) were possibly acquired by another (Philips Wouwerman) in stealth so he could base his paintings off of them.

William van de Velde the elder drew a meticulous portrait of the ship, “The Royal Prince,” that was on display alongside a later painting by his son, who used the drawing to help depict a battle at sea.

Other drawings were displayed next to the paintings that resulted from them.  It was interesting to see how often portraits (especially noses, which can be particularly difficult to draw) differed from drawing to painting.

In one case, an extremely detailed freehand drawing of the nave of Saint Bavo’s church had incorrect perspective–the arcade at the right of the nave was much lower than at the left and the far windows were too small–which the artist (Pieter Jansz Saenredam) later corrected with ruler and compass for the painting that resulted from the drawing.

What interested me most about the drawings on display was the use of sanguine, or red chalk, on prepared paper.  Sanguine, a red-brown iron oxide chalk, “allows for a degree of subtlety and control beyond what [modern chalk equivalents] offer.”  It was used for sketches and studies by the “Old Masters,” among them Leonardo and Michelangelo.

A rough modern approximation of chalk is colored pencil.  A closer equivalent is probably charcoal or pastel.

However, red chalk appears capable of more subtlety, warmth, and power than colored pencil for quick sketches.  It also appears easier to control than charcoal or pastel.  I’ve never used it.

Later, in the gift shop, I was not surprised to see that John James Audubon used mixed media in his paintings.  For example, his masterpiece of Carolina parakeets was created with watercolor, pastel, crayon, etc., not just transparent watercolor.  It’s difficult to convey a lot of detail in focused natural history paintings with transparent watercolor alone.  Modern wildlife artists who use watercolor, such as Roger Tory Peterson, use transparent watercolor and acrylic together or just gouache (opaque watercolor) for detailed, scientifically accurate paintings.