An Irruption of Neotropical Songbirds

tanager by christine casas
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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:


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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Old MacBook, Resurrected

Quick personal update:  This is my first blog post in quite a while.  In the past couple months, my girlfriend and I moved again, this time to be closer to each other.  Much has happened since then, including the following.  We’ve been very busy!

My “clamshell” unibody MacBook is about six-and-a-half years old.  Initially wooed by Apple with the lovely 12-inch PowerBook G4 from coffee-shop windows and the crooks of other people’s arms throughout my early twenties, I eventually succumbed to Apple’s charms and bought this MacBook–the only Apple computer I’ve ever owned other than my iPhone and iPad (and both of those were gifts from my dear mother).  I made a critical mistake when I first bought it, though, which is that I didn’t max out on RAM. I’ll never make that mistake again. You’d think I would have learned my lesson from the Lenovo laptop I purchased a few years before the MacBook.  I didn’t maximize the RAM on that one, either.  Soon hobbled by operating system updates that slowed everything down, I had to upgrade the RAM modules. (The upgrade was easy and effective.  The machine is still quite fast when running Linux or Windows.*)

Insufficient RAM was the Achilles’ heel of my MacBook for years.  Like the Lenovo, the MacBook was disabled by operating system updates soon after purchase, and, like a person with chronic, untreated inflammatory arthritis, I adapted to this impaired functionality by reducing the scope of my activities.  A few months ago, I installed cloud backup software, after which the computer’s performance degraded even further.  The coup de grâce was an OS X upgrade to El Capitan several weeks ago which rendered the machine practically unusable.

Suddenly desperate for a functional laptop, and realizing I had never gone so long without buying a new computer, I looked at the options at the online Apple Store and did some research.  I learned that the new MacBooks are clearly not targeted at my demographic:  they are ridiculously difficult to upgrade or repair (1, 2), have few ports, don’t have an optical drive, have relatively small storage space, and are becoming more dependent on Apple’s cloud-based services.  (Read this horror story by a blogger who had his entire personal music collection deleted from his hard drive by Apple when he signed up for Apple Music, along with his rare, cherished tracks being replaced by more popular versions in the cloud.)  As we all know, Little Brother has long since become Big Brother.

I wouldn’t buy this sort of computer unless I was absolutely forced to do so.

Curious about other options, I looked at PC laptops, then started looking at upgrade options for my current MacBook.  After a tiny bit of research, I learned that I can massively improve my current laptop’s performance to approximately that of the latest Apple MacBooks by spending at most 1/5 the price of the new MacBook Pro I was looking at a few days prior.  This gave me pause.  Why hadn’t I thought of such an easy solution in the years before my laptop came to a grinding halt?  A moment later, I realized it’s for the same reason so many new patients see me when they can no longer tolerate the pain of chronic arthritis: I was used to my laptop’s slow performance, just as many patients become used to chronic pain and to a smaller comfort zone until various treatments get them back up to speed.

The actual RAM/hard drive upgrade was easy.  I maxed out the RAM, replaced the hard drive with a solid state drive almost double the size of the old one, installed OS X El Capitan from a USB flash drive I had set up earlier, then used Migration Assistant and a USB drive adapter to transfer my old data over.  I didn’t replace the battery because after more than six years, it still has half of the maximum number of charge cycles left!  What this tells me is that I was so busy the first three years I owned the laptop–during internal medicine residency–that I hardly used it.

Anyone with a modicum of technical interest can upgrade or repair her old MacBook, too.  Here’s an excellent, minimally technical overview of the most common repairs.  Let me know if you’d like the step-by-step breakdown of my own approach.

My old MacBook is now the fastest computer I’ve ever used.  It’s quieter–the fan is basically never on–runs cooler, has a noticeably longer battery life, powers on and off more quickly, opens applications instantly, and doesn’t slow down.  I saved more than $1600 by upgrading this laptop instead of buying a new MacBook Pro.  A couple weeks post-upgrade, I’m still giddy, still amazed, that OS X can run so quickly.  This reminds me of some of my patients who are ecstatic for weeks or months after their debilitating conditions are treated because of how little pain they now have and by how much more they can do comfortably.  Perspective is only 20/20 in hindsight.

*Addendum 5/20/16: I’ve dual-booted Windows and Ubuntu Linux on my Lenovo laptop for years.  I use the Windows partition for Windows-specific applications and the Ubuntu side for a bit of programming, for writing, and for going online.  As I updated Ubuntu over time, it became more and more difficult for this ten-year-old computer to handle it.  I just reformatted the laptop and installed Windows alongside Lubuntu–a lightweight version of Ubuntu designed for netbooks and old computers–and am pleased to say that Lubuntu gives me what I like best about Ubuntu without all the graphics- and other resource-intensive frills.  I also bought a brand-new battery on eBay for only $17!  The laptop is highly usable once more.

*Update 8/28/16: I discovered today that my updated MacBook can videoconference smoothly.  I used it for an online guitar lesson via videoconference without any problems.  Previously, I used my iPad 4 for this purpose but it was slow, dropped and altered sounds and video, etc.  Before my MacBook was updated, I wasn’t able to videoconference with it because everything slowed down and the video and audio were of poor quality.

*Update 1/8/17: My MacBook and my Lenovo are still performing as well as they did post-upgrade! No problems so far.

How to Significantly Increase Your Enjoyment of the Zoo, Museums, Hikes, or Even Your Backyard

Use a binocular.  Any decent binocular will do.  Be sure to try it out before purchasing.  Here’s a nice guide to selecting a binocular, written by the vice president of the Audubon Society.  My birding binocular is an older model of the Nikon Monarch 8×42 without the new extra-low-dispersion glass found in the Monarch 5, but I feel I couldn’t be more satisfied with it.  Here’s another good guide to selecting a binocular that discusses the updated Monarch line.  I also have an Olympus Tracker 8×25 that I run with.  However, my favorite is the featherlight Pentax Papilio II 6.5×21.

Just a few days ago, I used my Papilio, which is optimized for looking at small things like insects and flowers at very close range (it focuses down to 1.6 feet), to watch a honeybee darting in and out of jasmine flowers in my mother’s backyard, spilling pollen from its legs as it acrobatically climbed all over the flowers like a squirrel climbing a tree.  I’d never observed a honeybee this closely before, nor with such a shallow depth of view (the background was blurred, so it was easy to focus on the bee).  I watched it fall off and fly back up as petals broke off .  I watched it flex at jointed segments as it strained for nectar in each flower.  A common sight–a honeybee flying from flower to flower–became an incredibly beautiful experience rivaling any nature documentary I’ve seen.

At the Houston Zoo a few weeks ago, I looked through the Papilio and saw that the great hornbill I was admiring didn’t have the monotone black feathers I thought it had with my naked eye:  each “black” feather was one of two slightly different hues, and each hue seemed equally represented on the wing.

Months ago, when I first bought the Papilio, I saw the iris of a Carolina anole‘s eye for the first time as it eerily stared back at me.  I suddenly realized–even though I’ve seen this lizard regularly for many years–that its lower eyelid is a shade of blue unlike the upper eyelid, which is green like the rest of the animal.  I could see each individual scale on its back and sides.  I could see that some weren’t green at all but a much darker color.

I’ve also used this binocular at museums to see individual brushstrokes on paintings.  With the Papilio, one enters the world of small things in high-definition and with an artistically shallow depth of view.  It’s analogous to using a spotting scope to observe distant birds: both experiences reveal subtle details one never would have noticed otherwise.

*Note: I wasn’t paid to promote these binoculars or any other product I discuss on this blog.  I purchased them myself.  These are my “unfunded” views about them.


Creating a Life Plan

I read Michael Hyatt’s and Daniel Harkavy’s Living Forward this weekend.  Living Forward is a short book about setting up a concrete life plan with actionable metrics along each of your major priorities.  This prevents the all-too-familiar, aimless, drifting through life phenomenon to which many people succumb as they age.  I read the whole thing and took notes on it in about forty-five minutes, probably because I already have a primitive life plan that I’ve been refining over the past several years and because many of its concepts are familiar.  A decade ago, like the vast majority of people, I didn’t really have a life plan.  I drifted.  Coming up with even a rudimentary plan about five years ago really helped minimize the tendency to drift.

Nevertheless, after reading this excellent book, I’m going to sit down and make my life plan even more complete, concrete, and dynamic.  The book starts from end goals and works backward.  It asks,

“How do you want to be remembered?” (Legacy)

“What matters most to you?” (Priorities)

“How do you get to your desired outcome from your current situation?” (Actions)

It asks you to identify key interpersonal relationships in your life, including with those you’ve mentored, and to write compelling statements about how you want to be remembered by these people.  This is your desired legacy.

You then identify your priorities, such as spending time with family and friends, succeeding in your career, learning how to play a musical instrument, etc.  After you’ve identified your major priorities and ranked-ordered them from most- to least-important, it remaps each of them as “Life Accounts,” which are basically just priorities thought of as financial accounts.

For each account, you write a purpose statement.  You describe, in vivid detail, what it means to have a “positive balance.”  Then, you describe what the account looks like right now, especially in relation to how it should look in the future.  Finally, you assess each account:  is it growing, declining, or stable?  “Growing” means that you have enthusiasm for the account and are also making progress there.

Finally, for each priority, you commit to concrete, measurable actions to help you move from your current situation to your desired state of being.

The authors encourage the reader to review their life plan weekly and to revise it yearly.