Snake in the grass

On a recent dog walk, one of our kids spotted a snake in the grass (photo below). Actually it was on a bike path, but moved into the grass fairly quickly. When asked if I knew what kind of snake, I didn’t know at all. I decided to get some help.

Enter a handy mobile app called iNaturalist. I uploaded this photo to that app and within a 1/2 hour had multiple people tell me it was a Dekay’s Brownsnake. How cool is that?

From an early age, I’ve been interested in flora and fauna. There is still so much I do not know, and frequently I wish I could identify what I see on walks or bike rides or when driving down the road. I’ve made use of various types of field guides over the years, and they are helpful to a degree, but I’d like to know in the moment what I’m seeing, if possible, and smartphone apps can help make that happen.

All the most in-depth books and most well-designed apps in the world can’t prevent mysteries or misidentification, though. That’s just the way of things. I find bird identification particularly frustrating at times. What I see does not always readily match up to stock photos or descriptions. The key then is to be able to rely on crowdsourcing, where other helpful people with more experience than I have monitor incoming posts, and who can then jump in and say, “Oh that is actually such-and-such.”

Even then, sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. You’re at the whim of someone else’s interest level or perhaps the type of thing you’re trying to identify, or even the quality of the photo you are able to provide to help with ID. When this system works, it’s great, though.

Some people get a bit fanatical about this stuff, especially birders. I tend to take a rather lackadaisical approach, similar to how I view fishing. If I catch something, great; if not, at least I spent some quality time outdoors. The end goal is the experience, not whether I catch something, and I’m satisfied with that.

Also, I have zero interest in killing things and am not a fan of shooting at anything except with a camera lens. Don’t even get me started on gun control and the NRA…

We all want acceptance

We all want acceptance. Or so it seems to me, at least on some level. We want and hope to be accepted for who and what we are, to be affirmed and loved and cherished and honored as is, not for who we might be or even want to be.

This is the root of so much pain, heartache, and misunderstanding, isn’t it?

For example, the other day, I realized that I’ve spent decades hoping and trying to be accepted by older siblings. I did not feel really accepted and loved as I am and for who I am and for what I’ve done. Instead, from an early age, I felt constantly dismissed or criticized for various reasons, whether that was actually the case or not, and whether the fault lay with me or someone else. It was how I felt, and still feel to some degree. So then, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, the special gift my siblings recently gave me of a camera lens had a much broader significance. It demonstrated love from them in a way I had not felt before, or at least in a very long time. I was told in very clear and specific terms that I was loved.

Of course, there is a spiritual source to all of this. God is love. He loves in measure far beyond our comprehension. And He accepts us as we are, for who and what and where we are. It is always good for me to be reminded of this radical love, acceptance, and grace. We often fail to show love to others, and others often fail to show love to us, but He never fails to do so, and the eternal testimony of that is the gift of His beloved son, Jesus, sacrificed on a cross for us.

Family vignettes

The pandemic has enabled me to spend more time with my family than ever before. For that, I am thankful, although it is not all peaches and cream. By that I mean that we have bad days and good days, bad interactions and good interactions. We continue to learn how to be with one another, and I see some reasons for encouragement even in the midst of great difficulties and stresses.

Yesterday, my wife suggested that we go to a local farm stand to buy fresh sweet corn and tomatoes, which we did. Our youngest wanted to drive, having pestered us all day to go driving. That’s what happened, with my wife in the front passenger seat and me in the back. Imagine for a minute having both parents critique every aspect of your driving the whole time. We all got a bit frustrated with one another but in the end, everyone made it safely home again.

Another time, and another child pestering to have help learning to play the piano. This request has gone on for at least two years and I’m ashamed to point out that I’ve avoided doing it because I didn’t think I could. However, we jumped in to learn chords for a worship song, and it turned out to be fairly straightforward. They felt a real sense of accomplishment, I think, in being able to start this learning process, and I, too, felt a sense of accomplishment in being able to help in a small way.

A third child has long struggled with motivation, physical health, and indecision. But then, suddenly, a job at a local pizza place seemed like a good idea. A job application was filled out (yes!) and then lo and behold, they got an interview (double yes!). If this works out, it will mean a lot. It’s a job that’s a short bike ride away, for example, so pretty convenient. And the ability to earn money will be a big boost, I think. We often have their pizza, which is delicious, so maybe we could also get a discount or free food? The sky’s the limit.

I’m still waiting on an official decision on my request to continue working remotely. The start of the Fall semester is less than three weeks away. However, the person I report to assured me last week that my request will be honored. Like my family interactions, working full time from home has its good aspects and bad aspects, but overall, it is something for which I am thankful. It is easy to forget so many years of three hours spent driving to and from work on a daily basis, and the concomitant expense of that commute.

I believe the enforced shift to remote work is a fundamental, rather than a temporary one, and that this will change working arrangements for years to come. For me, the transition has not been entirely easy but it has been for the best, and I’m especially glad that I have more opportunity to spend time each day with my wife and children.

A good scare

The other day, I watched Granada Television’s version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” starring Jeremy Brett (the best portrayer of Sherlock Holmes, ever) with my wife and one of our children. Surely this is one of the great detective stories of all time, and it brought back a vivid memory from many years ago.

Late one night when in my teens, I was lying awake in bed, reading The Hound of the Baskervilles. My bed was situated lengthwise against the same wall of the bedroom as the door. The door was therefore at the foot of the bed. Everyone else was fast asleep.

Lying propped up in bed and getting deliciously scared at a critical point in the narrative, my eyes caught movement over the top of the book. People, it was the bedroom door handle, slowly, ever so slowly turning. Frozen in terror, I couldn’t seem to think clearly as I then watched the door slowly, ever so slowly begin to open. My eyes just about popped out of their sockets, I was so scared.

This is the moment when I finally found my voice and let out a bloodcurdling shriek.

To compound matters, a head popped ‘round the door then, about level with the door handle, and that made me nearly pass out.

It was my brother, who had decided to try to scare me but had no idea how apt was his timing and how astonishingly successful his attempt would be. He scared me so badly that my violent reaction in turn scared him.

Even now as I retell the story these many years later, I start to laugh all over again. What a moment!

More to come

An older brother told me that as a birthday present, all of my siblings and my mother had contributed to buy me a Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens for my new, used camera. I couldn’t believe it and am a bit ashamed to say that I broke down in tears. No, I sobbed.

A dream of mine, to be better equipped to explore nature photography, is coming true. I enjoy birding, for example, and although I’m not fanatical about it, I’ve always wanted to be able to take decent photos of the birds I spot. This lens, which cost several hundred dollars and which I could not afford, will allow me to do that.

So, there is more to come in terms of photographs. In the meantime, here’s one of the first ones taken with the old zoom lens I bought over the weekend via Craigslist. It’s not anything special and it’ll take me a while to learn and be comfortable with getting the right manual settings that using it requires.

I’m reminded that God is the giver of all good things (James 1:17), yet I’m also stunned by the generosity of family and the love behind it.

Two for one

The new camera has just started to get used, and already I have more camera equipment than I bargained for. That’s because of making an offer on an old 28-80 zoom lens on Craigslist. The seller didn’t specify a price, I offered $25, and that was accepted. Good enough, I thought, although I wasn’t sure if I had over- or underpaid.

My wife and I went to the agreed upon meeting place, I handed the seller my $25, and he handed me an entire camera bag that included the lens as well as a really nice Nikon 35mm SLR body and a Nikon Speedlight flash, plus several filters. This was a lot more than I expected. I cleaned up the lens and used it to take a few photos yesterday. I don’t think it’s the world’s best lens but it works very well as far as I can see, and is of very solid construction, made in Japan.

Funny how things go. I certainly don’t regret that $25 offer now! I got two for the price of one, or really, more than that. Below is a photo of my new used DSLR on the left with the advertised zoom lens attached, and the Nikon FG camera body on the right. I’m a happy camper.

Cumulative impact

The many ongoing uncertainties we face are having a cumulative impact. You know the saying, “once bitten, twice shy”? I think there’s a similar principle at work with the pandemic, economic conditions, injustices, poor government leadership, and more. Uncertainties tend to reshape our regular, “healthy” view of life in ways that we may not even acknowledge or fully understand.

I’ll admit that I’m a lot more anxious most days than usual, although some primary sources of concern long predate the pandemic. I’ll also admit that there is an element of spiritual growth and maturity that I need to experience in all of this. In other words, I need to exercise faith. But I don’t agree with those who make this all about faith or lack thereof. These are generally the same people who think all forms of depression are due to lack of faith, for example, which is utter nonsense.

Part of my own current struggle is dealing with the fallout from severe trauma and other relational issues within my own family. Tensions heighten due to what others in our household are going through. That is not to assign any blame, rather, just to acknowledge that it happens. We are slowly making some progress, in fits and starts, in learning how to be with one another and to walk through difficulties together rather than separately or silently.

I miss seeing and being with my oldest son and daughter-in-law. I want to be able to just drive off to see extended family, too. The uncertainty of what to expect whenever we go somewhere, even somewhere simple like to get groceries, wears on me a lot. It is easy to lapse into the relative comfort/security of just sitting inside all day, every day, watching the world go by from the limited perspective of inside the house. Uncertainty tends to sap any initiative or motivation to do something, anything.

I realize that things could be much worse, and that we have a lot for which to be thankful. But cumulative uncertainty tends to make mountains out of molehills and causes us to snap or break more easily, too. The fact that I haven’t officially heard yet that my request to continue working remotely is approved is an example. I am 99.9% sure it’ll work out but the fact that I still don’t know for sure bugs the heck out of me. I vacillate between dopey dimwittedness or scratchy irritation and annoyance with just about everything.

I don’t like it. I’m not comfortable with it. I long for something better. I want to see light at the end of this long tunnel.

The eagle has landed

The eagle has landed as of about 5p local time yesterday. No, it’s not a real eagle, and it’s also not a euphemism for a World War 2 operaton. Rather, it’s a camera, a Nikon DSLR that I bought on eBay. Yes, folks, I got the camera. Exciting stuff.

Actually, I was able to buy a nicer camera than I originally planned and at a lower price point. One caveat is that the kit lens does not work quite right — which I knew in advance. Autofocus doesn’t function properly, so in order to use it, I need to manually focus, which doesn’t bother me at all. Besides, as budget allows, I hope to buy some other used lenses on Craigslist or eBay over time.

Do I feel guilty about buying it? Yeah, but less so because I waited a long time for it and got a much better deal than I anticipated. It is definitely more advanced than any camera I’ve had before, so it will take quite a while for me to learn everything and feel comfortable with it. My initial impressions are that it is worth the money and that I will be able to learn and grow in my skills to a great extent over several years. That makes me happy.

Years ago, I had an earlier model of Nikon DSLR that I eventually sold to a family member after coming to the conclusion that the kind of nature photography I wanted to do was far too expensive and out of reach. I was discouraged by the realization that the real expense and functionality of photography is tied to the lens, not the camera itself. For example, zoom lenses are quite expensive, frequently over $1,000, and it just seemed unlikely that I could ever afford one.

I think I paid around $600 for that kit (also used), and only about 1/3 of that for a much more capable and sophisticated setup ten years later. Better still, there are many affordable zoom lens options these days, and I only recently realized that many high quality Nikon lenses can be used on this camera that are old, relatively cheap, and widely available for purchase.

It seems like the big thing on most people’s minds these days for photography is video, for example to upload videos to YouTube. I’m not interested in video that much at all, only still photography. I feel very fortunate then to be able to pursue this interest further now that I have a good quality camera.

Guess what I’ll be doing this weekend?

Miscellaneous thoughts and mimeographs

Another day, another early morning spent reading the news (depressing, as usual) while sipping a cup of coffee. I’m getting used to being somewhat scatterbrained most days and this post reflects that reality with some miscellaneous thoughts.

I learned last night that the wife of one of my cousins, whom I’ve never met, died in February. How sad that she died so young (she was only a few years older than me) and to learn about this via social media, of all things. I’m not on social media at all but my wife is, and she’s the one who learned about it. Families are such weird, complex things.

The other day, an old memory came to mind of a staple feature of my childhood education: the mimeograph. Look it up on Wikipedia if you don’t know what it is. The smell of the ink used to produce copies of lessons and handouts is what I especially recall, as it was very distinctive. It wasn’t until the late ‘70s or perhaps the early ‘80s that mimeographs began to be replaced by photocopier machines in the small, rural school I attended. Funny how certain things stick in one’s memory.

Last night, we had a special meal that featured fresh Atlantic salmon grilled to perfection, along with fresh asparagus, also grilled, and buttery Yukon Gold potatoes. Then we had Mochi ball ice cream for dessert, something completely new for me. My favorite flavor is sweet mango. Later on, we followed that with slices of 7Up cake. We overindulged, sure, but it doesn’t happen too often. I especially enjoyed the fact that we all ate together ‘round the kitchen table, a rarity nowadays. Below is a photograph of the food to make you jealous.

Capacity for hurt

Many separate and unrelated situations lately have been hurtful. This leads me to a thought early in the morning of another day:

Our capacity for hurt may be great, but our capacity to forgive must be greater if we are to remain functional and whole.

I struggle with the forgiveness part, I’ll admit. It’s especially hard for me to forgive myself. After all these years, it is still a great struggle and some days are worse than others.

The only one who knows our hearts fully and loves us fully is God. How many times, even on a daily or hourly basis, do we disappoint Him? Yet God is love (1 John 4:8 NLT). He never leaves or disappoints us, and He only wants the best for us.