A Minor Diversion, Part 2
April 7, 2020 2:36 PM | Posted in: ,

A few years ago -- four, to be more precise -- when we lived in Midland, a dove built a ramshackle nest (to our eyes; for all I know, it was a masterpiece of dovish architecture) atop a shelf on a wrought iron baker's rack on our back porch.

At some point, Nature did its thing (cue Cole Porter) and the nest became the home of two pre-hatched dovelings, aka eggs, and a long-suffering mama dove.

Dove nest photographed at midnight without a flash; i.e. nothing to see hereBeing the voyeuristic naturalist wannabe that I am, I mounted a GoPro camera next to the nest and set it to take a photo every sixty seconds. I left it in place for a couple of days (and nights...which, as the picture at right attests, was less than, um, illuminating).

The result doesn't exactly make for riveting, Oscar-worthy cinema. (Although, neither do most Oscar-winning movies nowadays, IYKWIM, but that's another discussion for another day.) Even the mother bird looks bored most of the time, and a bit restless much of the time. I imagine it's hard to find a comfortable position atop two orbs relatively the size of basketballs, in human terms.

She left the nest very rarely and then only for a brief period. Occasionally, the dad (I'm guessing) makes an equally brief period, probably just to say "aren't you finished yet?" Despite the almost constant presence of the mom, I did manage to find a sequence of photos where the nest was vacated and the eggs were on full display. I pulled about 20 sequential photos out of the thousands that the GoPro generated, and made the following gif for your viewing pleasure. See if you can figure out what caused the mama dove to temporarily abandon the nest.

Animated GIF: Dove on nest with two eggs

Doves are notorious for building ridiculous nests in ridiculous locations. I've seen them on top of fences where there's no protection, and on the end of palm fronds where they spring up and down at the slightest breeze, and, obviously, on back porches swarming with human activity. It's a good thing doves are so prolific because I suspect only a very small percentage of eggs survive until they hatch.

But, bless their naive little hearts, they keep trying. Feel free to draw your own lesson from their example.
Update (4/2/2020): Add one more to the armadillo count below; another one became an involuntary guest early this morning. And, yes, succeeded in waking me up at 3:30 a.m. in the process.

People have been clamoring* for a trapping update from Casa Fire Ant, and I respond to nothing if not clamoring. Here's a snapshot to set the mood:

An engrossing pictogram showing numbers of trapped animals since the beginning of time, or 2017, whichever is later
Note that the T-rex count remains depressingly low

To be quite honest (vs. the not-quite honest we're best known for), we've stopped trying to trap anything but armadillos. We decided that we were basically serving as the raccoon equivalent of a Golden Corral and minor details such as illegality of transport and frequency of rabies in those raccoonish diners, plus the collateral issues of catching skunks, possums, and house cats led us to rethink our strategy. The raccoons continue to stroll past our domicile each night, but as far as we can tell, they're not doing any damage, so we'll peg our tally at just over half a hundred and focus on the truly annoying culprits, aka Dasypus novemcinctus, aka the state mammal of the United Nation of Texas, aka the nine-banded armadillo.

We've caught four of them over the past ten days, including two in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Pro tip: don't set your traps close to your bedroom windows unless you don't mind being awakened at 3:00 a.m. by armadillos banging around seeking to break their surly bonds. Seriously, it's a real thing.

Animation: Armadillo running from trap through a patch of wildflowersApart from the obvious benefit of ridding ourselves of lawn-destroying varmints, armadillo trapping this time of year provides excellent photo opportunities. The UARL (undisclosed armadillo releasing location) has some nice stands of bluebonnets interspersed with miscellaneous other wildflowers, and what could possibly make for a more iconic Texas photograph than the state mammal frolicking** amongst the state flower? So, accompanied by my adroit cameraperson, aka MLB, we carefully staged some wildlife release scenes.

If you watch carefully the gif above, you'll see that the armadillo gets a rather slow start out of the gate, but quickly picks up speed. He also shows off his hopping skills a couple of times. Armadillos are surprisingly quick and also surprisingly adept at jumping, which is one of their go-to defensive maneuvers when evading predators (and trappers).

They're also quite -- how can I put this delicately? -- stinky. The traps I use are wooden and "pre-scented," meaning that they've housed actual armadillos before being shipped to the buyer. The animals have terrible eyesight but an out-of-this-world sense of smell, and they willingly enter traps that smell like their brethren have gone before them. The odor in the traps will eventually dissipate in the rain and hot sun, but it only takes a couple of hours for an armadillo to "re-arm" the trap.

Photo - Armadillo in wildflowers
Photo - Armadillo in wildflowers

The photo immediately preceding shows one of the armadillos exiting the trap. I used to have to turn the trap vertically and shake it to make the critter depart (it's not that they like it in there, but they apparently don't like being told what to do), but I've learned that opening the end of the trap opposite from the way they're facing and simply touching their tails makes them immediately vacate the premises. I get it; I don't want anyone sneaking up behind me and touching my tail either.

Photo - Armadillo in the middle of the road

So, we bid adieu to our little scaly friend, both of us hoping never to meet again. And lest you worry, we make always make sure they're safely across the road (which is rarely traveled anyway) before leaving. At least he gets to smell the wildflowers; we get to smell him.

*I don't actually hear any clamoring, but silent clamoring is the best kind.

**It's more like running for your life, probably. I'm not at all sure that armadillos are prone to frolicking. But they definitely engage in shenanigans, if not downright hijinks.
Spring in this part of Texas is not really a season. If the year was a play, spring in Central Texas would be intermission...a pause between the dead brownness of winter, and the oppressive heat and mosquito swarms of summer. But that pause is, as they say, refreshing, because a lot happens during that brief interval.

[Disclaimer: The preceding is a broad generalization and one should actually never do that about weather in Texas. In fact, this year is a good example of that, as the second day of spring was 20 degrees colder than the last day of winter.]

Spring can be really beautiful around here, but it all depends on one thing: rain. We've been fortunate this year. I've measured almost eight inches of rain at our house in the first three months, pretty evenly spaced through each month. The result is a massive crop of wildflowers, plus generally happy plants and animals overall.

Everything combines to make for some interesting photographic subjects. Here's a pictorial of some springtime scenes around Casa Fire Ant.

A fine spring in the Texas Hill Country starts and ends with bluebonnets, our state flower. We scattered a some handfuls of seed around the vacant lot next door a couple of years ago. Last year, a disappointingly few came up, but this year the number increased exponentially. They were confined to plot of about a hundred square feet immediately adjacent to our lawn.

Knowing that the neighborhood's lawn maintenance crew would eventually be around to mow the lot, I used my weedeater to carefully create a very discernible border around the stand of bluebonnets. I even spent a half hour with hand clippers removing the weeds and grass around each flower so there was no chance of not observing them. Here's the result of that painstaking care:

Photo - small stand of bluebonnets
The halcyon days of our personal bluebonnet crop

It was a happy, placid scene. It brought a smile to our lips and a spring to our step and a boost to our spirits. Then the mowers arrived. You know what's coming, right?

Photo - small stand bereft of bluebonnets
The aftermath of the Great Bluebonnet Blitzkrieg

The heartless drivers of the mechanized monsters tore through our pastoral scene like Nazis through Poland a hot noisy knife through blue butter. (And to add injury to injury, they returned today in an apparent attempt to execute those few who managed to escape the initial onslaught.)

OK, it's not as though there aren't eleventy zillion other bluebonnets blanketing the landscape around here, but these were OUR BLUEBONNETS, DANGIT! *sigh* Life does go on, though.

So, let's not leave the subject of bluebonnets on such a depressing note. As the following photo demonstrates, we're all about diversity, even when it comes to the state flower:

Photo - white bluebonnets amongst the blue onesUm...whitebonnets...?

Because of genetic mutations, it's not uncommon to find white or pink variations of bluebonnets. For local readers of the Gazette, this small stand is at the corner of Bay West Blvd and Blister Gold (assuming those philistine mowers haven't gotten to them!). It's likely that these flowers will not be here next year, as their recessive genes will eventually be overrun by the dominant blues.

Another springtime phenomenon that Hill Country residents are accustomed to is pollen, and we're now entering the peak live oak pollen season where the stuff will fall like rain.

Photo - pollen-filled live oak tree
If you thought those are leaves on the live oak, you would be sadly mistaken.

The preceding photo is a good example of how the pollen manages to crowd out even the leaves on a live oak. That would be okay (well, okayer) if it stayed on the tree, although I guess that sorta defeats the purpose of pollen. Anyway, it doesn't, and you can see the results everywhere. Like, literally, EVERYWHERE.

Take our lovely Pecan Creek, after which our lovely little neighborhood is named. Here's how parts of it look now:

Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek
Photo - pollen covering the surface of the creek

I've never seen quicksand except in the movies (Blazing Saddles comes to mind), but this is exactly what I imagine it looks like. However, I was surprised to see ducks swimming around in the middle of this goop, apparently unbothered, so it's either benign or ducks are as oblivious as they look.

The streets are not immune to the effects of the falling pollen. Here's what our bike tire looked like at the conclusion of our Sunday afternoon ride.

Photo - pollen covering the tread of our bicycle tire
When a bicycle doubles as a pollinator

The rain also brings out strange beauty, like this tree fungus attached to a long-dead stump that I spotted during a walk around the trail that circles our neighborhood.

Photo - golden tree fungus

Of course, spring doesn't bring only new flora; it's also the stimulus for the appearance of fauna, and around here, a lot of that fauna is of the slithery persuasion. The local Nextdoor message boards are filled with people posting photos of snakes around their abodes and asking for advice (most of which unfortunately falls into the general category of "kill 'em dead until they live no more, and then apply additional killing").

We've had a couple of visitors in our yard. In fact, a couple of days ago MLB was pulling weeds in our front yard when, as she puts it, one pulled back. Instead of grabbing a weed, she grabbed the tail of a small grass snake hidden among the ground cover. Neither were amused; fortunately, neither were harmed.

Photo - small snake in our courtyard
An eight foot long constrictor next to the world's largest acorn

While I do love myself some vernal flora and fauna, one of my favorite things about spring in these parts is the weather, which is often cool and misty and foggy. It makes for great running weather, and dramatic photos. I'll leave you with a few recent examples. Happy spring, y'all!

Photo - misty sunrise behind oak tree
Photo - sunrise behind misty creek
Photo - heavily photoshopped sunrise

A minor diversion...
March 27, 2020 2:51 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the silver linings in the COVID-19 stay-at-home protocol is that we have time to pursue trivial matters that previously would have been preempted by more important things like...well, don't ask me. I'm retired; I can pursue all the trivial matters I want, at any time. But, perhaps you aren't that fortunate, but you now have time to enjoy MY trivial pursuits.

That's a long and ridiculous introduction to the following gif that I made with my own two hands. It's a big file (4.5mb...if you scoff because you have high-speed internet and unlimited data, keep it to yourself), so it may take a while to load. But if you can watch it, give it a shot (no pun intended) and I'll tell you some stuff about it below.

Animated gif: slow motion ejection of a shell casing from a pistol

What it is

This is a slow-motion time lapse of a spent ammo casing being ejected from a pistol being fired by MLB at a target in an undisclosed location in West Texas. The gun is a Springfield Armory XD-40 Sub-Compact, firing .40 caliber S&W ammo. The XD is a sweet shooting firearm and I like it a lot, the downside being that .40 cal. ammo is more expensive than the more popular (but generally less powerful) 9mm.

How it was done

The original video was shot via an iPhone 8 using the slow-motion feature of the Camera app, and I selected about a two-second interval from that video. I did this in iPhoto, and I worked backwards from the point where the casing disappeared from sight. I clicked frame-by-frame in reverse (iPhoto tends to jump forward more than one frame at a time, hence the reverse approach) and took a screen capture of each frame using a desktop app called Snapz Pro X for Mac. Each screen capture was automatically saved in Photoshop format (.psd) for editing purposes. I captured about 65 frames in this fashion.

I decided to convert the images to grayscale for two reasons. First, grayscale allows for a sharper and smaller image in gif format. Second, I wanted to showcase (no pun intended) the casing throughout the sequence by leaving it in its original color.

To achieve this effect, I applied the following steps to each frame using my ten-year-old desktop version of Photoshop for Mac (version 12):

[Warning: Extreme geekiness ahead]

  1. Immediately after opening each frame image, I enhanced the contrast, vibrance, and sharpness using the respective tools in the app. 

  2. I zoomed into each frame 300% so get a better look at the casing. Using the lasso tool, I outlined and selected the casing, then copied it into a new layer (Layer > New > Layer via Copy).

  3. I returned to the original layer and converted it to grayscale via the Image > Adjustments > Black & White > Darker option. This yielded a slightly higher contrast image than the simple Grayscale conversion that's available in Photoshop.

  4. I then flattened the two layers and saved and closed the edited file. I opened the next frame image and repeated steps 1-3, until all frames had been completed.

  5. The images were still in individual .psd files, but in order to create the animated gif in Photoshop, I needed one file with each frame image loaded sequentially into a separate layer. I accomplished this (rather laboriously, I might add) by creating a new master .psd file, opening each frame file one-by-one, and dragging the image into the master file where it appeared as a layer.

  6. I then opened the Animation window in Photoshop and selected Make Frames From Layers. Photoshop automatically created the animated gif and I selected the option to have no delay between individual frames.

  7. I then selected File > Save for Web and Devices, selected "GIF 128 No Dither" from the optimization options in the resulting pop-up window, made sure the looping was endless, and saved the finalized animated gif to my hard drive. I uploaded it to the Gazette's server (using Fetch as my FTP program), and then crafted this post a pixel at a time (kinda) so that it appears in the glorious, mesmerizing incarnation you're now looking at.
The entire process took a couple of hours, time that I would otherwise have spent plopped down in front of the TV. Being plopped down in front of a monitor is a MUCH MORE worthwhile use of time, right?

Right?

You really need to affirm the wonderfulness of this effort; otherwise, I might be forced to upload an audio file of my clarinet playing. You've been warned.

You might be a hoarder if...
March 22, 2020 5:04 PM | Posted in:

These are strange times we're living in, and in recognition of that fact, the Gazette is relaxing its rule against publishing material that might be considered thoughtful and relevant. We apologize in advance.

Man standing in front of a mountain of toilet paper
Toilet paper not to scale. Or, maybe the man isn't. It's not important.

We're seeing reports that several of the major grocery chains and big box stores are publishing lists of items that they will no longer accept as returns. This includes non-food items such as toilet paper, hand sanitizer, laundry detergent, and analgesic medications. It also includes frozen foods and other non-perishables.

The "official" explanations I've seen indicate that these steps are "for the safety and health of our customers" but we all suspect what's really behind it: you folks that hoarded stuff and are now finding that you either don't need it or don't have room for it or need the money or see that the supply chain is indeed intact...you folks are just going to have to live with the consequences of your greed (and/or panic).

I don't know. I've been doing a bit of cogitating about the hoarding phenomenon, and there are probably as many different reasons for doing it as there are people doing it. Setting aside the prepper mentality that is an ongoing phenomenon for many and not just a reaction to a minor worldwide pandemic, it seems to me that a lot of regular people are simply ignoring an unspoken social contract wherein we agree, consciously or unconsciously, to be polite and considerate of our fellow Americans. I wonder how these behaviors might change if people were confronted with that proposition?

Then there's this: perhaps some people don't realize they're hoarding. Maybe they just think they're being wise and foresighted. After all, are there any published guidelines as to how much toilet paper is too much? I've never seen anything advising me that I shouldn't have twelve bottles of baby aspirin on hand, or that four gallons of laundry detergent for our household of two adults is, well, three gallons too much.

So, if no one else is going to propose some concrete guidelines, I'm willing to step up and take a swing at it. (Please keep in mind that little word "might" below; I don't know anyone's specific situation and there might actually be a household that needs 20 rolls of paper towels per person at any given time. But most of us don't.)

You might be a hoarder if you're buying...

  • toilet paper, when you already have more than five rolls per person in your household;

  • hand sanitizer or liquid soad, when you already have one bottle per person in your household;

  • 81 mg aspirin, when you already have a 100-count bottle;

  • laundry detergent, when you already have a large economy size jug (feel free to adjust this upward in households with a lot of kids);

  • rice and dried beans, when you already have 20 pounds of each;

  • Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds, when you already have two boxes (yes, I'm being very specific here, uh, on behalf of a friend)

  • paper towels, when you already have three rolls in your pantry

  • thermometers, when you already have one (seriously, why does anyone need more than one thermometer?)
These are admittedly subjective guidelines that may not stand the test of group scrutiny. Feel free to suggest alternate approaches, or add to the list of items based on what you've seen on your shopping excursions. Just keep in mind that the major retailers seem to be assuring us that the supply chain for most, if not all, of these items is intact and working properly and the issue is not supply but an unreasonable demand.

Regardless, folks, let's agree to just be nicer to each other, okay?
Hey, it's been awhile! Glad you stopped by, although I'm not fooling myself by thinking it's for any reason other than you're bored to death by social distancing and the continuous stream of bad news on the doorstep (quick...name a song with that phrase!). Regardless, I'm happy to see you and to serve you some nutrient-free content.

Let me assure you that this is a virus-free zone. I've personally scrubbed and sanitized every pixel of this post, so feel free to cozy up to your monitor as if it was an adorable puppy named Tinky.

Say, let's talk about footwear, shall we? I'm now the proud owner of a pair of snake boots. Pretty stylish in a Blake Shelton sort of way, aren't they?

Photo - Snake boots

I've wanted a pair of these for a couple of years, ever since we moved into the house on the creek that's inhabited by snakes that might be cottonmouths and which might NOT be but I'm not taking any chances. Plus, we have vacant lots with tall grass and fallen leaves which form a perfect resting place for copperheads and, possibly, rattlesnakes...although I'll admit to having never seen either of those species in our immediate vicinity. Anyway, these boots will give me a lot more confidence when I'm weed-eating outside our fenced yard, or setting up and retrieving game cameras.

Unfortunately, they're so hot that I'll probably only wear them in the winter when there's no serpents around. It does sort of make me wish we belonged to one of those snake-handling churches, although I suppose wearing them to services there might indicate a certain deficit of faith on my part.

Speaking of shoes, the snake boots aren't the only new ones I've dealt with lately. 

I ordered a new pair of everyday, walking-around shoes in my brand of choice: New Balance. When they arrived, I was amazed at how heavy they were. I was also puzzled by the tag attached to the shoes warning me not to remove the "Electrostatic Dissipative" insoles.

Photo - Steel toe work sneakers

Well, as it turns out, what I had ordered was a pair of steel toe work sneakers weighing a pound apiece that are designed to not generate hazardous static electricity in case I wanted to be employed by a nitroglycerin factory or a meth lab.

The lesson here is that I should actually read the description of whatever I'm buying instead of just thinking, "oh, that's a pretty cool looking shoe for someone who's as uncool as me." Oh, and the irony of a retiree ordering work shoes isn't lost on me. Anyway, they were packed for return shipping the same day they arrived. Replacements are on their way...although I probably need to double-check to make sure I didn't order the high-heeled, Swarovski-bejeweled models.

Speaking of work, I've done some this winter.

Alert Gazette readers will recall that MLB painted our fireplace, An unfortunate-but-inevitable result of her efforts was to require that we build fires in the newly-renovated POS (Pit Of Smokiness, of course), and that in turn seemed to require something to burn. After getting a second mortgage to finance the acquisition of those artificial "logs" made of unadulterated carcinogenic nuclear medical waste, I came to the sad conclusion that we would need actual wood. So, I went out and bought a big honkin' maul (which sounds much more manly than a "steel wood splitter") and forty bucks worth of cut-but-not-split oak logs.

My first attempts at splitting the logs went poorly. An 8 pound maul will wreak some havoc on a piece of wood...but only if it lands on target. I had many excuses: the wind threw me off balance. The sun was in my eyes. I had my glasses on upside down. Also, I didn't have a suitable surface on which to rest a log before whaling away at it.

I remembered a vacant lot a half mile away where someone had felled a pretty big tree, cut the trunk into a dozen sections, and left them undisturbed for almost two years. One of those sections seemed to be a perfect candidate for use as a whatchamacallit...also known as a chopping block. (I think.) I backed my little truck up as close as I could to the section of tree trunk and opened the tailgate to load it...and only then realized that the block weighed pretty much the same as me. OK, that's not all that much, but you try lifting a stump of your own body weight into the bed of a truck when you can't use the principle of the lever to your advantage. (Yeah, I don't really know what that means either, except the result is soreness in bodily places where you didn't realize you even had places.)

I did finally manage to roll the stump over to the truck and oh-so-ungracefully wrangle it into the bed for transport home, where it now resides.

Photo - My chopping block and maul

Even with the chopping block, I still managed to miss the target log about a quarter of the time, but the setup works pretty well apart from operator error. Unfortunately, as we often do in Texas, we jumped directly from winter into summer, so there won't be any firewood splitting for another nine months or so.

OK, I think that brings up pretty well up to date on the goings on around Casa de Fire Ant. In closing, here's a photo of a red-shouldered hawk.

Photo - Red Shouldered Hawk in tree

And, in final conclusion, the following is presented without comment. Stay healthy, y'all.


The Hapless Mechanic -- Part 65,784
February 26, 2020 9:40 PM | Posted in: ,

I think we can all agree that most new or new-ish cars are not designed to permit under-the-hood maintenance by the average owner. I suspect that's not a big deal for most of us. Modern engines are marvels of complexity, but also are (usually) such paragons of reliability that the lack of specialized training and tools is not (usually) a handicap.

I've never had the need or felt the desire to tinker with the engines of our current vehicles. I know how to check the fluid levels and that's pretty much the only reason to even pop the bonnets nowadays...with one exception: I still replace the batteries myself. That's not a hugely complex job, right? You just loosen one or two bolts holding the battery in place, then remove the leads to the terminals, lift the old battery out, put the new one in, and replace the stuff you loosened earlier. It's what...a ten-minute job? Usually?

Not so fast, bucko. Literally, not. so. fast. I learned this week that at least one car maker has conspired to take even that simple task away from me.

The factory-installed battery in MLB's SUV celebrated its fifth birthday this month. Five years on a car battery is awesome, at least in my experience. I'm sure the mild central Texas winters help to prolong battery life, but whatever the reason, I'm impressed. I'm also very skeptical that there's much useful life remaining after five years, and so I headed to Walmart to purchase a prophylactic replacement.

I hauled it home in the truck, and after unloading it in the garage, I grabbed a crescent wrench and opened the hood of the SUV. And then the second-guessing started.

As an aside, alert Gazette readers will recall that my DIY track record aspires to be merely dismal. I have a knack for turning the most plebeian task into a sisyphean challenge, whether it's assembling a piece of furniture or repairing a weedeater or wiring a stereo or making toast. I've learned to accept my maladroitness...or at least to not be surprised by it. So I dealt with what ensued with a certain amount of resignation, and possibly some unrepeatable vocabulary.

Does your car have one of those space-age plastic covers that car manufacturers are employing so as to not offend our delicate sensibilities with their engine's mechanical nakedness? The SUV has one, and while it's wonderful for keeping the engine compartment clean, it really should be embossed with a warning to the effect of "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Would Enter Here To Do Basic Maintenance Such As Replacing The Battery."

I won't bore you [further] with a detailed list of the challenges I faced (although I can't help mentioning that I managed to drop a perfectly good socket wrench into a place in the engine compartment that can only be accessed by a complete disassembly of the entire vehicle). Suffice it to say that while I finally managed to replace the battery, I've had to follow up the procedure by ordering some replacement parts to rebuild the previously mentioned engine modesty panel.

I never had much mechanical aptitude, but there were always a few simple tasks that I could successfully perform. Even those have gradually disappeared from my repertoire, but I figured I could always count on the battery replacement drill. Now, even that seems to have been pried out of my bloody-knuckled hands.

Still, I remain defiant, and resolve to periodically go into the garage, raise the SUV's hood, and curse at the few engine components that I can still identify.

The Creaky Clarinetist
February 22, 2020 4:35 PM | Posted in:

I pulled this bad boy out of the closet earlier today:

Photo - Clarinet; aka a noisemaker to scare raccoons

This is noteworthy, at least to me, since it's been approximately thirty years -- THREE DECADES! -- since I made an attempt at playing a clarinet.

I was pleasantly surprised that none of the pads had fallen out, all the cork was still intact, and I spotted only one insignificant crack in the wood thanks to years in the dry West Texas climate and lack of regular oiling.

I miss making music. I began playing the clarinet in junior high, and by the time I was a senior in high school I had gotten pretty good. I don't have any natural musical ability, but I didn't mind practicing and I did a lot of it. Amazing how that can work out, right? 

I played a little in college as well, at least for the first couple of years. But I lost the ambition somewhere along the way, and stowed the instrument. I never completely forgot it, though.

Ten or fifteen years later, I was presented with a guitar...one strung to accommodate my left-handedness...and I noodled around on it for a while. I finally admitted the futility of teaching myself to play, and I didn't have the energy to look for a teacher who took southpaw students. Plus, chords are HARD...at least for a clarinetist. 

I still had the unsatisfied-if-suppressed urge to make some music. So, today, with MLB out of the house and me confined to it with a mild cold, I opened the case and assembled the instrument while sucking on the reed in an attempt to bring it back to life.

I ran my fingers up and down the keys and I have to tell you that they didn't feel as if I'd been gone for thirty years. I guess when you do something for a few thousand hours, the brain and nerves and muscles still retain some of that learned ability.

Making actual music come out of the instrument was a whole other thing, though. Any wind instrument player will attest to the fact that the muscles involved in the creation of a workable embouchure do not automagically stay fit. It's no different than trying to run a marathon after 30 years of sitting at a desk; the results are guaranteed to be painful. After about ten minutes, I was close to being a drooling slob. (Well, more so than usual.)

But...!

I was able to coax some actual clarinet-sounding stuff out of the instrument, and even more remarkable, I could match the notes on a page (or in my head) with the proper placement of fingers on the keys. I grabbed a couple of books of music -- a Baptist hymnal for tunes and a book of practice exercises for, well, practice -- and even if every tenth note or so was a squeak or a squawk (legit technical musical terms), I exceeded my admittedly low expectations for skill.

Anyone unfortunate enough to have been within earshot would be forgiven for thinking this was a hopeless endeavor, but for me, it was just successful enough to give me motivation to start practicing more regularly. I figure that if I did it once, I can do it again.

Y'all might want to pray for MLB, though.

A Baker's Dozen of Instagram Images
January 25, 2020 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

If you follow me on Instagram, feel free to skip this post...unless you want to read about the context of some of the images I've posted over the past several months. And if you don't follow me, I must remind you that I'm a very sensitive fellow and my feelings are easily bruised.

As my IG profile reads, all the images I post on that site are based on my original photography. This is code for "very little of what I post is unmodified, un-retouched, un-Photoshopped photography." The photograph is, for me, simply a jumping off point where I try to adapt the image the camera captures into the one that's in my mind when I take the picture.

OK, I realize that sounds pretty high falutin'. The truth is that I don't always know what I'm looking for in a photo until I see it. I might have the end result in my mind when I take the photo, but when I actually work with it, something entirely different presents itself. It's sort of like the novelist who lets her characters dictate to her how they're going to act and the results of those actions. In other words, we're not always in charge of our creations.

Anyway, following are thirteen images that I've created and uploaded to Instagram lately, along with a few words of how or why they came to be. I hope you enjoy them.

By the way, almost all of the following images are based on photos taken with an iPhone. The best camera is the one you have with you.



Photo - A small goat curled up inside a tub of goat chow

There's an exotic game ranch on Highway 281, a few miles north of Johnson City, Texas. Shortly after last Christmas, our extended family went on one of their guided tours. It was a lot more fun than I expected, and the variety of animals roaming [relatively] free through the ranch was impressive (although the absence of dinosaurs was a bit disappointing). At the end of the tour, while walking back to the car, I spotted these two goats, one of which was trying rather unsuccessfully to eat the food in the tub where the other had decided to catch a nap.

Photo - My wife walking down a trail in the woods

I'm a big fan of the dramatic potential of black and white photography. The technique seems to easily evoke emotions or tweak memories that might be lost in the distraction of colors. When you couple that with selective focus (e.g. the blurring in the lower left hand of the above image), it can bring a dream-like state to an otherwise mundane setting. Here, MLB is walking on a path in our neighborhood following a morning run.

Photo - Storm clouds form a backdrop to leafless trees

Black and white photography doesn't always mean, well, black and white. I took this photo as winter storm clouds gathered (the storm was mostly bluster and bluff; we just got a bit of wind not much rain at all from it...but it was impressive looking!). If you look closely -- it's really evident in the tree limbs in the lower left portion -- you'll see some ghosting. This effect was achieved by copying an identical photo on top of the original, and then offsetting it slightly.

Photo - Cactus pads interspersed with ivy growing on a wall

Of course, color can also bring drama...even when it's got its own monochrome personality. We were on a sidewalk in Johnson City last summer and I was fascinated by the many shades of green in this tableau of a prickly pear cactus fronting a wall of ivy.

Photo - A cicada emerges from its nymph exoskeleton

Speaking of fascination, the animal kingdom is full of amazing stories. Last summer was a terrifyingly fruitful season for cicadas. There were times when their "singing" was almost deafening, and their nymph exoskeletons (the dry husks left behind when the adult cicada finally emerges with a goal of starting the life cycle over again) seem to be omnipresent. I was fortunate to come across this newly emerged, fresh-looking cicada next to its abandoned husk. Those gossamer wings look incredibly delicate.

Photo - Praying mantis

Praying mantises are creepy and cool, especially when their eyes track your movements. They're always green in color, or possibly greenish-brown, until a crazed Photoshopper decides to improve upon nature. This one was clinging to the frame of our garage door, which isn't really as crooked as the image would suggest. Photoshop does have an image rotation feature, you know.

Photo - Sunset as viewed on Maui, Hawaii

We were fortunate to be able to vacation on the island of Maui last year, staying at the Andaz resort in Wailea. The reception area of the resort is open-air, and faces west, and each evening guests gather there to see the sunset. It's not always this dramatic, but it rarely disappoints.

Photo - Fungus on a live oak tree

Here's another black and white image, this one showing a tree fungus growing in an old wound on a live oak tree where a limb was removed. I use a desktop application called Tonality (sorry, Windows users; it's Mac-only) for a lot of my monochrome work. It's got a bewildering number of presets that you can apply to a photo, and while all of them can be duplicated in Photoshop if you have the time and skill, being able to apply them in Tonality with a single click is a no-brainer. And even the presets are infinitely editable if none of them achieve the exact effect you're visualizing. (Thus endeth the ad.)

Photo - An armadillo

Armadillos are generally nocturnal, and always shy, so it's rare to get a closeup photo. I love the detail in this image; the pattern on the animals shell is more varied that you might have imagined. By the way, this is a nine-banded armadillo (count 'em if you don't believe me), and it's the state mammal of Texas. But you knew that.

Photo - Two green anoles

This has been a very mild winter in the Texas Hill Country. We've had only a handful of freezes (which doesn't bode well for this year's peach crop), but we've protected our potted hibiscuses and bougainvillea by pulling them into the garage when a freeze is predicted, and putting them back outside during warmer weather. Sometimes, the local fauna take advantage of the changing landscape. In this photo, two anoles, a male (at top) and a female (with the zig-zag pattern on its back) sun themselves on the branches of a bougainvillea during a warm spell.

Photo - A two-stroke engine overlaid with a floral patter
Photo - Various plants and flowers

The two preceding images are actually related. The first one began with a photo of an old two-stroke engine from a defunct weed-eater. I thought the un-retouched photo was pretty boring, so I overlaid the engine with the flowers and plants shown in the second photo. If you compare the two, you'll be able to match up some blooms and leaves with their ghosted overlays on the engine. But I didn't stop there; anything worth doing is worth overdoing. I then flipped the second photo horizontally and placed it in the background of the engine photo! "Why?" you ask. "Why not?" I reply. "Well, because it's a stupid thing to do!" you retort. "Good point." I admit. But I had fun with it.

Photo - My mother's hand in mine

Let's transition from the silly to the sublime, as I end with this image which I've entitled simply "Holding Hands." It's my most recent post to Instagram, as the photo was taken last Thursday. My mother was in the hospital following surgery, and she had just had a rather uncomfortable session with a physical therapist. She was angry and confused and in pain, and she asked me to sit on the bed beside her and hold her hand. I did, and she eventually drifted off to sleep, still grasping my hand. To me, this is an illustration of the fragility of life and the importance of family. 
A few days ago I attempted to impart some words of wisdom to someone about a situation -- who and what are not important -- and, after [re]discovering that I had no such words of my own (and likely never will; I tell myself that that's the beginning of wisdom), I turned to the ultimate source of sage advice*: the song lyrics of Delbert McClinton

McClinton is the author of some of the wittiest and most intelligent lyrics this side of Cole Porter. For example, People Just Love To Talk is a song about the disappearance of a man and the way the rumor mill transcends reality. Several iterations of the fate of the man are laid out, including this one:
On the night in question, the couple came in
Had drinks in the bar by the door.
By the time they were leavin'
It was clear that she was seethin'
And nobody seen him no more.
Blues-centric grammar aside, when's the last time you heard the term seething applied in a popular song setting?

Anyway, I had a specific song in mind from which I would pull some wise advice -- and probably claim it as original, as one does -- a little ditty entitled Cherry Street, about a man who made some poor choices during a night out on the town. I've listened to the song enough times through the years to be pretty sure of the words, but because I'm a professional amateur, I decided to double-check my source, so I googled the lyrics. I'll show you the results of that search in a moment, but here's the actual music for context (don't worry; it's just a 20 second clip):



Those words seem pretty intelligible, right? But here's Google's translation:
Expect the unexpected, the fun is so thrill
And you can bet that it always will.
Sometimes the truth can be so unkind;
When you're looking for trouble, trouble's always easy to find.
The fun is so thrill? What does that even mean? How do you get that from to furnish the thrill?

That's not the only disfiguring of the dissertation. How about surfer punch instead of sucker punch? Or Or oh, I think I hear myself [Incomprehensible] instead of Uh oh, I think I hear my cellphone ring?

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't always gotten song lyrics right myself. I confess that for an embarrassingly long time, I mistook the phrase hotter than a match head in the Lovin' Spoonful's classic Summer In The City for hollerin' in the bath shed. But I'm not alone. Google "misheard song lyrics" and you'll get almost 200,000 hits. Still, we should expect more from a company with a trillion dollar market cap, shouldn't we? How can we trust anything anymore? OK, that's a rhetorical question.

Of course, Google can afford a crack legal team to advise it in all business matters, and it does occur to me that the screwed up lyrics are actually a conscious strategy, given that it's been accused of stealing lyrics from another company whose primary business is providing a platform for users to find the words to songs. Perhaps Google's defense will be that its mangling of the words is proof that it's not stealing from a company that actually knows what it's doing.

Well, anyway, my quest to provide wise advice proved fruitless, because the lyrics I thought would work didn't apply to the situation in question anyway. But to borrow some additional words from Delbert, can't nobody say I didn't try.

*Yeah, I know. The ultimate source of wisdom is obviously the Bible. But the book of Proverbs has So. Many. Words.