Walking The Tender Minefield – Quiz Night

Posted in CWA, Mixed Nuts on November 29th, 2010 by MadDog
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After my last post, all cheery and grateful, I’m ahead far enough on happy credits to grow all sombre and introspective again. Today I took delivery of a lonely, stormy Sunday. Last night I attended the annual Country Women’s Association Quiz night, a sort of mega-Trivial Pursuit distraction which provides the folk of Madang with an evening of aimless and good natured competition.

Since this is going to be yet another soul-searching ramble through the back alleys of my cranium, let me first demonstrate that I am not in a bad mood at all. These are among the finest bananas I have ever had the pleasure of smushing up in my still toothy gob. Somebody brought them up to the beach at Blueblood a couple of weeks ago. I must have eaten about six of them. As you can see they are rather small. They are incredibly sweet and the flavour is slightly reminiscent of green apples:

See, that’s a happy thing. You may find little flakes of freeze-dried happiness elsewhere on this page. Let’s see what happens. I’m winging it.

As I plan to intersperse scenes from last night’s frivolities here and there as I plod along, I may as well get started. This is our intrepid QuizMaster, Shane McCarthy overseeing the presentation of the craft projects. Each table of six participants was required, on pain of merciless ridicule, to create an object d’art  from the miscellaneous contents of a cardboard box. Imaginations ran rampant on the theme of “Christmas Carol”:

Once again I found myself facing a dilemma, the magnitude of which might seem trivial when seen from some remote location outside my skull. Over and over again, because of my life situation, smack dab in the middle of everything which meant anything to us,  I have to decide if I’m going to do this or that and wonder what my reaction is going to be. The problem is that there is no more us.   There is just me.  The range of effects which I have experienced has fallen between the extremes of euphoria and despair. I honestly don’t know beforehand what is going to happen. I’m just along for the ride.

This is a tender minefield. While that expression may seem oxymoronic, it is not. All that is happening here is that my community is allowing me the freedom to find a new normality. People are treating me as if everything is business as usual. This is exactly what they ought to do. From their perspective everything is  business as usual. The minefield is of my own device.

I had waited for an invitation to a table at Quiz Night until I felt that I had to take some active part in my life once more. Two days before the event I called two friends asking, in a not-so-transparent manner, if they had a table and if it was filled. Later that day, I did receive an invitation, after I mentioned it, from another friend. So, committed as I am to allowing life to carry me where it will with as little interference from me as is prudent, I accepted with a mixture of gratitude and foreboding. I’m such a drama queen. Everything has to be a big production. Nothing is easy. Truthfully, I blame my mother, but don’t tell her.

It is  a minefield, but it bears me no malice. It is simply there, inert until provoked. If I stay in place, I won’t get anywhere. I’ll stand and take root in this miserable existence. I can walk gingerly, experimentally, but I know that the odds are against me. I’ve already stepped on a few and I have big chunks missing here and there. The wounds are painful, but they heal rapidly, some more rapidly than others.

There is fun aplenty at every Quiz Night. Ridiculous, giggly fun. Here three teams compete to determine which can most rapidly expend an entire roll of toilet paper by wrapping a team-mate in it:

Following the analogy of the minefield, I’ll tell you a true story (really) about a related metaphor, The Point of No Return.

When you note that you have reached the geometrical centre of the minefield and you count your injuries, it dawns on you that you are only half-way home. Injury-wise it might make more sense to retrace your steps and return to GO, not collecting $200. Yet that way lies the madness of arriving back at the beginning and realising that the only reasonably safe option is to once again retrace your footsteps back to the point at which you turned around and proceed from there. You needn’t have wasted the energy. Rational decisions at this point are extremely difficult to reach.

Late one Sunday afternoon in the early ’70s, I roared away from Chicago Midway Airport in a US Army UH-1 “Huey” helicopter with my crew of four en-route to Decatur Illinois, our home airfield. It was a late departure and each of us had a severe case of “get-home-itis”; families and jobs awaited us. I was Pilot in Command, as sorry a situation as you could want. I was neither much of a pilot nor much of a commander. Deeming that we had sufficient fuel, we lifted off post-haste.

Shortly after passing Kankakee, we could see a massive line of thunderstorms ahead of us. This is my no means unusual for a summer evening in Illinois and it seemed that there were plenty of non-flashing holes through which we could safely pass. We fluttered on, listening to AM radio rock-n-roll through our helmet speakers. After a while it was becoming more and more obvious that we were going to be doing some ducking and weaving. I tapped my finger on the fuel gauge. My co-pilot nodded and frowned. I considered a hop back to Kankakee and a miserable night with a grumbling crew in a motel and rejected it.

We dodged thunderheads visible only by their fireworks and suffered some moderate turbulence which reminded us how long it had been since lunch – just long enough. Nobody wants to barf into his helmet bag. With all of that dodging and searching for holes, I could see that fuel was going to be a teensy-weensy problem. The chatter on the intercom went significantly silent. Everybody knew that we had just passed the Point of No Return. I was wondering precisely how many Army Regs and Flight Rules I had already busted. I was about to bust a few more.

Well, I see that it’s time to shorten this long story. We passed safely, if unsteadily through the flashy Texas Line Dance of cumulonimbus incus aircraft washers and into the still, star-studded air of central Illinois. We were about twenty-five minutes from Decatur when the Twenty Minute Fuel Warning light began excitedly to advertise its presence. Uh-oh. As pilots are wont to put it rather indelicately, the pucker factor increased by an order of magnitude.

Let me take a break from that breathless and somewhat pointless reminiscence to show you our creation: (and then I’ll try to explain the inexplicable)

I sincerely hope that you can see that it is a manger scene, complete with a tiny, fuzzy Baby Jesus. I contributed, somewhat distractedly, the snowflake and the exclamatory Moo from the spotted cow.

So, was there any point at all to the helicopter story? Probably not. But, if I had to guess, I guess it would be that we are sometimes so distracted by what we so desperately want that we are unable to recognise what we so desperately need. Now, connecting this somewhat tenuously back to the minefield thing, a few of those mines might capriciously explode into bouquets of roses, unlikely as that might seem. Others will blow a leg off. Some might be duds. The problem is that I must  keep moving and the only way I know the intent of a mine is to step on it. You know, my situation is not a bit different from yours, now that I think of it. Humpf! And I thought I was special.

Some things which I fervently desire now are not yet available to me. Someday some of them might be. Time will tell. Time will also tell whether they were things which I actually needed. Other things, things which I do not currently yearn for, may turn out to be the things which I need. It would have been such a senseless tragedy if I had killed my crew and myself in a flame-out crash because I did not want to spend a night in a motel in Kankakee. That is what I needed.  I realised that most certainly when that warning light came on.

I’m striving quite earnestly to keep my eyes peeled for the warning lights. Right now, I know that I can’t trust my desires to be in my best interest. Though some, with that fearful symmetry, burn as bright as William Blake’s tiger in the forest, I can never forget the minefield. It is not just a figure of speech. I must move forward. Carefully.

So, with that hopeful thought, I will give you a happy, pretty face. No, not mine. Though I have now made myself happier than I was a couple of hours ago I am still no prettier. Writing does that for me.

This is the lovely smiling face of Michaela of Vienna, who rescued me from an evening of solitary regret:

Saved again by a sensible and loving friend.

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Thanksgiving – 2010

Posted in Mixed Nuts on November 27th, 2010 by MadDog
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There have been bleak seasons this year during which I have been able to find little for which to be thankful. I think that this is the nature of such horrible times. These episodes reduce our capacity to appreciate all of the joys of life and beat us into a numbness which blinds us to our blessings. I am still trudging cold and lonely through that wintry landscape. Nevertheless, I recognise that things could be a lot worse. In fact, If I am honest with myself, I can see that regardless of what is to me a great tragedy in my life I have much for which I should be thankful.

This is going to be a therapy session for me. Stick around if you like.

Time seems to fall naturally for me now into two distinct segments, my life before 2010 and this year. If I had a choice in the matter, I’d delete this year and start it over with a new script. However, that’s not my department. I’m but an actor, not a very good one. I tend to want to change the lines.

As for my life before 2010, I have no major complaints. I certainly have some regrets, but they are all of my own creation. Beginning in 1964 my life changed drastically for the better and it only improved with time for forty-six years. The agent of that amazing  change was my wife, Eunice Mae Messersmith, know to us as Eunie. I can’t imagine receiving a greater gift if I lived for a thousand years. Life may someday be good again for me, but it will never be the same.

I am in excellent health and I have a strong, fit body. I have all of my teeth and all of my hair. I have a comfortable house to live in and adequate income from my work to sustain me. I can’t imagine having friends who are more loving and supportive. They have kept me alive for the last few months. I have family who care for me, though I have long been a black sheep.

Before this year my life was unscathed by disaster, untouched by tragedy. It is as if it was all being saved up for 2010. At least that’s the way it seems to me from this seat. Everything goes along so very fine and then WHAM – it’s the big one. We all know it’s coming, but we’re never in the least prepared for it. Having had no previous experience with such utter desolation, I was less prepared than most. A charmed life does not teach one much about submitting to such crushing blows.

Nevertheless, not everything was bad. Some very good things happened. Some blessings were poured out. It’s time to count them.

The year began with an event for which I had been wishing for years. Eunie was elected as the Director of Pioneer Bible Translators in Papua New Guinea. Given a thousand words to place here I still could not tell you how much this meant to me. I’ll only say that it was something that I had been hoping to happen for my dear wife, something which gave her a tangible reward for her many years of faithful service. This was a blessing.

When Eunie was assigned to go to Fiji as a representative of the Papua New Guinea Chamber of Commerce and Industry I was very happy for her, but I had decided not to go with her because of the expense. I would have to pay for my airline tickets. At the last minute I changed my mind because  I simply did not want to be separated from her for three weeks. I am very glad now that I did decide to go. It was our last holiday together. I’ll remember it always. This was a blessing.

The episode of Eunie’s illness and death was horrible. I’ve told it all here in previous posts, so I won’t relive the misery now.

Friends came to our aid with comfort and support of all kinds. We had a home away from home. We had the best medical care available. The cancer which took Eunie, though nearly always fatal, does not force the victim to languish in pain without hope. We knew early on that it was a matter of weeks or days. It was astonishingly quick going about its filthy task. There is a time for everything under heaven. There is a time to die. Eunie hated pain and wanted no part of suffering. She experienced very little of either. She didn’t have to suffer through chemo and radiation therapy with very little hope. She didn’t have to lose her beautiful white hair. Even in this, there was a blessing.

I have now, mostly due to the hard work of my great friend Trevor, sent in the last of the health insurance claims. Because Eunie departed so hastily, I am not destroyed financially, as many survivors are. I have successfully claimed Eunie’s modest life insurance benefit and the money is in my bank account. As uncomfortable as I feel in saying so, I must admit that these are blessings.

I have sold Eunie’s Spitfire to a cousin in Indiana. It is still in the family. This is a blessing.

I have received a favourable evaluation of my house in Brownsburg and it is now listed for sale. This is a blessing – one which might grow bigger if the sale price is to my benefit and it sells quickly.

I have finally found a suitable grave marker and am negotiating to get it up here from Australia.

I have begun to learn to manage my personal finances and am beginning to take control. I will have more peace of mind and be better able to live frugally and sensibly when I complete this process. This is a blessing.

Though I have undoubtedly neglected to mention many more blessings, that brings me more or less up to date.

My most recent blessing arrived yesterday – Thanksgiving Day 2010. To tell about this I must first visit the past.

Eunie started one of our Madang Family traditions more than twenty-five years ago. It was her great pleasure to invite as many guests from as many nations as possible to fill our home to its maximum capacity and feed them a delicious traditional American Thanksgiving Day meal. The price of admission to the love feast was to listen to Eunie’s lecture about the history of the holiday. Some people have heard that lecture many times. Nobody has ever complained.

When I received an invitation to the home of Chris and Ruth for an American Thanksgiving feast I was happy to hear that someone was celebrating the holiday, but I did not know how I would handle it. I am still very unsure of my emotional reactions. Some things which I reckoned would be very difficult for me have turned out to be less troublesome. Other situations which seemed to be innocuous have sent me reeling. I did not respond to the invitation.

Then Michaela, a friend from one of my favourite cities, Vienna, scolded me one evening when she told me that Eunie would be very angry if I did not go to the celebration. Sometimes it is a very good thing for me to be scolded.

This is Ruth, my lovely hostess for Thanksgiving Day:

I had it in mind to take many photos yesterday evening. The setting sun dappled Ruth with its light and warmth in this shot. It was the only picture that I took. I was too busy soaking up the love to bother with my camera.

Chris delivered a Thanksgiving Day lecture which would have made Eunie proud of him. Some said that it was virtually word-for-word the same as they had nearly memorised by now from hearing Eunie’s speeches. Then Richard Jones spoke of the long Madang tradition of  Eunie’s Thanksgiving Day feasts. I was reduced to tears once again – so many tears in 2010. The difference was that these were tears of joy – the first of that kind which I have shed this year.

This was truly a blessing.

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Photography Boot Camp – The Exposure Triangle

Posted in Photography Boot Camp on November 25th, 2010 by MadDog
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I’ve been thinking for a while of writing some posts about basic photography skills. I don’t claim to be an expert, just an old-timer who learned the craft from a patient and skilled father. The amazing cameras which we have available to us today allow a budget-pinched but earnest enthusiast to create very high quality images. It requires only a very modest investment to gain knowledge and acquire skills which can vastly improve the visual appeal of everyday photographs. The bonus is that, with these new skills and an understanding of what is going on inside the camera, a new world of possibilities flings its doors wide and invites the adventuresome to step in and start snapping.

So, as I find myself inspired to do so, I’m going to create a series of posts for Photography Boot Camp. I’ll cover only the basics, because they are all that are necessary to begin the adventure. Today I’ll try to explain the Exposure Triangle as briefly and succinctly as I possibly can. I’m going to stay away from technical jargon as much as possible. It is the concepts which are needed, not the fancy vocabulary. The concepts of the Exposure Triangle have not changed since the birth of photography. This is where it all begins.

Okay, what is  it?

As the name implies, there are three things to consider when trying to get the proper amount of light into your camera so that the image is correctly exposed – the picture is neither too light or too dark. Those things are:

  • How sensitive is the sensor?  (This is what used to be called “film speed”. It is now called ISO.)
  • How big is the hole through which light travels to the sensor? (This is still called aperture. It’s measured in “F-stops” which is usually shortened to “f” something, such as f4.5.)
  • How long is the light coming through the aperture allowed to remain shining on the sensor? (This is still called shutter speed. It is measured in seconds or fractions of a second.”

Here is the way the relationships between these three values are usually displayed:

The arrangement in a triangle reminds the photographer that when one value is changed then at least one of the other values must also be changed to achieve the correct exposure on the sensor. Everything must be kept in balance in order for the EXPOSURE value in the centre to rest at zero.

We’ll start with the easiest one to visualise, shutter speed. As the diagram indicates, the shutter speed will determine whether moving objects in the image are “frozen” or blurred. Have a look at these two images:

In this image, the shutter speed was “fast”. I set the camera for 1/500 of a second. You can see the individual blobs of water.

In this shot, I changed the shutter speed to 1/8 of a second:

Now the water stream appears fuzzy and indistinct. This is what is called motion blur.

At this point one might ask, how do you set the camera to do this? Most cameras give you the option to select what is called an “Shutter Speed Priority” mode. Your camera usually controls aperture, shutter speed and ISO automatically. However this does not allow you very much creativity. The camera calculates what seems best for overall good quality images. The Shutter Speed Priority mode allows you to force the shutter speed to the value you want to either freeze the action or allow it to blur. An important point here is that if you choose a slow shutter speed, say 1/30 of a second or slower, you will have to either brace the camera firmly against a stationary object or use a tripod. Otherwise the entire image will be blurred because of the movement of your hands. Most of today’s cameras try to compensate for hand movement, but there is a limit to what they can correct. This is called Image Stabilisation. It affects motion of the camera itself, not motion of objects in the view of the camera.

Using the priority modes of your camera, Shutter Speed or Aperture, allows you to control those single variables while your camera still tries to calculate the other two variables to give you the correct exposure

Okay, let’s have a look at aperture. As the diagram indicates, the primary effect of aperture is the control of how much of the view of the camera from the lens to infinity is in focus. This is called Depth of Field. You can think of it as “deep focus” versus “shallow focus”.

Here are two images which illustrate the idea:

The above image was shot at an aperture of f2.8. Perhaps I should stop here and give a little explanation. The symbol ƒ is the official way to indicate the “stops” of the aperture. You can pretty much forget that unless you want to get into the jargon. All that you really have to know it that the number represents a backwards measurement of the size of the hole through which the light is falling onto the sensor. In other words, the bigger the number, the smaller the hole. The bigger the number the less light is getting through. There’s a technical reason for this upside-down way of expressing it, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes here. I’m keeping it simple, because that’s the way I like it (Uh-huh, uh-huh).

Where the inverse numbering silliness does make sense is when it comes to Depth of Field. The bigger the number, the more is in focus. In the first image, shot at f2.8, the coin is blurry as is the other side of the kitchen. In the image below, shot at f8.0,  the coin and the distant windows are much more in focus:

To control the aperture, and thus the depth of field, the easiest way is to use the Aperture Priority mode of your camera. You can set the aperture for the depth of field which you desire and your camera will try to calculate the shutter speed for you to get a correct exposure. Some cameras might also automatically change the ISO, if necessary.

For shots containing both near and far objects which you want to be in focus use a large value for your aperture. However, if you have a friend standing near you and you want the background to be blurred, use a small value.

We are now down to the last variable, ISO. The primary reason for taking manual control of ISO is to allow you to shoot dimly lit scenes without using your flash. You can see some examples here, here and here.

So, what is the downside of using a high ISO setting to make the sensor more sensitive to light? Why not just make it as sensitive as it can get and leave it like that? The problem is that high ISO settings invariably increase the noise in the image. Okay, what does noise look like? Here is an portion of an image shot at an ISO of 80. As you might suspect, that low number indicates that the sensor was not feeling very sensitive:

This is a perfectly good image.

Here is the same portion of the same image shot at an ISO setting of 1600. This is pushing the limits of the Canon G11:

The noise in the image is plainly visible. It affects the apparent sharpness of the image as well as the colour balance and the contrast. If you couldn’t get any more light on the scene and you did not want to use flash, this might be acceptable. Very expensive cameras with very large sensors can shoot with very little noise in near darkness. Oh, if only I could afford one. Drool is dripping off of my chin.

Most cameras now have a Low Light mode of some kind. I usually keep my camera set on the lowest value for ISO so that I have the least possible amount of noise and only take control of it or use a Low Light mode if I want the “mood lighting” effect that you can get indoors with available light.

I”m running out of steam, so I’m going to leave it there. I hope to come back with more of Photography Boot Camp later. If you find any of this useful, please leave a comment here or comment on my Facebook link to this post.

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Things I See

Posted in Under the Sea on November 23rd, 2010 by MadDog
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Today I went to the Fred Hollows Eye Clinic at the hospital here in Madang. You may have read about my paranoia concerning the near certainty of losing or misplacing my eyeglasses. Silly as it seems it was of so much concern to me that I was compulsively checking my one pair of multi-focal glasses to make certain that I knew where they were at all times if I didn’t have them on. The resulting behaviours would have been comical had it not been for the fact that merely thinking about misplacing them and having to call a friend to search my house would set me trembling. I blame it on stress. I have to blame it on something.

I had gotten three pairs of glasses to replace my one varifocal pair. While I’m yakking on about pairs of glasses I want to ask you why is it a pair  of glasses? I know it’s because there are two lenses, but it still doesn’t sound right. It’s a little like a pair of pants or a pair of pliers. Are there objects called a pant or a plier? I don’t think so. I can see a pair of socks. That makes sense; there are two separate socks. Together they make a pair. However if there are not two things called a pant, then how can you have a pair of pants? Same goes for pliers. I couldn’t say, “I had gotten three glasses”, because that might be confusing if the context was not clear. You might think I was talking about drinking glasses. No, I had to say three pairs  of glasses so you would know that I’m talking about  . . . Okay, this is getting silly. I’d better move on. I have to admit, however, that this is something which has bothered me for years. I feel better now that I’ve gotten it off my chest.

Anyway, I got a +4 for distance, a +5 for computer work and a +6 for close-up work like reading in bed. What I discovered is that after a while the distance formula was not working any more. It was too strong. Things a bit close were fine, but when I was driving the distant objects were fuzzy. I went back today and got a pair of +3.5 glasses. That did the trick. Now when I’m driving everything from the gauges to infinity is in perfect focus. I’m happy with that, considering that these eyeglasses cost me only about $8.00.

Okay, that was not very interesting, I admit. Nevertheless, I wish to report to myself here in my journal that I can now see perfectly at any distance. The only problem is that I have to carry around four pairs of eyeglasses. Also, most of the time my eyes feel as if they are about to pop from their sockets. Am I giving myself eye strain? Hey, I’m blessed. Some people can’t see at all.

So, here are some things I have seen lately. By the way, I wasn’t wearing any of my pairs of glasses. I have a prescription dive mask. It is perfect underwater. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out of the water. Otherwise, I would just wear it instead of buying so many pairs  of glasses.

This is a very cute little Blackspotted Puffer (Arothron nigropunctatus):

I call them them “puppy fishes”, because they look like . . . mmmm, puppies.

Okay, this is not going so well. I seem to have forgotten how to write tonight.

This is a colony of sea squirts called Lissoclinum patellum:

I could think of several things which I’m reminded of when I see these and none of them are pleasant, so I won’t trouble you with that. I find it amusing that something as lowly as a sea squirt can be placed in the phylum, Chordata, which is the same phylum to which I belong. Or maybe it’s not so surprising when I think hard about it. Sea squirts have something like a spinal column only while they are mobile juveniles. As adults they form colonies and lose all of their backbone. They become blobby and are plastered solidly in place. Come to think of it, that’s not so different from me after all. I’m a giant sea squirt. I’ve become rooted into immobility and have lost my backbone. I’m going to double up on my calcium pills and see what happens. Is that a wild goose I hear calling to me?

Okay, there goes what I so laughably call my brain again. It’s off on a tangent, slipped a gear, got its wires crossed, blew a fuse. Little purple sparks are coming out of my ears. I’m unable to escape the chorus of Frankie Laine’s old hit Cry of the Wild Goose:

My heart knows what the wild goose knows,
I must go where the wild goose goes.
Wild goose, brother goose, which is best?
A wanderin’ fool or a heart at rest?
Let me fly, let me fly, let me fly away.

Where does a moody hankering for change cross over into the realm of escapism? I remember a time not so long ago when I would have hopped a plane to Kathmandu if only that wouldn’t have left such a big mess behind. I could get a job as a dishwasher somewhere. I’d be the best dishwasher in the business. You could eat off my plates. Yeah, I wanted to run. Recent events have made many of us flinch. The flinching continues. Today a friend and I voiced it in the same moment, “How much can we take?” I’m reminded of the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail  when the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog viscously attacked King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Run away!

Well, I don’t really want to get all sombre tonight. I’ve felt that way all day and now I need to cheer up a bit. A little balance is in order, eh? Sometimes situations are so miserable that you can find nothing resembling humour. However, you can always stand back a bit and laugh at your own reactions.

This bizarre critter is a kind of sea slug or Bêche-de-mer,  a Bohadschia argus:

This one has a single incredibly sticky white filament trailing out of its . . . uh, unpleasant  end. Often there are many filaments. It is a defence mechanism. This individual was angry and defensive because I accidentally disturbed it while I was photographing something else. I know from experience that you do not want to allow these filaments to come into contact with your skin or anything else for that matter. If scientists could develop a glue as efficient and durable as this stuff, they would see big bonuses in their pay-checks.

This strange wormy thing with an all-over beard is a kind of nudibranch called a Pteraeolidia ianthina:

I’m reasonably sure of the identification, but if I’m mistaken I’ll blame Rich Jones. He recently took back his giant nudibranch field guide upon which I had been drooling for the last few months. So many nudibranchs to photograph, so little time.

Here is another nudi, one of my favourites. It’s an Electric Swallowtail (Chelidonura electra):

What an utterly charming name. It dredges up visions of Unicorns, Ashwinders, Mermaids, Mooncalves, Murlaps and Kneazles.  (that should keep you Googling for a while).

This is the only balding Magnificent Anemone (Heteractis magnifica)  which I have seen:

I have no idea what has caused it to lose its tentacles in this spot. It is not something which I have observed before. It seemed otherwise healthy. I once fed a Magnificent Anemone  half of a banana. It took it about fifteen minutes for it to transport the banana treat across its tentacles, passing it along the tips like a rock star being carried along on the up-stretched hands of fans. The banana finally ended up in the anemone’s mouth. I didn’t stick around long enough to ask it if it liked it.

This shot is my pick of the day. It’s a very common Cushion Star (Culcita novaeguineae)  which is most uncommonly beautiful:

It takes things such as this to remind me of the incredible riches of my life. People pay vast sums of money for the privilege of doing the things which I enjoy every week. I’m still able to see these things as privileges which are not to be taken for granted.

I must accept that Madang is not my eternal home. Some day I will have to leave this place. Maybe my body will stay here in the ground and my spirit will depart. Or perhaps while body and spirit are still merged circumstances will arise which require me to leave and I’ll be led to another place. The future is very fuzzy.

I think that even that fuzziness is a blessing. I’m listening. And I’m leaving plenty of room for surprises.

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Kristy and the Hibiscus

Posted in Guest Shots, Mixed Nuts on November 21st, 2010 by MadDog
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Today I have another mixed bag of gibber-jabber and images. My work days on Thursday and Friday last week were severely disrupted by non-glamorous but essential tasks. At the end of Thursday’s post I showed a picture of Gosel, one of our Technical Services workers, mowing the grass at one of our houses. He also mowed my lawn that day. I suppose that describing what I have in front of my house as a “lawn” is a little pretentious. It’s a big patch of grass full of crab holes. It’s not even grass grass. It’s more like crabgrass. I guess that’s appropriate. On Friday there were two more yards to be manicured. It’s is not my usual work to haul Gosel around to the properties which need his weed-whacking attention. It would normally be something that our Administrator of Technical Services would tend to. Unfortunately, we do not have an Administrator of Technical Services. In fact, we are so short-staffed that all of us are doing things which most of us would not normally be called upon to do or have not done before. Our usual work is still there and still piling up.

In most workplaces in which I have been this kind of situation would cause problems of all kinds, mostly in the form of complaints and interpersonal relationship kerfuffles. Since I came back from Australia and resumed my duties I have been amazed and greatly encouraged by the way our entire staff of workers has responded to the drastic changes in the distribution and nature of our work loads. We still face some difficult times, but we are truly pulling together as a team.

Okay, that was pretty boring, eh? I’m sure that you dropped by so I could tell you all about my work days last week. I’m a charmer, I am.

Well, maybe I can amuse you by describing the strange little thing which just happened back in my medulla oblongata. We’re talking way down deep here, folks. I have no control over these things. It’s a lot like hiccups.

When the words “pulling together as a team” dribbled off my fingertips onto my keyboard, I had a sudden surge of energy from my autonomic music centre. It blasted my one good ear with some lines of the Pink Floyd song Have a Cigar  from the 1975 album Wish You Were Here.  I have an intense affinity for that album. It’s very familiar territory. I can’t listen to the title song without crying. Yeah, I know that’s an old man thing. The problem is that I’ve been doing that since the album came out. I wasn’t so old then.

It could be made into a monster
If we all pull together as a team.
And did we tell you the name of the game, boy,
We call it Riding the Gravy Train.

Strange, eh? – that the connection was made. Happens to me all the time. Rats have chewed all of the insulation off my wires.

Music can be so powerful. How does that happen? Take some notes, string them together, mix in some words . . . and you get a punch in the guts. Of course, it has to be the right tones in the right sequence and the words have to get your attention at some level deeper than a daydream.

The staticy radio sound of the acoustic guitar lead-in which drifts into a live sound at the beginning of Wish You Were Here  is pure genius to me. I’m listening to it right now. And, yeah, you guessed it. . . I won’t say it.

How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We’re just two lost souls
Swimming in a fish bowl,
Year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found
The same old fears.
Wish you were here.

Oh, so many absent friends – so many I will never see again.

(Sniff, sniff . . .)  I’m repeating myself. I note that I wrote about this song in a very morose post only last March.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s look at some flowers and some other stuff. I have a treat for you at the end, so you may want to skip down to it.

While the grass was being trimmed at one of our houses and I didn’t want to drive back to the office and then come back later to pick Gosel up, I took advantage of the time to walk around the yard and snap some pictures. This view struck me as a comment about life these days in Papua New Guinea:

Razor wire and flowers – paradise and danger. How many ways can you say it? Things are not as pleasant as they once were. It is not considered safe now to drive up the North Coast Road. Expatriate volunteer workers are being advised rather strongly not to leave town. I’ve never been seriously concerned about my personal safety before in Madang. Now I’m not so sure. Tomorrow I wanted to drive up to Blueblood to party with friends. Now, I either have to go by boat or stay at home. I’m certainly not going to risk a carjacking of my new truck (can you carjack a truck?).

All right, let’s not dwell on that for too long. Here is a close-up of the business end of a hibiscus flower:

It reminds me of a particularly elaborate cheerleader’s pompom or maybe Mother Nature’s sceptre.

This hibiscus blossom has just opened. The yellow anthers are still globbed together in a ball:

Even after thirty years, I still occasionally see a colour of hibiscus which is new to me:

You never know what you will find in someone’s yard:

This unusually prickly pineapple plant is not only tasty when ripe, but very decorative.

Where there is lush plant life, you will always find the grazers:And vegetation is everywhere. This is the fire eaten stump of a huge raintree. In the hollow, a little garden grows:

Okay, I think that I have beat that subject to death now. Let’s move on.

I’ve been corresponding with a young lady for a while about photography. Kristy Peacock wants to enhance her ability to take exactly the photos which she wants. It does take a little understanding of some basic technical issues and knowledge of how to make your camera do what you want instead of doing what it wants. Once you begin to put these things to work you can step outside of the snapshot box.

We were talking about the night modes on her camera. I am glad to see that she is experimenting:

It’s a very imaginative shot. I’m not even sure how she did it. Maybe she’ll explain in a comment. The phantom images look like a double exposure, but I don’t think that is is it.  It’s more likely people moving out in the yard behind Kristy during the long exposure time when the “dark” image is forming before the flash goes off to capture the foreground.

I’m very glad that she sent this one to me. I like silky water shots. I’m pretty sure that this one had to be a tripod exposure, as I suspect was the one above. The exposure time would have had to be a second or more:

Some cameras have what is called a neutral density filter built in. Otherwise you can add one in front of the lens. The purpose of the filter is to cut down the amount of light getting through the lens. This allows you to use a much slower shutter speed. You have to brace the camera firmly against a solid object or, better yet, use a tripod. The result is that the water is motion blurred while everything else remains crisp and sharp.  Very nice work, Kristy.

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Bart Simpson’s Hair – Why I’m Talking to Myself

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Under the Sea on November 18th, 2010 by MadDog
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Now that I have all of these pictures loaded onto my WordPress page, I am wondering how to write something that makes some kind of sense. In cases such as this my usual ploy is to abandon any hope of writing anything which pleases me and put the job off until tomorrow. However, I have a deadline. It’s 8PM and I want to be ready to drink some kava an hour before I’d like to sleep. It worked the last two nights. I got more sleep than I have for a long time and I felt great in the morning. I’m going to write about kava soon. So, since I can’t put it off, I’ll write nonsense. It probably fits the subject matter better anyway.

As the title implies, the subject is twofold. Here is Bart Simpson’s Hair:

Okay, does that give you some idea of where we are going with this? Fasten your seat belts.

I’m going to the kitchen now to get some cookies . . . okay, I’m back. Hmmmmm . . . delicious. The other subject, which I made you think has something to do with Bart Simpson’s hair but it doesn’t, is Why I’m Talking to Myself.

I never used to do that – talk to myself – at least not much. I’d let slip, “Idiot!” or “You old fool.” or something similarly self- deprecating, but I had no serious conversations. Even now, my solo exchanges are usually not directed to me, but since there is nobody else around (I try not to do this when others might be observing.) one might be prone to suspect that my brain is doing a little recursive boogaloo. I don’t know if this is healthy or not, but it is making me feel better.

So, who do I talk to?

Not far from Bart’s hair I found this disgusting, encrusting sponge trying to strangle a branch of black coral:

See, I’m going to do that to you. I’ll go along as if I have something interesting to say and when I sense you nodding off, I’ll throw a bean bag at you. The image above is trying to connect up some wires in my brain between it and Sponge Bob Squarepants. Okay, time for another cookie. Hey, I need some milk.

Mostly I talk to two entities. I probably spend the most time conversing with Eunie. She was always a good listener. I ask her for advice. Then I think about what she would tell me if she were sitting next to me or we were having a walk through the woods. The surprising thing is that what I hear in my head, or rather what I make up from the million memories of how she was, seems very real to me. It can’t be so far off from what she would have said. Quite often it makes me laugh.

Tonight I had a ham sandwich. The ham had been in the freezer for I don’t know how many months. I got it out of the freezer a week or so ago. It didn’t look bad, but I can’t smell it, of course. I’m constantly concerned that I will poison myself. I quit thinking about suicide about a month ago, mainly because I couldn’t stand the thought of the colossal mess it would leave behind for my friends to clean up. So, since that prospect is off the table, I’ve gone back to a less hair-raising and reckless existence. I actually don’t want to die now. Something interesting might happen. I call that progress. I also had ten-day-old steamed broccoli which had nothing obvious growing on it. I don’t know why I feel compelled to tell you what I’m eating – cookies, ham sandwiches, broccoli. I’ve been doing it for some time now.

Here is some whip coral at Magic Passage:

No, I’m not going to explain why it’s called whip coral. I don’t feel pedantic tonight. In fact, I don’t feel much of anything. That’s funny. I haven’t had any kava yet. It has a strange calming effect which my pleasant Dr. Mackerel told me about. I told him no Prozac, so he said to try kava. I’m going to do this without major drugs. As I said, I’ll get to that later. It’ll be a hoot!

Talking to Eunie is fun. I close my eyes and see that surreal half-smile which said, “I’m watching you, you crazy guy.” Man, I loved that smile. I carry it on my shoulder.

Often, though – about a hundred times a day, I need to unload on or seek counsel with someone with more clout. Eunie is my gentle advisor. When I need the heavy artillery, I talk to God. I talk out loud, like I do with Eunie.

It’s much more difficult for me to imagine what God is saying back. Obviously, I don’t hear anything. I’m not that far gone. I also have to admit that I don’t know as much about God as I do Eunie. The truth is that you never know what God is up to. I do trust that it’s all going to work out in the end, but man, in the meantime you have to be ready to catch some fast curve balls. I was never any good at baseball. After teams were chosen, I was always the one guy left standing there staring at my toes sticking out of the end of my sneakers.

I do seem to be getting some answers lately. The big questions remain mysteries, but some of the little ones are falling into place. So, I’m calling these productive conversations. There are fewer swords hanging over my head. I’m not afraid to look in my mailbox any more. Part of that is because I can’t imagine what could happen that has not already happened. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that the only things left to lose are things that really don’t matter that much. It’s tremendously liberating. Money – EHHH! There will always be enough. One simply has to adjust one’s expectations. Property – MEH! I don’t have any (Or at least I soon will not – that house is GOING, one way or another!) All of the rest of the stuff that I have accumulated – PFFFT!  I can carry everything I need in a back pack and a small camera case. Free! Free at last!

What brought that on? Hey, my kitchen is full of ants. I’m too cheap to buy bug spray any more. That’s off the shopping list. Beside, they don’t eat much – only what I have dropped or slopped. There are a couple of dead ones floating in my milk. At least I hope they are dead. If they are not, they are in for quite a ride.

Does this look like a giant corkscrew to you?

I guess I mostly talk to myself because I am so used to having someone around to talk to and I just can’t stop because she’s not here now. I’ve noticed that I am much more talkative than I used to be when friends are around. I hope that is not a bad trend. I have seen that flick of the eyes to another which says, “When is he going to shut up?” I’m on the lookout for it.

This is the model which was used for The Blob  in the original movie starring Steve McQueen:

It’s about a metre wide. They had to scale it up and make it mobile for the movie. Inert blobs aren’t very scary and they get real hungry. This one is quite immobile.

I don’t anticipate finding any other conversation partners for my lonely quiet times when I’m feeling chatty. Who else would there be, Elvis? John Belushi? Jack Kerouac?

No, not them. If I talked to anyone else it would be absent friends, the living kind. There are so many who I would love to spend an evening with in quiet discourse.

Speaking of friends, I’m going to take advantage of you and sneak in a couple of very amusing images sent to me by Alison Raynor of Toogoolawah in Queensland. Here is what she wrote to me:

I’ve been on the road a fair bit in the last couple of days and this 6ft carpet snake (a common constricting python) crossed our path yesterday.  We stopped for a look and he stopped  to geek my camera… such a pretty snake, you should see the size of their mouths and fangs though……EEEEK!   This one would be able to swallow an animal or bird heaps bigger than its own body weight and size:

Okay, Ali. How close are you going to get to this thing?

Close enough for THIS!

Okay, I’m impressed.

Today, I spent a fair amount of time getting lawns mowed. No, I didn’t mow the lawns. It’s Gosel’s job to mow the lawns. However somebody has to haul his lawnmower around and get him to the grass which needs cutting. That’s what I did today. Exciting, eh? Here is Gosel mowing a lawn:

I sat in there my blazing hot brand-new Nissan Navarra twin-cab utility truck. I didn’t particularly want to buy a new car, but Eunie wanted one. Her old red truck was getting rusty and she didn’t like that. Anyway, I’m glad now that I have it. It’s like money in the bank, not that money in the bank is any guarantee of security. And, I probably have a car which will serve me for the rest of my life. Hey, my dog Sheba has a good chance of outlasting me. I’m not planting any more trees either. Like many other things which I am discovering, there is a certain comfort here.

I got bored reading Hollywood Crows  by Joseph Wambaugh, so I had a nice, long conversation with Eunie.

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Making Pancakes

Posted in Mixed Nuts on November 16th, 2010 by MadDog
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I am amazed daily by how busy I am. This was not something which I expected – another indication which demonstrates that I was paying little attention to the mundane details of life. Eunie was so competent and took care of so many things so efficiently and transparently  that she seldom seemed to be busy. Oh, what an illusion that was! As part of my self-reprogramming to appreciate once again the potential humour of life situations, I’m trying to understand how this highlights my basic lazy attitude when it comes to things which I perceive as “work” compared to things which I find more amusing, such as “play”.

So, these days I wonder how she did it all, how she did it without seeming to be doing much of anything. I hope that I’ll learn to manage my time better. I can’t believe how much time I waste doing things which are not productive. In the meantime, while I’m absorbing this and readjusting my priorities, I’m making some moves in the direction of creating opportunities to combine work with play. My first target is cooking.

Last night, I came home from work an hour early because I had guests coming for dinner. I had been thinking about making pancakes, because it’s safe. Some people think that it’s strange to have pancakes for dinner, but I felt willing to take the risk. I’m making a concerted effort to have guests to dinner at least one night a week. It softens the loneliness and gives me opportunities for enjoyment instead of working all evening until I find that it’s two o’clock in the morning and I haven’t felt sleepy yet. Yes, there is something funny in that, when I stop to think about it. Funny-stupid. The work will be there in the morning, but the sleep can’t be retrieved. It’s better to lay down with a really bad book and allow myself to be bored into slumber.

The thing about making pancakes is that you can’t use just any old recipe. Since I can’t smell anything any more, I have to depend on recipes. I have to have something which tells me exactly what to add, because I can’t judge seasoning, especially aromatic spices. Pancakes are dead easy if you have a good recipe. I have the finest on the planet.

This is Eunie’s ancient, venerable Betty Crocker Cookbook. Of course, there never was a real Betty Crocker. She was a fictitious person made up by the marketing gurus at General Mills. Over the years Eunie had several editions of the Betty Crocker Cookbook on her cookbook shelf upon which rests, as I counted last night, eighteen volumes of cooking magic. It’s too bad that I’m not very adventuresome. I couldn’t appreciate most of it anyway:

I remember one Betty Crocker Cookbook which Eunie had years ago which was a giant three-ring binder with a similar cover to the one above. This book was widely known as “The Big Red.”

On page thirty of the cookbook above you will find the best pancake recipe in the world:

I’ve reproduced it here with enough pixels that you can read it or print it out, if you want to try it.

Since there is a slim possibility that you are an even worse cook than I, here are some elementary instructions to help you along the road to pancake nirvana. First you have to gather your ingredients. I was making a double batch of batter. That explains the two eggs. I have already added the flour and milk to the mixing bowl. So far, the mess is minimal:

Very efficient, eh? Give it time. It will become progressively more messy.

Okay , now it starts to get serious. I’ve added the eggs, baking powder, oil, salt and sugar. The table is getting cluttered and blobs of egg white and puffs of flour are already attracting my herd of ants. My bare feet are sticking to the floor. Sheba is standing in the kitchen door whining. She knows there are tasty spots to be licked:

My dad taught me that one secret of making pancakes is not to over mix the batter. He always told me to leave a few lumps. So, that’s the way I have always done it. I don’t know if it really makes any difference. I do cheat a little also on the recipe. I put in twice as much sugar and twice as much salt. I use a whisk instead of an electric mixer because I’m far too lazy to get the thing out and plug it into the wall:

Okay, we’re all mixed up now and it’s time to cook up some pancakes. Here is my stove ready for a serious session of cooking:

I like Teflon skillets, because I don’t have to wash them. I just put them under the spigot, rinse and wipe and then dry. As you can see, I’m also making scrambled eggs. I have onions, tomatoes and Colby cheese cubes ready to add. I’ll fry the onions a little first, then add the egg, milk, salt and pepper mixture. When it is almost finished cooking – not too dry, I’ll put in the tomatoes and cheese and give it a final stir.

So, the pancakes and scrambled eggs are cooked now and it’s time to sit down and (hopefully) enjoy the meal. I’ve even managed to enjoy the cooking experience, since I waited until my guests arrived and allowed my new friends from the highlands to help out as they wished. But, wait! Pancakes are not so fine without some sort of syrup, eh? Maple syrup is my favourite, but I can’t abide an artificial taste – ugh! One can occasionally find Real Maple Syrup here in Madang, but it is far too pricey to fit into my new austerity budget, a necessary concession to my enormous, recently incurred debt load. Well, that will go away with time. I refuse to fret about it any longer. It’s such a waste of valuable time. I tell myself twenty times a day, “Stop thinking about that. Money is not your security.”

So, what to do about syrup? I pulled out another trick from my hazy memories of youth, most of which I’d rather not revisit. I cooked up a batch of home-made syrup before my guests arrived. One can make a very tasty caramel syrup so easily and inexpensively that I can’t imagine why anyone buys the stuff. Here is an example:

I hope this doesn’t bore anyone, but I’m forging on nevertheless. I have come this far. I may as well finish it.

Put a cup or two or three of plain sugar into a saucepan and turn up the heat. After a while, you will notice that it is melting. Amazing! Sugar melts all by itself. Now comes the tricky part. You have to stir and stir and stir while it’s melting until the whole mess turns into a very hot amber liquid. This is the part when you want to be very careful. It will burn you until the tears flow if you get any on you, especially on your tummy if you cook as I do as bare as is appropriate considering the sensibilities of my guests. I find this necessary to tolerate the mini-hell of my kitchen in the tropical heat.

So, being careful, you allow the sugar to go all gooey until it’s mostly melted, possibly allowing for a few stubborn lumps. Do not, please, allow it to become too dark. If you do it will quickly acquire a burnt taste which is not at all pleasant. You will have to feed it to the pigs. Once it is sufficiently melted and has the darkish amber colour which is desirable you add some water. How much is anybody’s guess. Add enough to turn it all into a syrup. If you add too much you will have to boil it down, which takes too much time. Be very careful adding the water as it is going to boil up like crazy because the melted sugar is blazing hot. I recommend that you stand back.

Keep stirring until all of the hard-candy like sugar is melted into the water. You should end up with something like a thin syrup while it is still hot. You can test the viscosity of it by putting some in a spoon and then carefully holding the bottom of the spoon barely touching some cold water. The contents of the spoon will thicken and give you an idea of how syrupy the final concoction will be.

At this stage it is very sugary and has no flavour except the caramel. I usually like to add some flavouring after it cools. I happened to have some home-made vanilla extract. It worked a treat. It is a blessing that we are able to get vanilla beans here at a very modest price. Soaking them in vodka for a few weeks makes an excellent vanilla flavouring. We have another advantage here in PNG because the quality of our sugar is very poor. It’s more like raw sugar – very strongly tasting of molasses. It actually makes a better syrup than completely refined sugar.

I didn’t take a picture of the finished meal, because I was too busy enjoying it and the fine company. I was hungry, too.

Bon appétit.

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