30-day Exercise Challenge

Not me, but maybe some day.

After my one-week retreat, I set a long-term, personal goal; but to accomplish it I’d have to become physically stronger. I watched a few YouTube videos about building muscle and then researched gyms in my area. There was one a short distance from my home, the membership was [somewhat] reasonably priced, and it was well stocked with equipment. I joined and set a short-term goal of exercising every day for 30 days.

But I didn’t have to work-out at the gym to meet my daily exercise requirement. Any of the following would count toward achievement:

  • Working out at the gym.
  • Working out at home.
  • Hiking.
  • Digging for fossils with a local university.

And this is how these activities were actually distributed.

70%     Working out at the gym.
13%     Hiking.
7%       Working out at home.
7%       Digging for fossils.

The shortest exercise period was 30 minutes. The longest was a 7-hour hike with few breaks.

So let’s add the numbers:  70 + 13 + 7 + 7 = 97. Three percent is missing from the total. What happened?

During one hike, I’d gotten lost on the trail, resulting in an 11.5 mile (18.5 km) walk in hot weather. I ended the trek with seizing leg muscles and heat exhaustion. I felt my body needed a recovery day, and so I took it easy for 24 hours.

But I don’t find a missed day discouraging. In fact, my efforts were 97% successful!

What differences did I see after 30 days?

  • All muscles show more definition.
  • Physical strength increased. During the first week, the amount of weight I could leg-press or lift was embarrassingly low. But now I can move a respectable amount of weight.
  • I gained 4-5 pounds (1.8-2.2 kg) of muscle. When I started, there was little fat on my 60-plus year old frame, and increasing concern over muscle loss.
  • I eat more, and must increase caloric intake further to gain additional muscle.
  • More attention is paid to protein intake (I use vegetable-based protein sources.)
  • I had loose flabs of skin above my waist (the female version of love-handles). The flabs on one side of my back are nearly gone; on the other side they continue to fade.
  • Posture improved.
  • Energy level increased dramatically.
  • Feelings of happiness increased. I’ve found that if I exercise until I feel weak and wobbly, I feel pleasantly high afterwards.
  • Body image improved; can’t wait to buy some muscle shirts.
  • Skin became smoother and more vibrant.
  • Facial wrinkles decreased.
  • Digestion improved.
  • My body seems to heal more quickly. For example, I recovered completely from my long hike in less than 24 hours. During one leg press, I felt a tendon shift in the back of my ankle, causing a bit of pain. But that, too, recovered within a day. Minor cuts and abrasions seem to vanish within a few hours.
  • The chronic, severe pain in my neck, which I’ve had for at least six months, went away.

So what happens now?

I challenge myself to another 30 days. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Photo of body builder by scottwebb with Pixabay.

Lost in Seaton Creek Historic Preserve

The moon was still up at 8:30 AM, when I started my hike.

Yesterday I visited a new-to-me park, Seaton Creek Historic Preserve in northern Jacksonville (Florida). There was ample parking at the trailhead, although the parking lot looked as though it may sometimes be muddy and impassable.

This area of the trail consisted of thick mud.
Someone was kind enough to position a few logs for crossing.
Conditions had been dry. In wet weather trails may be impassable.

I had downloaded a trail map, and planned to do a figure 8:

  • Take the 2.3 mile Houston Creek Trail (yellow) to it’s end-point.
  • Continue northward on the 1.7-mile Legacy Loop (red).
  • Backtrack Houston Creek Trail (yellow) to the 1-mile Long Cut Trail (white).
  • Backtrack on the Houston Creek Trail (yellow) to the main entrance.
I had planned to hike a figure 8.
The yellow line shows the planned route into the park;
the orange line my planned return.

Since this is a new trail, I did bring a handful of snacks and a bottle of water. I also had a hat, insect repellent, an emergency whistle, pepper spray, a folding knife, and toileting supplies that would allow pack-out of used material (there are no facilities at the park).

The yellow trail was an easy and pleasant hike.

There were occasional benches and picnic tables and, at the kayak landing (at the end of the yellow trail) a scenic view with a covered picnic table and hitching post for equestrian use.

Overall, the trail I’d followed had been well marked and easy to follow. My guard was down as I started the Legacy Loop (red trail). I passed a dilapidated and overgrown bench, and then suddenly came to a 3-way junction marked only by a yellow and white post. I could turn left, go straight ahead, or go back the way I came. I decided to go straight.

Inadvertently went off-trail.

The trail continued, but was less maintained. Just before it became a well-packed dirt road, I made an interesting discovery.

Bone from a fawn or small pig?

There was a section of bone laying in the path. From its size, it might have belonged to a young pig or newborn fawn.

A trail becomes a service road.

As I walked, I wondered if I might be on the service road (marked in blue on the map), since it seemed to follow the correct direction. Thinking I’d somehow missed the red trail, I decided to take the road back to the car and call it a morning.

Along the roadway, I spotted a cocoon of Antheraea polyphemus, a 4-6 inch moth, and stopped to take a picture.

A few steps later, I opened a package of dried mango – or mango jerky as my husband calls it. When my gaze returned to the road, there was a large feline in the distance, swaggering confidently in my direction.

Shit! That’s not a – panther?  

It stopped. Seemed to notice my presence.

As the animal regarded me, I realized it was too small to be a panther. It could be a coyote, but the ears looked too small.

I slowly lifted my binoculars. A very large bobcat.

It sniffed the road and marked the center of the path. It then turned and walked the opposite way.

I followed at a distance.

A bobcat shares the road

Here and there, it listened for movement in the roadside brush. Sometimes it wove in and out of the high grass, always returning to the road.

I was more relaxed now, and chewing the mango. The package in my hand rustled loudly. The cat’s ears tipped back as it monitored my presence.

I finished the snack and put the wrapper away. A few moments later, the cat turned to face me. It sat down and watched me from the edge of the road. Its ears were forward, and the long hairs on its face seemed to cascade across its shoulders. It reminded me of my own cat’s behavior when it feels uncertain; decides to observe.

I was unsure what to do as well. The animal was so beautiful that I wanted to stare through my binoculars, but I also know that staring is confrontational in cats. Instead, I pretended to look into the adjoining fields.

Still the bobcat sat.

I considered backtracking, but turning my back might look like retreat. It could invite stalking.

Instead, I felt for the emergency whistle in my pocket – step one in startling a predator. I then twisted and unzipped a pocket in my belly bag, which held step two – a small canister of pepper spray. If a predator makes actual contact, my last resort is the knife.

The cat stood, then bounded into the shrub where the road made a sudden turn. It hadn’t seemed particularly frightened. Was it waiting for me to round the corner?

I decided to backtrack and find another way out of the park. On the way, I noticed a sign (going in the wrong direction), advising the limits of the park boundary. I’d been wandering an adjoining property.

I continued trying to find the red trail and my bearings. But there were multiple intersecting trails and no markers (or, as I later realized, markers obscured by overgrown brush). I tried one trail after another and went various directions, but continued passing the same landmarks – the bone I’d discovered on the trail, the dilapidated bench, a mole tunnel, a tortoise burrow. Over two hours, I must have made a half-dozen loops and always returned to the same spot.

I’m usually good at judging time and direction by the position of the sun. But these trails were winding, making it was impossible to maintain a directional path. One moment the sun was on my left, right, behind me, or in front of me.

I checked my sports-watch. I’d walked over nine miles and my water was becoming depleted. The air was hot. I hallucinated a sign, which my binoculars assured me did not exist.

I came to a junction with a red trail marker pointing in either direction. I removed my cell phone from my backpack. Time for something more drastic.

I downloaded a hiking GPS onto my phone. The generalized image didn’t show the trail, but it did point in the direction I was headed. By turning my body I knew this new path ran north/south. I wanted to go south, and so that’s the direction I followed.

I walked for a time, and finally encountered other hikers – a younger couple with a small dog. I asked them if I was headed in the right direction. They indicated I was, and gave me some directions.

I found myself back at the kayak landing and on familiar ground. I continued going south, but eventually came to another 3-way junction. I was debating which to take, when the young couple called to me. They had decided to forgo the red trail after hearing about how I’d gotten lost. They pointed me in the right direction and offered to walk with me.

I told them that my knee was giving out, and my muscles were seizing. I wouldn’t be able to walk fast. They might want to go ahead.

They said they didn’t mind walking slowly and, frankly, I was grateful for their company.

My leg became more painful and started to stiffen as we walked. The last half mile or so, my intestines cramped. I began to feel nauseous. I didn’t tell my companions; stayed focused on reaching the car. Once in the vehicle, I checked my tracking watch. I’d traveled 11.5 miles and had been out seven hours.

When I got home, it was hard to eat. I was thankful I’d pre-cooked some oatmeal – an easy meal full of protein. I sat eating and hydrating, gradually gaining enough strength to fix something more substantial.

I kept a heating pad on my leg throughout the night, which kept the muscles from seizing up. Today is a recovery day.

I’m also inspired to try the All Trails hiking app. I’ll post a review in a few months.

Choosing and Editing Your Best Photos

On a typical half-day shoot, I’ll take 200 photos. When I get home, I turn on my computer and create a file folder for the day’s images. I then transfer the pictures from the camera’s data storage card into the folder.

After opening Corel Paintshop Pro, my preferred photo editing software, I begin the process of evaluation and editing. I usually open ten photos at a time, immediately discarding anything blurry. No one wants to view blurry images, not even the photographer.

If there are several shots of the same image, I’ll choose the best of the lot to edit. The rest can be dumped into a subfolder labeled “Originals.”

There are many settings that can be used to alter the image, but these are the ones I use most frequently:

  • Adjust Fill Light/Clarity (lightens backlit subjects)
  • Adjust Brightness and Contrast, Highlight/Midtone/Shadow (allows one to separately lighten or darken shadows, mid-tones, and highlights)
  • Adjust Hue and Saturation, Vibrancy (allows color to be intensified)

Let’s look at some photos from a recent shoot to see how they were improved.

During a recent visit to Sweetwater Wetlands, I came across a group of Wood Storks. Since I find these animals particularly charming, I couldn’t resist snapping a few shots. I took four portraits, knowing that the birds were standing on the “wrong” side of the sun. Being heavily backlit, they would appear dark.

Backlit images have a 70% failure rate, but occasionally they can be saved in editing. I had nothing to lose by making the attempt.

Original photo before editing.

Above is the original photo. The background looks a bit dark, and the bird’s head is a black blob. I first added some fill light. I then lightened the shadows. Finally, I intensified the color. Below is the adjusted image.

Photo adjusted with Corel Paintshop Pro.

Now let’s look at an image of a Great Blue Heron. I actually took fourteen shots of this bird. Reasons for rejection included poor composition (placement within the picture frame); blur; a gaze angled away from the viewer; the nictating membrane (second eyelid) covering the eye. This left me with four images to work with.

Great Blue Heron original photo.

Although this image was my favorite, I wanted to find a way to make the bird appear more powerful. I did this by increasing the vibrancy, or color intensity. Below is the adjusted image.

Great Blue Heron – color adjusted.

Another way to strengthen the image is through thoughtful cropping. This photo of a Tricolored Heron has too much “dead” space.

Little Blue Heron – too much dead space above and below the subject.

Now there are times when dead space can be helpful. For example, we might want to add text above or below the bird’s head. But I wasn’t interested in using this for signage. Instead, I wanted the focus to be on the bird itself.

Little Blue Heron – Cropped long with color adjustment.

The solution was to crop it long, with proportions of 16 x 9. Now the focus is on the bird’s extended neck and face. We feel ourselves tense, almost as though we’re stalking with it. Do you notice the intensification of color?

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks – original photo.

Finally, let’s look at a picture of some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks. I had it in mind that I might want to do something with the reflections in the water, so I was sure to include it in my shot. But I later changed my mind, deciding to focus on the row of ducks. So I again cropped it long.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks –
cropped and color adjusted.

The only thing I disliked about this picture was that the righthand bird was ever so slightly out of focus. I was able to correct this a bit in editing, but this bird is still a bit softer than its peers.

Out of the day’s 200 shots, 71 (36%) were usable. From these, I selected 29 (15%) as my best.

Although field photography is rewarding and challenging, the day’s session is incomplete until its captures have been processed. The goal is to transform ordinary snapshots into something special.

Photographing Wildlife Safely

An alligator lays on an embankment.
Is it resting or hunting?

If you’re reading this, you probably take a lot of photos. And, odds are, you’ll be taking many more. So there will always be another great shot to replace one missed, provided the photographer puts safety first.

Safety begins when one pauses for the shot and glances down. Is she standing next to a venomous snake? (I’ve done that through oversight.) Is she standing on an anthill? (Itchy blisters scolded for weeks.) Will a misstep mean tenacious prickly-pears gripping the shoes with two-inch spikes? (I assisted a gentleman who’d tromped on a cactus at the trail’s edge.)

How does the photographer feel when he first spots a large animal, such as a buffalo, bear, coyote, or boar. Excitement! He grabs for his camera! He then, hopefully, takes a breath and monitors his own behavior. Is there a sense of respect? One who loves nature has no desire to crowd an animal; backs off if the subject changes its behavior due to an encroaching human. Is there fear? If so, trust the intuition. The body is issuing a word of caution. Instead of moving toward the subject, it’s given wide berth and a zoom lens is put into play.

What if the subject is out of range? Most of the world is out of range. Accept that one cannot see or photograph everything. And if we could, the challenge (and enjoyment) of photography would be soon disappear. There will always be another great shot.

Florida has several dangerous animals, including six species of venomous snakes, several species of venomous spiders, male deer during mating season; female deer with offspring; coyotes, black bears, occasionally panthers, and alligators. When I go hiking, the most commonly encountered danger is the alligator.

Florida is covered with ponds, rivers, lakes, and marshes. And wherever there is standing water with vegetative cover, there is likely an alligator in residence. Walking close to water or marsh grasses is always dangerous, since the animals stalk and strike prey along the bank. Even a very large gator can hide itself in vegetation or minimally murky water.

An alligator watches from the reeds.

Sitting on the ground of an embankment is also dangerous, since an alligator may be observing the opportunity – waiting for the person’s attention to stray. I recently saw a young woman reading on the bank, seemingly oblivious to the world around her.

And when laying on an embankment, the human profile resembles that of another alligator. I recently saw a photographer stretched long, with a huge camera lens resting on his chest. Might a resident male (or nesting female) see the profile as a territorial threat?

When a photographer crouches near the water to photograph wading birds, she’s now the size of a large dog – favorite prey! I learned this lesson firsthand when a very large gator crept up behind me and prepared to spring from the water. I suddenly noticed it and jumped up. The gator submerged, becoming invisible in a foot of muddy pond water. (A few weeks later, this gator and another behemoth were removed from this particular park.)

Of course, whenever I go hiking, I take my camera. I also harness a pair of 12 x 42 binoculars to my body, which allows me to quickly see wildlife in detail or monitor it from great distances. During this week’s hike, the binoculars proved particularly helpful.

It’s February, and I was visiting Sweetwater Wetlands in Gainesville, Florida. Here the temperatures are warming, and the alligators are feeding and preparing to define and defend territories. As I stood alone on the trail, I noticed one large gator laying near the water.

I felt no fear, since I was using my zoom lens and was a safe distance away. However, to continue on the trail, I’d have to pass within 25-30 feet of its snout. Signs in the park recommend staying at least 20 feet away, so I’d be officially in the “safe” zone, but something about this particular animal made me uncomfortable. (First rule, trust the vibe.)

I snapped a quick shot, and then enlarged the eye on my camera screen. Not sleeping. In fact it appeared to be watching me. To verify, I lifted the binoculars for a better look. The animal was observing my behavior.

A large gator positions itself to watch me on the trail.

It became more alert and no longer feigned disinterest. It lifted itself from the ground, and positioned itself so that it now laid parallel to the path. Since alligators see much more clearly to the sides of their heads, I assumed that it was preparing to watch as I passed.

My internal alarms were signaling. I remembered a YouTube video I’d seen. An alligator had positioned itself similarly near a sidewalk. Laid quietly as a man and his small dog passed, and then, when their backs were turned, it ran for the dog.

I saw a woman some distance ahead. Thought I would wait on the trail until we could pass together. The combined movement in opposing directions would make us look larger and more confusing. But the woman didn’t approach. Instead she stopped to take photos.

I thought back to my zookeeper training. With very large animals or very tall animals, increased size or height can deflect an attack. How could I make myself look bigger?

Then I realized I had a new tool tied to my belt – an umbrella hat that had failed due to the day’s winds. It took me some moments to untie the knots I’d made. The alligator watched as I fumbled, excitement in its eyes.

I’ve seen gators’ eyes come alive for two reasons. One is when targeting a meal. The other is when defending territory. Neither made me more comfortable.

I slowly unfolded the umbrella, and then realized that the outward surface was silver. I might look like another alligator, which could provoke the animal into becoming aggressive. That wouldn’t work.

But the underside of the umbrella was deep blue. I’d face this toward the gator. Then I’d walk as far from it as I could with the blue surface between us. This would effectively cause me to disappear and, at the same time, create a very large silhouette.

I took a few steps and the animal rose, quickly turned, and sprang from the embankment into the water. A loud splash! It had worked! I was able to pass safely.

So do I recommend using umbrellas to scare alligators? No. Scaring animals for fun is cruel. And If everyone did this, the animals would simply become accustomed to the device and it would become ineffective.

Instead I recommend the following:

  • Monitor one’s feelings; does the situation feel dangerous? All large, wild animals are unpredictable. Many may run, but others may charge. They’re as individual as people.
  • Put yourself in the animal’s paws or hooves. Might the photographer be a threat? A challenger? A meal?
  • Think about previous experiences and information you’ve encountered. What do you already know about this animal and its behavior?
  • Wear binoculars, so that monitoring an animal’s behavior and level of excitement is easier.
  • Photograph dangerous animals from a distance. Use your zoom, and accept that some subjects will be out of range. There will always be another great shot.
Gator at Sweetwater Wetlands Park, Gainesville, FL

Do I need an expensive camera?

Sometimes people try to improve their photography by purchasing expensive cameras. Admittedly, there are now cameras that can do amazing things. However, high-end equipment can cost many thousands of dollars – even tens of thousands! For the average person, this is simply out of reach.

I use a Canon SX700 HS, which is a 30x optical zoom camera. I can’t recommend it to you, because I’ve been using it for a decade and new models are no longer available. But similar products can be found, costing slightly more than the $350 I paid at the time. When I prorate this cost, my Canon has cost me $35/year to own ($350/10 years).

However, this does not include accessories. The only accessories that I use on a daily basis are lens cleaning cloths, an extra data storage card, six batteries, and two battery chargers. I rarely use a tripod in the field, since portability is paramount to me.

Realistically, a low-end camera like this, plus the additional supplies, will run around $600. I also have a desktop computer on which I’ve installed Corel Paintshop Pro. Using software to edit digital photos is one of the keys to better pictures. As of this writing, PaintShop Pro runs around $100. (There are many Paintshop Pro instructional videos available on YouTube.)

I realize $700 is still outside of many people’s budgets. But no matter what camera you use, much of what I’ll cover in this and following articles may help you to take better photos.

Let’s start with some scenic photos I recently took at Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville Florida…

Photographing Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Florida.
A cloud is passing overhead, shading the marsh.
Compare these colors to the images below.

Spring greens are appearing among winter’s golds and reds, and the colors inspired me to take some scenic shots.

This park can actually be difficult to photograph. As clouds pass over the fields, hues suddenly brighten then subdue. A second or two can make a difference in whether the marsh looks well-lit or muddied.

But clouds are nevertheless welcome! The terrain here is so flat, that a solid, empty sky means an uninteresting picture. Imagine the photos in this article with a solid blue sky or, worse yet, a dull gray expanse.

Sweetwater Wetlands Park in Gainesville, Florida.
Click on the picture to enlarge.

Cloud patterns add character, but another important consideration are diagonals. Diagonal lines add energy and movement to the composition.

Look at the picture above. The diagonal trail on the left and the diagonal waterway on the right come to a point. They lead the eye toward the tiny human figure jogging the trail. The tiny coots in the foreground enhance this directional flow, as they swim in the direction of the point.

Sweetwater Wetlands Park.
Click on photo to enlarge.

Here is another landscape with more diagonals. Here our eye is guided toward two tiny coots. Meanwhile, the clouds sweep slightly upward, creating additional movement.

In this view of the marsh, what do you notice as your eye is led back?

Sweetwater Wetlands Park.
Click image to enlarge.

There is a gray bird where the blue water merges with the field of pennywort. And in the distance, at the tip of the arrow, is the roof of a building.

Although these tiny figures – the jogger, the coots, the rooftop, a bird – seem insignificant, they are points of focus that add interest to the photo.

Now let’s look at an additional photo. Where do you see diagonals and focal points?

Sweetwater Wetlands Park.
Click image to enlarge.

Now let’s look at a different type of photo. I was attracted to the colorful reeds and their reflection in the water. But the photograph isn’t that interesting, in spite of an American Coot adding a focal point.

Click image to enlarge.

So let’s zoom in and see what happens – let’s change our perspective.

Colorful Reeds.
Click on image to enlarge.

While I was at the park, I noticed a tour group standing on a covered section of boardwalk. I’ve taken multiple pictures of this construction, all of which I’ve discarded as “So what?” photos. But now, look how the people add interest to and document the space.

Boardwalk at Sweetwater Wetlands Park.
Click on image to enlarge.

I hope that showing you what I look for as I shoot pictures and select the best shots has helped. Look for additional posts like this in the future.

Fort George River Timucuan Trailhead Reopened

This section of the Timucuan Trail parallels Highway A1A and the Atlantic Ocean.

The Fort George River Inlet trailhead (Jacksonville, FL) was closed for refurbishment during Covid, but has since reopened. Although there was initially a fee to use the paved lot, the fee-box has been removed, as has the portable toilet.

As one stands at the edge of the lot and gazes toward the waterway, there appears to be a trail through marshy scrub. However, this trail only extends a short distance.

Although walking along the water is permitted, this can be treacherous for those unfamiliar with the environment. As tidal surges come and go, one may find it impossible to backtrack the one-way route without wading.

Combined biking/walking trail. Those on foot can walk over to a rocky barrier,
which protects the land from erosion and would-be swimmers from dangerous currents.

The paved bike/hiking trail is accessed by passing beneath the bridge. Previously, the trail ended abruptly when traveling northward, ending in a gate blocking access to Little Talbot Island. However, the trail now continues to the park’s main entrance three miles away.

A rocky barrier discourages would-be swimmers
from entering dangerous waters.

Hikers can walk off the trail and gaze at the water over a stony barrier. Watch for Ruddy Turnstones and other peeps, which like to forage between the rocks.

Swimming is always discouraged along Talbot Island’s southern beach and in the water along the bike trail. Currents are particularly strong in this calm-looking section, and many people have been killed.

Indian Blankets and other wild flowers provide
seeds to native birds.

Currently, the space between the bike trail and ocean looks manicured and lawn-like. However, during the spring and summer, native wildflowers appear. During this time, watch for Savannah Sparrows which enjoy feeding on the seeds.

How to reach the trailhead

Traveling north on A1A, pass the entrance to the Kingsley Plantation (on the left) and then Huguenot Memorial Park (on the right). Soon afterward, one passes across a bridge, which spans the Fort George River. A brown sign saying Fort George Inlet Access Parking will be on the left after crossing the bridge. The driveway into the lot is hidden by a row of large palm trees.

Traveling south on A1A, pass the entrance to Little Talbot Island (on the left). Continue three miles. Watch for a brown sign that says Fort George Inlet Access Parking (on the right). If one crosses the bridge over the Fort George River, they’ve gone too far.

Free Tony Robbins Seminar, Breakthrough 2022

One morning, I woke up and realized I was invisible. I was the same person I’d been the day before, and the day before that. But I’d reached an age where employers look at a résumé and shake their heads. “Too old.” An age in which I could no longer deny senior-citizen discounts. And in which young people held conversations above my head, assuming I’d nothing to say. In effect, I’d been kicked off the island.

I’m lucky to have lived long enough to reach this stage. But it crept up on me; sprang sooner than expected. I knew what I was experiencing was normal; nevertheless it sent me into a downward spiral.

I stood in the doorframe for months – one foot in the old life and one in the new. Trying to hold the door open, while forces beyond my control were shouldering it shut. Hoping the old life would realize its mistake and allow me back into the room.

During this period of indecision, I drifted into a state of depression. I knew I needed help, and one night had a dream. I sat down next to Tony Robbins and suddenly felt safe and calm. I began talking with the people around us and found myself laughing again.

Three days later, I stumbled across an ad for Tony Robbin’s Breakthrough 2022, a free 5-day seminar (Jan 25-29). It started in one week, and it was free. I had nothing to lose. I took my dream as a sign that this was something I should do.

I registered and received an email, which provided a link to a Facebook group. It said that joining the Facebook group was required, and that I should explore the various tabs on the Facebook page. There was also a link advertising a VIP package for just under $200, which included Zoom access to all live sessions (Tony would be able to see you on a monitor), lifetime access to the videos, 30-minute per session Q&E extensions, and Tony’s latest book, Life Force. In addition, Tony would donate 100 meals to Feeding America on the attendee’s behalf.

The VIP package was tempting, and in the past it would have been difficult for me to say no – to receive something of value without payment. But now that I’m unemployed, I thought it prudent to take a conservative approach.

At first, the Facebook page was confusing. There were random posts, and nothing seemed to relate to anything else. As this preliminary week progressed, the message board took on greater form. Many posts were in response to daily “challenges”, such as make a live video introducing yourself and hashtag it. The hashtags allowed the Robbins’ Team to locate the respondents to each challenge and select a few winners, which would be awarded various prizes (most of which I wouldn’t have used). I made two live videos, but there were always technical issues with the Facebook-live connection, and so I quickly stopped participating in the challenges.

What impressed me initially about the Facebook group was how open people were in talking about their problems, and how supportive people were in their responses. I won’t say that there were never argumentative or hurtful posts, but here it was a rarity. The tone of posts was overwhelmingly loving and helpful. People were there for each other.

Gradually, however, as more people discovered Breakthrough 2022, questions appeared in colorful, bold print. At first, I thought these were posted by the Robbins’ Team to promote thoughtful exploration of our moods and goals. I believe the initial “questions” were just that, but gradually scammers and would-be life-coaches did the same, hoping to glean usable information. I began to get “friend requests” from scam artists and people wishing to make a sale. I received six friend requests, and accepted one, from a gentleman who I’d spoken with repeatedly through various posts.

Those who paid for the VIP option could watch the seminar via Zoom. Those taking the free option could watch it live on Facebook or through a YouTube link, which was sent to participants during the first few minutes of each live session. The Facebook option proved useless, since the picture buffered every few minutes. The stream continually needed to be stopped and restarted. However, YouTube streamed the sessions flawlessly.

Each session was scheduled to last from 2:00-3:30 PM Eastern Time.

The first twenty-five minutes of Session 1 was dedicated to name-dropping of famous people coached by Robbins, recorded testimonials by famous people, advertising the $200 VIP option, and plugging the Igoscue Method of physical therapy. By the time Robbins arrived, I was feeling skeptical.

But that feeling was soon overcome by Tony’s energetic and seemingly sincere love of people. Even though he could not see me, I felt as though he could. I felt as though I was actively participating and, in fact, I was able to participate somewhat through the chat box, which rolled and flicked with remarks and icons.

The time lost on advertisements was made up – exceeded even – when the session ran long by 40 minutes.

After Tony left the session, there were more ads and a Facebook challenge, after which the free option ended and the Q&A session for VIP participants began.

I tried to do a rough count of VIP participants, since there were shots of Tony sitting in front of monitors. It looked as though there were around 240 people who had taken the free option. Some people were joined onscreen by spouses or children.

In total, eight-hundred thousand registered for Breakthrough 2022 and, during the live sessions, around 42,000 joined the live YouTube sessions. The videos were made available afterwards, for those who could not attend the live meetings.

We were encouraged to keep notes, if only to help us remember the points made. I kept a Word document open next to the YouTube stream. At the end of five days, I had 17 pages of notes.

On days four and five, we were urged to sign up for an Unleashing the Power Within (UPW) conference, to be held roughly a month later. The starting “discounted” price for this stream was around $400, and I believe the upper level option ran around $1,200. At this point, each live session was followed by a half-hour infomercial about UPW.

The tone of the Facebook posts suddenly changed. There was now a frantic tone to the messages. People were upset because they couldn’t afford to attend, but felt that it was crucial. Some implied that others should pay the fee for them. A handful of others generously offered a free ticket, asking potential recipients to plead their cases.

A distinct attitude of sibling rivalry overtook the message boards. Each participant had been made to feel special, but now Daddy Robbins was threatening to turn away from children unable or unwilling to do as told. Children financially blessed bragged about the upper level tickets they had just purchased, while others begged and groveled to be included in the family trip to Disney World.

In fairness to Robbins, I do not think this was his intent. I got the impression that he wants the best for everyone. But marketing is created to make people feel a sense of desire and urgency, and Robbins’ marketing team succeeded in generating the necessary anxiety. Ironic since most people had attended hoping to reduce feelings of distress.

Robbins himself always gave more than expected, and I feel I got a lot out of the experience. He deserves his accolades, and I ended the five days feeling renewed and excited to start my new life.

At the end of the seminar, Robbins suddenly offered an extra free session. It would take place at the same time, same place, two days later. I truly believe the decision to add a free day was spontaneous and unscripted. The content of the extra day, however, reflected the lack of preparation. There was a guest speaker who talked about the importance of nutrition. And the session was wrapped up by Tony’s wife, Sage (the couple has been married for over 20 years).

While Tony implies he is Catholic, Sage appears to lean towards Buddhism. For this event, Sage brought her own spiritual guide, and together they led a meditation on love, reciting the St. Francis Prayer. Although the prayer is Christian and asks only for us to love one another, panicked Christians typed urgently into the chat box: Christ is my savior; Jesus is the only path toward salvation, Hinduism!

Afterwards, Tony looked at his wife with concern. I’m not sure whether it was for the breakdown of the session or concern for the attacks upon his loving and well-meaning wife, or a combination of both.

So, would I participate in Breakthrough 2023 if it’s offered? Yes. I felt that both Tony and his wife are sincere people, who want only the best for others. I left the seminar feeling complete once again, and regained forward momentum. And it was interesting to observe human nature in its raw form – sometimes humbling; sometimes frightening.

Breakthrough 2022 was a unique and helpful experience and Robbins is a powerful speaker – a joy to listen to. The seminar was well worth the time (and money if a paid option is within your budget).

Winter Birds at Sweetwater Wetlands (Gainesville, FL)

From a distance, there appeared to be a lot of dead vegetation in the marsh. It looked like scattered chunks of palm bark.

From a distance, what appears to be dead vegetation.

Then, in the water, I noticed a duck with a bright orange bill. I lifted my binoculars for a better look, and then realized that the woody shreds were moving. This wasn’t debris! Resting among the reeds was a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

A Tricolored Heron joins a flock of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks.

I’d seen these showy birds in the guidebooks, but had never spotted one. But now, as I listened to the flock whistle, I realize I’d been in their presence many times.

As mentioned, Black-bellied Whistling Ducks have bright orange bills. They also have orange-pink legs. Their chests are mahogany or rust-colored; their bellies black; and from the crown of their heads to the base of their necks, they sport black Mohawks. As they move, their wings flash white.

There were large numbers of Great Blue Herons at Sweetwater Wetlands – one of my personal favorites, even though they are relatively common.

A Great Blue Heron camouflages itself among strands of Spanish Moss.

I noticed that the bird’s flowing feathers and gray coloration provide effective camouflage when a Great Blue rests among wispy strands of Spanish Moss.

A Little Blue Heron fishes in the marsh.

Little Blue Herons were also plentiful, and their white offspring mingled with Snowy Egrets and White Ibis.

Immature Little Blue Heron

Juvenile Little Blues can be differentiated from Snowies by their blue-gray bills and patch of blue skin between the base of the bill and the eye. Snowies, in contrast, have black bills and a yellow skin patch.

Tricolored Herons joined the other wading birds.

I spotted a Wood Stork moving along the water’s edge. Because it was moving quickly, I doubted my photos would come out. But it was a good time to practice moving my camera at the same speed as the animal, to reduce blur. I was pleasantly surprised at the clarity of the processed images.

American Coot

Through my 12×42 binoculars, I watched a pair of American Coots diving for salad. I had never seen these birds dive at close range before, and was to discover they leap straight up from the water, leaving the water’s surface before plunging headfirst. Small discoveries like this always renew my appreciation for the animals I meet.

I am always amazed by Red-winged Blackbirds. They fly in clouds, which suddenly vanish as the birds drop into the yellow marsh grass.

Double-crested Cormorant

Today I was especially lucky. I got a good picture of a Double-crested Cormorant, which tend to be a bit skittish.

Male Anhingas are black.

I also took a good, crisp picture of a male Anhinga. Anhingas can be photographically challenging for a number of reasons. They twitch a lot and tend to point their bills away from the camera and toward the water. Their wet wings can reflect the sun to become streaks of glare. Their small eyes must catch the light a bit; otherwise the eye’s red coloration becomes a black dot. A water backdrop adds further difficulty. When too much light is reflected on its water’s surface, the bird becomes a silhouette.

On my way out of the park, I spotted a second new-to-me bird, a pair of painted buntings! These birds are too small to photograph with my humble camera, and apparently others find them difficult to photograph as well. When I looked for images taken by other photographers, there were very few available. These birds are tiny and are covered with intense patches of red, green, and blue.

American Alligator

And, in Florida, wherever there are bodies of water edged by vegetation, there are alligators. The largest animals appeared to be lounging in the sun, but smaller gators were more active, suspiciously eyeing passers-by from algae-covered water.

Paper Towel Alternatives

Since the washing machine doesn’t care whether one washes ten hand towels or forty, it’s economical to replace paper towels with reusable bar mops and cloth napkins.

Bar mops are small, 100% cotton towels that are super-absorbent and typically inexpensive. I keep stacks of them in the kitchen and use them for drying my hands, wiping up spills, and blotting dry washed vegetables.

As for napkins, I prefer to use white, since I can then wash them with the bar mops, saving time and laundry detergent.

Once used, all bar mops and napkins are tossed into a separate laundry basket. When the basket is full, its contents are dumped into the washer. If the whites start  looking dull, I might add a small amount of bleach.

The lot folds quickly out of the drier. If the napkins have a few wrinkles, I don’t worry about it. After all, I’m managing a home rather than a resort, and my goal isn’t to increase my workload. Instead, it’s to help the environment and the household budget, in this case by replacing paper toweling with a reusable alternative.