Life in the Middle, Episode 7

Life in the Middle, Episode 7

It’s been way too long since Alayna and I did an episode of Life in the Middle! Now that she’s no longer in middle school, maybe you thought we would have to stop making our crazy videos… But she’s STILL a MIDDLE child!

In Episode 7, we go shopping for a Father’s Day gift for my hard-to-buy-for husband. You won’t believe WHAT we end up buying and HOW we plan to use it! Only at the Neal house….


Pin It
Experiencing the college vibe

Experiencing the college vibe

We are only three weeks into summer, but so much has already happened that I feel like I need to make some attempt to write about it all on my blog.

We’ve had many highlights already… The boys have both been working everyday as swim instructors. Matthew has been playing a ton of baseball. Alayna spends two to three days a week at cheer camp. And Jayda has more than doubled her hours at the gym now that she is on the competitive gymnastics team.

This past week, I was preoccupied all week with the fact that Andrew was at a film camp at Taylor University, which is about four hours away in Upland, Indiana. Of the six colleges we’ve visited so far, Taylor is one of our top picks because of its amazing film program. While we’ve only visited schools that offer some variation of a degree in “film,” Taylor is one of only two colleges we have visited that has a major that specializes in creative film making, rather than leaning more toward broadcast journalism.

When we visited there this spring, our tour guides gave us some info about a one-week film camp for high school students. I asked about it, and one of the faculty members told me the camp was already full. She suggested we add Andrew’s name to a waiting list. A few weeks later I got an e-mail saying they had opened a few more spots, and Andrew could attend! I found out later they had only opened TWO additional spaces.

Sending him off to film camp was a growing experience on so many levels. All of our kids have gone away to camps for a few days or a week. But this felt so different because he was actually going to a place where he could potentially be living for the next four years. It gave me a glimpse of what it’s going to be like for him to move away and go to college.

I was a mess the first day. I missed him so much.

He was nervous when my husband dropped him off, and I spent the evening texting him with words like, “Try to enjoy the time.”

By the time the week was over, I almost felt like I was picking up a different kid than the one we sent off. He found me at the campus Chic Fil-A, and came walking up holding the promotional poster for the movie he had directed the previous week.

The 18 students at the camp had broken into three groups, and each group created a short film during the camp. Their days also were filled with classes to learn the various elements of movie making, from writing a screen play to directing, cinematography and editing. It made me realize that up until this point, it’s been rare that Andrew has been in an environment in which he has been able to learn from instructors with skills in the specific area of film making that interests him.

When he was younger, I taught him how to edit in iMovie and then we both mastered Final Cut Pro. Back in elementary school and junior high, HE was the one who would gather groups of friends and put on his own film camp.

High school has offered him a few broadcast journalism classes and a film class. But those were taught by English teachers. While his teachers have invested a ton into his pursuits, they also have said that he knows more about video editing than they do.

Finally… he got to spend the week under the instruction of professionals in the film industry. He also got to work with current students who were able to speak into his passions and interests.

During the closing ceremony of the film camp, one or two students from each group gave a short speech about the film they had made and the process. It was so fun to see Andrew represent his group, along with another student.

When he’s at home, Andrew’s creative mind seems to always be working on his next project. He’s always telling me about ideas for a screen play. Every week, he takes off in his car to scout out a potential filming location. And he is often trying to recruit his friends to accept roles in his projects, which he creates all on his own.

It was so refreshing for him to spend a week with other students who shared his passion and interest in film making. I loved that he really got to learn more about the process from people who were farther along in their pursuits. And he got to specialize in just two areas — cinematography and directing — rather than trying to pull off every aspect of creating a film.

The camp also was so helpful to get to experience first hand what it would be like to live on a college campus. He was able to sleep in a dorm room, eat the cafeteria food and experience campus life. By the end of the week, I think we all felt better about the next stage of life for our first born. Thinking of sending him to college has been such a scary idea, but seeing him grow and flourish after just one week away made me super excited for his future!


How’s your summer going so far?



Pin It
Back when a giraffe was special

Back when a giraffe was special

I know it’s been a few days since you’ve heard from your amazing self-recognized official gorilla birthing photographer, so I thought I better check in and let you know what has been happening around here. I’ve been laying low due to all of my fame and notoriety lately, as well as the constant ambush of questions that come with being such a notable photographer.

Oh, who am I kidding? I’ve been running around wearing my five blue ribbons around my neck, just hoping someone will ask me if I’ve seen any wild animals give birth lately!

Seriously though, everywhere I go (and by everywhere, I mean the two places I’ve gone), lots of people (and by “lots,” I mean seven) ask me the same question: “Have you submitted those gorilla photos to the zoo yet?!”

I’ve pretty much been waving a flashing neon sign in the world of social media, trying to get the zoo to notice my photos by tagging them, using their hashtag, leaving comments on their posts and even sending them an e-mail. I’m starting to think they actually like their own beautiful non-bloody baby photos better than my raw, straight from the womb, umbilical-cord-still-in-view version.

I did find it exciting that more than 800 people have visited my blog post about the gorilla birth. And I might have spent 30 minutes today trying to figure out how I could find out when other wild animals are in the final stages of pregnancy and then stalk them just to increase my blog readership. It would be kind of like when I used to write those LOST recap posts.

Since I haven’t figured that one out yet, I’m just going to randomly throw in some photos of other animals that I used to think were cool back before my standard for a good zoo photo was elevated to include wrinkly-skinned babies that are less than a minute old. Ah, the good ol’ days… when giraffes were special.

Dang, I mean, it wasn’t that long ago that I was impressed by a seal doing a backbend…

Or even an orangutan eating kale…

I have had several people ask me what time the gorilla actually gave birth because they also were visiting the zoo the same day I took those photos. I went back and looked at the time stamp that my camera puts on the photos, and I was amazed to see that I took the first photo in the set at 2:14 p.m. and the last photo at 2:18 p.m. That’s four minutes. I was literally in that room for the exact four-minute time span required to see the gorilla baby moments after his/her birth and before they shut down the exhibit. I found that to be amazing.

Let’s celebrate by remembering how cute it is when someone feeds lettuce to a giraffe:

I’ve also been asked several other important questions that I think I should answer here:

Q: Was it the gorilla’s due date?

A: I don’t know.

Q: Was the gorilla angry that so many people were watching her give birth?

A: I don’t know how the gorilla felt.

Q: Why didn’t the zoo workers run into the gorilla habitat when the baby was born?

A: I’m guessing they didn’t want to get torn to shreds by a massive gorilla who might be a little overprotective of her newborn.

Q: Have you submitted those photos to the zoo yet?

A: I’m a 3 on the Enneagram. (AKA, yes.)

Ahhh…. but remember when I thought an orangutan was cool?

Well, you’ll have to excuse me… I have to go take some photos of some baby birds in a nest. Because… you know? Remember when that was a big deal?


Pin It
How I ended up at a gorilla’s newborn photo shoot

How I ended up at a gorilla’s newborn photo shoot

On Friday, I had one of the most amazing photography experiences I have encountered. In fact, it happened so quickly, so unexpectedly and the moment felt so surreal that even when I looked back at my photos this morning, it was hard to believe I had taken them.

Somehow, I walked into a precise location at an exact moment and had the right equipment that was set up and ready to go. All of that still feels a little mind boggling to me, especially when I think about what it took to even get there.

Last week, I sat down to map out our schedule for the summer. Our kids have reached a stage in life in which I no longer get to control the calendar or have a say into each day’s activities.

Our two boys both started jobs as swim instructors, and when swimming lessons begin next week, they will be working five mornings a week. Andrew has a film camp this summer, and he’s also in a local theater production with practices every night for a month. Matthew plays on both a school and travel baseball team and will have practices and games seven days a week through July. Alayna made high school cheer and starts practice next week. Jayda made a competitive gymnastics team, and she will be practicing 10.5 hours a week.

I looked at the calendar and realized we would have ONE day when everyone was free between now and the end of July. I asked (begged, really) if we could do something as a family. I had hoped to go to Starved Rock, but they voted for the zoo. They were all willing to spend a day with me, so I certainly wasn’t going to argue!

Friday morning, I purchased a membership to the Brookfield Zoo, and off we went!

I can’t remember the last time we all went to the zoo together. Seeing all of the young families there reminded me of the times I pushed THREE kids packed into a double stroller while pregnant with our youngest. I was finally free to just walk along with four totally self sufficient people, and yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling I should take my camera, along with my huge 500 mm lens and monopod. That’s a lot of equipment to carry around the zoo all day, so I also took our big plastic wagon that we only use these days to carry mulch. I packed a big lunch bag, and threw it in the wagon, along with my camera gear and sunscreen.

My kids were all in a great mood, and thankfully, no one complained when I got out my camera to shoot photos of the giraffes or zebras. We headed to the dolphin show, but we were a few minutes late, so we decided to make our way to see the monkeys instead. Tropic World is always one of the busiest exhibits. It’s broken into three large areas, representing three different parts of the world.

I patiently waited to get a good viewing spot in the first room where I could fully extend my monopod and not hit anyone in the head with my huge camera lens. We moved on to the next room, and I told everyone to go ahead while I waited to get some good shots of the orangutans.

I walked into the next area with the gorillas, and I could see my kids on the upper ramp across the room for me. I found an open spot looking directly at the gorillas so I extended my monopod and took off my lens cap.

Something unusual was happening, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I could see a ton of red on the ground and the gorillas were tossing something around. It looked like one of the animals had been injured. Or maybe they had put raw meat in the feeding area, but I was pretty sure gorillas mainly eat plants. I could see a long cord hanging from one of the gorillas, but my brain couldn’t process it fast enough. The woman standing next to me said, “Do you think they will send someone in to help her?”

Then, she turned to see me with my camera. “Did you get that on video?” she asked excitedly.

“I just walked in,” I said. “What happened?”

She explained that the gorilla had just finished giving birth. That long cord was the umbilical cord!

I zoomed in, and I could barely see the baby. The mom seemed mostly concerned with cleaning the blood off of her hands. She seemed obsessed with consuming as much of the blood as possible that was covering the straw where she had given birth. (I read later that many animals in the wild feel the need to eat the placenta right after giving birth.)

The other gorillas gathered around her, circling the mom and the newborn.

Finally, they moved back and I could see the baby.

I wasn’t wearing my glasses, so I could barely even see the baby with my naked eye. I couldn’t wait to look at my photos on my camera to see in sharper detail what I couldn’t see in real life.

I tried to move up the ramp to get a better vantage point. That’s when I realized that two zoo workers were slowly making their way down the ramp, asking people to leave. Everyone was totally calm. No one was rushing into the gorilla habitat.

I asked the workers if they knew the gorilla was going to have a baby that day.

“We knew she was pregnant,” they responded. “We want to give her some time alone now.”

They saw my camera and let me stay a few extra moments, snapping photos. I was mentally beating myself up that I had lingered in the other room instead of walking into the gorilla area with my kids. But later, I realized that if I had been with them, I would have been asked to leave much sooner, and I wouldn’t have had the same awesome viewing spot that I did.

I guess I always imagined that zoo animals would be taken into a sterile room to give birth and assisted by a veterinarian. It’s hard to remember that they are wild animals and want to give birth just as they would in the wild. The other moms around me all seemed to be just as emotional as I was that we had been able to witness such a special moment with that mother.

A few years ago, I heard someone give a talk about “luck.” She said that luck isn’t just something random that happens to you. It’s a combination of being in the right Location with the right Understanding, Connections and Knowledge to make the best of the situation. That was definitely the case for me that day. My gut told me I would regret it if I didn’t lug that huge camera around all day. I walked into that room with my camera already set up on the monopod and ready to go. And I was blessed to find an open spot in a crowded room with a perfect view.

All of that combined to give me a photography experience and a day at the zoo that I will always remember!




Pin It
Why I spent May on a scavenger hunt

Why I spent May on a scavenger hunt

Back in April, I was scrolling through Facebook when a post popped up from our local park district. They were promoting an event that immediately caught my eye. It was a photography “scavenger hunt.”

Participants would be given a list of items to find and photograph during the month of May. I already spend time each week searching for beautiful scenes to photograph, so this sounded like fun.

But then, I read through the details. At the end of the scavenger hunt, the photos would be displayed in a little museum in town. Judges would choose the winners, and the public would also be invited to vote for their favorites.

No way.

Just the idea of having judges look at my photographs was making my stomach upset. As much as I post my photos on social media, I got nervous thinking about my photos hanging on a wall for people to vote on. Besides, I would probably be the only person to even enter, and then I would feel even more ridiculous!

Then, I started thinking about all of the things I encourage my children do. I thought about our oldest son who creates short films and has to sit in the room while people cast their votes for their favorite. I thought about the times the boys have performed in improv shows, hoping the audience will think they are funny. I thought about our second born going through a week of tryouts for high school baseball. I thought about the girls doing gymnastics or cheerleading, taking huge risks to perform in front of a crowded room. If one of my children loved photography as much as I do, I would absolutely sign them up!

Since the beginning of the year, I have spent a lot of time learning about myself and some of my personality traits that keep me from becoming the person that I want to be. As a 3 on the Enneagram, I have discovered that my fear of failure plays a major role in many of the choices that I make in life. I absolutely cringe at any situation in which my creative work will be analyzed. I’ve come a long way in this regard, but I’ve realized how often my fear of being critiqued holds me back.

So, the first weekend of May, I had a rare Saturday morning that was a blank page on my calendar. My husband took the girls on a road trip to visit his parents, and the boys both had plans. I excitedly packed up my camera gear and set out on my scavenger hunt.

I needed to find photos in five categories: Birds, blooming trees, wildflowers, being green and at the park. The photos couldn’t be of people. They had to be taken within a three-week time span. And they had to be within a certain geographic area.

I leisurely roamed around the river walk downtown. I hiked through the woods. I crawled under a bridge. I waded in the river. I sat down in the middle of a field of wildflowers. I stood for 20 minutes in the swampy area next to a lake watching two swans fishing at sunset. I lost my shoe in the mud.

I realized that everywhere I went, I was thinking about those five categories. It was interesting how my brain started noticing things I might not have seen otherwise.

I knew that I could find swans in the lake that’s just behind my house. But now I made a special trip to catch them swimming right in the spot where the sun was about to set.

Here are a few others of the swans:

I was constantly on the lookout for the gorgeous blooms of blossoming trees. But the scavenger hunt made me more aware of the contrast of a red barn to frame my photo.

Here are a few others of the blooming trees:

I would have never discovered that one of our local parks is completely covered in bluebells in May if I hadn’t been on my scavenger hunt.

Here are a few others of the wildflowers:

I set out to try to find a frog in a swamp for my photos of “being green,” but then I realized how the reflection of trees on the swamp filled my viewfinder with green.

The hardest photo to find was “at the park.” I couldn’t think of a creative way to photograph a park scene without including people (which was against the rules). I took a quick walk around my neighborhood one day without my camera, when I noticed that our local park looked lovely when gazed from a distance between the branches of some flowering trees. I walked the mile back home to get my camera so I could check the last item off my scavenger hunt list.

I returned to the spot to take my photo and realized I had forgotten my SD card. There was no way I was giving up! I walked home and came back a third time to complete my final photo!

This weekend, we got to go see the other entries in the scavenger hunt. It was weird to ask my family to go do something that was centered around me, rather than one of them. It seems like every weekend is me bouncing from one event to the next to cheer them on for something.

Three other people entered the contest, but only one other person was an adult. The other two people entered in the youth category. While we were looking at all of the photos and casting our votes, several other groups of people came in to look at the photos. I smiled as I overheard them talk about my photos and try to decide which one to vote for.

My 13-year-old daughter was the only one available to go with me on Sunday to see the results. “Just try to act like we are randomly visiting the museum,” I instructed her. “Pretend you don’t even know about the photos, and we just happened to see them.” We laughed at ourselves as we tried to walk in casually.

When we saw that all five of my photos had earned a blue ribbon, she excitedly grabbed my phone to take some photos. I loved all of my competitor’s entries, and I really wished she had won in some of the categories. Regardless of the outcome, it was really the experience that made it fun.

I had a month to focus on a goal that wasn’t about work or my kids. I noticed the beauty of my community in a new way. And my family got to cheer me on for a change!


So what about you? Have you done something recently that was just for you?



Pin It
A blanket of bluebells

A blanket of bluebells

This weekend, I had a little time to myself because my husband had taken our two girls out of town to visit his parents. Our boys are pretty much self-sufficient, so I took advantage of a Saturday morning to go for a hike.

I have absolutely been loving the spring weather this past week, and I wanted to take some photos of the blooming trees. I drove over to a wooded nature area that’s not far from my house. When I pulled up, I could see that most of the trees in the woods were covered in green blooms. I was really looking for trees that were blooming in vibrant purples and pinks or blossoms of white. I debated whether to even get out of my car.

What the heck? I had time, so I ventured into the forest.

I hadn’t walked far before I saw an amazing canopy of blue covering the ground under the trees. I would find out later they were bluebells. I’ve lived in Illinois my entire life, and I did not know that bluebells would grow here.

My blogger friends, Sues, always writes about the bluebells in Texas, so I thought they must be something you only see in the south.

I know where I can go to find a glade covered in daffodils in the spring. And I’ve always wanted to visit the fields of tulips that bloom the first weekend of May in Holland, Michigan. But I’ve never heard or even seen photos of bluebells in this area.

I sat down in the middle of the tall flowers to take some photos and realized they smell as pretty as they look. I took deep breathes, inhaling the scent of honeysuckle. If I had a book and a blanket, I literally could have sat there all day. But eventually, I needed to move on.

That’s when I saw an even larger blanket of bluebells covering the forest floor. Behind it was a private residence with a picture perfect barn reflected in a pond. I was in photography heaven for a while longer.

I was planning to take prom photos for some friends later the same day, and I almost texted them to ask if they wanted to move their photo shoot to this wooded area. I knew it would be too far of a drive with all they had planned, so I didn’t make the suggestion.

When we arrived at the park we had already planned, guess what was awaiting us?

Yep. More bluebells!

Well, bluebells are for sure my new favorite. I’m so thankful I just happened to find them during the short window that they are in full bloom.

If you haven’t seen them, take the time to find some this spring! I promise it’s worth the effort!



Pin It