Monthly Archives: December 2009

It Takes a Village

A look at part of the village.

The other night the Mister and I actually put on our social pants and paid a visit to friends in our community. We wanted to see Kathie and Dwayne, of course, but the true draw was one of Kathie’s passions: Her Christmas village that was set up in her dining room.

A young girl pulling her baby brother on a sled represents their kids.

Kathie started collecting the pieces in 1992 when her daughter Monica and son Tanner (who is a friend of my #1 son) were very young. Every year she adds to her wonderful village.

Snowmobile tours

This snowmobile tour building (and more) was her addition this year. It’s set up next to a ski run.

The skiers never seem to get bored!

The ski run actually works! The skiers shoot down the hill and then back up the “lift” endlessly.

Skating without falling down!

Skaters also turn rings around a rink without ever falling. That’s quite an accomplishment!

Too bad there's no ocean for this lighthouse!

Every bit of Kathie’s village is interesting and worthy of low-light photography (with my Nikon D700 and 50mm lens; my ISO mostly was set on 1250–1600).

The choir sings!

I especially liked the parts that made sound. Such as the church’s choir . . .

The old-fashioned radio station

. . . and singers inside the old-fashioned radio station (K-TOY).

A peek inside at the radio station’s singers

I set my exposure compensation at –1 to tone down the light emanating from the radio station’s window. Aren’t they cool-looking characters?

Or maybe they’re really macho men (even though this isn’t a YMCA)? After all, they are the village people!

New Year’s Eve

I hope all my readers have a safe and happy New Year’s Eve tonight! Farewell to 2009!!

Photographically a Day Late and A Dollar Short

The leaves tell the story of what could have been.

I learned a valuable photographic lesson last week: Don’t wait to shoot what could be an amazing photo.

I’ve written before about how green our community is here in the Houston area. We’re surrounded by oak, palm, and pecan trees—they’re totally green all the time. It’s hard to get into the holiday spirit sometimes when every season looks the same.

Two of the few colorful trees left in our community.

But about a month or so ago, maybe 10 percent of our neighborhood’s trees surprised us. We’ve lived in our master-planned community for 13 years, and this was the first time I’d seen such a marked change in some of the foliage. These trees were amazing, aflame with colors—reds, oranges, and golds! They were a welcome contrast to their year-’round green brethren.

Beauty is right above us!

I kept telling myself to get outside and photograph the pretty trees, but the weather wasn’t perfect, and I wasn’t feeling well—they were at their most glorious during a patch when the weather was dreary and rainy, and I suffered from a cold that took 10 long days (and a Z-Pak) to shake.

Where’d all the leaves go?

When the sun finally came out and I felt like shooting again, I noticed something odd about those gorgeous trees: Almost all of them were bare! Very few had any colorful leaves still adorning their branches. I had blown my opportunity to document something truly spectacular. And I was ticked off.

I photographed the three trees above—the only color-ladened ones I could find! I’ve just got to hope that next December all the beautiful trees will put on the same colorful show. And that the weather and my health will cooperate!

Random Snippets & Apertures

This would make a nice painting . . . if I could paint!

As we near the end of 2009, I find myself getting more reflective. I suppose that happens to everyone as we’re about to turn the calendar page to a new month, year, and—hard to believe!—decade.

It looks like wheat, but it isn't. But what is it?

For us, 2010 will usher in an 18th birthday, high school graduation, and the start of college for our #1 son. Meanwhile, as #1 graduates, his younger brother will turn 15 and get his learner’s permit and probably will drive us crazy wanting to be behind the wheel. We also hope that there’s a wonderful, uplifting track season for #2 in the spring.

Here's more of it . . . whatever it is!

The Mister and I face our 20th wedding anniversary at the end of April with a specific goal in mind . . . and, no, it has nothing to do with trying to get along better. Although, maybe we should strive for that, too!

Intriguing fluffy, purply stuff!

Every new year seems to hold so much promise! Goals, hopes, and dreams are written down on January 1. By December 31, will they be firmware or vaporware?

More of the purply stuff

At the end of every year, I ask myself questions. Did I achieve any of my goals? Was I a good mom? Am I more organized?

Did I write blog posts for the sole purpose of showcasing my photos that had absolutely, positively nothing to do with my subject matter?

Can't get enough of this purply stuff!

We don’t need the Magic 8-Ball to figure out the answer to that final query, apparently!

Three Thumbs Up (If I Had Those Many Thumbs!)

Last weekend brought a binge of movies for us. But we didn’t feel overstuffed at all! In fact, all three that we saw were enjoyable.

First, on Christmas the four of us saw “Sherlock Holmes,” which was the #2 son’s #1 choice. We beat the crowd by going to the 9:45 a.m. showing. And we saved money—tickets are $5 each before noon.

Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr., and Rachel McAdams

Robert Downey Jr., who is not British, played the title character, who, of course, is British. Fortunately, he’s a good enough actor to carry that off. Jude Law was his faithful assistant, Dr. Watson, with Rachel McAdams as beautiful career criminal Irene Adler. Director Guy Ritchie’s rendition featured lots of physical action, which included Holmes boxing, juxtapositioning the mental game of crime solving.

The movie kept us on the edge of our seats the entire time. We really enjoyed it!

Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña) and Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)

Saturday morning brought “Avatar” into our lives, the #1 son’s pick. The special effects were dazzling, so much so that I was glad we didn’t opt for the 3D version. While it was an interesting story (humans genetically engineered alien bodies called “avatars” to try to reason with aliens in the future), I didn’t like being hit over the head with the pro-environmental, anti-war message. And I am both of those! However, it was much too heavy-handed in the movie, which was pretty violent. The boys really liked it, of course.

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney

The Mister and I saw “Up in the Air” yesterday. It stars my “second husband,” George Clooney.

Sidebar: This was my unusual conversation with another female moviegoer when I was buying tickets Friday. She was going to see “Up in the Air.”

Me: I really want to see that! My second husband, George Clooney, stars in it.

Her: Well, I’m having an affair with your second husband!

By the way, no male on earth will understand that exchange!

“Up in the Air” is about Clooney’s character, who plays a corporate downsizer (e.g., someone who fires people for companies). He has no attachments other than two sisters he hardly sees until he becomes smitten with a frequent-flying gal played by Vera Farmiga. As he continues in a hardly rational pursuit of mega airline miles, he’s paired with a new, young, female downsizer who wants to fire people via iChatting/Skype. Anna Kendrick, who plays Bella’s closest friend in the “Twilight” series movies, gets a more-sizable role here and really shows her acting chops.

Yes, yet another shameless chance to picture George in my blog.

The Mister and I both really liked “Up in the Air.” It’s billed as a romantic comedy or a comedy drama, but it’s really much more drama than comedy. It definitely makes you think about what’s really important in your life.

As someone who dislikes flying, I know frequent flying miles never will be more important than the people I love. And that includes those make-believe husbands!

Christmas and Spaghetti

Good will to humankind.

Our Christmas Day tradition is to see a movie. We’ve opted for “Sherlock Holmes” at 9:45 this morning. Hope it’s not too crowded!

When I was growing up, our Christmas Day tradition was to eat spaghetti. Yes, spaghetti (it wasn’t known as “pasta” back in the 1950s and ’60s, at least not in our house).

Why spaghetti? Because my mom insisted that spaghetti was what all the goyim ate on Christmas Day. And my mom did cook up a mean batch of pasghetti, as my dad liked to call it. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that most gentiles actually ate ham or turkey on Christmas Day. At the time it was kind of disillusioning actually.

But now it’s pretty funny when I think back fondly on those days. I miss my father, who has been gone since March of 1991; I miss being with my mom, who is trying to stay warm and safe up in Chicago; and I definitely miss my mom’s delicious pasghetti!

To those of you who celebrate the holiday today, Merry Christmas, y’all! Whether or not you eat spaghetti!

An Illuminating Photo Shoot

An inauspicious start!

Continuing where I left off with yesterday’s blog post about taking photos of bright Christmas lights:

As you can see from the above photo, which was my first attempt snapping away in Pecan Grove, I got off to a lousy start. Remember all that practicing I had done the day before for taking photos on a ProGrad hayride? I forgot one teensy, tiny, minute detail: The vehicle would be moving.

While in my neighborhood, I was either on foot or shooting from a stopped car. I didn’t consider that the hayride vehicle would be on the go for most of its 45 minutes of travel. Which led to a bunch of blurred photos until I increased my shutter speed to compensate for how fast the car I was in was going. Duh!

Sidebar: Yes, I wimped out and rode in the car, driven by the husband of my friend Darlene, instead of in the trailer it was pulling. Hey, it was cold that evening! Can’t shoot well with frozen fingers (or so I rationalized!).

Lots to see at this house

As we drove along the lit-up streets of Pecan Grove, there was so much beauty to take in and photograph. The residents did themselves proud! The Nikon D700 and 50mm lens were up to the task, as my ISO was mostly set on 2500. I kept the exposure compensation at –.3 and –.7 (depending on how many lights there were), so I could retain as much lights detail as possible.

Here’s a sample of what we saw:

It's an Incredibles Christmas!

Santa also apparently flies a plane!

Lots of pretty lights here

Kung Fu Panda takes center stage.

This house featured a horde of snowpeople.

This seemed to be everyone's favorite: The Ho Ho Ho house.

Ho ho ho! Seems to be an apt sentiment for tonight!

Practicing for a Light-Filled Photo Shoot

A cute inflatable

When I volunteered to help with a hayride last Saturday, I, of course, had an ulterior motive. The event was run by the ProGrad committee at my sons’ high school in an attempt to raise money for its lock-in the night of high school graduation.

Sidebar: Project Graduation is a supervised, all-night, alcohol-free party for grads where they get fabulous prizes and have a great time. Even the hardly social #1 son plans to attend. Surprised me, that’s for sure. Which meant I had to volunteer.

Snoopy serenades our neighborhood.

The hayride (aka trucks pulling trailers filled with hay bundles) travels through a nearby community, Pecan Grove, that’s renown for its December lightfest. Most of the houses participate in making the many streets look festive and bright. I knew I’d want to go on one of the trucks after my volunteer duties and snap photos of the beautiful houses. I also knew that I’d better practice in my own neighborhood first, so I’d know what to anticipate once the hayride was rolling.

Lit-up snowpeople

My equipment choice was easy: I opted for two low-light champs, the Nikon D700 paired with the Nikon f/1.4 50mm lens. A fast lens like the 50mm lets in a lot of light, enabling me to keep my shutter speed high enough to, hopefully, not blur what I’m shooting.

Why not use flash, you ask? Because it wouldn’t look like you were photographing at night! Everything would be much too bright.

As I walked around my neighborhood, I experimented with exposure compensation in order to deal with the cluster of lights, like with the above snowmen. Without accounting for this extra light by going to an exposure comp of –.7, the snowmen would be blown out and almost unrecognizable. Too much light, just like too little light, can be a bad thing photographically.

Sidebar: Neither my neighbor Sylvia nor the Mister read the above three paragraphs. Their eyes started glazing over once they read “My equipment choice.” I fully understand . . . that’s how I feel when people talk about spreadsheets or computer code. Or cooking without following a recipe.

Two bears and a seal

Walking around the neighborhood taking a multitude of photos (each time I would try different settings to see what worked best) was a great experience. Although I’m sure some of my neighbors were scratching their heads at my odd behavior.

Blue snowflakes

I even found myself wishing that some of the snowflakes I was photographing were real. No, not lots and lots and lots of them. Just enough to make it seem like winter here in south Texas.

How many white trees are there?

Every now and then I found a reflection photo op. Those always are my favorite.

Love these peppermint lights!

My neighbor Tish put out some of the most-intriguing and fun lights to photograph along her sidewalk. They look like big peppermint candies!

Red peppermints

And they change colors! Too cool!!

Santa travels in style!

I really was getting into the swing of photographing well-lit things by the time I finished experimenting. The settings that seemed to work best were ISO 1600-2500, f/2-3.5, and an exposure comp of –.3 or –.7. I was ready to take on the Pecan Grove challenge.

How did I do? Tune in again tomorrow to find out!

Chanukah Leftovers

Waiting to be de-waxed

Chanukah ended Friday night. And here it is Tuesday. The boys’ menorahs still haven’t been totally de-waxed so they can be put away. My #2 son started getting the wax out of his menorah’s candleholders yesterday until the lure of Monday Night Football was too great. Storing the menorahs is definitely on today’s to do list.

Sidebar: I realize that calendars claim that Chanukah ended Saturday. Yes, that was the last day, but we only celebrate the holiday at night. It’s all about lighting the candles after sunset for us!

The boys photographed at a different angle.

On that eighth night, #2 told me my Chanukah photos were boring. That they all looked alike except for the number of candles.

Fair enough, my young critic! So I knelt down to get the above photo and . . . his older brother has a candle flame for a nose!

But look at the third candle from the right on #2’s menorah!

One candle goes wild!

My wild child has a wickedly wild candle! Amazing at any angle!!

The festival of lights on the radio

Sirius XM radio has a great holiday tradition: Radio Hanukkah. Every day of the holiday brings festive Chanukah music 24/7. It’s great fun to listen to. Well, except for one thing: There aren’t nearly enough Chanukah songs to fill even one day of programming! The station tries to compensate by playing any song that has Hebrew in it (holiday appropriate or not) or is sung by Barbra Streisand, or so it seems.

Radio Hanukkah got so lucky this year, because a guy named Evan Taubenfeld penned “Merry Swiftmas (Even Though I Celebrate Chanukah)” in which he professes his wish that Santa bring Taylor Swift as his gift. I think the station showed great restraint in not playing that particular song several times an hour!

Who Was the True “Survivor” Winner?

See that “Survivor: Samoa” logo above? It reads “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast,” which has been the “Survivor” franchise motto since the first edition 18 seasons ago.

Someone needed to tell season 19th’s jury that awarding the title of sole Survivor isn’t about having your feelings hurt because you got voted out. This isn’t high school. The winner should be the person who has played the best game outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting the other competitors.

Russell, the evil, little pirate

“Survivor: Samoa’s” winner should have been Russell Hantz, a good, old boy from Dayton, Texas. He found two hidden immunity idols without the benefit of a single clue, and he was busy strategizing from the first second of the game. He was a great player! Instead, it was Natalie White, who Russell tucked under his wing and carried to the finals. Sure, she outlasted almost everyone, but she didn’t outplay or outwit anyone.

Erik, the tribe has spoken!

Well, except for Erik Cardona. She did engineer his blind-side ouster, which turned the game in the outnumbered Foa Foa’s favor. That was huge. Ironically, at the final tribal council last night, Erik championed Natalie’s cause by arguing that her strategy of flying under the radar and playing a good social game was just as valid to crown her champion. He probably convinced a few of his fellow jury members, who were all part of his former Galu tribe except for Jaison Robinson, that Natalie was worthy of winning “Survivor.”

Natalie helps her team win a reward challenge.

Now let me give Natalie (or “Ratalie,” as Erik humorously wrote down in paying homage to her rat-killing prowess) her props. Our family has watched every episode of every season of “Survivor,” and one thing plays out every time: A social game is more important than a strategic game. “Survivor” really is a social experiment under hardship conditions. Players bond in unique ways leading to trust factors that can make or break alliances. Natalie played a better social game than Russell; she was much more likeable than the evil, little pirate (who was both hated and loved by the audience).

That being said, I have a hard time respecting players like Natalie who use competitors like Russell as a shield to win. Her smartest decision was to ally with Russell, a choice that netted her a million bucks. If the jury members had voted with their heads instead of their hearts, Russell would have been a unanimous winner. However, emotion plays a huge part in the jury’s final decision of who they want to give the money to. Not who really deserves to win.

Mick and Russell bookend the winning Natalie.

When the votes were read at last night’s reunion show, Russell was shocked and upset that he lost 7-2 to Natalie. In fact, he was visibly disappointed the entire program. It never had occurred to him that he might lose! He totally underestimated or didn’t understand the importance of Survivor’s social game, especially how the winner needs to be able to sway those s/he voted off. I really don’t think Russell played for the money as much as for the title. He so wanted to be proclaimed the “sole Survivor.”

Fortunately for Russell, the fans vindicated him by voting him Player of the Season in the Sprint competition. That was worth $100K and some assuaging of his hurt feelings. Thanks for making the season so enjoyable, Russell!

Random “Survivor” snippets

• Once again, the third-place finisher (Mick Trimming) received no votes. It’s time to go back to a final two, which is more interesting.

• I really liked how upbeat Shambo (Shannon Waters) was. If you go to cbs.com’s Ponderosa videos (http://www.cbs.com/primetime/survivor/video/?pid=MYn2tzMIyUVmHha_t5tLG4FqYtFxhhey&vs=Ponderosa&play=true), you can check out her philosophy. By the way, watching Ponderosa (where jury members stay) videos is a great way to get to know some of the competitors.

• The 20th season, which starts on February 11, is called “Heroes vs. Villains: Return, Revenge, Redemption.” Here’s hoping that Russell comes back, no doubt on the villains side, and proves once and for all that he really is the true sole Survivor! We’ll be watching!

A Tragic Chanukah Tale

The island’s laminate was no match for the burning Chanukah candles.

Gather ’round, my readers, and I shall recount a tragic Chanukah tale of many years ago.

It was the eighth night of Chanukah. The boys had lit their menorahs on our kitchen’s island. The #2 son had made a menorah mat in Sunday school, but #1 had not. So his menorah rested on a now much-lamented dish towel. I know, I know . . . what was I thinking? Well, I was hoping that the candles would stay in their holders!

As I was sitting in the family room, #1 walked through the kitchen.

Casually, as if he were just trying to make conversation, #1 said, “The island’s on fire.”

I jumped to my feet and ran into the kitchen. Sure enough, a candle had fallen from his menorah and had set the towel on fire. But not so much that I couldn’t easily put it out.

When I lifted up the towel, I was dismayed to see several holes and burn marks in the laminate. And that’s why there’s usually a bowl on the island covering up the scars!

Foil became our menorah mat of choice.

After that incident, we moved the menorahs into the dining room. And I’ve used aluminum foil to protect the dining room table’s surface from the wax that falls from those “dripless” (liars!) Chanukah candles. Until the other day!

A pristine MenorahMate is ready for action.

I was at Bed, Bath, and Beyond scoring the ATM bank that was on #2’s Chanukah list. As I walked to the registers, I saw some Chanukah goods next to that wonderful “50% Off” sign. Hanging off the side of the kiosk were MenorahMates. I had never seen them before! What a great idea!! Reading the product information, I chuckled out loud when I came to this part:

“Chanukah is all about tradition. And if lighting the menorah is the most recognizable tradition of the holiday, then placing aluminum foil under the menorah follows closely behind.” Hey, I resemble that statement!

What’s especially neat about the mats is that they have the candle-lighting blessings written on them. Plus they’re easy to dewax and store for years to come.

The MenorahMate eagerly waits for wax drips.

If only the MenorahMate had been there for us back in the day! Of course, I’ll be pointing at those holes and burn marks when I try to convince the Mister that we need to replace the old kitchen laminate with granite. Then I’ll probably be thankful for them!