This one’s for my niece

Fifteen years ago today, our family was blessed with the addition of The Lovely and Amazing Annabel. She is my sister’s first child, my parents’ first grandchild and my first (and so far, only) niece, and she and I have been buddies from the day we met, just a few weeks after she was born. Sadly, I can’t find the picture we took that day, in which she was bundled in a lovingly homemade tiny leopard outfit for her first Halloween and looking very wide-eyed.

I confess, I am not good with kids and never have been, even when I was still a kid myself and babysat for the neighbors. But this kid has always been different. She was never fussy with me, and was always game for any adventure with her Auntie. She was a happy, smart, funny, cooperative sidekick from the go, and really hasn’t changed much at all in that respect over the years.


Helping mommy in the kitchen, summer of 2000. Baby girl was bald as a sweet little peach for most of her first two years, then her hair came in perfectly strawberry blond.

One  of my most precious memories is when she and her mom came to visit me when she was less than a year old, not even talking yet. They came to the back door of my house, and I went down to unlock it. Her mom was standing there on the porch holding her and when Annabel and I saw each other through the glass, we both broke into such huge grins of happy recognition that my sister said she felt like a complete third wheel for a moment because all we could see was each other.


All decked out in yellow fleece, Christmas 2001.

I wish I could find more of her baby pictures to share with you; she was exceedingly cute as well as exceptionally charming.


We’ve been lucky to share several of her birthdays with her, including her third, in which she gets some help from her daddy to cut the cake.


I took a lot of pictures of her when she was little, and she sometimes took the camera and returned the favor. Her mom and I wanted to make sure she didn’t just get our knees in the frame in this one, so we got down to her level (she was only about 3 at the time).


Everyone loved “dat baby,” including her grandpa, who told her to point at the camera.


The button-busting proud big sister, here with her mom and grandma, smiles big while holding her hours-old baby brother, August 2003.


Playing dress-up with her grandma at the tea shop, circa 2005.


Modeling her new pajamas with her mom and brother, Christmas 2008.


My favorite picture of this beautiful girl, summer of 2009. She has my freckles.


By Christmas of 2011, she was starting to look like a young lady instead of a kid–tall and slim and graceful.


By the summer of 2012, this kid I used to pick up and swing around was eye to eye with me when she stood in front of me; I expect she’s going to be tucking my head under her chin when she hugs me pretty soon.


She likes to draw anime characters, which I know just enough about to know that she rather resembles one!


Among her many talents, Annabel plays the cello beautifully. I think she has a very bright future ahead of her with that instrument.

Almost from birth, Annabel has been a mimic, a ham, and a performer. She has her mother’s gift for memorizing movie quotes and memes and working them into everyday conversation, and can always make me laugh. She’s a kind, good-hearted kid who always thinks of others first and who can be counted on to do the right thing. I wish I had been even half so emotionally capable when I was her age! Sometimes when I talk to her on the phone, I hear my sister’s tones and inflections in her speech, and watching Annabel is like watching my sister grow up all over again. I can’t even tell you how that warms my heart because for all that I love my niece, I love my sister twice as much. I’m happy to have known them both all their lives.

Annabel has gone from fuzzy-headed baby to animated toddler to adventurous school kid to gangly preteen and now stands tall and graceful at the last outpost of childhood. She starts high school this week with a full slate of college-prep classes, and is already thinking about getting her driver’s permit. Pretty soon she’ll be graduating, going off to college, getting married, having babies of her own. It’s all going to go by in a flash, just the way her whole life has to date … at least for those of us looking on from far away who see her two or three times a year if we’re lucky and can hardly believe the changes we see from visit to visit.

But some things remain the same from year to year and I hope they always will, especially that unbridled delight Annabel and I take in seeing each other again after months apart. She’s my only sister’s only daughter, the only tiny bit of me going forth into the future beyond my lifespan. She carries with her all my hopes and dreams for love and happiness in her life, and gratitude for all the love and happiness she brings to mine.

Happy birthday to a Lovely and Amazing young lady. I love you forever and I am so very proud of you.

Remember, Theresa: Everything she is, you are. Everything we love in this child, we loved in you first. All your life.

Related: This one’s for my sister


Flash and burn

I’ve been working hard this past couple of weeks to master flash photography for fun and profit. I’ve invested in light stands, a shoot-through umbrella, and what is unflatteringly referred to in the business as a slave unit (a flash on a stand that is remotely triggered by the camera). Putting all these pieces into play effectively to do what I want them to do has proved to be a challenge with a nearly vertical learning curve.

I admit that I don’t have much of a mind for mathematics and physics, which would come in really handy to figure out how to use one’s available strobes to effectively fill a given space with even, diffused light that both illuminates and flatters the subject without creating any harsh shadows. I also admit that I’ve become quite soft from using a digital camera that calculates all that stuff for me and is supposed to return beautifully lit shots every time without my having to do anything more to it than aim it at my subject and press the shutter-release button.


My Nikon D3100 is considered an entry-level DSLR, but I tell you what, it is essentially an entire photo processing lab all by itself, and there are hundreds of setting combinations one might use to achieve nearly any effect desired before the shot is even taken. It’s quite remarkable and incredibly sophisticated compared to, say, the first SLR I ever used. I have spent hundreds of hours studying and experimenting with this camera, and still don’t know all that it can do. And oftentimes I struggle to make it take the photo I want it to take because even the finest, most sophisticated equipment can only do as much as the person operating it knows to tell it to do.

One small example is adjusting white balance in the camera to suit the available light in the scene. Different light sources have different color temperatures—fluorescent light is on the cooler end of the spectrum and more on the blue side, whereas incandescent light is warmer and more yellow/orange. These hues will tend to be most noticeable in the lighter or white areas of your photographs. And it’s not always obvious which white balance setting you should use, nor which will give the best result, and you can’t rely on the camera to choose the right setting.

Case in point: I wanted to photograph my freshly groomed dogs sitting on a white blanket on the couch in my living room. The room was lit by a 150-watt incandescent light, and in the auto mode, the camera also determined that flash was needed. Here is the first shot of my very, very reluctant models.


The camera managed to capture both light sources to rather poor effect, as you can see the cooler/bluish flash light just behind and to the right of the dogs clashing with the warmer/yellowish incandescent lamp light coming from the left.

So, since I’m shooting under incandescent light, I should select the incandescent (or “indoor”) white balance setting, right?


Oops, no. Talk about overcompensating! The dogs no longer care about me or my stupid white balance issues, thanks ever so, and collapsed in resignation the moment I pulled the camera away from my eye.

Well then, perhaps the flash setting for white balance is what I need. I goosed my nearly boneless dogs up one last time and tried to get them to smile, to no avail. Rudy is wearing his “all freaked out” face (you can tell by the way his ears are levered out in the R for Rudy semaphore signal).


Ta-dah! Flash it is! At least I have now determined what setting to use in my living room at night, as this is exactly how the scene appeared to my eye through the viewfinder.

I tried to take one more shot just for good measure, but the dogs had lost all interest in the photo shoot and, apparently, in life as well by this time. There was no moving them to pose for me any further.


Now, I know what you’re thinking: the second and fourth photos above are actually the same image, but one was just tweaked in Photoshop to illustrate my point. No, they are actually two separate, unmanipulated images straight out of the camera.

This sort of flash performance (and initial disappointment, and tinkering, and losing the shot I really wanted because I had to adjust the camera three times) is why I am kind of starting to dislike it. Great flash-lit pictures are possible, of course, but my heavens, I don’t know if I have the patience to learn how to take them because it seems to me that as soon as I master the tricks for one type of situation, the next one in which I need to use flash requires some other solution entirely. It’s time-consuming and frustrating.

Rudy knows what I mean.


“oh god, please, no more pictures, even if I am perfectly coiffed”


Tiny visitors

Generally speaking, I am not a jealous woman. Nonetheless, my green eyes got all the greener this summer when I found out my neighbor Sue was hosting a hummingbird nest in her backyard. She was so excited about it, she practically did a jig whenever the topic came up. She’s the only person I’ve ever even heard of who has a hummingbird nest in her yard!

For several weeks, the mama bird (possibly a Calliope) came and went from her miniature abode, which was the size and shape of an espresso cup, delicately clinging to a slender branch of silver maple tree. Whenever I went over, she was there and gone in a flash if she showed up at all. I didn’t want to wait around all day for a chance to take her picture.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue said that two tiny babies now occupied the nest. When they were first hatched, their pointy little beaks were soft and droopy, but quickly straightened out and firmed up. I finally got over there last weekend to check them out, and found two nearly full-sized chicks pressed closely together in what looked to me like really cramped quarters. Where does the mama bird sleep at night?


Putting the camera on a tripod didn’t allow me to get close enough for the shot I wanted, and shooting handheld with a long zoom resulted in less sharp images than I hoped for, but what can you do?


The birds didn’t seem bothered by my presence, although they kept a close eye on me as I moved around below them.


They were very placid and quietly watchful as they waited for their mother to return. “She told them to stay put!” Sue says, and they did. That is, they did right up until the minute they were ready to fly away on their own.

We had a windstorm a couple of nights ago, and when I went over to see how the chicks were the next day, Sue said they were gone. The little teacup-shaped nest remains, now flattened out to more of a saucer shape by its steadily growing occupants.

Perhaps one of these tiny visitors will return to it again next year.


Silly Facebook games

Two status updates recently seen on Facebook:



After I commented on one of these posts that perhaps their page had been hacked by their kids, I received this message:


I won’t feel bad if anyone calls me a spoil sport, because I’m ruining the game for everyone who reads this, and because I’m not going to play (or should I say, be a victim?). I have two reasons for this.

First, while there is a legit “Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign” page on FB, this particular game apparently is not put out by them. And when you think about it, saying one used one’s “boobs” to get out of a traffic ticket is really not respectful messaging for this particular cause. Even if it were, how is this “girls-only” subterfuge in social media effective in raising awareness? Is there anyone still out there who hasn’t heard of breast cancer by now?

Second, even if one wished to play the game regardless of its creator or purpose, I know how I felt after reading these oversharing statements ostensibly authored by people I know and like, and I would still feel that way if I hadn’t commented and they hadn’t let me in on it. I would not want any of my FB friends to feel that same way about me, especially all those lurkers who read everything and comment on nothing (you know who you are!). I also would not want anyone to take any such statement from me seriously, and surely someone would (but they wouldn’t comment and get the clue so who knows what conclusions they would draw). People poo-poo the idea that anyone takes FB seriously, but they do. I do. So I am not inclined to post a lie and hope everyone just thinks it’s a joke.

Breast cancer is not a joke. Breast cancer awareness games on Facebook are neither helpful nor funny, particularly to people who are living with that terrible disease. I don’t blame anyone for participating but I wish they would stop for a moment and ask themselves, “what good will this actually do?” before they play along.

Here are some facts about breast cancer, so I can at least say that I have done my part to honor the spirit of the game.

Infographic by Lauryn Vermass

Infographic by Lauryn Vermaas

Visit the National Breast Cancer, the American Cancer Society or Susan G. Komen to learn about ways you can help fight breast cancer, keep yourself healthy, and support those who have it.


Pain management

This summer has been a bit challenging for me on the physical front. Every morning, I wake up hurting in numerous and various ways, almost always for reasons I cannot immediately identify. I’ve lived long enough to have first-hand experience with all the usual flavors of pain: overuse, injury, illness, repetitive strain, I’m-coming-down-with-something, and, ahem, overindulgence. But the way my body feels lately has no obvious connection to any of these.

I’ve always been strong, if not also fit/conditioned. I’m a trouper, always have been, and I get stuff done. I am not ill, as far as I know, so when I tell people I am in chronic low-grade pain that makes me not want to do much anymore, sympathy is pretty thin on the ground.

One of my friends told me the reason I feel bad is my “lifestyle,” meaning the one where I work from home—doing housework, yard work, and pet care every day, among other things—instead of, say, getting up at the crack of dawn five days a week and commuting to a cubicle where I sit in front of a computer for eight hours. She stopped short of calling me a lazy bum, which I certainly appreciated, but her implication was clear.* Apparently she believes that all I do all day is recline on the divan and eat bon-bons, or whatever passes for near-criminal indolence in 2014.


I have had low-grade pain in my lower back for so long I can barely remember what it feels like to bend down and touch my toes without hurting (although, for the record, I have always been able to touch my toes without bending my knees). Bending and stooping repetitively is agonizing for me, yet that’s what I have to do when I clean house, mow the lawn, do laundry, make the bed, all that stuff. I huff and groan a lot. Lately, I’m noticing some pain in my hands that surely cannot be caused by keyboarding, mousing or clicking a camera shutter. My grandmother had terrible arthritis in her hands. Is that in my genes? I worry.

Yesterday I laid down on the yoga mat after breakfast and starting cataloging aloud all the places on my body that hurt as I went through my stretching routine. I cried along the way, not so much from the pain itself but from frustration at how it saps my energy and thereby limits my life, and from fear of where it might go. Is something actually wrong? Will it get worse? Am I going to be okay? I worry.


I figure, right this minute, there are probably three major culprits: PMS, overuse (weekend yard work), and neglecting my yoga just a little too long. Ordinary aging may or may not have anything to do with it as well.

I felt better after stretching yesterday, and even better after stretching today. I have not been doing yoga lately because I guess I somehow got it in my head that I don’t “really” do yoga—I just stretch and do a few simple yoga poses such as Downward Dog. My sister does “real” yoga, the kind that makes me sweat copiously and ache all over the next day when I try to do it with her. The moves she does build strength and flexibility. The moves I do just maintain my muscles in their normal state rather than bunched up tightly and tender to the touch.

I’m going to try to get back to doing my little 20-minute routine every day because it’s the only exercise I’ve ever done that actually makes me feel better rather than worse—which is probably a big part of why I don’t see it as “real” exercise. Ever since I was forced to run laps in P.E. as a kid, I have associated exercise with physical pain, both during and after. When I wake up in the morning hurting in a dozen different places, the last thing I would ever want to do is make it worse by exercising. So my yoga is the perfect thing: not really exercise, not really painful, generally beneficial.

It’s time to get back on the mat.


Comic by Louise Wei, Panda & Polar Bear.


* Most people seem to believe that “working from home” is not really working and that a person who owns a home-based business doesn’t actually have a job, so I can’t hold that against my friend. I don’t bother to argue with anyone who thinks that anymore. They can think whatever they like about my job, my life, my “lifestyle” and how I spend my time because they really don’t know the first thing about any of it.


Getting soaked

I woke up this morning to find the sprinklers in my front yard still running long after their pre-dawn cycle should have concluded. I watched them for about half an hour before realizing they hadn’t just gotten a late start for whatever reason but that they were actually stuck on (and had been running for hours, egads). This got me feeling anxious because half the yard was being watered at the rate of two separate garden hoses set to maximum flow. I could practically hear the cascade of dollars soaking into the ground.

Naturally, the first thing I did was go to the controller box in the house and turn the system off. Nothing happened. So I unplugged it. Still nothing. Then I went to look in the controller boxes out in the yard and found a bunch of solenoids and wires but no valves of any kind that could be shut off. An hour had now passed and I was starting to get a bit panicky. I opened the local Yellow Pages (so old school, right?) and started calling sprinkler repair companies, and got through more than a dozen before somebody finally answered the phone who could be out in less than an hour.

Another 30 minutes of potable city water went into my now soggy lawn before the sprinkler guy arrived and promptly turned off the sprinkler valve located next to the outside controller box at the bottom of deep, narrow plastic pipe. There are two of these pipes: one is the drain valve and one is the water supply valve. There is no way to distinguish them by looking; one just has to know. Oh, and here’s a helpful safety tip should you need to mess with your sprinkler valves and you don’t know which is which: Always start by turning the valve to the right (“righty-tighty” or off). If the valve is already closed, leave it closed. Apparently bad things happen if the drain valve is opened when the system is on.

Once the sprinkler guy explained to me which valve was which and what they do (which was something I had heretofore never had any need or desire to know), we labeled the two pipes with a Sharpie for future reference. Inside the controller box, he found a blown-out solenoid that he was able to replace. I had looked in that box earlier and it was full of spider webs and water that completely obscured the solenoid so I couldn’t see the obvious damage.


For those of you as unfamiliar with automatic sprinkler system hardware as I am, suffice to say that this shouldn’t be broken-open as it is. I believe the layman’s term for this condition is “shot to hell.”

I am not even going to try to explain how this component works or what went wrong, as the entire science of residential irrigation is beyond my ken. The sprinkler guy was assisted today by his son, who appeared to be about 12 years old. I asked the kid, “are you learning the trade this summer?” and he said he was. “It’s all really simple stuff,” he said nonchalantly. “None of this is hard.”

Well, shoot. I certainly thought it was hard.

What this kid doesn’t appreciate yet is that everything is easy for the one who knows how, and impossible for the one who does not.

Want to know more about the “simple stuff” of sprinklers? Check out this page that will tell you everything you didn’t know about how they work. I tried to read through it but my focus drifted away very early on. I’d love to have the kind of mind to which this sort of thing makes perfect sense; however, my talents lie elsewhere.

At least now I know how to turn my sprinkler system off, so that will be easy for me from now on.

A room for living

The living room in my house is a tricky space. The front door opens directly into it, with no foyer. It has a large picture window facing the street on the south wall, a fireplace on the east wall, a vaulted ceiling that makes the north wall 11 feet high, and a double-width entry to the dining area/ kitchen on the west wall. In other words, it’s a big room with a lot of different energy and travel paths going through it because of all those entries and exits.

This has made furnishing the room comfortably and attractively a conundrum that I was beginning to think could not be solved. I didn’t want to block the flow of traffic through the room from any side, but just couldn’t imagine any arrangement of furniture that would not do that and yet still allow me to 1) view my little old 20″ television from less than 17 feet away and 2) entertain more than one person at a time who might want to sit down somewhere other than on the floor or on the hearth. I have had my faithful old futon from my grad-school days parked in front of the picture window from day one so the dogs would have a lookout spot, and that was fine seating for just me and them. But when company came over, it was awkward. I usually ended up sitting on the coffee table or something.

When I first moved in, I had my futon and coffee table on one side of the room …


and my TV on the other side, with not much in between (Reggie tore up the upholstery on that chair when she was a puppy and it had to go away).


It took me a long time to find the right pieces to add to the room, and I’ll be the first to admit that my design aesthetic might kindly be called “low-budget hodge-podge.” I have many domestic talents, but interior design is not among them.

For the past three years or so, I’ve been intermittently but actively seeking a design and furnishings solution that would make this room comfortable and inviting for me and for the dogs both when we’re home alone and when we have guests. Finally, I think I’ve found the design solution, even if the furnishings are not ideal.

First, I moved the futon around to face the fireplace just to see how that would feel and look.


The dogs didn’t like this AT ALL because they lost their front-window perch from which to observe and bark at the outside world. The silence in the house that resulted was music to my ears, but the hurt looks they kept giving me from beneath their bushy eyebrows quickly convinced me that something more needed to be done.

I had my heart set on getting a sofa, but it turns out that a love seat works better in the newly opened space in front of the window, and I found one on deep discount at the Buy & Large the other day. Once I got it home and set it up (with a blanket thrown over it as a quick-and-dirty temporary slipcover), I felt that my living room was finally coming together.


There’s plenty of room to move around and between the futon and the love seat from the front door and from the kitchen, the futon is now much closer to the TV, and the dogs have their perch again (which is moved back from the window far enough that maybe I won’t have to wash the dog snot off it every week anymore).

I realize, of course, that the area rug is much too small for the room, and that none of these pieces even coordinate, let alone match. No matter—the concept has been proven, that a cozy and comfortable arrangement of furniture that meets all my needs actually is possible for this room. In time, these low-budget pieces will be replaced with matching ones of much higher quality, along with a larger rug, possibly a square or round coffee table, and some cute throw pillows.


On the other side of the room, I have put together a nice matched set of pieces that are just waiting for the arrival of a big new plasma TV … one of these days. ;-)


Reggie immediately claimed the love seat as her own, and settled on to her new perch looking redonkulously comfortable (it is a very comfy couch).


I can tell that those back cushions are going to be sway-backed and lopsided in no time! That’s what my dogs and my parents’ dog have done to their couch …


But that’s okay. Living room furniture is for living on, not just for looking at. I look forward to spending more time in and living more comfortably in the largest room in my house from now on.

Maybe my next project will be to paint it. Hmmm…