The Hot Pot Blog

July 31, 2012

The House is Quiet Again

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

Too quiet.

For most of this summer we’ve had friends and family constantly coming and going through our front door.  The sheets for the guest room bed have gone through the wash more times than I can remember.  There have been so many people here showering Will in hugs, kisses and undivided attention that I don’t think he knows what to do anymore without an ever-present audience of adoring fans.

We’re in the process right now of coming down from the hectic, busy bustle of the last week.

As we were busy preparing for Will’s  birthday party super-chill cookout last week, we found out that our apartment may or may not be at the center of a legal dispute.  Since we’ve been paying rent to the Oakwood/Marriott corporations since the day we moved in, we were “technically not supposed to see” the three different “pay or vacate by Friday” notices taped to our front door but “legal” forbade anyone from explaining why we were getting them and whether we would, in fact, wake up on Saturday morning to someone drilling out the locks.

Friday, less than 24 hours after finding out we would not be kicked out of our apartment and 24 hours before Will’s birthday bbq, I happened to walk into the closet full of our UAB and HHE stockpiles.  The carpet squished under my feet.  Water was streaming down the wall.

We were able to salvage most of our belongings in the closet and move them temporarily to an empty apartment; my parents helped to wipe down our gigantic tins of soy sauce and break down soggy boxes before immediately pivoting back to welcoming my sister and her boyfriend to D.C., cake-baking and other assort first birthday preparations.

Saturday we welcomed more relatives to town.  We cooked way too much food, ate way too much food and watched Will dab at his smash cake.

Sunday we said goodbye to my parents, took our relatives to the National Mall and out to dinner.

Monday morning we hastily said good bye to everyone and ran out the door for Will’s 1 year well check and shots.  That afternoon workmen came to repair the closet, filling the house with paint fumes.  This morning they replaced the carpeting.

Now it’s time for more appointments, more shopping, more last minute meet-ups with friends and pack-out.

But last night, for the first time in awhile, we left the dirty dishes in the sink and the toys on the floor where they lay.

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I’ve been gathering my thoughts, working on a few different, perhaps Life Lessons-ish posts on the topics below:

1. Sending my parents off to the airport is quickly becoming one of my least favorite parts of this weird and wild life we live.  Will’s babyhood is so fleeting and every time I have to separate him from his adoring grandparents, my heart breaks just a little bit more.  It’s what I call “the grandparent guilt–” mine, not theirs.  This was something I wasn’t prepared for before having Will.

How do you cope?

2. We spent the weekend hanging out with a few members of my extended family for the first time since before we left for China.  They are wonderful, kind, funny and amazing people; people whose lives are so radically different from ours that it’s easier to not talk about it and just pretend that living overseas is exactly the same as life in the suburbs of New York.

Do you too feel the distance between your life and the lives of the people you should supposedly be closest to?  Does it get easier or harder the longer you live far away?

3. Chris and I have been talking a lot lately about comfort zones and the people we know who are either very open-minded or close-minded regardless of background and past experiences.

My husband grew up as a foreign service kid.  To him, living overseas is as normal as he knows.  He freely admits that while it might seem like he’s quite adventurous taking a job that has us moving every two to three years, in reality he’s living well within his comfort zone.  It’s those times when he travels back to Wisconsin with me or meets members of my family who could care less about current events that he feels like a fish out of water.

Me, on the other hand, I don’t know what my comfort zone is anymore.  I’m sure I must operate mostly within it, but perhaps the borders keep shifting so constantly that I scarcely notice anymore when I brush up against them.

Do you feel like you still get out of your comfort zone, even after months, years, decades living overseas or moving around across the country?

How to Create Cool Photo Effects Without Photoshop

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I thought I’d share this piece that I’ve had sitting in my drafts queue for about a month now.

This summer, without the luxury of having my big desktop and the ability to run Photoshop Elements to edit my photos, I’ve started futzing with my camera settings trying to figure out how to make my photos look as good as possible before they ever leave my camera.

Turns out, you really, really don’t need editing software to make your photos pop.  You don’t need your iPhone and apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram to make blurry, kind of crummy shots look artistic and interesting.  You just need to know what kinds of photo styles you like and how to create them using the settings on your DSLR camera.

Step 1. First things first, you need to create a user-defined shot profile on your DSLR.

Never heard of such a thing?   There is a great tutorial for Canon users here.

(Otherwise, if you have a Rebel, here are some minimalist instructions: hit the MENU button on the top left-hand corner of your camera.  Go to the menu second from the left, the one that has AEB, Flash, Custom WB, etc.  Click on Picture Style.  Here you can choose from a bunch of pre-set styles or you can create your own.  To create your own, select User Def. 1 and hit the Display button in the top left-hand corner of your camera next to the menu button.  This will allow you to edit the style settings.  Select the setting you would like to adjust (Sharpness, Contrast, Saturation, etc) and hit the center SET button on the right hand side of the display.  Then use the left and right arrows to make your adjustments.)

On the user-defined profile I use the most, I up the contrast and the brightness and tone down the color saturation.  I also adjust the color tone so that it’s slightly on the cooler side.  My camera tends to trend too warm and red anyway.

Your camera already has built-in profiles for landscapes and portraits and you can use those to great effect; but, if you are like, me it’s probably not a bad idea to have a user-defined style for indoor people photography and for food-type photography.

For people photography it’s usually a good idea to bump up both the brightness and the contrast.  For food photography, color tone and saturation may be more important.

Step 2: Adjust your ISO to fit the style/conditions

ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all interconnected.  Changing one without changing the other two will alter either the brightness, grain, or focus of your shots–or all three at the same time.  You can make these alterations to either render your shots more faithful to real life or to make them slightly less realistic and more artistic.

My photos have that sort-of, vaguely film-like look to them because I’m usually shooting with my ISO cranked all the way up to 1600.  This isn’t ideal and I wish it were more of an optional feature but I’ll admit that I’ve grown to like the grainy look.  If you want to replicate it, up your ISO and then…

Step 3: Futz with your shutter speed until you strike a nice balance between totally blown-out over-exposure and something vaguely artistic.

When you press the shutter down on your camera, there should be some metering that pops up through the view finder at the bottom to tell you how under or over-exposed your shot will be.

People tend to look better slightly over-exposed, it evens out skin tones.  When taking pictures of Will, I usually aim for 2 to 3 little bars beyond the, theoretically perfect, exposure level.

If you have a Nikon or a higher level Canon, you have spot-metering.  This means you can expose for one part of the photo without washing out the rest of it.  If you don’t have spot-metering, you’ll likely have to use some sort of Photoshop software and layers to brighten up faces without blowing out the background.

And if you don’t have Photoshop, well then you can do as I’ve been doing and aim instead for the slightly blown-out, dreamy-yet-gritty look I’ve been using these days.  By using a high ISO with a slower shutter speed I end up with really bright but somewhat grainy photos.  Combined with the high contrast and low saturation settings from my user-defined profile, the effect is a little like a soft-focus action– but more gritty.  It’s not a good look for food photography, but it works nicely for people shots.

Step 4: Use your white balance settings to create cool effects

Your camera likely has settings for full sun, shade, clouds, fluorescent-lighting, tungsten-lighting, etc.  Generally speaking, the Auto White Balance (AWB) is your best bet but you can have some fun by using the wrong settings for different conditions.

For instance, this is a completely unedited photo I took on a mostly sunny day at 10am in the morning:

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Fun right?

So those are a few ways you can use your camera to create some really interesting shots without having to run a lick of editing software.  Happy Shooting!

July 29, 2012

The “Well Maybe I’ll Just Dab At It” Cake

I’ll admit, I guess I was expecting a bit more smashing…

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“You want me to do what with this cake?”

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“I am officially not onboard with this idea…”

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“Well I guess as long as I can finger-paint all over the table with the frosting…”

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(Will’s cousin Jake had to show him the ropes a little bit)

All this from the child who was double fisting his baby back ribs not 30 minutes prior.  Oh well!  It was a delicious cake (a light strawberry angle food-type cake with layers of strawberry puree and cream cheese frosting) so less smashing meant more cake for the rest of us!

July 28, 2012

Happy Birthday Will

Dear Will,

1 year ago today, you made me a Mama.  You made your dad a daddy.  You’ve filled our lives to overflowing with love and happiness, giggles and babbling, drooly wide-mouth kisses and more achingly wonderful moments spent watching you sleep in my arms than I could have ever imagined before you were born.

Today is your party; tomorrow perhaps I’ll be able to process that my tiny, squashy newborn from one year ago is the smiling, walking, babbling little boy I find myself running after now.

I don’t know how to put into words how much we love you so, for now, I’ll just tell you what, I hope, you already know by heart by now:

Sunshine, you are my sunshine.  You make me happy when skies are grey.

And you’ll never know, dear, how much I love you, how your smile lights up our days.

We love you little man oh so, so much,

Mama & Daddy

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

July 27, 2012

One Year Ago Today…

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

I was baking dulce de leche cheesecake bars (omg so good!) and trying to “casually” count the minutes between the “cramps” I was having.

What a difference a year makes.

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

Georgetown fountain riverfront park with grandparents

July 25, 2012

All Things Baby Week: Two Aesthetically Pleasing Books for Babies…And Parents Too

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It’s always hard to find a board book  that’s as pleasurable for parents to page through as it is for baby.  Kids’ books these days are works of art, I love them.  Books for baby though, on the other hand, are a bit trickier.

If baby likes it, it’s probably done up in the garish, overly-saturated primary colors that are easiest for young babies to see.  If Mama and Daddy think it’s a pretty book, the colors or drawings are probably too subtle to hold much interest for baby.

I’ve been on the lookout for a long time for a book that teaches colors in a beautiful way and I’ve finally found one.  Or rather, Chris sister Kathleen found one:  Colors (or Colours as our UK edition is called) by Pantone.

I love colors; so much so that I get RSS feeds from websites like Design Seeds and I can’t walk out of a hardware store without at least four or five paint swatches–even if I have absolutely nothing to paint.

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Which is part of the reason I love this book so much.  The colors and pictures are bright and eye-catching enough to hold Will’s interest while the layout is so clean and minimalist that it appeals to me too.  The pages are very sturdy and the cover is embossed with a matte finish that both Will and I love to touch.

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And if you’re like me and love you some paint samples, you’ll have one more reason to love this book: each left-hand page is laid out as a grid of different shades of the same color.  For now, Will doesn’t have much interest in this feature, but I think in a few years it will be useful for him to learn how to recognize and categorize more subtle shades of color.

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Chris’ sister also found us my current favorite ABCs book, a compilation of illustrations by the late Charley Harper.

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I’ll admit that this book is not yet one of Will’s favorites but the geometric shapes and bold lines and colors are both easy for babies to see and interesting for parents to look at.  I love flipping through it and looking at all of the detailed animal drawings, especially on the inside front and back covers:

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What are your favorite books for babies?  Which are the ones that you find most beautiful?

July 24, 2012

All Things Baby Week: He Walks!

I don’t know how I managed to not share this for so long, but Will can walk!

He took his first tentative steps about 3 weeks ago and has since been working his way up to full-fledged bipedal mobility.  He’s still a little shaky on his feet, but he can get across the living room now without falling down:


p.s. Ignore the weird laugh at the end, I wasn’t quite sure how to edit that out.

p.p.s. Any tips for someone whose baby would rather eat their shoes than wear them?  And who will attempt to stand on one leg in order to put the other foot in his mouth?  Totally hypothetical of course…

All Things Baby Week: A Man of Many Names

Jul 22, 2012-15

Original Written: December 2011

My husband has a gift for naming.  Nicknaming that is.  Everyone has a nickname, often whether they know it or not.  Will is no exception.

I think the sheer number of nicknames Chris has bestowed upon Will is one way he shows his love.  In fact, it’s hard to keep track of them all at this point, so I thought I’d share a few so that we can remember them:

Thumper/Thumpy (in honor of his Year of the Rabbit status)

Grunty (He grunts more than any other baby I’ve ever heard, he even rhythmically grunts to self-soothe himself to sleep–it’s his only not-so-cute trait)

Argentina (as in “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”)

Chew-bacca (in honor of his prolific gumming)

Slap-man-Grunty: this is Will’s “Jazz name” in honor of the way he used to sort of spastically slap us in the face when he didn’t have such fine motor skills

Added July 2012:

Mr. Wobbles, the Baby Ninja

Xiao Grunty

SG (Because it’s easier to say than XG)

Scrunchie (in honor of his “scrunchie nose” face)

Maximus Decimus (Chris thinks it’s more interesting than Will’s real middle name: Maxwell)

Gruntus Maximus

Once in awhile we also call him Will.

Jul 22, 2012-13

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July 23, 2012

The Week of All Things Baby: A Post to New Mamas

Will, approximately 3 days old.

I’m sharing previously unpublished baby-related posts this week that have been stashed in my drafts queue over the past year.  This one was originally written in May 2012.

A few weeks ago Will and I took the metro a few stops to go visit an old friend with a new baby.

Before I had a baby I would not have thought of a two month old as a “new baby.” Looking at my bouncy 10-month-old and then back at that beautiful baby girl though, with the impossibly tiny feet, sweet little squawks and coos, and those big blue eyes, I remembered that a two month old is still a really little baby.

At two months, I was still waking up a gazillion times a night, still needing two hands to nurse and wishing I had a third, still holding Will nearly 24/7 because he refused to let me put him down.  Leaving the house still felt like a production.  I still felt the pains and twinges from childbirth and I still wondered if there was some sort of miracle solution that I had somehow overlooked and that would free me from nightly shh-and-bounce bedtime marathon.

My friend is going through that tough time right now.  Watching her with her daughter, she is such an amazing Mama, it brought tears to my eyes.  And yet, that 2 month mark is still hard.

By two months most of us are living under a thick fog of constant exhaustion that obscures both personality and the ability to do mental math.  At two months the need to always be thinking about that tiny helpless baby already feels like second-nature; but the memories of long, unhurried showers, 4 hours of sleep in a row, and the freedom to do what you want when you want to, those memories are still so fresh, they sting.  By two months, most of us with colicky babies have tried everything to no avail.  We make ourselves feel better by mentally composing hate mail to baby advice book authors, as we sashay our screaming babies around the room for the 565th time in a row.

We love our new babies with a fierceness and an instinct so powerful it is both amazing and a little bit frightening all at the same time, but I’ll be darned if we don’t all, at one time or another, look at the haggard-looking woman in the mirror and think “Huh, they never made it sound this hard in the baby books…

I write all this now from the other side of those first few difficult months, from that lovely honeymoon period, between little baby and feisty toddler.  My baby takes naps in his crib now, instead of on my lap.  When he’s not cutting a tooth, he only wakes up once or twice a night.  We spend our days together happily.  I wash dishes while he plays with the dishwasher.  We play hide-and-seek and peekaboo.  We go out for long walks and make picnic pit stops at parks to share a meal from a food truck.  I have to watch him like a hawk at home, but he can’t run away from me in the store yet–not when he’s tucked so sweetly into his Ergo on my chest.

That’s not to say that things are perfect and easy–oh no, far from it.  But had you told me when Will was 8 weeks old that being a Mama could be this easy, this relaxed, this fun, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Neither did my friend with the new baby.  “I promise you,” I said to her, “I promise it gets better, it gets easier.”

So, to all of my friends with new babies, I just wanted to say this:

I promise you that one day your baby will fill out and sit up and smile and look exactly as adorable as those cute babies in the Gap advertisements.  Those aren’t 3 month olds in the magazines, those are 15 month olds, no use comparing your tiny little newborn to those fresh-faced “big kids.”

I promise you that no matter what you do, no matter whether you sleep-train or co-sleep or don’t do anything but whatever works on any given night, eventually your kid is going to learn how to sleep on his own.  It might take 2 months or 6 months or two years, but it will happen, I promise.  Until then, do what you need to do to get as much rest for as many people in the family as possible.  And when someone asks you if your kid is sleeping through the night, feel free to lie through your teeth.

I promise you that it’s ok if your marriage suddenly feels different.  It IS different.  For most of us, having a baby is the first time we have to acknowledge any real gender divisions in our relationship, not to mention all of the weird, wacky postpartum hormones that can get in the way of feeling close to anyone or anything but your baby.  It gets better, it really does.  Be as kind and loving and gentle with one another as you can manage on 3 hours of sleep and eventually things will start to feel normal–even romantic and exciting– again.

I promise you that your kid will hate tummy time.  You will do it anyway and he will continue to hate it until approximately 2 days before he realizes that being on his tummy allows him to scoot around at will…at which point he will refuse to lie flat on his back ever again.  Anyone who says their kid likes tummy time before that point though, is probably lying.

I promise you that there will come a day, and likely sooner than you can imagine, that you’ll be able to put your baby to bed for the night and go sit out on the couch and cuddle up with your spouse to watch a movie–without once having to get up to put the baby back to sleep.  Truly, it’s possible.  If you set your alarm early enough, you might also get to eat breakfast in peace as well!

I promise you that one day you’ll take a shower and put on something besides yoga pants again.  Your tiny little baby who’s head and neck require so much careful support right now will someday be strong enough for you to hold him/her on one hip while you put on mascara and brush your teeth and feel like a million bucks for doing so.

I promise you that there will come a day when that baby will feel less like a tiny stranger and more like a little piece of your heart and soul crawling around on the carpet, stopping once in awhile to look back and grin at you.  Some of us are lucky enough to feel totally bonded to our babies from day one.  For others of us it takes a little longer.  Either way, doesn’t matter.  You’ll soon love your kid with such depth and feeling that one day it will suddenly hit you: all of those people who said your baby will be “the best thing that ever happened to you”—they were soooo right.

July 20, 2012

Why You Need A Lens Filter

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Thursday  night we took Chris’ sister out for crabs.  It was the one thing she really wanted to do during her 3 weeks in America.

The crabs were delicious but it was one of “those meals” with an almost one year old in tow.

Not 10 minutes into the meal, Will had stretched my shirt out down to my navel, exposing my oh-so-attractive nursing bra to 40+ people.

A few minutes later Will tried Old Bay.  He didn’t like it.  Hysterics ensued.

I didn’t open a single crab the entire meal and instead spent most of it trying to console Will when I wouldn’t let him eat the sprinkler head in the pile of mulch down the street.

Oh and then there was the moment when I opened my camera bag to find shattered glass everywhere.  I know exactly how crushed I looked at that moment because Chris helpfully took a photo…with the camera that had been covered in pulverized glass just a minute before:

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Turns out though, the shattered glass belonged not to my expensive lens but to my $20 lens filter.  I don’t know what would have happened to my lens without it.

Filters can improve the quality of your photos and they can protect your camera from dust, dirt…and whatever happened that shattered my filter in the first place.  Worth it if you ask me.

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