December 13, 2017

Mery and Done! (Almost)

The stars have aligned and I’ve been able clear out my Christmas task list in a major way.

Christmas cards can take weeks to do, since I like to do everything from take the photo to designing the actual card. This year I didn’t even have a design concept I was happy with. I have been mulling over just using past photos of the kids, and maybe even an old card layout when an idea struck me Saturday night as I was going to bed. I told Domingo my plan Sunday morning and we were able to do a mini photo shoot with the kids that afternoon. That evening I managed to design the cards in what felt like a lightening fast two hours. Check it out, I think it’s one of my best.

I opted to use Shutterfly’s addressing service for the Christmas Cards again. It’s not as nice as hand addressing them, but I figure most of our friends and family won’t mind. I have a better excuse for not hand addressing the cards this year since I’m roughly the size of a beached whale with an energy level that ranges from almost non-existent to flat-lining. At least they’re done early enough so recipients should receive their cards before the holidays. Last year a few cards didn’t arrive until the day after Christmas.

Santa needs to find one more present and a few stocking stuffers, but all non-Santa presents have been ordered and sent. All presents that I have received from out of town friends and family have been wrapped and are under the now trimmed tree. I know a few more presents are on their way, but nothing that will require too much energy to wrap.

The house could use still use some tidying up (when does it not?). That only leaves taking the kids to see Santa which we’re planning on doing this weekend, and getting a nice family photo by the tree. I won’t stress it if the family photo happens after Christmas again. For that matter, we can always do decorating cookies or gingerbread houses after the holidays again too. The kids will be home for two weeks, starting Christmas day, anyway and it’s a nice way to prolong the season.

Now I just need to finish getting ready for the baby. Putting the car seat in the car and assembling the crib would be a good idea to do before hitting 37-weeks/term on Friday. Tidying up the nursery would be nice too. Baby clothes are sorted up to 12 months, the rest are sitting in piles on the floor of the nursery waiting to be put away. The clothes are washed, but some of them could use a heavy dose of fabric softener.

The biggest sense of relief this past week came in the form of two offers to watch the girls should Z3 decide to make an early arrival. Z3 is head down and very low. My doctor was initially pretty sure I’d need to be induced again, but seemed much less convinced when she checked on Z3’s position. I have been feeling what might be off and on again contractions. Could be braxton hicks. Could be somersaults. I know it sounds weird or a 3rd time mom to not be sure, but I had made next to no progress before either induction. I am not entirely sure what it feels like when things start to kick off on their own!

December 10, 2017

Order Fails

One sign you’re doing too much shopping? A number of orders get messed up all at once. Tomorrow I need to call three different companies and ask “What the heck?!”

The first is the photography company that does the school photos at Nicole’s school. The level of fail with these guys is impressive. I paid for Nicole’s Kindergarten portrait back at the end of August. I volunteered on picture day. I saw her get her photo taken and physically handed the check & order form to the photographer.

In October Nicole’s teacher sent out an email reminding parents of retake day the next day in case they weren’t happy with their proofs. What proofs? I went through Nicole’s bookbag and the parent folder. Nothing. I double checked my check had been cashed in August. Fearing a mixup I signed Nicole up for retakes, just in case. Worse comes to worse I’d pay for two sets of photos. First thing in the morning I called the company asking about the missing proofs. They didn’t have a record of Nicole having her photo taken (besides the cashed check) but it didn’t seem like this situation was too unusual, and they said they’d look into it.

In early November I got an email from the photography company. They couldn’t find Nicole’s missing photo and would be returning my money. I asked if they had her photo from retake day. No response.

In December, a full 3 months after I paid for the silly things, I finally received Nicole’s official Kindergarten portraits. They were all the quality you’d expect from a school photo, but at least they were non-theoretical!

The company takes the kids’ photos against a green screen, so I decided to order another image with a different color background that goes better with Nicole’s complexion. Unlike my first order, this one came quickly, but came watermarked! Tomorrow I will be calling and asking for the Non-watermarked version.

The second issue is with my Target bookshelf order. Domingo and I are setting up a Homework/project nook area in the living room. We needed a place to store Nicole’s book bag that wasn’t the middle of the floor (where it currently is.) The space is small, and there’s a window with a ledge so I needed the two-tiered, 2 shelf case. The 3-tiered one arrived. I’m sure in most cases that would be a nice surprise upgrade, but it doesn’t fit!

The final issue is with the light up deer lawn decorations we ordered. The baby deer is missing a piece. Not an important piece, we can make do without it, but we shouldn’t have to!


Edited to Add:

And the photography company continues to impress me with their level of fail. The customer service rep kept insisting that all images come watermarked (then why didn’t my first order?) and Walmart (their suggestion) can remove the watermark for me if I were to take the digital image file to them to print (Ridiculous. The technology to do it is in it’s infancy and not publicly available. Besides, there are legal implications for a commercial entity to remove someone else’s watermark).

We are out of luck with the bookshelf. The two tiered version is out of stock, and no longer listed on Target’s page. I’m dissappointed because it was an awesome deal on a really cute bookshelf that’s twice as expensive anywhere else, but they’re letting me keep the three tiered one for free. I can maybe make it work somewhere else in the house, just not for the intended purpose. At least I’m no worse off than if I hadn’t ordered it.

The missing part on the baby deer is also out of stock and the company isn’t sure when they’ll be able to restock it, so it may be a while before they can send one to me. Luckily we can make do without.

December 6, 2017

First Time Charm

My best photo shoot is usually my third. Unless it’s something I’m shooting on a regular basis, I usually take a few iterations to figure out the best settings to lessen the chances of unintentional blur (both depth of field related, camera shake and motion). So when I decided to try a modified low key maternity photo in front of the Christmas tree, I was pretty stoked to get this on my first attempt.


ISO 5000
F/36 (to produce the star light effect)
2 Second Shutter Speed

It was a difficult shot. I’m kneeling so my bump is against to the widest part of the tree (you can see the floor in the background to the right.) I had troubles sitting still for so long, and ended up leaning against Alexis’ training potty so I could hold my position better. Even still there’s a bit of noise, but it’s not horrible. Given the difficulty of the shot, I think the end result was rather impressive. I was using normal noise reduction, and could experiment with pushing it to the max. If I used a star filter (something I didn’t yet own) I could create the stars with a wider aperture and not rely on such a high ISO setting or long shutter speed. If this is what I got when I didn’t quite know what I was doing, imagine what I could get with a little work!

All other attempts have been flops.

The stars created with a small aperture are small and dense with 14 rays that don’t stretch very far from the point light. The star filter set I purchased produce a maximum 10 rays. I was hoping there wouldn’t be much of a difference between 10 and 14 rays, but the 10 rays looked mighty thin compared to the 14 rays. Adding insult to injury, the greater the difference in contrast between point light to the rest of the photo, the longer the rays. The end result? Long streaks of light that didn’t really look like stars stretching across most of the photo. The darker the photo, like these low key setups, the worse the filter stars looked.


With star filter

Results with increased noise reduction were ok, but not remarkably better.

Sadly for me and my perfectionist tendencies, the further along I get in this pregnancy the less energy I have to try for better photos. I’m also getting impatient with the still yet untrimmed tree (I worry the ornaments will detract from the photo) so I decided to declare this photo attempt done after five tries. I did take a back up shot with an increased the aperture (bye bye pretty point light stars) which at least doesn’t suffer from noise or blur. I’m convinced that somewhere out there is a program that can add stars to point lights after the fact. If it doesn’t exist now, I’m sure it will at some point.

In the mean time, I ran my best photo (above) through every single photo manipulation app on my phone. Here are my two favorite results.

The first is from an app called Camera+ using the faded filter. I love the nearly black and white look with the stars supplying little bursts of color. The color tone is a nice touch as well.

Next up is Prism with the Curly Hair style. It’s another mostly black and white image, this one looks almost like a drawing.

Tomorrow while the kids are at school I plan to trim the tree while blasting Christmas music. My goal: be done with my to-do list early enough that I can relax the week leading up to Christmas and get plenty of sleep before the chaos that is Christmas morning. I did it before, I can do it again!

November 26, 2017

No Phone for Me

Despite early online successes, in person Black Friday shopping this year was a colossal failure.

I was able to get a sale as good, or better than I was expecting on pretty much everything on my list through online shopping. I had sorted all our old baby clothes, knew what we were missing, and took advantage of the sales to flush out Z3’s early wardrobe. I opted to skip most of the baby gear on our list in favor of just in time decisions based on what we need. Since Z3 is our last, there’s no point in stocking up in what we might need. The monitor is the clear need, but a simple security camera will likely suffice and can stream to our phones which means one less component that could fail.

By the time the kids were in bed Thursday night, there was just one thing left on my list: my new phone.

We arrived at Target at 7:30 pm, about 90 minutes after the doors opened. I was surprised to see a line still outside the door. My heart sank when we noticed it was the iphone line. Not a good sign to begin with, and our night was about to get even worse.

We have never waited in a Black Friday sale before, let alone at nearly 8 months pregnant. I wasn’t sure how long I could hold out with Z3 compressing my internal organs. Simply standing can be exhausting. As we stood in line I started the timer on my phone. I wanted to be able to estimate how much longer we would likely weight if I felt like I was maxing out my capabilities. We alternated between both of us standing in line, and me sitting on the nearby bench while Domingo held our place. At 31 minutes, 30.11 seconds one of the Target employees made an announcement.

It turns out the line we were in was the pre-line line. When we got to the front they’d check our eligibility for an upgrade, and verify they still had the phone we wanted (network, color, memory size, etc) in stock. Then we’d enter the actual line, an virtual queue. At some point later we’d get a text/call that we were next and have 15 minutes to make our way to the counter and claim the phone, otherwise our spot was forfeit. It could be any time between then (8pm) and midnight, or after 6 am the next day. The employee’s best guess was the next day.

We abandoned all hope and left the line. I couldn’t spend that much time at Target, and if we went home it was unlikely we’d be able to return promptly in fifteen minutes, and that’s assuming I didn’t miss the call/text. I didn’t want to feel pressured into getting a different size, or color than I wanted, and worried I’d be told the phone was in stock, only to discover it wasn’t once I arrived. But I was still disappointing, and as we returned home I started to second guess myself. There was no guarantee the call/text would come at a bad time. I might have been able to get my phone had we stayed in line, I definitely wouldn’t by exiting the line.

On Friday I read a market watch article talking about the frustrations many customers had purchasing their phones. Even those who were in line before the doors opened were waiting for hours. I felt a little better for not sticking it out. It sounded like a miserable experience.

Saturday I realized we had forgotten candles for Alexis’ birthday cake and had to send Domingo to the store for an emergency pick up. The party aisle is right by the electronics section and he couldn’t help but overhear one of the annoyed customers. The customers had been summoned to pick up his iPhone twice. The first time, despite being told the phone he wanted was in stalk and ready to be picked up he arrived at Target only to discover they had made a mistake and did not have that particular phone after all. This was his second call back. One of the other customers had returned their phones, but there was some issue surrounding the fact that it was a returned, already activated phone. Another clearly miserable experience.

I’m disapointed I didn’t get a new phone, but if I could only have one new phone or a new camera, I’m much happier with the new camera.

November 25, 2017

The Big Wonderful Three

Who’s turning three? This girl!

I still can’t believe this sweet, beautiful girl, who gives giant kisses and takes any excuse for a hug has been a part of our family for three years already!

We celebrated Alexis’ birthday the weekend after Thanksgiving with family still in town. It’s amazing what the kids remember year to year. Alexis has been talking about her “Princess cake” she was going to get on her birthday for a couple of weeks now (even though, like years past, neither kid cared to eat it!). But it didn’t dawn on her that she was going to get presents until Nicole pointed it out to her the night before her party. She also appeared to forget about the big foil balloon. It may not have been important to her last year, but this year she was all about the big balloon.

We were super proud of our three year old who choose the occasion to show off what a big girl she was. Both Domingo and I were surprised she willingly napped before the party. Some of the party guests arrived as lunch was finishing up, just before nap time. Six months ago there would have been tears and protests as she was carried upstairs for nap just after guests arrived. Today she happily greeted them with a hug before telling them it was nap time and her party would start after nap. And she had no problem sharing her new toys. She received both a Rapunzel and Ariel barbie dolls, and handed the Ariel doll to Nicole while it was still in the box so the two could play together. She also had no problem splitting the Shimmer and Shine bracelets so they could each have one.

I just wish I was able to get better pictures of the birthday girl. Alexis also enjoys “teasing” mommy when Mommy has her camera. It started last summer. If you asked her to say smile for the camera, she’d gladly comply, but facing whatever direction she was facing. If the back of her head was towards the camera, she’d say “Cheese!” without turning to look at you. Back then it was because she didn’t understand, now it’s become a bit of a game. So there was a lot of smiling while looking to the person to the left or right of me. Normally I can catch her off when her gaze shifts to me momentarily, but this time I had the added issues of still getting used to the settings on my new camera and the controls aren’t second nature yet. I forgot how to change the focal point, so I’m relying on Auto-focus which sometimes doesn’t do what I want. At least I did manage a couple really cute ones, and sometimes looking off camera adds to the photo.

I’m so proud of my girls and how big they’re getting.

November 22, 2017

Early Deals

In early November I got in the habit of leaving a separate browser open dedicated to shopping. I was interested in a pumpkin Halloween decoration that was strangely not on clearance sale yet, and considering getting some out door artificial pencil width trees to go on either side of the front door. I had a tab opened to each product I was considering, waiting to see if it would go on sale. While I was at it, I decided to add some tabs for some of the Black Friday things I was considering. I wasn’t expecting a deal yet, but I like to be organized.

Then something strange happened.

We were planning on purchasing a Samsung S8 for Domingo for the Black Friday sale price of $300 off. I calculated the monthly rate to be ~$17. As I was scrolling through my shopping tabs in the morning of the 16th, a full week before thanksgiving, I noticed Bestbuy offering the phone for ~$15 a month, or $350 off. I purchased it without hesitation. Bestbuy had jumped the gun and beaten their own advertised price which was already the best around!

Another deal I was considering was an Artificial tree from Michaels. One of our trees last year quit working thanks to faulty wiring in the plug. I was debating about restring the lights (a deceptively huge endeavor.) At the beginning of November Micheals had some kind of “tree event”. Domingo and I went to the store and really liked on of the trees which was an extremely reasonable price. “Was” being key. The tree was 50% off the day before, now only 25% off. It was still a good price, but not the best price. I often will balk at a purchase if it’s not the best price, regardless of how good it is. A little internet research suggested the price would come back down on Black Friday. Sure enough, when the Black Friday flyer finally came back the tree was once again advertised as 50% off. I opened a tab and was at the ready. The deal started Sunday, a full five days before it was advertised to start.

Then last night I got an email from bed bath and beyond advertising a 20% off an entire purchase for being a subscriber starting that moment. It was exactly the Black Friday deal i wanted to replace our thread bare sheets that i was dreading going in person to get! And they weren’t the only ones. Target also started their Black Friday deals today for people who have a red card (something I only realized when their automated system emailed me to let me know something I was looking at was on sale.)

That’s just three examples. Here we are, the day before thanksgiving and I’ve gotten most of the items off my Black Friday shopping list at the price I was expecting, or better. On the one hand, I will miss the tradition of going out to the store on Thanksgiving night after the kids are in bed. On the other, I look forward to having more time in the evening for our other tradition, trimming the trees up while the kids are sleeping.

November 16, 2017

New Baby

NikonUSA finally released their black friday ad this past Monday and, sadly, there was no deal on the d7500 body only. All the deals were on kits that came with lenses I don’t need since my lens collection meets my current needs perfectly. Of course, no black friday sale means no reason to wait until black friday!

I am amazed at the difference in image quality. My previous camera body, the 5100, is several models out of date, and was an entry model where the 7500 is considered a mid-range. I was expecting significantly better low light capabilities, and was still blown away by the difference when I redid the low-key maternity photos. I bumped up the ISO to 1000 without noticeable noise, whereas with my old 5100 the noise was extremely pronounced at ISO 800. The other advantage was the 7500 was able to autofocus much better in the dark than the 5100. I took roughly half the number of exposures and felt confident I had gotten “the shot.”

I’m super excited to test out the new camera on the kids on the weekend. I’ve been frustrated lately by the 5100’s soft focus like appearance in the face. I think it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. I never remember having this issue when the camera was new. It was particularly pronounced doing Nicole’s “1st day of Kindergarten” photos, which is part of the reason why I’m pining for AI photo enhancing. Ah well, some day.

That said, there are some things I do miss about the 5100. The 5100 has a rotatable LCD back screen that has been described as “selfie friendly.” I hate that term, but it was useful for taking maternity photos. I guess technically they’re “selfies.” The 7500 can tilt, but not rotate. The new camera is also noticeably heavier than the old one. But these are very minor concerns, especially when you consider all the benefits the new camera is bringing.

November 10, 2017

Low Key Maternity Photography

How can I possibly be 32 weeks already? It suddenly dawned on me that despite approaching the midway point in the third trimester, the only “bump” photos I have are a handful of bathroom selfies at 8 weeks when I couldn’t believe I was already showing. I needed to fix that, and I waned to challenge myself to try at something different.

Low key photos are low light, mostly dark photos that emphasize shadow and shape. I tried to do low-key bump portraits while pregnant with Alexis, but couldn’t master the light. I’ve experimented with dark background, spotlight photos before using a desk/craft light, but the craft light wasn’t strong enough to take photos of a larger subject (like my bump.)

This time around I decided to get a long, skinny adjustable craft light since I can almost always use more high quality desk lamps. I settled on TaoTronics LED Desk Lamp since it allowed me to adjust both brightness & color temperature. As an added bonus, TaoTronics had a newer model so the one I purchased was on the cheaper side. As long as it’s a bright white light and the right narrow shape, any lamp will do. To further control the light I cut up the Amazon box it shipped in and made cardboard flaps. I taped a flap to each side of the lamp, to focus the light so it wouldn’t illuminate the wall behind me.

As a general rule of thumb the darker the photo, the more visible the ISO noise. To make this photo work I had to shot at a very low ISO setting, which means a longer exposure time. Unfortunately, unlike my previous spotlight attempts I needed to shot with the room dark. The larger the subject, the further back the craft light needs to be. The further back the craft light, the less bright the light is when it reaches the subject. I shot the above photo ISO 100, f/5, 1/13 a second. Normally I’m comfortable shooting at ISO 1000, but it was just too much noise.
The above photo is pushing the boundaries of what my 5 year old camera can do.

If you want to attempt a similar photo, here are my tips:
– Where light color, possibly skin toned clothes. I tried this in a dark sweater and everything other than my hands all but disappeared.
– Use a Lower ISO settings to avoid noise. I know I said that before, but this is one instance where a little noise can really ruin your photo.
– Adjust the cardboard flaps (you can use masking tape at the tops and the bottoms) to control how narrow or wide the light beam is.

October 28, 2017

School Costumes

This year Nicole’s second costume for school is a Scientist, “like Mommy.” One morning, as I was driving Nicole to School, we were discussing what she wants to be when she grows up. One of the options we discussed was scientist. I told her mommy was a scientist and she got really excited about being a scientist, just like like mommy. We had already settled on the girls being astronauts for Trick or Treating, so I told her most Astronauts are also scientists, and asked her if she wanted to be a scientist/astronaut for Halloween. My proposal was met with a resounding yes.

I love how non-conventional my little girl is!

I also fear that she will regret her decision once she sees the other girls in their Disney princess costumes, so we decided pretty early on that she wasn’t going to be a stereotypical scientist with tapped glasses. Scientists come in all shapes and sizes, after all. She’s going to wear her favorite dress under her lab coat, because why not? My two favorite details of her costume are her badge, and her astronaut necklace. The badge has her picture from her first day in kindergarten, title and the official NASA logo. She is an astronaut/scientist after all! The necklace is a special surprise I’m going to give her the day of her school party.

I had dubbed Alexis’ school costume “color explosion.” I was going to put her in a her rainbow fairy skirt and give her a rainbow lei garland. I thought she’d love all the colors. Unfortunately they had a dress up day earlier this week, and while my not quite three year old was initially content in her costume, she got upset when she saw all the other Elsa, Moana, and super heroes. Oh Irony, that’s what I was worried about with Nicole!

So Alexis is going to her school party in Nicole’s old Wonder woman costume from last year. Crises resolved.

Most of our second costumes came from the dress up corner. The safety glasses were an additional $3.59 for a pack of six, and the necklace was $3.39. I did purchase a Moana costume for Alexis when she was sad, but the only one I could find was a 4-6x. Technically she sometimes wears 4, but that size was too big in the astronaut. I was worried we’d risk another round of disappointment when the costume she coveted didn’t fit. When the Wonder Woman costume sufficed I decided to keep the Moana costume for the dress up corner. We should get a lot of good use out of it for a few more years still.

I think this may be the last year I will be able to convince my two kids to do joint costumes. Nicole’s love of all things astronaut did not transfer to Alexis. We went through quite a few negotiations to get her into her orange jumpsuit for our costume dry run. She’s actually wearing her favorite dress underneath. Hey, whatever works!

Other than getting the kids suited up, our costume dry run went well. Both girls had a lot of fun posing as astronauts, gazing into the distance and pointing up at the pretend stars. We did a little mock trick or treating as well, since I’m not planning on bringing my camera for the day. Any photo shoot that ends with candy is a win in their book.

I have the most ridiculously bad luck when ordering Halloween costumes online. I had an issue with Nicole’s Wonder Woman costume last year. The first costume came ripped, and even though it was still early October the store couldn’t guarantee a replacement in time. In fact, the replacement wasn’t guaranteed to arrive until November 28th! This year I decided to order in late September to be safe, and it’s a good thing I did as I ended up making four separate purchases!

The plan since August has been for Nicole to be a white astronaut and Alexis to be an orange astronaut.

The first problem was I wasn’t sure of the girls’ sizes. Alexis was sometimes in a 3T and sometimes in a 4T, Nicole was pretty solidly in the 5-6 range. the costume comes in 4-6x and 2-3T. I was sure Alexis would be a solid 4T by Halloween, but there’s a six inch height difference between the kids! I couldn’t believe they’d be in the same size costume with such a large height difference. Since the 4-6x would definitely fit at least one of my kids and the orange version was on sale, I ordered it.

It was big, but not ridiculously big on Alexis. It fit Nicole well, but Nicole’s heart was set on the white astronaut. So I ordered the 4-6x in white, and the 2-3T in orange. The 2-3T in orange fit Alexis just right. Perhaps it was a hair small, but the kind of thing that would only be noticeable to mom. I didn’t want to return the 4-6x, just in case Alexis hit a growth spurt between early September and now. It still has the tag, but we’re outside the return window. I haven’t decided whether it’ll go to the dress up corner, or I’ll donate it.

The white astronaut costume was a disaster. The company sent an Adult small instead of a child’s 4-6x. It was a different, much cheaper brand which didn’t have the accessories. The benefit of having ordered the first 4-6x in orange, I guess, was that it was immediately apparent to me that the mistake was on the costume company, and not mine. Everything other than the color was supposed to be exactly the same. I didn’t hesitate to return that one. At least it was still early enough to order from someone else.

Oh well, at least the kids look great and what’s one extra costume at the end of the day?

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