Two reasons to be tired

I’ve written before about how I periodically suffer from gout, and I’ve had another recent flare-up. The short definition of gout is that it’s a condition brought when a person has too much uric acid in his blood so that crystals build up in certain joints, causing massive swelling, hobbling, and cursing. It can be reeeealy painful, especially if you try to do something reckless like walk or stand up or lie still. See the Wikipedia entry for more information and a list of famous people who had the disease, which puts me in such illustrious company as John Calvin, Benjamin Franklin, and Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard.

In the past I’ve done pretty well at reducing gout bouts to one or two a year by laying off red meat, alcohol, brains, and offal. This most recent one came out of nowhere, though, and has lasted over three weeks (longest. gout. evar.) despite my relatively healthy diet. Worse, it coincided with Amanda’s birth and homecoming, which put me on my feet –including my painfully swollen right toe– a lot more than usual. So, I’m pretty much in constant pain despite the drugs (Vicodin!) the doctor gave me.

Then I learned something new. Reading about the condition on the ‘net one day I found that gout is linked to the consumption of diet soda, which is something I excel at and which makes me urinate a lot. This, in turn, dehydrates me, which both raises the level of uric acid in my system and prompts me to drink more Diet Coke. It’s a nasty, gout-inducing circle. To break that circle, I swore off Diet Coke, soda, or coffee of any kind. Cold turkey. Then, finding “zero Diet Cokes per day” to not be a very tenable position for me, I back peddled to “one Diet Coke per day,” which is where I’ve been able to hold my ground for the last several days.

Given that I would drink the equivalent of 6 to 8 cans of Diet Coke and a coffee every day before this new resolution, this is a significant change. The gout is getting better, but I’ve learned that the intersection of New Baby Boulevard and Caffeine Withdrawal Way is not a very pleasant place. Mandy has actually been pretty good about letting us snooze, but she still wakes up a couple of times a night and rocker duty has cut into my sleep time. And apparently I was more addicted to caffeine than I knew, because I’m pretty much constantly tired and constantly have a headache. It’s not exactly the best time to cut caffeine from my system.

Still, when I think about whether the cure is worse than the disease, I quickly decide that no, it is not. I’ll take groggy over excruciating pain any day. And now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to hobble over to the kitchen and drink a tall glass of water.

Week 152: Now with more family than ever

The first part of this week Ger and I spent in the hospital, waiting out the recovery period for a c-section. Ger literally didn’t see the outside of her room for over 96 hours. On the plus side, we had unlimited room service, all three seasons of Arrested Development on DVD, and the best ice on the planet –the little crunch pellets that Ger calls “rabbit turd ice” and which make any beverage 15% more enjoyable. In contrast to the hospital in San Diego where Sam was born, this place had a nursery to which we could banish Mandy and any other children who crossed our path. Sam literally never left our sight the whole time we were in the hospital, but these people cheerfully offered to take our second child into the dark nether regions of this health care complex and only bring her forward when summoned.

Baby theft wasn’t so much of a concern since they had a bracelet on Mandy’s leg that would activate deadly person killing sentry guns (think that one scene in Robocop) if its bearer were wheeled into one of the boldly marked “hot zones,” but it still seemed kind of weird to us. We compromised by keeping Mandy with us during the day, then sending her to the nursery at night with instructions to bring her back every 3 to 4 hours for nursing so that we could get some sleep. It worked fairly well and nobody was gunned down trying to absconse with her.

After that long stay, though, we finally packed it up (and with “it” I include as many cups of jell-o, Diet Cokes, and graham crackers from the complimentary fridge as we could carry) and left. Now, there will be many occasions where I compare and contrast my two children like books we were supposed to read for our high school English class. Here is the first, in picture form:

Pretty similar, no? Well, that’s about where the similarities end. Despite her good nature now, Sam was very fussy the first few weeks we had her home. She constantly wanted to be held and walked around, she wouldn’t sleep for very long, and she had to be finger fed through an intricate contraption consisting of a syringe, tape, and flexible tubing because she couldn’t get the hang of nursing. Mandy, on the other hand, has done almost nothing but sleep and took to nursing like she had done it her whole life. Which, I suppose, she has. She also hardly ever cries except when hungry or during diaper changes. The rest of the time she’s content to just lie there, wherever “there” happens to be. It’s been a surprisingly pleasant and relatively easy experience. I’m waiting for the other baby bootie to drop, but for now her entire bag of tricks seems to consist of:

  1. Eat
  2. Sleep
  3. Stare into space
  4. Deficate

Sometimes, when she opens just one eye, she can do all four at once.

Even still, we’re having to make adjustments and tweak our routines to take care of both Sam and Mandy. Fortunately we’ve got help at this early juncture, with my family in to visit from out of town. My Mom, sister, and brother-in-law have been great about taking Sam largely off our hands to spend some fun time together and shower her with gifts. Sam, who seemed shocked to find out that we had actually brought Amanda home with us from the hospital, is taking the change to her world pretty well all considered. She’s very curious about the baby and cautious to the point of barely wanting to touch her. Probably because I told her that the baby would explode if Sam touched her without washing her hands first.

I think that the new routine and the general chaos of having a house full of visitors have finally gotten to her, though. While out to lunch yesterday Sam, who was in a bad mood and not feeling very chatty, apparently looked my mom in the eye and said in response to some innocuous question about her grilled cheese sandwich, “Stop saying that. I don’t want to hear any more words from you.” The rest of the meal passed in silence until someone could get home and take a refreshing nap. I’ll have to work with her on that. The proper response should have been “Shut your word hole, Nana.” It’s a Simpsons reference.

I think Sam is willing to forgive a lot of unwanted pestering, though, given how many gifts have been dumped on her since the moment of my family’s arrival. She’s gotten books, Christmas-themed pajamas, a Build-a-Bear, and a robotic dancing Santa Claus. And she hasn’t even opened her gifts yet. Speaking of which, I’m writing this ahead of time on Sunday afternoon since Christmas will be busy, so I’ll save all that as fodder for next week.

What Sam has picked up on is the various cooking activities going on in our kitchen, including pie-making. Last night while taking her bath she ran through her recipe for her favorite holiday pie:

  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 cup pepper
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 horse

Combine all ingredients into a brightly colored plastic bowl and it’s pie! Eat it, Daddy! EAT IT!

To wrap things up, here’s a scan of the Christmas card we sent out. I personally sent one to every single person who ever visited this website, so if you haven’t gotten one it should totally be in the mail. Until then, here you go.

Merry Christmas, Internets.

Book Review: Lord Foul’s Bane

You know, I really wanted to like this book, the first in Stephen Donaldson’s popular Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series. Donaldson, to his credit, has a main character with a lot of potential. Thomas Covenant is a bitter, cynical, mean-spirited man from our own world who lost his entire life to leprocy. He’s then transported into a magical realm and pitched into a struggle between good and evil. Only it may actually all be in his head and the result of his dwindling sanity and massive head trauma. Covenant has to decide what he’s going to do about this and just how much about the magical world and its trials he is going to go along with.

I like Covenant as an antihero. I mean I don’t like him –this is, after all, a man who attacks and violates a young girl in the opening chapters of the book and has the worst temperment you’ll find this side of Oscar’s trash can on Sesame Street. But he and his situation are inherantly interesting. It’s just a pity that Donaldson squanders all that creative capital on a setting that’s bland, banal, and cliche before its time. It’s hard to take things seriously with a place named “The Land” and characters who have names like “Saltheart Foamfollower” or “Drool Rockworm.” And then there’s the dialog, which is written in clumsy attempts at artificially grandeur, medieval dialects. It’s all just a little …trite. And don’t even get me started on how a small band of adventurers embark on an epic quest to destroy a magical doo-dad that threatens the world when wielded in the wrong hands. Tolkein much? The world that donaldson created didn’t strike me as any more special than the stuff I came up with when daydreaming during 8th grade Science class or putting together campaigns for all-night D&D sessions. Covenant is literally the only interesting thing in it, and he certainly can’t rescue it.

Now I know, Donaldson wrote this during the seventies, when Tolkein himself was fresh and nobody had even seen a 20-sided die. I assume that this stuff wasn’t cliche at the time. His first readers were seeing stuff that was relatively new. But unless you got a time machine that will allow me to go back there and join them, I’m not interested. I’m reading for pleasure, not historical literary context. There are many other Thomas Covenant books, but I sincerely doubt I’ll pick them up.

Sam’s Story: Week 151

The week actually didn’t start off to well for Sammy. Shortly after one of her regular trips to that germ breeding lab they call preschool, she came down with a fever. What was kind of odd, though, was that the fever was the only symptom she had –no sore throat, no aches, no runny nose. She was just really, really hot and really, really pissed off at the world and everyone in it. Then things got a little worse when she took a face first trip to the hardwood floor and busted her upper lip open. So she basically oscillated between sleepy and infuriated, sometimes several times a minute. We responded with lots of Tylenol, a trip to the pediatrician, and desperate prayers that she get better before Ger went into labor.

Well, you know how THAT turned out. Actually, though, Sam was on the tail end of her illness when Ger went into labor, but not entirely over it. At any rate, we passed the buck to Grandma and Grandpa on our way out the door to the hospital. We were kind of worried about how Sam would react to this at first, but it turns out she was as care free about her extended stay with the grandparents as she has been about, well, almost everything. Again, this kid is weirdly easy going sometimes.

By the time Sam came to the hospital to meet Mandy on Sunday afternoon she was feeling better, though. I’m not sure what we were expecting of this first encounter, but we figured the worst that would happen was hysterical shrieking and some kind of life-long scarring for everyone in the room. For Sam. In fact, Sam seemed really curious abound Mandy, what with all the pressing her face up against the clear plastic of her baby sister’s bassinet and just staring at her. After that, Sam would just kind of look over at her every few minutes and say “That’s my baby sister.” Which, as far as we were concerned, set everything sufficiently straight and we let out our breath.

The real test will be when we bring Mandy home, though. Despite how we’ve been prepping Sam for months, I’m not sure she really understands the depths of the changes we have wrought. I don’t think I understand them, and I’ve had a lot more schooling than Sam. My main reason for suspecting that all may not be well under the surface is how when the time came for Sam to leave the hospital and go back with her grandparents, she walked over to Geralyn and said “Mommy is going to come home soon, baby sister is going to stay here.”

Well, no. Things are gonna change a bit, kiddo. Just roll with it.

And speaking of changes, this is it, folks. After 151 weeks and literally thousands of pictures, this is the last Sam’s Story entry. That’s not to say that I’m not going to write about her anymore, but with the birth of her little sister Amanda it’s time for her to share the lime light and probably to edge out of it a little. My plan is to continue doing a children/parenting update every Monday just like with Sam’s Story, so that everyone who enjoys the daddyblogging can continue to do so, but it’s not going to all be about Sam.

I considered calling it quits entirely, but I want to keep maintaining a record of my kids’ lives. When I scroll through the Sam’s Story archives nowadays, I’m SO glad I started doing this and kept it up. What I have here is a written and photographic narrative about Sam’s first three years of life and my first three years of parenthood. It’s fun to look at the pictures to see how much has changed, and there are a lot of events and stories that I would have forgotten forever if I hadn’t written them down here. Some say that blogging is about communication and sharing, and that’s true. But it’s also about making something which outlasts the moment that created it.

When I started this, I did it solely for the sake of Geralyn’s family and my family, all of whom lived far, far away. I wrote about Geralyn’s pregnancy and our preparation for parenthood, then I posted some pictures of the newborn. After that I decided to keep writing about what was happening so that our family could keep up between phone calls. The habit just kind of stuck. I figured that maybe some of our friends might stop in to check it out, too, but that was about the limits of my expectations.

Now, while I can’t understand my traffic logs that well, there seem to be quite a few people coming here at least once a week to read my stories and look at my snapshots. It’s not enough to compete with the big-time mommybloggers out there (nor do I wish to), but it’s certainly a lot more than I ever expected. So thanks for that, especially those of you who have introduced yourself and shared kind words. Glad you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope to see you back next Monday for the next phase.

Now, where’s my book deal? Anyone?

Announcing Amanda Rene Madigan

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Amanda Rene Madigan, “Mandy” to you and me:

Seven pounds, three ounces and she already needs a haircut.

Ger woke me up around 4:45 Saturday morning saying that it was either time or she was having the biggest Braxton Hicks contractions of her life. What’s more, they had started out about 10 minutes apart and were getting closer. A phone call was made to Ger’s parents who rushed over to watch over a still slumbering Sam, and we took off as soon as they got here. Personally, I can’t really think of a better time for Mandy to make her call, despite her being a full week early. There’s not exactly a lot of traffic at 5:30 on a Saturday morning, so we jammed to the hospital at about 80 miles an hour. We were flying. We had purpose. We were going full throttle.

Unfortunately when we arrived at the so-called women’s evaluation office per the instructions on our laminated flyer, the place seemed completely empty except for what might have been a fairly well dressed homeless person snoozing in the corner. We started urgent tapping on the frosted glass window in the reception area and after a moment the window snapped open to reveal the glowering, moon-shaped face of what was apparently the least friendly person the hospital could cough up. “Be with you in a minute,” she barked, then slammed the glass window closed.

We just kind of stood there, stunned. It was like Ger was a very pregnant Dorothy trying to get in to see the Wizard. I was, perhaps, the Tin Man. Or Toto. I’m not sure which. Ger found her tongue, though, and after a couple of minutes of none-too-subtle complaining someone finally came to admit us and give Ger a bed. Soon after that the words “five centimeters” were bandied about and we knew we were there to stay.

After that, things moved kind of quickly. For a time. Sort of. We went up stairs to the delivery unit and they hooked Ger up to various machinery, including a machine that routinely took her blood pressure, a machine that monitored the baby’s heartbeat, a machine that dripped delicious fluid into her veins, and a machine that administered her epidural medicine. I got a laugh out of Ger by telling her that the robot would be in shortly to deliver her baby. This, in turn, got us giggling as we intoned “Push… Push… Push… You. Are. Doing. Great.” in a monotone, robotic voice.

In the beginning, everyone we talked to seemed to think that Geralyn was a fantastic pusher and that in just a few more minutes this baby was going to literally FLY out of her uterus, sail across the room, and land neatly in its warming bed where it would shout “TA-DA!” Second babies, the staff said, were a snap. They all were shocked and aghast when we told them that Sam had taken six hours of continuous pushing, an act that they assured us would never be tolerated at this hospital and surely wouldn’t happen again.

In fact, things did not ultimately go that well despite the quick start. Geralyn pushed heroically for two hours but because of her abnormally narrow pelvis, the baby’s location didn’t change much as a result. This is the same pelvis that Sam somehow managed to get through, but the doctor here didn’t like the chances of something bad happening if, for example, the baby’s head popped out but her shoulders got stuck. We talked it over, and though we really didn’t like the idea and it asked a lot of us in terms of adjusting our expectations for the day, we decided that a cesarean section was going to be best.

I’m not going to lie to you: there were some tears. Ger is squeamish enough about needles, and scalpels seemed a LOT scarier once we thought about it. There was also the extra recovery time and the fact that she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed for over 24 hours. We had really wanted a vaginal birth. (And here I will say “vaginal” again because it’s totally not puerile in this context and I can get away with it for once. VAGINAL. Hee hee.) Since that wasn’t in the cards, though, we resigned ourselves and quickly got prepped.

I got to wear paper slippers and a funny mask, Ger got to have her uterus cut open. I pointed out that this hardly seemed like a fair deal, but I was told we could not trade. Instead, I got to stand right there next to Geralyn with my camera held at the ready while they put a curtain across her midsection to block the view. I should have left it at that, but I have to tell you: I peeked. I couldn’t help standing on my tip-toes and peeking over the curtain. Truth be told, though, I was more fascinated than horrified by what I saw, plus I can now say that I know what my wife’s innards look like. Geralyn handled it like the champ I knew she was, though, and got through it just fine.

Mandy came out fine, too, and one bittersweet consequence of the c-section was that this time I was the one who got to hold the baby first, got to coddle her, and got to show her to everyone while they fixed Geralyn up a few feet away. It was every bit as powerful as the last time, and I was once again stuck dumb by love and wonder as I whispered my first words to my new daughter: “Hi! Welcome to the world! Sorry about the mess. We’re …we’re hoping you can do something about that when you’re older.”

And that’s where we are now. Geralyn and Mandy are both fine and recovering. The c-section means we’re going to be spending a few extra days in the hospital, but we’re looking forward to introducing Mandy to Samantha and the rest of Ger’s side of the family later today and to my mom, sister, and brother-in-law later in the week.

Overall, I’m full of joy right now because hey –baby! But I’m also filled with trepidation for the same reason. I remember that it was a lot of hard work with Samantha, and that was only with her to deal with. I start to get anxious thinking about how much harder things will be this time around, but then I remember the dividends that Samantha has paid us for our sacrifices and I figure that there’s got to be some kind of special multiplicative baby sibling math that means the payoff is going to be even better with both of them around. It’s mathematically assured, people.

So bring it on, I say. This is so totally going to be worth it for everyone involved.

P.S., Thank you to everyone who left a comment or sent and e-mail in response to my post yesterday. They were all very much appreciated.

10 things to make me drop your blog

I’ve been poking around the directories at in the last few days, looking for new stuff to add to my RSS reader. I’ve found some really top notch stuff there, but after looking through probably a couple hundred blogs or so I’m also struck by how many of them are really terrible, too. I’d never claim that my site is the best of the best, but at least it’s not quite at the bottom of the distribution, either.

As a kind of public service, I’ve compiled a list of ten things that will make me stop reading your blog. Immediately. As soon as I encounter them. First impressions are often accurate, and these are the things that jumped out at me in my skimming:

1. The phrase “Random Thoughts”
Especially if used in the title of your blog or even the description. It doesn’t make you sound whimsical, at this point it makes you sound cliche. I don’t want to hear random thoughts, I want to hear well formed, well communicated ones that are either interesting or entertaining. The chances of these occurring randomly are, statistically speaking, poor.

2. Referring to yourself as “a bitch”
I know snark is the new black as far as blogs go, but coming right out and claiming to be bitchy in your blog name or “about” section is about as convincing as that kid in grade school who tried too hard to be cool. And about as embarrassing. (I make an exception for Bitch, Ph.D., because the Ph.D. balances things out. But that one’s taken, folks.) Snark can be good, snark can be great, but you’re better off showing than telling.

3. A picture of your cat
Look, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m not interested in your cat unless it’s doing something cool like knocking over a toddler. So leave out the blurry snapshots of Miss Muffins snoozing on top of your computer monitor.

4. Using the term “Lefties”
Or “righties” or “fundies” or any other catch-all, derogatory phrase that exhibits about as much mental flexibility as found in your average bigot. Lumping anyone different from you into broad categories and then hand-picking opportunities to blather about how wrong they are isn’t exactly making a contribution to the blogosphere, the internet, or the world in general.

5. An apology for not posting enough
Hey, you don’t owe me anything and if you want to quit blogging for any period of time, I’ll get over it. Seriously. And assuming you have a feed, my RSS reader will cheerfully tell me when you start again. And if you don’t have a RSS feed, I’m not reading you in the first place. Besides, in the time it took you to apologize and go through all the usual (read: uninteresting) reasons why you haven’t been posting you could have, you know, made an actual post.

6. Pretty much anything animated
Anything. If you insist on blog flair such as buttons, widgets, and other assorted crap, then at least keep it static so I can actually read your blog without being distracted by something out of the corner of my intense gaze. I don’t care if it’s a graphic increasing awareness of love cancer in baby puppies. If it animates, I’m going for the “close window” button.

7. Anything that makes noise or music without my clicking it
Stick to MySpace with this kind of nonsense, please.

8. Just posting some funny image or cartoon from another source
Ha ha, yes that widely distributed picture of a confused looking dog in a sweater is quite funny, especially with the witty caption beneath it that prescribes human thoughts and feelings to the aforementioned dog. Ha ha. Now stop it. Make your own content.

9. Repeated begging for me to vote for you in some kind of online poll
On basic principle. I’m looking at you, 2006 Weblog Awards nominees.

10. Mass manufactured drama
I know, I know. The comments beast must be feed and it hungers for drama. But if you have to resort to moaning about how HARD your life is because your grocery bag ripped while unloading the minivan or the contractors are taking an extra day to remodel your new kitchen, you’ll have to excuse me if I roll my eyes and move on. But being the professional character actor you’ve become, I’m sure it won’t bother you.

So, that’s my list. Did I miss anything?

Photo of the Week: The Bird

The Bird

I’m reaching back into the past for this one, mainly because I’ve had it sitting around for so long waiting to be used. It was actually taken at the San Diego Zoo when we lived there. Er, San Diego, not the zoo. I remember that these birds, which would fly right up and land on your shoulder or hand, scared the bajeezus out of Sam. Like, there was bajeezus everywhere. Very messy.

See the rest of my Flickr photostream.

Sam’s Story: Week 150

For all the Christians, agnostics, atheists, and unconcerned secularists among us, it’s the Christmas season. That means that you’re going to be seeing a lot of pictures of Sam wearing a Santa hat, because THAT’S THE LAW.

With the new baby due to make its gooey debut literally any moment now, we’ve been trying to get in as many Christmas events and chores as we can. The tree is up, the lights are up, and all my shopping had been done for a week. That latter actually stuns me, as I’m pretty sure it’s never ever happened before and I’m sill not sure how I did it without just buying everyone gum. One other thing we tried to do is to get Sam to visit Santa Claus for that precious photo op. Instead of the mall, though, we took Sam to this “Brunch with Santa” thing at our church. We were late in registering so our place in line to see Santa wasn’t until like 12:45, but we got there, had an awful meal of tepid cheese pizza, and entertained Sam with games of little to no skill. The whole time we could see Santa up on stage, though, and Sam seemed at least somewhat excited at the prospect of sitting on his lap and telling him all about the McQueen Cars toy she wanted.

When they finally called our group, Ger bolted to the front of the line and presented Sam to jolly old Saint Nick. The event organizers had set up a dinky digital camera and were taking and printing pictures of your little one’s encounter with Santa, but I elbowed my way into a good position to take my own. Unfortunately what happened was that as soon as Sam got a good look at this strange, bearded man in a garish red snowsuit she totally froze up, locking her arms around Ger’s neck for dear life and whimpering about “that red man.”

In the meantime I was snapping away, trying to salvage whatever I could. Surprisingly, though, Santa seemed less interested in the whimpering toddler trying her best to get away from him and more interested in giving me the stink eye and growling “No pictures! No pictures!” at me. I heard him, but I just muttered back with “Eat it, you stupid elf. I didn’t pay a $21 cover charge for two slices of pizza and a chance to not take pictures.”

So all I got was this picture, which wasn’t even terror-filled enough to submit to the Scared of Santa gallery. I did get some seriously dirty looks, though, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find reindeer poop on my front porch Christmas morning. At least Sam enjoyed getting some hardcore Christmas tats.

I mentioned last week that Sam has gotten into the habit of getting herself up and letting herself out of her room when she wakes up in the morning. We thought we were used to this change, but Sam proved us wrong the other morning at 6:48 a.m. Ger and I were just lying there, dozing in and out of fuzzy sleep and thinking about how we should really get up. You know, the kind of semi consciousness that amplifies the normally soft and faraway sounds of the waking morning like birds chirping outside, the hot water heater puffing to life, and the occasional neighbor starting up his car. We were just starting slip off for a few more minutes of snoozing when there was a bellowing “HI MOMMY!” like four inches from Ger’s nose.

Geralyn, as she is wont to do when bugs or toddlers take her by surprise, completely spazzed out. She shrieked, jumped a good foot straight up off the mattress, and generally flailed all her extremities. I swear I thought she was going to lift up the sheets to reveal that the baby had popped out. Sam was nonplussed by this reaction, but the next morning she remembered enough of it to stand in the hallway outside our door and whisper “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” over and over again until Ger laughed and waved her in. She’s a fast learner, I’ll give her that.

Photo tweak: clone stamp & darkening borders

After tooling around Flickr and various photoblogs, I’ve come to a realization that most people probably think is obvious: making a really great photo takes not just good gear and knowing how to use it, but also some knowledge and skill in the digital darkroom. Digital post processing in programs like Photoshop can turn a flawed picture to a keeper and a good picture to a fantastic one. Increased flexibility in this area is the reason I started shooting in the RAW format.

I don’t claim to have many (or really any) “fantastic” pictures, but I have learned a few neat post processing tricks from books, online tutorials, and just plain playing around. A lot of them are so simple that they could be put to good use anyone with a camera and a copy of Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, GIMP, or almost any other photo manipulation software. Even if you’re just one of those dads or moms who takes umpteen thousand pictures of the kids ever week. So given that I thought I’d pilot test a new semi regular feature about how to do simple photo fixes, starting with a case study illustrating how improve a photo by cropping, darkening the edges, and removing unwanted parts with the Clone tool.

A picture from my recent trip to a sculpture park provides a good example. Here’s the original image on the left, then the finished image on the right:

The one on the left is pretty much how it looked coming out of the camera. The only thing I did was resize it and save it as a jpg. Click through to see the full sized versions and see if you can spot the main differences.

The first thing I did was import the RAW file into the program I’m currently using for such things, the free beta version of Adobe Lightroom:

I like Lightroom quite a bit and prefer to use it for most of the basic tweaking like contrast, colors, saturation, brightness, hue, exposure, color temperature, and so forth. But as we’ll see in a second, it still can’t beat Photoshop for more powerful manipulations. At any rate, here’s what I did in Lightroom:

  • Boosted contrast
  • Boosted the details in the shadows
  • Dropped the color temperature
  • Lowered the exposure by half an f-stop

It sounds more technical than the approach I really took. I essentially played with the various little sliders until I liked how the image looked. I don’t think I really knew what I was doing half the time. You can do the same thing with any other RAW image editor (Photoshop RAW, Capture 1, Aperture, etc. etc.) –they all do pretty much the same thing. You can do most of the same things with .jpg file if that’s what you shoot in. Or you can just skip this whole step and do all your adjustments in Photoshop –up to you.

So, I had the image looking better, but I really disliked two things:

  1. The brightly lit part of the statue’s base at the foot of the picture, which wasn’t a reflection like the rest of the picture
  2. All those floating leaves, specks, and the underwater light to the right of the statue

To Photoshop! After opening the picture up in Photoshop, I solved the first problem by simply cropping the image so that the statue base and some of the dead space at the top were gone. The second part was a bit tougher, but thanks to Photoshop’s “Clone Stamp” tool I was able to remove all the various flotsam and weird specks from the picture. Just choose the Clone Stamp from the tools palate, alt-click (that is, hold the alt key down then left-click) on a clean part of the picture near the offending detail, and then left click on what you want to remove:

Presto! The Clone Stamp paints over the problem area with a copy of the part of the image you selected when you alt-clicked. I actually use this trick at least once every week for the Sam’s Story pictures. Repeating this process over and over again, I got the image to look something like this:

Better! Almost done. I liked the picture a lot more, but I thought the slightly abstract nature of it meant it could do with a little more manipulation that would draw more attention to the reflection of the shrouded statue in the middle. To do this I employed a technique that painters have been using for billions of years: darkening the edges of the image. This is a snap to do in Photoshop.

First, hit control-a to select the entire image. Then what you want to do is modify that selection to make a border. I did this by going to “Select -> Modify -> Border” from the main menu bar and adding in a pixel value for the border width (I chose 45). This changed the selection to one with a stark border. Since Photoshop applies adjustments only to the portions you have selected, the idea is to modify that selection to create a darkened border. However, if we did that now there would be no transition from darkened to non-darkened area. It’d look more like a semitransparent, black border which isn’t the effect I wanted. The solution to this problem is to “Feather” the selection by going to “Select -> Feather” in the main menu bar and entering in a value for the transition (I did 15 or so). Here’s screenshots:

The selection now looked like what’s shown in the left-hand picture below. To darken it, I brought up the levels dialog box with control-L and slid the little black triangle over to the right until I liked how it looked. Deselect to check it out, then save and I’m done!

That’s it, hope it was clear and someone got something out of it. I’m no guru by any means, but I figure that I know more than some and these basic adjustments can sometimes have the biggest effect on a picture. Sometimes it just takes seeing them in action to prod you into giving them a try next time. If you guys liked this and I do another one, I’ll probably do something with Samantha in it for all the shutterbug parents out there. Maybe something to illustrate creative cropping, dodging/burning, or selective brightening/darkening.

Book Review: The Areas of My Expertise

This is the funniest book I’ve read (actually, listened to) in a long time. You may remember the author, John Hodgman, as an occasional contributor to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and as the “PC” character in those Apple computer commercials. This book is basically him just speaking whatever comes to mind on a wide variety of topics, spinning absurd lies and making wild assumptions. Parts of it, like “Great Rivalries in Dungeons & Dragons” or “History’s Worst Men’s Haircuts” fall flat, but other parts are genuinely laugh out loud funny. I particularly liked the parts on the history of hobos and his discussion of the fifty five dramatic situations to consider when writing a book. When it hits, it hits hard.

Part of the hilarity, I think, is that I listened to the audiobook version of this work. While I missed out on some of the gags in visual and table formats, the fact that Hodgman narrates the book himself more than makes up for those lost opportunities. He’s got a fantastic, deadpan tone that contrasts well with the absurd silliness of the book and he really knows his comedic timing. He also has little asides with his “Troubadour” Johnathan, who occasionally breaks in to sing songs (notably snippets from the official songs of the 51 known US States).

Really great stuff. I look forward to hearing more from Hodgman in the near future.

Photos page updated

The other day I realized that the Photos page hadn’t been updated for months and wasn’t pointing to a lot of my photography related content. It’s probably the case that nobody looks at that page, but since that kind of stuff keeps me awake at night I went ahead and I made a small adjustment. Now it breaks the content up into three buckets:

Better, but it kind of irks me that an index of my photography content contains so few pictures. But since updating that manually would be SO 1999 and SUCH a pain, I’m going to make it my weekend project to see if I can get it to automatically include my latest Flickr picture and a thumbnail image from my latest Photography related blog entry. Because, you know, I’m a tinkerer. I tinkle. Er, tinker. Tinker.

Sometimes she gets frustrated with me

Earlier tonight Sam was sitting nearby when Geralyn decided to be sly and tell me about some Christmas presents her parents were going to get for their granddaughter.

“They had a great Christmas present for Sammy at the grocery store.”

“What’s that?”

“They had C-A-R-S.”



“It’s a Simpsons reference, sorry. They had what?”

“I said, C-A-R-S.”

“I… don’t understand.”

“Jamie. I just told you: C-A-R-S.”

“Like, food?”

“NO. Jamie, listen to me. C-A-R-S. C-A-R-S!

“I don’t understand what you’re saying!”

“Would you listen to me? C-A-R-S!”

“Oh my god! And now you’re just saying it VERY LOUDLY and with a very red face! And over and over again!”

“Why is this so hard for you to understand? C-A-R-S!!”

“The movie? On DVD?”


“I don’t understand! Is this a crazy pregnancy thing? You mean they had toys from the Cars movie?”

“Great, thanks! Now she knows what we’re talking about.”

“Someone needed to!”

Sam’s Story: Week 149

As a cursory glance at the photos below will tell you, the big event this week was Sam’s first real snowfall. Last Thursday a huge winter storm hovered over our house and dropped several inches of frozen rain. Then it belched, scratched itself, and dumped several more inches of snow on top of that.

The result was that everything was delightfully frozen and wintery, the kind of thing that we never saw in Southern California. Sam had technically seen snow before on previous Christmas vacations, but she acted like it was completely new and it was fun to watch how excited she got. She insisted on going out while it was still coming down, at which time she just kind of wandered around in a glee-struck stupor. When she broke out of the trance she grinned at me and actually started a (admittedly feeble) snowball fight. I totally won, but she got hot chocolate as a consolation prize.

The next morning everything was covered in a blanket of brilliant white snow and Sam was once again totally keen on getting out there and stomping around in it. We dressed her more warmly this time, and because out subdivision was so snowed in that I had to work from home that day I got to take some pictures, some of which turned out to be my most favorite in a while. (Tip for other mom and dad would-be photographers: even though is sounds counter intuitive, increase the exposure bias by one stop when shooting in the snow. All that white stuff makes your camera think there’s more light in the scene than there really is.) Sam ran around, jabbering about icicles, noting how her swing set was covered in snow, and generally having the time of her life. But by the time Saturday rolled around, we had put her to work shoveling off the sidewalk, so her enthusiasm may be dampened a bit.

The other thing on the agenda this weekend was some “Super Siblings Class” that Geralyn had signed us all up for at the hospital. Having a sister as I do, I thought I pretty much knew all there was about having a sibling and didn’t think it would be that hard for Samantha to pick up on. But apparently there are life lessons that must be learned in a classroom, for a $10 fee. For example, in its exquisite thoroughness the class taught Sam that:

  1. Your baby brother or sister is coming!
  2. Baby brothers or sisters are neat!
  3. Yaaaaaaaayy!
  4. Clap clap clap!

And besides the part where the teacher passed out little paper cups full of animal crackers, that’s pretty much it. Furthermore, Samantha spent a large chunk of the time ignoring the lecture and trying to root through various cabinets and drawers well out of view of the teacher. The only potentially worthwhile part of the class was when we all wandered down to the nursery to look at some newborn babies, but even that was limited to peering through a window into a soundproof room. It was basically like watching one on TV with the mute button on. But still, Samantha now has a certificate stating that she is a “Certified Super Sib.” It is, as I explained to her, a binding agreement and we can sue her for breach of contract the first time she wakes up the baby after we’ve finally gotten it to sleep.

And speaking of waking up, earlier this week the day finally arrived when Sam realized she could just open her door and let herself out of her room after waking up. She had never done this before for some reason, always preferring to just stand up in her bed and yell at us through the baby monitor when she decided she’d had enough. An honesty, we didn’t see the point of changing this habit given that it made her easier to keep track of. But her newfound mobility was sweet on Saturday morning when she wandered into our bedroom at 7:30 with a armload of books to read. It meant, after all, that we didn’t actually have to get out of bed.

However, it was all less charming that afternoon when I was trying to take advantage of her supposed nap time to take a shower. I looked up from my lathering to see her standing there outside the shower door, staring at me and holding a toy I’m pretty sure had been all the way down in the basement when I put her down. I’m just glad she sleeps through the night so we don’t have to worry about any nocturnal wanderings.

Book review: Made in America

This is more of Bryson from earlier in his career and still on kind of a linguistic academic jag rather than writing solely to be entertaining. Made in America follows the stories of various inventions by American inventors (e.g., our government, the airplane, the telephone, the personal computer, etc.) and discusses how they came about and what influences they had on the English language as spoken in America and other places.

Frankly, I could have done with more wild tales, apocryphal or otherwise, about the inventions and inventors and less discussions about how interior vowel sounds were dropped by this group and kept by this other completely uninteresting group over there. As I mentioned in my discussion of The Mother Tongue, this isn’t Bryson at his best in my opinion. The book shines the most when he takes a detour from the linguistics stuff and talks about the bizarre qualities of the inventors themselves, like how Thomas Edison was a complete bastard in how he waged war against the competing alternating current (AC) electrical standard, even going so far as to stage a public execution by electricity to show how dangerous AC could be. Stuff like that or discussions of Benjamin Franklin’s legendary randiness makes for more interesting and even more educational reading.

The wiles of Midwestern weather

The running joke about the weather in this part of the country is that if you don’t like it, wait a minute. And it’s true, as these two date-stamped pictures of Sam playing in our back yard can tell you:

Warm Cold

From 70º to 25º in less than 3 days is the story those pictures tell. And every good picture should tell a story, send some message, convey some meaning. Take this picture, for example:


Here the intended story of the picture is “Jamie went out to take some pictures after the snow, slipped on some ice and totally busted his ass but he hit the shutter release button right as it was happening.”

Obviously. It’s ART, people.