Monday, November 28, 2011

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

My sister Pat: a shyly beautiful woman
I've never been fond of the expression, "Beauty is only skin deep." It uses a definition of beauty - that it is superficial and physical only -- that I just don't buy. Also, the expression is too often used to mollify someone who feels less than beautiful herself.

I don't think anyone would really argue with me. I think we all agree that "inner beauty," characterized by generosity, acceptance, nobility, grace, humility, and kindness, far outweighs the value of external beauty of the sort that ends up on the cover of the Victoria's Secret catalogue.

Today I'm thinking about how that inner beauty can transform our perception of a loved one's physical attractiveness. Misaligned teeth or asymmetrical eyebrows take on a charm that cannot be captured in a photograph or even a painting.

By the same token, I have found myself noticing every tiny imperfection in someone whose face is demonstrably perfect according to some bland ideal of symmetry and proportion. Call it the Kim Kardashian syndrome. The woman is undeniably exquisite in form, but I have no desire to spend five minutes in her company, much less watch her show.

Yesterday evening, I dined with two beautiful women: my sister Pat and my Aunt Winkie. I have never thought of either of them as anything other than attractive. I am flattered when people say I look like one or the other. I was delighted when my cheeks began to hollow out just the way my aunt's (and my father's) had.

This time, I was determined to get a photo or two of the two of them. I know I've mentioned before that I have very few photos of Aunt Winkie. The whole family knows that she hates to have her picture taken. Indeed, I don't think we have any pictures of just her.

Well, yesterday I learned just how desperately she hates to be photographed. While Pat acquiesced to letting me photograph her in her un-maquillaged state, Winkie refused to comply. She held up a mug and a wine glass, turned her head to the side, closed her eyes (ostrich, anyone?), grimaced and said, "No, no, no!"

It didn't help that my DSLR camera is loud, that I have to move in close because I don't have a zoom lens and that I have my camera set to take several exposures in rapid succession (a cheat to compensate for my unsteady hands - one of the exposures is likely to be in better focus than the others).

I felt like a paparazzo, and I'm sure she felt like a beleaguered celebutant.

I finally gave up. The best picture I got of her shows her cheerful red sweater, and a small corner of her head showing her nose, her curling hair, her hands and her left eye squeezed shut. I wish she knew how much we would treasure a real, casual portrait of her.

Stephen convinced me of this a long time ago, so I periodically subject myself to the impersonal scrutiny of the lens. Occasionally, as a couple of weeks ago, I am surprised at what turns out.

I won't post the picture I took of Aunt Winkie. But I will share the picture I took of Penny.
Penny rarely grooms herself and resists all efforts to be groomed,
yet is nevertheless convinced of her own majesty.
I guess Penny owns all the vanity in that household.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Day in, day out: Golden Rules for Living

The office where I work has a closet for employees to stow their jackets and boots. It is located along the corridor to the kitchen. I pass it at least twice a day and it is invariably partially open. I pause slightly and gently nudge it closed, then continue on my way.

And each time I do this, I ponder, "Now, why on earth couldn't the person who last opened that door have closed it?"

I reach the kitchen where, as my coffee drips, I close the cutlery drawer that someone left partly open, put the dirty spoon and mug that someone had left in the sink into the adjacent dishwasher, and tidy the canisters of sugar, salt and stir-sticks that have been placed haphazardly on the shelf.

And each time I do this, I ponder, "Well, who in heavens did they THINK would do these things?!"

Such behaviour is just inconceivable to me, it is so inconsiderate.

Recently, in the interest of my own mental health, I've made a slight, conscious adjustment. Now, as I close the door or drawer, I add the following thought to my little inner grumble: "Well, I guess it doesn't bother them as it does me, so I'll just do it and stop complaining." I hope some day to reach the inner comment, "Ah, that feels better."

I do wish all of my colleagues cared about orderliness as I do, but they don't. So be it.

In the meantime, I will propagate Ann Landers' Golden Rules for Living, in the hopes that others may benefit:

If you open it, close it.
If you turn it on, turn it off.
If you unlock it, lock it up.
If you break it, admit it.
If you can't fix it, call in someone who can.
If you borrow it, return it.
If you value it, take care of it.
If you make a mess, clean it up.
If you move it, put it back.
If it belongs to someone else, get permission to use it.
If you don't know how to operate, leave it alone.
If it's none of your business, don't ask questions.
-- Ann Landers
Ah, that feels better.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Prickly Situation

Ah, Movember. The sacred month of Prostate-cancer Awareness, during which men grow moustaches. To remind us that they have testosterone and therefore prostates. I think that's the way it works.

This year, Steve informed me that he had joined the Movement. I groaned and informed him that, though I love him dearly, he would be going without kisses for the month.

Here's why. Some men have lush, soft moustaches that curl gently under or to the side. Like Tom Sellek's.

Now, there's a moustache I could get behind. Or in front of, as the case may be. (Source)
Steve does not. Let's take a closer look at the picture of him I posted earlier this month.

Do you see it? Here, let me help by enlarging it some:

See those hairs? They are STRAIGHT and POINTY! When he puckers up, those little needles aim RIGHT AT MY SOFT, VULNERABLE LIPS! They're like hundreds of tiny swords aiming at my mouth.

I confess, however, that I was not able to resist kissing him for the whole month. (We did have a romantic getaway mid-month.) But early in the month, Steve devised a way of dealing with it. He carefully placed his finger across his upper lip, guarding me from the offending barbs while he touched his lips to mine.

That pretty much defines chivalry, if you ask me. Only six more days.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A traveller's tale

Sleeping in a hotel room is always a bit dicey: the pillow's too hard; the elevator is too close; a group of high-school girls is giggling in the hall ... so many things can go wrong.

Here is the tale of what went wrong on Sunday night at the beautiful Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal, where I was upgraded to a room with a view onto the idyllic courtyard.

1. I drank coffee - albeit decaffeinated - in the evening, which I never do.
2. I downloaded a really, really good book to my Kindle (Damage, by Josephine Hart), which proved to be impossible to put down.
3. The feather pillows were too hard.
4. Every time the heat/cool fan went on, it ka-THUNKed and startled me. (I finally figured out how to turn it to stay on constantly, but it took me a while.)

Consequently, I was still awake (though trying to sleep) at two o'clock in the morning, when my neighbours started to loudly QUACK or HONK. I don't know whether they were enjoying themselves or fighting - but it was LOUD, and it went on for a long time.

It was disturbing enough for long enough that I finally grabbed my glasses and looked out the window into the courtyard.

That was when I noticed there were indeed ducks. Or swans. Big, white birds, anyway. It was dark, but I could tell there were several of them, and they were quacking to beat the band. I couldn't see what they were doing, only that they were doing it noisily.

Admitting defeat, I climbed back under the covers and pulled one of the many pillows over my head and was asleep within a short while.

Interestingly, the next night I got to bed at a reasonable hour and had no such disturbance. But I had to wonder if I was the only guest whose sleep had ever been disturbed by activities in the courtyard pond.

View of the courtyard from my room, taken the morning after my sleepless night.
The hotel is on the top floors of the hotel and has created a tiny woodland.
And here is the same picture with all the wildlife highlighted.
Quite the crowded little corner of the world.

Follow Up: Lay vs. Lie

When I did my earlier post about Lay vs. Lie, I didn't bring up the big confusion of the phrase, "lay me down." Many of you may think that phrase is incorrect grammar, but it's not because, in this case, "me" is the object of the verb "to lay."

And here's a little music to help you remember this one.
Won't you lay me down in the tall grass
And let me do my stuff

Also, this little verse is grammatically correct, if a little traumatizing, what with the whole dying-in-your-sleep thing.
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Without the "me" the correct verse would have to be:
Now I lie down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
But it just doesn't scan, does it?

Does this help? Or does it just muddy the waters?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

If I had a million dollars

Love that song. But that's not what inspired today's post. I was over at Anna Beth (AB) Chao's design-and-style blog where she posted about cute things "that cost around or over $500." Interesting approach because usually these style articles talk about inexpensive things that are nevertheless very stylish. (Many of them rely heavily on IKEA.)

But it got me to thinking: if money were no object, what would I do with all that moolah?
  1. To work or to retire?
    That's the first question, of course. I actually work with some people who are independently wealthy and could sleep in for the rest of their lives, but who choose to come to work each day because they believe in the importance of their contribution and they love what they do.

    In my case, I think I would continue to work because I'm enjoying my job.

  2. Move or stay?
    Move. This little place would be nice, in the toney area of Rockliffe Park. Exquisite neighbourhood, close to downtown, beautiful well-maintained older homes. 
    Only $1.6 million. Let's get two!

    Okay, so a mere million dollars would not be enough for that fantasy house. Plus, I do like our location and the easy access to the Ottawa River Parkway. Hmm. Maybe we'd just renovate our current house and add some interesting architectural details to this 1965-era shoebox.

    Here's what I'd do to our current house: more attractive roof over our porch; extend garage to a double garage and extend sun room; master suite over the garage and sun room; upgrade kitchen; new windows; flagstone stairs and landscaping in front yard; efficient fireplace insert; French doors in dining room; finish landscaping back yard (including a waterfall and hot tub). You could probably build a whole new house for all the changes I'd make.

  3. Buy experiences, not things.
    Frankly, we have plenty of things in our life. (Just check the crowded basement.) What we have a shortage of is experiences - mostly related to travel. Machu Picchu, Greece, Ireland, Europe, India, Canada. Of course, I'd need the right clothes and shoes for these trips. And I'd want to bring back art or jewelry from all of these locations. And I'd want to bring along family and friends.

  4. Share it.
    I would like to set up a small research endowment. I'm not sure how I would choose what to sponsor ... mental health, autism, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, heart and stroke. 
As I mentally pencil in dollar amounts beside each of these things, it occurs to me that what I could really use is $1 million per annum. Since I don't buy lottery tickets and I haven't published a book that's been optioned by Brad Pitt, I'll have to find some other source of huge income. Seems to me that Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton could spare some change.

Oh, heck. Maybe I should just go ahead and make my own sex tape. What? You don't think it would be the boon to my career that it was to theirs? I'm sure there's a market for videos of middle-aged-multi-pregnancy women enjoying themselves. Dim lighting and soft focus can do a lot...

Friday, November 18, 2011

I think it's trying to tell us something.

Steve had One of Those Weeks, at least as far as commuting is concerned.
The van in June 2010 when it was being shipped to Canada from Colorado.
Ordinarily, Steve either bicycles to work or takes the bus. This week, however, he was pretending he was a real soldier updating his soldier qualifications by studying first aid, practicing weapon care and shooting things, and firefighting and surviving a gas attack.

They do not do these things downtown (can you imagine if they did?); he had to go out to the boonies. So he drove the van, our second vehicle.

Note: I am not a good citizen; I drive to work each day. So sue me.

[No, really, don't sue me.]

Monday, the battery died while Steve was running errands on the way home from work.

Tuesday, the van was still at the shop waiting for the new battery.

Wednesday, he discovered a flat tire when he went out to start the van.

Thursday, all was well after he replaced the two front wheels. (Fortunately, our snow tires are mounted on rims, so it was a do-it-yourself project and an opportunity to teach Peter how to change a tire.)

Today, Steve was driving on the 417 when he heard a funny rattle-y sound. He pulled over and checked the wheels: no bulges or evidence of imminent failure.

About five seconds after he pulled back onto the highway, the left-front wheel ran away from home and went careening into the traffic, never to be seen again. While doing so, it created quite a stir and caused considerable damage to another vehicle. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

It seems the nuts had worked loose. Perhaps it was not a do-it-yourself job after all?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lay versus Lie

Today's rant is brought to you by the ever-confusing pair of verbs: to lay and to lie*.


Here's the trick: to lay is transitive. That means it takes an object. So you lay something down.
  • Watch as I lay down my book.
  • I lay the blanket softly over the sleeping baby so as not to awaken him.
Its conjugations are lay, have laid, laid. (Full conjugation may be found here.) 
  • Present: He lays the hammer on his workbench. 
  • Perfect: "See?" he retorts, "I have laid the hammer in a safe place." 
  • Past: Yesterday he laid the dangerous hammer within reach of the toddler, and the child had mangled her doll house. 

On the other hand, to lie is intransitive, which means it does NOT take an object. 
  • I lie down and weep.
  • The shelf lies perpendicular to the wall.
Its conjugations are lie, lain, lay. And therein lies the confusion! Lay is the past participle. 
  • Present: She lies silently under the bed so that the assassin will not know she is there.
  • Perfect: She has lain thus for more than an hour and now needs to empty her bladder.
  • Past: And so she lay for the rest of the day, finally drifting off to sleep and snoring, which revealed her hiding place to the murderer. 
  • Future: She will lie in state on Saturday.
(Sorry about introducing another tense there. I couldn't leave the story hanging!)

Still confused? Here's an audio to help you remember. Unless he is talking to a chicken, asking her to lay her eggs all across his big, brass bed, he is using the WRONG VERB!

He also screws up the "Eat your cake and have it, too" quotation. But I will forgive him both these sins because this song is just sweet. And "Lie, lady, lie" just doesn't have the same ring to it. Poetic license.

But I don't like that he says, "Stay, lady, stay." Sounds like he's talking to a Labrador retriever.

And now I can't stop picturing him reaching (with hideous intention) for a terrified chicken or big dog in the middle of the night.

(Grammar Girl points out that "Lay Down Sally" also gets it wrong, unless Eric Clapton is asking a third party to lay Sally down and then take him [Clapton] in her/his arms. Maybe Sally is an infant and Clapton wants the baby's mother to lay the child down so that the two of them (Clapton and mother) can get it on?)

Oh, this is so complicated. Why can't we all just get along?

*Note, I do not mean "to lie" in the sense of to tell an untruth. That just further confuses the issue.

Romantic Weekend Getaway

While I was struggling to pull myself out of my slump earlier this fall, Steve suggested that it might be time for us to plan a weekend together, just the two of us.

Since we first became parents, we've tried to do this once a year. Thanks to Steve's family, and some dear friends, we've been able to do so. Now that the kids are older, we have even greater flexibility. We had already taken this year's romantic weekend back in February, so it wasn't really time, but I think Steve sensed my emotional absence and reached out to me. (Yes, I do indeed thank God daily for this incredible blessing.)

So I booked an escape to Montreal. I caught a seat sale on train tickets because I love travel by rail. And I splurged on staying at the Fairmont Le Reine Élizabeth* hotel, which is right next door to the train station in the heart of downtown and walking distance from all sorts of restaurants and entertainment.

Steve was the photographer this time. I had lots of very kind comments on Facebook about what a lovely picture this is and how good I look. But I think the most beautiful thing about it is how happy I am when I'm with Stephen. 
Even waiting at the train station is part of the vacation. Unlike the airport where you practically disrobe and surrender your firstborn to the authorities, train travel is just so ... quaint. Slow. Quiet.
The flag at the station was still at half-staff, and the light filtering through the clouds was a surprise.

The gentle rocking of the train is always enough to lull me. (I think, as with hammocks, it hearkens back to some infant memories of being cradled.)

We pulled in to Montreal just as the sun was dipping towards the horizon and the sky turned that cobalt blue that lasts mere minutes.

Cathédrale Marie-reine-du-monde | Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral
(The tree branches are red because of the tail lights of taxis at the taxi stand.)
We went for an early dinner at the highly recommended Restaurant Julien. I did not bring my camera, because it's not that kind of place.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we did a bus tour on Saturday. For me, the hands-down highlight of the tour was the Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal.

The interior is one of the most ornate in North America. I just love those blues.
A phenomenal choir was rehearsing while we toured. Perfect backdrop.
BTW, this was taken without a tripod and with no flash.
Unbelievably (to me) many of the tour participants opted to go for coffee and a pastry instead. I realize that it is rare for me to turn down food, but this was well worth the trade. (And why did they come on the tour if they didn't want to see the sites?)

I can't get enough of the detailed craftsmanship in old architecture.

We got back just in time for a couple of smoked-meat sandwiches - a nosh for which Montreal is famous. We had skipped lunch after a big breakfast, so were famished.
The waiter asked if we wanted our sandwiches "medium." I thought all smoked meat was well done, so I asked what he meant. He said it referred to how much fat was in the meat used. He recommended "medium" as the best compromise, but I secretly wondered if "high" was the tastiest.
Fun tables, eh?
That evening we went to see "God of Carnage," a hysterically funny play, at the Centaur Theatre. Great script, perfect physical pratfalls and timing.

Aside from all that, Stephen took TWO NAPS EACH DAY! And I didn't take a single one. I did sleep late, however.
Steve power-napping on the train on the way home. 
And now we're home, feeling restored and reconnected.

* Yes it is LE Reine Élizabeth because the article refers to le hôtel, not to the actual Queen. But it drove me crazy all weekend.

P.S. I screwed up my packing. Steve made a list. I had a copy. I ignored it. Consequently, I forgot pyjamas and my cellphone charger. I wore Steve's (used) undershirt for PJs and I bought a charger (not quite the romantic lingerie I had intended). The charger will stay in my toiletries go-bag.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Oh, Wynn Anne, Wynn Anne, Wynn Anne

One of the unusual things I planned as part of our weekend getaway was a bus tour of the city of Montreal. Say what you will about bus tours, they do give a fairly concise overview.

The tour company's website offered hotel pick-up, but when I confirmed with them, they told me to go to 1255 Peel (the blue pin).

A sense of entitlement made me complain that they weren't picking me up at the hotel (pink pin), until I looked at a map. Then I just felt silly. We were going from the pink pin to the blue pin.

View Getting to the Bus-Tour Point of Departure in a larger map

BUT, instead of going past the front (short edge) of Mary-Queen-of-the-World Cathedral, I led Steve on a wild goose chase. He took over navigation once we reached Rue Saint-Antoine.

Once we reached the blue pin, I was disgruntled to find that we had to walk ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE BUILDING back towards our point of departure, because they had given me the Peel Street address instead of the Dorchester Square address.


As we waited for stragglers to arrive, I sat on the bus stewing with indignation: It's false advertising to fail to pick us up at our hotel! Why did they give the wrong address and make us walk all the way through the building? What if we were elderly and feeble? Huh? They didn't ask, they couldn't know! And everyone is probably late because they got lost, just like we did! (Steve, meanwhile, was contentedly observing our tour mates.)

[Oh, Wynn Anne, Wynn Anne, Wynn Anne. What is your thinking errorThat would be thinking error number four: Disqualifying the Positive.]

Fortunately, our tour guide was friendly and very informative and the tour itself was quite interesting, so I forgot about the tour company's failings.

But I have a confession: I started writing this post -- and even created a Google Map, for heaven's sake -- so I could whine to you about this company's utter failure in communicating to its clients.

It wasn't until I drew the little blue and green lines that I realized the complete ludicrousness of my complaint.

Oh, Wynn Anne, Wynn Anne, Wynn Anne.

I need help, folks. I'm not depressed anymore, but I'm still stupid. And there is no pill for stupid.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pack up yer troubles in yer old kit bag!

Photo of the glass art of Dale Chihuly,
taken while I was on a business trip.
I don't know anyone who enjoys packing, except perhaps someone who is packing to run away from an abusive situation. And even then, they'd probably prefer to just wipe their feet on the welcome mat on their way out and be done with it.

I enjoy going on trips (more or less), but really do NOT enjoy the process of deciding what to put in the suitcase. I've travelled enough in the past five years or so that I've gone one thing down pat: my toiletries are already in a bag and ready to tuck into my carry-on. I keep a supply of travel-sized refills in my bottom drawer along with my bathing suit, flip-flops and a generous pareo.

[I would love to stash a spare cellphone charger and laptop charger as well, but those are too expensive to just leave hanging around.] 

[Although, now that I think of it, I have (more than once) had to buy "universal" laptop chargers. They are ^&%R%$##$! expensive, about $100! So buying an actual spare one might be a wise investment.]

[And, actually, I used to have a spare cellphone battery which I kept fully charged.]

[Have I mentioned that I've stopped taking ADHD meds? Fasten your seatbelts - you're in for a bumpy ride!]

[How, in the name of all that is holy, did my parents put up with me?]


I have learned the hard way that it is a very good idea to take an organized approach to packing. Make a packing list. Here is a short list of things I've had to acquire because of careless packing:

  • pyjamas (cannot sleep without 'em)
  • previously mentioned laptop charger
  • coat (What? It rains in Vancouver?)
  • umbrella (see above)
  • sinus rinse (I now DO keep a complete spare kit in my go-bag)
  • camera battery
Stephen, my frequent co-traveller, has refined the skill of creating a packing list. He never packs without one. Here is a sample of one he made for our family's 3-day trip to Toronto over last March Break*. 
OCD is a very good thing.

Isn't he thorough? No excuse for failing to pack your homework or the requisite three pairs of underwear! 

I don't make packing lists. But I do use the ones Steve creates and am very grateful for them. In fact, as I write this, he is preparing the packing list for our trip to Montreal this weekend.

What about you? Do you improvise when you pack? Or do you plan everything ahead of time?

* About that list. All that booze (and the specification for a clean outfit for Saturday night) were because we were going to a family pot-luck on the Saturday night, and our contribution was the booze.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Thinking: You're Doing it Wrong

Have you ever heard of "thinking errors"? It's a therapy term that captures the many and varied ways our ingrained thinking patterns lead us astray. This blog has a good synopsis of ten of them (I'm sure there are many more). Here are the ones he lists:
  1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING – (Also called Black-and-White Thinking) Thinking of things in absolute terms, like “always,” “every,” or “never.”
  2. OVERGENERALIZATION – Taking isolated cases and using them to make wide generalizations.
  3. CATASTROPHIZING – (which he calls "Mental Filter") Focusing exclusively on certain, usually negative or upsetting, aspects of something while ignoring the rest.
  4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE – Continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.
  5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS – Assuming something negative where there is actually no evidence to support it.
  6. MAGNIFICATION and MINIMIZATION – Exaggerating negatives and understating positives. Often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negatives understated
  7. EMOTIONAL REASONING – Making decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality.
  8. SHOULDING – (Necessity) Must, Can’t thinking. "Should"ing is focusing on what you can’t control.
  9. LABELING and MISLABELING – Related to overgeneralization, explaining by naming. Rather than describing the specific behavior, you assign a label to someone or yourself that puts them in absolute and unalterable negative terms.
  10. PERSONALIZATION and BLAME – Personalization occurs when you hold yourself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under your control.
(Click over to his blog to get examples and ways to challenge these bad habits.)

One of the best therapists I've met specialized in behavioural therapy and she was able to listen attentively and with genuine concern and yet still nail you on faulty thought processes.

"Do you know what thinking error you just used?" she would ask, and you would replay what you'd just been saying until you realized, "Oh, yah, I totally disqualified the positive of my encounter with [ ___ ]."

My two handiest ones are black-and-white thinking and catastrophizing.
  • Black-and-White Thinking: When I am in the pits of depression, it is almost impossible to believe I could ever be anything other than depressed. The present moment expands until it fills my field of view. 
  • Catastrophizing: [I consider this akin to minimization, but not in the sense he uses minimization.] When Emily broke her arm, I found myself saying, "Oh, it could have been much worse!" Why would I leap to visions of Emily hurtling head-first into a tree, breaking her neck and dying? In doing so, I effectively undermined the appropriateness of Emily's reaction to the trauma.
This is Emily's arm in the temporary cast.
You can see the dip where the radius and ulna bones have snapped and are dipping in towards her waist.
It was a pretty serious break.
These are not innocuous little slips. They are habits that we've formed, in some cases because we learned them from others or they met an emotional need at a certain time. 

In my case, I learned the catastrophizing from my mother, who referred to my grandfather's abuse of me as "that little thing with Grampa," implying that I should just get over it already. (My own thinking error in that case was personalization: I thought I had "asked for" the abuse by being too needy and wanting to be Grampa's favourite grandchild.)

As for the black-and-white thinking, I tot that up to the disordered thinking of a mentally ill brain. And, well, that's why they call it an illness. It does help, I think, that I recognize what I'm doing, recognize that it is not healthy and I do something positive about it. 

What about you? Do you have a "favourite" thinking error that you find cropping up from time to time? 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Picnik/Ribbet Tutorial: Portraits

UPDATE: Although Picnik no longer exists, an identical online product, called Ribbet, is available. Try it!

Emily, one of my two beautiful daughters.
This is the unedited photo; I'm happy with the composition, the lighting, the crop and the alignment.
In my previous post, I showed you some of my before-and-after photographs and promised threatened to follow up with a tutorial on how I use Ribbet. Here is the tutorial. I decided to start with a portrait because that's probably the most common picture most of us take, as we document the moments of our lives.

Ribbet is an online photo-editing tool that is very similar to Picnik which I started using after a friend on Facebook mentioned it.

It just so happened that I had been looking for such a tool. I'd been using the software that came with my first digital camera and, while it did improve my pictures, it really only provided minimal control.

I started using the free parts of Picnik, and then I took a Photoshop course (part of my job is to design graphics), and discovered that Picnik offers a lot of the same tools, though far, far less sophisticated -- and only with the $24.95 annual membership. That price seemed a bargain compared to the the cost to buy Photoshop.


[These instructions and pictures are from the original Picnik software, but you should be able to find the same tools in Ribbet without hunting too hard.]

Once Picnik Ribbet launches (with it's lighthearted spin on "please be patient" while the app loads), and you have uploaded a picture, you will see a band of tabs:

With most pictures, unless there is something to fix with the straightening or cropping, I go straight to Advanced.

And the first thing I adjust is the levels.
The levels affect the clarity of the picture. I know my teacher explained how it works, but all I really care about is the results.

Click on the Levels button and you will see a colorful histogram. Click on the RGB button and a drop-down menu gives you the option to edit red, green and blue independently of each other. (Some tutorials suggest you just move them all together, but I prefer the results I get this way.)

In each panel, adjust the little inverted-teardrop slider until it just touches the edge of the histogram. The blank areas outside of that point (in this case, to the left) do not have any data, so in this case, the shadows were lacking data.
Staying on the Advanced tab, the next step is to adjust the curves. This affects the highlights and shadows. In some cases, I've used it to improve the exposure in just the midtones in a backlit picture without overexposing the highlights.

You can see why they call it curves.
In this case, I pulled the highlights up slightly and pulled the shadows down a little. This subtly increases the contrast.
So far, all of this takes less than five minutes.

Still on the Advanced tab, I now do the stuff that purists sneer at: I do touch-ups. But I do use a very light hand. This part is time-consuming.

Make sure you zoom in, so you can see what you're doing. 
Eye Bright darkens the black areas of the pupil, which really makes the catchlights sparkle.

Even male subjects benefit from a light touch of mascara as it defines the eye. (All it does is intensify the blacks.) Note that I reduce the strength to 60%

Don't we all wish our dentists were this efficient? Again, use a light hand (fade to about 50%) or you will end up with a freakily white smile. I know this from experience.
This may be one of the best features of Picnik Ribbet. Haven't we all been plagued by a zit on picture day? Blemish Fix is better than Proactiv!
Pretty impressive, I think. The picture looks clearer and brighter without looking "shopped."

But we're not done yet. Before I close the file, I go back to Basic Edits and sharpen the picture. With most portraits, I don't sharpen very heavily.
You really just have to eyeball this. Err on the side of UNDER-sharpening as the sharpening sometimes adds a grittiness or noise to the picture.

NOW, we're done. Time to save the file.

As I mentioned, I always used to overwrite my files, but I've since learned to add a version number to my edited pictures. This allows me to go back and compare the original or make fresh edits.

I also always save in the highest quality. It's always possible to go back and create a low-resolution version (which I always identify in the filename as lowres), but you can't go back and add pixels once they're gone.

After all that, this is how the two pictures compare.

I've also started working on a tutorial for pictures that require straightening and other edits. I'll post that one another time.

P.S. This post is also available as a Google Docs presentation. You can launch it below. If you click to view in a new window, it has the option to print the slides.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Before and After

I've learned that, in the world of photography, there is considerable debate over whether (or how much) editing is acceptable. There are, of course, purists who feel that a photographer's merit should rely on what comes straight out of the camera (SOOC). There are others who consider what comes out of the camera to be a starting point.

Perhaps as I get better with my camera, I will spend less effort editing my pictures after I take them, but I'm not there yet. And, honestly, I kind of enjoy the process of tweaking - or even creating a piece of art that is photograph-based, but is not a photograph. Like this:

Not so long ago, I lamented that I felt "consciously incompetent" concerning my skills with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. I've learned a lot in a short time and I'm enjoying plying those skills. I've also been able to transfer what I've learned on the real McCoy to Picnik, the poor-man's version of Photoshop.

Either way, I consider these part of the creative process.

So today, I want to show you some pictures before and after I've edited them. These were all taken in October 2007 on my point-and-shoot KODAK CX7530, my very first digital camera. In each of these pictures, the "before" shot had already been edited by the KODAK software that came with the camera. In those days, I did not save a "virgin" copy of my pictures. If the edit was an improvement, I overwrote the original. I don't do that anymore; I save them with a version number.

Nowadays, there are three things I do to almost any picture that strikes my fancy:

  • Adjust levels - this often cleans up the "muddy" or "faded areas of the picture and even brings out detail
  • Adjust curves - this usually brightens the highlights and deepens the shadows, creating more contrast, but I've also used it to brighten the midtones without losing contrast or creating too much noise.
  • Sharpen - I don't always do this. Portraits, especially, sometimes benefit from a little fuzziness. Especially for those of us 40 years of age or over.

Here we go. I have seven pictures for you, all edited in Picnik. [Note: clicking any of these pictures will put them into a slide-show viewer.]
I'd never really given the original of this picture a second glance. Nothing really "popped."
I guess it's still not a great composition, but I like that, in the edited version, you can see the texture of the wave foam. 
When I first saw the before picture, I was disappointed. It didn't have the vibrancy I'd remembered at the beach.
The after picture does a better job of showing the drama of these pretty purple shells nestled amongst the mossy rocks.
Wow! I liked the before version a lot - even have it printed and framed somewhere, I think, but the after picture really captures the contrast between the wet and the dry, showing off the textures. 
Another one that had originally disappointed me.
In this picture I also edited out a man who was standing far out on the rocks on the left.
Picnik could not correct the lens curvature. I'm sure there is a way to do that in Photoshop.
This is one of my all-time favourite pictures and, until I edited it today, I hadn't thought about how it could be improved.
The main reason I like it is that the beautifully textured stair railing draws your eye right to Stephen, whose body in mid-stride shows the contrapposto that is so hard for artists to show in their work - the way the body balances itself.
In addition to adjusting the levels, curves and sharpness, I also edited out Peter. Not because I don't like him, but because he distracted from the composition: his shirt blended into the sand and so it looked like Steve was striding happily towards a pair of legs and a disembodied head. 
I know sunsets are cliche and over-used, but I loved this picture from the moment I took it.
I was even pleased with how level I got the horizon (not easy for me).
I did my three usual tweaks on this and adjusted the colour saturation very slightly.
It was already so saturated that if I did much more to it, it would look like a cartoon.
I debated taking out the red flare, but decided not to as I felt it was part of the sunset.
The adjustments here really cleaned up the washed-out areas. I was also able to adjust the camera tilt (notice that it tilts on the side where the shutter-release button is?) and get rid of the silly strip of sky at the top.
That's it. If you're interested, in my next post, I think I'll share my little tutorial on how to get the most out of Picnik. Not just use it to put frames and stickers on your pictures or use the auto-fix features. Use the voting buttons at top-right to let me know if you're interested.

Related Posts

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...