Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On Mixing Routine & Novelty---Thanks to Rhubarb

A couple weeks back, I ordered the book I Dare Me off of Amazon, which is the true story of how Lu Ann Cahn, a woman in her mid-fifties who was feeling officially stuck in a rut, changed her life entirely by making herself try something new every single day for a year. (Side note: I don't know what it is with me and people who devote a year of their lives to doing something out of the ordinary, but I love them--exhibit A: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; exhibit B: The Happiness Project; exhibit C: The Year of Living Biblically, which is about how humorous writer A. J. Jacobs, a self-proclaimed agnostic, spent 365 days trying to live every single commandment in the Bible, even the most obscure.)

There's something simultaneously fascinating and motivating to me about reading stories of people who have taken deep plunges into unusual territory in order to try and snag a breakthrough.

I don't think I'll ever get sick of the genre.

Anyway, I'm about a third of the way into I Dare Me, and without consciously meaning to, I've discovered myself constantly looking for opportunities to try new things, from the hike we attempted last Saturday to one of the new-ish restaurants in town, which we've already eaten at twice in about 4 days. Without fail, these experiences have invigorated me and have opened up some interesting conversations between Matt and I as well.

(For instance, he admitted that he almost always needs an outside push to go outside of his routine and comfort zone, whereas I'm often going stir-crazy because I need something new to happen, and stat.)

All these conversations have got me thinking a lot about balance---balance between routine and novelty, between the so-called "mundane" and the out-of-the-ordinary. While I've been renewed by trying at least 4 new things in the last 5 days, I've also felt longings to curl up with the more familiar in order to recuperate a bit. So, although I've learned that I definitely NEED some novelty a little more than many people, I've also learned that I will more often than not need a good amount of time spent in my comfort zone right after.

That's why trying out new recipes is so great for me---while working with new ingredients and trying out a new recipe is always somewhat of a risk, it combines the new (recipe or ingredients) with the comfort of the familiar (cooking).

Confession: before this week, I don't think I'd ever tried rhubarb. I know for a FACT that I for sure had never cooked with it. Sure, I always had lots of opportunities to eat a rhubarb pie or try some rhubarb jam, but it was hard for me to go ahead and check it out when there were already tried-and-true favorites alongside them. (I think it has something to do with the fact that I sometimes unconsciously seem to have a scarcity complex when it comes to food---even though I know there will be many other times to eat cupcakes or come back to a restaurant or make a totally unusual dish, I find it hard to sacrifice THIS particular time to try something unknown or give up a chance to eat chocolate cupcakes when I have proven time and again that the usual choice is perfectly satisfactory and that just in case I never get the opportunity to again, I better make sure I enjoy THIS particular time by choosing something I've done before and enjoyed. I don't know if that makes sense to you, but that's how it is.)

But last Saturday, Matt and I went to the local farmer's market to see if there were any apricots to satisfy my cravings for them (which always seem to start up around mid-July), and I saw some gorgeous red and green stalks of rhubarb stacked up high in piles and rubber-banded together that were being passed reverently from farmer to consumer in paper bags, their leaves slightly wilting out the top.

I'd never eaten rhubarb (much less cooked with it), but I wanted something new, and I wanted it now. 

It took me a couple days to work up the courage to try it, but luckily, I stumbled across a great recipe for a rhubarb galette while reading this blog. The recipe seemed to be a good blend of the unfamiliar and the comfortable, and while I waited for Matt to come home from work one night, I decided to take the plunge.

The odor of the stalks as I sliced into them tickled my nose with their unfamiliarity, and I was caught in that space between thrill at the new-ness of it all and disgust that it was a smell I didn't recognize. I knew that rhubarb was technically a vegetable that was often sweetened to taste like a fruit, but it didn't take away from the strange feeling that I was making a sugar-coated veggie pot pie.

And even though my tart looked about perfect coming out of the oven, it still took me about half an hour to work up the courage to try a bite:

What if I hated it and I'd spent all this time for nothing?

When Matt finally did get home, I poured myself a glass of freshly-bought milk, cut myself a slice of the galette, and prepared to be disappointed.

Luckily for me (as is often the case when trying new things), I was delighted---the cinnamon-and-nutmeg-laced mixture tasted slightly like some fabulously new kind of decadent apple pie, and I was pleased that the rhubarb stalks (which, in their texture, reminded me so much of celery) had been cooked into creamy submission by chilling in a concoction of sugar and flour and baking for an hour at 350 degrees.

In short, I found out that while I may not *quite* be ready for trying something new every single day, I am ready for more novelty than I often let myself have (something I should have realized from the Change It Up Challenge I did a few years back).

And now, thanks to that knowledge, I know that I apparently love rhubarb.

What's your favorite way of preparing rhubarb? What's the next challenge I should take on with it? (And does anyone know of a time when rhubarb is treated more as a vegetable--like in a savory dish--than as a fruit?)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Top 5 Tips for Better Vacation Photos

I have always been a bit obsessed with taking pictures---it was an obsession that started with the disposable cameras of my girls' camp days that has continued (with ever increasing enthusiasm) to my latest DSLR purchase. In my friend circle growing up, I was generally the one who could be counted on to capture everything on camera and share it with everyone later (I still have over 10 photo albums I took from my junior high and high school days alone). Now, as my natural affinity with photography becomes even stronger, I find myself intent on documenting everything I can, from the small moments of everyday life to the momentous occasions that come around only every now and then. 

Through the years, I've definitely picked up on some tricks and tips that have helped the quality of my photos immensely. Today I'll do you the favor of passing some of those along to you (using the photos from my family's recent vacation to Bear Lake to illustrate).

Top 5 Tips for Better Vacation Photos

1. Get Closer

In this pic below, you'll notice that I have a nice photo-worthy moment, but that the picture is only so-so. One of the easiest ways to make most any photo better is to get closer to your subject, especially if you have a lot of space around them in the frame of the picture (that isn't that exciting to look at).

See what a difference getting a little closer makes? You can more easily see the expressions on their faces, and by crouching down at their level, I'm also able to fix the space surrounding them so it's a little more interesting than in the photo before.

Here are a couple other shots that are better because I simply got closer to the main subject(s).

2. Take pictures at different angles (or "levels").

This picture of my handsome husband would not have been nearly as interesting had I taken it from the standing position. Since he was crouched down by his mud creations, I wanted to crouch down as well to take the picture in order to more fully capture the detail of his "little mud city." Had I taken the photo from above (where my natural vantage point was), I would have missed out on the detail of what he'd been working on in the sand, and his gaze/facial expression wouldn't have been nearly as eye-catching.

There are certainly times when you'll want to take a picture from above or below the subject as well. When in doubt of which level to take the picture from, try taking one from all angles and see which works best. After awhile, your instincts will just know whether it's better to take it from above, from the subject's eye level, or even from below the subject looking up.

Here's an example of a slightly different angle---I wanted my nephew to look as small as he was (since I love pictures of adults helping children), so I took the picture just above my sister's level so that it clearly showed the grown-up/child dynamic. Had I stooped down and taken the picture looking up at my sister, the effect would have been completely different---it would have been more like I was taking a photo as seen through a child's perspective.

3. Take the time to edit your photos.

With so many free photo editing tools (like the various Instagram filters, the popular site PicMonkey, or the free Photoshop-like program GIMP), there is no excuse not to do some post-processing work on your pictures.

Check out these before and afters:

 My favorite programs for editing are Adobe Photoshop Elements (a much cheaper version of Photoshop that has most of the same main features of Photoshop but costs a fraction of the price--I got mine for only about $60) and Adobe Lightroom, which you can get for about $80 if you find a good discount and that allows you to automatically apply certain changes (called "presets") upon importing your photos into the program. So if you find that you do a lot of the same changes on most images (lighten shadows, increase contrast and sharpness, etc.), then you can save all those changes as one preset and apply it to all images when you import them in. It's a HUGE time saver!

 4. Look for "Mirroring"

Often, humans will "mirror" each other's actions without even realizing it. Some of my favorite pictures are candid (non-posed) shots of people subtly mirroring each other through facial expression, body positioning, etc. Obviously, this means you need to be on the lookout constantly for those moments, but the parallels between subjects really unify an image.

5. Use the Rule of Thirds.

This is the hardest compositional rule to get the hang of (I'm definitely still working on this!), but the Rule of Thirds basically means that you visually divide a photo into thirds, both from left to right and from top to bottom. The most interesting photos usually don't place the subject in the obvious center (or if they do, they have leading lines coming from the left third and the right third that lead up to the middle subject).

Because in the Western world, we read from left to right, many of the most visually interesting photos we take have the main subject in the right third of the frame.

See how the photo below has a subject in each third of the frame going from left to right, with the most eye-grabbing subject in the right-hand third?

Here's another example where the "subject" is in the right-hand frame:

 Here are two more examples (notice how in the photo on the left, the photo is in thirds going from top to bottom and that the photo on the right has no subject in the middle but two subjects at "intersection" points between thirds, which is another good strategy).

Just as a note, the subject doesn't always have to be off-center to be interesting. In the photo below on the left, the fact that the shot is so close to the subject makes it interesting, and with the shot on the right, the lines of the water and horizon and sand in the background make it more interesting.

There are a ton more tricks and tips for taking photos, but these are some of my favorites. Hope you found some of them helpful!

Any more tips you have for taking great vacation photos?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

First Family Camping Trip Since 1987

Growing up, my family was never a "camping family" (or at least they hadn't been since I came along in 1986). To my knowledge, the last "real" family camping trip we had taken was all the way back in 1987 when my parents attempted to take their five kids (me being a baby at the time) on a trip to Yellowstone with most of the members of the extended family on my mom's side.

Apparently that trip was pretty stressful/hectic/crazy, because we didn't go camping again until last week.

True story.

Now, before any of you people who came from avid camping families start feeling too sorry for us, I want it to be known that all of us kids went camping plenty of times through girls' camps and scout camps and campouts with friends. In other words, it's not like we'd consider ourselves deprived of the blessed experience or whatever.

(And you wanna know something? I'm actually not a huge fan of camping anyway, mostly because I pretty much never sleep well, so I was totally okay with the idea of a little deprivation from it every now and then.)

But now that my mom's six children aren't so small anymore (and many have families of their own), she thought it was time we started becoming a camping kind of family again. Who knows? This might even become a post-4th-of-July tradition.

 The fact that we hadn't been camping in so long came with its own set of issues. For starters, some of my mom's camping equipment was so ancient that it literally took eight people almost 45 minutes to set up that tent you see there. (One benefit of having somehow become the Official Family Photographer of Everything is that no one complained while I sat back and took pictures of them all while laughing my head off. Drawbacks to my new title? I'm basically in hardly any pictures myself, I am often told/asked/commanded, "Why aren't you taking a picture of that?", and I somehow became responsible for getting the photos of every event out to everybody via Snapfish or Facebook or some other medium. It's a tough job, but apparently I'm the one to do it.)

Eventually though, we got the gear up and ready, the campfire going, the s'mores out and roasting, and we had a good time out in the wild or whatever (despite the fact that the first night I almost drove home-- we were camping only about 15 minutes away--because our air mattress had a hole in it and I kept waking up almost sitting with my knees nearly touching my nose thanks to awkward distribution of air).

All in all, in the 45 or so hours we spent at the actual campsite, we managed to keep the kids out of the fire, the sunburns off of our skin, and our bellies reasonably well-fed.

It was a camping miracle.

Now on to the photo dump:

Here's my last word on camping---I kind of hate planning for it (and the idea of it never exactly thrills me beforehand), but I'm always, ALWAYS glad I went in the end.

And that's what's important.

Any tips on making camping less stressful to plan for? Or more conducive to a full night's sleep?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Top 5 Times I Felt Beautiful

Like most women (I imagine), I have a lot of ups and downs about my appearance. There will be weeks or months when I feel down about my appearance or my weight or some other superficial thing, and there will be weeks (sometimes months) when I feel like my skin sparkles in the sun like a vampire and my hair can do no wrong and I am about two seconds away from getting a modeling offer (kidding on that last one).

So I when saw this post idea on my friend Mara's blog (where she was tagged to post 5 pictures of when she felt beautiful), I thought the task would be pretty straightforward---

Bust out all the pictures from my prom and senior year when I was all tan and that one from that one night I sang jazz at that one thing, and blah blah blah, and I could revel in those moments when I had no doubt that I looked good (and reveled in the attention of the masses, because isn't that always how it goes?).

Surprisingly, the process didn't go down like that. Because even though I physically LOOKED beautiful during those events, my brain knew that what actually transpired during those things wasn't always so beautiful--both the senior proms I attended never lived up to the hype, my senior year was fraught with a lot of turbulence that mostly stemmed from my ever-dramatic love life, and I was actually very, very self-conscious about the dress choice I'd made during that jazz solo.

In conclusion, most of the photos below that I chose probably DON'T meet the typical standards for beauty in today's Photoshopped-obsessed culture. Some of them I even cringed at when I first saw them, complete with the kneejerk reaction in my head of, "Ugh, I look so bad in that." But over time, I've come to love each of those photos because each one represents at least some version of the best in myself, which (as cheesy as it sounds), is what makes me feel the most beautiful.

On to the photos!

1. Me dancing in the musical Footloose, circa 2005

My parents took me to my first musical when I was probably as young as seven or eight, and I was immediately smitten with the idea of "real-life scenarios" being played out in perfectly-synchronized
song and dance. I was determined to be in musicals myself someday, belting out a lead number and getting flowers and fan mail in my dressing room.

After growing up a little and realizing that most of my peers could, in fact, also carry a tune (many of them much much better and prettier than I could), my dream started to fall by the wayside until the end of my junior year of high school when I realized, in a panic, that the tryouts were fast approaching for what would be my last chance at the fame and adoration that come with starring in the local production of some or other well-known musical. I cobbled together the best tryout number I could (luckily I was doing tradeout for voice lessons at the time---I accompanied for her and she in turn gave me voice lessons for 30 minutes a week), and I managed to shake off my nerves enough during the tryout to wear--and utilize!--a feather boa while singing Linda Ronstadt's "You Took Advantage of Me" (click the video below to see the creepiest music video of this song of all time). 

And while I didn't score THE lead, I did manage to nab a pretty major part that required me to sing a few two- or three-line solos, sing regularly in a trio, and have pretty much all the funniest lines of the whole production. For years I'd convinced myself that stage fright and lack of talent would make me a terrible choice for a musical, but when I took a chance on myself, I discovered that I adored it and that I was a lot better than I thought I'd be.

The memory of being in that show remains one of my favorite from high school to this day, and doing something that scared and excited me at the same time brought out the best kind of beauty in me (as is obvious from the Seinfeld-inspired dance move you see above).

2. Me serving a religious mission in El Salvador, circa 2010

Even though I don't talk about it a lot on here, the 18 months I spent serving a religious mission in El Salvador were some of the most meaningful of my life. Since becoming fully acclimated back to the climate and culture here in Utah, I've found myself only throwing out shallow bits here and there about my experience in Central America, like the 25 pounds I gained there, or the fact that I don't know how I survived all those months without air conditioning (or an oven or a washing machine or carpet). But the fact was, there are few times I've felt more wholly beautiful as a person than I did on my mission (and not just because Latin men are VERY vocal about whether or not they find you attractive and my blue eyes were whistled at wherever we went). 

I felt beautiful because I utterly and completely stood for something I believe in so fiercely that it consumed me every day, 24 hours a day, for that year and a half. I breathed, ate, and slept what I believed in and in the process, came to own a deep and lasting knowledge that I am a daughter of God and that He loves me, and that Jesus Christ is the Savior of all mankind. My mission was awfully hard sometimes, but it is by far one of the most rewarding and lovely experiences of my life.

3. Me on my wedding day just after we tied the knot, circa 2011
Contrary to what I believed "should" happen, I did not feel more beautiful on my wedding day than on any other day in my life. In fact, if I'm being honest, my wedding day wouldn't even crack my top 5 days. Probably not even my top 10. And while that fact sometimes will bug me when I let myself get caught up in Pinterest or in to-die-for wedding photography, I've gotten over it---because even though my outside wasn't as "perfect" as I thought it should be, the day WAS perfect, and I knew, without doubting it whatsoever, that I was in exactly the right place at the right time with the right person by my side.

Before dating my husband, I had a lot of ex-boyfriends who sometimes made disparaging comments about my appearance---how they didn't like it when I pulled my bangs back, or how they didn't find me attractive with my hair pulled back, or how they ONLY found me attractive with my hair pulled back (?). For a long time, those comments really got to me---I felt like I was flawed in some inherent way, or I blamed the guy for being such a jerk.

Truth was, it wasn't their fault they weren't attracted to me all the time (or, as is the case with some of them, that they weren't attracted to me at all). We can't help who we're attracted to. But going back to the original point---when I dated Matt, who told me (and still tells me) that I look beautiful all the time, I thought he was just being nice at first (I mean, who looks good ALL THE TIME?!). But in the end, I realized that he meant it, and not just physically---I looked beautiful all the time to him because he saw me all the time for who I really was, and to him, that was beautiful.

So when I finally wised up and married him, it really did turn out to be the most beautiful day of my life because I was choosing someone who has always been able to see me as exactly who I am and love what he sees, flaws and all.

Our marriage is my my most cherished relationship.

4. Me & Matt finishing our first marathon, circa 2012
Arguably, the day I ran my first marathon was one of the days I probably physically felt the grossest---I hadn't bothered to put on makeup, I slicked my hair entirely back from my face (something I just never, ever do because I think it's unflattering), and then I ran 4.5 hours in the blazing heat, resulting in a sticky mass of sweat and dirt and exhaustion at the end of the 26.2 miles.

I can unequivocally say that I've never been prouder of myself than I was in that moment.

Sure, I'd done a lot of hard things before---I'd survived teasing in middle school, I'd served a mission in a third-world country (learning another language in the process), I'd graduated summa cum laude from college. But the difference between the marathon and all those things was that I always KNEW I would ultimately succeed and finish those other things---I never had any doubt in my mind that they'd be difficult, but I'd also never doubted that I could finish.

I didn't know if I could finish that marathon, especially without stopping once to walk.

But you know what?

I did exactly that.

And it's one of my truest moments of beauty because it proved to me that I'm capable of much, much more than I had previously dreamed possible.

5. Me on the first day of school as a 2nd year teacher, circa 2013
This photo, of the five I've posted, is the one I probably feel I physically look the prettiest in (but that's not the only reason why I'm posting it). As you've hopefully picked up from the thread running throughout all these pictures, the beauty to be found is always more than just on the surface---the thing that makes me feel beautiful has to go deeper than just the appearance, otherwise it's just a memory of "that night I looked really great but hated every second."

I felt beautiful on this day because I was going back to the profession I've chosen and love despite all its disappointments and heartbreaks and stresses and downright annoyances. As many of you know, I have very mixed feelings about my job as a teacher, but whenever I'm allowed two seconds of peace at the school to process everything that's happening around me, I realize that I'm doing exactly what I want to be doing.

I've known for many years that I was born to be a teacher. Throughout my life, that has taken (and will take) many different forms, from tutoring friends, mentoring young adults at summer camp, presiding over the young women's organization at church, to someday raising my own children and maybe even coaching and teaching other writers or photographers or even college students in the future.

In the end though, this is what I know:

I feel beautiful when I'm being me, when I'm being the most true to the self that I know I am.

I would love it if any of you did any similar posts on your Facebook page or blog. If you do end up taking the 5 photo challenge, please comment below or email me so I can check it out!
01 09 10