Friday, December 28, 2012

Kicking your Photography up a Notch- the 365 Project

My October page of photos from the 365 Project

At the beginning of this year, a good friend recommended I start a 365 project with my photos.  It was a new concept for me, but basically you take a photo a day and post it on a website where other photographers are doing the same thing.  You can use it to improve the quality of your work by looking at other's photos and seeing what they took photos of, check camera settings, use the weekly theme sessions, and basically just keep track of what you did all year.  I know you are very busy and it takes time to get your camera out every day, but the ideas don't have to be huge.  You can photograph what's around you, your daily life, or use the thoughtful suggestions given by the site.

I used 365 Project for the year.  It was a bit slow going, but I managed to keep up better towards the end of the year.  I wasn't striving for incredible creativity.  I just wanted to use my camera more and basically use it as a photo journal.  If you take the time, you can add lots of information and journal about the photo and why you took that photo or how you achieved it.  I felt I was lucky to post as many photos as I did, let alone write a journal about each one, however it was fun reading when others did it. It gave you insight into what they were thinking and made me realize there are lots of people out there just like me, enjoying their lives and taking pictures along the way.

If you don't have a fancy camera, or you just prefer to use your iphone to take pictures, there's even an app where you can snap a picture every day and it logs it for you at Photo-365.

Photojojo is a website that has everything for a photographer and they had a blog entry that pretty much covers every aspect of why you should do this.  This is also a fun site to find attachments to use your iphone as a camera in unique ways.  They don't specifically mention the 365 project website, but mention flickr and photoblog in this article.  I wish I'd read their article before I started my project because I found now that the year is gone, I don't really have a way to use the pictures as posted.  Yes, I can go to the 365 project website and look at them, but I haven't found a way to use the photos in say a photobook or calendar.  Others with more experience have kept their daily photos on flickr and can now download them to a project that is printable.  I can see the benefit to both.

Katrina Kennedy also has a blog that will send you ideas for what to photograph, called Capture your 365.  I get her reminders and have used a few of them, but generally I'm so busy with my life and all that my family needs that I prefer to photograph what's happening around me.  I love the idea lists just for my own use though, especially when I'm filling a photobook.  I used several of her ideas on the December list to create activities with Omar which then got photographed and made it into one of our family books.  For a good laugh, go read the Lego piece she wrote.  You'll never see a Lego character quite the same way again!

Lastly, as a way to do something with your photos, visit one of my favorite ladies, photobookgirl.  This is the place to go for all deals with any type of photo project.  I've used her tips for making photo books and have saved a bundle as well.  She knows about all deals that are out there and also has a facebook page that you can "like" to keep up with her ideas and savings.  She is currently offering a $100 drawing for a book from blurb and she talks about how it could be used for your 365 project, or any other project for that matter.  Go to this contest link for more information about entering.

Let me know if you're taking the plunge in 2013 and starting a 365 project!

Entertaining Kids on School Break

Oh, the Christmas break from school is half over and I'm already exhausted.  Having a child home for more than a week is hard work when you are an older parent like me.  I love and miss his teachers already.  We've managed to hit the public library, free Christmas displays, holiday lights, snow in the park, a couple of museums, swimming, lunch at his favorite restaurant, and his brother even took him to a movie. We did puzzles, painted Power Ranger symbols for both the blue and red rangers, built Lego castles, and made pancakes together more than once.  Whew.  I don't feel too guilty because he's happily parked in front of the TV this morning with a bag of goldfish crackers and endless Caillou episodes.

So how to manage having the kids around so they don't drive you crazy?  It's all about planning.  Long before the break, I'd started searching the list of holiday activities in the local area through google search, our local paper on-line, and my facebook "liked" pages which are businesses and groups we frequently use or visit.  We have done the same for summer vacations.  Only for that long of a break, I tend to make a list of activities and we call it our "not bummer summer list"- after the movie "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer".  You can google "free things to do (city)" and usually someone has already made a long list of things to try.  We do this when we travel too.  I usually set a budget of $20 per day.  Sometimes that means we pack a lunch or seek out free days at the museum.  Nearly every city offers its residents a free day at least once a month.

There's a great book I've used for several years called "Unplugged Play" which is just a bunch of great ideas for kids under age 10.  It has stuff to make, games to play, even birthday party ideas.  We have an ipad so I also look for new games about once a month.  When I download something new, it usually gives me a few hours to myself, as long as he can figure out how to play it without me.  There's a new list for Ipad apps that Time Magazine put out that I used this week to add a few new ones.  Anything by Toca Boca is a big hit with Omar too.

After the summer break, I make a photo book of all the stuff Omar has done over the summer.  We now have 2 and they get read over and over again.  I enjoy reliving all the fun we've had.  Here's a Blurb link to our most recent book, which turned out to be bigger than usual because of some unplanned travel opportunities.

Now onward for one more week.  We plan to drive to Minneapolis to visit Abdul's brother and his family who have 4 children, starting tomorrow.  I know we'll all be tired on the long drive home again.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Global Entry Program

We travel quite a bit, and my husband travels even more than the rest of the family.  Since he has a Muslim name, he used to have trouble getting through security.  It nearly caused us to miss flights more than a few times.  When they started the global entry program, he was one of the first to sign up.  He's found that it saves time in most cases and has been happy with his $100 investment.

The only problem for him is that Omar and I didn't have our names on the program, so every time he travels with us, he can't use the global entry line, and he has to wait in a long line with us to go through customs.  Finally it became a hassle this summer, so I applied for the program and can say happily that Omar and I are on the program as of today.

It's fairly easy if you already have a passport.  There's a global entry website where you create an account and then answer some questions.  You have to pay $100 whether they approve you or not.  They review your information and update the website, notifying you by e-mail that you have to set up an interview.  In Wisconsin, there is no interview location, so we had to go to O'Hare airport's international terminal today for an interview.  It was really easy to do.  We showed up with passports in hand.  He scanned our fingerprints and took a photo.  It took maybe 20 minutes for both of us.  Now we each have a "trusted traveler number" that we can use when making an airline reservation so the airline will know we are already prescreened.  It should make things go faster. Then when we go to security within the US, we can go in a line that is reserved for people on the program.  Again, it should save time.  And finally when we've been flying internationally, upon our return to a US airport, we enter a line with machines (they call them kiosks) where you can scan your passport and fingerprints, then you declare any goods you might have and walk through.

Of course, it's not a perfect system.  More and more people are coming on board so the lines aren't as short as they used to be.  Traveling and the additional security measures that go along with it are a hassle for sure.  We are just hoping that this makes it a bit easier for all of us.  If you travel more than 3 times in a year, this may be worth it for you too.  Go check out the FAQs for more information.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Weird & Wonderful Yard Art

This time of year, it's fun to take a drive and look at holiday decorations.  We were out early so it was before the lights are turned on but we found some very cool and interesting things.  Lots of people have yard art that they decorate with lights, wreaths and ornaments.  There is one house that stands out among all other houses we saw.  I believe these people collect every relic I ever saw in my childhood and find a spot in what has become a sort of 'statue garden' for their neighborhood.  A picture is better than 1000 words, so I'll just leave you with some photos I took.  If you're ever in Milwaukee, this is along Lake Drive near Layton.
The tractor driver has a santa hat, and the toy soldiers stand watch at the front door

Those are all the characters from McDonald's playland
of yesteryear

Now you know what to do with old
bowling balls and traffic lights
Jaws and a gas pump

Yes, that really is a car!
Who doesn't need an old LP tank turned pink pig?
The hamburglar is after the biker!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Still time to make that perfect gift

As I've said before, I don't really celebrate Christmas since marrying Abdulhamid, who is Muslim.  But I have plenty of friends who are racing to find last minute gifts, sometimes overlooking a few obvious ideas.  So many people this time of year say they really don't need anything and would prefer that there not be so much pressure on them to come up with something...especially because I've been reading on Facebook that many of my male gendered friends are only beginning to think about going shopping.  There were males in my own family who would shop on Christmas eve, and sometimes that works out just fine.

I'm here to tell you that if you have a bit of time, you can still make something incredibly memorable.  How about making a photo slide show on youtube set to music?  I actually used my Mac computer that has iMovie and found a song on itunes that I thought my husband would like.  I used the help menu to get started, and fumbled through this in about an hour.

Here's what I whipped up today with some photos on my computer.  Feel free to tune out after the first few minutes as I understand it's not much fun to look through such a lengthy slideshow when they aren't your own photos or story.

My youtube video

The other idea is something that you need a little quiet time and space to do.  Write a letter to the person(s) in your life that mean so much to you.  I've done this many times and was surprised to find these letters were kept for years afterwards.

Whatever you choose to do, anything from the heart is usually welcome!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Santa Rampage Milwaukee style

Santas and reindeer waiting to bike at 10 am at Cafe Hollander

And away they ride!
It was a wet day yesterday when we joined the Santas in Milwaukee who were doing the annual Santa Rampage.  In theory, it's a lot of fun, but any bike ride in December risks some nasty weather.  In fact, I can't remember a time when my brother-in-law has said "wow, that was perfect weather".  He rides every year and has enjoyed it so much that this was to be my first attempt at joining him.  My nephew flew in for the occasion and has done it 3 times now.  He lives in Massachusetts!  It was 45 and pouring rain all day.
My plan had been to ride with my daughter.  Our bikes were ready.  We had costumes.  We are just lightweights and decided to stay home with our kids at the last minutes.  Both have been sick lately.  I did go to several of the check-in points along the way though.  I guess you could say this is more of a bar crawl, but you bring your bike along.  There were 3 different meet up points in the city around breakfast time.  Then there are 4 additional locations spread out on an 11 mile route.  It starts around 10 with the actual ride and most people are done by 4, celebrating with some food and drink as the sun sets.
The reports are that there were somewhere between 500-700 holiday clad bicyclists at the first checkpoint, Lake Front Brewery.  They had planned to take a group photo, but there was no way they could accomplish that.  Bikes and Santas were everywhere.  Imagine the surprise by the usual brewery tour goers when they arrived to see that many red suits!  Many dropped off before the end of the day, but when we met at the end of the race, at Cafe Centraal, I'd estimate 250 still wet and smiling.
Next year, I'll be among that group...if the weather cooperates!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

WI Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts

It was a cold snowy weekend up in Cedarburg when we went to see the Wisconsin Quilt Museum.  This little gem of a museum packs a punch with so many beautiful things to see.  It's not just quilts currently being shown, but rather a selection of clothing, dolls, and other bits of handiwork.  This museum opened in a beautiful refurbished barn just over one year ago.  I've wanted to go since it opened, but we finally made it there in time for their ornament making.

Omar worked with some volunteers to make a felt candycane with buttons sewn on the front, but they had all kinds of creative ideas, and the stuff to do it with.  Once we did that, I browsed through the gift shop which had a variety of handmade scarves, pin cushions, bags, hats, mittens, etc.  You could certainly find something appealing for yourself or anyone who might need a thoughtful, one of a kind gift.  I've been told they have a library in the basement for people looking for specific books or patterns related to handworks.

They had a program called, "Celebrate the Artist" with working artists among all the displays.  There were 3 artists who were doing quilting, and knitting- Sally Fogelberg, Myra Van Uxem, and Judy Raddatz.  They were extremely patient with omar.  Myra let him fill her new pin cushion with pins to make a porcupine.  We talked about their passion for handcrafts and what their current projects were.

Myra Van Uxem ironing a quilt piece
Sally Fogelberg stitching a quilt square

Judy Raddatz knitting
We also enjoyed seeing a collection of handmade dolls on loan from the Texas Association of Original Doll Artists.  These were not the ordinary child play things, but rather works of art with glass beads, mohair, lace, and mixed media.  If you enjoy dolls, look at their website for the storybook collection where artists have made dolls to go along with books.  It's very unique!
Rehab the Harlot doll
I hope to go back to this lively place for a future class or exhibit.  The volunteers are friendly and I would love to see the additional buildings on the old farmstead.  This is a place where fun and learning are likely!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wisconsin's Schooner Coast

Painting of the Christmas Tree Schooner by Erik Nils Forsberg
at Wisconsin Maritime Museum

A few weeks ago I blogged about the Christmas Tree Schooner and how this is a time for celebrating the 100th anniversary of it sinking off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.  We went to Two Rivers the weekend they celebrated and did a reenactment of the Christmas Tree Schooner delivering trees.  I was actually confused about that and thought we might see something a little more dramatic.  Turns out it was even less dramatic than that because hurricane Sandy came through the midwest a few weeks ago and Chicago was forced to let some water out of Lake Michigan, leaving Two Rivers with a lot of mud, instead of real navigable water.  Their plans to use a coast guard ship to reenact the Christmas Tree Ship were doomed.  They ended up having a small Coast guard boat come via the roadway to deliver a few Christmas trees to the Fishing Village.  Oh well, they did the best they could given the circumstances.  The Fishing Village was still interesting.  There were plenty of cookies on hand, and you can bet my son Omar had a few!  The high school had singers.  The author of the Christmas Tree Ship books was on hand and Abdul and Omar had photos taken with her, although I can't post them here because she likes to control privacy of her image.  We also met the painter Erik Nils Forsberg who did the paintings of schooners on display at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum now.

We did the driving tour of the Schooner Coast, as advertised on their brochure.  It was 60 miles of maritime history, but for us it was longer since we began our tour in Milwaukee.  We ended up staying in Kewaunee 2 nights so we could experience both maritime museums.  There is one in Manitowoc and another in Sturgeon Bay.  I wondered how they could focus on local maritime incidents and history and be different, but I have to say they are each unique and interesting in their own way.

I think when they designed this tour, they thought people would visit more in the warm weather, so I'd advise that you check out the summer tour if possible because you could enjoy the boat rides and beaches. I would love to go back and do some biking and kayaking.  There is a nice paved trail along Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Two Rivers that is easy enough for families.  For us, it was mostly museums and outside looks at boats and lighthouses.  It was still nice.

The Wisconsin Maritime Museum is the larger of the museums.  We were there on a Sunday morning when they only do submarine tours in the afternoon so we missed out on what we've heard is the best part of the museum tour.  There was still plenty to see.  I'll post a few photos, but really you can take the museum tour right off their website.  They have detailed information and photos about every room in the museum.  Don't miss out on the movie in the theater.  We found it helpful to learn more about the submarine.  Omar loved the water play room.  You can make your own boats and sail them through various structures.  And of course if you're in Manitowoc, don't miss a visit to nearby Beerntsen's Confectionary- ice cream and chocolates!  Yumm!  Even a pirate wouldn't miss out on that!
Abdul said he learned to fire this gun
during his time in the Somali army.  
water play is fun!

The Door County Maritime Museum had a pirate exhibit where kids could dress up and shoot video cannons.  Abdul loved all the history of boats that had been made in Wisconsin during the war.  I liked the paintings of pirates and model ships.  A little something for everyone here.

If you enjoy lighthouses, there are plenty.  Door County has 11 alone!  There's even a special weekend in June where they open up some of them to the public.  You could do the Door County lighthouse tour.  We saw them in Kewaunee, Algoma, and Manitowoc but just from a distance.  This was a fun family trip.  Hope you try it and let me know what you did.
Kewaunee lighthouse at daybreak

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Great books for young parents

I don't remember what I got for my 13th birthday or even if I had a party, but I do remember that summer we went to the east coast to visit my sister and I played in the ocean for the first time.  I learned to body surf and remember the smell of the salt air and the way sand got into every part of my body. I remember how it felt to have saltwater go up my nose.

With that in mind, I was thinking about what to give my daughter and her little family for Christmas.  I came across a couple of books that would be great for young families.  Both cost about $10 each and I found them at Amazon, but you might find them at your local book store.

The first book is by Frommer's, the company that does a lot of travel books.  I don't think anyone could find the time to go 500 places before a child moves out of your home, based on a 2 week annual vacation, and the amount it costs to travel.  You can browse the pages though and use it as an idea book.  I still haven't seen all the places they list, and I'm 50!  The great thing is that if you're a family that doesn't travel much and don't hear about great places to go, this will help you weed out the stuff that might not be as interesting.  There's nothing worse than taking your kids on a family vacation and having them complain the entire time.  We used to take road trips with my mom and sleep in a tent.  It was always an adventure.  Sometimes we'd stay with relatives, but we always found some sightseeing to do along the way.  If you make your kids visit relatives and all you do is sit around and talk, no one is going to have fun.

The second book is just a book of opportunities to make memories with your kids.  Most of these require only your time.  I can say that I have done most of these activities with my 2 older kids, and I imagine Omar would enjoy them too.  These are things like go to a garage sale, tell ghost stories, tell the story of how they were born, and take a walk together.  There are a few like visit a castle or rainforest that may be beyond your means right now, but don't let that stop you from dreaming.

Christmas has become so materialistic.  It's great to find something that doesn't cost a lot that may build memories and relationships.  I hope this will get them started on their set of adventures.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Best time to see Egypt may be NOW

At the Great Pyramids of Giza
Abdulhamid spoke with his younger sister, Jamila, this week and they were on their way to Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.  They have always wanted to go there, but it was an expensive destination.  Well, a lot has changed recently.  The resorts are hurting for business and everything is priced at an all time low.  Hotel rooms that used to cost $500 per night are set under $100, and Trip Advisor travelers are reporting great conditions for a vacation.  Sharm el Sheikh is far from Tahrir Square and Cairo.  It's a seaside full of wonderful resorts and nice weather.  Some may ask, why would they go to Egypt now with all the unrest?  I mean, there are some who believe they are headed for another revolution based on the crowds in Cairo.  Well, I guess we are a little to blame.  We encouraged them to go because we'd had such a great (and cheap) experience.  Plus we felt a little obligated to help the Egyptian people.  They rely heavily on tourism, and face it, tourism hasn't been that great lately.  They don't need handouts.  They need work.  Although I would probably say Sharm el Sheikh is a better destination than Cairo, I think you could have a great time.

It was February 2011, and Egypt had just had a revolution. Our state department was still not advising Americans to go there, but we went anyway to take advantage of the lower prices and to see the monuments and tombs with no crowds.  It was nirvana!    We couldn't use an American, British, or Canadian company because most had cancelled their tours so we got creative and found a wonderful Egyptian tour agency that proved to be better (and cheaper) than we had ever expected.  We had a body guard assigned on all days we toured Cairo and Alexandria.  There was a driver, a tour agent, and a guide that was often different depending on the region we visited.  We had a private van and loads of personal attention.

We never felt unsafe.  We didn't have to fight traffic- there was a driver to do that.  We got to look out the window and ask questions.  The food was delicious.  The people were very friendly and many spoke English.  They are going to be in trouble if their tour industry doesn't rebound as most live hand to mouth.  

Here's the itinerary we used, arranged by Sherif at Vantage Travels.  We gave him a list of things we might want to do and he made it work in the time allowed.  Let me say, this was a break neck pace with lots of early mornings and not much sleep, but we couldn't have done it any other way since Jake only had a week for spring break.  It was $5135 for 3 of us and as you can see, it included most meals, all transportation and lodging.  It was an incredible experience.  I made a Blurb book after the experience that I can share.  
Egypt book made with Blurb

Here are a few additional photos.

Abu Simbel with not even one other person in sight!

09 Days / 08 Nights

Cairo / Luxor  / Aswan / Abusimbel / Alexandria including Super deluxe Nile Cruise
Meet & assist Mr. Abdulhamid at Cairo international airport, transfer to Meridien Pyramids hotel, overnight in Cairo.Meet & assist Ms. Barbara and her son at Cairo international airport, transfer toMeridien Pyramids hotel, overnight in Cairo.Breakfast at your hotelenjoy an excursion to visit Pyramids of Giza, One of the seven wonders of the ancient world still remain awesome. At the foot of the Pyramids, lies the Sphinx, which was discovered in 1912, proceed to the Valley temple - enjoy a Camel Ride at the Pyramids area - Continue your tour visiting the Egyptian Museum ( If it was opening ) which houses thousands of artifacts dating to different eras among which the famous collection of Tutankhamen - Next Visit to Old Cairo including visits to the Hanging Church - Abu Serga Church - Ben Ezra Synagogue - at night transfer to Giza train station for departure to Luxor by night sleeper train - Dinner & Overnight in Sleeper train. ( Breakfast - Dinner )Arrive Luxor train station - meet & assist - transfer to your Nile Cruise Sonesta St. George, it is one of the super Deluxe Nile Cruises in Egypt  - Embarkation before lunch - Lunch on board - Visit East Bank (Karnak and Luxor Temple) Afternoon tea - Dinner on board - Free at Leisure - at night enjoy the Sound & light show at Karnak Temple - Overnight in Luxor. ( Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner )Very Early in the morning, approx. at 05:00 am., our representative will transfer you to enjoy your hot Balloon ride over Valley of the Kings - back to your Nile Cruise - Breakfast on board - Visit the West Bank (Valley of Kings, Hatshepsut at El Deir El Bahari and the colossi Memnon) - Sail to Esna at 13:00 - Lunch on board - Afternoon Tea - Captin's welcome cocktail - Dinner on board - Folkloric Show (Rababa Show) - Overnight in Esna.Sail to Edfu at 5:00 am. - Breakfast on board - Visit Horus Temple in Edfu - Sail to Kom Ombo - Lunch on board - Afternoon Tea - Visit the Temple shared by Two gods Sobek & Haeroris in Kom Ombo - Dinner on board - Egyptian Galabya party - Overnight in Kom Ombo. ( Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner )Sail to Aswan - Breakfast on board - Visit the High Dam, Philae temple and the Granite Quarries - Lunch on board - Sail on the Nile by Felucca around Kitchener's Island - Afternoon Tea - Dinner on board - Belly Dance and Egyptian Folkloric Show - Overnight in Aswan.  ( Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner )Breakfast box from your nile Cruise, approx. at 03:00 am. drive via air-conditioned modern Van to Abusimbel - visit the great Temple of Ramses II, visit also theTemple of Nefertari - drive back to Aswan train station for departure back to Cairo by night sleeper train - Dinner & overnight in Sleeper train.  Arrive Giza train station - meet & assist - drive via air-conditioned modern Van toAlexandria - enjoy an excursion to visit Roman Amphitheatre - Cata Comb - Kaitbai Citadel - Alexandria Library - Montazah Palace - drive back to Cairo - ovenight in Cairo.Breakfast at hotel - transfer Mr. Abdulhamide to Cairo international airport for final departure.   Transfer Ms. Barbara and her son to Cairo international airport for final departure.* English speaking guide included- Air-conditioned modern van01 Day excursion in Abu Simbel including visits to :- Air-conditioned modern van Cairo / Alexandria / Cairo

Program includes the following services :
- Meet & Assist at Cairo International Airport + transfer to hotel via air-conditioned modern Van.
- 02 nights accommodation at Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Cairo ( 05 stars deluxe ) including Breakfast & all taxes.
- 01 day tour in Cairo as mentioned in program including visits to :

* Pyramids of Giza & Sphinx
* The Valley Temple
* Camel ride at the Pyramids area included !!
01 night accommodation at Sleeper train Cairo / Luxor
- 04 Nights accommodation at Sonesta St. George Nile Cruise ( 05 stars super deluxe ) including sightseeing Tours - Entrance fees - English Speaking guide + All meals daily ( Breakfast - Lunch - Dinner )
- Hot Air Balloon Ride over Valley of the Kings !!
- Sound & light show at Karnak Temple.
Aswan / Abusimbel / Aswan
* Temple of Ramses II.
* Temple of Nefertari.
* Entrance fees included.
* English speaking guide.
01 night accommodation at Sleeper train
Aswan / Cairo !!
01 Day excursion in Alexandria including visits to :

* Catacomb of Kom El Shoqafa.
* Roman Amphitheatre
* Qaitbay Citadel.
* Alexandria Library.
* Montazah Palace
* Entrance fees included.
* English speaking guide.
- All transfers in Cairo / Luxor / Aswan / Abusimbel / Alexandria via air-conditioned modern van.
- All service charges and taxes.
- Assist & transfer to Cairo Airport for final departure.

Air conditioned modern van we used for our touring
A cup of tea with our tour coordinator, Zachariah, who was like family by the end of the trip

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Finding safe hair & skin products

I recently went to a new hairdresser and learned a lot.  I've had the same salon for the past 8 years, and although it's been a good relationship, I was tempted by a "deal watch" sponsored by our local newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  Usually a cut and color will be about $120 and there was a coupon for $42 to a salon in a community farther away, that even included a brow wax.  Probably more than most of you guys want to know.  Anyway, the hairdresser was talking about using pH balanced products on your hair and he mentioned that you could use pH test strips to find them.  What that means is that they are not strong alkaline.  Livestrong has a pretty short basic article on why you need pH balanced shampoos.  It has to do with what happens to the cuticle in your hair.

I love a good science experiment, so I found pH strips on Amazon.  They were a lot easier to find there than in the local drug stores.  Then I lined up some of my current hair products and tested them.  The strips show numbers and colors that will appear from numbers 1-14 with the lower numbers being acidic and the higher numbers alkaline.  The hair dresser said that if you have a high alkaline product, it's probably good for cleaning your floors but not your hair.  Most of them I tested on hair products looked about the same- pretty pH balanced.  I tested a blemish toner which I knew was salicylic acid just to make sure the strips really worked and you can see the colors do change when it's too acidic.

pH strips used to test popular hair products

acidic products show up with a pink at the end of the strip
There's a website, Goodguide that rates products that you can use as a general reference, however I've heard that it's best to still look for a few bad chemicals on products.  Have you seen the youtube video about 80,000 chemicals?  It will scare you into taking a closer look at what you put on your body.
 This is a wallet card from the Environmental Working Group's skin deep website you can use to avoid the bigger violators.  Consider it a short list that will steer you from the extremely damaging stuff like oxybenzone and triclosan.  At skin deep, the lower the number, the safer the product.  I put in the bag balm I use on my hands and feet all winter and was happy to see it rates a number 1.  You can get lost on their website just reading all the information available about products.  Be sure to find something in your house that you think is really bad, just for fun so you can see all the toxic ingredients and what they do to you. That should give you nightmares for awhile.  So how will this information change the way you shop?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Somali wedding- the women's party

Me in my Somali dress at the wedding
One of the most popular blog posts I've done has been about a Somali wedding that my husband attended in Toronto, but it was only about the men's side of the ceremony.  You can read about it here at Somali wedding.  When I was sorting photos the other day, I came across the photos of the women's party for Abdulhamid's sister, Jamila's, wedding.  She was a beautiful bride, but very differently dressed than what most American brides tend to wear.  In fact, all the wedding guests were beautifully dressed in typical Somali garb- lots of silks and gold.  Many had been to beauty parlors for fancy hairdos, and henna places to get some beautiful flowers painted on hands, arms, and even feet.  When there's a wedding, women pull out all their beautiful jewelry.  Gold is a common gift to women in their dowry, and it is often passed down through the generations. It will be typical for a middle aged woman to have a dozen gold bracelets, a hand full of rings, and several necklaces in layers.  For a normal American lady like me, it was fabulous.  I felt like I was at the Academy Awards or something like that.

I've tried to choose a few photos that convey the festivity of the women's party, but it's difficult because the whole idea behind having a separate party is that they can let their hair down and don't have to cover themselves the way they would do in a public setting.  There were no men here.  I had to find a few photos where they had head scarves, out of respect.  Not all women cover their heads, but many do.

Typical henna for partygoers
The women's party was scheduled for the night of the wedding.  The invitation said 6 pm, but people didn't really start to show up until much later...maybe 9 or 10 pm.  That's pretty normal because, as it was explained to me by a Somali woman, most Somali women have incredible responsibilities when it comes to work or family.  Most have children that still need care and they have to wait until after the family is fed, work is done, and kids are put to bed.  The bride is the last to arrive, so she showed up with much pomp and circumstance (think red carpet Hollywood style).  There was to be a buffet dinner, but I have to say, it had to be held nearly 5 hours after the planned eating time due to the late arrival of guests, and by the time we ate, there were probably 200 additional guests that showed up who were not on the original guest list so we ran out of food.  Apparently this is also expected.  A Somali wedding is a big deal.  Guests came from England, Canada, Sweden, and all corners of the US.  Women love to dress up and have fun so if there's a party, everyone wants to come.  

Usually there is dancing.  In our case, there was a DJ who played music and a singer who did traditional Somali songs.  Somali women can make this fascinating noise with their tongues that sounds a little bit like chickens clucking and they do it to celebrate weddings.  I have tried and my tongue will never work quite that way.  To hear it with several hundred women makes quite an impression.  Then there's the clapping and singing.  I didn't understand most of the words, but it makes a person feel very upbeat.  Women dance in couples and in small groups.  Everyone wants an opportunity to dance with the bride and to have a family photo made with the bride.  

I left the party at about 3 am.  It was quite a night!   In most American weddings, the bride and groom spend their first night together and leave the wedding at the same time.  In the Somali tradition, often the bride stays with the women until the next day.  The men had already had their luncheon together with just men, earlier in the day.

I can't say that I've been to anything as interesting either before or after this party.  It was a really fun time with all my sisters.
Dancing with scarves flowing overhead

Jamila, the beautiful bride

Monday, December 3, 2012

The best way to learn to use that DSLR camera

I've had a Nikon D90 camera for about 3 years now and I love it.  But until just a few months ago, I really never took it off the auto mode.  The guy at the camera store said it was a waste of such a great camera and that I owed it to Nikon and myself to learn to use it.  And then the camera store where I planned to take lessons went out of business.

I've taken some great snapshots over the years but when I look at those cool websites that sell photography, theirs are always so much better.  I wondered what it was that I could learn to do so I could get those amazing shots.  Nothing I've ever done is National Geographic worthy.  I've gone through a number of learning experiences trying to find the best way to learn more.

First I tried a correspondence course through NYIP, the New York Institute of Photography.  There was a groupon where you could get all the lessons, which included books, DVDs, and some CDs along with instructor evaluation of your photos.   I browsed through the books and listened to a few of the DVDs, but never finished it because it requires discipline and time.  Neither are my strong points. You can go to their website for free tips on their e-zine, which can be especially helpful if you're interested in a specific topic, like how to photograph holiday lights.

Then I took a travel photography course on-line with a local college.  It was a good course with on-line lessons and I learned a lot about how to pack for a trip and what equipment would be helpful, but it was annoying that they would only release a lesson per week and then we actually went traveling, and I missed a few lessons and was unable to finish the course.  So if you go this route, you might check to see how the lessons are distributed.  Plus, the lessons were only available during the course, so if you didn't print them, you lost the information.  I've found it's nice to keep those reference materials for later use.  You also don't need to use a local college since everything is on-line, even communication with the instructor.  You can google for this and find lots of options.

I did a photography city walking tour that taught me about looking at different ways to take the same photo.  You can read about that experience at my previous blogpost, Milwaukee Photo Walking Tour. I had so much fun with this that I would definitely look for one when we're out traveling.  It's a quick way to see the sights with a local and pick up some tips for how to make a particular place stand out.

I have been taking night classes with University of Milwaukee's adult photography education program and they have proven most helpful.  There are a series of 3-4 classes and it's just once a week.  The instructor is a professional photographer with immense experience and teaches several different courses.  The advantage to this is that you have to show up, and when you do, you are going to learn something.  It's a class size of about 20 people, so you can ask questions and get personal help.  In order to make the most of this, you need to bring your camera and owner's manual because I've found there are as many different DSLR cameras as there are students, and it's crazy to expect any instructor to know how to operate all of them.  In most cases, they prefer a major brand and all of their equipment is that brand. There is also the added pressure (which is a good thing) to actually go out and take some photos every week with whatever mode you've learned about that week.  It forces you to do something with what you've learned, and if you don't, you won't be able to join in the conversation.

This weekend I participated in a day long workshop sponsored by Living Social but given by a traveling duo of photographers from Shoot Like a Pro.  There were 50-60 participants and it was held at a Brookfield hotel.  The classroom portion was great.  I learned a lot, but I think the best part is the repetition when you take classes over and over.  It's hard to learn everything in one day, like their program suggests, but since I had already tried some other courses, I got more out of it.  It included a 2 hour outdoor session where you could try some manual modes and the instructors were there to answer questions.  Really, I thought the group was too large to do this type of 'field work', and it was really just a parking lot so it wasn't much fun.  I had hoped I would come away with some awesome photos, but only got some guy waving his hands and a few cattails.
Here we were supposed to blur the background
And here we should make the cattail stand out
The point here was to make his hand blur to show motion
All of these classes were helpful in different ways.  I think the repetition of the lessons is what has really helped, as I said earlier.  Another important lesson I took away from all this is that probably about 90% of those really great photos are doctored using after the fact software like Photoshop.  The instructor yesterday sang the praises of photo shop elements because it's generally cheaper and can manipulate most photos to make them look better.  And he mentioned that it is often available at Sam's Club or stores like it, in case you want to pay even less.  If you really have the software and some time on your hands, you can shoot in the raw mode and do amazing things with the photos you've shot.  I'm not at that point yet, but I'm proud that I can finally take some photos using what I've learned.