August 2012

Bracelets for My Girls

I made these bracelets for my daughters (that is so weird to write!) and sent them along with some other items to a mom who’s going to Ethiopia next week. I’ve got one crafty bone in my body, and occasionally I can do something with it. One year I made earrings for a few girlfriends, and although I didn’t know what I was doing, they actually turned out ok. Anyway, don’t you love the birds? I thought they were adorable. I didn’t quite know the girls’ wrist size, so I used elastic string and made my best guess.

Can you believe it’s Labor Day weekend? I must say, I really wish B and I were going away this weekend, doing something relaxing and fun. Instead, we’re pretty much trapped in our neighborhood because the Grand Prix is in town. We also have umpteen house projects to tackle, and B has been under the weather lately, so hopefully we’ll get a bit of down time. How about you? Are you laboring this Labor Day or taking a well-deserved break?

Here are a few items I found this week that I think you’ll enjoy:

Have a slow weekend, and see you back here on Monday!
Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


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Week One

August 30, 2012

by Margaret Cabaniss

So last week when I was talking about how to take cute pictures of kids, I neglected the most important thing: First, get yourself some cute kids. Luckily, my sister Jen stepped up to the plate the very next day and provided me with that little looker up there. Is he not just the most squishable thing?

Jen used to live down the road from me for several years in DC, but now she and her husband are a few states away. (Sob.) I couldn’t bear to be away with a new nephew in the offing, though, so I was able to work out a nice long visit to help out behind the scenes while my sister and her husband make the transition to parenthood. I take care of things like laundry and meal prep, and I’m paid in baby cuddles. It’s a pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.

A friend of mine once said she couldn’t believe how quickly babies grow, even in their first week — so I’ve been trying to pay close attention to this little guy as he clocks his sixth day in the great wide world. He still seems so impossibly small, it’s hard to think he could already be growing and changing…but I’m guessing Jen, of all people, could spot the differences. Those late-night feedings might be long, but the time does go quickly…

So with those tempus fugit thoughts in mind, I think I’m going to go spend a little more time soaking up his adorableness. Meanwhile, to you moms out there: What do you remember most clearly from your baby’s first week? (Or was anything really “clear” to you in that era of sleep deprivation?)

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


Getting Closer

August 29, 2012


Yesterday we got word that our paperwork has been submitted to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia. Now, staff there will begin their own investigation into our case. If all goes smoothly, we’ll be issued a clearance to bring the girls home — and that could be sooner than we thought.

We were told by our agency to expect at least a two-month wait from court date until embassy appointment, which would put us in early October. But we know someone who just got her clearance a mere two weeks after her paperwork submission. Crazy! It makes my heart race as I still have so much to do. Here’s a list of just some of it:

  • Send gift packages to our girls. (Must be mailed today to the family taking them over.)
  • Finish selecting items for our registry. (Local friends are throwing a shower for us in a couple of weeks!)
  • Finish putting up shelves and painting the girls’ closet.
  • Buy or have the girls’ beds made. (You wouldn’t believe how complicated it is to find two beds that will fit into their little room. Argh!)
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter.
  • Make about a thousand trips to the dump.
  • Have the contractors finish up our new laundry area.
  • Arrange to have someone come in and haul three old appliances out of our house — two of which are in the basement.
  • Decide on and purchase car seats.
  • Get our new car inspected, registered, and re-titled. (Which includes paying annoying Maryland taxes on it.)
  • Reorganize the living room so the girls have somewhere to play.
  • Select and buy a rug.
  • Go through a mile-high pile of paperwork.
  • Figure out which nook of the house will be my office space now. (The old one now has a washer and dryer sitting in it.)
  • Write a book review for a national magazine.
  • Write 20 (yes, you read that correctly) short articles for a freelance project I took on last month.
  • Keep coaching my clients.
  • Wind things down at one of my part-time jobs.
  • Deal with some health issues.
  • Oh yes — and prepare for the next trip! Which includes gathering donations for the orphanage, bringing stuff for the girls (clothes, food, toys), and stocking up on the stuff we already know from trip one that we need to bring.

Are you out of breath yet? I am.

What I really want is a getaway weekend with B before the girls come home, but it’s not looking promising. I’m hoping for a day out somewhere, at the very least…even if it’s close by.

I also need more Xanax.

Image: Addis Ababa scene by Zoe Saint-Paul


A Family Car

August 28, 2012

New Car

We have our first real family car.

Over the years, B and I have had various vehicles, but we didn’t have children in mind when we bought them or drove them. For the most part, our cars have always been used, which always worked well for us. I actually didn’t own a car until I was 27, when I desperately needed some wheels to get around the small steel town I was living in while pursuing my graduate degree. But I had no money, so I bought an old blue Datsun with a rusted-through floor and an engine that wouldn’t quit for $10. I was warned never to drive it over 40 mph, but it did the trick.

I like nice cars as much as anyone. If the car gods came down and offered me any car I wanted, I’d choose a Mercedes sedan — followed by a BMW, and then probably a Volvo. (Yes, I have a serious thing for German cars. I also have champagne taste on a beer budget, as my mother always reminds me.)

B and I settled on a lightly used VW Jetta early in our marriage — small enough to find parking on city streets, but hefty enough to feel safe on the highway. When we both worked from home, having one car was perfect, and we could both use it for errands and trips as necessary. But then B started working 30 minutes away, in an area he can only get to by car, which left me vehicularly challenged.

I like being without wheels in a city, but Baltimore isn’t a great town for public transportation; you need a car here to do anything beyond basic errands. Add two kids to the picture, and a second vehicle was looking like a necessity for us.

Enter my generous in-laws. My in-laws had two cars, both in great shape. They offered us one of them last year, and now seemed like the perfect time to take them up on their generous offer. It’s a KIA Rondo, a car I knew nothing about, but  it’s fun to drive, handles well, and is very roomy and efficient. B brought it back from Kentucky this weekend, and it was a treat driving it today.

Next up: Trying to decide on which car seats should go into this new car. (These things are all such mysteries to me.) If you’ve got any advice on what we should consider for two four-year-old girls who are right around 40 lbs, let me know!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul 


Friendship Bracelets

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts in life, don’t you think?

I was reflecting on this over the weekend when my friend Beth was here. We’ve known each other for twenty years now — twenty years! — and we met as adults, which is the scary part. I moved to Toronto in my early 20s, not knowing a soul, and found a place to live through a want ad in the newspaper; Beth was one of my roommates. We lived together for two years and then continued to keep in touch after I moved south, visiting from time to time and checking in via phone and email. We’re as different at night and day, but the bonds of mutual affection and shared memories are strong.

It’s a gift to have people in your life who’ve been around for many seasons. They’ve seen you with bad hair, godawful outfits, and maybe even pimples and braces. They’ve seen you through bad break-ups, new school years and jobs, family squabbles, and painful events.

Then there are all the memories made by sharing time and experiences over many years. I ate my first raw oysters with Beth in Quebec City; I got the worst burns on my feet walking along a Mexican beach with her. She taught me the importance of making a home beautiful. It’s because of her that I now love olives and capers and anchovies. I learned to be patient when someone knocks on my door at 3:30 in the morning needing to talk about their problems. I bonded with dogs for the first time because of her (she’s a dog lover and always had one).

Old friendships are fantastic, but they can present challenges, too: Sometimes it’s hard to let one other become new people. And if one of you changes, you worry the friendship may not change with it. It can be easy to pigeonhole friends and maintain the same dynamic, even when it’s become stale or dysfunctional. But when all of that can be managed in a way that continues to bring blessings to both parties, those friendships remain a special thing.

I have numerous active friendships I can now consider “old,” and each enriches my life. How about you? Do you have friends you’ve known for years? Have you ever had to let an old friendship go?

By the way, I love new friendships, too! They’re important in a whole different way. Definitely a topic for another post.

Image found through Pinterest, originally pinned from here

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I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that I have the greatest friends. As we prepare to bring two little girls home, I’m reminded of this over and over again. Whether it’s driving me places (we’ve been sharing one car), running errands I don’t have time for, giving generously to us in various ways, or helping with projects and the costs of our trips, I’m blown away by the generosity of our friends and family.

Another case in point: My talented talented friend Beth flew in from Toronto yesterday to paint the girls’ room. I had some ideas in mind, but since she’s a professional at this stuff, I’ve been relying a lot on her direction and suggestions. She knows my general vision: keep it simple; use soft, soothing colors; make it a relaxing, healing space. I don’t want busy patterns or tons of bright, stimulating colors. I did agree to let her paint a subtle sky ceiling, and it’s turning out really nice. I’ll have to show you the end result when we’re done.

B, who is beyond excited about being a dad, is eager to be part of all the details and decisions — and luckily, we mostly agree on how things should be and look. He even made the final decision on the wall color we’re going to use. It’s often best that way; if decisions like that are left to me, it can take weeks.

So, the next couple of days will involve lots of painting, planning, perhaps a trip to IKEA and Lowes, and some catch-up time with an old friend over wine and good food. This will distract me from missing my husband too much: He’s off to Kentucky later today to visit his mom. In another act of generosity, she’s giving us one of her cars, which Brian will drive home at the end of his trip. The extra wheels will come in handy very soon.

Do generous friends and family humble you? Oh, and I’ve got another question: Do you have any favorite stores or brands for toddler bedding — especially in the organic cotton department?

Here are a few items I wanted to share with you:

  • Late last year I won a gift certificate to this lovely letterpress shop on Design Mom, and I may get a couple prints for the girls’ room. What’s your favorite?
  • Ever searching for a perfect brownie, I have to give these a try.

Have a slow weekend and see you back here on Monday!

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul


by Margaret Cabaniss

I thought Zoe’s post yesterday was excellent — and the picture she used to illustrate it was apt in more ways than one. Yes, it gives you a behind-the-scenes peek at what goes on at some of our SlowMama photo shoots, but — as with blogging in general — it can also give the (very) mistaken impression that I know what I’m doing behind a camera.

Most of what I know about taking pictures (and it isn’t much) I’ve learned through trial and error, or following the advice of other bloggers and my photographer friends. Still, when Ann asked me once if I had any particular tips for taking pictures of kids, I realized I had learned a thing or two through photographing my many adorable nieces and nephews.

I should make one disclaimer right off the top: All of these pictures were taken with an intro-level DSLR camera, and almost all with a fixed focal-length lens designed for portraits and close-ups. (It sounds fancy, but it’s actually quite affordable. If you already have a DSLR, you should absolutely snatch up this lens.) Among other things, it lets you take very shallow depth-of-field pictures (meaning only the subject is in focus), which is just what you want for portraits. You can certainly get good photos from cheaper cameras these days — even cell phones — but generally speaking, the better your tools, the better your pictures.

That being said, there are still some principles that will always be the same, no matter what your camera. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:

Natural light is your best friend.

This is true for every picture always, but particularly for people: Turn off the flash and try to work with the natural light available. If you set your kid near a window, it will usually give you all the light you need to capture great details without the harsh light and shadows caused by the flash.

The only time when more natural light isn’t necessarily best: when you’re outside in full sun. Direct, overhead sunlight can cause some of the same problems as a flash, so if you’re trying to get a particular shot in the middle of the day, try setting your subject in a shady spot, or some place that isn’t in direct sunlight. Cloudy days can be perfect for pictures for just that reason: This shot of my niece Ana was taken when the sun was behind a cloud, and you can see more of the (smooshable) details on her chubby little face because of it:

And don’t forget about the “magic hour,” the time right before sunset when the sun is low on the horizon and creates beautiful, diffuse light and warm tones. It’s my favorite time of day for pictures.

Get on their level. (Or behind them, or underneath them…)

The perspective most adults have of kids is usually a view of the top of their heads — so getting pictures from that height can be a sweet reminder of how they looked to you when they were little:

But if you take all your pictures from this angle, you miss out on a lot of other little details. Try getting on your kids’ level, so you can see the world from their perspective. John was actually above my head when I snapped this picture of him climbing a cherry tree in his front yard, but the perspective gives a sense of what it feels like to him to climb the tree — exhilarating, adventuresome — even if he’s only 6 feet off the ground.

It’s fun to play around with different angles and close-ups; instead of ordinary head shots, try focusing on some of the little details that usually go unnoticed in pictures but change so quickly — chubby hands, tiny feet, soft little ears…

On a more practical level, kids will simply be more comfortable when you’re down on their level — and if they’re more comfortable, it’ll show in the pictures.

Don’t tell a kid to smile.

Whenever I tell four-year-old Thomas to smile, he purses his lips, squints his eyes, and juts his chin out at me. That’s what he thinks smiling looks like. Not helpful.

Of course, he has an adorable natural smile — but almost no one can give you their best natural smile on cue, least of all kids. So instead, I try to think of ways to get a smile out of them. With babies, playing peek-a-boo behind the camera works wonders: They won’t smile into a faceless camera, but they will smile at you. Just set up your shot, then pop out from behind the lens to get their attention and press the shutter as soon as they start smiling:

With older kids, you can make a game out of it: Have them hide under a blanket, or behind a door, and then jump out and surprise you. Kids are super pleased with themselves when they think they’ve surprised adults (Thomas especially), so the smile will come naturally; just make sure you’re ready to catch it.

What if you’re not even trying for a smile — just hoping to get your kid looking at the camera without some painful, frozen expression on his face? Go for the sneak attack: Set up your shot while he’s busy ignoring you, then call his name. As soon as he looks up — click.

Let them do their thing.

We all love the idea of kids sitting sweetly for the camera for posed shots — but honestly, how often are your kids actually sitting still and smiling beatifically at you? Yeah. Didn’t think so.

Instead of fighting with them to sit up and hold still and for the love of Pete, stop poking your brother, go for the photojournalism approach: Try catching your kids while they’re immersed in their own kid-world — running, digging, reading, whatever. It will be a more accurate representation of what their little lives actually look like — because we all know that no one’s life looks like the Christmas card.

Take lots and lots and lots of pictures.

This has a few very important benefits: One, it makes your kids more comfortable around the camera if they see it all the time. Stalk them like the paparazzi, and soon they’ll be little champs at ignoring it, or loosening up in front of it.

Two, having more photos to choose from means you’re more likely to end up with just the shot you want; you can always go through them and pick out the winner later. If you’re trying to get a particular portrait, consider setting your camera to take “rapid fire” pictures (where the shutter snaps several shots in quick succession); it’ll give you the option of choosing the best out of the lot later — much easier than trying to get your kid to smile five times in a row.

Finally, the more pictures you take, the more practice you’ll get, and the sooner you can figure out which of these tricks works best for you. (And, of course, don’t forget: Photoshop is always your friend.)

Your turn to share! Anything you do to get great kid shots?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss and some of her better-photographer family and friends


Blogger Envy

August 22, 2012

Behind the Scenes at SlowMama

A few weeks ago, I met a woman who occasionally reads my blog. She paid SlowMama a lot of kind compliments and gushed over our photos. Foremost in her mind were the food pics we post here, and the descriptions of them. It all looks so fantastic and delicious, she said. But then she added something that made my heart sink: It looks so good, in fact, that it makes her feel a bit inadequate. I clearly must have my act together and am serving homemade, out-of-this world concoctions all the time in my home. She was wondering what it would be like to meet me in person, given how together I must be. (My words, not hers, but that was the gist of it.)

I was flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe someone was saying about me what I sometimes say about other bloggers: Wow, look at her… wouldn’t it be amazing to have my life look like that, to have it all together, to live such a beautiful, successful life? 

When I read my favorite blogs, I try to remember that this isn’t the case — that no one’s life is perfect. But sometimes it’s hard to see the chinks in the armor. I mean, how can you raise a brood of adorable kids, travel across oceans, have a gorgeous home, look good yourself, run a successful and lucrative blog (which includes your own perfect photos and new content every day), work on a book, constantly come up with fresh ideas, host fun parties at your house, and maintain a happy marriage? I can think of several bloggers I know who fit this description, and when they say they don’t have it all together, it’s hard to take them seriously. (Of course, it makes it even worse that they all seem so lovely, so you can’t really hate them.)

There are women out there who put me to shame — always have been, and always will be. I think it serves me well to accept this and to rejoice in their abilities and successes, instead of letting jealousy reign or allowing it to make me feel like a loser. Still, now that I’m a blogger, I try to apply what I know about my own life to other bloggers. A blog is merely a series of snippets from a life, put in text and images. Bloggers — even those who share the most personal things — are selective, making decisions every day about what to show (and not show) the public.

SlowMama was never intended to be a place to dump all my dirty laundry and show all my warts. I wanted it to be real and honest, but also to be a venue where my contributors and I could share our attempts at creating a more meaningful, beautiful life. I wanted to enjoy coming here each day — and to one day be able to look back and remember the good stuff, not the piles of laundry that weren’t done, the stacks of papers not filed, and the take-out containers still sitting on the counter.

I want SlowMama to be a visually beautiful spot on the internet and a place of inspiration, but I don’t want it to be inaccessible. And maybe that means showing more foibles here. Regardless, and for the record, this blogger is far from having it all together. When I get there, I’ll let you know, and then you can fight off jealousy in your heart and try not to hate me. But we are so far away from that right now, you have nothing to worry about.

Do you get blogger envy? Do your favorite blogs inspire you or make you feel inadequate and defeated?

Image by Zoe Saint-Paul. Behind the scenes at a SlowMama shoot. Yes, that’s Mags.


by Ann Waterman

So, remember that 5K I was training for a couple months back? The one I was trying to run in under 30 minutes?  Well, I finally have a race report for you. I’m sorry to say that I did not run the race in under 30 minutes. In fact, I didn’t even run the race — but I had a really, really good reason: I’m pregnant!

Yup, that’s right! Several weeks into training, and the day after a particularly good workout, I found out I was expecting. This was, of course, welcome news for me and my husband: We’ve been wanting to expand our family, and if you’re looking to get pregnant, it seems a surefire way is to sign up for a race and announce to the world that you’re looking to run a personal best. I’ll need to set aside my goal for the time being, but the timing is such that I should be able to run the race next year. Being about 4 months postpartum, though, my goal then may just be to finish the race. I’ll work on speeding up later.

It’s always fun sharing baby news with family and friends, but the person most excited by our announcement was my oldest son, James. He’s been asking about a sibling for a while, so it was really nice telling him that one would soon be on its way. Now that he’s older and has had the experience of being a brother once already, he really understands what it means — the occasional squabble over toys and smashed Lego creations, but always having a sibling who wakes up and can’t wait to start a day of fun with him.

I weathered my first trimester the way I’ve weathered all of them — nauseated, tired as heck, but overall, holding up pretty well. Knowing what some of my girlfriends go through, I hate to complain, because I’ve got it pretty good and it’s only a couple of weeks that are really bad.

The biggest struggle I have during pregnancy is wrapping my head around the big changes that are going to happen with another family member in the house. The idea of change is hard for me, because I like to have control over every aspect of my life, and there’s nothing like a baby to shake things up a bit (well, a lot, really). Thankfully, I’ve got 9 months to adjust to the idea, as well as a husband who makes transitions seamless and easy for me. I’ve also noticed that it’s gotten easier with each kid — not because my life’s getting any easier, but because I’m learning what’s truly valuable: At the end of the day, being surrounded by people you love is infinitely more important than a spotless house, being flush with cash, or having a flawless figure (because let’s be honest: babies take a serious toll on our bodies).

What do you love about pregnancy? What do you struggle with?

Image: Ann Waterman


Addis Taxi

There were so many photographable moments in Ethiopia, but my husband was constantly warning me not to whip out my iPhone. I thought he was being paranoid, but as I mentioned before, the one time he broke his own rule — in the middle of the day, a block from our hotel — he was targeted by an expert pickpocket and his iPhone was gone. I guess his warnings were wise.

Still, I managed to grab shots from inside our moving vehicles whenever I could — from the van on our way to and from the care center, and from various taxis.

Gated Property

Although we expected to find widespread poverty in Addis, we also expected to see upscale areas, both business and residential. We discovered, however, that nicer homes and properties are hidden away: They’re gated and walled in, with barbed wire around the tops and edges. Every now and then, an open gate  would allow a glimpse of a lovely garden or well-appointed home, but for the most part, we didn’t see anything like that. The montage below is representative of what we saw driving around the city streets:

Addis Street Scene


Addis Street Scene 2


Addis Street Scene 3


Addis Street Scene 4


Addis Street Scene 5


Addis Street Scene 6


Addis Street Scene 9


Addis Street Scene 7


Addis Street Scene 8

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul