Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dear Photo Apps

Dear Photo Apps,

You must be proud to know that you rank high amongst my mobile device addictions.  You are important to me because I only use original photos on this blog.  I also happen to love pretty pictures and want to make my photos as pleasing to the eyes as possible.  And that's where you come in.


My blog photos are almost exclusively taken on my iPhone 5 and edited with one of my favorite apps on it (there are a few photos credited to Dear Husband from our point-and-shoot camera).  Many people have asked me which apps I use, so I will share my favorites here, as well as showcase a few new pics that I had a lot of fun creating.

My go-to app is Snapseed.  It is spectacular, and now free!  It comes with a great tutorial to show you exactly how to use the app, or if you're like me, you learn it as you play around with it.  Here are its awesome features:

  1. Automatic: a one-touch auto adjust button that corrects for Contrast and Color, but can be further customized to your liking.
  2. Selective Adjust: adjusts any area of the photo for its Brightness, Contrast, or Saturation; corrects red eye. 
  3. Tune Image: adjusts Brightness, Ambiance, Contrast, Saturation, and White Balance.
  4. Straighten: straightens crooked pictures with a helpful grid.
  5. Crop: crops the photo into 8 different sizes, including original size; rotates cropping area from horizontal to vertical and vice versa. 
  6. Details: adjusts Sharpening and Structure.
  7. Black and White: turns into B&W with 6 preset filters (Neutral, Contrast, Bright, Dark, Film, and Darken Sky) with 5 color filters.
  8. Vintage: 9 preset filters to make the photo look vintage, with adjustable Brightness, Saturation, Texture Strength, Center Size, and Style Strength, and 4 textures. 
  9. Drama: 6 preset filters to make the photo look "dramatic" with adjustable Filter Strength and Saturation.  (For an example, see the third picture from Dear Conference Newbie captioned "Our room with a view".)
  10. Grunge: infinitely adjusts to stylizes the photo via its Style (color variation), Brightness, Contrast, Texture Strength, and Saturation with 5 preset Textures. (For an example of Grunge, see the cover photo for Dear Substitute Teaching 101.)
  11. Center Focus: 6 preset filters to make the center area of the photo stand out with adjustable Blur Strength, Outer Brightness, and Inner Brightness.
  12. Tilt-Shift: Linear or Elliptical settings to make the background blurry, with adjustable Transition, Blur Strength, Brightness, Saturation, and Contrast.
  13. Retrolux: 10 preset filters of different exposures and light leaks, with adjustable Brightness, Saturation, Contrast, Style Strength, Scratches, and Light Leaks.
  14. Frames: 23 preset frames in white and black.
(All of the these adjustments are on a 0 to +100 or -100 to +100 scale.)

If such photography lingo is gibberish to you, then the only way to really understand them is to play around with the app.  As for what I normally do, my first step is always Crop, since I like the square look of Instagram.  Next, I use Automatic to see how the app enhances the picture; I don't always like it, but many times I do.  Then I manually adjust with Tune Image.  Sometimes I use Center Focus to brighten the center of the photo (or further darken the edges of the photo), and sometimes I add Tilt-Shift if I want to blur portions of the photo.

Here is an example of a picture that turned out too dark.  Snapseed was able to keep its background relatively dark while brightening the foreground object to show off the colors of the gradient layered cake:

After editing with Snapseed

Here is a watermelon flower with a warm tone and distracting background vines.  Snapseed neutralized the yellow tone, darkened the background edges, and brightened the center object to draw your attention to the pretty flower.

After editing with Snapseed

Another app I like is Afterlight ($0.99).  It is very similar to Snapseed, but it comes with many more preset filters that do not allow customization.  It also has a good set of Light Leak options.  (For an example of Afterlight's Light Leak feature, see the cover photo for Dear Pot-O-Vinegar.)

Another one of my favorites is Over ($1.99), which adds text and artwork on the photos.  It comes with a decent font pack and a few artwork packs for free, others for in-app purchase.  (For an example of the artwork feature, see the cover photo of Dear Not-Good-At.)  I have used this to write inspirational quotes, song lyrics, a sentiment of few words, or even fun pics as this post's cover picture above (and more below).  

Next, I use PhotoMarkr (free) to watermark my photos (if I'm posting from my mobile device).  Most of my blog pictures have a standard watermark on the lower right corner ( made by Picasa (if I'm posting from my computer).  But with PhotoMarkr, you can place the watermark anywhere, resize it, and adjust its Transparency.  

Lastly, if I need to make collages, I use PicStitch, InstaCollage Pro, or Photo Collage Free (all free).  PicStitch is a basic collage app with a variety of dimensions and collage formats.  It does not, however, allow adjustment of spacing between collage pictures, as do the latter two.  InstaCollage Pro has some funky, non-angular collage formats, which can be fun to use.  Photo Collage Free also allows customization of collage spacing by varying its preset formats.  All three apps feature in-app photo editing, which is convenient, although I still prefer Snapseed for that purpose.  There are seriously a ton of collage apps out there, but I like these for their simple and clean features.  Here are two older examples of my collages:

A few crafts from my Chinese Preschool Class
A pre-consuming compulsion only a mama finds endearing

Of course, there are some photography fundamentals that also help make pictures stand out.  I have never taken any photography courses, but based just on playing around with taking photos, here are a few things I always keep in mind:

  • Know when to center an object (usually a closeup) and when to use the rule of thirds (usually longer shots).
  • Know how to use the focus feature on your camera (or in my case, phone) to change focal point and lighting.
  • Know how to take advantage of lighting; natural light is always best.
  • Know how to take photos with a clean background to minimize distraction.
  • Have lots of fun taking pictures.
  • Have lots of fun playing with photo-editing apps.  

The process of making the cover photo of this post was a very fun experience.  With all the farm veggie I have been farming, I thought about making playful photos with them.  You can see the progression each step of the way here: 

Original: tomato on the floor
After Snapseed: 1. rotated, 2. cropped, 3. color/contrast corrected
After Over: added letters/ After PhotoMarkr: added watermark

Here is another:

Original: squash on the floor (after tomato was done)
After Snapseed: 1. rotated, 2. cropped, 3. color/contrast adjusted
After Over: added letters/ After PhotoMarkr: added watermark

And one last one:

After Snapseed: 1. cropped, 2. color/contrast corrected
After Over: letters added
After Photo-Markr: watermark added

Aren't these fun?  You see how it can be as addicting as any other addicting thing in life?

But you and I both know that I'm a cheater and a faker.  I don't own an expensive DSLR, nor do I really have any real photographer knowledge.  I bluff my way through these wonderful apps that make magic out of my photos.  And for my blogging purposes?  They totally work.  The best part?  It's so convenient.  I don't need to be in front of a computer, and with a few swipes of my finger, I can get a picture to reveal the mood I want it to express.  

I'm seriously hooked.  


So, Dear Photo-Editing Apps, I suppose I've moved beyond my first love, Instagram.  Instead of only accessing preset filters, these apps allow a wealth of possibilities, and truly make pictures FUN to play around with.  Did I mention I adore you all?  I. thee. LURVE!


Friday, August 23, 2013

Dear Home Alone

Dear Home Alone,

It's been a few days.  A few quiet, serene, and productive days.  Days where my only interruption was having to eat lunch.  (Hmmm, the thought of that!)  Sometimes I think about what the kiddos are doing in school, but mostly, I'm enjoying you--my new normal.  Here is my #TopTen list of things I learned from being Home Alone:

10. The best moment of the day is when the kiddos get off the bus (or are being picked up by yours truly).  We hug, we kiss, we ask how was your day.  Then, from there, it all sorta goes downhill.  #BackToReality

9. The worst moment of the day is the Morning Madness, also known as getting-two-kids-out-the-door on time.  This year, I'm packing lunch for two, which isn't all that much more work, except for keeping straight who asked for what and what goes where.  #ChaoticAssemblyLine

8. Never believe the words I'm not tired, lest you think a child won't enter the front door melting down the way an ice cream in a cone melts in the blazing sun.  More hugs and kisses, served with ice cold watermelon for the hot-n-sweaty not-tired child.  #MommyMagicAtWork

7. My home is a never-ending list of things to do.  I look around the house and can easily find ten projects (that I will never get to).  They're always there, from the urgent (full kitchen sink to piled-high laundry) to the less-paramount (sort donation items and throw out junk).  #LightlessTunnel

6. I run a considerable risk of not feeding myself lunch when the kiddos are not around.  Like I said, having to eat is my new interruption.  Which can be good since my summer collected so many extra calories from those frozen dessert treats.  Kidding.  #MyNewPortionControl

5. That, or I run the risk of eating too much when Dear Husband texts-me-out for a lunch date, which, exciting because I cannot remember the last time we had lunch alone on a weekday.  And it was such a momentous occasion that I wore a pair of casual heels to lunch... only to bring some casual flats cuz I had to go grocery shopping afterward.  #IAmShamGlam #DorkIsMe

4. With all this "free time," one of my top priorities is to carve out a routine so that I can get to the gym.  #Sweariously

3. Of course, that holds true until I get those sub jobs calls at 5:30 AM, which derails any exercising routines I might have tried to plan.  #BestExcuseEver

2. I am indubitably, undoubtedly, and positively a Homebody.  I can stay home for days without feeling cabin fever.  I like to be by my lonesome self sinceI have many voices inside my head to chat with so I can store up enough tranquility for evening hell family time.  #MeMyselfAndI

1. Which is also why I love the return of our glorious evening hours.  School takes good care of my kiddos, and they are snoring nice and early (compared to our summer vampire hours) these nights.  #MajorFistPump

So, Dear Home Alone, my first week was a good transition.  But now that it's the end of the week, I'll have my family back for two days.  As I sit around waiting for subbing assignments, I hope that I'll be seeing you only on a part-time basis soon.  Well, have a great weekend, and see you next week!


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dear Reeling-It-In

Dear Reeling-It-In,

You are the closest adage I can think of for a Chinese saying that translates to "reel your heart back" (收心).  I grew up hearing those words whenever it was time to stop having fun.  Needless to say, I was not very fond of the saying, but what better time to contemplate your meaning than with the start of back-to-school?


"How was your summer?" was how everyone greeted each other at Meet the Teacher Day at school.  How was my summer?  I always stuttered answering because there aren't enough ways to explain how glorious it was...

It was filled with frozen desserts: ice cream, frozen yogurt, soft serve, frozen custard, paired with a crunchy but light waffle cone.  It was spent under beautiful skies and a gentle sun.  It was visiting old traditions and making new ones: blueberry pie, made; a few adventurous rides, check.  It was ten weeks of guilt-free laze complete with sleeping in and carefree meals.  It was sibling playtime around the clock.  It was swimming and baking and farming and sandcastle-building.  It was binge reading and margarita nights and spur-of-the-moment trips and Candy Crushing.  It was spent listening to the chirps of cicadas wondering how much more summer we will have, and if I would notice when they stopped singing.

They're still singing.  But summer is over, in a way.  Within the last week, I've had a district-wide substitute teacher meeting and a Chinese School teachers meeting.  I've had glimpses of the madness that will become of us.  For the first time ever, there will be after school activities every day of the week, and my chauffeuring skills are about to get even more polished.  Most significantly, the kiddos are back-to-school as of today.

Strangely, I've been very ambivalent about the start of school.  For the first time in ten years, the house will be empty all day because both kiddos are in school full day now.  I feel like I should be jumping for joy, but that lonesome buzz has also been tugging at me for the last few days.  I had lunch with the kiddos yesterday at a pizza joint.  Dear Son sat next to me at a booth with the side of his body completely flushed against mine.  I wondered if he did that because the owner and I chatted about it being the last time I have lunch with them before school starts.  So I held my tongue and didn't ask him to scooch over.  Dear Daughter sat across from me, eating like a tween.  Our feet brushed against each other's under the table from time to time, which invariably reminded me that her ten-year-old feet measured the exact same size as mine at the back-to-school shoe-shopping trip last week.

The days are slow, but the years fly.

And as my mind continues to ponder this conundrum, the Voices inside my head perpetuate:
I cannot believe I have to turn the morning alarm back on again! 
But look at the house!  There is more dust, mold, and soap scum than ever because of your almost non-existent cleaning schedule over the summer!  Those toilets are filthy! 
Yeah, yeah, I'll get to them, as soon as this post goes live.  I have priorities, you know?!  But I'm still not ready for summer to end... 
When was the last time you had a decent, sane, and complete trip to the grocery store?  Remember shopping and actually getting all the things you needed?  Remember going out the door without having to lug water bottles, snacks, and kiddos? 
Oh, yeah.  I guess I can actually now bake in peace and have uninterrupted time to write/think/eat. I almost forgot what that feels like!  But I'm still not ready for the cooler temps; our summers are so short! 
Um, look on the bright side.  Haven't you had enough mosquito bites? 
Oh, right. I'm totally ready for winter.   
Atta girl!  Don't forget, if you're not subbing, you can even have coffee and lunch dates with your friends, kids-free! 
Oh, that's right!  Hit me up, friends! 
So you're okay with this now?  This end-of-summer, back-to-routine thing? 
Seems like you've reeled in my heart pretty well there.  I must face the facts.  There's no turning back now, cuz this just happened:


So, Dear Reeling-It-In, there's no doubt that I'm sad all the fun is over, and that we must accept your mandatory pull.  I'll try to be as compliant as possible and traipse back with the least amount of resistance.  Now that there's no maaaa-maaaahhhhh every other minute of the day, I can actually just worry about me.

I won't even know what to do with myself with 7.5 hours of me-time to fill, said no one ever!


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Dear Tae Kwon Do

Dear Tae Kwon Do,

You are a form of martial arts that I knew very little about prior to April of this year.  But in the last three months, you've worked your way into our family, especially to into the heart of my Dear Son.


"Ki-hap!" shouts DS as he throws a punch into the air in front of him, his eyes steady, focused, and as serious as a six-year-old can possibly be.  

DS was invited to a birthday party at a Tae Kwon Do school back in April.  Like most boys who like to imitate martial arts moves and hi-ya his way around the house, he was happy and eager to attend.  At the party, I knew within ten minutes that DS was going to really enjoy this activity and would be interested in taking lessons himself.  We then met with one of the masters of the school and learned about its mission and philosophy.

I came away from the meeting really surprised at how Tae Kwon Do is more than a hobby--it is truly a way of life.  It does not just take place in the dojang (Tae Kwon Do training hall) with one's peers and instructors, but also in the home, at school, and within oneself.  Upon joining the school, students take home a list of Home Rules to abide by, ones that include being respectful to one's parents and siblings, teachers and peers.  One must keep oneself and one's surroundings hygienic and clutter-free.  One must work hard and demonstrate one's integrity.  Students also keep a Reading Log (a minimum of 15 minutes of reading a day) and a Self Discipline Log (for helping out around the house without being asked) and are given a black stripe on their belt each time the log(s) reach(es) ten occurrences.  Furthermore, students, their peers, and their masters/instructors treat each other with the utmost respect: bowing to greet and say goodbye, using two hands to give something to someone, and using "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am" in all communications.  The master told us that their goal is to help students improve, to be better than before.

"One, sir, two, sir, three, sir, four, sir, five, sir, thank you, sir!" shouts DS as he does his jumping jacks and ends with a super-springy 90-degree bow and back to upright position.

So we signed DS up for six months of lessons to start in May, as a beginner white belt.  Sure, the Reading and Self Discipline Logs are helpful, although it is my personal opinion that children need not be rewarded for things they should be doing anyway, but we dutifully recorded down his accomplishments and watched his belt grow black stripes.  But what really started to grow was DS's intense desire to follow directions and do the right things at lessons.  Let's just say that he had to cross all his Ts and dot all his Is--a beneficial compulsion in this instance.  Inside and outside the dojang, he was two different persons.

"Tae, Kwon, Do" shouts DS as he throws three punches in a row with alternating fists.  

If you knew DS, you'd know that he is quiet, reserved, and observes more than he speaks.  He is often found straggling behind my pantleg so he can hide part of his body or face as I try to get him to say hello to someone.  And when he does say hello, you can barely hear him.  His passive nature has always been a worry of mine, because I can so easily imagine, having seen it with my very own eyes, how his peers could take advantage of his timid personality.  And he won't fight back.  He just carries on, but I don't know what he's feeling inside.

"Courtesy, Tae Kwon, sir!" shouts DS as he moves his fisted arms in uniform positions with the rest of the students to the master or instructor as prompted.  

But in that dojang, DS is loud.  He shouts with a confident, little-manly deep voice you've never heard, ever before, anywhere.  DS is precise.  He throws his punches and kicks as hard and as accurately as he can.  DS is quick.  He runs and dashes and sits and stands as fast as he can when the masters instruct students.  DS is focused.  He is unfazed by the eyes of the spectators on the sidelines all on him--the loudest little voice--somewhat amused by his matter-of-fact movement and speech.  There is no doubt in anyone's mind that this little guy is enjoying his time in the dojang, shouting his responses to the given commands.

"Five, six, seven, eight!" shouts DS as he finishes counting after the instructor's "one, two, three, four" while doing warm-up stretches.  

After three months of lessons, DS had his first testing to be promoted to the next belt.  It was a ceremonious affair.  Children performed their form steps and self-defense steps as a group, and testing ended with a very special event: breaking a board.  On the board, we were to write a bad habit our child would like to "break."  A parent was to hold the board for the child to break.  And break did my DS.  It was quite a proud moment.  The children were all awarded their next belt ranks, and DS got his spankin' new yellow belt.

"Yes, I can! Ki-hap!" shouts DS at the end of each lesson, as cued by a master's "One, two, three."

We are happy with this school's philosophy of improvement, respect, and encouragement.  It is not about the fighting or competition or points.  It is about a clear sense of self.  The self that does without minding what other people think.  The self that reacts quickly and knows how to protect his body.  The self that is as confident as he is self-aware.

I am amazed by DS's accomplishments in this discipline.  I hope that one day that he will be able to use what he learned in that dojang in real life, should he need to, to stand up for himself and not allow someone else to trample over his meekness.  There's a good chance that something will click in his mind and he'll know when to use what he has internalized for self-defense to take care of himself.  I know that because his determination in that dojang is something fierce.


So, Dear Tae Kwon Do, you have been one surprising element in my life this year, and one that will be more and more appreciated as time goes by.  I am comforted by DS's wholehearted embrace of a new practice, and hope that he will benefit from you physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually.  And in the meantime, colorfully, as in yellow.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dear Subtlety

Dear Subtlety,

You are an artful way of expression that is perfected with life experience.  Often used in literary works, theatrical forms, as well as everyday life, you make the obvious even more conspicuous, if you are applied with dignity and poise.  Unless you are children.  Specifically, mine.


My kiddos can take subtlety to a whole new level.  You can almost see the hamster wheels spinning inside their heads as they casually speak as if Dear Husband and I are as clueless as backyard pumpkin growers.  Whatevs.  But sometimes we have fun with it, too:

Us, in the parking lot, walking towards Target:

Dear Son, age 6, (innocently): So, what are we going to buy at Target?

Me (as-a-matter-of-factly): Oh, you know, the stuff we need.

DS (such a curious boy): Like what stuff?

Me (I can put on a good act, too): Let's see... we need to get a birthday present for jie-jie's friend, mouthwash, sugar, and air filters.

DS (those hamster wheels are spinning faster): That's it?

Me (relentlessly): Yep!  That's it!

DS (the wheels are burnin' baby, burnin'!): Oh.

DH (swoops right in without missing a beat): But I'm getting a toy!

DS (looks down at the ground to avert our detection of the edges of his lips on an uncontrollable upward turn): ...

Me (acting surprised): What's that I see on your face?  Why are your lips moving closer to your ears?  What?  Is that a smile I see?

DS (finally yielding and bursts into laughter): No, I'm getting a toy!

DH (still at it): No, I'm getting a toy.

DS (finally admits defeat and concedes that his parents are better at this game than he, says to DH): You don't need a toy.  I need a toy.  Stop teasing me!

And that's how he got a toy.

Dear Daughter, at age 10, has had a few more years of life experience under her belt.  Like her little brother, she wears her emotions on her sleeves, so it's quite easy to tell how she's feeling, though not necessary why she's feeling that way, but that's for another post altogether.  Ironically, in her simple mind, she likes to get from Point A to Point B in roundabout ways.  Good thing I have an automatic map app pre-installed in my brain.

DD (in a sing-songy voice): Wha-cha do-in'?
Translation: I wanna do it, too.

DD (in a sing-songy way): What-er we do-in' today?
Translation: I have something in mind and I know you can read it so just say it already!

DD (in a sing-songy tone): What's fer dinner?
Translation: It had better be something I like.

DD (in a most resigned voice): Are there any clean clothes in the dryer?
Translation: I have nothing to wear.

DD (under her breath): I wonder if there are any new episodes of So You Think You Can Dance?
Translation: I've done my reading and homework so MAY I WATCH TV?

Waiting to catch candy at a parade. Subtle much?

At my age, I'd like to think I've mastered the art of subtlety.  As a mama, I often speak with my eyes.  One look will tell the kiddos yes or no.  Now or later.  You-have-got-to-be-kidding-me! or Oh-for-cryin'-out-loud!  And with DH, someone who has been with me for over twenty years, through my life's highs and lows, through thick and thin, for better or for worse--we've got it down pat.  We don't even have to be subtle with each other.  We just know each other.  I finish his sentences, he knows what I'm thinking.  On a rare occasion to go downtown, we name the exact same restaurant (out of hundreds, without having been to or mentioned for years) as our top dining choice.  For my birthday, DH planned a dinner for me, and upon knowing whether it was in the city or not (it was not), I name the exact one he made a reservation at.  We're not subtle.  We're just that good.

And if there's no activity in the kitchen by 5:30 PM, DH will come ask me where I'd like to go eat for dinner.

I'm not subtle.  I'm just that good.

As for DH, a man of few words, subtlety is his trademark.  I examine his every move: a slight turn of the head, a look in his eyes, a twitch of his finger, or an exhale from his chest.  I sense his mood and assess his state of mind.  I know what's coming.

In the wee hours of the night, after the kiddos have gone to bed, we finally get some alone time.  DH nudges me from across the bed, and looks at me with a twinkle in his eyes.

DH (whispering his excitement): So, should I?

Me (not finding any clues in his eyes but whispering back): Um, should you what?

DH (still twinkling): You know, get the toy?

Me (hmmm, subtle or not subtle, pick one): Toy?  What toy?

DH (still excited): The toy in my amazon shopping cart?  The one I found for DS?  The one I've promised to get him?

Me (oh, that toy!): Um, sure!  He'd be thrilled!

And that's how DS got another toy out of his daddy.

And that's how I know I need to sharpen up my wheel-spinning skills.



So, Dear Subtlety, there's nothing cuter than children trying to master the art of being elusive.  Then again, there's nothing more embarrassing than grownups "missing the mark."  Striking the right balance between ambiguous and precise takes skillful finesse.  I look forward to my kiddos' journey in crafting theirs, all the while hoping that I'll also keep my hamster wheels well-oiled and in top spinning form.  Wish me luck.