The Case for Photo Books

I’m a big believer in photo books. I make them a couple times a year, and have tried several different services.

The process is a mixed bag. The software or site can be clunky to use, and it’s tedious to sift through the thousands of pictures I take in six months and the hundred more restrained J manages. (A friend says she’s set up Dropbox so the photos from her phone and her husband’s both automatically import there, so I’ve got a new goal.) I usually spend a few evenings sitting beside J on the couch with our matching laptops, something inane on the TV, and crank out another photo book to add to our stash.

But the end result is alchemical: something magical out of a mess of poorly focused shots, duplicates, blurry snaps of children in motion. Looking back at these books reminds me there is good in every season, no matter how morning sick it was. Recently I pulled one volume from the shelf to show Pippin the winter he and J made a snow fort in the backyard, and suddenly I found the kids immersed in photo albums, Scout reverently whispering, “Baby” as she pointed emphatically at photo after photo.

I’ve used Shutterfly, Blurb, MyPublisher, Mixbook and Pinhole Press (this one just for board books). Of these, probably MyPublisher is my favorite for prettiness (cloth covers!) and Shutterfly/Mixbook are cheapest and easiest to use. (I just read MyPublisher is closing up shop, though. Figures.)

Along the way, I’ve assembled a stack of photo books that vary in size and quality but all serve to tell the story of our family. It’s easy to snag one off the shelf to show a neighbor how impressively bald and round-headed Pip was as a baby, or to show Pip what our old house in Granby looked like. Sometimes he’ll ask for one to be read to him as a story book, or Scout will page enthusiastically and violently through one. I remember my own childhood fondness for those static-page photo albums of the ’90s and so I soldier on with clunky software and crashing websites, building up the Grimm Bowers family record one photo book at a time.

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Toddler Pip sharing memories with his uncle

Quiet Month

 

Stomach bug misery flop

 

Partway through January, we finally returned from our Christmas odyssey, the semester began, and the blows just kept coming. It was a cold. Then a stomach bug, that followed so closely that it took awhile for us to ID it until we inadvertently infected our small group. As we recovered from the bug, another cold knocked us down, and once we ventured out, Pip showed up after co op one Friday, feverish and weepy, and we started the strep fight.

None of it has been that severe — many of our friends have had it much worse — but the dull unending cycle has taken its toll. I complained to a friend that I felt like Beret in Giants in the Earth, isolated and slowly deteriorating. It’s melodramatic, I know: instead of a sod hut I’m quarantined in a properly heated house with internet, stacks of books, and a short commute to Target where I can sequester my sickies in the cart and walk slooooooowly down the aisles, but still.

All plans for the month have been conditional, and more often derailed than kept. There’s been more TV than I can feel entirely good about, takeout dinners when the grownups were too sick or exhausted to cook, and lots of missed days of preschool.

But something wonderful has come out of these long, odious weeks: Quiet Month.

One Saturday morning, Scout and I bundled up, I loaded the stroller with a precarious package, and we walked to the UPS store. The friendly employee there asked, naturally enough, what our plans were for the weekend. And…those were our plans. A walk to the UPS store.

We came home and rested and read and cleaned and that was about it.

A lot of our weekends recently have been like that, and that’s pretty different from our usual weekend template. I wouldn’t say we are terribly over scheduled, but we like to see friends and feed them, and we often have something on the calendar for each weekend day.

Not having those plans has felt different, but good. I miss my friends terribly as we update each other by text on our progeny’s maladies but I haven’t hated having nothing much to do. The house has slowly gotten cleaner, despite the catastrophic cleaning projects that follow intestinal illness. In January I read 9 books — more than twice my average — because I had whole days lying inert in bed, and because Pippin, cooped up and feeling lousy, developed an insatiable Ramona habit. I’ve spent long, sunlit afternoons cuddling unusually snuggly children, and felt with new appreciation the strength of my rickety little body on the cold, dark mornings I’ve managed to get out for a run between illnesses.

I’m excited for the health and new mobility that will come with spring. The irises I planted last fall are starting to poke their way out of the front garden bed, and I note their progress with gratitude as I haul a 12-pack of lotion Kleenex up the porch steps. I will be glad for spring, but this little pause in our seasons — it isn’t all bad.

Travel Thoughts

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hashtag: drowning (from last Christmas)

Sometime we should pretend we are going on a big trip, load up the car, then immediately go back into the house and get rid of 1/3 of our stuff fueled by hatred and overwhelm.

There’s a melancholy as I walk through the empty house, lights off, rooms hollowed out. I take out the trash, straighten some surfaces, and imagine what it will be like when we return, days or weeks later. Vacation will be over. Anticipation will be over. We will collapse among our bags and parcels and return to this life. It’s a sobering thought.

Relatedly, I could never, ever be the kind of person who rents out my house on AirBnB while I’m on vacation because much as I try, the house is wrecked when we leave. Without fail.

***

Things that have worked really well for the four-year-old in the car this go round: a magnet board with a bunch of different magnet shapes; a reusable sticker board; downloadable Netflix.

Things that have worked really well for the eighteen-month-old in the car this go round: CocoaPuffs in a claw cup; little toy pieces she can put into and take out of one of those diaper wipe tubs.

Things that have worked really well for the oldsters in the car: Mars Hill audio journal podcasts;  the Voyage of the Dawn Treader audiobook; extensive playlists of Advent and Christmas music from Amazon Music.

***

Let’s take this app global and give it a better avatar. And name. Changing Times. Cha-Cha-Changes. Help me here. Developers, get on it.

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Car travel, man. (From last summer)

 

How to Find Outrageously Narrow Shoes

When I was a kid, I had really, outrageously narrow feet. For years I wore the same Reebok Princess sneakers  in a variety of sizes that my sixty-year-old gym teacher sported. It was the worst. My mom was always sympathetic — we are both 7.5 AAA — but there’s only so much you can do, especially when you have a limited budget for rapidly growing feet.

And then I got pregnant.

And my feet stayed the same. Twice.

Everyone says pregnancy can make your feet bigger, flatter, wider, but not this moi. Apparently, however, judging by what is commonly available in even A-narrow shoes (much less AAA, my size), the only other narrow-footed women are octogenarians.

Still, in the past ten years, I’ve developed some strategies for you rare youthful unicorns with narrow feet:

  1. Adjustable features. Even though I often take a S or AAA in picky shoes like pumps, I can often wear normal sneakers or boots that lace up. Last summer I also found some pretty narrow (A) sandals that worked because their straps are Velcro, so I don’t have to try to punch more holes for buckled shoes.
  2. Use a site that only lets you look at narrow shoes so you aren’t tempted. Online Shoes is a good starting place. I’ll sometimes filter by width and the maximum I’m willing to pay, then browse like a normal human might at the store.
  3. Find a shoe you like on a site that doesn’t sell narrow shoes, then borrow search terms from its description to search a site that lets you filter by width. So you find boots you like on Madewell or wherever, and then search for “chelsea boots” to help sift out all the old lady styles.
  4. If, by the grace of ye heavens, you find inexpensive narrow-fitting normal-person shoes, buy a zillion pairs. This has really only happened for me once, with these Target Toms knockoffs. Since that glorious idle spring day a couple years ago when I happened to try on a pair, I’ve bought like…six pairs. Sometimes I get cocky and try to wait for a sale where they’re $10 instead of $20, but if you’re used to paying $60-100 for a pair of shoes, this is exciting territory.

If you have narrow feet (or quite wide, I suppose), what hacks have you found for tracking down shoes that will fit?

Socks

Homelessness is an issue that leaves me totally perplexed. I’ve made it a point to ask my wisest friends, people of deep faith, many of whom have professional training in working with these populations. For the most part, they struggle, too.

One thing I do know for sure is I cannot pretend there isn’t a man standing outside our car window when my son asks.

Maybe I’ve told you this story before: once, when I was 22 and standing outside a phone booth in a nicer part of London, I was mistaken for a homeless woman. It was dark and cold and I was wearing every warm garment in my Floridian wardrobe, waiting for John to finish a pay phone call to figure out which friend I would crash with for the night. I had with me my big, raggedy green duffle pack, given to me by my dad’s friend, who used it in the Peace Corps. A man approached and in a thick accent (Scottish? Irish?) began to talk in a rapid stream from which I could only pluck a few words. “Same moon,” he said. “Cold night.” I tried to nod agreeably, unsure what was happening. And before I knew it, he’d thrust £20 in my hand and shuffled off.

I want to be like that man. If I’m doing it wrong, somehow unwittingly making the problem worse, I want at least to acknowledge the humanity of the other person.

So I give socks. They seem like an indisputable good. After all, “‘One can never have enough socks,’ said Dumbledore. ‘Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a pair. People will insist on giving me books.'”Probably it is better, as many say, to give money directly to organizations trained to address root causes of homelessness, and I try to do that, too, but who among us can’t use a nice pair of warm socks? I’m careful not to go cheap but to buy thick wool socks, trusting to my own instincts honed by years of outfitting my own icy amphibian feet. Sometimes I’ve assembled larger care packages with various small groups: heating packets and bandaids and granola bars. But the socks are central for me.

It’s not a solution, handing socks out the window, exchanging a few words, whispering a prayer as the light turns green. But maybe, for those of us paralyzed by a thorny issue, it’s a start.

The best thing I’ve done for myself this year

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It wasn’t a turning 30 resolution or a New Years thing. Instead, one night in January, without premeditation, I pulled down a beautiful blank journal my father in law gave me for Christmas and started writing.

Just that. An entry a night, except sometimes while traveling. And suddenly I had so much to say I needed a real blog, and found myself in the thick of so many questions and conversations.

Sometimes my entry for the day is a simple UGH SO TIRED. Sometimes it’s a page or two. At first I struggled with what to write, but now I ask myself, “What do I want to remember for today?” Maybe I want to get out my worries, or catch a moment with my children in amber, or list the things for which I’m most grateful. It depends on the day.

I’ve kept a journal before, most consistently in high school, but never as a daily kind of deal. This is something new for me. Sometimes I’m looking forward to my journal by nap time, and sometimes it’s just a last hurdle between me and my sweet pillow. Either way, it always feels like something worth doing. If you don’t already, you should give it a try.

Let’s Talk About Anosmia

{a primer on a condition that both is and isn’t a big deal}

Never heard the term? Learn about some people’s experiences in this vivid video. Evidence suggests I had a sense of smell when I was little, because my mother, who also doesn’t have a sense of smell, would have my smell-check my little sister’s diapers. (Cruel or clever? You decide.) But certainly by 10 or so it was clear that I had no reliable sense of smell. These days, I catch occasional whiffs, especially when pregnant, but there are many, many things I should be able to smell and don’t. It’s always a little embarrassing to bring it up, so sometimes it’s easier just to pretend I can smell the candle’s lovely scent or the frying bacon. When I do admit I can’t smell whatever it is, the same questions inevitably follow:

Things I Get Asked:

  • Why don’t you have a sense of smell?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s genetic, since my mom also can’t smell, or maybe it’s the result of quite a lot of allergies and allergy treatments when I was 9 or 10. My sister lost her sense of smell for awhile and regained it with allergy treatment, but mine has never returned in full force.

  • Does that mean you can’t taste?

Maybe? I have been known to drink spoiled milk without realizing it. But I enjoy food. How can you tell? A fellow anosmiac notes she has on more than one occasion accidentally served her family peppermint tea without realizing it because she couldn’t smell it. I just read in writing this piece that it can lead to the overuse of salt and sugar in one’s diet, so that’s my new go-to excuse. The more you know!

  • Are your other senses stronger?

I just read a book — All the Light We Cannot See — with a blind protagonist, and the lyrical descriptions from her perspective definitely suggest she observes more than others with her remaining senses — but I’m pretty sure this is poetic license. At the very least, in my case, as discussed, I probably can’t taste as well as other people, and I wear glasses. No one has ever commented on my bat-like hearing and I’m not freakishly sensitive to touch, so I think in my case, at least, no.

  • I bet that comes in handy. 

This is actually not a super helpful thing to say, Random Stranger. (Also, it’s not a question, but it’s one of the most common responses I get.) Certainly, if I were blind or deaf, there would be many more drawbacks, but let’s examine a few for anosmia:

  • Burning stuff: Just the other day, the motor of my vacuum cleaner belched smoke because I didn’t see that smoke was pouring out of it. Once J came home to Parmesan rinds engulfed in merry flames under the broiler. You miss a lot when you can’t smell smoke.
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Bake until fragrant. K.
  • Cooking instructions: Recipes that instruct you to “sauté until fragrant,” for instance, are mysteries. I mean, it’s better than telling a blind person to bake until brown around the edges or a deaf person to listen for popping, but it’s pretty opaque nonetheless. I am also less likely to season things to taste because I suspect my perceptions are off.
  • Babies: from the good (baby heads) to the gross/helpful (diapers), I know I’m missing out on a lot here.
  • Memory: It crops up a lot in books, occasionally in conversation. Think of this passage, from The Poisonwood Bible:

“Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa.  It makes me want to keen, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use.  I find it impossible to bear.”

I imagine the experience as being comparable to the way a song can suddenly transport you to another time, but those allusions are lost on me. I’ve been to equatorial Africa, too, but it was a scentless experience for me.

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Missed out on: the scent of goatsmeat; equatorial rain smell; outhouse reek

Certainly, there are times when it’s convenient not to smell. I’ve never smelled the reek of a bus crammed with middle schoolers on a rainy Florida day, the off-putting odor of stinky cheese (mmm), but should I really be congratulated when I miss out on so much good, too? I cannot sleep in my husband’s hoodie that smells like him when he’s away; my favorite Pendleton holds no romantic scent of campfire. Maybe save your congratulations.

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Sorry, baby. I can’t sniff your head.