Archive | May 2013

A Special Sunday: A Mix of Mother’s Day Blogs

We are so honored to have Off the Merry-Go-Round featured on the WordPress blog, among some fabulous company! We are sharing the love… 🙂

The WordPress.com Blog

In some parts around the world, this Sunday is dedicated to the mothers out there. For Mother’s Day, we’ve rounded up sites on motherhood, parenting, and family. On WordPress.com, you’ll discover mothers on all paths: new moms, stay-at-home-moms, single moms, mothers who are full-time writers, and more. (Even mommy men, as you’ll see below.)

We especially want to highlight bloggers with unique perspectives and thoughtful commentary, as well as collaborative blogs with multiple contributors. So, we hope you enjoy this sampling of sites in honor of this special day.

Butterfly Mind

Creative nonfiction writer Andrea Badgley lives with her husband and two children in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. In the past, she’s caught our eye with thoughtful posts on both family and the writing life: a piece on putting food on the table, and a post on revisiting her childhood diaries. Her blog is a delight: lovely musings on 

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Celebrating Mothers

“A mother’s happiness is like a beacon, lighting up the future but reflected also on the past in the guise of fond memories.”

-Honore de Balzac

In the spirit of this quote, we gathered some of our favorite “mom”  photos through the years. Click on any of the thumbnails below to open a photo gallery… enjoy and Happy Mother’s Day!

“All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”

-Abraham Lincoln

A “Soundtrack” for Success: The Importance of Music in Your Child’s Life

By Karen Hendricks

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Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week and as a twist on this popular observance, I thought I’d pay homage to the “unsung heroes” (pun alert) of the teaching force: music teachers. Personally, I believe my arts teachers (music, writing and visual art included) had a greater influence on my development and career path than any other. Their gifts and impact were long-lasting… the ability to think creatively, approaching issues/problems in a creative way, and gaining the confidence to express myself through music, art or words (this blog is a case in point!).

I see my children soaking up “the arts” like sponges, with positive results as well. Some of my completely unscientific observations include:

  • Practicing music requires discipline, time management and helps children see how their one “voice” (be it their actual voice or their instrument) fits into the overall team effort of a chorus, orchestra or band. (Much like sports… but we’ll get to that later.)
  • The arts offer a creative outlet—a way to express your emotions, be it pure joy, anger or sorrow, for example. What an amazing boost to children’s emotional health!
  • Self-confidence is built through the arts. Whether your children are singing, dancing, playing music, or exhibiting artwork for an audience, they learn to face their fears associated with the spotlight, let their talents shine, and feel a sense of accomplishment.
Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting her Slipper. Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Edgar Degas, Dancer Adjusting her Slipper. Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

So what do the experts say? Can music (and all the arts) truly have this kind of impact? Yes—and they go even further. According to Americans for the Arts:

  • “Thinking skills (sometimes referred to as cognitive skills) is a broad term that refers to the operation of various thought processes. Reasoning ability, intuition, perception, imagination, inventiveness, creativity, problem-solving skills and expression are among the thought processes associated with study of the arts.”
  • “In an experimental research study of high school age students, those who studied dance scored higher than nondancers on measures of creative thinking, especially in the categories of fluency, originality and abstract thought. Whether dancers can use their original abstract thinking skills in other disciplines is an important area of exploration.”
  • “Certain arts activities promote growth in positive social skills, including self-confidence, self-control, conflict resolution, collaboration, empathy  and social tolerance. Research evidence demonstrates these benefits apply to all students, not just the gifted and talented.”
  • “Certain types of music instruction help develop the capacity for spatial temporal reasoning, which is integral to the acquisition of important mathematics skills. Spatial temporal reasoning refers to the ability to understand the relationship of ideas and objects in space and time.  The association between music and mathematics achievement is an area of great research interest. A recent literature review turned up over 4,000 published and unpublished references on this topic alone.”
  • “Certain forms of arts instruction enhance and complement basic reading skills, language development and writing skills. For example, dance has been employed to develop reading readiness in very young children, and the study of music has provided a context for teaching language skills.”
  • “The relationship between drama and the development of literacy skills among young children is well documented… dramatic enactment can make a measurable difference in helping students reach such important curricular goals as story understanding, reading comprehension and topical writing skills.”
  • To read the entire report by Americans for the Arts, Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Students, click here.
Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

There are so many additional studies and statistics out there! A few more benefits specific to music include:

  • Music is one of the few activities that affect our entire brain, both the left and right sides. So people who frequently listen to and/or play music are able to learn new information faster than those without music in their lives. This is especially true of people, children or adults, learning a language.
  • Music is recognized for having healing powers, as listening to music releases the hormone endorphin, which relieves pain.
  • Listening to music also is said to be a stress-reliever, as it decreases the cortisol hormone level and boosts the immune system.
  • Music aids athletes and physical activity. Exercise and workouts are more enjoyable, leading to greater stamina, when music is played. And when music is played in rehab centers, people with movement disorders achieve better results.

Which brings me to my next point. Tackling a stereotype, too often sports-oriented families look down upon the arts and vice versa, too often arts-oriented families speak ill of athletics. Perhaps some feel that when schools spend money on athletics, it is to the detriment of the arts programs and vice versa. I wish we could all embrace the positive attributes of both, and not see either program suffer.  For a long time, we’ve been hearing news regarding funding for arts programs decreasing in the public schools. It seems as though funding for athletics just recently came under the knife as well. Can we please mend fences and recognize the value of both the arts and athletics?

Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Credit: Wikimedia, Creative Commons

On a bright note (another pun alert), did you hear the news story out last week, about the turnaround experienced at one elementary/intermediate school when funding previously earmarked for security guards was instead funneled into arts education? Click here for the story on NBC News.

Lessons in Lyrics

And I’ll leave you with additional, completely unscientific but memorable life lessons I learned from one exceptional junior high music teacher, dear Mrs. Kuszyk. Not only was she our 7th grade music teacher, but she also led some spirited chorus and “Select Singers” afterschool rehearsals. Much of the credit for the resurfacing of these memories is owed to my fantastically talented (in all areas of the arts) friend Heather who was recently reminiscing on Facebook. The result was a mad flurry of comments and many stirred memories. Here’s what we came up with:

  • One of my strongest memories from the middle school years is of Mrs. Kuszyk teaching us Harry Chapin’s song Cat’s in the Cradle, along with its ironic life lesson.  If you’re not familiar… or if you’d like a trip down memory lane, click here for a You Tube clip including a brief intro and backstory by Chapin.
  • There were similar life lessons gleaned from Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. In Heather’s words, “That’s one of my favorite middle school memories. She was so passionate about that song. She wanted us to believe that most of life’s wisdom could be summed up in the chorus. She may have been right.”
  • Barbra Streisand’s Memory from Cats… as well as Barbra’s The Way We Were (pretty heavy stuff for middle schoolers, now that I think about it! Can you imagine how 7th/8th graders sounded, singing those lyrics?!) were also part of her repertoire. (Misty, water-colored mem’ries… ) As a young pianist, I had the honor of accompanying the chorus and select singers. I know that Mrs. Kuszyk praised me often, however there was one time that she marched over the piano, asked me to slide over, and played a portion of The Way We Were herself. Apparently I was not playing it “tenderly” enough. She talked about the emotion and meaning in the lyrics, asking me to reflect the same sentiments through my piano notes. Needless to say, my fingers and touch lightened up a bit and tender I became. It was the only time I remember her correcting me.
  • We had a lot of fun with Mrs. Kuszyk as well—One from A Chorus Line stands out in my mind. I believe Heather even danced to that one…
  • What an amazing collection of songs from the era… her lessons continued through Bette Midler’s The Rose and Barry Manilow’s I Made it Through the Rain… As Heather says, “My God, it was an inspirational year!”

In case you’re wondering, “Kuszyk” rhymes with “music.” No coincidence there. She was destined to become a music teacher and share her love of musical messages. Thank you, Mrs. Kuszyk… you certainly gave us “an ace that we could keep.”

As a footnote: 

I attempted to locate and contact Mrs. Kuszyk as I was writing this piece, and sadly, I learned that she passed away, almost exactly a year ago today. Her music lives on… Rest in peace and God bless you, Mrs. Kuszyk.

The one and only Mrs. Kuszyk

The one and only Mrs. Kuszyk

 

How to: Make Little Changes to Your Home to Create a Fab New Look!

By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler

Our Little House in the Big Woods

Our Little House in the Big Woods

When we bought our home in 2006, we had a small house and BIG plans. We would take this quaint, though somewhat neglected, “bungalow” with barely-enough-room-to-squeeze-into bathrooms, tear it apart – one room at a time – and give it a (major) facelift!

Then, without warning, life happened. You know what I’m talking about … transition into new job life; loss of new job life; kid on the way life; I wasn’t expecting that expense life. Suddenly, all the money those fancy renovations take to make happen wasn’t there.

Big plans and shattered dreams. Or were they? Could this little house with great potential, yet in need of much work, ever become our dream chateau in the country?

As it turned out, yes it did – and so can your home … no matter how small. It may appear otherwise, but few of us live in those sprawling 7 bedroom houses we so often drive by. Since we live in a Washington, DC suburb our monthly mortgage is more than some people pay for a mortgage and two car payments! Yet, at just 1,184 square feet, our house is very small compared to what most people would consider livable square footage.

What we began looking for was balance. Balance between making our wish to turn our house into a home come true – and knocking down a wall to expand our square footage in order to achieve it!

Just one of Susan Saranka's many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!

Just one of Sarah Susanka’s many helpful decorating books for small houses and spaces!

That’s when I finally picked up a book I bought some time ago: The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka (she has written a number of books on this subject). The premise of the book is that a “Not So Big House” exchanges space for soul, and that their owners, rather than spend their budget on spaces they never use, tailor their houses to fit their lives. Additionally, their home design expresses something significant about their lives and values without going overboard. So this past fall, we began those upstairs renovations we had longed for and they are now nearly complete. Ms. Susanka’s book gave us the help we needed to find that balance, and to “have our cake and eat it too!”  

Do you face the same dilemma, or just want to give one area of your house a “lift?” If so, use these tips and suggestions to get started on home renovations, upgrades, and design and decorating ideas you put off in the past due to cost and logistical concerns.

Go for It!

+ Read, research, and write/map out your ideas. When I put my researched ideas and creative thoughts on paper and carried them around my house as I considered them, I finally saw our ultimate dreams could come true.

+ Contractor is key. Hiring a professional, skilled contractor helps you get what you ultimately want and gives you peace of mind in the process! I believe in the “don’t try this at home” philosophy. Painting the walls in your guest bedroom is one thing – creating arched entrance ways or installing crown molding is entirely different.

I don’t want to discourage checking references, yet keep in mind that these (and even photographs of project work) are easily faked. We no longer check references for things such as paint jobs and house cleaning services. Instead, when we find a service provider we like, we hire them for a small, less significant job first to see how that goes before launching into a bigger project. We also never give a paymentupfront,” and always make sure one of us is home during the work phase.

We hired an experienced gentleman who tended toward a perfectionist nature. He took a little longer than another contractor might have, however he finished the job in a reasonable amount of time. He was upfront and honest, produced what we wanted, charged just for materials and time, required only smaller payments throughout the scope of the project, and provided invoices with a service/cost breakdown.

+ Proceed slowly and with caution. No matter how well thought out and prepared you are, little glitches do happen along the way. It is easier to add something to your project than take it away so consider your plans carefully!

+ Do it right the first time. The do-it-yourself projects of previous owners created the need for a good bit of repair and renovation on our house that would not have been necessary if handled properly the first time. When the bathtub in our son’s bathroom needed new piping, we were unable to get to the pipes from the access door located in his bedroom. Shelves, in the form of sloppily sawed wood boards painted white, had been nailed directly over it! Needless to say, those are no more. If you do it right (and well) the first time, it really will last forever!

+ Live with it! Once you have a renovation idea, think about it for awhile. Make the project come to life in your mind and then once complete, live with it before moving on to something else. We did not add objects to our beautiful new hallway display case until a “theme” came to mind a few weeks later.

We have many options to consider for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.

We have many options for showcasing items in our new built-in display case.

+ Simply updating furniture and accessories can change the look of a room. Rather than spend thousands of dollars to replace the white IKEA-style cabinets in our kitchen, we unscrewed the thick plastic white handles and installed simple silver ones we picked out at our local hardware store. This little change immediately gave the cabinets a sleeker, updated look for little expense and effort!

Kitchen Cabinet Handles - After

Kitchen Cabinet Handles – After

Kitchen Cabinet Handles - Before

Kitchen Cabinet Handles – Before

+ Small touches make a big difference. When redecorating, you may wish to keep the essence of your original home. Built in the early 1960s, our house has elements of the “retro” style popular then and remnants from the more simplistic era of do-it-yourself home projects. We gave a “nod” to our home’s original style – for example, leaving the tiny square floor tiles in the upstairs bathroom, and keeping the homemade closet shelving in the bedrooms. We created a more current look throughout our house by tweaking the appearance of what we chose to keep and adding fresh, modern paint colors to the walls!

+ Let your interests inspire your decorating, not overwhelm your surroundings. Part of turning a house into a home is reflecting your interests, cultures and memories. We have an affinity for Native American culture, value nature and the outdoors, and feel connected to our son’s African American heritage. Rather than clutter tabletops and shelves, and cover every inch of wall space, we share our interests by carefully choosing and arranging items of special significance. As an example, we enjoy our beautiful native bird species so a mysterious painting of an owl waiting out a storm hangs on one wall, a custom-framed arrangement of birds common to our woodland property is clustered on another – and we left the rest of the birds outside! A good friend has also successfully incorporated this decorating tip. When you visit her home, you see what holds meaning and value to her family on display in a corner dining room china cabinet. Rather than being haphazardly scattered throughout her house, these treasures are enjoyed in one special place.

The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings

The perfect wall to show off our custom-framed bird paintings

+ Your house and its appearance is a reflection of you. De-clutter! Purge thy surroundings! If you haven’t looked at it, worn it, remember where you got it, or even thought about it in a year – it’s time to toss it! If you feel you really can’t part with that stack of “antique” books old Aunt Martha passed along to you, arrange them in front of a pretty backdrop, take a photo, and put it in a frame to display on your end table. Now send those books a-packin’ down to the local book store. You might even get some extra spending money in exchange! Another easy way to cut down on “stuff” in your house is to regularly sign up for charity pickups; we do that monthly. When I know a donation truck is coming, it makes it so much easier to get rid of unused items – after all, I have to give them something. I keep an empty box in the corner of my office at all times, drop things in as I purge, and there you have it – an instant tax write-off!

Everyone has their own decorating style and sense of what “looks good.” My husband and I just happen to be super-organized, and like clean lines and well-defined, clutter-free spaces. Our home renovations and decorations reflect this. As you consider what you ultimately want your home to look like, consider your personality, interests, how you live – and design your home accordingly. Use some or all of the above tips to get started, yet remember that the most important thing is that your house feels like home!

Our "new and improved" Home Sweet Home!

Our “new and improved” Home Sweet Home!

Do you have additional decorating tips and renovation stories you can share with our community? Many people begin work on home projects in the spring and summer so please join the conversation!

The Senior Year, The College Search… and Tissues

By Karen Hendricks

First day of school, senior year, my daughter holds a photo of her first day of kindergarten...

First day of school, senior year, my daughter holds a photo of her first day of kindergarten…

The past year has been a wonderful, emotional roller coaster of a ride. It’s my oldest daughter’s senior year in high school, so the past few months have been a blur of college applications and visits, special moments like homecoming, decisions, excitement, anxiety and plenty of tissues (for me).

It seems like yesterday that she was a pint-sized ballerina beginning ballet classes at the age of 3. Her love of dance has always been obvious, as much a part of her personality as her sweet, caring nature. I tell people all the time that I don’t know which she did first—walked or danced. Today, on the brink of her college years, dance is a natural career choice for her—it’s what she’s always dreamed about doing. And it’s made the college search all the more challenging. More on that, in a moment…

As parents, we prepare our children for lots of milestones through the years, but preparing them (and ourselves!) for the college years takes parenting to a whole new level. It’s excitement and exhaustion, encouragement and heart-break, all rolled into one experience. Which college is right for my daughter? What if she loves a college that we can’t afford? What if she’s not accepted to her top choice? We faced all of those questions during the past year… But the actual search was made a bit easier thanks to lots of helpful advice from moms who had been through the college process before:

  • Most college applications are due around the holidays, but encourage your son/daughter to complete them as soon as possible, through the fall season. You’ll receive acceptance/rejection letters earlier (at least you know where you stand), it opens more opportunities for scholarships, and the holidays will be more enjoyable.
  • Visit colleges during the school year to get the true feeling of each campus while classes are in session.
  • Take pictures because after you see several colleges, you’ll forget exactly what each one looked like. (Although at one of the colleges we visited, photos were not allowed while on tour.)
  • While it’s great to talk with admissions counselors, it’s even more helpful to talk to current students. Ask them the “real” questions such as “What are the dorms like?” and “How’s the food?” They will give you the honest truth.

Choosing to major in the arts, however, results in a college application process unlike any other. Whether it’s dance, theater or visual art, either an audition or portfolio of work is needed in addition to the standard academic application. Did I mention, it’s extremely competitive? And often subjective? We learned that most colleges see about 300-400 potential dance majors through the audition process, but only 50-60 are accepted, and with some students ultimately selecting other colleges, a freshman class of 25-30 is the end result. Armed with those cold, hard facts, we guided our daughter through the application and audition process at nine colleges. Most dance auditions span 3-5 hours, and although sometimes nerve-wracking for both students and parents, they’re actually great opportunities for the students to work under the actual dance professors to see if their teaching styles and programs are a good fit. We mapped out the audition dates on our calendar, beginning in October and ending in March. I give all credit to my daughter who was very organized, prioritized which college auditions to attend when they fell on the same dates and then registered for all of her audition dates. It actually was an amazing mother-daughter experience, a team effort. She focused on dancing her best; I focused on driving (or purchasing the correct train tickets) and learning as much as I could about each college and dance program.

Earlier this week, May 1, was the national date for college decisions. Thankfully, my daughter made her choice a few weeks earlier. After the dust settled from all of her auditions, she was accepted at three of the nine colleges to which she applied and auditioned—and I’m told 33% is a good percentage! Sadly, she was not accepted by her top college choice and that presented a heart-breaking impasse for a few weeks in February. But, she made an excellent final decision that we as parents support, that puts her right in the heart of the dance world in New York City. Attending college in the Big Apple presents its own share of questions and worries, but I also know it’s the best decision for her future.

This journey has led me to draw a few conclusions and (hopefully helpful) advice to other parents:

  • Enjoy and savor every moment of your child’s senior year because it probably goes by quicker than any other school year.
  • Take time to talk with your teen about college and career choices during the summer before their senior year, if not earlier. Once senior year begins, it’s hard to find the time to truly evaluate these life-changing decisions. Uplift and encourage your teen as much as possible. Believe in his/her abilities and talents.
  • We learned the most about those colleges we visited during fall open houses, but unfortunately a lot of them fall on the same dates. Prioritize and try to attend your top one or two college choices.
  • Don’t let the bottom line be a deterrent. Private colleges often offer more grant or scholarship money than public universities, which ultimately can result in similar prices.
  • Shut out any sources of negative energy and focus on what’s best for your teen. This can be very difficult and painful, especially when unsupportive comments come from family members or friends. Whether it’s a college or career choice, I feel that unsupportive comments are a result of two things primarily: that person’s own expectations projected onto your teen, or simply jealousy. I lost a girlfriend who didn’t understand the rigors of the college application and audition process and actually became upset because I wasn’t available to participate fully in a soccer carpool for our younger daughters. Looking back, I can see signs of jealousy in her actions. My fellow Off the Merry-Go-Round writer Jennifer previously wrote about the importance of letting go of “toxic relationships” and this is one situation that fits the bill.
  • In a similar vein, be prepared to handle attitudes or misconceptions about your teen’s career choice. Just because children enjoy the arts, does not mean the family is snobby or stuck-up. We are as “normal” as anyone else! Similarly, I see other teens and family friends battling other stereotypes: College athletes are not necessarily at the bottom of the academic ladder, for example. For that matter, teens who choose not to go to college should feel secure in their decisions to pursue trades or employment directly after high school–and not looked down upon. I wish we were all more supportive of one another, especially our youth.
  • There’s a wonderful opportunity for your teen to show grace and feel community support. Thankfully, overall, our family has received only a handful of negative comments, while the vast majority are warm and positive. For weeks, it seemed like we couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone congratulating our daughter. The entire family has been overwhelmed and thankful for the community support.

Although my daughter has chosen a competitive career path, I also see her drive, dedication and passion for her career choice… all the ingredients for success and happiness. The main reason I will need lots of tissues over the next few months? Because my tears are tears of joy…

Life with Fletcher

Fletcher is a BIG Ravens fan!

Fletcher is a BIG Ravens fan!

By Ruth Topper

This is Part II of our “Fletcher” story.  In Part I, I explain how it was a very difficult decision for my family to adopt a pet. 

After making the decision to adopt, it then took us several months to find the right dog for us – Fletcher!  Fletcher’s mother and litter of puppies were rescued from a high kill shelter in Georgia and ended up in Pennsylvania, where we adopted him.  After reading my fellow blogger Karen’s post “A Dog Named Blue” last week I realize how fortunate Fletcher’s family was to escape the shelter!

Fletcher arrived on our doorstep Easter Monday 2009.   We now joke that Fletcher was the best $185 we have every spent!  Fletcher had just turned 2 years old.  He was “chipped,” “fixed,” up to date on all his shots, crate trained & house trained!  What a bargain!  However as rookie new pet owners we had some things to learn about having a dog…  Here are some things that we experienced:

I love my dog!

Fletcher gets some love!

1.  Although Fletcher was crate trained he really hadn’t been in one for awhile.  We made the mistake of adopting on a Monday instead of a Friday or Saturday.  We were able to get Fletcher in his crate – but it was like having a new baby in the house again.  He whined and cried for several hours each night.  I finally had to call our “rescue” mom and get some advice so that our whole family could get some sleep.  We ended up putting a sheet over his crate and Gary & I had to play “bad cop” and use our very stern voices to help him understand that he needed to STOP!  Fortunately Fletcher was a quick study and by the third night he was making it through the night!

2.  As I mentioned in Part I of Fletcher’s Adoption, I wasn’t too crazy about adopting a dog.  However because he came to us on a Monday and everyone else in the family left to go to work/school on Tuesday – guess who became Fletcher’s “Alpha?”  Yes, yours truly!  I was the one feeding him, taking him on walks, often releasing him from his crate after being out for a few hours, etc.  I never fear that Fletcher will run away from me even without being on a leash.  He never strays out of eyesight from me!

3.  Because I was a rookie dog owner I did sign up for dog training immediately.  Fletcher passed with flying colors – however as I think back on those weeks of individual sessions Fletcher was just like a shy toddler.  He was right by my side, whimpering and whining.  It is a wonder he learned anything!

4.  Who knew that dogs pass gas?  Any dogs Gary or I had owned were outside dogs and this is something that you just don’t notice in the great outdoors.  However – get a gassy dog in a room and you can clear it quickly!

5.  We crated Fletcher when we left the house for the first few months.  We then gradually blocked him off in the kitchen and then gave him access to the first floor, keeping a toddler gate at the bottom of our staircase.  The good news is that Fletcher never attempted to get on any of our furniture.  We would have known if he did because there would have evidence – you can see him shedding as he walks across a room!  He did get into a little mischief – eating a stick of butter one day and a loaf of bread another!  We also found out that he liked pencils/crayons left on the floor, dark colored baseball caps and tissues left in the “open” trash cans in our living room/family rooms.

6.  I never realized how important grass is for a dog to do his “business.”  The first winter we had Fletcher is the one where we had over 20 inches of snow on December 19, 2009.  (I remember this because it was my daughter’s 12th birthday!)  I walked that dog up & down our street for hours the day it started snowing trying to get him to “go.”  It failed.  Of course he waited until the next day when we were finally able to get out for an hour or two – to break through the gate at the bottom of the steps & do his business on our hallway carpet!  That February we had two big storms back to back.  In these storms Gary snow-blowed part of our front yard along with the driveway – for Fletcher!

Gary & Fletcher

Gary & Fletcher

The most important thing we have experienced over the past four years… is the joy of Fletcher!  He greets me at the bottom of the steps every morning to roll on his side for a belly rub!  If he feels I’m not paying enough attention to him and I am here at the computer he will come over and put his nose underneath my arm to get my attention.  Gary, who wasn’t any more excited than me to get a dog, gets down on the floor with Fletcher every few days to play!  The kids love being with him.  They take him outside when shooting hoops or jumping on the trampoline.  My oldest who will soon be off for college tells us all the time that he will come home to see Fletcher – not the rest of us!  (Shows where we rate!)

Seth is coming home to visit Fletcher - his best friend in our house!

Seth is coming home to visit Fletcher – his best friend in our house!

What are some joys, blessings and/or funny incidents you have experienced with your pet? 

Priceless Treasure: Tips for Great Family Photos

By Karen Hendricks

Photographs are some of our most treasured possessions as parents, right? From sweet baby pictures to fun vacations photos; photos of Christmas celebrations and special holidays, to treasured photos of loved ones who have passed away… Photographs can instantly transport us to another place, another time, directly into a precious moment.

I feel extremely blessed that photography, one of my favorite hobbies, also intersects with my job. Over the years, between photography classes in college and practical “on the job” training, lots of tips picked up along the way translate better-composed, more meaningful family photos as well.

I’m happy to pass along a few of my favorite tips, but first let me dispel a myth. Okay, it’s probably more of a pet peeve! People often say, “Wow, your camera takes great pictures!” So let’s set the record straight: People take great pictures; not cameras. Yes, a good quality camera certainly helps… but training the eye behind the camera is even more important! Glad I got that off my chest… Now for four fab photography tips:

1. Look them in the eye. In other words, get on the same level as your child(ren). This is especially important when photographing young children. Yes, it means crouching down or getting on the floor and risking not being able to get up gracefully (I’m speaking from experience)… but if you remain standing and shoot downwards at children, they will appear out of proportion or distorted. Getting down on their level allows you to capture their sweet features in a more natural way.

Looking in my children's eyes: Can you see the sparkle and excitement in their eyes?!

Think of how different this photo would look, had I remained standing, shooting downward… Instead, it’s a fun picture focused directly on my children.

Being in the splash zone of the Slip 'n Slide made for another exciting water shot!

Being in the splash zone of the Slip ‘n Slide made for another exciting water shot!

2. Use natural lighting as much as possible. Skin tones, especially for children, look absolutely radiant when natural light is used as opposed to harsh lighting and the camera’s flash. Experiment and try turning your camera’s flash off if you feel there is enough natural light present. Your subjects will also thank you for not blinding them!

This was a spontaneous moment, as my son peeked through the blueberry bushes. I opted for natural sunlight as it filtered through; the flash would have filled in the shadows but probably washed out my son a bit too much. Leaving the flash off helps preserve the feeling and memory of how he peeked through the bushes!

This was a spontaneous moment, as my son peeked through the blueberry bushes. I opted for natural sunlight as it filtered through the leaves; the flash would have filled in the shadows but probably washed out my son a bit too much. Leaving the flash off helps preserve the feeling and memory of how he peeked through the bushes!

3. Try the “rule of thirds” whenever possible. Ok, this may take some training and getting used to if you’ve never used it before… but basically the rule of thirds divides your photo into nine imaginary blocks. The points of intersection are the places where your eyes naturally gravitate when looking at a photo. So, taking Photography 101 and applying it to your photos: Try to place your subjects (aka your family) at those intersections whenever possible for better-composed photos.

Instead of filling the entire shot with my daughter, I opted to place her in the upper right-hand third of the photo, exactly where she was placed on the tennis court.

Instead of filling the entire shot with my daughter (zooming in with the lens), I opted to place her in the upper right-hand third of the photo, exactly where she was placed on the tennis court.

Here, my son is in the lower left-hand third of the photo with a mountain vista behind him.

Here, my son is in the lower left-hand third of the photo with a mountain vista framing the shot behind him.

4. Candids are king. Keep your camera handy and capture spontaneous fun as it happens. Your photos do not always need to be staged (aka: “Look here and smile!”). Feel free to snap candid shots of your family in action, even if they are not looking directly at you. Sometimes these are the most priceless photos because your family’s expressions and emotions are genuine.

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A rare moment: All three of my children were laughing uncontrollably, translating into a photo of pure joy.

Cousins say "cheese:" This photo combines two tips, the rule of thirds and the idea of being on level and eye-to-eye (at least with the bottom portion of the slide!).

Cousins say “cheese:” This photo combines two tips, the rule of thirds and the idea of being on level and eye-to-eye (at least with the bottom portion of the slide!).

I hope these tips inspire you next time you are clicking with your camera! Feel free to share some of your tips and tricks, below, as well.