Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

Happy belated Thanksgiving! To think: only a few, short days ago, we were still basking in the golden glow of everyone’s favorite gluttony-and-gratitude-based holiday, and now we’re deep in the throes of Cyber Monday (which lately has been extended to Cyber Week)-style cut-throat consumerism. Sunrise, sunset. I don’t know, wouldn’t Thanksgiving be even better if it weren’t immediately followed each year by events in which people get trampled to death in parking lots? Of course, I say all of this as I contemplate buying a severely marked-down food processor online. At least I’m not trampling anyone. Yet.

This year, for the first time since 2011, Al and I were in the U.S. for Thanksgiving (last year we were in London and the year before that, Cape Town). The day before the holiday, we drove out to Pittsburgh to visit Al’s friends Hakan and Meredith, who recently moved there from Louisiana. The drive to Pittsburgh from Alexandria was supposed to take four hours, but between the unrelenting snow and my compressed bladder, it took us six-and-a-half. Frequent (and annoying) pee breaks are the new normal for preggo me, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Despite all the stops, though, we got to Pittsburgh before it got dark.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner

Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is a pretty cool town! I had never been there before, but I’d heard good things, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an old industrial town filled with red-brick buildings and steel bridges and funicular railways running up steep hills. Since it has that aging steel town vibe, it lends itself well to hipster enclaves, and there are lots of fun, young neighborhoods packed with cool bars and shops and restaurants. Plus, since there are a ton of universities and colleges in town, there are plenty of museums and cultural events. Of course, the only “cultural event” in which we participated while there was a showing of Disney’s Newsies (the musical), but hey, you do what you can.

Our Thanksgiving day was nice and low-key. Meredith and Hakan did most of the cooking (turkey, stuffing, carrots, cranberries), but I contributed mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie (using the same recipe as I used two years ago, except minus the hand-roasted and pureed pumpkin, now that I’m back in a country where canned pumpkin is a thing), and a gallon-sized bag of Chex cookies ‘n cream Muddy Buddies. We sat down to eat dinner around four and then went downtown to see the evening show of Newsies, which was pretty faithful to the delightfully cheesy 1992 movie of the same name, except with more pirouettes and high kicks!

The next night, we went to dinner in Shadyside, a hip neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh. We ate at the astonishingly unfashionable hour of 5:30 (in fact, when the restaurant called to confirm our reservation, they asked whether anyone in our party had “trouble going up and down stairs”), and it was great. Now that I’m in my thirties (and seven months pregnant), I really enjoy eating early and then being able to digest for a few hours before going to bed early. I figure this lifestyle will make my transition to the nursing home that much easier when the time comes!

We bid our friends adieu on Saturday morning and drove back to Virginia. The snow had melted and we made quick time on the way back, even with all of my many pee stops. We were sad to say goodbye to our pals, but now that they live much closer, I’m sure we’ll see them again soon. As we drove back, I reflected on all of the things I’m thankful for this year. There are a lot, but most of them can be boiled down to the following: the baby, Al, my family, and living in a country in which canned pumpkin is abundant.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

Third trimester

Hi. Let’s talk about pregnancy. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?

Honestly, I imagined myself writing more about my pregnancy as it progressed, but I came to the conclusion that nobody actually wants to hear it. You might THINK you want to hear about the details of someone else’s pregnancy, but unless you’re another pregnant woman looking for validation of her own craziness/weird symptoms/aches and pains/lumps and bumps, you probably don’t actually want to know. As it turns out, the quotidian experience of pregnancy is, in a nutshell, a collection of gross symptoms not fit for social media punctuated by occasional dashes of the sublime. So, perhaps not the best blog material (unless all of your readers are hormonal preggos, or, alternatively, my mother and/or my husband, both of whom are contractually obligated to be interested in the nitty gritty of this process).

This isn’t to say that pregnancy isn’t awe-inspiring and beautiful and fantastic, but rather that if I were to report on it frequently, it wouldn’t sound particularly awe-inspiring, beautiful, or fantastic. It would probably just sound boring and gross. So I haven’t really been writing about it, except in my private pregnancy journal, which I’m pretty sure is making me sound way more neurotic than I actually am. In fact, I might burn it after the baby’s born to hide the evidence of my crazy. But then how will I remember that one epic crying jag I had, or the two separate times I fell on my knee and convinced myself I had given the baby brain damage in the process? These are precious moments worth cherishing!

But, seeing as I’m coming up on 30 weeks pregnant now, I thought it was time for a bit of an update on what’s going on, uterus-wise. So here we go!

Me at 27 weeks pregnant

Me at 27 weeks pregnant

 

Now that I’m in my third trimester, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on what pregnancy is all about, although new symptoms are always popping up to surprise me. For example: my ears hurt now if I lie on them for too long (thanks, increased blood volume!), and I always end up lying on them because I’m not supposed to lie on my back to sleep any more (thanks, increasingly large baby and inconveniently placed major blood vessel)! Also, I’m constantly blowing my nose. Oh, and don’t get me started on the heartburn. And the other stuff. There’s lots of other stuff. You know, let’s not even go down this road, because if you ask a pregnant woman what her symptoms are, you’re going to find out stuff you never wanted to know, and there’s no un-hearing it.

Anyway, the cool thing about being this far along is that the baby is super active, so I feel like we’re communing during the day when she’s kicking the crap out of me. It shows how much I love this little fetus that I don’t even mind when she’s sending judo chops straight to my groin. I find it endearing! (“Aw, baby has a great right hook!”) She moves a lot, and whenever Al’s around, I’ll put his hand on my abdomen so he can feel it, but of course, as soon as he has his hand there, she stops moving. He’s gotten to feel a few good kicks, but I wish he could feel what it feels like from the inside. It’s weird and wonderful!

Now that we’re a mere eleven weeks away from meeting this kid (give or take a few weeks on either end, probably), we’ve been trying to get things ready for her around the house. So far, we have the crib set up, and the nursery is filling out — we’re just missing a changing table, but that’s what bathroom counters are for, am I right? — and mentally, I think we’re as prepared as we can be. Like most delusional, first-time, soon-to-be parents, we just want the baby to get here, already, although literally every parent I’ve ever talked to has stressed that we should be savoring these last months together as a Childless Couple. So, we’re doing our best to savor, I guess, but really, we both are super excited to get to know the much-anticipated third member of our family. Right now, all we know about her is that she likes to kick things, and all she knows about us are the muffled voices she hears through her water-balloon apartment, so there’s a lot to learn on both sides.

So, overall things are going well. I’ve enjoyed pregnancy, so far — not all of it, of course, but most of it. Hopefully, parenting will be even better. At least no one will be kicking me in the groin then.

(Knitting) book review: Knockout Knits, by Laura Nelkin

Non-knitters, take a break! Today’s post is knitting talk heavy. Just a friendly disclaimer. Knitters, keep reading!

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It’s already November, which means it’s time for me to start my Christmas knitting. It’s probably more enjoyable for me to make things for people every year than it is for people to actually receive the things I make, but I do try to knit somewhat interesting (or at least practical) things for the special people in my life every year. Hence, I was excited to take a look at Laura Nelkin’s Knockout Knits, which promises “new tricks for scarves, hats, jewelry, and other accessories.” Accessories make the perfect knitted Christmas gifts, because they don’t necessarily take forever to make, and if your recipient doesn’t actually like what you made, she won’t feel like a jerk for throwing it out or never wearing it (unlike an unwanted sweater, which can haunt a closet for years).

I decided to dive right in by making one of the book’s shawl patterns, the Las Cruces Shawl (I won’t say here who I’m making it for, so as not to ruin any Christmas surprises). I chose the Las Cruces Shawl because it looked pretty and the skill level required was described as “Intermediate.” I should note that I chose an intermediate-level project not necessarily because I am an intermediate level knitter (I think I’m probably inching into “advanced”/obsessive territory at this point) but because I wanted something that would go fairly quickly and wouldn’t kill me in the process, but also wouldn’t be boring or monotonous to construct.

I started on the pattern and immediately (like, within the first line of the pattern) was forced to use an unfamiliar cast-on method. But that was fine, because Nelkin conveniently included a page reference number to a guide in the back of the book that includes diagrams for several increases, cast-ons, and other techniques. Handy! I wish more knitting books would have easy-to-use reference guides like this when they make use of not-super-common techniques.

My notes on the pattern

My notes on the pattern

So, I cast on, started to knit, and soon encountered another technique I had never heard of. Luckily, Nelkin had that one covered, too, in the beginning of the book, where she describes (and has diagrams for) several stitch-elongating techniques. So far, so good.

Work in progress

Work in progress

 

The shawl I’m making is constructed of two mirror-image triangles that will later be joined together via a center panel. I’ve made one triangle and am almost done with the second. I read ahead in the pattern to see how this whole center panel thing is going to work, though, and now I’m feeling nervous. The instructions on how to join the left and right triangles are scant, and in reading them, I can’t picture how it’s supposed to work, at all. *Gulp.* I went onto Nelkin’s Ravelry page in search of answers, but found none (although I did find an errata to the relevant part of the pattern, which I’m hoping will help when the time comes). So, I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. I’m hoping it’ll be one of those things where, once I start knitting, the pattern will become obvious (this often happens to me — turns out I’m kind of a learning-by-doing type person), but right now, I’m feeling a little anxious about finishing this shawl correctly. It’s too bad, since I was so pleased with how many diagrams and guides Nelkin otherwise included in the book. Why not a longer explanation about a non-obvious joining technique such as the one this pattern requires? I’ve been a serious knitter for two years and I’ve never encountered a pattern like this one before, which suggests the technique in question is not a common one, so a little more detail on how it works would have been appreciated.

Apart from my unease about the instructions in the Las Cruces Shawl, I’m happy with this book (so far!). It has a lot of fun accessories patterns that I could see myself making for people this year, including some cute mitts (Prolix Mitts), a cloche hat (Folly Cloche), and a lot of nice patterns involving lace. Nelkin also has a whole section about knitting with beads, which I find both intriguing and intimidating. Maybe I’ll get to that next Christmas. I also love the look of the book and I appreciate that it’s slim and compact and fits neatly onto my already overstuffed shelf of knitting books.

Hopefully the shawl will turn out okay and I’ll overcome my trepidation re: the obtuse pattern instructions. If not, at least this book will look nice on my shelf!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

 

Thirty-two

Today is my birthday. I’m 32. There’s nothing particularly exciting about 32, or any birthday, really, after 30 and before 40. They’re all kind of ‘meh’ birthdays, aren’t they? But I suppose this birthday feels more significant to me than it otherwise would because I’m 26 weeks pregnant, and there’s something about having a little person kicking around inside you that imbues everything with a sense of importance. After all, I’ll be 32 when I have this baby, so 32 suddenly has become an important age. This is the last birthday I’ll celebrate as a pre-parent. It’s the first birthday I’ve had in a while where I didn’t drink too much (sigh). It’s the first birthday I celebrated in our new house. So, really, it feels like quite an adult birthday — maybe my first really grown-up birthday.

Spending my birthday in maternity jeans.

Spending my birthday in maternity jeans.

It’s strange to think that this is the third birthday I’ve recorded since starting this blog two years ago. When I started this thing, I was just turning 30, quitting my lawyer job, and moving to South Africa, and at the time, those life changes felt so momentous. And they were, of course. But now, at 32, the changes I’m facing are even MORE momentous. I mean, for crying out loud, I’m going to have a KID in three months! There’s going to be another person living with me and Al — permanently (well, at least for the next 18 years or so). It’s CRAZY. And I know logically that life can’t continue to shift and evolve at the rate that it has for me over these past few years (and I think that’s a good thing), but it is exciting to have something big happening at the turn of every single year. I’m not one of those people who hates getting older, because every year, life gets better. It’s not always easier, but it is better.

In this, my thirty-third year, I know some stuff is going to get harder (see, e.g., poopy diapers), but I am pretty sure that things are going to get even more awesome than they already are. Here we go!

Book review(s): six quick takes

I’ve been a book-reading machine lately, largely thanks to our New Zealand sojourn. For one thing, flying for twenty hours with, like, two movies to choose from (thanks for nothing, Fiji Air) is a situation that lends itself nicely to devouring a lot of books. Plus, being in a camper van for three weeks with not much else to do at night other than read helps, too. So, over the last two months, I’ve read a dozen books, which even for me is kind of a lot. Some of these books, of course, were pregnancy and childbirth-related (if you’re in that market, do check out Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better), but most were fiction. So here, in no particular order, are six (quick) fiction book reviews.

magicians land

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman: This is the third book in Grossman’s Magicians series, which tell the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a graduate of the prestigious magical university Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, and his magician friends and foes. The Magicians books are dark and funny and deep and highly readable. The lazy but rather misleading way to describe them to someone is by saying that they’re like “grown-up Harry Potter,” but that’s kind of an understatement. There’s no butter beer and chaste kissing going on in these books. The magicians in Grossman’s books are really adults. They swear and have sex and make terrible, often disastrous, life decisions. But Quentin and his magical cohorts also get to do really exciting stuff, like explore and rule a magical, Narnia-esque land called Fillory, or, in Quentin’s case, get expelled from Fillory and resort to dark, illegal magic to try to make a quick buck. The third book picks up with Quentin, newly expelled from Fillory, trying to make it as a freelance, under-the-table magician for hire, and also follows up on the gang back in Fillory. No spoilers here, of course, so let me just say that I thought this book provided a highly satisfying conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read the first two books, get on that.

Black_Life-Drawing

Life Drawing, by Robin Black: I read Black’s Life Drawing right after finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and my great admiration for the latter may have tainted my enjoyment of the former. I find that sometimes when I read one book in close proximity in time to another, I notice parallels between them, and then inevitably begin to compare them. This can result in an unfavorable verdict for a perfectly good novel just because it happens to be stacked beside another, stronger one. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for Life Drawing. Like Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Black’s novel traces the complicated dynamics among a long-time couple and an outsider — a woman — and the trouble that such a triangle, even when not explicitly sexual, can bring upon a marriage. Unlike Messud’s novel, Life Drawing is told from the perspective of the wife in the triangle, rather than that of the outside woman. Like Messud’s novel, there are also long descriptions of art throughout the book, since the main character, Augusta (“Gus”) is a visual artist. Unfortunately, Black’s descriptions of imaginary art are even more plodding than Messud’s, and the book suffers for its long diversions into Gus’s creative process. The book spends most of its time, however, within the uncomfortable confines of Gus’s marriage to Owen, a writer with a stalled career, and the story often gets bogged down in Gus’s thoughts about her marriage — and art, and her demented father, and so on. The plot doesn’t pick up steam until well into the novel, and by that point, I had started to become irritated by quirks in the author’s writing, including long runs of dialogue in which each character repeats the name of the character to whom he or she is speaking (e.g., “I don’t know, Gus.” “I don’t understand it, Owen.” “I don’t know what to tell you, Gus.”). The dialogue was so stilted, it launched me out of the story, which was already dragging. Maybe if I hadn’t read The Woman Upstairs just before picking this up, I would have enjoyed it more, and allowed myself to get more caught up in the psychological drama of a damaged marriage, but in the end, there was not enough drama and too much psychology in Life Drawing for my liking.

king of cuba

King of Cuba, by Cristina Garcia: I’m completely fascinated by Cuba (I spent a summer doing my undergraduate thesis research there and it was so weird and wonderful that I still love talking about it) and particularly by the tortured, nostalgic, complicated relationship between Cuban exiles and their motherland. In King of Cuba, Garcia alternates between two compelling characters to tell a riveting, human story about Cuba and the dynamic between its passionate, bitter first-wave exiles and its lingering, equally passionate despot. The story is told from the perspective of El Comandante — a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro — in Havana, and, ninety miles away in Miami, Goyo Herrera, an elderly Cuban exile bent on revenge against El Comandante, who he blames for stealing his first love and ruining his country. The story follows eighty-something Goyo as he plots to take out the eighty-something El Comandante, and paints a vivid, hilarious, and bittersweet picture of life in both Havana and Cuban Miami. I tore through this book and loved every page of it.

doerr

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Al’s lovely step-mom Ginger recommended this book to me, and I’m really glad I picked it up. When I saw that it was a novel about two young people in France and Germany during World War II, I’ll admit that I was trepidatious, fearing something maudlin or ultimately hopeless. But All the Light We Cannot See is neither of those things. It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a gifted young German orphan recruited into the Wehrmacht for his technical skills. The story jumps around in time, flashing back and forth between the children’s childhoods and their young adulthoods in the throes of the war. Some reviewers hated this time-jumping format, and some loved it. I didn’t mind it, and I liked how digestible the short chapters were. Eventually, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in the walled French city of St. Malo at the very close of the war, and the results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even though this is a novel about kids in World War II, it won’t leave you rending your clothes or tearing your hair. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it’s filled with very human, relatable characters going about their lives on both sides of an inhuman situation.

landline

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: I loved both of Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to read her third effort, Landline. As I sometimes do, I went into this novel blind and read nothing about it before I opened it. So imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t just a light romance, but a light, time-traveling romance! Well, it’s not exactly time travel, it’s more of a phone with a direct connection to the past. Am I making this book sound crazy? It seems less crazy when you’re reading it, I promise. Landline tells the story of a wife and mother, Georgie, a successful TV writer, who’s hit a snag in her marriage to her college sweetheart, Neal. When Georgie decides to stay home in Los Angeles to work on her show, rather than accompany Neal and their two kids to Nebraska to visit his parents, things hit an all-time low. But then Georgie realizes that the landline in her high school bedroom connects her to Neal’s parents’ house — fourteen years earlier, before they were married, at a critical moment in their young relationship. In other words, present-day Georgie has the opportunity to fix her present-day marriage with an unwitting Neal of the past. Putting aside the obvious conundrums that spring up every time you introduce time travel (the butterfly effect, and so on), it’s an interesting idea. Probably everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship wonders, at some point, what it would be like to go back and fix earlier mistakes. Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the magical phone works its magic, and things end up as they’re supposed to. Overall, while I enjoyed Landline, it felt insubstantial; when I was done reading it, it slipped right out of my brain and heart. It was a far cry from the raw emotional power of Eleanor & Park, which made me cry at the gym, or even the pure, earnest sweetness of Attachments, which I read two-and-a-half years ago and still remember vividly. Maybe the issue was that I didn’t connect with Georgie and Neal as characters enough to ever become fully invested in the outcome of their relationship; I was kind of neutral for most of the book on whether they should stay together or divorce. Rowell is extremely gifted at creating relationships that feel real and relatable, but in this case, the relationship between Georgie and Neal wasn’t enough to elevate the book into something emotionally powerful for me. Nonetheless, I would recommend this as a slim, quick little book to read on the Metro or the beach. Just don’t expect to cry at the gym.

the wife

The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: This is the second Wolitzer book I’ve read (the first was The Interestings, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings), and after reading The Wife, I can say with conviction that Wolitzer is a great writer who sprinkles a lot of resonant truth throughout her books. Like with The Interestings, as I read The Wife, I felt compelled to highlight in my Kindle lots of passages that spoke to me, that seemed universally correct (in the beginning, Wolitzer’s description of the air on a plane, “once so antiseptic,” as now “home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes” made me grin/cringe with recognition). To its credit, unlike The Interestings, the ending of The Wife was not emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, and I didn’t end up feeling like Wolitzer had taken me through the wringer unfairly. My one complaint about the book is that its largest plot reveal seemed glaringly obvious to me quite early on, and I’m not sure it that was intentional or not. The book tells the story of Joan Castleman, the unhappy wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman, and it revisits their long marriage, from soup to nuts, to suss out the source of Joan’s particular unhappiness. Because the novel spans the length of their four-decades-plus marriage, dipping in and out at various points, it’s not action-heavy until the very end, when we jump back into the present and Joan faces the decision of whether — and how — to leave her husband. Despite being low on twists and turns, I enjoyed this book, even though I could see the big reveal coming from a mile away. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a page-turner, but the strength of Wolitzer’s writing and the keenness of her observations about marriage, particularly power dynamics within marriage, carry The Wife quite far.

Well, there you go: six books to contemplate. Some hits, some misses. Stay tuned for more book reviews, coming soon, as I’m plowing through several juicy tomes at the moment.

 

New Zealand, Part 2(b): South Island, continued

Here is the third and final part of our New Zealand adventure, covering the remainder of our time on the South Island. Check out parts one and two if you haven’t already.

The Catlins

The Catlins

From Te Anau, our next stop was an area called The Catlins, in the far south of the South Island. Al and I had both been looking forward to The Catlins, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite parts of the trip. It’s not that the scenery in The Catlins isn’t impressive — it is! very! — but the weather was so utterly hideous that it was hard for me to enjoy it. I grew up in Michigan and I thought I knew from variable weather, but The Catlins was a whole new ballgame. Within seconds, we’d watch the sky turn from sunny to ominous gray and then start to rain, which would then progress into hail, and then snow, and then back again, over and over. The entire day that we drove through The Catlins, we were barraged with a mix of rain, hail, and snow, punctuated by brief moments of sunshine. Even when the sun was out, though, it was still bitterly cold (hence the snow flurries), and I spent a lot of time sitting in the van with the heater on full blast while Al would hop out to take photos, and then rush back in.

My view from the van as Al took pictures

My view from the van as Al took pictures

It was also really windy, so driving along the treacherous, winding coastal roads often felt perilous, as our van rocked back and forth with each gust of wind.

Sure was windy!

Sure was windy!

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We stayed at a campsite that was sort of in the middle of nowhere (like most things in The Catlins, I guess) and no-frills. Let me assure you that getting up to use the (unheated) facilities in the middle of a rainstorm was not awesome. Neither was being passively aggressively told off by some lady in a giant RV in the morning for making too much noise while opening my van door to go to the bathroom at midnight. (EXCUSE ME FOR BEING PREGNANT, LADY. Sheesh.) Anyway, we did see some really cool stuff in The Catlins, like Slope Point (the southernmost point in NZ), and we had a really good meal on the road (at the Beachhouse Cafe in Riverton), but I was ready to be done with the whole area after a day or so of crazy weather.

It was necessary to bundle up.

It was necessary to bundle up.

We fled The Catlins for Dunedin, known by Kiwis as “the Edinburgh of the South.” Dunedin, at first glance, is sort of unremarkable, especially compared with the in-your-face scenery along the west coast of the South Island that we passed through to get there. But it’s sneakily charming in an understated, Scottish way. Al and I didn’t get up to much in Dunedin other than a bit of sightseeing and eating, but it was a pleasant, low-key stop for us. In town, we visited the Otago Settlers’ Museum, which turned out to be really interesting. Dunedin was settled by Scots, and the city still retains a strong sense of Scottish heritage (hence, Al noted that everyone in Dunedin looked like they could have been related to him). At the Settlers’ Museum, they had a room where you could put on Scottish settlers’ outfits and pose in front of a backdrop. Al’s picture was pretty authentic.

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

After Dunedin, we drove north toward Christchurch, but we made a few stops along the way, including in Oamaru, the steampunk capital of NZ. Steampunk is, according to Wikipedia, a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” Oamaru lends itself well to being a steampunk center since its main street is lined with limestone buildings from the 19th century, giving the whole place a Victorian feel. Oamaru seems to have embraced the Victorian/steampunk theme wholeheartedly; there’s even a steampunk-themed playground. We checked out Steampunk HQ, a weird and fairly creepy museum stuffed with odd bits of machinery and art, blending Victorian era technology and the macabre.

He has a license to operate this.

He has a license to operate this.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

Steampunk HQ light show

Steampunk HQ light show

The day we visited Oamaru happened to be Al’s birthday, so we stopped in a Victorian-style hotel for a beer (for Al) and a flat white (for me), and browsed through some of the little artists’ shops along the main street. We also popped into the Whitestone Cheese Company to taste some of the local delights. We demolished a full cheese board as a snack (don’t judge us) and then got on the road to Christchurch.

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Christchurch was devastated by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and is still rebuilding. I think because of this, Al and I had a hard time getting a feel for the city, much of which is still under scaffolding. Part of the problem, too, was that it was raining for most of the time we were there, and a lot of the activities we had read about in our trusty Lonely Planet guide were outdoors. To wait out the rain, we went to the movies (Gone Girl) and by the time we emerged, the weather had cleared, so we strolled around Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. It must be a sign of how old and boring we’ve become, but Al and I do love a nice botanic garden. This one reminded us a lot of Cambridge (UK), which is intentional, since Christchurch was settled by the English (The Canterbury Association, in fact) and was designed to mimic an English city. Like any good English city, Christchurch had some good Indian food, so Al and I celebrated his birthday eating delicious curry and naan at a restaurant called Himalayas.

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our last pit-stop on the South Island before catching the ferry back to Wellington was Kaikoura, a beautiful spot known for whale (and other wildlife) watching. We parked our van next to a roadside seafood barbecue place, ate some scallops and chowder, and then checked out the seals that were hanging around on the rocks. The seals seemed unfazed by the fact that there were people right there, snapping photos and gawping at them.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Al and a seal

Al and a seal

After taking our seal photos, we loaded into the van and headed back to Picton to catch the ferry to the North Island. I was sad to leave the South Island; we had seen so many incredible things there. One of the things that struck Al and me most about driving around New Zealand — especially the South Island — was the fact that you could pull off to the side of the road almost anywhere and see something breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the things we saw from our van window weren’t listed in our guide or on any map; there’s just too much to see in New Zealand to even begin to list all of it. The whole country is bursting with hidden treasures. For example, on our way out of Dunedin, we pulled off in a little town called Waitati to get a coffee and try whitebait, a local delicacy (it was okay).

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

We’d pulled over not because we’d read about Waitati anywhere, but because I had seen a sign on the side of the road for a Sunday market, and figured it’d be as good a place as any to stop and get a flat white. At the little market, as we were drinking our coffees and eating our whitebait sandwich on white bread, we were approached by a kind of wacky looking lady who smelled strongly of patchouli. She wanted to tell us about the Greenpeace campaign she was working on to stop offshore oil drilling in New Zealand. We listened politely as she told us about her campaign and then she began telling us about Waitati and its alternative culture (which includes a local “pirate queen“). She also mentioned that just down the road, there was a beach where blue penguins roosted. She assured us that no tourists knew about the beach and we should check it out. So, we drove down a couple of winding roads, following the signs to Doctor’s Point, and ended up at this beautiful, empty beach.

Doctor's Point, Waitati

Doctor’s Point, Waitati

We didn’t end up seeing any penguins (the tide was up and it was hard to get to their nesting area), but the place was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else there. Al and I agreed that if this beach had been in any other country, it would have been written up as a must-see destination, but the fact is, NZ is lousy with tiny, untouched beaches. All you have to do is wander a little and you’ll find them.

Doctor's Point - Al is the little speck in the distance

Doctor’s Point – Al is the little speck in the distance

Overall, Al and I agreed that New Zealand was one of our best trips ever. It had its highs (scenery! penguins! seals!) and its lows (being pregnant in a van with no toilet! hail!), but what good trip doesn’t? We will always remember our pre-baby adventure in NZ fondly. I’m so glad we went and I recommend it strongly to anyone else who’s thinking of taking a great adventure.

 

(Photography) book review: Your Family in Pictures, by Me Ra Koh

Me Ra Koh’s Your Family in Pictures came to me a bit prematurely, as it’s designed to teach you to take beautiful photos of your kids, and I won’t have an (external to my body) kid until early February (or thereabouts). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to read and absorb some of Koh’s advice before busting out my camera when Baby Green gets here.

koh

 

In the preface to her book, Koh explains that her “passion has always been to empower women — especially moms” by teaching them how to confidently photograph their children. Her book’s goal, she says, is to empower you, the reader, to “capture your family’s story, regardless of how technically versed or unversed you may be.” Well, consider me unversed. Despite taking not one but two photography classes in high school, in which I bought a clunky used camera and learned to develop actual film in an actual dark room — I nonetheless feel intimidated by the idea of Photography as an art (or worse, a science) that must be learned and mastered. Whenever I see people wrangling big, fancy cameras with lots of functions and buttons and lenses, I feel exhausted by the very idea of what they must have gone through to learn how to use such machines. This attitude hasn’t stopped me from taking tons of photos over the years, of course; it’s just that I’ve never taken the time (at least since high school) to learn anything about photographic technique because it’s just seemed like such a hassle. So, I approached Koh’s book with a bit of trepidation but also some hope that perhaps it could teach me to get over myself and learn some photographic technique, already.

The book is organized into seven sections: first, Setting Yourself Up For Success, followed by Developing A Photographer’s Eye, and then five themed chapters: Everyday Life, Holidays, Family Portraits, Tweens & Teens, and Family Vacations & Travel. I read the Setting Yourself Up For Success chapter first, figuring it would contain the most basic, practical advice. I was right. Koh gets right into things by explaining what types of light work best for photographing kids, with practical ideas like shooting against white kitchen counters or using sheer curtains as a backdrop. She then lists more tips that seem doable and non-intimidating, including several on how to get your family in the mood to be photographed. She also lists her top ten times to take candid family photos (including eating ice cream and quiet play). After reading this chapter, I already began to feel like I had some ideas about how to get a good, well-lit shot of my future kid eating ice cream.

I was most interested in Koh’s tips on developing one’s photographic eye. I think I have a decent eye for composition but I could always use more help, so I was pleased to find that she lists lots of practical tips and tricks for discovering shape, color, line, and texture. These tips include looking for a single “pop” of color to “heighten drama” in a shot, and taking note of man-made and naturally occurring leading lines to help frame photos. She also mentions The Rule of Thirds, which means framing the subject in the far left or right third of the photograph “to add more emotion, drama, anticipation.” Makes sense.

The rest of the book consists of Koh’s “recipes” for various shots, including a sunset silhouette of the family, Saturday morning playtime, and a self-portrait of mom. I really love how these recipes walk the reader step-by-step through setting up the shot and choosing the appropriate camera setting (Koh gives settings both for point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras). The steps break down the shots into manageable chunks and make them seem easily achievable. When I finally have a child to photograph, I can imagine myself flipping through this book, choosing a “recipe,” and taking great photos.

I recommend Koh’s book to any parent who feel intimidated by the idea of learning all of the settings on her camera but still wants to take professional looking shots of her kids. The book is more geared toward people with kids who are mobile (so, not newborns) but a lot of Koh’s advice seems applicable to baby photography, as well. I’ll let you know how it turns out in a few months!

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

New Zealand, Part 2(a): South Island

As promised, here’s the report on the second part of our New Zealand adventure (part one is here), in which we explored the South Island in our trusty camper van. Since we saw so much in the South Island, I decided to break this post into two pieces, so as not to overwhelm. New Zealand can overwhelm.

Al and I had heard before we came to New Zealand that the South Island was where the really impressive scenery was, but I don’t think we appreciated how beautiful — and varied, and, in some cases, extreme — it would be before we saw it with our own eyes. Although we didn’t travel through all of the North Island, and I’ve heard that the northern part of the North Island is spectacular, Al and I both agreed that the South Island was, overall, way more interesting. If you only have a week to spend in NZ, spend it on the South Island; I promise you won’t regret it.

Not bad, NZ.

Not bad, NZ.

After taking the ferry from Wellington, we started off in Blenheim, which is situated right in the heart of Marlborough, one of NZ’s best known wine regions. Blenheim, like most wine country towns, is pleasant and peaceful. Even the low-fuss campsite where we stayed was charming, with wandering sheep and rolling hills. But the main reason one comes to Blenheim, of course, is not for the scenery or the sheep, but for the wine tasting. Given the whole pregnancy thing that’s been happening, I played the designated driver for the day and ferried Al from winery to winery. I took sips of the wines and got an idea of what Marlborough has to offer (mainly, good aromatic whites, especially pinot gris, plus their famous, grassy sauvignon blanc, which is not my favorite but sure is distinctive), while Al got nice ‘n boozy and had a grand old time. I occupied myself by drinking a lot of flat whites (which, I’m convinced, are 99% milk and 1% actual coffee, which means it’s okay to have ten of them). To punctuate the wine tasting, we also had a great lunch at a pretty restaurant called Rock Ferry.

Blenheim

Blenheim

The entire next day we spent driving from Blenheim to Franz Josef, home of an eponymous glacier. Along the way we stopped in Punakaiki to look at the pancake rocks and blowholes.

Pancake rocks

Pancake rocks

Rainbow over a blowhole

Rainbow over a blowhole

In Franz Josef, in the morning, we took a hike out to view the glacier (you can’t get on the glacier except via helicopter), took some photos, and then got on the road to go to Queenstown.

Glacier in the background

Glacier in the background

Driving into Queenstown, Al and I were treated to one of the most stunning natural views either of us has ever seen (and keep in mind that Al’s been to LITERALLY a hundred countries, so that’s really saying something).

This doesn't adequately capture Queenstown.

This doesn’t adequately capture Queenstown. Like, at all.

Neither does this.

Neither does this.

Or this.

Or this.

The town is nestled among several ranges of mountains and is situated along a bright blue, lightning bolt-shaped lake (Lake Wakatipu), which makes for some truly breathtaking views. The town itself reminded me of a cross between South Lake Tahoe and Vail — cute and touristy. Queenstown is known for its scenery and for its outdoor (including adventure) sports. Again, being a preggo, I took a hard pass on the adventure sports, but I did go on some lovely runs along the lake (while Al did stuff like careening down a hill in a wooden cart — to each his own). We also ate some fantastic Thai food in town at the oddly named At Thai. Al claims his pad thai was the best he’s had in his life (and we spent three weeks in Thailand, so this is not faint praise).

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Also spotted while running

Also spotted while running

On our second day in Queenstown, we did some more wine tasting (okay, Al did most of it) in Gibbston, located in the Central Otago wine region. Central Otago is known for its pinot noir, which, to an American palate, tastes nothing like pinot noir. It’s fruity and jammy and not really my cup of tea/wine, but Kiwis seem very proud of it, so Al and I were diplomatic in our comments. After tasting at a few wineries, we drove to an adorable little historical town called Arrowtown for dinner. Arrowtown used to be a gold mining town and was home to a population of Chinese immigrants who showed up to work in the mines. Today there’s a historic Chinese settlement with preserved buildings from the mining days, in which Al took many goofy pictures.

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We ate dinner outdoors at a tapas place called La Rumbla, and it was delicious.

La Rumbla

La Rumbla

Our next stop after Queenstown was Te Anau, a town situated on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island. I really liked Te Anau; it was quiet and peaceful and, as an added bonus, our campsite had two lambs on the premises (and you could feed them with bottles!).

Te Anau

Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Al makes a friend

Al makes a friend

 

On our first day in Te Anau, we took a boat out on the lake to go see the Te Anau glowworm caves. Looking at the glowworms involved walking through a series of dark, dank caves filled with dripping and rushing water, then boarding some little boats and being rowed slowly though the pitch dark while peering up at the glowworms clinging to the cave ceiling above. Glowworms (AKA arachnocampa luminosa) are really beautiful in the dark — they look like a starry sky — but, as we learned during the presentation afterwards, they’re actually pretty gross. For one thing, they’re a species of “fungus gnat.” Try to think of something grosser than that. I dare you. They’re also cannibals who eat each other whole. Plus, they look super gross up close. I’m just telling you.

On Lake Te Anau

On Lake Te Anau

Roadside lunch

Roadside lunch

On our second day in Te Anau, we drove to Milford Sound, a huge fjord within the appropriately named Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is supposedly NZ’s most popular tourist attraction, mostly because the scenery within the fjord — waterfalls, glacial peaks, wildlife — is so spectacular. Unfortunately, the weather in Milford Sound is almost always heinous, and the day we went was no exception. We took a two-hour cruise around the fjord and it rained the entire time, plus it was windy, which caused the boat to rock, which caused me to clutch my flat white and grimace stoically out the window while Al went outside and took photos. Here’s what I’m learning about myself as I get older: boats aren’t my thing. In fact, pretty much every time I go on a boat, I end up regretting it. I inevitably feel seasick, and scared, and spend the entire time wishing the boat would just stop moving, already, which it never does. But despite all of this, I don’t regret taking the Milford Sound cruise, because we got to see two rare crested penguins just hanging out on the shore, plus a bunch of fat sea lions lolling on the rocks.

View from boat, Milford Sound

View from boat, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

On the rainy and windy van ride back to Te Anau, we encountered another example of NZ fauna: the kea, a marauding parrot known for eating the rubber off of car tires and windshields. The keas we saw walked out onto the road where traffic was stopped and peered quizzically up at the cars and trucks, as if scoping out the best opportunity for rubber snacking. Luckily, our van escaped unscathed.

Kea

Kea – look at that beak!

More on the rest of our South Island odyssey in the next post!

New Zealand, Part 1: North Island

As much as I hate the term “babymoon” as a term to describe a last-hurrah vacation taken before the arrival of a baby, I very much like the idea of it. And given that Al and I love to travel, it seemed obvious that we needed to do something kind of ambitious for our Last Big Trip Before Baby. After much brainstorming, we decided on New Zealand, mostly because it’s so far away, we couldn’t imagine doing it with a child in tow, and also because it sounded so awesome. I mean, anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings movies knows that NZ does not scrimp on impressive scenery, and if that’s not enough to convince you, try resisting the charms of the NZ tourism campaign posters from Flight of the Conchords!

Red Beach, Auckland

Red Beach, Auckland – one of the first glimpses I got of NZ

On September 20, we embarked on our three week odyssey to NZ, and it ended up being one of our most unique, fun trips ever. Three weeks is a long trip, and we saw a LOT of stuff, so I will break my post into two manageable chunks: the North Island and the South Island.

We flew into Auckland (via Los Angeles and then Fiji, oof), where Al’s cousins Will and Gil picked us up from the airport. They moved from Scotland to NZ five years ago and live in a lovely, airy house in the far north of the city, in an area called Whangaparaoa. We stayed with them for a few days, adjusting to the radical time change (17 hours!) and eating home-cooked meals. We also checked out pretty Waiheke Island, a short (but pricey) ferry ride away from downtown Auckland and home to a bunch of fancy wineries and olive groves.

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island

After a few days in Auckland, we were ready to pick up our transport for the rest of the trip: a camper van! When we showed up at the van rental place, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Al and I were both expecting to be shown to our huge, fully outfitted RV, in which we’d cruise around NZ like passengers on a luxury yacht, buffered from all the troubles and inconveniences faced by the lowly likes of common car travelers. I imagined laughing down at people in cars from my perch inside my Ashton Kutcher-style Windstar, where I’d drink artesian bottled water straight from my mini-fridge and flip channels on my satellite TV as Al drove. Never mind that the price quote we got for our entire three-week van rental was $500; I had convinced myself, against all reason, that we were going to be traveling around New Zealand like RV royalty.

Imagine my shock when we were shown to our camper van, which was, in fact, just a regular old van. There was no TV, no reading nook, no bathroom. In other words, it was not at all what I had envisioned in my completely unrealistic fantasy. I was especially disappointed by the fact that our van did not have a bathroom, since, as a preggo, I have to use the facilities approximately every three minutes. But I tried not to seem as horrified as I was as we loaded our giant suitcases into our tiny, wheeled home and drove uncertainly away, trying to remember to keep to the left. Overall, the van worked out fine. Was it the most comfortable place to sleep, change clothes, and sometimes eat? No. But I did learn how to cook eggs on a camp stove situated inside a vehicle, and that’s a (probably dangerous) skill that’ll last me a lifetime.

Our van!

Our van!

Our first stop after Auckland was Tongariro National Park, famous for its skiing and its views of Mt. Ngauruhoe, or, as it’s more widely known, MOUNT DOOM. We got to our campground in the evening, cooked a meal in the community kitchen, and went to sleep. The next morning, we went on a two-hour hike to look at some nearby waterfalls and ogle Mt. Doom in all its glory. It was pretty impressive. Then we packed up the van and headed to our next destination, Wellington.

Wellington waterfront

Wellington waterfront

Wellington is the political capital of NZ, and is famous for its nightlife, food, and blistering winds. Something about Wellington’s position on the mouth of the Cook Strait makes it particularly susceptible to gale-force winds, and we nearly got our faces blown off while we were there. After we arrived, we ventured downtown, ate dinner at a Malaysian place, and checked out a craft beer bar, where Al sampled some of the local delights. The next morning, I went running along the waterfront and admired the views and Victorian houses, which give the place a San Francisco-esque feel, and then Al and I checked out the Te Papa Tongarewa museum and the cool public art down by the waterfront.

In Wellington

In Wellington

(From Wellington, we hopped on a ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island. I’ll cover our adventures on the amazing South Island in another post, but for now, let me pick up again a few weeks into the trip, when we arrived back on the North Island via ferry.)

When we got back from our exploits on the South Island, we drove from the ferry in Wellington straight to Rotorua, a city known for its geothermal activity: hot springs, boiling mud pools, and geysers. Because of hydrogen sulphide emissions, the whole joint smells like eggs. Weirdly, Al and I both enjoyed the eggy scent of Rotorua. (Another sign it’s probably good that we’re married.)

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Kuirau Park, Rotorua

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Anyway, being the cheapskates we are (or at least, have become since finding out we’re having a kid), we decided to do Rotorua the free way, and check out a local public park, Kuirau Park, which has its own mud pools and bubbling lakes, rather than shelling out money for one of the expensive geothermal parks. We wandered around the park with to-go coffees in hand and checked out the boiling mud pools and free public foot baths. Al actually stuck his feet in the foot bath, but I, fearing foot-and-mouth disease, kept my shoes on.

Al, looking like he's really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

Al, looking like he’s really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

After seeing enough boiling mud to feel like we had done Rotorua properly, we got on the road back to Auckland. But along the way, we stopped at Hobbiton, where you can go on a tour of the preserved set of Hobbiton and The Shire from the Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, being us, we didn’t feel like paying $150 for the tour, so we got a bite to eat at The Shire’s Rest cafe, took a photo with the Hobbiton sign, and then left. I mean, a lot of New Zealand looks pretty much like The Shire (rolling green hills, sheep, blue skies), so I feel like we got the idea. I am kind of bummed I didn’t get to step foot in a hobbit hole, but as I told Al, I would rather spend my money on New Zealand merino wool than on a tour of a movie set. Hey, I have my priorities straight.

We came, we saw, we left.

We came, we saw, we left.

We had one full day left in Auckland before our flight, and we used it to go shopping for yarn (okay, that was just me) and to check out the Auckland Zoo. Our main goal at the zoo was to see a morepork (a small owl native to New Zealand and Tasmania) because we had become mildly obsessed with moreporks over the course of our three weeks in New Zealand. Why, you ask? First of all, the word “morepork” is awesome and I want to say it all the time. Second of all, moreporks are adorable, and everyone knows it. We even drove through an area of New Zealand in which the regional government had adopted a morepork-based PSA campaign, in which a cartoon morepork named RuRu (which is the Maori word for the owl) warns drivers to be careful in a variety of situations, including fog, rain, and snow. We thought it was so cute we stopped to take a photo of a sign explaining the campaign.

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Anyway, we were really jazzed on moreporks and wanted to see one at the zoo, but unfortunately, they’re nocturnal, and it was impossible to see anything in the zoo’s nocturnal exhibit (since it was, you know, pitch dark). We did see the outline of a kiwi bird poking around in the dark, we think, but that was about it in terms of nocturnal bird sightings. On the upside, we saw some seals and shags (cormorants) and blue penguins, so at least we got to view some native NZ animals. I still hope I get to see a real morepork some day. A girl can dream.

Stay tuned for a post on our adventures on the incredible South Island!

 

The big news

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, although it’s not been for lack of things to say. On the contrary, my silence has sprung from being overwhelmed with just how much has been happening. That’s not a complaint; there has just been a LOT going on, and I haven’t had time until now to sit down and record it for posterity. For one thing, Al and I bought our first house! Then, four days after we moved in, we took off for a three-week trip to New Zealand! Oh, and also, I’m 24 weeks pregnant!

So yeah, there’s been a lot of stuff going on.

I will be blogging about our new house soon, I promise, and about our awesome NZ odyssey. But for now, let’s talk just a little about that the BIGGEST news, our pending bundle of joy, a girl, scheduled to arrive on February 3, 2015.

Official preggo

Official preggo bathroom selfie

Expecting a baby is, in a word, insane. Insane in the membrane, if I may expand my feelings into four words. Getting pregnant is a perfectly reasonable thing for Al and me to do, as thirty-something married people, but it still feels slightly crazy, as if we’re doing something completely outrageous and possibly illegal. I keep waiting for someone in a suit to knock on my door and tell me my parenting permit has been preemptively revoked, since, let’s be real, I still don’t know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, and who am I to be raising another human? But I suppose all parents-to-be must feel like they’re not ready, and might never be ready, to be put in charge of a whole other person’s entire upbringing. In fact, I’d be kind of suspicious of any expectant parent who wasn’t a little freaked out by the vastness of the responsibility she’s suddenly facing down. I mean, in forty weeks, you go from a person who only has to worry about getting herself up in the morning (and maybe making sure her partner gets up, too) to a person who is responsible for keeping another (completely helpless) person ALIVE. The magnitude of that change is staggering, if you think about it long enough. So I tend not to.

This may sound obvious, but what keeps occurring to me is that deciding to have a kid is the most extreme thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve moved abroad by myself, I’ve quit my stable, lucrative job in favor of a career with little money and lots of uncertainty, I’ve gotten married, I’ve hitchhiked without a cell phone, and I’ve eaten suspicious street food in a variety of developing countries — but this pregnancy thing poses a whole new level of risk and challenge. I’m hoping that all the cliches about parenting being the greatest adventure and most wonderful gift are all true, but if they’re not, there’s not too much I can do about it now. I’m in this thing!

Clearly, I don’t have anything particularly new or insightful to say on the subject of pending parenthood, although I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be sharing more thoughts on it as the Big Day approaches. For now, I just wanted to share the news that I am gestating a new person in my body (WHICH IS SO WEIRD, RIGHT?) and am feeling pretty psyched about it. Everything’s going fine, physically (I might write a little post on pregnancy itself at some point, too), and pretty well mentally, too. So, that’s that. Stay tuned for updates on New Zealand, home ownership, and life in general!