Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Last weekend, my friends and I traveled to Central PA for a girls weekend...and to see Mixtape Festival at HersheyPark!! Two spectacular days of popular artists from the 90s and 00s - Hanson, Gavin Degraw, One Republic, The Script, Train, Boyz II Men, TLC, Jonas Brothers, and New Kids on the Block. All of this and more and for less than a single ticket to see one of these performers on their national tours this summer.  Great deal and a fun lineup - I'm in! Of course, the concert was only in the evenings, so how do three girls occupy themselves in the day hours you ask??  Well, let me show you...

Lancaster: Central Market - soy candles - Ep!c pickles (yum) - cookie gifts - tea and spices - sunflowers - dutch pretzel

 Amish Country: local traffic - Kitchen Kettle Village sampling and bacon flavored pickles

Hershey: Chocolate World Great American Chocolate Tour cow - classic Hershey's chocolate - lots of Kisses - Tröegs Brewing Company sampler - pour me a Troegenator Double Bock, please

Mixtape Festival (Day 1 only because Day 2 was skipped due to weather): Hanson - Gavin Degraw in the mix - One Republic

Only thing I did not like about the weekend was my camera - a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot that is terrible for still photos, better for concert videos.  I think I'm going to replace it soon.  So spoiled with my Nikon DSLR!!!

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 by Julie

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Monday, July 22, 2013

And in other (non-royal baby) news today, the U.S. Botanical Garden's "corpse flower" finally started to bloom on Sunday, one week after expected!  If you have no idea what a corpse flower is, it's a very large (over 10 foot) plant native to Indonesia.  The nickname comes from the absolutely foul odor the bloom emits to attract pollenating insects.  Some say it smells like rotting flesh.  So, of course, this was Washington D.C.'s most popular attraction on Monday - as many visitors had been monitoring the live stream video for the indication to head into town.  The blooming time is very limited, only 24-48 hours, and the line out the door of the normally quiet and low-trafficked building on the National Mall had hundreds of people anxiously waiting their turn - olfactory receptors anticipating the worst.  Fortunately, the line moved quickly and it was just a 20 minute wait.  The U.S. Botanical Garden extended its hours to 8pm to allow the crowds a chance to see the bloom before it goes away.

Alas, I did not get one key piece of information before determining the time I was going to head downtown to tackle the crowds - it is common for the atrocious scent to dissipate after 10 hours. When I finally got my turn, all I could smell was the that of wet greenery, like moss.  Nothing bad.  The last corpse flower to bloom in D.C. was in 2007, so I guess I will have to wait up to 6 years for my next chance to catch a whiff.

Before Blooming (screen capture from the live stream video)

Posted on Monday, July 22, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

It's been about a month since my last book review post, so I thought I'd catch you up on what my eyeballs have been reading.  Since it's summer, most the books are a little lighter, for the most part, on subject matter.  I heard someone call these kinds of books a "good ol' romp," but I like to call them sit-coms because they are entertaining, require low brain power, and are easy to get through in a few days or less.  

Must Read

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

This is the first book I've picked up in a few months that I had to force myself to put down - so I wouldn't be rude to my grandmother while visiting her in Cincinnati.  The characters are great and the settings for both intertwined stories are fascinating. The plot is somewhat predictable - a British woman's life is starting to fall apart until she gets notice of an inheritance from a lawyer in Paris, and she must travel there to claim it.  Then there's the mystery of Eva D'Orsey - the stranger that left Grace all these assets on her death - with obvious clues of their link left early on. Fortunately, there are some character twists that I did not anticipate and really appreciated.  I was so enthusiastic about this author's writing that I immediately downloaded both of her other novels once I finished.

How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O'Neal

While this title suggests that it may be another silly "chick-lit" book, it actually was surprisingly sophisticated.  The story is set around a mother, her pregnant daughter, and her step-granddaughter.  Each of them have their own struggles.  The daughter learns early in the book that her soldier husband has been critically wounded in Afghanistan, and she must fly to Germany to be with him if/when he recovers.  Her step-daughter needs a home because the first wife was ordered to rehab for a serious meth addition, and the young teenaged step-daughter has been surviving on her own while also trying to take care of her addict mom.  Finally, to make matters more difficult, the matriarch of the story is struggling with her small bakery, having ventured out on her own after her divorce that caused a rift in her family.  Woven through it all is a story of the joy of bread making, and how it is the necessary "ingredient" to achieving deserved happiness for all of the characters. As a bonus, all of the recipes for the breads portrayed in the book are written in as part of the story.

Lazy Weekend

You Came Back by Christopher Coake

I really wanted to like this book enough to give it a "Read This" rating, especially since a friend with good book taste recommended it, but I just can't force myself to do it.  The story premise is a good one, and not one I've seen before.  A man is eight years removed from losing his son, who died tragically in their home, and has finally made progress in his recovery -- moving on to a second life chapter with his new fiancée.  That is, until a strange woman starts to stalk him, then reveals she now owns his old home and his son is haunting her son.  I like the emotional path the author chose for the father, but feel like there was a lot of back and forth that was not necessary and stalled the advancement of the story.  Overall, I liked Coake's writing style - just could use about 50 pages less of it!

Arranged by Catherine McKenzie

After a failed relationship, one night the lead character discovers a business card on the ground that intrigues her.  Thinking the company was a dating service, she calls only to find out that they provide arranged marriages.  As a last ditch effort for finding love, she goes along with it. Of course, nothing goes just as planned.  I was particularly was amused by the main character being saddled by her mom with the name Anne Shirley to pair with her last name of Blythe, a character from the LM Montgomery Anne of Green Gables series, because her mom was obsessed with the book series.  Awkwardly, her brother was named Gilbert Blythe - who was Anne of Green Gables' husband in the series.  These character names may have been the original reason I purchased this book.

Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie

Having enjoyed "Arranged," I downloaded another one of Catherine McKenzie's books.  This one follows the story of a woman who loses her mother to illness, and it was one of her mother's wishes that she travel to Africa.  Timing could not have been worse because only a few days in to the safari, a massive earthquake hits the region and she is stuck in Africa with no way to communicate for six months.  Meanwhile, back at home, her life is basically erased - apartment has been cleaned out, accounts frozen, job replaced.  The book follows her as she gets her life back on - a different - track.

Swim by Jennifer Weiner

This was a quick e-book that was a prequel to Jennifer's more recent book "The Next Best Thing" that I read back last winter. (link)

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Any book by Janet Evanovich is a guilty pleasure of mine.  If you like the T.V. show White Collar on USA Network, then you'll like this first book in a planned series.  But instead of the Neal Caffrey character being paired up with a male Agent Burke, this con artist's partner is a female FBI agent who knows him inside and out and was the only person to ever capture him.

Anne of Green Gables Series by Lucy Maud Montgomery

If you caught my recent "Favorite Things" post, you will know how much I loved the Anne of Green Gables T.V. mini-series growing up - and still love it now.  When I was a kid, though, I was not as avid a reader as I am now, so I never got around to reading the Anne of Green Gables books series until this summer.  I made it through the first five books, from Anne getting adopted to having children with Gilbert in their "house of dreams," then stopped because the story was straying too much from what my imagination had envisioned for years about what would happen next after the end of the first two T.V. mini-series.  It was interesting to see how much the story lines differed. There were still some amazing passages that were not captured in the T.V. representations that only serve to further solidify Gilbert Blythe as one of literature's most romantic male lead characters, so I was glad I finally got around to reading the books.  

Posted on Sunday, July 21, 2013 by Julie

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

This month's cupcake inspiration comes from summer cookouts and Bakerella's burger cupcakes. Once again keeping it simple, both brownies and yellow cupcakes were made from boxed mixes and the frosting was colored right out of the store bought can.  First, bake the yellow cupcakes and let them cool.  While they are cooling, bake a thin sheet of brownies (13" x 9" pan works for this).  Pour sesame seeds into a bowl and gently press the cupcake tops into the seeds to get a realistic amount on the "bun."  Unwrap the cupcakes while the brownies are cooling.  Slice off the cupcake top, then slice off and dispose of (trash or mouth) the middle third section of the cupcake.  When the brownies are cool, take a 2" round cookie cutter and cut out the "burgers".  Set aside.  Dye the frosting red (ketchup), yellow (mustard), and orange (cheese) then place each color into piping bags (no tip).  For the lettuce, you can go simple and dye some more frosting green or you can put some sweetened coconut into a ziploc baggie, squirt some green dye in the bag, close it up and shake until you have "lettuce."  I suppose it depends on if you're going for realistic (good photo) or for flavor because some people don't like coconut when paired with the combination of brownie and yellow cake.  Assembly is simple: bottom "bun," brownie burger, orange frosting in a square outline on the burger, mustard and ketchup loosely squeezed all over the burger (drip down sides), sprinkled on green coconut lettuce, gently applied top sesame seed "bun," and a toothpick down the middle to hold the stack together.

Inspiration Photo

Posted on Wednesday, July 17, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Every year at McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area in Poolesville, Maryland - just outside of Potomac on River Road - the people at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources plant sunflowers on some of the 5 acres in the area to attract game birds.  Rows upon rows of tall green stems with giant yellow flowers on top, as tall as 6 feet!  I heard of these fields for the first time this year when another D.C. photographer was asking about the blooming season.  This was back in April or May, so I've been patiently waiting for the flowers to peak, which is usually mid-July.  The best field, this year, in my opinion was the first one you encounter heading west on River Road.

Sunflowers are called "tournesols" in French because they are known to turn with the sun.  So I was a bit surprised to see that this particular variety planted in McKee-Beshers fields were very lazy sunflowers and stayed put, making it a challenge to light up the seed disc in the center while offsetting the brighter backlighting from the early evening sun.  Good thing I brought a reflector to help a bit, in addition to some post-processing assistance.  If these flowers are, indeed, not turning, then unfortunately it looks like mornings would be the best time for a shoot.  Regardless, it was still amazing to walk down the rows of giant flowers and be swallowed by their beauty.  I would imagine that they still will be blooming next weekend, since the website says peak blooms last two weeks, so you should check them out if the weather is nice.  Allergic to bees?  They are everywhere, though I don't think they are the stinging kind.  I came away with a nice allergic reaction to something or other on my arm, but it was mild and went away after a good scrubbing, so maybe it was something that was sprayed on the flowers or the little hairs on the stems?

Make sure to bring all your fun photography equipment you can carry - lenses (macro, wide-angle, telephoto, fisheye, etc.), reflector, polarizer, small ladder for a different viewpoint, etc.!!  If you don't have those, I also took some great shots with my iPhone!  Or don't take any shots at all and just enjoy the experience.

Posted on Sunday, July 14, 2013 by Julie


If you live in Washington D.C., at some point in the last few months you must have driven by the Washington Monument and seen it all covered up in scaffolding, as part of the repairs required after the earthquake cracked the structure about two years ago.  If you don't live in D.C., maybe you saw the monument during the broadcast of the national fireworks on the 4th of July.  Regardless, two things about this temporary Version 2.0 of the monument.  First, some people may disagree, but I love that they are now lighting up every section of the scaffolding at night.  It's tourist season, and instead of having photos of something ugly, now they have a neat looking photo that is unique to this year and a memory of their trip.  Second, I finally realized why I'm liking the look of the monument right now.  It looks like it's made out of giant Lego blocks!  Anyway, for those two reasons, I made a point this weekend - with all its gloriously stifling humidity - to head down to the National Mall to take some photos.  This photo tour also served the dual purpose of helping me to break in my new tripod.  As a bonus, we had a neat sunset that provided a great backdrop for the Lincoln Memorial as well, so I did a 180 degree turn with my tripod and shot that as well. Last night reminded me that I should force myself get out more at twilight and take pictures because the light is fantastic.  So, I'm expecting this post to be one of several as I get out on the Mall and Tidal Basin to shoot more and practice my night photography.  Here are some of my favorite shots from last night:

Also, right before I got off the metro in D.C., a big and quick rain storm hit the area - it actually started before I got on the metro and fortunately had passed over during the train ride.  Here's a neat photo of the storm's wake of beautiful blue sky.

Posted on Sunday, July 14, 2013 by Julie

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