Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Get on the Turkish towel bandwagon

This post could also be titled 'how to make over a chair in 10 seconds' which is exactly how I use my collection of Turkish towels: at this very moment, I am sitting on a worn out Ikea Poang chair covered in a gray Turkish towel in my bedroom. It covers up a wine stain on the cushion, looks very Jonathan Adler, and pairs well with a Mongolian fur pillow all for a mere $35.
I have a white Turkish towel draped over an old wooden captain's chair in my living room that lightens up the dark wood and saves me the time and effort of refinishing it.

They're also bath towels, blankets - even a makeshift umbrella in one instance. They get softer (and more authentically Turkish-looking) with every wash. It's one of the only things that I am willing to pay retail, and I used to buy them at Eastern Market from a Turkish woman who sources them from a textile town in their namesake country (I now order them from her Web site).

For summer, I'm adding a couple new ones to my stash to use as packable beach blankets-slash-sarongs. In red and turquoise stripes that look great stuffed in a canvas tote (I'm ordering this one with my unofficially new initials).

When I first discovered these, my inner cheapo felt guilty for spending $100 on three (amazing) towels. The versatility almost cured me, and then I learned that each one is hand-woven in traditional looms in Turkey and the three ladies who run this company partner with local organizations at every stage of their production process to help women in the community become economically independent.

I'll take that over Target any day.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Five ways to take better photos on your DSLR camera, immediately

This is a topic I am fairly passionate about, and trust me, I am not a photographer. (In fact, if you look closely at the picture above, you'll notice a small dent on the border of the lens which I created THE DAY I BOUGHT THIS CAMERA because I took it out of the case and promptly dropped it on the ground). So when I say it doesn't come naturally, that's putting it lightly. Not only was I scared of my camera, I was so bad at using it that I actually needed tips like 'use your lens cap' or 'it's telling you that the background is too dark because you still have your lens cap on' in the early days of using my Nikon D3000. The word 'f-stop' intimidated me, and I wasn't sure my small little brain could soak up all that I needed to know about the numbers and lens opening and milliseconds so I just avoided learning about it at all costs.

Because I am so bad at photography, there is no one more interesting to me than a really good photographer - it's an interest, an eye, and a talent all rolled up into one person that is fascinating. I've had the good fortune of working with some truly excellent photographers who have helped to point me in the right direction, and their advice has helped my skills go from the basics of camera use and care (starting with 'read the guide') to actually taking some decent* photos. None of them have tried to force me to learn about f-stops but they have made themselves available should I want to take it to the next level. I'm not quite there yet, but I wanted to share the best tips that I've been given in case you, too, are as scared of your DSLR camera as you were of your scientific calculator in high school. (You know, an intelligently designed, powerful, capable tool that can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Like a helicopter).

1. Buy Scott Kelby's The Digital Photography Book, read it, re-read it, reference it. It covers the basics of photography in a very simple way that even I could understand it and glean some useful information from it about what buttons to press on my camera. It is a must-read, and Kelby has a whole series of these books that you can read as you start to get better.
2. Take photos incessantly. One of the best pieces of advice I've gotten is that there is no such thing as wasting film in digital photography, and if you want to be good at it, you shouldn't have space on your memory card. Carry an extra memory card. Take so many pictures that your index finger cramps up. Snap, snap, snap. Review, delete, snap more. Notice what works, and what doesn't. Recreate what works, and avoid what doesn't. I did this on the automatic setting when I first got my camera because I wanted to get the basics down in terms of observation, perspective, rule of thirds, etc.
3. Start a file of great photos that you find, and do everything you can to plagiarize them. Not by using the photos without permission, but trying to copy everything about how the photographer got the shot. I have a file on my hard drive with images that I save for reference, and I look at them, consider what I like about it, why it is unusual, and think about how the photographer got it. Then I try to recreate it on my own, Googling my way through the technical details of what settings to use on my Nikon to get the light, focus, blur, etc.
4. No matter what you do, keep the strap around your neck, wrist, etc., use a camera bag, clean the lens, don't let it get wet, charge the battery. This should probably be tip number one. Taking care of your camera is something that should be obvious, especially after you dropped a few (or several) hundred dollars on it. However, I needed to be instructed on how to do this properly after getting it wrong on day one. There are lots of creative ways to keep it protected. I wear my camera around my neck when I fly, and wrap it in a pashmina when I don't have my camera bag. My friend Val keeps her extra lenses in a tube sock to protect them.
5. Set your camera on manual, and start experimenting with all your settings. This means that you have to get over your fear and remember that trial and error is a great (free) way to learn. My first, oh, forty photos on manual were a bleached out, fuzzy, blurred mess. I deleted them all, and kept making adjustments to the settings until they (slowly) started to come in clear. Whenever Wes is playing video games I use him as my subject for my manual setting practice, and I have a few where his thumbs are just two big blurs. So artsy!

*In my opinion, anyway.

The old photo is by my friend (and great photographer) Andrew Sheppard!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Easy green smoothie

It is pretty hard to eat right in general, but especially when your schedule starts to get crazy. When I am stressed and starved, the last thing I want to eat is tilapia (unless it is served as fish tacos with a margarita on the side). For a few months, I was relying on Thai takeout to keep me alive and blamed my increasingly sedentary lifestyle on my demanding day job.

I recently started working out with a personal trainer once per week to give my health and fitness goals some structure, and she has given me some amazing advice to stay on track that I wanted to share here. My trainer told me that the most important thing to remember is that it's all about the food you eat. You can work out until you're blue in the face, but you'll never see results if you're not eating well. Diet determines your body weight and shape. Exercise works with what you have to refine, tone, and benefit your heart, lungs, and metabolism.

So hobbling around with a sore core from endless crunches, squats, and planks has been my motivation to eat healthy. My trainer swears by juices and smoothies, so I've been having one of these (surprisingly tasty) green smoothies every morning to get a healthy dose of antioxidants. It keeps me full until lunch thanks to the avocado, and motivates me to eat right for the rest of the day. It's just three ingredients, and takes me less time to make than my coffee. Just chop up a whole pear, a half avocado, and as much baby kale as you can handle. Put it in a blender with a cup of cold water, blend, and drink it with a straw.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Upgrade your nightstand

When we first moved in to this house, we picked the smaller bedroom to be the 'master' because it was in a quiet spot at the back of the house. For a few months, it was just a bed, two mismatched dressers, and makeshift nightstands (a pile o' books and an unstable plant stand). It's still not quite right, and has been my biggest design challenge in this old house. Working with such a small space forces you to give careful consideration to every item you want to bring in. And carefully considering is not one of my strengths. So I haven't brought much.

Upgrading the nightstands was a necessity (I may or may not have sent a few glasses teetering to their deaths) but I had a serious issue: there was just a couple feet of space on either side of the bed, barely enough space for the pile of books. I needed something light, airy, and glass so it wouldn't crowd the tiny little space between the doorway and the bed. And it is harder than you think to find a table that fits these qualifications.

I was just about to order this one cool gold metal table from Urban Outfitters when I found an amazing silver metal side table with a glass top at HomeGoods that was an exact fit for the space (as in, sometimes Wes gets his toes caught and trips on it on his way to the bathroom... small price to pay for the perfect side table). I picked up a second little gray table for the other side and created a new home for an old silver desk lamp from my desk, some silver candlesticks that were still in the attic, and a shimmery Buddha that everyone thinks we got on our honeymoon in Thailand but was actually a $5 clearance find at my favorite store. This great table is also fulfilling a deep, emotional hole in our lives: it's a much-needed final resting place for books that Wes Amazons into our home, never reads, but loves to think about reading some day in the distant future.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Simplify your life


One of the challenges of having an interest in style is the accumulation that comes with it, the latent guilt about the amount of stuff you have in your life. Yes, first world problem, but a problem nonetheless. Lately I've been inspired by those who do more with less, live with high style on tight budgets, and are thoughtful and mindful about the items they bring to their lives (like the people in this article from the NYT archives). It's an ages-old concept that living with less will make you happier, and that you don't need a lot of resources to live (or dress) well. It's amazing what you can do with a little creativity and a few dollars at Goodwill (the oversize denim shirt and perforated leather clutch in the picture above set me back a whopping $8).

Giving things up for Lent is a tradition I hold sacred and take seriously as an opportunity to improve my life. (Which sometimes harms others, like my senior year of college when I gave up my four-cups-a-day coffee habit, lost my personality, and made my roommates suffer by proximity.) This year, my Lenten resolution was inspired by 'The Cure', a challenge-cum-New Year's Resolution on Apartment Therapy to improve your home. I wanted to try it not just for my house, but for my entire life. So last Wednesday, I gave up shopping and made myself a promise to simplify. I've been in the process of purging my home of anything that I don't need or love, downsizing my wardrobe into a massive Goodwill donation, and getting organized.

Pretending to be organized is one of my secret professional talents. At work, my inbox never has more than 25 emails, I use my Tasks folder religiously, and I rely on OneNote to take over where my brain leaves off. My coworkers think my favorite hobby is giving them unsolicited advice about optimizing Outlook when they complain about out-of-control email. (But they are wrong: giving unsolicited advice in general is my favorite hobby.)

But when I get home from work (and am back in my natural habitat), my shoes and blazer get tossed onto an armchair where they'll stay for days. My needs-to-be-dry-cleaned bag is overflowing in the trunk of my car. I have piles of receipts stashed away in strange places, boxes of high heels, and more iPhone chargers than outlets in the house. The attic is stuffed with things I love but don't have room for (like these chairs that I am saving until I someday do need them). My Gmail is my worst nightmare, like an out-of-control monster that just keeps growing, burying into oblivion the stuff I really need to read.

In my professional life, I once went through a training (it's also a book) called 'Getting Things Done' that changed everything about how I worked, and I am ashamed to admit that it's taken me this long to commit to applying it to my personal life.  The core principle is to create a system, make rules and stick to them, and ask yourself two questions every time you open an email:

1. Can I delete this? If yes, delete! If no, move to step 2.
2. Can I take action immediately? If yes, do it. If no, file it in your Tasks folder for future action labeled with the first step you need to take (e.g. call Cathy)

This is a system that works for eliminating other unwanted items from your life (junk snail mail, receipts, clothing, you name it):

1. Can I toss or donate this? If yes, add to the pile! If no, move to step 2.
2. Can I use this in the next month? If yes, set aside. If no, pack up for storage.

I've been applying it drawer-by-drawer, room-by-room and am amazed at what I can toss. When 40 days are up, the true test will be if I can stick to the system. (And fulfill my fashion dreams at Goodwill.)

Thanks to Madison Weller for the photos!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Easy, homemade butternut squash soup

I am having a thing with butternut squash - it's been my favorite side dish for weeks on end, a pasta sauce, and the star ingredient in my risottos. Just wanted to share the latest trick I learned: using leftover roasted butternut squash from this recipe to make a simply, healthy soup using just a few simple additions and one powerful blender.

Once you're done roasting and eating, put the 1 c. of leftover squash into the blender with 1/2 cup almond milk, and a dash each of cayenne, salt, and black pepper.

Blend until smooth and creamy.

Heat n' eat it right away, put it in a storage container and bring it to work for lunch tomorrow, or freeze it for when you need it in a pinch. Like when your husband/roommate/friend is complaining that all you have to eat in the entire house is pistachios, baby kale, or Belvita. (When really, he should really be thanking you for single-handedly eliminating the lifetime supply of Goldfish that formerly filled your pantry and had been a constant late night temptation all winter.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Where's Waldo?

The J.Crew catalog is one of the best sources for accessory inspiration. They make me fall in love with the weirdest things. A few months ago the catalog had these black acetate frames that reminded me of my sixth grade science lab partner but somehow looked so cool with a simple outfit and high heels. It's an 'I'm wearing four inch heels, but secretly low maintenance - just look at my bad taste in eyewear' look that can be achieved with your basic closet essentials and a pair of thick plastic frames.
One of my cheap thrills in life is ordering glasses from Warby Parker's home try on program, wearing a new pair every day for a week with experimental shades of lipstick, and then shipping them back all for a grand total of $0. (It's crazy, they will ship you five frames for free with a postage-paid box to return them when you're done. But beware of the home try on trap: you'll end up falling in love and suddenly your collection of corrective lenses is out of control.)
Based on my studies of the J.Crew catalog, the guidelines for pulling off Waldo spectacles in real life are pretty easy to follow: wear them with an It-Brit hairdo on top of your head, a cool bag and classic pumps, and bright lipstick.

I found these great black high-waisted COH skinny jeans (that are really pretty much glorified leggings) and can't stop wearing them because they are so forgiving of all of the bad habits I picked up this winter. Warby Parker Winston frames in revolver black, suede Corso Como pumps, a navy velvet J.Crew tee, and a calfhair clutch from Madewell.

Thanks to Madison Weller for the photos!