Making of a Christmas Card, 2021

It took me a little while to come up with an idea for the card this year. I did take a second look at some of the Christmas light photos I shot in 2016 for the card that year; as it turns out, the same pictures I decided not to work with then, still didn’t speak to me now.

There is also a part of me that is getting tired of creating a new card each year; at some point the card will be a photo of all the prior year’s cards in a basket, and that will probably be the last one. I’m not quite at that point yet, though.

Mum and I got our COVID booster shots at Walgreens a few Saturdays ago; when you get a vaccine dose, you have to stick around for 15 minutes just in case you have an allergic reaction so that they can respond to it. So we fumfed around the seasonal aisle there, and they had a gingerbread house kit. I saw it, and went hmmmm.

Comes a week later, and I still hadn’t gotten any other ideas, so I decided to do it. So I went back to Walgreens and picked up a gingerbread house kit. I realized I needed something to act as a snow surface, so I went over to Michael’s to find some fake snow. I could not find any, and I couldn’t find a single staffer in the store who wasn’t running a register to help me. So I picked up a bag of white cotton, and some deer figurines and miniature trees.

Putting the kit together was pretty simple — the only surprising part was how long it took, because there were several points where you glue a couple of pieces together with icing, and then have to let it sit for 15 minutes while the icing set.

The photography was a problem. What I should have done was pick up a piece of white posterboard to act as a seamless background. What I did do was use the “desktop studio” I got a couple of years ago. It’s basically a 16″ x 16″ x 16″ lightbox, with a small pair of halogen lights to be positioned outside the studio, with red, black, white and blue backgrounds. The sides of the box are intended to diffuse the light to provide a nice soft illumination of the object inside.

Unfortunately, the studio was a little too small for the gingerbread house. It was hard to frame the picture so that the sides of the studio were not too visible. The backgrounds are not really seamless, since they came folded, and have a number of creases. I managed to get a couple of pictures, and then decided to try repositioning the lights outside the studio. While moving the right side light, the cord on the left side light got pulled, it fell off the table, and blew the bulb. So now, I had to live with one of the shots I already had.

None of them were particularly good; this one was the best of a bad lot:

Original picture, taken inside the desktop studio

It’s reasonably evenly lit, but the background is very visible, and the rightmost tree is crooked, and the cotton is pretty sparse in the left front. This turned out to be a fairly major Photoshop job.

First step was to do some basic color correction and lightening of the image.

Second step was to run a Gaussian blur against the background. I selected the area behind the scene, and run a strong blur against it.

Next, I used the stamp tool to even out the cotton “snow”

I’d created two different exposures of the photo when I ran the picture through Camera Raw; now I copied the left side roof from the darker version and combined it with the lighter version, where the roof was burned out.

Then I selected the rightmost tree, and rotated it a few degrees counter clockwise to straighten it out. I ended up using parts of the original layer underneath the working layer, but it ended up OK, even though I probably didn’t do it the right way.

The background was still too dark, so I masked the scene, and started lightening the background, to get it whiter.

Finally, I added some decorations and lights to the trees, then masked out a vignette area around the edges so that the photo would fade to white when printed on the card.

Then I brought it into Pages, using one of my prior year’s templates. When I printed it out, I found the background was still too dark. I ended up just making most of the background part of the scene transparent, so that when laid over a white background, it was white. In hindsight, I should have just extracted the scene from its background, and called it a day. I’m not thrilled with the little vestiges of the blurred background around the scene.

The next problem was what to put inside the card. The only card stock I could find at Staples when I went was half fold card stock, meaning the cards would be full size. I worked off my 2018 card, renamed the file, and changed the images inside. Unfortunately, I just haven’t done much interesting this year, so picking the pictures was hard. I ended up choosing half the pictures from our time on the Cape, and the last couple from a kayaking trip on the Charles.

Inside of the card

For the text, I decided to riff on the subject matter and wished people a Merry Christmas and a “Sweet” New Year.

Once again, I decided to include Mum on my cards. People we both knew got a card from both of us, and I basically let her decide what I would would write. She doesn’t have enough dexterity to sign them anymore. For the cards from me alone, I wrote more of a note. I had most of the cards finished and in the mail by the first week of December.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

Nantasket

With the gales we were having today, I figured it was worth a trip down to Nantasket to see the ocean. As it turned out, the wind was from the west, so, while the tide was high, the ocean was pretty flat. On the other hand, the normally protected area to the west of the Hull peninsula was pretty stirred up. The clouds were dark and dramatic, with a squall line approaching from the west.

Leaf Peeping on the Charles

Fall foliage is such an ephemeral thing; one moment all the leaves are green; then in August, the first “traitor trees” start turning color, then one day, most of the trees are in full color – they still have most of their leaves, but they’ve turned color. Then, a few days later, the bonds holding the leaves to the trees start to break, and the leaves start to fall, leaving the trees barer and barer, until nothing is left except the oaks, grimly holding onto their dry brown leaves.

This weekend was pretty much peak season around here, and the weather was pleasant, so I took the kayak out for a trip along the Charles in Dedham – I didn’t have time for a longer trip as I had to get home to make supper. It was gorgeous.

I put in at the landing by the Dedham Recreation Center, and paddled downstream through Motley Pond, down past the Route 109 bridge to just short of the Bridge Street bridge. Along the way I saw a bunch of young mallards; the heads of the males were a deep rich green. Judging by their size, I’d guess this was their first time in adult plumage. On the way back, I spotted a snowy egret and a bunch of painted turtles by the entrance to Motley Pond.

Motley Pond is a bit of a misnomer; it’s more like a spot where the river spreads out a bit. Unlike the Basin, between Boston and Cambridge, the Charles is pretty narrow here, no more than 15 feet in some spots. At Motley, the river widens out; there is also a sandbar island in the middle, and you can often spot waterfowl there.

I haven’t been on the kayak much the past year. It was great to take the boat and the camera out for a few hours.

Brickyard Pond, Barrington, RI

Near the midpoint of the East Bay Bike Path you pass a large pond, Brickyard Pond. The pond is large, about 84 acres, and, from the bike way seems quite wild, as it’s ringed by marsh grasses and has several small islands covered with marsh grass and trees. In fact, it’s man-made – it was the site of a clay quarry used to make bricks that eventually filled with water.

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Martha’s Vineyard via Wrangler

I enjoyed my trip to the Vineyard last year with Brian and Pam, and I’ve been thinking about getting a Jeep Wrangler for a while. Since the Vineyard is one of the places where you can rent a Wrangler, it made sense to me to kill two birds with one stone and go back and rent a Jeep to see how it felt.

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Sunset and Moonrise over the Charles

This Saturday night was a full moon, and I decided to take the bicycle, tripod and camera into town for a ride around the river. I got in just at the tail end of sunset, when the orange was still glinting off the Boston skyscrapers, but fading. I parked where I usually do, on the Cambridge Parkway, balanced the tripod on the bicycle’s handlebars, and set off westward along the Cambridge side. Once past the Longfellow Bridge, I set up the tripod and took some sunset pictures. Then I asked Siri, “What time is moonrise”, and she replied, “Moonrise on May 19th will be at 8:59 PM.” That’s kind of a weird reply, I thought, since it was still the 18th. But I decided to pack up the tripod, and come back a little later when the moon was out.

Then I noticed a little glowing cloudiness around one of the buildings across the river. “This looks interesting,” I thought, and set the tripod back up. Then it dawned on me — the moon had already risen today, and was just starting to clear the buildings.

As it got darker, I shifted my position upriver a bit, and got some pictures of the river and the moon. It became more difficult to get an exposure of both the buildings and the moon, so as I crossed the Mass Ave bridge, I tried a couple of high dynamic range pictures with both the Nikon and the iPhone.

It took me a while, since I still was balancing the tripod on the bike’s handlebars with one hand, but I eventually got over the river and to the Esplanade. As part of a recent renovation, they’ve installed cool blue lights underneath the bridge’s arches.

Chasing the Type 9

The MBTA is in the process of adding 24 new streetcars, called the Type 9, * for the Green Line for the extension to Somerville. The first one, #3900 went into revenue service in December, and I’ve been wanting to ride one since.

A gentleman by the name Stefan Wuensch has created a site showing real time location data of each train on the system, and I’ve been monitoring it to see if I could see #3900 running. Yesterday, it was running on the B line with #3902, and I decided to head into town.

I got to Riverside, and checked the site again. #3900 was inbound from BC, and I was curious to see whether we would get to Kenmore before or after it. The B line is shorter, but also slower. As we approached Fenway on the D Line, I could see it approaching Blandford Street on the B. As the lines merged at Kenmore, it was one train ahead of us.

I saw that the Type 9 train was terminating at Park Street. I decided I wanted to see if I could take it back outbound. Decisions, decisions. Do I take my train all the way to Park Street, and hope it takes some time to turn the Type 9 around, allowing my train to catch up, and allowing me to board an empty train? Or do I get off at Boylston? That way, even if the train is turned around fast, I’m still going to be ahead of it. It also means I will have to pay to re-enter on the outbound side, and possibly getting onto an already crowded train. I decided to get off at Boylston, walked fast past the old PCC and Type 5 parked on the outside inbound track, up to the Common and back down to the outbound platform.

First up was a Type 8/7 combo bound for the B Line and Boston College. “Great,” I thought. “The Type 9 will be less crowded. The train loaded, and left, and I saw the the next train approach. It was the Type 9, and it was now signed for the C Line. “Great,” I thought. “It’ll be easier to get back to the Riverside line”. As the trolley pulled into the station, I grabbed my phone, and took its picture.

MBTA Type 9 #3902
MBTA Type 9 #3902

And then it continued on, without stopping. Curses, foiled again.

* The MBTA uses the same “Type” nomenclature to designate models of Boston streetcars that its predecessor, the Boston Elevated Railway, did. Types 1 – 5 were Boston Elevated models, dating from the early 1900s up to the early 1950s, before going to an industry standard streetcar, the PCC streetcar in the 1940s. When it came time to replace the the PCCs, they prototyped a Type 6 car before going with the US Standard Light Rail Vehicle, manufactured by Boeing. When the Boeing LRV failed to live up to expectations, the T went with a custom design, the Type 7, which is still in service, along with the Type 8 cars, which are a “low floor” car designed for wheelchair accessibility.