The Darkest Night of the Year: 2008

It’s the shortest day of the year and so the Christmas lights came on early in the house. We’ve put the girls to bed and now its one of my favorite parts of the day when we wind down and drink some coffee and sit in the quiet room with the lights and tree. In many ways, metaphorically, this time of year feels like the end of the day. It’s a long exhale after a year of hard work. I don’t know if I’ve worked harder in a year, professionally or at home and I am weary. I am looking forward to a couple of weeks with friends, family, and even a little football at the end of the holiday break.

I’ve scaled back this year in a lot of ways. I pretty much had to drop all of my “projects” outside of work and home just to keep my head above water at work and at home. The result is that most years I can look back and see the things I’ve accomplished for the year, but this year I don’t really feel like I accomplished very much, even though I’m more exhausted at the end of this year than I can ever remember. I don’t think it was all in vain, though. I don’t know about professionally, it remains to be seen if I’ll reap any benefits (or at least, just not get laid off) next year, but at home I feel good that I spent a lot of time with my wife and the girls. I’m hoping that time will pay off in future years as we grow as a family. We took the girls out for a drive around the neighborhoods on Friday night to look at Christmas lights. They slept through the whole thing, which was fine with us, we played Behold The Lamb of God in the CD player and enjoyed the quiet as we drove around but I hope we’re at least instilling traditions for the girls and the family.

So, much like I enjoy the time each evening to wind down from a long day, I’m going enjoy these next couple of weeks to wind down from a long year. December has been a busy month with work so I don’t really feel like I’ve had much time to reflect on the Christmas season. Over these next couple of days I’m planning to take some time to engage in some of my own personal traditions to prepare for the Advent and celebrate the arrival of the Christ child for another year later this week.

Christmas Music Favorites

I don’t think I’ve ever done a comprehensive post about my favorite Christmas music before. I have to confess that I’m a big sucker for Christmas music. Maybe its because I grew up listening to records that mom and dad would start playing weeks before Christmas and it became a ingrained in me. Whatever the case, I love both the cheesy, tacky songs and the serious, solemn songs. I love it all.

However, there’s some Christmas music that’s a little bit throwaway and some that is really deep, really good stuff to listen to. Here’s an attempt on my part to describe some of my absolute favorites, albums that are not only Christmas music, but also just good music in general to listen to. If you know me well, none of these will likely be surprises, but if you’ve never heard them before, I’d enourage you to check them out.

The Darkest Night of the Year

Over the Rhine - The Darkest Night of the Year

I’ve had this CD now for about 10 years and it still ranks in my Top 5. I listen to it multiple times every winter season. The arrangements are sparse, many songs with just Karin Bergquist’s voice accompanied only by Linford Detweiler’s piano and Chris Dahlgren’s upright bass. Perhaps its because the band was disintegrating at the time they were creating the album that it has such a sound of joy tinged with sadness. It really is heartbroken and beautiful.

Behold The Lamb of God

Andrew Peterson - Behold The Lamb of God

I didn’t think any CD would displace The Darkest Night of The Year as my favorite Christmas CD, but this one may have done it. Andrew Peterson teams up with a calvacade of talented artists to tell the “true tall tale of Christmas” reaching all the way back to the laws of Moses through the prophets to the birth of Christ. The arrangements are beautiful and Jill Phillip’s delivery of “Labor of Love” is worth the price alone.


Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty - Noel

Steve and Derri, both members of The Choir, created a successful set of CD’s called City On A Hill and one of the albums in the series was a Christmas CD and while it’s pretty good, it’s actually based on an earlier album that they did called Noel. I prefer Noel because of its organic sound and off-kilter percussion by Hindalong. Tastefully understated, but still lush in sound. It might be hard to find, but worth it if you can find it.

Sufjan Stevens Songs For Christmas

Sufjan Stevens Songs For Christmas

Sufjan Stevens started out creating Christmas EP’s meant mostly for his friends, but continued to create them even after becoming every hipster’s favorite musician. The boxed set is crammed full of liner notes, stickers, comics, and five CDs that chronicle his growth from simple, sometimes off-key arrangements on his early works to full-blown orchestral pieces on the later CD’s. With over 40 songs, there’s bound to be something for everyone.

Charlie Brown Christmas

Vince Guaraldi Trio - Charlie Brown Christmas

If you’re like me, the Charlie Brown Christmas special was a pretty big part of your Christmas childhood. The Vince Guaraldi Trio gives traditional Christmas songs a jazzy feel with nimble fingered piano work. And who can listen to Linus and Lucy without breaking into a smile.

So, those are my favorite Christmas CD’s. What are some of your favorites?

Create custom bokeh

I’m always looking for new ideas and techniques to try with my camera, especially if they are cheap or free. I saw this on Flickr’s blog and I couldn’t resist. Bokeh is a Japanese term for the area that is out of focus in a picture. Lenses that have a open aperture produce a shallow depth-of-field and can keep some objects in focus while throwing other objects out of focus. The 50mm f/1.8 lens is perfect for these kinds of shots (or even the 50mm f/1.4 if you’ve got the money.) Points of light give a nice circular bokeh shape from the blades inside the lens, but if you put a filter on the front of the lens, you can control the shape of the objects by giving the lens a custom aperture.

It’s not hard to create the filter. I took a piece of cardboard and cut a star shape out of it. Then I built a little collar around the filter to make it easy to mount onto the lens. I used some electrical tape to put it together so that light wouldn’t leak into the connections where I taped the cardboard together. Admittedly, I’m not really an arts and crafts type of person, so it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad for a first try.


Here’s the filter mounted onto my lens.

The result is some pretty cool pictures, especially with Christmas trees and Christmas lights….


I’m looking forward to trying this out on some other Christmas lights around the house and perfecting it, but it’s a lot of fun for not a lot of money.

We also have pictures of our girls for Christmas for your perusal, but you’ll have to go here to see them

Twilight: The Soundtrack

So, if you happen to live with a fifteen year old girl, or in my case, a late 20’s year old woman, you have probably heard of Twilight. It’s the vampire romance novel that’s not so much about vampires as it is about “I have to go” “I don’t want you to go” “I love you” “No, I love you more” dialogue. Most likely it has gripped your daughter or ahem, wife, and you only see her when she’s on her way to get the next book in the series. Now, there’s a movie adaption of the book and it’s all the rage right now.

Now, you would think that a book and movie primarily aimed at teenage girls would have a soundtrack aimed at teenage girls with lots of bubble-gum pop music. Strangely … it’s not. I borrowed the CD from Adriene a couple of months ago, and it’s actually a surprising collection of enjoyable music.

I guess Paramore could be considered teenage music, but they have some indie credibility and they’ve toured with some favorite indie bands of mine, so I guess they skate through. The two tracks are pretty indicative of their work. There’s a Linkin Park track, too, but it actually doesn’t have much in common with their earlier work aimed at teenagers. The Muse song, Supermassive Black Hole, isn’t new, but it’s one of the Muse songs I actually like. Then there’s one of my favorites, a new track by Mute Math. It’s not my favorite track by them, but I love the handclaps and I’m always happy to hear new Mute Math. There’s even an “oldie” track from one of my favorite Collective Soul albums, Dosage. Rob Pattison contributes his own song, but it’s not as bad as say, Patrick Swayze on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. The Iron & Wine song is total audible candy. I love it.

The collection is moody and a just a little turbulent, but not overly so, much like the movie, I guess, but I thought the collection was decently thought out. I don’t know if I will ever see the movie (who am I kidding, when it comes out on DVD Adriene will chain me to the couch and make me watch it), but the soundtrack is one of the pleasant surprises of 2008.