Monthly Archives: October 2010

Book Review: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Marisha Pessl is one of those women.

She’s beautiful. See?

She’s young. She was 29 when her debut novel was published.

And, worst of all, she seems to have that kind of talent that is both sickening and inspiring. There is no way anyone could have taught her how to write Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Frankly, reading this book made me jealous. It’s extremely well written and the story itself is captivating.

The most fascinating thing? While each sentence was carefully constructed to put together an extremely gripping plot, I still found it a bit of a slog. Originally, this novel was on the syllabus for my Postmodern American literature course in my last year. I didn’t read it then and, honestly, I don’t know how my prof would have expected anyone to read it in the time alloted for it. (He didn’t, really. He was very postmodern himself.) This book took me 3 weeks of 2 40 minute bus rides a day, 5 days a week to read, with a few hours before bed every so often on top of that. I don’t think it took so long because of its 500+ page count. Rather, every 2 paragraphs or so, Pessl would send her character on intertextuality-filled tangents that, every so often, just started to feel like a demonstration of how smart Pessl is.  My mind would wander and I would start people-watching instead of reading about every fascinating detail of Blue Van Meer’s transformation.

The thing is though, I would still highly recommend it. Just when I would feel like throwing the book out the bus window so I could say I legitimately lost it and therefore not have to finish it, some fascinating detail would come out slowly, layers peeling back until Blue and the reader fully understood the impact of the revelation. Once again, I would be drawn in, for about 50 pages or so.

Did I mention it’s a mystery? You might not think it is for the first, oh, 250 pages. And then, suddenly it is. And an awesome one at that, with lots of twists and turns and unexpected realizations. The best kind.

I kind of wonder if this is the kind of book that would be best studied. Some books can be ruined by too much examining, too much staring. For example, no one should ever try to peel back too many layers of John Irving — just enjoy the story, already. But this one? There’s enough in it that I feel like each layer would provide a new fascinating understanding of what Pessl was doing. Each word will prove necessary, each tangent will lend itself to a new thought, each intertext will throw a new meaning at the meaning already in place.

And that’s why a novel published 4 years ago by a 29 year old is on an English literature syllabus. And that, in turn, is why I’m jealous of Marisha Pessl.

(I also feel really bad that her cats were poisoned. I would cry for days if Pekoe died.)

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Rib Sticking Cornish Pasties

Four years ago, I was living in a basement apartment with my cat and another co-op student. Looking back on that time now, I realize that semester shaped and solidified a lot of my views on food. We head-butted about almost everything food related: sugar, fat-free yogurt, protein, butter. I remember sitting on the floor of the kitchen (we had very little furniture) with my back to the freezer, growing annoyed and angry as I defended my choice to eat what I want for no other reason but that I enjoy it. And that you don’t have to pay for it with three intense hours at the gym.

That semester, I made these for the first time. The recipe was hard, especially working with pastry, but I was proud of the rough little doughy packets of meat. I know they’re not good for you. Any kind of pastry has a lot of butter in it. But I stand by my convictions that, within reason, you can let go of everything you know about food and eat something purely because it’s not good for you and because it’s delicious.

Pastry is not that hard. Rolling out the pastry to be thin enough without going too thin is hard. Folding the pastry over and creating a good seal without breaking the pastry on the chunks of meat is hard. Making it all pretty is hard. But making pastry itself? Not that hard. Here’s a hint: use your hands.

Cornish Pasties

Note: Pasties is pronounced pass-tees. Not paste-tees.

I adapted this recipe from somewhere. But I can’t remember where and, it’s so different, it’s not the same recipe anymore.


2 cups flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup butter

Cut the butter in with a knife and mix with a pastry cutter or fork until crumbly. Then, starting adding water. Add water in small increments until the pastry forms a ball in the bottom of your bowl. You don’t want it to be sticky, but you want everything sticking together properly.

Sprinkle some flour on your counter top and roll the dough out until it’s pretty thin. Use your personal preference. If you like your crusts nice and thick, keep the pastry thicker. I think I didn’t get mine thin enough. Put a plate on top of the dough and, using a knife, cut around the plate to create a circle of dough.

Mix the dough back up again, reapply the flour and roll it out again. Cut out another circle. Repeat until you don’t have enough dough left or are really sick of creating circles of dough.


A bunch of steak, hamburger, or some other kind of meat. I used about 2 cups of cubed blade steak.
2 potatoes, cubed
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 medium-sized onion
Any other hearty vegetables you may want in your filling
1 tbs rosemary
1 tbs cumin
1 tbs Montreal steak spice
a couple splashed of olive oil

Mix everything together in a nice big bowl. I did not use a big enough one.

(Next time I make these, I will also, somehow, mix in some gravy. Probably from a package. I’m simple that way.)

Now comes the fun part: creating the pasties.

Take one of your pastry circles and prop up half of it on your rolling pin. This is just to make sure you don’t over-fill it too much. On the other half, place a generous portion of filling. Comme ça:

Note: The filling is not cooked when you put it into the pastry.

Using water or milk, dampen the flat edge of the pastry. Fold the other edge over your pile of meat and veggies and press into the dampened edge. Crimp with a fork or your fingers, ensuring there is a good seal. If your dough breaks, don’t panic. Dampen a little left-over pastry and press it over the hole to create a seal. It won’t be as pretty, but it still works.

Place your pasties in a casserole dish or on a baking sheet. Prick with fork or a knife to create some vents. And, pop it in the oven! Cook at 425* for approximately 40 minutes or until the pastry crust is golden brown. Keep an eye on it — every oven is different.

And, break into it. The crust might be a little crispy, but the inside will be piping hot and delicious. And will stay piping hot the whole time you’re eating it. (Apparently, miners in Cornwall used to hold these under their shirts to keep them warm all morning until they ate them at lunch!) By the time you finish, you will be absolutely stuffed.


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Practicing Parenthood Puppy Style

The weekend we brought Mocha home, we went camping with M’s family. On the way back to the Big City, she passed out completely, our little puppy, completely exhausted by the romping and running, meeting new people, campfires, and snuggles from strangers. She sat in the back seat on a pile of bedding, her ears flopping in the wind from the open windows, and slept. Hard. I remember looking back at her and thinking, no, she’s not a little human, but even so, M and I have sort of become parents.

(Note: Certainly not like these two have become parents. But still parents.)

This weekend, Mocha drove that point home for us in the least pleasant manner she could dream up.

I’ve had Pekoe for 4 years. In those 4 years, I didn’t buy him that many cat toys, mostly because he didn’t play with them much. But, I had a few, and they moved with us to the new apartment. Many of them, Mocha adopted as her own: the ball and bell on a string, the rattling balls, the cloth mouse. She chews on them, rips them apart, has a heyday with them and, mostly, Pekoe doesn’t care. (He wasn’t so thrilled when she crunched through his plastic rattle ball…)

Earlier this week, we found another toy hidden away, a square of cloth, stuffed, with a bell, attached to a thin elasticy string. Without a thought, we threw it into Mocha’s menagerie of toys and she fell on it with the glee of a kid at Hallowe’en. A day and a half later, there was nothing left but some stuffing and a silver string.

Warning: Graphic Puppy Poop content beyond this point. Proceed at your own risk.

Saturday night, M and I snuggled into bed with a laptop and for a couple hours. We watched Scott turn people’s basements into a nicer place to live than their home itself. When we stepped back out into the living room, we were faced with a carpet full of small brown turds. No portion of the room was left untouched. We were confused. What was wrong with our dog? She’s gotten so good at telling us when she has to go that accidents of this nature rarely happen, let alone in such quantity. We cleaned it up, took her for a walk, and went to bed.

Sunday morning, I got up to take her out for her early morning walk. Flicked on the light. It was as if we hadn’t cleaned up at all. Except that this time, it was even messier. I took her downstairs, walked her, then sent her back to bed (with the still sleeping M) and set to work.

When I got out of the shower about an hour later, M was cleaning up a different kind of mess.

“I figured out what her problem is,” he told me. In the middle of her puddle of vomit (on our bed, no less) was a huge chunk of green cloth: the cat toy. She had swallowed it, and, when her body couldn’t digest the synthetic fibers, it tried to get rid of it in every way it knew how.

The worst thing is that Mocha won’t learn anything at all from this. She doesn’t connect the way she felt for the past two days with eating the cat toy. If we give her another toy just like that one, she’ll probably scarf it down and the process will start all over again. Of course, we won’t do that. We need to make a stop at a pet store soon to get her a few more appropriate doggy toys. If she hasn’t learned, we certainly have.

This morning, she’s back to normal. I can finally stop worrying.

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Mom’s Slow Cooker Chili

I hit fall and, along with my desire to run, I discover an overwhelming wish to use my crock pot. It seems to be the source of all things comfort food: my mom’s soup, my mom’s chili, my mom’s meatballs, my mom’s super-chocolatey crock pot cake. When I was in university, I bought a small, 2 quart crock pot, originally designed for dips and warm spreads, but perfect for my single person crock pot desires. There’s something about throwing some meat, broth, veggies, and seasonings in a pot and letting it simmer all day, making your house smell divine, that demands an afghan and a good book.

Now that I’m working full-time and have a husband to feed on top of that, my crock pot uses have become far more practical and, surprisingly, far more infrequent. Getting a good mix into the crock pot, all set for the morning so I can plug it in before I have to leave takes way more energy and forward planning than it ever did when I had class at 11:30 am and didn’t have to leave the house until 10:50. Ideally, if I want a good crock pot meal, I should have everything ready to go the night before. Which means making two meals in one night. I barely have enough time and imagination for one!

But honestly, this chili is, in the end, so worth it. It’s worth making the kitchen dirty again after cleaning up from dinner. It’s worth staying up a little later to get the meat sautéed. It’s definitely worth the two extra minutes it takes to pull the mix from the fridge and plug it in. Walking through the door after work to the welcome smell of chili is one of those small comforts that makes every difficult moment, every imperfection of the day disappear. It’s like a welcome-home hug from M, like Mocha bouncing with excitement in her crate, so happy to see me home.

The truth about this chili is that there isn’t really any recipe. I learned the basics from my mom: tomato sauce, tomato paste, ground beef, beans (pureed in a blender if you hate the beans themselves), chili powder, maybe some salsa if you have it on hand. After that, you can alter as you wish.

Here’s this one:

Mom’s Chili

1 pound ground beef, browned
1 can pasta sauce
1 can tomato paste
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can kidney beans
1 stalk celery, chopped in reasonably sized pieces
1 tbs cumin
1 tbs chili powder

Throw it all in a crock pot. Cook on low for 8 hours or so.

And that’s about it…  I often skip using a spoon with my chili at all, preferring to scoop it up with tortilla chips, or a delicious bit of toasted bread. This will store in the fridge for a number of days, and is easily reheated in the microwave. Since I made it on a Friday, it never made it to work, but it would probably be a delicious portable lunch too. Freeze leftovers if you wish and use it as a base for future chilies.

(Yes, I realize I already posted about chili. It’s awesome enough that I think it deserves two posts. Especially since I didn’t share the recipe in the previous post!)

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Tweet Tweet What?

Hello friends.

I jumped on a bandwagon that very few of you seem to have jumped on and joined that Twitter thing. Considering how few tweeting friends I have, there’s likely no purpose other than being able to shoot off random thoughts into nothing in 140 characters.

Come visit?

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Run, Mocha, Run!

Mocha can be both the best running partner and the worst.

Just looking at her, you wouldn’t think she runs at all. She’s a small dog. Last we weighed her, she was a grand total of 13 pounds, just about the same size as my parent’s monstrous cat. She’s got long legs, yes, and they seem to get longer every day, but they look more like the frolicking kind of legs than the long distance running kind.

She is an amazing frolicker. For Thanksgiving, we took her to M’s parent’s place. They have a beautiful backyard, a hill that descends from their back porch to a tree-framed creek. The weather was beautiful, and Mocha was in love with the feel of clean, thick grass under her feet (or maybe that was me… I’m getting sick of concrete already). She frolicked. There is not other word for how she bounded down the hill chasing butterflies and little invisible monsters, and then turned to rip back up the hill to where we sat watching her in a couple bright yellow Adirondack chairs.

Ever since we brought her home, I have been determined that, when she’s old enough, she will be my constant running partner. But what’s old enough? And, if you wait too long, will she get so confused by the process, being so unfamiliar with long-distance running, that she’s hopeless at running in a straight line with no purpose but to run? Having no answers to these questions, I decided getting her running sooner rather than later was the best idea, even if those running excursions were just 1km or less in length. Now that she’s almost 6 months, I decided it was time to test her out with something a little longer.

Of course, this decision perfectly coincides with my yearly running itch, the time when, suddenly, I’m feeling like I’m spending far too much time in doors and not nearly enough time exercising. It’s kind of a sucky time. I start to feel fat (even though I’m not) and lazy (even when I’m not) and my motivation to put on my running shoes spikes through the roof for what seems like no reason. Last week, I put my runners on for the first time in weeks and clipped Mocha’s leash on at the same time. This week, I’m determined to make good use of our evenings.

Monday’s run was just under 4K. Yesterday’s was just over 5K. Today is our rest day.

Mocha is, to say the least, the most adorable runner you have ever seen. When she hits her groove, you can see her focus. Her ears flop around and her legs move so smoothly. At first, she would try to trip me, make me stop. But now, she seems to enjoy the movement. She yips at me when I slow down too much, or pulls out in front to tug on her leash and get me going faster. Even at my full speed, she’s tugging at the leash. After a bit of a lengthy sprint, she wouldn’t let me slow to a walk for any more than a minute. Her energy is constant, never diminishing.

But, then we meet another dog. And suddenly, it doesn’t matter that we were doing so well. Mocha is a little social butterfly, and if she doesn’t get her nose kisses, she’ll pull in the wrong direction until they’re out of sight or I give in. And once we’re in the park, we might as well just give up, especially if there’s a playful looking black squirrel.

I don’t know how she feels about our runs. I hope she likes them as much as I do. I hope I don’t push her too much. My favourite part about them, though, is not the running: I love curling up with a tired dog on the couch and having a sleepy snuggle a couple hours after we get back.

I have never seen her sleep so hard.

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Hello Cold Season

Mocha has, finally, settled, in the best possible place she could have chosen: right across my lap. I am snuggled on the couch under my old quilt and my sweet puppy dog. Finally, I am almost warm.

I have been battling a cold for the past two days now. It hit Sunday night, a gradually growing ‘off’ feeling in the back of my throat. On Monday, I woke up feeling like someone had shoved a golf ball down my throat and drilled a tiny little breathing hole through it. I’m not really sure how I made it to today, but I’m starting to feel a little better, perhaps thanks to the Halls I’ve been sucking on all day and the tea I’ve been drinking constantly. I’m just so tired, can’t even concentrate on my book on my bus ride home.

I had no choice but to go shopping tonight. So, I reluctantly found a recipe, wrote a list and walked past our building to the grocery store, feeling a little grumbly about it all. But when I got home, walked the dog, and put the groceries away, it was surprisingly easy to slip into the rhythms of cooking. Slicing, pouring, stirring, measuring, mixing, tasting. This recipe was simple enough that it was all relaxing, comforting even.

Originally, I had wanted to turn this into a proper chicken pot pie/chicken casserole kind of thing, but when the soup turned out too soupy, I went with the flow and we just had the biscuits on the side instead of on top. And it was all quite delicious.

Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup and Biscuits
Adapted from Rachel Ray*

3 boneless chicken thighs
3 tbs butter or margarine
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 tsp Montreal Chicken seasoning
3 tbs flour
2 cups half and half
4 cups chicken broth (or 4 cups water, 4 tsp powdered boullion)
3 handfuls egg noodles
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 package frozen veggies like peas and carrots



Cut the chicken into reasonably sized pieces. Cook with the butter in a large sauce pan. Add the garlic. After a minute or so, add the onion. Add the seasoning and the flour. Slowly add the cream, pausing ever so often to mix everything well together. Add the chicken stock. Bring everything to a boil. Add the nutmeg. When boiling, add the noodles. Once the noodles have mostly cooked, add the frozen veggies. Allow to boil again.

During the downtimes, make your biscuits according to the package instructions.

I know, I know. You would think that I, writing about food in the blogosphere, would be encouraging you to use raw ingredients and get away from making things like biscuits from mixes.  Honestly? It’s easy. They’re tasty when they come out of the oven all hot and fresh. Why bother?

You could put the biscuits on top of the soup and make a pseudo pot pie, but we just ate them beside and the whole thing was absolutely delicious.

(* I know. Foodies don’t like her. I’m so not a foodie. Her recipes are simple and tested. Good enough for me.)

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Recovery day: The Day After a City Wide All-Night Party

Last night, M and I rode the subway down to Union Station and started up Yonge. Throngs of people everywhere, drinking, smoking, eating, revelling in the middle of the street. Nuit Blanche became far less about the art and far more about the spectacle, about the people watching, about being awake in the wee small hours with everyone else. There was too many people and not enough art, but somehow it didn’t really matter that much.

This morning, we couldn’t get out of bed. M says he poked me once at 8 and once at 8:30, muttering at me that it was time to get up and get ready for church. I don’t remember being poked. So, instead of making it to church this morning, we lazed around and watched lots of HGTV, snuggled up on the couch.

And, I cooked delicious fall fare. It felt like a day to turn to some staples, some comfort food. So, I made a delicious What’s-In-The-Fridge beef soup. And then, I peeled 8 apples and made a delicious apple crisp. Staples indeed.

You know how apple crisp is supposed to be one of those things that’s absolutely foolproof? I have never been happy with an apple crisp. Until today. This was delicious. Almost perfect. The topping was perfectly crisp, the apples sweet and tasty. The only thing that made it almost perfect as opposed to perfect is the apples I choose to use. They weren’t as crisp, not quite as firm as what they should have been. So, the apples were just a little too wet, left behind a little too much liquid.

We had two pieces each. So so tasty.

The recipe is a mix between Martha Stewart’s apple crisp recipe and a recipe for crispy streusel topping at

Apple Crisp

1 1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup flour
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 cup margarine
8 apples
2 tbs lemon juice
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Peel, core and slice 8 apples. Eat a few as you go. That’s part of the fun of making apple crisp.

In a large bowl, combine the apples, lemon juice and cinnamon. Toss the apples into a casserole dish and make sure they’re spread evenly.

In another large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. Cut in the margarine and mix until you have smallish crumbs. Use your fingers if necessary. Spread the topping over the apples evenly.

Bake at 375* for 45 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes when finished.

Consume. In large quantities. Not thinking about the fat content of this particular dessert.

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Chicken, Sundried Tomatoes, and Mushroom Pasta

It’s been a rough week.

Monday was, well, Monday.

Tuesday, it was my turn to walk Mocha. Usually, she’s quick. There’s a triangle of almost sand-like dirt just outside the door that is her favourite pee spot, and there’s a big iron face statue a little further away by which she likes to do the rest of her business. Tuesday morning, she didn’t pee. No big deal. There’s still a whole block. No poop at the mask. Nothing as we round the corner. By the next corner she has the leash in her mouth, all decided that she’s set for home.

I extend her walk a little. Nothing. Time is running out. I head for the lobby. Two steps in, her butt is down and a small wet pool is forming on the carpet. I pick her up and almost throw her out the door again, hoping desperately the concierge will be understanding. Too late. She was done.

The concierge noticed nothing. But my morning was still ruined.

Wednesday, there was a fire on the subway. Or something of the like. So, everyone and their extended family were trying to get from my line to the parallel line. On my bus. As a result, I missed my bus. Then the next possible bus. I took a bus that’s almost my bus, squishing myself into a seat and zoning out so I didn’t have to pay attention to the boobs and sweaty armpits shoved in my face. I was late for work and a little grumpy after my 1.5 hour commute.

Tuesday, I got a call from a nearby ‘luxury gym’. I had accepted a 10 visit pass from a promoter on the street and they told me I had won an upgrade to a month membership. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m terrible at resisting promotions and deals, especially if its things I maybe kind of want. I forget to think and act a little on impulse. Thursday, I had an appointment with someone at the gym to pick up the one month membership. I got there, met a very friendly membership manager and was told that actually, if I sign on for a year, I  got 5 months off a year membership. I was given a tour of the (very up class, flashy, BIG) gym and a spiel about how good the deal was. I bought into the marketing. I got home, told M and about it and realized exactly what I had done: I bought a $450 gym membership I didn’t want. When he asked if we should go to the gym after dinner, my gut wrenching response was an absolute no. What was I thinking?

(I can tell you what I was thinking, actually. I want to try to a spin class. Note: try. For like, a month. Not a year!)

Half an hour later, I called to check their cancellation policy. None. Zippo. Nada. I had just assumed, based on past experiences, that, if I realized I wasn’t using the thing in a month, I could just cancel. Maybe with a fee of some sort, but a fee on top of free months, no problem. Very different situation when there is no cancellation policy. So, I have 10 days to cancel with no fault. Thank goodness for the Consumer Protection Act. Tomorrow’s task is a visit back there, this time with M helping me cut through their sales tactics.

Today. This morning. One of my favourite wedding gifts is a beautiful mantel clock. It sits on the shelf above our TV. This morning Pekoe decided to take a trip up there and did a gravity test with it. The last time the clock fell off our shelves, it gouged a hole in my baby toe.  This time, it gouged a hole in our TV stand. It’s not an expensive TV stand by any means: it’s Ikea fare. But still! There’s a hole in it. And ugly, splintered hole.

Rough week indeed.

But this, this was something to hold onto this week. This is almost comfort food. Comfort food with a slight edge that won’t let us slip into the safety of mediocrity. The kind of comfort food that pushes the boundaries, but grounds you just enough to help you get through a rough week.

Tasty. But, admittedly imperfect. It should have been a little cheesier, a little creamier. I didn’t realize we didn’t have enough milk or parmesan cheese for the recipe and didn’t have nearly enough muscle to carry 4 L of milk on top of all the other groceries.

Otherwise, this is a recipe for my favourite recipe list. It’s another Martha Stewart recipe. I decided this week that Martha Stewart is Martha Stewart because she’s actually awesome, not just famous and rich.

Chicken, Sundried Tomatoes, and Mushroom Pasta
Adapted from Martha Stewart.

Half a package of penne, cooked
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
A few splashes of oil
1/4 cup flour
2 cloves of garlic
3 cups milk
A couple handfuls of mushrooms
1/4 cup thinly sliced oil-packed sundried tomatoes, or as many of the slimy, oily things you can stand to cut up
1.5 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup parmesan

Get your pasta cooking first. Meanwhile, cook your chicken in some oil. Cut into bite size pieces.

Get a third burner going. Throw some splashes of olive oil in a saucepan (you’ll be adding the pasta and chicken to this, so make it a large-ish one), around 3 tablespoons or so. Add the flour and garlic, while stirring. Continue to stir and slowly add the milk. Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally — you don’t want to end up with a saucepan of scalded milk. Add the mushrooms and tomatoes. Cook for approximately 1 minute.

Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cheddar and the parmesan, reserving enough to sprinkle. Stir until melted. Add the chicken and the pasta to the sauce and mix to coat completely.

Pour the pasta mixture into your favourite casserole dishes. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and bake for 25 minutes at 400*.

As I carried the casserole dish to the (coffee) table, I felt like I should be wearing a 50s house dress and heels. I’m not sure what it was about this particular dish that made me feel so domestic.

Certainly comforting. Don’t skimp on the cheese, whatever you do.

(Apologies for the rough pictures this week. I had a brief moment of wishing I had that DSLR camera I keep meaning to start saving for and then decided that the terrible lighting and boring presentation is just indicative of what this week was really like.)


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