A Very Woodchuck Gift Guide

For some of us scrabbling around in our mid-20s, gift giving is an art that doesn’t correspond to a lot of gift guides floating around out there (cuff links?!)  I thought that I’d slap one together that collects some of the approaches to gift giving for young people who do things, or at least what’s been working for me and the people who give me gifts. To anyone who’s given me anything that didn’t appear in this guide, there are lots of great gifts in my house, these are just the first ones I saw this morning.

Before we kick it off, I’ll let you in on the key to gift giving: knowing your recipient. There are plenty of fine gifts for people you don’t know well (nice candles) but when you know someone appreciates, say, kitsch and utility equally and would rather get a book than a candle, you’re most of the way there. Also, that person might be me.

Make a gift

This does not have to involve construction paper and craft glue. Can you knit? You’re golden!

Beautiful object

Try to stick to things that either commitment-free (like a collaged card) or are awesome enough for someone to keep them around the house for a while.  Above is a stained glass window hanger made by my friend C. with a slide of Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow in the center. Not only is it beautiful and handmade, it’s relevant to my secret amateur art historian side. In other words, it is a perfect gift for the person she gave it to.

This does not mean that you have to be a master craftsman/woman to make a great homemade gift. Below is a Christmas present I got from N my first winter in Buffalo:

The Bills

As you can see, it is a found glass container N. altered with black nail polish to read, “The Bills are fuckin’ up!” and presented to me as a change jar. It is also the perfect gift and maybe one of my favorite things in this house (might be because it is full of money?)

If someone loves to have people over to their house, make them a guest book.

Thrift a gift

Not all thrift stores are wonderlands of perfect giftable items, but some are. When you find a good thrift store, you must cleave to it, forsaking all others. The great thing with thrifted gifts is that the amount of thought and effort that goes into finding the perfect gift counterbalances the low cost. Of course, some people are grossed out by pre-owned goods, but they probably aren’t enjoying this blog anyway because sometimes I talk about eating food found in a dumpster.


This is a gift from T. and H. who knew our taste as a household and our propensity for toting wine bottles around. For people whose taste is less tacky than ours, there are still good gifts to be thrifted. Especially if your recipient loves pretty teacups or has a VCR.

Something to eat

If you’re making something edible, it doesn’t have to be too fancy. You get bonus points for effort!


Last year I made a big batch of red and green pepper jelly to give to people. If you grow garlic, give some to people who don’t grow garlic.  There is also no shame in buying food instead of making or growing it.  If you know that your recipient has a taste for a pricier food item that doesn’t fit into their budget often (fancy cheese? artisan chocolate? good smoked salmon?) that’s a good way to go too.

Support your local bookstore (and other local businesses!)

Keeping your business local is key in thoughtful holiday-style giving. We in Buffalo are blessed with many excellent independent booksellers including Rust Belt, Talking Leaves, West Side Stories and now Burning Books, where you can find these:


On the left is the legendary Slingshot planner, perfect gift for anyone who still keeps it analog, and on the right is a book that could deck the coffee table of any socially conscious buddy of yours. The key to books as gifts is, as always, knowing your recipient’s taste. This goes double if they’re picky about books, in which case you really should have talked books with them a few times before venturing into the stores because they probably have too many books already (which does not mean they won’t make space if necessary.) If you give me the Hollanders’ translation of the Inferno, you are a mind reader. If you give me a cheesy romance novel, we’ve obviously talked books before. If you give me Memoirs of a Geisha, you are DEAD TO ME.

Something useful

Depending on what your recipient spends a lot of time doing, you can really make them happy by giving them something they need. And if it’s something they use every day, they’ll think of you with gratitude every time they use it. One year I got K. a 6 foot fiberglass ladder, but that’s definitely a serious relationship gift. Usually with this type of person there is no shame in just asking them what they would find useful.

Small useful gifts are nice too:


I’ve been given a few bottle openers over the years and given that we have a lot of homebrew around and throw house parties every few months, these are great gifts and prove that the giver knew the giftee. The bird is cute enough to keep perched around the house when he’s not being used to open bottles with his hind end. Steer clear of “useful” stuff like paperweights though.

When in doubt, wool socks


Holiday gift season is right at the beginning of winter and unless you dwell in the Tropics everyone, I don’t care who you are, can use a pair of good wool socks. There are cute thin patterned ones for wearing with cute shoes and big beefy ones for those days you plan on spending trudging through the slush in snow boots or just kicking around your woefully underheated house. You know you’re grown up when you find yourself pining for socks in your stocking: you might be boring, but at least you appreciate the finer things in life, warm feet being first and foremost. Sooner than you know it, you’ll be a grandma who makes her grandchildren wear thick socks indoors in Atlanta in August.

Cash or gift cards to Amazon or Home Depot make good all-purpose gifts for people you’re still stumped by who already have a lot of socks.

What not to give unless specifically requested:

Pets, plants, an above ground pool, or anything else that requires money, upkeep and/or commitment.

Really, these are some general approaches to gift giving that boil down to: give people things that show you know them and care about them.  Thought > money.

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Shedstory: part 1

So we’re building a shed.

K. wasn’t working this week so we got a jump on this project in order to have it done before the snow falls.  Also, once you get married you have to build a shed together; it’s in the bylaws. It’s going to be a shed we can keep our bikes and garden stuff in so they aren’t stuck all the way over in EL-2 behind a plywood door you have to remove with a screwdriver and clogging up the back entrance to the building, respectively.  Plus it’s practice.  You know, planning and framing and putting in windows and all that good stuff.  Yes, our shed is going to have windows.


First we had to sink eight concrete blocks into the ground. I’d always wondered how the ancients (or anybody, really) laid out buildings to be level and evenly proportioned. Answer: a lot of times they used string and math. We mostly used a tape measure and a level taped to a 2×4.


Then it was time to frame the floor that would rest on top of the blocks. First we measured and marked where the studs would have to go using the magical speed square, the praises of which I’d heard sung by many friends (this shows you the crowd I run with now.) I don’t think the ancients had speed squares, which sucks, except on second thought they were not framing walls the way we do now.


The ancients also most certainly did not have the mighty power of the chopsaw on their side. You know a tool is powerful when, while using it, you realize that the saw would have absolutely no problem removing any part of your body that crosses the path of its blade. It’s got all kinds of cool adjustable stuff and is really well designed in a way that is totally hard to figure out at the same time. Germans!


We laid out the end thingies (technical term) and then nailed all the joists into place. This took a little longer than it would have if we had an air nailer at our disposal. Yep! This entire shed is built with nails that were painstakingly hammered in by hand.

We were talking about how we look back with wonder at wooden structures built without any metal at all, and how in the future people will most likely look back and say “Wow! People used to live in things built out of wooden strips stuck together with little metal pins” from the comfort of their laser-carved space caves or whatever we’ve managed to come up with by the time The Future is upon us.


And that was the progress of Day 1. Sidebar: check out the label on the pressure-treated lumber we were using:


Ooh, it’s “less” corrosive! Pressure treated wood is a little scary and full of crazy chemicals but it does pretty well resisting water and rot.

The next day we added a plastic vapor barrier to further protect the chemical-laden bottom portion of the shed:


…and nailed some plywood on top to form a floor. Also pressure treated, since we’ll be tracking mud in and out of there on the regular. Hooray, the floor is done!


Apparently when a contractor builds his/her own shed there are two ways to go: either say “this is something I’m slapping together in my spare time, screw craftsmanship” or say “this is something I’m going to have to live with, I’m going to try and make it nice.” We are attempting to make a nice shed.


We got to frame the walls on top of the floor, which is a lot easier than framing on the uneven ground.

Working with K. on this project has been very cool because the last time we did this kind of stuff was when we were fixing the building and basically learning as we went. Since then he’s been working with a contractor and learning all kinds of legit skills, and it’s been awesome to be able to siphon off some of that new knowledge and skill.


So we raised the first wall and realized that our shed was going to be objectively huge. While still in the figuring stage K. ran a tape measure up and we decided that yeah, full height would be fine, forgetting that the shed roof was going to be built up on top of that and basically our shed is turning out to be a big scary monster shed. It’s going to be covered in Old Ironsides-style metal sheeting the guys found on Craigslist (see chopsaw picture) and will probably get around to painting? but in the meantime, our shed is going to look mean.


Here I am, helping. We technically should have framed the side walls first but on the bright side I had a nice basic one to learn on before doing things like windows and doors. Note the wrist brace: back in effect! In retrospect carrying around a bunch of lumber and hammering a bunch of nails doesn’t do great things for tendonitis, a fact I should have already gleaned from friends who do these things on the regular (the same ones who talk about speed squares.) There’s like a Women Who Do Things With Wrist Problems club…


Then it got dark. We have a long and proud tradition of doing backyard projects in the dark though, and this did not phase us. Wall 3: totally framed!

This was the point the enormity of our shed became concrete:


We framed the last wall in place. Usually you nail on OSB/plywood before raising the walls, but whatever. This whole thing made me feel a lot more like a real barnraiser, I’ll tell you that much.


Overhead vantage creepy shot illustrating the progress reached by the end of Day 2, taken from the kitchen where I was preparing salmon braised in tomato chili jam. The salmon was a wedding present caught and brought by this guy and the jam was made by my Fancy & Delicious counterpart, T. Braising is my fallback: it’s pretty hard to screw up, or at least I’ve had good luck with the method.


After an 11 hour day building the biggest baddest shed on the block, we were all so tired and burned out that K. and I took a trip over to Fast Stop and brought back a bag of candy and cookies. The guy at the counter was like, “Snack night?” Yeah, pretty much. Here’s a family portrait featuring the seasonal Christmas Tree-shaped snack cakes from the same people who do Zebra Cakes (my trash food choice) that come out every year around this time. I tore into that thing like Grant took Richmond.


Stay tuned for the part where we make a roof, light a fire, and order a pizza! All to come in Part 2 of ???

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Happy birthday NNL and a party postmortem

Today is the birthday of a very special roommate.

birthday person

N. is 25, one step closer to being officially over the hill like me (26 and proud!) To celebrate, K. and I decided to throw a party at the last minute. It was a surprise party in that the honoree had no idea there was going to be a party despite the fact that I spent the entire day cleaning the house and fabricating mass quantities of chili and pie.

and look how nice the place cleans up

Due to the last minute nature of the whole thing we had no idea who would be there, when they would arrive, or if the three of us would end up drinking the entire cauldron of mulled wine without assistance. Luckily by 10 there was a booming soiree, thanks to people showing up against all odds and K. deciding to hook up the computer to the big living room speakers, the better to blast an impeccably curated 1990s power party mix. And they brought Twister!

When I was a kid we had these books which consisted of extremely elaborate photographs of whole landscapes made up of little objects, and you had to go through and find specific things. For an ADD champ like me, these were the perfect books because you could get lost in them for hours – there was so much detail. It occurs to me now that I’ve turned this apartment into a version of those books, with something to surprise and occupy the eye anywhere you look.

party leftovers

Play along at home!  In this post-party scene, can you find: 1 homemade birthday card, 1 batch of yeast-driven waffle batter for the next morning, 4 empties, 6 fulls, the 1 remaining 4 Loko in the house (thank goodness they’re almost gone,) 1 octopus earring from my grandmother’s stash of costume jewelry, 1 impeccably curated 1990s power party playlist, and the Larousse Gastronomique?

apple pie remains

It’s against my principles to clean directly after a party, especially since my compadres’ policy is to fall asleep on couches immediately after guests depart.  If it makes you more comfortable to pretend that we refrigerated the pie all night and then ate it for breakfast, feel free.  Those are leftover apples from the wedding, where we had freshly picked Macoun apples on all the tables.  There are still a few left.  More pies ahead, most likely.  It’s fall!

I was going to make a pumpkin pie too because we have mashed pumpkin from all the moon melons that grew out of the composted seeds of yesteryear BUT I didn’t remember the evaporated milk until I got to the grocery store parking lot and couldn’t stomach going back in and having to make awkward small talk with the high school dude cashier again OR being seen avoiding his line in favor of a less awkward cashier, so pumpkin pie had to wait.

kiiitchen destroyed

Being of French extraction, N. loves wine so I got a big jug of Carlo Rossi and made mulled wine (and somehow he still didn’t suspect there was going to be a party.)  However, he and the guests kept thinking I was saying “mold wine,” which is kind of a gross concept.  K. said, “You should label it” and I remembered that I already had, and rotated the pot so the label was facing forwards.  Sometimes I forget that I am a genius.

“Mold Wine” adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Boil 1 1/4 cup water, 2 1/2 cups sugar, peel of two oranges, four cinnamon sticks, two smashed nutmegs, and as many cloves as you can stomach using (the original calls for four dozen?!) for five minutes; strain.  Dump in big pot with ~3 cups lemon juice and one jug of Carlo Rossi – burgundy varietal.  Heat until hot but not boiling.  Label pot.  Serve in a coffee mug with ladle and a big smile.

Anyway, happy birthday kiddo!  Good luck on that bucket list.

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Cats and cookies

Different people have different superpowers.  Some people can find a four leaf clover every time they walk through a field.  Some people can do math in their head (probably with the aid of witchcraft.)  And I can make myself at home in other people’s kitchens.

Pretty Girl

When we convened at friend C’s house last night and baked potatoes were made, I volunteered to make a yogurt sauce for them.  It involved garlic, salt, paprika, cumin, a tiny bit of cayenne and apple cider vinegar, and a lot of nutritional yeast and was absolutely delicious.  (That is what usually passes for a recipe around here, by the way.)  The potatoes had a perfect papery skin and we were all a lot hungrier than we’d realized.


And cookies were also made.  We adapted a recipe from Beyond the Moon Cookbook to the ingredients on hand, although there was debate on carob v. cocoa powder.  In lieu of sour cream, yogurt.  For half the butter, margarine that C. needed to be rid of.  Buckwheat honey (the “tall dark stranger of honeys,” according to the Google) as the only sweetener.  And a bunch of ginger thrown in for good measure.


Last minute cookies for hungry barn raisers adapted from “Dream Cookies” in Beyond the Moon Cookbook

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter or margarine, softened

3/4 cup honey

1/2 cup yogurt

1+ T grated ginger

2 1/2 cups flour (your choice)

1 t baking powder

3 T cocoa powder

1 cup chopped almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Cream butter, honey, and ginger; beat in sour cream.  In separate bowl, mix flour, cocoa, and baking powder.  Add to wet ingredients gradually and stir to combine, adding almonds.  Drop onto greased cookie sheet and start checking at five minutes.

Bunny slippers

It’s getting colder in these parts.  Time to bring out the slippers and long underwear.  We run with a crowd that lives in old houses, so temperatures tend to be a little chillier indoors than once might expect.  Including our house, which is usually around 63 because I am cold blooded (or at least from the South) and if it’s below that temperature I have trouble functioning unless I’m wearing a winter coat.  I’m not proud, but it’s a fact.  Do snakes hibernate, or what?  Every day I remind myself that there’s so much to learn.


And this is Pretty Girl, the coolest cat in the world. I used to be totally indifferent to cats, then I disliked them because of Miss Kitty, my grandparents’ cat who would suddenly and without warning turn into a raging jerk. Now I love them, or at least the cool ones like PG. If we end up on the West Side there’s probably a cat in our future, although it’ll have to be a very cool and self-sufficient cat that likes being outdoors and dislikes having a crappy attitude and peeing on furniture. Because I refuse to subsidize that behavior, you know?

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The hipster question

Every so often someone refers to me or the Woodchuck crew as “hipster.”

The hipster aesthetic is an ever-changing thing, impossible to pin down (because once a style becomes established enough to recognize outside of the scene, it is no longer truly a hipster thing) and acts like an amoeba, grabbing and digesting whichever bits of cultural flotsam it can reach.  Trucker hats, keffiyehs, feathers in hair: all grabbed from other subcultures, adopted, cast off and instantly transformed into ubiquitous post-hipster de rigeur uniform for people at the mall.  Certain things I do, like thrift store shopping or drinking cheap beer, will always be considered hipster.

And right now hipster has absorbed the trappings of all things woodsy and homestead-related, and so making preserves, drinking whiskey, owning retro camping gear, having a bunch of mason jars and wearing flannel are hipster signifiers and I just have to deal with it.

Somehow I am on Urban Outfitters’ mailing list.  Once I flipped through their catalogue and found this full page picture, which now lives on the fridge.   From left to right, those are the commodified hipster doppelgängers of N, K, and yours truly.  It’s uncanny: N. has long hair and looks like he fell out of the 1990s; K. has commandeered the only chair, is wearing boots and is clearly in charge; and I am spacing out in flannel and a dress with a perfect facsimile of my “can’t be bothered to put in effort” go-to hairdo.  We’re not sure who the sleepy/dead girl is.

The difference is that we have been like this for years and years; actual hipsters assimilate the trappings of this lifestyle when they brush against other subcultures; Urban Outfitters’ customers buy newly made facsimiles of it.

I guess I’m uncomfortable with my lifestyle being described as “hip” because it sounds exclusive, when really there’s not much stopping most people from doing the stuff we do.  For instance: secondhand shopping is not an esoteric art, even though I’ve heard people refer to it like they’d talk about divining or snake charming.  If you’re new to thrift store shopping, just remember these rules: if a 16 year old stranger with a rat tail says you look good in a dress, you look good in that dress.  I don’t care if you are a 6’5″ man, buy that dress.  The concept of clothes having to match is a lie that has been sold to you by sinister and boring shadowy figures of fashion who want to sell more things in more solid colors.  If you feel like a billion dollars in something way off your beaten track, just get it: it probably doesn’t cost more than $5 anyway.  Don’t buy anything new if you could find it used.  Don’t buy anything used if you can’t actually see yourself wearing it or you’ll be stuck with a fierce cropped top short sleeved colorful baggy sweater vest haunting the back of your closet for years like I was.  And always take off one accessory before you leave the house,  just like that one fashionable person said.

There.  Go out and be called a hipster.  Let me know if you need to borrow any retro camping gear; I’ve had it since I was 8.

* “Unhip. Unhip. An old man at twenty-five.” – Bonnie Abbzug to George Washington Hayduke in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang

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The thing that made our wedding a success

…was the golf cart we’d rented for the week.


Our wedding weekend was a largely DIY affair that owed most of its charm to several days of volunteer labor on behalf of the wedding party and various family and friends.  The cart was invaluable for zipping back and forth on the gravel road between the main house (ceremony site) and barn (reception venue) and the sheer joy of driving it around served as a bit of a reward for the work.


It was largely monopolized by the groomsmen, who used it to transport material and themselves, as a moving platform for hanging lanterns (see above,) and maybe for a little joyriding through the woods and fields.

I personally tended to walk, since the combination of the wedding dress being a particular size and my refusal to deny myself the excellent food present that week meant that a chance for counterbalancing physical activity was welcome.  The golf cart was electric, which meant that I could barely hear it coming and was liable to get ambushed on the road by a bunch of dudes brandishing ladders and/or shillelaghs.


It also made a comfy bench.


Of course, we’d rented it for a specific purpose – transporting guests to and from the parking area and from the ceremony to the reception.  There was talk of a horse and carriage, but that would have been less nimble, seemed a little like overkill and definitely would have provided less joy to my cousins because they wouldn’t have gotten to chauffeur people around during the wedding eve barbecue.

I had no idea what to expect from the whole thing.  I certainly didn’t anticipate that the golf cart, a relative afterthought on the rental list, would be the most crucial inanimate object to the whole enterprise both for getting things done and for bringing people joy.

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Woodchuckfest veg*n chili

So last night we threw a party at the place for our wonderful Buffalo crew, the tribe of likeminded folks we’ve been lucky enough to find.  The occasion?  K. and I are getting married next Saturday.  Yeah, I’ve been a little busy.

I’ve been reading more about astrology lately, because it’s another great vehicle for small talk.  “Oh you’re having a tough week also?  It’s because Saturn is in Libra.  Just give it till October 4.”  Astrology Zone has been great for sounding like I know what I’m talking about, and as well as having an eerily accurate September forecast it’s taught me that as well as being mediators and smelling really nice, Libras like me tend to enjoy and be great at throwing soirees.

The secret to entertaining is to make it look effortless and have enough drinks and snacks.  The drinks are easy: buy enough sampler 12-packs of beer to alarm a 19 year old cashier (or brew your own.)  Fill a glass pitcher halfway full with chopped apples and pears, pour in cheap champagne and chill: voila, sparkling sangria (top off with more chilled champagne as needed.)  And the snacks?  Chips, dips, and chili all the way.

Nothing says hospitality like chili, unless it’s two chilis (one for carnivores and one for vegans and vegetarians.)  Here’s my improvised red chili recipe: I have to give the recipe out at least once per party.  It’s a crowd pleaser and it’s so, so easy.

I’m writing the recipe in can amounts, but fresh tomatoes and dried beans would be as good or better.

Red Veg*n Chili

Saute 2 chopped onions and 3 chopped cloves of garlic in vegetable oil with sliced mushrooms and a hearty amount of cumin – it’s hard to overdo cumin in chili.  Add 2 cans of black beans, 1 big can of kidney beans, about a cup of brown rice, and 1 large can of  diced tomatoes plus water as needed.  Bring to boil, then simmer until rice is cooked and flavors have blended.  Salt and pepper as needed.

Top with cheddar cheese, nutritional yeast or chips, depending.

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Rose hip tea

Rose hip tea

So.  Those are the rose hips from the other day.  Most ended up in my freezer with the hops from the same Buffalo backyard, waiting until I feel like making jam with them, but I used a few to make tea first.

Rose hips are the fruit of the rose plant.  They’re kind of rose-tasting, if you can imagine that, and when steeped the tea is high in vitamin C.  It’s tasty too; it would be really good chilled.

Rose hip tea

Rose hip tea

Steep 5 or so rose hips in boiling water for ten minutes.  Serve in favorite mug, the exact cultural significance of which you are sadly ignorant.

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Tomato Jamstory

tomato jammed

The story of this tomato jam will be short today.  In a last-ditch attempt to rest this wrist situation (hard to do when so much of life requires at least a small degree of use of the dominant hand) I have a new brace that immobilizes my thumb, have tied my right arm to my body with a scarf, and am painstakingly hunt-and-pecking this post with my left hand.  Which process is making me realize/regret the reality of my overly wordy blogstyle.


Upshot is that you’ll have to have to fill in the details here with your imagination, which will likely result in a more interesting version anyway.  Short version: a group of ladies met in Buffalo to make jam.

skinning tomatoes

My tomatoes.  To peel, boil for a minute then cool and pull skin off.

jam makings

Another Blue Chair recipe = this book so far is infallible.

filling jars

Filling.  This jam is deep, bright, fruity, and mace-y (adjectives fail me.)  The flavor evolves beautifully as it cooks.  No added pectin, fyi.

Aki loves people food

Three food-loving cats in house!


Got to harvest a bag of hops from J’s lovely garden…

rose hips

…as well as these rose hips, which I should be processing right now but might freeze until I gain more function and/or figure out what to do with them.  Suggestions?

Not pictured: brandied cherries, Korean-style zucchini pancakes, and the garden itself.  I host next month’s gathering.  Which is rumored to involve fondue.

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On the road again: words mostly

Yesterday J. and I briefly were in Canada – or to use our own dialect, we decided to anadaAnada is a word we came up with in the customs line to describe the process of “going to Canada.”  There was lots of time to make up words, because hello crossing national borders, especially when we de-anada‘d.  (Needs improvement?)  Shared bits of unique language detritus help establish the fact that you’re with your people – like OE members’ specific jargon or academics’ or colleagues’ or just inside jokes and references between people who’ve been around each other long enough to amass a vocabulary.  And clearly this is most evident when two sisters who collect words like magpies get together and catch up on things.  It’s a weird way of coming home.

ANYWAY, today I am not going to anada but I will be driving down South for a week.  Because of that and this dumb wrist thing which still persists a little (hauling cast iron casserole pans out of the oven with that hand doesn’t help it apparently) posting will be light, but I’m trying to line up a guest post with very own Wyoming buddy L.  We’ve shared lots of insider language and a dorm room in 2004.

I leave you a picture of this year’s Etna bean harvest.

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