Tag Archives: aspirations

Today is yes

Forget-me-notsHe said he was a corporate lawyer, born in Bolivia and that I probably wouldn’t like his politics. He looked like he was 12. It was late. I danced with him anyway.

“You let yourself fall when I dipped you,” he told me. “That means you are open to life. You don’t care what anyone thinks about you.”

That’s not true everyday. But thank goodness there are days that it is. Thank goodness someone pulled me onto dance floor and dipped me and let me know: Here you are. See? You are being that person you’ve wanted to be.

Sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly watching a voluptuous burlesque dancer swing tiny torches from her breasts that make little circles of fire in the air while the band plays Happy Birthday. The next night you’re singing the entire White Album, pressed up against people you don’t know while waving to the ones you do. A twenty-something woman from China keeps hugging you and smiling as you wonder whether the best song ever written is “Dear Prudence” or “Helter Skelter.” She says she wants to text you. “Hi!” says your phone. “Yellow Submarine!” That’s the last time you hear from her.

Sometimes you’re accidentally listening to an ‘80s cover band that’s opening for your friend’s band, and joy and shame collide inside of you when you hear songs by Simple Minds and Animotion and remember every lyric. You joke about that feeling with a woman standing next to you by the bathroom mirror who says “no, no, no… there is no shame. But I hate that it shows everybody exactly how old I am.”

“Meh,” you reply. “Me too. We’re not that old.”

Just as you are almost out the door, she yells after you, for no apparent reason “You are really beautiful!”

“Thank you!” you yell back. “So are you.”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about a study in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, to become an expert at something. Now 42, after a childhood with a typewriter and 20 years of writing career behind me, I have undoubtedly accumulated enough time to call myself a master she-hack, a highly qualified assembler of printed characters, a capable wordswoman. But so practiced in living with self-trust, I am not.

This midlife single life is a little bit brutal. You think that practicing kindness and patience will yield you some easy companionship. It might for a little while. Or it might just give someone else the space to be wildly selfish with or unintentionally cruel to you. Wasting time is a greater concern than it used to be. The landscape requires a kind of detachment you’ve never had to cultivate before, that truthfully, you don’t exactly want to cultivate because you’ve come to like your wide-open heart. You know that you know yourself better than you did the last time you were out here.

I’m playing the long game these days. I want to reach that expert level of self-respect by practicing 10,000 hours trusting my own instincts; 10,000 hours being kinder to myself; 10,000 hours of traversing the thorny landscape without letting it shut me down, no matter how often it might draw blood; 10,000 hours of not letting myself feel threatened by any social situation; 10,000 hours of being kind to others traveling on this same nasty terrain, just because I can; 10,000 hours giving myself a break because all of this is practice.

10,000 hours of letting myself fall. Not into another person, but into myself.

10,000 hours being yes.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any –lifted from the no
of all nothing– human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– ee cummings

Today is yes.

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Sometimes grace walks right into (and refinishes) your living room

There I was, trying to get a few things done at my mom’s dining room table, when Melvin arrived to pick up my great-grandmother’s couch. It will be refinished by homeless kids and adults, and Melvin is teaching them his trade. He’s done a few pieces for my mom and every one has been beautiful.

I hadn’t had the chance to speak with him before. It turns out he just got a grant from the city for his work.

His story goes like this: He was 14 and homeless after grandmother passed (his mom died when he was little). A small, older woman asked him if he wanted to learn to cane furniture, but wouldn’t pay him until he got it just right. And he did. Then he learned to rebuild, reupholster and refinish. He worked for her until she passed – fixing, beautifying and delivering old and antique furniture. Now he tears apart broken-down chests of drawers with a group of kids and shows them how to put them back together.

I have been really blessed in the past year to meet more than a few people whose lives have gone from desperate circumstances to surviving, to thriving, who then use their fresh success to help the next person. Melvin lights up with gratitude and hope when he tells you that a gang member handed him his gun, saying “I don’t want to do this anymore. You said I’m a keeper, that you can teach me to do this. So teach me.”

You meet a person like Melvin and you can’t help but want the whole world to open up for him.

Here’s a little video that Angie’s List did about him:

If you read this in Central Ohio and are in the market for some refinishing work (or know anyone who is), check him out at Browsers Welcome.

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Like a prayer

I used to bristle when someone told me, “I will pray for you.”

It seemed presumptuous.

Who were they praying to? And how did they know that their God had anything to do with mine?

I remember going to a Bible study with a childhood friend when we were nine or ten. There was a healing. I squeezed my eyes closed and put my hand over a mosquito bite and mustered every ounce of faith in my body that I could. I listened to the words of the faithful in the room and tried to say the same things they did.

“Heal, thing. Stop itching. Jesus, I believe you can heal me. Praise the Lord. Amen.”

It didn’t work.

This breed of faith had little to do with the churches I went to in my family. We didn’t stand up and testify or expect prayers to be answered. We were the same people we were when we were born, and felt that being “born again” would not erase any of our past transgressions.

Still, I experimented with magical thinking as I prayed for that one boy to like me, or that fellow pre-teen girl to understand me or please God, let me have done okay on that algebra test.

I’ve been too cynical to pray for a couple of decades now. God doesn’t grant ponies or fix the things you ask him to. I’ve had my share of desperate, angry moments, but none of them brought me to that late-night Eat, Pray, Love-style oracle.

Lately I’ve been learning to pray differently.  It’s puzzling when a Buddhist says “I’ll pray for you,” because there’s no God out there running things in Buddhism, just the divine nature that allegedly already resides within each of us.

But I understand personal Buddhist prayer to be something more like this: “I open myself up to the possibility that everything in my life is as it’s supposed be, and that my attempts to control that are making me suffer.” Prayer for others isn’t wishing for specific outcomes either. It’s exhaling hope for the best possible outcome, with the understanding that we, the unenlightened, have no idea what that is.

In the twelve steps, prayer seems to work in much the same way. Even though it’s easy to read the steps and imagine that they invoke a magical, micromanaging, defect-erasing God, that’s not really their purpose. The process isn’t to get God to do your bidding with a quick fingertip to your forehead, it’s to probe deeply into your own heart and recognize more fully how you’ve hurt yourself, then others, and let go.

Twelve step prayer, who or whatever the higher power involved may be, is something more like: “God, I am afraid” or “universe, I am trying to control things that are uncontrollable.” It’s the showing up, the opening ourselves to the possibility that we can handle or surrender to whatever is that changes us. It’s the vulnerability. It’s the faith.

I will pray for you.

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Growing up, I remember the phone ringing at the butt crack of dawn on every one of my birthdays. Once, as a teenager, I grouched a little at my mother as she came in and nudged me out of sleep to answer it.

“You won’t have this forever,” she warned me, whispering. “You will miss it someday.”

Early this morning I woke up, squeezed my eyes shut and listened for the sound on that phone line – the sound of my grandparents, their voices chipper and full of the rural Ohio upbringing that makes every R sound like a sharp turn while the Gs in ings go awol and yous come out as yas. They always wanted to be the first to wish all of their children and grandchildren Happy Birthday. And mom was right. I miss that. I do.

Today my mom sang to me while Declan held my face and waited to tell me, intently, that on Ni Hao Kai-Lan, the children sometimes travel inside of floaty bubbles. My brother called and sister-in-law called sang while their son punctuated each line with an aggressive “CHA CHA CHA!” Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve already been flooded with messages and I’m starting this day feeling loved and hopeful.

Two things guaranteed that today would be a quiet celebration. First, the biggest fireworks in the city happen downtown, which would be like asking friends to sit in traffic gridlock if I wanted to, say, meet them for dinner.

And then there’s my stepdad, who has passed the point of speaking or eating or doing much in the way of responding to this realm. We’ve been bracing for the impact of his passing for a couple of years, more intensely in recent months, and round-the-clock for the past several days. I’m well past dreading the idea that he could pass away on my birthday. Instead, if I could take some of the good juju and love I’m receiving for this birthday, I’d pour it into the wish that he finds whatever love he needs within himself in order to let go peacefully.

I’ve decided to honeymoon with 40, and celebrate it with a crowd of people that I like soon because I want to and I actually think I deserve to. But today, this is how I want to do it. I want to be mindful and prayerful through the day and to pretend that things are brilliantly exploding in celebration of my future and my stepdad’s past through the evening. I want to meditate on passages and new beginnings and eat crab legs and be hopeful.

Earlier this week, Dec gave me the best possible birthday gift I could have asked for. He’s been reading individual words for a long time, but worried over trying to read a book by himself and often refused to try. I gently reminded him on Monday night that I still learn a lot of new words, and that lots of things that he thinks are easy, like astronomy, are things that many people would consider hard.

He slept on it, and the next morning, started reading some of the Bob Books at the breakfast table as though he’d been doing it all his life. And as silly as those short, confidence-building books are, it’s one of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard.

My stepdad’s life has been filled with books and I know that he would be so proud of this. So Declan read “Fun in the Sun,” to his Grandfafa before bed that same day, and I talked out loud about how many books were in the house, how avid a reader his Grandfafa had been. My stepdad tried very hard to say something in response, so I know that he heard and received this gift as well.

So far, 40 is birth and death and new language and hope and memory and a pain in the pit of my stomach. It’s Buddhist mantras wrapped in silver around my thumb as I dive through this zero, sheathed by reminders of our impermanence. It’s a call to live well and let things happen, make things happen, to live by the serenity prayer and be more open, more loving.

This song came up on my iPod on my way to my son’s camp this morning, and it strummed every nerve in my body:  Calling All Angels.

Listen, be well, have a beautiful weekend and if you’re into prayer, say one for my stepdad, ok?

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The perfect heart

The other night, Declan decided he wanted to make one big special valentine for his father. I pulled out a sheet of paper, folded it and drew half of a heart for him. It was art paper, so cutting it was tough. He switched scissors a couple of times. He got frustrated. Then he took a couple of deep breaths and finished it. He spread it open on the table and looked at it proudly.

He wrote his dad’s full name on the big heart. He filled the space around it with rocket stickers and gems and glitter. Then he tried to draw a heart. It was sweet and soft and curvy, like dough that swells beyond the edges your cookie cutter promised when it bakes.

He hated it. He hit it with his fist.

I loved it. I thought it was so precious and perfectly four, perfectly him.

He covered it with a dog sticker and tried again. He didn’t like the new heart either, so he covered it with another dog sticker, ran into the living room and threw himself into the couch cushions.

I tried to reason with him that I knew his daddy would love it, that I could see it was a heart and that there were lots of kinds of hearts. He was frustrated. He told me no. It needed to be perfect. It needed to look “right.”

At his school, they often ask him about his feelings and put them in a note. I started writing one to him. He watched my hand and circled me.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m writing you a note to tell you how I feel,” I told him.

“What does it say?”

“Dear Declan,

Every time you write, it does not need to be perfect. Whatever you write is something I love because it is perfectly Declan. I love you. I want you to be kind to yourself.


He looked at me calmly, unmoved.

“Let me have that for a minute,” he said.

I handed him the notebook and he carried it into another room, grabbing a marker on his way. I heard it flop onto the floor. I heard the sound of the pen on the paper. He came right back and handed me the notebook, a big pink X over my entire note.

“I didn’t like it so I put an X on it,” he explained. “Because I want everything to look right.”

I fought back feeling hurt by his x-mark and wrote what he said down on the note. I told him that I understand that feeling. I do.

I understand that feeling so well.

Then he went and got another piece of paper and asked me to make a heart that he could look at while he drew another. I made a small one and handed him the marker, reminding him of the advice his teacher gave us about trying to hold a pencil steady: “Pinch it.”

He took the notebook behind our piano and brought a new heart back to me. It was puffy too. Puffy and curvy and beautiful and, to my eye, not terribly different than the ones he had rejected.

“This one looks right,” he said. “See?”

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I wish I could say that I came into this year, this decade, with rosy optimism and a warm blanket. I tried. I did yoga. I took a hot shower and sang along with Irma Thomas to expand my cold-ravaged lungs. I took a cinematic ride through the universe with my boy and remembered our teeny-tininess, but when midnight came I was just agitated, unsettled, unreasonably angry.

But it’s the first Monday of the year, and even though my son and I argued on the way to school in the car today, even though my chest is still sore, I don’t feel rested and the cold outside is far too bitter, I feel strangely unburdened and optimistic. I want to clean up and put things in order. I want to make appointments and to-do lists. I want to roast vegetables and cut fruit and find a place to run inside. I want to listen to depressing music until I feel light again.

I hope your first Monday is pleasantly complicated, that your sinuses are clear and that ushering in this new decade feels like watching the sun rise.

Happy new year.

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The art of not knowing everything

I once worked with a woman who gave elaborate thespian phone performances. Not the nasty $2.99 per minute kind, but plenty that had the undertow of a more genuine nastiness.

She lived at the desk next door to me in our little room in newspaperland, so eavesdropping was essentially unavoidable unless I brought in headphones and blared L7’s “Smell the Magic.”

I overheard her cooing sympathies for various health ailments and workplace stressors, humble babydoll requests for interviews, breathless apologies for misprints and uproarious laughs at jokes that couldn’t possibly have been that funny. But the minute the receiver hit the base, she would start swearing at the phone like a late-night cable comedian. She’d make colorful hand gestures at it, slam nearby file drawers with her foot, shake her head, yell at the ceiling like a thin, malevolent, female Charlie Brown.

If you threw a softball “what happened?” question her way during the episode, she’d gladly assail the character of her phone acquaintances (minor characters in her life, really) with ruthless assessments. They were incompetent morons at best, insane morons at worst. She was certain.

I was young and at first, I found her routine pretty funny. There’s a sexy, star-chamber quality to cattiness and gossip, especially in the workplace. Moreso in the media workplace, where you high five each other when you manage to unearth the failings of powerful people in the world and lay them bare in print. You feel like an insider. You know stuff that it seems like you shouldn’t. You feel smarter than other people. You find new, cleverer, wittier ways to call out what you perceive as stupid, inane or otherwise inferior. It’s so easy to know everything when you’re young.

But at some point, I realized that it wasn’t funny. It might even be dangerous. Not because I am a great arbiter of morals, but because it became easy to see that this behavior was bound to come home to roost on my own rear end.

I saw the same people who had bitched together about someone else bitch separately about each other. When you’re dancing in the middle of that kind of social quagmire, there’s no question that you’re going to be the bitched about person eventually. You will hurt people and get hurt. In the pernicious culture of the newsroom, I’m pretty sure I did my share of both.

I don’t remember a light bulb moment, but I remember the desperate feeling that I needed to extract myself from toxic work socializing as best I could. I started nodding more. Listening more. Withholding judgment. I searched for metaphors that would properly reflect what I was hearing from the person about how they felt instead of joining their rigged jury. This kind of listening has actually come in handy in my writing life a lot since. And my spiritual life. And my mothering life.

Finding the words to celebrate or applaud things authentically, meaningfully is much harder than finding new, clever ways to bitch about things. Vengefulness is easier than compassion. Suspicion is easier than faith. (This is clearly part of the way that Buddhism appeals to my protestant work ethic.)

It is harder to celebrate and find joy in other people’s children than it is to pick apart the alien ways that they might influence yours. It’s definitely easier to judge other parents and children than it is to see your own flaws. Playgrounds, like newsrooms, are breeding areas for cattiness. Yet, when I make a conscious effort to look for what to celebrate instead of what to criticize, I’ve discovered that finding joy makes everything easier. The older the kids get, the harder it looks, but it is easier. It’s more fun. It’s lighter. It’s less isolating. It’s worth the effort.

I make no claim that I’ve mastered these things. I decided early this year that aspirations are my gig, not hardened vows or easily fractured resolutions. I’m determined to remind myself of the mistakes I have made, or keep making. I’m determined to keep trying.

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Thumbelina, Thumbelina, don’t dream about a cow*

I ran for 30 minutes straight for the first time yesterday in yucky pre-rain humidity.

I’ve discovered that once animals realize that you’re not running after them, they find runners fascinating. A pair of deer scared the bejeezus out of me the other day on the trail, but once they had scampered about 25 feet outside the path, they stood there and stared at me. I said “hey dudes” and waved and still they stared. When last I saw them, they were still staring at me. When I run in my urban neighborhood, the squirrels do the exact same thing – they jump into a nearby tree and gawk. They fill their mouths with giant nuts and jump onto a tree and gawk. If Columbus’ squirrels are among those who tweet, at least one of those “stares” was for me today.

I’m kind of amazed that I’ve been able to stick to this Couch to 5k program. I’m not reclaiming any former glory here, or even any former glorious body. I’ve never been remotely a jock – more of a sometimes walker, late-night dancer who attended a lot of summer day camps, one Outward Bound (repelling is fun!) and used to be able to put a basketball through a hoop without hitting the rim. When I was nine, I saw a coach about running on a regional team and he put me through my paces for a day, but the post-run rubdown positively creeped me out and I quit.

For Couch to 5K, I’ve followed the schedule to the letter. This is my approach to most things I try (as long as they seem reasonable to begin with) – I suspend disbelief and put my faith into the idea that all will work out as I’ve been told. Once I’ve done it for a while, or the intended duration, I make my own modifications. In this case, I have been amazed by how well I’ve been able to feel my progress every third run or so. This is my ninth and final week – three days of running for 30 minutes (or 5K). Who knew this was possible? Seriously!

I don’t have a ton of weight loss to show for my efforts, but there has been some and most importantly, I feel entirely different. Like my determination to eat less meat and more local food, it feels like I’m making changes that I have a better shot at sustaining. I just read that sticking with running this long officially makes me a runner, but that I ought to hang here for 2-3 months so my bones and connective tissues have a chance to catch up with my new, stronger muscles. That works for me. I’m not dying to win marathons. I just want to be healthy.

Yesterday I watched Obama’s speech to kids with my son. He was kind of excited that the president would talk to kids until he heard the president mention that he was there to talk to kids in Kindergarten through 12th grade. Having a year of preschool left, and several older friends and cousins makes you painfully aware that you aren’t in Kindergarten yet. As I listened, Declan sat on the floor and flew a plastic policeman through the solar system. Sadly, this policeman died and had to be buried under the letter P. He was later resurrected, so perhaps there is a cult forming around him in an alternate dimension.

By the end of the speech Dec was meowing like a kitty (if we’re connected on Facebook you may know this already). In fact, every time I have asked him what he thought of the speech since, he has meowed like a kitty. So, while I have found the accusation that Obama is trying to brainwash children into becoming liberal automatons utterly baseless, I now must face the possibility that he might be trying to turn them into cats.

Here are some of my favorite posts on the speech subject, by the way:

The Bad Astronomer hilariously points out how crazy is being mainstreamed.

Corporate Babysitter reminds us how many marketers have unfettered access to our children.

Charlotte-Anne Lucas posted a Wordle of the top 50 words used in the speech.

Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids quells our paranoia once again, with humor.

And Emily wrote the president a note.

Peace out, kitties!

* Declan modified the lyrics Danny Kaye sang in the movie Hans Christian Anderson (which his dad was watching) because he had one of his recurring dreams in which he tries to get out of bed, but some bloviating bovine blows him back. It was a better post title than anything I could come up with, so there it is.

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Little run run run runaway

I bought myself a pair of mid-line running shoes for Mother’s Day. My knees were getting whooped whenever I tried to do the 30-day shred, so I wasn’t getting very far. The more I looked into it, the more I began to realize that my cheap shoes were probably the culprit. And for some reason, the parts of the video where I ran in place hurt me less than all the squats and jumping jacks and things, so I started eyeballing the Couch to 5K program that some of the Shredheads and local folks are doing.

I broke in my shoes by walking some for the last three months, until I finally decided to break out the Robert Ullrey podcasts and start the program a week ago. My right knee tends to be a little tricky, so I’ve worried that I may be choosing a painful exercise path, but so far, so good. My knee actually seems to be feeling stronger, and strangely, a couple of my usual aches seem to be subsiding. (Incidentally, everyone I talk to who has been a long-time runner pretty much offers “Just make sure you have good shoes” as advice.)

I don’t have a public 5k run in mind at the end of this, but maybe, if I make it through a month okay, I’ll start thinking about one. I don’t know if I want my motivation to go toward an event, though – my goal is to be healthier and to enjoy exercising. I want a sustainable, long-term relationship with fitness, not a run. And I am way Pollyannaish about competition – I like the potential of the personal bests because the thought of competing head-to-head with other people makes me queasy.

Yesterday was my first day of week two. Like the very first day, I stood around and said little more than “duh” for about an hour afterward, and I still feel a little bit tender, but not nearly as rough as I expected. I think I may add short gentle yoga sessions on the off days (the program is three days a week), mainly because I think it will help with the soreness and keep me from losing my flexibility.

Keeping my fingers crossed that I can keep this up.

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Practicing “less meatatarianism”

I had the world’s greatest dinner arrangement when I was in college. I lived with six other people in an on-campus apartment, where we stuck to a vegetarian food supply and participated in a food co-op that kept our groceries on the cheap. Each of us took responsibility for all of the cooking and all of the cleaning exactly one night a week, which meant we could come home to a fully cooked meal on the other six.

Some of my housemates were vegetarians with conviction, some of us, like me, were vegetarians for the sake of convenience and frugality. I respected my friends’ wishes to not use our pots and pans to cook meat, and if I did eat it, it was outside of the house. Looking back, I think this was one of the healthiest periods for me and food, who have had a rocky relationship.

This year, I made Mark Bittman’s Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating one of my first reads. Without the least bit of preaching, he puts forth a history of U.S. food and FDA politics that made me reconsider why I think certain things are nutritious that may not be, and what a healthier diet might look like. He gives a lot of sensible advice about how to shift towards better choices in a reasonable and sustainable kind of way.

Among the layers of facts that he puts out about the over-consumption that developed nations indulge in are these: over fifty percent of American crops are devoted to growing soy and corn to feed the massive amount of livestock we consume every year. If those fields were used to grow crops suitable for human consumption, they would produce enough to feed the world several times over. That says nothing of the massive amount of land and resources we devote to raising and slaughtering livestock. Bittman does a good job of laying out the environmental impact of that industry without moralizing. He convinced me that the mere act of eating more plant-based foods and fewer refined grains, sugars and animal products is both good for my body and the future of the planet. And he made unintimidating suggestions about ways to do that.

For the past few months I’ve been moving towards eating little meat or dairy during the day (except half and half for my coffee), loading up on snackable produce and generally attacking the vegetables on my plate first when I have dinner, so that if I have meat, I have much less of it than I might have before. If I end up somewhere for lunch with minimal choices (or a meat choice that I really want to try), I try and make dinner my vegetarian meal. I’m experimenting with grains like bulgur and quinoa more often and using olive oil in lieu of butter.

All in all, these changes actually aren’t that radical for me – they are just more conscious decisions than they used to be. I also don’t make myself crazy over them. I worry more about buying local and learning to cook with in-season foods than I do about buying organic (although I do try and make as much of the dairy and meat I buy — especially to feed to my kid — organic and hormone-free as I can). I really can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods and, as Bittman points out, while organic food is a sound choice, elevating the consumption of plant-based foods is no small stride toward a healthier body and planet.

These choices aren’t frying the fat off of my body. And frankly, I’m not coupling them with enough exercise or even avoiding cake during a period that is rife with family birthdays. I feel better, though. My skin is healthier. I feel more energetic and active. A couple of pounds have gone AWOL and I’m enjoying food more. It’s summer in Ohio and the choices from the vine are glorious.

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