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Yesterday was utterly pooey, y’all. Just sucky to the nth for a whole host of reasons. I felt blue and sad and tired and busy and found that I have early-stage frozen shoulder and need to go gangbusters at physical therapy for a while. Three times a week: who, pray tell, has time for that? And I have to abstain from raking which is not only one of my favorite activities but also exceedingly necessary as our Sugar Maple has just commenced its annual arboreal depilation. Observe.

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the sugar maple sheds

It also rained all day, and I felt as if the Earth and I were so soggy we might slither through a storm drain to some nether-abyss. As is perhaps obvious, this is not an optimal mood to be mired in when you have plans to head out on the town with girlfriends you’ve been trying to see for a long while. But often, a night out laughing is just what’s needed. So I gussied myself up, Ubered myself out and met my pals – as I did Shawn several weeks back – at Ghibellina where we quickly made ourselves at home at one of the bars.

I am coming to believe that no bad mood can persist when sitting at a great bar in a great pair of heels laughing and nursing a glass of great wine (last night, the Lucente, a merlot-heavy Super Tuscan-style that was at once smooth, spicy and warm).

Plus, can I just make your mouth water by telling you about what we ate? I arrived first and a cursory glance at the menu illumined the word burrata. I don’t believe I’ve ever not ordered a dish that included burrata, and if I have, I should sue myself for idiocy. Last night was no exception as I placed an executive decision order immediately for the burrata with marinated rapini, calabrian chilies and toasted bread. Not a mistake.

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burrata, marinated rapini, chiles, olive oil, bread

We then received two additional, wonderful dishes: stewed lentils with root veggies and Tuscan kale; and the spectacular, stuff-of-my-dreams fagioli e zucca al forno, or oven-roasted pumpkin with white beans. For this dish you should run, not walk, to Ghibellina as soon as possible so that you can indulge before it leaves the menu.

The pumpkin was perfectly cooked: easily cut with the slightest pressure applied to the side of a fork, but not mushy. The consistency of the beans was equally pleasing, expertly treading the line between too-firm and overdone. Dressed with balsamic, olive oil, toasted almonds and a bit of allspice, each bite caused me to shut my eyes, slow my chewing and savor the marriage of flavors for as long as possible. It’s a steal at $8. I did not get a photo. I have pretty-please asked for the recipe.

We ordered the chocolate-hazelnut tart but also got to taste the sublime Meyer lemon sorbet and the delicate panna cotta with saba, a balsamic like nectar. The sorbet shocked with its exact-replica taste. We were eating sugar-coated Meyers, yes?

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Meyer lemon sorbet at Ghibellina

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panna cotta with saba, chocolate-hazelnut tart with meringue in the background (Ghibellina)

As always, the service was wonderful: friendly, generous, unobtrusive. The bluster outside subsided, but no one seemed in any sort of hurry to leave Ghibellina’s warmth.

I realized, as we finally all hugged and parted ways, how truly restorative friendship and laughter are. That they are some of the last things that should be sacrificed on the altar of busyness. That sometimes Tired is really just a need for fun and light escape masked as fatigue.

My cab coasted up to my house, and as I opened the car door, I saw a beautiful doe standing peacefully on the sidewalk not ten feet away. She was really in the wrong neck of her woods, and I tried to woo her towards me, but she declined. At 3am, Oliver woke up and I got in bed with him and told him about the deer. “She was gawding [guarding] the house until you got home, Mom.” I think my heart melted a bit then.

Today the sun came out, and I went to PT for the first time and thought how absolutely lovely it was to be tended to, and to have to lay down for fifteen minutes with a warm pack wrapped around my shoulder, the electrical currents running under it easy enough to tune 0ut as I read my magazine and just was. Three times a week will be great!

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Yesterday, I received the newest issue of Bon Appétit and immediately began flipping through. The recipe for Crispy Jerusalem Artichokes with Aged Balsamic (page 100 if you’re a subscriber or bought this issue) screamed out to me: “MAKE me tonight! Don’t you remember you have some sunchokes in the fridge?”

I have waxed rhapsodic about Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes, before. Frequently, in fact. I love them. Because forewarned is forearmed, I simply must remind you that they are also known as fartichokes for a reason. A real big reason. If I were you, I would not eat this delectable tuber before an important meeting or a date with someone to whom you aren’t married.

If you aren’t doing either of those things, go for the gold with this fabulous vegetable. I like to roast them simply, make a mash or incorporate them into my marvelous leeky sunchoke bisque. Last night, however, I went the Bon App route and am so glad I did. Theirs is an incredibly simple, seriously delicious recipe, and though I halved the recipe such that I made just four servings, I ate the entire bowl as my entree. Butter + rosemary + aged balsamic atop root veggies? Ohmahgah.

I was a bit short on sunchokes so tossed some cauliflower in to make up the difference. This is a win-win scenario. Observe the glowing, caramelized mess of yum below.

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crispy jerusalem artichokes with aged balsamic (recipe from the Nov ’14 Bon Appetit)

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cauliflower works equally well with the rest of the ingredients

I have not forgotten about the story I wanted to share. It began at last December’s Food52 holiday potluck here in DC. In addition to each bringing a dish to eat at the party, the fete was also a cookie exchange. Since I’m usually not big on cookies, I chose to make my aunt’s ridiculously good rum ball recipe for a sweet change of pace.

As if often the case with powdered sugar, it benefits from being sifted before use because it tends to clump and those damn sugar balls seem impervious to stirring, regardless of how vigorously you do so. I sifted powdered sugar ’til my arms ached, cup after cup of fine snow raining down into the mixing bowl into which I’d already put crumbled vanilla wafers, chocolate, rum, crushed walnuts and corn syrup, a sticky biz to be sure.

When I finally set my sifter down, the handle promptly fell off, and I started “praying” that the tiny ball-bearing-like nut that held the handle to the sifter was not in my rum ball dough.

“What are the chances? What are the odds?” I beseeched the culinary heavens. But just in case, I rolled those rum balls with extraordinary, unprecedented care, inspecting each tablespoon of batter as if I were Sherlock in a bakery.

Several days later, at the party (rum balls get better over time, y’all), I’d forgotten all about the “issue” and had a ball seeing old friends and meeting new ones: EmilyC, cookbookchick (author of the Batsaria), calendargirl… Finally, I packed my share of cookies and headed home.

A day or two later, I received a message from cookbookchick. It was the loveliest message ever, not least because in enjoying her portion of my rum balls, she found my sifter’s missing bit. I.was.horrified.

“OHMYGOD, are your teeth OK? I am SO sorry. I am MORTIFIED.”

“Don’t worry. I’m Greek. We have strong teeth. I knew you’d be mortified but don’t worry, I just wanted to send your piece back.”

A) Go Greeks and your teeth, and B) How nice is this?

She did return the could-have-cracked-your-molar metal, and I made Tom epoxy it to the sifter.

You connect with people a bit more deeply in the funniest of ways, eh? Thank you, S!

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SO…

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much…

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FUN!

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After a relatively lazy start to yesterday, we, by which I mean I, spontaneously decided that we should go apple picking. “We will go back to Larriland,” I told everyone, “the lovely place out in Woodbine where I picked the sixteen pounds of blackberries and thirty-two pounds of peaches and on and on during the summer.”

J: “Can we go later?”
Me: “No.”
Ol: “Can I wear shorts and bring Tool Sheet?”
Me: “No and yes.”
Tom: “Isn’t it kinda far?”
Me: “What in the sam hill is wrong with y’all? Get dressed and I’ll pack sandwiches. We are leaving pronto.”

I mean, talk about an inert bunch of blah. Anyway, we made it into the car and headed out. It was a glorious day, and as we approached Larriland, Tom asked, “Haven’t we been here before?” “Oh no,” I said, “just me. Our last family outing to a farm was to a place that started with an M.”

Tom’s like, “Well, I’m pretty sure this is the place because there is the Boo Barn, and there is the pond, and there is the apple orchard…” People, that was years ago. I hadn’t the slightest bit of recognition even though I have now been twice since that maiden voyage. The boys definitely get their weird, steel-trap memories from T. I guess he was right because why else would he have such intimate knowledge of the Larriland layout?

As we drove into the Larriland lot, it became abundantly clear that scads of families had had the same idea as had we.

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apples at Larriland

Tom prides himself on his picking strategy though – if picking is occurring in rows 3-19, head immediately to row 18 and commence picking in the spot farthest from the main aisle. In tandem with my belief in looking in and under, we are a pretty good, if not also completely nerdy and competitive, picking team.

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The boys tasted liberally and picked enthusiastically, and we came away with twenty-six pounds of assorted apples: Fuji, Braeburn, Stayman and a few Suncrisps which weren’t great but will provide a good bit of variety in my soon-to-be-made applesauce and pie.

To the vegetables, as Oliver was proclaiming a yen for beets. The kids were wild for the dull knife I traded my keys for, but when I told them that A) they couldn’t use it and that B) the spinach was pretty picked over but if you looked closely you could definitely discern lovely leaves from the lookalike cover crop surrounding them, they lost interest and began unearthing “quartz” from the field.

I picked an arseload of spinach by myself while T ventured into the beet patch with the knife. An older woman in spinach with me kept uprooting whole spinach plants, tossing them into a pile and rolling around in the dirt and weeds. She seemed to have a real plan, so I just kinda stayed at a comfortable distance as I picked my greens, leaf by leaf.

The kids had built a small fort by the time we remembered to look for them and suggested they take “all these quartzes home.”

“Y’all, those are not quartz, and the spinach obviously like them. You may not take the ‘quartz’ home!”

“Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease. We worked SO HARD to get these quartz and they are special and magical.”

“You may each pick ONE piece of ‘quartz’ AND, if you ask the man at the check-out counter IF you may keep it forever, only THEN may you take those rocks home. I am not asking or helping you ask.”

I could see that they were considering this a deal-breaker because they knew that those mudballs belonged to the farm and they hate asking when they know what they’re asking is a bit beyond the pale. However, desire for quartz ultimately outweighed anxiety about asking, and so they followed me to the table of scales and registers and asked me repeatedly under their breaths if I would “please ask for us.”

“Nope.”

With several families waiting behind us, I stood there like a statue and let them grunt and sweat in getting those few words out: “Can….. we….. maybe…. uh…. please…. maybe…. uh…. you see, we found these….. uh… can we…. take….?”

The guy was such a champ, and he said, “Well, if you’re going to make rock salad, then I have to charge you because salad includes vegetables and that’s what we grow. But if you’re not going to make salad, then….”

I’m still statuing but willing the boys with every fiber of my being to just GET THE WORDS OUT. Finally, Jack did, and he and the guy shook hands, and Jack grinned like a happy jack o’lantern and Oliver definitely went along for the ride. I lugged my spinach, Tom his beets, the boys their quartz back to the car and home we went.

“Mom, that was so much fun!!!”

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T’s beet harvest

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my spinach haul, double-washed natch

Tired as balls, I then realized that I had no room for one million pounds of spinach in my fridge so best start washing it so I could use it for dinner.

I recalled my friend, Stephanie’s, recipe for Batsaria, a phyllo-less spinach pie that her grandparents made in Greece. I tasted this wonderful dish last December at a Food52 potluck and it later won a Community Pick nod for best one-pot meal. It is SO good, and because it calls for two pounds of spinach, I was set.

Based on things I was missing -primarily enough onions and feta- my dish wasn’t completely accurate, but it was still marvelous. I added some confited leeks I had, plus ricotta and pecorino to make up for what I lacked in feta. And because the original recipe makes enough for twelve, I cooked two casseroles and later put on in the deep-freeze for a great meal later.

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batsaria minus the top “crust”

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batsaria ready to be devoured

Delicious. Divine. This is the kind of dish you can eat as if you are a bottomless pit. You just wanna keep shoveling and then you stand up, and it’s like, “Oh no, maybe I overdid it, but let me have one more bite.”

So, I was glad to go to the gym this morning, not least because I could then have more for lunch. And now I have just one gallon-size Ziploc of spinach left.

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batsaria

Percy is making it clear that if I don’t take him for a walk, he’s going to pee somewhere in the house. So, the funny story -which involves Stephanie and is in part why I consider her a friend- will have to wait a bit.

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As my sister is due (literally) to give birth to my first nephew at any moment, I’ve been thinking much about the many questions she’s asked me during the past months as well as all I’ve learned since Jack was born more than eight years ago.

“All I’ve learned” is immense, the sort of mass-scale discoveries one unearths by virtue of doing something every day for months and years on end; by being tethered to dynamic beings who are initially wholly dependent on you but whom you must teach to let go and move forth in evermore independent ways; by being both in the trenches of struggle and in the clouds of joy through which you must pass repeatedly during this journey; by attempting to maintain a sense of self within and distinct from parent-child relationships.

Parenthood is the ultimate humbling experience. Its constancy and challenges are the sort of things one can’t really prepare for in a way commensurate with the demands of its reality. I mean this with the utmost earnestness. I always wanted to be a mother; specifically, an at-home mother. I read all the books, took the requisite classes, learned everything I could about the most up-to-date birthing, nursing, safety, eating, sleeping and early-education recommendations. Some of what I discovered altered my own habits even before Jack was born, and much of what I studied did prepare me well for the concrete elements of being a mom: I knew who to call if we encountered any difficulty with nursing; I knew when I could start sleep-training; I did not let Jack watch TV for a hell of a long time; we have had a daily routine since about day 15.

What I didn’t know, perhaps what I couldn’t have known (though I would like to change some of the dialogue about “becoming a mom”), were the intangible bits and pieces that actually construct much of a parent’s being and often feel more vexing and critical. For me this has been especially true as my sons have gotten older. These less-rosey, more existential dilemmas are what really bring me to my knees, but they are also what can provide a greater sense of understanding, fulfillment and connection to the boys.

Altogether, these are the morsels of both instinctive and accrued knowledge that feel like pearls of wisdom to me now. These are the things I will share with my sister and friends as their little ones are born and grow.

10 Important Lessons I’ve Learned Since Becoming a Mom

  1. Figure out the values and traits you most want to instill and hone in your children and work assiduously towards those from Day 1. I believe I can safely generalize by stating that kids aren’t born with a hell-bent desire to write thank you notes or eat like civilized beings.  We have to both model and teach them those things, as well as all the more important values like kindness, gratitude, generosity and honesty. No matter how much I may wish it so, I haven’t found that there’s much room for laziness and corner-cutting in strong parenting, especially when kids are young and formative. Each step counts for something so don’t squander opportunities. It’s a lot easier to always teach toward the optimal behavior than to have to backtrack and retrain later.
    Trust me: despite advice to the contrary, we let Percy jump on us when he was a cute, four-pound puppy and now suffer daily from an incredibly ill-trained, twenty-five-pound pug. Thank god he came before the real children. #lessonlearned
  2. My kids are not clones of me or my husband; do not expect yours to be, either. Love them for that. Children are unique brews of what they get not only from their biological parents but also from their extended families and, for fun and giggles, some newly combinant stuff. Each is a singular, unprecedented being. Please love them for who they are rather than for who you hoped they would be. Staying open to the myriad possibilities of each child makes it that much easier to adore and appreciate them through the hard, surprising times. If I expected my kids to respond and behave exactly as I would, I’d be frustrated 90% of the time.
    You get the kids you get; accept that great (and often tremendously challenging) fact and move on. With them! Does this mean you need to agree with all of their choices? No. Should you push back on and guide your children? Absolutely. But if they know that they are loved for the individuals they are, I think they’re much more likely to trust and follow your guidelines. Acceptance breeds openness too. If they trust you with their hearts, the lines of communication between you will stay open, and that is invaluable.
  3. Find a time, place or way in which you can fall in love with each child again. Make this simple so that you can do it daily if you need to. I have found this an incredibly important tactic because (and here’s one of those things too few people tell you or admit) some days are really hard, so hard that you will actually dislike some or all of your kids. You will look at them as if they are alien devil spawn who have trespassed into your home to wreak havoc on your psyche. If they are old enough, they will likely enjoy your horrified stupefaction which makes the whole experience that much more infuriating. You will feel a desperate need to like them anew.
    Without fail, I treasure mine in unadulterated fashion when I go into their rooms each night after they’re asleep. They are so soft and sweet and quiet and innocent. I can sit beside them, in the silence, and just fall in love again.
  4. Be ready to be your child’s biggest, most ferocious-in-a-lovely-way advocate. I can almost guarantee you that every child will need an advocate at least once (but probably more like 85 times) in his/her life. If you get off with once, you are parenting the equivalent of the Willy Wonka Golden Bar, so really, don’t expect that. Advocacy, which is really just standing up for your child and his/her needs, can be as simple as having a clarifying talk with another parent about what really happened during the playdate. It can be a more difficult discussion with your child’s school about a bully whose behavior towards your child is seriously problematic. It can be within your nuclear or extended family about your own parenting philosophies (One of my earliest experiences with advocacy was on behalf of my kids’ sleep schedules, a topic about which I felt/feel very strongly and with which some in our extended families disagreed.) Advocacy is not always easy, but neither is parenting.
    Note: In my opinion, advocacy and loving your child for who he/she is often go hand in hand. If you are truly committed to honoring your child’s inner self, you’ll be able to see more clearly those aspects of him/her that need support in some way.
  5. Firm and consistent discipline IS your friend. Ever meet a child and think, “Wow, what a nightmare!” Of course you have. In all likelihood, that child has never been told “No.” Cultivate kids that you and others enjoy spending time with. It’s an infinitely more difficult job to raise appealing beings because it requires discipline and consistency in message over a long time. This is exhausting, but the pay-offs are obvious anytime you meet an adult from whom you immediately want to run.
    Going back to Point 1, identify behaviors that you like and admire in self and others and figure out ways to nurture those in your own kids. The thank-you note is, again, a simple but clear example. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t respond incredibly positively to a hand-written note of appreciation. Model that, teach it, enforce it, and at some point, thank-yous will become second nature to your kids even if via obligatory guilt from the maternal voice on their shoulders. Will this cause friction at times? Yes. But I’d rather the kids be mad at me on occasion (note: they’re going to get mad and dislike you sometimes anyway) and turn out to be nice people than to attempt to please them all time and turn out entitled dictators.
  6. Be willing to keep learning, change your mind and don’t sweat the unimportant stuff. There are so many mines on the battlefield of Raising Kids, and while some are ones you mustn’t allow your kids to cross, others are completely inconsequential. I have had to learn to simply let some things go, because then, when it’s really important and I have to dig my heels in, I am taken more seriously by the tiny warriors known as kids. At the end of the day, this is better for everyone. They see that Mom can both make mistakes and change her mind in light of new information and their valid opinions, and they learn from that.
    Would I rather the boys make their beds and brush their teeth OR wear things that match? Well, although I find it odd when Ol insists on wearing bright orange-red shorts and that same color shirt plus green and blue striped socks to school, I would, ultimately, rather him make his bed and brush his teeth. I’ve learned to just say, “Ok, man. If you want to look like a shock of fire all day, be my guest.” He feels empowered in his choice, and I don’t have to look at gross teeth or an unkempt bed.
    When Jack lazily completes writing homework, I work like hell to sit on my hands and let him take the fall for that later rather than force him to do it to my standards now. This is a lesson I’ve really just learned and accepted: how will he ever start to do his best work for himself if I force him to do it for me? Only when he learns what it feels like to turn in sub-par work and reap the consequences of that will the motivation for doing his best work become an internal one. He knows that we expect him to do his best. But ultimately, he has to be the one who does that.
  7. It is often wise to take your child’s version of a predicament with a loving grain of salt. I’m talking about kids in the ten-and-under range here as I don’t have much experience with older ones who might be more prone to objective re-tellings rather than highly subjective ones rooted in their own emotional experiences of said predicament. Every Saturday before Tae Kwon Do, Jack bitches to the nines about how he doesn’t want to go, has never wanted to go and how the whole thing is my fault because I never even asked him if he wanted to take Tae Kwon Do. Since I actually do recall the exact conversation we had after the birthday party he attended at the TKD studio in which he said I MUST register for him for classes, it is extremely easy to swat away this erroneous claim. As well, because I know he has trouble leaving one activity (playing with Legos, for example) to move onto another (TKD), I know that while he thinks he doesn’t want to go, he actually just struggles with transitions. Lastly, because I see him after class and he is always thrilled by having learned yet another nunchuck move, I know that he truly enjoys TKD. If I took as gospel his complaints, we would have signed up for and dropped out of Tae Kwon Do at least 50 times in the past 18 months. Not only would that be irritating and costly, but also (and again going back to Point 1), what would that teach him about sticking with a commitment? When he did seem to seriously want a break, we took a month off. He then wanted to return and so we did. The weekly complaints are just noise. It’s important to know your child so that you can discern between true need and trivial chatter.
  8. Be involved but not enmeshed. This might be one of the places in which I laze out, but I actually don’t care too much about what the kids do at school all day. We worked exceedingly hard to find a place that we could trust with the boys’ academic and social-emotional growth. Because we found that gold mine, I have been able to take a load off. Sure, I’m curious about who their friends are and what they enjoy learning, and I definitely want to know about their relationships with their teachers. But, I don’t need to know exactly what they did every minute of every hour. I feel it’s the perfect place for them to begin living their own lives. I’m getting the newsletters, I volunteer there enough to have a sense of what’s shaking, and they tell me, on their own time and in their own way, what’s important.
    Likewise, and I learned this on the later side, you can host a playdate and not participate in it. When I realized that I did not need to manage and play in the playdate, I was liberated and the boys learned a lot about independence. Create safe spots -their rooms, a basement or play area- and let them go. Same is true for birthday parties: if it’s a drop-off, drop those babies off. They will learn that they can do it, and that is an amazing boost of confidence for them.
    Note: Closely related to this is the concept of teaching children that your time is just as valuable as theirs. In retrospect, I believe I have been too “on” for basically their whole lives. No wonder they have trouble considering that when I say I need space or quiet time, I really mean it. A couple years ago, we instituted Quiet Hour (QH) and Family Sunday (FS). The first, QH, comes after lunch on both Saturday and Sunday. We all get one hour of quiet time to ourselves. The boys can play together but they must do so quietly and not in the same room as either T or me. Family Sunday occurs on Sunday mornings before or after the farmers market which is usually a family outing. FS is time devoted to T and me getting to read the paper. The kids can do what they want but it’s off-screen and independent. This is great for everyone, and the boys are that much closer for it.
  9. Sometimes, it’s best to Just Say Yes. I tell T this all the time. Kids can be pretty boring and repetitive, but they can also be hilarious, creative, slap-your-ass fun. Follow their lead by just saying yes sometimes to the games and ideas they propose (within reason of course). What may initially seem like a dull waste of time will often turn into one of the best bonding, stuff-of-memories experiences ever. Also, when you just say yes, you might find they take later “not right now’s” a bit better.
  10. You MUST take time for yourself when you can. Just do it. You deserve and will be better for it, and they will learn that you are more than mom.

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If you, like me, enjoy eating pie straight from the pie plate, do not put the saran wrap back on until you are exceedingly sure that you are done with that last bite. I mean, swallow that puppy before you recover the dish. Otherwise, the pie on your fork WILL fall onto the saran wrap -even if it’s the only bite that’s fallen from your utensil- which you will have to scrape off while cursing the fact that not only is the saran wrap now sticky on both sides but also valuable bits of your bite are now not going to make it into your mouth.

Do you, like me, wonder why Sophia Bush is famous? Equally important, why does she always make this face? Doesn’t she worry that one day her mouth is going to start defaulting into that expression?

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why the pursed lips? why is she famous?

If you, like me, are sick of squirrels nibbling away at the festive pumpkins you have invariably placed in front of your home, put a plastic snake just by them. I swear to you this works. The squirrels want the pumpkins but not so much that they’ll risk being smacked by a snake! They are such destructive little bastards- gotta get ‘em when we can.

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