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Monday, February 25, 2008

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Hired Gun

My first WalletPop posts are up. I won't normally be linking to every one*, but here are today's posts with my byline:

Happy to You! Budget Birthday Party Going for Kids

Pet Owners May Tighten Belts Before Leashes

I'll be checking comments over there. I'd love to see a few familiar names!

Update: this new button for WalletPop will also reside in my right sidebar, under "Allegiances". It will take you directly to my byline over there.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

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Number One Fan

Here in the morning
things sure look different
You are still beautiful—
I am all gone.

—Bruce Robison, "Go to Your Heart"

This is a photograph of Bruce Robison, one of the greatest country songwriters alive, taken last night at a local nightclub. I am actually in the photo, to the right of Bruce, but if I show it to you, you will know what a blithering dork I can be.

Oh wait, you're reading my blog. You already know about that.

Remember last summer when I bumped into Mary Steenbergen, and explained why I find it weird to talk to strangers I admire?
It must be so strange to be famous, to be on the receiving end of that sense of urgency people feel when they run into you. To meet people all the time whom you know nothing about, yet they feel connected to you, perhaps significantly. You might have been part of their first date, the naming of their child, their Mom's funeral, but the current doesn't flow both ways.

Okay, there's that, but I left out how weird those lopsided exchanges make me.

Someone that normal people might be starstruck by—say, Brad Pitt—could have walked up to my table last night and asked for a light, and I probably would have told him to shush and wait for the break, because this song? Made my husband cry when I put it on a mix for him during a really rough time. And the one that has all the sweethearts slow dancing makes me ache with every unrequited love I never had. And this next one makes me think of my little band of brothers at home and imagine them out on the town together some night years and years from now.

Sit down, Brad. Go away.

But what happens when one of my girlfriends taps someone like Bruce Robison on his Levi's-clad back and sends him over to talk to me? My brain short circuits and trips over into free association mode, and random stuff starts coming out of my mouth. I try so hard to avoid all the fan cliches, that I just start grasping at things. "You write music!" I inform Bruce. "You have children!"

Locked in a supply closet in the back of my brain, my better self starts banging her head on the door.

"You live in Texas!" (Texas. Texas. Think. THINK. Kerrville is in Texas!)

"Ever play Kerrville?"


Here I prattle on about the Kerrville Folk Festival, to which I have never been, and know nearly nothing about, for several long minutes, during which time the real me looks for something to ram her way out.

"I'm not much of a folkie," Bruce says politely. "I'm more into Johnny Cash."


At this I panic, and attempt to restore my credibility as a person who knows something about country music.

"Have you ever been to Ireland?" I squeak.

My best hope now is that a beer bottle will come sailing through the air and knock me out cold.

I insist to Bruce that he must tour Ireland, where he will be bigger than Jesus. I promise him that the Irish government will open its treasury to him and hand him all its Euros, and I vaguely intimate that I "know people" and might be able to hook him up with, well, Ireland and its country music loving people.

And then?

I hand him a card with my blog on it. Passport to the world, baby.

Far down my winding & twisted neural pathways, I can still hear weeping.


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Monday, February 18, 2008

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Home For Sale

Tomorrow, our real estate agent will drive a stake in our yard that will make it official: this home is for sale.

We came to the decision shortly before Christmas, and I am (mostly) at peace with it. The minute we signed the realtor contract, whatever energy that had been jammed up around money for the preceding year came dramatically unstuck. Jobs and checks began rolling in, and if Patrick were to bill every month what he's billed the past two months, we would be wealthy enough to hire someone to do his sleeping for him while he is working 100+ hours per week.

Trying to stage a house with three little boys, two careers and life with no pause button has been challenging. We were supposed to start showing a month ago, but week after week I've had to beg for more time. Just staying abreast of these kids and keeping the place picked up is one thing; actually getting ahead of them, into deep cleaning, decluttering and improvements is another.

I bought sixty bankers boxes on sale after the first of the year, and I wish I'd bought sixty more. I've been ruthlessly sorting and tossing, and it's been a kind of yoga. There's a first stretch, then a deepening of that stretch, and then a real, "I don't know if I can go there" moment of truth.

It's also interesting what the stacked and labeled boxes—the keepers— reveal about values. Our inventory is hugely weighted toward memorabilia and objects of sentimental import. I suspect there will be more deep stretching to be done on the other side of this move.

Over the weekend we had a friend come in and do some painting for us. Patrick has been able to pick away at small repair jobs here and there. Items that have been on the to-do list for years are finally getting done, and we are now wondering what the hell is wrong with us that we lived in half-painted rooms with broken light switches for so long.

And there is a part of me that wishes we could stay, forever and ever.

The financial bleeding has stopped. All my utility bills are actually for charges incurred in the past 30 days. There is more than two or three days worth of food in the kitchen and gas in the van. Our creditors are getting regular payments. We've been able to go out and eat in restaurants, say "yes" to social invitations that require spending (one thing you notice when you can't is how almost all of them do), and think beyond our own immediate survival to paying forward some of our extremely modest, yet miraculous-seeming good fortune.

But caught up isn't the same as being ahead, and like Scarlett O'Hara, as God is my witness, I'll never go through the sustained level of stress over money that I did last year. Evah. Again. Our house is in a great neighborhood, buffered from the worst of the current real estate market woes, and has more than tripled in value in the ten years since we bought it. With this sale, we can pay off every cent we owe, put six months comfortable living expenses in the bank, put some liquidity into both our freelance careers, and still have a hefty downpayment on the next house. It's a no-brainer.

And now that the hand-wringing is over, and the decision has been made, I'm at least as exhilarated as I am sad to let go. "We are free, we owe nothing to no-one," goes the title of a favorite painting by favorite artist, and it is an apt caption for the excitement I feel at pulling up roots after being dug in for so long. In all likelihood, our move won't take us more than a mile or two away, but the idea that we could re-invent ourselves all over again, some place completely new, is thrilling enough for us to have put the word out with friends in Ireland and elsewhere.

In an odd coda to our Year of Living By Our Fingernails, I'm going to be writing more about our extreme money makeover and the yoga of letting go at WalletPop, AOL's money blog, starting later this week. For money.

When I told this to my girlfriend, Jane, the other night, she looked appropriately stunned, as I imagine you do now. Don't worry, I won't be dishing out any advice. I'll leave that to my fellow WalletPop bloggers. But writing about our situation here has been so unexpectedly cathartic and well-received that I've come to think there are people going through their own challenges who need perspective and encouragement as much as advice. So I hope to make that my little niche.

I took this photo of my kitchen window sill this morning as I was running water for the coffee pot. It's a sill that badly needs scrubbing and painting, but it has become an altar for an assortment of kitchen gods. It's as imperfect as anything else in this house, but the east light comes in and annoints it every morning. Lately it reminds me that the things I have really loved and valued most in this house are all things I can take with me—a few beloved objects and a wealth of memories. The east light will find me through the next window.


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Saturday, February 16, 2008

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Many years ago, in the seventies, a young boy growing up in a trailer park in Arkansas had a dream. The dream was to never have to grow old and cut his hair and wear a suit and tie and loafers, but to have the kind of job where one could wear levis and t-shirts and tennies all day, every day.

The boy grew tall, handsome and bright, and he went off to college and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He became an Art Director, and worked in advertising agencies for many years. He wooed an imaginary girl on a mythical isle and she became real, and they married, and bought real estate in a fashionable neighborhood, and had sons.

True to his childhood vision, he wore levis and t-shirts and tennies everyday, and his blonde hair was rarely cut above his ears.

Then one day, the boy left corporate advertising and came home to work freelance. He worked very hard, and the enterprise wobbled a while, then prospered. He worked out of an office in the house, during hours of his choosing, and only occasionally did he have to meet with actual live people. The boy loved his work and would eagerly sit down to his Macintosh computer in the mornings, still in his bathrobe and comfy slippers.

Gradually, the bathrobe began to stay on later and later. As time wore on, the faded & baggy levis, the x-large ts (worn untucked), and worn-in converse sneakers began to seem rather formal. One day the boy's wife saw him coming down the street toward her, and commented that he looked rather more like someone going door to door to do yardwork, than someone who worked in the field of design.

The boy rolled his eyes.

The wife was in a bind. She did not care to be a controlling wife who dressed her husband. She respected his desire to be comfortable and "himself", and to expend as little energy as possible into thinking about what to wear. At the same time, she felt that crewneck sweatshirts and jeans with the knees ripped out did not do justice to the brilliant light that was her husband.

To complicate matters, the boy was a southern man, and did not cotton to be told what to do. "For god's sake, grow up," would not work as a call to change. She would have to be crafty.

"Tell you what," she said to the boy one day. "I will start doing your laundry..."

"It's about TIME you did something besides blog all day!," the boy exclaimed joyfully.

"...I will start doing your laundry IF you will agree to culling out your wardrobe drastically, and shopping for some new clothes that are mutually pleasing to us both."

The boy squinted suspiciously.

"Don't panic. I'm not asking you to wear a suit, or even lose the jeans and t-shirt dream. But there have to be wardrobe options out there that are no-brainers for you and will not cause neighbors and potential clients to hand you a rake."

The boy looked bemused. "And YOU'RE the fashion expert?"

"Good god, no!," the girl said. "But I know someone who is..."

Susan, will you play the fairy godmother in this story and help my Prince Charming see that looking presentable and feeling comfortable do not have to be mutually exclusive?

Our hero is 44 years old, about 5'10. While he grows only more handsome and sexy with the years, his midriff is somewhat more convex than it used to be. Which is possibly the reason behind the x-large t-shirts worn untucked. The ripped jeans, I can't explain. Perhaps homage to Cobain, one of his heroes.

Also, please note that I said I'd do his laundry, so easy on the special care and need-ironing garments.


Susan Wagner, Blogher fashion editor, aisledash columnist and all around spiffy person, has posted her excellent solution on Blogher. Thank God, it wasn't too late!


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Thursday, February 14, 2008

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The Great Blood Sugar Crash of '08

Those of you with school age children know that Valentine's Day is second only to Hallowe'en on the glycemic disaster index. Every valentine card the kids exchange today will have at least one piece of high fructose smack attached in some way to Jack Sparrow's or Darth Vader's or Dora's sinister, leering face.

When did this start? Is it an American thing? When I was a kid about a thousand years ago, it was enough to exchange painstakingly chosen cut-out Valentine's from a book that contained not one licensed, trademarked character. You chose the plainest, slightly backhanded ones for the kids you didn't like, and the most ornate, gushing ones for the kids you did, and we gave it to each other straight up, without the orgiastic euphoria of corn syrup solids to cloud things.

I think this Valentine's Day post from last year bears repeating, if only as a cautionary tale.

Of course, Mum always did have a little heart-shaped box of Ganong chocolates waiting for us on our bedside tables when my sister and I woke up. I had to keep up the tradition with little Chinese take-away boxes filled with M&Ms.

And now I have to send this email:
Dear Ms. First Grade Teacher.,

First grader woke up early this morning and got into the Valentines' chocolate before I could regulate it. Consequently, he is kind of wired.

Sorry about that, and good luck.



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Monday, February 11, 2008

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I loved you in the morning

...our kisses deep and warm
your hair upon the pillow
like a sleepy, golden storm.

-L. Cohen


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Saturday, February 09, 2008

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I really should have mentioned this weeks ago, in case any local readers were interested in participating, but I am presenting the above-mentioned workshop at the Riversong conference today at the Peabody Hotel, downtown Little Rock.

The theme of the conference is "Flowing With the Creative Spirit," and I've been asked to talk about something you know I am very passionate about: blogging as a vehicle for self-expression and creativity. Blog for blog's sake, so to speak.

I'm especially excited that my workshop is specifically directed at women, because I am increasingly convinced that this matrix-shaped medium is a natural overlay for the way women tend to communicate. It mirrors the way we build community, share multilaterally, motivate and mobilize one another.

So many blogs embody these strengths, the hardest bit in writing this workshop is narrowing down the list of examples. I plan to talk about Jen Ballantyne, faithful Notes reader and commenter, who is using her blog, The Comfy Place as a haven where she can speak openly and honestly about living with terminal cancer, for which offline society affords precious little opportunity.

I plan to introduce them to Kate Inglis, whose Sweet Salty takes what would otherwise be the most private, intimate expression of grief over the loss of a child and transforms it into a community of support to which mothers bereaved and not, are drawn in by the thousands, to console, to share, to express gratitude for life on life's terms.

You know I am going to turn them on to my beloved friend and soulsister, Jen Lemen, who makes social change feel personal, approachable, and possible.

And how about that Melissa, that Alice, and that Heather, who keep it so real, and are attacked in the most vicious ways for it, for daring to write about daily life as a mother as if it were important. As if it were at all interesting, legitimate or worthwhile.

So many women bloggers I admire and adore who write from outside, inside, and beyond motherhood. Too many for me to list here in the little bit of time I have before I have to go, and so many for me to draw from in my workshop, that you should be glad I didn't tell you in advance and you can't be there. I may have to go on for days.

But even more than the show-n-tell, the prospect of inspiring other women to start blogging; to see their own lives as rich and interesting and full of story, that's the golden ring. Whatever else comes out of todays session, I hope to convince someone that it's okay to talk about yourself. Somebody, somewhere, wants and needs to hear that story that only you can share. And the person who will grow the most from your sharing it might just be you.


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Thursday, February 07, 2008

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Laconic, Thy Name is 7-Year-Old Boy

We've just returned from a cub scout tour of a local news station, where our den got to watch the weather forecast being broadcast live, in all its green-screened glory. The boys were rapt the entire time, as evidenced by their utter silence, but my Tiger feigned indifference on the way home.

"It was boring," he pronounced, buckling his seat belt.

His older, Bear cub brother was indignant. "How can you say that?? It was amazing!"

But Tiger was not to be dislodged from the stance of blasé. He shrugged.

"All we did was watch tv and get free pencils."


It reminds me of his first day playing Lego Star Wars on the Xbox, this past Christmas. He couldn't figure out how to make his Lego avatar shoot his weapon, so he was just stuck hopping behind his big brother, getting blown to Lego bits every few seconds. After about a hundred instant reincarnations, cynicism crept in.

"All I can do is run and DIE."

Uh...yeah...about that, kid...


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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

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I am Somebody and So Can You: The Great Interview Experiment

On Monday, I began a five-day guest spot at Design Mom at the pleasure of the warm and wonderful Gabrielle Blair. I hope you'll join me over there daily.

A few weeks ago, the Great Interview Experiment was launched by writer, blogger, and all-around sensitive guy Neil Kramer. As Neil explains it, he thought every blogger should have an opportunity to feel like they are "somebody."

Obviously, he struck a chord, because the list of people who signed up to participate is over 200 names long. I've been interviewed offline several times over the past year, and I have to say, it's very gratifying to be on the "A" side of the "Q."

But Neil's experiment is more than an installation of mirrors. I love reading these interviews. Leah Peterson, the Terry Gross of the blogosphere, did a whole series of them from 2004-2007. They were my first introduction to many of the bloggers I follow faithfully today. Not because Leah deemed them "important" or "interesting" enough to interview (although certainly, I came to trust her recommendations), but because an interview could establish context and backstory that would otherwise have taken months to glean. It provided a ramp to a narrative that was already in midstream. It made me sympathetic to bloggers whose style might have been offputting to me at first pass. It taught me to be always mindful of the fact that the blog serves up a slice of someone's life. Not the totality.

I am so glad to be able to participate in this experiment and contribute to this culture's archives. My assigned interviewee was Ree, of Hotfessional. It was good to be on the "A" side of her "Q!"

Ree, reading your blog was like entering another world for me. You have children who can drive themselves places, and you work somewhere where they probably require you to wear shoes!

I forget sometimes that not all women blogging are stay-at-home Moms of young kids. Do you identify with the mom-blogger title at all? How much of your subject matter is derived from parenting, and how much draws on other aspects of your life?

Actually, I do identify with the mom-blogger title (a pre-menopausal, spayed Mom, but a mom nonetheless). My son is 16 - and it’s challenging to figure out the proper balance between “making him” do things and “letting him” suffer the consequences. Homework is my latest minor victory. I’ve finally come to terms with letting him determine when he should do his homework versus playing World of Warcraft. If he doesn’t finish it, then he has to stay up late or get up early, or fail.

I guess I blog about parenting and family as much as I blog about other aspects of my life. It just depends on my mood that day and what’s taking up precious brain cell space and needs to be purged.

You’re a stepmother to two young adults. I have a nineteen year-old stepson who lived with us for about four years. I found it incredibly tough. Tell me about your relationship with your stepkids today. And do they read your blog?

The first two years Mr. Hot and I were together were horribly tough. Although 20 and 24 never lived with us full time, we were their “daycare” after school (we were both students, their Mom is a teacher) and they spent many weekends with us. I was a new wife and then a new mother, and these children did NOT like me. In fact, when 20 was just 4, she told me, “Mah mama said I don’t have to listen to you, ‘cuz you’re just white trash.” I didn’t know whether to laugh hysterically (because you had to hear that coming out of a 4 year old’s mouth with a West-by-Gawd-Virginia accent) or cry.

We had to move to Michigan to find jobs and our visits were limited to Spring Breaks. They grew up. Mr. Hot’s relationship with them suffered - and the guilt he felt caused us to have our own problems. I think, though, it was during these years, that they came to understand that I did love them and cared about what was going on in their lives.

It hasn’t been until the last 3 years that we all can get together and simply enjoy each others company. We got terrific news recently that 24 is going to come live with us in the spring. He’s trying to decide whether to go to grad school or keep working; whether to join the Peace Corps or become a flight attendant to see the world.

I’m thankful that years of separation have been bridged recently. And that Shortman (the 16 year old) will have his older brother around, finally.

As for if they read it? Ack. I doubt that they even know it exists. Mr. Hot is the only one in my family who knows the URL - Shortman knows I write, but not where.

I notice you post very few headshots of yourself. How anonymous or public an identity do you maintain on your blog, and why?
If someone who knew me well came across this blog, they would know it was me. (My ex-husband found me this way, and I had a very anxious few weeks.) But I don’t use my real name or my employer’s name - mainly because of the horror stories I’ve read where people have lost jobs. I don’t want any accidental googling of the company I work for to make my family starve!

The headshots? I just don’t like pictures of me. Maybe if I come across one or have one taken that I really, really like, I’ll post it. Until then, imagine I’m tall, gorgeous and thin.

You travelled to India! That’s tops on my list of places to go before I die. Please tell me all about it. Will you go back?

I’d love to go back. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity some day. It’s a complete sensory overload. Sights and smells unlike anything else in the world. Think of our highways. Four or five lanes in each direction. In India, the main roads have two lanes each way with 7 lanes worth of traffic. Cars, motorcycles, jitneys. Bikes, busses, trucks. Camels and elephants. People walking. Somehow, amazingly enough, it all works.

The poverty is overwhelmingly sad, but the people are all so friendly and giving. And they’re doing what they can to ensure education for their children.

It looks like you link out a lot. Do you read a lot of other blogs, and are you into social networking? Tell me about your online life beyond the blog. Do you feel like you are part of a community?

I read far too many blogs. (snort) It seems like I add more and more to my Bloglines every week. The problem is that I also feel compelled to comment on them all, which, of course, only causes my “blog time” to increase exponentially!

I’m just getting into the whole social networking scene. I am on LinkedIn because of work and my contacts there. I just opened a Facebook account this week (and ack! damn there’s a bunch of stuff out there). When I was doing NaBloPoMo, I was on Ning fairly often, but don’t get a chance to visit as much with Blog365.

What has really amazed me since I’ve started blogging is how much I enjoy my “online friends”. It’s hard for me to explain, but I feel like I know so many of these people and that there’s always someone else who is going through what I’m going through, or has been through it before. There is a sense of community - I’ve seen them rally around Susan during her breast cancer struggles and Bossy when her daughter was bitten by a dog - that is unlike anything I ever expected when I started this little journey.

Is Hotfessional your first and only blog/website? When did you start it, and why? How has it surprised you?

Yep. First and only. I started writing it in May 2007 on a Blogger site. I moved it to Wordpress a few months later. Sometime in March or so, I started exploring gardening blogs to get ready for spring. It was then that I ran across Susie Sunshine’s mommy-blog and was hooked.

Talking to Mr. Hot one day, I said something about how my life would make some interesting blog material. I was the only female executive in my group. I was working myself out of a job by selling my client organization. He started encouraging me (fool that he is!) and the rest, as they say, is history.

The part that has surprised me the most is how much I really enjoy it all. And how I feel as though something is missing if I don’t write or check in with my friends at least daily.

Does your husband read your blog, and if so, how does he feel about it? Does he blog?

He doesn’t read it. He said he doesn’t want to me to censor myself, he wants me to be able to write honestly about my life.

He doesn’t blog, (that I know of, snirk) but I wish he would. He’s an insanely intelligent man, a news junkie, and truly interested in making the world a better place. Besides, if he would get it all out of his head before I came home from work, I wouldn’t have to feel so stupid about not knowing current events when he uses me as his sounding board all evening. (See, that’s why he doesn’t need to read this!)

Last question: would your teenage son volunteer three words to describe you?

Well, since he’s laying right here on the couch next to me playing Guitar Hero, this will be the easiest question yet.

“Shortman, give me three words that you think describe me.”

“Describe you? Alright.

Humorous and, um,

Hey, I can’t ask for more than that.

Thanks, Ree!


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He Might Be Giant

The boys got an xbox for Christmas, and I found a dancepad in a clearance bin a few weeks ago. It took me a while to track down a dance game, but one came in the mail yesterday. Consequently, our family room after school was transformed into the scene of a shirtless rave (at one point, pantless, but Dads for Decency intervened ). Here is my seven year old's freestylin' to "Istanbul", by They Might Be Giants:

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

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I Went to Ladies' Night with Kristen Chase and All I Got Was This Cool T-shirt.

...well, the cool t-shirt, and an indeterminate number of $1 martinis. And a keepsake menu that I set on fire. On the table. In front of Kristen. I also got to tip over my chair twice, standing up to go to the ladies' room.

All of us ladies got to enjoy Kristen's wit, intelligence and radiant beauty, which does make it a little difficult to concentrate on the first two things, because you are marvelling the entire time over her porelessness. We got to talk about the kinds of grown-up activities and products that Kristen writes about on her sex advice blog, and then we got disapproving looks from the patrons behind us who did not find us at all ladylike.

The wait staff all got big tips, and my single dad friend who lives around the corner from the bar got to make a big pot of coffee for four of us. Would you not be delighted to see us ladies standing on your doorstep at one in the morning on a school night?

Kristen was not with the touring company of Ladies' Night, having the good sense to sip one martini, drink lots of water, and head home to her lucky husband and children at a decent hour. When I watched her go to her car, she was running.

I'm hoping it was only because of the rain.

The t-shirt is wonderful, soft and fitted. You can save yourself the pyrotechnics, day-long hangover and having to send a whole lot of email apologies by just buying yours online.


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