Friday, October 30, 2009

Easy Ham and Bean Soup - Great for Fall

Before I started the busy week last week, I decided to cook up a big batch of bean soup. High in protein and low in fat, this turned out to be a healthy way to have a quick meal. Plus, once it was made, I could just heat it up and go. Here's how I made it:

1 bag of dried beans
1 Ham shank
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
celery (I used some from a leftover mixed veggie tray, approximately 3 stalks.)
carrots (Same as above, about 3 or 4 full sized carrots)
2 bay leaves
olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 smoked pork chops ( about a 1.5 pounds.)

You can chose just about any dried beans for this, or a mix of different kinds. I used navy beans because I am particularly fond of them. There is a market here in town that has a fantastic meat department and they also carry some local produce, including Michigan grown dried beans. They cost a little more than beans at the local megamart, but I like knowing they were locally raised and my purchase supports Michigan farmers. This market is also where I got the meat for my soup...

This soup is really flexible, in fact, you could leave the meat out all together and go with a vegetarian option. Another choice would be to add a small style pasta at the end for a bean and pasta soup. In my case, I had gone to this market specifically for their ham, unfortunately, they were out - but they had some at the smokehouse and it would be in the next day. Frankly, that was the best answer they could have given - now that's a real butcher! Since I didn't want to wait until the next day, I got the smoked pork chops instead, and let me tell you - they were awesome!

The first step is to rinse off the dried beans and sort through them. (Small rocks can occasionally get in batches of dried beans.) Then soak the beans overnight.

The next day, chop up the carrots, celery, garlic and onion. Put a small amount of olive oil in a big soup pot and cook the veggies cook lightly over low heat in a little olive oil. Toss in a small amount of salt (you can always add more later, but wait until you know how salty your ham is,) some fresh ground pepper, and the bay leaves. Cook until the onion is translucent. Add the ham shank.

Some information on ham shanks and ham hocks: Real hams have bones. This may be shocking to some of you who are used to the boneless pre-shaped kinds, but those are to ham what bologna is to steak. Artificial hams have been processed and then squeezed into a ham mold and died pink. A true ham is a cut of the hind leg of a pig. The shank is the section of the bone that ran through the ham. A hock is the sort of "handle" at the end. Ham shanks and ham hocks tend to be less expensive cuts of meat. My ham shank cost $2.59 a pound, and it was a pound of smokey, salty, hammy goodness that made an amazing broth! Now, a shank has a big bone running right through the center so there isn't a ton of meat, (which is why I bought the pork chops,) but for flavor - hocks and shanks are fantastic!

Now drain and rinse the beans. Put the drained beans in the soup pot with the veggies and shank and add 6 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil, then turn down to medium low heat. (You want regular bubbles, but not a full rolling boil.)
Cook until the beans are tender. It was 2 hours for me.

One note here on cooking times - I told you what I used, but I always recommend paying attention to the manufacturer's suggested cooking times when it comes to beans, rice or pasta. They know their product best. As you get to the end of the cooking time, check regularly to see if they are done. Personally, I love these long cooking recipes because they are just so easy. I can put everything in one pot and let it cook while I go off and do other things, making sure to swing by and stir occasionally, of course.

When the beans are tender, remove the ham shank and set it on a cutting board to let it cool. Meanwhile, cut up the pork chops into soup bite sized pieces. (Since they are smoked, they're already cooked, which is why I waited until the end to add them. No sense over cooking them.) Once the pork chop is added, cut all the meat off the ham shank, discarding fat and bone. (Hint: ham bones can be kept and cooked again to make great stock. I like to keep them in the freezer in a freezer bag until I have enough to make a new batch of stock.) Once all the meat is added, cook for another 20 minutes, just to let all the flavors meld.

And that's it! It is fabulous with fresh pepper added at the table! YUM!

This recipe made a ton of servings. I don't know how many, but I am guessing 10 or 12. Some I froze, but most I ate. It is a great fall soup - very warming and very filling. All told with buying the beans, chops and shank, I spent about $10. For ten servings of soup - that comes out to only a $1 per serving! The soup takes awhile to make, but once made, it was less than 3 minutes to heat it up, perfect for on-the-go meals, and so, so much healthier than fast food!

So, what is your favorite busy week food?

Photo by: Roger Smith
via flickr

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

First Room Completed!

When I was a teenager, I went through a phase of being a slob. What is it about that age? Is it part of establishing our own identity or perhaps a little passive rebellion? Or is it biology? Do teenagers need more sleep and therefore don't have time to pick their clothes up off the floor? Whatever the reason, the older I got, the more I grew out of it. Having my own apartment was finally what killed my slovenly ways. I pretty quickly realized that if I didn't clean up, no one else was going to do it for me! I also found out that it is a lot easier to clean a tidy house. I am not a fan of cleaning, though I like my house that way, and it seems a lot easier to take 2 minutes to put something away when I am done with it, then to spend precious hours on Saturday cleaning the whole room. This system works great... right up until I get extremely busy, and that is when my teenager tendencies return.

So, as you might have guessed, the house took a nose dive for the worst during the week of the 19th, when I was busier than a one armed paperhanger! On top of normal home wear and tear, my freelance work was very crafty and thus I have craft items strewn hither, tither and yon. My dining room looks like an art class tornado hit it. On Thursday I decided I had had enough. The phrase "tidy room, tidy mind" kept floating through my head, and I knew I didn't have a tidy room in the house. I decided to take the time to put one room in order so I at least had one place I could sit in my house and not feel stressed out.

I chose to work on my library. As I mentioned yesterday, library sounds fancy, but really the room is just a den. It's a small room off the dining room where I have my TV and a few bookshelves, but I love the sound of having a library, so that is what I am going to call it! In any case, when my sister moved out of her old house, I told her she's welcome to store things at my place until her new home is ready. After all, the one thing I have plenty of is space! So when the movers came by and put her yard care equipment in my empty garage stall and her furniture in my spare bedroom, they also dropped off the furniture she was giving me. However, I hadn't exactly prepared the room for new furniture, so it was sort of just crammed in there any which way. I spend a lot of time in this room, so it was the one I tackled...

I tried at first to kind of cheat and just move the two old chairs I didn't want out of the room and put the new furniture in, but that didn't work. The room just didn't "flow" and the bookcases kept getting the way. Finally, I accepted the inevitable - in order to make this work, I was going to have to take almost every single item out of the room and start fresh.

So, out came the old chairs, the new-to-me furniture, the lamps and the decor. I tried to cheat on my big 6' bookshelves and only take half of the books off and then slide them to the middle of the room... but eventually I realized that if I was going to do this, I had to do it right. Every book had to come off and the shelves had to be moved out of the room along with everything else. I even rolled up the rug and took the pictures off the wall. The only thing I left in place was my TV. It is in one of those big armoir cabinets and because of where the cables and electrical plugs are, it can really only go in one place in the room. There wasn't any point in moving it.

Once everything was out, I realized this was one of the few times I could easily deep clean the walls and floor. I swept the room (I have hardwood) and then reluctantly threw on a jacket and headed to the store. I hate leaving when I am deep in cleaning mode, but I needed some Murphy's Oil Soap to do it right. Back at the house I mixed up a bucket and scrubbed the floor "Cinderella style" on my knees. I also cleaned the windows and got out my duster with the extension pole to clean the crown molding. When I was done, I rolled the rug back out and vacuumed that. I was finally ready to set up my room.

I've mentioned that I have been reading some design books lately; they talk a lot about the focal point of the room. In my case, the obvious focal point is the TV, so it made the most sense to put the couch facing it. This seems horribly obvious, I know, but at one point I was considering putting the couch against a different wall that would face the door. The point though, is to have rooms that are functional. If I had had two focal points - say a TV and a fireplace, I might have to really think about what I wanted to be the main area of focus, or how to make the two work together. Fortunately in this case, it was easy.

Once the couch was in, the next thing was the bookcases. After all, what is a library without bookcases? I was trying to place furniture by size - start with the big stuff and work my way down. As I was putting the cases into place, I noticed a number of nicks and dings, so out came the Old English polish (fortunately, that I had on hand.) Eventually, after polishing the bookcases and then going ahead and cleaning each item, I got each piece of furniture in the room just the way I wanted it. One piece didn't fit though, I had a smaller antique bookcase that had been in the room, but it just didn't quite work with the new arrangement. Then I had a brainstorm! My antique bookcase is fairly formal, so I took it into my living room (which is a rather formal room) and removed from there a fairly modern bookcase, which just happens to be fairly close in color to my new-to-me furniture. (Yes, I have lots and lots of bookcases.) The swap worked great, both cases look better in their new rooms.

Now with the furniture in, I moved to the art on the walls. I ended up swapping two pieces and moving another one over about 6 inches from where it had been hanging. Once that was done, all the books were replaced and then I started on the decorations. I decided to listen to the design experts and go with the "less is more" style. I wanted cozy and comfortable, but not cluttered. I ransacked other rooms, grabbing freely from other parts of the house and picked only things that worked with the colors and style I was putting together. When I was finally done, I sat down on my couch and looked around with pleasure. Not only was I really happy with the way things came together, to my surprise I actually have more room rather than less. Why, I even have two walls now that I want to find art for. However, I am going to wait to find just the right thing - no running out to get something just because I can.

Over the last week, the library has become my haven. It is where I read, relax, even work on projects. It is my favorite place to be. Just the other night I lit some candles, grabbed a favorite book and then closed the door to rest of the house. I never close that door usually, but that night it just felt right. As I was telling a friend of mine the other day, I am so happy with how the library came out, I actually tidy it up before I leave it. If I throw an afghan over my legs while reading a book, when I am done, I fold it and put it back. I mean, I don't worry about it if I just get up to get a glass of water or something, but every night when I leave the library I look around and make sure that everything is in its place - throw pillows are on the couch, afghan folded, coasters put away, etc.. My mother has told me that she loves her condo so much that sometimes she just sits and looks around it; I always thought she was a bit wacky. Now I am starting to get it.

There are a few more things I would like to do with it. If I had the money, I'd love to replace the windows with some historically styled energy efficient ones. When I was cleaning them I could feel the drafts coming in - brrrrrr. (This is why I spent almost my entire home improvement budget this month on weatherproofing products.) There are also some smaller things that I can do: get the art for the walls, replace the ugly cheap brassy door knob, fix some of the floor molding, that kind of thing. But for now, I am completely happy with it. And the cost?

$3.99 for Murphy's Oil Soap.

That's a price I can live with! Who says home decorating has to be expensive? Of course, the downside of all this is that all the stuff I didn't put back in the library is now cluttering up the dining room, and the living room is still torn up from where I took out the bookcase. In other words. every room surrounding my little haven is a disaster!! Ah well, that's what this weekend is for. I am hoping to tackle another room. I need to work in the yard, but Saturday it is supposed to rain. If so, you'll find me in my living room, hair in a ponytail and dust rag tucked in my back pocket, looking around and figuring out what to move next!

Photo by: 정호씨
via flickr

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Three Questions for Finding My Style

Just before I started thinking about style and how I want my home to look, I got two offers for "Uneeda" furniture. (Uneeda as in "Uneeda chair? I gotta chair you can have.") The first was for a small dining table. I've mentioned in the past that I have an incredibly ugly dining room table. Sadly, this new-to-me lovely little table could not replace the unattractive one in my dining room. My dining room is rather large, and this is a small breakfast nook style table - sharp but not right for that room. Still, I thought I could use it for something else, so I accepted it.

My other Uneeda furniture was a living room set from my sister. It's a couch, love seat, chair, coffee table and side tables. She'll be moving into her new house soon and wanted to get rid of her old stuff and start with something fresh for the new place. So, she offered the set to me. I snapped it up in a heartbeat.

In both of these cases, I didn't think about it all that much before I accepted these gifts. I've always been able to make various pieces work together, and since I didn't have any real plan, I just figured I would accept them and then figure out where it'd go later. Now that I have been working hard on my home, that is going to change. When it comes to new home furnishings, whether I am buying them or whether I am getting them for free, I am going to start asking myself three important questions first...

1.) Does this item fit in with my home plan? As I have mentioned, I am trying to figure out my style when it comes to my home. To help me do this, I'm putting together a three ring binder about what I love. It has photos from magazines, quotes and ideas from designers, and a section on the colors I want in my home. I'll write more in depth on it later, but essentially this notebook is going to be my guide to turning my house into a home. So, the first question I need to ask from now on is, does this work with what I want? Is it the right colors, the right style, the right look for what I want? Do I love it? Even if it is free, I am not going to take something just because I can. If it doesn't work, I am going to learn to say, "no thank you" and let whatever it is go to someone else - hopefully, someone whose style it is, and who will truly love it.

2.) Is it something I can use? This includes all the questions like: Do I have room for it?, Is it functional?, Does it work for my lifestyle?, Will I really use it? For example, a fabulous chair that is completely uncomfortable isn't something I can use. A perfect piece of artwork - that is too big for the wall I want to hang it on, a crystal vase that gathers dust in a box somewhere, candlesticks that let wax drip all over - all these kinds of things are not only unpractical, but they use up space that could be put to better use. My goal is to make sure that whatever comes into my house is something I something I will use.

3.) Can I afford it? This one should be fairly obvious, and it is... when I am sitting at my computer thinking about finance. When I am in the store, however, that is another matter! At the same time though, I put these three questions in this order for a very specific reason. If the answer to the first two questions is yes and the last one is no, that doesn't mean I need to rule it out. It just means that I need to save up and budget for it. The last year has taught me a lot about how to budget!

Now, how would my latest furniture acquisitions have held up? The living room furniture from my sister would have been a firm "Yes" on every question. I had the perfect place in my library. "Library" makes it sound pretty fancy, but the truth is it just a room where I have my tv and books - some people might call it a den. I, however, have wanted a library room since I was a little girl, so that is what I am going to call it, by gum! The only problem with this room is that I didn't have much in the way of seating. I had two chairs which were called "church pews" by those being generous, and "we're not watching movies at your house" by the less subtle. Needless to say, most of my friends found my two chairs less than comfortable! So, my sister's set was perfect. Just as importantly, it is in the colors I like, the style I like and it matches the walls in the room perfectly.

The dining table is another story. The price was certainly right (free), but when I said yes to it, I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do with it, and what's more, the color of the wood is far lighter than I would have picked. Fortunately for me, it worked out perfectly. I ended up putting it in the spare bedroom, where I am going to have my home office. I got rid of my falling apart, cheap-o computer desk and replaced it with this lovely table. I've always liked tables as desks - they seem so clean and tidy. (I have all my office "stuff" in a set of rolling wood drawers to the side of it.) I think the reason it works so well is that that room is painted a fairly dark taupe... with white and black splatter paint. No, I did not do it. It was done by one of the former home owners, and I see why they did it. I have a 100+ year old house with plaster walls in that room. Naturally, not a one of them is straight. The texture effect hides a lot of cracks and bubbles and wavy walls. Someday I may repaint it, but in the meantime, the room is pretty dark. The light wood of the table works perfectly in that room. I put it on a black and off white rug I had, and it came together beautifully, the whole room is now a mix of dark taupe, black and tan.

So, in this case, my lack of a plan and the gift of a table worked out perfectly. But now I have a look for the room and so in the future, I will know what else can go in that room... and what can't. Basically, it is a level of simplicity - using just what I love and just what I can use.

I'm very excited about redoing my home this way and truthfully, there is a level of peace that comes with it as well. There is something very relaxing about having a plan and knowing what you want to do - it certainly takes a lot of the stress out of it!

Photo by: pillowhead designs
via flickr

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Sweet Dreams of You

Last night I had a rather odd dream. I know reading about other people's dreams is usually about as boring as watching grass grown in winter, but bear with me for a moment, I'll keep it as short as I can:

I was at a party, a kind of early afternoon, late morning brunch thing. (Those of you who have been to bridal or baby showers know the atmosphere.) A friend of mine who is quite religious got up and spoke to us about how he'd been struggling and unable to talk to God lately. He decided that the solution to his problem was to talk to friends and family about the things that were really bothering him. So he bravely stood up before us and started talking; he told us all deep dark fears in his soul and the struggles he had been going through. By the time he was done we were all in tears.

Then he asked all of us, no matter what our region, to get into groups of four and talk about what was going on in our own lives. He asked us to be brave and pour out all the things that we had bottled up inside. Moved by his example, we all started to gather to do as he asked.

But there was a problem. Since this was his party, it was with his friends. They were all people I knew, but few were close to me. They weren't people I wanted to talk to, but finally I joined a group... but then I still couldn't talk. In my group the first people to talk went on and on about their lives and I listened closely, at the same time trying to gather my own thoughts. Then when it came around to my turn, suddenly everyone got up and switched seats and formed new groups. This happened time and time again, I would sit with people, try to be a good listener, but then when my time came, the group split up. I was starting to feel pretty rotten about the whole deal.

Then the groups started forming in 5s and 6s and so on as people who were good friends started joining up and making larger groups. They were all talking, and it went from being something deeply meaningful to just chit chatting. Over in a corner, I spotted one of my best friends sitting all alone and with relief went over to talk to him. He is a great listener and was perfectly happy to sit and let me talk, so I marshaled up all my thoughts and just then.... we were both distracted by some craziness that was happening right outside the window! Agh. I never get did get to talk. That's when I woke up.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it is a pretty good reflection of my week last week...

Last week was insanely busy. (This week will also be fairly hoppin', but not nearly as bad as last.) I was working mornings at my day job, at the part time job until 1:00 a.m. each night and, at the same time, working hard on my freelance project any free moments I had in between. All the while I was also trying to get enough rest, eat well and keep my house in some sort of order. (Did moderately okay on the first two, failed utterly on the last one.)

At the both part time and freelance jobs I work with a lot of friends, however, I've been so busy that it seems I never get a chance to talk to them. Anytime we got past, "So, how are you?" something popped up and one of us had to rush off. That's normal, we were working after all, but I think the whole combination of running from job to job, trying to get tons done and not having a lot of time to relax, combined with the fact I haven't been able to write in my blog, it all boiled up in my subconscious and came out in that odd little dream!

The truth is, life is actually going quite well. I don't have any big things bothering me, besides the usual money concerns. But I have missed being able to take a quite moment and write on my blog and read other people's blogs. I also have been thinking a lot about my friends and family and I think as soon as this last crazy week is done, I need to spend time with them.

In other words, I've missed you all - lots.

Photo by: curiousyellow
via flickr

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Temporarily Out...

Just a quick note, I will be insanely busy this week - this is where all my part time jobs all have to be done at once (I'm even taking time off my 40 hour day job.) I am actually a bit overwhelmed by it all, but it will be exciting to see how everything turns out... and to get those checks, of course!

I still have lots to write about, but might be scarce until next week. Have a great week all!

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Three Questions to Finding Your Own Style

At the bookstore, I put all the magazines that I didn't want back in the rack and slipped my trusty "This Old House" and "This Old House Interiors" under my arm. My graphic designer friend headed off to the art book section and I meandered over to the books on home design. One of them immediately caught my eye. It was called, The House Always Wins: Create the Home You Love-Without Busting Your Budget by Marni Jameson. Well, all right! That sounded perfect. I grabbed a comfy chair and settled in.

The first few pages had me hooked! The first chapter was all about figuring out your own sense of style and creating a plan. It was fabulous - and funny. Mrs. Jameson is very self depreciating writer and her own decorating horror stories populate the book. I enjoyed reading it so much that I ended up buying it along with my magazines.

Since finishing "The House Always Wins," I have to admit I was slightly disappointed with it. The first and last chapters were fabulous, but the middle sections of the book were really written with a different kind of consumer in mind. In the beginning and end of the book, the author talks about finding your own look, waiting until you have the money to buy - and not settling for something you hate, just because you can afford it. She writes a lot about how to make the right decision the first time, so you don't waste time and money on things you ultimately don't like. I found all of this information incredibly helpful.

However, in the middle chapters she goes step by step through designing the ideal home - basically from the joists on down. In other words, this book is fabulous if you were building a new house or a condo and were overwhelmed by having to make all the decisions on everything from flooring to light fixtures. She helps you build a plan. The book would also be great if you were moving into a new house and were in the process of deciding what of your old stuff stays and what goes... and what you need to buy for the new place. But for someone like me, who has a house full of stuff and not planning on moving anytime too soon, it kind of misses the boat. I was hoping for a little more on how to use what you already have.

The other problem I had with the book was the idea of "a budget." The author and I have two entirely different ideas of what that means. She seems to think nothing of hiring a $800 an hour designer to help her buy stuff. Me? I don't have $80, let alone $800 an hour. Now, in her defense she makes a very good point - occasionally it makes sense to pay a professional on the front end so you don't make more costly mistakes later. Hey, that is why I had a pro paint my house rather than attempting to do it myself, but with the number of consultants she called, I kept thinking, "Good grief - you're a freelance writer, so how can you afford this? What in heaven's name does your husband do for a living??"

There was, however, one a set of questions in the front of the book that really set me on fire and motivated me. She suggested asking yourself these three questions...

Who am I?
Where do I come from?
Why am I here?

The question "Who am I?" gets at the heart of the matter and asks what you need in a house. A family of five is going to need something different than single woman, a sports lover has different needs than a book lover, and so on. Here's how I answered that question:

I'm a single divorced woman who loves to read, cook, garden, make things and work on projects. I have a small in-home business of selling books and I blog. I am a landlord. I am also extremely busy - I have multiple jobs and I do a lot of volunteer work. I do occasionally like to entertain, but it is usually either small gatherings of close friends or my annual big holiday party.

From this little paragraph I jotted down the following statements:

- My home needs to be a haven - a place I feel safe and comfortable.
- It needs to be organized and low maintenance because I am so busy.
- I need good working kitchen - I need to be able to get to everything I need.
- I need space for art, for working on my crafts and projects.
- I need a workshop and outdoor storage for tools.
- I need a home office for my computers and my files.
- I need space for my book selling business.
- I need a place for storing and displaying my personal books, as well as places I enjoy reading.
- The house needs to be as energy efficient as I can make it because of my tight budget, and sound efficient as I have a tenant.
- Entertaining should be a component in the house, but does not need to be a main focus.
- I need to be able to unwind at home. I want to be able to blow off stress when I get home.

I also jotted down some words that I want to use to describe my home:

Elegant, comfortable, warm, cozy, beautiful, happy

So, what did this tell me about my home? Quite a bit! Some of it was rather surprising. For example, one thing that I immediately realized is that I need to reorganize my kitchen cupboards. See, when my husband and I moved into the house, he and his daughter unpacked us. (I don't remember where I was at the time, working maybe?) Anyway, she arranged the kitchen. Then when I was separated, I just took a few things and left. My ex didn't change much either. So, when I moved in back, it was just easier to put things where they were. Essentially, I am working with a kitchen that was put together by the daughter of my ex-husband!

Now some things make sense - the glasses are by the sink, the silverware by the dishwasher, but a lot of it does not flow well for someone who loves to cook. I am always having to crouch down or get out my stepladder. It's logical - from my ex-stepdaughter's point of view - not mine! In fact, just recently I re-arranged three drawers to make them work better with how I cook. Instantly it felt so much better and made me just a little bit happier - and it cost nothing to do.

Keeping with the kitchen theme for a moment, the other thought that occurred to me was to get more and more off the counters. Because I am busy, I want to just wipe down the counters and go. Sure, I'll leave out the things I use every day, but other than that - I'm scaling way down. These are the things that I am really excited about. They aren't things I would have thought of, but these little changes are big to me. I remember when I first moved in thinking that I didn't like the way my ex's daughter had arranged a few things, and that I would fix it later, but out of convenience or compromise, I never did. Is it any wonder my house hasn't felt like my own?

The next question the author's list was "Where do I come from?"

I grew up in a home with handcrafted furniture that was made by my father and a mother who had very expensive taste in home furnishings, so I appreciate well made pieces. I am especially attracted to beautiful wood pieces in deep rich wood colors. I also have an appreciation for art, particularly local artists, and interesting objects that look handcrafted. I like things that appear to be “one of a kind.”

For a few years my mother owned an antique booth and I spent a lot of time there, so I love 1800s Victorian furnishings - elegant, decorative, rich with detail. This also fits my home, which was built in this era. I am sentimental and like having things that were given to me around me, along with photos and other objects that remind me of loved ones. That might be part of my love of antiques - creating my own history. I like things that have a story. For example, when I look at my friend Shelly's rocking chair, I remember our first annual Ladies Garage Sale. When I wind the Grandfather clock my father built, I remember all the stories it carries - not all of them good, but all a part of my life.

The final question on the list was, "Where am I?" and it referred to your neighborhood. The idea is that you can't change a tiger's stripes, and while the architecture of a house doesn't have to dictate how you furnish it, you may not want to do country in a New York penthouse or Modern in an old barn, unless you are very, very bold. My area is made up of older homes built mid to late 1800s to early 1900s. These are Victorian homes, frequently wildly painted, many with lots of details like gingerbread and decorative cornices. It is also an artistic community. My neighborhood has many of the newly popular restaurants, bars and shops. There is also a big interest in green technology in my area. My neighbors are a lot of college and post college aged people, as many of the homes have apartments in them. These are the kinds of people who like liking in quirky apartments and old houses.

This last question really just solidified what I was feeling about style - blending artistic with traditional. Keeping the Victorian style, but not being hemmed in by it. It is one more step towards figuring out this whole "style-thing."

Actually all these questions were helpful, and they pointed out a bunch of min-projects I can do, like cleaning off my counter tops, that will help make my house more functional, without spending money. If you are interested in picking up the book, you can find it here:

Before and after photos by: srbyug
Via: Flickr

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on Figuring Out My Style

So now that I had some ideas on color, the next thing I did was walk around my house and see what other common elements leaped out at me. I envisioned one of those design boards like they have on the home design TV shows. What else would go on that tray? Metals were fairly easy for me, I like silver, pewter, copper and cast iron, but I am not a big fan of brass or gold tone metals. For example, I have a few bright brassy gold door handles that I just hate. I think my problem is that when those metals are done cheaply (and boy howdy are those some cheap handles I have,) it really shows in gold tones. In comparison I also have a number of antique copper and steel colored door handles, and while I don't think they were high end when they were put on, I love them.

I then looked at wood tones. I have pretty much every color wood under the sun in my house, from ultra bright white woodwork, to every shade of beige and brown, to deep cherry red and even black. In furniture, my taste tends to run from medium brown to black. My mother was fond of a color called "Golden Oak" and most of the furniture my father built is in that stain. Frankly, it is a bit too light for me, which takes the pale Scandinavian maples and ashes right out.

On my tour through my house, I noticed something else as well - another common design element. I love spirals. Now, this is something I have always known, but I didn't expect to see it in my home furnishing, yet sure enough, there it was. I have spirals on the rug in my library room, and so much of my furniture has ornate, curving designs. All this was really starting to pull it together for me.

The next thing I decided to do was to take some of Tracey's advice and go look at design magazines for photos of things I like, so I headed out to one of my favorite bookstores. The bookstore is located next to a Marshall's, and you know what? Just for fun I took one of my two store credit gift cards that I was unable to spend before. This time I went in with the shape of a plan in place. In no time I picked out three fabulous things that fit my home decor perfectly, that I love, and that are in my new colors! I know it is too soon to be shopping, really I want a better plan first, but this was kind of a mini celebration of being on the right track!

At the bookstore I met up with a friend of mine, a graphic designer, and we looked through magazines while sipping hot apple cider in the cafe. It wasn't long before I realized something...

Labels are kind of useless. Country, Old World, Modern... they don't really work for me. My taste is entirely too eclectic. Telling a friend recently that I liked well crafted wood furniture, they said "Oh, you should look at Mission." I replied, "I love Mission... until I don't." A Mission styled coffee table or rocker? Fabulous! I am all over it. An entire living room in Mission? Looks great in someone else's house. Or another example - I don't consider myself a fan of Country, with gingham plaids and geese, but show me a rustic wooden farmhouse kitchen table and I am in love. I also don't think of myself as being Modern, but hold up a bold colored rug with simple geometric designs and I am trying to decide if it would look best under the country kitchen table or the Mission coffee table! It's like high school, very few people could be pigeonholed entirely into the labels of jock, nerd, stoner etc. - no matter what the movies of the 80s tell us. Sure, there are a select few who are all one thing; my mom has a friend who did her entire house in log-cabin, as in rustic furniture with deer and moose and so on. My mom says it is cute, and I am sure it is, but most people I know have a mix - a little of this and touch of that. It is as individual as the person themselves. Just like yesterday I made up labels for my family and friends (which might not at all be what they think of themselves) I'll be making up my own label.

That label may end up having something to do with the word "Victorian." After sorting through several magazines at the bookstore, only two had enough photos in them that I wanted to take them home, and both were by This Old House. It fits - I have an old house. It was built in the 1800s! My antiques tend to come from the early 1900s to the art deco period and late 1930s. I love the ornate look, but even though I might be willing to add Victorian to my description I won't let that limit me - I won't be covering my house in doilies. (Actually, I kind of like doilies, but they are a bit fussy. My friends tease me that I am a 90 year old woman in disguise... I think I just proved it.)

Looking through the magazines also helped me realize what I don't like. While my graphic designer friend was oohing and aahing over bright teal walls with chartreuse chaise lounge chairs and purple couches, I kept thinking, "Not in MY house!"

Photo by: Maia C
via flickr

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Finding My Own Style

Awhile ago I wrote a series of articles about how I grocery shop and cook. People seemed to enjoy those, so now I am going to be writing about another topic that has been on my mind a lot - style. Specifically I'll be writing about the style of one's home and how to make it into a place that makes you happy. Why? Because this is something I am struggling with myself. Since these articles are coming from me - and you all know I have no money - this will also be on a very limited budget. Now, I know there are plenty of frugal fashionistas out there who write about how to turn a chest of drawers found on the side of the road into a beautiful buffet, and who knows? I may end up with a few articles like that too, but I am going to start off with something more basic - just trying to figure out what my style is. In between running to meetings and jobs the last couple of weeks, I've been turning off the car radio and musing about style and what it means to me.

See, I have so many friends with amazing style. In fact, I would say most of the people I know have great taste in either clothes, home furnishings, or both. I have three friends I want to tell you about who have homes that always impress me. Every time I walk into their places I just think, "wow." One is my mom. When my mom decided to sell my sister and I's childhood home and build a condo, she went all out and chose exactly what she wanted. I have to say - it is gorgeous, and I am talking modern home magazine gorgeous here. Seriously, her place could be right out of a high-end fashion magazine. If I were to give her style a name I would call it, "Clean Slate." For one thing, when she moved she got rid of pretty much all her old stuff. There is very little of my childhood in her new home. The other reason I would call it Clean Slate is because of the color scheme: her main living, dining and kitchen areas are in light and dark grays and the only color is splashes of deep garnet red. In fact, all of her color pallete throughout her house tends to be on the cooler side of the spectrum - even her yellow study is a cool, pale yellow. Now, I admit, the daughter in me misses the sentimentality of having things from my past in my mother's house, but the grown woman in me figures my mom should be able to spend her money any way she wants and have the house of her dreams, if that is what makes her happy.

Another person on my list with great home taste is my sister. Her house is warm and inviting and always very comfortable and yet still very hip. To me, her style is "Fashionable and Classy, slightly Whimsical - and Made for Entertaining." Okay, it is a clunky title, but basically, her home is a place you want to be and hang out in. It is made for entertaining. She has made it that way very deliberately, as her and her husband love to have people over. So from big parties to a few people over for dinner - her place is perfect. She likes classic lines combined with rich colors and her furnishings always have a touch of humor. I love it. She is so great at combining that element of fun with elegance. Walking into her house, I just smile. I also love how bold she is - my sister never backs down from a color, from chartreuse to slate blue to burnt orange to iron brown, she can pull it off and make it look like it was meant to be.

Don't think it is just my family that has style - you should see my friend Tracey. Tracey has incredible style from her clothes to her home, and I can't tell you how often I see something and think, "That is so Tracey." I've got to admit, I am envious of that - in fact, that is exactly what I am going for. Right now I can walk into a store and see things and know they would fit in Tracey's decor, but I have no idea what I want in my own! This whole quest is me figuring out my own look, my own style. To me Tracey's is "French - Napa Valley." Elegant and classy, her home is the best of the French stereotype. She, like my sister, is fabulous at entertaining and her home is a place you want to spend time in. She has a very distinct color palette, and though each room in her home is different, they are all very "her." She just recently moved into a new apartment and in her entry hallway is some seriously unattractive wallpaper, yet she hung her pictures on the wall updated some of the hardware, added her own touches and poof! It looks like it was meant to be. It works perfectly! She has such a sure hand and everything looks like goes together. She and I talked recently about all this and she gave me some great ideas. (I'll share more on that later.)

So, I have all these wonderful ladies in my life that inspire me, plus many other friends' whose homes I love, and I want a little of that in my life. Just to be clear, I am not talking about repainting every room and going through and buying all new furniture. I have neither the time or the money for that. However, recently I had two (store credit) gift certificates, one for Marshall's and one for Pier One, so I went shopping. I was thinking I would get a few items for the house, and you know what? I had no idea what to buy. I like so much that I ended up buying nothing. I feel like I have good taste, but I have no idea what I want. Basically, what I needed was a plan. So, let me tell you a little about what I am starting with and what have now...

I call my style "Uneeda." As in, "You need a chair? I gotta chair you can have." "You need a dinning room set? My aunt has one you can use." My house is almost entirely furnished with the following:

- Other people's furniture/decor they no longer need
- Gift decor from my family
- Furniture my father built
- Antiques, some of which I bought, some of which were handed down
- Items bought with my ex-husband, which meant a fair amount of compromise

It's pretty much a hodge podge of things I didn't pick out. In fact, recently I sat in my living room and looked around and realized that of all the furniture, art on the walls, decor items, throws, pillows, window treatments and so on... I had bought 2 things. One was a plant stand. The other was a plant. Even the color on the walls was painted by the people who owned my house two owners ago. This doesn't mean it doesn't look good. For one thing, as I said, my friends and family have fabulous taste - so what has been handed down through the Uneeda network is great stuff. Secondly, if I have any skill at all, it is taking disparate objects and putting them together in harmonious ways. I am really good at taking furniture in different color woods, styles and shapes and making them work together. Yet, I still feel though that something is missing, some element of "me-ness."

So, I am on a quest - I am on a quest to figure out what I like and what I want. How can I make my house feel like "mine" and what, for heaven's sake, is my style?

Thinking about the conversation I had had with Tracey, I decided my first step should be figure out what colors I love and want in my home. I considered going to a home improvement store and looking at paint sample chips, but I felt like that would offer far too many choices. I needed to narrow it down first. So, the first thing I did was to walk through my house and look at the things I had actually bought or picked out myself. The result was a little shocking. I found over and over again that I bought one color above all -

Red. Specifically dark reds, everything from true red to brick, to Merlot to what a friend of mine calls Venetian red - red prevails everywhere in my house.

Honestly, red is not one of my favorite colors. Nor is it something you see a lot of in my wardrobe, but I love it on home furnishings. It just "works" for me. That wasn't the only color, I found these shades also show up time and time again:

School bus/Sunflower yellow - not light yellow, not soft yellow, but bright in-your-face deep yellows.

Tangerine Orange - I have a surprising amount of orange in my house, usually paired with the yellow. I have two different sets of orange and yellow artificial flowers, for example.

Olive green - Somewhere between fresh avocado and bright olive, I love this shade of green. My dining room, one of the two rooms in this house I have painted, is an olive green below the chair rail and bright yellow above it. The artwork in there is red, yellow, orange and green.

It was like an epiphany, figuring this out. Here I had been instinctively doing something, without realizing it. Then something else fell into place - even though my dining room is yellow and green, it doesn't mean I'm going to go around the house and paint every room in one of these colors! These are the main characters, but they don't make up the whole play. I needed backgrounds for them. Once again, I felt something "click." I like warm neutrals - everything from ecru to oatmeal, cement to taupe. Already my library room, the other room I've painted (when I moved in it was painted hot pink... with black and white splatter paint) is painted taupe and the main accent color is dark brick red. It is already happening! Okay... now I felt like I was onto something.

Then something else fell into place. I have been wanting to paint my bedroom since I moved back in, back in June of 2008. I have had paint chips hanging on the wall since just about then... but I haven't bought a gallon of paint. Why? Well, I have this fabulous sunflower print my sister gave me that I was planning on hanging on the wall. I had envisioned painting the room around that, and the walls were going to be pale blue. So I picked out 5-6 pale blues and hung them on the wall - and was never able to make a decision. All of them were nice shades that I likes, but none of them "sung" to me. Why? Well, now I see that the reason might simply be that blue is just not one of my colors. When I imagined instead painting the room a soft beige and then using the sunflower yellow and green from the print as accents, something went "bing!' In my brain - now that I could do!

I also have two bathrooms that need love, but I haven't started on them. Oh, part of it is a lack of funds, but another part is simply that I haven't known where to start! So, this is my goal - to create a plan for how my ideal home would look. Before I pick up one brush or buy one gallon of paint, I want to have a road map of where I am going - for the entire house. That way I can make an effective budget and pick and chose projects that will have the most impact. I also want to see if there are things I can do, right now with what I have, that will make things work better for me without spending money. Already in the last few weeks I've made several discoveries - all of which I will write more about soon.

Photo by: 1zzy5
via flickr

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It Ain't Small Potatoes to Me

I have a problem with potatoes.

Has anyone else noticed this? Potatoes have changed, and I don't like it.

I'm talking about baking potatoes, specifically. The big brown root veggies perfect for turning into twice baked goodness have changed since I was kid. They've become... sweet. Not quite sweet like a yam, but getting there. The skin is super thick and has this sweet potato aftertaste. You know what? I hate sweet potatoes.

Personally, I blame Wendy's.

That's right, in my opinion, the fast food chain is to blame. You see, that is when I remember first tasting these weird slightly sweet baking potatoes - in a Wendy's baked potato. I remember when they first came out, they were kind of a big thing in my family. Mom was never a big fan of fast food, but she had two very busy daughters in school and sometimes it was the easiest option. The Wendy's baked potato was a welcome change from burgers and fries. Plus, my mom loves the Wendy's frosty. So, we'd get these baked potatoes, and even back then I thought there was something weird about them. At home I had no problem eating the skin of a potato. Okay, it wasn't my favorite part, but it was fine - and mom always said that was where all the vitamins were. However, I found it absolutely impossible to eat the skin of the Wendy's potato. First of all, it was thick - super thick, and at least a 1/4" of potato around the skin was thick and hard too. You certainly couldn't cut it very easily with the cheapie plastic fork and knife that came with it... so then you had this big thing laying at the bottom of your little plastic tub. How to eat it? It wasn't like you could just lift it up without making a complete mess. And even if you did manage to saw through it, it tasted funny to me. It was sweetish and just not what I was used to. Blech... easier to throw it out.

But it isn't just Wendy's....

These mutant potatoes are in the grocery stores too! More than once I have been fooled by these lovely, brown beauties only to bring them home and ewww - sweet! thick skin! blech!

That's when I started blaming Wendy's. Is it so far fetched to think that Wendy's needed a particular type of potato? Think about it - they all had to be relatively uniform size, right? You'd be ticked if you got completely different products every time you ordered right? I would. Yet, the potatoes I was used to always came in a wild variety of sizes. Then, you'd want them to all look sort of the same - again, consumer expectations. You wouldn't want too many eyes or too many weird nobs hanging off the sides. You'd want them to be tough - to be able to handle shipping for long distances without becoming black or start growing roots, so thick skin. And if you bred this, you might even use some sweet potato stock, since American consumers love all things salty, greasy and sweet.

Now say farmers were able to sell lots and lots of these potatoes - why not move them into the grocery stores as baking potatoes and increase the market? Now, I don't know if this actually happened, but let's be honest, our food has had a lot of strange things happen to it that has changed it and its flavor - it isn't completely out of the question. In any case, I don't like it.

So, I've changed potato varieties - I stick with ones I know - red skins mostly, but occasionally Yukon Golds or fingerlings if they have them at the farmer's market. My farmer's market doesn't really offer a lot of big potatoes. They have smaller whites, but they are the size for boiling, not baking. This last weekend though, I went up to the cabin... which is in the heart of potato country.

That's right, they even have a potato festival complete with a parade and people dressed as potatoes throwing out bags of chips to the crowd. It's pretty amazing. On my way up I stopped at a roadside stand to pick up homegrown green peppers, onions... and potatoes! "How much for the russets?" I asked the woman behind the counter. She moved her scarf to answer, "$8.00 for 15 pounds." 15 pounds??? A great price, but I am a single gal - I don't eat that many potatoes! The small 5 pound paper bags were $3. They were hand filled and each was closed off with a twist of copper wire. So I bought one of those and $1 each of onions and peppers and hit the road.

The next day I reached into the potato bag to cook up some for dinner. The first one I grabbed was as long as my hand and twice as wide, nobbled and oddly shaped. I grinned to myself - now that is a potato!!

And you know what? It was delicious!

Photo by: Dalboz17
via flickr

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Where I've Been...

Recently an anonymous commenter asked, "Where are you?????????????? Please don't tell us you have swine flu!!!!!!

Ha! No, I do not, I've just been insanely busy. I believe October will be my busiest month of the year. In addition to working for Part Time Job #1 at the beginning of the month, I will be working for Part Time Job #2 for a full week at the end of this month. If that is not enough, I am also doing some new freelance work. (All this is on top of my 9:00-6:00 40 hr. per week day job, of course.) The freelance work is particularly exciting for me since it is something new - I've worked in the field before, but not in this capacity. Basically, it requires a worker and a designer. I've been the worker many, many times, but this is my first opportunity as a designer. Because I know this month is busy, I have been diligently working on it every night. I have a master list of things that must be done, and each night I have a goal to cross at least one (if not more) items off the list.)

That system, so far, has been really working well. Sometimes on creative projects it is tempting to spend 90% of the time dreaming and thinking about what you want to do and 10% in a sheer panic rushing to get everything done. In fact, that pretty much describes every artistic project I did in high school! As an adult, I know that doesn't work for me - and I am way too old to pull all-nighters. Plus, knowing my schedule, I am trying to be a little ahead of the game. I know there will still be last minute things, but if I have all the big stuff done by then, the small stuff shouldn't be too bad. ....right??

Of course, working 3 - 4 jobs isn't really all that strange for me, so you know there are other things going on...

I've had several meetings for the nonprofit I am involved in, so that has taken up evening nights, plus I have recently gotten involved as an alternate for another non-profit. As an alternate I won't be helping them out all the time - just when they really need someone, and I can do it. My first night was last Friday and I had a ball. It was great fun! That is the only I night I have planned this month for them, (so far,) but still, that's one more night taken up. Then, this weekend I needed to head up to the cabin to get it set for winter. Truthfully, I needed to get up there anyway, I needed the downtime, but as we are starting to get hard frosts here, I had to make sure the pipes will be okay, so that made it a necessity.

On top of all this, my day job has been really busy. In this economy, this is a very good thing, but it has cut down on my blogging. Usually I blog at home, but if I am running behind, I'll blog on my lunch hours. Lately I have been skipping lunches or using them to work on the freelance gig!

And finally, my sister is moving. A couple of weekends ago my mother and I went over to her house to help her pack. I only planned on spending a couple of hours there - but there is something incredibly satisfying and fun about working with family on a big project, so I happily ended up spending the greater part of the afternoon there. I was glad I did, it felt good to do! She doesn't ask for help often, so I am glad to do it when I get the chance. She and her husband have a new house and a buyer for their house, but there is going to be a gap in between places to live. Since they need to give over their old house before the new place is ready for them to move into, they are packing up their things into pods and moving in with her sister-in-law for some where from 2 to 6 weeks. I have volunteered additional storage space. One thing I have plenty of is space! I am offering her room in the garage for yard stuff, and my spare bedroom and basement for boxes and furniture. There is just one thing... those places needed to be cleared out. They weren't bad, but since I did have the room they had all acquired a miscellany of junk. Along with my freelance work, another goal has been to work in one of the three rooms a little each night and get them cleared out. And like the freelance work, it isn't that big of a task if you do a little each night. The nice thing is that I have been wanting to clean out the garage and the spare bedroom for awhile - and this is actually getting me to do it. It like having a big party gets you to clean! I spent a little time on the spare bedroom last night and it is really starting to look fabulous. Once my sister is done with the space, I will be able to actually use it, rather than it being a "catch-all" as it has been!

So, yeah... very little writing time these last two weeks. I have lots, and lots of articles I want to write though, so as soon as I get a few quiet moments at the computer, I'll start filling up the page again!

Photo by: jordanw1985
via flickr

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Simple Splurges are Sometimes Essential

There is a end-of-summer, start-of-fall cold going around and unfortunately, I caught it. Because I felt so miserable, I went home early from work. On my way home I decided to pick up some necessary items from the grocery store - namely soup and juice. Here is the interesting thing - I find that when I am sick, I have no problem splurging.

First of all, I didn't have coupons with me. I always have coupons when I go to the store - maybe not for everything, but I at least take the time to look. I was feeling so rotten I didn't even bother hitting the coupon sites or checking out the store fliers. Normally I shop at the mega-mart, but the idea of a brightly lit, people packed super store made my already throbbing head hurt even more. There was no way I was in any condition to deal with crowds with carts. So next I considered the slightly rundown local grocery store that is just around the corner from where I live. Slightly rundown local grocery store (SRLGS) used to be a fairly decent store, but it has changed hands a few times and is not the nicest place to shop anymore. You would think that the lower quality of the store might mean lower prices, but you'd be wrong. Prices are typically higher than mega-mart. Plus (in my opinion) the store is oddly laid out. I can rarely find what I am looking for without a lot of neck craning looking for signs. I usually only go to SRLGS when I am in desperate need of something fast - like when I am in the middle of a recipe and realize I am out of some key ingredient.

Then I thought of my one time favorite grocery store (OTFGS). OTFGS isn't really on my way home, but it isn't terribly out of the way either. I used to work over by it, so I know the layout like the back of my hand. It is friendly, clean and though the prices aren't all that cheap, I like the store. So, that's where I headed.

I ended up buying 4 cans of high-end canned soup, 2 containers of frozen soup, 2 jugs of super ultra healthy juice, 2 single servings of another brand of healthy juice and a bag of clementines. Total cost $26.46. The soup in itself was an odd purchase for me. I don't buy pre-made soup usually, since I prefer to make my own. The frozen soup was really new to me, but I have been wanting to try it for awhile. We have a local company here that is known for their soup. They used to have a restaurant, and I remember getting French Onion soup there as a kid, but I hadn't tried their frozen packs. Being sick was as good of an excuse as any...

However, that $26 was not budgeted. My grocery money was already spent for the month. I spent my "Misc." budget on a few new shirts. But you know what? I didn't particularly care. That $26 was not going to bankrupt me - I had it (and more) in the bank. I can also justify the purchases by saying that the soup made for a fast meal so I could get home, eat, and get right into bead. Plus everyone knows the healing powers of chicken noodle soup. (Don't scoff, millions of grandmothers could not be wrong!) The juice and clementines were a quick and easy way to get my Vitamin C. All these things could help me feel better which means that I would not miss anymore work, which directly effects my bottom line. So, I could say that the purchases were an investment in my health and earning power... but that would be a lot of bunk. Yes, it is true, but the fact of the matter was that I was sick and I felt like indulging myself.

I bring this up because a dear friend of mine told me that the other night she had a really rough day and she splurged on a bottle of wine and chocolate, so she could go home, have a glass of wine and a nibble of chocolate and de-stress. Again, it could be argued that by finding ways to splurge a little and shake off the stress, you are helping your earning power by making it easier to deal with the day to day, but it could also be said that there is something to be said for small splurges.

This got me thinking about the times I have splurged. The good times have been on vacations or holidays, when I said, "It is ______. I'm going to enjoy myself." Other times have been on loved ones, especially on milestone birthdays. I have to say though, these are pretty rare and haven't happened much at all since I have been on a budget. I'm far more likely to splurge a little when I'm sick or feeling blue, whether it is indulging in a bubble bath, wine and chocolate or chicken noodle soup.

As long as it doesn't go overboard and the money is there, I don't think there is anything wrong with this - once and awhile, a small splurge, especially if it helps get you on your feet again, can be a very good thing.

Photo by: WookieWife
via flickr

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