Monday, July 28, 2014

Must Read

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

I don't know why I torture myself with books that make me sob, like Jojo Moyes' Me Before You or John Green's The Fault in Our Stars or Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain, but there's something beautiful in their tragic tales.  Moreover, how great is it that a collection of bound paper with words printed on it can drive someone to experience such intense emotions?  I knew the premise of If I Stay before I started reading, so I can't say I was surprised.  It addresses a hypothetical situation of a teenage girl, who barely survived a car accident that took her family, stuck in an "in between world" where her body is in a coma but she is existing in an out of body state until she decides to stop fighting or to return to her body.  The book oscillates between Mia in her out of body form observing the events in the hospital and backstories of her life - with her family and with her boyfriend.  The movie from the book is due to be released in August.

Lazy Weekend

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

I saw this book on several "must read" lists for Summer 2014.  The story is centered on a family and a friend of the family who unite for three weeks at a summer rental on the Spanish island of Mallorca.  Of course, like many family stories, the relationships are strained for one reason or another.  I found the book to be ok, but nothing too exciting or original.

Skip This

The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams

I'm pretty sure this book was picked from some sale on the Apple bookstore, so I'm glad I didn't pay too much for it.  The main character is a psychiatrist who acquires a new patient that reveals, through therapy, he witnessed a crime as a child.  For some reason, the psychiatrist goes beyond her regular duties to try and discover what happened and solve the crime.  The direction of the story and the "twist" were very predictable, and the characters were shallow and underdeveloped.  Plus, I'm not sure about confidentiality rules in the U.K., but I found my support for the main character waning when she starts to reveal personal client information to others.  I found myself putting this book down a lot, my drive to finish the story quickly diminishing. 

Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014 by Julie

1 comment

Sunday, July 20, 2014

My best friend and I headed to Charlottesville this weekend for some girl time and to see The Milk Carton Kids perform.  I know, I've seen them already this year, more than once I confess, but every show is equally funny with Joey's stage banter and Kenneth's awe-inspiring flatpicking skills.  With the destination selected and the reason for going established, I had to plan out what to do with the rest of our time.

When heading to this part of Virginia, you pretty much have two main options.  You can make it a lesson in history with trips to Jefferson's Monticello, Monroe's Montpelier, and other stops in American History.  Or, you can booze it up.  With an abundance of wineries, craft breweries, and distilleries, it's simply a matter of what route to take.  We opted to take a route that allowed us to sample all three.

First stop was a whiskey distillery in Culpepper, Virginia.  I'm not a hard alcohol drinker at all, but I'm open to the adventure of tasting new things.  We selected Belmont Farm Distillery because I was curious about their two flavored corn whiskeys - cherry and apple pie.  Tours are free and tastings are $5 for three selections. I was quickly reminded why I don't like hard liquor, especially moonshine, but I still picked up two bottles as gifts.  My friend liked the cherry whiskey, and took a jar of it home.

By choosing Belmont Farm, we found a route into Charlottesville that passed by two wineries: Burnley Vineyards and Keswick Vineyards.  Burnley Vineyards, established in 1977 in Barboursville, is one of the oldest vineyards in the region.  They specialize in chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, chambourcin, vidal, norton, muscat blanc, and orange muscat varietals.  For a $3 fee, you are able to taste all of the wines available.  I feel really bad saying this, but while the tasting room attendant was nice and their dog was cute, every single wine I tasted was terrible!   There was even a red wine that, if you ordered it at a restaurant, you would have sent it back because it tasted like it had turned bad. If you're in Barboursville, I would highly suggest that you opt to visit the more popular Barboursville Winery for a better wine tasting experience.  And if you need food, Stonefire Kitchen is a good option for healthy deli selections made from local products.

At Keswick Vineyards, you not only get to taste wine, but you can satiate your thirst for historical knowledge as well.  Established in 2000, the vineyard is located on the historic Edgewood Estate - part of the original 1727 Nicholas Meriwether Crown Grant.  The Estate saw action in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and (fun fact) was once the home of Art Garfunkel.  Tastings are $5, which include a taste of some of their cabernet sauvignon infused chocolate syrup.  I'm happy to say that there were some wines that were good there, which is a testament to hiring educated and experienced winemakers to control the production, I think.

After the drive to Charlottesville, via our tasting stops, we got settled in our hotel then headed out to find some local craft beers and some dinner.  Charlottesville is a great university town with a conveniently located central pedestrian mall that has everything you need for your visit.  Near this pedestrian mall are two options for beer drinkers.  Champion Brewing Company has a tap room on 6th Street and South Street Brewery is popular for food and beer, but we discovered it is currently closed for renovations and is expected to reopen Fall 2014.  After trying Champion's Missile IPA, we finished our tasting day off with some selections from our restaurant's menu, including an IPA from Parkway Brewing Company in Salem, Virginia.  Then, of course, the rest of the night was spent with The Milk Carton Kids, who surprised the audience by acting as both the opener and the headliner for the night.  More music for us!

The next morning, we found ourselves eating some very reasonably priced, and good tasting brunch at the Southern Way Cafe in Crozet, Virginia.  It was a perfect way to get ourselves full of food as well as position us to take advantage of the wineries and breweries east of Charlottesville.  While the Starr Hill Brewery was practically across the street from brunch, our first stop of the day was the King Family Vineyards just a few miles away.  The property has a beautiful tasting room, and all of the wines were surprisingly good as well.  On Sundays, if you want to see something different, come later in the morning and get a spot around the polo field because from Memorial Day through mid-October, a free polo match begins at 1pm.

Heading down to Route 151 South, off of Route 250, you're bound to stumble upon more wineries. More importantly, you will also be able to stop for some tastes of local craft brews. The first you will encounter is on the left, Blue Mountain Brewery. A good time to stop here is lunchtime because there is plenty of seating, good food, and some cornhole if you feel like a game.  Flights of beer are $9, and include 2.5 oz. samples of 8-10 beers on tap.

About 10 miles down the road, you will see Wild Wolf Brewing Company on the right.  Yet another place to grab some food (I saw fried oreos were an option!) or get a tasting flight.  We selected the $10 full tasting of the five regular beers and the six seasonal beers.  This was a wide spectrum of tastes from pilsner to a really sour beer.  It also included a dark beer with hints of strawberry and chocolate.

Unfortunately, this was our last stop because we had to get home.  If we had more time, there are two more options nearby:  Devils Backbone Brewing Company and Blue Mountain Barrel House.  Collectively, I've read that these breweries are called the Brew Ridge Trail.

By the way, I thought I would mention that, in the area, there are many u-pick fruit farm options. This time of year, it's peach season in Virginia.  We stopped at Chiles Peach Orchard in Crozet to get some bags of peaches from the market on site - yes we are lazy and can't even pick our own peaches!

Posted on Sunday, July 20, 2014 by Julie


Saturday, July 19, 2014

A week ago, on my way back from New York City, I stopped in Maryland to check on the blooming status of the Mckee-Beshers fields of sunflowers near Poolesville.  They were perfect - perky, colorful, masses of blooms.  With the weather this week being so fantastic, a rare stint of mid-July low humidity, I found myself putting off driving back up to the sunflowers in lieu of other outdoor activities.  Well, I learned a good lesson.  Not only did I choose the one evening where the sky started to cloud up and ruin my opportunity for a fantastic sunset, but when I walked into the fields, all of the flowers were noticeably past peak - drooping, petals wilted, and seeds falling off.

I wasn't going to waste the drive, though, so I mainly did some attempts at macro photography with all the bees collecting pollen.  Then there were the silly sunflowers, where others had picked out happy faces from the middle.  Ultimately, my takeaway from this year's sunflower photo shoot was to photograph the flowers when you know they are blooming, which seems to be in the first half of July!  Don't procrastinate!

Posted on Saturday, July 19, 2014 by Julie

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Friday, July 18, 2014

I can't believe I only heard about Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens just a month or so ago, after living in D.C. for so long!  Located in the eastern part of Washington D.C., near the National Arboretum, this small park run by the National Park Service has several ponds of blooming water plants that arrive like crazy mid-summer.  Just make sure you visit in the cooler morning hours to ensure you see the flowers at their best.

When I first walked into the park, I was underwhelmed by the ponds that looked like the lily pads were not healthy and the water lily flowers were not abundant, but then I looked up and saw these gorgeous light fuchsia lotus blooms that seemed as big as a basketball!  And getting up even closer, they had this strange conical center that looks like a nozzle for a garden hose.  It was so much fun wandering around and taking different views of these magnificent flowers!  And the photos didn't stop at the flowers.  The giant elephant ear leaves that surrounded the lotuses were beautiful as well, especially with the tiny pool of morning dew in the center of the giant bowl shape.  If you're looking for opportunities to practice your photography skills, this is a great spot.  Bring your zoom, macro, and wide angle lenses to maximize your shooting styles!  Also, take notice of your shutter speeds.  I had a great photo of a lotus that, had the shutter speed been faster, I would have captured a bee mid-flight above the flower instead of the blur I actually got.  I wish I would have realized the bee was there at the time!  Save yourself the disappointment, and shoot with faster shutter speeds than you think you need!

Look at all these blooms!

Posted on Friday, July 18, 2014 by Julie

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

As a native Oregonian, the sight of Mt. Hood overwhelms me with nostalgia.  And despite my skiing preferences shifting to Utah and Colorado, I will always look to Timberline and Meadows as my "home" slopes.  I love spotting Hood in the distance from downtown Portland, and I love it even more when it is reflected in Trillium Lake.  So in June while based in the Northwest, I went to Oregon on a quick weekend trip specifically to shoot Mt. Hood, spending several hours relaxing with the gorgeous view in the photo above, waiting for the sun to go down.

Even though it's summer, the ski season is not over at Timberline.  The snow may be less than perfect, but the Palmer snowfield is open and groomed.  In fact, you can see the Palmer lift in my photos.  I was wishing I had brought my skis that day!  But if you just want to make a snow angel while wearing shorts, that's possible too.  There is often snow around the lodge, or you can ride the Magic Mile chairlift to 7,000 feet to find more snow.  Historic Timberline Lodge is a perfect day trip while in Portland.

Built in the late 1930s, Timberline Lodge is one of the many construction projects supported by the Works Progress Administration, a program that was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal aimed at combatting the effects of the Great Depression.  At an elevation of 6,000 feet, Timberline Lodge is also a stop on the famous Pacific Coast Trail.  Step inside the lodge, and you feel like you've been transported back in time.

You can wander around the building, view the small museum, shop for off-season ski gear, dine in the restaurant, or even opt to spend the night in a rustic room.  Whatever you choose to do, on a nice sunny day you are guaranteed beautiful views of the Oregon landscape, including the stunning peak of Mt. Jefferson (40 miles) and even the Three Sisters (100 miles), if you're lucky.

If you're heading back to Portland on a day trip, opt to take the return route through Hood River to not only get a different perspective of Mt. Hood but to then give yourself the opportunity to stop at the magnificent Multnomah Falls!  Or even drive up to Crown Point for views of the Columbia River Gorge.   

Posted on Thursday, July 17, 2014 by Julie


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel - I caught this movie on a recent flight and thoroughly enjoyed it, even caught myself laughing out loud on the quiet plane full of sleeping passengers.  Ralph Fiennes is fantastic as the lead, Monsieur Gustave H.  And I was surprised that I liked it considering other Wes Anderson films have not held my interest.

2. Trader Joes Mini Ice Cream Cones - These tiny treats are perfect for summer.  They are just enough to satisfy your desire for a drumstick cone, but without the guilt from eating dessert.

3. Alexandra Ferguson Pillows - If you follow me on Instagram, you will know that I have two pillows from Alexandra Furguson.  I first saw the "Go to the Gym" one on a spring trip to NYC, sitting on the entry bench at the SoHo Sweaty Betty store.  (Side Note: I posted a photo to Instagram when I saw it, then Mindy Kaling posted a similar photo a half hour later.  I "fan girl-ed" a little there when I saw that!  What, was Mindy following me on my shopping trip?  I digress...)  Then I was able to commission one in similar colors with the same phrase used on a design made especially for the Kimpton hotel chain's Boston properties, "Wicked Smaht."

4. Nordstrom Anniversary Sale - When I think of family traditions, there is only one I can think of that is a consistent annual ritual.  Sadly, it's not a holiday.  It's the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale.  Maybe it was because I grew up on the west coast, and Nordstrom was one of the dominant department store chains there.  All I know is that it's always exciting when the catalog comes in the mail.  I get my pen out and start circling.  Back in the day, the sale was the perfect place to get a bunch of basics to cover all back-to-school needs (e.g. Keds, mock turtlenecks, etc. - that's right, I was an 80s/90s kid!).  Admittedly, the sale has lost its luster over the years, and I find myself buying less and less because the styles of clothing Nordstrom buyers are opting to include in their stock are not appealing to my tastes or I already have similar items - seriously, I do NOT need another ankle bootie!!

5. Systematic Art Hanging System - Again, if you follow me on Instagram, you will see a video of the gallery wall I just installed in my home to display some of my favorite photos.  Imagine trying to hang 20 frames in a 2x10 array and have them all be completely even and level.  Never going to happen! Not with my hammer and nail skills!  My cousin, who is an architect, suggested this rail gallery hanging system.  It was very easy to install, and very easy to hang and adjust the photos to the right height.  I'm looking forward to being able to change out photos as my collection grows and my photography skills improve!

Posted on Tuesday, July 15, 2014 by Julie


Monday, July 14, 2014

If you've followed my blog for a while, you'll already know that one of my favorite things to do on a free weekend is head up north to New York City to take in some Broadway shows.  With the Tony Awards in June, I was blown away by some of the performances and knew I was due for a trip to the big apple. The one performance that stood out for me the most was Neil Patrick Harris singing "Sugar Daddy" as Hedwig at the Tonys.  The song was stuck in my head for days, and I was determined to get a ticket to this show!

If you're not familiar with the Hedwig and the Angry Inch story, it's about a transgender East German singer who is putting on her Broadway debut concert.  With just two actors and a band, the show successfully transports you into this scenario, and Neil Patrick Harris nails the character of Hedwig right on the head!  From the start, he banters with the audience and establishes himself as a real "diva," then throughout the show he tells the story of Hedwig's life. As the clothes and giant wigs slowly get stripped away, even with the big rock numbers and funny quips, you realize it's all a defense mechanism and Hedwig's vulnerability and tragedy become more apparent.  Even with the over the top makeup and drag, the story is one that is relatable to anyone, a story of finding someone who will love you for who you are and not what you can do for them.  The best part, and a testament to NPH's talent, is that you never watch the show and see the famous actor - you only see Hedwig.  Sadly, Harris' run as Hedwig will end in a few weeks, but it was recently announced that Andrew Rannells, who originated the role of Elder Price in Book of Mormon, will be taking over through mid-October.  That's another show I don't want to miss, and I already have my tickets!

When I go to New York, I really like to maximize my Broadway entertainment, so I opted to see this year's Tony Winner for Best Musical - A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.  Set in Edwardian England, this musical begins with a man, Monty Navarro, who discovers after his mother's death that she hid the truth of his aristocratic lineage and that he is 8th in line to the D'Ysquith Earldom.  After writing to the family to inform them that they have a new branch on the family tree, he was quickly rejected.  At which point, Monty decides to systematically kill each of the D'Ysquith descendants ahead of him in order to take the title himself.

What I didn't realize before seeing the show was that the same actor plays each of the D'Ysquith heirs and the current Earl.  This actor, Jefferson Mays, is the primary reason for you to get to New York and see this show!!  I was amazed at how he was able to distinctly play nine different roles - the energy and mental capacity to do that alone is flabbergasting, let alone the technicalities of all the costume changes!  I was exhausted just watching him (from probably the highest seat I have ever had on Broadway, by the way).

The rest of the time in the city, I was doing some shopping down in the boutiques of SoHo.  If you're a woman and a fan of the growing trend for athletic wear, like Athleta or Lucy, you should head to Mercer Street where you will find a British import, Sweaty Betty, that sells dance inspired clothes.  Or, just up the street, a popular Montreal-based fitness clothing store just opened recently: Lolë.  The staff at both shops were very friendly and went out of their way to make the experience nice for me...and for my out of shape dog who was none too pleased with the amount he had to walk in SoHo.

This round of NYC weekend madness, I stayed at a new hotel - well for me at least - in the Murray Hill neighborhood, south of Grand Central on Park Avenue.  As I was driving home yesterday, I was thinking that I would not necessarily recommend staying in that part of town.  While perfectly safe, it was inconvenient to the activities that I enjoy doing.  And, as much as I complain about being annoyed by the regular occupants of Times Square, for a Broadway-based visit to the city there is something to be said for the convenience of only a 1-2 block post-show walk back to your hotel.  In addition to neighborhood thoughts on my 4 hour drive, I also was thinking about other random parts of New York that I really like or dislike.  So, if you'll indulge me, I'll share a few of them with you:

  • Favorite Building:  Chrysler Building  (second place is the Flatiron Building)
  • Favorite Street:  Park Avenue as it goes up wraps around Grand Central Terminal on an elevated street
  • Favorite Sensory Experience: Roasted nuts from the stands on the streets

  • Least Favorite Building:  8 Spruce Street - one day perhaps I will understand Frank Gehry, but for now I wish he would keep his designs to a smaller scale
  • Least Favorite Street:  All streets that make up Times Square because I absolutely abhor the people dressed in the disgusting mascot costumes lurking around and grabbing people for souvenir photos.  I saw three Elmos walking in a pack together that totally creeped me out! Can we please stop supporting this trend?
  • Least Favorite Sensory Experience:  All of the piles of trash just sitting - and leaking - onto the sidewalk waiting for the overnight trash fairy to pick them up.  

Posted on Monday, July 14, 2014 by Julie

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Thursday, July 10, 2014

I've been posting some summer drink recipes over the past month, so I thought it was time to combine a favorite summer drink, pink lemonade, with some baking.  The result was a batch of these pink lemonade flavored cupcakes with marshmallow frosting, inspired by Sweetopia!  I found the batter to not be "lemony" enough for me, so I added some lemon extract to the original recipe.  The marshmallow frosting is yummy, but very sweet!

Pink Lemonade Cupcakes

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
1/2 cup pink lemonade concentrate, thawed
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon extract
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
Yellow food coloring (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. In a stand mixer, beat butter on medium to high for 30 seconds
3. Gradually add sugar to the butter to cream together.
4. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients.  Set aside.
5. Add eggs to the butter mixture, one at a time, beating well.
6. Beat in pink lemonade concentrate, vanilla extract, and lemon extract.
7. Add 1/3 dry ingredient mixture and beat on low, then alternate with some of the buttermilk.  Repeat until all dry ingredients and buttermilk are just combined.
8. Add food coloring
9. Put into cupcake liners and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
10. Let cool completely before frosting.

Marshmallow Cloud Frosting

2 cups heavy cream
1 bag (10 oz) mini marshmallows
1 cup confectioner's sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pink food coloring
Pink sprinkles or sanding sugar

1. Place the cream, marshmallows, confectioner's sugar, and salt in a large, deep saucepan.
2. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the marshmallows melt completely.
3. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and food coloring.
4. Pour icing into mixing bowl and chill for a few hours to overnight.
5. Remove from the fridge and mix icing using an electric mixer or stand mixer with paddle attachment.  Ensure all icing is mixed by scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once.
6. Beat for about a minute, until the icing becomes smooth and glossy.  The icing will be thin, but set it aside at room temperature for about an hour, and it will thicken to a pipeable consistency.
7. Pipe the icing in a swirl pattern using a large #1A round Wilton tip.  Decorate with sprinkles.

Posted on Thursday, July 10, 2014 by Julie


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Much like Day 3, the final day of this quick Route 66 road trip was going to be filled with lots of driving, through western Arizona and a cross cut of California to Los Angeles.  There are many ways to make this segment longer, if desired, by including a side trips to the Grand Canyon for example or by following the original Route 66 roads that wind around the mountains and in less inhabited areas, but I opted to stay on the quickest course.  I'm sure I'll get some flack from the purists for how much I skipped of the Mother Road on this section, but it's the way that suited me the best.  And I still feel like I got to see a lot of the remaining sites.

Delgadillo's Snow-Cap Drive-In, Seligman AZ

The first stop of the day was the famous Delgadillos.  This popular drive-in restaurant was built in 1953 and was made famous by its lively owner who drew attention with his wild decor choices and by his crazy names on his menu.  Apparently, he was quite the jokester!  

Kingman, AZ

Kingman is called the Heart of Route 66, but I'm not exactly sure why.  Maybe it's because it's one of the first major towns after the long, desolate stretch of the westbound road through eastern California. Perhaps it's because it's on the longest, continuous stretch of what remains of the original Mother Road (158 miles), of which 52 miles - from Kingman to the Colorado River - is full of switchback hairpin turns that were once used by dustbowl victims in the Great Depression as their route to new opportunities in California.  Kingman today doesn't have much left in it for Route 66 travelers, save for the museum, a water tower, and a neat neon sign (not historic) that I used at the top of this post.

Ludlow Cafe, Ludlow CA

I decided to stop in Ludlow primarily because it was a good break after the long drive past the Mojave desert, but also because Ludlow was a great name that also happened to be the name of my parent's beloved cavalier king charles spaniel that passed away.  The Ludlow Cafe, or what little remains of it, was once a popular dining spot on Route 66. 

 Palm Cafe, Barstow CA

Always seeking out fantastic retro neon signs, I knew I had to stop at the Palm Cafe at 930 W. Main Street.  I just love the great yellow arrow, even though I apparently cut it off with the palm tree in this photo.

Wigwam Motel, San Bernadino CA

As I mentioned in my Day 3 report, the Wigwam Motel was a chain of seven similar motels, two of which remain on Route 66 today.  This one in San Bernadino at 2728 W. Foothill Blvd. is #7.  If you've ever dreamed of staying the night in a large concrete teepee, this is your place!

 Orange Stand, Fontana CA

Due west on Foothill Blvd. near Rancho Cucamonga (15295 E. Foothill Blvd.) is one of the last remaining California orange stands.  These drink stands were very popular in the 1920s through the 1950s as destinations for thirsty travelers, who could pull over for a quick glass of fresh orange juice made from local orange groves.  Interstates and the demolition of the orange groves to make room for housing developments were catalysts for the demise of these drink stand franchises.

End of Route 66, Santa Monica CA

The most scenic way to get to the end of the Mother Road, on Santa Monica Pier, is to just take Foothills Boulevard to Pasadena, then take the 110 past Dodger Stadium into Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, before taking Santa Monica Boulevard through Beverly Hills to the beach.  OK, it's a little more complicated than that, but it's a good approximate route.  After finding a parking spot, walk to the intersection of Ocean Avenue and Colorado Avenue and take the walkway down to the pier that starts under the famous Santa Monica Pier.  You can't miss the "End of the Trail" sign!

Planning this four day adventure was not easy.  There is so much to do and see along this 2,451 mile historic road; and, to whittle it down to only what was practical in order to keep the start to finish time to under a reasonable amount of time for one day - which can range from 10-11 hours for me - was a challenge.  Of course, I wanted to see it all!  And, of course, I wanted to drive it all!  But I had only 4 days, which meant sacrifices.  So, to get my final "must see" list for each day, I relied heavily on internet research, obviously, and I purchased the "EZ-66 Guide for Travelers" by Jerry McClanahan, which contains step by minute step driving instructions and historic site alerts.  My copy of that book is quite dog-eared and marked up!  One day, I know I will try this drive again with more time, so I'm looking forward to finding new things and exploring new towns that I had to pass up on this first attempt at Route 66.

Other Legs of the Route 66 Adventure:

Posted on Tuesday, July 08, 2014 by Julie

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