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November 25, 2020

The Seasons of My Life

Back in the Day

I have outgrown picture books…again.

Which I feel nervous even writing. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all, and all that jazz, and I have learned through my interest in kids’ books over the last eleven years that those who create these books can be a bit sensitive about their work, about its relegation to the world of childish things. Wonderful children’s literature appeals to readers of all ages, and readers who restrict themselves to a certain age group (or genre, etc.) are missing out. All of this is true.

But it’s nothing not-nice that I’m trying to say here. Instead, it’s a matter of practicality. That for a long time, picture books were my primary way of engaging with my children and this opened up whole worlds to me, and some of those worlds seemed as real as the one I walk around in every day—but time makes you bolder and children get older, and I’m getting older too?

We still read them sometimes. Iris is only seven and we have so many great books on our shelves that all of us enjoy, books we can recite by heart. There are picture books in our library I’ll never be able to part with, and yet—we’re reading them less and less. I used to blog about picture books weekly, but now I hardly do. Everybody in our family is firmly into chapter books now, books we read on our own and the ones we read together. Picture books don’t have the same integral place in our daily life that they once did.

And none of this is remarkable. Children outgrow a lot of things, and families do too. We used to go on road trips listening to the same CD on repeat, this song with a barking dog in the chorus, because Iris cried in the car otherwise, and we don’t do that anymore. I used to get a big kick out of reading Go Dog Go in ridiculous accents, but these days the dog party is over.

But I feel a little bit disloyal, admitting to giving up on my allegiance to picture books. Or rather, moving on from it—although the new frontier, for me, is middle grade and also graphic novels, and I’m getting the same pleasure from relating to Harriet through some of the novels she’s reading as I once did when we used to examine the illustrations in Allan and Janet Ahlberg’s Peepo together, her gummy baby fingers pointing out the dog in the corner that shouldn’t be there. But I’m also trying to give her space to develop her own relationship with books and reading, one that has nothing to do with me.

And this is what happens, of course, the way things come and go. And how when they go, new things grow up in their place, which I keep reminding myself of in these moments of unprecedented change and upheaval. As businesses shut down in my neighbourhood and city and it’s enough to drive one to despair sometimes, the extent of the loss, all of it so overwhelming and hard. But even harder is trying to hold on to it all.

(And remember: a blog needs space to grow and room to wander!)

It’s okay to grow. It’s okay to change. It’s okay to change again, is what I’m thinking, and for the thing that used to define you so much and mean everything to become a spot of the horizon. And those things we loved will always be a part of who we are, because of the way that we wouldn’t have become ourselves without them.

November 22, 2017

The books I didn’t read

Last month I wrote a post called “Where do my books come from?”, whose title was pretty self-explanatory. And I am curious to explore the ideas within it further, beyond the wheres of my book choices to the whys. That I read Guidebook to Relative Strangers because two friends (one online, one in the park) had recommended it to me in the same week; I read My Conversations With Canadians after seeing Lee Maracle speak at Word on the Street. But before I get to the whys, I want to finally write down a post that’s been on my mind for awhile, a post about the books I didn’t read. Which requires me to underline again that I receive books in the post almost every day of the week from publishers, in addition to the considerable number of books I purchase from bookstores, meaning there are always inevitably going to be books I didn’t read. Some will filtered out by my own biases: books about inspirational dogs, YA books about dragons, middle grade and YA books in general (though there are exceptions), books without women in them, books about regional politics, and books about academic theory, and paranormal erotica.

It’s not so much that there is anything wrong with these books or these genres per se, it’s just that I have so many other books to read and if I’m going to have dismiss some it makes sense to dismiss the ones that don’t interest me. If I were paid to read widely, then one might argue I have an obligation to explore all the literary avenues, but this is my blog and anyone who comes here arrives expecting to read about the books I want to read, not the books I’ve read by obligation. And yes, I know I will indeed miss out on some wonderful books by dismissing many so categorically—but the sad fact of the matter that I’m still coming to terms with is that I can’t read all the books in the world I want to read, so I’m hardly going to worry about the ones that I don’t.

Which is not to say that I’m not obligated to expand my horizons, of course, or to look critically at the limits of my reading experience. Once upon a time, ages and ages ago, I realized I was missing out on books published by small independent publishers, and for a while especially sought these out—but then very soon after I didn’t have to do the seeking because the whole thing had become habitual. Similarly, about five years ago it occurred to me that I was mostly only reading books by authors who were white. I was fortunate that I had this revelation at the same moment so many other people did, because suddenly there seemed to be a bigger spotlight on Indigenous writers and writers who were people of colour and I didn’t have to go out of my way to find these books.

And can I just mention that the reason I want to find these books is not out of some demonstration of virtue or social obligation, but because it’s kind of weird to live in a world populated by people from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and realize that you mostly only read books by people who are white? Think of all the stories and voices you are missing. I don’t want to be that narrow as a reader. I also happen to find those stories and voices very interesting—and so these are the reasons by books by Indigenous writers and people of colour are less likely to be the books I didn’t read.

On the other hand, I don’t tend to read books by men. I have to be very diplomatic about this. I have to be diplomatic about this because someone I know recently posted such a statement on Facebook, to which someone respond with an angry tirade they then deleted and then they unfriended her. Clearly, this is a sensitive issue. And I address this by stating that I have piles and piles of books to be read, and it’s not that I don’t want to read the books by men but that I want to read the books by women first (because I find them more interesting) and if I’m ever through with the books by women I’ll get to the men books—but this hasn’t happened yet.

Also, the other night I was posting flippant tweets about reading books by men, and then later I considered the authors whose works my tweets were dismissing and I felt a bit guilty for potentially hurting their feelings. AND THEN. And then it occurred to me that (I am quite sure) not a single one of these authors felt obligated to read my book (if you are a man and you read my book, I know exactly who you are and I am really grateful to you, and I can also count the number of you on my fingers) so I stopped feeling guilty after that.

So just say you are a woman, or a Black man, and/or you’ve written a book that’s not about an inspirational dog, which is to say that you’ve just made it into my sacred reading lair—what might compel me to stop reading your book once I’ve bothered to stop reading? Bad typesetting, for sure. A hideous cover—book design is important. Typos. Allusions to an artist or philosopher I’ve never heard of is another—I really just don’t want to read the book you’ve written imagining 19th century polemicist Tomas Niskanovich Pornakarsky as a squeegee kid on the streets of Saskatoon. Once a few years ago I stopped reading a novel on Page 7 because the main character noted that he’d begun to find older women attractive and subsequently became overwhelmed by feelings of dread (which is another reason I don’t tend to read books by men, by the way).

Two weeks ago, I stopped reading a novel because it was 500 pages long, all the women characters were ethereal, and I hated the book more and more with every paragraph—and I’d already read to page 200. It was a novel that was desperately trying to be Fates and Furies, which I must admit was also a novel that tested my patience as a reader, but I had such confidence in its author that I persisted. Not so much with its derivative.

Often I put down a book determining, “It’s just not for me.” This, honestly, is not the same thing as determining, “This novel is a piece of garbage” (which, of course, is another reason I will put down a book, but wouldn’t you?). Sometimes I see the literary merit of a book but I’m just not very interested in the project. Can I bear to suffer through 300 pages of this? Possibly an inspirational dog has bounded in on page 27, catching me unaware. Maybe there is also a child narrator, which I have a really hard time with. Or the book is written as a series of paragraph-long chapter vignettes, and I decided I’m going to have as much trouble focussing as the book’s author apparently did.

My terrible confession is this: there is an incredible correlation between the books I’ve started reading and abandoned for being not for me (or never bothered to pick up at all) and books that have gone on to be nominated for all the major literary prizes in Canada. I might have the very worst literary instincts in this country.

I tend to put books down if they feature a character whose best friend has died of cancer and that death has inspired main character to change the way she lives her life, particularly if I happen to have picked up this book when I am in the waiting period for biopsy results. Along those lines, I have never read The Bear, by Claire Cameron, because it came out while I was pregnant with my second child and terrified I was going to die of thyroid cancer, and so the premise of a book about a child whose parents die at the very beginning was too terrifying for me to contemplate. I have also never read The Crooked Heart of Mercy, by Billie Livingston, because it’s about a family whose child dies, and I seem to have turned into the kind of person who kinds such narratives too hard to ponder—but I think I am going to read it at some point, because I’ve heard so many good things about it.

I almost didn’t read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, because I’d had a lot of trouble with her first book and Station Eleven was post-apocalyptic—but then I ended up loving it. I didn’t read Truly Madly Guilty, by Lianne Moriarty, when it first crossed my path because I’d read a dismissive review of it and thought it wasn’t worth my time, but then I read Big Little Lies and realized that Lianne Moriarty was a genius. So I’m not saying my system is infallible, but the point is that I did find my way to these books eventually, and more often than not I think my instincts are right about the kinds of books that work for me, and so I trust them. And why not? It’s not like there’s ever been a shortage of books that I am totally in love with.

I kind of insist on my right to not like a book, to hate a book even. To be uninterested in a book, or dismiss it without having read it. Because life is too short and the books are too long. I think this insistence has helped to me as an author to process and even appreciate those readers (I believe there were three and a half of them—poor souls) for whom my book was not their cup of tea. There really are so many books out there, and I’m glad that readers are free to plot their own ways through them, to pick and choose based even on the most arbitrary things. This kind of freedom is what keeps life interesting, and enables literary conversations to mean something when they happen.

July 7, 2015

No Rain

IMG_20150624_081645I ran into someone last week who remarked upon photos of my family on Facebook which give the mostly-correct impression that we are good at spending our days. Though it’s not always the whole story, and I let her know about the weekend previous, when it rained for two days, all our plans got flooded, and I cried because the soup I made tasted just like dirt. She asked me why I don’t take pictures of that, or blog about it, and that’s a good question, but the answer is mostly, why bother? It was bad enough living through it once, so why on earth would I want to re-experience it by writing it down?

IMG_20150629_162615Whereas the last few days, summer proper, have been glorious. No rain. We had a very good week last week, adjusting well to school’s out. I love not having to schlep anyone out the door in the morning, and the day continues on apace. Harriet watches movies through Iris’s nap while I get some work done, and I begin the rest of my work once the kids go to bed, though the problem with this is that they’re going to bed later and later. But alas. I am also in love with our teenage babysitter, whose alarm at Iris eating dirt the other day was totally adorable.

IMG_20150704_123110On Friday, we spent a morning at the park with friends, perfect weather, shaded by trees so we didn’t even have to apply sunscreen. The children played and got dirty while their mothers talked about books and writing, and life seemed very much in balance. On Saturday we had a busy day of Fringe Festival and then the book launch for Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony at Little Island comics, which was fantastic. And that night we hung out on our friends’ amazing rooftop patio celebrating the 4th of July in the company of excellent Americans (3 out of 4 of whom were under 6). We went home before we’d drank too much so Sunday wouldn’t be a disaster.

IMG_20150705_100242And it wasn’t! The #SummerofRavines continued with an exploration of the St Clair Ravine, which was amazing, up through Mount Pleasant Cemetery and along the Beltline Trail to Oriole Park, which has a fantastic playground so the children were delighted. My secret plan is to trick them into liking nature rambles, and so far so good. We were even home again for nap, which is my definition of a proper kind of day. I spent Iris’s nap in the hammock revelling in wifi, putting the finishing touches on 49thShelf’s 2015 Fall Fiction Preview, which you can read here.

IMG_20150629_195833And now I have decamped for a few days visiting my parents in Peterborough, which is the first time I’ve ever done such a thing solo, so dependent am I upon my husband (who needs to stay home and go to work). This is the longest time we’ve been apart since 2003, which is kind of ridiculous, but I like our life this way. But on the other hand, it’s nice to know how much I’m capable on my own and also to have the experience of missing each other. It’s novel. The good news is that nobody threw up in the car, and also that we have a car, which means when I needed an emergency bookstore visit tonight to pick up a copy of The Folded Clock: A Diary, by Heidi Julavits, I was able to do so with alacrity.

I’m now reading Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan, which feels summery to me because I read Goon Squad at the cottage a couple of years ago. It’s reminiscent of the later book, but a bit off-putting too, so I’ll be reading the Julavits alongside it. And yes, I get holiday book nostalgia a lot. I read Elizabeth McCracken’s amazing Thunderstruck last summer the day we came home from our cottage (I remember walking home from the subway reading the book once I’d dropped off our rental car) and now I’m yearning to read another of her books when we go away in a few weeks. I’ve got The Giant’s House and Niagara Falls All Over Again on order, one of which I’ll be reading along with rereads of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and something by Laurie Colwin because I’ve been thinking a lot about funny, smart novel by women writers—the kind of book I want to write. So I’ll be reading for pleasure and also for inspiration.

May 24, 2015

Trouble and Spaciousness

IMG_1334Am I having trouble reading because I’m unsettled, or am I unsettled because every book I start to read is so darn dissatisfying? This is a question I’ve have to ask myself over and over in my life, and I’ve never once come close to circling round and round about it. All I know is that the last four books I’ve picked up I have abandoned after a few pages, and the book I spent most of last week reading had no impact on me whatsoever. So now book review today. And I had to pull out the big guns because to be reading nothing is to not be me. Last night I started reading The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness by Rebecca Solnit, and I think it’s going to save me.

I think the trouble is the books though because otherwise all is very well here. Last week flew by, a very short week with so much in it. All fun. And after last week’s meltdown (mine) in regards to baby sleep, we shifted gears. I’ve stopped breastfeeding, we moved Iris back into her crib upstairs in our room, and left her to cry at night. The last strategy never worked with her big sister who would only grow more and more hysterical, but Iris settled pretty quickly and by the third night without a peep. She is still not sleeping all night, but everything is much much better and one night she slept until 5, and the idea that putting her to bed is no longer a production (and therefore someone who is not her parent can do it?) is tremendously exciting.

In other now-reading news, I’ve started getting the New York Times supplement with the Sunday Star, which comes with a standalone books section (an abridged version of the real one) and it’s so terrific to read. I miss real, solid book review sections. Anyway, this has added another highlight to my week.

Harriet turns six on Tuesday, and Iris threw up in a parking lot this afternoon, which has freaked me out a bit because we all spent Harriet’s birthday last year completely ill. I have since learned though that there is no rhyme nor reason to my children’s vomiting, so here’s hoping it was just a thing. Especially since Harriet is the greatest child alive and her choice of how to spend her birthday evening is having dinner at my favourite restaurant.

Regarding the photo. At Harriet’s school concert on Thursday, Stuart pointed out a woman wearing bunting shoes. Naturally, I had to talk to her. “Where did you get them?” I asked her, and she only looked a little bit sheepish but mostly proud to tell me she’d found them by the side of the road and cleaned them up so she could wear them. What sweet bunting fortune.

April 6, 2015

Departures and Arrivals

IMG_20150405_072206We leave for our trip this week, and I keep waiting for that lull between our departure and the time in which nobody in our family is sick, but the window for such a thing is disappearing, and I am so very tired. And sick, again. There was about five minutes on Friday when I wasn’t, and then cold symptoms returned on Saturday morning shortly after my child threw up in a shoe store, which was a brand new milestone for all of us. But nevertheless, Easter was had, a holiday we celebrate for its pagan roots and not the Jesus bits. We’re all about the eggs, and the new life that comes with spring—I met a baby today who turns two weeks old tomorrow, and she was a miracle unfolding. We had a lovely visit with my parents, and saw friends on other days, and Harriet and Iris got the new Annie movie on DVD, and Harriet has watched it five times already. There are crocuses across the street. We are assembling our playlist, a CD of driving tunes for the journey from Berkshire to Lancashire (which I’m the smallest bit nervous about, Iris having just now decided that she hates cars. “Car, no. Car, no.”)

mad-men-best-of-everythingTonight we’re watching the new Mad Men, which premiered last night, but we watch it on download from iTunes so are behind the people who watch it on TV. I don’t know what I’m going to do in a world without Mad Men, a show that has been such a huge part of my life for years now and which has seriously informed my reading life too. It’s a good time to re-share The Canadian Mad Men Reading List, which I made last year, and am seriously proud of. Oh, Stacey MacAindra. Maybe I’ll finally get around to finishing The Collected Stories of John Cheever. I still haven’t read “The Swimmer.” I’ve been saving it, I think, of the post-Mad Men world. In which I am probably going to go right back to Season One.

Today I found a poem about motherhood, bpNichol Lane, Coach House Books and Huron Playschool, written by Chantel Lavoie for the Brick Books Celebrating Canadian Poetry Project. I find myself struck by the poem and the various ways it connects with my life, and how literature and motherhood and the fabric of the city are all so enmeshed. Particularly in this neighbourhood.

And finally, I am in a peculiar situation book-wise. I don’t know what books to take with me on vacation. Now, on a certain level, bringing any books on vacation is simply stupid because all I ever do when we go to England is buy books. And when I look at my to-be-read shelf now, no contenders jump out on me—nothing good for an airplane, nothing I am truly destined to love, no book with which I’d be thrilled to be holed up with in an airport terminal. You can’t take chances in a situation like this! So I have decided…to bring no books with me. This is truly the wildest and craziest thing I’ve ever done. This year, at least… To pick up a book at the airport, and trust I’ll find the right one there, and then live book to book. No safety net. This is terrifying. And yet potentially exhilarating, rich with adventure. The book nerd’s equivalent of jumping out of the sky.

November 20, 2014

I’m Doing It All Wrong

Jane-Gardam-The-Stories-UKLately, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m doing it all wrong. I’ve been feeling strange about books, less in love with many I’ve encountered that I’d expected to be (and certainly less than last year when my Top Ten Books of the Year List Had 22 Books In It). We’re coming up to year-end, when we start taking stock, but only a few books are standing out in my mind, and I’m bothered that these weren’t better celebrated by Canadian literary prizes this year. I have also come to the conclusion that there are too many books in my house, which means we should probably call a doctor. Plus I bought 20 new ones last weekend, and I want to read these because perhaps they’ll be the ones I’m waiting for, earning a coveted place on my year-end list.

But I’m not reading these, instead choosing to read The Stories by Jane Gardam, a doorstopper of a book. It comprises stories from over Gardam’s career, as selected by Gardam herself on the occasion of her shortlisting for the Folio Prize for Last Friends last year (which I loved—I read it in March at Futures Bakery on a rare Saturday morning spent alone). An uneven collection, as reviews have declared, but fascinating in that, and such a joy to escape in.

“Of course, the best antidote to the disappointment of the literary life is to read.” –Caroline Adderson

And so I’m reading, reading, reading, and I don’t even want to talk about what I’m reading. But I do suggest that if you’re a Jane Gardam fan that you should check out this book yourself.

October 21, 2011

Not believing the hype

One if my favourite books ever is Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I’d be a rich woman if I had a nickel for every person I’ve ever encountered who’s refused to read it because it’s story of a teenage murderer. (And oh, by the way, it isn’t. We Need to Talk About Kevin is the story of a marriage. But you have to read the book three times to figure that out). For some reason, however, I feel free to cast disdain on these non-readers, on their deliberate steps away from the difficult, uncomfortable questions put forth by provocative literature, while I continue to oblige my own prejudices. Perhaps because my own prejudices are not quite so vague, so open-ended. Give me a well-written teenage murderer any day, but force me to read a book about a dog and I’ll pull my eyes out.

Note, however, that here I insist on being as inconsistent as I ever was– a look through my recentish reading confirms that I liked Andrew O’Hagan’s Maf the Dog book, and both Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Quickening, both of which had dogs on their cover, plus I even attended a literary dog exhibition.

This is actually not a panda.

But dogs are really only the tip of the iceberg, and somehow the fates have conspired to make the rest of the iceberg the most hyped books of the season. Because do you know what I hate more than I hate books about dogs? That would be books about circuses, of course, and I don’t like books about cowboys, and not even “books about”, but there might be nothing I hate more in the whole wide world more than I hate jazz. Which has pretty much left me nothing in the whole world to read… except for the 73 books I have before me on my TBR shelf. So maybe you can see why I’m not too bothered.

So dare I cave to the pressure of the hype? Is the hype any less ridiculous than my own stupid literary prejudices? Though I do pay attention to awards lists (and go Zsuzsi Gartner and Lynn Coady, by the way. Your books rocked my soul), and I’m grateful to the books they point me to, I’m certainly not going to read all lauded books for the sake of the act. This is a lesson I perhaps learned the time I read Vernon God Little.

There are books I should read, no doubt. This is the reason I read The Wings of the Dove and Great Expectations this year, and why my slow trip through The Collected John Cheever is ongoing.  But I refused to be obliged to read a book until at least ten years has determined it’s still worth my while. And depending on how posterity has treated it, I might pick it up, dog or no dog, cowboy or no cowboy. Unless it’s a book about a circus.

September 23, 2011


At the age of 2 and one quarter and a bit, Harriet is now officially weaned, which I’m telling you now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I truly enjoying horrifying the kind of people who become horrified by the fact that I’ve breastfed for so long. The second reason is because it’s quite a milestone, and I don’t like the idea of breastfeeding having to be a private thing, business that I keep to myself for fear of horrifying somebody (except when I want to horrify someone, as previously noted), because it really is of the mundane essential stuff of life that I write about on my blog all the time. And the third reason I raise the topic here is because breastfeeding was always when I got my periodical reading done, and the loss of this reading time each day now means that I’ve got magazines piling up in my house at a terrifying rate. Plus it’s September, which means there is a new release out basically every day that I’m meaning to getting around to read, and the Victoria College Book Sale is this weekend (which is, as many of you know, the thing I enjoy in the world more than anything else at all except Afternoon Tea). So there will be books, books and more books, and now I’m a bit terrified at the prospect of my leaning tower of magazines.

April 10, 2011

Carol Shields, yard sales, departures and arrivals

When I looked out the window at our gorgeous Saturday, I had a craving for a yardsale, but suspected it was too early in the season. Not too early to get outside though and take in that glorious sunshine. We walked down to Kensington Market after breakfast, determined to spend no money, but then got hungry, went to the bank, and bought an empanada, a peanut butter and jam cookie from Miss Cora’s Kitchen, and a block of cheese. In retrospect, it was a very positive change of heart.

Then walking back up Major Street, all my dreams came true. A woman was selling a pile of stuff out on her sunny lawn, and so we crossed the street with glee. There wasn’t much that caught my interest, however, though it’s the browsing that’s half the fun anyway. But double the fun when I see that Carol Shields’ Collected Strories is on sale for 50 cents. Which is not only a bargain, but it contains an unpublished story. What a prize! I couldn’t think of a better find.

And it was the perfect day for it, because I was reading Carol Shields’ play Departures and Arrivals, which I bought at the Vic Book Sale last fall. I wasn’t sure about the play at the start, but I warmed to it quickly– absolutely Carol Shields, about conversations between friends, family, lovers and strangers in the middle of a busy airport. I’d say there were about 30 Carol Shields novels contained within this slim volume, and I am so pleased that I got a chance to read it.

For the next week or so, I will be focusing on my unread books before new releases, trying to clear a little space on my shelf before things get (even more) out of control. It’s funny, there are books on that shelf that have been sitting there for years, and I’ve even tried to get rid of them but can’t, but it seems harder to actually read them. I should have one of those rules like for closets where you have to pitch anything that’s been sitting untouched for a year. And it’s true, there are these books I know in my heart I will never, ever read, but I haven’t quite come to terms with it yet. The others, however, I’ll be getting to soon.

January 8, 2010

A bit overwhelming

“Maybe–“, I said to my husband last evening. And then I couldn’t go on, because to do so would be to put a name to the problem that mustn’t be named (or at least not by me. Husband names it frequently, which is the problem). But I can’t hold it in anymore: “Maybe there are too many books in my life at the moment.” Because it’s gotten a bit overwhelming. Would be less so if I could stop requesting books from the library all the time, and if the Toronto Public Library holdings didn’t contain every one of my heart’s desires. (I am now hold 34 of 161 for Patrick Swayze’s autobiography. Yes, I too am not sure if this is really necessary).

I am currently reading Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen. I’ve also been reading the poetry collection The Sleeping Life by Kerry Ryan, which is pretty wintry so far, so it feels like the right book for now, though my life hasn’t been very sleeping for a long time. Progress is slow on the Alcott book, which is no matter on one hand because the book is very good, but then I’ve got such a backlog of books waiting. Like the Canada Reads: Independently books, which I’m going to start shortly. Beginning with Ray Smith’s Century, I think, because that is the one I’m most scared of.

And to make up for the dullness of this post, I give you a glimpse of me and technology circa 1987.

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