Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Street Rod Snapshots


The Weather in Barrow: Cold

My friend Alaskan Mike has finally crept out of hibernation in Barrow, Alaska, the northern-most city in America. He sent the photo above, and reports a temperature of 36°F and a windchill of 32°F. Mike describes this as warm.

New York City was supposed to reach 94°F today. Incidentally, the city of Barrow has an area of about 18 square miles and about 4,000 inhabitants. Manhattan is just a little bit larger with about 22 square miles. It has more than 1.5 million inhabitants.

We last heard from Alaskan Mike in December. Go here and here for his previous reports.

Canada's Secret Weapon

Who's strong enough to protect Canada from the Nazis? Captain Canuck, that's who. According to the online Canadian Encyclopedia (aren't you glad there is such a thing?), his predecessor, Johnny Canuck, was created in the 1860s as a sort of editorial symbol of Canada, a personification that stood up to Uncle Sam and Britain's John Bull.

In 1941 Johnny Canuck became a comic book hero, fighting the Nazis. This was the same year that an American publisher called Timely Comics released the first Captain America comic book.

Later, Johnny Canuck changed to look more like his American counterpart. The Canadian Encyclopedia:
Captain Canuck, a superhero instead of just a hero, was introduced in 1975. He wore red tights and 'electro-thermic underwear' for warmth and on his forehead sported a red maple leaf.
It ain't easy being a Canadian superhero. In a review of a new book called Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe, by John Bell, comic critic Jeet Heer lists Canada's beleaguered action heros:
Time after time, Canadian publishers conjured up superheroes that supposedly embodied the national spirit. Aside from Johnny Canuck, there is Nelvana of the Northern Lights (a white goddess in a mini-dress who protected the Arctic from “Kablunets, Nazi allies armed with Thormite Rays”), Captain Jack (an all-round athlete who battled Nazi saboteurs), Northern Light (a science fiction hero whose enemies were space aliens), Captain Canuck (who also fought space monsters as well as complex international banking conspiracies) and the similarly monikered Captain Canada (originally known as Captain Newfoundland, he defended the royal family from giant Japanese robots).
Not to mention Northguard, a superhero that filled the Canadian security gap when Captain Canuck was taken out of circulation.

For an excellent online history of Canadian superheroes, visit John Bell's Guardians of the North website.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Damien Hirst: For the Love of God

Is it art? Sure it is. Is it good? That isn't the point.

I'm talking about Damien Hirst's now notorious diamond encrusted platinum skull, a piece he calls "For the Love of God," and hopes to sell for $100 million. That's him, licking it. Yes, it's art in the sense that a cardboard cut-out of a poor sap being sodomized, with a hole for the buyer to stick his or her face, could be called art. Let's get past that pre-modern question and agree that all of it's art.

I'd also like to speed past the idea that a piece of art like For the Love of God is good or not. Art critic Charlie Finch is right to compare the jewelled skull to the diamond bedazzled Victoria's Secret bra -- both are nothing more than precious stones assembled in patterns that spell out the names of their creators in big, gaudy letters. They are publicity stunts, and by writing about them, I have fallen for them. Oops.

But if I had to come up with a more sophisticated critique, I'd say that Hirst is desperately stalling the death of his showy art-star career by literally putting shiny, distracting things on top of a symbol of death, a cliche-ridden symbol at that, I might add, in echo of Mr. Finch. Yes, it references turquoise-encrusted skulls made by the ancient Aztecs, but contemporary art must do much more than reference its predecessors. No, to me it is Hirst's loss of inspiration made manifest.

And it has been dying a long, agonizing death. Remember, this is the artist who in 2001 installed some overflowing ashtrays and empty beer bottles in a gallery and called it art. Only to have the janitor mistake the installation for garbage left from the opening party. "I didn't think for a second that it was a work of art," the janitor told reporters later. "It didn't look much like art to me." That's because it actually was garbage.

Then again, mortality has been a bountiful theme for Hirst, who has embalmed large sharks and sheep, and erected stories-tall bronze women with cut-away views of their insides. It would be wrong if I were to dismiss this latest piece as if in a vacuum; I'm not. Further, I like Hirst's pharmaceutical packaging designs for mundane non-drug products, and I like his Virgin Mother statue.

Hirst's art is too often a mere spectacle, and For the Love of God, as many have noted, raises it to a level that will be hard for the artist to top.

Critic Jerry Saltz wrote in the Village Voice back in October 2000, "It's not an insult to say much of this work would blend in at Epcot Center, museums of science and industry, surgical colleges, restaurants, malls, or the Smithsonian." Isn't it? An insult, I mean. Depends on how you take your art. I like mine a little more intimate, a little less polished.


Sabotage for Art's Sake

Dave Hickey, a well-known Las Vegas-based art critic, MacArthur Fellow, and author of Air Guitar, a very entertaining book of art criticism, had some interesting things to say in Art in America's May "Group Crit" about the state of art schools (which I wrote about in an earlier post called Art and the Q-Word).

He was particularly candid about talented young artists and the potential for conflict with art teachers, especially if they be artists themselves:
Only saints can nurture real talent. I am a writer, not even an artist, and even I can't avoid feeling a twinge of resentment when a pimple-faced twerp with a skateboard under his arm shows me a mature and persuasive work of art. I can see, much more clearly than the twerp, the road opening before him, the obstacles falling away, and it's all I can do not to stick out my foot and trip him. I f I were an artist, with a stake in the game, I would probably trip him, and tell myself that it was for his own good. It wouldn't be. Better to buy the damned art and take your profit on the back end


Quote of the Day: Roald Dahl

It turns out the famed author of James and the Giant Peach was an opinionated wine enthusiast:
"Wine … tastes primarily of wine—grape-juice, tannin, and so on. ... If I am wrong about this, and the great wine-writers are right, then there is only one conclusion. The chateaux in Bordeaux have begun to lace their grape-juice with all manner of other exotic fruit juices, as well as slinging in a bale or two of straw and a few packets of ginger biscuits for extra flavouring. Someone had better look into this. ... I wonder, by the way, if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter."
He wrote that in a letter to the British wine magazine Decanter in 1988 to protest the imaginative and literary turn wine criticism was taking.

But as Mike Steinberger notes in an article called Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam: Why wine writers talk that way in Slate this week, wine critics "are acutely aware of the mockery their fanciful jargon attracts."

Further, such critics are being vindicated by science:
(For instance, the buttery note often detected in chardonnays is an aroma compound called diacetyl, which is a byproduct of malolactic fermentation [a secondary fermentation that softens the acidity in wines].)
Yes. But the old way of writing cannot be improved by science. One last quote from the Slate article as evidence:
British wine expert Michael Broadbent once likened a wine's bouquet to the smell of schoolgirls' uniforms (no, he wasn't arrested). And the late Auberon (son of Evelyn) Waugh, in his wine column for Britain's Tatler, described one wine as smelling of "a dead chrysanthemum on the grave of a still-born West Indian baby" (no, he wasn't fired, but he and his editor, Tina Brown, were brought before the Press Council to answer charges of insensitivity).

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Sea urchins? Or green tea leaves bundled to resemble a Chrysanthemum?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Horsey rides in Prospect Park from Kensington Stables, which, as its website says, is the only stable left in the park. And the stables are shrinking. In 2005, it lost its smaller barn to a 107-unit condo development.

Art and the Q-Word

The May issue of Art in America has an excellent "Group Crit" in which various art school professors and other academics and artists offer thoughts on the state of the Art School. The essay by Laurie Fendrich, a fine arts professor at Hofstra University, stands out. Here's an excerpt:
"The notorious Q-word (for those of you born since 1980, I mean quality) has been banned from official art discourse since about 1975. Even so, it hovers backstage during every critique. Good students and reasonable teachers still know the good stuff when they see it, although they'll only say so with a faux blue-collar spin: "Hey, that works." So while some art teachers fret over the need for more exotic computer programs, others lobby for more critical theory in the curriculum, and still others argue for more drawing, everyone ignores the real need: to resuscitate a way of talking about art that recognizes the value of art as a thing in itself, a thing that is impractical and politically useless.
While I agree that an irrespressible "artistic personality" alone is not a qualifier for a great artist, and that the celebration of self-expression has gotten way out of hand to where everything is permissible, and hence, good, there is something amazing about the classic outsider artist: an individual so moved to express him or herself that the desire for fame based upon that expression rarely occurs to them.

I'm not saying that it's always great art. But in the case of a man like Alexander Lobanov, who, like Martin Ramirez, spent much of his life in an institution, the fruits of obsessive expression and artistic discipline developed without any formal training is beautiful and weird.

When we think about an artist like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst today, it would behoove us to consider the artistic personality involved, the current cult of celebrity (was it ever not current?), the market -- in which investors and status-seeking new collectors overheat the price structures, and above all, whether this crap will stand up to an honest academic critique on the one hand and an earnest public "everyman" critique on the other.

Fendrich's yearning for higher quality art in artists and more attention to quality in professors and critics reminds me of a quote I just read from H.L. Mencken, as recalled by Alistair Cooke:
"The older I get the more I admire and crave competence, just simple competence, in any field from adultery to zoology."


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Cephalopods are Smart, Tasty

Via Gawker, a fetching publicity photo of the host of TV's Top Chef: Mrs. Salman Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi, with two handfuls of cephalopods.

I learned this from an article on the The Cephalopod Page
An octopus is very different from a mammal. It only lives about two years. It has much less opportunity to gain and use intelligence than an elephant, which has a 50 year lifespan and three generations of a family to lead and learn from. Still, bees learn about flower locations from other bees, and they live only a few weeks as adults. However, an octopus is also not social; Humphrey (1976) suggested that intelligence has evolved to solve social dilemmas. The young octopus learns on its own with minimal contact with conspecifics and no influences of parental care or sibling rivalry. However, the octopus has a large brain with vertical and sub-frontal lobes dedicated just to storing learned information (Wells, 1978): it has the anatomy for a robust, built-in intelligence.
Octopi are much smarter creatures than we have traditionally given them credit for. Test your octopus knowledge with this quiz at PBS.org.

They are also delicious. I am about to prepare a meal of various cephalopods with olive oil and spagetti.
Basketball at West Fourth Street.

Fénéon's Three Line Novels

The July issue of Harper's excerpted from the upcoming book Novels in Three Lines, a series of short news items written by Félix Fénéon for the Paris daily Le Matin in 1906. Fénéon wrote 1,200 such three-line crime shorts that year. They have been translated and collected by Luc Sante for the book due out in August.

These sick little summaries are reminiscent of both Hemingway's famous six-word story (more of a poem, really: For sale, baby shoes, never used.) and the so-called "Bus Plunge" genre of newspaper space filler shorts, in which accounts of buses plunging over cliffs around the world (it happens all the time -- see here or here. Or Google it.) were summarized to fill bare column space in print newspapers.

Here are a few of my favorite Fénéon items from Harper's:
"If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,"
M. Bellavione, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inférieure,
had declared. He killed himself.

Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his
wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to
aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.

In the vicinity of Noisy-sur-Ecole, M. Louis
Delillieau, seventy, dropped dead of sunstroke.
Quickly his dog Fido ate his head.

What? Children perched on his wall? With eight
rounds, M. Olive, property owner in Toulon,
forced them to scramble down all bloodied.

Le Verbeau hit Marie Champion right on her
breasts, but he burned his eye, because acid is
not a precise weapon.

At the Trianon Palace, a visitor disrobed and
climbed into the imperial bed. It is disputed
whether he is, as he claims, Napoleon IV.

There is no longer a God even for drunkards.
Kersilie, of Saint-Germain, who had mistaken
the window for the door, is dead.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

Murakami's Translator on Translation

Philip Gabriel, one of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's principal translators, discussed his craft in an e-mail roundtable, "Translating Murakami," with fellow Murakami translator Jay Rubin and Gary Fisketjon, Murakami's American editor at Knopf. The following is an excerpt from the opening e-mail in the roundtable:
One moment that stood out to me most recently was when I was working on Sputnik Sweetheart: In chapter five there was a short quote from Pushkin's poem"Eugene Onegin." In cases like this -- quotes in Japanese from other languages -- of course you need to find the original language, and with languages other than English, I try to locate a reputable, existing translation. I hadn't realized "Eugene Onegin" was a book-length poem, and visualized myself sitting there for hours trying to locate these lines in the English version. Fortunately, the lines came early in the poem. What was interesting was that I located four different versions of the poem, from which I copied out these translations of the lines:

(1) He had no itch to dig for glories/ Deep in the dust that time has laid.
(2) He lacked the slightest predilection/ for raking up historic dust.
(3) He lacked the yen to go out poking/ Into the dusty lives of yore--
(4) He had no urge to rummage/ in the chronological dust.

I copied all these down in my notebook, and ended up choosing (final answer?) number one to include in the translation of Sputnik Sweetheart. Seeing all four versions side by side was a mini-revelation to me. When I got home I pinned these all to my bulletin board -- where they still remain -- as a reminder of a simple truth, namely that there are so many possible trandslations of even one line. So very much depends on the voice you hear in your head as you read a piece of fiction. That's the voice you're trying most to reproduce when translating Murakami, and I guess that's the answer: finding, and staying true to, the voice you hear as you read the original.


My brother took this photo using top secret methods to shrink this vintage BMW to fit in a scale model he built of a parking garage.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cocktail reception staff threatened with crushing by Ferrari Formula One car, MoMA.


Freud vs. Jesus

“How do you choose between Freud and Jesus?” I ask Jason Laurits, the designer behind Plaster. I’m holding up two neckties with silkscreen designs Laurits made -- one with showing a shadowy Sigmund Freud and the other bearing a radiant Christ, both with hand-sewn gold lamé backings.

“I don’t even want to try to answer that question,” he tells me. I chose Freud.

Target Has Some Mildly Offensive and Probing Questions for You

The discount chain Target has been getting all Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) on some of its customers. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that an e-mail survey designed to compare the mind of the Target shopper to that of the Walmart shopper has been pulled after some recipients got upset with the tone of the questions. According to the Journal Sentinel:
The e-mail survey, which hit Target customers' computers on Friday, asked questions such as whether they feared their lovers might leave them and whether, if they disappeared from the face of the earth, anyone would notice.
Ah, yes, the old asking-existential-questions-to-find-out-if-our-customers-will-fall-for-Walmart's-appeals-to-middle-class-consumers gambit. We're all familiar with that, aren't we?

The survey-takers were to answer the questions by choosing from a range: "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree." Here are some of the gems the Journal Sentinel highlighted from the test. Excuse me, survey.
  • My partner is likely to reject me at some point unless I am better (smarter, better looking, etc.) than any other potential mate.
  • I deserve to be loved and respected.
  • I am a superior person.
  • I am afraid of being rejected by my friends.
  • I can be sarcastic and cutting when I need to be.
  • Sometimes when I am reading poetry or looking at a work of art, I feel a chill or a wave of excitement.
  • I don't like to waste my time daydreaming.
  • I'm not known for my generosity.
  • Poetry has little or no effect on me.
  • I often get into arguments with my family and co-workers.
  • I try to be humble.
  • It makes me crazy when the plane isn't moving and the pilot doesn't announce why.
Ooh, yeah, that's the stuff. Let's separate those red state authoritarians from the poetry-loving daydreamers. First we'll conquer Walmart, then the world.

Questions like this, though they have little or nothing to do with shopping habits, may help a retailer learn about what makes a shopper tick.

Now compare those questions to these I found on the Internet, questions that are allegedly part of the famous and ubiquitous personality test, the MMPI. (Ignore for a moment that they were posted by a fellow who calls himself "ThugCop"):
  • There seems to be a lump in my throat much of the time
  • A person should try to understand his dreams and be guided by or take warning from them
  • I enjoy detective or mystery stories
  • I work under a great deal of tension
  • I have diarrhea once a month or more
  • Once in a while I think of things too bad to talk about
  • I am sure I get a raw deal from life
  • My father was a good man
  • I am very seldom troubled by constipation
  • My sex life is satisfactory
Whether those are actual questions from the MMPI or not, I can assure you, dear reader, as a Minnesotan who has taken the test, that the questions are very much like those. My favorites include "I am a secret agent from God" and "I am afraid of door knobs."

The MMPI was invented decades ago by University of Minnesota doctors, specifically psychologist Starke Hathaway and neuropsychiatrist J. Charnley McKinley, to help diagnose mental illnesses. Minnesotans deemed "normal" by a team of doctors were polled and compared to known deviants, and thus a personality test was born. And for whatever reason, it has become an American standard.

An article from the August 2004 issue of The Believer described the test's development:
But for all the plain pragmatism that went into its development, the test Hathaway and McKinley ultimately produced was without a doubt one of the weirdest creations in the history of man's attempts to understand himself. One observer has puckishly, though accurately, described it as "a Joycean soliloquy in Whitmanic rhythms, the interior monologue of a neurotic modern Everyman."
(The italics are mine.)

Hmm. That last part reminds me of the Target questions, like "Poetry has little or no effect on me." This poetry's kind of sneaky.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Quote of the Day: Kanye West

"I think white people are allowed to say bling. They are allowed to say old-skool black slang, like hottie and homie. If you say a slang word too early, it's like you're trying to be black. So as long as the slang is a little played out, you’re all good."
Hip hop star Kanye West, as quoted by the New York Times' “On Language” columnist, William Safire, Sunday June 10, 2007.


Sunday, June 10, 2007

El Benzo

This beautiful ride was spotted by my brother at the Thirteenth Annual German Carfest in downtown St. Paul.

Its license plate reads: "EL BENZO" -- an obvious homage to the Chevy El Camino. What's so striking about this car, after you recover from the fact that you're looking at a vintage Mercedes Benz that has been turned into a pick-up truck, is that it was done so well.

For a history of El Benzo's predecessor, Benzomino, visit Karl H. Middelhauve's MB GRand 600 Restoration website. Here's what Middelhauve wrote about the birth of the Benzomino:
The concept to build a car like this had been born during the 2004 M-100 Group Meet in St. Louis, while talking to Paul Bracq, designer of the Mercedes Benz Grand 600.

The seed germinated in the liking of a Chevy El Camino, 1969, SS 396 big block V-8 with high lift cams, racing exhaust headers, 440 transmission, and posi-traction rear.
The sick beauty of these pick-up bed Benzes, then, is that the man who designed them is the one of the men who designed the original Mercedes Benz that the Benzomino and El Benzo is based on, the 600. Paul Bracq went on to work for BMW in the 1970s.


Quote of the Day: Emily Dickinson

"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."
Emily Dickinson wrote that description of poetry to her close friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man some scholars think she was in love with.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Coney Island Sideshow School

Saturday's New York Times had a piece on the Coney Island Sideshow School, in which reporter Harry Hurt III (which is not a stage name) learns to eat fire and shove a 16 penny nail into his nose.

Professor Todd Robbins, the self-proclaimed "Postmodern Master of the Sideshow" teaches people these essential skills and more for a mere $600. "Students leave with the ability to perform these acts including sword swallowing and sticking foreign objects up their noses," says the school's website.

Hurt describes the Master demonstrating sword-swallowing:
Todd Robbins, 43, dean of the school, bounded onto the stage. Six feet four inches tall with blond hair, a black vest and a mischievous grin, he was wielding a 100-year-old Moroccan sword. “Most people think sword swallowing is fake, but it’s the most dangerous act in the sideshow,” he declared. “People have died trying to do this. I myself once ended up in the emergency room in Wichita, Kan., at 3 a.m.”
This all reminds me of something I once read in Ricky Jay's Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women -- specifically a list of techniques from a Victorian-era pamphlet called A Text Book on the Art of Sword Swallowing Explaining How to do it Sixteen Different Ways. It was written, Jay says, "to confound and amuse the public."

Here are eight of the ways, as summarized by Jay:
1. Learn to swallow swords by hypnosis. "Van" as tghe author refers to himself, relates the sad story of his friend "punkrot Smith," who "had a mouth like a catfish and a neck like a crane." Through hypnosis Smith became an outstanding student until he accepted a wager to swallow an umbrella in Showbegan, Maine. He was succesful until the "new-fangled press-the-string-and-it-flies-up sort of rain catcher" opened unexpectedly. "It was a sad funeral," said Van, "and I was broke up for weeks afterward, for Punk had been my most apt pupil and have not the slightest doubt that had he lived he would have proved a marvel."

2. Learn from a professional; start by swallowing a sterling silver chain.

3. Use a peacock feather dipped in oil to tickle the throat, which helps you become familiar with the sensation.

4. Secretly swallow a rubber tube before the performance -- when the sword is later swallowed, it will be encased in the tube.

5. A similar method but using a metal scabbard.

6. The Chinese way, by first eating opium to dull the sense of touch so the sword will not be felt; this "should never be tried by any other than those of the Mongol race."

7. An herb solution "used by the Llamas of Thibet" to combat the retching reaction.

8. "Placing an article down the throat regardless of consequences and acquiring further ease of habit by force of will." ("From three to five years' practice in this manner will usually prove sufficient.")
For a more serious and modern take on the art of sword swallowing, see Swordswallow.com, including a frequently asked questions section and x-rays proving that it's real. "There is no trick," says Swordswallow.com. "There are no smoke and mirrors. Sword swallowers really do swallow real swords -- that's why we've been called 'sword swallowers' for thousands of years."

Prospect Park in Brooklyn

It struck me as I sat outside Prospect Park's lakeside Boathouse, watching a young couple go through elaborate wedding photography poses, that just as this couple enacts a pantomime for the camera, so nature is staged for us here in the park.

There are no grazing animals to keep the grass this trim, and happenstance didn't arrange such a variety of trees so artfully. This is "nature" organized as it never exists in nature, in the grand centuries-old tradition of built-up natural environments.

Brooklyn's oddly-shaped Prospect Park was designed, like its more famous Manhattan cousin Central Park, by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Prospect Park was designed for America's third largest city (Brooklyn was a separate city then) in 1866, about ten years after New York's Central Park.

The idea behind these parks back in the nineteenth-century was charity; to create urban oases where the city-bound working classes, people without the means to "summer" elsewhere, could relax. Retreats so large and so dense that once one is inside, the sounds and signs of the city disappear, even in the most densely-populated urban area in America.

Wedding photography is like a park because it's so often posed. We assemble trees and ponds and fields in pleasing patterns to make spaces of idealized nature. We build little pagodas and boathouses as outposts, icons of our dominion over, and yet harmony with, the constructed nature of our urban parks. Most importantly, we make parks to use them. They are playgrounds and giant extensions of our backyards. Or, in the case of many New York apartment dwellers, surrogate backyards.
A parade in Little Italy.

Quote of the Day: Erica Jong

"Men have always detested women's gossip because they suspect the truth: their measurements are being taken and compared. In the most paranoid societies (Arab, Orthodox Jewish) the women are kept completely under wraps (or under wigs) and separated from the world as much as possible. They gossip anyway: the original form of consciousness-raising. Men can mock it, but they can't prevent it. Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed."
Erica Jong, from the novel Fear of Flying, 1973.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Señor Softee.

My brother at the Andreas Gursky exhibit at Matthew Marks Gallery, Chelsea.

Friday, June 01, 2007

What is this? Any guesses? Comments?

Thank you for the comments. I took this picture at the Outsider Art Fair last winter. These are three sculptures made from chicken (and maybe turkey?) bones by an artist whose name escapes me. It may be the same odd soul who made a three-foot tower of chicken bones (remnants from innumerable fast-food fried chicken meals), painted gold, a piece that holds a prominent place in the American Folk Art Museum's permanent collection.

I love these, but I could never buy them. If my memory serves me right, they were selling for $8,000, which, in this market, is quite a steal. But I might get more out of making a set myself. Imagine, I could make a party out of it -- fried chicken, hot glue gun ...
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