R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Thanks to another pro football season, America’s allegiance to its flag is once again called into question. My wife and I chatted with our German exchange student recently, asking whether her own country found patriotism so controversial. To this she said, “You Americans are considered very patriotic people. We Germans not so much; perhaps, because of Hitler in our past”. I was a little taken back by that comment. Americans can point to shameful events in our colorful – albeit brief – history, and yet; we still sing the anthem and stand for the flag. Well, most of us.

This week in Colorado, primary and secondary schools begin another year of formal education. The setting is not so different from schools I attended. The classrooms are laid out the same (technology aside). The cafeterias offer up borderline-edible food. And the students – every weekday morning – stand, face the flag, place their right hands over their hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  Forty-six of America’s fifty states mandate the practice.  Congress opens its sessions with the Pledge, as do countless other government and private meetings across the land.  Another day begins in America.

     

The Pledge has a rich history for a phrase spoken (or sometimes sung) in less than fifteen seconds.  It was based on Captain George T. Balch’s Civil War-era pledge: We give our heads and hearts to God and our country; one country, one language, one flag!  The version we use today – reworded by Baptist minister Francis Bellamy, was first published in the children’s magazine The Youth’s Companion in 1892 (albeit with simpler wording).  The Pledge was also first used in public schools on October 12th of that year, coincident with the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair.  The Pledge was designed to generate patriotism in young people, at a time when this kind of energy was on the decline.  Sounds like something we need just as much today.

The original version of the Pledge stated: “...allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands… ” The change in 1923 to today’s version: “… allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and the Republic for which it stands…”, was a nod to America’s immigrants, so as not to deny loyalty to birth countries.  Finally, the phrase “under God” was added in the 1950’s, and formally adopted on Flag Day (June 14th) of 1954.  It was also at this time students began the everyday reciting of, as President Eisenhower referred to it, “…a dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty.”

Along with saying the Pledge and standing for the flag, America’s students “place their right hands over their hearts”.  This gesture also has a history.  In lieu of a military salute (reserved for those in the Armed Forces), students originally stretched out their right hands towards the flag, palms down, ending the Pledge with palms up.  But the practice was associated with the Nazi salute and quickly abandoned, in favor of the hand-over-heart (or cap over left shoulder) we use today.

To no one’s surprise, America’s Pledge of Allegiance (almost unique among countries) is not without controversy.  Since 1940, there have been at least a dozen high-profile legal challenges.  A few target the practice itself, claiming a violation of the First Amendment.  But most target the use of the words “under God”, in conflict with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (freedom of religion).  None of these suits succeeded, with the typical defense, “…the [Pledge’s] words represent a patriotic (not religious) exercise…”, and [to atheists], “…participation in the pledge is voluntary.”

Three years ago, in the most recent defense of the Pledge, New Jersey Judge David F. Bauman declared, “As a matter of historical tradition, the words under God can no more be expunged from the national consciousness than the words In God We Trust from every coin in the land, than the words so help me God from every presidential oath since 1789, or from the prayer that has opened every congressional session of legislative business since 1787.”  Amen to that, David.

Aretha Franklin – America’s indisputable “Queen of Soul” – died last week after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer.  Aretha’s most famous lyric was undoubtedly, “…all I’m askin’ is for a little respect…”.  No coincidence; America’s flag makes the same request.  The Pledge is a voluntary act – sure – but who’s going to argue with, “…liberty and justice for all”?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and from Erik Larson’s novel, “The Devil in the White City”.

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Foul Mouth

Search the Guinness World Records website using the word “mouth”, and you’ll get pages and pages of results – over 250 mouthy records. Most seedless grapes stuffed into the mouth: 94. Most lit candles: 37. Most tennis balls: 5 (by a dog). Most drinking straws: 459. We’ll put just about anything into our mouths these days.  Now add to the list baking soda for brushing, coconut oil for “pulling”, and charcoal for whitening.  That last one; it makes me pause. Charcoal?

Charcoal is the mound of briquettes in your barbecue.  Charcoal is the sooty remains of a smoldering campfire.  Charcoal is “lightweight black carbon and ash residue produced from animal and vegetation substances”.  Yet we choose to put this substance into our mouths?  Apparently “Sensodyne”, “Pearl Drops”, and all those other white-whiteners didn’t do the trick.  Checkmate.  Black wins.

If hygiene headlines speak the truth, black is the new white (or something like that).  Charcoal powders and pastes are the trend-setters these days, turning the mouth solid black before – allegedly – turning the teeth a whiter shade of white.  The color cycle of toothpastes is now complete, starting with the classic whites from days gone by, moving through the entire rainbow (including the blues and reds of Colgate; the green gels of several), and concluding with a shade the darker side of midnight.  But is blacker really better? Some fan-quotes are a little vague: “I’m using this [to show] I’m in the know,” says one, and “Everyone wants to try something new, but it has to be something that looks cool,” says another, and “I’m doing it to encourage dialogue.” Sounds like charcoal is more about image and less about whiter teeth.

Rather than post an in-progress and visually-disgusting photo, check out Hannah Hart’s brief demonstration of charcoal whitening here.  She dips her brush into what can only be described as a tin of shoe polish, morphs her mouth/lips/teeth from clean-and-white to blacker-than-black, destroys her sink (honestly; it’ll never be the same again), and finally, shows off her stained tongue; a regrettable side effect of thirty days of carbon consumption.

Watching Hannah’s video, I can’t help picture something entirely inedible dripping from her mouth.  Looks like black paint, used motor oil, or the sap of some deep forest tree you wouldn’t take big money to consume.  No matter how effective charcoal powder is for your pearlies, I can’t stomach the idea. Maybe I should try it without a mirror.

Now let me admit to a little hypocrisy:

1) I relish black foods, so I have no problem putting “black” into my mouth.  Among my favorites: olives, licorice, coffee, and black beans.  I also don’t shy away from blackberries, black bread (made with bamboo charcoal!), black rice, and the black of mushrooms.  I’m told I should try squid ink pasta.

2) I brush my teeth with a product called “Earthpaste”.  Earthpaste (“amazingly natural”) is exactly what it sounds like.  Mix together dirt (well, clay actually), a little salt, sweetener, and oil, and brush, brush, brush.  It’s not sweet – though flavors include peppermint, lemon twist, cinnamon – and the dry, gritty feel takes some getting used to.  But Earthpaste sold me for what it doesn’t contain: glycerin, fluoride, foaming agents, and artificial colorings.

It stands to reason if a) I have no problem putting black things into my mouth, and b) I’m willing to brush with dirt, I should be willing to c) brush with charcoal (A+B=C or something like that).  But Hannah’s video ruined it for me.  So did the facts behind the teeth-whitening.  Yes, bleaching gels abound, but for the most part “whitening” means abrasives.  Over time, you’re removing the top layer of your teeth to expose something whiter underneath.  Goodbye enamel; goodbye tooth strength.  Charcoal, as it turns out, does the same thing, only in black.  Short-term: whiter teeth.  Long-term: digging into the dentin.

My recommendation? Skip the charcoal.  Maintain your inner child.  Eat dirt instead.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.  Also, from the Wall Street Journal article, “The Latest Fad in Tooth Whitening Is to Turn Them Black”.

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Disc Chalky

Woodstock Candy (“Let Sweet Flashbacks Sprinkle Down”) assembles collections of vintage candy and sells them on Amazon.  The “nostalgic retro mixes” tailor to the buyer’s age, as in “30th Birthday Box” or “65th Birthday Box”.  For those in my decade, Woodstock tosses in classics like Chuckles, Red Hots, Sugar Daddy’s and Smarties. Also, a few Pixy Stix, a Candy Necklace, and a long strip of those colorful Candy Buttons. Finally, buried quietly in the back of the box: one small roll of Necco wafers.

Four months ago, the Wall Street Journal alerted those of us with nostalgic sweet teeth of the fate of Necco wafers.  More correctly, NECCO – the New England Confectionery Company – would shutter if it didn’t secure a buyer.  Apparently, no one came to the candy counter, because the factory closed its doors late last month.  The consumer reaction was immediate – on the order of the Hostess Twinkies frenzy.  Rolls of Necco wafers flew off the shelves.  Frantic calls to candy stores demanded entire boxes be placed on hold.  One Necco devotee offered his 2003 Honda Accord in exchange for the company’s remaining product.  You might call it “disc(o) fever”.

The Necco wafer/disc is an underappreciated candy of years gone by, though admittedly my affection for the confection is not what it used to be.  Necco’s are packaged in rolls of about thirty, in an assortment of eight flavors, including clove.  Clove.  Even the flavors sound dated.  A Necco wafer looks and tastes like a disc of chalk (drywall?), with a hint of flavoring to make it seem like food.  Eat a dozen wafers and your hands and clothes are covered with edible dust.  Eat a dozen more and the flavors all start to taste the same.  What used to be a satisfying crunch now feels like a threat to my dental work.

Why was I drawn to Necco wafers, when my back-in-the-day 7-Eleven store included an entire aisle of more appealing candy?  Maybe I just like little discs.  My father used to drive my brothers and I to some of his building sites, and I quickly discovered the concrete littered with dozens of metal coins.  These were “slugs” – today called KO’s or “knockouts”; the quarter-sized remains of partially-stamped openings in electrical junction boxes.  I collected hundreds of them – God knows why (but I was a kid, so I didn’t need a reason).

I also collected coins – more specifically quarters, because quarters were big money in my day, and translated into just about everything in that 7-Eleven aisle.  Quarters could also be stacked into paper wrappers; perhaps my precursor to a roll of Necco wafers.

At the same time in life, I had what was probably the coolest toy around.  It was called a “Rapid-Fire Tracer Gun” (if you were really cool you had the Star Trek version).  The Tracer fired little round plastic discs, spinning them out of the barrel so fast they hurt when they hit skin.  They even made a Tracer Rifle for more accurate shots.  The Tracer had a spring-driven magazine, so you could queue up a whole pile of plastic discs.  Or Necco wafers.

Necco wafers aren’t nearly as appealing as some of the stories behind them.  A hundred years ago Necco’s were carried by Arctic explorers and handed out to Eskimo children.  Their “suspiciously long” shelf life (Necco’s are sugar, corn syrup, and not much else) allowed them to be stored for months; then consumed by Union soldiers during America’s Civil War.  And therein lies the significance of the NECCO factory closing: the wafers have been around since 1847.

If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: NECCO also manufactures Sweethearts, the heart-shaped romantic-message-stamped equivalent of the Necco wafer, distributed by the billions on Valentine’s Day.  Think about that: no more candy hearts bearing “Kiss Me” or “Love You” or “Be Mine”.  Instead, just inedible greeting cards and meh grocery-store chocolates.  But don’t despair – I think the factory closing is just a hiatus.  The Hostess Twinkie came back and so will the Necco wafer.  It’s already underway, so join the movement: #SaveNecco.

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Jack Be Quick

If the lazy days of summer sap your get-up-n-go, here’s an idea. Find a friendly donkey (not a stubborn one). Halter him and attach a solid lead rope – at least fifteen feet worth. Saddle your jack with thirty pounds of gear, including a pick, a shovel, and a gold pan.  Finally, don your running shoes and head out to Fairplay, CO. $50 gets you into the World Championship of Pack Burro Racing.  Welcome to the state sport of Colorado.

Pack burro racing seemed a little ridiculous to me… until I dived into the details.  For starters, its origin is as legendary as the Greeks and the marathon.  Back in the strike-it-rich days, two Colorado gold-miners hit it big in the same location, and supposedly raced back to town (burros in tow) – first miner to the claims office wins.  Here’s another detail: pack burro racing really is a marathon – 28-30 miles up and back with your donkey, making the halfway turn at an elevation of 13,000 ft.  My favorite rule?  No riding.  However, the runner may push, pull, drag, or carry the burro.  Carry the burro?  A thousand pounds of ass?

Capitals, flags, songs, and birds – of course – but I never knew states had official sports, until recently, when California considered its options.  If your first choice for the Golden State is surfing, California’s state assembly agrees with you.  The Wall Street Journal reports the assembly just passed the “bill”, and now the tiff moves to the state senate.  I say tiff because a host of other Cali residents say not so fast.  Those who don’t live near the beach choose skateboarding.  Why skateboarding?  Because surfing is already the state sport of Hawaii.  They also say skateboarding is essentially surfing on wheels.  Maybe.

I grew up in California, but neither surfed nor skateboarded.  Still, I deserve a vote.  I did my share of body-surfing, so know what it’s like to catch a wave.  I did my share of bicycling, so know what it’s like to cruise on wheels.  You can put yourself in either camp, but arguments abound for both.  As one state assemblyman said, “Hawaii may have invented surfing, but California ‘mainstreamed’ the sport”.  Others say, “Surf ranches” and their wave machines bring the sport to the inland areas of the state.  On the other side of the aisle, skateboarding is a sport enjoyed by the masses just about anywhere.  And skateboarding really was invented in California, evolving from crude combinations of roller skates and wooden produce boxes.  Marty McFly should get a vote too.

By coincidence, surfing and skateboarding will join the Olympics in 2020.  The lighting of the torch in Tokyo will surely reignite the debate in California, no matter which sport is chosen.  Or maybe the state will still be arguing one over the other, instead of dealing with – ahem – more important issues of government.

Only a handful of U.S. states claim a sport in their list of symbols.  Some make sense, as in Alaska (dog-mushing), Minnesota (ice hockey), and Wyoming (rodeo).  Others have me saying, “What the heck?”, as in Maryland (jousting), and Delaware (bicycling).  I don’t live in Maryland or Delaware.  Maybe they banned every other sport in those states.  Of course, Marylanders and Delawareans probably feel the same way about Colorado and its pack burro racing.

Admittedly, Colorado could wage a healthy state-sport debate of its own.  The Rocky Mountains alone inspire a half-dozen seemingly better options.  If on water, go with river-rafting or kayaking.  If on snow, go with skiing or snowboarding.  If on land, go with hiking or mountain biking.  Yet none of those acknowledge the state’s rich lore of gold-mining.  None of them combine a human activity with an equestrian one.  Come to think of it, Colorado has enough runners and horses to win the debate, gold-mining legend or not.

According to the Western Pack Burro Association (“Celebrating 70 Years of Hauling Ass”), Colorado’s pack burro racing series still has several to go this year.  The first three are considered the “Triple Crown”, but I can still catch the remaining action in the towns of Leadville, Buena Vista, and Victor.  It’ll be like the running of the bulls in Pamplona!

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Caring O’ the Green

My back lawn stretches north to south along the edge of my house, and half again as far to the west. When I look out the window, it’s an expanse of brilliant green in every direction; about 2,000 square feet by my step-off calculations. I could place the Emerald City at its edge and things would look even better than with the field of poppies. I should invite Dorothy & Toto over for a cup of coffee.  Or dress like the Wizard’s guards in one of those head-to-toe outfits while I mow.  Even my lawn tractor is green.

It wasn’t always jade thumbs for me. Growing up, a gardener took care of my parent’s lawn (an even bigger carpet than my backyard Oz). Instead of mowing, trimming, mulching, aerating – all better options in hindsight – my brothers and I commanded weed and leaf patrol. Endless amounts of both packed into endless amounts of extra-large black lawn-n-leaf bags. One summer we helped my dad install a sprinkler system; everything from a rented trencher to miles of PVC pipe. It was a good education in plumbing, but I didn’t learn much about lawn care.  Er – change that up – I didn’t care to learn much about lawn.

When my wife and I bought our first house, caring o’ the green became a proviso, if only to be good neighbors in such close quarters.  We lived on a postage stamp lot in a small neighborhood just south of San Francisco.  (If the lot really was a postage stamp, imagine the size of the front lawn.)  I could mow and edge in a cool fifteen minutes.  Looking back, I get a little nostalgic for my first lawn mower.  It was the simple bare necessities – just a rotating blade and a couple of wheels, connected on up to a pair of hand grips.  The engine was me, and there was neither seat nor steering wheel.  No matter – my “push reel mower” worked just fine when you’re talking postage stamps.

Moving to Colorado, I graduated to a bigger lawn and a gas mower.  A yoga class should include the lunge-like move required to start a gas mower.  Brace with one leg, deep knee bend with the other, arm extended forward (but not locked!), fingers closed lovingly around the cord handle, deep breath, and… PULL!  Sometimes the engine wouldn’t start after several PULLS on an early morning, adding colorful words to my vocabulary.

After that, we moved to the ranch we live on now.  Mr. 2,000-square-feet beckoned out back that first summer, but with my smallish mower I pushed about a five-mile spiral to get him cut (my neighbor still smirks at me today… “city boy”).  Too many years later I graduated to a John Deere ride-on: seat, steering wheel, drink/snack holder – the works.  I even have the matching JD hat so I look like I know what I’m doing.

DO I know what I’m doing?  DO I care enough about my lawn?  Sometimes I wonder, as in a recent Wall Street Journal article, which story-tells lawn care at a whole different level.  Some of my neighbors out there, in what can only be called obsession, take scissors to their grass or pluck the blades by hand.  Others use a vacuum to clean up the scraps.  Still others attach a roller to their mower for a finishing flourish – those light/dark stripes normally reserved for baseball fields.  If I too want to be “extreme” I can purchase the video, “How to Dominate Your Neighbor’s Lawn”.

No, I’m not that guy.  No scissors, no vacuums, no videos.  I’m content to just putt-putt-putt every-other-week spirals around my green, with the occasional hand-rake of the trimmings.  I’ll even admit to using a lawn service to hold back the weeds.  It looks acceptable.  The Wizard of Oz would probably approve and that’s good enough for me.

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Kindling the Fire

Last Sunday, in the midst of a sleep-in/no-alarm kind of vacation, my dad dragged my wife and I to early church. That meant falling out of bed by 7 and leaving the house by 8:15. Not my idea of a relaxed schedule, to be sure. On the drive to church and all through the service, I found myself in a fog and close to nodding off (the meh sermon didn’t help). Even at brunch afterwards – stoked with a double-dose of mimosas – I couldn’t seem to shake the cobwebs. It wasn’t until much later in the day I realized something significant went missing from my daily routine. I hadn’t had my morning coffee.

Morning coffee is more a habit than an addiction for me.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t so long ago I occasionally substituted juice or water, and the day proceeded as normal.  Sunday’s drowsiness made me pause.  Maybe the impact of caffeine is more significant as you age.  Maybe drinking a hundred cups (or more) in a hundred days creates a dependency.  As they say, caffeine is “the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug”.

While I debate the impact of no caffeine today, I can absolutely attest to the impact of lots of caffeine, with two examples of inconvenience.  For me, caffeine sends a loud-and-clear, pulsing, Times-Square-sized announcement to my bladder saying, “IT’S TIME TO PEE.”  Not in fifteen minutes.  Not in fifteen seconds.  Now; as in – get up and go NOW.  I better have my path to the bathroom mapped out, and that door better be open.  It’s like clockwork biology, forty-five minutes after that first coffee sip.  Remarkably, the experts still question whether caffeine is a diuretic AND they wonder whether the amount of liquid expelled is equivalent to the amount consumed.  I emphatically answer “yes” and “MORE”.  With all the expelling, it’s a wonder my body doesn’t dry out and disintegrate.  No matter; it’s a small price to pay for my daily drug.

Here’s the second impact of caffeine.  Beware the cup of coffee (or any choice from Starbucks) after three in the afternoon.  Let that late-day caffeine hit take hold and you’re in for a long night.  I can very dependably fall asleep within five minutes of hitting the pillow except when my coffee intake is late-day (and on that note, why is upscale after-dinner restaurant coffee so good?).  I toss and turn like laundry in the wash cycle, staring at the ceiling and ruing my beverage mistake.  Then I stare at the bedside clock.  What a pretty clock it is.  Such colorful numbers.  It’s fun to watch the numbers change every minute.  Every hour.

Let’s review.  Assuming I plan my bathroom trips and lay off the coffee by mid-day, I can safely embrace my caffeine habit.  And if “habit” concerns me at all – its synonyms include “addiction” after all – here’s some good news.  Four cups a day is ideal for heart health, according to recent research by the Germans (my new favorite people).  Not up to four cups, but exactly four cups, netting you about 300 mg of caffeine.  Four cups is also the equivalent of a Starbucks “Venti” (the Nitro cold brew somehow packs in 469 mg of caffeine) but I steer clear of the big cups.  Wouldn’t want to get “addicted”.

We’ve only been talking about coffee here, but thankfully caffeine is found in only a handful of other foods and drinks.  What starts as a naturally-occurring compound in plants finds its way to teas, cocoa, cola soft drinks, energy drinks, and over-the-counter meds (i.e. cough syrup).  The only one I touch is cocoa (my chocolate habit justifies its own blog post).  So, unless I exceed my daily two-square ration of a Lindt 70% Cocoa Excellence Bar, my caffeine intake is all about coffee.

If you count milligrams the way you count calories, know that 300 of caffeine is the threshold to avoid anxiety and panic attacks.  A warning sign might as well pop up after 300 saying, “STOP!  Proceed with caution”.  It’s like there’s this sweet spot with coffee – an oasis between falling asleep in church and earning the jitters – that kindles my fire.  Gives me justification to start every day with a cup of coffee.  Or four.

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Which Came First?

When my son wrapped up his undergraduate college years, he gradually reduced the stock in his refrigerator to just about nothing.  Living on a shoestring budget, he wasn’t about to purchase food he didn’t need after graduation.  I’ll never forget the phone call one of those last couple of nights.  He told us – rather proudly – he’d made a meal with two eggs… and a can of processed chicken.  A “chicken scramble” if you will.  To which I replied, “ick“.  If we’d been on FaceTime he’d have seen my face turn a lovely shade of green.

Some foods were just not intended to be consumed in the same bite.  I can’t think of a better example than chicken and eggs.  All chickens hatch from eggs and all chicken eggs are laid by chickens, so why on earth would we eat them together?  Can we skip the biology class and agree – at least by one definition – chickens and eggs are essentially the same “thing”?  And really; how often have you found them side-by-side on your breakfast plate?  Hopefully never.

The memory of my son’s kitchen creation locked itself away in my brain until recently, when Starbucks decided to meddle with their sous vide egg bites menu.  Not content to offer just “Egg White & Pepper” and “Bacon & Gruyere”, Starbucks now offers “Chicken Chorizo Tortilla”, described as “perfectly cooked, cage-free sous vide egg bites, including chicken chorizo, and…” and… and… and I stopped reading right there.  I couldn’t get past eggs and chicken in the same offering, gag reflex included.  I’m not sure I’ll order any egg bites anymore.

To lend credence to my chicken-OR – not chicken-AND – claim, I turned to one of the experts in the field: fast-food icon Chick-Fil-A.  CFA offers an extensive breakfast menu (Starbucks does not) so I figured, a restaurant built entirely on chicken would never offer eggs mixed up with chicken.  Wrong-o.  To my disbelief (and horror), two entrees loom large on CFA’s breakfast menu where you can get plenty of both.  Choose from the Egg White Grill: a breakfast portion of grilled chicken stacked with freshly cooked egg whites on an English muffin; or the Chicken, Egg, and Cheese bagel: a boneless breast of chicken along with a folded egg and American cheese.  Seriously, who buys this stuff?

I’m not sure who said it, but some would assert “the chicken is merely the egg’s way of reproducing itself”. (The same applies to the caterpillar’s “use” of the butterfly.)  I like that, evil as it sounds.  Kind of devalues the chicken, but also kind of proclaims: the egg came first.  And what about that quandary, “which came first”?  There’s not much to discuss if you really think about it.  Make the simple choice – science or religion.  Science votes for the egg, laid by something that wasn’t quite a chicken (but evolved into one once the egg hatched).  Religion votes for the chicken, created by a higher power in those first six days.

Maybe chicken + eggs is the greatest thing never eaten and I just don’t know what I’m missing.  I suppose I could ease into the idea one entree at a time.  Start with corned-beef hash… with fried eggs.  Move to full-on steak… and eggs.  Swallow hard over chicken… and waffles (eggs in the batter).  Then, at long last, order that new sous vide egg bite from Starbucks.  Yeah right, that’ll happen… as soon as we all agree on “which came first”.

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