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Whether your children attend school or learn at home, studying geography and trivia can be a fun part of your daily outings.  I don’t recall being particularly enthralled with U.S. geography as a student.  We learned the about the 50 states, their capitals, and memorized a United States map.  In music class, we learned to sing the states in alphabetical order- a catchy little tune that’s stayed with me all of these years later.  I never forgot what I’d learned, but that was the extent of my passion for U.S. geography.

Now that I have my own children, these topics have never seemed more exciting.  I’ve made it my life’s mission for them to embrace U.S. geography.  To give our pursuit some structure, I purchased Road Trip (, an inexpensive guide that teaches facts, trivia, and geography for the United States.  We listened to many versions of the 50 states song, settled on our favorite, and singing it became the opener to our geography lessons.  Then, we began the license plate game.  Whenever we’re out and about, we keep our eyes peeled for out-of-state plates, keep track of what states we see (and their capitals), and discuss the relative distance the car owner traveled to get to wherever we are.

As an unexpected surprise, we came across Tour the States, an amazing music video that we have not stopped singing.  Or learning from.  The geniuses who made this masterpiece (Marbles, The Brain Store) created another music video featuring the entire world (WHUT?) but we haven’t gotten there, yet.  File away for future use.

Finally, the fun parts.  I invested in a map of the United States that is actually a giant wall decal, with stickers to put on for each of the states.  As we learn about each state, we stick its decal on the map.  Every once in a while, I print off blank US map and have my kids fill it in.  Recently, I gave them a list of the 50 state capitals and had them fill in the corresponding states.  I was surprised at how exciting this was for them, especially given how many capitals they’ve learned.  Each time we study a state, we go on a “virtual” road trip.  We watch tourism videos about the state, look up the “Top 10 places to visit in…” and also look for clips of locals talking about and giving tours of their area.  After we’ve watched people drive around town, studied the architecture, and compared capital buildings from one state to another, we feel like we’ve actually experienced their unique culture.

Part educational and part fun, learning geography with your kids spices up daily errands and even road trips.  Find different ways to sprinkle this into your family life, and share your ideas with our readers.

Many of the things I want my kids to learn don’t come from a textbook.  In fact, some of them don’t even have anything to do with school.  Throughout the homeschool day we spend plenty of time learning academic subjects.  I hope they’ll retain it, but odds are, much will be forgotten until they learn it again in the future.  Meanwhile, I focus on life skills which I hope will stay with them and allow them to function as confident, responsible, competent adults one day.  These random life lessons are not all-inclusive, but here are a bunch that come up often.

Using the Library

Finding desired materials online, looking them up and ordering them through the library system’s website, and even calling the library to request materials.

Shopping/Making a Purchase

Knowing how to find items in the store, politely asking for help when needed, how to compare prices including an understanding of unit prices, estimating a purchase price, presenting the proper amount of cash, counting change received, and interacting with the cashier.


How to count money, safely store it, open a bank account, understand interest, deposit/withdraw money, and how credit cards and loans work.

Answering the Phone/Making Calls

Politely answering the phone, knowing how to make a call to a business and ask for help/make arrangements, request assistance, make appointments, and develop an overall confidence with speaking on the telephone.

Respect for the Elderly

Spending time in a nursing home/assisted living, developing a comfort with individuals in various states of the aging process, learning how to interact with and value the elderly, and how to help take care of older relatives or neighbors.

Meal Preparation

How to plan, shop for, and prepare a healthy meal, including reading labels and recipes, kitchen safety, and use of kitchen appliances.

Cleaning/House Maintenance

How to treat a space respectfully, clean up after oneself, wipe up spills, sweep, change batteries in household devices, use a washer and dryer, be a conscious consumer of water and energy resources, and use household tools such as a hammer/screwdriver/drill.

Animal Care

Respectful care of pets, and how to feed, water, and properly clean up after them.

The ability to help shape our children into functional adults rates high on the list of privileges and responsibilities as parents.  I’m sure I’m forgotten a few, so feel free to share what skills and lessons are important in your family!

Homeschooling has grown dramatically in recent years.  Reasons to homeschool vary as widely as the families themselves.  The Hudson Valley features families homeschooling for so many fascinating reasons, worthy of sharing.  To the mainstream public school community, the secret life of homeschoolers may seem mysterious, but there’s no reason not to learn more.  I’ve been chatting up local homeschooling families willing to share their experiences with our readers.

Homeschooling Outside of the Norm

This week’s spotlight is on an Orthodox Jewish family with four children ages two through nine, originally from Brooklyn.  Mom shared, “We keep strictly kosher, [and observe] Shabbat, all holidays.  It was hard to make the decision [to homeschool]!”  Orthodox Jewish families traditionally send their children to religious private schools, so homeschooling can be stigmatized in their culture.  They feel the decision has not been accepted by their community, and have had to distance themselves from unsupportive friends and family.  Mom identified a turning point when her parents remarked, “Wow, I didn’t think this was a good idea, but your kids are so much more well-adjusted than our other grandchildren.”


Although they live in the Hudson Valley, they travel to Long Island to find like-minded Jewish homeschool families.  They appreciate this opportunity, but are hopeful they will develop a network of local homeschoolers, regardless of religion.  They began homeschooling thinking it may be temporary, but now feel “it has been the best decision ever.”  Without the financial burden of sending their children to expensive private school, they were able to buy a home, adopt a dog, and travel, with funds leftover for field trips and activities in the community.  Their schooling is described as “part time structured learning, two to three days a week, the other days are more of an unschooling way of thinking. Trips to zoos, walk in the park, taking the pets to the vet, etc.”  They utilize and Melamed Academy (a Judaic curriculum) for their academics.   Mom likes to turn to outside sources for academic learning “so that the kids see me as their mother and guidance rather than the teacher.”


A family willing to step outside of the traditionally accepted educational standard for their culture demonstrates the power and benefits of homeschooling.  For them, homeschooling offers peace of mind.  “We know where and how our children get their knowledge, and we get to be involved and watch them grow up.” They are certainly not the traditional homeschooling family, yet they have found a way to incorporate their faith into their ideal educational environment for their children. Their photos show engaged, active children who enjoy varied learning both at home and in the community.  The combination of homeschooling with Orthodox Judiasm results in an unusual blend that works well for this local family, and offers inspiration to others wanting to give this a try.  Mom sums up, “We are a religious Jewish family living in a religious area, but living outside the box of ‘normal.’” Much appreciation to Mom for her candor in sharing her family’s experiences with Hudson Valley Parent. Please join us over the next few weeks as we continue to learn about unique and exciting families who engage in everything from Shakespeare to BMX biking to fulfill their children’s dreams and academic potential.


So far we have had a dreary couple of days of crazy winter weather. The temps have been up and down. We have had rain, snow, sleet and ice. It doesn’t feel like a really colorful time of year. Thankfully February brings some fun colorful activities into our world.  We do a lot to celebrate Valentine’s Day at home, like making gifts for our friends, but we often overlook President’s Day. It isn’t as sweet as Valentine’s Day so I am always stuck on fun things to do with my kids. This year I’m feeling (a little) more prepared.

My kids are in school and I am sure their teachers are doing a fantastic job teaching them about our country’s presidents and what it means to be the president of the United States of America. Maybe your kids aren’t in school just yet, or maybe you homeschool, or you simply want a few fun things to do on your extra day off with the kids. So here are some fun things to do!

5 fun activities to celebrate President’s Day:

Exercise your right to vote. Let your kids vote on breakfast. Pick two breakfast foods and hand out ballots to cast their votes.  Anyone who is eating breakfast gets a vote and the most popular vote wins. It is a quick and easy activity, but it gives young kids a taste of the election process. (Pun totally intended).

Help your child imagine a better world. Ask your kids to write down their answers to this question, “If I were President I would …” Not only will it be fun to hear their answers, but this can help kids imagine the good things they can do in this world.

Take a trip to the library. I know this is my go-to answer for everything. If we are bored we head to the library. But that’s because there is so much to learn and do there! If your child is old enough to read check out a couple of age appropriate books that describe the presidential process or a biography on a specific president. Check the library calendar there may even be some fun President’s Day themed activities happening right there.

Always stop for a snack. Anything you can think of that can represent the red, white and blue of the American flag is easiest. For example: a berry and yogurt parfait, or a bagel with cream cheese and fresh berries. If you are feeling ambitious make some cupcakes together, use white frosting with blue and red sprinkles. I like to use whatever we have on hand. Pull out some ingredients and let your kids get creative.

Show them the money. Take out any cash you have on hand and Google some facts about the president you see. My kids love when we get to ask the phone some questions. It is pretty amazing to me that we can speak a question into this little piece of technology and have answers in seconds. When I was the same age as my kids I’d have to walk across town, enter a building, pull open a drawer in the card catalog and find directions to a book hidden somewhere on a shelf. That was like half a day! Kids today … they don’t know how good they have it.

I like to keep things simple, yet celebratory. This isn’t one of those holidays you need to go completely elaborate with. Choosing any of these activities adds just a little fun and acknowledges the day.

The Whatever Mom is a full-time wife and twin mama living on coffee and wine. She enjoys the pure rush of cleaning the BIG potty between loads of laundry. It is her dream that moms everywhere accept and embrace the Whatever Mom philosophy which can be found here. You can also find her musings and popular shares on Facebook and Twitter. Stay up to date with her creative ideas and outings on Pinterest. 

A day of homeschooling is like a box of chocolates- you never know what you’re gonna get.  Not only do our activities vary from day to day and week to week, but the children offer more surprises than the schedule.  As their personalities develop and knowledge broadens, we engage in on-going discussions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I kept track of a recent Monday, marveling at the variety of moments that made up a “typical” day.

Late Wake-Ups

After a busy weekend, my sleepyheads slept later than usual.  My younger daughter woke up around 8, grabbed the laptop, and began her math.  (Math done willingly and independently, you ask?  Follow the link, you’ll understand).  My older daughter woke up an hour later, which meant she needed to get straight to work since we had a class in the afternoon.  Even though my kids are no longer little, I still maintain “never wake a sleeping baby.”  My older daughter began her math test, and the morning was underway.

The Sewing Box

I’m not sure how working on vocabulary in the dining room led to my little one finding herself in the closet downstairs, but suddenly, there she was.  She came upstairs with my grandmother’s sewing case, and sat on the floor to comb through it.  My grandma passed away a few months ago at age 94, and embodied values and skills that are no longer the norm.  Her sewing box was a perfect example of this- full of zippers, claps, snaps, antique buttons, and all kinds of sundries used for making one’s own clothing.  Even though the sewing box distracted us from school, what a neat historical lesson on then vs. now resulted.  We all agreed that Great-Grandma lived in the “Olden Days,” and I was relieved when my kids generously decided that my age qualified me as “from now.”


Meal prep frequently serves as an educational activity.  Today’s lunch was brown rice wraps filled with rice, beans, and cheese, steamed mixed vegetables, and clementines.  As a quick interlude to seat work, my kids took turns heating their wraps on the stove, shredding cheese, and spooning the rice and beans onto their plates.  We discussed nutrition and the importance of including protein, fruits, and vegetables in our meal.  Then they cleaned up after themselves and emptied the dishwasher.  Life skills, hooray!


We’re in the middle of a lesson on plant reproduction and life cycle.  Did you know that on a rainy day, the sperm cells of a fern plant swim down the stem to the egg?  I didn’t either, and frankly, would not have believed this if I had not read it with my own two eyes.  A few days ago a cable guy was repairing wires at our house while we were discussing how the sperm and egg of plants work similarly to humans.  I can only imagine what this poor guy must’ve been thinking as he overheard my kids asking questions about this process.

Stereotypes and the Portrayal of Women in the Media

What?  Yes, this came up today.  Over the weekend, my girls and their friend watched Clueless, the 1995 coming-of-age film about California-bred Cher and her gal pals.  After watching the movie, the girls had a realization- girls and boys are often portrayed in stereotypical ways.  In a nutshell, they wondered why girls are shown with messy hair and sweatpants, sadly eating ice cream out of the carton just because “a boy broke up with them.”  They couldn’t figure out– why don’t girls in media utilize social support?  Why should a girl feel devastated just because a boy broke up with her, and why can’t the girl be the one who ends things?  Why wouldn’t girls derive their worth from other aspects of their life?  They also noticed the girl trifecta- the smart girl, the pretty-but-dumb friend, and the follower.  They wondered why the athletic boys always coveted the “popular” girl, but that in the end, the shy, geeky guy often won her over.  Every time we watch a movie, I capitalize on the themes present, jumping on teachable moments.  Imagine my surprise when this time it was my kids initiating the discussion.

The Afternoon

After lunch, we attended a STEAM class at a local library.  In the car on the way there, my girls read geography lessons aloud, then we listened to a book on CD.  At the library, they built marble runs and interacted with other kids.  Back at home, they finished up school (practicing piano, working on a project due for a homeschool class on Wednesday, reviewed spelling words) then did their chores and helped me start dinner.  All in all, a successful day.

We’re in our fifth year of homeschooling, and have tried quite a few approaches to math over the years.  We’ve used purchased curricula, worksheets, workbooks, and topics compiled from the internet.  At best, my kids have excelled; at worst, there have been tears, intentionally crumbled pages, and refusal to go on.  My kids enjoy learning through technology, and after friends raved about a math program that is done entirely on the computer, I had to check it out.

Teaching Textbooks can be done on paper or on the computer, so we opted for the computer version.  The software can be purchased directly from Teaching Textbooks, but is often sold slightly cheaper by families who have used the program themselves.  I opted to buy it from a family whose child had just completed it.  We waited excitedly for it to arrive (yes, I’m referring to a set of math discs!) and tried it right away.  The first thing we fell in love with were the fun, animated graphics and characters that cheer on the student.  Each lesson begins with an interactive lecture and practice questions, followed by about 30 problems.  The student can get a hint on how to solve a problem when needed, and attempt the question a second time if making an error the first time.  At the end of each lesson, parents can log in to the grade book, view the student’s progress, and reset incorrect questions so that mistakes may be reviewed and corrected.  After every few lessons, a “bonus round” is earned.  Even though these bonus rounds are actually timed drills, my daughter excitedly plows through these so that she may earn extra “points.” Every so often there are also quizzes to assess the student and identify any problem areas.

We’re nine weeks into school, and not one complaint about doing math.  Not ONE.  Teaching Textbooks can be completed fairly independently, which is another asset.  The student logs into his or her own account, selects the day’s lesson, watches the lecture, and begins the problems.  This level of independence builds confidence, especially in a subject prone to such struggles and frustrations.  My biggest regret is that we didn’t try it sooner.  I was initially hesitant due to the price (about $100) until I found out that the discs hold their value and are resold for almost the original cost.  Every once in a while, we come across a program that we absolutely adore.  When we do, we can’t help but share our excitement with other families, because who doesn’t love using a program that actually makes learning fun?  We have a few other subjects that are greatly enhanced by certain curricula, and I’ll share those in future posts.  Until then, if your family has a resource that makes a difference in your schooling journey, post below to share with our readers. Happy November!



Part of homeschooling for our family is continual exposure to the arts.  In addition to music and art lessons, camps, classes, and performances, I like them to research the arts and do hands-on projects on their own.  We enjoy the book series Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists and Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers.  These short picture biographies highlight artists and musicians in a kid-friendly fashion.  Reading these has led to further exploration of individuals who have piqued our interest, looking at their collections, listening to music, and even going on to create art and music inspired by their work.



In addition to learning about an artist, it’s fun to do actual hands-on projects.  I choose an artist or time period, peruse Google and Pinterest for ideas, find some video clips on Youtube or other sources, gather images of the artist’s work and life history, and hit the library for additional resources.  We get together with a few homeschool families so the kids can learn as a group.  I always find discussions and creation of art to be more enjoyable and thought-provoking when done with peers.  Everyone brings whatever art supplies are needed.  We start with an introduction of the artist, then view some biographical videos and examples of his/her work.  Finally, the kids get to work.




Recently, we studied Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  An Italian artist from the 16th century known for his portrait paintings using fruit, vegetables, and flowers to make up the shapes, he was a fun artist for kids to study.  They got a kick out of looking at many pictures of his work, noticing what types of objects he chose to incorporate into portraits, and how as we looked closer at the painting, the objects became the focus more than the portrait itself.  After enough study, they were ready to create.  What followed was a discussion and analyzation of Arcimboldo’s work, while the kids tried their hand at creating their own portraits.  The results were both impressive and comical, and the kids gave me permission to share them here.  I can’t wait to see what they create next.  Share any cool ideas and art projects that your kids have enjoyed with our readers, below.  Happy creating!



I think I fell in love with nature when I went to summer camp.  Hiking and horseback riding were regulars on the schedule, and I couldn’t get enough.  It wasn’t just the activities themselves, but equally important, the feelings of peace and solitude that accompanied being outside.

Nature Journal

As a parent, it’s always been important to me to cultivate that love of the outdoors for my family.  We’ve hiked together since my kids were infants, became acquainted with local bike trails, and spent time exploring the Hudson Riverfront, orchards and farms, and even our own backyard.  As a homeschooling mom, it’s been my goal to incorporate as much of the outdoors into our schooling life as possible.  It begins with the obvious—working outside on nice days and lots of field trips to interesting spots.  Last year, we began nature journaling, and have enjoyed the benefits.  Even if you don’t homeschool, nature journaling is an activity that can accompany weekend and summer outings, with everyone from preschoolers to adults taking part.

Nature Journaling

There are lots of great sites that give suggestions for how to begin nature journaling, and a Google search will give you more than enough ideas.  I’ll skip the basics and direct you to a few of my favorites: Charlotte Mason’s ideas, tips for keeping a journal, and some cool prompts.

Nature Group

Instead, I’ll share an experience I had today.  Working with a group of homeschooled kids, we went outside with journals and some basic supplies—pencils and colored pencils, glue stick, and scissors.  I gave them ten minutes to explore, observe, and document.  They gathered leaves, grass clippings, flowers, and berries, and fastened them to their journal pages.  They wrote short poems about the beauty of nature.  They drew sketches of trees, clouds, and leaves.  They listened to lawn mowers, and dogs barking, and birds chirping.  They scattered, they clustered, they really got into it.  I watched in awe as they focused, wandered about, and looked like little scientists, exploring the world.  I sat there, thinking about the mental health benefits of being in nature, and how proud I was of their curiosity. Kids will never forget learning that involves the senses, that lets them move around and engage in the material.  Technology provides an alluring, near-constant distraction.  The youngest generations can’t imagine life without laptops and smart phones, but nature journaling allows for a little shift in focus.  The next time you bring your kids outside, bring along some paper and pencils, and wait for inspiration to strike.  Encourage little ones to trace leaves, bigger kids to draw whatever excites them, even jot down their thoughts if they’d like.  Nature journaling is a fun bonding activity, and strengthens an appreciation for the world around us.  It’s a peaceful, stress-free way to tap into your kid’s abilities in writing, art, science, all the while enjoying the great outdoors.

Not unlike kids attending public school, homeschooling families go through an adjustment period at the beginning of the school year.  I find myself experiencing amnesia every September, and forgetting that growing pains come with the territory.  As with most aspects of parenting, a little patience and understanding go a long way in balancing the unique dynamics that accompany homeschooling.

I can’t speak for other families, but the two biggest challenges I see us facing are learning among the distractions of our home, and, learning from one’s parent.  Although we learn all year long, we begin formal, structured, purposeful learning at the start of the traditional school year.  This involves a schedule: starting around the same time each day, completing various subjects and bookwork, and maintaining focus.  After a fairly loose summer of freedom and completely self-directed learning, I hear a metaphorical SCREEECH as my kids suddenly have to bow to structure.  More specifically, all of the distractions (toys, games, pets, electronics) are readily available and calling to them like sirens.  With trial and error we’ve found compromises, but the lure is ever-present.

Then, there’s the issue of being taught by Mom/Dad (or Grandma, etc).  Most kids will respect the authority of their teacher, and if not, there’s always the principal’s office looming abstractly as a consequence.  When you’re home with your parent, there’s a different kind of balance to strike. Homeschooling, as I frequently tell my kids, is a privilege that has to be wanted, respected, and honored.  There’s an excitement to teaching one’s child, with the freedom to inspire and teach anything, everything.  A balance exists, somewhere between motivating a child to learn, keeping distractions at bay, and retaining the responsibility of parent.  It’s ever-changing, as the child matures, his or her needs change, and the parent-child relationship morphs.

As we go through these bumps in the road each year, I tend to forget that we’ve been there, done that, survived, and thrived.  At times I panic, worried that something “isn’t working” and that I’ll screw up my kids’ education.  I freak out, I calm down, I breathe.  We begin to settle in to the school year, and if I sit back and let myself relax, I can see the learning.  How excited my little one is as she masters her math lessons, my older daughter as she writes stories and draws pictures one after the other, or how they’re both walking around the house speaking snippets of French and Italian, languages they knew nothing of only a mere month ago.  It’s working, they’re blossoming, I see it, and yet, I forget to trust it, trust myself.  I need this reminder to do so, and I know I’m not the only homeschooling parent who does.  So to me, and to you, let’s have faith in our kids, ourselves, and the process.

gift-553146_640When you grow up with a mom who has a shopping addiction and a mild case of hoarding you develop a skewed perception of stuff. My mom was one of the most generous people I knew. She definitely spoiled us, but at the same time, stuff started to take over our lives.

The Problem With Stuff

As a mom myself now, I want to get my children things they want, but at the same time I don’t want a massive amount of toys cluttering up the house. I’ve found that experience gifts are a perfect solution.

A Gift Worth Waiting For

My daughter has been asking to attend gymnastics classes for the last two years, but it just hasn’t been in our budget. So for her birthday I prepaid for six weeks of classes and presented her with a card explaining her gift. I also got her a leotard.

At first it felt weird not wrapping up a bunch of presents, but I knew I was getting her something that she really wanted. I had to focus on the quality of my gift rather than the quantity (or lack thereof). Just as I predicted, she was overjoyed. She had her first class last week and she kept telling me, “Mom, I love it!”

It also stirred up some nostalgia for me to see her up on that balance beam. That was my favorite when I was a gymnast. Watching her felt like I was passing my legacy on to her.

If you want an alternative to traditional gifts like toys, clothes, or books, here are five great reasons to give kids experience gifts.

1. Something To Look Forward To – After all the other gifts have been opened, played with a handful of times and pushed aside, an experience gift is still there, promising something fun and exciting is still waiting for them.

One of my favorite gifts my mother gave me when I was in high school was tickets to see Les Miserables in New York City. I had been listening to the soundtrack CD for months and when I finally got to see the play, it was amazing! I didn’t mind that I had to wait a few weeks for the play. If anything it felt like it extended my birthday.

2. Less Clutter – As I mentioned before, I really don’t like too many toys hanging around, especially when they aren’t being played with very often. Experience gifts like a special trip, art, dance or gymnastics classes won’t contribute to the clutter in your house.

3. Give Something That You Normally Couldn’t Afford– So many extracurricular activities are expensive. They certainly don’t fit into our tight budget, so we’ve had to be very selective about which activities my kids do. Since I would normally spend money on birthday presents, I was able to use that money to give my daughter something I normally couldn’t afford.

4. More Memories – How many of your toys do you really remember from your childhood? Maybe a handful if you’re lucky. No matter how much our children beg us for toys, they typically don’t occupy our children for long. Giving an experience gift gives children memories that will last them a lifetime.


5. Quality Time – Experience gifts usually give parents or other family members quality time with the children. Whether it’s a trip to the zoo, an art class you take together or just watching them twirl around the floor at their dance class, what the giver receives is time. Time to watch your child really enjoying something, seeing them light up with excitement. Sure, maybe it’s hard to run them to classes on a weekly basis or to and from their favorite sport, but it’s also time that you get to spend with them.

Years from now, they’ll remember that you were there with them. Even if you were just in the background watching from the bleachers or sitting silently in the corner of the room, you’ll become part of those happy memories.

I can’t for the life of me tell you what badges I earned when I was in Girl Scouts, but I’ll never forget that my mom volunteered to be my troop leader. While it wasn’t a birthday or Christmas gift, her willingness to give me and the other girls her time every week is something I still think about proudly.

I would love to ditch a lot of my kids’ physical presents in favor of experience gifts. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get my husband on board for Christmas, but at least for birthdays it’s become a great alternative.

What experience gifts have you given your kids that they loved?

Erin Johnson a.k.a. The No Drama Mama is the author of “So, You’re Broke? 18 Drama-Free Steps To A Richer Life.” She can be found writing for The No Drama Mama and Hudson Valley Parent when she’s not busy caring for her three adorable kiddos. Her work can also be found on The Huffington Post, Money Saving Mom, Mamapedia and Worshipful Living.


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