Person to Person

Way, way back in the olden days, when telephones had rotary dials, making a call meant putting one finger (or, for those with thick fingers or manicured nails, the end of a pencil) into the hole by the appropriate number, rotating the dial all the way to the right, letting it spin back to the left, and repeating for each number. Which is why we still often say we “dial” phone numbers, even though touch-tone phones with buttons started replacing rotary phones in the 1960’s.

Back when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not to be made thoughtlessly, you could dial “O,” get an operator, and place a person-to-person call. Not just to a given number, but to a specific person at that number: Mr. Jones in the purchasing department, or Uncle Albert, or your mother. Such a call cost more than a talk-to-anyone call you placed yourself, but if the person you asked for wasn’t in, the call wasn’t completed and there was no charge. A whole generation of college students found this useful. After a holiday or weekend visit home, placing a person-to-person call to themselves at the home number was a free way to let Mom and Dad know they had arrived safely back at school.

Today, the Internet allows us to communicate freely, easily, and almost instantaneously with vast numbers of people all over the world. The very idea of placing a phone call with the help of a human operator—and paying by the minute for it—seems almost as cumbersome and outdated as sending a telegram or writing a letter with a quill pen dipped in ink.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Every electronic communication we send out—an email, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a shared photo or video, a comment on social media—every single one is still a person-to-person message. Thousands of people might see or read or share it, but each one is a separate human being responding in an individual way. Even an automated robo-call or bot that targets huge numbers of random recipients originates from some real live person somewhere. And all that spam is received by separate people whose irritation and inconvenience is downright personal.

So, on the outgoing side, before you post or text or send any other kind of communication, it might be helpful to stop and consider whether it’s worth sending. I doubt that many of us would go to the trouble and expense of placing an expensive person-to-person long-distance call just to yell at someone or call them an idiot. Maybe it’s not a good idea to do essentially the same thing just because the Internet makes it easy.

And on the incoming side, we can take advantage of one very useful feature of the person-to-person call: If you are the one it comes to, you don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to participate in divisive or insulting messages, crude jokes, drama-stirring incitements to indignation, pseudo-sentimental appeals, unsolicited ads, or anything else you don’t want in your life. Every incoming communication comes with a choice to take it in or ignore it. You can read or view it or not, respond to it or not, disconnect from its sender as much as possible, make liberal use of spam filters, and choose not to waste time and energy on junk. No person-to-person message can be completed unless you say yes to it. You don’t have to be “in” to every piece of spam that comes your way.

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Twinkie Pyrotechnics

You have to heat a Twinkie in the microwave for 45 seconds, on average, before it will explode.

Or so I read in the newspaper this morning. No source was cited for this intriguing and slightly disturbing little bit of information, but since it was in the paper, of course it must be true.

Still, an inquiring mind fueled by a wholesome breakfast and a second cup of coffee would like to know more. Such as:

How many trials did it take before researchers came up with the 45-second average? Three? Ten? One hundred? This is important; the more repetitions, the greater the scientific validity.

Was the microwave set on full power? And did the researchers experiment with microwaves of different wattages? After all, as anyone who has ever burned a bag of microwave popcorn knows first-hand, cooking times in different ovens may vary.

Who came up with the idea of exploding Twinkies in the first place? I can imagine two likely possibilities. One involves a college-dorm microwave and a certain amount of beer. The second involves a couple of bored 12-year-olds left unattended in a kitchen.

After the experiment was complete and the results duly logged, who cleaned up the mess in the microwave?

Is exploding a Twinkie properly categorized as scientific research at all? Or should it be considered performance art?

And perhaps most important, who funded this research? A weapons lab? A competing snack food company? A dental school? Or is there some sort of center for the discovery of alternative uses for junk food? (Someone somewhere, after all, had to come up with the idea of deep-frying a Twinkie.)

Perhaps it was the makers of Twinkies themselves. As a marketing strategy, it’s not a bad idea. Admit it: reading this has given at least half of you the impulse to go buy a package of Twinkies and do your own experiment.

Maybe it was NASA. Researchers there certainly have an interest in food that can remain edible throughout long space voyages. Suppose the Cassini space probe had left Earth in 1997 with a couple of Twinkies tucked in beside its scientific instruments. It’s possible the preservative-enhanced treats would have still been in their original condition when, in September 2017, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated.

Now that would be a spectacular way to blow up a Twinkie.

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The Barefoot Princess

It has been pointed out that everything Fred Astaire did on the dance floor, Ginger Rogers did too—backwards and in high heels.

I was reminded of this recently, watching one of my granddaughters not long before her third birthday. In a pretty pink dress, she was riding her little pink princessy scooter. Not in high heels, of course. In bare feet, with nail polish on each rather grubby toe.

Starting in the driveway, she would charge uphill on the sidewalk—more a slight slope than a steep rise, but uphill nevertheless—driving the scooter as hard as one hard-working little foot could make it go. At the end of the street she would turn, perch on the scooter, and hurtle back downhill. Grinning with glee, her hair and skirt flying, she would go faster and faster, then swerve at the last minute and screech to a halt just before she ran into the mailbox. More Evel Knievel, perhaps, than Ginger Rogers.

Being dressed like a little lady only proved to be a problem once. When she crouched low on the scooter on one of her runs, no doubt trying for maximum acceleration, the back of her skirt wound itself up in the back wheel. She couldn’t stand up until she was untangled by the combined efforts of Mom and Dad.

Who didn’t tell her to slow down, to be careful, to not be so wild, or in any other way to “play like a girl.” They merely suggested that, if she wanted to sit down on the scooter, shorts might be more practical than a skirt. As soon as she was extricated, she took off up the hill to make another run—standing up that time.

It is gratifying to see little girls like my granddaughters growing up in a world where being “girly”—enjoying prettiness and dressing up and all the femininity those things imply—is completely compatible with being strong, playing hard, and taking risks. As well as dealing with and learning from the scrapes and bruises that sometimes result.

What Ginger Rogers did in high heels was certainly impressive. Just think what she might have been able to do in bare feet. With or without nail polish.

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Hollyhock Dolls

Hollyhocks are weeds. Or so I’ve been told by several “real” gardeners. The kind of gardeners who know the proper temperature for compost, whose tomatoes flourish, and whose gladiolus (gladioluses? gladioli?) win awards at county fairs. The kind of gardener that I definitely am not.

Maybe feeling intimidated by those experts is the reason I never got around to planting hollyhocks, even though I always wanted some in my yard. Even though I carried a secret stash of hollyhock seeds in a little plastic bag through six moves. Both their identity and their provenance were definite, because in the bag with them was a scrap of cardboard torn from the top of a cereal box. Written on it, in my Uncle Ernie’s careful handwriting, was “Hollyhock seeds from the Smith place, 1983.”

Three years ago, I finally planted those seeds, along with some others scavenged with permission from the garden of an old mansion-turned-museum in Trinidad, Colorado. Amazingly, some of them sprouted. Some of them grew. Some of them even thrived.

This year, despite drought and heat, they and their descendants have taken over half of one bed in our flower garden and are blooming vigorously. I have to admit that they have spread like, well, weeds. And that with their huge leaves and tall stems they do look a bit, well, weedy. I might even acknowledge that I would be wise to cut some of them back this fall before all those seeds mature.

But in the meantime, I can show my grandkids how to make hollyhock dolls the way my sisters and I used to do.

Here’s how: You pick a few blossoms that are fully open, plus a matching number of half-open buds or smaller blossoms. You strip the stem off of the buds, along with the green leaves that support the bottom of the flower. (A real gardener, no doubt, would know what those are called.) This reveals a little eye-shaped opening between each partially furled petal. Carefully slide the stem of one of the open flowers into one of those openings as far as it will go. The larger open blossom, upside down, becomes the long, full skirt of a gown. The white bottom part of the half-open bud becomes the doll’s face, adorned with a frilly hat.

 

Okay, maybe the faces are a little rabbity, the hats a bit crooked, and the gowns a trifle uneven. But they’re fun. And, given the generous abundance of hollyhocks, nobody cares that you pick them.

The other day, as we passed on our daily walks, one of my neighbors said, “I just love your hollyhocks. They remind me of my grandmother.” She asked if she could harvest some seeds, which I’ll be happy to share.

So it isn’t just me who understands what’s going on here. It doesn’t matter that, to some gardeners, hollyhocks look like weeds. To some of us, they look like memories.

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Fairy Tales You Thought You Knew

We all know how the fairy tales go: Stepmothers are invariably wicked. Stepsisters, ditto. Even porridge-eating bears are terrifying. A handful of magic beans, and Jack the not-so-bright son turns into Jack the giant-slaying hero. The big bad wolf is, well, big and bad.

Or maybe not.

Once Upon a Different Story retells five classic fairy tales from another point of view. I can’t be sure this is what really happened, of course. But this is the way I heard it, in their own words, from characters who have been misunderstood or overlooked for years. These stories were told to me in the voices of:

The Big Bureaucrat Wolf, a public servant with a clipboard and an attitude. “The guys say B. B. stands for Big and Bad, on account of I’m such a hardass in my building inspections. Most of them, they take a little cash on the side every now and then, to overlook stuff. Not me. But you wouldn’t believe some of the things I see. Like that little pig’s shack. It didn’t just violate every building code in the book; it violated logic, common sense, and the law of gravity. Hell, I didn’t even dare knock on the door for fear the whole flimsy mess would come down.”

The Murdered Giant’s Wife, traumatized by a tattooed drug dealer out of control. “Well, of course it all started because Jack found those beans. Magic beans, you Downlanders call them, but there’s nothing magic about them, really. We all know how important the beans are to our diets and how dangerous they are to you. We all see the videos about Downlander addicts and how crazy and unpredictable they can get. So something we take seriously is bean control.”

The Fairest Queen of All, Snow White’s frustrated stepmother. “From the beginning, I did the best I could to make friends with Snow White and love her even though she didn’t love me back. I don’t think I could have managed without the magic mirror. It couldn’t help me deal with Snow White, but at least it simplified the other major challenge of being a queen: looking fabulous. Let’s face it, looking beautiful is what princesses and queens do. Nobody wants to know what we think; nobody cares how we feel. They just expect us to show up, look perfect, and smile graciously.”

The Determined Mama Bear, coping with a tiny golden-haired home invader and the child welfare system. “Poor little Goldie; everyone in our part of the forest knew about her. Out in the woods by herself, all hours of the day, when she should have been safe at home. And her only a little older than my Baby. Oh, I’m sure Goldie’s parents have plenty of problems of their own. Usually I’m not one to judge people if I haven’t walked a mile in their paw prints, as the saying goes. But I don’t care what their issues were—it was no excuse for neglecting that sweet little girl the way they did.”

The Softhearted Stepsister, who can’t see the charm in Cinderella’s anti-royal crusading. “‘Oh my God! That’s Cinderella!’ Jane’s shriek made me drop my sociology book and focus on the television. A hunky young reporter with perfect hair and gleaming teeth was in front of the palace, reporting live on the latest demonstration from the anti-aristocracy group calling themselves “Unoccupy the Throne.” The camera zoomed in on a slender girl carrying a sign so big she could barely balance it. I could see why they chose our little sister. Even in ragged jeans and a scruffy sweatshirt, Cinderella was beautiful.”

Once Upon a Different Story is available in print and ebook formats. You can find out more about it here.

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Driving Ms. Crazy

Driving across South Dakota on I-90, even in heavy summer traffic—or, as they would call it in many other places, light traffic—can give a person plenty of time to think. Especially once the news analysis from NPR is starting to repeat itself, you have memorized the repeated ads and local news on both of the country music stations you can pick up, and you still haven’t figured out how to download audio books onto the portable media player you bought specifically for trips like this.

At this point, somewhere between mile markers 73 and 237, there’s not much else to do but ponder great thoughts about significant subjects. Such as: how do the biggest, juiciest bugs always manage to hit the windshield right in front of the driver’s eyes?

It’s inevitable. You stop for gas, you scrub the windshield clean of greasy green grasshopper guts and other unidentifiable bug body parts, and you pull back out onto the highway. And within the first couple of miles, splat! Not on the passenger’s side, not toward the top of the windshield, not in some inconspicuous spot along the edge. Nope. Right in your field of vision, exactly at eye level.

The “why” of this isn’t at issue. It’s fairly obvious that smearing up windshields right where drivers most need to see through them is about getting even. It’s sacrificial sabotage, in revenge for the millions of innocent victims of vehicular insecticide on our highways.

But how do they do it?

Is it something to do with aerodynamics? Does the air flow over the hood carry the biggest bugs right toward eye level on the driver’s side?

Or do they work in pairs? One bug as the designated saboteur, the second flying alongside as the spotter. “All right, George, you’re nearly there. Closer, closer . . . a little to the left. No, not that way—your other left! Now just a little higher—a bit more—got it. Aim for the whites of her eyes, George. You’re on it, you’re on it, almost there . . . Faster, faster, faster—now!”

Splat!

“We’ll miss you, George.”

“Next!”

Or possibly I’m overthinking this. Maybe the real explanation is much simpler. As in: “Hey, there’s an SUV. Hold my nectar and watch this.”

“No, Fred, wait—you’re going too fas—”

Splat!

Categories: Just For Fun, Travel | Leave a comment

Improper Nouns; Tedx Rapid City Talk

World peace. Everybody, from preachers to political leaders to beauty pageant winners, seems to be in favor of it. But nobody seems to know how to create it.

However, I recently had a revelation. I discovered one common factor tied to many of the beliefs and behaviors that separate us into “us” and “them.” This insight has the potential to end prejudice, cyberbullying, racism, sexism, religious extremism, and all sorts of other extreme isms. Which could lead us to world peace.

Here’s my discovery. The real problem at the heart of all these isms is—adjectives.

Specifically, adjectives being improperly used as nouns.

Of course, you all know what a noun is: a person, place, or thing. And an adjective describes a noun. If you see me wearing a pink jacket, you wouldn’t stop at the adjective and call it a “pink.” You’d finish the sentence with the noun “jacket.”

But all too often, when we refer to other people, stopping at the adjective is exactly what we do. We forget to finish the sentence with the noun “person.”

Here’s just one example: “creative.” It’s a perfectly respectable, reliable, responsible adjective. But increasingly, I’m seeing it used improperly as a noun—calling people who make beautiful or interesting things not “creative people,” or “people doing creative things,” or even “creators,” but “creatives.”

I think this is actually a well-intentioned attempt to be inclusive, to use a term that’s broader than “artist.” But ironically, it has the opposite effect. It twists the descriptive adjective creative into a label that only applies to the “right” sort of people.

As a writer, I get to be a “creative” who belongs over here. If you make photographs or music or paintings or quilts, you’re creatives, too. Come on over here with me—we’re “us.” But if you’re a scientist? Or an accountant? Or an engineer? Or a plumber? Nope, so sorry. You’re not creatives. Never mind all the complex and creative problem-solving that your work requires. You belong over there—you’re “them.” We’ve been arbitrarily and artificially divided into separate groups.

But what about all the other adjectives we misuse so often that we don’t even notice? Aren’t the divisions they create just as arbitrary and artificial?

Words like white. Black. Native. Muslim. Christian. Victim. Liberal. Conservative. Rich. Poor. Redneck. Disabled. Homeless. Elderly. We use these as nouns so commonly that even the dictionary calls many of them nouns. But what they really are is adjectives, words that describe the noun “person.” Any time a word is used as shorthand to define a given group, that’s an adjective. Any time a word is used with “the” in front of it and “community” behind it, that’s an adjective.

Much of the time, when we use adjectives improperly as nouns, there’s no malicious intent. It’s just a handy verbal shortcut. But, just as with the word “creative,” we are twisting descriptions into labels.

And there are several problems with labels.

First, they often come attached to baggage—all the prejudices, assumptions, misconceptions, and expectations we each form out of our own complex experiences. This baggage can lead, not just to using labels, but to using ugly, hateful, hurtful ones; labels intended to put more distance between “us” and “them.”

A second thing about labels is that they tend to stick. And when you stick on a label, you hide whatever is behind it. If I categorize you with a label like “liberal” or “redneck” or “homeless,” I see you one-dimensionally. I put you into a box and make that one aspect of you the only thing I see. I disregard everything else that makes you unique and individual.

Third, labels limit the ways we see ourselves as well as others. They give us only one or two ways to define our tribes. As humans, we evolved to belong to communities—to small family groups and larger tribal groups. It’s possible that our survival may have depended on thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” on defending our people and our resources against outsiders.

But in today’s world, our survival may depend instead on broadening our view of “us,” expanding the way we define our tribes.

Imagine an enormous stadium filled with thousands of people from all over the planet: male and female, all ages, different races, different nationalities, different abilities, different walks of life. Imagine walking into this huge and diverse group. Where would you belong? Who might be like you? How would you find your tribe?

It would be easy to start with the obvious, as we so often do because that’s where we are comfortable. I, for example, might define my tribe as white people, or female people, or older people. All those adjectives legitimately describe aspects of who I am. But if grab one or two of them and stop there, I overlook all the other tribes I might belong to.

Here are just a few of them: People who write. People with children or grandchildren. People who have been widowed or divorced. People in 12-step programs. People who love to read. People who can’t recognize their own faces in the mirror without corrective lenses. In this enormous gathering, there are dozens of tribes each of us might belong to. In fact, once we start finding common experiences and characteristics, potentially everyone in that vast gathering could become “us” instead of “them.”

Of course, in order to identify those tribes, we need to be willing to discover people instead of labeling them. To have conversations. And you can’t really have a conversation with an adjective.

By now you may be assuming I have something against adjectives. Not at all. They are useful words with important work to do. Suppose, for example, I have just robbed a convenience store and am running off down the street as fast as I can go with a case of beer in each hand. When the clerk calls the cops, it would certainly be a good idea to use adjectives. To describe my gender, my race, my age, my physical appearance, my height, and even, God forbid, my weight. This is exactly what adjectives are for.

I don’t suggest we should stop using adjectives, just that we use them more carefully and consciously. That we remember that their purpose is not to define us, but to describe aspects of who we are. Of course these different aspects matter. Things like our race, our religion, where and how we grow up, our abilities and experiences—all these shape who we are and how we are in the world. It’s ridiculous to pretend they don’t exist. But it’s just as ridiculous to pretend that one or two of them are the only things that define us.

Organizations that support people with special needs encourage us to use phrases like “people with disabilities” rather than “the disabled.” To see the person first, not the disability. All I suggest is that we extend that same courtesy and respect to everyone.

Would this really lead to world peace? When I suggested that it might, of course I was exaggerating. But . . . not entirely.

Being more conscious of our adjectives is a simple thing. Something each of us can do. But because that small shift in our language can create a shift in our thinking, it has the potential to make a big difference.

So why don’t we try it? To choose not to stop at the easy adjective, but to always get to the end of the sentence, where the person is. To focus on the part of speech that matters most—that essential, human noun.

 

This is a talk I gave at Tedx Rapid City on June 28, 2017. It was a wonderful opportunity and an exhilarating experience—at least after it was over! I’ll post a link to the video when it’s available in a few weeks.

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Cool Dudes and Cooler Dads

A quiet summer evening, the Safeway parking lot, a family heading to their car with a few groceries. Mom was walking beside a child who looked about five, holding the hand of another little one who might have been two or three. Dad, behind them, had an even littler kid up on his shoulders.

And Dad was skipping. The toddler, held safely on top of the world in his father’s firm hands, with his own fists full of Dad’s hair by way of insurance, bounced high with every skip and giggled with glee. No one, seeing this, could help but smile.

Well, almost no one. Coming after this happy pair was one more child, a boy of around ten. He was slouching along several steps behind, looking down, with his cap pulled down over his face. Everything about his posture said he was doing his best to pretend the rest of the family had nothing to do with him. You could practically hear him thinking, “I can’t believe this. My dad is skipping. In the parking lot at Safeway, in front of everybody in the whole wide world. Please, please, please, don’t let any of my friends see this.”

Back when Dad was 19 or 20, he might have felt the same way. He probably couldn’t imagine his future self doing something so undignified and so uncool.

Several children later, he knows better. It will be a while yet before the embarrassed older brother appreciates the value of the lesson his dad was demonstrating there in the parking lot. That good fathers care more about getting shrieks of delight from their children than about whether they look cool to strangers.

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Just Don’t Call Me Late for Dinner

“You were born just in time for supper, and you haven’t missed a meal since.”

My mother told me that once, when we were talking about the births of our children and I asked her what time I had arrived.

I assumed the “haven’t missed a meal” part referred to my appetite. I am neither a glutton nor a gourmand, but I do like to know where my next meal is coming from. I much prefer my meals to show up reliably and regularly, even when I provide them myself. The people around me prefer this, too, since I tend to get just a teeny, tiny bit irritable if it’s 15 minutes or so past mealtime and I haven’t been fed yet. By 30 minutes or so past mealtime, I develop a headache and get shaky, and the people around me tend to get nervous. I would blame this on hypoglycemia if I were more sure of how to spell it.

It makes no sense to me that some people routinely skip breakfast or get so busy that they forget to eat. I never miss a meal myself except in extreme circumstances, such as serious illness or the unreasonable demands of medical professionals.

I was not happy this morning, for instance, that my blood work—my fasting blood work—for a routine checkup was scheduled at the outrageous hour of 8:30 a.m. When you regularly wake up at 5:00 or 5:30, that’s practically the middle of the morning. By the time I got out of the clinic at 8:52, I had a serious headache. My hand was shaking so much that I had trouble peeling the banana I had stashed in my purse. On the bright side, at least I had neither passed out nor been actively rude to anybody.

Back in my own kitchen a few minutes later, savoring the aroma of brewing coffee and waiting for the toast to pop up, I summoned up enough grace for gratitude. Gratitude that, in my world, hunger is an occasional inconvenience and not a chronic condition. Gratitude that I consistently know where my next meal is coming from. Gratitude that I have the means not only to feed myself but to give to those who can’t.

And gratitude for my mother, whose teasing about my “never missing a meal” I suddenly understood in a different way. Members of my family didn’t miss meals. We didn’t have to, because of her. She put nutritious, tasty food on the table three times a day, every day. Even though she didn’t especially enjoy cooking. Even when there wasn’t much to cook with. Even though cooking “from scratch” often included canning or freezing the vegetables, gathering the eggs (after raising the hens who laid them), and butchering the chickens. She did this, day in and day out, for decades.

No wonder I developed the habit of relying on regular meals. It’s the way I was raised.

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Regular or Extra Steamy?

Warning: You may find some material in this post tacky and inappropriate. However, it would be unfair to label it as poor taste.
Apparently this is not a joke from KFC. A spoof, maybe, but according to a story in USA Today, it’s a genuine marketing gimmick. You might even call it a bodice ripoff. Colonel Sanders, the white-bearded icon of fried chicken, is the newly-muscled hero of a romance novella that the restaurant chain is giving away as a promotion for Mother’s Day.

How nice. There’s no sweeter way for a mother to be honored on her special day than to be presented with a racy book while having dinner with her children.

All that aside, what caught my attention was the title of this book: Tender Wings of Desire. It’s romantic and sensual, delicately evoking both the erotic and the culinary. If this is successful, it surely will inspire other fast-food restaurants to serve up their own sizzling sides of romance. Their various specialties and slogans offer a broad menu of alluring potential for delicious titles.

 

McDonalds: Love with a Side of Fries. Supersized With Special Sauce. A series featuring “Big Mac” is just waiting to be written.

Dairy Queen: Love in the Heart of a Blizzard, Soft Servings of Desire, Parfait Love.

Burger King: Whopping Love. Even better, if the King and the Queen got together, you could have possibilities like Frozen Flaming Love and Crowned With Delight.

Taco Bell: A Double Wrap of Delight. Sorry, but the protective people at PETA wouldn’t like What the Chihuahua Saw.

Little Caesars: Hot and Ready for Love.

Subway: Foot Long, Fast and Fresh.

Of course, once the imagination starts mixing racy romance and fast food, it doesn’t take long to venture into a kitchen that’s much too hot. Some restaurant names need no embellishment at all: Hardees, for example. Long John Silver’s. In-N-Out Burger.

Once you have possibilities like that handed to you on a steamy platter, there is simply nothing more to say. Except possibly, “Would you like fries with that?”

Categories: Food and Drink, Just For Fun | 2 Comments

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