Archive for category Experiments in Manhood

Experiments in Manhood is Moving!



If you’re still following Experiments in Manhood, thank you and please consider following at the mothership, I’m streamlining content into one place on my personal website, where the blog page will essentially be a stripped down version of Experiments in Manhood with more frequent updates ranging from the professional to the paternal. Experiments in Manhood as a site is shutting down.Print

The success and attendant work of the Dads & Families section of the Good Men Project has led me to put my blogging resources there. The section has grown 350 percent since I started less than a year ago, and the digital magazine has a whole has experienced phenomenal growth this past year, further validating the conversation we’re hosting on what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

Here’s the facebook page for Dads & Families.

Twitter: @DufferRobertChicago Tribune Cars

In April 2013, I was hired as the editor and lead reporter of the Green Guide, Cars section at The Chicago Tribune. It’s a dream job where I get to report on trends in fuel-efficiency in the automotive industry. 54.5 mpg by 2025! I got to drive a Tesla Model S for fifteen wondrous minutes on Lake Shore Drive.

Here’s the facebook page for Chicago Tribune Cars.

Twitter: @ChiTribuneAuto

For my social media accounts, where I post everything from literary news to Chicago sports laments, visit facebook, twitter @DufferRobert, or g+. That should be enough for ever now.

As ever, thank you for reading.


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On Death, Loneliness, and Goldfish

On Death, Loneliness, and Goldfish

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Addressing Death, as a Parent and a Son

On Death Loneliness and Goldfish

Talking to my kids about death was the first step in listening to the loneliness evoked by loss

Day three of single parenting and I want to do something big after picking up the kids from school. Something fun. Something social. Anything but go back to the house and its static winter silence.

Seems like a big weekend. The schoolyard buzzing with weekend plans. Some of my first grader’s friends and their dads rushing to their first overnight adventure as Cub Scouts. I was a little envious. Not of their plan, but of having a plan at all.

The daddy-daughter dance is the next night. Weeks earlier, she shot me down. You’d think the terror of embarrassment would’ve ended with high school. It might’ve been my method, casually over breakfast instead of getting down on a knee and handing her a bowl of chocolate ice cream with an invitation inscribed in sprinkles. Might not have mattered. She’d seen me “dance” to Led Zeppelin one too many times. Once is one too many times.

On the walk home, usually my favorite part of the day where we dawdle and play and recap our days, the old loneliness settled in. Amidst these people I see everyday, in the hometown I returned to for the community, I don’t know anyone well enough—or convenient enough—to call up and play, adults and kids, together and separate. Or for those with plans, I projected these fantastic family adventures with parents who would probably appreciate my night of nothing. Doesn’t matter that we had a two-night ski trip the weekend before. This illogical mood deepens because I’m inadequate not just socially but as a parent; I haven’t given the kids an option either. But this isn’t the source I’m avoiding. They want their mom and I want my best friend, who has gone home to Philly where her grandmother, who raised her like a daughter, had been waiting to die.

So we went home. Put a cork in my self-pitying bullshit. Played hockey in the basement, fiddled with Legos. Amused ourselves. This is what I wanted—a distraction from the self-examination evoked by death; from the seeking—for meaning, connection, validity, whatever—that results from loneliness.

God, who cast man in his likeness, has an uncannily human sense of metaphor and story.

That morning, after breakfast, I told the kids that GG died. Their adaptability to any news amazes me, but it was their understanding that floored me. When I said she was in heaven, Ria, who was doted on as much as any great grandmother could, corrected me: “No, Dad, she’s in here,” touching her chest, “and over here,” gesturing over her shoulder, smiling coyly before running off.

I didn’t know my son was feeling anything until dinner tonight.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, Ria? You should be sad.”

From the range I was about to interject but then heard him say, “I almost cried this morning.”

“You did?” I asked, treading carefully.

“Kinda. My eyes got all hot.”

We talked about what happened–and what happens–over quesadillas. They were worried about Mom. She didn’t think GG would die. She had gone out there to boost her spirits and get her out of the hospital, show videos and tell stories of the kids, a strategy that had worked a half-dozen times before. Not this time. A day after Heather’s arrival, GG demanded hospice. She was tired of fighting, I told them.

They mentioned the fish. Just last week, Heather, a heart nurse who never lets anything go, took multiple trips to the pet store and the library and Google to resuscitate one of our four goldfish, who’d been hovering near the top of the tank, alive but unswimming. Diagnosis: swim bladder. Lots of causes, one remedy: Gotta feed the fish manually. Fish refused all her ministrations. Next morning, dead. There was a eulogy. I played TAPS. Flush. Best thing about those fish is teaching the kids the cycle of life.

I didn’t share with them the text Heather had sent at 2:20am, not three hours before GG passed:

“Fish with swim belly. GG with a clot in her belly. A Nor’ Easter named Nemo whirling outside this tank of a hospice room. Maybe God does have a sense of humour.”

Aside from autocorrect being British, we glean that God, who cast man in his likeness, has an uncannily human sense of metaphor and story.

The connection they made with the fish blew my mind. We shared memories, we made lists of things we remembered, we facetimed with the Philly folk. What I couldn’t explain to the kids, what I’ve slowly been coming to all day, is this idea of loneliness. It is this reconciliation I wanted to avoid tonight, or at least forestall by surrounding myself with life. What is loneliness if not the consciousness of death? The fear of death is the fear of being alone; it’s why the faiths are filled with promises of eternal communion: believe in me and you will never walk alone.

This is Heather’s first major death, which is made even tougher for a woman who keeps people from dying for a living. It doesn’t matter that GG, who lived 82 years and with whom we were able to share her last Thanksgiving, whose hand Heather got to hold and say goodbye to, went out in an ideal way, quickly and in her sleep. Doesn’t matter. Now comes what my brother calls The Hardening.

It’s been 16 years since our mom died. She was 52. I was 21. My first major. Subsequent grievings are involuntarily compared to and pale to it. Maybe it’s that way with mothers. I hope to know nothing more about it. She had two remissions over three years then an interminable hospice. When her physical form finally passed I was free. I traveled, then I returned when the loneliness shifted from beautiful to dangerous. With each sojourn I’d get more distance, building up the confidence to live without anyone, making no commitments and keeping no connections. Being on my own, fully and freely, meant I could live without that insatiable, capricious pain of loss. Being alone meant I was in control. It didn’t take long to reconcile that trying to live without love sucks. That love leads to loss and loss leads to pain. The Hardening is the mature acceptance of our mortality, the resignation to all things transient, and learning to embrace the pain of loss.

It will be a while before Heather’s sets. The acuteness will fade but the hole will never disappear. It’s not something to get over; the feeling of loss—what we call loneliness—is something you come to appreciate as a reminder of what was there. I remind her of this via text, middle of the night, but I’m really reminding myself so I can better frame it for the kids, or better understand life and loss now as a father and a son. When we share pictures, we tell stories, we play out memories, however clumsily, we are listening to that hole of loss, listening to what it is saying. That hole is the sound of loneliness. It is a good thing; not an easy thing, most certainly not a bad thing. We must listen. Because the alternative is silence.

—first appeared at the Dads & Families section of the Good Men Project

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Giving Holiday Thanks to the Little Griswald

Minivan Man

Still, the aggravation of air travel is a statistically safer trip than by car.

Little Griswald has made it home safe and sound from another coastal road trip. The 2002 Honda Odyssey now has 140k miles, and more love than I could ever express here. (Though I’ve tried, and my website borders on the absurd.) We bought it three years ago, and when you consider the cost of airfare that we’ve saved in four major, 2,000+ mile roadtrips, then it’s like we’re driving a free car.

We took over the torch of regular, diligent service from the original owners, who kept meticulous records including every oil change, and have been treated to an inestimably safe and reliable vehicle. This transcends the numbers—the typical cost-benefit analysis I use for all things purchased. My wife drove with our kids from Chicagoland to her dad’s outside of Atlantic City over Thanksgiving. Our kids, five and six, have been flying since they were three months old and have become intrepid travelers: they have pushed us to drive through the night, to keep going till we get there, to get over our adult discomforts. I think my son likes it because the restrictions on his video game time are relaxed; my daughter, I think she likes having all of us at ready access to play Uno or get silly with. Despite this, driving sixteen hours without being able to manage what’s going on in the back seat is a feat of fortitude like no other. My wife didn’t complain once, at least not to me, who was worried on the phone but otherwise safely ensconced at home.

It’s remarkable to consider, and awesome to reflect on now that we’ve returned home. I surprised her to tears by flying out on Thanksgiving proper so I could be with my family and help drive home. I really don’t know how she did it. I’ve driven over a thousand miles by myself many times before, but never with two kids. The joke was that she really wanted to drive solo so she could justify unlimited coffee all day long. The truth is the airline industry fucking sucks, and if you’re going to have a two-hour delay, which seems standard for holiday air travel, then you might as well add a couple hours to your trip to have total control and know what to expect. (In 2010 the USA Today reported: From 2003 through 2009, 22.3% of flights were late, canceled or diverted nationwide. The rate shot up to 33.4% for the winter holiday period during those same years. That means passengers during the winter holidays were nearly 50% more likely to have their travel itineraries disrupted. )

Still, the aggravation of air travel is a statistically safer trip than by car. Lil’ Gris’ is ten years old, and for as dull as the destination-driven road trip can become after the second hour, it is fraught with peril and unpredictability. My son reported a long delay due to a three car accident, in which he saw a pick-up truck on its hood on the turnpike outside of Philadelphia.

On our way home we encountered the first snow storm of the season in the Allegheny Mountains in northern Appalachia. My wife was driving when I awoke and saw an accident on the eastbound side of I-80. Several cars had spun out, and were now in the process of being cranked from the ditch and loaded onto carrier bed tow trucks. Fortunately, there was nothing too grisly except for what followed: a five-mile traffic jam backed up to the nearest exit ramp. Drivers were standing, pacing, cursing in the snow, with absolutely no place to go. The visibility wasn’t that bad, the snow was wet, there was no ice. It takes so little for that to happen, one text, one dropped cd, one glance back at two bickering kids.

Then you see all the cars sidelined by seasonal and vehicular maladies, imagining how it would play out given the current circumstances, and you can’t help put praise your car. But Lil’ Gris is just a machine, an object, a thing. The gratitude one feels from a problem-free road trip is praised at a bumper much greater than the Honda Odyssey. Thank St. Christopher, or fleet-footed Hermes, or whatever deities of travel that make the best thing about a road trip—leaving home—balanced with the best thing about the return trip, getting home.

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Four more


A lot of work to do but we got the right man for the job.

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Holding Time in a Midwestern Fall

Ever catch leaves? It’s damn fun, the kind of fun only a five-year-old daughter can get me to have.

Check out the latest at the GMP. C’mon, it’s just one more click.

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I got a new job editing Dads and Families stories

To all of you who’ve followed Experiments in Manhood the past two years–thank you. Your readership and support—your contributions through comments or stories or hits—has led to a new opportunity.

I’m the new editor of the Dads & Families section at The Good Men Project, a multimedia company launched in 2009 to explore the notion of manhood and all its permutations in the 21st Century. It’s been called “a cerebral, new media alternative” to glossy men’s magazines.

It’s similar to what I’ve been doing on Experiments in Manhood, my weekly column on fatherhood, for the past two years, except on a much bigger scale, with much bigger ambition, and with an active global reach. With sections ranging from Sex & Relationships to Fiction, and specializing in the first person narrative, the GMP is a community of over 10,000 subscribers with over 3.8 million page views per month. Those numbers have been increasing each month.

For the redesigned Dads & Families section, I’m hoping to build out the strong base of contributors with first person narratives—raw, honest, specific, insightful—designed to give readers a distinct glimpse of dadhood. The Dads & Families section will also have news in all its permutations: original source-based reporting, reactions to breaking news, reviews and responses to dad literature and art, Q&As, product reviews, convention coverage—anything and everything that adds to this conversation about what it means to be a dad. There’s more on this ambition at my first post.

This dynamic and wide-ranging conversation is not limited to dads. While that subject will remain, there are many interpretations to it, many perspectives to be represented, from granddaughters and grandfathers, adoptees and surrogates, sons and fathers—I’m open to anything that illuminates an aspect of the experience. As a community-based resource, the content and the dialogue will be shaped by the community.

Subscribing is easy and it costs nothing, just hit the “Subscribe” button on the main navigation bar. As much as I’d appreciate you reading up on modern manhood, I’d be more interested in hearing what you have to say.

Experiments will still be active and updated, but posts on the GMP will be more regular, varied, and diverse.

Thanks for reading,


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Kicking it with the Coach

I volunteered my wife to coach our son’s first-grade soccer team. Yes, I’ve had better ideas, and no, it was not done with cruel intent. It was the opposite: she’s been wanting to get into coaching since she graduated college as a Division II captain of her field hockey team. As a full-time nurse and a fuller-time mother, there was never the time, never the time. So I was being thoughtful.

For the first month I regretted my thoughtfulness. Working four ten-hour shifts plus obligatory call that can derail any planning or expectations of routine, she’s been staying up til midnight, surely unable to focus on the blur of semicircles and rectangles on her soccer diagrams. She studied: weekends with Google and copious print outs of Xs and Os; a library bag full of books like The Practical Guide to Youth Soccer Coaching and The Confident Coach’s Guide to Teaching Youth Soccer (those are the only two keepers worthy of renewal); she even rented instructional movies guised as entertainment, films so embarrassing that even the kids asked to turn it off. Each week she devotes hours of prep time for the one hour of practice and 45 minutes of game time each week. She bought cones and goals, water coolers and snacks, and she sends bi-weekly emails to the seven other parents breaking down practice pointers and lauding gameday individual and team accomplishments. It’s fucking nuts. Other parents—other coaches—are satisfied by showing up.

And since she has practice on the one day she’s home—the one day I’m at work—and since the gametimes overlap with our daughter’s soccer games, The Coach pretty much does it on her own. One team had four or five dads running drills before kick off, and the team played like they’ve been together since diapers. She didn’t know any of our son’s teammates, but her sideline is full of mothers filling cups, lacing cleats, heating bodies, cheering loudly, and most of all, praising the Coach.

On Saturday, three weeks of prep and experience paid off with the first victory of her young coaching career. For the rest of the weekend, there was a glow in her eyes, an easier smile, a skip in her step. Winning was nice—it always is—but the remarkable occurrence was how much these six-year olds had learned in such a brief time. They knew their zones, knew when to look for the pass or the shot, knew when to charge and when to fall back on defense. In the email that followed, the Coach identified how each player had improved and contributed, same as she had done after the previous two losses. The mothers have been effusive, and the kids are buying into what the Coach is selling.

“I want to play soccer every day,” our son said later that day, unsolicited and unprompted. “You know how much better I’ll get? Wanna play?”

Sure, kid. But this time I won’t volunteer Mom to be Coach again. The other parents already have.  

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Making Time by Making Toys: guest essay by Mark R. Brand

We managed to construct our own custom action figures, which, speaking as someone who lived through the 80s–arguably the best decade ever for action figures–is pretty goddamned cool.


It seems like everywhere I look there are dad–writer dads in particular–staying home with their kids this summer. My north shore suburban pal Jason Fisk (, who teaches middle school English, is home with his son and daughter, as is Patrick Wensink (, who recently made the top 10 sellers list in books at, and my good friend Paul Hughes (, Executive Editor of Silverthought Press, who is the main event in a summer-long festival of fun for his own two toddler boys. The list goes on, and in all sorts of variations. Some of us are in it for the indefinite future, and some just till school starts again, but we’re in it, and (if Facebook statuses and photo albums are any indication) doing it up right.

One of the biggest challenges is just finding something to do, day after day, with energetic, enthusiastic, attentive, inquisitive, and seemingly tireless little people. So far as I know, none of us are made of money, so even the indulgences we do allow ourselves have to be carefully spaced out and controlled so as not to Chuck E. Cheese our way into financial problems. And how exactly do you do that during a Chicago summer like this when the mercury regularly tops 95 degrees for most of the afternoon, marooning you indoors almost as effectively as a blizzard?

Customizing your toys.

Let me explain. Around Christmastime last year I discovered that I worked right around the corner from Rotofugi Chicago (, which is one of these new “Art Toy” stores that sell the peculiar fist-sized vinyl toys (sometimes called “Urban Vinyl”  popular in Japan and increasingly popular in the US in various places. I’m coming way, way late to this party of course, but there’s evidently a whole movement started in the mid 2000’s by musicians, artists, and street-art creative types who made their own custom limited toylines. A company called Kidrobot ( eventually brought this to the rest of us by making small, blank vinyl dolls (which I found at Rotofugi but can also be had at places like Barnes and Noble) called “Munny”s. (Munny, presumably because the original doll was shaped like a miniature cartoon monkey.) They have all sorts now, a cat, a bear, a crocodile, a giraffe, a kangaroo, a bunny, and all of them come with some sort of random equally cartoonish accessory you can use to make your own custom toy. I got one for John at Christmas and made him one, and we’ve made three more so far this summer.

We happened to get a Mini Munny (which is what they call the 4″ ones, they come in several sizes) named “Bub” who was shaped, as far as I can tell, sort of like a little bear. Bub came with a little plastic spear, and of course John immediately said “let’s make him a knight, no wait, a knight that’s a castle guard.” Why a castle guard seemed preferable to a knight, I’m not sure, but we went about it anyway. First I took the blank and added some armor and details to him with bakeable Sculpey clay. Then we baked him on a cookie sheet to harden everything and went about painting him.

Here’s john working on the spear with some basic acrylic paints, which have the dual helpfulness of being both very cheap and easily washable.




I put two coats of spray-on Krylon Matte Finish on him, and he’s ready to play with, alongside the other Munny (a secret agent I made from a blank named “Foomi”).





After creating the secret agent and knight, I brought home two more blanks, a crocodile named “Kracka” and a cat named “Trikky”. I consulted John about what we should make them into, and he said he wanted a viking and a ninja. Specifically a brown-colored ninja. “Trikky” came with an axe as his random accessory, so that was easy enough, but I thought the cat would make a better ninja, so first we made “Kracka” into the viking.

I got a bit more adventurous with the sculpting this time, adding the helmet, horns, beard, and the shield that had to be baked separately. All of these of course are meant to be regular toys mixed in with John’s other toys, and I wanted to see how the Sculpey clay would stand being played with, so I glued everything down and double-coated the whole figure with Krylon matte finish. So far, a week later and even after being played with by John’s younger cousin Gabriel who is three and a half, I’ve only had to glue one horn back on this one after I accidentally knocked it off of a high shelf.

With the cat one, I decided to go for broke. John was firm on wanting a ninja, and my thought was that it wasn’t going to look cool unless I added a bunch of details and sculpted stuff to it. Here’s the cookie sheet with him in pieces right before we baked all of the Sculpey on. The figures are soft vinyl, but they’ll survive 15 minutes in the oven at 275.

Then I re-attached the arms and head and glued together all of the separate hardened pieces and made sure that his arms and head could swing freely without breaking anything off or rubbing against each other.

 John helped paint the body a light brown and decided that the bird on his head (“Kracka”s random accessory) should look red like one of the Angry Birds. I did the detail work after it dried. With these, you have to do lots of coats of thin, watered down acrylic paint in order to get a nice even tone that doesn’t look brushed-on and lumpy. It takes a while, so be patient if you try it. As you can see from the picture we painted it right in front of the air conditioner to help it dry quickly between coats.

 With all the extra stuff I added to the blank figure, the ninja cat (John and I named him and his bird Twitchy and Richelieu) is the most fragile of the four. I’ve had to repair the sculpted ends of his mask ties several times, and I’m kicking myself now that I didn’t find some way to use a cloth mask instead of sculpting it. Sculpey is relatively springy (like hard plastic), but when it’s thin, it’s easy to snap off if you push on it too hard. Otherwise, though, these toys are surprisingly good to go in terms of play. Once they’re Krylon-ed, they can withstand water and pizza sauce fingers and being put in a toy box with each other without chipping or losing much/any paint. John hasn’t taken any of them into the bathtub yet, but I suspect they’d survive it.





So at the cost of about a day’s work each, we managed to construct our own custom action figures, which speaking as someone who lived through the 80’s–arguably the best decade ever for action figures–is pretty goddamned cool. The blanks are $10 and can be bought at Rotofugi ( Chicago,, and Barnes and Noble. If you’re in the Chicago area, I highly recommend stopping into Rotofugi just to see what the whole Urban Vinyl craze is about.

Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of three novels, The Damnation of Memory (2011), Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is the producer and host of Breakfast With the Author and lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.

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Summer pickings: making the most out of austerity

Day ten of not eating out. August means austerity. It’s not bad if you plan ahead, at which the frugal are adept. I am neither. The hardest part is the thoughtfulness of it all. Eating out, I know the kids are going to order from the kids menu, I know it’s going to be crap, and I know it’ll make them happy. There’s a pleasant surrender to it all, a break from trying to sneak nutrition into something they’ll enjoy. Eating out means I don’t have to puree shit.

Even for an adult there’s a complex compromise when you’re going out to eat, your sense of entitlement (“I’m paying for it”) butts against good sense (“I’m gonna pay for it”). Steamed broccoli I can make at home for cheap, those hand cut fancy fatty french fries, well, sure, I can’t get that at home. Cause I won’t make it. Cause I know better.

I guess we’re eating healthier. Lazy nights I call frozen nights, and throw in a pizza, or corn dogs, or veggie rolls. At least it’s not deep fried. We’re saving money. No, we’re not spending as much money. About $10/day on food. One of the problems with eating out, as a retired service industry schlep, is that I know we’re getting ripped off. The ambiance, the place, is worth it only with my wife. As in my wife only. Without kids.

Sure is easy, though. Cooking is work. Actually, cooking is fun—the cleaning up is work. It’s the opposite feeling of eating out. A big effort for an unknowable reward. Earlier in the month, before full austerity set in, we were low on food and I was low on energy and ideas. Then I remembered the juicy red globes on the vine in our new garden. Childhood. Grandma’s gravy. “We’re having pasta,” I told the kids. The boy whined. Gravy, or sauce as he knows it, is textured too inconsistently for his picky ass.

I googled. There was a recipe calling for a “mixe roux”, sautéing butter and olive oil with carrots, celery, and garlic, then putting deseeded tomatoes in there. It was such a longshot I didn’t bookmark it, and since the boy wasn’t going to eat it I made it how I wanted it, adding onion, Italian seasonings, and a baby pepper from the garden. Then I dumped in four skinned and deseeded tomatoes. Added a small can of paste. Some water. Sauteed it. Kept it bland, just in case. Pureed the shit. Made sure the kids were starved. Poured it over angel hair.

They ate every bite. No refills, but they ate all that was served. It was all vegetables. Organic and homegrown. Pretty good too with a sprinkle of crushed red. They’ve had pasta twice in the past ten days. Tomato vines have been plucked free, which is good, cause the kids were going to get sick of it.

What a simple joy of getting dinner from your backyard. Probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the austerity measures. For everything that sucks about being tight—and there is a lot—it at least demands ingenuity. And complaints.

Here’s the recipe:


Some olive oil

Some butter

1 carrot

1 celery

some garlic

1 small pepper

1 onion

Italian seasoning (oregano and basil and salt and shit)

4-5 tomatoes

6 oz can of tomato paste

some water

  1. Whisk oil and butter together over med-low heat. Saute chopped veggies (except for tomatoes) and garlic until limpish.
  2. Boil tomatoes for 3-5 minutes, then take them out and put em in a bowl of ice so you can peel the skin off. Deseed. Put skinned and deseeded maters in the mix.
  3. Add paste to desired consistency, same with water. Seasonings. Stir and cook til it smells good.
  4. Puree the shit.

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