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Hey there! I'm Smitha, a user experience and information designer currently residing in the Boston area. I graduated in 2011 from Carnegie Mellon's CPID Master of Design program. I also play the violin, geek out over foreign languages and volcanoes, and travel as often as I can.

This is the most recent iteration of my personal website, which has been around since 1996. I talk about design, science, music, culture, animation, and stuff like that.

My happy thing of the day

31 May, 2013 – 2:51 pm | Filed under fun | No Comments »

Gandhi-ji dancing

(From an e-mail from my dad. A rare photo of Gandhi-ji on a dance floor in the UK.)

May this be your happy thing of the day, too!



Daily Creative: day 1

2 January, 2013 – 1:03 am | Filed under daily creative, design | No Comments »

Happy New Year! I’m glad the world didn’t end, and especially glad to continue sharing this world with all you wonderful souls.

This year I want to revisit a “resolution” from last year which failed within a week: to do something creative every day. I’d like to start with a more manageable goal of doing something creative every day in January. (And if it’s visually oriented and something I’m cool with others viewing, I’ll post it online someplace–most likely here.)

For the 1st of January: updating my friend Genna’s law practice’s website. Genna is an attorney whose practice areas focus on science and patent laws, as well as civil rights and LGBT support. She’s fighting the good fight, and I’m proud to support her with getting her new solo practice off the ground.

(The website design is mine; the photos and content are Genna’s (yes, the upskirt in the background is 100% intentional!). Most of it I’d done previously, but she had some major changes that we aimed to launch on the 1st. In the process, I revisited and revised her logo, and re-created it in Illustrator (why would I ever create a logo in Photoshop again…?). We hashed this out over several hours in November and it was a lot of fun to devise. We had fun coming up with the white-space beaker, and the “Hibbs Law” typeface–Trade Gothic–is a subtle Star Wars homage, as it’s the same typeface used in the opening crawl.)

Hibbs Law, LLC

Upcoming updates: redesigning Genna’s semi-personal blog, where she talks about her journey as an attorney in Chicago. Also, redesigning this website, and perhaps giving it some sort of renewed purpose again. :)



A 9-year-old’s wisdom and a trip to Walden Pond

10 December, 2012 – 11:59 pm | Filed under commentary, daily life, personal | 1 Comment »

Recently I started volunteering with El Sistema Somerville, based on the famed program pioneered by Dr. José Antonio Abreu in Venezuela in the 1970s, but geared in this case towards children from working-class (and immigrant, in many cases) backgrounds residing in East Somerville, to give them a positive outlet through music and an opportunity for self-empowerment and esteem-building. As a violinist, I’ve been tapped to give private lessons to several of the kids, which has been truly fantastic–it brings back a lot of memories of my JET Programme days, when I also taught kids around this age and had such a blast doing so. What’s interesting this time, though, is that the kids instantly noticed that I’m “different,” because I’m brown-skinned like they are.

It ended up being an interesting way of breaking the ice with the one rather energetic kid who I worked with this past Thursday:

Me: (saying something about my brother)
Kid: “What’s your brother’s name?”
Me: “Nishant.”
Kid: “What’s your name?”
Me: “Smitha.”
Kid: (strange look)
Me: “It’s Indian. Our family is from India.”
Kid: “Ah, okay! I knew you were Indian because you’re brown-skinned.”
Me: (momentarily shocked, then laughing) “Well, lots of people have brown skin, you know!”
Kid: “I mean, I mean, I knew that because you have brown skin, you come from another country.”

And then…

Kid: “Are you a teenager? You look like you are because you have pimples and stuff.”
Me: (half-joking, half-seriously claps my hand over part of my face where I do have a bit of an acne outbreak) “No, I’m not a teenager.”
Kid: “What are you doing?”
Me: “I don’t want you to see my pimples.”
Kid: (suddenly very interested) “What? Where don’t you want me to see?”
Me: “I’m not telling you!”
Kid: “But if you’re not a teenager, how come you have pimples like that?” (gestures higher up at my face)
Me: (realizing) “What–you mean these?”
Kid: “Yeah! What are those brown spots?”
Me: “These are freckles.” (pointing at the brown spots on my cheekbones)
Kid: “Ohhh. But I thought freckles were pink?”
Me: “Nope, sometimes they’re brown.”
Kid: “Oh. But wait, that’s still your cheek?”
Me: “Yeah, this whole area–” (gestures) “–is your cheek.”
Kid: “Oh!”

In mid-lesson…

Kid: (explaining his behavior, as whenever he makes a mistake, he breathes heavily and gesticulates in frustration) “I just get angry sometimes. I’m an angry person, but I know I shouldn’t get angry.”

Circling back around…

Me: “How old are you?”
Kid: “Nine. How old are you?”
Me: (giving in) “Thirty-one.”
Kid: “Oh.” (pauses, thinks) “My dad is thirty-two. My mom is thirty-one.”
Me: “Oh, okay.” (as an aside) “Wow, I’m old enough to be your mom…”

Kid: “Do you have kids?”
Me: “Nope.”
Kid: “A husband?”
Me: “Nope.”
Kid: (surprised) “Don’t you want one?”
Me: (cringing, as this means I’m now being hounded about this from all age groups) “Sure, yeah. I just don’t have one yet.”
Kid: “Well, you have your family, like your parents and stuff, right?”
Me: “That’s right.”
Kid: “And you’re happy to have your parents, right?”
Me: “Yeah, definitely.”
Kid: “Well, I think your parents are really happy to have you. And they probably want you to be happy like them. Try it! You should try it sometime!”
Me: (unable to stop grinning) “Okay. Maybe I will.”

* * * * *

On Saturday I finally moved officially into an apartment of my own–my first time living alone since 2007. My previous roommate situation just went downhill rather rapidly (I could say a lot more, dripping in bitterness and resentment, but I’ll just stop right there) and I broke my lease and got out to save my own sanity and seek my own happiness again. I moved in with a coworker/friend, but due to an unexpected visit from her parents, she needed her spare room back much sooner than we both anticipated, so I moved on, and was fortunate enough to pounce on this apartment.

Anyway, I had dinner plans with some relatives northwest of here, and was so exhausted that I ended up crashing at their place for the night. The next day, on my drive back towards the city, I spotted signs for Walden Pond and decided to go check it out.

The weather was cool and there were more people out than I expected, but it was still possible at times to feel like I was all alone in the woods as I circled the pond. The sight of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin’s remains really evoked a sense of wistfulness within me. Is it possible to live such a life of isolation like that these days? Do I have it in me to do something like that? Or am I too dependent on material concerns in life to consider letting go of them for several years, and living almost solely with what I could make and build?

What was particularly surprising to me was that there’s a major route that cuts right by the pond (between it and the parking lot, in fact), and several planes and helicopters went overhead and disturbed the silence as well. I was also surprised to see several commuter rail trains go by on the far side of the lake, but then read that that railroad track had been there even during Thoreau’s own visit. He wasn’t completely cut off from all traces of civilization.

I managed to distract myself from that self-deprecating “man, I’m not capable of this” train of thought, and focused on the beautiful hike through the woods, with lovely views of the pond. It was easy to imagine what it must have been like during Thoreau’s day; despite the civilization, it was still heavily wooded. It’s an interesting contrast to the intense, semi-claustrophobic bustle of Boston and its immediate suburbs, and a very therapeutic one. I’d started going for acupuncture the preceding week (thanks to a LivingSocial deal) and found the forced 30 minutes of quiet relaxation incredibly valuable, and was able to tap into that same sense of peace as I hiked roughly 1.5 miles partway around the pond and back again.

* * * * *

The common thread between both of these is that they relate so heavily to this struggle to figure out what I want my future to be. Do I want children? Will I even get married first? Will I regret not having children? How can I live more virtuously and be true to myself and to the planet? What are the big priorities for me going forward?

Sometimes it’s simpler than you make it. There’s a lot that you can control, but there’s also a lot that you can’t. All you can do is take steps to be true to yourself, to be good and true to the people in your life and to the world that hosts you for a spell. (Well, I’m still working on letting go and accepting those simple truths as being enough. But I hope to get there someday.) Everyone has their own path there. Mine is becoming clearer, in the sense that I’m happy to be flexible, to embark on adventures in this period of my life and to not be in a hurry to settle down into the expected and the conventional. With luck, everything else will work itself out.

I’m just glad to be in a situation where these tidbits of conventional wisdom make themselves known through such creative venues as the wisdom of a bright-eyed elementary school child and the history and heritage of the wooded area where a man as good as achieved enlightenment. And I am so grateful.



Bombino, and tonight’s show

8 September, 2012 – 12:48 am | Filed under music, personal | No Comments »

There were a few major takeaways from Omara “Bombino” Moctar‘s concert with his friends and band in Somerville tonight. (For those who aren’t familiar with him, he is a brilliant guitarist who hails from the Sahel region of Africa, specifically the country of Niger, and more specifically from the Tuareg nomadic group. He’s been called “the Hendrix of the Sahara” for his stylings. In order to escape the violence that afflicted the region, he and his guitar moved throughout northern Africa, and he spread messages of peace and solidarity through his music.

1. He remembered us from last time! He came over to greet our table!

2. Bombino is a big enough act that his music, journey, and story have impacted many lives. At the same time, he’s so down-to-earth and humble and really takes the time to greet and thank (and hug!) his fans. And really, that’s what has cemented his die-hard fans/”groupies”–those personal connections.

3. Got a signed CD! He’s such a sweet guy, shy and so cute, but still willing to even try to chat, despite the language barrier.

4. Music is…how to find the words to discover the brilliance of its universality? Even though we don’t understand the language in which he was singing, and even though the lyrics most likely deal with the experiences he experienced as part of the embattled Tuareg community of Niger, it doesn’t matter when he performs: the sound and spirit carry though and people just dance and smile and really feel the music thrumming through them and moving them. Whether or not we understand the words, we are impacted.

5. The warmth that lingers after each show (granted, I’ve only been to see two) hasn’t been lost on me. The fact that he and the band linger specifically to reach out to fans, and that so much joy is shared (in the form of many hugs and photos) is such a cool notion. The die-hard fans are also great, and willing to reach out and explain and spread that warmth and joy around. (Tonight we met a couple of “groupies,” including at least one woman who’s traveled extensively in Africa and became acquainted with Bombino there, and a guy of Libyan descent studying in Connecticut who drove up just for the show.)

6. Omara Moctar is only a year or so older than me, but I can’t even imagine the things he’s faced during his life as a refugee. Nor can I begin to imagine how it must have felt once he was finally welcomed back to Niger with all the honors, after many years of having to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle elsewhere, due to his people flat-out not being welcome.

7. The music is so damn catchy, but what really makes me smile is how caught up in the improv he gets. The way he moves and his face glazes over as you can see his mind working and his fingers flying furiously on the neck of the guitar…that’s what it is to be moved by music, and to channel it through you. And though he deals heavily with repetition, there’s just something about how he styles and shapes it with each subsequent “iteration” that feels so unique to him.

8. It hit me tonight that Bombino’s music is a direct translation of traditional African/Saharan sounds, translated to electric and bass guitars and a drum set, with some blues influence thrown in. AND IT COMPLETELY WORKS.

9. 2nd Bombino hug!

10. What fantastic solidarity that he invited friends, fans, and fellow musicians who were proficient guitarists to come jam with him on stage! That’s one of the secondary reasons why I’m a fan of the Toure-Raichel Collective–it’s all about connecting with others, regardless of their background.

11. The Boston World Music Meetup is one of my favorite things about living in this city. Hands-down.



As the kids call it, a “sketchdump”

12 August, 2012 – 11:50 pm | Filed under art+illustration, personal | No Comments »

Trying to make myself get back into drawing, and to force myself out of this visual/stylistic rut I’ve been in for several years now…

#1: sketches from the last few months at work (and one BostonCHI event). Mostly sketches of my hand (including my Celtic puzzle knot ring motif), coworkers and paraphernalia in conference rooms (phone, stapled papers, Kleenex box, hand sanitizer bottle)…and a couple of other random doodles, including my longtime character, Andorus, in the upper right, just because it’s been ages since “I’ve seen her,” so to speak.

Sketches from my work notebooks

#2: sketches from this past Thursday’s Boston SketchUp Meetup. We met in Davis Square for a couple of hours of good, friendly sketching. The first page is mainly sketches of (bits and pieces of) others at my table, as well as passersby.

Sketches from this week's Boston SketchUp

#3: Tula, from Pirates of Dark Water, that cartoon I’m really into. :) She’s my go-to sketch, if you will; it’s really easy for me to just dash her off, particularly in this “butterfly” outfit of hers.

Sketches from this week's Boston SketchUp

#4: my first attempt with charcoals in 8 years. (That first attempt was my first and only formal art class, a figure drawing class I took in Atlanta during my final year of undergrad.) I started by drawing a handful of horizontal lines and then smudging them like crazy, until I somehow ended up with something resembling a waterfall.

Sketches from this week's Boston SketchUp



I will cherish this forever.

30 July, 2012 – 2:12 pm | Filed under family | No Comments »



A meditation on reverse culture shock

11 July, 2012 – 5:06 pm | Filed under japan, thesis | No Comments »

I just finished writing an article for JETAADC‘s annual returnee handbook, which they give to all JET Programme participants who are returning to the greater Washington, DC area. This is obviously applicable to JET returnees everywhere, but geared towards American participants. In the spirit of all the writing I did in my Japan journal while I was abroad, and in light with the fact that this essentially summarizes my master’s thesis, I thought I’d include it here.



“Every situation is different” isn’t quite behind you yet.

I didn’t know if I should begin with that bombshell, or with a more traditional reverse culture shock rundown. But the above is important to realize: there’s no singular, defined experience you’ll have when you return. It’s not over yet!

Also, brace yourself: there’s a bit of a roller coaster ahead. What makes this more intense than the culture shock you may have experienced when starting JET is that in many cases, you’re going home, to a place you know pretty well. Sometimes these moments of reverse culture shock will hit you when you least expect it, when you think you’ll feel settled and at home instead.

Think of reverse culture shock as a disconnect between the actual and the perceived: what home is and how you had viewed it, and—most importantly—who you were when you started JET and who you have become. Stepping out of your home culture while in Japan taught you about yourself and your cultural identity. Now it’s time to reflect on all this again, and to think about your emotions, thoughts, actions, and values that have shifted unexpectedly but indelibly. You can pinpoint and anticipate some of them, but others will make themselves known to you only after your return.

The process of readjustment is basically the same as with initial culture shock:
disengaging from the place you’re leaving,
euphoria once you arrive in the new place,
hostility once the perceived-actual disconnect hits you,
and reconciliation as you begin to settle in.

It’s that 3rd step that’s the hardest to deal with, especially if you dropped roots in Japan. Why is this happening? Why do these things not feel right anymore? Sometimes, these feelings even become strong enough within some people that they result in symptoms of depression if they aren’t treated. If you’re prone to that, or even if you aren’t, be aware of yourself, and don’t hesitate to reach out to get help getting through any rough points.

The biggest thing that many returnees benefit from or wish for is surprisingly simple: somebody to talk to. If you feel lonely or frustrated, reach out to the JET community, via a JETAA chapter or online. There’s such comfort and power in the phrase, “I know how you feel.” Even if you’re isolated geographically, you are not alone.

It’s not all bad, obviously—it’s just important to be realistic about what’s coming. But throughout, do stay positive, keep an open mind, and go with the flow. You’re wrapping up an incredible, life-changing adventure, and are moving on to a new one! Just know that there may be moments of irritation and frustration, but no matter where you are, keep moving forward. It’s easier said than done, but think warmly on the past without dwelling on it.

I would strongly urge you to document your experiences. If you’re still in Japan as you read this, take photos of everything you can, even the mundane things like items at the grocery stores, signs, and so on. Once you get back, consider keeping up a diary or personal chronicle for yourself, to help process your readjustment.

The greatest thing about returning is that the second phase of your identity as a JET participant begins. You can embrace all the good things about your time in Japan, and share them with everyone you encounter (you’ll be bubbling over with “when I was in Japan…” stories for months, if not years). Just as we were agents of grassroots internationalization in Japan, we’re now grassroots Japanese ambassadors, and can share the real Japan with our friends, family, and acquaintances. More importantly, ideally we all have a more nuanced and open-minded view of the world, and can move forward with heightened awareness of our greater human family. Embrace that—it’s an amazing gift.

And above all, I hope you have a wonderful time. Otsukaresama!



Blogging: what I do when I’ve blocked my usual social media outlets

2 March, 2012 – 6:13 pm | Filed under art+illustration, daily life, design, geek culture | 1 Comment »

It seems that it takes extreme measures for me to post anything in here anymore. I had a busy week of work and freelance projects, so I installed LeechBlock on Firefox to keep myself from opening Facebook and Twitter repeatedly/compulsively…and man, what a difference it made. (I’m a little embarrassed to admit it.) However, the one downside is that I haven’t been able to share all the cool stuff that’s come across my radar by other means this week…which is why I’m back here again.

Life’s been good in general. I’ve been keeping busy with work and Meetup events and whatnot, meeting people around town, and generally maintaining a good work-life balance. I’ve gotten involved with the pit orchestra of a local community/student opera group, who’s putting on an obscure Rimsky-Korsakov opera at the end of the month; rehearsals kick off this weekend. And I just started weekly Japanese classes with a handful of JET alumni–the first one this past weekend was already so refreshing after several years without dedicated study time. It’s good to know I can still string sentences together with reasonably accurate vocab and intonation, at least.

Also, I miss writing. Hopefully I can do a little more of that here in the weeks (or months…) to come.

Anyway, fun and neat things to share:

“Give it five minutes” – words imparted from Richard Saul Wurman (one of the early pioneers of information design and information architecture, and the founder of the TED conferences) to Jason Fried of 37signals, about giving yourself time to process and “perspectivize” something before reacting instinctively to it. (Semi-tongue-in-cheek, but this is why I really feel that sites like Facebook and Twitter need an “are you sure you want to post this?” option that gives you 10-15 seconds to recall something you just posted in haste that you would probably come to regret later.)

Yusuke Murata's paper-perspective comics

Manga artist Yusuke Murata, known for Eyeshield 21 (a manga about American football playing students in Japan–the anime version of it was on TV when I lived there), crafted a really creative and delightful set of comics that use folds and shadows in paper to provide dimensions. He did this in part to demonstrate that while there are things that can be done digitally in sequential art that aren’t possible with printed matter, the reverse is also very true. I freaking love this.

WhiteLines Wire Slim Squared notebook

I was wandering through Porter Square Books one afternoon and happened across these Whitelines notebooks–interesting shapes, clean and nice cover designs, and–most importantly–fantastic paper design. The light grey background with white lines is nondisruptive, subtle, and incredibly useful and versatile. This slim one was marked down to under $5; since I was looking for a proper sketchbook for work, I gave it a whirl and bought it, and it’s become invaluable to my work practice since. (My coworkers are also intrigued by it.) They’re available in a variety of styles: wire, hard wire, perfect-bound, top- versus side-flipping, black cover, white cover, hardcover, lined, squared, perspective lines…fantastic. And the paper is produced using carbon-neutral practices! You can find them in an art store near you (in North America) or from Amazon.

James Hance - 'Someone Who Loves You'

And last but not least, this image by illustrator James Hance has been making the rounds. Such a sweet crossover…I can’t look at this and not smile. He’s got a lot of great work throughout his site that will definitely make you smile (and some of that work is on t-shirts! Which I would gladly buy, if not for them being printed on shirts by American Apparel, which I will never again support for their horribly sexist advertising).

Wait, that was supposed to be the last thing but that’s not a happy ending. So…here! Baby sloths in onesies!

Have a good weekend, everyone.



Typography experiments

23 January, 2012 – 7:33 pm | Filed under design | No Comments »

A friend said that the following statement summarizes her life philosophy. It stuck with me for some reason, so when I realized it has been way too long since I did any creative, purely visual, fun design, I decided to typeset this.

(done on my work machine, which is running Windows 7, hence the lack of great typefaces at my disposal. I’m also really rusty and know that I’m capable of more when I’m in the swing of things…but it still feels good to have done something.)

I’d made a New Year’s resolution to do something visual/creative every day. Considering that I didn’t even start on that until the 4th or 5th of January, that’s kind of done for. But I do want to try to do more personal, fun experiments. Next up: maybe finding something I can capture in an information design piece?

Everything is right now - messing around with typography



Gratitude

23 November, 2011 – 6:38 pm | Filed under daily life, personal, web | No Comments »

Man, what a summer. Lots to recap, but that’s not what I’m here to do today. :)

I’ve been having a bit of an internal struggle about the best blogging platform to use to quickly share stuff with people, particularly now that Google Reader’s been integrated with Google+. My attention span’s shot, as is evidenced by the lack of frequent posts here (we’ll see if I can fix that, though). But also having acquired my first smartphone this summer, I like the idea of posting photos on the go. I’ve been using Twitter for that (oh yeah, note to self, fix the feed to the right) but wonder if there’s a more central location that’s frequently trafficked. And I’m trying to curtail my Facebook usage/dependency. Maybe I can somehow combine it all here…we’ll see.

Anyway, cool links from the last few days:

How to switch your parents’ web browser without them knowing (via LifeHacker)
Need I say more? Seriously.

Finding your flow: spend less and do more (via Get Rich Slowly)
This really spoke to me, especially in light of the “shortened attention span” thing above. In this age of being overwhelmed with so much information, it’s easy to take stuff at face value and then move on to the next shiny gem. Learning how to go deep (and I’ll confess that the music examples definitely wooed me) and improve your understanding and appreciation is something everyone could benefit from. I guess this spoke to me on multiple levels: I like the idea of understanding more about things you already love, but also about having the awareness to ask questions and to seek out knowledge about things you don’t even realize you don’t know much about.

List of 45 Oscar-nominated animated short films (via Cartoon Brew)
I try to link to this annually–there are almost always some fantastic pieces of animation here. People focus on what’s more readily accessible and these are often overshadowed–the art of short-form storytelling is so, so underrated. This is only the first short-list, by the way–they’ll pare this down further for the final round of nominees that’s then mentioned on Oscar night.

And now for a more personal turn–things I’m thankful for this year. (Which may or may not also serve as a recap of this summer.) I do have some reservations about the history behind Thanksgiving, due to learning more about how inexcusably horribly the Native American/First Nations tribes and groups have been treated over the last 500+ years, and how schools teach flat-out revisionist history around the day and all that…but the sentiment of humility and gratitude behind the holiday is a nice one. So let’s go with that for now. :)

I’m thankful for the well-being of my family and friends, and for my health and general fortune in life. I’m thankful to have a roof over my head, money in the bank, food in the fridge, and to have the opportunity/luxury of splurging if I wish.

I’m thankful that my life is going well, and that even when it doesn’t, I can almost always learn something from those experiences to help me grow and expand my sense of perspective.

I’m thankful to be an intelligent woman in a society with no inhibitions on when and how I use my mind and express myself.

I’m thankful to have finally landed what has ended up being a pretty cool job just outside of Boston (where I have resided since late September), after a grueling 5+ month search in an unforgiving economic climate. (I’m also thankful for my pretty sweet apartment, and my very cool roommate.)

I’m thankful to have had an unexpected but really nice “romantic interlude” at the very end of my stay in Pittsburgh (and for a couple of months beyond), and though it ultimately had to end because of the long distance between Pittsburgh and Boston, I’m thankful to now have a new good friend in my life.

I’m thankful that I was able to
1. complete a master’s degree
2. and emerge relatively unscathed
3. and more enlightened about myself and the world on so many levels.

I’m thankful to be in a city where I have a few good friends, and to be fairly close to another big city where I have many more good friends (and cousins). (New York! Amtrak! Tofurky will be had this weekend!)

Though I have major reservations about many aspects of US foreign policy and general attitudes among some in power towards those different from themselves, I’m thankful to be in a stable and safe country, and to never have known war or poverty or deep hardship firsthand. And I’m thankful for our troops–I don’t support any of our wartime activities but I do support the people who have been asked to carry out tasks that most of us couldn’t dream of facing, in the name of protecting us.

I’m thankful for my friends, period. I just don’t have the words to convey it, but you know I love you all.

I’m thankful for my family–though we have our share of scuffles, we’re always there for each other. And I’m thankful to have finally grown closer to a number of my cousins in recent years (and to be a chithi/”younger aunt” to the two newest additions of my family).

There’s a lot of other stuff I could list, but I feel like it all ultimately falls into one of the above in one way or another. I try to avoid being thankful for petty things, but at the same time, sometimes the silly things in life can be the most helpful…so I may as well mention that I am also thankful for Cookie Monster, jigidi.com (jigsaw puzzles galore), and mindless comedy, which helped me get through some rough days in grad school. :) And samosas, and rasam. Man, there is almost nothing more comforting to me than good Indian food.

Peace be with yinz and y’all. :)




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