Mini Chocolate Sheet Cake with Chocolate Frosting


I made this adorable little cake for a friend's birthday. She said it was delicious! I chose this recipe on Pinterest because I had all the ingredients on hand, it was small, and it called for a pourable frosting that is put on before the cake has cooled completely. I didn't have a lot of time, so that was perfect. I will definitely make this again so I can taste it myself.

Mini Chocolate Sheet Cake with Chocolate Frosting

2020 Conejo Open Space Challenge

I participated in the Conejo Open Space Challenge again this year. It was interrupted at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in the US, but was extended and ends on Friday. I was about halfway through it before the trails closed so I had no trouble finishing. I stopped posting here, but I have been tracking my hikes on Twitter and Instagram. Those accounts are private, so I am sharing those posts here so that I can use this blog post as my entry.

Hikes 1 & 2: Sierra Vista Trail and El Rincon Trail


Hike 3: Lake Eleanor Trail


Hike 4: Ceanothus Trail


Hike 5: Hidden Meadow Trail

Last hike before the trails closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.


Hike 6: Triunfo Canyon Trail

First hike after the trails reopened.


Hike 7: Alapay Trail


Hike 8: Beargrass Trail



Hike 9: Lichen Trail


Hike 10: Plateau Rim Trail


Hike 9 of #52HikeChallenge

Liberty Canyon Natural Preserve

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One of the main ways I find new trails is seeing them from a distance. I see this trail from the freeway on my way home from work. It looks difficult. You can only see the first part of it (1 on the pic), and that part is straight up with no curves. As I was hiking up this trail, I was wondering why seeing a daunting hill like this makes me want to climb it.

It's because I can. Ten years ago I weighed nearly 300 lbs. and got winded walking up the stairs in my own house. Now I can do this.

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This unnamed trail was 0.9 miles straight up to the top of a 1400-ft. peak. There was no winding relief in the path and no shade to be had. Every time I reached a peak (numbered on the first pic), there was an even higher peak hiding behind it. There were some downhill portion which tricks you into thinking you are getting a rest, but it just makes the next hill that much harder to climb.

The last peak was the steepest, rockiest, most treacherous bit of hiking I've done so far. I could not have even attempted it without my hiking poles, and my trail runners were almost not up to the task. I finished my first bottle of water right before that last peak. My rule is to turn around when that happens, but I went this last little bit so I could get to the top and because I knew I wouldn't need as much water on the way back down.

I was wrong about that actually. The strenuous activity of climbing this trail along with the lack of shade and breeze pushed me over that fine line between "hot and sweaty" and "overheated." I gulped down the last of my second bottle of water about 150 yards from my car.

I'd actually planned to take that leg of the trail to the right at the peak, but I was done in.

This was a pretty trail from start to finish.



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Early poppies
The view from the top


Future Hikes

Not this one! This will be brutal in the summer.

Needed Gear

I need a big dumb hiking hat that has lots of ventilation and shades my whole and neck. I need hiking boots. I need one of those dumb water bladders I hate.


Hike 8 of #52HikeChallenge

Sapwi Trails Community Park

Sapwi loop

I had a different trail in mind for this morning, but a sick kid derailed my plans, so I headed to a trail close to home. I tend to avoid Sapwi Trails because I don't like neighborhood trails. I prefer trails that lead back into the hills where I can see little evidence of civilization. I drive by this park often and the trails look like they are on a dry, brushy hill.

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Still, it's close. I checked the geocaching app and decided I would hit this trail with a mission. I'd look for the three geocaches and then head home. Once I started on the trail, I remembered how pretty the lower portion is.

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Screen Shot 2020-02-19 at 3.37.16 PM

The first of the geocaches was easy to find on the bridge. I didn't find the second cache and was pricked by a dried thistle while looking. The third was easy to find as well.

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Screen Shot 2020-02-19 at 3.38.14 PM

After the third cache, instead of heading back, I saw that I could hike a little farther and make a loop. Then I felt bad for hating on this trail, because the upper portion was pretty as well.

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The last of the fog burning off

You can see from the map at the top of this post that it didn't work out like that. That leg of the trail was recently cut, but now it's a dead end and doesn't connect back to the other trail. I found this out after soaking my socks and shoes on the grassy trail.

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Screen Shot 2020-02-19 at 3.43.55 PM

After I backtracked (do not like!), I found the other end of the missing connector, but something in the bushes scared all the birds and creeped me out, so I didn't take it all the way back to see where the trail now ends. Also, I wasn't dressed for bushwhacking in my trail runners and cropped leggings.

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It ended up being a longer hike than I'd intended.

Future Hikes

This trail connects to Hillcrest Ridge trail, which I've accessed from the other end. Eventually, I'd like to hike it end-to-end.

Hike 7 of #52HikeChallenge

Urban Hike Edition

Whole foods loop

I had Presidents Day off and I needed to pick up some tempeh from Whole Foods, so I decided to give an urban hike a go. I barely like a neighborhood trail, so walking through town is even less appealing, but I wanted to try a nearby path that is a shortcut to the library, so I gave it a shot.

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How is an urban hike different from a walk. Apparently, it is the sense of adventure.


It sounded ridiculous to me, but it turns out, that really is the difference. I checked my trail map frequently and was able to avoid most major roads. It was also nice to stop at Whole Foods for a rest, a Zevia cream soda, and a tangerine.

My shirt reads, "Bucky & Steve, not Adam & Eve."

On the way back, I found a wonderful bike path that led to the other side of the library. Checking the trail map again, I found a little connecter back to the trail where I started.

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Future Hikes

Next time, I'll ride my bike.

Hike 6 of #52HikeChallenge

Los Robles Open Space and Los Padres Open Space


I hiked Los Padres Trail last year as part of the Conejo Open Space Challenge, which starts again on March 1. This time, I added Los Robles Trail East and Vista Loop (also called Los Robles Overlook Trail).



Unfortunately, I started out about the same time as a small family, I outpaced them in the beginning, but not quite enough to lose them. When we reached the overlook, I took a long break to let them get ahead. Other than them, I mostly saw mountain bikers, but they whiz by and are gone. A few other hikers I saw came from the opposite direction.


I saved Los Padres Trail for the last part of the hike because it was one of the most scenic trails I have been on, with adorable bridges and beautiful creeks.


I hiked it in late spring last year, so I thought an earlier hike would mean more water in the creeks. I hadn't accounted for the fact that we have had much less rain than last year, so there was even less water. In fact, except for this one creek, there was no water.


The incline was more gradual than most other long trails I have taken, but it was a good workout. My booty hurt the next day.

Future Hikes

There are lots of trails in this area that I haven't explored yet.

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Hike 5 of #52HikeChallenge

Rancho Simi Recreation & Park District Open Space


Long Canyon Trail

I check out this trail every time I take Autumn Ridge Trail. I approached it from the Simi Valley side of the mountain, using the Wood Ranch Trail Head. I had planned to take Long Canyon Trail - Autumn Trail - Woodridge Connector, which is a longer hike than I like to take on a weekday morning before work, but when I started up the trail, I discovered a smaller, more difficult trail parallel to the main trail. I took that and made a 1.5 loop on Long Canyon Trail. It was the perfect length.

This trail was more heavily trafficked than I expected, so it must get crowded on the weekend. On the way back down the hill, I was in front of a gaggle of golden girls who were quite chatty. I tried to outpace them, but those ladies were spry, so I was able to hear the entire post office debacle from one woman who tried to send a package to her grandchildren.

I liked this hike. It was pretty and strenuous. I probably won't take it again, though. The trail head isn't close to home, and I have hiked most of the other trails around it, which are more easily accessed from the Thousand Oaks side of the mountain, which is close to home.



I finally paid for a Pro subscription on AllTrails, which worked out well. I tried recording my hike for the first time, but forgot to actually start the recording at the beginning of the hike, so the first leg is missing.



Hike 4 of #52HikeChallenge

Hillcrest Open Space Preserve

This hike was one that I had scoped out on a previous hike. It was just under three miles, including the short trek to where I had to park. I was fine with a shorter hike because for once I read the trail description first and I knew this one would be a beast at the start. I've been wanting to take this trail for ages because I pass the trailhead often and I always wonder where that trail disappears to.

The trailhead forks at Hillcrest Ridge Trail and White Sage Trail. I took Hillcrest Ridge Trail up and White Sage Trail back.


That hill looks deceptively easy from the road.


It doesn't even look that bad from the bottom, but it is steep as hell.


The worst part of this hill is when you get to the top and discover there is another one right after it.

View looking back the way I came.


Hill #2.


View from the second hill, looking in the opposite direction. While I was stopped taking this picture and guzzling water, another hiker passed me. She said, "You always think you're done when you get to this point." I said, "But there's one more." She held up a hand as she passed me and said, "Two more, but the second one is easy." That means the first one isn't.


The other hiker headed up the third hill.


This is the 360° view from the top of the fourth hill.

Hillcrest Ridge Trail from Michelle on Vimeo.

If I had continued on Hillcrest Ridge Trail instead of turning onto White Sage Trail, there was an even higher hill to climb. Not today Satan.


On White Sage trail, I came across these markers in reverse order. They honor firefighter Angel Castro, who battled the Hillcrest Brush Fire in 1978. This area also burned in the Woolsey Fire in November 2017.







Hiking selfies.



White Sage Trail was peaceful. It led me down into the clefts of the hills, blocking the distant hum of the freeway and hiding the surrounding homes from view.

Future Hikes

I want to take Hillcrest Ridge Trail the whole way, but it is a 4.7-mile out and back hike, so I will have to plan a little better to do that one. It definitely needs to be on a cool day when I get an early start.

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Hike 3 of #52HikeChallenge

Wildwood Park

My oldest child has been asking to go on the Paradise Falls hike for ages, and the time was finally right. I guess my weekend hikes have been on less popular trails because I have never seen so many people while hiking. Wildwood is popular in general, this hike in particular. We arrived around 9 AM and couldn't find a spot in the main parking lot so we parked farther down Avenida de los Arboles at a park. I didn't mind because it added just enough distance that our hike ended up being almost exactly three miles.

We hiked Mesa Trail to Teepee Trail to Paradise Falls. (Yellow on the maps.) We spent some time exploring the area around the falls. Then we took Moonridge Trail, with a little detour on Lynnmere Trail, to Indian Cave. We climbed up through the cave and back down. (Pink on the maps.) The last leg of our hike was along Indian Creek Trail.  It was beautiful and shady and followed the creek out of the park. (Blue on the maps.) Indian Creek Trail jumped to the top of my list of favorite trails, along with Moonridge Trail.


Paradise Falls map

Paradise Falls Alltrails

The start of Teepee Trail.


Guess what we found on Teepee Trail.


Paradise Falls




I'm glad we decided to take that little detour on Lynnmere Trail. It was so pretty and crossed over Indian Creek and back before reconnecting us with Moonridge Trail.



We climbed up and through Indian Cave.



We crossed Indian Creek again, and found another waterfall on our way out.



Future Hikes

Next time, we'll enter at Indian Creek Trail and take Moonridge Trail all the way past Paradise Falls to Lizard Rock Trail.

Eventually, I would like to take the Santa Rosa Trail and Box Canyon Trail loop, which is about six miles long.

Hike 2 of #52HikeChallenge

Conejo Ridge Open Space and Skyline Open Space

Today's hike was a bit of misadventure in map reading. I usually print out the paper maps from the COSCA site. I already had this map printed out from a previous hike I did in the Los Robles Open Space, so I highlighted my planned route on the same map. It wasn't easy to find a loop I wanted to take that was about three miles long. The most interesting trails were dead ends or on a much longer loop. I eventually decided on Bobcat Trail and Los Robles Trail, partly because I was amused that the trailhead was across the street from the kids' old preschool and I had never noticed it.

About halfway through my hike, I checked the AllTrails app because I was at an intersection that wasn't shown on the highlighted trail on my paper map, and the trail started to look more treacherous than I expected. I was completely disoriented by the AllTrails map and it didn't show Bobcat Trail. I couldn't even tell from that map where I was in relation to where I thought I was, so I turned around and went back the way I came.

When I got home and pulled up all the maps, I realized what had happened. (More on that below.) I was on the correct trail and if I had kept going, I would have taken the loop I had planned. Instead, I did an out-and-back hike. Oh, well, I still hiked about 3.5 miles.

Planned Hike

The full size paper map showing the teeny tiny area where my planned route was.

Full size

Paper map view.

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Aerial view.

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The first part of the trail was straight uphill (as usual!) and very pretty.


Long shadow selfie in the morning sun.


Mountain lion tracks.


Bobcat tracks.


Deer track.


There was a little loop within a loop on my planned route (far left on the maps above). It goes to the top of a hill and down the other side. This rusty beast was at the bottom of the hill on my way up.


This metal thing (emblem? cap?) was embedded into this little patch of cement at the top of the hill.


This photo was taken at the top of the hill. View of the Conejo Valley facing North and East. Thousand Oaks straight ahead, with bits of Moopark, Simi Valley, and Westlake.


This photo was also taken at the top of the hill. View of the Conejo Valley facing South and West. Westlake and Agoura between the hills on the left. Ocean on the other side of the mountains on the right.


I didn't find the trail leading down the other side of the hill, so I came back down the same way I went up. It was at this intersection that I started up Bobcat Trail, according to the paper map, and Fairview Trail according to the AllTrails map.

This is the AllTrails map that confused me in the app. The blue dot shows where I was. In addition to the trail having a different name, I can now see why I disoriented by this map. You can see Foothill Dr. at the top center of the map. That is where I thought I had started, so I couldn't figure out how I could get from where I was back to that point on the trails. That's why I turned around.

When I got home and looked at all the maps, I realized why I had been disoriented. It is because I needed to scroll farther to the right to see the trailhead I had entered.


This is the AllTrails map I looked at online when I got home. The Foothill Dr. shown on the screenshot from my phone is marked 2 here. The Foothill Dr. where I entered is marked 1 here. When I was on my phone, if I had zoomed out or scrolled more to the right, I probably would've figured it all out.

In the map below, the red is a loop that AllTrails mapped. The blue is the actual route I took. You can see in the middle at the bottom where I turned around and went back. On the return trip, I did not take the little detour up the hill again. (That blue tail on the far left.) The pink is the route I would have taken if I had kept going instead of turning back.

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Future Hikes

When I was up on top of that hill, looking East over Thousand Oaks and Westlake, I could see a couple hilltop trails that I thought I would like to try. Looking at the full Conejo Open Space map, I was able to figure out which trails they were.

Hillcrest Ridge Trail - White Sage Trail

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When I had the full map open, I saw a trail near my house that I didn't know about, and it looks like I can loop it with Las Flores Trail (a horse path that runs alongside the road and the freeway) and Erbes Rd., so that I can start out right at my front door.

Las Flores Trail - Coyote Hill Trail

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Hike 1 of #52HikeChallenge

52 Hike Challenge

Last year, or maybe the year before, I took up hiking. Once someone told me that hiking is just walking, it seemed much more like something I could do. I live nearby to many COSCA trails, so one day I parked by a trail head and started walking. Eventually I figured out where to find the trail maps, and I bought better shoes, and added gear like hiking poles and a fanny pack that holds a first aid kit and water bottles. Hiking became a part of my routine. It was easy to hit the trails a couple times a week because I worked from home with a flexible schedule.

In October, I started a new job and now I work mostly in the office. My hiking, and fitness in general, has languished by the wayside. I missed the mental aspects of hiking as much as I missed the physical aspects, so I joined the 52 Hike Challenge for 2020. I can do one hike a week, and I am going to try to do a new trail each time.

Lang Ranch Open Space

My first hike of 2020 was on New Year's Day. I chose a trail close to home. I have hiked Autumn Ridge Trail a few times, but mostly taking the Sunrise Trail loop. This time, I mapped out Alapay Trail so that I could add a new leg to my loop. At least I thought it was new leg until I was on it and realized I had hiked it before. Starting at the Autumn Ridge trail head, Autumn Ridge Trail is mostly uphill and Alapay Trail is mostly downhill. One thing I learned hiking last year is that when you live in the midst of the Santa Monica Mountains, the first mile of every trail is uphill.

Trail map.

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Aerial view.

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This is a view of Autumn Ridge Trail taken from Alapay Trail. You can see the tiniest glimpse of Bard Lake through the cleft in the hills.


Facing the other direction on Alapay Trail, I wondered what that even higher trail was. I think it is Meadow Vista Trail.


I took this picture to remind myself to check out Rocky Incline Trail on the map to see if I could work it into a future loop.


Over a year later, there are still remnants of the devastation of the Woolsey fire.


This grove of charred oak trees on the Albertson Motorway near the Chumash Center survived the Woolsey fire. Green leaves sprout from the blackened branches.


Future Hikes

In Lang Ranch Open Space, I would like to do the following hikes this year.

Long Canyon Trail* - Sunrise Trail - Woodridge Connector* (loop)

Long Ridge Trail* - Meadow Vista Trail* - Rocky Incline Trail* (loop)

Oakbrook Vista Trail - Sandstone Hills Trail* - Vista Point* (out and back)

*new trails

Time Blocking


I've been using the time blocking technique that Cal Newport describes in his book DEEP WORK, which was a great read about how to manage your time specifically to promote deep focus for sustained periods. Time blocking has been particularly helpful in eliminating online distractions. No more opening a web browser and getting lost in clicks, forgetting why I went there in the first place. Now there are designated blocks for that. (The small email/web blocks in the pic.)

Here are the basics:

  1. Use a dotted or a graph notebook.
  2. Write the time in half-hour increments down the left side of the page.
  3. Next to the times, block out every minute of your working day. Leave time for breaks, food, etc. Plan for things to take longer than you think they should.
  4. When your plan shifts, as it will nearly every day, simply cross out the remaining blocks, and write your new schedule just to the right of those.
  5. When your plan shifts, don't give into temptation immediately. For instance, if you are in the middle of a work block and find you need to go online to retrieve an email to continue your work, don't immediately do it. Adjust your schedule to start the email block five or ten minutes later, so that you are still training yourself to wait.

Why am I doing this?

As part of my fellowship, I was assigned an executive coach. One piece of homework from our first meeting was to list four reasons I am doing this fellowship. He said, "You're good at design. Make it a nice one-sheeter you can hang up." I didn't do either one of those things. Instead, I made a list of four things that I need from my work -- this work, and any work I do in the future. I made it a graphic I can use as my phone wallpaper.

Work is an area I am not willing to compromise on again. I need work that is challenging, makes a positive impact on the world, helps me grow as a person, and is flexible, so I can live the rest of my life.

What I want from work

My New Gig

Did you know that I worked at a business bank for six months this year? After I finished my MBA in February and was laid off from the marketing agency I was working for, I wanted to do something completely different, and decided to learn new skills while figuring out what that was. You should know, I can analyze corporate financial statements and recommend debt financing options now.

What I came up with was that I want to use the skills and experience I have gained over the last 20 years to do some good in the world, either in the public sector or the nonprofit sector.

Just over a month ago, I started with FUSE Corps, an executive fellowship program that partners with local governments to tackle some of our society’s most important challenges. FUSE works with cities across a range of issues, including health, public safety, economic and workforce development, climate change, equity, and education. My fellowship is a project in partnership with the LA County Department of Health Services to implement a strategic marketing function and lead a rebranding effort for the second largest public health system in the country.

It's a massive challenge, the kind of work I like best.

Leonard Cohen wrote the anthem we need


Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), rest in peace. 



The birds they sang
at the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don't dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
We asked for signs
the signs were sent:
the birth betrayed
the marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
of every government --
signs for all to see.
I can't run no more
with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they've summoned, they've summoned up
a thundercloud
and they're going to hear from me.
Ring the bells that still can ring ...
You can

Zoë Killed Herself


Today was my niece’s funeral. Her former band teacher gave the eulogy. His words were lovely, the passages fitting. I sat behind my stepsister and her husband and their children. My six-year-old on my lap, so someone else could have a seat I told her, but because I needed to feel her body, alive and warm.

The concert band from Zoë’s school played three pieces. The third, near the finish had a mournful note drawn out so long I was breathless by its end. A final gathering of notes trailed off, driven out by the grief of that one. The band director was motionless for a moment before he broke, his sobs uncontrollable for a few seconds. This day, that song, the reason. He quieted, but those few seconds were too much for the band composed of children, playing music for their dead friend. They sat in their chairs, or stood behind their instruments, alone but all together, except one.

The band director gave instructions. Some kids moved chairs to the side where family and friends were gathered. Some kids reconfigured the arrangement on the side where the band played. Zoë lay between, in a pine box, polished and perfect in its simplicity.

My nephew Evan, stood, waiting for this part to end. He tucked his shirt again and held his hands still in front of him. He was handsome, like a man too soon. His face betrayed an attempt at stoicism, every emotion shown, breaking my heart. He spoke clearly. “The last time I saw Zoë was a Thursday night.” He told us they’d argued and said awful things to each other, but had made up before the night ended. “I told her I loved her, and she said she loved me, too.” Then he was in his father’s arms, crying for us all.

The seats on the other side of the grave were occupied by a string ensemble after that. They played pieces of which I remember nothing but that they seemed the perfect soundtrack for the grief of my stepsister’s family, incomplete in front of me, the rest of my family behind me, all the strangers to me who knew Zoë, and for myself, waiting for it to end.

Her  father spoke. “I thought I had a lot to say.” I was amazed he could speak words at all, could function in the world. “From there to here,” he pointed to the hearse, “was the longest walk of my life.” How was he standing upright, breathing? “Thank you for coming.”

I wanted everyone to leave. I wanted to sit there with my family and watch my niece be lowered into the ground. That’s not what was planned. The ensemble played as we all watched Zoë pass into the earth together.

A man from the funeral home announced the location of the wake. People dispersed. I collected my daughter, who’d gone to stand with her grandfather. I said goodbye to my stepsister, told her I wasn’t attending the wake, but to let me know if she needed anything from me. I said goodbye to my sister and my aunt and my stepfather and other faces. I cut the line of kids waiting to talk to the band director and thanked him for what he did and what he said.

I took my daughter’s hand and asked if she was hungry and what she wanted for lunch. Would she like to go out? No, she wanted to go home with me and have peanut butter and jelly before I brought her back to her dad’s house. I buckled her into her seat, and we drove through the cemetery gates, back into our lives.

I'm Back

A couple years ago, I took down all of my blogs. I worked for a conservative company, I was concerned about my professional appearance, and I followed bad advice. (I broke up with that guy.)

I miss my blogs. I miss the outlet. I don't write enough now.

So, I am putting this one back. I uploaded the archive, but there are lots of broken links and pictures. I'll fix them eventually, and I will delete some posts, and import posts from my other blogs. It will be a work in progress for awhile -- a slow work in progress because I have started a new job.

I missed you people.