Throwback Thursday: 1990’s Nerd Nolan!

This is from sometime in the late 1990’s.  I can’t remember which one of you guys sent me this photo, or its date.  But I’m running it primarily because of that old red t-shirt, which I loved so much that it nearly fell apart before I threw it out.

It was the “official” t-shirt of the Mary Washington College Department of Psychology, and I thought it was for one of the academic years I attended.  But … it looks like it says 1989-1990, and I feel like I even remember that.  (It’s a little hard to make out.)  I went to MWC just afterward, between 1990 and 1994.  I”m not sure what the story is here; maybe an upperclassman gave it to me?

The t-shirts were sold by psychology majors to raise funds for … something.  Was it a picnic at the end of the year, or a trip or something?  God, I’m getting old.

My only disappointment with that shirt was that I wore it for years without hearing a single relevant “Star Trek” joke.

 

 

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Pitt Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, June 2017

Pitt Street in Fredricksburg is looking terrific — the area seems far more gentrified and better maintained than when I lived there during the summer of 1991, after my freshman year at Mary Washington College.

There were always a few college kids living on Pitt back in the day — either just during the summer or for the entire year, attracted by the dirt-cheap rents just north of downtown.  You sort of got what you paid for, though; back then, we thought of it as “Pits Street.”

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I had my first place (outside of my freshman dorm room) at 304 Pitt Street — that’s the little grey house on the left in the next two photos.  I sublet it from another drama student at MWC.  (He was an upperclassman who coached me a little on my acting, despite the fact that I wasn’t very good.)  Tim was a gigantic guy, and former military.  He’d been in some kind of special forces, and the other guys explained to me that he was too tough to care much about the size or quality of the accommodations.  “To Tim, a two-by-four is a bed,” one of them explained me.

So the “place” in question wasn’t fancy.  It hardly qualified as a room.  It was actually just a walk-in closet with a window; I slept on a futon because a mattress wouldn’t fit.  But the price was right — rent was just $150 a month, with utilities included.  My part-time job was right on Caroline Street.  (I played the role of “the tavern-keeper’s son” at The Rising Sun Tavern, a living-history museum.)  And right up Princess Anne Street was the comic shop I’ve written about here before — this was the place with the singularly horrid woman who visibly hated every customer who walked in.

I had sooooo little money that summer.  Meals occasionally consisted solely of those butter cookies that sold for 99-cents-a-package at the nearby Fas-Mart.  (This wasn’t an entirely unhappy circumstance — those things were so good, they were addictive.)  I spent a lot of time listening to Depeche Mode on cassette; any song from the “Some Great Reward” album will always take me back to Pitt Street.  When I started dating one of the “tavern wenches” at work, our dates always had to cost little or nothing.  And I spent a lot of time watching “Star Trek” on VHS tapes from the Fredericksburg Library.

My housemates were Mike and Paul, who were upperclassmen.  Mike was a tall, soft-spoken Fairfax native who appeared to endlessly ponder things.  Paul was a likable, irreverent metal-head who loved to make fun of me.  (Hey, I deserved it, after working hard for a year at Bushnell Hall seeking the Most Obnoxious Resident Award.)  My complete dependence on Fas-Mart was an endless source of amusement for him.  (I didn’t have a car, and the Giant Supermarket was along Route 1 on the other side of town.)  He laughed the hardest when I demonstrated my ignorance of metal.  He actually fell over once when I read his Queensryche poster and pronounced their name as “Queensearch.”

Mike and Paul had a friend named Stefan who occasionally stopped by the house.  Stefan was unique.  He always appeared confused by life, and he always arrived with news of some strange new misfortune that had befallen him.  He once showed up at our door, for example, looking like a victim of a nuclear reactor meltdown — his thick black hair had been brutally shorn away into a mottled “crew cut.”  (He’d tried to save money by giving himself a haircut, not realizing how difficult that was to do correctly.)  Later that summer he stopped by with news of a near-death experience.  (This time, he’d electrocuted himself trying to change a broken light-bulb while the lamp was still plugged in.)

There was no shortage of drug activity in that part of Fredericksburg in the early 1990’s.  Some girls up the street from where I lived grew a man-sized marijuana “tree” right in their living room.  Another guy who was well known in the neighborhood offered the dubious service of delivering acid to anyone’s door.

A Fredericksburg native on the other side of the street was known for howling at the sky from his front porch.  This was during the day; the moon had nothing to do with it.  I was told he was issuing some sort of recurring, primal challenge to some other local who had threatened him.  He was at least not acting out of paranoia … one morning his adversary indeed appeared at the edge of his yard, brandishing a baseball bat.  The Howling Man fortified his position on the porch by returning with a lengthy kitchen knife.

Nobody called the police.  The guys in my house at least had an excuse — we didn’t have a phone.  Cell phones just weren’t a thing in 1991, and we lacked either the money or the organizational skills to set up a landline (probably both).

I remember being concerned about the Howling Man after Mike told me about the extended stalemate.  (It had occurred when I was at work, pretending to be a colonist in charge of the tavern wenches.)  Our neighbor had always been nice to me.  I’d given him some milk after he asked for it one morning, and he’d given me an ostentatious bow, kneeling before me on one knee and bowing his head, like a knight would do before a king.  He had plenty of decorum, he just saved it for those who were deserving.

 

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Looking south down Princess Anne Street toward the downtown area.  The Irish Brigade used to be all the way down and at left.  (I’ve been told that various restaurants close and re-open at the address, and … that the site of Mother’s Pub was also rebranded as the “new” Irish Brigade for a while?  But by different owners?)  That’s just confusing.

Just a little farther down on Princess Anne is the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church. My girlfriend during the summer of 1991 sang in the Maranatha choir there.

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Looking north on Princess Anne Street, toward Hardee’s, and where Fas-Mart and the comic shop used to be.

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Does anyone else remember this grey house on Pitt Street, between Princess Anne and Caroline?  (That extension with the latticed porch hadn’t been built yet in the 1990’s.)  I think the house number is 209.  It became a big party house in 1993 and 1994 … I was at a party with a bunch of New Hall people during my senior year, I think, when the cops arrived.  I remember the house emptied out in an instant.

I myself slid down the outside of the house via the gutter from the second floor.  (Seriously, people, when I went through my Spider-Man phase, I was really into climbing things.)  I did something weird to the joint in my right thumb — it didn’t hurt much, but, to this day, my thumb still makes a clicking noise whenever I bend it.

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Nothing says “gentrification” like seeing an upscale “Red Dragon Brewery” where a creepy, vacant building used to be.  Way to go, Fredericksburg.

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Heading south toward Caroline Street.

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Caroline Street.

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Looking south on Caroline from Pitt.

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Looking back up Pitt from Caroline.

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Throwback Thursday: “Star Trek,” the Original Series

I really missed the boat with last week’s Throwback Thursday — it was the 50th anniversary of the entire “Star Trek” franchise, with the first episode of the original series airing on September 8, 1966.  (And even the term “franchise” seems way too narrow to describe “Star Trek” in all of its incarnations — it’s really more like a permanent part of western popular culture.)  I’m not old enough to remember the show’s original run, which was a surprisingly scant three years.  But I remember it in syndication when I was not much more than a baby in the mid- to late 1970’s.

“Star Trek” was something that my older brother and maybe my father watched.  (I was fixated on programming that was more comprehensible for young kids, like “Land of the Lost” and reruns of “The Lone Ranger.”  Seriously, the original black-and-white serial western was still in reruns back then.)

But “Star Trek” was definitely something I was attracted to as a tot, doubtlessly resulting, in part, from the contagious ardor for it that I saw in my older brother.  (He might not admit it today, but he was a bit of a hard-core science fiction fan long before I was.)  The show was on at our tiny house in Woodhaven, Queens, quite a lot.  He also had toys and posters connected with it.  (And anything my older brother owned was something I endeavored to play with when he wasn’t looking.)

He had that Captain Kirk toy among the figures produced by Mego that you see in the bottom photo.  (Again, 1970’s “action figures” were often pretty much indistinguishable from dolls.)  In the early 1980’s, he had a totally sweet giant poster depicting diagrammed schematics for The Enterprise in surprising detail.  I’ve Google-searched for it, but found only similar pinups.  The one hanging in the room we shared was blue.

I remember him annoyedly correcting me because I called it “Star Track.”  (I did not yet know the word “trek.”  I myself was confused by my own mistake; I knew that there could be no “train tracks” in space, even if I studied the opening credits one time just to make sure.)

I was precisely the sort of pain-in-the-ass kid who fired off an incessant barrage of questions when I saw something on TV that I didn’t understand.  My father was patient to a fault when I punctuated his World War II movies with inane questions.  (I’m willing to bet I eventually acquired more knowledge of the war’s European theater than the average six-year-old.)  My brother was not always so forbearing.  I actually remember him changing the channel away from shows he was watching, like “Star Trek” or “MASH,” if I joined him at the little black-and-white television we had in our room.  (The poor guy needed me to lose interest and go away, so that he could at least hear the damn show.)

Certain “Star Trek” episodes remain memorable to this day, even if I understood maybe 15 percent of what transpired onscreen.  The was The One With The Domino-Face Men, which the Internet now tells me was actually titled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”  Then there was The One Where Kids Ruled Themselves on a Deserted World, which made a really big impression on me.  (The Internet tells me this one was “Miri.”)

As I grew up, the show faded from prominence in my child’s psyche.  It was just never my fandom of choice.  Nor was it for many other kids I knew … by the 1980’s, it was already considered “an old TV show.”  The kids on my street were always excited about the feature films; even if we were underwhelmed by the “slow” first film in 1979.  Blockbuster movies were major events back then, and fewer, and they were enigmatic in a way that is impossible after the Internet’s arrival.  (I think that Millennials will never be able to understand that, in the same way that you and I can never appreciate the vintage “serials” that our parents watched before the main feature at a Saturday matinee.)

In the 1980’s, just about every boy I knew was preoccupied with the space-fantasy of “Star Wars.”  On television, we had cheesefests like the original “Battlestar Galactica” and “V.”  As we got older, we gravitated toward the “Alien” and “Predator” film franchises.  At home, I read Orson Scott Card and Harry Harrison, and as I approached college toward the end of the decade, I’d discovered Arthur C. Clarke.  If we’d known another kid who was really into “Star Trek,” I’m not sure we would have considered it “nerdy.”  It would just have been very weird, because it we viewed it as a campy tv show from maybe two decades prior, like “Bonanza” or something.  I don’t think I ever even thought of the franchise as really relevant or popular until I was at Mary Washington College in the 1990’s.  “Star Trek: the Next Generation” would regularly draw kids out of their dorm rooms into the lobby at New Hall.

Still, it’s hard not to develop an emotional attachment to something that stimulated your sense of wonder as a tot.  I … felt pretty damn sad when Captain Kirk died in 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations.”  I saw it in a theater in Manassas, Virginia, I think, with my girlfriend at the time.  She actually felt she had to console me after seeing how doleful I was on the drive home.

 

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KEEP YOUR DARTH VADER.

And your Darth Maul, Darth Sideous, Darth Billoriellycus and Darth Revan.

[Puff]

The Cigarette Smoking Man is a complex, nuanced, and alternately sympathetic and frightening villain.  He’s played by an outstanding actor, William B. Davis.  And he’s a better suited nemesis for a paranoid modern America than those pun-monikered space-zen anger-samurai from a galaxy far, far away.  All those guys (save for the apparently mute Maul) always sound like a fascist Deepak Chopra when they talk.  (In fairness, though, so does CSM, kinda.)

[Puff]

Behold — the new poster for the the return of “The X Files” in January.  (I guess I was wrong in predicting we would see only a younger CSM in flashback?)

[Puff]

Fun with fandom: go up to someone who is obsessing over “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and say, with as straight a face as possible, “Man, you are REALLY into ‘Star Trek,’ aren’t you?”  Watch them implode.

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“Hannibal” Season 3 was a Kafkaesque, blood-soaked passion play with psychedelic music and 70’s-tastic visual flourishes.

I think that it’s tremendously difficult to write a spoiler-free review of the third and final season of “Hannibal.”  (No, I am no longer hopeful that the show might return via a different network or an Internet-based provider.)  But I need to try to keep this review spoiler free … this really is a suspense thriller and, indeed, the second season ended in cliffhanger after which viewers were unaware of even which major characters survived.  So … this will be pretty vaguely worded and a little tough to write.

I loved Season 3; anyone reading this blog could have guessed that, given that I’ve visibly been such a rabid fan of the program.  I do think that it was the best show on television, and it easily beat out “The Walking Dead,” “Daredevil,” “Family Guy” and “The Strain” as my favorite.  When it was good (which was most of the time) it was simply incredible.  When I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did past seasons, it was because of deliberate creative and stylistic choices, my reaction to which I’m sure are mostly subjective.  There were things I loved and things I didn’t love.  All things considered, however, the shameless fanboy in me won out over the critic.  I’d rate this season at a 9 out of 10.

First, here’s what I loved.  The script, directing, acting, sets and musical score were as strong as ever.  For a show that sometimes really struggled with dialogue in its first season, the writing in Season 3 was fantastic.  I am referring to the story, characterization and dialogue across the board, but especially the key interchanges between characters: our main protagonist facing off against Hannibal Lecter, Bedelia du Maurier, and Rinaldo Pazzi.  The performances here were simply fantastic, especially considering the complex, nuanced, but also mysterious characters the show’s writers have skillfully developed.  Our surviving heroes were played with extraordinary skill.

Mads Mikkelsen was also predictably perfect, even given that Season 3 required a broader range, as Hannibal’s past and his adversaries humanized him this season in a manner we haven’t seen before.  The script finally allowed Gillian Anderson to be a less stoical — her later monologue concerning a wounded bird was stunning.  And the surprise standout here was Fortunato Cerlino as Pazzi — this secondary character could have been a one-note buffoon, but Cerlino and the writers turned him into such a “real” (and extremely interesting) character that I actually thought the show would depart from the source material and make him a hero of the story.

Scenes between certain survivors of the Baltimore massacre also beg for specific mention, but I just can’t do that without revealing who lived through it.  The actors playing those “good guys” who are still alive did great jobs.  (More on why that term is in quotation marks just a little later.)  And they generally had well written character arcs.  One character’s agenda at the beginning of Season 3 was actually genuinely touching, considering how ruthless this story’s characters typically are.  (He or she arrives in Florence, where Hannibal has secreted awayy, merely to safeguard another.)  Far more touching is the exposition of one character who did not survive Baltimore; it surprises the viewer with astonishing sadness.

Bear in mind — I obviously loved the dialogue, but, like the show, it actually won’t be to everybody’s taste.  (No, for once that is not a deliberate pun.)  It is overly stylized, and rarely naturalistic.  This isn’t an extremely well scripted show in the manner of those like “M*A*S*H,” “LOST,” or “The West Wing,” and it isn’t a sit-com.  Our heroes and villains often just really don’t sound like real people.  It takes a greater degree of willing suspension of disbelief just to accept them.  Yes, I was a nut for this TV show.  But if somebody told me that they didn’t like it simply because the characters “talk funny,” I’d really understand that.  I personally loved it, because a universe where super-smart criminals and investigators are squaring off against each other, and verbally ribbing their opponents to psychologically undermine them (when they’re not getting all stabbity-stabbity, taht is), appeals to me.  Given the anti-intellectualism I’ve seen a lot in our culture, it’s refreshing to see an unabashedly intellectual TV show, with powerful characters, both good and bad, who are educated and beautifully articulate.

And … if you’re a horror hound, as I am?  The show delivers.  Season 3 was the most macabre.  And with the introduction of the “Red Dragon” storyline, it became the most brutally violent.  Generally, we no longer see the aftermath of gory murders, but see them in action.  Remember a key scene near the end of Season 2, when the mutilation of a major character is understated, because he is seen mostly in shadow?  That … kinda wasn’t a thing in Season 3.  And it was frightening.  A certain switcheroo the show pulled toward the end of the Mason Verger storyline was gut wrenching, really.

This show was brilliant, making its departure all the more bittersweet.

As for what I didn’t love?  These were intentional changes and creative risks that might appeal just fine to another viewer.  And showrunner Bryan Fuller actually advertised them in advance.  He promised fans that the show would be far more surreal and would farther push the boundaries.

I have no doubt that many fans loved what he did.  But considering Season 3 in its entirety, I’d rather he simply followed the maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  For me, Season 2 was perfect, and these bold changes had slightly less satisfying results.

For me, the show became too surreal beginning it its second act, the Mason Verger storyline.  Yes, the most striking images and sequences of the prior seasons were the surreal visions, dreams and thematic visuals.  But these worked, in part, because of their stark contrast with the “real world.”  They were one of the best parts of the show.  But I didn’t want to see the entire program become something akin to a Terry Gilliam movie.  I first got acquainted with Thomas Harris’ source novels with “The Silence of the Lambs” (both the book and the film) in 1991.  That was a kind of “real world” police procedural, albeit with a principal villain that seemed larger than life.  (For moviegoers, whether Lecter or Jame Gumb was the story’s main antagonist depends largely on your personal interpretation.)

A police thriller was Harris’ intention for most of his books, I think, with the only possible exception being 2000’s novel, “Hannibal,” with its lamentable, nutty ending.  (I and other readers wanted to tear out the final pages of that book after we read it.)  Harris examined criminal psychology and behavioral profiling in some of the same manner that Tom Clancy examined military technology and intelligence-gathering.

Yes, it’s amazing what Fuller was able to explore and accomplish with his departure from Harris’ books in the first two seasons.  And horror-thriller fans really didn’t need another cop show.  (The first half of Season 1 maybe relied a little too heavily on standard cops and robbers, and the seemingly perpetual stalemate between an anonymous villain and the good guys.)  But, for me, the Mason Verger story arc was rendered in a style that was just too … far out.  All those red visuals and baldfaced gore and references to inevitable death!  It seemed like something penned by Franz Kafka, by Clive Barker, or maybe by Edgar Allan Poe on acid.  A plot point involving livestock was just … too weird for me.  I immediately was taken out of the story when I stopped to wonder whether such a freaky thing was even medically possible.

None of those things are bad (except for maybe the acid).  But none of them are Thomas Harris either.  None of them are “Hannibal,” for me, anyway.  For an absolutely perfect treatment of the Mason Verger storyline, please see Ridley Scott’s 2000 film adaptation of the book.  It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and I enjoy it far more than “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).  I find these characters so compelling that I want them to be real (or … y’know, at least the good guys, anyway).  But for that to happen, they have to inhabit the real world, not some blood-soaked passion play with psychedelic music and 70’s-tastic visual flourishes.

As far as tone and content … I can’t believe I am actually writing this, but Season 3 might have gone too far for my tastes.  Do you remember the death of a key investigator in Season 2?  With the crime scene being the observatory?  That was gruesome enough for a major protagonist with whom the viewer is asked to identify.  Yes, as a horror movie fan, I’ve seen countless zombie and slasher films, but those stories’ victims are often throwaway characters with whom we spend only the running time of a feature film.  This is a not-quite-primetime television show with characters we visit every week.  The gory victimization here, for me, was just too much.  Those who’ve seen Season 3 know I’m talking about one assailed character in particular.  I’m also referring to another scene in which one character’s face was peeled off in closeup.   I cringed.  The movies managed to scare us without this stuff.  If I’d wanted a “Hellraiser” movie, I’d have watched a “Hellraiser” movie.  (See my disclaimer above … again, this is all purely subjective.)

The protagonists themselves became too dark for me.  Yes, I know an ongoing theme here is that everyone under “the devil’s” influence is corrupted by him.  But … my favorite TV show suddenly began to seem like a story with no good guys.  Remember “The Silence of the Lambs?”  Much of its emotional resonance resulted from Clarice Starling, who retained her innocence and nobility despite the horrors she’d faced, including her incidental, bizarre kind of intimacy with the caged Lecter.

We don’t have that here.  We’ve got moral ambiguity, and character complexity that makes for great storytelling.  But do we have a clear hero to root for?  Often, no.  One character distinguishes him- or herself by being morally heroic in the season’s first act … only to commit the same ethical mistake as in past seasons in the third act.  One character (who I liked a hell of a lot in the prior seasons) went so “dark” that he or she was unrecognizable.  And the script did little too support this character change, beyond the obvious fact that he or she was traumatized and was affected neurologically as well.  (Bone marrow in a person’s blood can do that?)  Margot Verger was great in the past as a righteous victim; here she seemed like a compliant turncoat.  As far as I can tell, the only remaining characters who are unambiguously “good guys” are Jimmy and Brian, the goofy lab techs who appear only seldom for necessary exposition and rare comic relief.

The bad guys, too, seemed different.  Mason Verger is played by a quite capable, but very different, actor.  He seems far more controlled and intelligent in Season 3, and the unfortunate result is that he seems to have been replaced.  Actor Michael Pitt brilliantly gave us a manic sexual deviant that was reminiscent of the comics’ incarnation of The Joker.  Joe Anderson’s calmer Verger seems like … his Dad, maybe.

I was unhappy with key plot points here and there.  Simply put, more people should have died at the Baltimore massacre at the end of Season 2.  It was great seeing the characters I liked so much return, but it certainly made Hannibal seem like a surprisingly bloodless killer, and temporarily undermined him as a threat.

Hannibal’s major decision at the last supper in Florence is baffling, considering what we’ve seen throughout the length of the show.  Then a crucial intervention here is made by characters who are tertiary and clownish — should those asshats really have been the ones to save the day (even if only temporarily)?  The manner of Hannibal’s arrival at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane is unsatisfying, and robs the viewers of an emotional payoff (although it is lampshaded quite cleverly in the final episode).  And Hannibal’s vicious threats in the final episode are too terrifying even for him, given the character’s well established … sense of “decorum.”

Oh, well.  I realize that my criticisms above are detailed.  But it’s only because I loved the show so much — not to mention the universe originally established by Harris in his books.  I have since I was 19.  Starling (who of course hasn’t appeared in Fuller’s universe) is one of my all time favorite heroes.  Think of my nitpicks above as analogous to those of a die-hard Trekkie criticizing stardate continuity errors.  (As bizarre as my own favorite fictional universes may be, Star Trek s an obsession that I will never truly understand).

“Hannibal” still really was the best show on television.  I’m sad to see it go.

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My review of “Star Trek” (2009)

I was never as into the “Star Trek” franchise as much as its real fans, but I did enjoy the tv show and films.  And like so many people, I was really disappointed at how the lackluster and continuity-crushing “Star Trek: Nemesis” (2002) seemed to sound the death knell for a franchise that has been around since 1966.

I was happily surprised, the, when I finally got to see J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” (2009) in its entirety.  It captured all of the magic of the original series, and updated it with 21st Century special effects, set design and sound editing.  The all-star cast was uniformly good, even if Eric Bana (as Nero) got too little screen time.  It was amazing how Chris Pine and Karl Urban seemed to channel William Shatner and DeForest Kelley, respectively.

One or two things might make viewers scratch their heads …  The coincidence of Kirk’s discovery on the ice planet is pretty mind-boggling.  And why was he exiled there instead of just thrown in the brig? Also, Nero’s doomsday device appears in the skies over Vulcan and Earth.  Does neither planet have the equivalent of an air force?  Why is the Enterprise the only ship in the battle?

Still, this was a really good hard sci-fi flick.  Check it out if you haven’t seen it already.

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