Saturday, December 31, 2011

Study Hall

It is good, once in awhile, for a parent to get a sense of what their child is going through. I am pretty sure that adult acne was invented for this purpose.

We've been encouraging our older children to sit for the French baccalauréat, the high school exam that pretty much determines the rest of your life, amen, for a French high school student. How hard can it be? Every college student I'd ever met at university in France had passed it. There is a French lit section, so read some old books and get your written French up to snuff. Then there is the everything else section: math, science, history, geography, philosophy, find out where your "educational gaps" are, study a bit and you'll be fine. I know it is well beyond what the US demands of a high school graduate, but just because mothers induce labor on December 30 to have their babies qualify for school at 21/2, fathers might go into a rage if their child is made to repeat a year and French children never have to do chores, because their whole life is about passing "le bac", doesn't mean it is unattainable in any way.

The shoe is suddenly on the other foot. I love my work, especially in the medical field, and to go further, certification is the next step to take. It will test my knowledge, help me find areas that need improving and force me to work on those "gaps." It will be a paper attestation of my abilities and expertise as well. 

I picked up an anatomy and physiology textbook, a nice, easy to read and understand book; "Barron's E-Z Anatomy and Physiology," that I am using in conjunction with the "Gray's Anatomy Coloring Book." Both of these are also great resources for high school students of anatomy and physiology. I knew this would involve other topics as well; code of ethics, confidentiality, patient advocacy, medical terminology, etc. Today I was finally able to access the website for the certification process. What I found there did not surprise me, but it did strike terror into my heart. I need to know a lot. I think I know quite a bit, but I don't think I can breeze by on experience and obtained knowledge. I will need, for hours, days, weeks and months. I will need to find time in my life to buckle down and hit the books. Whether or not I believe the information to be useful, necessary, correct even or, (heaven forgive my selfish spirit), interesting, I will need to learn it by heart in order to succeed at this particular exam. Well, nothing teaches quite so well as example, but let me empathize with my children and students everywhere for a moment; I'm feeling the heat too!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Greetings of Warmth and Light

May this season be one of joy for you and yours. May many wonderful moments light up this darkest time of the year as you rush from chore to chore (and as little as you can from store to store). Many people love and hate this time of year. I can understand the dislike, as everything "normal" either goes on as usual plus the rush, or is put on hold to give into the rush, either way, it can be a disruption, instead of a time of quiet contemplation and inward journey. 

But I love Christmas, it has always held mystery and magic for me. Now that I am a mother, even more so, as I watch the excitement grow in my little ones as they peel back the days of the Advent calendar and dream of Santa and snow. I love the generosity of their hearts, as they grow older, and imagine all sorts of ways to make another person happy on Christmas.

Solstice and its rites have taken on significance for us as well. The rebirth of the sun and the promise of the coming spring become more precious with each year that I am alive to witness it. I may love winter, but my bones feel the cold of it now, and dream of warmth and sunshine too.

Of course, timing, as they say, is everything. I often remind my impulsive children of this as they come up with an impossible request that would demand great amounts of any of the following; money, time or parental permission. "Wait until I am sitting down before you ask me if you can buy an iguana." "Give your father a minute to unwind after work, eat his dinner and relax. Then hit him with the idea of building a tree house... in January." Here is how our house is looking 3 days from Christmas this year:

Pierre (that's Daddy) has been in bed for three days with a fever and chills; the flu. The puppy has become completely fascinated with wrapping paper, scissors, tape and whatever I am attempting to wrap up in a spare second. Number of gifts wrapped so far: 3, same as the number of days until Christmas. Alienor, broke her retainer which has required 4 orthodontist appointments in less than a week. Lily left her retainer where the dog could and did find it and chew it to a pulp. One more orthodontist run. While supervising the building of our gingerbread house and making a potato omelette last night, I completely forgot the bread dough in the machine that was to provide the base for gifts to bake this morning and found an explosion of dough all over upon waking today. That last one is what led me to ponder timing. I was working up to one of those teachable moments, as the kids had asked something about chemical reactions this week. Here was a great example of a chemical reaction, and a poorly timed one at that. We could learn a lot from this! However, on second thought, I think I'll just skip the whole comparison with a nuclear plant and a leak. It may have seemed easier, for me, to contemplate them being on equal levels at the time. After all, the plant employees would be getting paid for their clean-up work and not under the same time constraint as a major holiday brings, but it would be inappropriate to compare the two in the children's young and impressionable minds as equal. The adults know which one was worse.

So, the good news, since this is the yearly update, is that everyone, with the exception of Pierre, is in excellent health. If you regularly read this blog, you may want to skip the following, but here it is for the patient and for the rest of you.

Lily, 15, my homebody, the one who never wants to go anywhere, is somehow busy with theatre, kung-fu, piano and writing two blogs; and one for her mentor:  She tried out her first archery lesson last night, and loved it. 

Aragorn, 13, was a great help, as usual, and got everyone to bed last night, with Alienor's help, while I was at the archery range with Lily. He still loves drawing and is doing an excellent job with his guitar playing. He played at church with his mentor, a couple of weeks ago. They did; "Teach Your Children Well," one of my favorites, and "We are Family." They were accompanied by the pianist, the choir and a drummer, a musical feast.

Alienor, 10, is in school to "try it out" this year, and loves orchestra, gym class and recess. Our house is filled with the lovely sounds of a first-year viola trying really hard for 30 minutes a day. Their holiday concert was amazing, truly. Alienor is the only one who does not love kung-fu, and this may be because she is dreaming of dance class. I dreamed of dance class too when I was little.  I wonder if Santa would bring me a chauffeur and extra set of wheels for Christmas.

Arthur, 7, is a star in his kung-fu class because he is the only one who can easily do as many finger-tip push-ups as his teacher. When he is asked to lead this part of the teen class, they all groan (silently, of course) because they know he will give them at least 20. The rest of the time? He plays, listens to Geronimo Stilton books on tape, and hangs out in the geology museum, asking questions about dinosaurs and rocks.

Puck, 4, likes to color and paint and make lego projects with his older brothers. He loves his morning cuddle with his puppy on the sofa at 6am, when they are both too tired to be up, but don't want to be alone. The bike path through the woods is his favorite place for a walk. He loves the library too, because he can watch the fish swim and check out books about anything.

Pierre has become a fabulous guitar player over the past year. He began two years ago, knowing nothing, just like Aragorn, and has practiced his fingers off. He's learned a lot of folk songs and oldies, and is learning "Patience" (Guns and Roses), just now. I love being serenaded as I knit. And I knit as much as I can. Any road trip is a great excuse for two things; knitting in the car and finding an undiscovered yarn shop. Pierre heads for the bike shops in the same situation, as the avid commuter biker has become a bike geek. 

The reason there was no Christmas letter last year is not that I did not write it, but rather that I never got around to sending it. I began working outside the home for the first time in 14 years last December. At first, it was overwhelming, as the job stemmed from a phone call for a French interpreter at the hospital the night before they needed someone. It was all new; time management, one-vehicle family organization and the demands of working again in a new job. I love it! I love the people I meet, both English and French-speakers. I enjoy the actual interpreting in both medical and legal fields, with the occasional different assignment thrown in. I get to go to surgeries, mental health appointments, orthopedics, court (all sorts), and my favorite; births! I have reduced my work to one day a week, which satisfies family needs and professional ones to a lesser degree, but my little ones need me for now and I am happy I can be home with them. Interpreting is what I trained to do and the career I had planned for, so it seems about perfect that I can do both now.

We send you our warmest greetings and wishes for a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. "James A. Baldwin

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." 
-James Baldwin

"If we had a key gun, it would shoot keyholes." 
-Puck, age 4

The only explanation I can find for my boys' fascination with guns is a mix of culture and genetics. They live in a gun-free, pacifist home, never owned a gun or anything resembling one until family brought them in, yet would (and still do) fight with anything resembling a stick, sword or firearm. They also (girls and boys) fight with each other ferociously at times, they brood and they disobey. (And just about every day, they say very funny things, like this quote yesterday from Puck who was carrying around an old-fashioned key to an antique hutch.)

Of course, part of this behavior could be deemed as normal passages in childhood. Children are not miniature adults, they are growing and developing through different phases of their lives. So how do we go about teaching them? How do we help guide them through these years into eventual adulthood?

We return once again to the point that it is not so much what we teach our children as how we are with them, the example we give them in our every day lives. Steiner said that adults must take care of their very gestures as they go about their daily tasks around children. If we are able to be mindful of our attitude, our words and our actions, this, friends, is what our children will carry with them in their hearts forever.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Green Heat

It starts and ends with the comforter, the down comforter. More on that below. I love my comforter so much that things got out of hand in writing this post and went on forever .

Other tips from a European lifestyle for keeping warm, the green way.

1) Wear a sweater. Seriously, turn the heat down and put on a sweater. I tried this. I was sick of seeing my kids running around the house in t-shirts when it was freezing cold out. I turned the heat down to 63 and waited. The sweaters came out. Magic.
* The nighttime version of a sweater is called a blanket sleeper. This is for the little ankle-biters who won't stay under the covers. It goes over regular pyjamas. A baby sleeping bag is another great option, up to about 3 years old. They zip up and can't be kicked off.
2) Morning routine; drink something warm, first, before you shower, before you take the dog out, and especially before you walk to school, go for a run. This will increase your inner temperature and you will use less hot water for less time in the shower/bath. Heating a kettle or sticking a mug of cocoa in the microwave uses a lot less energy than 20 minutes in the shower.
3) At bedtime; turn down the heat and warm up your bed with a rice bag or a hot water bottle. For the hot water bottle; well, fill it with hot water (I used to boil the water, but begin to fill with tap water so as not to melt the bottle.)
We converted to rice bags years ago, here is how they work: You pop it in the oven on lowish heat or in the microwave for a minute or two and place it where your toes go at the bottom of your bed. The kids will love it, it is a special winter-time treat at bedtime. Don't have any rice bags? Take a piece of fabric (flannel is nice), fold it in half, stitch it up and stuff it with rice. Or use a big man's sock; fill that with rice and tie a knot in the end. I like to sprinkle the rice first with lavender or lemonbalm essential oil, both are soothing and good for sleep.

Now for the comforter in lieu of all blankets, flat sheets, extra heat. There is one on every bed in our house and this is where the night starts out all cozy and...well, cold for a minute, until a warm body and a warm rice bag quickly create heat that lasts until morning. In fact our beds are so very comfortable and warm that some of us have a really hard time leaving them in the morning.

My childhood nighttime memories are of warmth and comfort...and weight. In fact, the best present my sister and I ever got for Christmas was matching yellow electric blankets one year. But it took a lot of getting used to, sleeping without the reassuring weight of about a hundred blankets on me. A down comforter takes your body heat and holds it in, even lasting through midnight potty breaks, and is so light you would think it was made of feathers...(sorry, that was dumb.)

The initial investment for a down comforter, (from about $100 for a twin size on sale to $350 for a high-quality queen or king) makes it a good Christmas gift from relatives who just want to please you, a lot. It may seem expensive for a blanket, but this is the only "blanket" you will ever need. Ours was a wedding gift from my in-laws 18 years ago, and it is still the best one in the house. I have had one complaint. My own parents don't use the comforter we gave them as a gift years ago because it is "too warm." To which I say; "turn down the heat and use the goose already." (That is not an inappropriate remark, it is a reference to the goose feathers.)

What to look for in a comforter:
1) Weight; the colder the climate, the heavier the weight. Mine is a heavy-duty and it was just fine in cold, damp southern France, even though it rarely got cold enough to snow.
2) Construction; quilting, sometimes called "baffle-box" that holds the feathers in place to a minimum. It does not need to be fancy, because one of the fun parts of owning a down comforter is the daily "fluffing"; whereby you announce that you are about to fluff the comforter and a bunch of kids in pjs jump underneath so they can be fluffed right along with it. I stand on the end of my bed to gain enough height, and whoosh all the feathers back to the top and throughout the comforter by shaking/lifting it. It is only not fun when one is nine months pregnant. Or when one has forgotten to fluff and is lying there about to fall asleep and your significant other decides it must be done right now or he/she will never be warm enough.

Stay warm and sleep well!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Creativity in Action

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Alienor's 10th Birthday

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Tie-dye Birthday

Few things are as easy, lighthearted and fun as a 10-year-old birthday party. They don't require many ideas from you, they have their own. They are not yet of an age where they want to go to the movies or battles with paint guns. They are past frequent potty breaks requiring assistance, needing constant surveillance and the desire to go to Chuck E. Whatever one more time. 

When Alienor asked me to invite friends over for her birthday, it was easy. Feeling a little more courageous and knowing my creative audience well, I suggested a tie-dye activity. When the younger brothers got involved, it ended up a little messier than I'd planned for, but so colorful and joyful.

I mixed up all the colors of the rainbow in squirt bottles, put on the table mat and we were ready to go. I used fiber-reactive dye and pre-soaked the items to dye in vinegar. Seven girls and two boys sat down to make pretty items, all as different from each other as autumn from spring. Some stayed at the table forever, taking their time and thinking things through, others soaked the entire thing (Arthur) and had to hang it out on the line to dry, most took them home in a plastic bag to set. One small thing I missed in my new experiment was that contrary to silk, cotton requires soda ash to set properly. A lot of the color would be washed out over the coming week, but the combinations were still beautiful.

I had provided extras; bags and bandanas to tie, thinking they could then choose. They did, and then proceeded to ask for seconds. The little munchkins dyed everything I had, nothing sad and white left in sight.

The rest of the time? Trampoline jumping, cake and ice cream, naturally.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance." Will Durant (1885-1981) U.S. author and historian

"Education is a progressive discovery of our ignorance."
Will Durant (1885-1981) U.S. author and historian

Dear Children,
My St.Nicholas' Day wish for you; may you discover a fraction of what you have taught me during the precious moments we have lived together. May that fraction show you how little you know, as it has me. May that lead you to search, question, believe and love:both others and learning about this marvelous world and beyond, all the days of your lives. If you live thus, your life will never be shallow, devoid of meaning or (pardon my French) boring.
 Keep the wonder alive, you created it for me, and I am grateful.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"Try not to have fun...this is supposed to be educational."

"Try not to have fun...this is supposed to be educational."  Charles Schulz, creator of The Peanuts.

What is it I expect of my children each day? How does my idea of what work looks like influence my expectations for the kids?

Math books, equations lined up neatly in a row on lined paper? French verbs nicely conjugated in a notebook? Essays on assigned topics? Some days, yes, this makes me feel better. It also gives the children either an education complex or a sense of accomplishment. I haven't yet decided which one. Ticking items off of a list does allow one to feel as though your day was not wasted, but are all items on that list truly equal, as the utilitarian would have us believe? Would the time and exertion be better spent on something else? 

When it comes right down to it, time is not the biggest factor. An hour or so a day of prescribed work leaves many many hours of daylight to pursue the rest of their lives.

No, the primary question is whether my attitude is affecting their picture of what learning means, whether it is stunting their desire to further explore whatever may interest them in more depth. If I say; "we're exploring US history this month," why do they suddenly become allergic to anything pertaining to the history of the country they live in?  At the same time, Lily and Aragorn are suddenly fascinated with WWI because of a book they are both engrossed in. (Well, WWI is part of American history.)

It comes down to perception. This is work. Work is not fun. In their kung-fu class they have to keep to a strict regime of exercise, respect for elders, lines and discipline. There is nothing like that at home, yet they love kung-fu. They chose to attend class, they chose to progress in it. It is fun, for them. It would be torture for me. It would be educational and "good" for all of us. Perception. This week's task: figure out how to make it work to my advantage.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Homemade Toys this Year

I am trying to calm my spirit and the mood of our home to the quiet of the Advent season. The weather has finally obliged by turning cold with sometimes darker skies, the retail business has not.

We are crafting as we think of the people we love and how to offer them something special this season. I am talking a lot with the older children about the value of a gift that you make with your own hands; be it a hat, an ornament or a song you play. I also try to move us away from the gimmies and the pursuit of catalogs to make room in our hearts for compassion, peace and celebration. Arthur has already wrapped up a box of candles he made with love and Alienor has been making a present for her sister.

As we look forward to the coming Solstice, when the darkest part of the year gives way to the light of renewed hope and a new day, I am sharing a series of photos of some of the toys we have made (or remodeled, as my childhood doll house). More will come, as I capture (literally and on film) the many dolls hiding around the house. 

What are you doing this season?


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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Road Trip

I quickly posted photos a few weeks ago from our two days of partial camping road trips. The plan was to camp, but when the forecast said 29 degrees overnight, we chickened out. Or at least the parents did, the kids decided to camp out anyway...on the trampoline in the back yard. They loved it, they all ended up in a great big pile in the middle, keeping each other warm if not comfortable.

The whole two days were glorious. I was interpreting in court in the morning and gazing at the Mississippi from the wooded hills in the afternoon. Skirt, stockings and heels in front of a judge... to jeans and tennies with my whole family out in the woods in 3 hours. I kept thinking; "this morning I was at work!" Then I forgot about work and home and just had fun tramping around and exploring, marveling at the fantastic views of the Mississippi River from Pike's Peak State Park or Pallisades Park.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Salute to Parents Everywhere

At 6:30am at the grocery store this morning, I saw both mothers and fathers, checking through quickly with bread, fruit, diapers, milk (we all had milk, I was toting three different sorts). Clearly we had somewhere else to be, some of us were dressed for work, some just rolled out of bed. Here we were, dashing out to make sure our babies were fed and taken care of. As I was pulling out of my parking space, there came one father holding the hands of three toddlers with a smile on his face; incredible!

Sure, it would be better if we'd remembered at a more convenient time that there was nothing in the fridge for breakfast, school lunches, etc., but perfection is so last season, and as elusive as the end of the rainbow. It's not worth beating yourself up about. Don't forget that it is not in the moments of glory, your kid's graduation from or the gifts you give, even if it is a car, that we excel as parents. 

It is in the day-to-day dedication to doing what needs to be done, the repeated vow to try harder, understand more deeply and be the best mother or father we can be at each moment. You're buying bologna at 5am dressed in sweats, flip-flops and your winter coat covering it all up? Give yourself a high five, you're doing it, friend!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ready for a Hike

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On the Edge

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Road Trip: Pike's Peak on the Mississippi

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Camping Out: in the Backyard Between Road Trips

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Pallisades Park

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More Precarious than it Looks

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Pooch Along

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Pike's Peak, Iowa

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Happy Trails

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Birth Order and Middle Children

 Alienor said to me yesterday morning; "Aragorn and I are a lot alike. It's like two pairs, because Lily and Arthur are alike too." She then went on to explain all the ways that she and her brother were alike, as well as something she couldn't quite put her finger on. The amazing thing is: her father and I both agree on this, we don't talk about it in front of the children, but there is a certain truth in it. This is not the first insightful thing this child has said. She would set up mini-fights with her dolls when she was little, that ended in "too much yelling" and people being thrown out of the doll house. Ouch. Or dolls being lovingly soothed back to a peaceful state on other days.

I once attended a talk on birth order as connected to careers and personalities of children. I found it fascinating, but took it with a grain of salt. Each of my children is precious and loved, for their very own self, without qualifications.

American History

Our new block for my 8th and 9th graders is United States History. Over the years we have studied different epochs in history, through mythology, legends and then history resources, but this will be our first concentrated effort on US history as a whole. We've studied European history, Asian history, African history and our local and state history. It's a funny thing, what kids learn that you don't realize they are learning, and what they don't know that you  are sure you've been over a number of times...or they should have read somewhere...or you had pounded into your head for so many years that you assume they know too. 

History is an excellent example of this. Aragorn and Lily DO know a lot, but the sources of when and why they learned are so odd and interesting. They remember who made the first American flag, because we saw the house of Betsy Ross in Baltimore.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Waldorf Publicity

My techie husband sent me this link; thank you honey! Waldorf advocates will love it, the rest of you, well...leave comments!

Children of IT guys and Waldorf

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Fishscale Girl; a book review and a celebration!

Fishscale Girl is not a new Halloween costume,  she is a real doll made by a real live little girl in the Amazon Valley. The book by the same name tells the tale of this doll who now lives in US, in Iowa to be exact, in beautiful photography and simple story line. We learn about her native people, the Yagua, and her first home; the Amazon River in Peru. The story includes themes of adoption, homesickness, adventures in new places and learning of new things. It is insightful, yet simple. The photography is gorgeous; vibrant colors, fun and artistic at the same time.

from the book; Her body is a scale from an Amazon fish, 
                           Her heart is as big as the river itself."

Our whole family has had the extreme fortune to have been included in the production of this lovely book and in the many projects surrounding it. We first became involved when the author, Ann Hailey, called to see if she could include my daughter, Alienor and our backyard sandbox, in a photo session.

We had heard of Ann's travels to Peru; her stay at a traditional Yagua village and trip down the Amazon River. We were quite fascinated (and a little jealous, but in a good way), and asked lots of questions. We were very happy to be a part of what began as a series of photos of Fishscale Girl's new life to send to Rosita, the girl who made her, with words in both English and Spanish, for this is the language the Yagua now learn in school.

A part of the proceeds from the Fishscale Girl books (no.2 will be out soon) and from the lesson plans is donated to the Adopt-a-School program, you can read more about this here: Lesson plans? Ah-ha, that's where the next step in our participation came about. I think Ann mentioned or I mentioned that this would be a wonderful tool to further explore many themes. The next thing I knew, I was drafting lesson plans that would become the focus of my life for a couple of months. Maps, we needed maps, ones that we could legally reproduce. It was a problem, but I happen to have a son who is very talented in the drawing department. He whipped out all of the maps I needed in a couple of days, free-hand. Problem solved and one more family member involved! A, cool and modern idea. Lily was asked if she would like to write it, she accepted, and voila, the three oldest have become part of the project. Ann is very very good at including children in age-appropriate and meaningful activities. The last two got their turn at a book signing, when they were in charge of helping out other children present with the picture search in a botanical garden while the others served lemonade and cookies.

To order your own copy, you can go here:  Here is a link to the Fishscale Girl's own blog, it's a lot of fun, Lily has been writing a lot of the entries, as Cate:, this is a commercial-free space for parents and children alike.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mornings at our House

Breakfast is sort of a hit and miss affair chez nous. The other two meals usually merit our full attention, but for the French, it is literally a breaking of the fast; dejeuner- undo the fast, not important except as a little something to go with one's coffee, tea or hot chocolate. 

We are an exception; I was born in the US and I love breakfast. I dislike bacon, eggs, sausage, toast and orange juice with floaties in it. I still remember clearly in the hospital after I'd fractured my skull when I was 3 years old.

Recipe: Caramel Cinnamon Bread

I make the dough in my bread machine, put in the following ingredients in order:(ingredients are in red)

Whisk together:
1 1/2 c warm water with:
1 T yeast
3/4 T salt
2 T butter or olive oil
1 egg (optional, unless you are making it gluten-free)
pour into machine

1/4 c honey or sugar 
 3 1/2 c flour (I used white, you can use a mix of whole wheat and white or even a gluten-free mix, if you add 1t xantham gum and 1/4 t vinegar)

Set machine to dough setting,

Breakfast Treats; what goes in my smoothie

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Caramel Cinnamon Bread

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