Blogging the New CD: W is for Winter

This is the final post in a series about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

The most intense winter I ever experienced was at Thule Air Base, Greenland. I was stationed there from July 2000 to July 2001, and had the privilege of commanding the largest tracking station in the Air Force Satellite Control Network and the pleasure of making friends with a lot of terrific people. Among other things, I got to stand on the Greenland ice cap, to visit Inuit hunting camps, and to swim in North Star Bay — while icebergs floated nearby!

So when my friend James Maxey asked me to write a song for a winter-themed event he was hosting, my thoughts immediately turned to what winter was like at the top of the world, only 750 miles from the North Pole.

I have been where the winter steals the sun for months on end
Where ice-laden winds blow blinding storms down to the frozen bay
And the solstice noon is midnight dark and the cold will not relent
And every soul despairs a little as the old year fades away

“Winter Simplifies the World”

Sled dogs on North Star Bay
The frozen bay, with Mount Dundas in the background. Thule Air Base is behind you as you look across the bay. (Image: “Sled dogs on North Star Bay,” by NASA ICE, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

The song moves through sadness and loss and into determination and hope, because if we can hang on through the dark, cold night that seems as if it will never end, we can find love and joy when spring returns. And so I hope you can find something to like — or even something to relate to — in “Winter Simplifies the World”.

To paraphrase George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy, winter is always coming. But spring is always coming, too.

___

Finally, here’s a picture of where I used to work, taken in January 2007:


View of the Thule Tracking Station’s radomes that protect the ground antennas from the elements. Taken during the long Thule winter “night.” (USAF Image.)

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Blogging the New CD: T is for Ten Thousand

This is the penultimate post in a series about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

When I write filk songs, I sometimes mash together in one song different science fiction or fantasy stories, movies, or ideas. In “Ten Thousand Years Ago”, which is actually the first song on my new CD, I included references to Highlander, the first movie of that franchise; some key elements of Doctor Who; vampire stories in general, with allusions to one recent series in particular; and the first Harry Potter book, all in an attempt to create a funny song.

If I had been born 10 thousand years ago
At the dawn of civilization, one thing that I know
Is that if I had been born 10 thousand years ago …
I’d be dead by now

Unless, that is, I was immortal
Like that fellow in that movie where there could “be only one”
But I’m not a very good swordsman, so if I met the Spaniard or the Kurgan
I’m pretty sure I would be done

“Ten Thousand Years Ago”

Guilty Viewing Pleasures: Highlander
“If I met the Spaniard … I’m pretty sure I would be done.” (Image: “Guilty Viewing Pleasures: Highlander,” by Ingrid Richter, on Flickr under Creative Commons even though she probably didn’t have permission to reproduce the image either.)

When I first wrote this song, it consisted of just the chorus (and the time period was only 1000 years) — in other words, it started out as a simple joke, kind of a sung one-liner. Then I added the verse about Highlander, and decided to try to expand the song with other immortality or longevity references. The second verse I came up with, though, was about zombies; it seemed to work well enough when I sang the song at conventions, but when the time came to record the final vocals I decided I didn’t like that verse anymore. So the morning before I was going to record, I wrote a new second verse about Doctor Who. I like that verse, so I think the final recorded track turned out much better than that intermediate version.

But only you can decide if it’s truly funny. I hope “Ten Thousand Years Ago” gives you a chuckle!

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Blogging the New CD: P is for Parties

Ninth in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

The last event at many (most? all?) science fiction and fantasy conventions, after the dealers have packed up, the closing ceremonies have been adjourned, and most of the fans and guests have departed, is the “dead dog party.” That also happens to be the title of the last song on my new album:

The convention is almost over, it’ll soon be time to go home
Back to the mundane workaday world, where I sometimes feel so alone
When I make some remark about STAR TREK, or steampunk or robots or clones

“Dead Dog Party”

You may not be a convention-goer; I wasn’t, until fairly recently. I’ve been a science fiction and fantasy fan for most of my life, but I grew up “far from the madding crowd” and far from any conventions, and indeed did not start attending conventions regularly until I’d settled down after retiring from the Air Force. And because I came to fandom late, many times I’ve walked around a convention — especially a big convention like DragonCon — in wide-eyed wonder and with a degree of nervous trepidation, not unlike Gollum as seen here:

Gollum hanging out amongst party goers
(“Gollum Hanging Out Amongst Party Goers,” by Ariane M, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

That said, for the most part I’ve been very pleased with how accepting and accommodating people in the SF&F community have been. Sure, at WorldCon in London in 2014 I felt a little out of place — even in the filk room, where the regulars pride themselves on being open and friendly — and this year’s awards controversy brought out the worst in a great many people and led to a lot of people being uncomfortable at a lot of conventions, but in general my fellow fans have welcomed me, made me feel at home, and become my friends.

Which is why I hope many (most? all?) fans can relate to the chorus:

All my friends in fandom understand the things that I like
No matter what I am into, they don’t think I’m out of my mind
So when I’m driving away, you might hear me say
That I can hardly wait ’til next time

“Dead Dog Party”

In many respects, then, this song is a tribute to fandom itself: fandom as it is, and maybe fandom as it should be. So regardless of whether you think of yourself as “fan” or “fen” or just “casual consumer,” and whether you’ve ever attended a convention or not, if you like science fiction and fantasy at all I hope “Dead Dog Party” resonates with you in some small way.

And if it does, I hope you’ll let me know.

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Blogging the New CD: M is for Mercenary Maxims

Eighth in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

So, do you read Schlock Mercenary?

If not, some background: Schlock Mercenary is a space opera webcomic by Howard Tayler about the exploits of a 31st-century band of mercenaries known as “Tagon’s Toughs,” of whom the most dangerous — and arguably the most entertaining — is the nearly indestructible carbosilicate amorph, Sergeant Schlock.*


Sergeant Schlock with a guitar! Howard’s caption: “I suppose this means Schlock knows how to look like he knows how to play the guitar.” I can relate! (2012 image from Howard Tayler’s blog.)

One of the references that the Toughs use in the series is a collection of aphorisms known as the The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries. When I decided that I wanted to write a Schlock Mercenary-based filk song, the maxims seemed like the perfect source material. I enjoyed the challenge of incorporating, sometimes paraphrasing, and arranging different maxims into verses so they could be sung and also still make sense.

Here’s verse one:

The maxims are better far than doctrine
They make more sense and are easier to learn
They’re all about fighting smart instead of harder
And they start with the simplest: Pillage, then burn

You know that any Sergeant who’s in motion
Outranks a Lieutenant who doesn’t know what’s going on
But an ordnance technician moving at a dead run
Should be followed because he outranks everyone

“The Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries”

That first verse has only 3 maxims in it (numbers 1, 2, and 3, to be precise), but in the succeeding verses I fit in 13 more. That’s one reason why the song is called “The Maxims …” and not “The Seventy Maxims …” — because there was no way to fit in any more and keep the song a reasonable length!

Before I recorded the song, I sent the draft lyrics to Howard and his wife Sandra (whom I have known longer since we are both members of the Codex online writing group), and I was pleased that they accepted my tribute in good humor. You can listen to the final version and see if you think it’s a fitting tribute to the webcomic.

I hope you like the song, and Schlock Mercenary itself!

___
*Described on the Wikipedia page as having “no easily definable limbs, organs, or moral compass.” (And, speaking of Wikipedia, some enterprising Wiki editor might want to edit that page to add a reference to a particular tribute song ….)

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Blogging the New CD: L is for a Lake of Beer

Seventh in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

This post will work best if you can read it in an Irish accent … though an English, Scottish, or Aussie accent would work fine as well.

We should probably answer the obvious question: what happened to letters G through K? In this blog series I went straight down the line from A is for Anti-Candidate to F is for a Faded Coat, so why did we jump all the way to L?

I’ll tell you why. First, because the album only has 11 songs on it, so it was unreasonable to think that I might use all 26 letters of the alphabet. Second, while I could have used “G” this time and said it was for a “Great Lake of Beer,” since that’s more of the song’s title, I elected not to.

Sue me.

This song is actually based on a prayer attributed to St. Brigid of Ireland, who lived around A.D. 453-523. You can find several versions of her prayer online, some annotating it as a tenth century prayer, but of course if she really wrote it then it would be a fifth or sixth century prayer. This version starts as follows:

I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.


St. Brigid of Kildare, rendered in stained glass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Macon, GA (1903). Image from Wikimedia Commons.

I took St. Brigid’s prayer, added some words here and there to render it in four rhyming stanzas, and also added this chorus:

I’ll raise my glass in highest honor
Of the man who turned the water into wine
For he taught us how to live a little better
And I’d like to drink with him for all of time

“A Great Lake of Beer (for the King of Kings)”

And because it’s an Irishwoman’s prayer (based, some sources say, on her vision of heaven as having a great lake of beer), I tried to write my best approximation of an Irish tune around it. The only way for you to decide if I was successful, of course, is to listen to it.

I hope you like it!

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Campaign Chronicle: Election Day!

Okay, sports fans, get out and vote!

If you can see your way clear to do so, I’d like you to vote for me* — but from the standpoint of the society we live in, I hope you’ll at least get out and vote for someone. As Robert A. Heinlein wrote in Time Enough for Love,

If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for, but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong. If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires.

I quote that by way of explaining that I don’t mind if you vote for me because you think I’m a swell guy or you appreciate my record of service or you like my sense of humor … or if you just happen to cast your vote in my general direction because you’re voting against one of the other folks. (This also applies if you live outside Cary’s District D, outside Cary itself, or even outside North Carolina, and you just want to write me in for some other office.)

To go along with my tongue-in-cheek approach to all things political — and especially to my own campaign — you can also vote for me for one simple reason:

vote no1
(“vote no1,” by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

That fits, doesn’t it? After all, on my first album I sing,

Politics, that’s the life for me
It fits my arrogant, megalomaniacal personality
I’ll get my name in the papers and my face on your T.V.
And take good care of myself, my friends and my family — yes, that’s the life for me

“I Think I’ll Run for Congress”

And on my second album I follow that up with,

Politics, politics, the life I want to lead
To make sure I get what I want, and you get what you need
I may be arrogant and megalomaniacal but it’s just because I’m great
Come out and join me any time — fifty bucks a plate

“The Anti-Candidate Song”

You don’t mind a little arrogance and megalomania in your politics, do you? At least I’m honest about it.

Anyway, today is the day! so I should probably be a fraction more serious.

Since it’s time now to stand and be counted, don’t worry any more about spreading the word about my campaign, unless you want to pick up the phone and call your neighbor to encourage them to vote — or pick up your neighbor and bring them to vote! And if you need a reminder about what I really stand for, I wrote a few weeks ago that

  • I believe the fundamental purpose of government is to preserve your (and my) rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;
  • I believe that our rights, both individual and collective in the form of the government, should not infringe on the rights of others;
  • I believe that government action intended to help anyone should be carefully evaluated on the basis of who it is likely to hurt in the process, and rejected if the benefits do not justify the cost;
  • I believe in being accountable, by which I mean being “able to give an account,” i.e., able to explain one’s reasoning for actions taken … and not taken;
  • I believe that many if not most people who present themselves as politicians take themselves far too seriously; and
  • I believe that serving in office is more important than running for office.

If any of that appeals to you, I hope you’ll consider voting for me.

___
*For today’s election in particular, I’m on the ballot for Town Council in Cary’s District D.

Spending Disclosure: As of this date, my campaign has spent a total of $84.

This blog post was “paid” for, at the cost of $0 and whatever time it took Gray to write and upload it, by The Gray Man: Service, Leadership, Creativity.

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Blogging the New CD: F is for a Faded Coat

Sixth in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

If you don’t know who the Browncoats are … well, you will after reading this post.

My brave lad sleeps in his faded coat of brown.
In a lonely grave unknown lies a heart of love renowned.
He sank faint and hungry among the famished brave,
And they laid him sad and lonely within his nameless grave.

“The Faded Coat of Brown”

In the future envisioned in the TV show Firefly and its follow-on movie Serenity, the Union of Allied Planets (“the Alliance”) fought a civil war — and in some ways a war of pacification — against the independence movement that came to be identified with the brown coats its members wore. The captain of Serenity, Malcolm Reynolds, fought with the Independents along with his first mate Zoe, and they both maintain a fierce independent streak throughout the show.


The most famous Browncoat of all, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Image from The Firefly and Serenity Database.

The idea for this song came from outside of Firefly, however, because it’s an adaptation of an 1865 song called “The Faded Coat of Blue” — a song that evokes the anguish of a parent whose son never returned from the Civil War. I don’t recall when I first had the notion of changing every “blue” in the original song to “brown” (which necessitated changing all of the accompanying rhymes) but it seemed as if it would make a fitting tribute. And not only a fitting tribute, but that it could make sense in the context of the Firefly milieu.

One aspect of the future that crept into different episodes of the series is the recollection of “Earth that was” — the past planetary home from which humanity spread out. It seemed to me that some of the music of the distant past might survive, and that some resistance fighter might adopt an old song to reflect the struggles and sacrifices of a new war. And I thought it might not matter that the original song was written about a Union soldier rather than a Rebel, because the sacrifices are similar on both sides.

No more the bugle calls the weary one.
Rest, noble spirit, in thy grave unknown.
I’ll find you and know you when the final trumpet sounds
And a robe of white is given for the faded coat of brown.

“The Faded Coat of Brown”

I hope I maintained the poignancy of the original, even as I adapted it to the fictional universe of Firefly. You can decide for yourself if you listen to “The Faded Coat of Brown”. I hope you like it.

___

One last note: Many Browncoat fan groups around the country sponsor showings of Serenity and other events to raise money for charity. I hope they like the song, too!

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Blogging the New CD: E is for Ender

Fifth in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

E is for Ender — Andrew “Ender” Wiggin — the boy genius turned military commander in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game. Faced with the disorientation of zero gravity during Battle School, Ender devised a simple way to orient himself and his troops during the battle “game” — he began thinking of the objective (the gate by which the opposing force would enter the Battle Room) as “down.” Thus, in the Battle Room, “the enemy’s gate is down.”

The enemy lurks in the endless sky
And gave us no choice but to win or die
But justice will not be denied
The enemy’s gate is down, the enemy’s gate is down, down, down

“The Enemy’s Gate is Down”


Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card.

The novel Ender’s Game got me back into reading science fiction after a long hiatus.

When I was a mid-grade captain in the USAF, stationed at Vandenberg AFB, one of the lieutenants in our unit suggested I read Ender’s Game. For several years almost all of my off-duty reading had been either school- or military-related, and I did little pleasure reading despite having been an avid science fiction reader before college.

Reading Ender’s Game, I realized what I had been missing.

I still had other reading to do, but gradually I added more science fiction and fantasy to my off-duty reading. My wife and I began reading some SF&F classics to one another on long trips — Starship Troopers on one trip, for instance, and then when our children were old enough that they would listen we read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter novels.

Gradually I also added more Orson Scott Card novels to my shelves. I don’t remember how long it was before I realized that I had first encountered his fiction in Omni magazine, back when I had been one of that magazine’s earliest subscribers.

When I was stationed in Greenland, for a brief period of time I was part of an online writing group that OSC sponsored on his website. I learned a good bit from the experience, and during that assignment I wrote my first novel. (After many rejections I got an offer on it from a small publisher, but did not proceed with the deal — a story for another day.)

In 2003 I attended OSC’s writing workshop at UNC-Greensboro, where I found out a lot of what I had done wrong in that first novel. Then in 2004 he selected me as one of the students for his Literary Boot Camp, held that year at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista, Virginia. I learned so much during that week that I still haven’t put into practice, but I have seen some small success with my short fiction since selling my first story in 2007 and making my first “professional” sale in 2010.

So not only because the novel got me back into reading SF&F, but because it rejuvenated my long-comatose dream of writing and publishing my own stories, being able to do a song based on Ender’s Game meant a lot to me. (Where that dream morphed into writing and publishing songs, I’m not sure; I guess I needed another hobby.)

Anyway, in the song I wanted a martial beat to capture the battle feel and I tried to compose words that would reflect the difficulties of fighting an implacable enemy in order to protect those we hold dear.

There are times when you fight, win however you can
The price you pay is your soul … piece by piece by piece
It’s a pittance to offer, for your fellow man
To guard those we love and treasure while they peacefully sleep

And in the final chorus, I change the focus from the determination we must have to face the enemy to the price we pay in doing so.

The price of freedom is always high
We pay it when we kill, and we’ll pay it if we die
But we pay it for the futures of those we left behind
The enemy’s gate is down, the enemy’s gate is down, down, down

If I’d been more forward-thinking, I would have written and released the song to coincide with the release of the movie. But my sense of timing has never been that good.

Anyway, whether you’ve read Ender’s Game (or seen the movie) or not, and even if you can’t relate to the feelings expressed in the song, I hope you like “The Enemy’s Gate is Down”!


___

One final note: Both the first chorus and the second chorus include subtle, if not downright obscure, homages to renowned science fiction authors. Can you pick them out?

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Blogging the New CD: C is for Christ’s Hard Sayings

Third in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

Some people reading this may be averse to anything that even hints at Christianity, its tenets or its practices. That’s okay. But even people who do not follow Christ can often recognize and sometimes appreciate things he said.

Consider “Turn the other cheek,” for instance. Many people might recognize that sentiment without knowing that Jesus said it, or without knowing how subversive it was at the time.* Like many of the things that Jesus taught, however, it’s easier to say than it is to put into practice. To apply it to a recent situation in science fiction and fantasy fandom, had more people been able to turn the other cheek the great Hugo Award Fracas of 2015 might have resulted in fewer hurt feelings and fewer damaged friendships.

The truth is that Jesus said some things that are difficult to understand and difficult to embody. As a result, the practice of Christianity is sometimes hard to accomplish.

Follow me, and learn to fish for human souls
Follow me, leave your family and your home
Follow me, I don’t bring peace, I bring a sword
Follow me, and let the dead bury their own

“We Want the Easy Road”

Some of those things are hard to figure out, and some are hard to do, on top of the basic problem of dealing with doubt and uncertainty day by day, and of trying to make the most of whatever measure of faith we may have. This song, then, is primarily about dealing with the difficult things that Jesus said, the things he said that fly in the face of the way we think the world works or should work, and above all else the one thing he said that can confound us whether we ignore it or we try to obey it. And that was simply, “Follow me.”

What are we to make of the things he said? At times during the song you get some of my reactions:

  • “It sounds so good, you knew it would, all the pleasant things you said”
  • “It sounds so odd, these words from God, so we ignore the hard things you said”
  • “It sounds absurd, these things we heard — all those crazy things you said”
  • “We close our ears, don’t want to hear, are we sure that’s what you said?”

And as the good things he said transition to odd things, to things that sound absurd, and to things that we may not want to hear, I conclude that quite often we want the easy road rather than the straight and narrow, the wine and the bread of communion rather than the sweat and sacrifice of service.

A loaf of bread...
“We want the easy road, the wine, the bread.” (Image: “A loaf of bread…” by James Lee, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Whether you are a believer or not, whether you have ever even thought much about who Jesus was or what he did, I hope you can find something to ponder in “We Want the Easy Road”. And if you like it, go ahead and share it with others who might like it, too.

___
*If you want to know more about how turning the other cheek or going the extra mile would have been subversive acts, drop me a line.

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Blogging the New CD: B is for Baen

Second in a series of blog posts about the songs on my new CD, Distorted Vision.

Shortly after I finished up my first album I started writing a tribute song about Baen Books. I’ve been quite pleased to work as a Contributing Editor for Baen for many years now, and I’m equally pleased to include this song on my new album.

We’ve got Weber, Drake, and Ringo, and Correia and Bujold
Some of the finest stories that you’ve ever been told
Lackey, Flint and Kratman, Spencer and Van Name — look for the
Dragon and the rocket ship, on the books we call Baen

“The Books we Call Baen”

One of the tricky things about this song is that I used an existing tune, and one that Firefly fans in particular will recognize: “The Hero of Canton.” Since “Baen” is pronounced “bane,” it seemed natural to adapt the phrase “the man they call Jayne” into “the books we call Baen.”

The difficulty came when I started trying to fit the names of various authors into the chorus. If perhaps you don’t recognize all the authors’ names in the chorus, they’re David Weber, David Drake, John Ringo, Larry Correia, Lois McMaster Bujold, Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, Tom Kratman, Wen Spencer, and Mark Van Name. It was a fun challenge, though, and I like the way it turned out!

Also, if you’re not sure what I mean by “the dragon and the rocket ship,” take a close look at the Baen logo:

In the negative space of the plume of that launching spaceship, you’ll see the profile of a dragon. Thus the logo itself captures both the science fiction and fantasy sides of the publishing house.

Using an existing tune caused me some additional problems. Since I hadn’t written a parody of the original song, I needed to get permission to record the new song, and that proved to be quite the adventure. “The Hero of Canton” was written by Firefly producer Ben Edlund, and I tried several different avenues of trying to get in touch with him — trying to send a message via the man who played Jayne, Adam Baldwin, for instance, and asking Sean Maher (who played Simon Tam) when I saw him at MystiCon in Roanoke. I began to despair of success, but in May I finally achieved a breakthrough in contact. Even though Mr. Edlund said he wasn’t completely sure he could grant me the right to record it, he gave his blessing to the effort — and that was enough for me.

My first version of the song included an extended ending chorus with the names of additional authors, but between the time I wrote it and the time I was recording the song we added several new authors to the Baen family — and since some of them were friends of mine, I didn’t want to leave them out! So began a quick rewrite of that extended chorus in order to shoehorn more names in.

I know I still left out some authors — I hate to think how long the song would be if I tried to include every author in our catalog — but the final chorus now mentions Chuck Gannon, Dave Freer, Michael Z. Williamson, Frank Chadwick, Ben Bova, Sarah Hoyt, Ryk Spoor, Tony Daniel, Sharon Lee, Steve Miller, Jody Lynn Nye, David B. Coe, Steve White, Brad Torgersen, Catherine Asaro, Timothy Zahn, Travis Taylor, Elizabeth Moon, Robert Buettner, Mike Resnick, Eric James Stone, Steve Stirling, John Lambshead, Les Johnson, Anne McCaffrey, Jerry Pournelle, Andre Norton, Larry Niven, Harry Turtledove, and Robert A. Heinlein. And even though I mostly only mention their last names, that’s still a lot of syllables to put together!

As you might imagine, there are a few “in jokes” in the song, but even if you have no idea who Joe Buckley is or what an eARC is, I hope you’ll smile and sing along to “The Books We Call Baen”!

___

Reminder: I’m playing a concert as part of the Dragon Con Filk Track, this Sunday the 6th of September at 4 p.m. in the Hyatt Regency’s Baker Room. Come out and see me!

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