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Exhausting

When I was driving home from the supermarket the other day, the exhaust on my car fell off.

And by “the other day”, I mean last week. As I had something to write about last week, I made a conscious decision to save the exhaust incident for another week. This gives you an idea of how action-packed my life is during the pandemic.

When it happened, I was thankfully only about 20 seconds away from the garage my family has been going to cars fixed for more than 30 years. I’ve driven this particular car all over the country, all around Yorkshire, up to the north of Scotland, and the west coast of Wales. So if something like this was going to happen anywhere, it’s incredibly fortunate that it happened where it did.

I thought that the repairs would cost me a lot, especially after I saw the mechanic removing a long piece of metal from underneath the vehicle. But I was amazed when they only charged £20.

In August, it will be 20 years since I first got behind the wheel of a car when I began my driving lessons. Yet two decades later, I still know very little about cars other than how to drive them.

It’s only really been in the last five years that I’ve learned how to check the levels inside the engine and what the correct tyre pressure should be. They really should teach this sort of thing in driving lessons. It was only when I bought a car that I realised I really should know a bit more about how to maintain it.

On the whole, it’s been a good car and this is only time when anything’s gone wrong on the road since I bought it five years ago. Admittedly, it does have a lot more sctatches and dents these days.

If I am moving back to London later in the year, I’m thinking I probably won’t take my car with me. For one thing, parking will likely be a lot of hassle. For another, it almost certainly won’t fit on the train.

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Stroud

This past week, my hometown has been in the news. And it’s actually for something positive. In case you were unaware, The Sunday Times has named Stroud as the best place to live in the country.

While it’s nice to have something positive written about the place, mainstream attention always makes things worse. And by worse, I mean more crowded and expensive.

This week marked exactly a year since I got off the plane from New Zealand into a dramatically different home country to the one I left ten weeks earlier. And the global pandemic has meant I’ve now spent the longest stretch of time living in Stroud since I moved to London at the start of 2010.

Except it’s not really quite been the same as actually living here during normal times, as I like to think I would have spent more time seeing friends. I like to think that anyway, even if I know there’s a distinct chance that it could well have been almost exactly the same.

It was a great place to grow up, spending countless hours in my childhood climbing trees, running about in green fields, and filling my lungs with clean air. And during some summers, my group of friends would pick elderflower for money. Mainly from other peoples’ gardens and run off when we were caught. It was then taken to the company to weigh to determine how much they’d pay us.

In 1994, I remember a friend handing me an envelope for about £3.50 for several hours of work and I thought it was a substantial amount of cash. The company that paid people to collect elderflower is now selling its product in supermarkets nationwide. It doesn’t pay members of the public to collect for them any more, but its success is inadvertedly built on child labour. Albeit children who were highly enthusiastic about being overworked and underpaid.

What followed were some frustrating teenage years when I often had very little to do, and I saw uni more as a chance to escape than anything else. But the town has a lot more going for it these days. And while I may have moved away for almost a decade from 2010, I was usually back once or twice a month, and longer over Christmas.

Stroud Brewery is one of the finest places in the world there is to get a pint of ale. I might have a vested interest here as I am a bond holder, but I speak the truth. I am looking forward to going back there in a few weeks when things start to open up again.

And Stroud’s Farmers’ Market is also great, even if I do very rarely go to it. It has some really nice stuff on the stalls. But as with most busy things, I have to be tactical to get what I want from stalls and get out again without getting trapped within people mooching about.

It’s disappointing in any of the coverage that there was no mention of Stroud outdoor pool in the write up. I always enjoyed going there to its freezing waters, notably in the summer of 1995. I later found out that the water comes from a natural spring, which would explain why it was so cold and why I saw a live frog in there once.

And while Stroud is certainly one of my favourite places in the world, I would not rank it as the best place to live in the country for the simple reason that it currently has a Tory MP. It didn’t have one from 1997 until 2010, or from 2017 until 2019. So it was certainly a contender for the title then.

Regardless, it’s been a good spot to spend the pandemic. I’ve been walking my dog for about three miles every day for the past year and rarely see anyone out and about. While I wouldn’t consider it as the best place to live in the country, I would definitely rate it as the best place to live during a pandemic.

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Peep Show

I have just started rewatching Peep Show. And it reminded me just how much I bloody love Peep Show. It is packed full of endlessly quotable lines and hilariously uncomfortable moments. I genuinely place it up there with the very best of TV comedy.

Well, series one to three that is. For me, it kind of went off the boil from series four onwards. While it continued for another six series after what I consider to be its peak, these episodes lacked the magic of the first three series.

It has definite parallels with The Simpsons in that the earlier series are amazing. Whereas in the later episodes, the storylines become more contrived and the humour often feels forced. And they both keep characters together who would have gone their separate ways years ago in normal circumstances.

In terms of rewatching so far, I’ve seen one episode from each of the first three series and laughed out loud numerous times. I’ve also watched an episode from the later series and didn’t laugh anywhere near as much.

There’s probably an element of nostalgia at work, as I watched the earlier series multiple times with my housemates in my student house. But I’m going to persist with the later series anyway, in the hope that I haven’t judged them too harshly.

Anyway, because I didn’t enjoy series four when it first aired in 2007 and there were rumours that series five would be the last, I took it upon myself to write an entire script for an episode. The naïve 23 year old that I was then sent it off to the production company in the hope it would somehow get made. It didn’t.

A simple sort-of copyright trick I learnt on my degree was to post a copy of the script to yourself at the same time as you send it elsewhere. That way, you have a sealed and dated record of your work if anyone steals it. That sealed script sat in a drawer for almost 14 years, until today.

As Peep Show finished almost five years ago, I think any potential opportunities for plagiarism have safely passed now. My storyline was that Mark gets promoted to Johnson’s position and is running things at JLB Credit. Mark also hires a cleaner, who is a sweet old lady that becomes Jeremy’s nemesis and he starts plotting ways to get her sacked. Then the episode ends with Sophie having an awkward meeting at work with Mark where she’s asking for maternity leave. Mark thinks the baby is his, but it turns out that Jeff is the dad.

Reading it through now, there are a few things I would have done differently. But I don’t think it’s a bad effort for a 23 year old novice. And that awkward work meeting between Sophie and Mark did happen in a later series, as well as her pregnancy. Although I don’t think I really have grounds to pursue any legal action.

What hasn’t changed 14 years on is that I still have very little idea about how to get scripts commissioned. Then again, I don’t think many professional writers do either. And I’ve no doubt that there are thousands of other scripts around the world just sitting in drawers, although they’re probably not all for Peep Show.

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Ale

This week, I planted some ale hops. I received them from Stroud Brewery as a reward I paid for in their recent crowdfunder to survive the turmoil the pandemic has sent its way.

Admittedly, my track record with plants isn’t that impressive. A few years ago, at least two new cacti I bought for my flat died fairly quickly. One was called a Magic Cactus. The magical powers weren’t specified and it is possible that they consisted of the ability to die significantly easier than other cacti.

But I’m hoping these hops will have better luck. Provided everything goes according to plan, the grown hops will be sent back to the brewery in September as part of the community ale that they brew every year.

Fortunately, there are load more people around Stroud who also have them growing in their gardens and the pressure isn’t solely on me. I’ll also receive nine pints of the stuff as another part of the crowdfunder reward.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch them grow, as the hop plant is something of a mystery to me. In fact, ale is still largely a mystery to me. I love a good pint of the stuff, but wouldn’t be able to tell you what was in it or how it was made. Though I should know more later on this year, as another reward I paid for in the crowdfunder is for me and a group of friends to have a brewing lesson at Stroud Brewery, where we’ll make our own ale.

I may have spent far too much money on rewards in the brewery crowdfunder, but I’m glad I can help a really worthwhile business survive these difficult times. Plus, I get beer in return for my philanthropy. I’m just glad that my tastes have evolved from that rancid snakebite and black that I drank far too much of in my first year of uni.

Fortunately, the brewery hit its target quite comfortably. I’ve spent countless hours there with friends in the last decade, drinking some fine ales and eating amazing pizza. And I look forward to doing so again once the Covid madness has run its course.

And on the subject of Stroud Brewery, I can announce that I will be performing How To Win A Pub Quiz there in September. Half of the ticket price will go to the brewery, with the other half helping me to recoup some of the funds I spent on the crowdfunder. I’m fairly sure that Edinburgh Fringe isn’t happening this year, so it’s nice to have something in the diary. The hypothetical diary that is, I haven’t bought a physical diary since 2019.

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WandaVision thoughts

This entry is going to be about my thoughts on WandaVision and features spoilers, so continue at your peril. As with the Mandalorian, it’s been really handy to have a new episode to look forward to each week in these odd times that are mostly spent at home.

When WandaVision was first announced, I wasn’t particularly bothered. I didn’t have much interest in Wanda or Vision based on their MCU appearances. This this is more due to the fact that the characters didn’t have a massive amount to do with their limited screen time. And I didn’t know a lot about their characters from the comics, other than a few things I’ve read online. Then again, you’re much more likely to enjoy things if you go in with low expectations.

But by the end, I had become emotionally invested in a relationship between an omnipotent being and a robot. Yes, I know Vision is a synthezoid, but ‘robot’ makes that sentence read funnier.

The series could have been a massive failure, but it succeeded due to the writing and commitment of the actors involved. This series really showed what a talent Elizabeth Olsen is when given the opportunity and the right material. It was such a nuanced performance, effortlessly flitting between victim and villain. And I really hope she receives all the awards going.

Paul Bettany also gave a great performance. Vision was just as confused about everything that was happening as the viewer. And Kathryn Hahn simply stole every scene she was in, plus she has the best theme tune of any Marvel villain.

The show took a couple of episodes to get going and the 1950s-60s sitcom setting was fun and I was trying to figure out just what the hell was going on. My theory proved correct that Wanda had basically created a pocket reality like Center Parcs where she could control everything, known as the Hex.

I’ve never seen a TV show quite like it and it constantly surprised me. In the sitcoms setting, there was something creepy and more sinister just below the surface. I used to love The Outer Limits in the 1990s and this certainly had a similar feel in places.

Jumping a decade with each instalment didn’t work at all for the most recent X-Men films in terms of continuity, but here it made much more sense. The decades progress in parallel with Wanda losing control over everything as it gets closed to present day (in the MCU, ‘present day’ means 2023). Then there’s the meta-level of those outside the Hex watching what’s happening on TV screens, theorising and trying to figure everything out just as the viewers were. In fact, I would have weekly calls with Marvel expert and former comedy partner Langton to do just that.

And on the subject of the X-Men, there was that certain appearance from Evan Peters as Pietro. He was the best thing about the most recent X-Men films and a much better character than the MCU’s version of Quicksilver, which was a rare misstep by Marvel. When he first appeared at the end of a WandaVision episode, I thought they’d brought him through the multi-verse from the Fox universe.

Yet the more time we spent with this character in WandaVision, the more it became clear what something wasn’t quite right. I’d predicted in conversations with Langton that it either was the Fox Quicksilver, or it was actually the actor Evan Peters. As it turned out, I was closer with the latter guess. Although I would be lying if I said I had guessed the Ralph Bohner swerve.

This Bohner decision has provoked some backlash from some fans online, which seems to be pretty easy to do these days. Yes, it could have been better. But it’s not worth getting angry because a theory you’ve thought up and can intricately explain doesn’t turn out to materialise. Then again, this anger normally means you have a successful YouTube channel and don’t need a regular job.

I didn’t hate the reveal and the MCU has been known to pull similar stunts before, see The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery. But I have a sneaking suspicion that we will see Evan Peters again in Doctor Strange 2, which the end of WandaVision set-up.

Minor MCU characters Darcy and Jimmy Woo reprised their roles to great effect, and the series introduced Monica Rambeau – as an adult anyway. This introduction was really well done, as it was fascinating to see the immediate aftermath of rematerialising after the Hulk Snap. I’m looking forward to seeing where they go with this character next, especially one with such cool powers.

The finale was also been criticised online, particularly the fight in the skies between Agnes and Wanda throwing magic at each other from a distance. But I enjoyed the episode and didn’t have any real problem with the magic chucking.

It’s since crossed my mind that it was possibly shot in this way because of social distancing, as the makers said that about a third of the series was filmed after Covid had forced it to stop for a few weeks. That’s my theory. Franky, we’re lucky to even have such a show during a global pandemic.

Ultimately, it is a show about grief and trying to find a way through it. And it is utterly mad, in the best possible way. But then sometimes grief can have this effect, albeit without all the superpowers, creating a pocket reality, and taking an entire town hostage.

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Mulleted

With the evenings getting lighter and phase one of vaccine roll-out gathering pace, we may be slowly moving out of the worst of this Covid nightmare. But there’s still some way to go and I’m not booking a haircut just yet.

It’s now one year since my last haircut, which happened when I was in Napier. I wasn’t intentionally growing my hair long, I just didn’t fancy going to a hairdressers early on in the pandemic.

As time has time passed, I made the decision to not get a haircut until the Covid-19 outbreak is officially over. So that could be 22 June, but likely possibly even further away. In any event, never has a haircut been more symbolic. Samson may disagree with that, but he loses the argument instantly for being fictional.

When I was going to Perth last year, I was told to expect mullets and counted about a disappointingly low tally of 30. Little did I know that I would be joining their ranks and boosting the tally less than a year later. The longer I spent in Australia, the more I became won over by the practical benefits of the mullet. For one thing, there was no need to apply layers of suncream to the neck if most of it is covered by hair.

I last tried growing my hair long when I was 17, inspired by the wrestlers that I watched far too much of on TV. But it kind of stopped at the awkward Hobbit phase. I think that was after about nine or ten months.

For probably the better part of a decade, I was regularly having it cut short and had the clippers on grade one or two every couple of months. When I lived in Walthamstow, I would regularly visit barbers who only charged a fiver and many spoke very little English. There were times when I had real concerns about how much damage they were going to do to my head, especially those barbers who were pretty forceful and used actual razor blades around the edges.

Then I shaved it off completely when I was in the Highlands after Edinburgh in 2019. And despite the best efforts of my genetics, it has grown back to density probably not seen since I was at least 15. Maybe all those vitamin B tablets and hemp shampoo have worked finally wonders, or perhaps it’s some other form of magic entirely.

I may also need the long hair for a potentially playing an extra in a medieval drama that’s filming near where I live next month. This is a real thing that’s happening. I’ve registered with an extras agency, but I’m just not sure if I’ll be involved yet. And writing about it on here probably isn’t going to help matters.

But my hair will all be shaved off again when I start performing Ross Kemp: The Musical. I’m currently in a bit of a narrative cul-der-sac with that project, which hasn’t been helped with not being pemitted to go around Rich’s house for more writing sessions. Or perhaps my writers block is being imposed by my follicles.

In any case, with my beard, I will have the Jesus look nailed on this Easter.

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Shaped like a pear

I returned to performing this week, sort of.

One of my favourite ever comedy nights, Pear Shaped, has recently moved online. It was an institution of the London circuit and really helped me to discover the joy that can be gained from dying on my arse. The clue’s in the name, it was a night where it was fine for everything to go wrong; and it frequently did, in the best possible way.

The audience often wasn’t that big and it wasn’t uncommon for there to be no audience at all. Or if there was a crowd, you were never quite sure how long they would stick around for. But sometimes, just sometimes, downstairs at that pub in Fitzrovia in that weird wooden room that smelt a bit of toilets, it would be a full of paying punters and it could be a lovely gig.

And after saying nice things about the gig on Alison’s podcast recently, I received a message from Brian asking if I’d like to perform. Now, I have a rule that I only do online gigs if I’m asked. So it was nice to do my first one.

I decided to pre-tape my bit, just to avoid any technical difficulties in a live broadcast. Plus if I know there’s not going to be much chance of hearing laughter anyway, I might as well do my set at a convenient time and relax later on when the show was being broadcast. And is it weird to perform a stand-up set without a crowd? No, at Pear Shaped it certainly isn’t. In fact, it feels the most appropriate gig to do online.

Another reason I’m glad I pretaped it is because it took me about seven or eight attempts to get it right without fluffing my lines. I’ll claim it’s because I’m out of practice, but then I know really that I am prone to fluffing lines on stage.

After a couple of run throughs, a weird thing started happen to my throat. It is a condition I like to call ‘weird quivery sheep throat thing’, where it’s difficult to talk without being interrupted by my faltering vocal cords. It started happening in 2019 and then returned when I was trying to talk on stage in October. I normally have a throat lozenge before I
perform, so perhaps my throat muscles aren’t used to it after such a long absence. Anyway, I gargled with some mouthwash and pushed through.

I enjoyed doing it and it was good to see catch up with some old faces again. Plus the journey home after the gig was really quick and I didn’t have to worry about getting delayed by motorway lane closures.

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Expanding the menu

When I was living away from home, I had a few meals I would cook routinely.

In my first house in London, I would often eat pasta covered in butter and poured on some toast, sometimes with honey or at other times with cheese-on-toast. Despite the fact that I could cook to a decent level, I lived off this mainly to avoid spending too long in the kitchen of a very dodgy shared house.

This was also the time when my evening meal was a frozen pizza from Asda after finishing an evening shift at the call centre. I shouldn’t need to state here that there were consequences in the bowel region from this diet.

In later years and in less dodgy houses, I got into cooking in bulk and freezing a load. And I have three main staple meals for this.

My chilli con carne remains my signature dish. It was initially made with turkey mince, but then switched the lentils when I stopped buying meat; and it has recently changed again to vegan mince. So it should be chilli sin carne – that’s a Spanish joke right there.

My second dish is a fish stew, which evolved into this. Initially, as a quick meal in a shared house, I’d fry an entire bulb of garlic, then pour in a tin of mackerel and some soy sauce. This would be served on some rice and was actually pretty tasty. Over the years, I added more things such as chopped tomatoes, onions and other ingredients. And thus the fish stew was born.

My third dish is a lentil dhal. It’s a fairly new addition to the repertoire and is really tasty, albeit a bit of a faff to scoop all the lentil foam off when they’re boiling.

And after tonight, I might well have a fourth dish. It isn’t the mushroom katsu curry I made a couple of times, then forgot how I made it. I made a vegetable curry with cauliflower, potato, carrot, peas and ground almonds; plus a variety of spices. Considering I wasn’t planning on making it until lunchtime and hadn’t bought specific ingredients for it, it turned out rather well and I should be able to get about eight meals out of it.

My menu has come a long way since the days of buttery pasta on toast.

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Council meetings

With Handforth Parish Council making the headlines all over the place this week, I just want to say that I was covering parish council meetings before they got too mainstream.

In my reporter days from 2008-2009, I had to cover at least three – sometimes even four – town or parish council meetings every month. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed them. They would often go on for at least two hours, sometimes even more than three. And very often, I would struggle to get too many lengthily news stories from what was discussed.

There were frequently factions and feuds among councillors that stretched back decades, as well as accusations of bullying. But there were also some decent people serving as councillors who wanted to do their bit to help their local community, instead of those being on a power trip to arrange planting of flowers and village fetes.

Often during these meetings, I would look around the room and often be the youngest in there by about 30 years and think: “I’m 24 and this is what I’m doing with my life.”

In fact, being asked to cover a council meeting on a Friday night just as I was about to leave the office for the weekend gave me the final push I needed to hand in my notice.

Nevertheless, parish councils have their place in the great circle of democracy. Even if it rarely felt like it at the time.

And just as a claim to fame, one of the places I attended every month ended up being used as the location of the vicar’s office on This Country.

Probably my most interesting meeting was at a council I didn’t normally report on, but was sent specifically to cover the contentious issue of a pedestrian crossing in the village. I was told I didn’t need to stay for the entirety. So I left with the campaigners after getting some explosive quotes.

It felt amazing to walk out of a council meeting after about 30 minutes, instead of being in there for the usual near two hours. I hopped into my car to drive the 14 miles home, for an early-ish night. And here comes the ‘however’.

However, upon turning into my road and two minutes from home, I realised I’d left my bag in the council meeting. So for a couple of seconds I weighed up going back to get it immediately, or just ring around the next day to try and find the right person who may have picked it up. Either scenario wasn’t going to make me look too good. I opted for the first option.

By now, an hour had passed since I left the meeting. It was still going on, because of course it was. It’s one of the few times I was grateful that they like to talk for a very long time at parish council meetings.

I awkwardly crept back into the room, rolled my eyes and shook my head in a comical fashion to the councillors who were looking at me. I then picked up my bag and left the meeting for a second time.

I got a good story out of it, which is actually in my portfolio. I would have just preferred I could have covered meetings by watching Zoom all those years ago.

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Teeth

I actually did something different this week, I went to the dentist.

Admittedly, this isn’t the punchiest intro I’ve ever written. But I can only work with what I’ve got; and life under Covid is neatly summed up by the fact that a visit to the dentist felt like a refreshing break from the norm.

If you don’t like teeth, this probably isn’t the entry for you. And I mean specifically human teeth in a human mouth. Not like those fish you get in North America with human teeth. Or even the condition hyperdontia, where sometimes hundreds of teeth grow in a person’s mouth. Personally, I would rather be reading about those things. So I may write something about them in future. This is just about standard human teeth in the correct position and numbers. And specifically mine. I’m not even trying to boost the word count here, I’m just on a roll.

Anyway, I don’t go to the dentist very often. The last time I went was in April 2017, which was the morning after I’d driven back from a gig in Newcastle. As I had work the next day, the appointment was cunningly booked to give me extra time to sleep.

My teeth have always been in good condition and I only tend to go to the dentist if I think something’s wrong. And the most recent visit was booked as I was convinced that my gums were receding after I did some online diagnosis.

But I’ve learnt that it’s always better to get advice from an actual trained professional. I discovered this after I spent pretty much all of my teenage years genuinely convinced that I was dying of various terminal illnesses as a direct result of my own research and online diagnoses. Turns out, that was all a complete waste of time and worry.

Anyway, I learned from my latest dentist visit that there’s nothing much wrong with my teeth and I don’t need to go back for a year; thus vindicating my stance on dental appointments.

I am aware that this is something of an anti-climatic story and not particularly interesting. So never fear, I’ve got some more teeth history as a back-up. This is definitely the worst thing that has happened to my teeth. And no fish are involved.

In 2012, it was the Tuesday back to work after Easter Monday. I was living in Walthamstow at the time and about to begin the morning commute. I was about 20 metres away from the busy road I had to cross to get to the train station. I was still on the pedestrianised bit, when I saw the green man was on the traffic lights. So I decided to run before it changed. I stepped off the pavement to cross the road at pace and the next thing I know is I’m on the ground in front of a bus and have smashed my jaw on the road.

The traffic lights hadn’t changed. And I’m fairly convinced that I was hit by a cyclist who jumped the red light. But then logic would suggest that he would also have fallen off in the collision, or at least shouted something and I don’t remember any of this.

A couple of people helped me to my feet and I staggered back onto the pavement, leaning on a lamppost for support. I was feeling a little dazed and remember a lady telling me that I should go to the hospital. It felt as though something was wrong with my mouth and I could taste blood, but I told the lady that I was actually fine and would be going to work regardless. So I crossed the road and hopped on the next train to Liverpool Street.

Shortly into the journey, I started to feel dizzy and noticed something was wrong with my teeth and thought: “Actually, maybe I should go the hospital…”

I was working in Farringdon at the time, so went to St Bart’s Hospital. A nurse checked me over and I had some X-rays. I’d sheared off about a third of two front teeth and had minor chips to about eight others.

I couldn’t get a dentist appointment on the day, so went a day or so later. He did a quick repair job and booked a reconstructive procedure a couple of weeks later, which then made my mouth look close to normal again.

But a few months after this procedure, I woke up to find one of the caps he’d put on had come off and was resting on my tongue. I went back for another repair job. And all was fine until a couple of years later and the same cap was ripped off by some Soreen I was eating. I didn’t go back for a fourth repair job and dentists I’ve seen since have said it’s nothing to really worry about.

The dental work cost me about £50 and it was also meant that I no longer eat the destructive dental goodness that is Soreen.

The moral of the story: don’t ever run to be on time for work.