There Is No Greater Love

My birthday was yesterday, August 22.  There are a couple of things I really love about having a late-summer birthday.  For one thing, I share a birthday with Dorothy Parker (in my fantasy, we’d meet at the Algonquin and trade witty bons mots over martinis, but let’s be honest, she’d leave me in the dust before I’d even had my first sip).  For another, there’s an intrinsic languor about the last week of August.  Everybody knows that summer’s on its way out, but the air is still heavy and humid, and the pace of the city—of life, really—has slowed to a near crawl. There’s ample time for reflecting on the past year and thinking about what I want to accomplish in the year ahead.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

Wise words on a birthday card from a beloved friend.

As I am wont to do, I flipped through an old journal recently and came upon my birthday entry from last year.  As I read, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: my goals on last year’s birthday were exactly the same ones I’d just written down for this year.  Exactly the same. Either this meant I was extremely consistent in my quest for self-improvement, or (and this is much more likely) I had not come even close to becoming The Woman I Want To Be in the past year.

Over the course of my actual birthday, though, I experienced an avalanche of Facebook birthday greetings.  Many well-wishes came from friends, but lots of total strangers took a moment to send a birthday message—and isn’t that kind of lovely?  I also received several videos and voicemails from loved ones’ adorable children singing “Happy Birthday.”  Let me tell you, hearing kids under 5 try to pronounce “Hilary” is a one-way ticket to glee.  And my heart swelled when I received a birthday card in the mail from my 80-something grandmother, with a loving note and a $20 bill tucked inside, just like when I was a kid.

Later, I met up with a dear friend whose birthday falls the day before mine, and we ate cheap-but-delicious Israeli food at a teensy-tiny West Village spot, then headed to Mezzrow for an evening filled with exquisite music, bubbly Prosecco, and lots of kibitzing with an array of musician friends who happened to stop by.  As I looked around the club, I realized with amazed gratitude that I’ve spent a third of my life among jazz musicians in New York City.

My husband is, by nature, more reserved than I (he has no social media presence whatsoever, bless him!), so I will simply say that walking in the front door to find him waiting up for me—he’d worked a 12-hour day in the recording studio—was the best part of an already-fantastic day.  There truly is no greater love.

Sure, I’ll keep making lists of goals on my birthday.  The quest for self-improvement will continue.  But I am also mindful of this line from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which I recently read on a cross-country flight: “What if I was never redeemed?  What if I already was?”

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July: Looking back, looking ahead

It’s August!  The temperatures are hovering in the 90s every day, and the slight sunburn on my shoulders is a (slightly uncomfortable) reminder of yesterday’s picnic on Governor’s Island. Relaxing into August’s hot weather and slower pace feels right, especially after a very fun and very hectic July.

SeattleCollage

Scenes from Seattle. What an amazing trip: clear skies, dear friends, and lots of great music.

DUCHESS hit the road again last month.  We trekked out to the beautiful Emerald City of Seattle, my former stomping grounds, for a few days chock full of gigs, sunshine, and time with dear old friends.  We meandered through the Pike Place Market and drank local microbrews at a bar overlooking at Puget Sound.  We paid two visits to my favorite restaurant, Le Pichet, and sipped some rosé at David Butler’s chic downtown wine bar, Le Caviste.  We even kicked up our heels, with a post-gig after-party that included copious amounts of guacamole and a spontaneous dance-off.  Thanks in part to a fantastic write-up in the Seattle Times, our shows at Tula’s and PLU’s Jazz Under the Stars were sold out, so the trip was a resounding success.

A bit later in the month, DUCHESS debuted at Jazz at Lincoln Center, taking the stage at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for two nearly sold-out sets.  We also performed in Tarrytown, singing an outdoor show for the Sunset Jazz at Lyndhurst concert series.  It was the perfect way to close out our very busy summer; our next shows are in September, when we travel to California for the Monterey Jazz Festival and gigs in LA and the Bay Area.

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It’s always a kick in the pants to wind up in the New York Times.

In my solo singing life, I returned to Pompie’s Place for a couple of performances.  Ehud Asherie, the show’s pianist and musical director, has assembled a very swinging band, and it’s been fun singing solos and duets with vocalist Lezlie Harrison in this cabaret/theater hybrid.  The New York Times came out and wrote a great review, and we’ve got two more shows this month: August 7 and August 21.

A couple of interviews hit the airwaves last month: my appearance on Song Travels with Michael Feinstein aired on NPR, as well as my conversation with Judy Carmichael for Sirius XM’s Jazz Inspired. It’s always fun to talk about songs, singing, and life in the arts with kindred spirits, and both Michael and Judy are such thoughtful, generous hosts.

Looking ahead, August happens to be my birthday month, so I have a favor to ask: will you please take a moment, right now, to vote in the DownBeat Readers’ Poll and the HotHouse Jazz Awards?  You’ll find some familiar names in there, including (ahem) yours truly in DownBeat’s female vocalist category, as well as DUCHESS in several categories (both polls).

Things are a bit quieter on the gig front in the coming few weeks, so I intend to go to the beach, hear some live music, and surrender to the slower rhythms of the dog days of summer.

In July, I…
Blogged about: June.  Nature in the city.  Singer-friend Katy Bourne.

Watched:  Downtown theater.  My friend Jennifer Peterman and her writing partner, Tom Gualtieri, teamed up for a reading of some of their respective work to benefit Stage Left Studio, a performance space that had served as an incubator for developing works in New York City for ten years but which was closing due to the ever-escalating Manhattan rents.  In that spare, tiny theater, Jen and Tom brought characters to life—characters that they had created—and made us all laugh and cry with their honesty and humanity.

I also saw Melissa Ritz perform her one-woman show, Bombshell of Rhythm, about the 1930s female bandleader, Ina Ray Hutton.  She not only conceived and wrote the entire show, she sang, danced, and played multiple characters, commanding the stage for 75 minutes.  Melissa has performed Bombshell of Rhythm throughout the USA and, by sheer dint of her moxie and imagination, she has brought new life to a largely forgotten figure of American popular music.

This kind of open-hearted, grassroots storytelling is deeply moving to witness and, I believe, crucial to the creative soul of a city.  Sadly, in Manhattan, the skyrocketing rents are making it harder and harder for fledgling artists to do their work.  I implore all of us to go out and support new works in off-the-beaten-path venues.

Read:  The Music at Long Verney, by Sylvia Townsend Warner.  My friend Michael Steinman edited this collection of short stories, and I trust both his aesthetics and heart. Warner’s cool, reserved prose took a bit of time to get used to, but yielded rich rewards, like this gem:

“For though it was news to her that she had the soul of an artist, she accepted the revelation.  It isn’t what you do that matters; everyone has a right to earn a living, and fooling a wiling public is as good a way as any other.  They enjoy it, you enjoy it, everyone’s happy.  Where the soul of an artist comes in is when you won’t let the public fool you.”

Listened to:  Jackie Wilson.  I’ve been a fan of Mr. Excitement for many years; his rendition of “Danny Boy” is, for my money, one of the greatest vocal performances ever recorded in any genre, in any era. Pure greatness.

Spotlight On…Katy Bourne

For all its downsides (vitriolic political flame-wars, pseudoscience masquerading as fact, and getting tagged in embarrassing photos from high school, to name a few), Facebook can be a pretty cool place.  I’d never have funded my album without social media, and Facebook makes it easier than ever to keep in touch with people, whether they live right here in New York City or halfway across the world.

katy-background-2Katy Bourne, a Seattle-based vocalist and writer, is one such cyber-friend.  We have a number of mutual friends in Seattle’s jazz scene, but we got to know each other in the virtual realm of Facebook.  After corresponding online, Katy and I finally met in person last summer when I did a mini-tour in the Pacific NW.

There really is no substitute for actual face time (not FaceTime), but since Katy’s in Seattle and we’re all scattered hither and yon, we’ll convene here on this blog for a little conversation.  Thank you, Katy!

Who or what inspired you to pursue a life in music?
I grew up playing alto saxophone, but beyond the school marching band, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for a fledgling young sax player in my hometown of Ponca City, Oklahoma.  And nobody was spinning jazz for me, at least not when I was a kid.  As a teenager, I spent a fair amount of time with older kids—friends of my big sister’s.  They turned me on to many artists from a wide range of genres.  We listened to everything and went to a ton of shows (Some of my fondest memories are of sneaking into Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK with a fake I.D.).  It was during this time that I got hip to Pat Metheny, Tom Scott, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and other contemporary jazzers.  I didn’t discover many of the early greats, such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald, until college.

Vocationally-speaking, my focus has predominately been on writing over the years.  Although music was always a big part of my life, I had no inkling that I would end up singing jazz.  I got into singing a little by accident when I was asked to join a blues band here in Seattle.  I ended up singing with that group and a few others around town.  After one of those bands died a particularly nasty death, I decided to lick my musical wounds by studying jazz with the great vocalist Greta Matassa.  I was hooked instantly. It’s been a long road and, God knows, Greta deserves some kind of sainthood status for her patience with me.  I like to say that going from blues to jazz, for me, was like going from playing hockey to figure skating.  Finesse and refinement do not come naturally for a goober like me.  I’ve had to work hard.  I will always have to work hard.

In the course of your musical development, what has come most naturally to you? What has been the most challenging?
I think I assimilate rhythm pretty well and enjoy horsing around with different grooves and odd meters.  Being a writer helps my rhythmic sensibility.  Writing is rhythm.

The most challenging thing for me…and the thing I love the most…is scat singing.  Improvisation is a big, crazy adventure.  So many layers to navigate.  You not only have to have intelligent ideas but also the chops to execute.  I am a lifelong student.

If you were to choose another profession, what would it be, and why?
Dance and choreography.  I love to dance, both within the structure of a class or out on the dance floor.  For me, nothing is more blissful or liberating than the almighty get down.  I am happiest when I’m moving.  It’s visceral for me.  And it’s the ultimate tool for assimilating rhythm.  When I’m in my car, I listen to music and make up choreography in my head. (And frequently try out the choreography later, often in the kitchen.)  I’m completely infatuated with Les Twins.  To move like those guys….well, that would be the ultimate.

Another very desirable profession for me would be sports journalism.  I’m insane for football and I love to write.  Seems like a damn perfect marriage to me.  I actually haven’t ruled this out as potential pursuit in the future.  Stay tuned.

Imagine that you can hire any musicians (from the past or present) for the gig of a lifetime. Who is in your “dream band?”
OK, that’s an impossible question, and the answer would be different on any given day.  I can tell you this much: I’d love to sing tricked-out standards in a duo gig with Hiromi in a cocktail lounge in outer space; I’d love to mainline the wild spirit of Gene Krupa and unleash across the cosmos on the two and four; I’d love to float in the Zen-like elegance of Eddie Gomez, perhaps channeling Bill Evans along the way.  Closer to home, if I ever had the chance to work with Randy Porter, I would die a happy woman.

bourne_fates_cdWhat’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, on or off the bandstand?
To always turn back to the music.  No matter what is going on during a gig—weirdness with the room or the crowd, sound problems, conflict with someone on the bandstand, whatever—ALWAYS turn back to the music.  In essence, get yourself (and your ears) back to the present moment.  That’s where everything is happening.  Listen.

What are your current musical obsessions? Who/what is in steady rotation when you listen to music lately?
Industrial Revelation has been dominating the iPod this summer.  Those guys are on another level.  I’ve also been revisiting many of the artists that I grew up with such as The Who (as well as Pete Townshend’s solo recordings), Hall & Oates, and Todd Rundgren.  I just saw Todd at the Crocodile in June, and the cat still completely has it.

Fun Fact…
I have a tattoo of a guy shoving a fork into a toaster.

You can read some of Katy’s writing on her blog, and if you’re in the Pacific NW, she’ll be appearing at North City Bistro on August 6 with pianist Darin Clendenin.  Her album, As the Fates Decide, is available on PonyBoy Records.

Nature Girl?

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Clearly having a blast camping.

I read once that green was Duke Ellington’s least favorite color, because green, being the color of grass, reminded him of bucolic landscapes.  As an inveterate city-lover, the Duke preferred pavement.  I have no idea if that anecdote is true or not (and I happen to like the color green), but, like Duke, I’ve never really been one for country life.  I mean, just look at this picture from my teen years, taken during a salmon-fishing camping trip in Alaska.  The aquamarine waters of the Kenai River flowed just outside our camper door, and there wasn’t a glimmer of modern civilization for miles.  Don’t I look thrilled?

This summer, however, my happiest moments have been spent communing with nature…in distinctly urban surroundings, mind you.  There’s a unique beauty to green spaces that are cultivated with the express purpose of providing a respite from the din of the city.  Here, then, are a few places and experiences that promise even the most citified among us a moment of peace amid New York’s clatter and thrum.

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Okay, yes, I’ve started with the most obvious.  But sometimes it’s good to remember that we can be tourists in our own city.  Thanks to the largesse (and connections) of a good friend, I had the indescribable pleasure of attending Shakespeare in the Park (The Tempest) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park last month WITHOUT LINING UP FOR TICKETS AT 6 A.M., and I was literally speechless when the play ended.  The brilliance and power of Shakespeare’s poetry, combined with the changing colors of the night sky over Manhattan, fireflies twinkling overhead, and summer breezes wafting through the trees made for an unforgettable evening.

On another occasion, E. and I made an impromptu decision to spend an entire day wandering through our favorite parts of Central Park.  For me, that meant a trip to the reservoir and the northeast corner of the park, especially the Conservatory Gardens.  E., a native New Yorker, led us to Sheep’s Meadow for a sweet hour of people-watching and nostalgia. IMG_2905

Brooklyn Botanic Garden IMG_2930
Each spring, I make it a point to visit the BBG when the lilacs bloom.  Ranging from the whitest white to the deepest purple, the BBG boasts a vast array of lilacs.  I always look forward to joining my fellow winter-weary Brooklynites, as we bury our faces in the blossoms, breathing deeply the lilacs’ heady fragrance and the promise of summer.  This year, though, I (finally!) discovered that the BBG is free to the public every Tuesday, and I’ve taken to strolling through the gardens whenever weather and schedule permit.  A recent highlight was the moody, overcast afternoon I spent wandering through the riotously-in-bloom rose garden.

Tuesday Moon Bath Yoga and Pranayam: Evening Outdoor Yoga in Fort Greene Park
Okay, you guys, this is HANDS DOWN the most Brooklyn/Portlandia thing I’ve ever done, and you know what?  IT’S AWESOME.  While CrossFit die-hards grunt and pant nearby, we serenely stretch, chant, and breathe deeply as the sun sets over Brooklyn.  Kathryn is my favorite yoga teacher: smart and spiritual, without ever veering into the realm of preachiness or “woo.”  She teaches this by-donation class every Tuesday throughout the summer, and if you’re in the neighborhood, you should come.  You’ll leave feeling calm and rejuvenated. Yoga Collage Now that we’re in the middle of a heat wave, of course, I’ve got (air-conditioned) museums on my mind—the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series at MoMA, the Sargent exhibit at the Met, and the Sinatra retrospective at the Performing Arts Library—but that’ll be another post. What are your favorite verdant urban retreats?

June: Looking back, looking ahead

A riot of June roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

A riot of June roses at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

There’s been a rather conspicuous lack of blogging activity from yours truly as of late. The first few weeks of June were quite sedate, and I definitely had time to do some writing.  But I was busy being…well, not busy.  It was divine.

In early June, E. and I spent a languid Sunday strolling throughout the entirety of Central Park after brunch with friends on the Upper West Side.  An ordinary Tuesday was transformed into a memorable one when I paid a solo visit to the exuberantly blooming rose garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  We also celebrated E.’s birthday (twice!) with pizza at Lucali one evening and steaks at Peter Luger a couple of nights later.  Happily, I also recommenced running and made it a point to get to yoga class more often, too.  The combination of sunny days, great food, and exercise made for a fabulous start to my summer.

Sunset yoga in Ft. Greene Park

Sunset yoga in Ft. Greene Park

It’s a good thing I had some time off to rest and rejuvenate, because the last week of June kicked off the first installment of the DUCHESS summer tour.  From Ottawa to Boston to Toronto to Rochester to Saratoga, we logged hundreds of miles, laughed hundreds of laughs, did lots of interviews and a national television appearance on Canada AM, saw a couple of amazing shows (the Roots and John Pizzarelli), and lip-synched for a good cause. You can read about our adventures in more detail and see some fun photos on the DUCHESS blog.

Looking ahead, I’m gearing up for more travel. I’m heading to Cooperstown with Harry Allen this weekend for a concert celebrating the Great American Songbook.  Then, DUCHESS is traveling to the west coast mid-month for a few shows in Washington.  My Song Travels with Michael Feinstein interview will be airing on NPR this month, too, as will my appearance on Judy Carmichael’s Sirius XM show, Jazz Inspired.  I’m looking forward to more road trips, more laughs, and lots more music.

In June, I…
Blogged about: May.  DUCHESS: On the road again!

Watched: The Tempest.  I had never attended a Shakespeare in the Park performance, and I was utterly unprepared for the emotional impact of Shakespeare’s meditation on forgiveness and redemption.  The beauty and rhythm of the poetry was made all the more magical by the lushness of Central Park, the changing colors of the night sky, and the lazy fireflies floating in the air above us.  It was, quite simply, one of the most thrilling artistic experiences of my life.

Read: The Dream Lover, by Elizabeth Berg.  A meticulously researched fictional portrait of the life of George Sand.  Full disclosure?  I found this book pretty slow going, but it made me curious to read some writing by Sand herself.

Listened to: Slow New York and Sunday Morning In Saturday’s Shoes, Richard Julian.  Time for Two, Michael Franks.  Spending long hours in the car last month provided the perfect opportunity to savor the wry irony and tenderness of these two masterful songwriters.

A sunny Sunday in Central Park

A sunny Sunday in Central Park

Scenes from Shakespeare in the Park on a balmy June night

Scenes from Shakespeare in the Park on a balmy June night.

May: Looking back, looking ahead

My heart is full and my head is still spinning from a magical few days spent in the Crescent City. I visited New Orleans for the first time back in October, when DUCHESS performed at Snug Harbor and the Boswell Sisters Revue.  To put it mildly, the city got under my skin in a big way, so when E. and I were deciding where we’d like to go for our first real vacation in several years, we immediately chose New Orleans.  The trip was pure pleasure, with every day spent eating and drinking (oh, how we ate and drank), walking through various neighborhoods, and delighting in incredible music literally around every corner.

Jackson Square under moody skies.

Jackson Square under moody skies.

I fell completely under the spell of JoAnn Clevenger, the septuagenarian proprietress of Upperline, a restaurant that will forever be New Orleans to me, both in spirit and cuisine.  E. kibitzed with Debbie Lindsay, who co-owns Kitchen Witch, a vintage cookbook store (!) in the French Quarter.  Debbie told E. stories about Cosimo Matassa and Allen Toussaint while ringing E. up for a mint-condition Ray Charles box set—because of course Kitchen Witch also sells CDs and vinyl. And late one night at the Spotted Cat, I caught up with an old friend and native New Orleanian, Kevin Louis, swinging out on trumpet and vocals with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers.

One day, we joined a throng of over a thousand people in a second line for a young NOLA musician who had passed away recently; we walked through Tremé surrounded by music that grooved so profoundly that I can only describe it as the sound of life itself.  We visited a little antique shop in the Faubourg-Marigny where E. bought me some costume jewelry from the 1950s and the shop owner told us that next time we visited, he’d have us over to his home, where he keeps the really good stuff.  We drank Sazeracs in a leafy garden at twilight, gaped at the splendor of the Garden District, and got goosebumps at a drum circle in Congo Square, the birthplace of virtually all American music.  There’s so much I want to tell you, and I suspect a more in-depth, focused blog post will be forthcoming.  For now, though, this little photo travelogue will have to suffice.

Looking ahead, I’m getting ready to hit the road with DUCHESS.  We’ve got quite a busy touring schedule this summer, and we’re heading out of town in just a couple of weeks.  DUCHESS’ June calendar contains performances at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, Regattabar in Boston, the Toronto Jazz Festival, the Rochester Jazz Festival, and the Saratoga Jazz Festival; you can check out our complete gig schedule on our website.

In May I…
Blogged about: April.  Singer-Friend Wendy Gilles.  Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green.

Watched: The Mad Men series finale.  I’ll miss the fashion, the martinis, and (most of all) Roger Sterling’s classic quips.

Read: Mostly NOLA guidebooks, to prep for our trip.

Listened to: The Peaceful Side, Billy Strayhorn.  A rare recording of Strayhorn at the piano, playing his own compositions.  Some tracks feature the addition of a string quartet and vocals by the Paris Blue Notes.  Strayhorn’s arrangements—especially the vocals—are beautiful and strikingly modern.  WWOZ, 90.7 FM.  The marvel of modern technology allows me to wake up to the sound of New Orleans right here in Brooklyn.

NOLA B&B

Clockwise from bottom left: our NOLA B&B served sweet potato-bacon-bourbon bread pudding for breakfast; the garden at our B&B; deciding the day’s itinerary.

NOLA CongoSquare

Scenes from Congo Square, right across the street from our B&B.

NOLA Food

Creole tacos, beignets, muffalettas, and lots of cocktails…NOLA is, without question, my kind of town!

Foodie Tuesday: Spring Green

IMG_2447After a long, dark winter, the lush unfurling of springtime is a benediction.  The regeneration of the natural world is energizing and inspiring, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the intense “circle-of-life” reflection that the season can bring, spring finds me wanting to lighten up. Culinarily speaking, I crave brightness and simplicity, which can be easily found in spring produce: baby asparagus, fava beans, and new peas, to be precise, all of which have made appearances on our dinner table in recent weeks.

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the culinary section of a used bookstore in DUMBO when I chanced upon Amarcord, a memoir by Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking.  Hazan’s forthright description of springtime vignarola is proof positive that Italians are unparalleled when it comes to showcasing the intrinsic glories of seasonal produce.

You must be there at just the one moment in the spring when baby fava beans, small rosebud artichokes, and very small peas, all at the same early stage of development, appear in the market at the identical time.  If it should last more than two weeks, it is a lucky year; a month, a prodigy.  You also need some cipollotti, young onions, and a small head of romaine lettuce.  The onion is sliced and cooked in olive oil until it is very soft.  You add the lettuce, the trimmed artichokes, the shelled beans and peas, and cook.  The vegetables are so young that it doesn’t take very long.  When done, it doesn’t look very presentable.  It is a dark, mushy mass that you might think a careless cook had produced.  But when you take a mouthful, it is as though spring itself in all its tenderness has been delivered in edible form.

Fava beans team up with asparagus in another quintessentially springtime preparation, which is so simple that it can scarcely be called a “recipe.”  I’ve prepared this salad as a side dish, but tossed with pieces of gently poached chicken breast or topped with a broiled salmon fillet (in which case I’d omit the cheese), it can easily serve as the main event.

Spring Salad (adapted from Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, by Sophie Dahl)

  • 1 bunch of young asparagus
  • 1 cup of cooked fresh fava beans (blanch and remove outer skins) 
  • generous handful of chopped mint
  • 1/2 cup of shaved pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • extra virgin olive oil, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • squeeze of lemon (optional)

Steam or boil the asparagus until the spears are just tender—they should retain a bit of firmness.  Shock the asparagus in an ice bath and chop into 2″ pieces.  Toss the asparagus and the fava beans in a couple of tablespoons of grassy extra virgin olive oil, along with the mint and cheese, then add salt and pepper to taste.  For extra brightness, finish with a squeeze of lemon juice.

Here in New York City, outdoor space can be tough to come by, and few of us are able to eat what we’ve grown ourselves.  Happily, farmer’s markets abound, bringing the verdant freshness of spring vegetables within reach.  This time of year, it is easy bein’ green.

Veg Collage