The 5 Best Documentaries I’ve Seen on Netflix So Far (That You’ve Likely Never Heard Of)

Top 5 Nextflix Doc Worth Watching ATG FINAL

My love of cinema stems wide and deep. It’s why I went to film school and made the even crazier, very cliché LA choice to pursue a career in media focusing on storytelling. Though I’m a devotee to narratives of all kinds, I don’t think there’s a genre I’m more fond of than the simplicity of a well-made documentary film. I suppose it’s because it embodies what I think makes this particular aspect of cinema a force unlike any other – and that’s the synergy that comes from telling a story rooted in and based on reality, fused with the artistic ability to capture that moment in time through one of the most powerful mediums ever created.

Ever since I moved into my own place about two and a half years ago now, I never made the leap back to subscribing to cable again (crazy, right?). Instead, I joined Netflix streaming and never looked backed. What has to be the best thing about Netflix, other than the $7.99/month access to thousands of titles, has to be the ability to catch more obscure, independent films and lesser known documentaries.

I can’t tell you how many films and TV shows (read: my current addiction to Scandal) I’ve taken in since my ongoing relationship with Netflix, but there’s plenty worth checking out if you find yourself home on a Saturday night with nothing else to do. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get caught in the trap of sifting through all the titles that I become so overwhelmed and can’t decide what to watch, only to turn it off and grab a book instead.

I’m here to help! If you’re looking for something life-affirming, eye-opening, inspiring, or just plain entertaining. I’ve got you covered on the documentary front. Sadly, what would have made this list as one of my absolute favorite Netflix finds, 65_Red Roses, is no longer streaming, but it would be here without question. I encourage you to see it if you can.

With that, here are the 5 best documentaries I’ve seen (so far) currently streaming on Netflix that you’ve probably never heard of. Your Saturday night programming dilemma, is solved.

If you’re in the mood for a real-life psychological thriller…

11164313_detTania Head says she was inside The World Trade Center the day of the tragic 9/11 attacks. She shares in vivid detail how she got to safety after the plane struck the building, and how unfortunately, her husband didn’t make it out. In an effort to build community with other 9/11 survivors to deal with their grief and give back, Tania helps found and soon becomes President of The World Trade Center Survivor’s Network which makes her a prominent figure in the press and within the community. One small problem though, it’s an intricate web of lies. Tania’s name really isn’t Tania. There’s no record of her ever being married. In fact, we find out that Tania was nowhere near The World Trade Center on 9/11. She was on the other side of the world. Told in uniquely visual manner, The Woman Who Wasn’t There, mysteriously unfolds as it delves into the mindset of a living sociopath and how those she fooled for years finally caught on to her scheme. How could one woman deceive everyone for so long? You’d have to see it to believe it. This is a real-life psychological thriller if there ever was one.

If you’re in the mood for something moving, yet life-affirming…11167652_det

Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home feelingly follows those who have built a community within the complexities of homelessness. Filmed on Skid Row, which holds Los Angeles’ largest homeless population, this story shares not only the lives of those who’ve made a home on Skid Row and what might have brought them there, but those who have bonded together in the midst of it. Yes, it’s a portrait of life with little means, but more importantly, a story about human connection no matter the circumstances. There’s such humanity to this film, though it shares the most unfortunate of situations, there’s a level of affirmation to it that drives home the resilience of the human spirit.

If you’re in the mood for a night with the supernatural…

11169590_detMy Amityville Horror goes behind the various Hollywood re-makes of the infamous Amityville haunting and catches up with the little boy who lived the real-life horror himself almost 40 years ago. That little boy, Daniel Lutz, now an adult, shares his chilling and life-altering account of personally living among supernatural forces. Whether you believe the story or not, you walk away believing that Daniel truly did and still does. What is now a source of entertainment over a tub of popcorn at the movies for us, seemingly caused permanent psychological damage to him. An entertaining and eerie look at when reality and the celestial collide. Don’t watch this alone.

If you’re in the mood to know what’s likely to become the next biggest social issue of our time…

11171866_detAccording to the eye-opening and infuriating 2013 documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, big brother is alive and well. This film succinctly sheds light on what is sure to become the next biggest social issue as our lives become more and more digital, and that dear readers, is your privacy. All of those “accept’ buttons you simply check under the “terms” section of a website to be able to swiftly maneuver to the next screen on-line, is costing you more than you know. Add in the use of social media, web browsing, which email service you use, and cell phone tracking, and we’ve all but somehow given our privacy away. Every single human being who uses the internet or takes a phone call needs to see this film. Perhaps you’ll actually read the “Terms and Conditions” sections before you mindlessly “accept” them moving forward. Apparently, we’re all being watched thanks to our devotion to the internet and our “smart” phones.

If you’re in the mood for something to get you inspired to make a change…11164631_det

Vegucated follows three meat-loving New Yorkers who take on the 6 week challenge to adopt a vegan lifestyle. I was actually inspired to write about this film after I saw it last year. You can read my full review here.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Let me know your thoughts if you happen to catch any of these. If there’s something you’ve seen that’s not on my list, I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Until then, happy streaming!

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*images sourced from Rottentomatoes.com.

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2013 Best in Cinema: The Documentary

If there were only one film genre left in the world and I had to choose what that would be, what I would spend all of my time consuming if every other form of filmmaking were to vanish – it would unquestionably be the documentary film. The admissible voyeurism of spending time with real-life characters in situations that span every subject matter imaginable, where you truly get inside someone else’s world for a substantial amount of time, appeals to the very essence of me. This is largely because documentaries satiate core traits of my personality – the need to always be learning, experiencing, or exploring something new – that allots for analysis, critical thinking, visual expression and entertainment. It is in hearing other’s stories, struggles, triumphs, and sometimes even ongoing battles without resolution as the film credits roll; that often find me leaving the theater questioning society, life, and myself. In many ways, documentaries challenge us through avenues that fictional features simply cannot. They are rooted in reality and because of it, there’s no real escape.

Here are my top 5 feature film length documentaries of 2013:

5. stories we tell

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This film will resonate with anyone who has family drama, family secrets and elusive family myths. And what living, breathing person doesn’t? Stories We Tell is an intimate portrait of a woman trying to understand her mother’s past and the identity of her biological father once she learns of her mother’s extramarital affair. What director Sarah Polley does so well through sharing her personal story, is by creating an inviting space for those inside the narrative, and those outside who are merely observers in their seats. What likely was a difficult subject matter to document through the participation of actual family members and friends, comes across as authentic. We can genuinely feel the chemistry and emotion of the on-camera storytelling accounts, because Polley maintains a sense of nostalgia all the way through. Not only in how she got her interviewees to open about times past, but by virtue of how she gives life to her mother’s presence through Super 8 home video style footage. Though I later learned that these are “home video re-creations” using an actress (I somehow missed that at the time), their placement still isn’t distracting from the narrative. In fact, it has the opposite effect for the viewer. You feel as though you are gaining access. This invitation, along with whatever tough conversations Polley had, not only to convince much of her family to trust her as an artist to participate, but to trust herself enough to know that delicate line when airing dirty laundry, innately demands an honest intimacy all around to be effective. Admittedly at the time, I thought the film was just “okay” – who doesn’t have family secrets to uncover? Why should we care about this particular story? Though as I look back on it now, I applaud Sarah Polley for boldly making this film. I can’t say that I would have. The complexities of any family’s myths and digging around in forbidden territory, could lead to greater family disconnect, rather than uncovering the truth and bringing closure. The risk seemingly pays off for Polley, both artistically and personally.

4. a place at the table

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What I take for granted walking into any grocery store in Los Angeles, California is a luxury for many areas in this country. The United States of America, the most powerful and wealthiest country in the world, is suffering from food insecurity and hunger. To this day, A Place at the Table is a film I think of often as I walk the produce aisle in the market buying fresh fruits and vegetables. I was so moved, upset, and saddened by this film, that I dedicated an entire post to it in early 2013. Please see my full review and thoughts just after seeing this incredibly eye-opening film here. America, we have a problem.

3. inequality for all

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You have to admit, it’s pretty genius to have a self-described (and charmingly comfortable with it) “little person,” challenging “the big man” – sharing such a wealth of information about the state of the american economy and how we created a complete mess of it with fervor, intellect, and humor. Inequality for All follows former U.S. Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, as he raises awareness about a huge elephant in the room that seems to be gaining weight with every passing year. How is it that the rich keep getting richer; and the poor, getting poorer? Told in such a way that even those who flunked Econ would understand, without dumbing it down either, Reich effectively explains how the american economy got into the chaos it’s currently in and what we can do to lessen the gap of  income inequality. In fact, Democracy itself is at stake as we see the very essence of politics being funded by top 1% of the wealthy – where politicians and platforms are largely driven with the sole agenda to protect the wealthiest of the wealthy, and holding the 99% in a constant cycle of playing financial catch-up. Reich’s message is simple, this imbalance will continue to lead to more harm than good for the american economy and the remnants of what was the American Dream is rapidly fizzing into, if not already, the unattainable. A must see for every American aspiring to that white picket fence, 2.5 children, and comfortable savings account ideal. According to this film, the only sure way to wealth in America is be born into it. Rags to riches stories are far and few in between.

2. 20 feet from stardom

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Dreams lost, dreams found, dreams re-dreamed. 20 Feet From Stardom invitingly follows the unknown icons of the music industry. Those whose words we know better than the actual verse to a pop song because it’s the chorus that often sticks with us. And while it’s their lyrics and voices that melodically repeat in our heads when incessantly humming a tune, the spotlight is far from their reach. They are the background singers. They are literally steps away from the superstar, and are oftentimes more musically apt and vocally talented than the person at center stage. This touching documentary examines that 20 foot barrier that is nearly impossible to overcome. It takes a look into the lives of veteran and working background singers, whose only dream was and is the spotlight and their struggle to get there. What makes someone a star? As I walked away from this experience, I concluded that in many cases – almost all cases – simply having talent isn’t the answer. 

1. american promise

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American Promise is not only my favorite documentary of 2013, but will remain among my favorites in this lifetime. What Hoop Dreams did for the sport, American Promise does for education. It heroically follows the lives of two then 5 year-old boys as they embark upon what is considered a disadvantage in their academic careers: being born African-American and male. The film chronicles 13 years of triumphs and failures as each boy navigates an educational system designed to quickly weed out the weaker students, while building up the stronger ones with promises that if they can survive, any college of their choice is available to them. Part experiment, part video diary, American Promise serves as a series of sections from a “day in the life” of Idris and Seun, who both start out on an equal playing field by enrolling in one of the best (and most expensive) preparatory schools in New York. What happens as one continues with a rigorous prep school curriculum, while the other eventually moves to a public school system to finish out his education? The results were pretty eye-opening and admittedly both surprising and somewhat disappointing after you’ve invested in Idris and Seun’s worlds, cheering them on, simply expecting different outcomes. The years of struggles in grades k-12 for the opportunity to apply to the top-tier universities in the country, but finding perhaps that prep school may not be as pivotal as one might think to garner a seat at an Ivy League University after years of hard work, the film opens a much-needed discussion on how and where to educate future generations. One question I keep coming to as I think about this film is does the expenditure of private schools really make a difference when it comes to higher education? Can a public school train its students to have the same level of academic discipline as a private school? If American Promise isn’t a wake-up call about the state of our educational system from kindergarten all the way to higher education, about how we measure intellect, and the seemingly growing competitive pressure to always perform high under the guise that it ensures your chances at a bright future, I don’t know what is. The commitment of documenting a rather taboo, overlooked subject matter; coupled with the passion and pressure involved in seeking a good education, while highlighting the influence of parental guidance during these formative years, complete with the simple pit-falls of life along the way, American Promise portrays what has to be one of the most compelling and conversation-provoking documentaries I’ve ever seen.


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Highlights

This week has been pretty high and low for me. Things have been going very well at work. I had an amazing performance review a few days ago and feel like I’ve gotten to a place professionally where I’ve worked my booty off enough to prove I’m ready to take it up a notch and my boss is in complete support of that. Yay!

However, physically I’ve been extremely lethargic. I just haven’t had any energy lately. Simply put, I’ve been dragging. Headaches keep coming and going, my allergies are insane thanks to all the pollen in the air, and I wake up tired most mornings. No bueno. So I’ve been spending the last few days trying to figure out what’s off balance with myself and my life lately that’s causing this prolonged fatigue.

Well, I try to get to bed at a decent time and usually get my 8 hours. Admittedly though, I’m the lightest sleeper ever. Every noise wakes me up and there are times I’ll wake up 3 times in the middle the night – but this hasn’t been too much of an issue lately. I make a good effort to eat well, though there’s always room for improvement. And off the bat, I’ll admit where I have been the absolute worst is in my exercise habits lately. Outside of my yoga classes, I know I should be doing more cardio. I try not to stress myself out too much, but this is a weaker area for me and my perfectionist disposition. I drink plenty of water, but something that I stopped doing that seems to make a difference is taking vitamins. This has been my train of thinking on the issue.

So I did what any normal person would do and Google’d it. 🙂

I read WebMD’s Top 10 Ways to Boost Your Energy and instantly found areas where I have been having no-no behavior (like skipping meals). 😦

So the long holiday weekend will be spent resetting some my behaviors to work on my energy levels; seeing the most anticipated summer blockbuster on my list, Fast 6 (no laughing!), and getting some errands done. I hope you all have a relaxing and fun-filled Memorial Day weekend! xx

Here are some of my week’s highlights:

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{ Mindy Kaling’s book has been making life a bit funnier.}

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{Seeing Sarah Polley’s New Documentary, Stories We Tell.}

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{New changes coming on my blog. Doing a little research first.}

Highlights

As I think about the last 7 days, I think about how all over the place it’s been emotionally. I’ve been enjoying the residuals of a good spring cleaning, yoga was a much-needed hour and a half of “me time” this past Tuesday, and I’m still thinking often of our friends in Boston and worldwide.

A few ordinary nights were spent exploring what’s new in cinema. I saw Robert Redford’s film, The Company You Keep (wait for Netflix on this one); and a new documentary, No Place On Earth, capturing the story of the Stermer family’s struggle to hide underground during World War II in a calculated effort to elude the Nazis. It’s a pretty amazing story. I didn’t particularly care of the use of re-enactments, but then again, I suppose there was no other way to tell such an incredible journey of living in a cave for a year and a half.

The good news? It’s going to be gorge this weekend in L.A.! Looking forward to a relaxing and fun-filled 2 days. I’m kicking it off by meeting a friend tonight for dinner at one my favorite places to indulge in. A visit to the farmers’ market Sunday morning is definitely in order, and I’m excited to start a new book. I’m going to keep it light this time with Rachel Bertsche’s memoir, WMF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend. I’ll let you know how it is.

Have a great weekend!

Vegucated

An interesting subject matter, a clever title, and a lazy Sunday morning perusing Netflix lead me to Marisa Miller Wolfson’s documentary, Vegucated. The film explores the ins and outs of transitioning from a meat-eating diet to a vegan lifestyle. Three New Yorkers take on a 6 week challenge to get “vegucated” – learning what it means to be vegan from physiological, ecological, and ethical standpoints.

It’s obvious moments into the film that high-end production equipment nor a large budget were factors in telling the journey’s of Tesla, Brian, and Ellen; the subjects selected to engage in a new vegan way of life. The ease and access of digital film making are appropriately used given the parameters of the challenge, though were distracting at times. In essence, while not absolutely necessary when the goal is to educate, the look to the film was somewhat uninspiring. I’m sure this was intentional and in line with Wolfson’s vision to state the facts and tell the story through a guerrilla-style technique. I suppose this is merely my creative perspective – but when following subjects around the fast-paced New York City streets, more of a polished and stylized film might have worked better for my taste.

When approaching the content, the film does what any “food themed” documentary film would do when trying to persuade its viewers toward a new perception: shed light on why this perception is better; share how relatively easy it is to incorporate change; and then beat us over the head with visuals, a few statistics, and graphics to support this new way of thinking and why common practice is wrong. In this case, Vegucated did a nice job of keeping my interest. It did lack some concrete nutritional information, such as how the body responds when that type of protein is suddenly removed from your diet; and it seemingly glazed over how difficult transitioning would be for the typical American other than Tesla’s struggle, where they simply instruct her to try going “vegetarian” as an option. Not bad advice, but I’m surprised there wasn’t a real breakdown of any of our subjects shown on-camera. You’re essentially asking someone to give up a lifestyle that took 20, 30 or even 40 years to develop.

Where the film does excel, and is a common gimmick used when trying to be persuasive about meat-eating diet changes, is spending quite a bit of time highlighting the horrific practices of slaughter houses and exposing the harsh daily treatment of animals in general. (As such, I strongly suggest not eating during the film.) Of course, visuals of baby chicks being thrown alive into grinders, cows being shot through the head with a bolt gun, and watching a pig being killed and then skinned would be the strongest means to get your message across.

What I found confusing and therefore weakened the premise of the film – which I understood was to get people to see how you’re supporting the betterment of the planet, animal-kind, and yourself by adopting a vegan lifestyle – Wolfson oftentimes brings up vegetarianism. By all means, this is still an excellent option that one can explore if veganism is too extreme, but I fail to understand how you can shed light on both diet forms if your core belief is to save animals from harsh treatment? One should not eat meat because of the slaughter practices, but it’s acceptable to drink milk even after it was just shown how exploited female cows are to produce it? While certainly linked in many aspects, being a vegetarian and a vegan are two completely different practices.

At the end of the film, she highlights many famous vegans, “mostly” vegans, and vegetarians from Susan B. Anthony, to Gandhi, to Rosa Parks, to everyday people. What eventually strengthened her approach by intertwining vegetarianism and veganism, was a short line that stated “you don’t have to be an activist or famous to make a difference.” From this I gathered that the point is to make some sort of contribution, at whatever level you’re comfortable with.

In the end, what Wolfson did for me as a viewer is what I believe her intention was in creating Vegucated: to get you to think about your place in the world relative to your dietary choices. In this, she succeeded. I have a largely chicken-based diet. I like a good burger or slice of bacon here and there, but do consciously work to maintain a healthy plant based diet. This isn’t a huge struggle because I actually LOVE vegetables. I don’t see myself becoming a hardcore vegan anytime soon, but the film has inspired me to incorporate more of its practices into my daily life. As of writing this post, I’m still thinking about what that means for me.

If you find yourself home on a lazy Sunday morning, check out Vegucated (available on Netflix) and let me know what you think…

{Trailer}.

WAR / Photography

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Location: 2000 Avenue of the Stars #1000, Century City

I walked into this exhibition expecting at the very least to be emotionally challenged when coming face-to-face with the realities of war violence in a very direct and visually compelling way; to see a side of photography that I have never personally explored outside the occasional graphic or heart wrenching photo released in the media.

WAR/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath is the newest exhibition at The Annenberg Space for Photography that examines the imagery of war and its consequences. 75 photographers whose lenses have captured war as early as the Mexican American War in 1847 to the Libyan Civil War that ended in late 2011 are profiled.

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What I appreciated about this moving experience, was the structure in telling the narrative. Rather than displaying photos together by specific wars, the curators opted to tell the story of conflict, collectively, as an arc. As such, the presentation begins with the advent of combat, disclosing images that illustrate the exact moment that provokes a war; to memorials and remembrance, sharing the aftermath of destruction, death, and survival. Between these concrete bookends of beginning and end, the show spends time forming a powerful narrative arc by navigating areas such as: recruitment, rescue, the fight, daily life, post-traumatic stress disorder, medicine/triage, prisoners of war, refugees, impact on children, how faith/religion are handled, and even burial procedures among many other dynamic themes.

One of the first questions that came into my mind when I was first introduced to WAR/Photography, was why? Why do these photojournalists put their lives and mental well-being on the line to capture an image during live combat? Do we really need such graphic and melancholy pictures to know that war and violence is inherently bad? This is not to disrespect those who do choose to pursue the honorable career of war/military photography and have died in the process or any subject highlighted in the photos, but merely an honest thought that crossed my mind when approaching the content. I found my answer when watching the 30 minute short documentary complimenting the exhibition that loops in the main gallery space. When one photojournalist said that his aim was to “personalize war”  in an effort to “mature society” a light bulb went off in my head. The point, of course, is not only to document what’s happening (this I knew); but to visually humanize faces, names, family members, lives, cities, countries, people. This makes absolute sense to me. It’s a raw portrait of humanity.

Luckily, I watched the documentary before roaming the gallery. Having understood this fundamental observation for war photography straight from their mouths, I looked at the images in front of me with new eyes. Not to say that I wouldn’t have understood, appreciated, and respected the exhibition and its message without this explanation from the video; but I think getting to know some of the people behind the pictures and their purpose for risking their lives (and almost certain PTSD diagnosis) after having lived through such an ordeal for their mission to capture the story was inspiring.

I don’t know if it’s because it was the first set of photographs exhibited or perhaps because it’s still such a vivid memory in my lifetime as an American; but the 4 part picture series of the second plane heading toward the World Trade Center on 9/11, the North tower already in flames, capturing the exact moment that lead to the on-going War in Afghanistan, affected me immediately and set the tone for what would be a heavy experience as I made my way through the gallery.

I encourage you to see this exhibition. Beware, it’s graphic in nature – but an experience unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s disturbing, it’s infuriating, it’s moving, it’s humanizing. The exhibition runs until June 2nd.


{A trailer for the documentary complimenting the exhibition is below.}

Highlights

My life has been filled with so many stories and so much storytelling this week. Aside from the amazing Stanley Kubrick exhibition that I saw recently, I’ve been immersed in three other narratives that have not only entertained, but brought out my deeply contemplative personality.

I‘ve been delving into “The Up Series,” a documentary that checks in with a group of British people once every seven years (beginning at age 7). I’m just now catching up on the other parts of the series in order to see the most recent installment at age 56. Meanwhile, any time I’ve spent sitting in traffic has been accompanied by an audio book, Iyanla Vanzant’s autobiography “Peace From Broken Pieces.” I’ve been on such an emotional roller coaster listening to her story and it’s made me really stop and think about my own life and how my experiences have shaped how I now am as an adult. And finally, because I love a good fiction read to satisfy my imaginative side, I’ve been spending lots of down time absorbed into Stephenie Meyer’s, “The Host.” I’m halfway through and should make it just in time for the film’s release next weekend. 

Interestingly, as I absorbed these narratives this week – ranging from autobiographical to purely science fictional, they all somehow intertwine in theme. What I’m learning is that it’s amazing how we grow and change, yet remain the same at our core. As a result, it’s those  demons we struggle with as we move about our day-to-day because of those established core characteristics.

While I spent a lot of time engaged in stories, I managed to come up for air to have a very productive week. Taxes are done, I took a more challenging yoga class (for which I’m now feeling the sore effects), my goal to incorporate more fresh fruits and veggies into my diet is going well, and a few spring inspired happenings paid off in small ways.

Have a great weekend.

This week’s highlights…


SIP| coffee & milk

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Prior to checking out the Stanley Kubrick exhibition, it was a nice treat to grab an iced mocha from the LACMA’s on-campus coffee shop, Coffee & Milk, and sit outside in the sunshine for awhile. I had my reservations about the place when I was told they don’t offer vanilla/flavored syrup so as to “not affect the flavor of the coffee” but I could order a mocha instead – which in my mind is still considered flavoring so I didn’t quite see their argument.  Anywho, after doctoring it up some myself (more sugar and milk was needed) – I forgot all about that nonsense and got ready for an exciting day ahead – caffeine fix in place.


SHOP| farmer’s market

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A stop at the farmer’s market yielded great rewards on the produce front that I’ve been happily enjoying all week.


EAT| tavern ham & vegetable salad

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A memorable lunch earlier this week. The best part? The champagne vinaigrette dressing. Yum!


GIFT| flowers

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The gift of Spring from a friend that brightened my day.