Lovely Things: The Drive to Oamaru

State Highway One (looking south), Rangitata, South Canterbury, New Zealand, 28 October 2005

“Oh, but it’s such a boring drive,” one of my colleagues said when I mentioned I was driving from Christchurch to Oamaru that weekend.

Yes. That’s why I love it.

There are plenty of beautiful, interesting drives in New Zealand, if you like trucks full of sheep or logs or milk driving right up your ass while you navigate around steep corners uphill, swearing under your breath.

I do not like that kind of excitement, no matter how stunning the forested slopes that drop to the narrow ribbon of river. I am not in the right frame of mind to appreciate a landscape when a motorbike is trying to overtake me on a one-lane bridge. I do not give a single shit about the beautiful birdsongs of our native fauna when some speed-humping idiot is honking at me in sustained, malicious bursts.

The road to Oamaru does not hold with this kind of malarkey. The road to Oamaru is wide and flat, lined with green fields dedicated to growing as much grass as possible for cows. These fields are over-irrigated and destroying our waterways and contributing to both the destruction of our environment and those nakedly self-interested smug Fonterra ads, but they roll on and on and there are no tricky corners or hair-raising elevations. Occasionally, there are trees. Sometimes, you go over a bridge, or a mild rise that barely qualifies as a hill.

There are passing lanes every two minutes. If I don’t get around a trailer or a caravan in time, I just hang out behind it and wait for the next one, blissfully content. I did once overtake a truck without a passing lane, while the opposite lane was clear to the horizon, and this thrilling act of daring was the first thing I recounted when I got in the door.

The road to Oamaru passes through Ashburton and Timaru, which are the most pleasantly boring towns in the South Island, possibly New Zealand, perhaps the world. Frustrated young people in Timaru occasionally seek to relieve their boredom by roaring around in noisy cars with fat exhausts, but there are so many traffic lights on the main drag that all they can do there is sit next to me, tapping the steering wheel in time to their bass-driven music. It’s very peaceful.

This is not to say the road is safe. New Zealand’s road death statistics are tragic and appalling, and the road between Christchurch and Oamaru has collected a lot of lives.

But honestly, I don’t want to be safe so much as I want to feel safe. All I want in a long drive is that I don’t have to chant “shit shit shit shit” while attempting to appease mad drivers who would only be satisfied if I achieved lightspeed. So far, the drive to Oamaru is the only one that has satisfied this desire. What a lovely thing it is.

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Alma Mater

Two weeks ago, I attended the Waitaki Girls’ High School Senior Prizegiving, where I was invited to be guest speaker. This is the speech. It’s punctuated to be heard, not read, which may account for some oddities of expression.

I’m honoured to be here. I sometimes describe my current job as “getting paid to tell lies to teenagers”, but this is too great an occasion for lies, so I’m going to tell you a true story tonight.

Once upon a time, I sat where you are sitting, and I listened to a woman speak from where I am standing.

It was literally your lifetime ago, and I don’t recall much about who she was or what she said. I know that she was an athlete – I’m pretty sure she was a netballer – and she told us that her best piece of advice was that we should persevere. Because in high school she’d never gotten into the A-team. Her best place had been B-team reserve. Her body type wasn’t perfect for netball and she didn’t have a real natural talent for the game. But she loved netball, and she stuck with it, and she worked harder than anyone else to improve. After high school, the players who had the “right” bodies, and natural talent hit the limit of how far that could take them, and weren’t willing to put the work in that could get them further. Talent is great, she told us, standing where I am standing, but perseverance is highly underrated.

This was memorable enough that I stole it and put it in a book I wrote ten years later. It was my third published novel. It was the seventh novel that I had written. I’ve always loved writing, and I did, at high school, have talent. But there are plenty of talented writers who never publish. Talent meant I could write. Perseverance meant I could write four novels before I wrote one I thought I could sell. Talent wrote the first draft of that novel. Perseverance wrote the five drafts that followed.

Talent will lie to you, and say that success should always come easily. Worse, if success doesn’t come easily, you’ll think that because you don’t have talent, that means you can’t do it. Perseverance knows that’s a lie. Perseverance knows that if success doesn’t come easily, that means you can’t do it yet. But you can learn.

That is the point of your education – that you’ve learned how to learn. That when you leave this school and step out into what adults like to call the real world – as if your school life is not very real – that you will keep learning. And there’s so much to learn. The world is changing, and you are going to change it. Something like fifty percent of you will work in jobs that we can’t train you for, because they haven’t been invented yet.

So, what then can I tell you? What’s honest and useful advice for you, where you are sitting, from me, where I am standing, a lifetime away?

True story: There are times when you will fail. In friendships, in relationships, in work, in sport, in study, there are times when you will not succeed. Good. Learn. Make change.

True story: There are things that are going to make you furious. Injustices and insults and inequalities that make you rage. Good. Get angry. Make change.

True story: There are moments when you’ll realise you’ve hurt people, through carelessness or malice, through your speech, or action, or inaction. You’ll feel terrible. Good. Feel shame. Make change.

Be kind whenever you can. Be angry when you should be. And persevere, because the woman who stood where I am standing was completely right about that.

She also gave us another piece of advice. She said that should stay in touch with our high school friends. That the people we were friends with then would be our friends for life.

I nodded and took this in and I can tell you right now that she was wrong, at least when it came to me. I treasured and loved my high school friends, and they are now casual acquaintances, or Facebook friends, or in one case, a colleague I was very happy to meet again. My best friends, the people I share my life with, are all people I met after high school. If your best friends now stay your best friends for life, that’s wonderful. But if they don’t, please know that there are incredible people and amazing opportunities for friendship in your future.

There’s so much in your future. There are jobs that don’t exist, and families you’ve yet to create and communities you’ll join and grow with. There’s triumph ahead, and heartbreak, unimaginable joy and terrible sorrow. There’s waking up at 3am and cringing about something you said eighteen years ago, and there’s finishing a project that took all your skill and strength and realising how much you’ve learned and how far you’ve come and how happy you are.

Please don’t trust anyone who tells you that the high school years are the best years of your life. Trust me when I say that they’re not. The best years are coming. They’re going to be amazing, and so are you.

Once upon a time, sitting where you are sitting, a group of young people stepped into the world, and changed it and themselves, in ways both big and small. That’s a true story. I look forward to reading it.

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Author’s First Kickstarter: The Empress of Timbra

Ten years ago, BFF Robyn and I wrote a book about two half-siblings who meet for the first time in the palace of the Empress of Timbra.

Taver is a village boy who thought he was the biological son of the fisherman who raised him until disaster struck and his mother revealed his true origin as the bastard son of a nobleman. Elaku is his younger sister, the cherished daughter of that same nobleman and his beloved mistress. When the two meet, they have little notion that they’re about to be drawn into conspiracy, treachery and war that threatens to destroy their homeland.

The book was always super fun, but last year, we rewrote it, aided by our twenty years of cumulative experience, into something we’re truly proud of. It’s an unusual sell for a publisher – not middle grade, not young adult, not adult fantasy – but we think there are definitely readers who won’t care about those categories and will like it a great deal.

We’re self-publishing, and we’ve launched a Kickstarter to raise the funds to do it right. We already have twenty backers and are nearly 20% of the way to our goal!


If you want to check it out, and support us by funding, or by sharing the link, we’d be very grateful!


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I went to Postmodern Jukebox last night, and had a sore throat when I got home. I hoped that I’d just cheered myself hoarse, but alas, it was a genuine sore throat, which is right now turning into a head cold.

This seems an appropriate time for a comparison.

Sick as a teacher:

  • Ignore it for the first two days in the hope that this will make me magically better while also taking meds in the hope that this will make me scientifically better.
  • Work in increasing pain and haze, until a student, keeping their distance, asks, “Are you sick, Miss?”
  • Reluctantly ask for a day off, always immediately and sympathetically granted.
  • Inform head of faculty, deputy heads, and teachers I might have been working with, who all tell me to go home and get better.
  • Write up to five periods of relief lessons, UGH RELIEF, which takes roughly twice as long when I have to focus around a headache or stuffed nose, with detailed instructions for lessons. Include resources. Place in the special relief zone.
  • Spend miserable day in bed, occasionally checking Google Classroom to see if students are keeping up with the assigned work.
  • Come back to school, where colleagues ask how I am feeling.
  • Deal with aftermath of relief lessons, which, depending on the class and the lesson, can go from “everything done, proceed with the unit” to “yeah, not sure what happened here, repeat the lesson with variations.”
  • I’m still sick, of course, but I’ll be better in a week or so.

Sick as a currently full-time writer:

  • Wake up, take meds, sleep some more.
  • Write in bed.
  • Netflix.
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I read an article on The Hairpin and promptly updated my dating profile.

Pick up lines that would actually work on me (hat tip to Mary Cella)

  1. I didn’t want to bother you while you were actually reading, but I see you’ve closed your book and set it down with a satisfied sigh, and I’d love it if you wanted to tell me everything you liked about it in intricate detail, and maybe read the best passages out loud, doing the voices?
  2. I know this is a bit weird, but it’s about to be quiz night at this bar, and my team has people who are great with sports and celebrity culture and geography, but we’re really desperate for someone who can identify books by their first and last lines and knows the name of every Disney villain.
  3. Shoot, the vending machine gave me two Diet Cokes, do you want one?
  4. Hi, I’m the person you bumped into earlier in the elevator and both our papers went everywhere! I picked up some of yours by mistake, and I’ve just got to say, I’ve been reading Leverage fanfic for years, and yours is the best I’ve ever seen.
  5. Hey, baby, wanna come back to my place and discuss Lady Macbeth?
  6. Sorry to interrupt, but can you settle something for me? My friend and I are having an argument about the Mass Effect endings and we’d love some extra input.
  7. Oh, I can’t possibly- dang. Oh, hi! Yes, you. Could you help me eat this cheese?
  8. My last girlfriend broke up with me because I had “too many opinions about Harry Potter” and I probably shouldn’t be even thinking about dating right now but I was really impressed by your podcast performance, so can I buy you a Laphroaig while we talk about Hermione Granger?
  9. GOD. Patriarchy is the WORST.
  10. [to the bartender] Hi, excuse me, I know it’s the Rugby World Cup final, but Clueless is on the other channel, can we switch to it in the ads?
  11. I have some thoughts about the order in which one should read the Vorkosigan series novels. How about you?
  12. Excuse me, I just bought a lot of supplies to donate to the foodbank and the operator gave me all these Little Garden packets. You look like someone who would appreciate some low-stakes gardening.
  13. I’m sorry, you must get this all the time, but your personal style is amazing! Would you like to go op-shopping with me?
  14. This is very forward of me, but do you think we could engage in a consensual ranking of films by Taika Waititi?
  15. This is my labradoodle.


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“You don’t have to be rich to buy a $400 000 house.”

Last week National MP and current Christchurch Central incumbent Nicky Wagner participated in a debate at the University of Canterbury. I’m helping co-ordinate the campaign for Greens candidate Peter Richardson (party vote Green!), so I am the last person who could be considered unbiased or favourably disposed towards Ms Wagner.

Nevertheless, I found myself astounded by her actual nerve, as she said such things designed to appeal to a student audience as “the student allowance system is working pretty well” and “you’re always going to be either time-poor or money-poor”. She also got excited and said “Bullshit!” a few times when an opponent said something she didn’t like, which was admittedly funny.

To me, her most memorable and baffling statement came when Labour candidate Duncan Webb declared he wanted smaller, cheaper housing built in Christchurch. There was some crosstalk, where I picked up Wagner defending a new housing development, which Webb said was “for the rich”.

Wagner responded, “You don’t have to be rich to buy a $400 000 house.”

What, I said to myself, is this bullshit?

A $400 000 house would normally require a minimum deposit of $80 000 to secure a mortgage. This seems like an awful lot of money to me, but what do I know? I’m only a secondary school English teacher on an annual salary of $69 400 who buys classroom supplies for my students, not someone who used to be a teacher, and is now a Minister outside Cabinet with one or more portfolios who has an annual salary of $243,841, plus travel and other allowances.

Perhaps I am wrong in thinking $80 000 is a significant sum of money! Perhaps one doesn’t need to be rich to save that much in a reasonable period. Perhaps today’s student, the people Wagner was addressing, could quite comfortably graduate and purchase a home.

So I made one up. Meet Kal.

Kal enjoys science, so they decide to do a science degree. Their parents are teachers, and their physics teacher was awesome, so they think they’ll become a high school science teacher. This is a smart choice – there is a shortage of science teachers in New Zealand high schools, so they’ve got a really good chance of landing a job right away.

Tuition fees for a BSc at the University of Canterbury currently cost around $5800-$6800 a year. Let’s cut that difference in half, and assume no fee hikes from 2017 to 2019 (ahaha) and say Kal pays $6300 a year for the three year degree: $18 900.

On top of that, Kal also has to pay for their Graduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning (Secondary) which currently costs $6580. Again, we’re assuming this isn’t going to rise while Kal is getting their BSc.

The total cost of their education is $25 480, assuming they never fail a course that has to be repeated. That’s also assuming they never buy textbooks, labcoats, a laptop, or stationery. Since that’s patently ridiculous, let’s say that Kal instead is likely to spend $1000 on those each year, which is conveniently what the student loan system will allow them to borrow. Kal’s total student loan for tuition and course costs is $29 480.

What about living costs? Unfortunately, Kal’s parents live in Timaru, so they can’t live at home, even if they were willing and able to do that for four years. Like many students who come from outside Christchurch, Kal lives in one of the student halls for their first year, and flats with three friends for the following three years.

Kal’s parents earn too much for Kal to be eligible for the student allowance, but with three younger siblings at home, one with special needs, they don’t have much to spare. Student loan living costs restrictions will allow Kal to borrow up to $178.81 a week while they’re studying (usually 4 weeks a year). $178.81 x 40 is $7 152.40.

Kal cannot live on that. Kal’s parents pay the other half of the hall accommodation fees ($14 000 at Connon Hall, the cheapest option) in the first year, and agree to cover any routine medical costs. Kal gets a job as a checkout operator, where they earn the median wage for this position of $15.83 an hour. They work twelve hours a week, which is about the best they can manage with the 40 hour workload of lectures, labs and study, and earn, after tax, $170 a week while they study. Their total weekly income after tax is $348.41.

Despite working full-time over the summer and part-time while they study, they have to take out the maximum living costs loan every year – rent is high, their wages aren’t, Mum and Dad can’t help any more than they already have, and there always seems to be a dentist’s invoice, or car repairs, or an extra high power bill to pay whenever Kal thinks they’ve gotten a little ahead.

It’s okay, though! They’ve graduated! Kal, at 22, is a fully qualified secondary school science teacher with a student loan of $58 089 and no personal debt.

As long as Kal stays in the country, their student loan is interest-free, which is awesome, especially as Kal planned to do that anyway. But they certainly won’t be paying it off fast. At minimum compulsory contributions, even with salary increases, it looks like at least a decade of payments.

However, just as Kal predicted, they aren’t short of job offers. They take a position as a Physics and Science teacher at a large public high school in Christchurch. The current salary for a first year teacher with Kal’s qualifications is $51,200.

(This will go up a little bit by the time Kal starts teaching in 2021, but probably not by much more than a thousand each year – at the moment, despite teacher shortages that are predicted to get much worse, increases in teaching salaries aren’t even keeping up with inflation. We’ll generously assume that the cost of living increases by the same amount as Kal’s salary and proceed with the step increases as they’re currently tabled. This is terrible maths, but I don’t have the kind of models that can predict salary increases.)

Kal’s first fortnightly paycheck has a gross payment of $1969.23. They’re delighted! This is the most money they’ve ever earned in two weeks. Of course, out of that they’ve paid PAYE tax, the compulsory student loan payment, and the PPTA membership fee (not compulsory, but Kal believes in unions). They’ve also allocated $157.54 to Kiwisaver.

Wait, hang on, why is the Kiwisaver contribution so high? That’s the maximum deposit of 8% of pre-tax income!

Because Kal wants to buy a house. A $400 000 house.

(This house is magically going to stay the same price for all the time Kal is studying, working, and saving to meet that deposit, in much the same way that pay increases for Kal will magically stay in line with 2017’s PPTA remuneration table.)

New Zealanders are allowed to withdraw their Kiwisaver retirement savings for a deposit on a first property. Kal has done the maths (go science!) and worked out that this is their best bet – rather than paying the minimum contribution to Kiwisaver and saving separately for a house in a savings account with relatively low interest, or using long-term deposit investments, they’ll make the maximum Kiwisaver deposit, backed with another 3% from their employer. They put the rest of their salary into living costs (especially rent), saving for things and experiences they want, and an emergency savings account for those inevitable stumbles in life’s grand journey.

As well as going a step up in salary every January (unless they do something very stupid) Kal’s annual salary will also increase by about $1000 in September every year, which makes teachers all over New Zealand look slightly puzzled and then pleased as they look at their first spring payslip.

So, in essence, Kal actually earns about $51 534 in their first year, and accordingly contributes to Kiwisaver $4 123. Kal’s employer matches this to 3% of Kal’s salary, another $1 546.

$5 669 in Kiwisaver! Nice work, Kal. Oh, and we can’t forget interest on top of that; that’s the whole reason Kal is doing the 8% contribution in the first place. Because Kal is at the start of their working life, they’ve taken the option of a riskier fund with a 6.2% p.a. average interest rate. I am not calculating the interest earned for each payment and adding that, so Kal magically earns that interest on the whole $5 669, which means they earn another $351.5! Wow!

Okay, frown suspiciously at my dubious maths (or do it better, I’d love that) and let’s fast-forward a few years.

Kal needs an $80 000 deposit, which means they actually need $75 000 for that deposit – the Kiwisaver Homestart grant will cover another $5 000.

End of Year One Kiwisaver account: $6 020.5

End of Year Two Kiwisaver account: $12 646  ($6 020.5 + $5 888 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

End of Year Three Kiwisaver account: $20 075 ($12 646 + $6 257.27 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

End of Year Four Kiwisaver account: $28 426 ($20 075 + $6 691.74 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

End of Year Five Kiwisaver account: $37 797 ($28 426 + $7164.74 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

End of Year Six Kiwisaver account: $48 287 ($37 797 + $7 670.74 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

End of Year Seven Kiwisaver account: $59 924 ($48 287 + $8 138.24 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

End of Year Eight Kiwisaver account: $72 790 ($59 924 + $8 616.74 new payments + 6.2% interest on the lot)

(NOTE: I got to the end of all the calculations above and then realised that AUGH FUCK I forgot to calculate that employers now have to pay ESCT tax on their contributions. I ALSO forgot member tax credits of $521.43, paid yearly when people contribute at least $1042.86. My take away here is 1: this stuff is complicated! 2: just as well I don’t teach commerce.)

After eight years of solid savings, Kal is within shouting distance of the $75k they need to supply to put down an $80 000 deposit on their $400 000 dream home.

Everything has gone very – perhaps implausibly – well for Kal. They didn’t encounter discrimination in finding work based on their nonbinary gender identity, they haven’t met any financial disasters they couldn’t cover with their emergency savings, they haven’t burned out after several years of a fulfilling but stressful career, and they haven’t taken time off to travel or raise children. They’ve been able to save 8% consistently. And as a result, they could be living in that $400 000 house not long after they turn 30!

On the other hand they have also reached the salary cap for their profession, at $78 000 a year. The median income for working New Zealanders is $48 880. (according to this frankly very dodgy survey based on TradeMe advertising)

Regardless of how much Kal saves (and my dodgy calculations thereon), what is clear is that by the time Kal is a position to buy a home, they earn nearly $30 000 more per annum than 50% of the population. According to this calculator, Kal earns more than 82% of New Zealanders.

That makes Kal rich.

And it makes Nicky Wagner full of bullshit.

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Rotating the Crops

The last week of novel writing looked like this:

Monday: 2095 words
Tuesday: 2151 words
Wednesday: 1055 words
Thursday: 2011 words
Friday: 1174 words

Looks okay, right? Three target days, two days I didn’t meet target – fairly standard, and, at 8486 words, the most I’ve written in a single week.

Except Monday was boosted from some writing I did in the weekend. Wednesday was a scattered day of diminishing returns. Thursday I made it over the line – by staying in the office until 8pm, until I staggered past the target. Friday, I stayed until 5pm, said fuck it, and went home, having written 28k in total on The Voices of Gods.

The fallow period has begun.

It happens during most of my novels – somewhere between 25k and 30k on the first draft, however long that takes to write, I start lagging. The set up is done, I’ve finally established some character voice , I’ve got some exciting events coming up and my misty ideas of the ending are beginning to solidify… and I don’t want to write this right now. There’s no life here.

The story needs to rest, and so do I.

It’s all fine. Were I on a tighter deadline, I might worry. I wrote the bulk of While We Run‘s first draft under contract, in ten weeks, and pushed through the fallow period in a blind panic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I had to do the most rewriting on the words I wrote during that fortnight of misery. This time, I’m not even a month into a six-month residency, and I’ve got 28k.

On the other hand, I’ve got the time and brain to write. And I want to write – just not this thing, at this moment.

I haven’t talked about this much, but before the residency began, I sent my agent a co-written fantasy novel, the first novel I’ve completed since I started teaching. Since my current novel’s in fallow, we’ve started writing a novella set in the same world.

I’ve written 3000 words on it today.

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Ursula Bethell Update

Sometimes it feels like there’s no point in doing anything but opposing the threat of nuclear apocalypse and fucking Nazis.

And then I get back to writing. Because this is something else I can do, and it is good.

Monday: 2033
Tuesday: 1621
Wednesday: 2073
Thursday: 980

Total progress: 19 639 words, first draft.

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Ursula Bethell: Day Six/Seven

No post yesterday because I was super sad about Metiria Turei resigning as co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party, after she had the AUDACITY to point out that people on the benefit are suffering in a horrible, dehumanising poverty trap. She noted the horrors of this punitive system, and argued that many of them will indeed lie to government bodies to scrape an extra twenty dollars a week out of their budget for such things as feeding their kid, by admitting to the fact that she had done just that as a young, single mother. Her story is the story of thousands.

Also, she enrolled to vote in an electorate she didn’t actually live in. Like. You know. Ex-Prime Minister Sir John Key, while he was RUNNING FOR ELECTION in the electorate he enrolled in, but did not live in.

It turns out you shouldn’t tell lies to government agencies or commit electoral offences (unless you are male and white and RUNNING FOR OFFICE, naturally). Also, no former 23-year-old who is currently a member of Parliament, other than Turei, has ever done anything illegal or unethical, like get drunk and drive home, or have an accountant do shifty things with their taxes, or profit hugely from neoliberal policies that disadvantage and dehumanise the poor, or assault a waitress by pulling her fucking ponytail on multiple occasions when she had very clearly exercised her right to bodily autonomy and told Then-Prime Minister (not yet) Sir John Key to fucking stop doing that.

Documented skeevy assault on multiple occasions by actual Prime Minister = hilarious jape, why would anyone think he should quit?

Lying to WINZ by young, brown single mum who would eventually become Member of Parliament = DISGRACEFUL SCUM.

Turei quit because the bullshit her whanau was facing was breathtakingly terrible, and getting worse, and because she felt that the shitty, awful response was making her continued presence as co-leader a hindrance to the Party. She wasn’t fired. The Greens did not remove her. I hope to everything I hold powerful and sacred that she will return to New Zealand’s political scene, because we desperately need her.

Also, I wrote some words.

Yesterday’s progress: 1718 words
Today’s progress: 2061
Overall progress: 12370 words. Broke the big 10k!

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Ursula Bethell: Day Five

I’m making up a city. This is always fun, particularly when magic collides with architecture and design. Especially when the magic is failing, and people don’t know how to fix it.

The problem is names. I can toss down random syllables (and more or less have, for easily-replaceable people names), but sooner or later I need to work out naming conventions. So far, the setting is called [City]. Square bracket replacement comes when I’m not pushing the words.

Mesa City Project, Plan, by Paolo Soleri

Progress today: 2026 words
Progress overall: 8596 words
Average progress: 1719 words/day

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