mary’zine #51: September 2011

ode to Michigan

Henes Park, Menominee (photo by P. DuPont)

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A PRIMER

by Bob Hicok

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go

to be in Michigan. The right hand of America

waving from maps or the left

pressing into clay a mold to take home

from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan

forty-three years. The state bird

is a chained factory gate. The state flower

is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical

though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”

can sincerely use the word “sincere.”

In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.

When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.

There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life

goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,

which we’re not getting along with

on account of the Towers as I pass.

Then Ohio goes corn corn corn

billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget

how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.

It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.

The Upper Peninsula is a spare state

in case Michigan goes flat. I live now

in Virginia, which has no backup plan

but is named the same as my mother,

I live in my mother again, which is creepy

but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,

suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials

are needed. The state joy is spring.

“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”

is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,

when February hasn’t ended. February

is thirteen months long in Michigan.

We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

is the state motto. There’s a day in May

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes

with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.

In this way I have given you a primer.

Let us all be from somewhere.

Let us tell each other everything we can.

(Reprinted with permission of the author)

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Friday night light

I ended the #50 mary’zine by wondering if I was the “gorilla” in my family, the one everyone has to tiptoe around when s/he’s being moody or all judgmental and withdrawn. I am happy to report that the answer is “No”! (Or at least “Not that often!”) Turns out it was my brother-in-law MP all along. I know this because he’s come out of whatever funk he was in for several months, and he’s like a different person. Is it because he (a) retired from a job he hated? (b) is finally getting help from the VA? or (c) was released from the torment of a mandatory weekly visit from his sisters-in-law? Maybe (d) all of the above. For whatever reason, he’s been a joy to be around lately, and our Friday nights have a completely different feel. So far, there have been only 3 of these post-gorilla occasions, but I’m hopeful that it’s a permanent change.

Barb and I now wait for an invitation to join K&MP at their house, order takeout, and have television-cum-conversation in sometimes surreal combinations. MP still has control of the TV remote; some nights it stays off entirely while we chat and reminisce and make off-color references (me and MP) or converse like ladies (Barb and K), and K gets up repeatedly to fetch pop (“soda” to the rest a yooz) or bring a load of laundry down to or up from the basement. The rest of us sit on our asses until we have to use the bathroom. I more and more think that the content of the conversation is not the point, it’s the contact. So MP and I exchange “witticisms” while Barb and K and sometimes my nephew JP and his girlfriend have entirely other conversations that I only barely attend to. Or, JP and MP get talking about cars and trucks, while we “girls” try to make our voices heard on more domestic topics, the cats and so forth.

Sometimes, MP’s trigger finger gets itchy, and he randomly turns on or off the TV… just to see what’s on, I guess, and then to decide he’s bored. So all of a sudden, the news or a movie will come blaring on, to which we do or do not pay attention, depending. At one point we’re watching the news about a guy who spent 11 hours treading water while waiting to be rescued after his small plane went down in Lake Huron, and we see him in the water holding briefly to the tail of an airplane (which had to have been a reenactment—weird). He’s describing how he held on as long as he could, and then he says, “And then… she’s going down…,” and I pipe up, “Honey, this is neither the time nor the place,” and only K hears me, but she laughs harder than I’ve ever seen her laugh before, a kind of one-two punch as she registers the joke and then really gets it. MP and Barb have been talking about some problem with her car, and MP sees K laughing and wants to know why, and I’m like, you had to be there. Nothing worse than having to repeat a punch line. (And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve done here. Oh well.)

The next time we got together, I happened to have 2 Netflix DVDs, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau, both sci-fi, not usually my cup of tea, but they were both a hit with the group.

One night, while K and Barb were picking up our burgers from Mickey-Lu’s, I asked my nephew if he was serious when he said he would have driven down to Chicago to get me when I was stranded at O’Hare Airport for 3 days last December. I was trying to think of a Plan B that would make me less terrified of flying to San Francisco the next time I go. He said he would do it (he used to be a long-haul trucker), but it would be nice if I chipped in for gas, and I assured him that I’d pay him whatever I would have paid for a night at the Hilton, and he was all for that. Then MP said he’d like to go along for the ride. The conversation got increasingly fantastical as one of them proposed that they could drive me to San Francisco, spend the 7 days of my painting intensive going up to Oregon to drop in on my friend P (whom they know), and then pick me up and drive me back home. MP figured out how much the gas would cost, while I silently considered the cost to my sanity of riding with those guys for several days. When K and Barb got back with our food, we told them what we had been talking about, and K grinned and said she could use a break. Barb thought she meant that she would come with us (whereas Barb would have to stay here to take care of all our cats), but I’m quite sure she was referring to a break from her dear husband.

So, recent Friday nights have been quite raucous, in a good way—though now and then the spice of contrarian politics rears its head. We’re watching a true-crime show when JP announces, “Criminals have more rights than I do!” I think he’s talking about rights in the courtroom, so I say that it’s not that “criminals” have rights, but “the accused” have rights, and any of us could be accused and would be glad for that. But he’s referring to the fact that the killer on the TV gets to keep filing appeals to have his sentence reduced. (It never was.) Then MP starts listing all the perks that prisoners get: “3 squares a day,” a bed, free education, free lawyering, etc. I point out that they can’t leave, and I suggest he go out and rob a bank and join them, if he thinks they have it so good. He gets frustrated and says I don’t understand. “I believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: If you steal, you get your hand cut off,” he says. I tell him he should go live in an Arab country then. For every point he makes, I’ve got a response—a glib one, true, but it’s something, and I’m kind of having fun with it. But finally K chimes in and threatens jokingly, “I’ll have to send you all to your rooms if you can’t get along.” She would let the 2 guys rant and rave all night, but if I express even the mildest objection to something they say, oh-oh, it’s time to call it off. This annoys me no end, but OK, that’s just the way she is, can’t stand any vocal disagreement (though I know she disagrees with plenty). She’d rather everyone keep their head down and keep their opinions to themselves. So our “argument” winds down with one last response to the TV show, in which the mother whose son was killed says she’ll never forgive the killer. (I wish I could make my family watch Dead Man Walking, one of the most profound movies ever made.) JP leans over to me and says quietly, “I have trouble forgiving,” and I say, “Everyone does.” With that, our “point/counterpoint” is over, and I don’t get the sense that either of the guys holds my liberal-wacko opinions against me. In fact, MP goes on to talk about his horrible upbringing, getting beaten by his dad, no money, no privacy or individual ownership in a family with 12 kids, etc. etc. I listen sympathetically to this story I’ve heard many times before, and I feel deep compassion for him. I ask him why he’s feeling better lately, and he says his migraines are mostly gone now that he’s away from that job. This makes me happy, and not only because our Friday nights are more pleasant. Now if only K could retire from her factory job.

JP takes me outside to show me the trailer MP bought for hauling their 4-wheelers around. He’ll use it when he comes over to Aunt Mary’s house to plow the snow away and denude my lawn. I feel like I’m making a difference in this small town and in the lives of my family. A big part of it is financial: I pay good money for the plowing, the house cleaning, the what-have-you. And I love them, whether or not they “deserve” it, and whether or not I deserve to have it reciprocated. It’s a big feeling in this small town, in this big house, in this sometimes constricted heart. We all have trouble forgiving, trouble loving, trouble being true. But the more I leave it alone, trust myself, and not beat myself up for my many lapses in compassion, the more true I feel. And that feels good.

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inhabiting my life

I have a couple of friends who are going through some big changes, and it got me thinking about how I’ve probably made my last big change and I have nothing much to say when someone asks me “What’s new?” I dined out for years on my story of moving back to my Midwestern hometown from California, but I’m no longer special on that front. I had the same feeling of “This is it” when I was working at UCSF. Then, I had the “end of the line” feeling again when the Radiobiology lab got shut down and I was just old enough to retire from UC. My new “final” change (I thought) was starting my own editing business. No way was I prepared to even consider moving myself and Pookie lock-stock-and-barrel back to the formerly despised place of my birth. And now, after that miracle, for which “I changed my mind” is a woefully inadequate descriptor, here I am… rooted in my Michigan rootedness, not foreseeing any major changes coming up for me except, you know, death. (My deepest wish is that death will come before “human warehousing.” That was my mother’s deepest wish, too, but when her wish came true she resented it bitterly. Is there no pleasing some people?)

My friend T and I were talking about this, because she had had the same feeling of “OK, this is where I’ve ended up,” but now she had taken the huge step of leaving a long-term relationship and moving into a place by herself. I was feeling kind of envious of her new single life, because I remembered what a big, scary, exciting life-changer it was for me, back when I did the same. But she said something very wise, which was that, far from being confined and defined by my roots, I’m inhabiting my life. What I tend to think of as an absence of newness and potential is a genuine letting down and letting go of a lifetime of anxiety. I’m no longer searching for my self and my life’s work and meaning: I’m living it. Inhabiting one’s life may not have the gleam and glamour of being perpetually on the move (the famous rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic); it’s a different way of being. Long familiarity with depression and anxiety—and political and spiritual peer pressure at different times in my life—makes me suspicious of “being happy,” of enjoying my quotidian life “too much,” as if it’s a crime to just be. I’m following my interest wherever it takes me, the #1 lesson I learned from painting. Currently, it’s watching all the past seasons of Friday Night Lights, one of the best TV shows ever. And filling my head with ideas and my house with books. Enjoying my cats and my “yard birds” and other critters. Phone-talking and e-mailing with friends in faraway places. Getting together with sisters for trips to Green Bay or the movies. Watching Breaking Bad with Barb on Sunday nights. Writing this ‘zine. A life of quiet, which is essential to me.

So now I have a new way to view my life, not as an absence of Big Stories but as the reality of living: the gerund that trumps the abstract noun (grammar is life): the rootedness that is appropriate to my age and ideal to my space, my big house* and my beloved Henes Park, the memories that swim up from the depths as I drive past Bay de Noc Road and look down it toward the site of so many traumas and good things, too, the buttercups and violets, the freedom of woods and sand hills and no supervision as long as I stayed out of sight of the house. It all delights me now, the trees, the smokestacks, the beautiful bay and river, the working class feel of the place. The trust in myself to remain open to possibilities, to follow my (as it were) bliss. I’ve never been happier.

*Finally, for the first time ever, someone—my contractor’s brother-in-law—referred to my “big house” as a “nice big house.” And it is, but it was gratifying to be reminded that not everyone thinks I’m insane for occupying all this space.

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I suppose I could have ended on this positive note, but now I’m going to explore a potential outcome with darker overtones: the aforementioned human warehousing, a.k.a. forced group living reminiscent of ye olde dormitory life, with or without dementia.

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(illustration by Souther Salazar)

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the scariest F word (Future)

The world is subdued today. Like I am behind a veil, looking out. The colors pastel and faded, my senses dulled. My vision slightly obscured by the veil. It’s not unpleasant. But it can be dangerous. You think that you are hidden from them, behind your veil, and suddenly you realize that you’ve been visible the whole time. Exposed. —Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

Turn of Mind is a novel about a 64-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. Nothing to do with me, of course, though I am 64, soon to join the entitled ranks of the Medicare’d for. I’m glad I don’t have the A-word disease yet, because, between the University of California and the federal government, I can hardly follow the instructions for filling out the forms for Part A, Part B, Part C, Part D, the plans (the plan… the plan…), the requirements, sign here, group number there, Do you still work? (not if I can help it), the dire warnings if you sign up for the wrong plan. A thick book Medicare & You (which is even more intimidating than Menstruation & You was, in the day) arrives in the mail, along with a virtually incomprehensible “explanation” of my future benefits from the Social Security Administration. For months I’ve been getting eager letters of invitation from every insurance company in the Midwest, hoping to snag some Alphabetical Part of my geriatric lifestyle. Before I started throwing them out unopened, I read one that tried to play on my Boomer sense of entitlement by asking, “Did you ever think you would be so popular??” “Why no!,” I thought. “Tell me more!”

The quotation from the novel elicited both a queasy memory and a sense of foreboding. I remembered, as a kid, singing to myself while seated under a hairdryer at the beauty salon, unaware that the sound that drowned out my voice in my own head did not prevent the other women in the place from hearing me. When I realized this, I stopped singing, mortified. (But why?—a question for another day.) And the foreboding thought was, Will that be me someday, “coming to” from a period of unself-consciousness only to wonder what I did or said while dissociating?

(When I looked up Dictionary.com to check the meaning of “foreboding,” I noticed an ad for Miracle Whip—a great name, you gotta admit. “We’re not for everyone,” it boasts. “Are you Miracle Whip?” This seemed an odd way to phrase a sandwich spread preference. Is it a new construction riding the coattails of “I am Mac” and “I am PC”? I’m not going to say “I am Mac” [though I am], and I’m certainly not going to say “I am Miracle Whip”—or maybe that’s one of the embarrassing-in-retrospect comments I will make while demented, especially since there’s bound to be some slippage: “I am Miracle!” “I am Whip!”)

Anyway, I’m of two minds about all this, because if you lose one mind it would be nice to have another one to fall back on, ha-ha {THEY’RE COMING TO TAKE ME AWAY}. In my present state, in which I am blessedly sane and composed {HAHAHAHA}, my desire for control of all aspects of my life is absolute. Never before have I had such freedom to indulge any whim… to sleep whenever, eat what- and whenever. And it kills me to think about having none of those freedoms anymore. Yet I have a concurrent fantasy of being so far beyond self-control that I would be relieved of responsibility or choice or filling out forms or paying my bills on time, or even having bills. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up from that dissociative state and know you can’t be blamed for anything untoward that happened, leaving someone else, probably some poorly paid immigrant, to clean up the mess? As usual, I’m caught between extremes, and what will surely happen instead is that I will not be demented but will simultaneously have no control, like when I lived in a dorm at MSU. There, I quickly established myself as a rebel who sneered at mandatory group activities intended to socialize me into polite society. At least there was an alternative culture waiting to greet me in the late ‘60s, but who will I be forced to rub shoulders with if I end up in a nursing home? Will dementia be a preferable alternative to my lifelong social uneasiness, or will it make things worse? Will I be able to write about it? … because I think it would be quite interesting, if I could periodically regain lucidity long enough to turn on my laptop and send a few salient observations to my blog—they’ll let me bring my laptop, won’t they? or am I supposed to revert to the old-timey kind of old person who can’t see, hear, or walk and loves Lawrence Welk? I don’t live in the most modern-thinking area in the world, so I’m not sure how far I’ll be able to take my Web, Zine, and Painting lives. Speaking of which, what will happen to my paintings? And my painting process? Will I be allowed to paint naked women and eyes on trees during the Arts and Crafts hour, or will I have to go stealth and pretend deep satisfaction with outlining my hand to make a turkey for Thanksgiving? (The other side of the paper will hold my true imagery, the hearts, tubes, knives, blood, and “fabric of the universe.”)

I know I’m getting myself all in a dither over something that may never happen, but I am nearing the narrow end of the funnel, the last grains of sand in the hourglass (and no turning it over; Life does not work like Boggle), the final ride over the hump of the waterfall*, nothing known or (maybe worse) something known and horrible waiting at the bottom of the plunge, like reliving all my most embarrassing moments. The fact that I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten an embarrassing moment in my life may protect me from being blindsided, though blindsiding is exactly what happened to the woman in the novel I quoted, to my child self under the hair dryer, and to my adult self hobbling through SFO with a toilet seat cover hanging out the back of my pants. Is it too much to hope for to be conscious but not self-conscious, to be free and not care what anyone thinks? I’ve always felt unable to bend or blend, to go with the flow, skip over the rough parts. As a “psychic chiropractor” once told me, “You feel every bump in the road.” (Though I don’t think it took psychic abilities to discern that. I think it’s written all over my face, along with the map of Ireland.) I seem to be doomed to remain painfully aware of all my shortcomings: awkward, insensitive, judgmental yet lacking in judgment (“common sense”)—stop me if I’m being too hard on myself—and determined to be special if it kills me. In the plus column, I believe I have a good heart, but even that can turn on a dime and give a nickel change.

*Apropos of absolutely nothing, there are pictures circulating online of Niagara Falls without water. They had to dam the river in 1969 to do some sort of repairs (not sure how you repair a waterfall). I don’t know why it should affect me so, but there’s something about that big dirt-brown, naked-looking, scraggly cliff atop a giant collection of rubble, ugly without the flashy and powerful force of nature’s elixir tumbling down, stripped of its glory to reveal nothing but an ordinary sharp drop-off with the promise of a hard landing. It was like seeing the squat man behind the curtain, nature’s own Oz demystified…. as if all the great wonders of the world could be similarly deconstructed to expose the fact, finally and forevermore, that we live on a big, slowly-spinning-in-mid-air ball of dirt and rocks.

nude Niagara Falls, 1969

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“Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours a day…”

Once a year, I have to drive down to central Wisconsin for a 15-minute drug-monitoring session with my psychiatrist—I’m still taking sertraline, a generic Zoloft. (“Sertraline” sounds like a top-of-the-line mattress.) Recently, Dr. V.’s office moved from Oshkosh to Neenah, thus shaving 40 miles off my round trip—from 200 down to 160. No, I couldn’t find anyone closer. And I like the guy a lot. (I wonder, though, how much satisfaction there is in being a psychiatrist these days: You’re basically a glorified pharmacist.)

Because I hadn’t been to this office (or Neenah) before, Barb lent me her GPS device. All I had to do was drive straight down US 41 for most of the way, but I discovered that global positioning doesn’t always help when you’re trying to position yourself locally. Turns out I was not prepared to navigate the Neenah version of “roundabouts.” I thought I had conquered the concept of a roundabout: Car goes in, car drives in a semi-circle, car goes out. But these ones were devilish, because there was a lot of traffic and I didn’t know where I was going. At the first one I encountered, the GPS voice, which I will call Gloria, told me to “enter the roundabout,” but I got confused (quelle surprise!) by the myriad of lanes and made a right turn instead. So Gloria directed me to make a left down the street, another left, another left, and a right and back to the roundabout. I didn’t fare any better this time. I didn’t know what she meant by “take the second exit” and I wasn’t at all sure who was to yield to whom. While watching for cars, I was trying to get a glimpse of a street sign, plus count “exits.” Again, I didn’t get off at the right place and I ended up going back the way I had come. Gloria, with the patience of a saint, or a robot, told me where to turn, turn, turn, turn and get back. Unfortunately, down where I was turning, I had to go through another roundabout, where there was less traffic, but I still made at least one wrong turn there and had to try again. I headed back to the Mother of all roundabouts, and this time I again missed the correct “exit” and found myself on the street going off to the left. (Actually, I may have repeated the “back from whence I came” move. It’s almost as difficult to describe it as it was to do it.) Every time I made a mistake, Gloria hesitated for a suspenseful 2 seconds and then said, “Recalculating.” Which I found re-dispiriting. By the end of my ordeal, I was saying out loud, “Don’t say ‘recalculating’!” So I approached the roundabout again, and this time the only option left open to me was to go straight, if only I could figure out which “exit” would take me in that direction.

It’s a miracle that I whipped in and out of 2 roundabouts a total of 6 times without getting creamed, or creaming someone else. I suspect that the locals watch out for us out-of-town bozos who’ve never been to the big city before: More than one driver waved me on when I hesitated, not knowing who was to yield. Frankly, I’d rather wait for a red light. As I said, I get the concept of the roundabout, but not knowing where I was going did a number on my brain. Plus, my brain takes everything literally and returns to zero after every mental calculation. It takes me a while to integrate what I’m seeing with what I already know; therefore, I’m not burdened by “knowing too much.” Boy, am I not burdened by knowing too much. This has served me well in my work, believe it or not, because every manuscript is a new puzzle to solve and I’m delightfully unbiased—that’s it, unbiased—as if seeing the words and ideas for the first time.

Fortunately, I had left myself enough time to make any number of dumb mistakes, so I still had half an hour to wait once I found Dr. V.’s office. When I got in there, I told him that I’m having the dreaded “restless legs syndrome” several times a week. (I should call it RLS, because “restless” sounds so trivial. “You have an ‘urge’ to move your legs? Well, I have an ‘urge’ to eat a dozen doughnuts at a time, but I restrain myself.”) You may remember that I spent an excruciating 8+ hours flying to and from San Francisco last December because of that terrible sensation in my legs. I had read that SSRIs can exacerbate the problem, so I had wanted to ask Dr. V. about reducing the dosage of sertraline. But I’d recently been reminded of what happens when I’m left to my own emotional devices (story for another day), and no way was I going back to a life of constant anxiety relieved only by bouts of debilitating depression.

So anyway—is it too late to say “long story short”?—Dr. V told me about the various medications that can help with RLS. He cautioned me about the side-effects, though. One class of these drugs is highly addictive, and the other can make you psychotic. I pondered the dilemma for a moment, forefinger to my chin, and finally said, “I’ll take addiction.” He said he wasn’t worried about that in my case anyway, because I don’t have “an addictive personality.” I asked how he knew, and he said, “Because you don’t drink a case of beer every night.” I almost asked how he knew that (I’ve spent 15 minutes a year in his presence, for a total of about an hour and a half), but I didn’t, because time was almost up. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug, because one or more of you would surely look it up and tell me all the horrible things it could do to me. Come to think of it, one or more of you will probably tell me I shouldn’t be taking drugs at all. Well, forget that noise! (as we say in this part of the world). I remember when I had a 9-pound (as it turned out) ovarian tumor growing inside me and I was about to go under the knife in 3 days, when a “holistic” friend of mine urged me to drink some sort of special organic tea instead. But now I’m older, wiser, and definitely more stubborn, so I appreciate your (hypothetical) concern, but no thanks. I can’t get on an airplane again until I deal with this problem. Which reminds me, also, of the time another well-meaning friend assured me that my air sickness was psychological, so the next time I flew I didn’t take Dramamine. I figured, the plane doesn’t really have that much motion, like a bus does, so what the heck? But as the plane started to rise into the air, my stomach rapidly descended to wherever it goes when it wants to throw up. I hurriedly popped a Dramamine and held on tight until the nausea subsided. Actually, it’s not really holistic solutions I object to… it’s advice.

After I left Dr. V.’s office, I entered the address of El Sarape in Green Bay into Gloria’s positioning system, made it through the Problem roundabout with no trouble, and went on to have a delightful Mexican lunch. Then another hour to get home, where I collapsed in my comfy chair with my comfy cats and slept the day away. I was whipped. It was a miracle.

And now I shall say adieu. Make of this hodgepodge what you will. And like me on Facebook! (just kidding)

gratuitous woodpecker image (so many pretty things on the webs)

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Mary McKenney

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4 Responses to “mary’zine #51: September 2011”

  1. V. Angel Says:

    Loved the roundabout story! Give me a plain ol’ paper map any day.
    V.

    Like

  2. kelly Moore Says:

    Another wonderful ‘zine, all of it. I especially liked the part about getting older. I love you Mary!
    Kelly

    Like

  3. Peggy DuPont Says:

    Ditto, to what Kelly says, Mary. P

    Like

  4. Barbie Says:

    You again Whipped out your Zine with such skill that this reader found it thought provoking and humorous. A true Miracle of insight expressed.

    Like

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