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The day before the memorial service for my friend Peter, I took the warm afternoon to clean out my chicken coop. I was partway looking forward to, and partway dreading the service, and the chore seemed the perfect thing to occupy at least the body, if not the mind. The service would, I hoped, help put an end to the usual magical thinking that follows a death. There are things upon things I think to point out to Peter the next time we talk, before I remember there won’t be one. Thinking of attending the service at the prep school where he was my teacher, I realized I expected to see him there, at the podium, speaking in his own memory. It seems the only thing more powerful than his absence is his presence.

The sensation is intensified with the spring. I always think of Peter most in these transition seasons, for he loved the shifts. The migrant birds arriving, the migrant birds departing, the putting away the garden hoses and tools in November, and the taking out of the tools in April, the furlings and the unfurlings both. When I see a gray-haired man in a khaki vest standing at the edge of a field, binoculars raised, spotting woodcocks in early spring, it takes a nearly physical effort to remember that it can’t be him.

IMG_5465In the coop, I was digging out the long winter’s layers of compressed manure, stirring up a smell of turned cider and fetid straw. Everything in the dim shed is coated in gray brown chicken dust, and the light from outside comes dimly through the caked windows. Shin deep in shit, I heard the clear peal of a wind chime. Brushed by the body of an unseen hen on her way to make a secret nest I might eventually find full of eggs weeks from now, the chime sounded pure as the day Peter gave it to us as a wedding gift more than ten years ago. The sound faded, and I returned to my chore.

At the service today, the Academy’s Reverend Thompson spoke of how he and Peter, an atheist, had still managed to arrive at some common ground in an ancient etymology of religion as ligating, binding together. We were gathered in the school’s non-denominational church to praise and remember Peter, but not to pray, per his own, unenforceable request. Still, remember seems a better term anyway. Peter is the one who first taught me to see the genuine meaning of the word: to reassemble, to put back together.

After I’d cleaned the coop and filled it again with fresh pine shavings, I took down the wind chime and looked it over. Its wood is dull and starting to split, and the strings are moldering. They’ll need replacing, but it’s a small task, for the reward of listening again to their sound alongside peepers, then tree frogs and hermit thrushes in summer. I will retie the strings, oil the wood. I will refasten its ligaments. I will remember.

I.

I took my biology students out for a walk in the small woods behind the college. As in most things, their attitudes ran the gamut from keen interest (one student carried the body of a dead and mouse-gnawed snake along with her for the duration, and others plunged into the partly frozen swamps exclaiming over skunk cabbage), to good natured uninterest, to slack-jawed boredom or hostility. One student spent ten minutes gagging and retching after we picked apart coyote scat with a stick. Another mentioned Harry Potter and asked if we’d all seen the movies. “They’re better than the books,” he said, “I don’t like to read, so I haven’t actually read them.”

Bring me the hemlock. Though alas, I lack sufficient influence to corrupt the youth.

It’s important, as a teacher, not to attach one’s self-worth to either enthusiasm or its lack in one’s students. I can demonstrate my own curiosity, my own enthusiasm, but mostly what this creates is an environment where students with some nascent bit of their own curiosity may freely express it. This has great value. But I would be profoundly naive to believe it’s present in all my students. I am not naive, but I continue to be bewildered. Even thoughtful, hardworking students will tell me, “Sorry, science just isn’t my thing. I can’t get into this nature stuff.” I will never understand this completely. These students have gotten siloed, thinking people must have one interest, one area of expertise. I have always had quite the opposite problem; interested in nearly everything, I have no prospects of mastery in any. Veering from an undergraduate degree in literature, to a graduate degree in veterinary medicine, and now teaching everything from botany to birds, I can never seem to settle. Nor, truthfully, do I wish to. The stack of books by my bed includes: a philosopher’s take on Darwinian theory; the collected poems of Seamus Heaney; two novels of a literary bent; Joseph Brodsky’s selected essays.

 

II.

I took my two sons for a walk on the beach. The upper reaches are all sand, but at the lowest tides, rock ledges rise and tide pools fill the declivities between. In a pelting, sideways rain, we prowled these places that my younger son calls “the animal fields.” Bands of jagged barnacles meet lower bands of blue mussels shingling the rocks. Seals with pale velveteen pelts loll across a fast current from us. Gulls fly straight up, rear backward in midair, let fall mollusks onto the rocks and drop back down to find and gulp their mucoid contents.

Walking back to the car along the seawall, there is human trash strewn along the higher wrack line. My younger son looks down at it and asks, “Why do some people make a mess in nature? Why don’t they care about the animals?” “I guess because they never learned about it and never went out in it, and so they don’t love it,” I answered him. “Mom?” he asked, “Do students in your class go out and be bad to nature?”

Why he associates my students in particular with a lack of commitment to the wilds is not clear to me. I must have said something to make him construe things this way, but I suppose he’s right about at least some of them. What makes one person feel such affinities while others fail to? In no small part, it’s exposure and upbringing of course, but within that, there’s something else too. The differences between my sons drives this home for me. My elder son is equally at ease outside. He loves backpacking and hiking and fishing, but there’s a measure of detachment in him that I find occasionally unsettling. His young brother is tender-hearted, crying easily at the distress of living creatures whether in life or in a book. I would credit his age, only his older brother was never that way.

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III.

It’s hard to value every aspect of a child equally. The parts of myself, and the things that I love that I see mirrored in my children are easiest to love. The parts that are foreign are harder. Reading Jamaica Kincaid’s novel See Now Then, I ran across this passage,

[...] and then my mother became angry at me because I did not love her in return and then she became even more angry that I did not love her at all because I would not become her, I had an idea that I should become myself; it made her angry that I should have a self, a separate being that could never be known to her; she taught me to read and she was very pleased at how naturally I took to it, for she thought of reading as a climate and not everyone adapts to it [.]

and found parts of that unsettlingly true, that we go into parenting thinking we’re open to whatever this child might be, and that we will love him for who exactly he is. But it turns out, we don’t love all the parts equally, though sometimes it’s the parts least like, but sometimes the parts most like us that give trouble. In other relationships, relationships of choice, at any rate, we seek out shared interests and enthusiasms. A child might share none. Might inherit none of our loves and only our anxieties, a tendency toward depression, introversion, difficulty making eye contact or light conversation. When these are on display, and there is little of a common ground of interests, the gulf can open wide. The father in Kincaid’s novel, a musician, has a sports fanatic son:

Mr. Sweet did loathe all that the boy enjoyed and would never, ever take him to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachsuetts, but he would have taken him to the home of Dmitri Shostakovich if it was in Springfield, Massachusetts and he wanted that boy, the young Heracles, dead and he wanted another boy, who could sit still in the movie theater watching a cartoon, and not need Adderall or any kind of stimulant that made you still , to take his place.

Hyperbole, this not-quite-homicidal antipathy, of course, but still.

 

IV.

There are students I will never reach. Bored students, irritable students, irreparably damaged students (at least, as far as my poor repair skills go). There are some who don’t really need me. They follow their own fixed star and march along at a steady pace, committed either to education for its own sake, or to what it can gain them in life station. There is a middle population for whom I may do some good. Even a great deal of good. Day to day, there is exasperation, frustration, despair at the seeming pointlessness some days, a fantasy of becoming a hermit. Many days like that strung together can make a person highly susceptible to a small amount of excitement or interest in a student. A small spark that might be carefully shepherded into flame, if not fanned too vigorously or called too much into attention at the start. I keep cards and notes students have written to me, about the changes I’ve wrought in them and in their lives. The notes are precious to me, but I try to remember my real role. I am wholly responsible for neither my failing students nor my glowing successes. I can be an aid to the willing. I try not to be too susceptible to flattery.

Why teach, or parent, or write long essays on a blog with a small readership? Many good and noble reasons. But also for the same reason Heaney gave for looking into wells as a kid, and for writing poetry as a man:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Gaze into the well, but recall its hazards.

O, vanity.

 

0E358330-754B-44B3-A583-BBA2095D962AI grew up in Massachusetts, two miles or so from the New Hampshire border. Now, I live in New Hampshire, three miles from the border on its other side. I grew up in a smallish town, and now live in a decidedly smaller one. In both places I’ve encountered the pride and suspicion of the native. Fifth and sixth generation natives with long memories and tendencies to refer to houses as “the Gauthier place” or “the Cote place” long, long after any Gauthiers or Cotes have lived there. We’ve lived in our New Hampshire town for about five years now, and we might as well have just pulled in with Massachusetts plates about yesterday. This place can be fiercely tribal and suspicious of outsiders (as prospective Senate candidate and suspected carpetbagger Scott Brown may soon find out).

Every Sunday, my mother down in Massachusetts makes an elaborate supper for our large, local family. Given enough daylight and time, either I or my husband runs over there for the meal. Last time I did the run, I took a route that crosses the Powwow River four times. This river runs through my hometown of Amesbury, but gets its start up here in New Hampshire. The basin it empties backs up to a ridge a mile and a half north of us where Route 107 runs west to east through town. A drop of rain striking the north side of that ridge runs down to the Exeter River and on to the brackish Great Bay. A drop striking the south side will find its way to the Powwow, across the border to Amesbury, over the spillways on the lakes, then through downtown where it careens over a falls, past the remnant of the old water wheel and sweeps into a dark hole under the old mills. It flows through tire studded mudflats, under the highway, and finally on under the haunted Bailey Bridge where, they say, a carriage drawn by ghost horses passes some nights. There, the Powwow is obliterated in the courses of the tidal Merrimack, sweeping out to sea.

B000E42C-1513-4079-A760-8349663453D2As I ran the route the other day, it struck me as funny to think of being seen as an outsider in my little New Hampshire town. The arbitrary nature of the lines we draw, making this side mine and this side yours. This boundary a town, this a state. You, a native, me a foreigner. Our lines of convenience and commerce, and yet, the river finds the route of least resistance, going with gravity until it finds the ocean. I grew up along this river, and it is indifferent to the border it crosses, twice in a lazy oxbow up by the north end of Lake Gardner. I went away to college and lived along the tributaries of the Connecticut River. I went to vet school and lived along the Blackstone River’s feeder streams. And then we came back home, leaving my home state, but reentering my childhood watershed.

I suppose I will always, in the eyes of the natives of this New Hampshire town, be “from away.” But viewing such human comings and goings from down at the waterline, it looks decidedly like I never really left.

While getting my hair cut today, I overheard an elderly woman talking to one of the hairdressers. Asked how she was doing, she answered, “Can’t complain. Won’t do any good. But I’m sick of winter like everyone else.” I’m hearing a lot of such griping and bitterness, and ranting and threats to move south these days, but the fact is, it’s not true that everyone hates winter around here.

Over the two weeks of the Olympics, we watched snowboard cross, and slope style, and biathlon, and anything else we could find. Some of these athletes chase winter from hemisphere to hemisphere all year round, seeking it in the high elevations when it recedes from the lowlands. They voluntarily follow it, these red-cheeked, blissed out, glowing blonde Scandinavians, or grinning, loping, scruffy snowboarders. What is the secret to feeling such joy in a monochrome world of snow pack to your eyeballs? Snow pants.
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I am not some Pollyanna with an inability to look on the dark side of life, after all, my last two posts were about the quotidian tedium and unpleasantness of raising children. But with a good pair of snow pants, I find that winter loses its power to demoralize. In fact, I quite like it. Last week, Simon and I snowshoed out into our frozen swamp. We didn’t get far, but settled for a spot within view of the house under a stand of swamp alder and bare red maple. Simon was in his full snow suit with built in compass, reflector belt, and high collar. I had on my snow pants and down jacket. He said he was done walking, so we both keeled over backward and dropped into the snow on our backs, making what we refer to as snow chairs. Perfectly molded to our posteriors, these snow chairs are immensely comfortable, and we lay there in the swamp, listening and watching what there was to watch.

No sound of snow melt, seepage, or runnels carving under the snow this early, and not many birds either. It had been raining all day, and a frozen drizzle pelted lightly on our exteriors. One staccato thrum from a woodpecker, and the wind in the trees was all we heard. Simon asked me to sing to him, and I got through all the verses I could remember of “Come all ye bold sailor men” while we lay there, warm in the right gear. I finished the song, and we lay quiet, watching one slender white pine whisking the low ceiling of gray stratus.

IMG_5311A sunless day, a cold day, a day of frozen drizzle, and still, we went out. Warm, dry and snug in our suits, we followed our own postholes home, stopping to examine a nurse log, heavy laden with mosses and lichens and fungus. What would we be doing in summer but the same thing–taking hikes that don’t lead us very far, growing distracted by small living things, meandering back home. The cold and the snow are no barrier to that, so long as one has a good pair of snow pants. I have many friends who disagree, both those born in warmer climes, and those raised around here who’ve fled. I suppose winter’s not for everyone, but the light has been lengthening and changing its quality for more than two months now. The nights are not so aggressive, chewing away at both ends of the day like they do in December. It’s beautiful out there, and there are wood frogs alive and frozen solid in the leaf litter a foot and a half under the snow surface we walk on who will be quacking out their love songs come April. All the living things are gathering strength. I can feel their thrumming underneath.

I don’t enjoy discomfort any more than the average person. The little unpleasantries of winter–knuckles cracked and bleeding, days on end when I can’t seem to achieve normal body temperature, the chronic shoulder strain that comes from hunching up against the wind in a jacket too optimistic for the weather–these aggravate me too. Suited up right, with snowshoes strapped on snug though, winter is something to be strode into same as any season. And snow pants shall set us free.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my long, solitary days with no company but that of a child. I know my sentiments are shared by many a parent who has looked down the long end of a day, and then many days, of tending children. But I also got a surprising number of troubled or worried responses, fearing for my happiness, or wondering whether I actually enjoy being a mother at all. A second class of responses included gentle encouragement to enjoy this time while I can, as their childhoods are fleeting. This is risky territory, of course, as the last thing any parent of young children wants to hear is “cherish every moment, for they grow up so fast.”

IMG_4323As I pondered these conversations, what struck me most was the consistent use of the word “enjoy.” Did I not enjoy being a mother? Shouldn’t I try to enjoy these times while I have them? The thing of it is, there is a great deal, maybe the majority of many days raising children, that are not at all enjoyable. But happiness is not the same as pleasure.

When I tried to think of a parallel experience to offer up to those who have not had children, or who have never been their primary caretaker, I thought at first that there was no apt comparison. That maybe you just have to live it. But as I examined the idea further, it became clear that just about anything we deeply value is not all that much fun most of the time. Getting my degree in veterinary medicine was a daily toil of mental drudgery, glued, eight hours a day, to a seat that was in turn bolted to the floor. Once that portion was through, on we went to clinical rotations, where 40 days might pass without one day off, and I fell into a fitful sleep many nights dreading the sound of the pager buzzing at 3am. Was I enjoying myself? Was I having fun? I didn’t quit though, because it mattered to me. And it had its moments.

Then there’s running. I run for the sanity it restores, for the feeling afterward, for the strength it gives. Many, if not most, individual runs are unpleasant in some way. My chest constricts on a plume of freezing air and wood smoke in winter; I stagger in stew thick humidity in summer; in all seasons, my legs sometimes just feel clumsy and leaden and I can’t wait for it to be over. It’s not a pleasure, or enjoyable a lot of the time. There are those occasional moments when I feel like I’m floating, effortless, and the road is clear and quiet ahead of me, and the streams braid through the woods beside me. I run for the things running gives me, and because those moments do come sometimes, and I never know when. Being a runner gives me a deep happiness, but a lot of the time, I hate it as I’m doing it.
IMG_3095That’s what motherhood is like, at least for me. Only it’s compounded. In vet school, my mind’s presence was commanded in those lecture hall, but my body was not taxed. I could knit, make embroidered pillows, sketch, so long as my ears were open and I was awake. When I run, my body is taxed, but my mind is freed to travel. When I am home alone with my young son, I must devote my body to his particular needs, and my mind to his tyranny too. When I daydream during a game of Connect Four, and murmur vague assent to something he’s saying that I’m not attending to, I get his little tyrannical face in my face demanding, “Mom! Did you hear me? Wasn’t that a remarkable and good move I just made?”

To tell me to cherish every moment is stating a case that need not be made. I am conscious every day of how I love these boys in a way unlike the love I’ve borne anyone else in the world, or will ever bear. I am conscious of their growing up, and I have no desire to rush it, even were that possible. I do, in fact, cherish every moment of being their mother. That does not mean I enjoy it. It does not mean it’s fun all the time, or even most of the time. It doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable.

Walking the halls of my college the other day, I overheard a student say to another, “Yeah, but I mean the homeworks are so fucking boring.” This is the worst condemnation of anything in this college, of course. A boring class is a bad class. An entertaining teacher is a good teacher. Set up under that rubric, parenting is the worst thing one could possibly do to oneself, because it is profoundly boring, and irritating, and often rather unpleasant. Parenthood is a gross violation of the Ben and Jerry’s bumper sticker philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”

IMG_1008One night this week, I was lugging laundry up the stairs, checking on the soup on the stove, and on the boys sledding in the dark outside. I called Christophe, who was on his way home, to warn him not to run them over when he pulled in. Laundry basket digging into my side, a headache of two days’ duration pounding in my brain, and looking down at ancient food particles ground into the rug, I heard myself saying, “The boys are out there,” and I was yanked up out of myself. I was tired, irritated, having no fun at all, and those words “the boys” were like a plucked string within me. “the boys. my boys. I have sons. We are we and we have sons,” ricocheted around my aching brain. It does nothing for the pain, but I have room within me for the drudgery, the toil, and the wonder, the gratitude that is its undercurrent.

So don’t worry about me; I’m utterly happy with my lot. Happy and content, with everything I could ever have dreamt of. Just not always enjoying myself. It’s not always fun, but that’s not why I signed on in the first place. One day, when this is all over and they’re grown up, I will have my freedom back, but pierced through with nostalgia. I also know, there is not treasure enough on the Earth to entice me to rewind to the beginning and do this all over again. It is the province of young parents to lament and mewl, but we know the glorious mess we’re in. It is the province of old parents to remind us that it has an end. Blessed be the mess, and blessed be the end.

What follows is a letter I wrote to the administrators currently debating the fate of the English Department at UMass-Amherst. The new building, proposed to take the place of the crumbling old Bartlett Hall, traditional home to the department, is designed to house almost exclusively large lecture halls. This is anathema to we humanities sorts. To my fellow UMass alums, if you’re willing to join your voice to this fight, please do it quickly. Public hearings on the plan options are slated for next week. Leave a comment if you need contact information for the powers that be.

Bartlett Hall, dubbed "worst building on campus" by the college newspaper. But once it's gone, what will be left us?

Bartlett Hall, dubbed “worst building on campus” by the college newspaper. But once it’s gone, what will be left us?

Dear Dean Hayes, Associate Dean Bartolomeo, and Associate Provost Harvey,

I was an English major at UMass Amherst. The decision to become one remains one of the best I have ever made. Our ranks may be dwindling, and the clamor for more STEM graduates seems, at first glance, to further threaten us, to elbow us from the table, but I have always felt confident in UMass’ continued commitment to the English course of study, for what it gives its graduates, and for what they, in turn, give to society.

When I arrived at UMass, I feared I would be subsumed by it, swallowed up. Anxious and diffident, I didn’t make friends easily, and on a massive campus thronged by more than 20,000 students, it was hard to keep track of anyone anyway. A person could melt into the crowds there and not be seen for days. The exception, for me, was Bartlett Hall. Crumbling, musty, but beloved to me in its dingy decrepitude, it became the center of my life my four years at UMass. I was never the sort of student to swagger into a professor’s office to chat, or discuss a reading, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was terrified. The only thing that saved me from slinking through my entire course of study without speaking to much of anyone outside of classes was that building. I sold coffee and donuts in the lobby on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to raise money for the English Society’s small literary magazine. Most everyone–faculty, undergrad, bleary-eyed grad students–stopped by our stand for the sludgy brew from our vat-like percolator one time or another, and we’d talk. I ran into professors and poets and students as I tramped up and down the stairs posting flyers about Open Mic mights, book signings, and one giddy March, the impending visit of Seamus Heaney. I spent my free afternoons reading in our closet-like English Society office, taken up mostly by bookshelves. With the door standing open, anyone might stop by, or no one might, but the simple, companionable feeling of occupying a common space started me feeling like I had a home there.

Now, that home’s continued existence is in jeopardy. I won’t mourn the physical  building of Bartlett itself, but the building set to replace it, the SCAF, concerns me greatly. As currently planned, the SCAF will offer almost none of the sort of classroom space English majors require. Our needs are modest: a small room with desks ranged round in a circle, so that we might be facing each other and within speaking range. We read, we speak, and we listen. We are hamstrung by large lecture halls with their chairs bolted to the floor.

Since I graduated from UMass with my B.A., I went on to become a veterinarian and now teach biology and animal sciences at a local community college. If my college brought forward a plan eliminating all laboratory space, I would join all my colleagues in righteous outrage. Laboratory space is fundamental to science education. Microscopes, bench-tops, dissection space, Bunsen burners, the litany of things we need to teach science–if our administration bustled in, bagged it all up and told us to figure out some other way, I’d follow them right out the door and off campus to find another job. English majors need their basic supplies too. The technology is simple, and the list modest: something to read, a group of other readers, and a room small enough to hear themselves think.

The request before you is modest in the extreme: reserve at least 6,125 square feet in the proposed SCAF building for that sort of small room. We are a low-tech people, with simple needs. I hope that the school I love and to which I owe so much will deem our small but fervent ranks worthy of this small consideration. Without it, I fear for our survival, and the world needs its English majors.

Sincerely,

Sarah (Fahey) Courchesne, DVM
Class of 2002

When I was pregnant with my second son, I spent many hours alone with my first son, reading boring baby books and playing repetitive baby games, and feeling deep ambivalence about doing it all over again. I wanted two kids, but in an abstract sense; I envisioned a future with two kids in it. But the thought of raising a second baby, that often led me into deep despondency. Now, I live in the early years of that shining future I had envisioned. My two boys play together for hours at a stretch, with no intervention from me. I read to them, usually at least an hour each day, but beyond that, they play with each other and away from me, and that is a very great wonder indeed.

This semester, my teaching schedule worked out that I have no classes on Fridays. To save money, we pulled my younger son, Simon, out of preschool that day as well, so he and I are on our own a full day each week. Sometimes, I take him on little enriching experiences to the library or the art museum. Other times, he watches two and a half movies back to back while I do other things. Sometimes he plays on his own, punctuated by occasional games of Guess Who? or Candyland with me, under duress.

Caring for young children is about the most boring job I can imagine, so when I’m playing Candyland, I am often thinking of how lovely it would be to be vacuuming or folding laundry, able to think my thoughts without being interrupted by indignant shouts of, “Mom! Did you hear me? I said, ‘I got Princess Frostine!” The other day, I mentioned to someone that I often fantasize about just disappearing. Driving off without a word to anyone. “Oh,” she said, “Me too. Like to the Caribbean? Or Costa Rica? And lie on the beach and get away from the cold…” I looked at her in a mild state of confusion. The cold? The cold isn’t even on my radar of things to flee. My escape fantasies rarely take me farther than a meagerly furnished room on the outer reaches of the Cape, or a cabin in the wooded border between Maine and Canada. It’s not the cold, it’s the need I dream of leaving sometimes.

_MG_8257Coming home after work, or being home on the weekends is not unpleasant, and I have no babies anymore, so the intensity of my children’s needs is thankfully more bearable now. But there is still never a day where I am responsible only for brushing my own teeth, or finding my own socks or feeding my own self. I don’t need a warm beach, and I’m not looking to do nothing. I’m just looking to be able to choose vacuuming, or tooth-brushing, or laundry folding on my own time, and without interruption.

On our most recent Friday together, Simon was playing by himself while I stitched a hem onto some curtains I was making as a wedding present for my sister. It was, for a short span, quiet, aside from intermittent sounds he was making as his action figures crashed into things or were dissolved in a river of lava. For a moment, I was choosing to sew. Then Simon came in and asked me to play something with him. Feeling put upon, I sighed and told him to wait. “Just let me do this line.” I said to him. “Of stitches,” I said in my head. I’m doing a line of stitches. And suddenly I was feeling much better. Some days he may watch too much tv or play computer games too long before I remember to stop him. But sometimes I take him to the museum, and we read a long time everyday, and I feed him good food. And above all, I’m not snorting coke.

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