Finely tuned communication

Broadly speaking I am outnumbered. All too frequently I make the mistake of dealing with three conversations simultaneously and lose the thread completely. Generally speaking, I find it more efficient to complete one conversation first and back track later to pick up other threads. I like to think of it as my anti-unraveling campaign.

The latest crop of ditties that the boys have acquired is rather disconcerting. What is even more disconcerting is the hilarity that accompanies each one. I find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on anything at all in the whirlpool of laughter. The fact that it is also reciprocal and infectious makes it hard to keep a straight face for more serious conversations.

“Come along now, it's time to put away your clothes.”
“Time? What time it is being?”
“Ah, time to put away clothes.”
“Subway! Eat fresh! Subway! Eat fresh! Subway! Eat fresh!” he cooes.
“You want us to put away the laundry? Why?” queries my independent pre-teen. It would appear that is someone else who is in need of a few life skills.
“Cheese is an adventure! Woe,” he announces in a breathy tone, oblivious to his sister’s strident tone.
“Well they're your clothes.”
“How much wood can a wood chuck chuck!” he giggles.
“But that's your job.” Her body language tells me all I need to know, but her brothers continue to circulate their own circuitry.
“Now I weemember. If you shout fings, you remember them still. I LIKE PIE!” he bellows, little liar that he is as he rolls back in fits of laughter.
“What's my job?”
“Innernet! Innernet! Innernet!” the robot voice still plagues us.
“Put away the laundry and other mom stuff,” the eyes roll but she spares me the ‘duh!’
“Gone fishin! Gone fishin! Gone fishin!”
“Au contraire. My job is to teach you how to put your own clothes away so that you can be independent and grown up.”
“Bet on it. Bet on it. Bet on it.” The robot sounds optimistic.
“Fine! But I don't want to be grown up and inde……….”
“Are we nearly there yet! Are we nearly there yet! Are we nearly there yet!”
“Sorry dear? What was that again? I don't think you quite finished what you wanted to say.”
“Gedda new look fur yur bedrorom!”
“Fine! I'll do it but I don't know how?”
“Eggy eggy eggy!” even though Easter is long gone.
“We'll learn how to do it together.”
“Hold dah ice! Hold dah ice! Hold dah ice!”
“Fine but whataya gonna do all day if you don't do the laundry any more? Sit on yur butt and chat to yur friends?”
Mercifully she didn't say ‘fanny’!
“Butt jokes! Get yur butt jokes here!” the list of banned words grows daily.
“What an excellent idea! I will sit on my bottom all day and learn how to use my cell phone.” 7 years after the event.
“Yur welcum! Yur welcum! Yur welcum!”
What!” Her face is a caricature of incredulity.
“No ifs no buts no co co nuts!”
“Um……well…..I suppose I'll do everything I usually do except put away the laundry.”
“Pretty pretty shiny shiny.”
“Fine! But you don't put the laundry away now anyways. There's always at least three hampers of laundry at the top of the stairs.”
“Good fur you! Good fur you! Good fur you!”
“True but what about the other four hampers? And it's never the same laundry, it's a constant turnover around here.”
“Count dem? How many pairs of hands do you think I have? Two! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”
“I don't believe you! You're a li………not telling the truth.”
“Gonna stab yah in the head wiv a fork!”
“I know! How about I teach you how to sort them, wash the dirty clothes, then dry them, then fold them and then you'll see how many full hampers there really are on the average day?”
“Here's to gluttony!”
Fine! I said I'd do it alrighty.” She flounces from the room, a gesture that she’s worked to perfection over the last few weeks.
“Bring on dah rainbow……and dah weather forecast is……fine!”

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Opening for Guardian Angel

I decide that for the time being at least, a benign dictatorship rather than democracy, shall rule in my American household.

I practice during the afternoon whilst she is away with her pal for a play date. When the telephone call comes from my daughter, as surely as night  follows day, I explain that it not convenient for her to have a sleepover. I do not explain further nor add ‘not here, not there, not anywhere, ever.’

Her demands border on the hysterical. I lose my footing in response to the 'why?' and flail with 'because your father is coming home tomorrow.' Oh course she remembers that his flight lands in the evening. I recall two things; I may be a wimp but I am also supposed to be the adult, so I revert to 'inconvenient' and stick to it. She negotiates a further hour of play date amid copious shovelfuls of whining, but she will return.

I already know that she is amassing her counter arguments to my objections. Whilst I consider that my objections are reasonable, I can already anticipate her rivalry. Better by far just to not become embroiled.

I would prefer her not to consume dinner with almost a full pound of cheese on a Family Size pizza topped with 80 slices of premium pepperoni. It’s easy to remember ‘all things in moderation,’ but I doubt that her protestations of 'only one slice' are likely to be honoured without parental supervision, specifically my own parental supervision.

I appreciate that she is confident that she is immune to the silent father swilling beer on the sofa in front of the telly. I am partial to a drink myself and addicted to Law and Order once everyone is safely tucked up.

I have no doubt that she would willingly resist the temptation of all night U-tube, wouldn't we all? Maybe she will help them install firewalls?

She is used to the issue of smearing. Surely their household and ours are all too similar, water off a ducks back to the hail and hearty youth of today.

Obviously she will happily entertain herself for several hours the following morning whilst the rest of the household slumbers. She's more than capable of occupying herself with no adult eye upon her. She’s unlikely to starve without breakfast.

It's not any one thing that makes me uncomfortable, it's the collective. I have a sudden new appreciation that the ‘typical’ can be so much more difficult than the ‘atypical.’

I fear my holding pattern will be short lived though. I do have an alternative solution but I need to check it out with an etiquette guru, a Miss Manners of America. My alternative plan is to hire a baby sitter for the boys and accompany her as chaperon, sort of invite myself, so I can sit on her shoulder like a parrot, a very loud and colourful one.

But I hope I'm always open to other suggestions.

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Small things

I notice that with spouse away, the boys do not come into the bedroom in the morning. Usually they bowl in together to announce their pull-up and bed status, wet or dry, at 50 decibels, twice over. Whilst he is away in “England,” I am no substitute. I am left to slumber in blissful peace.

Nevertheless at 5:25 a.m. which is really 6:25 a.m. due to Daylight Savings, I am forced to quit my steaming pit and lumber downstairs to calm the screaming masses. Sunday is pancake day, all of them are on the cusp of malnutrition. I stick the thermometer in my ear before I greet them, just to check that I am keeping the fever at bay: 99.1, let's keep it that way.

We meet and greet as I discretely pat their derrieres for more checking. Dang! More laundry. I shelve laundry duty and commence pancake making. I grab oranges, celery, carrots and sweet peppers, shout a warning and stuff them all through the juicer. I am no nutritionist but I suspect that they may collectively hide healing properties for pre-teens and their acne.

I am in everyone's dog house due to a failure to use my executive function. We have two outstanding issues to resolve, they are in my pending file:- “dog,” which breed, age and sex is the first matter.

The second matter is determination of the 'correct' age that youthful American womenfolk may shave their armpits. Strangely the second issue takes up far more of my working brain capacity that the former. I discover that I have no terms of reference for this issue. There was no such thing as a pre-teen when I was one. I had no idea who, if anyone, had underarm hair, as arm pits were never on display. I do know that if you can't cut a slice of bread with a knife, you should not be allowed within fifty paces of a safety razor.

The pay off for walking to school was the possibility of acquiring a “dog.” The household member who is not sold on the dog theory of motivation is currently in England, for another week.

“I just don't get it!” she whines. “If we get the dog whilst he's away it'll be a fate accomplished!”

I look at my daughter. I keep a straight face. The boys burble quietly, “batteries not included, batteries not included, batteries not included.”
“That would be very underhand dear. Daddy and I make big decisions together.”
“Bukugan sting! Bukugan sting! Bukugan sting!”
“So? Getting a dog isn't a big decision, it's a quick little decision.”
“Geronimo! Geronimo! Geronimo!”
“Daddy thinks it’s a big decision.”
“Well if getting a dog is a big decision, what about the other decision? Surely that's nothing, a real no brainer.”

Her emphasis doesn't escape me, but I let it ride.

I am struck by a thoroughly brilliant idea, prompted by a recent email.

“Tell you what!”
“What?” is the desultory response between gritted teeth.
“Your big sister will be back in ten days.”
“Really!” she perks.
“Yes. She'll know all about that sort of thing. We'll ask her what we decided when she was your age.”
“That's no good! You'll just do the same stupid thing you did with her!”

I bite my figurative tongue. I need to re-learn this skill and practice it for the next eight plus years.

“You're right. I have a better idea.”
“What?” she sighs.
“You can talk it over with her. She's cool. She's young. Whatever she thinks is best is exactly what we'll do. Deal?”

I nudge the glass of juice towards her and deflect her chilled glance. My son gasps wide eyed and begins to sputter, “ you, you, you have….a magic…….an…….invisible…….ring on yur head!”

My hands instinctively fly up. Nothing.

“She's got hat hair!” explains my daughter in a voice of dripping ice, tossing back a curtain of silky tresses. “Yur not gonna go out like that are you Mom!” It's more of a statement than a request. I reach over for my baseball cap and ram it back on my head, “sorted!

She steps away with the downwards head shake of those whose patience is exhausted.

I glug the rejected juice, slowly. In just over a week my first born, live child will return to the chicken ribbed, bosom of her family. My tree hugging, save a whale, worship the planet, no make-up, no nonsense daughter……….. and we all know the number one criticism that American's have about European women's underarms! I place the glass in the sink, empty, it's bound to be good for peri-menopausal, prematurely senile women too.

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Honesty is the best put off

She plagues me with questions first thing in the morning as I wipe noses and squirt inhalers with the boys.

“But when will you phone?”
“Phone, phone, phone.”
“Oh I know!  You'll phone after nine?  Will you phone at nine?  Mommm!”
“Er no.  Her mum said she'd phone us at mid-day.”
“Oh no that's gonna take forever.”
“Indeed, but we'll find something to do in the meantime.”
“Mean……time….mean….time……mean…….time.”  I make a quick dash to the garage for a couple of boxes of tissues to assuage the sea of snot.  My pre-teen in is mid pout, as she has experienced a sharp learning curve this week.   Adult conversations have been the order of the day, but we need to tread carefully.  If you ban a friendship you guarantee eternal adoration.   “She probably won't phone until even later………like yesterday…….”  I see the cogs turning.  She's getting there all by herself.  “You know dear, it's probably not fair for her to come for a sleepover tonight anyway.”
“Why?  That is sooo not fair!”
“Look at them!  They're coughing and sniffing…….”
“That's o.k. we'll be in my room.  She won't catch it.”
“Um……tell you what…….I will have to tell her mum that the boys are ill and then she can decide.”

I am disconcerted that she agrees immediately, no hesitation, ever the optimist.

We spend the day quietly but in a very noisy manner until the telephone rings in the mid afternoon.

“Hi Natalie!  Just a quick call as she’s still asleep, up all night on the innernet with her sister.”
“Oh hello,” I glance at the clock,  “I just thought I'd better let you know that the boys are ill with colds, maybe flu.”
“Oh sorry. Poor little guys. I'll bring her round when she wakes up.”
“Well I just thought that you should know that they're ill in case she catches it.”
“She'll be o.k.”
“She's got a great immune system.”
“Hmm that's good to know.  Pity the boys haven't fared so well.  No school for them on Monday!”
“They're <span style=”font-style:italic;”>that<span style=”font-weight:bold;”></span></span> sick?”
“Ooo yes.  I wouldn't be surprised if they're off school for a few days.”  I hear silence on the other end of the line.  I dither whether to fill the air with mindless chatter or keep quiet whilst calculations are made.  I am ready for the 'she can come here' option.  I have spent an inordinate amount of time working out how to extract myself and my family from this escalating debacle.  I need to stick to my guns but I have a strong need to ensure that I do not slight an innocent child.
“You know Natalie howabout we do it next weekend?”
“Thank you for that, but I'm afraid we have the boys' sleepovers then.”
“Great!  One more would make it a party.”
“It probably would, but I'm a bit tired these days so we're trying to limit the number of play dates everyone has.  I hope you can understand.”
“Sure.  I'll leave it a week then.”
“Thank you.”  She's already clicked off the line.  I am left with the notion that I have only bought myself some time.  A second wave is on the way, building momentum, ready to bowl me over.

Better dust off my surf board.

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Out of the loop

[From Friday – details have been changed to protect anonymity]

Spouse and I experience 8 hours of sleep, collectively.

I am uncertain whether I had 5 and he had 3 hours, or the other way around?

A holiday is an upset to the routine. An upset to the routine often results in disruptive sleep patterns. My daughter continues to badger me with the same interminable question. By seven in the morning I explain again, hopefully with greater clarity.

“I'll telephone at nine and sort out the play date.”
“Can't you phone now?”
“I'm afraid not. It's rude to telephone before 9 and in any case you know that none of them are up before mid-day.” I wish to avoid the previous occasion's angst, hours of tears when no-one picked up the phone.
“Well that's not true any more. She told me she's up at seven!”
“Well that's lovely but I still can't phone before 9. Just think of it as the polite rule.” She pouts. It's a rule of my own making. I need my brain to be fully functioning and I also need quiet, neither of which is generally available.

I check the diary. Who is going where? Who is coming here? Times? Rats! The first delivery is at nine, pick up at 11. I herd and coach to ensure that everyone is ready on time.

In the car I am bombarded by yet more questions from my daughter to the backdrop of 'supercalafragalistic' sung by my youngest.

“You said you were gonna phone my friend at 9!”
“Yes I know but I made a mistake. I'll phone as soon as we get back from delivering your brother to his play date.”
“But I still don't get it!”
“Which bit dear?”
“Why we have to wear shoes if we're not allowed to go in?”
“Well if you're invited in, then you can go in, but it's not your play date.”
“You can't just barge into someone's house uninvited dear.”
“So why do we have to wear shoes then?” I ignore the snarky tone of the pre-teen.
“Because if you are invited in, you can't go in if you don't have shoes on your feet.”
“Do you think they'll invite us in?”
“I don't know dear.”
“I don't get it. Gene barges into our house all the time and you don't mind.”
“Gene is our neighbour. We've known him for 9 years now and he's our friend.”
“Ken's family are our friends too, or he wouldn't be having a play date there!”
“Do you know his mum's name?”
“Do you know his Dad's name?”
“Well if you don't know their names……..tell you what?”
“If they don't ask you in you could always, politely ask if you could pet the dog?”
“Do you think they'll let us in then?”
“I don't know but there's no harm in asking, politely.”

Mollified briefly, we pull into the driveway and open the automatic doors. They escape in seconds and start pogoing on the doorstep fingers competing to ring the bell. I dither. There is the threat of rain but last night’s Shepherdess pie has had a dire effect on someone's digestive system. I leave the doors open, to air out the car for a couple of minutes, it's California afterall.

As their front door opens the dog shoots out like a bullet to frolic, turn cartwheels and race. She scoops him up, armfuls of fluff and lick. Her ready smile is her passport to house entry. Once inside the boys hug and pogo with squeaks of delight. I exchange pleasantries with the dad, a charming man indeed who wrestles with suitcases ready for their weekend away. Their teenage daughter folds blankets and tidies, a study of responsibility. We confirm pick up time and step outside.

On the driveway my youngest son squeals and bolts to the far edge of the garden. I gallop after him as he curls into a ball at the edge of the hedge. He points in horror, wordless, as I hear my daughter laugh, “hey look mom! Those crazy sprinklers!” I walk back to the car, shut the far side door and begin to mop up several gallons of water from the interior. Thank goodness for emergency towels!

It takes a goodly long time to persuade him to return to the car, the dry side, the side that never had a drop of water on it in the first place. Mercifully we pull out of the driveway. Out of the corner of my eye, I see their front door open but we're already on our way.

I debate. Buy milk on the way home or buy milk when we venture out again to collect him?
“Anyone thirsty?”
“Howabout we make that Papaya, Pineapple, Banana smoothie you wanted?”
“Oh yeah, that would be great!”
“So we'll just nip into Wholefoods on the way back then.”

The trigger word 'Wholefoods' sends him off the deep end. Although all supermarkets smell, Wholefoods appears to smell more strongly than other shops. It's somewhere I only visit occasionally because it is full of tempting expense. I dither. Is today the day to start another round of desensitization? Only two children? I decide to be brave, help him be brave and pull into a parking space, next to the curb, next to the shop, so as to avoid the hurdle of 'road crossing.' He clings to his seat belt, a life buoy in protest, a rigid L shape, immobile. “Green is bad!” he shrieks at the sign. My daughter waits by the shop front window, peering in, absorbed and patient.

I dither. Am I really ready?

“The sooner we're in, the sooner we'll be out and home again,” I beam weakly. I wait as his knuckles turn white.
“Can you do ten minutes dear?”
“10?” he sputters. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea afterall?
“Yes, just ten, only ten.”

He whips off his seat belt and charges up to his sister to jump on the spot for a while, revving up the energy reserves for his first sortie. I concentrate on keeping him within safe boundaries. I rely on my daughter to select her preferences and taste the samples on display. He walks around on tippy toes, thumbs stopper his ears, pinkies pinch his nose. We’re finished in swift moments and dash to the check out. They fill my bags with groceries as I riffle through my handbag for my cards. I can see my cards. My cards are in my purse, next to the phone and the calendar at home on the kitchen counter. Luckily I find my cheque book buried in the depths. I sign off with a quick flourish.

“Can I see yur I.D. please? Yur driver's license?”
“I'm afraid I've left it at home.”
“Do you know the number?”
“I'm afraid I haven't managed to learn it off by heart yet.” Grounds for deportation.
“No, I'm afraid I haven't managed to learn my social security number off by heart either.” Guilty of Un-American inactivity.
“You've got anything?” I continue to riffle. Good grief!
“Actually, I seem to have both my passports for some reason.” Two months after my last UK visit!
“Well I guess I'll have to ask the supervisor. It sure is ID!”

I debate. Which is more stupid, to drive around California without my license or to walk around with my passport in my handbag? The former is illegal, the latter merely insane. My son sucks three fingers and spins as he waits, patiently.

We are released from custody, together with our groceries. It is 9:20 in the morning and I feel strangely tired. I drive home gingerly, one mile per hour lower than the posted speed limit, sure and certain evidence of malfeasance. I endure 20 minutes of the same song repeated in a never ending round, “la, la la, lee, lee, lee, I'm a silly pink bun nee, I am cute, yes it's true, I will shake my tail for you!”

Once home I make smoothies for two and tepid water for one. The smoothie is so sweet it makes me shiver. My metal fillings have been replaced but the same sensation lingers on. I plant the telephone head set on and dial in between sips, washing up and watching my son skate in the kitchen in his socks and very little else. I leave four messages on the answering machine of four different mothers.

I fizz. The sugar rush gives me a burst of unexpected energy, just enough to persuade him to power jump on the trampolene. He bounces as I count to a hundred, with 'ands.' The buzzer on the tumble drier lets me know it's time to re-make the bed now that the duvet is dry. It is not safe to leave two children unsupervised downstairs. It will be too difficult and painful to persuade him to go upstairs during daylight hours. I plonk a pile of playdough on the table for entertainment and step into the kitchen to make lunch in advance, to save time and simultaneous snacks.

I wait until they're both in full munch before making a quick dash to the letter box in the garden. I unpack the box of herbal, save the world, kill the lice, shampoo and set it aside for the next emergency, just in case we have one, an emergency that is to say.

I calculate. The wool shop is one block from the play date. The new rule is that use of car shall be combined with as many errands as mentally feasible. If seamless sock production is to remain seamless, then I need more wool, today. I need it today because there will be several minutes during the evening when my hands will be in need of occupation. I have discovered that hand occupation cancels out restless leg syndrome, or what we more commonly refer to as fidgeting. My new personal 'om' campaign includes sitting in the evening, although simultaneous breathing is still optional.

I dust buster my way through half a packet of scattered cereal and toast crumbs from breakfast, because my efficiency quotient is at an all time low. We return to the car in advance of the allotted pick up time. My son sings Christmas carols, or rather just one nauseating holiday song, in February, over and over again.

“You cant sing that fur another 10 months yah know,” she advises sagely as we approach their driveway.

The dad stands next to his car and waves at our arrival. We walk into the house together where he puts his briefcase down in the hall. The boys hug farewell as we return once more to the car.

I reverse out into the road to the tune of 'We are the Champions of the World' and 'If I knew you were coming I'd have baked a cake,' both in rounds, separate ones.
“Mom! Get em to shut up!” I'm tempted to hand her some ear plugs but instead I turn on the story tape, the new “Dr. Seuss” one, which I may later have cause to regret. I am very fond of my son's pal but I always find it disconcerting that after a couple of hours together, his speech patterns, tone and expression leaves it's imprint. Instead of my sotto voce son's voice, I have the giggly, fast talking mimic, a child exchange.
“Be quiet or I’ll smear pooh all over your beds!” My startle reflex is keen, but I don’t crash the car.
“What did you say?”
“Where did you hear that?”
“My friend. Her sister squished pooh all over her new bedroom.”
“Really! I didn’t know she had a little sister as well?”
“She doesn’t.”
“You mean it was her big sister! But she must be….15 at least!”
“We’ll talk about this when we get home.”
“Why?” Everything appears to be upside down. I am familiar with autism, smearing and motivation, but if you remove the autism and change the motivation then I am entirely out of my depth. If this is what passes for ‘normal,’ then I don’t like it. Over protective indeed! I concentrate on driving but the huge lump in my throat has made my brain seize.

I feel a small sharp prick in my temple which prompts me to talk over the story, “who was looking after you dear?” His mum was out at work. Could his dad have been out too? Was big sister in charge? How old is big sister? Didn't they say that they were visiting Universities recently? Surely she must be 17, mustn't she? She's certainly reliable and responsible by all accounts. Why does this bother me? What business is it of mine anyway, but I still feel uneasy? I remind myself that this is a family that I trust, that they are busy, it is probably merely an oversight. Their daughter is a delightful tribute to their formidable parenting skills. I have the distinct impression that I am worrying about the wrong family. I decide to tackle the matter later when there are fewer distractions.

“When'll we be home mom, I need to phone my friend?”
“About twenty minutes depending upon the traffic lights dear.” I need to sort friends quickly.
“Traffic lights, traffic lights, traffic lights,” he cooes.

Once home there is no answering blink on the phone, nobody loves us. I am unable to count the number of additional children we have had in the house during the week, but I know that it is more than 7. I decide not to be down hearted, as at least the children are happy.

We eat lunch together. I need to engineer one on one time with my daughter for a private discussion about a particular friend, if not interrogation. She dashes to answer the telephone and chats to her other friend as my ears flap. I wade through bills and junk mail at the table, ferry across additional food and gulp a pint of carrot juice myself with a liquid Centrum chaser. I must remain healthy and energetic at all costs. She returns to the table, “that was her mom. They'll be here in five minutes.”

Thank heavens for some friends.

“Oh good. Better find your shoes then dear.”
“Well you can't leave the house without your shoes.”
“But I'm not goin anywhere.”
“Aren't you? I thought you were going round for a play date?”
“No, something's come up so she's coming here instead!”
“Oh really!”
“Yes and don't forget, she hates Calamari and Pizza.”
“What has Pizza got to do with anything?”
“Yeah she's staying for supper too. Her mom's goin out and her dad can't cook.”
“But they own a Pizzeria!”
She slips into 'woman of the world mode,' casual, conciliatory and amiable.
“Well you know how it is Mom. She's all on her own, no brothers and sisters to play with, home all week long, her Mom sure needs a break,” she beams as she hugs me. I look towards the window as a car screeches to a halt by the gate. I watch as she scampers towards our front door and the car spins away. Is she scratching her head? What time will she be collected? Am I supposed to deliver her home? Do we have to get in the car again and endure another transition? Do I have enough veggie burgers made up? Can I stretch the carrot and sesame seed salad?

I have a sudden urge to run into the garage, leap in the car and escape, my own personal delivery service, destination, sanity island.

I give up!

The front door slams shut after the girls as they gallop up the stairs. I take a deep breathe and start to stack the plates. I remember that I forgot to buy the milk. I need to knit myself a cocoon where I can hide. I remember that I forgot to go to the wool shop too. In the pile of mail, between the leaves of 'Fry's Blowout Sale' flyer, I find four assorted sized envelopes, 'thank you notes' for a memorable dinner, from 8 lovely grown up American people.

The dinner party is already a complete blur, wiped clean, memory card crash. My mother always emphasized the importance of thank you letters. I knew she was right. Now I know she was right. I pop them on the mantle piece to remind me of the many, many things that I have to be thankful for.

We live with so much falsehood, often self generated.

I wonder which bits my dinner guests remember?

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