MOUSE IN BIRDSEED

What you’re looking at is a mouse in the bottom of our tall barrel of birdseed. The barrel isn’t as big as the photo implies, but I wonder if it isn’t a little like a bird’s eye view of earth and its inhabitants, our insistent needs to eat, drink, survive at any cost, our deep fears of being discovered and exposed. God’s eye view of all of us.

All winter mice have managed to enter the birdseed barrel. We cover it fully, we put the heavy bottle of laundry detergent on the cover to make sure it doesn’t get moved, in fact when we take out the barrel to feed the birds there’s no hint of infiltration anywhere, but as soon as the detergent is moved away, the barrel uncovered and shaken a little bit, a mouse emerges. Or two.

At first I used to jump back at the sight. Now I practically expect it, and I’ve grown fond of them. What are you doing here? I ask for the umpteenth time. How did you get in?

The mouse shivers, keeps its eyes straight ahead. It tries to scamper up the barrel but all it can manage is a few inches before it falls down again, while I continue my lecture: I’ve told you a million times, I don’t mind if you stay down in the basement during winter. It’s when you come up to the laundry room [where we keep food for Stanley and the birds] and the kitchen [food for us] that I have a problem. Not to mention your nests under the hoods of the cars.

The mouse gives me no promises that it’ll amend its ways. No breast beating (I sinned, I coveted, I gluttoned!) or vow of restitution. I don’t hear it saying the Sh’ma, Hear oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One that one says before death, it doesn’t receive last rites or make a final confession. It’s just shaking and trembling, conveying with every shivering hair the knowledge of those high, unassailable walls and the even higher human on top demanding what it’s doing here.

And I feel a little embarrassed about how big I am, the complex scale of my existence in comparison to its so much humbler life, its so much humbler needs. You poor thing, I think to myself, you’re so small, you’re so weak. That’s true, it replies, but I reproduce like crazy.

So I take the barrel outdoors and turn it sideways. The unclimbable walls become bare plastic meadows and the mouse runs out. I was hoping it would freeze with the shock of new life once it feels the soil under its feet (it’s happened before), maybe sound a hosanna and give thanks while I click away at the camera, capturing the moment, but not this time. It scampers down the new grass for all its worth, making a beeline for the forsythia and, behind it, the line where the house meets the ground. It knows how to get right back in.

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IN THE HOUSE OF HORRORS

“Where are you, Stanley?”

“I’m hiding.”

“Get out of there. Dr. Brown can’t take care of you when you’re cowering like that between the wall and me.”

“Good.”

“You’re getting old, Stan. Your back legs don’t move so well, they’re either stiff or they shake. You slip on the wooden floors and over the weekend I could see that you were in pain. So here we are, to start you on pain management.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re going to get an anti-inflammatory to help you through arthritis and the pain of getting old.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s painful to get old, Stanley. It’s harder to walk, harder to stretch. Leeann says that when you’re all in the woods together you’re in the very back of the pack, sniffing everything.”

“I love to sniff. Can’t hear, can barely see, what else is left? Sniffing and food.”

“You’re being left behind.”

“So?”

“Don’t you want to catch up with the other dogs?”

“No, I’m happy being old. Now get me out of here.”

“But Dr. Brown can manage your pain.”

I can manage my pain. I walk slower, try to avoid the stairs, and if things hurt too much I sleep late. That’s what I call pain management. If you gave me more rides that would help.”

“We can do better than that, Stan. With only half a pill every day doused in your favorite cream cheese—”

“–The one with the smoked salmon?”

“–we can get you lighter on your paws, more eager and spry.”

“I don’t want to be lighter on my paws, in fact I’d like to eat more.”

“You’ll be bounding through that dog door in no time, you’ll play with the other dogs—”

“I don’t want to play with the other dogs—”

“You’ll feel younger, more energetic, life will course through your veins just like before.”

“Fuck that, get me out of here.”

“Trust me, pain management will make your life a joy. All you have to do is come out of there, let Dr. Brown stick you with a needle and take some blood to make sure you don’t have kidney issues, then stick you again with an injection, penetrate deeply inside your ears to get that dirt out, penetrate your anal sacs to get them cleaned out, clip your toenails, and you’ll be right as rain, happy, bright-eyed, loving every minute of—Stan? Stanley? Where did you go, Stan? Where are you, Stan?”

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GOING TO HELL

I’ve gained lots of insights out of Donald Trump’s election. For instance, I finally realize that many people in this country aren’t like me (not necessarily a bad thing). The second is that they’re also not like themselves. By this I mean that poor people who need help support a government that wants to undermine their medical benefits and give tax breaks to big corporations. Or that farmers who know damn well that global warming is happening voted for a government in denial of it and is now busy dismantling many of the rules and agencies trying to save our air, water, flora and fauna.

I used to call those contradictions, but not anymore. The world is complicated, and we’ve grown complicated along with it, able to hold conflicting viewpoints without much cognitive dissonance, in fact with an acceptance that seems perfectly natural. And here I have to make a confession. While I love to talk to undocumented immigrants and the people who serve them, love to talk to organizers and activists, I love even more to talk to those who wouldn’t be caught dead in the Women’s March on January 21, who love Donald, think he’s doing a great job and would do even better if not for paid and unpaid troublemakers like me (I’m in the second category).

I had some great talks with them in Alabama, and also closer to home. This weekend I’m going to the Stone Soup Café, which not only offers delicious weekly Saturday lunches for the Greenfield community but also gives away lots of free produce and extra food to take home. And that reminds me of one of the best conversations I’ve ever had at the Café. It took place a few years back, when I was still joining the cooks in the morning to help get things ready.

Mike was a cheery, middle-aged man, and I liked to sit with him and the Captain, an army veteran always accompanied by his black service dog wearing a red bandanna. Not for them the opening circle where everyone stood in a circle and introduced themselves, they’d sit in the back table waiting for the warm and fluffy stuff to end so that they could start eating. We’d talk about the food, maybe grouse about the wait till they served seconds. The two of them would compare notes on motorcycle festivals up in Vermont and New Hampshire and how the weather was all fucked up on account of the climate (they either didn’t vote or voted Republican).

I asked them to come to council, a group process of speaking and listening from the heart, which many regulars love because it’s almost the only time they could talk to people about their life and have someone listen. Unsurprisingly, Mike and the Captain laughed and said no, that’s not their thing. And without losing a beat, Mike told me how much he liked me and all, he appreciated lots of things I was doing, but in the end it wouldn’t do me any good because I was going to hell.

Oh, yeah? Nothing I like more than to talk to people who tell me I’m going to hell.

That’s because you’re not saved, he explained. He couldn’t be more nonchalant if he was talking about the weather. You don’t recognize Jesus as your savior. Now don’t take it personally, he adds quickly. I was just like you once, only I went on one of those evangelical cruises, see, and I was saved by Jesus.

Just like that?

Right between Miami and the Bahamas.

What was that like?

He appeared to me and I knew he was my savior.

And afterwards, what happened?

Whaddya mean?

I mean, did anything change? Like, are you different?

Naah, I’m just same old Mike, nothing different about that. Only I believe in him. I believe that after I die I’m gonna join him in heaven.

But I won’t.

He half-raises his hands defensively. Don’t get me wrong, he said, you’re a nice woman, I like talking to you, you cooked all morning for us, but I can’t help it. You’re going to hell.

 

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SCENES OF DOMESTIC BLISS

Photo by Rami Efal

Does your right leg hurt? I ask Bernie in the morning.

I don’t know, does it?

I look at him, bewildered. It’s your leg, you tell me.

But is it his leg if he can’t feel it? This leads to all kinds of philosophical musings.

 

One weekend afternoon I hear him talking to a musician on the phone, someone who’s been in the spotlight for most of his life but now was telling Bernie that he messed up a song, couldn’t remember the chords. I lost my confidence, man, he says.

That means you lost your knowing, says Bernie. If you have confidence, that means you still know something. You lose your confidence, you lose your knowing, and you just go on playing.

 

I’m cold. Can you raise the temperature?

Bernie, you’re on top of the covers.

So?

Blankets are meant to cover you, be on top, not under.

Are you sure?

 

In the evening Bernie tells me a joke.

I don’t get it.

It’s a non-gettable joke, he informs me.

We start laughing. But Bernie, is a joke still a joke if it’s non-gettable?

Of course it is, see how you’re laughing?

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

But by now we’re both laughing hard, Bernie with high-pitched giggles.

 

Don’t talk to him, Jessie, I tell Jessie who works in the office. He’s talking with his left hand.

Bernie gesticulates as he talks, which he should do with his right hand. More use of that right hand equals more strength and versatility.

Where’s my mitt? he says, looking around his desk for the white mitt which he brought back with him from the Taub Clinic, in which they inserted his left hand, forcing him to use the right.

Of course, someone suggests, you can just use your mouth to talk and leave your hands out of it.

I’m from Brooklyn, he says, putting his left hand inside the mitt. And as he talks, the right hand comes to life.

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HABLO ESPAGNOL MUY POCO

The other day I got into my car in mid-afternoon and drove down the river where farms are clustered all the way down to Hadley and further south. It was a nice day, for a change, since we’ve had so much rain. I enjoyed the sight of the river rising up the banks, the sound of tractors and the earth (and farmwork) coming back to life, thinking of the farm stands that will soon open up with their fresh vegetables.

I am so blessed; we are so blessed, are phrases I hear a lot around here. Frankly, I dislike them. Not just because they’re clichés, but because if that’s the case, what should I say about Carlos (fictional name), whom I was picking up, who has no legal papers and can’t drive, so how will he get to work or anywhere else in this rural area, and who worries about knocks on the door in the middle of the night? Should I say he’s cursed?

You’ll find him in the barn, someone in a truck tells me, and I go in there, smell the fragrances of herbs, and a short, broad-chested man comes towards me, a tentative smile on his face and surprisingly sweet features. I introduce myself as I always to do Spanish-speaking people: Eva, with a short rather than a long E.

I’ve been learning a little Spanish online, just enough to tell him Hablo espagnol muy poco. His English is a lot better. I put my phone camera away. No photos here for sure, though I’d love to photograph his sweet face. We used to make heroes out of people who risked their lives multiple times to escape poverty and persecution, and now we can’t take photos, have to change names, use different computer servers. Don’t say undocumented workers, say agricultural workers. And there’s a page worth of cautions in your instructions about what to do if stopped by the police. First caution: Don’t speed.

So off we go to the courthouse where Carlos has an appointment. He’s married, no children here. My ears pick up on here, aqui. He’s worked in various farms here for a number of years, always for very good American people. I believe that, if only because I know how farmers here value and need this kind of help. He’s lived in bigger cities further south, but he likes the quiet here. Same for me, I tell him.

He’s from Mexico, somewhere from the south. He’s interested to hear that we were once in Chiapas, with Payasos sin Fronteras, Clowns Without Borders, and he laughs at the name. Who knew there was such a thing as clowns without borders? Who knew there’s anything anymore that’s without borders? But actually there are lots: hard work, taking care of your family, sending money back so your aging parents can live a little longer, love.

He doesn’t go to class to learn English, he’s afraid. I’ll tutor you, I tell him, or more like it, I’ll find someone to do that for you. I know he’s looking dubiously at me even as I keep my eye on the road. He’s nervous about trusting too much, wondering what trouble he’ll get into and if I won’t send ICE agents his way. Really, I tell him, without making a big deal out of it. You have my phone number. If you want to learn more English, call me, I can arrange it.

He doesn’t know we are trying to arrange Circles of Care for these families, groups of 5-10 people surrounding each family and providing them with the services they need: drives, child care, translation help in the doctor’s office or meetings with their children’s school teachers. Many look for help with papers giving legal guardianship of their children to others in case they’re taken away. We’ll do what they want and need.

But the distrust and fear are so palpable that we must tread softly. Even in generosity, I don’t want to be the imperialist Norteamericana. Bear witness, find the small place in their meager, endangered world where you can fit in with humble but good intentions. Listen, listen, listen. You’re not blessed, they’re not cursed, the loss of friends, parents, spouses, and loved ones is just around the corner for all of us. It’s what makes us all equally human, it’s why we all need help.

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HE AND HIS SHADOW

It was just before supper. The sun was setting to the west, I looked towards Bernie, saw the shadow against our yellow wall, and ran upstairs to get the phone camera.

What are you doing? he asked. Oh, you want to take a photo of me.

Not of you, I said, your shadow.

I was startled because the profile in the shadow on the dining room wall looked just like the profile of Bernie I remembered from the past: the arching forehead, the tips of thick eyebrows (just like Daruma, Japanese visitors used to say, referring to Bodhidharma who brought Buddhism from India to China), the long, deceptively sharp nose (deceptive because it’s actually quite thick when seen up front), and finally, the stubborn, pugnacious chin.

Oh, that chin! How often I remember it jutting out just like it did on that wall, only then it was in the face of difficulties, impossibilities, pissed-off board members, and pissed-off students. Barack Obama’s Yes we can! was uplifting. Bernie’s was more in-your-face, more Brooklyn, more Yes I can! Chase Manhattan wants to close Greyston down? Like hell (my word, he never swore)! The neighbors don’t want us to bring homeless families in? We’ll show them. The board is telling me I can’t do this or I can’t do that? Watch me. Recalcitrant students demand I teach like other teachers, give talks the way I used to, stop walking the streets of the neighborhood and trying to make more deals? Too bad!

His shadow seemed to be just as I remember it from the past, still evincing certainty and strength. And then I look at the person full front, the soft face, the old, sad eyes, the still ruddy features, the thin hair, the thinner body, the fragile loveliness, and I feel as though past and present are staring me in the face simultaneously.

If nothing stays the same, how come the shadow looks like it did years ago? Does it never get old? Does it never fade?

We used to have arguments about the past. Why did you do it like that? Why were you so tough? How come you didn’t pay attention? And he would say to me, I’ve changed, Eve, I’ve changed.

But not your shadow, I think to myself, looking at the wall, looking at my own dusky mind. We think of shadows disappearing with the movement of sunlight, but actually they don’t seem to change half as fast as the human being.

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I ONLY REGRET I HAVE BUT ONE WAY TO LOVE YOU

I get out of bed and Stanley looks up from where he’s lying on thick, furry blankets. Food!

Later!

Now!

Later!

After my shower and raising the thermostat, I give him his breakfast. A few minutes later he follows me upstairs. Walk!

Later, I say.

Now!

Later!

I hate that word.

I know. Later!

Now-later-now-later is our lifetime tug-of-war. Stanley, with his eager, sparkling eyes only seems to know now!; later doesn’t exist. In his life, it’s literally now or never. Now!, when I pick up his collar, he dances back and forth by the front door (even at this age with his crippled back legs), tail wagging furiously, eyes on no one and nothing but me. Later!, and he flops down on the rug, inconsolable, his world at an end.

I prepare to go out to the car and he heads happily towards the garage door. Drive!

Later!

Now! I’m 13-1/2 years old, there isn’t much later.

Later!

Or he’s waiting out for Bernie’s leftovers. We trained him to wait till the end of the meal, but his memory’s not so good anymore.

Now! he says to Bernie.

Later.

Now.

Later.

There are times when it’s turned around. We’re going to Dr. Brown, I’ll say in the car once we reach that familiar low building with the mat saying Welcome to All Paws and the fascinating smells in the grass out front. He has to be seen by the vet because his back legs have gotten worse and he seems to be in more pain.

The House of Horrors! Later!

Now, Stanley!

Later!

Now!

He lies on the red blanket that covers the couch downstairs, waiting for me to give him food in the morning. I sit by him. Another wonderful day with Stanley, I murmur, because I don’t know how many more of these we’ll have. He squirms and rolls from one side to another, begging for strokes, then rolls back onto his belly and thrusts his muzzle up to lick my chin with endless urgency, as if he’s saying, I only regret I have but one way to love you. And though it causes my skin to itch and sometimes turn pink, I fervently, gratefully shut my eyes at the feel of that tongue because I know that very soon we’ll have a different conversation:

Time to go, he’ll say.

Later, I’ll say.

Now.

Later, please, Stanley!.

Now, Eve. Now.

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WHO DID WE THINK WE WERE?

I just returned from a quick trip to beautiful Naples, Florida, where I visited an old friend of mine. I’ll call her Marie, and at the age of 91 Marie is ill, in the hospital, and quite alone.

Marie has a wonderful daughter (close by) and grandson (not so close by), who don’t have the wherewithal to visit her very much. Her friends for the most part have died and she has had to leave her home for a nursing home. Many things stood out for me (especially how thin and weak she was even as she retained her Grande Dame manner), but what most hit me was her aloneness.

The aloneness built into our culture is what I think of when I read another article about the addictions, illnesses, and early deaths of white blue-collar workers. When so many people in this country are without jobs over decades (there’s now a second generation that can’t find work) and start to rely on disability checks or opioids to get through a day or a lifetime, I start paying attention.

But I remember that nonwhite blue-collar workers have fared no better, in fact they’ve fared worse, only since the rate of their early deaths hasn’t risen people don’t make a big fuss about them. So why is it that it’s the American white workers who die so much earlier than their nonwhite American counterparts, or their counterparts in other countries, like Germany, where many such workers have also lost work?

Researchers speculate about different expectations, different safety nets, different cultures. I am no expert, but what strikes me is our aloneness. I think we Americans, coming out of our culture of rugged individualism, are very alone. We graduate from school and go wherever the jobs or careers are, thinking nothing of leaving everything behind. In America, self-determination {Follow your dreams!] is everything, and sometimes it costs everything, too.

What happens if we lose those jobs, if we lose those dreams? Who and what sustain us? How strong are the bonds of family and community? Who is ready to brake his or her own rise to the top to be there for someone unemployed, someone old, someone ailing? I include myself in this, for I live far, far away from my elderly mother. I often wonder how available I make myself for family and friends, if I’m not too, too busy writing, teaching, and having my incredible life.

Oh Eve, who did we think we were? Marie said to me as she lay in the hospital bed. Her thin face shows fine bones, her skin is still porcelain except where it’s black and blue from fractures she suffered in a fall. We had our dreams, we thought we were so important; who did we think we were?

Those are the words I took back with me from Florida. How important do I think I am, who still, even at the age of 67, wants so much from life? When do I finally let go of at least half those dreams and finally look around me, at people who need time and attention, people who need visits (not just 48 hours), people I should connect with even if it’s not part of my work? What happened to community, humility, to love?

When we rise up and up and up, we leave others behind. And then we’re alone.

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ONE STROKE OF THE PEN

I have deep faith that we’re all one, that we resonate with each other and with stones, trees and sky, and that we are all in the process of awakening to this truth. That is at the core of my general optimism. Even when I feel discouraged by what happens in the world, I keep in mind the caution of the Native Americans that you must think seven generations ahead, or the Dalai Lama’s words, when asked about the effects of this war or that revolution, that it’s too early to tell.

A there are days when opening emails or the newspaper reveals a country in disarray, uncaring towards in citizens, and hellbent on self-destruction. One stroke of the pen and ICE agents knock on families’ doors in the middle of the night. Another stroke, and parents are deported leaving children behind. Another stroke, and a pipeline is authorized to go through sacred grounds of the Lakota. Another stroke to authorize another giant pipeline bringing fracked oil all the way down from Canada. Another stroke, and carbon emissions are permitted to increase. Another stroke, and coal can now be mined again regardless of what’s released into the air. Another stroke, and mining operations can now pollute rivers (including uranium mines). Another stroke, and we’re back to hunting grizzlies and shooting wolves from the air in Alaska.

Who’ll reap the results of all that? Who’ll have to clean all that up? Not the companies, the American taxpayer.

Jobs, jobs jobs, as long as you consume consume consume. Who in his right mind thinks that that’s a sober, realistic response to this complex world?

I’m exaggerating a little bit. Donald Trump can’t do all that with a stroke of his pen, some of that honor goes to our Republican-controlled, Paul Ryan-led Congress. Some of this will be fought over in the courts. But harm is already being done.

And it’s not just Donald Trump by a longshot. Let us speak of the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, a man whose mild, respectful manner and intelligence I would like to respect, but whose vision for our country seems to include giving more and more benefits to the rich and less and less to the poor, be it medical care or tax reform.

I try hard to understand his vision of limited federal government. Perhaps we do have too many regulations in place that create bureaucracy and discourage small businesses, but is that sufficient reason to introduce a medical care bill that would remove so many from care now and, by limiting Medicaid, make life even more impossible for the poor and elderly in the future?

What country is this where so many members of our government don’t believe in basic medical care for citizens? When friends or family come to visit from abroad, they take out expensive travel medical insurance ahead of time because they know that if they get sick here in the US, they’re in trouble. Many countries much poorer than us take much, much better care of people.

So I look at Donald Trump’s signature, see what a stroke of a pen can do. Examine the many tall lines like Trump Towers, the almost total lack of curves or horizontals, just up-down-up-down, and think of Mary Oliver’s The Morning Paper:

Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition

is the best

for by evening you know that you at least

have lived through another day)

and let the disasters, the unbelievable

yet approved decisions,

soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,

ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces

to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?

 

Mary Oliver’s The Morning Paper

 

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WOMAN AS CAREGIVER-2

Photo by Rami Efal

I did a one-day retreat this past weekend, my first since Bernie’s stroke, and we talked about someone being here during the day. I would be gone from 8 in the morning till at least 5 in late afternoon and Bernie said he could be left alone. It would be the first time he’d be alone for most of a day. He could get up on his own, make coffee and hot cereal for breakfast, he could make a simple lunch, sit at his desk, work, watch television. I would be back for dinner and the evening.

But the night before, I got nervous. Are you sure? Maybe I’ll look in on you at lunch. I calculated there were 45 minutes for lunch on the schedule, say 40 to get back on the cushion on time. 15 minutes one way, 15 minutes back, leaving a very quick 10 minutes to fight off Stanley’s eagerness at the door (Walk! Walk! Walk!), pop my head in either the office or the bedroom—Hi how’re you doing? Everything ok? Did you eat?—and off I’d go again. No lunch.

I thought how much I loved this man and didn’t want anything to happen to him. After he fell asleep my imagination went a little wild.

But is love everything? Is it really, like the Beatles claimed, all you need? I woke up early on Saturday, got my things together, and drove to the next hill where we sit, thinking about choices. I love to love, but I also love to sit, study, teach, write, walk in the woods. I am not just a lover. It’s easy to try to emulate other female paradigms who give so much, but that’s not who I am.

I’ve always logically known that for everything I choose to do there’s a cost, namely, what I don’t do. This is more visible now than ever before. I wake up earlier than my body wants to, waiving more sleep to get something written early. We like to talk when Bernie wakes up later, but I tear away because time is passing. I use weekday evenings to catch up on things rather than being more together, otherwise the cracks get too big. I plan to visit a very old and sick friend of mine, probably the last time I’ll see her, in Florida and leave him for two days. He’ll have care, but my heart will be troubled.

I honor the things that pull me, but almost always I am torn. Of course, there’s that small voice inside that says, That’s your conditioning as a woman. I’ve gone over it a million times, how easy it is for the world to expect a woman to put everything else aside and take care of people, expectations a man doesn’t face. Those assumptions are so strong I know I’ve internalized them, no one has to say a word, I’ll say it for them. I even know that had we changed roles and I had the stroke, I doubt very much that Bernie would have done all this for me.

But then there’s love. There was Friday night, thinking of my full-day sitting the next day, watching him at the same time. I didn’t feel guilt, I felt torn, and I think that’s part of loving. Loving isn’t just the clinging or the hugs, it’s also planning and organizing even as cracks appear, it’s trying to cover all bases and failing. It’s not forgetting to put yourself in the equation.

There’s very little of that in the great spiritual books and traditions, where the heroes (almost always men) are ready to live and die for the sake of humanity but not for the sake of one person.

Make yourself happy, Bernie often tells me. When you’re happy, we’re both happy. When you’re not happy, things aren’t so good. Which is his polite way of saying that I’m a terror to be with when I’m not happy..

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