Meeting a Hero

I wish I hadn’t been such a big fan.

It’s awful, but after you open with, “oh my god, you are the reason I thought I could do it. You’re my inspiration,” it’s hard to carry the conversation in a normal way.

Rachel Caine (real name Roxanne Conrad) was my writing hero.

Was. What a horrible word.

She died yesterday, after a long and yet not-long-enough illness. Sarcoma is one of the cruelest of cancers. She was so brave.

I liked Rachel’s Weather Warden books the most. They’re this great midpoint between magic and science. They are inspiring, the heroine kicks ass, they are sexy. They are wholly original, and a lot of fun. There’s even a spinoff series, and I am still thirsty for more.

So I loved the books. But it wasn’t the books that made Rachel my inspiration (well, it was, but also…). It was her personal story. She didn’t live somewhere typical, like New York or London or California. She lived in Texas, not far from me. And she hadn’t always been a writer. And she persevered through so much.

That was what made me think I could do it. She was a real person, not some literary superstar, and that brought my dreams down within reach. If she could be a real person AND be a writer, maybe I could, too.

When I was having a hard time, my husband-to-be reached out to Rachel/Roxanne, asking her for a letter. Bless her heart, she actually wrote one, to me, a nobody nothing writer. I kept that letter. I should get it framed. But then how would I hold it? It’s wrinkled from being folded and read so many times. There may be tear stains.

And then I met her.

I really tried to keep it cool, but she’s my real-world idol. I asked a few questions about her books, got her to sign a copy. I looked up when she was speaking and attended her talk, even though I had no idea what the story was about because it was from another series I hadn’t read yet. I texted my husband with lots of exclamation points.

I saw her multiple times, after that first one. I followed her on Twitter, and tried to not be weird about it. She was the speaker of honor at the writer’s convention, and her story was both inspiring and so frustrating.

She was always so nice. She was always writing. Even just on breaks at the con, when I was hiding by the snack food and trying to avoid making even more small talk, I would see her typing away at her laptop in a corner.

I wish I hadn’t been such a fan so that I could have more gracefully become a friend. I wish I had had more time. I had planned to get a decent enough footing with my own books that I wouldn’t feel like a gawping novice next to her anymore. That day probably wouldn’t ever have come, but I’m sad it’s been taken from me.

I’ll miss you, Rachel Caine. God bless you, Roxanne Conrad. You are, and always will be, and inspiration.

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Virtual Baby Shower Mad Lib Advice

I hosted a baby shower for a friend recently, and struggled to find things to make a virtual shower feel fun. One common idea is a “mad lib”–collectively shout out random words to create nonsensical “advice” for the parents.

But most of the ones I found online were, frankly, crap. They were sexist or made fun or the pregnant person’s body or were really short.

So I wrote my own! It went pretty well, so I thought I’d share with you.

Mad Lib Baby Shower: Advice for New Parents

Your sweet little [vegetable] is almost here! We are so [emotion] for you! Your [adjective] friends wanted to give you the best advice, so here it all is:

  • Don’t forget to carry a [noun] and a [noun] in the diaper bag.
  • You can save $[number] a [unit of time] by using [material] diapers!
  • Be sure to wash with [smell] soap.
  • If the baby won’t stop [verb ending in -ing], try to [verb].
  • You should have at least [number] of [plural nouns] at all times.
  • If the baby is [temperature], be sure to [verb] them in [clothing item].
  • Never [verb] a baby; call [person] if you need help.
  • When baby cries, sing [song name]; it works every time!
  • On tiring days, remember that you are [adjective]!

Here’s how that worked for us:

Your sweet little brussel sprout is almost here! We are so fearful for you! Your bubbly friends wanted to give you the best advice, so here it all is:

  • Don’t forget to carry a nipple and a hammer in the diaper bag.
  • You can save $42 a second by using leather diapers!
  • Be sure to wash with smoky soap.
  • If the baby won’t stop smiling, try to crawl.
  • You should have at least 16 handcuffs at all times.
  • If the baby is 126 degrees, be sure to wiggle them in shoes.
  • Never break a baby; call Elvis if you need help.
  • When baby cries, sing Roar!; it works every time!
  • On tiring days, remember that you are sticky!

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Decrypting the Secret Flower Messages of Enola Holmes

Enola Holmes is the new movie imagining a feminist, charming, brilliant younger sister to famous detective Sherlock.

One of the critical moments early on is a gift of the Victorian book Language of Flowers, which turns out to be a clue in the bigger mystery. But this movie also leaves floral clues strewn throughout the movie. They are very clever and subtle; I thought I’d decode them.

[Spoilers for the movie follow!]

The first flower we see is when Enola is unwrapping the gift of the Language of Flowers. It’s a pink tulip on a card that says “use these gifts wisely.” Pink tulips stand for caring.

Sherlock reviews the flowers in mother’s room: Chrysanthemums, and Queen Anne’s Lace, symbolizing a steady familial attachment and truth, and sanctuary, respectively. Of course, Chrysanthemums are also called “mums,” a little play on the British term for mother.

Enola finds another card, this one decorated with delicate blue flowers and the words “our future is up to us.” They are only on the screen for a moment, but these seem to be forget-me-nots. In flashbacks of Enola’s mother, she is wearing a blue flower pin: no surprise, this is also a forget-me-not, very suitable for memory, and the very plea that forms the name: please, don’t forget me.

Her mother’s middle name is “Violet,” which means devotion or faithfulness. Even when absent, her mother is devoted to Enola.

When Enola buys a dress, she wears a necklace that seems to have a flower on it. Unfortunately, I can’t see what flower that is, so this one will have to go unsolved! Since the dress is red, perhaps we can assume it is a sweet pea, the symbol of delicate femininity, which is, of course, a joke.

The dress is covered all over in a flower brocade. Perhaps roses? Burgundy roses symbolize unconscious beauty, meaning Enola doesn’t realize how attractive she really is.

While investigating a mystery, Enola takes on the surname “Posey.” This is a play on words as well; she is “posing” as someone else at the time. But a “posey,” to Victorians, was a small collection of flowers, often the means by which these flower messages were transmitted.

The lady of the house wears a blue dress with faded yellow brocade flowers. Unfortunately, I can’t tell what kind, but I’m certain the costume designer has left a reference here, too.

Enola, while on a search for clues on a side mystery, discovers a pressed flower. It looks to me like a cornflower, also known as a “bachelor’s button.” The Victorian book of flowers I cross-referenced here also indicates it stands for hope in love. Because the boy ends up being Enola’s beau, of course!

When she surprises the boy in a flower market, he offers her a white rose tinged with red; innocence and, of course, love. It’s very sweet.

Tellingly, there are no flowers at all in the finishing school. Ms. Harrison’s strict school is unyielding, but also lacks depth. No secret messages here.

Toward the end, Enola’s mother is seen wearing a dress covered in flowers. They are pansies, which can be said to symbolize long-standing love and thinking. Appropriate for the Holmesian mother.


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Review: Dragon Keeper

I rediscovered this series after a too-long hiatus. I found I remembered a lot of the prior stories, but must have missed one or two along the way. But that was okay! Aside from a few cameos, this book is a whole new cast, picking up the storyline as the serpents become dragons.

I like the varied viewpoints, and how easy it is to sink completely into them. These are fully fleshed and thought characters, and it is lovely to let the story envelop you.

I really really enjoyed it and am looking for the next one. The reason this gets four stars instead of five is it is clearly not a whole book. It just… stops. It isn’t even a cliffhanger, really. The book just ends. There is a scene a bit before that could have made a nice cozy ending, but this feels like the publisher was worried no one would pick up the next one without a lead-in. Very foolish, of course, and it leaves the book feeling like you are just getting to know the characters when the curtain falls on the play.

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If I Were On Queer Eye

A hypothetical script

The cast of Queer Eye will be blown away by meeting me.

<cast driving. Clips of cows and suburbia. Occasional Texas stereotypes>

Antoni: “So today we’re going to meet an author! She writes about zombies and aliens and things like that…”

Tan, making a face: “Uh okay, weird.”

Jonathan: “Love me some creativity, yas!”

A: “…she’s had a baby and been trapped inside because of a pandemic, and has kind of let some things go…”

Bobby: “Understandable, it’s a busy time.”

Karamo: “We’ve all been there.”

A: “But it’s time for a refresh and a change! Boys, we’re going to help this author turn a new page!”

All: “wooo!”

<cue intro theme>

<Cast pull up to a small suburban house. It’s ok, but the plants are half-dead. Jonathan pretends to faint from the heat. Karamo glistens.>

<ME Kinkade is sitting on the floor, playing with a baby. There is a knock at the door and the boys tumble in.>

M: “wow what a surprise! This camera crew has been here for half an hour, what took you so long?! Yay!!”

<they tour the house. Bobby looks disappointed at the clutter. Antoni inspects the fridge, which is clean but pretty empty. Jonathan tries on maternity leggings. Tan looks disgusted. Karamo glistens.>

M: “I’m just so excited you’re here.” <She looks generally embarrassed.>

<intro for Antoni’s portion>

A: “So I understand you like to bake?”

M: “Yeah, I was one of the ‘quarantine bakers,’ but that was just because I was home more. I also love Great British Bake-off.”

A: “Ok great! I thought I’d take you here, to Really Obscure Bakery!” <to woman behind the counter> “Hey Tricia!” <back to M> “Ok so you’re a busy mom, and I get that, so I thought we’d learn to make croissants. They only take 14 hours to make and the delicate puff pastry is great for kids to play with.”

Antoni is love

<cut to the removing croissants from the oven. A’s look perfect. M’s look like buttery poop emoji.>

A: “Delicious, right? You could totally make this with the baby if you take 2 days off work!”

<M attempts to smile> <transition to Karamo>

K: “Heyyy! Let’s go girl, we got lots to do!”

<K takes M to a carnival. They walk through, eating oversized caramel corn.>

K: “So you’re a mom now? Woah, right?”

M: “Yeah, it’s been a lot. It’s a big transition and it’s hard to feel like I know what I’m doing.”

K: “And you are having some trouble with body image? You think you look fat.”

M: “well, I mean, yeah…” <she looks flustered>

K: “that’s why I brought you here, to the House of Mirrors! You just have to walk through and learn to accept yourself.”

M: “… seriously?”

Karamo, a man carved from mahogany and psychotherapy

<M enters funhouse mirrors. She warps tall, wide, with huge eyes. The camera makes this extra unflattering.>

K: “See? I have taught you everything in 15 minutes!”

<M gives a tepid smile. She is more self-conscious than before.>

<Tan appears, mysteriously. He is wearing what looks to be a neon green garbage bag. This is “chic.”>

T: “Karamo has you all ready for me? Nothing like seeing yourself in mirrors to get psyched for trying on clothes, right my luv?”

M: “Uh, sure. Can we go?”

<cut to a Fancy Store.>

T: “Ok, so have you considered not dressing like a pile of dirty laundry? Let’s get you in some actual clothes.”

<M comes out wearing high pumps and excessive animal print>

T: “Gorg, you look gorg! How do you feel?”

M: “…I hate this…”

Tan, a man with more clothes than most department stores

<producers rush over to M, panicked. A whispered conversation ensues, reminding M that she has signed a contract promising to like what Tan gives her. He is Not To Be Ruffled.>

<cut back to M, in a new style. In a dry flat voice:> “Wooow, this is so meee. How diiid you do it? <she looks pained>

<hasty transition to Jonathan>

<Jonathan fluffs M’s hair, which was possibly washed three days ago> “So like, tell me, what we’re you trying to do here?”

M: “Umm, I just never know what to do with my hair so I give up and put it in a pony.”

J, fabulously: “You have, like, such great foundation here, we are just going to jjuxz it up a bit, ok?”

<Jonathan works their hair care magic and introduces the concept of makeup.>

<J turns the chair around for the reveal. M looks like a supermodel, somehow. She will never be able to replicate this look.>

Jonathan, actual wizard

<transition back to the house. The boys are outside, cooing. M attempts to strut. She is blindfolded and taken inside.>

<reveal. How is now bigger and is decorated like a Pier 1 store before bankruptcy. M is astonished.>

B: “So your house was great but it had textured walls, so I just burned it down and built you a new one with more rooms in three days’ time. I put up wallpaper from my brand in the foyer so you’d remember me.”

M: “OMG Bobby you do the most work out of anyone here. Karamo just took me to a carnival and spent $15. He wouldn’t even buy me a snocone. You are the greatest!”

Bobby is an artiste

<the boys gather in for the summary. Everyone cuddles. M gushes.>

M: “Wow. Thank you so much. I never thought this would happen because, while I not together enough to care for myself alone, I am also not in terrible shape. It was like writing Queer Eye fanfic was going to be the only way I would be close to you. But here you are, and here we all are in my brand-new house that Bobby built.” <close-up on Bobby, who blushes modestly> “I’ve learned so much from you and I am so grateful you exist to brighten people’s lives—especially mine!”

<closing shot of happy family, failing to make croissants while awkwardly waddling in two-small heels. The boys are attractive, as usual.>

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All The Things No One Warned Me About Breastfeeding

Look, this is an embarrassing topic. To be honest, I don’t much like even thinking about breastfeeding because it makes me feel a bit weird and squeamish. But I also wish someone had told me these things, so in the interest of warning others and possibly engendering some empathy for new breastfeeding mothers, I thought I’d write about it.

But that means if you feel like workin’ boob talk makes you uncomfortable, please skip this post! See you at my next book review or something happy and fluffy.

Gross baby feeding talk incoming. Definitely TMI.

Last chance to bail…

Comic by Victoria Bolduc
Comic by Victoria Bolduc. Extremely accurate.

Ok. So breastfeeding. There are a lot of Opinions about breastfeeding, about whether or not you are a good enough mother or if your baby won’t be Einstein if you don’t, a lot of shade gets thrown. But it was pretty hard to actually learn anything useful before I started.

I tried. I am a big research person. I read Emily Oster’s books, Cribsheet and Expecting Better (highly recommend), The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (a La Leche League book, do not recommend, hated it), and lots of online articles. I watched the Babies documentary series on Netflix (lovely, but mostly about babies and less about parents, duh). And I attended a two-hour hospital class on breastfeeding, which was 70% about why we should breastfeed (and wasn’t factually correct, often), 10% how, 10% about breastfeeding complications, and 10% about how to pump (with 5% of that being totally bogus ways to ask for accommodations). (That class made me real mad.)

My point is, I tried to be prepared. I bought the things. I read the books. I wish I had known more. Here is what I have learned, in the months I’ve been breastfeeding my kid.

  • It hurts. Like, way more than I was led to believe. The lactation nurse was like “yeah, it’ll curl your toes!” And that wasn’t warning enough. It hurts about as much as my cat when he kneads the bare skin of my leg; about as much as someone coming up and pinching and twisting a bit of your arm. Except on a very sensitive area. It hurts for every feeding for the first two or three months, gradually getting better as your baby figures out eating. There is nothing you can do for the pain. You are expected to just tough it out. It also, apparently, hurts all over again for each baby, because it has to do with both your body learning what to do and with baby figuring out the mechanics of eating.
  • Not feeding the baby also hurts. Especially at first, your hormones are running wild and your body is just churning out milk, and your boobs just fill with milk. They can get engorged. You end up with rock-hard boulder-boobs that just throb.
  • Sometimes it hurts just randomly. Even now after several months of practice, sometimes I get a shooting pain, like being stabbed with a needle. No apparent reason. Fun!
  • You can leak. Some people don’t. Some people only do if they get engorged. I am one of the “lucky” ones who just leaks randomly all the time. There are these little absorbent pads to stuff in your bra to keep your shirts from being ruined. They inflate like beach balls when they get wet. I have to wear them all the time. My baby sleeps through the night, which is great for my sleep and mental health—except I sometimes wake up in a totally soggy bed. Sometimes it feels like someone poured a half-gallon of milk on me. It is gross and dispiriting. The only advice is to wear a better bra to sleep in. Great.
  • Your breasts can get clogged. If you don’t feed baby enough, or wear the wrong clothes, or just whenever, you can get a clogged duct. This was mentioned in the class, but I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a rock-hard limo under the skin, and if you don’t get it out, you can get an infection called mastitis, which is exactly like the flu but with red streaks on your boob. So to avoid mastitis, you have to get the clog out, mostly by trying to put enough heat on it to melt it, but also by squeezing and/or vibration. And when it’s finally gone, you feel deeply bruised even if there are no marks.
  • The first month of a baby’s life, you have to feed them at least every three hours, around the clock. And the three-hour timer begins when the baby starts eating (and a single feeding session can last 40 minutes at first. They really aren’t good at it.). So this means, at first, you are constantly either feeding the baby or about to feed the baby. It is exhausting.
  • The nurses and LLL lie to you. Breastfeeding is not free. You need nursing bras, and lanolin cream, and a pump (and extra parts!), and new shirts that work with breastfeeding, and and and… Sure, in theory you don’t have to have anything, but in reality people are still spending money on breastfeeding. And don’t discount the time and emotional energy costs!
  • Breastmilk is sold to you as the “perfect” food for your baby and you are told you always have enough. Definitely not universally true. Even putting aside baby food allergies (which make the mom stop eating all kinds of fundamental foods like eggs or wheat), you are encouraged to give baby vitamins. If it is perfect, why do you need to add vitamins?! As for always having enough, I have not yet encountered a mom how has not had, at some point, to supplement with formula. This is presented as basically failing, but it is almost universal.
  • You don’t have to lose your sense of modesty. I understand a lot of women do, but I still have no interest in being topless around others. I use a cover or leave the room. It’s your body and you get to decide how comfortable you are with showing it, even if you are using it to feed a baby.

Put all this together, and breastfeeding is just hard. When you first start, you are exhausted and in some kind of pain, and have no idea what you are doing, and it hurts. You’re told to just keep doing it, despite running on fumes.

I don’t write any of this to discourage breastfeeding at all. I am glad I have been able to feed my baby adequately, give him the nutrition he needs, and cuddle him a lot. But I don’t think I was given the tools to be successful. By not telling people these things, we a) make the early struggle seem like it is their personal fault and responsibility (if breastfeeding isn’t “magical”) and b) limit others’ empathy for someone going through a challenging time.

I think I would have been less stressed and anxious had I known what to expect. I could have been easier on myself or at least been prepared to change my sheets frequently. I would have had a better understanding of what is normal versus my own struggle.

So that’s my advice to new parents: take it easy on yourself. There is no one way to be successful. And talk to others in a new parent group; they’ll talk about everything, and you’ll learn from real experiences. And good luck.


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Animal Crossing: Real Life

Like everyone, it seems, I’ve been bitten by the Animal Crossing: New Horizons bug (where IS my net?). It has such a simple, peaceful format, with nice, achievable bite-size goals. It’s so pleasant.

It was about when I realized I was spending more time digital gardening than real-world gardening that I wondered, why not?

Let’s try to make real life as nice as our islands.

So here you go: AC achievements for your real life. Have fun and make your world a little better. Print them out and put a stamp next to each achievement as you go. You can even give yourself “nook miles” to spend on yourself!

  • Eat a piece of fruit
  • Plant a tree
  • Plant native flowers
  • Plant a shrub
  • Take a photo
  • Go fishing
  • Hold a celebration
  • DIY
    • a wreath
    • A bench
    • Artwork
    • A gift
  • Customize furniture
  • Send a letter to a friend
  • Give someone a present
  • Buy shares (or invest in your retirement plan
  • Research fossils
  • Google an insect you find outside
  • Tidy up
  • Change your wardrobe
    • Dress in something spooky
    • Dress in something fancy
    • Dress in something colorful
    • Try on a hat
  • Pick up litter
  • Call a friend just to say hi
  • Reach a savings goal
  • Decorate your room
  • Decorate your neighborhood (with chalk)
  • Go for a walk
  • Collect seashells/leaves
  • Catch a butterfly (and then release it)
  • Share a recipe
  • Shop at a local business
  • Rearrange your furniture
  • Buy something that will be shipped to you
  • Dig up a rock
  • Put money in the bank/grow your money
  • Pay off a loan
  • Design a pattern
  • Plan a trip somewhere new
  • Make every day feel as cozy as a day in Animal Crossing!

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Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wholly original idea: a modern-written Victorian mystery with a woman at its center. Crocodile on a Sandbank took me a few pages to get into, but once I settled into the Victorian-esque prose (and spellings! and cultural norms!), it felt as cozy as a carriage ride. And the mystery totally fooled me!

Amelia Peabody is a self-possessed woman of means out to see the world. She’s Jane Eyre with money and a backbone. She finds herself a traveling companion (whose own backstory is too juicy to spoil) who more accurately reflects the damsel trope but who herself is also more than she seems. Together, they explore first Rome, then Egypt, following the real-world trend of Victorians gaining an interest in antiquities. They discover not only a pair of archeologists working on a newly-found tomb, but also a devilish mystery!

The book is charming, and very fun. It’s escapism that is happily nestled in reality, and while Amelia Peabody is fictional, the real history packed around the story is obviously well-researched and considered. It’s a thoughtful book that will make you thirst for adventure, carefully balancing modern culture with Victorian concepts. I look forward to reading more!

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Paint-by-Numbers Creativity

A ghastly paint by numbers canvas

I like to craft — I have a bookcase and two storage stacks overflowing with craft supplies of all sorts — and I like to get gifts I can “do.” But because I’m a craft generalist at heart, it can be tough to find a craft.

I got this paint by number set at Christmas and immediately sort of hated it. First, it’s a paint by number. Who does that past age five? I can do real art. There’s no creativity in paint by number; this was even the point of that movie Mona Lisa Smile. You’re just following orders at that point. Plus all the numbers show through when you’re done, so you can’t pass it off as your own work anyway; everyone knows you’re just filling it in.

Second, it’s a bizarre semi-abstract painting of four cats. The little paint pots are mediocre quality, and half the instructions are in Chinese, the rest in computer-mistranslated English. And the canvas is pretty big, like poster sized if you were planning on displaying it for everyone to see your definitely-not-paint-by-number artwork (wink wink).

So when I got it, I kind of laughed, wrote the thank you note, and set it aside.

But I had a baby, and then maternity leave ended, and the world ground to a halt because of zombies covid-19.

As my stress levels climbed, I started to feel like a tube of toothpaste, being squeezed dry of the creative energies I just assumed were an essential pet of myself. I felt desiccated and hollow. And I found myself thinking about that paint by number set. And eventually, I decided to stop berating myself for doing something embarrassing, and I got out the kit.

It’s hypnotic. I don’t have to think. I can let the overworked stress hamster in my brain run itself out while my hands just quietly and methodically fill in the voids. And I felt accomplished, while everything else was spinning out of control. I couldn’t control that, but I could find and color in every little blob marked 12.

And little by little, the ugly incomprehensible blobs started to turn into a picture. The act is soothing, and I will have something visible to show I had done something. It is lots of little victories.

I’m nearly done with it now. It still looks moderately hideous, partially because the cats swirl into each other and are garishly red, blue, and yellow and partially because I didn’t do a great job filling in the blobs. I probably won’t display it on the wall.

But I’m proud of it. It shows I kept going. I’m still here, still doing creative things, things are being created. And I can take some of that pressure off.

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Review: You

You by Caroline Kepnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Smashingly well-written, with the ability to pivot from stereotypically romantic to downright creepy within just a line. I really enjoyed it — but honestly, I couldn’t finish it. It wasn’t the book. It’s the crazy time. It is hard to read anything right now, but especially a book which erodes my faith in humanity and for which I know the major plot points (I was introduced to the book via the TV show on Netflix). I picked up this book to study its form, and for that, it is outstanding. It is delightfully twisted.
But I just don’t have capacity for delightfully twisted right now. I need cozy and sweet. Simple, perhaps fantastical. But I don’t want the world to feel as normal-but-dangerous as Kepnes makes Joe. Yes, I’m breaking up with this book, but it’s not you book, it’s me. It’s the world right now. It’s just not the right time for us to be together. May you have better luck out there in the hands of someone else, someone who can really appreciate you.

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