Family, joys of jazz

crystal clear

As a mom in mid-life, parenting teenagers, I find myself alone.  A lot.  I am an alien in my own household of males; three sons and one husband.

Acronyms fly out of their mouths; my PC online gamers, YouTube and action movie watchers and social media chatters.  I’ve learned of websites I’d hoped to never encounter. My political views are vastly different from theirs. But I am grateful my sons share their thoughts with me (even when I’m offended), that the door is still slightly open.  For a while I felt it slam in my face and I stood on the other side wondering, What did I miss?  Where did I go wrong?

You just don’t understand, Mom.

And they would be right.  As an only child I did not have to worry about sibling rivalry.  As a female I communicated both vocally and in written form so I always said what I meant.  How did my own points of view and values present drastically different with my three sons?

Parenting male teens is a challenge.

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When my friend drops her daughters to carpool on Mondays mornings, it is like night and day.  They ask questions and share about their lives as I prepare lunches in the kitchen.  They awaken at 5:30 AM and take an hour to decipher what outfit to wear for the day.

My sons stumble out of bed, thirty minutes prior to the first bell, and quietly and grumpily grab their backpacks.  They stalk to the car while the girls animatedly chat about this and that.  When they separate, they hug one another good-byes with words of love and encouragement.

My sons can barely stand to walk together the short distance to their high school, most days.  It is only on Mondays, with the teen girl they’ve known for twelve years, that they walk together on each side, protective. If my sons hugged and told one another, have a great day and I love you, bro; you’d knock me over with a feather.

It’s taken me a long time to wrap my head around this idea but slowly it’s crystallized and has become crystal clear.

The things I want for them are not the same as the things they want for themselves.

Most times, they don’t even know what they want.

I practically dropped my purse in the grocery store as the supermarket music played a song from decades back.  I quickly found my Shazam phone app to find the tune but it was too late.  I’ve since found myself searching playlists of hits from the 90s to try to find the “ear worm” that keeps ringing in my head.

Those who know me well know that I can get a bit obsessive/compulsive over music.  I never found the tune but instead, discovered a song long forgotten; one that I recalled blaring through my car speakers in college and driving my girlfriends crazy.

As I heard the Darling Buds song, Crystal Clear, from my late teens, the words resonated with me as they did then.  At the time, this song played often on the alternative radio waves as I dealt with the death of my father.

The visual of my girlfriends from my dorm came to mind.  The girlfriend who works for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), the bff who lives 2000 miles away under arches and the one that resides less than two miles from me; whose daughter is classmates with my son at our local high school.  I live in my community because of her.

You need a friend someone to say
Get your act together
And in between they’ll have to stay
Around to kiss it better

Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh

CHORUS. Everybody’s sad (everybody’s sad)
Wipe away a tear (wipe away a tear)
And I’m making it all
Crystal clear

Oh say it’s true yeah I need to
Believe in what I’m seeing
I want to scream you know what I mean
I’ll show you how I’m feeling

Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh

CHORUS

Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh

CHORUS

You need a friend someone to pray
Take away the pressure
And in the end they’ll have to stay
Around to make it better

Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh, Uh huh

CHORUS

Everybody’s sad (everybody’s sad)
I gotta get out of here (gotta get out of here)
And I’m making it all
Crystal clear

As I deal with my teenage sons I find myself going back to my teen years; trying to find a way to connect.  But my teens were vastly different from theirs.  I am stuck on repeat; having a hard time giving them freedom and letting go.  When my feelings get hurt or my anger crystallizes out of thin air, I need to get a grip and get over it.  But it’s hard to follow through and do this.

I want to share my wisdom with my boys.  To prevent them from making the mistakes I did.  To give them opportunities I did not have.  To push them to be the best they can be.

I get swept up in the parenting tide of wanting to enroll my kids in things to prepare them for the “real world.”  To get tutoring or lessons to get good grades and results.  To enroll in prep classes to get into the good colleges.   To expose them to experiences that will be memorable.  But what I’ve sadly realized is that…

My expectations may be too high, unrealistic and most importantly  NOT THEIRS.

When I questioned my son for the umpteenth time, he fired back.  I’ve told you the answer many times, you just don’t want to hear it.

I had been surprised when my family agreed to my planned trek north.  I had made the plans months before and had almost forgotten until a reminder email arrived in my inbox.

I had arranged a visit to the university where my cousin pursues his doctorate in education.  Years ago I had turned in my own acceptance letter there for my declared major of chemistry.  I had been offered a full scholarship and was excited to know a few of the professors in my department were Nobel laureates.

I wanted my sons to see this place; particularly my high school junior.

But this place was not on his radar and so I considered canceling the trip.  It wasn’t in our budget, it was raining cats and dogs, and I had many things to do during the three day weekend.

Why would I make the trek if my kids didn’t really care?   Maybe this was just me, reliving the high school experience I had wanted and never got.

I found myself in this same predicament regarding lessons.  My son was not vested and I was pouring money into something he didn’t want.  He had responded with the statement above; that I wasn’t hearing him.   Is it because I had wanted lessons in high school?  Is it because he is lazy and unmotivated?  Where is his drive?

Months before I had purchased tickets to a jazz performance with the local philharmonic orchestra.  Long ago I had vowed that I would give my kids cultural experiences with local museums in history, science and art and to attend stage, theater, music and sporting events; at least once a year.

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The last time we ventured to the philharmonic, the eldest and I had argued and I angrily sat through our restaurant reservation and music performance.   I had asked my family if this jazz event would be something they would like to attend and at the time, they had all answered yes.

When I reminded them that this performance is, this evening, a resigned sigh could collectively be heard.

Are you sure, Mom?  I have an AP English project I need to film today.  From the other son, Do we have to go to dinner and dress up cuz that’s dumb?  And from the third son, Is it all just jazz?  My visions of re-enacting our excursion of dinner reservations and a concert quickly dissipated.   They all nixed the idea of attending a book presentation on the history of jazz prior to the concert.  Again, high expectations.

I am making a mental note to tell my hubs that this would be an ideal date, for me, for my birthday.

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I close the double doors to my upstairs office, light the 3-wick candle, plug in my tree lights and put the Darling Buds song on repeat.   Surprisingly, I’m not too disappointed.  I appoint the hubs as my planning ambassador, for the four of them to decide what they want to do regarding dinner before we head downtown to the concert.

I’ve learned in my work and volunteer activities that my strength lies in coordinating groups of people and in mediating communications to seek resolutions.  What hasn’t been very clear, until now, is that I need to practice this principle in my home life within my own four walls.  To think reasonably and responsibly.  To follow things through.

Thankfully, our weekend trip north went well.  Road trips unplug us from our every day routines and we are forced to interact with one another.  I am a big proponent for taking trips with young kids; to not wait until they are older.  

We have camped, hiked, driven and flown trans continental and attended cultural events since they were infants.  Yes.  It is difficult, at times, to spend money on things that you may be distracted from with young kids.  Things we thought our boys would love weren’t always what we had expected.

The pay-off is seen with my tween and teens.  My three sons had projects to do, last weekend.  But they flexed and brought them with them and made the most of our quick trek.  We got a break from the rain and enjoyed the scenery without fog; a rare thing in February.  We reconnected with my cousin as he shared his life; encouraging the boys to explore and pursue higher education.

We had plenty of things to talk about as our sons observed the free speech environment while we rode the public transportation system and walked past the iconic views of famous landmarks.   And we experienced the diverse culinary delights that this region is known for.

It’s never been about the destination.  It’s about the journey in getting there.

My sons actually enjoyed visiting the university campus.  I’m not sure if they see themselves there.  In the end, I too, chose a different university because, of all things, music.  My declared major became my minor and I loved where I landed.  It is where I met my above girlfriends and it was in calculus lab that I met my husband.

Regarding the lessons, I finally had to acknowledge that my son’s words rang true.  I had selective hearing and felt his choices were not valid.  That Mom really doesn’t want to understand what he has to say.    I canceled the lessons and hope that maybe he will change his mind in the future.

In the bigger picture I know what’s important is not whether I am right or wrong; but that I follow through with what I say and acknowledge that I hear his words.  If I ignore them, he will learn to keep his words and ideas to himself.

I need to keep the door slightly open.  I don’t want to be left on the other side pounding my fists and shouting, “Let me in!”  If they lock me out, I’m hoping love will always be the key that allows me entry.  But I’m working on an offensive strategy so that doors aren’t closed and that all things are communicated and clear.

I want it to be crystal.

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Family, joys of jazz, Marriage, Work

the big and little things

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This holiday season took me by surprise.  For some reason I was stuck in the month of October and ignored the Christmas displays in supermarkets.  In fact, I did not frequent brick and mortar establishments unless I absolutely had to.   It was only when I received notice that property taxes were due on December 10th, for both our home and business, that reality set in.

I wept when the checks came in the mail; grateful that one of our biggest business customers actually paid on time.  I don’t need an economics degree to see that we are not out-of-the-woods from a recession in a pre-election year; our vendors taking longer than the thirty days to pay.  Manufacturing is at the bottom of the totem pole to receive payment.   The months of  November and December are always our slowest and the mass marketing frenzy that marks the season was a reminder of how little our bank accounts had.

I lived day-by-day.  When people asked if I was ready for (any date in the future) my answer remained the same.  I was trying to get through today.  There were due dates, scheduled events and the ever present Christmas looming.  I had no gifts for my family and it is our turn to host Christmas eve.  The tree was not up.  Black Friday and Cyber Monday came and went and I crossed off one day of the calendar at a time.   Begrudgingly I asked the hubs to get down our Christmas decor after our kids continued to ask where they were.

Where is our tree? What about the gingerbread house?  Why aren’t you playing ‘White Christmas’ on the piano?  And when are you going to bake, Mom?  

Today I, unexpectedly, found myself in front of thirty plus teenage girls.  I am the person that handles student finances in the large booster organization I serve.  Inspired by one of the songs that define me, Sing Your Life by Morrissey, I had been dressed in jeggings and my Doc Marten boots thinking I would not cross paths with many people as I ran last minute errands.  I had only come to receive checks from a fellow parent and found myself standing before these teens listening to an instructor sharing his story.  He had lived in a garage and poverty and shared how he couldn’t afford to participate in a high school trip to Hawaii.  And so he got smart and saved for twelve months to make things different the following year; to follow his passion to perform.  The girls only saw his high-end import car parked at the curb, not the kid who struggled.   He and I stood before these girls to ask for funds to allow them to travel to an out-of-state national competition.

I remembered being on the other side.   My mother was prideful and would remind me to not mention that my father’s medical bills usurped all of our funds; that we relied on Medicaid.  I was eligible for free school lunches but she pinched pennies to hand me a weekly allowance of twenty dollars for gas and lunch.  I was sixteen, having obtained my license on my actual birthday, since my father, diagnosed with colon cancer, no longer could drive.    My high school was fifteen miles away; the closest “city” nine.  I drove my parents for doctors’ appointments and myself to school and extra-curriculars.   My parents never were in the stands during games or performances.  My father was dying and my mother remained in our home to care for him.  Music had been my salve.  In high school I had always longed for the Dr. Martens boots I currently wore.  The irony of my situation struck me; empathizing with these girls.

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As small business owners we realize the foundation can be pulled out from under us at any moment.  Many of our former customers have chosen to go overseas, to buy bulk for cheap.  Small businesses lose to cheap, subsidized imported goods.   But our selling point is always in our relationships with our customers.  We follow-through and deliver.  We provide quality and if there is a problem, we readily fix it.  We are custom all the way and the feedback we receive is that our vendors trust that we will do things right.  I will never have large bank accounts.   Every dime we earn is solely based on what we put out and it has to be quality every time.

In the past week I realized trust, transparency, follow-through and hospitality are the big things that count.  I don’t care if someone can offer me gifts or favors.  Money and material things mean little.  I want the friends who surround me to be the ones whom I can trust not to break confidences, who will tell me what is on their minds without worrying about offending and who will open their homes and hearts to my quirks and imperfections.  I have to trust that they will follow through and reciprocate.  This is HUGE for me.  People can appear to have it together, to have nice things, titles or look like a million bucks.  But it’s what’s on the inside that truly matters.    I am affirmed by those who are true to who they are.

My sons have surprised me this year.  Most Christmases I am the driving force of all merriment as I command my elves to happily comply with my decorating whims.  This year they were the ones urging me.

If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff. ~ Catherine M. Wallace

Eventually the hubs put up the tree.  Normally he is the bah humbug one in our household; the grinch who steals our Christmas joy.  This year he placed the boxes inside and over the course of the week, strung up garlands and lights with the help of our ever growing sons.  I found myself unwrapping a few ornaments and rearranging them on the tree.  The Advent wreath finally was placed on the coffee table and the poinsettias from the fundraiser arrived and were placed on the piano.  Slowly, but surely, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.  Tree.  Check.

Three years ago I had decided to never do gingerbread houses again.  Because I had been an only child in a quiet household I wanted to create my own traditions with my three sons for the holidays.  When they were toddlers I began purchasing gingerbread house kits imagining hours of Christmas creativity and cheer.  But I had been too worried about the mess, the arguments over the candies and frosting.  In 2012 the boys fought so ferociously that I put the camera down; feeling like a fraud.  I was attempting to capture a picture moment that was forced.  They didn’t want to build gingerbread houses and I didn’t want a mess.  I vowed I would never do this activity again.

So I was shocked at the boys’ insistence, this year, that I purchase a gingerbread kit.  After a week of constant reminders from my sons, the quote above came to mind.  I found myself purchasing a gingerbread village so each one could build their own house without argument.   Three years ago it had been the eldest who ruined our experience.  This year he was the one who kept championing it.  Gingerbread house.  Check.

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I had no words to type, no images to share.  I observed people saying one thing and doing the other.  Longtime friends parting with irreconcilable differences.  People who lacked transparency, broke confidences and lacked hospitality.  The thoughts were stuck circling in my mind and I struggled to find peace with all of it.  I heard my middle son struggle with a jazz riff of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ and it was only when he placed the saxophone in my hand, with my mouthpiece, that I realized the unifying theme of 2015.

Music breaks through all economic, social and cultural barriers.

He asked me to help him, to play alongside.  We sat together at the piano bench with our saxes; my chops sore.  Soon my fingers were running over the ivories and the bars of ‘White Christmas’ echoed in fits and starts within the walls of our home.  It took a few more practice runs for my hands to remember the keys from memory.  I am always amazed that I don’t need the sheet music, even after all of these years.  Eventually the songs of the season reached me; bringing me out of my reverie.  White Christmas.  Check.

The hubs and sons grabbed the baking items needed for their favorite cookies: snickerdoodles, peanut butter blossoms and chocolate chip.  Time was starting to get away from me with all of the preparations needed to be done before the 24th.  I laced up my sneakers and forced myself outdoors in the drizzly morning; knowing that my intake of calories would exceed what I would expend.  There was nothing on my schedule and I had everything I needed.  No more procrastination, baking day had arrived.  As the whir of the mixer and smells from the oven filled our home, the younger sons emerged from the den to assist with  unwrapping Hersheys’ kisses.  Some were for cookies, others for their own consumption.

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It was then that I remembered my song and I quickly found it on YouTube as I waited for the timer to chime for my next batch of chocolate chip cookies.

Others sang your life
but now is your chance to shine
and have the pleasure of
saying what you mean
have the pleasure of
meaning what you sing
oh, make no mistake, my friend
all of this will end
so sing it now
all the things you love
all the things you loathe
oh sing your life ~ Morrissey.

I cranked up the volume on my eldest son’s laptop.   He emerged from the den with his portable speaker for better sound quality.  The middle son listened as I sang the words loud and clear.  I began to type furiously on the laptop, the thoughts from the last few weeks finally being able to be put into words.  The youngest grabbed milk from the fridge to happily eat the cookies straight from the oven as I tapped my booted foot to the beat.  Cookie baking.  Check.

Don’t leave it all unsaid
somewhere in the wasteland of your head
and make no mistake, my friend
your pointless life will end
but before you go
can you look at the truth?
You have a lovely singing voice
a lovely singing voice
and all of those
who sing on key
they stole the notion
from you and me so sing your life ~ Morrissey
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The hubs had been frantically cleaning our pool after we received the text from my side of the family that they were joining us for Christmas eve.  Traditionally my hubs’ family celebrates on the 24th; the location alternating between his sister and our home.  Then the phone call came from the estranged niece and after communicating our desire to have her join us; the guest count increased by ten.   The hubs worried we wouldn’t have enough food until he looked at our very full refrigerator.
My home is currently in a state of disaster after two days of consecutive gingerbread making and cookie baking. I don’t require gifts, the picture perfect house and the fancy Food Network worthy recipes to ooh and awe.  All that I long for, this Christmas, is for all of my family to unite under the roof of my loud and messy home.  This may be the last Christmas with a grandfather diagnosed with terminal cancer.  There are other days to carry on family feuds.  I tell the niece that Christmas is about the kids, the babies; and this year three will be in our home under 18 months old.
It’s because of a baby that we celebrate this season in the first place.
Like the stable that birthed the newborn that is the reason for this season, my light will be on and my doors always open.  I merrily sing the words to my song, loud and clear, about all the things I loathe and love.   I needed the push from my sons and hubs, their words heard.  I had to follow-through with these little requests and things that add up to something bigger.  I want them to share the big stuff when they are big.  To remember what’s important.
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Have a musically merry Christmas and a rockin’ New Year.  Sing the big and little things of your life.
Family, joys of jazz, School

being a lioness

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I try very hard to get a handle on the tiger mom that lies within.  You know, the one who gets competitive and wants everything to be the best.  When my boys joke about a “B” being the Asian “F” I grimace.  When I was in high school this was the kiss of death.  At fourteen I had known what universities I would apply to and, with my high school counselor’s help, worked towards that goal.

Over the years I’ve learned I must sit alone on this topic.  If surrounded by like-minded individuals it brings out the very worst in me.  It is the reason my two older sons left the sport of swimming in 2012; the year of the summer Olympics.  Michael Phelps was everywhere and my sons wanted none of it.  Amongst peers and parents seeking future Olympians the love of the sport was lost.  I sat in the stands, amongst these parents, as they advised me which coach to request while also reading Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  A dad summed it all up.  Why pay for swimming if you don’t want to be competitive?  If you want to swim for recreation, find a community pool instead.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy competitions and the motivation to be the best me that I can be.  I love to cheer as a spectator in the stands for all things: sports, the arts or academics.  It is when the intensity becomes too high; when the motivation factor is for all the wrong reasons, that I shut down.  It is one of the toughest lessons I’ve learned over the years as a mother.  Letting go.

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So when the eldest nonchalantly handed me a paper to sign to drop AP Physics and to add a second music course; I had been caught off-guard.  His high school counselor approved of this course of action after two months of debating class schedules.  The son had already opted out of another AP class, after he insisted he wanted to take two, and after attending various parent meetings about rigor of schedule for college admissions, my mind went still.  Watching the college mania from fellow parents this past year I knew this was going to be a problem for me.  Thus, over spring break I read the book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni; mentally gearing up for the years that lie ahead.  My son is a freshman.

While at a school sponsored sporting event I listened to the parents in the stands, calling out to their kids.  They noticed scouts on sidelines with cameras and speed guns looking for the next NCAA athlete.  I cringed as they coached their sons and daughters; going against what the coaches were telling them.  As parents we all want what is best; we can’t help it.  But when our implicit desires conflict with our child’s; there is a problem.

I folded and tucked the drop slip between my printer and stapler.  I chose not to look at it for the rest of the weekend; much to my son’s consternation.

But he would not let it go.  The subject was revisited while with family; amongst them a middle school teacher for a charter school.  All of the adults agreed.  Why do you need to take two music classes?  Without  a cogent answer it was agreed upon that this son should do the research.  Having two music classes, just because he wanted to, was not the acceptable answer.  He needed to argue his point and present his reasoning.  And so he went to various sites online to search colleges in the areas of interest he wants to pursue.  After the third day he defiantly announced he would keep his schedule; to appease the parental units.  My red flags went up.  At the hubs’ suggestion we finally had to group email the counselor, the director and the instructor.

Neither of the first two chose to answer my email query.  The counselor had already spoken directly to our son.  There was no comment from the director.  But surprisingly, the instructor weighed in and pounced on the same line of reasoning this son found on the various websites of top universities.

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There are so many ways to navigate one’s way through high school, and it is specific to each student’s ability to balance good grades with a great attitude.

“Choose your activities because they delight, intrigue and challenge you, not because you think they’ll look impressive on your application.” “Prepare for MIT.” MIT Admissions RSS N.p., Web. 06 Jun. 2015.

“So the problem can often be well-meaning but misguided parents who try to mold their children into an image of success they value; and their children, being moldable as they are, often get on board and go along with the program before they have any capacity to make such a choice for themselves.  Yet the paradox is that the only road to real success is to become more fully oneself, to succeed in the field and on the terms that one defines for oneself.” “Preparing for College: Building a Path to Academic Success.”  Harvard College Admissions & Financial Aid RSS N.p., Web. 06 Jun. 2015.

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The son plopped his stack of printed “research” upon my desk and stalked off as another day went by.   It had surprised me as I leafed through the literature, both in the sites he chose and the one sentence summary he stated.  Balance, diversity and his true love, jazz.  The syncopated rhythm of Count Basie could be heard  on his desktop as he studied for finals.  Later that evening, as sleep eluded me; my answer finally came.  It was the one I should have known all along and I was ashamed I never saw it.

I had gotten lost in the mania I was trying to avoid and it is the reason my high school years are some of my least favorite.   In a competitive high school, such as my son’s, opting out of AP would take him out of the top ten.  He would not have the same choices I had as a senior.  Ranked third in my class I was accepted by all of my colleges; including the one I had aspired to from the very beginning.  It offered me a full ride scholarship for the course of study I wanted to pursue and I returned my letter of intent; elated.  And then I received the brochure from the university that did not offer me a full ride but had the one thing none of the others had.

A nationally known music program and marching band.

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I withdrew my letter of intent.  When people asked why I chose not to attend the university I had aspired to they were flummoxed when my answer came down to music.  I do not stay in touch with many of my high school classmates.  The few are the ones who have stood in my wedding, are godmothers to my children or are still a part of my life.  But the bonds I forged in college remain strong; my friends from marching band and the dorms as they held my hand in labor or stood beside me, as maid of honor, on my wedding day.   It is music that is always my salve.  Who was I to take this joy from my own son when years before, I made the same choices?

The hubs had slowly come to this same conclusion on his own.  He understands my tiger mother tendencies and likens me to a lioness, instead.  Lionesses hunt and gather in social groups; whereas tigers live a solitary existence.  These social groups help me navigate through this season of motherhood and I am forever grateful for their wisdom and insight.   Their diverse perspectives are welcome as we all muddle through this together.

On the last day of school the son carefully tucked the folded drop slip into his backpack.  It may be the only year he will have this opportunity; as the rigorous schedule builds in the following years where he will have to only choose one music class.  These are important years of growth and discovery and it is not I who should be defining them.  I’ve had my turn.  Now it is his.

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