Some Thoughts on 2020 Thanksgiving (and Why I’ve Already Decorated for Christmas)

This time last year, we were prepping for a big Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, and a quick trip right after to Las Vegas.

We stayed busy. We saw EVERYONE. Hugs all around.

And I got to see the Grand Canyon for the first time.

We came home exhausted.

This year? Well, we’re exhausted. We’re in the middle of self-quarantining for fourteen days, so that, if we’re still healthy and they’re still healthy and none of us has had any known COVID exposures or symptoms, we can see my parents over the holiday next week.

Just my parents. No large gatherings. I don’t even know if we’ll make the traditional dinner.

Yes, so far, the holidays feel very different this year. But, as I look forward to next week, whatever we end up doing with ourselves, I am thankful.

I’m thankful that my family is healthy, and that I’m healthy. I’m thankful to have money coming in, and food on my table, and a roof over my head, and books. I’m thankful for books, always. I’m thankful to have time to write and to rest. I’m thankful for the sun in the morning and the moon at night and for a world that just keeps turning even in the midst of chaos and crisis.

2020 hasn’t been the year I anticipated, but it’s the year I got, and I’ve tried to be as grateful and happy as possible for every little thing that’s good. And where I can, I’ve tried to make good things happen.

Which is why it’s November 18th and I’ve already put up Christmas decorations.

No regrets. It was the right choice. What can I say? This year’s been all about finding joy even in the darkest of times.

It’s been hard. It will likely continue to be hard. But I’m here and I’m healthy and my loved ones are, too. And in 2020, that’s plenty to give thanks for.

A Grandfather’s Story

Veteran’s Day always makes me think of my grandfather, my favorite veteran.

He died in 2015. He didn’t talk much about his service, at least not to me. What little I do know, I’ve learned from my mother, and I’m always trying to piece it together in stories, because those are all I have left of him now. I wonder how many grandchildren could say the same thing.

Here’s something I wrote not long after he died. I thought I might include it in a larger work (that still isn’t done, and might never be).

Some of it’s true.

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At a fork in an old country road, surrounded by rocky fields and green mountains and flanked on both sides by cracked pavement, sits an old white farmhouse. Its shutters and clapboard are going grey, its chimney is crumbling, and any reminder that it used to be part of a functioning farm is long gone, replaced by overgrown patches of wild onions and cattails. There’s no sign now that it ever housed a family. This is the house where my grandfather grew up, nestled outside of a small Appalachian town.

The land is called Hell’s Half Acre, and my grandfather knew, when he was a boy, that he’d have to work it. Walking home from school, a satchel of books swinging in his hand, he wondered every day if it would be the last he’d make the trek. And one day it was. He left school in seventh grade, a servant to the farm. It was that, he told my mother, or be sold to another family, one with the resources to afford another mouth to feed.  Instead, he used his hands to work. Evenings on the farm, and days underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, he’d stare at the fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to choose any direction at all.

“When I grow up,” he said to himself, eating dinner at a quiet table full of tired, hungry people, between gulps of buttermilk and bites of toasted biscuit, “when I grow up…” He didn’t dare dream of that time. Dreaming felt hopeless, not an escape but a trap, a long, dark tunnel with no light at the end. 

Then, when he turned sixteen, there came a war.

“I’m going to sign up,” he said to his brother, and he did. He lied about his age, though not by much, and found himself on a train west, to basic training somewhere in the Dakotas. And then a ship east, to Africa. And then a ship north, to Italy. And it was there, sleeping in empty towns and eating blood-spackled bread, that he met a girl. Sort of.

Back home, my grandmother was reading books by flashlight every night, hiding under her covers from a father who thought women shouldn’t read and a step-mother who wore her dead mother’s clothes. Sometimes, in the quiet, heavy darkness, my grandmother would talk to her sister, who died when they were both very young, because she had no one else to talk to. 

“Lucy,” she’d say, “when I grow up…” And she’d pause. “When I grow up…”  And she couldn’t finish the thought. When she grew up, she would be some man’s wife, some child’s mother, and finally some graveyard’s newest coffin.

And then one day, she sent a picture and a letter to a soldier from the county, off fighting in a war that involved the whole world. And it changed everything.

On the eve of Election Day in the US…

I try not to get political here. I’ve been trying to write something, to think of other somethings, to put a something together, all day. But I’ve just got no room in my mind right now for anything but this –

VOTE.

Who knows what tomorrow and the coming days and weeks will bring. But right now, I know this: We the people can vote.

Please vote.

That’s all.

What’s your writing routine?

The short answer is: It is not.

I read this book recently, which gives brief descriptions of the routines of famous writers, artists, and other creatives.

I’d recommend it, if you’re looking for a fun, quick read. And it did get me thinking.

When I decided to pursue writing as more than just a hobby, I thought I’d develop a routine and habits, in the same way I’d developed them working in an office – a 9:00 a.m. coffee, a quick walking break mid-day, a late afternoon rush of productivity. But that never happened. I do write a fair amount, most weeks, but never on any kind of schedule, and never as part of a regular practice. And when people ask what my routine is, I never really know what to say.

“Well, while still in last night’s pajamas, I sit in the recliner in my living room and I drink coffee until I’m jittery, and then I type frantically on my laptop until something happens. And then I keep at it until it’s done, which is sort of indeterminate and looks different every day, but I really can’t focus on anything else until I hit some kind of stopping point and please don’t ask me to. And then it’s usually time to eat something or at least drink water because I’ve forgotten to do that all day.”

Like, is that a routine? That doesn’t seem like a routine. But it works for me, at least most of the time.

Though I hate to be asked, I confess I do find it fascinating how different people approach the act of creating. I feel like it’s deeply personal to each creator, and that’s probably why it’s often hard to explain. Or, for some, why it’s easy.

Birthday lessons, and 34 fun facts about me! (Or, it’s my birthday, but there’s a pandemic.)

Today is my birthday. I’m 34.

Normally, I would be spending time with my parents – my dad’s birthday is on the 17th and we like to celebrate together – but today I’m home, eating cake and being lazy.

When I was 10, 13, 16, 20, etc., 34 seemed very far away, and women in their thirties seemed so wise and sophisticated and put together.

Most days, I can’t remember if I’ve brushed my teeth. I think I may have been wrong about women in their thirties. I think we’re all just trying to figure out how to do this adulting thing.

But I do think I’ve learned a few good lessons, so I’ll share, because why not? And because I have very little else to do, given the pandemic and that it’s a Tuesday. And at the end, I’ll share 34 fun facts about me and a picture that will probably make you laugh, because…I can, I guess.

It doesn’t matter what other people think.

It’s old advice, sure, but it’s true, and I wish I’d understood it years ago. The only person responsible for my happiness is me, and so I’m the only one who gets an opinion.

When I left a full-time, well-paid office job to pursue writing, lots of people had nothing but kind and encouraging words. But lots of people also told me I was crazy and that I was throwing away opportunities I’d never be able to get back. A few people actually suggested I was lying, and that I just didn’t want to say what I’d actually be doing.

Whatever.

When I was younger and I wanted to be an opera singer, people made fun of me. I guess no one’s allowed to like opera before the age of 50.

Whatever.

When my husband and I bought a 200-year-old house, several people wondered, out loud, why we would take on that kind of burden, and if we would regret it, because old houses have old house problems and old house problems take time and money. And wouldn’t it be more convenient to just buy a new house in the suburbs and decorate it like an old farmhouse?

So. Much. Whatever.

I get to decide what makes me happy. No one else gets to do that. It’s like my own personal superpower.

And I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

No one is as hard on me as…me.

I used to spend a lot of time trying to live up to expectations. I was always so worried about how other people thought of me, and what they saw in me, and if I was making a good impression.

I realize now that other people don’t think much about me at all. They’ve got their own stuff going on.

Now, when I do something stupid or say the wrong thing or trip and fall in public (which happens a lot), I remember that no one judges me as harshly as I judge myself. And I remind myself to be kind to me, because…

“Perfection doesn’t exist in this universe.”

Neil Gaiman said that once, in a MasterClass I took. I like it.

It doesn’t do any good to hold yourself to perfection, because it just doesn’t exist. Mistakes are part of living. We can contextualize them, learn from them, and put them where they belong – in the past, behind us – or we can dwell on them, and let them rule what we do in the future.

Don’t do that. Perfect isn’t real. Everyone screws up. Be kind, to yourself and to others.

I know nothing.

Yep, John Snow and me.

The older I get, the less I know. I keep learning, every single day. I read, I write, I try to pick up new skills, I take a voice lesson every week, and I talk to people, because there is always more to learn. But every time I learn something new, I feel like it opens the door to 1,000 other new things I should also learn. I like this, because I get bored easily and I was always good at studying anyway.

Learning is beautiful, and it’s fun, and it’s valuable.

I am enough.

Just as I am.

And you are, too.

And because I said I would:

34 Fun Facts About Me

  1. I drink too much Diet Coke.
  2. I read at least one book per week. Usually more. Any genre.
  3. My favorite cake is Red Velvet.
  4. I forgot the words to the National Anthem while I was performing it once. It was embarrassing.
  5. I like winter better than summer.
  6. My favorite place I’ve ever traveled to is Wales (specifically, North Wales).
  7. Iceland is a pretty close second.
  8. I hate flying.
  9. But I love airports. The best people watching ever. And usually there’s wine.
  10. I am listed as “Katie Wineries” in the contacts list of one of my best friends.
  11. I have always wanted to learn to paint.
  12. I think ketchup is trash.
  13. I love mayonnaise, though. (Everyone tells me this is gross.)
  14. I am afraid of snakes, ticks, and ladybugs. (Don’t look at me like that. I don’t know, either.)
  15. My favorite gemstone is a ruby.
  16. I am a cat person.
  17. I don’t hold my pencil correctly, and I never have.
  18. I used to get pulled out of class in elementary school so they could teach me how to hold a pencil. Priorities, I guess.
  19. I will not wear shorts.
  20. I read palms for fun.
  21. I majored in English.
  22. I am a coloratura. Or, I was, when I was training to sing opera a lifetime ago.
  23. My favorite opera is Don Giovanni.
  24. My favorite composer changes every day. So does my favorite writer. (That’s two things, I know.)
  25. I played Shelby in a production of Steel Magnolias once. It’s been my favorite role to date.
  26. I love Mitch Hedberg.
  27. My go-to karaoke song is Gives You Hell by The All-American Rejects. It has been for years.
  28. Sometimes I’ll sing Desperado instead.
  29. I cannot play an instrument. (It makes me sad. I should learn.)
  30. I like pie.
  31. I prefer the mountains to the beach, but both are lovely.
  32. I bought tap shoes on Amazon once when I was drunk.
  33. I have OCD and anxiety.
  34. I love trivia, and I’m super competitive about it.

And the picture. I don’t know what possessed my mom to place that little bow where she did, but it was genius.

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Write a poem in 250 characters or less! (Or, let me tell you about my impostor syndrome.)

Last year, I wrote a poem for Button Poetry’s Short Form Contest. I liked the poem I wrote, though it didn’t win. It later became “Unrequited,” and I’m quite proud of it.

As of last year, I’d never entered any of my creative writing into any contest, ever. Not even in college, when I sat on the editorial board of a literary magazine and could have easily, albeit not entirely fairly, included one of my pieces in the publication. (I wouldn’t have done that. I promise.) I’ve always been timid about my own work.

I realize that I have major impostor syndrome. I’ve never published anything, and I’m terrified to submit my writing to agents and publishers. I’m always far more impressed with what I read from others than with what I write myself. I feel, often, like my creative work is clunky, dull, trite, and uninspired. Not always, but often. It can be discouraging, maddening, and sometimes, debilitating.

To be clear, I’m not looking for sympathy. I think this is a battle many creative people fight every day. Some days, I win. Some days, I…stare at a blank screen and procrastinate and (not infrequently) cry, and I definitely don’t win. But on the good days, when everything comes together, I feel like I’ve made magic, and that keeps me working – through the fear, through the doubt, through the impostor syndrome. And I see that you can’t be an impostor in your own life.

The Short Form Contest requires a submission of 250 characters or less. That’s characters, not words. It can be a poem on its own, or an excerpt from a larger piece. When I discovered the contest last year, I felt…I don’t know, compelled to enter. 250 characters? I wouldn’t feel that bad being rejected over 250 characters. Very few people can do something amazing with 250 characters, right? And so, I entered the contest, knowing my poem wouldn’t be selected, and I felt good. It felt amazing just to put something out there.

So, I entered again this year, with a poem inspired by one of my mom’s favorite books, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. (I’m helping my mom start her own business, and she was on my mind.)

I like my poem less than last year’s, but I put it out there, because why not? And I feel good. Maybe I’ll enter some other contests this year, or even submit work to some publications or agents. Maybe this is the year. We’ll see, and until then, I’ll keep writing. I hope, if you’re struggling, you keep writing (or creating whatever you create), too.

Oh, and if you want to read the poem I submitted this year, here it is. Enjoy!

**********

You should have known

I am more than the wings you tried to clip

I am more than meant to fly

You should have known

I am too much to trap and tether

and you are too small to try

Seagull 6

I will never stop learning.

Here’s something I know: I am white.

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Here are a few things I also know, because I am white:

I have never had to change how I speak, dress, or do my hair for people to take me seriously and respect my intellect. I have never feared for my life during a police encounter, or worried that, should I be pulled over for a minor offense like speeding, I could be removed from my car and restrained, searched, or handcuffed for no stated reason. I have never questioned my place in society, my ability to access educational institutions, or how others see my humanity. I have never, ever been the minority in any room, ever. I have never been asked if I own my property. I have never been told to “act white.” No one has ever called the police on me for walking in a park, having a barbecue, selling bottled water, or playing with a toy in a public space. No one has ever asked me if my hair is real, and I can go to pretty much any stylist I want to get my hair done. No one has ever attacked me, hurt me, lied about me, or threatened me when I’ve shared my thoughts and stood up for what I believe in. There are no mechanisms of power currently in place to curtail my rights and opportunities in this society, and almost all of my elected leaders look like me. I know that I will be given the benefit of the doubt in my interactions with authorities and employers. I know I will never be treated poorly when moving into a “nice” neighborhood, and that an overwhelming majority of people living in that “nice” neighborhood will look like me. I know that my name will never be laughed at or questioned. I know my family’s name and history going back generations, because they were not stolen from my ancestors, and because my ancestors were not brought to this country in chains.

That’s a lot, right? And these are not things I know because they’ve been taught to me in school. I’ve not read them in books. These are things I know because I live in a society that looks at whiteness as standard, as normal and basic, and everything else as different and other, and, in the worst cases, as dangerous and threatening. These are things I’ve internalized, been born into, without even realizing it.

I’ve always considered myself a smart, curious person, and so it’s been humbling, humiliating, and eye-opening to realize just how much I don’t know about my own country’s history, and how much I didn’t truly understand about how people of color experience life here. As I’ve come to see just how many gaps I have in my knowledge, I’ve been doing a lot of reading (and a little bit of watching). There are lots of lists out there right now for people who want to learn. Here’s one, and another. Here’s one for children. And here’s one for movies, if that’s more your style. And one more. I don’t want to rehash these lists, and I certainly don’t think I can put together anything better, but I do want to share, because people have asked me, just what I’ve been reading and watching.

MEMOIRS AND NON-FICTION

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

A memoir from father to son. Powerful, emotional, personal, eloquent. I’d wanted to read this one for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. I cried a lot.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Devastating, heartbreaking, and inspiring. I read this in college, about thirteen years ago. I felt like it was important to revisit it now, in this moment, with older eyes and more life experience. I was right. And, also, I cried a lot.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for What People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility

Helpful, but humbling. It’s worth noting that this is written by a white person, and specifically targets a white audience.

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

White Rage

Shocking, eye-opening. I needed a drink once I finished this one. I couldn’t believe just how much I hadn’t learned in school. It made me angry, and then made me sad, and then made me resolve to keep learning.

ARTICLES

“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

“How I Discovered I am White” by renegademama

“In other words, it’s ‘white’ until further notice. It’s ‘white’ until proven otherwise. It’s ‘white’ or it’s the ‘other,’ and it has nothing to do with actual numbers, percentages of ‘minority’ population. It has to do with power. It has to do with the culture of power. What do I mean? If a comedy film features a white family, it’s a comedy. If it features a black family, it’s a comedy for people of color. Think about it.”

“It’s Time to Listen and Believe” by Ben R. Williams

“But when someone points to the iconography of the Civil War era and says, with heart-breaking honesty, that those symbols are a painful daily reminder of the horror that their ancestors endured? When someone says that many of these symbols were erected during the Civil Rights era to intimidate people like them and keep them in line?

My responsibility is to listen to them and believe them.

When someone tells you what hurts them, you don’t get to tell them they’re wrong.”

MOVIES

13th

This was so, so hard to watch. But is so, so important to watch. You think slavery is a thing of the past? This documentary will make you think again.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

A mockumentary that plays with the idea that the Confederacy won the Civil War.

WHAT’S NEXT?

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

How to Be an Antiracist

I’m reading this one now, and I’m a little less than halfway through. So far, I’m struck by Kendi’s honesty, and this book feels very personal and intimate.

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad

Me and White Supremacy

This one was recommended to me by a friend. I’m intrigued and excited by the title and the premise. I’ll probably start on it next week.

The Pittsburgh Cycle by August Wilson

This is a collection of ten plays, each of which takes place in a different decade of the 20th century. I read all ten in college, and I think it’s time to reread them. They made a huge impact on me back then, and I expect they’ll do it all over again.

This is not a conclusive list, and I am not done. I won’t ever be done. I will keep learning, because even though I am sad, ashamed, and exhausted, it is my responsibility to educate myself and be better.

I’ve been encouraging others to do the same. It has not always gone well. It’s hard to hear that your people are the villains in someone’s story. It’s hard to see that your ancestors weren’t on the right side of history. It’s hard to contend with being part of systems you didn’t build and didn’t notice but have still benefitted from. I know that. I’m struggling with it, too. But it’s a necessary struggle, and it’s part of a necessary change that’s incredibly, tragically overdue.

Loving Day

I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” –Mildred Loving

Today is Loving Day.  It commemorates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized interracial marriage in this country.  The case was Loving v. Virginia.  The court issued its decision in 1967.  That’s only 53 years.

Today is also the day that Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist working in Mississippi, was assassinated. He was only 37.  He was a World War II veteran.  He was murdered in 1963.  That’s only 57 years.

Today also marks the anniversary of a mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.  49 people were killed, and it was deemed a terrorist attack by the US government.  It happened in 2016.

When I was in first grade, I had a boyfriend.  I don’t remember a lot about him, but I have a vivid memory of walking up and down the gym floor, holding his hand and smiling.  My skin is almost scary white.  If I were a condiment, I’d be mayonnaise.  My boyfriend was black.  We were “boyfriend and girlfriend” for less than a day, because later, after the hand-holding in the gym, someone told me that some people don’t like it when black people and white people are together, and they might be mean to me.  It scared me, and made me feel like I’d done something wrong.  This happened in Virginia, in 1992.

Primary school photo

When I was in high school, I was part of an amazing community theater.  It was just good fun to be up on a stage, in a costume, singing and dancing.  But even then, and especially looking back on it, I saw what inclusiveness, what love and listening, could mean to kids who were afraid to be themselves, because they’d been told by the churches in the area that who they were and what they wanted was something evil and abominable.  No one should ever be afraid that way.

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I’ve had trouble writing much of anything lately.  My heart and mind are not in it, and I feel like my (white, straight) voice is not the voice for this moment.  I don’t even know what to say, really.  These hurts are not in some faraway past.  They are now.  Ruby Bridges, the first child to desegregate an all-white school, is only 65-years-old.  George Floyd died a free citizen of this country, deserving of every single right and privilege that entails, with a knee on his neck in the street, pleading to breathe.  He was murdered on May 25th.  That’s less than a month ago.  The Trump administration has rolled back health protections for LGBTQ people.  It was announced today.

As we celebrate Loving Day today, I’m thinking of how far we still have to go here in the U.S. before we truly love all of our people, and before all citizens have the equal protection under the law that they deserve, and before all lives truly do matter.

I decided several years ago, when I started this blog, that I would try to stay away from politics.  I wanted to write about reading and writing and ideas and crazy adventures.  And I didn’t want to ruffle feathers.  I’ve spent a very large chunk of my life trying not to ruffle feathers, worrying about saying the wrong thing.  But I cannot stay silent, especially today, especially now, and sit complicit on the wrong side of history.  Make no mistake – what’s happening now is a fight for America’s soul, and it’s been going on for a long, long time.  This is not about politics.  This is about humanity.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” –The Declaration of Independence

Share Your Shakespeare

“Shakespeare – the nearest thing in incarnation to the eye of God.” –Laurence Olivier

Books

I got my first book of Shakespeare’s plays in middle school.  I won’t pretend that I could actually read them, but they waited for me.  The best stories do that.  And Shakespeare told the best stories.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to play Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I’d like to think I did well.  Whether I did or not, I enjoyed just being able to take part in a little piece of Shakespeare’s world.

Hermia

Yeah, that’s me, in high school, trying to claw out Helena’s eyes.  I’m not sure why the guy behind me is wearing an M&M shirt.  High school’s a strange time.

In college, I decided to study literature, and read a paper at a Shakespeare conference at the Virginia Military Institute.  My paper…did not win, but again, I felt fortunate to just be involved.

I still read Shakespeare.  Pretty frequently, in fact.  I’m not going to wax poetic about Shakespeare’s influence on…well, everything…because I don’t know that I could cover it all in one blog post.  I think the most wonderful thing about Shakespeare’s body of work is just how interdisciplinary and universal it is – there’s something for the readers, the psychologists, the sociologists, the historians, the philosophers, and, of course, the actors.  There’s even a little something for the conspiracy theorists.  There’s a reason Shakespeare is still with us, hundreds of years after his death and several evolutions of our language later.  Very few writers observe and capture so well all of the best and the worst of humanity.

And so, today, on the day that we celebrate the birthday of the Bard, and in the spirit of the theatre, revelry, and bringing literature to life – and embracing our own flawed humanity – here’s my Shakespeare:

I probably should have warned you that I’m no actor.  But, come on, everyone recites Shakespeare when they drink wine, right? RIGHT?!  Anyway, you don’t have to be a great actor to enjoy Shakespeare.  He gave all of us plenty to love, whether we experience it on the stage or on the page.

And there’s something comforting about knowing that long after I’m gone, and hopefully this video is, too, Shakespeare will still be here.

This One’s for John

My heart hurts today.

When I try to think of something to say about the passing of John Prine, I’m honestly lost for words.  Which is funny, because he certainly never was.  I don’t think we can overstate the importance of his music to the story of American songwriting.  I don’t think there will ever be another one quite like him.  I don’t think the world will ever be the same, now that he’s not in it.

If music comes to us when we need it most, then I’ve needed John Prine my whole life.  His songs have stayed with me since I first heard them, when I was too young to really understand them.  Now I’m in my thirties, and I still listen to them, sing them, think about them, every single day.

And when my dad and I play, we always play some Prine.

So, this one’s for John.  Thank you for everything.  I hope you’re exactly where you wanted to be.