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The Gift of Time

Over the past year, we received much assistance, and even more offers of assistance, so many that we were humbled and a little overwhelmed by it all.  In the process, I came to realize that one type of assistance was far more humbling than the others.

For us, the greatest gift people gave us was time.  A friend set up a care calendar, where anyone could sign up to come do after-dinner dishes, or wash-dry-fold a couple of loads of laundry, or make a run to the grocery store, or drop off a pre-cooked or easy-to-cook meal, or whatever other thing we needed that would otherwise have taken up our time.

By doing that, they let us use our time for other things.  During the day, we could do the legwork of looking for treatment options, or the administrative paperwork of consent forms and privacy releases to try to qualify for studies, or arrange travel details when needed, or run errands that were really best done by us—things like grocery store runs.  In the evening, we could concentrate on the kids’ bedtime and take our time with it, allowing a longer bath and adding an extra bedtime story and so on.  We could be fully present for every one of Rebecca’s limited and dwindling number of bedtimes, and spend extra time with Carolyn and Joshua as they went through the same difficult passage with us.  We didn’t have to short them while we concentrated on their dying sister; we could concentrate on all three, because we weren’t distracted by the back-brain awareness of undone chores.

I cannot overstate how incredibly valuable a gift that is.  Not one of us can earn, steal, or otherwise acquire even an instant of extra time.  Our time comes to us all at the same rate, never a surplus or deficit, and is of limited duration.  Every one of those caring helpers came and spent some of their time, time every bit as finite and unreclaimable as ours, so that we could put our time to other uses.  They sacrificed time with their families so we could be with ours.  There is no gift that could ever be more precious than that.

It’s definitely hard to give that gift from a distance.  What do you do if you know someone several states or oceans away who needs that same gift?  Traveling to be with them, taking over that care role for a few days, is an amazing gift, but it’s obviously a lot easier if you live a few streets or suburbs away.  Gift certificates for food delivery services or favorite restaurants or Amazon are a decent substitute if you can’t be there in person, though check to make sure the recipient isn’t already flooded with them.

Thankfully, we didn’t need help with expenses.  Our health insurance’s deductibles and co-pays were well within our ability to pay them, and we were otherwise able to meet our financial obligations.  Not everyone is nearly so lucky.

So what about someone who isn’t so lucky, who’s coping with crisis and tragedy, or for that matter a massively time-consuming joyful event like a newborn child, in addition to an almost-empty bank account?  Money is time.  Seriously.  Donating to a fund for them, or even just sending a check, could keep them from having to work a second job to make ends meet, right when they need as much time as they can get.  It could keep them from having to worry about the rent, food on the table, co-payments for office visits and medicine.  Or even just straight-up payments for office visits and medicine, if (like far too many in America) they don’t have insurance at all.  You might keep them from bankruptcy.

If nothing else, a donation can help them avoid added stress.  Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can greatly reduce pressure and worry and stress and strife, which is very close to the same thing.  To be able to just pay for something rather than have to figure out whether it’s within the budget, whether it’s really that important, frees up that energy to concentrate on making better decisions, to put that energy toward making life a little better for themselves and their loved ones.

And of course, if you’re able, you can still offer to come clean up their living room, do the dishes one night a week, watch a little one for an afternoon, ferry a child to and from school, or whatever else they might need.

It really is the greatest possible gift.

Stress Fractures

As word of Rebecca’s diagnosis spread throughout our network of friends and acquaintances, we are told, more than one person said, “That’s why she was placed with the Meyers.  If anyone can handle something like this, it’s them.”

It’s flattering, I suppose, to be thought of that way.  Certainly it’s better than having people say, “Oh crap, that’s about to be a Category 5 train wreck!”  But how many couples were thought of the same way we were, and ended up separating?  Do they get marked in the false-predictions column, a lesson that we don’t know other people as well as we think we do?  Probably not.  Selection bias runs strong, especially when it comes to our assessments of others.  When our guesses about other people are right, we take it as proof of our insight; when they’re wrong, we tend to shrug it off as “people change” and forget that we’re often wrong about other people, never mind ourselves.

What concerns me is that this kind of thinking can easily lead to thinking that those who face crisis and stay together are strong, wise, noble—and that those who don’t, aren’t.  It makes a morality play of how people cope with events largely beyond their control, which is unfair no matter how things turn out.

After all, it’s not actually the stress of a crisis that drives people apart.  What breaks a relationship is how the people in it react to the stress, and (even more importantly) how they react to each other’s reactions.  Under stress, and particularly under extreme crisis, we are tested in entirely new ways, and our legitimate and honest reactions may or may not be acceptable to our partners.

To pick an example that didn’t happen, suppose that Kat and I had disagreed about where to take Rebecca for proton therapy.  One of our other choices was Bloomington, IN, about two hours closer to home than Philadelphia and definitely closer to several of my relatives.  Suppose I had decided that was where we should go, and Kat had decided that Philadelphia was best.

Already, that’s the seeds for a major conflict, because it is, in a very real sense, a life-or-death choice.  It’s not like arguing about where to go for dinner.  It’s a fundamental disagreement over a fundamentally critical choice.

Now, suppose that one or both of us reacted to other’s decision with outrage, panic, even scorn: “How could you think that way?  How could you endanger our daughter like that?”  And been met with outrage over the outrage, if you see what I mean.  Both of us being unable to understand how the other could act and react in such a way, when the right answer seemed so obvious.  That’s a fracture that will not easily heal.

Or, to pick another example that didn’t happen, suppose one of us had felt that they couldn’t stay in the PICU ward with Rebecca as she lay half-conscious, waiting for surgery after surgery.  Suppose one of us had stayed in a nearby hotel.  You might feel an instant, instinctual contempt for such an act, even knowing that it didn’t happen in our case.  We both stayed by her side non-stop, to the point that people started gently urging us to take some breaks away.  On rare occasion, we actually listened.

Come back to that contempt, though—how could a parent run away from a sick child?  Yet some parents do, and to judge them for that is contemptible in its own right.  Perhaps they know their anxiety, terror, and anguish would be so amplified by staying that they would do more harm than good.  Perhaps they know they would break down, become almost catatonic and unable to help anyone.  Perhaps they know they would go effectively crazy, and endanger their child and themselves.

Whatever the reasons, suppose one of us had stayed away.  How would the other have reacted to that?  With compassion?  Sympathy?  Feelings of betrayal?  Scorn?  Contempt?  Righteous anger?  All of the above?

Or more recently, when I cracked and had to set a limit for my own good, what if Kat had been unable to accept that limit?  What if what I needed was the exact opposite of what she needed, forcing us to choose which one of us didn’t get what they needed?  That sort of conflict can easily sow resentment, and resentment can easily become anger and contempt and worse.

It’s pretty easy to see how, no matter how deep their love, a couple might split up over such differences.  Maybe not in the throes of crisis, but sooner or later.

Had we had split up, people might have said, “Oh my, I guess they weren’t strong enough to handle it after all.”  That would sound true, but it would be a lie.  You could have the two strongest people in the world split up just because they can’t accept how the other deals with a crisis.

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, even though it so often does.  It’s astonishing enough that any of us can find someone who’s sufficiently compatible to live with us full-time, with all our quirks and foibles and failings, someone who can accept the way we hang the toilet paper roll, squeeze the toothpaste tube, and load the dishwasher.  To have that same someone accept, let alone admire, the way we react to extreme crisis… that’s luck so incredible as to defy belief.

I’m not saying anything your local therapist or religious leader doesn’t already know.  They see this play out over and over, year upon year.  I just want to remind the rest of us that it isn’t strength that keeps a couple together in the face of crisis.  It’s having the luck to remain compatible under the most extreme pressures.  Like any complex interaction between two complex systems, the outcome is fundamentally unpredictable.  If an unresolvable incompatibility is uncovered, it doesn’t mean the people involved are weak or undeserving.  It just means they’re people.


(Just in case anyone takes this as some sort of veiled announcement, Kat and I are not getting nor plan to get nor have any expectation of getting a divorce.  We both hope it will stay that way—a point of compatibility all its own.)

An Event Apart 2014 Schedules, Round One

I’ve recently had the odd experience of seeing from the outside something that I usually get to see from the inside: the schedules and workshops for the first three An Event Aparts of 2014 have been announced.  Those shows are:

All the shows feature a great mix of veterans and new faces, all coming together to bring our usual blend of looking to the future while staying firmly grounded in the details of the here-and-now.  The shows include workshops from Luke Wroblewski (in Atlanta or Boston) or Josh Clark (in Seattle) about mobile and touch design.

Ordinarily, at this point I’d say “hope to see you there!” but I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to hold up my side of that.  The same family crisis that forced me to withdraw from the last four AEAs of 2013 has also kept me off the roster for at least the first three shows of 2014, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to travel even to visit.  I’ll continue to be a part of the show, but behind the scenes, at least for now.

And that crisis is why I got to experience the announcements from the outside.  While I was in Philadelphia, I was basically on extended medical leave from AEA, with the team picking up every scrap of my duties they could.  They pretty much soaked up 99%+ of what I do daily, sparing me the worry of day-to-day operations and leaving me free to focus everything I could on my daughter and family during a very difficult period.  I am forever indebted.  I can’t ever thank them enough for what they did for me.  I am beyond fortunate to have had such a strong team of friends and colleagues at my back.

I will say that it was a good thing for me to experience the process from the audience, as it were, gaining a new perspective on what we do and how we do it.  I certainly don’t recommend a major crisis as the best way to gain that perspective, but I have a newfound appreciation for the value of stepping outside of the process as completely as possible.  You might be very surprised by how things look from out there.

But back to the point: the complete agendas are up for the first three AEAs of 2014, so go check them out!  And if you’re at all interested, I wouldn’t wait to register any longer than absolutely necessary.  Every show for the past two or three years has sold out weeks or months in advance, and cancellation rates are low enough that it’s pretty rare for people on the waiting list to get in.  I hope you’ll be there!

Glasshouse

Our youngest tends to wake up fairly early in the morning, at least as compared to his sisters, and since I need less sleep than Kat I’m usually the one who gets up with him.  This morning, he put away a box he’d just emptied of toys and I told him, “Well done!”  He turned to me, stuck his hand up in the air, and said with glee, “Hive!”

I gave him the requested high-five, of course, and then another for being proactive.  It was the first time he’d ever asked for one.  He could not have looked more pleased with himself.

And I suddenly realized that I wanted to be able to say to my glasses, “Okay, dump the last 30 seconds of livestream to permanent storage.”

There have been concerns raised about the impending crowdsourced panopticon that Google Glass represents.  I share those concerns, though I also wonder if the pairing of constant individual surveillance with cloud-based storage mediated through wearable CPUs will prove out an old if slightly recapitalized adage: that an ARMed society is a polite society.  Will it?  We’ll see—pun unintentional but unavoidable, very much like the future itself.

And yet.  You think that you’ll remember all those precious milestones, that there is no way on Earth you could ever forget your child’s first word, or the first time they took their first steps, or the time they suddenly put on an impromptu comedy show that had you on the floor laughing.  But you do forget.  Time piles up and you forget most of everything that ever happened to you.  A few shining moments stay preserved, and the rest fade into the indistinct fog of your former existence.

I’m not going to hold up my iPhone or Android or any other piece of hardware all the time, hoping that I’ll manage to catch a few moments to save.  That solution doesn’t scale at all, but I still want to save those moments.  If my glasses (or some other device) were always capturing a video buffer that could be dumped to permanent storage at any time, I could capture all of those truly important things.  I could go back and see that word, that step, that comedy show.  I would do that.  I wanted to do it, sitting on the floor of my child’s room this morning.

That was when I realized that Glass is inevitable.  We’re going to observe each other because we want to preserve our own lives—not every last second, but the parts that really matter to us.  There will be a whole host of side effects, some of which we can predict but most of which will surprise us.  I just don’t believe that we can avoid it.  Even if Google fails with Glass, someone else will succeed with a very similar project, and sooner than we expect.  I’ve started thinking about how to cope with that outcome.  Have you?

Optimized For the Fast-Fading Past

I have a theory, one that I’m sure has been formulated by someone else much earlier than me, that all power users eventually get left behind.  They get stuck in a highly-optimized box canyon of their own making, one that is perfectly tuned to their way of working and interacting with data and is of interest to precisely nobody else in the world.

Let me use myself as an example.  I’m currently running OS X Snow Leopard, 10.6.8, with no intention of upgrading.  This is because after Snow Leopard, there is no more Rosetta.  That means that my preferred personal mail client, Eudora, will not work.  Neither will Word 2004.  Both are, in effect, upgrade deal-breakers for me.

But why would I hang on to such relics?

Well, Eudora has been my mail client for quite literally two decades, and thus it has two decades of archived mail that I can search very quickly and easily.  I have tried out migrations to other clients; they crash trying to suck in 3GB worth of mail text in Eudora’s special format.  I could simply declare a break and move on to a new client with no stored mail, but as soon as I upgrade my OS, even the archives will be inaccessible.  This is a major barrier.  There are possible solutions, but trying them is incredibly time-intensive with no actual guarantee of success.

As for Word 2004, I have it customized so that ⇧⌘S shifts keyboard focus to the Styles combo box.  There I can type the name of the style I want and hit return.  This is really important when I’m writing a book whose files eventually have to be passed off to a publisher’s production staff, whose toolchains depend on proper use of styles.  O’Reilly in particular went to a lot of effort, back in the day, to create style who had vi-style shortcut names, so I can highlight a few words and type ⇧⌘S fc [return] to set the highlighted text in the “literal” style (used for property names and the like).  Versions of Word after 2004 do not possess this feature.  I own Word 2011, and often use it to view documents sent to me by others, but I can’t use it as an efficient book-authoring tool because it amputated a feature I use a lot.

So the objection isn’t a simple “I like what I know, dadgumit!”, though of course I do like what I know (we all do).  The real problem is “I have built my workflow around these things, and breaking them is unacceptable”.

I hear similar complaints from my designer friends.  They’ve gotten so expert at using a particular piece of software that they bemoan even the hint that it will get a significant ‘upgrade’—which often sounds like “break everything I do while likely adding a metric ton of crap I don’t need” to the power user—or even be discontinued.  Although for the power user, discontinuing is often preferable; at least when software is discontinued, it works exactly as you expect for as long as you can keep it running.

The web doesn’t inherently fix this problem, either.  When Twitter finally retired the API access points that Twitterrific 3 depended upon, my desktop Twitter client irretrievably broke.  Why not upgrade to the latest Twitterrific?  Because version 3 allowed me to display my timeline with all tweets collapsed, except for the currently-active tweet.  It was an incredibly compact, high-density, useful interface.  Version 4 does not permit it.  no other Twitter client I’ve tried permits it.  In fact, every other Twitter client I’ve tried has come off as cartoonishly clumsy and sprawlingly obtrusive when compared to the sleekness of Twitterrific 3—including, as I say, the newer version of the very same Twitter client.

Granted, that’s more of a UI preference than a functionality problem, but UI preferences are often what drive us to use things, or not use them.  I’m much now less present on Twitter than I was before the break, and when I do go on Twitter, it’s either via the official Twitter client on my iPhone or via twitter.com itself on the desktop.

Getting back to my increasingly-aging OS version, it helps that, to echo one my long-time personal heroes Tim Bray, I have no particular interest in what’s come after Snow Leopard.  Dragging window edges might be nice, but I’ve lived without it for a very long time and rarely ever missed it.  (Not never, but rarely.)

Yes, the newer OS X versions have a whole bunch of hip new cloud features, but in my case that’s actually a bug, not a feature.  I instinctively distrust cloud-based storage for a variety of reasons.  The security concerns are pretty significant for me, and for that matter having everything stored remotely is a good idea only if I have 100% reliable network access everywhere I go.  Well, I don’t (and neither do you).

But of course the rest of the world is moving in a different direction, leaving people like me behind.  That doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has gone mad, or is wrong to move in the direction it does.  This isn’t a querulous demand that everything be frozen in the spot I like because if it was good enough ten years ago, it’s good enough now.  That’s not how the world works.  What I’m doing here, if I’m doing anything worthwhile at all, is documenting the point at which I came to the end of my box canyon, pulled out a guitar, and strummed a quiet ballad to the memory of my own forward progress.

As I say, I think all this happens to every power user at some point or another.  We become enmeshed in a web of interlocking dependencies, and sooner or later lock ourselves into a particular place.  The odds of it happening increase with age, but that’s less a function of biological age than it is elapsed time.  The younger you start, the younger you’re likely to reach this point.

I will have to exit my canyon eventually, of course—but when, how, and why all remain very open questions, and I do not look forward to the turbulent transition periods that are likely to follow.

Special thanks to Tim Bray, Grant Hutchinson, and Jon Tan for their insights and feedback on this post.

Memetic Epidemiology

I had planned to spend yesterday goofing off, as is my tradition for the day after I return from a conference and don’t have anything immediately pressing on my plate.  Instead I watched and documented, as best I could, a case of memetic epidemiology happen in realtime.

The meme was the Cooks Source story, which I stumbled across relatively early in the day.  I won’t recap the story here, as the original LiveJournal post by Monica Gaudio and Edward Champion’s very well-researched article do a much better job of that.  The latter piece is particularly commendable if you’re new to the story, as it not only explains the genesis of the incident but also lays bare a number of other things that were discovered as the story went ballistic.

I’m not sure exactly where I first came across the story—probably a retweet of Adam Banks by a friend of mine—but at the time the meme was really just getting started.  At that point there were quite a few people posting on the Cooks Source Facebook Wall to chastise the editor, and the rate of posting was accelerating.  I threw in my own tweet on the topic and kept watching the Wall to see if there would be a response, if the Facebook page would be deleted, or something else.  At the same time, I was seeing more and more tweets and retweets of the story, and based on just what I could see, it seemed primed to go crazy.  I was rewteeted by swissmiss, who has four times as many followers as me (and way more influential followers than me), and it was hitting the feeds of more and more people I follow.

When it showed up on John Scalzi’s tweet stream, I actually got a little dizzy.  This was the moment where I felt like the scientist at the beginning of a viral-apocalypse movie, staring at a monitor showing the sites of reported infection in red.  Then, in a burst of tense, ominous music, the dots show up in New York City and around JFK.  Game over.

I got that feeling because I knew that not only is Mr. Scalzi followed by both Neil Gaiman (1.5 million followers) and Wil Wheaton (1.7 million followers), but he is respected and therefore paid attention to by both.  Furthermore, both, as net-savvy content creators like Mr. Scalzi, are exquisitely sensitive to such stories.  It was only a matter of time before one of them passed the story on to their followers.  And sure enough, within minutes, Neil Gaiman did so.

At that point, it seemed only a matter of time before traditional media channels took interest, and though it took a little while, many did.  It literally became an international news story.

Throughout the day, I tracked the situation and tweeted about it as new developments happened.  I almost couldn’t help myself; I was completely captivated by watching a meme unfold and spread in realtime.  Eventually I hit on a crude measurement of the story’s reach, which I dubbed the Speed of Chastisement (SoC).  This was measured by loading the Cooks Source Wall and then scrolling to the bottom of the page, down to the “Older posts” button.  The time elapsed since the last of the Wall posts was the SoC.  When I started looking at it, it was measurable in minutes, but as the day went on the interval dropped.  At one point, it was as low as 34 seconds, and may well have dropped lower when I wasn’t looking.

I wish I could’ve automatically captured that number, say, every minute, because the timeline graph I could make with that data would be fascinating—especially if mapped against various developments, like Neil Gaiman’s retweet of John Scalzi or the time of various article publications.

One of the things I found most fascinating was how the outraged mob used Cooks Source’s own digital presence against it.  I don’t actually mean all the Wall posts, which served as an emotional outlet but otherwise only indicated the story’s memetic velocity (the SoC I mentioned earlier).  What people did was start new threads in the Discussions tab of Cooks Source’s own Facebook page to document the original sources of Cooks Source articles and to compile the contact information for all of the advertisers in Cooks Source.  The speed at which the crowd operated was awesome in the older sense of that word as inspiring of awe, which is itself defined as power to inspire fear or reverence.  As I told a friend, I was fascinated in the same way I’d be fascinated watching, from a distance, a predator hunting down its prey.  Awe-struck.  It was almost frightening to watch how fast people tracked down the various text and image sources, uncovering more and more evidence of bad behavior at full-bore, redlined Internet speed.

On a related point, I was very impressed by the quality of reporting in Edward Champion’s article about the story.  Alone of all the articles I’ve seen (beyond the first couple of LJ posts), his laid out specific examples of repurposed content, and furthermore he had talked to people involved and gotten their perspective and to people at some of the sites and companies whose material had been re-used.  Read the article, if you didn’t already follow one of the links.  It is investigative journalism done far better than any reporter has yet done for any traditional, or even “new media”, news outlet.

I could write about all this for much longer, but I’m going to hold off.  My day wasn’t all just observation and tweets, though.  A few questions kept hovering in the back of my mind.

  • What if the mob had been wrong?

    Imagine with me for a moment that a small crocheting magazine is accused of copyright violation by an author.  The editor, knowing this to be false, sends a dismissive or even sarcastic letter (we’ve all done it).  The author posts their side of the story and excerpts of the letter to their blog, people notice, and suddenly the Flash Mob of Righteousness is back in business.

    What then?  Is it possible, once the rope is out and being tied into a noose, to put it away again?

  • Did Cooks Source actually win?

    As I write this, about 24 hours after the story really blew up, the Cooks Source Facebook page has gone from 110 people who “Like This” to almost 3,400.  Most of those are because in order to comment on the Wall, you have to Like the page, and a whole lot of people hit “Like”, commented, and then hit “Unlike”.  Some of them are still listed because they’re still posting.  Still, assume that by the time it’s all over, between people who want to keep harassing Cooks Source and people who just forgot to hit “Unlike”, they’ll have well over a thousand people listed.  That’s a full order of magnitude jump in claimed like.

    Is that a measure of success?  Will it, in fact, end up a net positive for Cooks Source as it tries to entice advertisers for future issues?  Of course, that assumes the magazine survives the attention of lawyers from Disney, Paula Deen Enterprises, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, the Food Network, Sunset, National Public Radio, and so on and so on.

  • What about Gene Simmons?

    A few weeks back, Gene Simmons (of KISS fame) said that anyone who illegally shares files should be “sued off the face of the earth” and that bands should be litigious about people copying their music.  In response, his web site was cracked and a good deal of derision was directed his way.

    Interesting.  In one case, a content creator who calls for vigorous defense of copyright is attacked for it.  In another, a violator of copyright is attacked.  How many of the people who Wall-bombed Cooks Source’s Facebook page were also cheering the anonymous crackers who harassed Gene Simmons?  Why the disconnect?

    There are many reasons we could cite, and I think the most likely factor is that in both cases, the targets of attack were publicly arrogant and uncompromising about their positions.  That, however, is absolutely no excuse.  If you were outraged by Cooks Source, shouldn’t you cheer Gene Simmons’ stance?  If you rolled your eyes Gene Simmons, shouldn’t you be on the side of Cooks Source?

    I imagine there are people who did one or the other of those things.  But not many.  The contrast says something about how we collectively view intellectual property, and it may not be something we want to face.

This isn’t the first time someone will set off an outrage swarm, and it won’t be the last.  There is much to think about here, about both ourselves and the medium we inhabit.

A Matter of Conscience

So Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell has gained national notoriety for refusing to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple, referring them instead to another justice to have the marriage performed.  His action has, of course, provoked a great deal of condemnation.  Pretty much every elected Louisiana official above Mr. Bardwell (and plenty of them to either side) in the administrative hierarchy has called for his removal from his position.  That goes all the way up to Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who said:

“This is a clear violation of constitutional rights and federal and state law. Mr. Bardwell’s actions should be fully reviewed by the Judiciary Commission and disciplinary action should be taken immediately – including the revoking of his license.”

As for Mr. Bardwell himself, he has claimed not to be racist, but instead concerned for the biracial children that result from mixed-race marriage.  Of all that he’s said, though, I was particularly interested by the following:

“I didn’t tell this couple they couldn’t get married. I just told them I wouldn’t do it.”

It interested me because it’s exactly the kind of reasoning that underlies “conscience protection” laws that exempt medical professionals who wish to refuse participation in abortion, or dispensation of contraception.

So now I’m very curious to know whether what pro-life groups have to say about what this man has done and how he’s done it.  Or, for that matter, what Governor Jindal himself now thinks of the bill he recently signed into law.

Related Idea: A New Cognition Term

cornpensation, noun.  The act of making mental adjustment for keming that doesn’t actually exist.

Example: “Wait, you wanted me to buy cheerleader pom poms?  Oh.  I totally cornpensated that one.  …Awkward.”

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