Live Letters: Text Etiquette

By Beth J.P. Ritter

As much as I love the written word, there is something really lord-awful that happens to it in a phone text. Fraught with misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and misspellings, these “live letters,” can get us into trouble; unwittingly piss someone off, say the wrong thing or word, if you use your microphone and can’t see to check what it said for you— what it thinks you said. (It was Mark Twain who pointed out that the difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug!) And, for we of the middle-aged-plus persuasion, texting often means straining our eyes to both see and type—especially if we’re too lazy to take out our glasses. Or, outdoors with the sun shining, holding something without the benefit of a third hand.

There are times I will do a quick, untrusting check after I’ve spoken my text, and, horrified, say aloud, “No, no, that’s not what I said!” And quickly change it. If it hasn’t sent already. Nothing like seeing it’s too late. But then, I might at some point view the typo from my “correction,” and embarrassed, see in my mind’s eye the other person laughing at my seeming inability to spell. (Like they never make a mistake in a text. Right.) Here, in fact, is where some of us take our secret spelling snobbery to a whole new level: decide that people we previously thought of as bright, write like second grade drop-outs. What’s with all the lower case? I grow weary, too, sometimes, of the abbreviations, like, “ur” for “your.” In all fairness, the more relaxed, cooler texters may just want old people like me to relax. “Abbreviate! You can do it!” Not so sadly, I can’t.

Sometimes, I’m given to ask, “Um…could you call me, so we can have an old-fashioned conversation?” There are enough crossed signals in that alone. But waiting for the third part of a text which will often be out of sequence reminds me I’m glad I didn’t have this text thing option until my older years. Too confusing. Waiting for the other person to answer, which might be five hours later. Or, doing that myself. It’s accepted rudeness, permission to respond to something which was asked the day before. Is this because it’s not normal conversation? Can you imagine, over the phone, asking, “How was the party?” and the person on the other end not answering for five hours, because, busy, he put the receiver down? How many times have you heard an insulted friend complain, “So-and-so never answered me! I don’t know if she got my text!” (So-and-so of course claimed that she never got the text; the friend is very tempted to confiscate and check her phone.) I have, more than once, witnessed someone send a text that was not received.

Texting’s an anxiety-provoking means of communication, as per the common quandary: how do you know when it’s the last text? In a regular conversation, you know when it’s over. But is answering Joe’s last text annoying—or polite? If he says, “thanks,” do you need to say, “You’re welcome?” (or—ugh— “ur wlcome?”) If you do, does that then obligate Joe to answer with an emoticon, such as :)? Or, “nite?” What is the proper text etiquette here? What about just saying, “Over!” as on a walkie-talkie (which would probably be shortened to “ovr”)? Then the other person knows you not only don’t require an answer, but you’d prefer to be done with all this eye-straining, confusing exchange. So far, it’s not looking hopeful. Any more so than the person across from you in a diner won’t grab her bell-dinging phone, glance at it, laugh, and type away in the middle of your sentence, as if you just disappeared into your coffee. These sure are rude times we’re living in. Maybe we need to have classes in Text Etiquette. But who would teach them? Can you picture the teacher, in the front of the room, going over all of her currently-acceptable-text-etiquette curriculum, when suddenly her phone buzzes? “Excuse me,” she says, and, squinting at her phone, starts typing. “It’s my brother. He’s so….. funny….” As her voice trails off, she reads her phone, almost in a trance, squints harder, and holds it now at arm’s distance. “I’ll just be a… moment…” at which point the rest of her text-addicted class takes out their phones and frantically uses this opportunity to catch up with every text they’ve missed in the last withdrawal-filled twenty minutes. C U Later.

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The Sham Scam

By Beth J.P. Ritter

“Oh, come on, Martha, give me a break.” These were my muttered words, as I opened the package to my new pillow sham in the laundry room. Note that I said, “sham,” and not “shams.” For, while any reasonable person would likely assume there’d be two in the package, as did I, there was only one. “Damn!” I automatically figured someone had lifted the other one in the store. Nope. My sudden suspicion that I was wrong prompted me to look at the package. For the first time. Sure enough, it was singular: sham. That’s all Martha wrote. Now, I have always had great admiration for Ms. Stewart; I think she’s brilliantly creative, on top of being blessed with model looks. But, really, who sells one pillow sham? (Which, incidentally, suddenly became twice as expensive.) And who notices when that happens? People like me, when it’s too late; when we get home, and go to wash them before putting them on our pillows! So, I was duped. But I learned my lesson: I will never fall for the sham scam again. So, take heed, because, as it’s said, “Smart people learn from their mistakes; really smart people learn from other people’s mistakes.” I know y’all will be checking your packages in the store for quantity, from now on. I sure will be. And, no, Martha, I won’t be back for the other sham. I’m going to put little, pretty pillows—which you might or might not like—around the lonely one I bought. I can live with that.

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Captive Audience on the Rails Below

By Beth J.P. Ritter

     My head rhythmically tapping against the subway car gets an extra jolt, when a loud guitar chord suddenly resonates above the clatter. ‘What the—’ I’m thinking, eyes fluttering open from the nap I’d finally fallen into, frown lines deepening. Can’t a person get any sleep on this damned train? Apparently not; the Subway Entertainers are here, and they’re gonna play— whether you hate it or not.

     Don’t get me wrong; some of them are quite good. Not this young woman, trying to be Adele. Her voice is nice (not nearly as good as Adele’s, thanks), but she’s banging that guitar as if angry at it for not playing her two chords better. (I know the feeling, but at least I’m only bothering those in my immediate world—my husband and my birds. I recall how my father, when I was a teenager, would close my door while I sang, trying to emulate Dylan. It was Dad’s house, and he wasn’t about to listen to “…whoever the hell that is—that you’re singing like that—voice!” At least Dad could close the door.) Now she’s singing, banging, and she’s not going to stop, because some guy is showing appreciation. He’s saying, “Hey, that’s really good,” or some other such bullshit. I want to ask him what the hell is wrong with him, but I don’t really care. Besides, I figure out that she’s a young, cute blonde. She finishes Adele’s song, and walks around to collect. I close my eyes without guilt. She should pay me to listen to that. Mr. Compliments, not done with his gushy encouragement, requests another number. Oh, thank you. Thank you so, so much, I’m tempted to say. (In fact, I do say it aloud to myself.) She bangs through it mercifully quickly, and moves on to the lucky passengers in the next car.

     Just a week or so earlier, the subway car was subjected to some old hippie’s version of “Horse With No Name,” by America. If you know that song, it’s kind of monotone. It’s cool, but there are parts that don’t have tons of melody variation. Looking around the car, I can’t see how even one person here remembers this seventies song. Many weren’t born; some weren’t even in this country. Where did this guy come up with this choice, I wonder— not asking, of course. I don’t even want to know. At least I still like the song when he finishes. I take out a dollar to give him, but he speeds quickly out of the car, his old, scratched guitar hanging in front of him. I figure he either doesn’t have the business side of this thing down, or he smoked too much (or whatever) once upon a time. This could have been what inspired him to do a (to use an overly-used word) mellow number. Which I’ll take any day over the….

     …We’re-Gonna-Shatter-the-Already-Deafening-Noise dancers, who come equipped with a blasting boom box, and an introduction whose decibels rise above the blaring music. It seems they need to play the music that loudly, or the dance moves just don’t work. Yeah, they’re good, they can do enviable mid-air somersaults, twists and turns—acrobatics that could qualify them for a circus job. I become jealous watching them, their health and impressive strength apparent. But one young man’s foot just misses a woman’s face as he swings high around a pole. She is not amused. The dancers finally leave, too. They’re not getting any money, as they gave me a headache. I didn’t ask for their show, either.

     I stopped throwing dollars to all these performers—even the really good ones—some time ago, when it occurred to me that I needed a new job just to ride the trains. Especially with the fares going up, it became a large investment. But I admit I still do, here and there. Recently, I put a dollar into the designated collector’s hat of a sort of pretty decent Mariachi band. He walks around the car, full circle, and back to me, obviously forgetting that I’d given him money not two minutes ago. Not flattering to be forgotten that quickly. “Ummm…I already gave you?” I inform him, in the form of a slightly-sarcastic inquiry. “Oh, yes, gracias, gracias, thank you, Miss!” he says, with just a bit of embarrassment. (At least he doesn’t call me, “Ma’am.”) They move on.

      But, not to worry: this doesn’t mean it will be quiet now. I still have to listen to several young people’s competing music leaking through their headphones. And they’re so deaf from doing this on a daily basis that they have to play it loudly, so that they can hear it over the subway noise. So much for having my own song in my head; I have four (with hissy treble) that I don’t even know. I feel a bit of relief as the doors open, and, as if to counter, the pleasant sounds of steel drums float above the noisy air. But only for a few seconds. The doors close on the only music I feel like listening to.

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My Phone Didn’t Ring, and Other Cell Phone Fights

By Beth J.P. Ritter

       It typically starts something like this: “Did you get my message?” It’s the response, “What message?” which always does it. Sends me to an angry place I don’t like to admit that I have an Easy Pass to get to. It’s not my husband’s fault. You see, his phone didn’t ring. Or, so he says, you say. But I’ve witnessed it, so it’s hard to point and say, “You’re full of it!”  The sad truth is, I’ve seen it.  “If I said it didn’t ring, it didn’t ring! I would tell you if I didn’t feel like answering it, or if I forgot!” he informs me sweetly.  With conviction.  And what about the times he’s called me, and I didn’t know? Never heard a sound, didn’t feel a buzz…I look at my phone. A missed call. My husband’s.   In this day and age, technology shouldn’t be starting so many fights. Seems, though, there are more and more. “Try checking your phone,” he suggests, sweetly, of course. How smart is my Smartphone? Is it just a devious troublemaker?  “You see? You see?” my husband points out, as my mouth drops. “Your phone didn’t ring!”  He’s right.

     Many of us ask what we did before these ever-present, intrusive devices came into our lives, making them both more convenient—and inconvenient.  And, sadly, turning us into rude make-your-best-deal call recipients. “Oooh, sorry! Gotta go. Debbie’s on the other line!” Sure. No big deal. I wasn’t that important anyway. Or, I was, until Debbie called with a more important conversation.  Or, the addicted texter you were happy to finally get together with, only to discover that he’ll sit with you, but text away, with, “One second. Just gotta….answer….ha, ha, ha, oh, no, she’s kidding. Sorry. One minute,” while you sit and roll your eyes. Sometimes you may finally take your own phone out in an if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em move.  And, of course you get a call right then that you really need to take, so now the texter has to wait for you. “One minute, sorry,” you say, making this-is-important motions. Now you’re the rude one who spends ten minutes trying to resolve your situation, saying, “I really gotta go. Call me later. ”

      My husband and I saw a young couple out to dinner. He was telling her about his recent trip, seeing the Great Wall of China, while she texted with her perfect nails to her girlfriend. She gave an occasional, “Uh-huh,” or, “Oh,” until he finally gave up and took out his own phone.  Here was a relationship, my husband and I decided, that was doomed to end after this date. Of course, it might have been good if he had asked her anything about herself, but that’s another story. She could have texted it to him. My husband, observing her disinterest, whispered to me, “He should start texting her to get her attention.” Talk about a precedent.  Made me glad to be older, as the dating rules have clearly changed.  Mannerlessness is in.  I really wanted to tell the young man I thought he was so lucky to see the Great Wall of China.  

     Remember, those of you who are old enough, banging on a payphone? First you checked it to see if any coins would drop out. Then, you’d lose your dime (yes, dime, once upon a time, before it was a quarter) and bang on the phone in disgust. Or, you’d call the operator to complain in your then-young whiney voice. “I don’t have any more money, and this phone ate my dime!” Sometimes she’d have sympathy and put you through.  Other times, no such luck, and you’d hear your dime rolling around in there, but it was no use. Now, it’s just a matter of having enough battery before your Smartphone becomes a Deadphone.  Then you feel like banging on that, because, just when you need it most…it tells you to connect your charger. That it’s critical if you want to continue to use it. There is no place out on the street to connect it, and, if there are any payphones left  they don’t work.  Later, you’re saying, “Sorry, my f—ing phone died. I wanted to call you.”  The phone might have died from checking Facebook too many times. Now there’s an irony; I “Liked” what you posted, but can’t talk to you.

     You may even get two text messages, two days later, that do you no good now. You wish you had a note from the cell phone company to prove this, but hope that the truth suffices.  Your friend will have to forgive your missing her party. Maybe she should have called your home phone (some of us still have landlines) when she didn’t hear from you.  Or, just tried calling instead of texting.

     We all go through these things in these rude times of advanced technology. I remember when getting an answering machine was a big deal, and people felt like they couldn’t hide. Now we really can’t.  The bottom line? There really is no easy way to be free here.  I’ll believe you, if you’ll believe me. Kind of a leap of trust and faith across the wireless lines, taking the good with the bad, blah blah…but I’ll finish this right after I check my phone’s email.







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Unexpected Connections

By Beth J.P. Ritter 

As I recently approached a milestone (fifty-fifth) birthday I came across this story, which I’d written seven years ago. I’d all but forgotten having written it; I was amazed at the passage of time, the irony—and how that day came right back, as I re-read my own words. I dedicate this story, then, to both Andrea Bronfman, and my mom, who wondered why I had never shared it.

     When I first saw the headline from my coffee shop window seat, I shrugged.  It was a few days before my birthday, and eight years since I’d written about turning forty on an appropriately-cold Monday. The newspaper, tucked beneath a passing, winter coat-covered arm, had a partially covered headline; what I could see was, “Socialite Killed.”  The shrug came almost immediately afterward: it was a “Socialite”–someone whom I hardly related to.  Not that I didn’t initially feel that momentary jolt one feels when we see something that tells of an untimely death.  And here I was, moments before, gloomily thinking, “Forty eight? How could I be turning forty eight?” I couldn’t see who the woman was, how old she was, or what had happened to her, but I did know one thing: this “socialite” wouldn’t see any more birthdays. 

      “Socialite.”  The word has always had a negative connotation for me, having myself come from comparatively little means.  At least it wasn’t someone, I thought, trying to push whoever she was out of my mind, that I had to feel badly about.  That was all about to change with my first phone call of the morning. My mother sadly began with, “One of our most wonderful customers was killed by a car yesterday.”  My mother was the bookkeeper of an exclusive clothing boutique in Manhattan. This time I felt a real jolt. The pieces–or the first ones–came right together for me as she confirmed that, yes, it was the headline I had just seen. Her name was Andrea Bronfman, a really lovely woman. She was only sixty. She and Mom would have conversations when she’d call early in the morning, expecting to leave a message; Mom would pick up, and they’d chat. She was devastated, and lamented to her boss, “She was one of my favorites.”  “And you,” her boss told her kindly, “were one of hers.” I held the phone in disbelief.  Just a few minutes ago she was some rich lady who’d gotten killed.  Now, she was someone my mother (not a rich lady) had liked a lot, mourning her loss.  I told Mom how sorry I was, and then how very strange it was to have any connection to a woman such as Andrea (or, Andy, as Mom referred to her, using her nickname) Bronfman. 

     But things were to get stranger, later on. April, a woman I work with, had bought the newspaper that day, and left it in the store’s office. During lunch break, I reluctantly picked it up, and looked at the face on the front page.  She had a sweet smile. I thought of her smiling at Mom, then turned to the article telling of the dim events that ended her life. A cab had hit her as she walked her dog, not far from her Manhattan apartment. I sat shaking my head, and read on. She would do anything for anyone; she was a philanthropist, and a formidable person as well as a nice one. What I read next stunned me: she and her husband had founded Birthright Israel– the program that had made it possible for my son, Jared, to visit Israel earlier that month, January. For a few moments, I sat, frozen, processing this incredible information. How could this be? How could this woman, at first rich and remote, have not one, but two connections to my life? It was a lot to take in.  I quietly thanked her aloud, hoping she could hear me.

         Later on, I called Jared, who was quiet as I relayed the story.  “You see that?” I said to him, still taking what he, at eighteen, perceives to be annoying opportunities to impart life’s lessons.  But he wasn’t annoyed.  “Wow, Mom. That’s amazing.” I breathed a quiet sigh of relief: Jared’s not one to placate me; I was happy he understood.  His group, it turned out, was to have a memorial service for her later that week. I held my own private one in my mind for Andrea Bronfman, a woman I never knew, but who had an effect on my life nonetheless: she made my mother’s days at work more  pleasant. (Anyone who makes Mom happy is okay with me.)  She sent my son to Israel, giving him a gift beyond words, strengthening his Jewish identity.   And there’s one other thing I can thank her for: ruining my preconceived notions.  What we have (or don’t) doesn’t define who we are. On a scale larger than this earth we’re briefly on, our commonalities likely exceed our differences.  Don’t we all come from–and ultimately go back to–the same place?  All the while, we’re connected to those we may never know, in ways that would surprise us.




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The Four (Very Short) Stories of the Storm

By Beth J.P. Ritter

      People lost houses, possessions, and worse, in that horrible storm they named “Sandy,” the end of October 2012. The only thing I lost were a few pounds from running up and down 16 flights (with supplies, dry ice, gallons of water) for my parents—and then my parents themselves, to North Carolina, where they moved less than three months later. Prior to the storm, they were lifelong Brooklyn residents; now they were never to return. The weight I gained back quickly.

      Everyone affected has their stories; where they were, what they did, what they lost; those things are sometimes so personal they’re hard to impart. People listening will nod their sympathetic heads with, “Oh, that must have been awful!” and you know they can’t possibly know what it felt like.  As with any experience in life, really.

      But my mother, recently recalling some of the funnier moments (yes, we had some funny moments in between the frustration of wondering if the lights would ever come back on, or if we’d ever have water again. Never mind the heat and elevators which were secondary, as long as this old horse kept running) asked me more than once why I never wrote down our stories of the storm. The humorous ones, not the ones where I would burst into tears and say, “I can’t take this anymore!” walking around holding my flashlight, cursing under my breath. But I wasn’t ready.  “I don’t know, Mom. I will write them, I guess. Maybe. Eventually. ”  For whatever inspired it, eventually became today.

 So, this is for you, Mom: our “Four Stories,” as we named them, the ones that kept us laughing, when things were so literally dark.


 1.    “Leave Us Some Bread!”

          Once night fell, there would be an occasional knock on the door. Young, angelic people from various organizations from all over were distributing food, water, and other supplies.  But could anyone be sure who it was outside?  There had to be some opportunists in a situation like this, I figured. “Don’t open it!” I would snap at my father, a tough, old army sergeant who wasn’t afraid of bad guys. “I’m not opening it,” he reluctantly appeased me, muttering about how everyone—including me— was now his boss, and it was, well, bullshit.  On one night, Dad—whose lack of hearing never inspired him to wear his hearing aids—asked my mother to repeat nearly everything she said. Mom was getting sick of it, on top of the other stress. (Ironically, since Mom didn’t see well, she was less upset by the early darkness which seemed thick and interminable to me.) There was a knock on the door, young voices asking if there was anything we needed. “What do you have?” Mom asked loudly. A young woman’s voice listed a few items, bread being among them. “Leave us some bread, please. Thanks so much,” Mom gratefully called to her through the door. “Huh?” said Dad. “What’d you say?” It was one too many “huh?”s for Mom, who repeated in a loud, monster-like voice to him, “LEEEEAVE-USSSS-SOMMMME-BREEAAAD!”  There was a pause on the other side of the door, and then a frightened, “Ma’am? Are you all right?” in a middle-American accent. That did it. We burst out laughing, which led Mom to conclude that the poor young woman, out to save the world, must have quit right after that. “Well, you scared her with that voice, Mom!” You scared me, and I know who you are!”  Maybe the young woman might never have been the same, but maybe we helped her become tough. Or she just figured we were just a houseful of crazy people. By then, it wasn’t so far-fetched. Still, I felt a little guilty that she likely took away with her an image of a laughing witch in the house.

 2.    “I Didn’t Recognize You in That Hood!”

     We had no heat at all, so we wore a lot of layers. On one particularly cold night, we were sitting in the dark living room, and Mom finally put the hood of her sweatshirt on her head. This was not a typical look for her. When she walked quickly by Dad, he looked up, squinted in the available light, and, said, “Who is that?” “Who do you think it is? It’s me,” Mom quipped. “Oh,” Dad said, laughing. “I didn’t recognize you in that hood!”

 3.    What if We Gave a Séance and Nobody Came?

         I thought it was a shame to have the battery-powered votive candles lit, and not do anything significant with them, so I suggested we have a séance. After all, the atmosphere was right, and we certainly had nothing else to do. “Okay,” I announced. “We’re having a séance.” Mom and Dad shrugged and said that was fine with them. I looked up and said, “Hi. Is anyone out there?” I started to name some of the fine people we loved that were no longer with us. “Grandma? Pop?” No answer. “Let’s give them a few minutes. Grandma, if you’re here, um….do something.  Move something.” No answer; nothing moved. “Well, that’s nice,” I remarked with sarcasm. “What are you, all snobs, because I don’t know how to run a séance? None of you are any fun!” I tried again. I called out to my friend Barbara, my sister-in-law’s brother Greg, and my friend Lisa’s parents. “Wow. That’s amazing. No one wants to talk to us!”  But it probably wasn’t that amazing. They didn’t want to hang out in a cold, dark house, either.

 4.    “Look At That Star!”

       At first I worried that Dad was serious, when he spotted a plane in the very dark distance, pointed and said, “Look at that star!” “Yeah, look at that,” I said, playing along, humoring him; still not sure, not wanting to hurt his feelings. But after the third time he said it I realized that, of course he knew it was a plane, its moving light reflecting in a distant building’s window. He was just amusing himself—and me, too. “Look at that star!” became a running gag, every time we saw a plane on that flight pattern. We took turns thereafter, pointing out the “stars” to one another.

      So, Mom, there it is. I can’t say I’m glad it all happened; it was something we all could have done without.  If I got anything out of that horrible time, though, it was that I saw so much strength and humor in the two older people who are my parents. One could say I got to know you better.


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And Don’t Call Me “Ma’am”

by Beth J.P. Ritter

Flinch. Cringe. That was my reaction, but I suppose it’s different for every woman experiencing that defining moment; the one when she realizes she no longer appears young to the world; the one when people just assume she’s the middle-age she is. My defining moment(s) came when young people began calling me “Ma’am.”  One of the first times some young, mannerly store employee said, “Thank you, Ma’am!” I answered with a sing-songy, “You’rrrrre welcome!” while muttering to myself through my gritted teeth as I walked away, “And don’t call me ‘Ma’am!’

That’s become my line, in fact, my running gag, mantra—the one hopefully no one but me hears in those situations.  When someone calls me Ma’am, I do, in fact, flinch (I shouldn’t; it only deepens the lines between my brows)— as if someone cursed me, or accused me of something I’d never do. But allow me to get real for a moment. While I’ve always had a youthful appearance— which annoyed the hell out of me when I was young but pray now hasn’t completely deserted me—I do sport a certain amount of gray in my long hair. Gray hair fairly screams middle age. It’s not that I’m vying for the “Middle-Aged Hippie of the Year Award;” it’s just that I think it’s okay to sport a few (or more) grays, once one is… older. I struggle with the fact that I look older, while trying, at the same time, to embrace it. I’ve earned every gray hair. (Before there were as many, I used to joke that every one of them had my son’s name on it. Now they have new names, from different categories of my fifty-years-plus life.)

My dilemma: to cover them, in order to possibly avoid being called the “M” word? So far, that hasn’t been enough of a reason. I have seen so many dye jobs of dubious colors on women my age—many of which look so fake and ugly to me—I choose the real and ugly of gray. At least for now. I can’t help but wonder if those with the gray-be-gone hair are called the “M” word that much less often. There’s still a face under that hair. One that doesn’t tell the truth.   Here one could arguably say, “Well, clothing isn’t natural.” I don’t care. Lately, I’ve had photos taken of me with no lipstick, which used to never happen. Another image that screams, “Not young anymore!” to viewers.  And, yet it was my choice to go for it. As if it’s now my right. I don’t even mind the pictures.

These days, I find it funny how, occasionally I’m still called, “Miss.” When I was young, I would mutter, “I didn’t miss anything.” Now, when I hear that, I wonder if the person missed what everyone else finds obvious. Not many are startled anymore at the mention of my adult son. That’s somehow okay, if not surprising.  And, surprisingly, I do appreciate the new respect one gets when deemed old enough to have earned it. Just don’t call me…you know.

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