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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Archive for September, 2013

CrossFit in the Crosshairs: A Physician and Athlete Comments

It’s really incredible what’s been said about our CrossFit on the information highways this week. The amount of opinion masquerading as fact-based advice is off the charts. Anyone’s who’s been around CrossFit for more than 2 years will realize that it’s just that part of the cycle, that time when CrossFit has reached another Tipping Point size-wise and has therefore come to the attention of another outwardly spiraling circle of “experts.” Trust me, it’s Groundhog Day in the gym, so to speak.

This is a wonderful opportunity to take a moment to reflect upon what CrossFit actually is, what it is not, and for whom CrossFit is appropriate. Let’s start with the last and work forward. CrossFit is appropriate for almost everyone. The group for whom it may not be really the best option is actually counter-intuitive: elite single sport athletes in highly skilled endeavors. Waaaiiiit at minute here, you might be saying. The highest-skilled elite athletes may NOT be the best CrossFit candidates, but the great unwashed masses of the obese, unfit,  and unhealthy ARE?! You bet, Bucky. That’s exactly what I’m saying. The .01% probably need to spend 100% of their time on their specialty, SPP or Specialty Physical Preparedness; CrossFit is GPP, General Physical Preparedness.

CrossFit is for the other 99.9%.

Why? How can that be? Well, that runs into what CrossFit is not, namely a dangerous, hyper-intense program that has a high injury rate, something too over-the-top for “regular” folks. Uh, uh. The real “dirty little secret” of CrossFit (if I may crib a rather recently famous phrase) is that scaling the stimulus and subbing in favor of more approachable movements is decidedly the norm in almost every setting where CrossFit is done. Technique. Then consistency. Then, and only then, intensity. Says so everywhere. Are there small pockets of CrossFit or CrossFitters who jump the gun and go straight to intensity? Sure. But that is hardly an indictment of the program, especially since the program and the company incessantly beat the drum: technique, then consistency, and only then intensity. The injury rate in CrossFit, if anyone cared to ask, is actually quite low, especially when you compare it with, say, running, where something ridiculous like 90% of runners suffer a running-related injury every year.

Which brings me to what it is that CrossFit can actually be said to be: the solution to the adverse effects of overabundance. A viable answer to the problems created by an unhealthy population. While the CrossFit Games have been an incredibly effective PR vehicle for the CrossFit Affiliates (which is also true, paradoxically, of all this silliness on the web right now!), they have confused a vocal segment of the opinionators about CrossFit and CrossFitters. Peek through the door of any CF Box and guess at who’s inside. Here’s a tip: it ain’t Jason and Miranda! It is, however, everyone else. What do you think they will be caught doing? Again, likely not what Jason and Miranda are doing that day! They will rather be doing approximately an hour’s worth of work, some of it skill-based, some of it directed toward some hole in their fitness, and almost certainly culminating in something that we would all recognize as a WOD. Look very closely, though, because if you do you will also see that there will be many subtle variations of that particular WOD going on, maybe as many subtle scalings as there are CrossFitters in the gym.

CrossFit is a highly customizable system built on the core principles elucidated in the Classic CrossFit Journal Issue no.2, “What is Fitness”, for which there is a link on the left side of the Main Page of CrossFit.com. A prescription for not only fitness but also health that includes a universally scalable program of exercise (with scaling options also offered under the “Start Here” tab on CrossFit.com) in combination with an easily followed guideline for nutrition, all geared to produce incremental and sustainable gains in 10 very specific physical domains. Following this “prescription” results in health, and when we combine this individual health with the wonders of the communities that have grown out of gatherings of CrossFitters we end up with something that could be called Wellness.

None of this is new. Nothing I’ve said here is unique or original. It does bear repeating, though, because you might be relatively new, and this latest round of “CrossFit is dangerous” or “CrossFit is only for people like Jason and Miranda” might actually be your first rodeo. It’s OK. Relax. It’s still technique, then consistency, and only then intensity. It’s still eat to support performance in the gym but not production of fat. Still learn and play new games. It’s still CrossFit.

CrossFit is still the answer.

CrossFit Kids and Peer Pressure

Why is it that some folks, particularly younger people, succumb to peer pressure while others somehow find the will to resist? Why, for example, does one kid accept the offered illegal substance while another says ‘no thanks’? What is it that compels the group to pile on, but one outlier says ‘enough’?

Millions of words have been spilled on this topic of course, and I’m certainly not qualified to add to the psych canon, but I’ve noticed a couple of things in CrossFit Kids groups that remind me of how a certain guy I knew walked away from an entire peer group, twice, rather than cave to pressure.

It’s easy and simple, hard and complex all at once. It has to do with success and succeeding, and getting ‘caught’ in the act of that success. Kids who regularly and routinely succeed at difficult tasks of any kind start to have a stronger belief in themselves that transfers to other stuff. Kids who are held to standards that they must self-police tend to develop a stronger sense that they can make an ethical or moral call without the need for the external confirmation of the group. You count every rep; you move through a full Range Of Motion. You make the call, or if judged you accept the call of the judge. CrossFit Kids does not hold the sole franchise for this, of course. The “First Tee” golf program, school chess programs, lots of other places exist where this type of belief in self gained through achievement and accountability exist.

It’s never too late to start this process, of course, because the dangers of peer pressure, groupthink, and the psychology of the mob do not magically disappear when we reach the age of majority. Where do you fall on this continuum? Can you think for yourself in the face of peer pressure? Do you have that inner sense, that mental muscle memory that lets you be confident when you are sure that the group is wrong? When the time comes are you strong enough to stand alone?

CrossFit Kids programs are one way to provide youngsters with the inner strength necessary to stand up to peer pressure.

 

Pursuit Is Just Another Word For Work

It’s all about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Jobs and work. There aren’t enough jobs out there. People have stopped looking for jobs. Unemployment is going up and up, and even those numbers don’t tell the story because hundreds of thousands of people have just given up the search.

But wait, there’s another side to the coin. It seems that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs out there, but businesses can’t find people with the skills, or even the desire to learn the skills necessary to fill those jobs. Gone is the willingness to take an entry-level job of whatever sort at whatever pay in order to start the journey to “get ahead”. Some would go so far as to say that NOT taking that low-pay starter job is a rational decision. The cumulative value of various and sundry government programs add up to a “salary” that far exceeds most entry level jobs, benefits which would go away if one took such a position.

So which is it? Come on…you can’t have it both ways now. Either there are no jobs, employers are withholding jobs to avoid this or that (Obamacare, yadda yadda), or employable adults are simply unwilling to work. Which is it? Are there no jobs, or has there been a paradigm shift in the collective sense of what it is that must be present in a job before it is worth taking?

I call BS on the no jobs thing. There are jobs out there to be had. Good jobs. Jobs that will add up to $20, $30, $40 or more per hour jobs. The problem with all of those jobs, and the reason that employers are having a tough time filling them is two-fold: you don’t start at $20, $30, or $40 per hour, and in order to have those jobs you have to do actual work. It’s Life, Liberty, and the PURSUIT of Happiness, not Happiness.

Pursuit is another word for work.

Say what you will about government policies that discourage hiring (30 hour work week = full time, mandatory provision of health “insurance” for companies with >50 employees), gnash as many teeth as you please about the inability to house a family on a single minimum wage income (what household has only one worker now, anyhow?), mount as much hew and cry all you wish about income disparity, in the end it all comes down to a very simple, very common denominator: in order to have a job you must be willing to go to work.

All work has value; there is honor is any job. That is not to say that all jobs and all work are equal, or have equal value, or even that there is any justice in the valuation of one job relative to another (why is someone who sells municipal bonds a millionaire while the plumber who drains the basement that was supposed to be kept dry by the pipes purchased with those bonds is not?). No, the point is that having a job, going to work, doing the work has an intrinsic value in and of itself, and that all jobs intersect in society in order that society can function, much like the 11 men on a football team must each do his job in order to move the ball down field.

It’s been offered many times by many people that the best social program for a society is a job. The job you start with, or the job you may have at the moment is not necessarily the job you want to end up with, but each job provides you with a sense of participating, of producing, of contributing, while at the same time perhaps providing a stepping stone to something better. The “Pursuit” in Pursuit of Happiness.

To land and then to keep a job is really not all that difficult. I worked for others as a younger man, and for some 25 years now I have been an employer. Really, as someone who gives people a job I’m here to tell you it’s not that tough to get one. You need three things, only, to get a job. You must WANT a job. Once you have a job must be willing to DO the job, to work hard. You must have integrity–you must be honest.

Seriously, that’s all it takes.

Ideally you would add a fourth component; you would be ambitious. People who have jobs to fill also have businesses to grow, and growing businesses have room for ambitious workers to grow into much larger jobs. Hard workers who are honest, who put in an honest day’s work who have any ambition whatsoever move up, either with the company that gave them that first job or with another company that is competing for the skills they acquired because they took that “entry-level” job. The new managing editor of Time Magazine started there in a sub-minimum wage job as a fact-checker. She is the epitome of the axiom that all you need is a foot in the door and the willingness to work hard.

Sure, sure, I know, it’s not always that cut and dried, and people get rooked, and bad stuff happens. I know. That’s life. Life happens. Life can be hard. In life, though, the reality is that rarely, if ever, is anything handed to you. You earn it. You don’t sit back because something unfortunate might happen because the odds are really stacked in your favor that they won’t, go against you that is, if you simply go out and demonstrate your willingness to get a job, even an entry-level job, work hard, and be honest. The work/life balance thing is all well and good, as long as you remember that work is part of the equation, too.

Indeed, it comes first.

 

Ride That Adventure For All It’s Worth

Literally nothing that you apply to anything will leave the applied object unaltered. Sometimes the effect is minute ( a tiny shift in flight pattern from a bend in a boomerang), massive (car meet telephone pole; pole, car), or even microscopic (the increase in mitochondria in muscle cells exposed to CrossFit). These are only the more obvious changes that we can see.

What is important to remember, and what bears reflection in the contemplation, is how an experience will alter you as a person. The same magnitudes exist, but one must be ever conscious of the absolute fact that every experience will alter you in some way. We can dive into the neuropsychology of it all, the effect on neural pathways and whatnot, but that’s probably not necessary; you can simply take my word for it.

Experiences will change you, and the more momentous the experience the more change you must prepare for.

Some of this is pretty basic stuff. School, job, marriage…no revelations in there at all. What never fails to surprise though is when an adventure, something out of the regular and routine, upsets the applecart. This is not always a bad thing of course, and whatever alteration is induced by the adventure is just as likely to be really good as it is to be anything else. No, what surprises anyone who has been paying just the littlest bit of attention is that the adventurer is surprised that they’ve been altered!

There’s a really cool guy in our CrossFit world who is on an epic adventure. Roughly 1/3 of the way into it he’s had a little epiphany: he misses his people, but he doesn’t really miss the life he’s left behind. In truth I have no idea whether or not this is a surprise to him, though his penchant for seeking adventures and his serial reinvention of his life makes me think he is more curious to have discovered this particular alteration than he is surprised by it. Indeed, anyone who embarks on the type of adventures that he has had can only fail to be altered if they aren’t paying even the slightest attention.

My bid is that seeking adventure and all that it entails is beneficial. One needs to be aware that the adventure will alter you in some way, and this is probably part of the calculus you need to perform in planning the adventure. But still, seeking out experiences that cannot help but alter you has got to be necessary, don’t you think? Learn and play new games, after all. As long as you’re at it, you might just as well make each adventure as big as you can fit into your life. Who knows how many chances you’ll get to be in that saddle, or when the next one might arrive.

When you do get in the saddle, make sure you wear spurs!

 

Resolve

I landed on “Cool Hand Luke” while surfing yesterday. Man, was Paul Newman something, or what? For all of his faults, and despite being guilty of whatever landed him in that prison camp, Luke was resolved to fight the injustice of his existence. He was resolved not to lose the essence of who he was, despite the hardships imposed on him by those who would break him, break his will, make him relinquish that which made him, well, cool.

Movies are usually an escape for me. I’m not often prompted to terribly deep thought while watching. But I wondered, what of my life that occasionally seems so hard, is actually hard enough that I must bend from a true course? And if it is, indeed, that hard, how long could I hold out against the constancy of the difficulty, like Luke, before I broke?

Luke, knowing that he may finally be broken, seeks answers in the church he forswore. He stands in a doorway. “What we have here is a failure to communicate”. A last act of defiance, or a capitulation?

One is left to wonder: did He answer?

 

Musings on Small Time Sports and CrossFit

It’s opening weekend for the NFL, the closest thing we have in the U.S. to a collective religion. The U.S. Tennis Open has finals in women’s today and men’s tomorrow night (shame on them for putting that on a school night). MLB is lurching toward the playoffs (with both Pittsburgh and Cleveland still in the hunt!). And major college football is in week 2, still in its version of the silly season.

What’s the connection? All of these, including D1 football, are examples of big-time sports. Sport as business. The only difference between them is that in football they don’t pay the minor leaguers, the college athletes. And please, spare me any sanctimonious drivel about getting an education for free–nothing is free. D1 football is a job, no less than AAA baseball or Junior A hockey. The difference is that every other sport openly pays its minor leaguers, while Big Time college football continues to wallow in the cynical swamp of exploitation of its athletes. The same is true, of course, of Big Time college basketball.

There is an antidote for this. It’s called Small Time. That should probably be all lower case, too. Should be “small time”. Sport for the sake of sport. Putting in the time in practice to play the games because the games are fun. They are meaningful as an end in themselves, not as a means to some end of the rainbow pot of gold end. All of the stuff that the fat cat moneybags trot out as justification for athletic programs in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac10, ACC etc.–alumni loyalty, creation of a communal atmosphere, a reason to return to Alma Mater–that’s all there is in “small time” sports.

I played a couple of sports at the D III level. Pretty pitiful lacrosse player and golfer relative to my teammates, relatively OK football player. Not a one of us made a pro roster. Indeed, not a single athlete from any team sport in the entire NESCAC (comprising some 10 or so small schools in New England) in that era played a single minute as a pro in anything. As a group we all went on to do rather pedestrian things like become teachers and cops and doctors and lawyers and bankers and…well, you get the idea.

Were our games any less meaningful than last night’s ND/Michigan game? I’m certainly biased, but how can the answer be anything other than ‘no’? We sweated and suffered and sacrificed our time for the joy of playing the games. Our schoolmates came to watch us play. Alums followed the teams whether or not they played on them. Follow them still. The games and the teams keep Alma Mater connected, provide a little line that ties us to our school in a way that is no different than the pull of Ohio State.

There is a purity in the “small time” that should shame the shamans of the Big Time, so sullied are they by the continual necessity to pretend that the Big Time is nothing more than the “small time”, only bigger. It just isn’t so. There is an honesty in the “small time” that is simply absent in the Big Time. The very best D III teams, the ones that win championships, still send only a trivial number of players to the pros in any sport, and therefore have as little relationship to A-level baseball as do those teams that never see an NCAA D III playoff game.

What does this have to do with CrossFit? Fair question; like anything else written on Sunday the answer may be ‘nothing’! But I do see more than a little similarity between CrossFit as The Sport of Fitness and college athletics. What I see is that same honesty present in the “small time” college athletics, though, even at the highest levels of our sport. There’s money to be made at the top, but there is no subterfuge, no obfuscation or deceit: if you are really good you can make money doing CrossFit. Period. Not being able to make money at it does not exclude anyone else. Period.

Very few people make a living from CrossFit, as competitors or trainers or trainers-of-trainers. The ratio of participants to pros is rather similar to any professional sport you wish to use as an example. Like “small time” college sports we have all manner of competitions we can enter as CrossFitters; if you enjoy the games and you wish to compete, the games are there for you to play and for everyone else who wishes to watch.

Unlike the Big Time, in the “small time” the games are simply part of who you are, not why you are.

 

A Friend Who Will Tell You The Truth

Everyone should have a friend who will tell them the truth, specifically the truth about themselves. At least the truth about how the world views them. It’s impossible to accurately observe our own footprints; we need someone to show them to us.

This is not to say that one should form an opinion of one’s self or one’s self-worth solely on the basis of some external view. Hopefully our friend speaks kindly to us out of love and caring in the hope that the truth will lead us to a better version of ourselves, or allow us to feel better about the present version.

I have such a friend, and we recently had such a talk. It turns out that my doubts about the man I am now are unfounded, that I have grown into the type of man with whom others genuinely wish to gather, despite my fears to the contrary. It can be hard to sit still for such a compliment, uncomfortable to hear it no matter how lovingly it is offered, the urge to demure nearly overpowering.

How I have arrived here is quite another story, and a painful truth that my friend offered as well. In my younger years, a time filled with the external measurable trappings of success, I thought I’d already reached a place where people of all shapes and sizes were comfortable and happy in my company, and I in theirs. Hmm..turns out, not so much. No, it turns out that I was much too pleased with myself, too pleased myself with having achieved that visible success. I held myself apart, above. I was liked, but mostly because those to whom I would be compared were less likable. Ouch.

Would I have heard my friend if she told me this back in the day? I don’t know. I doubt it. A massive dose of humble pie was probably necessary, not only to hear and listen, to be ready to hear and listen, but certainly to have become who I am today. The details of my humbling are not really relevant, it was the lessons taught by humility that matter. Chicken? Egg? Does it matter? I do wish that she, someone, had told me then, though. Just in case I might have listened, gotten a head start on getting where I’ve gotten.

Why does it matter now? Why is this not simply a case of a friend congratulating me on growing up to be a better adult than I once was? Some times we get a mulligan. A do-over or a re-start. I may once again achieve a kind of success with all of the visible trappings. Man, I really hope so! If I do the truth my friend shared is not just a pat on the back but also a kick in the pants. A warning that I should do a better job of it if I get a this time around.

Everyone should have a friend who will tell them the truth. Each of us should care enough to listen.

 

Alive Without a Life

Billy Ray (not his real name, of course) turned off his implantable defibrillator (ICD) yesterday. Billy Ray is 44.

In my day job I was asked to evaluate him for a problem in my specialty. I was told he was about to enter hospice care and assumed that he was much, much older and simply out of options. I admit that I was somewhat put out by the request, it being Saturday and the problem already well-controlled. Frankly, I thought it was a waste of my time, Billy Ray’s time, and whoever might read my report’s time, not to mention the unnecessary costs. I had a very pleasant visit with Billy Ray, reassured him that the problem for which I was called was resolving nicely, and left the room to write my report.

44 years old though. What was his fatal illness? What was sending him off to Hospice care? I bumped into his medical doc and couldn’t resist asking. Turns out that Billy Ray has a diseased heart that is on the brink of failing; without the ICD his heart will eventually beat without a rhythm and he will die. A classic indication for a heart transplant–why was Billy Ray not on a transplant list? Why, for Heaven’s sake, did he turn off his ICD?

There is a difference between being alive and having a life. It’s not the same to say that one is alive and that one is living. It turns out that Billy Ray suffered an injury at age 20 and has lived 24 years in unremitting, untreatable pain. Cut off before he even began he never married, has no children. Each day was so filled with the primal effort to stop the pain he had little left over for friendship.

Alive without a life. Alive without living. Billy Ray cried “Uncle”.

I have been haunted by this since I walked out of the hospital. How do you make this decision? Where do you turn? Billy Ray has made clear he has no one. Does a person in this situation become MORE religious or LESS? Rage against an unjust God or find comfort in the hope of an afterlife? Charles DeGaulle had a child with Down’s Syndrome. On her death at age 20 he said “now she is just like everyone else.” Is this what Billy Ray is thinking? That in death he will finally be the same as everyone else?

And what does this say about each of us in our lives? What does it say about the problems that we face, the things that might make us rage against some personal injustice? How might we see our various infirmities when cast in the shadow of a man who has lived more than half his life in constant pain, a man alone? The answer, of course, is obvious, eh?

The more subtle message is about people, having people. Having family, friends, people for whom one might choose to live. It’s very easy to understand the heroic efforts others make to survive in spite of the odds, despite the pain. Somewhere deep inside the will to live exists in the drive to live for others. The sadness I felt leaving the hospital and what haunts me is not so much Billy Ray’s decision but my complete and utter understanding of his decision.

Billy Ray gave lie to the heretofore truism that “no man is an island”.

Go out and build your bridges. Build the connections to others that will build your will to live. Live so that you will be alive for your others. Be alive so that your life will be more than something which hinges on nothing more than the switch that can be turned off. Live with and for others so that you, too, can understand not only Billy Ray but also those unnamed people who fight for every minute of a life.

Be more than alive. Live.

 

Eternal Friendship

While purging 22 years of stuff from our house I came across a tiny note from someone who’d been a close friend in childhood. It was addressed “Hello, my Eternal Friend.” I’ve not seen this friend, nor have we directly communicated, in more than 30 years. It got me to thinking about really enduring friendships.

What I’ve come up with is duration, distance, and durability. The three “D’s” of friendship. There were some very nice demonstrations of all three for Mrs. bingo and me this weekend.

Distance is at once the easier and trickier of the three. Once upon a time distance was almost always a deal-breaker, at least if it was applied for too very long. Air travel was not accessible to most, and all of our electronic connections were just predictions on the pages of a science fiction novel. No email, texting, or PM…folks kept in touch via what we now call snail mail and hard line long-distance phone calls. The phone calls were brutally expensive (anyone remember waiting until 7:00 PM on Sunday when the rates when down to call home?), which turned some friendship into something called pen pals. You wrote on a piece of paper with something called a pen, put it in the envelope which then went in something called a mailbox, and then you waited/hoped a letter would return. Distance was a big friendship killer back in the day.

Now? Not so much. Duration is the goal, and durability is the barrier. How durable, how resilient is your friendship? Can it withstand the challenges and demands presented by our always-on communication? Indeed, are our myriad ways of “connecting” over whatever distance exists sufficient to nurture a friendship for the ages? How about age, infirmity, different levels of success or diverging life goals? New interests that may not be shared? What are the characteristics of those truly eternal friendships that make them so?

Well, judging by our experiences this weekend there are probably a couple of other “D’s” that apply. Desire and Delight. How much do both parties want the friendship to endure, and how delighted are they when they actually connect, really connect, face to face, no matter how old the friendships might be?

My Dad was visited yesterday by friends who’ve been around for 40 years. It’s kinda tough to see Dad right now, but there they were. The delight in the room was palpable; old friends act like that when they are together. Mrs. bingo and I had our own delight in the evening when we dined with a 40 year friend of my own (30 years for Beth), brought together by mutual desire, delighted by the lack of distance our visit created. That particular friendship is still durable enough to withstand a glass of red wine spectacularly spilled on a white shirt five minutes into dinner!

So how about my “Eternal Friend” from childhood? Is the friendship still there, a tiny ember burning beneath the cold ashes of time? Ah, we were so young. We had no concept of what “eternal” really meant. We, certainly I, had no idea what it would take to carry a friendship for an eternity, regardless of how much we might have wanted it to continue.

Sometimes friendships just slip away, like my “Eternal Friend”. Those that don’t end up being just a little bit more of everything by dint of duration. They are durable. They’ve passed the test of time. We don’t get many of these very special friendships, but when we do get one, or get the chance to forge a new one, we have every right to be delighted by every little part of whatever makes that friendship work. Like my Dad and the couple who’ve been his friends for 40 years, or my friend Bob (and his lovely Kathy).

You can never have enough friends, or work hard enough to keep ‘em, especially if they’ve truly been around for an eternity.

 

Existentialism, in Brief

“Lovely Daughter” Megan defines existentialism as such: existence precedes essence; essence is created by man and man alone. This definition led to a very deep conversation about faith, one that included my “Better 95%”  Beth.

I wrote about faith extensively elsewhere http://skyvisioncenters.com/blog/?p=98. My understanding of existentialism is quite a bit darker than Megan’s, seeing as it came from the study of Sartre, Camus, Becket et al. The existentialist of my learning views each day on this earth as comprising nothing but pain. Each day brings a simple question, to withstand the pain or end it. Rather bleak, and rather bereft of any faith whatsoever.

Megan’s existentialist is a much more hopeful creature, one who can have faith of some sort. This existentialist would live quite comfortably with the type of faith that Beth has quietly espoused for many years. It’s a faith that believes in an innate goodness. One that seeks a tie-in with the essential cooperative balance of our planet, not unlike that which was/is practiced by the original settlers of North America. It’s a faith that leaves room for the possibility of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity, even a creator. But it’s a faith that does not require one, either.

I am basically a caricature of a lapsed Catholic, no longer terribly faithful to the church of my youth, but still holding on to some of its faith. At some point, whether you are looking infinitely into the future or attempting to look back to the beginning of time, without faith of some sort those explorations are a “Straight Trip to Madness.”

Or, as Woody Allen once said, “I don’t believe in an afterlife. But just in case, I’m bringing along a change of underwear.”

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