Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Remembering My Gama*

Admit it, you cried too. You found yourself in front of the TV for whatever reason at noon on April 21, 2018 and watched the Bush family say goodbye to their matriarch. My Mom turned 81 on April 21st, and quite frankly I am not ready to think of her being gone. Not even a little bit. So I watched the grandchildren. Rather than putting myself in the minds of Mrs. Bush’s children I channeled her grandchildren. Listening to Jeb Bush describe “Ganny” sent me back in time to the days when I was the best-loved grandson in the history of all mankind.

My birthday is January 7th, 1960. Gama was “born” about a year later–I couldn’t get my one year old tongue around the word “grandma” and it came out “Gahmmah”. Now, the White family is really big on precedent, and since grandchild number 1 called Mom’s mother Gama, Gama it was for everybody. Subsequent grandchildren, great-grandchildren, friends, neighbors, heck a few Romans who lent an ear for all I know, called Jane Knopf “Gama”. (This precedent thing turned out to be not so good in the next generation when my nephew, grandchild number three, called my parents “Bam” and “Bamp” and it wasn’t allowed to stick, but that’s another story.)

As the first grandchild in my Mom’s family I had the perfect set-up, and the fact that I was the first male in a generation didn’t hurt one bit. My brother was born 17 months after I was, and with the two of us so close together it was apparently a burden for my folks. Turned out to be quite a break for me, though, because my brother was born in May; at the end of June I was shipped out to stay with Gamma and Gramp at the Jersey Shore, the first of countless solo visits with my grandparents. Thus began a most privileged relationship with my maternal grandparents, especially with my beloved Gama.

It’s hard to describe, especially in these days of ultra mobility where extended families live apart, how critical it was to be loved by a family member without condition. Accepted and supported with no strings attached. Time spent with Gama was time spent in a guilt-free bubble. You behaved because it just felt so good to be in that bubble, and if you misbehaved forgiveness came in waves a very brief instant after any punishment. I visited my grandparents for weeks at a time, especially in the summer. My aunt Barbie, 16 years my senior, made it OK for the rugrat to be around even though I was clearly messing up her “only child” status in the house. Those were good times. I had a very special and unique relationship with Gama and Gramp. If I close my eyes and it’s very quiet I can still hear them…”Dar”.

Apparently everyone in my family saw what a special relationship I had with them and sought to preserve and protect it. It does no good to share any family secrets, but every family has some, eh? I was the last to discover any of the family’s darker secrets, long after my siblings, long after the cousins 10 and 12 years my junior. I was 30 when my aunts visited us in New York at the end of my residency years when I became aware of how much I’d been “protected” over the years, protection so effective that any present day revelations cannot dim or diminish the memories of my life with Gama and Gramp.

We lost Gramp when I was around 17  when he succumbed to his nth heart attack. That whole time is really just a blur, from the phone call I took in Rhode Island with the news from my uncle to the memorial service in Miami where I stood next to Barbie as she tried to read her farewells. What I remember–indeed all I really remember clearly–is Gama saying over and over, “I didn’t get to say ‘goodbye’.” I didn’t get to say ‘goodbye’ either. Maybe that’s why I can still hear Gramp every now and again…”Dar.”

Gama stayed in Florida at King’s Creek for a couple more years, living in the same apartment I’d visited so many times. I even made one last solo visit when I brought my new college buddy “Kid” for a week of spring break fun during freshman year. Every family seems to have one adult who’s cool, don’t they? Yours does. Admit it. There’s a parent or an uncle or a grandmother who’s just cooler than all of the other adults, right? Well, in our family it was Gama. My Gama was cool! As the years went by as more and more of our friends got to know her it seemed she just got cooler. Just ask Kid.

It turns our that Gama was ALWAYS cool. She entered college as a pre-med student in the days when women did not become doctors. Almost got away with it, too, until her mother found out and transferred her into education. She dated the gay boys when she was younger because they took her to the best clubs and they were the best dancers (and she didn’t have to worry about getting pawed on the train home from New York).  Yup, Gamma was cool.

After a few solo years in Miami Gama moved in with my folks in Rhode Island, spending several months each year with my aunts and their kids in Florida. She never called us just by name, it was alway “MY Dar”, my Ran, my Tracey, my Kerstin. My Jenny, Rick, Mike or Ed. All eight grandchildren now clearly had a unique and special relationship with Gama since she was now living with all of us. She was still my biggest fan, my brother Randy’s defender (Ran was the “black sheep” by choice when we were younger), Tracey’s cheerleader and Kerstin’s confidant. Even though I can’t describe them as well I know that each of my Florida cousins had some version of that same specialness.

Some time ago, I was in my early thirties, Gama fell and broke her hip. Word came from the hospital that she was failing–a broken hip is often the end for older women. Beth called me on the way to the OR to do cataract surgeries. Numb, stunned, I couldn’t think. I did what we have always done in my family, I went to work. It was Beth who knew better, who cancelled my patients and put me on a plane to Miami. Beth who let everyone know that I was on the way, alerting everyone in Florida when I was delayed in Greensborogh so that Barbie knew where to to leave the message. I sat sobbing in the airport after the  gate attendant told me Gama had died. I wouldn’t get to say goodbye.

My Mom and I spoke at the memorial service representing the children and grandchildren, Mom all icy control, me crashing, burning and choking my way through. I told one of my favorite stories, the one about the little girl who was standing in front of her grandfather’s casket, stomping her feet, clearly angry. “He can’t be dead. I wasn’t done with him yet!” That’s how I felt when Gramp died. I think if we’d had the chance to ask him Gramp would have told us that he wasn’t really all that done with US when he died, either. I definitely wasn’t done with Gama, either, but Gama was done with us. She was ready to go, so long after Gramp left, so long living alone among all of her special grandkids. I said then, and I still wish to this very day, that she hadn’t been in so much of a hurry. I would very much have liked to say goodbye.

Maybe that’s why even now, when it’s very quiet, if I close my eyes, I can still hear her…”Dar.”

 

*In our family there is some question about the proper spelling. Since she signed all of her cards and gifts “Gama” I’m going with that.

There Are No Small People

“But players don’t feel like bit players in their own lives.” –Richard Russo

Oh man…how good is that? Every life is just huge if it’s you who is living it. Every story suffers or soars depending on the frame of reference of the author. The eyes and ears of the storyteller only catch so much, and some of what is seen or heard never makes it past the “bit player” level in the story that is eventually told. This is what Russo refers to.

There are short stories, but there are no small stories. There are quiet lives lived with little or no acclaim, but there are no small lives. There are people who move as if shadows among giants, but there are no small people.

Dial Tone

There are a couple of broad-brush themes I find myself drawn to, things I find myself visiting with some regularity. Communication is one of them, and this week the specific thing that came up several times was how you might choose to communicate with a particular person or group of people. There’s always a trigger for these ruminations, this time the jarring interruption of an examination in my office by a ring tone that my patient surely thought was quite clever and altogether appropriate for any and all occasions. Yeah. No. Especially not while sitting in the exam chair in front of a doc who pointedly does NOT carry his cell phone while on the job.

We all got to talking about what cell phones have become and how we use them. A bit later in the day a patient was lamenting the presumed need to carry a smartphone with all of the attendant capabilities and inferred responsibilities and demands. You know the drill: each text is mission critical and cannot be ignored. An answer must be on its way before the backlight on your phone dims. You no longer have the answer to any question literally at the tip of you fingers, you now have the obligation to GET that answer, right now, lest you end up with questions in a queue. Questions have rights, too, in the age of the smartphone.

It’s insidious and seemingly irresistible, even for a guy who hangs his cell phone on a peg in the office (like a gunslinger entering an old West saloon). The “gotta answer” text now more compelling than a phone call ever was before because you can answer that text so quickly, almost…ALMOST…without interrupting whatever you may be doing otherwise. Unlike a phone call, where you must break away both attention and voice in order to communicate with someone who is not right there with you. Texters are now to the point where you need to text and ask if it’s OK to call. I must admit that even though I am nothing short of terrible at the physical act of texting (my auto-correct is in therapy with self-esteem issues) I, too, have been seduced by the ease with which a thought/need can be sent off RIGHT NOW, saving me the angst that would occur if I somehow forgot to transmit that thought/need if I had to remember it for a later transmission. I found myself becoming annoyed that my Mom doesn’t text (or email, but that’s a whole ‘nuther thing) because if she did I would never, ever forget those mission critical things I was supposed to remember and report.

But then, of course, it hits me: some people are always worth the effort of a phone call, even if they DO text (or email). In the natural evolution of communication a phone call–a real, live, use your voice and your ears phone call–has become as significant a gesture as hand writing a letter once was. Some things you just have to say out loud, and some people you just have to call up and talk to. You don’t text your grandmother to tell her about your first big boy/girl job after college. Your grandmother is worth a call even if you’re just telling her you remembered to pick up orange juice. Your Mom and Dad, POSSLQ, doctor, the guy who’s fixing your toilet–if these people want or need a call, a call is what they should get. Some communication is nothing more or less than a transactional transfer of information, while other communication is much more personal. Truly effective communication occurs when both sides are in agreement about what type of communication is occurring. Every communication with my Mom, for example, is personal, and would be even if she had and used a Galaxy whatever. As a matter of fact, even a phone call with my Mom is a kind of compromise as far as she is concerned because I am not able to just drop by to catch her up on whatever it was that she tasked me with reporting. Indeed, face to face communicating trumps even the handwritten note for immediacy, engagement, commitment, and conspicuous effort.

I was able to communicate with my patient just how I felt about that phone going off in my exam room with one eyebrow tied behind my back.

Reality

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. –Philip K. Dick

A fact-based reality should be the easiest one in which to live. Presented with data your only challenges should be to either explain it, seek to change the underlying causes of it, or make your peace and live with it. Now to be sure I am one who has opined that one’s perception of the facts becomes your own slice of reality, but PKD’s quote above is the ultimate response to one for whom the data becomes inconvenient.

Comparative data that shines light on differences between relatively identifiable groups seems to be particularly uncomfortable for large swaths of Americans at the moment. Well, not only at the moment I guess. Daniel Patrick Moynahan is still persona non grata to some people for pointing out facts about groups of Americans in the 70′s and 80′s I think it was. The CrossFit world is presently in the midst of an exercise designed to gather larges amounts of data about a subset of the planet’s population. Adding additional data such as diet and nutrition would undoubtedly yield a reality that some version of high-intensity interval training, becoming physically stronger through lifting heavy objects, and limiting the consumption of processed carbohydrates creates a healthier human.

Reality check for the pizza and beer on the couch set.

In the end I think my philosophy is becoming that I want to see the data. For me a data-driven reality may be unpleasant but it is at least one that gives me those 3 options above so that I feel a sense of control over my reaction to the reality, at least. Grade differences among groups at “elite” U.S. law schools? Let’s see them and figure out why they exist. Daughters in a particular group tend to remain at the same or higher socio-economic level as their parents but their brothers slide backward? Shine a light on that data so that a root-cause analysis can be done and change attempted.

Daniel Patrick Moynahan:  a person is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. The reality is that I am not as fit as I thought I was. I scaled CrossFit Open workout 18.5 and still only got 100 reps. It’s up to me to decide how I feel about that, and what I will do about it, but it won’t change the reality of 100 reps.

 

Never Stop Trying

There’s a video that made its viral rounds on various social media places of a rather earnest-looking professor-like guy talking about the power of a tiny domino falling and hitting a bigger domino on its way to the ground. He starts the dominoes tumbling. The cascade of 15 ends with the fall of a domino weighing 100 lbs. and measuring >1 meter in height.

All from a domino so small he needs tweezers to place it.

The Professor ends the video with the observation that a similar 29 domino cascade would finish with the fall of a domino larger than the Empire State Building. Pretty vivid. As is so often the case on Sunday mornings I let the video rumble around in the space between my ears for a bit. What I saw first was a vast space filled with thousands, nay millions of those tiny dominoes, falling down over and over again, never striking anything but the ground. Every now and again a tiny domino would fall against a massive domino, either bouncing or slowly sliding off, eventually finding its way to the ground either way.

It was discouraging to think about. It made me a little sad, to tell you the truth.

But as I thought about it a little more, spent a bit more time in my imaginary vastness filled with tiny dominoes perpetually falling, it occurred to me that in order to fall over and over again it was necessary for each of those tiny dominoes to somehow rise up to stand. More than that, each time one fell it moved a little bit. Sometimes further into the vacuum of the vastness, but sometimes closer to another tiny domino. Another domino falling.

Another domino that kept getting back up.

It’s probably trite–some would say I specialize in trite–but what stayed with me in the end was not the image of the massive domino falling at the end, but that of the tiny, delicate, fragile domino in the front of the line. The one that started the whole thing. What most of us ever see is the last couple of dominoes falling, the last tumblers settling into place. Almost no one ever sees those first dominoes. Those tiny, fragile, tentative steps in the very beginning of the line when there is little more than an idea and a dream. Who knows how many times that first, tiny domino fell and struck nothing but earth?

And then got back up.

Optimization vs. Diminishing Returns

Some time ago I wrote about the Minimum Effective Dose (MED), the concept in which we seek to optimize our results with the smallest amount of whatever it is that we are using to achieve that outcome. The quest to find the MED is one that crosses quite easily between my day job (medical) and my own quest for health (CrossFit). A quick mention of Eva T in Outside magazine and the program she uses with her clients made me think a bit more on the MED. The Everyday Math column in the WSJ provided an enhanced vocabulary for the journey.

Sometimes the MED really is a “something” you take. Here one thinks of medicine or food, for example. More often is the case that we are looking at a dose of time or effort. Or perhaps both. In this case we are seeking to optimize the effort as it relates to the outcome, to make the value of outcome divided by effort as large as possible. The rate limiting factor here is the Law of Diminishing Returns, of course: at some point additional effort produces such a small incremental increase in the outcome that it becomes not worth making. This applies to everything from WODs/week (or day) to decorating a birthday cake. At a certain point you just have to feel you’ve succeeded.

How, then, to know when you have reached this optimal level? Eugenia Cheng, the mathematician who wrote the WSJ piece, offers the concept of the “minimal acceptable standard”. Once she has reached this outcome the additional effects garnered from more effort have moved beyond the point where Diminishing Returns kicks in and she simply accepts the outcome. We would call these “minimal standards” goals, but the concept is essentially the same. We want an outcome; setting a target or a goal is step one in optimization.

Cheng then goes on to refine optimization with a discussion about boundaries. One is your goal, of course. In real life others also exist, things like a 24 hour day and a 7 day week and the need to make a living. The dose you choose, both qualitatively (what it is) and quantitatively (how much you get) is unavoidably affected by boundary conditions over which you have less control.In the end no outcome worth getting happens without effort. Health, friendship, or the unraveling of a gnarly math problem–you’re going to put effort in to get your results out.

Maximizing your outcome-to-effort ratio is just another way to say you are seeking your Minimum Effective Dose, in CrossFit and elsewhere.

When “Team Player” Means It’s All You

“It’s better to full-ass one something than to half-ass a bunch of things.” Anonymous

Soon enough I will be living another week of on-call coverage for one of the largest hospitals in Ohio. When asked recently by colleagues why I still do hospital coverage I had to admit that I really didn’t have an answer. I don’t really have to do it, and yet it doesn’t really seem like it feels right not to. There’s a kind of “pay it forward” debt to the giants who came before me that still lingers, I suppose. That debt’s been paid, with a bundle of interest, many times over, and it may be time to close the ledger.

Why now? Well, it has very little to do with the work itself because that hasn’t really changed all that too very much over the years. No, it’s more about the work that’s NOT being done by others, work that they own and are responsible for and don’t do, that will ultimately drive me away from this part of my day job. It’s really no different than any other job or workplace anywhere. The lazy and the shiftless, the incompetent and the entitled all see it as just fine to kick the can downstream to whomever they can get away with kicking it to.

I’ll bet you just had a dozen images of this from your own life flash by, right?

Boy, there are a thousand reasons you will hear to explain and rationalize why they feel it’s perfectly reasonable to get you to do their work. After awhile it gets really old. The first thing you should do when you encounter this is to look within and make sure that YOU aren’t doing this anywhere to anyone else. Gotta make sure that your virtue is intact before you saddle up the high horse! Once you’ve ascertained that all is right and proper with your own work ethic you then have a bit of a choice to make: rock the boat or sail along. Sadly, though you know the consequences of the latter (you continue to do that slacker’s work), be prepared for the possibility of not being thanked for pointing out reality to bosses and co-workers. It’s entirely possible that you will be the one criticized. Totally fair, right?

In the end there is no best answer to this dilemma. All you can do is use the feelings generated in you by being on the receiving end of this work-shifting to make yourself a better worker, no matter who it is you do that work for. If you do, indeed, reach that point where you just can’t look at yourself in the mirror any more because the injustice is simply too much to accept, it’s OK to call it as you see it. That’s where I am today, and that’s what I’ll be doing while on call. To be sure, all of that “pay it forward” I’ve done will get me an audience, though it may not mean I will be able to effect change. Other than workload, that is. In this tiny part of my day job, I will continue doing the very best job I possibly can, as I always do, for each of my patients each time I see them.

What I won’t be doing is picking up the other half an ass that someone else missed before I full-ass my part of the job.

Brief Thoughts While Abroad (from Sunday musings…)

Man, if you read pretty much any news item from any viewpoint it certainly sounds like the world is heading to hell in a hand basket. War, terrorism, and murder abound making the world less safe than 10 or 20 or 100 years ago. Life expectancy went down in the U.S.; diseases must be winning the war. We are destroying the planet with the effluent of human existence, and the scourges of poverty oppress and suppress more people to a greater degree as wealth disparity increases worldwide.

It’s enough to make you bag your WOD and belly up to Pizza Hut delivers.

Only none of it is true. Well, except for the increase in wealth disparity that is. Even here it’s important to note that across the world extreme poverty is roughly 25% of what it was just 30 years ago, and real famine now affects less than 1% of the world’s population. 55% of countries now allow their citizens to vote, up from 1% in the 1800′s. 85% of the world’s citizens can read and write. Death from war is 1/4 of what it was in 1980, 1/6 of what is what in 1970, and 1/16 of what it was in the 1950′s.

How about here at home? The homicide rate is down to 5.3/100,000 from 8.5 over the last 3 decades. We are 95% less likely to die on the job, 96% less likely to die in a car crash, and 99% less likely to die in a plane crash over the past century. We work 22 fewer hours per week than 1900, and lose 43 fewer hours to housework. All but the smallest minority of the poor are housed with heat and air conditioning, are not malnourished, and have access to modern “necessities” like the internet.

What about the environment? Aren’t we dooming our planet because of our ever-increasing insults to the land, water, and land? 30 years ago we in the U.S. delivered 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter pollution into the air. Those numbers are now 4 million and 20.6 million despite more people, more production and more miles driven. In 1988 there were 46 major oil spills; in 2016 there were only 5.

My point is simple: the world is NOT getting worse. It is NOT worse than it was in 1990 or 1970 or 1950, it is better. In no way do I wish for you to think that I am telling you that we should be satisfied with this, only that we ought not be working to continue to improve our world from a Henny Penny, the world is falling point of view. Reasonable people can disagree on the effects of disproportionate distribution of wealth on a forward going basis, but any objective evaluation of the progress of the human condition across the globe over the last 30 years must certainly reach the conclusion that the world is better off today.

I have found over the course of my brief moment on this rock that I am simply better at my own tiny contribution to making a tiny slice of the rock better if I am coming from a place of optimism rather than one of despair. Your mileage may vary, and I certainly do not mean to dismiss the negative effects of very personal trauma and challenge. For me what I see is momentum, and a challenge to maintain this very positive momentum.

Equality and a Just Society

“Life’s not fair.” –Scar

What does equality mean? What does it mean to be equal? This came up this week in my day job. A study was done that proports to show that male and female eye doctors are paid unequally. The conclusions are false at the outset in this particular case because by law, services in this particular arena are paid exactly the same no matter who performs them, when or where. Unfortunately, the sensational lede taps into all kinds of notions of fairness, and all kinds of perceptions about what people assume must be true, that women make less than men for equal work. There is no question that this is the case is some walks of life, but interestingly the data (some of which the authors ignore in their quest to prove their preconception) proves otherwise in medicine. An opportunity to examine real differences in how men and women practice medicine is thus lost in the pursuit of an examination of the spiritual quest to combat inequality, even where none exists.

Is this the unicorn of equality? Is payment under government programs the only place where equality actually exists? Heck if I know. What interests me is the fact that the first assumption is that inequality is present. Inequality is the default setting. That there is an inherent degree of unfairness in pretty much any and every setting. Know what I think? Equality doesn’t exist. It cannot exist if we are to have an ever-improving world. There is nothing unfair about that in the least.

A just civilization establishes a floor below which allowing people to live is ethically wrong. For example, in healthcare it is my contention that we have a moral obligation to see that every citizen has access to care when they are sick. Inherent in this contention is that there is a basic level of care that meets this moral obligation by ensuring the same outcome as any other level of care. One could apply this same concept to food, clothing, and housing without missing a beat. We can think of the rights enshrined in the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a proxy for this baseline if you’d like. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness make a very fine baseline.

One’s right to “life” necessarily includes a right to be fed, would you agree? Equality would mean that if one among us dines on Beef Wellington, than each among us must do so as well. This is where unthinking and unquestioning fidelity to “equality” brings you. In so doing it forces everyone to expend energy protesting “inequality” better put toward fulfilling the moral obligation to see that no one goes without protein. In healthcare we see all kinds of protests againts the inequality of care demonstrated by the horror of a VIP of some sort or another recuperating from a procedure in a luxury suite, while the proletariat must recover in the equivalent of a Hotel 6. The reality is that the outcomes will be equal; the moral obligation has been fulfilled. Above a basic level in pretty much any domain you wish to examine, equality does not exist. Sorry. Scar is right. Life’s not fair.

Is he really though? Saying that it’s not fair is the same as saying that inequality above that level at which everyone has a right to live is wrong. Here is where I part company with those who hew to this viewpoint. What does it matter that someone drives a Cadillac while another drives a Kia? Do both not get you to work on time? Or that Beef Wellington again: do you not get the same amount of protein from a hamburger? The example I am using in another conversation about equality in healthcare is similar: if a medicine is effective taken 4 times a day, is the fact that someone can pay more for a version that must only be taken once a day a measurement of unfair inequality? I vote “no”.

My strong feeling is that energy spent in some way protesting “equality” is energy that is not expended on the much more important task of fulfilling the moral obligation of raising everyone to that acceptable basic level. In may, in fact, work against that effort. That constitutes unfairness in my opinion. Advocacy and protest should be directed there, toward making sure that everyone has that most basic obligation covered. Once universal entry is accomplished across all applicable domains, the next task is to continually raise that basic level for everyone, no matter how far the gulf may be between that level and whatever the “sky’s the limit” level might be. One need only look at “poverty” or “hunger” and how the bar has moved ever upward there to see how this might work.

We have a moral obligation to see that true rights are available to all. It is unfair to those who have not yet achieved that most basic level when efforts to help them are diverted to the pursuit of an unachievable conceptual goal that neither feeds nor clothes nor cures those in need: equality.

Sunday musings 2/4/18

Sunday musings…Planes, trains and automobiles. Stuck in airports and on tarmacs without real internet connections…

Each year around this time Mrs. bingo and I travel to Mexico, ostensibly for work. Actually, I really do work while I’m here, although it’s easy to pretend I’m just on vacation when it’s 80 degrees and blue sky sunny. Especially with snow in the forecast in The Land. Funny trip in many ways this year, maybe our 5th going to the same hotel. Some of the staff clearly have at least a fuzzy memory of our last visit (Mrs. bingo is nice to everyone!), and although we were in the lap of luxury there was a slightly heightened sense of the country’s culture which seemed to be more evident for some reason.

“When in Rome…”  is an apt sentiment. Cultural sensitivity, being aware of where you are and those things that are just enough different there that you make an effort to avoid inadvertent offense, has gotten easier for me as I’ve gotten older. Wonder why that is? Anyway, I find myself on alert for little ways that I can demonstrate that I’m paying attention. For example, in Mexico your greeting changes with the time of day. “Hi, how are you?” fairly screams “American”, you know?

There are plenty of other examples of course, but the sentiment remains the same: open awareness that it is you who is the outsider, you who are the guest, should bring with it an effort at accommodating the customs of your hosts rather than the other way around. While I happen to be out of the country this is the case if you happen to be visiting a part of your home country that is starkly different from your home town. It’s a very simple kindness, too easy to offer to let the chance go by.

You know…like packing my red, white and blue #12 jersey during my layover in Philly.

I’ll see you next week…

–bingo

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