Hey, wake up – this is your dream

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Lisa Jakub – author. Age 8.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting by a pond with my friend, T. It was a warm fall day and the pond looked as if it had been ripped out of Idyllic Ponds Monthly Magazine. There were gently rustling reeds, lazy koi fish kissing the surface of the water and a heron, arrogantly surveying it all from the shoreline.

T is a writer and an English professor and we were talking about writerly things, like muses, death and Scotch. We talked about my book being published and he told me about the novel he was working on. We were perched on a wobbly stone bench and T stood up to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette far enough away that I wouldn’t complain about it too much. He exhaled pensively for a moment and looked back at me:

“So, I have to ask you this, what’s it like to be living your dream?”

I laughed at him because the question seemed absurd. It feels strange to think of your own life like that. Most of us are more likely to tally up all the things we’ve not done, and focus on them.

When I look at my incredibly talented writer friend, I see his MFA that I’m envious of and his job in the academic surroundings that I admire. He’s a creative soul whose apartment is filled with Escher prints and typewriters and masks that he made in college. But he’ll downplay it all, even the things he’s published, waving them away like the cigarette smoke that still manages to get in my eyes. And all the while, I’ll feel inferior because I don’t have advanced degrees and I don’t even know how to make a mask — and I’ll wave away the beautiful moments in my own life.

Why are we compelled to move on to the next thing and discard our accomplishments? I’ve always felt that if just one person enjoyed my work, I’d die happy. But now Facebook is telling me that I need to keep tabs on pages that are similar to mine so I can “keep up.” Suddenly, I’m in a world where 8,000 Facebook fans doesn’t feel like enough.

Why do we change the rules on ourselves?

If we really were living our dream — would we even notice?

When I get still for just a moment, I realize how astounding it all is. I’m a writer. That’s the dream I’ve had since I was eight and compiled the Collected Works of Lisa Jakub. I’m also healthy and I have friends and family and a place to live. That’s a dream, too.

So, my answer to T was rather dualistic:

Living my dream is wonderful.
And it’s exactly the same as life before I got a book deal.

I think most of us assume that if we are living our dream, then everything must be all shiny and effortless. Therefore, if it’s not perfect, we can’t be there, yet. I still have maintenance issues with my car that require me to spend three hours waiting at the repair place. My dog is still half blind and has seasonal allergies. I used to get frustrated and cry because no one wanted to publish my book, I still get frustrated and cry because I have meetings with my publisher and I worry about disappointing them.

People have said that it must have been easy for me to get my book published because of “who I used to be.” I won’t detail the mountain of rejections from agents and publishers, the endless emails saying that no one is interested in a Hollywood story from a no-longer-famous person that doesn’t involve orgies and rehab – but I’ll just say, getting published was not easy.

But this is what we do, as humans. We tend to assume that everyone has it easier and better than us. They have connections or innate talent or more money or prettier hair. But none of that means that they don’t have troubles and stress and heartbreak. It’s just in different packaging.

Knowing those concerns are universal makes them feel so much more manageable. This is simply what it means to be alive. We might as well find some joy and gratitude in there, because life is never going to be perfect. For any of us. No book deal/MFA/sweet car will cure the essential human condition of uncertainty and unease.

But maybe being alive, being truly awake in your life, is the real dream.  Maybe the rest of it is just icing.

The ducks in the pond paddled towards us, looking up expectedly with their cutest begging duck faces. Since I only had bottled water and T only had gum, neither seemed to be appropriate offerings. The ducks got tired of watching us wax philosophical and glided away, muttering what I’m sure were disappointed profanities.

T and I left the pond to wander through the fallen leaves that were mostly obscuring the pathway. Kicking the leaves aside, we made our own path.

Back to our lives.

Back to our dreams.

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On letting go: growing pains and book publishing

I’m getting to the point with my book where I need to submit the final draft of my manuscript to the publishers. Because then, copyeditors and proofreaders can do their work and try to make some logical sense of the random places where I chose to put commas. Then, it will go off to the designers and on to the presses and off the presses and into cardboard boxes to go off to bookstores.

It’s entirely exciting.

And incredibly painful.

Because for the last several years, I’ve been watching this book grow from a crazy idea, into the 275 page manuscript that sits before me. I’ve been getting up in the middle of the night with this book. I’ve been startled awake by the persistent, restless whimpering of a thought or a memory or a funnier word choice – I get out of bed and rush to this computer. I sit in the glow and nurse my book to better health.

And that time is almost over. That part of my job is done.

Now, I have to send this book out into the world.

To be adored or criticized or ignored.

Not to be too dramatic or anthropomorphize too much (who am I kidding, I’m a writer/former actor and my car is named Gwen) but I feel like I’m sending my book off to college to live her own life and I’m not sure if I’ve done enough to prepare her. I’m not sure if she’s strong enough to make it in the real world. I’m worried about where she’s going to sit in the cafeteria.

Why is it that humans have such a hard time letting go? We live in a transient world, full of constant change. Births and deaths and seasons and uncontrollable events. And yet, we always assume that some things, if we hang on tight enough, will last forever.

But let’s face it, that desperate clinging never feels good.

There is such beauty in change. In growth. We see that all around us right now. It’s fall and the trees are turning magenta in preparation to let go of their leaves. It’s the essential nature of life.

One of my favorite Buddhist stories is about a monk and a glass of water. He says, “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.” *

I love this idea. This understanding that everything is impermanent, so why not embrace the present moment, with all its joy and discomfort and transformation — right now? Why not surrender to the realities of this world and just choose to be happy in the face of it? It’s all temporary. Even you. So have a blast and love wholeheartedly, before it’s gone.

And then let it go with grace.

I want this book to go out in the world. Because I want you to read it. And because I want to sit up at 4 AM in the glow of my computer screen, and nurture another book into existence.

So, now you know where I’m going be the next few nights, until I have to turn my manuscript into an email attachment and push Send. I’ll be sitting right here, enjoying my little baby…while she’s still just mine.

And then I’ll let it all go, and get ready for whatever comes next.

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* This version of the quote is from a wonderful PBS documentary called The Buddha. It’s a great introduction to the concepts of Buddhism and it has “Keep Until I Delete” status on my TiVo. Even though “Keep Until I Delete” reflects an amount of permanence and control that is clearly not very Buddhist…

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Upcoming event at Bowers Writers House at Elizabeth College

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I am super thrilled to be speaking at Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College in PA!

In two weeks, I’ll be discussing inspiration, the creative process and I’ll be reading a chapter from my book. I’ll also try to stay calm and not just squeal with excitement about getting to talk writing all weekend.

I’ve done talks at high schools and conventions before but this will be my first time at a college. I still get nervous about the whole try-not-to-look-stupid-in-front-of-people thing…but I really love the connection and energy that come from engaging in person.

And I suppose it’s good for me to get out of my house and put on real pants once in a while.

If your school/organization is interested in having me come talk – about writing/living authenticity/my life growing up – contact me at LisaJakub108@gmail.com.

And many thanks to Bowers Writers House for having me!

 

The freedom to fail

I’ve been thinking about vulnerability lately.

I suspect that’s because this blog just passed one million views, I’m working with my editor on my book and recently did a reading of a chapter for an audience of about 100 people. All this is wonderful and I’m so grateful but it also kind of feels like standing naked in front of a football stadium.

Therefore, I’ve been thinking about what it means to put yourself out there, letting yourself be seen for the truth of who you are, and standing courageously to take whatever comes – praise, criticism or a sarcastic slow-clap of indifference.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds scary as hell to me.

I doubt I’m alone with this. I see people struggling with perfectionism and fear of failing all the time.

Not wanting to ask for the raise or promotion at work.

Not wanting to try a new yoga class because other people might be more flexible.

Not wanting to bring up the difficult conversation that needs to be discussed.

So, what do we do about it? It’s easy to look at someone else and tell them to go for it and no one at yoga cares what you look like and communication is important. But how do we do that for ourselves when we are terrified to fail at our jobs, fail with our friends, fail at being perfect?

I don’t know the answer, but I wonder if there isn’t peace and beauty to be found in the ordinary. In America, we are obsessed with the extraordinary. We think we need to be famous, or be in the top 1% of whatever, or do something that no one else has ever accomplished.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t tend to expect that from anyone other than ourselves. It is possible to let go and enjoy our imperfection. Because in our imperfection, we find our individuality, our spirit, our joy. The people I love and respect most are the ones who embrace their beautifully flawed human-ness.

I had this thought recently:

When I’d rather fail than quit, everything becomes possible.

I’ve been held back by being afraid to fail for too long.

What if people think I’m a terrible writer?

What if I really am as washed up and irrelevant as anonymous HuffPo commenters say?

What if I make spelling mistakes in my blog posts?

I’m tired of living in fear that I might fail or look stupid or fall on my face.

I might.

But on the other hand — I might not.

(Okay, when it comes to spelling in blog posts, I definitely will make mistakes, but luckily you readers are kind enough to gently point those out without too much ridicule.)

The point is that I might be able to reach people and connect and make some sort of a difference somehow – and that possibility is too valuable to give up just because I’m feeling like a scaredy cat. It seems that lots of people have an opinion about my life. I just need to remember that my opinion counts, too. In fact, it counts most.

So when I saw this sign while I was out for a walk, it totally stopped me in my tracks.

free

What would I do if I were free from worry and fear and self-doubt? What would I do if I stopped being so concerned about seeming perfect? What would I do if I had faith that I was fully capable of picking myself up even if I did fall on my face?

Who knows?

But it just might be fun.

(For more on perfectionism and vulnerability – check out the staggeringly insightful Brené Brown.)

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Book news!

Apparently, this is what a signed book deal looks like

Apparently, this is what a signed book deal looks like

I’m thrilled to announce that the wonderful folks over at Beaufort Books will be publishing my memoir, You Look Like That Girl. It will be available on shelves and as an ebook in fall of 2015.

Thanks to all of you for reading, sharing and supporting my writing. I was so nervous about putting my words out there, but you have given me the confidence to pursue this crazy publishing dream. I can’t thank you enough.

The book will be very similar to this blog in terms of content and tone. I can’t wait to share it with all of you. There is a lot of work to be done to get the manuscript ready for publishing, but while I do that – let me know if you have any cover ideas…

The things we leave behind

The smell of humidity and rot was strong in the air. But it was a pleasant smelling rot – the gentle softening and giving way of enormous trees to a million tiny insects and bacteria. Butterflies sliced zigzags through the air and landed on sun-warmed rocks to splay out their saffron wings. Branches strewn out on the path suddenly lifted their serpentine heads and lazily slithered into the brush.

What my Dad wanted for his 60th birthday was to go hiking with me. I’m not sure, as a daughter, what feels better than that. So, Dad and I went hiking. We crossed an icy river, our feet tingling from the cold and slipping on moss-covered rocks. We waved away the little flies that buzzed persistently behind our sunglasses.

The old stone chimney was hiding just off the path, amongst over-grown vines and fallen trees. It was all that remained of a cabin. When the Shenandoah National Park was formed in the 1930s, most of the residents left the area – but the man who lived here decided to spend his final days in his cabin. After he died, the cabin was destroyed. Only the chimney remains.

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It got me thinking about the things we leave behind. I’ve always been pretty aware of my own mortality and physical limits. Maybe because one of my early acting jobs involved being shot and killed in a restaurant when I was 6. Maybe because I broke my back when I was 11. Maybe because my dearest friend died of lupus when we were 19.

I’ve never felt invincible.

The wonderful and terrible thing about movies is that they last a really, really long time. I find that disconcerting for many reasons. One reason is that there is footage out there of me singing – which is a total atrocity. But also, in many ways, it feels like what remains of me is a lie. It’s frame after frame of me wearing things I didn’t pick and saying words I didn’t choose. It’s me pretending to be someone I’m not.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I write – so that I leave something lasting. Something that is truly me, not simply the shell of me, acting like someone else. I think it’s natural to want to create something meaningful that endures beyond yourself. Andrew Carnegie called it the desire to “do real and permanent good.”

Personally, I’ve never felt the desire to have children and pass on my DNA, so I need to find another way to leave my mark on the world. It doesn’t need to be perfect or spectacular. I don’t think I’m going to cure Alzheimer’s or rid the world of bigotry. It doesn’t have to be bigger or better or more impressive than what other people have done.

It just has to be a true reflection of me. It has to be my best effort. My passion. The thing that my heart feels is right, the thing that refuses to be defeated by my relentless worries and insecurities. It’s what happens when I finally get out of my own way and do the work I was meant to do.

That’s what our mountain man in the Shenandoah National Park did. He found a way to live and die in his little place in the woods. That was his legacy. His passion. And what remains is that chimney he built. Strong, solid, proud.

The forest will come and claim the chimney at some point, just as eventually everything changes into something else. Nothing remains static forever. Even the movies and words will fade and become obsolete. That’s just the nature of impermanence.

But for at least a little while longer, it will all mean something. It will mean passion and persistence and it will reflect the inherent beauty of creating the life you truly want to live.

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Perceptions of the past

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”

― John Lennon

 

“What are you writing now?” He asked me from across the folding table.

“It’s a memoir,” As soon as the words came tumbling out of my mouth, I realized how loaded they were.

I was standing across from James Frey. They guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces and got publicly slammed by Oprah when the world discovered that much of his memoir was fabricated.

He laughed and rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses.

“Oh God, just….just…call it fiction. Please.”

I didn’t know I was going to be having that conversation with James Frey last week when I went to Book Expo America in New York. I was expecting to have a couple of meetings with publishers, score some free advance copies of books, see some writer friends and have my agent pick up the tab for dinner. I wasn’t expecting to be sent into a philosophical quandary about the nature of truth.

There are several ways you can come down on The James Frey Thing. Some people think he’s a liar scumbag. Some people think he was backed into a corner by his publisher and forced to call his book a memoir when he always intended it to be fictional. Some people think he wrote something beautiful and poignant regardless of its accuracy.

But let’s set aside our desperate urge to pass judgment for a moment – let’s not defend or condemn his actions. Because either way, there are a few things that are pretty clear cut about The James Frey Thing.

  • He wrote a book that resonated with many people
  • He made all non-fiction writers think about their own relationship to reality
  • And he made everyone a little scared of Oprah

I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on reality. I also think most people think that about themselves.

In my book and my blog, I write stories about my life. I believe them to be true. It also occurs to me that there might be people who read what I write and have a completely different recollection of that event.

I’ve told the story a million times about how I became an actor. I was in a mall with my parents when I was three years old and a man approached us and wanted me to be in a commercial his company was casting. Recently, I was telling the story on a radio show and later my mom called me to say it was in a market, not a mall. But I always thought it was a mall. When I think about it, I see fluorescent lighting and a food court — not an open, breezy market with baskets of colorful fruit and glassy-eyed fish lying on piles of ice. But apparently, I’ve just filled in the details where my memory has faltered.

Memory is a slippery thing – it picks and chooses the moments it wants to cling to and it changes rooms and conversations and intonations. It makes you braver or funnier or more awkward than you actually were.

Of course, there are details that are (or should be) concrete. I’m not recommending you claim you had a root canal without anesthetic if you didn’t. But what is interesting and important about telling our stories is the emotion and deeper meaning that we bring to it. And that belongs to the storyteller alone. We own it. There are so many ways of seeing the world and understanding the consequences, but our perception of reality takes precedence when we get brave enough to open up and tell our story.

What really matters when reflecting back is – what came from that experience? Was there joy or pain? What was learned? Where did it lead? How can it help someone else and do something good?

That’s what our memories are really for.

Well, that –  plus the glorious feeling of humiliation that we actually used to wear fringed denim vests.

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Dueling definitions: the trouble with labels

I’ve been going to these writing conferences. They can be quite intimidating, especially for an introvert like myself. They are in huge open rooms with florescent lighting and too much air-conditioning blasting from dusty vents. There are armies of tiny water bottles and people who really want you to wear badges.

I go to these conferences to learn how to do the non-writing part of being a writer. These things are about the chatting. The promotion of yourself. The handing out of cards. The perfecting of the encouraging nod at the lady who writes for The New Yorker and who, ironically, is telling a very boring story.

Even though I wish I could just stay home and put letters and spaces together forever without any human interaction – I need to learn, so I go to conferences.

I was at one recently and I was talking to a man. If you were going to cast a movie and needed someone to play the role of “Writer” you would hire this dude. He was old and white and wore a sports coat with elbow patches on it. He carried a leather briefcase that was worn and reminiscent of a saddle. You just knew he wrote with a fountain pen. It was all disappointingly cliché.

We chatted for a little while and then exchanged cards. His card had things like PhD written on it. When I handed him mine, he looked at it for a moment.

 

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Eventually, he raised his caterpillar eyebrows. He made a sound that was somewhere between a snort and that thing you do when you are trying to clear phlegm.

“Writer, huh?”

It was clear that whatever my credentials may or may not be, he wasn’t buying it.

I wanted to crawl under a table and die. Conveniently, I was standing right next to a folding table that held all the published books of the published writers who were not me. The “real” writers who had books you could hold and run your thumb over the SKU number. Perhaps the weighty, profound thoughts contained in those published books would collapse the table, crush me and put me out of my hack misery.

I swore I’d never go to one of those conferences again.

But then I realized — why did this guy get to define me?

I am a writer. You know how I know that?

  • Because I sit down every day at 7:30 am and write. And I don’t stop for the next 5 hours.
  • Because I get up in the middle of the night and run to my desk to write down ideas I have for a story.
  • Because I’ve been writing to comfort myself and process the world since I was four years old.
  • Because if I don’t write for a few days, I get a little crazy.

And yes, my words appear in magazines/blogs/online publications with a byline and a photo — but above all, I am a writer because I say I am. I am the one who gets to define myself. Not Mr. Elbow Patches. Not anonymous internet commenters. Not even my family or friends. Me. Just me.

It gets dangerous if we let other people do our sorting and categorizing for us, regardless of whether we are talking about profession, politics, race or life choices. When others slap their own labels on us, we are vulnerable to their whims and biases. Most dangerous of all: when we let people tell us who we’re supposed to be, after a while, we become inclined to believe to them.

Let us return to the enduring wisdom of Friends for a moment.

Rachel: It’s like all my life everybody keeps telling that I’m a shoe. You’re a shoe, you’re a shoe, you’re a shoe! But what if I don’t want to be a shoe anymore? Maybe I’m a purse, or a hat… I don’t want you to buy me a hat, I’m saying I am a hat! It’s a metaphor, daddy!

That’s why we love Rachel. She decided to be a hat. But it’s challenging to be a hat. Sometimes it’s easier to be the shoe everyone says you are.

I don’t know if the man at the conference would have been happier if I was a shoe. I’m not sure what he wanted from me. Maybe if my card had said actor or housewife or frozen banana salesperson, it would have made him more comfortable. But for whatever reason, writer didn’t seem to work for him.

So, I say this with the utmost respect: fuck him. Fuck the judgment and the assumption that he gets to define who I am and how I lead my life.

I’m a hat, dammit. A writing hat.

I don’t know what you are. You might be a hat or a shoe or a frozen banana salesperson. You might not really know what you are. That’s totally cool. That’s the adventure and joy of life – you get to figure that out. And that’s a constant process, because you will evolve and then you get to start the self-discovery all over again.

But however it all plays out, the crazy, twisting, hairpin turns of your life, please don’t give the power of definition over to anyone else. It’s your birthright. You get to keep that, regardless of how many tweed jackets, advanced degrees or SKU numbers anyone else has.

You define you.

 

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Coming up: speaking engagements

I love writing best, but talking is good, too.

I’m thrilled to say that I am now doing speaking engagements. Here’s me looking really dorky/nervous at my first one.

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This fall, I’ll be doing a two-day visit to Elizabethtown College in PA. I’ll be talking about writing, authenticity, “success” and what it was like growing up in the film industry.

I’m really excited about this new aspect of my writing – reading my work for a live audience is quite a rush. I’m grateful to have the opportunity meet readers in person so we can discuss those universal themes of purpose, happiness and the desire to write the script for your own life. (And yeah, I’ll probably make you listen to a story about my dog.)

I’ll be doing more talks in the future, so if your school/organization/group is interested in having me visit – please send requests to LisaJakub108@gmail.com.

As long as you’ll forgive me if I wear my Chuck Taylor’s and swear a little, I’m pretty sure we’re all going to have a damn good time.

(Unless your group is a church or something – then I promise I’ll wear grown up lady shoes and watch my mouth.)

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Why I write: losing and finding my voice

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Someone asked me recently why I write.

My immediate answer was: because I have to.

It’s like asking someone why they blink. I’ve been writing ever since I can remember and at this point it’s an automatic response. The part that is pretty new is the part where I actually let other people read the things I write. There was a very specific moment when I decided to do that.

Many people have stories of being reborn after an illness. They speak of the resulting spiritual enlightenment and a reordering of priorities. They wake up to their lives and are compelled to live in the moment. Usually, it’s brought on by cancer or something equally horrible.

I was lucky – my wake-up call was a little quieter.

I lost my voice.

I got a cold and just when I thought it was getting better, I went silent. Suddenly and completely silent.

This had never happened to me before. I always assumed that if you lost your voice, you could still whisper. Not true. Turns out whispering is just as hard on your vocal cords, so even that felt like I was being choked.

I could not voice a single word. No dinnertime conversation with my husband. No phone calls catching up with friends. No laughing. No errands that required conversing with anyone. No idle chatter with my dog.

Someone suggested to me it was like a silent retreat, which I’ve been wanting to do forever. I wish I had the inner strength to treat it as such — but it felt nothing like that. It was stifling and claustrophobic. I felt so miserable and bottled up that I couldn’t even write.

I filled my days with noise. The TV or the stereo was always on, filling the air with sounds I couldn’t express. I had always loved silence. My daily mediation was always so important to me, but now I found the quiet to be excruciating. The solace of silence that had been my savior through the hardest times of my life, was now mocking me.

I got depressed. I looked up voice loss on Web MD. I got more depressed. I was convinced I would be voiceless forever.

After ten days of silence, my throat started to heal and I got my voice back. I wanted to shout from the rooftop. I wanted to express every thought that came into my head. I just wanted to be me again.

For a person who always wants to just slide by and fade quietly into the background, the fact that I was desperate to embrace my me-ness was something of a revelation.

I’ve always been a people-pleaser. Never wanted to rock the boat. Always wanted to be a good girl. To fit in. But when I literally could not speak up and be heard, that was all I wanted.

In losing my voice, I found it again.

I realized that I had been choking my voice in the rest of my life, too. I never wanted people to read my work because I was scared of being vulnerable. The day I got my voice back, I decided to write the book I had been thinking about for years. I decided to stop playing small and hiding from my life. That was January 16th, 2012.

Having a voice is a precious gift, however you chose use it, by writing, painting, teaching, working out complex mathematical equations or starting a revolution. Sure, you might offend someone by speaking your truth. You might be laughed at or criticized or worst of all – ignored completely.

But all that is preferable to engulfing yourself in silence and never using your voice to better yourself or the world. Because one thing I’ve learned about life – you need to truly show up if you want it to be good.

Like the wise prophets Barenaked Ladies said:

“If I hide myself where ever I go, am I ever really there?”

- For You

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