Monday, February 18, 2019

February 18

My accountant called this morning to tell me that my federal income tax refund will be much lower (about $2500) than last year. But here's the thing - my take-home pay went up about $50 a week after the tax cuts went into effect. In other words, instead of getting a big refund, I got little "refunds" each week and will get a smaller bulk refund when my taxes are filed. 

Honestly, it is not a huge deal either way - I am not getting rich off the refund regardless. To me, it is just the yearly obligation I have to file and get what I get in return. The truly wealthy are getting over on the system every day, the rest of us just make do.

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Sunday, February 17, 2019

Book Review - How To Hold A Grudge

I am a world-class grudge holder. I come to my work honestly, having been raised in a house of grudge-keepers and an extended family littered with relatives who go years, and sometimes decades, without speaking with one another for slights both perceived and actual. And so, it was with great anticipation that I read Sophie Hannah’s How To Hold A Grudge. I can comfortably say I have never come across anyone who has given as much thought to this subject, even though grudges are something we all carry and so much of we interact with other people is colored by how we are treated. 

Hannah clinically dissects her own grudge-creating experiences (even rating them based on a point value system I will not even try to explain) as a jumping off point to highlight important points about the need to process these types of events, not allow others to diminish our feelings when they happen, and the thorniest question of all - what to do when they happen. The choices are not always clear-cut, but on the spectrum from “forgive and forget” (or in her husband’s case, “forget the moment it’s over”) to “you’re dead to me,” her default is somewhere in the middle - to wit, forgive, but do not forget. 

There is something very British (with a hint of Buddhism and cognitive behavioral therapy) in this advice. Perhaps it is the Brits’ reputation for emotional suppression or the stiff upper lip, but essentially, when you’ve been wronged, Hannah advises acknowledging that wrong, and filing it away as a reminder of the other person’s behavior. To be sure, there are other steps along the way, not the least of which is a twelve-question inventory Hannah uses as a processing tool, an attempt to understand what may have caused the person’s behavior, and acknowledging your own injury without allowing it to become debilitating. 

Done right, Hannah argues, this process, which she refers to as the “grudge-fold path,” leads to a metaphorical cupboard of grudges that do not raise your blood pressure, but rather, you look on with some admiration - life lessons learned, healed wounds with a scar’s reminder of pain suffered. Doing so, she continues, also mitigates the control the grudge has over you, it lessens the space that anger and hostility take up and clears a path toward contentment. 

There is wisdom in her point of view, but I also felt like there was an easier-said-than-done aspect to it all. I mean, who has the time to do an inventory of every grudge-creating experience, much less pick through the more than twenty different types of grudges Hannah identifies? Can’t I just stew passively in my own bitterness like everyone else? I am only partially kidding, because I think Hannah’s point is that most people do silently stew about things that happen to them without properly dealing with the emotions (much less the people) involved. 

I do not anticipate heading down the grudge-fold path myself. In part because while Hannah is reluctant to go the “you’re dead to me” route, I think there is great value in it, particularly as it relates to severe harms done by people close to you. Having survived such experiences, I had no qualms about cutting those people who wronged me out of my life. As for everyone else, perhaps after reading this clever book, I might be a bit more magnanimous.


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February 17

It has been an expensive weekend, y'all. Yesterday, I paid my car insurance ($1280), credit card ($1000), accountant ($475), and plumber ($400). I'm pretty tapped out, but aside from the plumber, the other bills were expected - February is just an expensive month for me. Today, I am going to hit the heavy bag (boxing) and take a nice long afternoon nap.

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

February 16

This morning, I made it to my accountant's office to do my taxes. As you will recall, on my way down last Saturday, the "low tire pressure" light came on in my car and I aborted the trip. Today, no problems, but if you want to understand how someone with anxiety handles such a situation, consider that I topped off my tires Thursday, double checking the air pressure in all of them, tossed and turned last night in bed, woke up twice during the night, got up at 5 am, and then quietly stressed the entire 30 mile trip to his office. 

At least I had Howard to listen to. On the way down, he did an extended segment teasing Ronnie because of the radio Ronnie had installed in his car and on the way home, it was a non-stop ribbing of Don Imus. Really good stuff. Now I can enjoy the rest of my weekend.

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Friday, February 15, 2019

February 15

I could not keep my eyes open last night. I got into bed at 8:30, read for a little while, and was asleep by 9. A few minutes before I went upstairs, I got a four-text burst from a woman I had been out with a few times late last year but then ghosted on me. I did not bother reading what she had to say. Part of me was annoyed, the other part wanted to hold out until today, squirreling away these little nuggets of communication as some sort of treat for when I need a break from work. Total winner.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

February 14

Today is Valentine's Day. I am not one for "Hallmark holidays" but it is depressing that we have designated a day to remind you that you are alone. Like, I know. I do not have anyone in my life, I do not need it rubbed in my face. I feel shitty enough about myself as it is.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

February 13

We had a snowstorm, sorry, "winter" storm yesterday. Which is to say, instead of just snow, we also got sleet, freezing rain, and ice. Oh, and plain old rain. It basically looks like mother nature vomited on New Jersey. New Jersey handles weather much differently than Washington, D.C., where I am from. Even before the storm ended, my street was cleared and most people had cleaned their driveways and sidewalks. You just deal with it. I may need to accelerate my plans to relocate to Arizona though, I am not a fan.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

February 12

Today is my father's birthday. He's been dead a long time and he wasn't much of a father when he was alive. I don't know, my sister used to encourage me to consider the poor parenting we received with generosity - "they did the best they could." I tried that, but the truth is, that is bullshit. I was a constant disappointment to my father for reasons I never quite understood. I never lived up to whatever image he had for what I should be or who I should become. 

He equated the love he expected from us on what he could provide, but the reality was, he was never much of a provider, and when his little financial shenanigans were eventually exposed, what was left? A month before he left my mother, he took out a second mortgage on our house to cover his debts, which was fine for him, but it torpedoed the rest of us. How do you do that to your own family? 

Anyway, he died ignominiously, in a sleazy little hotel room in Cleveland, Ohio, forty pounds overweight, his last job was slinging t shirts at trade shows. I went on to graduate from a top twenty law school, have a professional career that included positions at the White House and the U.S. Department of Justice, and twenty subsequent years of success. But he never saw any of that, or, for that matter, my complete inability to form stable, adult relationships. Parental legacies are weird.

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

February 10

I am having, as Jerry would say, a hard time, today. Most of it is because I am still shaking off the random "low tire pressure" incident from yesterday (nothing like fearing a tire blowout at 70 miles per hour to clarify things). The problem (or should I say a problem) with anxiety is I will now obsess over the possibility that I will in fact have a tire blow out while I am driving (this is not entirely unwarranted, it happened to me once before - on my birthday no less - while on Route 1 going about 55 miles an hour. Thankfully, I was able to steer my car to the shoulder without incident). And now I will stress ever mile of the entire trip to see my accountant next weekend, to the courthouse for the motion I am arguing in a few weeks, and will otherwise restrict my travel to the bare necessities (which, in fairness, I kind of do anyway).

Oh happy day.

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Book Review - Duped

Everyone lies. This simple declarative sentence was the premise for the TV show House, a medical drama based on Sherlock Holmes and starring Hugh Laurie as a misanthropic, drug-addicted genius who ferrets out the cause of unexplained illnesses, typically after figuring out what fact the patient had omitted. But what happens when life imitates art? When the person sleeping beside you at night turns out not to be the person you thought they were? 

Enter Abby Ellin, whose years-long romance blew up when she discovered her fiancé was not the Greg House cum James Bond doctor-spy he portrayed himself to be, but rather, a run-of-the-mill government bureaucrat (though he was a doctor) with a drug habit and a side piece he was simultaneously engaged to even as he and Ms. Ellin were planning their own wedding. Ellin uses that experience as a jumping off point for Duped: Double Lives, False Identities, and the Con Man I Almost Married

This slim tome, which clocks in at just over 200 pages, begins with a recitation of Ellin’s romance and engagement with a man she calls “The Commander.” The Commander was a world-class bullshit artist who also gaslit Ms. Ellin at every turn, manipulating her, questioning her love when she questioned his actions, and causing her to doubt her own belief system. It is excruciating reading, but at the same time, the stories he wove were so absurd (briefings with President Obama, clandestine trips abroad, etc.) you cannot help but wonder why it took Ms. Ellin so long to listen to her intuition (she is a reporter for crying out loud!) and dig a bit into her beau’s tales. When she did, they unraveled quickly, and she was left picking up the pieces of her shattered psyche. 

How does a well-educated professional fall victim to such a con? The answer is in a line Don Draper (who is referenced only in passing - a glaring omission if you want to meditate on double lives) dropped in Mad Men - “people tell us who they are, but we ignore it, because we want them to be who we want them to be.” In other words, and as Ellin discusses, self-deception is real. The warning signs about the Commander were staring her right in the face from the start, but she ignored those red flags for two reasons that make manipulators successful - people are trustworthy and people crave love. Those two facts make us vulnerable to people who want to take advantage of us. 

Ellin turned the lemons of her own experience into some lemonade - she published an essay in Psychology Today about her experience of being duped, which forms the backbone of this book. She also got a lot of reader feedback, including from people who had also been duped, and their stories are added to the mix. But either the stories she received were not that compelling or those that were the authors refused to grant a release for, because what she shares in most instances is just plain old lying. The animal rights activist who went on the lam had to hide his identity from people at the risk of arrest. The married white collar professional having an affair with his co worker (who was also married), gets divorced while his paramour leads him on that she too is getting divorced, but never does. 

Ok. Awful behavior? Sure. But reading these stories, they felt run-of-the-mill, and that was part of the problem I had with this book. On the continuum where, on one end are the little white lies we tell every day (shaving a year or two off our online dating profile or adding an inch or two of height), and on the other, widespread fraud on the level of a Bernie Madoff or a double agent like Kim Philby, is an enormous middle that Ellin lumps into “duped.” 

To be sure, the book is well-researched, and throughout, Ellin feathers in broader context, how we live in a “post-truth” world where everyone from the President to your significant other can suck you into a vortex of “fake news” that makes you question your own perspective (not to mention your sanity). Other riffs I liked included a discussion on the wonkiness of polygraphs, how we overestimate our ability to identify lies, and why we will continue believing a lie even when presented with evidence to the contrary. One story she shares of a woman whose roommate faked a terminal cancer diagnosis for five years is stomach churning in its telling but also left me wanting more of the other side of the equation - not just the feeling of violation experienced by the duped, but the motivation of the duper. 

Perhaps it is my cynical nature, but when, about midway through the book, Ellin shares her second duping - at the hands of a man she calls “The Cliché” - I really shook my head. Or maybe it is simply because the macro-lie she fell for with this guy, about how he and his wife were about to be divorced, is de rigueur and one that should have raised an immediate red flag - particularly because of her prior experience! In fairness, Ellin did suss out her beau’s lies more quickly this time, but as the book reaches its closing, you come to realize it is less about the murky world of con men (for that, I highly recommend Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game) and more about the challenges of trusting people you love, or want to love. 

Indeed, the post script to Duped left me sad. Years after the Commander’s arrest, imprisonment, and release from custody, you see how much space he continues to take up in Ellin’s mind. She, along with her brother, receive LinkedIn requests from him (she gives serious thought to meeting up with him, which is just jaw dropping to me) and the Commander’s ex-wife’s mother finds him on Match.Com, spinning the same bullshit tales he sold her daughter. His ex-wife (with whom Ellin becomes friendly) sees him sporadically, only to watch him lie to their daughter about yet another pretend secret mission he must go on that will preclude him from seeing her. 

It is understandable why Ellin and others she highlights have become jaded about love. To her credit, she eventually realizes the thing she wants most from the man who screwed up her life - closure in the form of an apology - is simply not in the cards. Instead of pining away, she engages in her own cliché of sorts, getting under someone to get over someone, in the form of a carefree Brazilian man fifteen years her junior she beds while on vacation in South America. It might not erase the experience of being duped twice, but I am sure it gave her some nice memories. 


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Saturday, February 9, 2019

February 9

I was prepared to tell you how today is my favorite day of the year. No, it is not my birthday; rather, every February, I take a trip to South Jersey to see my accountant to file my tax return. Admittedly, this is one of the small luxuries I allow myself because my finances are not nearly complex enough to justify the $450 fee he charges. However, for that fee, I walk into his office, bullshit about sports or New Jersey politics for 10 or 15 minutes, hand him my W-2, my mortgage information, some investment stuff and by the time I get back home, there is a message on my machine telling me what my refund will be and an email in my inbox with a link to "sign" the papers so they can be filed. It is worth every penny to have this chore handled professionally and in a timely fashion.

But today, on the way down, the low tire pressure light flashed while I was cruising down I-295 at about 70 miles per hour. I pulled over to the shoulder, checked the tires, none of which were flat (thank god) but in an abundance of caution, called to reschedule. His office is a good 45 minute drive, and I was just a few minutes into the trip. 

I have never had this happen to me before. Hell, until about 4 years ago, I did not even own a car that had a low tire pressure sensor. Thankfully, I was able to make my way back toward my neighborhood and stop at a gas station. I put air in all four tires, but the light stayed on. Frustrated, I drove home. I calmed down. After an hour, I drove over to the local tire shop. I did not know my car has a button that resets the tire pressure light - I needed someone there to show me. The light went off, the technician told me that probably means it was weather-related (it happens in winter) but to keep an eye on it. He did not even charge me, which was a plus. 

At least I did not let it ruin my day. I went to the gym and ran six miles. I will make next Saturday my favorite day of the year instead.

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Friday, February 8, 2019

February 8

Every morning when I come downstairs, I check my phone, hoping (?) that during the overnight I might have "matched" with someone on one of the several dating apps I use. Most of the time, I am just greeted with the screen saver picture of my cats along with the time and date. It chips away at my self-confidence (which is not high to begin with) little by little. 

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Thursday, February 7, 2019

February 7

A couple of weeks ago, I earned a small victory by replacing the flapper and chain on one of my toilets. This week, another toilet went wonky, but the repair is beyond my modest ability. If this was a few years ago, I would be most stressed about the cost. Now, it is all the things other than the cost that cause me stress - making the appointment, scheduling the time, tucking away the cats while the plumber is here (especially this!), all of the steps that go into getting the toilet fixed except paying for it are what give me agita. 

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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

February 6

I did not watch the State of the Union last night. Aside from the late hour, I had no interest in watching commentators congratulate Trump for not flinging poo at the audience. The thing is, events like the State of the Union are the quintessential shiny objects that reporters love focusing on while the stuff that matters - like yesterday's confirmation hearing for an attorney named Neomi Rao to something called the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals - are far more consequential. 

The federal judiciary is being altered in ways that most people do not understand or appreciate, but will have significant consequences for all of our lives for the next 20, 30, or even 40 years. In ordinary times, the rotating possession of the White House between a Democrat and a Republican results in (rough) balance on the federal bench, but Trump, along with Senate Republicans, threaten to tilt that balance severely to the right because they are pushing through judges at a record rate. If Trump only serves one term, it may not be catastrophic, but if he sticks around for eight years, it could result in the greatest change in our jurisprudence since the New Deal. But none of that matters to the "serious people" in D.C. All they care about is that Trump said some nice words last night. 

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

February 5

Yesterday, I found out an aunt who died recently left me a meaningful amount of money in her will. It is not life changing money but it is certainly life easing money. As someone who has always been diligent about frugality, not spending above my means, not indulging in extravagances I could not afford, and being ok with sacrificing want for need, it is hard for me to process this information. 

When I spoke with the estate's executor, I was speechless, like, literally without speech. It does not change how I will live my life day-to-day, but it will allow me to pay down a large chunk of my home mortgage, which is my biggest expense, and allow me to worry less about capital M money. 

If you have been reading this latest iteration of my blog, you know there is not a lot of happiness in my life, so I really do not know how to react to something that will make my life easier. 

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Monday, February 4, 2019

February 4

Last night was the Super Bowl. I watched some of the first half and went to sleep at halftime. They say the Super Bowl is a secular holiday in America, but without friends or family to "celebrate," it was just another Sunday night. There will be some banal chat in the office today about the game and then football goes away until training camp. 

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Sunday, February 3, 2019

February 3

It is always weird when you see someone you know out of context, like running into a co-worker at the movies. This morning, I went to Dunkin' Donuts to get a cup of coffee. Right in front of me (at 5:50 in the morning) was one of the group instructors from my gym. The oddest part was not running into him (although he was already in full gear) but that he ordered some sort of greasy sausage and egg sandwich *and* a donut. So weird.

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Book Review - Camelot's End

Deep into Jon Ward’s phenomenal book about the 1980 Carter/Kennedy race Camelot’s End, is a passage that could have just as easily been written in 2016. In reflecting back at the Democrats’ failure to understand that the New Deal coalition that had delivered them electoral success for nearly four decades, Ward references the 1991 book Chain Reaction. As the authors of that book noted and Ward summarizes, as the 1980s loomed, white working class voters who once formed the backbone of the Democratic Party drifted rightward because the party was viewed as “trying to raise their taxes in order to give government benefits to blacks and other minorities, even as plants were closing and jobs were disappearing in the Rust Belt.” Sound familiar?

This eerie echo of the past is repeated over and over again in this compulsively readable book. For example, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Donald Trump in 2016 were sui generis candidates who no one took seriously until it was too late to stop them. It is impossible to read about Ted Kennedy’s top-heavy but ill-prepared team of advisers in 1980 and not think of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 brain trust. Both groups leaned heavily on name ID but had not taken the time to appreciate the primary rules, and thereby bled delegates due to lack of organizational attention. 

But the true focus is on the book’s protagonists - two men whose legacies are complicated to say the least, but at the time, dominated Democratic politics. On one side, was the parsimonious Carter. A New Democrat before that term was in vogue, Carter was a born-again Christian with nothing but disdain for the clubby inside-the-beltway atmosphere and machine politics that pervaded the party at the time. On the other was Kennedy, his polar opposite. A flamboyant playboy who had mastered the subtle art of legislative horse trading while living a reckless personal life that included the death (under suspicious circumstances) of a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969. 

To Carter, the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s called for frugality, a belt-tightening he tried to implement through largely symbolic acts like a 10 percent reduction in White House staff and encouraging Americans to turn down their thermostats, and more substantive efforts to wean America off foreign oil and seek alternative power sources, particularly solar energy. To Kennedy, the sine quo non of the Democratic Party was, as he put it, the great unfinished business of providing universal health care for all Americans (in case anyone thinks this was an idea that sprouted spontaneously out of the head of Bernie Sanders). 

And in those differences were the seeds of a battle that the two would fight over the party’s presidential nomination in 1980. Ward does a masterful job of mapping out the state of play, arguing persuasively that Carter’s victory was due to a combination of superior organization and a few strokes of good luck. Carter had states like Iowa wired for years before Kennedy decided to challenge him, and  his aides had structured the primary calendar with a southern "firewall" that could either protect the President against a serious challenge or finish off a weaker opponent. 

That foundational work was essential because the headlines that battered Carter as his delegate lead became insurmountable likely would have felled him had the backroom dealmaking that defined party conventions until 1972 been in effect. The Iran hostage crisis. Inflation. Billygate (look it up). Malaise. As 1980 wore on, Americans’ reflexive desire to rally around our President in tough times curdled into a sense that our country was on the decline, impotent in the face of an Ayatollah thousands of miles away and in economic paralysis here at home. 

But by the time the worm turned and Carter’s disapproval rating sat at 77 percent, Kennedy’s moment was lost due to his utter failure to prepare for the race he had been planning for years. Kennedy’s key advisors were holdovers from his brothers' campaigns and therefore did not have a firm grasp on the nominating rules (Kennedy gave away caucus states because he had no infrastructure) or modern campaign techniques (Ward describes Kennedy's initial TV ads as among the worst ever aired). 

And the candidate himself is portrayed as a prizefighter who simply did not do the training necessary before the title bout. Bizarrely, Kennedy did no preparation for the inevitable questions about Kopechne he was asked during a hard-hitting interview with Roger Mudd that aired just before he announced his candidacy. Kennedy’s stumbling explanation, along with his failure to answer the basic question of why he wanted to be President took the air out of his balloon right before his formal announcement. Kennedy exacerbated this debacle by concentrating his efforts (and money) in Iowa, a bad fit for Kennedy’s liberalism (and where Carter remained popular), instead of focusing on neighboring New Hampshire, a strategic mistake he never overcame. 

To be sure, Kennedy did eventually find his voice on the campaign trail, but by then, it was too late. Party leaders saw Carter’s sinking poll numbers, but were helpless to do anything about it as Carter blunted any effort to stop him at the convention, even though Kennedy stole the show with his concession speech and then snubbed Carter after the President's acceptance speech two nights later. At that point, the public’s dissatisfaction with Carter could only be transferred to his Republican opponent Ronald Reagan, which they did, in a crushing landslide, leading to 12 years in the wilderness before Bill Clinton was elected President in 1992. 

The fall of the Democratic party was not preordained. Had Carter and Kennedy been willing to look beyond their own narrow political interests, they would have realized each complemented the other in ways that could have benefitted both. Kennedy was a master legislator who could have helped shepherd Carter's domestic agenda through Congress. Carter had the bully pulpit of the Presidency that could have been used to advance Kennedy's pet cause - national health insurance. Of course, they were temperamentally ill-suited. Carter's holier-than-thou piety was a poor fit for Kennedy's loose morality and Kennedy's Brahmin upbringing did not fit with Carter's agrarian roots in rural Georgia. If anything, Ward identifies the tragedy of Carter's presidency - the lost opportunities that were there for the taking had these two figures been willing to work together instead of destroy each other.


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Saturday, February 2, 2019

February 2

Complaining about the weather is one of the greatest social lubricants. We all have an opinion and there is nothing that can be done about it. There is a reason the colloquialism "shouting at the rain" exists to signify a futile effort. Anyway, I am going to complain about the weather. It has been really fucking cold the last few days. The dreaded polar vortex has blown through, dropping the temperatures below zero at night and barely into the teens during the day. 

When it is this cold, everything feels like a struggle. It takes longer to get dressed and undressed, the roads and parking lots are crusty and crunchy underfoot, the wind cuts you to the bone. For the past few days, I have limited my travels to work and the gym. Otherwise, I am hunkered down at home, under blankets, the remote in my hand, with a diminishing level of patience for winter.

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Friday, February 1, 2019

February 1

If I had the power to relive any day in my life, February 1, 1988 would be high on that list. It was "senior skip day" and an unseasonably warm winter day. I won't lie and claim to remember the particulars, but I have the vague memory of marijuana, cruising the neighborhood in a convertible with my friends, and a feeling of freedom. 

When you are young, you do not stop to appreciate that life is care-free at that age, before the disappointments, the frustrations, and the challenges of adulthood. You are old enough to enjoy some freedom but still young enough not to have all that responsibility. 

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