How are You in This New Year?

A few years ago when I was struggling to manage stress, uncertainty, and loss, I found it difficult to answer this question, “How are you?”

Some days, some moments, I just wasn’t sure.

To help me better identify how I was doing, I drew a stick figure, and based on the following definitions, I assigned 1–5 to my mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, and social wellness:

  1. Mental: desiring lifelong learning and having the ability to process information well.
  2. Emotional: acknowledging, expressing, and managing feelings effectively.
  3. Spiritual: finding meaning and purpose through beliefs, morals, and values.
  4. Physical: living in a way that reduces risk of illness and injury (includes things like diet, exercise, sleep).
  5. Social: establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships.

Based on my findings, I then drew a face that reflected my overall health.

By doing this 5-minute check-in (or sometimes a more in-depth contemplation), I determined area(s) that needed attention. I could then explore underlying causes, better understand my overall health, and in turn articulate my present state to others. But most importantly, this exercise provided a clearer road map to self-care.

So . . . how are you in this new year?

Why not treat yourself to a weekly or monthly wellness check in 2020? This self-administered exercise is free and could quite possibly keep you moving on your best path yet.

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Further Contemplation: Don’t limit wellness checks to just yourself. This simple exercise can be taught to friends and family members of most any age.

Pain Body

Are you familiar with Eckhart Tolle? If so, then no introduction needed. But if not, here he is in a nutshell: German-born spiritual leader, author of The Power of Now, an odd little man at first acquaintance.

But ahhh, don’t tune him out too quickly. I had the pleasure of attending one of his retreats in September and grew to appreciate his quiet, yet deeply bold presence, his quirky sense of humor, and most especially his immense wisdom.

I thought Tolle would be a great addition to my body image series, especially through the holidays when we can get tripped up on stuff that seems to challenge the holiday spirit.

See what you think: Living in Presence With Your Emotional Pain Body.

photo from eckharttolle.com

Breasts.

The past two weeks I took a detour from my body image posts to give attention to Thanksgiving and the loss of a family member. Today’s post continues on the body image theme. I’d love to see you in one of my Embodiment classes beginning in January and February. For more information and to register go to “writing and speaking events.”

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In the summer of 1983, I sunbathed on a topless beach. 

I was eighteen, had just graduated from high school, and wanted to experience life beyond my small town, so I signed up to explore France as a foreign exchange student. I had no idea I would be exploring such things as whether or not one should wear a full bathing suit in public. 

Although surrounded by bare boobs and lots of skin, I chose instead, to clothe myself in a one-piece swimsuit. I imagine my modesty received more stares than all the tanned breasts bobbing up and down that beach. 

As a teen, I was self-conscious. I envisioned myself as offensive as those old men in Speedos. You know the ones: beer gut, flat butt, skinny legs. Nobody needs to be exposed to that.

In my 20s, I succumbed to a two-piece, tanning as much skin as possible. I also discovered sand volleyball with my body benefitting from bumping, setting, and spiking. Stronger arms. Stronger legs. Stronger core. 

In my 30s, I had babies and a temporarily enhanced full bosom while breast-feeding. I enjoyed showing off those swollen mammary glands.

In my 40s, my breasts disappeared, and my stomach reappeared. It was during this time and after an aqua kickboxing class at the YMCA, that I made a drastic decision. 

Glass windows surrounded the pool like a giant fishbowl, allowing other members perfect viewing from all levels and angles. I was in the front row, kicking and punching, perturbed by an unsolicited audience, but determined to remain focused on my better-body goal. Then…the unthinkable happened. One of the pads enhancing my size A post-breast-feeding breasts nonchalantly floated past me. I gasped, grabbed it during my next punch, and as inconspicuously as possible stuffed it into my top, as I brought my arm back to a ready, fight position. Unfortunately, I stuffed it into the wrong side and now sported a more-than-lopsided chest. 

I was mortified.

I got out of that pool and finally caved to the idea of getting breast implants. No more push-up brassieres. No more pads. No more silicone inserts. I would be big and beautiful. Or so I thought. 

At midlife I became resentful of the “boob job.” It represented everything that I wasn’t. I didn’t need big breasts to make me feel better about my body. My extra-large heart and full-functioning brain more than made up for what I lacked in my boa-constricting bra. 

So, in the summer of 2019, I had my implants removed. After years of struggling with body image issues of “not enough” or “too much,” I’m learning to feel just right, just as I am. 

And now, what am I going to do with myself?

“Ooo la la! South of France here I come!” 

A Child’s Sacred Cries

There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3

Last week I dedicated my Thanksgiving blog post to Mike Henry, my ex-husband’s brother who unexpectedly died on November 23. My ex-husband and I were married for twenty-two years. After our divide, we remained connected through our sons, and then after a freak accident where I busted up my mouth, we once again found ourselves in each other’s company. Our problems were the same, yet we were evolving. Slowly. And painfully. Our potential reconciliation manifested as an ebbing and flowing where we eventually gained a deeper recognition and appreciation of each other’s needs and a concerted effort to change for the better. This means a lot of things for each of us, for both of us, which maybe I’ll share sometime in the future. For now, however, I would like to say this: We attended Mike’s funeral together, with both our sons, like we had my brother’s funeral just last fall, all of us deeply shocked and saddened by another loss. 

Thanksgiving reminds us to reflect on our blessings, to be grateful, to pause and remember that which is alive and good. But what happens when there is death? When Thanksgiving is overshadowed by a funeral? As friends and family gathered during Thanksgiving week to remember Mike, and as the reverend began the service with words of gratitude, a child wept.

Mike’s five-year-old granddaughter sat on her mom’s lap, enveloped in the comfort of her mother’s arms. Then, she slid over to her dad’s lap and cried some more, his strong arms holding her safely within. Finally, she made her way to her grandmother, the woman who had been married to her Papa for forty years. She and her grandmother embraced and cried––each a comfort to the other. 

A child’s free-flowing sobs mingled with the prayers, scriptures, stories, and songs like a much-needed ingredient in a family recipe. Nobody hushed her or ushered her out. She was not shamed. Instead, she was allowed to shower her sorrow, to feel her pain, to move through it, and in the end to better move through her loss like we would savor a Thanksgiving meal. This child’s freedom to be sad was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. It gripped my being. 

Thanksgiving is about gratitude yes, but when people ache, Thanksgiving is gracious enough to step aside and say, “Cry my children. Cry. Let it out. For loss (of any kind) hurts. I am not here to push aside pain with a righteous or forced gratitude, but rather to be with you, by your side through this time. And when you’re ready to laugh and smile and give thanks once again, I’ll still be here. But for now, in this day, cry my children. Cry your tears. Mourn how you need. And know that your sorrow is sacred.”  

The Power of the Pause

Note: After writing this blog post, Mike Henry, my ex-husband’s 58-year-old brother, unexpectedly died. We will be traveling this Thanksgiving to attend a funeral, to pause, and ponder another life gone. I dedicate this blog to Mike, who remained and will forever be with his high school sweetheart, Sherry; who was also the father of four, grandfather of three, who loved his work and community, and who was alive and peaceful in the end. 

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Every Tuesday I attend Toastmasters, an international public speaking organization. To help each other improve our presentation skills, members serve as functionaries, such as Grammarian, Timer, and the ever-dreaded Ah Counter, who tracks filler words like and, um, ah, so, and but. It’s not that we can’t use these filler words. We can. We just can’t allow them to use us, in other words become too much, too annoying, too distracting. As members get more comfortable speaking in front of others, we learn the value in replacing these habitual words with silence. 

We learn to pause.  

Pausing can allow the speaker to collect his/her thoughts, add emphasis, slow down a speech that needs slowing, help gain composure, or further enrich a rhythm. 

There is power in the pause. 

And just like with public speaking, there is also power in pausing from our daily runaway duties. 

This week, Thanksgiving week, is all about pausing––one of the reasons I hail this holiday. Unfortunately, it is sandwiched between the frenzy of black witches and Black Friday––the madness that kicks off the madness of holiday shopping. Thanksgiving is there, but barely. It’s like a piece of bologna between two slices of cake. 

But I love Thanksgiving! I love the Macy’s Day Parade and that the commentators are bundled up and I’m not. I love that there are no gifts. I love that we actually take time to ponder our blessings and be with family and friends. I love fall. I love all the amazing food. I love Thanksgiving.  

Today I’m taking a pause from my body image series to promote my favorite holiday. I don’t want it to be bologna between two slices of cake. I want Thanksgiving to be hailed for all its glory. I want it to push its way back onto our calendars. To demand its place. But Thanksgiving isn’t like that. It is not rude or forceful. It’s simply there if we so choose. 

Please. 

Let’s pause this Thanksgiving to collect our thoughts, to add emphasis where needed, to slow down that which needs slowing, to gain our composure, and to further enrich our distinctive rhythms. 

Let’s pause this Thanksgiving. 

From Shaming our Bodies to Embracing

Blog entry by Sandra B Stanford, LMHC

“I’d rather be dead than red on the head” was a chant I heard regularly as a kid growing up in Memphis, Tennessee. “Carrot Top” became an unwelcome nick name. I hated my red hair. As far as I was concerned, it did not serve me well and I dreamed of the day that I could march into the beauty salon and be handed a chart that gave me the ability to choose a color….any color that did not have ridicule and shame attached to it.

Shame…my shame was associated with a part of my body that had been with me since birth. I was stuck with it and would regularly look in the mirror and dream of being a blonde, so carefree and pretty. But the mirror told me the truth. My red hair was my nemesis, and it brought me feelings of shame. 

“If you put shame in a Petri dish and douse it with secrecy, silence and judgement, shame grows exponentially.” 

Brené Brown, Shame researcher

This can be debilitating. The main issue with shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with me. And shame is merciless. It knows no boundaries, is no respecter of persons, race, culture or creed. 

How do people experience shame? One of the markers of shame begins in our bodies. Sometimes our head might drop down, or our mouth feels dry. Our heart can beat faster and our cheeks turn red. Not everyone experiences the same symptoms, so it is important to tune into our body’s shame signals. Once we start to notice feelings of shame, we are in a better position to address them and turn them around to self-love. 

As I grew up and began to learn the importance of self-acceptance, I began the journey by embracing that part of me that had brought such hurt. I decided to work on accepting my red hair by first looking in the mirror and saying: “I love and accept you,” and “You are a good person and you are beautiful.” The mirror was no longer an enemy, but a friend.

Therefore, one of the assignments I give to my clients who struggle with self-image is called “mirror therapy.” I ask them to look into a mirror and state, “I am beginning to love you.” To reassure them that I am not asking anything of them that I do not do for myself, I first demonstrate this exercise with a handheld mirror I keep in my office. 

The journey of self-love begins with knowing where you have been judging or condemning yourself and determining to change your self-talk with compassion and love. Brené Brown ends her previous shame statement with these words: 

“But, if shame is doused with empathy, it cannot grow. Empathy is a hostile environment for shame.”

It is my hope that each of us can walk a life of loving our bodies in a healthy way. This can be hard. And it is done only one step at a time. But we are all worthy of this journey of learning to love those parts that have previously taunted us. 

I am no longer that little girl in elementary school looking for a beauty shop to erase a part of me. Instead, when I wake up and take that first look in the mirror, I am anticipating a good day because it will be filled with self-love and acceptance––the key to relinquishing shame and embracing who I am.

Sandra B Stanford, LMHC
Certified Daring Way ™ Facilitator
Certified in EMDR Therapy
Founder Our Marriage Matters Retreats
http://www.CharisCounselingCenter.com

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Interested in learning more about shaming and embracing?

Register for Sandra’s and my upcoming Embodiment Therapeutic Writing Class. 

I Looked Hot

I was editing a series of stories with a writer friend when I stopped, put down the story, and commented, “I’ve never felt this way.” I was referring to a line the writer had written about herself that said, “I looked hot.” I stopped on that sentence because I had read something similar from another story by another author, and remember thinking the same thing then, “I’ve never felt hot.” But these two writers described times when they felt beautiful, fierce, confident, and comfortable in their own skin.

I couldn’t relate. 

How would it feel to walk into a room and own my beauty? 

I wanted to feel “hot.”  

As it was, I felt too skinny, like anorexic skinny. A mindset like this develops after a lifetime of people point out how skinny one is, slurring the “i” as if to stretch its skinniness like a green Gumby doll. Remember him? You could pull his stretchy arms and legs and body to an unnatural thinness. That’s how skinny that “i” sounded to me. Skeeeeeny. People’s freedom to voice their opinions about my body (this would include perfect strangers) always seemed code for, “There’s something wrong with you.” I didn’t care how grateful my mom told me I should be. I felt humiliated. I didn’t tell people what I thought about their bodies? Why did they think they could tell me? I remember a preteen photo of me where my legs looked like chop sticks with knobby knees. I threw that picture away. But I still remember it. Vividly. 

My sweet grandmother tried once to fatten me up when I was a kid. I couldn’t possibly eat all the food she piled on my plate, so for days, I dumped half my meals behind her refrigerator. The excess food of course didn’t go away. I was in the back bedroom when she screamed my name. She finally discovered the source of her bug infestation. Needless to say, she never tried fattening me up again. 

Body image can be frustrating, regardless of body type. More recently a friend shared an opposite situation. She had been overweight and jokingly (I think) blamed it on her husband because he was so loving and accepting of her––inside and out, that she always thought she looked “hot.” Yes, she used this same descriptive. Her doctor informed her she was overweight when she had to get her knee replaced. I love this friend’s essence and agree with her husband. She’s hot, as in beautiful, fierce, confident, and comfortable in her own skin. She now understands that even though she might feel hot, her extra pounds were affecting her health. 

Other physical factors, besides weight, can also affect our body image, things like height, breast and bootie size, how our hair looks, and whether or not we wear glasses or braces or have a handicap. I recall an incident in my 40s when someone took the liberty to tell me what she thought about my hair. And it wasn’t good. I shopped at a particular clothing store and always asked for a particular salesperson because she was great at helping me get in and out quickly. I mostly dislike shopping, so I welcome assistance that minimizes my effort. But one day my saleslady asked, “Have you ever thought about coloring your hair?” I had made an intentional decision to go natural. My silver hair was and is me. I know she was trying to be helpful, but her comment frustrated me. I welcomed her opinion about my clothes, not my hair (I was in a clothing store after all). I guess she felt comfortable enough to advise me on my total look. I never shopped there again. 

Much has been written about body image. As we face the holidays again, and close yet another year, I think it’s an appropriate time to reflect on “self,” to breathe deeply, and to embrace who we are and who we are becoming. I have an exciting lineup of “Body Shop” blogs through the end of the year that includes some guest bloggers. Also up are 2020 Embodiment class offerings that might be of interest. I hope you stick around. It’s going to be hot, hot, hot.  

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Mark your calendars (registration information coming very soon) for Embodiment Classes: self-discovery via exposition

Our bodies carry with them a collection of stories that reveal our unique selves. Whether it is a memory of a haircut gone wrong, a finger wearing a ring from a loved one, or breasts that survived cancer, our bodies encapsulate a lifetime of memories. By using one-word body prompts, participants will be guided through the writing of 3-4 short stories to begin a forever memoir collection. 

Date: January 16, 23, 30, February 6, 6-7:30 pm

Location: The Hub, New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Cost: $60 for four classes or $18 per class, no additional materials needed

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Date: February 16, 23, March 1, 8, 1:30-3:30 pm

Location: Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center, Oviedo, Florida

Cost: $185 by December 31; $200 by January 31; $225 by February 14

I’ll be co-teaching with Sandra Stanford, LMHC with Charis Counseling Center, and adding a therapy-through-writing component.

Embracing One’s Story

“When one is ‘addicted to one’s story,’ one does not love all the components of the story. They are obsessed with a version of a partial story, a slice of the story. Their unbalanced interpretation possesses them, and they can easily allow this incomplete image of themselves to define their story.” –Dr. David Baker, dbakerphd@gmail.com

The theme of my presentation at my recent Momentous Living exhibitions was “embracing one’s story,” I asked Dr. David Baker, a psychotherapist, if he would take us a bit deeper into the difference between story addictions and embracing one’s story. This is what he said:

We can come to understand the distinction between being “addicted” to one’s story and embracing one’s story in a helpful way by understanding how the need for the distinction became important in the first place. I believe it is important to distinguish addiction from embrace because we have come to confuse addiction with love.

To fall passionately, madly in love with one’s own story, without being possessed by it, obsessed with it, “addicted” to it, or needing to edit its truth, is a rare thing. Many are drawn to criticize, demonize or edit their own stories. But to detest one’s own story is to detest the self. The story is I. And I am the story. I don’t have a story, carrying it around like a handbag. I am my story. And the more time and energy one expends on identifying with a lopsided view of one’s story—emphasizing only the sad, ugly, lonely, empty parts of the story, or the light, bright, sweet and beautiful parts—the more obsessed one becomes by that one-sided view. Identification feeds obsession. Why? Because simplicity is seductive; it wants one thing, not two; it wants quick and easy, black or white, mistrusts gray. And because complexity—seeing one’s story as fragmented, messy, and populated by people and experiences we don’t understand or can’t bear to behold—is frightening.

In clinical practice I most often experience persons identifying with the negative pole of their story, the tragic and the shameful, the abusive and the abandoning. Of course one of the goals of therapeutic intervention is to allow persons a holding environment where they can express and often re-experience the painful and neglected parts of themselves and their stories, parts that have been forlorn and missing from awareness. However, these components represent only one of many parts of one’s story. Thus, another goal of treatment is to allow for the whole story to emerge, which most often includes moments of joy and hope, trust and love, resilience and re-emergence. For some, when encountering the unseemly, disgusting, unacceptable components of their story, they find these to be so unbearable that they feel the need to change the story—to minimize, neglect, or even abandon the darker narratives. This can be a slippery slope toward faking one’s story—a false self, faking its own story. And the negative aspects of one’s story can be seductive, and in the seduction the self becomes identified with its tragedies, to the exclusion of its joys. 

Each person, each story has within it what psychologist Carl Jung called “shadow,” which he defined as “… that which we have no wish to be,” but that we are. Some come to loath their own story so that they would seek to exchange their story for a better looking, sexier, more entertaining or more culturally appropriate story. But this denial of one’s authentic story is a denial of the authentic self, of the extravagant, beautiful, terrible and painful trajectory that comprises every one’s unique and unrepeatable journey. But because every authentic story has elements of shadow, some will decide to throw out the whole story.

Identifying with one’s story in a responsible way means embracing the story in its entirety, its shine and shadow, accepting the truth that the subject of the story—my self—has potential for both “good” and “evil,” for health and illness, to love and hate, sometimes simultaneously. This is the real self, and thus, this is the real story we must embrace.  

What does it mean to be “addicted” to one’s story? Addiction immediately implies distance, which is never good when relating to oneself or one’s story. When encountering someone who is “addicted”—whether to a substance, a behavior, one’s work, an experience, a person, or to one’s story—there is one particular quality that is missing: the addict does not love the object of his addiction. The alcoholic does not love alcohol; he loves what alcohol does for and to him. The relationally addictive person doesn’t love the person in her gaze; she loves what he does for and to her. One does not abuse the thing it loves. The addict can only abuse, and the abuse is in the distance he creates between himself and the other, objectifying it, or them, valuing it, or them, for it’s ability to fulfill the addiction. Further, the addict is a slave of, or to its object, and has given himself over to something. The addict doesn’t hold the object of his addiction; the object holds them, which helps explain the obsessional quality of addiction. So, when one is addicted to their story, they are obsessive about the story they tell themselves. They are lopsided in their perspective of light and dark, emphasizing one over the other, out of balance and unable to find, much less see the authentic story in all its complexity.

It is easy to mistake addiction for love, because of the immense drive, intensity and energy in addiction. But if love can be defined in part by its ability to sacrifice self in consideration of the other, then addiction is devoid of love, because the addict can only consider the object as far as that object will fulfill her addictive need(s). The heart of addiction is the lack of perspective and objectivity, an inability to see the object, the other, for its unique beauty and complexity. Again, the addict hasn’t the ability to appreciate the object beyond its ability to fulfill the addiction that, parenthetically, is momentary.  

When encountering someone who is “addicted“ to their story then, one feels their obsession, often presenting as a kind of self-involvement, with little interest in others, powered by a hunger that cannot be satiated. The self has turned on itself and made the story the object of its own attraction and longing. But it isn’t the authentic story they see.  Authentic stories have boring parts, parts that are missing or out of place, gray parts, painful parts, and parts so lovely and true we can hardly behold their extravagance. When one is “addicted to one’s story,” one does not love all the components of the story. They are obsessed with a version of a partial story, a slice of the story. Their unbalanced interpretation possesses them, and they can easily allow this incomplete image of themselves to define their story. The danger of dangers in living addicted to a partial story is that one can’t see a future, can’t escape the past.  They become stuck in those few chosen moments which they perceive have defined not only their story but their very self.  

Thus, to embrace one’s story, as opposed to being addicted to it, requires that one embrace the whole story, not the easy, convenient parts. To embrace one’s story wholeheartedly requires that we live with the expectation that our story will continue to unfold, that there is a future story yet to be told. To responsibly embrace one’s story assumes the story isn’t stuck in place or time; rather, it is organic, forever moving, forever being written, every moment of every hour of every day. Because, after all, the story is the self.

Happy Birthday!

Knightro with Siobhan and me after our Fun Run, Oct. 27, 2019.
Knightro can’t talk, so even he couldn’t say, “Happy Birthday.”

One of my good friends, Siobhan, and I traditionally kick off our October birthdays by running UCF’s U Can Finish 2-mile fun run. It’s a nonthreatening distance that doesn’t induce stress, something neither of us want for our birthdays.

Last year I jogged while wearing a birthday cake hat. One person said, “Happy Birthday,” as he passed by. I yelled, “You are the first person to tell me that.” He looked back over his shoulder and said, “I guess everybody’s in their zone.” I thought about his comment the remainder of my run and well into the rest of my day. Really? Everybody (as in over a thousand people) were so focused on a 2-mile Fun Run that they couldn’t say, “Happy Birthday?” We weren’t competing in the Olympics for crying out loud. 

Now, to clarify, I didn’t wear a cake hat so strangers would recognize my birthday. I wore my cake hat simply to celebrate my day. But, it did seem odd that only one out of over a thousand people shouted out a “Happy Birthday.” Why is that? I wondered.

This year, both Siobhan and I wore cake hats, as well as “Happy Birthday” sashes and socks with confetti. If people couldn’t tell that it was our birthdays, then they were simply unconscious. We collectively received around 20 well-wishes this year. Definitely an improvement over last year. But still. There were over one thousand people walking/jogging/running! Even the guy who snapped our pre-run photo, handed back my phone without showing the slightest recognition that it was our birthdays. Is it really that hard to tell a stranger, “Happy Birthday?” 

Just as I was pointing out this point to Siobhan (for yet another time), a lady and two children walked up. “My two kids want to tell you ‘Happy Birthday’,” the mother said. Both her son and daughter looked up at us, smiled, and said, “Happy Birthday!” Their expressions, as if they were peering at royalty, showed how genuinely excited they were for us. They understood the bigness of our day. We had made it one more year, thank you very much. 

Whoever said, “Children should be seen and not heard,” doesn’t understand the value in bold, authentic, joyous childlike living. Their well-wishes made Siobhan’s and my birthdays. 

I can’t help but still wonder though, why is it that so many people can’t get out of their “zones” and do something as simple as extend a birthday greeting? Several people suggested different theories:

  • Even though I was wearing a cake hat, it didn’t actually say, “birthday.” Perhaps people just didn’t make the connection. (Really?) 
  • Maybe people are just shy. (A thousand shy people?) 
  • I could have been too tall, so few people could actually see the candles on the hat. (But Siobhan is short. No missing her candles. This theory doesn’t make sense.)
  • It’s because you’re human. If you were a dog wearing a cake hat, you would most certainly receive birthday wishes. (This sadly makes sense.)
  • Or maybe it’s because you’re in the “middle ages,” not young or old, but in the overlooked middle. After all, if a child was wearing a cake hat or an elderly person, people would chime in. Right? But who cares if someone at midlife made it another year? (This makes sense too. Sadly.)

I’m not sure what’s up with all the zoning out, but I think I will do some investigative reporting to uncover some theories that are a bit more science-based. Stay tuned, as this is not yet over. 

In the meantime, what do you think? And would you give a birthday greeting to someone wearing a cake hat?

Please leave a comment to help satisfy my childlike curiosity.