Raising Roo: New Roommate

Recently my wife suggested I write a series of posts about what it’s like to have a child. I did a similar thing when the curtain of doom that was the COVID-19 pandemic first descended on all our lives, closing us off from the outside world and forcing us all into the digital sphere, where in my little corner of it I attempted to relate the suddenly universal experience of logging into work in your pyjamas and rolls of toilet paper inexplicably becoming the new gold standard.

So, as our child furniture walks towards the big one year mark, and with almost twelve months experience as an apprentice parent, I decided to take my wife up on her suggestion.

It’s rather fitting that my previous series focused on a viral pandemic, because the experience of first bringing a baby into your home is not too dissimilar. This might sound like a hurtful comparison to make, drawing parallels between a voracious virus that leaves you feeling sick and exhausted and a beautiful new baby boy, but replace the word “virus” with “baby” and you’re not far off the mark. 

Here in Austria, the standard paternity leave is one month, and so for that first month, much like during the early days of the pandemic, my wife and I closed our doors, pulled on our pyjamas, and bunkered down. Instead of becoming obsessed with graphs and tallies of rising case numbers, we found a new obsession in the contents of nappies and the secretions from my wife’s breasts. Rather than watch governmental updates and bingeing on Netflix, we watched the rise and fall of our boy’s chest (still breathing = successful parents) and binged on the curves of his perfect round face. Rather than acquiring the new skills of baking bread or mastering Zoom calls, we became experts on the face he makes when pooping and schooled ourselves on swaddling our son until we could eventually make the perfect baby burrito.

And, much like someone who eventually succumbs to the virus plaguing the planet, we found ourselves at the end of it all in a state of physical deterioration. 

The problem was the cycle. The cycle is the rotation of tasks required to ensure your newborn continues living for the foreseeable future, which is an objective we strived for as new parents. 

The cycle begins with us gently coaxing our newborn to wakefulness. I know, you’re thinking, “Well, if you just let the damn thing sleep, you’d probably be in a much better state. No one to blame there but yourself, mate.” And while I agree with this logic, and can’t argue that there were times I was tempted to wrap myself in a matching swaddle and join him, the problem is that babies sleep too much. Again, I see you rolling your eyes and raising your hand, “Make up your mind, buddy, are you getting rest or not!” But let me lay out my case and this sleep paradox will untangle. 

Babies, or more specifically newborns, are mad for sleep, they can’t get enough, they’ve mastered it in the womb and see no reason to change their habits just because they’ve been ejected out into the big bad world. The issue is that the womb is the equivalent of first class — it’s temperature controlled, the lights are permanently dimmed, and sustenance is delivered through a tube directly into your circulatory system. (Okay, I don’t know if first class technically has this last feature, I’ve never actually flown first class, but it can’t be far off, right). But now the baby is down here in economy with the rest of us schmucks and he can’t quite wrap his head around the idea that he has to eat his own food. I don’t have the heart to tell him it only gets harder from here.

Our new son would have contentedly dozed the day away, comfortable in the presumption that his nutritional needs were being met, and slept right through breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. And dessert! As previously mentioned, the objective is the ongoing survival of your infant, and so while we were tempted to let sleeping babies lie, we would instead do the responsible thing and wake the lazy little man up. 

Rupert, my son, was understandably upset with this arrangement, a slumbering first-class passenger being poked awake and hustled out into the cold reality of economy, and would take some cuddles and bouncing and a nipple or two before calming down, a situation we’ve all found ourselves in.

Alex, my wife, took to mothering like a bird to the wing, and it was inspiring to watch her soar on the updraft of her new responsibilities. Thankfully, her body also slipped into mum-mode and started producing the colostrum needed to transition from arterial-provided sustenance to the more traditional oral technique. Alex would take our sleepy son and nurse him, administering the ingredients for life from her own body, while I would flutter around and try to make myself useful. 

One service I provided during these early feedings was as awake-keeper. The aforementioned addiction to sleep extended even to the act of feeding, and there were times when we would be merrily chatting away, feeling very proud of ourselves and our successes at this whole parenting thing, only to realise that it wasn’t a feed a little man was catching but some Zs. The little sneak remained latched, but all sucking would cease as he surreptitiously snoozed under our very noses. This was my call to action, damp cloth at the ready, dabbing the cool material to his forehead and neck while he scrunched up his face and squirmed, and I apologised all the while, doing my best to explain the importance of a healthy and robust diet.

Because of his sloth-like tendencies, a full feed could take a while. We would juggle our son back and forth between us, Alex easing the milk into him and me burping it back out, until we were satisfied enough had settled into his belly to ensure he would remain comfortable until the next feed time. 

We would then make our way to the bathroom for the next stage of the cycle, dealing with the opposite end of our son’s digestive tract, the changing of the nappy. As we disrobed our boy under the mesmerising glow of the heat lamp and removed the soiled diaper, Alex and I would discuss the weight, colour, and consistency of Rupert’s offering like two artists admiring a piece by one of the Great Masters. Healthy bowel movements or particularly weighty nappies would be met with cheers and heartfelt words of praise, assuring our little man that he had accomplished something wonderful and was destined for great things.

Once cleaned and redressed, we would put our culinary skills to work and burrito-wrap our baby in his swaddle and then settle in front of the TV for some cuddles and come-down after the excitement of the diaper change. Roo would drift off to the sound of canned laughter and Jim Parson’s deadpan delivery as we re-watched the Big Bang Theory. Once we were confident he was under, we would transition him to the bedroom and his small crib attached to our bed where one or both of us would join him in catching what shut-eye we could. 

If we opted not to join him, we would instead madly rush around attempting to tend to those activities of daily living we had recently performed for our son, only for ourselves. Once fed, showered, and toileted, we would collapse, alarms set for an hour’s time when we would have to wake and prepare for the next stage of the cycle. Pumping.

To encourage along the milk production, as well as to allow me the pleasure of administering life-giving nutrition to our baby even given my lactation deficit, we invested in a breast pump, which, for the uninitiated, is exactly what it sounds like. Alex would drowsily strap those suckers to her chest and they would chug away while we made conversation as if being milked in your living room was a totally normal thing. Which it quickly became. 

I would collect the produce from Alex’s efforts and measure it out into a feeding bottle with the care and accuracy of a scientist handling volatile material, ensuring we did not lose a drop of the hard-earned liquid. Once both breasts had been mechanically stimulated, we would tip-toe into the bedroom to restart the cycle and gently coax our boy back into the waking world.

For those of you playing at home, you may have already noticed this cycle leaves little room for anything else, such as, oh, I don’t know, sleep. The cycle, which approximately lasts three hours end-to-end, wheeled its way throughout our days and nights, twenty-four seven, completely uncaring that humans are not traditionally nocturnal creatures and actually prefer a good eight hour stretch if given the chance. Our son was afforded approximately two hours of sleep for every three hour cycle, but us chumps in charge of the prep and clean up were happy to catch an hour here and there when we could.

And so, at the end of our first month of our self-imposed quarantine, eyes perpetually  red-rimmed and heavy-lidded, we found our obsession slipping from all things baby to just one central theme: Sleep.

Next week’s topic: Sleep.

2020/21

It is the first morning of 2021 and I am sitting in bed drinking a cup of tea my wife made me and 2020 is done and I feel better for it.

Of course, there’s really no logic to my sense of relief. The period we called 2020 is, after all, just an arbitrarily chosen point in time. Millennia ago, some shaman determined that when the earth was in a particular position in its cycle around the sun, that the year had died, an end-date was formed, and it was deemed appropriate to celebrate the start of something new. The earth didn’t notice, of course, and just continued in its steady circle of the sun, but we living on earth thought it sounded like a good idea and have since continued the tradition of putting a full stop in our collective sentence every time the earth finds its way back to that same spot adjacent to the sun. It is random, arbitrary, and nothing really differs from 11:59, December 31st, 2020, to 00:00, January 1st, 2021. But it does help give us a sense of closure.

And, damn, but do we deserve a fictional but comforting sense of closure. The events of 2020 were anything but fictional, they were, in fact, painfully real. I won’t rehash them because we all know what they were, we all lived through them. We all watched the world close down, all read the countless news reports, watched the graphs and tallies as the number of cases grew, all closed our doors and settled in for the long wait, all obtained masks, and developed an intimate relationship with our sweatpants. 

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too. And it doesn’t matter if you’re reading this in a backyard in Melbourne, or an apartment in Vienna, or in bed in Beijing, because you went through it too. And as awful as the implications of that are, that this virus and its society-stopping impact managed to circumvent the world with frighteningly apparent ease, isn’t it remarkable that this goddamn year and all its weird and new and awful moments was a universally experienced phenomenon. 

I didn’t see my family this year. That is to say, I didn’t see them physically. For a full twelve months, for the entire rotation of the earth around the sun from an arbitrarily chosen point and back again, I was removed from the people who raised me. This has never happened before. I hope it never happens again. But, like the rest of the world, I adapted. I found creative ways to engage with my loved ones through digital means. I participated in video call parties, broke out of virtual escape rooms, and sat in my pyjamas at two in the morning, raising a glass of whiskey to my grandpa while attending his streamed funeral. 

It wasn’t the same, of course. Nothing can replicate the feel and warmth and comfort of a long tight hug. But it was something. It was still connection, and conversation, and laughter, and life shared, and while it’s easy to wish none of this had ever happened, instead I choose to be grateful that this all happened at a time when I could open a metal book, click a button, and see my family’s faces smiling back at me through pixels so small so as not to be seen. 

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

To say it was an emotional year is an understatement. I felt emotions I didn’t know could be felt. The casual boredom and anxiety of a lockdown. The quiet exhilaration of completing a workday in pyjamas. The eerie sensation of stepping onto a train platform and seeing only masked faces looking back at you. But the primary emotion I felt this year was frustration. 

I felt frustrated by the limitations of lockdown. I felt frustrated when an overwrought network failed and a call to my family froze. I felt frustrated trying to take a work call while my wife tried to take one too from half a metre away in our cobbled together home-office. I felt frustrated looking at the same four walls day in and day out. I felt frustrated every time I saw a nose poking over the top of someone’s mask. I felt frustrated every time I forgot to unmute myself. And I felt overwhelmingly frustrated every time there was news reports of people having parties in the middle of a lockdown, of people who knew they were infected but thought it was okay to pop into the shops, of morons claiming that wearing a piece of protective clothing was somehow impinging of their personal freedoms, of selfishness, and borders closing, and death tolls rising, and flights cancelled, and that day when I could return to my family stretching further and further into the future until it seemed to disappear over the horizon line altogether. 

I felt frustrated with a society I thought was better than this.

You know what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

But focusing on this frustration is a choice, and a bad one. And that was something else I had to learn to adapt to in 2020, choosing where to direct my attention in a way that best served me. It was so easy to get sucked into the endless feed of headlines and the addictive horror that was the virus and its effects, and to believe the world was ending. But it wasn’t ending, only changing, and there are good parts to change if you look for them.

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year I got to spend every day with my wife and best friend. Rather than break us, being confined together taught us new ways to spend time together and new ways to give each other space. It made me more grateful than ever that I found a partner who I can literally spend every minute of my life with and still want more. 

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year I didn’t have to commute to work anymore and so had time to exercise. I started slow, and with short distances, but then ran longer, and faster. I ran in sweltering summer heat and pitch black winter evenings. I got fitter and felt better inside my own bones. 

2020 was the year of the virus, but it was also the year we all got crafty. We baked sourdoughs, and banana breads, and all the comfort food we needed to get through the long days. We picked up knitting needles, pencils, paintbrushes, and tools, and we made things. We took photographs and made videos, and wrote things, and read things. We found new hobbies and new ways to enjoy our time. 

And you know exactly what I’m talking about because you lived through it too.

I know nothing really differs from 11:59, December 31st, 2020, to 00:00, January 1st, 2021. I know it’s all arbitrary. But, dammit, I am still hopeful for this coming allotment of time. Not because some past shaman was right and something has died only for something new to be born, and not because the slate magically becomes clean just because we add an extra digit to the end of the calendar, but because in these last twelve months we have all adapted. We have been through an ordeal and we have learnt from it.

My hope is that we will take the collective lessons into the new year, the major groundbreaking discoveries and the intimate personal revelations. My hope is that 2021 is the year the vaccine works and we contain the virus. My hope is that 2021 is the year I get to hug my family again. But whatever 2021 brings, my hope is that I continue to grow and adapt and find new ways to connect and enjoy my time. 

And I am comforted by the knowledge that you will know what I’m talking about because you will be there, living through it too.

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 27

Today marks the end of the sixth week that I have been writing this blog series. Six weeks! That is six weeks of spending 23 and a half hours a day inside my apartment, six weeks of having physical contact with only my wife, six weeks of sweatpants, and trips to the supermarket that feel like heists, and yoga in the morning, and working from my dining table, and social isolation. 

Only it hasn’t felt overtly isolating. Some of that is because we live in the future where I can literally talk to my magic handheld computer and instruct it to let me view and speak to my brother and it does! But another big part is because of this, what you’re reading right now, these words, this act of writing. 

Because, while technology is definitely an act of magic and I’m sure my laptop is just full of tiny wizards making it all work, there is an older magic at play here. Writing is magic and reading is magic. I sit here alone in my room in Vienna and put down a string of words to represent a ridiculous thought I’ve had, maybe about how Austrians like to scream “meal time!” at each other, or how an old tortilla will do if you’re out of toilet paper, or how my wife wants to stab people with a fork from time to time, and I express these images through a series of squiggles, and then you in your home maybe a thousand miles away from mine open up a page and decipher these squiggles until you too are picturing screaming Austrians, or sanitary tortillas, or a fork-wielding Alex. We have communicated, from my mind to yours. Magic.

Writing this blog and having this magical communication has helped me tremendously during this surreal and abstract, and any other art movement that applies (expressionist?), time. I have been able to funnel my anxiety and nervous energy, my questions and thoughts and actions and stupid jokes into this medium, and by doing so get them out of my head where they can breathe a little, see the sun a little, and not feel all pent up inside my skull where they would endlessly bounce around (much as I image kids are doing during this quarantine. Those poor, poor parents). 

Writing is a crystallising process. Putting words down forces me to reach into the fog of fragmented thoughts and hazy half ideas and decide how I really think and feel about a thing, to put it into a sentence that I can read back on and think “Oh yeah, that’s how it is”. And because I have formed it into a single clear statement, it’s as if I have permission to stop chewing over it, to let it go, to know it’s there if I need it, in black and white, and move on feeling a little lighter because of it. Magic.

As I have been doing this process for the past six weeks, the good/bad news (depending on if you’ve enjoyed these blogs or not, and if not, nobody made you keep reading them, that’s on you, friend) is that I have nothing left to say. All current concerns and questions, quibbles and queries about life in the time of COVID have been expunged onto the page and shared and communicated with you lovely people. The brain tank is currently clean and empty, and ready to be refilled. 

To all those who have read along, my deepest thanks goes out to you for taking this time to be with me, to communicate with me, for keeping me company and removing some of the isolation from my social isolation. These have been and continue to be strange times, but I am incredibly proud of how we as a community are getting through it together even while being forced to remain apart. That is another kind of magic.

I am sure there is more weirdness to come, more challenges and more adaptation, and so I’m sure it won’t be long until new perspectives and observations and silly jokes begin circling in my head, needing to be written down and shared with all of you. As such, this is not goodbye, instead let me just say, as is said in German, auf Wiedersehen (literal translation = on seeing again. I told you that language was literal!).

Until next time.

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Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 26

With the days warming up over here, Summer is knocking on the back door, waiting to get in, which means all Europeans’ minds are turning towards one thing: the holidays. While things are improving in Austria in regards to the COVID restrictions — shops are reopening with strict guidelines in place regarding masks and the number of customers allowed inside at one time (it’s progress!) — the idea of being able to go on the usual beach holiday is still pretty much out of the question. As a consolation prize, the Austrian government has announced that travel to Germany and the Czech Republic may be allowed, but given that these locations are basically cookie cutter countries to Austria, at least in terms of topography and landscape, this is not proving to be a particularly exciting prospect for many Austrians. I imagine it’s a bit akin to booking an AirBnB only to find out it’s your neighbour’s house. It’d be interesting for a day, and for sure you’d snoop through their stuff for a while, but then you’re just staring at the same scenery from a slightly different perspective. 

More and more this holiday season, it’s looking like any vacation will have to be of the internal variety. But maybe, with a bit of imagination, it’s still possible to replicate the travel experience from the comfort of your own home. Let’s see what we’re working with:

THE JOURNEY

In order to truly capture the thrill of the flight, my first suggestion would be to find the most uncomfortable chair in your house, the one you keep in the basement or shed and every time you look at it you think “I should really throw that out” before closing the door and leaving it there forever. Set this chair up facing a wall or directly behind where your partner is sitting; the key component is to ensure there is only so much space between yourself and the object/person in front of you that your legs remain constantly bent at a 45 degree angle. 

For the next twenty-four hours, give yourself that real jetsetter experience by remaining in the chair at all times and doing nothing but eating reheated food and watching a collection of movies that never really interested you before, but will do to pass the time. 

For additional authenticity, every time you get up to go to the bathroom, spin yourself around a few times. This will ensure you get that genuine dizzy and slightly disoriented feeling whenever you’re sitting on the toilet. Bonus points for anyone who props up a mirror on the back of their toilet door so they can watch themselves as they do their business and consider how terrible they look. 

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THE BEACH HOLIDAY

As a landlocked country, the beach getaway is an important pilgrimage for the Austrian people, and while there’s no replacing the real deal, it is possible to create a poor facsimile of the real deal. Begin by coating the floor of your bathroom with fine-grained white sand, the type that feels soft and warm beneath the soles of your feet and pressing up between your toes. If your access to sand is limited, cat litter is readily available at most supermarkets.

Set up an electric heater in the room to simulate the tropical warmth you are used to finding at the beach. A tan is essential to ensure you look and feel the part, so sit as close as you can tolerate to the heater until you can feel your skin literally baking. When it is the colour of a freshly cooked spit roast pig, you’ll know you’re ready to strut your stuff.

Next, fill the bathtub with lukewarm to cold water and tip in as much salt as is available in your home. You’ll want enough to ensure that the fashionable second degree burn you have just acquired will sear upon contact with the water and that you will emerge with eyes as red as your skin. For additional authenticity, throw in strips of the slightly sludgy lettuce you forgot was in your crisper, as well as any old plastic bottles or bandaids you have in the trash.

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THE WILDERNESS GETAWAY

For many of us, a holiday is all about communing with nature. This experience can be replicated in the home with just a little effort. Begin by surrounding yourself with any and all house plants that you may own and try sparking up a conversation. Congratulations, you are now communing with nature. If you continue to the point that the plants begin to talk back, you have gone too far.  

Exposure to wildlife is also a big part of a wilderness getaway. Alex and I have taken up the pastime of attempting to lure the local cats up onto our balcony or in through the front door. While your neighbours may view this as the kidnapping of their beloved pets, you’ll know you are just doing your part to love and support the native fauna. If you start seeing “missing pet” signs being hung around your apartment block, you have gone too far.

A picnic on the bed is a great way to enjoy some rustic eating. Buy some bread and dips, some cheese and meat, be sure to remove any cats you may have trapped in the bedroom, and tuck into some wholesome food. If you can’t remember the last time you ate anywhere except the bed and wake up with salami slices stuck to your skin and ants in the bedding, you have gone too far.

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Those essential elements to a vacation are obtainable with a little out-of-the-box thinking, at least enough to fool that internal travel bug long enough until the world is once again open for business. And if all that fails, pop up any and all of your travel shots as a slideshow on your television, sit as close as possible, and get drunk off home-made cocktails. Before too long, you’ll forget where you are entirely and fall asleep to views of the beach. Just like on a real holiday.

Tomorrow: Writing.

P.S. For a, possibly, more enjoyable virtual vacation, check out Sir David Attenborough’s interactive tour of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef: http://attenboroughsreef.com/

Vienna in the time of COVID – Chapter 25

Over the past five years I have lived a rather mobile life. In many ways, I maintained three places of residence: London, Vienna, and Melbourne. Granted, my time in Melbourne was far less than that of the other two locations, but given that all my junk still fills a bedroom in my brother’s house, that some of my mail is still delivered there, and that Damian and Holly still refer to the room as “Jono’s room” despite the fact that they live there alone and have done so for five years now, I claim squatter’s rights. 

Unsurprisingly when attempting to stretch oneself between three countries of habitation, I have become very familiar with the various modes of transportation available in this modern age. Between long haul international flights to and from Australia and Europe, and regular smaller flights skipping across from London to Vienna, I have mastered the process of moving through an airport while allowing for time to drop off luggage, get through passport control and customs with some minutes allotted for a good frisking should the need arise, have myself a sneaky coffee and a sandwich, and locate my gate with just enough time for a quick dash to the toilet before boarding my plane. To date, I have yet to miss a flight, however there was one close call that had me sprinting through an airport praying to a god I don’t believe in. In this instance, I joined the tailend of the boarding queue and collapsed into my seat, relief and sweat pouring out of me. A win for me but not so much for the passenger beside me breathing in the byproduct of my relief and sweat.

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While district nursing across all the compass points of London, I learned to navigate the spider web of bus, tram, and train routes, and got to see the city from this variety of perspectives, as well as to meet and mingle with the people of London, including but not limited to that one gentleman who asked if he could light my hair on fire (I declined his invitation, for anyone wondering). To date, I have absolutely missed buses, and trains, and trams, and gotten myself so horrendously lost that I found myself wandering through industrial and distinctly creepy parts of London in the very early hours of the morning (for a full accounting of this occasion, please refer to LIFE IN LONDON #01).

The past few years has bred in me a distinct animosity towards these various modes of transportation, of being crammed in with strangers, the delays and cancellations, and of being herded here and there like cattle, the chewing habits of my co-commuters helping to complete this image. But, as is always the way when a viral pandemic sweeps across the world, now that the object of my disdain has been taken away from me, I find myself longing for those earlier golden days. Much like after a break up, I catch myself romanticising those elements that previously drove me mad. Oh, to be back in that train carriage, the moist armpit of an overweight passenger crammed in beside me hovering centimeters from my face, wavering ever closer as people attempt to push in despite the fact that there’s scarcely room to breath as it is. Not that I was breathing all that deeply, what with the armpit. Oh, the glory of moving with my community.

One of the highlights of my train trip into work used to be as the U2 trundled across the Danube River. I would look up from the meditative trance I had put myself in in order to pretend that I was in a quiet rainforest instead of squeezed in next to all the other morning commuters, and soak in the view of the winding water reflecting the colours of the rising sun and bracketed by the city of Vienna and the mountains perched behind it. It made me feel lucky to live in this city. I miss that.

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As an expatriate, the other thing I miss about transportation since the worldwide lock down is access to said world. It’s not always easy to be the one whose homeland it isn’t, to not get the references everyone else around you grew up with, to not always know the culturally appropriate thing to say (I have learned that Australians come on strong with the niceness and it can be confusing and unnerving to Europeans when we talk to a stranger like they’re already our mate), to miss your own country, and family, and in-jokes, and landscapes, and food, and friends. It was a comfort to know that, technically, if it all got too much, I could board the next plane out and be back amongst all the things and people I miss within twenty-four hours. I mean, super expensive buying a ticket that last minute, but technically possible.

Knowing that that option is no longer there is scary. For the first time since moving overseas, I truly feel cut off from my family. Already, trips away to see them have had to be cancelled and the reality is, I don’t know when I’ll next see them in person. In a time of uncertainties, that uncertainty is proving to be the hardest to live with.

So I’m just taking it one day at a time. Thinking about the unknown quantity of time between now and a future reunion doesn’t do me any good, so instead I just focus on the next twenty-four hours. I keep eating overnight oats and doing yoga with my wife. I keep writing silly blogs and going for strolls in the evening, thankful to have Alex in all of this. I keep messaging and video calling and sharing photos with my family so I can feel them close even if they are, in fact, far away. 

And I’ll keep doing this until enough days have passed that I can once again be herded like livestock through the maze of an airport, be packed in with all the noisy and smelly passengers, sit in those cramped seats and eat that crappy food, and do it all with a smile on my face, grateful for the miracle that is transportation, and ready to see my family at the other end.

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Tomorrow: Vacationing.