Last week marked our “aliyah-versary.” Twenty-five years ago, on October 10, 1994, my wife, Jody, and our two young children immigrated to Jerusalem from Berkeley, Calif. A third child – our only Sabra – was born a few years later.

The Blum family in the sukka, 2019

So, on this, the silver anniversary of our Israeli citizenship, I present 25 reasons to make aliyah (not in any particular order). 

1. Bilingual children. For every moment that I’m frustrated I can’t speak Hebrew decently, I am so proud of my children for being completely comfortable in both languages. Even if it’s difficult for me, I appreciate the unprecedented renaissance of our ancient tongue. 

2. National health insurance. Whenever I hear a story of a friend in the U.S. having to fork out a huge co-pay or being denied coverage for a critical cancer treatment, I am grateful for the universal healthcare we have here. I’ve never been turned down for a medication and I don’t stress about $15,000 deductibles. 

3. Properly spiced food. We took a luxury cruise out of Miami earlier this year. The food was plentiful and prepared beautifully. But it was always missing something. Israeli food – whether it’s local or an Israeli fusion spin on an international delicacy – is always a well-spiced delight for the palette. Also: falafel.

4. Tel Aviv as the vegan capital of the world. In a Jewish world where the rabbinate’s kashrut department has become irredeemably corrupt, vegan is the new kosher. 

5. The Startup Nation. Israel’s bustling high-tech scene always gives me plenty to write about. Plus making aliyah no longer entails career suicide.

6. Dress code. Admittedly, no one in Silicon Valley wears ties anymore, either. But I love not having to dress up to go to work or a wedding. 

7. Medical breakthroughs. CAR-T was invented here. It’s saving lives for people with blood cancers. Maybe someday it will save mine.

8. Mandatory army service. After nearly three years in the IDF, our young people enter college older and having shouldered incredible responsibility compared with their peers elsewhere. The army is also Israel’s ultimate melting pot.

9. Proximity to cool travel destinations. We’re just a few hours from nearly everywhere in Europe, on the same time zone as Africa and there are direct flights to all over Asia. Ben-Gurion Airport is manageable, efficient and attractive. And you don’t have to take your shoes off or dump your water at security. 

10. The cost of education. $3,000 – that’s all it costs for a year of school at a top university. Public elementary and high school are also so much less expensive than Diaspora Jewish day schools. 

11. Israeli television. Netflix just can’t get enough: Fauda, Shtisel, False Flag, Prisoners of War. Move to Israel and you can watch them here first. 

12. Religious pluralism. Yes, despite the Orthodox monopoly, post-denominational congregations across the country are reinventing pluralistic prayer, with rock and roll piyyutim moving onto the bima.

13. Datlashim. When you leave religion, it’s a statement of status, a shift still within the national-traditional spectrum, rather than a pejorative like “Off the Derech.” 

14. The weather. There’s nothing quite as lovely as walking in short sleeves on a temperate summer night in Jerusalem. And when much of the world is buried in snow, Tel Aviv is still warm in the winter. 

15. A kid-centric country. Our children walk to school, take public transportation, go camping alone at age 15 and hang out until the wee hours of the night without fear of kidnapping. Strangers care about your kids (sometimes too much). 

16. The calendar. The national and Jewish holidays are one and the same. Shabbat is (mostly) a day off. You don’t have to burn all your vacation days for the Jewish holidays. And keeping two Passover Seders – forget about it.

17. The Israel Trail. One-thousand kilometers winding through deserts, forests and cities. Hiking is a national pastime shared by young and old.

18. Jacob’s Ladder. This musical weekend at the Sea of Galilee has been a huge part of much of our aliyah. It lives up to its reputation as Israel’s friendliest festival. 

19. The Yuri Shtern Holistic Center and Refanah Healing Holidays. If you have to get cancer, these two organizations can make a huge difference, with discounted massages and free vacation nights in Israeli hotels. 

20. Being part of something greater than ourselves. Israel as a national project began before we were born and will end (hopefully) long after we’re gone. That gives intrinsic meaning to life here. 

21. Pardes. Pluralistic, egalitarian Torah learning in Jerusalem. It’s where Jody and I met.

22. History. Every time you pick up a rock, you might discover a new archaeological site. We don’t go to the Western Wall much these days, but we’re glad it’s still there after 2,000 years.

23. Israeli music. Attending a concert in Israel, where everyone knows and loudly sings along to the lyrics in Hebrew, is an unmitigated blast. Bands like Kaveret and Gazoz stand up to the best of 60s and 70s Brit pop.

24. Gun control. It’s remarkably difficult to get a gun license and mass shootings at schools are virtually unheard of. 

25. Friends and community. This is a hard one to quantify, but we have undoubtedly made the best friends of our lives in Israel and found supportive Jewish communities of interest. I don’t know if that would have happened everywhere. 

Bottom line: after 25 years, this is home. 

I first posted my list of 25 reasons to live in Israel at The Jerusalem Post.

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Scanxiety

by Brian on October 2, 2019

in Cancer,Mindfulness

I’ve got scanxiety and it’s hitting me hard.

Scanxiety is what happens when you’ve just done a major radiological test – a scan – and you’re waiting for results. In the case at hand, it was my latest PET CT to check if my chronic cancer is still in remission. Worry about the opposite result is what leads to scanxiety.

A PET CT is an overwhelming experience. It seems almost designed to trigger fear. It’s not just the machine, which takes up an entire room (you lie on a moving platform which glides you in and out of the whirring mechanism – it could be fun if the stakes weren’t so high). 

There’s also the fact that, in order to do the scan, you have to be injected with a radioactive dye. A special bathroom nearby is designated solely for radioactive pee. 

After the dye is in, you’re instructed to sip two full cups of flavored sugar water over the course of 50 minutes. Cancerous tumors, it seems, gobble up the nearest available sugar, which when combined with the radioactive contrast, rushes to any tumors, which subsequently light up under the machine’s watchful eye.

Fear of recurrence is the ugly elephant that refuses to budge from the living room of the anxious mind. While this is a classic hallmark of living with a chronic cancer like mine, it’s relevant to cancers that can be “cured” but where you can never quite let down your mental guard because there’s always a chance, however statistically rare, that it could come back.

Indeed, the American Cancer Society found that a year after being diagnosed, around 2/3 of the people they studied said they were concerned about their disease returning. 

That a fear of recurrence is so prevalent shouldn’t be surprising: negative “what if” thoughts appear to be an integral part of the human experience – as unavoidable as the common cold. 

“Half the world is on the low positive affective spectrum,” explains Dr. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and the “father” of the positive psychology movement. 

Pessimism, in fact, may have been selected during human evolution. “The mentality that said, ‘it’s a beautiful day in San Diego today, I bet it’ll be beautiful tomorrow’ got crushed during the Ice Age,” Seligman explains in his new book The Hope Circuit. So-called “bad weather animals, who were always thinking about the bad stuff that could occur” were more likely to survive.

In that backhanded way, fear of recurrence brings its own advantages when it comes to something like chronic cancer. It can lead one to be more vigilant, not missing or postponing that annual test, and being mindful of changes to the body that should prompt immediate medical attention. 

What makes less sense: getting stuck in worry and obsessive rumination. Which is where I am with my post-CT scanxiety.

How do you fight a way of thinking that is hard-wired into humanity since the days when we were painting pictures of wooly mammoths on cave walls? 

The Mayo Clinic has a few tips to reduce fear of recurrence.

“You know more now.” Think about how much you didn’t understand when you were first diagnosed, the Mayo Clinic suggests, and compare it to now. That’s certainly been my experience: I’ve been forced by dint of necessity to become an expert in treatment options. When a relapse eventually comes, I won’t be going in as blind as the first time.

“You’ve built relationships.” I have a doctor, I know my way around the hospital, we’ve worked the HMO-approval bureaucracy. 

“You’ve done this before.” Yeah, it’s no fun to head back into a period of prolonged fatigue, nausea and pain, and I won’t pretend it was “easy” the first time. But, like running a marathon or climbing a mountain, the end seems closer when you’re no longer a newbie. 

If this sounds like yet another reminder of the value of mindfulness, Seligman says that’s not necessarily the goal. 

“What distinguishes human beings from all other animals is that we’re creatures of the future,” Seligman says. Indeed, so much of our mental life is concerned with what’s to come, “the notion that we should live more and more in the moment denies what, evolutionarily, we’re really good at.”

I’m not sure that trading in mindfulness to focus on the future is the right call. But either way, there is something to be gained from perceiving reality with eyes wide open: you can help others.

A few months ago, a good friend of mine WhatsApp’d me. 

“Can you talk? Like, right now?” he wrote. 

I picked up the phone. It turns out my friend had just been diagnosed with the same cancer as me and he was panicking. He’d been reading my columns and wanted advice. 

I had plenty to give. 

“You won’t die from this, you’ll most likely die with it,” I told him, parroting one of the repeated lines that has been at once helpful and profoundly frustrating when stated by doctors and other lymphoma patients. 

But it was the first time he was hearing that aphorism, and he found it comforting. The Mayo Clinic was right: I know more now. I’ve been through this before.

I don’t expect to ever rid myself entirely of scanxiety – nor do I want to. Still, it’s nice to know that this understandable and evolutionarily-justified fear can be channeled into something productive – if not for me, then for those I care about.

I first shared my fear of scans on The Jerusalem Post.

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I hadn’t seen Miriam in months, but she’s been following my cancer and health columns here and online. My wife, Jody, and I bumped into her at a lecture a few weeks ago.

She spotted Jody in the crowd first. “How’s it going?” she said, casually, before turning to me. I saw the corners of her mouth drop a bit and her brow furrow as she sought the right words. 

“How ARE you?” she said, after an awkward beat, putting the emphasis on the second word, which was drawn out in a way meant to signal compassion.

If Miriam wasn’t entirely comfortable with what to say, the truth is, neither was I. These days, how to respond is not as clear-cut as it was a year and a half ago when I was first grappling with my diagnosis and had a practiced, if pat answer.

Back then, I was “the cancer guy.” That was my public persona and I embraced the opportunity to educate, to console, perchance to inspire. But today I’m not sure I’m still looking for such notoriety. 

“You know, when you open up about this in the newspaper, that’s going to become part of your identity forever,” Jody said to me when I was first deciding whether to write about my health. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“What other option do I have?” I responded, convincing myself that taking the plunge was inevitable. “My life online is already an open book. My religious beliefs, my political convictions, even our love life.”

As much as I might feel the urge to bury the past year and a half and move on, posting pictures of mountain hikes not Hadassah Hospital waiting rooms, that’s not really honest either. Mine is a chronic cancer which, like so many other protracted pains and illnesses, has no cure and is guaranteed to return, whether that’s in 6 months, 5 years or longer.

So yeah, I’m still the cancer guy, whether I like it or not. As a result, when someone like Miriam asks me how I am, the answer is complex. 

Do I launch into a novel-length narrative of my latest aches and pains? Should I revert back to the succinct “fine, thank you” quickie of my pre-cancer days? That wouldn’t be untrue – right now, at this moment, I am mostly fine. What I’ll be in another month, I can’t know.

When I was in the thick of my first round of treatment, I had what seemed like an authentic rejoinder: “I’m up and down, depending on the hour. This is a [fill in the blank] hour.” 

Is that still an appropriate response?

This is not a question I have to grapple with alone. Chronic illness and pain affect nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population, each of whom must decide how to answer their own “how ARE you?” questions while living with an often-invisible illness where symptoms are not obvious to the casual observer. By 2025, a projected 164 million Americans will be chronically ill. 

“One of the punitive effects of pain is that it is unsharable,” writes Karen Duffy in her book Backbone: Living with Chronic Pain Without Turning into One. “Pain is subjective. It is unknowable unless you are afflicted with it.” 

When you live with chronic illness, chronic pain or chronic cancer, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Joy Selak and Steven Oberman write in their book You Don’t Look Sick! Living Well with Chronic Invisible Illness that there are five stages of this kind of disease: 1) getting sick, 2) being sick, 3) grief (for the loss of the person you once were), 4) acceptance (of who you are today) and 5) living well with the illness.

I breezed through steps 1 and 2, I’m actively dealing with step 3, but I seem to have gotten stuck on step 4 – acceptance. 

Ilana Jacqueline has some wise words on that topic in her book Surviving and Thriving with an Invisible Chronic Illness

“Acceptance isn’t about making you weak from the battle of fighting your disease,” she writes. “It’s about building a smart and capable foundation from which a relapse can’t knock you down.”

“Accepting being ill with an invisible chronic illness means knowing yourself, knowing when to rest and when to work, when to play and when to watch, when to exert energy and when to conserve it,” add Paul Donoghue and Mary Siegel in Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired.

To that I’d add knowing how to respond.

When I was first diagnosed, I wrote an article in which I quoted Letty Cottin Pogrebin. The founder of Ms. Magazine described in her book How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick why the “how are you question” becomes a loaded one for someone who’s ill, as they now have to “decide on the spot, questioner by questioner, friend by friend, situation by situation, how candidly to respond.”

Over the course of the last year and a half, I’ve replied in different ways at different points in my treatment. Yet, the question remains: How do I want to be addressed now?

Here’s my new bottom line: Just ask me “How are you?” No added emphasis, no furrowed brow. I don’t want you to forget what I’ve been through – if I know you know my backstory, I may choose to give you a little extra detail. Or I may just politely demure. 

If you’re listening carefully, that can be just as telling.

I first wrote about what to say 18 months later in The Jerusalem Post.

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A few weekends ago, my wife, Jody, and I ate out in a kosher restaurant open on Shabbat. In Jerusalem of all places. 

Hadir Shabbat spread (credit: OFAIMME)

That’s a remarkable culinary change in a city famous for mostly shutting down at sunset on Friday. 

The story started when all three of our children announced they would be away for the weekend and we didn’t feel like cooking. 

Instead we opted to check out Hadir, the bar/restaurant at the Hansen House, a former leper’s colony that’s been transformed in recent years into a center for the creative arts.

Hadir is part of a trend – albeit a small and still very experimental one – of trying to establish shared spaces for secular and religious residents of Israel’s capital to come together and eat a Shabbat meal out of the house – without breaking the religiously-proscribed laws of the day.

Hadir prepares its dairy Shabbat fare in advance and heats it on a hot plate. Hot water is kept in an urn that stays on all Shabbat. The menu is simple: challah and dips, various cheeses and salads and a few baked burekas-like dishes. 

Unfortunately, Hadir was inexplicably out of the two classic Shabbat dishes that appealed the most to us: hamin (or cholent) and kugel.

At Bab al-Yemen, a second kosher and open-on-Shabbat restaurant in Jerusalem on Gaza Street in Rehavia, hamin and kugel take center stage – with a Middle Eastern twist. The restaurant’s name means “Gate to Yemen” in Arabic and it serves traditional Yemenite Shabbat meals.

Dessert at Bab al-Yemen

Owner Jonathan Vadai sees his restaurant serving as a gate to social change in the Jewish community. “Our connection to Judaism needs to be more flexible and open in this era,” Vadai told The Jerusalem Post. “The Jewish mind-set says there is a solution within Jewish law for everything, if you have the courage to look forward. We can keep kosher and not violate Shabbat – do everything by the books …offering the atmosphere and service that religious customers require.” 

At both restaurants you can pay in advance or afterwards on the honor system – you ring them up on Saturday night and give your credit card over the phone. Vadai says that 95% of customers pay on time.

Kosher, open-on-Shabbat restaurants are not a new phenomenon: every big hotel in Israel has one and they subscribe to the same hotplates and no cooking rules. But Hadir and Bab al-Yemen are the first fledgling attempts to take the concept to a regular restaurant in Jerusalem, one aimed at locals and that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg for a buffet suited for a King (David).

Hadir is set in a funky only-in-Jerusalem location: the old leper colony’s former animal pen, now neatly renovated to house a narrow indoor seating area with a large outdoor section for al fresco dining. 

With no hamin or kugel at Hadir when we arrived, Jody opted for a salad and an anti-pasta plate, while I had a “Jerusalem bagel” (the oval-shaped kind you can buy in the Old City) served up with lebaneh, salmon, tomatoes and pickles. Not exactly the kind of Shabbat meal we have at home, but it filled me up and it was very fresh. 

That’s not surprising: Hadir sources its food from the Offaimme farm on Moshav Idan in the Arava Desert. Offaimme is a family-owned “seed-to-table enterprise” and Hedai and Yinon Offaim, the brothers who run Hadir, view it as “part of a greater vision – an environmental, sustainable and social farm with fair-trade agreements.”

Kosher open-on-Shabbat restaurants are meant for “friends and couples who are ‘mixed,’ where one is religious and one is secular [who can] feel at home sitting together,” Vadai told the Post.

The message of inclusiveness was working the day we visited Hadir. At the most frontward table, there was a group of bareheaded young men and women and one middle-aged man wearing a kippa. 

Before you rush out to patronize these new open-on-Shabbat kosher restaurants, there are a couple of caveats. You have to be a bit flexible to eat at Hadir on Shabbat. There’s music playing in the background (inside the restaurant although not in the outdoor seating area) and many of the patrons were working on their laptops. 

We haven’t eaten at Bab al-Yemen on Shabbat yet, but Vadai says that employees at his restaurant refrain from using computers and screens. Bab al-Yemen asks that you email them in advance to reserve a place (presumably so they can be sure not to run out of kugel and cholent).

Neither restaurant has a kashrut certificate. The Israeli rabbinate refuses to give certification to restaurants that are open on Shabbat, although they readily do so for those in hotels, something Vadai says he will fight – all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. 

Kosher on Shabbat dining out is not entirely unprecedented in Israel. The popular Dag al HaDan restaurant near Kyriat Shemona in the Upper Galilee has a kashrut license for its weekday operations and maintains a second kitchen without supervision to be able to operate on Shabbat.

Not having a kashrut license is fine with me. It’s always irked me that keeping Shabbat is considered a prerequisite for keeping kosher. 

Moreover, supporting innovations like these is an important and enjoyable way to ensure that Jerusalem remains pluralistic in deed not just in words. In that respect, eating out on Shabbat is a mitzvah!

I first wrote about eating out on Shabbat in The Jerusalem Post.

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Bubbles of happiness

by Brian on August 18, 2019

in Cancer,Health,In the News

Binging Nora McInerny can be a serious bummer. McInerny is the host of the morbid yet utterly compelling podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” 

Nora McInerny, host of “Terrible, Thanks for Asking”

McInerny lost her husband to brain cancer when he was just 35. McInerny’s father died and she suffered a miscarriage all within a few weeks of her husband’s passing. She wrote a memoir about her experience called It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too)

McInerny’s podcast – which my wife, Jody, and I consumed for hours straight on a recent road trip – alternates between the host vividly exploring her own grief and interviews she conducts with other people going through similarly trying times. 

McInerny isn’t the only pain podcaster. “Everything Happens” is a program hosted by Kate Bowler who was diagnosed with Stage IV incurable colon cancer in her mid-30s.

Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School who previously wrote a book about the American Prosperity Gospel, a Christian creed that sees fortune as a blessing for those who believe. In her podcast, Bowler explores what it means to be dying in a community that insists everything happens for a reason – and what it’s like when she finds herself bereft of that certainty.

Grief podcasts are becoming a thing these days. There’s Jordan Ferber’s “Where’s My Grief?” Julia Samuels’s “Grief Works,” and “The Art of Dying Well” from St. Mary’s University in London.

All of these podcasts force listeners to grapple with the realization that life doesn’t always turn out to be as bright and shiny as they expected when they were younger. Faced with this gritty reality, how is it we still find joy in our lives? What exactly is happiness (and how can we achieve it when our bodies conspire to push us in the opposite direction)?

Long before I was diagnosed with my own chronic incurable cancer, I’d suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety and insomnia. (You would have thought all that was enough for one body, but you know, cancer.) Through trial and error, I hoped my psychiatrist and I would stumble upon the right cocktail – a single magic pill – that would lift the fog so I could feel some sort of equanimity for much of the day.

As I grew older, though, and I gained more experience with protracted disquietude, my expectations changed. Rather than seeking 100 percent pleasure all day, all of the time, I’ve become more content with just identifying “bubbles” of happiness. A good meal, stimulating conversation with friends, a trip abroad, passionate sex – bubbles of bliss floating in a boundless sea of dissatisfaction. 

It’s the same with cancer, where there are precious few sure-fire solutions and sustained uncertainty is often the best we can hope for. 

I savor my happiness bubbles. I grasp for them even though I know they must inevitably burst. Which got me thinking: is there a non-chemical way of creating more bubbles – or at least stabilizing them so that they last longer before they’re gone? 

The very pursuit of happiness may be part of the problem. 

Studies show that “people putting the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50% less frequent positive emotions,” Dr. Todd Kashdan writes in Psychology Today. “Thirty-five percent had less satisfaction about their life and 75% had more depressive symptoms than people who had their priorities elsewhere.”

“Happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue,” Victor Frankl opined in his post-Holocaust masterwork, Man’s Search for Meaning. “One must have a reason to be happy.”

Dr. Micah Goodman, who founded and directs the Ein Prat Leadership Institute, suggests that this can be best accomplished through fashioning a life of purpose. 

We are happiest, Goodman explains, when we become part of a story that begins before we’re born and that will end, hopefully, long after we’re gone.

That could be as grand as a shared cause – a political passion, caring for the Earth – or as particular as a club or hobby. Religion is an especially effective path to purpose, Goodman says.

Happiness guru and former Harvard University lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar agrees. “Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning,” he writes.

I like Goodman’s approach, but I fret he may have overlooked an essential part of human nature. If happiness increases when we’re part of a project that we won’t live to see the end of, then why are so determined to cheat death?

Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deusthat in the 21stcentury, “Humans are likely to make a serious bid for immortality.” 

Death is essentially a “technical glitch,” Harari writes. And “every technical problem has a technical solution.” Some experts believe humans may overcome death as early as the year 2100.

Woody Allen would be down for that – even if he won’t be around that long. When asked once if he hoped to live on forever through the silver screen, the director quipped that “I’d rather live on in my apartment.”

Harari ultimately argues the opposite is true. “A large part of our artistic creativity, our political commitment and our religious piety is fueled by the fear of death,” he writes.

As, it seems, is our happiness. 

Internalizing that our time on earth is limited may be a cliché, but it can nevertheless help us derive meaning from the moment; to appreciate happiness when it comes, like transitory bubbles, which necessarily pop like soap but are utterly intoxicating when we open ourselves up enough to acknowledge their fleeting existence. 

Maybe Nora McInerny should do a podcast episode about that.

I first burst my bubbles in The Jerusalem Post.

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Datlashim: can there be a second generation?

August 4, 2019

Last year, I wrote a column that asked the question: “how do datlashim – the Hebrew acronym for formerly religious Jews – want to raise their children?” The main response I received during the course of my research: “to be just like them”– that is, to also be datlashim. This poses a dilemma, as to […]

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Flunking out of blood school

July 21, 2019

I flunked out of blood school last week. I wasn’t expelled exactly, but my scores dropped significantly enough that I was put on probation.

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Sex and religion come together in new podcast

July 7, 2019

Sex and religion are two of my favorite topics. So when I heard about this new podcast, I knew I’d have to write about it. A review.

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Meeting the enemy

July 7, 2019

“Why do you Israelis want to wipe us off the map?” The question wasn’t meant to be provocative. I was, after all, the first Israeli Zahra had ever met.

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Is it all in my head?

June 23, 2019

If you were to have told me a year and a half ago that my chronic stomach pain was all in my head, I would have picked up the nearest stick and shown you what “all in your head” really feels like.

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