Jews on a cruise

by Brian on March 18, 2019

in Just For Fun,Reviews

When Chetan met Tania, it was not exactly love at first sight. More like love at first rub. 

The Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship

Chetan (from Mumbai) and Tania (from Bangkok) were both working as massage therapists on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager cruise ship. They quickly fell for each other and will be getting married in July.

It’s exactly the sort of romantic story you’d expect if you watched enough episodes of The Love Boat as a kid. My wife, Jody, and I met the happy couple while experiencing the cruising lifestyle firsthand when my father-in-law took his adult children, his sister and their spouses on a seven-day cruise to celebrate his 80thbirthday.

Regent Seven Seas is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, established in 1966 by the late Israeli-American tycoon Ted Arison. Regent’s cruises are small by comparison – our ship had only 700 passengers compared with the 5,000 on Norwegian’s gigantic “Escape” ship.

Jody and I had never been on a cruise before. For years we’d seen the advertisements in The Jerusalem Post for similar sea-bound vacations and had been curious. But cruising wasn’t our thing, we told ourselves. We like to explore a place in depth rather than jump from port to port with just a few hours in each location

To our surprise, our first cruise turned out to be delightful – albeit with a few trade-offs.

On the one hand, everything is taken care of for you on board: you don’t have to pack and repack as you change destinations, porters carry your bags (no tipping allowed), the service is stellar and the food and drink abundant. Our cabin was larger than any hotel room we’ve ever stayed in, complete with a walk-in closet and a continually restocked, no-charge minibar.

The biggest downside: you never really get to know the destinations you visit. Our cruise started in Miami before stopping in Havana, Cuba; Roatan, Honduras; and the towns of Costa Maya and Cozumel in Mexico. For all but Cuba (where we had a whole day in town), we were whisked from the docking terminal directly to whatever activity we had chosen for that morning. 

In Roatan, for example, Jody and I opted to go zip-lining over the rain forest. It was exhilarating…but that’s all we know about Roatan. What kind of people live there? What’s the political environment? Do business and industry thrive? Is there decent public transportation? 

Zip-lining in Honduras

We saw one other part of Roatan: the shopping mall at the port which sold tchotchkies at inflated prices. 

That was true for all of the ports. In Cozumel, we found a store hawking the softest sheets I’ve ever felt, made entirely out of bamboo. I asked the store clerk if they were from a local endeavor. No, he replied. The corporate headquarters were in Salt Lake City. I checked the Internet: the same sheets were available on Amazon.com for $100 less.

Back on the ship, food was an ever-present actor during our seven days at sea. The best way to describe it is “gluttonous.” You want three entrees with dinner and four desserts? Go for it. There were no bills, no limits. During the cruise, I developed a penchant for pina coladas – delicious but not exactly calorie-free.

Near the end of our trip, I attended a lesson at the fitness center on “hacking your metabolism.” I was all fired up to tackle portion control on my last day on board, but then along came the 4 pm teatime special – 15 different kinds of gourmet cupcakes. 

I tried valiantly to eat just one. But when Roshan, the head pastry chef, came out to schmooze, my eyes got too big. 

“You know, if one of those red velvet cupcakes just happened to make it to my room, I wouldn’t object,” I said to Roshan.

When we returned to our cabin, there were not one but two cupcakes elegantly arranged on a plate in our living area. 

Cupcakes at teatime

Cruises like those from Regent Seven Seas are all about customer service, made possible by a low passenger-to-staff ratio – our ship had 450 staff, all of whom were seemingly paid to be friendly. We couldn’t walk more than 10 feet before we heard “Hello sir,” “How are you today?” or the ubiquitous “Can I get you another drink?” It’s the opposite of Israel’s stereotypically surly service industry.

Moreover, the staff is trained to anticipate your needs. One day, we went on an excursion that included snorkeling. When we got back to our room, the laundry line above the bathtub had already been drawn so we could hang our wet bathing suits.

Our cruise probably had a good number of Jews, although we didn’t have any way of knowing. Other than the dozen or so people who came to the “self-led Shabbat evening service,” no one was sporting any identifiable religious attire. As for Israelis, we met one couple from Netanya (English-speakers originally from the U.K.) and a group of four Sabras … who had since immigrated to America.

We didn’t find new love like Chetan and Tania on our weeklong Love Boat (not that we were looking for it), but we were pampered and treated so well that I’m looking forward to our next cruise (even if that’s not until we’re 80 ourselves). 

Maybe we can board a little closer to home than Miami. The Regent Seven Seas Voyager regularly sets sail in our part of the world; it docks in Haifa in April.

I first reviewed the cruising life at The Jerusalem Post.

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A cure for cancer?

by Brian on March 10, 2019

in Cancer,In the News

Are Israeli scientists on the verge of developing a cure for cancer? That was the claim from an Israeli startup called Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies (AEBi), first reported in The Jerusalem Post a few weeks ago. 

The story went viral and the company’s researchers were interviewed by breathless media outlets from Fox to Forbes

The only problem: it wasn’t true. Or maybe it will be true, but isn’t yet.

Companies that dangle the potential of an imminent cancer cure provide an irresistible soundbite for evening news programs. They are of particular interest for people like me who have a chronic cancer and regularly scan the web for any hint of a future that won’t include chemo, radiation or other debilitating drugs.

The AEBi story was certainly tantalizing. “We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer,” AEBi’s Dan Aridor told the Post. Even better, he said, “our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks and will have no or minimal side effects.”

But as reporters drilled down in subsequent articles, it became clear that the company had yet to conduct clinical trials on humans. The promising results were only from mice – although that couldn’t be verified either, as the company hasn’t published its research in any peer-reviewed medical journals yet (the norm for scientific research), claiming it couldn’t afford to do so. 

“If I have $100,000, what do I spend it on? Advancing the research,” AEBi’s CEO Ilan Morad responded when questioned by The Times of Israel, “or doing many experiments [just] to write an article?”

Morad then admitted that clinical trials might start only “in a year’s time or so” and only if the company could raise enough money. 

Dr. Ben Neel, director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center at New York University was livid, telling The New York Post that “this claim is yet another in a long line of spurious, irresponsible and ultimately cruel false promises for cancer patients.” Other experts and publications followed suit with their own outraged responses.

The ruckus prompted the NPR radio program On the Media to re-issue its “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook” for health reporting. Among the 11 points the program beseeched listeners to be wary of were expressions like “medical miracle,” “first of its kind treatment” and “game changer,” as well as Phase I trials that “make claims about benefits as if these things are already available at the corner drug store.”

I understand why the story was disseminated so widely. Many people desperately want a cure to be discovered, whether that’s patients with cancer, their loved ones and caregivers, or those worried they’ll be among the 50 percent (of men, for women it’s a one-in-three chance) who’ll contract some form of the disease in their lifetimes. 

In Israel, cancer kills more Jews than any other disease. Around the world, 18 million new cancer cases are diagnosed each year.

As a result, we cling to unsubstantiated claims like those from AEBi or to anecdotal evidence about wonder cures. My current dubious favorite: “Rick Simpson Oil,” a super-concentrated form of THC-rich cannabis that adherents claim can knock out cancer as it did for Canadian cannabis activist Simpson who boasted that, when he applied the eponymous oil to his own skin cancer, the spots healed in a matter of days. 

I agree with Karin Mayer Rubinstein, CEO of Israel Advanced Technology Industries, who warned that AEBi’s wild prognostications had “damaged the image of Israel’s life sciences industry.” Indeed, the attention attracted by the AEBI story does a disservice to the many companies and researchers working diligently – and according to scientific standards – on treating cancer.

I’ve reported on a number of such companies in Israel.

Tel Aviv-based Alpha-Tau, for example, says it has discovered a way to use alpha radiation to destroy tumors without harming the healthy tissue around them. In studies with squamous cell carcinoma, “we were able to eliminate more than 70 percent of the tumors entirely and to cause shrinkage of 100 percent of the tumors,” CEO Uzi Sofer told me.

Israeli scientist Rony Dahan is developing a technique that may boost the effectiveness of certain types of immunotherapy drugs by up to 30 times. 

Dr. Michael Har-Noy’s company Immunovative Therapies is working on a product that attacks specific tumors, then “teaches” the immune system to hunt down similar cancer cells elsewhere in the body on its own.

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Prof. Varda Shoshan-Barmatz has developed a new molecule that her team says inhibits the production of a protein found in many tumors called VDAC1. It also “reprograms” tumor cells to return to their original non-cancerous state.

Then of course there’s Kite Pharma, the company founded by Israeli Arie Belldegrun, based on work done by Weizmann Institute of Science Prof. Zelig Eshhar that resulted in the development of a truly revolutionary lymphoma treatment called CAR-T. Gilead Sciences acquired Kite Pharma in 2017 for some $12 billion. 

Addressing the AEBi reporting, Dr. Mark Israel, national executive director of the Israel Cancer Research Fund, writes that “claims of a Holy Grail cruelly mislead cancer patients and undermine support for cancer research.” 

That said, he adds, “the future of cancer research has never looked more promising – particularly in Israel.”

Personally, I don’t care where a cure for cancer is developed. But I will be extra proud if the solution to my own diagnosis is discovered right here in our own backyard.

I first wrote about Israeli cancer research in The Jerusalem Post.

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The “benefits” of cancer in Israel

by Brian on February 18, 2019

in Cancer

While no one ever wants to get cancer, there are a few “benefits” to having the disease.

In Israel, they fall into several buckets: financial (discounts on taxes), bureaucratic (my HMO assigned me a medical representative to help expedite drug approvals and shepherd paperwork), pharmaceutical (it was easy-peasy to get a medical cannabis license), spiritual (our “healing holiday” at the Ritz Carlton through the Refanah organization) and physical.

The latter is perhaps best exemplified by the Yuri Shtern Holistic Care Center, which provides inexpensive touch and alternative therapies for both cancer patients and their caregivers.

Yuri Shtern was a member of Knesset who made aliyah in 1981 from Moscow. He initially joined Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah party and later moved to Yisrael Beitenu. Shtern was actively involved in bringing thousands of Refuseniks to the Jewish State and founded the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus in 2004.

Shtern died of cancer in 2007. During the last year of his life, Shtern’s wife Lena organized a variety of holistic treatments which she says significantly helped improve the quality of her husband’s life.

Lena Shtern

Lena wanted to bring the same benefits to others suffering from cancer. She established the center in her husband’s name later that year, first at Sha’arei Tzedek Medical Center and later adding a clinic in Jerusalem’s German Colony.

More than a decade later, the Yuri Shtern center now draws on the experience of 142 therapists, all of whom are volunteers (they give 3 hours a week of their time). That adds up to about 900 treatments a month – or nearly 11,000 treatments a year in total. 

There’s also a 40-hour training program so the therapists can understand the unique needs of cancer patients

Treatment at Sha’arei Tzedek is free. At the clinic, there’s a nominal fee of NIS 65 per treatment. At 40 minutes each, sessions are relatively short, but that’s still a fraction of the going price in Israel for such therapy of NIS 250 and up.

Those suffering from cancer get up to two treatments a week for five years. Lena Shtern understood that caregivers need care too; they can receive two treatments a month. 

I started going to the German Colony clinic about two weeks after my chemotherapy started and took a smorgasbord approach to what’s on tap, trying out a different therapist each time. I’ve done all manner of massage (shiatsu, Swedish and Thai), reflexology (a focused foot massage with medical intent), and a kind of energy healing called craniosacral therapy. 

Also available: yoga, Chi Gong, focusing, Breema, Reiki, Feldenkrais, acupuncture and traditional talk therapy.

While I’m not a professional massage connoisseur, I have had body work all over the world. On a trip to Bali a few years ago, my wife Jody and I had a massage a day – at $7 for an hour treatment, how could we not? We even had a full day at a spa for under $50 – including lunch. 

In Bangkok, we sought out the famous massage school on the grounds of the Wat Po temple. My masseur was excellent but a bit too chatty. I think he was trying to improve his English. 

In Nepal, after hiking 11 days in the Himalayas, we treated ourselves to a massage in Kathmandu. The idea was sound but the masseuse went to town on my back and I left there achier than when I arrived. 

A massage at a 5-star hotel in India found me completely naked on a hard wooden table. No soft mattress, no pillow for my head, no towel (and no relief from pain when he dug into my shoulders). 

So how do the treatments at Yuri Shtern compare? It of course depends on the therapist, but I’ve been very pleased. When you’re feeling as rotten as I sometimes did after chemo, any touch is welcome. 

As has been getting to know the therapists. 

Some are professionals who work in the field when they’re not volunteering. Others are on second careers. For example, Ruth was a speech therapist who now does medical and Thai massage.

“No one ever said to me, ‘Wow that was amazing, I loved it’ after a speech therapy session,” Ruth told me. But that’s exactly how I reacted after her massage.

For the past few months, I’ve been returning to my favorite masseuse who specializes in deep tissue massage. One day, the appointment after me canceled at the last minute and I was offered a double session. It was hands down the best massage I’ve ever received.

The Yuri Shtern clinic is the only one of its kind in Israel. There are other organizations offering medical massage, but not with volunteers and not at such discounted prices. 

There’s certainly the need. According to the Israel Cancer Association, there are 250,000 cancer patients in the country with more than 30,000 new cases of cancer being diagnosed every year.

Sha’arei Tzedek oncologist Dr. Nathan Cherny summed up the benefit Lena Shtern has brought to the cancer world in Israel. In a video made when the clinic was getting started, he pointed out that, “Quite often patients tell us ‘we thought we were coming to the oncology department but we feel as if we came to a spa.’”

While the price to gain access to this wonderful world is steeper than anyone ought to pay, it’s been a relief to know that a break from my day-to-day cancer experience is just down the street.

I first wrote about the Yuri Shtern clinic at The Jerusalem Post.

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The SUV was right on my tail, flashing his lights and frantically marking his territory like a mean dog without a muzzle. While I’ve never been a fan of playing “chicken” under any circumstances, doing it at 100 kilometers an hour on Israel’s Highway 1 is decidedly dangerous. 

I tried to speed up, but the SUV matched my every move, getting even closer (if that was possible). I felt my pulse quicken, my skin flush, lips tighten. If I hadn’t been alone in the car, I would have let loose a string of choice curses at whomever was in the passenger seat, if only to demonstrate that I would be no freier (Yiddish for “sucker”).

Instead, I pulled over to the adjoining lane. The SUV zoomed past me, but then, in a too typical example of bad behavior, abruptly switched into my new lane and jammed on his brakes. He was going to show me who was the boss. I did the same – fortunately there was no one behind me – before the SUV sped up and was gone. 

The whole incident lasted less than a minute. But the feeling of anger, frustration and a desire to “get back” at my multi-ton vehicular bully remained with me for the rest of the trip home.

I was annoyed but not afraid of the SUV driver. Aggressive behavior behind the wheel, while sadly de rigueur in Israel, rarely ends in the kind of road rage that made headlines in 1987 Los Angeles, when five people were killed by angry drivers packing heat on the city’s freeways in the course of several months that summer.

“People are calling up from other states wondering if it’s safe to travel to Disneyland!” lamented California Highway Patrol Chief Edward Gomez at the time.

Incidents around road rage seem to fall squarely in the category of “unnecessary and avoidable.” If only drivers would tamp down their anger, our highways would be secure.

But rage in general is not only inevitable, it appears to be evolutionarily selected, says Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal.

While “crazy things like road rage don’t seem to make a lot of sense,” Wright explained during an interview on WYNC radio, the same emotion carried a certain logic in a hunter-gatherer environment. “Rage demonstrates that you cannot be taken advantage of. Someone tries to steal a possession, a mate or whatever, you show you’re willing to fight.”

You don’t have to win, Wright added. “Even if you lose the fight, you’ve demonstrated that there’s a cost.” 

The problem is, when you take your rage out on the highway, you’re not sending a signal to anyone you’ll likely ever meet again. “They’re not living right next door to you, you won’t see them around the campfire that night,” Wright explained. 

Which is why rage has the propensity to “misfire in the modern environment,” Wright said. We try our hardest to be good mannered in our face-to-face dealings, only to see it blow up with a speeding stranger.

But if rage is an integral part of our prehistoric psyche, is there a way to “use” it in more productive ways – far from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway? In the right context, can a little rage improve our relationships? Make us more productive?

Roey Tzezana thinks so. The Israeli futurist, nanotechnologist and author of The Guide to the Future, says that rage channeled correctly can fuel creativity. 

“We need to create a culture and a society where people aren’t afraid to disagree,” Tzezana says

And which country has the highest percentage of people with such chutzpah? Hello Startup Nation.

Tzezana has been doing impromptu “field research” on the role of rage while living in the U.S. for the past few years, where his wife is pursuing her doctorate. 

Tzezana recalls a party where “one Israeli got into a fight with another Israeli. It was a real shouting match. The Americans were starting to bite their fingernails. ‘Those guys will pull out their knives,’ they feared.” 

At the end, though, the two Israelis agreed to disagree. They demonstrated their rage, signaled their passions, then “shook hands and had a drink,” Tzezana remembers.

As an immigrant to Israel, it can be hard to stomach the degree of aggressiveness in everyday life here – whether that’s in the supermarket, at a concert or dealing with know-it-all bureaucrats. 

What Tzezana is saying is that the same aggression that makes me sometimes want to flee to a more “polite” country could be regarded in a more positive light. We all need to “argue more like Israelis,” Tzezana quips.

How might we get there? Tzezana has a simple way to start: ban suits and ties at conferences, he says. 

“Ties constrict our creativity. They enforce thinking in old ways, of acknowledging hierarchy. If you want to be a truly innovative society, people must be able to argue and shout at each other – without ties.”

The perpetrators of road rage don’t generally wear ties, and it can be a fine line between discomfort and ingenuity. But perhaps with a little creative rage of our own, we’ll come up with new ways to disincentive counterproductive signaling to strangers.

Rage is not an emotion we can simply will away. Nor should we want to. 

So here’s a challenge: what should we get angry about next?

I first got out my road rage at The Jerusalem Post.

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Husband: self-regulate!

by Brian on January 21, 2019

in Cancer,Mindfulness

At Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem

My long-suffering wife has earned that sobriquet. I was a kvetcher long before my cancer diagnosis, ruminating and over-sharing my concerns. 

But now after 30 years of marriage putting up with my vocalized emotional turmoil, exacerbated by a year with the greatest health challenge of my life, Jody’s had it with the suffering. 

No, we’re not splitting up or anything drastic. But I’ve been read the riot act: “You’ve got to self-regulate, husband.”

Jody’s change in attitude started around the time I went into remission last year. 

I was already worried that sharing my “good news” would lead to a flurry of “congratulations” and “way to go” messages that didn’t address the fact that I’m just in the first part of a long treatment protocol, that I’m far from being side effect free and, as someone with a chronic and incurable cancer, I didn’t deserve any accolades about “beating” the disease. 

What I didn’t realize is how the remission would also affect Jody.

“I’m ready for this cancer to be done,” Jody said one night as I was too fatigued from my most recent immunotherapy session to get up from the couch and walk the dog.

“Yeah, me too,” I replied. 

“Maybe you can, you know, complain a little less about it?” Jody said. “It’s like your fears about the future have created this constant background music. I’m not saying you have to hide where you’re at. I know you feel crappy some times. I just wonder if you could turn down the volume a bit?”

That’s where self-regulation comes in. 

Self-regulation is the ability to keep your emotions in check, explains psychotherapist Andrea Bell on the GoodTherapy website. Someone with strong self-regulation skills “can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down.”

Put another way, as Arlin Cunic writes on the website VeryWell, it’s about “thinking before acting.” Or in my case, considering whether I really need to express a particular gripe out loud or if I’d be better off keeping it to myself.

Words and phrases like “postpone,” “pace yourself” and “choose what to say” can help one cultivate a more self-regulatory approach to life.

Self-regulation sounds self-evident – of course this is how we should be in the world. But it’s not something we’re necessarily born with. We have to learn it. 

Usually that happens in childhood. Toddlers who throw tantrums eventually figure out how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings without flying into a rage. However, children who don’t feel safe and secure or who are unsure whether their needs will be met, may have trouble soothing themselves and self-regulating.

I don’t know if I fit into that category as a kid, but I retain a strong impulse to verbally vent as an adult. That’s the crux of the crisis with my wife. 

I brought up the topic with my therapist.

“Any feelings you’re having are OK,” she reassured me. “It all depends on what actions you take around those feelings. Can you find other people to talk to, not only Jody?”

“You mean, like … friends?” I said in return. “Yeah, I’ve tried that in the past. It didn’t work out so well.”

I remembered how, when I used to work in Tel Aviv, I had a boss who I didn’t get along with so well. He bullied me and I was miserable most of the 3 years I worked at the company. On the long commute home to Jerusalem each night, I would call a couple of confidants on my car’s speaker phone and proceed to growl for an hour. 

Eventually my friends got burned out, as Jody was now.

“It’s not black or white,” my therapist added. “You can still share your distress with Jody. Just not all day long. Maybe delay the desire to grumble in real time and limit it to an evening check-in. Or avoid being together in the same room when you’re in a particularly vulnerable and vocal state.”

Offloading some of my anxiety to friends who also care about me could help with the balance, she suggested.

“Can they be virtual friends? On Facebook?” I asked.

“Better to get together for coffee in person,” she said. 

Such an old school approach to relationships!

The truth is, friends havebeen calling me but I’ve mostly rebuffed them, not wanting to be a burden like I was with my Tel Aviv commute buddies. Instead, I turned Jody into my safe place.

“You’re like my personal human Evernote,” I once joked to Jody. As with my favorite note taking app, I reasoned that if Jody could hold my worries, then I could let go of them for a while myself. 

I love my wife dearly, of course, and the last thing I want to do is cause her pain. So I’ll give it a try. I’ll meet up with friends. I’ll try to keep the volume down. I’ll think before I act or speak. I’ll postpone and pace.

People who are adept at self-regulating tend to “view challenges as opportunities,” writes Cuncic. They “are clear about their intentions, act in accordance with their values, put forth their best effort [and] keep going through difficult times.”

Those are all attributes worth aspiring to. Maybe getting cancer will be the trigger that helps my wife to no longer be so “long-suffering.” 

Perhaps the same will be true for me. 

Jody first read me the riot act at The Jerusalem Post.

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Correction: “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.” “Sshh, don’t say anything or everyone will want one!” That’s meant to be funny, of course, but my misrepresentation of Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz’s fly-in-the-soup story in “Judaism’s honesty problem” was serious business. As several readers have pointed out, a fly floating on the surface wouldn’t have made the soup treif once removed. In his talk, Leibowitz spoke of a fly lost in the pot. I apologize for the error.

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Judaism’s honesty problem

January 6, 2019

Does Judaism actually encourage dishonesty? Two stories from Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz during a talk at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.

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Defining Courage

December 24, 2018

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.” How do you define courage?

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My problem with Maoz Tzur

December 9, 2018

Do those who live their lives according to a strict reading of the biblical narrative have a greater propensity to seek revenge?

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Surprise me, Moshe Lion

November 26, 2018

Jerusalem has a new mayor. I desperately want to see the good in Moshe Lion. But I’m up against “the negativity bias.” Can I be surprised?

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The best-laid plans

November 11, 2018

“Let’s plan a party,” she said. “I’m not out of the woods just yet,” I replied. But my forest is looking healthy overall – even if some of the trees need extra care.

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