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Ocean Lonely

The sky is gray and rain is pelting my skin. The wind is heavy against me, but somehow I’m not cold. I’m standing alone on the bough of a ship, right at its triangular peak. As I stare straight ahead, the ocean is all I can see. It takes my breath. It always will. The water ripples powerfully, more water than I can ever imagine. And far from here, as far as my vision extends, the Earth curves, and it is ocean and ocean and ocean.

It overwhelms me, this sight. Rarely do I feel this small, so aware of myself. It its simplest form, this complicated set of feelings, this sense of myself, it just feels lonely. But of course it is more than that. I’m channeling the experiences of the past few days and the fullness of the world within me, one that is both at peace and at unrest. I don’t know what else to call it but existential.

In the waters beneath me, there is a massive and incomprehensible eco-system. Various life forms at every level of the sea floor, each with their own complex set of rules. Thousands of life forms, millions of them, cohabitating carefully. Plants that feed on light, fish the feed on plants, larger fish that feed on smaller fish, and thousands of breeds of each of them.

Just yesterday, we spent six hours, only six hours, in another country, a small island colony called Grand Cayman. Fifty thousand people on this beautiful stretch of land, and all I saw were the docked cruise ships and the jewelry and souvenir and seafood shops catering to the tourists. Just a few hours in the capital city, Georgetown, and I wanted to spend a week but already know I’ll probably never make it back there. My boyfriend, my two sons, my sister, her daughter, and I, we joined a small group of tourists at the back of a bus, and we rode to a beach where we boarded a boat that took us out to a nearby sandbar. There, a group (a pod? A school? A cluster?) of Southern Atlantic Stingrays had gathered. I look it up later and learn that a group of rays is called a fever. A fever of rays. And that stuns me as much as the creatures themselves. Dozens of other rays have other habitats in the area, the Lemon Ray, the Manta, the Spotted something. They feed on smaller animals and sharks feed on them. There were about 150 humans in the water, each carrying a bucket of squid guts to attract the Rays. The females of this species grow to have wing spans as wide as a grown man’s outstretched arms. They are accustomed to humans, to our grouping hands, our bouncing presence on their sand bar, to the sounds of boats. We were lectured on how to approach them, how to pet them, what parts to avoid. We donned vests and masks and we stepped into water. My children held tightly to me as I walked them toward an enormous ray, one that a man from Argentina from our boat was holding closely. We reached our hands out and we stroked its soft wing, its rubbery stomach. We looked it in the eyes. My youngest son started with fear, and then enthusiastically rubbed it, wondering if he should call it Fluffy or Flappy. And again, in the distance, the ocean curved, except this time I could see the island that I wouldn’t get to explore.

Before we stroked the rays of the wings, I give my children an encouraging lecture about how to approach the creatures. I invite them to describe how they would approach an unfamiliar puppy, or kitten, or bird, or fish. Every creature is different, I explain, as is this one. We only touch certain parts. We are calm and careful. We respect them. This reassures my kids and they gently rub their palms over the wings of the ray, respectful and kind, as they cling to me so the ocean won’t whisk them away. I clutch them tightly until we get back on the boat.

Shortly after that, at a local restaurant, I looked over a menu, one that brandished names of local creatures that could be purchased and consumed. Snappers, Groupers, Flounders, Lobsters. Crabs scuttled over a nearby rock. Gray-green iguanas sat in a nearby tree. A local told us how the invasive green iguanas were taking over the territory of the blue ones, and now the blues were in danger. I keep hearing roosters in trees and occasionally they strut by; my son is thrilled that there are wild chickens, and he wants to count ever one he sees. I ask the waiter what other animals exist here naturally and he sadly tells us that the others were mostly wiped out in the hurricane in 2004, nearly 15 years ago. He says there were snakes and rats that kept the chicken population under control, but when the waters rose, everything that couldn’t fly or climb just drowned. So now there are chickens everywhere, he says, and they breed too quickly and they are left searching for ways to survive because there are so many. They even eat themselves, he says, they eat the discarded waste of the Kentucky Fried Chicken downtown.

And I grimace, because we are the same. I immediately think of all of the tourists on the cruise ship. The humans with money who are looking for the perfect vacation, and so they spend thousands of dollars to ride a ship and eat too much food. They push others out of their way and wait in lines impatiently. They breed too quickly and have no natural predators, and they eat not what they must but what they can, long past the point when it is healthy. They roam and strut and crow in trees.

The ship itself is supposed to be indulgent, fancy, luxurious. But it feels sad to me. All of those employees, all of them from different countries, with huge smiles on their faces. 1100 of them on one ship. 1100 humans who just work there, live there, day after day, week after week. Every five days, thousands of new impatient and indulgent roosters climb on board and expect to be catered to. The workers sign six month contracts and work long days, 10 or 12 or 15 hours. They share rooms with others. They leave behind their families, their homes, their children. Some do it for adventure, others for survival. And each of them have stories, tragedies, places they come from, streets they have walked. They hail from Cuba and South Africa and Tobago and Herzegovina. They take these jobs and then break their backs at them for months at a time for, what I must presume, is a competitive wage. They fold clothes and cut vegetables, they swab decks and clear plates, they massage aching shoulders and stack chairs, they restock feminine hygiene products and they sing and dance on stage. Day after day. The ocean curves for them too.

And because that is how my brain works, I immediately start thinking of all of the things they must see, all they must have to deal with. On a ship this size, with this many people interacting every day, there must be so many protocols in place. How to clean bloody nose stains off of pillows. How to handle drunk and irate and aggressive men. What to do if a sea-bird lands on the deck and gets into the restaurant. How to handle a woman who has just suffered domestic violence. How to smile when a customer complains too loudly. How to handle the couple who is having sex on the deck near the pool. How to do CPR after a heart attack. How to handle the customer who attempts suicide by jumping off the edge of the boat. What to do with confiscated cocaine. How to handle the international person who tries to sneak on the ship during port. How to entertain 3000 people when the storm rages on for three days and the pools close down. How to disarm the man who snuck the gun on board. How to process the shoplifter. How to handle the customer with stomach flu or peanut allergies or a motorized wheelchair or cerebral palsy or anemia. How to assist the woman on her honeymoon who just found out her husband is cheating. How to break up a fight at the bar. What a complicated reality this all must be. And what must it be like to work in human resources on a ship like this, with a crew this size, with international people. How to handle the affairs, the depression, the illnesses, the complaints. What a massive operation it all is.

For me, this vacation represents relaxation, and family, and adventure. It represents giving my children something that I never had. It demonstrates love to them in a way I always hoped I’d be able to show, by showing them the world, by spoiling them, by allowing them to indulge. I planned this trip two years in advance. I want them to play and sing and leap and explore. I want to show them different foods, ways of life, and shores. I want to spoil them just enough. Just once in a while, I want them to feel like they are spoiled. I want them to grow up and tell stories about that time Dad took them on that epic vacation. And that feels wonderful, that part.

But this trip also quiets the distractions. Despite all the food and noise and entertainment, I’m cut off from the outside world for a time. I have to set my phone down. No constant media updates, no clients to listen to, no consistent routine. I’m here, instead, surrounded by indulgent tourists and cruise workers who have huge smiles on their faces. Everything feels like a transaction. It’s disorienting, in both good and bad ways. It’s uncomfortable. My insides rock and bob with the movements of the ship. And when I disembark, my body will be disoriented again, wondering why the ground has stopped moving.

Tomorrow we will eat more, and bury each other in the sand, and spread our toes in the soft silty soil as the ocean tides lap over us. And the day after that, we will pack up, get on a plane, and go home.

But for now, I stand here with the wind and the rain, in contemplation, and all I’m left with at the end is the curving and turbulent ocean.

And somehow that’s enough.

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Frickin’ Frackin’ iPads

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My sons seemed a bit underwhelmed when they opened their new iPads on Christmas morning. I mean, they appreciated them, they are gracious kids, but there were so many new toys to focus on. Pokemon figures, Kirby figures, books and art supplies. They rushed from the room to play with toys, and stayed up there for several hours, getting along and having fun together. It was a veritable Christmas miracle.

And so, the iPads remained untouched most of the day, still in their packages. I’d kept the receipt, of course, the one that showed the warranties I’d purchased for far too much money. I cleaned the house, had a short nap, cooked lunch with my boyfriend. After lunch, the kids wanted to play video games, and they spent a few hours playing Kirby Star Allies, their current favorite. That’s the game the toys they were playing with came from. It was around dinnertime they wanted to use their new IPADs finally.

“Okay!” I responded with enthusiasm, glad they were remembering their most expensive gift. “Just give me a few minutes to set them up!”

I opened the packaging on the first one, pulled off the plastic pieces, set aside the instructions, assembled the charger and plugged it into the wall. I pushed the bottom button and the white apple icon showed up on the screen. Technology has come a long way since I was a kid, I thought.

I followed prompts, indicating English as the language of choice and that we resided in the United States. Then the iPad instructed me to hold my own iPhone over the iPad so that it could connect to my account through the Wifi and download my information automatically. A few minutes later, the iPad mirrored my phone itself, complete with text messages and call history, a larger replica of my phone. Which was cool, except I didn’t want an iPad for me, but for my son. I looked up a series of prompts on how to create a family account for my child, and began following those instructions. And about ten minutes later, it needed me to verify a text message code sent to my phone and then enter it onto the iPad so that I could prove that I was the parent. But the text never came. After some investigation, I realized that the text had been sent to a phone number that I hadn’t used in over 8 years and no longer had access to. Aargh!

So I called Apple technical support. After a ten minute hold, the man looked up my account and listened to my struggles. He estimated that the number was used because it was connected to my Paypal account, which was set up on my source, and he instructed me to log in to Paypal to change my user information, then reboot the iPad again. So I accessed Paypal, which would only allow me to change my number after I verified my personal identity, a process which took another ten minutes. I logged back into the iPad, started the process again, and got the same prompts.

“Dad, can I use my iPad yet? It’s been an hour.”

“Just a bit more time, buddy,” I replied, feeling my stomach acid start to build up to uncomfortable levels, and my heart rate increase. I called Apple support again.

“Oh, well if that isn’t working, just create an entirely new profile for your son. You can reboot it and he can just have his own account.”

“I can do that even if he is only ten? And my other boy is seven?”

“Yes, sir. Just go to this link.”

I’ll fast forward here and simply say that I spent nearly 40 minutes setting up those accounts, only to get told that because the kids were not 14, they weren’t allowed to have their own accounts. They had to have profiles created through family sharing on my direct plan, which is what I’d tried to do in the first place.

“God damn it!” I screamed while bringing my fist down on the table.

The kids were shocked, and I immediately apologized. It had been nearly two hours now, I explained, and I was getting frustrated, but I didn’t want to ruin Christmas. My boyfriend calmly offered to help, but I was stubborn and wanted to do it on my own. I retreated to the bedroom and closed the door as the kids kept playing video games.

I took several calming breaths, but I felt my fury bubbling. This should have taken ten minutes. I started the process all over, with both iPads running this time. I used my phone to create the duplicates of my account, then I created a family account for each one of them. And for some reason, this time, it sent the text to my own phone number, my current one, despite my having rebooted the iPads twice before. Once I verified my identity, I was able to create accounts for both kids to play in, and I set up the appropriate parental controls. Another thirty minutes had gone by.

“Dad, we are still playing Kirby. Are you almost done?”

“Almost, monkey! Be patient!”

Then I got into the space to download apps for the kids. I chose a few simple free ones for now, Animal Jam, and Youtube Kids. Both of them required me to send a permission request to myself, presuming I was the kid using the iPad accounts, and I clicked yes on both iPads. An approval link then showed up on my laptop and on my phone, both in my Email and text indicators. Wow, very thorough, I thought. I opened the link and clicked yes for my approval. Then I got a new indicator that stated I needed to receive a text verification code to enter I was really their parent in order to approve the apps. And the text verifier was sent to… you guessed it, my old phone number from 8 years before.

I then entered full meltdown mode. I shook so hard I was crying. I fought the temptation to throw the iPads against the wall and shatter them to little pieces. Why was this so futzing difficult! I felt like the dad on Christmas Story, who takes a wrench and beats the heater in the basement every time it breaks down. I couldn’t believe how aggravating this was!

Somehow I worked through my fury and rebooted the iPads yet again. I created the accounts, I downloaded the apps, I sent the approval notices, and this time it worked. I proudly called the kids into the room to show them their brand new iPads, and then showed them how they worked.

“You can create little animal characters and play this game! You can watch cartoons! You’re gonna love this!”

Both boys were thrilled. They got on their pajamas and then sat next to each other on the couch, the same places where they’d been playing Kirby just a few minutes before. Independently, they each opened YouTube Kids. Then they each, without speaking to each other, looked up ‘Kirby Star Allies’ on the app and began watching someone else play the video game on their screen. They did this for the next 90 minutes, watched a stranger play video games on the internet, on their brand new iPads that had cost an arm and a leg each.

Then at 9:30, they both turned off the devices and gave me huge hugs, thanking me for a perfect Christmas. I tucked them in, sat down on the couch wanting to cry again, and found myself still wanting to smash the screens in with a hammer. All that so they could watch video games that they had already been playing all day.

But I didn’t give in to my violent impulses. Instead, I did what any sane adult would to. I opened a bottle of red wine and closed Christmas out in style.

Dark Morning

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I woke up this morning wondering what it was all for.

It’s dark outside, especially this early.

For a little while, I forgot how hard I fought to get to this place, the one where I’m working hard to live my dream. Well, at least the parts of the dream that aren’t contingent upon other people.

My back was aching. It aches every morning. On mornings like this, a few days after a hard workout, it hurts, and not in the “achy muscles that are building” kind of way, in the  “twisted spine scoliosis old man in a young body” kind of way. My muscles tug at each other over my ribs, and a deep ache sets in in the hollow under my right rib cage, and in my pelvis, and in the base of my neck. I desperately wanted two more hours of sleep, but I knew better. My body won’t let me. I need to get up, stretch, let my bones crack into their normal misalignment, the muscles stretch out twisted around them. I need to drink water, move my limbs, and let the natural healing of my body begin, so that my pain levels will drop to normal functioning rates. By then, I’ll be ready for coffee. Again, I wonder why this problem was one given to me, and if anyone who doesn’t have scoliosis could understand.

As I slowly stretched my back, feeling the pain pulse, I became aware of my boyfriend’s steady breathing next to me. He’s wonderful. Fit, and kind, and consistent. I know he has his own struggles, but he is so good at his nutrition, his routine. He’s so steady, so calm. I envy so much about him, and find myself wishing I could adopt his healthier habits. And I know he feels the same way about me, and I guess that is part of why we are so good together.

I lay there in the dark, not wanting to get up, and I grabbed my phone. I clicked the Email indicator, checked the first message, and realized a professional I’ve been waiting to hear from had finally written back. We had set up a meeting this coming week, one I’d been waiting for for weeks. She’d gone quiet for a full week, and now this Email was canceling the appointment. Ugh. I feel like my entire life has been dominated by variations of this interaction lately–professionals who take an active interest in my work and projects who eventually just ghost me or go silent or cancel things. I hate being pessimistic, but repeated interactions like this were beginning to rankle within me.

I’m spending so much time on work and projects that I’m consistently proud of. This blog. My book. Monthly readings and presentations. The documentary. My old comic book and YouTube channel. Quality work with very low audience attendance, and all things that yield zero profit. I do them because I love them, but this morning, I find myself wondering what would happen if I just scrapped them all, shut them down. It would free up so much time. Dozens of hours per month that I could use watching Netflix, playing video games, exercising, joining groups, playing games. I would miss them, but sometimes they feel they aren’t worth the aggravation.

Then I remember, again, how hard I fought to be able to do these things that I love. I feel like I’ve written a dozen blogs just on this topic, exploring the frustrations of not seeing things turn out as productively as I’d like. The costs of not being successful, the price of every artist living any version of their dream. I sigh, remembering these lessons, and stretch my back some more.

I switch over to the news, catching the CNN headlines as I lay there in the dark. Today is the final vote for the Supreme Court nominee. All rationality, all reason, all ethics and morals and human decency point to the fact that this man should not, should not, should not be given a lifetime appointment. Yet I already know he’ll be appointed. I’ve known it for days. It fills me with this despair at our entire government and political system. I want to throw my hands up and give up on the whole thing. I’m out of outrage, and that scares me. This coming week, I’ll watch my clients come in, traumatized by all of this. And I’ll have to inspire them to find hope again, because what is the alternative? Honestly, though, I haven’t felt this hopeless since that man was elected as our president. I keep hoping things might change. I’m not sure they can. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live a happy life.

I finally sit up, clear my head, stretch my back, stand. I step outside of the room. I know inside this isn’t some despair, some state of mind that will last all day. My self-care will kick in. Movement, water, exercise, food. My endorphins will begin firing. My heart will heal again. It does every day. I’ll sit down at my computer later and write about my feelings. My children will wake soon and they will giggle and be cute, then aggravating, then sweet and cuddly, then tired, then cute and giggly again. It will be a wonderful day with lovely fall weather. I’ll be fine.

I set the coffee to brew. I turn on soft music. I light the fire. The house is still dark, everyone is sleeping, and the world outside is still sound. I have a good life, I remind myself. My heart is full. I’m okay. I touch my toes, elongate my spine, twist my hips, turn my neck. My body cracks and my bones tug on themselves. I feel sad, mad, scared, impatient. I feel full of hope, light, pain. I feel.

It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.

when the kids aren’t there

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Even after 8 years of this parenting thing, I still have no idea what I’m doing.

Being a dad challenges me at my very core. It challenges the way I view my present and my future, and the way I interpret my past. It influences my dating, my travel, my freedom, the way I exercise, the way I spend money, the ways I choose to spend my time.

It honestly tears me into exhausted shreds sometimes. It is my fondest wish to create a nurturing and supportive home environment for my children. I have a nice home where they have their own bedroom filled with toys… a bedroom that is empty more than it is full due to a custody arrangement that places my children with me about six days a month.

I used to keep a cupboard full of snacks for the kids. But then I found myself eating the snacks when they were gone. So now I just buy fresh snacks when they come over.

Recently I purchased a small cat for my older son’s birthday. He’s been asking for a dog or a cat for, literally, years, and I figured now was the right time to provide that. I took myself over to the animal shelter and I sat in the corner of the cat adoption room, and a small little grey-and-white thing, a 5 year old cat, plopped itself into my lap, then climbed up on my shoulders. I adopted it minutes later. My son named the cat Lilly Potter.

A friend asked me if I enjoyed having the cat, and I said yes, that it was kind of nice to have the company. The friend then joked, wondering if I got the cat for me or for my kids. My response to him was a bit sad, a bit sober. It surprised him.

“The cat is for them, definitely. And the cat represents both of my worlds, strangely. It is my job to provide a safe and nurturing home for my sons when they are with me, and to also create a full and fulfilling life for myself for the nights they aren’t with me. So now, I have a cat. And the cat is for them, but in ways it is for me, cause now I have a bit of company around.”

This seemed to help the friend understand me a bit better. My situation isn’t always easy to describe. There are a lot of divorced moms and dads out there, and many of them don’t get to see their children nearly often enough, and many of them have difficulty finding their lease on life while they balance out the time and money commitments of parenting, the struggles in raising kids, and the heartbreak and loneliness that can set in during times when your kids aren’t around.

I’ve gotten a bit accustomed to sharing holidays now. My sons went on a trip for a week with their mother recently, and my phone contact with them was limited. I don’t always get to see them on their birthdays, and I’ve done Christmases alone, Thanksgivings alone, and, tonight, Halloween alone. They are out trick-or-treating. And when they are done, they will call to tell me good night, and then tomorrow I’ll pick them up and we will do our own little celebration.

I am told often by people who don’t have children, or by people who don’t see their children often, how lucky I am. And I agree completely. I am richly blessed and insanely fortunate to have these two beautiful boys to raise. Anyone who knows me knows how much they define me and how much I love them. That aside, though, it is a major area of struggle.

One of the hardest parts is interacting with people who don’t have kids. Most of my friends are gay men. They travel and hit the gym, they own homes, they date and have parties, they go out drinking and dancing. And, obviously, I date within this community as well. Having kids means I don’t have a tremendous amount of financial freedom. It means I can’t hit many of the parties, or pursue the relationships, or be available for dates. It also means my time is precious and valuable, and I try to make the most of it when I have it.

It also means profound loneliness sometimes, with sounds bouncing off of empty walls, and watching the phone to see if the person you are reaching out to is texting back, and trying not to be unreasonably sad when they don’t. It means inserting myself into social situations haphazardly, when I can, and seeking human connection while I remain a bit aloof from those around me.

The loneliness has been getting to me lately, and it feels a bit pathetic to recognize that, but I think other parents will understand when they read this. I’m lonely when my kids are home, because I want to be around other people and to connect, and I want someone to share the raising of them with. And I’m lonely when my kids are not home, because I want them there, and heading out into the big world of single men when I know I have to pick up my kids in the morning, it’s strange and isolating.

And so tonight, I sit with my fingers clacking on a keyboard, a decaf coffee and a glass of water at my side, in a coffee shop full of strangers because that feels less threatening to my own house, and I type out my thoughts on a blank screen for a handful of strangers and loved ones to read… while my sons, dressed as a Jedi and Harry Potter, knock doors and ask for candy. And in an hour, they will call me and tell me about their night, and there won’t be a hint of loneliness in my voice. I’ll be thrilled, and interested, and ask about every detail of their days like what they learned at school and what they ate for lunch and what they played at recess and if they had fun trick-or-treating. And then I’ll tell them how much I love them, and I’ll hang up. I’ll turn on music and crack open a beer and fold laundry and maybe watch an old Halloween movie by myself, and then I’ll head to bed and listen for the sounds of my sons’ breathing even though they aren’t there.

My son, the Zookeeper

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Dad, remember how I wanted to be a hunter?

Yeah, buddy.

And I wanted to hunt all over the world and kill just the mean animals that hurt the nice animals?

Yeah, buddy.

And I would live in a hotel for nine million dollars and it would have a swimming pool and you could come and visit me but I’m probably gonna not ever get married cause I will be hunting all the time?

Mm-hmm.

Well, I changed my mind. I don’t want to be a hunter anymore.

Oh?

Yeah, instead I want to be a zookeeper.

Okay, that sounds great.

Cause a hunter has to hurt animals and I don’t want to hurt animals, instead I will give them a nice place to live.

Great.

But I have to figure out how to get the animals to the zoo. How do they do it?

Well, some animals are born in the zoo to their moms and dads who are already in the zoo. Others are captured and moved to the zoo.

Hmm. I like the ones born there the most. I don’t want to capture animals without their permission. Maybe I will travel all over the world and meet animals in the forests and jungles and oceans. And where else should I meet them?

Well, maybe the desert and the rain forest and the grasslands.

What’s a grasslands?

It’s like big green fields where animals like giraffes and zebras live.

Don’t they live in jungles?

No, it’s different.

Okay, well I will go to the grasslands too and I will meet the animals and talk to them and tell them to come and live in my zoo if they want to, and if they do then they can come and live there and we will be friends. I can build really nice cages for them and feed them and they will really like me but sometimes I will stay there all the time and other times I will have to go back to my hotel to sleep and the animals might get really mad and grumpy because I am gone but then I will come back the next day in the morning and cheer them up and they will know that I didn’t leave them and instead just went home to sleep and then we will be friends again.

That sounds great.

And it can be all the different kinds of animals, right?

Right.

Whatever kinds I want?

Right.

I think that sounds really cool.

Me too. Sounds like a lot of work.

I don’t like to work.

I know.

But maybe I will like to work when I’m a grown-up.

Mm-hmm.

And you could come and visit my zoo if you wanted. Even if there are some scary animals you wouldn’t have to be scared because they would still be nice ones or they couldn’t live in my zoo.

Yeah.

And I will have to feed them lots of different things. Like horses eat hay and lizards eat crickets. Or maybe they can eat meal worms. And I will feed the snakes mice. And I will have lots of tigers and mountain lions and I will feed them meat.

Yeah.

And the big fish like whales will have to eat little fish.

Yeah. Where will you get all that food?

I don’t know, at the store maybe.

That will cost a lot of money.

I will have probably nine million dollars at the hotel, remember?

Oh, right. And maybe you can charge people money to come and see your zoo.

Why?

So you can make more money to feed the animals.

But it could be free.

Well, when we go to the zoo, we pay money. Then they use that money to take care of the animals.

Well, I’ll think about it.

Okay.

Lunch was delicious. Can you read me my fortune cookie now?

Sure, hand it to me. It says ‘Maintain good health for that is your wealth.’

That’s dumb. That’s not what it is supposed to say.

Oh? What did you want it to say?

It was supposed to say, ‘hey, it’s okay to change your mind and be a zookeeper for nice animals instead of a hunter for mean ones.’

Oh.

I’m done with lunch. Draw me a dragon now.

Hump day

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