My son has a super-power. Does yours?

“I’m here with your 3rd grader,” my son’s special education teacher explained on the phone.

I waited. Please don’t say he threw up. Did he swallow bits of his shirt collar again? Maybe it’s just a fever.

“Tomorrow he’s going to tell me what you did to celebrate. For the first time in 4 years, he tested at grade level in reading today.”

I had to pull over. I cried on Lake Street for the arguments we had before I learned he wasn’t being lazy or stubborn. I cried for the phone calls and the emails and the classroom visits and IEP meetings. I cried for the books we’ve read, the camps we’ve attended, the tutor we insisted upon-yes-even in summer.

I released the anxiety we have felt as we rapidly approach the end of the 3rd grade, knowing only 25% of kids who cannot read at grade level by then are predicted to graduate.

I cried with gratitude for the generous grandparents who have financially supported his needs, the hours of creative problem solving his tutor has dedicated to him, the kindness and patience his teachers have provided him and the skills his special education team employed to get him this far.

I released the guilt that we hadn’t done enough.

We knew going into kindergarten that something was different about him despite the fact his pre-K screening was normative. Come to find, he had all the hallmarks of Dyslexia. We asked about testing and our assistant principal suggested we wait–see how he does.

In Minnesota, kids without a diagnosis qualify for special education through the discrepancy model. They receive services if testing shows their ability level and performance level are disparate enough to suggest a “specific learning disorder.” Parents are often encouraged to wait until first grade to test because it is very difficult to qualify on the discrepancy model as a kindergartner.

The only other way to qualify for special help is a diagnosis and 504 plan. We were told by our pediatrician that Dyslexia, which we suspected, was an educational diagnosis. Insurance would not cover the $2000 neuro-psych testing. And guess what? School psychologists cannot diagnose Dyslexia because it is a medical diagnosis–an ugly catch 22.

So we had to let him fail first. This is what it looked like.

He was behind when he started kindergarten. He sat in a classroom feeling baffled while kids around him captured things he could not even see. He loved his teacher and she loved him but he cried before school everyday. He had tantrums after school. He chewed his clothes and his own lips to pieces. He had eczema. And honestly, I am fairly certain he had the best kindergarten teacher in this world.

By first grade he called himself “stupid” often. He told us he hated himself. He had emotionally “dropped out” of school and developed anxiety.

“Oh,” they said. “Now THAT is a medical diagnosis. NOW insurance will cover testing.”

Still at reading level A, the school then wanted to test him. His teachers knew he needed extra help. The educational psychologist described the findings and called it a “specific learning disorder.” Though he was in the 2nd percentile for reading, he scored in the 96% percentile for comprehension when stories were read to him. The psychologist looked me in the eye and nodded his head as he said, “I cannot make a diagnosis of Dyslexia.” Consistently in this process, the school appeared to be going above and beyond what they were allowed to do for him.

He would now be removed from his classroom for two hours a day of specific instruction in reading and writing.

He also received accommodations. Our school has coordinated assistive technology, shielded him from unnecessary standardized tests, placed him in classrooms with student teachers and provided him extra support. Unfortunately, with a classroom of 30+ kids, this often just means expectations are lowered for dyslexic kids and they are excused from some activities, like spelling tests and reading aloud.

Though his teachers were incredibly supportive and skilled, he made very little progress in reading or writing in first grade. The primary skill he learned was pretending to understand.

He had delightful friends but they accidentally hurt his feelings daily. “Why can’t you can’t read that?” Some laughed at him, not understanding. He developed strategies to avoid attention. He got amazingly good at deducing what was happening in books and worksheets from the context. He became more and more introverted and more and more creative, also hallmarks of a dyslexic brain.

His special instruction had a ratio of one teacher to five kids at most. The tools that our wonderful, big-hearted, special education teacher had were blunt instruments for a group of kids with a wide variety of challenges: lower IQs, ESL, Dyslexia, ADHD, unknown. She was not provided adequate resources or training to meet the disparate needs of all those children. This is happening across the country–our situation was not unique.

We found a grant for her to attend an Orton Gillingham reading instruction training. This is a sharp tool. OG is one of many evidenced-based strategies for teaching struggling readers that is multi-sensory, going beyond Response to Intervention models. Within months the following school year, she told us her training was creating change for kids who were unresponsive to everything else she had tried–it worked.

She helped us find him an after-school tutor and introduced us to Grove’s Academy, a school that incorporates evidenced-based practices like OG into the classroom experience for neurologically diverse learners. I asked him if he would be willing to spend six weeks of his summer at reading camp. He looked at me, blue eyes welling tearfully, cheeks blown out and angry red under a flop of white hair. My mini Einstein. He shook his fists and stomped his foot and screamed, defiantly, “FINE!” and walked away. Another hallmark of Dyslexia: our son is tenacious.

Grove’s was able to say out loud what public school psychologists could not, “the findings of his test results are consistent with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia.”

You may be against labels. So are lots of parents and educators and therapists and pediatricians. But let’s be real–Dyslexic kids without a diagnosis have labels for themselves and they live with the labels others assign them: stupid, lazy, stubborn, defiant, disturbed.

Nothing, NOTHING, has helped his crumpled heart more than when we told him, “You have Dyslexia.”

“Buddy. You know all that testing we did? And you know how it is hard for you to read like some of the other kids? Well, we found out there is a reason that you’ve been struggling. Your brain is unique. The way you learn to read has to be unique too! They call it, “Dyslexia.”

He jumped up into my arms and crushed me in a hug. He was wearing a cape. He said, “I have a super power!”

Unless you have a child with Dyslexia or another learning difference, I can’t imagine you can truly understand the significance of early illiteracy on your self-confidence and sense of wonder. In grade school, we go from learning to read to reading to learn. Wilder entered school excited to use his gifts and talents to learn. It took him less than a school year to realize that there would be destructively little time in his school day for what comes easily to him: creating stories and art, reasoning scientifically, empathizing with others. Grades one through three are really all about reading.

But he is getting better over time at advocating for himself. His support team in school works together to ensure his days contain successes and opportunities to use his assets. He understands that despite the fact he has to work harder to do a lot of things, he is exceptional at some things. He is also getting better at failing with self-confidence.

Let’s go back to that phone call. She knew it was a significant moment. She knew how hard he worked to get there. She was determined that we celebrate him. His teachers are incredibly committed and skilled–they offer multi-sensory approaches, individualized instruction, relationship building, positive reinforcement, high expectations. When we celebrated that night, we toasted the educators he has on his team and the resources they have been able to engage on his behalf. I want kids with dyslexia everywhere to have these opportunities and from what I have learned from other parents, we are very fortunate.

A group of parent volunteers and teachers have spent thousands of hours at the Minnesota state Capitol attempting to get lawmakers to insist public schools provide kids with reading disabilities an equitable and appropriate education: Decoding Dyslexia Minnesota.

This week I sat before a Senate committee asking them to provide the Minnesota Department of Education a Dyslexia Specialist. We would like to see: early identification that avoids early school failure, classroom instruction in reading that incorporates strategies which will work for all learners, and grants for teachers to access professional development in Dyslexia.

They only appeared moved by this…

I’d like you to picture something you learned to do for the first time recently. Do you have any new hobbies? Professional skills? Anyone trying Twitter?

Now imagine your first attempts. Was the learning curve steep? Did you ever doubt your abilities when your colleagues learned faster? As you experienced success, did consistent progress keep you engaged?

At the beginning of 3rd grade my son was at the same reading level he was at when he entered kindergarten. If you had made no progress in 3 years, would you have kept going? Would you feel anxious? Depressed? Might you act out?

  • Nearly 1 in 5 people have Dyslexia. ​(Connecticut Longitudinal Study)
  • 50% of adjudicated youth tested were found to have undetected learning disabilities (National Institute for Literacy, 1998)
  • Approximately 80% of people with learning disabilities have Dyslexia which makes it the most common learning disability ​(American Academy of Pediatrics 2011)
  • 3rd grade reading proficiency scores can be used to predict the number of new beds needed in prisons 10 years hence ​(OhioHigherEd.org)

I am hopeful these upstream efforts will reduce the emotional burden of Dyslexia, especially for the most vulnerable kids who may or may not be identified because the expectations on their learning and behavior were unjustly low from the beginning. There’s no reason to let these kids fail when we have the tools available to enable their success. Despite limited resources, our child’s school is effectively supporting him. I can’t stop there. All these kids deserve to know that they have super powers.

 

Call. No excuses.

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Is democracy moving backward?

Make your phone calls to your U.S. Senate and House offices. I heard in every office in D.C. I visited this week that phone calls matter. The phones in Republican offices were ringing off the hook. Our Congress needs our voices behind their decisions, especially if they are considering decisions not supported by their leadership! Every phone call has to be logged. If they get more than 5 in an hour on an issue, the concern “goes in the hopper” to be addressed by the Congresspeople themselves. If they do not, it is only the 22 year-old legislative aide that hears you. These 20 somethings are astute, committed people and we need their attention. Don’t underestimate them, and don’t underestimate yourself. Your 20 second call is worthwhile.

Tomorrow is our inauguration…

SanFranflappers_2This is perhaps one of the most intuitive decisions I have made in my life. My friend texted “I am marching in D.C. on January 21. Are you coming with me?” “Yes.” That was it–all the thinking I did on the matter until this week. Now I am thinking 24/7. I am having bad dreams. I can’t sleep.

When I told my cousin about the bad dreams, she said “Get them out of your body.” She told me to write them down and burn them. You are “feeling the fear in the world.”

That feels so true. Do you feel that heaviness too? When I wake up, when I drive, when I put on my coat. My heart beats in my throat with an extra thump or two. I can’t remember what to attach the feeling to–My marriage? My work? Dad’s Alzheimer’s? The new President? My brain sifts through the cabinet–where do I file this feeling? I can’t properly tuck it away. Its like trying to file confetti.

I was a little irritated with my mom all day today. I thought, “She doesn’t get it.” At 9:45 p.m., however, she proved me entirely wrong. I should have known. “Be safe and enjoy your time in D.C. I will be thinking of you and watching for you on TV.” I rolled my eyes and laughed–like I’ve done since age 12. And then she said so earnestly, “I would have liked to have done that when I was your age. I love you.”

I am full of the love of generations of women. I was raised in this lifetime and maybe many before by women who gather when gathering is needed. I am going to Washington to resist anger and hatred. I am going to amplify our human rights. I am going for the world my boys will know as men. I am going with women I love. I expect to run into neighbors, former students and old college friends. I expect to hold hands of strangers, laugh, talk, roar and feel mighty. This is how we face the next four years: we participate.

Why am I going to protest? I am not going to Washington to protest. I am going to govern.

 

 

Heavy hearts, hands full: what to say to children when the bully wins

I am sharing my Facebook update here from last night at 2am. I’m broadcasting it wider because I have had so many uplifting  “thank you’s,” “shares,” and comments since then. If I can bring a little light and solace today, it will warm my heavy heart:

It’s 1:57 and I’m thinking about what to tell my kids in the morning. Here’s the plan:
1) Trump is now our President but it does not make him your role model.
2) It is now, more than ever, important to be kind to others, respectful of women and inclusive to differences.
3) I told you love wins and now you are seeing someone who acts like a bully win. People pick bullies to protect them when they feel weak and afraid. If there are lots of people among us feeling that way, we have work to do.
4) Sometimes grown ups make mistakes. I think as grown ups we’ve made a mistake by giving an important job to someone who bullies others.
5) You are safe. It will be ok. The world is full of good people.*

*I am afraid for us all.

Yes, we have a ton of work to do.

img_0001 Hello this is Shawna and I am calling from the Hillary for President campaign. No I’m not a “jerk.” Nope not an “intruder.” No it’s not “illegal” to call at your kids’ bedtime but I feel your pain. Oh nice, you voted already? Woot Woot! Waited for 70 years? You cried? You’re crying again. Yes I understand. Yes I believe my grandmother would too. First time voting? Exciting! I hear you, but I’d still pick a candidate. Well, which one best aligns with your hopes for the future? Congratulations and thank you for choosing to vote! Standing Rock? I can imagine. So disheartened. Let me find out…Ok how about 9 volunteers Saturday morning? Meet you at Little Earth? Absolutely. Well, I suppose because I want to look back on the first campaign for a woman President and feel I was a part of it. I definitely think door knocking is still worthwhile. Minneapolis, yes, but it’s a big state. I believe her candidacy has merit–I’m not just voting against him. Yup. Totally understand. The emails concern me less than the lawsuits. No but I am raising boys. I don’t want to have to tell them our President is an inappropriate role model. Pot roast? No I can wait. Most important to me? Access to health care. I’ve been reading her policy for two weeks. His? A 10 minute read. Yes the whole thing. Do you know where to vote? How about this weekend? Vote early and the lines are shorter. No, legally your employer has to both allow you time and pay you for that time. I’m not kidding. It’s a misdemeanor. Yup. Text me and I’ll report them. Our kids’ school is a polling place and this is the first time I’ve ever wondered if they are safe there on voting day. Right? Sad. I’m glad we know more about our country now too. Yes, we have a ton of work to do. More than I’d hoped as well. Yes I’m with you. Yes I’m with her.

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I’m with her. No, really. I’m with her.

Contractions, middle school and tomorrow

We did not know how hard childbirth would be. Yet the babies arrived. Why fear what lies ahead when it seems we never knew our capacity to begin with?

Source: Contractions, middle school and tomorrow

Contractions, kindergarten, middle school and tomorrow

IMG_7276My material is growing up. It’s going to middle school tomorrow. And 3rd grade. On Wednesday, kindergarten. Pretty soon, their stories will be their own—not mine to tell.

I’m sitting here with two glasses of wine and a glowing candle. When it goes out, I’ll stop writing and go to bed. For now, it is suspending me between summer vacation and children who grow up too fast. I had a toast with the 2nd glass, poured for my husband who can’t stop folding laundry. He also did some chores tonight that he’s had in the works for years. We have different suspension systems.

Tomorrow when I wake up I have to pack lunches and deliver my babies. It doesn’t feel that different than impending births. They still kick me in the ribs–especially my youngest. In utero, he once kicked me so hard it knocked me off course, foreshadowing the kid to come. At nine months, he climbed out of the crib, de-diapered, crawled down the stairs, ascended our countertop, removed a bottle of children’s IB profen from the cupboard and finished it as I rounded the corner after finding his crib empty.

Whenever I speak sternly with him, he responds, “Geez, Shawna,” as if we should be working things out woman to man. He is enterprising and canny and luckily, cute.

I am hoping his kindergarten teacher sees him that way too.

Speaking of small men, my oldest has turned twelve. I anticipate I will soon have a bearded transportation engineer on my hands and it will be time to retire to the lake and start selecting a nursing home. My rational self reminds me he still plays with toy trains.

I shared with my husband last week, “After they grow up, it seems like life will just be hard.” He reminded me that life with little ones is actually really, really hard. And no, we should not adopt a baby girl now.

I don’t actually want more babies. I want to know today who I will be with no babies in my house, the same way I anticipated who I would be once motherhood began.

Yesterday I ran 9 miles. Today, I walked the dog, hiked with the family, swam with my middle son and did some stairs. I have no babies to rock all night and toddlers to chase all day. I may break up more arguments, clean more wounds and talk through more hurts, but I feel a bit like a stretched out balloon that now takes more air to refill. For the first time in a long time, I have both a capacity I did not realize before parenting and time to fill it with a few more things for me.

Or so I think today. I am also still in transition to full time work outside of the bouncy castle that is our home. So far, though far busier, it feels less hard on my body. Sometimes, I speak in paragraphs and finish cups of coffee. But I am entering the unknown and nervous. Reprieves have tended to come and go like contractions over the past thirteen years.

I remember when my oldest was crying in my arms at the JCC when he was about a year old. A beautiful older woman who spoke very little English walked up to us and started to gently rub his brow. He fell asleep. She said, “Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems,” and walked away.

At this moment, I feel ill prepared for the heartaches of big children. I have worked in teen health since 1996, but it is so different with my own. Puberty, acne, choices, disappointments, bullies, grades, first loves, stress, insecurities, hormones…all lay ahead. I am more nervous for me than I am for my middle schooler because I am equally excited for him and self-discoveries ahead. How in the world could I stretch this balloon any thinner? What will it feel like for me when their lives feel hard to them and I can’t fix it?

My kindergartner is excited for school. My 3rd grader whimpered as I held him tonight, “I don’t want to grow up,” and “Do I have to go to school?” He is my tender-hearted, wispy-haired artist. I tell him I have a good feeling about this year for him. I swallow my own tears. The kicking of ribs and contractions have yet to cease.

We did not know how hard childbirth would be. Yet the babies arrived. Why fear what lies ahead when it seems we never knew our capacity to begin with?

The candle is flinching. It’s time to let tomorrow come.

Camp

IMG_5653Shockingly young-appearing camp counselors greet parents and offer tours. Many of us decline, no need to explain how deeply we feel at home here. In fact, we recognize them. They are us, twenty years ago.

I am at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan to greet my oldest, who has just returned from his first canoe trip.

I spent many summers here at Widji. As a camper, I thought I went for adventure and to meet new people. I did not think I went for the terrifying storms, 13-hour hikes, nauseating homesickness, weeks of damp feet, weepy blisters or thick mosquitoes. But camp was all of those things, too.

I thought I joined the staff for all the same reasons. And I wanted to be a teacher. This was experiential education at its finest: working with girls on the brink of adulthood in nature.

Yesterday when I arrived in the north woods, I stepped out of my car and was immersed in the smell of pines. The air was soft with impending rain and dappled evening sun. Immediately, the sensations seeped in through the bottoms of my feet like water. If you’d been there, you would have seen it begin to brim upon my lower lids.

This is why I returned to camp, summer after summer. It filled up a drained-out me like a dromedary. Every time I returned, despite all challenges, or perhaps because we endured the hardships so well together, I left with enough fresh water to make it through another year of school.

The nervous excitement growing in my belly feels odd and displaced. I am a parent awaiting a glimpse of my son. I am a camper excited to see my parents. I am a counselor eager to return from trail. My camper has only been gone for five days—I know this feeling isn’t just about this moment—it is about all of these moments.

So much feels the same. Some staff remain the very same. The trail building is in an entirely new log structure, yet it smells the same. The drying canvas packs emit the same heat. The big black camping pots were our pots. The canoe barn whispers history the same way it did when I first entered it. The towering pines, the wind off the lake, the feel of cabin row, the bursts of laughter, the screen doors—they are as mine as my heart.

Camp is peppered today with campers and counselors who are the children of dear old friends. This is how I remember camp too. We came home excited to tell our parents about our new friends, only to hear them say, “Oh that must be the niece” of so and so.

We learned “The Widji Way” to travel the wilderness. We sat around fires and told the same stories, generation after generation. We know the same songs and indoctrinate our children with them in their cribs. We claim it’s not a “cult” but we know. We know.

Tonight, we find our campers, freshly sauna-ed and sun-kissed. Their hugs are more lingering than usual. They look bigger than when they climbed aboard the bus. My head feels swimmy with memories. I slip easily from now to my childhood.

They introduce us to their counselors and walk us about camp, showing us their route on a map twice as tall as them. We hear about the storm, the stinky tent, card games, and happenings so funny they can’t get to the end of the story. They show us how to 3-person lift an 80-pound wood canvas canoe and how they can actually carry the beast. They are reverent of its strength and delicacy.

I am earnest about ensuring my son feels this is his trip, his experience, his discovery. I want it to feel as powerful, new and exciting to him as it did to me. I quiet my memories as much as I can until he beckons them himself.

We walk into the tripping center. He asks me to find my Mountaineer hat on the wall, hung with all the others. We find Molly’s, Rachel’s, Aaron’s, Peter’s, Amy’s and and and…I loved those friendships then when we were here together. It is a fraction of the gratitude I feel for those continued friendships in this moment. We look at names on plaques and paddles of Voyager and Mountaineer groups. “Mom, that’s cousin Jeff,” and “Look there’s Melissa,” and “Isn’t that the mom of my babysitter?”

After the banquet, we sing Viva la Companie and Madeline with a life-force revved by recent adventure. Each troupe rises to the front and each child, age 11 to 15 or so, shares something. “I am proud of myself for learning to steer a canoe.” “I loved seeing otters play.” “My favorite part was these people.”

What we hear as parents is that camp succeeded. The mission of the YMCA and Camp Widjiwagan is being expressed right here in front of us by the campers themselves. They speak to wilderness, quiet, learning, cooperation, bravery and growth that are timeless.

Through a soggy face, I watch my son sing in firelight. I’m lost in a “this is your life” montage. These songs we sing at family gatherings, weddings and funerals. These are my lullabies. “In time when you are ready, come and join me take my hand, and together we’ll share life out on the lose.” My son turns and finds me in the crowd and smiles. We know.

The funny thing is, I didn’t know. I did not project into sleepless moments with my infant a child of twelve. I sang those songs because they were the most familiar to me when I was my most exhausted.

I love this place. It was not perfect. Some summers we couldn’t afford to go. Sometimes I was nauseatingly homesick. But good and bad, camp helped me walk bravely into other communities, continents and experiences. Camp was the adventure that beget all further adventures in my life.

Camps are designed to help kids practice working through struggles they can handle, like getting along with others and sustaining a fire. It is a second family. If my kids find that at Widji, I will be thrilled. If they find it elsewhere, I will be thrilled. I know kids who find it through choirs, theater productions or sports teams. What we want for our children is experiences that make them feel attached and stretched—a place to learn skills that give them a sense of competency in the world.

IMG_5717At session close, the staff stands in front of camp and sings a sort of prayer: “May the long time sunshine on you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.”

We know it will.

 

 

I get it, duck mom.

This morning I passed through my fence, lunch bag, brief case, computer bag, errand bag, birthday gift, dog leash (yes attached to dog), coffee cup (somehow) in hand, and reached the other side slathered in bird poop.

It was as if I traveled through a bird shit portal. So not J.K. Rowling-cool.

I ditched my stuff in my car and pursued my five-year-old on foot. He was picking flowers off our crab apple tree for his daycare “mom.”

That was the lovely moment. The one I will remember. The one that will lead me to say things to young moms when I am sixty like, “Oh, the days will go so fast. Cherish every moment.”

I washed off the poop at daycare and headed out for the day: this was 9 a.m.

Before that, I had checked my 11 y.o. child’s throat and breath for signs of strep (you know that smell), rummaged through piles of dirty laundry for pants skinny enough for my 8 y.o., and dressed and redressed that 5 y.o. cutie pie three times before he was satisfied, including face paint.

I also scrubbed the toilet naked and had to get back in the shower after my hair made contact with God-knows-what. I sent myself a mental note to scrub the toilet before showering in the future–as if I hadn’t already learned this twenty times over.

I plucked an unwieldy hair from my husband’s nose as he drank his coffee. So satisfying.

I clipped the 30 finger nails of said children.

And fed them chocolate cake for breakfast.

Yes I did. From a box.

I delayed: breakfast, vitamins, probiotics, skin care, exercise, hair-do and make up. Seriously, what else are the stoplights on Hiawatha for? Furthermore, what are those vents for if not blow drying?

After 9 a.m. I helped neighbor moms rescue some toads. I returned a run-away dog. I changed out of my white pants–who am I kidding? I dropped off  forgotten lunches and homework at school. I sent the emails for the important school committee thingy. I called my legislator and my mom and dad. They are all fine, aside from the Alzheimer’s and such.

As I approached my office, I saw a mama duck cross a busy street with seven ducklings. Once safe, she jumped up a six-inch embankment they could not mount. She did not look back. She fed herself in the grass on whatever ducks eat in grass.

In a few minutes, she jumped back down into the quacking fuzzy mess. They swarmed, and she led them away again.

I get it, duck mom.

By 9:30, I arrived at “work.” I put down my bags. I sipped coffee. I greeted co-workers that smelled good and had clean faces. I got an update on our hurdles for the day. I was very glad to step up to each and every one of them.

To women of my generation: so strong and able

I’m tired. My throat hurts. I’m scattered. Hungry. Irritated. Parking ticket kind of day.

I’m going home for cooking

I might stop for groceries.

I am going home for hugging and playing.

I might even do nothing

I dare you too.

Not to do list

  • I will not return phone calls
  • I will not return texts
  • I will not worry about, everything
  • I will not work (it never actually just takes a second)
  • I will not volunteer
  • I will not pay the bills
  • I will not make plans for October (in April)
  • I will not “want a new” anything
  • I will not pick up
  • I will not clean up
  • I will not catch up
  • I will not say “just a minute sweetie”
  • I will not even plant seeds, though it is time for spinach

I am going home.

There is something I have got to find.

Something I lost.

You too?

Join me.

I dare you.