Chris Cox

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When my wife brought up the possibility of camping at this year’s Merlefest — a four-day and three-night music festival in Wilkes County — naturally, we thought she had taken ill or had just awakened from a bad dream, which will sometimes cause her to say things like, “Did you put away the jar of spiders” or “No, you cannot borrow my helicopter.”

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“What? Over? Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!”

— John “Bluto” Blutarsky, Animal House, 1978

“I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart …. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?”

— Donald J. Trump, White House, 2017

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As all successful couples understand, the key to happiness is mastering the art of communication. When facing a Big Decision — like whether or not to foster shelter dogs, for example — the successful couple will sit down with flexible minds and full hearts, outlining all of the issues in neat and revealing columns, so that each point can be thoughtfully and compassionately considered and, if necessary, debated until compromises can be forged and a decision is reached.

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I was all set to write another column on Donald Trump, who somehow seems more unhinged with each passing week, but when I sat down to write it, I had an epiphany: it is opening day of baseball season, spring is the air, and the NCAA basketball championship is just hours away. Simply put, I am in too good a mood to write about Trumplethinskin. This week, I would rather eat a bowl of thumbtacks than spend one more minute thinking about him.

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I found them in the corner of the basement, hidden like Easter Eggs underneath a blue tarp which was itself partially obscured by a couple of discarded boxes. Our basket of baseballs. I cannot recall exactly when or why we started keeping a dozen or more baseballs in an old Easter basket — most likely because it was handy and I couldn’t lay my hands on a bucket just then — but for the past several years, when spring rolls around and chases the frost out of the yard, I make my annual descent into the basement to fetch the baseball basket.

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As near as I can tell, the readers of this newspaper are pretty evenly divided on whether I should continue writing columns about President Donald Trump. I get emails, letters, Facebook messages and comments from readers I bump into at church or in the grocery store who assure me that I am contributing something meaningful to our democracy and urge me on, as a member of the much-maligned free press doing my best to speak truth to power. At the very least, those of us in the media who are willing to take on Trump are providing some measure of relief or catharsis to those who feel threatened, disgusted or alienated by the president.

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There has never been a president like Donald Trump. There has never been a campaign like the campaign that Trump waged to win the election. And there has never been a first month of a new administration like the first month of the Trump administration.

His detractors — and I am one of them — need to stop saying, “This is not normal.” Of course it is not normal. It was never supposed to be normal. The appeal of Trump was built upon that precipice. The American people were fed up with “normal” as it pertains to American politics, so to use that particular phrase as a rallying cry of the resistance is to miss the point entirely.

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They were both quiet, their voices barely audible even during roll call, and absolutely silent otherwise. Even as a new teacher, I understood that freshman English was a class that most students simply endured, rather than enjoyed. I had not really enjoyed it that much myself when I had been a freshman, so what flint did I have that could generate a spark for writing narrative or comparison and contrast essays among my own students? Neither Steve nor David seemed to express any more interest than I had in the immense possibilities that writing an essay might contain.

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For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

—1 Corinthians 13:12 King James Version (KJV)

As I was looking through the photographs from around the country from the Women’s March last Saturday — including more than a few of my wife and daughter, who marched with a group of friends in Asheville — I was struck by the many expressions and images of sheer joy, when I guess I was expecting something more along the lines of anger and defiance. By all accounts, the turnout for the marches across the country far exceeded anyone’s most optimistic expectations, and the overall theme seemed to be the restoration of some lost hope for a lot of people who have not had much to celebrate in the past few months.

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I turned 18 three weeks too late to vote for Ronald Wilson Reagan for president of the United States, but if I had been eligible to vote, I would have voted for him. The world seemed too complicated and too dark to me. Every night on the evening news, there were reports of more violence in the Middle East, rising interest rates, out of control inflation, an economy in the toilet. President Carter — who nobody doubted was a good man with the best of intentions — just didn’t seem to be the kind of man to lead the country out of what he himself called a “crisis of the spirit.” He coined that phrase in what would later be remembered as the infamous “malaise speech.”

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I don’t know about you, but I need a quiet place about now. I need to turn off the news and close my laptop and just take a break from all of the noise. I need to put my fury away, shut down all the lights except for those on the Christmas tree, and have Doris Day sing “Silver Bells” to me alone, slumping down in my easy chair with a hot mug of chamomile tea here as the whole miserable year collapses into darkness.

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It has been a few weeks now since the election, and I feel like someone who just came out of a coma and woke up in the hospital after suffering a traumatic injury. I am surrounded by dozens of cards and letters from friends assuring me that I am going to be OK and that “everything is going to be fine.”

A couple of friends are by my side, trying to explain what happened, but I gradually realize they are speaking another language and I have no idea what they are saying. I tell them that I do not feel fine, but they just smile and nod. My head hurts and my toes are burning like French fries in hot grease. On a little table next to my bed, there is a half-eaten container of blue Jello, and next to that, my heart, slimy and still beating, as if the doctor — perhaps a graduate of Trump University — forgot to put it back in before sewing me back up.

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I am old enough and comfortable enough with my shortcomings to just admit it: I am not very good at Halloween. I never really have been. In my youth, other kids my age would imagine and then design — or have their crafty soccer mothers design — elaborate costumes with imaginative accessories. Little Evel Knievels and their little red-white-and-blue outfits with the stars and stripes and big collars, or little Calamity Janes with their cowboy hats, flannel shirts, boots and spurs, threatening the residents of our neighborhoods with their cap pistols until the neighbors turned over their caramel apples or at least a cupful of miniature Snickers.

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I am at the salad bar, evaluating the freshness of the broccoli and spinach, deciding whether I want croutons or sunflower seeds sprinkled on top, when I perceive a short, stocky man with dark hair sizing me up from the other side. I can already sense what is coming. Am I a confederate? Or, shudder, a liberal? Maybe apolitical, though how could I be — how could anybody be — with so much at stake in this election? He approaches, and I turn to acknowledge him just as I spear my second radish.

“That damn Hillary Clinton is out to ruin this country, you know it?” he says, leaning in a little. “If she gets in, we won’t recognize America two years from now.”

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We are still near the dawn of the Internet age. We can get just about any information we desire in a matter of seconds, so much information that a simple Google search on practically any subject will turn up literally thousands and thousands of “hits.” This has obvious advantages if you are looking for the best restaurant in, say, Hickory, or if you want to know who won the Dodgers game last night, or if you are trying to find out why your dog is sick by typing in her symptoms. It is all there for the taking.

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When I was 16 years old — going on 17 — I had a poster of Stevie Nicks, the mystical, utterly bewitching lead singer of Fleetwood Mac, on my bedroom wall. I sometimes tell people that she was my first schoolboy crush, but that is not entirely true.

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Beware, gentle readers. This story is not for the faint of heart. It is a story of betrayal, corruption, and greed. If you have ever read Dante’s classic work, “The Inferno,’ you may still have nightmares remembering the Nine Circles of Hell. Since the poem was written in the 14th century, Dante could not have anticipated the 10th, and most vicious circle, the one you enter when you call a major corporation to request a change in service, as my wife tried to do a couple of weeks ago in a noble attempt to save us a few dollars per month by disconnecting our landline.

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On my Sunday afternoon jog around Lake Junaluska, I can actually feel for the first time that summer is slipping away. There is the slightest sliver of coolness in the air, like a strand of different-colored hair, and some of the trees are beginning to flash a tiny glimpse of the dramatic changes in color that are just around the next bend. I’m pushing myself a little today, as if I might outrun the image forming now in my head of my family huddled together, waving goodbye to the best summer we’ve ever had as it pulls away like a train leaving the station.

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We made our first trip to Edisto Beach 10 years ago and almost immediately, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. We had been mired in traffic snarls for hours on I-26 and arrived much later than planned, only to find ourselves in the middle of a rainstorm reminiscent of the days of Noah once we crossed over onto the island. The kids reckoned themselves about starved to death and were scanning the roadsides for any sign of a Burger King or McDonald’s. Nothing. Not a chain restaurant in sight. The whining inside the car intensified to match the rain on the outside.

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On our way back from the coast on Saturday in bumper-to-bumper traffic just outside Charleston, I saw a billboard that not only made me laugh out loud, but also summed up this year’s election better than any political commentary I have heard or read. Some clever realtor put up a picture of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, with a banner that read, “Moving to Canada? We can help you sell your home.”

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law enforcementThere are people who believe that the reason black men seem to keep getting shot and killed by police officers is that they simply will not obey orders or “show respect” for authority. There are people who believe that this is a media-created problem, and not a race problem. There are people who believe that the Black Lives Matter movement is racist by definition, as if the implication in saying black lives matter in the first place is that no other lives matter, as if the suggestion that context matters, too, is just liberal hogwash.

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op coxBecause when she dresses like that, she is just asking for it. Because saying “no” is part of the game, not what she really means. Because she got me worked up, and that is on her. Because once you go so far, you just cannot stop. Because we were both drinking and things got a little out of hand. Because she shouldn’t have been here in the first place. Because boys will be boys. Because I’ve got my whole future in front of me.

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op frI don’t know what to tell my children, so I don’t tell them anything. Not yet anyway. It is the first day of summer vacation, and therefore, the mood in our home is one of revelry. The alarm clocks are off, the swimsuits are airing out on the railing of the deck, and the pancakes are whimsically sprinkled with chocolate chips, in the manner of a big, crooked smile. I don’t know what to tell them, so I don’t tell them anything.

The world is filled with love. The world is filled with rage. The world is filled with hatred. How can all of this be true? How can it be reconciled? How can it even be understood? Another mass shooting, this time in a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Fifty people dead. Another young, male killer, and everyone trying, as usual, to assemble pieces of his life into a picture that will explain it, why he chose to go into a nightclub just around last call and start shooting until fifty people were dead. Maybe he had ties to ISIS? Maybe he was homophobic? Maybe he had a history of mental instability?

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op coxMy daughter is turning 15 this weekend. Every 15 minutes, she reminds me that she will be driving a car in another year. And every 15 minutes, I remind her that so far she has saved exactly $3.78 toward the purchase of her first car.

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op coxMy wife and I like to host small parties or entertain our friends every three years or so, not because we love people so much as the discovery we made some years ago that throwing a party is the only surefire way to get us to clean our home.

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op merlefestAnyone who knows me well will tell you that I am a complete nut about music. There are people for whom music serves as a kind of soundtrack for their lives, so that certain bands and songs function as memory jukeboxes, instantly evoking specific times, places, and people whenever they come on, regardless of the circumstances.

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op bryant“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

— Dylan Thomas

Maybe it is because I have followed his career since he was a teenager playing high school basketball at Lower Merion in a Philadelphia suburb. Or maybe it is because I wanted to pay my respects to a basketball legend, one of a small handful of the greatest players ever to play the game. Most likely, it is because I have also seen my “game” diminished by the ravages of time, and I wanted to watch Kobe Bryant play his last game in the NBA as a simple act of brotherhood.

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op coxI have turned off the talk shows, put down the newspapers, avoided barbershops and changed the subject at family gatherings. I know that eventually, this being an election year with the future of the republic at stake, I will have to put on my waders and trudge back into the primordial muck of politics. But not now. Not today. Because it is spring, and the world is, as the poet E.E. Cummings said, “mud luscious and puddle wonderful,” a long drink of elixir to rouse us from our long winter’s naps. Because every tree, every bush, every dandelion, every blade of grass is alive, alive, alive, as I am alive on my deck with a good book and a glass of red wine filled nearly to the brim, as the children are alive on their bikes and their skateboards and their own sweet adrenaline.

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op coxA few weeks ago, I suddenly developed a thirst that I could not seem to quench. No, this is not a metaphor. For days, I drank water by the quart — and probably a gallon of orange juice — but no matter how much liquid I consumed, in less than an hour, I would be thirsty again. Of course, this led to several sleepless nights, as my body became a living, breath recycling plant. I was exhausted, but I was up and down all night at the mercy of my relentless thirst.

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op coxI hate having my picture taken. The simple truth is that I have found clever ways to avoid it for most of my life. But there is one picture of me I have always liked. In it, I am standing near the road between my old apartment and the park across the street in my hometown of Sparta, North Carolina. In the crook of my right arm, I am holding my nephew, Adam, who is 3-years-old. I am wearing my favorite shirt, a gray R.E.M. T shirt, and it is a beautiful day. Adam is squinting, and I am smiling broadly, as if to say, “This is MY nephew!”

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op panthersFor some time, I have been worried that my children are not learning the coping skills they will need in order to handle disappointment, failure, and setbacks when they grow up. They are, after all, growing up in a culture that values self-esteem above all other things, which means that they have for years been given prizes, trophies, ribbons, tee shirts, and certificates for everything they do, which includes simply showing up — or not showing up if they don’t feel like it. I think the idea is to make sure that all children understand that they are special, and to protect them from potentially self-esteem damaging experiences such as losing a tee ball game.

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op coxI was dreaming, I can’t say exactly what. It was that kind of dream you have that floats away like a birthday balloon the second you open your eyes and let go of the string. In the dream, I slipped on something and was startled awake, about 15 minutes before the alarm was set to go off.

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op frI was in my early twenties before I knew what I wanted to do with my life. My son, Jack, is 10 years old and he already knows what he wants to do with his. He wants to play point guard in the National Basketball Association, specifically for the Charlotte Hornets. His favorite thing in the world is going to see the Hornets play basketball at Time Warner Cable Arena, where he can root for his favorite team while imagining himself on the court pulling up for a three-pointer at the top of the key, or “breaking someone’s ankles” with a wicked crossover dribble before finding a wide open Frank Kaminsky all alone under the basket for a thunderous alley-oop dunk.

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op coxWhen we wake up on Christmas Eve, it is nearly 70 degrees and raining so hard that when our miniature dachshund is about to go out for his morning trip to the bathroom, he takes a look up at me instead as if to say, “Are you kidding me, man? No thanks, I’ll just hold it.” What he means, of course, is that he will go back to bed just long enough for us to jump in the shower or start making breakfast, whereupon he will find a nice, quiet room somewhere in the house and surreptitiously relieve himself on the leg of a chair, reappearing minutes later, with another look that says, “No worries, mate. That room is all clear and secure.”

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op fr“OK, everybody, huddle up, huddle up!”

But nobody really seems to want to huddle up. Our point guard is standing at a slant, hands on his hips, looking at the scoreboard with a seething contempt. Home 2, Guests 12. We’re the home team.

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op footballWhen I was 12 years old, there were few things I liked better than the Dallas Cowboys. Definitely my Farrah Fawcett poster. Maybe Fudge Royale ice cream. But not much else.

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op dogMike and I were not exactly a match made in heaven. In fact, I didn’t think we were much of a match at all. At the time we were “introduced,” I lived in a tiny rented house with an equally tiny yard, and I already had one dog, a skittish collie named Russ, who was skeptical of anything new, especially other dogs. I barely had room for Russ, and barely got the bills paid each month. The very last thing I needed or wanted was another dog.

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op frSomewhere at this very moment, a political science major is writing a dissertation on why young people these days are so apathetic with regard to politics and the issues. In the 2014 election, for example, slightly less than 20 percent of people between the ages of 18 to 29 cast a ballot. According to The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, that is the “lowest youth turnout rate ever recorded in a federal election.”

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op coxWhen my daughter, who is a freshman this year at Tuscola High School, made the Color Guard this summer, the first thought I had was that I would soon be seeing high school football games again for the first time since the late 1980s, when I was a fledgling sports writer for the Watauga Democrat in Boone. My second thought was that I would finally get my first real taste of the vaunted Tuscola-Pisgah rivalry, an intense battle that has been going on for more than 50 years.

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op frIf we are ever going to have any hope of stemming the bloody tide of mass shootings — which happens in our country with such depressing regularity that we might pause for a day to shake our heads before moving on with the awful knowledge that absolutely nothing will be done about it — then we must first agree with the all-powerful gun lobby that no single piece of gun legislation is going to make much of a difference in stopping the bloodshed. 

They are right — we do not need one piece of gun legislation. Or two. Or three. We need to change the entire gun culture, and not just the gun culture, but the “culture of me.”

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op dirtycoffeeI had never heard of “The Red Pill Theory” or the “manosphere” until I saw references to them in the story that broke over the weekend concerning the co-owners of Waking Life Espresso, a coffee shop in West Asheville. By Monday, the story was in the Asheville Citizen-Times and on WLOS.

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op fr2“So, you’re a band parent, huh? Boy, is your life about to change.”

My wife and I heard that a lot a few months ago after our daughter, a rising freshman at Tuscola High School, made the Color Guard. I had only the vaguest notion of what the Color Guard was, and no recollection at all of whether there was such a thing when I pounded the bass drum in the marching band for Alleghany High back in the 1970s. I was a freshman myself once upon a time, adapting as fast and as well as I could to this intense new world around me. Now it is my daughter’s turn.

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op frSome of them arrive four or five days early, packed up and just sitting there on the Haywood County Fairgrounds like gigantic metal suitcases that won’t quite close all the way. The rest come later. The Scrambler, the Flying Bumblebees, the Pirate Boat, the rickety little coaster that somebody has to snap together like Legos. The booths that house impossible games, rows of cheaply sewn stuffed animals, the biggest the size of couch cushions. Overinflated basketballs and rims the size of pie tins that are never quite level. Five thousand plastic toys made in China, none of them bigger than a candy bar. Three throws, five bucks, everyone’s a winner.

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op frI would wager that I despise politics just about as much as you do. Whatever your political affiliation, we would probably agree that the system is broken, that politicians on both sides of the aisle are too beholden to special interests, and that all too often, we end up voting against someone far more passionately than we ever vote for someone. Maybe that is just a different way of saying that we usually vote for the lesser of two evils.

Another thing that we might agree on is that politics is much too often the Theater of the Absurd, in which candidates — many of whom are extravagantly wealthy — are rebranded as “common folk” to appeal to the electorate. Without question, the vast majority of political ads we see these days are attack ads, ad hominem attacks on the character of the opponent, but on those occasions when we do get a glimpse of the candidate, the staging will be very studied and precise, calculated in such a way to convey the same message: he or she is just one of us.

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op coxIt looked so good on paper, the way terrible ideas always do. Instead of boarding our miniature dachshund as we usually do when we go to the beach each summer, we were going to take him with us this year.

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op edistoEDISTO ISLAND, SC — Whether it is a time-honored family tradition or simply the very real possibility that, as a family, we share a stunning lack of imagination, the Cox family always spends a week on Edisto Island every summer.

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op coxI have seen more Confederate flags flying in the past couple of weeks than I have seen in years. A few days ago, I was at the grocery store and saw a young fellow with a Confederate flag waving above the tailgate of his truck. As he pulled out of his parking space, another guy walking by said something to him — I couldn’t hear what — and then gave him a big smile and a thumbs up.

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op coxMany years ago, in a time and a place that seems so far away to me now, I courted a young lady and fancied I was in love. We were really just kids playing at being grown-ups, but we believed we were destined to spend eternity together.

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op frBy the time I was in the fifth grade, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a lawyer. While other kids my age grew up with dreams of becoming race car drivers or ballet dancers or senators (surely you remember those student government types), I dreamed of fierce cross-examinations, roasting the accused on the witness stand until they blurted out desperate confessions, anything to escape my searing questions and the inferno of their own guilt, as I composed it like Dante for a jury of their peers.

“Who IS that man?” one attractive juror would whisper to another. “So brilliant, so dashing, so well-groomed and articulate.”

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op veteransIt is just a beautiful day, this Memorial Day. I am able to get a little work done in the morning, and then sneak off to the fitness center for a quick workout and a run around Lake Junaluska while Tammy makes a project of the pantry, which has over the past couple of years become “overstuffed” and is about as organized as a cat parade. The kids are now old enough to help us put away the groceries, and they have embraced this new stage of responsibility by developing a truly impressive talent to put things in completely random places. Why shouldn’t a can of beans be flanked on the shelf by a jar of Maraschino cherries and a dozen eggs?

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