My First Cigar

PREFACE: I have never smoked a thing in my life. D.A.R.E ingrained in me a hatred for drugs of all sorts, and then a health class video about smoking put me off the idea of smoking forever. A man was holding a hospital dish, and with a gloved hand was gently pulling up strings of sticky phlegm while saying ,“This is what lives in your lungs when you smoke.” I almost vomited – it’s an image that has stuck with me for the past fifteen years. 

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Was in Pensacola for the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation.

It was a memorable connecting flight for a couple of reasons. First, because we were running a few minutes behind schedule, the pilot promised to “fly it like he stole it.” This, I thought, was both reassuring and terrifying, as I already get nervous on planes, and felt no desire to see if he could bend the MD-90 to shave off a few minutes on the already brief flight.

The second reason was more sobering – I’d never seen a military casket in person. The pilot announced that we were returning a soldier, and that there would probably be a slight delay once we landed to accommodate the ceremony and to let the soldier’s family off the plane first. I noted several slumped shoulders at the announcement, which irked me. I will not pass judgment because it’s entirely possible the shoulder slumpers were depressed by the sobering reality of what war costs individual families. My uncharitable side believes they slumped at the idea of something getting in the way of their disembarking.

When we landed, the passengers started taking pictures of the casket as it was brought out, and of the soldiers waiting to carry it to the hearse. I don’t know how I feel about this. Part of me wanted to take pictures as well, since it was a ceremony one does not see everyday. Part of me felt it was disrespectful to take pictures at someone else’s funeral, just because it was fancier.

Do you get to photograph the grief of strangers, because the service rendered was to everyone?

Do you get to photograph the grief of strangers, because the service rendered was to everyone?

What do you think?

The air show was fun. I have been going to airshows all my life – it comes with being raised by a military pilot. I’ve seen more fighter planes and helicopters than most I’d bet, and heard stories to go along with them all.

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There is something breathtaking and arousing about airplanes. Even though I get nervous flying, I could watch fighter pilots twist around the sky all day. I did, in fact, watch fighter pilots twist around the sky all day. The only strange point was a stunt helicopter done up with a face on the front – Autopilot. He was a little dopey, playing with a giant yo-yo and blowing balloon bubbles. There was a glider plane with a jet attached (“So…a plane,” my brother mused), which we were all prepared to tease until it started gracefully looping through the sky to classical music, making calligraphy-like loops behind it.

Music is another thing that makes an air show fun. Military air shows know how to build a soundtrack, and sponsored planes have their own musical scores and movie nods. A clunky WWII cargo plane flew while “Pink Elephants on Parade” blared from the loud speaker. My family debated what our soundtracks would be if we flew. For example, my brother said his hole show would go to the soundtrack of “Footloose,” with “Top Gun” interludes.  I will say the F-35 presentation was disappointing, as they did two fly-bys and left. I’m not a huge F-35 advocate. I think the F-22A is perhaps the sexiest plane ever made.

*drool – if only this beauty had been in Pensacola….*

The air show’s zenith were the Blue Angels. Flying F/A-18s and performing precision maneuvers, there is nothing like them. The Thunderbirds are glorious, but the Angels have a frightening margin of error within which they perform. There is only 18 inches of space between planes in tight formation, which is terrifying when you consider how large the airplane is. I’m not sure everyday people could maintain a tight 18 inch proximity while performing choreography.

The best part was when, after a beautiful diamond roll, the announcer told the audience to keep watching the group. Obediently, the audience obliged, providing the number 5 plane to do a low, fast pass. The gasps were audible, followed by laughter. It’s amazing – all these veterans know the pass is coming, and yet we’re all still startled by it. Wonderful, how people can let joy in.

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After dinner that night, my brother asked me to share a cigar with him. He’s big into cigars now that he’s in the Army. Dad was big into cigars when he was a Marine. Cigars and my family seem to go hand in hand.

I thought about it – I’ve deflected offers throughout my life with enough ease that it never really occurred to me that I didn’t know what I was saying no to. After enough time, saying no is like saying you don’t eat meat, I imagine – it becomes a part of your character. And here was my brother asking, and I decided that yes, I would join him.

So there we were in the unfortunately chilly air of a Florida autumn, sipping whiskey and smoking cigars. I hate to be so pedestrian about the smoking experience, but given all the hype about tobacco I was really hoping for more oomph. I inhaled and exhaled and smoked away, and all I could think was “This is it? You’re just sucking smoke into your lungs?” I did relax more as the night wore on, but I imagine that was the quality whiskey as much as the cigar.

The conversation was good – my brother and I got into a intricate debate about U.S. Foreign Policy. West Point vs. University of Chicago. Military vs. Politics. Realism vs. Pragmatic Optimism – this last one was a fluke. UChicago is home to some of the most renowned Realist scholars – Morgenthau, Mearsheimer, etc. I was supposed to be the realist, except that my Christian Humanist teaching also makes me a moralist, and thus I think more of an optimist. I feel as though I was clear winner of the debate, but my brother put forth some good points too, and I wouldn’t want him to think I didn’t respect his (loser) point of view.

Dad just listened – later, he said he was proud of both of us. I wonder how he had the patience to listen to his eldest and youngest children hash out military doctrine for three hours…perhaps his cigar was stronger.

I woke up with a mouth tasting like an ashbin. This taste stuck around for two days, despite brushing my teeth several times and eating what I thought would be “absorbing “ foods. Still, I’m glad I did it. My first smoke at the age of 31 – never stop growing and experiencing!

(Having just typed that, I would say you can skip smoking. It really is just putting smoke in your mouth and blowing it out again. It does make you feel more relaxed, but really, if you’re not smoking you’re not missing much…You’re welcome, TRUTH movement.)

Update: Mearsheimer went to West Point? No wonder the overlap!

There I was, inverted over Hanoi...

There I was, inverted over Hanoi…

Shameless Product Placement

Since I’ve been back, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the items I took with me to China which really helped me. Here are some of the products which I think lived up to their names/functions, and which I would recommend picking up if you’re planning on traveling where the environment is challenging. These are products I picked up before going to China. There were goods I bought there which I’m glad I waited to buy – like my walking stick.  There were things I already had (solid walking shoes, multifunctional clothing).

I used Magellan’s to buy several of my products, however their website is down while they switch ownership. TravelSmith is good, but I find them a little overpriced and their goods are catered towards the fancier people. Amazon is Amazon (all hail…) and you can find most of this stuff there as well.

  1. Go Girl

Go Girl

The Go Girl allows women to pee standing up. It’s a flexible silicon tube. It’s great if there is no functioning toilet around you, yet there is still a “bathroom.” This would also work well if you are going camping and have absolutely no bathroom or comfortable squatting area. Make sure that you bring a ziplock bag for it, though being made of silicon it is easy to clean. Note that the packaging suggests you can carry it in the tube in the provided bag. This is true, and is what I did, but I have the feeling that over time the carton could get damaged.

It’s available at Amazon here.

  1. I can breathe! Mask

I can Breathe

I originally found this on Magellan’s, however at one point they stopped selling the mask – though they still carried the refills. Amazon does carry the brand, though my plain mesh mask is not on the list. You can also go straight to the source and look for the ACF Pollution Mask / Honeycomb mask. Simply put, after my first month in China not wearing the mask my chest started to ache. I thought I was dying somehow (see my “Middlechondriac” post), and my brother pointed out that I was knowingly breathing bad air. So I started wearing my mask, and after an additional week of hacking up sticky phlegm, my chest stopped aching. I attribute that to my mask.

It’s a straightforward deal – there is a charcoal filter which velcros inside the mesh mask. I could not wear my glasses and visor at the same time when riding my scooter, due to the fogging. If you are going somewhere which has air quality issues, buy a mask. Skip the fancy colors and patterns unless you are worried about being judged for a lack of pollution fashion sense.

3. Converter Kit Part 1

Converter

Don’t skimp on this – buy a decent set. Mine is from TravelSmith and it worked wonderfully. The big point with this is to monitor the lights on top – they’ll blink furiously if the power is wonky. And a nice box like this means you can easily organize the plugs, and you’ll know when you don’t have one. Plus, they work all over the world. I prefer to travel with a converter kit as well as a few extra adaptor plugs, for any dual-wattage appliances I have. I needed the converter to charge my e-reader, but my PS3 only needed an adaptor.

Look ahead of time for the wattage of your travel destination. And don’t leave things plugged in too long – I fried my converter in Spain because it was an old house and I was charging a laptop for too long.

4. Converter Kit Part 2 – PlugBug for Mac

The PlugBug

While getting my laptop updated (before I spilt tea on it one month later, essentially wasting a hundred dollars), I mentioned I was going abroad to China, and the helpful Apple salesman suggested a PlugBug.

Though I only used it a month, I highly recommend it. If you are taking an Apple product abroad, buy a PlugBug world. There is a fantastic built in USB port built into the adaptor, so  you can charge your laptop and a separate Apple product at the same time (instead of having to plug everything into the computer itself). It is a little pricey for a single brand product, but given the prices of Apple products, a little extra insurance feels warranted.

5. Blister Bandaids 

Bandaids

Blisters are the worst. Let’s all agree on this point – blisters are awful. You with me? Good.

I will sing the praises of these bandaids to the rooftops. I will write sonnets to these bandaids. I hike a lot, and China provided me plenty of opportunities to climb. These bandaids saved me from blisters. They’re waterproof so they won’t wash or sweat off. They have medicine in them to treat the blister while you walk. They’re gel-like and cushioned, so you don’t feel any extra rubbing on the affected area. Best of all, they’re inexpensive and you can buy them in any drugstore. Oh, and did I mention that they have a great shape which better contours to toes and fingers? Because they do. They’re magic.

If you plan on hoofing it in Paris, hiking in China, or just walking around Chicago in heels for a night of microbrews, put one or two of these in your purse/satchel, and walk in confidence.

Airborne

Airborne

Placebo or not, I bought a bulk container at Costco (3 tubes), and took it regularly. I felt like it worked as a Vitamin C supplement at least, because fresh fruit and vegetables were difficult to find, at least at first. Also, I was told to avoid a great deal of fresh produce if I did not wash it myself in purified/distilled water. A supplement, either through something like Airborne, or a multivitamin, will help you get those immune boosters and vitamins you might miss when being over careful on diet.

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That’s about it. I had other things, but these were the ones which I used most often. For example, I had water purification tablets, but I did not use them because bottled water was so prevalent. Had I done more trekking/rural tours, I would have used the tablets and drops.

I took hand sanitizer, and a couple of packets of those disinfecting wipes. Kleenex was available there, as were most of those minor drugstore things.

These are the products I am glad I had with me. I couldn’t afford to buy the fancy items I would have wanted, like a fancy solar charger. I didn’t get germ purification systems or all those awesome little goods that you don’t need but make you feel like you are super prepared. I was going on a relative budget, and I had to be mindful of the long term needs of living abroad. If you’re going to be abroad for a long time, you have to expect to adapt.

I think that’s all for now!

Quick Tips

I’ve been back for a little while now, and I feel like I should write a few quick notes which might help you if you are going to go to China.

Nice, neat, and quick – here are my few tips for China:

To get around the firewall:

- If you’re going to stay for awhile, find a VPN router for your computer

- To text around the firewall, consider getting either Whatsapp or WeChat on your phone. The former lets you text over wifi, which saves you money on texting. WeChat is the Chinese texting system, which again you can use over wifi.

 

General Travel Tips (not just for China, though mostly for China):

- Make a color photocopy of your passport/visa, laminate it, and present that if someone demands ID. Should you get pressed further, demand to go into a hotel or nearby business. Don’t give your passport out on the streets. This is a note for all travel, but I really like having a laminated copy of my passport on my personage

- It’s best not to drink the water anywhere if you can help it. Shanghai and Beijing are technically fine for brushing teeth, but buy bottled water.

- Avoid ice unless you can verify where it’s from.

- Buy a mask. You might never use it, but then again you don’t want to be in Beijing when there’s a toxic smog warning

- No raw veggies or fruit for short stays

- Wear slippers in hotels. Just wear them because the floors are not what they appear…they probably have a residual saliva film on them.

- Ladies: Tuck a 100rmb note in your bra and never acknowledge it.

I guess if you’ve been reading my blog, then you know more of the nuances of living abroad. These notes are just the nitty-gritty for newcomers.

 

Now that I’m back, I imagine I’ll be more reflective of my time abroad, and wondering about where I’ll go next.  Since getting back, I’ve done some conventions, did a fight workshop in Philadelphia, and will be going to Florida in a few weeks. So, busy!

The next post I’m going to do is shameless product placement. Be advised.

Thank you for following me on my stay in China – I’ll be far more verbose when I’m not so tired. I promise :)

The Persuasiveness of Free Wine

Flying back to America, I got a complementary upgrade to business class. This is unheard of in general, more so on trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific flights.

So I did something I never do – I drank to excess. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a drink or two. In China, I lamented how difficult it was to find a proper place to grab a drink after work. But I don’t get drunk, at least not very often. I can’t afford to – I usually have a commute or work the next day. That’s not the point here.

In the course of my drinking, I also wrote. Now, I’ve been sitting on this post since I wrote it, because I’m embarrassed. I’ve read it and reread it, shaking my head in disapproval and disdain at my rambling, loose prose with it’s inability to hold a plot. And I’ve debated over the following point:

Do I present my rambling, drunken writing to you?

I’ve worked at cultivating a certain tone in this blog. I haven’t posted any of my especially angry rants, unless I edited them down and removed their fangs. I don’t whine. I try to keep things entertaining, or at least educational. And I have always maintained very strong control over what I say.  A second point: I have always disliked the idea of drunkenness, precisely because I have a dislike for giving up control over my body and mind. (It’s why I’m such a blast a parties – nothing better than sober wit, am I right?) Me getting sloshed at high altitudes – that was my choice, sure as anything. And what I wrote was more, well, goofy than anything I would normally write.

Then I think – well, perhaps this is just a chance to show a seldom seen side of me. The side of jean after…let me think…one bourbon, one champagne, and five or so glasses of red wine. Yeah, I mixed my alcohol – probably why my story ends as it does.

So here you go – this is what happens when you put a happy, frightened flyer in luxury and alcohol. Cheers!

Jean’s Original Post while Returning Home – Written over Two hours and Unedited

I am a little drunk.

I got a free upgrade to Business Class! Woohoo!

Seriously – the seats move to be almost flat! I get hors d’ourves and stuff! The seat has seven different controls – including automatic “ZZZ” and “landing/takeoff” functions. I don’t know how I ranked this position. I can’t afford this luxury. I sincerely hope this isn’t Fate having a joke at my expense. I’ve done so much that I hope she isn’t cruel like that. Still, I guess if I go it’s appropriate to go so unlike myself – drunk and at the mercy of a Cantonese keyboard, random switch. That’s the worst – at best I speak a little Mandarin. Having a Cantonese keyboard is like having a Greek trying to help you with French – best intentions, but ultimately futile.

Here’s the thing – I am a nervous flyer. But I have gotten better – I don’t panic so much now, because I recognize that I have no control over my situation when I am miles above the surface of the Earth. So different than climbing mountains via steep staircases and diving below the surface of the sea. I also spend takeoff reciting the aforementioned cited “Ulysses” to myself. It helps.

A Boeing plane also helps. I feel…let’s say more at ease. Boeing knows its sh..stuff. Ha! Not so drunk to curse in front of an audience intentionally. Glimpse of sobriety? I can’t release hold so easily.

The dangerous thing about getting a free upgrade to Business Class, with its reclining seats and full service menu, is that they give you just about as much booze as you want, provided you don’t act like an idiot. And I am not an idiot, so they give me all the red wine I can drink! Even though I admitted aloud to the wonderful flight attendant that I shouldn’t be mixing bourbon and red wine. Because I am going to regret it several hours from now. Though I will sleep like a drunken sailor. Bourbon is great – if you can, I recommend the Delta’s signature blend of Woodford and cranberry. With a slice of lime.

But before I start sounding like above idiot (and you don’t know how many times Spellcheck has caught me just to get this far – seriously it’s one of the few decent things this autocorrect has done so far), I’m going to say that the alcohol has made my nervousness about flying much less…less. I hate admitting fear. I hate admitting that there is something that makes me shake like I can’t control my hands. The only time I feel like this is when I play violin in concert. I’ve improved – but there are no armrests in business class. I do better when I can grip something when I get nervous. But I admit I am not nervous. This is its own kind of scary. Drinking too much is a little scary, though not nearly so scary as being unable to control your life.

I cannot control my course. I know my destination, but I put trust in a stranger. I trust that someone I don’t know will take me from countries I’ve been bred to fear, across a vast collection of depths, to my home. I am not so drunk as to realize how trusting that sounds. Positivity. There is a storm the size of America out there. There are bastards and terrorists and cracks and loose nuts and these are the things which plague my mind when I sit by myself and stew.

Ah…my hands don’t shake after…four or five glasses of red Rioja wine and a glass of bourbon. In your face, fear!!! And now I’m typing to an audience! Hello, readers! I’m drunk at 29,000 feet! They gave me a choice of three desserts! My seat reclines to a bed! Downside: No armrests to grip when I am scared.

Also I am watching the Muppet’s second movie – great when tipsy. Whee!!

It’s amusing and upsetting to the strong, disciplined part of me how stupid my body is right now. I’ve been blowing raspberries aloud everytime I remember I am over the Soviet Union. Like an adolescent. She is disgusted that I can’t be in control of my facets. But whatever, fearful me- let’s enjoy the last 8+ hours of this flight by passing out and waking up somewhere else.

Is that Ray Liotta in the sequel?! I think I might, finally, after ten years, appreciate what alcohol is capable of. Ten years too late for college, where I was the designated driver because it felt good to be better than everyone.

I will sleep now. If you’re lucky, Sober Me will see this as a great writing opportunity and publish me to the blog, for all to see!

Because I might be pedantic, and I might be random- but damn it I am smart and worthwhile and you know it!

Before I pass out – and I am fighting this very strong urge to do so, thank you Julia and your never-ending bottle of rojio – I will say that being drunk offers a different view to the world than I ever was willing to admit. I wish I could provide you profound wisdom, but I fear myself unequal to the task.

Being drunk provides no answers – only loose moralities. I’m sorry.

Only morality is what makes us special. Is what makes sex unique.

I am so sorry to those drunk teenagers hoping for resolution.

——

Sigh.

I mean – I think I caught sight of two teens making out before I passed out, which is why I waxed poetic at the end there.

And I did pass out. I had enough sense to drink my bottled water and ask for a glass of water – though I don’t remember doing this. I also put all the wine and most of my dinner back into the complementary air sickness bag (I also got a bit on my beautiful quilted comforter, which I got replaced. *blush* thank God I was the only one awake in the cabin at that point…) What a waste. Still, if there is a safe environment for experimenting with tolerances, an airplane seems like it. When I woke up about an hour and a half before landing, I asked the flight attendant (Julia, apparently) why there was a glass next to me. She smiled and said I had asked for water. I admitted I did not remember. Julia said I was one of her favorite passengers. This I do believe, because when I get tipsy I get very aware of other people.

For breakfast I ate two bites of granola and yogurt, and sipped black coffee. I woke up still drunk after many hours of blissful unconsciousness. In fact, my buzz lasted well past landing in Detroit. It was just before my connection flight that the headache settled in. I sipped water and took aspirin. I am blessed with a quick turnaround on hangovers.

I do remember Business Class, though – the seat going all the way flat, and a big proper pillow. I could curl up and let the waves of slurred air just swing me to sleep, and I didn’t mind the turbulence. They give you whatever you want, and you get a swag bag full of nice things like high end lip balm. They make it clear that it’s not for every price point up at the front of the plane, and I relished it.

And now I’m back. Back home. Technically, I’ve been back – like I said, I’ve been sitting on this post. Hope you liked it. You probably won’t see her again for a long, long time.

Orwell’s “198Kors”

There is a place in Beijing called The Silk Market. It’s a… six-story mall, all steel and glass. The top floor is restaurants, and the basement connects to a metro tunnel in theory. I managed to find the two other nearby tunnels, both a block away.

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There is a sign on the outside of the building – if you are dissatisfied with anything you buy, you can call a number for a refund. The Silk Market is all about customer service, about ensuring that their products meet your needs.

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 The Silk Market is a knockoff haven.

Every floor is dedicated to a different product – bags and leather goods in the basement, clothing on the ground floor, electronics on the third floor, etc. Any brand you want, especially if it’s high end, is somewhere behind a glass wall in the Silk Market. And at every door of each little stall is a voice, yelling for you to stop. To buy, to just take a look. It’s the stereotype, that chorus of catcalls. If you pause, even for a moment, you will be accosted by “helpful” shopkeepers convinced you are, in fact, going to buy whatever it is you thought you saw.

There are signs, on many of the doors, which provide the following guidelines:

  1. The shop is government approved.
  2. Haggling is not allowed
  3. Everything in the shop is genuine

So it was that I walked into a handbag shop, to buy my sister a Michael Kors bag. The woman wouldn’t let me hold any of them for very long. She kept juggling them out of my hands, a deft maneuver to get me hooked on several (and thus more likely to buy more bags). I was having none of it. I knew what I wanted.

I’ve talked about bargaining and haggling before. This type of haggling – for high-priced knockoffs – requires a slightly different approach. I knew which bag I wanted before I walked into the store, having walked nonchalantly around the basement level three times, taking a break to walk up a level or two for awhile. I let the woman hand me bag after bag while I walked around the cramped interior. You can’t show interest. You can’t want anything. It has to be a chore, looking for something. Even if you find the most beautiful thing in the world, you can’t admit you’ve seen it.

And so when I eventually decided I’d seen enough bags, I gestured to the one I was going to pick up. The “genuine” “Michael Kors” “leather” handbag.

 “How much for that one?” I asked.

“Two for one?” she countered.

“No. This one is enough,” I said.

“You pay rmb or US?”

“I’m from the US”

“350.”
“350 rmb? Perfect!” I exclaim. This prompts a cackle.

“You said you pay US – 350 US!”

“Sorry to be confusing. I’ll pay rmb.”

“4000 rmb.” She shows me on the calculator in her hands.

“That’s too much. I can’t afford that!” I say, and set the bag down. The bag levitates back into my hands and an arm around my shoulder twirls me back to the interior of the store.

“How much you want to pay?” She asks.

Now, there is a sign on the door, clear as day and bright as the fluorescent lights above, that says that the price is fixed. That this bag is the real deal and that I am not allowed to haggle.

“400 rmb,” I say. The woman makes a strangled sound. Her compatriot, who is still convinced that she can sell Dad a “Gucci” wallet, laughs.

“No, no, no! Too little! 3500 rmb,” she counters. And now we’re haggling.

Tip: When looking for the quality of a fake, check the interior. The outsides will always look good, even perfect, but the inside is a dead giveaway. For example, the inside of this Kors bag is filled with nylon-like cloth, sort of like a cheap windbreaker.

In his classic novel “1984,” George Orwell introduces the term “doublespeak.” It’s when you can believe two things at once, hold two separate truths in one’s mind at the same time. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia. We aren’t haggling over this bag. It’s more than believing a lie – we believe lies and tell lies all the time and with ease. Sometimes I think that lying is one of our great accomplishments as human beings.

Why I describe what we’re doing as doublespeak is because there are signs saying that we can’t do the very thing we’re doing, and we aren’t doing the very thing we’re doing, but we can and are. Both are true. This whole building should be in quotation marks – a “market” where you can buy “quality,” “authentic,” “brand name,” “goods.”

“1000 rmb – good price. My final price,” she says.

“I live in Chengdu. I can get it for 550 in Chengdu.” (This is my lie – they don’t have many high quality fakes in Chengdu yet.)

“Ok, my sister, ok. Be nice to me.”
“I am being very nice to you. I’ll go up to 550.”

“This is real Michael Kors! High quality!”

“Yes it is. I can go to 600.”

“Yes – ok.”

I’ve been swindled. Twenty minutes of work and I’ve overpaid. I just get so guilty when I bargain. It’s hard not to feel like I’m being a total bastard. But then I remember that they’d bleed me dry and hang me from the rafters to get the last pennies from my pockets, because to them I am a millionaire.

It’s exhausting.

If you go – be it for a calligraphy set, a pair of Beats by Dr Dre, a Gucci purse, or a canteen with Harry Potter in a Communist hat – go well-rested and well-fed. Go at the top of your game, and go with a heart made of stone.

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