Archive for the ‘healthy living’ Category

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Blog is Moving

March 27, 2014

This is a heads-up for everyone who reads this blog.

In just a week’s time, I will be moving all the contents of this blog over to another site: theopengates.com

I will let the subscribers know when to move your subscription over so you can continue to get updates when I write.

Mike Phillips

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Examine the Layers of Communication

March 25, 2014

layersMy friend Charlie and I had to utilize all our geek abilities, but we finally got the turntable to make sounds as we played the LP slowly. It was the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. We had heard through a reliable source there were hidden messages in some of the songs. We played it for an hour and then we found one. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” there was some funky background music and then a creepy voice made an announcement.

Charlie was sure the voice said “I BURIED PAUL”. I believed the ghastly voice said “CRANBERRY SAUCE”. Stephen King I’m not.

Whatever it was they put on the album (John Lennon claimed it was “Cranberry Sauce”…I feel vindicated…), they masked some of their messages deep in the midst of their music. I know they probably did it to create buzz about the album, but that is ludicrous to me. They were one of the greatest rock bands of their day. They didn’t need the gimmicks. Apparently, someone in their decision-making circle felt they did.

This is the picture I lead with to help you understand Layered Communication. As I said in the previous article, Layered Communication is one reason there are so many misunderstandings in human interaction.

If we committed ourselves to single-layered communication as often as possible, we would eliminate most of our fighting.

Why do we hide so many messages within simple statements? There are probably many reasons for doing this, but I find five categories for these reasons.

1. Fear: We fear saying some things so we hide them among the words of another piece of information. This motivation sits at the heart of most passive-aggressive communication. One person is angry and wants the other person to know it. But they don’t want to be seen as angry. Or maybe there are afraid of retribution. Or perhaps they believe the person will reject them when they express their anger. So instead of letting the other person see their anger clearly, they let it color otherwise simple communication. If you’ve ever had a friend say something innocent to you and it didn’t feel innocent at all, you know this practice. Fear drives more layered communication than any other factor.

2. Revenge: We hide some of our communication so we can get even with other people for recent occasions when they have not communicated properly with us. If you won’t be straight with me, I won’t be straight with you. This game can go on for years.

3. Intimidation: People sometimes cloak the information they want to share so that those close to them will feel less confident. For instance, a husband may want his wife to appreciate him more, so he tells her all about the pretty women at work, hoping she will feel like he is a great catch without him having to say it. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires.

4. Calculation: Often, when one person wants to win an argument with another person, they will say things in order to get certain reactions. Then, they have a plan how they want to respond to those reactions. In this way, the layered communication is calculated to bring a certain result.

5. Ignorance: Many times we layer our communication because we are not aware, or have not acknowledged, that those layers are even there. Nothing surprises us more than someone who asks “What do you mean by that?” when we really thought we were being straightforward.

With those motivations in mind, let’s define each of the 8 possible layers that can be added to simple communication:

Emotions: Even those people who are in touch with their feelings often do not know how to express them. So they combine them with other pieces of information. This can be confusing. A person who says their day was fine, but the voice and body language speak “frustration”, can put the conversation on the wrong footing.

Bitterness or Resentment: I won’t seek to define either of these, and though they are different, they look the same as a sub-layer. If you are bitter or resentful, even simple information comes across as complex. Resentment is very hard to talk about, especially with the person we resent. Resentment is a decision where we have decided we cannot change a situation but we will not let go of the hurt. This hurt often bleeds over into many other things we want to communicate. When resentment has been in residence for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. The Bible tells us that bitterness then becomes ” a root which grows up to harm many people.

Sarcasm: This is often the front layer in a conversation. Sarcasm is masked anger. But it is a more societally acceptable way of expressing anger without having to admit you’re angry. This layer shows up to disguise the anger underneath. In this way, it creates a smoke screen and prevents two people from getting further into the truth of their relationship.

Body Language: Social Scientists have studied this layer for decades and still cannot come up with a definitive way to tell how to read the body language of another person. But when a person says one thing and their body seems to say another, it confuses the issue and negates much of what is being said.

False Beliefs: This layer is numerous and often the person who has these is blind to them until they make it to the top layer. For instance, a wife may be frustrated for months that her husband spends little time with her. But because he seems to be working hard, she feels like she can’t bring it up. In a conversation, she blurts out “You hate spending time with me, don’t you.” Then she feels embarrassed she said it this way.

She may be revealing a false belief. Perhaps she believes that everyone will find her to be boring, or unimportant, or that her significant friends are always going to find something better than her. Any of these “universal” beliefs can form a layer underneath what we’re trying to say.

Distraction: We often say one thing while our mind is on another thing. Or, in this distracted world, we have too many things we want to say to other people and we make the mistake of trying to say them all in one statement. This is overwhelming to both parties.

Hatred: After years of not properly dealing with anger and frustration, a person can decide they hate another person. Every time they try to communicate with this other person, the hatred layer is transmitted. This layer will often poison every piece of communication. With hatred, we hurt other people and do not even feel badly for doing so.

After looking at this list, you may wonder if there is any such thing as a simple single-layered communication. In fact, there are many ways we can communicate in single layers and the next article we will discuss how to talk to other people in this manner.

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Cures for Class Envy

March 19, 2014

envyThere is enough money in this world to go around. But being fair and equitable has never been the point of money. The idea that people will voluntarily spread the wealth around is both wrong and naive. Unfortunately, no society has successfully regulated the accumulation of money; it probably cannot be done.

In an unequal system such as the world monetary condition, there will always be winners and losers. And just as it is wrong to think that this can change, so too it is a false syllogism to believe that those who have more money somehow deserve to be rich and those with less money are getting what they deserve.

I am guessing–but I believe I’m accurate–that more than 90% of wealth and poverty is not the result of justice or rewards for effort. Most of the people in our world who work the hardest are the poorest. Many who work the least are the most wealthy.

Therefore, class envy is inevitable. The Have-nots will always stare longingly at the Haves and would trade places with them if they could. The problem is, there are few people who propose workable solutions to this condition. And it is a problem.

More and more, those who perceive they are part of underclasses–and the makeup of this group varies with every society–are rising up to demand their ‘share’ of the equity of this world. The riots in London three summers ago, the “99%”, the property crime in upper-middle-class suburbs etc. all tell us that people are suffering from a Class Envy ailment.

Economists, philosophers, politicians, writers, bankers all fail to supply answers for this disease. This is the place for religion to supply the answer. And of all the religions that addresses wealth and poverty, only Christianity has a plan that works.

When I say that Christianity has a workable plan, I only mean this plan works for individuals. Collectively, we will always have a difficulty with class envy. There will always be strife among those who do not have the bare necessities of life. But if you want to live free of this envy in your own soul, here are three prescriptions the Bible offers us:

1. Contentment: The best known set of verses on contentment is found in 1 Timothy 6:6-11:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

In this passage, the word for “contentment” means to have “sufficient amount“. Yet Paul ties this concept with the idea of “godliness”. How can we make that connection in practical living? The person who devotes themselves to finding out God’s priorities for their life and arranging their schedule to meet those priorities will find that they don’t have time and energy to devote to those things that don’t fit into God’s priorities.

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time thinking about how I should dress for going out in public, for speaking engagements and for meetings I had with clients. I spent so much time on it that God had to intervene. In my regular prayer time with God, he confronted me on how important clothes were becoming. He asked me to go an entire year without buying any new clothes. At first, I resented being asked this–though I went along with it. But as I noticed my poor inner attitude, I learned this desire to have others notice me was a toxic attitude. By the end of the year, God’s input had produced a certain degree of contentment in me. I found I no longer cared much about what others thought concerning my clothes. I now buy some when I need them and usually don’t spend much time thinking about it. And I found I don’t notice other people’s clothing as much either.

2. New Supply Chain: When a person has committed to be a follower of Jesus Christ, he is expected to accept his Lordship over their lives. This means more than obeying God. It also has perks and amenities. If we are God’s children and we serve Him, then we should expect God will take care of all our needs. Paul says it this way in Philippians 4:19: “My God shall supply all of your needs according to his riches in glory.

One Christmas, my wife and I considered something we had never done before. We thought about going into debt. We weren’t getting paid very much from the church and we had four small children. We bought them each a gift from us and made one for each of them. That emptied out our meager savings. We realized we didn’t even have the money to buy a turkey. Three days before Christmas, Kathy and I spent time in prayer and asked God either to supply our needs or to cut down on them. When no money came in the mail, we went down to the store and for the first time in our lives decided to buy groceries with our credit card.

Yet both of us felt this was not the right thing for us to do at that time. I am not saying it is evil to use a credit card or to have basic food needs. But for us on that day, we felt we could not put it on credit. So we took the food back to the shelves and left the store. We drove down to the church so I could pick up something from my office. When we went back out to the car, there was an envelope on the front seat. It contained almost $200. To this day, we have no idea who put the money there. And from that day, it became a tad easier to believe God was going to supply our financial needs. And when we came to believe that, we stopped envying those who had more. The One who supplies my needs is richer than everyone else in the universe combined.

3. Live in the Opposite Spirit: Sometimes, it is not enough to just resist envy. More often than not, if we just try and gut it out, we’ll find that we aren’t that strong. Someone close to us will buy something or be given something that we want and the envy will rear its head.

No, for envy to be crushed completely, we should go on the offensive against it. This truth is painted beautifully in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 6:2-4 says,

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

So how does giving to the needy help to do away with class envy?

Pastor Jack Hayford of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA tells of a time when he and his wife went through a hard season with their finances. He noticed as their bank account got slimmer, his attitude toward other people’s possessions became jaded. He resented and envied more and more.

As he was reading the passage above, it occurred to him that this is not primarily about giving in secret. It is about watching the attitude of the heart by taking care of what is happening inside. Since he was facing envy and resentment, he decided to take what money he did have and give some away. He took five dollar bills and filled his wallet with them. Every person in town who panhandled, he gave them five dollars. Every letter that came in the mail asking for money he sent them some. He found after about two weeks, his resentment was over and the envy was completely gone.

How did that work?

When we walk in the opposite spirit from a bad attribute, we are no longer in the control of that thing. If we feel like hating, loving our enemies breaks the power of hatred. When we feel jealous, being sympathetic pulls us out of jealousy’s grasp. And when we feel envy creeping in, charity will scatter it.

These three things will annihilate envy: Contentment, trust and charity.

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Phantom Affairs

March 14, 2014

phantomAuggie and Tami felt the emotional distance between them. They fought, made up, fought some more, made up less often, fought more vigorously, didn’t make up any more. They didn’t know what the other was angry about, but constantly replayed their own story of hurt in case anyone asked. No one did.

Tami filed for divorce first, but Auggie was willing too. They settled their legal differences amiably and spared the world the bother of having to listen to their public complaints. A year later and they legally didn’t have to contact each other for any reason.

Yet for some reason, they kept in close touch. They met for lunch and endlessly dissected the reasons why their marriage fell into the toilet. That’s when and why they came for counseling. They didn’t desire to resurrect their relationship, but they wanted me to do a post-mortem with them on the corpse that was their marriage.

After meeting three times, I discerned the basic reason for their marriage failure and I shared it with them. At first, they were both confused. Then they denied it was true. It was almost a year later Tami came back and admitted I was right. I don’t know if Auggie ever agreed with me.

Here was their problem. They both had someone else. They both had chosen another person over their partner.

Yet neither of them had a physical affair. Neither of them had met in clandestine circumstances to give their love to another person. But they had still chosen someone else. Once they began doing that, it was inevitable it would ruin their relationship.

We wrongly assume that affairs have to actually involve knowing and interacting with the other member of the tryst. Today, there are multiple warnings about emotional affairs, relationships between married people that do not result in sex. These can be devastating of course. As Laura Berman observes,

Emotional cheating (with an “office husband,” a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their “deniability,” convincing themselves they don’t have to change anything. That’s where they’re wrong. If you think about it, it’s the breach of trust, more than the sex, that’s the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.

However, neither Auggie nor Tami were enmeshed in emotional affairs. They discovered some of the alternative ways we can tie our hearts to another person without them being aware we are doing so. Let me outline the most common ways we do this:

Old Flames: A healthy person continues to process their memories long after they have experienced the original happenings. We must do this to be emotionally grounded. We need to understand what has taken place in our lives so we don’t develop the wrong ideas about our history. But when we spend an inordinate amount of time processing past romances–and especially when we do this to replace time spent thinking about our spouse–we conclude that those days were better than these. The current troubles always pale in comparison with these idealistic memories.

Romantic Novels and Movies: One wouldn’t think you could form attachments with fictional characters, but psychology has proven that this is not only possible, but certainly widespread. Yes, there are women who imagine themselves in the arena with Peeta, or men who see themselves as Danaerys’ companion. this explains the almost fanatical appeal of some fan-bases. This intrudes on a marriage when the spouse replaces their affection and admiration for their partner with the character they have obsessed upon. People can also imagine celebrities and read every article about them, taking time and mental energy away from their spouse and pouring it into a famous person.

Pornography: Most people reading this assume porn is all about taking affection away from a spouse. Actually, it is not as common as with the first two examples. Most men use porn as a mechanism to deal with relational pain, especially when they use porn to stimulate themselves.

But there are indeed some men and women who picture themselves with the people in the videos. This causes them to make constant mental comparisons between the porn stars and their partners. As I said, this is not the most common use of porn–it is most likely a pain manager–but it does exist. When a person uses porn to mentally replace their spouse, it can destroy a marriage.

Co-workers, neighbors and professional acquaintances: Throughout life, there are people who treat us well, affirm our value through their words and deeds, and give us comfort when we are emotionally distraught. When they do not receive these things from their spouse, they place even greater value on the person who is willing to give them these things. Though they do not approach them for a deeper emotional attachment, they remember how they gave us something desperately yearned for. Counselors find this happens regularly in the counseling office. Those we counsel with often form attachments based on appreciation for the help we give. Doctors, nurses, teachers, therapists etc. all have to set careful and obvious boundaries so clients do not expect to have inappropriate relationships. But just because there are boundaries, the person receiving help can fantasize about how wonderful it would be to have a deep intimate relationship with their help-giver. Perhaps neither party acts upon this and the two of them maintain a professional relationship. But the one person magnifies the other past the point of help to a much deeper bond. This can be done with people at work, neighbors we have come to know more than casually and family friends.

Horror stories are told of people who assumed someone else felt as strongly as they did in the relationship, only to find out the affection was completely one-sided. The mind has the ability to fill in both sides of the relationship, assuming the kind words and actions are proof of an intimate connection.

Auggie and Tami both had these phantom affairs and had maintained them for a long time. The upshot of this error is that every mistake their spouse made was compared to these phantom ideal people. In their minds, the phantoms would never have treated them this way.

In Auggie’s case, he obsessed about old girlfriends. Tami focused on a man who lived across the street who appeared to treat her with the respect she had always longed for from her husband. Neither of them sought out a romantic partner outside of their marriage, but the phantom partners provided the manure for all of their resentments to grow.

Strangely enough, a year after divorcing, Tami dated the man across the street. After the second date, she realized he could really be a jerk. Coming home that night, she cried over her lost marriage. She began to see how great a mistake she and Auggie had made.

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Arminianism and Providence

March 4, 2014

This article by Roger Olson is very good: Arminianism and Providence

Roger does an excellent job of describing how and when God’s providence is active in the life of a believer. I especially love this observation:

The only category of creaturely decisions and actions where God NEVER interferes with free will IN THE SENSE OF rendering them certain is sin and evil. God permits them but does not design, foreordain or render them certain.

This is a good read from a thoughtful theologian.

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Revealing the Hidden Motives Behind Couples Seeking Counseling

February 28, 2014

While waiting for my flight to be called in an airport, I checked my cell phone. I dialed the voice mailbox and found there were three urgent messages – all from the same man. He was the husband of a woman I had been counseling and he told me he needed to talk that afternoon. Of course, he had no way of knowing I wasn’t even in California at that moment, so I forgave his presumption that I would be able to drop everything to see him. As I was listening to his last desperate voicemail, he called in live time.

“Mike, I’m glad I finally got you on the phone. I need to see you immediately.”

“Bill, I’m in Arizona right now. Can you tell me what is going on…perhaps one of my co-workers can help you with your problem.”

“Mike, it really has to be you. I’m sorry to be so insistent, but no one else can help with this”. I should stop and say I already knew what this was about and that this was no emergency. Bill’s wife had asked him for several years to go for marriage counseling. He refused, for a number of reasons, and absolutely would not admit there was anything wrong with their relationship. So she decided to seek out help for herself instead. After seeing a couple of other counselors (and physicians) she also came to see me to help her with the marital problems. After working together for a month, she found a place of mental peace, rest and inspiration. She committed herself anew to her marriage, but she also committed herself to not going back to the way things had been for years. Even though she was doing emotionally and spiritually well, Bill did not like the “new Patricia” and became belligerent and verbally abusive to her in front of their two children.

I contend that you can change a marriage by modifying the perspective of just one member of that relationship. When people leave behind their lies and walk instead in peace and truth, that transformation changes the dynamics of their marriage. But these changes are not always welcome by the spouse who is not in counseling. Sometimes, bringing health to one person in a marriage will upset the equilibrium so much that the marriage status may become critical. This is exactly what was happening with Bill and Patricia.

“Mike, Patricia just left me and our marriage. She has taken the kids and gone to live with her sister for now. I need to see you. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Perhaps you’re thinking this was the perfect opportunity for me to counsel Bill as I had his wife. But this was not why Bill was phoning. I could tell immediately when he refused to talk to anyone else but me. He didn’t want me to help him change his life. He wanted me to convince his wife to move back in with him. Probably he assumed he could win me over to his “side” and that I would want to convince Patricia to go back to Bill. In essence, he wanted to do with me what he had been doing with his wife for years. He had no idea when he called that I have no commitment to save his marriage.

Yes, you heard me correctly. I have no intention of helping anyone save their marriage. It doesn’t work and it isn’t even a biblical concept. Nowhere in the Bible does God offer to save people’s marriages. He does offer to save our souls and our lives, transform our passions, decisions, morals and beliefs. God certainly grieves over divorce, but never does he offer to save someone’s marriage. For years, I tried to convince people to stay married. It never worked: not once. Unless a person wants to be married, no one else will change their mind. Marriage is a free choice and not even God will violate that.

Good counseling with people who have marital problems will focus on who the person is, what they believe and why they react the way they do. I only seek to help a person get closer to the God of Truth and then let them decide if they want to stay married. Since I started to practice this kind of counseling, I rarely see the kind of marriage break-ups I saw when I was desperately trying to hold couples together.

As Bill and I talked, I made it clear I wasn’t going to help him save his marriage. That was his job, not mine. He became angry with me over the phone and started to accuse me of being part of the process to end his relationship. I waited out his diatribe and then asked him a question: “What were you expecting me to do for you today?” He blurted out his answer before thinking: “I wanted to start counseling with you so I could call Patricia and tell her”. In summary, he wanted leverage to pressure his wife to do what he wanted. This is a common motivation for people entering marriage counseling – but it is certainly not the only one.

Though many people say they go to counseling to save the marriage, that is almost never the real goal. Let me lay out the more common reasons people choose to engage a marriage counselor as a couple:

  1. Story-Telling: When a person has endured pain, grief or difficulty, they desperately want others to both understand what they have endured and to be sympathetic to their hardship. When there are marriage problems, each person wants their spouse to understand what they have been through. I find that people seek out a marriage counselor to provide a safe place where they can tell their story. Most spouses no longer hear any version of the marriage story other than their own. When couples come to me for marriage counseling, they hope my presence will force their spouse to listen to their version of the “story”. What they don’t realize is I cannot make a person listen to something they don’t want to hear. Even if I restate what the person is saying, their partner rarely hears what I hear. Marriage counselors I know who do this sort of three-way counseling spend so much energy attempting to sync the stories so it represents some semblance of the same marriage. Unfortunately, it is most often a fruitless task. Neither party listens nor budges from their version of reality.
  2. Recruitment: I rarely meet anyone in marriage counseling who say “It really is my fault.” As I mentioned in the last article, couples expend a great deal of energy convincing the counselor why they are the injured party. The worst part is that almost all counselors do draw conclusions somewhere along the way, revealing their own weaknesses, prejudices and gender preferences. This is the most heinous motive for going to marriage counseling.
  3. Closure: Dave came into my office for another marriage counseling appointment. I had made an exception with Dave and his wife, helping them because they were in ministry. Not much was accomplished so far, but this appointment started out differently. Dave listened intently and allowed his wife to talk as much as she wanted. Normally, he interrupted her at every turn. He seemed to understand and showed empathy and compassion. I was satisfied that real changes were happening with them. That’s when I gave Dave an opportunity to talk about how the marriage was going from his perspective. Instead, he dropped a bomb on me. “Mike, I wanted you here so I could say what I need to say to my wife: I am getting a divorce. I no longer want to be married.” I felt like punching him in the face. I was simply a witness to his selfish, hard heart and the hurt he wanted to lay on his wife. Many, many people agree to marriage counseling so they can be satisfied they gave their doomed marriage every chance. I can often tell by body language and attitude that one or both spouses have already hardened their hearts. Perhaps you are asking “Why would someone want to go to counseling when they have already given up?” Perhaps we all fear failure and we don’t like to see ourselves as quitters. As a result, many people use marriage counseling to assuage guilt over a failed marriage.
  4. Concern for Children: Many couples couldn’t care less if they stayed with their spouse, but they feel an obligation to their children. They don’t want the stigma of a divorce attached to their kids. Though this sounds like a noble motive, it is also doomed. Ultimately, marriage counseling cannot keep a couple together when neither spouse focuses on their own problems. They may stay together longer to help the kids, but ultimately they will leave when the kids leave. The counselor really has no impact other than agreeing the family needs to stay together at all cost.
  5. Leverage: Every person in a troubled marriage believes their spouse is a controlling person. There are very few exceptions. For the most part, everyone is right. Most people live out their marriages as a “zero-sum game”. What that means is when one person wins an argument, the other loses. When one person gets their way, the other does not. Very few people in bad marriages work cooperatively or seek compromise. The worse the marriage gets, the more each person fears losing control of the situation. To compensate for this fear, they try and control their spouse, whether actively or passively. If they still cannot control their spouse, they seek a counselor to help them get back in control. Both men and women do this. This is what Bill was trying to accomplish by contacting me. He wasn’t the least concerned about anything I would say. He was confident in his ability to convince anyone to support his point of view. As soon as he found out I wanted to give him to another counselor, he wasn’t interested. Another counselor would have no leverage with his wife and that went against his real motive.

Next time, I will present a better rubric for solving the crises of marriage.

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Hidden Motives for Marriage Counseling

February 27, 2014

Time to put up this series again…it is one of the most requested series of marriage helps I have published. Part 1 of 3

The Gates are Open

I sat with my wife at our assigned table for the graduation reception with other students and professors of the nursing faculty. I quickly learned I was the only spouse in this group, and therefore the only “civilian” in medical terms. Graciously, they ignored me, knowing I had little to add to their discussions and plans. They spoke of going on to Masters, Doctorates and Post-doctorates, the profs trying to convince the students to continue on at the Alma Mater. I threw in a comment occasionally, content to let my wife carry the conversation .

Then she left to run an errand. At that moment, they all noticed me simultaneously.

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