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Posted by on Apr 25, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews, Personal | 0 comments

An Evening with Al Pacino

 

al-pacino-thumb

 

Writer’s Note:  Back in January 2017, I penned this article after seeing Al Pacino interviewed onstage in a two-hour career retrospective.  I’m publishing it here for the first time on the occasion of Pacino’s 80th birthday — April 25, 2020.

 

Few can command a room just by being inside it.  Al Pacino is such a man, with an undeniable command presence.

That was my instant takeaway the moment when the spotlight hit the iconic film actor who was introduced to a Saturday night crowd of about 800 loyal fans at the Opaline Theatre inside the Palazzo.

Pacino had arrived in Las Vegas for an exclusive one-hight-only, one-man engagement.  Think Pacino unplugged.  Aside from the somewhat nameless and faceless interviewer who tossed Pacino plenty of softballs to smash out of the theatre, this was Pacino totally in the raw, mostly unrehearsed and unscripted.  While some of the questions asked were repetitive and maybe even a few of the answers were orchestrated for maximum impact, the intimate setting was also loaded with plenty of spontaneous moments and edge-of-your-seat recollections for classic movie lovers.  Most satisfying of all, Pacino seemed to sincerely enjoy the trip down memory lane, with pit-stops where you’d expect them on his 50-year-career.  He was a much better storyteller than one might have anticipated.

Indeed, Pacino personifies what it means to be a movie star.  He made the Godfather’s fictional character Michael Corleone into someone who’s real to millions, forever embalmed into cinema’s collective consciousness.  When we hear Serpico, we think of Pacino.  Sonny, the bisexual bank robber based on a real incident, is Pacino.  Scarface.  Dick Tracy.  Frank Slade.  Carlito.  Lefty Ruggiero.  Shylock.  Richard III.  Phil Spector.  He even played Dr. Kevorkian.

I was surprised by my own reaction, that Pacino’s best moments weren’t the highlights of his superstardom, but rather the low moments and the struggles, both personally and career-wise.  We can forgive but he can’t forget, and Pacino carries the burdens of pain from his childhood, though no amount of talking about his early life could quite remove the lingering sting of loss all these years later.

He talked about growing up in East Harlem (and later the Bronx), born into a lower-class household, raised by a single mother at a time when single mothers were widely viewed social outcasts, especially in Italian-American culture..  Pacino’s father abandoned the family when Al was 2.  Interesting factoid from the show:  Pacino was mostly raised by his grandparents who were immigrants from….Corleone, Italy.

Pacino seemed the most unlikely heir of what was to become his ultimate destiny.  He worked as a messenger, busboy, janitor, and postal clerk in between acting jobs consisting mostly of small roles in stage productions.  There was even a period when he was unemployed and homeless.  Sometimes he slept on the street, in theaters, or at a friend’s house.

In the 1960s, leading men cast in movies did not look and talk like Pacino.  Smallish.  Way too New York.  And way, way too ethnic.  By age 30, even though he’d studied at the famed Actors Studio under the tutelage of mentor Lee Strasberg (who would later play the legendary role of Hyman Roth in Godfather II),  his acting career was going nowhere.

However, everything was about to change, including public tastes and mass audiences’ demands for authenticity combined with Hollywood’s own methods of casting prompted by a new age of writers and directors.  New movies would need smallish actors, with New York accents, who were genuinely ethnic.

Pacino’s role, playing a heroin addict in his first film The Panic in Needle Park (1971) caught the attention of movie director Francis Ford Coppola, who had just won an Oscar for screenwriting Best Picture winner, Patton.  Coppola took a big risk and cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in what became a blockbuster film, The Godfather (1972).  Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, and even Robert De Niro tried out for the part, but Coppola insisted on Pacino, to the dismay of studio executives who wanted someone better known.

The stories of phone calls between Pacino and Coppola during the tense negotiations were told here, presumably, versions heard by the public for the first time.  Neither knew of the monumental tidal wave that was to come engulfing both of their lives, totally reshaping the careers of both men.  Now, Pacino remained every bit as appreciative of that loyalty, noting that no other film director would have gone to bat with such steely determination, especially given that Coppola was also relatively young and didn’t have total control of casting decisions.

As one would expect, there wasn’t nearly enough time to tell all the stories.  Even Pacino’s most obscure film roles elicited some hysterical recollections about on-the-set disasters and even the actor’s own missteps.

Pacino had clearly done this before, and his experience as an amiable storyteller showed onstage.  Yet, the actor’s occasional gaffes were among the most endearing moments.  When absorbed in stories, he’d often get excited and would sometimes even ramble off on tangents.  A few times, the moderator had to steer Pacino back on track.  This wasn’t annoying at all.  It gave the presentation a genuine sense of spontaneity, that we were privileged to be sitting in an audience sharing Pacino’s recollections of what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling.  I should add that not having any film clips, props, or other supporting materials actually helped the format.  Midway into the retrospective, everyone in the audience seemed to feel what a special moment this was and we were lucky to share it.

Las Vegas might be known for gambling, but it usually leaves nothing to chance.  The odds are known.  Most shows are the same, night after night, year after year.  Pacino’s recollections, though imperfect and incomplete, was in a sense the acrobat performing without the net — no notes and no script.  While other celebrities have done one-person stage shows, with mixed results, most of those efforts look way too contrived, even manipulative.  Not so, with Pacino.

Pacino has crafted a reputation based on playing tough guys in movies.  But his first love is stage acting and theatre.  After taking about 25 minutes of questions from the audience (most of which were terrible — thankfully, Pacino was gracious and answered questions he’s undoubtedly been asked hundreds of times and anyone with access to IMDB can lookup), the legend paid homage to Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neil, and Noel Coward.  It seemed Pacino wanted to talk more about stagecraft.  Unfortunately, the interviewer cut off some of the evening’s most passionate thoughts from Pacino.

The final few minutes included a short glimpse of what was then Pacino’s next major upcoming film project.  That night, he’d recently signed a deal to play Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.

Was it enough?  Was it worth paying $80 to listen to a film icon talk about his life and career?  Was this a show to recommend?

The answer is simple.  Hey, it was Al Pacino.

Enough said.

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Posted by on Apr 14, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Personal, Politics, Travel | 2 comments

Midnight Expression

 

nolan dalla

 

PART ONE

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Midnight Express is a mesmerizing 1978 film based on the true story of an American college student who gets arrested and then convicted of drug charges who is summarily forced to endure the unspeakable horrors of the Turkish prison system.

After I watched the movie — its screenplay penned by Oliver Stone based in the captivating book by Billy Hayes who wrote of his experiences — like so many viewers I came away with a deep hatred for Turkey and its people. It was impossible to watch that movie and see the way Turks were portrayed and not be jaded by the cruel hyperbolic depiction.

I wasn’t sympathetic to drug use nor smuggling, mind you. However, the injustices of the Turkish legal system and the way such a relatively minor crime was punished left a lasting impression. For many who saw it, Midnight Express was the only thing we knew about Turkey.

But life does twist us in ways we cannot predict and turn us onto paths we do not foresee. Fifteen years after Midnight Express infuriated tens of millions of moviegoers, I ended up working for the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey in Washington D.C. I was an employee of the Turkish Government for seven years, between 1993 and 2000.

During my employment with the Turks, I gradually came not only to admire the fascinating history and rich culture of Turkey, and before them, the Ottomans. Working with people with very different attitudes opened my eyes to another perspective of the world — one that was not always consistent with my own perspectives, opinions, and values that I thought to be unshakable. Visiting Turkey four times during my tenure with the Embassy broadened my experiences even further. The photo (posted above) was taken during one of those visits, while in Istanbul.

However, one thing I couldn’t shake was the terrible memory of Midnight Express and the constant reminders of how Billy Hayes was treated by the system I now supported with my own labor. His book and the movie came up frequently among the Turks while I worked there. It was often the first thing Americans thought of when they were asked what they associate with Turkey. I even came to share the Turks’ resentment of the distorted portrayal. I began to posture defensively about it in conversations with Americans.

Fuck Billy Hayes. He was a drug smuggler. He did the crime, so he should have done the time! He got what he deserved!

Nonetheless, I couldn’t refute his very real story of a grave injustice at the hands of a government that was essentially run by a military dictatorship (in the 1970s). I couldn’t defend a corrupt system where an admittedly guilty man gets convicted, serves most of his sentence, and then just a few months before being released gets *retried* again for the same crime and subsequently is given life imprisonment. Imagine that for a shocker. Life imprisonment!

Sometime around 1997, while still in the employ of the Turks, it occurred to me I’d never actually read Billy Hayes’ book, Midnight Express, which was the first-person account. Reading it with an open mind seemed way overdue.

The text of Midnight Express, penned by a college graduate who once aspired to be a journalist and commanded a mastery of both language and expressing his own emotions, recalibrated every thought I had about the story, the book, and even the movie (which took extraordinary artistic liberties and even added incidents that didn’t really happen). As I closed the book following the final paragraph, guided by Billy Hayes’ narrative, I was a changed man, or at least I saw things differently than before. There was no genesis of opinion, nor even a definitive finality to that story. All of life’s experiences and the way we look upon them — good and bad — contribute to the rolling assembly line of evolutionary thought.

Billy Hayes and Midnight Express had once again affected me in ways I didn’t expect. His story made me think of things differently, and in a very tangible sense had also broadened my horizons at looking at subjects in a more existential way — that there can be contrasting even contradictory truths which depend on where we are in time and who we interact with, some by intent and others purely by chance. The truth we believe today might be the falsehood of tomorrow.

Perhaps I felt closer to Billy Hayes and his story solely because I spent all that time also influenced by Turkish people, which was a clash of perceptions. This all happened more than twenty years ago. Occasionally, I wondered what happened to Billy Hayes?

I wondered:  Did he disappear? Did he try to forget about his years in Turkey? Was he even still alive?

Between 1997 and 2020, Midnight Express appeared on television sporadically and like a firefly to the flame, I felt the magnetic pull of curiosity tugging at my soul. I watched the movie a few more times, each viewing a chasm driven deeper into the divide between illusion and reality.

Then, about three weeks ago, something remarkable happened.

A local magazine was sitting on my living room table. I don’t even recall how it got there. The front cover showed a photo of Billy Hayes. Was that the same Billy Hayes who wrote Midnight Express?

It was. What was he doing on the cover of a publication about Las Vegas? He was sitting in a pose a Red Rock, seemingly at peace with himself. Wait — Billy Hayes was now in Las Vegas?

I was about to explore….and discover so much more.

 

billy hayes in las vegas

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PART TWO

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On the night of October 7, 1970, an American college student named Billy Hayes duct-tapped four pounds of hashish to his torso and attempted to clear customs as he was about to depart Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. He made it successfully past the initial terminal search, then boarded a transport bus that shuttled international passengers to a waiting airplane out on the tarmac. It seemed he was home free.

But just as the bus pulled up to the jetway, Hayes was confronted with a horrific sight. Turkish Army soldiers were lined up waiting to search passengers for a second time. Recent terrorist attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization put Istanbul and other airports on a heightened state of alert. Hayes had just made the biggest mistake of his life. His life was about to change in ways no one could have predicted.

Yet, Hayes later said his arrest, trial, conviction, and five-years spent inside a hellish Turkish prison turned out to be one of the very best things that could have happened. Watch the video clip here, which runs about three minutes. It’s a short, but thorough account of Billy Hayes and the factual background story of what became the incendiary 1978 movie, Midnight Express.

So — almost fifty years later — what was Billy Hayes now doing in Las Vegas?

I read the well-written expose on Billy Hayes that focused on what he’d done in the four-plus decades since his escape from imprisonment in Turkey when in 1975 he paddled 17 miles in a storm across the Marmara Sea and crossed the heavily fortified border into Greece and on to freedom back home. Turns out, Billy Hayes had moved to Las Vegas.

Now 73 (his birthday was last week), Hayes has made peace not only with himself but with his once-hostile captors — the Turks. Hayes was invited to return to Turkey as an official guest of the government, actually the TNP (Turkish National Police). He openly spoke of his experiences and even expressed love and admiration for the country and especially its people. It seemed such an unlikely, even an impossible reconciliation, but Hayes had never *hated” Turkey or the Turks despite his imprisonment and brutal treatment.

What I remember was Billy Hayes’ book and the movie destroying Turkey’s tourism industry and jading an entire generation as to how it perceived a proud culture and people. Certainly, this had not been his intent. In fact, he’s been trying to correct the record and make amends, ever since. These noble efforts speak to the remarkable qualities of a man I somehow thought of as a friend, with so many kindred interests — experiences with Turkey (indeed very different), deep love and background in writing, a free-spirited outlook on life — but who I’d never actually met.

None of us is ever likely to be locked up inside a Turkish prison, nor understand the fear and nightmare of what it’s like to face a life sentence for drug possession (later changed to drug smuggling). Nonetheless, his remarkable story resonates with all who have read it, and who can now hear it, thanks to Hayes’ doing what amounts to a one-man show of his life and experiences. He has written other books, directed a movie, and even appeared as the hired assassin in a Charles Bronson movie, Assassination.

When our lives return to normal after the CV-19 crisis, I hope to go see Billy Hayes’ show. I expect there are many more things I can learn, not just bout him and bygone days in Turkey, but about myself. His story is a rebirth and a revelation.

Last week, Billy Hayes and I became Facebook friends. This is one of the many unanticipated benefits of social distancing and isolation, which is to create of our time what we want to make of it. Hayes doesn’t know I’m writing this, but I expect he’ll read it. If so, I have some words for him:

Thank you for sharing your story and for your gifts as a writer and for your courage to self-examine through intense introspection and for being fully human and for enduring and for moving to Las Vegas and now being one with us on social media.

Midnight Express, which factors in the title of Billy Hayes multiple narratives, refers to an uncharted labyrinth of escape from captivity. In a sense, we all remain captive to all of our outmoded perceptions, those old ideas, destructively archaic thoughts, and paralyzing fears. Yes, each of us remains in perpetual pursuit of truth’s liberation, of finding our own Midnight Express.

 

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Posted by on Apr 5, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Personal | 1 comment

Matrimonial Spin Cycle: Our First CV-19 Fight

 

washing machine

 

Okay, so Marieta and I got into our first fight since CV-19 social distancing began. Guess who won?

Marieta says I don’t do enough work around the house, and of course, this is correct. She asks what percentage of housework I do, and I answer “about 30 percent.” She snaps back, it’s more like “10 percent.” I decide I can live with the compromise number of 20 percent, call things even, and pop open another Negro Modelo to celebrate the house not burning down with a domestic spat.

So, just when I thought everything was okay, we saw a TV show and the guy said he didn’t know how to work the washing machine. I knew I was fucked. Marieta took the cue, and insisted I don’t even know how to work a load of laundry and flip on the machine. I said, “I know how a washing machine works! Who doesn’t know that?”

“Prove it!”

Oh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite.

So, we stop the program and as I walk from the living room to the laundry area it feels like a shuffle to the gallows.

I get to the washing machine. I swear, I think I worked it one time. I think so. Hard to remember. C’mon memory! Kick in!

So, there’s knobs and dials and buttons and settings and I think I might be able to wing this, when she asks where the soap goes. Of course, I blow it and point to the fabric softener thing and hell it all looks the same to me, I mean won’t the soap work there also? What difference does it make? The soap gets to the clothes. Works for me. This all begins another sub-argument, and I’m reminded of the old saying about when you’re stuck in a hole to —– QUIT FUCKING DIGGING!

I surrender. It’s 10 percent. I’m so dumb I can’t work a washing machine. My next lesson — mastering the dishwasher.

This CV-19 shit can’t end fast enough.

__________

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Posted by on Mar 23, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Personal | 0 comments

Coping and ‘Agreeing to Disagree’ in a Disagreeable World

 

 

Compartmentalization: The Ideal Coping Mechanism for ‘Agreeing to Disagree’ in a Disagreeable World

 

Compartmentalization is a coping mechanism to preserve social connectivity while at the same time maintaining civility.

I think a better understanding of this concept — and putting it into practice more often — will help many people. It’s certainly helped me. Indeed, practicing compartmentalization has not only been immensely helpful, but it’s also allowed me to expand many of my relationships and benefit from those connections.

Let me explain how these thoughts and this post came about.

A few days ago, posts by friends from my poker days came across my Facebook feed. Even though it’s been several years since I’ve seen them in person, following Facebook and being exposed to their activities has allowed me to keep up-to-date on where they’re now working and what they’re doing. In a sense, it’s allowed friendships to continue, even though I don’t see them much anymore. That’s one of the joys of this social media platform, which is a continuous scroll of updates, interspersed with the occasional surprise.

Robbie K. Thompson and I began working together at the World Series of Poker back in 2008. He quickly rose through the ranks as a floorman-supervisor and was calling the action on the main stage, sometimes on television. Robbie and I are polar opposites on almost all political topics, but I’ve always respected him and enjoyed his company.

I’ve known Eric Daniel Comer for an even longer period, dating back 20 years. We worked at the Horseshoe together and did various tournaments in the South, side by side. Eric has a tremendous work ethic. I can’t recall a single unpleasant encounter with him.

Anyway, there was a political thread where I jumped in, claws out, scratching as usual. Robbie and Eric chimed in with some nice comments, even though we disagreed strongly on the topics. That incident was an important reminder to me that it’s not only possible but in many cases *essential* to try and find common interests and stay afloat on those conversational liferafts.

Whatever your political persuasion, there are times of shared solace and reflection. Most of us agree this social distancing period is such a time, in fact, THE PERFECT TIME not necessarily to “social distance” but rather to reconnect, share, and learn.

Compartmentalization is precisely what it sounds like. We place our thoughts and engage in discussions in compartments. Most of my closest contacts have a multitude of different interests — on politics, music, movies, sports, and just about everything else. It *IS* possible, and a joy, to share a laugh or learn a historical fact or hear about a new affordable Zinfandel from someone with whom I have no political or philosophical affinity.

I’m blessed to have many friends from all over the world, with different ideas than my own. Even though I’ve engaged in heated discussions with many, I can’t think of a single individual who I couldn’t be friends with in person, if given the opportunity.

I think we all benefit by sharing our passions, but also maintaining some boundaries. I shall continue to do everything within my persuasive powers to advance my beliefs and obliterate bad ideas, hopefully with logic and rationale. And, if I’m unsuccessful with some people, that won’t impact my opinion of them, not in the least.

We can disagree without being disagreeable. Thanks for Robbie and Eric for reminding me of this important lesson on this glorious Monday morning.

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Posted by on Feb 13, 2020 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 2 comments

Announcing My Lean in the 2020 Nevada Democratic Caucus

TEN POINTS OF LIGHT

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I’m conflicted.

For the first time ever, I’m still somewhat uncertain as to who I will vote for in a major election.

With Nevada’s caucus now ten days away, however, I now have a lean. I am prepared to announce this preference in today’s column.  This is a fragile choice subject to change. I’m no longer on the fence, but the fence is still easily within reach. I never understood voters who said they made up their minds right before the election, in the past. Now, I’m part of that “semi-undecided” group.

[1]  First and foremost, my voting decision and activism are entirely predicated upon one thing. I’m only interested in removing the evils and dangers of Donald Trump and any other political leader associated with his toxicity. My ideology is totally irrelevant to the discussion. And since I’m an ideologue, this is a significant departure in practice for me, something that’s very difficult to do.

[2]  Every Republican — from the president down to local judges — must be defeated. Period. Exclamation point. Any candidate with an “R” next to their name is an automatic — FUCK NO. Indeed, I wish there was a “FUCK NO” box to check. I bring this up because the candidate at the top of the ticket has a huge impact on down-ballot races. The coattail effect will be huge in 2020 (i.e., there will be very little vote splitting, I believe). So, we need to get the top of the ticket right, by choosing the best candidate who will help the other races (which means keeping the House and perhaps even flipping the Senate).

[3]  I strongly supported Bernie Sanders in 2016. He’s the closest in philosophically to my own politics. However, I have several serious and justified concerns with Sanders. While he has done wonderful things to educate millions of Americans about (democratic) socialism and he has energized many young people, I fear he may tarnish the movement from this point forward. I would be thrilled to be wrong on this point. But I’m not wrong in having concerns. If Sanders loses in the general election, Republicans would certainly maintain control of the Senate (ensuring another six years of McConnell) and there’s even some chance Republicans might re-take the House. If this happens, the consequences for our country and democracy would be utterly catastrophic.

[4]  I’m glad Pete Buttigieg is in the race. He’s a fresh face. He articulates a centrist Democratic position, and I’m good with that politically speaking (though I don’t agree ideologically). His surprising success and national exposure will go a long way towards broader acceptance. I wish Buttigieg was running as a congressman, senator, or something other than an inconsequential mayor. I like having him as a choice, but don’t see any chance of supporting him at the caucus.

[5]  I might get sick if Joe Biden wins the Nevada caucus. He reminds me so much of Hillary Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign. If I thought Biden had any capacity whatsoever to re-energize his candidacy, I might be persuadable to supporting him or at least reserving judgment. But there’s nothing to jump-start here. He’s the old car battery that’s been sitting in the Dodge out in the driveway that hasn’t started in four years. Biden served his country well and is a good person. But he’s nearing his public service expiration date and would be a bad choice for the nomination. I can’t think of a single person excited about Biden’s candidacy. That said, given the dysfunction and corruption of the DNC and the role of superdelegates, I’m not sure he’s done quite yet.

[6]  Elizabeth Warren will drop out of the race after Super Tuesday, on March 3rd. It’s sad really. She’s had a good ground game here in Nevada set up for more than a year. There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t get a call or text from the Warren campaign asking me to come to see her speak or lend my support. I actually think Warren’s Nevada campaign has done a good job, and I have the frontline experience to say that. However, these first two primaries have been devastating and she won’t do well in South Carolina, either (which is next). I can’t see Warren finishing in the top three here, which is what it would take to get her back in the race.

[7]  I’m leaning towards supporting Amy Klobuchar in the Nevada caucus. I would measure this support at 60 percent certain. She’s more of a default choice at this point. She checks some key boxes — particularly on gender and being midwestern. I have some serious differences with Klobuchar on issues, but I’m willing to set those aside from pragmatism and practicality. Her third-place showing in NH was a breakout, and I really liked her speech afterward. That was the first time I’d seen Klobuchar catch any fire. I also like her personal story, which is now getting some press. She seems like the best chance to beat Trump at the moment, though I’m perhaps weighing the NH results too heavily.

[8]  Finally, all of this could change. I’m disgusted with the Culinary Union here in Las Vegas, which is demonstrably anti-Sanders. The disgraceful and corrupt practices of the Culinary Union in the 2016 race, rescuing Clinton’s campaign which was floundering, was scandalous. Right out of the old Chicago machine political playbook. Now, they’re trying to torpedo Sanders, astoundingly under the guise that universal health care (Sanders’ core issue) would disrupt the negotiated health care plans between casinos and their workers. In other words, “WE GOT OURS–SCREW EVERYBODY ELSE.” That’s the Culinary Union’s position. I’m generally a huge supporter of unions, but this backstabbing on universal health care smacks of perversion. Read on…..

[9]  If I arrive at my local caucus (The Lakes/ Las Vegas) and see the Culinary Union people there all wearing Amy Klobuchar t-shirts and marching around like Hillary Clinton’s failed flunky robots, I might bolt across the room and stand with the Sanders supporters in the caucus. I’m not sure how I will react. But I will have a very hard time standing with that union crowd against my ideological brethren. I hope it doesn’t come to this. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do.

[10]  If anything I’ve written causes you to rethink your position, then that’s good. I hope by sharing my own conflicts and decisions, this might help others going through the same thing. Thanks for reading.

VOTE BLUE!

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