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Dear Diary; Merry Brismas; The New Medicine; Wash Time; The Treasured Time; Face to Face At Last

Dear Diary

12/12: Jill and I rent “Rosemary’s Baby” because she’s always wanted to see it pregnant. She laughs when the husband tells Rosemary that switching physicians “wouldn’t be fair” to the witch doctor. She also cries at the end.

12/13: We got a sonogram. Baby comes in at 5 lbs. 3 ounces. The technician calls in a doctor. The doctor presses a few buttons, then turns to Jill and tells her to lie on her left side after she eats and count the kicks. “If you don’t count ten in two hours or you don’t feel the baby moving at all, call us right away,” the doctor says in a tone I recall from the spring of 1998. Jill is sad.

When we get home, however, there’s a message on the machine from the sonogram people. They misread the measurement. Baby is seven pounds. There is a different feeling this time, isn’t there?

12/17: We (I'm on paternity leave for a while) duck into the Baby Gap for a leopard onesie for Baby. The guard there looks at Jill’s stomach and pronounces, “It’s a boy.” “How’d you know?” replies Jill. “Care to guess the weight?”

Oh no, the guard replies. “Oh go ahead,” says Jill. “Uh,” says the guard, “13?”

“Pounds!?” says Jill.

Later, she calculates that if the guard guesses boy with all the pregnant women who come through the door, he’ll be right about half the time. “No,” says Jill, “more than that because not everybody know what they’re having.”

In Williams-Sonoma, I need a bathroom. A clerk comes out of the back room and informs us that the bathroom is not public. Jill is with me, and tells the clerk that the bathroom is for her. “Oh please?” says Jill. The clerk looks at her stomach and replies, “The bathroom’s for you? Go ahead.”

We finish holiday shopping, and are walking down the sidewalk for the last time, probably, as the parents of an only child, when Jill says, “Look at all the shopboys flirting with the girls today. I sure don’t get a welcome like that.”

That night, Jill is packing for the hospital. She needs a CD of “Coppellia.” She calls a music store, but they don’t have it. Neither does her stepfather. She makes a phone list of people for me to call after The Event, adding, “You know, the hospital could be good for getting work done.” I suggest instead she round up a staff member to help teach us how to take care of a new baby, which we have really never done before.

“Preemiedom teaches you that there’s no such thing as a normal baby. That’s crazy,” says Jill. “If all goes well, they’ll take him away, maybe put him under lights for a few days, and we’ll take him home.”

Jill packs and takes a bath, and when she returns to our bedroom she tells me, “Here’s a household tip for you: Folded things don’t dry.” I had taken a shower a few minutes before and folded my towel over the rack. She’s on me about towels. I think how she’s going into the hospital tomorrow and she’s hardly mentioned it except for frequently repeating the phrase, “I’m going to be cut open!” and then I think how tomorrow night’s Rams-Buccaneers game should be a good one.

12/18: Alex cries at 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Nothing calms him. Does he know? We take him in bed with us, where he hogs the middle.

Aunt Julie arrives at 6:20 a.m. to watch Alex. Our eyes are gummy and stinging, but we must leave for the hospital for an 8 a.m. surgery. “Have fun,” Julie tells us as she closes the door.

In the cab, Jill insists that the driver take a certain turn on the approach to the hospital, and she almost gets us sucked onto the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. “Well, I’m sorry,” she says. “You shouldn’t listen to a pregnant woman.”

They told us to get to the hospital by 7 a.m. We did. And there we sit until nearly eight. “We’ve gotta hurry up here,” Jill notes. “We’re having a baby!” “We’re in the middle of a shift change,” explains an admitting nurse. “We’re trying to find your records. Are you having a baby today?”

By 7:50, they have strapped the heartbeat monitors across Jill. Thump thump thump thump. They have to take Jill’s fingerprints for some form. “These aren’t my clothes,” Jill says, wiping the ink on her hospital gown. She lounges in her fake pashmina scarf and reads a Times magazine story about the Ford rollovers. “Wow, they knew these things were dangerous and they put them on the road anyway...”

We wait. We wait. By 9:25, they take her in for her spinal anesthesia. She wanted to lean on me for this, but they said no. I wait outside. I peek through the window of the OR door and see her midsection in there, big and basted in something orange.

At last I’m allowed in. I take Jill’s hand, gingerly avoiding her IV, and we look at each other in our paper OR bonnets. The surgeons talk. I hear wet smacking sounds and the occasional click as of cutlery.

9:50: They are carrying something to the table over there. “Alex Alex Alex!” I think, for I see a skull that is that gray-blue of two years ago. That was Alex being born. But Alex is home running Aunt Julie breathless. This isn’t Alex.

This kid is bigger than Alex. Where the docs dived on Alex immediately, one pediatrician flicks the new guy’s feet, suctions his throat, and then walks away. “I guess he wasn’t very interested,” says the surgeon. The nurse takes Baby away for weighing. Six pounds, 15 ounces. Call it seven. He is swaddled and they hand him to me. He feels taut and alive; I suddenly have no doubt that he is here. "Hi," I tell him. "I'm your dad. I don't have a job. Your mom's thinking of getting a job but she hasn't sent any resumes out yet. Do you have any skills?" He opens his eyes. They are depthless and dark, and they travel from my face to Jill’s and back slowly. They have intent and a remarkably calm regard, at least from one so young. (December 2000)

Merry Brismas

We have found a mohel I can only describe as cool: Phil Sherman, bearded, funny, early 40s maybe and recommended as the mohel ("moil") of the Upper West Side. "I've been timed," he says. "I told one couple it took me 30 to 45 seconds. The father was a doctor, and after it was done he told me, 'You know, we timed you at 20 seconds.' I thanked him that I got it from such an authoritative source."

This will be my first bris. In shirt and tie I will join other, similar virgins among our guests, as well as those who will have to turn away. But also there will be those who have witnessed the ceremony many times. My father-in-law Bernie will act as Sandek, holding the infant during the cutting, for the fourth time.

This will be Edwin's bris, his initiation into Judaism. The night before, I offer to our mohel to hold Edwin, figuring that my fatherhood has been unusual. On one of my boots is a dot of my first son's blood; over Alex I witnessed procedures -- down-the-throat intubations, endless hunts with needles for veins suitable for IVs -- to harden a dad's insides. Most dads swoon, but after Alex I bet I won't.

I tell the mohel that I realize that the father holding the son isn't normal, but would my holding Edwin complicate things? "Actually, it would complicate things more that you're not Jewish," Phil replies.

Phil has a Web site (www.emoil.com), on which he gives complete instructions on preparation and care. We need Kosher sweet grape wine, the Kiddush cup or wine glass, six disposable diapers, three cloth diapers (or burp cloths), two tubes of Bacitracin, one box of gauze pads, a small, waist-high table, and two chairs.

"Please do not feed the baby about one-and-one-half-hours before," read Phil's instructions on his site. "The baby can be fed right after the ceremony. To reduce the baby's discomfort, he may suck on a gauze pad dipped in wine before (if needed) and after the ceremony. Dress the baby simply for the ceremony. Please avoid outfits with many small buttons."

"I go for speed and accuracy," Phil assures us. A smart bomb of a mohel. Sounds good to me. I tell him I look forward to him meeting Alex. "He was born at 21 ounces," I tell Phil. Phil repeats "ounces," unbelieving. I begin to tell Phil how I used to go to the grocery store right after Alex was born and put a half-dozen four-ounce sticks of butter in my hand and say to myself, "This weighs more than my son." But before it's finished the story seems out of place here, and it trails off.

We arm Phil with names. Honors for us to delegate include, in order of appearance: Kvater, someone to bring the baby into the room where the ceremony is taking place; Kise shel Eliyahu, someone to place the baby on the Chair of Elijah and to take him from the Chair; Sandek, to hold the baby during the circumcision; Amidah le-berakhot, to hold him during the Naming; Kvater, someone to take the baby out of the room. We name the names.

"Cool," Phil replies. "And remember: Your imagination is much worse than the reality."

When Phil arrives the next day for the bris, he is still cool. "For example, I won't tell you that the baby isn't going to cry. The baby will cry when we take the diaper off. And if you don't want me to tell you that the buttons of your collar are undone, Jeff, I won't."

Oh, thank you.

When he and I are alone, Phil smoothly suggests that when he asks me after the ceremony if I'd like to add anything, I thank the guests for coming and thank Jill for giving me such a lovely son. "That way it looks like it was all your idea," Phil says.

The bris is also known as the "Brit Milah" ceremony of circumcision, with roots in the Old Testament. Phil claims that pediatricians actually take a lot longer on the cutting (time is about all the parents think about on the day of the bris). We know that Alex's circumcision, done in a hospital, took at least half an hour.

"My phrase for today is tolerable pain," says Jill.

I bring Edwin in and hand him to Julie, who hands him to the mohel, who hands him to Bernie. If Bernie is to hold Alex, I'll hold Jill. But Jill is steady and dry-eyed, so I abandon her for a ringside seat. ("Those of you who wish to turn away please do so now," the mohel has announced.)

I maneuver in and stick my face within a few feet of Edwin. A broad sharp vice, a knife. A slit and a snip, and a penis is there. I glance at my watch. Thirty-five seconds, soup to nuts.

"Jeff," Phil asks, "do you have anything you'd like to add?"

"I'd like to thank all of you for coming today," I tell the guests, "and I'd like to thank Jill for giving me such a lovely son."

Edwin goes to sleep, sucking on a gauze pad soaked in Manischewitz. Later, Phil calls Edwin exceptional, and offers Jill a swig of the wine. She gulps it. Suddenly, the healing can begin. I feel little has happened. I wish I felt faint, but I have seen too much worse.

I tell Jill that this day was not too emotionally draining. "Not for us, Jeff," she replies, "not for us." (January 2001)

The New Medicine

Edwin had his first trip to the pediatrician today. I carried him there in a sling, his face pressed against my shirt under my pea coat. It was snowing. Amazing thing about taking my sons to doctors. It was snowing two years ago when we took Alex to the pulmonologist and he suffered some sort of crash during the appointment.

Edwin and Jill and I arrive half an hour early (Alex is home with the babysitter). The nurse shows us to a back exam room and asks us questions while I get Edwin undressed. What’s his name, what’s your name, how long was he when he was born? What’d he weigh?

“Six fifteen,” says Jill. “He lost weight after being born, to six nine.”

I can’t get my mind around that weight. Alex was 21 ounces when he was born three months premature. It was Thanksgiving at least before he neared seven pounds. Even after carrying Edwin around for three weeks, he seems to me the weight of a well-built doll.

I undress the doll. They weigh him. Seven thirteen. Jill, who has been breastfeeding, is relieved. Wow. Twenty ounces in 19 days!

They measure Edwin and tell us to move to another exam room. I put his clothes back on and Jill carries him into the other room. Twenty ounces. Almost Alex’s birth weight, I tell Jill. She gives me a quick look to say that this is Edwin’s appointment and that Alex’s one-time weight has no place here, and it doesn’t.

Still, 20 ounces. It’s hard for me to imagine a baby gaining 20 ounces so fast. Then again, Edwin doesn’t seem to be a baby in the same way Alex was. He eats and grows. He tries to lift his head. He’s already sucked his thumb and found his mouth with his fingers. His eyes look around slowly and steadily -- like from the exam table now, as he looks at me then Jill, then back to me, then to the doctor. Edwin acts like a smart person who knows you’re making a mistake but who lets you do it anyway and learn from the experience.

I keep the sling on throughout the appointment -- we haven’t used it since with Alex two years ago -- and I must keep pushing it down to see. I watch the doctor grasp Edwin’s feet, spread his legs, hold his midsection, and shine a light in his eyes and down his throat. He rings a bell near Edwin’s ear. “Can he hear?” Jill asks.

“He’s registering,” the doctor says. “He’s all normal, all fine.” This doctor has kind hands and a voice easy to listen to.

Normal, fine. Edwin has had a perfect babyhood. He spends most of his time calm, eats regularly, sleeps almost on cue. The other night I told Jill that Edwin “doesn’t do anything.” “He does so,” she replied. “He eats, he sleeps, he waves his little arms.” Jill has had more to do with Edwin, I guess. She breastfeeds him, slept with him in the hospital, rescued him from a mean nurse. By this time in his Alex’s life, we had witnessed spinal taps, intubations, IVs, blood, silence but for the whir of the vent.

Many of Alex’s doctors were strident; they talked fast and acted brittle, gestured with their hands or swung their legs, and they spent a lot of time defending themselves and shooting down parents who surfed the Net for medical information. One compared Jill’s breast milk to a natural disaster. Another looked down at Alex during his bleakest moment and pronounced, “I’ve seen some babies get this and get over it. I’ve seen other babies get this and not get over it.” One advised us to face that Alex might just be “biologically limited.” They were mechanics who just couldn’t fix my car.

I listen to Edwin’s pediatrician talk about car seats, keeping an emergency can of baby formula (“Don’t drive yourself crazy with breastfeeding”), and sleeping through the night. We tell the doctor about gunk in Edwin’s eye. “That may be a blocked tear duct,” the doc says. “Take your pinkie and roll gently toward the outside.” Later Jill will say how remarkable to be sent home with simple instructions regarding our fingers, and not with outdated home medical machinery and a warning to be hyper-vigilant.

We mention to the doctor that we’re selling our portable dishwasher on ebay. “No kidding?” the doctor replies. “I haven’t tried ebay.”

That’s pretty much it for Edwin’s appointment. I slide him back into the sling and he goes to sleep. Alex used to do that too, after doctors. (January 2001)

Wash Time

I love laundry. I perk up in the detergent aisle. I love filling the hamper and lugging it to the basement. I love scouting the laundry room and securing three adjacent washers and toss-sorting the loads. I love setting the temperatures and cycles. I love dumping in the Tide and starting the machines while I note the time to be back in 35 minutes for the dryers. I love laundry.

“That’s good,” says Jill, “because babies make a lot of laundry.”

Edwin is a baby. He was born three weeks ago. In 21 days he has created as much laundry as I have in the past 21 weeks. Just now, he was on my lap, pensive and quiet, when from somewhere above his thighs came that sound of wet paper tearing. Off comes the diaper. There’s the spot on the yellow onesie that was Tide-fresh just this afternoon. Off it comes. On goes the gray number with bears.

I put Edwin down in his bassinette to go say good night to Alex. I finish saying good night to Alex and come into the living room, where Jill is feeding Edwin. “I have to change baby,” Jill says.

What’d he do?

“What do you think?” Jill says. The gray number? “There’s a wet spot on the front- Oh boy. Do we still have that blue thing clean?”

Usually the loads include about three of Edwin’s onesies, three or four receiving blankets, towels, plus anything else (belonging to anyone) that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during his changes of the previous 24 hours. I’m on paternity leave now and do laundry every day.

I love laundry. I was writing professionally about laundromats when I met Jill. Our first date was a drycleaner opening. Later in our marriage -- which still somehow happened -- I prowled coin-op laundromats and apartment-house laundry rooms with our whites and coloreds. I rarely lost a sock and usually remembered what Jill told me could and couldn’t go in the dryer. Oddly, I have never been a big folder.

“I had this all arranged. Do me a favor and don’t try to put anything away in a dresser drawer again by yourself ever,” Jill also said recently, rooting through how I’d unloaded her T-shirts.

Our new apartment building has a nice laundry room. Five top-loading single-loaders ($1), two side double-loaders ($1.25), two side triple-loaders ($1.75, but I don’t use them) and 10 dryers (75 cents for 30 minutes). They run on a money card, which costs $3 to buy and is refillable. I do miss sorting quarters.

Edwin and Alex’s laundry constitutes the bulk of our loads. Alex contributes an almost grown-up amount. Once in a while an extra pillowcase or blanket or Beanie Baby, but mostly it’s socks, shirts, turtlenecks, overalls, or sweatpants. If a grown man like me can wear the same pair of sweatpants for a week, think how long a 2-year-old can wear a pair, barring accidents with peanut butter.

We never got the Edwin-sized baby loads of laundry with Alex. He spent the first year of his life in the hospital. There we just tossed his towels into the converted “Biohazard!” bin by his bed. His onesies we brought home and washed with our stuff, usually dropping the loads off with a local Korean launderer’s. I used them because the period that Alex spent in the hospital didn’t seem festive enough to do my own wash.

Most people probably think laundry has little to do with festivity. But laundry has everything I need in a task: coin-operated machinery, sloshing water, sub-tasks to be done at set times (though I don’t use fabric softener), and a result you can lay hands on. Few of life’s chores end with an overflowing portable hamper. Few of life’s accomplishments match looking at Edwin and knowing that, because I did the laundry, the blanket with the stars is fluffy and warm and ready for spit-up. (January 2001)

The Treasured Time

I keep about four books on my side of the bed. Right now they are a biography of Damon Runyon, a history of the Revolution, Shirley Jackson’s Raising Demons, and Dale Carnegie’s How to Influence People. I like the variety; I never know when I get into bed which books I’m going to nibble on until the sleeping tablets make the lines swim. “Jill,” I announced the other night, “I really treasure this time before bed to read and unwind.”

Perfectly sane thing to say, except that Edwin was howling for his three-hour pre-sleep feeding. Jill had been wrestling with him for half an hour. At least that’s what she and the bedside clock claimed. She said that my treasuring this time was “special.” I’m not sure what she meant. Edwin cried for more food. Jill is breastfeeding. She says she likes looking at Edwin’s fat little arms, at how solid he is, and knowing she did that.

Edwin hits what Jill terms “his witching hour” during my treasured time. Despite trying to keep him awake during the day, he opens his eyes around 11 o’clock and cries for food. He snacks in Jill’s lap for a few moments until his eyes close again. Jill sets him down between us. In a few minutes his eyes open again, and he starts to cry. Jill picks him up and feeds him again. His eyes close again. On a good night, Jill gets to read maybe five pages of her book.

“Jeff, can you just pick him up?” Jill says, her eyes closed and her head finally on her pillow. It must be something to have that little guy sucking on you all the time.

I do pick him up. I do. But the sleeping tablets have dug into me by then, and I usually unleash some comment stupid in a new dad, such as “How long before he gets night and day straightened out?”

“He’s a baby, says Jill, me unsure of which of us she’s referring to. “This is temporary. This is normal. Can’t you just pick him up?”

Indeed it is normal. We never had this before, though Edwin is our second child. Alex spent his first year in hospitals. I can still hear myself speaking into the phone at 11 o’clock. “Hi, this is Jeff Stimpson. I was calling to check on my son, Alex. Who’s his nurse tonight?” Having a baby in the hospital and not with you there at bedtime is unnatural torture. Anything after that has to be easy.

“Waaah!” says Edwin.

“Just pick him up!” says Jill into her pillow.

Okay. I hook my elbow behind Edwin’s head, rest my hand on his rump, and commence a gentle rocking. Neither of us sits up. In the darkness I see his eyes are open. Luminous big pebbles. In the darkness. Doesn’t he notice the darkness? Doesn’t he hear his mother’s deep, slow breathing? He does lie still for a moment. Then I feel his feet twitch, then his arms, then I feel his head move side to side. I can feel his face crinkling. I can feel that tiny furrow start above his eyes.

“Waaah!”

I shift to a half sit-up and cradle Edwin more firmly. He goes still. His feet brush my arm; on my skin I feel his fuzzy head. He starts wiggling down there in the darkness. Doesn’t he see the darkness? On his dozy, dozy afternoons, doesn’t he see the sun coming in hard on his face? I envy him his afternoons.

Hang him upside down so he gets his schedule reversed, suggests one reader. He’ll work it out for himself in about three weeks, suggests his pediatrician. At two in the morning, it becomes you against this thing, suggested one father I knew once.

Crinkle. Squirm. Crinkle. “Waaah!”

“Jeff-” says Jill from her pillow. Jill says I always want to have a discussion when we have to do something with Edwin in the middle of the night.

“All right,” I say to nobody. I sit straight upright. Straight upright at 1:30 in the morning. Remember when I was a freelancer and 1:30 was the middle of my workday? Remember the naps?

“Waaah, waaah, waaah ... ” Oh, he's revving up.

“All right,” I say, finally getting up. I snatch a pillow and head to the living room. When we moved recently, we got a new couch that isn’t quite as comfortable to sleep on as our old couch -- I did sleep on it once or twice, okay? -- and I drop the pillow and place Edwin in our car seat/carrier on the coffee table. He settles in and I settle in. We both settle in and he says, “Waaah!” The windows seem to shake. What lungs on this kid. “Ned, c’mon,” I say, just picking him up. Picking him up and standing -- standing -- right there in my living room at almost two in the morning. I cradle and rock him. He idles in whimpers. I feel him move, his legs and arms hitting my skin like sudden, strange, soft things.

“Waaah!”

I put him the car seat and rock him. Alex used to use this car seat. Alex is asleep in the next room now.

“Jeff?”

Jill isn’t coming out to chat. Many nights I’ve come out to the living room and Jill has never followed me out. “Jeff, let me have him. I’ll take him.” She disappears with Edwin into the dark. I crawl back to bed and get re-acquainted with my pillows. Edwin is quiet again. “Maybe he needs a pacifier,” I say.

Jill’s voice comes at me in the dark. “No, he doesn’t need a pacifier. But if you want to buy him one, go ahead.”

Since I don’t want this to turn into a discussion, I roll over. I feel Jill put Edwin down between us. I feel his arms and legs scrabbling at my back. My head spins and my thoughts fall all over each other. Pretty soon I am asleep and I think Edwin and Jill are, too. They will both wake up around 3 and again around 7. Jill lets me sleep through those times. She knows how I like to sleep. (January 2001)

Face to Face At Last

For a long time Ned didn't do anything except lounge around, eat, poop, and cry. He always cried with reason, those being: 1) he was hungry; 2) his diaper needed changing. His big thing seemed to be crying during his "witching hour" of around 10:30 p.m., when, as Jill explained, he wanted to go to sleep "but doesn't know how." He had no voice.

During his conscious hours we parked him in the carrier section of the car seat. He didn't seem to mind if we put the seat on the kitchen floor, bed, or dining room chair; He could silently nod off, like an old man, in any room. We envied him. I thought about trying the car seat myself.

Ned may have been a presence in our household - particularly at 10:30 p.m. - but I wasn't used to an inactive kid. Alex spent his inactive infancy in the hospital, plugged with tubes and often wiggling inside a plastic box. He didn't come home until age 13 months, when he was as active as the remaining tubes would permit.

"Ned doesn't do anything," I said to Jill.

"He does so!" replied Jill, who is breastfeeding and so I think knows better than I.

Then I noticed Ned's legs jerking around. His arms soon followed; every now and then I'd look over and see the bassinet trembling, and soon I'd see a flash of tiny wrist of ankle. He began to suck a binkie (Jill's cousin, also a mom of two boys, calls binkies "plugs"), at first soft in confusion, then clamped with entitlement. He started to smile, the corners of his fine mouth coming to little points as he found some spot on the handle of the car seat uproarious. At least once he's rolled over onto his side.

Around then, Ned started to speak. His first word was "gla." He emitted this by fixing his bright eyes on the car seat handle and sticking out his chin to launch the sound.

"Gla!" exclaimed Jill. "He said gla!"

I can get him to say "Gla!" with even more enthusiasm than Jill by stroking his lips. The other night Jill and I were watching TV on the coach. Ned was in the car seat beside me. I was concentrating on "The Sopranos" when Jill said, "He's staring at you." I looked over into two tiny blue-gray shotgun barrels. "Hey fella," I said, reaching over with one finger. Best is to trace a long Mexican mustache or a Van Dyke on his nose and chin. He likes a tickle under the chin. He likes it when you rub the bridge of his nose, like some dogs.

"Isn't he so cute and perfect?" says Jill.

"Gla. Eh gla!" He's no longer silent.

The list of Ned's "no longers" grows longer itself. He's no longer terrified of the bath, for instance. We turn up the kitchen counter lights, and if he's bawling he stops the minute his rump touches the water. He waits patiently while you splash his belly. The other night Jill dribbled water onto his hands and chest, and got a smile. He often tries to stand in the sink.

My mother used to say she liked babies because they stayed where you put them. I never agreed, finding an active baby inherently more interesting. Still, it feels heavy to look at Ned and think that he's my last child and that a time of his life is gone already. It saddens Jill when I mimic the face Ned made when he came home and wanted to eat: wide-eyed, sweet, a blossom. Now, sometimes when he smiles it's with the face of a New Yorker who's found a cab in the rain. If we hold him when he can't sleep, he pounds our shoulders. He squawks and curses like Yosemite Sam. The other night I was slow with a diaper, and the barrels locked on me and made scared for the future.

He clamps on the binkie - "plug" be damned - when he's ready to go back to sleep. Wave of hand, kick of leg, and his eyes droop.

Gla. I'm told that all this activity will continue. If it must, I hope it continues until it exhausts him by 10:30. (March 2001)

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