Friends, Have You Heard The Word About Frangos?

FrangosCome hither, my friends, young and old, and find salvation. Have you heard the word? Have you heard the word of ecstasy? In my recent travels, I have encountered too many among ye who have not heard the word, who have not been saved, who have not yet beheld the mighty wonder … of Frangos.

If I were a better satirist, this whole post would be written in the style of a rafter-banging, come-hither, Chautauqua sermon. But since I’m not very religious – and even when I went to church, it was a sober, rational Unitarian fellowship – evangelical words fail me. (Which, on the whole, I have to say is a good thing.)

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to bore friends and strangers alike with the tale of my weight loss. Too often, the idea of weight loss comes with draconian notions that one will find themselves forever behind a Berlin Wall, with sweets and ice cream and pepperoni pizzas wailing like sirens on the other side.

Not true, I would say. It’s just a question of moderation. And that’s when I bring up the fact that a single Frango candy has anywhere between 40 and 45 calories, and that won’t ruin anyone’s diet.

At which point, a whole bunch of people asked, “What’s a Frango?”

This represents a serious breakdown in American culture. Would someone ask, “What’s Baskin-Robbins?” Would someone ask, “What’s See’s Candy?” Would someone ask, “What’s a Jelly Belly?” (only four calories each, by the way).

So let me give you the divine word about Frangos. They’re roughly half-inch rectangles covered in chocolate. Inside there may be more chocolate. There may be mint chocolate. There may be caramel, or toffee, or raspberry-flavored chocolate. It doesn’t matter. They’re all sinful.

The reason why not enough people know about Frangos is because they originated at a department store named Frederick & Nelson in the Pacific Northwest. I learned about Frango’s from Seattle friends when I lived there in the late 1970s. Frederick & Nelson was purchased by Marshall Field way back in 1929 (that’s why both store names came to be written in the same elegant script), and Frangos then became available in those department stores. With the passage of time, Macy’s purchased Marshall Field (along with seemingly every other department store chain) and Frangos came under the banner of Macy’s.

Except … not always.

The reason people don’t know about them is because the folks at Macys – to whom I used to be intensely loyal and am no longer – don’t seem to understand what kind of treasure they possess. If you walk into my local Macys, you might be lucky to find one display stand with two or three flavors of Frangos tucked into a corner on the way to restrooms or the customer service department. Even the Macys at Stanford Shopping Center is pitifully understocked, Frangos-wise.

I haven’t even had much luck getting them online, although in in confirming that, I discovered a an astonishing sale on Frangos (one-third off – unheard of!) going on that sadly will have expired by the time this is posted. I now have a very nice stash in the garage freezer, and come the apocalypse, you can all come to my house for candy.

No, if you really want the Frangos experience, you have to go to the flagship Macy’s store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, a site that once belonged to Marshall Field. There, they know how to display Frangos. All the flavors. All the box sizes, from the four-piece tasting treats to the dainty gift boxes to the full-size 45-piece boxes. Walk in there and it’s like coming upon the Pearly Gates. Inhale and it’s chocolate heaven.

Here’s my ulterior motive for spreading the hallowed word about Frangos. Do you hear me, friends? I want those little 45-calorie wonders everywhere. Stride into Macy’s and demand them! And serve them to your friends. Let me know when they’re available.


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Weight, Weight, Don’t Tell Me

Next Saturday marks my 60th birthday. It wasn’t necessarily for my birthday, but earlier this year I decided to give myself the gift of redefining what was possible and impossible in my life.

Howard On BoatThere’s a myth out there that it’s extremely difficult to lose weight when you get older. It’s not. I offer myself as evidence. At the left is how I looked last February on our trip to Antarctica: like a snowman.

At the right is how I looked at the last Giants game of the season earlier this month. It may not be obvious, but I’m thirty pounds lighter. I’ve lost six inches off my waist. Howard @ Giants Game

I wasn’t expecting this to happen. But I’d been thinking about getting a personal trainer, with no particular goal in mind other than to stop having to buy more pants with progressively bigger waistlines. I’d tried other weight-loss and exercise efforts, without long-lasting effect. When my trainer at 24 Hour Fitness told me that I could lose 40 pounds, I thought he was crazy.

Turned out he wasn’t. My trainer Eric is 22 years old, doesn’t know who Bette Midler is (any more than I know who his favorite hip-hop singers are), but he’s guided me to somewhere I never expected to be.

The last really big change in my life took place about 35 years ago, when my life had become so disheartening that I decided to change my mental outlook. That required three things: seeing a therapist, going to 12-step meetings, and reading about recovery.

Interestingly, when I decided to change my physical outlook, that too also required three things: getting a trainer, using a smartphone app to track my calories, and being mindful about what I put in my mouth. Welcome to the 21st century.

I meet Eric at the gym for weight training three days a week; I do cardio exercise at home twice a week. There is no running involved. I’m not ruining my knees. But I’m both gaining muscle and losing fat at an astonishing rate. My percentage of body fat is down from 32% to 24% – and I’m aiming to get it down to 16%, because, frankly, I still jiggle in some places. But a lot fewer than before.

Eric set my smartphone app, MyFitnessPal, to 1,770 calories. You would be astonished at what’s possible to eat and still stay under 1,770 calories. I mean, you can’t have cheeseburgers and Reubens on a regular basis, but you can have them on occasion.

At one point early on, when I despaired after a weigh-in that I wasn’t dropping pounds fast enough, Eric suggested I spend a week limiting myself to two food groups: protein and vegetables. That meant a lot of eggs and fish and chicken and carrots and celery, but also steak if I wanted it. I refused to forego the milk in my morning coffee, but I limited my intake to two cups.

I lost five pounds that week.

I went back to my usual regimen of 1,770 calories the following week, and then back to protein and vegetables. I lost another five pounds. And so on.

A week of dietary limitations is not difficult. A life of dietary limitations is. That’s why they say diets don’t work.

MyFitnessPal, which I primarily use to track calories, was also an eye-opener. We drink extremely strong coffee – French Market from New Orleans – in large mugs. At first, I estimated that I put a half-cup of milk into my coffee in the morning. Then – here’s where the mindfulness comes in – I measured it to make sure. I was putting a full cup of milk into my coffee. One cup of 1% milk equals 130 calories. If I had four cups of coffee in the morning, not to mention another cup at lunch and another cup at dinner, that was 780 calories, almost half of my daily allotment.

They say the biggest part of maintaining weight loss is not returning to old habits. Believe me, I am not going back to drinking that much milk in one day ever. I drink more water now than I ever have.

I also discovered, thanks to the app, that one of my chocolate chip cookies equals 180 calories, while a piece of Frango’s chocolate is around 40 calories. So I let myself have one, instead of six. It’s amazing that one piece of candy or one cookie can be as satisfying as six, but it is.

I’m not sure where all this newfound discipline came from. If I’m honest, I have to say that it had a lot to do with my father’s passing earlier this year. It wasn’t just that I could now afford a trainer more easily, it was that I no longer had his hypercritical voice in my ear. But it was also the fact that, even after a lifetime of abusing his body with alcohol, he still lived to within a few weeks of his 95th birthday (his mother died just short of her 102nd). I figure if I have genes like that, I don’t want to be physically decrepit for the duration.

I won’t say there isn’t a downside. There is now a large box of pants in the attic that don’t fit me. I’ve had to buy new shorts, new pants, new swimsuits, and even new shirts. And Eric doesn’t come cheap – but he’s worth it. I wish I’d done this years ago.

But the upside is even greater. My wife the doctor insists she’s been telling me about the cumulative beneficial side effects of weight loss for years, but now they’re startlingly evident. These include:

No more snoring. I had actually been diagnosed with sleep apnea, but hated the idea of wearing the C-PAP device that had been prescribed for me. When the supplier never called me back, I said to heck with them. Avoiding that hideous sleeping mask wasn’t the motivation for losing weight, but it turns out that losing weight is a recommended treatment for apnea. All gone. My sleeping partner confirms this.

Cholesterol drop. I went from 208 mg/DL two years ago to 155 last month. My HDL went up and my LDL went down. I am now on a “Lipitor holiday” to see whether I still need to keep taking it.

Lung capacity. After my pulmonary embolism in 1999, my lung capacity sucked. I’d come to rely on everything from Advair to Proventil when it came to exercising. Haven’t used either one in weeks.

Here’s the takeaway, the one single important thing to note: this was not draconian. I don’t feel like I’ve been deprived of anything. (Well, perhaps there was that birthday cake at a party that took place on one of my protein-and-veggie weeks.) An ice cream sandwich and a glass of Riesling are only about 140 calories each. And because muscle burns calories more than fat, the closer I get to my weight goal, the easier it will be to keep it off.

If you’re thinking about getting rid of that paunch, you can. It’s not so much a question of losing weight as much as it is redefining the realm of the possible.

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The Last Efficient Bureaucrat

So if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that the public sector has gone just a tad topsy-turvy on us. Let’s recap.

Last month, the federal government – the one that makes laws forcing other industries to protect customer data, such as medical records and financial information – was subjected to a massive breach of its personnel database. Sometimes irony is charming, and sometimes it’s just annoying.

Then, this month, in what could have been a report broadcast during Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, the Environmental Protection Agency managed to accidentally unleash a wave of toxic waste into a Colorado river at the height of the tourist season. Yes, this is the same EPA that was created during the Nixon administration to … well, it’s right there in the name … protect the environment. There is no truth to the rumor that it will be renamed the Environmental Destruction Agency.

Then there are the seemingly endless flow of news reports about police officers killing unnamed citizens during traffic stops. Perhaps I say policemen, because none of the offending officers appear to be female, which is odd, because for years men didn’t want women on the force because … oh my god, don’t you know that they can’t control their emotions? If the police force is supposed to protect us, who’s going to protect us from the police?

I’ve often railed about my desire not to have bigger government or smaller government, but more-effective government. I’d love it if government would make things better, but if it can’t, at least don’t make things worse.

Then, in the midst of all this, came a story about a bureaucrat who actually did make things better. The sad part is, it was her obituary, and the heroic stand she took on behalf of the American people took place during the Kennedy administration.

Her name was Frances Oldham Kelsey, and she died recently at age 101. Her efforts especially resonate with Baby Boomers. Why? Because she was the FDA official who suspected that the drug thalidomide wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and refused to approve its sale in the U.S. If Baby Boomers had nightmares as children, part of the reason was likely the horrifying pictures in Life magazine of malformed children whose mothers had taken a drug marketed as Kevadon for morning sickness.

As the New York Times said in Kelsey’s obituary last week, Kevadon’s manufacturer, Merrell, made “glowing claims” for its “safety and effectiveness. Dr. Kelsey, working with a chemist and a pharmacologist, found the evidence for Merrell’s claims about Kevadon to be insufficient. She withheld approval and asked Merrell for more data on toxicity, strength and purity.”

Merrell, of course, had stockpiled the drug in anticipation of FDA approval – which in those days was apparently no more than a rubber-stamp – and stood to lose millions if Kelsey didn’t give the okay. As the Times notes, “The company supplied more data, but also mounted a campaign to pressure Dr. Kelsey. Letters, calls and visits from Merrell executives ensued. She was called a fussy, stubborn, unreasonable bureaucrat. But she refused to be hurried, insisting that there was insufficient proof.”

Even as issues with the drug began to surface, the company insisted the evidence was “inconclusive.” Kelsey stood firm, convinced the company wasn’t forthcoming. Before long, tragically, with the birth of deformed babies in England and Europe, her reticence was proved correct. Although some babies in the U.S. were born with foreshortened arms and legs – because of Kevadon samples physicians had distributed – Kelsey averted a disaster the effects of which would still be reverberating today.

Simply put, she protected us from rapaciousness, arrogance, and error. Why can’t we have bureaucrats like that today?

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The Empty Carrier

GusIs there any sadder sight than a carrier that goes into a vet’s office with a kitty inside, and comes out empty? I have written before of the horror of taking something you love and killing it. Last week it was 12-year-old Gus, one of the sweetest cats who ever owned a human.

Like many cats, he was a mystery. He was born feral, but never manifested their skittish tendencies. He was loving and affectionate, always happy to lay in a kitty bed on my desk (or, too often, between me and the keyboard). In the mornings, I often woke up in bed and found him nestled against my leg, as if the best place in the world was always next to Daddy.

Not so much recently. He’s had multiple bouts of illness since the spring, the most recent being several tumors in his lungs that had spread from some other unknown place in his body. He never figured out how to use the cat stairs I had built into my office desk, and now no longer had the energy to jump up on it. He moved slower, ate less, purred less.

It’s times like this that I can understand the decision one of our neighbors made many years ago. The slow death of their beloved Thumper made them swear off pets. I understand it, but I can’t abide by it. Sure, taking that carrier in never gets any easier, nor does taking it out again empty. Nor will it  be any easier when it comes time for the four cats still left in the house. Yet I love and cherish those purring little wonders.

As always, for Gus, and for his brothers before him, we faced a Hobson’s choice: we didn’t want to give him up, and we didn’t want him to suffer. Sometimes it’s hard to be the adult in a relationship.

I made the appointment for his passing, and waited for the designated time. I went out into the backyard to check on him. In the past few weeks, he’d been hiding under a lavender bush; I wonder if the fragrance was somehow medicinal for him. It’s summer, so work has been slow. No appointments in the morning, no looming deadlines. Nothing to take my mind off the horrible task at hand. I emptied the dishwasher of clean dishes and filled it with dirty ones. Mundane things.

When the time came, I gathered him up, carefully, cognizant that he was in pain, and put him in his carrier for his last visit to the vet’s office. When we got there, I cradled him and told him how much I loved him. I sobbed uncontrollably. I said good-bye. I chose the little statue for his ashes.

And then I came back home, feeling emptier than the carrier.

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Leaving Las Vegas

Fabulous Las VegasSometimes juxtaposition accidentally provides enlightenment. We flew to Las Vegas late last month, to visit a friend who had fled the madness of Silicon Valley. It was an exciting trip, what with actual CSI techs blocking access to his street late one night and the pool deck of the Cosmopolitan going up in flames while we were two blocks away at Caesars Palace.

What wasn’t exciting was the gaming. I love Nevada’s number-one pastime; I always have. One Christmas when the family was visiting my sister in Orange County, California, we piled into the car and drove to Las Vegas. I wasn’t 21 yet, but I looked old enough, and I won $40 on a video poker machine. I have suspected ever since that the casinos have some way of identifying newcomers, and intentionally letting them win so they’ll always come back in search of that first-time rush.

My best friend in high school and college did both his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Nevada at Reno, and I visited him often. There were times I was so unlucky at the tables, I would have to borrow bridge fare to get back home.

I know that the very best one can do at the gaming tables is break even. But that presumes that you win something during your time there, and then lose it again; that at some point during the 24 to 48 hours you’re gambling that you’re actually ahead. During this most recent visit, with the exception of about ten minutes when I first started playing blackjack at a casino downtown on Fremont Street, I was never, ever ahead. And for the very first time, it just wasn’t fun.

So what’s the juxtaposition? Not long before I left for Las Vegas, I’d been asked by my gym trainer – a lad of only 22, which seems unbearably young – what it was like to grow up in the Sixties. As I later posted on Facebook, it took me a while to formulate an answer, but I finally told him that here, in Silicon Valley, the best word I could come up with was “cushy.”

The valley’s economy was roaring even then, thanks to electronics and defense, so I only remember one or two people that I would consider poor. I was in junior high school before any of my friends’ parents got divorced. The houses on television (The Brady Bunch, My Three Sons, The Partridge Family) all looked like ours – suburban ranch houses with room to roam. Scholastic Weekly fed us right-wing propaganda about the domino theory and why we were in Vietnam War, and only one or two older brothers of my classmates were fighting there (one died). When Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed, I knew it was bad, sad, and important, but I didn’t understand the political ramifications until much, much later. All of the uproar of the Sixties just didn’t seem to touch us as kids.

But this cocoon of cushiness overshadowed an eventual, bitter realization: that among all this cushiness, my siblings and I were being verbally and emotionally abused. I’m sure most of you are tired of hearing about my dysfunctional family, but no more tired than I am of trying to process and move beyond it. I still hope to come to ultimate terms with it before I die (barring that, I’m hoping for reincarnation). Even as I explained to my trainer my view of life in the Sixties, I realized that while it seemed idyllic, its underside was actually just the opposite.

Enter Las Vegas.

I can’t help but think of it as the urban equivalent of a dysfunctional family. It entices you with flashing, colorful lights, with visions of potential wealth and glory. It adorns itself with the glitter of Disneyland, agglomerating fantasies and nostalgia galore for those who yearn for Venice or Paris, for ancient Rome or Egypt, or some other magical place. It plies you with liquor and fine dining, with entertainment, with scantily clad women (what this does for women, I have no idea).

Like a domineering parent, it tells you that you’re lucky to be there, and that you should be having the time of your life. But at the same time, at the gaming tables, you’re getting beat up and humiliated and frustrated and abused. And it’s confusing, even to a rational adult, because everywhere you turn in Vegas, everything is fabulous. That’s what they call it: fabulous Las Vegas.

But the etymological root of fabulous is fable. And fables are just stories. Fiction. Lies. Just as those comfortable suburban homes on television were lies; just as the demands for familial devotion and obedience were built on lies.

Another juxtaposition: this trainer of mine is desperately trying to bring balance to my diet, to educate me on the sins of sugar and sodium, and the pleasures of protein and vegetables. I am learning to go without the things I love, like cereal and carbonated soda. And I’m wondering if the next time I go to see my friend in Las Vegas, I can finally forgo the gaming that I used to enjoy too much.

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The Right Regrets

When you get to be middle-aged (and admittedly, beyond), the topic of regrets comes up a lot. I’m pretty lucky. As Frank Sinatra sang in “My Way,” I’ve only had a few.

Regret #1: Travel. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how I never got to attend my first choice of colleges, Emerson in Boston. That’s one regret, but another collegiate one is never spending a semester overseas. Stanford had wonderful campuses in Cliveden and Florence, among other places, but the idea of going to another country – even though I’d traveled all over the U.S. – petrified the emotionally immature me. (So what turned out to be the first country I visited outside of North America? Morocco!)

Regret #2: Quitting. Another of my college faux pas related to the school newspaper. I was a prolific writer in the entertainment section, writing dozens of movie reviews and other articles, so it seemed only logical to promote me to editor of the department the following year. What a disaster. I was way out of my depth; I once cut inches off a review of a Journey concert to keep my own review of Gone In 60 Seconds intact (much to my embarrassment now). Worse, my schoolwork started to suffer, so I quit after only a few weeks.

The paper’s editor begged me to reconsider, and in retrospect, I wished I’d figured out a way to make it work. Especially since the guy who replaced me now works at the New York Times.

Regret #3: Athletic Events. On October 17, 1989, thanks to the largesse of the publisher of the magazine I worked for at the time, I was sitting in Candlestick Park waiting for game 3 of the World Series to begin. There was a slight interruption, which we know refer to as the Loma Prieta earthquake, which rendered Candlestick temporarily unusable not only for the Giants-A’s game but for the 49ers-Patriots game the following weekend.

The latter game was moved to Stanford Stadium, and a friend of mine offered me tickets. What did I do instead? I went to the office, having missed work both the day of the World Series and the following day while we waited for the office to be declared safe. You know how they say no one ever sat up on their death bed and said they wished they’d spent more time at the office? I am the idiot who spent more time at the office.

Regret #4: Philandering. For most of my dating years, I seemed to be under the impression that monogamy was actually spelled m-o-n-o-t-o-n-y, and I hurt a lot of women when that particular illiteracy – spelled i-d-i-o-c-y – came to light. I’ll just chalk that up to the aforementioned emotional immaturity and be thankful that my spelling improved when I got married.

Regret #5: Trusting the Future. My friend Andrew frequently reminds me that the philosophy of mine that he loves the most is “live life according to a theory of abundance.” I didn’t always have this philosophy, unfortunately. In 2002, just after the storied technology downturn, I was out of work and collecting unemployment insurance (and damn happy to have it). It was a gloomy time, but a medical-school friend of Monica’s had taken a fellowship in New Zealand. I have always regretted – especially in light of the way my career subsequently improved – not just putting that very expensive jaunt on a credit card and heading south to see them.

Dear Abby once said that you can measure a man’s character by the things he’s ashamed of. I don’t know if regret and shame are the same, but they’re pretty close. Playwright Arthur Miller once wrote, “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” I hope these are the right ones, because they’re sure the ones I’ve learn from.

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Oh, The Stuff You’ll Keep (Part II)

Last week I wrote about all the clippings I found in my files that I will never – sadly – be able to use in my own stories. They range from sweet to ironic to … well, weird.

  • An April 11, 1982 San Francisco Chronicle story which discussed, among other attempts at the U.S. Post Office to make money, its launching of Electronic Computer Originated Mail (E-COM), a service that “allows customers to transmit bills, company messages or accounting information for delivery anywhere in the continental U.S. within 48 hours.” As this description from the USPS’s own historical site reveals, it was pretty clear why the service failed within three years: “E-COM service was introduced at a rate of 26 cents for the first page, and 5 cents for the second. In addition, there was an annual $50 fee for the service.”
  • The September 14, 1988 San Francisco Chronicle column Steve Rubinstein wrote about calling his sister’s answering machine just to hear it pick up. No one’s home “because a fire is a mile or so down the road. The firefighters told her to scram. … So I place calls to her house, knowing she’s not home. … If the machine answers, the machine is still there and so, therefore, is the house.” (Remember answering machines?)
  • A photocopy of a memo that I’m positive is a joke (well, almost positive): “To All Personnel From Management: The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves.”
  • An undated (though probably early 80s), unsourced clipping quoting a glum state of affairs: “It is a gloomy moment in the history of our country. Not in the lifetime of most men has there been so much grave and deep apprehension. Never has the future seemed so incalculable as at this time. The domestic situation is in chaos … Prices are so high as to be utterly impossible. The political cauldron seethes and bubbles with uncertainty. Russia hangs, as usual, like a cloud, dark and silent upon the horizon. It is a solemn moment … of our troubles, no man can see the end.” Turns out it’s from Harper’s Weekly, the Life magazine of its day, in October 1857.
  • A cartoon of two men standing in a cornfield, their arms outstretched as if acting as scarecrows. The caption – one man apparently answering a question of the other – reads: “English lit – how about you?” (This isn’t funny if you actually have a degree in English literature, as I do.)
  • A June 30, 1989 New York Times article about a lawyer jokes that opens with the story about the man who inquired about a lawyer’s fee and was told it was $50 for three questions. “Isn’t that awfully steep?” asked the man. “Yes,” replied the lawyer. “What’s your last question?”
  • A very sad Deutsche Presse-Agentur article, published in the San Jose Mercury-News in 1983, about German shepherds replacing St. Bernards as rescue dogs in the Alps, because “their compact bodies make it easier for them to fit into helicopters” than the up-to-200-pound St. Bernards.
  • An undated Seattle Times clipping in which a telecom executive revealed one of the more bizarre uses of its pagers: a farmer came in with a dirt-encrusted pager he wanted to replace. The farmer explained that instead of going and finding his herd of cows at the end of the day and leading them to the barn, all he had to do was hang a pager on the lead cow, send a page, and the herd would come in by itself. I’m still trying to figure out why the heck the farmer hung the pager on the cow in the first place.
  • A June 25, 1983 San Jose Mercury-News story about two doctors who saved the life of the attorney who was suing them for malpractice, with the help of a surgeon who was testifying against the doctors. The attorney, John Crisman, collapsed in the courtroom form an apparent heart attack, and was revived seven minutes later via mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As one of the defendants told him, “It’s a good thing you sued good doctors.”
  • An Associated Press story about how New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz once helped a man propose to his girlfriend by creating a puzzle that include her name and his request among the clues. Oh, and her response was there too: yes.
  • But my absolute favorite is the undated letter to Dear Abby, in response to a girl who cried because she lived in a dump. It was written by a coal miner’s daughter who was so ashamed of the house she lived in that she gave her dates the address of a friend’s house and met them there. The ruse worked until one night when her date drove her back to her actual house and said, “I’ve always known where you live but it doesn’t make any difference in the way I feel about you. Your father is a decent, hard-working man who’s giving his family the best he can afford.” She closed her letter: “I’ve never forgotten those words, nor the beautiful college boy who spoke them. He died last year, after giving me four wonderful children and 49 of the happiest years of my life.”
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