Birthday Party Playlist Part 2 (Or I Cry… Just a Little)

Guys, tomorrow is my birthday! And today I need to talk about the other people who inspired songs on my birthday party playlist.

There are so many people I love. Truly. And if I had my way they’d never go away. They’d all be here to toast the good times together. But since I’m not supreme dictator of the universe, it’s not the case. And that’s OK.

So, anyway here it goes:

Pharrell and Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is for Gilbylocks. It’s for that Sunday morning dance party we had in the Bronson Canyon Parking lot. The one Benito filmed. It’s for our sunny convent breakfasts after CrossFit. It’s for laughing with me about a flaming pink teakettle. It’s for going on this gut wrenching, heart-opening journey with me – and for understanding why it’s the thing that just might change my life. It’s for those talks we had in the back of a SXSW cab. It’s for instigating the birthday backbend test to see if we’re old. It’s for carving my name into a tree in Calcutta. It’s for making me her kohona. I love you, Suzie. Come home from Sweden soon.

David Bowie’s China Girl is for Gillian. It’s for being with me at Cabo Cantina when we put it on the juke box that Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It’s for knowing — really knowing — what this business has been like for me. It’s for our inside joke about my illegitimate children. It’s for almost setting ourselves on fire the first time we tried to light a grill. It’s for being one of my very first dinner party partners back in the day. It’s for bonding with me over a love of Laura Palmer. It’s for letting me be Ziggy’s dog sitter. And it’s for always calling when she’s back from making big box office hits.

Bertie Higgins’ Key Largo is for Sarah. She and her husband may be the only other people on the planet who also have this song in their iTunes library. It’s for always listening to the boy drama. For working with me until midnight on stupid soap opera recaps. For making me get on the stage to sing a little Garth Brooks on her birthday. For her thoughtfulness. For her encouragement. And for her sunny spirit.

George Straight’s Easy Come, Easy Go is for Pewther. It’s for finding it in my iTunes library the last time he stayed with me. It’s for offering to come down when my dog died even though I didn’t let him. It’s for making me laugh — easily and often. For making cuddling easy. For making frozen pizza and reruns of The Office seem like a night at the symphony. For the times he’d stop me from being bossy by just saying, “Hold Me.” He wasn’t easy to let go.

2Pac’s Thugz Mansion is for Dana. It’s because it blew me away when I first learned the sweet, soft-spoken girl sitting in the cubicle next to me at ABC loved her some Pac. It’s for our Maha Yoga dates and our bagel Sundays. It’s for that wedding dress shopping adventure in Orange County. It’s for celebrating my 30th birthday and her wedding together at the Mandarin Oriental. It’s for telling me about the best Italian restaurant in the East Village. It’s for her loyalty. And her honesty. (BTW, Happy Anniversary, Dana and Alex!) #gangstarapforever

Nelly’s Country Grammar is for, well, Nelly P. It’s for batting 1,000 on birthday party attendance in our 20’s. It’s for pickle tacos at Malo. For making me laugh over IM at 4 am when we were pulling our hair out over the marketing plans for our theses. It’s for bringing a bag of candy to my first Easter Dinner. It’s for saying, “We almost wrote, ‘you ARE hot’ on the cake instead of ‘Happy Birthday’” that year I’d been Bill Callahaned myself. It’s for coining the term in the first place. It’s for all the cigarettes we smoked outside every club in Hollywood in our 20’s. For letting me cry on his patio when I called in sick to work over a broken heart. For being the cell phone number I still have memorized.

Baby Bash and T-Pain’s Cyclone is for Danielle. It’s for making it my song – and making me laugh for the reason she chose it. It’s for our laundry nights during slumber parties. It’s for her big, big heart – the one that no matter how broken it is never seems to be too full for someone else. It’s for the encouragement she has given me to follow my dreams and follow my heart. It’s for the hours we spent on the phone the night Melissa’s dad died. It’s for somehow knowing Melissa needed that rose on September 11th… the one she saved when she was sad. It’s for getting why I have to put bows and sparkles on everything too. It’s for sharing the pleasure and the pain of being alive. And it’s for loving pink as much as I do.

Lil Jon’s Get Low is also for Melissa. It’s because one song isn’t enough. It’s because we danced to it so many times on a couch in Santa Monica that afternoon in August. It’s not just about the people we’ve lost since we met. It’s about the family I have because of her. It’s about making Suzie and me go to SXSW in the first place. It’s about making me take the tags off the Ted Baker suit when I was agonizing over it. It’s about the strength she had to just cry in the middle of a bar on Abbot Kinney — and about what I’ve learned from her loss. It’s about the day we cried on the phone when I walked her through her dog’s final hours. It’s about loaning him to me in the first place when I’d lost mine. It’s about the way somehow we’ve made each other do the tough stuff even when we didn’t want to. It’s about our honesty over tacos on Lincoln Avenue and hauling trash into the Albertson’s dumpster. It’s about the battle not to be broken laptops but shiny MacBook pros instead. Chris Rock says, “We should all be ashamed of ourselves for liking this song….” but we’re not ashamed. At all.

And finally…

Flo Rida’s I Cry is for my Bumpa. I know it sounds weird to say Flo Rida reminds you of your Grandpa, but it’s because the song makes me happy. And every time I hear it, I start skipping — or dancing in my car. The first time I caught myself doing it, I started smiling through the tears that came streaming down my face. It’s because my spontaneous skipping in the Hollywood Hills brought me back to a night with my Bumpa in Detroit so many years ago. He was carrying a picnic basket as we walked through the streets near the Renaissance Center. All of a sudden, for no apparent reason, he started skipping and singing, “We’re off to see the wizard,” and it was just infectious. His joy was contagious. And the world needs so much more of that. I’ve only started to scratch the surface when it comes to telling his story – of saying what he meant to me – but THAT might take a lifetime.

OK, I’m going to get into this mocha and bagel now because it’s my birthday week and I wanna.

Carbs on Dogs Dishes and Decor

My kitchen table is a mess. And Today? I don’t care.

Then I’m gonna dance in my kitchen, Bumpa style.

I might even make that face I make when I dance – the one that startles my aunt ‘cuz I do that thing with my mouth that he did when he danced.

#love

Birthday Party Playlist (Or Sorry for Partying)

A few weeks ago I was on a mission to appreciate my neighborhood. I was trying to make peace with living somewhere I wanted to escape so I started wandering the streets in search of inspiration. A few blocks from my place, I came across this carved into the sidewalk.

Hollywood sidewalk on Dogs Dishes and Decor

Today, it sort of seems fitting somehow.

See, my birthday is Saturday…. and today is the 10-year anniversary of Kristin Connor’s death.

I had only met Kristin a few months before we lost her, but time doesn’t always feel relevant in the face of loss. Kristin was our friend Angela’s best friend from high school. She he had recently relocated to LA from Michigan, and we welcomed her into our displaced Midwestern family immediately. There was just something about Kristin… I can’t really describe it. She was warm. She was real. And I liked her right away. Talking to her was easy, and it was almost as if I had known her for years.

Two days before my birthday, she was killed in a car accident.

The summer of 2003 was maybe the best and worst of my life for so many reasons. And my birthday party that year was a blowout never to be forgotten.

We were celebrating. We were mourning. And OMIGOD, we were annoying the neighbors.

That day we were coming together — and we were saying goodbye. It was my birthday party.  It was Angela’s going away party.

And maybe most of all?

It was Kristin Connor’s wake.

Partiers on Dogs Dishes and Decor

Part of the 17th Street Birthday Party Crew. Santa Monica, cira 2003.

So today as I think about the friend our family lost, I want to tell a whole bunch of Michigan kids how much they mean to me.

See, it struck me as I was perfecting the playlist for my upcoming birthday party that so many of the songs on it reminded me of members of my Michigan crew. Many of them will be at my (much more civilized) birthday this year. Many will not.

But either way?

I’m thankful for them and maybe I don’t really say it enough.

So, here it goes:

Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ is for Melissa. It reminds me of the days we were rolling through Hollywood in her dirty Volvo while painting our toenails on the dashboard. Melissa has been by my side for so many birthdays, so many movie premieres… and so many goodbyes. Together we’ve mourned her Beagle, my first Spaniel, our grandfathers, my grandmother, our mentor, my cousin, Kristin Connors, and her father. We’ve laughed through the tears and we’ve danced through the pain — sometimes at Barney’s Beanery and The Bungalow — where they don’t even have dance floors.

Lyke Li’s Little Bit is for Nicole. She put it on one of the many amazing mixes she has made me over the years. It’s for all the dinner parties we’ve thrown together. For breaking into my apartment to do my dishes after I sliced my thumb instead of an eggplant. For knowing how to make me feel so special on my birthday. For her generous heart — and her kind spirit.

Juvenile’s Back that Azz Up is for my panda, Sarah. It reminds me of our last summer in Ann Arbor. We used to open the sunroof of her Explorer and absolutely blast the song while driving past civilized restaurants on Main Street during dinner hour. This song is for standing by my side at my grandfather’s funeral. For asking me to be in her wedding. For helping me out of a pair of capris with a broken zipper in a TJ Maxx dressing room. For giving me perspective on what really matters. And for years of love, laughter, and loyalty.

Kesha’s Tik Tok is for Kelley. We put it on our Camarillo Road Trip Playlist and listened to it A LOT while we were stuck in gridlock and she was carsick beyond belief. It’s for the endless talk that first night we met in the Pi Phi basement — the talk that led to so many more. It’s for being my senior spring break travel partner. For skipping chapter to watch Monty Python with me. For asking me to be her only Michigan bridesmaid. And For standing by my side for 16 years… no matter what.

Lee Brice’s Friends We Won’t Forget is for Anna. It’s for sharing her story and really, really listening to mine. It’s for pushing me to do a few more push ups. For making me change my make up, my clothes, and my hair. For our dinner parties. For reminding me how much I love country music. And for just knowing when I need a hug.

Britney’s Toxic is for Ryan. It’s for all the good talks we had about our grandpas — and for taking care of me the day after I lost mine. For teaching me about birdies, eagles, and albatrosses. For legal services rendered. And for knowing I needed to hear a little Britney on a bad day at the office.

Westside Connection’s Lights Out  is for Josh. It brings me back to the days of our endless wandering through the aisles of Amoeba Records. The days when he’d drive across LA at midnight just to watch Diggstown with me. The days of batting cages and Brett Ratner’s driver incessantly interrupting our Indian dinners. It’s for always stepping up — even when it was risky.

Huey Lewis and the News’ Do You Believe in Love is for Michael and Jody. It’s for all the support, advice, and sous chef work over the years. It’s for making me believe everything works out for the best. For showing me what it’s like to be a really great team. For including me in the Cycle for Survival in memory of Jody’s mom. And for making me a part of their family every Christmas. I’m proud to share a birthday with their son Connor who will turn one on Saturday.

JT’s SexyBack is for Katy who also celebrates a birthday this Saturday and loves her a little JT. It’s for getting me out of my house while I was helplessly waiting for my grandpa to die. It’s for finding a new home for my dog. For making our birthday special every year. For listening. And for pushing me to do the tough stuff.

Yolanda Be Cool versus DCup’s We No Speak No Americano is for Manning who played it in the car after my birthday in the ‘bu — and before he really became my friend. It’s for introducing me to Anna… and making sure we hung out. It’s for making me like lamb, calling me out on the mayonnaise to yolk ratio in my deviled eggs, and for making me laugh while we were covered in gum. It’s for always showing up when and where he said he would. And it’s for making the tough talks somehow seem easy.

Soulja Boy’s Kiss Me Through the Phone is for Angela who lost the most on August 1. The song will forever remind me of her husband singing it to her in the streets of Hollywood. It’s for the great talks we’ve had about life, death, and design. It’s for being one of the few people on the planet who understands why I come so unraveled over college football. And it’s for introducing me to Kristin.

David Guetta’s Memories is for Kristin Connors herself. It just seems fitting.

And The Victors is for everyone.

Oh, and by the way, I’m not sorry for partying. I am a little sorry about all that Lil’ Jon we played, but I will never apologize for cutting loose with some of the best people I know. I can’t wait to do it again soon.

This One’s For You, Justin (Or How to Make a Kale, Banana, and Nut Smoothie)

I’ll never forget the day as long as I live: It was Monday, November 12, around 5 pm. I was listening to the haunting, 80s-esque, synth sounds of Class Actress, and I was elbow deep in my aquarium, scrubbing algae off of the sides. I heard my mother’s ringtone, but I let it go to voicemail. My hands were wet and it wasn’t a good time to talk.

Also?

I had a to-do list a mile long.

I was starting a producing job for the Academy Awards the next morning, and I was trying to get my personal life in order before taking on the project.

My mother called again moments later, and I figured it was probably important.

In retrospect, I wish I had been kinder when I answered. My hands were still dripping with water, so I swiped my iPhone with my elbow and put her on speaker. “What?” I said, sort of annoyed.

“I have sad news.” Her voice was faltering, and I could tell she was trying to hold it together. I wiped my hands on my legs and picked up the phone so I could hear her better. “It’s Justin,” she said. Then she lost it. Like, gasping for air — sobbing — lost it. If you know my mum, you know she doesn’t break easily, so I knew something was terribly wrong. Yet somehow it almost didn’t register when she told me my cousin had hanged himself that morning.

He was 25.

Justin was a vegan, a home brewer an organic gardener, and an avid cyclist. He was also an absolutely brilliant mathematician who had always struggled with the strict structure of school.

Earlier that morning I had received an e-mail from my his mother, my Aunt Myrna, asking me to pray for him. He had sent her an e-mail on Saturday saying that he wasn’t doing well in some of his college classes, and she was concerned about him. By the time I opened the e-mail and said a prayer for him, he was probably already gone.

After I hung up with my mother, I called my aunt. The police and a priest were still at her house. She asked me if I had gotten her e-mail. “I did. I said a prayer for him,” I told her, my own voice breaking. I barely managed to get out the words, “I love you,” before bursting into tears.

The rest of the evening was a blur. I cooked dinner. I continued to cross things off my to-do list. I called friends. It all felt hollow and unreal. I barely remember setting my clothes out for work. I think I may have pulled out old photo albums, but I really don’t remember.

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Even though Justin and I were separated by nine years and more than 1,200 miles, we spent a lot of time together as kids.

The next morning as I drove to work, my mother was simultaneously en route to my grandmother’s house to tell her that her only grandson was dead.

THAT I remember.

My aunt and mother had decided my grandmother needed to hear the news in person, so that fell to the only person still living in Michigan: my mother. Understandably, she was terrified to deliver the news.

“I’m praying for you. You can do this. I love you.” I texted, as I walked through the polished lobby of the ABC building, head held high. On the outside, I was perfectly put together. It was as if my bright smile and my professional ensemble hid my broken heart. I told no one at work what was going on. I put my head down and crossed tasks off of my to-do list.

Later that afternoon when I was trying to access a work document on Google Drive, I clicked on Google + instead. I never go on Google + and almost forgot I had an account until I accidentally clicked on it.

Staring right there at me from my news feed was this photo of Justin.

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The caption read, “Keep it real. Keep it vegan. Keep drinkin’ beer.”

It had been uploaded Sunday night. It was the last thing he posted before he died, and I’m grateful I accidentally stumbled upon what may be the closest thing my family has to a goodbye note. Justin loved kale and grew it in his garden, so it’s somehow fitting he’s holding it in this photo. His roommates later told my aunt and uncle he had made himself a late-night meal on Sunday when they were heading to bed. Some time between taking this photo and the next morning, he took his own life.

I haven’t had much closure since losing my cousin. Work got in the way. (Or rather, I let work get in the way.) I didn’t attend his memorial because I was working on the Oscars.

On January 10, on what would have been his 26th birthday, I was locked in a room at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for 13 hours without access to my cell phone because it was the day the Oscar nominations were announced. Still I told no one about my loss; I put my head down and did my job. I was torn between feelings of relief for the distraction on his birthday and feelings of intense resentment that I couldn’t let my guard down and miss him even for a moment.

The week of the Oscars, My boss put me in charge of the massive “In Memoriam” gallery commemorating all of the filmmakers and stars who had died that year. It took all of my strength to hold it together as I put endless hours into a gallery paying tribute to strangers when I had hardly taken a moment to honor my own cousin. Still, I told no one at the office.

About a month later, I had a conversation with a close friend who was going to the beach to light a candle on the anniversary of her mother’s death. She has done it every year since losing her mother to cancer, and it struck me that I had done nothing personal to pay tribute to my cousin. Sure, I had contributed to Wheels 4 Life, the charity my aunt and uncle selected, but it didn’t feel like enough. I admitted to my friend that I felt guilty I hadn’t found my own way to honor my cousin.

Last night I had to absolutely drag myself to the grand opening of a new CorePower Yoga location. They were offering a free yoga class, but somehow that didn’t feel like motivation enough for me to drive a mere three miles to the studio. Yet something deep down was telling me to go, something stronger than a desire to take a free class. Something deep inside me kept telling me, “GO,” so I did. The class was great, and I even won a Manduka towel in the raffle.

But the best thing that happened was sort of unexpected… and it didn’t hit me right away.

During the reception after class, I tried a kale and cashew smoothie provided by a local vegan restaurant. I was surprised to discover that it was delicious. See, I’m crazy carnivorous and typically I steer clear of vegan fare, but this thing was actually awesome.

I’m on a bit of a Paleo/health kick right now, so I decided to make my own version of the smoothie today. It wasn’t until I looked over at this note from my aunt and uncle while my Cuisinart was macerating the kale that I realized I was making a smoothie my cousin and I could have shared.

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Food is at the center of our lives. Not only is it essential to our survival, but it can also be an expression of our emotions. We mourn with food. We celebrate with food. And today as I sipped my smoothie I somehow felt like I was closer to my cousin — like I was honoring him in a way.

As I enjoyed a vegan kale smoothie, I realized I had finally found my personal tribute to my cousin.

I haven’t seen his mother (or my own mother) since he passed away. They’re both coming to California next month for their sister’s birthday, and it will be the first time we’ve all been together since we lost Justin.

I decided today that I’m going to make these smoothies when they’re here, so we can all toast him together. We can raise a glass of kale to honor a cousin, a son, and a nephew — a beautiful soul who left us all too soon.

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Justin Russell Drawbert, this kale’s for you. Bottoms up.

If you want to make this simple, healthy snack for yourself, the recipe is below. Even though they’re vegan they’re actually Paleo diet-friendly since the ingredients are mostly alkaline and fairly low on the glycemic index. (More on the whole Paleo thing another time. I promise.)

Justin’s Kale Smoothie

1/3 C coconut water
1/8 C unsalted nuts (I used pecans, cashews, hazelnuts and almonds)
1 ripe banana
1 T agave nectar
2 C fresh kale

Add the coconut water, banana, and agave nectar to the blender and mix to combine. Add the nuts and blend until smooth. Add the kale and blend until you achieve a uniform consistency.

Enjoy!

Remembering Kathy Fogg (Or My Stark Family Mourns the Loss of Our Matriarch)

My friend Suzie* once said, “Some people are poems. Others are symphonies.” And I absolutely believe it to be true.

Both art forms can bring tears — or elation. Both can move you beyond measure. Both have the power to transform. One may be briefer than the other but that does not diminish its impact. Not in the least.

My grandfather was my symphony, maybe the most influential and inspirational I’ve ever known.

Kathy Fogg was my poem. A poem that changed my life.

Kathy was the Associate Director of the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California for 23 years, and during that time she launched (and nurtured) innumerable powerful Hollywood careers. She passed away on Friday, and upon learning this news I have been reflecting on all I have in my life because of her.

My grandfather gave me his DNA — and the family that made me the person I am today.

Kathy gave me a chance — and the industry family that has been by my side through the soaring highs and immeasurable lows of my career.

I first met Kathy in 2000 when I was applying to the Peter Stark Program. I still remember what I wore to our meeting that day. I still remember our conversation.

After telling me about the curriculum, we moved on to talking about ourselves. Amidst other small talk, she mentioned she had made a student film with George Lucas as an undergraduate. She smiled, shrugged rather nonchalantly and said, “He’s moved on since then.” Looking at the smiling faces in the family photos lining her bookshelves and her desk, I replied, “So have you.”

Not only did Kathy have her own wonderful family, but she also created the family feeling of the Peter Stark Program. (A program named for the late son of legendary producer, Ray Stark.)

I am sad to say I hadn’t seen Kathy since she retired, but I feel her impact on my life. Daily. She (and prolific producer Larry Turman) gave a girl from Michigan the chance to sit in a room with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. And she gave me the friends who have been by my side in a business not necessarily known for loyalty and integrity. The people who have given me jobs, hugs, support, and big bottles of wine — the people for whom I have done the same. The people who understand the moments of torment and triumph everyone experiences in the crucible of show business.

Kathy saw something in me. She believed in me. She made the call that changed my life that winter day when she told me I had been given one of the 25 coveted spaces in the program.

During the two years the 25 of us spent with Kathy, she made us cookies. She gave us hugs. She made us laugh. She helped us find the jobs and internships that took us to the next level.

The Producing Class of 1994 was so powerful it inspired a New York Times feature in 2002. And that powerful class? Still remembered where they came from. They hired three of us from the class of 2003. Because Family? Takes care of their own.

Some have called the graduates of the program the Stark Mafia. To that I would say, “Isn’t a mafia just a really powerful family, anyway?”

Larry Turman has often told me they select the people who would have been successful without the program, and that may very well be true. But our lives are all much richer for having each other in them.

Kathy Fogg may not have had a Film Produced By credit on any Oscar-winning films. But she has countless Careers Produced By Credits. Lives Changed By Credits.

As I remember Kathy, I am grateful for the chance she gave me, but most of all for the people she brought into my life. Because I can say with absolute certainty that without those true friends and my faith I would have left this business long ago.

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Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the batting cages to hit something. Hard. Because I need to do something with my sadness. At least today in remembering what Kathy saw in me, remembering the friends she gave me, I feel strong enough to hit balls by myself. Strong enough to hit a home run. Even if it is with tears in my eyes.

*Suzie is one of those true friends I wouldn’t have if it weren’t for Kathy. And Suzie said that when we were at SXSW with Melissa, another true friend and fellow member of the class of 2003. 

Someone Else’s Eyes (Or I Go All Introspective Again)

Sometimes we need to see life through someone else’s eyes. It’s important to remember your situation or perspective isn’t paramount. Our modern culture tells us we’re these amazing, autonomous, infallible beings with some sort of right to happiness and success. As if our masters degrees grant us a life without failure, rejection, or struggle. As if our size 6 jeans mean we won’t be left brokenhearted and sobbing on the bathroom floor.

Guess what?

Nothing protects you from the bumps and bruises of life. Not even a trust fund, a tiny waist, or a perky rack. Nothing. Protects. You.

We’re all going to falter.

We’re all going to fail.

If you haven’t yet, bully for you. Just hang on. You might be betrayed by your boss. You might lose the most important person in your life too soon. You might fall short of your dreams.

And guess what? It’s all going to be OK anyway.

The thing is, life can be painful. It can sting, but it isn’t an excuse to check out. It doesn’t grant you permission to shut down and shut everyone out. Trust me. I’ve done it. And it’s OK if you have too. Life is about forgiving yourself. Forgiving others. And moving on.

It’s about finding joy in the little things when everything is falling apart around you. Maybe it’s even fiddling while Rome burns*.

Whatever it is, life is a long, strange trip. And it’s filled with people who can help you… if you let them. Lately I’ve discovered that life isn’t a random accident. It’s really not. I’ve been having a crazy month where people are coming into my life (and also back into it) with questions for which I have the answers; they’re fighting battles I’ve fought before. Or they have been through some rough times that have helped me immensely on my path. I think that maybe we can be missing pieces in someone else’s puzzle. It doesn’t have to be a forever thing. It can just be a moment in time. Or it can be a great friendship. Either way, I think it’s our mission to help where we can… how we can.

I started this blog to express myself… and to talk about my favorite things: food, dogs, and design. And in the process I’ve found myself again — the me that gets buried when I’m getting paid to write someone else’s story — the me that gets paid to live a life that isn’t really mine.

So thank you for reading. And thank you for joining me on a journey that doesn’t have a destination.

Yet.

Tonight, I leave you with this: a photo me with my Bumpa, Harold Lawrence Russell. A kindred spirit. An inspiration. And one of the most amazing men I will ever know.

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I have my grandpa’s eyes. I only hope I have his strength, his kindness, and his capacity for forgiveness.

When I’m ready, I’ll tell his story. For real.

*Side note: Nero, who is said to have set fire to Rome and then fiddled while it burned, was a crazy bastard who persecuted Christians and was tight with (and also related to) Caligula who was so whacked that he planned to elect his horse Consul. #truestory #youcantmakethisshitup