Alone.

Alone. Irrevocably, irreversibly, incontrovertibly, and utterly alone.

My wife, Eva Parsons, died after two and one half years of being afflicted with metastatic breast cancer on Thursday, April 7, 2016, at 8:00 a.m.

Eva and I had prepared for her death almost from the moment she was diagnosed. Eva generated a great storehouse of equanimity to deal with her cancer. She was not angry about getting the disease; she was not afraid to die; she was not sad that her life would come to an end at 65. She accepted her death, and taught many of us about dying without the typical drama that surrounds a cancer death. She managed her life effectively until her last breath.

On the morning she died, I was with my daughter, Samantha. We stayed by Eva’s side for a while, hugged, checked in with each other, and then went on with the day as it unfolded. For a while, I felt like I was in a vacuum, but that passed almost right away. Sam stayed in Alaska for the next day, and left Saturday morning; I took her to the airport for her six o’clock flight to Nashville.

On the return drive home from Anchorage, I practiced my intentional breathing, and managed to not think about what I had lost, or to think about what I was going to do for the rest of my life. Eva directed me to live a long life, to be kind, and to set a “good example.” I think the “good example” part was her humor; I’ll never know; there’s nobody to ask.

I arrived home, let the Labs out of the car, and into the house. They ambled to whatever part of the house suited them and left me alone, standing in the kitchen with shafts of early morning sunlight coming through the window and splashing on the kitchen floor.

As I stood just inside the door, alone, I had a long moment of awareness: from that time on, I was utterly, irrevocably, irretrievably, and completely alone for the rest of my life. I stood there for minutes while I absorbed the feeling. I have never been completely alone in 65 years. Everything had changed forever, I realized. I think the word for this feeling is “bereft.” It seems like the right word.

Of course, I have lots of support. Now. Many friends say, “If you need anything, just call.” I appreciate their gesture. Eventually, everyone returns to their routine because their lives have not changed.

I, on the other hand, have changed, or rather, my world has shifted: I am alone.

I am okay with being alone for now; I’ll be okay later, also.

It is just an unsettling feeling to be alone without reprieve, and not be able to return to the companionship I shared with Eva for 44 years. She is gone forever; I will continue without her for a very, very long time. Sad. Bereft. Alone. At least for now.

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The trouble is, you think you have time.

Today, Samantha and I were watching videos I shot of her when she was a baby. It is always fun to look back and enjoy those moments forever frozen on the video tape.

One segment struck Samantha as funny; Sam named it “What Rhymes With Duck?”

https://youtu.be/Khd-LZTomxM  (click the link and then click the link below this link.)

As we watched this video over and over again, we realized that what we were looking at was not a funny video, but a snapshot of Eva, Sam’s Mom, and my wife of forty years, when Eva was thirty-eight. What struck us was how young Eva looked. Her smile radiated happiness. She truly loved being with her daughter and sharing a few moments opening Samantha’s birthday present.

We watched the video and realized this was before Eva had wrinkles, or grey hair. She has just come home from teaching school. Her smile is so warm; she smiles so readily even after she frowns at her husband’s inane implication about the rhyming of “duck.”

This was a time of great joy for Eva. Teaching was going very well for her. She had a baby to come home to every day after work. The baby adored her Mother. Her husband was keeping the house in shape and cooking and keeping the baby entertained during the day. What more could you ask for?

We didn’t know it then, but if we could have asked for anything, we probably would have asked to live in that moment (remain young and beautiful) forever. But like the quote says, you don’t control time.

Everything changes. Samantha grew noticeably brighter every day, Eva and I grew a little more each day; we didn’t notice the slow transition for another twenty years. Life got better for us every day, every year. While we weren’t looking, time changed; we changed.

Samantha and I look at Eva in this video and we love her as she was. We love her as she is. We thought we had time. We don’t. Soon, we will have to love Eva only as she was. She will no longer be with us. Are we sad? Yes. Can we be happy again? Samantha and I find great pleasure watching Eva find joy in teaching Samantha words and rhymes. Teaching is Eva’s greatest joy in life. It is just a brief moment in time, but it reminds us of how innocent and how happy we were to live in that moment. The moment.

I remind myself to focus on each breath, each moment: it is the only time we have together.

“I’m So Excited,” or How Jack Met His First Porcupine

Team Labfam just jogged in from a seven-mile run! An hour and a half ago, Jack, Kenai, and I took off for a Wasilla, Alaska, run down Church Road, to Clapp Road, to Knik Road, and back home to the projects in Mission Hills. I started the run with The Pointer Sisters’ I’m So Excited blaring in my ears.  That song is just the right BPMs, about 92, for a quick run.

Church Road makes a nice running path on a bike path with a few hills thrown in to keep it interesting. As we passed the three-mile post, Jack (not Daniels, the dog) took off for something he discerned a thousand feet ahead of us. I couldn’t see what he was interested in; I thought he was just chasing a car that had slowed down momentarily. Actually, what he detected on our side of the road was a world-class size porcupine. We grow them extra big up here in Alaska: the really big ones look like Rottweilers with their legs cropped to six inches. Jack had the proper amount of “savoir fear” to keep him out of quill range and away from a $1,000.00 vet bill. I called him when I realized the hazard. He turned tail (beat the porcupine on that one) and struck a track back to us.

Had Jack made the wrong decision, the song, I’m So Excited would have been background music to another type of run. As it was, we continued while I replayed in my mind my other encounters with Mr. Porcupine.

I have had three porcupine encounters within the last forty years. The most recent skirmish was just about this time of the year. For some reason porcupines like swampy wetlands. Spring is when they come down from the trees to do whatever porcupines do in the Spring; I’m thinking breeding. On the other hand, the Home Show might have been an attraction. My good friend, Ron Jones and I were just completing a late evening (9:00 pm) walk we dubbed “The Long Trail.” Moose, my favorite black Lab of all time, decided to hang back from us and explore a small glade. After a brief space of time, a couple of minutes, he still hadn’t caught up to us. I called, and called him by name. No response. I yelled uncomplimentary things about his mother and their relationship. No response. Finally, Ron and I backtracked about a quarter of a mile to encounter Moose on the trail huffing, and chuffing, and pawing both sides of his face. I had seen this behavior enough times to know what had happened even though it was completely dark. I picked up one hundred pounds of wild dog and relayed him a mile to the Duramax truck. He was foaming and bleeding from the mouth; he was just wild with pain and shock. This event was recent enough that there was such a thing as an I-Phone. I dialed the animal hospital emergency room. The vet’s first concern was not with the dog; he wanted me to agree to provide him with a $1,000.00 charge on my VISA before treating the dog. I said, “fair enough,” and the race was on to the hospital. Ron drove, and I fought Moose all the way to the hospital to keep him from clamping down on the fifty, or hundred, or so quills in his mouth. The quills covered his chest, his forelegs, and bristled from his ears and around his eyes.

At three o’clock in the morning, I got a call to come pick Moose up; they couldn’t stand listening to him scream at the top of his lungs . He was feeling no pain; he  missed his main master: me.  He was quill-free, and I was grateful for that outcome.

As a side note: Dogs never learn to avoid porcupines after their first encounter with them; in fact, most dogs will go after porcupines even more aggressively the second time. If you are in porcupine habitat, it is always wise to have your pup on a retractable leash. Most of the time, my dogs are harnessed, and leashed.

Baptism by Water Hose, or You Got Hosed, Dad!

One day, I had done something especially egregious to draw the ire of my mother. She had to resort to threatening me because she had run out of authority to discipline me. I must have been about five. She couldn’t spank me, so she did the next best thing, she pretended to call my father at work and tell him what a bad boy I had been and how I needed a spanking when he got home from work. She, of course, knew better than to bother my father at work, so she held down the kitchen phone receiver (old school phone) while she dialed the number. She proceeded to relate, as I listened from the living room, the laundry list of sins I had committed that day, leaving the worst for last. I was paralyzed with fear that my dad would come home and beat me. He had never done more than speak a few cross words to me, so my fear was totally ungrounded as fear always is. When she hung up, she said flatly, “When your father gets home, he is going to deal with you. He told me to tell you that.”

The day went on. Mother forgot about me, but I didn’t forget about my impending doom.

Upon arriving home after work, my father, totally ignorant of my manifold sins, bounded up the driveway, both arms wide open to greet me in a bear hug. I, remembering my mother’s phone call, had been worried, non-stop, for hours before my father’s arrival.

I was watering the front yard trees with a powerful stream of water. I flashed on my father’s open arms threatening to tackle me to the ground and spank my butt until it fell off. I defended myself with the only tool I had at hand: the water hose! I hosed that man up and down, down and up, and then hosed him straight into his shocked face with that water hose gushing forth it’s cold stream of water from a four foot distance.

Something in his face changed. I did not read it as anger: it was clearly chagrin at having been greeted so rudely and having his brand new, three piece, grey flannel suit completely soaked. Too bad there wasn’t an audience to witness this scene.

It was flight or fight time. I flew. Father became enraged. I got about twenty feet of a head start. I was no slouch at running! My father sprang into a sprint and was closing rapidly from the first bound. Off we jetted, three hundred feet south on Poplar Street to the corner of Twenty-First Street. I instinctively rounded left up the Twenty-First Street hill and thereby saved myself a guaranteed public spanking. As we ran up the hill, I maintained speed; my dad’s speed flagged. (He was about fifty-four and retribution running was not his forte.) I circled the block, hung out with some neighbors, and then bowed to the inevitable. I  returned home.

Dad was nowhere in sight. Mother was upstairs crying (a very rare event.) Unbeknown to me, my dad had returned home. Angry words were exchanged. To my mom’s credit, she must have come clean about the misunderstanding she had authored. He changed clothes and was walking the neighborhood looking for me. His objective was to forgive me, have a good laugh, and recover the rest of the evening: he had come home early from work to take us all to dinner. We didn’t laugh at me hosing him down.

Later, he didn’t even remember it.

Affirming the Positive, or Fill Me Up, Buttercup

In 1978, on my way to learning other things in the classroom, I took a ten-day in-service class called “Humanizing the Classroom”  led by Art Combs.

Combs taught us how children become more self-confident and self-disciplined in response to what they learn about themselves in the classroom and at home.

He used the metaphor of a deep well to represent a child’s self-esteem capacity.  The role of a teacher is to raise the water level of each child’s well.  According to Combs, everyone has a reservoir of goodness (the water) in his well. Each day, children collect affirmations; some children, over time, collect more than others. The children who experience many positives over the course of time, find that their water level (self-esteem) rises all the time, and that a child with lots of positives will have the water level almost at the top of the well. Thus, when you bend over each child’s well and drop a rock into it to sound the depth of the reservoir from the top of the well to the water, you will hear the splash right away in the well of the child who experiences lots of affirmations. (The void from the water level to the top of the well is call an “ullage” by the way.) The child who rarely experiences affirmation will have a water level so low (a huge “ullage,” or void in his or her well) that one might have to listen for a long, long time to hear a splash. This may be why children who encounter very few positive experiences, or affirmations may seem to be “distant” from us. By extension, it is our positive experiences that make us attractive to others.

So what is the takeaway for teachers and parents from this analogy?

Combs said that it is a teacher’s job, every day, to structure positive learning experiences that give children  a sense of accomplishment;  that give children the affirmation requirement every child needs every day. Every day, the water level (self-esteem) will rise a bit more.

But most importantly, as you add affirmations (positive experiences and a sense of accomplishment) to a child’s well, regardless of the level, that affirmation can never be undone by anyone: the good you do for a child will always remain with that child.

Long after children forget the facts and figures and dates they learn in school, they will remember how well they were cared for and, most importantly, how they were treated.

The Bank of Jeff: Where Lifelong Savers are Forged

Savings is the absence of spending. That simple fact can dictate the future success of almost every individual’s financial life. As important as knowing how to spend money wisely is to one’s financial security, it is even more fundamental to good economics to understand the value of saving.

With that in mind, I combined some ideas I learned in the insurance industry and designed a program to shape my daughter’s financial acumen to be directed toward saving.

To that end, I created the “Bank of Jeff.”

The Bank of Jeff is unique in that it is home-based, doesn’t insure deposits, accepts deposits twenty-four/seven, and pays a very attractive rate to only one client: my daughter.

The features of this bank were designed for only one function: to turn my daughter into an inverterate saver.

A typical bank, or credit union, was paying about one percent per anum when she was learning about money. As an example, one hundred dollars is a lot of money to a seven-year-old kid. Given a one percent return, said seven-year-old would get back one dollar for hiding her one hundred dollars away from the pleasures of what that money could buy during the year. I can’t think of too many kids (or adults, for that matter) who would find that rate of return motivational. In fact, even Sam, at seven, found it laughable.

What to do? Easy. Pay a better rate: pay a meaningful return of the dollar. I chose a rate that even Sam could appreciate: five percent per month. If that sounds good, think about the per anum return: about seventy percent. Now we are talking about a rate that will get any seven-year-old’s attention. Heck, it would get my attention, and I hate saving.

So how did it work? The account balance was evaluated at the end of each month. Starting with a balance of one hundred dollars, the one hundred dollars must remain in the account for an entire month, then the value of the account at the end of the month would be one hundred five dollars.

If the money was deposited in any time after the first of the month, say January, the five percent would be paid at the end of the next month, February. The money had to remain in the bank for a full month to earn interest.

On the other hand, at any time money was taken out of the account, said money would earn no interest.

The incentive shifts from spending to saving because there is a rich economic interest to save as opposed to spend.

Certain controls had to be placed on the account in order to not bankrupt the banker. The maximum amount that could remain in the account was one thousand dollars; one month’s interest on one thousand dollars is fifty dollars.

When the one thousand dollar limit was reached, by mutual agreement, nine hundred dollars was withdrawn from the account and placed in an aggressive mutual fund opened in my daughter’s name.

The point of having an account with between one hundred and one thousand dollars is to have money available for spending on really important wants, say a RC car (Sam actually withdrew money to buy one). At the same time, Sam thought long and hard about withdrawing her money that was drawing five dollars to fifty dollars each month in order to by whatever it is that kids what to buy with their pocket money.

The Bank of Jeff created a deliberate saver and an even more deliberate spender: Sam. She remains a deliberate saver to this day. She could probably cash out her own house if she wanted to. She cashed out a new Volvo with her savings and picked it up in Sweden to boot.

The Bank of Jeff was retired after high school graduation, but the benefits of the bank accrue daily: Sam’s financial attitudes toward money are simple: she’s a saver, through and through.

Ask anyone who has watched her deliberate about spending her cash.

Rereading The Liar’s Club for the First Time

Last December 2015, I was walking with a friend for the first time in five years. We were walking and talking about writing: writing memoirs in particular. My friend thought she might have a few books in her waiting to get into publication. She was thinking of writing a memoir and was sounding me to find out if I could tell her anything valuable from a literature teacher’s point of view. I’m sure I didn’t.

She asked me if I had ever read Mary Karr’s book The Liar’s Club. I said I had read it. I remembered that I had listened to Mary Karr talk on NPR about her book in 2010, when she re-issued it. I bought the book, didn’t find the immediate enthusiasm to start it and shelved it for a while. One day, again on NPR, I listened to Stephen King profess has admiration for Mary Karr and for her book The Liar’s Club. I dusted off my copy and started to read it due to King’s enthusiasm for Karr and the book. I remember not being too fond of the idea of a Liar’s Club, and I must have dismissed it after a few pages because there is no way I could have read that book then, or now, without simply falling in love with the language, Mary Karr’s style, and her voice. The book is all about voice and that voice speaks to a broad audience.

I could not have read more than three pages. If I didn’t like the book, and didn’t think much of Mary Karr, then I could not have read it. Maybe my problem was that it  was set in Texas…who knows?  Bald fact: I didn’t read the book. Mea culpa.

My response to my friend was that I had indeed read the book a long time ago and that I didn’t think much of it, or much of Mary Karr as a writer. A dark shadow crossed this woman’s face. She was thinking deeply to herself, “This guy’s an idiot.” Her formally good opinion of my literary opinion stock dropped through the floor. I can’t be sure what her exact thought was coursing through her mind, but if I had to guess, it probably went something like this: “You are a pompous, arrogant dumbass, who doesn’t know good writing when you read it.” Or something to that effect. People don’t think highly of ridiculous criticism of obvious good writing, especially writing they personally enjoy. Fact. Been there.

Last week, after I had to cancel what would have been a third walk in five years, and first in three months, I decided to reread The Liar’s Club in order to find out why this book is adored by so many readers, and by my friend.

People read books for a number of good reasons. Some people like the action in a book, others are happy to read a simple narrative; still others like to read a particular genre, or read about an interesting topic; I am happy to read books others find interesting. I will always find a book engrossing, if the language talks to me with interesting metaphors, images, rhythm, tone and sentencing (variation of sentence lengths); I am a hopelessly attracted to novels that read more like poetry, and novels where I can’t distinguish between whether, or not the language has been deliberately chosen and polished, or if the author is just that damn amazing of an artist, and writes beautiful language effortlessly and naturally.

Mary Karr’s particular genius is that she understands that the sense of smell is intimately related to memory. If you are writing a memoir, it makes great sense to use the smells that evoke memories liberally. She is a master of placing an evocative image of a particular smell to introduce her recollection of a place, or event. The entire novel derives its sense of place through her numerous appeals to our sense of smell.

Mary Karr had me from her first image when she connects the sense of smell to her memory of the nutty smell of coffee and the background smell of her hometown: “Somebody had made a pot of coffee that laid a nutty smell over the faint chemical stink from the gasoline fire in the back yard. Every one tries to conjure up the sense of smell to fill out their narrative by using the smell of bacon, or coffee, and then abandons the sense of smell as a tool to evoke a minor image. Karr uses coffee, cigar smoke, Salem cigarette smoke, and then moves on to much more masterful smell images throughout the book. She repeats the coffee image: She remembers picking up her dad at work: “He brought into the cab the odors of stale coffee and of the cleaning solvent he used to get the oil off his hands.” Later in the book, when Pokey reunites with her dad, she uses “He’d been drinking black coffee during his shift, the coffee that pored like tar from the foreman’s beat-up percolator. That coffee brought my whole former Daddy back. I knew the solvent he used to strip grease from his hands and the Lava soap applied with a fingernail brush. (She moves to a tactile image: “His chin bristles scraped my neck.”) then she shifts back to smell to complete the child and father reunion: “And he must have been sweating from damp or work or worry, for the Tennessee whiskey he’d stood on the tarmac sipping was like the fresh-cut oak coming off him.” It bears repeating: Karr’s genius is her use of smell images to build her memoir because memories are richly remembered around specific smells. Karr makes fun of frozen fart smell which appear as her Dad, Pete, tells a story of “about a dozen of these round fuzzy things rolled our his pant leg. Big as your thumb, and white.” Pete continues the story: “And you ain’t going to guess what happens when they thaw. They pop like firecrackers and let off the biggest stink you ever smelled…” “They was farts?” Daddy slaps the laughs at sucking in his audience. And thus, we are introduced to the humor of the Liar’s Club and Pete’s storytelling through the sense of smell.

Another favorite of mine that takes me right in the car with Karr: “The too-sweet smell of Grandma’s hyacinth perfume hung in the car till Mother lit a Salem.” I know that perfume and I know the smell of Salem (menthol) cigarettes and that sentence takes me back to my mother’s smoking when I rode in the car with her as a youngster, about the same age as Karr is at this point in her narrative.

Karr gains memory-evoking strength just a few sentences later on the page when she remembers: “The sheer stink of my hometown woke me before dawn. The oil refineries and chemical plants gave the whole place a rotten-egg smell.” A positive memory: “The right wind could bring you a whiff of the Gulf, but that was rare.”

That smell leads, a couple of pages later, to this revelation about her hometown: “I later learned that Leechfield at that time was the manufacturing site for Agent Orange, Which surprised me not one bit.” She is remembering arriving in her hometown after an all-night car ride: “That morning, when I woke up lying under the back slant of the windshield, the world smelled not unlike a wicked fart in a close room.”

Another example of Karr’s narrative genius is how she parallels the novel To Kill a Mockingbird without even reaching from her own life to do so. Karr is the Scout Finch of Leechfield, Texas. Both Mary Karr and Jean Louise Finch have nicknames: Pokey and Scout. Both tell the backstory of their hometown while writing about how much they adore their fathers. Scout is no slouch at setting people straight, and neither is Pokey. They both speak in the vernacular, both write in a highly literate narrative form that somehow reaches out and includes the speech sounds and rhythmic cadences of the South. Karr doesn’t appear to deliberately make the connections between the two novels, but there are clear connections in her story. Harper Lee has a unique voice that draws the reader in by telling the story with a child persona: Scout. Karr steps back into her childhood and tells her story as her younger self, modeling her seven year old voice when she asks questions of her sister and parents and then shifting subtly to an adult voice to carry the narration.

Karr lends credibility to her memoir by questioning her remembrance of certain events as though she might not be remembering them as accurately as she lived the events as a child. Both Karr and Lee echo the idea that we don’t remember events as they were, but as we were.

Another comparison to TKM I noticed was Pokey’s comment about running away from home: “What I didn’t know until I finally did leave home at fifteen was that, if I had lit our, nobody would organize any posse to sniff me down.”

Dill observes to Scout that maybe Boo didn’t run away because he had no place to run to. Dill was also the product of a mother who remarried and chose to focus more on herself and her new husband than on her child. You can see that parallel in Pokey’s mom when she divorces Pokey’s dad and remarries destroying the family bond. The children are allowed to choose which parent the wish to live with. To me, this shows the indifference of Pokey’s mom to her children. To her credit, Pokey’s mom later reunites the family.

Does everyone in the South drink to excess? Wow! There are the big drinkers: Aunt Rachel and Bob Ewell in TKM. In The Liar’s Club, everyone is a drunk. They probably don’t problem drink any more in the South than in the North, but drinking is definitely a favorite past time that has detrimental effects on both communities. The Liar’s Club makes glad I live boring, non-drinking life, that no one would actually write about.

I noticed that in Karr’s alcoholic family, each sister was willing, at any time to walk away from the other. I think this is the mark of an alcohol-affected family. For example Pokey says of her loyalty to her sister: “I wished Lecia no particular harm, but if there was only one banana left in the bowl, I would not hesitate to grab it and leave her to do without.” On the other hand, when Lecia, Pokey, and her dad were together, Pokey said, “We were just like the three curved boards for the hull bottom of some boat that only needed gluing and caulking together.

If you are still with me, you might like to think about Karr’s use of pacing to add texture to the story. Throughout the narrative, she leads us down a narrative trail, story by story, stopping and digressing occasionally to illuminate a important connection to the narrative.

The rape story demands a under current of pacing to reinforce how craftily Pokey was cut out of the herd and raped by an older boy. She mentions him. She describes him as evil. She tells how he grooms her. Then she describes the rape as it happens. It all seems to build up gradually, to demonstrate how this evil boy planned the rape. Pokey is left without any recourse to address her rape. She concludes her story by describing him walking off to the ball game, he never rushes; he is confident that he is in complete control of Pokey and Pokey’s will, and he is confident that he will never be found out. The pacing of the story reflects his confidence: slow and deliberate.

A particularly touching dramatic story Karr relates is how Lecia, Pete, and Mary enjoy a cookout in Colorado. Mary remembers it as a Halcyon moment before the family’s tight bond is obliviated by their mother’s selfishness the next day. Mary experiences the best day of her life the day before she faces her worst day.

If I filmed this book, I would choose Adele’s “Hello” as the theme song for the for The Liar’s Club. The book has an most plaintive vibe to it. One can hardly imagine a little girl growing up in such a dysfunctional family and still turning out as close to normal as most of the rest of us are (if we all were truthful about our families).

I have a special . If I really like a book I have read, I rate it by how many copies I buy on Amazon and then send to my reading buddies, or give to my friends. So far, I have given away fifty copies of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, forty copies of Gilbert’s, Eat Pray Love, twenty-five copies of Caroline Knapp’s, Drinking: A Love Story, twenty-five, or thirty copies of Ted Kerosote’s, Merle’s Door. I was so taken with Elizabeth Smart’s Story, that I bought fifty copies of a very expensive hardback to loan to my students. Each book was read over twenty times over a two-year period. That was money well-spend. If I thought I had fifty friends that would actually read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, I would order fifty copies just to start. Sadly, I don’t think I am going to find that level of enthusiasm unless a bunch of folks read this blog and tell me how excited they are about the book.

Thank you, my friend for embarrassing me into reading The Liar’s Club. As with everything else in our relationship, you are right and I am wrong. The abyss will never be bridged except with great book recommendations. I’ll miss those in the future.

This interview and video might pique your interest in reading The Liar’s Club:

http://www.raintaxi.com/feeling-making-machine-an-interview-with-mary-karr/

https://www.facebook.com/MaryKarrLit/videos/945703705138/