The Normalcy Bias

The normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a belief people hold when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects, because people believe that things will always function the way things normally have functioned.

I understand this well because I have spent a large percentage of my life with a man that my children call Papaw. He suffers from the normalcy bias condition. He became my step-father when I was about six. It was at that point the stories, or shall I say… legends, began. The man is a walking anomaly. By all accounts he should be dead based on any one of several factors. Something in his genetics has a grit that is heretofore unexplained by science. Now that I think about it, his dad was a rough and grumpy guy and reminded me vaguely of the cockroach villain in the first Men In Black movie. Maybe he inherited the tenacity without the exoskeleton.

 

Crapaw

He was Carl. In the most Carl way.

 

Since the primary purpose of this blog is a written record for my children I think it is relevant to recount this wonderful man’s history of calamity. I have learned many valuable lessons from Papaw but safety is not one of them. Or maybe it is the exact lesson I learned in a very round-about way. I’m going to share a series of events in no-particular-order. But I will start where most things begin, in the beginning. And let me preface all of this with the statement that Papaw is as loving and smart and loyal as the day is long. He would sacrifice anything of his own for literally almost anyone else who needed it. I love him very much. And he has a head that is hard as a brick stick and ears that filter anything that doesn’t sound like, “Good idea!” or “I agree!”

Papaw

Safety Third.

Papaw had a childhood that introduced him to danger early. The first story I remember was the lawn mower incident. It was a warm summer evening near dusk. Papaw’s father, Crapaw, was mowing his overgrown lawn with the most battle-hardened mower to grace the universe, a Snapper. Papaw was a young boy and had been instructed to stay on the porch while his father peeled around the yard in a frantic race with the setting sun. An innocent scene but the allure of adventure would prove to be more than Papaw could resist.

The shadows were growing long. A light dew had settled over the grass as it will often do at the end of a hot southern day. The air smelled of working man’s sweat, motor oil, and leaded gasoline. Papaw kicked a few rocks and a few crushed filters from Marlboro Reds as he paced back and forth. The porch was boring. A confined life of rules. How could he sit in one place and watch his life pass him by while his father taunted him; lap after lap on his powerful steed? Slaying clumps of Fescue and the battling overgrown weeds.

Inside Papaw’s soul, something stirred.

A desire to confront danger head-on and prove that all warnings from family are ill-founded and meant only for mere mortals. Adventure was at his fingertips and he would have it!

He ventured away from the safety of the porch and entered into a game of follow the leader with a late 1960’s riding mower know regionwide for its ability to chop through thickets with blades no sharper than the edge of a dull spoon. It whipped grass into shape and beat Oak saplings into submission. It was behind this icon of lawn maintenance that Papaw left the porch and began his march with destiny.

Papaw stepped double-time along behind his father proudly. Carefully staying out of his father’s view to avoid an “ass whipping” for not listening. Two men on parade. Exerting their will over nature.

Then the unthinkable happened. The ratio of uncut grass to cut grass had shifted and there was no longer a smooth circular route for the mower to follow. All that remained to be mowed was an irregular strip of grass known to lawn mowing husbands everywhere as The Last Pass. It is a perplexing piece of lawn that has to be handled carefully. While an experienced mowest will make sure his machine is properly aligned and finish in one pass, a lesser human will circle the area fifty times to get every errant blade that the turn radius of the standard Snapper mower somehow avoids.

When it came to lawn maintenance Crapaw was no “lesser human”. Sidenote: This may be the only category where that was true.

Crapaw decided to execute a three-point turn and slammed the mower into reverse. It was a sudden decision. Papaw snapped out of his marching day-dream and probably muttered a phrase that rhymed with “Oh shit.” He tried to stop and change direction but the evening dew made the newly cut grass slippery. He tried to turn and run. It was no use. Like an athlete without his cleats, Papaw fell into the oncoming path of the bestselling mower of the Sears and Roebuck lawn maintenance line of 1970.

His three toes never had a chance. Beheaded as easily as Marie Antoinette after mentioning cake.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. There it is. This is the true tale that was recounted to me in place of simpler instructions to “do not walk behind the lawn mower while I’m mowing the yard.” Trauma is the most effective teacher.

 

What about Papaw and his toes you ask? Well, there was concern in the local medical community that he would never be able to walk again. Those concerns were unfounded. As the defense will show, telling Papaw he can’t do something is the recipe for having that very something done.

 

The above story was recounted on several occasions and usually included some neat facts about how hospitals incinerate body parts and how some people experience ghost pains when their toes get cremated. Other childhood cautionary tales included his easily misguided younger brother and a) getting run over by a tractor disking a field, b) getting kicked in the stomach by a mule, and c) eating a bottle of Tylenol while playing doctor and getting a charcoal stomach pump.

Fun times.


 

Much like Jesus, Papaw’s life went largely undocumented during adolescence. I can only assume he had a string of successes because he emerged as a young adult with a confidence and physical strength that most men don’t possess. I remember being about seven and he was working on my mother’s 1986 Mazda 323. He didn’t like the placement of the jack under the frame so he did what any man would do. He hoisted the front of the car by lifting with his back and not bending his knees. He instructed me to, “scoot under there and move that jack over”. I did. Safety third.

But I’m getting ahead of myself… back to young twenties Papaw.

Fast forward a bit and he met my mother and convinced her he was responsible enough to marry. I think she knew the truth but he had animals and she loves animals so the math worked. She is, after all, a math teacher.

Somewhere in this early time of married bliss. Papaw was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD); a degenerative kidney disease that is long and painful and results in useless kidneys.

[Side story: He got to watch the disease unfold in his mother who might have been the toughest person, in measure of shear grit, to ever walk the earth. This is a woman whose bucket list must have consisted of various forms of pain and suffering. Once she had exhausted all options for new and painful conditions she decided to allow death to take her.]

This sounds ominous so I will put your mind at ease. Papaw’s kidneys indeed failed, he had dialysis twice weekly, and my mother was a match for donation so she gave him a kidney. Papaw added organ failure to the list of obstacles that he persevered. The real pattern to observe here is that once again, when faced with overwhelming odds, things somehow worked out.

Consider this intro the first book in the Gospel of Papaw.

 

The Second Book would have to be The Tree Story

Papaw had a brief stint of extended medical leave due to a broken leg which was caused by a falling horse which was brought about by the deeply held belief that he was an actual cowboy and not, in-fact, a mechanic with a small family farm that included a horse. Papaw’s penchant for westerns had him believing that driving cattle was not that hard. True enough until the horse slips in some mud and breaks your leg.

Papaw was confined to the living room couch for days on end. That old familiar desire for adventure that had led him into danger began to grow in his brain. After some long afternoons staring through the sliding glass window into the backyard, he decided that a tree in the backyard was positively unbearable. It was a dying threat to anything that ventured near. If allowed to remain, it could very well spark another Cold War with Russia. He owed it to the United States of America to fell this tree. Damn the costs.

He grabbed his crutches and, somehow, a chainsaw and ventured into the backyard. I stood at the sliding glass door and watched him out of morbid curiosity. Would this be the day? Would this be thing challenge that would be too much for Papaw?

With all the skill of a billiard player and a military strategist he plotted his moves. I watched as he skillfully cut a groove into the base of the tree. Like an over-flannelled cripple lumberjack in the Pacific northwest. With the proper angles and careful lines of the chainsaw he had calculated exactly where that tree would fall. Nothing had been left to chance. Risk was minimal. Success was inevitable.

A spray of woodchips poured out of the tree over the roar of the saw and the wihte-blue cloud of chainsaw smoke. It climaxed in a loud pop and the tree began to fall. All the preparations were for naught because the tree did the unthinkable. In a move that no amount of computer modeling or even physics could have predicted… the tree fell backwards.

Papaw snapped out of his day-dream and probably muttered a phrase that rhymed with “Oh shit.” I muttered the same thing.

The world slowed down. Like a scene from a movie where the director wants to show the audience how fast someone is moving by slowing the world to a crawl and allowing the main character to move at a normal speed. He turned briskly, still holding one of his crutches, and he hopped as fast as his one good leg would allow. The towering harbinger of death popped and exploded and twisted on its journey with destiny. That tree chased Papaw like a one-eyed cat chasing a handicapped mouse. A daring game of chase and chance.

I stood peering out of our sliding glass door and watched the disaster unfold. The snapping branches, flying leaves, and dust from the ground created a cloud that obscured my view. I saw Papaw throw up his hands and fling his crutch as he lurched into a dive. He was swallowed by the chaos and I could see nothing else. The tree came to a rest and the chainsaw went silent. Dust wafted in the breeze and a few leaves drifted lazily to the ground. A hush fell over the backyard. I digested the fact that I just watched a man die.

Someone who was alive seconds ago was now horribly crushed under the weight of his own decisions and a hundred year old Oak tree.

My mind raced with confusion. What should I do? What will I tell my mother? Could I have done something to prevent this? Is this my fault? Should I just cover his body with leaves and call in a missing persons report? WHY DOES A VCR HAVE A CLOCK IF THE FUCKING THING NEVER WORKS AND JUST BLINKS ZEROES AT YOU ALL THE TIME? HAVENT YOU PEOPLE EVER CONSIDERED A BATTERY BACKUP OR SOMETHING SO WE DON’T HAVE TO RESET IT EVERY TIME THE POWER GOES OUT? WE LIVE IN THE COUNTRY FOR CHRISTS SAKE!

My gaze shifted from the quiet tree to my own reflection in the glass doorway. Panic.

But my panic was short lived.

I had forgotten the fact that death is for mortals and not for men who are condemned to wander the earth and seek the bucket list of pain and suffering that only immortality can bring to bear. I resolved myself to go out and scoop what was left of Papaw into a feed sack like we did for dogs and cats that played in the road. I slowly started across the backyard towards the tree.

Halfway through my green mile Papaw pops up through the broken canopy of the fallen tree.

Papaw: *looking around* “Can you see the saw?”

Me: “Oh my god you are alive! What a miracle!”

Papaw: “Its fine. I knew what I was doing.”

Me: “Are you serious? You just did a one-legged dash for your life.”

Papaw: “It moved on me a little. Grab that saw.”

Me: “Moved a little? It fell 180 degrees the opposite direction. I can’t…I’m going in the house.”

Papaw: “Just hand me that…”

Me: “Nope. I’m out.”

That ending dialogue has been modified. I actually think I handed him the saw and we spent some time cutting up the tree. I remember he was a little pissed at the chainsaw for having a bent shaft because it got pinched by the tree. Because inanimate objects have intentions and are out to make your life difficult.

So that is a snippet of Papaw history. A rambling commentary on a great man.

While he is unique I don’t think he is uncommon in the world of dad’s. The spirit of determination and the doing of things that need done is the hallmark of a good father. If you have a father figure who has provided you with wisdom in any form and ample stories for your children, this post is for you. You’re welcome.

 

Life is for living. And the best way to know you are alive is to almost die.

 

-Underdaddy to the rescue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This too will pass

And we’re the lucky ones…

Today I drove to the school and a sign told me to wait in my car and someone would come out to help me. It was true. Someone came out and asked me what classes my children were in and I told her. She disappeared and returned a few minutes later with two large Ziplock bags with workbooks and loose paper and a few extra number two pencils. I went home and set the work on the dining room table and went about my day.

By lunchtime I had a pounding headache which I attribute to an unholy layer of pollen on everything. The south has many weapons to kill us and none as deadly as allergies. It still hasn’t totally left me but I am in a pondering mood so I decided to write.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about life changing slowly but all-of-the-sudden. These little moments that seem small but when we look back we can pinpoint the exact moment that nothing was the same. The subtle shift of the earth under our feet. The moment our perspective was changed. There is something about those moments that are sad. It feels like something stolen or an opportunity missed. We grieve the memories slowly through life.

This whole COVID-19 situation will hit us in one way or another. Even if we succeed and stop the spread and protect ourselves (which I believe we are capable of). Even if the economy bounces back. We will still have some scars. The world will be different.

One of the kids asked me today when they could go back to school. That they really wanted to see their friends. I told them, “I don’t know… maybe soon.” And I smiled through the lie. My truth is that I think this school year is over. I don’t think we will go back and finish. For my daughters, I can see what they have lost. Even before they see it themselves.

For Lady Bug, it is the last two months with one of her most favorite people in the world. This person is a teacher with whom she finds love and comfort. She was having an especially hard day the other day and was able to have a Facetime to cheer her up. Those mornings of going to Kindergarten and working on her reading with volunteers and finishing the year out with her friends that she holds dear will probably not be the same. She won’t get to walk over the ceremonial bridge and show her community her growth. Next year she will go back and simply be in first grade. No celebration just a new stage. She will get to experience that odd feeling of seeing people who share your past but not your present. A teacher that you used to know…

For Donna Threeto, she might be even harder hit. Her current teacher has been her teacher for three years. It’s Montessori style so they have combined classrooms 1-3rd, 4-6th, and 7-8th. She loves her classroom and leaving for Spring Break might have been the last day. There. might be a true period of mourning for that loss.

For Threeto and Lady Bug, I can’t describe the comfort of knowing that your children leave home to spend the day with people who love them like their own. These two won’t see their loss until the new phase begins. If they are even able to put words to what they feel. I will donate a tear or two to their cause.

The older two are more flexible and adaptable. They have some chance to stay in touch with a few friends through phones and computers. Prima may miss a summer program that she earned a chance to attend through academic performance. Jane has a summer trip to Chicago that is already cancelled. These are also lost things. Experience that would have an effect and create a memory but now are something less.

But we are not alone. Just like all of the proms and graduations and societal rites of passage, pieces of our lives have been lost and we won’t know it until the night passes and day breaks. There will be talk of postponing graduations and delaying proms but this will only encroach on the next phase of life. It would feel fake and forced. You can’t put time back in the bottle. When the times comes we need to move forward. We will be better served to take the reminder that life can change on a dime and use it to love each other with a little more depth.

More appreciation of the moment.

Give the hugs an extra five seconds of squeeze.

We joke about growing weary of being stuck in our houses with our family. Our patience growing thin. Days like today it seems a very real thing.

But I have everyone close. And they are healthy. And happy. We are growing our own moment in time. We are building the next thing to be stolen. My kids are all at an age where they like me. There is food to eat. We have plenty of TP. Life is good. Amidst the chaos, life is good.

One day in the near future life will return to a new normal. We will emerge from our cave, blinking into the sun.

Our new routine will start suddenly and it will persist. I will mourn the change as another loss. As something stolen. An opportunity missed.

That missing thing is always… more time.

If you are struggling with change, this post is for you. Don’t be bitter about what should have been. Nothing is guaranteed. There are parts of this total shit show that you will miss when it is over. Mourn, adapt, rinse, and repeat.

 

-Underdaddy to the rescue.

 

Ps – Just as I finished this heartfelt piece Supermom smashed her big toe with a ceramic cup. Edge of the cup fell right on the joint of the big toe and it is black and blue big time. Send some positive feels her way. I bet she doesn’t miss that part when it goes away.

Fun and Games

Day five hundred of my captivity…

I have taken a total leave of absence from writing for what is probably a year. And people still stop by the site and see if something new is rolling off the press. Thank you guys. It feels good.

I’ve been busy and my will to write anything at all has been missing in action. I got to the point where I don’t feel like I have anything to share and now that the girls are getting older some of my previous story styles are no longer mine to tell. Tales of toddlers taking mystery shits on the furniture is fun and games but teenagers with technology will probably not be as understanding. I even thought about pulling site down and archiving for some future generation.

But not to worry, COVID-19 has entered our lives and I don’t have much sanity left. I need the therapy that only blog-style bitching can provide. A unity through misery.

So here is a feeble attempt to document our craziness.

The strangest thing so far is dealing with the ominous slow crawling feeling of disaster and vacation all rolled into one. We started our distancing on the kid’s spring break so when school got cancelled (they call it postponed but we know better) it just felt like the world’s longest weekend. If you watch the news then the world is ending and if I look outside the magnolia tree is blooming. My black car is yellow from pollen and people are walking their dogs more than I remember. Select shelves are empty in the stores but the shoppers meander around smile at each other, making small talk about COVID-19 and the lack of toilet paper. Milk, water, and bread have recovered from the initial rush but paper products may never recover.

Work life is much the same. For the first week it felt like we were trying something new. The second week we all unplugged our hardware from the office and logged in from our living rooms to get emails and take conference calls where kids played in the background. We try to move things forward but this second week was marked by the depression of knowing that we are just getting started in our new normal and lots of wondering if there is a point to trying to work or teach the kids about fractions. The third week may be the charm. The week that we get the groove and settle in to fight this thing off. I hope it is.

I tell my kids to take note. To keep a journal.

I remember an ice storm in the early nineties. We lived in the country and power networks were decimated. I think it was around two weeks before power was reconnected for our area. We cooked on a wood burning stove in the basement. We stayed warm and managed to get a generator to hook up a few essential items like our well. It was a time I remember as fun and interesting. We were toughing it out and surviving and there is something fulfilling about that even when it isn’t easy. I hope my kids remember this time in the same light. For me it is different because we have all the luxury we could want for a quarantine. We have Netflix and Disney and Prime. We have tablets and phones and a schedule that hasn’t been this free since college. It doesn’t require any work or effort. It doesn’t feel like surviving and I assume that is why it also doesn’t feel fulfilling as much as it feels depressing.

Prima, our second daughter, came into our room a few days ago with the complaint of a fever and a headache. We checked and it was 102.5. Fantaaaaastic. Two weeks of distancing and it arrives anyway. The next morning the fever is gone but a slight cough has joined the party. By the end of the day the fever is back. We treat with Tylenol and go to bed feeling like the wave is about to start crashing around us. Then she woke up this morning with no fever, no cough, and a pep in her step. Like it never happened. She probably had one of a hundred colds and some spring allergies but when every sniffle feels like Ebola has taken root it is exhausting.

I think we are developing some sort of quarantine PTSD or cabin fever. That can lead to impulsive and irrational behavior. Which reminds me, we got a baby wallaby. Her name is Stevie.

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We also dressed up in fancy clothes and Mardi Gras masks to have our picture taken by a neighborhood photographer. She arranged to walk around and take photos of people on their porch. Three weeks ago that would have been a strange proposal but today we thought “Oh cool! Let’s dress weird and stand in the yard.”.

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Everyone is shoving stuffed animals in the windows to give people a fun game of I Spy.

I think recorded history will have a new milestone. I propose B.C. (before corona) and A.D. (after distancing).

There have been upsides. We have been forced to slow down and exist around each other more than usual. We don’t have the pressures of early mornings and things to do at night. I sat with Jane and shared music for five hours yesterday. We went through notable hits from the eighties and the highlights of the millennial playlist. The we watched The Matrix. It was interrupted by a tornado warning and everyone huddling in the laundry room. We weren’t sure if we would rather die by tornado or suffocation from Judy Cornbread farting.

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There were terrible tornadoes in Tennessee a few weeks earlier and last night a bad one hit Jonesboro, Arkansas.

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Houses are sliding into the Tennessee River from flooding and an overly wet spring. Whoever is playing Jumanji needs to buckle up and finish the damn game because all this chaos is wearing thin. And we’ve all but forgotten that this is an election year. Once this virus clears they will be spending all that political ad money in a compressed window of time before the election.

Silver linings. Something to look forward to.

Anyway… good to talk to you and hopefully I will make a successful return to the keyboard.

If you are sheltering in place and trying to treat the virus from the inside out, with whiskey, this post is for you.

-Underdaddy to the rescue.

Patio for Bindi’s Bungalow

Remember that time that we drove to Colorado to buy a wallaby and everyone thought we were crazy?

Me too! That was a great trip. Part of it…

Remember when, seven months later, Toby died traumatically in a fit of convulsions, wrapped in a urine soaked towel that smelled like maple syrup, while I listened to five women crying over the phone because I was stuck in traffic on the way home?

Me too! Vividly.

Remember when we (Supermom) didn’t remember what a poor idea it is to own something with half a brain and very little will to live so we drove to St. Louis and got another wallaby?

Me too! What is money made for if not for giving to strangers at an interstate truckstop? I blame the mothering gene for this memory lapse and glass-half-full look on life.

Remember that time that we built Princess Bindi her own she-shed palace and installed a web cam so we could be tuned in to any possible murder or choke-to-death scenario?

Yep, still remembering that on this end too. Sidenote: The word she-shed irks me. It is a terrible mishmash of letters that hurts my brain. Like calling a person who is insane, cray-cray. Which also sounds like a three year old talking about coloring utensils. Where were we? Weird pet things…

What about that time we built a door for her to go outside her domicile and get some exercise and eat grass and we hoped that she would be smart enough to be appreciative?

That’s because this one just happened and I haven’t told you about it yet.

Oh_Juno9

The door becomes the ramp. How creative!

We dug posts, trenched in a fence, created a safe and inviting environment, and knew without a doubt that giving her some room to hop about was the key to convincing Bindi to not be such a moody bitch-deer. We worked so hard. Blisters. Soreness. Wire cuts. I fought three bees in hand-to-hand combat and risked my life.

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A happy Supermom makes it all worth it. Look at that craftsmanship on that gate!

How did Ms. Bindi react to all this?

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She is thinking about the best way to freak out at nothing at all. 

Like someone was chasing her with a butchers knife. That’s how. She lost her mind. She refuses to go outside during the day and generally emerges for only a few minutes at dusk.

So remember kids… when your college fund leaves you a few dollars short of that “nice” apartment or the upgraded meal plan, you can thank Bindi and, by extension, your mother. Just kidding, I’m not paying for college. Get oppressive loans like the rest of us.

Bindi is almost as bad a pet as Jasper. Just kidding, Jasper is terrible. He is sweet sometimes but I have never owned a dog so frustrating. Neither will ever top the sugar gliders for unbearableness. Those guys were the worst. Bindi has gotten better over the last few days and seems adjusted to her expanded freedom. She is not much of a people person but then again she isn’t much of a person.

However, we have some newer pets who are much better people. More on that later…

If you toil away and find yourself unappreciated by the very thing that you are seeking to please, this post is for you. You’re welcome.

-Underdaddy to the rescue.

Thumbs Up

My documentation of life has been lax lately. I haven’t felt the writing bug or even the ability to remember much.

We’ve had weekend trips and baby goats and all kinds of excitement. Donna Threeto got glasses (see below). We had a flood. Then another flood. I got to see Washington DC. I’ll share some good flood photos in another post. Maybe. Sometime.

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Yay! Baby goats!

Anyway. Work life has escalated. In a good way but a busy way as well. I have been traveling a little more and anytime I am out of town life seems to make trouble for me back home.

This week, trouble was in the form of a broken thumb. Who else but Prima, our graceful low calcium princess. She was struck with a dodgeball and immediately had swelling and bruising in her thumb. I assumed that she had stubbed it. Her teacher texted me a picture and I suggested the dad approach of rubbing a little dirt on it and proceeding with life. After all, who the hell breaks a bone in dodgeball? Maybe an ankle but to snap a thumb at the growth plate?

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Made you look. 

Supermom sent me the picture after a fun trip to the doctor’s office at 7:00 at night. She took all four children because all of our babysitting options were out of town. In fact, I was at another hospital in another town visiting one of the grandparents. I got a series of texts that let me know the bone was broken and that she is going to a specialist the next day.

The next day I got a text that I should cancel my schedule the next day because the doctor was going to place her under anesthesia and re-break the thumb to set it correctly. Fun. And they wanted her to check in at the hospital at 6:00 am. More fun.

We did have a fun pre-op experience though.

It is important to remember that Prima is our worry-wart child. She once cried for an hour because poison berries existed and she was afraid that one day she may not be able to stop her hand from making her mouth eat them. True story. She also decided she was afraid of bugs and would barely leave the living room for a week or so. She has done a lot of self-therapy and is much improved but still has a panic from time to time.

So… our pensive princess is sitting in the prep-room and the nurse hands her a gown. She is given the instructions to remove all of her clothes and put on the gown.

Prima asks, “Can I leave my panties on?”

The nurse responds flatly, “The doctor doesn’t like to leave anything that can catch on fire…”

Her eyes widen to the size of dinner plates. I can only imagine the images that she was putting together in her head. Supermom saw the problem immediately and assured her that she was not at risk of burning to death while getting her thumb fixed. Prima was allowed to wear her undergarment without further question.

She was nervous until the IV of Versed convinced her that nothing really matters and life is a warm pool of happy.

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Procedure went good. Recovery was slow. I think the medicine was rough on her. She passed out after trying to get up too quickly. Eventually she got to head home after a little Sprite and some vomiting.

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In about five weeks everything should be good to go. Just in time for swimming and summer.

If you have been injured in a game of dodgeball this post is for you. You’re welcome.

-Underdaddy to the rescue.