Being Homesick When You’re Home

Last October I visited the hometown of my mother in the highlands of West Sumatra. It was the small town that has become the highlight of my childhood. A place where I spent numerous holidays swimming in the lake in the morning, treading the warm blue water brought forth by the volcanic activities beneath the ground, having the adventure of my life. A place where I caught a half-conscious fish with my bare hands, collected a pocketful of small mussels used in local cuisine with my bare feet, breathed the air sweet and fresh with my city-kid’s-tired respiratory system.

Solastalgia is a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and a Professor of Sustainability in Murdoch University. The word comes from the Latin solacium(comfort) and the Ancient Greek algia (pain). It’s defined as the homesickness one gets when one is still at home. It’s when you are home but things are unfamiliar and you are estranged from it.

The word strikes too close to home (pun slightly intended) when I arrived last October. The bus that took me there went over the hills that surrounded the lake town. From the apex, a spot the locals called Embun Pagi–Morning Dew in English, one should have been able to have a breathtaking, bird’s eye view of the lake showing off its azure glow and the tiny Bagonjong houses crowding up its shores. It was this splendid first impression that inspired the first president to come up with this pantun to say about the lake,

Jangan dimakan arai pinang, Kalau tidak dengan sirih hijau. Jangan datang ke Ranah Minang, Kalau tidak singgah ke Maninjau.
Do not eat arai nut, If not with a green betel. Do not come to Minang lands, If you do not stop at Maninjau.

I didn’t see it at all. It was all a thick haze. When the bus drove through the 44 hairpin bends that kept all drivers on their toes, the lush forest of the hills gave me some solace. At least it wasn’t these trees that were burning.

Driving by the lakeside, one would notice the many karambas, a sort of fish farms, dotting the surface of the lake. The water seen from afar was still its old beautiful blue, but severely degraded in its quality. The lake was unable to sustain the tens of thousands of fish farms, water so depleted of oxygen, even the fish died on a large scale each year. And should I state the obvious? Nobody swam in the lake anymore.

No breath of that fresh air anymore. There were no clear warm water in the lake anymore. The pieces my childhood’s fondest memories are just that, memories.

The irony was that I might have caused all that. And maybe you did too.

Our consumption might have fueled the fire that ravaged the peat lands of Sumatra and Borneo. Our consumption might have pushed the karambas that filled up the lake’s surface way over its capacity too. Our way of life, in other words, might have threatened the very thing we loved (let me spell it out for you; that’s our home).

I was never much of an environmentally aware person. I just felt this solastalgia so deeply I just have to know why things happened the way it did.

I think what happened is the Tragedy of the Commons. Humanity as a whole might be in the face of a tragedy because each of us act like the earth has infinite resources and capacity to supply our endless desires and impulses. It does not. That thought hasn’t occurred to me until recently.

Does it have to take all of us to feel solastalgic first about our home?

I sincerely hope it doesn’t because it involves destruction of a magnificent place and a degree of pain witnessing it with your own eyes. I sincerely hope it doesn’t because it’s one of regret and you must know it too, regret tastes so bitter. Because I could have, would have, and should have, done something about it had I known.

Being Homesick When You’re Home

Is “nationalism” still relevant today?

Answer by Mira Pravitasari:

One of the topics are Indonesia, so my answer is going to be more Indonesia-specific.

I've got a new perspective on nationalism just recently. I am taking this Kuliah Kerja Nyata (social internship) program in the University. It is fully optional, and the process is quite lengthy (I even need to attend several weekend lectures for a month on five major topics ranging from education to creative economy,  But, I feel very thankful I decided to do it for so many new things I learn that I would not otherwise learn in my faculty).

One of the first lectures' topic was Insights to the Archipelago, specifically on the issue of cinta tanah air (love for the homeland) in the villages near Indonesia-Malaysia borderlines in Borneo. The lecturer was a researcher focusing on transnational interconnections, mobility & social dynamics at interstitial state spaces at the campus's Center for Anthropological Studies. He started by asking what we, the students, think about nationalism, what defines Indonesia, and what our identity as a nation is.

Some of us answered, merah putih (red and white, country's flag colour), bhinneka tunggal ika (different but still one, motto), bela negara (defending the country), buying local products, etc. Mere symbolism and even the last one is consumerism.

But what is it that binds people from Sabang to Merauke as a nation? Is it Islam? Or the ancient-times glorious Majapahit kingdom?

None of our answers fully satisfied the lecturer. He then gave us his opinions; it was the solidarity under the Dutch occupation. Solidarity to people a thousand miles away for the shared history of brutality, violence, even enslavement of the people during the period of the Dutch Occupation was what brought us together (and thus our 1945 Constitution's Preamble mentions anti-colonization first and foremost).

Solidarity to other fellow human beings and our anti-colonization stance should be the building blocks of our nationalism so that it can stay relevant today. Soekarno, one of the founding fathers of the republic, declared that his nationalism is humanity, just like what Gandhi had mentioned before him.

For me it's this: humanity and solidarity against oppressions are always relevant regardless how the world is perceived, with or without borders.

This was also the kind of nationalism that allows an archipelago as diverse as Indonesia (with 300 ethnic groups and 700 living languages) to be able to overcome the sheer magnitude of differences and bands together as a nation.

However, the understanding of nationalism in this way is the ideal in borderlands, and not how nationalism is perceived in major cities of a country. This is the lecturer's perspective in an interview on whiteboard journal: Crossing Borders with Dave Lumenta

A nation-based identity are most common in centralized cities, in  Indonesia it is in Jakarta. If you go to West or East Kalimantan, you  wouldn’t be categorized based on the country you are from. They don’t  see me as an Indonesian. In Malaysia, I would be considered an “Indon”,  but in Sarawak, they would find similarity by proudly announcing that  their ancestors are from Indonesia Transitional areas tend to be multicultural. They are used to differences.

Is "nationalism" still relevant today?

People say to “be yourself”, but some say “act as if”, or “fake it till you make it”, which one should be done?

Answer by Franklin Veaux:

Okay, so here's the thing: What other people call "faking it until you make it," I call "practice."

You are not just one thing. You are who you are, yes; you have the values, beliefs, attitudes, and ideas that you have. But there are many ways to be yourself. You can be the best version of yourself, which means striving for the qualities you want to have and admire, and letting go of the things about you that you don't like. Or you can be the worst version of yourself, emphasizing the things about you that are mean and petty and not reaching for the qualities that are best about you.

Which is the real you? Which one is "being yourself"?

Both are.

So what does it mean to "fake it til you make it"? It means that you become what you practice. You become a skilled piano player by practicing piano. You become a skilled mountain biker by practicing mountain biking. You become compassionate by practicing compassion. You become brave by practicing courage.

All these things–playing an instrument, riding a bike, being compassionate–feel awkward and uncomfortable the first time you do them. They become comfortable and natural when you practice. That's why people talk about "faking" things–the first time you try to play the piano or be compassionate, it will feel unnatural and clumsy to you. It won't feel like you're doing something that comes naturally to who you are.

As you practice, these things become natural. You become the best version of yourself by practicing the qualities you like and admire, even when they are difficult and awkward. And over time, it becomes easier and easier to practice those qualities, until they become so natural they feel like part of who you are.

So don't think in therms of "faking it til you make it," think of it in terms of consciously deciding what qualities you want to have, and then practicing those qualities. It works quite well. :)

People say to "be yourself", but some say "act as if", or "fake it till you make it", which one should be done?

Life While-You-Wait

I’m currently jobless, but not purposeless. I feel a little lost in life sometimes, but don’t we all? I found this pensive poem written by Wislawa Syzmborska, a polish woman who was also a nobel laureate, which articulates this feeling most exquisitely. I feel it as a consolation of a sort for the expectation the world poses to us human to know how to act all the time, despite the lack of scripts or more like the lack of knowledge of such scripts (which I choose to believe to exist).

So here’s how it goes,

Life While-You-Wait.
Performance without rehearsal.
Body without alterations.
Head without premeditation.
I know nothing of the role I play.
I only know it’s mine. I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot
just what this play’s all about.
Ill-prepared for the privilege of living,
I can barely keep up with the pace that the action demands.
I improvise, although I loathe improvisation.
I trip at every step over my own ignorance.
I can’t conceal my hayseed manners.
My instincts are for happy histrionics.
Stage fright makes excuses for me, which humiliate me more.
Extenuating circumstances strike me as cruel.
Words and impulses you can’t take back,
stars you’ll never get counted,
your character like a raincoat you button on the run —
the pitiful results of all this unexpectedness.
If only I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance,
or repeat a single Thursday that has passed!
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen.
Is it fair, I ask
(my voice a little hoarse,
since I couldn’t even clear my throat offstage).
You’d be wrong to think that it’s just a slapdash quiz
taken in makeshift accommodations. Oh no.
I’m standing on the set and I see how strong it is.
The props are surprisingly precise.
The machine rotating the stage has been around even longer.
The farthest galaxies have been turned on.
Oh no, there’s no question, this must be the premiere.
And whatever I do
will become forever what I’ve done.

Why read fantasy books?

Answer by Mira Pravitasari:

The sheer idea of being able to break all the physical constraints of the world. It is a sweet solace from all the downs of this world for me.
Also the sword fights and sorcery.  The honourable protagonists. The adventure in lands you've never seen in which everything is possible and the limit is your own imagination.
And you can't forget the magical creatures. Because seriously, who wouldn't love a friendly, magical, omniscient talking lion?

Why read fantasy books?

How do you get better at thinking logically and arguing rationally?

Answer by Mira Pravitasari:

One of the answer here already mentioned this, but I'm going to give some elaborations as to why it is so.

You should join a debate club. Here's why:

  1. You get to meet people who challenge you, your viewpoints, your belief on certain topics and more, and those people will be open to your challenges as well. To me these kind of people are the best kind of people. This is important because our viewpoints don't get to be challenged so often. We have this metaphorical fence around us that protect us from such challenges. This fence can be our friends, society, news we read, TV programs we watch, people we follow on twitter, or our friends on facebook. This fence is asserting that majority of people think like we do. That our opinions on this issue are correct and logically sound. The people who oppose this are far away, whose cultures don't even make sense, whose country may have been backward and so corrupt. But in a debate club, you see ordinary people just like you who think you suffer from logical fallacy, or you're not seeing the whole picture, or you're not seeing the issue in all its details. You really have to know what you are talking about. This will allow you to defend your opinions and give rebuttals as to why the other person is the one who might be suffering from logical fallacy, or not seeing the whole picture, or not seeing it in all its details. You can't just say, well everyone thinks so, thus it must be right.
  2. If you're in the debate club for a year or two, you'll get used to challenge and be challenged. Another thing you'll learn is to structure your thoughts. We all have ideas, brilliant ones, on difficult issues far beyond others' grasp. Making others understand them is another thing, you have to be systematic and rational in your explanation.
  3. Another important thing to keep in mind: convincing others in your ideas might not be entirely easy. Even if your argument is the most rational one, some people just won't care. You need to know what matters to them and build your case from there. If you can't compel to what matters to people, nobody will be listening to what you have to say. Your arguments have to be rational, while making people see why it's important to them.
  4. Lastly, you get to practice your public speaking skill. We all argue daily, be it in the comment section in an online article or internet forums. People on the internet are so wrong all the time, aren't they? Online, you can write and rewrite your reply and google the facts, etc. In real life, not so much. You don't get to know all the facts. But you can still structure your thoughts and deliver your opinions clearly, based on the established facts, whether in a debate championship, or just a discussion with the people you know.  Delivering your arguments clearly (or opinions) is essential to your arguments itself. You'll have so many practices of public speaking in the debate club.

So if you can join one, do it. If there are not a single debate clubs near you, start one. There are many resources on how to run an effective debate club on the internet. And if you do, I hope you enjoy it.

How do you get better at thinking logically and arguing rationally?

Stanford Professor, John Ousterhout’s Thought for the Weekend

Answer by Eric Conner: These are from the Winter 2012 offering of CS140.  I do not know if he used different thoughts in other lectures.

Number 1:

A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept

CS140, 01/13/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

Here’s today’s thought for the weekend.  A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of Y-intercept.


So at a mathematical level this is an obvious truism.  You know if you have two lines, the red line and the blue line and the red line has a lower Y-intercept but a greater slope then eventually the red line will cross the blue line.

And if the Y-axis is something good, depending on your definition of something good, then I think most people would pick the red trajectory over the blue trajectory (..unless you think you’re going to die before you get to the crossing point).


So in a mathematical sense it’s kind of obvious.  But I didn’t really mean in a mathematical sense, I think this is a pretty good guideline for life also.  What I mean is that how fast you learn is a lot more important than how much you know to begin with.  So in general I say that people emphasize too much how much they know and not how fast they’re learning.

That’s good news for all of you people because you’re in Stanford and that means you learn really, really fast.  This is a great advantage for you.  Now let me give you some examples.  The first example is: you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things even if you’re completely clueless about the area you’re going into.  No need to be afraid about that.  As long as you learn fast you’ll catch up and you’ll be fine.

For example I often hear conversations the first week of class where somebody will be bemoaning, “Oh so-and-so knows blah-blah-blah, how am I ever going to catch up to them?”  Well, if you’re one of the people who knows blah-blah-blah it’s bad news for you because honestly everyone is going to catch up really quickly.  Before you know it that advantage is going to be gone and if you aren’t learning too you’re going to be behind.

Another example is that a lot of people get stuck in ruts in their lives.  They realize they’re in the wrong job for them.  I have the wrong job or the wrong spouse or whatever…
And they’re afraid to go off and try something new.  Often they’re worried, I’m going to really look bad if I go..
I’m kidding about the spouse.  But, seriously people will be afraid to try some new thing because they’re worried they’ll look bad or will make a lot of rookie mistakes.  But, I say, just go do it and focus on learning.
Let me take the spouse out of the equation for now.
Focus on the job.

Another example is hiring.  Before I came back to academia a couple of years ago I was out doing startups.  What I noticed is that when people hire they are almost always hire based on experience.  They’re looking for somebody’s resume trying to find the person who has already done the job they want them to do three times over.  That’s basically hiring based on Y-intercept.

Personally I don’t think that’s a very good way to hire.  The people who are doing the same thing over and over again often get burnt out and typically the reason they’re doing the same thing over and over again is they’ve maxed out.  They can’t do anything more than that.  And, in fact, typically what happens when you level off is you level off slightly above your level of competence.  So in fact you’re not actually doing the current job all that well.

So what I would always hire on is based on aptitude, not on experience.  You know, is this person ready to do the job?  They may never have done it before and have no experience in this area, but are they a smart person who can figure things out?  Are they a quick learner?  And I’ve found that’s a much better way to get really effective people.

So I think this is a really interesting concept you can apply in a lot of different ways.  And the key thing here I think is that slow and steady is great.  You don’t have to do anything heroic.  You know the difference in slopes doesn’t have to be that great if you just every day think about learning a little bit more and getting a little bit better, lots of small steps, its amazing how quickly you can catch up and become a real expert in the field.

I often ask myself: have I learned one new thing today?  Now you guys are younger and, you know, your slope is a little bit higher than mine and so you can learn 2 or 3 or 4 new things a day.  But if you just think about your slope and don’t worry about where you start out you’ll end up some place nice.

Ok, that’s my weekend thought.


You’ll have a series of them over the next 10 weeks and go have a great weekend.

Number 2:

The Most Important Component of Evolution is Death

CS140, 01/20/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

Today’s thought for the weekend is: the most important component of evolution is death.  So I want to address that first at a biological level and then let’s pop up and talk about it at a societal level, Silicon Valley, and computer software.  So, first, from an underlying biological standpoint, it’s sort of fundamental that for some reason it’s really hard for an existing organism to change in fundamental ways.  How many of you have been able to grow a third leg?  Most people can’t even change their mind let alone change something fundamental about themselves.

People try.  You make your hair look a different color, but it’s really the same color underneath.  In fact you have this whole thing called your autoimmune system whose goal is basically to prevent change.  You’ve got these white blood cells running around looking for anything that looks different or the slightest bit unfamiliar and as soon as they find it they kill it.  So it’s very hard for any organism to change itself, but when we make new organisms it’s actually fairly easy to make them different from the old ones.  So for example gene mutations seem to happen pretty commonly.  They can be good or bad, but they do change the system.  Or, with sexual reproduction, it’s even easier because you take genes from two parents and you mix and match them and who knows you’re going to end up with as a result.

So the bottom line is it’s a lot easier to build a new organism than it is to change an existing one.  And, in order for that to work, you have to get rid of all the existing ones.  So death is really fundamental.  If it wasn’t for death there’d be no way to bring in new organisms and create change.

I would argue this same concept applies at a societal level.  In fact, if you look at social structures, any structure that’s been around a really long time, it’s almost certainly out of date.  Because, they just can’t change.  Human organizations, companies, political systems, religions, they all have tremendous difficulty changing.

So, let me talk about companies in particular.  We’re hearing these days about various companies in trouble.  Is Yahoo going to make it?  And Kodak filing for Chapter 11.  People seem to think: those guys must have been bozos.  They blew it.  How could you fumble the internet when you’re Yahoo?

My opinion is this is just the circle of life.  That’s all.  That fundamentally companies can’t change.  You come in with a particular technology, something you do very well, but if the underlying technology changes, companies can’t adapt.  So they actually need to die.

I view this as a good thing.  This is the way we clear out the old and make room for the new.  And in Silicon Valley everyone kind of accepts that.  The death of a company is not a big deal.  In fact, what’s interesting is that the death of the company isn’t necessarily bad for the people at all.  They just go on to the next company.

And I was talking to a venture capitalist once and she told me she actually liked funding entrepreneurs who had been in failed startups because they were really hungry yet still had experience. People in successful startups weren’t as hungry and didn’t succeed as often when they got funded.  So death is actually a good thing in Silicon Valley.

Now let’s talk about computer software.  This is kind of ironic because software is a very malleable medium, very easy to change.  Much easier to change than most things.  And I actually consider that to be a problem because, in fact, people don’t have to throw it away and start again.

Software lives on and on and on.  You know we’re still working on versions of Windows 20 years old right now.  And as a result the software gets messier and kludgier and harder and harder to change.  And yet people keep struggling.  They won’t throw it away and start again.

And so what’s funny is that this incredibly malleable medium gets to a point where we can’t make fundamental changes in it because people aren’t willing to throw it away and start again.  I sometimes think the world would be a better place if somehow there could be a time limit on software where it expired.  You had to throw it away and start again.

So this is actually one of the things I like about California and Silicon Valley.  It’s that we have a culture where people like change and aren’t afraid of that.  And we’re not afraid of the death of an idea or a company because it means that something even new and better is coming along next.

So that’s my thought for the weekend…


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What is the nicest thing that a complete stranger has ever done for you?

Answer by Mira Pravitasari:

It was Monday morning.

I lived about 40 km away from the university I study at, I basically commute through three provinces every morning (Banten, DKI Jakarta, and West Java). I need to switch bus two times. Honestly, it was quite tiring to do it from Monday to Friday, and what's more, going through Jakarta's infamous traffic.

But commuting, which kind of gives you a sense of routine, of monotonous life, sometimes, will surprise you.

That Monday, I had Data Structure and Algorithm quiz at 8, but the traffic was most times stationary, I had to jump off the bus and walked a kilo passed the culprit of the jam, contructions, and waited for the other bus that's going to take me to Depok. I had been waiting for 15 minutes when somebody asked me whether the bus to Depok passed through the place (we don't really have bus stops). She was a nun, a foreign one, she also asked me if I was going to Depok. I answered yes to both questions. 15 more minutes passed and I was pretty close to being late for my quiz, when the nun, all of a sudden waved stop to a taxi and called me to come with her.
Okay, I was very torn between, being late or taking a ride with a stranger. The concept of hitchhiking is not so popular in Jakarta.

But you see, I was late! So I jumped in the taxi anyway.

It turned out, she was from Japanese, she needed to go to my university and saw me being quite restless and deduced I had important class to attend to. The thing that easily makes it the nicest thing a stranger do for me is that she was very sensitive to see people that are in need and helped me although I clearly believed in different things from her (I'm a muslim and wearing veils). I felt very bad for thinking she was going to be preaching at me. She didn't do or say anything similar to it during the journey, we only introduced ourselves and talked about general things. She must have seen me simply as a fellow human being who needed an urgent lift to the campus. Our differences didn't matter.

It's wonderful to experience it first hand when what I see on the media everyday is conflicts between religions. Faith in humanity restored.

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What are some roots of corruption in Indonesia?

Answer by Mira Pravitasari:

Herd mentality, we perceive corruption acts as okay because everybody else is doing it. Probably not the root, but only what makes corruption as wide spread as it is now

The strongest evidence for this is the case of Alif and Ibu Siami back in 2011. They were evicted from their hometown to be safe from angry neighbours protesting in the front of their house. The case was reported in mainstream media and received significant public attention.

In June 2011, Alif and his mother got into such difficult position because, in the national exam in his primary school, Alif was told by a teacher to give out his answers to all of his friend during the exam. Alif told his mother, Ibu Siami,  who reported this mass cheating and the said teacher to the Education Board in town. Which led to the investigation at the teacher and anger from neighbours swelling at Alif and her.

The latter was easily the saddest thing in my opinion.

I cheated at schools' exam (not at the national exams but it's one and the same really) and, in retrospect, feel ashamed of ever doing it, knowing that I'll pass anyway. But I remembered seeing every other person was doing the same thing, some teachers told me it's bad, I shouldn't, but my peers told me otherwise! 

Now imagine Alif listening to the teacher telling him to help his friends. Doing the exam. The teacher probably gave him no reasoning at all but told him it was okay and he should. You see, it was exactly what happened to me but, coming from somebody with authority. And then he also needed to flee the city because he made people angry for being such a tattletale of course.

I bet it's also what happens with the bureaucrats.

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What does it feel like to understand a language you don’t know how to speak?

Answer by Mira Pravitasari:

I came from a Minang family where every gathering involves a lot of Mamak (uncles) and Etek (aunties) conversing in fast-paced minang language (or known better as Bahasa Padang). Growing up and being very much exposed in this environment, I learned a lot of minang words and I can now understand when my Mak Gadang (eldest uncle) is referring to me in his conversations, new gossips my Eteks are conferring, basically I have good listening and reading comprehension.

But I feel like an outcast when some of my cousins who has been extensively raised in an all minang family, were talking in this language. I didn't get to express my opinions because I got tongue tied as soon as I was trying to make a proper sentence in my mind. I'm always mixing languages, messing up structure, and making up new words since it'd got me frustrated over answering in the first place.

I was okay with the adults talking but when the cousins are doing it, I feel a desire to be able to speak it as well, I want to jump on the bandwagon of speaking the language of my family. But it's not very practical, since there are no courses for it out there and everybody speaking Bahasa Padang is going to absolutely understand everything I say in Bahasa Indo anyway.

So I feel like being able to speak it. But impracticalities turn me off.

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What are some trippy thought experiments?

Answer by Gagan Gupta:

Sal Khan offered an amazing and inspirational thought experiment in MIT's Commencement address to the class of 2012:

Imagine yourself in 50 years. You’re in your early 70s, near the end of  your career. You’re sitting on your couch, having just watched the State  of the Union holographic address by President Kardashian.

You  begin to ponder your life. The career successes, how you’ve been able to  provide for your family. You’ll think of all the great moments with  your family and friends. But then you start to think about all of the  things you wished you had done just a little differently, your regrets. I  can guess at what they might be.

Sitting in 2062, you wish that  you had spent more time with your children. That you had told your  spouse how much you loved them more frequently. That you could have even  one more chance to hug your parents and tell them how much you  appreciate them before they passed. That you could have smiled more,  laughed more, danced more and created more. That you better used the  gifts you were given to empower others and make the world better.

Just  as you’re thinking this, a genie appears from nowhere and says, “I have  been eavesdropping on your regrets. They are valid ones. I can tell you  are a good person so I am willing to give you a second chance if you  really want one.” You say “Sure” and the genie snaps his fingers.

All of a sudden you find yourself right where you are sitting today.You are in your shockingly fit and pain-free 20-something body and begin  to realize that it has really happened. You really do have the chance  to do it over again. To have the same career successes and deep  relationships. But, now you can optimize. You can laugh more, dance more  and love more. Your parents are here again so it is your chance to love  them like you wished you had done the first time. You can be the source  of positivity that you wished you had been the first time around.

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