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I don’t know Franco. Those quotation marks are suspect.

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            I drove down the western coast this morning, trying to find a beach so I could get in a little workout. I planned to get that done with and spend the day on the smallest island within the Aran Islands, Inisheer. By the time I got to a beach, Cathleen Ni Houlihan saw fit to start dropping some heavy rain. Not particularly interested in battling the weather all day on an island, I went back to the hotel and began to write.

            It was a few hours before I started a story I was happy with, and even now I’m not too excited about how I began it. However, it was a lovely way to write. I sat with some tea, overlooking the far edge of the Cliffs of Moher and some beautiful Irish landscape. I was surrounded with notes I took in Wales and the owner of the B&B’s two doggies. Both dogs are old, lazy lumps but they make for great company and the atmosphere was right. Before I knew it, I was in one of my moods. It’s not exactly a bad mood but I think that’s the hardest time anyone would ever have being around me. When I’m trying to make something work, I’ll often snap at Anneka or my dog, Logan or anyone that happens by. I’m just a real pain in the ass to be around. But nobody came into my vicinity so I had to take it out on myself, I suppose.

            I love it, though. When I find what I want to say or what I want to resonate with a reader, it turns into an exciting challenge. I begin to think about what words and what symbols are inflammatory enough to create my desired effect. People use the term therapeutic, and maybe that’s the ultimate effect, but I find that I’m rather hostile during the process. It’s maddening to feel so able to articulate a thought and so incapable of making that thought appear on the computer screen. It’s even more maddening to begin with such a large cache of cultural fibers that I want to weave into a tale and to realize that you just can’t use it all. When you force them all in, it makes the story inorganic and contrived. As pretentious as it sounds, I can never make a story do something. It has find its own way.

            I finally found where it wanted to go and I decided it was time for a break. I went down to a little pub in town, picked up the newspaper and had a little sandwich.  I was happy with myself. I felt like I had a good story on my hands. Then, after lunch, I come home to read it and found out that I hated it.

            But, my opinion of it will swing back and forth as I continue. I hope to put it up soon and I hope that people like it. Of course, like all my other stories, in a month I’ll swing into the dislike realm again but it’ll remain there for as far as I can tell, forever. Healthy or not, it’s hating my previous work that drives me to make something better.

            I ____ writing. (Every two minutes, interchange the words ‘love’ and ‘hate’ in the blank)

            I’m rambling,

            Big Cat

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            It was nine in the morning when I got on the road up to Doolin. I was on my way to spend the day on the Aran Islands, a forty minute drive away to a ferry that was to leave at ten.  So yeah, you could say I was cutting it close. Turns out there was some traffic and I pulled up to the B&B with fifteen minutes to spare. I checked in early, another five. I got lost on the way to the pier, another five. When I got to the pier, no parking, another four to find a spot and run to the ticket booth. I paid for my ticket and ran down the pier and boarded the ferry just before they cast off. No sweat.

             The ferry ride made two stops at the smaller islands until it finally arrived at Inishmore. Inishmore is an island within the Aran Islands that is nine miles long and two miles wide. It has a population of eight hundred that use Irish Gaelic as the primary language. It’s about as authentic as you can get. I rented a bike for the day and hit the road hard. I pedaled as fast as I could go to each destination. I rolled through the soft, limestone hills. There were large grass fields with stone fences pushing up to the ocean. It was quite an experience, especially on bicycle.

            Riding the bike, in such a pristine area, put a lot of memories into my head. God, it must be ten to fifteen years now but growing up, we used to own the woods and the bike path leading into the town of Vienna.  It was me, my brother, the Moyers, Adam Shamion when he lived around, everybody—it gave us a lot of freedom before everyone could drive. Today, thousands of miles away from the creek and the W&OD trail, it was like my insides could just call up the feeling that we used to have. I really enjoyed recapturing some of that. Firecrackers in the creek, neighborhood-wide searches for ramps, full speed down some terrifying hills; the memories are flooding my head right now.

            After my bike ride, I started bumping into Americans left and right. I talked to a girl from Chicago in the sweater shop, a girl from Rochester on the pier, a whole group that just graduated from Gonzaga High School and their chaperones, but they were on the ferry back from the island. It was nice to hear the familiar accent for a little bit. Bumping into people so close to home was exciting. We compared our different takes on Ireland and talked about what we like and don’t like compared to home. To be fair, there are not a lot of things we haven’t liked. But it was nice. And I don’t exactly know why at the moment.

            But yes, after my bike ride, I had lunch at The American Bar. I saw a likeness of Uncle Sam on the wall playing a fiddle and it was hook, line and sinker for a man whose entire wardrobe consists of American flag apparel. However, when I got in, it was the most Irish pub I’d been into since I got here. They bar was fully occupied by locals—at one o’clock on a Wednesday. Every last one of them was speaking Irish. They all had pints of Guinness and some had shots of whiskey. The TV was playing the news station here that reports in Irish. I don’t know, American Bar, a bit of a misnomer. Turns out it’s owned by a guy who left Inishmore, made it in America, and came home to open a pub. I ordered my lunch and just listened to them all speaking to one another; it was like no language I’ve ever heard.

            Now, I’m sitting at the hotel with a sore butt and a pair of sore legs. For the third time, I’ve had Chinese food that is so far superior to any I’ve had in America that it’s upsetting. All three times were little shacks with no bells or whistles in very random places. So for the love of God, if you come to this country, get some goddamn Chow Mein.

            None of the restaurants gave fortune cookies, how unfortunate,

            Big Cat

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It should strike fear into your heart to know that I’m the tamest of the three.

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            I’m flat out exhausted. The western portion of Ireland is magnificent. I spent the day taking in the spots that I mentioned before. As I moved between my destinations, the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren, I was snaking through wild and untamed roads surrounded by flowing hills and rock walls. It was during this drive that I pinpointed what makes Ireland so hard to capture in a photograph. The natural structures are lower and flatter but full of intricate texture that doesn’t get captured by anything besides the naked eye. So basically I’m going through a whole country from which I’ll come home and just say, “You had to be there.”

            The Cliffs of Moher were yet another breathtaking structure; high, rocky cliffs and sweeping green fields behind them. I walked along the path along the cliffs and there was a fence that stopped you from going up to the edge. At the end of the path, on privately owned land, there was a dirt path with no fences and about a million signs telling you to keep off. A bit of advice: never, never ever listen to a sign like that; that’s where all the best stuff is. As soon as I hopped the fence, about ten people climbed over behind me. I got some pictures up against the cliffs edge and the views running along the path were exceptional.

            The path kept running and swept up to a flat point on the highest cliff. I decided that it was flat enough that I could crawl out and look over the edge. So off I went, up to my armpits, letting my arms dangle down as I looked down a drop of a few hundred feet to the ocean. Something interesting happens inside when you feel the wind whipping and see the tremendous drop below. Adrenaline surges and your vision becomes keener.  Your chest flutters with the pounding of your heart and you tighten your stomach. For a moment, you are both rational and irrational. You know that nothing could happen but a vision of the cliff crumbling out from beneath you or the wind blowing you off balance begs you to step back from the edge. It’s exhilarating to fight that urge and keep looking. I see why people bungee jump and skydive, the rush must increase exponentially.

            After I had my fill of the view, I moved on to the Burren and the Aillwee Caves. The sun was shining and continued to shine all day. Still, on and off, there were sun showers. Very pretty.

            The Burren is a section of mountains (hills?) that are smooth and stony. The view driving in was a pleasant surprise, I had no idea what to expect outside of the name.  And I went through it to the caves which were very interesting. It had a unique history to its discovery. A farmer was out hunting and his dog chased a rabbit into the caves. The dog didn’t come out so he ran home, got a candle and some matches and the rest as they say is history. He didn’t tell anyone about it for years and after he did, they studied it and opened it to the public. They also had a bird sanctuary near the caves. It’s interesting to see all the birds of prey.

            Great day. I’m off for a Rocky Balboa workout on the beach.

            I ate three of the birds and they asked me to leave,

            Big Cat

            P.S. My camera cord is in Mountmellick. No picture uploads until Friday.

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            Let me take a second and talk about my last entry. This weekend was unreal. I’m not continually brooding and taking on all the philosophical questions of my existence. Yesterday for example, I went with Dave and Clare to their ‘local’ and pounded Coors Lights and watched Ireland’s first match of Euro 2012. I sat down at the pub full of Irish fans with my Irish jersey on and got introduced as ‘the American’ to the bartenders and patrons. It’s pretty much what I dreamed of when the idea of the trip was born.

            That said, some of the heavier things I’m talking about are the issues I’ve been trying to come to grips with for a long time. I feel like over the past few years I’ve been working hard to find my voice. Now that I know its sound, I want to see where it fits in to the grand scheme of things. Part of the reason I’m on this trip is to give myself time away from what I know to discover things I never considered. I know it’s going to make me a better writer and with any luck, a better man. It’s an incredible luxury that I’m able to do this and I take stock of that as well. Believe me, I’m letting this big, mangy cat loose good and plenty.

            This week I’m dedicating myself to experiencing Ireland in a healthier way. Gamma (my grandma) would be pleased to know that I’m putting away my drinking hat for the week (or until I see where the ‘craic’ is on the Aran Islands). Today, when I got to Miltown Malbay, I went for a run on the beach at the Spanish Point. I was picking up heavy rocks and using them as weights. It was kind of fun and kind of dopey. I liked the natural feel it had. I had planned to work out while I was here and I think I’ll continue to now. After that, I went back to the hotel bar and had a sandwich and salad and chatted with the hostess, a local Irish girl. It’s amazing how kind and chatty so many of the people are. And I think I impressed her by telling her I footed turf.

            Tomorrow it’s the Cliffs of Moher and The Burren along with the Aillwee Caves. If I have time, I’ll be doubling back and seeing Bunratty Castle as well. I planned to see the castle today but I was in my own head too much after Clonmacnoise. But yes, it’s still a vacation, not an Indian visionquest.

            Now. Off to ponder the meaning of life,

            Big Cat

            (Bigcatocrates)

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            It’s nearly two o’clock over here but I’ve already had a big day. I don’t mean big in the traditional sense. I didn’t fill my day sightseeing or anything. I had some breakfast with Danny, the Garda (police) Diver that put me up for the night, said my goodbyes to Shirlie’s cousin, Dave and went to an ancient Irish burial site called Clonmacnoise. There was something about that last stop that made the day feel big and heavy.

            The first thing that strikes you upon walking into the site is the cinematic nature of the ruins. There are fragments of old chapels and ancient Celtic grave markers peppering a field that overlooks a river. The second thing that strikes you, or struck me at least, is the amount of people visiting and snapping picture after picture. Now, I don’t mean to sound self-righteous but it bothered me. I wouldn’t be the one to tell people how to experience Ireland or their own vacation but for me, when I’ve been going to these places around Eire, I’ve wanted to just soak up my surroundings. People seemed too caught up in documenting each moment. Today, they looked numb and detached from the gravity of the site.

            I managed to find my own space, though. I sat and looked across Clonmacnoise, at all the grave markers. Some were washed bare by the elements; others had ornate Celtic insignias with two names and two dates. Then, the little thoughts that sit in the back of your skull like bugs under a rock began to creep in. There are times for pushing them back where they came from and there’s other times where you need to take them head on, test your mettle as they say. Typically, these thoughts creep in at night, when you’re vulnerable and lying in your bed. The darkness colludes with your human frailty, leaving you with one option; swallow hard and wait it out. And even though it would relieve some of the anxiety if we all just openly shared our common fear, I, like almost all others, have always tended to just stomach it on my own. (I’ll share a secret, too: it’s easier to ponder on a sunny day.)

            Today I sat and looked at all the names and dates and I contemplated my own name and the elusive second date. I allowed it to sink in that there is nothing certain out there. Our existence can be arbitrary and cruel. People meet their second date every day in ways they would never have imagined. Acts of God, acts of cruelty, acts of nature and acts of despair have taken many people I’ve known myself. I thought about those people and wondered if they ever spent time contemplating that fine line we walk, between the here and the after and the ways we get there. The short answer is yes, of course they did. But I think it takes some serious thought to recognize the strangeness of it all. It’s not out of the question that I could get mauled by a bear or starve to death in a forest. Even the less romanticized exits are entirely possible, I could choke on a chicken bone or slip on some ice and crack open my head.

            It makes you think about the people that used to use the names that are now just etchings in stone. None of those people I just talked about knowing could possibly be defined in such a small space. It pisses me off that we have tried and still try to do so. All those stories get lost when we define ourselves by a name and a date. Today I was amongst the remains of mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and neighbors and teachers and warriors and whatever else you can imagine. But you’d never even know. And the people around me just snapped and snapped their pictures so they could report back that they’d done something with their time off.

            Stay with me, now, I’m going somewhere with this.

            These thoughts are important. It makes me consider who I am. It helps me to understand what I want to know. I want to know the true size of this world. I want to experience its vastness. Then I want to understand that it’s actually small and fragile. And like the world surrounding me, I want to know why I can feel so mighty and capable. I need to know why I seem to have unlimited capacity to shape and build and grow and destroy the things around me in a place that seems to limit me with rules. But then when I’m standing in those things I’ve made, I will want to know why I’m still small— insignificant almost. I’ll want to know why I can abide that thought and allow it to make all those seemingly insignificant things even more real. But right now, I want to know why I can be so certain of it all at one moment, only to have that certainty vanish in front of me. This stuff makes me better.

            Today, I drove to where I’m sitting now, at the coast of County Clare. On my way here, there was a dog walking on the curvy, grassed in highway about four hundred yards from any house. He had pulled the peg attached to his leash out of the ground and he looked like he was in a dangerous spot. I drove right by him. When I got about a mile away, my thoughts from earlier came back to me and I turned my car around and walked the dog back to a house nearby. My day at Clonmacnoise made me realize that I want to be that type of person. When there’s trouble, big or small, and I have the capacity to help, I want to. When there’s a tourist lost and suffering near the airport, I want to be the guy that is there to get that person where they need to go. Believe me, I’ll struggle to be that person. I’ll think that the next car will get out and help the dog back home. But, hopefully in time, I’ll be the one to step up. It makes me happy right now that I still have the dirt from the peg on my fingers. There’s hope, right?

            I hope Logan is proud of me (God, I miss that damn dog),

            Big Cat

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            I’ve been really touched at how well everyone’s taken care of me in Ireland. At this point in the trip, I’ve been fed like a king, chatted up, welcomed, have had to fight tooth and nail to buy a round of drinks and just included in a way that has changed the whole experience from vacation to just living a portion of my life in Ireland. Shirlie’s whole family have the same feel of people I’ve known my whole life.  Just now, when I arrived in Athlone, her cousin Dave and his girlfriend Clare gave me an Irish rugby jersey with my name on the back. Now I’m going to watch the Euro 2012 match with them at their ‘local’ (pub). Too kind.

            And it’s not only Shirlie’s family, though they’ve made this whole trip, it’s all the Irish. The people here, for the most part, have a way about them that allows you to gel with them. They want to speak, hear and tell stories and bring you into their way of life. Went out into Portlaois last night with Shirlie’s brother, Ciaran and there was no hostility to the stranger in the bar—in fact, it was just the opposite. It was smiles, beers and dancing.

            This week I’m off to County Clare and the Aran Islands. There’s no anxiety in me. I’m all excitement. I can’t wait to see what things I’ll happen upon and what people I’ll meet. For tonight, look out Athlone, you got a mangy cat on your hands in an Irish disguise. Big trouble.

            Let’s go Irish,

            Big Cat

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The Keane Brothers: Fine Irish Musicians

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            It’s been true Irish weather up until this morning. Yesterday I had planned to stay in Kinsale and do some activities, maybe stop at Blarney Castle on the way back to my people in Mountmellick. Unfortunately, the weather was rainy and cold and I just decided to make it an easy day. I played with all the little kids around here and had conversations with Dave and Annette.

            It dawned on me yesterday, talking to Dave, that I was under the impression that everyone here was involved in music in some way. I think that’s just the crowd I’ve happened upon. If the radio isn’t going then there’s soft singing or instruments being played or gigs being performed. Even the way that all the Irish speak, though, very musical. After a few pints I find myself speaking with the same cadence in my American accent.

            I’ve met a few American transplants on my way through Eire. In Kinsale, I met a girl at an Ice Cream shop from Florida that has lived here for only a few years. She didn’t realize it but she was speaking just like the Irish— very song-like and interesting to listen to. Her vocabulary had changed, too. It was ‘lad’ this and ‘grand’ that with a ’craic’ and an ‘aye’ sprinkled in. It wasn’t fabricated, you could see that those were her words.  It made me think about language and culture. When you feel at home, you allow language to infect you. Slowly, your own words with the same meaning atrophy, and the cracks are filled in by the words that surround you.

            Now, more than likely, I won’t use any of the local vernacular or cadence when I get home but I think it’ll stick with me. Like an Elvis song, in my head I’ll know the exact pitch and volume; all the music that accompanies the Irish tongue. I can buy all the trinkets or shirts or whatever-you-like but I think that something like that has more meaning. It’s one of the reasons people move around the world— to add pieces to themselves. With any luck, those pieces stick and you grow a little.

            The Emerald Isle sings to me,

            Big Cat

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Headed in for a workout

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            It was a rainy day in Eire. My morning plans to hike in the ring of Kerry were put to rest early on so I drove on through to Kinsale, Ireland. The drive was beautiful but unfortunately most of the views were overtaken by the myst. I dug in my heels, cranked up the classic rock and hummed down the highway.

            The Blue Horizon B&B sits overlooking a popular Irish surfing beach. I took some rest and watched the pack of surfers across the coast. Had it been a sunny day, I would have been in for a dip as well. The beach itself is pristine, no commercial build-up. It’s surrounded by fields and looks almost untouched.

            I thumbed through the guidebook and found a place that offered horseback riding. They were rained out so I figured I’d just saunter into the town of Kinsale and see what was going on. When I was all parked and settled, I stumbled into a little bookstore. I asked the owner if he had any Claire Keegan short-story collections (Read Foster by her. It was in the NY Times but don’t hold that against it. Not smug at all). He didn’t. He looked at me nervously made a suggestion, ‘notes from a Turkish whorehouse’ by Philip ‘O Ceallaigh. I guess he had second thoughts based on my American flag wardrobe and my camoflauge hat but it was too late, I was already making the purchase. He must have thought I’d come storming back in when I got a few pages deep.

            The owner sent me half a block down the street to the Lemon Leaf Cafe. Either this guy completely misread me or he was really fucking with me. It was one of those places where they begrudgingly offer a chicken sandwich on the menu and serve fancy coffees and teas. Hipster-haven. But, I figured what the hell, when in Kinsale.

            As my lunch came, it almost came right back up. I could see why he was trying to unsell me on the book. You see, new writers today try and etch a name for themselves by touching upon odd topics or just flooding their work with sexual vulgarities. By the time I got to a character having his privates checked for venereal disease, I guess I was through with my lunch. I sipped my tea and settled my stomach.

            Turns out Kinsale is a town of hipsters. I’ve made a life sniffing out/snuffing out their kind but this one was different. Everyone dressed the part but retained their Irish social graces. Instead of having their faces perpetually in a state of disgust upon recognizing I wasn’t their breed, they were simply kind to me. I walked around the town feeling like a circle in a square peg, but in retrospect, it was me who made the choice to be that way. A little bit of a lesson in not being so critical of other people.

            I was good and ready to head back to the B&B and read and write for the rest of the day when I happened upon a pub full of locals. This was my kind of scene. The people there were the salt of the earth. I sat down and tried to wash out the taste of grotesquely-contrived stories with some of my favorites out of The Best American Short Stories. I was almost laughed out of the bar when I opened the book. With red cheeks, I got over it and had a few pints with some great folks. Everyone was giving me tips on where to go and what to see. I told my anecdote about the Londoner on the mineshaft tour and they were throwing up toasts to Ireland and laughing their asses off that the Welshman stuck it to him.

            Tonight I’m going into town to see some live music. Tomorrow, weather dependent, I’ll be on top of a horse, galloping along the Southern coast and through the hills. This town is very pretty and full of fresh seafood. Not bad.

            Don’t read in an Irish pub,

            Big Cat

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            So I’m talking to my Mom on the phone and a British lady overhears me. She said, “I heard you mention Artie’s, where are you from in the States?”

            Turns out she’s a professor in Health and Human Development at George Mason University. Lives in Fairfax Corner off Waples Mill. I told her I just graduated and the British guy she was with says, “Oh, is that a rare thing in the States?”

            I mean, we should have the Second Revolutionary War. These people are condescending sacks of shit.

            But not one second after she tells me she’s from Fairfax, the Irish receptionist says she lived for a spell over in Old Town, Alexandria! She said, “Now you can’t be getting into too much trouble over here. We’ll tell your mammy.”

            Mind-blowing.

            I have goosebumps,

            Big Cat

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It’s perpetually Spring in this country.

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            The second day in Glengarriff in County Cork arrived with a soft morning rain. I decided to head into the town center for an Irish breakfast. Now like an American breakfast, the Irish breakfast is fairly consistent. You’ll get a fried egg, Irish bacon, black pudding (blood sausage), white pudding (sausage), bangers (sausages), a hash brown and a heap of baked beans. Oh, and of course, butter toast. Then you’ll go into cardiac arrest with the amount of salted meat and fried food you’ve just consumed.

            It’s a funny place, though. There’s milk available in 3.5% or 4%, even. For someone that’s grown up drinking skim, it’s like having a milkshake. There’s severe use of butter at every meal as well. Also, desserts tend to be very sweet. So, there are plenty of dietary concerns that might make Americans squeamish. What’s odd though, is that people tend to look pretty healthy. The portions are large, so that’s not where they save calories. The only thing I can imagine is that the lesser stress of the day-to-day and the often hilly landscapes play a role.

            But anyway, after my giant breakfast, the sun came out and I took the ferry over to Garinish Island. It’s an island nearby, off the coast of Glengarriff. The whole thing is covered with gardens and the rocks surrounding it are covered with lion seals lying out in the sun. I walked around the gardens, mostly able to find my own space to take in the sights. I had music playing in my headphones the whole time to keep my mind occupied after my bout of homesickness yesterday. It was very serene. Every so often I’d bump into some folks, most from Ireland, and we’d chat a little. People in Ireland like to have a chat. But, for the majority of the early afternoon, I just existed amongst the abundant colorful flowers and rocky seal-covered coast. There wasn’t any of the sometimes shrill nature of life back home; no traffic, no rush.

            When I made it back on the ferry, the afternoon rain started coming down. I decided that it looked like it would break and went over to the nature reserve for the afternoon. I took the same attitude toward the rain and it just got heavier and heavier at the start of my three kilometer hike. I put on my raincoat and pushed through the woods, taking in the trees and beauty and the sound of the rain hitting the forest roof. The trail looped around to a stream and when I arrived there, the sun burst out and I reached a waterfall. It was a very nice coincidence, a nearly perfect view.

            On the way back to the B&B, I had a book in the car so I decided to go over and read at MacCarthy’s Bar. The only reason I chose that particular pub is because my sister, Lacey put me onto a book by that title (well, ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ but close enough) about an Englishman that travelled Ireland. He had one rule that he always followed: If you ever see a bar with your name on it, you must go in. The writer in me felt it best to pay my respects. The drinker in me agreed wholeheartedly. I ordered a pint of Guinness and reread a short story I had been looking at.

            It was a quiet, lovely way to spend a day. My thoughts remained light, my spirits high.

            I can hear my arteries clogging, send a cardiologist,

            Big Cat