The Pursuit of Happiness

My hairline is dropping back.

Like, way back.

Everyday I take a shower and rub in some expensive conditioner that’s supposed to thicken my ever-thinning man mane.

After applying the fraudulent product I always pull my hands down and assess the damage.

On a good day, there are only two or three black strands lying limp between my fingers.

I praise the brittle, dead hairs for fighting valiantly and them let slide away, down the drain, to Valhalla.

A Viking burial.

Luckily, my head isn’t shaped too oddly, so once I give up the good fight and shave I think I’ll be able to pull the look off. My younger brother Daniel, who looks just like me with bigger ears and more body hair, has been pioneering the Lex Luthor with moderate success for about two years now.

My brown, furry, Brooks Brothers-wearing guinea pig.

Not all heroes wear capes.

 

Cure-For-Baldness

 

As I processed and eventually accepted the inevitable arrival of shiny-headed Aaron, I began to take a look at my life on a grander scale. Okay, to be honest, that’s bullshit. I’m always analyzing. Over the last six or seven years I have pounded introspective processes and mindfulness into my routines. Plato said, “an unexamined life is not worth living,” and I examine the shit out of mine, probably to a fault. I’m working on it. Writing helps.

That’s actually one of my favorite things about writing. Sure I love to motivate and make you guys laugh, but if nothing else, my blog posts and short stories serve as my own digital roadmap. With one click of the mouse I can revisit my old pieces and analyze past perspectives. I can see exactly how I felt about my career path or my personal relationships or my abuelito thinking I’m gay.

So, no. I didn’t need a case of male pattern baldness to catalyze self-examination, but the gradual and consistent reminder of my ‘maturation’ served as a reference point. And it reminded me of an article published by my life guru Mark Manson called, “The Four Stages of Life.”

In his article Mark lays out his simple theory about, you guessed it, the four stages of life. Let me give you the Readers Digest version:

Stage One: Mimicry

Mark calls his first stage of life ‘Mimicry.’ In the first stage of life humans learn to navigate the world, both physically and socially, by mimicking those around them. Young humans are like little sponges, observing and imitating the behaviors of parents and siblings and the snotty-nosed punks they go to kindergarten with as they learn to navigate the world. Once an individual develops the capacity to make rational decisions and act independently, they move on to Stage Two, ‘Self-Discovery.’

Stage Two: Self-Discovery

Stage Two usually begins in late adolescence or early adulthood and lasts until a person reaches their mid-twenties or mid-thirties. As the name suggests, these newly autonomous individuals set out on a journey of self-exploration.

Manson says it best,

In Stage One, we learn to fit in with the people and culture around us. Stage Two is about learning what makes us different from the people and culture around us. Stage Two requires us to begin making decisions for ourselves, to test ourselves, and to understand ourselves and what makes us unique.

This stage of experimentation can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Some go to college. Some try various jobs and career paths, others experiment sexually. Whoa, that sentence escalated quickly. But it’s true.

Some people prefer to try drugs, lots of drugs. Still others yearn to explore in a more physical and temporal manner, setting off to travel for extended periods of time (cough, cough). After some time running through the gauntlet of experimentation, most people begin to reach their limitations.

In short, we figure out where we excel and where we, well, suck. We discover the things we like and the things that move us. We also begin to realize that some of the things we experimented with don’t serve us in the marathon of life. Our strengths and weaknesses become apparent and we begin to envision a general course for our lives.

Stage Three: Commitment

Stage Three is the commitment stage, the time to start setting some roots.

Manson writes,

Stage Three is the great consolidation of one’s life. Out go the friends who are draining you and holding you back. Out go the activities and hobbies that are a mindless waste of time. Out go the old dreams that are clearly not coming true anytime soon.

The very genesis of this blog was sparked by a personal quest to finalize my transition from step two to three. I stood at a turning point. I jumped and brought ya’ll along for the ride. I had vision and a sense of purpose and damn, it felt good.

One more ride on the experimentation express and I’m done, I swear. I can remember the sense of assuredness that coursed through my veins as I typed the question (and subsequently answered myself )”… do you want to quit your day job and travel the world before you start teaching again? Fuck yes. ” 2015 Aaron was a smug little bastard.

But the bridge between self-exploration and commitment has been everything but easy.

As I travelled my sense of purpose surged. I found great joy in meeting fresh faces and exploring new cities. I was invigorated by exposure to foreign ways of thinking and the customs that accompanied those mindsets. I thought my passion rested in exploration, so coming back home hurt. I mourned my time abroad instead of celebrating it. I took a good paying job in an industry I knew nothing about and frankly, didn’t ‘love.’ After years of writing and telling you guys to break the chains of complacency and go for broke, I felt like a sell out. I had an ocean view, a shiny new car, and a shitty attitude.

After months of wallowing I realized something that seems obvious in hindsight… traveling is not my passion, I was just blessed with an opportunity to do some really cool stuff during my stage of self-discovery. Mr. Manson says screw finding your passion, I say amen brother. But we all get caught up trying to find that “p-word” these days. It’s all around us. Every time we open our smart phones it slaps us in the face. We are constantly drowning in an endless array of options, doggy paddling through pictures and inspirational captions of our smiling friends ‘never conforming,’ ‘chasing their passion,’ and ‘catching flights not feelings.’ This never-ending barrage of imagery leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the levels of cognitive dissonance that come with commitment.

For right-swiping, Instagram obsessed Millennials, stage three is scary.

You mean to tell me that I have to pick one career? One vacation destination? One lover? Billy is in Bali swimming with sea turtles and homie hasn’t had a job in like five years. Ooh, Brett and Bonnie just bought a house. How the hell do I buy a house? I don’t have a cool million lying around. Fuck Brett. Damn, I need a wife. What should I eat for lunch? A burrito. It’s always a burrito.  (All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Fuck you Brett.)

I may have gotten carried away with the alliterations in my “scrolling through Instagram inner monologue” but you can see how this over exposure to a false reality made up entirely of success and accomplishments can lead to low self efficacy, envy, and hell… even depression. These modern day highlight reels also cultivate indecisiveness and wire our brains to crave constant distraction. At the very least, high levels of social media usage can alter our daily moods, effecting our overall sense of happiness, productivity and personal relationships.

It’s no wonder older generations have taken to calling Millennials the Slash Generation, referencing their inability to commit to one specific career path. The fact that a high number of Millennials feel that they have no influence in the workforce doesn’t help. How are we supposed to be passionate if we don’t think we can make a difference?

Maybe we’re just asking ourselves the wrong questions.

Instead of seeking to align our careers with our passions or looking for our life’s purpose, perhaps we should simply ask ourselves “what can we do with our time that is important?” And for me, that subtle shift in questioning has made all difference. The need to constantly over-analyze my path and purpose has been lifted ever so slightly. The pressure has been lessened. I’ll take it. It’s all about progress, not perfection. Thanks Mark.

The question has also helped eliminate negative thinking patterns and unproductive habits that snuck their way into my daily routines. The shift is gradual and requires constant tending, but I can feel the difference. No, managing a small business who’s signature service is killing German cockroaches is not my passion, but learning how to be an effective manager and leader is definitely important. The volunteer work I do through my church with the immigrant community is important. Being in close proximity to my family and spending quality time with them is important. Building capital to provide stability and security for my future family is very important.

I feel better about it.

Perhaps you do too. If not, try getting off your phone ya dummy.

Now quick, let me tell you about Stage Four so you can take your dog for a walk or something and get some fresh air.

Stage Four: Legacy

The last stage of life is all about cementing one’s legacy. After decades of dedication to whatever it is an individual deemed worthy of their commitment, a person enters into the last phase of their life, working to ensure that their hard work survives, even if they do not.

Stage Four is important psychologically because it makes the ever-growing reality of one’s own mortality more bearable. As humans, we have a deep need to feel as though our lives mean something. This meaning we constantly search for is literally our only psychological defense against the incomprehensibility of this life and the inevitability of our own death. To lose that meaning, or to watch it slip away, or to slowly feel as though the world has left you behind, is to stare oblivion in the face and let it consume you willingly.

At a young age, after enduring some difficult seasons, I gained the understanding that Stage Four is a luxury. Many of us never get a Legacy Stage. Others are forced to scramble in haste, scratching and clawing to ensure their legacies will be protected.

I suppose I’ll worry about Stage Four when I get there, but I have a feeling I’m on the right track.

A little less scrolling and a little more gratitude goes a long way.

It feels good to be back.

 

 

 

 

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Hiraeth

Drowning in the shallows…

I can still taste the remnants of my past life. They pierce my skin like fine splinters. They stick to me like tiny pieces of meat between my teeth.

I savor the bits. A beautiful aftertaste.

The American Dental Association recommends flossing a minimum of once per day.

I never floss.

 

Today I learned a new word.

Hiraeth.

A Welsh word that describes an intense feeling of homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, or for a home which may have never been.

I like the ambiguity.

Hearing the rolling syllables as they’re pronounced induces a feeling the word is meant to describe. A visceral yearning that can never be scrubbed clean. Spoken in the tongue of an ancient people who no longer exist.

Except that Wales still exists.

And so does Barcelona, asshole.

Flights are like three hundred bucks.

 

 

Aaron Ragnarson

January 15, 2018

San Clemente, California

9:00 pm

Aaron goes to the local grocery store and sees a beautiful woman in the produce aisle.

There is always a beautiful woman in produce aisle.

Before he can strike up a conversation about avocados, boyfriend rushes in from left field to mark his territory (an annoyingly frequent occurrence at Aaron’s local Ralph’s).

Aaron has moved to a Couple’s Only town.

Aaron walks away vexed, feeling sorry for himself, dreaming of Spain in the frozen food section.

Fifteen minutes later, as Aaron checks out, previously mentioned boyfriend walks to the counter, visibly frustrated. Asks clerk, “Dude, do you know where the damn vegan butter is?” looking sideways as his girlfriend nips at his heels, barking about ‘non-dairy almond cheese.’

Aaron pays for his steak at the counter.

Aaron goes home.

Aaron eats his steak and watches Vikings.

Aaron smiles.

 

 

 

Win it for Carlos

I believe in God.

Yes, I believe in destiny.

I am a growing anomaly in a secular society with an answer for everything that fits in our back pocket.

But I am also a romantic; a man who lives for the underlying story. Tales of synchronicity that cannot be explained.
Improbable and impossible ironies.
Magical moments that raise the hair on your arm.

We live in a world void of magic.
Void of faith.
An age of facts and happenstance.
Chance.
At best, we get serendipity.
Divine intervention? Providence? Don’t even think about it.
Nietzsche was wrong, God isn’t dead.
But we like to pretend He is.

When I was abroad studying in a graduate program, a professor openly mocked the concept of angels and people who believe in them. All of my classmates laughed.

I didn’t.

I believe in angels.
I am from the city of angels.

I once read that “it is right to chide a man for being blind to divine coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.”
The passage struck a chord, so I took it with me.

Thankfully, there is a sport for people like me. A game where rituals and pre-game ceremonies thrive in abundance. A sport where grown men wear dirty socks and grow hideous beards for good luck. Bats are licked, bubbles are blown and coaches are kissed all in the name of superstition.

Baseball.

The game’s best, Clayton Kershaw, is a man of superstition and faith.
Every fifth day Kershaw eats the same meal (cereal, fruit, and a sandwich), warms up with the same amount of pitches (34), walks to the dugout at the same time (8 minutes before first pitch) and uses the same tattered glove he’s owned since he became a Dodger.

He also cites his faith as the most important thing in his life. Kershaw is not alone in his religious convictions. Next time you watch a game, pay close attention. Watch as the hitter steps into the batter’s box and blesses himself with the sign of the cross.
Nothing makes me happier.

The era of advanced statistics and saber metrics in baseball has arrived, but the element of the non-quantifiable will always survive.

My family bleeds Dodger Blue.

Anyone who knows a Polanco knows where his loyalty lies when it comes to the diamond. But our allegiance transcends the sport. It is our passion, our identity. We have a dog named Koufax and worship Vin Scully. When my mother passed away, Steve Garvey called to extend his condolences.

We.

Bleed.

Blue.

The Dodgers’ magical 2017 season continued on Tuesday night with our first berth to the World Series in 29 years. The first since Gibson limped to the box and fist pumped his way around the bases of Blue Heaven on Earth. Our family was elated, exchanging text messages throughout the week to keep in contact with a group spread across the country.

In the midst of the excitement hovered heartache as our minds turned to beloved family members who were no longer with us. Uncles, brothers, sons and mothers who had cheered with us for years. We finally made it, we thought, if only they were here to see. For me, and for most of my family, one name rose above the rest… Carlos.

My Uncle Carlos was different.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia midway through high school, my uncle was frozen in time. He forever lived in the era of Garvey and Lopes, a time when he excelled in sports and got all the girls. The age of Aqua Net, Stacy Q and cruising Whittier Boulevard. A day didn’t pass without him mentioning his Volkswagen bug and the “pretty girl with big boobs” he kissed driving through the hills of Elysian Park. I forgot her name.

He loved Art Laboe, hamburgers, and adored his family. But above all, he worshipped the Dodgers.

For most of my life my uncle’s condition was stable. Often, the only manifestations of his illness were visible through small quirks and hilarious commentaries. A poke to the shoulder here, a strange question there. His memory was surprisingly sharp, but he always mixed up details in the best of ways. In college, I had a girlfriend named Autumn. He would remember small particulars about our relationship, but could never get her name right.

“So, how’s Odom, bro? Does she still work at that pizza place?”

Lamar Odom was the power forward for the Lakers at the time. I would laugh and respond, “She’s great Tio, thanks for asking.”

To me, there was no better company. I loved driving to my grandmother’s house and watching games with my uncle. Out of selfishness, I never called before coming. The best moment was always ringing the bell and watching him run to the door with excitement through the fogged window.

“Aaron! I knew you would come!” he exclaimed as he hugged me, smelling of musky aftershave.

My abuelita would smile as I entered the living room, happy that I came over to spend time with her son. “Tienes hambre mijo?” She would ask in Spanish.
Siempre Abuela.
My grandmother would serve us mounds of hot, delicious food as we cheered for Matt Kemp and laughed at my uncle’s crazy stories.

The last time I saw my uncle was after an evening together at Dodger Stadium. The crowd was unusually large for a midweek game. As the fans roared with each hit, my uncle would stand, cup his hands around his mouth, and yell.

He laughed as he returned to his seat, “Bro,” he said, “you can yell anything you want, no one can hear you!” The next hit he stood up and yelled, “I’m Tony Montana, say hello to my little friend!”

He was a big Pacino fan.

I laughed and joined him, imploring the crowd to “say goodnight to the bad guy,” at the top of my lungs. That was my uncle Carlos. His quirkiness and child-like innocence had a way of injecting you with happiness.

We drove from the stadium to the sounds of eighties disco pop, dancing and happy after a Dodger victory. As my uncle opened the door to leave, he hugged me and said, “you’re a good nephew bro.” Two weeks later I got the worst call of my life and learned of his passing. Our family has never been the same.

We lost our levity.

We lost our lightness.

As the playoffs progressed, mentions of Carlos increased in my family’s group thread.
This one’s for Carlos!
Thinking of Charlie tonight!
We shared photos of my uncle, forever in his Dodger hat.
My aunt found an old picture of him in his little league jersey. I don’t need to tell you what team he was on.

Once the Dodgers clenched the pennant and ticket prices soared, the realization that most of us would be watching from home sunk in.
Fortunately, one member of the Polanco clan, my younger brother Daniel, secured a seat. He would serve as our family representative during the first World Series game played in Chavez Ravine for nearly three decades.

An hour before first pitch, Daniel messaged the group with a selfie from the stadium, wishing we were all there with him. Responses from aunts and uncles poured in.
How many Polanco’s can we fit in one seat!?
Let’s go Blue!
I sent a selfie from Minute Maid Park in Houston. I was in Texas for work and figured the Astros’ home turf would be the second best place to take in the game.
True fan right there!
Be careful Aaron!

My brother followed up by sending three words to the thread…

Oh my God.

What? I thought. Houston fans were mellow in comparison to the more deplorable sections of the Dodger fanbase. As I typed a response, another message from Daniel came through…

Guys! A representative of the Boys and Girls Club just threw out the first pitch. His name is…

CARLOS POLANCO!

Tears immediately filled my eyes as my phone began to vibrate uncontrollably. Streams of messages came in as my family members expressed their dismay.

I let it buzz.

As I sat in Minute Maid Park, surrounded by orange, my mind drifted to memories of my favorite Dodger fan. I heard his laugh and smelled his cheap aftershave. I was in disbelief. What are the odds? I thought. Perhaps my brother was mistaken. Midway through the second inning broadcaster Joe Buck confirmed my brother’s report.

‘Throwing out the first pitch tonight was the Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year,

Carlos Polanco.’

My uncle was watching the World Series after all. I cried like a baby. Right there in Minute Maid Park. Tears came and I let them flow.

We can’t lose tonight. I thought. And sure enough, we didn’t. Fueled by an angel’s namesake and a magical red beard, the Dodgers marched to victory in their first World Series game in twenty nine years.

Talk about cosmic poetry.

Now, if Carlos can come back and throw out the first pitch for the rest of the Series, that would be great.

Go Blue!

Win it for Carlos.

 

 

Destino Conocido

 

I have returned home a stranger,

Forever changed by distant lands and smiling faces.

Yet, as I approach familiar harbors, I sense that my voyage has just begun.

What a sight it was to watch the wind come and catch the breadth of my sails.

How I yearn for those glorious gusts to howl once again and carry me off.

I am restless and uncertain, tempted to turn the ship ’round and sail out to the uncharted vastness of the blue.

 

Homage to Barcelona

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Fifteen months in Barcelona.

Fifteen months are not enough.

Perhaps no amount of time can quench the thirst the city of Gaudí inspires.

Insatiable lust for a city with a million lovers.

My plane soars ‘cross the vast North American continent, each mile blazed brings me closer to home… to the salty shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Closer to family.

To friends.

Closer to the comfort and confidence that only home can bring.

California.

As a Spaniard told me, no es mal destino.

Yet my heart yearns for Catalunya, my elusive mistress.

I close my eyes and I am there.

My toes dig deep into cool sand as I look east over the sea. The Mediterranean blends into cerulean skies as the sun sinks below the horizon. Delicate wisps of low lying clouds take on pink hues as I sigh.

The saddest, softest blue twilight.

My skin feels the warm summer air as it crawls through winding allies.

Stifling humidity.

The city smiles as she sweats.

Happy perspiration.

I smell her dusty squares filled with laughter and cigarette smoke. The locals, with their oval faces and light brows, gather in camaraderie. Un-rushed yet always moving.

Sin prisa pero sin pausa.

A street vendor offers respite from the heat, “cerveza, beer?”

No gracias, amigo.

I see the bronzed beauties glistening in the moon light, sun-kissed from long days at la playa.

I smile as they walk past.

They wave, teasing, wild and free. Untamable.

Fuck.

How I will miss my time in Barcelona.

Words cannot describe the emotions that stir within me as I reflect, strapped into this fucking plane. Taken against my will, gagged and bound in a low-budget flying prison.

It took me 15 months and two days to read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Whilst in Barcelona the book served as a sleeping pill. Two paragraphs and I was out. Effective medicine. But once removed from the shores of my favorite city, I clawed and scratched to feel her warm waters again. The book took on new life as I read with heavy heart and twinkling eyes.

The sparse Englishman captured my angst with prophetic precision.

“I suppose I have have failed to convey more than a little what those months in Spain mean to me. I have recorded some of the outward events, but I cannot record the feeling they have left me with. It is all mixed up with sights, smells, and sounds that cannot be conveyed in writing…”

You said it George.

Adéu Barna… te echo de menos.

 

 

Right Swiping Your Way to a Second Language

Well guys, I can officially call myself a paid writer. Honored and humbled by the opportunity to write for Listen & Learn. Here’s my first blog post for them:

Allow me to introduce myself:

My name is Aaron and I am an American living and studying in Barcelona, Spain.

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Ever since moving abroad, my answer to the inescapable “de donde eres” question has strategically shifted from ‘the U.S.’ to ‘California.’ I must admit, it’s a great strategy. As soon as the word leaves my lips, smiles ensue. The Golden State truly is a golden word that invites much more, well, pleasant and often hilarious queries, like…

“OMG do you surf?”

Or

“Why would you ever leave Cali?” (People who aren’t from California love saying Cali)

And

“Why Barcelona? What do you love about it here?”

My answer is always the same: options.

Barcelona offers so many options. Whether it’s visiting an art exhibit or museum, sunbathing on the beach with friends, catching an outdoor movie on Montjuic, or dancing the night away at a free concert, Barcelona is a cultural and social goldmine. Throw in the fact that the most expensive event I listed will cost you a whopping six Euro and you can start to see why I’m on the constant lookout for a wife with an EU passport. I never want to leave.

Unfortunately, for those who come to immerse themselves in a second language, speaking Spanish is also an option in this great city by the sea. One of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Europe, Barcelona is teeming with English speakers and a local population whose native tongue is Catalan, not Castellano (Castilian Spanish). Even the courses at my university, Pompeu Fabra, named after the linguist who developed the Catalan language, were offered in English.

Want to check your skill level before heading overseas for study? Take a free placement test to see how your level measures up!

One month into my stay I realized that if I wanted to improve my Spanish I would need to make a conscious effort to capitalize on every speaking opportunity afforded. For some examples and tips on how to make the most of your language learning experience while abroad checkout fellow blogger Katie’s post. As Katie alluded to in her piece, the most progress comes when stepping out of your comfort zone and staying there. And what’s more uncomfortable than an awkward first date?

With over 50 million active users, Tinder is one of the most popular dating applications in the world. Let’s pretend you’ve never heard of it so I can give you the basics.

Pulling bio information and pictures from Facebook, Tinder users sift through profiles in their vicinity, swiping their way to romance through their smartphones. A left swipe on a profile means that you are not interested or simply “nope.” A right swipe signifies interest. When two users ‘right swipe’ each other, a ‘match’ is created and a lovely push notification is sent to your phone. The process is a bit shallow, I know, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to doing a little dance every time my phone lights up and says “Congratulations! You have a new match.”

No rookie to the dating app scene (I once met a girlfriend, now ex-girlfriend, through a similar app called Bumble. Heeey Nikki), I initially used Tinder to engage with other Americans living in or passing through Barcelona. While abroad, there is a level of comfort that comes from spending time with people from ‘back home.’ But in the spirit of growth, and like Katie already told you, FORGET your comfort.

Determined to shake off the shackles of complacency, I updated my Tinder profile, switching all of my bio text from English to Spanish. I began left swiping any user from the U.S. or England. I never thought my quest to perfect a second language would lead me down the dark path of racial profiling, but hey… by any means necessary, right? If I got a match, I made sure to always send my first message in Castellano, establishing my ability and desire to communicate in Spanish.

And it worked.

I soon found myself sipping café con leche and speaking Spanish through entire dates. Initially, I was a sweaty mess, stumbling over words as I struggled to communicate with the vocabulary of a nine year old. I’m sure the double shots of espresso didn’t help. However, a couple of months into my Tinder experiment, I noticed that my confidence had greatly increased while speaking Spanish. I am proud to say that my vocabulary grew from that of a nine year old to the level of pubescent teenager, one awkward Tinder date at a time.

Interestingly, my language skills were not the only thing that Tinder helped to improve. As I connected with more local girls, my cultural experience in Barcelona was also enriched. I gained insight into Catalan traditions, cuisine, celebrations, and festivals. Catalans love their festivals. I’ve even managed to learn a bit of the Catalan language through the process.

Yesterday I was giving a tour through the Barrí Gótic (I give street art tours in the city center in an effort to support my Tinder coffee date habit), when I met a beautiful and very Ukrainian looking gal by the name of Justina. I know, I know, racial profiling. Since Tinder has yet to teach me Ukrainian, I addressed Justina in English. Her face strained as I spoke, clearly struggling to interpret my Californian.

I stopped mid-sentence and asked, “Hablas Español?”

“Of course,” she replied, relieved. “I feel much more comfortable speaking Spanish,” she continued in perfect Castellano.

Surprised, I asked how she, a recent arrival from the Ukraine, had learned the language so fluently.

“My husband of course.”

“Oh wow,” I responded, “and how did you meet your husband?”

Justina blushed and replied through grinning teeth, “Tinder.”