Jan 21, 2022

The 11th: A Letter From George

Last week, Lulu heard an interview that trapped her in her car. She decided to play it for Latif.

The interview – originally from a podcast called The Relentless Picnic, but presented by one of Lulu’s current podcast faves, The 11th – is part of an episode of mini pep talks designed to help us all get through this cold, dark, second-pandemic-winter-in-a-row. But the segment that Lulu brings Latif is about someone trying to get through something arguably much more difficult, something a pep talk can’t solve, but that a couple friends — and one very generous stranger — might be able to help make a little more bearable.

The episode of The 11th this comes from is “I’m Here to Pep You Up.” The Relentless Picnic is currently running a series of episodes called CABIN, an audio exploration of isolation, which you can listen to here. The organization where Matt volunteers as a counselor is called SUDEP. The Lu Olkowski story Lulu recommends at the end of the episode is “Grandpa,” and the lobster story Latif recommends is “The Luckiest Lobster.”

Special Thanks:

Eric Mennel, senior producer at The 11th, and host of the podcast Stay Away from Matthew Magill.

Lu Olkowski, voracious listener, super reporter, and host of the podcast Love Me.

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[RADIOLAB INTRODUCTION]

LULU: Hey I’m Latif Nasser.

LATIF: And I’m Lulu Miller. This is Radiolab. And this week, Latif, I wanna play you something very special.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: It’s a piece of audio. It comes form another podcast. And I should say right that this one probably isn’t for kids.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: Okay so this thing I want to play for you, I listened to it last weekend – no. Not even last – I listened to it a few days ago and it was like, woah. I was in Los Angeles, driving in my rental car through these dark and unfamiliar streets. And I got so sucked into the conversation that when I got to where I was going, I to just sat there in the dark, seeing where it went.

LATIF: Wow.

LULU: Because it was so, just -- there was…

LATIF: Wait, don’t build it up too much. I feel like I wanna hear it. But yeah.

LULU: Okay, yeah. Sorry, sorry, sorry. I have that problem. Okay.

[MUSC IN]

LULU: So the podcast is the called, The 11th. And the episode is called, I’m Here to Pep You Up.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:   We reached out to comedians and writers and asked them: Do you maybe have a pep talk for us?]

LULU: They wanted to give a gift in these dark in these months …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  Everything feels twice as hard.]

LULU: They just wanted to pep people up.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  Could you just try to help us feel a little better?]

LULU: And they got all kinds of submissions.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  Hey Leslie, you’re doing great, girl.]

LULU: Little essays.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  So what you can’t swim?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  You got this you know who you are.]

LULU: Songs.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  So you did it again.]

LULU: Voicemails.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  Hi Emerald Obrien, this is Grammy Obrien. Emerald, congratulations!]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 11th:  I believe in you.]

LATIF: I kinda hate to jump in but this feels really similar to what we did in the last couple episodes where we’re looking back on the terrible year, trying to tell stories to distract people from it or something …

LULU: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LATIF: It’s like, if Radiolab was my friend, I’d be like, are you okay?

LULU: [laughs] Yeah, I mean, A, no. We might not be okay, honestly. But B, what they got up to in the second half of this show is something totally different. It is not a distraction at all. It’s not even really a pep talk.

LATIF: Okay.

LULU: They point us toward this raw conversation about at think you cannot pep talk someone out of.

LATIF: Hmm.

LULU: And it ends up somewhere totally unexpected. So that’s what we’re gonna play.

LATIF: Okay. Let me hear it. What is it?

LULU: So yeah. It features these three guys. Two of them, Adam Juskewitch and Erikk Geannikis have a podcast called The Relentless Picnic. And the third person is their friend Matt, who’s called into the podcast as he’s going through this really hard thing.  

LATIF: Uh-huh.

LULU: And that’s all I’m gonna say.

[PHONE RINGS]

ADAM JUSKEWITCH: Ties? 

MATT: Yes, that's me.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  What's up, man?

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  What's up, man?

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  So who's getting married?

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah.

MATT:  My friend I grew up with, his name's Felipe. And they met in high school and they're getting married in Kennebunkport.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Oh wow.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Bush country.

MATT:  Yeah, we're off the beaten path a bit. We're, I think, like, I don't know, five miles from town or something.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS: Right. So is it weird to be going to a wedding? I imagine that's like, not a dream thing right now.

MATT:  Yeah, I think when I actually get there, it'll be tough. But it's my friend, so I want him to be happy. And I already talked to him before.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah.

MATT:  You know, just saying, you know, I'm not gonna, like, make a fucking scene or something, you know.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah, of course.

MATT:  If it -- he was just like, you know, if it's too much for you to handle -- that's what everyone has been saying, you know, because I'm pretty independent, or I don't like asking for help. So this, like, this whole process has been really fucked up because everyone is babysitting me, basically, or trying to and, you know, like, so he just reached out and said, you know, if you have to leave or if, you know, it's too much, don't even worry about it. You know, there -- everyone's being great because, you know...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Right. They want to give you like space to do what you need to do. But it can also be a little alienating, I imagine.

MATT:  Right. Well, that's the problem, isn't it? Like, you know, it's -- he is thinking about me but at the same time it's also his happiest day on Earth.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah.

MATT:  So like, I do all the scene-making myself when I'm alone, so don't worry about it.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah, was was kind of gonna ask if -- if there was like a kind of like, thing you were leaning on more since, or music or whatever.

MATT:  You know, I'm not, I'm not -- I've been you know, reading a lot. My friends got me -- they paid like, some dude on Amazon like $300 over asking price for a Nintendo Switch. So I was playing Zelda for like 100 hours and that's been helpful. Been trying to write stuff down I remember about her and thank God for technology. As horrible as it's made us, that I can just take out my phone and you know, write something down. Like...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  What -- If you imagine where like someone is going to be listening to this -- you don't need to share anything, you don't want to share --

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  That's right. And you don't gotta tell the whole story to the extent you don't want to.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  But is there any part of -- what would you sort of say about -- if someone said, What is this guy dealing with? What's happened? Like, is there a version of this that you would want to sort of lead off with?

MATT:  You know, I guess... 

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  You know, easy question.

MATT:  You know, I mean, it's -- wow that's -- I mean, it's pretty loaded question.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  About as hard a thing as you could ask.

MATT:  I guess -- no, yeah, no, it's hard to like, you know, condense it. I found the love of my life. Everything I talked about this sounds cliche, but....

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  No...

MATT:  You know, she was -- you know, I'd never seen her happier in my life. And, you know, we want -- just wanted to grow old and be boring together. I mean, we just bought our first house in November on her birthday. And, you know, I mean, she had a disease. And yet, when we brought Erica up to Boston, they -- she had her last seizure of her life, until this last one, of course. But uh, we had an appointment at MGH, Mass General Hospital, and they figured it out immediately. And they -- well, they thought they did, of course. But there were no warning signs whatsoever. And then, you know, she never had another seizure, or tremor or anything like that.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  For three years?

MATT:  For three years to the day, March 26.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  It's incredible.

MATT:  She had her bridal shower. And I was at a friend's bachelor party and her -- all her family and friends were there. And, you know, she was -- and then she died that day. But the, the thing I want people to remember too, like, because she was shy and everything, she opened up into this completely confident person that I don't even recognize when I first met her. And I think you'd feel the same, Adam.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah, you may are so happy. And she made you so happy that who you guys were after you got engaged and as you're planning this wedding, you were like these shining, fully embodied versions of these ghosts that I'd met years earlier. You know what I mean?

MATT:  Right. Oh, yeah. No, I mean, I wasn't a fucking ray of sunshine either. So, I mean, it's just, it's so cliche, but like, we kind of did just need each other at all times. And maybe that's selfish, but it's kind of selfless too. I'm like, I'm a real sap. So like, you know, when I asked her to marry me, I'd planned it for months and had, like, 50 people come to surprise us and her mom came up and -- and you saw at the funeral, too, how many people came and how just dedicated everyone was and...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  It was stunning. Death had struck and it made the funeral so profoundly painful in this way that no other funeral I'd ever been to.

MATT:  Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  It -- there was no looking back. It was like looking forward at this thing that didn't get to happen or something. It was…

MATT:  Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Everyone was filled with anguish.

MATT:  Yeah, no, I mean, that's -- that's what I'm most angered by, like, people keep telling me to, you know, you know, take care of yourself. She'd want you to be happy. And, you know, maybe someday I'll get there. But right now, I'm just so angry that everything I get to experience, every laugh I get to see, like, every new episode of VIP that comes out, she doesn't get to see it, you know what I mean? 

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah.

MATT:  It's just like, it's one of those things, that it's just so unfair. And even that may not be the right term. But uh, you know, anyone dealing with death, it's so weird. It's like, it's sort of like radiation, it's just, it kind of just lingers. Like, you know, people will just keep sending me letters that I haven't talked to forever and care packages. And you even said, Your mom was worried about it. It's just like, you know, it's just...

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  It's just -- I'm wondering what effect all those people reaching out to you has?

MATT:  Yeah.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Like, does any of it change the shape of what you're feeling in any way?

MATT:  It's extremely touching. And, you know, some people do say the wrong things, but they come from a good place. And I keep trying to remind myself of that. But no, I mean, it -- the outpouring has been so crazy, because it's just so fucked. The, you know -- I have a pile of letters on my countertop that are from her bridal shower, just wanting us to grow old together, wishing us well and stuff.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Ugh.

MATT:  And then there's the next file from the same people, you know...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Right.

MATT:  Saying, I'm so sorry. So it's, it's extremely surreal. It feels like I'm in a dream or something. And, I mean, next weekend, our wedding, and I've just, I'm beyond, beyond crying now. I mean, it happens.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah.

MATT:  It's just something will happen and you'll just hear something or see something. And you know, I don't know, I live near like a baseball field and these kids come over to play every day with their families and shit. It's just so weird to just know that that's never -- you know, now we can't do that and stuff. It's just, you know, I'm still living in the house and I have to sell it next week. And you know, it just seeing her stuff with -- I mean, sometimes I just run outside. And sometimes I just fall on my friends or something. You know, it's just-- it's very strange not being controlling yourself when that happens.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Something you said just really struck me as true. Like it -- this is the mystery and the pain at the center of human life -- death and loss.

MATT:  Yeah.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  And no one really knows how to, like approach that abyss.

MATT:  Right. Yeah.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  And you it sounds like Matt, from what you're saying, it sounds like occasionally you feel like a guilt for bringing people out to that abyss.

MATT:  Oh sure.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Right?

MATT:  Oh, for sure. I mean, I grew up with Catholicism. So that's going to be with me forever.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Like, I always want to just sort of like charge into the mess. And I know that that isn't the right move with everybody. But I -- like the first thing I wanted to do is like, be like, like -- I mean, it's insane. I gave you that book by Joan Didion where she'd lost her husband.

MATT:  Yeah, yeah...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  It's the most intense book about, like, grieving there ever was. And I was like, here's whiskey. And it's completely inappropriate. Like when I was grabbing that shit...

MATT:  No.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  It was like...

MATT:  It's helped me a lot because she made me not feel crazy. She actually -- I couldn't bring myself to do this -- But she went through all these studies of grief and what it does to the actual body and stuff. And it's like the exact thing I'm feeling. I thought I was going insane. You -- I mean, you know, I hope it's not too personal, but I mean, you told me talked to your fucking dad for the first time in...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah.

MATT:  A long time.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Mm-hmm.

MATT:  And so, you know, asked Emily to marry you and stuff. And it's just like, it's one of those things. It's like, it sounds so fucking cheesy when it doesn't happen to you. But like, we don't know what will happen tomorrow.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  I mean, it's a major point, right is when this kind of shit happens. We can either fall back on certain kinds of formulas, you know, where you either certain jobs you say like, "Oh, one day at a time, and here's a casserole." Or you can, I think, you can let it scare you. I do think that that experience of talking about what happened to Erica, going to that funeral put me in this place of like, "Oh, yeah, I'm gonna reach out. I'm gonna like -- I'm gonna evolve a little bit."

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  I think one of the coolest things about you, Matt, and you should appreciate this -- this is distinctive about you, I think -- is that you are not backing down, I feel like it's worth pointing out, man.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  No, it's really...

MATT:  Thank you.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Even that day, even that day at that funeral. I felt like you, you are confronting it a`nd making sure shit got said and sort of guiding the day. And that it -- that is above and  --that's above and beyond.

MATT:  Yeah, well. Again, I know it sounds cheesy, but she was my entire life. And it's very empty without her. There's so many beautiful people who are helping me. But it's still just, you know, when they're not there the house is just so quiet. And just, you know, she's -- I don't really -- I don't make her dinner anymore. You know, it's just those things.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  None of that sounds cheesy Matt.

MATT:  I just don't want people to think that, like -- I have this horrible fear in like a year, if I'm still feeling like shit, like, it's not my fault. Like, I'm not trying to obsess over it. You know what I mean? It's just like, you know, they don't say it explicitly, but it's implied. You need to start moving on. It's like, fuck you. Just like, I would -- I'd love to. But you know.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Right.

LULU:  Coming up, more of Matt's conversation with Adam and Erikk. And one more surprise person joins in.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  What has helped you that anybody has said? What -- is there anything? Is there -- yeah.

MATT:  It's mostly just actions. It's like, you know, even my friends just being there, I guess. And that's helped a lot. And you know, and the thing that Saunders wrote me was really wonderful. That made me not feel insane as a -- you know.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah. Well, why didn't it make you -- like what was different about it? Like, you -- it wasn't a cliched like, I don't know...

MATT:  Because he didn't say it was gonna get better. And he didn't, he didn't expect me to think that it was going to get better. All it was was just making me feel the way I'm feeling is okay.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  I would love for you to read it.

MATT:  Yeah. No, I'd love to. So yeah, Adam, you posted something on Instagram, an excerpt from one of the last pages of the Lincoln in the Bardo. And it just, you know, I couldn't stop rereading it, you know, it's just so beautiful and fucked up and it kind of got lost more than like a stupid romantic film would do, you know what I mean?

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  It was the book I was, I was reading that day.

MATT:  That day. Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah. And so yeah, I immediately connected it in my head...

MATT:  Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  To what happened. But I didn't ever think...

MATT:  Yeah, so -- yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  That you would reach out to George Saunders. [laughter] Did you expect a response? Like in your -- or did you...

MATT:  No.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  No, no...

MATT:  No, at all. I figured, I figured because, you know -- but I also, you know, I mean, you just hoped, I mean.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah.

MATT:  I don't even know if I -- even if I wanted one, but I was just, I just wanted to let him know.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah.

MATT:  Even if it never got to him that he was helping me. And I'll never forget it. So I just, I wrote: "Hello. I just lost my fiancee two weeks ago and she was buried this last Saturday. She was 29. We have just moved into our first house together and we were about to start our life. My friend sent me an excerpt from your new novel and I keep it with me always. I'm reading the novel right now in my backyard actually. I don't even know if anyone will see this but I just wants you to know that you have helped me. I don't even know what to do anymore. So thank you, thank you, thank you. I've never understood loss like this. And the only thing keeping me from taking my life is that I know what it does to others. Be well." And he wrote back: "Dear Matt, Oh, I am so so sorry for your loss. That must be just unspeakably difficult. I'm glad the book is saying something to you. I don't really know what to say, except that someone told me this recently, that grief is a form of praise. You are praising the wonder of the person you lost. The great pain you are feeling means great love. I can't imagine that helps but it is true. It is like cause and effect. You really saw anew and cherished her. That's what your grief is proving. And proving that she was wonderful and that you appreciated that. If you'll allow me for one more thought, I'm 58. It feels like no time at all has passed since I was your age. Soon you will be here. I wonder if it helps to ask yourself, What am I going to do with that very short time I will have before I see my loved one again? The more you do, the more you love, and the more lives you touch, the better. You are here for both of you now. Of course, I don't know you and I hope I haven't offended or over advised. But my heart goes out to you, brother. And my prayers. All the best." So that was the first exchange and I don't know that kind of just floored me.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Oh man. Yeah, let's take a-- I love when he -- I love that he's calls you brother. There's something -- I don't know.

MATT:  I know.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  You see -- I see immediately how like...

MATT: Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH: He doesn't know you Matt, but he's worried about saying the wrong thing. And he's worried about, like, rubbing you the wrong way. Like we're all -- we all have like such care for each other, it reminds me.

MATT:  Right.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Even strangers, you know, that we are trying -- and this is such a fucking mystery -- that he is just trying not to get in your way. He only wants to boost you.

MATT:  Oh yeah, yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Yeah.

MATT:  Trying to make me feel better. And you know, I didn't, I didn't respond to him because I, you know, didn't want to bother him or whatever. And then he kept reaching out to me on Facebook.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Really?

MATT:  Saying, I hope you got my note -- Oh, yeah, I hope you got my notes or whatever. And I hope you're doing okay, and stuff like that. And...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  That's incredible.

MATT:  And so I wrote him back. I don't know why I had this need -- it's sound selfish or something -- but I, I wrote him our engagement story. And I just sent a picture. I don't want us to feel like it's just some weird stranger or something. I know that doesn't make any sense...

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  No, no, to make it realer...

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  It makes sense.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  To like, show the full...

MATT:  Yeah.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  He's involved now.

MATT:  And it's not fair to do to someone -- like he has his own shit to deal with. But I wanted him to just see her and know her and  -- anyway. So because I wrote a long thing about our engagement. And I said, "I promise I'll stop bothering you. I just want to say thank you for your words, they brought me to tears. It means the absolute world. I've already got involved with groups researching epilepsy to help others in her name forever. Or to help with this disease, it will always be. I'd also ask one last thing and we'll be out of your busy life. I'd like you to read about our engagement story to let you know who we were and not just strangers. I hope that you read it. But if not, I understand. I don't even know really why I'm sending it. I just want you to know who we were. I want everyone to know who she was and what she did for me. But again, if not, I completely understand. You have already done so much for me. Thank you, George and I wish you well." And he wrote back: "Matt, this is so beautiful. It seems you have experienced a wonderful love in your life, as did she. She was a very lucky person to have you in her life. She knew love. And that's for sure. A beautiful engagement story. Such a thoughtful and dreamlike way of doing it. I will say this, you have known love and known loss. Your work with epilepsy groups will mean that you are minimizing loss and suffering in the world. You feel to me like the kind of person who is going to take this pain and convert it into goodness. For others, for you, for Erica in her good memory. Please do keep in touch, George.”

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Wow.

MATT:  So yeah, it's, it's really something.

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  Oh. Man.

MATT:  But it just meant a lot. You know, just complete strangers doing this and, and I have to cut this short. I mean, I've been talking forever. But...

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  That's okay, Matt.

MATT:  I guess I'll leave it with this, like, dealing with this is not really talked about. But I don't want people to feel crazy, you know, the way they're feeling and it's okay. And I don't know. That's it. [MUSIC IN]

ADAM JUSKEWITCH:  I fucking love you, man.

ERIKK GEANNIKIS:  We love you, buddy.

MATT:  Love you too. Bye.

LATIF:  Hmm.

LULU:  Yeah, you know, it's like an -- there's nothing you can really say.

LATIF:  Hmm.

LULU:  But watching all these people try? I don't know there was just something like I couldn't...

[MUSIC OUT]

LATIF:  To -- to me, I think the thing that I found beautiful about it was everyone was sort of telling him like, Oh, think back to all your great memories and this stuff. And but he was stuck like looking at the future, like the episodes of V.I.P. that hadn't come out or...

LULU: Yeah.

LATIF:  Like, he was stuck looking at the hole in the future, which is like, like I, I -- it's like, there's no amount of past that can make up for that hole in the future. And then I feel like George Saunders, in that letter, he sort of recast the future. Like, you're living for both of you now.

LULU:  Mm-hmm.

LATIF:  Like, and it's like, here's the -- it's like, here's a way to bear the future.

LULU:  Yeah.

[MUSIC IN]

LATIF:  Well, thank you, Lulu, for playing that for me.

LULU:  You're welcome. Huge thanks to the team at The 11th. Big thanks also to the folks at Relentless Picnic. A little update about Matt. In the almost five years since that conversation took place, he has fallen in love, gotten married, had a baby. And he now works as a volunteer grief counselor to people who've lost someone due to a sudden unexpected death from epilepsy. And finally, a big thanks to Lu Olwkowski. She is the one who said I had to hear that conversation. And actually Lu did one of the most stunning pieces we've ever done at Radiolab. It's called, Grandpa. And it is also about two people looking very closely at death. I highly recommend you check it out.

LATIF:  And if for some reason you don't want to listen to more stories about death. I recommend you listen to a story we did called The Luckiest Lobster, about a woman who rescued a lobster from a grocery store. [laughs]

LULU:  Yes. Or that one! Either way. Thank you for listening. We'll be back next week.[UNIDENTIFIED VOICE: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, 

Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

[DREW: Drew Downey from Daphne, Alabama. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

[JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

[MUSIC OUT]

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