Thinking of You

inconsiderate

Dear Riley,

In a few days you’ll be 17 months old.

In such a short time you have taught everyone in your orbit some very important lessons: the relief found in the bottom of a full bottle, the rejuvenating power of a long nap and the soul-lifting joy of a wet, slobbery raspberry kiss on the belly.

Now it’s time for me as your Papa to share two equally vital truisms:

Lesson #1: I am not a grumpy old man, no matter what your Nana, mother, aunt or anyone else claims. I certainly have my moments of impatience, intolerance and general frustration, however, at heart I truly believe in the inherent goodness of most people.

And Lesson #2: many of the people you will meet in life are inconsiderate and thoughtless about the world around them. This disappoints me terribly and sometimes makes me very grumpy indeed.

Thankfully, you’re too young yet to know about this aggravation, much less deal with it. But, sure as the sun rises you will, at some point run face-first into someone else’s lack of concern for your own well-being.

It will sting. How can it not? After all, you are (and I trust you will continue to be) a kind-hearted soul. Thankfully, you have not yet suffered the irritation of those who flit myopically like so many gnats, around and in and out of your eyes and nose and ears.

With little regard for anything else, they selfishly follow only their own path, fulfilling only their own needs, the impact of their actions on you only a fleeting thought in hindsight if at all.

This sounds so bad, I know. It breaks my heart because it’s so disappointing every time it happens. And it happens a lot.

From something as seemingly innocuous as the person who plays their music at 11:30 at night when people are trying to sleep, to those who litter, dirtying up our common shared spaces, when garbage cans are only a few feet away.

And then there are the more serious infractions: the violations of your trust, loyalty, heart and spirit – but we’ll wait until you’re in your teens to discuss those.

No, Papa is not a grumpy old man. I just want people to be aware of those around them and to understand, respect and appreciate that we all exist together. That we all have value. That all our lives are significant and meaningful.

I make a concerted effort to think about how my actions will affect the people around me. Family, friends, coworkers, even strangers. I remember, and seriously consider that everyone in my life may and can and will be touched somehow by what I think, say and do.

I am not perfect. Not by a long shot. Heck, I couldn’t see perfection from where I stand even with the Hubble telescope.

Still, is it so much to ask people to just be considerate?

Of course, it is impossible to always think about the ripples every little thing you do and say will cause in someone else’s pond.

Sometimes one simply must act in one’s own best interests.

This is especially true for anyone who has been oppressed and repressed in our society which has made (and continues to make) oppression and repression a national sport. That means women, people of color, immigrants, etc.

Everyone deserves the chance for equality, and sometimes equality demands and requires a self-focused (not to mention self-righteous) fight.

Yet even in that regard, fighting for your individual rights can and often does help others slogging through the same mud.

Like so much in life, this can be confusing. We live in a world of grays. Anyone who says everything is either “black or white” just doesn’t want to do the work necessary to consider other perspectives.

Which is really the point.

I wrote another story about the need for “empathy” – the ability to understand other people’s feelings. But before you can understand them you must first acknowledge that they exist and deserve your understanding.

If you do that my sweet girl, if you consider and care about how your life intersects with and impacts others, the world will be a better place for you being in it.

And your Papa will have one less thing to be grumpy about.

 

 

 

 

 

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A House Is Not a Home

house  Well, I guess it’s official. She’s never moving back home now…

That’s a little bit of inside humor between my wife Kellie and me. She used to mock me mercilessly when I whined about our daughters moving out. I always joked that we couldn’t take down their beds because, you know, they might still move back at some point.

(Yet Kellie and I will mark 30 years of marriage in September despite my sense of humor…and people say there’s no such thing as miracles…)

See, our youngest daughter, Olivia moved out two years ago into a tiny apartment with her very significant other, Tyler and their puppy Joker, a goofy, exuberant, affectionate pittie mix.

Then, they bought their first house together a couple months ago.

The first move was very hard on my psyche. However, the second move was much easier.

As I’ve written before, I had a bumpy “Dad Transition” as both of our daughters turned the corner toward Young Adulthood.

Strangely, I wasn’t as affected when Emma moved in with Jake, her husband-to-be, — maybe because Olivia still lived at home.

But when they were both gone? That was like a ball-peen hammer to the back of the head.

Now though, not so much, thanks to the comforting balm of Time.

Sure, I still get a bit misty-eyed thinking of our daughters as babies, toddlers, adolescents and (believe it or not) even teens. I truly loved watching them grow and helping to shape their lives in whatever little ways I could.

However, now I see different things through my misty eyes:

  • A still-small house that suddenly has enough room again for Kellie, our two small dogs and me;
  • The office I secretly coveted for 20 years, carved from Olivia’s old bedroom, filled with my collection of hundreds of books;
  • Emma’s old room transformed into the crafting nook Kellie likewise dreamed of, overflowing with examples of her talent and creativity;
  • The freedom (and slightly improved finances) to enjoy dinner out more often, accept more invitations for long weekends away with friends and even take impromptu vacations.

Those things are all good. Yet, they pale – I mean, absolutely disappear into the wispy vapor of nothingness – compared to the things that are truly important:

  • A wonderful husband for Emma (and son-in-law for us), now three years into a strong marriage;
  • A charming, talented life-partner for Olivia (and, we think, a future son-in-law for us);
  • And the most beautiful and very-nearly-perfect granddaughter ever, in Riley Jean.

Sure, I miss my girls. But joyous pride more than compensates for melancholy memories.

That’s where Olivia’s and Tyler’s new house comes in.

Home ownership means many things, not least of which is the financial, legal and contractual responsibility that comes with property ownership. The work (and the money) to buy; the work (and the money) to maintain; the work (and the money) to improve. The work. And the money.

Olivia’s and Tyler’s new digs are quaint and cozy – code for “on the small side.” Trust me, Kellie and I have lived “on the small side” for 23 years, so I know of whence I speak.

It’s about 40 feet from the Fox River in Montgomery. A beautiful park and walking path beckon from across the river. Both are wonderful amenities to current owners and enticing selling points to future buyers.

(They’re also the cause for significant Dad anxiety every time it rains and the river rises, but hey, that’s why God – or Satan — invented insurance…)

It’s a bit of a fixer upper. More so, I think than they realized, but that’s what family and friends are for. (Tyler’s parents, and Kellie and I donated some “Parent Equity,” helping them move, paint, fix some things, etc. )

Yet, they couldn’t be happier, and for good reason.

Buying a house together means so much more than just co-signing a mortgage.

It’s a solid symbol of something as ethereal as “Love.”

What better picture of a hopeful future, what more positive affirmation of long-term commitment is there for a young couple than investing in their first house?

Likewise, it is a small but meaningful proof of our own achievement as parents.

Their house says that we, Olivia’s and Tyler’s parents (and Emma’s and Jake’s, too) raised kids with good heads on their shoulders and big hearts in their chests. Young people willing to work today, and dream of a tomorrow, together.

Yet, simply buying a house is not the end-all, be-all.

As a young newspaper reporter, I learned that words that seem synonymous often aren’t.

For example, a “house” is not a “home.”

A “house” is a collection of building materials assembled to create a shelter.

A “home” is what one makes of a house.

Turning a house into a home is a lifetime project.

Kellie and I bought a tiny house after seven years in apartments, a young couple with a toddler, an infant and a small dog.

We scraped and scrapped. Borrowed and begged. Worked even harder when needed and reluctantly accepted help when our bills outpaced our pride.

In the process we made it a home.

We filled it with love and laughter. Made it a place of comfort and security. Created a sanctuary for their injured/confused/angry spirits.

None of it was easy. All of it was worth the struggle.

We created a place defined not so much by four walls as by two hearts.

A place where our children now feel welcome to return as adults and know that they will be supported and cherished when they do.

Now our nest is completely empty save the two dogs. We look forward to new adventures with our family in our home.

And we hope and pray that our daughters and their families find the same joy in theirs.

 

 

Close Enough

49758-Jesus-crucifixion-1200x627-thinkstock.1200w.tnSo, what’s so “good” about Good Friday?

It’s one of the most common, confusing, frustrating and foundational questions in Christianity.

After all, this is the day when the man called Jesus died as an enemy of the Roman state. A common criminal. A political agitator and potential adversary. 

Though not unexpected — Jesus himself predicted his coming death — his crucifixion was nonetheless terrifying and heartbreaking to his followers.

More than that, it was embarrassing.

After all, some of them had invested years of their lives in this man. They knew him as a powerful leader. A brilliant, if somewhat radical teacher. Possibly, a king and savior, even. They’d seen him leading a world-changing political, religious and social movement (perhaps with one or two of them maybe sitting at his side and wielding some of his authority.)

Yet, now, they could only see his brutalized body hanging from a bloody cross. 

What had happened? What had gone wrong?

History tells one story.

Faith tells another. 

Faith shows us that the movement did indeed happen. And the world did change.

For out of Jesus’ horrible death came eternal life.

A mere moment in time redefined Time itself.

And the angry screams of hatred became the soothing whispers of love.

We just have to be brave enough to listen, closely, with both ears and hearts. 

And hear.

Happy Easter.

CLOSE ENOUGH

Yes, Lord, I hear you

calling me to the foot of your cross

I love you, I want to carry your burden

but I see your pain–

The salty tears in your eyes

The rancid smell of your dying

The sticky blood knotting thorns and hair

The slivers buried deep in your palms

The shame of your broken nakedness

–And I am a sparrow in a storm

Yes, my child, I know your fear

It bows my back and stills my spirit

Yet, where else but at the foot of my cross

Can you be close enough–

To feel the soulless metal that stole my life

To see the gnarled wood through my wounds

 to kneel in the dirt,

moist with my sweat and tears and blood

–To know, truly, finally what I did for you?

Where else, but here, at the heel of my suffering

Are you close enough for me to touch and hold you,

And whisper, so softly that only your heart will hear,

“I love you.”

The Gift of Social Justice

social justice

Dearest Riley,

Hello My Sweet Girl. I hope you’re having a good day.  I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that you are. Based on your constant smiles and giggles, you’re one of the happiest babies ever. Which is only fair, because you’ve brought so much joy to everyone around you in your 11 months.

Truly, you have been a gift to all of us, maybe especially to me.

Speaking of gifts, I believe whenever you get a gift, you should give one back. As I said in my first letter to you, my words are my gift.  So, here are two words:

Social Justice.

A very dear friend of mine says that most of my writing centers on “social justice”. She’s right I suppose, inasmuch as I write a lot about caring about, and for, people who look and talk and act and think and believe differently than me. Who have lived (or are living) a life not my own. Who have not enjoyed the same blessings and benefits.

Clearly these are very big ideas for an 11-month-old to chew on (although you’re chewing on everything these days, so maybe not…)

Yet that’s exactly my point.

Broadly defined, “social justice” addresses fair relations between individuals and society through the lenses of wealth, educational opportunity and social privilege.

Heard that way, it’s easy to understand why so many people hear and see and think about Social Justice — capital “S”, capital “J” – as something too big for them to do anything about.

Yet, as is always the case, the solution to a “big” problem is to chop it down to size. We can – we must – cut all mountains down to manageable molehills.

The challenge of social justice, like nearly every other human-created challenge, is best addressed human to human.

One of these days, you will hear about a man named Jesus.  Your parents will decide what you learn about him. As your Papa, I will only say this much:

For two millennia humanity has dissected and debated every microscopic aspect of what Jesus said, what his words meant, and what they could still mean.  This immensely complex question has fueled more war, bloodshed and heartache than every other conflict in human history.

Which is ironic and frustrating, because, for me, Jesus’ message boiled down to one amazingly, bluntly, almost ridiculously simple point:

Love God and love one another.

How (or even whether) you define “God” isn’t nearly as important as that you understand that there’s a bit of something special in all of us.

Every human being living every kind of life is a person and has earned your respect (at very least), kindness, sympathy and empathy by the simple fact of their existence.

Every human being experiences the same longing for comfort, craves the same need for love, searches for the same validation by association.

We all share the same spark of life. Call it God, call it whatever. The point is, we are all the same, same, same. Regardless of skin color or language or wealth or birthplace. God, in His/Her/Its perfection does not create walls. Only jealous, greedy, arrogant Man does that.

In that light, social justice is easy.

Yes! Help fight to ensure Guatemalan coffee farmers fairly profit from their work.

But also support your local employee association because (surprise, surprise) the billions in profits being made by many American companies never seem to “trickle down” to the little guys doing the work.

Yes! Donate whatever you can to feed those starving in foreign countries.

But also give a few boxes of food to your local food pantry to help your neighbors who just lost their jobs or, more likely, are working three jobs to get by.

Yes! Protest for First Amendment protections for everyone.

But also subscribe to your local newspaper to make sure even the smallest voices always have a platform.

Yes! Visit prisons and read to inmates.

But also support your local library so that maybe, just maybe there might be a few less prisoners needing you to read to them.

Yes! Fight for free health insurance for all.

But also donate a few toys to the children’s ward at your local hospital or volunteer a couple of hours and give the overworked nurses a much-needed break.

Yes! Help build schools for girls in Third World countries.

But also buy every candy bar or bag of popcorn or tub of cookie dough or magazine subscription you can to support the overworked, underpaid and unappreciated teachers helping our own children to learn and grow.

Yes! Donate to international charities helping the poor, emotionally sad and mentally ill.

But also give to the local homeless shelter, where all three sleep every night, if there are enough beds.

Yes! Pray for God to protect and drape His/Her/Its goodness over everyone around the world.

But also love and help those who need your kind heart here and now. Always remember that we improve Tomorrow by making today’s big problems a little smaller.

My dear Riley, social justice is not a burden too big. It is not an option. It is an obligation and opportunity to show and create grace for a world desperately needing it.

That’s our gift to give. Yours, mine, everyone’s. One helping hand, one open heart, one loving smile at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ties That Bind

ties

Sartorially speaking, I am not a flashy guy.

In my work life, I tend toward basic base colors, with a bit of colorful flair thrown in – usually in the form of a jazzy tie, or sometimes a pastel shirt just for flavor.

Sweaters are a special favorite, especially Mr. Rogers-like cardigans. I like classic suits. Nothing too form fitting (even though my recently-slimmer frame could probably carry those tighter suits well these days).

On cooler spring and fall days, I prefer jeans and sweatshirts that let me take long walks in comfort.

In the summer heat you’ll find me sporting dirt-stained, sweat-dripping shorts and t-shirts – filthy and stinky sure, but proud badges of a day spent digging in the garden and beautifying our little corner of the world. I feel no compunction to impress the worms, birds and bunnies much less the neighbors.

And I’ve been wearing ties since 8th grade. Even on “casual” dress days. Not because I had to, but rather because I decided long ago that they told people (most especially the adults in my life) who I was and intended to be.

So, when my dad passed away 22 years ago next month, I asked my mom for three things of his:

  1. the new snowblower he’d just bought a month before passing (I was the only one of his three sons who had his own house at the time and need for a snowblower);
  2. one of his watches; and
  3. his collection of Christmas ties, which I have proudly modeled every day of the last two weeks before Christmas since 1998.

A veteran “old school” police officer, my dad could terrify the most hardened criminal – not to mention his three sons – into sincere confessions for crimes they didn’t even commit just by cocking his right eyebrow.

But that was just Will County Deputy (and later, Detective and Sergeant, and finally U.S. Marshall) Hernandez. When he wasn’t dealing with criminals or his kids, relatives, and the occasional neighborhood ruffian, my dad was just Tony. Or, to his family, Paulie.

He was a natural-born entertainer — clever, quick-witted, hysterically funny, a practical joke master and clown. He loved making people smile and laugh.

Hence, me claiming his Christmas ties.

Perhaps it’s silly. It’s certainly sentimental — something I keep saying that I am not, but apparently must be. Yet they continue to remind me of him in unique ways.

Some are fairly-staid – basic red and green and blue, maybe a few silver snowflakes.  Others are more adventurous, rocking candy canes, snowmen, etc. Some (still, after all these years!) chirp tinny Christmas songs. One has the entire twelve days of Christmas displayed top to bottom.

However, my favorite — the one I always save until the last day of work before winter break – is actually cut into the shape of a Christmas tree. Talk about a conversation starter! People love that tie.treetie

Which is part of the reason I continue to hold on to them more than 20 years after his death.

Those ties literally, spiritually and symbolically bind me to my dad. What’s more, they give me a convenient (if slightly sneaky) excuse to talk about him. Every time someone comments on one of them, I tell their story and by extension, our story — his and mine.

Through the magic trick of using words to illustrate what’s in my head and on my heart, he lives again, for as long as the tale and ensuing laughter lasts.

This cloth connection is important because I really have nothing else that would identify me as the son of the man who raised me.

He adopted me and my middle brother when he married my newly-divorced mom when I was about two years old.

I don’t share his blood.  I don’t bear a resemblance (except for the occasional deep summer tan that mimics his brown complexion.)

I don’t speak Spanish to the confusion of many who see my last name and just assume.

Politically, he was as conservative as I am liberal. I know — because I saw it and he bragged unashamedly about doing it — that he violated many a suspect’s civil rights in his work to protect the community. In that day, that’s just how police work was done.

And he despised, loathed and detested the media 35 years before the current Oval Office occupant started screaming “fake news” every time the media do not crown him king.

Of course, because God has a wicked sense of humor, I have made my living as a communications professional – first a newspaper reporter, then a columnist, now in school public relations. So, you know, there was the occasional friction…

Despite all this, I miss my dad. I think of him every day. I wonder sometimes how things might have been different in our lives had he lived past his 51st birthday.

I chuckle a tad ruefully, knowing how much he adored the four grandchildren he had when he passed, and would have loved the 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren he’d have now.

Sometimes I am tempted to be regretful, forlorn, even angry about his dying so young. Thinking about what he missed in the last 21 years. And more importantly (and, I admit, selfishly), what we have missed not having him here.

I am tempted, truly and sorely.

Then I remind myself that while my grief is real, it will not put him back at our Christmas dinner table.

This may seem like a small thing (and, I admit, easier said than done).

However, as I inch closer to being measured for a pine box I realize more and more that the “small things” really are the “big things.”

My dad was a flawed human being, but ultimately proved to be a good and decent person. So, instead of grieving his loss, I choose to remember the countless good things about my father.

His love for family.  His integrity. His commitment to what he believed to be right (even when it wasn’t.) His gift for finding – or making — humor in just about everything.

I do my best to model myself after the father (and now grandfather) he was, and the man I think he intended to be.

I keep him alive through stories to my own daughters who were still babies when he passed, and now my own granddaughter, who will only know him through us and our extended Hernandez family.

And then, right around the middle of December each year, I put on one of his Christmas ties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Feel You

empathy

You know that meme that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar?”

I’m that guy.

I’m not just talking about spelling or punctuation or usage. (Although I grit my teeth whenever I see someone misuse “Too, To and Two.” How in God’s green earth can someone not know the difference between those words and still be allowed to operate a motor vehicle?)

Rather, I am talking about choosing the right words and, most of all, accepting responsibility for what is said.

The power and weight and consequence of words is immense, especially in today’s world of social media when so many say so much that, ultimately means so little.

Words seem to have lost their inherent value, spewed aimlessly, reduced to so much acidic vomit, their truth twisted cynically into sour, burned pretzels of misinformation and deception.

These thoughts came to mind at a conference I recently attended about understanding poverty.

In that context I realized that we often confuse and therefore misuse “Sympathy” and “Empathy.”

First, to be clear, though their meanings overlap, they are not directly synonymous.

Empathy means acknowledging the validity of another’s experience. Without judgement. Without criticism.

Sympathy, on the other hand is the act of feeling badly for someone because of some unfortunate life circumstance. It sometimes smacks of (or at least can open the door to) judgement, criticism and pity.

For example, I feel badly that one of my brothers is suffering the residual effects of a vicious divorce. My heart hurts for him (though I have to say there’s a lot of karma behind what he’s going through.)

That may seem a subtle line in the linguistic sand. It’s not – neither in theory nor application.

It is literally the difference between saying “I feel for you,” and “I feel you.”

Sadly, like so many other aspects of our capitalistic, “I-Me-Mine” American society in which we think first (and sometimes only) of how something will impact us personally, we tend to favor sympathy over empathy.

Sympathy (without empathy) requires less of us — physically, emotionally or even financially.

Sympathy (without empathy) lets us stand off to the side and do nothing more than cluck our tongues, pitying someone for their hard knocks.

It allows us to feel superior.

However, Empathy demands more emotional maturity, philosophical flexibility and intellectual impartiality.

It is harder, and perhaps more dangerous to say, “I may not agree with your lifestyle/position/choice/perspective. I cannot understand it because it’s not my reality. But it is authentic for you. So, I respect it.”

Empathy forces us to recognize, acknowledge and understand that my life is not everyone’s life. And that others – just like me – didn’t and don’t always get to choose the circumstances of their life.

Most especially, empathy insists that we say (and this is the hardest part): “I want to help however I can, human being to human being.”  No judgement, no criticism.

So, for example, I am not poor (or African American, or female, or homosexual, or grieving the loss of a family member, etc.) Therefore, I cannot possibly understand what it means, or has meant, or will mean to be any of those things.

But I am willing and able – indeed, I am charged as a fellow life traveler – to trust that someone else’s experience, circumstances, challenges and obstacles are very much real.

They define us.

They define how the world sees and interacts with us – and potentially how we see and interact with the world around us in response.

I may not get “It” – whatever “It” is for someone else. But I don’t have to, in order to do the right thing.

A very good friend of mine notes that I write a lot about social justice issues.

She’s right.

Yet this isn’t about social justice per se. In a perverse way, making this concern that “big” makes it too big. Doing that somehow elevates empathy to a gilded place, making it harder to get at and therefore easier to ignore.

Rather, this is about something much simpler: basic human decency (speaking of important and misunderstood words…)

When it comes to understanding others different than us – no matter the difference — basic human decency dictates we should step down from our pedestal and help someone else step up.

Try to simply understand.

Open our minds and hearts.

Stretch out a helping hand as far as possible.

And remember that how we are different isn’t nearly as important as how we are the same.

 

The First Two Million Kisses

Riley thanksgiving 2018

Our oldest daughter Emma, all 4 feet, 9 inches of her is a New Mom.

She gives my wife and me detailed directions like the sun rising, every time we watch our eight-month-old granddaughter Riley:

Feed her at this time, bathe her at that time, play with those toys, use this to wipe her, sing to her to get her to eat, mix this food with that one, mush the bananas clockwise but not after 3 p.m., etc.

She always ends with, “Send me pictures and give her lots of kisses.”

Mostly, we accept and play along with this routine because we remember what it was like being new parents some 25 years ago. Worried about every little thing. Afraid that your brand-new baby is going to shatter into a gatrillion pieces in the evil grips of the first strong breeze. Terrified that every tiny birthmark is a harbinger of some awful childhood malady.

Which is exactly the point. We’ve been there, done that. As I have told Emma several times, tongue only partly in cheek, “Please note that you and your sister are still here and you’re both doing relatively OK.”

Still, whenever Emma issues her Maternal Mandate, I often respond with a favorite joke:

“I normally charge for that,” I say, “but since I like you so much, I’ll give you the Family Discount.”

Our kids, familiar with the gag, now just roll their eyes and ask how much discount they get. Ten percent? Twenty?

Truth be told, it is amusing to us as new grandparents because we (like all new parents) were the same way.

Now though, we have the unique pleasure of knowing full well what’s coming.

The bumps and bruises. The tears. The laughter. The exhilaration of that first flight on the playground swing. The thrill of learning to read. Showing off the new song she learned to play on the piano. “Teaching” Nana and Papa how to do her homework the “right way.” Sharing a newly-learned bit of knowledge.

And later, (no matter what my son-in-law says about her joining a convent) the excitement of her first kiss. The starry-eyed end of her first date. And maybe if we’re all very lucky, her first dance with her soulmate at her wedding.

It’s also heartening to know that our daughter and son-in-law are such caring parents that they wrap their child in blankets of protective love – even with two of the people who love her most in all the world.

Frankly, this grand-parenting this is just about the most awesome job we’ve ever had. My wife recently said, completely sincere, “I don’t know what I did before this.”

I reminded her about the 33 years of our life together, Pre-Grandchild.

She stared at me like I’d spoken ancient Aramaic.

In any case, we have fallen deeply in love with an eight-month-old girl baby for whom all of life is an adventure still unfolding, so full that we can’t even begin to imagine what tomorrow might bring.

So, we don’t even try.

We just thank God for this Now. For every smile that makes the room sparkle. Every joy-filled laugh. Every heart-breaking tear. Every endearing touch from her chubby little hands.

This newfound love, this extension and affirmation of our own parenting is so fulfilling that its value exceeds any “fee” I could charge.

Well, not the kisses. No discounts for those for anyone.

However, for Riley, the first two million are free.