The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

September 5, 2016

Seeing with “Vampire Eyes” in New Orleans at Five A.M.

For her extraordinarily popular book Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice imagines a man in colonial Louisiana just outside New Orleans converting from human being into an elegant vampire.  His converter warns him to go outside as he changes but not to “fall so madly with the night that you lose your ways.”

Of course, the new vampire in the book does lose his way to the beauty of the night.  He says, “When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there….Standing among the cottonwood and oaks, I heard the night as if it were a chorus of whispering women, all beckoning me to their breasts.”

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“When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there.” — Anne Rice

I am gradually learning that nothing in New Orleans is entirely what it seems, and yet nothing at all is purely fictional.  Writers here, Anne Rice and others like me, don’t need to make anything up, really, so much as press record like the interviewer in Interview with a Vampire. New Orleans provides enough vivacity to transform us all, not necessarily into vampires but certainly into raconteurs. Our old limitations die in the elevated graveyards, but our new eyes as writers in this nearly mythic town — a place of real magical realism — fall so in love with the night that we indeed risk losing our ways.

So it is with me at five a.m. when I walk my dogs around the block.  I choose this time because I leave for work quite early, and my dogs have fewer people to bark at or to try to sniff. That said, I was astonished when first I walked them around the block about a half hour before sunrise.  It wasn’t Lestat who had given me new eyes.  It was New Orleans.

At that hour, even at that hour, it has been well above eighty degrees outside most mornings, and the town glows despite the lights being off.  Even when I walked around the block during a power outage, the town still glowed.  How? The moon hangs low in the sky, a glass of milk seen from above, and the sky is not so black as it is royal blue with a widow’s veil hanging over it.

The cars are distant as my dogs and I circle the block, but the end of night is noisy.  Before the birds are up, a timpany chorus of insects click and chatter in what perhaps Anne Rice meant when she said her newly minted vampire heard a “metallic laughter” in the air.  It is a cocktail party of bugs held before the curtain of a big show, the chatter of socialites in a treble staccato — and it is intoxicating to hear! Occasionally, we hear the lone voice of an insomniac bird, too early even to catch the worm, but more often than not we hear only the arias of the insects in the trees.

We encounter a few mammals other than ourselves, and they, too, take on mythical qualities. Once, I crossed paths with a woman in yoga pants with a blue tooth in her ear, negotiating an international deal with the Pacific Rim in Vietnamese, but I have not seen her since.  I saw an illicit lover dart out of a door once and hide when he realized the dogs and I saw him. Usually, though, the only mammal we encounter is a single neighborhood cat, gray in the way that the French mean when they say, “La nuit, tous les chat sont gris,” and long-haired.  That long hair stands on end as the creature arches as tall as he can as my bigger dog spots him — I am having trouble convincing that dog that we are not on a hunt and that the neighbor’s cat is not our quarry. Most mornings, though, it is just us, no other creature with hair on its head or body. We are not hunting for prey, neither like a dog nor like a vampire.  We are just walking, losing our ways in the lovely late night.

We walk along the still-unrepaired undulations of the sidewalk caused by Katrina.  After a rainy night, we have to avoid deep puddles still caused by the aftermath of that now-old storm that rippled the roads around here as if they were tresses that might frizz in Category-5 humidity.  Our feet get muddy in certain ruts. The dogs sniff the ground and read the route’s olfactory braille with their wet noses. What they read there, I cannot say, but the ineffable language of the smells of this route excites them, sometimes appearing to cause debate between them. It is a lively hunt for the maker of smells, the walk, the quarrry not so much being the steak as much as the sizzle-sound of the bugs and the smoke of the frying meat they find the trace of in our tracks. We are not vampires on the prowl, but some of us smell blood.

When we return home, the night’s magic dissipates.  We enter the house as a few neighbors begin to stir, switch on lights. When I unhook the leashes of my companions, we are all covered in sweat. The night’s passions are sultry.  We catch our breath in the air conditioning. We have had a close encounter — with what? Not Anne Rice’s vampires, perhaps, but with her vampires’ New Orleans nights, heady and astonishingly beautiful.  Over and over again Anne Rice’s interviewed vampire expresses frustration at his inability to explain an experience to the interviewer.  He laments, “How pathetic it is to describe these things that can’t truly be described.” He is right, Rice is right — a night in New Orleans contains a kind of mystery that only beckons one toward meaning, a seduction not quite achieved, a new vision through a glass darkly, and the aporia is a dark river, perhaps the Mississippi at night, perhaps the Styx, that beckons us deeper but offers us no promise we can ever again pop our heads up into a rational sunlight. We are not vampires, but in this, the night of New Orleans is vampiric.

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

May 14, 2016

Rebuilding the American Imagination in New Orleans

It’s the end of the school term at the University of Mississippi, and on his way out of town, I ran into one of my former students, a young man determined to become a movie star one day.  I asked him now that he had graduated whether he intended to take off for New York or Los Angeles to kick-start his career.

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It’s not just a shotgun house on the East Bank that’s getting restored here; it’s the life of the mind.

“No,” He told me, “New York and LA are not where it’s all happening in film. If you want to break into movies, the place to do it right now is New Orleans.”

He expects to run into me at spoken word readings, maybe in the Treme, maybe at independent bookstores on the East Bank, maybe on Magazine Street while he’s filming something for HBO or a small-company film headed for Sundance.

New Orleans has always been a town of piratical thinkers, of renegades, moral reprobates, and drama queens. Writers like Truman Capote and Anne Rice have parked themselves in town to invent themselves and expand the American imagination in words.  In music, the greatest genius of the art form for at least a hundred years, Louis Armstrong, might not have single-handedly invented jazz out of whole cloth, but he took the antecedent rhythms out of Congo Square that came to this continent in shackles but rattled chains into a liberatory syncopation and paired them with European instruments and am American sense of whimsy and delight to make arguably the best thing America has ever invented.  Yes, the light bulb was an astonishment.  True, the Gattling gun presaged our imperialism, yes, I am very, very fond of the iPad and the moon landing, but I can’t dance to either of them without somebody cranking up the volume and giving me a beat and a yowling horn to curl my spine.  That came out of New Orleans, that and some awfully good food that mixes African and French sensibilities, a kind of architecture, with a vernacular as unashamed as a Bourbon Street sex worker leaning over a wrought-iron balcony in something lacy, a cultural patois of sin and penitence gumbo-mixed together into a bitter and intoxicating stew.  All that predates the current surge in American culture.

After Katrina cleared away the poorest people of the town, already decaying under the weight of perpetual corruption prior to global warming events, many questioned if the City of New Orleans would become a sort of a tourist park version of its former self, as New York’s bohemian and dangerous identity got gentrified into the Atlantic Ocean and washed up the Hudson, a trend that predated Hurricane Sandy but certainly culminated in that storm’s washing away of much of Coney Island and the Lower East Side.  Some even wondered, as the first episode of the cable drama Treme does, whether New Orleans, poised as it is on land below sea level, was worth saving at all. John Goodman’s character in Treme declared that New Orleans was a city that had captured the world’s imagination and threw the fictitious British journalist and his camera into the Mississippi River like so much British tea in Boston on the eve of another American revolution of ideas.

Instead of becoming a place that operates like a Disney version of its former self, a beacon to apple-cheeked, conservative Midwesterners who want the same kind of fun they get in Branson, Missouri, only maybe a little bit more Tabasco-flavored, New Orleans retained its personality.  As it turns out, creative thinkers of all the art forms recently gentrified out of neighborhoods in California and New York began to seek welcoming ports, and no town could offer so many rent-to-own residences than a town half washed-away by a category-five deluge.

Indeed, there is something about wreckage and urban decay that permits the expansion of avant-garde thought. After the wall was built, West Berlin became a place for David Bowie to reinvent his next musical self, for Wim Wenders to reimagine the divine comedy in black trench coat and male ponytail.  After the Bronx burnt, hip-hop started in neighborhoods too dangerous to walk in broad daylight in New York and punk rock found, if not its birthplace, then its homecoming court in the East Village. Now, in New Orleans, where writers have typed and horn-players have blown, there is a new explosion, a green growth fertilized by the ashes of the past, sprouting branches because the space to grow exists.

And no — we are not about to stop experimenting because the rent for our cultural laboratories went up in New York and San Francisco so very high that not even the superstars of our art forms could afford them. The best crops grow in muck.  Now that the black mold has been Hazmatted away, we find gutted shot guns and reclaimed gothic ornaments to embellish our new ideas.  That beat from Congo Square is still tom-tomming, still tom-tom, tom-tom, blood and tom-tom like a patient on whom the paddles worked.  We have sinus rhythm.  The avant garde has left Soho to the bankers. Haight-Ashbury belongs to Google executives now.  Want to be a star?  Have something to say? The American cultural experiment is beginning a new series of  tests on streets named for dead French royalists. It’s like that invitation the Sufi mystical poet Rumi extended to all of us about a thousand years ago:

Out beyond right-doing and wrong-doing

There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

That’s where the artists go to imagine new things, the mystics seek the face of God beyond human agency and Pharisee-like self-righteousness. That field, this year and for at least a few more, is possibly near Elysian Fields Avenue .  Like Tennessee Williams told us, you take the streetcar over there.  After that, don’t put a paper lantern on the lamps like Williams’ Blanche DuBois did to hide the ugly truth.  The creative possibilities are often in the ugliness.  Take the ashes and make your beauty.  Meet Rumi there.  Meet America there.  Meet New Orleans, the city of the world’s imagination, there.

 

April 30, 2016

Queen Bey’s New Orleans of the Mind

In January 2016, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, her husband and collaborator, moved the discourse of their art from New York down South.  In “Formation,” Beyoncé sets her video in New Orleans, on porticoed porches, in tough neighborhoods with post-Katrina housing, and in the cuisine, even, of the town — she tells us she carries hot sauce in her bag, a particularly Cajun/creole gesture. Her new release, the remarkable and deeply poignant Lemonade, is set in a place ill identified, a Gothic Southern space, at some moments surrealistic — like a night bus filled with women dancing while painted like West African ghosts, while Bey  sings about how her man isn’t on her mind — and we do not believe her in this haunted vehicle. Other houses catch fire, and they look like they are from the Garden district. Bey gyrates in the flames. She exits a public building with a flood following her in her saffron dress as she smashes car window after car window with a baseball bat. A group of smiling young African-American marching band members and pep squad members march down a street still damaged from storms — an image typical of my neighborhood in the Algiers section of town. We aren’t in New York, the New York Jay-Z has rapped about for decades, where the famous couple has held court for quite some time.  We are not quite in a New Orleans that we know by a skyline or a landmark — some songs are sung in basement parking garages, others in private rooms.  We are sitting with the aristocrats of American culture in  a New Orleans of the mind.

spanish moss nightThe psychology of New York is gritty, but it is never so permanently bleak that one cannot find a boat ride, even the Staten Island Ferry for free, to get a little perspective, a breath of fresh air, a breeze off the Atlantic, a panoply of sky scrapers.  One’s problems seem insignificant in the aspirational spikes of concrete that make shadowy canyons.  One believes in New York City that opportunity is around the corner, even if one circles the block for hours like a cab waiting for a fare.  New Orleans, unlike New York City, is permanently haunted.  The dead cannot quite get buried there — they abide above ground, boxed in just barely by cement and marble. The legacy of slavery is palpable; it is a town that never entered the mainstream of America, much like New York, which is situated on islands off the coast of the mainland.  No melting pot, it is a town where cultures do not so much intersect and blend than they remain distinct and dynamically intermingled.  New Orleans is as African a town as it is European in many ways. The coexistent diversity of cultures in that town, one which might alarm some people in a place like Mississippi, is the strength of the odd survival of the place. One doesn’t overcome one’s problems in New Orleans.  They do not vanish into the mud, six feet under.  One stuffs and mounts one’s problems.  One repurposes one’s griefs into useful household objects.  One doesn’t get over.  One lives with despite.

In Lemonade, the film, New Orleans serves as a backdrop to this kind of thinking about betrayal and loss.  No group has been more repeatedly and unapologetically betrayed in this country than women of color, and how are they to bear all of it — all the dishonor thrust upon them? Forgetting seems in this film not to be a real option, any more than it is for New Orleans to make evidence of the dead to disappear. One must live with the evidence, the scars, the memories, the voids, and one must find a way to remain hopeful. One must live with the past despite its ongoing bitterness and overcome despite all rational calls to lie down and die.

This is the abiding mood of Lemonade, and it is perhaps a cogent cue to the entire American culture about how we might deal with the tragedies of our day.  The betrayal within one marriage is not a national tragedy, but the killing of Trayvon Martin is. Trayvon’s mother is in the film Lemonade, and she, too, must abide in the bitter memory of a dead son and an acquitted Zimmerman. She, too, must survive despite all. We are anxious in white America to forget past injustices committed by people who look like us.  We feel uncomfortable by association,  don’t want to take responsibility for what we did not personally do.  But it is unreasonable of us to expect people chanting “black lives matter” to pause and acknowledge that all lives matter, which of course they do.  We must do as Beyoncé and Jay-Z have done with their enduring marriage — acknowledge all the ugly hurts, seek reconciliation that honors the total experience of that pain, and move forward with that knowledge still present but not explosive.  A truth untold is explosive.  A city dishonored erupts into riots. New Orleans has found a distinctly American wisdom that makes room for a syncopation of now with then, of group with group, that gives space for multiple potentially dissonant experiences rendered a space for solo, then folded into the jazz that ultimately finds  a harmony.

America needs such a strategy.  We cannot pretend the past did not happen. That would be a form of lunacy and a continued dishonoring of the dead. We cannot pretend we are not all implicated in a culture where brutality exists against the politically and economically vulnerable. We cannot bury the dead, because until we fully acknowledge the enormity of the problem, the dead cannot die but haunt us. We can move past, perhaps trailed in the shadows by an ugly legacy, but we can improve, if we allow each trumpet its solo, each sax its wail. We need a New Orleans of the American mind, an imperfect landscape ravaged but rebuilding, a diversity that includes all of us and might just get along. The cultural conversation has moved South, as have I.  Will you start driving South on the Interstate until you can see the Spanish moss hanging from the trees?

April 19, 2016

A Candlelight Vigil for the Slaves at Ole Miss

Governor Phil Bryant, as he resists the inevitable wave of change in his own state by legalizing cake discrimination, defending the inclusion of the stars and bars in the Mississippi flag, and general attempts at revisionism, declared this month Confederate History Month in Mississippi.  The Confederate dead have long be mourned in greater pomp than the dead of any other war in this state, but the story told about the South at reenactments and here, on  the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi, where a costumed annual wreath-laying takes place in the Confederate cemetery behind the old basketball stadium, is generally false.  It’s not that people fought without gallantry in grey uniforms, they did.  It’s not that they were mean to family members or small puppy dogs.  But there still abides a myth that says, 1) The Civil War was not a war fought primarily over slavery (the statements of Confederates as they declared war belie this idea), 2) Those who were slaves were generally happy, and 3) The Yankees ruined a really good thing by ending slavery and thereby effectively ending Plantation culture as it had previously existed down South.  To all this, the University of Mississippi chapter of the NAACP chants, “Hell you talmbout.”

candlelight vigil 2Though not a particularly politically minded campus, compared to, say, UC Berkeley, Ole Miss has a Black Lives Matter movement, and happily, there are white people on campus who agree that black lives do indeed matter, and all people deserve respect.  Last year, despite Phil Bryant’s advocacy for a Confederate-ish state flag, the student body of Ole Miss overwhelmingly voted to remove the state flag from the campus until such time as the image changes to something less offensive to African-American students, whose families were terrorized under that symbol.  The white students are generally unwilling to be chained to the ugliness of past genocide, generally unwilling to manufacture or perpetuate myth in order to cover up ugliness that they do not claim as their own present-tense sentiments toward people of color.  It’s not a perfect campus — the statue of James Meredith got lynched by one student, who was expelled and charged with vandalism, and his conspiring fraternity was unhoused from the campus by the governing body of that frat’s national Greek organization.  But it is not a campus like the one James Meredith walked onto when first he desegregated this institution with its Grecian columns and shuttered colonnades.  Then, he got shot at and shouted at.  Today, most students just want to get to class before they get marked absent.

candlelight vigil 3People of multiple races participated in a candlelight vigil to remember during this so-called Confederate History month the lives ruined by slavery on this very campus, individuals who built buildings on the campus and were owned by the plantation scions who did things in some instances like rape or put out cigars on the skin of these slaves.  We cannot walk into the Lyceum, the administrative building, without seeing the work of their hands.  They did not come to learn.  They came only to survive, but the students of color who have followed James Meredith here and those of us who are fortunate enough to study with them have a moral obligation to commemorate them.  If we are going to remember the Confederacy, then let us really remember it.  Not just the wasted young lives shot up at Shiloh, hospitalized here, then buried, but those who had no choice in their comings or goings and who suffered under the oppression of the wealthiest families of the Confederacy, whose sons attended this school with an entourage of slaves. Let us remember how we who are free and of multiple classes and genders, the rich white boys who came here would have scoffed at all of us who aspire to live a life of the mind alien to their own idea of world order.  Let us remember, really remember all of it.

candlelight vigil 1We gathered, held candles in plastic cups, and sang spirituals sung by slaves in order to remain hopeful of freedom in this life of the next, recited their names, where we even have their names.  Mostly we do not have their names, not even their names.

Here, though, I write the names of the ones who ended up in court records, bequests, arrests, seizures — recorded as livestock might have been recorded, not the way citizens were ever discussed, but this is all we have to witness them — these kinds of records, no parentage, no address, no testimony of likes or dislikes, no images, no words that quote them at all — just these names or fragments of names.  Here they are:

Jane

Alford

Collins

E.M. Farill

Lou Farill

Ann Thompson

Ema Jones

Frank Watson

Tom Brown

Seth Brown

Clarecy Brown

Phillip Brown

Frank O’Brian

Tom Goodey

Jeff Profit

John Thompson

James Kerr

Peter Kenshaw

Callie Pillar

A. Nelson

Mary Nelson

S. Williams

And the others, the many whose names are lost to history, Confederate or Union.

Say their names and remember.  Don’t lay a wreath for them wearing a hoop skirt.  Rather, come as you are, free as you are. Sing about freedom.  Carry a light. Bless them.

March 9, 2016

Shouldering the Dangers of the Pentacostal Church

“Then let mine arm fall from my shoulder blade, and mine arm be broken from the bone.” — Job 31:22

Beloved readers of this blog, I write to warn you of hazards you may not have considered in choosing whether or not to attend church.  It’s true that a good church shepherds the lost soul to paradise, but have you considered all the dangers of worship, particularly if the church you attend is loving or expressive?  I have survived a serious, nay, let me call it a medieval danger, and I am barely unraptured enough to have both feet on Earth to tell you about it.

ShoulderSurgery_ORIGINAL_460x261To be fair to the church I attend, I was already in danger when I arrived.  You see, there is a doctor in town who has told me that I could qualify through my insurance to let him cut off my right arm and reattach it with a titanium shoulder joint.  I have been apparently sleepwalking. Moved with unconscious piety,  like Rebekah in Genesis 24, I have been (sleep) walking to the well and filling a large jar of water, balancing it on my shoulder, which has become for NO OTHER discernible reason arthritic.  The doctor is almost gleeful when he tells me he can perform this monstrosity on me, that I will only need half a year to recover from this Frankenshoulder operation, and that after this, the mild chronic pain I have will be gone, gone after half a year of medieval torture pain and immobility.

A couple of weeks ago at church, a young man of Christian character shook my hand vigorously, glad to see me.  He’s strong, stronger than he knows, and when I smiled and took a seat, I realized that for the next hours I would need to pray for healing.  I raised my hands to heaven as we praised the Lord, and I realized I would need that healing now. In Bible study, I could fully recognize the truth of Isaihah 22:22, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  Because I, for one, couldn’t imagine twisting my hand on a door knob that would either open or shut whatever it was that Jesus locked or unlocked with that shoulder key.  I knew I didn’t want to push, or pull, or twist, or mangle anything. If that wasn’t evidence of my faith, I don’t know what is.

crucifixion

Crucifixion can’t be good for one’s shoulders.

The truth is, it’s not just shaking hands at the church door that’s a danger.  It’s not just lifting one’s hands to praise the Lord.  There are all kinds of secret dangers hidden in church, including:

  • Tambourine accidents — Musical enthusiasm could rip a rotator cuff if the believer is not careful.
  • Starbucks-Venti-sized portions at coffee hour — One bucket-sized drink hoisted too high could tear a tendon.
  • Emphatic gestures in theological debate — Zeal is fine in moderation, but no one should slap a pulpit in rebuke if the fire and brimstone get too hot or stinky.
  • Choir robe malfunctions — Tripping on the way to the back row of the choir loft could make an alto bump into the organ.
  • Hugging like a muthah — Someone might love the brethren just a little too much, squeeze like a boa constrictor.
  • Hat accidents, or “haccidents.” — Ladies still wear big hats in some churches, laden with fruit and plumage, netting and holy mysteries.  It just takes one low-flying bird out on the church steps to snag that tower of rattan and turn it into a neck and shoulder disaster.
  • The clap (to the music) — Proclaiming a little too much victory might sprain into defeat.
  • Volunteering — That heavy punch bowl one might carry into the reception hall, that Wreath that needs one to glitter spray  it and add more plastic begonias to it (I did say I was talking about pentacostal churches, didn’t I?) are shoulder tragedies waiting for a women’s fellowship workday to happen.

There are surely other shoulder hazards at church, but because Jesus endured the ultimate shoulder hazard — crucifixion, which is very painful to the shoulders with the rest of the upper body — I attend despite the risk.  The physical therapist is sticking electrified needles in me, not nails, and she is having me shrug Talmudically, releasing certain tense muscles and conveying a resignation that the paradox of faith is that God answers Job’s questions about hardships (like shoulder injury) with other questions.  Why ask why? I give the burden of the ineffable to Christ to shoulder.

 

November 3, 2015

On Southern China (Not Kowloon, But Plates and Cups)

The Bible Belt is not a place particularly welcoming to astrology, due to scriptural admonitions against witchcraft and all, but there is one cultural equivalent to asking a lady if she is a Leo or a (pardon the presumption) Virgo.  That would be the time-honored practice of discerning personality by selections of wedding china and silver patterns.  Marilynne Schwartz, in her Southern Belle Primer, offers a look at wedding silverware patterns as a map of a bride’s heart.  Allow me to say she is not wrong.  One can tell a lot about a girl based on how she sets a table, more than most Yankees think.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

Allow me to confess I am the Yankee exception to the rule — you can tell EVERYTHING about me if you know how to read my china, not the tea leaves in my cup but the tea cup itself.  You can tell my heritage, my erogenous zones, and the probability or the lack thereof that I would commit a crime.  Victorian culture believed that phrenology, the study of the shape of skulls, could tell one whether or not a certain individual had a predisposition for criminality.  The Nazis used this pseudo-science to justify their claims to master-race status.  But the skull men had it all wrong.  You want to tell whether or not I am likely to join Bonnie and Clyde on a shoot-out filmed by Arthur Penn?  Look into my choice of Spode Blue Italian and see a woman capable under wartime conditions of something akin to undercover Mata Hari moves but a total lack of inclination to direct acts of gunpowder-fueled violence.  Some girl who chose Villeroy and Bosch’s Basket Pattern for her wedding china, on the other hand, if pressed by enemy troops, she could lob Molotov cocktails out her dining room window, no prisoners, no quarter.

Other indicators in my china pattern are complicated by my Irish-American heritage.  I come from a family willing to fight over flatware and crockery, not to break dishes but to break heads over dishes.  I inherited my mother’s austere china pattern — a Danish mid-century eggshell-blue silver-rimmed affair, about which I wrote this award-winning poem, which appeared in Grasslands Review:

WEDDING DISHES

Given to you in exchange for the breaking of the saucer between your thighs,

The set of bloodless-blue silver-rimmed mirrors, salad-, bread- and dinner-sized,

Enough for twelve guests, you

stashed them under tea towels and in earthquake-proof canisters,

afraid of what a jury of your peers might do to them,

promising yourself their use for some grand occasion, grander than your wedding,

than the births, the anniversaries, the prize-winnings,

the high holy days, the moveable feasts, the raises, the graduations,

the leave-takings.

You never once set them out.

Don’t touch them, you warned me.

Those are for special days, days impervious to the passing of the hours,

the cycle, then the cessation, the graying of hair, the drooping and wrinkling,

the liver-spotting, for special days, not today, you told me.

Then, you got the news — you were waning,

and still you left them under heavy wraps, cryogenically sealed for some future

where you would not partake in the breaking of bread.

They sit now in my cabinet.

I inherited them all virginal, still uncrossed by a single butter knife.

I set them out like flat full moons every twenty-eight days or so.

Though they are the ice blue for which you registered,

I heap on them my roasted red peppers, my scarlet bruschetta, my berry sorbets,

my purpling beets, my bloody meats, my ripe nectarines, my marinara and my moussaka.

They have finally entered the coursing stream of the family, a place where at last the

good things are fed to the good people who waited so long to be invited to the table.

You see?  My mother’s inherent reticence and distrust of joy is evident in that wedding china, now mine, now repurposed, or rather, purposed to original purposes.

I also inherited my great-grandmother’s dishes, German plates made before World War I in Bavaria, white with Tiffany blue trim and gold rims.  It’s elegant, no longer manufactured, and precious as a symbol of female power in my family.  My mother’s funeral was not attended by one female relative who coveted the plates.  After the funeral was over, she had the temerity to send her son to ask for them for her, claiming they ought to be hers by right, never mind that my mother left them to me.  I told the man to tell his mother that if she wanted those plates, she could come see me about it — translation: come and look me in the eye if you dare; my mother just died, and I am in the mood to cut a b#!(h.  She never came.  The plates are still mine. She is still alive.

I believe I feel about that old china the way that the “best” Southern families take pride in beat-up flatware, which they proudly announce was hidden in the well when Sherman’s troops marched through their plantations.  In those dinged-up forks, they see a big fork-you to enemy looters from their great-great grand-mommas.

While most women in the South don’t inherit plates and spoons hidden from the Yankees, the choice of the pattern of such items is as important a choice to most women as the choice of college they attend.  When one receives a guest, it says everything about the hostess, if one can read.

Of course, divorce happens in the South, alas, as frequently as it does in the North, and then the meaning of the wedding china becomes bittersweet for some belles.  I think that in a society that believes that no matter how many times the bride has been married beforehand, a big, poofy white dress is never in poor taste on a new wedding day,most women of the South find a way to live with the old plates after the marriage ends.  After all, it is usually the woman who has chosen the pattern as a representation of her own proclivities.  However, I know at least one Southern woman who hates the china that reminds her of the broken covenant.

I prefer to see all plates hidden from Yankees, exes, or bitter female relatives as a sign of feminine power, a sign that the bearer of the cup is not so much a Kappa Kappa Gamma as a Cappa de tutte cappe, or as a friend of mine and I once coined, a “chippie de tutti chippies.”  A woman who lets go the man and keeps the bone china has perhaps gotten the best of both worlds in certain cases.  The china pattern then becomes the emblem of the matriarch, the one at whose table one must take Thanksgiving dinner and Easter brunch.  A woman with multiple china patters inherited or remaining after divorces, don’t mess with her.  She will fork you up.

October 17, 2015

Blood, bodies and Flags on the Ole Miss Campus

At a recent rally to take down the Confederate-emblematic-Mississippi-State-Flag from the University of Mississippi’s campus, the student newspaper The Daily Mississippian quoted a counter-protester Shaun Winkler, who came with swastika tattoos and a Stars-And-Bars banner to say, “Black lives don’t matter.  We are the blood of conquerors.”

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

The students on campus generally want to take the state flag down, but the outside community staged counter-protests. Thank you DAILY MISSISSIPPIAN for the image.

Conquerors?  Really?  That’s funny.  I recall my Yankee ancestors conquering yours in the battles where that flag in your hands was waved unanachronistically.

And Black lives do matter.  So do the protests of  black students, who have every right, while trodding on ground where men like Mr. Winkler threatened to shed James Meredith’s blood fifty years ago for having the audacity to enroll there, to feel that the last contemporary bastion of institutional racism’s symbolism is embodied in the Mississippi State Flag, the last flag in the Union still emblazoned with the Confederate symbol.

Mr. Winkler gave the impression in his interview and in his choice of tattoo of not having a college education.  He and the counter-protesters came from other places, no doubt from under Tallahatchie river rocks next to newts and insects, to protest the removal of a flag from a place that wouldn’t have let his conquering blood matriculate because of low test scores.  Certainly Mr. Winkler flunked history, at least.

But Mr. Winkler needn’t have protested if his objective in doing so was to keep a Confederate heritage alive at The University of  Mississippi.  Indeed, the history of the college is such that it can hardly be doubted that it will retain its past symbols of conquered Confederates.  And while I abhor the politics of racism, I think the Left enters dangerous and anti-intellectual territory where it wishes to deface monuments longstanding to racist regimes, for if we do not remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it.  It is the contemporary symbols, like the contemporary flag, which must go — but it would be nearly impossible to imagine that the University of Mississippi could divide itself from the Confederacy in history, even if it wanted to.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is a monument to the Confederate Dead on the Ole Miss Campus.

When one enters the campus of Ole Miss from University Avenue, headed toward the administration building, one passes a monument to the Confederate dead.  Indeed, if seen in a vacuum, the story of the deaths of students at Ole Miss at the Battle of Shiloh and elsewhere are tragic — entire graduating classes perished in grey uniforms under fire from the Union army.  Next to the Confederate monument is a building that was used as a hospital for the dying Confederacy.  In it, one sees a stained-glass monument of the high-melodramatic style of the late Victorian era.  If one enters the campus from Highway 6, and one looks for parking away from the football stadium, which is often restricted, one may park behind the basketball stadium, where a cemetery for those soldiers who died in the hospital building on campus got buried.  On Confederacy memorial days, women of this era show up in hoop skirts, and men in grey reenactment uniforms arrive, and they place wreaths here for unknown soldiers of their conquered cause.

Mississippi ought to stop insulting the African-American descendants of slaves with the symbol that was used to oppress them during the war, then terrify them in the hands of Klan terrorists after the Civil War was over and the Yankees had packed up and moved back North.  Nobody deserves to go to school in an environment where some ignorant idiot would actually tell them that their lives didn’t matter.

The truth of those monuments — that the boys who enrolled in 1861, white and privileged, arrogant and swaggering, the sons of slave-owners, who all got Gatling-gunned down and got buried here and there where swamp animals didn’t devour their corpses — the truth of the sad melodrama of a society that knew it had been conquered, those things ought not be removed.  I wouldn’t mind, though, seeing a monument somewhere on campus to the people who died in Mississippi from the rigors of plantation life in dirty shacks, with insufficient food, backs scarred from whippings.  My instinct would be to put it right next to that Confederate soldier statue, though it would ruin the symmetry of the rotunda.  My instinct would be to make it at least as large as the nineteenth-century monument, and why?  Because black lives do matter.  Confederates did not conquer. And those privileged white boys, their lives were extinguished to defend an indefensible institution, one that brutalized the many for the pleasures of a few.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

This is literally where the Confederate bodies are buried on the Ole Miss Campus.

But I would tear nothing down.  The ghosts of Confederate soldiers will continue to haunt Ole Miss, especially on nights like the night of November 6, 2012, where a young man got filmed for Youtube, naked all but for an American flag diapering his frat-boy bottom, drunk in the flatbed of a friend’s trunk, angry because Obama won again, shouting “F#ck the N%ggers!” over and over again, just yards away from that Confederate Soldier statue, the true son in the political spirit and overbloated privilege of a small class of white men in Mississippi over the hardworking aspirations of people of color who did him no wrong and over even Mr. Winkler, who needs a real history lesson, as he assumes the cause of that spoiled rich boy somehow reflects his own interests, when in fact it does not.  If he were not so defined by his hatred, literally scarred with swastikas of his own selection, I would call him a victim here.  I think he has been horribly conned.  I would tell him he should clamor for something that acknowledges the total and wasteful loss of white lives in the service of an elitist Confederacy which held the lives of  his ancestors at an even lower price than the lives of the slaves they owned and might exploit in peace time.

There is blood on the campus  of Ole Miss, but it is not the blood of conquerors.  There is dried blood of wasted lives.  And there is new blood of hopeful members of the New South, and they want to take down a flag that insults the humanity of many students there and the intelligence of absolutely anyone.  We don’t believe in myths any more.  We want to explore the truth in greater clarity. We want our lives, all our lives, to matter, to be spent in pursuit of worthy causes, ones that serve our interests collectively and individually. Take that accursed flag down!

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

May 16, 2015

Extending Extra Hospitality to Close Friends: Why Only Tramps Like Blanche DuBois Regularly Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

Southerners pride themselves on hospitality, you’ve heard.  Sometimes, they practice a kind of teeth-gritted smiling hospitality that thinly masks grudges with graciousness, but honestly, once they get to know a person enough to feel a bit relaxed, Southerners are generally good hosts without guile.  If a person, even a carpetbagger, happens to be not just among them but of them, one of their people, after the other guests have left, the hostess lets that inner circle member see her take off her patent pumps and chandelier earrings, whips out the good bourbon, and they have the real conversation she has been dying to have all evening.

I have decided to learn from my time here in Mississippi the art of such hospitality.  To all of you who are in the outer courts of my love but not on my wishing-you’d-kick-the-bucket-list, and that perhaps means first-time readers of this blog – I hope you and I are already chummy, if not bffs just yet — I bid you a good evening here and offer you a glass of punch, a tea cookie off of the tray where I have artfully arranged desserts in a crescent shape.  But if you are truly my people, then I’m slipping out of these crinolines that itch and mixing us some juleps.  Then I will unlock the vault of my secrets, the totality of my deepest regrets and aspirations.

My friend Cynthia in the South of France before she moved to the South of the USA.  She will document her culture shock here in periodic posts.

My friend Cynthia in the South of France before she moved to the South of the USA. She will document her culture shock here in periodic posts.

So it is with my good friend, truly one of my people, Miz Cynthia Redecker, a gifted writer whom I have known longer than either of us cares to admit.  When Cynthia met me, I had spiky red hair and a white leather bomber jacket, as I was not so much an artist back then as an, “artist, dammit!”  I was bold, but I had plenty of rough edges.  Cynthia, on the other hand, looked like young Grace Kelly, a vision of sophistication, and yet she was not at all pretentious.  She seemed queenly, except that her hair was always a little beachily untamable, and she seemed entirely unaware of her own naturally regal air.  I secretly aspired to be like Cynthia, in that she spoke four languages fluently, read everything, traveled the world, and had the air whenever she arrived somewhere to be always entering with a wind-blown chic as if she had just disembarked from a yacht in the Mediterranean after a pleasure cruise, even if she had only just taken the subway.  Cynthia never saw herself the way I saw her, which was part of her charm.  She told me she saw me as swash-buckling, admittedly proactive and direct in ways that are uncommon in the diplomatic circles in which she traveled, and compared to Cynthia, I at least appeared fearless, even though I was secretly more terrified than she ever was.

Today Cynthia, like me, has abandoned places more sophisticated than Mississippi and has found herself in the South.  She, like I am, is a bit of a fish out of water down here.  I tell you she is my people, a sister carpetbagger, mon semblable, mon frère.

Again, she is of my people, the way they ask in cotillions in a hushed murmur, “but who are her people?” about any newcomer who wishes to debut at their club.  And in that spirit, I offer to the newly arrived sister carpetbagger, who actually has just disembarked in Florida after actually spending time on the French Riviera as a journalist, a place in this blog’s cotillion to impart her canny observations as an outsider looking in.  I hope she will blog like a pleasure cruiser, a woman who finds herself in new tropics, will use her trained journalistic eye to let us know the lay of the land in a manner that takes nothing for granted.

In this spirit, since she is one of mine, I ask my readers to invite her to tea with us in the pavilion as she blogs periodically here.

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