She Did Her Best

I like old cemeteries.  I like to stroll through and read the headstones.  Old headstones tell us something about the person resting below.  At the very least, we get a full name and dates of birth and death. We know if the person was married and if they had children. I found one very old headstone that said the deceased had been murdered and even named his murderer.

Today’s headstones are not as generous.  Too often, they’re just big granite slabs with a last name carved onto them.  They tell us nothing about the life of the person.  All we know about them is that they died.  In that sense, modern cemeteries are peopled by corpses, while old cemeteries are peopled by people.

Infant mortality rates were high a hundred and more years ago, so an old cemetery will have an unsettling number of tiny headstones marking the graves of little ones who never made it past the age of two.  I wonder at the small size of the headstones, as if they feared that a standard headstone would overwhelm the tiny grave.  These small headstones are usually the first to disappear, taken over by sod and weeds.

One of the saddest headstones I’ve found marked the grave of a woman who was married and had many children.  Beneath the basic information were the words, “She did her best.”

I’ve often wondered about that woman. With her husband and so many children to raise, what happened in her life that made her family put those words on her headstone?  To say that someone did their best implies that, despite their best efforts, they failed.  This grave was more than 100 years old, so it isn’t likely she failed at business, or law, or at being a doctor.  She was likely a housewife in that age when women didn’t have career options.  She did her best, they said.

I wish I could speak to her.  I wish I knew what the words on the headstone meant.

As I get older, I’m more conscious of the fact that I probably have more years behind me than I do ahead of me.  I wonder if my struggle to write and sell my stories will ever bear fruit.  I wonder how much the selling part matters.  I don’t want the words, “She did her best,” written on my headstone.

I want it to say, “She wrote.”

There’s a Spider in the Bathroom

I noticed it this morning before my shower.  It’s sitting up by the ceiling, above the medicine cabinet.  About the side of a nickel (counting the legs).

It’s a white spider, which my mother-in-law claims is the sign of a clean house.  Join me in a guffaw.

Let’s get something clear.  I don’t pick up dead spiders.  I will squish one with a shoe and leave it there until my husband gets home to clean up the carnage.  He no longer bothers to ask me why there is a random shoe sitting in a random spot.  He knows to grab a tissue and clean up what’s under the shoe.

That’s our system.

I can’t use a shoe on this spider because I can’t think of a way to make the shoe adhere to the wall in a way that won’t damage the paint.  Duct tape is out of the question, as is gorilla glue.

The weird thing is that the spider will probably still be there in the same spot when my husband gets home this afternoon, which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that spiders are, by their very nature, suicidal.

Maybe being one of the ickiest creatures on planet earth triggers their self-loathing, I’ll-just-sit-here-until-John-gets-home-so-he-can-squash-me attitude.

I can think of no other logical explanation.

I had a writing point. What was it?

Oh, yeah.

If I sit on a story while waiting six months for a publisher to get around to rejecting it, I start to feel like that suicidal spider.  Just sitting there.  Not moving.  Not looking for an alternative.  Knowing full well that if I don’t hear from them in three weeks it’s not going to end well.  Waiting for the publisher to whip out a shoe and squash me.

I’m not cleaning that up.

Now THAT’s a Playground


That, boys and girls, is the courtyard of the apartment building in which I grew up.  Second story on the right. The current occupant has an air conditioner in the kitchen window, which I find puzzling. My cousin Irene took this picture a few years ago.  When I first saw it, I thought something was missing but couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then it came to me.  No clotheslines!  When I was a kid, the entire courtyard was crisscrossed with clotheslines running between the two buildings. I guess everyone has a dryer now.  No more pulling frozen blue jeans off the line and standing them in a corner to thaw out.

When we were very small, the landlady would attach a hose to her kitchen sink and feed it out of the ground floor window, second down on the right, so we could cool off in the summer.  We put on our bathing suits and enjoyed that treat just as if we were at Coney Island.

Looks pretty bare, doesn’t it?  Oh, but what adventures we had back there.  Back in the seventies, the landlord had a brilliant idea (no doubt fueled by copious amounts of ethanol).  He would bust up the concrete and plant grass.  Instant playground!  We were thrilled, as you can well imagine.  The nearest park was about a quarter of a mile away and not safe for children to be in without an adult.  One summer day, they took a jackhammer to the concrete, starting just about at the line in the foreground of the picture, leaving big chunks of busted concrete where the jackhammer broke them.

And that was that.  For reasons never explained to the kids in the apartments, the broken concrete was never removed.  No grass was planted.  Which was just friggin’ awesome.

Broken slabs of concrete can be used in so many ways.  We created forts for our GI Joes (the ones with lifelike hair and beard, not regulation in any way).  We dared one another to run across the rubble as fast as possible without falling and suffering countless gashes.  We drew pictures with chalk. One day, we tried to build an animal trap, though I don’t really know what we expected to catch back there.  We found a nice round slab about two feet in diameter.  As we rolled it along, we noticed a bunch of nasty-looking bugs clinging to the bottom.  Not the cockroaches we knew so well but alien things you don’t generally see in the concrete jungle.  Screams erupted and we all jumped away.  Except for my sister. Betrayed by her reflexes, she stayed in place just long enough for the slab to land on her foot.  She spent most of the summer in a cast.

Good times.

The courtyard is shaped like the E on an eye chart.  You’re looking at the center leg.  Along the spine, there’s a chain link fence and about a four-foot drop into the neighboring courtyard.  A thin ledge runs along the opposite side of the fence.  Walking its length was a test of bravery we each had to pass.  The truly brave could climb onto the flat roof of a garage whose back faced the courtyard at the far left end.  The heroic could leap from the roof and land without breaking any bones.  I made the jump many times.

My brother buried his turtle back there in an area where the concrete had crumbled long before the jackhammer incident.  Not allowed to have a dog or a cat, I named every alley cat back there and sometimes snuck them food. I worried about them when it got cold. When one died, I grieved alone.

We buried treasure and made pirate maps for the others to follow.  We told ghost stories.  We imagined.

The picture shows that somewhere along the line, they repaved the courtyard.  They paved over forts. They paved over buried treasure.  They paved over a world no adult ever saw.


Unless Love Builds the House

Found an old photo of yours truly with the stuffed dog I discussed in this blog post.


Each year, I stand before the rack of Mother’s Day cards, searching for one that doesn’t make me want to projectile vomit. I don’t know who writes these things, but their concept of motherhood is somewhere north of the rainbow.  Father’s Day cards aren’t quite as bad, but they still promote the image of a very good father.

I’m not a sentimental person, by nature.  I grew up in a family that didn’t show affection.  Nobody hugged.  Nobody said, “I love you.”  Good grades were expected.  Bad behavior (real or imagined) was brutally punished.  You got by with what you had and didn’t ask why you did without the things other families had.  My parents didn’t speak to one another or to us unless they found something to yell about.

It wasn’t always that way.  I can remember things being quite different up until I reached the age of five.  We used to wait in front of the apartment every evening for my father to walk down from the subway station so we could all give him a hug.  I remember the smell of cigarettes and the feeling of the winter cold clinging to his black overcoat.  Before I went to kindergarten, I would wake up early in the morning while my father was in the kitchen drinking his coffee and listening to the radio.  I had a little white toy dog that was stuffed with sawdust that I carried everywhere.  Eventually, a small hole opened in the bottom and left a little trail of sawdust wherever I carried him.  Sitting on my father’s lap, he would pretend to be horrified by the dog “pooping” all over the kitchen table.  It was the same routine each time and I always laughed. I remember sitting on his lap in his recliner and falling asleep with him.  There are old home movies of him feeding me ice cream.

Sometime in the mid to late sixties, my parents’ marriage came unhinged.  They never spoke unless they were arguing.  He took to sleeping in the recliner most nights.  I don’t know what happened, but I think my father got caught having an affair.  He became a very angry and abusive person.  He drank a lot.

I have no warm memories of my mother, not even in those early years before she and my father decided they hated each other.  She doted on the boys, tolerated my oldest sister for her housekeeping skills, and lavished affection on my other sister.  She reserved her hostility for me.  Everything was my fault.  Things would be so much better if I weren’t around.  No one would ever love me and I would die alone. The words were more damaging than the routine beatings.  In later years, my oldest sister would say I took the brunt of the abuse because I was the strongest of the six of us.  I was the one she couldn’t break.  The result is that I have no emotional connection to my mother.  Even worse, my father joined her in taking his anger out on me.  He’s the reason I never wear yellow, but that’s another story.

For about ten years, I had no contact with my mother at all.  About two years ago, I attempted mending fences and managed to get most of the siblings in one room with our mother.  She’s old now and doesn’t remember much.  Even so, I only see her about once a year and never go over there unless another sibling is with me.  I guess I still expect her to unleash one of her ugly tirades on me and want a witness there so she can’t call me a liar later on.

While we weren’t on speaking terms, I didn’t bother with the charade of sending her a Mother’s Day card.  This is the second year since I have resumed the practice.  You see now why the gushing sentimentality of those cards makes me feel sick.  I go through card after card, looking for one that is respectful but not full of praise for a job well done.  It’s hard.

Why am I telling you this?  I don’t know.  I guess I want you to realize that this is a tough day for some of us.  I read Facebook posts today offering sympathy to those who have lost their mothers; but nobody talks about having had a bad mother on Mother’s Day.  It’s sort of taboo.

I have tried to be a good mother to my sons, though my short fuse has made it difficult at times.  I’m very close to them both and I know Mother’s Day doesn’t hold the dread for them that it does for me.  Still, I wonder if all of our lives would be better if things had been different in my family.

It’s tough to build a house without the right tools.

The Riot on 17th Street


Pop Lenahan

In light of recent events, I’ve decided to repost this true story from June 2014. It’s the view from the other side of the badge through a child’s eyes.


Copyright 2014, MJ Belko

My great-grandfather, Pop Lenahan, bought a home on 17th Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn at the turn of the last century.  It was a two story red brick building on a block lined by brownstones.  Both of my parents grew up on that block not far from Prospect Park.  It was a beautiful neighborhood back then, full of immigrant families who took a first-time owner’s pride in their homes.  Such a thing would never have been possible  in the Old Country.  The sidewalks were paved with a smooth, dark gray stone flecked with sparkles.  The idea that the streets were paved with gold was more than a…

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Thanksgiving Misgivings


Thanksgiving should always be wonderful. What could be better than a day that is celebrated by the consumption of roast turkey? The orange and yellow leaves of autumn have turned crunchy brown, the remnants of a fiery blaze. The sky is a heavy gray, the air frosty.  The biggest turkey I could find at the supermarket (somewhere around 22 pounds) is softly sizzling away in the roasting pan, filling the house with memories carried on the scent.

But then there’s the other side of Thanksgiving. The part that involves family. The feuds. The divorces. The questions of allegiance. Which parent to spend the day with? Whose turn is it to eat at Dad’s house with his second wife? Which siblings are no longer on speaking terms? Is it safe to serve alcohol to that cousin?

I hate that part.

When I was a kid, we ate most of our Thanksgiving dinners in our tiny apartment. My mother, by her own admission, hated to cook, so my grandmother would come over early in the morning to stuff the turkey and put it in the oven. With a tiny kitchen and no dining room, dinner was eaten in the living room. Just imagine six kids and four or five adults squeezed together around a long folding table in an 8 x 10 foot room. Our coffee table served as a bench and could easily seat five small children. If you got stuck sitting on the couch, you had to reach up to get the food off your plate. After dinner, we sat in the dark watching home movies. Sounds just like the Waltons, right?

Of course, there was the time my mother, as a young bride, forgot to clean out the turkey before putting it in the oven. Or the time my grandfather, as the legend goes, got tired of asking for a dish to be passed and upended the entire table. The first time I prepared a turkey as a young wife, we were stationed in Germany. We lived out in the countryside, renting the top floor of a private home. The stove was electric. Thanksgiving not being a holiday in Germany, the landlord had an electrician in that day to repair some wiring downstairs. This required him to cut the electricity to one side of my kitchen. I was not told about this. I don’t know how long my turkey was in the oven before I realized there was no power going to the stove. Nothing like trying to guess when your turkey is done when you’ve never prepared one before. Truth be told, it could have been cooked a little longer. I remember one year being terribly sick on Thanksgiving. I forced myself to eat (we only ate like that once a year, after all) and later puked my guts up while watching Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on TV. The Gene Wilder version, not the Johnny Depp version. The Depp version would make anyone retch.

In spite of it all, I still look forward to Thanksgiving. Times are especially rough this year, but I have a roof over my head that doesn’t leak and we’re all in relatively good health. The things that are wrong will get better.

And boy, can I make delicious turkey gravy.

When Jay was Killed

I had a friend in grade school named Jay. He was one of those quiet, goofy kids who didn’t have too many friends. When the other boys made fun of him, he laughed along with them. If it made him sad, he never let on. We spent the first through third grade together in the same class. The nuns liked to seat us alphabetically, so Jay and I always sat next to each other. Sometimes, the nuns had us exchange test papers with the student next to us and we would go over the answers as a class, marking each question right or wrong with a check or an X. It used to drive me crazy when Jay checked my papers because he always used an orange crayon and made huge checks and X’s next to my very neat answers. I even yelled at him for it once.

Jay and I lived on the same street, my apartment closer to Third Avenue and his above Fourth.  We often walked home from school together along Fourth Avenue where the sidewalks were smooth. Our school book bags had four metal feet on the bottom that were ideal for sliding them along the sidewalk, and a smooth sidewalk was essential to the game of seeing whose bag would go farthest. We parted ways at 69th Street and didn’t see each other again until the next day at school.

Back then, we had school friends and friends on the block. Our school friends were just that. We hung out together at school; but when summer vacation started, we didn’t see each other again until September. After school, weekends, and summer vacations were spent with our friends from the apartment building. Looking back, it seems like a strange arrangement–an inexplicable segregation that meant I never saw Jay during the summer, even though he lived just up the street.

The summer after third grade, during our annual trip to Tappan to visit our cousins, Jay was killed. He had run out into the busy street, chasing a ball, and was hit by a car. This happened in 1972 and parenting was different back then. Nobody sat me down and gently told me what had happened to the kid I’d sat next to every day for three years. The news was conveyed to me as a passing comment, sort of, “Oh, by the way…” It wasn’t until I got back to Brooklyn that I learned the horrible details from the other kids. Jay hadn’t just been hit by a car. The car had run over and crushed his head. I learned that the car was black and the woman driving it said her brakes had failed. Jay had been killed adjacent to his front steps. I wondered if his mother saw it happen or if she saw him lying in the street afterward.

My father clipped the newspaper article and gave it to me to read by myself. They had used Jay’s first communion picture for the article. There was Jay, smiling, his hands clasped as if in prayer, wearing a suit. Reading the article, I found out that Jay was actually his middle name. He had an older sister. I don’t remember anything about his father, even before the accident, and I don’t remember the article mentioning him. I was glad I was away when Jay died. Had I been home, every kid on the block would have run up the street to see what had happened. I might have seen Jay lying mutilated in the street, and I would have remembered every detail.

About a year later, I was in Herman’s Stationery with my mother. Herman’s sold greeting cards, magazines, and school supplies. On the magazine rack, I spotted one of those “true crime” rags. On the cover was a drawing of a woman whose head was about to be run over by the wheel of a car. I turned and walked back to my mother. I never said a word, but I can see that cover plainly even today. I felt sick and scared, but I said nothing because I knew I would receive neither comfort nor sympathy.

Several years later, when I was about 13, I was spending the night at a friend’s apartment. Her mother was out at a bar and we were staying up late, watching a movie.  I think it was called “Lady in a Cage” or something like that. It was about a crippled woman whose home is invaded by a group of thugs who terrorize her for hours. In the end, with the leader of the gang standing behind her, the woman jabbed her knitting needles into his eyes. He stumbled out in the street, screaming, and was promptly run over by a car. The scene ended with him lying in the street, knitting needles sticking out of his eyes, his head next to the wheel of the car. I lost it. I began to feel that sick, scared feeling again, and I sobbed uncontrollably. It was the first time I had shed a tear over Jay. I told my friend what had happened to him. I don’t think I ever spoke about it again after that night.

I was in Brooklyn last year, the first time in many years. I walked with my husband all over the old neighborhood, showing him all the important sites from my childhood. But I still couldn’t look at the spot where Jay died.

To this day, the sight of an orange crayon makes me stop and think of Jay, and I feel guilty for getting so mad at him for marking up my papers with it. I’m sorry I got mad, Jay.

When the Empty Nest is Full Again

Today is my firstborn son’s 29th birthday. We were stationed in Germany when he was born. It was an overcast, muggy day. The minute the midwife handed him to me, I recognized his face.

Yesterday, I noticed his hair was graying at the temples. My baby.

It was when I became a mother that my dream of writing really took a back seat.  I was working full time and trying to be a good wife and mother–the whole “supermom” thing, which we all know is a crock.  No mother feels super about dropping her child at daycare to be nurtured by strangers.

So much has happened over the years. He’s been my problem child, the one who never listens. Our relationship has been a rocky one, but we’ve never doubted our love for one another. There were times when weeks would go by without hearing from him. I know he was using, but I don’t know what. Those are the times you pray desperate, sometimes wordless, prayers. When it snows, you wonder if he’s sleeping in his car. When you sit down to dinner, you wonder if he’s hungry.

A brief stint in jail a few years back seemed to jolt him to consciousness. He was working and on his own.

Last year, my husband and I thought both our sons had left the nest for good. More time for each other. More time to write. The empty nest held no dread for us.

Not so fast. As our younger son was moving his stuff out, our older son was moving his back in.  Literally. It was like some bizarre ballet.  He’d had a nasty break-up with the girl I warned him about. At least I know where he is and that he’s eating.  Financial circumstances may soon send our younger son winging his way home. More laundry. More dishes to wash. More food to prepare.

Less time to write? Maybe. But I’m actually hoping the writing time I do have will be more productive. Less to worry about. Consolidated bills. Time for the boys to find better jobs. They can help with the dishes and the laundry. There may even be times when the four of us sit down to dinner together.

Circumstances are shifting. I’m a tough broad. I’ll shift with them. And I’ll write.

I’ll Only Ride a Blue Bike

In my family, you didn’t get your own bicycle until you were eight years old and had made your First Communion.  It was a rite of passage.  My two older sisters chose pink and purple bikes.  I wanted no such girlie colors.  My bike had to be blue.

On the great appointed day, my father and I walked up to the Times Square hardware/sporting goods store where all the neighborhood kids got their bikes.  It was a crowded, dimly lit store with dirty floors.  We made our way to the corner of the store where the bikes were on display, following our noses to the rubbery smell of bicycle tires.  And there it was–an electric blue Savoy with a white banana seat, sissy bar, stingray handlebars, and coaster brakes (hand brakes were for rich kids).  It was all mine.  I didn’t have to share it with anyone, like I had had to share the red tricycle with my little brother for years.

I didn’t know how to ride a bike and don’t remember having training wheels.  I used to take the bike out and balance alongside the wrought iron fences outside the row homes that lined the sidewalk.  Keeping one hand on the fence, I would inch along, trying to keep the bike upright.  Eventually, it worked and I was keeping up with the older kids with ease.  I rode that bike with a small group that included my siblings and friends from the apartment building we all lived in.  We weren’t allowed to ride in the street.  It was a busy bus route.  We were limited to one city block most of the time, but in Brooklyn that’s a pretty good area.  The sidewalk was pretty much ours until about five o’clock when office workers, in slightly disheveled suits and ties, came in clusters out of the subway station on Fourth Avenue and created an impassable mass of humanity off and on for about an hour.  On hot summer days, we would lock up the bikes long enough to run upstairs and gulp down a glass of grape Kool-Aid, watching a cartoon or two while the sweat dried on our skin.

Sometimes, we got to ride our bikes along the bike path that led from the 69th Street pier and passed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  We sometimes rode them in Owl’s Head Park, starting at the top of Dead Man’s Hill and riding on the side of the tires in a death-defying lean.  We had to take our feet off the pedals because we were going way too fast for our feet to keep up with them.

Our bikes were usually locked up at dinnertime, the summer evenings being dedicated to games of kick-the-can, tag, or stoop ball.

Every kid in the apartment stored their bike in the cellar.  Opening the heavy green door, you were hit with the stench of garbage and cat pee, sort of an olfactory one-two punch.  It was a creepy and dangerous place with cave-like walls and dark recesses concealing monsters only a small child can imagine, and only the big city can actually produce.  I think they found a dead bum down there years ago.  That was the rumor, anyway.  Eerie as it was, it was a treasure trove of furniture, baby buggies, and odds and ends left behind by long-gone tenants.  It eventually become a sort of clubhouse for us, but that’s another story.

One day, one of the kids came up to my apartment to tell us that all of the bikes in the basement had been stolen.  My electric blue Savoy was gone forever.  I turned and saw my mother coming up the stairs.  When she got to the second floor landing, I gave her the news of the theft.  She looked at me for a second, put her head down, and climbed that second flight.  The look on her face wasn’t one of despair but of defeat and exhaustion.  She had just come back from her first visit with the divorce lawyer.  There would be no money to replace those bikes.  I didn’t react to the theft the way you would expect.  I was pretty matter-of-fact about it and never brought it up again.  I guess all the rest of the garbage going on that day made the loss of my Savoy seem less important.  Looking back, the theft of our bikes was something of a harbinger.  There were a lot of angry and hungry days ahead.  We would do without a lot more than bikes.

A couple of years ago, I went to the store and bought myself a bike.  For the first time in years, I have a bike of my own.  It’s electric blue and it has coaster brakes.

My Favorite Place to Write and The Story Behind It

I have a small office at the back of our small house. It used to be my son’s bedroom, but he has since moved out. I thought it would be my writing haven, the place where all my creative juices would flow and I would produce magical stories with ease.

Not so much.

I found the atmosphere to be rather stifling and I had a tendency to nod off in the quiet isolation. We’ll blame that in part on my thyroid disease. To tell you the truth, I hate this writing space. Just doesn’t work. I find myself being much more productive sitting on the front porch. The birds and the traffic act as a sort of white noise for me. Problem is, I live in a part of the country that has long, very cold winters. Factor in the thyroid disease, and we’ll be pretty much into June before I can sit outside without a jacket. Makes for a short writing season. The good thing is that once I get the brainstorming and first draft down, I can do some editing and rewriting from the living room couch. So creatively speaking, I’m mostly a fair weather writer.

Interesting story about that front porch, totally unrelated to writing but interesting nonetheless. A few years ago, I was sitting in my office (I work at home as a medical transcriptionist. Maybe that’s why I hate to write in here.) and heard an argument going on outside. I got up to investigate and saw a man and woman in a physical altercation in my front yard. Interesting characters. Caricatures, really. Both looked like they had lived life the hard way. Lots of booze, drugs, and cigarettes. They were both small in stature and thin. The woman was wearing a pink satin jacket. I imagine they were a lot younger than they looked, and they looked at least 55. I see that a lot in this neighborhood. Eminem grew up in this neighborhood, if that helps.

Anyway, my dog was barking her fool head off. By this time, the fight had made its way up my front steps and onto the porch. There I was, phone in one hand dialing 911, the other hand trying to hold the screen door closed. The woman outside was trying to pull the door open, but if she succeeded she would have met with my chocolate lab’s substantial set of choppers. Absolute pandemonium. She had something the guy wanted and she was not going to give it up. Had to be either drugs or money. They both fell against the porch railing, bending it, and continued the fight as they went up the street. The woman left her purse behind. By that time, the police had arrived to take my statement. The couple was long gone. I gave the woman’s purse to the police.

The next day, the doorbell rang and my husband answered it. He came back to my office and said, “The ugliest woman I’ve ever seen is on the front porch and she’s looking for her purse.”

“Is she wearing a pink jacket?” I asked.


I got up and went to the door. Standing on the porch was indeed the ugliest woman I had ever seen; but it wasn’t a woman. It was the man from the fight the day before, and he was wearing her pink satin jacket. He asked for “my purse,” as if his disguise would fool me. I informed “her” that the police had it, and “she” left. We notified the police right away but never heard anything further about it.

Still gives me the creeps.

Anyway, back to the porch. I wasn’t too upset by the damage done to the porch railing during the fight. We had a contractor scheduled to come out the following week to tear down the old porch and put up a new one anyway. The old one was collapsing. They built a much bigger and better porch. It has become my favorite place to write and it comes with an interesting, albeit disturbing, story.

You have to find the setting that works for you. I think all writers start out thinking the perfect office is one with lots of books, a big desk, and a fireplace. As I wrote in an earlier post (How I Got My Writing Groove Back), a little chaos works better for me. Experiment. Find what works. It might not make sense to anyone else or have an interesting story behind it; but if it makes for great writing, revel in it.

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