For Flanders: The Last Letter

“…Missing someone is not a thing that passes, not a stage that you go through and emerge from eventually, unscathed. Missing someone, you finally recognize, is permanent. You don’t get over it; you only learn how to live with it. You make a space in your life, and it is filled by an absence. Although there is nothing there, it feels like a boulder, a huge dark heavy object always by your side.” – Zoe Colvin, at the blog ZMKC (December 24, 2018)

June 28, 2019

Dear Flanders,

It was a year ago today that you vanished from the lives of the people who loved you. Even after all that time, I’m still finding it difficult to believe that our years of friendship are at an end.  We covered a lot of ground in our fifty years worth of letter-writing and visiting back and forth, but one of the few things we neglected to discuss was how whichever one of us survived the other was going to deal with that.

True, we sustained our long friendship primarily through our frequent letters with each other than with actual or prolonged visits. As those visits became more sporadic than when we both lived in Atlanta, we grew accustomed to what one of our favorite writers, Stevie Smith, called a pattern of “here I go, leaving again/here I am, here again.” What I haven’t yet accepted, however, is the fact of your final, irreversible departure.

Since that awful evening late last June when your living and breathing came to its end – something that happened so quickly and so differently and so much sooner than either of us had imagined it might – I have often wondered how I would ever come to terms with your going.

Writing you this final letter – a letter from me that you will never read – is the only thing I’ve written about you since the memorial service your daughter organized last September. I’m hoping it might help me with this paradoxically impossible but necessary task of learning to do without you in my life.

Before my memories fade too completely, I mainly want to record at least of few of my most cherished ones. and especially some of the earliest ones.

You of course know that I have always credited you with saving my sanity when I was a floundering, frustrated teenager.

I was 17 years old when you and I first crossed paths in 1965, when I was in my junior year at College Park’s Lakeshore High School. I was worried about how I could possibly endure two more years of high school before being allowed to flee the suburbs and begin a new and presumably more stimulating life at some college somewhere. I also felt trapped in a household whose parents were locked in an unhappy marriage.  Unfortunately in my case, my mom’s desperate attempts to keep her family together until all her children were grown included an ever-growing list of fear-based restrictions on an oldest son who needed more freedom and intellectual stimulation, not less of either.

You were the 28-year-old teacher whose art class my friend (and companion-in-high-school-misery) Becky had urged me to sign up for. For some reason, you took Becky and me (and Patti and Dee) under your wing, and you eventually figured out ways we could meet up outside of class to talk about things our other high school friends seemed completely disinterested in: art, literature,  theater, music.

When I learned that you and your roommate Frances (who taught English at another school) lived together in an apartment within walking distance of my house, I begged you to let me spend time there after school and on weekends, and you let me do that.  Soon you ended up often feeding me as well as letting me hang out at your apartment, serving marvelous things I’d never eaten before at home: asparagus! mushrooms! fresh broccoli! How many toasted pimento cheese sandwiches did we eat sitting around the coffee table in your living room, I wonder? (And guess what kind of sandwich I’m eating for lunch today as I type this letter???)

That year and especially the following year, as you patiently listened to Becky’s tales of woe about her honcho-ing of our high school senior yearbook, or my own whining about the challenges of my editing the school newspaper, you introduced us to all sorts of cultural marvels. And, earlier on, you had immediately and successfully recruited your little band of proteges into The Way of Tea-Drinking. If I had a nickel for every pot of hot tea you ever brewed for me, or, later, that I brewed for the both of us, I’d be a richer man today! As it is, I was to enjoy decades of tea drinking, and a steady stream of tea-themed poems, calendars, gifts, and Internet photos that we happily exchanged ever since you brewed that first pot for us in 1965.

Forty-something years later, after one of my trips to England (adventures which themselves were initially undertaken due to the idealization of All Things British that you infected me with back in high school), I discovered a brand of tea, Typhoo, that quickly became our tea of choice. (I just finished another cup this morning to commemorate my writing you this letter. What I can’t do now is serve you another cup of it ever again, or mail you a stash of Typhoo’s newest product, its “extra strong” flavor….)

Back during our earliest time together, you also let us tag along with you downtown to see plays by your favorite playwrights.  Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and Summer and Smoke were the ones we subsequently most often quoted among ourselves.

You introduced us four high-schoolers to suitably bohemian restaurants that existed in Atlanta the late 1960s, like The Maid’s Quarters and a Greek restaurant in The Castle, both located in Victorian-era houses in the decidedly non-suburban precincts of midtown.

But most important of all was the art and poetry and music you introduced us to in your living room. This was the education I’d been hungering for.

An artist and art-lover yourself, you introduced us to the paintings of (among so many others) Andrew Wyeth, to the paintings – and letters –  of Vincent van Gogh, to the drawings of Kathie Kollwitz,  to the mobiles of Alexander Calder. These artists’ work – and the travels I later undertook to see the original – have enriched my life immeasurably.

We listened repeatedly to – and eventually memorized the lyrics to – the recordings you owned of Broadway musicals – My Fair Lady and Camelot and others, along with our favorite: The Fantastiks. You also owned all of Barbra Streisand’s early albums, and we wore them out listening to them as well.

To this day I can still hear in “my mind’s ear” your reading aloud to us – in that distinctive, lovely voice of yours – J.D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme, with Love and Squalor,” Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” and those hilarious passages from Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being.

And the poetry! So much poetry! You read to us not only your own poems (we were of course in awe at your being a gifted poet as well as an artist), but you regaled us with readings from the works of your literary heroes and heroines:  Carl Sandberg and e.e. cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson are the ones I most vividly remember.  Fifty years later, I would still love those poets and their poems. And throughout our many years of friendship, I looked forward to reading each of your own latest poems, too. (I am going to continue to hope that your granddaughter Haley will one day collect  and print all of your poems so those of us who knew you can enjoy reading them again.)

In addition to being the person who first exposed me to the provocative folk music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, to the glittering universe of Broadway plays and musicals (and to movies based on some of those plays – Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy ranking among the most-discussed and the most alluded to), you introduced me to classical music – a type of music which had never once been played in my family’s house. That part of my extracurricular education started with your revelatory playing of the heart-rending “Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia” from Khachaturian’s Spartacus – one of the first albums I made sure I bought a copy of for myself, along with all of Streisand’s, once I got into college.

It wasn’t long after we met that you solemnly presented me with a copy of one of your favorite novels: Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, which I immediately devoured. How different my life – especially my emotional life – would have been had you not given me that book when you did, nicknamed me “Eugene,” and indulged my complete identification over the next few years with that character’s story and his sensibilities. I still have the copy of Wolfe’s book that you gave me, and treasure your inscription in it.

Later would come your enthusiastic introductions to the works of a group of feminist writers whose work, so important to you, would also rock my world and color my perspective of how I viewed the world: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Grace Paley – as well as another feminist writer whose life and works and circle of lifelong friends (and their works) I would (like you) become obsessed with for the rest of my life: Virginia Woolf.

Without your indulgence and encouragement, along with the patience and good humor of George Lee, your colleague from Lakeshore’s English department, those final two years of high school would’ve been excruciating. Because of the attention you and George (and George’s wife Betty) showed me in the refuges that your homes provided, and because of the stories you’d tell us about your own college years and about the lifelong friends you met there (Terry Kay and Rose and all the others), the four of us you’d taken under your wing became convinced that high school could be survived and that we could look forward to an intellectually and emotionally rich adventures in the universities we eventually trotted off to. And, lo, those very positive and earth-shaking college experiences did come to pass.

You were the gateway to so much that became so important, and so permanently important.

Along with the writers and artists and musicians you introduced me to, the experiences we had together that first autumn we knew each other is the reason autumn itself suddenly became each year’s most enthusiastically-anticipated,  most-celebrated, most-remarked-upon, season. No autumn for the next 50 years arrived unheralded in our epistles to each other; no autumn since then (until your final one) dissolved into winter without our obligatory mutual expressions of delight about its having come around again, and about our regret about its passing.

Although I’ve been unable in the twelve months since you died to write about these and countless other memories, I have thought of you in various post-high school connections dozens  – probably hundreds – of times since June 28, 2018.  Little things, big things.

And there’ve been, as well, so many “post-Flanders ” things I’ve wanted to talk specifically with you about, but couldn’t. Aside from keeping each other abreast of what was going on in our personal lives (I’m so glad Randy got to meet you, and you him), we’ve not been able to commiserate about the little and big things we both cared about that have happened Out There In The Wide World.  Such as when the first-class U.S. postage rate went up again. Or when a record number of women got elected to Congress in the most recent election cycle. Or when the poet Mary Oliver died. Or when Diana Athill, one of the few female writers I introduced you to, died. Or each time you or I learned that Mr. Trump or one of his creepy family members or one of his disgusting henchpeople or supporters had said or done yet something else particularly heinous, or when our benighted fellow citizens voted into office Georgia’s current governor.

Or, say, that day last spring, when I rushed over to the moving sale at Sam Flax Art Supply that I’d heard about. You weren’t with me  – and would never shop with me again there, as you had before – but virtually everything I wanted to buy – or did buy – that day was something related to stationery or to letter-writing: materials and a longstanding and important activity I can no longer share with you. How I missed receiving from you my copy of last year’s installment of the annual Solstice newsletter you used to mail out, often illustrating it with one of your drawings.

The bigger predicament is, of course, that I no longer have you to write one or more letters (along with assorted emails) to every week, and that I won’t be getting any more letters from you ever again. (As you knew before you died, I’ve donated all your letters, and copies of many of mine to you, to the Women’s History Archives at Georgia State University. The archivist there was astonished that any two people had been writing each other for as long as we had, and realized what an interesting era, U.S. feminism-wise, you had come of age in and that you often referred to in your letters. I am hoping that others you wrote to so faithfully over so many decades – your daughter Susan, and the long-time friends who include RuthAnn, Joanne, Anne, Melissa, and Sarah – will also decide to preserve your letters to them by donating them to the collection of your letters already in GSU’s archive.)

In any case, besides being deprived since you died last summer of your companionship and our correspondence, I’ve not been able to forward to you any of the articles about Virginia Woolf (or about any of our other favorite writers) that I’ve read since then. You weren’t alive to comment on the list of books I read last year that I sent out to friends at the most recent Winter Solstice, and you weren’t on the planet to listen to a copy of the most recent Solstice music CD I compile every year and give to my friends who love music. When Netflix posted all of Streisand’s old television specials earlier this year, I couldn’t watch them with you. I’ve put away the presents I had been saving up to give you this past Christmas. I continue to stumble across things that I want to buy for your next birthday, or give to you for your annual Christmas-time stay at my house. I’ve long ago lost count of the number of essays and poems and images I’ve stumbled across on my daily Internet travels that I would have automatically forwarded to you if you were there to read or look at them.

So many places that I still frequent are closely associated with you,  and always will be – and not only places in Atlanta. My first trips to Asheville were primarily pilgrimages, with you, to see the restored childhood home, and the grave, of Thomas Wolfe.  Partly because of those early visits to Asheville with you, and my many subsequent ones without you, Asheville has long been the only other city in the South that I sometimes fantasize about moving to.

Here in Atlanta, where, like you, I’ve lived most of my life, I remember every apartment you lived in, including the Roanoke Apartments, where we both lived for several years, along with our friend Corky before he moved back to New York City, and whose friendship and letters from Manhattan –  before his untimely death eight years ago – we both treasured.

Later on, you moved to an apartment in Buckhead, near the Atlanta History Center where you eventually worked as a librarian in its gardening library, and close to where Kay Harrison, the psychic we both went to for many years eventually moved to (and died in – remember her memorial service, when so many of us who visited Kay periodically came together and met each other?)

I also fondly remember your apartment near Emory, where you lived later on. (You hated it when the company that owns those apartments cut down the ancient trees on the property: something I remember every time I scooter or drive past there).

And finally (for me, anyway), I remember both apartments you lived after you moved to Dublin, Georgia, where you lived for so many years (twelve, maybe?) taking care of your mom who had moved to an assisted living facility there. I always hoped you’d eventually return to Atlanta after your mom died (at age 99), and we talked about that a lot, not realizing that your Atlanta days were over: instead, you lingered in Dublin until Susan insisted, after your recuperation from that awful traffic accident, that you move to Tennessee to live with (and be taken care of there by) her.

I’m often reminded of the huge influence you’ve had on certain patterns or activities that characterize the way I live. To take a single example: my extensive armory of stationery and stationery-related paraphernalia  – the greeting cards, the stashes of colored paper and envelopes, the fountain pens, the sealing wax, the rubber stamps, the habit of using only commemorative postage stamps on my letters and cards, my taking up calligraphy as a lifelong hobby: these are all part of what I own or things I do because you gave me a love for each of these things.

These and countless other reminders and tokens of our long friendship will continue to spark more memories, and I am grateful for those reminders, and how many there are.

Thanks to your daughter’s sale of your paintings to raise money for a college scholarship in your name, my favorite painting of yours – the one hanging in your living room back in late 1960s when I first met you – is now hanging in my living room, and always will be.

flander's guitar man painting

Flanders, you are responsible, directly or indirectly, for so much else besides this painting that is here with me in my house – a house whose guest room Murphy Bed you slept in so many times over the years. Surely at least a third of the books in my personal library are books I first heard about from you. Especially the poetry there. And of course I treasure my copy of the book of poems and recipes that you co-authored, and the book you illustrated for me and our mutual friend Celeste (also, like you and me, a librarian).

Well, these random reminiscences have gone on long enough, and I think I’ll stop now and maybe make myself another cup of Typhoo before suppertime.

I am so glad to have met you, you wonderful woman, and to have known you and known you well, and enjoyed your company for most of my adult life. I know your family and your other friends miss you too. Sorely. We especially miss the lilt in your voice, your basic sweetness, your curiosity. your fierce feminism, and your gentle way of moving through the world.

With great affection. eternal gratitude, and a lifetime of precious memories,

Cal

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Another Week on St. George

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For a sixth consecutive year, I recently joined eleven other men who rent a beach house each May on Florida’s St. George Island. We met each other at conferences sponsored by Gay Spirit Visions, some of us having met at GSV’s first conference in 1990. 

Last year my partner Randy joined us for the first time, and he and I went together again this year. There were three people there this year who hadn’t been before, so it was nice to have a week to get to know them a bit, as well as to reconnect with the folks who’d spent previous weeks together in past years.

The week we picked this year was one of almost perfect weather. That perfection included a single brief but dramatic-looking thunderstorm – which Calvin apparently napped through, as I only know about it from the others’ photos of it.

We spent our week doing a multitude of relaxing things: hanging out on the beach (for me, this was done only twice, and completely in the shade of a beach umbrella), cooking for each other each evening, making several excursions into the artsy fishing town across the bay, cooking, playing the card game Wizards, watching DVD movies, meditating together each morning, reading, piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, napping, etc.

Some of us (although not me) went bike-riding, drove to a state park about an hour away, hired a fishing boat, flew kites, paddled around in rented kayaks, took a spell in the hot-tub, crocheted. I managed to stay out of automobiles for most of the week,  and thoroughly enjoyed my attempts (all of them futile) at solving the multiple Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles I’d brought along. I also started – and finished – reading one of the many books I brought along, Gardening Through Your Golden Years.

Other than helping Randy prepare dinner for 12 when it was our turn to do that, and serving everyone an informal tea one afternoon, there were few chores to complete, so it was an almost totally care-free week spent in the company of a dozen lovely, intelligent, caring, interesting men. The group conversations, as well as the one-on-one conversations, were often stimulating and there was a lot of laughing throughout the week.

Sharing the week with Randy – and yammering about it on our journey home (via pit stops at a plant nursery and some antique malls that we also visited last year) was, of course, a special treat this year.

The photo at the top of this blogpost was one of the few I took myself. Most of the photos below were taken by my various beach companions, and I appreciate their sending them to me so I could include them here.

The setting:

Abijem exterior

The beach house we rented for the week

View of the beach from Abijem

Our view of the beach from the balcony of the rental house

The men:

Chase

Chase (from the Asheville area, and our trip organizer)

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Hugh (from Asheville, and one of the three newcomers)

Jay Pee in boat

Jay Pee (another first-time beach-goer, recently arrived from the Philipines)

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Jim (from Atlanta)

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John (from Asheville)

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Mike (from Asheville)

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Ralph (left) and Ted (from Atlanta)

Randall's photo of Randall

Randall (from Atlanta)

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Randy (from Atlanta)

Tom photo by Chase

Tom (from Atlanta)

Miscellaneous moments from the week:

guys at the beach photo by Chase

Early afternoon at ye beach

Two guys in kayaks rented by Chase

Paddling back to the shore

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At the dinner table one night, about to plow into our appetizers
John's photo of the fish they caught on the fishing trip

The harvest from John’s, Ralph’s, Randall’s, and Jay Pee’s fishing excursion

Randall holding a fish

Randall and one of the fishes he brought us back for dinner

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Randy strolling in a state park he and John drove to one day

Randy's and John's oysters
Randy and John stopped for oysters on their way back from the state park they visited.
Four of the group eating lunch in Appalalach photo by Randall

(L-R) Chase, Randall, Jay Pee, and Jim having lunch in Apalachicola

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One of the tourist shops in the nearby fishing town of Apalachicola

Storm clouds at SGI photo by Chase(L-R) John, Ralph, Tom, and Jim marveling at the passing storm

Randall's photo of him and Jay Pee

(L-R) Randall and Jay Pee, who got married the day before they drove down to the beach

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I’ll never understand how flowers can bloom in the middle of a sand dune!

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One of the tables set out for an afternoon tea (that’s a put-together jigsaw puzzle in the middle of the table under the sandwiches)

Mike's tea table photo second copy

Tea for twelve…

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Early morning from the rental house balcony. Could anything be more relaxation-inducing?
Randall's photo of sunrise

Sunrise at the beach

John's sunset photo

Sunset at the beach

Randy's moonlight ritual

On our final night together, and this year under an almost full moon, the twelve of us gathered on the beach for our gratitude ritual

Blessed with such luxurious accommodations and in such loving, interesting company, most of the week felt like I was floating through a mini-paradise. Plus our leisurely, harmonious week was punctuated with incredible home-made meals every single night! A Good Time Was Definitely Had By All. I’m glad to know these guys, and grateful they choose to spend time together every year in such a glorious setting.

John's photo of the mandala and the painted shells.jpg

The photo-laden accounts of my five previous adventures on St. George are here, here, here, here, and here.

 

A St. Patrick’s Day Walk

Jennie's Garden and House

One of the glories of living in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood is how ideal it is for walking in. Not only does Candler Park have sidewalks and contain several parks (and is within walking distance of several others), but the architecture of the neighborhood’s homes is lovely to look at, and almost every home, regardless of whether it’s something grand or cottage-sized, sports a beautiful or unusual garden.

As I am still healthy enough to take what I consider to be longish walks, the welcome return of decent – and drier – weather has spurred me on to taking several recent excursions through my neighborhood.

What I noticed this afternoon, besides the blue skies and the tolerable temperature was that Spring is already in full swing in these parts. What I mean by that is that not only are there the expected daffodils and tulips…

Single Tulip

..the earliest stands of thrift at the edge of people’s gardens…

Trhift

…the last, glorious gasps of the forsythia…

Forsythia

…the flowering of the Bradford Pear and the fruit trees that so richly punctuate the sidewalks of my neighborhood…

Peach tree

…the purple blossoming of the redbud trees (probably my very favorite harbinger of spring)…

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…but what I didn’t expect to see today was, here and there, azaleas! Azaleas in March!

Azaleas in March

One of the best parts of walking before spring actually arrives is that whole “Nature’s first green is gold” thing that Robert Frost wrote about:

Nature's First Green is Gold

Still ahead for me – I’m mostly waiting for that sneaky last frost that can show up around here as late as mid-April – are this year’s annual spring trips to my favorite nurseries and the mostly-delightful set of annual chores in my own (mercifully small) front and back yards.

For now, it’s enough to continue my recently-begun series of chore-free strolls looking at other people’s gardens and the burgeoning plants in the neighborhood parks. There are a lot of things I enjoy about being retired, but spending a few hours every week walking around one’s beautiful neighborhood is one of the best!

Incidentally, over this past winter I posted to this my Commonplace Book some four dozen memorable quotations about the pleasures of walking that I’ve gleaned from my reading about this activity. I hope you will read some of them, and are able to get out soon and do some walking of your own.

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Retirement Anniversary #6!

Hammock

It’s hard to believe that it’s been six full years (today) since I was reporting to work every weekday.

Why hard to believe? Because even though my retirement “schedule” – such as it is – has long been the new normal for me, I still find myself occasionally marveling at the extent of the freedom I have nowadays vs. the relatively tiny amount of time I had to myself and my own projects for all those decades when I was working full-time.

Many of my family members and friends and acquaintances are still working full-time – and some of them at jobs they don’t love as much as I (mostly) loved my jobs in libraries, so I mustn’t gloat. But perhaps I should hope that this posture of gratitude and wonder will never evaporate, no matter how long my retirement lasts.

I’m not sure I have anything new to add to my previous (twelve!) sets of observations of what it feels like to be retired. The most notable semi-recent change in my life – my unexpectedly embarking a few years ago on a relationship with Randy Taylor – could’ve conceivably happened before I retired, so the changes in my routines that have flowed from that relationship can’t really be linked up with retirement – although of course it’s been great that we can do things on weekdays instead of merely weekends, and the vacations we take together (such as our trip last fall to Spain) can be longer than if we were both still working full time.

Otherwise, however, the main thing I like about retirement remains the same as it’s always been: taking a lot more time to do everything than I was able to take before I dropped out of the labor force. It’s not that I do so much, or anything particularly significant or useful, with the extra time I have: what’s basically happened instead is that I have made “piddling around” (inside the house, or out in the yard, or the garden shed) to almost an art form! It’s been a long time since I’ve had to rush off to anything, or to give up doing something I want to do because it conflicted with something else. I’ve learned I’m a lot happier if I’m successful in limiting any obligatory tasks or errands to no more than one per day, and it’s very seldom when circumstances thwart me in that respect. That leaves plenty of time for naps, and, truth be told, some days I take more than one of them!

Most of my post-retirement frustrations or challenges are definitely First World Problems, so I’m having to learn to stop complaining as much as I used to, lest the arched eyebrows of my friends become too pronounced and/or frequent. As long as my good health holds out, I am really blessed in the relative number of burdens I’m bearing or the number of other people’s problems I feel obliged to help resolve.

As for finding ways to further minimizing whatever stress or angst has remained after retiring, I could be even more content than I already am if I were willing to cut back on (or abandon altogether) my screen-staring – and therefore sedentary – computer-using time in general, and in particular curtailing the frequency and duration of checking and reading (and occasionally writing) Facebook screeds. After all, it’s my choice whether or not I expose myself to the lurid tales of every single twist and turn and/or every infuriating statement of our current federal and state politicians. And, to my credit, starting with the turn of the new year, I have to some extent intentionally regulated my Facebook time, with the hoped-for result that I find myself less often angry and/or indignant in 2019 than I was in previous Facebook-checking years. 2018. So curtailing that one habit has been a slight but significant positive recent change in my daily post-retirement routine.

One other sort-of-retirement-related incident: last week Randy and I ran across an affordable largish house on two acres (!) of land just outside of Atlanta that for a few days we pondered putting in a bid for. Both of us have harbored long-dormant fantasies of quitting the city and setting up a semi-rural domicile somewhere, and this place, in many respects – especially considering the asking price – was very tempting. After much discussion, however, we both remembered that, even though I am fully retired and Randy is semi-retired, we are both around 70 years old! Taking care of our respective current abodes is challenging but doable, but coping with maintaining two acres and remodeling a large house? Not as appealing a prospect as if we were in, say, our mid-30s. Our multiple conversations about this potential radical change in our current circumstances were very clarifying, if somewhat sobering.

At any rate, I remain grateful for the resources available to me (and to Randy and me as a couple), and hope the next six years will be as (relatively) care-free as the past six ones have been. Odds are that some aspects of Being Retired will grow even more wonderful and/or precious, while other aspects might get worse – and perhaps even abruptly worse. Today (and thanks in large part, I think, to Randy’s influence), I’m more in the optimists’ camp than in the pessimists’ one when it comes to gazing into the crystal ball of wondering what the next few years of retirement will feel like.

The Constant Reader: 2018

In addition to futilely trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun [seven monthly issues still waiting for me to read them!] and The New Yorker [over three dozen weekly issues still piled up, un-read!], I did manage to read a few books this past year.

I partly blame Randy for my having read so few books this past year compared to the number of books read before we began spending so much time together. We do occasionally spend an hour here or there reading our separate books, but the total amount of time spent doing that has so far been dwarfed by the time we’ve spent this year bingeing on NetFlix and Amazon sitcoms, documentaries, and movies.

The parts of the not-many-books-read-this-year situation that I don’t blame on Randy:

  • Spending way too much time every day this past year reading Facebook posts instead of whatever else – including reading books! – that I could be doing with that time and energy.
  • The sad but indisputable fact that I no longer can sit and read for hours at a time without wanting to stop and take a nap! No one warned me that my getting older would not only require the need for stronger lighting and stronger eyeglasses but that I’d lose the energy to affect my reading habit! Boo, hiss!

Be that as it may, here are the books (and my mini-reviews of them) that I did manage to finish this year. I’m listing them here in the approximate order of how great of an impact they made on me or how much I loved them:

Wanderlust:                                                       A History of Walking (2000)                  by Rebecca Solnit

Solnit is one of my favorite living writers, and this is the second time I’ve read this book: I read a library copy nine years ago – and, mortifyingly didn’t remember a word of it, just the fact that I remembered loving it. Late last summer, when I began taking long walks most days to build up my stamina for my then-upcoming trip to Italy, I bought a copy of Wanderlust and am so glad I did. Not only because it took me so long to finish it (I took it with me to Italy, but didn’t get around to as much reading as I’d planned to do), but because Solnit includes so many excellent quotations about walking, which I am planning to add (eventually) to the Commonplace Book posted elsewhere on my blog.  Another unusual thing about Wanderlust is how each magnificent chapter could stand alone as an essay on a particular aspect of the history or psychology of walking: one wouldn’t need to read the chapters sequentially. The angles Solnit comes at her subject from are often unexpected ones, and many of her own sentences are also definitely quoteworthy. I won’t be surprised if I decide one day to read this book again for a third time – it’s that rich, that dense with insight and information. And I will certainly track down Solnit’s more recent books, some of which are probably based on screeds on her Facebook page (and elsewhere).

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails  (2016)        by Sarah Bakewell

If there were ever an ideal book for Calvin to read, this must be it: it’s nonfiction, features multiple historical figures who are legends in the fields of philosophy and psychology (my two college majors and the two subjects that have most enthralled me all my life), told by a master story-teller who had already written another of my favorite books (How to Live: or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer). The full subtitle of the book includes the names of the figures whose lives and works Bakewell covers: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Bakewell’s masterpiece is a perfect blend of difficult concepts rendered understandable, meticulous historical research, fascinating backstories and spellbinding gossip, compelling speculation supported by startling insights – all of it produced in the most engaging prose imaginable. My highest praise for any book is that I know long before I finish reading it that I’m going to want to read it again, and this borrowed library book is one that I will definitely be buying my own copy of.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) by Robert D. Richardson, Jr.

A whale of a book (563 pages, excluding the notes), but completely enthralling – Richardson’s channeling of Emerson’s motivations and abiding interests are subtle and convincing. I soon got so exasperated at the number of intriguing (and obscure) book titles that Richardson mentions that Emerson read that I ended up buying a copy of the book so I can refer to it more conveniently. (Originally, I obtained my copy of this book from the library, after unearthing, late last year, a review of Richardson’s book that I’d saved from a 1995 (!) New Yorker.) I will definitely be investigating Richardson’s other books, which include a biography of Thoreau. And I am glad I at some point picked up a copy of Emerson’s selected essays, as I am now definitely going to read some of them. What an amazing mind – an authentic pioneer of the  intellect – and from now on a personal hero.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)                                        by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

I originally read this book ten years ago and recently re-read it after suggesting it to the book club I’m a member of. Shocking as it was to realize I’d forgotten all the details of the story, it was gratifying to find that my fond memories of its being one of those near-perfect novels were reinforced by a second reading. The fact that a former librarian (and her niece) wrote the book, and wrote it in the form of letters and journal entries made its near-perfection even sweeter. Our book club is looking forward to the movie based on the book that’s being released this year, hoping the screenwriter(s) didn’t mangle what is likely one of the most delightful novels you’ll ever read. Plus you’ll learn a lot about the five-year Nazi occupation of this British island, something I was unaware of until I stumbled upon this book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2009) by Rebecca Skloot

If most nonfiction books were written this well, people would read fewer novels! Once I started this tale (for my book club), it was difficult to put it down until I finished it. It took ten years for Skloot to write this first book of hers; I hope I won’t have to wait that long before she writes another one, so I can read it also, regardless of what she decides to write about. Skloot is that good – and the amount of research that went into her writing is as impressive as her riveting writing style.

Tyrant: Shakespeare and Politics (2018) by Stephen Greenblatt

One of the joys of browsing the New Books shelf at my local library is discovering that one of my favorite authors has published a new book. When I recently stumbled upon Stephen Greenblatt’s latest, I instantly put aside everything else I was reading to start it. Tyrant, like his earlier The Swerve and even earlier Will in the World, is a tour de force. Very little that I’ve read since Mr. Trump was elected President has helped me better cope with this colossal blunder of the U.S. electorate (actually, the Electoral College), but Tyrant helps a lot. Greenblatt wrote it to cope with his own dismay at Trump and his allegedly widespread and numerous supporters. It’s a short book, but it is full of spot-on observations about the parallels between Mr. Trump and Shakespeare’s Richard II, Macbeth, Lear, and Coriolanus. And of course makes me even more impressed with Shakespeare’s penetrating insight into human nature, and Greenblatt’s ability to marshall those insights into such a compelling study.

Friends of Dorothy:                           Why Gay Boys and Gay Men Love  ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (2018)               by Dee Michel

It’s not just because Dee is a friend of mine that I love his book. I also love it because of the sheer thoroughness of Dee’s examination of such a specific, discrete fixture of gay male popular culture; because he is so even-handed in the way he examines the surprisingly numerous (and often complex) aspects of the topic at hand; because of his skill in researching so many relevant cultural factoids; and because of the masterful way he weaves into his arguments the personal anecdotes supplied by so many life-long Oz  enthusiasts. To render scholarly research on any topic in conversational, engaging prose is a rare accomplishment, and this book is a satisfying example of that. Not particularly a fan of the Oz phenomenon myself, I still found this study – and the marshaling of so much data (in footnotes as well as in the main text) – to be fascinating.

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders 

What I liked best about this odd tale based on historical facts (Lincoln’s devastation at his young son’s unexpected death)  is the profound empathy with which Saunders’ reveals his characters, the convincing and appropriate archaic language he has them use, and Saunders’s occasional lyricism.  I’ve never read a novel structured so unusually, although by the end of the book that structure had become rather annoying.

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues (2017) by Pamela Paul

This memoir of how an introverted book nerd became editor of the New York Times Book Review is interlaced with remarkably articulate (and often humorous) asides on the pleasures and perils of book love. Paul entertainingly captures the complete range of often difficult-to-describe experiences with reading that every lifetime reader will recognize with glee (or chagrin). I am so glad I found this writer and this book (one of several she’s written).

The Solitary Vice: Against Reading (2008) by Mikita Brottman

Brottman is a psychotherapist and literature professor, and her book is an intriguing tonic for diehard bookaholics like me. The first half of her book, before she ventures more thoroughly into her personal reading habits and history, is the most interesting section, although the entire book held my interest. The striking parallels Brottman draws between the activities (often addictions) of reading and masturbation – and the similarities between the changed social attitudes about both – are compellingly and often amusingly described. Brottman’s humble but erudite writing style is engaging regardless of the specific literary territory she’s surveying, and she surveys a lot of them (e.g., science fiction, Gothic romances, true crime, comic books, psychological case studies). Every chapter of the book contains insights and shocks of self-recognition. The author’s list of works cited and consulted is fascinating, her list of relevant Internet sites is particularly useful), and her Acknowledgements page is as hilarious as it is unusual.

Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy (2017)  by Thomas Moore

Several of this prolific author’s previous bestselling books (The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, The Care of the Soul, A Religion of One’s Own, A Blue Fire: Selected Writings of James Hillman) have been on my To Be Read list, so when I found his latest at the library the other day, I figured I might as well finally get around to reading him – especially since this latest one addressed one of my more recent preoccupations: books about mindful retirement. I can understand why Moore’s books have been so popular: his style is very conversational and his arguments are non-combative and often persuasive, especially when Moore’s explaining Jungian-based theories of meaning (some of which – and with the pronounced exception of dream analysis) have held a long-time fascination for me). But I was surprised to find myself disappointed in this book. Perhaps I’ve already internalized most of the insights and advice on offer here, or I find Moore too repetitive, or both. Since I’ve already bought copies of those other books of Moore’s, I will eventually get around to examining them, but maybe not as soon as I was hoping to?

2018 Excursion to Spain

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Randy and I had several goals in mind for this trip. Having made such a great connection while traveling together (with three other friends) on a 2017 trip to Italy, we wanted to celebrate that experience with a sort of “anniversary trip” for just the two of us.

I was ready to re-visit England, but Randy, for his next overseas vacation, was  interested in seeing some of the Moorish cities in Spain, as well as a Neolithic site he’d read about that’s located in the south-central part of the country  Neither of us had been to Barcelona and we both particularly wanted to see it. Plus I had long wanted to visit Peg and Gary, who’ve wintered in Valencia for the past six years, not only because it had been a few years since we’d last visited, but also to discover why they had picked Valencia over all the other places they might have chosen to live when they’re not traveling elsewhere in Europe (where they’ve lived for several decades). Since Valencia isn’t too terribly far from either Barcelona or from Seville, Cordoba, Granada, etc., we decided on a three-week trip to Spain in October.

We divided our trip into three main components: a full week in Barcelona, a total of about a week in Valencia, and a road-trip in a rental car to some Moorish cities southwest of Valencia. Granada (where they keep the Alhambra) was on our original itinerary, but we changed our plans to see it when we learned (while in Valencia) that we’d not be able to book advance admission to the Alhambra until after Christmas.

One of the distinctive and surprising features of this trip for me was the way each destination turned out to be more interesting than the also-interesting place we’d just been.  Barcelona was suitably impressive – especially the Gaudi sites that we focused our time and money touring – but when we arrived in Valencia, I was immediately relieved to be in a smaller city. Ditto Seville and Cordoba.

That said, I am so glad I finally made it to Barcelona. Being there with Randy was a special treat, as it was fun not only to be traveling again with him but because Randy appreciates architecture and design as enthusiastically as I do myself.

Despite my long-time admiration of All Things Art Nouveau, I had somehow managed to spend 70 years with almost zero knowledge of the works of Antoni Gaudi. What a genius! I’d not encountered before anything remotely similar to his work, and am puzzled at why Gaudi has had so few imitators/successors. Each of the half-dozen or so Gaudi-designed buildings we visited was a revelation – and well worth the sometimes steep admission prices.

If you’ve not been to Barcelona, check out the Internet’s excellent exterior and interior photos of the Gaudi structures we toured. (Note: You may need to scroll down a bit to see the images at each of these links, and at the links to photos inserted elsewhere in this blogpost, but it’s worth the trouble!)

A few of the photos Randy took of some of these amazing buildings designed by Gaudi:

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I now understand why so many architecture fans rave about Barcelona. Not only is it where most of Gaudi’s buildings are located, but other Art Nouveau marvels are there as well. That includes the Music Palace that we toured:

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But my favorite non-Gaudi Art Nouveau extravaganza was the recently-restored St. Paul Hospital, a huge complex of amazing structures that took the better part of a day to tour.

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Of course, Barcelona is full of wonderful architecture in other styles and from other eras as well:

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While staying in Barcelona, we booked a day trip to Figueres, the birthplace of Salvadore Dali and where he renovated an old theater to house a museum for his work (and where he is buried). Both the inside and the outside of this building is appropriately bizarre, and it was gratifying to see more of Dali’s art after earlier this year having seen what’s on offer at the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Our guided bus trip to Dali-Land also featured a stop in the only other small town in Spain we got to walk around in, the charming and ancient town of Girona.

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After enjoying a walk through the medieval part of the town…

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…our favorite discovery there was the excellent museum of cinema located there (better, I thought, than a similar museum I’ve seen in Paris).

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After our stimulating and somewhat exhausting week of sightseeing in Barcelona, we took a train along the coast to Valencia where Peg and Gary have been spending each winter for the past six years.

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I quickly came to understand why Peg and Gary prefer to live in Valencia – at least in the winter – rather than, say, in Barcelona or Madrid. Spain’s third-largest city, Valencia’s got all the charm of Barcelona without Barcelona’s (or Madrid’s) bustle, traffic, and sprawl; it has fewer tourists, and, like Barcelona, is located on the country’s Mediterranean coast, so the winter weather is mild and dry most of the time. Like Barcelona, the food markets, the parks, the pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, and the cultural activities on offer are exceptional. 

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And although Valencia features zero Gaudi buildings, it’s got plenty of Calatrava architecture to marvel at:

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After re-energizing at Peg’s and Gary’s spacious, comfortable, and conveniently-located rented apartment in Valencia and after Peg and Gary showed us their town, we rented a car and headed further south along the coast in search of presumably quaint fishing villages. Discovering to our chagrin that the coastal towns we’d read about or seen videos of are actually decidedly non-scenic, highrise-infested resort towns, we promptly then headed west.

We devoted approximately half of our week-long road trip to sightseeing in Seville and Cordoba (two days and two nights in each of these towns). Just as Valencia seemed like a scaled-down version of Barcelona, Seville seemed like a smaller version of Valencia, with Cordoba feeling slightly smaller than either of those three metropolises.

As interesting as Seville and Cordoba turned out to be, we found the most congenial and easy to navigate destination was the smallest town we visited, a place I’d never heard of before called Antiquera.

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Antiquera was also the site of the Neolithic structures (temples, probably) that Randy wanted to check out:

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Spain is approximately the size as Texas, and the distances we traveled between the towns we visited were considerable. Although we certainly managed to see a lot in three weeks time – and did a lot of walking in each town we spent time in, I don’t think we tried to cover too much ground during our three-week vacation.

True, we’d hoped to find more visit-worthy hilltop villages than we managed to find along our route through south-central Spain. In retrospect, it would’ve made more sense – or at least have been cheaper – if we’d used trains instead of renting a car to get to the cities we spent the majority of our time in. On the other hand, if we’d done that, we’d’ve missed two unscheduled scenic drives that ended up being some of the most spectacular hours of our trip.

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In any case, wandering around the steep, narrow, winding streets of Antiquera reminded me of how – is it an age-related thing??? – I am coming to prefer smaller European towns (especially their medieval town centers) over the admittedly more jam-packed-with-touristy-sites national or regional capitals. The bigger places are more difficult to easily navigate (especially on foot!) and there’s always more to see than one could possibly get to unless one lives there.

After our two nights in Antiquera, we headed for Seville, where we also stayed two days and nights. When we finally located our difficult-to-find hotel, we were astounded to discover yet another Calatrava mega-sculpture looming over the hotel’s parking lot: 

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Seville reminded us both of a calmer version of Valencia, and it features a river flowing through the middle of its oldest sections instead of a 15-mile-long linear park that cuts through the middle of Valencia (which replaced a river the Valencians re-routed to prevent the river’s next catastrophic flooding).

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On one of the rare nights in Spain when we were out and about instead of collapsing in a hotel room after a long day of sightseeing and/or driving, we had dinner at a restaurant on the river just as the full moon was rising over the city:

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After puttering around Seville, we headed to Cordoba for two days and nights there. Seeing the restored remains of its Moorish-era mosque was our principal reason for going there, and we were not disappointed. The interior of this huge building is one of the most serene spaces we found ourselves in during the trip. 

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In addition to the Gothic cathedral that the city’s Christians built right in the middle of the mosque after defeating the Moors who had occupied this part of Spain for centuries,

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…the mosque complex also sports a minaret that Randy decided to climb while Cal took a nap along the edge of a fountain in the main courtyard of the mosque. 

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Another highlight of our Cordoba visit were the dozens of courtyards we toured:

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We were also impressed by the bridge across the river in Cordoba (the same river that flows through Seville). The bridge (now used only by pedestrians) was built during the time of Julius Caesar:

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After Cordoba, we returned our rental car to Valencia and spent a couple more days visiting with Peg: Gary had left the city for Amsterdam, to put the boat he and Peg recently bought into storage for the winter; they’ll move into it next spring.

On our next-to-final evening in Valencia, Randy and I traveled to the edge of the city, near the beach area that Peg and Gary had taken us to when we’d been in Valencia the week before. Our destination: a circus Randy had seen an advertisement for.

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The circus was billed as “Apocolypsis: The Circus of Horrors,” and turned out to be a sort of Goth version of Cirque du Soleil. 

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The circus performers (including many of them doing their stunts on roaring motorcycles) all had tattoos, wore elaborate (often elaborately tattered) costumes. Most of the males – and not a few of the females – wielded ropes, whips, and/or chains as part of their performances. There was a delightfully prolonged punk-style Flamenco standoff. Everything was accompanied by loud and relentless electronic music, with frequent intervals of Mohawk-sporting “clowns” yelling at and kibbitzing with the audience (all the ranting, alas, in Spanish). The spectacle was enhanced with impressive lighting effects and stupefying visual projections. It was a circus all right!

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Here’s a selfe of us waiting for the show to start, with Cal definitely uneasy about what’s likely to unfold:

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A very, um, different kind of cultural event (at least for Calvin – Randy’s a longtime fan of all sorts of circus things). It turned out to be definitely worth its 30-Euro ticket price.

What else to mention about our recent adventures in Spain?

Well, besides all the sightseeing we did – and we did do a lot of walking: on some of our excursions, Randy’s pedometer reported that we’d walked seven miles; on another day, nine! –  we also enjoyed a lot of terrific meals.

Having failed on my previous trip to Spain (back in 1983) to figure out how the tapas tradition worked, I was determined to master that this time around, and we had some wonderful tapas lunches and dinners. Eating two tapas meals a day for most of three weeks is a lotta tapas! Randy’s snapshots of a sampling of those delicious meals:

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In addition to the gustatory delights, we happened upon many visual ones that were not on our list of destinations. All of the cities we visited featured multiple murals and street art and graffiti was ubiquitous, some of it very arresting:

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Of course, we toured or peeked inside many an ancient church as we tramped through the cities we visited. Very few of these sanctuaries, however – despite their extravagant (and often Baroque) use of gold leaf and the astounding paintings on their walls and ceiling vaults – were as interesting as the Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia and Cordoba’s mosque turned out to be.

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As with most European cities, the storefronts and inventive window displays in the Spanish cities we visited offered plenty of free eye candy. Among its other delights, Barcelona is home to what I now consider to be the best paper goods stores I’ve ever drooled over! (One of them was five stories tall.)

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Finally, another memorable thing about this trip was the amazing tile work we saw everywhere we went. I eventually just stopped taking photos, there were so many photo-worthy tile displays. But when it came to my deciding what sorts of souvenirs I wanted to bring home, the things I bought usually ended up being tiles or images of tiles on magnets, coasters, etc. If you’re a fan of tile work, Spain should definitely be part of your travel bucket list!

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If it seems like we crammed a lot into our three-week vacation, it’s because we did! And even though I did a lot better than I have in the past with pacing myself and not burdening my traveling companion by overdoing it, there were definitely times when this 70-year-old tourist was very much in need of a nap! And, dear reader, I took one whenever I could!

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