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It Just Don’t Smell Right Up in Here

June 21, 2011

I used to speak Navajo. Never well, but passable enough to get teased on the Res. I spent a lot of time on the Res. When I first decided to learn the language, it was for a variety of reasons but I had serious questions about how I’d be received. White, speaking Navajo. I finally screwed up my courage and asked some of my older Navajo friends if I’d be seen as co-opting the culture. They seemed stunned that I’d even ask that. Then they told me with great sorrow how delighted they were that I was learning it. Because the kids weren’t.

Brother Folse mentioned that I should write something about the masking tradition. I will at some point, but after watching this week’s episode again, I wanted to address the idea that perhaps our beloved, cranky Albert is in the early stages of dementia. I watched the scenes over and over and have to say that I read it completely differently.

In the early 90’s, many reservations were being overtaken by gangs. Out of that grew a Native American hip hop scene, uniquely their own, with lyrics that pointed out their reality. Folks like Robby Bee and the Boyz from the Rez did an album called Reservation of Education. (It’s listed under World Music on Amazon I believe. I looked it up to see if it was even still available and it is. Their song Pow Wow Girls has evidently been taken up by NA Grrl musicians as a title for themselves.) Another group, Without Rezervation, put out a hip hop album, Are You Ready for W.O.R. (1994) with titles like To the Sell Outs.

There are Native American rock bands like Indigenous, who have rightly earned a place in radio playlists, and Blackfire’s album One Nation Under, which sounds like a bit of rock/punk and death metal.

And there are the great traditionalists: The Blacklodge Singers (look for Crow Hop, it’s on YouTube) or the Porcupine Singers. And of course, the fabulous John Trudell, poet/activist/singer/actor, who’s been contributing sound for a long time in any way he deems fit.

For the elders, though, much of this is upsetting. Many of them want their traditions kept pure, passed down un-evolved, untouched by this century or the white man (or the black man for that matter.) They bemoan the fact that the kids are, in their view, overly assimilated thanks to computers, tv and video games, or on res’s with casino money coming in, blatant consumerism. By the same token, they realize that the younger kids can’t make a living without some assimilation and education. It’s a huge quandary for them, because what they see is that while the bigger world is necessary for their kids to get ahead, it also to their mind, diminishes their traditions or jettisons them entirely.

When Albert was standing in that recording studio saying, “It don’t even SMELL right up in here!” I could completely understand what he was saying. Take an old Native American singer, put HIM into a studio in New York, and it’s very possible he’d say the same thing. Where’s the sage and cedar? I can’t DO it here. This needs to be done in a kiva. For someone to say, “We’re musicians. We play notes. We can do that anywhere,” would strike that old guy as absurd. The music simply cannot be separated from the tradition from his point of view. And furthermore, it shouldn’t be.

My view of Albert’s responses in this episode struck me as a guy who’s lost just about everything to incompetence, greed, official bullshit, thieves and the storm itself. All he has left is his identity. His identity as an Indian. If he has that, and that’s intact, he can probably weather anything. Without it he will have completely lost his moorings. I just don’t know if he can articulate that. He is the Big Chief, he has some standing in the community. He has respect, if nothing else. He’s used to people listening to him. Hell, just one of his looks can cause people to rethink their position or do the right thing. In New York, mixing jazz with the tradition in a foreign country is frightening to him on so many levels. The culture, his Indian culture, in New York? No. He’s not seeing that. Will he be respected in New York? Will the tradition be respected? Is his entire identity being reduced to notes in a studio?

His son has come around to the tradition in his way, but it’s not Albert’s way, and that’s mortality hitting ya in the face. Not just his own, but possibly the old ways, the culture he is so totally self-identified with and by. I know many elderly Native Americans who are terrified that their grandchildren won’t know any of the songs, traditions, creation stories, or medicine ways. In fact, several years ago, I believe it was the Shawnee who were given back sacred objects that had been held at the Smithsonian for a very long time. They let the Smithsonian keep them because no one alive knew what to do with them anymore.

The trip to the museum, while certainly allowing Albert to jab Delmond in the ribs a bit, also made Albert wonder if one day his suit would be behind glass with no one making them like that anymore, no one singing the chants the old way, the right way. The tradition reduced to a 3 x 5 card in a hermetically sealed, air controlled display and a sparkly CD wrapped in cellophane.

He’s struggling with so much loss. It just don’t smell right up in here.

Where’s the kiva?

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26 Comments
  1. June 21, 2011 1:53 pm

    On the other hand, as many secret knowledge societies have learned, if you don’t open up you run a huge chance of it being lost all together.

    Everything alive must keep moving and changing. It’s when it is in the museum it no longer does. And it’s lost for good.

    Various secert religious-cultural-music societies in Cuba have learned that lesson very well in the last twenty years, to their benefit. Male-only groups have even gone so far as to admit women now. And women are the most significant, efficient and constant transmittors of languge, culture and music, because they have the babies and the childcare almost everywhere. If women are kept ignorant you will lose it.

    Love, C.

  2. June 21, 2011 2:19 pm

    The tradition reduced to a 3 x 5 card in a hermetically sealed, air controlled display

    Heh. Think of how many cultures have been reduced to this over the millenia. The times, they evolve, for the better or worse.

    My family comes from an old secret knowledge society (we are Brahmins who are like the Kohens of Hasidic Judaism). Most of us live in America and all over the world doing other stuff mainly because India changed and few continue to hold respect for what the majority now considers esoteric knowledge.

    From my Indian and New Orleanian experiences, I believe that diaspora keeps culture alive more than we give it credit for. Sure, it’s not the same as performing a ritual in situ with the items sourced from the proper, original areas, but it is done, out of love, faith and a deep sense of identity and tradition that transcends time and distance. We are itinerant beings, we all came from somewhere, including black folk who have become Mardi Gras Indians (does that make me a Mardi Gras Indian on Fat Tuesday?). Do I worry that my kid will not speak Tamil as I do? Hell yes, but I speak it grotesquely compared to my ancestors. Yet, I have another language, one of my goofy, mixed American world.

    I will do my part to help keep the traditions of New Orleans and India alive in their lands, but in syncretism I trust.

    P.S. It also occurred to me that the portability of a culture is critical to its long life. So much of New Orleans culture seems to center around what you do but, more importantly, that you do it IN New Orleans. Do you consider this to be true? If not, why not?

  3. June 21, 2011 2:26 pm

    Fantastic post Sam. It made me think of my experiences at Glacier National Park during the summers, working side-by-side with the Blackfeet. Sense of place is so crucial in the shadow of Chief Mountain. I haven’t listened to Indigenous in forever…gotta put that on for a while.

  4. June 21, 2011 5:20 pm

    Brilliant analogy. It makes perfect sense and certainly could explain his behavior. Brother Folse gives this post 5 Gold Coconuts.

  5. doctorj2u permalink
    June 21, 2011 6:24 pm

    Sam,
    That is the way I looked at Albert also. I didn’t want to comment earlier because I felt like maybe I just read the situation wrong and I needed to see the episode again. To me Albert is a true New Orleanian, a man who probably has rarely left the city or, perhaps, even his neighborhood. New Orleans is the world, always was and always will be. He values his world and was demanding proper respect for it. It deserves respect. And, yes, Albert is set in his ways and ornery. LOL! Maybe on a second viewing I will see something more.

  6. June 21, 2011 6:56 pm

    In a alot of ways I agree with you, Maitri. As did the elders who encouraged me and taught me. Their view was that as long as someone, somewhere, knew the old ways, at least they would continue. But I know that they would have been much happier to have had the traditions remain in that place, with the Dine. (Pronounced di-NAY, it means, simply “the people.”) I also know that they were distinctly not happy, nor were the other nations particularly the Lakota/Dakota/Nakota, with the utter bastardization of their traditions by new agey Sedona-ites. Case in point, the death of the woman in a sweat lodge recently—not a Native American sweat lodge–it would never have happened there.

    I think portability of culture can be a wonderful thing. The fear is, in my opinion, that like leftovers brought home from a party, someone will feel it needs more salt.

    As for New Orleans culture IN New Orleans. Interesting question you asked. I think we all carry certain things in our hearts, New Orleans among them. I also think that second lining on Rampart with people who know wtf you’re doing is more fun than a second line urged by a performer somewhere else, unless you count being amused by the folks in the audience who have no clue what’s going on. Maybe I should say that some things are portable and others not so much, while still others can break your heart if heard outside of here. Hope that made sense.

  7. doctorj2u permalink
    June 21, 2011 7:36 pm

    Sorry Maitri. I disagree with you. Following the traditions outside of New Orleans would be fine IF there was no way to be in New Orleans. But there IS a New Orleans and it is sacred ground that feeds the tradition. I use to think it was the city itself that was the spirit. I could physically feel the spirit of the city. After Katrina, when I entered the abandoned city, that spirit was gone. It was then that I knew the spirit was tied the people of New Orleans. The city itself was lost without her people. It will always be with the people, but without the city itself, it is something less. Maybe I feel this way because of all the people that have told me through the years to just move the city to a “safe” place above sea level. These people do not know or value New Orleans. They have never felt the spirit of the city.

  8. Virgotex permalink
    June 21, 2011 7:42 pm

    Beauty of a post Sam.
    Y’all’s mileage may differ but I think a key piece as it relates to the Treme story is, as you say, mortality hitting Albert in the face. We’ve been shown that Albert, possibly more than any other character, is aware of his role as a culture bearer, bridging time to pass down the tradition. It’s a huge responsibility and we can’t question his dedication or his motivation.
    But I think we CAN question his actions and decisions. Albert’s important role does not mean that he’s always right. That pride that David mentioned is so key to his role of Chief, and to the ritual and tradition, but pride isn’t like a suit of beads and feathers, it comes from the man, and he can’t take it off, it’s all mixed up with the rest of his life and work. The line between THE Chief not bowing down, no one ever questioning The Chief, least of all himself— and Albert the man, the father, the (god forbid) Vctim of a natural disaster—- having to bow, having to suffer the questioning of other people, other artisans, his children, stupid bureaucrats, that line has become hopelessly tangled as a result of various forces at play. There may have been a time when Albrt was able to switch between being The Chief and being a man. Whether that time is gone forever is not known, but we do know that time is not now. The Chief does not play well with others. Whether he is aware of that is not certain, is pretty much the key to this whole argument.
    And of course, he is worthy of respect, but we can’t forget Delmond’s arc. Delmond’s vision that he worked so hard to define and is now working so hard to bring to fruition, is also worthy of respect.

    “Too bad you ain’t an Indian,” says The Chief. That might be the entire story of the son and the father, distilled down, right there. The fact that Delmond’s is a world- class artist in his own right? Have we ever seen Albert acknowledge that? Not lately. And here the artist trying to chase down and create this hybrid creation that defines his whole artistic persona, and The Chief can’t bow, can’t be just one member of an ensemble. The man, the father, can’t compromise and allow his son to be true to HIS vision, create his own story in the city of his own choosing, which is an entirely appropriate place for this fusion to come to life. His creation is part of the process Maitri describes so perfectly above, is emblematic of it really.

    It’s a great tragic set up, this arc.

    EDITED to add: doctorjtu, please don’t ever worry about being right or wrong. We all, Krewe and commenters alike, sometimes forget to give each other room to think out loud. This community, this conversation, is a process and we all have the room to be wrong and half-right and disagree and come to consensus, or stand our ground apart from consensus. Everybody gets to talk.

    .

  9. Anita permalink
    June 21, 2011 7:53 pm

    The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo took the Dine away from the land within the sacred peaks where they were told by their gods to remain and, fortunately, were allowed to return before all was lost. I read and reread Tony Hillerman’s mystery novels and all the history I could find for years and am a great fan of the Navajo.

    My childhood history crush was Scotland. I compare the Highland Clearances and marvel at the survival of the culture in the form of Highland Games throughout this country and the remnants of bagpipe sounds in the mountain music of folk fiddlers. So I think there is culture that is portable and culture which must be tended like a sacred flame, in situ.

    I believe New Orleans is both. I was already somewhat familiar with the influx of craftsmen and free people of color from Saint Domingue. Late eighteenth century was a time of great cultural and material enrichment in New Orleans. I had to pause and get the book “The World That Made New Orleans” because I have not read it and must say thank you for that recommendation.

    Yes, of course the culture travels. Right now, a sludge/doom band from here is traveling Europe, a different city every night for 30 days. Look at the jazz artists who sheltered there. Katey Red and Big Fredia have been featured in the NYT. New Orleans is very portable; it’s not all trad jazz but it is all cooked up here just the same. The chief is right. There has to be the faint smell of beer in the street, constant lap of the river, the scent of sweet olive and sweat. Magnolia and migratory birds and some pain. Shrimp and oysters being shucked. And always, there’s a song for that.

  10. Virgotex permalink
    June 21, 2011 7:57 pm

    Doctor2j and Sam, as Maitri points out up top, things do evolve and change and die and carry on and get dissipated into other things. It is the way of the world. Albert’s predecessors used to meet up on St John’s night and beat the crap out of each other. Those men likely fought to preserve their sacred orthodoxies as hard as Albert is to preserve his. Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet would likely find fault with Kermit and Harrison.
    I think this question is one of the central conflicts of the story being told.

  11. doctorj2u permalink
    June 21, 2011 8:19 pm

    Virgotex,
    I have no idea of art or story or character. All I know is New Orleans, to her soul.

  12. June 22, 2011 5:07 am

    I’m in London for a couple of weeks and haven’t seen this episode yet (and ignoring the open thread!), but I recall last year someone here said something very wise (I think it was Virgo actually): “tradition is too often about mastery rather than surrender.” This applies in many contexts and it’s given me the framework for a number of different undergrad lectures, and it is relevant here as Delmond-Albert began at these extremes and have been converging to some extent, one more than the other. For Albert tradition has meant surrender, but in doing so other things are surrendered too (expansiveness, resilience, etc). While Delmond’s single-minded effort at mastery last season has given way to surrender this year (the great scene of felicitous accident in hearing MilesDavis (iirc) under the overpass comes to mind) but still battles with trying to bring discipline in the studio.

    Virgo is right to remind us of the distinctions between the man himself (who frst appeared this season at his wife’s headstone) and all the rest: his family relations, his badgering Delmond to provoke, his role as Chief, and so on. The storyline has been amazing to watch, and pretty remarkable for TV to grapple with the question found in so many cultures when some participants want to fix culture change at a specific point. Some great stuff has been written on Black Indian masking traditions in the academic folklore journals – something both surprisingly recent and of course ancient.

  13. June 22, 2011 7:36 am

    I think Dr. J and Anita hit on a key point. Yes, culture can (sometimes) survive in diaspora. Foodways and religious traditions and language can all be preserved in the home anywhere. Music is highly portable and the echoes of Celtic music survive in the players of the Atlantic Provinces largely intact, and dispersed through Appalachian music and into the roots of country music.

    Something like masking is more problematic. Without New Orleans it would be lost in its current form. Yes, something like pow wows could be established and the costumes preserved but it would not be the same thing. Downtown Super Sunday may be this weekend. Or not. There is something intrinsically local in the way that it is practiced, and a population dispersed would lose its structure, the respect that Chiefs carry throughout the community, the internal structure of the tribes, likely specific variations of song and costume would be lost over time because the direct transmission in place in the current organization would go.

    Part of the core of the tradition is the (problematic in other ways) sacred ground aspect tied to neighborhood and ward, Uptown and Downtown. It is sacred ground. In diaspora this would be lost. A Mardi Gras pow wow in a campground full of Winnebagos (irony intended) would never be the same. That’s the chief’s point. This is his sacred ground, all of our sacred ground. That’s why most of us are here, isn’t it?

  14. June 22, 2011 8:21 am

    I love you wonderful, thoughtful, deep people!

    @Anita: Interesting story that shows a bit of both sides of this power/respect/generation thing. Years ago as the gangs were really taking hold, I put together a proposal for a documentary. The idea was that we’d get some kids from the res that were seriously at risk educationally or even behaviorally. We would then re-do the Long Walk, except that they could wear their Nikes, have sleeping bags, and we’d have trucks along the way with food and water. They would not have to bring their entire families or their sheep. We also planned to include many of the elders whose great grandparents had told them the stories: the traditional stories and the stories of the Long Walk experience. Everyone loved the idea. I had folks getting funding lined up. We were researching routes (there wasn’t just one group who went en masse along one specified route, so it became complicated as we looked at maps full of ranches and fences.) Teachers had a list of those students who they thought would benefit and would be willing to go do this and be filmed. We had some of the most remarkable elders from all over the res (that reservation is much like NOLA in terms of “where ya grow up at.” Instead of wards, their clan and the location that their family lived for generations is included in their introductions.)

    We’re all excited, starting to get equipment donated to do all this and blammo. Museum people and Tribal Council people started arguing with each other. Most felt it was a great idea but then the question became who got the money? What money. It was a documentary and we were pitching it to PBS. There was a particularly intractable elder council member who somehow had convinced himself that there would be oodles of James Cameron Titanic type bucks involved in this and that they were somehow being cut out. Months and months went by. The folks willing to participate, the folks donating equipment and supplies, all of it, withered away while the dithering continued. Finally I said, Okay, I guess you don’t want to do this.

    In the end, the councilman’s intractability led to the story NOT being told, the traditions NOT being handed down to the kids who would have benefitted most by them.

    I am in hopes that Albert’s intractability doesn’t, in the end, work against him. As for portability of culture, I think all of you have made some great points. That being said, while I don’t always agree with Albert’s response to things, I completely do understand it, and I wrote that piece thinking about his point of view, not the bigger picture.

  15. June 22, 2011 8:34 am

    “Without New Orleans it would be lost in its current form.” But surely this is the issue: “current form” is a moving target both with respect to time and to individual perspective. The musem exchange (cribbing from Sepinwall since I haven’t seen the episode yet) sounds like it is getting at that with a play on both the search for origins and the direction of influence and the problematic and usually futile nature of those searches. Sounds like someone’s been reading the Mardi Gras section of Joseph Roach’s brilliant Cities of the Dead.

  16. June 22, 2011 10:37 am

    @doctorj2u: What you disagree with is not what I said, but that’s ok.

    All I know is straddling cultures, which incidentally is also the story of New Orleans or any major port city for that matter, and I’ve found it to be incredibly refreshing. Also, we’re not talking of people who want to move the city or hippies who have just found yoga or sweat lodges, but of those who are of the culture but can no longer live where the culture found form. If you CAN live in New Orleans, well, duh, that’s a no-brainer.

    And then, there is that term: “Form.” What form, whose, of what era? Virgo and wigatrisk have discussed this above better than I have.

    @Sam: What you went through with the Long Walk sounds similar to what my mom and I experienced with some Indian and Hindu groups in Kuwait and here. There are always people who will not do, but they don’t want you to do, either, and will find reasons for you not to. In the end, it is passing on the culture that suffers. I cannot see the Mardi Gras Indian tradition thriving outside of New Orleans because it is so rooted in the concept of “place,” which is why I brought up the point of portability. Some cultures (especially spiritual ones of self-contained ritual) are not contingent on geography and others very much are.

  17. Anita permalink
    June 22, 2011 10:57 am

    @Sam: Wonderful story. I wish for time and opportunity to sit at your campfire and listen to you and to all of you at BOT. Every episode here stimulates flurries of mp3 downloads and Kindle stuffing.

    Those intractable elders might be the same ones who steadfastly resist the casinos. I hold my breath about that as so many reservations have opened their lands to gambling and have not gained as much as they have lost. The idea that a Navajo being rich is disgraceful because it means he did not treat his relatives right is intriguing, yet the same people to whom personal wealth is anathema live with Peabody Coal devouring their sacred places, just shrimpers and oystermen live with BP and the lot of them.

    On the reservation, they have violent young men, alcoholism, and children who are hungry in one way or another and so do we. They have young people who are trying to restore the language and culture and we have the Mardi Gras Indians, musicians and young idealists who come here to teach and make art. We are another native culture, one made of strands from all over the world, even from right here. After the storm, I saw pictures of, I think it was Maitri who, with others, went down to see about the Houma people at the end of the road. I remember a picture.

  18. June 22, 2011 12:06 pm

    Appropos to this discussion:

    A Day in Treme: The Musical Majesty of New Orleans Starring the Donald Harrison Quintet, Mardi Gras Indians, and Special Guest Cyril Neville

    Part of 2011 R&B Festival at MetroTech

    Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 12noon

    A former member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison has spent a lifetime making the Big Easy’s Afro-Indian roots swing. Raised in the Mardi Gras tradition, he comes to MetroTech as an ambassador of bon ton roulet spirit, joining the Mardi Gras Indians and Cyril Neville to celebrate the humble haunt where jazz was born.

    MetroTech Commons

    Free — We’ll be there, you bet!

    And last night, we were here, at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem:

    •JAZZ FOR CURIOUS LISTENERS features Tuning into Tremé: Running from the Law (and foolish ordinances), Jun. 21, 7:00pm

    Jazz writer, Larry Blumenfield, has been conducting this discussion of Season 2 Treme all long, with a gathering from the local community around 125th St. in Harlem that in many ways mirrors New Orleans’s Tremé. Many of the people have strong connections to New Orleans, as well as to Chicago, Kansas City, and of course, uptown, baby. It was a fascinating, illuminating, vitalizing evening. The focus last night was on the school bands, the second lines and their relationship to the great Civil Rights marches of that era, along with the police repression and oppression, which continues, as you all know, to this day in New Orleans. The people know this material, and they know their jazz. One of the regulars, is 84; she was a dancer at the Cotton Club. This was a really good evening, that makes you glad to live here, like so many of those evenings in New Orleans of community gatherings at someplace like the Ashe Community Cultural Arts Center.

    Love, C.

  19. doctorj2u permalink
    June 22, 2011 5:30 pm

    Thanks for explaining Maitri. I understand your intent better now.

  20. 3Suns permalink
    June 23, 2011 1:01 am

    Sam, you had me at Navajo. I have nothing to add to the awesome OP and comments, except to say I have enjoyed it very much, and in our personal lives, my wife (henceforth to be referred to as C) and I have raised our three sons to be proficient in both Japanese and English and it is a great source of satisfaction and even a little pride ;) .

  21. rickngentily permalink
    June 23, 2011 1:58 am

    @ matri.

    me and my saucier were talking about treme today at work.

    he is from the boston cape . but like the central city part.

    his people were from cape verdi africa 6 generations ago.

    they cleared the land for the airport with mules and sweat, and his great granny was the nanny for the kennedy kids.

    as a small kid in the 70’s he was freaked out by the fact that granny had pics of white kids hanging in her house.

    as he grew older he got to meet and make friends with portaguise , cape verdian , thai , and brazian kids at his high school.

    as a high schooler he went to his friends houses to hang, out eat food, and wound up learning about other parts of the world.

    the point of the convo was how we were lucky to grow up in port citys and be exposed to so many cultures as kids .

    it made people who wern’t like us seem normal to us when we were in our teens.

    a cool gimic when you are at that age.

    a gimmic most people dont understand untill they are older , or not at all.

    the convo ended with us talking about how we couldnt understand the nature of the views of people who grew up 50 miles from our places of child hood.

    the views of people who hated / were afraid of people who wern’t like them.

    nature vs nurture, talk amongts yourselves.

  22. June 24, 2011 11:25 pm

    Thank you Sam, brilliant as usual. I am a reactor, not an analyst. I respond to my gut not my brain. When the Albert as dementia candidate comments began I was appalled. All I saw and heard was an older man, who had been thru hell being cranky. He wanted it his way. Who had a better right? I do it. My Mama(88 years) does it in spades every day. What appalled was the assumption that he would be hauled off to the crazy farm soon because that was a sign of dementia. Get a grip. Because I sometimes want things the way I would prefer, the old way, does not mean I will shortly begin drooling and have to be dragged to the Alzheimers’s unit. I hope Brother Folse will SLAP YOU UPSIDE YOUR HEAD IF YOU EVEN THINK ABOUT ME THAT WAY.

  23. June 25, 2011 12:31 am

    Get a grip

    Kindly throttle it down a bit, Me

    Everyone here, commenters and those of us on the other side, have a right to express our opinions, however much others may dispute them.

    You are always welcome to disagree with anyone here but in the future, I invite you to do so without resorting to exaggerated ridicule.

    Thanks

  24. June 25, 2011 9:44 pm

    Comment acknowledged and accepted. Unfortunately for me , that was how I felt. The dementia thing actually upset me. Sorry my method of speaking offended you.

  25. doctorj2u permalink
    June 26, 2011 8:25 pm

    @Virgotex. I just wanted to thank you for your comment about “commenting”. I have not looked at the comments on this post before now because what I already posted was so close to my heart. There is a story there I may most one day. Anyway, thank you.

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