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Friday, October 31, 2003

Tonight is Halloween for people, but last night there was a Halloween party for dogs on my block. I missed the best part of it, because I was at Temple, but I caught the tail end of it when I came home. Over fifty dogs participated, some wearing costumes (there were prizes, and photos were taken), others came as themselves. I saw a large bulldog in a frilly tutu full of sequins, very fetching.

The dogs paraded up and down the street, accompanied by their owners, naturally, and they stopped at every building that has a lobby and a doorman, and had a good time doing their party tricks. In my own building, Joe the evening doorman had come to work with a big bag of dog treats, and he reported that: "Wow! Some of those big dogs... snapped up... I thought for a moment my arm was going to come off!"

The three dogs from my building who attended didn't wear costumes.

Sam is a stunning six-year old cocker spaniel, who was rescued by his present owner from a dismal home, where he had been shackled in a dark, damp basement on the end of a very short chain, never taken out for a walk or a run. Six is fairly old, for a dog, but looking at Sam you would never guess his age. Every day is now a day for rejoicing for Sam, he is never jaded about this new feeling of being free to run and do whatever he wants, to investigate every package, explore every smell, whatever his little doggy heart wants. I want to know what Sam eats for breakfast, maybe I should eat the same, maybe I would be as full of pep as he is, if I did. Whenever he has had a bath and has been groomed, he truly is a beauty, a wonder of nature. I have to admit, however, that his energy level is so high that I avoid riding the elevator with him, because he makes me feel nervous, after a while.

George and Jack are retired racing greyhounds. Talk about the exact opposite of "silly little dogs", these are canine aristocrats. Jack is a soft, allover caramel color, while George is a zany white with random grey spots. George got his name because he is curious about everything, he's always looking around for what else might be going on that possibly could interest him, he doesn't want to miss anything, whereas Jack is more one-track minded, which is to say he just wants to manifest his friendliness towards you, every one of you human beings, and be petted and caressed by you, every one of you, in return. Both of them look at every human being with liquid, loving, understanding eyes. Considering the way they have been treated all their lives by human beings, until their recent "retirement", they are a miracle of the triumph of the heart over the vicissitudes of experience. "Retirement", for a racing greyhound, means that whenever they reach the point where they no longer can run after that mechanical "rabbit" for the pleasure of the sporting gambler, whenever they become useless and not worth their keep anymore, they get put to sleep.

Jack and George's present owner is a woman with a big heart, part of a growing movement of people who rescue these dogs from certain death, and give them love and a home until their natural time to die arrives. Granted, it may not be an ideal environment for a greyhound to be living in a New York apartment, but believe me, Jack and George look to me to be having a happy time of it, as do all those other greyhounds from the neighborhood who drop by for play dates.

Anyway, I don't know why Trixie, and Mabel, and Emma and her brother whose name I don't remember, and Teddy, and Romeo, and all the other dogs in my building, didn't participate. Maybe their owners thought the party was for today.

The thought that occurs, when one sees the love lavished on pooches makes one wonder all the more at the great unkindnesses other human beings have towards each other elsewhere. There is now quite a famous case, infamous would be a better word, of a couple who have been accused of starving four adopted children, the eldest of whom is 19 years old.

This 19-year old boy has been so malnourished in this particular home that his growth is stunted and he appears to be half his actual age, weighing a mere 45 pounds (about 18 kilos).

You have to wonder how this could have happened. The couple apparently had two of their own children living with them in the house, plus two more adopted children, all of whom appeared to be healthy and normal. Some 38 visits were made to this couple's house in recent months, in connection with their planned adoption of a seventh child, and nobody saw anything wrong. You tell me how this is possible.

The whistle blower was a neighbor, who caught the 19-year old foraging for food in a garbage can.

The couple, when confronted with the state of the four starved children, declared that they had "eating disorders". And yet they had not been examined by a doctor for more than five years?

When you read about the adoption process in America, the overriding impression given is how difficult it is to find a child for adoption over here, plus how difficult it is to be approved for one. This is one of the reasons people go and adopt Rumanians, Russians, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, etc., orphans, very often the ones that are not easily adoptable by their countries of origin because "damaged" in some way, or too old (everybody wants to play happy families, they all want to bring home a brand new baby, just like birth parents).

How did this couple manage to get a second, then a third, a fourth, a fifth child, a sixth child? Did nobody ever ask to look at the previous adoptees, to see how they were being treated?

Whenever you read about the terrible lives lived by some children, the truly horrific, lonely and scary deaths they experience at the hands of people who, theoretically and legally, were those who were in charge and responsible for their wellbeing, whether it happens here in America, or in the UK, or anywhere in Europe, and possibly in other places, but I mention specifically those places I read most about, it always comes down to the simplistic conclusion that "The system failed little so-and-so", followed by the question, "How could little so-and-so have been saved?"

Ah, but you see, it's too late now, little so-and-so is dead. There is not much point in pointing the finger, identifying who is responsible for what will always be called the "system failure", unless we plan to take remedial action.

There is always going to be a gig gap between theory and reality until each human being accepts the fact of the relationship between cause and effect. People must come to realize that you can't keep making the same cause and expect suddenly to obtain a different effect.

In a world where the largest proportion of the resources, the wealth, is being squandered to develop more sophisticated weaponry and other military paraphenalia, where less and less of the wealth is allocated to the wellbeing of the living human beings who share this planet, in terms of housing, education, health care, the normal human requirement of working at a decent job for a decent wage, can it really surprise anyone that the "system fails" the most unfortunate, the unimportant, the forgotten, the unloved, at the bottom of the human heap?

Lest we forget, the world is a perfectly safe place, except for human error.

And now, for something completely different. Here is a playlist for everyone. It is the story of my heart, a journey in space and time.

1. Sirocco - Christopher Goze (from Momo's album "Arabesque")

2. Caravane - Radar (from album "Arabesque")

3. Istikhar (Prelude) & Ombre'Elle - Gnawa Diffusion; vocals: I could have sworn it was Khaled, but it's Rachid Ksentini (from album "Arabesque")

4. Journey Itself - Manuel Iman (from Album "Flowers in the Desert")

5. Nostalgia - Nitin Sawhney; vocals: Tina Grace (from album "Beyond Skin")

6. Khamratou, Part I - Ibn Arabi-Bistami/Philippe Eidel; vocals: Hayet Ayad (from Philippe Eidel's album "Mammas")

7. Anthem Without Nation - Nitin Sawhney; vocals: Devinder Vikyat Singh (from album "Beyond Skin")

8. Caravan-Shai no Shai - Olga Helm/Laurence Martinez/Joachim Cohen/Thierry Cote; vocals: Olga Helm (from album "Exotica")

9. Shamsou L'Habib - Al Hallaj/Philippe Eidel; vocals: Aicha Redouane (from album "Mammas")

10. Desert Roots - Hamid Baroudi (from album "Arabesque")

11. Flowers in the Desert - Manuel Iman (from album "Flowers in the Desert")

12. Khamratou, Part II - Ibn Arabi-Bistami/Philippe Eidel; vocals: Hayed Ayad (from album "Mammas")

13. Ki Kounti - Khaled (from album "Sahra")

14. Der Bauch - McSultan (from album "Arabesque")

15. Letting Go - Nitin Sawhney; vocals: Tina Grace (from album "Beyond Skin")

16. Shashkin - Omar Faruk Tekbilek (from album "Arabesque")

This selection is guaranteed to get blood flowing to your brain and to every last little toe in your body. There may be some doubt about this, because this the third time I have typed in this information, and I always hit the wrong button and lose everything, but maybe that's actually because I am listening to this combo right now, it's on a loop and the floor is shaking!

Anyway, you would need to access six albums, but the bonus is that almost every one of them is worth listening to in its own right. One more time:

Arabesque - Restless 73753 - Momo 2002

Momo is Mourad Mazouz, originally from Kabylie, Algeria, now working from London since 1997. This album is great. www.restless.com.

Beyond Skin - Outcaste Records - Nitin Sawhney 1999

I couldn't find the album number anywhere. This is another great album to listen through. www.outcaste.com.

Flowers in the Desert - Eversound MXD-2120 - Manuel Iman 1998

Manuel Iman says: "This album is a musical mixture of cultures. A blend of Flamenco, classical, and Eastern music is fused with a jazzy atmosphere and contemporary colors. That, to me, is what this music is all about." www.eversound.com.

Mammas - RCA Victor 74321-47770-2 - Philippe Eidel 1998

As the title indicates, this a bunch of hot female vocalists.
www.rcavictor.com.

Exotica - RA Victor 09026-68988-2 -

This is another RCA Victor selection of "World Music Divas", but I don't listen to it quite as much as I do to the Mammas.
www.rcavictor.com.

Sahra - Island 314537 5102 - Khaled 1996

I have to admit, Ki Kounti is the best cut on this album and you might get it on a better album. The cover photo of Khaled has such a smile, however, that it's worth having. You can see how anyone would be able to suspect he was the singer for Ombre'Elle.

That's all for now, and if I lose my post again this time, I won't do it again, believe me!

Thursday, October 30, 2003

"J'ai plus de souvenirs que si j'avais mille ans."

(Baudelaire. Roughly: "I have more memories than if I were a thousand years old.")

One of the headlines today on the front page in NY is "SAVED BY HIS VEST" , the story of a NYPD cop hero.

Flashback for me to May 1961 in Paris.

I was working for a French law firm in a high-end residential district of Paris. Although I was fluent in French, my written French was spotty to say the least, because most of the education I have was "made in England", where no matter how bad my spelling and grammar were, I was a star in French.

This was my second real job, the first had been working as a clerk in the Press Section Library at the British Embassy, where I met nothing but famous people: the head of Reuters, the head of AFP, the head of Paris Match, etc. I served under Gladwyn Jebb, plain Mister Jebb at the time. And Eddie Tompkins was Press Secretary, he later went back to Paris as Ambassador, but I had long been gone. In 1957, I was presented to the Queen during her state visit "for services rendered to the Crown", age 19, what a lark. It was a great moment, I did my deep curtsey, wore gloves and a hat, and the Queen gave me a gold-filled mechanical pencil which never worked properly.

In the French law firm, I was the most junior stenographer, who had not gone to secretarial school at all, who had learnt to type at home with a chart, and who had learnt steno from a book. I was assigned to the most junior lawyers, four young men, who shared a single office in the small converted townhouse that housed our offices. The office was called the "Bureau des Quatre", the "Office of Four". There were four desks in the middle, facing each other, actually touching each other, and with just enough room around them for people to get into their chairs, and for a very thin person to circulate around them. My place of work was next door, in an attic room with a "vasistas" window in the roof and a slanted ceiling, it looked a little bit like a corridor. I had a roommate and a very old mechanical typewriter missing some of the keypads, some of the letters never returned back to their proper place, you had to manually bring them down from the paper, and I wasn't paid very much, either, but it was all OK with me. I had a job, I paid my rent, I paid my bus fare, I was independent, and I was learning on the job.

The four young men would call me in for dictation at any time they felt like it, and I would transcribe. All the mail had to be ready and brought back for signature by five o'clock every afternoon. The system established was that each young man had a signature book, a "parapheur", which was a bound cardboard accordion folder, in which you inserted each letter in a separate slot, together with its proposed enclosure and mailing envelope, in front of whatever piece of paper had generated the correspondence. So, for instance, if the letter was a cover letter enclosing a draft agreement, you also had to type the agreement, and it came right after the letter and before the mailing envelope or label, according to size and volume.

Those were the days of carbon paper, so everything was typed one plus three, minimum, if you were "copying" anybody, it meant an extra carbon. With a cranky machine, you learnt to be as accurate a typist as possible, and certainly not to make mistakes at the end of a page, because you would never, ever be able to roll back to the right place after rolling up your wad of papers and carbons, isolating the typo under each sheet of carbon paper, erasing the typo on every single copy plus the original itself, where the correction should never, ever be detected, wotchout for the paper surface. Besides, the firm prided itself on "presentation", if you had more than two typos on a page, the clear choice was to start over. As for copies, well these were the days when the Battelle Institute had not even started looking for Rank to develop the Xerox machine. We are talking about times of before the Flood, the flood of making as many copies as you need plus one "just in case" without thinking twice about it.

Anyway, come five o'clock every day, I would knock on the door of the Room of Four, they would chorus "Come in!", and I would walk in, carrying four signature folders. I would be greeted by four pairs of eyes and four very large grins, and I would walk around the room handing each one his signature folder. "Thank you, Mademoiselle", "Thank you, Mademoiselle," apart from the grins, it was a formal ritual, but their grins would get broader, and they would all settle back in their chairs and watch me until I was done, walked out and closed the door behind me.

Within minutes of returning to my cubbyhole, peals of laughter would reach me through the thin partition between the two rooms, sometimes I would hear a: "What did she do for YOU, today?", and more laughter. Eventually, silence, then the phone would ring: "Could you please come in, Mademoiselle?"

I would go back, the four young men would all have tears in their eyes from laughing, and each one would hand me back his signature folder, "Just a few corrections, Mademoiselle," and I would back out once more.

The procedure was that the letters which needed corrections were pulled out slightly from the signature folder, for easy identification, and most days I returned to my cubbyhole with signature folders full of whiskers. And most days, I also had to redo almost all my work product of the day before quitting time.

I made terrible mistakes. But then, the young men also teased me a great deal, they dictated things in such ways that, if I didn't realize that they were joking, I would just type what I heard, sometimes absolutely crazy things. They also enjoyed themselves putting on provincial and international accents, they were all exceedingly talented, it was a huge game, everybody enjoyed it. It was a little bit like being a part of my very own Goon Show. The fact that I was bilingual made it even harder for me to follow accurately, sometimes I myself hurled myself into the jaws of disaster. Example?

Well, one day, in a letter in French, one of them referred to a certain commission, a certain committee, meeting to discuss some matter. He dictated "commission ad hoc". As an English girl, I would have pronounced ad hoc in a different way, with the H of hoc aspirated and a long O; the way he pronounced it sounded to me like a French person would pronounce Haddock, without the aspirated H and a very tight little O. When I came to that point of my transcription and mulled the matter over, I chose to write Haddock, after all, there are many people in France with English names, holdovers from the past two world wars, and even some of them, one hundred percent French, whose genealogies go back to before the Hundred Years War. Most people I knew, at the time, did not lard their speech with Latin phrases (except for my father, but that's another story). Haddock seemed a likely choice.

Well, no, Mademoiselle, Captain Haddock is not in charge right now. What could I say?
"Ah, vous lisez Tintin?". ("Ah, you read Tintin?")

One of the four was Bob. He was the son of a Kabyle Bashaga (Spelling? A Kabyle tribal leader) and had been a famous tennis player. In fact, he was the "fourth" of the Three Musketeers of French tennis. In 1961, there were death threats against him, and the French government had provided him with an armed bodyguard and a bullet-proof car with chauffeur.

He was a very simple man, however, and since he lived down the street, a bare five minutes' walk away from the office, he refused to be picked up outside his home in the morning: it was, after all, the only walking he would get to do all day. So, it had been arranged that the car would come to the office every morning, and take him in charge for the rest of the day, but he would walk to work.

About two minutes' walk from his house there was a police station, and as soon as Bob came into sight, the guard standing outside would call inside, and as Bob walked past the police station, one policeman would walk a step ahead of him, and another would bring up the rear, until he reached the office.

Now, I lived on the other side of town, I had to take two buses to get to work, with a transfer at the Pont de l'Alma. Timing was such that almost every day I would reach Bob's house just as he was setting out, so the two of us would walk together, chatting, and when we reached the police station, we would become sandwiched in, one policeman in front of us, another one behind us. I don't think we either of us gave it any thought, and we certainly never discussed it. In those days, terrorist bombings were part of daily life in Paris, you only talked about it as you would of the weather, when you had nothing better to talk about.

One morning, I was five minutes late. No more, I swear. My second bus had been detoured slightly to free the path for General De Gaulle's motorcade, coming back from a tour of Dauphine.

The first indication I had that something was wrong was when I came across a dying policeman on the ground, between the police station and the office. There was a very small crowd of gawkers huddled over him, who told me someone had already called the police and an ambulance was on the way. Nobody knew anything more. I could see the man was dying, his skin tone had already started changing, and after loosening his tie to ease his breathing and telling everyone to back off, to let the poor man have air, I ran to the office.

"Has Bob arrived yet?" I cried out.

"No, he should arrive any moment."

I ran to the police station.

"Did you see Bob go by this morning yet?" I was breathless.

"Yes, we did."

They told me two men had been lying in wait for him, and had opened fire on him. One of the attackers took care of the policemen, and the other one concentrated on Bob. He had an automatic pistol and emptied his cartridge, or charger, or whatever it is called. Of course, Bob did not stand still to be shot at, but started running and zigzagging in and out of the parked cars. He had already been wounded, and came down between two cars, and the attacker caught up and was trying to reload, to finish him off, and while he was reloading, Bob was trying to unbalance him and bring him down, but the space was too tight, the man's legs were too strong, he was weakening from loss of blood, whatever. The only thing that saved Bob was that when reloaded, the charger stuck, the gun would not fire again, and the attacker took to his heels.

Anyway, those details only came out later, when Bob told me the story. In the meantime, the police could tell me that a passerby had driven Bob in his private car to the American Hospital.

I somehow knew what to do next. I ran to the office and asked one of the other four young men to help me. I thought it would be best for a man to break the news to Bob's companion, rather than to have a young girl like me do it, and I also needed someone with a car to help me pick her up, and to drive us to the American Hospital. So within a very short time, the three of us were waiting for Bob to come out of emergency surgery at the American Hospital.

The interesting thing about the attack, apart from the gun getting stuck, is that the would-be killers were convinced Bob would be wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, so most of the shots were aimed at his head. His face was shot from side to side, his teeth were all gone, the bullet went clear through, the doctors had to wire his jaws. Mystically, his lawyer's tongue, his breadwinner, was unharmed! Then, bullets burnt grooves through his hair, giving him a strange, crazy, haphazard haircut. Only grazed skin, however! He had two shots in one arm, but it was not his tennis arm!

And then the best. He showed us his pocket diary, one of these fancy leather diaries from Hermes, with annual refills, in which he noted all his appointments, which he carried in the inside pocket of his suit jacket, right over his heart. And there, very neatly lodged in a little notch made in the leather, a notch the exact size of the bullet, was embedded one small bullet, all neat and tidy, like a small jewel.

Who would ever have thought that the sight of a bullet could bring such joy and relief to anyone? How we laughed!

Of course, the police took the diary as "evidence". And, of course, it was "disappeared", Bob never got it back and the police denied it had ever existed. But we saw it, and we touched it, and we know what happened.

Bob's father, when he met me at his son's bedside, told me I was very lucky: "You have baraka", he said. I know, I am protected. I am always grateful.

I have been remembering Bob a lot these past few days. At four o'clock, in that long ago law firm in Paris, we used to go down to the basement and have a cup of tea together, all of us, always Orange Pekoe. I have been drinking Orange Pekoe in Bob's honor recently. Maybe I should check the French newspapers. Maybe he has died recently, or is dying now. And I can do toba for him.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

I didn't post yesterday, and last night, whenever I woke up, which is a lot, listening to the heavy rain, I kept having ideas what I was going to say today, but now that it is today, it's all up for grabs once more.

Yesterday started badly, with a thumping headache and debilitating nausea. I can get nausea for a number of non-life threatening reasons, so I must always interview myself, asking simple questions such as: "When was the last time you slept? When was the last time you had something to eat, a real meal? When was the last time you had a drink of water? Are you on a boat? Are you on a train, facing backward? Are you on a bus or in a car, talking too much? Did you eat sardines recently?" That kind of thing.

Yesterday morning, nothing applied, so I just got washed and dressed, and went to the other Starbucks, for a change, the one on 57th Street where I can sit on a tall stool, dangling my legs, and look at some of my favorite things going on outside.

There's a little girl sparrow, for instance, who comes to clear the sidewalk tables of crumbs, then she does the same thing on the ground. One of the young men who works there has noticed her too, he claims she always comes alone.

Myself: Maybe the other sparrows are all on a diet... Too much sugar...

The young man: Yup... And all that refined flour..."

It's a young bird, hatched this year, hasn't learnt about human beings yet: she is leisurely and relaxed, totally trusting. I wish I could always be like her.

Another thing I enjoy watching is the people walking their dogs before going off to work for the day. They are usually in a hurry, they still have other chores to do, they are on target, and sometimes you can see diminutive dogs just dig in and refuse to move on. Maybe they found an interesting smell to investigate, or maybe they have finally found the exact spot where they want to deposit their contribution to urban decay, but the self-absorbed, or sometimes plain authoritarian, owner has decided that time is up, tempus fugit et non combackibus, and the extensible leash gets longer, and longer, and longer, evidence of an unequal battle of the wills, 5 lbs of canine power vs. 165 lbs of human determination. It's always fun betting on who will win.

The other day, actually, walking to Temple past the 42nd Street Port Authority, I witnessed something wonderful.

There is always a huge busy crowd at that spot, various streams of incoming and outgoing commuters, city residents going in and out of the subway, people lining up for cabs, and transit foot traffic, like me. It's not a holiday crowd, it's a bustling, pushy, aggressive crowd, and when you go through it you are grateful there is no emergency, you are grateful you are in moderate good health and light on your feet, to dodge the odd bulldozer person who barrels through the crowd without looking who might be in the way, working their elbows left, right, mercilessly, stepping into your shoes from behind... Without warning or apology.

I suddenly caught sight of a small dog, who had sat down on his haunches and refused to budge. He was looking up at his owner, every atom of his small body expressed: "I can't walk through this mess of legs-This is hazardous to my health."

And I saw this absolutely huge, overweight, overblown body-builder of a man, with large arms, and hands with fingers like sausages, bend down, and most gently pick up the little dog, and walk on, cradling him tenderly in his vast arms, the little dog stretching his neck up towards the man's face, his eyes full of affection and gratitude, and the large man was looking down into the little dog's eyes, "It's OK, buddy-it's OK", he seemed to say.

There was so much love in that exchange I wished it could extend to the whole world.

Anyway, going back to 57th Street, another thing I enjoy watching is how people walk. They all walk from the hips, actually, and that's where the personality shows. The tilt of the hips is what determines the style of the walk, and more important, the angle of the butt. Power is in the butt, some say, and you sometimes can see it quite clearly, in the same way that it is easy to spot a really timid person, or even someone who is a "wannabe", before you even spot the Clinton hairdo, for instance.

You always have to wonder, too, what is going on in the mind of a woman who sets out on a business trip with a large piece of wheeled luggage, wearing very high stiletto, backless sandals...Boy, is that a scenario for disaster!

Fifty-seventh Street is also a good spot from which to count the inordinate number of crosstown buses that fly by "Not in Service". Cui bono? As I always like to say.

Well, after Starbucks got rid of my nausea, it was catchup on the blogs, where I spent a good time reading up on my links, and drifting off into Webland, Lala-Land in a way.

I was a photographer in one of my past lives, for a while, and I remain a visually oriented person. Douze Lunes often has good photo links, and yesterday I went to look at... Well, it's written on a piece of paper, I can't find it, it was a beautiful set of pictures of wine cellars by an Iranian living in Toronto (one of these days, I plan to add a link to the photoblogs I love, I'm easing into this blogging thing), and there I found a link to Captain Haddock of Tintin fame. I was a gonner for a good bit of time.

The Tintin site belongs to a 13-year old girl. At first, I thought it might be the work of a young Frenchman, with good spoken English but spellcheck challenged, introducing Tintin to English speaking folk. There were some spelling mistakes which I interpreted as bilingual puns, as when Captain Haddock, a rather habitual partaker of whisky (for medicinal purposes only, no doubt, to keep out the cold and the damp) was described as being "ginxed". How well I remember the feeling! But no, it was a young girl. There's a photo of her on her site, but it didn't load for me. I hope it does sometime, I would love to know what she looks like. I am a fan of hers.

Before moving on, I should add that her unfavorite character in Tintin, the singer Castafiore, "La Castafiore" as she is called in French, happens to be one of my own favorites. For years and years, every time I have prepared myself for a party, got myself "gussied up" as I call it, when I do the final checkup in front of the mirror, I always say: "Any minute now, I'm going to break out into my Castafiore song!"

(For the uninitiated, Marguerite's song in Faust: "Ah, je ris, de me voire si belle--en ce miroir!")

I think it is appropriate for me at this point to express my profound gratitude to all my links: they are diverse, stylistically and thematically, but they all evidence to the highest degree, in my personal opinion, the best, the most generous of human spirit.

You make me laugh, you make me cry, and you always make the world a better place by the very fact of expressing who you are.

Thank you!

Monday, October 27, 2003

Well, many more bombs were set off in Baghdad during the night. It would appear that the bomb which hit the Rashid Hotel over the weekend, where Wolfie was staying, was just the kickoff. It looks like Wolfie was not the target, they probably didn't even know he was coming when they were planning the attack, or they would have been more precise, maybe. As it is, he was not even hurt, which is a blessing: all we would need to hop things up really, really hot, would be to have a top U.S. dignitary hurt.

Among today's hits is the Red Cross. If ever any organization could represent goodwill to all, that surely is it, above and beyond all other humanitarian services. Attacking the Red Cross is a hellish thing to do and if anyone needed such a distinguishing definition, it clearly sets the perpetrators in the category of people in the lowest of the ten worlds, the world of Hell, and also in one of the lowest circles of Hell.

There are two worlds of Hell, the physical and the spiritual. The spiritual world of Hell is actually in the heart of man. Nobody is immune: that is why it is important to choose what one believes in. So, let's talk about religion today.

Most people come into religion at their mother's knee: they will be raised in the faith adopted by their parents, which will either be the same as that of their grandparents, or something different, in the case where their parents were converted.

To keep it simple, religions are to a great extent split into two major factions: one that believes in a Creator God, and the other that believes in the Buddha.

Let us set aside those who believe in more than one God, to keep things simple, and deal with the largest of monotheistic religious blocks, those based on the Bible, the religions of the Book. The three main groups included here are the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims, who all practice a religion started by Abraham, who it is said came out of Iraq. Geographically, that is: at the time, Iraq did not exist as a state, country, region, etc.

The defining belief of these three large monotheistic groups is that they all believe in one single Creator God, omnipotent, omnipresent, all-knowing, all-seeing, all-merciful. According to this belief, nothing and nobody ever existed unless it was created by God.

Begging the question why such a compassionate God should ever have created imperfect beings in the first place, one other question remains unanswered in my own mind, and that is why this same God also created a Devil to tempt His frail creature, Man, into wrongdoing.

One could also ask why such a God should have revealed His laws, rules and regulations, to just a chosen few, and why, if His intention really was to make all equal in His sight, He created some with deformities, ill health, mental aberrations, etc., and why He set some down in physical paradises and others in arid, inhospitable lands, and why some were born with a "silver spoon" in their mouth and others to impoverished families.

The main point about monotheistic religions is that it is roundly set in time: There was nothing, and presto! The world was created in all its imperfection--in the image of its Creator, it is said, although the nagging thought does occur to me, since all religions are originally started by one single man, in the monotheistic case, Abraham, it does occur to me, I say, that even when passing along the Creator's word there might be room for some kind of misinterpretation or discrepancy, leading to some form of "Chinese whisper" effect, resulting in man in fact creating God in his own likeness, which actually would explain a lot more than the "other way around" theory...

Monotheistic believers are required to believe that belief in this One God is the only means to their salvation. Belief also encompasses following all the rules and regulations set down by God, via His chosen spokesperson, praying to such a God in order to propitiate His favors, mindful at all times that it is only through God's grace, i.e. favoritism, that man can perfect his imperfections. In other words, a believer must believe at the same time that he was created perfect, and that he was created imperfect and must complete himself more perfect than God's creation. Man the subservient, the creature, must outdo his maker.

Any form of resentment from the imperfect creation towards its Creator, any form of complaint with respect to perceived injustices in the divvying up of any kind of goodies, is to be denied expression in the same way that a rebellion against the will of an autocratic tyrant might be. Everything is the will of God" and must be accepted as such, not only that, it must be embraced joyfully as the indication that the Creator really, really loves you, and that is why He has singled you out to test your faith so harshly.

Little surprise that such religions can lead to glaring injustices: but we won't go there. There are, after all, many believers who do not use these religions to manipulate and dominate others, and we will only look at the very basic premise of a monotheistic religion.

It is set in time: there was nothing and at a certain moment in time, God created everything.

Time is a linear event having an originating single point, one original point, a primary cause, God's creative act.

The most superficial examination of God's creation, however, reveals that not all things are created equal: there are sentient and insentient beings. Among the sentient beings, life forms have many differentiations, from very simple units, to fishes, to birds, to mammals of various intelligence, finally to the apes and at the summum, Man.

Man is superior to all the animals in that he philosophizes. No other animal questions: "What is birth? What is death?" No other animal asks "What is the purpose of life?" All others are ruled only by instinct and biological imperative.

Man may accept a monotheistic belief, and this will usually lead him to find comfort at the prospect of his inevitable death, in the thought that if he obtains God's approval, after death he will go to Heaven. Worship God, keep all His rules, obtain His approval, you go to Heaven. Don't worship God, however, break all His rules, fail to obtain His approval, and go to Hell. You do have a choice, it's up to you: it may indeed be Hobson's choice, but you must make it.

I sometimes wonder whether anyone really believes in God's judgment with respect to this matter, because no people on earth actually leave it up to Him to make a final judgment, almost all peoples take matters into their own hand and dispense their own form of justice, as if God couldn't be trusted somehow.

Let's set that aside! Let's say only God judges, only God determines who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. In this eventuality, it is all up to the personal relationship the individual has established with the Godhead. In human terms, it is all negotiable, full of quid pro quo, compromises, sleight of hand, bargaining, double-talk and manipulation, sometimes last minute deals.

Ergo, there are "strangers", "estranged parties", "more favored peoples" and "most favored nations".

Interpretations of monotheistic religions are often updated to reflect the accepted scientific discoveries of the times. For instance, everyone knows that under the Inquisition, claiming that the earth moved around the sun was punishable by a most public death at the stake. In the more recent past, some two hundred years ago or so, believing and stating that the earth was billions of years old was contrary to the Church's belief in a world created by God a mere few thousand years ago, to the denial of all fossil evidence, and a contrary stance could have one excommunicated. Theilhard de Chardin was silenced because he favored the notion of evolution, deemed contrary to the Church's teachings that Man was created in God's image, with an immortal soul, at a specific moment in time in one fell swoop, and that happened in our own modern times. So one may conclude that even if we still deny the evolution of man, we cannot deny the evolution of religion.

Monotheistic believers use their faith to bolster their courage in the face of their expected death. It can be summarized simplistically as: "Don't worry, when you die, you will go and enjoy your life forever in a beautiful Heaven."

The skeptics who cannot believe this, for whatever reason, can take comfort from science, as stated in the two facts: "Before birth, nothing! After death, nothing! You don't have to worry about a thing, it's all a big Zero. Enjoy life as much as you can while you can, and then die."

So now we come to Buddhism. What's different?

What's very different is there is no Creator God, it's all Cause and Effect. There is no point of origin, before which there was nothing and after which there was something. There is only a continuum, eternal life without beginning or end. It is a transformation, a constantly recurring of appearance and disappearance. It has three phases: it is physical, or it is spiritual, or it is both. But it is also all three at the same moment, because it is never only just one of the three.

Anything, whether physical or spiritual, is the effect of a previous cause, and each effect becomes the cause of the next effect.

Time is also a continuum, past, present and future, but it is always NOW!. You only know the past because of the effects you see in the present, and you can foresee the future by looking at the causes you are making in the present.

The balance of accounts is stored in your Karma, the Eighth Consciousness.

The Law of Cause and Effect is absolute, in impartiality, justice, application, etc. Make a bad cause, you get a bad effect, make a good cause, you get a good effect.

Because linear time is just a partial truth, it sometimes appears as if a cause did not have an effect, as when a crime goes unpunished. In fact this is not so, however, because the unpunished crime goes "on the books" of Karma, and retribution will occur when the time and circumstances are right. Under the Law of Cause and Effect, there is always perfect justice: just be aware the retribution might come when you had totally forgotten your transgression--or even, in your next, or some future, lifetime!

There is no way to avoid your Karma: there is only one way to handle it, and that is to accept it and recognize it as your own, your responsibility, and to determine to change it. The law of Karma works like any other law, whether you know it or of it or not, whether you agree or disagree, whether you love or hate it, believe or disbelieve.

Just like the Laws of Electricity, Thermodynamics, Relativity, Gravity, Nuclear Physics, etc, they all of them apply whether you understand them or not, whether you agree or disagree, love them or hate them.

The only difference is that these small, partial laws only apply to the physical realm. Only the Law of Cause and Effect applies both to the physical and the spiritual realms.

For a Buddhist, there are no coincidences, no accidents, no luck, good or bad, no fate determined by some outside entity: everything we experience is determined by only one thing, our Karma, which is the repository of all the words, thoughts and actions we have had in this and our previous lifetimes, and our future lives will likewise be determined by the causes we are making now. There is no Supervising Deity to negotiate with, there is only the perfect justice of the Law of Cause and Effect.

So, a practicing Buddhist is mindful of the fact his future life is in his hands, and his inevitable death, instead of presenting a stressful uncertainty, may be anticipated with the calm confidence that he has done all in his power to assure a happier rebirth in more favorable circumstances than he experiences now, by the transformation of his Karma. He also knows that the messy world which he thinks he is leaving behind, he will find again, sooner than he thinks, he may even become part of a mine removal squad sometime in the future, removing things he thoughtlessly put down in this lifetime, because he is not going to be whisked away to some pristine, unspoiled-by-human-hand paradise. The fact of the matter is, it's not only your grandchildren who will be paying the bill for your feckless waste of the environment, you will be among them too, you are in fact creating your very own future!

This is a simple statement: Buddhism is actually most complicated and there are some provisional teachings that resemble in part monotheistic teachings. The reason for this is that there are two ways of teaching Buddhism.

The first is to explain theory in a manner appropriate to the student's understanding. This is called "Zuitai", "According to the people's minds". The second is to teach the truth regardless of the student's capacity for understanding. This is called "Zuiji", "According to the Buddha's mind'.

It is easy to understand by way of analogy: If you were to explain the Law of Electricity, or the Law of Gravity, or the Law of Physics, to a child in kindergarten, junior high school, senior high school, college, or post-grad at M.I.T., you would explain it differently, wouldn't you? That is "Zuitai".

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any religion, it's just some of them are most decidedly kindergarten: not lies, but not the whole truth, either. They are provisional and preparatory, they point and lead to the truth, they are true, as far as they go, but they are not complete.

It is only the Buddhist Law, the Law of Cause and Effect, which covers both the physical and the spiritual realms, which explains the theory of Buddhahood and is consistent with science. But even this theoretical truth is not complete.

It is only True Buddhism, which reveals the perfect justice of the Law of Karma, the Law of Cause and Effect, and which teaches "according to the Buddha's mind", "Zuiji", which is the only teaching which reveals the seed of Buddhahood, thus enabling every single human being to achieve Buddhahood without fail in this very lifetime, it is, therefore, the only teaching which is complete.

(Potential Buddhahood had been revealed by Shakyamuni in theory more than 3,000 years ago; but the time was not ripe for him to reveal the "seed". It was only Nichiren Daishonin, in 13th Century Japan, who fulfilled Shakyamuni's predictions and actualized his own Buddhahood in such a way as to enable each one of us to awaken our own potential. It is only Nichiren Daishonin who gave us all the seed of Buddhahood. But that is another story.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

I was in the bathroom, from where I can't hear the phone ring, but I sort of heard part of what Janna was saying, which sounded like: "I have good news, come anytime." It turned out it was a good movie, and it was Fargo. Whadda you mean, come any time? The correct way to invite me would have been "It's just started, come as soon as possible". At least, while the movie is still playing.

Janna is very funny sometimes in her loose use of the English language. She bought a car once, and started a phone call for car insurance.

"What kind of a car do you have?" asked the agent.

"A white one!" Janna answered quickly.

Silence.

This year, I installed her DSL for her, because she cannot follow any kind of instructions, and at one point I asked her to call customer service at Verizon, I forget exactly what for, it had something to do with the fact that she had two phone lines, and that by installing DSL she was going to cut back to just one phone line. She loves Verizon, they have customer service in every language, including Russian, so she feels right at home and confident calling them.

"Are you installing DSL yourself?" they asked.

"Oh, no!" she answered, "My friend Pat is here."

Watching a movie, or anything else for that matter, with Janna is a challenge both to your attention span and your imagination, because she hardly ever stops talking. If it's a movie, she is telling you the story line of another movie she has seen a particular actor in. If it's part of a series, she is telling you what happened in last week's episode. The result is she suddenly stops talking and says: "I don't understand what is happening."

So you have to fill her in and tell her what she just saw, because she was watching too, same as you, but it didn't register, and in the process, you lose the thread of the action that is taking place right then and afterwards, you have to play catch up. It's the price you pay for being in a relationship with her, so just relax and go with the flow.

The very best thing to watch with her is Alias, because it moves so fast.

"I don't understand," pleads Janna, "Who is this man?"

"He's CIA," I tell her.

"How do you know?" she asks.

"Educated guess," I answer.

Whenever it happens I was right, she turns to me with a triumphant: "You were right! How do you know these things?"

I don't. I am just hanging loose instead of getting tied in knots, because I really don't enjoy interrupted viewing. I make a game of spotting the double agents ahead of the plot, I can usually foretell the characters who will come back from the dead, and so on. It adds another dimension to the plot.

Janna sometimes puts in her two cents: "I know this sort of thing really happens because [insert any kind of story about KGB].

Yup, KGB, CIA, MI5 and MI6, Mossad, we are all expecting dirty tricks from so-called intelligence, a misnomer if ever there was one.

KGB lost some credibility for me in the terror department one day, and was reduced to a bunch of human beings just like the rest of us, when Janna told me KGB agents always carried a silver spoon in their suit pockets, when they went out to dinner in the West.

"Whatever for?" I asked, a little startled, I admit.

"Because they can stir their drinks with it, in case they are poisoned; silver neutralizes the poison..."

Aaaaaah! Success is often due to such attention to detail.

Janna once gave me a silver spoon which she found in a box she bought at auction, so I am now equipped, in the pocket department, for a brilliant new career. Actually, please don't anybody contact me with any offers, because I don't know where my spoon is at the moment.

After Fargo, we watched the news and that terrible story in Florida, about the woman in a persistent vegetative state and the intervention of Governor Jeb Bush, challenging the decision of the court to authorize the removal of feeding and hydration tubes. The ins and outs of this case are complex. There is the point of view of the parents and their reluctance to see their daughter die, there is the husband's point of view, medical diagnoses and prognoses, medical ethics, constitutional law and the correctness of having the court approved decision of a guardian overturned by the Governor of the State, without so much as a procedure being engaged to remove and replace the guardian legally, the ethical decision of the doctors to implement the Governor's decision, not to mention the nagging question, when do parents, or do parents ever, lose their parental rights, their "ownership" of their grown-up children, to make choices for these incapacitated but independent children, choices contrary to the avowed wishes of those children when they were really able to decide for themselves and to speak up in their own words.

So, I won't go into the Schiavo case at all. I will just express my own feelings about dying, my own understanding on that most serious matter.

First off, every living being born to life eventually dies. I happen to hold the Buddhist belief that life is eternal. It is a continuum, with a phase of living, and a phase of dying, just as in a 24-hour period of daily life there is a waking phase and a sleeping phase.

Humor me, please, and explore what follows from this premise.

What follows is this: In the same way that a good night's sleep ensures a good start to the next day, a good death determines in part the quality of your next life.

It is absolutely essential, therefore, to have a good, peaceful, natural death.

Apart from accidents, disasters, wars, crimes, suicides, etc., deaths are due more to a process than a single violent event. Even someone with cancer, for an example, dies not from cancer per se but from the shutting down of all biological processes: kidneys fail, livers malfunction, circulation becomes sluggish, the lymphatic clean-up team packs in its garbage removal, the brain misplaces its marbles, the heart forgets its rhythm, finally, the whole system loses its integrity and the balance of life snaps, the dissolution of the elements composing a living entity begins, a living organism reverts to insentient elements, and the body begins to decompose.

Obviously, there is a defining moment when life is gone, sentient becomes insentient, but even doctors find it hard to pinpoint this event, which is why they have such separate definitions as "brain death", as opposed, for instance, to considering the stoppage of the heartbeat to equate death.

For my part, I have wondered as a practicing Buddhist how hard I should struggle to maintain my life when it entailed pain, and paindful treatment and operations, with little hope of a cure or sometimes even any assurance of quality of life.

I went to my chief priest to ask him what an ideal attitude might be, for someone wishing to be guided by the tenets of her faith and practice. His answer was quite simple: it was entirely up to me to decide how I wanted to proceed, there was no right or wrong way. He said that in his own case, after a certain number of operations to prolong his life, he would probably reach a point where he would say: enough, no more. He said there is such a notion as a natural death.

It was a great relief to me to be told it was up to me to decide how to go off into the dark...

A year or two later, one of our assistant priests was giving a group of us a presentation on the significance of practicing every day, without fail, which was in order to pass through the moment of death, that defining moment, with the consciousness that it was the last moment of one's life, "without dishevel", as he quaintly put it.

"Dishevel" was defined as that state of chaos, unrest and associated pain resulting from any one of a number of incorrect attitudes towards death, such as: attachments, such as attachments to one's loved ones, one's position in life, one's money, etc; becoming overwhelmed by the physical or emotional pain and anxiety attendant on the physical death process, the disintegration of the body; or refusal to face the reality of death.

The moral of his story was basically this: There were two kinds of preparation for death, one over a period of years, and the other at the very moment of death.

The first one involved establishing a correct, consistent practice over the years, which would enable you to be conscious of the fact, when the time came, that this was your final moment, so that you could continue to chant without "dishevel" until that very last moment, thus guaranteeing a peaceful end and a quiet new beginning.

On another occasion, another one of our young priests had made a presentation about dying from the point of view of the ideal attitude to be held by people surrounding a death bed.

In this case, a few points should be observed:

* The dying person was to be kept in a quiet, peaceful environment, not too hot, not too cold, with a certain amount of privacy.

* Loud people were to be kept out of the room, as well as people who smelled bad, either from liquor, tobacco or garlic, for example.

* People disliked by the dying person should be denied all access, even if they claimed some form of close ties.

* When the end approached, no food or water should be administered.

* Persons attending were encouraged to chant, in a quiet, harmonious manner, and if the dying patient was able to join in, the rhythm should be adjusted to match his tempo and his breathing pattern.

My personal experience after surgery had been that thirst was the single worst of all pains, the one without relief from painkillers, so I went to the young priest afterwards and questioned the "no water" point.

What he explained is as follows: When the body's functions are shutting down, this is a natural process. Attempting to retard or reverse it creates conflict, bringing pain to a process which otherwise should be painless. He said that when the process of dying is fully engaged, hunger and thirst actually abate, just as breathing slows down, and he said that the very fact of withholding water in the final stage actually assures a more peaceful, painless death.

This explained to me the stories I had heard of sages who had stopped all eating or drinking during the last week of their life: they knew, and they were wise enough to apply the knowledge.

I was interested to find this withholding of water mentioned in a Japanese book on dying. I forget the title, it's probably on one of my shelves.

It also confirmed what I had read about extreme burn victims. The decision in certain cases is left up to the burn victim, the choice between no treatment, and a swift, peaceful, painless death, or the chance of survival and rehabilitation, which would necessarily bring with it all the terrible suffering of the treatment, the painful debridement, etc., with no guarantee of success.

I think the greatest show of love any human being can have for another is to respect their wishes on the way in which they will face what is actually their own death, when it finally presents itself, especially when those wishes are not the same as the ones you personally hold.

Written? Unwritten?

It must be a matter of conscience, and honesty, and ethics, when they were not written down. Courage too. Surely, if you have shared intimacy with someone you love, and you know what they wanted, or did not want, it behooves you to honor their wishes, as closely as you understood them.

It is perhaps easier, though not necessarily so when they differ very much from those that fit your own beliefs, to honor someone's directives when they were written down in a living will.

This is a matter of such importance that I think it would be a good idea for anyone who cares one way or the other what happens to them to set down their wishes in writing, even early in life when they are perfectly healthy and not expecting an untimely demise. Let's face it, it is not only the old who die, and it is not only the old who experience traumatic events which leave them incapable of expressing their wishes directly.

When all is said and done, what I want for my life is to live it as a full human being as long as possible, with as much quality of life as possible, and then I want to experience quality of death. No heroic measures, no resuscitation, no feeding tubes or hydration tubes, no final experiments.

I would hope to be chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo with my last breath, and if that is not possible, at least I would want to be able to express it in my heart.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Today, I must draft the minutes of the Block Association meeting which took place last night. Since I didn't take notes, I must do it right away or I don't stand a prayer. Still, a small blog to follow up on yesterday's.

Last night, I happened to be riding the elevator, back from a garbage disposal detail in the basement, with one of my upstairs neighbors, who happened to be in a very manic mood.

"Let's stop in the Lobby," he sang out, "Do you mind? I'm expecting a friend, he may be arriving now."

"Well, sure," I answered, "But I've just been in the Lobby, there is absolutely nobody there."

Sure enough, the Lobby was deserted, not even a doorman in sight, all the doors were closed.

We rode on. "I thought he might arrive at this time!" he laughed.

"Just like that, because you happen to come out of the elevator?"

"Yes," he laughed, "I believe in that sort of thing."

"Synchronicity?"

"Yes..." he nodded.

I told him about the two potted plants outside 340. I told him how I felt they were there for me, because I had been the one who had seen them, noticed them. I asked him whether he thought it would be stealing to bring them home to my house. We laughed. We parted.

This morning, which was the deadline I had set for their rescue by me, I noticed that someone had set them into the soil during the night, and I don't have to think about it anymore. Of course, I still have to carry the karma of having for a short time entertained the thought of stealing...

I was talking about the American airman of 1944, yesterday. I think for the balance I should also talk about one of the German soldiers who was a part of the occupation forces at the same time.

A good number of those German soldiers came from a background of lack, deprivation and restriction. When they hit the lush farmlands of France, they were very often hungry, might maketh right, they helped themselves to any of the goodies they fancied, most of the time without paying for them. I remember seeing soldiers walking in the street, eating sticks of butter without bread, it was such a treat for them. Yuck!

The local yokels, which included me, had ration books entitling them to buy a limited supply of basic necessities every month. Unfortunately, when the populace showed up in the stores, the shelves were bare because the Germans had requisitioned everything.

During the German occupation, the official mayor of Bruz had designated a retired doctor, Doctor Joly, to be the person who would communicate officially with the German military Commandant. He was chosen because he was a man of tremendous courage, integrity and dignity, and because he was a worthy burgher, one worthy of respect even from the occupation forces.

After a few months of "no food" for the civilians, Doctor Joly went to see the Commandant, told him off roundly and announced he would not tolerate this behavior to continue: from now on, the Germans could help themselves to all the food they wanted, but only after sufficient supplies had been set aside to honor all the ration books of those entitled.

People had been deported for less, but Doctor Joly had a real presence, and the problem never arose again afterwards.

Doctor Joly, his wife, mother, children and servant were all killed during the Allied bombing in May 1944. Not a single member of his family survived.

Anyway, back to my German soldier.

From a small child's point of view, he was just a grown up to me, in a German soldier's uniform. I remember him as being super skinny, in all likelihood he was very young, maybe even he was one of those teenagers that were sent to cover the Western front when Hitler opened the second front against Russia. Whatever he was, whether he had a little sister back home or not, whether he had ever come across me along the local roads, with a sack and a knife, collecting weeds for food, he knew I was hungry, and periodically would hang around, lying in wait for me. He never approached me when anyone else was around, not even my little brother. He always would spring out from behind a tree, or some bush or stone wall, on isolated paths, he had obviously observed my habits, and he would open his tunic, pull out half a round loaf of bread, push it into my hands: "Schnell, schnell!' he would whisper, "Quick, quick!", and then something else in German, which I did not speak or understand, but then he would run away very fast and I translated his body language to convey the notion he was giving me the bread on the sly, in secret, and that I should take it home as quickly as I could and not tell anyone.

My mother was really pissed off about this. "I don't know why she likes this bread so much," she was outraged, "It's her favorite food! I wish she didn't like it so much..."

The bread was very dark, very dense, very sour. I remember the young German soldier with gratitude and yes, a warm feeling of love. I never found out his name, and he never asked me for mine.

I still love that dark, dense, sour rye bead... if you can get it.

Monday, October 20, 2003

I notice yesterday's post got on today's date: I guess I shouldn't have hit the "change time and date" button when I finally published.

I'm picking up today on the thread of the last two days or so, about communication, and way of being, and how one feels about things. You had not noticed a thread, you say? Well, maybe not, but there were markers, little stones, it was up to you to connect the dots if you so chose.

When you are being yourself and trust your life to be in the right place at the right time, you never know when something you do or say will actually save someone's life. Without intention, you mean? Yes, without any specific overt intention of either "doing good", or "fixing things", without a personal agenda. Basically by just showing up.

The first life I saved was my little brother Alain's. Because of other landmark dates of things that happened later, which I know for a historic fact, this must have happened when I was just five years old. I was walking through the woods, behind the house where we lived, on a property where a German cavalry regiment had been quartered. Walking through the woods was a favorite pastime of mine, fulfilling at one time two goals I had then, the one of seeking for treasure and adventure, the other of losing the hair ribbons my mother put in my hair, which I detested. Unexpectedly, because it wasn't really his thing, I came across my little brother in the woods, chewing on something he had filled his mouth with, which was sort of drooling green onto his chin and onto his clothes. He was holding in his sticky little dimpled hands a bunch of large green pills, horse pills, which had been discarded in the woods behind the stables by the German cavalry, which had been rotated out to be replaced by a tank regiment.

I had no idea what the pills might contain, I was sure they were not sweets, and in my way of thinking, green pills in the woods could only mean one thing: poison!

I pounced on Alain, and I tried to get him to spit them all out, which he did. However, he had already swallowed some, even though he claimed they didn't taste that good.

I put one arm around his neck to hold him still, and shoved my other hand down his throat in an attempt to make him vomit (I was too young ever to have heard about "do not induce vomiting" , the common refrain in poison cases). It wouldn't work, because Alain was a squirming handful and kicked and screamed like the very devil. So I dragged him home to my mother, handed him over along with a bunch of green horse pills, and said: "Here, you try. I can't make him vomit, he won't let me."

She rushed him to the doctor, who pumped out his stomach and told her she was lucky to have such a daughter. Without my intervention, my little brother might have been very sick, might even have died a horrible death.

The next year, in the springtime before my mother's death, an allied plane was shot down by the Germans one night. Word went out from the Kommandantur the next morning that people had to remain indoors, anyone caught outside would be shot, no questions asked. This was taken by everyone to signify the pilot was probably still alive somewhere, and that the Germans were still looking for him. There were plenty of French men ready to go looking for him too, to get him to safety and pass him out of the area to freedom, but the problem was where to look, nobody knew exactly where the plane had come down.

In some parts of French farm country, the significance of identifying a field is as follows: a farmer's fields are not necessarily contiguous because estates get split up among children, eventually someone may own a field isolated from the rest of his holdings. The limits of most such fields are delineated by hedges, and hedges are laid to reinforce their strength to withstand wind and storms. Sometimes, the way such parallel hedges are laid on each side of a common access path results in a vaulted, covered pathway, which looks like a single hedge to a casual observer on the outside who doesn't know about such things, but it is a space where a man can walk upright, even ride a bicycle, sometimes, and certainly a good place for a fallen pilot to seek shelter and refuge. Consequently, if the farmers knew in whose field the plane had fallen, everyone would know where to start looking for the pilot. All anybody knew, however, was the direction from which the fire had blazed.

My mother sent me out to scout. All the German soldiers knew me quite well, they were always coming across me in the wrong places, bringing me home with a spanking, like a naughty puppy, "Please, Mrs. Fenn, please keep an eye on this one--we found her in a mine field, once again." They practically always spoke to my mother in English. Well, my mother figured the Germans would not shoot me, I was trouble, sure, but they were unaware I was actually Mata Hari.

I remember walking through the deserted village so clearly. It was a weekday, but it felt like a Sunday, all the houses had closed their shutters onto the street, but I could hear the muffled voices inside, the sound of children playing, dogs barking, women taking off the lids from soup pots on the stove and replacing them with a slam, men's chairs scraping on the kitchen tiles as they stood up from the table, parents scolding their squabbling children, all those family sounds, clearly identifiable, in a world parallel to mine, a world of silence and nervous expectancy.

I walked past the village. I was now on the open road, keeping close to the edge, close to the ditch where tall wet grasses slapped against my bare legs and hit the gap between my Wellington boots and my dress. I would wipe myself from the sting with my hands, and walk on. Suddenly, in the distance on a small hill, I could see the German roadblock, a tank, some other cars, guns all facing my way, and in a very green field nearby, the burnt out shell of a plane, head in the ground, tail in the air. I turned around and went home calmly to report to my mother.

That night, I was pulled out of bed and awakened, brought into the light, where a very large man in uniform, who spoke English, took me onto his knees, laughing. I don't remember what he said, but he fished into his pocket and pulled out a roll of colored sweets, which he gave me. They were funny little round sweets, with a hole in the middle.

The English-speaking man in a strange uniform was gone in the morning and I never saw him again. We never spoke about him, either.

It was only years later, as a child in boarding school, when I opened a gift parcel sent to me by my Aunt Marie in Texas, which contained a roll of Lifesavers, that I realized what it was the stranger had given me, in early 1944, and finally I understood that this was the expression of his thanks to me for saving the life of an American airman.

I didn't often think about this story until 1993. This was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the village, Bruz, counting Japanese style, which counts the event itself as One.

I had decided to do a Buddhist memorial to honor all those who had died that night, and finally I decided to include all those people who either were from there and had died somewhere else (deported to Auschwitz, or Dachau, for instance, there were many, including the parish priest), or who were from somewhere else and had died there, during the entire World War II period. This probably covered a count of over a thousand people.

Anyway, one fine day that I was riding the No. 7 out to Flushing, I was looking out the window. Now the No. 7, for those who don't know it, is an elevated train, so you are looking across tree tops and at the top floors of small buildings. There, painted straight across beneath the rooftop of a small apartment building, were the four letters in large block capitals, BRUZ, white on red brick.

It really came as quite a shock to me: I had no idea how or why this had happened. And just now, for the 50th anniversary?

Within the next few weeks and months, several graffiti artists took BRUZ up, in different styles, all over Queens and on out into Flushing. You could see it as soon as you approached Queensboro Plaza, just everywhere, on both sides of the track. Finally one person even added a copyright notice after it, and maybe that is the reason why over the years, the various graffiti BRUZ has disappeared. They are almost all gone now, except the one in the tunnel entrance to Main Street, and finally this year, the first one, the original one, has been painted over black and there is closure.
Saturday and Sunday

I was up really early this morning because I wanted to go to Temple in Flushing. In spite of this, every time I looked at the clock, I was saying, "Gosh, it's so late already", and finally, it was so late I almost considered not going after all, but then I pulled myself together and decided to just go and be late. So I was.

I love the long ride on the No. 7 on a Sunday: everyone is on it, from everywhere in the world. Flushing has a large Asian population, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, but the No. 7 also carries all sorts of other people: Sikhs, Peruvians, Mexicans, Bengladeshis, Indians, and all the old Europeans are there, and all those who connect back to Spain somewhere up the line. Large families, small families, smartly dressed people carrying leather-bound bibles, old codgers with their wives, babies in prams or worn around the neck. It's busy and noisy and interesting.

During the time when I lived in Paris, years ago, I used to call England home, not because I had a home there any more, I didn't, but because those were my roots and I still felt connected. So, even while living in Paris I still "went home" to England. Then one day I came to America. It was more than three years before I "went home", on a Kuwait airlines flight to London. To my surprise, the "coming home" feeling did not fill my heart when I landed. I wondered what was wrong with me, I wondered what had happened, I wondered whether maybe after living in Paris for so many years, Paris had somehow managed to become my heart's home. But then after two week in England, I flew to Paris and no, that wasn't "home" either. Bizzarre, bizzarre!

Two weeks later, on my TWA flight from Paris to New York, I was overwhelmed with the joyous feeling: "I'm going home! I'm finally going home!"

The definitive revelation came to me the next morning on the No. 2 train to Wall Street. I was surrounded by people of all colors, all origins, all possible mixtures: black men with the palest blue or green eyes, Chinese girls with freckles, etc.,
everybody looking kind of grumpy and sour, as if they wished they were somewhere else, and I was bursting with joy and recognition: "I'm home! I'm home! These are MY people!"

"My" people? Well, yes. I knew just how they were feeling, and yes, I admitted I was one of them, even if I was looking about me instead of at my feet, even if I was smiling, because belonging does not mean you have to behave exactly the same way.

Yesterday, there was a street fair on Eighth Avenue. I had no intention of buying anything, but as I was coming out of Gristede's where I had bought my bread, I spotted a young Peruvian setting up his stall, and a white cardigan with little colored people dancing across it caught my eye. "Well," I said to myself, "I shall come back this afternoon, and if it is still there, and if the price is exactly what I want to pay for it, it's mine!"

Mysteriously, I remembered to go back. Sometimes it is my experience I get carried away with some occupation or other and I don't remember until it's too late to do whatever I had intended to do--sometimes, even, it is the next day. The cardigan was still there, the price was right, and I am wearing it today. Lots of compliments.

On the No. 7 on the way out, there was a young Peruvian couple sitting across from me. He is the one who spotted me, and he turned to her and told her to look. They went off into an animated conversation about sweaters. I didn't understand a word of what they were saying, just the gestures. I bet she was saying like: her grandmother makes such sweaters all the time, or maybe: her mother taught her how to make such sweaters, but she finds it boring, it takes so long to finish one; and he: my grandmother, my mother, my aunts and all my sisters make such sweaters all the time.

I bet the modest price I paid for my beautiful cardigan has gone home to a grandma in Peru, I feel like I have my part to play in the world economy.

Forget about the Gap.

The kid who sold me the sweater looked sooooooo sad.

Having bought my sweater, I decided to walk down a few blocks. It was a beautiful day, I needed the air, and I also wanted to see what else might be there, just for a lark.

An African man had a table filled with necklaces, bracelets and belts. The jewelry was made with tiny glass beads, strung in the most imaginative and time-consuming patterns, an absolute riot of colors, provocative, sophisticated, very self-assured combinations. I know something about time-consuming efforts: everything I ever do is VERY time consuming. Nobody has to explain such things to me.

"How much?"

"Five dollars"

Wow! The beads would cost that much if they were plastic, but the work... even with tiny nimble fingers, you are looking at hours of work. Can't be done in this particular economy, I thought.

"Where are they made?" I asked.

"Zambia", with a proud smile.

Ah! I had to have one.

It's great to be handy. My mother used to make lace, and very fine silk underwear, and she crocheted fabrics to tailor her own suits in stitches she must have invented herself because noone else was ever able to finish any of her almost finished projects, when she was killed. Everybody I ever met who knew my mother would go on and on about how talented she was, how anything she did was always so much better made than what anyone else made. I myself remember that she was a stickler for perfection.

It might be because I lost my mother at such a young age and was kind of abandoned for months afterwards, that I got into the habit or developed the need to be independent of others, to manage on my own, to such ridiculous lengths. Knitting, sewing, cooking, baking, no problem there. But I also want to build bookshelves, and tables, and who knows what else, and I don't know how.

I lived in a very small room in Paris for a while, which had a washbasin and a kitchen cupboard with a sink and an electric ring in one corner. The shower and toilet were somewhere down the hall, on the same floor, to be shared with all my neighbors.

I decided to build a four panel screen to hide this part of the room, simple frames that I would pad and cover with an interesting fabric. I built the frames easily enough and went to the BHV to buy hinges. The BHV is a fantastic store in Paris where you can get anything as long as you know what you are looking for, because nobody there can ever help you. I bought an appropriate number of those sorts of hinges which can open both ways, plus enough screws and some to spare, and the screen was assembled and duly tested: it was fine, it stood up and deployed very nicely. I folded it and put it behind my front door, until I would cover it.

One night that I came home very late, as I opened the door and stepped in before turning on the light, the folded screen sprung to life and attacked me, knocking me senseless onto the floor.

I came to, with a nasty bruise on the side of my head, and I gathered the unfinished screen into my arms and marched it off to the garbage disposal. I was damned if I was going to become the battered woman of my own creation.

I have through the years had many more such failures, fortunately none quite so spectacular.

Whenever I want to build anything nowadays, I try to control the urge as much as possible. I should mention that another reason for not doing it myself is that I am very heavy on tools. By which I mean, they have a tendency to disintegrate in my small hands. I know, I know, a bad workman always blames his tools. I buy the best screwdrivers, the kind with a "lifetime guarantee", and before my project is finished the head is chipped or twisted. Clippers stop biting, awls blunt, scissors separate, hammers fly off the handle. I love and envy those professional workers who carry around tool boxes filled with perfect, trusted, functioning, old tools.

Once, I wanted to change the piece of wood that goes on the floor between the bathroom tiles and the corridor: I thought this was an easy project for me to handle. I went to a lumberyard, bought a piece of oak the right length, and I came home and traced the exact pattern to obtain a perfect fit on each side of the door, which I then transferred in pencil onto the oak. Then I went to the hardware store and asked to buy a cheap but adequate for the task scrim saw--I think that was the word, to be honest, I don't exactly remember, it's one of these little saws that has a blade that swings around in different directions, it doesn't, in fact can't, cut straight. Anyway, the salesman showed me a selection, I chose the cheapest, which came with several spare blades and a ten-year warranty. I was home like a shot, and back at the hardware store within ten minutes, with a handful of saw pieces, the spare blades still in the cardboard wrapping. The poor guy couldn't find a thing to say.

"Hey, don't look at me like that," I protested, "It's not my fault. I can't even open a jar of pickles by myself, I have to ask my doorman to do it for me. Don't even suggest I might be too strong."

Without a word, he threw my return into the garbage and gave me the top of the line saw, with bells and whistles and a lifetime guarantee.

"How much do I owe you?" I asked, expecting to pay the difference.

"Get outta here!" he hissed, and waved me off.

Would you believe it: I managed to make both cuts perfectly, but when I had finished, my lifetime scrim saw was dead!

I suppose what it is about is that I have the heart of a "bricoleur". My friend Larry just called and we were talking about baseball, which neither of us enjoys, so I don't really know why he suddenly asked me what a bricoleur might be. I said: someone who makes something of nothing, who puts together a lot of lost parts and turns them into a baby carriage, or a sort of Rube Goldberg thinggy. It was when he hung up that I recognized this as something that is a part of my makeup, which is why I pick up odd stuff off the street, sometimes, to turn into a stool, or a plant stand, or sometimes just because it looks interesting and I might do something with it, though I don't know what. That is also probably why I have a book on my shelves called "How to decorate a dump", and another one "Making art from found objects".

I am definitely not my mother's daughter and less than perfection is definitely for me.

For two days now, my hands have been itching to steal.

The old man who sets the garden at 340 forgot to plant one pansy and one pink "lobelia?" thinggy. They are there in a corner, partly hidden from view by some bush. They look lonely. They look forlorn. They look eminently desirable. I am surprised they have not already been taken. Would it really be stealing? Doesn't the fact they are still there, and I am seeing them every day, doesn't this mean they are there for me?

Would it really be stealing? I mean, nobody is going to come and plant them now.

Would it really be stealing? If I told Sylvester Stallone, the doorman, he might take them for himself, and I would have just put temptation in his otherwise innocent life.

Would it really be stealing? If I waited two more days, surely it would not be considered stealing, it would count as a rescue.

"I shall think about it tomorrow", said Scarlett.

Breaking news: the Australian sheep are finally on their way home, that is the all but 5,000 who have already died at sea.



Saturday, October 18, 2003

I've noticed two things about blogging: it's disappointing to go onto a favorite site and find no new post for one, two, three, four days, but it's equally frustrating to go in and find a backlog of three or four new entries in pt.10 type, pale grey on a bright background... computer glasses lost...

I suppose it just points me right back at that old Buddhist standby: the Middle Way. Moderation in all things. A little against my grain, naturally: I'm one of those whose motto might be "Nothing exceeds like excess".

As I started this, I immediately had a burst of revelations about blogging, way beyond "two things".

There are bloggers for who it is an adventurous journey: they lose their posts, they miss their links, their "powered by blogger" button doesn't show up, no matter how carefully inserted into the template.

Then there are the perfect bloggers, whose sites are just crammed with links, pictures, animations, type by special outfits, feedback, comments, email, etc. Some are so lavish the mind boggles. For the heck of it, on some of these sites I have clicked to see what's what, and I'm glad I did, because some of these superlinks haven't been updated since June of this year, or September of last year, and so I am feeling increasingly confident that in blogging there is no rule: you do what you do, when you do, and let the chips fall close to the tree. Even my own links are uneven, but I keep them up because of--yes, expectations! They were good once and they will be good again.

For the fun of it, I thought I would set down how I came to blogging at all.

About a year ago, my friend Irene's teenaged son Andrew told me he was starting a blog with a bunch of his friends from school. Every so often, Andrew's mother asks me whether he has given me his URL, and no, he has not. She doesn't have it, either. This lone example conveyed to me that the notion of privacy is connected to the very idea of blogging, certainly it is a personal thing.

You can imagine what a leap forward discovering Salam Pax was for me-the most famous blogger in the world! How does such a thing happen? I don't remember where I clicked from, that first time, it was probably from the Guardian UK. I am very grateful to Salam Pax for giving me license to be myself. It was only a short time before I ripened to the stage of wanting to blog my own blog too.

Before the war in Iraq was officially announced and declared, I could see it was going to happen "no matter what" as the saying goes. If that was the case for me, the one person on earth with the political acumen of a moose, it puzzled me that so many worthy minds, intellectual powers, experienced political pundits, etc. could still be hashing over the pros and cons of this war as if they believed there was going to be a "rational decision made", based on "hard facts", reached by "consensus". I decided I would write a book about it, from the point of view of a two-week old baby bunny, high school dropout, the Cassandra to out-cassandra all previous such phenomenal manifestations. One day, in the elevator of my building, one of my neighbors said:

"You're looking very jolly today. What are you up to these days?"

"I'm writing a book," I grinned, "About the war in Iraq..."

"Goodness," she exclaimed, "Are you qualified?"

"Of course I'm qualified!"I snorted, and broke out into maniacal laughter.

I've seen her since, she doesn't ask about my progress, I wonder why.

If you ask me, I can tell you progress is terrible: the project has grown, like Topsy. Or like Eric, little by little. My floor space is filled with piles of paper, stotting across the floor on their way to the shredder. Sometimes, these piles fall over into large heaps, I pat them back into shape, or corral them into odd plastic bags or boxes, and move them around from one side to another. It often happens that I use the back of things I've printed as drafting paper, the result is that I have to look at every damn piece of paper back and front before discarding anything. Old envelopes, I have noticed, are particularly attractive to my hand, they inspire tiny snippets of world wisdom, which I myself wonder where the hell they came from, when I find them, with a neat date to tell me when I thought that thought.

One sure thing, I have much to do if I wanna make it pithy. I am not sure whether I shall ever finish it at all, it's kind of depressing when you see things clearly. Not to mention: will I live long enough.

Anyway, Salam Pax connected me to bloggers and I was on my way.

I love diversity, I love different voices, I don't belong to any group which consists of people who agree with each other: there is magic for me in being admitted to someone else's very different world, in hearing their point of view, their opinion, in being admitted to knowing how they feel about things. In many ways, these total strangers ground me in my humanity, which is something I need to be done for me, because I am so isolated in this very large cosmopolitan city. I've always joked that Manhattan is the ideal desert island. Year by year, I refine my "Ten best of" lists, indefatigably. From choice, yes, I suppose: I choose not to belong to a book club, or a political party, or a consciousness-raising group, or a card- playing or chess-playing club, or a social club of any kind. And I don't hang out in bars.

I socialize on the run, in doctors' offices, in grocery stores, elevators, with people who walk their "silly little dogs" (grin, grin), on city benches or retaining walls, wherever it happens. After all, I am not "sauvage", as the French say. I am not skittish, I am not shy.

If I belong to any kind of group, it is the group of mainly silent people who can rant on and on about anything, given the opportunity

Communication? Yeeeeesssss---that might be the general idea. But, like they say, it takes two to tango. I don't know that anyone ever reads my blog, or my emails, or my comments. When I actually talk to people, it often becomes apparent later on that they didn't get what I was saying. Did they get it, and ignore it? Or did I obfuscate? Was I not clear? I always think I am transparently clear, even somewhat blunt, at times, honest mostly (if I can't dare be that, I will remain silent, usually), but the results have sometimes lead to such miscommunication or misunderstanding that I wonder what was actually involved there.

Was it only about speaking clearly to someone whose full attention I had not grabbed?

Example: Three years ago, I was in hospital several times, and at some point encountered unpleasant difficulties communicating with the staff, both doctors and nurses, who sometimes let slip some sort of reference to my chart. It's not always easy to think clearly when one is in pain, but I managed to draw the conclusion that if I were to see my chart, and what was written therein, or thereon, I might be able to understand better how the whole mishmash had started.

So, I asked to see my chart.

"Well," said the nurse, "You can't see your chart."

"Excuse me," I said quietly, "It's my chart, and according to the Patients' Bill of Rights, I am entitled to see it if I choose."

"Well," said the nurse, "You have to have the Nursing Supervisor's approval for that."

"That's fine by me," I retorted, "I want to follow the rules, I am willing to go through the formalities, I am hereby requesting officially to see the Nursing Supervisor."

Two days later, she still had not shown up, despite twice-a-day reminders. Finally, I hit the "Customer Representative" number on the phone, and kicked up a fuss, and the Nursing Supervisor was at my bedside within the hour.

"You cannot see your chart unless you officially request it..." She started to explain.

"I am hereby officially requesting..." I countered.

"I'll see to it you get it...." She flounced out.

Did I get it? No. One more day went by.

Finally, I complained to my surgeon.

"Oh! For heavens' sakes..." he said, irritably, and stormed out the room. A minute later, he stormed back, dumped a two-kilo folder onto my feet and said:

"Here! Be my guest, only don't tell them I gave it to you! Take your time! I'll be back!" And he walked out again.

What was there on my chart that was so highly sensitive?

Well, for one thing, there was an entry, very early in the game, that indicated I had "refused" a preparatory procedure, necessary before going down for diagnostic tests somewhere else, when in fact what had happened was that the nurse on duty that morning had forgotten to do it (she told me she hadn't looked at my chart until they came to pick me up to go down, "Too late now!, she laughed); she had naturally covered her ass, set me up as "uncooperative", and I could see why there was all that foot-dragging over my seeing my chart. The longer time went by, the harder it would become to set the record straight.

There were many other entries to which I could take exception, but one of my most recent interactions with one of the nurses was striking:

"Saw patient to ascertain whether she understood the reality of her situation. Patient verbalized understanding."

What had actually happened (I remembered this one most clearly because it was such a recent event) is this:

The nurse had walked into the room and called to me from the doorway:

"Good morning. How are you today?"

"Good morning to you, too. I'm just fine, thank you."

"Good..." She had smiled and gone back out. Next one!

It reminded me a little of a woman I knew, who was secretary to the managing partner of a large Wall St. law firm. Whenever anybody called to speak to him, no matter who it was, or when it was, she would most pleasantly say: "Let me ascertain for a moment whether he is here right now."

Never mind that her desk was right outside his open door, from which vantage point she could always ascertain everything and anything at any time, including even whether he was currently blowing his nose, staring into the middle distance, or looking at his reflection in the window.

A few years ago, I sat down with my gastroenterologist to ask him to set out for me the exact medical terminology for those things I don't ever want done to my body before I die. This was to insert into my living will, which contains directives in case I should become unable "to verbalize" my wishes.

Well, last year this same gastroenterologist manipulated me into accepting a test I didn't really want to take, which he announced would be done under general anesthesia. I certainly did not want to be put to sleep in his office, particularly since three years ago, one of his students had perforated me and I had ended up being rushed to the OR for emergency surgery. So I said, No to anesthesia, I saw no need for it, this test had been done many times on me before without it, and that is how I wanted it done again now. He looked me straight in the eye and said: "Speak to the anesthetist, he will do exactly what you want."

I told the anesthetist I did not want to be put under. He said he understood, that's exactly what he said, he agreed he would not put me to sleep, he would only give me "more", as he put it, if I should first specifically ask for it, he would follow my directives.

What happened was he started asking me a bunch of questions as he busied himself around my laid-out body, which I answered. I also asked him questions of my own, which he did not answer except with more questions. Meanwhile, I was watching him inject the contents of one syringe after another into my veins, and I suddenly realized he was not questioning me out of friendliness or to help me relax, he was merely trying to determine whether I was "out" yet or not, and suddenly, I tried to stop everything, but it was too late, I couldn't move, the final needle came, I was out.

Well... When I came to later, I was absolutely furious, of course. All I could say, when I saw the nurse, was that I was glad I had not found myself in the recovery room at the hospital again.

If my attending physician, looking me straight in the eye across his desk, cannot honor my living voice directives when made in person, what chance do you think I would have with any such directives set down in a living will when nobody will be around, answerable to the consequences of what gets done to me against my will?

So, communication is not such an easy thing. Most spectacularly, when the parties are not "even", when one has some hold over the other.

The phone just rang: I am now left speechless.

I'll just end for now with this word of wisdom: if you really want to communicate, you really have to stick to your guns and keep on trying, even if it doesn't appear to be working. Just don't take it personally.

We are all of us, when you think about it, talking to ourselves.

As Benny, an old doorman of my building, used to say of people talking to themselves in the street (this is before cell phones, it would just as well apply nowadays, to those who do have cell phones): "She must have money in the bank."

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