Sunday, July 31, 2022

A beautiful wooden horse

     The Art Institute is playing around with its American art wing. Which is nice because, well, when you visit the place as often as I do, everything becomes familiar, and familiarity and wonder are not friends.
     After exiting the Cezanne show — not bad, if you like Cezanne. I enjoyed the painting of his father, but that might have been because he is reading a newspaper — I checked out the American wing, paused to study, yet again, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." Then I saw this carousel horse or, as the Art Institute calls it with surprising specificity, this "Middle Row Jumping Horse (Carousel Figure)."
     The row a carved horse occupies on its merry-go-round has unexpected significance: the outer horses are generally the better horses, more finely crafted, as the Metropolitan Museum of Art writes, boasting about its "Outside Row Standing Horse (Carousel Figure)."
     "The animals," the Met explains,"especially those placed on a carousel’s outside row, feature extraordinary attention to detail intended to delight riders young and old." They don't quite spell it out, but the suggestion is since the outer ring of animals is the one easiest for potential patrons to inspect, it was reserved for the craftsmen's best work. And I want to draw attention to that "delight riders young and old." Almost a bit of showman's ballyhoo, a whiff of sawdust and cotton candy, preserved in a bottle and influencing the curator's academic description.    
     Both Chicago and Gotham horses are the work of Philadelphia's Daniel Müller, renown for his realistic horses. The Art Institute scholars also determined the steed is made of basswood and "possibly painted" by Angelo Calsamilia, "who traveled the country to repaint carousel figures in active use."
     That enigmatic detail made me want to follow Calsamilia around 1950s America, in his battered old Chevy, from fair to carnival — this horse was featured in Rock Springs Park, West Virginia from 1924 t0 1970. His oil paints and brushes in the trunk, his lonely wandering life, consulting tattered maps, dealing with the locals, missing his family. I'd read that novel.
     Regular readers might recall that I have a particular fondness for carousels, the melancholy of merry-go-rounds, and appreciate the Art Institute allowing me to admire this one. Which I'm happy to share to you.
     That's it. No larger point. A beautiful wooden horse on a beautiful summer day to celebrate the end of July.

A reader on Twitter asked to see the entire horse (Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Northshore Notes: Tart Cherries

     By week's end my head wasn't a very good place to be, and I appreciated our North Shore correspondent, Caren Jeskey, taking us on one of her trademark rambles through a world that seems much more expansive and welcoming than the cramped confines most of us inhabit, cages of our own construction.

   By Caren Jeskey

 The opposite of war isn’t peace. It’s creation.
                 —John Larson, Rent
     This week I got tired of analyzing every goddamn thing. I wanted to just say “anything goes!” and throw caution to the wind rather than trying to live a carefully measured life. Why not? What’s the point of taking things so seriously when there’s so little that can be controlled? Existential theory suggests that it is possible to shape our own existence. As Sartre said “any purpose or meaning in your life is created by you.” If that’s true, I have a long way to go if I’m going to be content. I have not fully embraced the concept that my destiny is in my hands and sometimes I think it's not based on inner and outer resources or lack thereof.
     I spent almost four days indoors. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and until 5 p.m. on Thursday. A friend who’s currently in Denmark helped me feel less bad about it. “There is nothing wrong with a period of hygge,” which Wikipedia defines as “a word in Danish and Norwegian that describes a mood of coziness and ‘comfortable conviviality’ with feelings of wellness and contentment.”
     I realized that my friend was at least partially right. I like my cozy abode. I did, after all, play flutes, talk and tend to happy plants, cook healthy meals, soak in lavender baths, dance, meditate, and stretch between long work days and lying on the couch watching Prime. I felt I could not deal with people, not even in passing on the sidewalks. I just needed to hibernate a bit after the world got so scary. Science explains all of it, but Armageddon embodies how it feels.
     It’s not as though my dance card is empty. It’s that all of my invitations during times like this are “nos.” And besides, I’m supposed to be (and usually am) a champion of the value of solitude and being good company for oneself. Still, hermit days are harder to bear when it’s perfectly temperate summertime in the Midwest.
     Rather than more work on Thursday night after my last client of the week, the call to get out there finally came from within, and my Birkenstocks and I hit the pavement. We strolled intuitively — I like to walk down the streets that look the brightest with the clearest paths — and noticed a little art school on Park Drive. A mile west, we stopped and drank in the expanse of the azure lake from the overlook at Kenilworth Beach.
     Thumping music led us to Plaza del Lago where the lead singer of The Molly Ringwalds enchanted us with a gorgeously sung German intro to "Ninety Nine Red Balloons." I treated myself to whitefish and Pellegrino on the patio of Convito with a front row seat to the band, noise cancelling ear pods (iLuv brand, cheap and good) protecting the hearing that I have left.
     Fine dancers from 2 to 92 embodied the adage that all things are possible. Maybe Cocoon was a true story. At first I thought “that’s how old people look dancing” until I realized that I will be they one day in the not too distant future, if I’m lucky. Maybe I look like that already, who knows? I suddenly saw them with new eyes. Children in grown up suits, like all of us. I noticed their couture styles, talent, and joie de vivre. Their lack of flexibility, wrinkles and stooped spines disappeared.
Alone in one’s mind.
Open to the sea of one.
Fear will disappear.
     That’s what I am seeking, these sacred moments of calm connection that are always within my home and myself, and just outside the front door for the taking.
     I thought back to my Austin walkabout days when the pandemic started. With few family and friends nearby and COVID job loss, I had plenty of free time to walk and walk. Usually upwards of 10 miles most days. I was in a state of hygge partly thanks to denying certain realities such as economic uncertainty and housing instability. Still, I spent thousands of hours putting one foot in front of the other and communing with whatever I came across on the journey — a nature trail, a lizard, backyard goats, a neighbor, a park bench. The grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum, where their kind docent Oliver (who invited me and 2 friends in on my birthday for a small private tour), died of the cancer he’d told me about. A loss to Austin.
     “Perhaps Scandinavians are better able to appreciate the small, hygge things in life because they already have all the big ones nailed down: free university education, social security, universal health care, efficient infrastructure, paid family leave, and at least a month of vacation a year," the New Yorker noted in a 2016 article on the practice. "With those necessities secured, Danes are free to become ‘aware of the decoupling between wealth and wellbeing.’” Lucky them!
     Since I’ve last written I did one very bad thing, throwing caution right out the window. I jumped into a private “no swimming” lake and took a short swim to the middle and back. The friend I was with said “please don’t do this.” It was warm and rainy and the placid lake had tiny divots where the raindrops hit. I needed to feel differently in that moment. The water beckoned. I was wearing shorts and a top that could easily pass as a swimsuit. I took off my rain boots and dress and jumped in. I was instantly gratified, and I swam and floated on my back, raindrops hitting my closed eyes and lips. I could have stayed there forever.
     When I looked back at it the next day, I realized that I could have been cited. Arrested even. A scary thought.
     I found safer moments of contentment after that dip. A farmers market with my father. Sweet-tart cherries, basil plants, and baskets of peaches. Discovering prolific muralist Max Sansing working on his newest creation in Evanston. I’d noticed his work on Grand near Milwaukee when I moved back to Chicago last year, and also on the housing shelter behind the Wilson red line, and had even snapped photos. It was a treat to come across Max, filling in the outline of his mural from top to bottom on a bright orange mobile hydraulic high rise work platform.
     As a friend recently asked, since we are atheists and "we don’t bow to a white sky daddy in the sky” then what IS the point of working so hard to be good? Trying to change bad habits and becoming more peaceful? Better cogs in the wheel? Spreaders of peace? I’m not sure, but I cannot let myself off the hook. Have I inherited a chronic sense of Catholic inferiority where I will never be good enough, the sinful human that I am? That others are not good enough? I hope I have not been cursed forever.
     As I warred with myself on and off this week, my solace has been in a pleased client caseload, growth and less suffering in their ranks, enjoyment on my part of our sessions together, Irish jigs played on my silver flute, sitting down to write this, fresh fruits and vegetables, and a feeling that it’s, overall, good to be alive.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Judas, Benedict Arnold and Donald Trump

      The Circle of the Traitors — Dante's Foot Striking Bocca Degli Abati, by William Blake

     “Trump and his accomplices are the most pathetic traitors ever,” controversial Democratic fundraiser Scott Dworkin tweeted to his million followers in mid-July. “Cowards who need to be arrested immediately.”
     I know you’re not supposed to think about tweets. They’re just random shots in the Twitter free-fire zone, tiny sparks flying off a burning lumberyard.
     But occasionally one ember will lodge under the skin. In this case, the word “pathetic,” which I took not for its current popular meaning, “miserably inadequate; of very low standard,” but for its original sense of “arousing pity.”
     Rinse off the contempt and there is indeed something pitiable about traitors. Merely feeling scorn for them is too simple, too easy, and ignores the essential tragedy of betrayal.
     Start with the original traitor of Western culture, Judas Iscariot. Why did he betray Jesus? The 30 pieces of silver are what’s remembered, but that’s a smoke screen. Small payout for the magnitude of his crime. (One of the several ways Donald Trump is outstanding in the traitor field: Unlike most, he’s playing for large stakes. The average traitor gets but little. Jonathan Pollard sold his country for a $2,500-a-year Israeli salary.)
     Silver aside, Judas’ betrayal was almost preordained. If the Bible is to be trusted, Jesus seems in on the plan. He announces that one of his disciples will betray him. The Gang of 12 immediately demand to know who. Jesus says the person he’ll hand this bread to is the bad guy, and gives a chunk of challah to Judas, saying, “Do quickly what you’re going to do.”
     Which kinda undercuts the obloquy that Judas has been held in for 2,000 years, doesn’t it? As Joan Acocella put it in The New Yorker: “If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?”
     I could see an argument where the least responsible party in the current betrayal of America is Trump himself — he arrived on the political scene a long-established grifter and con man, congenital liar and serial fraud. How can he be held responsible for what followed? Can a man without convictions, devoted only to advancing himself, be said to betray anything? There’s almost an innocence to Trump, the great orange man-baby, kicking and crying, pooping and dribbling, demanding his needs be met now.

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Thursday, July 28, 2022

Routine is your friend

     Routine gets a bad name. It's equated with boredom, sameness. But routine — the same thing, done in the same way, every single time — can be your friend. It is not only efficient, but protective. You break your routine, even a little, even doing something that makes perfect sense in itself, and you're asking for trouble. You're asking for coffee grounds in your shoes.
     I guess I'd better just tell the story.
     So every morning I make coffee. Nothing dramatic there. A complicated, multi-step process. Which I have down to a series of smooth, efficient motions. Take the bag of coffee beans and the filters from the cabinet to my left. Rinse the pot and the filter holder from the day before in the kitchen sink to my right. Grind the beans while water runs in the pot. Dump and return the pot and the filter holder and insert the paper filter. Take the canister of ground beans and dump it into the filter. Fill the water chamber.
     The only variant is whether I use the ideal coffee that God intended us to use, Peet's Major Dickason's. Or Dunkin Donuts Hazelnut, the preference of ... let's say, a certain person who lives with me and probably shouldn't be exposed to the public shame of preferring hazelnut coffee to regular Joe joyously drunk by decent people.
     Though the Dunkin' coffee is already ground. That is easier. While Peet's needs grinding. 
     Where everything fell apart Wednesday is because something new entered my finely-tuned system. On Monday, as I tapped out the ground coffee from the little clear container, well, it didn't seem so clear. Not entirely clean. It was ... yes ... dirty. From months of coffee being ground into it. Not wildly dirty. Not filthy. Just a little. Since nothing about the coffee making system should be dirty, I took the little clear container and cleaned it out with a soapy sponge, and set it aside to dry.
     Honestly, I felt thorough, observant. No detail ignored.
     But a detail was ignored.
     Do you see what's coming? I didn't.
     Tuesday passed. I didn't make coffee Tuesday. I drank what was left over from the day before. An economy. My wife winces at that. I consider it manly.
      So I began preparing the coffee Wednesday. Everything normal. The sense that something was amiss came to me after I had returned the pot and filter holder, placed the unbleached filter, and reached for the clear plastic canister in the grinder. My fingertips touched coffee grounds. That's not supposed to happen. But it did happen. Because the canister was still to the right of the sink, where it had been placed to dry on Monday. I had obliviously ground four scoops of coffee while they spilled out of the grinder, across the counter, onto the kitchen floor — a rough slate floor, just the thing for trapping coffee grounds forever. My blindly reaching over had further spread the mess. Onto my top-siders. Even inside one. Have you ever gotten coffee grounds in your shoe? I have. Now.
     Here I must have uttered a wild beast cry of pain, because my wife came running, calling "What's wrong!?!" from the stairs.
     "Don't come down here!" I replied. Why? Maybe I thought I could somehow clean this up and conceal the blunder from her. Avoid diminishing my heroic stature in her eyes. Or maybe I knew she would just make it worse, by taking charge of the clean-up, as if, having fomented this disaster through my carelessness I was now to be deemed incapable for cleaning up my own mess. 
    Which is exactly what happened. She didn't quite body check me aside with, "Out of the way, you clod, haven't you done enough damage for one day?!" But the tone was there.
     I grabbed the Dustbuster and dove in. Between the two of us, we made short work of the spilled grounds. And she did make the useful suggestion that the grounds, spread across the clean granite counter, could merely be slid onto a plate and then put into the coffee maker and brewed, which I did, at least salvaging that.
     "You do the same thing every day, you're bound to screw up eventually," I said, trying to put a bright spin on my oversight. Then a larger concern, in that vein, dawned on me. "I wonder what the column version of this will be?"
     Twenty-six years and counting. But one fine day... a misfired joke. An underchecked claim presented as fact.
     "That's what editors are for," she said.
     Later in the day, I managed to wreck the ending. I noticed the clear canister, still among the dried dishes, to the right side of the sink. In all the commotion, it hadn't moved from its spot. I might have had the whole disaster happen again, a second time. Wouldn't that be a great ending? But this time, I grabbed the canister and slid it back where it belonged.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

You can’t go dome again

     Again with the dome.
     Forgive me for lapsing into Yiddishkeit. But to see Mayor Lori Lightfoot drag out the dome will-o’-the-wisp, like a much-adored toddler’s blankie now worn to a nubbin, and wave it over her head, as if it were an original genius divination of her own — it taps into a well of deep Chicago nostalgia. It makes me want to set up a cart in Maxwell Street and start selling bottles of Professor Steinberg’s Amazing Old World Cure-All.
     Because if people will buy the dome notion, they’ll buy anything.
     For years, decades, well over half a century, the idea of putting a dome over Soldier Field, or building a vast domed sports complex nearby, has been dangled in front of the city’s eyes by whomever is currently parked on the 5th floor of City Hall, joined by anybody else with a dog in this race who can find their way to a podium.
     In 1964, it was the general superintendent of the Chicago Park District, Erwin Weiner, observing it would cost $8 million to put a dome over Soldier Field (say it in a Dr. Evil voice: “Eight MILLION dollars!”) and transform the stadium into “a modern, all-purpose sports arena.”
     The timing wasn’t accidental. In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball created two expansion teams. One became the New York Mets. The other was slated for Houston, provided they could build a covered stadium. (Which might confuse native Chicagoans. A dome? In Houston? Whatever for? It never snows there. Answer: the Texas weather was considered too hell-like for human beings to play sports in a venue that wasn’t air-conditioned.)

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Monday, July 25, 2022

Brunch at Superkhana International


Superkhana International, 3059 W. Diversey. 

     Running a restaurant is a tough puzzle to get right. There is the great food piece. And the attentive service piece. And the pleasing ambience piece. And a bunch of others, a challenge to assemble under the best of circumstances. Mix in endemic staffing and supply chain problems — think of them as the stray pieces lost under the sofa — and a customer base still skittish about gathering inside, and putting together a good restaurant sometimes seems well nigh impossible.
     Lately, I've been thinking of dialing back eating out. Why spend the money, waste the time, take the risk?
     Then I had brunch Sunday morning at Superkhana International in Logan Square, and fell in love with restaurants all over again.
     My younger son's idea. And frankly, I was dubious. It wasn't the usual Indian buffett. There was no chicken tikka masala — my go-to choice — at all. A lot of favorites were missing from the menu. And Indian food for breakfast? (They describe it, a tad obliquely, as "Indian-ish food.")
     Still, the fare looked . . . intriguing. And I didn't have much choice in the matter — our understanding is: the boy picks the place, we show up and pay for the meal, an agreement that any parent of a 25-year-old will instantly understand.
     Superkhana (the name is a Bollywood joke, "khana" being "food" in Hindi) was almost empty Sunday at 9:45 a.m. My wife and I came in, showed our vaccination cards — they take that very seriously here — were shown a seat, and instantly my wife began interrogating the waitress over the kind of milk that goes into the chai, going on at such length that I considered quietly sliding to the floor, belly-crawling out of the place, finding a florist open and wiring a bouquet to the waitperson by way of apology. Even without flowers, the inquisition was accepted with equanimity. I was ready to order black coffee. I always order black coffee. In fact, I did order black coffee. But I took a nip of the sample of chai brought to placate my wife's concerns. It was ... appealing. Enigmatic. Complicated. We both ordered a glass of hot chai.
     The second the chai was brought, on a beautiful china plate with two unexpected gift biscuits, I felt a glimmer, like the overture of a favorite opera. This wasn't going to be the standard eat-and-get-out experience. This was going to be special.
     My son and his girlfriend arrived. I haven't ordered french toast at a restaurant in years. But Superkhana's version comes crusted in halva. I couldn't not try it, but didn't want it to be my entire meal. We all decided that french toast would be an appetizer.
     Sometimes, rather than ordering everything at once, we like to order in stages, one dish at a time. It draws the meal out. Good for us, but this can irk some waitpersons, who of course want to turn over the room as quickly as possible. Caroline didn't seem to mind.
     The french toast was hot and very good. It had a kick — cademon in the gulab jamon.
     For a main course, I made an usual choice: the green salad. My wife ordered one, and I followed suit. No protein, but what the heck. I already had a french toast base, and we ordered uttapam and coconut chutney for the table to share.
     It ... was ... so good. The salad. Why? The freshness. The maple tahini vinaigrette. The crunchy chickpeas. Bliss. I eat a salad almost every day, but this was a salad beyond my capabilities. A salad to drive to Diversey Avenue to experience. 
     We sat there for two and a half hours, talking. The waitperson — they have a sign on the door asking that patrons respect non-gendered pronouns, which might be a bit hectoring, akin to instructing diners to put their napkins on their laps and not talk so loud. I'd say most customers savvy enough to go here are also aware it's 2022 and can read the room. But maybe boors find their way here and need to be educated. I suppose they post it for a reason. I did originally refer to a "waitress" whom I assumed went by "she," only banishing that phraseology as the language of hate on a subsequent edit. It's a brave new world, Golda.
     Caroline, whatever orientation he/she/they flies by, was perfect. Never so much as a why-are-you-still-here? raised eyebrow. Superkhana does add 20 percent gratuity, and that perplexed me, briefly. Normally, a really good waitstaff, I'd tip 25 percent, but adding $5 — the bill was $95 for the four of us, before tax and tip, not bad since we ordered six plates and six drinks — seemed not to sufficiently express my gratitude for a special meal, so I added $10.   
     This made for a gratuity of nearly 30 percent but, honestly, I was in such a good mood, the food was so unexpected and fun, the experience was worth it. The little fucsia explanatory card also helped — no confusing verbal appeal sprung by the waiter along with the check, like last November at big jones, whose food was merely sufficient. I felt Caroline had earned it by gracefully enduring the prosecutorial grilling and agonized Hamlet-holding-a-skull pondering of whole milk versus oat milk that so easily could have gone into a ditch but thankfully didn't.
     The ambience was pleasurable, too. Spare, clean room. Serving food on mismatched china can look like a shelf at Goodwill if not done well, but they used gorgeous plates and artistic bowls. I even admired the bathroom. So many places fall down on the job regarding the bathroom. Clean and beautiful.
     Okay, I don't want to enthuse too much. I'm both eager and frightened to go back. The sophomore visit to a new favorite can be a letdown, regression to the mean. I remember loving our first visit to Spirit Elephant, the sprawling vegetarian place in Winnetka. As with Superkhana, we were just thrilled. So much so that we hurried back dragging a mob of friends and relations back. When Spirit Elephant promptly dropped the ball. Meals we had adored the week before were different, inferior. We haven't been back since, though we're gathering our courage for another try.
     Honestly, I'm considering never returning to Superkhana, to keep the spell unbroken and not spoil the memory. Cherish our single lovely brunch. No need to get greedy and try for another.
     But honestly, I want to sample their other menu items (while, at the same time, ordering everything I already ordered, especially that salad).
     So I think we'll just cross our fingers, utter a silent prayer, and return for dinner next time, to try the coconut brisket (Haleem Style Brisket, Freekeh, Coconut Milk Vinaigrette, Ginger Carrot Slaw). How could we not? Fortune favors the bold.

DuSable aiming for ‘somewhere better and different’

     A recent Saturday morning found me standing in front of the DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center in Washington Park, waiting for a man who, due to a miscommunication, was at that moment waiting in North Lawndale.
     A quick phone call sorted the confusion out, and rather than race across town, we postponed. The remainder of my morning suddenly freed just as the museum’s revolving door was being unbolted. I sensed an opportunity.
     I’d be more reluctant to admit that up to that point I’d never visited the DuSable museum if I thought it made me some kind of freakish anomaly. To be honest, I consider myself exceptional in that I sincerely wanted to see the place but never had an occasion to go, never heard of any exhibit that caught my interest and seemed worth making the trip.
     I imagine a number of Chicagoans must succumb to the racism of low expectations when it comes to the DuSable, picturing something akin to the House on the Rock, up in Wisconsin, an aggregation of random artifacts, maybe with slightly skewed typewritten cards explaining them.
     Frankly, I was content to stay away. What if I went to the museum and didn’t like it? What then? Volunteer myself as the White Guy Who Didn’t Like the DuSable Museum? No upside there. Or worse, cough silently into my fist and say nothing, itself a kind of racism?
      Turns out, my fears outstripped reality, as fears often do. The museum has an in-depth exhibit on Black soldiers in World War I, with original letters and a real rifle. An interesting display on Civil Rights and redlining. A movie that places you in the 1963 March on Washington. Professionally done. A newish interactive display about life in an African village — albeit an idealized, Black Panther-ish village — held my attention.

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Sunday, July 24, 2022

Learn something every day


     The Groupon Building is at 600 West Chicago Avenue. North and west of Union Station. So when the cab I jumped into Friday morning immediately proceeded south and east, I immediately wondered if he knew where he was going. Cabbies sometimes don't. First day on the job perhaps. 
    I kept quiet, for an uneasy moment, then repeated, slowly, clearly, "600 West Chicago Avenue." He laughingly explained that this little dogleg was faster, and he was eager to get back to Union Station quickly to catch those arriving on the 9:25. We had a good conversation about cabbies, and passengers, and the city.
     When he arrived, he didn't turn left, onto Chicago Avenue, as I expected, but took me a little past and p
ulled over on Larrabee Street. I got out, and began to walk to the corner, and saw a view of the Montgomery Ward Building I had never seen before. Pictured above, from the southwest corner of the intersection of Chicago and Larrabee.
From the west it looked like a trumpet
     Up to that point, I usually saw the statue in profile, from the west, driving down Chicago Avenue into downtown. It looked like a figure brandishing a horn. Somehow, because it was on the Montgomery Ward Building, I assumed it was the Angel Moroni, with his trumpet, because ... ah ... Montgomery Ward was a Mormon, perhaps. 
     Wrong. Ward wasn't a Mormon. Coming from an unfamiliar angle, I could see it wasn't a trumpet, but some kind of caduceus, a wand entwined with snakes. The statue, I quickly found out, is the Spirit of Progress, placed atop the building in 1929. 
     Rather than focus on my error — a reminder that no matter how much you know there is always much more you don't know — let's zero in on that caduceus. The only reason the ancient wand-like object isn't completely obscure is that the U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted it as its symbol in 1902, leading to its being picked up by the American Medical Association adopted it as the group's symbol, on its way to becoming representative of all things medical.
    So what is it doing on a statue above a purveyor of dry goods? 
    Turns out, in addition to being the staff of Hermes, the God of Messengers, it is also associated with merchants, which makes sense, since they, like messengers, also travel to conduct their business. This economic usage is widespread enough that some doctors and medical organizations shun the caduceus as tainting the purity of their calling with the stink of commerce. Giving away the game. In closing, will I be needlessly provocative if I draw your attention to the photo below, and observe that it is an ugly statue, too big for its perch, that right arm wrapped weirdly around the torch? 



Saturday, July 23, 2022

Northshore Notes: Finding Peace

     One beauty of my job is I never have to weigh in on any particular subject. Much bad writing comes from obligation. So after a blog post and a column on the initial shock of the Highland Park massacre, I could draw away and look at matters less horrible.
     A valid reaction. Still, I'm glad that our Saturday correspondent, Caren Jeskey, who has been working with survivors of the shooting, has kept a steady gaze on the situation, which is easier to bear filtered through her compassionate worldview. I appreciate her sharing, and her photos, and know EGD readers do too.

By Caren Jeskey

     Walking past Ross’s in Highland Park yesterday, where the shooter perched on July 4th, stopped me in my tracks. A small and unassuming store, just sitting there on a hot summer’s day with the blue sky and innocent cirrus clouds above, oblivious to the evil it hosted.
     As a psychotherapist with more than two dozen clients each week, I am humbled to be privy to the inner machinations of a varied group of people. This gives me a snapshot of a particular collective consciousness. As we all grapple with the meaning of our lives in these tumultuous times, where do we find peace?
     For Carl Jung, “we cannot change anything unless we accept it.” To those who rail and rally against “them,” with shaking fists (as I’ve done, plenty, in the past) — there is no “them.” Sure, there are those in public office and those with power in other ways who make decisions that we feel go against the grain of our very beings. “They” are not sitting somewhere in a secret room, picking their teeth and cackling at the rest of us.
     At least I don’t believe they are — though sometimes I wish it was all just a misguided experiment, these past five years or so. “They” were just studying human behavior amidst terrible stress. Those who were lost to violence would be returned to us. Our traumatic memories would be wiped, and global warming would cease to exist. We’d all be set free to live on a green earth with the ability to share, commune in peace, and preserve our planet together.
     “One love. One heart. Let’s get together and feel alright.”                                                               —Bob Marley 
     What I think is more likely is that relatively small groups of “them” sit around and use doublespeak to justify their egoistic agendas. They step over and on top of each other to win. They are pure id. Agendas that have little to no bearing on the health, happiness, and safety of the little guy. And us little guys are not well-resourced enough to turn it around. Swashbuckling sickos often win, characters in an imaginary pirate movie who fancy themselves the heroes.
   We have to have a purpose in our rage, or it becomes neurosis or worse. “Behind a neurosis there is so often concealed all the natural and necessary suffering the patient has been unwilling to bear.” Also Carl Jung.
     We don’t want to become numb. We don’t want to become disconnected from those around us. We want to be in the flow of life. We don’t want to live a life where we shake our fists at “idiot drivers,” “those jackass neighbors making all that noise,” or people who have “wronged” us. That’s not fun at all, now is it? Nor do we want to live a life of pure comfort, ignoring the plight of the rest of the world while we live off of the fruits of their labors.
     We need to learn to sit with our feelings — all of them — even those that are not comfortable.
     It’s important that we allow ourselves to feel fear and grief about things that are terrifying. From there, we can emote genuinely. We can stay human. We can receive comfort. We can make a plan. A plan that makes good sense rather running in circles and screaming, isolating, or giving up.
     We can also plunge into hell like Sylvia Plath, feeling fatalistically alone. “I have never found anybody who could stand to accept the daily demonstrative love I feel in me, and give back as good as I give.” 
     Between 2015 and 2020, an average of approximately 46,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide each year.
     What I notice (and I have acted out, mostly in the past) is an epidemic of inauthenticity. We polish ourselves up and burst into the world with our best faces on. We hide our pain. We keep secrets. In the recovery community it’s said “we are only as sick as our secrets.” We put on a face and we have “so much fun.” We collect experiences. But how do we feel when we lay our heads down on our pillows? How do we feel when we wake up?
     For many these days, it’s dread. Exhaustion. Fear. Or maybe excitement about that next big thing we’ve planned that never turns out just how we thought it would. Luggage gets lost. Flights get delayed. Hopefully for most of us here, we feel okay. We are a bit more balanced. We know the value of simple things, which Jung astutely observed that we are in need of, as we are “suffering in our cities. Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Suffering is not an illness; it is the normal counter-pole to happiness.” It’s okay to feel it; better to let it out in healthy ways, than try to keep in it.
     I’ve always been drawn to Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and Carl Jung. Lore has it that Dickinson was forbidden to read the heathen Whitman’s work, yet as you read them you’ll see that their minds were incredibly similar. Jung made a hedonistic mess of his life at one point, but that certainly does not define him. Plath ended her life. Dickinson was a recluse who fell into a state of “nervousness” towards the end, after she endured a series of losses in her life.
     We are more alike than different, and none of us are ever truly alone. Reach out and text a friend you are worried about, just to say you’re thinking of them, or to tell them of your pain from time to time. Then find ways to heal. I’ve been really into meditations that utilize the incredible gift of neuroplasticity to alter the size of different brain lobes. Here is a 23 minute high for you to enjoy if you so chose. It might seem odd to a beginner, but it may be a better use of time than that 2nd (or 3rd, 4th, or 5th) episode of our favorite binge-worthy shows. Take care this week.
Pain — has an Element of Blank —
It cannot recollect
When it begun — or if there were
A time when it was not —
           —Emily Dickinson

Friday, July 22, 2022

Here we go again

Gov. Pat Quinn signing law allowing gay marriage in Illinois, November, 2013.

      Death was one rite of passage that could not be denied gay people. Back when they weren’t allowed to get married or adopt children, or sometimes even hold jobs, unless they concealed their true selves, they would still die, just like regular folks. Newspapers were then sometimes called upon to write their obituaries.
     Which posed a problem, back in the 1980s. Because their unofficial partners, the people who loved them and knew them best, their spouses without paperwork, while very real, could not be included in the printed summations of their lives. Newspapers had standards to maintain. We had rules, policies.
     That began to chafe, as AIDS scythed through the community. Barring their loved ones, who often cared for them while their disapproving blood relations turned their backs, seemed too cruel, even for daily journalism. Dodges were found. “He was a wonderful man,” said his “close friend,” or “longtime companion,” or “roommate.”
     The effort to catch government attention and actually fight AIDS helped break the silence — “Silence = Death,” remember? As the LGBTQ community stepped out of the shadows, it became harder to marginalize. It turned out that a significant part of the population is gay. They were brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers.
     And all the reasons — haters always have reasons, they lack the courage, the honesty to admit their own bottomless fear and baseless loathing — for denying them regular rites of passage turned out to be nonsense. Allowing gays to marry did not destroy the institution for straights any more than allowing them to die undercut the solemnity of funerals. What legal same-sex marriage meant was less insecurity, more happy families, less abuse, more children with two-parent homes.

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

Flashback 2010: Voltaire's satire; nicks ox of paralyzed, fading America

Voltaire, by Jean-Antoine Houdon (National Portrait Gallery)

      You never know what is going to stick in a reader's mind. After a colleague approvingly retweeted my Wednesday column on Loredo Taft's "Fountain of Time" scupture, a Twitter follower observed that while I am a readable fellow, a certain aesthetic opinion I expressed 12 years ago diminishes everything I've written since. I immediately checked the original he quoted from, and found this review, which I think bears re-reading. I'll let you guess which opinion indicted me, in his eyes, and tell you after.

     If I had to point to one single historical episode to explain the entire human condition, I would highlight the little-known fact that a number of survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, fled to Nagasaki in time for the second bomb dropped three days later.
     This out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire quality, so horrible that it becomes comic — at least when happening long ago to people far away whom you don't know — flashed as I sat in the Goodman Theatre Monday for opening night of "Candide."
     Leonard Bernstein's 54-year-old musical version of Voltaire's 250-year-old satire should not feel current. But something about its deep cynicism, its chain of self-interested rogues, puffed up rulers and luckless victims, makes it perfect for these times, when we stumble from natural disaster to pointless bloodletting to political upheaval. The randy Jesuits Voltaire parodies, well, let's say they did not have the dust of the ages upon them.
     I loved it.
     Then again, I'm an odd mix of deep cynicism and childlike innocence. I enjoyed the way the play's characters were casually butchered, its cities destroyed, sailors drowned, maidens defiled, all with director Mary Zimmerman's full palette of cute theatrical devices — ships on sticks, stoic red toy sheep, ribbons as blood — sugar-coating the three hours of musical mayhem. How many plays are there where the line "Throw the Jew into a ditch" draws a hearty laugh from the audience?
     For those unfamiliar with the story, Candide is a pleasant young simpleton who gets evicted from the idyllic palace where he was raised. He's forced to wander our world of endless outrage, misery and atrocity, searching for his lost love, Miss Cunegonde (played with show-stealing zest by Lauren Molina).
     No experience, no matter how awful, blunts Candide's optimism — I hate to say it, but he is very Barack Obama-ish in his tendency to place his trust in obvious enemies and his reluctance to let a steady rain of betrayals dampen his worldview.


     The music, alas, is not memorable. Bernstein wrote it, but "West Side Story" this ain't. Though when you have lyrics like "What a day for an auto de fe!" who cares about melody? Several of my associates, more experienced theatergoers than myself, complained that Zimmerman's bag of stage tricks has grown stale, so maybe enjoyment reveals a Candide-like naivete on my part. But how could you not love a musical with a number celebrating the transmission of venereal disease, sung by a character with a silver nose? ("Untreated syphilis destroys the cartilage in your nose," I explained to my 14-year-old, eager to show off knowledge that I never thought I'd have the chance to use. "People really did wear those noses.")
     That either intrigues or repels you. Now that every new musical seems designed to help 12-year-olds feel good about themselves, it's bracing to be reminded that theater used to be something adults did to make our scary world seem less so.
     A few who fled Hiroshima to Nagasaki survived both, by the way, living to face life's fresh horrors. Which is the message of the play. You survive; well, some do.
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 29, 2010

     It was the backhand to the melodies of Leonard Bernstein that stuck in his craw, a judgment he found "stupid." To me, there's no accounting for taste, but I do know that others hold their own opinions so highly they come to believe they're absolutes. They're not. If you prefer Salieri to Mozart, well, I would not want to imitate the monks Voltaire decries who "who burn people that are not of their opinion."

Voltaire, by Jean-Antoine Houdon (National Portrait Gallery)

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Fountain suffers lash of time

     Chicago is a big place — 234 square miles. Not only is the city big, but there’s a lot of stuff in it: buildings, parks, statues. So nobody can be faulted for missing any one particular thing. No shame there.
     I hope.
     So I was driving aimlessly around Washington Park Saturday, and passed Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time, a 126-foot long tableau of 100 people plodding along from birth to doom, located at the west end of the Midway Plaisance.
    I pulled over and put on my flashers.
     Maybe you live on the South Side. Maybe you have passed this sprawling display all your life. Maybe, to you, not knowing about Fountain of Time is like not knowing there is a ballpark at the corner of Addison and Clark. You feel like giving a “harrumph” in superiority — go ahead, get it out. A key pleasure of city life is mocking the newbies. That’s what the whole ketchup-on-hot-dogs thing is really about: the joy of belittlement, harder to exercise nowadays without consequences.
     The sculpture is so big it’s hard to photograph. An enormous pool of water with one figure — Father Time, obviously — contemplating the human parade. Huge, yet strangely unimpressive. Maybe I saw it before and then forgot. Parts of its facade are cracked, missing, streaked.
     Blame the Art Institute for it being there, which approved money for the work in 1913, through its administration of the Ferguson Fund.
     “Undoubtedly the largest undertaking ever attempted in sculpture” Taft said. It was supposed to be part of an even larger beautification scheme, a companion Fountain of Creation, just as big, slated for the other end of the Midway.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Because they're there.

     I've been doing this long enough to know that a column like yesterday's, about a summer camp for children with a parent who has died, won't get much reaction. There's nothing to object to, no way for reactionaries to beat their chests or whine about themselves as victims. So they fall into a sullen silence, biding their time.
     Mostly. I glanced into my spam filter, and there was a chronic complainer with this reaction:
"This is the type of organization that should get help via taxpayer money," which for him was sparkly generosity. Then he reverted to form: "But why add 'binary child' in the article?"
     The standard argument against gays standing up for their rights was that they were somehow flaunting themselves in the face of the public. When in fact they were just agitating to be allowed to do what everyone else enjoys — hold jobs, get married, raise families. 
     The same criticism is now applied toward trans people who manifest themselves and then are  slammed for existing, the idea that people innocently pursuing their own inclinations is somehow intolerable. The easiest way to try that is by pretending that their living causes some kind of harm to you, that stocking books urging tolerance is by definition recruitment, since your own kids' orientation is so lightly held, apparently, that a picture book about a penguin with two dads can send them crashing into the abyss of gender confusion.
     I considered my response, and then offered up: "Because the child was there, whether you like it or not."

Monday, July 18, 2022

A camp that saves young lives

"Physical touch is what made this place feel safe," says Grace Law, 24, a group leader at 
Hearts to Art, a camp for children who have lost a parent. (Sun-Times photo by Ashlee Rezin)

     Davion isn’t on stage with the other kids, talking, stretching, being put through their morning paces at the Vittum Theater.
     Instead he’s lying on the floor by the lobby door, silent, alone, facing the wall. But that’s OK. Camp director Sarah Illiatovitch-Goldman gently coaxes the 6-year-old to his feet.
     “Come with me,” she urges, “I need you with me.” She guides Davion into the auditorium. He dives into a seat, drawing his knees up against his lips, watching. 
     In front of him on stage are three dozen kids, warming up, rolling their shoulders. From diverse backgrounds — boys, girls, at least one non-binary child, ages 6 through 10. City and suburbs. Black and white, from across the economic spectrum.
     But they share one hard reality that has upended their young lives and sent them here, to Hearts to Art, a two-week summer camp for children with parents who have died.
     Now in its 18th year, applications are way up. The program, mixing creative arts and counseling, is run by the Auditorium Theatre and held at the Vittum. The theater, in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, is part of Northwestern University’s Settlement House.
     “This year we had a record number,” Illiatovitch-Goldman says. “The amount of loss is bigger.”
     Both in Chicago and across the country. A study in Pediatrics last year estimated one in four COVID-19 deaths — 250,000 and counting — cause a child to lose a parent or caregiver. Between illness, accident and violence, an estimated 3.5% of children in America have a parent die before the age of 18. A 2-year-old boy lost both parents in the Highland Park 4th of July shooting.

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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Wilmette Notes: The New Normal?

Paris Catacombs. "It's by the malice of the devil that death entered into the world."

     Due to mysterious technical difficulties, North Shore bureau chief Caren Jeskey's Saturday reflections are appearing on Sunday. The proprietor apologizes for this change in routine, though, now that I think of it, shaking up routine is very on-brand for Caren.

By Caren Jeskey
Can you look in the mirror
And tell me everything's alright?
This American crisis
Keeps me wide awake at night.
           — American Crisis, Bob Mould Band, 
     Square Roots Festival, hosted by the Old Town School of Folk Music, took over Lincoln Square last weekend. Bob Mould Band headlined Friday night. I felt a pull to go, but my body had other plans. I spent nearly the whole day and evening in bed. As many others, I was wiped out from the tragic July 4th week. (Plus fatigue, dizziness, and other unpleasantness have become my companions since I had COVID). I crashed with a combination of despondency for the victims of terror so close to home, grief for the violent rage and twisted imagination of the young shooter, and disgust about the availability of tools to act out the depravity he was feeling inside. 
     The facts that he had created an animated video of himself shooting into a crowd of people that was available on YouTube, he’d attempted suicide and threatened violence towards his family, had spray painted an image of himself holding a weapon of mass destruction on the outside wall of his mother’s house, and still had carte blanche access to an arsenal of guns adds to the absurdity of his story.
     The shooters are not adults. They are the children we are raising. Stigmatizing mental illness, addiction, and poverty to the point of forcing people into the fringes is a big part of the problem. I believe that if every one of us made some effort to stay connected to the larger community outside of our castles and nuclear tribes, we’d create a healthier and safer climate for all. Even just a few hours a month — such as becoming a mentor at Mercy Homes or somewhere similar — can make an incredible difference. Our children are growing up quickly— most of them anyway — and will soon be the adults who replace us. Let’s help them feel more secure and show them their value, and thus they will stand a chance of becoming empathic humans rather than isolated pariahs.
     We have to hold onto hope, and slivers come in many forms. A group of volunteer therapists organized to serve the Highland Park community last week is still going strong, and growing. As I’m sure you’ve seen on the news, the Highland Park community has continued banding together in impressive ways. A fundraiser that asked for $5000 to pay the bills and support a woman of meagre means who was injured by a ricocheting bullet has raised over $20,000 with one donor commenting “All of our love and support to you. Our community will not let you become saddled into debt by this.”
     I was in need of a good escape, so after a day of rest on Saturday a long lost friend and I took a walk from Brother’s K on Main Street in Evanston to Northwestern’s campus and back. I realize the importance of keeping my tribe strong, and have been reaching out to good people I’ve lost touch with over the years. This old friend and I once worked together in a small non-profit with a brilliant and unstable maverick at the helm. I took my leave after a key person there attached to me in an uncomfortable way, telling me that she believed I was the reincarnated being of the pregnancy she’d aborted the year I was born.
     You can’t make this stuff up. I wrote my letter of resignation and got out of Dodge. The woman and I did not part on good terms. In retrospect I wish I’d been kinder and more patient with her, less judgmental. I wish I’d been kinder and more patient with everyone in my past who I relegated as unworthy of such treatment. I wish I’d saved my self-righteous indignation for those who truly deserved it, not just those who seemed strange to me and ruffled my feathers.
     After our Evanston walk, I headed to the Square Roots Festival. Old Town School is a cozy haven. Even before frogs started raining from the sky back in 2016, acoustic guitars and group singalongs put their warm arms around us. We survived blizzards there — hot cocoa, homemade soup and warm cider served by Miki who cheerfully ran the concession stand for a decade. (Miki’s now a manager at Kopi Cafe, another welcoming urban oasis in Andersonville, if you ever want to say hello. You’ll recognize him by his long dark locks, sparkling eyes, always welcoming demeanor, and trademark fedora).
     My niece was dropped off to hang out at the fest with me on Saturday. At 9, she’s growing up quickly. She picked out a few things for Auntie Peaches (me) to buy her, as she strode around feeling pretty cool to be a part of the scene. Just as my parents imbued the folk community spirit in me, it’s my turn to pass the baton. After my niece was picked up, I made my way to hear Guided By Voices and got lost in rock and roll. By the time I got into bed at eleven or so, I’d forgotten about bleak realities.
     On Sunday back at Square Roots, the highlight for me was listening to West African drumming with dance moves led by Idy Ciss, a fixture at Old Town and a principal dancer and choreographer at Muntu Dance Company. As we sang in call and response style with Idy in Wolof, his Senegalese tongue, we were at least temporarily sheltered from the storm.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Flashback 1997: "And all these years I thought I was Jewish"

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
     Our regular Saturday correspondent, Caren Jeskey, is taking the day off. In her place, I offer this chestnut from the vault.
     I'm running it because a Hasidic rabbi in Maryland whom I knew when he was a teen at a Chicago religious school got in touch with me this week, searching for a particular column I'd written years ago regarding his Lubavitch sect. Was it this one? No. That one? No. He wanted, he explained, the one that sparked my friendship with Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, the late head of the movement in the midwest. 
     Ah, that one! The one Moscowitz contacted the paper to complain about. I hesitated. It's a bit ... strident — I was much younger. But what the heck, he wants to see it, so here it is.

     What's the matter, guys — Talmud study getting boring?
     That's the only explanation I can think of for the salvo of words that a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders decided to fire off at the more watered-down branches of the faith.
     Monday, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis declared that the Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism — more than 80 percent of Jews in the United States — "are not Judaism at all."
     Geez, why didn't you announce that last week? Then I could have dyed eggs and eaten chocolate bunnies over Easter, instead of missing all the fun.
     The rabbis' statement, ironically, reminded me of those groups periodically announcing the Holocaust didn't happen. My response to them is always: "Great! Now I can look up all those relatives who I thought had died in Poland."
     Heck, the rabbis should have announced this years ago. Judaism is a great religion, but in a Christian society, Jews also miss out. If I, raised in Reform Judaism, wasn't really Jewish, than I could have trimmed Christmas trees, dated cheerleaders, gone fly-fishing and all that other stuff I imagined gentiles did.
     Seriously, this sort of high-handed nonsense is not exactly surprising. Just as blacks snipe at each other based on the darkness of their skin, and Hispanics differentiate between their various nations of origin, so Jews denigrate each other for their various approaches to the religion.
     I knew already, for instance, that Hasidic Jews didn't consider me Jewish. But it seemed like a benign judgment — they were always trolling around in those vans, encouraging us lower forms of Semitic life to put on the ritual prayer boxes and get a taste of Orthodoxy. They wanted to be friends.
     But this week's pronouncement had the slap of a trademark lawyer's warning letter. "We understand that you're using our `Jewish' logo without permission — please cease and desist immediately."
     They can be like that. An Orthodox Jew once stopped by my house to pick up a pushke. A pushke is a little coin box where you deposit pocket change for charity — Orthodox groups use them a lot. And stupid, not-really-Jewish us, we had been packing our change into these pushkes and then phoning up our moral betters and asking them to come collect their money.
      Well, this Orthodox guy shows up at my house: big beard, fedora, long coat. He walks in, takes a look around, and his face freezes in a mask of disgust that I remember to this day. I guess we didn't have enough portraits of Rebbe Schneerson. He did, however, find the graciousness to accept the money.
     To tell you the truth, the entire episode reminds me of a woman I once worked with. She was a snippish, unfriendly person, nasty from Day One.
     I did something to offend her, and she fired off a nasty e-mail of reprimand. I read her criticisms, thought a moment, and then sent this reply:
     "Your criticism of me would have carried more weight if you had ever been nice to me in the first place."
     I think that goes for the Union of Rabbis, too.
            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 2, 1997

Friday, July 15, 2022

‘Born a Crime’ speaks to now

     Keeping up with popular culture is exhausting and impossible. Why bother even trying? The new hit movie or song, the latest viral TikTok. There’s so much of it; most can be easily missed.
     But when somebody I know recommends something, I pay attention. What’s the point of talking otherwise? When a young man in his 20s — a Chicago teacher — urged me to read Trevor Noah’s book, “Born a Crime,” I immediately sought it out on Audible.
     The fact that it had been a No. 1 bestseller when it came out in 2016 was news to me. I knew exactly one thing about Noah: he replaced Jon Stewart on his TV show, which I never watch. Occasionally a quip of Noah’s might pop up on Twitter.
     Noah was born in South Africa. A good book introduces you not only to people — Noah, his parents, his friends — but to a place. “Born a Crime” — literally true in Noah’s case, born of an illegal union of his Black mother and Swiss father — does exactly that. We see South Africa with its 11 official languages, its oppressive Apartheid system where officials are sticking pencils in people’s hair and if the pencil stays in place, you’re Black, and you can’t live in certain areas. Chinese people are officially Black, but Japanese are officially white.
     The book contains one of the funniest set pieces I’ve ever read. Because of inadequate education — it isn’t just Texas — a Black South African family will sometimes name their baby “Hitler” in honor of the powerful guy in the distant past who caused so much trouble for other Europeans. I won’t go into detail, so as not to spoil it when you read the book, which you absolutely should. Let’s just say the episode involves Hitler and a dance party.
     But that isn’t why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because the book speaks to our moment.
     Noah is hustling pirated CDs in the street, living on the margins of crime. He buys a stolen camera.

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