Category Archives: deep thoughts

Reflections and resolutions and the requisite splatter of blood

You all know I don’t make resolutions at the New Year. I’ve said it more than once over here, and explained why. Mostly because it seems like an artificial point in time but also because this time of year has historically been so stressful (for me) that resolutions would tend to be along the lines of “burn it all down.”

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But this year . . . this year feels different. I feel different, more resolute. Actually, in going back to re-read a few older posts, I see that last year at this time felt different as well. I resolved then that 2016 was going to be the year of me being selfish and saying “no” and focusing on what I wanted to do, which was write fiction.

To a great extent, that’s what I did. I made significantly more progress in 2016 than the year before — just shy of 100,000 words, a vast improvement — but not as much as I had hoped.

This past year has been really tough for a lot of us, myself included. It has gotten to the point where things that I’d normally take in stride have felt devastating. Things that would normally not feel personal have piled on top of troubles that are very personal and their combined weight has been overwhelming. It’s been an accumulation of tragedy. Following waves of communal grief. Shared anger and frustration and a feeling of helplessness. It has all added up this year and become a relentless self-perpetuating cycle of trauma.

That’s not healthy.

There are so many awful things I can’t do anything about, I’ve lost sight of what I can influence and achieve. But I do think recognizing a problem is a necessary first step in doing something about it. So, there’s that.

*   *   *

I’ve been re-reading portions of my novella, A PLACE TO START — looking at some details for the sake of continuity in the second book — and came across this scene toward the end where Mac (our hero, for those who haven’t read it) (why haven’t you read it?) and Charlie (a wise old mountain man) are having a little heart-to-heart. I skimmed it, as it wasn’t the scene I was looking for, and then stopped and read it again. And again.

Why? Well, see for yourself:

“Life is chock full of pain and death. You can spend all your days anticipatin’ it and, by God, you won’t be disappointed.”

“I don’t spend time anticipating it.”

“Sure you do. That’s all you been doin’ these past three years. Waitin’ for someone else to die. Ain’t no way for a young man to live.”

Mac couldn’t even remember the last time he’d felt young. “We all grieve in different ways.”

“That’s the truth. But after a time, it’s just purely selfish. It ain’t helpin’ those done gone and it sure ain’t good for the people still here. Wallowing, is what it is.”

Mac couldn’t argue with that, but still. “Harsh words.”

“Truth often is.” He spat again. “Fact is, you got a choice, the way you look at things. And you been focused for so long on those moments of pain, waitin’ on the next one, you done lost sight of the happiness and peace in between ’em.”

“Aye. Haven’t seen much of either, lately.” Except with Jo.

“That’s ’cause you ain’t been looking, son. There are whole long stretches of it, between the pain, days and weeks and even years of it. There’s love mixed up in there too, if you ain’t too dense to see it.”

You know, sometimes I read a thing I wrote and can’t quite believe I wrote it. It’s as if past me was giving advice to future me, like I knew I’d need to hear those words someday.

So, that’s one of my resolutions for 2017. Change the way I look at things, try to focus on the positive and happy and peaceful in between the inevitable moments of pain and grief.

While I can’t change certain things, I can limit my exposure. I’ve been doing that already, to a degree, since November. I can certainly set a timer before I look at twitter or facebook or news sites. I can unsubscribe from RSS feeds that I tend not to read anyway and get rid of some clutter. I can mute a good deal of the negativity and anger, and try not to engage in it myself. Maybe. Probably.

In the week since Christmas, I’ve resumed my focus on good eating habits and cut back on consumption of adult beverages and chocolate which, to be honest, had increased a wee bit since November. *sigh* I can’t avoid the fact that my work involves sitting in one place for hours each day, but I can set reminders to get up and move more often. Release some endorphins. Or, failing that, a kraken or two.

I can’t control when people send me text messages and emails, but I can control when I read and reply. In fact, yesterday I spent hours getting rid of hundreds of old unread emails from various group feeds, admitting I’m never going to read them. Given the rapid changes in publishing, most of them were obsolete anyway.

I definitely can’t control whether some idiot mouse decides to enter my house, as one did the night before last, nor can I stop The White Ninja from playing with it to the point of bloodshed. Again.

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Cats are barbarians.

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But I guess I can be glad all I have to do is clean up the mess and not chase the stupid doomed thing myself. Small mercies.

So, those all are positive and constructive things I can do to improve my mental and emotional state. It’s helpful as well to keep in mind that there were a lot of really good things that happened worldwide in 2016. If you need a refresher, take a look at this powerful listing in the twitter timeline of Commander Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and all-around good guy (keep clicking “show more” at the end to see the entire list of 46 items):

Really, go read it. I’d missed hearing about several of them.

*   *   *

I’m also resolving to do something I hope will improve the consistency and volume of my writing output. No promises about what it’ll do to the quality.

The other day I was scrolling through twitter and saw a spreadsheet graphic someone had made where she’d not only tracked her writing, she’d blocked out time during the year for vacation and sick days and flex time and holidays– just like she would if she were working a “real” job. It was complex and colourful and highly organized. It was also a real eye-opener.

Yeah, I know, everyone says you need to treat writing like a “real” job. No surprise there. And I thought I had been doing that, until I saw that schedule and realized . . . I don’t have one. What an idiot.

Thing is, I know how to work hard. I know how to get stuff done. I know what it takes to meet deadlines. And I know I haven’t been doing it. Not the way I would if it were a “real” job with a real schedule.

How do I know? Because for the past two years I’ve been keeping track in my own complex, colourful, highly organized spreadsheet of all the words I’ve written. I can see exactly how and when I’ve been slacking off. Not holding myself accountable. Indulging myself when I should be demanding the results I know darn well I’m capable of achieving. Getting lost in the escape of reading when instead I should be writing.

If I were my boss (and I am) I’d have fired my ass by now.

Yes, I’ve had reasons for some of that behaviour. As I said, tough year. But that certainly doesn’t account for all of it. Some of it, I’m now convinced, is due to a lack of structure.

So I’m going to make a writing schedule for the coming calendar year, with concrete goals. Not just to keep track of what I’ve written, which is good and necessary (for me), but to plan out what I intend to do and when. Create a familiar framework within which to get shit done.

I’m going to schedule four weeks of vacation, something I’ve never had at any job, ever. I’m giving myself a week of sick time and all the weekends and holidays I didn’t get to take off while working in retail finance, even though I wasn’t part of the sales team. In some ways, it feels like I’m still stubbornly making up for that lack of time off, even now.

That sounds like a lot of non-writing days, doesn’t it? I imagine you’re wondering just how, exactly, I expect all that time off to improve output. But here’s the important part, the part I’ve been missing: The rest of the days will be for work.

No more vague feeling of every day being the same, of not having a sense of whether it’s a work day or a weekend or vacation, which makes it way too easy to procrastinate and simply take the day off since there is always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

I’m going to hold myself accountable for sticking to it, even if it gets all irregular and pear-shaped at times. Which it will. But I can already tell that having a schedule mapped out will make it easier to get back on track when life tries to derail me. Which it will.

I wonder whether this sudden enthusiasm for a schedule is just a sign of getting older and sensing time slipping away more quickly each year, feeling the need to control it somehow or at least force it into neat categories. I’m sure that’s part of it. I never worried about this when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I had schedules and expectations imposed on me by others. In this strange new stage of self-employment, the first couple years without a schedule was the most liberating feeling of sheer relief– I have no words for it.

But it feels like it’s time for some order and routine again. Maybe I’m just fooling myself and doing this will be setting myself up for failure and future feelings of inadequacy and guilt and shame. Or maybe it will work.

Won’t know if I don’t try. So that’s my new plan of attack, even though I’m wondering why it took me so long to figure this out. Nope. Not going there. Regrets are useless.

*   *   *

For a change, I’m feeling all resolute at the same time of year everyone else usually does. Time to move forward and make the coming year what I want it to be. And every year after, for however many more there might be.

One thing 2016 demonstrated quite clearly is that none of us are guaranteed more time than this moment right now. And as old Charlie might say, “Not makin’ the most of the time you got just ain’t no way to live.”

We all have varying interpretations of what it means to “make the most” of our time, our talent, our energy. However you define it, my wish for all of you is that you manage to accomplish that in the coming year.

May it truly be a Happy New Year, for all of us.

 

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Ten years ago . . .

In September of 2006, I signed up for a Google ID and somehow also ended up with a blog of my own. I had no intention of writing a blog and this was the entirety of my first post:

“Not sure how I ended up with a blog, I didn’t ask for one. Blogger must think I have something to say here.
Blogger is mistaken.
Go read something else.”

And I meant it. I was not going to start blogging. I didn’t have time for that. I was convinced I had nothing to say, never mind knew anyone who would read it.

Pffft. As if that was going to stop me. A mere two weeks later, I wrote another post that began:

“All this white space has been bothering me, you know. It’s just sitting over here waiting for words. So I’m thinking maybe this blog is good for something after all.”

I would not have believed anyone who told me then I’d still be blogging ten years later. And enjoying it.

But I’ve been writing over here, on a somewhat regular basis, ever since. I switched to WordPress after three years with Google (best decision ever) and the stats say I’ve published 307, now 308 posts. Seems like way more than that. Then again, at an average of 1,000 words per post (yes, I do go on, and on, and on) that’s well over 300,000 words.

I’ve made friends, good friends, by way of this blog. And also by commenting on other blogs. Some of those friends have wandered off, as people do. Disinterest, busyness, death. The latter are the tough losses. The people who live on only in your memories. And your heart.

Margaret. Louis. Bryan.

Gone too soon.

But some of the people who have simply wandered off and no longer read my blog, or who do so only rarely, have remained good friends. A handful of them came to visit me, and each other, last week. We had lunch for five hours and it seemed too short. A few came bearing gifts, including this gorgeous orchid, which I have not yet (it’s only been a week) managed to kill.

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The instructions say to give it three ice cubes, once a week. You’d think I’d be able to manage something that specific. Far more helpful than the advice “don’t overwater.” I’m cautiously optimistic.

After ten years of writing blog posts, I feel as if I should be able to impart some similarly specific advice or wisdom. Other than the obvious, “Don’t try to post every damn day, it will destroy your will to live.”

What makes for a successful blog? Hell, I don’t know. I stopped caring about the “success” of this blog so long ago, it’s not even a distant memory. That’s not why I do it.

My thoughts keep returning to Brené Brown and her TED talks about the power of vulnerability, and understanding shame, and how those things are important, even necessary, for creativity. For establishing connection.

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And I think, if there’s any measure of success to communicating on the internet — via blogs or twitter or facebook, or even through fiction — it’s that. The connections you make with other people.

Speak your truth. Even if people ignore or disagree with you, maybe especially if they do. Be vulnerable. Find your connections.

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And if the world gives you a blank space, fill it. Be courageous. Create the thing that only you can create. However long it takes.

 

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When you least expect it

Today is the 20th anniversary of my dad’s death and I’m surprised to find myself feeling all nostalgic and melancholy. You’d think, after so much time has passed, that feelings of loss and grief would have faded. And, of course, they have. But there are still times — odd times, not necessarily the times you expect — when it all comes flooding back, as fresh and raw as if 20 years were just a blink.

Today is one of those times.

Here’s an old picture of my dad and mom (holding my son, who is now an adult) and me, squinting in the bright Arizona sunshine. Dad looks shorter by comparison than he should (I’m 5’8″ and he was 6′), as he’s standing in the grass and we’re on the sidewalk. Dad hated having his picture taken almost as much as I do and it was a rare event that someone managed to torture capture both of us at the same time (photo credit: my bossy older sister).

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So many memories and such excessive eye moisture I’m having today. My very stoic father would be rolling his eyes at me with an expression of affectionate but pained tolerance on his face. So would my mom and sisters, for that matter, if they ever read this. I’m telling you, it’s not easy being the sappy emotional one in a family of Scandinavians. Whatever. Might as well just wallow for a bit and get it over with.

I guess it doesn’t help that earlier in the week I asked my older sister to send me a copy of the eulogy the two of us wrote, and delivered at his memorial service, because I couldn’t find mine. Twelve typed pages of memories, so many things I’d forgotten saying. I had thought I might share some of it here, but it’s too personal. Too evocative. Too much an invasion of private grief.

But the day feels like it needs some sort of tribute, so I decided to share something else instead. My dad knew a lot of people. Quite a few of them were involved in politics, as political and civil rights issues were a passion of my dad’s. He never ran for office, preferring to remain behind the scenes in the role of teacher and advisor.

One of the people he knew was Pete Stark, a US Representative from California. We discovered, quite some time after dad died, that Mr. Stark made memorial remarks during session that became part of the Congressional Record. I’ve decided to share those remarks below, redacting dad’s name and some details– not in an attempt to protect his privacy, but mine.

Mr. Speaker, today I wish to pay tribute to an educator, activist, and my longtime personal friend, [xxx], who passed away recently in [xxx], MN, at the age of 68.

I was privileged to know [xxx] at a special time in our lives and in our Nation’s history. As a grass roots activist, Mr. [xxx] took special interest in civil rights issues and the anti-Vietnam war movement. In 1970, a group of 31 Americans, including [xxx] and myself, traveled to Paris with the People’s Commission of Inquiry to discuss solutions to the war. [xxx], along with our group, participated in a week of talks in France with North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese delegations and the American ambassador. During our stay he encouraged an open discussion in which he questioned, challenged and explored solutions to this problem of international scope.

[xxx] . . . dropp[ed] out [of high school] during his senior year to join the Navy. He was stationed in Bermuda for part of his tour and was chosen to run the admiral’s launch that took President Truman deep sea fishing. An avid sportsman, he played offense and defense and was captain of the Navy football team. He contracted rheumatic fever during his service and suffered from its effects for the rest of his life.

[xxx] finished his high school equivalency degree in the military. He went on to the University of Minnesota, the Wahpeton State School of Science, and graduated magna cum laude from Moorhead State University. He later earned a master’s degree and completed doctoral work at the University of Minnesota. During his early college career, he played AAA baseball with the Minot, ND, Mallards and pitched against such notables as Satchel Paige and Roger Maris.

As an English, drama and debate teacher at [xxx] High School for 30 years, [xxx] was a mentor to students in and out of the classroom. He led several debate teams to State championships, served on the faculty senate, and supported the American Field Service Program.

[xxx] will be remembered as an avid reader, a lover of language, and a remarkable individual whose ideas reached far and wide. His genuine enthusiasm for American politics prompted people of all ages to become interested in government and civil service. Because I experienced [xxx]’s vitality and wisdom firsthand, I’ve no doubt that this tireless role model made [xxx], MN, a richer place to live.

As friends and family reflect on his lifetime of achievement and scholarship, it is only fitting that we also pay tribute to this great man and good friend.

Quite a tribute to the legacy he left. Dad would have been touched and deeply honoured. But it’s just a small sampling of who my dad was, publicly, the things other people knew and admired him for. And why the world was a richer place for him having been in it. He was by far the most intelligent person I’ve ever known and among a handful of the wisest.

I can’t even begin to find words for what he meant to me personally and why there will always be days, like today, when the void he left seems immeasurable. Other than the obvious ones: I miss you, Dad.

 

 

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On gifts and giving

My sisters and I have pretty much stopped sending each other gifts for birthdays and Christmas. There have been some notable exceptions, but this has been the mutual agreement for many years. So when my youngest sister mentioned she’d sent me something for my birthday, which was a week or so ago, I assumed she meant a card.

I was surprised when I received a package that was somewhat larger than a card, and far heavier and thicker. Of course, there was a birthday card enclosed. It was funny and made me laugh. Here’s a picture of it [from baldguygreetings.com] which is not good quality because I’m propping this stuff up on my laptop screen:

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And the inside:

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If you can’t see it, that last item says:

“THEY HAND WRITE YOU A LETTER ON COLLEGE RULED BINDER PAPER:
This would be the most caring person in the world — if you were in the 4th grade. But since you’re not, this is weird and to be honest, a little creepy. This person has the potential to be a stalker. Be careful. Seriously.”

So it totally cracked me up when she did indeed enclose a hand written letter on college ruled binder paper, written as if she were in 4th grade (yes, I deleted my [real] name).

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She also sent photocopies of two different things I had written and sent to her, although not when I was in 4th grade (which might have been a plausible excuse).

One of them was a photocopy of a letter I’d written (in cursive, no less, demonstrating I was once capable of legible penmanship) when I was living in Atlanta and she had just moved, or was about to move, to Chicago. I referenced sending two “silly gifts” but don’t say what they were. I don’t remember writing it and neither of us can remember what I sent. It’s pretty sappy. You don’t need to see that.

The other paper is a copy of a poem I apparently wrote for her when she turned 13 and I was a month shy of being 17. It’s too ridiculous not to share:

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Can you read it? Probably just as well if you can’t. I have no memory of writing this either, although I do remember that I used to write “poetry” [ahem] ALL THE TIME when I was younger. Some of it I put in writing, but most of it was just in my head, usually composed while in the shower (I was hell on my parents’ water bills). But there you have it, proof that I’ve always been more than just a little weird. It must have been pure torment to have me as an older sister. Or a younger sister. Or daughter, for that matter.

And then I got to the gift-wrapped item in the package, which turned out to be a book. It made me cry.

It’s an old book, slightly water damaged and musty smelling and perhaps even a bit moldy around the edges. A book my sister “rescued” from the basement library in our parents’ house several years after the epic flooding back in . . . whenever it was. Mid-80s? It’s one of the books deemed to be “not too badly damaged,” therefore escaping the heartbreaking dumpster fate of so many other tomes. This book:

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You might think this is a really weird gift. I mean, it’s pretty much just an ordinary school textbook. You might wonder why seeing it made me cry and why I will always treasure it. Here’s why:

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This is one of my dad’s books. My dad the high school English teacher/debate coach who died way too young almost 20 years ago. That’s his distinctive writing in the margins, his characteristic underlining of words and phrases. That’s the look of every student paper he graded for his own classes over the years, every book he read, every thought-provoking article in some publication or other. It’s the look of every single paper I ever wrote, after it had been turned in to and graded by some other teacher and then grudgingly, at his insistence, handed over to him for the red (or blue) pen treatment.

And damn, I’ve missed seeing that. Of all the hundreds of books in my house, this is the only one (now) in my possession that was his. It’s an amazing gift, one I never would have thought to ask for. A gift I didn’t even know I wanted. My sister knew. It holds the same value and memories for her, after all, and I was moved by her thoughtful generosity in parting with it.

Since this is a traditional time for giving, and not solely because of MY birthday, it seems to be a good time to say I hope the gifts you receive — and the ones you give — this holiday season will be similarly meaningful and worth treasuring.

And apart from material things, or perhaps more accurately, in addition to tangible forms of generosity . . . in the coming year, I hope more of us will give the gift of attention and understanding and compassion to those who suffer and struggle. I hope more of us will grant that precious gift not only to those we know and love, but especially to those we don’t, who live in nearby and far off places we’ve never seen, whose hardships we might recognize or will never know, whose humanity is exactly like our own.

Thoughtful generosity.

If I could give each of you a gift to share, it would be that.

 

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Stepping back to move forward

I’ve heard people say that when you have a big job to do, it helps to break it down into smaller parts or steps. This makes it feel less overwhelming and also gives you a more immediate sense of accomplishment as you complete each step. It’s good advice. I’ve utilized this reasoning myself, more than once.

But sometimes it backfires. Or maybe that’s just me. Probably just me.

I read a post the other day over on Bob Mayer’s blog that talked about wanting things. As I was reading along I thought, Yeah, I want to finish this damn book already. And then I read this part and it made me stop and really think:

“Studies have shown that wanting something produces one set of chemical reactions in the brain, while actually getting it, produces a different one. In fact, once you get it, you can’t want it any more. That takes a second for me to wrap my brain around. That means you actually feel differently between the wanting and the having. It’s chemical. I think we often forget that chemistry is science and it does rule, affecting how we literally feel and think.”

Took me more than a second. This was daunting when I applied it to myself. Once I get what I want — to finish writing this book — then what? I’ll have a finished book and no more desire? My motivation will just . . . disappear? There was a brief moment of something that felt like panic until I realized, no, silly, of course not. Because what I want is more than just that one thing.

Pretty sure this wasn’t the intention of the post, but credit where it’s due. It made me realize I was so focused on one part, one small frustrating step, I’d lost track of the big picture. Since I couldn’t see past the current roadblock, everything seemed impossible. It was as if I’d gotten stuck on Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction, clinging myopically to a lower rung, right alongside good ol’ Bessie the cow.

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I still think that ladder is missing a step and should’ve included something smaller than a cow. Like maybe a meatball or veal chop or something.

Anyway.

A comparison that seems more apt for my situation is that of creating a mosaic. I’ve been so focused recently on one little tile, trying to make sure all the edges were beveled and the surface was polished, positioning it just so, worrying that the colour perhaps wasn’t quite the same exact hue as the others. No longer seeing it as just a small piece of the whole.

More important, I’d forgotten that not only are imperfections inevitable, they are what give character to a piece of art and make the whole more interesting.

And I had to ask myself– am I really going to let this one small piece stop me from achieving the whole? Seriously? This tiny little piece that isn’t even the hard part of what I want?

Hell no, I’m not.

So I took a step back. A big step back. Yes, I want to finish this damn book. After that I want to finish the third book in this series. And then I want to write more books, more series, under this pen name and another. Books I’ve already started and some I haven’t, books in different genres, with possibly different audiences. My head is full of stories, waiting to escape.

The whole of what I want is a career as a writer.

It’s the kind of “wanting” that will never quite be realized, as defined in the quote above. That motivating chemical reaction will always be there, never fully satisfied, because a writing career lasts as long as the writer is willing and able to write. And can avoid getting bogged down in minutiae.

Slowly, reluctantly, I’ve come to realize that in order to accomplish the whole, I need to accept that some of the individual pieces will be imperfect. I don’t like that feeling. It’s so . . . vulnerable. But it’s true. There will be flawed tiles, whether those are not-quite-right words, awkward sentences, clumsy scenes, or books that don’t quite fit a series. At first, up close, some of those pieces might look a little weird or scrawny or pitiful.

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But eventually they’ll all fit, in their own way, and be pieces of the whole. Some people won’t notice the flaws. Other people won’t be able to see anything but, and will be dismayed (sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — that will be me). With any luck, there will also be a few people who not only see the flaws but decide those are what make the whole interesting and unique and give it character.

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So I’ve expanded my focus, renewed my perspective and determination– for what seems like the millionth time. But I guess that’s my struggle, balancing self-doubt and confidence. Probably always will be. Oh, and that pesky little tile, er, scene that was giving me so much trouble? I deleted it. And wrote something else, something better. Sometimes I forget I can do that, can magically make things NOT happen. Another symptom of getting too close.

I’m back at work, quietly making my own mistakes, polishing my flaws as best I can and then letting go, setting pieces in place, moving on to the next. Envisioning a larger composite only I can see, that only I can create. Wanting what I want.

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