The Writer’s Almanac for June 7, 2018

“A Green Cornfield” by Christina Rossetti. Public domain. (buy now)

The earth was green, the sky was blue:
I saw and heard one sunny morn
A skylark hang between the two,
A singing speck above the corn;

A stage below, in gay accord,
White butterflies danced on the wing,
And still the singing skylark soared,
And silent sank and soared to sing.

The cornfield stretched a tender green
To right and left beside my walks;
I knew he had a nest unseen
Somewhere among the million stalks.

And as I paused to hear his song
While swift the sunny moments slid,
Perhaps his mate sat listening long,
And listened longer than I did.


 It’s the birthday of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, (books by this author) born in Istanbul (1952). He grew up in a wealthy family in a nice house. He wanted to be a painter but it wasn’t quite respectable enough, so he went to Istanbul Technical University to study architecture. It had a radical, Marxist political climate. Pamuk said: “Although I was reading the literature of all these little Marxist factions, I never joined any, and I would go home and read Virginia Woolf. Although I had my sympathies, I saved my spirits by reading Woolf and Faulkner and Mann and Proust.” He decided to leave school, but to be a writer, not a painter.

His first novel, Cevdet Bey and His Sons (1982), sold 2,000 copies its first year. But his second novel sold 8,000 copies in its first year; his third, 16,000; his fourth, 32,000; and his fifth, 164,000. His sixth novel, My Name is Red (1998), had the largest print run of any novel in Turkey’s history.

In 2005, he said in an interview with a Swiss newspaper, talking about Turkey: “One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it.” He was arrested and charged with “publicly denigrating Turkish identity.” The trial got full media coverage, and important people from all over the world showed up for it. The case was dropped on a legal technicality, but it got him a lot of publicity, good and bad. Internationally, Pamuk’s book sales were skyrocketing, and he was winning awards and getting rave reviews. But at home in Turkey, he was selling less and the critics complained about everything he wrote. In 2004, he published the novel Snow, and in 2005, a memoir, Istanbul. The next year, he won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Last year, The Museum of Innocence (2008), was translated into English. Many of his novels are political, but this one is mostly about unrequited love, set in 1970s Istanbul. The main character, Kemal, becomes obsessed with a lover, Füsun, when she refuses to become his mistress. So he gives up his well-connected fiancée and all his friends and devotes himself exclusively to ingratiating himself with Füsun in every way. The Museum of Innocence did as well in Turkey as everywhere else. Pamuk said, “It washed — whoosh — all my political problems away, at least for the time being.”


It’s the birthday of the novelist Louise Erdrich, (books by this author) born in Little Falls, Minnesota (1954). She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her mother was French-Ojibwe, and her father was German; she and her six brothers and sisters were raised in a close, loving family. Instead of watching TV—they didn’t own one—the children were encouraged to write and to memorize poems.

She went off to Dartmouth in 1972, the same year the university started admitting women and the first year of its new Native American Studies program. The program’s director was Michael Dorris. Years after she graduated, Erdrich was invited back to Dartmouth to read some of her poetry, and she became re-acquainted with Dorris, and they ended up getting married.

She started off as a poet. Her first book was Jacklight (1984), a book of poems based on the thesis she wrote for her master’s degree in 1979. She said, “I began to tell stories in the poems and then realized that there was not enough room.” So she moved on to fiction. She published her first short story, “The Red Convertible,” in 1981, and “Scales” in 1982. Later that year, Dorris convinced her to enter a new fiction writing contest, so in the space of two weeks she wrote “The World’s Greatest Fisherman,” and she won the $5,000 prize. Two years later, she published Love Medicine (1984),a novel made up of 14 interrelated stories.

Love Medicine is populated with characters who live in the fictional town of Argus, North Dakota, or its nearby reservation. There is Marie Lazarre, who starts out life convinced she wants to be a nun—”I was that girl who thought the black hem of her garment would help me rise. Veils of love which was only hate petrified by longing—that was me.” And her rival Lulu Lamartine—”Lulu Lamartine was usually controlled as a cat, and got her way through coaxing, cajoling, rubbing against your leg. An old woman who remained infuriatingly pretty, she bent others to her will before they knew what was happening.” And Nector Kashpaw, the man who loved Lulu but married Marie anyway: “Here is what I do not understand: how instantly the course of your life can be changed. I only know that I went up the convent hill intending to sell geese and came down the hill with the geese still on my arm. Beside me walked a young girl with a mouth on her like a flophouse, although she was innocent. She grudged me to hold her hand. And yet I would not drop the hand and let her walk alone. Her taste was bitter. I craved the difference after all those years of easy sweetness.” After Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich wrote many novels set in the same fictional universe, and Marie, Lulu, and Nector all reappeared, along with others connected to them. Her novels include Tracks (1988), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), The Master Butchers Singing Club (2003), The Plague of Doves (2008), and Shadow Tag (2010).

She said, “We have a lot of books in our house. They are our primary decorative motif—books in piles on the coffee table, framed book covers, books sorted into stacks on every available surface, and of course books on shelves along most walls. Besides the visible books, there are the boxes waiting in the wings, the basement books, the garage books, the storage locker books. They are a sort of insulation, soundproofing some walls. They function as furniture, they prop up sagging fixtures and disguised by quilts function as tables. The quantities and types of books are fluid, arriving like hysterical cousins in overnight shipping envelopes only to languish near the overflowing mail bench. Advance Reading Copies collect at beside, to be dutifully examined—to ignore them and read Henry James or Barbara Pym instead becomes a guilty pleasure. I can’t imagine home without an overflow of books. The point of books is to have way too many but to always feel you never have enough, or the right one at the right moment, but then sometimes to find you’d longed to fall asleep reading The Aspern Papers, and there it is.”

She said, “By having children, I’ve both sabotaged and saved myself as a writer. […] With a child you certainly can’t be a Bruce Chatwin or a Hemingway, living the adventurer-writer life. No running with the bulls at Pamplona. If you value your relationships with your children, you can’t write about them. You have to make up other, less convincing children. There is also one’s inclination to be charming instead of presenting a grittier truth about the world. But then, having children has also made me this particular writer. Without my children, I’d have written with less fervor; I wouldn’t understand life in the same way. I’d write fewer comic scenes, which are the most challenging. I’d probably have become obsessively self-absorbed, or slacked off. Maybe I’d have become an alcoholic. Many of the writers I love most were alcoholics. I’ve made my choice, I sometimes think: Wonderful children instead of hard liquor.”


Today is the birthday of the woman who’s been called “the world’s most famous linguist”: best-selling author Deborah Tannen (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1945). She became interested by the different ways people communicate, so she studied linguistics and wrote a book, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (1990). It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for almost four years.

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"92nd St Y Talk"

Garrison addresses a crowd at 92nd St Y, a community center on the Upper East Side of New York. He discusses his long career in writing and in radio and celebrates modern revolutions such as the GPS lady, soft butter, and artisan bread.

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"Summer in Lake Wobegon"

Garrison talks about summer in Lake Wobegon and a few of the town's guiding principles. From Mr. Keillor's Sunday Night Service.

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"June 19, 1999"

Live from Reno, Nevada, with special guests Kirkmount, Geoff Muldaur, and Fritz Richmond.

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"Prairie Home Merchandise"

Stock up on duet CDs, The News from Lake Wobegon collections, and Powdermilk Biscuit T-shirts for the whole family!

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Aboard the Queen Mary 2

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

We eased away from the dock in Brooklyn and sailed past the towers of capitalism and Miss Liberty and under the Verrazano Bridge and around Sandy Hook out onto the vast inhospitable ocean, sitting on deck chairs with blankets over our legs. My wife looks as if she were born to this way of life; you’d never guess she’s from Minnesota.

The cruise business is booming as a way to see the world while sleeping in one bed and not having to pack your clothes every day. What QM2 offers is something more. It’s the last of the great transatlantic ocean liners, a slender ship, and its selling point is a style of life. An enormous dance floor with a first-rate dance band playing foxtrots, tangos, waltzes, and cha-chas, and the floor crowded with dancers in tuxedos and gowns, expressing their inner elegance. The songs are not about rebellion and being true to yourself, but about the nearness of you, being unable to take my eyes off of you, fascination, walking hand in hand, side by side.

Ballroom dancing is a vanishing culture. If someone came to Minnesota and asked me where they could foxtrot to a live band, I wouldn’t have a clue. There are music clubs where people in their twenties can jump around in the dark to hip-hop and punk, but ballroom dancing is not about self-expression, it’s about two people making each other feel graceful. It’s a conversation. The tango has parameters. So does the mambo. But within each dance is a whole stylistic vocabulary of dips and turns and spins, kicks and bows, hands outstretched, a shimmy shimmy shake. The handsome crooner sings: “Music and passion are always in fashion at the Copacabana, the hottest spot north of Havana,” a song out of the deep archive, but the dancers take to it like fish to water, old coots and grandes dames, the limber, the arthritic, the expansive, the conservative, all dancing to the same rhythm but in variant styles.

Everyone has had a life — captain of industry, civil engineer, investment banker, p.r. exec, trial lawyer — but none of that matters now, as the band swings into “I get no kick from champagne, mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all, but I get a kick out of you” — the dancers are all united in courtship, the men in black-tie uniformity, the women individual, in a gala performance that seems to be vanishing from the world.

The textbook pattern of the dance is only the entry point, and within each form is a whole vocabulary of variations, a bounce, a twist, a kick, a spin. To find freedom of expression within a form is one of the chief pleasures of life.

My wife loves all this and I love to be her consort. We hike around the promenade deck, one-third mile, the Atlantic sliding by, we dress for dinner, we go dancing. A man needs to extend himself when called upon.

I chatted with the singer between sets. Michael Burke. He’s Irish, young, rock ’n’ roll is his natural style, but he is very convincing as a crooner. He has seven sisters in Ireland and so he needs no home of his own, he sings on ships and when he needs a month off, he picks which sister to lodge with. This man knows about family.

As for me, a week on the ocean dancing with Madame has changed my view of things. Self-expression is fine for other people, but not for me. Freedom is much overrated as an experience. Harmony, love, closeness, adoration are to be preferred.

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I walk around New York City on these perfect summer nights, sirens passing, helicopters chunking above, subway rumbling below, diners in sidewalk cafes, dogs walking their owners, and after a little while, I look for an excuse to sit down. I’m walking because I’m a sedentary guy who is scheduled to fly to Prague with my ambulatory wife who will want to see castles and parks and museums and who will be gratified if I can keep up with her. I don’t care about castles; I am a democrat. My favorite museum is in Cooperstown. But I shall be her consort, walking three steps behind, my head up, fulfilling my role.

Walking around the big city, whenever I see a lighted ballfield, I turn in that direction and find a spot by the backstop and sit. Manhattan is an island, short on space, and so the Parks Department likes to lay out four ballfields in one rectangle, the four home plates in the corners, the diamonds aiming in toward the middle, so that the outfielders are intermingled with each other. A center fielder may backpedal for a long fly ball and make the catch next to someone else’s second base. It’s a whole new ballgame. Interdependence is the key, which is an amazing thing in a country as divided as ours is. I know New Yorkers who’ve never been to Kansas. Hard for me to accept that as normal.

It’s sort of like the great Rose Reading Room at the Public Library on 42nd Street, that hushed chapel where a couple hundred people sit silently at long tables, reading or tapping on laptops, each in his or her separate bubble, bubbles that may be fragile and so a severe decorum is observed. The little skritch of an iPhone camera would violate it. So people don’t. It’s basic cooperation, same as a shortstop saying, “You’re good, you’re good, you’re good” to reassure a backpedaling right fielder from next door to keep his eye on the fly ball, that his path is clear.

New York is a big sports town because a goodly percentage of the population is close enough to the poverty line to be aware of it and pro sports stardom is the fairy tale of poor kids growing up to be rich. I know Midwestern kids who have zero interest in athletics, whose passion is playing video games. There are not many multimillionaire video gamers and they don’t care.

Writing a best-selling novel was my fairy tale, and I’m completely over it now, but in the reading room, I like to imagine that the young African-American woman and the young Vietnamese guy at my table are entertaining that dream. American literature is leaning toward minority authors because that dream is powerfully attractive. A coming-of-age novel about an immigrant family with an abusive father and overwhelmed mother and a nerdy kid with a terrible stutter who, by Chapter 3, you realize is the author of the book. I know Midwestern writers who have zero interest in the novel, whose passion is poetry. There is one millionaire poet in America, Billy Collins, and all the others are earning less than $50K/year teaching creative writing.

My game these days is the memoir and, at 75, I am one of the oldest memoirists around. Most of them are in their 40s. I waited for some sort heartbreak that would make my memoir interesting, but nothing happened, and then I realized that I had married so well that life was likely to go on pleasantly into dementia and beyond, so I’m now almost finished with the first draft. It’s all about luck. People are going to resent it.

I think of the poets vs. the novelists on one diamond, and we memoirists, Shirts vs. Skins, on the adjacent one. I’m a Shirt, a writer who does not tell all. If I start to talk about my impoverished youth when I was sent to walk along the railroad track to pick up coal to heat our house and then I remember that there was no track near our house and anyway the trains were diesel, I realize I have wandered into the novelists field, and I yell, “Sorry!” and I come back. Same if I get too engrossed in describing the woods. The truth is, I was lucky. It could’ve been worse. I married blindly and well. None of us will make it to Cooperstown but it’s okay. A summer night in New York. Be grateful.

 

A series of poems read by Garrison

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 19, 2018

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. In 1964 on this day, the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 18, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 18, 2018

On this date in 1940, Winston Churchill gave his famous “finest hour” speech. He had only been prime minister for about a month.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 17, 2018

It’s the birthday of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Hersey, who wrote the nonfiction piece “Hiroshima” for the New Yorker about the obliteration of the city. It is also the birthday of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 16, 2018

Today is Bloomsday, which commemorates the day on which the events of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses take place. Joyce chose June 16th, 1904, for the setting because it was the day of his first date with Nora Barnacle, his future wife.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 15, 2018

On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have performed his famous kite experiment and proved that lightning is electricity. Franklin, as it turns out, was lucky to have conducted this experiment safely. Several others who attempted it after him were electrocuted.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 14, 2018

It’s the birthday of a man whose image has become one of the most popular cultural icons of the past half century: Che Guevara, born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Rosario, Argentina (1928).

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 13, 2018

Today is the birthday of W.B. Yeats, born in Dublin in 1865. In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, an actress & activist who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married.

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The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for June 12, 2018

It was on this day in 1942 that Anne Frank was given a small red and white diary as a gift for her 13th birthday. About a week after her birthday, on June 20th, she wrote: “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me … because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”

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Aspen Institute – Limericks

Aspen Institute – Limericks

Garrison was invited to the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Words Summer Soirée, on the premise that he would talk about storytelling. Instead, he decided to tell some limericks.

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Letterman appearance (1983)

In this clip from the archives, Garrison talks to David Letterman about his first bestselling book, Happy to Be Here. Explaining his past difficulty writing a novel, Garrison jokes, “I tried to write a novel, David, but I had a basic problem, which was that I was able to move people into a scene, but I was never able to get them out again.”

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Writing

Aboard the Queen Mary 2

A man in love needs to think beyond his own needs and so I took my wife across the Atlantic last week aboard the mighty Queen Mary 2 for six days of glamor and elegance, which means little to me, being an old evangelical from the windswept prairie, brought up to eschew luxury and accept deprivation as God’s will, but she is Episcopalian and grew up in a home where her mother taught piano, Chopin and Liszt, so my wife appreciates Art Deco salons and waiters with polished manners serving her a lobster soufflé and an $18 glass of Chablis. If Cary Grant were to sit down and offer her a Tareyton, she’d hold his hand with the lighter and enjoy a cigarette with him.

Read More

A summer night in the Big Apple Blossom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

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Old man at the prom

I went to prom Saturday night at my daughter’s school, which parents all allowed to attend so long as we don’t get in the way. It was held in the gym, under the basketball hoops, boys in suits and ties, girls in prom dresses, a promenade of graduating seniors, the crowning of a king and queen, a loud rock band to discourage serious conversation.

Read More

Making myself useful for heaven’s sake

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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The Quotable Keillor

“Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”
― Garrison Keillor, We Are Still Married: Stories & Letters

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“If you lived today as if it were your last, you’d buy up a box of rockets and fire them all off, wouldn’t you?”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“I can see how I could write a bold account of myself as a passionate man who rose from humble beginnings to cut a wide swath in the world, whose crimes along the way might be written off to extravagance and love and art, and could even almost believe some of it myself on certain days after the sun went down if I’d had a snort or two and was in Los Angeles and it was February and I was twenty-four, but I find a truer account in the Herald-Star, where it says: “Mr. Gary Keillor visited at the home of Al and Florence Crandall on Monday and after lunch returned to St. Paul, where he is currently employed in the radio show business… Lunch was fried chicken with gravy and creamed peas”.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

“The rich can afford to be progressive. Poor people have reason to be afraid of the future.”
―Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon Days

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A friendly column, nothing about him whatsoever

The lilacs are in bloom out at the old family homestead and it’s pleasant to stand by the bushes and smell them and recall that the outhouse used to stand a few feet away. Who does not feel his faith in resurrection strengthened by this news? We’ve all been stinkers at times but once we leave the body behind, we shall bloom in the life to come.

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Someone to sit next to me

There was so much good news last week. Gorillas appear to be thriving, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, and there are about 361,919 of them, twice as many as had been believed. Humpback whales, who were nearly hunted out of existence in the 19th century, are making a comeback in the seas off Antarctica: the birth rate is on the upswing, according to a new study. (The animals are the size of a school bus and have a life expectancy similar to ours.) And a study at the University of Michigan shows that people who work out even 10 minutes a day tend to be more cheerful than those who don’t.

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Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dating in middle age, choosing a publisher, and making yourself heard

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a corporate speechwriter and a copywriter. I am 55.5 and would like to meet the right man who enjoys words. I placed a personal ad but got a response from a man in Federal Prison. It seemed intrusive to ask how he landed himself there, so I didn’t respond. I’ve got many friends and I’m perfectly okay-looking. What should I be doing? Taking trips? Moving to another country with a shortage of middle-aged women? Making a systematic request to my entire list of acquaintances to ask them to produce one person? What would you do? I am about to give up.  

-Exhausted by Love

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What’s been going on around here lately

The Swedish Academy’s decision to not award the Nobel Prize in Literature this spring hit me hard, of course. I figured this would be my year and was counting on the cash prize of a cool million bucks. A man needs a little boost now and then. I know I do. People associate me with radio but I was also a Novelist — okay? Novels. With characters and dialogue. Lonely guys looking out rain-spattered windows at bare trees and wondering, “Who am I anyway?”

I did some of that last Saturday morning. I am married to a perfectionist, and so my faults are more clear to me than necessary. I am 75 years old, people. How many men of 75 are actively engaged in self-improvement? Are there rehab programs for us? Inspirational books aimed at us? No.

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Forgot password? Try “LIFEISGOOD42J75#REAL”

It’s spring in Minnesota finally. My lawn is greenish, birds sing in the morning, we go walking in a sweater, no gloves. There is still ice on the lakes, but if you don’t look at them, you don’t notice. Life is good. This is not pointed out often enough, the goodness of life, because journalists know that Pulitzer Prizes are awarded for exposing corruption and sending the mayor to jail for skimming money off the School Milk Fund so the kiddos get 2% rather than whole milk, it’s not given for writing about a walk in the park on a sunny day. Nonetheless, we do have parks and the sun does shine.

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