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My friend Manjula Martin (author of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living) posted a pansy from her backyard that was so good I had to resurrect my dormant Pansy Luchadores project!
I’m become a little bit of a pansy nut and have taken to collecting (saving images to my hard drive) artwork featuring the flowers. I recently came across this wonderful painting by Tateishi Tetsuomi, who was described this way in a documentary synopsis:
Tateishi Tetsuomi was born in Taiwan in 1905. He returned to his birthplace to find painting subjects and then he had been attracted by the landscape and local cultures of Taiwan. During his stay in Taiwan, he made oil paints, illustrations and wood engravings for the magazine Minzoku Taiwan (Taiwanese Folklore).
He was regarded as a promising painter, but his achievements were to be forgotten when he was repatriated to Japan at the end of WWII and lost most of his paintings. He earned a living as an illustrator for children’s books, but finally achieved unique expressions in his last years.
And our recent neighborhood walks have yielded sights like this, so stay tuned for more:
I took a break a few days ago to watch Paul Elie (author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own and Reinventing Bach) interview James Martin about his new book, Learning To Pray, and writing as a spiritual practice. (Read more my thoughts on prayer.)
Out of all the interesting subjects they discussed, I think I was most taken by Father Martin’s explanation of how his vow of poverty affects his writing. Martin is “editor at large” at America Magazine, and as he explained it, he basically has the freedom to write about whatever he wants. The same goes for his books: All of his royalties go to the magazine, so he’s mostly unconcerned about sales. He also said his purpose in writing, always, is not to achieve literary greatness, but to “help souls.” So his mission and his vow of poverty takes away most of the common pressures of publishing. Writing, for him, is never a struggle.
See previously: Learning to Pray with James Martin and Mary Karr
Paul Simon on how he wrote “Bridge Over Troubled Water” pic.twitter.com/HjThePHKbM
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 13, 2021
I want to write about it, but first, let’s give credit to Dick Cavett, one of the great interviewers of all time:
This may be an impossible question, but: Anybody who can really create something… there’s always a mystery of, “How does it happen?” There was a moment in time when “Bridge Over Troubled Water” didn’t exist at all, and then, there was another moment when it did, or when it started to. “Where does it come from? What actually happens?”
“Well, I could show you,” Simon says, “but it would take a minute.”
So Simon gets out his guitar, starts strumming and explains that he had the beginning of a song and this riff he’d lifted off a Bach choral, and he was noodling around with it, but he was stuck.
“What makes you stuck?” Cavett asks.
“Well, everywhere I went, led me where I didn’t want to be,” Simon says. “So I was stuck.”
“The best definition of ‘being stuck’ I’ve heard in a long time,” Cavett says. “When you get a block like that how do you break through it?”
Simon says he started listening to a Swan Silvertones record over and over. He switched the song he was working on to gospel changes, and then, during one song he was listening to, the lead singer scat sang, “I’ll be a bridge over deep water.”
“And,” Simon says, “I guess I stole it, actually.”
(Bob Dylan, by the way, wrote [writes?] in a similar way: by playing someone else’s song over and over until he’s in a kind of trance. “I’m listening to the song in my head. At a certain point, some of the words will change and I’ll start writing a song.”)
Now, I’m not a huge fan of Paul Simon, and I’m not going to get into him, or the ethics of appropriation, etc., because that’s not what interests me in this particular clip.
What interests me in this clip, mostly, is how popular it’s been in my feeds. I’ve seen several tweets that say, “I’ve never seen anybody explain songwriting better than this.” But when you go back and watch it, it’s funny to me how little Simon actually tells us. Most of the process is still shrouded in mystery. We know he pilfered Bach and a random line from a Swan Silvertones cut, but so what? Even when Simon’s trying to explain it, the playing and the singing takes him over. Your average Song Exploder episode tells you much more about how a song (or a track, which maybe is the key difference) is put together.
Another reason I think this clip appeals is that, statistically, hardly any popular music is written like this anymore. This clip comes from a particular post-Beatles moment in time when singer-songwriters were on the rise. Before, in pop music you mostly had the great songwriting teams in the Brill Building or Motown, King and Goffin, or Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Leiber and Stoller, who wrote songs for other acts to record. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along, and performers who wrote their own material became a thing, a sign of real “authenticity,” for better or worse.
A really great book about how much things have changed in the past 50 years is John Seabrook’s The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory. If you’ve ever wondered why contemporary pop music sounds the way it does, The Song Machine gives a pretty good contextual explanation for why that is: a crumbling music industry, artists who are stuck touring year-round and have little time to write or record their own music, and song “factories” in which producers start with beats and tracks, add on hooks with the help of “top liners,” then hand them over to singers, many of whom can’t really sing, but no matter, splash on some auto-tune and VOILA!
Of course, song factories are nothing new, and in fact, some of my favorite music was made in a little song factory called “Motown,” which really was modeled on a factory: Berry Gordy had “worked on the production line at Ford’s Wayne Assembly Plant, and he envisioned a hit factory that worked according to similar methods, with crews of writers and producers continually turning out product for Motown’s singing groups.”
The major difference between then and now, according to Seabrook, is the process of the factory: Motown songs worked more on the classic “melody-and-lyrics approach to songwriting that was the working method in the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley eras, wherein one writer sits at the piano, trying chords and singing possible melodies, while the other sketches the story and the rhymes.”
Modern pop hit factories, on the other hand, work on the “track-and-hook” approach: “a track maker/producer, who is responsible for the beats and the instrumentation, collaborates with a hook writer/topliner, who writes the melodies.” Seabrook points out that in a desperate industry that needs hits, and not just hits, but BIG hits, “track-and-hook is more conducive to factory-style song production… Different parts of the song can be farmed out to different specialists—verse writers, hook smiths, bridge makers, lyricists.”
In one interesting section, the Swedish artist E-Type points out that it isn’t so different than a Renaissance studio:
“I get this feeling of a big painter’s studio in Italy back in the 1400s or 1500s.” In an STV documentary, The Nineties, he told producer Jens von Reis, “One assistant does the hands, another does the feet, and another does something else, and then Michelangelo walks in and says, “That’s really great, just turn it slightly. Now it’s good, put it in a golden frame and out with it. Next!”
(Okay, sure, but Michelangelo wasn’t moving beats around in Pro-tools. But we’ll leave it for now. )
My favorite look at the “track-and-hook” process in action is when Seabrook describes Ester Dean’s method — Dean is a “topliner,” or, someone who comes in and makes up melodies and hooks over a track in the studio. (Seabrook originally profiled Dean in “The Song Machine” for The New Yorker.) Basically, Dean listens to the track, then goes in the vocal booth. Seabrook describes the rest:
She took out her BlackBerry, and as the track began to play she surfed through lists of phrases she copies from magazines and television programs: “life in the fast lane,” “crying shame,” “high and mighty,” “mirrors don’t lie,” “don’t let them see you cry.” Some phrases are categorized under headings like “Sex and the City,” “Interjections,” and “British Slang.”
Dean then utters a lot of nonsense words, which help her match up lyrics to the beat. “Had she been ‘writing’ in a conventional sense—trying to come up with clever, meaningful lyrics—the words wouldn’t have fit the beat as snugly.” Earlier in the book Seabrook points out that Swedish songwriters have an advantage to writing lyrics, summed up by Ulf Eckberg, the founding member of Ace Of Base: “I think it was to our advantage that English was not our mother language because we are able to treat English very respectless, and just look for the word that sounded good with the melody.” I mean, this has always been the case in pop music, just listen to Little Richard singing “Tutti Frutti.”
The thing about track-and-hook is that it tends to lead to all the songs sounding the same:
Dance music producers have always borrowed liberally from each other’s grooves. There’s no reason not to: beats and chord progressions can’t be protected under the existing copyright laws, which recognize only the melody and lyrics. As dance beats have become the backing tracks to a growing number of pop songs, similar-sounding records have proliferated. The melodies themselves are still supposed to be unique, but because of the way producers work with multiple topliners, tracks and melodies tend to blur together.
What this often sounds like, to my ears, is a kind of art-by-committee feeling, a sludge of “content” made like “industrial-strength products, made for malls, stadiums, airports, casinos, gyms and the Super Bowl halftime show,” as Seabrook puts it.
We’re entering an even wilder period of songwriting now, where the 60s singer/songwriter acts are cashing out and selling off their catalogs, and TikTok and streaming platforms are further changing the way people write songs, exacerbating many of the problems outlined in The Song Machine:
For professional writers today, streaming means shorter durations, the compression of melodic and harmonic ideas and faster tempos to counter our diminishing attention spans. It means overloading the front of songs with hooks and earworms and heading straight to the chorus to stop listeners skipping tracks.
The pressure to deliver hits that keep the listener engaged in real time is, some argue, industrialising the craft with a huge growth of song-writing long-distance and by committee – a creative division of labour between producers (now called ‘track writers’) beat-makers and ‘topliners’, those writers hired to focus solely on the melody and lyrics.
Music platforms are recording our listening choices even as they deliver their services, and this is changing the way music is written too. AI and algorithm technologies mean that, even as we stream and share music online, our data is harvested and fed back to record companies and labels and then passed on to the writers, producing a kind of creative feedback loop. Songwriters are under pressure to produce more and more of the same formula, discouraging innovation and risk while the ear becomes conditioned to certain tempos and durations, chord progressions, hooks and production textures.
Which is part of why I think that Simon clip appeals. It’s a kind of throwback portrait — just a dude sitting in his room, listening to records, strumming and singing. (I think of some of the more interesting records of the past few years, and how they were made mostly at home, by a small handful of people working in the same space: Billie Eilish and Finneas, or Fiona Apple learning to use Garageband.)
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) December 13, 2020
As a bonus, while wrapping this up, here’s Simon on the BBC five years after that first clip, in 1975, talking about “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” how Garfunkel didn’t even like it, and how it came around the disintegration of their partnership:
What happens in partnerships is that… while the partnership is in its ascendency, things are going well, and you’re really united. There’s a meshing of egos. You tend to think as one. As the partnership reaches its zenith… it starts to disintegrate in that each person has a clear self-image…
(He could be describing the Beatles.)
“Books are gateways. They are doors. You can open them and step into another place, and time. Another world. They hold our futures, but are also a treasury of our formative memories. Books are where I’ve met some of my closest friends…”
—Chris Riddell, The Writer’s Map
“A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”
—G.C. Lichtenberg, The Waste Books
* * *
In Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One is Talking About This, the main character interacts with an internet-like entity she calls “the portal.”
The portal is not capitalized, so it’s not a particular place, but it is a kind of place, a space, that you enter and move around in. Things happen “inside the portal.”
The first page begins, “She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway.”
Two paragraphs later: “Why did the portal feel so private, when you only entered it when you needed to be everywhere?”
In 2019, Lockwood explained the beginning of the book, in her talk, “The Communal Mind”:
A few years ago, when it suddenly occurred to us that the internet was a place we could never leave, I began to keep a diary of what it felt like to be there in the days of its snowy white disintegration, which felt also like the disintegration of my own mind. My interest was not academic. I did not care about the Singularity, or the rise of the machines, or the afterlife of being uploaded into the cloud. I cared about the feeling that my thoughts were being dictated. I cared about the collective head, which seemed to be running a fever. But if we managed to escape, to break out of the great skull and into the fresh air, if Twitter was shut down for crimes against humanity, what would we be losing? The bloodstream of the news, the thrilled consensus, the dance to the tune of the time. The portal that told us, each time we opened it, exactly what was happening now. It seemed fitting to write it in the third person because I no longer felt like myself.
Her (brilliant, I think) novel is about a woman who has to stay out of the portal just long enough to ask herself, “Why had she elected to live so completely in the portal?”
* * *
My eight-year-old spent a few weeks this year playing through Portal 2 on my old Xbox. I’d forgotten how great a game it was, and how weird — it’s a first-person shooter that wasn’t really a shooter.
“If you take the narrative seriously, Portal is actually a single-level game with a clever twenty-stage tutorial,” Gavin Craig explained in the now-defunct Idlermag.com. (Not to be confused with the excellent magazine, The Idler.) “The puzzle levels exist to teach you how to use the increasing variety of tools that you need to use to navigate the spaces between worlds.” (There’s something about this description that makes me think of the chapters in a book.)
Portal 2, and all good games, measures out just enough difficulty at each step that you’re sailing between that exciting “flow” space between your skill (what you can do) and the challenge (what you can’t do yet), and it’s never so easy that it’s boring, but it’s never so hard that you give up.
In Peter Turchi’s A Map and A Maze, he quotes Francine Prose on writing:
The challenge is to keep doing something different, something harder and scarier in every way than the thing you did before… to do something more difficult each time.
This is also called learning.
In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster claims that “fun” is “just another word for learning.” His definition of a good game is “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the player stops playing.”
This has also become my definition of a good book: “one that teaches everything it has to offer before the reader stops reading.”
Koster himself makes a connection between games and books:
Boredom is the opposite of learning. When a game stops teaching us, we feel bored. Boredom is the brain casting about for new information. It is the feeling you get when there are no new visible patterns to absorb. When a book is dull and fails to lead you on to the next chapter, it is failing to exhibit a captivating pattern.
Writing a good book, I’ve come to think, is about avoiding boredom.
First, you avoid boring yourself, and then you avoid boring your reader.
(In “A Case Against Killing Your Darlings,” R.O. Kwon recently wrote, “I don’t want any published novel of mine to include a single line that bores me.” When editing, we have to be sure we don’t cut out what’s most alive to us.)
I don’t know for sure where I’m going with this post. I opened a portal — my WordPress editor — and I started typing. (“Portal,” from the Latin, porta, meaning a gate or a door.)
All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc, are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.
You step into a kind of magic circle when you start writing, and you step into a magic circle when you start reading.
When I step into the portal, I am not sure what’s going to happen. That’s why I keep coming back.
“Only people who don’t write think you need to know what you think before you write,” says Marc Weidenbaum. “You write to learn what you think.”
I step into the portal, and, no matter how tiny the distance I travel, when I return, I’m changed, even just a little bit.
You step into the portal to discover what you didn’t know you were looking for.
You step into the portal and sometimes discover what you didn’t know want to know.
That is the gamble. The roll of the dice.
A book is the safest portal, and a diary is the second-safest portal. They are both private. When it comes to public portals, a blog, I think, is one of the safest, most forgiving portals.
I stepped into the portal a few hours ago and I discovered some things and made some connections that I hadn’t before.
Now I’m going to hit “publish” and step out.
An update on Coconut and Mr. Coconut, the screech owls who live in our yard: this morning we spotted both of them sitting in a tree by our driveway. They were sitting very close to each other, and preening, so cross your fingers that these love birds are figuring it out this time. (They did this same thing about a month ago.)
A first for us: last night Meg and I had the amazing experience of seeing both owls out on separate trees, calling to each other. If you turn the sound way up on this video, you can hear Coconut’s singing voice:
Omg, y’all. Not only did we see both owls tonight, about 30 feet apart in different trees, but if you turn the video way up on this video you can HEAR Coconut. ? ? #coconuttheowl pic.twitter.com/Ok0efE1dUC
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 8, 2021
Working on a presentation of some of the collage work I’ve been doing for the past few years. God, I love making this stuff. What a gift it’s been to glue and things to the page when I don’t know what else to do… https://t.co/B4feF8ri7k pic.twitter.com/zUwHS2C14X
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) April 6, 2021
It’s always a great feeling when you start gathering pieces for a show or a presentation and you realize that you’ll not even get close to being able to showing everything.
Some topics I’m trying to
quilt patchwork together:
But the more I think about it, the more I just keep thinking of a quilt of days. Each day is like a panel in a quilt. Some days are ugly and some days are raw and some days are chaotic and some days are colorful and some days are orderly but if you keep adding them up they turn into something.
“If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.”
Statistically, I say “no” to almost all podcast requests. I say “no,” not because I hate recording podcasts, but because I love recording podcasts. You see, I am the rare extroverted writer, and I would much rather talk than write, and I could easily fill most of my afternoons with recording podcasts and never write anything again.
When I do say “yes” to a podcast, my policy is one of candor, of being as straightforward, honest, and frank as I can. I’m not sure if this moves as many units as sticking to talking points, but it’s a helluva lot more fun, and I figure if we’re going to talk for an hour, let’s try to get somewhere interesting.
Life is very short, and we are all very tired. We are especially tired, I think, of not just being lied to, but of hearing people talk like they’ve run everything through their own public relations department. I don’t think it’s just me, but when I hear someone tell the truth these days, I feel a jolt of electricity that makes me feel alive.
Maybe that’s lofty talk from a short man, but there you have it.
Tomorrow I’m talking to Jessica Abel, which will be recorded as a live podcast with Q&A from the audience, so my candor might get me into more trouble than usual.
Register here. Watch the replay here.
“Every writer is every writer they’ve loved and quarrelled with who came before, as every parent is every parent they loved and quarrelled with.”
Watching Ken Burns’ Hemingway, I was reminded of the great Elmore Leonard, who said, “I used to read a lot of him till I learned he had no sense of humor.”
He expanded this thought in a Fresh Air interview:
I had studied Hemingway so closely and learned a lot, but I didn’t agree with his attitude about life, about himself. He took everything, himself, everything so seriously. And, your style comes out of your attitude — what kind of a person you are, you know, your personality, how you see things. Are you optimistic? Are you funny? Are you grim? What? This is all out of your attitude. And once I learned that, then I had to find other writers to study and imitate.
This is an old, old story: the student imitates the master, learns what they can, but then has to move on (often to imitating someone else) if they’re to find their own thing.
This jumping of influences usually happens over and over — Billy Collins says your voice usually comes from copying a half dozen other writers and becoming a blend. (And Hemingway himself once said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”)
As I kept watching the documentary, it was emphasized over and over again by the talking heads how influential Hemingway is, how impossible it is for writers not to be influenced by Hemingway. (Once again, our grammar of influence seems to me inadequate. We talk about influence backwards.) It got me thinking I’d watch a whole documentary about writers talking about how they got themselves out from under the influence of their writer heroes.
Another favorite writer of mine who talks about getting out from under the influence of Hemingway is George Saunders. In several talks, he’s talked about being a young man and having a “medical condition called a ‘Hemingway-Boner.’” He describes his early stories as going something like, “Nick walked into the Wal-Mart. It was pleasant.”
In a Talk at Google, Saunders explained that if a writer is lucky, they get to a point where they realize that the voice that they’re imitating simply can’t cover their own worldview. A new voice is needed. “That is a holy moment for a young writer,” Saunders says, “when you start getting full body impatient with your mentor.”
Like Leonard, Saunders discovered that his own comedic worldview didn’t match Hemingway’s more tragic one:
What I got tired of in Hemingway was that he, in his later work especially, he wasn’t funny. He didn’t have any sense of humor actually. He knew very well who the noble, interesting people were and so on.
And my life was not — I never lived a Hemingwayesque moment really.
I remember as a young kid coming out of a funeral– a very sad, terrible thing. But the funeral was being held in a mock Georgian mansion—one of those mansions that had been put up just to be a funeral parlor.
And then you walk out of that, and everyone’s crying and it’s terrible. And across the street, there’s a Chuck E Cheese. And the mouse is on break. And he’s on the side of the building with his head off. And he’s smoking.
So that moment could not show up in Hemingway. He couldn’t do it. He had a stylistic cave he had made for himself.
And I thought, that’s where the gateway to style is. And when you see something in your life, in your heart, in your world that the style of your hero can’t accommodate, then it’s a time for growth.
Or, as Brancusi put it, when he left Rodin’s studio, “Nothing grows under big trees.”
In a pre-pandemic post, “What to say when you don’t know what to say,” I made a big list of some of my favorite conversational shortcuts that I like to drop to keep conversations from being needlessly confrontational or boring.
And so forth.
The pandemic just amplifies everything, of course, so now that I barely speak to anyone, I rely on these conversational shortcuts more than ever.
One of my favorite jokes of the pandemic is how bad it is to start a conversation with “How are you?” (Daniel Johnston’s iconic mural seems almost unbearably existential these days.)
“It’s good to hear your voice” or “I’ve been looking forward to talking to you” seem like good replacement options to me, and I plan on practicing them this week, as I have a rare string of daily phone calls coming up.
Looking at Vellos’ chart made me think of one of my favorite artifacts from my youth: the soundboard. Soundboards were Flash apps that you could pull up on your computer and use for prank calling people.
The funny thing about the Arnold Schwarzenegger soundboards is that in the original Terminator movie, the Terminator is shown actually picking his dialogue:
During radio tours, when I’d talk to maybe two dozen radio DJs on the day of a book release, I used to have fantasies of making my own soundboard by recording myself answering frequently asked questions and playing them back during interviews.
Conversational shortcuts are like having one of those old soundboards in your head. It makes conversation a kind of game, where you pick the best option to keep the conversation going.
Which brings me to another favorite artifact from my youth: the dialogue screens in the LucasArts adventure games I spent endless hours playing.
Because the games were designed so you never actually lost or got a GAME OVER screen, you could spend a long time trying out all the different dialogue options, going down the dialogue tree, or “exhausting the dialogue,” to try to uncover funny jokes before advancing the story line. (Here’s more from legend Ron Gilbert on the dialog trees in the LucasArts games.)
Conversations with other human beings are, of course, by nature more chaotic, and there are an infinite number of paths one can go down.
“The best conversationalists are people who are hoping to end up somewhere they didn’t expect,” goes a line of dialogue in The Chairs are Where The People Go. “It seems to me that the most pleasing thing you can find yourself saying in a conversation is something you haven’t said before.”
That thrill, that wondering what will be said next (by the other person or by you!) is the very thing that makes for great conversation. But it means that all parties involved must be given room to speak and finish their sentences. It also means that sometimes you have to throw out your little conversational shortcuts, your pre-recorded dialogue, and let go.
“I can’t help wondering what we might have said if we hadn’t been stopped,” wrote Steve Martin, of a time he was famously interrupted onstage. “Maybe we were just around the corner from something thrilling. Isn’t that the nature of a live conversation? It halts, it stutters, it doubles back, it soars. We might have found a small nugget, something off topic or unexpected.”
One possible danger of thinking of conversation as a game is that you don’t actually shut up and listen to the other person, because you’re busy pulling up a list of possible dialogue options, like the Terminator. You have to train yourself to really listen, to let the other person speak, and to let their last words echo for a bit, remaining comfortable with a bit of “dead air,” and only then coming back with a response. (Great options are: “Jeez, I don’t know!” or “Gosh, I’ll have to think about that!”)
Finally, it can be very hard to know how to end a conversation. (I always laugh at regional variations in how people try to end conversations, like the Midwesterner passive-aggressive penchant for saying, “Well, I’d better let you go!”)
I would like to end this particular
conversation monologue with the secret of great interviewers and perhaps the most important conversational shortcut: silence.
One of my very favorite lines about being a parent comes from Andrew Solomon’s Far From The Tree: “Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not.”
Carl Jung said that nothing had a bigger influence on the child than the unlived life of the parent. Those unlived lives linger. (I am struck often by how many artists are raised by people who didn’t fulfill their own artistic ambitions. Most recently, Twyla Tharp, in Twlya Moves, talking about her mother, who was a pianist, and groomed her daughter for a life in the arts, driving her all over Indiana for lessons, etc.)
One must be careful to not transfer unwanted dreams onto their children, maybe even more so when your children are inclined to doing the things you, too, love. (One of my sons loves music and video games, the other loves stories and drawing. You can imagine the dreams I have for them, dreams that I find it best to keep to myself.)
It’s a dance. You have to give yourself what you needed, but give your kids what they need now. Build the world you always wanted, but make sure there’s room in it for the world they want, too.
(And know it will change and be constantly in flux, day by day.)
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