Category Archives: Life

With No Particular Place to Go

Since Jan. 6, 2010, and for 191 consecutive Wednesdays thereafter, we’ve explored in this space the concept of placeness, specifically placeness as art, and we even coined a pseudo-Latin-ish term, “arslocii,” to use as a tent in which to gather together our musings, monologues and misgivings.

We started off as purists, adhering rather rigidly to our stated mission of writing about art and site, and how each impacts the other and imparts a power to (or subtracts the same from) each other, so that because of this relationship, symbiotically, each has a certain “something” it did not have before, and has become something it was not before – and that together they are not two things but one. Placeness. Arslocii.

Soon, however, ideas and truths and suppositions led us further afield: consideration of the role empathy plays in the perception of art and place, the placeness of “places” that don’t actually exist (“homes” that appear in fiction-based TV shows, the Glass houses of Salinger’s stories), the placeness of highway entry ramps and the space circumscribed by plastic traffic cones or gabions, the placeness of places inhabited and deserted and left behind by death. And then, frankly, we wrote about things that merely caught our attention or plucked our emotions, and we took out the sturdy arslocii shoehorn and made them fit, and tried to walk without anyone noticing our pronounced limp and our bloody toes.

Arslocii and looking at the world through it became our life, and we can’t envision a time when we will stop seeing things in that way. But we do envision a time when our clockwork entries will stop. And that time is now.

We’ll still be contributing to Arslocii, but on an every now and then basis, as we divert much of our energy and efforts to other, long-term projects that we will let you know about. Those who’ve signed on to receive these blog posts regularly will see them from time to time, like house guests who, kindly, have brought their own sheets, towels and food; those who check in to this site in a hit or miss fashion might, if you continue doing so, bump into something new to read … or not.

Thanks for your interest in what we’ve thought about; we hope to earn that interest again with our newer pursuits. As the departing Mr. Wickham said to the relieved Bennets, “Let us say not farewell, but as the French have it, au revoir!”

See you soon, then, some place else.

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… Is Not Gold

TreasureChestOkay, we have all been bombarded with advertising slogans and when it comes around to holiday time, the main event is perfume and jewelry. “A diamond is forever” and “Quality is Remembered Long After the Price is Forgotten” are two ubiquitous refrains from the world of luxury-item sales pitches. Naturally, advertising can run the gamut from  bending the truth to down and dirty lying, but recent events have convinced me that the whole of the jewelry industry is a fictional construct that is rivaled only by the lore of the world’s religions. And who here doesn’t believe in the power imbued in jewelry?

I admit, I never did. Fancy things hanging from my fingers, neck and ears just kept me from doing things that were active and fun. I never found the pleasure involved in passively glittering, as if a hunting lure for birds or fish. It is possible that some women find a kind of empowerment in being be-jeweled, but for me it was quite the opposite; limiting and inhibiting – maybe even as a control mechanism. Here, dear, take this shiny object and be content, this is how much I care (in value). And, over time, it hasn’t changed much as both a token of affection or guilt.

Marilyn and friends

So imagine the bind I find myself in, having inherited objects of desire and/or apology crafted in gold and precious stones from people I valued, people now absent. Yes, there is the sentimental factor, but, mostly, there is reversion to the material stuff. Plus, there is no placeness in it. And there the stuff sits, languishing in much the same way that it did when it decorated those who appreciated it more than I ever can. After a seemingly appropriate waiting period, it is time for a parting of ways. But how, with something that has such a commodious value? I headed out for “jewelers row” to unload the stuff.

In large cities there are diamond dealers, even diamond districts. An entire industry is built on the jewelry trade. That should be the place to go. It is like its own city within the city, an enclave of people who live and breathe gold. They fill entire blocks of four or five story buildings. The funny thing is that they all work in competition with each other but there is a symbiosis, a collaborative atmosphere. Their shops are separate but they come and go freely to other shops, and I get the distinct feeling that they trade among themselves and maybe even do group buying from the same distributors. Perhaps they are all related by marriage, as in a small town. I imagine that all the shop facades are joined backstage, like a false Western storefront set, and where many of the honchos are gathered around a table gambling with diamonds. I mean, they are worth way more than money, right?

Gold jewelry on display in Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Some of the shops have fancy showrooms with lots of mirrors and crystal chandeliers, similar to casinos I have visited. Others are less glitzy and even more tacky than casinos. One had an office atmosphere with a line of desks (and a surveillance camera over each) and a counter more like you might see at an optician’s. The workers break down into the bosses, those who sell, those who assess, those who test and weigh, those who make or fix. The seven dwarfs may mine the gems, but there is definitely a hierarchical structure to the business of jewelry. I even heard an employee describe the man to see as not just a jeweler, but a watchmaker – a man of skill as well as know-how.

Mine

What did I come away with? It is all lights and mirrors and the only science, let alone alchemy, is the weighing and pricing of gold – not market price, but rather jewelers’ price. I was told a few times that the only value in the booty I presented is as scrap. How does one explain that thirty years before, just one of the items I held was appraised at four times what I was being offered for the entire lot today? Surprisingly, two potential buyers quoted the same amount for the “load”; the next doubled their matching bids; a fourth offered the same as the first two but for just three items, with no interest in the “lot”; and the last shop offered three times as much as the first two, but in three weeks, not now (this one must be psychic about gold values).

So despite all the pretense of acid tests and digital scales, the monetary value of these “forever” baubles was fairly low. Of course, all that overhead has to be factored (and I didn’t even see the bodyguards), and also the price that the jewels could possibly fetch in the current retail market and then subtracting the age-related style deflation – well, being a seller in a buyer’s world – you can see where I am headed with this. Just like a casino, you can’t possibly beat the house. Since the game is made up and controlled by the dealers, you can’t compete. The only “forever” with jewels is the endless supply of suckers who keep the industry afloat. The family jewels is a hoax. Except for those whose families are in the business.

gelt

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The Bag I’m In

I needed to put something in something and carry it somewhere. Genius was not required to conclude that a bag was what I needed.

shelf

In a deep, tall closet that we use as a kitchen pantry, there is a certain shelf – when this building was home to a contractor’s office, before we turned it into a home, this closet was utilized to store boxes of files, so the shelves are sturdy and broad – and about half of this shelf is inhabited by our stockpile of paper bags. [Digression: Don’t use plastic – save the Earth. End of diatribe.] There are, on this shelf, grocery bags of all sorts – the plain brown sacks, the ones with formed paper handles, the ones that have been made deceptively smaller (as if we didn’t notice) so that it seems as if your huge supermarket bill has bought you more stuff when in fact it has bought you less, the ones that have stamped on them the alleged name of the possibly fictitious line worker who, “with pride,” pushed the button to the bag-cutting and -forming machine. (And just why do the markets and paper companies think that we’re interested in knowing who made this bag that, “with pride,” is already about to burst at the bottom with the weight of three boxes of tissues in it? Are we supposed to feel good about the bag because “Fernando Torres” had a hand in its mechanical manufacture? Is the personalization meaningful, even to Fernando? Are we to think that the bag was handcrafted in some way by an artisan who, apparently, likes to work in multiples? Is the point of the worker’s name on the bag so that we know to whom to direct our “Great bag – keep up the good work” thank-you note? I don’t get it, but to save a stamp, let me state here publicly: “Thanks, Fernando Torres, for helping me get my tofu home safely. Stay proud, but don’t get cocky.”)

with pride

Most of the bags on the shelf come from supermarkets, a few from department stores (remember them? They used to advertise in all the newspapers. Remember them?). A few of the bags have the logos of high-end boutiques (the only way they got here is if somebody else used them to bring us gifts). There are thin and long bags that once had wine bottles slipped into them. There are bags that seem masculine; others that seem feminine. And others that, like kids in school who don’t know the answer to the teacher’s question, are scrunched back so that they won’t be selected. Some bags we’ve had for just a week or two, while there are a few goofballs or underachievers that we’ve probably had for years.

And then there is a clump of them, a real handful, maybe 50 or so, tied together by the kind of white string that bakeries bind their boxes with. They’re crisp, brown, Duro No. 6’s. I look at them, and it’s funny the things that make memories rise up in front of your eyes, spectrally, faster than light speed, but these bags do it for me. They are, sitting there, themselves placeness, and, via recall, placeness suggesters. First, they make me think of – and feel, and smell, and hear, and, strangely and sadly, turn around and swear that for a second I can even see – our guys, that special and irreplaceable litter of cats, now long-gone but forever clawing at the fabric of our hearts … because we would use a new one of these bags just about every day to hold the nasty stuff we’d scoop from their litter boxes. The Duro No. 6 size seemed just perfect: It could hold a lot, but not too much, because you wouldn’t want a big bag of cat stools sitting around for very long or bursting open at the seams, and the No. 6 was easy to lift when full, and its opening was big enough for a heaping scoop to slide in and out of without losing its toxic cargo. And when each was filled, it would be put into a grocery bag with a half dozen or more of its stinky brethren, to sit until trash day, a pile that looked like a fraternity prank in the offing.

But, then, a second memory intrudes on the first. It is of a store, a really old place on a corner in an ancient part of town which has seen gentrification and upscaling but it, the store, resisted until recently all attempts to ride the coattails to the present, or even the near past.   The building is more than 150 years old, and the store in it – a restaurant- and party-supply business – looked to have stock that went back nearly as long. And employees older than that. We called it “the wet dog store” because it smelled like … well, there, you got it. The floors of the place were original and wood that was in spots concave from the generations that trod on it; the shelves were loaded with items that would be archaic if they weren’t, now, suddenly, in the forefront of retro, everything an eatery or food truck might need, if it wasn’t too fancy and the year was 1953: cardboard boats to hold hotdogs, the kind of blue-and-white Anthora paper coffee cups that look like they’ve been around since the ancient Greeks, all kinds of wood coffee stirrers and french-fry pokers, Chinese takeout boxes, classic mustard and ketchup squeeze bottles and sugar pourers … and bags. Paper bags. Tons of them: the kind that corner stores scoop candies into, the kind that pastry shops slip paper-wrapped eclairs into, the ones that perfectly encase a loaf of rye bread. Each type of bag sat, gathered in big fistfuls, tied in string, on old and dusty shelves, with no price anywhere to be found. You’d ask a clerk what a bundle of No. 6 bags cost, and he’d say that he’d have to ask the owner, who sat in an office tucked back in the store and who may have been dozing back there since the building’s foundation was poured. The owner would shuffle out, take a look at the item, take a look at you, size you both up, make a face briefly that led you to believe that he was trying to remember the price, and then would make it up. “Three dollars,” he’d say, definitively and arbitrarily, on one visit. “Two-fifty,” he’d quote you the next. Whatever, it was worth it – cheaper than the much more cheaply made similar bags they sell as sandwich bags in supermarkets, and, anyway, buying from this ancient guy in this ancient place was not only great urban theater, but it was personally becoming a part of a continuity that would not continue much longer. Stores like this are vanishing, with neither a whimper or bang, as older generations die and younger generations don’t want to continue in the business, or they don’t want this kind of stuff anymore, or they buy it now on Amazon or eBay. But these latter miss the point of the joy of commerce. Buying in a store like this is like being an actor in a play for which you have no script but you know all the lines, except that the central character keeps improvising. Even, sometimes, when the owner would make up too high a price – “Five,” he’d say, as if it had always been five – you paid it anyway, without a fuss or reminding him of what you had paid the previous visit, because you wanted to support this creaky vessel until that inevitable day when you’d come for your bags and there’s a Starbucks sitting there instead …

All of this, rushing at me, sparked by a bunch of bags in my pantry, where they create a placeness in my home and echo the placeness of their origin and their wonderfully circuitous journey to me, and my journey with them.

And, please, don’t get me started on the napkins and toothpicks – we could be here all day.

Duro

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Tears for Eydie

eydieThe one time I saw Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme perform in person was when I was assigned to review them for a local newspaper – “resigned” more accurately describes how I felt, although, as a freelancer, there was 25 bucks in it for me. And I’m sure my piece (my memory of it is completely gone by now) dripped with appropriate dollops of snark that I, in my under-30 years, felt it necessary to bring to any discussion of this beyond-satire, cufflinks-and-sequins duet that my parents, with that odd pride of a common Jewishness, would have kvelled to have seen. Frankly, except for casual but pointed mention now and again in conversation, referring obliquely to a kind of generic, Vegas-y, Rat Pack-y form of entertainment long since departed (the seismic shift in taste and demographics tilted the continent, rolling all such acts to Branson), I hadn’t given much thought to Steve and Eydie, not presuming that they were dead, exactly, but simply no longer “here.”

So, then, how to explain, to my surprise, my getting misty at the news of Eydie Gorme’s death, at 84? For one, I suppose I felt sorry for Steve Lawrence’s loss of his partner of more than 55 years. (Couples like that should go together, in some freak mid-song microphone electrocution accident, with no survivor left to look unbalanced and incomplete – “Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Steve and” – or uncomfortably stapled to a new and younger partner – “Please welcome, Steve and Gaga.”)

But that wasn’t enough to bring tears. Nor was my latter contention that Gorme was a decent and powerful singer who was diminished by the style and patter of the duo’s act, and choice of songs, placing her in the same kind of novelty niche in which one could find Keely Smith, another exceptional singer lost in assumed persona. That Gorme perhaps never got the full respect that she deserved was enough to make me sad, but not wet-eyed.

What I think it was that affected me was the sound of another door slamming to the past, and the loss of another beachhead that my parents held on the current shore. Gorme’s death made me feel like my parents were, in a smaller sense, dying again, too. As each touchstone of their lives goes by the wayside – be it a person, or place, or action – my parents recede. Saddening, too, is the realization that the past is getting bigger, like the universe expanding and, like the universe, with increased velocity. Don’t believe that the past is set and that the future is mutable; it’s just the reverse. The past is a place, and its placeness is altering by the minute; since so much of it is forgotten or confused, and so much of it we make up to suit our needs, the past is a place with rubbery borders, malleable signposts and a populace that looks different every time we look to them for something we need.

To watch video clips of Steve and Eydie young is to see my parents young again, and to be reminded that they are gone, along with Eydie now, and their time. And to realize that we were young like that, too, and that the slippery slope between now and then is greased daily. As I watch the touchstones of my parents’ generation disappear, I notice the unraveling at the edges of my own. I would like to think my review of Steve and Eydie was kinder than I think it was; it being in the past, I can alter it to make it so, even if only in my mind. I think I will.

eydie-gorme-steve-lawrence

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Placeness in the Heart

heart-vintageanatomyThe heart, the ancients believed, was the seat of all emotion. We modern, rational beings know better; science tells us that it is the brain that processes stimuli, rallies the chemical and electrical resources and gives the body its marching orders. When something frightens us, saddens us, moves us – when we see a loved one, when we spy an enemy, when music or drama touches us in the most intellectual or primal of ways – it is the brain that’s behind it all, juicing the system. It is natural that the heart would have been pre-science’s candidate for the center of feelings, because that is where we tend to most noticeably feel them: in the rapid rhythm of fight or flight, in the skipped beat born of beauty and desire.

And yet … no matter how many studies prove the brain’s preeminence, we – who, like candies, have a hard nut of the primitive tucked inside our coating of rationality, always ready to get stuck in our scientific teeth – refuse to fully believe it. It is to the displaced, status-lowered heart that we turn to explain ourselves. We can be heartsick, an important action is heartfelt, when we are courageous we have heart, or are urged to build courage by taking heart (and, conversely, when we are cowardly or have little faith, we have lost heart or are disheartened); at sad news we come with a heavy heart, when love ends we are heartbroken, with good news we are heartened, joy plays a song in our heart, it is heartily that we grab the gusto, and heartlessly we steal it from others …

broken

And on, and so forth. Science tells us that the heart has nothing to do with these adjectives and adverbs – but just try to replace “heart” with “brain” and see how thuddingly it falls from the lips. “Brainfelt”? “You gotta have brain”? “I come with a heavy brain”? No, don’t think so.

brain

Granted, the brain as Numero Uno is the product of scientific principles that have been around for far fewer years than the centuries, the millennia in which beliefs and superstitions about the capabilities of the heart have existed. Moreover, the brain just doesn’t have the romantic aura that the heart possesses. The brain is the Rodney Dangerfield of major organs – it gets no respect. It’s dull – compared to the kinetic heart, the brain just sits there and does perceptibly nothing, a spongy mass that might as well not be there for all we are aware of it – and, of course, that’s its fault, since it is what allows us to have awareness at all. (To add insult to injury, the most cataclysmic of brain ills – a stroke – is erroneously thought by many people to be something to do with the heart, so much so that medical popularizers have tried to rename it in the public mind as a “brain attack.”) We have a likeable, instantly recognizable, stylized cartoon-version, Be My Valentine drawing of the heart – there is no such vernacular illustration for the brain. (Indeed, we have Valentine’s Day, a celebration of the loving heart; no such brain day exists, unless we’re talking about the College Boards.) The brain struggles for identity because, though it sits, synapses sparking and leaping mere millimeters behind the sensory inlets of our eyes, nose, mouth and ears, we ignore and devalue its powerful and necessary contribution to our very being and believe that we are creatures of the “mind” – something we deem as being different and removed from the brain.

The brain, in other words, lacks placeness. The heart is lousy with it – it is, in our minds,  the place. Some of that is because we can feel it, and we can see it causing our chest to rise and fall; it is the first machine within us that we become aware of, and, when it is time for us to end, it has the final word. Moreover, the heart’s placeness has much to do with its actual place, its location – right smack dab in the middle of our body, upfront and vulnerable. The brain is, though right here in our head, tucked away somewhere within a protective shell. In earlier arslocii essays, we spoke about how placeness is a partner with empathy; oddly, though empathy is a function of brain plus experience plus genetics, we rarely think of the brain as an empathetic force or repository, but rather as a cold, analytical mechanism – it is the blood-pumping device called the heart that we see as the font of empathy. And let us not overlook the Hallmark Card-ish sentiment that  within “heart” is “art.”

If we are to be modern and rational adherents to the scientific method, we must and should find it not difficult to embrace the notion that the brain rules. But so long as we retain the basic animal in us, so long as mystery and imagination and metaphor are part of what we are, so long as we know that we do not know, so long as we know that science is wonderful but imperfect and sometimes blindered – so long as all these contingencies exist, and so long as we humans see the heart the way we want to see it, then maybe there is something to it, maybe there is some sort of spiritual autonomy and power that resides in the heart. Maybe we’ve been able to intuit that, sense it, a certain something that science will one day catch up with. Maybe we’ll learn that in some ways the brain takes its orders from the heart, not vice versa – that the heart is not just a dumb pump but something that has a brain, too. Maybe poetry is right; wouldn’t that be nice? Paraphrasing the words of the current pope, who is the brain to judge?

heart-in-hands

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Being Tankful

tank pairHaving been a city dweller most of my life, for me fuel delivery was never an issue. It was just there on a need-to-have basis. For a spoiled westerner, fuel for heat, hot water and cooking appeared magically from a pipe in the street. When natural gas arrived on the scene for central heating in the early 20th century, I can recall my grandparents talking about how nervous people were to have it piped into their homes and it took some convincing for them to welcome it. A hundred years later, it is a fact of life, and people are asking for more of it to be harvested. More and more, invisible energy to keep us in the style to which we have become accustomed.rusty tank

Recently I have decided to chuck the annoyances and unpleasantries (I mean, how much are we supposed to put up with for the ideal of convenience?) of the city and go to a more natural, rural area. In this new environment, one detail that strikes home right away is that you are now responsible for storing your own fuel. What an instant lesson in energy usage; you can get it but not easily, and in getting it, you have to keep it on hand on your property in a tank – a hulking, sometimes rusty container about the size of a buffalo. Well sure, you pay for it either way and if you don’t pay, you don’t have heat. But your consciousness about fuel just increased to the tenth power by having to confront this tank on a daily basis. The alternatives for energy are similar whether urban or rural, except that if you go with gas in the country it comes in a bottle, not a pipe.

tank in field

At first, it seems like an inconvenience, having a behemoth storage tank in your yard. Shouldn’t it be out of sight/out of mind like it was before? As much as I don’t like looking at it, it acts like Jiminy Cricket on our shoulder, whispering in our ear about our dependence and our usage. It keeps things real, making a large physical statement about energy consumption. You can monitor the gauge, you can lower the thermostat, you can try an alternative, like burning wood. A number of the neighbors do all of these things to reduce consumption, but the fact remains that we need heat.

rusted out tank

However, maybe not as wastefully as when we don’t see it. I am thinking of a single apartment building in New York City that takes up an entire block. My brother lives in this particular building, and it has a power plant in the basement that cranks heat up to a point where the tenants open their windows in the winter because it is unbearably hot inside.

As careful as I have always been with energy use, I think that a fuel tank is going to be a constant reminder. Fill it up, empty it out. It is there, regardless. The process is exposed, and you are witness and victim and perpetrator. In this instance it is a placeness of consciousness, of awareness, of a presence of something that looks so out of place but is born of necessity for survival. Use it sparingly, keep it filled up like a family member but don’t overfeed, and let its appearance in the landscape keep us aware of our dependencies and our greed and the fact that this vessel is a solid object informing us that sources of energy are not limitless. And we are responsible for limits.

new tank

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Not Easy Being Green

long viewIt is – or, rather, was – just an ordinary, unremarkable stretch of sidewalk, emanating from the end of a bridge for a block or two down a busy city street; its one distinction, if it can be called that, is that this straight ribbon of pavement had, for the 30 years we’ve walked on or driven past it, been lined by jungle-like and uncontrolled growths of weed trees and bushes and grasses, held as if prisoners behind a low-slung metal traffic barrier which kept pedestrians and vehicles from tumbling down the steep cliff from which this wild flora grew. The wall of green wasn’t pretty, really – only once a year, when a popular bike race whizzes by it, does it get any attention and minimal trimming – but, for those of us living in a concrete-coated city, and to the people who live in the houses lined directly across the street from it, it was a wall of green, a respite, something like an oasis, a natural amenity. Something left alone to be itself, and give its gift, meager though it might be. And, yet, it was a length of urbanness that, if you were mapping the street from memory, you might forget to put it in – it was that personality-less, that undistinguished. It was just there, negligible but subliminally felt.

tree line

Careful readers may have noticed the use of the past tense in the previous paragraph. Trucks with choppers and grinders and saws pulled in not too long ago, and by the time they left, every bit of green was sliced away to near ground level, leaving a rude and rough-hewn gash in the landscape. For the residents of the houses opposite, this must have been not only a shock but, actually, a bit of a pleasant one: for, though the greenery is gone, they now have, unobstructed, one of the best views in the neighborhood – the old town area laid out at the foot of the cliff, the canal and river beyond, and, past those, hills and an interstate highway in the distance. People pay a lot for that view and, suddenly, these folks on the street, after decades of gazing out at an impermeable green wall of leaves and vines, now have that great view, and on somebody else’s dime.

street view

viewEnjoy that view while it lasts, folks. People don’t just clear-cut a forest-y patch for no reason that doesn’t have to do with making money, and so it is here: Soon that gap will be crammed with a dozen or more new townhouses – the uninspired, same old/same old three-stories-and-a-roof-deck, stuccoed and sided ticky-tacky crap that every developer in this area seemingly tore out of a sample book and is stuffing into every lot and open space, and, in this instance, deforesting a swath for it. And, presently, that strip of road, once benefitting from a feeling of some openness, some connection with nature no matter how corralled and limited, will become somewhat more like a canyon, or, certainly, a hemmed-in byway.

And for the pedestrians, like us, who barely acknowledged the existence of this corridor that was the on-ground equivalent of a flyover, we will feel that even though this couple of hundred feet never had anything that one would define as placeness, and certainly nothing resembling art, its absence will generate a lost placeness in our memories. It will be different. It will feel unbalanced and missing an essential element, which it will. Though it was never exactly friendly, it will be decidedly less-so. The air will be different, blighted by the predatory parasitism of modern developers. The light will be different, too. What was undistinguished will now, by comparison, seem distinguished by its congesting mediocrity. We, who cared nothing for this piece of land, will now long for the past nothingness that it was and curse the something that it has been forced to become.

laid waste

You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone, someone once wrote, and this applies even if you didn’t notice it when it when you had it. Sometimes, perhaps, even more so. I never cared if that piece of the world existed or not; now I am outraged that it is going and gone, taken and lost. Is that placeness, or what?

before

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