Saturday, February 13, 2021

What We're Writing: Those Places You Love to Go Back To

 JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: What's really  on my mind, writing-wise, is getting my taxes done, by which I mean pulling together all the documentation, summarizing it, and handing everything over to my accountant. Being self-employed and working from your home office is a pain in the neck when it comes to bookkeeping, y'all.

But I can't think of much more boring than talking taxes, so instead I'm going to talk settings. Specifically, those places in our series that show up over and over. Yes, we expect to visit the hero and heroine's homes, and the police department or other investigative agency. But I'm talking about the other settings we just can't resist - the places our characters get together talk or argue or drink or shoot off guns (I haven't actually seen any mysteries where the cops hit the range regularly, but as long as an author accounts for the hearing protection, it strikes me as an excellent locale to get to know people.

For me, it's the Kreemie Kakes Diner in Millers Kill. Named in a fit of desperately missing hot glazed Krispy Kreme donuts, the diner has been the site of multiple meetings between my protagonists Russ and Clare, as well as the location of a story - "A Collect for Noontime" - that became a short play: "Small Town."

There's something I love about sitting characters down and getting them talking between ordering, eating, and thanking the waitress, Earla Davis, for refills. And now, with everyone in Millers Kill using these newfangled cell phones, you can even get business done at the diner, as Russ and the former deputy chief, now acting chief, Lyle MacAuley, discover.

 

Lyle held up a finger. “Hi, yes, this is Lyle MacAuley, acting chief of police for Millers Kill. I'm trying to get some information about a former employee of ours who lateraled over to you folks. Name's Kevin Flynn. I believe he was in your Special Investigations division.” He paused. “Sure.” He clamped a hand over the phone. “She's bringing up his file.”

Earla appeared with their lunches on a tray. “Burgar, medium, no onions and a beef stew. Can I get you anything else?”

Russ demurred. Lyle picked up a french fry and hastily swallowed it as his contact came back on the line. “Yes. Yeah, that's him. Yes, I know he went out on leave, I wanted--” There was a long pause. “Please.” He popped another fry in his mouth. “She's transferring me to human resources.”

Russ blew on a spoonful of stew. “Maybe we should try calling--”

Lyle made a shushing motion. “Yes. This is Lyle MacAuley, acting chief over here in Millers Kill. The young lady I just spoke with said you would have some information about Kevin Flynn.” There was a pause. Lyle smiled in a particularly cozening way. “We have some questions about his retirement benefits we need to straighten out. We're just a little bitty shop, so the human resources department is either the chief or the second in command.” He laughed. “I know, I know.” His face grew serious as he listened to the person on the other end of the line. “Really.” There was another pause. “No, I was hoping you could tell me that. Was there anyone he particularly worked with over there?” Lyle removed the top of the bun and gestured to Russ to pass the ketchup. “Yeah, I knew he had a lengthy undercover assignment.”

Russ unscrewed the top for him and handed it over. “No, of course, I understand. There's only so much you can do.” Russ mouthed What the hell? Lyle waved him off. “No need to apologize. I appreciate you taking the time.” He paused. “Absolutely. If we find out anything. Thank you.” He hung up.

We'll let them know if we find out anything? What's that about?”

Lyle replaced the bun and picked up his burger. “They haven't heard from Kevin since he took a one-month leave in October. If he doesn't get in touch with them by the end of December, he gets administratively separated.” He took a bite.

Does that mean what it sounds like?”

Lyle nodded, and drew a finger across his throat. “Fired.”


Do you have any favorite settings in the books you love, dear readers? Or, have you gotten your taxes ready yet?

63 comments:

  1. Oh, I can’t even imagine what is happening with Kevin [and you know I can’t wait to find out] . . . . I always enjoy the camaraderie between Russ and Lyle . . . .

    I think diners are pretty much perfect places . . . Thanks for sharing this . . . .

    Favorite settings? I’m always a fan of parks and gardens and Clare’s church . . . .

    Taxes . . . not done [and not worrying about them yet] . . . .

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    1. I'm working on mine to get them in as an apology to my accountants. Last year, I was VERY late n getting everything to them, and then there are always follow up questions, etc, so...

      "What is happening with Kevin" is a big part of the mystery in this book!

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  2. Millers Kill is one my favorites! And now you're, well, killing me with this scene. But also, diners are perfect, which should be obvious, since I have a long-running series set in a diner-equilvalent.

    I had to look up cozening. I learn more new words from you, Julia - thank you.

    I was going to pull together my taxes before my surgery. It's still on my white board. One of these days...

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    1. Edith, I’m now reading the second in country store series and I like very much the Pan’s N Pancakes setting.

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    2. Thank you so much, Danielle-momo. I'm delighted to hear it!

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    3. Edith, I'm still on the fence about "cozening." It's the perfect word for Lyle, but i don't, as a rule, like to make readers search for words they may be unfamiliar with. I often use the phrase "charm offensive" or charming for Lyle, but I already used "charming smile" earlier in the scene when he's talking to the waitress, so...

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    4. I like the word "cozening" to describe Lyle. He is almost too smooth, kind of flirting, always turning on the charm!

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  3. Julia, great scene. I agree that the diner is a perfect place in Millers Kill for people to meet, for meaningful conversations, and for bumping into everyone else in town by chance or design. I am a huge fan of scenes where characters are eating meals and snacks, alone or with others. Authors convey so much about their characters in these scenes.

    Now, about Kevin. Okay, he has disappeared and we are all worried about him. Don't make him suffer too much and bring him back in one piece! Is that too much to ask?

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    1. Don't worry, Judy, suffering builds character. And I do have plans for Kevin, so no, I don't expect he's gone for good.

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    2. LOL, I have heard that one before!

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  4. JULIA: Love the diner as a place for Russ and others in Millers Kill to meet. You know I love food so any scenes with the characters sharing a meal is fun to read.

    And that tease about what is happening to Kevin...aargh, we have to wait a while to learn more!

    As for taxes, our tax deadline in Canada is later than the US: April 30. We usually don't get any of the slips from employers/banks until late February/early March, so tax prep is not on my to-do iist until mid-March.

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    1. Those extra two weeks are nice if you owe the CRA! But if the yearly documents don't come until late February/early March, Canadian accountants don't get any more prep time, really, than ours do. It's a tough job...

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    2. JULIA: Yes, accountants and tax prep companies work in a frenzy during those few weeks in April. For me, I have a pretty basic tax return so I do it myself with the H&R tax software. They autofills most of the numbers already so it's super easy!

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  5. Oh Kevin, we hardly knew ye...come back soon and we'll all meet for breakfast at the diner ok?

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    1. Maybe he's escaping the winter in Key West and he'll show up in one of your books, Lucy! :-)

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    2. Yes! Let's have a mash-up of JRW characters in a story...

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  6. Wait, I need more. Looking forward to reading this. I like the settings that take place in the outdoors, in a diner, at a restaurant, on a bench, in front of a building, near an elevator bank, in front of the grocery store, these are where you get to see more of the characters in their natural habit.

    I'm still waiting for one piece of paper before I can send my taxes to my person.

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    1. Dru, I think that's why it's important to get characters talking together in person, despite the fact that in real life, we communicate at least half the time via texts, phone calls or email (not to even get into the hundreds of other apps and services like Whatsapp and Snapchat.) It's just not satisfying to read about important communication happening electronically.

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  7. Speaking of meetings, Jungle Reds, what time today at Poisoned Pen? 2:00 eastern or western time?

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  8. Oh Kevin, what have you done?

    My taxes are still a pile of paper in a folder. I have two places my characters go in the Laurel Highland series: Dex's in Uniontown (made up) and the Lucky Dog in Confluence (thought I made it up but it's real). In fact, I need to go back to the Lucky Dog. I haven't been there in a while.

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    1. Most of us haven't been inside a restaurant or diner in such a long time, Liz... I really enjoyed writing this scene, and I suspect it's because it'll be a while before I get to go to my favorite diners.

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  9. Julia, I’m so worried for Kevin.
    I like your protagonists meeting at the diner and to know how it feels and what they eat.

    I admit that what the protagonists eat at the Three Pines Bistro from Louise Penny’s books is more to my taste but differences are understandable and good too.

    Waiting for a last paper to tackle my taxes.

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    1. Danielle, the Three Pines Bistro serves a much higher class of food than the Kreemie Kakes diner, but I suspect that's true for almost any eatery with French origins. :-)

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  10. Julia, I cannot wait to get back to Millers Kill and catch up on things there. What on earth has happened or is happening to Kevin? Did he go WAY undercover or did he go rogue? When will we know? I mean when will the book be out? Meanwhile, thank you for the new word. Hope I'll remember it.

    Since I barely ever leave my house I can't come up with any good places where people might stop and chat. Love your diner - that is just perfect!

    My taxes are finished and it was rather painless since I am retired and have no investments. I thought I would have enough deductions to do long form but I don't. However I am very glad this year they are allowing some of my charitable contributions. It's a fixed amount of $300 for everyone, rather than a percentage which really doesn't make much sense to me. Still, some is better than nothing.

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    1. The charitable deduction thing is HORRIBLE, and must be really hurting charities over the last couple years. With no incentive to save on taxes I'm sure their contributions have dropped off a cliff overall.

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    2. Agreed. One of the good things about the CARES act is that it stops (for the time being) the limit on charitable deductions and increases the amount of food donation value you can deduct. I think it ought to be permanent - the more we can encourage giving, the better.

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  11. This is so great —and so natural!
    And yes places like this are great because there’s so much to do—and anyone might arrive.

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  12. I love a good diner scene. I remember your short story with the lunch table sleuths solving a mystery.

    I have a diner scene in my WIP: steamy windows, bulky parkas, the pungent odor of wet wool. Three cheese grilled cheese and basil tomato soup. And a safe place to stash women on the run till their shelter transport arrives, until...

    Assembling writing expenses this weekend for the taxes.

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    1. That sounds terrific, Margaret - just your brief description here makes me want to read the scene!

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  13. Poor Kevin. You put him through so much, Julia! Wonder what kind of trouble you have him in this time.

    I sure would not have pictured your Millers Kill diner that way. Maybe because it's always so cold in your books, and that does not look cozy to me. However, those scenes make me miss my own daily diner lunches way back when. Which I very thoroughly enjoyed until I was having lunch one day with someone from out of town who proclaimed that the meatloaf on his plate was horsemeat. Yikes. It may have been, too.

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    1. Yeeks! That would make me exit, never to return as well, Karen!

      The picture isn't how I see the Kreemy Kakes diner either - it more a building than the "train car" style we usually think of.

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    2. That's what I see, Julia, more of a building.

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  14. Diners are a fixture here in upstate New York, as everywhere I suppose. I think much of the appeal is the regular clientele, people you feel you know even if you've never met. It isn't three star Michelin. It is bacon and eggs and pancakes and hot turkey sandwiches and something called a "garbage plate, which is either two burgers or two dogs or a combo plus fries and macaroni salad, all topped with hot sauce. I've never been that brave.

    In our local Liberty Diner, there is a man in a motorized wheelchair who comes most mornings. He always goes to the same booth in the back, where he can stay in his chair without disrupting aisle traffic. His order is always the same, a short stack and coffee. The coffee is served in a glass with a straw, and the short stack comes complete with one of the wait persons, who sits in the booth and feeds him, chatting all the while about the news of the day.

    I don't think he'd get that service in a three star Michelin restaurant.

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    1. Oh, Ann, that is a wonderful story, and it illustrates why, despite the lack of economic opportunity and the run-ins with small-mindedness, those of who live in small towns choose to stay.

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  15. Ann's comment took me back to my high school job as a waitress in a local, very popular (still) diner. We had regulars galore, a veritable lab of human behavior. One guy so regularly sent his steak back to the kitchen that the owner finally came to his table to read him the riot act. He told him if he wanted tender steak to stop ordering the cheapest cut on the menu. Two brothers, possibly twins, ambled in every single day, all three meals, and had the same thing every time, always for less than a dollar, and never anything to drink but the free water. And of course they always asked for the free cornsticks, even though their orders of two sides (they were vegetarians) did not really include them. They sat at different places at the counter and never either spoke to or acknowledged the other's presence in any way. I used to see them walking along the highway, heads down, looking for pop bottles to trade in for cash. Later, I heard that they were extremely wealthy, just also extremely eccentric.

    I was the hostess on Sunday afternoons, and had the pleasure of ushering my own dear grandparents to their favorite table, in the station of their very favorite waitress, Minnie. Such a sweet memory.

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    1. Clearly, diners are the right place to set a scene if you want to look at the length and breadth of the human experience!

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  16. One of my favorite settings is The Bistro in Louise Penny's Three Pines books ~

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    1. Mine, too, Celia. And I'm pretty sure the food is a cut or three above that served in Millers Kill!

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  17. I do like every time I get to go back to Pans 'N Pancakes...

    As for taxes, I'm hopefully getting them done tomorrow...or at least the part where I find out how the government is screwing me over if it says I owe the rat bastards money. :D

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    1. If you get the taxes done early enough, and you do owe Uncle Sam, there's at least the pleasure of putting off dropping the check in the mail until April 15 (sometimes April 17, due to Patriots Day!)

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  18. Oh, I must know what happened to Kevin!

    Julia, your settings are always favorites of mine.

    And I'm almost done prepping my taxes. Gah.

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    1. The fun of self employment never ends, eh, Annette?

      I hope most readers are of the same mind as you, since "what happened to Kevin" is one of the central mysteries of this book!

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  19. Taxes: I've put every little piece of mail that has arrived, in the past month, into one drawer so I don't have to search the house but I'll probably end up searching for something once I start attempting doing my taxes. I may end up hiring a tax preparer since I purchased my first home and mom's estate was settled last year.

    Some of my favorite setting: I like the bistro in Three Pines, for so many different reasons and the police department in Miller's Kill, the challenge of modern police work in an what sounds like an antiquated building. I like Jake's house in Sarah Graves series, the challenges fixing a home while living in it and solving a murder, thank heavens it's a large home.

    Kevin - When is the is book due to be published, Julia?

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    1. We're shooting for "before the end of 2021," Deana, but I haven't finished the darn thing yet, so we'll see...

      I can highly recommend getting professional help once your taxes start getting complicated, or if you have complicating events as you have. Back when first started working as a self-employed person, Ross and I thought we could keep doing our own taxes. Big. Mistake. A competent accountant, like a good agent, is worth every penny.

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  20. Julia,

    What a wonderful setting. Grabs my interest. I was surprised that the diner would allow cell phones. Many places do not allow cell phones in restaurants or diners.

    There are several new to me words in your excerpt and I need to look in my dictionary.

    What are my favorite settings? An English Village. I also love the gardens setting.

    Diana

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    1. Diana, I never thought of allowing cell phones or not! I suppose I feel Earle wouldn't interfere with "official business." Maybe I should put something in the scene just to acknowledge that.

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  21. Taxes? Right. Those forms are piling up. I should do something about them. I will. I promise. (Practicing my excuses for my CPA in advance.)

    I think any place where food is shared is the obvious place for talk. Where else do we put down what we're doing and look at each other? Otherwise we're glued to a computer or a phone or in a car by ourselves, or home by ourselves. Eating is often shared time, so diners, coffee shops, and bars all become gathering places where we meet our friends and catch up on the news. Isn't there always a table of old guys who meet for breakfast at any good town diner or friendly fast-food place?

    Depending on your cast of characters, of course, there is also the after church coffee and gossip session, the golf course, the quilters' guild meeting or any of the smaller quilting groups, the knitting and needlework shop, or the guitar store, where musicians come to "try out that new amp" and stick around for the company. Even pre-pandemic, though, we didn't have as many bowling leagues and bridge clubs as we used to. I'm rather fond of my friend's idea: he and a bunch of his friends bring their kids over for a night of movies (for the kids) and Dungeons and Dragons (for the dads) while the wives get a night to themselves.

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    1. Gigi, during this summer, the kids and I would have Game Night every Wednesday, and it was so much fun. Can't do it now, as they've relocated to an apartment near the uni, but I'd love to revive it with friends in the After Time.

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  22. Julia, what a great scene! I love diner scenes, or cafes, or bars--anywhere people gather. The British equivalent of a diner is referred to as a caff. There used to be a great one across the street from the Earl's Court tube station, called Benny's. Gone now, sadly, replaced by a chain Gregg's sandwich shop.

    I can't wait to find out what's going on with Kevin. Write faster! :-)

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    1. In real life, a lot of us tend to grab fast food n chain restaurants, but they never seem to make a satisfactory place for fictional characters to hang around. I'm not sure if that's because they're not necessarily conduce to conversation, or because, to a certain extent, we want our fictional worlds to reflect the way life should be, with small, locally owned places.

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  23. Taxes? Ha! Forms are still drifting in and I won't even think about doing any returns until February is over. As for meeting places, cafes, diners, pubs, coffee houses, all of them are great meeting up places. You're sitting in the open, talking, eating, relaxing, and anyone can walk up, say hello, or join you. People loosen up sharing food and gossip. Three Pines has its bistro. Richard Jury and Melrose Plant meet hilariously in Melrose's club in London and at the village pub in Long Piddleton with Melrose's posse to plot. And who knows what you might overhear?
    Now I'm going to be stewing about Kevin, worrying if he's in trouble or gone off the rails. Thanks Julia!

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    1. You're welcome, Pat! ;-)

      I was surprised to get several forms at the beginning of February, and not because the mail is running behind. I wonder if businesses are moving slowly because so many white collar workers are at home, and/or are limiting the number of people allowed in the office at any one time.

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  24. There are now a couple of small chains of diners in the UK but they're still a novelty when we find one.

    My favourite US diner (though admittedly from limited experience) is Crooked Lake Ice Cream Company in Hammondsport, New York State, which has a lovely vintage feel.

    One of the few benefits of the first lockdown in the UK was that I did 3 sets of taxes (me - complicated as I have a paid job plus being self-employed, husband, and younger daughter doing her first return) by the end of May whereas I'm usually scrambling to make the deadline which would have been a the end of January this year.

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  25. Julia, we had delayed taxes during the lockdown, and I STILL managed to be late. Sigh.

    The diner is a distinctly American form of eatery, and like British pubs and French bistos, always best in its native land.

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  26. Taxes: not yet
    Diners: love the idea and, in the After Times, I might adopt our new neighbourhood restaurant as the equivalent -- small, friendly, they get to know me and bring me "my usual" when I arrive!
    Kevin: OMG, please come to your senses and SHOW YOURSELF. This reader is VERY worried about you...

    The excerpt is tantalizing, Julia. I love the scenes in the diner, and I'm always fascinated to see what Russ and Clare or Lyle are eating. I see that, in this scene, Russ has moved on from his "usual" Reuben (his choice in One Was a Soldier, which I'm rereading).

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  27. I just lost a lengthy response I had written here. I don't have the heart to do it all again. So, I'll just say that three of my favorite book settings are Julia's Adirondacks, Debs' London and England, Lucy's Key West, Louise Penny's Three Pines, and Elly Griffiths' Norfolk. I love diners, and am thrilled whenever one shows up in a book I'm reading, even more so if it's a featured setting in the book.

    I'm worried about Kevin, and I so hope that he's found and is okay. He's such a great character.

    Taxes will go to accountant.

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  28. Funny you should ask about taxes today. I'm checking in after filing my taxes for the year. Of course, mine are pretty easy, especially compared to yours. And this year, I just had one W-2 (for the first time in several years), so it was especially easy.

    See you in roughly 20 minutes!

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  29. Kevin! I've been worried about him. Please let him be okay. <3
    My next-door neighbor took over my taxes last year, and I'm relieved. They used to make sense . . . not any longer.

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