Sunday, April 04, 2004


Well, on the back of one of my books, my "selected" poems which came out twenty-two years ago, Middle Ground, it says "he writes because he can't not-write." There's something to that.

I am both poet and essayist because the poet and the essayist each write, sometimes, to explain the world to himself, herself. Ask my wife. She will roll her eyes and start to explain how immense is that part of the world I don't understand; or at least I don't understand it in the way that she and many others do.

Dave from Via Negativa brought all this to mind recently, when he left a comment here about a facet of my work, saying "this is indeed an honorable and enviable task for a poet, to validate 'ordinary' people's lives in this way." I've said it before, a lot, and you'll get sick of hearing me say it: I want to write so that aliens a thousand years from now can read what I've written and know who we were.

Near the end of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew:Home, I put it this way:

I think I write so family and neighbors shall not have lived in vain. I want to speak for them, to tell their stories, I want them to be represented in the gallery of humankind. We are not famous yet we should not be forgotten. Though I can make no good argument for why they must be remembered, I live with the conviction that it is important. Why ask why the meadlowlark sings?

And at the conclusion of the title essay of Kissing Poetry's Sister, this is how I put it:

Why? you may wonder, why does one choose to spend himself writing little essays? The simple answer is that I can't behave otherwise. Talent or grace - the gift of writing ought not be squandered. I want to leave behind some image or mark, not for myself alone but for all of us gathered here, as moving as the cave paintings in France, powerful as the images at Writing-On-Stone Provincial Park in Alberta, on the sandstone bluffs there overlooking the Milk River, right next to the surprise of rattlesnakes buzzing at your feet. I want to scratch such marks, eternal as stone, a clear sense of who and what we have been, those of us who have traveled here. I like beauty with dirt still attached to its roots: a primitive yet powerful kind of mark, a moving imaging left for an astonished future.

Left to my own devices, my mind is a couple pounds of pretty unremarkable electric protein. However, when I look outward to observe the world around me, to absorb what I can of the people and the places in the real and physical world, then I have something of which to write. I have to be close to the dirt and goo and stuff of things, right up close, so I can see it, can feel it in my bones, can taste it clear down in my belly. "No ideas but in THINGS," William Carlos Williams said (emphasis mine), and I have to agree. I remember learning that some people think in words and some people think in pictures. Some people (like Dave at Via Negativa) can write about ideas; I cannot. About the best I can do is take my stick and scratch a few figures in the sand; the best I can do is paint some word salad pictures, make some collages out of pieces I've torn from the real world around me. One way is not better than the other way.

I don't read fiction, at least not very often. Ask me why, and I'll tell you life is too short for fiction; and life is too short to get into an argument about my position, so let's not even go there. I have too many true stories I want to tell, stories of real protangonists in the real world. Hard-working and ordinary people who shouldn't be forgotten.

People like Steve Engelhart, the owner of Wisner Rendering in northeastern Nebraska, who does the dirty job of picking up dead animals and hauling them to the rendering plant. I rode with him for a day last year. I've written of that experience in an essay called "Riding With the Local Used Cow Dealer." The piece opens:

I arrived at Steve and Cindy Engelharts' home right on time for breakfast this morning, May 1, Feast of St. Joseph the Workman, 8:00 a.m., in a grey rain. It would be a cool day, which is always good in the rendering business. Dead animals can get awfully ripe in the heat of full sun by the time Steve gets to the farm to pick them up. A dull, grey day helps hold down the stink.

Cindy was making pancakes when I arrived, and "fresh-squeezed eggs," bacon. After we all got introduced, Steve fed the cat, Cindy went on making breakfast, I found a chair at the kitchen table, we talked. Steve is a big bear of a man, you wouldn't want to have to tackle him, or break his tackle. He wears a fierce mustache on a jagged face, he's got enough muscle he could swat me down any time he wished. You could tell he wouldn't, though; he has interesting and interested eyes, this look of curiosity that comes across his face now and again. He likes to talk and has something to say. Cindy runs "Cindy's Sewing" out of the home - there's a sign for her business out by the road. Steve said she drives truck for him, too, when she has to, in the busiest times. The Engelharts rent the place they live on, they have some horses, the landlord feeds cattle across the yard from the house, Steve keeps his rendering trucks parked in front of the garage. After we'd eaten, Steve suited up - coveralls, his tall rubber boots, gloves. It was 8:50 a.m. when we climbed in the truck. The door of the truck is painted with the company's name, Wisner Rendering; and I saw that I'd be riding with "Your Local Used Cow Dealer."

"First, we pick up some pigs," Steve said.

Steve might look like a bear of a man, yes, and you wonder how interested he might be in things beyond the job. Well, you'd be surprised. Certainly he is interested in history; his great-grandfather homesteaded some miles north of where Steve and Cindy now live.

"I really like the people," Steve said as he swept a view of all the Wisner and West Point area with a turn of his head. "They are friendly, godly, they are always willing to help. I can guarantee, if you stop your car along the highway, someone will pull up in five minutes to see if they can help you. It can be an out-of-state car, people will stop. People here are hard-working, they have to work for everything they've got. Life is not easy out here...."

Life is not easy, certainly not the life of a rendering truck driver. This is what I wrote about the smell associated with the work:

Two dead black beef cattle have been pulled out of the feedlots for Steve to pick up. One of them is bloated more than the other one, its legs poking out like the legs of a balloon cow, its bung-hole bulging hugely, its belly bloated in an arc. "I don't know how your stomach is," Steve said by way of warning. "I let the air out of them." He poked the dead animal's great bloated belly with his butcher knife, you could hear the air coming out, a stream of liquid squirted out like a lazy geyser, you could smell it. "That's the smell you don't get used to," Steve said. He lets the air out of most of the bloated animals, he said, "that way I can get more of them in the truck...."

The smell of this work? You have to talk about it, you can't ignore it. The stink accumulates. Imagine a pan of bacon grease left sitting out for a week or two, the house closed up, a mustiness already risen from the basement where clothes have mildewed, mixing with the greasy rancidness. Now add the sickly sweetness that comes up your throat when you've eaten way, way too much candy. Underneath, there's always the smell you smell when you stick a finger to the back of your throat, just before you puke. I think it might help to rest my forearm on my belly when I'm about to gag, but it doesn't help much.

"You breathe out of your mouth a lot," Steve said. "You make sure you know which way the wind is blowing. I always warn everybody what I'm doing before I do it." Steve has seen even old, grizzled farmers vomit at the smell when he stuck an animal before loading it....

Steve makes an honest living, it is necessary and honorable work he does. If you want to be able to eat beef, people like Steve have got to pick up and haul away the dead ones. We don't need for feel bad for Steve - he likes his work as well as any of us like our jobs. So many people get on a plane in New York and fly to Los Angeles, or get on a plane in Los Angeles and fly to New York, and never see, never know, never understand what happens here where the heart beats.

I want to write so those folks flying at 35,000 feet will know what the hell we do, and what it means. If I can get their attention, I will hold up my portrait of Steve Engelhart for them to see, and say: "Okay, go ahead, try to show me a better, finer man than Steve, if you can."

Is it important that I do this? Yes. The great wheel turns: we are here; we are dust, blown away. In the turning moment, our lives mean something. I want us to know what our lives mean, what they will have meant when we are gone.

Will the people flying at 35,000 feet care? Will I succeed? I don't know. But I will have tried.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

June 2003

by Fred First

Declare these things, and testify
See each memory with insight and speak its name
touched and known, harvested
by word and form, preserved
by points of colored light
in clear glass and stored
drying in synapses that hang like raisins
on tangled wires.

Preserve the night of summer light and
Pollen round sifted like fine flour when
Fireflies warmed heavy air with cold light
And moon shadows sailed over pasture grass
Coursed dark like liquid ships
in shades of gray the size of meadows, surged
from behind you spilled under your feet
Poured into creeks and lifted
without effort up mountains
under ground under oaks
To the top of the ridge and were gone. Yet
This too remains.

Sing the wind in winter,
Dense and gray, heavier than air that sinks
into the valley like a glacier of broken glass,
That pushes hard on frozen earth, unrelenting.
Recall dreams of Old Man Winter from children's books
Cheeks bloated lips pursed brow furrowed,
Exhaling a malevolent blast below
On frail pink children in wet mittens.
You have seen this in your time, and more.

Hold fast to leaves in Autumn,
That wait frail and finished--
beech and spicebush, poplar, oak, elm--
For a time to fall. Recall:
You lay on your back in dappled sun
And counted above the maples
winged wisps pulled west
Monarchs of air
You told the signatures of trees
by traces of their leaves, dying.

These things I declare are real as bare toes
among stoneflies in torrents of cold.
Bear witness to them, for
you will come back and visit when you are old.

Claim by memory these moments
And clutch meaning from stones
and reason from under bark and barn boards
Redeem purpose and beauty from under your feet,
wrestle them to the ground
And plant them here in the good Earth
while there is time.
Plant seeds of memory here
So others may shelter in this forest.
Declare these things and you will be long among friends
When days become short.

Fred First is proprietor and perpetrator of the photo-lovely, text-rich, and well-read blog-site called Fragments from Floyd. He lives in Floyd County, Virginia (or, should we say, his Blue Ridge Mountain Home). He is finishing up a book about the turn and pull of seasons there, tentatively titled Here's Home: Belonging In the Blue Ridge.


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About sixteen of them, by our current count.

Friday, April 02, 2004

MARCH 24, 2004

On my way home from Alexandria, I pulled off for something to eat at a truck-stop in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. I had taken a place at the counter; a couple truckers sat off to my right around a bend, seated so I could see them. When I returned to my place with a plate of food from the buffet, a waitress who had been talking to one of those truckers turned and looked at me. I looked back at her with a question mark. She said, "I'm sorry, I just don't want to have sex with you." She sounded genuinely sorry.

"I suppose not," I said. The trucker she'd been talking to pointed vaguely at me and then at the trucker to his right and kinda shrugged his shoulders; it looked as if he'd been trying to set her up with one or the other of us. The waitress would have none of it, she just wanted "to be friends."

The trucker trying to direct that waitress's sex life was also trying to figure out how he was going to get past the weigh station on I-90 at Eau Claire. He knew he was about 4000 pounds overweight. Sometimes you can get away with being a thousand or fifteen hundred pounds over the limit, but they won't overlook that you're 4000 pounds over. When it was obvious that the other trucker, the waitress, and I were not going to solve his dilemma, he said "Well, fine, it's my dispatcher's problem" and he dialed his cell phone.

I paid my tab and went on down the road towards home.



A man reaches the age where his astonishment trumps his certainty. Old men spend a lot of time sitting on benches and thinking. I was more than fifty years old before I started to understand why. There's a lot for old men to think about. The more you think about it, the more astonished you become: how does a fellow get to where a fellow is?

The middle west was the bottom of an ocean, wasn't it? It is a great, flat accumulation. It is home for me, because I need trees and a great humming greenness, I need the turn of seasons, I need the ice. I was born here in the middle of it, in Iowa, in our only truly middle western state.

Ohio is too much Pennsylvania and West Virginia to be middle western. Indiana is too southern. Michigan has too much water. Wisconsin and Minnesota have too many lakes, too much forest, and these states might be partly Canadian, ey? Kansas and Nebraska, South Dakota and North - half of each of these is western. Missouri is too much like Arkansas.

That leaves Illinois and Iowa, doesn't it, yet Illinois has Chicago at one end and Cairo at the other, so what remains as the only true middle western state is Iowa. Of course it has taken more than fifty years for me to appreciate this. All our lives we want to run from that which we should be embracing....


APRIL 2, 1998

The drive from my house to Five Corners is about five miles; from Five Corners to the printing plant where I work is another five miles, nearly. I have worked there for almost twenty years; I have made the drive five days a week, fifty weeks a year: 20 x 50 x 5 x 20 = approaching 120,000 miles spent driving to and from work these past twenty years. It takes me about fifteen minutes each way: 20 x 50 x 5 x 15 = 75,000 minutes div. by 60 = 1250 hours div. by an 8-hour day = more than 156 8-hour days spent driving to and from work. 156 days is more than 22 weeks. What do I have to show for that time?

Another front came through yesterday, bringing more rain. The sky is grey this morning but the streets are dry. Leaf buds are swollen. The daffodils next to our garage will want to bloom soon if it warms up. Yet it is a cool wind still that ripples the surface of the pond down the hill.

Wild geese sit in pooled water in a farmyard just north of town. What have they to fear? What have I to fear?

At the edge of Ripon a crow eats at a deer long dead in the ditch. It flaps its wings with satisfaction. Unless we are making something new, we too are feeding on carrion.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

MARCH 23, 2004

At 6:00 p.m. I entered the United Methodist Church on the far east side of Alexandria. I was there to make a presentation after supper about the Vagabond project, to the fellowship group that my hosts, Paul and Carolyn Peterson, belong to. This was Paul and Carolyn's last time with these Alexandria friends. Once they move, they'll have to find fellowship in New Jersey.

My presentation to the group of twenty-five men and women was the typical explanation of the Vagabond project - how the idea originated, my definitions of the middle west's boundaries, how I selected the twelve focus communities, and the kinds of questions I ask during my interviews. Then I read from my Vagabond journals, featuring selections about "the talk you hear" and "the people you meet," especially the people I've met in Alexandria.

After my talk, there was excitement in the room, almost as if these people recognized that the middle west can be the stuff of literature, that the people of the region can be the heroes in their own stories. There were lots of good questions, questions that made me talk about how one writes truthfully of those he loves, how one writes of the ugliness as well as the beauty.

There was also an opportunity for me to pull my car keys out of my pocket - and, with them, the key to the Petersons' house: "As I left last May," I told the group, "Paul and Carolyn gave me this key, in case I was passing by and needed a place to stay and they weren't at home." I held the key up in the direction of Paul and Carolyn; the audience applauded them, as much for all of the Petersons' kindnesses over the years, I think, as for this one.

Afterwards, as I was gathering my things and rolling up the laminated map of the United States whereon I've marked out the boundaries of the middle west, a woman came forward and gave me what I consider to be the ultimate compliment: "Every time you paused to collect your thoughts, I'd hold my breath waiting to hear what you'd say next. It was that interesting."



Delbert Cothern of Vandalia, Illinois, faces another day every day. He was paralyzed when he was sixteen years old, diving into Ramsey Creek on a family outing. He and a cousin kept challenging each other to dive into the river with hands at the back of the head instead of extended in front of them as they entered the water. Once too often Delbert dove in that way and his head hit bottom, he broke his neck, he has been paralyzed since.

That was back in the late 1930s. Before the accident Delbert was a typical farm kid who'd rather be outdoors than anywhere. After the accident he lay motionless in bed for months on end.

His folks had to move off the farm and into town because Delbert's sweat glands shut down, he needed to remain in front of an electric fan to stay cool, and the farm didn't have electricity. His father opened a garage in town and went into the car repair business. His mother worked at the hospital.

With effort, Delbert eventually started getting around on crutches and could move well enough that he did most of the housekeeping for his parents. Out of the money his mother paid him for keeping house, Delbert saved enough to buy two acres out in the country. His parents put a trailer house on the property. Delbert and his folks lived there for many years.

Delbert kept a large garden on the acreage. Though he couldn't walk, he could stand without support. He would hoe as much as he could reach from one place, he'd use the hoe as a crutch and move forward, he'd hoe some more. Through the years, he kept the freezer and cupboards stocked with food from his garden.

Delbert's mother died some twenty-five years ago, his father lived until 1997. Delbert moved into the Cherrywood facility in Vandalia in 1996.

Delbert is a harmonica player. He came from a musical family and had taught himself mandolin as a youngster. He was a little guy for his age, he told me, so the mandolin was just the right size for him. He learned his licks listening to Roy Acuff's mandolin player on the Grand Ole Opry, but says he didn't copy the fellow exactly.

After the accident that crippled him, Delbert could no longer play mandolin. If he were to continue playing music, he had to learn an instrument he could play with one hand. So he took up harmonica, learning fiddle tunes and traditional bluegrass, and transferring them to his new instrument.

Delbert had always been something of a shy country boy who didn't think he could play out in front of people, but - bit by bit - playing in front of bigger and bigger audiences, he lost his shyness and now, he said, he would just as soon play for a hundred as for ten.

Delbert has played in the Illinois Old Time Music Harmonica Championships, coming in as high as second. He won a national championship in 1988 at Avoca, Iowa, tearing off renditions of "Soldier's Joy" and "Silver Bells" and a waltz. He has also competed at a contest in Tennessee but that championship draws a lot of great harmonica players from Nashville, Delbert said, "and they are tough to beat."

Delbert has a four-track recorder set up in his room at the nursing home and stays busy learning new songs, writing songs of his own, and recording them. He has released a 13-song tape, Just an Old Man and His Old Music: Old Timey Type Music No. 1, and on it refers himself "Ol' Delbert." There's harmonica on the tape, of course, and Delbert's singing and talking and whistling. Many of the songs are his own compositions. He introduces them with his Ol' Delbert drawl. He makes copies of the tapes to sell as the need arises and earns enough, he said, "for a little pocket money." He's not so much interested in the money as in the music, I think. It's telling that he's got a four-track recorder in his room, and no television - "I always gotta be doing something," he said, "and I'd rather be making music than anything else."

Does Delbert think he's an inspiration to others? "Well, I hope so, but I don't know if I am." He's not one to brag, not about his music, not about the example he sets for the rest of us.

Ol' Delbert just keeps on making music.



The writing life is the life lived. The life lived is the writing life. I can no longer distinguish between them. The edges have blurred. What I do and what I write about have come together and it makes no sense trying to keep them separate any longer. I suppose many writers come to this point.

Yes, it is difficult to find publishable chunks of material, if publishable chunks is what one's after. For myself, for now, I am finding it difficult to distinguish between what is journal, what is essay, what is poem, what is history, what is life. The silken web vibrates everywhere as I write here, now. How can our weekend trip to Chicago be disconnected from the Hargrave farm journals I'm working with, from this morning drive, from my next poem. In the wonder of this sense of oneness, my challenge will be not to get lost; my challenge will be to remember where I am going.

Sometimes, when it suits me, I can fabricate reality from nothing. This morning, being April Fool's, would be the perfect opportunity to play, with a vengeance. Yet I find the prospect doesn't attract me. Perhaps because it is expected today. It comes at no cost today. Anyone can do it today and get away with it. I'd much rather fabricate on the off days, the rest of the year.

Today is strange in other ways. After two days of rain, the ground is soaked. The sky is soaked, sloppy with clouds still, except to the far west where some clouds seem to be catching light from the sun; they look pink and gold like a sunrise in the wrong direction.

It has been a sloppy sky. Likely we tell ourselves it cannot possibly snow again. Hell, it could snow tonight. Never say never in Wisconsin. Never say never on April Fool's Day or Halloween. If you can't take a joke, move to Los Angeles.

The streets are still wet. Children wait for the school bus in front of Leahy's Tap. The Grand River is running high and hard this morning. There is a definite break in the clouds to the west, as if it is a new front coming in. A red-wing blackbird, geese, a robin. The trees are setting buds, definitely setting buds. Water is moving in the ditches.

All the nameless faces. Sometimes I think I shall know them in another context. Sometimes I think I shall know them another day.

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

MARCH 21, 2004

I worked all day on my notes til about 3 p.m. and then headed into Alexandria to see Floyd Bolin as I'd promised him. No lights on at Floyd's house, no response to my repeated knocking at the door. Nobody home so far as I could tell. Darn, I'm sorry to miss seeing him again - but I suppose a fellow can't sit around all way waiting for some unreliable vagabond from Wisconsin to show up.


MARCH 22, 2004
At 7:00 p.m., as part of Alexandria's Community Education series, I made my presentation of "The Idea of the Local," reading first from the "locals" found in the newspaper of one of my focus communities. Who went to supper at Pizza Hut with Larry, to celebrate his birthday, is probably only of interest to Larry. Against that, I read excerpts from several of my essays and from my Vagabond journals, trying to show how one might take the same kinds of materials and tease out connections that will make them of interest to a far broader audience. Essentially the question is how to take "the particular" and make it "universal." Specifically I illustrated "local" in its relation to place, to people, to activities, and to relationships, while acknowledging there may still be other aspects of "local" that could be explored.

Why is "local" important? I quoted two women from Alexandria whom I've interviewed. In January of last year, I talked to Minnie Osterholt, who told me: "I look out the window here. I see a hill. I know it might be a man-made hill. I see the woods behind it. This feels like home."

This past Friday I asked Tara Bitzen what it would take to get her to move from the farm that has been her in family now for three generations, which she and her husband own.

Tara said: "It wouldn't be money. Money wouldn't make me move. Probably the only thing that could make me move would be family. If for some reason the rest of my family was relocated. Other than that, I couldn't come up with anything that you could offer me that would get me to move, especially out of state."

"Tell me again why that is?" I had said to Tara.

She continued: "I don't know. Why do I want to stay here? That land I grew up on is so important. The history that is there. The Indian artifacts my father found while farming throughout his lifetime on that farm. Knowing what kind of history is there. Thinking of it in somebody else's hands, somebody else owning it, I don't like the idea of someone else owning it. Having my kids grow up with the same experiences I did. Now - could they have the same experiences on another piece of country land in some other state? Yeah, probably. Maybe it's comfort. This is what I know. I don't think it's fear of the unknown; I've always been something of an over-achiever, going out of my comfort zone. Am I afraid to move? No. Say if my husband were stricken with some kind of disease and he had to live in a warm climate, would I move? Yeah, we would move. That would be a necessary thing. If I have the choice and that's not the situation, I don't see why I would move. I've got everything I need right here. This is what I want. This is where I was raised. I don't know. This is the perfect place to live. If you can come up with something good to offer me, we can give it a shot."

After my talk I took questions and comments. One of those in attendance was Dave J. Kunde, a Vietnam vet and career Seabee, a photographer, poet, and story-teller. He had talked beforehand with twenty-five or thirty of the school bus drivers in Alexandria about what "local" means to them, and he boiled down their responses to this:


It's the romantic beauty of the past
It's the challenge of the present
It's the excitement of the fulfillment of the dream of the future

And the dream must include romanticism
The dream must challenge
for the excitement and fulfillment will follow

And the local will continue

- The School Bus Drivers of Alexandria, Minnesota
Collected by David J. Kunde

Rachel Barduson, Director of the Douglas County Historical Society, and Sue McGrath of the Community Education program, both attended my talk and suggested that I make a similar presentation the next time I'm in Alexandria, and that I appear on the local radio station ahead of my presentation in order to better publicize it. We agreed to stay in touch and work on making that happen during my next visit.

A comment was made: the way I write of the things I observe makes the reader or listener want to stop and observe the world more closely; "to slow down and smell the flowers" is the way it was put.

That has set me thinking, again, about what I do. My intent is never to make ugly things pretty; rather, I want to see clearly. And seeing clearly involves action - the act of observation. It's not that the world is particularly special when I'm around; rather there are times that I actively focus on what is around me, on all the particulars and the specifics of it; and then I consider what it all means, its place in the larger scheme of things, be it the natural processes it is part of, its human and spiritual ramifications, the way it is part of a greater whole.

Even a sparrow's "tweet" as it pecks at gravel in an alleyway in downtown Alexandria just after sunrise on the first day of spring might have larger implications. What are they? What exactly is the sparrow doing when getting grit for its craw, and how is that like what we have to do in the daily turn of our lives, for instance.

Everything is connected to everything. The good local writer will make the specifics of his daily existence resonate for readers who are far away and who haven't had his experiences exactly; will suggest in what way and why this connects to other lives; will approach his materials about specific people so as to end up writing also about Every Man, Any Woman. In other words, it is not enough just to see clearly, one must also understand what it means, and convey that as well, not necessarily in bald statement, mind you, for the mere hint and suggestion of it is sometimes enough. The jewels of dew in the morning grass mean little unless you find the universe reflected in one of them. The beauty is: there might be a whole different universe on a different blade of grass. You won't know until you look.



For some
The challenge

Is to play it

Every time.
For some,

To play it
The same.

I am of
The latter.


MARCH 31, 1998

During the afternoon and evening yesterday the skies opened up. A heavy deluge! The streets ran deep with water in places, debris washed along them. It is still wet and wild and windy this morning. We wonder, briefly, why we've chosen to love this place, then think perhaps this place has chosen us.

It is still spitting rain today and the grass turns greener even I watch it. Tulips and windflowers are up and feisty in the breeze. There are worms out on the driveway, in the streets.

In downtown Fairwater, gravel has piled up where it was washing across the road. Out in the country north of town, pools of water stand in fields and ditches.

The season has changed. The field of winter rye has become a thick green carpet. The ditches are greening up too. I should not have to speak again of things turning green. There are a great number of small birds around these days, too, on lawns and powerlines and flying above the road.

You could say it is a raw, ugly morning, but consider the alternative.

How would my life be different if I had awakened today living somewhere else. How would it be if I had awakened here as someone else. Who you are determines pretty much what you can see. I am definitely my father's son. What if instead I were driving to a dead-end job flipping burgers. Would I love this raw day as much?

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

MARCH 20, 2004

This morning I headed west towards Moorhead and Fargo for my interview with poet and teacher Mark Vinz, and lunch afterwards. Mark was born in Rugby, North Dakota, and his poetry remains informed by sense of place.

I had hoped that I left myself time enough to get some breakfast along the way. And I did stop at a restaurant in downtown Fergus Falls. Always eat at the place that looks busy, I say, and that's what I did. There were more than twenty booths and tables in the place and all of them were full. I had to take a seat at the counter, and I must have picked the section favored by those who have been a little dinged and nicked by life. Yet if I thought the fellow on my left was a little strange, and the fellow on my right a little strange, I had to admit the fellow sitting on my stool was strange too.

The high school girl who waited on me must have thought I was more than a little strange, too, when I ordered, as I usually do, two pancakes, two eggs, two sausage patties. I didn't think I had to look at the menu for something that basic. The waitress's eyes got wide. "I don't think you want to do that," she said. I looked at her with a question mark. "Our pancakes are as big as the plates," she said.

"I'll have one of the pancakes then," I said.

"Okay," she said. "How do you want those eggs?"

She hurried off the the kitchen. The fellow on my right was moving crumbs around on the counter in front of him.

I sipped my coffee and listened to the place. It roared like a church basement during a chicken dinner fund-raiser. Serious noise, sometimes rising a bit in intensity, sometimes falling, but always thick as a river rushing down the mountain. Waitresses were running with platters and plates and drinks, one was making another pot of coffee, another was pouring coffee up and down the line.

The fellow on my left squinted at me through thick glasses under a dirty baseball cap, his face framed by a mop of unruly hair. "How are you today?" he asked me.

"It's cold out there today, not like yesterday," he informed me. "Today I'm going to the big city of Fargo."

When he said "big city of Fargo," I didn't have any sense that he was making fun of Fargo. Yet I wasn't entirley sure that it was his own phrase, it sounded more like something he was repeating. I didn't know what to say, so I simply nodded. Sometimes all you can do is listen intently and pay close attention.

The girl who waited on me was right - the pancake, when she brought it, was as big as a plate. There were two eggs on a small plate, and two sausage patties, each of them bigger around than a can of tobacco. Maybe she should have told me how big the sausages were, too.

It was more grease than I needed but I ate both those sausage patties. The pancake was good. And it takes a real bad cook to ruin fresh eggs over medium.

Caffeine and grease, and a pancake to soak up all the juices. What a fine way to start Saturday. I wiped the grease off my lips, I swigged down the last of my coffee, I paid my tab. Soon enough I, too, was on the road headed west-northwest, towards "the big city of Fargo," ready to talk about poetry and place and such things as I'd just seen.



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Kansas politics used to be a lot of fun," Ivan writes. He mentions people like Sockless Jerry Simpson who told Kansas farmers "to raise more hell and less corn."

"Now they are all the same," Ivan complains, "being paid by the same companies."

"Not like the Republican candidate that the Republican party said 'we know he is a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.'"


MARCH 30, 1998

Having been south over the weekend as far as Chicago, I have seen the full, blazing green of grass and field, flowers, leaves wanting to bud. Here, this morning, the sky wants rain. It is gray, humid, wet.

Already this morning a neighbor is out clearing his yard of winter debris. He is an old man who rises early and he appears ready for spring; he stoops to pick up branches and clots of leaves. Around him the world seems to turn green too.

It's a typical Monday morning, except for that green smudge and, as I head farther north, the rain, falling.

In the grey rain, downtown Ripon looks like an older town than it is, the way the moisture plays the light.

When you have nothing to say, say nothing.

Monday, March 29, 2004


On Saturday morning, Mary and I took our oldest cat to the vet in Ripon for her thirteen-year check-up. "Boops" is doing fine and is not overweight, as Mary had feared.

Afterwards, we stopped to pick up a few groceries. "How 'bout we do a nice steak for supper?" I asked Mary as we went past the meat counter.

"See if you can find something that looks good," Mary said.

None of the steaks looked as good as I would have liked. Mary said "Let's stop at Brandon Meats on the way home then and get some of their sirloin burger instead." Brandon Meats has the best meat in the county, so that was a good choice. Mary has a hamburger about once a year and she thought tonight would be the night.

In the big meat counter at Brandon Meats, the sirloin burger was wrapped four patties to a package. We figured we'd cook all four of them, eat two at supper, and I would have the other two for lunch later in the week.

Yet when we got home, Mary suggested "we invite my mother to have supper with us this evening." Mary's mother lives up the street from us. When her parents retired from teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, they moved to Fairwater so they could be close for just such Saturday suppers. Mary's father died thirteen years ago, a few months after "Boops" came into our lives. Mary's mother has continued to enjoy the occasional supper out with us ever since.

Mary and I went out for our walk on as fine a day as we've had for awhile. As we strode up Washington Street headed for the backroad out into the countryside, we saw our old friend and new neighbor, Craig, out in his yard, raking leaves; and we stopped to talk with him. "We're putting burgers on at 5:00 p.m.," I told Craig. "One of them is for you." Craig thought as how he could have supper with us.

Once we'd returned from our walk, Mary put together a pan of her "South Coast Hominy" - hominy, ripe olives, onions and green peppers she had left over, and a salsa-with-cheese sauce. As meal-time approached, we made a salad; actually Mary made the salad, all I did was cut up a couple Asian pears to go on top of it. Mary made a blue cheese sauce to put on the hamburgers. We opened the jar of corn relish a friend had given us - the best corn relish in the world, as far as I'm concerned; whatever else happens in life, whatever it takes, we will remain friends with that woman - I intend to stay on the list of those who get a jar of her corn relish each year.

Just at 5:00 p.m. I started frying sirloin burgers as Mary went off to pick up mother up and bring her for supper. Craig showed up. We had time for a little conversation in the kitchen as the burgers sizzled towards perfection, time for a little conversation and the start of a beverage of choice - a glass of beer, a martini.

It was a simple meal set on the table. The point of it was not the food, but the moments of companionship and conversation. Breaking bread together is communion, community, the conviviality of friendship. Sharing stories, you would get behind in your eating. Eating, you got behind in your conversation.

Dessert? Dessert was a couple kinds of Girl Scout cookies, what else for such a serendipitous get-together, for this moment of pause in the rush of life, for this place of refuge in a world gone increasingly insane.

Hamburgers and hominy. Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies and such fine dinner companions. Oh, what a meal.


MARCH 19, 2004

I stopped for lunch at Pizza Hut in Alexandria today and had the buffet. The day had turned so lovely that when I left I walked off without my coat. I had to walk back in and get it. It seems as if spring does intend to come to the middle west this year.

I stopped downtown at Vikingland Book Trader and talked with Daniel Robards, the owner, about doing an interview with me. We're set up for Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. He will ask the former owner of the store, Chuck Crane, to come for an interview, too. We'll talk a bit about running a bookstore in a small community. This Book Trader may be the only bookstore in any of my twelve focus communities.

Then I went out to Paul and Carolyn Peterson's house on Lake Carlos. They will be putting me up until I leave on Wednesday. Paul and Carolyn had warned me that they have been packing up to move. They are headed to New Jersey to live near family there, as Paul is becoming increasingly unsteady on his feet. The garage is piled with items for the auction they'll hold in about a week; the house is packed with boxes marked for "Van Store Xmas," "Van Store Mementoes," "M BR Van," and "Sale," and such.

"It looks like a mess," Carolyn apologized. "But it is organized. Really, we're in pretty good shape for getting things packed up."

How sad I am that they are leaving Alexandria. "I'm sad, too," Carolyn said, "but it's for the best. We need to do it."


MARCH 26, 1998

There is warm sun on my face as I walk out to the pick-up. There is a bug looking at me through the windshield, a mosquito, a very large mosquito. Spring is sprung fully from the blue sky above. The snowbanks at the end of our driveway are gone.

A day this beautiful, people will have to speak kindly to one another all day long.

The Grand River runs high and fast like a brush-back pitch that lets you know who owns the plate. A dead rabbit this morning, a dead possum. The blue sky has not been kind to them.

To the northeast, beyond Carter Road, a flock of geese is moving. There is a bank of clouds to the north. Here and there, water stands in ditch and field. A hint of green in the fields, like a vague, restless desire.

Ride the morning like a fast horse. Let it take all of you, today, like whiskey would.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

MARCH 18, 2004, con't

Last fall Floyd Bolin of Alexandria had called me at home to let me know he would be moving to assisted living, that he would be having an auction at his house sometime in spring. Of course, I wrote down the name of the assisted living facility, but I'd be damned if I could find that piece of paper as I prepared for this trip. I remembered the name of the place had a Lutheran sound to it. Alexandria does have a Bethel Manor assisted living facility and Bethany House nursing home. Yet when I stopped at the newspaper, I'd bumped into reporter Jo Coving who had done a feature story on Floyd at the beginning of March, and she said he was still at home.

Perhaps you don't know that Floyd's house is only a block or so north of the newspaper offices. I figured I had to stop and see if Floyd was indeed there.

Indeed he was. A woman with a thick German accent answered the door. I tried to explain who I was. "I don't know nothing about that," she said, "come in. We were just opening Floyd's birthday cards."

You should know that Floyd's house resembles something like a storage building at the Smithsonian, except it would be smaller and more crowded with artifacts. Floyd was sitting at the dining room table where he had a small space cleared for his stacks of birthday cards - one stack had been opened and read, I'm assuming, and the other stack was waiting to be looked at.

"You'll have to pardon us," Floyd said, excusing his misty-eyed condition. "I was just looking at all these cards." Yesterday had been his 95th birthday.

Floyd is a little hard of hearing, remember, so you have to talk loud to him. "Floyd, I'm Tom Montag," I said. "I was here last May and interviewed you."

"Good Lord, man, I'm a 95 years old," Floyd said. "You can't expect me to remember something that happened that long ago."

"I'm the fellow from Wisconsin who's doing the book about the middle west."

"Wisconsin? Eastern Wisconsin. Tom Montag. Ho - yes I remember you. Sit down, sit down."

I sat down and we must have talked for an hour. I said "Floyd, you told me you were moving to assisted living. What are you still doing here?"

"Oh, oh, I have a problem in that regard. I can't seem to leave my friends here," and he swept his hand at some of his rock collection piled up in a corner of the dining room. "I've got 1500 pounds of rocks, and I can't just leave them here."

He said his son was helping him to try and do something with them. "See that piece of Brazilian agate," Floyd said. "I paid $15 for that a long time ago. I don't think I could let go of it for less than $50."

"Has your son tried using a shovel?" I asked.

"Using a shovel?" Floyd said, a little mystified by my suggestion. "Using a shovel for what?"

"To deal with your problem with the rocks," I said.

"Oh, no, no," Floyd said, "we couldn't do that."

Most of what we spoke of we had also talked about last May - except that I didn't remember talking about the days that Floyd joined the migrant wheat harvesters who followed the ripening of the grain all the way into Sasketchewan.

"Floyd," I said, "I'll come back and visit you on Sunday afternoon. I'll bring the tape recorder and we'll talk about the days you followed the wheat harvest."

[When I returned to visit Floyd about 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, there was no answer at the door. I will have to see him again on my next visit to Alexandria.]


MARCH 24, 1998

Ghosts walk this land, the farmsteads and fields, the roads and paths, all the way to Ripon. Look for them, those who heaped up rocks in piles; those who pulled the fences taut; those who built the houses, barns, and cribs; those who put in power lines and telephone poles; those who turned the soil, who chased the cows home for milking; those who walked here, then left; those who stayed; those strangers who settled here, and their children and their grandchildren and greatgrandchildren. Every track crossing every swell of land. The light of every morning sun, every sunset. Every day, to survive another day; to leave a better world.

MARCH 25, 1998
Another fine spring morning. A little cool in the blustery March wind, but this is not winter. Yesterday's sun has melted much of the snow. A drabness grabs the land once again, with only the palest hint of green behind it.

This is where I belong. I can imagine visiting other places but cannot imagine leaving here permanently.

The snowbanks at the end of our driveway will be gone by tomorrow or Friday, despite the grey cast of the morning. The robins are obvious once again. North of Fairwater, a few geese fly in the distance. Sea gulls land nearer the road. Last night I heard a sandhill crane; Mary has already seen some.

The plowed ground looks moist and sticky. A few days of warm wind will dry it out.

What we are is agricultural: planting and tending and reaping has made us human. Or at least that's what I've read. What a novel idea this morning, but one I can believe. These are the fields, these here along my way.

Children ride bicycles to school this morning. One youngster walks with his calves bared to the elements. Obviously, now, it is not only robins and cranes that think spring has arrived.

Saturday, March 27, 2004


by Mike O'Connell

The road is clearly marked Dead End,
A sign that seems to want to send

All manner of Illini through
To see if it is really true.

(The kind of curiosity
That sent Columbus out to sea.)

They reconsider further travel
When macadam turns to gravel.

“Is this as far as you can go?”
They holler out their car window.

I stroke my chin with “Let me see…”
And rehearse my geography.

“There was a time not too far back
A horse could take you up that track

To where you’d get a decent view
Down the mighty Kickapoo.

But those 200 under your hood
Back here won’t do you any good.

Now if you had on higher boots
You could cross this creek on foot

Or chase it down to those dark woods
Where it disappears for good.

I know it always seems a shame
To go back out the way you came

But sometimes that’s the only way—
Hudson settled for a bay.”

At least they learn from coming here
The world’s not flat, if that’s their fear.

The afternoon is getting late;
I point them towards the Interstate

Where there’s a sign in cream and green
That reads “Chicago 219.”


by Mike O'Connell

"It must be nice to have a little farm"
She said, and watched me at my work,
Careful not to muddy up her shoes,
But looking like she wouldn't really mind it.
We talked about some things that seemed to matter:
Life and music, mostly. Violin
Was what she played, or what she played the best.
She asked me did I play an instrument?
"I whistle when I milk the cows," I said.
She looked disappointed, but not much.
She said she could hear music in the fields.
(It must have been the crickets in my swamp.)
I said, "You'll have to stay a little while,"
But as I turned to start another row
She turned, or something turned her, towards the West,
And when I looked up she was riding on
A rainbow I was on the wrong end of.

I shouldn't say I miss her. You don't miss
A stranger that you only met one day
Across a fence the early part of June,
Even a beautiful one. You can't expect
A girl to stand and watch you plow your fields
When there are rainbows to go riding on.
But always I'll remember how she said it -
The hills behind her glistened as she said it:
"It must be nice to have a little farm."

“A Farm and a Rainbow” appeared previously in Rt. 4 Baraboo, reprinted by permission of the poet. “Flatlanders” is part of a yet-to-be-published collection called Man of Parts. In 1993, after a quarter century of working the clay knolls in the shadow of the Baraboo Bluffs in southwestern Wisconsin, O’Connell lost his health and his dairy herd, and he turned to poetry that came to deal with the struggle for survival in a land no less beautiful for its heartbreaks. O’Connell’s books of poems, Rt. 4 Baraboo and My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It, are available from Hugger Mugger Publishing, E10469 Sunset Road, Baraboo WI 53913. O’Connell will be the featured speaker at the Wisconsin Flying Farmers annual meeting in Sparta April 25, 2004.


I'm interested in considering your "poems of place" for publication in The Middlewesterner's "Saturday's Poem" feature; send two or three of your best in the body of an e-mail addressed to . Put "Saturday's Poem" in the subject line. Then be patient. I will get back to you about whether I'll use your work or not. Send along a short biographical note and information about where your books can be purchased and I'll include that when your poem runs. There's no payment involved for having your work appear in "Saturday's Poem," but the feature is seen by some high class readers. About sixteen of them, by our current count.


MARCH 20, 1998

Armored with optimism, we step out to face the new day. It should be like starting with a blank slate, but soon old scores come 'round to be settled, new troubles rear their heads, and soon even the brightest, bluest sky would be the kind of grey sludge we have overhead this morning. You take your weapon out of the holster, do what you have to.

It is supposed to be spring, but that we had in February. Instead we now have another taste of the winter that never really came this year. Not so bad today as yesterday, but not spring either. At least there is nothing to scrape from the windshield. And - somewhere - there are birds talking, likely complaining about the weather like the rest of us.

I think of a friend, this morning, who has finished her schooling but cannot find a job. There is that kind of chill to the day. To the northwest, perhaps a break in the clouds. Perhaps a job opportunity in her field for our friend. The sun tries to break through the overcast. Friends are those who pray for you even before you ask.

There is a sheen of glaze to the snow in the fields, as if a little sun and wind have smoothed the whiteness. The right hand of winter is light sometimes, is heavy other times; is tender, is tough; is sweet, is angry.


Waking in another place, and rising, is not the same as waking and rising at home. So stated, the fact is obvious; but how so, the differences?

This morning I am in Minneapolis, not in Fairwater. I find my orientation to the morning light is different than at home. The light here falls on my face rather than coming from behind. The light here is moderated by blinds, rather than by curtains as at home. The light is a little lower at the same time of morning.

I have been sleeping in a strange bed, of course, and I was also sleeping on the wrong side of the bed; and sleeping on my right side, I was facing into my wife rather than facing away from her as at home.

The sounds of the house as I rise are not the sounds of my house - a different refrigerator, a different cat, a different toilet, different traffic. These are sounds I have cataloged as morning sounds in my world, but they are a half a click from being accurate.

The floor here is carpeted instead of finished wood as in our bedroom at home.

I cannot find coffee this morning, in this house, and so I am drinking hot tea.

As at home, these early morning hours I have made my own are quiet, lit palely, comfortable like a blanket. I am writing at the kitchen table here, not at my work space at home with familiar materials nearby.

How is it the same, the waking? I woke on my own here, as I usually do at home. I woke about 5:30 a.m. today as is often the case in Fairwater. Here and there - the regular sound of my wife's breathing, that steady engine pumping air. In both places, I wake with the desire to write, or to read. This morning, I am making these notes; at home I would be working on journal or book.

Out the window, a very light, very, very light dusting of snow. I wonder if it snowed at home.

Friday, March 26, 2004


Sima Rabinowitz recently reviewed The Big Book of Ben Zen, saying finally that "in fact, by the time I had finished with Ben (or perhaps he had finished with me), I had come to find him not only funny, but sometimes poignant, and even, occasionally, quite poetic."

Among the poems Rabinowtiz quoted approvingly in the course of the review:

I don't have to
Go to Chicago,
Ben says,
To get lost.


Engineers are like poets,
Ben says, only backwards.

Thank you, Sima. Thank you, too,, which is the only outlet to review all three of my most recent books.


MARCH 18, 2004

My sister Nancy is in Alexandria for a few days, attending a conference of Minnesota city clerks. She has quite the little suite at the Arrowwood Resort and had invited me to stay with her during my first couple days in Alexandria this trip. Nancy is the mother of the award-winning poet in the family, Steve Gehrke. Steve's first book, The Resurrection Machine, won the John Ciardi Prize; his second book, just published, The Pyramids of Malpighi, won the Philip Levine Award.

I tell people Steve is "the good poet in the family," I'm just a wanna-be by comparison. When other writers tell me I should be jealous of his success, I can't imagine why. As far as I'm concerned, writing is not a competitive sport. Steve's excellence does not diminish me.

Nancy has a copy of the second book in hand and I'mn reading it - she received it just the day before she left for the conference here. I don't have my own copy yet, but you can bet that I will have one soon.

When I arrived and found Nancy, I got introduced to a roomful of Minnesota city clerks who were working on baskets of goodies for a silent auction fund-raiser. There were more names around the room than I can remember. Nancy and I and three of the women went out to supper together. They had been told the place they usually go to had had a fire; when they tried calling to see whether it had re-opened, the phone rang and rang to no answer. So we went to Bug-a-Boo Bay for some casual Caribbean dining. I had the Caribbean ke-bobs - shrimp, chicken, sausage, green pepper, and onion skwered, based with sweetness, and grilled, $13.95 um-um-good. No complaints from the women on their meals either.

Professional eater that I am, I ordered the Banana Supreme for dessert - a big scoop of ice cream, sliced bananas, slices of banana bread, caramel, and hot fudge. Professional eater that I am, I confess I met my match - even with the help of the women at the table taking their nibbling bites, I couldn't finish the dessert. (For those of you who keep score, I ate every bit of ice cream.)

When we stepped outside to return to Arrowwood for the night, it was snowing. Well, as we say in Wisconsin, "this is Minnesota, what do you expect."

Whatever you expected, there were about two inches of snow on the ground this morning when we got up. That was a little bit of a shock. All of us in these northern parts are dang-tired of winter, and the brief respite we've had has led us to think that winter is over.

Oh, Silly Middlewesterner - winter is not over, for sure, until May 12th, which is about the latest date in recent times that I know of a snow storm blowing through.


This morning I stopped at Traveler's Inn Restaurant on Broadway in Alexandria for an uneventful breakfast. I thought perhaps I'd get to hear some Bush-bashing but those two fellows paid their check and walked away out of earshot before I could hear the fullness of their hostility.


Last night and this morning I read a bit of the Sinclair Lewis books I'd bought. The more local of them, Sinclair Lewis: The Journey, started coming apart in my hands. Though her book is falling apart, the author holds tighly to her argument that Lewis loved Sauk Centre and that he critiqued it as he did in order for it to improve. His loneliness and alienation and aloofness were not confined simply to his relationship with his home-town; rather it followed him throughout his life. Happiness was not an easy commodity for Lewis to come by.

By contrast, though I'm moody and though I'm essentially sad as the universe is sad at its own undoing, I unburden myself now and again with boouts of happiness. There are times I must sing the world's praise.

I guess part of the difference between that Minnesota boy, Sinclair Lewis, and myself, is this: he looked for and underscored what was wrong; I look for and underscore what is good and beautiful. Yeah, there is plenty of ugliness and the world looks pretty ugly if that's all you look for. At the same time, you'll see the world is pretty remarkable if you start to look for the good in it.

So where Lewis found narrow and shallow and rigid people in this land we share, I find many qualities worthy of admiration. This difference between us confirms my notion that you'll pretty much find what you've prepared yourself to find. Partly this is a matter of perception - after while we really do only see what we think is there. But partly, too, I think it is a matter of one's expectations actually shaping the reality of the world. I'm thinking in this regard of the woman in the Am-trak dining car who told me to "watch out, the lasagna is dry, the steak is tough." And so she goes through her life expecting bad food and she gets bad food. I don't have such expectations and I don't get bad food.

This, in part, may explain the difference between the middle west that Sinclair Lewis saw, and that which I see.

Yet we're told that Lewis criticized us out of a love for us - for Sauk Centre, for Minnesota, the middle west, America. He wanted us to be the best that we could be.

If his Gopher Prairie was narrow and restricted and dull, so was every other place he settled into. He wasn't happy in Sauk Centre, he wasn't happy any place else. Makes me thinkthe flaw was within Lewis, not in the community he attacked in Main Street.

It is interesting that, at the end, Lewis wanted his ashes buried in Sauk Centre. It is interesting that his gravestone says only: "Sinclair Lewis, 1885-1951, Author of "Main Street."



Marge Van Gorp researches family history for the Douglas County Historical Society in Alexandria, Minnesota. When I was there doing research during a January cold spell, Marge was as helpful as could be: she kept putting interesting files about area residents right under my nose where I couldn't miss them. Of course, I also snooped through other folders and, in one about Marge herself, I found this statement she'd made about living in the Azores: "Sometimes that island was pretty small, but other times it was just the right size."

Marge had been a military wife then, when her husband was stationed in the Azores. What did she mean by her statement, I wondered.

"Sometimes I'd look out at the ocean towards home and wonder how long it would take to get back there," she told me. "Minnesota seemed so far away, the island seemed so small. At other times, when my friends on the island were near, it didn't seem so lonely, it was just the right size."

They were still living on the Azores when Marge's husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. "He was almost ready to retire," Marge remembered. "He became sick and they sent him to a hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany, where they determined his lung cancer was inoperable."

"He knew, as I did, that his disease was terminal," Marge continued, "and he kept saying 'Where do you want to live?' I said 'There’s only one place that I could live, and that’s Alexandria.' I knew that I was going to need a lot of friends, and I had them right here. Many of the friends I had in high school were still my closest friends then, and they are to this day."

Marge spoke of her family history. In exchange for three years of work on the railroad and forty acres of land, she said, immigrants would have their passage to America paid for them. So Marge's grandfather had come to Minnesota in the 1880s while grandmother and Marge's father stayed back in Sweden. After an exhausting day cleaning up a railway accident, her grandfather and several other men had gone to sleep in a railcar. Another train ran out of control and plowed right into the sleeping men. Twelve were killed, Marge's grandfather and an uncle among them. "It was Christmas Eve when the news reached Sweden," Marge said. "My grandmother and father were just sitting down to dinner after coming home from church when the cablegram arrived. This was Christmas Eve of 1892." It was a sad Christmas. The following spring the new widow and her son moved to Minnesota. Marge's father was twelve years old when he made that trip.

"My father and my grandmother built the house on grandfather's land in 1894," Marge said, "They farmed the same farm where I was born."

Marge remembered threshing time when she was young. "A neighbor of ours had the steam engine and brought their own crew in," she said. "The night before the threshing was to begin, they’d bring in all this big machinery and the cook shack and set up camp. Often the crews brought their guitars along and would sit outside, make a fire, and sing."

"In later years," she added, "we didn’t have that big crew. Then it was neighbor helping neighbor. The woman of the household would have to do the cooking, instead of having a cook shack or cook car brought in. We had a huge kitchen in our home with a long dining room table that would seat about 20 people when all the leaves were in. We girls had to help from the time we were real small, with the cooking, peeling potatoes, setting the table and all that. My mother always baked bread but when the threshers came, she would go to the store and buy some bread because she didn’t have time to bake it all."

"I was 12 years old the first time that somebody came over and said they needed to have somebody help them during threshing time because they had small children," Marge said. "That's when I started going out to work for farmers during the threshing time. I think probably I got $2 a week and my board and room. Sometimes I’d have 4 or 5 children to take care of, as well as helping with the chores."

"I did that every summer," she said, "from the time I was twelve and all the while I was in high school."


MARCH 18, 1998

The sun comes up. The sun goes down. We go to work. We come home. Spring follows winter. Summer, then fall. We sow our seed, we reap our rewards. Life and the universe are predictable, aren't they? Well, at least in broad outlines.

This morning, freezing rain is falling. The certainties of life are set aside. It is with care I step outside, with care I try my footing on the driveway. "It's quite a mess out there," they've said.

It is a little slippery in the drive. It is an ugly day everywhere. The sky is definitely unhappy. Water is running in the street. The sheen on the asphalt is slippery only occasionally. All of us are driving carefully.

The wind wants to blow my pick-up around. Silly geese are flying in sets of three. With the rain, the old barn has turned a lonely kind of gray, like the hair of an old man without family. In places, sleet accumulates along the side of the road. Ice is building on the trees along my way, worse the farther north I drive. A mighty wind is roaring - as if a train still comes through your town. Listen for the wail of the whistle. Listen for the cry. It is an ugly day and I love it. Go figure.

MARCH 19, 1998
Another grey day, the sky spitting sleet or crunchy little snow balls. The street is covered with it. Here and there, the tracks of early morning traffic.

Meditation on place each morning. The physical and the metaphysical. A question mark in each morning sky - where am I and why am I here. Many times we are simply content to record that we have passed this way. Some of us, sometimes, bring ourselves to ask Why me? Why here? Why now? What vortex of forces spins me into this present, in this place, with these people. Does a billion years of evolution come to this?

If he thinks too much about such things, even an atheist may turn to God.

Most of the geese are hunkered down among broken corn stalks. A few fly, in pairs today. The fields look as if they have been dusted with flour for baking.

The wind has the electrical wires swinging fiercely; between the poles, they look like snakes or like waves coming in off an angry ocean. I have never before seen the wires move so violently. They could easily break and whip onto the road. Even a single tree in the vicinity calms them.

In Ripon, an old woman walks across the street to church. Each step of the way, she sets her cane down so very carefully.

Thursday, March 25, 2004


Oh, another lovely Vagabond journey. I completed ten interviews with residents of Alexandria, including the mayor. I made two presentations, one for the Community Education program on "The Idea of the Local," one for a fellowship group at the United Methodist Church about my Vagabond project; both were extremely well-received. After the second presentation one of the women told me: "When you paused to collect your thoughts, I was holding my breath just waiting to hear what you'd say next." It was a sad moment as I said good-bye to my dear hosts in Alexandria, Paul and Carolyn Peterson, who have sold their house and are moving to New Jersey to be closer to a son and daughter. Paul is not getting around as well as he used to. Over the next few days I will report on some of my experiences in Alexandria.


MARCH 17, 2004

How many times have I driven past without stopping in Sauk Centre, the Gopher Prairie of Sinclair Lewis's Main Street? Perhaps a dozen times.

If he says he's writing a book about the middle west, a fellow ought to stop, at least to go to the bathroom in Sinclair Lewis's hometown. The Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center is also home of the Sauk Centre Chamber of Commerce - some little irony there, some little irony in the fact that those Lewis bitterly attacked have embraced him and hold him as one of their own. I have to say the display put up in the Interpretive Center is not the least bit defensive.

Across a back street from the Interpretive Center stands the Gopher Prairie Motel. If there is commercial gain to be got from Main Street's harshest critic, let's get a little of it, the owners must have said.

I've already read Mark Schorer's biography of Sinclair Lewis. The Intepretive Center had another by Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street. I bought it, $35/hardcover, ouch. There was also a paperback called Sinclair Lewis: The Journey by Roberta J. Olson, who has served as president of the Sinclair Lewis Foundation's board of directors and who describes herself as a Lewis "fanatic."

Lewis was a loner and an outsider growing up in Sauk Centre. He didn't fit. He wasn't comfortable. It was easy to pick on him and make fun of him.

The pain he took away with him when he left Sauk Centre came back as a vicious assessment of small-town America in his first great novel, Main Street. Everything he'd written previous to that was pretty much doodling.

I felt like something of a loner and outsider when I was growing up, too; I didn't fit, I wasn't comfortable. I was less easy to pick on than Lewis was, perhaps, because I might kick you hard enough to break your shin bone. Yet I didn't come back at my home-town with a vicious attack. Why not?

Ah, wouldn't the exploration of that question be a little essay in itself?


MARCH 16, 1998

Where you are molds your expectations. Middlewesterners as a rule expect that if they put seed in the ground in spring and tend it during the summer, they will have a crop to bring in come fall. We don't expect to rush the process and we recognize there are a host of factors - drought and hail, for instance - which could destroy the crop. This pattern of work and reward shapes our outlook on life. There are no free lunches. There is no shortening the process.

MARCH 17, 1998
Do we welcome strangers? No, as a rule, we do not. Generally we want this land held for us - whoever we may be - rather than handed over to them. When Mary and I first moved to Fairwater, we were "Them." The house we bought was "the Hankerson house" and remained so for many years. People would say "Oh, you live in the Hankerson house" as if nothing had changed. We have our short-hands, our habits, and now - twenty two years on this land - I am guilty too. "Who are those strangers," I might say, "and what are they doing here?"

The air as I step outside this morning is like a soft, warm cloth. Still, there is a mild frost on the windshield. A light haze above. A mourning dove perched on the peak of the roof of the reddest house in Fairwater. There is nothing so disappointed as the green flower stalks poking through snow on the east side of the house.

Old wood, we know, has been loved by the sun, loved and left. We see it in the barn at the grove where lives the hawk - the sadness of the wood. The field of rye, so green last month, is white with frost this morning.

The state of the nation: When you are mixed up in a can of worms it is not enough to say they don't taste so bad.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004


I will be gone to Alexandria, Minnesota, from March 17 through March 23, and won't be posting during that time. In my absence, see your assignment below; you can work at it while I'm away.


While I'm away, visitors will play.

Gary Gilmore's last words before he was executed in Utah? "Let's do it." Some fellow electrocuted in Florida said: "I think I'd rather be fishing." These got me to thinking about last words, then I got to making up my own "famous last words" for various circumstances.

These, for instance, might also have been the last thing said before execution:

"Why'd I ask for fast food?"

"Anybody want me to take a message?"

Other "last words" might occur in other circumstances. For instance, the guy who died saying "Was that your cycle I knocked over out front?" had probably just walked into a bar and was probably talking to an unhappy biker.

The fellow who died saying "I know the language" probably didn't.

Some of the other "Famous Last Words" I've concocted:

"They never attack at night."

"It's safe to eat when it's cooked."

"Maybe they'll listen to reason."

"I think we've got plenty of room."

"Disconnect that red wire first."

"That's just an old superstition."

"Act like you own the place."

"Anybody else care to try me?"

"You're imagining things."

"It's only a flesh wound."

"Nice doggie."

"What train?"

If you care to try it, leave your own "Famous Last Word" entries in the comment box. At some point after I return from my visit to Alexandria, MN, I'll compile the whole bunch of them into a single list (with proper attribution, of course).

Tuesday, March 16, 2004


Tomorrow I leave for a week in Alexandria, Minnesota. I return on Wednesday, March 24th. Alexandria is 399 miles or 6 hours and 51 minutes from Fairwater. I've been there twice before, once in the very bitter cold of January, 2003; then again in May last year.

Alexandria is like L'Anse, Michigan, in that its economy is bolstered by tourism. Unlike L'Anse, it stands just off an interstate highway (I-94); the interstate highway these days is to the middlewestern community what the railroad used to be: a life-line that helps ensure survival. Of course, you've got to get the folks passing by on the interstate to stop and spend some money in the community, and Alexandria is moderately successful at that.

While I am in Alexandria, I will revisit my friend Floyd Bolin. Floyd is in his nineties, and has moved into a nursing home since we talked last May. He is quite an inventive fellow and built and operated the first dairy in Alexandria to offer pasteurized milk that was palatable; that was his business for most of his life.

People had told me that Floyd was going deaf, that when I talked to him on the phone or left him a message on his answering machine, I'd have to shout.

I knew I'd like Floyd right away from the first moment I met him. I was scheduled to interview him at his house at 4:00 p.m. As is usually the case with me, I arrived a few minutes early. I knocked on the outer door of the porch - no answer. I stepped into the porch and knocked on the door frame of the inner door. The door into the house was open. No answer. I stepped into the house a few steps and through the doorway into the living room I could see Floyd napping in his recliner, eyes closed. The chair was tipped all the way back, Floyd had a blanket spread across his legs, he was holding an alarm clock on his lap.

"Floyd," I shouted, "may I come in?"

"Oh, oh," Floyd said, coming awake. He picked up his alarm and looked at it. He looked at me.

"My alarm hasn't gone off," he said, "you'll have to come back in a few minutes." Then he laughed that laugh of his.

I spent an hour with him that afternoon, interviewing, and found out that an hour wasn't near enough time. I spent another two hours with him a few days later.

When I visit Floyd this trip, it won't be to interview him; rather, a friend will be visiting a friend. That's one of the surprises and one of the joys of this Vagabond expedition: what starts out as research looks an awful lot like friendship before it's done. It happens again and again.



Why does a place tug at us? The comfort it provides, spiritual and physical. It can be home for us, where we choose to live and grow. Its rhythms fit us. We have family and friends there - we cannot leave them. It becomes our image of the blessed world. We cannot leave because we are chained to it. What the land is fits what we wish to be.

We are shaped by a place, some place that chooses us. It becomes for us the image of what the world is and how it should be.

Our sense of place is shaped by our sense of who we are. Our sense of who we are is shaped by our sense of place.

The bias of those of us who live in the north: that what we endure in the place makes us stronger. The bias of those who live in the south: the world is languorous fruit.

What pushes us makes us great. The bitterness of winter is a spiritual pill we swallow here in the north. The swarmy, humid tropical nights are another kind of medicine.

We cannot see a place as it is. It changes with our coming to view it. We bend the grass. Our feet pound a path. The sound of us echoes and echoes and echoes. Animals flee, the birds go quiet. There are human footprints, still, on the moon. The tracks of the wagon trains that headed west well more than a century ago can still be seen today.

Topic for future discussion: What kinds of relationships can we have with a place and what is the nature of each of those relationships?



(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

You might be pleased to hear that Ivan has given up turnips for Lent.

"I was in the soup aisle at an area grocery store," Ivan also says. "I was looking for a can of soup. I saw a can of bean soup and a can of hearty bean soup. I saw a clerk heading my way so I said, 'what's the difference between bean soup and hearty bean soup?' She said, as she went past without breaking stride, 'hearty is more farty.'"

"Last Wednesday, I kinda got my feelings hurt," Ivan writes. "I was in the Second Cup cafe with Jim Fetters, John Windscheffell, Dick Stroup, Raymond Osborn, Casey Edell, and Dr. Bill Grimes. In the course of the conversation I got the impression that they thought I was lying. And it hurt. But later that day I was in a contemplating mood and I contemplated that they weren't calling me a liar, they were just saying I didn't know what I was talking about."

"You remember the story about Colleen Maydew's wheel falling off her car," Ivan says. "The hub cap off that wheel is now on display at Murphy Auto Repair and Service. It is now hanging in a prominent place on the hub cap Wall of Fame in Murphy's."



My thanks goes out to the following for her recent contribution to the Vagabond Expedition:
#87 Elaine Cavanaugh, Wisconsin

Monday, March 15, 2004

I dust off this old essay as my contribution to Ecotone's "Spiders and Place" topic this week.

How a spider finds its way into our bathtub, I confess I don't know. The occurrence is common enough, in our house at least, that I have to think these creatures are particularly adept at getting themselves into such situations. They are not, I'm finding, particularly talented when it comes to getting themselves out, however.

Even as I write this, a spider struggles against the porcelain world in which it finds itself imprisoned. It came sometime during the night, was there when I rose this morning, two and a half hours ago. Its day, thus far, has been entirely devoted to scaling the sheet white cliffs that surround it - or, rather, attempting to scale them.

Our tub is of an ordinary variety, twenty-eight inches broad, fifty-eight inches long, and - most telling - thirteen perpendicular inches deep. To me it would appear to be not an especially attractive tableau upon which to play out one's little drama - no food, no water (at the moment), and no hiding place but the drain, no obvious footholds - but I am not the spider and my choice of landscapes might seem likewise as peculiar to him.

So one of the eight-legged wonders of the world has wandered into our tub again and, resourceful as this one is, there it remains. Eight legs, he's discovering, are not legs enough to pull him out of this little mess he's gotten himself into. He knows now, I believe, that there is no easy escape, for he has circled the tub entirely, testing its boundaries, facing steep walls everywhere.

When I first saw him this morning, he was madly flailing his legs, on the theory perhaps that simple hard work would be sufficient to free himself. Hard work, he quickly discovered as he made no progress whatever, was not the answer, as is generally the case in these Sisyphean dilemmas.

If not hard work, then cunning perhaps? While I watched from my distance, the spider appeared to massage two of its front legs with its mouth and feelers, coating them - I assume - with some of its homemade rosin. First he carefully prepared the front-most leg on his right side, then the second leg from the front on his left, testing each as he finished. He employed the two legs he had gummed as anchors, fixing them to the wall of the tub and holding them in place while scrambling about with the other six. He made half an inch progress, as far as he could move with those two legs set; and then his anchors failed him and he slid backwards to the bottom of the tub. And there he sat.

A few minutes later, he moved about six inches toward the front of the tub and proceeded to apply his rosin to two of his hind legs - the hindmost leg on his left side, the second from the rear on the right. Again he rested, and then again he moved himself forward and upward, using the rosined legs not so much as anchors but as the main driving units of his climbing machine. His other legs seemed to move more lightly and quickly, while the rosined ones were brought deliberately forward, alternately, with each bit of progress, and were used for upward thrust. Of course the attempt was only as successful as the previous, and soon he was back the half inch to the beginning.

The next time I checked his progress, he had moved almost the length of the bathtub, crossing above the drain and resting to the right of it, in the corner. His position afforded me an especially good view of him as I set my elbows on the side of the tub and bent to observe him more closely. This, it began to appear, was to be his most ambitious assault yet, for as I peered from above I saw him place each of the front four legs into his mouth (or so it seemed), one at a time, working them in and out, painstakingly slowly in and out, massaging each with his feelers, testing each and applying more rosin when the results seemed unsatisfactory; then he started work on the four hind legs. From my position, I was unable to tell whether these went into his mouth or not, but I noted his mouth was moving energetically all the while, in a kind of sucking motion. Soon he had the hind legs readied.

Very slowly, almost resolutely, he headed upward again, one leg set carefully, then another, until he had gained nearly an inch and a half. The attempt ended in mid-step, when all the legs lost hold at once and he slipped again to the bottom. He sat perfectly still then, and if I were one to attribute human characteristics to eight-legged creatures, I'd venture to say he was disgusted by the futility of it all. I left him to his fate, poured myself another cup of coffee, and listened a while to some Beethoven on the radio.

Since I started writing these few pages, I've checked on the spider's progress every ten minutes or so, to see whether, wunderbar, he has succeeded in extricating himself from his rather hopeless circumstances. Often, as I enter the bathroom, he simply appears to be resting - sometimes in one corner, sometimes in another, or anywhere along either side. He had, I'm convinced, tested every conceivable route of escape. Once, as I entered, I saw that he'd made a snatch of progress by anchoring one hind leg to a piece of grit attached to the side of the tub. Yet even as I stood observing him, that tenuous foothold gave way and he slid backwards. Another time he was running somewhat sideways along the wall of the tub, as if to use centrifugal force to hold him against the porcelain. This attempt, too, was futile.

I do feel a bit foolish every time I descend the flight of stairs from my office to check on his efforts. And, too, I do feel somewhat foolish expending the energy and hours (for I am a slow writer) needed to record this insignificant little tragedy - an inconsequential struggle that matters little to the rest of the cosmos.

I am not one to believe very deeply that spiders and such are inhabited by the souls of our ancestors, nor that I too shall be a spider or cat or cow someday. I am not particularly fond of eight-legged creatures, and have no more empathy for the animal world than most of the rest of men. Yes, I am a meat-eater, a custom I have inherited and one I have thus far found enjoyable. Yet the whole morning I have noticed myself wondering if this is a metaphor for our existence in the universe. Is life a continual struggle to roll the stone to the top of the mountain, only to see it roll back to the bottom, again and again? Some days it surely seems that such is the extent of human existence. Then again some days life seems to hold much more than that.

On my most recent trip down the stairs to observe the spider, I found him motionless, his legs splayed around him. I watched for seven minutes and he didn't move at all. Without apparent reason, then, he moved a few steps forward suddenly, stopped; turned one hundred eighty degrees and moved a few steps, stopped; turned ninety degrees and moved a few steps more. He stood motionless for an instant, then went round in a circle, then another. He was motionless again for a minute or so, before he started applying the rosin to one foreleg, then another. By this time I'd watched his struggle for five hours and here he was, back to the beginning, putting rosin on exactly the same forelegs as when I first observed him.

What sensations had he felt, I wondered, while he sat motionless those seven minutes. What befuddlement caused him then to move first in one direction, then another, then still a third, and finally to walk in circles? What silver thread of instinct told him to start preparing his legs with rosin again, for another assault on the white cliffs that surrounded him? I confess I don't know. I had been content to observe his fate. It was apparent now that he didn't recognize the futility of his efforts. A spider in the bath tub is condemned to one of two, or possibly three, destinies: if he remained entirely undisturbed, he could scramble and scramble until he had no strength left, until he starved to death; or, should one of us in the house want to take a shower, he would end mashed against the porcelain or washed down the drain; or if he were adventuresome to a high degree, he might try his luck in the drain, make his way through the standing water in the curve of pipe, find his way to the sewer and, through a manhole cover, to daylight and freedom. Those were, it seemed to me, his possible fates.

For myself, I know I'd be immensely unhappy to think there is no possible rescue from my own stupidities. How a spider finds its way into our bath tub, I don't know; nor am I always cognizant of the routes I'm taking into silly predicaments of my own. I, too, have walked in circles, frustrated.

As the spider was applying rosin to the second leg, readying himself for yet another attempt, I took a piece of cardboard, got him onto it, carried him to the garage and left him there to fend for himself among the flies and wasps. This action was not - and was not meant to be - consequential; it was simply a personal affirmation of some sort, one made against my intellectual desire to observe the spider's natural fate, an affirmation, perhaps, that there is more to living than the mere avoidance of death. Something. It was a gesture I felt the need to make, the way one raises his fist against a threatening sky.

Sunday, March 14, 2004


See Dave's Via Negativa essay of March 11, 2004, "In the Evening News."



Okay, I'm convinced. Blogging has the potential to alter fundamentally the way we see the world.

Yes, the blog is an "on-line journal." Yes, sometimes it might seem like too much navel-gazing. Yes, it creates a sense of community among those souls who connect.

It also allows us to communicate in ways that simply haven't been possible in the past. If you read the letters that a pioneer to Wisconsin in the 1850s sent back to his sweetheart in Vermont, you recognize that a full exchange of letters required about a month, even if you wrote out a response right at the post office and got it in the mail at once.

How long would it take a conventional magazine to put together a series entitled "The Archeology of Childhood: Injury," how long to put it together and to publish it, from conception to printed page? Go over to commonbeauty and see what is being done there: the project was conceived this past week, the "letters" started appearing the next day, we are in Day 5 of the seven days the experiment will take, and the writing is fully as good as or better than that in most of the magazines I read. What is remarkable is not only how quickly the series was created, but the interplay between the pieces, the conversation among writers that is taking place, something that would be more difficult to do in conventional publishing. Go also to my "Recommended Post of the Week" and see that we can get a report on the migration of the tundra swans the very moment they pass overhead, we get a report on their appearance and, more, what their appearance means to the human heart.

Do I sound like a farm boy on his first elevator ride to the top of the Sears Tower? So be it.

For twenty-four years I worked for a printer. In the last years of my service to the company we spent time in managers' meetings discussing "what impact the Internet will have on printing." We didn't see the blogging phenomenon, and we didn't see its possibilities. We didn't see that a really good idea for a series of essays, for that is what the "letters" at commonbeauty are, little essays around a theme, could be conceived and executed in a single week this way. Magazines simply can't execute with that speed and impact. The only thing the magazines have over blogging, I think, is a bunch of really good editors. Oh, and perhaps a wider circulation.

What does this all mean? I guess it means I'm standing here with my mouth open, amazed, trying to figure out what it all means.

Which, admittedly, is not an uncommon pose for me.



by Mari Sandoz
University of Nebraska Press (1970)

It is always a joy to find a book you didn't know about by an author you love. Such was the case when I pulled Sandhill Sundays and Other Recollections off the shelf in a used book store in Alexandria, MN, last spring. More Mari Sandoz, only $8, hardcover.

I have admired Mari Sandoz so much, but hadn't ever enumerated for myself what I appreciate about her work. Now Sandhill Sundays is an opportunity for me to think such thoughts. What do I admire?

Mari Sandoz can tell a story. It might be a big one, such as her father's, told in Old Jules. It might be the smaller stories in Sandhill Sundays, true stories of real lives. Sandoz has not tried to disguise life as fiction, as so many writers want to. Do they do this out of fear that real life isn't as interesting as imagination? I ap-preciate that Sandoz makes real blood pulse and sing.

What does Sandoz do that the rest of us can learn from? She allows the facts of those Sandhill lives to take the shape of story. In her telling, something changes; it is not a static picture she draws. With but a few bold strokes, she can re-create the people she knew. We can see them in front of us, we can tell how the lack of rain in those hills has strained them. She has a good ear recalling their conversations; we are in the corner with her, eavesdropping. She lays in the judicious details of setting and situation and we always know where we are. She is selective about what she includes, still it's hard to detect what might be left out.

Of course Sandoz was writing history: very consciously in some cases; not so consciously in others. With Cheyenne Autumn, she clearly set out to do history, didn't she? By contrast, the recollections in Sandhill Sundays come out of that cusp between personal experience and historical event; and I like that Mari Sandoz helps me to recognize again and again: writers have a place in that strange margin. Every day we get up; history unfolds around us: someone ought to be paying attention to the small details of it.

I like that Sandoz locates herself somewhere between the grassy rootedness the native feels and the surface shine the tourist takes away. She was born to the Sandhills, she belongs to them; yet she was able to step back and lay out what she saw – the beauty of it, and the warts. That's a challenge - to belong, so that you know the place, yet to let go so you can write of it. I face that challenge every day and Sandoz shows me how to handle it.

I like to say: I want to write so that a thousand years from now any visitor from another planet can read me and know who we were. That's how Mari Sandoz wrote.

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