E Pluribus Bellum

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That’s not a typo. I know the national motto is E Pluribus Unum — “Out of Many, One.”  It just seems to me that the body politic is more splintered than ever, more entrenched in political viewpoints they will defend at all costs, more ready to demonize all who disagree with them. What I see coming is, “out of many, war.”

Take football, for example. Until recently, the only real bad blood was between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, or New England and … just about everybody. But since Colin Kaepernick began “taking a knee” during the National Anthem to make a political statement, and some other players followed suit, everybody has been fighting about it. Even the President of the United States has weighed in.  My Facebook feed was awash in bellicose rhetoric from all sides for days. Rarely have I seen so many be so angry over the actions of so few. My own opinions on the matter will probably please no one, but I hope you’ll consider them anyway.  In no particular order of significance, here are my first, last, and only comments on the controversy:

  1. It’s a distraction. Healthcare. Taxes. Trade policy. Natural Disasters. North Korea tells the U.N. that a missile strike against the U.S. mainland is “inevitable.”   With everything the nation is confronting, I’m surprised the President had the time to weigh in on the pre-game behavior of a relative handful of pro football players. Was there nothing more important demanding his attention, and the attention of the American people?
  2. What dog whistles sound like. Some people insist that Mr. Trump is a racist, and cite his call for the firing of the (mostly black) protesters by the (none black) team owners as proof of same. I’m undecided on this. I can’t claim to know anyone’s heart, even my own. But at the very least, the President has a colossal case of tone deafness. To travel to Alabama and tell a nearly all-white crowd “When people like yourselves turn on television and see those people taking the knee…”  People like yourselves. Those people. I’m not saying Mr. Trump meant it like it sounds. But how could he not know how it would sound?  If you can’t see what’s tone deaf about his phraseology, especially in the context in which it was used; if you write off all such concerns as political correctness; we have little hope of understanding each other.
  3. Bet you didn’t know. Colin Kaepernik made a $50,000 charitable contribution to Meals on Wheels. He also gave $100K to the Lower East Side Girls Club, and a like amount to 100 Suits for 100 Men.  He has pledged to give a million dollars of his own money to charity this year. He helped raise $2 million to send food and water to people in need in Somalia. He has actually done  a lot of good in the world. It’s a shame he’s made himself the most despised player in the NFL with a protest that won’t really accomplish anything in the streets. No one seriously believes that a racist cop, a corrupt prosecutor, a bigoted judge, or any other deliberate perpetrator of racial injustice is going to stop what he is doing because somewhere a pro football player is kneeling in silent protest.
  4. Efficacy trumps intent. These protests will not prick the conscience of the nation. Hulking athletes do not present the same optics as Rosa Parks. Players kneeling on the safety of their own turf will not provoke national soul searching as did the March on Selma, where fire hoses and police dogs were turned on ordinary people who put their bodies and lives at risk for freedom and equality.  MLK urged America to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed; he did nothing that could be interpreted as disrespect for that creed or its symbolic representations. Lunch counter sit-ins where ordinary people were attacked for daring to sit next to their fellow citizens didn’t vilify the nation; they convicted the conscience of the nation by letting it see its own ugliness on display.  By contrast, the kneeling on the sidelines is mostly empty symbolism that will offend a lot of fans, who will then be called racist for being offended.  “But it will start a conversation,” you say. It certainly has. I can hear the shouting from here. It’s not the kind of conversation that helps people understand each other, find common ground, or work cooperatively toward solutions.  To most people, the flag symbolizes the heart of America. That’s why enemies abroad burn it. To attempt to engage people on social issues by appearing to disrespect their most beloved national symbols is to provoke a reaction so visceral they will never be able to hear your point.
  5. We’ve been here before. When I was young, there was controversy over some school students not wanting to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I always put my hand over my heart and said it. Not because I thought the country had actually achieved “liberty and justice for all.”  I wasn’t endorsing everything about the status quo, nor was I being blind to injustice.  I was pledging allegiance to an ideal. That ideal, embodied in the flag,  is “the republic for which it stands.”  Likewise, I rise for the National Anthem because I am glad that star-spangled banner yet waves, the noxious racial views of Francis Scott Key notwithstanding.  I know of no political creed better than the Declaration of Independence; no blueprint for government better than our Constitution; no country where I’d be better off living. Acknowledging all of that is not a forfeiture of my right and duty as a citizen to speak up about injustice when I see it. I don’t have to think America is perfect to love America, and pointing out her flaws — or even protesting them — doesn’t diminish my love of country.
  6. I feel your pain. Do the protesters make your blood boil?  I can understand why. If you have friends and family who bled for our country,  or came home in a casket draped with our flag… it galls you to see people who won’t get to their feet for it. My brother served in the Air Force. My father was in the Navy. My uncle was Army, and retired as a colonel in the Pentagon. There was at least one Purple Heart in my extended family.  I have friends who are serving now. Many people view the National Anthem as a salute to those who served.
  7. Perspectives vary. By the same token, some people — even some people with family who served — do not see the Anthem as being about honoring the armed forces or first responders. They see it as the theme song of the political entity called the U.S.A. That song proclaims this the “land of the free.” Protesters feel that descriptor is truer for some groups than for others. They see themselves as calling attention to the discrepancy, not as disrespecting servicemen and women. Not even military veterans all agree on whether taking a knee during the Anthem is offensive or not, as this compilation from ABC News shows: http://tinyurl.com/y8rongqj If there is room for diversity of opinion among those who served, maybe the rest of us should allow room for diversity of opinion on this issue as well.
  8. Silence would have been golden. James 3;5 says, ‘Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles!”  In context, it is talking about the unwholesome power of the tongue. This protest was originally a small matter involving only a few players. According to the Associated Press, exactly nine NFL players (out of 1700 total) took a knee a week ago. After the Trump diatribe, more than 200 knelt. Talk about a manufactured crisis; the President poured gasoline on what had heretofore been a very small fire, blowing it up.
  9. The rich are people too. I’ve seen many comments denouncing the protests that begin by noting how much money football players make. Why?  Being wealthy does not disqualify a person from expressing political opinions. Usually, it’s the political Left that wants to silence the rich.  Now it’s the Right. The First Amendment applies to everyone.
  10. Bring back civics class. Speaking of the First Amendment: it does not exist to protect popular opinions, but unpopular ones. And it doesn’t just protect against the state suppressing someone’s speech; it also protects against the state compelling someone to voice a particular belief.  I have conservative friends who cited the First Amendment to support Christian florist Baronelle Stutzman in her right not to be compelled to express support for a definition of marriage sanctioned by both the state and majority public opinion, but not by scripture. Now some of these same people applaud when the President of the United States calls for the firing of players who don’t make the affirmative statement of patriotism he wants to require.  If you were alarmed when leftists forced Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich to leave the company because he signed a petition in favor of traditional marriage, but you want to see the protesting football players get fired for expressing their political views, I don’t think you’re being consistent. If you called college students “snowflakes’ for being unable to bear the presence of a viewpoint that might offend them, but you can’t bear what these players have to say because it offends you, I think you are not being consistent.
  11. Calling Miss Manners. The President calls American athletes SOB’s, an epithet stronger than the ones he used for the white supremacists in Charlottesville (some of whom, he assured us, were “very good people”).  LeBron James addresses the President of the United States as “U bum” on Twitter.  Can anyone doubt that decorum is dead? I’m not amazed at all the name calling I hear.  I am amazed that some of the name calling is coming from pastors, evangelists, and other Christian leaders. We’ve been entrusted with the Gospel of reconciliation, not the gospel of vituperation. Preachers, if you’re going to tell me to love my enemies, to bless those that curse me, to be meek, slow to speak, slow to anger, to let my speech be always with grace, and all of that — while you are among the loudest people lobbing personal insults at the athletes, the owners, and Roger Goodell— then the best you can preach is “do as I say, not as I do.”  The world needs someone to model Christianity more than it needs someone to talk about it. Don’t let political disagreements goad you into your worst behavior. I include myself in that admonition; I’ve fallen into the trap of getting outraged and taking up my keyboard before I’d had a chance to cool down. Don’t do it. it’s not worth it.  The words we launch into cyberspace will float around for years, even after we’re dead. What do you want to be remembered for saying?
  12. Finally, a bit of perspective: Somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, scores of refugees are drowning.  People are starving in North Korea, and everybody’s losing weight while standing in line for basic commodities in Venezuela. More than a third of the world’s population subsists on less than two dollars per day. Men, women, and children are being trafficked as modern day slaves all over the world. The cleanup from multiple hurricanes continues, and Puerto Rico won’t have power for months. How many people in Florida, Texas, and the Caribbean who had homes a month ago are homeless now?  More than 600,000 Americans will die from cancer this year. If the most upsetting thing to happen to you this week involves a display of patriotism at a football game, you are truly a lucky and blessed human being, with a lot to be happy about.  Let’s try to remember that.

Maybe, just maybe, we can have a little less online bellum and a little more unum. Hey, a man can dream.

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What Do Readers Tell Their Sons?

While reading a blog post by Kathy Eden on the wisdom or lack thereof of “writing what you know,” I came across this statement: I’m highly skeptical of men trying to write women characters. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough men try to tell me what it’s like to be woman that I get a little irritated.  After reading that, I was a little irritated myself.

Full disclosure: I’m in the middle of working on Book Two of the Solid Rock Survivor series, tentatively entitled Passing Through. The lead character is a woman named Roz. So I’m invested in this discussion seven ways from Sunday, not a neutral, unbiased commentator.  Still, I think it’s fair and reasonable to say her comments are wrong-headed.

Notice a couple of things right off the top. She’s not merely skeptical, she’s highly skeptical. And what exactly is she highly skeptical of? Of men trying to write women characters; she speaks of trying, because in her mind, failure is almost inevitable. It’s baked in. Otherwise she’d say she’s skeptical of men writing female characters, not trying to write them. As aggravating as I find that attitude, she is not the first to express it, nor will she be the last. I have seen numerous reader reviews on Amazon confessing that the reviewer will generally not buy a book by a male author if it has a female protagonist.

Why should men be assumed incapable of writing a female viewpoint character?  It’s not like females are some rare, exotic species that we’ve never observed. Most boys are raised with their mother in the home. Many boys grow up with sisters, too. According to the federal Department of Education, 76% of public school teachers are female.  In college, female students became the majority in 1979, and at last count, 57% of college students are women. Yet despite all these opportunities to observe and interact with the opposite sex, men are somehow deemed incapable of writing believably about them.

The second part of Ms. Eden’s statement is most telling. “I don’t know about you,” she says,” but I’ve had enough men try to tell me what it’s like to be a woman…”  First, she assumes that her reader is a fellow woman. Second, she overlooks something obvious: When a man writes a fictional female character, he’s not trying to tell anyone what it’s like to be a woman. He’s trying to tell readers what the particular fictional woman he created is like. There’s a big difference.

How would this look if the genders were reversed? Let a man say, “I’m highly skeptical whenever a woman tries to write a male character.” Faster than you can say misogyny, the Hear Me Roar brigades would be storming the walls in defense of the sisterhood. Biological sex is not a disability. Today, no one gets away with telling a woman that she is unqualified for something just because she has two X chromosomes. And I’m all for it. Our daughters can be doctors and lawyers, astronauts, athletes and astrophysicists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They just can’t write novels with male protagonists. Abiding by this limitation is what let J.K. Rowling make a moderate success of the Harriet Potter series. Oh wait, it was Harry Potter, wasn’t it?

I like to think a man could do just as well writing about a young girl as Ms. Rowling did writing about young Harry.  The way novels are done today, a writer finishes a rough draft and runs it by a critique group, where the majority of members are probably women.  Then he revises the text, and runs the second draft past a group of beta readers. Again, women are likely well represented here. Then he sends it to an editor. Since 78% of the staff of the American publishing industry is female, it’s likely his editor is a woman.  And she will surely tell him if his female characters are unbelievable. And despite all of these checks, there are women who will refuse to read the finished book about a female lead character, simply because a man wrote it. How does the word sexism not apply here?

I have one question for those readers. I’m pretty sure I know what they tell their daughters — that girls can be anything, do anything, if they set their minds to it and work hard enough. My question is what do they tell their sons?

 

 

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T-Minus 2: Comebacks and Controversy

 

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Everybody loves an improbable comeback, a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.  Unless you’ve been living in an alternate universe,  you know that the New England Patriots just won their fifth world championship. And they did it by engineering the biggest comeback in the history of the Superbowl, recovering from what nearly everyone assumed was an insurmountable  25-point deficit. One for the ages, whether or not you like the team.

This Thursday, February 9, will mark the official soft launch of my debut novel. I can’t help but see some similarities with the big game.  True, Eddie (our protagonist)  has little in common with Tom Brady — he’s not a millionaire, a celebrity, strikingly handsome, or married to a supermodel. But he is facing long odds and determined opponents. One antagonist wants to humble him and humiliate him. Still others have a much harsher outcome in mind; they want him dead.  And like the quarterback, Eddie finds himself in a very deep hole that is at least partly of his own making. Failure is not an option. Yes, he’ll make a valiant effort. But will it be enough?

For those of you have already made plans to buy the book, thank you. Here is the link to use on Thursday: http://amzn.to/2k6GVf4  For people still on the fence, I have been providing a list of random reasons to check it out. Past reasons included the fact that it’s not too sweet; it’s apolitical; and the fight scenes are real. Here are today’s reasons why I think you’ll find it an interesting read.

Location, location, location. In a way, this story happens all over the place. Eddie travels a lot, and you’ll see locations from Beaver County PA to Boca Raton, FL, and many places in between. But the opening chapters and the final climax happen in the town of Framingham , MA, a place where I lived for several years.Framingham is an interesting place for several reasons.

It dates back to before the American Revolution. It is the largest town in the state — everyplace with more population is a city, not a town. It is the largest muncipality in America with the direct democracy of a town meeting form of government. Its population is culturally diverse, much like the cast of characters in Fighting Back. But none of these things are the reasons the setting matters to the book.  That’s about an unusual bit of history I dug up while doing my research.

There is a surprising real-life connection between Framingham and two more famous Colonial Era towns. What our protagonist knows of this helps drive his decision making. Once I found out about this history, I couldn’t imagine the story being set anywhere else. if you like settings that are as alive as the characters in the story, I bet you’ll like Fighting Back.

It’s Controversial:  Yoko Ono said,”Controversy is part of the nature of art and creativity.”  I don’t know whether she was right about that.  I know I didn’t set out to court controversy in writing this book. But I seem to have done so anyway. One author, who is also a pastor, called Fighting Back “the most controversial Christian Fiction I have ever read.”  And he liked it. This Thursday, I invite you to find out why.

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Don’t Kick the Bears

Today is T-minus five. The Great Leap Forward is set for Thursday, February 9. That’s the date the e-book should appear alongside the print version of Fighting Back. It’s also the day I hope to see my novel  catapulted to number one in sales rank in the biblical fiction category. I’ll be making an appearance on a nationally syndicated radio show in support of the book that morning. There will also be a blog appearance or two, and a Facebook launch party with an “ask me anything” segment. If you haven’t purchased your copy yet, but are planning to, please do so on February 9. That would really help me out. And if you’re still wondering whether this is a book you would enjoy, here is one more random reason to buy:

The fight scenes are real. I was reading the first few pages of a novel yesterday. A group of people were camping when a grizzly bear attacked. Women and children were in peril. Fortunately, a heroic man raced out of the tress and launched a flying kick at the bear, knocking it off its feet. Wait. What?!?  A large female grizzly can weigh up to 800 pounds. Males can weigh more than twice that amount. Either sex is powerful enough to wrestle moose and elk to the ground. I can’t picture a man kicking one over. The fight continued. Man and bear both got to their feet. The bruin stood on its hind legs and swatted at the man, who made a sweeping motion with his arm and blocked the blow. A grizzly can rip a door off a car. That swipe should have taken the guy’s head off, and he blocked it? I closed the book at that point. It may have been a perfectly wonderful story, but that unrealistic fight scene made me unwilling to read further.

All the fights in my novel happen between people. (No bears were harmed in the making of this book.)  I made sure the fight mechanics were realistic by interviewing a  boxing trainer and a Mixed Martial Arts fight coach. I watched scores of YouTube videos, from UFC matches to street brawls. Sparring partners helped me with choreography by going through the moves at speed to make sure the scenes worked. The result is realistic fighting that still manages not to be too (wait for it) … grisly.

Tomorrow: Location, location, location!

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Because Destiny. Or Clerical Error.

I’ve been planning my book launch for a while now. Tuesday, February 7 would be the big day. There would be a daily countdown on this blog, and multiple events on launch day. Well, the calendar is changing. Due a clerical error my book designer made when uploading files to Amazon, Fighting Back is actually available now. Surprise!

I prefer to think that the unexpected acceleration of the schedule is becasue destiny can’t wait. That just sounds more awesome than clerical error. Whatever the reason, anyone who is in the mood can click right over to Amazon and buy it here:  http://amzn.to/2k6GVf4

I’m still going to post the series of articles that were planned for the countdown. Only now we’ll be counting down tot he release of the e-book versions, which will be up on February 7 (if the schedule holds). Print book or e-book, I know there are some 32 million titles on Amazon, with around 4,500 new ones published every day. With so many books to choose from, you might need a reason to choose mine. I’ll publish a couple of random reasons every day. Without further ado, here are today’s:

It’s Not Too Sweet  Refined sugar is out these days. (Tip of the hat to you if you are old enough to remember when “it’s not too sweet” was a jingle for Canada Dry ginger ale.) Maybe you’ve read stories with characters that are unbelievably sweet. They’re always kind, considerate, and wise. They float through life unruffled by the forces that buffet those with less faith then they have. They’re better Christians than anyone you know.  The believers in Fighting Back are sincere in their convictions, but they can struggle with putting those convictions into practice. Real people aren’t always ideal people. If you’d rather read about the trials and triumphs of imperfect people like the ones you know instead of quasi-angelic heroes, I think you’ll like this book. It’s realistic. A little bit gritty, even. Definitely not too sweet.

It’s Apolitical. You found this post via Facebook or Twitter. And let’s be honest; your social media feeds resemble a battlefield right now. Your Progressive Democrat friends are posting endless fear and loathing of the Trump administration, just like your Conservative Republican friends did throughout the Obama administration. I’ve seen right-wingers posting that they don’t understand how anyone could vote Democrat and call themselves Christian. And I’ve seen left-wingers posting that believers who voted for Trump are obviously not Christ-like. Want a book that considers deep moral issues without demonizing half the country? Check out Fighting Back.  Give yourself a break from politics. Trust me, all the Internet rage will still be here when you get back.

So there you have it! Countdown to e-book launch (currently T-minus 9) continues tomorrow with two more random reasons you might like Fighting Back. Launch day will feature a nationally-syndicated radio interview, a couple of blog appearances, and a Facebook party with some cool giveaways. Stay tuned!

 

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I’m with Anton

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Having been raised on classical music, there are lots of composers whose work I like. But there aren’t many I can relate to. I mean it’s hard to feel much in common with someone like Mozart, a genius who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight and his first opera at twelve; or JS Bach, who, in addition to writing what many consider the greatest single piece of music in the western canon (Mass in B Minor), composed so much that his collected work comprises sixty volumes. These men seemed to operate on a whole different level than ordinary mortals.

But I can relate to Anton Bruckner, a humble Christian composer from Vienna.  Never heard of him? Blame his more illustrious peers for taking all the limelight. The other famous Vienna composers included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler. It’s not easy to stand out in a crowd like that.

Bruckner was a bit of a late bloomer. He wrote nine symphonies in all, all composed between the ages of forty-two and seventy-two.

The man had his share of struggles. At the premier of his Third Symphony, which he conducted at the Vienna Conservatory, the audience was not impressed.  First they laughed. Then they began filing out. When Bruckner finished and turned to take his bows, he was shocked and humiliated to find only an empty room. I like to remind myself of this story whenever I feel like my work isn’t appreciated.

Though I may be a late bloomer releasing my first novel at age 53, and though I have had my share of bitter disappointments (who hasn’t?), and though I’m surrounded by deservedly more famous writers, none of these things are the main reason I feel a kind of kinship with Brother Anton. It’s more about a shared conviction. Bruckner was  a devout man who wrote a choral work called Te Deum (“Thee, God”). He is reported to have said, “When God calls me to Him and asks me: ‘Where is the talent which I have given you?” Then I shall hold out the rolled-up manuscript of my Te Deum and I know that He will be a compassionate judge.”*    That quote really resonates with me, especially considering the searing memory he must have had of his less-than-compassionate audience for the Third Symphony.

Fighting Back is finished. I poured heart and soul into it.  I think it’s good, but I can’t really know what other people will think of it. That’s a little scary. Will I turn around to face enthusiastic applause, or the humiliating echoes of an empty house?  Whatever happens, I am willing to put it in the Lord’s hands, and I know that He will be a compassionate judge.

What about you? Whatever your passion, your business, your ministry, your self-expression: Do you ever put it all out there and wonder if you really should have? Is getting the proverbial cold feet a familiar sensation? How do you get yourself through it?

  • Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding. p 357

 

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Life Imitating Art

Spoiler alert: The following post contains a spoiler for my forthcoming novel Fighting Back.  If you’d rather be surprised by the plot points, skip this one and wait for my next post later this week. If you don’t mind knowing more of what the book is about than the summary on the back cover reveals, then read on.

A few days ago, I picked up a Boston Herald to read during lunch. I read about a police raid in Brighton (a Boston suburb) that saved ten women who appear to have been victims of a human trafficking operation.  The account made my jaw drop. The article is here. http://www.bostonherald.com/news/local_coverage/2016/11/tip_led_cops_to_alleged_human_trafficking_hot_spot

I’ve spent the last three years learning about human trafficking as part of my research for this book, so I knew that suburbs all over America play unwitting hosts to criminal enterprises like this. It’s everywhere, including in a neighborhood near you.So my shocked reaction was not due to any surprise that the hideous crime of sex trafficking was going on in an average borough full of two-family houses.

Rather, it was about  how the location of this particular bust mirrored what is described in the novel. The alleged house of ill repute described in the Herald is just steps away from a busy and active church that has been at that location for decades.  At least three times per week, church members  probably parked near this house and walked in front of it on their way to service, completely unaware of the people being victimized within earshot of their worship. This real-life tragedy reads almost exactly like the fictional one I dreamed up for Fighting Back: :

He took special note of the Framingham location. It was on Union Avenue, just one block from Solid Rock Church. Say it isn’t so. Innocent women might be held in bondage a stone’s throw from where two hundred people met weekly to sing and shout about deliverance and freedom. 

I wrote my fictional account of a brothel located next to a church hoping that the irony of the location would add a little extra emotional impact to the story. Reading about that very thing happening in real life was more unpleasant than I would have imagined. It was made worse still by the fact that I know the church in question, having once attended it myself. Though three decades have passed since I was a member, I know the kind of people who go there. They are, for the most part, loving, caring people, the kind who would give you their last dollar or the shirt off their backs. Who knows how long this great evil coexisted next to so much love and good will? Who knows how such darkness flourished unnoticed by the light?

When I first found God, I wondered if I was supposed to become a missionary and travel to Ethiopia or Pakistan, or some other far-flung place. I now know that my calling, like most people’s, is to the residents of my own neighborhood.  Sometimes the people in most desperate need of help are in a tidy little house or storefront business on your block. Making that point was one of the reasons I wrote Fighting Back. But I still I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional jolt of life imitating art … so close to home.

The vigilant man in the newspaper story took one approach to human trafficking on his street. My novel’s lead character takes quite a different approach. Tell me in the comments: What would you do if you suspected this was going on in your neighborhood?

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