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Pete Seeger, 1919–2014: A Life of “Defiant Optimism”

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

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“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. . . . there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousandfold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of.”Pete Seeger, on Democracy Now

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Let Us Now Praise Him and Thank Him

There is so much to admire about Pete Seeger, who died this week at 94, that one hardly knows where to begin. “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Turn, Turn, Turn,” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”—there are so many great songs he wrote, or refreshed and arranged for popular use, always inviting the audience to sing along, that it is difficult, and not at all cheering, to imagine what a different and poorer world this would have been without Pete Seeger and his music (the two are indistinguishable). Think of all the protests, demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, and celebrations those songs and others have accompanied.

We admire Pete Seeger for his activism, generosity, his indomitable optimism, his ever-open mind, and sheer energy. For many of us, he was an old man (and a very accomplished, legendary one) for so many years that we could be forgiven for asking, upon hearing of his death, Oh, was he still alive?

ToshiSeege-obit-popupHe was indeed, and he performed as recently as 2009 at Barack Obama’s first inaugural celebrations, singing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Bruce Springsteen and his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger at the Lincoln Memorial (see photo below), and at an Occupy Wall Street concert in 2011 when he was a young man of 92. His wife, Toshi-Aline Ohta Seeger, died in 2013, just days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. (The picture at right shows the Seegers in 1992.)

Pete Seeger knew everyone and played with everyone, from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie to Paul Robeson, and Bob Dylan, to Emmylou Harris and David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane. In the 1930s he collected folk songs with Alan Lomax and traveled and sang with Woody Guthrie. He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 50s (including for Eleanor Roosevelt and others at a racially integrated party at a CIO hall in Washington in 1944), and sang for civil rights and antiwar demonstrations in the 1950s and 60s, and for environmental causes from the 1970s to the 2010s. He sang with the Almanac Singers (including Woody Guthrie) in the 1940s and the Weavers in the 50s. In the late 1950s he refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and narrowly avoided being sent to prison for contempt of Congress.

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” —Pete Seeger, testimony to House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) on Aug. 18, 1955

He was picketed by the John Birch Society and other right-wing groups, which boosted ticket sales, and for many years he was blacklisted from performing on TV because in the 1930s he had been a member of the Young Communist League. He did, however, eventually manage to perform his antiwar song “Waist-Deep in the Big Muddy” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968, after it was initially censored by CBS. As the New York Times obituary explains:

As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.

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Dave Van Ronk, the Brooklyn-born folk and blues singer on whom the Coen brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis is (loosely) based, wrote of his admiration for Seeger in the late 1950s:

I think that the man is really great, in almost every sense of the word. . . . Artists of Seeger’s genre are hard to come by in this day and age. He is, in my opinion, taste and honesty personified, and a Seeger concert is a lesson which no singer of folksongs can afford to miss. When he speaks on the stage, his voice rarely rises above a conversational level, and yet he is heard. There is no phony upstaging at all. As a matter of fact, “stage presence” of the Broadway variety is entirely absent. Seeger does not act; he is.

I think that this is the key to his entire greatness. The man has no need to act in order to establish contact with his audience. He genuinely respects the people who are listening to him and refuses to insult their sensibilities with insincere theatrics. . . .

He is not “preserving” folklore but living it, and so are we, and he knows it. He neither sings up nor down to his material but with it. And there is no dichotomy between the performer and the content of his songs. . . . When he sings, all of him is involved. Which is another lesson that many singers of folksongs could profit by.

—from The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (pp. 67–68)

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For more about Pete Seeger’s exemplary life of “defiant optimism” in music and activism, we recommend the following • New York Times obituary, “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94,” and “Pete Seeger, a Folk Revivalist Who Used His Voice to Bring Out a Nation’s” • Democracy Now’s special report • Amy Goodman’s “Pete Seeger: Troubadour of Truth and Justice” • John Nichols’s obituary in The Nation, “Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced It to Surrender” • and this affectionate appreciation by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.

The photograph below shows Seeger performing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” at the “We Are One: Opening Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial,” with grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger (left) and Bruce Springsteen in January 2009 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster). Below that, Pete Seeger, 92, in 2011 joining Occupy Wall Street by marching from a concert at Symphony Space to Columbus Circle (photo by Marcus Yam for The New York Times).

This Land

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Welcoming the New Year 2014

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

NewYear2Warm good wishes to all for a healthy and prosperous new year, inwardly and outwardly. We hope your prayers will be answered, especially your prayers for peace, for a stronger, more civil nation, for understanding and cooperation between persons, parties, and nations. Let the poor be better fed, the naked clothed, the shivering warmed . . . and let the forests and rivers grow thick with fishes and trees, turtles and birds, etc. Let humankind become a better steward of the planet that has been given to us to inhabit (but not to waste), more worthy and more considerate of the natural abundance around us.

We wish and pray for strength and persistence in abundance for those who work for the public good—health, education, employing the jobless and feeding the hungry—and for the reinforcement of the infrastructure (roads, levees, bridges) and the restoration of the environment we all need. Let the defenders of the public good prevail against those (especially the already highly privileged) who would weaken and diminish the benefits and liberties hard-won over many years of struggle for the common man and woman. And courage and abundance of cooperation for those who work to protect the earth and living things.

For those wearied by much toil and little pay, let there be better opportunities. For the discouraged, let there be rewards for their efforts, and renewed energy for further attempts. For the hungry parents of hungry children, and the idle, frustrated would-be workers, let there be well-paid labor, generosity of neighbors, and new chances to find and earn the bread of life. None should have to be hungry, nor without work.

For all these things, and more, we pray, and wish you and all your friends and family a much better new year, and stronger hope and energies, in 2014.

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Ready for Burlesque Fest, New Orleans?

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

burlesqueTime for the 5th Annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival, Sept. 19–21

Of course New Orleans is ready for another burlesque festival. A good warm-up for Halloween, perhaps. Or just a good warm-up for its own sake. If you’re ready—or might be ready, as we totally are—for Coco Lectric, Dinah Might, Honey Touche and the Touchettes, Cora Vette with Dames D’lish, Ray Gunn, Jett Adore as Zorro (yes, dudes too), Miss PetitCoquette, Trixie Little & Evil Hate Monkey, and the Cheesecake Burlesque Revue, then the Burlesque Festival has the shows for you.

Opening night features the Strut at Harrah’s: “Award-winning male burlesque stars deliver pure prime beef, emphasizing the masculine side of the tease with their sizzling surprise reveals, and tongue-in-cheek exploits! Starring world-renowned super troupe The Stage Door Johnnies!” You’ll want to come for the Siren of the South (“Athena, the Goddess of the Bodice”), Mondo Burlesque (“A variety of burlesque entertainers perform acts that have driven audiences wild at clubs and theaters around the word. Sexy, funny, naughty, and très amusant!”) and Bad Girls of Burlesque (“Luscious and lascivious ladies of burlesque entertain you in this rowdy, standing-room-only show . . . a celebration of the wicked, the wayward, and the wanton”). Click here for the schedule.

Classes and Instruction

Workshops, held at the Hilton Riverside, 2 Poydras Street, are sponsored by the Ruby Room of Dallas (that sounds scary). “We know y’all want to sleep late, so all workshops are scheduled between 12 noon–5pm!”

BURLESQUE BODY WORKOUT: In this high-energy workout class taught by the 2013 Miss Viva Las Vegas, Missy Lisa, you will use the most popular techniques from fitness and dance to strengthen and condition your body. You will easily break a sweat with moves specifically chosen to tone hips, thighs, buns and abs. Appropriate for all skill levels.

BUMPS & GRINDS: Perfect your bump and refine your grind with the 2011 Queen of Burlesque, Ginger Valentine. This class focuses on quality of movement and sensuality in classic burlesque, while burning calories and toning muscles. Before you take it off, learn how to tease and tantalize like a pro.

GirlsGirlsTHE ELEMENTS: Taught by Ray Gunn of the famed Stage Door Johnnies (Best Boylesque–2013 Burlesque Hall of Fame, Best Group–2011 Burlesque Hall of Fame), this lecture and discussion class for both men and women will cover the basic components of constructing, focusing, and editing a successful burlesque act. Participants will focus on refining composition, identifying the four main elements of an act, analyzing the thirteen types of ‘teases,’ and more.

SECRETS OF STAGE PRESENCE: How do you mesmerize an audience? What is stage presence and how can you achieve it? Unlock the tools to combat self- consciousness and stage fright, learn about “Active Intension” onstage, and find the burlesque superstar within you! Jett Adore of the acclaimed Stage Door Johnnies outlines his “Five S’s of Burlesque,” vital components to achieve the full potential of your own star quality. Bring a rehearsal boa if you have one and note-taking materials.

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Cold shower time. We’re all worked up just writing about it . . .

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Godless Socialism as Cause of Homosexual Marriage

Monday, August 12th, 2013

Pastor_CruzUltraconservative Unified Field Theory Revealed

“Socialism requires that government becomes your god. That’s why they have to destroy the concept of God. They have to destroy all loyalties except loyalty to government. That’s what’s behind homosexual marriage.”

—Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), addressing Family Leadership Summit, Ames, Iowa, Aug. 10

And that’s all you need to know.

H/T to The American Prospect

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‘Elysian Fields’ Weekend in New Orleans April 5–7

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

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After long workin’ in the fertile fields of Elysium, a fruitful harvest. The novel ELYSIAN FIELDS, published this month by Mid-City Books, will be officially launched in the city that gave it birth with a party at Mimi’s in the Marigny on Friday, April 5, from 6:00 to 8:00, and a reading and signing by Mark LaFlaur at the Garden District Book Shop on Sunday, April 7, from 2:00 to 4:00. See the Facebook Event page here.

Since our last posting, early reviews have been encouraging. Publishers Weekly gave Elysian Fields a starred review (“engrossing”), and Antigravity magazine calls it “a stunning debut.” Excerpts below. Read more reviews and comments here.

EF_newbrite_mini“Life in the Weems family of 1999 New Orleans is anything but Elysian in this engrossing Southern Gothic snapshot. As Simpson ponders whether to kill his brother Bartholomew, he reflects upon their upbringing with mother Melba. At age 36, Simpson works in a copy shop, but fantasizes of escaping to San Francisco and being a famous poet. The obstacle is Bartholomew—as a second grader, he spent a year in a psychiatric ward—who is presented vividly as possibly autistic and ‘laced with idiot savantism.’ LaFlaur deftly alternates between character perspectives, delving into perceptions and motivations. . . . Simpson’s perception of haunted New Orleans hammers home LaFlaur’s implication that life consists mostly of dealing with your ghosts. . . . [R]eaders will find the author’s portrayal of New Orleans convincing and his characters fascinating and fully developed.”   —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A stunning debut . . . A look at the interplay of the figures in this working-class clan on Invalides Street has shades of Tennessee Williams, Faulkner and John Kennedy Toole impressed in its pages, yet [Elysian Fields] transcends those influences to become an original vision all its own. . . . LaFlaur gently and expertly pulls readers along with his characters, never flinching in the face of their foibles, giving us reasons to care what happens to them . . .”  —Antigravity magazine (Your New Orleans Alternative to Culture), March 2013

The public is invited to these free events, but you might want to get to Garden District Book Shop early, as seats will fill up.

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Thanks to Sam Jasper and Mark Folse for their help in lining up the party at Mimi’s. Sam and Mark coedited A Howling in the Wires, a powerful, highly recommended anthology of writings by New Orleans bloggers just after Hurricane Katrina—when posting on the InterWeb machine was often the only way to communicate with the outside world, or even across town—published by Gallatin and Toulouse Press (2010). An excerpt from the book, written by our friend and Ashley Award–winning blogger Dedra “G-Bitch” Johnson, can be seen here. (She’ll be at the launch party, too!) Warm thanks to all New Orleans bloggers and others for spreading the word.

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Do They Know It’s Mardi Gras?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

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Outside of New Orleans and southern Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama, Mardi Gras generally comes as news—if it comes at all—to people in the rest of the United States when they see footage on network and cable news. Oh, it must be Mardi Gras again. Look at all those crazy-dressed people milling around on Bourbon Street. Now back to work, or looking for a job.

There are emigrés from New Orleans and southern Louisiana all over the U.S. and around the world who feel Carnival coming for weeks before the big day arrives, and we know it’s not a one-day affair (how could it be?). We look around at life going on in January, February, and sometimes March, and wonder how our fellow citizens can not know that Carnival is coming, that it has already started, it’s here. And especially on Fat Tuesday itself—which is today—seeing life go on as Just Another Day, earning just another dollar, we’re reminded of the 1984 Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (recorded to raise awareness and aid for the 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia). It is not entirely a fair comparison, but there’s a resemblance, and the question does come up.

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New Orleans–based social justice journalist Jordan Flaherty published an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled Five Myths about Mardi Gras that does a decent job of dispelling some misconceptions about Carnival—we’re all for dispelling false views, especially about New Orleans and Louisiana—and we recommend Jordan’s piece. But first we’d like to offer the following essay, which goes into more detail about the historical, cultural background of what we call Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival. (Interestingly, in this international world we live in, there are other terms in other languages!) We humbly present the following, originally written by one of our staff writers for Festivals and Holidays, a Macmillan Profiles encyclopedia.

Times-Picayune coverage of Mardi Gras here. And see photos of this year’s parades by our friends here, here, and here.

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Mardi Gras: From Ancient Origins, with a New Orleans Twist

Mardi Gras, also called “Shrove Tuesday” or “Fat Tuesday” is a flamboyant Carnival celebration that most Americans associate with the city of New Orleans. The exact date for Mardi Gras varies from year to year, but it always falls on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, forty-one days before Easter.

Mardi Gras has roots deep in pagan rites of ancient Greece, and is the “climax day” of a whole season of festivities—balls, parties, parades—that begins on Twelfth Night, or Epiphany (also known as January 6). Although the festival is most commonly associated with the Crescent City, the first American Mardi Gras was celebrated in Mobile, in present-day Alabama, in the 1830s (except it was really New Year’s Eve). Mardi Gras is still celebrated in Mobile, as well as in other southern Louisiana towns and cities such as Baton Rouge, New Roads, and Lafayette.

“Fat Tuesday,” the culmination of over a month of celebrations, is the great day when the parades of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club and the Krewe of Rex roll down oak-lined St. Charles Avenue into downtown New Orleans, where thousands, or a million—not necessarily sober—are lined along Canal Street, the widest downtown street in America. When the great floats arrive, and the masked captains and marshals in robes of medieval royalty hold out their hands full of beads, people yell, “Throw me somethin’, mister!” and reach up in a joyous frenzy for the colorful beads, cups, doubloons, and the famous painted Zulu coconuts. Though the big parades don’t go into the Vieux Carré anymore, the crowd swells across Canal into the French Quarter: sometimes a million people are crowded together on land that is [just a few feet above] sea level, a quarter mile from the Mississippi River. [Ed. note: bracketed phrase corrects a factual error in the original.]

(more…)

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How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years

Friday, January 6th, 2012

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Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance

This is the mug shot of Joan Trumpauer, a 19-year-old Duke University student and SNCC member who was arrested by the Jackson, Mississippi, police with eight other activists as they arrived on a train from New Orleans to participate in Freedom Rides in early June 1961. Joan Trumpauer had already participated in lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. (She is the student having sugar poured on her head in this iconic image.) The photos above and several dozen other powerful images from 1961, mostly by American news photographers, are part of an impressive collection posted by The Atlantic Monthly. See more below. (H/T to A Continuous Lean.) Some of the viewers’ comments on the photos are instructive; others, particularly about civil rights, are disturbing, depressing.

The caption to Miss (not yet Ms.) Trumpauer’s mug shot explains:

A Jackson Police Department file booking photograph of Freedom Rider Joan Trumpauer provided by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, taken on June 8, 1961. 19-year-old Duke University student and part-time secretary in the Washington office of Senator Clair Engle of California, Trumpauer arrived in Jackson, Mississippi to take part in the June 4, 1961 Mississippi Freedom Ride. She and eight others were promptly arrested and refused bail. Trumpauer served three months in jail, later enrolling in traditionally black Tougaloo college, which had just started accepting white students. 

In a column worth reading in full, “Toward a Manifested Courage,” Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, quotes a prison superintendent’s reply to Trumpauer’s mother (a native of Georgia whom Joan later described as “an unrepentant segregationist”):

Your daughter is receiving plenty of food, has been provided with a toothbrush, tooth paste, and whatever else she actually needs. 

I notice that you state that as a mother of a minor that you want to be notified in the case of any emergency. What I can not understand is why as a mother you permitted a minor white girl to gang up with a bunch of negro bucks and white hoodlums to ramble over this country with the express purpose of violating the laws of certain states and attempting to incite acts of violence.

The Trumpauer photograph appears among many other portraits in Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders by Eric Etheridge. Click here to see more images. And see the gripping American Experience (PBS) documentary “Freedom Riders,” available through Netflix.

We detail the Joan Trumpauer experience at some length here out of admiration of her (awe-) inspiring personal courage (“Now if whites were going to riot when black students were going to white schools, what were they going to do if a white student went to a black school?”) and as a prelude to, an early honoring of, Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 16).

Now, some selections from the Atlantic photo feature “50 Years Ago: The World in 1961.”

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George Lincoln Rockwell, center, self-styled leader of the American Nazi Party, and his “hate bus” with several young men wearing swastika arm bands, stops for gas in Montgomery, Alabama, on May 23, 1961, en route to Mobile, Alabama. (AP Photo)

A policeman orders his dog to attack a man who was too slow in obeying his order to move away from in front of police court, shortly before nine African-American college students went on trial for sitting-in at a (white) public city library, on March 29, 1961, in Jackson, Mississippi. (AP Photo/Jackson Clarion-Ledger)

 

 A Freedom Rider bus goes up in flames after a firebomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Alabama, in May of 1961. (AP Photo)

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As We Enter 2012, Best Wishes to All

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

May the new year bring you all the good things you wish for.

We’ll be brief with our greetings and good wishes, as last night’s champagne slowly wears off, and as there’s some house-cleaning to do before guests arrive for the New Year’s Day dinner . . .

For all our readers here in the “upper blogosphere” and for everyone beyond, we wish a year of good health to all, steady employment, rewarding work, and, while we’re at it, good luck and bon courage in putting the “progress” in “progressive.”

State. We wish for a calm, boring hurricane season for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, steady recovery from the wicked hellacious storms of yesteryear, and strong, robust flood protection and generous funding for coastal restoration of the eroding Louisiana coast. We also pray for no BP-style oil spills in the Gulf—or any other kind. 2010’s Deepwater Horizon disaster was enough to last for quite a while, thank you. Let those who are still recovering from that catastrophe find abundant catches of healthy seafood in clean waters, and may those still making their way back home to New Orleans and environs find affordable housing in safe neighborhoods and steady employment.

Nation. The United States has its own peculiar, festering, largely neglected problems amid the stresses of the world. During this 2012 presidential campaign season, which had already overstayed its welcome long ago, we hope that the ideas and priorities generated by the Occupy Wall Street movement will take even stronger hold on the public imagination and find their way into debates, policy, and actual programs. May the good ideas be fulfilled. Let’s keep reminding public officials and reporters and editors that there is a terrible and increasing wealth disparity in this nation, an endangered middle class, and an even more threatened (and growing) population of struggling poor people: our brothers and sisters. We are not holding our breath waiting for Congressional action—we expect nothing but continuing obstruction from one party and particular, and the other party ain’t much better but for a few individual exceptions—but we do detect energy and ideas in the Occupy people across the U.S. and around the world. Good work; keep it going, please. Long live the 99 Percent!

World. Among our wishes for world peace and goodwill among peoples, we wish the citizens and the economies of Europe in particular good luck in finding workable solutions to their ongoing crises, and we wish for renewed energy for all nations’ reformers and progressives. As 2011 was not a good year for despots and dictators, let 2012 be a good year for fair and honest leaders. Looking around the globe, we hope the activists of the Arab Spring will succeed in making a better life for themselves—not forgetting their women—and we pray that cool, sane heads will prevail (this is possible) in Iran and in its foreign relations; good luck to the Green Revolution reformers in that troubled land.

Here at Levees Not War we’ll work hard to bring you, as regularly and steadily as we can, reporting and commentary that is based in reality and in hopes for stronger, durable infrastructure, a healthier and better-sustained environment, and more peace, less war. (Click herehere, and here for New Year’s greetings from previous January 1’s.)

We hope you enjoy this new year, and hope it brings you all the good things you wish for.

Well, we meant to be brief. And now, there’s some more house-cleaning to do . . .

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