John Cheever: The Enormous Radio and Other Stories, a Writer’s Tale

Beneath the 1080p resolution of its millions of literal pixels glazed into the surface of this wizardly contraption, a short story by John Cheever appears. It’s in a new zine found in Apple’s newsstand app that has of late become a guilty pleasure of mine, elegantly entitled, Paragraph. It’s like the Huffington Post of literary short stories coupled with some artistic YouTube vignettes, compiling its issues with old and new stories alike.

The familiar and safe, Times New Roman font, emanates from under a screen that feels and looks like it’s out of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner65mm. One of those great films that the children of the generation following the one that got to experience it in the movies, can look at, and feel, that it is still about the future while simultaneously being entwined in both the present and the high romanticism of a ghastly past that the 80s embalm. Such is also Cheever’s, “Of Love: A Testimony” with its narrative confidence, more than a half-century’s distance, and ass-naked bare, Terminator style, delivery of relationships, life struggles, and of course, love, which anyone who had to write about so candidly, certainly would need to be hitting the bottle like Cheever. Written in the 1940s. The nineteen forties.

Cut to a tiny independent bookstore off Bedford Avenue. The shelves, housed in a large walk-in-closet, are stacked with yellowing covers–their fragile oxidized pages crumbling with every negligent touch. Lifting the (unknown to me) famous collection, The Enormous Radio And Other Stories, I bring it up to the guy housing the shop to buy it, and he is reluctant to part with it. After a heavy silence, he finally says, “I keep . . . . watching them go” with echos of hopeless despair in his voice. As I part, of course, the sky spells out a dark gray New York doom while bits of prickling rain hit the asphalt.

Enormous_Radio_Book_CoverTwo weeks and five books later. I open the Harper & Row edition, printed in 1965. I hold what must have been the sad proprietor’s prized possession, and as such, am ready to receive the lifeblood that I imagine has sustained him through many gloomy New York afternoons. Then I envision a stretch of yellow flowing spandex on which pot-smoking hippies jump upon as if it were a trampoline, their long hair swiveling through the air as I envision the previous owner walking about with the book in the sixties sun.  The first letter of every story in this edition is in large curly calligraphy that was typically used in nineteenth century newspaper headlines. Each story is full of nostalgia and in some way or another is dealing with the ever-present past. All of these stories were published in the New Yorker from the late 1930s to the early 1940s and were written in the span of three and a half years.

As is usual in such cases the reader gets to observe a writer’s literary development and emotional trajectory through time. But the impressive zing of my first encounter is largely gone; the frail pages, stripped of their lustre, stifle with their tightly packed realism filled with formal addresses: Mr. Fellows; The Whittemores; The Hartleys; Mrs. Brownless; the early narrative structures are ordinary and predictable; the titles, unbearably poetic: The Pot of Gold; Goodbye, My Brothers; O City of Broken Dreams; Torch Song; all of which I love, were it not for the disharmony that they exhibit with the stories that they hat. How does one not envision distraught New Yorkers, scattered around the J train under the shudders of dim yellow lights, seen from a distance, crawling along the side of the bridge like some topaz necklace into the cavernous swallows of brilliant city streets filled with jazz clubs and slums after reading, “O City of Broken Dreams?” How not to run to the bottle and throw on some Benny Goodman or Coltrane? Where is that music in the narrative? Ah, but there are reserves. Under my sphenoid is Mad Man, and its latent language, as exhibited by the middle and upper classes, is overbrim with the cadences of the forties, which help me hear Cheever and allows me to animate his ‘stillborn babies.’ To feel the heat of their souls.

Would I react differently if I read these early stories under the gloss of a shiny screen? This is a serious question, not to be brushed off with, a word is a word kind of logic. A chair is a chair but to sit in a vintage chair is quite a different experience than to sit in an ultramodern chair; the style’s name alone has a kind of nauseating psychological force built into it. So I fight past the stale pages of which critics have written theses on, overlooking the Calvinist verses Protestant philosophies buried beneath the dialogue, as James O’Hara offers–that bread and butter of English professors–into “The Pleasures of Solitude.” I do however stop to note and admire Cheever’s choice of placing his punctuation within his quotation marks. Pedantry be damned. This is the first story in the collection, beside the originally spurring one exhibited in Paragraph, which knocks me upside my rusty chin.

Cheever not only packs a punch into five and a half pages, but augments his narrative (stating the plot will spoil it) with these gorgeous, on the surface superfluous touches that display some of the best gestures of realistic writing, “She thought of calling the police, but when she tried to describe what had happened as if she were talking to the police, it sounded unconvincing and even suspicious.” It’s that, “and even suspicious” part that really strikes. That soft, precise detail, which more than simply conveying an aspect of character, draws the reader into the prose by subtly acknowledging a revealing communal phenomenon. It is through this, more than the drama or the sympathetic characters and even the dazzle of his metaphors that win my heart–for it is through such revelations that bits and pieces of what it is like to live in a city, New York of all cities, that end up glimmering through the lusterless pages.

The smooth manner in which he uses proper nouns, dropping them like VB-6 Felixes, sparingly, so as to ignite an entire sentence, at the right time, is reminiscent of Hemingway’s spare and poignant use of adverbs. If only MFA graduates would escape their commander’s tiresome drilling of the importance of proper nouns, then maybe they could learn some elements of style from the masters–and use it to show something original. Here is a lovely illustration from “The Pot of Gold,” where Cheever avoids all proper nouns save for street, town and character names (with the only exception being a reference to van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”) in five pages of prose, to drop the following sentence,

They sat together with their children through the sooty twilight, when the city to the south burns like a Bessemer furnace, and the air smells of coal, and the wet boulders shine like slag, and the Park itself seems like a strip of woods on the edge of a coal town.

Now there’s an image hard to forget. And the word itself has such beautiful internal acoustics, Bessemer Bessemer. Despite Cheever’s somewhat boring, but forgivable organization of his early stories, “It was…” “There were…” “It did..” he really comes into his own fairly early on, definitely by the time he writes, “The Cure,” in terms of variation and sentence structure.  Hitting musical notes with abrupt, two word sentences, or opening his prose into paragraph-long sentences, as he does at the end of “The Summer Farmer.”

It is true of even the best of us that if an observer can catch us boarding a train at the station; if he will mark our faces, stripped by anxiety of their self-possession; if he will appraise our luggage, our clothing, and look out of the window to see who has driven us to the station; if he will listen to the harsh or tender things we say if we are with our families, or notice the way we put our suitcase onto the rack, check the position of our wallet, our key ring, and wipe the sweat off the back of our necks; if he can judge sensibly the self-importance, diffidence, or sadness with which we settle ourselves, he will be given a broader view of our lives than most of us would intend.

That is the broad view that I see in the positions Cheever’s sentences take.

Much of the beauty in his writing is in how intently aware it is of what it means to live in a heavily populated metropolis. Which brings me to the title story, “The Enormous Radio.” Parting with his technical form, let’s observe his leitmotif, culminating in that fantastic tale, which always is sort of in the background of his stories anyway, as atmosphere is, which we come to know through an unspoken, mutual understanding between the writer and the reader. You know, like the fact that we’re reading about other people’s lives. Eavesdropping on people’s conversations. Watching people in their sleep. This kind of voyeurism in art predates the analysis that Zizek offers in The Perverts Guide to Cinema, by about sixty years.

In “The Cure,” for instance, Cheever uses the first person narrator to intensify the perverse aspects of watching others, but by the time he writes, “The Enormous Radio,” he is using a stunning metaphor to unfurl the importance, the need, of observing how others live, and the dread in not doing so, through interestingly enough, an element found in magical realism. Make no mistake that it is an apology for writing and reading about others on Cheever’s part. It is, in fact, a powerful defense of literature; perhaps one of the most powerful that exist. So here’s the short end of the story.

The Westcotts are a rather bland couple–the kind that pass us by on the street and we think, ‘Oh they’re nice,’ but hope to never become–both of whom share an affinity for music. One day their radio breaks down, so they get a new one. The new radio does something strange though, for it starts to channel noises from the building in which the Westcotts live, emanating the sounds of the city (heightening that element of living in a city) and pretty soon, it starts transmitting conversations of other households. The Westcotts get the radio fixed, but Irene ends up regretting that they did, as she yearns to hear what is going on around her. All she has left are reports on the weather and the news. Music, sure. But it is suggested that music is not enough. How pale in comparison when the stage of the world has been silenced. Cheever seems to mean that we all have a need to hear, to see how others live; and that is not only okay, but vital to us.

Thus do Cheever and I part ways. It is another gray, cold morning in New York. The buildings around me feel hollow, full of his characters. Some are getting through the day by the thought of getting that Martini in the afternoon. Others are listening to Schubert on the radio with catatonic eyes. Others are checking their online banking statements. Some are planning vacations. Almost nobody smiles.


The Line has been Cut

Always suspect anyone who lays a claim on what art is supposed to be. And, as advice is being dispensed, keep an eye out for people in crease-free clothing. As well as any Buddhist monk who smiles sunshine and repeats the word ‘peace’ over and over while handing you a gilded card of Buddha with another peace written across it, rays of joyous golden light leaving the Buddha’s head, and then proceeds by gently shaking your hand. It shall infallibly follow that you will be handed a black leather-bound book with a pen that will ask you to submit your name, your address, and a donation amount. In such a case, wrinkles do not matter. But. Caveat Emptor! on the question of art.

How, however, should one approach a lurid memoir written by an ad man? In the same way as everything else I suppose, with the lowest degree of expectation, a considerable degree of guard (say 73 F) and most of all, without prejudice. It also tends to be best, to generally read introductions as afterwards as life itself should serve as an adequate introduction to any work of fiction, and certainly to that of a memoir. And that, dear reader, is how Augusten Burroughs made his entrance into my life. If there’s one thing that I’ll always have to grant those who work in the ad industry, it’ll always be their repellent way of grabbing people’s attention. How, then, does one avoid falling victim to, Running with Scissors?

Running-with-scissorsAnd what a cover to boast of as well. Being everything that the conventionally out-of-context blurbs on the back make it out to be, Running with Scissors, ultimately poses the pivotal question: do you or do you not believe Augusten Burroughs? Burroughs himself faced a similar dilemma with regard to his mother in the final chapter of his waning teenage years. And such is the controversy that the book creates for its readership; what can one believe in when the truth is challenged, and in some respects, always remains ambiguous?

Without revealing the spoils of war, let me unequivocally state that my gut is with Burroughs. Let it also be clear that I do not know, nor care to know, if any part of his memoir is embellished or even downright false. I’ve seen enough Fact or Fiction? to grant drama a free reign, relatively. This after all is not some hack like Dan Brown trying to convince us to believe in sensational facts to accept a worldview. This is the story of a man trying to get across the jaded divide between his experiences and our lives, and if he is successful, to uplift and renew our spirits.

So say what one will of Augusten Burroughs, but if being prudent, then whatever the verdict is one must acknowledge that he is a skillful writer. A writer who knows how to craft engaging descriptions, such as this one, “Her white, handgun-shaped blow-dryer is lying on the top of the wicker clothes hamper, ticking as it cools.” Adding to them, however, a somewhat annoying, ceaseless barrage of brand names, whistling down every paragraph, which situates his prose in our, regrettably, commercially-saturated world. So what happens is that we end by encountering a work that, even when set several decades removed from our day, thanks largely to television, feels contemporary, and we, may even feel at home.

At home though we may feel, Augusten’s memoir is still full of riveting and really gross anecdotes and details. Such as the description where he relays to us a visual of an STI, or when he describes his own sexual experiences. But where but in writing can one be that candid? That is what makes the work compelling despite some of its shortcomings. Do we, for instance, really need to hear the clanging of threefold repetitions so tiresome in both poetry and prose? Certainly not. Does Burroughs, admittedly rarely, go on and on over trivial arguments? Yes. And yet as unpleasant as that is to encounter in life and certainly in writing, it is these very details that give his voice that air of authenticity and makes me feel that, in fact, this is a work dealing with life as it really is, going through many of its inane, absurd, trivial moments. Life and death arguments over whose job it is to remove the five-month old Christmas tree? You bet. Deep embarrassment–a crisis of Greek proportions–about the revealing note that he handed a crush? Certainly. And certainly forgivable. Was it a terrible choice to insert an excerpt of his next work after the epilogue? Oh yeah. A disgusting madman tactic with poor literary taste. Uh-huh. But even that I will pardon.

Because Mr. Burroughs has given me a beautiful series of laughs, twisted my heart, which upon its release, let me slide down my own memories of coming-of-age tales and travails that through the space of time and the newly acquired, humorous and lighthearted attitude (which is the real gift that Augusten presents his readers) has made it easy to look back at all that ‘crazy stuff’ and smile. Seriously, my friend, Augusten seems to whisper between the lines, if I made it through all that, and came away relatively sane, you too will be okay. Let us, at the very least, have some fun with the craziness of a dysfunctional family. After all we can all quote the beginning of, Anna Karenina, even those of us that have not read the book, but let us bear in mind that there is in fact something binding the children of unhappy families. And in that respect, they may find a home within the community of scarred individuals, who thanks to the disquiet engagement of writers like Burroughs, can see and overcome the isolating estrangement of individual pain while gaining strength to deal with it and to persevere.

So does Burroughs display the craftsmanship of Fitzgerald, the psychological depth of Dostoevsky, the elegance of Morrison, the . . . you get it. Can a memoir even be a work of art? If it can, was Burroughs successful? Or is his work, as Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times–after providing a lucid summary of the book–coldly concludes,

… lack[ing in] the fire and art that make literature different from life. Here in these memoirs, characters fade, drift or disappear; there is a desultory quality to the action; there are many, many loose ends.

I don’t know about you but to me that sounds like life. Perhaps I’m still too much in Chekhov’s grip, still under the belief that realism in art should strive to be the way life actually is, along with a strong personal preference for loose, ambiguous ends. Chekhov was often heavily criticized by his contemporaries for making his writing of country life boring, to which it was responded that country life is boring. Anything may be dramatized in the hands of a master, and though Burroughs is no Chekhov, his accomplishment should not be diminished.

Namely, sharing with others in a decently crafted, engaging form, the turkey-soup for the soul that his life turned out to be. A lot of the banal dialogue within his writing such as, “Come on, man. I just can’t stop thinking about you” is redeemed by the unique and hilarious experiences that he had, as well as by his knack for descriptions that easily transport the reader into his scenes.

I exhaled, blowing Marlboro Light smoke into the air, an opaque cloud that was the only moving thing in the room. It seemed to drift toward the ceiling, moth to bulb. We sat perfectly still, like we were listening for something.

And what I heard, was a compassionate voice telling stories out of a dire need to share the madness and show the triumph of having overcome it, without any inhibitions of hoping to be rewarded for doing so. And, that too, though vulgar from some aesthetic points of view (Gustave Gustave) is fine.


Borges Lives up to his Fame

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Reading Jorge Luis Borges’ The aleph and other Stories 1932-1969, is like traveling through some oft romanticized city with a man you barely know but a man whose manners and gestures immediately establish a recognition that borders on kinship so that it feels as if one of his arms is stretched upon your shoulders while the other is stretched out toward the streets as he humbly carries you away with the knowledge of the places and peoples and cultures that he knows so well, but conveys all he can to you, his comrade in arms, in the least patronizing and most candid of manner that skill, age and love have implanted within him. Hopefully the length of such an introductory sentence would be approved by him, that great tactician of literary gesture.

The aleph and the other stories in the beginning of this collection are fantastical tales with plenty of layers built into them, many of which feel reminiscent of, Arabian Nights. A collection I have not even read but have seen rendered on the screen–the connection could not help to be made, even before Borges himself made it outright in his self-reflective essays at the end of the book. Perhaps, a prism would be a suitable metaphor for each story, if one wishes to speak in metaphors. Far more delightful was the experience of learning about Borges’ literary development from his own hand, a kind of John Stuart Mill in his own right, but unlike Mill, Borges had a father who was wise enough to allow him to make all of his mistakes on his own.

What has earned my admiration most is the gentleness of the current that flows through story to story, making it all the more easy and desirable to spend another day lounging away with my fingers treading upon the clear liquid that mesmerizes this and that part of the imagination. It is the story’s forms that are entrancing, having with the exception of three characters, forgotten the rest. It is the intricacy of the designs. And the reawakened desire to decipher the puzzles contained therein after having subsumed the author’s elaborations on his own writing. I doubt that the irony of the self-reflective poet who reads grandiose interpretations into his own drab work–Thank you for saying it!–is lost on Borges, of which he is innocent; and perhaps there is more humor in it than I, taking things a bit too seriously, had at first noticed. The end of this collection, classically, can only serve to rotate one along the circular path, back to the beginning. A brilliant, structural stroke.


The Crude State

The boondocks are visible from my window through the faint haziness of toxic air and truck pollution beneath the oxidized nail-brown rust of the Williamsburg Bridge. There they stand: decrepit naval shipyards with rusty cranes sticking out of the oil-stained cement alongside rows of long-ago abandoned factories–my own sweet loft, an illegal conversion of a radio factory from the fifties. Across the street are three nearly monolithic High Rises, one of which is built to actually look like the Sphinx of Cement that Ginsburg once so painfully described, gazing out of the corner of its eyes across the East River at the projects, on the Lower East Side. These monstrosities, in the double-speak lingo of the Real Estate developers, are egregiously called, “The Edge.” They are filled by corporate types with spiky, oleaginous hairstyles, and European models in shared sublets–six to eight to a one bedroom–trying to make their way through New York City’s fashion circus.

This is the new, gentrified part of Brooklyn. The neighborhood is full of independent coffeehouses with names such as ‘Toby’s Estate’ and ‘Blackbird Parlor’ (possibly a surviving relic of the Hipster predominance of the last couple years), a town in which I found a copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn laying on the corner of a table in one of the independent bookstores on Bedford Avenue, menacingly daring me not to pick up and purchase it.

Last Exit to BrooklynIt was in this atmosphere that I fought my way through the three-hundred and four brutal pages of Last Exit, of the Grove Press edition. This was the debut novel by the author on whose book the film Requiem For a Dream was based. The film that turned my stomach by portraying people like those that I also knew–though, fortunately not to such levels of dejection and pain–who were trying to make it through young adulthood in a cold and unforgiving world, or simply trying to survive the horrors of life. The man on whom I watched a breathtaking documentary, Hubert Selby, Jr.: It’ll Be Better Tomorrow, a high school dropout like myself, who felt the need to make a living by making art, and to do it, using what he knew: Life and the Alphabet.

Selby certainly knows life. As for what he did with the alphabet, well, his first hundred and fourteen pages–the encapsulation of “Another Day Another Dollar” through “Tralala”–sounds as if it were made by a classical composer with the turgid force of Hemingway’s straight-forward style and Kerouac’s stream of consciousness delivery coupled with a Chekhovian ear for rhythm and drama and a Dicksonian depth of sense of empathy for the downtrodden.

The range of social malaise is sickening and downright prurient in many places, ranging from child molestation and domestic violence to gang rape and brawls. This is the Brooklyn when the naval base was still in operation and the trannys would suck-off a few drunk sailors while their pals would sock ‘em and then drink the night away–as Selby Jr terrifically describes–for a couple lousy bucks. Somewhere out there, beneath the bridge, the projects are still around, and the urban nightmare is rattling and recurring like the Colossus on Coney Island. I remain ever mindful of my uncle’s advice: always carry at least a fifty on you–the price, it seems, of a human life. Maybe the unions aren’t as bad as they were, but everything else that Selby Jr chronicles is still groveling in the underbelly of this metropolis.

Here’s the cut and dry version. Pain and seediness is the overarching structure of the book, binding the disparate stories together. The crescendo of the whole is quite jagged, but each individual story, particularly the early ones, carry in them a fierce musical force that culminates in Wagnerian violence that’ll leave any sane, empathetic human being in need of a good recovery.

The normal routine, going for a walk in the park, seeing a loved one or a friend, drinking a good cup-a-joe is recommended. Maybe some honey and lemon Ginseng. Rest, however, most assuredly that a glass or two of wine will do wonders to get you through the last hundred pages of Last Exit, as the repetitive and now predictable inner-structure of each story with its all capitalized yelling and the endless stream of conjunctions will be very difficult to bear. Of course nowhere near as difficult as those that have to bear with the dark and violent and putrid madness of a world that they cannot close the book on. But I guess that’s his point.  

As far as style goes, Selby chooses to avoid pronouns wherever he’s given the choice. There are a few exceptions such as in the factory scene, which is laden with a few precise brushstrokes. The slang and the drug codes are as precise as one of Chandler’s descriptions. This is a choice faced by all writers and I believe it is a choice that is determined by the subject matter and the overall objective of the writing. In Selby’s case, his writing is dealing with an impoverished and dirty world that needs to convey that world as authentically as it can. 

Last Exit, falls, sadly, into the category of books that I will not be re-reading. The upside of the book is that it is absolutely indelibly imprinted in my mind. Such is also the downside, as well as the fact that it is one of those books that does not render itself to an archeological expedition, as many classics, full of subtlety and hidden dynamics, do. Hubert Selby Jr nevertheless showed why so many people regard this work as a modern American classic, and in doing so, has somewhat hesitantly convinced me to pick up Requiem for a Dream, sometime soon.


Drinking to You, Comrade

This smooth read turned out to be more of an intellectual’s guidebook to life than some mere narrative of a great man’s adventures. With about 40 years worth of experience as a writer, a life journey filled with all sorts of intellectual luminaries that allowed that present man of letters to fill many paragraphs with glorious anecdotes, Hitch had the ability to open himself and his world in such a way as to make his reader feel welcome and right at home–and that he did.

ImageIn his moving and wise pages, written with a sharp sense for magazine style journalism that’s been combed in with the vocabulary of many of the great books that he’s read, not lacking in his characteristic wit, Hitchens invites the reader to observe the awful time he suffered at English boarding schools through the somewhat better days of his bisexual liaisons at Cambridge and thereafter. We get to follow him around as we would a close companion (or should I say, comrade) through his brilliant struggle in his fight as one of the Left’s great intellectuals, and through his more endearing stories of growing up with a boring naval officer for a father and a closet-Jew for a mother. He takes his comrades on a tour of living in the East village, NY, in the Seventies, and then Washington, DC, as would any good novelist worth his whiskey–good description and drama touched with genuine life knowledge. He does so, albeit, a touch too quickly in that he does not immerse the reader in the setting as a work of fiction would, which is to be forgiven given that Christopher spent most of his time laboriously at work.

To read, Hitch 22, as just a memoir is like treating, The Great Gatsby, as just a novel. Having finished it in only a few days I cannot wait to go back to the fifty or so dog-eared pages to reread and relish anew what is within them. More than a memoir it is a reference book full of signposts to literature (most of which Hitchens sells like an old loving professor trying to pass down Promethean fire) to keen directions ranging from how to make tea and drink liquor (buyer beware) to how to tip, and in many ways how to be, as Kosinski so wonderfully mixed the cocktail at the end of, Being There, “… a fencer against the wave.”

His great sense of style is really distinguished by his beautifully rendered, true to the beat, voice. A voice that combines an erudite vernacular with a deadpan delivery and a perfectly-timed, spare use of slang and common phrases that often spin out scenes as if they were directly out of the hands of a short story master.

… I hadn’t reckoned with the speed of nightfall and found myself alone in the gathering dark: a crepuscular gloom augmented by the local habit of shooting out all the streetlights. A very sudden bang convinced me that a nail bomb had been thrown at a British patrol, and I swiftly decided that the better part of valor was to drop into the gutter and make myself inconspicuous. Judging by the whistling and cracking of nearby volleys, this decision was shrewd enough as far as it went, and I remember thinking how awful it would be to end my career as a victim of a ricochet. Instead, I nearly ended it as a bloody fool who tested the patience of the British Army. Rising too soon from my semi-recumbent posture, I found myself slammed against the wall by a squad of soldiers with blackened faces, and asked various urgent questions that were larded with terse remarks about the many shortcomings of the Irish. Getting my breath back and managing a brief statement in my cut-glass Oxford tones, I was abruptly recognized as non-threatening, brusquely advised to fuck off, and off I duly and promptly fucked. Graham Green writes…

Only in the last hundred pages does Hitchens slow the show with a tad too sluggish of a report–himself emphasizing the “trudging” through the last phase of his epic life–on the time he spent in (and the politics of) the Middle East, particularly Iraq. Although he redeems himself with an inspiring report of an American hero that was lost to the Iraq war, and through his scintillating arguments on the “Jewish Question”; how, for example, to deal with his newly discovered Jewish identity and with Zionist ideology?

Whatever one thinks of his politics though, or of his public battles and the various stances that he has bravely taken throughout his life, someone with a taste for literature and life would do themselves well to place this spurring beam of a book on their shelves–and to return, often.


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