I’m Turning 50!

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Oh fuck. I’m turning 50. Beginning with the expletive that seems most fitting for the occasion, I begin this project of reflecting on just what this whole thing means to me, how it feels, how I’m coping, if I’m coping, what might be learned as I crest the top of the hill and begin to dance or skip or speed or skid or trip or tumble down the other side. And the whole purpose is to be conscious of these things. 50 is super-fast approaching. It’s almost exactly somewhat less than two days from the day I begin this writing. So let the consciousness begin, please, and in a hurry.

First, perhaps, a meditation on why it matters: what’s so special about 50? It can’t be all that different from the years immediately preceding or the ones after. It won’t, perhaps, feel any different than my current 49 year-old status or my future 52 year-old status. So who cares? Apparently, humans put a great deal of stalk in even numbers, especially those that begin a new decade, you know, the usual suspects, 20, 30, 40, and then this mother. Why we do this, I’m not entirely certain. But each of these big numbers divisible by ten mark out, I suppose, at least psychologically speaking, a new beginning, a new era, a new opportunity, new expectations, and conversely, new fears, new kinds of dread, and lots of hand wringing and teeth gnashing. At 50, in particular, we can be pretty certain that we are more than half way through. Depending, of course, on some randomly wild concoction between pure dumb luck and taking good care, we have this new clarity, this new knowledge that our days are now officially numbered. Maybe that’s why 50, more so than any other significant birthdays before it, feels–weighty.

The good news is that I am not afraid of dying.  I mean, I’d rather not.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m in no hurry.  I’m just not afraid of it.  If there is fear, and I freely admit that, yes, indeed, there is plenty of fear, it’s not about the end but about the time spent between now and then.  Have I made sufficient good use of a life?  Have I accomplished the shit I set out to do? Why haven’t I written more? Why are there so many great books I’ve not read? Why haven’t I found success as a writer or a musician? Should I stop rocking out in the basement and making records? Why am I still growing my hair? Why haven’t I figured out yet how to be the educator I’d like to be? Why am I not the father I hoped I would be, or the husband? How can I possibly afford to retire in four years time? Why haven’t I been sufficiently naughty? Or sufficiently good? I guess, at 50, there emerges a persistent and nagging perception that I have fallen short of nearly all of my ideals.

Whoa.  That sounds terrible.  But wait, says my better devil, you’re only 50!  And look at you!  You’re still walking around completely upright, riding a bike, playing the drums, influencing young minds mostly for good, improving your craft as a teacher even at the cusp of being able to walk away, raising a strapping young lad, raking the leaves, making new friends, writing poems and blogging, thinking dirty thoughts. You don’t look a day over 40.  And there is much hope, says my better devil,  for the future, even though there is perhaps more behind than ahead. All those things you’re disappointed about not having done, once you retire you can just knock them all back one right after the other.

And then, finally, in this mostly one sided conversation with my better devil, I have to butt in.  Look here, I say.  I understand that it’s folly to imagine all of the things I’ll be able to do when some distant or not so distant moment arrives that supposedly frees up all of this time for reading, writing, being, relating, and thinking. Tomorrow I could get hit by a bus. Herein, perhaps, lies the greatest fear and the biggest challenge to all of us half centenarians. We can’t be waiting and longing for a retirement that may by some freak accident (or devious design) never occur. We can’t be pining for the future to give us more leisure time to do the things we want to do. We can’t be yearning for any time better than the moment we have right now.  The challenge is to have the commitment and the courage not to wait; the difficulty is in doing the best I can do right this minute, tomorrow maybe, and to release into the ether the self doubt and regret about falling short; the trick, as it has always been, but now ever more urgently, is to live the life I want as I am living it. And what Rilke has said and Thoreau has said and countless other sage voices from antiquity right up to yesterday have said about living in the present moment–it’s all true, right, and correct, easy to say, but really, super, extraordinarily difficult to do.  As I turn 50 this week and move, I hope, gracefully into this next stage of my life, I endeavor to do what Henry David Thoreau urged us to do some 160 years ago, to advance confidently in the direction of our dreams, to live the life we have imagined in each day–somehow–and thereby “meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” especially in those common hours when anxiety about becoming an old guy of 50 is most tenaciously tugging.

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School House Rock ‘n’ Sock

rock-em-sock-em

Almost two months ago now, in the throes and excitement and the optimism of a new school year, I found myself writing with my students and posting the results as blog entries here on the Michael Jarmer blog page. I was a happy camper then. Those were truly salad days in September. Fast forward to November 11, two days ago, I make the following post on the social media network I fondly call Face Plant:

On this Veteran’s Day holiday I put in 6 hours toward grading papers and I’m nowhere close to being done. The only relief today was the time I spent uncontrollably laughing at a student’s use of the word “ballstastically” in her otherwise lovely paper about the joys of reading. Ballstastic, indeed.

This to point out, yes, the wonderful discovery of a new inappropriate word, but also to illustrate how impossible it has become to do my job in the time allotted me to do it in the context of the work week. I haven’t posted this on Face Plant, but let’s just pretend, shall we:

On this Thursday, November 13, I called in sick in order to grade papers.  It turned out to be a snow day.  No school.  No snow, either, but that’s no matter; somewhere in our district, up in the hills, perhaps, it was dangerous to drive a school bus or a car, and they closed down the district.  At any rate, I spent another 6 hours grading papers today and I’m nowhere close to being done.  This is not ballstastic.  Not at all.  I have decided that something has to be good to be ballstastic.  Not good.  Or, as Orwell put it in 1984, doubleplusungood.

The good news is that I only have about 90 papers yet to read, papers that I’ve been sitting on for weeks.  Listen, I tried to stagger the work.  One set of the reading journals I call “logs” came in, and then another, and then another, and then three more other sets of logs, all staggered, by the way.  But by the time I got to the bottom of the log jam, the papers started to roll in.  One set, then another set, and then four more sets, all staggered, but all coming in before I am able to vanquish the logs.  Meanwhile, during my preparation period in the context of the work day, there’s this thing called planning to be done: what am I going to do with kids for 87 minutes in six total sections of three different classes?  So, when and where will all of this grading get done, Mr. Smarty-pants?  Why, at home, of course, on my own time.

But here’s a thing you should probably know about me, and maybe you do if you’ve been hanging around the blog for any length of time.  I am one of those teachers who has become, out of necessity and survival, unwilling to work a 60 hour work week. I am often unwilling to work a 50 hour work week.  This means I have made certain compromises over the years as my class sizes and other responsibilities kept growing. I never stopped assigning work because the work, I’ve always believed, is good work. But I stopped giving detailed responses. I stopped reading student writing closely.  I dipped in and out.  I checked for a few choice things to give them feedback on, such as, this thesis is unclear, or wow, I don’t see any text evidence, or boy, you need to work on your spelling, or, hey, you can’t do that with a comma.  And sometimes I did what I am only slightly ashamed to call “fake grading.” In essence, I’d say to a student, “you’ve done this thing.  It appears that you have followed the instructions.  Doing the work, in and of itself, was a good, instructive experience for you. 100%.”  I became aggressively protective of my time at home as a husband, a dad, a writer, and a musician.  Teaching is not my life.  It is a significant part of my life that I don’t think I would trade for any other career, but it is not the only thing I live for.

Still, I resent the compromises I’ve had to make and have sort of bitterly come to the conclusion that the job a teacher absolutely should be doing, the job that I would really love to be doing, is next to impossible in the current climate–with massive class sizes and common core, with data-driven, student-growth teacher goals and site councils, with standardized tests and the consistent and obscenely absurd underfunding of schools–impossible.

So why am I now spending 12 extra hours over two days away from the school house with a promise of another 6 or 8 tomorrow?  That’s a really good question. What’s changed? I’m teaching freshmen for the first time in many years and many of them can’t write.  That’s part of it. I want them all to be capable of entering  IB English as juniors if they want to, and even if they don’t, I want them to have the skills. That’s part of it.  I’m trying proficiency grading with freshmen. This means that if a student’s work doesn’t meet standards, rather than slapping a D on it, end of story, instead the teacher asks the student to do it again. And again. And again. This takes longer. A lot longer. This is also part of the story.

But this might be the chief inspiration toward this madness. I’m partnering  with a couple of professionals who are much more hard core than I am–and I both love them and hate them for this.  Both, earlier in their profession than I am, both, idealistic and compassionate, both, stupendously positive forces for young people, but both suffering tremendously under this same load. It’s stupid and it’s my problem, but I can’t NOT do what they’re doing. I’m going to say the first part of this sentence over again: it’s stupid and it’s my problem. It’s both the blessing and the curse of refusing to teach in isolation like some of my colleagues continue to do.  It’s good work we’re doing and we’re proud of it, but it is absolutely, positively unsustainable.

People of Earth, citizens of Oregon and of these United States of America.  Stop pretending that simply raising the bar will achieve great results. Stop comparing apples to oranges by pretending the United States is remotely like Finland. Stop beating up on educators and walk instead a mile in their shoes.  Please sit down with 200 pieces of writing from 200 different teenagers and in less than 5 or 10 minutes per student try to give each of them meaningful feedback in writing as opposed to circling numbers on a rubric.  And don’t say you’re serious about or that you support education until you have figured out a way to create a work environment for educators that either provides the resources and time on the job to do that job, or that pays teachers for a 60 hour work week. Otherwise School House Rock becomes School House Rock ‘n’ Sock–which is nowhere close to ballstastic, but rather, doubleplusungood.

 

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#140: I Was Raised By. . .

Another mentor text, this time the one we used with our freshmen, to inspire poetry about who or what we credit for “raising” us.  The wonderful thing about using a mentor text, learning explicitly the moves of a writer we admire, is that all the 14 year olds end up writing these lively, effective poems.  Theirs are likely as good as mine.  Here’s the video of Kelly Norman Ellis performing her poem, “Raised by Women,”  followed by my attempt at following the mentor text.

I Was Raised By . . .

(After Kelly Norman Ellis)

I was raised by Mom and Dad,
easy going with me (but not for my older siblings),
music listening, affection giving,
martini drinking, catholic practicing,
church going, money saving, penny pinching,
state park camping, trailer pulling, swimming pool
building, garden planting, perfume and after-shave wearing,
square dancing, forgiving, loving kind of Mom and Dad.

I was raised by older brothers and a sister,
8-track tape popping, reel to reel spinning,
turntable turning, drive-in working,
hallway fighting, irresponsible under-age
drinking, kidney dialysis machine fixing,
marrying too soon, having kids too soon
and divorcing, Jesus finding, Bible-thumping,
Precision Castparts working forever,
heating and cooling installation
kind of older brothers and a sister.

I was raised by music,
drumming on tables, my big sister’s records,
my brothers’ records, the Beatles and the Monkees
in one room blasting, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix
in the other, the pop and the rock in the same house,
inhabiting my musical skin, forging my tastebuds.
I was raised by my first record, “Captain Fantastic,”
my first stereo system, a hand-me-down from brother #2,
full blast home alone lip syncing with a tennis racket,
my first band jamming at the house,
neighbors yelling the line from “Joe’s Garage,”
“Turn it down!  Don’t you boys know any nice songs?!”
kind of rock and roll music. 

I was not raised by books at first, but
by television, monster family showing,
combined family living, night stalking,
creature featuring, witch marrying,
50’s diner hopping, and space traveling
kind of television.

I was raised by teachers,
novel reading, chalkboard scribbling,
overhead projecting, big hearted,
mostly generous and well meaning
“You have a gift for writing”
kind of teachers.

And finally, almost adult,
the life of the word finally adopted
and raised me, at first mostly men,
Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Milton, Orwell, Joyce, Beckett,
Ellison, Twain, Vonnegut, Barthelme,
and then my literary mothers, Atwood,
Robinson, Walker, Morrison, Oliver;
all these widening my perspective kind of writers
after the teachers and television and the music
and the family, I was raised, brought up finally by the word.

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#139: Another Random Autobiography

We’re kicking off the school year by introducing to students this lovely thing we call a “mentor text.”  We look closely at a piece of good writing, observe its various moves and strategies, and then write our own piece of good writing inspired by the mentor text, mimicking as best we can the moves of the master.  In this case, with our IB Juniors, we’re looking at a poem by Mary Ann Larson called “Random Autobiography.”   Philosophically speaking, I think that if it’s a worthwhile thing for students to be doing, it’s a worthwhile thing for me to do as well–as long as I am not yet buried in paper. I am not yet buried in paper.  What follows are the results of my labor.

kindy

Another Random Autobiography

(After Mary Ann Larson)

I was unexpected,
a surprise, my mother says,
not a mistake.
I’ve held a dying dog,
And I kissed my dying father.
In the fourth grade, I heard Elton John
and my life changed.
I’ve lost teeth, lots of teeth.
I’ve lost girlfriends.
My heart broke the first
time in the sixth grade.
It’s happened since but
I’ve not been counting.
I’ll tell you sincerely:
McLoughlin Blvd. is more of a
wasteland now than it was
when I was a kid,
even though much of
the neighborhood is
improved, the parks, the roads,
the trolley trail.
Once, I was blind,
bandaged after an eye surgery
and for one year only
I wore glasses.
Once, and only once,
I ate a whole ball of wasabi
because I didn’t know what it was.
It was my birthday.
Just like Mary Ann Larson,
I rolled a Pinto, or rather,
was rolled in a Pinto.
The woman who would be my wife
was driving. We walked away, too.
My life of crime: I shoplifted candy bars
and snuck into movie theaters and drank
wine coolers before I was legal.
My dad let me wash down a raw oyster
with a swig of beer. I will testify
to raw oysters with a beer chaser.
I’ve been scared and scarred by The Excorcist
and by religion generally speaking.
I’ve felt the sharp pick-ax pain
of a broken collar-bone
when my brother fell on top of me
in a game of keep-away Frisbee.
All the writing I did as a child
I’ve got stored in boxes.
People have been kind and
I have been lucky.
I have been known to put mustard
on a piece of chocolate.
I teach and sing and write,
therefore, I am licensed,
armed and dangerous
in the best possible way.

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Radio Silence (An Interview)

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It’s been quiet around here on the Michael Jarmer blog. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Don’t think I haven’t wondered what had become of that guy who was wont to be so prolific with his blogging. Don’t think I haven’t worried about him just a bit. Well, me and this Michael Jarmer guy happen to be friends–more than just Facebook friends, and we were able to catch up recently, face to face, so to speak, and he gave me the whole scoop about why the radio has been so silent of late. He asked me to fill you in. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. To make it easy, I’ll just record verbatim the interview that transpired when I sat down with Michael in his natural habitat down there in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, in a house surrounded by a grove of oak.

Me: Even though you wrote about how you were endeavoring to beat the post writer’s camp blah blah blahs, we have not heard from you.  What’s up with that?

Michael: I talked a good talk, but I was, in actual practice, unable to beat the post writer’s camp blah blah blahs. I was, in fact, mired in the blah blah blahs, unable to write more in the new novel, uninspired for blog topics, even I found the poetry muse absent, out on some other business  junket, no doubt. Things went from blahzy to blahziest in short order.  I guess that this was just not a writing summer. But don’t worry. It’s not like I was sitting on my thumbs.  I had some stuff going on.

Me: What kind of stuff did you have going on?

Michael: I was mostly preparing for the release of my band’s new album.

Me: Tell us about that.

Michael: I play drums and sing in a band called Here Comes Everybody, and we’ve been working on this record for about six years now, a pop rock record that takes it’s lyrics from three plays by William Shakespeare.  The album is called “Play: Songs from Shakespeare.”

Me: That took up all your time this summer?

Michael: No, that wouldn’t be fair.  We were rehearsing once or twice a week, doing a promotional stunt here and there, trying to get a crowd for the cd release party on September 4, and now trying to get another crowd together for the vinyl release party on October 24.  But, you know, I’ve had this experience before.  I have found that the writing slows way down when I get busy with music–as the music slows way down when I’m busy with writing, and I tend to get busy with writing when musically I’m in between projects, or not gigging as much, or in between bass players–it’s kind of a teeter-totter effect.  There’s only so much creative fuel to go around, and when the teeter-totter falls on the music side, even if there’s plenty of time in the day, especially on a summer’s day, that doesn’t seem to make a difference.  I don’t get the writing done.  I feel bad about it.  But then I remind myself of all the good stuff that’s going on with my musical life, or in my family life, and then I don’t feel so bad.  But it’s a discipline.  Mostly I feel bad about not writing.  And then there was some teaching this summer, which is unusual, and now, of course, the school year proper has just kicked in and I’ve got two new courses I’ve not taught in a long time and that takes up some mental and creative energy.  This is all very boring stuff.  I’ve got lots of excuses (explanations) for not writing. Some of them are pretty good, as excuses go.  They don’t always help; tugging at a writer constantly while going through a dry spell is a fear that the well has run dry, that your best ideas are behind you.  All that’s stinking thinking, because the thing is, the new novel beckons, I want to write more poetry, and I want to write about teaching.  So, I’m not making any promises at this point, but I’m going to make a concerted effort to get back to the blog. I think it’s important for the health of the creature they call Michael Jarmer.

Me: Well, good luck with the return of the writing, and good luck with the new record.

Michael: Thanks.

Me: Hey Michael Jarmer, thanks for spending some time with me today.

Michael: Yeah, no problem; it was a pleasure.

 

 

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The Post Writer’s Camp Blah Blah Blahs: How to Deal

 

Home, 2015?

Wally Conference home, 2015?

Of course I was happy to be home. Of course I missed my family and was immensely glad to see them. Of course I didn’t miss that ugly, tiny, springy, single dorm mattress and that sweltering dorm room. Of course it was good to sleep in my own bed on the second night home, having slept the first night home in my son’s bed with my son because he missed me and it was sweet and the right thing to do. Generally speaking, again, I was and am happy to be back home. And yet, a week later, a post-writer’s-camp-funk has descended and lingers on me like a gigantic black cloud. I’m a teacher on Summer break; it’s not like I had to jump right back into the work fray. I’ve got leisure, and I don’t have to work until August, but at home there are a thousand and one distractions and responsibilities keeping me (I imagine) from writing and reading and separating me from the rest of my camper friends, save for those I can find in the digital realm, a blessing, if Facebook could ever be said to be a blessing.

Writer’s Camp, for me, every time I’ve had the opportunity to attend, is like pure bliss, an extended, uninterrupted bliss.  Besides being occasionally tired as a result of not quite enough sleep on uncomfortable beds, or being too warm in Mass or cold in Cali by the bay, I am, at Writer’s Camp, continuously on fire with happiness, contentedness, gratitude, and full of creativity at a pitch unlike anything I experience at home over the course of the year–with very few exceptions.  Psychologically, I think I understand this.  Like a love affair, a vacation to some exotic locale, or a kind of high brow Trekkie convention, the sheer novelty of being in a place where everyone is interested in the same thing and equally supportive of one another, where most of our day-to-day distractions, worries, and dramas are for the most part absent, and where we feel like we are continuously representing our best selves while simultaneously experiencing others at their best, brings about a kind of heady euphoria that pales in comparison to the “real life” we live back home. So the challenge–and I do not believe it is a challenge that is beyond me–the challenge is to somehow bottle the goodness of camp, allow it to sustain me rather than depress me in its absence.  I’m up for this challenge, but it’s not an easy thing.  Here are some strategies:

I read the published works of my friends from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers; such a wealth of talent, generosity and literary richness and diversity I have found nowhere else in contemporary letters.

I negotiate with the family some writing time or mini-retreats; all I have to do is ask and plan ahead and my wife of 28 years and my son understand how important this stuff is to my health and happiness and wellbeing and I am eternally grateful for their support.

Finally, I look forward to next year’s camp in a big way: I have taken on the responsibility to host the next conference in my home town at my undergraduate and teaching program alma mater.  I pray to The Big Cheese that nothing goes haywire there.   I am confident and excited about its potential success. And what a gift that will be: my Writer’s Camp Buddies from the MFA Writing Program at Warren Wilson College will all be in my proverbial living room, at my table, in my backyard–and the idea of that (not to mention that I won’t have to get on a plane) will mightily sustain me until next summer!

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Dispatches From Writer’s Camp: A Wally By Any Other Name

The Warren Wilson College Campus

The Warren Wilson College Campus

I’ve never understood how graduates from the MFA in Creative Writing program at Warren Wilson College came to refer to themselves as Wallies.  It turns out to be an ancient practice, going back all the way to the year the program moved to Warren Wilson from Goddard College in 1981.  I’ve done a little research here at Wally Camp and, through the power of the mighty Faceplant, I’m no more wiser on the subject than I was when I began my inquiry, in that, I do not have a definitive answer.  But I do have some educated guesses, some vague recollections, a few wild speculative stabs, and a personal attempt to ultimately define or describe The Wally in his and her natural habitat. Here’s the rundown thus far:

  • Early in the program at Warren Wilson, some distinguished guest of indeterminate identity introduced or just simply spoke about the founder of Warren Wilson, Warren Wilson, as “Walter” Wilson, over and over again.
  • Here’s a convincing list of possibilities from fellow alum Paul Michel: “Actually, dispute over the eventual origin of the ‘Wally’ moniker actually preceded conception of the original Goddard program. The leading candidates for the name source currently are Wally Amos, founder (and loser) of Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookies (as well as Wally’s Muffins) and ‘Professor’ Wally Jay, the legendary Hawaiian founder of ‘Small Circle JuJitsu.’ Recent innuendo suggesting a connection with ‘Saint Wally the Mushroom Fucking Gnome and the Pokinholes,’ a release by the ‘Knights in St. Wally’s Service,’ have been almost entirely discredited. Should you have the opportunity to dance to this song, you’ll want to pass it up.”
  • From fellow Wally, the poet Robert Thomas:  “It’s from Wally in Dilbert, who best captures the spirit of Warren Wilson. According to Wikipedia, Wally is ‘an employee [student] so deeply jaded that instead of doing any real work, he spends all his time and effort successfully gaming the system.'”
  • And then, finally, Faith, one of my best Wally buddies, in whom I have absolute Faith, told me about the more pedestrian and perhaps the most logical explanation. Isn’t logic always pedestrian?  She said almost exactly this: that the name Wally simply came from MFA students, making fun of the new institution, making fun of themselves, calling themselves Wallies because it was goofy or silly or funny and so much better than referring to themselves as Warrens or Wilsons, which are both the names of famous pop groups. Adding some specificity to this origin story, Peter Klank, our august director of activities at this year’s Wally Writer’s Camp, said this:
  • “Somewhere in the first year or so after the move to Warren Wilson from Goddard, somewhere someone (actually, I’m sure, many people) asked what and where the program was, and of course, had no idea. Thomas Lux, commenting on Warren Wilson’s relative obscurity, observed that we might just as well be at Walter Winchell College. Thus, in my day (’83 – ’85), we were not Wallies. We were Walters.” So Warren became Walter became Wally and the rest is history, as they say.  

Far from settling the matter, at least much has become clear to me about my experience and my history with this institution and all my fellow Wallies from this inquiry and from my time here at Writer’s Camp.  Every year there’s a Wally conference, a writer’s camp for Warren Wilson MFA graduates.  It’s like a reunion, only it’s wide, covering graduating classes from 1978 (or thereabouts) onward;  it’s rigorous: people are thoughtful, reflective, open, helpful, generous, intent on developing further their own craft and helping their fellow Wallies do the same; finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s uproariously fun.  In between the serious conversations about the craft of creative writing and sometimes sobering conversations about the news of the day or the state of the world, and in between the solitude that most of us spend bashing out a draft of a new thing, and in between the intense workshops, manuscript reviews, classes offered voluntarily by alum, and the nightly readings, plenty of time is given over to pure joy, pure laughter, pure pleasure in the company of people who feel part of a clan, part of a family, like members of a gang mostly intent on making the world and this life richer and deeper through the making and sharing of literature, but who have jettisoned pretension and adopted this cute, odd, puzzling moniker: We Are Wallies.

Tonight, we read, we dance, we sleep a little.  Tomorrow morning, we all go back into The World.  Until next year, friends.

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