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The Freedoms Of Fear And Discovery


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From David Anthony Hohol…

I’ve traveled a great deal in my lifetime. Crossing the borders of nearly 50 countries, I’ve managed to take in several shining splinters of the world and I am a better man for it.

Those who know me often ask if there was ever a time during my global crusade of experience when I felt afraid.  The reason being, aside from wandering through standard traveler fare like Italy, France, Greece, China and Thailand, I’ve also taken the time venture into places like Rwanda, Syria, Iran, Sudan and North Korea. The reputations of such places are like quicksand in the minds of so many, pulling them deep into a foggy quagmire of stereotypical thinking and marginalized thought. Thus, the query with regards to fear and the curiosity that always follows.

In all my travels, the only time fear played a role in my empirical odyssey of the soul was during a trip to the great African nation of Ethiopia. After landing in the capital city of Addis Ababa, I took a small 24-seat plane to the town of Lalibela. With a population of little more than 10,000, the airport was a simple concrete pad. Why it even existed was the very reason for my journey to such an isolated place. Lalibela is a town in northern Ethiopia known for its monolithic or rock hewn churches. One of the African continent’s holiest places, the Orthodox Christian Churches, the layout of the town, and the names of the major buildings are believed to be a symbolic representation of Jerusalem, circa 1187.  A series of eleven churches, they are carved into the rocky ground and comparable in architectural complexity to traditionally constructed buildings.  Think of one piece of stone being sculpted into a two-floor, four-room, eleven meter high dwelling – a remarkable feat to be sure and no doubt why they are considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Upon my arrival, I found a beat up old bus outside the airport and climbed aboard. The only white man in sight, I stood out ridiculously, but no one even so much as looked at me. I took my seat next to a very old and very tiny woman, with a basket of freshly dug sweet potatoes on her knees. After a 45-minute trek that sliced through red sandstone mountains and long winding roads, I arrived in Lalibela.  A township cradled atop a set of treed and rolling hills, it was a vision of simplicity.  The hotel was a collection of single-dwelling small detached cabin-type constructs, with a winding path and the makings of a courtyard running through their center.  The office was in a small shack near the entrance and after checking in, I was quick to enjoy my amenities. No hot water, no heat, and electricity between the hours of only six and nine pm, I nevertheless had a warm bed, plenty of candles, and a stand-up shower. In the end, it was all I needed.  Although only late afternoon, I was exhausted from the trip and passed out in my single bed not long after walking through the doors.

I awoke several hours later in total darkness. I fumbled around to find my cell phone, and using it as a flashlight, tracked down some matches before lighting two long white candles. As my shimmering shadow danced on the cracked plastered wall before me, I felt hungry for the first time all day.

It was only 10 pm, but when I made my way outside I saw no one. I walked through the courtyard and was surrounded by an eerie silence. The office was empty. I looked towards what looked like a parking area and saw the gate was closed. A ten-foot wall, parts of which were topped with barbed and razor wire, surrounded the complex and a security guard stood watch at the only entrance. I walked towards him as he lit a cigarette. He was surprised to see me approach him. “Any place to get something to eat around here? I asked curiously.

He told me there would be nothing available at the hotel until tomorrow. It was then I asked him to open the gate. He gave me a look of half-amazement, but did not for an instant refuse, quickly adhering to my request.  I figured there must be something open somewhere, where a guy could grab at least a bag of chips; and so, I wandered off into the African night in search of food. The streetlights were much dimmer than I was used to and much further apart, cloaking me in a numbing half-darkness. Most of the buildings were made from mud and stones and at first, all I heard was the hum of the power lines.

I eventually noticed a group of men standing on a street corner some 100 meters ahead of me. It was only as I got closer did I notice they were all of fifteen or sixteen years old, and draped across each of their shoulders were what looked like AK-47 assault rifles. The site of the guns momentarily caught me off guard, but whether it was security guards with machine guns in Cairo shopping malls or gun-wielding tour guides in Arusha, this was something I’d seen before. Accordingly, I readily approached the group of what turned out to be seven armed teenagers and stuck to my mission.  “How’s it goin’? I’m in the hotel up the street. It’s all shut down for the night… any place a guy can get something to eat around town?” I asked with an ever so slight smile.

The young men looked at each other in a somewhat puzzling fashion and soon began speaking in their local dialect. After a minute or two, one of them motioned for me to follow him with a simple tilt of the head, slung his machine gun over his shoulder and made his way in the other direction. He was a tall lanky fellow, but his wire-thin arms were chiseled with muscle and his head was shaven clean. He wore a green sleeveless shirt and his khaki pants were stained with dirt and mud. He plodded along with heavy black boots and without hesitating for an instant, I followed.

Once inside the confines of what amounted to a shanty town, there were no street lights whatsoever.  Within only a few seconds I found myself in the midst of a darkening maze. We ducked under a clothesline and made one turn, then another, and soon another. Eventually we walked down an alleyway – barely three feet across – and the smells began to hit me; fried fish, straw, wood-burning fires, livestock and sewage. We moved into a more uncluttered space, tantamount to a small street, and came across several open ditches filled with stagnant water and trash. For a moment, I was reminded of Kibera.

A year earlier, I’d spent some time in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi following a safari through Masai Mara While there I took the opportunity to walk through Kibera. Home to a million people, it’s the second largest slum in the world.  While what appeared to be Lalibela’s equivalent was no where near the size and therefore produced no where near the waste, it was nonetheless a slum. Nearly all the buildings were made with mud walls.  Sheets of either tin or scrap wood were used for framing and finishing. There appeared to be no plumbing, little electricity, and no waste removal process. Above all else, all there were living in absolute poverty.

Many homes were not supplied with power, but from time to time the flickering light of a television gleamed through the cracks of a doorway, or the tinny sound of music blaring from a pocket radio filled the night air. When we once again entered a labyrinth of tiny alleyways, I felt it for the first time.

“Where am I going? There is no way in hell I could ever come close to finding my way out of this place,” I said to myself, as I looked behind me.

It was at this point, whenever I looked back, the streets appeared to be closing in on me. I soon realized I was at the complete mercy of my guide – an impoverished teenager with an assault rifle, who had yet to even speak a word of English to me. “All your years of traveling, you should know better…. what the fuck have you managed to get yourself into, Dave,” I said under my breath, my heart beating just a little faster than it was before.

The combination of being with an armed, and perhaps even desperate unknown, along with having absolutely no ability to guide myself out of my current surroundings, even if he wasn’t there, filled me with a sense of fear – for the first and only time in all my travels. I felt my heart flutter in my chest and my eyes pull back into my head. My fingers began to fidget. My breathing quickened. After what seemed like a long walk, my guide stopped at a small mud hut, slid his gun off his shoulder, and pulled back the curtain that served as the door. He stepped inside and motioned me to come in. I didn’t have any idea what was waiting for me, but by this point it was entirely too late. I simply succumbed to the emancipating powers of fate and walked through the darkened doorway.

Sitting at a small rectangular table directly opposite the door were three young children. I figured their ages ranged from around 5 to 10 years old.  The sight of three children was much less ominous than what I was anticipating and my fear began to fade. A woman who looked about 30 sat in a chair near the door and next to a large upside down wicker basket.  I stood atop a dirt floor, and looked up to see a thatched roof patched with tin. I was surrounded by mud walls, plastered over and cracked in several places all the way up the the ceiling, and could see the entire construct was made up of two small rooms.  As my guide spoke to the woman, the three youngsters couldn’t take their eyes off me, the youngest of whom wore an ear-to-ear smile on her bright round face. Then quite unexpectedly, she asked me a question. “What’s your name?” she inquired in a tiny voice.

“David, what’s yours?” I promptly replied.

She informed me her name was Adila and introduced her older brother and sister, whose names I cannot recall. Little Adila however, was a memorable young spirit. Her eyes danced when she spoke, her plump cheeks wore dimples, and she exuded a warm and soothing energy that immediately made me feel safe. The young man who brought me to this place then spoke English for the first time. “Please, my friend… sit down,” he requested politely and pointed to the chair behind me.

“Bring it up here,” he said wanting me to pull the chair up to the table where the children sat. Above the table, attached to the wall, was a 21-inch TV. I took a seat, he turned the old television on and then flipped the knob to find an English speaking program. The younger boy then said something to him and just by the way he playfully pushed him down into his chair, I began to think my guide was the eldest brother and this was his family. As it turned out I was right.

My fear was met that night with the fact that this young man took me to his mother’s house, to his home, and asked his mom to make me something to eat.  A momentary sense of shame rolled through me for having thought the worst of a young man nothing less than kind and decent. I certainly wouldn’t take a man off the street to my family’s home and feed him. He was a better man than me.

Like throughout most of Africa, all of the children spoke English and we chatted while their mother put something together in the next room. The mud brick walls and the dirt floor didn’t seem to match the fact that Tom Cruise was on the screen above the table, but then again the profound ability of film to infiltrate the furthest reaches of the world was something I’d seen many times over. I told them I was from Canada, but living in Dubai, and that I came to their little piece of the world to see the churches. They were quite fascinated and told me although they saw others come to the churches from time to time, they hadn’t actually met a white person before and certainly never sat around their home and spoke with one.

Shortly thereafter, their mother returned with a plate of a reddish stew of some kind and a piece flat bread. The mixture was cold and I assumed it was goat meat. She then came back with a tall glass of very murky water and placed it on the table next to my plate. The food was gritty and did not have the best taste, and nether did the water, but I ate every last bit of it, not wanting to offend the extreme kindness afforded me. I asked the kids questions about Africa, Ethiopia, Lalibela, and their schools, the entire time thinking of how blessed I was to have such an opportunity. There I was, sitting in a family’s home, eating a home-cooked meal and talking about life in an isolated Ethiopian town. For a moment, I felt overwhelmed. Emotions ran up into my chest. I felt so very happy to be alive.

Within 30 minutes of my arrival, I felt it time to leave and thanked my hosts for their kindness. It was at this point I took out my wallet and gave their mother want amounted to 20 American dollars. I was later told she would not see that much money in a month. It made me happy. Just before heading out the door, I was struck with a sudden thought.  I stopped and reached into the front pocket of my faded jeans. Pulling out my key chain, I removed all the keys, and stepped down to one knee. I handed Adila the key chain made up of a stainless steel Canadian flag. “This is for you Adila… something to remember me by,” I said softly, a smile stretched across my unshaven face.

Her eyes lit up as she held it in her hands. She thanked me and for a minute I thought it likely she didn’t even have a single key to put on it. After all, their front door to their tin-roofed, two-room mud hut was a bed sheet. Rising to my feet, I said good-bye to all there and the young man whom I thought might be leading me to my demise took me back out into the maze of run down homes. The walk back was less than ten minutes and seemed much shorter this time around. Soon enough, I found myself on the same street where my journey began. My guide, who never did introduce himself, then said, “It seems you’re not afraid of much. Life is better that way, I think.”

He paused for a moment and I didn’t respond, but only nodded. He seemed to want to say more and soon did.  “The only reason we carry these guns is that someone needs to protect the people from thieves and violence. We have no police here. We’re  just trying to keep our town safe… along with white guys like you who wander in once in a while,” he finished with a smile.

I shook his hand firmly, thanked him for his kindness, and made my way back to the hotel. I soon found myself caressed by the soft candle light of my room, sitting atop my bed and under a swaddling mosquito net that hung from the plastered ceiling. It was quiet. I was alone. Suddenly, I wished I was back sitting at the table with my new friends.

The next few days were spent exploring the churches of Lalibela, as well as traversing the amazing country side around the area. I hiked through rocky terrain, visited villages, stood within the confines of a monstrous cave nestled in the side of a mountain face that doubled as a church, and witnessed worship the likes of which I’ve never seen; but still, years later it’s the sight of Adila’s dancing eyes that remains strongest within the mystical chords of my memory, along with the gesture of kindness afforded to me by her older brother – a man whose name I will never know.

There are many differences amongst us and there are no absolutes, this much I know to be true.  Despite these differences, we are more alike than different, no matter how difficult it may be to recognize our similarities. It’s in our nature to see our differences before we see that which is the same, but when given the chance to truly see, like a blind man regaining his sight, what was always right in front of us becomes an emancipating vision of truth. On a grander scale, the reflection of our internal selves can be seen in almost any human soul. We are all mirrors, all reflections of one another, yet so many simply cannot see.

We all need to shine a light upon that which makes us feel uncomfortable, odd, hurt, or even angry, so that we can see inside ourselves and begin to understand. The result will be the inspiration to learn more, to experience more, to understand that which we do not, and see that which we have never seen. By extension, people all around us, regardless of who they are become more like the person we see in the mirror each day. In the end, exposure and experience bring understanding and hope, and the further we reach into the bottomless depths of empiricism, the smaller our majestic world becomes.

A human being is a part of the whole called by us the universe,          

a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his

thoughts and feelings as something separate than the rest, a kind

of optical delusion of his consciousness. The delusion is a kind

of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection

for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves

from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all

living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

                                                                                          -Albert Einstein


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Like It Or Not, We’re All One


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From Larry Wohlgemuth…

Look for the similarities and not the differences” was the sage advice I got early in my journey through the 12 steps. I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t envision myself similar to all those in this diverse group.

It was easy when someone shared details that mirrored my experience, but others didn’t resonate with me. Their experiences varied so widely from my own that it seemed unlikely I shared anything but my biology with them.

However, as time went by and my eyes opened wider, I understood that I had more in common with the people in this room than I ever could’ve imagined. Then I realized it wasn’t just the people in this room, but people everywhere, and I felt connected in ways I never believed possible.

It begs the question, what causes us to consider that we are different from, and in many cases less than, our fellows?

A sure sign of one’s sense of inferiority is the need to project an appearance of superiority over others, which feeds the notion of “exceptionalism” held by a large number of Americans. They believe that by dressing up the outside it will make them feel better on the inside. Clothes make the man, don’t you know.

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned at my twelve-step group was, “Don’t compare your insides with other people’s outsides.” It took some time to figure out what that meant, but my eyes opened some when I read the following poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson:

WHENEVER Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

You see I was raised in a home, not unlike other people, to believe in the heretical notion of my own conception in sin, and therefore my inferiority. I was broken, damaged goods from the first moment I drew breath, and there was little I could do about it.

I imagined people to be truly reflective of the edifices which they created for themselves, and not for the human beings they really were inside. By doing so I considered myself broken while everyone else functioned properly. I believed that I was fatally flawed.

Over the years I watched other people’s lives fall apart, people I’d considered far more capable than was I. They were brought down by greed, sexual infidelities, anger, mistrust and several other foibles which I’d never perceived in them from their outward appearances.

Nevertheless, I clung to the notion of my own inferiority until George W. Bush inadvertently made it crystal clear for me. It wasn’t until his “they hate us for our freedoms” meme that I took a long look at the world around me and appreciated it for what it really is.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with most of its citizens barely able to scratch out a living. I imagined these peasants, unable to adequately feed themselves, sitting around worried about the freedoms in America. It was so absurd as to make your head explode, then it struck me: they’re just like us.

They’re concerned about their survival, and they don’t have time to consider what might be happening in America. It’s this concern about our survival that Bush played to in us to create the fear necessary for people to demand a military invasion of this impoverished nation. Appealing to that and our need to feel exceptional was all he needed to do.

If we weren’t in their country, the people of Afghanistan wouldn’t give us a second thought. They wouldn’t have time, because they’re too busy trying to do things like feed, clothe and provide shelter for their families, just like us. So how do they get us to believe otherwise? That’s where the church comes in.

In the early days of our country, “men of God” extolled the virtues of American exceptionalism and our manifest destiny, as they encouraged our soldiers to slaughter the “heathen” Native Americans. It’s the artificial divide created by religions that enjoins otherwise good men to commit unspeakable atrocities. They made the soldiers see the Native Americans as different, less than and a threat.

It’s necessary for us to believe there’s a fundamental difference, and that “they” are less than human. In reality the similarities far outweigh the differences. People the world over want the same thing that we want, and that’s to fall in love, get married and have children they hope to see have a better life than did they.

If you can’t be convinced that “they” are fundamentally different than you, it’s impossible to compel you to commit atrocities. If we cast off these artificial divides and think for just a moment, we will intuitively understand that “they” are just like us.

Don’t you think they feel the same joy as we do when they get married or have a child? And don’t you think their hearts are filled with sorrowful grief when that child dies? They’re human beings, our fellows, and we share the same fine characteristics and shortcomings with them. Our joy is the same as their joy, and our grief is the same as their grief. We are all the same. We are all one.

They have their men of God as well, also filling their heads with heretical notions, hoping to compel their followers to act upon them. It only works if we let it, and I say it’s time for us to cast off these artificial divides and recognize our oneness. We are born perfect with a complete set of instructions inside, and it’s time to understand that and stop butchering each other over whose God has the biggest dick.

There’s an old Socialist slogan from the early 20th century, “A bayonet is a weapon with a worker at each end”. We need only alter that slightly to say human being at each end. It’s time to stop killing in the name of either God or country, and recognize that this is our family, and to treat them accordingly.

You can continue to accept the artificial divides and go on slaughtering each other in the name of some God or another, or you can join the family of man and enjoy a seat at the table of peace, love and hope for the future. It’s your choice. Just understand that one day it may be your child on the wrong end of that bayonet.

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Working Joes and The Shadows of Capitalism


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From David Anthony Hohol…

Now at the very beginnings of a new millennia, working class citizens continue to live a life of permanent insecurity never being sure that the current job will last or how much longer they will be able to live in their rented houses. The experience of living in fear continues to permeate daily life, as surviving from check to check in the name of the capital and production can often be a relentless endeavor. By extension, the working class lifestyle produces an almost frivolous mind-set, as living in and for the moment becomes no less than a way of life and planning for the future becomes a moot point. In other words, having fun when the chance is there to do so as well as compartmentalizing the future within the far reaches of the mind has become a philosophy of life and living for the working class masses of the Western World.

Today as in their beginnings, the best place to establish, maintain and perpetuate such a philosophy continues to be the local neighborhood pubs of communities the world over. If Mr. Durden was indeed correct in describing today’s masses as the middle children of history, without a great war and without a great depression, then local pubs and bars are like the foster homes for the bastard children of the working class. Seemingly always unable to fit and being unwanted by those they aspire to be, they cling together in tiny groups, tiny families and find meaning and acceptance only in each other. The working class is united in the great depression that is life, bounded by insecurity and dissatisfaction and grounded by a common distaste for the status quo and their inverted reflection of what they wish for but simultaneously never want to be- the dreaded, conforming, assured, amnestied, calculating, time obsessed, aura-less, ghost that is the Yuppie.

Yuppies dream of safe jobs, stable mortgages, manageable payments on their new sports utility vehicles,  a top of line barbecue for the deck with a matching set of tongs, all the while seemingly rushing towards the end of it all, the emphasis on the destination and not the journey. Initiatively impaired and creatively stunted, yuppies revolt by living a violently nomadic almost disloyal social lifestyle, bouncing around a variety of sushi bars and cocktail lounges while constantly anticipating the next trendy place to temporarily frequent. Conversely, the working class lifestyle is defined by unsafe jobs, unstable housing and used cars, but their vocations themselves are defined by repetitiveness and this transcends to their social life which is about routine, routine and more routine. Finding a spot to go after work where they are called by name, where what they drink is in front of them before they order and where they are noticed and respected while being surrounded by others from their own social rung in the ladder becomes important, the emphasis being on the journey and not the destination. And with this, the fundamental lines of division although altered and evolved still serve the same purpose and produce the same result as they did during the Industrial Revolution.  As a result the aims of both groups will forever be entirely irreconcilable. The Industrial Revolution no doubt cast the mold of Modern society and long before even my grandfather was born I believe the template for much of my life had already been set into motion.

Until the end of my twenties I lived in shackles, chained to a lifestyle that was of course possible to leave behind, as even the most maximum of maximum security prisons have had those who escaped from behind their walls. Nevertheless, it takes patience, calculating thought, dedication, determination and a little luck in order pull off the great escape. Even if one is successful there are absolutely no guarantees. I still feel haunted by my life on the inside, as it continually grabs at me, nipping at my heels, trying to recapture one of its escaped prisoners with all the furor of a viciously determined warden. Being inside the toweringly cold and incapacitating walls of the working class prison for so many years however, thickens your skin, develops your sense for opportunity and most of all your scent for blood.

The hospitality industry with it’s kaleidoscope of personalities and lifestyles, is no less than a educational experience that produces for those who open their eyes and take in all that they see, a working class degree in social psychology.  Working in the business for a long period of time and being exposed to the wide variety of ideas and individuals that came through the doors, I came to posses the gift of intuitive verbalization, whether it be colorful small talk or high-end conversations on serious topics of the day, and became a sort of social contortionist able to naturally adapt to any given situation. Furthermore, I learned to learn to listen and not pry, to sympathize and not pity as over the years I developed the ability to tune myself in to another human being. By extension, people began feel as though they could tell me things they couldn’t tell others and the role of confidant became a standard in my life. All of these qualities helped immeasurably with my work that began immediately after graduating university, which included traveling the world as an educator, becoming a writer and learning about my self and my life that was which in turn produced the very words you are reading at this moment.

Combining my working mans social psych degree with nearly five years of post-secondary study, the benefits of a classical education and a university degree produced more of something I had been lacking, seemingly, my entire life to that point- that being something called opportunity.  Opportunity is not divided equally in a democratic capitalist culture, not by a long shot, although such a culture continually trumpets the fallacy of equal opportunity for all. In today’s postmodern world ideas and technology have advanced immeasurably since the days of the Industrial Revolution, but despite the New World and the Technological Revolution, we are now in the midst of that is changing human relationships and instinctual drives by the moment, the economic dissection of society has changed very little and if anything, it continues to tighten its deadly grip on every society that subscribes to the human vice that is capitalism.

The upper class of liberal democratic societies make up a only a minute percentage of the overall population, but control the vast majority of a nations wealth living the life once reserved only for royalty. By extension, in most any modern urban sprawl there are perverse economic discrepancies, as there are those with millions and those with nothing separated by only a few city blocks and such incongruity represents the cult of self-interest that is a structural feature of any modern industrialized society. The dirty little truth of capitalism is that an entirely oppressive class system must exist. I mean it absolutely has to, as the high, the middle and the lower classes are a necessary construct for success.

By consequence those with money and thus power will have a tremendous amount of opportunity, economic and otherwise, compared to those who are economically weaker. Furthermore, those in the middle and lower classes are necessary and meet the needs of those in the upper class and are a means to the end of the entire capitalistic construct.  Those in the upper economic stratosphere need the middle class to be the teachers, the police officers, the nurses, and those in the lower class are needed to clean the toilets, pick up garbage, cook their meals and work in their factories. Simply stated an industrialized society could not function if these roles were not filled. As a necessitating consequence of such a system those beneath the upper class often are given the opportunity to earn a wage of subsistence or in other words no more money than what will allow them to maintain their necessary position in society. What the larger portion of society thus does is work to live and not much more.

With that said, the postmodern middle class most often produces for itself a sufficient lifestyle and serves as a Rockwellian portrait of comfortable success, but the economic difference between middle class and those in the upper class is incredibly, even ridiculously vast. Middle class anxiety is therefore rampant, as they feel only one medical emergency or one lost job away from sinking to the masses of the lower class. The lower class continually dreams of making the leap to the middle, but are provided with the least amount of opportunity of all, and many live in a constant state of apathy and learned helplessness. The burden of financial stress produces more divorce, more substance abuse, more teen pregnancy, more crime and far less education. Industrialized countries sell this rigged system to their own inhabitants by defining success goals as accessible to everyone, regardless of socio-economic status, race or gender, when this is hardly the case at all. This boldly represents the discrepancy between social goals and the legitimate opportunities available to achieve these goals. Everyone is encouraged to achieve success when quite simply the paths to success are only open to some. The very value system that that is born from capitalistic ideology declares to the masses that certain common symbols of success are necessary to achieve self worth and societal acceptance, but the very structure necessary for the system itself to survive scrupulously restricts or at times entirely denies the majority of the population access to the channels that are needed to do so. The very way a capitalistic society is constructed to draw the greatest energies and efforts from all those under her wing in hopes of producing the highest standard of living possible actually produces the economically challenged majority. The biggest, most manipulative and dirtiest lie that has ever been perpetrated by capitalism is that there is equal opportunity for all. I mean really… I call bullshit.

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Raiding Saudi


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From Saudi Arabia Corespondent Eman Al Nafjan…

Ok I took a break and I learned something about myself. I’m a polygamist, I’ve married this blog over the father of my children and now I’m attached to it and cannot stay away too long from my spoiled second husband, let alone two months. If I try, I just miss it more. I knew it all along but I had to give it a try.

Now that’s out of the way, I have to tell you what I was up to last night. My very dear friend Tine has finished her time here in Saudi and is leaving soon. Unfortunately, being cooped up in expat compounds; she has never had a chance to see muttawas in action. These lions of Saudi morality are a staple mark of life here so I couldn’t let her leave without the experience. That’s why we went on a muttawa safari. We headed to their natural habitat, shopping malls. And we weren’t disappointed. At Riyadh Gallery, a mall that opened about a couple of years ago, they had the World Cup match on this humongous TV screen that you can watch a mile away. I’m not exaggerating; people on all three floors were watching the same screen. There were about three hundred people there.. Halfway through the match the muttawa came in and ordered the TV off. There were two muttawas and one police officer escorting them. They strolled around this crowd searching for men without women. Because it is illegal for single men to go to a shopping mall. They have to be accompanying a wife, mother or sister. Every once in a while they would stop young Saudi men and ask them where their women were. One guy they didn’t believe had to drag a little girl over to the muttawas so she could verify that he was related to the group of women he pointed at.

Before the muttawas came in it was noisy and men and women stood next to each other looking up at the screen. At every highlighted moment in the match there was either a collective roar or groan. The atmosphere was electric. Then the muttawas came and everyone knew that these three men had come in long before seeing them stroll by. Even Tine remarked on how these muttawas must be feeling this power they had over the people. No one objected to having the match turned off. Women went scurrying off to find seats in segregated areas. Teenagers headed the opposite direction that the muttawas were coming from for fear that they would be stopped because of their hairstyles and low worn jeans. Everyone was silently glancing around, looking for the muttawas and guessing who their victims might be.

We decided to follow them, albeit from afar to see who would they take. They focused their energy on young Saudi men. They even went into the bathrooms looking for hiding offenders. Before we lost them, we had witnessed them apprehend two men. They made the two offenders come along as they continued with their morality raid.

Both Tine and I were angered by how passive people were. It’s as if they really believed that they were guilty of something. Hundreds of people shaking in fear of a couple of bearded men. No wonder that things remain the way they are. People believe they deserve to be treated this way. It took the muttawas about twenty minutes to finish their raid and just like when they came in, you knew that they left. The match was turned back on and everyone relaxed and became noisy again.

Before they left, I took Tine outside to show her how arrogant muttawas are even in the way they park. And sure enough, their jeep was parked on the pavement right next to the automatic doors. You would think they were an ambulance.

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Photo of the Week – Spanish Tradition


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Photograph by David Anthony Hohol

The above photograph was taken in Madrid moments before the end of a Corrida de torro, otherwise known as a bullfight, a long standing tradition in Spain. Bullfighting is certainly one of the best-known-although most controversial popular Spanish traditions. While not for every-one’s taste, the tradition has roots dating back to pre-historic times. What many do not know is that there is little sport to it all, as the bulls are teamed up on by as many as ten men before the matador makes his entrance.

Two picadors, on armor plated horses, stab the bull twice with lances. Meanwhile, three banderilleros jab the bull in the back with pokers that stay stuck into his hide. On top of that there are three tereros standing with pink capes who antagonize the bull and who can hide behind wooden barriers when in danger. 

After the bull is exhausted, stabbed, jabbed, ran tired and bleeding to death, only then does the supreme matador enter with red cape and sword.  In the end, he kills the bull with a sword through the back of the neck. The reality is this is not a fight, but a sacrifice in the name of tradition. Think of it what you will, it is a beloved part of the culture and folklore in Spain, Portugal, Southern France, Mexico and several Latin American countries.

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From Sweden With Love


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From Special Guest Stephen Parise….

Yeah, life in Sweden… as a foreigner. I think life in Sweden is pretty good overall. Beautiful people, in designer clothes, living in nice flats; IKEA furniture; free edcuation: ABBA; most families have summer cabins and /or sailing boats; the Midsummer celebration madness; Schnapps; about seven to eight months of winter, where the sky can be dark for up to seventeen hours a day; the archipelago; Swedish meatballs; good health care – much on the par with Canada – social welfare state and all that – ‘The Swedish Model’. But there’s still something off. Every time I think I have them figured out a major curve ball is thrown my way; and I’m not one to use baseball terms.

I’m an American from New York and have been living in Sweden for nearly nine years. I speak Swedish very well, or so I’ve been told. The place has its ups and downs, as much as anywhere else I’d imagine. My impressions, althoughn not exhiastive, are as follows.

Growing up I never had much knowledge about Sweden; never thought a lot about it really. Paris, London, and Madrid were the far off holiday dream spots. Certainly not Stockholm and the rest of Scandinavia. And even though I watched Ingmar Bergman movies with my dad, not having A CLUE what was going on in the film, this was not a major driving force behind me moving there. Actually, it was when I saw the Cardigans perform live at The Knitting Factory in New York circa 1998. No, not really. I was in fact invited for a one-year residency back in 2002, during which time I met my very own Viking a.k.a boyfriend and so I wound up staying. In Sweden it’s possible for same-sex partners to stay legally in the country; very progressive.

But just because you’re allowed to stay doesn’t make you one of them. There’s talk of problems with assimilation into Swedish society, but I think its more up to the individual. I think of Namko Sabuni. She came to Sweden as an immigrant from Africa and became the Peoples’ Party Minister of Integration. She’s often been quoted saying that she ‘refuses to be a martyr’ and be pitied when talking about immigration & assimilation issues. Sure! If she could do it why can’t everybody else? The education and high-ranking official job doesn’t hurt.

Yes, Stockholm is indeed a hard city to make friends, however, what big city isn’t? I’ve never really met an unfriendly Swede. They can be direct as hell and even more so when you speak Swedish. Its a very direct language. I recall an incident of going to get film developed in some store I’d often go to; the same store I had gone and spoken English at many times before and there would be a certain pleasantness about the place…but now, as a Swedish-speaking customer I was treated rather poorly and with haste. The nerve!

In many ways, Swedes are very similar to Americans. They won’t admit it, but they are. They buy every TV program (from bad to worse) from the States; some of which were probably even cancelled after the first few shows only to be played out in its full run on Swedish television. I once met a French tourist who had said out loud what I’d only been thinking all along – Sweden is a Swedish-speaking America. At present, there is an overwhelming infiltration of one-liners, said in English no less, added into daily Swedish conversation: I don’t think so! My way or the highway! All or nothing! Take it or leave it! and so on.

Organization is big in Sweden and Scandinavia in general.Things have to be organized. Wasn’t it Björk who sang ‘I thought I could organize freedom, how Scandinavian of me ‘. In Sweden you ‘take a number’ and line up almost everywhere. Banks and hospitals, of course, but even in the state owned liquor shops, Systembolaget. There you take a number and wait to be called. During which time you survey their stock (neatly displayed behind glass) and finally when called give them the article number of the item and amount of the booze you wish to buy. In department stores, during the holidays when you wish to have your presents wrapped you take a number. And although it might seem odd, it works.

While on the topic of holidays, I’ve spent many a Christmas with my Viking’s family. Christmas was never really a big deal growing up in my house. In Sweden, since the family unit is so strong in some cases, the holiday season is very important. At around one in the afternoon, Swedish families gather around the TV to watch the annual broadcast of Mickey Mouse and his friends’ Christmas special. From what I gather, its been on for years. And still, without fail, the laughs are shared by one and all at the same silly things that happen: Chip and Dale (Piff and Puff in Swedish) in the Christmas Tree tormenting poor Pluto, Mickey’s camping adventure with Goofy and Donald Duck, The romantic pasta scene from Lady and the Tramp. The one particular segment that strikes only me as odd  takes place in Santa’s workshop, where a newly made doll with an obvious black-face, upon seeing Santa for the first time yells ‘Mammy!’ If this isn’t a throw back to the days of Jem and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I don’t know what is! I’ve tried explaining the severity of the word mammy and go on to say this would never be shown in the States, but I never seem to be able to convey its heavy history.

Although very open about sex, public displays of affection, skinny dipping and taking a sauna together, Swedes still have quite an odd take on sex. The daily newspaper, Metro, reported that Sweden is the #1 country where folks hop into bed on the first date! And who can forget the movie Nyfiken Gul (I am Curious (Yellow)) , one of the first films to show a full on sex scene in a non-pornographic film. Yet after all this they seem to be quite puritanical about sex. Could it be the outside influence? When I say ‘outside influence’ I mean the mass immigration going on in Sweden. Breast-feeding seems a thing of the past. A taboo. Something to be ashamed of. To feed one’s child.

The Utopia of yesterday is becoming a thing of the past. Sweden wants to make a good impression with everything it does. Is it possible to always make a good impression? It’s a country that doesn’t want to take the first step with anything. There was even a TV program with the theme of: Sweden – the world’s most modern country with the most insecure people. And how is that possible in the Swedish Model setting?

Stephen Parise was born in New York in 1975. He left home for Paris at the age 18, but later returned to his hometown to get a BFA in painting. Soon after some time spent in Japan, he moved to Sweden in 2002 where he still resides today.

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St. Ethelburga’s Blessings


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churchFrom Nora Fakim…

With today’s British society becoming more and more multicultural, this can sometimes lead to fear of the unknown and often racial tensions can start to develop such as Islamophobia. Many multi-faith organizations such as those at St. Ethelburga aim to reunite different faiths, help build peace and break down the barriers of resentment and ignorance.

St. Ethelburga is medieval church which was re-built in the fifteenth century after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was most recently destroyed by an IRA bomb which exploded near by. Since then it has become a centre for reconciliation and peace.

A regular visitor of the centre is thirty year old Roksannaa, who converted to Islam five years ago. She came to this centre because she felt that she could reunite with different cultures without neglecting her European upbringing. She follows Sufism, a form of practicing Islam by chanting in a specific rhythm. Before becoming a Sufi, she was a Buddhist.

‘To me Islam made more sense and I felt I belonged to it and that is the reason why I converted to this religion,’ she said and also says Islam was a way for her to stabilize her identity.

The notion of identity comes up hugely in religion. The question is how can religion help build somebody’s identity? When we asked this question to Rouksanna, she said that people turn to religion as a form of identity because practicing it becomes their way of life.

She prays five times a day and sometimes at St. Ethelburga, where she meets other Muslims and they pray together. When asked whether turning to religion could lead to segregation amongst non practicing communities, she replied that those who turn to religion and take it to the extreme means that there is a reason as to why they are doing this. This reason may not necessarily be seen as morally correct but it can help make a human being feel ‘more secure within themselves’ according to Dr Riya Patel at the University College London Hospital. Tensions amongst Muslims in the West have been more evident since September 11th attacks in 2001. According to a Channel Four’s documentary ‘London Mosque Uncovered,’ many Muslims have stayed more and more within their communities and have reverted to Islam greatly, because many do not feel accepted in English society. This can also be another reason as to why different communities stick to themselves. However this way of living is not necessarily beneficial from both sides of the spectrum. This can lead to ignorance, hatred and insecurity towards others who are not like them.

Rouksanna believes that a reason as to why she converted to Islam was because she felt that she was missing something in her life. “I lost my father at a young age and I did not feel complete.”

This again incorporates both religion and identity. What is unique about St. Ethelburga is that it has a very North African feel. This is why the centre has a great way of bringing people of different religions and cultures together through concert reunions, multi-cultural art and architecture. All this is a way of breaking down the fact that religion does not have to be the only factor which identifies somebody. And if this is the case, it can explain why terrorism can sometimes exist. The centre is the way forward as it brings out the positive elements such as peace, respect and love which sadly many extremists forget about.

‘Peace is not simply the absence of violence; it is the cultivation of understanding…’ (TNH)

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Mall Culture


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j0438998From James O’Hearn…

One thing for sure about this wacky little emirate is that there is an incredibly high number of malls per capita. The wife and I recently decided to hit a new mall each week, and counting off just the ones we know, that list is going to take quite a long time to get through.

One thing I’ve read in blogs and in the news is speculation that this massive overdevelopment of retail space in Dubai was going to have negative repercussions during the economic crunch. But so far, I can’t say that I’ve seen any evidence that this is happening at all.

Today we went to Times Square, one of the newest shopping centers built on Sheikh Zayed Rd. Times Square has only open been for a year or so, but already it draws in a good number of affluent larger families on account of the disproportionate number of kids stores, and places for children. One spot in particular, Fun Square, is an absolutely brilliantly executed kids zone. Birthday parties there need to be booked weeks in advance, and for those who just drop by, it is worth every single dirham to chuck the kids into the multilevel padded play palace. You can literally see a line of mums, slumped thankfully against the wall in chairs, finally getting a moment of rest while their little devils burn up enough excess energy to ensure early bedtimes later on. And with a Caribou Coffee downstairs, a massive Sharaf DG electronics store, and a large after-market car parts store, it’s like Mom and Dad crack city.

On the way out of Times Square, we decided to stop at the new Oasis Centre, just one interchange down the road. We needed to pop into the nice Carrefour Express they have, but when we came in close to the place, found that they had no parking whatsoever. There were over 800 spots underground, and maybe 100 above ground, the place was jam packed. This centre, which had burned down years ago, and only just reopened a few months ago, was already teeming with customers, enough so that we had to head on down the road. And in doing so, I noticed something I hadn;t really thought about before.

As it stands right now in Dubai, you can find a large mall, almost literally at every interchange along a stretch starting at Ittihad Rd. in Sharjah, heading on through to the other border of Dubai. Start with the Sahara Centre in Sharjah, and after crossing the border into Dubai you have Century Mall. Go up Ittihad a few minutes and you pass the Deira City Centre. The next major interchange, Garhoud Bridge, is next to Festival City. After that, at the Al Wasl interchange, is Wafi City. Then, passing by the interchange near Karama, is Lamcy Plaza. At the World Trade Centre roundabout, where Ittihad Rd. becomes Sheikh Zayed Rd., you won’t find a mall, per se, but you will find one of the longest, and by far the tallest, strip malls in the world. On Sheikh Zayed Rd., at that point, is an unbroken line of skyscrapers that stretches for a full mile on both sides. At the next interchange, you can hit the Dubai Mall or the Mazaya Centre. After the next interchange is the Oasis Centre. The next interchange brings Times Square, and the next interchange after that is where you will find the Mall of the Emirates. Past there, is the Dubai Marina Mall, and then further down the road, near the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi is Ibn Battuta Mall.

Each mall is no more than a five minute drive, as the crow flies, from the next one down the road. Back in Canada, I can remember driving quite a ways to get to any mall of note. In Ottawa you start with Bayshore Shopping Centre in Nepean, go on to the Rideau Center downtown, and then the Place D’Orleans on the other side of the city. Over roughly the same distance, in both cities, cities with comparable populations*, you go from three malls along a stretch in Ottawa, to fourteen in Dubai. That’s about a mall every kilometer and a half. And those fourteen? They aren’t doing too badly.

Almost anywhere else I can imagine, in Canada, and even in the United States, that many major retail centers, strung along over such a short distance, would be a disaster for the developers and owners of those malls. You just can’t support that much retail space concentrated in such a small area. Yet for some reason those same economic realities don’t seem to function here.

Could it be population density? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The population density of Dubai is 25% higher than that of Ottawa, but in Ottawa, on the whole, the standard of living and per capita income is leagues beyond what Dubai can boast. For all the extravagant development in Dubai, the city itself just isn’t that built up. There are few sidewalks, the metro system is yet to open, and outside of the few major arteries like Sheikh Zayed Rd., there are really not very many major roads. And as for wealth, the extravagant wealth that Dubai is known for really is concentrated in small percentage of the population. Which nixes the next question – are people richer? Not on the average, no.

Which leaves the question as yet unanswered. How can Dubai have so many malls, yet not face a massive retail sector meltdown? Is it because, outside of going to the mall, there isn’t much to do in Dubai? Is it because Dubai lacks the massive power centers that litter than landscape in North America – the massive expanses of parking lot filled in with a few big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Best Buy? Is it because Dubai is pretty much the shopping center of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman?

Any ideas?

*Dubai’s population figures also include hundreds of thousands of laborers who live, for all intents and purposes, outside of the city. Those same laborers also do not figure into the plans of retailers, as their salaries are a) exceedingly modest, and b) are usually tied up by monthly remittance commitments.

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Cultural Fusion


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music1From Nora Fakim…

Home to around 44 million people, Colombia is best known for its lucrative drug trade and violent, internal conflicts. But a growing number of passionate and vocal musicians are keen to show their country in a new light.

Straddling the Pacific and Andean Oceans, Colombia also has Andean mountain ranges and densely populated cities like Bogota, the home of Bomba Estereo, one of the most popular electro acts to emerge from the country.

Liliana Saumet Grab from the group says, ‘What we’re doing is mixing rhythms from the Atlantic, Colombian folklore from the Atlantic Coast, along with a little bit of electronic music, hip hop, and rock… in an organic way…. and as a result… we got a sound that we’ve defined as ‘Bomba Estereo’

 

It’s the natural, organic nature of Bomba Estereo’s fusion which works so well, mixing beats from 2009, while staying loyal to the sounds of Colombia.

Simon, also a member of this fusion group says that ‘ Colombia is a centralised country where many people come to live… most often to Bogota, the capital city. They come from the Atlantic Coast and Pacific south end for different reasons… and this generates a cultural movement. What’s happening now is that people are getting united from different parts of the country and region, each with different views on life… they get together and suddenly generate new forms of music.’                                                                                                    

Another example of musical cultural fusion, the mixing of Western music with Indian sounds results in a light and entertaining beat. Below is the hit from the “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack. 

 

 

 

 

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Multi-lingual Patchwork


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matossian-robertsFrom Lara Matossian Roberts… 

 

I was having a snack and a drink in a restaurant in Trakai, a town where my husband and I had been staying for a couple of days, when a whole bunch of English speaking tourists arrived with their guide.  Trakai, just outside Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a popular day trip destination for its beautiful lakes and its romantic Island Castle.  It has another attraction though: the Karaites and their much sought after cuisine.

 

The Karaites are a Judaic sect of Turkic ethnicity, originally from Baghdad, brought over from the Crimea to Trakai in around 1400 as bodyguards.  There are approximately 280 left in Lithuania, an estimated 60 – 80 of which live in Trakai.  They use the Arabic script as opposed to modern Turkey’s Roman one and there were samples of Karaim – their language – on the wall.

 

The first time my husband and I ate there, I was very excited when I set my eyes on their menu (which had, among other languages, the dishes listed in English).  They had items on their menu that I had grown up eating!  And – they used the exact same name for them!  I was fascinated.  I felt some kind of connection: here was a Judaic sect that followed the Law of Moses, in a small town in Lithuania that made dishes my mother’s always made and called them the same thing!  I went over the menu thoroughly, identifying all the items I was familiar with and when the waiter came to take our order, I scrutinized him; I wanted to trace any tell-tale ‘Turkishness’ in the way he spoke, but I, obviously, couldn’t – what with what little English he spoke and with my not being able to differentiate between the Lithuanian accent, the ethnic Russian Lithuanians and their accent and now the Karaites’.  I also listened very closely as he walked away and called out to his colleague to start preparing our grilled dishes.  Seeing how I had widened my eyes and pricked my ears, my husband asked, “So, did you understand anything?”  And I shook my head, no.  I wasn’t sure if it was Lithuanian or Karaim or a combination of both.

 

I realized then, that I had another piece to add to my patchwork identity of which I hadn’t necessarily been consciously aware.  My mother’s grandparents had left Armenian provinces in Turkey in 1915 along with many others fleeing the genocide.  My mother’s grandparents had always lived there, so they spoke Turkish as fluently as they spoke Armenian, albeit with that rural region’s dialect.  Many of the dishes they cooked were (modified) Turkish ones that retained their Turkish names.

 

When the Turkish Armenians settled in Middle Eastern countries, like Lebanon, they still spoke Turkish as much as they did Armenian; they were naturally bilingual.  And although there was opposition to that by nationalistic Armenians who wanted to boycott the language because of the genocide, Turkish language and culture was very much part and parcel of that generation.  So that when they came to identify themselves, they’d connect it to the city, town or village they had come from in Turkey. 

 

My mother is a third generation Lebanese Armenian.  She is as fluent in Arabic and Turkish as she is in Armenian.  I however, do not speak Turkish myself, but can recognize the language itself when being spoken, understand a word here or there and may be able to get the gist of a conversation – maybe.  However, some of the vocabulary we use at home when we speak in Armenian is actually Turkish.  I find it crazy, but there are actually things I’ve always only used the Turkish words for and don’t really know their Armenian equivalent!  That’s not just it either, I know a lot of expressions and idioms that mix Western Armenian and Turkish and some purely in Turkish.

 

Purists may argue that we’re tainting the language.  Well, boy do I have news for them!  At home, when my mother and I speak, we may flit from one of the following languages to the other in the scope of a few minutes – seamlessly: Armenian, English, French, Farsi, Turkish and Arabic (with its Lebanese, Egyptian and Gulf dialects) using the vocabulary, idioms and expressions that we see fit for whatever it is that we are saying at that moment, for no one language has all the suitable expressions for everything.  So, although I don’t really speak Farsi and Turkish if I hear an expression I am familiar with, I’d probably be able to guess the context.

 

I’ve met many people who’ve been fascinated when they’ve find out that I speak four languages, saying that they only speak one language; ‘English, and that’s about it’ they’d say.  And I’d have been able to add Farsi and Turkish to my repertoire if I weren’t lazy.  For, I’ve met people who make my four languages look measly in comparison to the five or six they speak out of sheer dedication to learn them.

 

And, finally, back to the bunch of tourists.  They had a reservation of two tables that were put next to one another, but the third one they needed was occupied by me.  There were plenty of other outdoor tables with a good view of the lake and the castle, so I moved as they were considering which third table they were going to sit on and how they were going to divide the group.  After they added that third table to the other two, they proceeded to look at the menu.  Their guide was giving them a run through of the popular snacks and the description of some of the traditional Karaite dishes and liaising with the waitress on their availability – and I was JUST itching to butt in and do it myself.  I felt that I was in a better position to give a more comprehensive and accurate description of the items on the menu than their guide, who looked to me to be Lithuanian, and who just seemed like he was not doing justice to it.  I didn’t, though; I just sat there with half a smile on my face, finished my drink and realized that there’s another piece of identity I have that I hadn’t stopped to think about.

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