Hooray for Hollywood

When my husband and I were courting, many moons ago, we used to go to the movies every Monday night without fail. The Cineplex nearest to where we lived offered some kind of Monday special that we took advantage of to see almost everything that came out, starting with “The Scent of a Woman.” Hooh-ah!

Nowadays we don’t go to the movies nearly as often, even though it’s easier to do so. Instead of driving 18 miles like we used to, we now have a multiplex 5 miles away that opened several years back.

But is it me, or did something happen to movies in the 24 years since Al Pacino’s blind tango? There’s so little I want to see.

Anything based on a comic book or videogame leaves me cold. I’d rather read a book than watch most action movies, and without a kid in the household, we don’t bother with computer animation (though “Moana” sure looks cute).

And of course, if we do miss something in the theater, we can easily catch up with it via Netflix, so long as we don’t mind waiting six months for the DVD to come out.

But this time of year, we get motivated again. As always, the best movies cascade into theaters during the period just before and just after Christmas—timed, apparently, to stay in the forefront of everyone’s minds in the run-up to awards season. We’ll be going to the movies fairly often for the next couple of months, a good distraction from the advent of winter.

We began over the weekend with “Rules Don’t Apply,” Warren Beatty’s movie about Howard Hughes. The aging star plays the aging, eccentric aeronautics mogul and Hollywood billionaire in a romantic comedy that’s essentially about business—an American theme if there ever was one.

We were underwhelmed; I expected better from the man behind “Reds” and “Bulworth.” But I won’t be surprised if Beatty nabs an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Oscar judges seem to love on-screen depictions of mental illness, and Beatty’s Hughes is as oddball as they come.

At dinner afterward, people at the next table were raving about “Arrival,” a film about an alien landing. I generally don’t like sci-fi, but this one, focusing on a linguist’s attempts to communicate with the extraterrestrials, intrigues me. It’s on our list.

We may also try to catch “Allied,” since I’m a sucker for movies set during World War II (though I don’t know, should I be boycotting Brad Pitt?).

The previews, meanwhile, offered peeks at some coming attractions that might be worth seeing, including “Jackie,” with Natalie Portman portraying Jacqueline Kennedy in the days after her husband’s assassination.

There were only three people in the theater besides us for “Rules Don’t Apply,” and we could hear sound effects from a noisier movie on the other side of the wall. Still, there’s nothing like going out and seeing a film on the big screen. Along with baseball, it’s one of the great American pastimes.

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All in the family

I envy people who know their family histories going way back—or at least, “way back” by American standards, which essentially means 18th century. (Was there life before 1776?) My first husband’s family, for example, had deep roots in New England. He was named for an ancestor who was prominent during the American Revolution.

I’m reading a memoir by a novelist I like, Diane Johnson, who traces her roots to a young Frenchman who emigrated to North America in 1711. He married a Massachusetts girl, giving rise to a family that kept documents, letters and personal memoirs over the course of 300 years. That’s fortunate for Johnson, who writes about them all in “Flyover Lives.”

Her ancestors tell stories of extreme hardship—unheated shacks, ceaseless toil and frightful illnesses. What is “bilious fever”? It’s no longer a medical diagnosis but was a killer back then.

A great-great grandmother writing in 1876 described the deaths of her three little daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2, in a matter of weeks from scarlet fever. Her husband was a doctor, but there was little a medical man could do at the time. The couple later lost four more children. One survived to adulthood.

There’s no way on earth to trace my family that far back, for everyone on both sides was still in Europe in 1711, no doubt leading unremarkable lives. Maybe municipal or church records exist somewhere (baptisms? land transfers?), but there’s no way to find them. I don’t even know all the names.

I’m Polish on my father’s side, Italian on my mother’s. My Polish grandmother claimed to be from an aristocratic family, yet she came to America on her own at the age of 14 in the early 1900s. Would a girl from a noble household flee all alone like that? More likely this is an example of something a French friend of Diane Johnson’s teased her about—the fact that “all Americans believe they are descended from royalty.”

I don’t know this grandmother’s maiden name, date of birth or town of origin. Heck, even my grandfather’s name is a mystery, though it’s now mine. The name has morphed over the years from the Polish form, no doubt laden with interesting accent marks, to what it is today, shedding consonants along the way.

On the Italian side, my grandmother was a babe in arms when her parents sailed by steerage to America somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. Grandma knew little of their lives in Italy, save for their areas of origin (Naples for her father, northern Italy for her mother). My grandfather, by contrast, was a young adult when he emigrated from a town called Cave, now a part of Rome, seeking economic opportunity. He’s the only one whose family ties might be traceable.

The question of who we are and where we come from is a mystery with many layers. DNA analysis adds a new wrinkle, introducing unknown ancestors from unexpected places. Still, it might be fun to try it.

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God save the queen

“Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,” sang the Beatles, “but she doesn’t have a lot to say.” Turns out they were right, if we are to believe a new and mesmerizing TV series about the reign of Elizabeth II.

“The Crown,” a Netflix original series that’s catnip for those of us who sat glued to “Downton Abbey” for six seasons, begins with the marriage of 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to her handsome consort, Philip (Matt Smith), in 1947. But within a few short years, the death of King George VI thrusts Elizabeth into the new and not entirely welcome role of sovereign.

The aged Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, in a fat suit) mentors the new queen, as does her grandmother, Queen Mary, played by Eileen Atkins in the best dowager-countess style. (Atkins could take down Downton’s Maggie Smith.)

It’s grandmother Mary who tells Elizabeth to keep her mouth shut. As the head of a constitutional monarchy, she must keep her opinions to herself and not interfere in the workings of government, even though she is routinely briefed and consulted on the affairs of the day.

“To do nothing is the hardest job of all,” Mary says, “and it will take every ounce of energy that you have.”

The show began streaming last Friday and we have already watched six of the 10 episodes in Season 1, torn between bingeing and a desire to save some installments for later. Even my husband, who is no Anglophile (and didn’t like “Downton”), is caught up in the drama.

The palaces, the hunts, the trip to Kenya. The courtiers, the political intrigue and the members of the family—including the acid-tongued former King Edward VIII, who lives abroad since abdicating the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson but returns for the funerals of his brother and mother.

The bigger question, I suppose, is why we Americans—or some of us, anyway—are suckers for a show about British royalty. To be sure, England was once the mother country. But that was long before most of our ancestors arrived in the United States. This Anglophile, for one, doesn’t have a drop of English blood.

Maybe it’s the display of order in a chaotic world. The manners and customs may be stultifying, as Elizabeth discovers in assuming her royal duties. But at least they are clear-cut and definitive. You know what you’re supposed to do, even if you resent every minute of it.

Whatever the reason, it’s instructive to note how fake news stories and Internet memes kept cropping up during the 2016 election season suggesting that the queen might be an alternative for those dissatisfied with the actual candidates.

“The Queen urged Americans to write in her name on Election Day,” deadpanned the New Yorker’s humor columnist, Andy Borowitz, “after which the transition to British rule could begin ‘with a minimum of bother.’”

In lieu of that option coming to pass, at least we have “The Crown.” I was cheered to learn that Season 2 is already under development.

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Do senior discounts mess with your head?

The year I turned 55, my cousin, who is younger, drily wrote a note on my birthday card. “Welcome to the world of senior discounts,” she said.

That same birthday, a slightly older friend enthused that now I too would get reduced fare on city buses. She lived in San Francisco. I lived in a place where the only city buses were big yellow ones for schoolchildren.

That was more than a decade ago, and in the interim I have qualified for even more senior discounts as the years have ticked by, including the big enchilada, Medicare. There are no other cost breaks on the horizon to further incentivize aging. The supermarket won’t offer anything extra when I’m 80. It’s 5 percent on Tuesdays whether you’re 65 or 95.

I never gave senior discounts much thought until I read Dr. Christiane Northrup’s book on growing older, “Goddesses Never Age,” a year or so ago. Northrup, an OB/GYN and women’s health expert, advises refusing senior discounts and otherwise ignoring the passing of the years, lest you get hung up on thoughts of yourself as aged and infirm.

In the real world, you often don’t have to request discounts—you’ll get them automatically. I’m trying to remember the first time a cashier rang me up as a senior without my asking. It happens so often now that it’s not worth mentioning.

One time my husband and I went to the movies with a younger friend who got a little freaked out when the clerk gave her a senior discount, too. She was 50 at the time but apparently just being with us aged her, at least in the eyes of the teenager selling tickets.

My husband, for his part, likes senior discounts, and every other kind of discount too. If a senior discount is not an option, he’ll ask about veteran’s discounts, AAA discounts or whether buying multiples might qualify him for a discount. It doesn’t bother him to self-identify as old. He just doesn’t think about it.

But I do, and in that regard I agree with Dr. Northrup. Watch your language, she counsels—you are what you think. Don’t joke about “senior moments,” and stop saying “at my age” (as in, “Can you believe I went sky-diving at my age?”).

Keep your age a secret and don’t make a big deal of those scary milestone birthdays—the ones that fall on decades. Instead, consider yourself ageless.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I went for a mini-hayride with the same friend who once got that movie discount with us. It was a quick trip through some woods and across the local golf course to a pumpkin patch. My husband plays golf there and knows the manager, Joe, who was driving the hay truck.

“Are these your daughters?” Joe asked when we arrived—and he wasn’t joking. Maybe the sun was in his eyes, but we looked young to him. I didn’t spoil the moment by asking for a senior discount.

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Painting to beat the weather

Here we are with the weather beginning to turn, the leaves drifting in colorful swirls and the election right around the corner—and my husband and I are still not done with our endless porch renewal project. We figure on finishing up this week, and there’s an urgency to the deadline. Snow has already fallen in areas just north of us. We are running out of time.

The endeavor began in early summer when I decided to paint all the porches, starting with the side landing off the TV room. It was a pretty easy job, except for the bottom post at the foot of the stairs, which needs replacing. That’s one of the checklist items we must finish this week.

Then came the front porch. It’s huge, and ringed by railings and their supporting infrastructure of posts, each of which must be painted individually. Leading up to the porch are nine super-wide wooden steps, with their own railings and posts on either side.

I alternated colors (white for the posts and woodwork, a gray-beige color for the railings and floors), so it was fussy work, especially when you count the prep—sanding, filling and priming, all tasks that I hate. Most surfaces needed two coats. And then, the weather factored in. I couldn’t paint when the sun was beating down or when it rained. The job seemed to take forever.

While I was wielding my brush and roller out front, my husband was in the back, rebuilding the (thankfully smaller) porch at the rear of the house after discovering rot in the original decking and supporting columns. He’s put it back together now and I did most of the painting out there last week: ceiling, trim work, back door and door to the attached storage room. Next up: the floor.

We’ve been lucky that the weather has held for so long. But the illusion of endless summer through September and most of October gave us a false sense of endless time. Over the past weekend that changed. Now fall is decidedly here—and so is our deadline.

As beautiful as the season is, autumn carries with it a hint of dread. Maybe that’s the point of Halloween? The ghosts and goblins underscore what we already know: that everything is dying and the big chill will soon set in. The bright colors, pumpkins and mums are but a temporary distraction.

As the days get shorter, those of us who are susceptible may slide into seasonal affective disorder—or SAD. Years ago, my wonderful brother built me a light box containing full-spectrum bulbs. It has helped me through many a dark season, and one year I loaned it to a friend who was feeling SADder than I was.

Once the time changes and the nights lengthen, I’ll haul the light box down from storage and plug it in. But first let me finish my final touchups and wash my paint brushes one last time, knowing we won’t be sitting out on our freshly painted porches until spring.

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Bob Dylan: Bringing the Nobel back home

The first article I ever had published in a national magazine was a little essay about poetry in rock lyrics. I wrote it for a college course on magazine journalism and submitted it to a now-defunct publication called Music Journal, inspired by an English teacher who felt that Bob Dylan and the Beatles were producing some of the more interesting poetry of the day. Dr. Potter intoned “I read the news today, oh boy” (from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”) as if it were a line from “The Wasteland.”

Here we are some 45 years later and the world has finally caught up. Bob Dylan—an artist I’ve idolized since high school—last week won the Nobel Prize for literature. As Dylan himself might say, “I see the turning of the page / Curtain rising on a new age” (from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”).

The announcement got me playing the Dylan classics again. I have so many albums. Back in the day, I would ardently await each new release and earnestly discuss the content with my friends, arguing over the meaning. I have many titles in multiple formats, from vinyl to MP3.

The language is inspired—the poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan and even toured with Dylan for a time—and the rhyme schemes complex (I never tire of parsing the intricate rhythms of “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” an early song Dylan wrote for Joan Baez and never recorded himself). And then there are the stories.

Dylan can wrap a complete novella, with a beginning, a middle and an end, into the form factor of a popular song. Take “Hurricane” (written with Jacques Levy), the real-life story of the New Jersey boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who was jailed for murders he did not commit. It’s practically a work of journalism.

“Black Diamond Bay” tells of a woman trapped on a tropical island that’s about to get walloped by a volcano in the musical equivalent of a comic disaster movie. “Blind Willie McTell” takes us to the Old South and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” to the Old West.

With “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (recorded when Dylan was part of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup), we are in New Jersey in the company of a pair of small-time crooks (“In Jersey everything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught”). And “Highway 61 Revisited” paints an absurdist landscape filled with wheeler-dealers and schemers of all sorts. I can’t help thinking of Election 2016. “We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun / And have it on Highway 61.”

I recently read a long article in the New Yorker about Leonard Cohen, another rock poet whose career has roughly paralleled Dylan’s. In one telling section, Dylan asks Cohen how long it took him to write his anthem “Hallelujah.” The answer is five years. Cohen then asks how long Dylan spent writing “I and I,” a haunting song from the “Infidels” album. Bob replies, “About 15 minutes.”

How does he do it? It’s a mystery—but one we all can enjoy. Don’t wait another minute. Put on “Desire” or “Blonde on Blonde” and let’s celebrate Bob.

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A brief history of time

I was running the vacuum cleaner on Saturday when something my mother said suddenly came back to me. It was on another weekend long ago when Mom came over to find me likewise cleaning the house. “That’s what people who work do,” she told me.

Retirees, by contrast, can do their housework any day they like. Time is flexible and there’s plenty of it, when there’s no place you have to be on a daily basis.

I am retired now, or at least semi-retired, ever since losing my job six months ago. Until then I always worked—and loved it.

I started out during high school as as a proofreader for my hometown newspaper in the days when huge linotype machines spit out trays of hot type. At deadline time I would go into the press room and read the headlines backward as burly operators made up the pages, inserting lead slugs to adjust the spacing. I’ll never forget the smell—or the noise.

My last job involved working out of a home office for a technology magazine published by a Silicon Valley company. My tools were a laptop, Internet connection and sophisticated publishing software. It’s as if a mechanic started out fixing Model T’s and ended his career tweaking Teslas.

In the spring I had whooping cough, so it was a blessing not to have to drag myself to the computer to work. From summer into fall there was a lot going on, including visits and visitors as well as major home improvement projects. So I haven’t been bored.

Having free time has taught me that time is subjective. Parkinson’s Law—which holds that work expands to fill the available time—is more than a cliché. When I was working, a trip to the grocery store was something squeezed into odd moments. Now, grocery shopping might make my morning. And no, that doesn’t feel sad.

Having time to myself is a luxury. Unless I have a morning appointment, I don’t bother setting an alarm clock, because—well, it doesn’t matter when I get up, except to the cats, who want their breakfast. I have plenty of time to read, another luxury, and time to see friends too.

But I can foresee a point, somewhere past the holidays, when things will slow down and I won’t have anything much to do. How will I like not working then? Will all of this free time be too much of a good thing? We all need structure in our lives, even if our so-called schedule is merely to know that “The Big Bang Theory” runs on Thursday nights (except, of course, when they move it to Mondays during football season).

I once asked a friend who had retired how she filled her time. Turns out she takes yoga several times a week, volunteers in a literacy program and said her house was cleaner than it ever had been when she worked.

That doesn’t sound too terrible. I wonder if she vacuums on Saturdays?

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Gloria Steinem: Just one of the girls

It’s not often in life that you get to meet a public figure you’ve admired for as long as you can remember. Last weekend I did, when feminist superstar Gloria Steinem came to town for the Milford Readers and Writers Festival.

Steinem was gracious, funny and inspiring as she spoke to a full house at the Milford Theater on Saturday. Earlier in the day, the longtime political activist and co-founder of Ms. magazine stopped by Hillary Clinton headquarters to rally the volunteers.

She encouraged everyone to vote, but her bigger message was nonpartisan.

Steinem urged her listeners to keep an open mind about other people, underscoring the point by reading an anecdote from her book “My Life on the Road” (Random House, 2015).

A trip to Sturgis, S.D., happened to coincide with the fabled annual motorcycle rally there. Steinem admitted to feeling uneasy amid the leather and chains. But one day, “While walking in Rapid City, I hear a biker say to his tattooed woman partner, ‘Honey, shop as long as you want—I’ll meet you at the cappuccino place,’” she writes.

On her final morning in Sturgis, Steinem was eating breakfast at her hotel, “hyperconscious of a room full of knife sheaths, jackboots, and very few women.” Then the leather-clad woman from the next booth approached to tell her “how much Ms. magazine has meant to me over the years—and my husband too.”

Steinem concludes that as with the landscape of the Badlands, “What seems to be one thing from a distance is very different close up.”

It can’t be easy being famous, but Steinem must be used to it. She seemed very down to earth. During the question-and-answer session after her talk, an audience member called her an icon. Steinem laughed, shook her head and said, “I’m just one of the girls.”

She appeared unruffled at being besieged by fans and autograph seekers everywhere she went. People corralled her for photos and selfies, touching their cheeks to hers or putting their arms around her shoulders like old friends. (I myself got her to sign my book as a friend snapped a cell phone picture.)

The fuss is understandable, since for women of a certain age Steinem is a legend—a larger-than-life role model. As a friend put it, “she fought the good fight for so long on our behalf.”

At 82, Steinem was smaller than I expected, and she cut a glamorous figure in a buttery-soft suede jacket with deeply fringed sleeves. I would have loved to hear her speak about aging and what growing older has been like for her. Her one remark on the subject was that women become radicalized as they get older because they lose power, whereas men grow more conservative as they gain power with maturity.

“I am trying very hard to understand mortality because being 80 doesn’t feel any different from being 40,” Steinem told an interviewer earlier this year. “I tell everyone in the world my age because I just don’t believe it myself.”

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Another reason to pick up a good book

My town is a great one for festivals, and there’s a new one in the offing this weekend. The first Milford Readers and Writers Festival will be held at the Milford Theater and other venues Sept. 30-Oct. 2, with three world-class authors—Gloria Steinem, John Berendt and M.K. Asante—as the headliners.

Reading (writing too, for that matter) is a solitary activity, so it will be a treat to gather with others who love to read. And yes, old-fashioned reading remains an important activity even in an age when our eyeballs are monopolized by tweets and Facebook status reports.

Aristotle explained hundreds of years ago how the “pity and fear” we feel while watching good drama help us better grasp the human condition. Now scientists are exploring the mechanisms by which this catharsis occurs, examining how reading—especially of literary fiction—builds empathy. Genre fiction doesn’t have the same effect.

“These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories … and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life,” the psychologist Keith Oatley recently reported in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Understanding stories engages the same parts of the brain as understanding other people, Oatley said.

We need this deep understanding now more than ever, but collectively we’re getting less of it. The National Endowment for the Arts disclosed in August that the practice of reading for pleasure had fallen to its lowest point since the agency began tracking data in 1982.

In the NEA study, less than half of all Americans—just 43 percent—reported having read at least one work of literature the previous year. The agency tracked discretionary reading only, and didn’t count books assigned for school or work purposes.

By way of comparison, in the NEA’s first survey 34 years ago, 57 percent of Americans reported reading a work of literature in the prior 12 months.

For purposes of the study, the NEA defined literature as novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I would argue that literary nonfiction and memoir should be included too. Just think of the impact of a book like “The Diary of Anne Frank” on our understanding of the Holocaust.

Women were more likely to read for pleasure than men (50 vs. 36 percent), the NEA found, and there were differences based on ethnicity and educational level as well. People with a graduate degree, for example, were the biggest readers, at 68 percent.

Storytelling is available in forms other than books, or course. Movies, TV series and podcasts help fill our human need for complex narratives to help us make sense of the world. In fact, TV and even video games have been shown to positively affect empathy test results.

But books are the beginning. As the Washington Post noted in an article on the NEA findings, “If we’re reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result.”

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Vietnam: The war that wouldn’t quit

In one way or another, everyone in the baby boom generation was marked by the Vietnam War. Choices made during those years come back to haunt male politicians decades later, even the ones who served heroically, like John Kerry. Those who avoided service (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump) scramble to tell us why.

Veterans may still suffer PTSD nightmares all these years later, or have illnesses stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide so nonchalantly employed to clear the triple-canopy jungle.

Meanwhile, the aftereffects of the antiwar movement have been slow to dissipate. Some still resent Jane Fonda for her trip to Hanoi in 1972, even though she has repeatedly apologized. “I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers,” the actress said in 2015.

Given the central place of Vietnam in the collective psyche, it’s instructive to read a first-hand account from someone who was there. A high school classmate of mine, Michael A. Montigny, supplies one in his new book, “A Few Good Angels.”

Mike delivers a raw, riveting narrative of what it was like to be a 19-year-old marine at Khe Sanh. This self-published book (available on Amazon in paperbook and Kindle editions) has such immediacy that you feel you are beside him as he navigates the perils of combat and the hazards of the environment itself, from poisonous snakes and giant scorpions to monsoons, mud and heat.

Unable to attend college directly after high school, Mike got sucked up in the draft and wound up as a marine. He vividly describes the harsh discipline—at times bordering on the sadistic—of his training. He was assigned to be a machine gunner, a dangerous job.

“Life expectancy for a machine gunner is about 15 minutes in combat,” his gunnery sergeant told him, since snipers “will always try to kill you first.” Indeed, Montigny notes that only half of his class of a dozen machine gunners made it home alive.

Life in Vietnam was desperately difficult. Mike describes bathing out of his helmet, trying to sleep as rats the size of chihuahas nipped at him and marching through deep mud lugging heavy weapons.

Over it all lurked the specter of being killed or gravely injured at any moment. In fact, Mike had so many close calls in Vietnam that he came to believe he was being kept safe through supernatural intervention—by the “few good angels” of the title.

Mike goes on to describe the letdown he felt upon coming home to a country that seemed indifferent to what its fighting men had endured. With the nation so torn over the war and even top policymakers ambivalent, there was no hero’s welcome. “It took more than thirty years for someone to say to me, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Mike writes.

No one who reads this book will ever say those words casually again. This moving memoir makes you appreciate what “service” really means in a war zone.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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