This is trouble waiting to happen.

By Anita Garner

Sister Fern’s California dream
Not her actual car, but one like it

Here are two things that happened for the first time when we moved to California in the 1950s.  Daddy pursued recreational gardening.  Mother got a Cadillac to celebrate her recording contract.   She never wanted to drive but she wanted that car so she got a driver’s license.

Brother Ray pictured a delicate dichondra lawn –

     – planted right up to the edges of the driveway.
Those two-lane designs were called “ribbon” driveways. 

A bit of background.  Daddy, the oldest of ten, was recruited to work the cotton fields with his sharecropping family all through his childhood.  After he became a parent himself, when we stayed in one place for a while he planted vegetables to help feed us.  When we got to California he indulged in the joy of growing things just for the beauty of them.

We didn’t see much dichondra In the South. We saw lawns with hard-working grass like St. Augustine, so sturdy a farmer bragged, “You can park a tractor out there, move the tractor and that grass pops right back up.”  But Daddy wanted the fragile stuff and that’s what he planted around their Glendale, California home.  Dichondra isn’t really like growing grass.  It’s more like raising a baby.  Grown adults down on their knees trimming it with tiny clippers. He was willing to put in the work.

Picture that giant pink Cadillac operated by an uncertain driver, approaching lanes even thinner than the driveway pictured here.  My brother, Leslie Ray, and I had moved into our own apartments but when we stopped by to visit we speculated about how the struggle between dichondra and Cadillac might go.  We felt sorry for the green stuff.  We figured If you were  an innocent lawn growing right up to the edge of the driveway and you spotted that giant pink fishtailed hunk of metal coming at you, you’d probably be terrified.

It’s a wonder the dichondra didn’t die from Cadillac fright. It was obviously in some distress. Examples of previously missed driveway attempts by the Cadillac were starting to show when Mother parked.  There were streaks of brown dirt where green once grew. Tires had wandered a bit. Mother didn’t mention it.  Daddy didn’t mention it.  We stopped by to visit, saw the damage and we didn’t mention it either.

Daddy took to watching the driveway when he expected her home.  As soon as the pink chariot approached, he was out the door, gave her a big smile and held up his hand to stop her as she was about to turn in.

“Just a minute, Doll-Baby.  Let me get that for you.”

She pretended it was normal to exit her car at the far end of the driveway out by the street.  He pretended it had nothing to do with his lawn.  He drove the car all the way to the rear when garages used to be  behind the house.  Backing out again?  She never did.  If there was no one around to back out for her, she’d wait.

Later, as she drove less, he finally persuaded her to sell the Cadillac and when she did she stopped driving completely. That seemed to work for both of them and the dichondra and we never heard Daddy complain about taking his Doll-Baby anywhere she wanted to go.

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“Let’s see where it lays.” Three strong women assert their right to wail.

By Anita Garner

Mahalia Jackson, Born 1911, New Orleans, Louisiana
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Born 1915, Cotton Plant, Arkansas
 Fern Jones, Born 1923, El Dorado, Arkansas

These three women have much in common.  The one pictured with a fan, bottom right, is my mother. Each of them, not far apart in age and born into poor families, sang church music in ways it hadn’t been heard before and took a lot of criticism for it.  They moved obstacles to make things happen by force of talent and conviction, strong will, and once in a while a skillfully applied dab of charm.

I’ve recently watched profiles of two of them. “Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia” and  from PBS, “American Masters, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Godmother Of Rock and Roll.”  Observing them at work brought familiar memories. Though I never met two of those ground-breaking women, our family heard much from mother about Mahalia and Sister Rosetta and we witnessed the one we were raised with displaying her own spine of steel, standing firm about every detail of her dream.

All three of them knew exactly what they wanted.  Where did they get the gumption? The surety?  The belief that the way they heard a song was the way a song was meant to sound, before anyone else sang like them?  Each of them faced a combination of challenging circumstances:  Poverty.  Segregation.  A recording industry that released only specific styles.  Radio stations that didn’t play their kind of music.  Fern moved straight out of honky-tonks in the Deep South into marriage with a poor country preacher and still she held onto her style until congregations eventually embraced the way she sang songs about Jesus

Fern didn’t sound like a white woman singing church music.  She sounded like a Black artist and her gospel was infused with something about to become rockabilly or rock and roll, whatever the world would name it next.

Mother moved circumstances around to get every situation as close to what she envisioned as possible, all of this with no money and no connections.  My brother and I watched her chatting with musicians, asking them to change something they were playing.  No detail escaped her.  Before letting loose with a song, she conferred with announcers and radio hosts and MCs about the exact introduction she preferred.

This display of willpower from a person with no power still surprises, but maybe it shouldn’t.  Looking back at gatherings where our family was preparing to sing, I remember many times a musician would play something new, a changed tempo or a nice little run he’d thought up and Fern, employing both looks and charm, would place a hand on an arm, lean in a bit and compliment the player, then pause and say something like this,

“I like it.  But let’s just try it this way first and see where it lays.”

“See where it lays” was Fern’s version of “Bless your heart, but we’ll be doing it my way.”  She was committed to singing a song the way she said it “came to her.” Through the years she absorbed licks from other talented performers, of course she did, but they were always going to come out sounding like Fern.

Mahalia, Rosetta and Fern  sang some of the same songs, “Precious Lord,” “Strange Things Happening” and “Didn’t It Rain.” Mother said after her Nashville recording sessions in the 50s, her record company president wanted the first single from the album to be one of the spirituals recorded earlier by Mahalia and Rosetta.  Mother reminded him they had an agreement that her first release would be an original, one of the songs she wrote.  As a result of their battle, nothing was released.  The album was shelved in the late 50s and she fought the rest of her life to regain her masters. She won.  We have them. Numero Group now handles all her music.

Here are these three women singing their versions of “Didn’t It Rain.” Rosetta takes out after it on guitar.  Mahalia just flat lays it out for us, her way. Sister Fern’s having a great time with Hank Garland on guitar and Floyd Cramer on piano.

“Didn’t It Rain” – Rosetta

“Didn’t It Rain” – Mahalia

“Didn’t It Rain”  – Fern

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New book available everywhere: “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life”

Planes, Trains And Automobiles

By Anita Garner

New book.  New tour.  We’ll get there.

We just clicked “live” on the new website built to introduce my book, “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life.” It’s less than three weeks til release date. I hope you’ll check out anitagarner.com and let me know what you think.  If you read this blog regularly you already know bits of the story, but there’s more over there now and we’ll keep adding. Thanks to Steve Bradford and Authors Guild for their help.

I’m vaccinated and ready to travel if the good Lord’s willing and the crick don’t rise.  I’ve been planning a trip from California to the east coast this fall to combine book appearances and visits with friends in New England.  Rent a car in Boston and ramble around for a few days. I had in mind taking the train one way and then flying home. I pictured me in a little roomette on Amtrak with lots of magazines and coffee and snacks and waving out the window at places I used to live and working when I feel like it. It could be a leisurely and productive and celebratory kind of journey all in one.

Then I learned from Amtrak that wifi isn’t consistent on the train.  They make that clear.  I like my work and with all the connections I need to pursue, wifi is necessary.

My relatives were all train people.  Gramma K migrated from the Deep South to Southern California making several trips by train before enlisting all her Southern relatives to drive cars and trucks in caravans to move her belongings.  She never hired a moving van.  We were the van.  Every fall, she trained back from Glendale, CA to Arkansas to be with her kinfolks during leaf season.  Arkansas trees are spectacular  and worth the trip.  She  came off the train at Union Station in L.A. every time with a list of names and addresses and phone numbers from people she met onboard.

Mother never flew either, even when it would have been expeditious to do so.  We moved to California when she signed a recording contract, then the record company sent her back to Nashville to record with the backup singers and musicians they’d selected.  They said get here as soon as you can. She said, sure, I’ll be right there – on the train.  Later she went out on a tour but got homesick for Daddy, quit part of the way through and cried all the way home – on the train.

Here I sit with my hopes for making this book launch/friend visiting trip, but no set plan for travel yet. No sense buying a super-saver airline ticket months in advance if the savings will disappear due to travel insurance and change fees.

I’ll get there in person one way or the other. Meanwhile there are virtual appearances to plan,  which is how most books have been launched recently. Mother was an early adopter of innovation  (except for airline travel.)  She’d have been the first to understand my wifi dilemma.

******

 

California Spring Break, 1950s Style

By Anita Garner

My brother, Leslie Ray, and I were the new kids in school all our lives.  We’d enroll, stay a short while,  then hit the road to tour the gospel circuit with our parents, sending homework back in the mail.  At every new school, I’d stand in front of the class while the teacher introduced Nita Faye Jones, just moved here from…fill in the blank.

In California, 1957  I was new again but this time shouldn’t be as hard since Leslie Ray had been there a year already, living with Gramma K because he and Mother couldn’t occupy the same house without eruptions. Similar dispositions, Daddy said.

Mother signed a record contract and we headed out west. This time it wasn’t just a new school.  This time the language was also unfamiliar.  Nobody else drawled.  The clothes were different.  Even tougher to understand was California culture, where teens seemed to have so much control.  No yessum and yessir.  These kids were in possession  of more than just spending money. They were confident.  By the time I arrived, Leslie, who was already tall and good looking to start with, had shed his Southern accent, was a big man on campus and evidently expert at assimilation.

Observe the ritual of Senior Spring Break, 1957.  The talk in the halls among seniors was, “Are you going to Bal?”  That would be  Balboa Island (also Newport)  where groups of seniors piled into rented houses for a full week of drinking and tanning all day, partying all night, and capped it off at the end of the week by bleaching their hair blonde to prove, on returning to class, that they’d really been to Bal.

Leslie Ray and I were  both redheads with fair skin.  Not meant for tanning.  Not safe on California beaches.  In the Deep South, tanning wasn’t done on purpose. It happened because of work.  We saw tans in churches and in the crowds at revivals and Singings, hard-working tans with shirt-sleeve marks.

Tanning for a redhead happens only through a lengthy process, if at all, and often involves a couple of trips to the ER on the way.  Both of us had over-sunned more than once and paid the price. It must have taken Leslie a long time to build up that color a little bit at a time, but he did it. The very thing we’d avoided in the South was his Southern California Senior Spring Break badge of honor. Of course he bleached his hair.  He had to prove he was at Bal.

I was invited over to Balboa just for the day if I could find someone with a driver’s license and a car to get me there.  I lied to my parents about where I was going.  Leslie’s friends treated me like a mascot as long as I didn’t cramp their style or tell stories later.  For my day at Bal, I didn’t even pack what we then called suntan lotion.  I packed a hat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leslie Ray and Nita Faye Jones.  Senior Spring Break, 1957

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never tanned until self-tanning lotion became manageable years later, and then I applied it mostly for events.  But I bleached as soon as I got out of high school, blonder and blonder for several years.  I think the bleaching part made me half-assimilated and you can shorten that last word if you want to.

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Abandoned Art

By Anita Garner

I go to the thrift shop to donate but can’t leave until I check the bin full of castoff art.  Is this a paint-by-numbers piece?  Is it from a student?  Or from a professional painter whose early work was given up too soon? Are these flowers from an artist momentarily adrift in a garden of self expression?

I own several other pieces that look like they could have been done by a person who went home early from the community center art class.  I say this with love.  I admire the gumption it takes to make a picture of anything, any time.

I rescue abandoned canvasses and wonder, were they created with love and given away, then secretly discarded by the recipient? The only two things we know is that someone made these and someone didn’t want them.

I’ve seen stories on TV about people who collect old paint-by-numbers canvases and many narrow their search to a particular subject – horses or trees or dogs or boats or barns.  I’m not picky about subject matter, though I do seem to have several examples of flowers painted with varying degrees of verisimilitude.  (I’ve been hoping to use that word all week, ever since I convinced the Grand it’s really a word.)

My knowledge of odd collections comes from “CBS Sunday Morning” which often takes us to meet people who own many examples of an unusual kind of thing.  If I had the space, I’d keep going.  Mine are now sprinkled around the house, in the kitchen, the office, and these two new pieces with the black backgrounds are looking great in a bathroom.

This one’s signed, dated and titled “Self Portrait.”

As I paid my $4.99 and $1.5o at the counter, the checker, a beautiful young woman dressed head to toe in vintage chic, smiled as she rang them up.  She said, “I love it when they’re signed.”  Me too.  Then she told me she plans to start painting.  I expressed what I hope was the proper appreciation.  But there’s more, she said.  She has a specific plan for her art.  She’s going to sign them all and give them names and then donate them.  They won’t go to anyone she knows.  They won’t hang on her wall at home.  They’re going straight to the thrift store where she works, eliminating a middle person who may not have fully appreciated them anyway.  I get it.

How could anyone give away a bicycle with golden wheels?
My photo doesn’t do it justice.  Those wheels are shiny.

If my new vintage-loving acquaintance’s plan to paint and donate comes to fruition, every time I pick up a castoff canvas I’ll get to wonder if its one of hers.

******

 

 

My friends keep leaving.

By Anita Garner

Several friends died in one recent week and another just received word that she has probably spent her last Christmas here. Those of us of an age are reminded every day with every loss that we’ve used up more of life than is left to us.

Obituaries list accomplishments, relationships, family ties, travels, hobbies and service to the community.  I read them and am proud of the lives they lived but my memories are mostly about everyday conversations, back when we didn’t know what day they’d be leaving.

Every time I say goodbye to a friend the “why” ritual begins.  Why him?  Why her?  Why am I still here? Am I doing what I’m meant to be doing with whatever time is left?  I don’t think we consider purpose often enough in our younger years but now it’s a constant. I move on to prayers of gratitude for every blessing so far.  I commune with those who left.

I remember some of our last encounters. Most of our conversations were about small things, with the exception of Ed who was never anything but intense, therefore there were no small things.

Paulette explained to me repeatedly how she grew the extraordinary hydrangeas in her garden.  She offered pruning tips and feeding tips but remained puzzled that though I tried to follow her advice I was never able to replicate her success. I could manage a couple of plants with a modest number of blossoms.  For Paulette, hydrangeas grew halfway up the side of her house and showed off every time I passed by.

I remember the combination of turmoil and soul and business acumen that was Eddie.  Talented and driven and always swirling around inside some creative vortex, near the end of his life he was awed by the steadfast nature of his wife.  Kathy had passed years before but in every conversation before he left, he still wanted to talk about her, about how he hadn’t been nearly a good enough husband for her.

Memory replays conversations with a friend scheduled for surgery some years back.  Pete was apprehensive about the operation, but because he was so well prepared for the active future he envisioned, we all pushed back those fears. Over glasses of good wine (one of his passions) he held forth about his plans for the near future.  He was excited that he’d done well enough to afford to buy a sweet spot in California’s Gold Country because Sandra loved it and a new home they prepared to occupy at De Silva Island in Mill Valley. He didn’t move into either place. He was gone as soon as surgery began.

Losses remind us to get our own things in order but it’s the nature of the living to believe we have at least this one more day to do it.  We say goodbye to dear ones and also remind ourselves there’s no guilt in celebrating every time we welcome a sunrise. I hope it’s what they’d be doing if they were here.

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Blessed Assurance

By Anita Garner

“This is my story, this is my song…”
Lyrics from the hymn, “
Blessed Assurance”

I’m watching “The Black Church” on PBS and though I’m not Black, the Sister Rosetta Tharpe story is familiar, told over and over in my family.

My mother’s path is Sister Rosetta’s in reverse. Rosetta came up through the church, singing and playing guitar and eventually took her music into nightclubs where her church shamed her for it. My mother, less than a decade younger than Rosetta, came up singing in clubs and on the radio by age 12, encouraged by her mother to let loose with the blues.

But Mother married a Pentecostal preacher, became “Sister Fern” and took her blues from Saturday night to Sunday morning. Gramma didn’t like Fern leaving “worldly” music, where she felt a bright future waited. Rosetta’s and Fern’s circumstances remain a pure reflection of the times and the power of music to endure.

Here’s the same song sung, “Strange Things Happening” by Sister Rosetta and Sister Fern.

Rosetta: https://youtu.be/YDdQPId5HuI

Fern: https://youtu.be/CS6vKdNQHqA

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Is that really the way you say it?

By Anita Garner

The audio book is now in production.  Thank you for asking. It’ll release the same day as the hardcover and e-book, April 13th. I’m not narrating. I never planned to.  I’m eager to hear another voice tell this story.

Jesse, the production company’s (Blackstone) audio proofreader went through every page plucking out things that need to be spelled phonetically for the narrator and sent a word list to me to double check.  In the 1940s and 50s, there was the way country people said a word, then the way some others said it, and then there were places where southern accents varied so much they felt like different languages.  Our narrator, Pamela, is earning her keep on this one.

I was in the 7th grade in Louisiana when a teacher commented, “The king was not named Louise.”   Sliding over “Louis” turned into “Looz” and there are more ways to say New Orleans than there are Mardi Gras beads in the street after the parade.  We never said anything but  Noo-OR-luns.

When we landed in bayou country, our Arkansas drawls absorbed Cajun and Creole pronunciations with dollops of French stirred in.  French and Southern together create melodious conversations and going over it all to write this book, then reading the proofreader’s suggested phonetics pinged the senses all over again.

It’s lovely that 50-60 years later the audio book will replicate the quite specific language in my stories.  Today I listen to people saying Louise-e-anna and maybe that’s considered correct, but when we were there, it was Looz-e-anna in our  house.  I’ve asked our narrator to say it the way we did. The narrator’s mother is Georgia born and this daughter of  hers with the lovely alto voice knows to ask which of many ways I’d like to hear the word.  When I asked her if she’d just slide over a few middle syllables in specific words, but not eliminate them altogether, she knew exactly what I meant.

Book ordering update:  Again, thanks for asking. You can now order from your favorite bookstore. It’s available all over the U.S. and in other countries.  Since there’s not much in-store browsing happening right now,  go to your bookstore’s website or call them and ask for “The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life” and they’ll find it in the publisher’s catalog.  (University of Alabama Press)  Amazon also has it available for pre-order now.

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Peace And Love and Desiderata To You


By Anita Garner

In the early 1970s we’d survived the flower child portion of life (see the home page of this very site) and some of us were embarked on real jobs and child raising in what remained of the touch-y feel-y atmosphere in Northern California.

Peace and love my brothers and my sisters.

In the Bay Area, Rod McKuen performed “Stanyan Street And Other Sorrows.”  We kept Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” on the nightstand. Werner Erhard conducted EST intensive weekends at Asilomar in Pacific Grove.  My friend, Eddie, a TV producer in the habit of showing up late for everything, came home from what he described as a scary EST weekend and announced, “I’m still late but now I take responsibility for it.”  Peace and tough love was Werner’s way.

We read and digested and discussed all manner of aphorisms. I found several that were useful inside the poem, “Desiderata.”  I heard someone quote a few lines and then sought out the rest of the text.

Once in a lifetime when the moon is blue, we radio people get to work on a spoken-word recording.  Les Crane, a Bay Area favorite, hit the jackpot in the 70s with his very dramatic rendition of  “Desiderata.”  The musical setting was created by Broadway composer Fred Werner and repeated the refrain, “You are a child of the universe, you have a right to be here.”

Les seemed more of a firebrand and therefore an unlikely reader of poetry, but now, though others have recorded the poem, it’s his voice I hear when I think of Max Ehrmann’s words. I first heard Les on KGO San Francisco in the 60’s.  He was an early controversial talk radio host, a good looking guy who left for New York and late night TV. His recording was released in 1971 and it suited the times perfectly. He won a Grammy for it.

Here are some of my favorite lines from “Desiderata.”  They still make sense as affirmations or whatever we are presently calling the feeling that comes with “There, there, everything’s gonna be all right.”

“Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
…Max Ehrmann, 1927

In other words,
Peace and love, baby. Peace and love.

Here’s Les Crane.  Click his picture to hear the 1971 version.

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Earthquake Anniversary – Remembering The Little Things

By Anita Garner

Italo ”Itsie” Orlandi in his workshop, Mill Valley, CA

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1994 at 4:31 AM. when the Northridge earthquake changed our lives. I was awake and had just taken a few steps down the hall to work on a writing deadline when I was knocked to the floor. I’ve never been able to adequately describe the sound. The closest would be a train roaring through the house.

My condo on Valleyheart Drive in Studio City slid off its foundation, taking wires and plumbing and appliances with it, spewing furniture and the contents of cupboards and shelves over every surface.

Neighbors ran door to door shutting off gas lines, yelling inside to find out if we were trapped.  My front door was jammed. Men forced it open and when they saw I was okay they asked if I had anything they could use to break some glass to rescue my next door neighbor.  Bridget was screaming that she couldn’t get out. One helper directed his flashlight into my dark living room and located my chunky redwood bench. They used it to batter through Bridget’s sliding glass door. The last time I saw her, they were lifting her away from the broken glass and walking her out to the street.  I heard she moved back to France.

People gathered on the sidewalk and wrapped blankets around the ones who weren’t fully dressed.  I slept in a tee shirt and leggings and found sneakers just inside my front door.  Many were not so lucky.  Not everyone had shoes and the ground was already deep in debris.  Glass was everywhere.  The Valley filled up with sirens and random explosions. A building on one side of mine had very little damage while the building on the other side, a high rise, was seriously off kilter.  Neighbors rushed to carry injured residents down flights of stairs, securing them to straight back chairs for the journey to the sidewalk to await ambulances.

It’s 27 years later and the details are still shocking. Everyone lost something.  Some lost everything.  Reports said if it hadn’t been a holiday, if it hadn’t been before dawn, more people would have been out and about and more would have died.

Before the quake I was a collector of antique glassware, vintage goblets with slender stems and designs etched long ago in deep colors, elaborate depression glass table settings, Baccarat candlesticks, old lamps with delicate bases.  When I fell to the floor that morning I crawled to the living room, reaching for the built-in bar to hold onto.  As I approached, my brilliant glassware on shelves above the bar turned into projectiles, forcing tiny shards into my skin. For weeks I picked out colorful bits.  There’s a green one, now a purple one.  Much of what I owned and lived with and  loved broke, slivered, exploded, splintered, cracked, ripped, or shook to pieces.  A huge antique armoire fell across the bed I had just vacated.  I didn’t know that until a FEMA walk-through later.

After the house was red-tagged, when we were no longer allowed in because the ground kept shifting, I bought a few things, a set of dishes, a coffee maker, I don’t remember what all because replacing things was simply a reaction to loss and not a wish to own and preserve possessions. I have no desire to collect fragile things anymore and I’m wary of antiques.  You fall in love with them and they can break your heart

Now I’m drawn to rustic furnishings and pride of place goes to the short, stubby, redwood bench.  It was already old when I bought it in the 80s at Dowd’s Barn in Mill Valley. When I moved south  to do a radio show in Los Angeles, the bench came too.  After the quake, when I returned to Mill Valley, I lived a few minutes away from dear friend, Itsie.  A quick walk from my cottage in Blithedale Canyon took me over the Corte Madera Creek bridge to his hilltop home in the neighboring canyon.  Itsie’s house was built in the redwoods in the early 1900’s with multiple levels, including a fully equipped workshop on the bottom floor. He noticed my little bench was wobbly and took it home with him. The supports you see below the bench in the picture above were added from Itsie’s stash of redwood.

The conscious mind makes note of this anniversary every year then moves along but the subconscious still startles me awake during thunderstorms or when a truck rumbles by on a normally quiet street.  If one day the sound of a train roars through the living room and the floor moves so violently I can’t stand, if something like that happens again in my lifetime and I have to start over, I’ll begin with this bench.

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