Archive for the ‘Fritz Leiber’ Category

Yesterday, Benjamin Szumskyj emailed that his Fritz Leiber: Critical Studies, was now officially out of print. I turned sombre at the news, because that anthology marked the last remnant of my academic aspirations.

In any number of alternate universes, I am probably teaching English at some university. For years, that was my intention in this one. But finances, family, and a reluctance to work towards a doctorate put an end to those ambitions years ago. I was so disillusioned by academia that I even stopped my critical work on the American fantasist Fritz Leiber and emerged myself in the world of technical writing. All that survived was Witches of the Mind, the revised version of my master’s thesis, selling a few copies every year and being praised by the half dozen other people in the world who were interested in the subject.

Several years later, Szumskyj, then a semi-professional fantasy scholar, contacted me, praising Witches and eager to lure me out of academic retirement. Mostly, I resisted the temptation, but he did manage to coax from me a contribution for Critical Studies, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Fiction of Fritz Leiber.”

The writing of the article was a painful reminder of academic discourse; as Phred Nguyen, the member of the Vietcong in Doonesbury said when hearing Marxist jargon for the first time in a long while, I kept thinking, “Man, I’d forgotten we talk this way.” I enjoyed writing it as a prolonged daydream of what might have been, and I think I managed to say something original, but after it was done, I had no desire to follow up with more articles. Literary analysis was no longer what my life was about.

Still, now that the rights have reverted, I like the idea of giving the article a semi-permanent home. I’m posting it here under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license for any who might be interested in what else I write when I’m not discussing free software. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to read a relic of an alternate universe.


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A friend of mine insists that everything happens for a reason. If a relative dies, or he receives a disconnection notice from the power company, or he fails to make his rent on time, he consoles himself by repeating this idea over and over. But for all my familiarity with his refrain, it only occurred to me today that he might be right – although not in any way that he would suspect.

I’ve never told him, but the implied resignation in his philosophy always leaves me faintly irritated. If you’ve ever been with someone whose hearing is much better than yours, you’ll understand my irritation, because if there’s a pattern to the events around me, it appears to be beyond my perception. I’m tempted to dismiss the idea out of hand, then I wonder: what if he sees something I can’t?

Even more seriously, if you believe that everything happens for a reason, you quickly confront the idea of inevitability, or of a deity who controls events. In turn, either of these ideas quickly comes up against the so-called problem of pain – in other words, what’s the role of suffering within that all-explanatory reason? And if hurt or loss is either inescapable or ordained by a deity, then the universe is hostile, and any ruling god is, as Mark Twain suggested, “a malign thug,” worthy neither of worship nor resignation towards through the belief that everything happens for a reason.

Such possibilities seem a needless complication compared to the idea that there is no innate reason, and that much of what happens is simply the result of chance and beyond our control. My friend creates a sense of meaning by believing in hidden causation, just as I create meaning by opposing and trying to limit the painful when it randomly occurs.

So far, so existential. But I suddenly realized today that I hadn’t taken my outlook far enough. If no innate reason exists, there is no reason why you can’t settle on your own purpose for everything happening, and take comfort from that, even if that purpose is only finding satisfaction in the fact that what happens is in accord with your perception of how existence works. That may be a distant and unsatisfying outlook, but it would make my friend’s mantra truer than I imagined possible. But what purpose would reconcile me to stoicism in the face of disaster?

Immediately, I thought of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, which mentions in passing that the entire purpose of a greedy Sixteenth Century merchant’s existence was to give Shakespeare the model for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Having recently spent a couple of days with fantasist Fritz Leiber’s immediate descendants, that in turn reminded me of Leiber’s comment that seeing everything he experienced as potential story material was part of his adoption to life.

Was there any reason, I wondered, why I couldn’t assume the same perspective? If what happens is story material, then that would be a reason that I could accept for everything that happens. Some events might be horrific, but, softened by being put in a story, maybe even they might instruct, amuse, or distract both me and any audience. The idea requires no belief in destiny or a deity, and morally involves nothing worse than salvaging something from whatever happens.

The only problem is that, so far, I’m not much of a fiction writer. While I’ve sold close to twelve hundred pieces of non-fiction, I’ve only published two pieces of fiction, both so short and so slight that calling them minor is being kind. The potential is there, but time is starting to run out.

Still, there is no reason why I can’t try out the perspective. Cultivating it might even encourage me to use the material I’ve collected, to settle down and make more of an effort at fiction.

That may be expecting too much. But, effective immediately, I’m resolved to see how the perspective works out. Since I’ve been mentally circling the idea since I first thought of it this morning, it seems worth exploring. I’ve rarely had an idea that intrigued me so much.

Who knows? Perhaps in a year or two, when my friend tells me everything happens for a reason, I will nod and tell him that he doesn’t know how true his belief actually is.

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For the past week, I’ve spent an hour or two each day time-travelling. Mainly, I’ve been touring the mid-Twentieth Century courtesy of Fritz Leiber’s letters to his lifelong friend Franklin MacKnight, but I’ve also been visiting my personal past, trying to decipher my intentions when I first started transcribing and editing the letters.

The letters were a project that I undertook after my thesis. In those days, I still had hopes of an academic career, and MacKnight had just donated large mounds of papers to the University of Houston for its Leiber collection. Armed with the published version of my thesis on Leiber, Witches of the Mind, I persuaded the librarian to send me several thick folders full of material.

What I had really hoped to find were Leiber’s letters to his other lifelong friend, Harry Otto Fischer. According to Leiber himself, his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series had begun in an exchange of letters with Fischer in the early 1930s, and, from the quotes in his essay “Fafhrd and Me,” the letters promised to be richly inventive.
Unfortunately, if those letters have survived, no one has found them yet, and the few letters from Fischer that had survived proved banal.

But, MacKnight, I quickly found, had exchanged long letters with Leiber for sixty years, and carefully preserved most, if not all, of the letters he had received from Leiber. And, although, for much of that period, Leiber hadn’t returned the favor, what was preserved was still a rich correspondence.

My first job was to transcribe the photocopies – the University of Houston was so concerned about illegal copying that the photocopies it sent had vertical writing as a watermark that also thwarted legal copying like mine. Next was the annotation of the letters for a general audience than they were ever intended for.

It was slow going. First, Leiber died, and, having seen him on his death-bed, I didn’t feel like working on the project for about eighteen months. Then I left academia, and in the throes of establishing myself as a technical writer, I didn’t have much time for such a non-profitable project.

Still, I persevered. I had got into the mid-1950s, and even published some of my preliminary work in The New York Review of Science Fiction when my personal life exploded, and I had no time for anything else. And so the folders sat on the desk in the spare room, slowly fading in the sun for years.

Then, this fall, I received a copy of Benjamin Szumskyj’s collection of Leiber essays, to which I contributed. Through FaceBook, I got in touch with Arlynn Leiber Presser, Leiber’s grand-daughter. And, suddenly, it seemed time to return to the project.

Leaving a manuscript is always a sound way to get enough distance to edit it, and the years since I touched the project were more than enough for me to gain perspective on the work I had done so far. But I am no longer the person I was when I started the project, and, looking at my previous work, I often find myself thinking that the editor is a rather strange young man, with thought processes I no longer understand. I disagree with many of his choices, particularly about where to omit passages, and wonder about his judgment. What was he thinking? I keep asking, and then the slow machinery of memory rumbles into action and I vaguely recall the intents that were responsible for a particular piece of editing.

My collaborator in the past, I conclude, as a timid sort, far too nervous about causing anyone offense by my present standards. But no doubt I’m coarsened by several years of on-line journalism with its instant and often frank feedback.

Then there are the letters themselves. Inevitably, the letters are full of news of the world around them, both that of world events and of the science fiction community through the ages. Reading them and tracking down references, I feel a stronger sense than ever before of a history that is still in living memory – although not, for much of it, my living memory.

It’s a world where people worried about being drafted to fight a world war, and watched McCarthyism creep in. It’s a world where gender roles are strongly defined, where a steady job is everything and walking away from that – as Leiber did in the late 1950s – is an eccentric act. It’s a world where secretaries take dictation, and an interest in science fiction is a juvenile, perhaps subversive pastime. And through it all, the main vehicle for recording impressions is the typewriter – a machine that I am old enough to have learned to use, but which now seems an unbelievably clumsy device, as frequent xing out of phrases show in the transcripts.

Immersing myself in the letters and reading Leiber’s reactions to the events around him, I fell that I have a stronger sense of this recent history. In fact, when I break to make dinner, I almost feel that I have time-travelled, and have to shake myself to remind myself that what I’ve been reading isn’t decades old and not current at all.

So far, I’ve just managed to revise my previous work to my present standards. That still leaves me with thirty years’ worth of correspondence to work through. With luck, I hope to have a manuscript ready by the New Year.

I consider myself lucky to be editor of the letters. Quite aside from the fact that I’m working with the words of a great American fantasist, I suppose that we won’t get many of those exchanges in the future. Those of us who write long emails are a minority, and most people probably don’t preserve emails more than a few years. Nor are we as likely with emails to get reflexive responses developed over several days, or even a couple of weeks – the medium seems to place a premium on quick responses. I don’t regret the change in technology — I can’t imagine, for instance, returning to a typewriter after using a word processor — but the thought keeps occuring to me that I am editing a correspondence of a sort that is about to become extinct.

I can’t imagine any greater privilege.

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Recovering from a leg injury and facing a delayed article and a heavy autumn rain, I was delighted to find Benjamin Szumskyj’s Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays in the mail box today. I still have to read the contents in detail, but my first romp through the context was a combination of pride in my contribution, nostalgia, and the feeling that whatever critical heritage I had generated had passed into safe hands.

For those who don’t know, Fritz Leiber is one of my favorite science fiction writers, and, when I say that my short book Witches of the Mind remains the definitive study of his works, I am only stating the truth (although I have to confess that the field of Leiber studies is not very large).

Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays is the first major scholarly work since mine, and I caught a few glimpses of its creation, so naturally I would feel a certain grandfatherly interest in it under any circumstances. But the collection also marks my first academic paper in over a decade, an effort that I was only persuaded to by Szumskyj’s unrelenting badgering and against my natural sense of caution (there were men with dark glasses, I swear. And tire irons).

(And grocery store coupons!).

So I was seriously torn between anticipation and apprehension when I opened this afternoon’s parcel. I wanted to say honestly that it was first-rate effort, but I was nervous that I would have to lie – and, even worse, that I had contributed nonsense.

With the typical vanity of a writer, my first act was to turn to my own essay, “The Allure of the Eccentric in the Poetry and Prose of Fritz Leiber.” Were there any typos? Had I said anything stupid? I’d hardly dared to look at the article since I submitted it, and perhaps some unintentional double entendre had slipped past Ben’s watchful editorial eye.

Mercifully, I saw nothing at first pass that made me wince. Once or twice, I thought I even sounded sensible – but that could be the Ibuprofen talking.

My next step was to see the references to me in the index. The point was not so much vanity as to catch up with what Leiber scholars were saying. Had my ideas from all those years ago been superseded? Another new paradigm (or trio of nickels) generated?
“No” was the answer to both questions. But several writers had expanded into areas where I had lacked the space to explore and others had struck out in interesting new directions. The community of Leiber scholars might be small, but it was evidently thriving.

Remembering Justin Leiber’s earlier rambling and charmingly digressive articles on his father, one of the first pieces I read in full was his contribution. Not only was it everything his earlier articles had been, but it got me thinking about the couple of times that I had met him – once at a World Fantasy Convention in Seattle, and again in San Francisco shortly before his father’s death. These were in many ways a golden era in my life, in which I had the privilege of knowing Fritz and his second wife Margo Skinner, I was a semi-regular at Diana Paxson and Paul Edwin Zimmer’s Greyhaven, and my own study was receiving attention and award nominations.

With two years, I had turned my back on that world and, become a technical writer and started sliding into the worst circumstances so far of my life. At the time, I thought my chief concern was the need to earn a better living, but today I wonder whether experiencing Fritz’s last days hadn’t influenced my choice not so subtlely.
And what, I wonder, might have happened if I had stayed in academia? Would I have slipped on to the tenure track, or at least found a permanent lectureship? Or would I still be grubbing for contracts and growing increasingly embittered with each semester?

And would I have done any more work on Leiber? There was a time when I was the one thinking about doing essay collections on Leiber.

But that all seems a long time ago, and, although Szumskyj, Australian that he is, keeps hinting at dire uses of Vegemite if I don’t contribute to his studies of other authors, I only have one academic project that I’d like to finish in the remaining half of my life.

Besides, I’m not altogether sure that I could hold my own. The essays in Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays seem awfully literate and penetrating to me. So, although I’m still a relatively young man (a phrase that, as I write, I eerily remember reading Leiber using of himself at about the same age), I think that, for the most part, I will take the grandfather option, expressing pleasure in the fact that I made a small contribution to scholarship, and others still find it interesting enough to improve on it.

All joking aside, thanks for an excellent collection, Ben – you’ve done Fritz proud.

Now, put away the Gnutella and the fire ants, and I promise to do anything you say.

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“Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3

If I am remembered for anything — which is open to debate — it will be for Witches of the Mind, my study of the American fantasist Fritz Leiber. So far, my only other claim to fame is my free software articles, but they have a brief currency, and I don’t expect anyone to remember my byline more than six months after the last one appears. But, among the half dozen or so scholars who care about the subject, Witches has enjoyed a modest reputation for sixteen years. Nor have its ideas been seriously challenged yet.

The book is an extended version of my master’s thesis in English at Simon Fraser University, in which I talk about Leiber’s development of the Anima and Shadow archetypes in his fiction. Early on in my graduate program, I had decided that, if I were going to spend eight months or more writing a thesis, I was going to do something original. Adding my ideas to one of the hundreds of articles written yearly about, say, Hamlet seemed both daunting and a waste of time. Getting the idea accepted required a little bit of lobbying by my thesis supervisor, but the possibility of a book and the then trendiness of popular culture was enough to get the topic accepted.

Writing the thesis was memorable for the thunderstorm that took down the motherboard of my first computer on the very day that I was going to learn how to do backups. I spent two anxious weeks, my defence date drawing near, before I could recover the files from the hard drive (unsuprisingly, I’ve been a fanatical believer in backups ever since). It was memorable, too, for my twenty minute defence, which was curtailed when its second reader suffered a petit mal attack that he tried to hide and so kept me from the drilling I expected from him. I also took away from it a love of research, and an exhaustive knowledge of the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, much of which I read while developing my ideas. But, most of all, the process was memorable for my first meetings with Fritz Leiber and his second wife Margo Skinner, two of the extraordinary and eccentric people who have enriched my life from time to time.

The day after a drunken celebration over retsina and Greek food with my supervisor and external reader, I set about the task of reshaping my thesis for a book. Selling the idea of the book wasn’t difficult — there had been previous books on Leiber, but mine was the first scholarly one and the first, Leiber said, to offer any real insight into his creative development.

But the thesis title, “Divination and self-therapy: Archetypes and stereotypes in the works of Fritz Leiber,” was too academic. Perhaps in choosing the name, I was trying to subdue criticism by the conventional of my topic by hiding it under a thick verbiage of respectability. I had the idea of searching Macbeth, Leiber’s favorite Shakespearean play, for a pithier title, and found it in Macbeth’s hallucination of a dagger in Act 2. The phrase “Witches of the Mind” seemed ideal for conveying the idea that Leiber’s portrayal of women was a conceit that was never meant to be taken as a literal description. Leiber wasn’t writing about women as they were; he was writing about his own unconscious portrayal of them.

I admit that I was mildly disappointed when the book came out. I had added about twelve thousand words to the thesis, and, to keep the cost down, the publisher had set it in cramped pages. Even worse, the cover was a collage of images only vaguely associated with Leiber’s work, and featured a portrait of the subject with a jaw that looked as though it belonged on a stoic New England farmer, or maybe H. P. Lovecraft.

Of course, the important thing was to be published, I told myself. All the same, I took care not to let any of my academic colleagues actually see the cover of my main claim to fame.

And I worked that claim heavily, too. It was mainly on the strength of my book credit that I was allowed to teach at Simon Fraser University, despite my lack of a doctorate. The book also gave me a degree of recognition among fantasy scholars, particularly when it was nominated in both years of eligibility for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award.

I didn’t mind, either, the modest amounts of cash I got in the first few years of sales. It was never much, but enough to pay for dining out a few times.

Buoyed by these small successes, I started doing a sequel. Originally, I hoped to publish the letters of Fritz Leiber and his college friend Harry Otto Fischer, in which the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series began. But Leiber no longer had his letters, and Fischer’s letters, if they existed at all, were in the library of Clarksburg, West Virginia, and out of range of my travel budget. I had more success with Leiber’s letters to Franklin MacKnight, another college friend, and published some of those letters in the New York Review of Science Fiction.

I also used them for a debunking article entitled “Fafhrd and Fritz,” which was intended as a sequel to Leiber’s “Fafhrd and Me,” which gives a heavily romanticized account of the origin of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. My article debunked Leiber’s, and pointed out MacKnight’s role in the series’ creation.

For a while, I considered a collection of stories by other writers in honor of Fritz Leiber. But then my life changed. Leiber died, and so did the story collection somehow. The English department had a new chair, who saw sessional appointments as a way to exchange favors with other universities, and suddenly my regular employment was in question. I considered a doctoral thesis, but didn’t want to spend the time and had trouble coming up with a topic. Unwilling to move for personal reasons, I became what I call a “recovering academic” and started working as a technical writer. Shortly, after, I suffered the greatest crash and burn of my life. By the time I started climbing out of that bleak period, academic concerns seemed far away. My research photocopies lingered on a shelf by the window of our spare room, gradually bleaching into near-illegibility in the sun.

For several years, I thought that Witches and the academic era of my life were things of the past. Then, a few years ago, I heard from Benjamin Szumskyj, a library technician and fantasy scholar from Australia with a love of Leiber’s work. He had some extravagantly kind things to say about Witches, and did an interview with me for a fanzine. He went on to edit a collection of Leiber’s early and small press work and a collection of essays on Leiber, cajoling me and shaming me with his enthusiasm until I actually managed to write my first academic paper in over ten years, “The Allure of the Eccentric.” Ben has far surpassed my own efforts, but, in my conceit, I like to think that I may have been a minor influence for him.

Since then, I have been thinking of dusting off the Leiber-MacKnight letter project. Some improvements in OCR scanning in GNU/Linux makes that more of a possibility than a few years ago.

And every now and then, I run across copies of Witches on the bookshelf, dust them off, and dip into a page or two. I feel as though it were written by someone else now, except that I remember writing the odd phrase or two. Yet the book holds up well, considering its years, and I still can’t resist a wistful pride in having written it.

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When I came to do my master’s thesis in English, two points were very clear. If I was going to spend the better part of a year researching and writing, I wanted the result to be publishable. In addition, having gone through the agonies of trying to find a new perspective on Hamlet, I wanted it to be original. Eventually, I decided to write about the American fantasist Fritz Leiber, whose work I had been enjoying since the sixth grade. That decision not only got me the publication credit I’d craved (it’s still in print under the title Witches of the Mind), but also meant that I was accidentally there for Fritz’s last days and wrapped up in the whole unhappy story.

Here’s how it happened:

When my thesis became a book, my friend Paul Zimmer arranged for Trish and I to meet Fritz while we were in the Bay area. Fritz was diffident with people he didn’t know well, but his friend and soon-to-be second wife, Margo Skinner – a socialist, journalist, poet, and practicing alcoholic – was outspoken enough to fill any awkward gaps, and everyone was soon on friendly terms. On subsequent visits, the four of us went out to dinner several times, and we met at a couple of science fiction conventions in Washington state twice as well, where we acted as their designated wheelchair attendants. Neither Fritz nor Margo needed a wheelchair full-time, but they often found them convenient in crowds.

I wouldn’t say we were friends, but we had become friendly acquaintances. So, when Margo conceived the madcap idea of taking the train across North America to a convention in London, Ontario, Fritz and Margo asked if we could be their native guides in Vancouver (it had to be the train, because Margo was terrified of flying). It would prove to be the last trip for both of them.

Everything about the trip seemed cursed from the beginning. A thousand inconveniences plagued Margo, Fritz, and their housekeeper (who had come along to help push their wheelchairs) from the beginning. They got as far as Seattle, and we were driving down in a van borrowed from my in-laws to pick them up – when we had engine trouble and had to turn back just south of Belllingham.

Fortunately, a Seattle science fiction fan stepped in, and got them to the border the next day, and we spent the next day showing them Vancouver, lunching at the hotel Vancouver, wheeling them around the aquarium, and going out for dinner in Stanley Park, so that Fritz could have some fresh salmon. I remember, too, Fritz staring at an otter through the glass at the aquarium, looking as wide-eyed as a child, for all his over eighty years. The next day, we saw them off on the train, and that was the last easy day they had.

We later heard that the trip to London was even more nightmarish than the first leg of the trip. For much of the time across the prairies, the air conditioning was out of order, causing them almost to collapse. When they got to London, the hotel wasn’t wheelchair accessible, and the convention staff assigned to them were unreliable.

But it was when they headed south to Chicago to catch the train back to San Francisco that the nightmare really settled in. The trip turned into a ten hour ordeal that left Margo and Fritz dehydrated. Not only did they miss their train, but Fritz collapsed in a semi-comatose, only occasionally coherent state.

Fritz’s son Justin and his grand-daughter, Arlynn Presser, got Fritz on a plane home, and Fritz went directly to California Pacific. Margo followed via train, resolutely refusing to fly. Meanwhile, knowing nothing of events, Trish and I were planning a holiday in the Bay Area, staying on the floor of the library at Greyhaven. We arrived to find a badly distracted Margo, and soon realized that, whatever our holiday would be, it wouldn’t be restful.

Instead of playing tourist as we’d planned, we found ourselves part of Margo’s life support for 12-14 hours each day, along with a punk poet, an ex-dominatrix and Dolores Nurss, who claimed descent from one of the Salem witches. That wasn’t the way we wanted to spend our holidays, but what else, in all decency, could we do?

We also found ourselves spending far too much time in Fritz’s hospital room, watching his labored breathing and realizing increasingly with each passing day that he wasn’t going to pull through, or even become completely conscious again. However, the one time he roused even a bit, his only clear words were that he wanted to get well again, “So he could tell stories.”

I think that everybody broke down when they heard that.

The situation quickly became worse. Although Fritz could well afford his hospital care, he was over eighty, and the hospital clearly saw him as not worth making much of an effort for. The standards of basic hygiene seemed appalling to my eyes, and the fact that Fritz developed pneumonia there seems to confirm my impression. Meanwhile, Margo, who was dealing with her own cancer, and had seen death too often to be deceived by Fritz’s condition, was on the verge of a breakdown.

Matters weren’t improved, either, when Fritz’s son Justin arrived. Personally, I liked both Margo and Justin, but they didn’t like each other, and the strain of them remaining polite only added to the growing tension.

The end was as obvious as inevitable, but we couldn’t wait for it. I had teaching contracts that I had to fulfill, and we had to leave. A couple of days after we did, we learned that Fritz had died. “Senile decay” was given as the cause of death – meaning that his body had stopped working because he was too old.

I can’t claim to have known Fritz long or well. Still, the memory of those final days returns to me sometimes. I often think the hospital’s shabby treatment of Fritz and tell myself that, if I ever fall ill in the United States, I’m getting back to Canada if I have to push my gurney up the highway by myself. Sometimes, too, I’m in a dream in which I’m pushing Margo through miles of hospital corridors, only to finally get outside to stand on a windy, darkening street while cab after cab sails by – an event that actually happened on our last night there.

And I still can’t hear Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” without tensing, remembering how we played it over and over in the hopes that it might lead Fritz back to consciousness in his final days. It never did, but the music has become haunted for me, anyway. I used to mark student papers to that music, but now the associations with the last day of Fritz are stronger than any other memory I have of it.

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