Sunday, March 14, 2010

Winter Touring Tips

I recently returned from a three-week tour through northern Ontario and Manitoba. I do a lot of traveling, but most of my tours are short weekend hops. I don't often hit the road for two weeks straight, hardly ever in February, and I've certainly never spent much time driving in rural Canada in February. Winter driving in the Canadian north presents some special challenges that I knew I had to be prepared for. So before I left southern Ontario, I made sure to consult with some experts, and I took their advice. It occurred to me that other musicians might find my experience helpful. Here are some things I did to keep safe and warm:

  • Cellphone
    I usually travel alone, so I've always considered my cellphone an absolute necessity for safety on tour. It allows me to call for help if I get stuck on the road, something that's extra important when traveling the Trans-Canada Highway in the dead of winter.

    I knew cellphone coverage could be very spotty once I got out of urban populated areas. On this trip, I found I was out of range for several days through northern Ontario. One day the highway ahead was closed because of a snowstorm and I needed to make phone calls. What to do?

    Skype to the rescue! Skype is a free program that allows you to make phone calls over the internet. I happened to have Skype loaded on my iPhone, and although there was no cellphone signal, the place I pulled off did have wireless internet signal. I was able to add money to my Skype account on the spot and proceeded to make several important phone calls-- notably, "I am stuck on the highway and I won't be able to make the gig tonight." (For what it's worth, Skype is worth having in any case because you can make free long distance calls to other people who have Skype.)

  • Emergency Kit
    I had an emergency kit already, but I checked it before I left and replaced items that were old or didn't work anymore. I also added a few items of my own. My emergency kit included a flashlight, one of those cool foil blankets, candles, matches, a small cooking pot and some instant soups, a snow blindness suit (!), a "HELP" sign, nuts, candies, and energy cookies. I even had a little book with winter survival tips.

  • Snow Tires
    Snow tires make a huge difference to your car's ability to stay safe in winter conditions, and I wouldn't want to be without them for long winter drives in Canada. You pay a small premium, but when you account for the fact that winter tires help prolong the life of your other tires, and that they may save your life someday, they don't seem all that expensive.

  • Block Heater
    Everyone I talked to in Manitoba prior to my trip recommended a block heater, which you plug in at night in very cold conditions to keep your car engine warm. The temperatures in rural Manitoba and northern Ontario can be brutally cold (down to -30 degrees C), and if the engine gets too cold, you can have trouble starting your car. As it turned out, most of the time the weather wasn't quite cold enough to warrant it, and my little Honda Fit did just fine. But I was glad to have the peace of mind in case the temperature turned extra frosty. I carried an outdoor extension cord to plug the block heater in.

  • Winter Clothing
    I made sure to stock up on long underwear and wool socks before I left, and it was worth it. southern Ontario does not get nearly as cold as Manitoba in the winter, and I am sure I would have suffered mightily without my long underwear and wool socks. It was nice not to have to crank the heat up in the car too much when I was driving.

    I also made sure to bring a good parka (I looked like the Michelin Man but I didn't care -- I was warm!), boots, and several pairs of gloves/mittens, some scarves, and hats. I probably overdid in the winter wear department, but I had room in my car and if I was stuck in a situation where I was getting wet, I figured it would be nice to have extras.

  • Don't Drive Too Far; Drive Early in the Day
    I tried to keep my driving distances relatively short. This is a good idea any time you are touring, but especially in the winter. Combine short distances with driving earlier in the day, and you take a lot of pressure off. In most cases I was able to get where I was going in very good time. In one or two cases where I was driving in a little bit of weather, I knew I had time to drive slowly and that I could stop and rest anytime I wanted. It kept me safe and got me to the gigs with plenty of time to spare.

  • Call Your Destination When You Are Leaving
    I usually just jump in the car and aim to get there at the previously agreed upon time. But this trip, since I was driving through pretty isolated areas in winter conditions, I tried to get in the habit of calling my next stop as I was leaving, so they would have some idea when to expect me. That way if I didn't show up they could send out the search party!

  • Drive With a Full Tank of Gas
    I'm not used to driving in rural areas and I'm always surprised at how far you can drive in some parts of Canada without encountering a town, any services, or even another car on the road. I made sure not to let my tank get below half full; had I been driving longer distances I might have even filled up at three quarters of a tank. A full gas tank adds weight to your car, which helps you in bad driving conditions, and if your tank gets too low the gas lines can freeze, which would be a very bad thing.
A final note: although I had to be careful and make extra preparations, my winter touring experience was incredible. It's hard to beat seeing a sundog on the highway between Rossport and Thunder Bay, snowshoeing in Riding Mountain National Park, or gazing out over a frozen Lake Superior on a cold February morning. Not to mention the wonderful generous people I met on my tour. Just a few more reasons I still feel lucky to be a touring musician.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Beautiful City, Here We Come!

I just heard about an exciting bill that's coming up for a vote at Toronto City Council very soon.
aims to tax public billboards and put the money raised into municipal arts funding. If it's passed, it would lead to much more public art in the city, and more funding for artists, festivals, and for marginalized communities in Toronto. It's a brilliant idea, and I think all Torontonians should go to the website, sign the petition, and call their city councillor to urge them to support this bill.

Here's a little bit of information from their website:

What? is a city building initiative that aims to beautify, democratize and diversify access to public space, and in turn -- hold companies investing in billboard advertising accountable for their impact on shared spaces through an annual license fee. At earler staff estimated, mid-range revenues of 18 million per year (now knocked down to 11 million) the following would be possible:

• A historical 53% increase to the annual municipal funding available to all artists, festivals and arts institutions,
• Close to $100 000.00 dollars for public realm improvement for each Toronto ward, every year -- for projects such as greening,
• Almost a 1/3 of a million dollars for each of the 13 priority neighbourhoods to fund accessible youth arts programming, and
• Hiring 17 dedicated officers to enforce the new billboard bylaw.

Through an tax paid for by third-party billboard advertisers. Revenue would go through Cultural Grants for arts, Clean and Beautiful funding to individual wards and the Community Resource Unit for marginalized communitties. Then directed to art in the public sphere (public art) through various arms-length agencies and peer assessed processes. A priority would be put on marginalized communities and youth art.

There is lots more at:

Actions you can take:
> write and call your city councillor
> sign the petition in support of the bill at
> show up for the debate and vote which will be November 30-December 1st.

And, for those of you outside Toronto, wish us luck -- it could have a ripple effect far beyond Toronto.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Singing Is Good For You

I've written before about why I think singing is important. Mostly I've focused on social and political reasons that I think singing is vital in modern society. But there's also a mounting body of research that shows that singing is good for your physical and mental health. And now, thanks to my friends Sam Turton and Jane Lewis, we have links to health research on singing collected in one place.

I thought you should all have a chance to read some of these articles. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Music is a Necessity

My fellow songwriter Lynn Harrison beat me to it! This inspiring speech by Karl Paulnak at the Boston Conservatory has been making the rounds of the internet. It's a moving and incisive treatise on why music is not just an added frill, but an essential way of responding to the world around us. And why we need music now more than ever.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Picture In Your Head

Over on Maplepost, the Canadian folk music email listserv, there's a conversation going on about the fact that iTunes recently deleted "folk music" from it's list of music genres, choosing instead to use the label "singer-songwriter."

For some people the term "folk music" is, well, corny. They argue that "singer-songwriter" is a term more likely to resonate with younger music fans, and presents a new opportunity for those of us toiling away in the margins of the music industry.

Leaving aside the question where people are supposed to find traditional fiddle music or The Watersons on iTunes now, the move somehow symbolizes the basic identity problem that folk music suffers from in the twenty-first century.

Personally, I can't help but feel disappointed that iTunes did away with the "Folk" category. Call me corny if you want, but I feel like "Folk Music" is the label that best defines what I do.

Yes, I write songs, and I sing, so I guess that makes me a singer-songwriter. But I also feel like I'm a musician connected to a wellspring of music that is part of our common heritage, songs created and shaped by masses of ordinary people passing tunes and words back and forth in an oral tradition. I'm also connected to contemporary musicians who created new music inspired and influenced by that wellspring. I don't know what else to call that wellspring except, "folk music," so I call myself a "folk musician."

But at the same time, there's a dilemma in calling myself a folk musician, which has to do with the picture people get in their head when they hear the term "folk music." And unfortunately, the picture people get in their head doesn't correspond at all with what I know and love about contemporary folk music and the folk tradition. Here's a paraphrase of a conversation I have actually had a few times:

Me: Do you like folk music?
Them: No, I don't like folk music at all. But you know what I really like? Traditional Quebec music, and gospel music, and east coast music, like the fiddle and the step dancing. And I like Bob Dylan a lot.

You get the picture.

So what do I do about this dilemma? Sometimes I call myself a singer-songwriter, and I intersperse terms like "roots music" or "acoustic music" when I'm writing or talking about my music. But frankly, I don't find any of it satisfactory. Mostly, I just wish people got a different picture in their head when they heard the words "folk music."

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Apples and Oranges

Well, The Grammys have come and gone, and folk music did pretty well this year. Allison Krauss and Robert Plant won all five categories their album "Raising Sand" was nominated in, including Best Album and Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. I guess they were sort of like the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" of 2009 (interesting that T-Bone Burnett produced both albums). Pete Seeger won Best Traditional Folk Album for his album "At 89." The complete list is here.

Whatever you think of the term "Americana" for describing folk music, it's refreshing to see the Grammy categories divided between "Contemporary" and "Traditional" folk music.

Here in Canada, the Juno Award categories for folk music are divided into "Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo" and "Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Group." I'm not sure who decided how to divide the categories, but it makes no sense to me. Wouldn't it be much more meaningful to have a traditional award and a contemporary award? I don't think it really matters how many people created the music, as long as apples are being compared to apples and oranges are being compared to oranges.

Right now we end up with an odd mixture of acoustic pop, singer-songwriter, out-and-out rocking music, and maybe a bona-fide traditional or traditional-sounding album. It would be nice to see more traditional music represented. And it would be nice if there was so much contemporary folk music being nominated that they had to sub-divide the contemporary category into "solo" and "group." That I could support.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this?

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My Recent Reading List

I've recently been reading a lot, indulging my interest in music history, creativity, the brain, and community. Here's a list of what I've motored through in the last few months:

The Gift, by Lewis Hyde: I loved it. For anyone who works in a creative field, it's a must read. It's hard to encapsulate in a sentence, but basically it's about the value of creative endeavor in a modern society defined by money and commodification. The book has been out for 25 years-- not exactly new on the scene-- but it's central theme doesn't seem dated at all. It was hard slogging in some places because the writing is densely packed and the ideas are pretty heady. But I found myself constantly underlining passages and reading parts aloud to my partner. And I'm still thinking about it, almost a month later.

Amazing Grace: The Story of America's Most Beloved Song by Steve Turner tells the history of this seminal song, from a detailed biography of the song's author John Newton, to a history of the song's rise to iconic status. Over the years, the myth of the song has grown, but Turner does a good job of clearing away the mythology and establishing the facts of Newton's life, as far as we know them, and putting the song in a historical context.

Continuing on my music history kick, I also read White Christmas: The Story of an American Song. Author Jody Rosen tells the compelling story of the most recorded song in musical history. There's a lot more meat to this story than you might think - the song's creation was anything but straightforward, and it did not become an instant classic. Although it's a short book, Rosen packs in a lot of insight into the life of Irving Berlin, the workings of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, social mores of 1940's America, the birth of Christmas music, and more. Highly recommended.

And, moving to my interest in music and the brain, Daniel Levitin's latest book, The World in Six Songs is a fascinating look into how humans evolved into musical beings. I loved Levitin's first book, This is Your Brain on Music, and the new book did not disappoint.

And finally, right now, I'm reading Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. Academic, but very juicy. I'll try to report back on that one when I'm done.

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Taking the Stage

The other day I wrote about how we need to take back music as a natural human activity, and how we need non-competitive, inclusive spaces like song circles and jam sessions where people can share the joy of making music in a group, no matter what their skill level. I wrote that piece in the context of a conversation (on the Canadian folk music listserv Maplepost) about open stages, and whether it's okay to criticize performers who, shall we say, need a little work on their performing skills. Here is how my post on Maplepost continued:
There is a huge difference between swapping songs at a song circle or a jam session and getting on stage to perform for an audience. Once you decide to step on a stage, you are asking for an audience's undivided attention. Their attention is a privilege, and your space on that stage is not owed to you, it is earned. And once you step onto that stage you cross over a line into an arena where criticism is fair game. If you believe you are ready to step on that stage, than you should also be ready for the feedback you may receive. If you are not ready for feedback, then you may not be ready for the stage.

(On reflection, that was probably worded a little too strongly. I want to qualify it a little bit to say that it's okay to be nervous, it's okay to be inexperienced, and it's okay to make mistakes. That's how you improve. Open stages can be a great place to try out what it feels like to get on a stage and sing in front of people. And surprise! You will probably learn that performing on a stage takes a whole new set of skills that you need to learn, just like you needed to learn to play or sing or write songs.)

Here's how I continued:
Obviously, there are different kinds of stages and different levels of responsibility and feedback that are appropriate depending on context. In my mind, open stages occupy some kind of grey area between a song circle/jam situation and a full-fledged stage. Open stages are a training ground, a place to learn what it means to be on a stage.

But however experienced or inexperienced a musician we are talking about, I think the most effective feedback, if it's called for, is kind, direct, and constructive criticism. If you are in a mentoring or teaching role with a budding musician-- if you have been ASKED for feedback-- I think it is your responsibility find a way to be honest AND supportive. I have come to realize, through my teaching experiences, that when you are asked for feedback, you don't do anyone a favour by avoiding criticism. The trick is to find a way to offer criticism that is non-judgemental and direct without being cruel.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Be Prepared!

A few months ago, my partner and I decided to buy tickets to see Kate and Anna McGarrigle in concert at Hugh's Room. The tickets were very expensive, but we decided to make a date out of it and not worry about the cost. We even made reservations for dinner to underscore the "date" idea.

The night of the concert, we arrive and take our seats. The club is filling up-- the McGarrigles are playing two nights in a row, but even so, we hear both shows were sold out. As we eat, I looked around at the audience. I'm surprised that I hardly recognize anyone. "Who are all these people," I wonder? "Why do I never see them at other folk music events?" Most of them seem like boomers who live in the suburbs, perhaps, and I wonder whether they come to Hugh's Room because of the dinner theatre atmosphere (a little classier than your average folk music concert series church basement) and the nostalgia factor (reliving their rebellious folk-singing young adulthood of the 1960's).

We finish our dinners, complete with dessert. I'm feeling incredibly full, a little bit sleepy, and looking forward to just relaxing and enjoying a concert by two of my musical heroes. I head towards the back of the club for a visit to the washroom, and I see the owner of the club, along with the person who books concerts, and the floor manager. So I walk over to say "hi," since I know them all.

"Hi Eve," they all chime, and then one of them says, "Do you want to open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle?"

I assume they're joking, but after a few seconds of kibbutzing, I realize they are absolutely serious. It turns out that Kate and Anna are planning to do one long set, and the Hugh's Room staff wants to have a break partway through the evening. So they need someone to perform an opening set.

At first I think of all the reasons I can't do it -- I don't have my guitar, picks, or capo. I wasn't prepared to perform -- no fancy outfit or anything. I walk back to my seat and tell E. what just happened.

"Are you crazy?" she practically shouts, "You HAVE to do this. You go back there and tell them you will open for Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Right now!"

Ever the obedient partner, I go back and let them know that if they are still looking for someone, I could do it, but I would need to borrow a guitar. We quickly arrange for me to borrow Kate's guitar and Anna's capo. I even borrow a pick from Chaim Tannenbaum, one of their longtime accompanists.

And I play a half-hour opening set. I have no CDs to sell, no mailing list, and I am wearing a t-shirt with a logo for "Mama Clucker's," a famous chicken eatery in New Orleans. "Best Legs in Town!" says the slogan across my chest. It is definitely a moment to remember.

And I'm so glad that I did it. The place was packed full of people who had never heard me before, and I got a very enthusiastic response (although of course I wasn't able to sell any CDs or get anyone on my mailing list). Thankfully, I did know about five people in the audience, and one was my friend Collette, who took this picture with her cellphone. It's not great quality, but it is proof.

The moral of the story: Be Prepared! You never know when you will be asked to sing.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Swinging on a Pendulum

A few weeks ago, I was running flat out-- I went from the Mariposa Festival, directly to the Haliburton School of the Arts (where I taught guitar for 7 hours a day, five days in a row), directly to the Canterbury Folk Festival, and finally home. It was a pretty hectic couple of weeks.

And then, just like that, it all came to a screeching halt. Three weeks with no gigs. I almost don't know what to do with myself.

But it will all change again in about a week, when I’ll get on a plane and head to Nova Scotia for the Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival. A few days after that, I’m in Owen Sound for the Summerfolk Festival, and then a few days after that I leave for five days for The Woods Music and Dance Camp, where I’m one of the main organizers and I teach a guitar class.

It’s an embarrassment of riches, really, because festivals are fantastic gigs for musicians. It’s a chance for us to perform in beautiful environments, for people who truly appreciate the music. And probably best of all, we get to hang out with each other-- a rare treat in a business where we are often criss-crossing the country on our own, rarely seeing or talking to each other.

But I can’t help thinking about the "feast-or-famine," pendulum-swinging existence I seem to live most of the time. Finding the balance between the different aspects of my work and personal life is not easy. When I’m in an intense period of performing, I’m not able to do much of anything else. And when I'm not intensely performing, there is usually a host of other things I should be doing. There's booking gigs, writing songs, recording, applying for grants, keeping my web presence up-to-date, following up on connections made at festivals or other gigs, practicing, running the office, being my own manager, planning, and so on. But to be honest, after an intense few weeks like I just had, when I find myself with unstructured time, it's pretty hard to put my nose to the grindstone and get down to all the things that need to be done.

In short, I don’t think I’ve yet managed to find a good balance between performing, teaching, writing, practicing, recording, running an office, booking and managing myself, not to mention relaxing every once in a while. I wonder if I ever will.

It doesn't help that the lines between my personal life and my work life are now blurred beyond recognition. Once upon a time I worked normal, nine-to-five jobs, where I showed up at a workplace and I had stuff to do every day that fit into a larger structure. Then I went home and had a personal life. It's not that I wasn't working hard, but I had a sense of work time separated from personal time. Now I have to create my own structure. Sometimes I’m better than at other times, but generally I’m a pretty un-disciplined person. I'll jump from one thing to another, never quite completing anything, and since I don’t have to work at particular times, I find myself working at very odd hours sometimes.

And sometimes, when I should be working, I goof off. I admit it. I don't have anyone looking over my shoulder, and it's hard to be motivated when I don't have a deadline.

And my latest epiphany: modern technology does NOT help with this problem of work/personal balance (I know, I know, where have I been the last ten years?). Ever since I got a laptop and we put a wireless router in our house, I can work or play from anywhere, leading to the “I’ll just lie on the couch and answer all my email” syndrome. I find myself responding to work emails or updating my website while I’m watching TV, or just before I go to bed (which leads to the equally egregious “I went to sleep at 3 am because I thought I’d just check my email before bed” syndrome). Am I relaxing? Working? I can't always tell.

I know I'm not alone with this dilemma. A quick search revealed a few different bloggers writing about this very issue, here and here. Seems we're all trying to figure out where work ends and play begins.

I love what I do, and I know I’m lucky to be able to do it. I try to remember that when I find myself clinging for dear life to that swinging pendulum, struggling to keep all the balls in the air.

OK, enough kvetching. Time to go book myself a gig. Or update my website. Or finish that song. Heck, maybe I'll goof off...

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Let the Blogging Begin

Since I decided to start blogging, I've had lots of ideas about what to write about. Now that I'm truly beginning, I'm not sure where to start! All my ideas have left my head.

So I will start with something I posted to Maplepost, an email listserv I belong to for people involved in folk music in Canada.

In the past few days, we've been discussing how hard it is for folk musicians to find a booking agent, and the difficulties involved with being your own booking agent. So of course I had to get my two cents in there. Here's what I wrote:

Being Your Own Booking Agent

Being a musician and performer involves a very different set of skills from being a booking agent, publicist, manager, or independent business owner. A lucky few seem to have an amazing combination of all those skills, and must never sleep, because they somehow manage to do all those things for themselves excellently. But the rest of us mere humans generally bumble along, doing better at some parts than others, and sometimes cursing the gods for the lack of (fill in the blank here: an agent, a manager, a bookkeeper, a secretary, etc.).

One thing that has helped me cope with this is that I do other music work that complements performing-- I teach lessons out of my house. Not only does it bring in other income, so that I'm not completely dependent on the money that comes in from gigs and CD sales, but it gives me a lot of flexibility. I work from home and I can set my own hours. If I need to be away for a week, I can easily move my schedule around. And it's made me a better musician.

Having that other income that is still music related has really changed my life-- since I'm not 100% dependent on the gigs, I'm not approaching booking with the sole goal of keeping the wolves from the door. I'm able to think about where I want to go with my performing career and how to get there, and I'm able to view things in the long term. If I have a stretch with fewer gigs, I know I will still have some money coming in.

The other thing that has really helped me is to try, as much as possible, not to take it personally.

When I started booking myself, I found it really difficult to talk to presenters. I realize now that I was thinking about it all wrong. I was thinking of myself as the lowly artist, begging for crumbs from an all-powerful presenter, who had the ability to make or break my career. It's extremely difficult not to feel personally rejected or crushed when you don't get the gig -- you've put your heart and soul into your music, and the presenter isn't interested. It must mean they don't like you or your music, right?

First of all, as we all know, there's all kinds of reasons for not getting booked -- too few spots, timing doesn't work, they can't add another concert in May, they don't present songwriters, etc. etc.

But more importantly, I've tried to develop a new approach to the process of booking. For me now, booking is all about building community, making relationships, and getting to know the people that are out there helping make the music happen. They might be running a teeny house concert or booking a huge concert hall, but I want to know more about what they do and how they do it. The more I know about the whole spectrum of venues, and how they work, the better I'm going to be able to work with them. And as soon as I started looking at it that way, things began to shift.

Thinking about booking this way helped me "de-personalize" things a lot, and it's made me a better booking agent for myself. Now when I contact a presenter, I think about it as relationship building. I present myself honestly and directly, and I look for the same from them. I try to remember that they've usually only got a few slots to fill, and that there's a lot of fantastic music out there. I think about the fact that I'm in this for the long haul, and if they don't hire me now, they might want to next year, or the year after that. I'm on the slow burn, and I can wait.

So even if I don't get the gig, if I succeeded in having a good conversation where we exchanged some information and got to know each other a little bit, I consider myself successful. Because that's going to be a person that I can go back to at some later point and talk to again. Maybe I'll run into them at a festival or a conference. Maybe I'll be able to help them with something -- locating a good sound person, or helping them find the perfect Irish group for St. Patrick's Day, or whatever. Maybe, even if they don't hire me, they can tell me about some of the other venues in their area, or maybe they know something about artist management. Maybe they'll never hire me -- so be it.

It doesn't mean they think I suck, it doesn't mean they suck. It just means they're not going to hire me. Sometimes that's really hard to take. But the more I'm able to let that go, the better for me, and the better for my career. And, as I said before, not having to depend 100% on gigs can really help keep things in perspective.

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