Made by you and I

An American festival in Tokyo

odaiba american festival japan

Odaiba, which I’ve posted on before, held an “American Festival”. I needed to know. If Japan is sushi, samurai, manga in the US, what is America in Japan? Oh, you don’t want to know.

I was going to take photos but I knew I’d be taking them to jab and jeer.

I will briefly outline the people and venue: Every worker was dressed in denim shirts AND jeans with HUGE cowboy hats. Over that women wore white homestead aprons and/or Aunt Jemima-esq headscarves. The shops were cooking up huge steaks on BBQ’s and the Budweiser was everywhere. On either side of the audience/tables were food stalls with steaks, the Japanese interpretation of pulled pork (if you think you’ve been eating Teriyaki chicken and sushi where you are, I’ve got a surprise for you), and SPAM. Oh, and used clothing bins, boxed cake mixes, and toy guns because that’s America folks, used clothes and guns. Yes, sir.

Picture it: The average Japanese person is about 170 – 175 cm and narrow waisted. Their Texas belt buckles were like shields and their poor little heads peaking out from those hats — oh, lord. No. No photographs — for their sake — save the stage, which was playing an unusual bossa nova/jazz with Japanese lyrics because that’s how we roll in the states.

odaiba american festival japan

Odaiba is popular and crowded all the time. The rest of Odaiba was packed with people; however . . . .

odaiba american festival japan

I felt so bad them. The people in the shops were doing the best to bring in customers but….  I, too, abandoned them and took a walk around some of my favorite places. I came back a few times but I never saw it any more crowded twenty people in that HUGE venue.

odaiba american festival japanYup. There’s one here, too. Lady Liberty’s sister. I suspect that’s why they chose Odaiba for the American Festival.

fuji tv building odaiba

I love this building. It’s the Fuji TV building. With a little tilt shift I can do this now.

fuji tv building odaiba

And a day in Odaiba without a sculpture of a bird flying overhead and a beautiful sunset is incomplete.

fuji tv building odaiba sculpture

fuji tv building odaiba sculpture sunset

How to make a rainy day okay

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I didn’t want it to rain during my vacation. I didn’t plan for it. I didn’t expect it, but it rained every single day. That first day, in my white linen shorts and black underpants (never again), I knew whether I enjoyed myself was entirely up to me.

So when things don’t go the way you plan, the sky seems — or is — gray, do as I did with this series of photos: Lighten the mood; find the beauty; be grateful for what is, not unhappy about what isn’t.

naoshima art island beach

naoshima art island beach naoshima art island street naoshima art island temple naoshima art island temple naoshima art island naoshima art island naoshima art island naoshima art island naoshima art island

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a rainy day — or a gray mood, but you do have the power to lighten either one.

naoshima art island

Naoshima, light on a rainy day

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How to talk about something which is an individual impression and which is forbidden to photograph or draw? Naoshima Chichibu Art Museum.

The rains were heaviest when I arrived on the island peaking with several squalls sending rain down the long winding roads as a rivers into the sea. No traffic moved until the intensity lessened to a hard rain. With a dozen others, I waited in the ferry terminal (link to pictures) till about ten a.m. after which we piled into a tiny shuttle bus and were motored twenty minutes up and through the hilly terrain to the Chichibu Art Museum where we purchased our tickets and walked the prerequisite half kilometer up the slope to the actual art galleries, designed by Tadao Ando.

The three galleries are built into the hill to preserve the landscape. I invite you to read about the three artists and their projects. James Turrell, Walter De Maria, and Claude Monet. You can not photographic what is inside (you must check in your bags and the gallery staff are watching for cell phones). All works have to do with light. No image can truly capture what is there. The number of people who can enter a gallery is limited, maximum eight, leading to a build of anticipation before you enter each work with time for your eyes to adjust to the specific lighting in each area.

One of three works by James Turrell is a room with eight marble steps leading up to a neon blue painting which, we discover upon ascending, is actually a room filled with blue light. We are invited to enter into the room, which by optical illusion, becomes a wide white void once you’re inside. The people in my group were using words like “floating”, “boundless”, ” limitless”. The effect is tranquil and recalled, for me, the idea that when we die we enter into a white light of love and warmth — you lose your orientation inside. Turn around and you’ll see a beautiful orange light painting, which is the room you were is just in, floating within the void — another optical illusion impossible to truly photograph.  (The image below is from Getty Images and is of a different James Turrell work to give you an idea of what I’m writing about. Clicking the image will take you to more of his work.)

Monet’s Water Lilies are in another gallery of smooth white light, a floor in white marble mosaic, and walls smoothed of all angles. Click this link for a 360 degree tour of the room. 

My favorite room was Walter De Maria’s. I managed to sneak two cell phone photos before I was caught — and curtly reprimanded. The room is illuminated by a rectangular hollow in the ceiling letting in natural light allowing the room to change minute by minute –there is no artificial light in the picture below. In the center of two ascending flights of stairs is a large round marble sculpture polished so finely that it mirrors all the light in the room like a fisheye photograph might. The effect is mesmerizing. I stood back from all angles within the space and observed: Every one was equally facinated by the effect. (The photo below is also from Getty Images. Click the photo for more work by the artist.)

By the end of my stay there I felt as though I’d meditated all day. I listened to other people echo this feeling. Even with the pouring rain and all the discomforts in getting there everyone found their own zen by the end. Below are the two images I was able to capture. Because the room is partly about the play of light I used this as an opportunity to see how light affects the great sphere (through Lightroom). That tiny spec in the center is me. I think of these as a composite self portrait. :)

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Idli

idli and sambar

idli and sambar

 

Idli is not originally an Indian dish, but an import to India — I’m full of trivia. :)

When I was at CII idli was not on the menu, so to speak. A fermented mixture of beans and rice, steamed, then served with chutney or sambar, idli is a home cooked dish which you can sometime find out.

Idli batter follows the same steps as dosa, but idli is steamed rather than cooked on a hot griddle. There is what’s called an idli steamer you can purchase to make the standard shape, but you can also make them in ramkins or mandoline trays you fit into a steamer.

idli tray

Idli is a fermented dish, which depending on how long you ferment can be bland with the flavor of rice to a slightly sour flavor to it not unlike a very mild yogurt. However you like it, they pairs well with spicy coconut curries and sambar. The living bacteria become active the first few minutes in the steamer producing gas — causing the idli to rise — before the heat kills the bacteria. The rice absorbs water and sets their slightly domed shape. This makes them somewhat porous and spongy, perfect to absorb something souplike (such as sambar).

There are sweet versions of idli. Many use  palm sugar called jagery and dried fruits or nuts. More artful presentations can be made by adding decorative slices of vegetables to the idli pan before adding the batter, or mixing in bits of this and that to add flavor and eye appeal.

These days Indian families, short on patience, are searching for a quick fix to the overnight rise. The alternative to the overnight ferment? The addition of an antacid product. Think plop, plop; fizz, fizz giving rise to the batter which holds long enough until set, the product is called Eno.

With a food processor idli batter is simple to make and with a little imagination you can make it even without the idli pan — so give it a go.

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For even cooking it is imperative that you line up the holes under the batter so that the steam will evenly heat all the idli at once.

Perhaps the best part about idli is what you can do with the leftovers. Idli is best served fresh from the steamer. Make a few extra and the next morning deep fry them for a high protein crisp faux-french fry. (Photos coming soon.)

 

 

What follows are the step by step instructions for idli.

 

Step one: Find a ratio of beans to rice, and chose a rice.

I’ve come to like the texture from 1 cup beans to 3 cups uncooked rice. Dosa can be made with only beans and upwards to 1:5 beans:rice. The more rice, the fluffier the end product. I’ve met people who insist dosa is made from parboiled, jasmine, short grain and sometimes long. Myself, I’ve even made it with brown rice.

Rava, Indian parboiled rice which has been powdered, can be purchased online through a grocer. Alternatively, parboiled rice, such as Uncle Bens in the US, can be soaked with the beans and purred in the mixer. I’ve experimented with uncooked Japanese short grain brown and white rice soaked overnight and ground with the beans. These idli were less light, but good in a pinch and perfect for deep frying later.

Step two: Soak your beans and rice.

Urad dal has a bacteria which will ferment, so it is imperative that you do not wash the beans if you want the ferment. You can soak the beans and rice together, or apart, but soak at least 8 hours.

Some say that soaking the beans and rice apart makes the batter lighter, but with what machine you grind, how long you soak, how thick the batter is, and how much rice you use will all will contribute to how to how light your idli are.

Vitamix filled with dosa/idli mixture.

Vitamix filled with dosa/idli mixture.

Step three: Grind the beans and rice together.

Drain the beans and rice. For a faster ferment, use all or some of the water to grind the beans and rice. My young friend used a blender, I use a Vitamix, some homes use a Mixi, the shops in India use a stone or industrial wet grinder. The consistency should be like pancake batter. You can always add water to your batter later, so it’s okay if your batter is thick.

 

Step four: To ferment or not.

Fermenting will give the dosa a sourdough like flavour and lighten the batter. Simply cover and leave in a warm place overnight. If the ferment doesn’t take, put a ladle of the batter in a bowl and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of whole fenugreek seeds, which share the same bacteria as the urad dal. Pour the cup of batter back into the main batter through a strainer (to remove the seeds), stir and cover. If your home is too cold, try placing the batter in the oven or near a heater.

Well fermented dosa batter. Notice the texture. The air bubbles will make your dosa light.                Personal note, this batter is a bit thick because I prefer thicker texture.

Well fermented dosa batter. Notice the texture. The air bubbles will make your dosa light. Personal note, this batter is thick as I wanted thicker dosa.

Alternatively, you can add citrus acid and baking soda . It’s a short cut some people use, but only just before you use the batter.

Step five: Making idli.

First, place about 1/2 inch of water into your steamer.

Lightly oil your idli trays or moulds.

Turn on the burner under the pot and when the water is at a rolling boil carefully put the insert into the steamer, close the lid, and turn down the heat to a low setting. Set the timer for 20 minutes and do not open the pot again or you will lose the steam.

When their time is up remove them from the pan and let them cool for two or three minutes.

Remove with a rubber spatula and serve — they are exceptional.

 

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To personalize idli think about these questions during each step:

Step one: Soaking.

  • Do I need a complete protein? Adjust my ratio of beans to rice.
  • What texture do I want? Lighter and crispier, more rice. Softer? More beans.

Step two: Liquify the beans and rice.

  • Do I want a thin dosa? More water.
  • Do I want a thick dosa? Less water.

Steps three and four: Grinding and fermenting.

  • Do I want it sour? Ferment it over night. Keep the fermented batter in the fridge for a week, it will keep indefinity and the sourness will icrease.
  • I don’t want to ferment, but I want a sour flavor. Add yogurt or whey in place of some of the water when blending and don’t ferment.
  • I want it light, but without the ferment. Use fruit salts (it’s sold as an antacid, but used in the kitchen for an artificial ferment).
  • I want it to be flavorful: Add one or two tablespoons of a different kind of bean when grinding. Or, mix in a powdered bean or spice just before using.
  • Add a healthy pinch of salt to add flavor.

Step five: Cook

  • Do you have the idli pan? Look around your kitchen for something that you can use to steam such as ramekins or doughnut pans.

idli and sambar

This post is long and detailed, which might dissuade you from making Idli, or it’s cousin, Dosa. That is my error in trying to be thorough. My larger point is that the formula and technique for the batter can be modified. By going into detail I hope you do try both idli and dosa in the usual Indian style — they are wonderful, full of flavour, and healthy. But I also hope you experiment in your kitchens, especially if you’re vegetarian. Myself, I’ve used the batter to make “crepe layer cakes”, faux-enchiladas, psudo-blitzes, and mock-quesidillas.

See through me

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summer vacation iphone jpegs-94August 03, 20144.12 mmISO 320-2

My last evening in Okayama ended with a huge fireworks display. The next morning I woke at 5:00 a.m. to catch the earliest train to the pier for a ferry ride over to Naoshima. What you’ll need to remember for length of the series is that I had three pairs of short pants for a one-month trip: One bright white linen pair (from last years trip to Spain), black workout shorts, and plaid Abercrombie; I packed three tank tops and matching overs shirts; and I only had the crocs on my feet.

I went downstairs dressed in the white linen shorts and a tank top, sunglasses on (because I do not do five a.m.) to Noah’s rain. I didn’t know it then, but that rain and those white linen shorts were not a good match.

The last image I took on the way out of Okayama was Spiderman unmasked. The other image is what Naoshima is about.

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Short people

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Many people like the words ‘I’m blessed’, for me it’s more like I’ve made some really good decisions.

I used to think I wanted children, then my friends started producing them, I stated babysitting, and all my paternal feeling went down the commode. I am so grateful to be gay. I will never, ever come home to Hiro knitting baby booties.

Don’t misunderstand, I enjoy being around children. I’ve two jobs in which I get to work with young people (whom I call short people): One a high school and the other an ‘English School’, where I work with kids 3 to 17. (I adore the itty bitty ones, but only for forty minutes. After that I’ve had enough. With high school kids it depends on their hormone levels for the day, but half a day is about right.)

The larger point is that I chose not to have children — No, thank you! — and chose instead a job that gives me that familial feel without any of the paternal responsibly. I’ve been doing this long enough that I have watched a few go from knee-high to engaged. At this past weekend’s bunkasai, those graduated kids I mentioned came back all grown up, many already in careers. Watching them grow up puts my own life in perspective and keeps my heart filled with boundless optimism: I watch short people who can barely stand grow into adults who make our world go round.

(It’s often really hard for me to chose between the monochrome and color. Which do you prefer?)

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The Bunkasai

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Education is not just book learning. Japanese schools hold several team building events throughout the year which are viewed on par with academic performance. The teachers are only superficially involved in an administrative role. Depending on the event young people will be grouped by age, by class, by club, or randomly, but never by ability. From the chaos a leader rises, the group coalesces, and the events are held — sometimes for the public, as in this event, Bunkasai, or the Culture Festival.

Several days before the Bunkasai all classes stop to set up the event. The students aren’t monitored. When I first started working in the public school system I hung out in the classrooms to see it all unfolds. I half expected the girls to get bossed around, but gender has nothing to do with it. Students didn’t just blindly follow, either. They argued, debated, and often settled an impasse with Rock, Paper, Scissors and lived with the result. What needed to be done was done — equally. They have a sense of what’s fair and they have never been shy to point out inequality. Everyone participates. There are no slackers. And in the time I’ve been there I’ve yet to see the students go to get help from the teachers to settle something.

In case you’re wondering, during Bunkasai students set up shops on campus. They make foods like sandwiches, cakes, yakitori and set up restaurants or cafes; they open game booths, karaoke rooms, haunted houses; they hold fashion shows, perform concerts, organize galleries. Every year, and each school, is a bit different, but where I work they tend to revolve around those things. You might have heard of the movie Waterboys. That schools Bunkasai became famous nation wide for their all male synchronized swimming events. Japanese groups like Radwimps came out of the Bunkasai. Alumni make the trip and so do people who live near the school. It is a wonderful slice of Japanese life.

 

These are just a handful of shots from the preparations — and the first edited with my calibrated monitor. ;) I’m giving all of them to the PTA for the yearbook. I don’t want to upload portraits without permission from the students, but you might get to see some of those later. 

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Colors, costumes, calibrators

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Over the weekend I purchased a color calibrator, the X-Rite i1. Color calibrators put all the color variables (hue, saturation, luminance) back into proper alignment. I’m not sure how monitor colors get knocked out of alignment, but after running the program it is clear to me they do: It’s like I have a new computer: The colors are fresh, the edges crisp and clean. Putting your monitors colors back into alignment means that blue is blue, and not shown as one of the (seemingly) infinite variations, which is important when editing photos.

The X-Rite has a physical device for the initial calibration (against your screen) which you keep near your monitor (after he colors are reset) to measure the ambient light in your room. Every 30 minutes it re-calibrates the monitors luminance levels. Some of the adjustments have been striking, so this was a very good investment.

As I leave Okayama on this photo journey I’ll be editing with my ‘new’ screen. The pics I’ve uploaded here all look wrong to me. I can clearly see where I would have made different choices, but I’m not going to go back and re-correct. It’s just another step towards my goal of being a better photographer. ;)

 

This Monday morning is wet. I had a great weekend and hope you all did, too. I made it out to my schools Culture Day (bunkasai) and to see the live action Lupin the 3rd, with Oguri Shun — loved it. It’s maybe the best translation of anime to film I’ve seen. What did you all do? What am I missing on this side of the ocean?

 

 

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Just to show how slight adjustments make a difference in Lightroom, the above and below are adjusted slightly differently.

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One of the best teachers has been conversion to black and white back to color again. I used to wonder why so much street photography was in black and white. For my eye the answer must be connected on where to draw focus. All those colors can be distracting.

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Lost time and the dancer

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I sat down at my computer around three this afternoon intending to leave at 3:30. I looked up and it was 10:30 — Damn you Lightroom!

The short version (I will flesh out later) is I went to a school function yesterday and today and went nuts with my camera. I prefer to bracket my shots, sift through and find the ones which communicate my intention. It’s a lot of work. Nothing difficult, but looking, rating, comparing, reviewing the selections and doing it again take time. Next I start editing. To teach myself, I often rework the same photo three to six different ways to see what’s in each photo. I get completely engrossed. If I don’t set an alarm I’ll miss work.

Small steps.

Here’s another part of the Okayama Momotaro Matsuri.

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sarson ka saag (recipe)

sarson ka saag

sarson ka saag DSCN0579

I came across a recipe online many years ago for a curry of mustard greens. By chance mustard greens were in season and I bought them not for onigiri, as the Japanese use them, but for Sarson Ka Saag. Since then I’ve sampled dozens of recipes, which don’t vary much.

Mustard greens aren’t popular here, so when they come into season I buy them in bulk to freeze. I stem them and blanch the stemmed leaves from the stems separately. I prepare the dish with the tender parts of the leaves for guests and use the leftover stems for when I make it just for myself — either way, Sarson Ka Saag is a treat.

The species of mustard greens that we can purchase is less pungent than what I’ve eaten in India and the states, so unless I need to stretch the dish, I make it with only mustard greens whereas typically it’s 1:1 or 1:2 mustard greens:spinach.

Many recipes will finish the dish with a temper of onions, tomatoes, spices but if I’m making this for myself I omit that extra step because I’m too impatient to wait. However,if I’m serving them with the corn roti (that’s most popular to eat with them) I make the effort — corn and mustard greens have an affinty with each other, which is why many recipes add corn meal the curry to thicken it.

This is the recipe I most often come back to. For me, I don’t need extra spices. I wan to enjoy the the flavor of the greens as directly as possible.

 

 

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Sarson Ka Saag

  • Time: 30 - 60 minutes from preparing the greens to finishing
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

 

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Tier one (you must use)

Mustard Leaves – 2 bunches (approx 3 lbs)
Spinach – 1 bunch (approx 1 lb)
Water – 2 cups
Oil – 1 Tbsp or ghee
Onions – 1 1/2 medium, finely chopped
Tomatoes – 2 medium, finely chopped

Tier two (suggested)

Ginger – 1 Tbsp, minced
Garlic – 1 Tbsp, minced
Salt – to taste
Red Chili Powder – to taste
Garam Masala – 1 tsp

Green chilie

For Garnishing (Seasoning):
Oil – 1 Tbsp
Onion – 1/2 medium, chopped in big chunks
Tomato – 1 medium, chopped in big chunks

 

Tier three (optional)

Corn meal (for thickening)

asophadeta/hing

corriander

cumin

Stem the mustard leaves and blanch them in boiling salted water for 2 – 3 minutes, drain, cool with running water or in an ice bath to stop the cooking. When cool enough to handle squeeze them over a bowl collecting the liquid. Rough chop the mustard greens and set aside.

In a large kari, wok, or skillet heat the ghee/oil and add cumin and when you hear the characteristic pop add the hing, quickly followed by the onions. When they brown add 1/4 of water and reduce until the oil comes out. (see note here)

Add  the garlic and chili paste, the green and red chilies, turmeric, corriander powder and cook for 1 or 2 minutes and add is you’re using fresh tomatoes add them now, if not add the chopped mustard greens and mix the onion mixture into the greens well. At this point add the canned tomatoes, if using, and guage the water level. The flavors need to meld so there should be enough to make it slightly soupy. Add up to 1 cup of water or some of the mustard juice you pressed out and cook for 20 minutes to reduce the liquid and bring it to the consistency you would like to serve it.

During the last five minutes add the garam masala.

 

 

And A River Runs Through It

okayama city-

 

Okayama city is bisected by the small river you see, a footpath on either side and small bridges every block. Along the paths in either direction are statues. Some are of Greek gods, other abstracts, still others and then more on top of that. Around the city are memorials to artist, athletes, (respected) politicians, businessmen and notable people from the city. The dance done, people went out for supper and this very large metropolis was still for about an hour.

The rain had turned to occasional drizzle. The clouds broke — occasionally. I walked the path alongside the river during that hour, had supper, then joined the now flowing crowds towards the very large river this samurai city had been centered around for fireworks.

 

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The country under the mask

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And so there was a festival in Okayama where groups of friends, community groups, alumni and students — any assemblage of any kind is welcome — form a kind of dance troupe between 30 – 100 members and perform to given theme to one of a dozen specific tunes. They follow behind a small truck blasting their tune down kilometer long shopping arcades, or city streets closed off. For hours and hours they dance before moving to the next venue.

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To keep relevant cities take whatever celebrity happens their way and find a way to make people take notice. It could be the 1000 year old rituals in Nara or this newer variant of dance, a variation of the Awa Odorti in (nearby) Shikoku. Okayama’s celebrity runs round Okayama Castle and Momotaro leading here to the Momotaro Matsuri.

The story is based around the legend of an historical event. In short, a group was pillaging the rural poor and a man gathered forces to attack and won. What’s interesting is how the story changes over time:

In the original story, which you can still find in bookstores, an old woman eats from a magical peach and regains her youth, beauty, virility. When her husband does the same his potency leads to a fruitful end: They have a child and name him Momotaro (Peach Boy). The story is retold sans fertility, youth, vigor and the old childless couple find a giant peach floating down the river, which happens to have a baby inside. It’s the WWII version, no longer available anywhere, that packs verve aplenty. Momotaro is changed into an allegory for the war.

Momotaro is Japan.

The animals in the story who help him are the Japanese people.

The ogres/devils they fight are the US.

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That version is not widely known now. I happened on it years ago when researching the symbolism in the story. It is a fantastic teaching tool, an example of forgotten and manufactured meanings. Remove the mask to find the story underneath, or dress it up differently to tell what you need to tell.

So what follows are photos from one of the hundreds of dance troops performing around the city. Each dance tells a story but under the swashbuckling or romance you can find the true nature of a great people. Watch carefully. They move in unison. Young and old; engaged in all fields or retired, or still in school; cross dressed or plainly one or the other, they are a people who endeavor to move as one.

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