December 13, 2018

Talking Transportation: Trucks as Traffic Scapegoats

“Why don’t we just ban all trucks from our interstate highways in rush hour?”

The question was asked of me by a small town mayor in Fairfield County who’d obviously given a lot of thought to solutions to our traffic woes. He’s a smart guy and thought he’d come up with “the answer” to our transportation crisis.

He said he wasn’t in favor of tolls, but liked them as a traffic mitigation tool.  By charging trucks more to drive our highways in rush hour, they’d be incentivized to instead go off-peak.  He was just taking the idea a step further:  ban them completely at certain hours.

Well, I explained, that’s probably illegal.  This is an interstate, federal highway built to carry trucks.  Wouldn’t it be a better idea to tell the merchants where they are going to only accept deliveries at, say, 3 a.m. instead of 9 to 5, which is more convenient for the stores?

But the truck-haters are not satisfied.  Any number of candidates are calling for truck-only tolls, pointing to Rhode Island’s recent launch of such as system.  It’s been a huge success, raking in $625,000 in its first month of operation.

But it’s also attracted lawsuits, because it is illegal, just like the Mayor’s idea.  Tolling only big-rigs is a violation of the US Constitution’s “Commerce Clause”.  The truckers and big-box stores say it’s not fair to toll them and not charge drivers of cars and small trucks.  I’m no lawyer, but I think they’re right.

Trucks are not the problem.  Cars are.

But it’s so easy to blame the trucks for delays on our roads, isn’t it?  Blame them, instead of ourselves.  Toll them, not me. I’m not creating the traffic, they are.

Trucks are not allowed on the Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways, so why are those roads so congested?  Look at I-95 in rush hour and count the number of trucks vs. single-occupancy-vehicles.  Again, it’s the volume of the traffic, not the kind of vehicles that are causing the delays. It’s the geometry of the highway … too many exits and entrances … and too few alternatives (aside from rail).

Truckers don’t want to be on the interstates in bumper-to-bumper traffic any more than you do.  They are not out there, driving on I-95 and I-84, just to annoy you.  Compared to you, driving solo in your automobile, they are high-occupancy vehicles carrying your Amazon orders and making deliveries to the big box stores.  You put those trucks on the road, and now you want to ban them at certain hours?  Then you’ll be moaning about late deliveries.

You don’t want to pay tolls?  Trucks already do, even in Connecticut.  They pay higher state gas taxes (44 cents for diesel vs. 25 cents for gasoline), even if they don’t buy that gas in Connecticut.  And they must pay to register their trucks in CT, even if they are from out of state, thanks to the International Fuel Tax Agreement, or IFTA.

Add a layer of tolls on top of those costs and guess who’s going to pay?  You!

There’s no free lunch, folks.  And the solution to our traffic is not to blame others … but to look in the mirror.

 

Jim Cameron

About the author: 

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Reading Uncertainly: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser

Almost 30 years ago my wife bought and read William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn, with a copy autographed by the author.  It has taken all that time for me to find and read this perceptive and challenging work.

Late, but perhaps not too late!

The key lies in the title: this is not a “how to” book but rather an encouragement to write, and write, and then write some more, as the critical part of the process of learning.

Zinsser, who died in 2015, wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, the New York Times, taught at Yale and New York’s Fieldston School, edited the Yale Alumni Magazine, and was extensively published.  His key point is “ … writing is a form of thinking … ”  He never stopped doing both.

Writing, he explains, “clarifies half-formed ideas.”  It is thinking on paper.  As our thinking constantly changes, so too should our writing, and, “ … the essence of writing is rewriting,” in the form of the alteration and clarification of our thoughts.

He describes his “liberal” education: Deerfield Academy, Princeton University, the U.S. Army in the War in Europe, newspaper reporting, teaching at Yale, being Master of Yale’s Branford College; and then even more writing, as a lifelong “linear and sequential” process.

Lovely quotes: on rewriting: “I heard the scratching out of words that is the obbligato of a writer’s life,” and on academic writing:  “It’s a language squeezed dry of human juices – a Sargasso Sea of passive verbs, long and generalized nouns, pompous locutions and unnecessary jargon.”

His Chapter 5 describes his pet Crochets and Convictions: information and noise; obscurity; voice and tone; brevity (“Brevity is one sign of a well-organized mind.”); jargon; killer nouns (“the pomposity of bureaucratic language”), lifesaving verbs (be active, never passive), and the illiteracy of the elite (corporate over-writing is “scandalous in its flatulence.”)

As Zinsser considered his thesis, he said, “I would write confidently from my own convictions and experiences – take ‘em or leave ‘em – and to illustrate my points I would present passages by writers I admired.”

And so he does …

He begins with William Strunk & E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (“read once a year”) and then on to:

  • Physics and Chemistry: Einstein, Primo Levi and Richard Feynman
  • Geology:  John Muir, Rachel Carson and John Rodgers (Yale)
  • Art: John Russell (NYT) and A. Hyatt Mayor (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • Natural World: Darwin, Roger Tory Peterson (a former Old Lyme resident!), and Archie Carr (University of FL)
  • Music: Alec Wilder, Virgil Thomas, and Roger Sessions.

For Mathematics he extensively quotes Joan Countryman, a teacher at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia: he says music is also “a language” and advises, “keep a journal with a running account of your work.”

And for Memoirs, he cites Lewis Thomas (Lives of a Cell): “it had never occurred to me that a memoir could be pre-natal.” It’s too bad he never read Ian McEwan’s 2016 novel of life before birth, Nutshell.

William Zinsser’s reading marathon is condensed into a 100-yard dash. Read it and write on.

One further comment: William Zinsser and his wife had a summer house in East Lyme for many years, and Caroline Fraser Zinsser wrote a short study of the 1828-1851 letters of Charles and Mary Chadwick of Lyme (he was a sailing captain), which was published by the East Lyme Public Library in 2005.

Editor’s Note: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser is published by Harper & Row, New York 1988

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Talking Transportation: ‘Train Time is Your Own Time’ … True or False?


Train time is your own time” was the old marketing slogan of Metro-North, encouraging commuters to kick back and enjoy the ride while reading, working or taking a snooze.

But in reality, train time is shared time.  They don’t call it “mass transit” for nothing as passengers much share their space with a hundred other commuters on each railcar.

Assuming you get a seat, this means you’re squeezed in next to one or two fellow riders.

Usually commuters are respectful of each other and don’t blare their radios or carry on loud conversations, with each other or on cell-phones.  Or so we’d hope.

It was almost 20 years ago that Amtrak first introduced the concept of The Quiet Car, following suggestions of daily commuters riding to DC.  It was such a success that quiet cars were soon added to other Northeast Corridor trains and Acela.

The concept was simple, as conductors reminded passengers on every trip:  maintain a “library like atmosphere”.  That meant no cell phone calls and only quiet, subdued conversation.  You want to yuck it up over a beer, go to the Café Car.  Got an important phone call … sit in any other coach.

Other commuter railroads picked up Amtrak’s cue … but not Metro-North. While serving on the CT Metro-North Commuter Council, I regularly beseeched the railroad to give us a break and dedicate just one car to peace and quiet, convinced it would attract riders.  Finally in 2011, the railroad took the hint and launched such a car, branded as a “Quiet CALMmute”.

Victory for the sonically overloaded?  Not by a long shot.  This is Metro-North and if anyone can screw up a good idea, they can.

First, they offered the worst car location on the train to their CALMmute:  the last car in-bound and the first car out-bound from GCT.  And there were no signs indicating which car was “quiet”.  Worst of all, conductors all but refused to enforce the quiet rules, leading to altercations between passengers.

Conductors have no trouble enforcing other rules:  luggage on the overhead racks, no feet on the seats, no smoking etc.  But asking people to keep down the chatter was apparently too much.  All they would do, at first, was hand “Shhh cards” to offenders.

In 2016 the quiet car program was expanded to two cars per train, peak and off-peak.  But, still no signage (until just recently) and no enforcement.

Now, a major change.  The railroad announced that effective immediately there would be only one quiet car per off-peak train.  And the PR team at MNRR spun the story so well that some local media made it sound like the program was being expanded, not cut in half.  Brilliant.

There was no explanation for the cut in quiet cars though one official told me, “We have had no reports of quiet car demand exceeding availability in the off-peak.”  In other words, people who ride off-peak just prefer to yap.

That’s an amazing PR “spin” on what is really an admission of failure.  Metro-North never wanted quiet cars and clearly didn’t want to enforce the rules.  The people have literally “spoken” and the Quiet CALMmute won’t be as accessible anymore.

This is what happens when you have a monopoly, answerable to nobody, especially its customers.  I’d raise my voice in protest but … I’m in the quiet car.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Jim Cameron

About the author: 

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: “The Automotive-Construction Complex”

How did Americans develop their love affair with driving?

Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington and the transportation exhibit, “America on the Move,” will sell you on the commonly-held theory that when Henry Ford made cars affordable, Americans loved them and demanded more and more highways.

Of course, that exhibit is sponsored by General Motors, which donated millions to put its name on the collection.

But University of Virginia history Professor Peter Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in American Cities,” says that’s a myth.  Just as outgoing President Eisenhower warned us of the military industrial complex, Norton says an automotive-construction complex took over our country, paving from coast to coast.

Sure, Americans like their cars.  But it was a conspiracy of economic interests that turned us into a car culture.  Where cities once enjoyed a network of cheap, fast streetcars, GM, Firestone and the oil companies bought and wiped them out, replacing them with buses and cars.

“This country destroyed and rebuilt its cities in the 20th century to serve automobiles,” says Norton.  And those same interest groups are alive and well today in Connecticut.

Groups like “Move CT Forward” aren’t pro-transportation as much as they are pro jobs … their jobs, in construction.  And they’ve spent a lot of money lobbying in Hartford to keep their members, the unions and contractors, busy.   While I’m happy they’re promoting transportation, their motives are hardly altruistic.

This is nothing new, says Norton.  The original interstate highways built in the 1950s used Portland Cement because that company lobbied so hard for its product over cheaper asphalt.  And now that rusting rebar and crumbling cement is costing us a fortune.

Another myth from that era was that President Eisenhower built the interstates to move troops quickly for national defense.  That may have been the pitch to Congress, but the real reason for the highways was to evacuate civilians from the big cities in the event of nuclear war.  Lucky we never had to test that idea.

Last August when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston … the most urbanized highway city in the country … authorities didn’t even try to evacuate people because they knew more would die on congested roads than in the storm.

Who pays for all this road building?  You do, in the form of income taxes and, yes, gasoline taxes.  But Norton says gas taxes are hardly a fair way to pay for all this.

Why does the motorist driving on a dirt road pay the same gas tax as one driving I-95?  The costs they place on road maintenance, the environment and our stress levels are grossly different, so why isn’t the cost?

“It would be like having Best Buy selling everything by the pound.  People would flock to the electronics (our crowded interstates) instead of the towels,” he notes (though I’m not sure Best Buy even sells towels, but I take his point.)

He reminds us that before the interstates, the nation’s first “super highways” like the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the New Jersey Turnpike were built – not as freeways – but toll roads, and they still are today.

Driving may seem to be free, but it isn’t.  And until we ask drivers to pay for its real cost, there is no incentive to do anything but drive (and pave) more.

Jim Cameron

About the author: 

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Talking Transportation: Federal Air Marshals? Worthwhile or Worthless?

Do you feel safe when you fly?

Forget about exploding jet engines, cracked aircraft windows and clear-air turbulence.  What about terrorists?

We haven’t seen a domestic case of terrorists attacking jetliners in years, thanks to increased scrutiny of passengers by the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration.  From the moment you book a flight, you are being screened.  If you’re on the “No Fly List”, you’d better switch your travel plans to Amtrak or MegaBus.  And when you get to the airport, get ready for a full pat-down search.

But airlines’ last line of defense against terrorists is FAM, the Federal Air Marshal Service.  Created in 1961 after a spate of skyjackings to Cuba, the air marshal program, now administered by the TSA, has grown to 3000 marshals and an $800 million budget.

But the program is now in trouble.

The Government Accounting Office last year reported that even TSA could not demonstrate that FAM is effective or even served as a deterrent to bad guys.  Since the program was accelerated (from 33 marshals before 9/11), air marshals have not made a single terrorist arrest, though the armed, undercover agents have thwarted several “disruptive passenger” incidents.

In April, a deranged woman on a Delta flight from London to Salt Lake City jumped on an air marshal who had been supervising her after she overturned a drink cart.  She was cuffed (by another marshal) for the duration of the flight and faces a year in prison.

In December 2005, air marshals shot and killed a man as he ran off an American Airlines flight in Miami, claiming he had a bomb.  Ignoring calls to “stop” and “get down”, the shooting was declared “legally justified” in a 46-page follow-up report.  The man had no explosives, but was found to have missed his meds for a bipolar condition.

Even with 3000 marshals, there is no way the TSA can cover the 42,000 daily flights in the US.  There were no marshals on shoe-bomber Richard Reid’s (2001) or underwear bomber Umar Farouk’s (2009) trans-Atlantic flights.

One of the criticisms of FAM is that they waste their time policing “flights to nowhere” on regional 50-seat aircraft when it’s the longer, bigger jets that need attention.

FAM is also sullied by low morale and allegations of alcohol abuse.  Between 2002 and 2012  air marshals were arrested 148 times and charged with 5000 cases of misconduct including 1200 cases of lost equipment — including their weapons.

If you travel for a living, imagine their job.  They can’t sleep in-flight, suffer from the same delays as the rest of us and have to be ready on seconds’ notice to discharge their weapons at 30,000 feet.

Some marshals say FAM’s problems are due to its ties with TSA.  They suggest the service would be better off as part of Customs and Border Protection or the FBI.

But Robert MacLean, an air marshal fired in 2006 after disclosing that the service was cutting back on coverage of overnight flights, calls FAM “security theater serving absolutely no purpose other than showing they (TSA) are doing something”.  (MacLean was finally taken back into FAM after a 10-year legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court.)

Jim Cameron

About the author: 

Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

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Letter From Paris: Exhibition Explores Work of American Female Artist in Male World of French Impressionism

Nicole Prévost Logan

“Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was the most French of all American artists,” said art historian Jerome Coignard.  She was the only woman – along with Berthe Morisot – to be recognized by the Impressionist movement and therefore permitted to show her works in their annual Salons. 

A rare photograph of Mary Cassatt — supposedly the only photograph for which she ever posed.

For 40 years she developed a personal and artistic friendship with Edgar Degas, which was somewhat surprising considering Degas was well known for his misogyny.  Her long association with the famous art merchant Paul Durand Ruel, especially after he opened a gallery on Madison Avenue, increased the exposure of impressionism in the US.

The Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris is currently holding a retrospective exhibition of monographs by Mary Cassatt titled, ‘An American Impressionist in Paris.’  It is a long overdue recognition of an artist whose works are found mostly in the US, but who is better known in France.  Jacquemart-André is one of the most elegant art galleries in Paris.  It was built in the 1860s as one of the townhouses of the imperial aristocracy in the “plaine Monceau” (an area of Paris in the 17th arrondissement.)

The property is slightly set back from Boulevard Haussmann, and on the upper level, opens up onto a vast courtyard under the watchful eyes of two stone lions.  The magnificent residence, with its eclectic furniture, boiseries (wood wall paneling), fireplaces and Gobelins tapestries, used to attract thousands of guests from the high society.

In the West Wing of the Metroplitan Museum in New York, paintings by Cassatt are hung in a gallery exclusively reserved for the works of other women.  Cassatt might have been upset by this apparent patronization by critics and art historians toward domestic scenes created by women.  She might have deemed it unfair because painters like Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) or Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) are famous for their paintings inspired by the intimacy of the home. 

Art historian Guillaume Morel comments that the many mother and child scenes painted by Cassatt were, in fact, more feminist than it appears at first.  He writes that she may have found herself endowed with a mission to represent scenes to which men did not have access.  Her “maternity scenes” effectively propelled her into modernism.

La Loge (The Theatre Box) by Mary Cassatt.

At the turn of the 20th century, women were tied to their homes, seemingly leading an indolent existence limited to feminine activities, primarily the care of small children.  They almost never ventured onto the public place – like a café, race track or a prostitute’s haunt.  The subject in “La Loge (The theater box)” (1878) is a departure from this tradition: a self-assured woman is by herself looking through her opera-glasses, and apparently unconcerned by the male spectator staring at her from another balcony.

Even in France, the obstacles inflicted on women artists were enormous: they were neither allowed in the Ecole des Beaux Arts nor were naked models permitted in their art classes.  Women could not copy the grands maitres (Old Masters) in museums like the Louvre.

The special talent of Cassatt was to have overcome these obstacles by taking advantage of her place in the privileged class, traveling extensively and establishing contacts with members of the artistic elite such as Isabella Stewart Gardner (Boston), Alfred Atmore Pope (Connecticut) or Henry Walters (Baltimore.)

From a very young age, she rebelled against the formal teaching offered in the few fine art institutions open to women.  She hated the idea of learning her craft through the use of castings and copies.  She showed an intrepid personality when she told her father she wanted to pursue her artistic education in Europe.  Her father admonished her, saying, “I would rather see you dead.”

And her response to her father’s threat?  She went anyway.

Cassatt was born in Pittsburgh into a well-to-do family.  Her father was an investment banker and her mother was educated in a school created by a former chambermaid of Marie Antoinette.  At the age of seven, she sailed for the first time to Europe with her family.  David McCullough, in his superb book titled The Greater Journey, published in 2011, describes the luxury steamers carrying less than 300 privileged passengers, who could afford the crossing in comfortable accommodations in an “interior richly embellished with satin wood, gilded ceilings … and indoor plumbing.”

The co-curator of the present exhibit held in Paris,  Nancy Mowell Mathews, rejects the expression “woman Impressionist.”  She comments, “Mary Cassatt did not paint differently from other Impressionists.  What she had in common with them was her taste for rough sketches, the unfinished feel of strokes and her daring cadrages (framing of the subject) mostly used in photography or  cinematography.”

‘The little girl in the blue armchair’ was painted in 1878 by Mary Cassatt.

Cassatt’s models – mostly members of her family – do not pose in a stilted attitude, but appear relaxed and natural.  In “The little girl in a blue armchair” (1878), the little girl is literally sprawling on a big, shapeless, overstuffed blue armchair.  And so is the small boy looking at us in the painting called, “Woman sitting with a child in her arms. 

‘The Cup of Tea’ is a classic Impressionist work by Mary Cassatt.

“The Cup of Tea “(1880) is an unsurpassed exercise in Impressionist virtuosity.  Fast brush strokes  and the rejection of details are sufficient to render volumes.   The dramatic contrast between the fluffy, pink dress and the black of the solid armchair creates a strong composition.  In 1879, Cassatt was officially accepted in the Impressionist Salon.  The two following decades marked the summit of her career. 

Although Cassatt painted mostly in oils and pastels, Degas had also detected her exceptional talent as both draughtsman and engraver.  Her eaux-fortes (etchings) constitute a large part of her works, while “La Toilette” and “The letter ” (both dated 1891) show signs of japonism.  The engraving process with a pointe-sèche (dry point) is a painstaking and dangerous process since acid is used.

She was the friend of the most influential American feminists and joined their movement for equality, which had started in the US in 1840.  Toward the end of her life, she increasingly devoted her time to counseling American art collectors.  Among them was her close friend Lousine Hvenmeyer, wife of wealthy sugar baron, who owned more than 2,000 Impressionist works. 

After spending 60 years in France, she died in her estate, the Chateau de Beaufresnes in Le Mesnil Théribus, north west of Paris, although interestingly, she never took French nationality.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella

Editor’s Note: Stephen Gencarella, the author of ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ will be the guest speaker at the Lyme Public Library’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 26, at 7 p.m.

What a pleasure: to read an engaging book by a close neighbor (Steve and his family live just down Tinker Lane from me) and to encourage other Lymies to do the same!

Steve, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum, offers us a series of essays about unusual folk from New England, eccentric and out-of-the-ordinary men and women: hermits, healers, poets, mesmerists, fortune-tellers, prophets, reformers, bandits, visionaries, vagabonds, introverts, and misogynists.

In other words, most of us!

But what is eccentricity. The professor explains: “ … eccentricity is not an inherent quality but one always partially imposed from the outside, from the society that demarcates and gazes upon the eccentric … “[it] is always a matter of contested perspectives” and “ … tendencies to the reclusive or to the flamboyant quickly garner the label of eccentricity.”  He continues, “As tends to happen when history yields to folklore, this oddity began to grow in dimensions through the course of a century” of retelling stories of eccentrics.  And “the stories themselves are vagabonds.”

Among the locals described in these essays are a character at the Monkey Farm Café in Old Saybrook, William Gillette of Gillette’s Castle, that “Hadlyme stone heap,” and Elizabeth Tashjian, perhaps better known as “The Nut Lady” of Old Lyme.

Steve concludes with the counsel, “but that is precisely the challenge of eccentrics: to demand respect for the integrity and for the unique and unusual demands of every individual and to refuse to allow authority – however minor – to get away with discouraging people who hear a different drummer.”

We are all story-tellers!

But I was most impressed by the author’s continued use of the word “passing” as his euphemism for death: he uses it 31 times, by my count. It reminded me of that famous “Dead Parrot” skit from Monty Python, in which John Cleese presents an inert parrot nailed to a stick to Michael Palin, the man who had just sold it to him.

“E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch, ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot!”

Does this usage “passeth all understanding” (Philippians)?

I pass … but do read these entrancing stories of eccentric Yankees!

About this book: ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella was published in May 2018 by Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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Talking Transportation: Connecticut: Love It or Leave It

The recent debate over tolling our highways should remind us of just how divided our state has become.  Not red vs. blue and not even just upstate vs. downstate.  The real divide is between those who commute by car vs. those who take mass transit.

I’ve written for years about the fact that riders on Metro-North pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, and those fares will only keep going up.  Most rail riders have little choice, especially if headed to New York City.  What are they going to do … drive?

Yet every time the fares go up … and they have increased 55 percent since 2002 … ridership goes up as well.  Why?  Because conditions on the highways keep getting worse and worse.

But those who chose to drive, or must because there’s no viable mass transit option, seem literally to hate rail commuters.  I think it’s jealousy.  During the tolls debate, the venom was dripping and one Tweet in particular hit home.

“Just because your commute (by train) is so expensive doesn’t mean mine (by car) should be too (because of tolling),” read the post.

The driver had clearly missed the point.  We aren’t looking for tolls to subsidize rail fares, just to get motorists to pay for the upkeep of their roads and bridges before we have another Mianus River Bridge collapse, which we will.

But it gets worse.

The anti-toll forces now sound like Howard Beale, the deranged newsman from the movie “Network” who was “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”   Doubtless, much of this is directed at Governor Malloy who enjoys (suffers from?) the lowest popularity rating in the history of polling.  Sure, the economy of our state is in bad shape.   But Malloy didn’t create this economic mess.  He just inherited it and mishandled it.

And it will get far worse, whoever succeeds Malloy in the fall.  The solutions will be few and all will be painful.  Forestalling tolls and gasoline taxes today won’t stop the bridges from rotting.

But this opposition to tolls or modest gasoline tax increases to pay for roads has now been taken to a maniacal pitch predicting that “everyone is leaving the state,” conditions are so bad.   That’s fine with me.

I was recently at our town dump and saw a young man unloading a bunch of items.  “My parents are moving,” he told me.  “Everyone is leaving Connecticut!” he exclaimed.

“Really?”, I asked.

“It’s all Malloy’s fault,” he said, sounding like a Pied Piper leading a caravan down I-95 to some Promised Land.

I asked him one question:  “Did your parents sell their house?”   “Sure,” he said.  “And at a profit over what they paid for it.”

“Well,” I said, “I guess not everyone is leaving.  Your folks are moving out and someone else is moving in.”  Someone who wants to live here.

To those who hate it so much living in Connecticut, I extend an invitation:  please leave.  Enjoy your low-tax destination.  And don’t forget to pay those highway tolls as you drive down I-95 through NY, NJ, etc.

But enough already with the “I hate Connecticut” mantra.  Some of us actually like living here.  And losing ‘the haters” will only mean fewer cars on our roadways.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media.

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Family Wellness: New Beginnings

Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth.  Every year in New England nature reminds us of this.  Crocuses emerge, the landscape turns from brown to green and many animals have their babies: foxes, otters and black bears, just to name a few. 

I look fondly back on my grandmother’s stories about lambing season in Ireland.  Human babies are born year round, of course, but my thoughts went this month from lambs to human babies. 

Not only is birth the start of a new life but it is the start of a new (or newly reconfigured) family.  It is often a time of unimaginable joy, but it is also a time of stress.  Stress is defined as, “… bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.”

Few could argue that a new baby alters an existent equilibrium in ways that are delightful and challenging at the same time.  A new member (in this case tiny and cute) affects the family identity in that constellation in a whole array of ways: emotionally, physically, socially and economically.  All the resources, whether few or many, need to be allocated differently.

Just as adolescence has been described as the transition from childhood to adulthood, the transition to motherhood has been called “matrescence” by anthropologists — for more information, visit this link.  A similar term for the transition to fatherhood does not exist as far as I know, though it has received attention in both academic and popular circles and the media, with online forums such as fathersforum.com. Similarly some attention has been given to the transition to grandparenthood and “older-sibling-hood.”  (I am waiting for an especially gifted and precocious 3-year-old to blog about the challenges of losing attention to a tiny usurper in the house.)

Societies and cultures around the world have different constructs that help or hinder the development of a new family.  These constructs range from policies (paid parental leave) to the practical matters (village and neighborhood folks bringing food to the new family). 

Looking at and understanding how we can support families in transition at this stage of the family life cycle and the stressors that they face (stress being a challenge to equilibrium, not positive or negative) can only be a good thing.

Betsy Groth

Betsy Groth is an APRN, PMHS – BC and a pediatric nurse practitioner with advanced certification in pediatric mental health.

She is a counselor, mental health educator and parent coach in Old Lyme and writes a monthly column for us on ‘Family Wellness.’

For more information about Betsy and her work, visit Betsy’s website at betsygroth.com

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon

This is, at one and the same time, a work of fiction and the author’s actual family history, selectively combined and embellished. It is the story of Michael Chabon’s grandfather and grandmother, recreated as a totally engaging novel, covering more than five decades in Germany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Florida and California.  He “recreates” these two antecedents, beginning with his grandfather’s work with the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) in Germany in the waning day of World War II, followed by the meeting with his grandmother in Baltimore two years later, and then their fractured lives thereafter.

The key lies in Chabon’s candid Author’s Note: “In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” He went on later: “To claim or represent that I retain an exact or even approximate recollection of what anyone said so long ago would be to commit the memoirist’s great sin.” And so his imagination is unleashed …

This is a history, or really even slightly connected stories about his grandparents and their lives in these United States, as they allowed their interconnected emotions to respond to ever-changing stimuli. As Chabon confesses, perhaps there is nothing such as a defined “self”: “Maybe ‘self’ was a free variable with no bounded value.”

Chabon is rich with descriptive phrases. (1) a priest’s cassock: “White dust patterned the black cassock in big splotches like continents or the spots on a cow.”

(2) “The small room was all cross-hatchings of shadow like a lesson in shading a sphere, an arc of darkness wrapped around a circle of gray with a bright spot a bit off-center.  The bright spot was my grandmother; all the light in the sad little room seemed to be radiating from her.”

And describing his father reminded me of John le Carre’s father: ” … my big-talking, sweet-talking, fast-talking father was in and out of courtrooms, tax dodges, marriages, and my life … ” And as Chabon concludes, “That was only human, the common lot. But once your dream revealed itself, like most dreams, to be nothing but a current of raw compulsion flowing through a circuitry of delusion and lies, then that was the time to give it up.” His grandfather’s was with Wernher von Braun and space exploration.

Finally, a curious note. The chapter heads are safety matches formed into roman numerals. But two matches are lit, one in Chapter XX describing an O.S.S. excursion, and the other heading Chapter XXV, when his grandfather heads off to jail.  The connection: I do not know.

A rich and completely engrossing story!

Editor’s Note: ‘Moonglow’ by Michael Chabon was published by HarperCollins, New York 2016.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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A la Carte: Bake the Best Big, Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies!

Big and chewy oatmeal raisin cookies

A few days after I made banana bread (about six overripe bananas I had, to which I added five overripe ones from Noank friends), I decided it was time to make cookies. (By the way, all four of the banana breads left my homes to friends’ kitchens, because I didn’t want to eat them.) Alter all, I had already thawed two pounds of unsalted butter and, while looking for the chocolate chips (wafers, actually), I saw an unopened package of cinnamon chips and an unopened package of candied ginger.

So I searched for my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe and could not find it under any headings—oatmeal, cookie, cinnamon, nothing. And it wasn’t in my paper file, either. Is it possible I never wrote about them? Anything is possible, I guess, so I found the same book I had used for the banana bread and didn’t even have to use the index; I just leafed through the nearly 600 pages and it opened to Big and Chewy Oatmeal Cookies. I have probably made that recipe so many times that it had three or four different stains on it and maybe some of the pages were damp too.

As with many recipes, I double this one. They freeze beautifully. I pay little attention to raisins (not crazy about raisins, anyway) and for this recipe I use those two ingredients I love: cinnamon chips and candied ginger. How much of each?  The recipe calls for one and a half cups of raisins, so I use 1 cup of cinnamon chips and half a cup of candied ginger; I chop the latter coarsely with a sharp knife. But you can use any combination for this recipe or none at all if you just want a delicious oatmeal cookie

Big and Chewy Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

From The Best Recipe by editors of Cook’s Illustrated (Boston Common Press, 1999)

Yield: about 18 large cookies

1 and one-half cup all-purpose flour
One-half teaspoon salt
One-half teaspoon baking powder
One-quarter teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
One-half pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup light brown sugar*
1 cup granulated sugar*
2 large eggs
3 cups rolled oatmeal
1 and one-half cups raisins (optional)

Adjust oven racks to low and middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper. (I use Silpat instead of parchment.)

Whisk flour, salt, baking powder and nutmeg in medium bowl.

Either by hand or with electric mixer, beat butter until creamy. Add sugars, beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Stir dry ingredients into butter-sugar mixture with wooden spoon or large rubber spatula. Stir in oats and optional raisins (or chips or candied ginger or dried cranberries).

Working with generous 2 tablespoons of dough each time, roll dough into 2-inch balls. (I often make smaller cookies.) Place balls on parchment- lined cookie sheets, leaving at least 2 inches between each ball.

Bake until cookie edges turn golden brown, 22 to 25 minutes. (Halfway through baking, turn cookie sheet from front to back and also switch them from top to bottom.) Slide cookies, on parchment, to cooling rack. Let cool at least 30 minutes before peeling cookies from parchment.

*I have found that three-quarter cups of both sugars is plenty sweet enough

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Talking Transportation: Transport Cuts Will Hurt Us All

For weeks I’ve been writing about the CDOT’s impending bus and rail service cuts and fare hikes and their profound impact on commuters, local businesses and real estate values.  But with just weeks to go, the folks who can prevent this pain… our legislature… seem to be doing nothing.

 The deadline is July 1 this year when proposed CDOT cuts will go into effect:   A 10 percent fare hike on Metro-North will be matched with elimination of off-peak trains on the New Canaan, Danbury and Waterbury branch lines as well as Shore Line East.

How are local officials responding?  By complaining that the proposed cuts on them aren’t fair.  “Don’t cut my mass transit, cut someone else’s!”, seems the plaintiff cry.  “Why is my bus service being cut but Hartford and Stamford’s isn’t?,” one official asked me.

I told him he was asking the wrong question.  Instead he should be asking why any bus or train service was being cut.

It’s as if a crowd was trapped in a burning building with one narrow fire escape and everyone’s screaming “I deserve to survive. Let the others get burned” while nobody is working to douse the flames.

The answer isn’t to push away the pain onto others but to turn off the pain at its source.

Legislators can easily stop CDOT’s plans by just raising the gasoline tax four cents a gallon and diverting the car sales tax into the Special Transportation Fund.  Instead, they’re blaming everyone but themselves for the mess they got us into.

Remember:  it was the legislature that pandered to voters by lowering the gasoline tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997, a move that cost the STF $3.4 billion in lost transportation spending that could have repaired roads and fixed bridges.

Now the Republicans are so focused on the fall campaign they’re deceiving voters in a “big lie” PR move only Sean Spicer could enjoy: trying to argue that proposed highway tolls are “taxes”.

They are not.  Tolls would be a user fee, paid only by those who drive on those roads.  Train fares aren’t taxes, are they?  You only pay those fares if you take the train.

Do Republicans really think voters are that stupid?  Apparently so.

The pols are also piling on the CDOT for being late in opening the new Hartford Line, the commuter rail line between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield.  Our legislature can’t even deliver a budget on time, let alone understand the complexity of a $769 million railroad construction project that’s taken over a decade.

It’s not by chance the Republicans are known as the “party of no”.  For all their complaining they have offered no new ideas nor embraced the ones that thoughtful observers think are obvious:  asking motorists to pay their fair share with gasoline taxes and tolls.

Metro-North riders already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US, fares that have risen 53% since the year 2000 … while motorists haven’t seen a gas tax increase in 20 years. How is that fair?

If the July 1 service cuts and fare hikes go into effect, commuters should know it’s their legislature that’s to blame.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

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Legal News You Can Use: Spousal Support Could be Affected by Tax Law Changes

Sponsored Content by Suisman Shapiro Attorneys-at-Law.  From property division to spousal support, financial issues have been some of the most significant factors for Connecticut couples going through a divorce. Alimony payments are already a contested issue in many divorces, leading to lengthy negotiations and even court battles. Spousal support issues could become even more complex, however, following the adoption of changes to the U.S. tax code in Dec. 2017.

While each state has an individualized approach to spousal support, there has also been a uniform federal tax approach to the finalized payments. In federal tax law, the payer of alimony has been able to deduct those payments from their income taxes. Meanwhile, the recipient of spousal support reports the income and pays taxes on it alongside their other income. However, as of Jan. 1, 2019, this situation will flip as alimony payers will no longer be eligible for a tax deduction. On the other hand, support recipients will no longer need to pay taxes on the income received.

This is expected to have a variety of impacts on the alimony payments that emerge from negotiations and court orders. The overall payments may be lower as the tax burden will now make those support bills much more expensive for the payer. For the recipient, the funds will no longer be eligible for investment in an Individual Retirement Account restricted to taxed income.

The changes are sending some couples to a family law attorney to seek advice about the impact of the changes and to act quickly to finalize a divorce in 2018 prior to the new law’s effective date. A divorce lawyer may be able to provide representation for a spouse seeking a divorce on a wide range of contentious matters, including child custody, spousal support and property division, to achieve a just settlement that protects a divorcing spouse’s assets.

The Law Firm of Suisman Shapiro focuses on this area of the law. Visit their website at this link for more information.

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Family Wellness: Does Mindfulness Work for Families?

“Mindfulness” is certainly trending these days.  Books and workshops are in abundance, aimed at children, adults and families.

For some, the concept provokes rolling of the eyes, for others, curiosity, others still, an eagerness to share how helpful the practice has been for them. Perhaps in some it may provoke an urge to purchase new yoga pants and scented candles.

I believe it definitely has practical applications for healthy and happy relationships in families. Think of it as a “health habit.”

Let’s first define the term: 

“The quality of being conscious or aware of something,” and,  “A mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, as a therapeutic technique.”

Generally, I see mindfulness as being able to identify feelings (sometimes uncomfortable ones.)  Being able to hold these feelings helps us to act — or not act — in a healthy way.

Here are some examples of mindful parenting at different developmental stages:

  • CeeCee is  2-months-old and has been fussy since three weeks of age. This makes her parents anxious, maybe even a little angry. CeeCee is thriving and healthy. By practicing mindfulness, her parents are more able to accept their own feelings as “normal” and know that these feelings do not mean that they do not love her. They look forward to CeeCee having her own fussy baby in the decades to come, so that they can reminisce with her.
  • Ben is 3-years-old and cries when he is dropped off at preschool. At family parties, he attaches himself like Velcro to his mother’s leg and will not engage with anyone of any age.  His mother acknowledges and respects her own feelings that go back and forth between embarrassment, irritation, and too- deep sympathy for Ben in this horribly scary world.  Thus her calm, measured responses to him end up making him “braver;” they do not feed into his erroneous belief about the terrible danger at a family party, and do not make him feel like a “bad boy” for being shy.
  • Sara, 10-years-old, did not make the A team in soccer this year. Before she expresses any feelings around this, her parents check in on their own feelings of disappointment and anger at the coach and they restrain themselves from immediately calling the coach. Later over dinner Sara states, “I was not really one of the best players and I like the girls on the B team a lot.”
  • Nick, age 16, is enraged with his parents that he cannot have a house party unsupervised by his parents.  His parents are considering the following responses:   1) “What are you, crazy, you little jerk?” 2) “We are so sorry you are angry with us, so we’ve changed our minds” and/or 3) “It is all our fault we raised you to even consider such a request.”  They realize all these feelings are “OK” and it is also ok for Nick to be mad. It is not their job to make him “OK” with their decision right now. They shrug, acknowledge his disappointment and move on, feeling good about their family and themselves, knowing that Nick is a good kid. Perhaps they will process this at a later time.

Mindfulness has applications across the lifespan.  Young children tend to be “in the moment,” often joyful, which is a tenet of mindfulness, but they may have trouble with handling feelings that might be perceived as less positive.  Young children can learn to “stand next to” feelings of anger, sadness, disappointment and fear, and then move on.  The elderly, sometimes looking at the past, are perhaps a bit frightened about the future.  A practice of mindfulness can be a comfort to them at their stage of growth.

Hanna Rosin, in a humorous piece in Slate, wonders if the concept of mindful parenting just identifies another way for parents to fail (e.g., I forgot to bake for the bake sale AND I forgot to be mindful with the kids yesterday.)  She raises a valid point in a funny and engaging way.  But I believe that, in the long run, a bit of this practice in family life will do the opposite; it will relieve pressure on kids and parents, and perhaps grandparents as well.

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Letter From Paris: The (Rail) Battle That Macron Must Win 

Nicole Prévost Logan

France is going through the labor pains of implementing a variety of overdue structural reforms if France is to be brought into the 21st century.  President Emmanuel Macron has tackled this objective at a dizzying speed since his election on May 7, 2017.  The pace of change was so fast that the opposition appeared unable to react until Macron turned to the reform of the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français.) 

Now that process is developing into a major crisis.  Other groups  – university students,  Air France personnel, hospital staff,  garbage collectors, violent clashes at the Notre Dame des Landes “zad” (zone à defenre), etc. – joined the movement.  To overcome the spread of the social discontent  will be the first and decisive test for the French president. 

When the government announced a restructuring of the SNCF , which involved the status of the railroad workers or cheminots, dealing with the unsustainable debt, introducing competition, and the overall modernization of the rail network – the reaction of the unions was immediate and massive.

On March 18, four trade unions – CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail), UNSA (Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes), RAIL-SUD and CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) – announced  an innovative and deadly form of strikes: work stops for two days, then trains run for three days.  This schedule will be repeated for a total of 36 days during a period of three months until the end of June … longer if necessary. 

The platform at the Gare de Lyon in Paris on April 3, showing the rail strike’s devastating effect.

The French are bracing themselves for this monster strike, which will be hard for millions of working people, mainly commuters.  The specter of the 1995 strike, which paralyzed France for one month, looms over the country.  The collateral cost of a widespread strike is astronomical with the loss of work days; hotels and restaurants losing more than 30 percent of their profits; and factories momentarily having to close down and lay off employees, and the like.

Facing the angry unions was Minister of Transports Elizabeth Borne, who is a petite, remarkably qualified 57-year-old woman.  A product of the top elite school Polytechnique, part of the socialist government of Lionel Jospin, former head of the RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens) and of the SNCF strategy from 2002 to 2005. Technocrat rather than politician, Borne knows everything, but communication is not her forte

The 150,000 cheminots occupy a special place in France and are at the heart of the nation’s DNA. This is why the government’s efforts to bring reforms have met resistance violence the like of which it may not have anticipated.  The aura surrounding  the cheminots has been significantly fed in popular culture by a couple of films. 

In Jean Renoir’s “La Bête Humaine”, 1938, Jean Gabin portrays a cheminot. He looks quite dashing as he leans out of the steam engine wearing goggles, his face smeared with black dust.  Sustained by a bottle of wine he shares with his jolly co-worker, his exhausting job is to feed the “beast” with coal in the deafening noise of an inferno while breathing  poisonous fumes. The indelible image of this hero inspired the population’s respect for the hard work of the cheminots. 

Jean Gabin as a cheminot in ‘La Bête Humaine,’ 1938.

The other film, which contributed to the collective adulation of the French for their cheminots, is La Bataille du Rail, 1946, played by non-professional actors.  It shows their courage against the Nazi occupants in provoking the derailment of many German trains.

The cheminots are fiercely attached to their special status including retiring at as early an age 52 with a very generous package of  guaranteed employment for life and free transport tickets for the extended family. The government is trying to be reassuring, saying that the changes will only concern the railroad workers hired in the future.  The cheminots will also benefit from a “social backpack” whereby they can take their special status with them in case of transfer to another job.

The SNCF is badly in the red: its debt of over 50 billion Euros increases by three billion every year and the infrastructure is in dire need of investment.  Although showing some signs of disfunction – trains are often late,  major break downs such as the ones which occurred last fall when the Gare Saint Lazare and Gare Montparnasse left passengers stranded for hours – the rail system is still one of the best in Europe.  The French people do not realize what an expensive luxury it is to have such a public transport system.  But this luxury comes at a price: its operation cost is 30 percent higher than the one of other European railroads.    

The cheminots have a visceral fear of the word” privatization.”  The government has repeatedly said that there will be no privatization.  The state will remain the sole share holder and the only change will be that, in the future, the SNCF will be run as a private company, according to directives approved by the European Council in 2001.

The opponents to reforms spread unfounded horror stories about the introduction of competition and problems it caused in other countries.  Besides, the SNCF’s structure, as a public company created in 1937, had already entered that process over the years.  Freight was privatized in 2003.  International lines – like Eurostar (to England) and Thalys (to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany) – are run independently from the SNCF.   The Italian company Thello runs night trains between Paris and Venice.  All Trains à Grande Vitesse (TGV — high-speed train) tracks are scheduled to be shared with foreign companies by 2020, according to the guidelines approved by the European Union (EU) members.

Criticisms have been expressed about the overbuilding of TGV lines at a high cost and at the expense of other lines.  The announcement of  suppression of small lines provoked an outcry from public opinion well-orchestrated by the unions.  The dense network of TER (Transport Express Regional) and inter-city trains dates back to the days after WWII.  It was a time when half the French population lived and worked in the country versus less than only 4 percent today.  Each village wanted its gare (railroad station.)  Obviously, the time has come to adapt the network to the population’s current needs.  Since 2002, the small lines are the responsibility of the 12 “regions.”

Emmanuel Macron is dealing with the most challenging issue of his presidency to date.

With the one-year mark of his mandate approaching, Macron felt it was timely to take stock of  what has been accomplished to date by his government.  His first talk took place on Thursday, April 12, during the midday news.  The president was sitting on a tiny chair in an elementary classroom in Normandy.  In a relaxed atmosphere, the president answered the questions French people – including retirees – were asking regarding the erosion of their purchasing power.

Many people expected fireworks during the second event on the evening of Sunday, April 15.  The fireworks duly happened. 

Two journalists – Edwy Plenel from Mediapart and Jean-Jacques Bourdin, from RMC (Radio Monte-Carlo ) wanted only one thing: to tear Macron to pieces.  Interrupting him from the start, their questions were bundled with disinformation.  Insults and accusations flew.  Plenel went as far as saying, “Mr. President, you only won the election by default and your program was supported by just a handful of people.”  Bourdin treated the president as a criminal — as  he frequently does in respect of the person he is interviewing, bullying them into  a “Yes or No” answer.  When the exchange touched on the veil worn by Moslem women, both journalists blasted Macron for totally opposite reasons.

Macron’s performance was superb.  He kept his cool and managed not only to answer the questions at length, but also to explain the rationale for his policy.  Among all the information he disclosed, one was crucial — starting in 2010, the state will gradually take over the huge debt of the SNCF.

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Talking Transportation: “Getting There” – Grabbing The Best Seat

Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash.

It was the folks at Cunard who said “Getting there is half the fun”.  And crossing the Atlantic in style on an ocean liner certainly was.  But whatever your mode of transportation, getting the right seat can make for an enjoyable or miserable trip.

On Metro-North, I usually go for a window seat.  However, on crowded trains, any seat is better than none.  But I can still get an “upgrade”, if I pay attention.

Heading into New York, I watch for people getting off the train in Stamford.  Their seat check usually has a torn corner, so I look for them when boarding.  And you’ll usually see those folks gathering their stuff just before arriving at the station.  That’s when I pounce.

Leaving Greenwich, Conn., I try to arrive early to board my train so I get my first pick of seats.  I usually opt for the window on a three-seat side.  That way, if someone else arrives just before departure, they can take the aisle seat and the train will have to be Standing Room Only before anyone opts for the dreaded middle seat.

But it’s on airplanes that seat selection is crucial.

Never go for an emergency exit row.  There may be more legroom, but the seat dividers are rigid and the arm rests can’t be raised.

Try to sit forward of the wing for minimal engine noise.  It’s not by chance that the cheapest seats are in the rear, next to the lavatories, where the jet noise is the loudest.

Some people prefer aisle seats so they can get up and walk around.  But a recent study showed occupants of those seats have the greatest chance of being sprayed with germs from other passengers and crew.  Consider wearing a face mask for your own protection.

Again, I prefer a window seat so I can see where we are going.  But even booking in advance these seats are hard to get, depending on the airline and your frequent flyer status.

Something like 20 percent of all airline revenue now comes from “add-ons” to ticket prices for things like seat assignments, checked bags, food and yes, seat assignments.

The travelers’ advocacy group Travelers United cites an example of a passenger flying from NY to Chicago on American Airlines who really wanted a window seat but was told it would cost an additional $42.  She refused, waiting until she got to the airport to check in to try again.  There the airline said her window seat would cost an extra $76 … more than her one-way airfare!

That she could fly 700 miles for 10 cents a mile is ridiculous and speaks to how much airlines are “unbundling” their products. Their profit comes not from the transportation but the amenities.  You can take Greyhound on that route for $54 (if you don’t mind a 22-hour trip).  But “riding the dog” comes with two free checked bags, seat-side power plugs and free Wi-Fi.

Families flying together have a particular challenge trying to get adjacent seats. But last fall Congress tossed air travelers a bone, requiring airlines to seat families together at no additional cost.

Whatever your mode of transportation, be it cruise ship or jetliner, planning ahead is key to scoring “the best seat in the house”.

Posted with permission of Hearst CT Media

Jim Cameron

About the author: Jim Cameron is founder of The Commuter Action Group, and a member of the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com

For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, visit www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com

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Letter From Paris: Macron & Merkel: Can This Power “Couple” Lead Europe?

Nicole Prévost Logan

On Sept. 26, 2017, Emmanuel Macron chose the Sorbonne University to develop his grand vision for Europe.  In that seminal speech he was urging his perceived partner German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join him in tackling the lofty goals of European reforms, speeding up the integration of the Eurozone through the creation of a parliament, a ministry of finances, and its own budget.   

Macron proposed to strengthen the common market and reduce the economic inequalities through the  harmonization of taxes, creation of a minimum wage, and reform of the “detached workers” system, which leads to employment of migrant workers at cheaper rates than would likely be available locally — a practice known as “social dumping.”  His approach is based on several principles: a Europe protected by well-managed  external borders and a strong defense; the opening of Europe to free trade, but with due regard for reciprocity, and solidarity among the European Union (EU) members regarding the treatment of refugees.

After an interminable six months, the “Great Coalition” between German Conservatives and Social Democrats has made it possible for Angela Merkel to start her fourth mandate. Barely a few hours after her confirmation as Chancellor on Friday, March 16, she met with French President Macron accompanied by several ministers.  The speed with which she came to Paris shows how important it was for those two heads of state to get to work. 

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Unfortunately, the geopolitical environment allowing them to be the driving force of a dynamic Europe has shifted and even deteriorated during that long waiting period and their task has become more difficult. Merkel is politically weaker.  The continent is now fragmented and the resistance from newly-created groups within the EU has become more aggressive.  Macron will have to downgrade his proposals and make adjustments.

The political context in which Merkel starts her fourth mandate is quite different from the one existing in 2013.  Only 52 percent of the population supported the new chancellor in 2017 versus 73 percent in the earlier elections.  Compared to the consensus Merkel was able to maintain previously, it is harder now for her to keep the lid over dissenting opinions.

Even though they are part of the “Great Coalition,” several ministers stand in disagreement with the chancellor, including Olaf Scholz (social democrat or SPD), vice-chancellor and minister of finances, who believes in tightening the budget; Horst Seehofer  (head of the conservative Christian Social Union or CSU in Bavaria), who was given the  “super ministry” of the interior, who intends to be harsher toward the immigration policy in the name of the reactivated concept of “heimat” (homeland); Jens Spahn, 37, minister of health (Christian democratic union, CDU or Merkel’s own party), who is also a critic of Merkel’s policy on migrants, and Andrea Nahles, leader of SPD in the Bundestag, wants to rush through social reforms in favor of the workers. 

Even more difficult for Merkel will be the meteoric growth of the far right party (Alternative for Germany or AfD).  In  2013 it did not have enough votes to have representatives  in the Bundestag.  To-day AfD holds 92 seats out of 709.   At a recent news cast on the ARTE channel, the violent tone of a AfD member at the Bundestag was incredible.

The “Countries of the North” (as they are now called) — Ireland, Iceland, along with the Scandinavian and Baltic states, as well as the Netherlands — believe in a strict budget and are inflexible about financial and monetary discipline. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of TheNetherlands, speaking for the North countries , declared, “We have to adhere to the Maestrich criteria,” namely to keep the public deficit under 3 percent of the Domestic Gross Product.  On March 27, for the first time in 10 years, France saw her deficit fall down to 2.6 percent.  This was a significant accomplishment:  France is now a credible member of the “club.” 

The North countries ask that Italian and Greek banks clean up their toxic debts.  A “mutualization” of the debt (particularly of Greece’s sovereign debt) and financial transfers are a red line conservative parties from Germany or Holland are not willing to cross.  Like Macron and Merkel, however, Rutte sets as a priority a European Stability Mechanism (EMS) and a European Monetary Fund .

The recent Italian elections on March 8 were a blow for moderate centrists like Matteo Renzi, and the victory of two extremist, anti-system and xenophobe parties: the Five Stars (M5S) at the far left, and The League at the far right.  Italy joins now the eurosceptic countries like Austria and the Visegrad group (the former Iron Curtain countries of Eastern Europe.)  All these countries oppose the Macron/Merkel policies on trade, finances, democratic values and attitude toward the migrants.

Given this overview of the political landscape of Europe, it seems that the strategy of Macron and Merkel will be to start from the areas of agreement – passage toward Brexit, defense against terrorism, and protection against excessive Chinese investments in the name of the “Silk Road.”

The reactions of other EU members toward Macron’s “jupiterian” style and desire to reform are ambivalent.  In a March 20 interview published by Le Monde, Xavier Bettel  prime minister of Luxembourg said that a “directorate Paris-Berlin is out of the question, but added”  France and Europe are lucky to have him. Even if we do not agree with all his proposals, they are most welcome.” 

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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Reading Uncertainly? ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane

Have you ever been mesmerized by a mountain?

I have … Mount Fuji, from the waters of Suruga Wan, Mounts Rainier and Baker from Puget Sound on a cloudless day, and even Mount Kearsarge in central New Hampshire when I actually climbed it with some of our family.

What is it about mountains that seem to entrance our minds?

Robert Macfarlane, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gives us a meditation on these heights, an enthralling “mental stimulation that explores why “the unknown is so inflammatory to the imagination.”  And why is it that almost every “prophet” of all our religions has ‘habitually been up mountains … to receive divine counsel”?

What is “the mesmerism of high places”?  He explains: “ … the urge to explore space – to go higher – is innate in the human mind” and “ … the visionary amplitudes of altitude felt like the approximations of divine sight  … the spell of altitude.”

He writes “when we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there … We read landscapes” as interpreted “in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our shared cultural memory.”  In other words, landscapes are “romanticized into being,” mountains most of all.

“Contemplating the immensities of deep time, you face in a way that is both exquisite and horrifying, the total collapse of your present, compacted to nothingness by the pressures of pasts and futures too extensive to envisage … [plus] the appalling transience of the human body.”

Macfarlane’s chapters explore geology, fear, glaciers, heights, maps, theology, and conclude, inevitably, with Mount Everest and the attempt of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924. The author himself is also a climber as well as a student of mountains.

He cites John Ruskin with the idea that “risk-taking – scaring yourself – was, provided you survived, a potent means of self-improvement.”

“This is the great shift which has taken place in the history of risk.  Risk has always been taken, but for a long time it was taken with some ulterior purpose in mind: scientific advancement, personnel glory, financial gain.  About two and a half centuries ago, however, fear started to become fashionable for its own sake.  Risk, it was realized, brought its own reward: the sense of physical exhilaration and elation which we would now attribute to the effects of adrenaline.  And so risk-taking – the deliberate inducement of fear — became desirable; became a commodity.”

Macfarlane concludes, “mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder.”  He continues, “In ways that are for the most part imperceptible to us, we all bend our lives to fit the templates with which myths and archetypes provide us. We all tell ourselves stories, and bring our futures into line with these stories, however much we cherish the sense of newness, or originality, about our lives.”

Finally, “at bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent convictions – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.”

So, encourage your doubts and go climb a hill!

Editor’s Note:  ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane was published by Vintage Books, New York 2004.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year-resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farms Coffee. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a bubbling village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.

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A la Carte Goes Colorful with Crispy Cod with Chorizo, White Beans and Cherry Tomatoes

Crispy cod with chorizo, white beans and cherry tomatoes.

Back in January, I was invited to a dinner party. The food was incredible, beginning with an appetizer of a seared sea scallop, topped with shredded duck and enveloped with a sunny yellow hollandaise and an arugula in subtle vinaigrette. As an “intermission,” there was glorious white lasagna which melted in our mouths. The entrée was beef and carrots in Borolo, silken mashed potatoes and fresh green beans with pine nuts.

The chef had also sent to our tables of 12 a freshly made bread that had been low risen for two days before it was put in the oven. There were two desserts—one a cassata (a traditional Sicilian cake) and soufflé. All the savory dishes were created by Tom Cherry, who spent a lot of time and love on that dinner, although his real job is plastic surgery. The desserts were created by Bette Hu, who calls herself “just a home cook.” Actually, these two may be just “home cooks,” but, truth be told, I am a home cook. These two people are true artists.

I have said before that real chefs can make magic with a few pans, a few sharp knives and a working stove. While Tom and his wife Lynn have a Viking stove in emerald green with eight to 10 burners on his cooktop and a few ovens at his disposal, he could do that in my galley kitchen and electric stove. I, on the other hand, would need his Viking to be that proficient. As I left that evening, I tried to figure out how I could sneak that Viking into my car. I couldn’t/t!

People often ask me what I consider most important to have in a kitchen. In my last house in Old Lyme, I could hold 20 people in the kitchen as I cooked, had a 42-inch cooktop with six gas burners, two ovens and a warming drawer. The granite counter held 10 and part of the counter was four inches below the regular one, so I could make pastry without making my shoulders ache. My pantry took up another room.

Today I have a fair amount of counter space and a nice deep kitchen sink, but the cooktop has four electric burners, there are two ovens but one is very shallow and most of my pantry is in the hallway closet, along with coats. I have a lot of counter-top appliances, but I have learned how to use those electric burners so that they do not ruin the good pans I have collected over the years.

What I need most in my kitchen these days are my knives (on a magnetic bar so the knife block doesn’t take up counter top), those good pans and Silpat liners for my many, many nested sheet pans, the last of which I use often.

In a recent edition of Rachael Ray Everyday, I saw a recipe for a cod that can be made in a sheet pan that fits in my shallow oven. 

Crispy Cod with Chorizo, White Beans and Cherry Tomatoes

From Rachael Ray Everyday, February, 2018

Yield: serves 4

2 cans (15 to 15.5 ounces each) cannellini beans, rinsed
8 ounces cherry (or grape) tomatoes, halved
5 ounces cured chorizo, casing removed and meat chopped into small pieces
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
One-half teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and freshly ground pepper, divided
4 tablespoons olive oil
One-half cup panko
1 tabelspoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley plus one-quarter cup coarsely chopped
4 boneless, skinless cod fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each
3 tablespoons tartar sauce

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. On a large rimmed baking sheet, toss beans, tomatoes, chorizo, garlic and crushed red pepper with 2 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon salt and one-quarter teaspoon freshly ground pepper.

In a shallow bowl, toss panko and 1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley and season with salt and pepper. Brush the tops and sides of the cod fillets with tartar sauce. Press the tops and sides of the fillets into the panko mixture until coated. Arrange the fish to the center of the baking sheet. Arrange the bean mixture in an even layer around the fish.

Bake until panko is golden and the fish flakes easily with a fork, 10 to 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the coarsely chopped parsley and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil.

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Letter From Paris: Visit to Franco-American Museum in Blerancourt Sparks Review of Relationship Between the Two

Nicole Prévost Logan

La Fayette nous voilà (La Fayette, here we are) are the famous words General John J. Pershing , commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, is supposed to have pronounced  on July 4, 1917 during the commemoration near the tomb of the Marquis de La Fayette at the Picpus cemetery in Paris. The entry of the Americans in World War I was a way to return the favor to the French for being an ally throughout their history. The Franco-American museum in Blerancourt, in a concrete way, furthered this enduring amity.

From the outbreak of the war even before America declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, a segment of US public opinion, wanted the country to enter the conflict. Among the Americans living in Paris (there were 100,000 of them at the time), private associations such as the American Field Service,  intellectuals, writers, and artists offered to join the allied cause. Many young people volunteered as ambulance drivers.

Many volunteers served in ambulances like this one on display in the Museum of Blerancourt during the Great War.

One of them was Anne Morgan (1873-1952)  third daughter of  John Pierpont Morgan, Sr., banker and art collector.

Anne Morgan

She started raising funds to equip the French army as early as 1915, and in 1917 chose the village of Blerancourt, which was in the midst of total devastation, to carry out her humanitarian aid to the wounded soldiers and civilian population. 

The Aisne department (a department in France is the US equivalent of a county) was one of the worst hit battle fields. It is sadly remembered for being the scene of three bloody campaigns all called Chemin des Dames in 1914, 1916 and 1917 . In April 1917 alone, 100,000 French soldiers died on that front. 

Morgan worked from the barracks she erected on the terraces of the Chateau de Blerancourt – a grand 17th century private residence built by the architect who designed the Luxembourg Palace, for Marie de Medicis.  In 1919, Morgan bought the ruins of the chateau and started its restoration. In 1923, she created the association of the Friends of Blerancourt and the following year founded what was to become the Franco-American Museum.

The restored 17th century elegant rooms of the chateau are quite fitting for the historical part of the museum.  French explorers -Jacques Cartier, Father Jacques Marquette-Cavelier de la Salle, Champlain and others  – left their trace in the geography books of the New World. Their names are still vivid but the lands they discovered – from Canada to Louisiana – have long severed ties with France.  Only the St Pierre et Miquelon archipelago remained part of the mother country.

La Fayette was the first Frenchman to enlist in the War of Independence in 1777. With a great deal of panache, in October 1781, the 6,000 men of Count of Rochambeau, joined the Continental Army of George Washington, later the fleet of Admiral de Grasse encircled the English forces.  The combined effort ended in the victorious battle of Yorktown and the rendition of the British.  

Was its support in the conflict beneficial to France?  Some historians do not think so.  Claude Moisy, former president of Agence France Press  (AFP), journalist and specialist in the political history of the US, is one of them and goes as far as to believe that France was caught in a fool’s game.  

During a talk Moisy gave to the France-England Association in 2007, he described the sequence of events, as he sees it: the US Congress had promised not to sign a separate peace with the English, but it did on November 30 ,1782, after secret negotiations.

The real objective for the American government was to resume, as soon as possible, trade and economic relations with Great Britain.  Washington had dispatched Benjamin Franklin to Paris. He soon became the coqueluche (the rage) of the Paris society and suspiciously close to it. The author describes Paris at that time as a “panier de crabes” (can of worms), crawling with spies and foreign agents.

The final peace treaty was only signed 10 months later in September 1783, with the participation of Holland and Spain.

2018, – the year of commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the Great War- started appropriately with the “Cesars” selecting Au Revoir Là Haut, as best film and best director.  It is based on the 2013 Prix Goncourt novel by Pierre Lemaitre. Two soldiers- nicknamed “poilus” during the Great war-  experience the horror of trench war, including being buried alive .  (the writer may have been inspired by what happened to the poet and art theoretician  Guillaume Apollinaire, who was buried alive three times, underwent trepanation and died in 1918.).  The story continues after the war, when the two heroes, traumatized and disfigured by injuries, witness the sordid traffic of war memorials.

The Chateau de Blerancourt makes a charming picture.

The Blerancourt museum  is a lovely, luminous building,, located at about two hours drive north-east of Paris. The World war I activities of Anne Morgan -including her ambulance, uniform, wartime memorabilia and mobile library- are brought back to life. 

The Art department has just been renovated and contains more than 400 works. The collection  includes paintings by impressionist Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent and many others.  The arrival of American troops in St Nazaire was caught in Art Deco style by French artist Jean Emile Laboureur in 1918.  Singer and dancer Josephine Baker, appears on the cover of the “Revue Nègre“.  She was born in St Louis, joined the Resistance and is an idol in France.

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

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