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In the fog

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This morning everything was covered with fog, and then it slowly dissolved. Fingers crossed, my brain fog will dissolve soon, too. 

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The Ends of Things

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I always feel lost when I finish a project, and I sit there, picking over what I've done, talking to my friends or myself about what I wrote or said or didn't write or didn't mean, thinking, doubting, wondering. But at a certain point, it's time to fly on. At least that's what I tell myself while sitting on the fence. 

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Sunrise

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I still can't believe we live here now!! This is the sunrise from my office windows. Makes me think of Emily:

I’ll tell you how the sun rose, -
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
"That must have been the sun!"

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

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What Do you choose NOT to write or talk about?

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The other day I was talking to a counselor who asked me, What do you choose not to talk about to your readers, your friends?  The answer, many things, I suppose.. But I do try to open most of my locked doors, at least when I'm writing. Some doors get open and then locked again, opened and locked again. Like this one

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Bad Hair Day

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Last week when I was at the Y, getting dressed alongside the high school girls' swim team, I listened to the girls chattering about their insecurities. A blond girl was going on about her feet. She didn't want anyone to see her feet.  How can I swim and not show off my feet? she asked.

Seriously. Feet? Okay, maybe she was being silly. But everyone started checking out her feet. I like your feet! the girls said in a chorus. They're so long and skinny. Like tree roots. They started giggling and comparing their feet.

Then another girl started whining about her weight. But you aren't fat, the girls chimed in. They were right. She was as skinny as the rest of them. Me, I hate my lips, another said.

Maybe this is an all-too familiar scene. They're teenage girls, after all. Problem is, I felt like I was one of them. I wanted to join in--It's my hair I hate. Look at my limp, lousy pin-straight hair!  

I stood there, blow-drying my hair. Styling it with a flat-iron. I hate how long it takes.  I was just thinking I was done when I pulled out a hairspray I'd ordered on Amazon that was supposed to be unscented.   I gave one quick squirt, two, then I inhaled. Oh shit! I smelled like a toxic flower. My hair felt like tinsel. 

I had a  phone meeting with Nicole, my writing pal, and I was really excited about it, so I thought, Maybe all I need to do is open the windows on the way home. The smell will blow away. No such luck. At home, I put a scarf on. Then a shower cap. Still I could smell my hair. How do you escape your hair?  I thought about wrapping my head in Saran wrap or tin foil. Finally, after another shower and blow dry and yeah, styling session, I called Nicole. I didn't want to admit what took me so long. Why I was so late for our phone call. 

What can I say? My hair and I, we have a very difficult relationship.

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Enid! Shannon McLeod!

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Last week I met with Shannon McLeod, a young local poet whose work I was not familiar with and am now a fan of. I particularly love Enid. I love the image of Enid (above) as well. It reminds me of those weird drawings by Henry Michaux. I think he called them Meidosems. Something like that. 

Enid 
Shannon McLeod

 

Last week, my therapist suggested we put a name to my anxiety. 

During our conversation, just for an example, she called it "Enid." She said I could change the name. She suggested I give it a name with a more repugnant association. 

We named it so I could see illness as an enemy, a separate entity, rather than me. 

I cannot think of anyone I hate as much as I hate this part of myself. 

Hello, Enid.

 

Published by wigleaf  

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Interview with Cindy Veach

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I've done a lot of interviews, and sometimes they really aren't much fun. And other times, I love the person, the poet, the whole experience. Cindy Veach was really great. As was her book about the her ancestors who worked in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. I especially liked her section, Lowell Cloth Narratives, that she said were "Based on Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Lowell cloth was a “generic” term for cheap, course cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell.

Here's a poem from that section:

State: Arkansas Interviewee:  Bear, Dina

I was born in slavery time—a world away

we wove we wove away. I was born in the field

under a tree. Thirteen hours a day we toiled

cotton into cloth. People wore home-made

what I mean homespun and lowell clothes.

It snowed in our lungs and every window

shut. My dresses was called mother

hubbards. We passed abolitionist poems

from loom to loom. I was too young

to remember anything about slavery

blood and sweat blood and sweat. I went

barefoot until I was a young missie.  We

signed the petitions. Folk did not know

how we was made. 

 

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Thinking about Billy Collins' Recipe for Audience Appeal

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Lately I've been thinking about Billy Collins--about an interview I heard years ago on Fresh Air in which he described how he wrote a poem. He went on to say how he didn't care for all those poets that describe their life history. Who cares about your storys? he asked. (And now I want to find that interview to be able to quote what he said. )

It interests me because Collins is so popular, so engaging, and he talked about his recipe for audience appeal. And yes, there was kind of a recipe. As well as a formula for writing a poem. And yet, I realize how little I know about Collins himself.

By contrast, when I read someone like Denise Duhamel, who writes about her divorce, bulimia, alcoholism, family as well as about sexism and feminism, and-- you name it, I feel as if I know her, as if her poetry is almost like a conversation with her. And of course, she, too, is very popular.  

THE BOTTOM by Denise Duhamel

I stopped drinking on my way down the hill
to the liquor store when two guys pulled up
and tried to drag me into their pickup. I crossed the street
then ran in the opposite direction, puffing
against the incline. The stranger thrust into reverse 
and, when I wouldn’t talk to him,
threw a bag of McDonald’s trash at me,
Stuck up bitch. I stopped drinking
when I realized I was fighting 
for the vodka at the bottom of the hill
more than I was fighting against the terrible
things that could have happened to me
inside the cab of that rusty Chevy. I stopped drinking
before cell phones. I stopped drinking
after Days of Wine and Roses. I stopped drinking
even as I kept walking to El Prado Spirits
and the guy behind the counter who recognized me
asked if I was alright. I didn’t tell him
what had happened because he might have called
the police and then I would have had to wait
for them to arrive to fill out a report, delaying my Smirnoff.  
I stopped drinking even before I had that last sip,
as I ran back up the hill squeezing a bottle by its neck.

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Agni, A Cone of Light

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 Agni is one of my favorite literary journals. I especially love reading Sven Birkerts introductions. He has such great insights and the ability to explain why I love what I love. This quote stopped me for moment: 

We are, Cortazar might say, moving through a vast teeming darkness with just the cone of flashlight illumination in front of us. We imagine we have the all of it, when it fact it's quite the reverse. We have nothing, only the illusion of knowing. 

And then he quoted one of my favorite passages from Hopscotch:

Would I find La Maga? Most of the time it was just a case of my putting in an appearance, going along the Rue de las Seine to the arch leading to the Quai de Conti, and I would see her slender form against the olive-ashen light which floats along the river as she crossed back and forth on the Pot Des Artes, or leaned over the iron rail looking at the water.

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Where am !?

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Last night I woke up and I couldn't remember where I was. A part of me is still living in Ohio. I think a part of my soul has still not caught up with the move. Looking out at the window, the dark night sky, so unlike the suburban sky, I felt like I was on some other planet before I fully woke up and remembered. 

It's amazing how hard it is to reconstitute oneself, to redefine the ordinary.

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Commas and Breathing

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Sometimes, commas drive me nuts.  I put them in, and take them out. Put them in, take them out. Should I say that again? I have spent the last few days doing just that. 

I remember clearly the four comma rules taught by Mrs. Ward, my sixth grade English teacher.  A for appositives, B for before introductory dependent clauses and before coordinated conjunctions, C for series, D for introDuctory adverbs. And the rest for duh twang, meaning obvious places as in dates. As in addresses.

But I have trouble still, esp. in dialogues. I put them in before a question, and an editor takes them out. I take them out, and an editor puts them in.

My chapbook, Any Kind of Excuse, had two editors. The first editor took all the commas out, saying, This is poetry! You don’t need all these commas. The second editor put all the commas back in. This is poetry. You have to follow all the same rules as everyone else.

My friend, Beth, an English professor, says that when she’s writing, she knows when she needs a comma because that’s when she has to breathe.  She adds that everyone says this is the WRONG way to decide about commas. But she insists it works. Adding emphatically that if she doesn’t HAVE to breathe, she doesn’t add a comma. (I am sure she also follows the comma rules.)

But when do you HAVE to breathe?  I find that confusing, too. I never realized how confusing until I met my friend, Ann, a yoga teacher who was always telling me to breathe.

Before that, I never realized how often I don’t breathe. Or when I don’t breathe. But I have been trying to pay attention. Truth is, I hold my breath a lot.

I hold my breath when someone says something mean. I hold my breath when I can’t hear. When a car accident happens--or almost happens in front of me. When I am in the doctor’s office. When I'm listening to the bad news on NPR (I let it out on the rare occasions that the news is good). When I’m reading or at a reading. When the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning.  When I’m trying to decide what I think. When I don’t know how to do something. When I can’t answer a question. When I feel stupid . . . That’s just the beginning of the list.

In first grade I practiced holding my breath during class. I counted as high as I could before I would breathe again. Sometimes the teacher, Mrs. Wallace, asked me what was the matter with as my face turned redder and redder. That wasn’t the only time she asked me that question. I didn’t care for Mrs. Wallace and vice versa. I didn’t like school at all. So I never raised my hand when she asked questions like, Who ran faster, Dick or Jane?  (Should there be a comma after the like in the previous sentence?)

It wasn't just first grade I disliked. 

In grade school, it seemed to me that everyone else was raising his or her hand, eager to answer questions, eager to participate. But I didn’t want to be there. So often I just held my breath. I liked the dizzy feeling it gave me. And the challenge. I liked watching the clock hands glide past a few more minutes, counting down to the end of class. 

Sometimes mothers came with cupcakes for birthdays, or to help out around the classroom, or take us on field trips. Sometimes they read us a fairy tale or helped us with our coats before we lined up for recess or whatever. My mother never came. She wasn’t the baking kind of mother. Or the school-helper type.  And besides, I was the 6th kid.  

Sometimes my mother would ask me what I did in school, and I’d tell her I held my breath. I would tell her I was good at it. I don't think she listened to me.

But I was good at it. So good, in fact, I thought I might be another Houdini one day. And during the summer I could swim lengths of the pool without coming up for air. I doubt my memory is correct, but I remember swimming two whole lengths.  My sister was even better—she swam at least three. I know that’s probably not possible, but I remember it just the same, just the way I remember a lot of things that might not have happened.

But I am beginning to wonder.

Because at the Y lately, I’ve been swimming at the same time as an elementary school swim practice. These children are tireless. They zoom back and forth for hours, splashing and screaming as they race each other and pinch each other and pull one another’s swim suits down. All except one. One skinny boy with black hair and long trunks instead of the tiny Speedo others wear – who sinks to the bottom of the deep-end and stays down there for most of the practice. I watch him as I swim-- one lap, two laps, three . . . I must miss the moments he comes up for air.  I keep worrying about him. Doe she ever breathe? What if he drowns? I feel as if I have to keep watching just in case. But he’s always down there, his arms moving slowly as if he’s conducting.

At the end of practice over Christmas breaks, there were days when the mothers and fathers came to welcome their children, to cheer them on or wrap them in towels. No one came for the skinny boy. He rose slowly and slipped off to the locker room alone and towel-less.

 

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Stage Fright

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The other day at the swimming pool I watched a couple try to force a young child to jump into the deep end. The child, a girl with a single black braid and a pink suit, was clinging to her mother's leg and screaming while her father begged and cajoled and finally screamed back at her. We should just throw you in. That's what my mother did to me, and that's how I learned to swim. The teenage-lifeguard, who usually looks so bored, watched the scene with worry and interest.

I was reminded of my own childhood . . . of one of my earliest swimming memories. I was young enough that all five of my older siblings were at the pool, and my father was there as well.  I could not have been much more than three or four, and my father was tossing me into the air and letting me splash into the water, then tossing me up again. He did it over and over, and as I rose up and splashed, rose up and splashed into the blue swimming pool, I remember the glittering sun and water all around and the feeling of giddiness mixed with pure terror. I could see that everyone watching me.  Watching and laughing and cheering.  I loved the attention, and I knew, even in my small child's mind, that if I cried or showed fear, the attention would vanish or turn sour.  It was a test, and I wanted to pass. I wanted to be happy, or at least appear happy, and thus keep everyone else happy, too. And for a moment I remember watching myself from outside, rising and falling and splashing. It was easier not to be in my body.

It's that same feeling I sometimes get before performing. Stage fright, being out of my body, watching myself, watching my body, trying to make it smile and laugh and do what I want it to do, not what I feel like doing. 

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One of these days . . .

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I'm still in vacation mode, still in moving mode, still in missing my friends from Youngstown mode, still in having visitors in the house mode, but I am slowly working my way back to my desk. Fingers crossed for more work time.

And I did (I think, with much help) finally get the blog to work. Now it should only send out updates once a week, so if you are kind enough to subscribe to the thing, don't worry--you won't be overwhelmed on the times when I actually blog a bit. Only on Thursdays will you hear from this space!

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First Draft, Best Draft?

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Apologies if you received this already--yesterday. Jimmy has been helping me fix my blog so that it actually sends posts to subscribers, which means I have been taking the post down, testing it, and putting it back up again. So I am not sure if this one was sent out yet. But I am very excited to have an actual working blog! Or so I hope! And I am thankful that people actually want to sign up for it! 

Jimmy and Stephanie also gave me a book called HANDS for Christmas--after I admitted I cannot draw hands. Even comic hands  take me forever to draw. Seriously, have you tried drawing hands?  They usually look like alien body parts, not something you want at the end of your arm. The more I work on them, the more alien they become. So I like to keep the hands hidden in my drawings. Of course, it could be argued that the hands are the only part of the drawing that is not alien . . .

Which reminds me of editing a poem. How often have I worked and worked on an ending, only to have the ending look like it belongs to another poem. Excessive editing is one of my many truly annoying habits.  I've destroyed so many poems in an effort to fix them--and often discovered, weeks or months later, that the first draft was, in fact, the best draft. Or maybe the third draft, now that I think about it. Or the fourth. No the third one. The second or third . . .

I often have as many as fifty drafts. What a nightmare! But in the end I go back and forth between one or two. 

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Happy New Year!

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I was reading the year's recap, and thought I better stop. 2017, argh. It has a lot to be depressed about. But instead of dwelling on that, I decided to open up one of my favorite, passionate, purple poems so I can think of other things, better things, including the truly great . . . 

 

THE TRULY GREAT by Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

(The rest of the poem can be read here.)

 

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PRAISE!!!

In my last post I talked about the risk of praise, and I am not sure I was correct. I heard from one sibling and a close friend that my parents didn't, to their knowledge, ever praise any of us to our faces. Now I am not sure what is true or false about my latest assessment. But I liked another sister's comment that my parents, my mother in particular, just expected us to grow up, sort of like plants. A little sun and good weather, and we'd be fine.  I think that's probably accurate. She was good with plants. And flower arranging. 

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And the more I think about it, the more  I realize I don't think I'd ever have even tried to succeed as a poet if I had not had such kind professors as David Lehman and Lynn Luria Suckenick and Alberta Turner and Sydney Lea. And they were very generous with the praise. I have this one funny memory of Lynn -- who passed away in 1995--she was so sweet, but this one day she saw a photograph of me pregnant and commented, You looked like a had a goldfish in your belly . . . Are you sure that was your son in there? 

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Drawing and the Cost of Praise

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I am so excited! Jimmy and Stephanie gave me drawing books for Christmas! The first is on botanical line drawings. The author doesn't tell you which flower you are drawing, but I think this one, which I elongated a bit so it's not really accurate, was supposed to be a pansy. 

I was reminded, while drawing and doodling (my favorite escapist activity), how my Dad used to correct my pictures, putting a three dimensional ear or nose on one of my two dimensional girls or boys, or fixing a bird's wing or eye. He was always trying to teach me perspective. And perfections. Sometimes I liked the attention. But often I would get angry. You ruined my picture! It looked fine until you drew on it, I'd tell him. Remember Dad, I'd tell him . . . If you're in the two dimensional world, you can't even SEE the third dimension

Now I am thinking maybe the different dimensions are kind of interesting intermixed. (Not the flower is exactly 3-D yet, but it's moving dangerously out of my comfortable 2-D world.) But maybe the two worlds have something to say to one another. I'm not sure about this . . . 

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 I do think it's interesting that my father wanted an artist in the family, and he was so interested in teaching his children to draw. The only ones who still draw at all are the two he thought lacked talent. Those he praised developed an allergic reaction to art--or rather to drawing and painting. It always made me wonder . . .  

What is the cost of praise??

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Vertigo

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Okay, I've finally been doing nothing . . . that is, nothing but watching the ceiling spin. Now that the world is coming back into focus, I am seeing the value of slowing down. Or better yet, stopping. 

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The Poet and the Poem, the Artist and the Art, The Criminal and the Crime, How Similar Are They?

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I know--it's a funny question, but it first occurred to me when I was getting my MFA at Vermont College, and my beautiful friend, Alice, with her long golden hair (I mean, she's one of the most gorgeous women I have ever met) went out on the town one night with some famous visiting poets, and when she came back, she was horrified. "The poets!" she said. "They were such creeps!" She added that she thought, after reading their work, that they would be "like angels." 

I told her how, before I went to church, I thought Christians were, well, Christian. "Wow, you really are out of touch!" she laughed. "Like what planet did you grow up on?"

I have often wondered, how far we are from the message or story or image we send into the world? Of course, fiction writers aren't held up to the same standard as poets. We don't expect Stephen King to be a psycho-murderer. But poets are often equated with the work they create. Maybe it's a problem of the the first-person in poetry. Am I really the I in my confessional poems? Are you? Yes or no, it creates a certain kind of expectation. We like to identify people in one way or another. 

It's that kind of identification I wonder at. I wonder about it with cities, too. Because I think of places as stories, as personalities almost, and I travel to them with certain expectations. 

When I was moving back to Charlottesville, the story I read about it was of a lovely, exciting, liberal University town. I was relieved to think it had changed so much from the Charlottesville I grew up in, which was a beautiful but racist, sleepy, southern town much like the fictional Lessington, Virginia I wrote about in Miss August. But then, last summer there was that horrific White Supremacist-Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and many have written me to ask what it's like here. Is it a racist city? How is the town coping with what happened. I don't know the answer, but from what I have since read in the Heaphy Report , the story is both beyond upsetting and it's ongoing.

In the aftermath of the event, many of the counter-protesters are being sued, and there are plans for another Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August of 2018.  The  protesters, as one friend explained it, have learned to tell a legally defensible story. They have figured out how to situate themselves on the right side of the law. Or to frame the story in their favor. 

Is that even possible?  I wonder. I am not yet up to speed on the subject. 

But it brings me to my last point, or the last thing rambling around in my brain today . . . 

In his article, The Double Murder Case That Still Haunts Me, Nathan Heller writes about a gruesome double-murder that happened in the 1980s in  Lynchburg, an hour down the road from Charlottesville.  It was a murder that caught the attention of the public back in the 80's and that the short story writer, Peter Taylor, and his wife, the poet, Eleanor Ross Taylor, talked about when we visited  that year. The murderers were top UVA students and talented writers, and they were stunned by the horrific news of what  had happened. Now, years later, a film has been made about the case. And everyone is still questioning, what happened. 

But it is their ability as writers that causes Heller to question them. He writes: 

Both Haysom and Soering were writers in college, and both have become successful authors who have published from prison. That haunted me, too—partly because there’s an inherent slipperiness involved in interviewing people who know how stories are composed, and partly because the coverup itself seemed to have literary attributes. As I put it in the magazine piece: “At least one of the people implicated has been hiding the truth with a writer’s mind."

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Halcyon Days and Doing Nothing

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The Halcyon is a bird of Greek legend and the name is now commonly given to the European Kingfisher. The ancients believed that the bird made a floating nest in the Aegean Sea and had the power to calm the waves while brooding her eggs. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting - around the winter solstice, usually 21st or 22nd of December. The Halcyon days are generally regarded as beginning on the 14th or 15th of December.

Katrina sent me this info as a way to help me think about doing nothing as a positive thing, adding that she loves watching the kingfishers in Maine. I'm not sure what they look like there, the one on the R or the L? 

I hate to admit that I'm more apt to think of the Horse Latitudes when thinking of doing nothing. Tossing the horses overboard when there's no wind in your sails . . .  Not to sound too depressing! 

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