Saturday, March 28, 2009

Applied Platonism; or, What Work Isn't

I had been before to Warehouse 9. Situated on a cul-de-sac near the margin of the Army Corps of Engineers facility where I was then working, it was a large but unprepossessing building: sheet metal quonset-hut style, like an airplane hanger--probably it was in fact a recycled or otherwise diverted airplane hanger--large enough to contain, perhaps, a football field.

When I had looked inside Warehouse 9 before, it was empty except for a large expanse of dust-filtered sun angling down from skylights. This day, therefore, I walked up a short flight of wooden stairs onto a loading dock and opened a door, expecting nothing. What I saw instead was an ocean.

To be more precise, what I saw was a model ocean, a working replica of an ocean. But when I opened the door, I did not yet know that. All I knew was that the place was full of water, to a depth just below the level of the loading dock where I was standing, a sheet of water that extended virtually the length and breadth of the building. I stood for a moment bewildered; there was something here, I had been told, that I was supposed to see, but beyond the water, it was hard to tell what that might be or what I was to do.

As my eyes adjusted to the light, I noticed a narrow platform in front of me, that led to a narrow walkway built of planks that led to the wall and then down the length of the building. I followed it, not knowing what else to do, and then saw that at the far end of the warehouse there was -- what? something, and a couple of people moving in the dusky light.

*

It was many years ago, in a universe far away. I had a job.

1972, a year when people were still considering dropping out as a viable lifestyle: always behind the curve, I was dropping in. I was 22. I had completed a Masters degree in literature and creative writing all except the thesis; struggling to finish the thesis, I convinced
myself that the whole academic enterprise was a mistake for me.

On a whim, I took the civil service exam. I have always been good at taking standardized tests; I realized the first time I took one, when I was in junior high, that such tests are not about knowledge (I certainly didn't know anything); they are about the people who design the tests. If you possess a certain kind of imagination, you can channel the test makers, and so doing, you can think three or four moves ahead of them. This served me well on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, on the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, and the GRE, among other unpronounceable horrors. It served me especially well on the civil service exam, which struck me as the easiest test I had ever taken. Whoever designed this test, I thought, was simple minded beyond belief.

The test was so dull that I took it on a Saturday afternoon and promptly forgot all about it. When, on the following Saturday, I received a letter from the government, it came as a complete surprise. I won't pretend to remember the precise language of the letter, though I wish I could; the government's language is always entertaining in a perverse way, but unfortunately it is rarely memorable. The spirit of it I remember perfectly, and it was this:

Dear Mr. Hummer: Your score on our absurd test is absurdly good. Though we don't want to, because we suspect you are not one of us, we are forced to place you very high on our waiting list for civil service jobs. We cannot put you in the very top group, because that stratum is reserved for veterans of our armed forces; we are in the middle of a vitally important and highly illegal war on foreign soil, and your non-participation in that war perforce makes you ineligible from being ranked number one, number two, or number three on our list (we have that many veterans in your city who want to work for us), but the unquestionably high score you received on the test makes it impossible for us to ignore you, or even to rank you lower than 4th on the list, no matter how much we'd like to forget about you entirely. When and if your name comes to the top of the list, assuming any government agency would be insane enough to want someone like you, you will receive an invitation from that agency to consider whatever job they are trying to fill. In the meanwhile, please leave us alone.

Ever the obedient citizen, I obeyed that last injunction, and so, after a couple of weeks went by, I was again surprised to receive a letter, this one more specific and more cordial in nature.

Dear Mr. Hummer: We are impressed by your score on the civil service exam and by your profile. If you are interested, please contact us about interviewing for a position with our agency.


And so it was ordained by fate, whatever that word may mean to anyone, that I, apprentice poet, should go to work for the Army Corps of Engineers.

*

The installation where I went to work--let us call it, fictively, to protect the guilty, Hogwarts Experiment Station--looked like the hodge-podge of a minor land grant college, but without students. It had the same pragmatic, industrial-strength, mostly ugly architecture you can see in many parts of America on campuses named X State University. The primary difference was that the sidewalks and lawns were quieter, almost deserted, as if everyone were away on some obscure holiday. Some buildings looked like Nazi bunkers from a B war movie; some looked like the Chicago projects. In all of them, however, there were scientists, engineers, and technicians of every stripe, all hard at work on projects of a bewildering variety.

I was hired, however, not to be part of the Talent, but a very junior member of Management. The only office at Hogwarts, perhaps, that would have found a languishing English major of even the remotest interest took me on: Personnel. I was hired as a Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee GS-5 at the dizzying salary of $8000 a year, plus full government benefits, an arrangement I found wonderfully generous after two years of subsistence on a teaching assistant's stipend plus my wife's income as a low-level researcher for a state research and development agency. The forty-mile commute was a minor inconvenience, but I quickly found a carpool. The details easily came into focus. All I had to do was discover precisely what my job was.

I was given a desk in a room with two other desks. The situation was so familiar from my stint as a teaching assistant—an industrial-gray metal desk in an office with identical desks—that I felt immediately at home.

The sense that I had gone from one university to another was palpable and comforting—all the more so when I discovered that my work centered on a book.


*


It is difficult, from this remove, for me to recover the contours of the mental horizon within which I lived in the days I worked at Hogwarts, as they are long obliterated and many times replaced. I was twenty-two years old, recently married, somewhere in the middle of a long stretch of defining the center and margins of my life. A violent but solitary struggle to annihilate a “false” self—one based on the old-style Southern racism to which I was heir—was coming to an end. In the course of the next decade I would move across several plateaus, bridge an abyss or two, spelunk various cave systems, and become something perhaps remotely resembling an authentic human being.

In the meanwhile, I occupied, without realizing it, a sort of disposable self, one who had desperately cobbled together a set of values, affirmations and denials, goals, needs, and prejudices, and slapped the label “artist” on the whole assemblage. This psychic situation, as I reconstruct that time in my life, is what had led me to Hogwarts. I had a sense of mission, but no direction; I had a conviction of purpose, but no real ethos. I had tried teaching, but found I had nothing to teach, not because I was stupid or even ignorant exactly, but because I had no central values I knew how to share. Values I had, or thought I had, aplenty; I was awash in opinions. But they were brittle affairs in which even I had no real faith. Teaching called every word, every gesture into question, and I found the experience painful. I thought the pain came from the students’ incomprehension of the real, the beautiful, and the true; in fact, the problem was that taking responsibility for their progress reminded me of the failures of my own.

At the same time, I had embarked on an exploration of the so-called metaphysical domain. Goaded by a close study of Yeats, I believed I was a mystic-in-training, that my spiritual vocation was to be carried forward through the vehicle of poetry. I pursued thick books of Blavatsky and Gurdjieff; Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus were my familiars. The books I was reading were, in those far-away pre-internet days, hard to find, and their very scarcity convinced me I was onto something. In the absence of a local chapter of the Knights of the Golden Dawn, I joined the Rosicrucians (AMORC) by mail and sat up nights staring into candle flames, muttering the incantation “As above, so below.” I developed a false but temporarily necessary sense of uniqueness: surely I was the only card-carrying neo-Platonist working for the Army Corps of Engineers.


*


To say my work at Hogwarts was to center on a book is an understatement: the work in question was a set of books, or one enormous book distributed through many binders. As texts go, it was amorphous, and changeable: the black ring binders made it possible to remove pages for
revision, to excise the obsolete, and to add the new. But any such process was subject to strict regulation, as every government personnel office in the world had to have identical such texts. It was therefore a highly controlled document, but its physical nature suggested the book Borges describes in his story “The Book of Sand.” The narrator acquires the book from a mysterious man; before he buys it he inspects it.

I opened the book at random. The script was strange to me. The pages,which were worn and typographically poor, were laid out in double columns, as in a Bible. The text was closely printed, and it was ordered in versicles. In the upper corners of the pages were Arabic numbers. I noticed that one left-hand page bore the number (let us say) 40,514 and the facing right-hand page 999.

His examination of the book reveals that it is in fact infinite—not only without beginning or end or order, but also continually changeable, so that a page you turn does not stay where you left it, and the unendurable Truth you encountered there could never be found again.

I wish I could remember the actual title of the set of books that was to govern my life while I remained at Hogwarts; it was pure and perfect bureaucratese, and the language has slipped into some special black hole of my memory. In any case, the people in the office simple called it The Guidelines, and so I too came to call it.

My designation at Hogwarts, as I have said, was Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee GS-5. I was given this title when I was hired, but did not pay much attention to it since it was more or less meaningless to me. I was to come to pay more and more attention not only to my own designation but to everyone else’s since, as it turned out, it was precisely my job to do so.


*


From the outside, Hogwarts is a black box, figuratively speaking. Its function in the large sense is simple: anyone who has a question and can afford to pay for the answer may approach. Generally such entities are other government agencies, state agencies, or municipalities, but in theory it could be anyone. The question is submitted; professionals in the appropriate areas evaluate it and either accept the job or reject it depending on its appropriateness to the facility's potential. If the question is accepted, it enters the black box; time passes, and ultimately an answer, or an admission of failure, emerges from the other side of the box.

Hogwarts has an excellent track record as a black box that spits out accurate answers. My knowledge is dated, but when I was there, the party line, which I have no reason to doubt, was that the facility did not cost taxpayers a penny, but more than paid for itself by virtue of fulfilling its commissions.

From the inside, however, the simplicity of the black box was nowhere apparent. Hogwarts was a large, diverse, busy operation, doing its business along a myriad of avenues, but everywhere its fundamental process was the same: Hogwarts answered questions about the world by making models of the world. They controlled flooding in large river systems by building precise models of those systems; they learned about wave forms and turbulence with wave generating machines and wind tunnels; they designed the wheel for the lunar lander using a model of the surface of the moon. Their models were complex with detail; they were exact and they were elegant. I saw many of them during my tenure at Hogwarts, and my fascination was never exhausted--which was a good thing, since observing the models, and the work of the engineers and scientists who designed and used them, and the model makers who built them, was my job at Hogwarts.

*

Inside the heavy black binders of the Guidelines, there were job descriptions. Every government job at every classification level was represented there--no, not represented: determined. The Guidelines set forth the qualifications, requirements, and duties of every civil service position in the country, from physicist to maintenance personnel, hydrologist to administrative assistant to model maker--including, of course, Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee GS-5. For the uninitiated, that alphanumeric at the end of the job title (every government employee, I learned, has a GS number) determines the rank of the employee within the field, and hence the salary level. The Guidelines contained, in addition to a basic description of the job, a road map for moving from level to level, and hence for advancement. A Personnel Classification Specialist, then, is one whose job it is to mediate between the Guidelines and reality. Someone has to consult the Guidelines for the ideal of a given job at a given level, and then investigate to determine whether Dr. A is actually doing what he or she "should" be doing; if Dr. A. is doing more than the Guidelines dictate, a promotion must be made; if less, a change in duties or a downward adjustment. Since people's salaries are involved, there is a good deal at stake. Therefore, the Personnel Classification Specialist is an employee of some importance. This was applied Platonism with attitude.

The Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee, however, is a different matter. I was on a strict career schedule, whose contour was nothing more or less than a learning curve. Mediating between the real and the ideal, as it turns out, is trickier than it might at first appear, especially at a complex facility like Hogwarts. It had been determined before I was hired that the proper term for a trainee's apprenticeship was three years. For that duration, it was my job to learn; after that, having gone through a series of advancements within the trainee rank on a regular schedule, I would emerge from the chrysalis of training as a full-fledged Personnel Classification Specialist GS-9. GS-9 was, from where I sat, a lofty rank with a generous salary. All I had to do to get there was read, observe, and learn.

In short, my job at Hogwarts was exactly like graduate school.

*

Warehouse 9, then, was part of my learning curve. I was continually being called to go here and go there at Hogwarts to see what went on; it was necessary for me to have a clear and comprehensive understanding of the reality our personnel were part of. Observing was half the job; the other half was absorbing the contents of the Guidelines. Day after day I pored like a scholar of the Kabbala over the arcane contents of that set of volumes, consulting with colleagues when I found something puzzling or incomprehensible. Other times, I was called off to see what a group of hydrologists were doing here, a band of soil scientists there; I observed the permanent model of New York Harbor (complete with a two-foot Statue of Liberty) and the permanent model of the Mississippi River Basin, which occupied 30 square acres. I saw tanks full of turbulence, abstract projectiles, blackboards covered with equations taken from a bad film of the Manhattan Project. I talked to people, who were for the most part delighted to lecture me at length and in great detail on the work they were doing.

Many scientists, I learned, are obsessive and feel, in terms of the hidden essences of the work they do, lonely and--not so much misunderstood as uncomprehended. They enjoyed having an audience, even a captive one; but much of the time I found what they had to say interesting, however little I might actually understand it. They seemed to me not so different from poets, painters, musicians; they were improvising against sets of chord changes and master narratives, and while the products of their labors might be welcome to the world at large, the processes were arcane. The scientist, like the artist, aims for the product, but lives in the process.


*


As I entered Warehouse 9, the wooden catwalk around the edge of the ocean felt precarious, and its precariousness familiar, emblematic of my own situation: walking a narrow, precarious path with a blind wall on one side and an artificial ocean on the other. What on earth was I doing here--here in Warehouse 9, here at Hogwarts, here: this person, slave of this mind? The great vault of Warehouse 9 curved above me: Plato's cave with a vengeance. The shadows of other people flickered at the end of the catwalk. My own bloated shadow walked beside me, distorted, cast by reflected light from the softly rippling water. In the back of my head the voices of the Great Poets whispered: . . . lack all conviction . . . makes nothing happen. In the black book on the shelf above my office desk, the blueprint of my soul resided: GS-5, GS-6, GS-7. Somewhere, real life was happening. But where, and what did that mean?

The catwalk terminated on a beach. The back wall of Warehouse Nine was separated from the water by a zone of contoured sand. A few feet back from the waters edge, there were trees, and beyond the trees, a town--main street with shops, neighborhoods, cars, fireplugs. The trees were no more than three inches high, the buildings to the same scale. Here was a tiny town on a tiny beach. I was Gulliver, and this was my Lilliput: finally, it seemed, I had actually entered a book, rather than opening myself and allowing books to enter me.

At the very back of the building, there was a stainless steel compartment, the sort of thing one goes to Sears and buys to put in the back yard for tool storage. Too men were standing at the door of the compartment, watching me.

"Walk round behind the town," one said, "so you don't knock anything over."

*

The two men who met me in Warehouse 9 were described in the Guidelines as Modelmakers. What their names were I did not know, nor did they know mine; all that mattered was that I was the Personnel Classification Specialist Trainee and that they were Modelmakers: at Hogwarts, by their work are they known, and by their descriptions are they understood. We were the People of the Guidelines.

"What's this?"

"It's a town," one said, as if he were answering an idiot who'd asked the same question about the sky.

These two Modelmakers were strangers to me, but I had already met a good many members of their profession in the course of my work, and had duly pored over the Guidelines pages devoted to them. Of all the professional groups I had encountered at Hogwarts, they interested me the most. Their skills were a combination of the practical and the visionary; when scientists described what they wanted from them, the Modelmakers had to envision an actual construct, create it, and make it function. In some ways they reminded me of carpenters and plumbers I had known (they were carpenters and plumbers, when the job called for it), and in other ways like sculptors, painters, musicians, and poets--with a strong measure of model train fanatic thrown in. Generally, their pay scale (as I knew) was on the low end of the spectrum, but they seemed, as a group, stable, serene, and proud. Their work was utterly indispensable to the work of Hogwarts; without them, the whole place would grind to a halt, and they knew it.

"It's a town," I said. "I see that."

"Yep."

"It's terrific," I said, looking closer. Every shopfront on Main Street was painted in detail: drug store, book shop, soda fountain. All the motorists were obeying the rules. The trees were neatly trimmed, and windowboxes bloomed. "But what's it for?"

"OK, here's the scoop," the older of the two said. "A municipality in California has given us a problem to work on. This is that municipality. It's built as close to the real town as we can get it. Everything is there, right down to the trees; everything is to scale. We work from photographs, and from maps. Tolerances are very tight."

"I see," I said. "And what's the problem you're working on?"

He raised one finger. "There's a bit more," he said, and then gestured out at the water. "The beachfront is all precise as well; the town is built on a bay; this is the bay. The shape of the bay is exact, so is the contour of the ocean floor all the way out."

I looked down at the perfect beach, and noticed suddenly a new detail: over the beach, off the bay, surf was rolling: perfect miniature surf, which rolled in with perfect miniature curl, the leading edge of each fringed with perfect miniature foam.

"Holy shit," I said. It had never crossed my mind that surf of such apparent perfection could be made that small, each wave perhaps three inches high. Surely scale figured into the structure of things at some point; my intuition told me that a wave, in order to adopt so complex a form, would simply have to be bigger than that. But why did I think so? Obviously my intuition was steering me wrong, because here before me was the thing itself.

The skin on the back of my neck began to tingle. Surely some revelation is at hand. . . . The poets in the back of my head woke up; there was a stir in my inner anthology.

"This," I said, "is astonishing." The Modelmakers smiled benignly, as at a child's excitement. "How do you do it?"

"Wave generator," the younger said, pointing out into the distances of the Pacific. About three fourths of the way from which I had come, in the middle of the water, I saw a long metal object; its details were impossible to distinguish at this distance and in this light. "We can program it to make any wave form we want, at variable intensity."

I had seen wave tanks in another laboratory: huge aquariums in which scientists studying turbulence generated wave forms three times my height. That was very impressive, but this was miraculous: big waves were, well, big, and thus impressive, but they seemed thoroughly normal in some important way. These miniature waves were exquisite, and miraculous. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was rapt by what I saw. I was not Gulliver, standing here: I was God. Or, no, I was an archangel. Perhaps I was a cherub. The gods here were the Modelmakers. This was their creation. It was art--art of the most utilitarian kind, and yet for its own sake--otherwise, why paint the storefront signs, why make the window boxes bloom? It was a bay in California; it was a universe. I found myself moved the way I was moved by symphonies, or by jazz, or by poems.

"Here's the gist of it," one Modelmaker said, while the other took out a small penknife and began grooming his fingernails. "The town proposes to build an offshore sewage treatment plant. That's it out there." Halfway between the wave machine and the beach, I now saw, was a low white rectangle--filled, I presumed, with tiny sewage, precisely to scale (I didn't ask). "What they want to know is this: if there is an earthquake or a tidal wave, will their plant withstand it? And if it doesn't, what will the environmental impact be?"

"So how will you determine that?"

"Simple," he said. "We'll crank that wave generator up to tsunami, stand back, and watch what happens."

Simple. Apocalypse is always simple. I imagined the machine and the wave it would make, would would happen to the trees, the cars, the houses, the post office with its perfect flag, the soda shop. It seemed a blunt and thick-headed way to do science, from one perspective; from another (like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot) it seemed the only possible way.

"Are you going to do it now?" I said.

"Oh, no," said the one with the penknife. "We're still a month away from that. We have a lot of fine tuning to do."

"Looks perfect to me," I said.

"Yeah, well," he said, flipping away a bit of thumbnail. "There are some problems here you can't see."

I felt a small tremor of the nerves. "Like what?"

"For one thing, sand. You can grind sand fine, but only just so fine; beyond a certain point it's not sand any more. If you were little surfer down on that beach, the sand would be too big. The sand is not to scale."

Slippage: my model universe was not what it appeared.

"For another thing," the other Modelmaker added, "there is the problem of the water molecules. Water molecules are water molecules. You can't get model water molecules."

"So--" I said.

"So the water is also not to scale."

This proposition was so peculiar I could not wrap my mind around it. I looked at the evil water, the offending sea, unable to say anything. Had I spoken, I would have sounded like Joyce's seagull: quark.

My own investment in this little world surprised me. I wanted it to work, but suddenly its existence seemed so problematic I could see no way for it to do what it needed to do: to be, not just a toy, but a world. And not just a world, but the world. I looked out at the recalcitrant water, the impossible sand. I was on the threshold of a cosmic betrayal, an infinity of heartbreak.

Finally I found my voice. "What do you do?" I imagined the whole model coming down, the water draining into a gutter, the tiny houses and trees swept into a trash bin, useless.

The Modelmaker paused. And then he spoke, and gave me the thing I had come for--the secret of Life, the Universe, and Everything, as the comic genius wrote--the revelation.

"We have algorithms," he said, "that let us build very precise distortion into the model."

*

I continued to work at Hogwarts for another couple of months, going through the motions of training. I moved from one to another office in Personnel, learning the ropes. I talked to secretaries, hydrologists, electrical engineers, about their actual jobs; above all, I read the Guidelines.

The truth is, though, that after my experience in Warehouse 9, I was done at Hogwarts. I was eager to get back to finishing my thesis, to writing my poems, to study. The missing piece in my thought had been given back to me, the thing that let me understand not only what an artist was, but what a human being was, and a human's business in the world--what was wrong with Plato, and what was wrong with me.

When I resigned from Hogwarts, some wag there said, not unsympathetically, "You're the most expensive ornament we've had around here lately." I could not disagree with him, because it was impossible to explain to him how important the work I had done there had been--to me, at any rate, if not to the Powers of Hogwarts. If I had had the presence of mind, I would have answered "Never hire a Neo-Platonist to do a Platonist's work" and left him slack-jawed. But I'm glad I didn't, for that too had become false. I had graduated from Neo-Platonism. I let my membership to the Rosicrucians lapse, and sold my Gurdjieff and Blavatsky.

Build very precise distortion into the model. In that formulation lies the work of a lifetime--the work of an artist, the work of a real human being in a real world, whatever you mean by real, by human, by world.

"The world is everything that is the case," says Wittgenstein. "The world worlds," says Heidegger. Fair enough, I say. From one day to the next, I don't know the algorithms; from year to year I'm not sure what I'm making a model of. Those are the questions of a whole lifetime. But in the face of all uncertainty, in the middle of the deepest mystery, I have my guidelines, my job description. I know what my work is, and what my work is not.

9 comments:

  1. Wonderfully done.

    I went most of the way through school in a town I'll just call Vicksburg, a strange place prone to an epic obsession with its own mythology, full of rednecks and engineers in nearly equal proportions. It was a town that coughed up me, a woman who wrote a thesis on Philip Larkin as an act of rebellion against the very idea of her hometown, and my brother, a man who got Ph.D.s in both engineering and physics merely to solve the mysteries of that place.

    We have talked of this many times, poetry and physics as similar mental processes, with similar risks to person and purpose. I very much enjoyed reading these memories of a Hogwarts so much like my own.

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  2. You nailed me, very gracefully. Thanks for keeping the lid on (not that it really matters). Actually I loved that crazy place. It was very interesting.

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  3. As proper a place as any to grow wise in, if only that so many dead lie round.

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  4. Very nice. I am enjoying the arc of these essays and feel that each one is propelling me a bit further down that catwalk. Too bad about the Rosicrucians. They probably didn't have a large chapter down your way.

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  5. The Rosicrucians, headquartered then as now in San Jose, CA, had a study-through-the-mail program; they sent these nice little mysticism lessons though USPS.

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  6. Beautifully distorted, Terry. You lace through my (our?) experience in three ways, two of which you know very well, given the panels we were on together. But I used to live withing walking distance of the Rosicrucian building in San Jose, its elaborate but concealing architecture, its well-kept grounds. Elizabeth, my own future physicist, was born when we lived there, and we'd stroll her around that neighborhood to get away from our gloomy apartment those tough nine months during our previous "deep recession." I never saw anyone walk in or out of that building, which seemed there merely to assert its mysteriousness and veiled authority. I imagined vague but serious ceremonies, ancient or ancient-looking artifacts that could grace an Indiana Jones set. The roses surrounding the building were lovely.

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  7. I always wanted to visit Rosicrucian Park, just out of curiosity; it seems weird and quixotic to me still, Disneyland out of Freemasonry. Worth a side trip at the very least.

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  8. i love this piece. i would have commented sooner but it made my head spin and i couldn't decide whether to comment here on the "real" blog or on the parallel universe facebook note with the flowers in the windowboxes and the not-to-scale sand.

    thank you for doing what you do, Terry.

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  9. Aww, shucks. It ain't nuthin', ma'am. Anyway, I do it because I can't help it, so no credit is due. Or only to the daimon.

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