Jan DeGaetani and Water Valley, Mississippi

We have a lot of catching up to do, Friends.

I’ve done it. I’ve moved myself, my books and art and bicycle to the South. And I’m happy. I’ve been in this rambling old house for a little over a week, and I’m happy. I adore the way folks down here do window treatments: the curtain only across the bottom half. I lie down at night and watch the moon rise out the windows at my bed. The glow literally bathes me as my lids drop. IMG_5166

I don’t think I’ve relayed the whole story as to how this all happened. It’s a good one. And I’m gonna tell it because just a day ago, I jumped on the back of a group of riders cycling from Alabama into Mississippi for cancer research and found myself chatting with a lovely middle-aged woman, like myself, about how I arrived here from the Northeast.


I had a ticket to come down here and help my dad with some medical tests during the last week of March. As I’ve written before, I was bound to Nova Scotia and Wolfeboro, NH for two months of solitude and writing. And after that, 6 weeks  of teaching writing at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH. Dad had his tests. I stayed four more weeks. Cancer. But this story right now, although woven with sadness and fear, is all happy endings. Dad’s surgery went beautifully; 7 weeks out, and he hasn’t felt this good in 2 years. The prognosis so good, no chemo follow-up. He’s 87 years old, and his docs told him he’s got 20 more in him. What I thought in early April might be a decision to come here and be a caretaker hasn’t been the case at all. Now, we’re neighbors, 16 miles apart down one state road. A straight shot.

It started with our trip to Water Valley, this tiny town about 15 miles outside Oxford (college town, Ole Miss), to run errands a week before his scheduled surgery. As soon as we drove onto Main Street, I saw something had changed, happened here. Downtown buildings revived, painted, brick revealed and restored. “Yeah,” Dad said, “This has been happening for awhile now.”

I remembered bringing Sam, age 9, maybe, to this town to see the Casey Jones train museum which Dad and I passed as we drove down Main. Water Valley was not a destination to me then; most anywhere near my parents’ cabin here in North Mississippi was not a destination: it was a necessity. If I wanted to see them, I had to come.

But here were bright colors, fresh paint on storefronts. Here were two art galleries. Here was the BTC organic grocery and cafe. What is going on?

“Drive me around the streets,”  I said to him, already forming the idea I wouldn’t act on for another two weeks. Maybe I’ll buy a house in Water Valley and live down here for awhile.

Dad took me all around the winding and hilly streets off Main where lovely old homes boasted fresh paint, flower pots, new siding, roofs. In the spring light and already deep green of summer promised, I was seeing this little town anew. Possibilities.

I didn’t say a word to Dad. We drove, he dropped me off at the cafe while he did some errands. I went inside, got the scoop, sat with my laptop and searched for articles about Water Valley. That’s when I found the NY Times feature from 2012. Here were photos of the cafe, the mural painted on a building just up the street. The story of how these four young women and their partners restored their homes and many of the town’s storefronts and buildings, bringing art, music, whole food to its center.

I read the article aloud to Dad as we drove back to the cabin. And then, what with surgery looming and all the emotional turmoil I found myself in–how to navigate Dad’s needs, my impending divorce, letting go of my precious plans for the summer–I kinda forgot about Water Valley.

As Dad lay in surgery, I sat in the hospital waiting room and remembered to look on Craigslist for housing in Water Valley. Up popped the blue house (the owners call it The Blue House) and within the hour, I had an appointment to see it. I clicked on the photo link and there it was, the NY Times link. This house was one of the those featured in the 2012 article.

A few days later, the owner met me on the road below the front of the house. IMG_5106

Kagan Coughlin, businessman, community leader and entrepreneur and partner to Alexe who owns and runs the BTC  (Be The Change you want to see in the world) cafe and grocery, meets me at the mailbox. I look up at him (he’s ridiculously tall) and say, “Who are you and what is going on here???” He smiles and gives me a quick trip through his journey here. I am inspired by his fledgling Coding Academy housed above Alexe’s cafe in a gorgeous brick building on Main one block from where we stand. His inaugural class of 11 graduating high school seniors will all have jobs upon graduation in a few weeks. Kagan looks down at me and says, “I’ve read your blog. Now, I haven’t seen much, but from what I know, we want you in Water Valley.”

I ask him a few days later when he offers me the house if I can have a week to decide. This is a Monday morning. I’ve told Dad I’ve begun applying for work and I’ve found a house, that I am staying. That night, I search online for teaching jobs in North Mississippi and find that Oxford High School needs English teachers.

The next morning, Dad and I drive to Oxford for his first surgery follow-up appointment. I stand outside the office talking on the phone with a lovely, helpful woman at the state Dept of Education who tells me to “go for it.” She tells me all about the alternate certification programs available. The deadline for admittance is in two weeks. To be eligible, I have to take 4 Praxis tests. The course starts June 5th.

I walk into the room where they’ve taken Dad and tell him, “There’s a job at Oxford High School.” He smiles and says wryly, “We should call Rick.” Rick was my dad’s boss for the ten years Dad sold radio time for the SuperTalk Mississippi station out of Oxford. Rick’s wife is on the school board.  “I’ll call him in a couple days,” I say, and Dad says, “No, we should call right now.” Which he does. Candy calls me soon after telling me in her lilting southern drawl how she’s talked to the Principal, he’s waiting to get my application, he wants to meet me.

I’ve met Rick on several occasions, including my mom’s memorial service, but I’ve never met his wife.

This is small town South, and I have a feeling this is just the way things get done around here.

That evening, I sit in the closed library’s parking lot for internet service (Dad has none in cabin) and fill out the 20-page application.

The next morning, Dad and I are driving again to Oxford for another follow-up appointment. The phone rings. It’s the Assistant Principal saying they’ve read my application and would I come by? After Dad’s appointment, I spend 90 minutes talking with him and the Principal; we are spinning wheels trying to figure out how to get me there without my certification completed.

Phew. Really. This is how it all shakes out. I spend my final 10 days in Mississippi taking tests (two hours away in Starkville), helping Dad, planning. On May 1, as I sit in Charlotte during a layover on my way back to Boston, I get a call. “The job is yours.” They figured it out. I will teach all the Composition classes (dual credit college course with the neighboring community college), and because the college approves me, I don’t need to be certified for this year.


Job. House. Dad. Quiet, Countryside. The moon rising outside my bedroom window.

As I’ve written many times here on this blog this past year, since the day I got in my car and drove out of Raleigh, leaving my 30-year marriage, my home, my pups, a life I’d lived and known for over half my entire life, I have kept my head close to the ground–vibrations there–to my heart, and listened. Allowed. What comes into view comes into a receiving place. A willing place. And in this case of Water Valley, it is the same. There is no denying this.

This is what I tell that lovely cyclist named Cara on Sunday as we rode a few miles together along the bike path into Houlka. “What brings you to Mississippi?” My Dad. A divorce. A launched child. A new moment in my life. Because I can and all this bounty placed itself in my path.

She said, “You know, I love my husband (who was riding in front of us), but I’ve always wondered why I didn’t set my life up to be more independent.” She seemed genuinely happy for me. Genuinely understanding of this moment in my life.

“My marriage was troubled and dysfunctional and really really good,” I said to her. “In part, Fear kept me in it…” She looked over at me.houlka

“… Until it didn’t.”



IMG_5151 (002)

Last week, here in my new home, at this gorgeous table my big sis gifted me, I worked on the section “Shadow” I wrote in Lexington, MA back in March. This quote from Jan’s writings is in this section and comes to mind right now:


There are times in the life of every student and working musician when, without warning and often without a nameable cause, your ability to work and focus on music goes topsy-turvy and you find yourself wandering about in a kind of limbo. The days go by and you complete at least some tasks, but all without any of the sense of joy and exploration you usually bring to your life. This can be a time of the most intense discouragement and can often make you doubt your talent or your fitness for the profession of music. I want to insist a suggestion here from my personal experience and the observations of my students, that such times are very often prelude to a big growth spurt, a sudden and dramatic opening of doors long closed. We must embark on a path of constant growth and change, if we are to be true artists, but such change is often very cruel and hard in the doing; only yielding its gifts after much time and confusion. No one seems ever to be prepared for this version of “work” since much of it appears to be outside our direct control.  (From the writings of Jan DeGaetani, London and Rochester. Jan 2, 1989)

Something about fear and unrest and turmoil and trust.

I have been working very hard. And I have been giving over and giving up and letting some other work on me.

Can you tell? Can you tell the focus, the deeply rooted living I am experiencing? The rightness about staying here in the present, receiving and making and giving? I am so grateful for all of it: health, memories, opportunity to do more good work in all the ways I know how to do.

Stay with me. I promise you, the walk is the thing and I don’t want to do it alone. IMG_5093 (002)









Coming Up! My trip into Nashville, interviews with Conductor David Gilbert and composer Shulamit Ran, and a new Podcast venture I’m beginning with an old friend and neighbor, Joe Hill. Stay tuned!


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Jan DeGaetani and Houlka, MS

I’ve got a lot on my mind, Friends.

I have friends who marched in Washington yesterday for the environment. One tells me today she is beleaguered by all she heard on the streets. It’s bad. To be in Washington now is like entering the lion’s mouth.

I have had my share. When I’m at my dad’s cabin, the news I hear (and sometimes [study] watch) is Fox. And this week on the heels of O’Reilly’s ousting. Mr. Tucker Carlson really messed up when he grilled actor Tim Daly about proposed arts funding cuts, reverting to this argument: rich actors (producers, directors…) should PAY for the arts in this country, not the government. (I wonder, has it yet occurred to him that wealthy landlords, land owners, developers—ah, the President–should be building housing for the homeless in this country?) Anyway, here’s the line that made me throw my fork at the television [not really, this just sounds good]: Look, Mr. Carlson says, I like to do stuff, too. I like the arts. I think the arts are good. I like to fish. Should the government fund the thing I like to do when I just want to relax?

Dramatic Pause.

Oh, I see. I missed this memo back in my early childhood when I knew I could sing, that this made me want to do a thing like no other; when I listened to musicals on our stereo over and over and over. When I danced in front of the mirror. When I sat beside a friend who could play piano to sing my favorite songs over and over and over. Because I had to. I had to get inside them, the songs, the movement, the play, the words, the emotions. Had to inhabit and release, make something good from it. When I studied theory formally at Peabody Prep all through high school, the still-foreign-to-me marks on the white paper, lined and staffed, trying, trying so hard, my palm sweat smearing my tentative pencil lines. Breathing hard and wanting to understand. When I went to Eastman and met the woman who would change and direct my life, (whether or not I actually internalized this then), and learned to enter music in new, multi-layered ways, inhabit it, return it to the environment, outside myself, in order to make something of it. The hours. Hours. [They say 10,000 and you master it.] Hours at a keyboard, writing on paper, to try to do something good. OH, I see, I didn’t realize all this was just my feeble effort to relax.


Tim Daly did a decent job trying to speak against this idiocy, this reductiveness, but he didn’t do enough. Who could?

OK, so here’s the connection to Jan: I’ve been thinking about jobs lately. Because I had a really great one before I moved to Raleigh, NC in 2014; even so, I was ready for a break from teaching. I don’t regret this. But I also don’t have a job now, this season of my  marriage ending, and moving into a new home, and it’s necessary to continue working for money because my writing does not support me financially. I knew a couple months ago that my year of travel was coming to a close. I’d planned to spend April and May in two different beautiful locations because of the generosity of friends (who by allowing me to stay in their homes are supporting the arts). But my dad got sick, and my plans changed. Now, I’ve been facing the question, What will I do next? a little sooner than I’d thought I’d have to.  And it has to include finding a new job.

I mentioned in my last post that I have applied for teaching jobs here in Mississippi where my dad lives and where I’ve rented this beautiful home. I am happy to be thinking of teaching again. I want to. I’m so glad I want to. [The break did its job.]

As I’ve navigated this very quick turnaround of events these past few weeks, I’ve listened to many of my beloveds who champion me, champion my work, this book on Jan, in fact, say: You have a job. You are writing your book.

This morning I started a new little gem of a book about writing. I love this genre. I find myself often leaning on the words and encouragement of writers who write about their work and lives. These books buoy me, get me back to work when I’m slipping into inactivity. This one is by Colum McCann (author of TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin) called Letters to a Young Writer.  On page 14, he writes, “Don’t let the terror of the white page shrink-wrap your mind. You have to show up for the work. You have to sit in the chair and fight the blankness. Don’t leave your desk. Don’t abandon the room…You have to put in the time. If you are not there, the words will not appear. Simple as that.”

I think the only reason I don’t yet accept my book– and essay–writing as “my job” is because it rarely results in payment. It is not (yet…I hope) work I do that results in a paycheck.  It is still hard for me to think–every single day—that THIS is my job.

There are so many ways in which artists–the arts–are oppressed: If you’re not having fun or if it’s not recreation, you’re not doing it right, or it’s of no value. If you’re not bleeding for it, you’re not doing it right, or it’s of no value. If you aren’t making a lot of money from it, than it’s of no value, or it’s not really art. [You’re a writer, huh? Which book did you write?] Art is about making money. About fame. About celebrity. [There are artists other than actors and directors, Mr. Carlson.] Making art isn’t a serious endeavor. Get a job.

Art is work. Hard work. Work that is so hard, seemingly impossible, that every time you think about doing it, it’s time to wash your hair.  Colum McCann: Just keep your arse in the chair. Arse in the chair. Arse in the chair.

I think about Jan. The first time I remember her telling me that to be a classical musician, a professional singer I had to accept responsibility for the job of it. It’s a job. Your work, and you must go about doing it as you would any other paying job to which you’ve made a commitment.

Of course, the tricky thing about making art is this: the only foreman, manager, boss is YOU. The commitment is to YOU.  The schedule, deadline, output, all you. And for some reason, it’s always easier for me to act when the commitment is first to other [including Jan]. 

No one had ever spoken to me like this about music, theater, art. Making art. No one had ever said, If you don’t like this, do something else. It’s the reckoning I bet every single artist makes at some juncture in order to cross the line over into a life of making art. It’s the reckoning of this: pleasure, joy, fun, and pride with diligence, discipline, perseverance, faith, hope, disappointment. Commitment.  It’s this serious. And joyful.

Jan was teaching me something essential about this thing which is an expression of self: it’s an honorable line of work worthy of all your respect.

I’m pretty sure Mr. Tucker Carlson wouldn’t understand what I’m talking about.

Here are some pictures from a ride I took yesterday on Mississippi’s 50+-mile Tanglefoot Trail.

Tanglefoot Trail

Whistle Stop!

Started in Houlka and went a few miles beyond Algoma. 25 miles total. Beautiful. IMG_5011Those of you who know me know I ride a lot. I like to ride. I also loathe hills, mountains. Wind. Like the pre-storm ones kicking up yesterday as I rode the 12.5 miles back. But I do it anyway. Keep doing it. Keep putting my arse in the chair.

Hmmm.Tanglefoot Trail


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Taking Root


Providence. Chaos. The wherewithal to slow down–stop–listen.

No matter. I am here now, and this happening.

I’ve been in North Mississippi since March 27. My 86-year-old father has been diagnosed, cut on, and is back home in his cabin recovering beautifully. The prognosis is excellent. I dare say, I wonder if it’s necessary for any one of us, my sisters and I, to hang around throughout the next steps of his treatment.

But I think I am. Staying, that is.

I’ve discovered a lovely blue home atop a green hill one block from Main Street Water Valley, Mississippi, about 18 miles from Oxford and 17 miles from my dad. I could ride it. I will ride it.

This house came to me quickly with its backstory and offer of an open, light, quiet place to settle, to write, to heal. To get on with my life. You can see it and learn more about the story here and you’ll see why I want to live in Water Valley, be here at this moment, right now.

Water Valley, Mississippi

Three bedroom, doors off each onto the porch, would burning stove, exposed chimney in kitchen, fruit trees and flower gardens.

I’ve applied for part-time work at Square Books in Oxford, a place I’ve written about here.

And I’ve just interviewed for a teaching job at Oxford High School teaching Composition and AP English. Each of these connections, these opportunities coming fast and fierce, compiling, sitting up and saying, Here, Go Here!

We’ll see how it all falls out, but this feels good. To be so welcomed and excited by a new community where I know I can do good work. Where I’ll be close to Dad. Where I will walk the blue-washed hardwood floors in the morning and sense peace.

I have worked sporadically on Jan’s story since arriving down here in March. I can tell you that I’ve discovered online an oral history given by Pia Gilbert at UCLA in 1988 and been reading and note-taking. There’s a piece brewing here about these two women musicians and friends, Pia and Jan. Here’s a brief section from the work:


I’ve never seen Pia Gilbert face-to-face. I don’t know what she looks like today. I probably never will.

I invent her face, her hair, a diminutive figure all from the sound of her voice. Sound. [What had Jan heard?]

I picture small bones, bird. I don’t have much mobility.

I picture tiny frame, thin, strong jawline, small face. Tiny loopy curls of wispy white and gray encircling it.

I picture pale skin. Intense dark eyes.

I hear in her voice pebbles in the path, moisture tumbling these stones against throat, larynx, breath.

I hear kindness and earnestness. And un-urgency, though certainly she knows this won’t last much longer.

Pia is almost ninety-five. [Today, Jan would be 84.] She says, I never know how old anybody is. We agree, it doesn’t matter. But at 95, it does matter to Pia who declares she feels old and doesn’t accept it.

I don’t know what to do. It’s becoming more of a question.

She is German. Come to this country in 1937.  In time. Decades of living, composing, and teaching in Los Angeles and New York, and still the sound of her language rides the edges of her English.

They were friends. Everyone just knew that we were very close.

When we said goodbye, she called me Dear.


I had my bike shipped a week ago because it’s moving fast from Spring to Summer here, and the roads and air quality are calling. Been doing a few short loops to put on miles. Have discovered paved Rails to Trail nearby and a bike shop in Oxford with a riding community.  Check out this backside of the lake where my father lives. And Happy Trails. Take the curve. Go a mile farther. You know the rest. bike

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Jan DeGaetani and Pia Gilbert

I’m back, Friends!


My trip to Belize pushed me in so many ways; I was sick with the flu when I left the US, and once there, I had two falls, one bad enough to leave me with bruised ribs and pulled muscles…and it was beautiful, haunting, moving, scary, and sad, too—the poverty, the education system, the gang warfare and crime in Belize City. This was my first trip to Central America. I was humbled.

Highlights: Cave tubing with my son and rock jumping into the river at the end of our trek. Walking the mountain town of San Ignacio, day and night; the Mayan ruins, driving through the jungle to a spectacular swimming hole at water falls (where I fell). The rain forest our first night in the country and hearing every nocturnal animal’s presence, the low gravelly growl of the howler monkeys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=REPoVfN-Ij4. Seeing our friends’ home and life now on Ambergris Caye; our yellow cabana on Caye Caulker where we swam a bit and rode old bikes and sat for hours staring at the Caribbean.

And honestly, the very best, spending every day with my 20-year old son who is a lovely, remarkable, self-aware and assured young man. I love traveling with him.

Needless to say, I required some serious R&R upon my arrival home, which included a marathon birthday celebration pour moi: I turned 55 years old on March 22nd and I still can’t believe it. The age, that is. I lay awake that morning trying to imagine 60. I could not compute this: my name, my face, my SELF aligned with these numbers. Just five away.

I’m with my father again, in the Delta of Mississippi and three weeks ago, he turned 86. He looks in the mirror and does not compute just who that old guy is in there, looking back. I get it.  There is peace to be made with being a growing, progressing, alive organism.

Age is looming large. Because my father is ill. (This requires some big changes coming up.)

Because I am one year from Jan’s age when she died.

Because when my beautiful mother was 55 she couldn’t have imagined she had less than 20 years left.

I spoke with Pia Gilbert this week. A second phone conversation. Pia may be 95 now; she told me the first time we spoke several months ago she was nearly 95.  Jan would be 84. They were friends. The best and closest kind: Selbstverstaendlich Pia calls what it was. Taken for granted.  The German translates into something like this: the friendship was so close, that it was taken for granted. I hope to speak with her again. I like imagining Jan with Pia, talking about everything: husbands, children, mothers, fathers, and music. Always the music. I’m beginning to learn about the remarkable musical life Pia Gilbert created, her contributions and legacies. I feel to know her better, her story, I will understand Jan’s. I think this friendship is itself a remarkable story. I’ve started writing a new piece about them.

I don’t really understand the German word. Taken for granted. Right now, I feel as if we can’t take anything for granted. Ever. Even the best of friends whom you love and know inside and out and can’t imagine living without. I think she means it was just known, understood, accepted that they were close, what I call having each other completely, that the two of them simply knew that absolutely anything was open terrain to explore and understand and process together. Somehow, the idea of taking something for granted has a negative connotation for me. But theirs—it seems to me—was not a friendship of expectations, disappointments, failures. I think Pia means the two-decade friendship she experienced with Jan was just a fact, a way of life, of the same inexplicable stuff that made Jan who Jan was. The raison d’etre.  Jan’s life was music music music and should have been, Pia tells me.  Meant to be


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Jan DeGaetani: 4 Days in May

Back in November, during my third visit to the beautiful home she once shared with Phil West on the Hudson, Carole Cowan and I found more treasure in the attic.  After all these years, I’d hoped there was more to see up there,and I was right.

Carole and I made our way through boxes of music, personal papers, LP’s–we found a huge box of Phil’s own records, jazz, classical, new music, and several boxes of Jan’s recordings, unopened, each record still in plastic. Truth be told, there were only a few suspect boxes left. I moved to the back right corner of the attic to where several sat, some open, items piled to the very top. I went through it all and found photographs of Phil, Jan, both in early life, in their teens, and into their 20’s. I found Jan’s high school yearbooks, the ones I’d first seen on the shelves of her hometown library in Massillon, Ohio. I found a baby album Jan put together for her daughter Francesca.

Jan DeGaetani

I think this is a high school senior photograph.

 Another scrapbook her mother had put together for her, I’m assuming, at the time of her first marriage to Tom DeGaetani. Pictures of Jan at 1, 2, 3–of her standing in her wedding dress. I’d hoped for more windows into Jan’s young life, and there it was, all this time, in the corner of the attic.


Jan and Francesca approx. 1962

Carole and I found scads of cassette tapes. Again, of performances I’d dreamed of hearing: her Mahler 4 with RPO in the fall of 1980 when I was a first-year student of hers. I sat in the balcony of the Eastman Theater with Patti Monson, spoke with Jan backstage afterwards.

Her Aspen performance of The Medium with Karen Holvik. Her Ravel Scherezade in 1972. And these: 8 cassettes of the recording sessions she did in May 1989, just months before her death, of Berlioz and Mahler songs, all set for small ensemble by Phil West. [ I can’t help but feel luck and grace for these discoveries, including a full photo shoot of these sessions in the Eastman archives, because I’d wanted to see into this experience so badly and never assumed I could.]

I’ve been listening to these sessions held over four days in May, 1989. the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 21st, and they are teaching me.

Last week was strange, after a very productive previous week. I came to my desk daily prepared to work, but felt like I was hovering over the opportunity, never fully grounded in purpose and intent, sensation. [writing for me always offers multiple sensations which often tell me I’m getting it right.] I never really landed [took flight] until Saturday (maybe) as I began to listen to these recording sessions. I wrote about my fog in my journal: What would Jan do? and realized, I had not asked this question in a really really long time. What would Jan do? Because she’s here, now. The suggestion, the option, at the top of my consciousness.

The Juilliard School of Music

This appears to be the Juilliard School on Claremont Avenue behind Jan and her friend. I think the woman next to her could be Clare Kagel, another singer and fast friend to Jan during their years there and into their adult lives.

And I kept listening. There are the “rehearsal” takes, the interrupted takes, conductor David Effron’s suggestions, questions, frustrations. There is a beautiful ongoing back-and-forth between Jan and Tom Paul, in the booth and advising on language, diction. There is producer David Starobin instructing based on what is needed. And there’s Jan in every color, the singing, yes, but speaking, too: asking, suggesting, telling, cracking jokes, revealing [to this listener] again and again how her process of knowing how to do it is never ending, that the work to know never ends, all in her beautiful generosity, kindness, respect [for herself, the music, her colleagues] and joy, a smile in every single utterance she makes.

I listened for 4 hours and have heard the equivalent of one 90-minute tape.

I’m writing in hand what she says, what I hear, questions, all over the big pages of a blank art book I found in my mother’s things back in my dad’s cabin in January. I am thinking about how I recently questioned myself, Do I have a clear vision now for the style and voice of this book? Thinking, my intention recently has been wrapped up in identifying the purpose and theme, but do I really have my own vision for the structure and style, voice?

I wonder about accidents. Do I arrive accidentally? That is,  my way to first drafts is to write hard and fast and to get it down now  without a lot of thought and consideration. Is it enough to allow these initial [albeit raw, authentic, I believe] attempts often to become the thing itself? I’m not talking about eschewing revision. I revise over a long period of time. It takes me a long time to see again; no. I’m talking about new–initial–generative daily writing: can it also come from  a place other than total fast, unplanned, [unconscious?] practice? I’m talking about intention even in the creation of something new.

It must have been Jan when I wrote this next line in my journal: What kind of thinking is required to arrive at a beautiful, effective prose style and structure? [Can’t you hear her?]

I know freewriting can yield because of  what is in part learned and practiced, but from where else do we find the words? Imagination. There she is again. Use the mind. The brain. The ear.

I ask myself, how to approach the making of this text in the way she’d approach a score? What would she have me look at? Rhythm. Pitch. Text, that is, the meaning. Text, that is, the diction. I am writing myself into discovering how to do it. Not how to write this book, how to begin the process of discovery, the looking for the how.

A final thought in my journal this morning: Just because I get it down on the page doesn’t mean I have it, that it’s the thing itself. Yet. When do I know that I’ve done it. Got it?

In one little exchange, Jan is excited to go another take. She’s singing Berlioz. There have been many takes. David Starobin asks for another. David Effron says, Oh, come on, under his breath. And Jan says, evident joy in that smile-voice, That will give me a crack at everything I didn’t do.

Jan DeGaetani

Jan, age 13, Massillon, Ohio.



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Excerpt: Shadow, Part Two

Morning, Folks,

Here are a couple more sections from my draft-in-progress on Barbara Ann Martin, Jan, and me:


Ancient Voices changes a lot of things for a lot of people.

Barbara is living in New York and listens to Jan’s seminal recording [released in 1971] with her former teacher Ellen Alberini. Everything changes. Its calling.

 I stood absolutely transfixed, listening to the strange and wondrous sounds that were coming from the speakers. The way the voice was used: trills, runs, unusual and mesmerizing colors and shapes, leaps, thrilling intervals, twistings, and dancings.

She had coloratura, after all, and thought she was headed for a life of Rosina; she loved opera, and yet, this music. This piece. These sounds. The voice. What it will do. This is her introduction to Crumb’s works. To Jan DeGaetani, her voice, the artistry. The possibilities.

That’s when I started to learn about things I’d never heard before. I wanted to do it, too. I knew I’d find the score and learn it. I didn’t know that moment would translate into a 25-year-adventure with a work that would shape my artistry and career.  I committed myself to Ancient Voices.


George Washington Carver: Anything will yield up its secrets, if you love it enough.


I hear again and again from musicians I talk to that Jan’s performance of Ancient Voices “put George Crumb on the map.”

It begins with its premiere at the Library of Congress. The record comes out in 1971, and for the next few years, Jan takes it around the world.  She can no longer do all the dates offered her. Arthur Weisberg needs a singer. Jan remembers the woman on the Druckman tapes and tells Arthur to hear her. Barbara Ann is brought in to sing a piece low for her Fach: Sixty-Six Songs for a Blackfoot Bundle, a setting of a Native American ritual. It begins a long and fruitful connection.

Pierrot is soon to follow.


Alice Howland was one of a few singers who originally sang Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op 21 in the U.S. Alice Howland learned how to sing Pierrot Lunaire from the original pianist performing this work for Schoenberg, Eduard Steuermann, with whom she was connected.

Not long after her premiere with Arthur Weisberg’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Barbara Ann is invited to perform Pierrot Lunaire with him. Alice Howland was Barbara’s voice teacher.

Jan had toured Pierrot with the CCE and Weisberg; Barbara studied Jan’s recording of the piece and was nervous: she’d heard the story of the recording sessions. This piece was under their skin, the ensemble’s, Jan’s, Gil’s. It’s said they recorded each movement in one take. Barbara had to learn it in three weeks.

[She wouldn’t know until I speak with her in February, 2017 that Jan and Gil Kalish, meeting and working together for the first time in 1957-58, would spend an entire year together and with the ensemble learning that score. They worked it out. Taught each other how to learn it. Bar by bar. Pitch by pitch. One leading, one following.]

Barbara would have mentors: Jan, Arthur, the record. Alice, who would talk her through it, teach her how to perform it. And Gil, who would play with the ensemble for this performance.


She didn’t know how to reconcile these things.

She was finishing her graduate studies. Her perception remains this: no one talked about new music. It was suspect if you performed it. Her perceptions of herself as musician reinforced, then, indeed created by this culture. And yet, she’d been there, in those rooms—aside Druckman at the lab, in her teacher’s living room, listening to Ancient Voices for the first time, in front of Weisberg’s ensemble, Pierrot’s strange and wondrous sounds from her own lips. This music.

Some people are gifted with knowing exactly who they are, what they are when they start.

Barbara Ann is still a Juilliard student and Arthur Weisberg is inviting her to sing with his ensemble. The myth persists: If you perform this music, you will do damage to your voice. Alice tells her eventually, after Barbara’s first Pierrot performances, as she continued to flourish singing with Weisberg’s CCE, Don’t get too good at this. Don’t go there.

During her student years, Barbara sings for Maria Callas who announces she’ll take Barbara on and teach her to be a dramatic soprano. She remained at Juilliard as a mezzo, with her teacher. She says her voice was difficult to pin down. When she sang new music, no one asked for a category, no one asked if she was a mezzo or soprano.

Barbara Ann sang it all, anyway.


50 to 75. The number of Ancient Voices performances sung by Barbara Ann Martin. Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, Salzburg Festival, Moscow, St. Petersburg, across America, in small towns and colleges. In 1988, the year before Jan dies, Barbara sings it for her Chicago Symphony premiere with Zubin Mehta. She’d been singing it for over ten years.

Of her 1998 recording with Orchestra 2001 and artistic director James Freeman, John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune writes, she “met every vocal requirement with a technical command and vocal poise that made her a worthy successor to the late Jan DeGaetani.”

Donal Henahan in the New York Times opens his review of her 1981 New York premiere of the piece with Zubin Mehta decrying the philharmonic’s audience who twitter, roll eyes, even walk out, at the presentation of new music. You can hear programs rustling, unease rising like steam. But he reports “she was thrilling”, that she “knew the measure of the piece.”

The next night, Barbara Ann tells me, you could hear a pin drop. 



Handwritten letter from Jacob Druckman to Jan, dated April 27, 1974.

Dear Jan,

 I should be getting used to your giving me brilliant premieres but each time it gets even more wondrous.

What would we do without you!

Love to you and Phil and Cesca and Mark.




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Feb 27, 2017


Have you had a chance to read recent posts on Jan, my travels, the writing of this book?

Here’s an update:

I’ve been staying with my dear friend of over 30 years, Risa Lavelle in her roomy home in downtown Lexington, Massachusetts. We’ve been friends for a long time, beginning with our stint as singing waitresses at the Mount Washington Hotel in 1985. We sang at each other’s weddings. We birthed our children (her first) in the same year. We muddled through a mid-relationship crisis because we knew we would not let go of each other. Now, we are both moving through the ends of our marriages. It’s an extraordinarily ordinary journey—maybe a book in this.risa

This week in Lexington, I experienced my first acupuncture session for an injury in my right wrist I’ve been living with now for over a year. My writing hand. Believe me, I have thought and written about the metaphor in this: the dominant doer of my body, injured. What aspect of control must I give up in order for some other part—body, mind, heart—to rise? You can read about this here For Sister

I also took my first outdoor bike ride since October on a 70 degree Saturday on the Minuteman trail. Heaven.


Headed into Cambridge via the Minuteman trail.

I will camp here for some more weeks until I head up north to another old friend’s home and artist residency in Digby County, Nova Scotia. The Beebe-Jenny compound sits along the road at the lip of the St. Marie Bay. I may be there a month. Then I spend the entire month of May in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire at another dear friend’s cottage. I am blessed. The people in my life are literally sheltering me and now standing up for this book. I am blessed.

I feel like Mozart, Chopin, George Sand, itinerant artists supported by the art-loving bourgeoisie (although, mistake me not, this is not to say at all that my friends—and family—who’ve been hosting me now for nearly a year are materialistic or snobs!). In another time, another place, I think this would have been me, because I thrive in these situations: outside a home and domesticity and family obligations, I work deeper, better, and always move the work forward. It’s why I’ve always gone away for short spurts of “me time”.

My son is thriving, too. Nearly done with his junior year of college, growing up into a kind, deeply present and wise human being.  samWe are about to make some memories: he and I are flying to Belize for a week. We’ll spend some time on our own and stay with our new friends from Raleigh Shannon and Brad Reeder. Trip of a lifetime.

And, I am on my own in the one sense that I have left my 30-year marriage. Some of you may be wondering about this, as some posts allude to it, and of course, I’ve been on the road all these months.

Brian and I are actually undergoing a smooth and conscious separation. I don’t know when I will be back in the Seacoast of New Hampshire to stay, but I know that I want to be. How that will all come about, I don’t know yet. In the meantime, I am the itinerant and the work is coming beautifully.

Recently, I’ve had interviews with Jorge Mester,


Jorge Mester

and Barbara Ann Martin.


Barbara Ann Martin, soprano

You can read more about Barbara Ann here Shadow    and in upcoming posts.

Soon, you’ll be able to hear the next two parts of my interview with BonMot radio. I’ll post those links when I get the edited versions.

Yesterday, I heard Boston’s Cantata Singers under the direction of David Hoose perform the Bach  in B minor Mass. My dear friends Angelynne and Ed Hinson and Amy Lieberman (who is now married to David Hoose) all sing in this group. I’ve had the great joy of hearing them for years now, but this concert yesterday was like nothing I’ve heard them do. From the first sound, I felt lifted straight up, yes, towards the heavens, some other place. Lush, totally blended and so filled with joy. It was a joyful afternoon. And afterwards, I met a baritone Dana Whiteside who is a lover of Jan’s singing and teaching! And I bumped into Michael Beattie (ESM ’83) who plays for Cantata Singers regularly.


Cantata Singers, Conductor David Hoose. Bach B minor Mass. Feb 26, 2017, Lexintgon, MA. http://caryhalllexington.com/

The final extraordinary woman completing the photograph of who my young son dubbed The Mega Four Women is Emily Browder Melville, another singer and teacher and longtime friend whom I’d not seen for a few years.


Lexington is being good to me. I wanted to share that. Sunrise. sunriseWriting table and space on the third floor. Rainbow during an afternoon nap.

And I want to share another lasting thought: I’ve been reading in others’ blogs about what I’m going to call artist or writer’s guilt in the face of all that’s happening since election day. It’s real. This questioning the efficacy, the necessity of doing our daily work in the face of so much hate, turmoil, fear. Legitimate and appropriate fear. I’ve decided not to let fear and guilt win. That every moment I spend here with words matters. I choose art. I must check myself: this cannot mean I slip into apathy and inaction; it means I figure out what I can do with the time I have to do it in, the resources I have to give, and for the rest of my waking hours, I work. I do my work. I want to live! I want to experience everything about my fast-changing personal situation and life and live fully. It is the way to honor life; I won’t let the country or one man or one administration take that from me.rainbow

Check out the blog when you can.  Let me know what you think, what you’d like to know more about. And thank you, for reading and supporting this endeavor.


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For Sister

My sister, the painter, lays stones on me.

Sometimes I’m on the bed, sometimes, the floor of her studio on the second floor, a soft, thick blanket over me. She lifts it to place the stone, at my throat, on my chest, below my breasts, cold against my skin, the line from temple to crotch, my Chakras.

I’m surrounded by canvases, some painted, some white, stacked upright against the walls, a stool, hanging, on easels, like that one she’s working on in the middle of the room. Waves. Maine coast. Gold frames she bought used lay against a small table on the floor. Glass jars with brushes, books, some clay jugs set on a cloth, still life.

She lays the stones and tells me to keep breathing. She tells me, I don’t have to do anything. She does what comes to her in the moment. This moment, she rubs the fabric covered mallet against the brass bowl’s lip, a complete circle of sound, golden tone, with each lap. She burns sage. Sometimes she sings to me. I am jumping under my skin, this exercise difficult when I can’t feel anything, understand anything; I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, which I always tell her afterwards, how I want to run from the room screaming, my body all tight, my throat and back of neck all tight. And she smiles and giggles.

She has to remind me that what work is being done is being done whether or not I feel it or sense it or visualize it, the energy is there, moving.

Each time she has done this since the day I got in my car and drove away from Raleigh, my home, my husband, she tells me I am stuck. Something like that. I can never remember exactly what she says. The heart, from the belly button up, stuck, clogged, not moving. Which makes perfect sense to me because I have long wondered if I can really, truly, authentically feel love, receive love, give love. It makes complete sense to me that I am clogged there. I wait to experience the clearing.

Today, I experience acupuncture for the first time in my life. I have lived with a painful wrist injury for almost a year now—just about the same amount of time I have been separated from my husband. Interesting. What does this wrist, my hand, my arms have to do with love? Marriage? Wellness?

I took a new yoga class and asked the teacher about someone here in town who could work on me. Before the class was up, he’d contacted his partner, and afterwards, sent me to Eric, just a block or two away from where I was.

So, of course I went. Because since the day I drove out of Raleigh, I have allowed an invisible thread to affix itself to my head and I have willingly bowed. Yes, take me, I’ll follow. And it has been good at every turn. So I go to acupuncture, though I am scared right away. Needles and all, and that old fear of a medicine I don’t really know about that could be the 1 in a million case that goes wrong and I end up paralyzed or dead.

But I go and like this Eric immediately and trust him, and he makes me believe he can heal my wrist.

The needles going in don’t “hurt” but deliver, each one, a different sensation. And some are silent. One goes in at the wrist and I feel a surge of energy fast all the way to my thumb tip. One goes in at the upper arm and I feel it to my fingertips. I start asking right away, is this OK?  Is this what it’s supposed to do? The girl in me rising, and I’m right back in that dentist’s chair when I am eight or nine and he is pulling an abscess tooth and I am struggling to ask all the while, Is it out? Is it out?

Sometimes words come without your knowing they are speaking. It’s what comes from inside you you don’t know is at the ready. Just under the skin.

He is so calm and kind, this Eric, that I decide to go with it, just breathe. He readies to leave the room, saying the hard part is over now, and the rest is just me, resting. He keeps saying resting. I think about massages I’ve had or cranial sachral sessions where I’ve dozed, heard myself snore. But I doubt seriously if I will be able to rest now. There are about a dozen sliver needles sticking out from all over me, including the one at the top of my head and the one he put in last, right there, my forehead between my eyebrows. He said as he was leaving, You can look, first timers always want to look, and I think, Are you crazy? Thinking of me, still, in the chair, having blood drawn and looking way over my left shoulder.

I won’t rest. I am sure of it. There is an ache going up my left arm from the wrist (aching is a good sign, he said.) I stare at the black pin pricks of the acoustical ceiling tiles, eyes wide open, and try to breathe deeply. I wonder how long he’ll be gone. I wonder how long I’m supposed to lie here like a pin cushion. I wonder about that third eye punctured now and what it will see.

Then something good happens. Who knows how much time passes, but I do begin to relax. (He’d said, the last one, forehead needle, would help me to relax, at which I’m thinking, Dude, that’s the one that just ratcheted me up!) But I do relax. I am thinking and looking up and then my lids are closing and I am following images in my head and then I hear a snore or two and then I breathe and it starts again, and all the while, my body DOES relax, feeling heavier and heavier and deeply still, yet LIGHT, all at the same time, as if my fingers could now float right off my hand. It’s wonderful.

And it’s here in this state that I think and hold on to a lot of thoughts. I notice throughout most of this time, I am smiling. I am falling off into complete relaxation, and every time I come to, I am smiling. For a split second, I feel my energy, my whole self, shooting out of my open and calm eyes. Huh.

I think of Jan. I think of the section I worked on this morning about her years at Juilliard, her teachers, the luck she drew by attending Juilliard at just that time in its history. I thought about her whole self, her body, hands, that hair. I placed her outside her studio door on the fourth floor, saying so long to one student and turning to welcome me. I see her. I hear her, sound, inflection, volume, inquiry or statement, I can put words into her mouth. I have it all. And I realized, as I have several times recently, that now, at any one time, I can close my eyes and see her, recall her, fully, have her. And on the heels of that realization is this one: for many many years and certainly when I started to work again on this book in January 2015, I could not close my eyes and have her. I could not conjure her whole and feel her presence. She was in my head. It was an intellectual knowing. It was fact and history and memory.

Today, on the table, I thought, she was closed to me. And then, no—thinking about my sister and the stones and her loving, vigilance—it was me who was closed to her. She’s always been there. But my heart, my chest, my whole upper body to the tip of my head, still working on clearing, on having and feeling heart, has been closed to her. First, the tapes of lessons, the few videos I’ve been given, literally gave her back to me (I wrote about this in a post), but now, I realize, I actually am able to give her back to myself.

Because of this book, the research, the writing, the memory-tracking, and this, this work of opening myself up, I am giving her back to myself.


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Dear Friends,

Sunday evening, I spoke with soprano Barbara Ann Martin about her career, her proximity to  Jan, art, music, the journey. Because of that conversation, I’ve been making a draft of a new lyric section for the book . Here are two sections.

Thank you, Barbara, for sharing your life and thinking and love.



She asked, Do you sing anymore?

And because our conversation already had blossomed past her distinct memories of Jan, because we seemed to be speaking the same language, because I was sure she knew me, could know me, I answered.

No, I kind of said, holding out the -OH- as if it were notated this way, a gesture from one of Crumb’s scores both she and Jan had sung again and again. And I giggled. [Nervous. Still, shame. The remnants of worry: what will she think?]  Now, I sing at parties and weddings and for a while I did local theater productions. But since I started writing and studying and teaching literature, no, not really.

It’s the truth. There was a time when the question derailed me for days, weeks, even. Are you singing?

Tom Paul in the basement of Carnegie Hall after a concert [with Jan]. Shaking my hand, smiling, delighted to see me. [It had been a few years.] –Oh, that’s a shame.

Distant relatives at Gary Monheit’s daughter’s naming, Clara, his first, for which he’d written songs and I reluctantly prepared them; sang them poorly in the small, sunny living room, wedged between the upright and a nice sofa. I’m sorry, I whispered into his neck when we hugged right after. I’m sorry I didn’t learn them well enough.

After the Faculty Talent Show I conceive and direct as a fundraiser for the small independent day school in Connecticut where I have transformed myself into a teacher of literature and writing. Where I run from the library grasping the only copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a book I don’t know yet but will know but know as I quickly head out to my used Toyota Tercel parked among the Saabs, Volvos, and Volkswagens, it’s important and will change me. Do you still sing? You’re so good!


Her first and still most beloved book, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

Because I thought if they asked, then I should be able to say yes, the asking indicating 1. I am good enough to be singing, 2. It is a true waste, a shame, if I am not singing, using my talents and education, 3. I am making a mistake not singing, and 4. If it’s true they ask for all these reasons, I am a big fat failure for the answer is no.

But she didn’t judge.

Instead, her voice, wistful, a little regretful, she lets me know she wishes she had sung for Jan, studied with her.

This is not about me.

And when an hour later at the other end of our conversation I found myself telling her how long I’d been writing and teaching, how I’d made a life of this, she said solidly [not unlike how Jan would have sounded, that filled-out, heel-to-head resonance in each word, entering each vowel, curbing at the consonants. The patterns of speech, the carefully and clearly articulated diction. Jan.]



I can say because I know there was a time when there were only two people in the world singing Ancient Voices: Jan and Me. And it was because of her that I got to do it.

Jan had all the first performances; I did the second, and that was fine by me.

Once they knew that Barbara Ann could do it—In a masterclass I sang the entire first page of Ancient Voices solo and mouths dropped—she would be asked to do it everywhere. Around the world. With leading orchestras and important conductors. In front of George Crumb himself, who, sitting in the audience that evening at Bowdoin College, would lean over to Lewis Kaplan to say, Jan has met her match. Lewis Kaplan would tell Barbara Martin later what George had said. Take a breath.

They crossed paths. Their shared love for and expertise in performing new music impacted each other; six degrees of separation. They performed the same repertoire, one after another, usually Jan first, but Barbara recorded Crumb’s Three Early Songs (1947) when Jan did not. [Until 2011 when a live concert version is put on the CD Gil Kalish releases with Bridge Records.] They weren’t close friends, but they admired and loved each other.

I heard Jan warm up before a concert including new music; stood and listened to her, and then, as she sang the concert, kept wondering, how can she make everything sound like Mozart?


It is 1967.  Barbara Ann Martin is a Juilliard student when Jacob Druckman taps her on the shoulder as she sits in the library listening to an impossibly inspiring piece. He asks her if she’d sing for him. Improvisation. At the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, they record sounds.


The RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center at Columbia’s Prentis Hall on West 125th Street in 1958. Pictured: Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, Vladimir Ussachevsky.

The session lasted three hours. She had never once experienced musical improvisation.

Druckman strikes an instrument; Barbara Ann imitates in pitch, a vocal gesture, born. It was like playing. Again and again, Druckman, leading, she following with something new she was creating in that moment, a set of things, symbols from her subconscious. Druckman working faster, and excited, leaves the session with a new piece assembling itself in his head.

Something triggered in that moment as sound came from her.  A rooted connection with something unknown or named within herself, authentic desire to know this stuff, how to perform it, how to honor it.

Druckman writes Animus II for mezzo soprano, percussion, and electronic tape (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pl6yu_JCoOY) and invites Barbara Ann to sing it. He tells her it is a sybaritic ritual. She has no idea what this is.

It is 1967 and Jan DeGaetani has performed already Dark Upon the Harp which Druckman wrote for her. She has performed already Pierrot lunaire. She has performed a lot of new music, music not-known or -understood. She is about to break into international status with George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children which she’ll premiere in 1970. It is over ten years since Jan graduated from Juilliard, a good decade since she has been building, one gig at a time, her singing career, including regular concerts with Arthur Weisberg and his Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. [I find 6 X 6 paper flyers—I think as I gather them into one pile, there must have been a time when you could stand on a New York street corner, throw a dime, and hit the side of a building where inside, a small chamber ensemble premiered new works, admission, $1.50, perhaps, $2.00 per person.] But in 1967 Juilliard, it is still that a singer training classically sings only traditional classical repertoire. Barbara Ann asks, and the opera department says, No. She was told she couldn’t sing Druckman’s piece.

Jan would premiere it in 1970 in New York, but Barbara Ann’s sounds remained on the tapes. When you hear Jan, you are also hearing Barbara Ann, the only time they’ve ever performed together.

Shadow. Dance. The electronic tape, a fourth player, becomes the elders. This is ritual, sybaritic. The mezzo and two percussionists, inductees, enter the hall at the back and walk down the aisle to the stage. Into a world of sexual discovery reached through a series of realizations, questions, instruction, and emotions. [You hear it all in Jan’s voice.]

This is how they meet: name to name, hers, a bodiless sound integral to what Jan’s will do.

Posted in Contemporary Vocal Music, Dawn's Journey, Fun Research Tidbit, Interview, Reflecting on Jan, Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


Hello, Friends,

I’m outside Lewisburg, PA for my son’s third Patriot League swim championships. I’ll be headed back to Boston tomorrow.

I’ll be speaking with Jorge Meister samon Monday, so stay tuned for highlights of our conversation.

You can catch up on recent posts here:


When They Return

Cross Roads

Mozart in the Jungle


And I want to recommend this brief and thoughtful post about being a writer who doesn’t know how to keep writing given the conflict storming in our nation at present. From Star in Her Eye, my friend Heather Kirn Lanier’s blog; if you’re a creator, you need to read this beautiful piece.



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