Baseball with Harold

I’m sitting at a bar, having dinner, and a baseball game is on the TV above the bar.  San Francisco versus the Mets, I think.  This recalls for me that baseball was one of the ways (perhaps the only way) in which my father and I bonded – insofar as Harold and I bonded at all.

I remember going to a baseball game with him.  Dallas didn’t have a major league team in 1959, and the game we attended was a small affair.  Wooden bleacher seats; I remember that, and the lights on the field.  I don’t know if I ate a hot dog, or if Harold drank a beer.  Both of those things are possible, but I don’t know.  They’re not part of what I remember.  I just recall being there with Harold, and the rough wood of the seats, and the glaring brightness of the lights.  Oh, the teams, of course, but they were out beyond the chain link fence, so a bit remote.  And in any case, they were just the supporting cast for the central attraction:  doing something with my father; something that was fun, not tedious, or aggravating; something that would give us an opportunity to talk with each other about anything other than grades, and discipline, and keeping my mother happy.

There were other people in the bleachers, but not a crowd.  Some of them were heckling the batter, and criticizing the umpire; talking, as a way of shaping an outcome.

Part of my memory of Harold is that he never really transmitted anything to me.  We went to a baseball game.  Maybe two or three; I don’t know.  We played catch in the back yard a few times.  My kid-sized leather glove went the way of all things years ago, but I still have my bat.  It’s a Louisville Slugger.  Child size, of course.  I used to have a baseball that I think I got at a game.  (I caught it?  Harold caught it?  I don’t know.)

Baseball could have created a thread of communication between me and Harold, but it didn’t work out that way.  My fault, I guess.  Even at 12 years old, I wasn’t really into sports.  In seventh grade I was on the football team for my elementary school.  Football has a venerated place in Texas society, so perhaps that was part of my motivation.  Or maybe I wanted to belong to something; be part of a team, which was not the case in the rest of my life.  Whatever my reasons may have been, in one game I fell and my chest was stepped on by a much larger boy from the other team.  After that, I decided that football just wasn’t for me.

Looking back on it, I think I was something of a disappointment to Harold and Dorothy; as though I was never the kind of boy they thought they’d gotten when they adopted me.  Not boy enough, not tough enough or sporting enough, or … something.

Perhaps joining the seventh grade football team, or volunteering for the Army nine years later, were attempts to prove something to Dorothy and Harold.  Or did I do those things to prove something to myself?

Around the same time I was playing football, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I was being set upon (bullied is what it would be called now) by a neighborhood kid.  He hit me at one point, and bloodied my nose.  I went home, and told Harold about what had happened.  He exhorted me to take this kid on.  He told me that I needed to stand up for myself and go fight this boy, and then proceeded to give me advice about fighting: pointers on pugilism.

It was bad enough that I felt pressured by Harold to do something I had no desire to do.  There was also the fact that my father had never seemed like a fighter to me, so it was rather jarring for him to want me to go fight this (now completely forgotten) neighborhood boy.  But I don’t know; maybe during his teen years in Tulsa and Denver he had to fight to defend himself.  If so, he never shared any stories about those experiences with me.

The man was an absolute cipher to me.  I know he delivered newspapers in Tulsa, and he was a bike messenger for the Continental Oil Company in Denver, but I know that mostly because of research I’ve done in the years since he died in 1983, at the age of 79.  I know he played baseball in Denver for a team sponsored by a Texaco gas station where he worked.  I also know he was a musician in a large dance orchestra.  He played the banjo.

I know all these facts about him, but none of the passion or joy that must’ve animated those pieces of his life was ever shared with me.  Perhaps when Dorothy and Harold adopted me in 1948, not knowing what to do with this child who had been dropped into his life four and a half decades on, he relied on memories of his relationship with his own father.  I guess.  I don’t know.  I just don’t know.  And that not-knowing, along with complete ignorance when I was growing up about my birth father, left a certain void in my life.  The place for Mother was filled to overflowing by Dorothy, but the slot for Father was barren.

I tried to counteract that, I tried to fill that void, by being a different kind of father to my three daughters.  I had no template for that, no exemplar to which I could refer.  Harold had not given me what I felt I needed – his stories; his living, emotional self – so I tried to share my own true self with my daughters.

At the same time, I was sorting out just what that meant to me, but I didn’t want my daughters to have to guess who I am.  I didn’t want them to have to look for clues, left like a trail of breadcrumbs through the forest.  How can you construct an understanding of someone from breadcrumbs, or from photographs with nothing written on the back, or old newspaper clippings that told you something about your father that you never knew until a decade after he died?

I wanted to know Harold as a person, not as a cardboard-cutout of “Dad”, but there was no warmth between us, no bond of any sort, in fact, except for the fact of living in the same house together.  It feels like he just hovered around the edges of my life when I was growing up; a gray, opaque presence who, like footprints on a beach, has been washed away with time.

That’s how I have felt about him for many years:  a ghost who left no trace of himself.  But then, a few nights ago, I realized that he had transmitted something to me, if only by osmosis.

Harold didn’t love nature, or art, nor did he like to read books.  He wasn’t interested in architecture, and he never talked about politics.  What he did love was music.

This realization came to me while in the middle of a prosaic task, as realizations so often do.  I was listening to music while making dinner.  One of the CDs was recordings by people like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and Harry James; a kind of jazz that we now classify as “Big Band” music.  It’s music that I heard over and over again while I was growing up (along with other musicians, like Al Hirt and Pete Fountain).  Until I was old enough to have my own record player, and develop my own musical tastes, it was the soundtrack of my life, and it’s music I still like.

So, when that CD started playing, it put me in mind of Harold, and made me smile a bit.  That’s not the same as knowing him, or hearing stories about his life as a musician.  It’s not the same as connecting with him.  Hearing Benny Goodman play the clarinet on “Don’t Be That Way” reminds me of Harold, but it doesn’t make me nostalgic about him.  How can you be nostalgic for something or someone you never really knew?  It’s like trying to recall a dream, hours after you wake.  You were doing something – what, exactly? – and there were other people there – who were they? – and it seemed really significant when you were in the dream.  But now that you’re awake, you can’t quite put your finger on what that was all about, or who those people were, and eventually, the dream fades completely away.

 

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How to Laugh in Chinese

 

There are a number of different ways of laughing in English:  chuckle, snicker, guffaw, chortle, grin, and plain old laugh, among others.  It’s much the same in other languages.

In Chinese, for example, you can laugh Hā Hā (哈哈); an everyday laugh.   Or, you can say Hē Hē (呵呵), a soft laugh that can indicate sarcasm or mockery.  Then, there’s Xī Xī (嘻嘻), the equivalent of “hee hee.”

I wonder in what way the Chinese – Xi Jingping in particular – are laughing right now?  Could it be Hēng Hēng (哼哼), a kind of short, sardonic sneer, or perhaps Mu Hā Hā (木哈哈), which is considered informal, evil laughter?

I don’t know, of course, but what I do know is that, while we are all distracted by the non-issue of “Covfefe” and the very real issue of the on-going Russia scandal, Mr. Trump, through his myopic arrogance, to say nothing of his colossal ignorance, is leading our country to ruin.  While supposedly making America great again – we didn’t actually need your help, Donny – he has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, after having earlier cancelled participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free-trade arrangement that would have put America in a strong position of leadership in East and Southeast Asia (there’s plenty of blame for demonization of the latter to lay at the feet of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, by the way).

Whichever sort of laughter it is coming out of Beijing today, it bodes ill for us.  The interference of Russia in our 2016 election, and their meddling in European politics, and in the Middle East, are challenges, to be sure.  They are dangerous, and they are behaviors that have to be addressed and dealt with.

China is another matter.  The threat from them is truly existential.  They do not want to cooperate on the world stage, except insofar as it might further their actual goal.  And that actual goal is to displace the United States as the leading world power, the power that, for all of our faults and missteps, has done great work in the years since World War Two, to protect and further democracy around the world.  The Chinese could care less about protecting democracy; indeed, they will shred it wherever they find it, if they can get away with it (and they have worked very hard to do so in Tibet and Hong Kong).

You could say that Putin’s Russia has the same goal.  That is true, but there is a very significant difference:  Russia is a neo-czarist, oligarchic kleptocracy that presides over an unstable economy largely dependent upon the price of oil and natural gas, and on the strength of their military.

China has a strong economy, a billion people to provide cheap labor, and a growing and modernizing military.  Most significantly, they are awash in money, a great deal of which they have accumulated by first, making and selling cheap crap to the rest of the world, and then by copying or outright stealing the ideas and processes and designs of others.

It is China that needs to be the main focus of our attention, not Russia.

Mr. Trump, ignorant of history, to say nothing of politics, has set about creating power vacuums in the world.  It is the nature of such vacuums to not stay empty for long, and it is Chinese laughter that we will hear as they are filled.

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Fifty Words on Easter Morning

Dying eggs                                                                                                                                   Invisible rabbits                                                                                                                                                     The magical blood of lambs

Full moon                                                                                                                                 Flowering trees                                                                                                                                                     Sacrifice at sunrise

Rebirth                                                                                                                                                 New love                                                                                                                                                                 Twenty-eight days

Rabbit in the moon                                                                                                                             Fly in the ointment                                                                                                                                              The return of spring

Hope and faith                                                                                                                   Regeneration                                                                                                                                                        Astarte has risen

Look up now                                                                                                                                       And see the stars                                                                                                                                                  Such wonder everywhere.

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Saying Goodbye

 

I’ve said goodbye a lot in my life.  To people.  To things.  To houses and places.  Some I’ve been sorry to leave; others, not.  Some left me.  It’s all goodbying, though, whether you open the door or someone else does.  What matters is how you feel when you walk through the door.  It also matters – perhaps even more – how you feel and what you do on the other side of that threshold.

Are you looking back, or are you looking ahead?  Maybe you have regrets, or sadness.  Perhaps you regret not leaving sooner, or you regret leaving at all.  But leave you did.

The past can hold you, if you let it, and entrap you, like a sticky web.  Maybe the past is lonely, since we’re always leaving it, moment by moment, day by day.  Because of that loneliness, it will conspire with your memories to keep you, and draw you back.

I try not to let that happen, just as I try to “live in the moment,” a popular concept in these times.  I’m not always successful at living just in this moment, and then this one, and this one, because the past is always calling, and the future always beckons.  I know it’s false to tell myself that the past was awful, but the future will be golden.  Or vice versa.  It’s always some jumbled mix of awful and golden, separated by periods of transition, if not equanimity.

If I could make golden happen, you know I would.  So would you.  I don’t expect it all the time, though.  In fact, I’m often surprised when such a moment happens; so much so, that I forget to give thanks to whomever or whatever helped cause it.  Not being the religious sort, I ascribe such things to the forces of Chance or Fortune.

Then again, it might be the work of the Fates, whose tasks are to spin out the thread of life, determine its length, and then to decide how and when to cut it.  If you believe that, then you believe that the whole scheme of life is really out of our hands, since how long we have to live, and the manner and time of our death, have already been determined.

I don’t think that’s true.  We have the power to choose, and what we choose determines what happens next.  That’s Consequence, not Fate.  Still, I do see life as a set of vast, interlocking cycles; rather like the Mayan calendar, but which are beyond our ability to comprehend or predict, at least at this point in our evolution.  As a result of the way in which the cycles mesh, things happen, opportunities arise, people come and go.  You can call these occurrences curses, or you can call them blessings.  Either way, they’re not just beyond our ability to predict; they’re beyond our ability to control.  The power we do have rests in our ability to make choices: to stay, or to go; to love, or to give up on love; to live, or to give up on life.

*

There’s a restlessness at the heart of my life – an empty space filled with goodbyes and unfinished stories.  An aching need is also there: a need for love, a need for home, a need for connection; a need for the restlessness to end.  The thing is, I don’t believe it will ever end.  If the past is a template for the future, then that’s the only conclusion I can draw.  I know – I know – the past doesn’t have to define the future.  That’s what we all want to believe.  Like the fine print in personal injury or investment advertisements: “Past results are no guarantee of future returns.”

And, as I wrote above, I believe we have the power of choice, even if the choices don’t always seem particularly appealing.

Still … my life thus far casts something of a shadow over my optimism, especially on gray, chilly mornings like one in which I’m writing this.  I guess a shaded optimism is better than all shade and no optimism, though.

Ugly things lie in wait down that road.  I know.  I’ve been there, hoping I can get through the night without doing something unfortunate and irreversible to myself.  When optimism fails, when hope is a chimera, it’s important to have something outside yourself to which you can hold fast.  It really doesn’t matter what it is, so long as you can hold on to it, and not let go:  a memory, an icon or a photograph, or your desire to see the sun come up.  For me, it was my daughters, but anything will do, if it keeps you from that last goodbye.

Nevertheless, a last goodbye does await all of us.  When the cycles click together in a certain way, at a certain moment, we will leave, whether we’ve said goodbye or not, whether we have unfinished business or not.  That’s Chance at work.  We can hasten the day, but we cannot delay it.

I’m at a place in my life from which that final goodbye is becoming more visible.  I know it’s looming up there in the clouded future somewhere.  Lying in wait, as it has lain in wait at other times in my life.  I avoided its grasp years ago, for reasons that are not completely clear to me, but that have to do, I imagine, with Chance, if nothing else.  I don’t feel so special as to believe that I was spared for some higher, altruistic purpose.  No – I survived, and have lived, and loved, and said goodbye, over and over again.

Because of all that living and loving and goodbying, I feel more keenly now the press of time.  Tempus fugit, and all that.  I used to jokingly translate that phrase as “time fidgets,” but it is we who fidget, not time.  The original phrase (from a poem by Virgil) is, fugit inreparabile tempus: “it escapes, irretrievable time.”

Irretrievable.  It’s a word that puts a fine point on the questions of, “What are we doing, and why?”  I suppose you could also ask, “What’s the point?”  For some, it’s living in a certain way, so as to insure your passage through the Pearly Gates.  For others, it’s living in a certain way, so as to have a better life after reincarnation.  Believing in neither Pearly Gates nor reincarnation, I am left with only this life, and I am left with love.  Since I cannot give life – not in the saintly or godly way – I can only give love, and hope to receive it in kind.  As anyone over the age of twelve knows, that doesn’t always happen.  However, I suppose my optimism isn’t all that shaded after all, as I continue to live, and to love:  fully and optimistically.

We have the power of choice, but what other choice do we have, but to live, and to love, and to carry on as though the end is not looming over us all?   I have lived my life as though I was not in danger of dying, but that clearly is not the case.  Nevertheless, I continue to choose life and love, and, insofar as I have faith in something, I have faith in those two things, and in the incipient possibilities that they hold for us, whether we say goodbye or not.

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Pity the Fool …

The shock is beginning to wear off now.  At least until the next newspaper or internet or television piece that I see or read.  Then it comes back again, dulled somewhat by resignation, but it’s there nonetheless.  Talking about it with like minded people or writing about it helps, but talking and writing will not reverse what has happened.

Unless you have been sequestered on a tropical island, completely bereft of news from the outside world (and if you have, lucky you!), then you know “it” is the recent national election, one result of which is that we will soon be saddled with a thin-skinned, incompetent blowhard for our next president.  This is bad enough, but Mr. T

 mr-t

(no, not that Mr. T)

will not arrive in Washington, DC, alone.  He will bring with him, to oversee and direct the various departments of government, an assortment of conspiracy fantasists, anti-government government employees, inhabitants of bubbles, sellers of snake oil, privatizers, insiders, major political donors, and Elaine Cho, wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Some of these people were already in Washington, but I suppose if one is going to drain a swamp, enlisting the inhabitants of that swamp in the effort makes a certain amount of sense; if those inhabitants actually want their swamp drained.  I seriously doubt that to be the case, but we shall see.

Perhaps Mr. T will go to Washington and become transformed.  Perhaps he will sit where Lincoln and FDR and Kennedy have sat, and grow into the office.  I am going to resist making a cancer analogy here, and simply say that this too is doubtful.  Not only were those predecessors technologically incapable of firing off tweets at 3 a.m., they were also not emotionally predisposed to do so, even if they could have.  Well, as I said, that’s bad enough, but there are other things to consider now.

For example:  a chief advisor and strategist who has encouraged racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements, to say nothing of proclaiming his most recent business venture to be a platform for white “nationalists”; a future Secretary of Education who hates public education; a National Security Advisor who hates Muslims; a Treasury Secretary who used to work at Goldman Sachs (I wonder if he was present for any of Hillary Clinton’s speeches there?); for Secretary of State, it will be either an incompetent sycophant or a man who only months ago loudly decried Mr. T as a fraud and a phony; an Assistant National Security Advisor whose main qualification seems to be that she donated a lot of money to our future president’s campaign; a Health and Human Services secretary who wants to destroy the Affordable Care Act, privatize Medicare, and reverse Roe vs. Wade; a Secretary of Transportation who in her previous Federal job cut back on mine inspections and OSHA regulations.  And so on.

I know that of the non-majority who voted for Mr. Trump, not all of you are racists and misogynists.  I know that the mills and foundries your fathers and grandfathers worked in are mostly gone, the unions that helped them gain a decent living have been eviscerated, the coal mines are closing, and your home towns are often thin shadows of the communities they once were.  I also know many of you wanted to “send a message to Washington.”

That’s all well and good, but do you know exactly what that message was intended to communicate, and do you think it has reached the ears of its intended recipients?  Was the message, “Make Washington work again,” or was it, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”?  Either way, I really don’t think the people now about to place their hands on the levers of power in Washington, DC, are going to fulfill either the hopes you carry or the inflated list of contradictory promises that Mr. Trump made to all and sundry over the last few months.

Quite apart from all that – and once again, that’s bad enough – how could you square your own values and morals, your own (presumed) belief in American democracy, with the record of sexual assault, bankruptcies, race-baiting, and the ever-lengthening list of egregious lies that constitute the reality of our future Reality-Star-in-Chief?  How could you simply discount all that in the name of “telling it like it is” and not being PC.  I don’t know, but you did, and now we all have to live with it.

Living with it does not, however, mean we have to accept it.  It does not mean that now we should all just link arms and sing Kumbaya.

To the contrary, I believe it better that we in the majority (that is, the 64,777,890 citizens who voted for Hillary Clinton[1]) link arms and sing a different song.  We Shall Overcome would be a good choice.

I think it’s very important that we resist calls to give our next president a chance to govern, a chance to succeed.  That’s a nice sentiment, but I don’t want him to succeed, because his success, and that of his appointees, would be built atop the ruins of eight decades of social progress in this country.

Therefore, I am going to do whatever I can to resist the coming attempts to return America to the supposedly bucolic days of 1956.  I encourage you to do the same.

Donate money to progressive causes and organizations in which you believe.  Volunteer for them, as well.  Call your Congressperson and Senator.  Sign petitions.  March in protests.  Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.  Demand that journalists do their job and factually report the lies, distortions, and obfuscations that are already a hallmark of the budding Trump administration.  Demand that they use the word lie, when a lie is spoken, rather than trying to be polite and dance around it.  Then, when they do call a lie a lie, we must defend those same journalists, and others, when they’re attacked for pointing out the truth.

If an idea does come out 0f the Trump administration that actually makes sense, then it should be given careful consideration and, if warranted, support.  I have little hope at this point that such a thing will happen, but still …

Most importantly, though: Organize, because therein lies our strength.  E Pluribus Unum, after all.

One last thing:  When people who voted for Mr. Trump begin to realize that they were lied to all along, when they see that they’ve been taken in by a charlatan, let’s not say, “I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”  Rather, let’s approach them with loving kindness and understanding, because we, all of us, ultimately are part of the same American family, and the sooner we accept and act upon that knowledge, the sooner we can successfully resist the people who would destroy what has been built here in the last two hundred and forty years.

***

[1] As of 30 November 2016

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Four Mothers

 

Here’s to all the mothers in my life:

  • To Ruth, without whom I would have no life, nor love of words and books, I suspect.
  • To Dorothy, who gave me opportunities and aggravation, though not in equal measure.
  • To Nancy, for all you did, all you gave, and all you put up with; and also for bringing forth three baby women into the world.
  • To Kate, who has always brought sunlight into my life, and who brought Max into all our lives, and who will soon bring forth a new, wee companion for Max.

I love you all, ladies, both the quick and the dead.  My life is better for having you in it.

Besos y abrazos …

#

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Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation

A lot of abuse is being heaped upon the heads of Baby Boomers these days.  If most of the abuse-heapers were Republicans, then perhaps I could write it off as coming from people who will need a new reason for the supposed bedevilment and ruination of America, since Obama will be leaving office in about eight months.  Such does not, however, seem to be the case.

I notice this abuse because, having been born in late 1947, I am at the leading edge of that segment of American society.  Leading edge, but not a leader; much less a formulator of Boomer philosophy or lifestyle (whatever that actually means).

As it happens, yesterday, 4 May, was the forty-sixth anniversary of the killing of students at Kent State University by nervous National Guard troops (so much for a well-regulated militia).  Forty or fifty anti-war protesters had gathered on the campus, as had a couple of hundred student on-lookers.  Things got out of control, or a kid in a uniform with a loaded rifle got scared, and people died.

I didn’t hear about this right away, because in May 1970 I was a twenty-two-year-old kid in a uniform with a loaded weapon, trudging to and fro across the rice paddy and tree line landscape of Quảng Ngãi province, Việt Nam.  The same thing that happened in Ohio could’ve happened to me, though.  Actually, it did happen, two years earlier and some ten miles away, at a place called Sơn Mỹ by the Vietnamese, and known to us as Mỹ Lai.

I wasn’t involved in either tragedy: the Kent State student killings or the Mỹ Lai massacre.  Nonetheless, I and others of my generation were touched and influenced by what happened at those two places, two years and ten thousand miles apart.

Unlike almost all of the men in my infantry company in Việt Nam, I had dropped out of college in 1968 and volunteered for the Army.  I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, about why I did that, but for now let me just say that I was idealistic and patriotic.  I saw the war in Việt Nam as my generation’s war, and I felt compelled to help fight it.  I felt an obligation, in fact, and nothing in my white, male, middle class, suburban Texas upbringing did anything to dissuade me from that.

I suspect that the anti-war protesters at Kent State that spring were also idealistic and patriotic (like young Bernie Sanders supporters are now).  They loved their country, and were trying to do something to halt a great injustice.

The fact that, nine months into my year in Việt Nam, I decided to oppose the war by refusing to go to the field, and the fact that innocent people were killed at Kent State, does nothing to tarnish the idealism and patriotism of either me or the anti-war protesters of forty-six years ago, or the generation that we share.

While I do not fit the rapacious, self-indulgent profile of a bad Boomer, clearly there are others, many others, who do.  A great many of them are investment bankers or lawyers or, worse yet, politicians.  Well, a lot of families have children who do not grow up as you wish they had, so I can offer no apology to America for the errant behavior of such people.

Neither am I seeking a pat on the back, nor a gold star by my name, for not having gone to work for Goldman Sachs or seeking public office.  While I understand that we live in a distinctly un-nuanced age, I seek only a bit of nuance in how we look at things such as the impact a particular generation has had, and is still having, on the quality and fabric of life in America.

The record is pretty clear that my generation was scathingly critical of the generation that preceded ours:  the (annoyingly-named) Greatest Generation.  They mucked up a lot of things too, and not just the misadventure in Việt Nam.  Nevertheless, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and Robert McNamara share that generation with John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Fr. Daniel Berrigan, among many others.

Oh, I could get all old-and-wise here, and say something like, “Well, young fella, you’ll be old someday too.”  Yeah.  Not going there.  Rather, I will leave you with the words of a song that came out in 1965, the year I graduated high school.

 

People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold

I hope I die before I get old

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
And don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

This is my generation
This is my generation, baby

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