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I called a contact in Benghazi tonight and he says that over a hundred people have been killed by the army in the street today and that anti aircraft weaponry and mortars have been used against civilians.

The full interview is below.

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Who’s Joking?

When did you last wet yourself laughing?

Well, it probably wasn’t in front of the television.

Who would want to be a comedian in Northern Ireland?
There are few of those that we already have who don’t, at least
occasionally, ooze the sort of desperation that betrays their greater
need to be affirmed by us than to entertain.
There must be easier ways to find love and approval.
Choosing to be a comic here is a bit like taking your daughter out of
secondary school and off to China for training in gymnastics, where
she hasn’t got a chance of distinguishing herself if she hasn’t
already done a triple somersault by the age of three.
Gymnastics is what Chinese girls do and comedy is what practically
everyone in Northern Ireland does. If you are going to seek to stand
on a stage or go on television and show people here how to raise a
laugh then you must either be bloody brilliant or you are a dimwit who
hasn’t noticed the milleiu in which you already live.
These are considerations that broadcasters should take to heart when
planning the future of comedy in Northern Ireland.
And we are living
in a period of brave expansion, with the emergence of talent like
Diarmuid Corr, or Sketchy.
Things will be different. Sketchy is at least a move away from the
local fixation on the camp, dating from a period when a man had only
to talk like a woman and say ‘oo-er’ to raise a laugh: a humour
grounded in old fashioned rural contempt for the different.
Sketchy is making an effort to identify local types and parody them,
the sort of thing that Nuala McKeever did better than anybody though
UTV made the call that not enough people wanted that.
Our tv comics, even those who are occasionally quite funny, surely
must live with a determined rejection of the obvious, that every bar
in the country is propped up by some scurrilous cynic or other who
could eat him.
And that reminds us of the other core fact about Northern wit that the
pretender to comedy has to cope with. It is lethal. We excel in
sarcasm.
And as naturals in sarcasm, Belfast’s home grown wits recognise
contrivance and disdain it.
The scripted joke can almost never have the verve and attack of a
spontanous riposte.
And when you see the panellists  on The Blame Game competing to get
their rehearsed jibes in and, in the rush, losing their grasp on the
sort of timing that alone could make them sound passably natural, you
wonder why they bother.
But they support each other, of course, and the audience will be
generous, and it must be fairly easy to come out of the studio
afterwards, content that the overall project has worked.
I would rather have a few friends round for tea where the laughs are real.
Tim McGarry often gets it right in that taxi sketch at the end of
Hearts and Minds. What he reproduces there is the tone of contempt
that is familiar here. Nuala McKeever has it too.
In a political culture which demands civility humour’s responsibility
is to break the rules.
It must never sound as if it is deferring to anyone’s status.
But the ways in which ordinary people discuss our politicians is far
more grisly than can be allowed for on television.
Our indigenous default mode in humour is rage and disgust, and the
challenge for any performer is to match that and to stay within the
bounds of mannered decency which is the bottom line in broadcasting.
For our humour is transgressive and the first thing it violates is the
assumption that we should behave.
Clowning does not work for us, at least not the self conscious
clowning of the comic who is working for a laugh. The hard labour
should not show.
Jennifer Aniston’s clowning worked because her character Rachel was
getting things wrong while intent on getting them right.
And the great comic genius of our time is Miranda, reproducing some of
the devices made famous by Frankie Howerd, for instance commenting on
the action.
This is different from the leakageof self consciousness by an over
zealous comic, for the commenting self is part of the act and remains
in character.
The only viable background to all this is darkness, the acceptance
that life may be unutterably bleak, indeed is so by nature. In
Miranda’s world, the fantasy that an ungainly lump of a woman can ever
find love and contentment is what always leads to trouble. Conclusion:
a life of misery is preordained for her.
Who would dare to sneer at our sectarianism on the presumption that we
are stuck with it for all time? Yet that is how street humour works.
The trick in Folks On The Hill is to present our poltiicans as sub
standard intellects, so that we may take comfort in being wiser than
they are. Really great, dangerous humour leaves you without that
consolation.
Comedy, like everything, works from contrast, and there is nothing to
laugh at when the alternative of crying is not a close option.
Rachel, in Friends, walking into her former fiance’s wedding party,
with her frock tucked into her knickers after going to the toilet, is
funny because it is horrifying. Similarly, Miranda running after a
taxi in her underwear, after her dress has been trapped in the door,
is too close to what we all dread for us to be able to contain the
idea without some emotion – hence laughter.
Who locally puts us at such risk of contemplating our own disgrace? Or
to put it more simply: who locally is as funny?
Well, Gerry Anderson is funny. Sean Cromie is funny when he does Gerry
Kelly.  Newton Emerson was hilarious when he edited the website
Portadown News. What is consistent in all of them is mockery, and not
just aimless sneering, but unbridled contempt for the revered
shibboleths. My pick of the funniest joke ever told about the Troubles
is Newton Emerson’s line from his mock obituary of IRA leader Joe
Cahill: ‘He is survived by his wife and a million Protestants’.
And my sense is that if a comic is to be transgressive in this society
then he or she has to address the politics and the sectarianism and
the other areas that betray our piety and hypocrisy and our other
little protections.

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The Case Against Cuts

I chaired a talk by Andrew Baker at the first meeting of the Centre for Progressive Economics at Queens University on Nov 27.

This is the most cogent argument I have heard against Osbornomics, which, by the end of this talk, sounds more like old fashioned Tory relish at punishing the poor.

 

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And why?

Some in the Catholic church understand better than others that the fight to preserve their separate schools will be tough and complicated.

Here is a segment from an address by Bishop Donal McKeown to the Irish Council of Churches in Swords last week.

It acknowledges that if Catholic schools are to survive they have to offer something different from what the state offers.

It rebukes those who think that Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are for the preservation of Gaelic culture.

It intimates that those schools who insist on selection procedures that privilege the middle class are already in breach of the Catholic ethos.

It says that Catholic schools must contribute to reconciliation in society.

And it recognises that there is now a more secularised generation of head teachers.

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A Moral Dullard

The primary cause championed by the current pope is opposition to ‘moral relativism’. In fact, this is what the church he heads specialises in.

‘What more could Cardinal Conway have done?’
This question was voiced by Cardinal Sean Brady when faced with the charge that the Catholic church had colluded in helping a priest suspected of murder to evade prosecution.
Well, it is an important question and it is important that Sean Brady should show himself well able to answer it, if indeed there was some measure, taken or not taken by his predecessor, which disgraced his office.
For Cardinal Brady is himself under criticism for having concealed crime. He, like William Conway, was notified of crimes committed by a priest. He was told of the abuse of children by Father Brendan Smyth.
And he covered up those crimes, swore to secrecy the young people who had brought accounts of them to him, and held his silence for decades afterwards, while the odious Smyth cut a swathe through Irish children.
He was himself in a similar position to that of Cardinal Conway, notified of a crime and involved in the concealing of it and the release of the offender among Catholic communities in which he would be trusted because the church that sent him was trusted.
Sean Brady holds onto office, against calls for his resignation over the Brendan Smyth affair, and he justifes this by assuring us that he has understood the lessons of experience and that no cover up of abuse can be allowed under his watch.
Yet he says: ‘What more could Cardinal Conway have done?’
If Sean Brady does not understand the grotesque violation of innocence at the heart of Cardinal Conway’s handling of James Chesney, then he has hardly proven to the Catholics of Ireland that he even yet grasps the moral responsibilities attendant on his office.
So, let it be spelt out for him.
Cardinal Conway believed that James Chesney, a priest in the Derry diocese, was a mass murderer. He had met the Secretary of State William Whitelaw and had had that explained to him. His own description of Chesney as a ‘bad man’ confirms that he had believed what he was told.
And he can not be held solely responsible for the initiative to spirit Chesney away, any more than sean Brady can be held accountable on his own for the transfer of Brendan Smyth.
But Chesney, like Smyth, was not a postman being transferred to some quiet town out of harm’s way.
Chesney was a priest and he was sent to a parish to function as a priest and where his arrival would be understood to have the approval of the church.
There he would baptise babies. He would prepare small children for their Holy Communion. He would hear their confessions. He would marry young people in his church. He would receive the trust and even reverence of people who accepted him as an emmissary of the church they were born into and raised in.
Conway’s decision to have Chesney sent to work like this among people who would be kept in ignorance of his appalling crimes says a lot about the man.
It says that he had nothing but contempt for those people. That the insult of providing a murderer as a moral exemplar to them was untempered by either theology or respect.
It is one thing to imagine a hardened and pragmatic RUC Chief Constable, faced with a horrible quandary, assenting to a priest being shuffled off to a distant parish. He hasn’t any responsibility for the souls that the beast will patronise. He has problems enough.
But Cardinal Conway did have a responsibility to Catholic parishioners, as had Bishop Neil Farren of Derry, who directly ordered the transfer, and the fact of their imposing a murderer on unknowing parishioners in Donegal shows that they had no real sense of pastoral concern for those people.
They were prepared to dump a murderer on them as the expedient solution to an undoubtedly grave problem.
This was as cyncial a move as you could ever credit an arrogant prince of the church with making.
That is all plain to anyone who gives a moment’s thought to what Conway did, but his successor Cardinal Sean Brady doesn’t get it.
He asks: ‘What more could Cardinal Conway have done?’
Well maybe he could have had Chesney sent to Rome to work in an archive or something if he hadn’t the backbone to sack him and denounce him and to pass the problem back to the police where it belonged.
And if Sean Brady doesn’t understand the real offence that Conway and Farren committed against trusting and obedient Catholics, as he doesn’t wuite get what was horrific about his imposing an oath of secrecy on raped children, then he should be thinking again about his decision to remain in office after that scandal.
Or, perhaps, since it appears he really is a moral dullard, it is for those around him to explain it to him and to ask him to go.

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Bless me, Father…

When the Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, met Cardinal Conway to discuss the case of James Chesney, the bomber priest, an appalling prospect loomed before them.
It was that the public disclosure that a Catholic priest was an IRA bomber would confirm the prejudices of Loyalism against the Catholic church and make all priests legitimate targets.
Chesney was a nasty piece of work, in the view of both the police and the church. He had directed the bombing of the Village of Claudy on the day of Operation Motorman, when the army moved against the no-go areas. He had killed nine people, including little children. And he had shown himself up as an incompetent. He had not, presumably, wanted to kill children, but the bombers had scurried around after they’d left the bomb to find a working phone to make a warning call. They couldn’t find one because the IRA had bombed the telephone exchange the day before.
Neither the police nor the government nor the Catholic Church was ready for radical action against Chesney.
The police asked the NIO to talk to the Cardinal and Cardinal Conway transferred Chesney to a parish in Donegal, where he might continue to lead the faithful in prayer and administer the sacraments to them.
It was the only solution any of them had the stomach for in those dangerous times, though the Chief Constable, Graham Shillington, aired the view that it would have been better if Chesney had been sent to Tipperary. Donegal was hardly out of range of the IRA command structure.
The potential that they all had reason to fear was of a massive escalation of sectarian warfare, triggered by the disclosure that a priest was a suspected IRA killer, and this at just the moment when it seemed as if the mayhem was coming under control and political negotiations were starting.
This fear may never have been realised, of course. Loyalists often talked as if they believed that the Catholic Church was their enemy but they did not conduct their backlash against the Catholic community primarily on that premise.
Some priests had been killed, but not by Loyalist paramilitaries. Two had been shot by the army, by soldiers who perhaps had had no idea that their targets were clergymen.
But the rhetoric of Loyalism said that the church was the enemy and Chesney might have appeared to many as the embodied proof of that.
Rev Martin Smyth, later a Grand Master of the Orange Order, is reported as having told an Ulster Vanguard rally in the spring of 1972, that all the troubles would come to an end if the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, would put his house in order. An absurd notion.
And the greatest champion of the idea that the Catholic Church was conspiring to absorb Ulster into a Catholic Ireland was the firebrand preacher Ian Paisley, later to be our First Minister.
There have been reports and rumours of other priests aligning themselves with the IRA.
The novelist Brian Moore painted a plausible picture of an unctuous provo priest in Lies of Silence.
Sean O Callaghan, the police agent inside the IRA, wrote of meeting a priest who helped IRA operations in the North, and there was a widely believed understanding that IRA activists in the early days, when leaders were religious men and women, would receive confession and communion before going out to shoot people.
There have been priest activists and agitators and rumours of other real provo priests, but the tricky line that campaigning priests like Des Wilson, Raymond Murray and Denis Faul trod was in opposition to the methods of the state without endorsing the IRA.
Fr Wilson pointedly refused over and over again to condemn the IRA, while criticising the actions of the army and blaming the state for creating circumstances in which people would understandably express their wrath with violence.
Raymond Murray, when in Armagh, was a campaigner against the SAS and had documented, along with Denis Faul, numerous cases of attacks on republicans.
Denis Faul himself was a long time campaigner for prisoners and argued what seemed for years the eccentric case that easing life for the men inside would reduce tension on the streets. He fell out with the Provisionals over the hunger strikes campaign which he believed was prolonged for Sinn Fein political party advantage.
Another campaigner was Fr Joe McVeigh of Ederny in County Fermanagh who argued that the church should be siding with the oppressed people.
None has been the headache than James Chesney was. It is now clear that the police, the Secretary of State and the Catholic Church authorities believed that he was, in Cardinal Conway’s words, ‘a very bad man’.
The compromise that the Cardinal and William Whitelaw reached was that Chesney be posted to Donegal. This is the same strategy the church used until recently in removing the embarrassment of a priest caught sexually violating children.
The outstanding injustice, of course, is that Chesney was never charged, the Claudy victims were denied truth and Chesney himself was never given a chance to clear his name.
But what is almost grisly to contemplate is that this man, whom the Cardinal accepted was a mass murderer, a slayer of little ones, was sent to a Donegal parish to hear the confessions of children and mediate God’s forgiveness to them for their own peccadilloes.
The Ombudsman indicts the RUC of collusion in seeking to address the Chesney problem through the Government and the church rather than arresting him.
One of the shocking findings of the report is that it was the police themselves who initiated the process by which this suspect was transferred across the border.
The Ombudsman gets the point that there might have been serious consequences following the arrest of a priest. He doesn’t spell them out.
The first is probably that the Loyalists would have turned on the Catholic church.
Another is that a protest campaign might have rallied around Chesney, seeking to portray him as an innocent victim of an anti Catholic state.
Whitelaw would have worried that, just having taken over from Stormont, to rule Northern Ireland in a conspicuously non sectarian fashion, he would have been branded as having failed to curtail bigotry in the RUC.
And with the SDLP being gently coaxed towards talks at Darlington and Sunningdale, Whitelaw may have feared that the arrest of a priest would have raised a popular issue that would have mobilised opinion against their participation, and especially if Chesney had been interned, a clear option at the time.
The RUC, of course, may have judged that interning Chesney or charging him and then seeing him acquitted would have done worse damage than merely ushering him away.
They may even have been just at the end of their tether in the face of the charge that they were a sectarian force and lost all hope of being able to pursue a case like this and be trusted to be acting from good motives.
They hadn’t the credibility in the Catholic community to carry it off; it is probably as simple as that.

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Claudy

For the day that we learnt that a priest had bombed Claudy and that his cardinal, the bishop, the police and the Government all knew and all agreed to transfer him to another parish instead of prosecuting him.

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This picture was taken at midnight on the Summer Solstice at White Park Bay in County Antrim, looking North, with a little help from a half moon. (On a nikon d70s at iso 200, f 1.8 and shutter speed of about 2 seconds.)

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Ed Moloney
Voices From The Grave
Two Men’s War in Ireland

Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-25168-1

A lot of courage went into this book so it should be better.
I want to concentrate on the first part, which is unfair to David
Ervine whose interview completes the book, but the story of Brendan
Hughes has been more poltiically relevant.
Brendan Hughes risked his standing within the IRA’s collective memory to give an account of the armed campaign and what he saw as its betrayal by Gerry Adams.
As a committed IRA militant over a period of decades, with uncounted
killings under his belt, he was in a position to tell us much more
than he did.
He will have known that he was likely to be dismissed as a traitor by
some and reviled as a coward by others when the story he told to
Boston College was published.
And that is how it has been.
He has been accused of whinging that big boys made him do bad things, a reading of the book which sees Hughes eschewing his own moral responsibility. By this version, he now regrets having killed people and is unable to face the reality that he didn’t get what he thought he was fighting for.
Actually there is little sense in the book that Hughes regretted
anything that he did, apart from ending the first Hunger Strike to
save lives.
There is also very little indication that he personally did anything bad at all.
He says that he wanted to kill as many soldiers and policemen as
possible and get as many bombs into Belfast as he could. But far from pleading innocence of bad deeds by attributing the blame to others who directed him, he does not actually own up to anything.
And, harsh as it may seem to say this, it is because we never have an account of Hughes actually killing anyone that we can’t judge him from his words.
For example, in the story about the murder of Jean McConville, Hughes attributes the decision to ‘disappear’ her to Gerry Adams. But he says he heard this from Ivor Bell. He never puts himself close enough to the decision to kill her to give that claim authority.
As it stands, it is hearsay.
Now, of course, Brendan Hughes may know more than he is owning up to.
He will have felt a responsibility to defend those close to the
action and he was making some concession to the IRA’s requirement of secrecy.
But it’s still just hearsay.
As one of the key leaders of the IRA in Belfast at the most violent
period of the Troubles he had blood on his hands. But this account
puts him at a distance from the action, and that is ironic given that
his charge against Gerry Adams is that he denies what he did.
The contrast offered between Adams and Hughes is that the one denies his IRA past and the other owns up to his and is proud of it.
But Brendan Hughes does not own up to very much.
And the reader will suspect that that is because he wants to think
well of his IRA career and he wants us to think well of him as a
person.
So we have the old myth that the IRA defended the community, was loved by the community and that Brendan was a hero to his people.
Moloney has responsibilities in this too.
The account of the riots in August 1969, in which Brendan Hughes
decided he needed to arm himself and defend the people is just the old standard republican baloney that the Catholic Falls was attacked by the Loyalists. I thought this was dispensed with years ago.
The fact that the rioting was initiated on the Falls Road in an
organised effort to burn out Hastings Street police station, and that
this attack was kept up for hours before there was any shooting at all by any side, or any intrusion of Loyalists onto the Falls, undermines any claim that those who were there have to being innocents caught unawares.
A lot of men on the Falls that night were up for a rattle and it seems
likely that Brendan was one of them.
And if there are questions about the integrity of Hughes’s incomplete
account and of Moloney’s grasp of the events of that month there is
also a weakness in the main thesis that Hughes develops.
Gerry Adams is a smart man, no doubt and an extremely devious one too, but is it really plausible that he singled handedly dismantled the
IRA? If it is true, then he is a genius, both tactically and
charismatically. Maybe he is. We should be all the more wary of him
then.
But there never was a prospect of Brendan Hughes’ dream being
fulfilled, of the IRA forcing the reunification of Ireland.
How would Brendan have preferred that that reality be incorporated
into the political evolution of the IRA?
There would have been integrity in the IRA saying that the cause was lost and urging others not to pursue further armed struggle to achieve what could not be achieved by those means. That would have been a surrender. It’s what defeated armies usually do.
The Adams way was to dress up the surrender as a victory. That he has got away with that, largely, is appalling, but it’s not hard to see
how many a republican would enjoy the joke.
Yet, for all these criticisms, this is the most important history of
the IRA yet written.
It gives us a flavour of life in the prisons and how IRA OCs at times
abused and brutalised their own men.
It gives us the appalling account of the murder of Paddy Joe Crawford, hanged by men who were effectively made to collude in their own intimidation – for why else was Paddy Joe killed but to warn others not to break under questioning.
But more than anything, this book and the promise of others to follow, as other interviewees die and their accounts are released, puts a bomb under the paramilitary projects to write the history of the Troubles on their own terms.
The simple, widely endorsed account, of how the IRA had to do what it did and made Ireland a better place, has been refuted and will be refuted over and over again down the decades to come.
As will other versions too.
The creation of such an archive by Boston College was an act of
courage and brilliance which leaves no liar safely proofed against
disclosure in the future.

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Normally a plane flies over my home every five minutes through the day.
I have often sat out in the garden in sunshine and marvelled at how accustomed I had become to what you’d expect would be a major disruption; having to break off conversation, for instance, as another roar descends.
Now that the planes have stopped the peace is creepy.
Others – many of my Facebook friends among them- are remarking on how pleasant it is to have this silence. Well, yes. I go on holiday for silence like this. I pay good money for it, but I live in a city and I expect a city to sound like a city. And if it doesn’t, then something in me reacts instinctively, a bit like the cowboy in a hundred films who notices that the war drums have stopped; far more ominous than the drums themselves.
There is no point pretending that our world hasn’t changed. OK, the threat of volcanic ash drifting down from Iceland is obviously one we should have anticipated. What else has Iceland got, apart from volcanoes?
But a perfectly inevitable disruption has arrived and reminded us how complacent we have been. The change is that we can not be so complacent again.
I have been planning to fly to Barcelona at the weekend. The weather forecast says I might be able to get away. Can it assure me that I will get back; that the winds over Ireland or Spain or the skies in between won’t have closed the route again while I’m gone?
For now we anxiously await the reopening of our airports, but how stable will air traffic seem even when flights are cleared for take-off?
On this little archipelago off the west coast of Europe we have been obsessed with the winds. If we didn’t have weather forecasts with every news programme telling us what way the winds are blowing and whether they are carrying rain, snow or clearing the way for ridges of High Pressure (Yo!) we would feel isolated and deprived. Now we need Angie and Celia to keep us informed about ash flow.
It is intrinsic to our lives as islanders that we take the first buffetings from arctic storms and that we also receive balmy southern breezes that bring whiffs of the Azores to us. Our collective mood draws on the weather, as the weather draws on the wind. Now we are reminded of our dependency on the wind and our freedom to travel abroad seems once again as reliant on its force and direction as in the days of sailing ships.
We can not feel secure any more in booking flights abroad and must always consider the danger that we will be stranded; certainly as long as this volcano blows, but in the long term too, considering that there will be other volcanoes.
The question we are confronted with is whether our modern technologically based life style can be maintained on a fickle and unstable planet.
We had been anticipating that the great reverses of our growth and development might come from climate change or awesome calamity, an asteroid strike or a super Volcano like Toba in Sumatra, which deforested India and started an ice age. And we have no assurance that something like it won’t happen again.
But we enjoy the comfortable delusion that we don’t really suffer natural disasters in Ireland. The tectonic plates grind each other only thousands of miles from us.
We have the evidence all around us of volcanic seizures reshaping the landscape, but we all know that’s not going to happen again, don’t we?
Who’s afraid of Slemish or Knocklayde?
But now we do know that a fundamental or our lifestyle, air travel, can be stopped by a minor volcano, far away, and we are suddenly much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.
For the moment we must plan our practical adaptations. The wind may scatter the ash back north and release us, but air travel has suffered already. The fall out will be financial. Travel must now become more expensive to cover the losses. Some companies will fold.
And the public will remember which companies looked after them and kept them informed and which didn’t.
I find that I can not cancel my flight to Barcelona; but can only transfer the payment to another flight some other time. That’s Easyjet and online booking for you. The stranded and those who have had to change their plans will want to be sure in future that they are dealing with people not computers, and a company that can adapt immediately to problems like these.
Coming after a winter of delays and on top of the ludicrious policing of the liquids in our hand luggage, people must be starting to wonder if travel by air is, after all, worth it at any price.
It may be as expensive to holiday in Ireland but at least you have a better chance of getting home afterwards.
In the long term we have to adapt philosophically and incorporate our new understanding of our vulnerability into our world view.
Humanity has spread over the earth like an infestation, with incredible rapidity, and that recent growth has relied on technology of a kind that can be disrupted by minor and routine natural events; indeed, if we think in terms of Nature’s routines, we have to include climatic and seismic disruptions that we could not survive.
We can not defeat Nature, so perhaps we just have to be more stoical, like our grandparents were. Some days you just have to accept that you are going nowhere.

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