Loose Lips Sink Sips

Twenty years from now, my granddaughter will wander into my home office as a young adult, just for a look around.  She won’t find much of interest on the desk or the cabinets (if we still need desks or cabinets twenty years from now), so she’ll direct her attention to the things on my shelves.  Besides photos and books, she’ll find mementos from times and places past: greeting cards, concert programs, sports tickets, autographed items, and so on.  She’ll also find items no longer necessary in her world, like a newspaper (from the day I was born), a paperweight (will anything be on paper anymore?), and a few music CD’s I can’t seem to part with.  To this last group of items, perhaps I should add a drinking straw.

“Grandpa?”, she’ll say when she spies it, “What’s the narrow little tube with the colored stripes?”  “Oh”, I’ll smile and say, “That’s a straw. People used them back in the old days to suck drinks out of their glasses.”  She’ll ponder that for a bit and then ask, “Why wouldn’t they just drink straight from the glass like we do today?” Good question, granddaughter.  Then I’d pull up a chair, and explain the tragic tale of the drinking straw – the humble roots as a durable replacement for rye grass; the evolution into kid-friendly varieties like bendy, Crazy, candy, and spoon-ended (for slush drinks); the proliferation into seemingly-essential varieties like miniature (cocktails), “extend-o” (juice boxes), extra-wide (bubble-tea), and trendy doubles-as-a-stirrer (Starbucks).  Finally, I’d talk about the straw’s fade into obsolescence – the promoted shame over “one-time-use” products, the YouTube-sensationalized horrors of polypropylene impacts to the environment, and the headlines and bans and laws which would ultimately exterminate the little suckers.

Perhaps my granddaughter would pose another question: “Why the fuss over a little piece of plastic, when so much else in the world deserved equal-if-not-more attention?”  Exactly.  I asked myself the same question when I sat down to write this piece.

No matter where you stand on the drinking straw debate, it’s a great example of the power of social media to elevate a topic to a level of importance beyond what it might deserve.  According to those in the know, straws account for a tiny portion of the plastic waste in landfills and oceans.  But they have our attention, don’t they?  As Plastic Pollution Coalition CEO Dianna Cohen puts it, “We look at straws as one of the gateway issues to help people start thinking about the global plastic pollution problem.”  “Gateway issue” – I like that.  The straw is simply the catalyst, easing people into an awareness of a much more significant problem.

As for the demise of drinking straws, we’ve moved from opinion to discussion to debate, and finally to laws and bans to discourage their use, yet we’ve hardly reached a resolution.  An effective replacement for the plastic straw simply doesn’t exist.  Paper straws durable enough to last the life of the drink don’t decompose much faster than plastic.  Paper straws cost five times as much, so the restaurant industry will have to swallow hard.  Reusable straws have their merits (ex. metal, glass), but unless restaurants budget them to the bottom line, we’re facing a massive change in behavior.  You’re already leaving the house with your car keys and your phone, but hey, don’t forget that reusable straw.

More likely, straws will simply disappear altogether.  As we speak, we’re in that awkward middle-ground where straws are still an option in restaurants, but more and more establishments (and entire states) mandate the customer must ask for one. From there, you can make the easy leap to guilt-by-association – as in, sure you can have a straw, but do you really want to be seen using one?  The only resolution in my mind is to do without, like we do hot coffee, beer, and wine.  Time to drink everything straight from the glass.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and articles from Business Insider, Eater, and Sprudge.

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Smooth Moves

This morning after a workout at the gym, I set up at the locker room sink for a shave. A few sinks down, I noticed a guy shaving his entire head. That takes some talent, because you can’t see all that real estate in the mirror. He headed in all directions with the blade – up and over the summit and back down the slopes, until he had a clean-shaven dome. Used to be – a guy shaved his head for religion, or the military, or maybe he’s just extreme into swimming or cycling.  Not anymore; the male shaved head is just another man in the crowd these days.

This person isn’t me, but you get the idea.

Shaving is one of those things we guys do almost absentmindedly.  We each have a unique routine – no one is exactly the same as another.  There aren’t guidelines so much as common sense: a good shave needs hot water, a substantial cream, and a sharp blade (or an electric).  A guy who shaves daily is probably changing his blades once a week (though my friend two sinks down surely changes more often).  The creams come in a hundred different varieties.  Over time I’ve found one that works better than others, but again that’s just me.

Some guys shave in the shower.  I can’t do that – not unless I install a mirror.  If I’m not seeing myself I’m gonna get cut, or at least miss several spots.  Earn yourself enough razor burn, and technique takes on a whole new importance.

A man in his fifties (me) shaving daily has come to the sink 15,000 times since he first picked up a blade.  That’s enough times to develop technique, and also to be somewhat absentminded about it.  And therein lies the simple pleasure of shaving: the five minutes I need from start to finish is a great ponder moment.  Sure, you’re staring yourself in the mirror and you have some sense of what you’re doing, but you’re actually thinking about other stuff.  What am I going to accomplish today? Was that a decent workout or could I have done better?  Is that a grey hair?

(Note: women probably identify with shaving as a ponder moment too, but I’ll let a female blogger weigh in on that.  Better her experience than my own presumption.  Kind of like saying I know what it’s like to be pregnant.)

15,000 shaves got me thinking – why do guys do this at all?  It had to start somewhere, didn’t it?  Picture a caveman waking up one morning and seeing his beard dragging on the ground.  Maybe he stumbles on it a few times.  Maybe he throws it over his shoulder like a tie, but it still gets in the way.  So he takes a sharp rock and lops it off.  Voila: the very first shave.

Nope, not me either.

When did “real” shaving get started?  How about 3000 BC?  Go back that far and you’ll find the birth of personal hygiene.  Shaving was crude in those days – as you would expect – just shells or sharp tools to make the cut.  Straight razors (basically a pocket-knife on a larger scale) came along in the 18th century and were the method of choice for the next two hundred years.  Then Gillette invented the safety razor – the disposable cartridge blade – and the straight pretty much disappeared (save for a few men’s salons today).

straight razor

Shaving doesn’t have many myths, but the big one claims the practice promotes faster hair growth.  Not true.  Shaving gives the appearance of thicker hair (but only because you’ve lopped off what used to be a tapered hair).  Faster-growing hair has everything to do with aging, and nothing to do with shaving.

No doubt as I type, someone is inventing an easier way to shave.  Perhaps a potion for the face, dissolving all visible hair in mere seconds.  Or how about an army of nanobots – tiny, industrious mowers working together to make all desired surfaces smooth and clean?

I don’t think I’d be up for either of those options. No matter how perfect the shave might be, I’d hate to give up my ponder moment.  Questions need to be asked; decisions need to be made.  Nope; not ready to put down the blade just yet.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Almond Joy

Think about the last time you invited friends to your place, for dinner or some other get-together. Did they bring a little something – a gesture of their gratitude – or did they show up empty-handed?  The gesture, whether a bottle of wine or baked goods, is especially thoughtful because it was never really expected, right?  You invited your guests after all, presumably with no strings attached.

When my wife and I hosted friends from Germany a few months ago, they arrived with a plethora of German candies (an embarrassing amount, really). From their suitcases emerged boxes of chocolates and all kinds of licorice. There were German cookies and tempting little cakes. Finally, they placed a curious-looking black round metal tin on the counter.  The label proclaimed, “Mann Des Jahres”, or “Man of the Year” (???)  The tin looked more like an award than candy.  Later, I discovered it was filled with marzipan.

Marzipan translates to “March bread” by some and “a seated king” by others, but to me it is quite literally almond joy.  Sweetened with sugar or honey, marzipan derives its distinctive flavor from the paste, meal, or oil extract of almonds.  Marzipan is more popular in Europe than in the United States.  It is typically shaped into edible fruits, vegetables, or little animals – popular around Christmas and Easter.  Marzipan is also used in thin sheets as glazing for cakes.  The marzipan from my German friends was one big delightful chocolate-covered disc of almond cake.  In hindsight, I wish they’d brought a dozen “Man of the Year’s” and left everything else at home.

Marzipan was not my first introduction to the joy of almonds.  I fell for them back when chocolate bars like Almond Joy and Mounds were kings of the candy aisle (no Kit-Kat or Twix in my day).  Almond Joy was confection perfection: chocolate and coconut topped with whole almonds.  Then I discovered chocolate-covered almonds and realized I didn’t need the coconut.  Then I learned to appreciate almonds all by themselves – roasted and seasoned with sea salt – and realized I didn’t need the chocolate covering.  Today, I keep a bag of Marcona almonds in my car, to fend off less-healthy temptations.

No discussion of almonds would be complete without a glass of amaretto.  In my junior year of college, studying abroad in Rome and not quite of drinking age, I was introduced to copious amounts of table wine, but also to Amaretto Disaronno, the elegant liquor from the northern part of Italy. The (supposed) origin of Disaronno is as colorful as the drink itself:

In 1525, a Saronno church commissioned artist Bernardino Luini, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s pupils, to paint its sanctuary with frescoes.  As the church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Luini needed to depict the Madonna, but was in need of a model.  He found his inspiration in a young widowed innkeeper, who became his model (and lover).  Out of gratitude and affection, the woman wished to give him a gift.  Her simple means did not permit much, so she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and presented the resulting concoction to a touched Luini. (from “A Brief History of Amaretto” – Shaw Media)

Saronno, Italy

Apricots still play a role in the making of amaretto, but its distinctive flavor comes from bitter almonds (amaretto translates to “bitter”).  Yet it’s still syrupy sweet – too sweet for me to drink straight.  Like most I “sour” mine with a shot or two of lemon juice.

Now that I think about it, we have almonds everywhere in our house.  Almond milk in the refrigerator.  Almond flour in the pantry.  Almond extract in the spice drawer.  Almond butter for our protein shakes and slivered almonds for our salads.  Amaretto in the liquor cabinet.

Still not enough.  I need to go find me some more marzipan.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Purple Mountain Majesties

Aspen – the upper-crust alpine village high up in the Colorado Rockies – is a beautiful place to visit. Make that a stunning place to visit, if you wipe away everything you find on the surface. Aspen is for the obviously-wealthy, whether a night at a hotel ($350 and up, just about anywhere), dinner for two ($250 and up – the finer restaurants), a slope-side condo rental ($2,000/night), or any purchase in any of the village shops; the kind of retail you only find in London-Paris-Rome-New York.  You won’t see any of Aspen’s residents (probably because they don’t care to see you).  Drive past the nearby airport and you’ll see an impressive line of commercial planes… er, make that private planes.  Aspen is made of money – no different than its silver-mining days of old.

Aspen, Colorado (photo courtesy of blog.whatahotel.com)

Now, as instructed, take the chalkboard eraser and wipe, wipe, wipe away all of that excess.  Dust off your hands and stand back.  What remains of Aspen is its incomparable natural beauty, whether the towering Rocky Mountains on all sides, the rushing Roaring Fork river through town, or the stately aspen and bristlecone pine trees forming an umbrella over most of the residential area.  Speaking of Mother Nature, let’s talk about her most majestic contribution, just on the outskirts of town.  No visit to Aspen is complete without a trek to Maroon Bells.

Maroon Bells

The Maroon Bells – common knowledge to us Coloradans – are twin peaks in the Elk Mountain range, fifteen miles to the west of Aspen.  They get their name from their mudstone composition (a bright purple when the light is right) and from their broad profiles.  The Bells are “fourteeners” – two of the fifty-three mountains in Colorado with elevations +14,000 feet.  The approach to the Bells, through the Maroon Creek Valley with Maroon Lake in the foreground, lays claim to one of the most photographed locations in North America; no matter which direction you look.

Maroon Creek Valley

Remarkably (or maybe not – we all do this), we’ve lived in Colorado twenty-five years and never been to nearby Maroon Bells – until this past weekend.  Despite the must-see endorsement of many friends, I was immediately suspicious when I learned we had to buy “tickets” for the place.  Why tickets?  Because the U.S. Forest Service (bless them) won’t allow cars – and their harmful exhaust – into Maroon Creek Valley.  Instead, $8 gets you a twenty-minute propane-fueled bus ride from Aspen to the valley.  The bus ride adds to the experience for two reasons.  One, your driver gives an overview of the place, with just the right amount of history and sightseeing to keep your interest.  Two, you don’t see the Bells – not even a passing glimpse of them – until just before you’re dropped off at Maroon Lake.

  

Photographs don’t do the Maroon Creek Valley justice, let alone words.  Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, heart-stirring – take your pick. Everywhere you turn looks like a doctored picture postcard.  Everything looks undisturbed and peaceful – almost a sanctuary where you don’t belong.  I lost count how many times I just stopped and stared.  Add to that the brief late-summer window when aspen tree leaves change from green to a fiery shade of yellow, orange, and red, and the whole scene becomes surreal.  The stuff of dreams.

Kudos to the Forest Service for getting this experience right (score one for the U.S. Government!)  As I was reflecting on the Bells, I couldn’t help but think of the very different approach to Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota.  As majestic as the carved-in-stone presidents may be, they’re compromised by the several “sights” on the highway up the mountain (“Reptile Gardens”!  “Very Berry Winery”!  “Big Thunder Gold Mine”!).  You won’t find any of those traps on the way to the Maroon Bells.  Only Mother Nature at her most impressive.

Someday you’ll visit Aspen, bypass all of her excesses (or at least most of them) and ride the bus through the White River National Forest and on up to the majestic Maroon Bells.  You’ll hike around the lake, pause on the bridge over the stream, stare up at the mountains in every direction, and take a gillion photos – every one of them worthy of a jigsaw puzzle on your coffee table back home.  Then you’ll climb back on the bus, poised to add a check mark to your bucket list.  But you won’t make that mark.  Instead, you’ll be thinking, “When can I come back?

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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When the World Stopped Turning

I was an infant when President Kennedy faced the threat of communism through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was a kid when the Vietnam conflict dominated newspaper headlines. I was a young adult during the Persian Gulf War, when my only memory was Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, the lyrics interspersed with tearful exclamations from family members. However, I was fully grown, married with children, alive and aware, on September 11, 2001. 9/11 stays with me; every anniversary observed with reverence.

Reminders weren’t necessary when Tuesday arrived this year (now dubbed Patriot Day), but I still got two. The first – from a fellow blogger – talked about Empty Sky, New Jersey’s memorial to its 700+ victims of the 9/11 attacks, in Liberty State Park directly across from Manhattan. The second – from my Windows lock screen – the day and date in a large font on my monitor: Tuesday, September 11. In 2001, September 11th also fell on a Tuesday.

“Empty Sky” – Liberty State Park, NJ

Lyric: “Where were you when the world stopped turning, that September day?” Alan Jackson

Anyone twenty or older in 2001 should remember exactly where they were “that September day”. I think a book of such accounts would lend meaningful perspective. Me, I was in Texas for a week at my company’s Houston offices. That Tuesday morning, I was listening mindlessly to the radio as I navigated my rental car from hotel to office. The local news was laughing about “some nut-job crashing his single-engine plane into one of New York’s World Trade Center towers”. By the time I got to work, there was no more laughing.

The rest of that week in Houston was a blur. Work pretty much came to a halt as people processed the horrific aftermath of the attacks. That Friday, it was apparent my return flight to Colorado wasn’t going to happen. With the blessing of my rental car agency, I pointed my car to the northwest and faced 1,000 miles of highway. Midway through my journey, in the middle of the West Texas desert, I picked up the broadcast of the memorial service from the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. I’ll never forget the words of President Bush (“We are here in the middle hour of our grief…”), and the choir’s rendition of “America the Beautiful”, bringing uncontrollable tears.

Fact: 25% of Americans living today were born after September 11, 2001.

Add in Americans who were ten or younger back then (including two of my children), and four in ten Americans have no real memory of 9/11. Thus, we have the memorials, which laud and honor the departed. On Tuesday, President Trump spoke from Shanksville, PA, site of one of the plane crashes. The Flight 93 National Memorial includes a visitor’s center, a white marble “wall of names”, and a “Tower of Voices” – dedicated just this week – with 40 chimes; one for each man and woman killed in the crash.

Flight 93 National Memorial (photo courtesy of C-SPAN)

In Washington D.C., those 184 victims are commemorated with the Pentagon Memorial, outdoors and just southwest of the massive building. The memorial is park-like: an illuminated bench for each victim, arranged in a grid according to age (the youngest was 3, the oldest 71), and interspersed with trees. When you’re reading the name of a victim from the Pentagon, the bench is oriented so you face the south facade of the building. For a victim of the airplane crash itself, the bench is oriented so you face the flight path.

Pentagon Memorial

Question: Why did fate place me in our Houston offices that day, instead of high up in the World Trade Center alongside co-workers from my company?

Finally, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum opened ten years to the day after the attacks, on the site of the former World Trade Center towers. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “finally”. At last count, there were 700 9/11 memorials across the United States.

National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Tuesday night, my daughter and I took in a Colorado Rockies game in downtown Denver. The baseball was exciting, but the pregame ceremony took my breath away. 1) A color guard in a slow, solemn march, the flags borne by representatives of each military branch. 2) A trio of elementary-school choirs singing the national anthem. 3) The Stars-and-Stripes, gracefully unfurled by firefighters from across the state; a flag seemingly larger than the stadium itself. 4) The scoreboard, with it’s red-white-and-blue message of affirmation: “WE WILL NEVER FORGET.”

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Lack’n Keys

Walking out the front door, I can count on one hand the items I typically carry. I always wear a watch, choosing between a stylish timepiece and a fitness tracker. I pocket a slim leather wallet on my left, containing a minimum of cards and ID. I stash a handkerchief on my right, an acquired habit to handle life’s unexpected messes. My cell phone goes in my back pocket, but really, I’m just shifting it from one location to another (house to car, car to office, etc.)  Finally, I pocket a ring of jingling keys… or should I say “key”… or should I surrender to: “remote transmitter”?

Before

After

Key rings (or chains), still found by the eye-catching dozens at souvenir shops and car washes, used to be a symbol of status.  The more occupants on the ring, the more important the man.  Add on a colorful fob – perhaps boasting of a car brand or a sports team, and your key ring spoke volumes.

At the height of my own “importance”, I carried six keys: two for the cars (mine and my wife’s), and one each for the house door, office door, office file cabinet, and safety deposit box.  Each key had its own character, which made the collection even more interesting.  The house key contained a little light you could shine on the lock when it was dark.  The office cabinet key had a tubular shape.  The safety deposit key was flat and ancient (the senior member of the ring) and required a companion key from a bank teller to open the box.

First toy for our granddaughter

Alas, my key ring is now retired.  In its place is Mr. Remote Transmitter; technology’s answer to key-free cars.  The house door sports a lock with an electronic keypad.  Both office keys went away the day I began working from home.  My wife’s truck key shifted to a drawer in our foyer, in case hers gets lost.  And Mr. Flat-and-Ancient retreated to the home safe; a more prudent location than on a ring in public.

Keys carry a certain mystique in knowing they open something, which is why I miss them.  They also bleed a little nostalgia.  When I was a kid, I carried a tubular key for the lock securing the only vehicle I owned at the time – my bicycle.  When I practiced piano, eighty-eight black-and-white keys beckoned to make music.  When I played basketball, I never went far from the court “key”.  A childhood trip to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry taught me the origin of America’s national anthem…. and therefore about Francis Scott Key.

See why it’s called “the key”?

Keys also appeared in college.  Studying architecture introduced me to the keystone (the central block or other piece at the apex of an arch or vault).  Working architectural drawings always included a table-of-contents “key”, deciphering the symbols and acronyms on the greater page.

(Not-so-random thought: how did I never listen to the soul-filled R&B music of Alicia Keys?)

The “real” version requires Florida Key limes.

When I first met my wife, the keys kept coming.  Her family owned a home in the Florida Keys (small, low-elevation, sandy islands formed on the surface of coral reefs).  When she and I moved to Colorado, we flirted with the idea of a ski condo – in Keystone of course.  Our 25th wedding anniversary in Ireland included dinner at Dublin’s “Quays” Restaurant (pronounced, yes… “Keys”).  Also credit my wife for gifting me the most important key of all:

A lifetime of keys makes me a sad I’m “lack’n” them today.  But that’s not quite true, is it?  I spend most days clicking away on my computer keyboard, after all.  Even better, my remote transmitter contains – behind all that technology – a modest little back-up key.  Nice to know I’m still carrying.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

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Teacher of Note(s)

In church last Sunday, early in the service, the congregation was treated to a beautiful rendition of the hymn, “My God and I”.  The young female soloist, introduced with aspirations of the Broadway stage, stood poised behind the microphone, beaming through pitch-perfect singing.  As captivating as she might have been, my attention was drawn to her much older accompanist; a bespectacled white-haired woman at the piano, carefully dividing attention between sheet music and protege.  Wordless communication was exchanged; subtle nods of encouragement; cursory, confident smiles.  And just like that I was no longer in church, but back in second grade, toiling away at the keyboard in anticipation of my weekly piano lesson.

Josephine Siple [Sahy-puhl] – a name and face I’ll remember until my dying day – was my piano teacher from age eight until well into high school.  Why I remember her first name is a mystery (she was always “Mrs. Siple” to me) – perhaps adults said it often enough.  Josephine was the perfect embodiment of a grandmother – the white silvery hair, the abundance of wrinkles, the old-fashioned glasses, the matronly clothes, the wry smiles, and the soothing demeanor to make you feel more like a family member than a piano student.  But make no mistake; Josephine was first and foremost a teacher, educating her students as much about life’s lessons as she did the notes on the page.

To add to my Norman Rockwell painting (or take away from it), Josephine lived in an unusual house just a few doors up from my own, which I traveled to by bike.  It looked and felt much more like a fortress than a residence.  You passed through an imposing wooden doorway into a stone-floored foyer.  All I remember was the vast living room to the left (the piano lesson room, with a grand and an upright side-by-side), and the rustic kitchen to the right.  A front-and-center staircase disappeared to the second level (where, for all I knew, Mr. Siple dwelled).

Bless you, Google Earth, for I confirmed – fifty years later – Josephine’s house still stands (photo above).  Her place may have been uninviting, but Josephine found a way to make it feel warm and welcoming, even to a timid child.  She would host recitals for parents in the big living room, allowing her students the luxury of a performance at the grand piano.  I can still picture Josephine in the kitchen afterwards, happily serving and chatting behind a big glass punch bowl loaded up with a concoction of 7-Up and lime sherbet, boiling and fizzing like witch’s brew.

     

A good friend confided in me recently about his granddaughter’s impatience.  He said she’d begun piano lessons – about the same age I was – but simply refused to practice.  Her parents, with utter resignation (and delusions), allowed their daughter to move on to the violin instead.  Why on earth would they endorse an infinitely-more difficult instrument when mere piano practice was already too high a hurdle?

Piano practice was never a problem for me, and I give Josephine all the credit.  She instilled a sense of responsibility which I know translated to a stick-with-it attitude in other aspects of life.  I remember one lesson where I knew I hadn’t practiced enough the week prior.  Josephine sensed it immediately, and though the exact wording escapes me, her comment had just enough, um, wisdom and sting to reevaluate my priorities.  I never showed up unprepared again.

As things are wont to do in childhood, my piano practice and lessons eventually fell by the wayside, in favor of other activities which pale by comparison.  Thanks to Josephine, I entered a few piano competitions. (I was no Van Cliburn contestant but I certainly learned how to perform under pressure.)  Thanks to Josephine, I explored outside of my comfort zone: lessons on the church organ; percussion instruments in the school orchestra; dabbles with flute in college.  None of those instruments consumed me like the piano. Then again, none of those teachers were Josephine.

My piano teacher extraordinaire is long gone, but the memories and lessons she gave me are life-long companions.  I can resurrect Josephine in a heartbeat, as through an accompanist in church.  I can also bring her back in other seemingly-random moments, reminding me her teachings went well beyond the piano.

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