The History of Cats Pissing People Off

Friday morning. I get up nice and early. The sun is out as if by accident, it seems, these days. I have coffee. No students to see today. No planning. Just writing and a notebook, a bit of editing on the computer. Utter joy. The cat jumps up on the back of the couch, which lies to the right of my desk in the living room.

We are creature of habits, so I know what’s coming. She stalks down the spine of the couch, stopping to nibble the dangling leaves of various plants who wished they were up higher. A ladybug distracts her for a moment. She crouches, her pupils go took-too-much wide as she watches the benign being flutter to the window. Our house enjoys a moderate infestation of ladybugs, who gather in tiny red and yellow clusters on the ceiling and around the windows in spring and summer. At least it’s not black widows, I tell myself. After smashing the ladybug against the window and noting the place where it’s fallen, she gets back to her stalk. In a matter of moments she’s creeping over a row of notebooks at the back of my desk, and then in between my document stand and my computer. She then peers around the back of my computer at me, daring me to invade what she has deemed as her territory. I wouldn’t dare – I like my fingers too much. Finally, she gives up her territory and steps across my keyboard adding her own comment to my essay. “dwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwdddddddddddddddfffffffffffmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,………////..”

Commentary with which I agree to some level, but find mostly derivative of her previous points. She then dances around in front of me on the desk, stepping on my tablet, my notebook, smudging recent notes; her tail is interminably flipping at my nose in a way that’s too precisely annoying to be coincidental. Soon, she stops and stands sideways on the desk in front of me. She then steps down onto my right thigh with her front legs and, as we both know I will, I lift her back legs and place them on my left thigh.

It’s a common scene in my house. The cat stands on my thighs, nose tucked in my right elbow, tail vying with my left forearm for air superiority. I write off my left shirtsleeve, which takes the brunt of things better left unsaid. She settles, finally, and we enter a state of mutual understanding (comfort in her case; resignation in mine). I am careful not to disrupt this balance of quiet and serenity as I get back to work. It is a volatile calm.    

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The Great Fitzgerald: America’s Boozer

If you went to high school after the 1950s, you probably find it inconceivable that The Great Gatsby wasn’t published to great fanfare. Critics loved it, but the public greeted its arrival with the same exuberance as they might a downstairs neighbor they could hear through the floor. Evidently crates and crates of it sat in the publisher’s warehouses for decades, until they were dusted off and handed out to my sophomore English class in 1989.

Gatsby embodies every little bit of the Roaring Twenties. Flappers, jazz, women smoking in public, speakeasies. Gatsby is rumored to be a bootlegger and he throws lavish parties for elites. He calls Nick “Old Sport.” The book is the cat’s pajamas.

At the time Gatsby was written, America was in the middle of prohibition, which made the sale or consumption of alcohol illegal. To be fair, America had developed a bit of a drinking problem. I mean, America had always been a drinker. The Pilgrims came off the Mayflower wondering which apples would make the best cider. Throughout the 18th century, beer, wine, and cider washed down breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For a long while America had a good happy buzz. But as farmers cultivated grains in the late 18th and 19th centuries, whiskey and rum replaced beer and cider. And America traded in its beer mugs for shot glasses. With this switchover came problems like rising death rates due to alcohol, domestic abuse, and unemployment. By the early 20th century, it’s arguable that America needed an intervention.  

The Temperance Movement hoped to remove the temptation to drink. But this, and I can’t stress this enough, did not work. People found a way around being sober. In the 1920s speakeasies were booming, bathtub gin was common, and doctors would prescribe whiskey for ailments like back pain, stomach pain, or being married to an asshole. The prisons were filled with bootleggers and drinkers and everyone apparently had syphilis. Bathtub gin was crippling people, making them blind and leaving them paralyzed. So the Temperance Movement did not stop people from drinking as much as it made them more creative, destroyed lives, and indirectly made people’s genitals burn.   

France was a different story (but not with syphilis). At the same time that America was trying to stop people from drinking, France was encouraging it. France was in a period of post-war euphoria. There were new fashion trends, new music, new artistic movements, and booming tourism. Artists, musicians, and writers were among those who found France preferable to their native land. France was cheap and artists relished the idea of living in close approximation to legal alcohol, like-minded thinkers, and prostitutes. And among these numbers were the Lost Generation. The term, coined by Gertrude Stein and used by Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, referred to the “directionless wandering” spirit of the war’s survivors striving to cope with the carnage and destruction of the First World War. (No wonder they all needed a drink). They were unable or unwilling to cope with living in America, preferring instead a place with a once-in-a-generation arts community and the ability to get drunk without a doctor’s note.  

Not only are the Lost Generation writers known for their drinking prowess, they’re believed to be the origin of the archetypal alcoholic writer. While every culture has its drunk pen-smiths, the concentration is highest among male American writers. And not only male American writers, but those born in the late 1800s and writing in the 1920s to the 1950s. All one needed was a penis, a rollneck sweater, and a crippling yet charismatic weakness to fit the pattern of the mythic genius writer. For F. Scott Fitzgerald this weakness was never in doubt. Booze. He was a self-professed alcoholic. “I’m Scott Fitzgerald, the alcoholic,” he would introduce himself. And then he would probably fall asleep on the floor or go swimming in a fountain with his insane wife. While at Yale, he would often brag in his letters that his shaky script was a result of “beers and a few Bronxes [cocktails].” Perhaps the true wonder of Gatsby is that Fitzgerald stayed sober enough to write it.

Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda’s relationship teetered on a rickety bar cart. In the brutal character evisceration of his friends known popularly as A Moveable Feast (subtitle: My Former Friends and Why They Suck), Hemingway claimed that Zelda kept Fitzgerald drunk because it would disable his writing. She had literary ambitions of her own and was evidently jealous of his success. She in turn claimed (not in his book) that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were lovers. So while Fitzgerald tried to stay sober long enough to write, Zelda gummed up the works. In her defense, it wasn’t hard. And if it was her goal, it worked. Hemingway pointed out that in the mid-1920s Fitzgerald was drinking too much and barely working. By the mid-late 1920s he was drinking while writing which led to unpublished and unaccepted stories. In the hopes of keeping himself sober enough to work, Fitzgerald invited Hemingway to their cottage town and waxed happy about their potential day. We’ll find an inexpensive villa and we won’t drink and it’ll be like the good old days and we’ll swim and be healthy and brown and we’ll have one aperitif before lunch and one before dinner. It’s sad in a sort of nostalgic, was-Zelda-onto-something kind of way. (NB: Zelda’s claim is not harmed by the fact that at a café once, Fitzgerald asked Hemingway to check his penis to make sure it was big enough. Spoiler alert: it was fine).

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On April 1 33 AD, Thirteen Guys in Jerusalem had Dinner and Wine

Scholars suggest it was a Wednesday. And, to those outside their inner circle, it was probably a Wednesday like most others. Thirteen guys were meeting for dinner in Jerusalem. Two had been instructed to go to “the city” to meet “a man carrying a jar of water.” This man would then bring them to a house with an upper room furnished and ready for dinner.  

The thirteen of them reclined on pillows and ate food that sat in stone bowls on low tables. They ate lamb, bean stew, olives with a mint-like herb called hyssep. They nibbled on dates, a pistachio and date charoset, unleavened bread, and a fish sauce called tzir. They drank wine. It was probably quite a pleasant evening until the hyssep hit the fan and the course of history was drastically altered.  

The Last Supper is one of the most famous events in all of the world, let alone Christianity. It is trumped perhaps only by the event which occurred two days later. You don’t have to be a Sunday school grad to know the rest of the evening’s events. Jesus brought his twelve disciples to dinner. He washed their feet and then predicted that Judas would betray him. Judas left to alert the Sanhedrin. Jesus then gave a lengthy farewell address during which he talked about love, hate, and that they should probably just split up the bill. He then predicted that Peter would deny him, a charge to which Peter hooted vigorously. Jesus and three of his disciples were captured later in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was suffering the Agony in the Garden. The rest, as they say, is bitterly contested, world changing, unimaginably divisive history.

So, how is this drunken history?

The better question is – how is it not?

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Amazing Kids

I have spent the last few years miserable about the world. Despite the lessons we should have learned from history, politicians and governments are spreading their fascistic wings. Some politicians are clearly out for themselves and don’t care one lick about the destruction they leave in their wake. In fact, it seems to be their goal. Millions of people in Asia, Russia, Europe, and the United States are telling their governments what they want from them, but instead of listening to these people and trying to make people’s lives better, politicians and governments press forth with nonsensical and outdated notions.

It’s enormously demoralizing to see the direction which many leaders are actively taking their people and countries. They do so with no bases in fact, but rather use their own peddled conspiracy theories and outright lies to instigate and divide. There seems to be no end to this but adding to their own power. These things have made me very depressed.  

This depression was compounded just a day ago, when the republican-led state of Georgia pressed forth legislation to make voting much harder. American republicans have long understood that the more people who vote, the less they get elected. So, instead of expanding their ideas to welcome others in, they have become proficient in the art of cheating. They suppress votes, gerrymander, and make it incredibly difficult to vote via various methods. And now – when they somehow manage to lose after applying their underhanded tactics – they have simply gone to pointing to the other side and shrieking “you rigged the election!” Imagine the gall!

The Georgia GOP is basing their rationale for their voting restrictions on Donald Trump’s claims that an election he got his ass kicked in was stolen from him. Trump has made these claims about every election he’s lost – an Emmy award and the Iowa caucus – when the thief was Ted Cruz, who was probably more distracted by his JFK-killing father and his evidently unattractive wife to do much about it.

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Not to Curse

Veruca Salt After Daddy Ate all her Halloween Candy

Saturday morning is my one blissful day. It’s the one day I eat what I want and work on what I want and watch what I want. I usually wake up late – about 7 – and wander around in my robe sipping coffee and listening to music or passively watching a string of sitcoms. I sit and stretch out in various lounging poses on all of the soft seats in my house – couch, armchair, cat, and I read. I must resemble ancient Greek art. It’s glorious. It’s the one day a week I am at peace, comforted, and work without a to-do list.

This Saturday, I turned on my computer as I let out a leonine yawn. Something was a little off, and so I pushed some buttons but they didn’t do the thing they usually do. I put down my coffee, my face tightened, my brows furrowed. Most grown human adults who don’t spend their days in an orange jumpsuit would keep calm, breath, come around to the issue, and then fix it without much drama.

Instead of this, I opt for instant fury. As my computer resists my fingers’ charms, I lace together a quilt of profanities that would make a nun convert to satanism.

When I was growing up, my father would occasionally embark upon a home DIY project. This was the 80s, so he’d have to go out and buy a book first. Time Life. DIY at Home. Bob Vila. After the book had been bought, his red toolbox and a radio would appear in the room where the project would take place. To some unrelated visitor this would have seemed an innocuous event. But to the residents of our home, it was a clear territorial warning. Something like a shrunken head on a pike that tells one tribe to stay out of another tribe’s turf. Stay Away. A warning, which, had you ever experienced a DIY project in my house, you did not need. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized how my clever mom was. On DIY days, she brought my sisters and my brother to some mall, movie, or excursion.

Sometime in the afternoon on DIY days, the calm of our home would be shattered by the sounds of verbal and vocal (for some of his utterances lied outside of the boundaries of language) disapproval from my father. I had never heard – nor had anyone – the intricacies and complexities of his vulgarities. It was as though he had attended graduate work on the subject. His curses were multilevel and possessed themes, actors, and plots. As the rants developed, subordinate clauses and ellipses introduced minor characters and subplots. At times, I wanted to know how things went for the people he’d introduced into his vulgar world. To this day, whenever I see a Time Life book, I instinctively wince and wonder whatever happened to those characters I had learned about in hiding. In horror.  

In terms of the gift of vulgarity, I have taken the torch. Like Olympic athletes jogging the final obscene lap to light that torch and kick off some vulgar games. But, the thing is, I really don’t want to anymore.

During the pandemic, I have become a fan of Modern Family. If you have watched the antics of the Dunphy family, you know that Phil Dunphy (Ty Burrell) curses in a very unusual and very G-rated manner. Whenever he stubs his toe, trips on a step or realizes a gaff, where the rest of us would shout out a curse or an epithet, he shouts out a G-rated pulse.

Son of Jor-El!

Sweet potato fries!

Chicken in a basket!

Son of a Sacagawea!

John Philip Sousa!

There are studies out there that suggest curses are the linguistic dough of the very intelligent. I was happy to hear this, as it makes the smartest person in just about any room I’m in sans Richard Pryor. But I’m not that smart. And if I am smart, in no way does shouting interlaced multi-syllabic plot-themed vulgarities at my computer’s lock screen make me feel or appear smart to anyone within sight or earshot.

That’s it, I thought, I am giving up cursing.

Day 1.

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On March 17, 1766, New York has its first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.

At dawn in New York city on March 17, 1766, a group of Irish soldiers serving in the British Army marched and paraded with fifes and drums. Records suggest they were heading to the Crown and Thistle Inn on Whitehall Street, others that they blew into bagpipes. There are no records about the reaction of the locals to bagpipes at 5 am, but it was no doubt colorful. The revelers breakfasted and then “spent a joyous tho’ orderly evening at the house of Mr. Bardin in this city.” They gave speeches and offered toasts to various entities, including “the glorious memory of King William,” “the memory of the late Duke of Cumberland,” and “the Protestant Interest.” Their last two (19 & 20) toasts were “May the enemies of Ireland never eat the Bread not drink the Whiskey of it, but be tormented with itching without the benefit of scratching” and to “our Noble Selves.”   

This was fitting, as their noble selves had just put on the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in New York City. It’s also probably the first time an angry New Yorker shouted “stick yon bagpipe up thine ass!” at Saint Patrick’s Day partiers. This celebration is nowhere near the first celebration for Saint Patrick in North America. A Saint Patrick’s Day celebration took place in St. Augustine, Florida in 1601. Probably marking the first time an Irish festival was celebrated while dodging alligators. There were celebrations in Boston in 1737, in New York in 1762, and at Fort William Henry in 1757. In 1778, George Washington, honorary member of the Friendly Sons of Patrick, issued an extra grog on Match 17 for his soldiers. In 1768, African slaves on the island of Montserrat planned an uprising on March 17, because they knew their Irish overseers would be drunk. The Irish got wise to the uprising and squashed it…and then got really drunk. The 1766 New York parade is arguably the beginning of Saint Patrick’s Day as a day of tipsy revelry, which primarily took place in Colonial America.

If you’ve never perused one of the 14,000 articles that come out about him between March 15th and March 17th every year, Saint Patrick is a fifth-century Anglo-Irish saint who is surrounded by myth. He rid Ireland of snakes, a feat made more impressive by the fact that no snakes existed there. I could be heralded for ridding the Czech Republic of tarantulas, but I don’t think I’d get a Saint Day. Saint Patrick is said to have brought Catholicism to Ireland and likened the triumvirate of the Catholic Church to the ubiquitous shamrock. There’s a pretty good chance he did neither, but evidently he had the same PR rep as a lot of Catholic saints. The real Patrick was born in Roman Britain and was kidnapped by Irish pirates. He spent six years as a slave in Ireland, where he spent much of his time looking after animals (not snakes). He eventually escaped back to Britain, but after he became a cleric he headed back to Ireland and became a bishop. By the seventh century he was the Patron Saint of Ireland.

Like many religious festivities that turned into booze fests (hello, Mardi Gras), Saint Patrick’s Day started out as a pious event. Pubs were closed in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day until the 1970s. In 18th century Canada, the celebrations were temperate, pious, and probably very cold. Even in early America, the celebrations differed greatly between the two religious groups of Irish Americans. The Protestant celebrations were evidently formal, elite, and rife with speeches. In the afternoon, celebrants would go to mass and think about Saint Patrick. And as much fun as it is to think about a saint, America’s Irish Catholics had a different celebration in mind.  

Catholic St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were typically more working class and public, and they involved alcohol, green, and shamrocks. This seems to have carried over from traditions within Ireland that had been celebrated for at least a century. When Englishman Thomas Dineley travelled the island in 1681, he noted the three tenets of a Saint Patrick’s Day celebration were alcohol, wearing a green ribbon, and wearing shamrocks. They “drowned the shamrock” by placing the shamrock worn on their lapel in their beer, whiskey, or punch. St. Patrick’s Day would become a more festive occasion in America when it became considered a “day off” in the middle of Lent. Self-bans on alcohol and meat were encouraged to be lifted and Irish Catholics in America took advantage. This festive St. Patrick’s Day was propelled forward in America by heavy Irish Catholic migration and the rise of Independence movements and Irish patriotism societies. This took a step away from the Protestant celebrations in the mid-1700s and by the 19th century, the Catholic ones had all but taken over. In a word, for probably the first and last time in history, the Catholics were the fun ones.  

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Anosmiac Hipster

Before anosmia as a concept exploded around the world, before anosmia became a word in the average person’s lexicon, before anyone even knew what the hell it was, I was there.

My story, like so many others that should never be told, started in the bathroom. About twelve years ago in my Prague 6 flat, I was doing that thing in the bathroom for which people employ books and phones. I shut away the world for a few minutes and let my body slip into its intestinal yoga. I was relaxed.

Far less relaxed was my flatmate, who was so overwhelmed by my activity’s odiferous results that he broke the code of all past and present humanity by offering commentary through the door. Other than desiring to drive a brick into his brain, I suddenly realized that I could not smell anything. I tried. Nothing. I voiced this to him and he assured me, through teary eyes, that he was not wrong. I went into the kitchen and grabbed a can of coffee grounds. Bringing them to my nose, I inhaled deeply. Nothing. Nil. Not a hint.

Huh.

My adventure into anosmia had begun. As has yours, maybe.  

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Spring Training with Fans

Yesterday I talked to my dad like every Sunday. He asked me what I was making for dinner, grunted and gave a mostly-polite and fully untrue “sounds good” when I said “salmon.” I ranted about yet another lockdown that the Czech Republic is starting Monday. And he was sympathetic, I think. He also may have been reacting to a particularly touching scene in the Boston Legal episode he had playing in the background.

When I asked him what he was doing on Sunday, he said simply: “I’m watching baseball all day.” I was happy that he did not add “your honor” or “objection.”

I was fully jealous. I went to my laptop and found an article instantly whose headline read: Spring Training with Fans. A quick search produced no fewer than six articles directly and positively mentioning fans. Pirates Spring Training: Normalcy, Fans Return in Opening Win, MLB Takes small Step Towards Normalcy as Fans Return to Spring Training Games, etc. etc. etc.     

Two years ago, words like normalcy, fans, and spring training sold out would have been insane commentary for a headline. If you were transported here from 2017, you’d wonder what the hell was wrong with any writer who did so. However, after a year or so of the corona-world, we all get it.  

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Blue Cheese Period

Chicken wings at Anchor Bar in Buffalo-Niagara Airport.

Last week, I was bemoaning the changes that COVID has wrought upon our daily lives. No bars, no friends, becoming aware of yet two other varieties of Global Asshole (anti-maskers, the new anti-vaxxer, and anti-vaxxers: COVID style).   

Then there’s my blog. I know all three of you wait with bated breath for my Monday installment and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your continued readership. Especially these days when nothing is happening to me. I used to write about the humor in my daily interactions, but I don’t have those anymore. Oh, I try to banter with Burke, but she knows all of my jokes. All. Every single one. The cat, well, she just bites me if I pester her and I’m trying to avoid emergency rooms. Also, it’s pretty hard to distract anything that can lick its own butt while it’s engaged in that activity.

I used to have loads of student interactions as fodder to blog about. But now my conversations are had over the Zoomisphere with disembodied voices, and where my comments and charming observations echo painfully among the column of white names against black backgrounds where they die in a techno crackle. Alone.

I have attempted to interact with people on my walks in the park. But people are warned about chatting with strange sweating men in parks. And I tried to chat with people at the supermarket. But it’s hard not to be the lunatic in a conversation when you’re caressing a sweet potato. Alas, all of my hopes for light interaction were stifled by isolation and people having good sense.

Thus, I entered a Blue Period.

These days, there’s really only one way to deal with a blue period. Oh, there used to be other ways, most of which revolved around pubs: Beer. Becherovka. Chewing tobacco. A talk with Lee. Singing along with Aneta Langerová. Kebab on the way home. This had a remarkable effect on my blue periods, often because the lobe-shattering headache I was suffering through the next day left no room for dealing with sadness. But now, I am trapped at home and sad about being trapped at home, so I thought it unwise to get drunk while trapped at home.

No, I dealt with this particular blue period by ordering chicken wings.

There are few problems on this planet that can’t be momentarily eased by chicken wings. (For you, not the chicken.) Fifteen stubs of goodness, drenched in sauce, a side of ranch dressing (or blue cheese when I’m feeling traditionalist), carrots and celery. I go to work on them in the one-handed hold method, up one side, down the other, each side getting a dip into ranch dressing, then I split the wing and clean out the meat from in between.

And I get them delivered because I’m socially responsible.

The delivery man calls and I begin my way down. I am wearing my COVID uniform, which is not intentionally monochrome, but happens to consist of all gray from my slippers to my sweats to my T shirt to my cardigan to my my winter hat. It doesn’t bode well for a projection of my mental state. But I don’t care. Wings.

The delivery man is nice, smiling, good-natured. He loves delivering wings. I wish everyone loved their job this much.

“What are you doing inside?!” he shouts. “It’s so nice outside!”

“I was out all day,” I say.

“Sure,” he says as he hands me a bag with three orders of wings in it.

“Ha, ha,” I laugh and hand him a tip. “This is from all of us.” I am including the cat in “all of us.”  

The man thanks me and gets in his car. I want to chat. I want to plead my case. But now I’m holding a bag with 45 legs in it. I watch after the car as it drives off. My next door neighbors smile at me and we all walk into the building.

“Hi,” I say. I am carrying 45 wings in a bag and I am dressed like a human lamppost.

They smile. I foresee banter on the way up to our flats (they live on my floor), but they both stop to get their mail. After all, we all know that the biggest mail haul of the week comes at 6:45 on Saturday evening.

But it doesn’t matter. Wings.   

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No Walk in the Park

The sun makes its appearance today. Which is weird because after the last two months I was certain it no longer existed. I reached my blanket out the window to shake out the cat hair and my fur and I realized: holy crap, it’s not bitter cold.

We hadn’t been out much recently. What with new cultural strains of COVID attacking our air streams, and a government incapable of getting us a vaccine. Then there’s the subzero weather and a month of daily snow. Yeah, I wasn’t running outside. Inside there’s socially acceptable sweatpants and warmth. A heater that works well and a TV. It was hard to talk myself into going out.

But with that being said, I knew I needed to see other people. I was forgetting how to converse and last week while talking to a customer service rep, I found that I was asking her a lot of questions that weren’t on our grid. When’s your birthday? She asked me. October, I told her, when’s yours? When she answered April, I went on to ask if she was expecting anything good. When I realized what I was doing I felt a bit embarrassed, but it would have been worse had she not obviously been similarly engaged in the conversation.

Burke has begun speaking in voices. We aren’t 100% sure why, though we surmise that it’s a combination of speaking to Chinese children four hours a day and her voices for the cat. Basically, we were forgetting how to be normal human adults. What would happen next time we were in a pub? We weren’t going to go out and talk to others, but just be near others.

We bundled up, packed a flask of whiskey, hand sanitizer, two masks, and we were on our way. We went to Ladronka, a nearby park where people ski and walk. There’s a pub there and we thought that maybe with a day so sunny they might be selling concessions. We were right. The sky was blue, the sun shone on the snow almost too brilliantly. People were everywhere: cross country skiing, walking, sledding, trekking, and some psychopaths were even jogging. It was like the snowy version of a Monet painting.

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