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March 2018

Peanut Butter Is Why I Endorsed Jimmy Carter for President When I Was 2

Sebastian fixing dinner

Sebastian fixed dinner for the family for the first time, rather than simply helping.  He made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

This most common of children's food (which I've continued to eat all my life) actually plays a role in my very first political activity.

Back during the 1976 presidential election, when I was Sebastian's current age, because I loved peanut butter, I decided to support Jimmy Carter because he was a peanut farmer.  Oh, and I liked his wide grin.  Mom says I also asked questions about him and Ford, which surprised her.  

On election night, when he won, I decided I want to throw a victory party and invite the family.  With Mom's help I called all of the family and invited them over for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the next day.  Then Mom and I made the sandwiches.  None of the family came, as they didn't take the call seriously.  I was deeply disappointed.

Miami, Oklahoma, where I grew up, wasn't far from Diamond, Missouri and the George Washington Carver National Monument.  That was a fun outing because he was known for inventing lots of uses for peanuts.

I have also always enjoyed peanut butter and banana sandwiches and think of them as more of a delicacy.  

And a favourite dessert was peanut butter and syrup, which we called "Peanut Butter Baby Food."

The previous post in this series talked about Poor People's Food--pickled pigs feet, fried chicken gizzards, and potatoes.


Poor People's Food

In the last post in this series, I wrote about beans and dumplings and how this originates as poor people's food that my family continued to eat even as they rose into the middle class.  

I e-mailed my mother asking her about favourite foods and family traditions and she echoed this theme when she wrote of her mother, "I’ll gross you out--a favorite of mom’s was pickled pig's feet. Once again poor people’s food."  I remember Mammoo eating her pickled pig's feet.  And it grossed me out as a kid.

Mammoo grew up in Arkansas, raised by her grandfather.  Her parents were divorced.  Her mother died in an institution around the age of thirty, and her father had run off and later died on the street in California.  Mammoo had been the cook for her grandfather and brother from childhood.

Besides the pinto beans with dumplings and cornbread, the other simple food I fondly remember from growing up was fried chicken gizzards.  Not gizzards served as an appetizer or side dish like you might get in a restaurant but gizzards as the main dish. 

These gizzards pictured here are ones I had last week when our family went to eat at Quick Bites Soul Food in Bellevue, Nebraska.

Gizzards

When Mom fried gizzards for supper she usually fixed potato salad as the side.  Mom's potato salad was mustard based and bright yellow. I love that potato salad and make it all the time in the summer. 

In ours the potatoes are smooth like mashed potatoes rather than chunky like in some.  And you add some mayonnaise, pickle juice, chopped pickles and scallions, and a dash of paprika.

But I love all sorts of potato salads, especially vinegar-based German ones that I first had growing up when we would go to Pittsburg, Kansas and eat at Chicken Annie's or Chicken Mary's.

Dad's favourite dinner was steak and potatoes.  What were the many ways we ate potatoes growing up?  I could sound a little like Bubba listing them: mashed, scalloped, fried, boiled, hashbrowns, etc.

My aunt Rhonda, whom I affectionately called K-K when I was kid (her middle name was Katherine), once made me some potato soup.  Forever after it was K-K soup.  Mom always complained that she had made the same soup for years but K-K made it once and forever after it was named for her.  BTW, I've got a great potato soup recipe I learned from a church member in Dallas when I served there.

In 2016 Mom, Kelli, and I traveled in the west of Ireland, where the remnants of the potato famine are still visible.  On our drive around the Dingle Peninsula we saw once cultivated fields that have lain unused since the famine, as the population of the area has never recovered.

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Fixing a Traditional Oklahoma Meal

This one time in college, Laura Picazo and I got to talking about culture and food and she asked me, "What's a traditional Oklahoma meal?"

Laura's ancestors were Basques and French who had emigrated to Mexico and eventually to Texas.  Laura taught me how to season my taco meat.

"Beans and cornbread," I said.  Soon we had scheduled an evening for me to come to her apartment and prepare what I considered the most traditional of meals from my cultural background, a meal my mother made all the time.

It is also a meal that reveals our socio-economic roots.  My parents both worked hard to rise within the middle class and both came from parents who were in that blessed American generation where millions rose from poverty or really hard rural life to enter the middle class.  Take my grandpa Nixon, Pappoo.  In the years of the Great Depression his family would go days eating beans for every meal.  Despite that, he still loved them with affection all of his life.  Pappoo fought in Africa and Italy in the Second World War, was permanently disabled during the landing on Anzio Beach, used his GI Bill to get vocational training, and went to work for the Post Office, eventually rising to become a Post Master.  When he retired he had a lake home, a boat, and you should have seen how excited he was when he bought a Cadillac.  The Great American Story.

My mother let her dried pinto beans simmer for hours with a ham hock, making the house smell good.  Then she did something that I've not encountered elsewhere (until I googled today looking for a picture to use and learned others do do it), she made these flour drop dumplings that went into the beans at the end of the cooking.  That day I cooked for Laura was the first time I attempted this and my dumplings didn't turn out quite right.  (Note: this picture is a random one from the internet and those dumplings only closely resemble my mother's).

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This too reveals the poor roots of this dish--simple ways to gain a few more calories with basic ingredients and a way to vary a dish people ate repeatedly.  

As a child I disliked beans, but I loved to eat those dumplings and the ham hock.  The dumplings had a magical rich flavor soaked up from the beans.

I e-mailed Mom some foodways questions, and she wrote about this dish: "The dish I remember the most and definitely a favor was brown beans with drop egg dumplings cooked in the beans. Cornbread was baked in a thin cookie sheet, so it was crisp. I think comfort food was probably a holdover from her childhood when she started cooking for her dad, grandpa, and Frank at age seven."

Her sister commented added:

Mammoo called them "depression noodles." She mixed only one egg with flour to get a sticky mess. She dropped them by spoonfuls in the boiling bean broth. Pappoo didn't like them, but since Mammoo did, he didn't mind. Mammoo said when she was a girl growing up, she had beans that way at a friend's house. She loved it that way ever since. She also made them just for herself in chicken broth. When I was sick, that was what I wanted her to make me. Boy, I miss her. Thanks for taking me home again!

When I fixed them for Laura, I also prepared cornbread and then served it all with a dill pickle spear and a whole green onion.  Laura said, "What are the pickle and the green onion for?"  And I answered, "I don't know, that's always what Mom served with the beans."

And, really, when you are cooking an old family dish, that's what matters.

The previous post in this series told about the changing role of rice in my food history.


The Changing Role of Rice in My Food History

In The Cooking Gene Michael W. Twitty includes an entire chapter on the history of rice and it's connection with the Atlantic slave trade.  In the mid 1700's American plantations owners intentionally imported slaves from the rice growing regions of West Africa, which accounted for about 40% of the entire trade to the United States.  Rice had a long history in Africa, as he writes:

Rice has been part of West African life in Upper Guinea and the Western Sudan for nearly two thousand years by the time the Europeans arrived, spreading out from heartlands along the Senegal, Gambia, and Niger Rivers.  Rice cultivation spread out from the ancient Sudanic kingdoms as my ancestors reinvented themselves, redrew linguistic and clan lines, and migrated from the empire of Old Mali and went south into the lands of the Bullom and others, coming as Mane conquerors displacing the indigenous people and planting up the rain forests and coastal swamps in African red rice, namely Oryza glaberrima.  This three-thousand-year-old rice would in time be joined by Asian rice, O. sativa, from introductions made from both the Islamic and European worlds.

Growing up in my family we ate Minute Rice and mostly as a breakfast food with milk, butter, and sugar.  It also appeared as a side dish with butter, salt, and pepper.  My mother said that growing up she only knew rice as a breakfast food and it wasn't until she and Dad lived in Hawaii in the early seventies when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor that they learned to eat rice in other ways.

So, clearly the rice-based dishes of Southern cooking, like Hoppin' John, had not been part of my family's food traditions.  Nor had Asian dishes, despite my parents' exposure to them while living in Hawaii.  I only began to eat Asian food (other than La Choy Chow Mein) while in high school when I traveled on school trips with teachers who felt the imperative to introduce small town Oklahoma kids to a wider variety of cultures.  

By the early nineties American cooking was changing and stir fries were becoming common.  They became a staple for me in my single years as they were easy to fix in small portions and were healthy.  I did quit making Minute Rice (though I kept it around for a breakfast choice) and learned to make slow cook rice in a pot on the stove.  Also, a girl I dated in the summer of 96 (and was friends with her family for many years) had lived in China when she was younger and from them I learned new techniques, ingredients, and recipes in Asian cooking.

At the turn of the millennium my favourite food was Thai and in the late Aughts I lived adjacent to Oklahoma City's Asian District where my favourite restaurant was Vietnamese, The Golden Phoenix.  

Of course I married into an Asian family where rice is the staple.  That meant acquiring a rice cooker and wondering why I hadn't always had one.  And buying rice in giant bags from the Asian grocery store.

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The previous post in this series was about breakfast and included a story about grits.


Knowing the Mind of God: A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

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Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better?  What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it?  Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?  Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then?  What is the nature of time?  Will it ever come to an end?  Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these longstanding questions.  Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun--or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises.  Only time (whatever that may be) will tell.

This is the second paragraph of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I read the book in college, I think when I was 19, and his follow up Black Holes and Baby Universes a few years later.  Hawking was already iconic among my high school friends--we were all sci fi and science geeks.  And I was in a phase where I had a deep fascination in cosmology and theoretical physics (I read most of the works of Paul Davies while in college and then wrote my senior Honors thesis about his concept of God).  

And this was the time when I was being drawn into philosophy, and metaphysics in particular, where these questions were explored.  

Since childhood even up to this morning when I was listening to the radio one thing has been guaranteed to make me nauseous--the thought of why anything exists at all and yet the idea of nothing existing makes no sense.  Rationality breaks down and my head and stomach spin.  And yet these limits of scientific and philosophical quandary drew me inexorably on.

The concluding chapter to A Brief History ventures further into the realm of philosophy and even theology and spirituality.  If we can achieve a complete unified theory (or theory of everything) then what role is left for God?  The book ends with a  most fascinating paragraph:

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason--for then we would know the mind of God.

The "mind of God" here should be understood in the Platonic sense--the highest reality in the Divided Line in the Republic.  Only the highest form of knowledge, a type of mystical contemplation, can know the mind of God.  From ancient wisdom we have understood that the limits of reason and scientific inquiry take us into the realm of mystical experience.  Here was a contemporary physicist developing a similar idea (Paul Davies argued that physics is a surer path to God than religion, for similar reasons, and even named a major work The Mind of God).

But the problem with the God of the theoretical physicists, as with the God of the philosophers, is that they aren't describing Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. But, that discussion is for another time.

As my philosophical education advanced, I realized more of the flaws in Hawking's philosophical understanding of science (many scientists lack a philosophical understanding of their discipline), though looking at my marginalia, I already had some objections to simplistic understandings.  I don't think a theory of everything is possible, and one reason is that his understanding of the laws of physics can't survive philosophical critique.  Consider Nancy Cartwright's How the Laws of Physics Lie wherein she reveals that “Rendered as descriptions of fact, they are false; amended to be true, they lose their fundamental explanatory force."

But it is still a grand hope and something to aspire to.  And Hawking is correct that could we do it we would achieve the "ultimate triumph of human reason."  Though it may just be that to achieve that highest form of knowledge we must transcend reason into the mystical.

A toast to Stephen Hawking for his brilliant mind and insightful ideas.  I thank him for helping to inspire me and launch the course of my intellectual life.

BTW, here's an excellent obituary by Roger Penrose.


A Community of Giving

From my theology reading today:

"Finally, the Spirit counters our indolence by placing us within the community of Christ's body. Community helps craft us into good givers. It's in the community that the Spirit suffuses our giving with hope; we hope because are part of a community of hope. It's in the community that the Spirit mold our character; we display a life of virtue because we live in a community that values and fosters virtue. And how does the Spirit energize and direct our talents? We allow the community's needs to lay claim on us, and we seek the community's wisdom to help us discern what we are good at. Finally, it is by the Spirit and through the waters of baptism that we die with Christ and rise to new life in him. We don't receive the Spirit's hope, the Spirit's fruit, the Spirit's gifts, and Christ's life on our own as isolated individuals. They are ours as we are members of a community of giving, whether that community is a family, a circle of close friends, or a church."--Miroslav Volf in Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Then a couple of paragraphs later he writes, "Communities don't make givers.  Givers are not made by humans at all.  They are born--born of the Spirit through the good practices of communities."

This spiritual truth is one reason we must resist our current political administration so and create small communities of virtue.

 


Renounce, Resist, Rejoice

"The church is an Easter community created out of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, enveloped by empires, but not overwhelmed. The church is a graced gathering that has been transformed by the good news of God's life-giving reign. The church is the assembly in which the holy and mysterious presence of Christ Jesus is welcomed. The church on Easter Sunday . . . is called to trust in this good news so deeply that it renounces all that opposes it, resists all that seeks to upend it, and rejoices in God's gracious resurrection power that changes everything, even this current age. Preach to the church, preacher. Preach Easter in the age of Trump. All are awaiting resurrection while we endure this tomb."--Michael Coffey in his essay "Renounce, Resist, Rejoice: Easter Preaching in the Age of Trump" in the Easter 2018 issue of Journal for Preachers.


Breaking the Numbness

Breaking the Numbness

Zephaniah 3:1-5

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Trinity Episcopal Cathedral

Called to Action: A Day of Lamentation and Vigil Against Gun Violence

14 March 2018

 

    I must confess that last month when I first heard the news of the shooting in Parkland, I was numb. These mass shootings have become such a regular feature of American life that my reserves of grief and anger ran out long ago.

    But in his masterful work The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann tells us that numbness is a significant problem. There is a royal consciousness and a prophetic imagination, and the royal consciousness wants to maintain the unjust status quo by keeping people numb so that they can be managed. The prophets want us to imagine a new, different, and better world, but in order for us to imagine, we must first break the numbness by grieving. Brueggemann writes that "weeping permits newness."

    So I was pleased when I heard this event would occur today and that we would be challenged to break the numbness through lamentation.

    Last week I received my scripture assignment for today, and Zephaniah 3:1-5 was not one of those passages I memorized as a child in Southern Baptist Sunday school, but when I looked it up, I immediately recognized its appropriateness for today. The leaders of society, both political and religious, have failed to enact the justice of God and shame upon them. They will receive God's judgement.

    At First Central Sunday I was preaching on the story in the Gospel of Mark when Jesus tells the disciples that whoever wants to be a leader in the way of God must welcome and serve the children. As I prepared these two sermons, they were in conversation with one another. The justice of God that our leaders have failed to enact is the service to our children.

    Then I read in the newspaper about bulletproof backpacks. This news made me angry. This is not the world we want.

    Our faith tradition should guide us in understanding the current issues we face and give us a sense of how to resolve them. There is a clash of values and priorities in the current school safety and gun debate, but it seems clear to me that from reading our faith tradition that the value which should gain priority is the safety, security, and wellbeing of our children.

    Instead our society has created an idol out of the Second Amendment and guns and to this idol we are sacrificing our children. Shame upon us. We stand in judgement from God.

    So today I hope you will join me in breaking out of the numbness. Let us grieve. Let us get angry. For our grief and anger can turn into action on behalf of the justice of God. We must save our children.


Trump & Evangelicals

Many authors have analyzed the puzzling alliance of Evangelicals with Donald Trump, who is antithetical to traditional Evangelical views.  Writing The Atlantic, Michael Gerson, himself an Evangelical and conservative Republican, gives one of the most insightful and perceptive contributions yet to this growing body of literature, including a good history of American Evangelicalism. He concludes, "It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment. "

I appreciated his discussion of the social justice actions of Evangelicals in the 19th century and then how American Protestantism split into Liberal and Fundamentalist factions in the 20th century.

Here are some of the best excerpts:

The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption. Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can’t see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.

While detailing Evangelical history, he points out that long ago the Fundamentalists changed in ways that have led to Trump:

Fundamentalism embraced traditional religious views, but it did not propose a return to an older evangelicalism. Instead it responded to modernity in ways that cut it off from its own past. In reacting against higher criticism, it became simplistic and overliteral in its reading of scripture. In reacting against evolution, it became anti-scientific in its general orientation. In reacting against the Social Gospel, it came to regard the whole concept of social justice as a dangerous liberal idea. This last point constituted what some scholars have called the “Great Reversal,” which took place from about 1900 to 1930. “All progressive social concern,” Marsden writes, “whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

In the late 20th century some Evangelicals (think Billy Graham) engaged successfully with the American mainstream culture, only for Evangelicals to then feel the culture slipping away after the changes of the 1960's and 70's.  He writes:

 As a result, the primary evangelical political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about the aggression of evangelicalism’s cultural rivals. In a remarkably free country, many evangelicals view their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, and their dignity as assailed. The single largest religious demographic in the United States—representing about half the Republican political coalition—sees itself as a besieged and disrespected minority. In this way, evangelicals have become simultaneously more engaged and more alienated.

He identified a lack of intellectual engagement as the deepest flaw of contemporary Evangelicalism:

For a start, modern evangelicalism has an important intellectual piece missing. It lacks a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action. Over the same century from Blanchard to Falwell, Catholics developed a coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection. Catholic social thought includes a commitment to solidarity, whereby justice in a society is measured by the treatment of its weakest and most vulnerable members. And it incorporates the principle of subsidiarity—the idea that human needs are best met by small and local institutions (though higher-order institutions have a moral responsibility to intervene when local ones fail).

In practice, this acts as an “if, then” requirement for Catholics, splendidly complicating their politics: If you want to call yourself pro-life on abortion, then you have to oppose the dehumanization of migrants. If you criticize the devaluation of life by euthanasia, then you must criticize the devaluation of life by racism. If you want to be regarded as pro-family, then you have to support access to health care. And vice versa. The doctrinal whole requires a broad, consistent view of justice, which—when it is faithfully applied—cuts across the categories and clichés of American politics. Of course, American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard.

I found this comment insightful: "The evangelical political agenda, moreover, has been narrowed by its supremely reactive nature. Rather than choosing their own agendas, evangelicals have been pulled into a series of social and political debates started by others. "

One theological point Gerson importantly makes is how 19th century Evangelicals were mostly premillennialist who believed that the kingdom of God would arrive through human progress.  Evangelicals only became postmillennialist after the Civil War.  Postmillennialism believes in an apocalyptic end to human history when God will intervene with judgement.  He faults this apocalypticism for Evangelicals current political problems.

The difficulty with this approach to public life—other than its insanely pessimistic depiction of our flawed but wonderful country—is that it trivializes and undercuts the entire political enterprise. Politics in a democracy is essentially anti-apocalyptic, premised on the idea that an active citizenry is capable of improving the nation. But if we’re already mere minutes from the midnight hour, then what is the point? The normal avenues of political reform are useless. No amount of negotiation or compromise is going to matter much compared with the Second Coming.

He also points out historical mistakes that conservative Evangelicals made, such as opposing evolution, which has resulted in placing "an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity."

Gerson believes that Trump stumbled upon a message that resonated with Evangelicals and their apocalyptic worldview.  And that the essence of his message was "Protecting Christianity, Trump essentially argues, is a job for a bully."

Near the end, Gerson passes harsh judgement upon Evangelical leaders:

It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule, and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity and dismiss decency as a dead language. Whatever Trump’s policy legacy ends up being, his presidency has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise. Falwell, Graham, and others are providing religious cover for moral squalor—winking at trashy behavior and encouraging the unraveling of social restraints. Instead of defending their convictions, they are providing preemptive absolution for their political favorites. And this, even by purely political standards, undermines the causes they embrace. Turning a blind eye to the exploitation of women certainly doesn’t help in making pro-life arguments. It materially undermines the movement, which must ultimately change not only the composition of the courts but the views of the public. Having given politics pride of place, these evangelical leaders have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.

He goes even farther in rebuking them for supporting Trump's racism. 

Americans who are wrong on this issue do not understand the nature of their country. Christians who are wrong on this issue do not understand the most-basic requirements of their faith.

Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.

And

For a package of political benefits, these evangelical leaders have associated the Christian faith with racism and nativism. They have associated the Christian faith with misogyny and the mocking of the disabled. They have associated the Christian faith with lawlessness, corruption, and routine deception. They have associated the Christian faith with moral confusion about the surpassing evils of white supremacy and neo-Nazism.

I appreciated his characterization of democracy:

Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. It has a moral structure. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self-restraint. And the legitimation of cruelty, prejudice, falsehood, and corruption is the kind of thing, one would think, that religious people were born to oppose, not bless.

And his definition of faith: "At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death."

 


Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

The Last Interview and Other ConversationsThe Last Interview and Other Conversations by Hannah Arendt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this little volume of four Arendt interviews while in Oklahoma City last week. I continue to be impressed by Arendt's analysis and enjoy teaching her in my philosophy and ethics classes.

Among the interesting tidbits in this volume:

"A functionary, when he really is nothing more than a functionary, is really a very dangerous gentleman."

Her worry, in 1970, that the American working class was going to be attracted to nationalism.

That the student movements of the late 1960's had revealed the fun and joy of political action, what she called "public happiness." Also that the students acted with "the assurance of being able to change things by one's own efforts."

Her view that capitalism and socialism were both exploitative, even though the latter was created to solve that problem in the former.

The idea that she didn't consider herself a philosopher, but a political thinker.

She advocated a new form a government she called "the council system." People would be part of small councils working on a very local level--neighborhood, work, etc. The councils would discuss issues and make decisions. People who demonstrated strong capabilities would then represent the small councils at a higher level. In this system power would be horizontal, not vertical, and sovereignty and that nation state would vanish and be replaced by federations of councils.

This latter put me to mind of the congregational polity of the denominations I've been a part of and also what I valued about the Collegium model that the United Church of Christ had until last summer, which they unfortunately abandoned for a more corporate national structure.

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