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Posts Tagged ‘feminist memoir’

originally in The Huffington Post

When I woke up and heard the news that 50 people in a nightclub were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, Florida my heart sunk. Then I heard that the club was gay and that the murderer was of Arab-American descent and publicly declared his allegiance to ISIS and my heart kind of caved in.

What can be said about such senseless violence? This is the kind of hatred that usually engenders further hatred.

One of the first things I heard on the news was the father being quoted about his son’s intense homophobia and the fact that the killing spree “had nothing to do with religion.”

Being the kind of person I am — I immediately thought it had everything to do with religion.

“People in churches and mosques need to think about what they are teaching,” I said to my partner over breakfast. “It’s not that different,” I said, “Christians, Jews, and Moslems have the same common ancestor Abraham who is in the Hebrew Bible.”

I read the Bible last year or so as research for a novel — and learned a few things about religion. I learned that modern culture is rife with biblical references. I also learned, to my surprise, that the Bible is not that anti-gay. I did find it to be extremely misogynist and violent, but I thought the anti gay parts were really taken out of context and greatly amplified. If you listen to Sarah Palin, for example, (who probably never read the actual Bible) you’d think the entire thing was an anti-gay tract.

My partner and I have been together for 31 years and you would think that there are no surprises, but I could tell she was impressed with my recently-acquired religious knowledge.

She is a deep thinker. “Of course it has to do with religion,” she replied. “Where do people learn about hate?”

Then I saw the photograph of the murderer (who was killed by authorities). To my mind, he looked gay. When I learned that he was married and had fathered a child or children, it still didn’t change my mind. There is a good chance that a man with that kind of rage inside him who specifically targeted a gay club and professed his repulsion at gay men holding hands and kissing on the street, was acting out in suppression of his deepest desires.

In full disclosure, I think far more people are gay who say they are gay. I have known more than a few gay men who specialize in straight married men. It works for these guys who don’t want to end up in a relationship. In fairness, I have known more gay men who are healthy enough to avoid men who identify as heterosexual. And through the years, I have rarely met lesbians who are interested in women who are married to men.

I’m not saying that all closeted gay people — or those who are bisexual and secretive — are gay bashers. But it is true that plenty of homophobic hate crimes, including murder, have been committed by men who can’t handle their own same-sex tendencies as was documented in American Honor Killings (2013, Akashic Books).

Granted there are also other issues at play here including gun control and the availability of automatic weapons colliding with mental health issues.

In the interest of not responding to hatred with hatred, I immediately thought of the fact that we are a human family. We have more in common than not and often there is considerable overlap between identities. I spent the day reading Guapa, a novel by Saleem Haddad (Other Press; New York; 2016).

In the novel, a man just under thirty living in an un-named middle eastern country, falls in love with another man and is walked in by his conservative grandmother with whom he lives.

The narrator is not from a religious family but he is grappling with homophobia in a deeply religious culture that includes check points, revolution, and a deep connection to family.

When the narrator reflects back on his adolescence, he gives voice to the same sentiments, unfortunately, that most young people feel regardless of their country of origin:

“I was different from everyone else.
I was doomed to be alone.
I was going to spend eternity rotting in hell.”

The narrator attends college in America — where he also grapples with homophobia and what he describes as his “Arabness” and all that that entails.

When he comes back to the Middle East and moves back in with his grandmother who raised him, he finally falls in love only to face more struggles. The narrator writes of his lover:

“He was right when he told me once that he had one foot in and one foot out. It was a balancing act, and he navigated it so effortlessly. But I was his one foot out, wasn’t I? In fact, he made sure I never met his mother. He introduced me to his father once, a few years ago at the wedding of his distant cousins. I remember being surprised at how tall his father was, but like Taymour he was very handsome.”

Judging from my reaction to the Orlando massacre, if I ever had any doubt, the LGBTQ community is home to me. I agree with President Obama when he said that gay clubs are meant to be safe spaces. I remember the days when gay clubs were not out in the open and when people of the same sex did not dare to hold hands in public.

It doesn’t matter that I haven’t been in a gay club in a good ten or fifteen years. It doesn’t matter if those murdered were all young people who I most likely would have never met. I grieve for them and their families.

The massacre is an American tragedy. It is a nightmare for the LGBTQ community. And it is a problem for people of faith. I was raised secular, but in recent years became a Unitarian Universalist — a faith that really does embrace all people, including those of us who are LGBTQ.

Being part of a religion occasionally puts me in contact with people from other religions who are not so welcoming. I usually don’t mind when I am the LGBTQ spokesperson — and I do understand that being myself and being out can change hearts and minds.

Religion is still evolving. I am sometimes astounded that traditional religions are changing at all — such as the time I drove by a church in my neighborhood and did a double take at a “Happy Pride” sign outside. But other times, I am appalled that many religions are not changing fast enough and the young people raised in them feel compelled to leave.

As we can see from the Orlando massacre, religion is not, in fact, changing fast enough for young people and their families who are found in all religions and denominations.

Where does hatred come from?

 

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Note:  The following is the introduction that I gave to my short play “Forty Days and Forty Nights” that I gave this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia where I presented the skit with actors Janice Roland Radway and Allen Radway and Barrington Walker as the narrator.  To see the piece on YouTube — after the introduction — click here.

Or you can view the YouTube video at the bottom of the post.

 

THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders ( published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon) is available as a print or e-Book on Amazon (and other on-line booksellers) as well as from bookstores.

THEY a biblical tale of secret genders

Several years ago I took the UU class offered here at Restoration and was inspired to read the Bible for the first time. At the same time I was reviewing several books on transgender issues and was deeply influenced by a neighbor’s child who had transitioned at the age of five.  I was also reading a book I had borrowed from Reverend Ellis about the Gnostic Gospels, something I had been long interested in — mainly through the music of my friend Julia Haines, a harpist and composer who has performed at this church.

In one of the books that I read on transgender issues, the author wondered what it would be like for a transgendered person to have the experience of learning about a transgender person as a character in the Bible.

I wondered too. What would happen if a person who is usually condemned by religion, is celebrated instead?  As Unitarian Universalists, we have that opportunity as expressed in the first UU principle, the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

As a result of this confluence of ideas — perhaps spurred by my becoming a new Unitarian Universalist — I wrote a novel with a working title of She And He. The ideas in the novel may be ahead of their time — but I’ve always believed that there’s no time like the present.  Three excerpts were published and one was nominated for  a Pushcart Prize.  I also presented a different excerpt (titled “The Descent of Ishtar”) at Restoration last year with our own Janice Rowland Radway starring in the role of Tamar — a character from the Hebrew Bible.

In this version, Tamar is reborn as the twin sister of Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus, played by Allen Radway. When I heard that this month’s theme was “Christology” — I thought it was a perfect fit — even — or especially — because it is an alternative view.  I wanted to bring it to you because I imagined it might encourage you to take your own journey.

You can also read an excerpt, written as standalone short fiction, in the online literary journal BlazeVOX15

Other excerpt is in the current issue of Sinister Wisdom — the fortieth anniversary issue

In aaduna literary magazine.

Another excerpt (also starring Janice Roland Radway as Tamar) “The Descent of Ishtar” can be seen on YouTube.

 

 

 

 

janet-and-sappho

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The saying that “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is just as true today as it was in 1948 when Winston Churchill repeated it from the writings of the philosopher George Santanya. It is particularly true for anyone who has ever been marginalized in anyway — and that is probably most of us. But this is just one reason that I read historical fiction.

It makes sense that I would be interested in history since I was raised by older parents a generation removed from me.

 

This is something that I explore in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books, 2012). Perhaps it was having that long sense of personal history that led me to have a healthy curiosity of the experiences of those different than me. It definitely is a reason that I am deeply drawn to historical fiction — especially when I find books that are not only captivating but haunting.

 

Recently I read two books that made me think about history and my place in it. I recall wondering decades earlier, when I was young, what I would have done if I had come out earlier, say pre-Stonewall. When I read Juliana, a novel by Vanda (Booktrope Editions; 2015) the question came back to me. The story is set in the years 1941 to 1944 in New York City which did, in fact, at that time have an underground gay culture. The main character Al (short for Alice) is a young woman who with a group of friends with actor ambitions moves from a small town to New York City.

 

Alice doesn’t think of herself as gay but is in love (and in lust) with a glamorous and slightly older singer Juliana. The author who goes by the name of Vanda (one word, like Cher) is a playwright and her fast-paced writing had me turning the pages as I learned about gay culture with accurate historical references. Alice ends up at a few gay parties, even though she doesn’t identify as “one of them” in a time when gay people were deemed as perverts and pariahs. She also weaves in the cultural mores of the time when it was assumed that “nice” girls didn’t have sex before heterosexual marriage.

Ultimately Juliana is an historic novel with a sense of history itself. One character, talking to Alice about the film, Morroco, says:

“I keep forgetting how young you are. It [the movie] came out in the thirties before the Hays Code and they started censoring everything. I was only a kid myself, fifteen or sixteen. Marlene Dietrich wore a man’s tuxedo and she kissed women right on the mouth.”

I was excited when I heard that The Gilda Stories by Jewell Gomez had been reissued by City Lights Books (2016). The Gilda Stories is a pioneering black lesbian vampire story that spans a woman’s history from escaping slavery into the future, in the year 2050, when it the story ends on a positive note with a huge sense of relief (from this reader). In full-disclosure, I am not a reader of the vampire genre — except for this novel. Undoubtedly if I were I would have read the book differently. However, I have read many historical novels. And as a historical novel, tracing one character through this long historical span is brilliant. After all, we are all born from the people and places and circumstances that went before us.

 

In the afterword, the publisher in writing that The Gilda Stories in being the first of its kind (far before the proliferation of the vampire genre that came after its first publication) was written with no small amount of bravery in a time “when the rise of the religious right was impacting publication norms” and “equating lesbian and gay art with pornography.”

I read it when it was first published in 1991 by Firebrand Books. Gomez and her work was an important part of lesbian-feminist culture at that time. Of course that world was small and this new edition will be bringing her work to a wider audience.

On reading The Gilda Stories again, I was struck that it works both as a historical work of fiction and as well as a vampire story. Both of these things, perhaps, can be summed up in this single passage:

“Life was indeed interminable. The inattention of her contemporaries to some mortal questions, like race, didn’t suit her. She didn’t believe a past could, or should, be so easily discarded. Her connection to the daylight world came from her blackness. The memories of her master’s lash as well as her mother’s face, legends of the Middle Passage, lynchings she had not been able to prevent, images of black women bent over scouring brushes — all fueled her ambition. She had been attacked more than once by men determined that she die, but of course she had not. She felt their hatred as personally as any mortal. The energy of those times sustained her, somehow.”

Rage lives on — and so does history with us inside of it.

 

originally published in The Huffington Post

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Note: This morning I gave this reflection as part of the Tikkun olam (repair of the world) service at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia.  To view a YouTube video, click here.

Good morning

After I talked to Maria some weeks ago about today’s service, I went to teach my adult creative writing class and a new student — a retired nurse — talked about her struggle with breast cancer (which she is still battling) and why she wants to write a book about it, not only to chronicle her own experience but to help caretakers and medical professionals know what to do and what not to do.

I encourage my students to write about the hard stories in their lives — to go where the energy is and to protect themselves by setting down boundaries. Having written out several of my own hard stories, I have experienced that the energy of the subject matter will change after the story is written.  At the very least, the act of writing the story will give the writer more perspective.

In this way the writer experiences more whole-ness in her or his own life. And the telling of the story is healing for the world.  When I have heard from readers about the books I have written — both prose and poetry — that the work has meaning for them because they have had remarkably similar experiences, their remarks are a gift.

I’ve been teaching creative writing for nearly twenty years and consider it an honor. Just recently, because of the work that I am doing with Restoration, I have begun to consider my role in coaching students of all ages to tell their story an extension of the ministry that I do here.

When Maria asked me the question of whether what is inside of us influences the outside world, I had to think about it. That this church has such a strong focus on social justice is something that appeals to me.  Obviously, we are connected to the world and have a responsibility for healing it.

But — as a writer — I spend far more time inside my head than I do in the world.

Wholeness is something I have long struggled with — for a variety of reasons. My daily practice of yoga and Buddhist chanting helps — as does attending worship at Restoration.  On Tuesday morning, my yoga teacher (the one and only Jane Hulting) reminded me that all we have to do to connect with our inner selves is to take a deep breath.  That’s something we can do now. Breathe in as I count to four and then breathe out as I count to six.

If the whole world were to take a breath at the same time, then things might change. At the very least the people of the world might be able to pause, reconsider and change the course of their actions.

My relatively brief time here at Restoration has given me that pause. I have been more open to religion — or what is thought of as religion — and yet I have become more in touch with my secular self.  My Unitarian Universalist journey has also coincided with my best and most productive years as a writer — something I’m sure is no coincidence,  especially given the UU mission of restoring wholeness. Creative writing has long been my channel to spirituality and to myself.  I have long recognized that there are lots of unhealed people in the world who oppress others.  I can’t say that if they were healed, all the social ills would go away.  But I can say that I have a commitment to my own whole-ness.

But I — along with everyone else — am connected to the world and I am concerned about it.

 

The Dalai Lama picture and quote "The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred."

I came across this quote from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

It bears repeating:

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

The quote made me smile and it helped me realize that there are things that we all can do:

We can belong to a congregation like Restoration that has a strong focus on diversity and social justice.

We can decide where and when not to spend our money — or as my mother said — “vote with your dollar.”

We can support elected officials who support the same values that we do. We can also vote against candidates — those trying to be elected officials — who don’t share our values.

We can also go through life with an open-mind and open-heart. This may be difficult in our increasingly fractured world, but it is more important than ever — for our insides and for our outsides.

 

Namaste

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previously in The Huffington Post

I have to admit that I find history fascinating.

This hasn’t always been the case.

I first came across history in the way that most of us are “fed” history. It was forced on me, it was exclusive, and it was boring. In fact, my high school history teacher was nicknamed “Boring Barry.” I don’t remember much, if anything, that he taught us. No doubt it was just more of the same thing — the white, male, heterosexual, view of the world. Facts and figures. Dates of wars.

But as a young adult, I discovered Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. I used this book, first published in 1980, extensively when researching my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

Although my book ended up being more of a personal one — chronicling my family history that dovetailed with the labor movement, feminism (my mother was first generation, I was second), and coming out as a lesbian in the early 1980s.

I’ve seen a lot of history — especially in the LGBT movement. But even so, I find it helpful to have a refresher now and then. This is particularly true with LGBT history — which sadly to say has been erased with a few notable exceptions. It was in this spirit that I read three books on history. It made me reflect that knowing your history is necessary — but reading about it can also be enjoyable.

In The Right Side of History, 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism by Adrian Brooks (Cleis Press; 2015), which is put together as a collection of lively essays, many by well-known LGBT activist, writers and public figures, including Barney Frank, I learned more than a few things.

I was particularly taken with New York Times bestselling author Patricia Nell Warren’s essay on Bayard Rustin. Rustin spoke out about gay rights in the 1940s and he went on to become a major Civil Rights activist and Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand man. Warren gets to the heart of why history is important when she writes about teaching LGBT students of color in Los Angeles who “were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin.”

“To a black kid who was one of the school district student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“‘It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.’”

Mark Segal’s book And Then I Danced (Akashic Books; 2015) is a historic memoir, chronicling his life in the LGBT political scene in Philadelphia where he the founder and the head of the Philadelphia Gay News, New York where he lived for a time, and on the national front. In addition to chronicling his role in LGBT history, including his important and pioneering role in housing for low-income LGBT seniors, Segal also presents his personal and family life in a warm, engaging manner and this writing extends to his interactions with public figures. Writing about meeting Hillary Clinton for the first time, Segal says:

“She gave me a warm hug and said, ‘You’re more tenacious than me!’
Coming from her, it was the ultimate compliment.”

In Literary Philadelphia (The History Press; 2015) by Thom Nickels, I particularly enjoyed the insights that Nickels a gay writer and activist provides. This includes the mention of Walt Whitman (the bearded poet was a familiar site on Market Street), along with lesser known gay writers along with non-LGBT Philadelphia literati such as James Michener and Pearl S. Buck.

In the chapter called “Poetdelphia,” he writes about poet Jim Cory and quotes him extensively about his stumbling across The Mentor Book of Major American Poets:

“‘It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five year later, it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast-forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my sixties, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into seven lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.’”

Jim and I were part of a poetry collective that he founded in the early to mid-nineties called Insight To Riot Press. We published the late Alexandra Grilikhes (among others) who is mentioned in the book. Nickels muses “If Philly poet Alexandra Grilikhes were alive today, would her various poems to female lovers in books like The Reveries …be deemed too risqué?”

In this same chapter, I was surprised to come across a photo of myself, Jim Cory, and poet CAConrad (also an Insight To Riot! collective member) taken in 1994. We all look much younger.

You know what they say. It’s a small world.

 

previously in The Huffington Post

literary-philadelphia

 

 

 

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Previously published in The Huffington Post

 

Around ten years ago, I stood on the sidewalk and watched then senator of New York, Hillary Clinton march down Fifth Avenue in the midst of the Gay Pride Parade. What I focused on at the time was that she was the only person in the parade wearing high heels. The lesbians certainly weren’t wearing heels. Even the drag queens that year had started wearing sneakers with their dresses. What I remember now, of course, is that Hillary was there — before marriage equality, before LGBT rights were known as human rights.

Fast forward to the current presidential election. I am having dinner with an older, less out, lesbian friend who gives me a look and says that gay people will have problems if a Republican wins the presidency. She is right, of course. The backlash to marriage equality is already underway.

It’s not only publicly out people who will suffer. Now that so many of us are married, we have government papers identifying us. Too many gains have been made, to go backwards. That is why I am supporting Hillary Clinton for president. She has the best background for the job. She is ready on day one. As a relatively recent member of a Unitarian Universalist church and a lay minister, I am technically open to all religious faiths in a way that I have not been before. But I have to admit that the white evangelical conservative Christians in the middle of the country scare me.

It is because of them that I am writing the following three Tweets outlining the reasons that I support Hillary:

Supreme Court justices decided in the nxt pres. term will decide our fate — including LGBT rights http://tinyurl.com/j3ujxlh #VoteHillary

Prez Obama first friend in white house to LGBT community — #VoteHillary continue the legacy http://tinyurl.com/ja38xw5 @HillaryClinton

African American support buoys #Hillary http://tinyurl.com/jtgjh9x Let’s take their lead. The last thing we need is a divided Democratic Party.

Of course, there are many other reasons to support a mainstream Democratic candidate. These include reproductive rights which are already being eroded and will be influenced by the Supreme Court. Bernie Sanders has some good points. But the candidate who defines himself as a “Socialist Democrat” and uses words such as “oligarchy” will not win over middle America. Chances are slim to none that he will win a general election.

No one wants to dash the idealism of young people — or those who stand with the young. But in pointing out the obvious, we are helping the young people avoid the decades long (or more) struggles that affect them too. Yes, LGBT rights can be rolled back. Reproductive rights can be taken away.

Hillary Clinton is tough and more than competent.

And speaking as a second generation feminist descended from the working class (something that I talk about in my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters), I am thrilled that a woman candidate has a good chance of securing the presidential nomination. I am voting not just for myself, but for the women who came before me.

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My partner and I, over breakfast, were discussing what a leap year is. The only consensus that we were able to come to was that time is an artificial construct. For this reason, Black History Month and Women’s History Month, etc., are also artificial constructs. It is helpful to bring our respective histories to the forefront.

I explored my family history, overlapping with the labor movement and Philadelphia history in Tea Leaves: a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books). My life with my partner who worked for, now retired from, the U.S. Postal Service is also a big part of Tea Leaves as well as my relationship with my mother, especially as I cared for her in the final months of her life. Close to thirty years ago I went with my partner to her African American co-worker’s church on “men’s day.” As I wrote, the end result was that this co-worker liked me so much “she’d stopped praying for Barbara.” That is how change is made — when we enter each other’s lives.

We all live in a world where the history of the many is larger than the history of the few (that of privileged straight white men). And the fact is that the history of privileged straight white men is also impacted by the history of the many. By many I mean those of us all races, those of who identify as queer, the more than half the population that is female, as well as the rest of the many. All of our lives touch.

When I first heard of Foresaken (NewSouth Books) by Ross Howell, Jr., I was intrigued. The novel is about a sixteen year old black girl who actually lived in Hampton, Virginia, who one day retaliated against her overbearing white woman employer in her home and murdered her. The story is told from the point of view of an eighteen year old white male newspaper reporter. The protagonist, Charlie, has gone through connecting with people on a human level, befriending blacks as well as whites. This historic novel is a compelling read, and as I turned the pages, I found myself drawn into a prism where the reasons for the girl’s crime — pent-up rage — unfolds as the protagonist talks to her elderly lawyer, a former slave who is now blind.

Foresaken is a novel where the toll that societal and institutional racism takes on whites (while less oppressive and vastly different than the effects of institutional racism against black people), specifically on white people who dared to speak up on behalf of the humanity of black people, is taken into account. As the author writes:

“I felt I would never meet another man like Mr. Fields. He had been a slave. Now he was free. He once had sight. Now he was blind. Was I feeling what he felt when he heard the whip on his mother’s back? I flicked the cigarette into the street. I sat down on the curb. I was so angry that it was hard to breathe. Who does Jim Crow leave free?”

Another historical novel explores the true story of a seamstress slave from Norfolk, Virginia. The Treason of Mary Louvestre is written by My Haley (Koehlerbooks), the widow of Alex Haley. My collaborated on his groundbreaking book of African American history, Roots, and the subsequent miniseries released in 1977. As it says on the book jacket, “Now My has returned to her own roots as an author with The Treason of Mary Louvestre.”

My deftly brings the reader into Mary’s world as the plot unfolds and Mary copies the plans for the CSS Virginia (a confederate warship) and enters a world where she must take a long journey and face certain death as a spy.

Mary Louvestre is an important historical figure and a strong woman character, some might say a feminist hero.

Raised like “the daughter” of white slave owners, Mary sees the writing on the wall — if they fall on financial hard times or die, she will be sold as a slave. This is the turning point for her. She can stay and let others decide her fate or she can leave and influence history:

“What a fool she had been! …. Not only had she trusted that someday she was to be free, that she would transcend being a Negro slave, she had convinced herself she’d have financial control over her life, real power over her future.

In reality, she was special only as a special pet of her owners. They didn’t physically beat her. Nor did they board her on slave row. She didn’t eat from a peck of rice and throwaway saltfish. Yet, she still felt insignificant.

Her life testified to other Negroes that, if they worked from dusk to dawn every day of their lives to “serve the South” and “make their master’s proud,” they got to keep on doing it for the rest of their lives. That was their prize. Regarded as second-class no matter how hard they tried was the message that she had received. It was galling — and so unfair.”

We all face turning points in our lives. It might be to accept ourselves or to realize how society perceives us. Sometimes that turning point is the realization that we are all connected. Always, it is powerful.

This review was previously in The Huffington Post.

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