The D Word

“This wretched brain gave way and I became a wreck at random, driven without one glimpse of reason or heaven.” Thomas Moore

I’ve been head down, focused on this tiny screen for I don’t know how long. Months? Certainly. But more likely: years. When I’m not editing, I’m rewriting or researching, cutting, adding, rewriting some more. And when I’m not working on my new novel, I’m organizing the Whistler Writers Festival, now in its 15th year (read this as a flagrant promotion of one of my passions). There are other tugs on my time. I know I’m not unique. Everyone has time issues. That’s life.

But I’ve come to see how I deal with this mostly self-imposed pressure, as if anew.

And frankly, I don’t like what I see.

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What I Think

“In a time of universal deceit−telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Whether it’s expanded powers for the police to ostensibly combat the looming terrorist threat in this country or another new bill to deny parole to some offenders, our prime minister liberally throws in bullish statements such as, “I know Canadians think blah, blah, blah” or “Canadians want blah, blah, blah”?

He’s selling.

And we’d better be vigilant.

He wants us to get onboard with his program, his vision of this country. The implication of these statements being: if it’s good enough for other Canadians, it should be good enough for you. Just because thousands of others like to swim, does that mean I should throw myself in a lake and do something I don’t know how to do?

Besides, who are these other Canadians? How does he know what they think?

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Rejection

“The rung of a ladder was never meant to rest upon, but only to hold a man’s foot long enough to enable him to put the other somewhat higher.” Thomas Huxley, biologist

“It’s with deepest regret that I can’t make it.”

“So sorry, no. Can’t do it.”

“Sorry I don’t have better news.”

Just like the bruises I accumulate on my body when I hit the corner of a table or the dresser, this sampling of rejections marks my psyche. I want to argue and stamp my feet in the same way any self-respecting five year-old might, say something mature such as, “Come on! Please!”

Instead, when given the opportunity I make my case calmly, despite my growing frustration and spreading insecurity. I’m a whimpering blob of crushed humanity on the inside, but hopefully it doesn’t show.

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Little Bee By Chris Cleave

“Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds.” Chris Cleave

So starts the back cover blurb of the novel, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, a columnist with The Guardian. In the UK, the book was published as The Other Hand.

And since I’ve been told not to tell you too much about the story, I won’t. I’ll just say that the book has two protagonists. Their lives intersect on a deserted beach in Nigeria and again in the London suburb of Kingston-on-Thames.

But, I will tell you how I felt about Little Bee.

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Amygdeleza – Part 2

“The virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom.” Aristotle

If the Amygdeleza Detention Centre closes down as has been promised by the Greek government what will happen to the staff I met last November: the commander who spoke proudly of the centre and the work his staff were doing in aid of detained refugees, the young sergeant who enthusiastically described the humanitarian living conditions, the medical facilities, and the counselling support provided to refugees.

As I’ve indicated before, I don’t support the institutionalization of any, but the most violent, but the staff I met at Amygdeleza seemed to be committed to the refugees. Having worked in a prison myself, I know that most (not all) work in places like this because first, they want to help. They think they can make a positive difference in another person’s life. That was always my motivation when I worked in a prison and I felt strongly that this was what drove the people I met at Amygdeleza.

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Amygdeleza – Part 1

“No notice is taken of a little evil, but when it increases it strikes the eye.” Aristotle

A few weeks ago, after a second death in the Amydgeleza Refugee Detention Centre in as many days, the new Greek government vowed to close all refugee detention centres in Greece. I’m not a proponent of incarceration except in situations of violent and extreme crimes, but I do wonder what will happen to the thousands of refugees who sit in Amydgeleza and similar detention centers in Greece and other places in Europe. How will their claims be dealt with? Will these people be imprisoned in Greek jails instead? Is a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy in place for these people? Neither the Ekathimerini article nor the government provided any details. This makes me wonder about next steps.

A friend of mine who has adjudicated refugee claims in Canada tells me there are detention centres in Canada too. I’m not sure I knew where refugee claimants in this country were held, but I had assumed that they were living in the community until their cases were heard and a decision about their claim was made.

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Critique

“I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy, and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.” Mohsin Hamid

This week my critique group met to discuss a draft of a novel written by one of our members. We typically meet monthly and review three submissions. But with longer pieces, such as a novel, we set aside an entire meeting. Our process is simple. The person who is having their work reviewed submits that work a few weeks ahead of the meeting. Members read it, jot down comments and come to the gathering prepared to discuss it. Discussions are lively and refreshingly frank.

The writer walks away with seven detailed reviews of her work. In the end, she chooses how to go forward. She is the author. That is her prerogative.

As I said, there’s nothing complicated about what we do. And yet, magic happens.

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When Done Means Starting Over – Part 2

“If you wish to be a writer, write.” Epictetus

Where will new ideas come from? Although I’ve got a long way to go to complete my current novel, I can’t help but wonder: what then? Yes, you guessed it. I have a tendency to skip ahead and begin to worry before I need to. I can’t seem to change that about myself. Don’t think I haven’t tried.

Part of my tendency to worry-forward has to do with knowing how much effort goes into completing a large project such as a novel. Unlike having a child where you forget the pain you went through, you never ever forget the hours of agony spent in your chair at your computer screen wondering what the hell you’re trying to say.

So at the moment I have two things I’m thinking about: where will I go when this novel is done? And, do I really want to go there? Again? I don’t have a good answer to either question.

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When Done Means Starting Over – Part 1

“A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.” Roald Dahl

At the end of last week I completed a draft of my new novel. I’ve told few people this because I have to first get used to the idea myself. I never know what my reaction is going to be, but whatever it is I like to go through it on my own, understand it, and then share it with others when I can be (relatively speaking) coherent.

This time around, there were a few brief moments when I gushed with satisfaction, happy dance and all. It’s done. Thank goodness, it’s done. There it was in front of me: close to 100,000 words and 35 chapters. These pages along with the umpteenth versions were the only concrete evidence of over three years of effort.

The elation doesn’t last long though. It is quickly replaced with self-doubt and a sense of loss. Tears come fast and often. I feel gutted.

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The People Have Spoken

“I always tried to explain that democracy is not perfect. But it gives you the chance to create your own destiny.” Aung San Suu Kyi

With my thirteen-letter surname, that some have a problem pronouncing, and my relentless effusion of all things Greek, I’m often asked about the situation in Greece. How is the economy? Have things improved? What do you think about the election results?

I’m happy to talk about Greece and my impressions, but I can’t pretend to know, in any depth, anything about its economy, its politics or even how the ordinary Greek person lives.  All I have is opinions. For what it’s worth here they are.

Six years of recession and austerity measures have crippled the country and left many Greeks financially strapped, psychologically dejected and emotionally disheartened. However, the family is a source of strength and families have helped each other weather the economic storm. Unlike Canada and the United States, where personal debt is high, the amount of personal debt in Greece is low. This helps, as does the Greek habit of socking away for rainy days. Yes, savings are dwindling, but at least it was there to draw from when it was most needed.

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Stressed!

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is how we react to it.” Hans Selye, endocrinologist

The year has begun. Well, almost a month has passed since fireworks and parties brought in 2015. This year, I told myself, I was going to try to take on less, relax more, and make a real effort to chill. You know where this is going? Right?

Despite my best efforts and I really do try, I find myself knee deep in paper, again, and a ‘to do’ list that is far too long for the time available, particularly if I have to eat and sleep too.

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Controversy

I am continually fascinated at the difficultly people have in distinguishing what is controversial and what is merely offensive.” Nora Ephron

A few years ago I was in Toronto doing a reading at McNally’s bookstore with authors, Mary Hagey, Ailsa Kay and Cordelia Strube. During the question and answer period someone in the back row asked (and I’m paraphrasing): “as authors do you write to garner controversy?” Because I tend to be opinionated (I know, I know, it barely shows), and have a big mouth, I said, “Controversial issues are the only ones I write about”. Basically, I want to write stories that provide new insight and make people think. And if some of what I write is considered controversial, that’s okay as long as it promotes discussion. I like discussion and positive action too.

I’ve had cause to think about this question again because of the recent attacks in Paris and the firebombing in Germany. And again, I came to the same conclusion. Yes, I do want my writing to get people talking and contacting me about the things they liked and didn’t like about my work. How do we learn from each other, take action to make positive change, if we don’t explore issues that are uncomfortable?

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What Violence Begets

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Do you remember being a kid and your brother or sister punching you in the arm or slapping you across the head? Your first response was to hit back. Mine too. What else would you do? Stand there and take it?

I always lost these fisticuffs, partly because the first blow I administered scared me. I’m a bit of a wimp. But more to the point, my sister was far tougher and single-minded. Striking back always got me more of the same. I learned pretty quickly that the best way to get out of these situations was to talk my way out of them. Understanding her frustrations, putting myself in her shoes, and listening along with talking were my best defence.

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Grateful

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank

I use this blog to rant at length about various topics. Not solely, but I can, and do, go on at times. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Many things seemed to bug me in 2014. From violence against women, to police brutality, to displaced refugees, to stupid political moves, it was difficult not to become disheartened with some of the events that transpired last year. I’m not sure I made sense of it all, but writing helped me figure out what I was thinking. This led to lots of good discussions with friends and family, which kept me engaged. And being engaged makes me feel as though I’m doing something.

As 2015 begins, it’s a good time to reflect. Oh, don’t worry. I’m not going to regurgitate the year’s past calamities. I want to take a different approach. I’d like to list some of the good things that happened to me in 2014. So, as I do every year, I consulted my gratefulness journal. The few lines I write at the end of each day remind me of the goodness in the world.

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Seek and You Will Find – Part 2

“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” Helen Keller

In last week’s blog, I wrote about how information and people have come into my life to confirm what I’ve been writing. This week I want to acknowledge those who made this journey possible. Without their help, I would not have had the experiences you’ve read about in my blogs over the last several weeks.

It all started when I made a phone call to the Greek Consulate General’s office in Vancouver. My thought was to talk to someone about my novel’s themes and to get some advice about how I might proceed to meet officials in Greece who could confirm some of the things I had been thinking and writing about. I met with Ilias Kremmydas, the Consulate General shortly afterwards. He listened to what I was trying to do, spent a great deal of time with me giving me advice and helping me focus my research plan. He asked me to put together a proposal.

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Seek and You Will Find – Part 1

“To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” Alfred Lord Tennyson

Have you ever had this experience: you’re working hard on a project or a goal, you’ve got a bunch of pieces, but you haven’t quite figured out how they are meant to fit together, then as though you’ve found a long forgotten combination to a rust-bitten lock, everything clicks into place.

I know what you’re thinking. When does that ever happen? There’s no mystery to realizing a goal. It takes work and lots of it. Period.

Yes, I agree with you.

Except once in a while, not often enough, this sort of magic does occur. And when it happens to me, it feels as though someone is watching over me, opening whatever doors need to be opened, making sure I don’t trip over myself or any other obstacles put in my way.

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Just An Opinion

“In Naples they say that a red light at an intersection is: Just An Opinion.” Anonymous

I have had such an incredibly rich and fulfilling time in Greece. I love this country (I may have mentioned this once or twice before), the people, the weather, and the great food. Everyone I’ve met has been hospitable and generous with their time (more about that in a future blog) and incredibly engaged and welcoming. There’s a vibrancy here that is infectious, a chaos that makes you shake your head in disbelief and brings a smile at the same time. There is a history that leaves you in awe.

I love the genius that is behind the Acropolis, the Acropolis museum, the Benaki Museum, all the museums that have captured the rich background of this country that was the birthplace of democracy, western philosophy, the Olympic Games, western literature, political science and so much more.

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Folklore and Myths

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but, the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” John F. Kennedy

The Roma people of Greece play one of the many leading roles in my new novel. I have read about them, talked to some on the street who spoke English (or understood my bad Greek), visited groups who provide specialized programming to the Roma community and tried to make contact with a few Roma associations. I wanted to see through their eyes, sense their plight through their hearts.

More and more I’ve come to realise that in order for me to write, I need to first feel.

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Yes, I Will Tell Your Story

Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama 

Syntagma Square intersects a number of major thoroughfares in the heart of Athens. This is the place where the first constitution of Greece was granted in 1843. Across the way is the Old Royal Palace, which has housed the Greek Parliament since 1934. Kitty corner are the affluent Hotel Grande Bretagne and Hotel King George Palace. The entrance to the public gardens is down the street and the entire area teams with cafes, restaurants and people hurrying this way and that.

It is in this exclusive, affluent corner of Athens that I came across a makeshift camp stretching across the top of the square and just in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On cardboard boxes, blankets and plastic tarps, some 200 men, women and children stood or sat, placards in hand. A number had tape across their mouths. Scribbled notes at their feet said: Day 5 hunger strike. Other signs mentioned Syria. Their message: it was time that Syrians in Greece were treated with respect.

I’m a writer writing about the emotional and psychological toll of the economic crisis on Greeks, refugees and others. I am also a naturally concerned and snoopy person so I tried to find someone I could talk to. I located an English-speaking bear of a man with kind eyes and an open smile willing to share his story.

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Love and Shadows – Part 3

“Because I grew up with naïve expectations of people doing right, I get shocked by every little violation.” Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

A twenty-six year old Pakistani man died in a refugee detention centre on the outskirts of Athens this week. Police had beaten him while he was in another centre because he was involved in a protest over the living conditions he had to endure while in custody. Overcrowding at these facilities is an ongoing concern because of the increasing number of undocumented and illegal immigrants who end up on Greek soil and are later apprehended and detained by police.

The man had allegedly requested medical treatment. It was denied.

There was no cause of death provided in the article, but young men of his age don’t typically end up dead for no reason.

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Love and Shadows - Part 2

"To love one another may require a leap of faith. The outcome though constitutes an act of birth for humanity. It also signifies the inevitable transition from the instinct of survival to morality.” Zygmunt Bauman (sociologist)

Last week I wrote about my impressions of Greece. I’ve now been here for two weeks and I’m surprised at how the contrasts I’ve witnessed in those early days have further cemented themselves in my views so that all I see is contradiction. My cousins reassure me there are no inconsistencies. Greece has always been this way.

“A country on the surface may appear civilized,” one cousin says, “but at its core it is as out of control as it has always been.”

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Love and Shadows – Part 1

“I knew nothing but shadows and I thought them to be real.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey

“Greece is always in my heart”. My command of the Greek language is no better than that of a precocious two-year old, but these words of love flow easily. I repeat them time and time again, this to the delight of some and to the utter disbelief of others. You love this country? They ask this question as though speaking to a child of limited understanding.

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Paths Followed – Part 2

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln

So I kind of left you hanging last week with the problem I encountered with my new novel. You’ll recall that a wrench had been thrown into the works.The plans I had for one of my characters had changed. So his storyline had to change.

I contemplated getting rid of him all together. But how? He came to me fully formed. I heard the lie in his charming voice, saw the glint of silver on his  capped tooth, and felt the tarnished gritty silk of the multi-coloured scarf around his fedora. I’d already fallen in love with him.

Whatever I did, whatever power I exerted on the story, I knew there would be consequences, not only for him, but also for the other characters and the story too. And to boot, he wasn’t going to go without a fight. He was as tenacious as an earworm. He would not be ignored.

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Paths Followed – Part 1

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

A few weeks ago, I noticed quite by accident that the new novel I’m currently working on had gone sideways. Up until that time I’d been writing at quite a clip. I stopped to look at a map (dangerous things) of Europe to confirm how my character, a refugee from Eastern Europe might come to Greece. He was travelling in search of work and a better life. Would he come by sea (the way I had written it) or by land? I wondered.

Staring at the map, I saw the whole story line I’d come up with fall apart. In the real world, my character would not have traveled by sea. It wasn’t the easiest route for him to take. He would need a very good reason to make the journey the way I had envisioned it. I further discovered that he was not a refugee, or at least not in the truest sense of the word, given his European roots.

This realization came after some 75,000 hard-fought words and close to 300 double-spaced pages. So would I throw away everything I’d created or find another way?

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Friends

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” Epictetus (Greek Philosopher)

During our trip to the Yukon this summer, we spent three nights in the tiny town of Haines Junction, at the edge of the Kluane National Park. After getting settled, we ventured to the Village Bakery and Deli. The local band, made up of the former owner of the bakery and his friends, played old time Maritime classics. Some 25 people were gathered outside on the deck.

The evening was fall-crisp and sunshine bright even though it was around nine at night. Trees swayed in the breeze. In the audience, young and old tapped their toes and sang along. Toddlers danced unfettered forgetting themselves to the music.

As I stood listening, I felt teary-eyed with nostalgia for community and friendship.These people, this situation made me think about the first writers festival I organized several years ago. It was a small gathering then, some twenty people in my living room, a potluck dinner, and a discussion about writing with our guest author Andreas Schroeder whom I cajoled to come to Whistler with a promise of a place to stay. The fact that he had an opportunity to ride his motorcycle here on a gorgeous summer weekend was perhaps the draw. But never mind.

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What a Tease!

“Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.” Stephen King

I’ve always loved movies. In my twenties and thirties I think I saw everything that was ever made (ok, slight exaggeration)– from the soppy 1980 film, Blue Lagoon, to the ultra-violent, 1992, The Bad Lieutenant. I loved sitting in a dark room, eyes wide open (except during the violent bits), completely captivated by sound, pictures, and other people’s lives. For two hours the screen was not a separation, but rather a portal into other stories, other lives.

I’ve since become more discerning. Or rather, I got a life, at least one that involved more than work and movies. I also realised that I was prone to nightmares and didn’t need any further grist to disrupt my already unsettled sleep.

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Why I Do It

I was happy, I knew that. While experiencing happiness, we have difficulty in being conscious of it. Only when the happiness is past and we look back on it do we suddenly realize - sometimes with astonishment - how happy we had been.” Nikos Kazantzakis

I’m the type of person who jumps on an idea; pursues it with obsessive fervour. I brush nagging doubts aside as easily as I might a pesky fly. Naysayers beware. I have no time for reason or question when I’m in making-things-happen mode.

Still, in my quiet moments (rare as they may be) when lack of sleep is threatening to turn me into an unidentifiable shell of a person, a question plays in my mind like a recording: why are you doing this?

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Yukon – Part 4

“It would have saddened me to see dust and rust where once hummed a rousing town; hundreds where there were thousands; tumbledown cabins, mouldering warehouses.” Robert William Service, poet and writer

If you’ve read my blogs in September, you can probably tell that I loved the Yukon. It left its mark on me through its vastness, a beauty that both awes and frightens. In this last blog about the Yukon, I leave you with pictures of Whitehorse, Dawson City, Tombstone, the Top of the World highway, Haines Junction and the Kluane. I can’t begin to sufficiently describe this place, but through these pictures I hope you will see why I fell hopelessly in love with it. And one day, I hope to return.

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Yukon – Part 3

He is a wise man who does not grieve for the thing which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. Epictetus    

I had survived the trek through the Chilkoot. I now sat on the historical White Pass train that would take me, along with other hikers back to Skagway, Alaska and mercifully to a hot shower and a real bed. I was already thinking ahead to that shower, that soft mattress that wouldn’t grind my hips to shreds, the Laundromat where I could get my hiking clothes clean.

Hikers were separated from other tourists on the train for obvious reasons. We had been backpacking for five days. They hadn’t. We were in muddy boots and sweat-soaked gear. They were dressed in street shoes and in their finest. It wasn’t fair to these tourists to subject them to the odours that resulted from days of hiking and nights of sleeping in damp tents.

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Yukon – Part 2

But the Artic chart memorializes more than men of rank, power, blood or property. The real immortals, whose names are sprinkled throughout the Artic on bays and bights, capes and channels, are those who dared and sometimes died so that the map might take form. Pierre Berton, The Artic Grail  

Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothings stays fixed. Heraclitus

In my trek through the Yukon this summer, I was fortunate to visit Dawson City. A small town more than a city, Dawson is an historic community where the Klondike and Yukon Rivers converge. It was home for thousands of years to the Han People (now known as the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in). It was also the site of the 1896-1898 Klondike Gold Rush, which turned Dawson from a First Nations camp to a city of 40,000 people in 1898. Dance halls and saloons, cabins and stores were built to accommodate the influx of gold seekers.

I’m not sure I could truly imagine their excitement then, as I walked the streets of Dawson City in my life of relative comfort now, but I tried to put myself in their shoes, the shoes and footsteps of the Gold Rush stampeder.

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