Ship Ahoy!

Today’s post comes from  Steve Grooms

When I was a boy the most romantic and impressive form of transportation was the train. I grew up listening to the lonely nighttime screams of passing trains. A kid in my school was so involved with trains that he memorized data on all the train travel in Iowa. You could ask him any kind of question about trains. He’d barely pause before reciting details of train schedules.

I’ve never had that kind of mind. I’m a “big picture” guy, not a detail guy, someone more attuned to forests than to individual trees.

The closest I ever came to developing an esoteric interest was when I fell in love with a hand-carved carousel built a century ago. I was smitten to the point of reading a lot of background knowledge about carousels. It is a topic I can talk about at length. But in the end, I could not work up enough interest to become an expert about all the various makers of carousels in the country. A true lover of carousels would be fascinated by obscure little carousels that just look garish and cheap to me. My deepest affections were for one splendid carousel, not the whole category.

This comes to mind because my daughter is in the early stage of becoming immersed in a new interest for our family: ship watching. My son-in-law grew up in a lovely old home on the US bank of the St. Clair River. The St. Clair is deep enough to host the biggest ships sailing the Great Lakes. The river is, in fact, the only connection between the upper lakes (Superior and Michigan) and lower lakes. Any ship traveling far in the Great Lakes must pass close to John’s home, “close” meaning about a hundred yards. Now that our family lives in Port Huron, Molly has become fascinated with the ships we see here.

The photo heading this column is one I took in late September. The ship is the Federal Seto, a particularly lengthy “saltie.” It is owned by a shipping company based in Montreal. Since I took its portrait the Federal Seto steamed through Lake St. Clair, passed through Lake Erie, and then through Lake Ontario. After running the length of the St. Lawrence Seaway, today the ship has just entered the Atlantic Ocean on its way Rouen, France.

The major distinction between different bulk freighters on the Great Lakes is between “salties” and “lakers.” Salties are shorter than lakers and have higher sides. They move freely from lake to lake but also across oceans. Lakers, many of which are about a thousand feet long, cannot fit in the locks that connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. They work hard but always within the Great Lakes. In addition to being shorter and taller than lakers, salties are younger. The salty water of oceans is extremely corrosive, so salties rarely live longer than 20 years. By contrast, because lakers are not subjected to all that salt they can live many decades, even longer than a century.

Ship watching is popular hobby in this area, and there are many resources. Web sites track the movements of these ships. Many museums educate visitors about the shipping trade. There are books on ship watching, and newsletters. If you want to know the precise location and sailing plans for individual ships, “there is an app” for that. There are, in fact, several apps for smart phones that track these majestic ships at all times.

I was surprised by my daughter’s surge of interest in shipping. She has always had an active mind, but this is the first time she has immersed herself in a topic like this. Molly knows a great deal about Great Lakes ship traffic. She has favorite boats that she tracks with interest. She is highly excited by the fact a new ship being built in Europe will soon join the fleets of freighters already working the Great Lakes, and she will be sure to be on the porch of her mother-in-law’s home the first time it travels the St. Clair River.

Have you ever developed a fascination with an esoteric topic?

87 thoughts on “Ship Ahoy!”

  1. Nice piece, Steve. I often get carried away with topics. Reign of Henry VIII, FLDS in Utah/Colorado (and thanks to Bill, also Beaver Island), Tarzan movies, all the Perry Mason books by Earl Stanley Gardner. I’m reading all the Caldecott and Newbery winners and last year re-read all the Sherlock Holmes stories. Decided just this past week to read the Charlie Chan books (I’ve seen many of the movies but never read any of the stories). Who knows what will come next?

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  2. I can understand your daughter’s fascination for ships. For years prior to our move to the lake near Duluth, we’d make at least one pilgrimage during our summer visits to Canal Park to watch the big ships come through the canal and under the lift bridge. While living at the lake it was always part of any visits from daughter & family or friends.

    I don’t think I have any esoteric interests…

    The closest to a facination of that sort would be all the “old” kitchen utincils I slowly inherited. Most were from my great Aunt. And most favorite were the sssorted egg beaters. I was fascinated (and still am) but the various designs. They hung on my cabin kitchen wall posts and ceiling beams along with meat grinders, apple churners, tin measuring cups…one with “Swans down” emblem, assorted beautifully crafted knives…with unusually shaped very worn blades…little frying pans…and more. And hanging and very used…another favorite is an old woven wood stip picnic basket with a removable ‘pie’ shelf.

    I used most all the items…I hated electric appliances…but arthritis crept up on me and put many of my treasures in retirement. Some of which can be see at TJ’s Country Corner, Mahtowa…where Tom has an eclectic sssortment of old treasures related to cooking and groceries. Some are with me here and sit in a drawer awaiting display and or use. I still use a sifter and some of the strainers.

    I hesitate to admit that I am somewhat fascinated with my free standing mixer and food processors. No more stressed right shoulder.

    However nothing has or will replace my knitting needles.

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  3. Ship watching sounds absolutely lovely.

    Because most of my “personal interest” time is still relegated to listening to audiobooks, I suppose my esoterica of choice would be the Tudors, although I am lately backing up into the Plantagenets.

    I’m finishing up a bit of listening to something on one of the wives of Henry VIII, and I am finding I am going to have to give him a rest for at least the next few years. The nightly news is wearing me out as it is.

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    1. Honestly, the current political scene is so awful we are all driven to seek distraction. I watch the news some nights and feel compelled to do a comprehensive survey of my eating utensils or count the fins in my venetian blinds . . . anything to change the topic.

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      1. I somehow thought maybe listening to books about tyrannical rulers would give me some perspective. While I am happy to report I have not seen the results of the Tudor creativity regarding torture and execution on display at my neighborhood crossroads, the level of public tension brought on by executive caprice is a little too close to home.

        Maybe I should count the fins on the blinds, goodness knows, they need cleaning. Maybe I should find some silver to polish while I’m at it 😉

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  4. I was sure that I didn’t have any esoteric interests because I’m not the kind to get obsessed by details. But then I remembered many, many years ago I had a copy of the book Natural Light Photography by Ansel Adams (you can see it here: http://tinyurl.com/y7revzgu). I read and re-read that book. I studied it. I absorbed it. In short, I was obsessed with it. At the time, I didn’t know anyone who cared about that stuff, at least to the degree that i did.

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        1. Well. Good choice for your friend. It was fascinating. I’m thinking I should buy a copy so I could read it again. Someday I will.

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        2. i loved that book and loaned it to a friend and never saw it again. i just made contact with the friend and will be having coffee in the near future. should i ask for it back ? i think not. ill bet its 20 dollars an amazon. great great book
          i am now clear that the photography is not a recent ditty for you ljb. i thought it was. wrong again buffalo breath

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        3. You’re right, tim. It’s not recent. But I was away from it for a long time. The recent return to it is a return to my first love.

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  5. I think the author of this post won’t mind my going off topic with one post. Last week I survived one of the worst weeks of my life. Ordinarily I wouldn’t want to whine . . . but that is a pure whine. There’s nothing to be gained by going into details, but it tells you something that the nicest part of last week was my session with a root canal dentist.

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    1. Huh. I had a root canal yesterday. Not exactly fun so if that was the nicest part of your week, uffda, it must have been a simply terrible horrible no-good very bad week. (Did you consider moving to Australia?) I’m sorry. You know you can vent to me any time.

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    2. Really sorry to hear about the awfulness, Steve.

      But as someone whose lasting legacy on the maternal side is an exciting dental history (and I use the term exciting advisedly), there have been times in my life when the trip to the oral surgeon was the high point of the week.

      Really hope this next week is at worst downright dull for you.

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    3. Thanks all!

      My condolences, Bill. I’ve never been tortured by “Cats,” although I did once get a root canal by a dentist who filled the operating theater with the music of Karen Carpenter. With a tragic expression, he told me, “We just never knew how bad ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ were for her!” As my mouth was filled with dental instruments, I didn’t have to reply to that.

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      1. I think it’s best to stay away from depressive dentists if possible. I briefly went to a dentist who, while not notably depressive, had a television screen angled above the chair. On the television, he (or she) would show videos of dental procedures in other person’s mouths. This dentist would not agree to turn off the video so I found another dentist.

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        1. I’ve had several weird dentists, which is strange because I mostly avoid dentists. One of my dentists had three female employees, all stunningly beautiful, and they always dressed in identical outfits. He was the one rooster in that amazing hen house. Another dentist told me he took annual trips to Nicaragua to perform free dentistry. I found some tactful way of asking why, for he didn’t strike me as caring about other people. He said, “The grass, man! They got dynamite grass down there!”

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        2. I have pretty bad dental phobia that I blame on my childhood dentist. Up the long, dingy, narrow stairwell painted hospital green while smelling of rubbing alcohol. His office was lined with sets of false teeth and contained the requisite fish tank and old magazines and a couple kids toys.
          Dr Olson. White smock buttoned up to the neck. He looked just exactly like Willy Wonka’s dad from Charlie and the Chocolate factory. It still creeps me out.
          This was back in the day it was just him and the assistant. He complained about the kid he hired to mow his lawn and told me stories of being a dentist in WWII when the patient had to pedal the drill while being worked on.
          My dentist for the last 25 years has been Dr. Bouquet and he’s WONDERFUL.

          After the visit, I got to go down to Woolworth’s and buy a toy. Bribery works.

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        3. My childhood dentists were school dentists. There was not such thing as a “private” dentist is my world. During all of my years of dentist visits until I was sixteen years of age, cavities were fixed without Novocain. To this day I hate going to the dentist despite the fact that modern day dentistry really has all but done away with the pain. It didn’t help that during my year in Moscow I lost the filling in a tooth and had to have it repaired by a Russian dentist. Think dental scene in Marathon Man.

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        4. could you bring your own tapes. that would be interesting. charlie chan or old pbs classics.
          i used to have lots of vhs tapes
          lots of them but as dvds took over i started to fade. i find i have lots of different tapes and collections of stuff of interest;

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    4. steve
      does michigan offer medicinal marijuana for pain and stress management?
      if not hang in there it sounds like you’ll be out soon

      the wringer you have been run through the last couple of years has been difficult and the punchline you are in the midst of is difficult to acknowledge.

      on the one hand its a hard thing to watch your family and the difficulties they are going through. on the other hand it affects your situation so severely that hokey smokes is not too sever an expression to use.

      how is michigan for looking after out of work folks? they are certainly practiced but i dont know if they help or make life difficult. you got your meds figured out but it will be interesting to see how the current bunch of desperadoes rape and pillage that offering.

      you said st paul is likely next. whats the progress ? whats the timeline?

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      1. Michigan is squarely anti-marijuana (a world away from Oregon). The state does virtually nothing for the unemployed or the far more numerous under-employed. One of the ugly truths of American political life: regions beset with problems have the fewest resources (and weakest political leaders) for fixing things. I am quite sure Minnesota was the best place I have lived when it comes to social programs. Everyone here is determined to believe Detroit is rising again, and maybe it is, but watching the local crime news will break your heart.

        My family continues to deal with our various issues. My sil has had job interviews. My grandson had a good week in his school. We have to solve the economic puzzle by Christmas or we move to Minnesota. I am doing everything possible to protect my health, although my economic health has taken some big hits. And then there is the danger Trump will make my money problems worse. We carry on . . . .

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    1. BiR: that’s the Cafesjian Carousel that lives in its special paddock at Como Park now. It is one of the most handsome and pleasing physical objects I have ever seen. Built in 1914 by the Philadelphia Tobaggon Company. How does a “tobaggon” company build a carousel? The word tobaggon refers to the cars of a roller coaster. So a builder of roller coasters expanded into building carousels.

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      1. BiR again: I can’t help noting that the magnificent carousel in Como Park was built at a time when horses were seen every day on farms and the streets of all towns. Those carved horses were created for customers who knew horses intimately and could recognize authenticity and even read the emotions of individual horses. Recent carousels feature horses that seem envisioned by sci-fi authors, horses that are purely objects of fantasy.

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      2. yep i recognized it. it is the best of the best. the belly of house on the rock is full of hundreds of carosel horses. i think i heard that was part of what got that whack job started on his collection mania. but too much is simply overkill. to love a thing as straight forward as the most beautiful carlsel makes sense. like being an expert and monets water lillies
        you dont need to know about all of the art world. just that one piece that does it for you every time.
        enjoy .

        tell us a little something about the carosel that would be of interest

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        1. Most carousels have a “lead horse” that is particularly splendid. There are three such horses on the Lake Como carousel. We don’t know who carved two of them. The third was carved by Charles Carmel, one of the most famous carvers from the period of great classic carousel carvers. Carmel was a difficult guy who feuded with coworkers, and one consequence is that he drifted from one carousel shop to another.

          If you think a moment, you realize visitors see only one side of each horse. The carousel at Como runs counter-clockwise, so all we see as observers is the right side view of each horse. Back when carousel horses were carved by hand by great craftsmen (many of them from Europe) it was the outside view of the horse that got all the glitz and design. Not surprisingly, the other side of the horse is much less ornate, for it doesn’t show.

          They had a name for that. The showy side of the horse is the “romance” side. The other side is the “pay” side, called that because it was only seen by folks who had paid for the ride and were allowed to get up in the carousel.

          I really enjoy that image. Much of life is expressed by the tension between the romance side and the pay side of things. We are lured to spend our money on something based on the romantic side of it. Then we learn that there is another side. I think it is a particularly good metaphor for marriage. Young folks commit to marriage with their eyes full of the romance view, then learn that the pay side isn’t as glamorous. This is not cynical. Life involves both sides, romance and pay. Happiness is enjoyed by those who can embrace both sides.

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        2. It’s easy to see why carousels could be an all-absorbing topic. Ikve just been digging down into the online biographies of the various carvers and their art and the histories of various specific carousels. There are collections of carousel animals—both horses and menageries—that include examples by all the master carvers, so you can compare and contrast. Unfortunately, the quality of the photos is uneven. I’m particularly taken by the work of Daniel Muller:
          http://www.hawkseyestudio.com/horse2h.html

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        3. You know this I’m sure, Steve, but apparently most carousels run counter-clockwise for the reason that, when they offered a brass ring for riders to grab, they realized that most of them would be right handed and that’s the side that needed to be on the outside.

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        4. Great comments, Bill.

          Carousels are sometimes categorized as horse carousels or menageries, with menageries referring to carousels that feature steeds of different species (elephants, unicorns, sharks or whatever). Most carousels also include a “chariot” (a car with bench seating to accommodate tiny riders).

          The carousel I love (PTC 33) is unusual (if not possibly unique) by having nothing but horses all of which are painted the same (dappled grey). Every horse is beautifully and realistically rendered. And if my memory is good, all are leapers (they are running, and they rise and fall as the thing spins). Many carousels mix leapers with standers, but not this one. I love the classic realism of this carousel, and it is a machine that never cheats or cuts corners.

          I agree about Daniel Muller, and I think he is a strong candidate to be the carver of the two best horses on this carousel. You see his great skill in carving the manes. Manes were especially challenging to second tier carvers, for it isn’t easy to make wood look like flowing hair.

          Carousels were invented to provide practice for jousters. Many had the famous “golden ring” that riders could try to snag. That was discontinued in America when too many people fell from carousels while reaching out for the ring.

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        5. From the little I’ve read, I got the impression that the brass ring on the carousel was an American addition. I wonder if there was a point, dating from the brass ring, where the direction carousels turned had to be made uniform. If they could turn either way, the horses, with their romance and pay sides, wouldn’t be interchangeable between all carousels.

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  6. Sort of related to Steve’s interest in carousels is the mechanical music typically housed in the center. When I was in high school, for a time I entertained a fascination with mechanical music machines—orchestrions, violano virtuosos and the like. It’s another rabbit hole, albeit a potentially expensive and space-demanding one. You can see examples here:
    http://timtrager.com

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    1. Bill, did you ever tour the place in Wisconsin (near Spring Green) called the “House on the Rock”? Weirdest damn place I ever saw. It is filled with mechanical music devices, most of which seem authentic. I say “most of which” because the museum itself seems to be mostly a giant collection of replicas of antique items. I toured the place thinking I was seeing authentic items, but bit by bit I realized most of what was on display was ersatz copies of old things. And, yes, it has a carousel. A colossal carousel with 269 animals and so many lights you can barely stand to look at it. Totally bogus. No child has ever ridden that thing. Like the rest of the place it is a showcase object for the undiscerning.

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      1. I’ve never been able to talk Robin into visiting “House on the Rock”. Back in the ‘60s there was a western-themed restaurant in Shakopee called “Stagecoach” that had a collection of mechanical musical machines. I remember visiting there once.

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    2. The old theatre organs had some if the features of a carousel orchestra, I believe. I love to watch them as well as listen to them.

      Do player pianos count? I have dear memories of the in my grandparents had at the family farm house. What an extravagance that must have been when they got it. I wonder if my dad knows the story behind that. Should ask. I will blog it if there is a story, it’s the only way it will get written down. And now I have told all of you, do I shall be held to it 😊.

      Funny the things you don’t think about the origin of if they have always just been there (for the record, it currently resides in the home of my cousin, who married a music teacher)

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      1. We had a player piano in my house growing up. It had been in my mother’s family since she was a child and, given their financial circumstances it’s hard to imagine how they afforded it. Included with the piano were some of the original piano rolls with songs like “In the Gloaming” and “Oh! Dem Golden Slippers”, which is why I know most of the words to some of those antique songs.

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      2. Carousel organs had to be small enough to fit in the center of the carousel and loud enough to lure visitors in from the fringes of the park. The carousel in Como Park has an old Wurlitzer band organ. It is the only part of the carousel that is not entirely original, as a fire in the 1930s destroyed the original one.

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        1. Anyone know why when I hear the name Wurlitzer, I immediately think “The Mighty Wurlitzer”? Was that from the World Theatre days of PHC?

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    3. house on the rock playing out of tune violins in the rain on a 34 degree day. i should have known how much i was going to hate it. i thought all i had to do was walk on by but they were everywhere , they were everywhere

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  7. A close look at my bookshelves reveals remnants of several of my “fascinations” from decades past – bookselling, non-mainstream nutrition and weight loss, food co-operatives, “slow medicine”, feng shui and organizing, the Essenes… In each case, I would watch videos and read everything I could get my hands on, try it out or practice to the best of my ability. Then it would get more difficult, or something more interesting would come along, and voilà – new project.

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  8. Implicit in this discussion is that what is considered obscure or esoteric varies greatly with the habitual curiosity of the people with which one associates. There are those who would consider obscure any information you actually had to pursue; information that wasn’t commonplace and easily digestible. What is regarded as commonly held knowledge also varies from group to group. Sports fans might recite statistics or compare and contrast the relative strengths of individual players. Civil War buffs might argue about the tactics employed by various generals. There are even people who might find a dedicated study of the natural habits of pheasants to be an esoteric pursuit.

    Is proclaiming a topic “obscure” or “esoteric” simply recognition that the area is little researched or is it a kind of dismissal, implying that it is nonessential and unworthy of serious study?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I took it to be not nonessential and unworthy of serious study, but just something that not very many people are into. Or something that the people you know are not into, so you feel alone in your pursuit of it. Not a dismissal of it as worthy of study.

      Maybe it’s the topic that you’ve learned to not talk about very often, because people’s eyes glaze over…

      LOL about the study of the natural habits of pheasants.

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      1. I am proud of my study of pheasants. One of my cherished beliefs is that I think I know something about pheasants that is not known by any living scientist. I have observed them using an ability that appears in no textbook. Pheasants are not longer a powerful economic presence in the US, so scientific study of them sort of died in its tracks several decades ago. I can’t prove that my observation is authentic, but that’s cool. I know what I know.

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    2. Bill, for me those terms do not imply that the topics are “unworthy” in any way, just that they exist outside the normal range of topics people typically care about. I find your ability to immerse yourself in obscure topics one of your most appealing qualities.

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        1. I need to be more emphatic. I used to think the world was made up of objects that were (to varying degrees) “boring” or “fascinating.” When I got to mid-life I realized how silly that division is. It isn’t that objects are or are not interesting . . . but rather that some people’s minds can take interest in common things and many minds cannot. The fascination is in the mind of the perceiver, not in the object. How is that not a form of magic? The person with vision can see beauty and joy in the most commonplace objects. It is a gift.

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  9. hats records and other areas of weak collecting submissions are a few of my joys. i loved bills toaster collecton. i started as a kid wioth the baseball card syndrome. graduated to other things like model cars and bottles. today i am a mile wide and in inch deep on many obscure topics. ive heard a little about a lot of stuff and remember it well enough to misquote it in discussions.

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  10. For quite some time it was frogs. I had a census route in Norman County Minnesota. My reports on habitat, species type and population went to Hamilin University as part of their research for Minnesota DNR. I became proficient in identifying frogs and toads by their mating calls. Now I’m into the pain inflicted by insects and spiders. How did they develop the ability to know what level of pain their stings and bites would cause especially since such discomfort is typically far removed in both time and place from the initial encounter?

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  11. OT – Hans has spent the better part of the afternoon practicing Kintsugi – repairing broken pottery Japanese style. Didn’t realize how many broken pots we have. I’m afraid he’s liking it so much that he’s going to deliberately break some of my favorite pots just so he can fix them.

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      1. He sourced the supplies individually. I’ll have to ask him about the materials. Two of the bowls that he “fixed” had been broken and glued back together a long time ago. All he did today way paint the resulting crack with the gold paint. Two other smaller bowls had been broken more recently, and had not been repaired previously. You can check three of them out on Facebook.

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  12. В какой раздел не обратись, везде он оставил свой неоспоримый след. Все что касается качественного ремонта, становиться его неоспоримым кредо. Отремонтировать сосуд изготовленный из стекла – достойно уважения. Так держать. молодец!

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